Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Police Gazette

When I was in elementary school I was not much on paying attention in class. I had all sorts of distractions at my disposal. The window by my desk offered a full view of Wm. Kelly Park in Brooklyn, and though it was empty during the school day, the subway tracks ran alongside of the park, with trains passing every few minutes. I used to watch those trains and daydream about the people on them, and where they were headed.

But, by far, my favorite distraction were the many books and magazines I smuggled into the classroom. My two favored literary choices in 5th grade were the latest Mickey Spillane novels my Dad used to read, as well as the Police Gazette.

While the former had all the suspense of a good murder mystery, along with a voluptuous secretary named Velda, the Police Gazette had all the lurid details of whatever horrifying crimes were making the current rounds. In addition to this attraction were the many "true" crime stories from New York City's past. I always preferred the ones from the turn of the Century. Being removed from the events by several decades made them seem less horrid, and more like entertainment.

So, I would fold the Gazette up, as best as I could within my loose-leaf book, and be transported to places far from the boredom of the classroom. It was a good system, at least for a while.

I had already been admonished by my teachers, and parents, about Mickey Spillane being inappropriate for a 5th grader, but the Gazette, well that was news, or at least current events in my opinion, and so it was fair game to read that in lieu of paying attention during "Social Studies". To me they were about the same. But not everyone agreed with my 11 year old thoughts on the matter.

The whole thing came to a head one day after recess. I had carefully folded my Gazette into my book and placed it in my desk, a two person affair with a space beneath the writing surface for storing books and pencils. Then I went to recess, with little idea of the betrayal which awaited my return.

As I re-entered the classroom that morning, something didn't feel quite right. Mrs. Denslow was looking at me with that sly, slightly amused look she always had when dealing with recalcitrant little boys such as I. But wait! As I passed by her I spied a copy of the Police Gazette on her desk! Could it be true? Mrs. Denslow, she of the halo braided hairdo, read the Gazette just as I did? I had always thought of the Gazette as a "man's" magazine, indeed I had first taken up reading it in the barbershop, where it lay alongside of Playboy and Esquire.

I gave Mrs. Denslow a knowing look, as if we shared some great secret between us. Summoning me to her desk she asked if I knew what the Gazette was. I happily replied that I did indeed, and I had the very same issue in my desk. I also added that I was very happy that we shared the same taste in reading material. That's when it hit me! Someone, most likely my desk mate, a refined young lady, had turned me in while I was at recess.

Mrs. Denslow explained to me that I was in class to learn, not in a tonsorial parlor, and as such, the Gazette was not really proper for me to be reading. She would have to call my father about this. We had already been through the Mickey Spillane episode, and I guess that she thought the issue of appropriate reading material had been duly addressed. My father was summoned to school for a meeting with Mrs. Denslow .

The next morning, about a half an hour before school began, my father and I met with Mrs. Denslow in my deserted 5th grade classroom. There is nothing more threatening to an 11 year old than being in the classroom alone with your father and your teacher. No good can possibly come of it.

Mrs. Denslow got right down to the issue, informing my Dad of my transgression, and reminding him of our previous encounter concerning Mickey Spillane. She was of the opinion that I should not be reading either those books, or the Gazette. My father agreed that these were not appropriate for class, but drew the line at her "suggestion" that I not read the Gazette in the barbershop. In his considered view, "What went on in the barbershop" was sacrosanct, and that included the Gazette.

I'm thinking about this episode now because I am just finishing the last Chapter of a book which recalls every lurid article I ever read in the Police Gazette. Like those stories, this one takes place in New York City, at about the turn of the century. Now, Mrs. Denslow was my favorite teacher in elementary school, and she may have been right about the choices I made concerning reading Mickey Spillane at such a young age. But, after all these years, I still have to disagree on the Gazette. Through its pages I developed a love of New York City and its criminal history. And that fascination has remained with me to this very day.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Benny

Ice cream trucks were always a part of life growing up in Brooklyn. We didn't have a truck on Kings Highway; too much traffic. But we did have Benny; and his pushcart. The photo above is almost identical to Benny's with the exception that Benny's cart did not have a seat; you pushed it. Things are different nowadays.

Usually, in subdivisions such as the one I live in, there is an ice cream truck that makes the round on weekends, and during the evenings after dinner. You know the type of truck I’m talking about; obnoxious musical chimes heralding the arrival of an old beat up truck which bears absolutely no resemblance to the ice cream trucks of my youth. Those were sturdy, insulated, thick walled vehicles with freezer doors on the sides. And within those doors were delights which I haven’t seen in years.  I'm thinking about the Toasted Almond Crunch bar. And the bench mark of all ice cream trucks was Good Humor. If it wasn't Good Humor, we threw clods of earth at the truck, signaling to the driver that this was marked territory.

That truck was magical to me when I was 3 and 4; but by the time I was 7 years old, I was allowed to walk all the way up to Kings Highway by myself, and that’s when I first met Benny, as well as saw my first ice cream pushcart.  It was hard to get it rolling, but once it was in motion it was equally hard to stop! It wasn't refrigerated like the big trucks. It was cooled with “dry” ice, which was a whole other level of fascination, and mischief, for a 7 year old. But let me tell you a bit about Benny.
Benny was the ice cream man in my neighborhood. His route extended from the corner of Kings Highway and East 14th Street, to Ocean Avenue and then down to Avenue T, where he rented a small garage in back of a single family home. Actually, he just rented a part of the garage; a small corner large enough to store the magical “dry” ice; and a freezer which was replenished as necessary by a big truck. When I was 8 years old I became Benny’s “helper”.

Benny was Jewish, from the Lower East Side; and as such, he really had a lot in common with my Uncle Irving, who had also been raised there. They were about the same age. But that’s where the similarities ended. While Benny used to “hook” school, Uncle Irving actually finished high school. So, while Benny went on to become the neighborhood “Good Humor Man”, my Uncle Irving went on to a career in the Garment District as a furrier. Both men fascinated me, if only for their different lifestyles. Both were bachelors, but economically they were worlds apart. Benny lived in a rented room somewhere, while Uncle Irving lived in the larger hotels in Manhattan.

But, anyway, the story I am trying to tell is about Benny. It was, after all, his pushcart that I’m writing about, and the closest it ever came to fur was the time I hung some raccoon tales from the handlebars. The tails came from Uncle Irving, who used to keep us well supplied with them each year. Wait; he is part of this story.

Benny had two habits in which he liked to indulge. Both interfered with his selling enough ice cream to afford spending his winters in Miami; which is where he always went for the cold season. He liked to bet at the Off Track Betting parlor on East 16th Street, just up from Dubrow’s cafeteria. He also liked to have his hair cut once a week. That’s how I got the job.

I had been buying ice cream from Benny for about 2 years when he first asked me to “cover” for him while he went for a haircut. Being left; as an 8 year old boy; with an unlimited supply of ice cream, plus a pocketful of coins and bills was one of the thrills of my summer days. Benny’s haircuts were legendary for the length of time they took. He could be gone for hours; or merely minutes; depending on how the ponies were running, or ruining, his day. He combined the two errands into one, to “save time”, he used to say. That was fine with me. I would hold forth on Kings Highway and East 14th Street, across the street from Miles Shoes, and only 2 doors down from Byhoff’s Sporting Goods, which also sold records.  They had a speaker outside, so, I even had music while I worked.

The winters in Miami were a source of irritation to my Uncle Irving, who worked ALL year, but could not afford to take the winters off. They were both Jews from the Lower East Side, and my Uncle had gone to the trouble of getting an education and carving out a career for himself, while Benny hung around pool rooms and gambled on horses. The fact that Benny could afford to winter in Miami really rankled him. And that’s why I never told my Uncle the whole story.

You see, while Benny actually did spend his winters in Miami, he was working. Somewhere today, down in Miami, there is someone my age with the same memories as I have of working for the Good Humor Man; because that’s was he did when he went there, he sold ice cream; just like he did during the summer in Brooklyn. I hope, after all these years, that this makes my Uncle feel better about the whole thing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Jenkin's Grave" - and Mrs. Denslow


The poem above was written in 1965. I still remember writing it- though not as clumsily as it reads 46 years later. My teacher in 5th grade was Mrs. Christine H. Denslow, a saintly woman if there ever was one. She wore her grey hair in a braid coiled on the top of her head, and took an interest in everyone of her students.

When my Mom was ill, and I was having problems in class, Mrs. Denslow took the extra time to visit my home, talk with my parents, and generally made me feel that my future actually mattered to her.

At times, her husband, who was a naturalist of some kind, would bring reptiles and snakes to class. Mrs. Denslow made sure that we all touched and felt them, dispelling the myths that all reptiles are slimy and dirty. The life's lesson was clear to me then, as it still is today. You don't fear the things which you know nothing about. You take the time to learn about them, removing the fear of the unknown.

There weren't many teachers like her then, and I suppose the same is true now. So, 46 years later I have reworked this poem into a short, and botanically correct version of the original. I wish Mrs. Denslow were still around. I'd send her a copy.

Jenkin's Grave - 2011

Jenkin's grave is a cursed one, indeed.
For only one single flower has grown from the seeds,
scattered there by mourners
who all came out to grieve.
Jenkin's grave is a cursed one, indeed!

He wasn't just a sad man,
but a bad man, I believe.
And it was so surprising
to see anybody grieve.

Jenkin's grave is a cursed one, indeed.
For only one single flower has grown from the seeds,
scattered there by mourners
who all came out to grieve.
Jenkin's grave is a cursed one, indeed!

Now, I’m not superstitious,
But I think that you’ll agree.
Jenkin’s grave is a cursed one, indeed!

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes" by James Palmer

I have always considered myself to have a good grasp of contemporary Chinese history, and the 20th Century; particularly the years between the Boxer Rebellion through Mao's Long March; have always held a strange fascination for me. This was a period of struggle in which China sought to throw off the yoke of colonial control and establish a unified nation. This was also the time in which China became the largest Communist nation on earth.

The years after the Communist takeover in 1949 have always been a sort of confusion for most in the West, with its attendant purges and political maneuvering. This is not to say that we are that much different. We did, after all, have our own McCarthy Era to contend with. It may not have been as brutal as the purges in China, but the whole concept of that episode was not all that much different in its aims.

The ten years which spanned 1949-1959 saw many failures in China, both in industry and agriculture. The famine of 1960-1962 still stands as one of the most terrible periods in modern Chinese history, perhaps only eclipsed by the insanity of the Cultural Revolution which began in 1966, and would last almost 10 years. Both of these events would have far reaching consequences, influencing everything from the way buildings were constructed, to the way food was harvested and distributed.

In a largely misguided effort to hold onto power, Mao Tse Tung pit one faction against the other, resulting in stagnation in every part of Chinese life. All of this added to the country's lack of preparation for the year of 1976, which would see changes, both great and tragic, in China.

Just as we in the United States were finishing our Bicentennial celebration, marking 200 years of freedom, China was being tested by both nature and politics. The year began with the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, a leader more beloved than Chairman Mao. When the people attempt to publicly mourn his passing, they are beaten back by the Gang of Four. The tide of bereavement became a tsunami of anger sweltering beneath the surface. And that anger erupted in August, when a massive earthquake shook Tangshan Province, killing a half million people.

In the aftermath, the chaos and lack of preparation of the Chinese government surfaced, exposing the differences between the elite and the poor, ordinary working Chinese people. The result was a loss of confidence in the ability of the government to take care of the people, and highlighted the need for change. This would come to mark the end of the Cultural Revolution.

By the end of the year, Chairman Mao would be dead, and the infamous Gang of Four would be on trial for crimes against the state. These trials would expose a lavish life style among the leaders of what had once been a peasant’s revolution, changing China forever, and setting her on the path to becoming a world economic power.

James Palmer has done a fine job in piecing together both the political history of China from 1949 through 1976; and an even better job at depicting the earthquake and the mass chaos that followed. Drawing on survivor memoirs as well as official government documents, he has managed to write a very reader friendly account of what has become known as China's "Unlucky Year."

There is an old Chinese proverb which states, "When Heaven cracks, the Earth shakes." In this book, the author brilliantly puts across just what that means.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Travel Ban for Ebola - Common Sense


I’m starting this off with my last sentence because otherwise it will be dismissed as politically incorrect. But I am not Ann Coulter, or Rush Limbaugh. I have no political ax to grind. And the slimy politicians who want to politicize this are, well, slimy politicians. I am more interested in the lack of common sense which has prevented a travel ban from being put in place to begin with. It’s a shame that we have come to the point where I must apologize in advance for our opinions; but since it’s my blog, here goes.

"Lastly; but most importantly, think of this; if we are busy fighting Ebola here in the United States; where we never had it before; then how we will be able to help those in Africa? Already tens of millions of dollars have been diverted from that front."

“Medical officials, aid workers and health experts have overwhelmingly condemned calls for a travel ban, not because it will hurt anyone’s self-esteem, but because they fear it will vastly hinder their efforts to contain the virus at the source of the outbreak, which they insist is the most effective way to prevent its spread worldwide. The more restrictions put in place on travel, they argue, the harder it is to get aid in and out of the afflicted countries and to stabilize already teetering governments on the front lines.”

This is a bunch of crap. All it takes to exempt humanitarian aid flights from a travel ban is the signature of the leaders who won’t allow a travel ban in the first place. And the media that report this type of bunk as fact are equally at fault for the lack of a travel ban. If the New York Times said that we should have a travel ban then the leaders of our country would jump through flaming hoops of fire to start one today.

I won’t speculate on the reason why a travel ban was not put into place at the outset of this whole affair. But I will tell you that I will be sticking to my guns on this issue. They said it couldn't happen here, but it is happening. And don’t tell me that there are 450,000 deaths from heart attacks and another however many hundred thousand die from drug overdoses, car accidents etc. The number of people who die from Ebola may be smaller, but the percentage is way higher. 

I have nothing but compassion for the people in Western Africa. We should be doing all that we can to alleviate their suffering. And that can be done with a travel ban. Remember the tsunami a few years back? No one was traveling there for fun at the time. As a matter of fact the only flights allowed in were humanitarian aid flights. Samaritan’ Purse; the United Nations; etc. were all able to fly in under exemptions.

Now, here’s a valid question; and please remember that the argument against a travel ban is incomplete without taking this into consideration. Lastly; but most importantly, think of this; if we are busy fighting Ebola here in the United States; where we have never had it before; then how we will be able to help those in Africa? Already tens of millions of dollars have been diverted from that front.

Note: Sometimes it is necessary to go back and read about the past outbreaks, going back to the first Marburg viruses of the 1960"s, which eventually became the Ebola we know today. For more information go to the Oxford Journal of Infectious Diseases at;


Saturday, October 25, 2014

"Cleaning House" - The Captain and the Kids (1938)


Here we go again with the Captain and the Kids. This time the whole family gets in on the action as Mama tries to get the house cleaned up a bit. If she’s expecting any sincere help from either the Captain or the Kids, she’s going to be sorely disappointed.

As the children fool around and try to convince Mama that they are the two little angels she thinks they are, the Captain is busy trying to do as little work as possible. This proves to be harder than “factually” working, and when faced with the 2 choices; working or faking it; he decides to fake a heart attack instead. Mama is beside herself with concern, but the boys are wise to the Captains trick.

Dr. Quack; from Dr. Quack and Stork; is summoned and turns out to be an imitation of W.C. Fields along with a little mannequin who is unmistakably Charlie McCarthy. That’s what I like about these old cartoons; they take license to poke fun at other entertainers of the time. And guess what? Nobody sued one another over it. There was still a sense of humor in the entertainment world.

Anyway, Dr. Quack hurries over and Dr. Stork follows with a Bundle of Joy, thinking a baby is coming. Mama slams the door in Dr. Stork’s face- she doesn't want any more kids, thank you. Meantime the boys have gotten the Captain into bed just in time for Dr. Quack to check him out. What follows is a series of antics all designed to get the Captain to admit his slacking and beg for relief from Dr. Quack.

Dr. Stork gets past Mama and delivers the baby; who turns out to be the Charlie McCarthy mannequin; the Captain is horrified that he has had a child. He confesses all to Mama and she puts him to work doing everyone’s chores. The boys never do get “found out” in this one. The cartoon closes out with everyone but the Captain eating dinner to the strains of “There’s No Place Like Home.”

Friday, October 24, 2014

National Recording Registry - Library of Congress


One of the greatest treasures we possess as Americans is our Library of Congress. Of course I feel that way about all libraries in general, but the Library of Congress is truly special. It’s not just the books; there is art and photography and film; all of which trace the course our cultural history. There is also one fascinating section called the National Recording Registry, which contains the most important sounds recorded since a Frenchman first made a sound recording several decades before Thomas Edison did in 1888.

There are not that many items in the Registry; somewhere around 300 in all. The link to the list is provided at the bottom of this page, and I hope you will peruse it. It is really a journey, beginning in 1853 and continuing on through the present day. There are additions made almost each year. And they run the gamut from the first primitive recordings on wax rolls to today’s digital recordings of Tupac Shakur.

The Registry is not only a technological record of what we have done with the technology of sound in the less than 2 centuries it has been available to us, but also a place where you can take a quick overview of the changing culture of that same period. It’s another window into who we are today and how we got here.

I hope you will take the time to look at the list and; more importantly; when you see something that you are unfamiliar with, you will take the time to google it and learn more about the collective “we”. One of the finest aspects of this registry is that it tells you what was so special about the item listed that led to its inclusion in the Registry; in other words; why it’s important from either a musical, technological or societal point of view.

And, if you have never had a chance to visit the Library of Congress you have been cheating yourself. Even if you have no desire or interest in books, it is one of the most beautiful buildings in Washington. It’s a bit non-descript on the outside, but the inside is truly a work of art; almost a bit on the art deco- psychedelic side.  So, even if you don’t like books, it is worth a visit for that reason alone.

Here is the link to the National Recording Registry;