Friday, June 26, 2009

Culture Warrior

On August 2, 1906, my great-grandfather accompanied Anthony Comstock in a raid on an Art Students League of 215 West 57th Street. Here’s the New York Times article describing the event:

In Victorian New York City, the name Anthony Comstock (pictured left) was synonymous with vice eradication. Comstock initiated aggressive crackdowns on anything that was even remotely sexually suggestive and his puritanical exhibitionism made him a kind of precursor to the Jerry Falwells and Bill O’Reillys of our time. Comstock targeted anything within the range of pornography (and how “hard” or “soft” core, we’ll never know) to birth control literature or even anatomy textbooks.

Comstock created the New York Society for The Suppression of Vice. While fighting smut, it seems he deputized himself while enjoying a great deal of leeway from law enforcement in an age before civil liberties were widely recognized. It is alleged that as proud as he was of his thousands of arrests he was equally proud of the dozen or so suicides his efforts prompted among accused perpetrators. From the lens of our times, Comstock tends to be recalled as a holy-rolling crackpot.

In this article as well as many others, Comstock’s big bust is facilitated by a man ambiguously identified as a “special agent”, Charles J. Bamberger. This was my great-grandfather.

Charlie Bamberger had always held a special lore when I was growing up. The legend goes like this: a young Charlie Bamberger was an elevator operator in the building where Comstock was based. Comstock took a liking to this fellow and soon after that; our Charlie becomes a private investigator. I never know what family stories can be believed but this one was too good not to love. When my brother was in eighth grade, we won a writing prize with a story that portrayed Charlie’s rise to fame, replete with an Elliot Ness persona.

Years after his time with Comstock (after Comstock had succumbed to an injury sustained when someone stuck him on the head), Bamberger went to work for other crusaders. The greatest family stories to come from this era were the multiple occasions when Charlie put the cuffs on Mae West.

In a book called Bookleggers and Smuthounds, my great-grandfather is portrayed as a master of the art of going undercover to gather evidence for arrests. My favorite excerpt from this Times article above is as follows:

Well, OF COURSE he didn’t actually look at the nude pictures! What kind of a pervert do you think he is? Of course he didn’t. The word "apparently" at the end of the above section is perhaps one of my favorite placements of a word in the history of print.

Further digging into the past brings another episode into the light. This one was a little different and it involved the suffragist Margaret Sanger. Another Times headline from September 11, 1915: DISORDER IN COURT AS SANGER IS FINED – Justices Order Room Cleared When Socialists and Anarchists Hoot Verdict.

The Sanger arrested here was actually Margaret Sanger’s husband, William. He had been arrested for distributing literature on birth control. The Times reported:

"The Sanger case has attracted much attention among sober-minded persons who believe that there should be a wide discussion of birth control, and Sanger, in the trouble which came upon him after giving a copy of the pamphlet to a Comstock agent, has had the support of Socialists and anarchists."

Again, it was my great grandfather who was the Comstock agent. The article continues:

"Charles J. Bamberger, an agent of the Comstock Society, testified that he had gone to see Sanger on Dec. 19. The latter then had a studio at 10 East Fifteenth Street. He said he represented himself to be a Mr. Heller, a friend of Mrs. Sanger, who was then abroad. Sanger had refused to give him a book until he explained that he had the other works of Mrs. Sanger, and desired "Family Limitation" to have translated and distributed among the poor. Having convinced the architect that he was a "friend," the latter hunted among his wife's effects, found and gave him the pamphlet. Bamberger said Sanger cautioned him not to say where he got the circular, and to an offer of pay, said there was no charge. Sanger refused to question the witness."

Interestingly, my great grandfather’s sister Minnie had married a man named Heller. I wonder if mixed feelings for his brother-in-law inspired Charles J.’s use of that name as a cover.

In Margaret Sanger's autobiography, there’s a slightly different angle on the episode:

“A man introducing himself as A. Heller had called upon him at his studio and requested a copy of Family Limitation, pleading that he was poor, had too large a family, and was a friend of mine. Bill said he was sorry but…he did not even think he had any of the pamphlets. However, the man’s story was so pathetic that he rummaged about and by chance found one in the library drawer.”

The result of the ensuing courtroom drama was Bill Sanger received a fine.

Again from the NY Times article from September 11, 1915:

“Sanger entered into an account of the perfidy of Bamberger in coming to him as "Mr. Heller," and went on: 'I was trapped into handing the pamphlet in question to an agent of Comstock. This self-appointed censor to our morality and his agent did not hesitate to use criminal methods to make a criminal out of me.'

"Bang," fell the Justice's gavel.

"I deny I am a criminal," continued the witness, raising his voice.”

If anything doesn’t sit well from this episode, it’s the way Comstock and Bamberger played to Sanger’s humanitarian inclinations to entrap him. Posing as a pervert trolling for smut is one thing, but trapping someone who believes they’re doing the right thing is another.

Of course, the judge had to weigh in himself. Again from the Times article:

"Such persons as you who circulate such pamphlets are a menace to society," said the Justice. "There are too many now who believe it is a crime to have children. If some of the women who are going around and advocating equal suffrage would go around and advocate women having children they would do a greater service. This, however, is my personal opinion."

Can you imagine a New York City judge saying this today?
Different times, I suppose.

Miracle on Grass

You hear about this one? The US beat Spain, planet earth’s greatest football team (oh, soccer..sorry, please don’t hit me).

You didn’t hear, did you? Well, I’m not surprised. Your national team (who play for YOU) just pulled off one of the biggest upsets in international football history, and here in America, the news of this event got wedged in between bridge results and the weather.

As a fan of footie, I’m relentlessly attacked with the question – ‘why is soccer not popular in America?’.

And here it is - two reasons plain and simple – (1) there is a press bias against soccer and (2) since 1980, America has seeped into cultural isolationism.

If you listen to sports talk-radio, as I do - #1 is plain as day. This morning I listened to Craig Carton on WFAN talk for 20 minutes about Mark Teixera’s fondness for Broadway shows. They then went on to discuss Shaq’s trade to Cleveland ad nauseum. In the 20-20 Sports update, they mention the Mets 11-0 blowout of the Cardinals, the Yankees victory over the Braves and NO mention of the second biggest upset in our own national team’s history.

If soccer is ever mentioned, at best it is treated as an amusing novelty. At worst, it is dismissed and maligned as faggoty. Why? Because it’s foreign.

Let’s face it, for the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, we have a population that is profoundly and willfully ignorant of anything beyond John & Kate’s divorce or the opening of the next big-box-store in their sprawling exurban death-grid. Americans aren’t stupid, just ignorant as in we ignore.

In 2004, a man lost the Presidential election because he spoke French. We almost had a Vice-President whose foreign travel experience was limited to Canada. We just had a President who confused Sweden and Switzerland and stated that democracy in Germany is a goal for the future.

Every schoolboy from Indonesia to Mali to Finland to Chile knows who Manchester United is. Most Americans would think this is an airplane that flies into New Hampshire.

It breaks down like this - to embrace this sport would be to embrace something from outside the United States. To embrace something from outside the United States is Un-American and un-patriotic. That’s what we’ve become.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Colorado Rapids

It’s all very confusing. The initial logo for the Colorado Rapids involved gushing water. Made sense.

Here now, we see their new badge, recently introduced. The team is still called “Rapids” yet no water is visible on their badge. Now we see a giant soccer ball, perhaps made of snow, descending from a mountain top soon to vanquish a small elitist ski village, whereupon thousands of hedge fund managers and Hollywood yoga instructors will soon perish. But if you’re bothered by the lack of water in this badge you shouldn’t be. Perhaps eluding you is the fact that Austria’s most popular team is SK Rapid Wein. Could the snow peaked mountains we see here be a synchronous homage to one of Europe’s oldest and most revered clubs? Not sure.

Simplified Strat-O-Matic Update

Lost to my son last night 9-8. This was my lineup:

P - Bert Blyleven (CAL)
C - Gary Carter (MON)
2B - Dave Concepcion (CIN)
SS - Robin Yount (MIL)
3B - Graig Nettles (NYY)
RF - Larry Herndon (DET)
LF - Al Bumblebee Bumby (BAL)

And the reason I lost was my choice of first basemen:

1B - Bill Buckner (LAD)

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Well to all four of you who actually read this blog -

It may be hard to believe, but this is Post #100 for Slimbo's Shelf.

I wish I had something monumental to say but I don't. I wish I could say how a book deal is forthcoming, but it's not.

I wish I could say that Slimbo's Shelf has added something significant to some greater cultural discourse...but it hasn't.

Still though, it's got me writing. And you, dear reader have been along with me since I started.

So I thank you. Time is precious. And you spend it with me. I thank you.


In other news, my son and I played another game of baseball card simplified strat-o-matic. Got to say I am quite proud of tonight's line-up as extracted from my old baseball cards:

2B - Joe Morgan
OF - Darryl Boston (CHW)
OF - Jim Rice
OF - Oscar Gamble (CLE, spectacular afro)
1B - Ed Kranepool
C - Tony Pena (PIT)
3B - Graig Nettles (NYY)
SS - Ozzie Guillen (CHW)
P - Steve Carlton (PHI)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cream Reunion Concert - Royal Albert Hall

In 1987 I moved from New York to Tennessee. Despite being a typically malignant thirteen year-old, I was generally optimistic about this change in my life. But after a month or so in my new school (an all boys Catholic high school), I quickly learned that I was wildly unpopular with my new classmates and this condition saw little chance of improving before graduation.

Most of my spare time was spent in solitude listening to music. Generally, this music was either Jimi Hendrix or WEVL, a listener supported blues radio station in Memphis. I also started playing the guitar. I knew music from years of feeble trumpeting, and the mechanics of this new instrument came naturally. Moreover, its requisite hours of dedication gave me something to do.
But then one night while attending a church dance, I met a girl. She was not a typical southern girl. (I should say, even into adulthood, I’ve never understood southern women: they seem to speak some inexplicable foreign language, or perhaps it is my language that is foreign to them). To this day, my disastrous attempts to make conversation with southern women usually end with their frightened expressions trying to decipher the extent of what they obviously believe to be profound mental illness.

But this girl was different. We spent the entire evening not dancing, but rather talking about music. Specifically, much of the evening was spent debating Hendrix vs. Clapton. We ended up dating after that and her Clapton-biased arguments eventually wore down my resistance. I became a huge fan of Clapton and more notably Cream, that ephemeral band of the late sixties.

She and I would spend a lot of time at Audubon Park lying in the grass with our heads together, staring up at the blue Tennessee sky as we tried to answer all the impossible questions that were important in life:
1. Was Dylan ever going to stop being weird?
2. Will U2 ever make an album again or had they peaked with Rattle & Hum?
3. Imagine if the Beatles had played at Woodstock?
4. What are we doing and what’s going to happen to ‘us’?
5. Would Clapton, Bruce and Baker ever agree to reunite Cream?

The answers were as follows:
1. No.
2. Yes, they’ll make more albums, they haven’t peaked and The Bono One shall be exalted.
3. Nothing would have happened. They would have still broken up a week later.
4. We’re children. We’ll grow up and become different people and stop loving each other.
5. Yes – at the Royal Albert Hall on May 2, 2005.

Cream’s reunion, over three decades in the making, lived up to every enormous expectation that precluded it and I assure you, no one had greater expectations than I did. This is why this DVD is one of my favorite items on The Shelf. Stat to finish, each song is perfect. Rather than trying to replicate the overblown amplifications of their youth, the three brought their wisdom and matured styles to these old songs without losing the essence of what made these songs great in the first place.

This is seen most poignantly with Clapton’s playing. Firstly, his guitar of choice is not the steamrolling Gibson of his youth, but the elegant and fickle Fender Stratocaster. Also he chooses not to revert back to the frenetic, overblown and pretentious soloing heard in Creams original recordings, but rather uses a matured, deliberate style offering a dynamic range of emotional expressions and approaches.
Jack Bruce, looking somewhat frail, seems to defy time and his voice is as strong as ever in this performance. Ginger Baker, likewise, delivers a strong performance on all pieces including his trademark, ‘Toad’.

The landmark anthems such as ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ are here of course, but they are not the show’s highlights. I found myself going back again and again to those songs that trite, unimaginative classic rock stations never play:

Outside Women’s Blues
Sleepy Time Time
We’re Going Wrong

‘We’re Going Wrong’ provided perhaps the best platform for the three to showcase their virtuosity. Baker builds throughout the song, using a series of rolls to layer added tension as the song progresses. Jack Bruce demonstrates a powerful vocal performance. Clapton, likewise constructs an amazing solo that starts from a barely audible grumble and eventually wails the roof off the Albert Hall.

Sometimes a song of heartache is best sung by old men.

Simplified Strat-O-Matic

My son and I have improvised a simplified Strat-O-Matic game. We each use our respective baseball card collections and select a roster position by position. We have a board that represents a baseball diamond and player cards are laid out according to position. We use two dice: 1 through 4 are base hits, 6 is a double, 11 and 12 are home runs and all other numbers are outs.

Yesterday my roster was:

1B - Eddie Murray (BAL)
2B - Dave Johnson (ATL)
SS – Lee Richard (CWS)
3B - Graig Nettles (NYY)
OF – Tim Raines (Expos)
OF – Greg Luzinski (PHA)
OF - Pedro Guerrero (LAD)
P – Charles Hudson (PHA)
C – Duffy Dyer (NYM)

My son’s team (I was liberal with respect to players and positions):

1B - Pete Rose
2B – Manny Ramirez
SS – Alex Rodriguez
3B - Scott Rolen
C – Ozzie Virgil (?)
P – Jake Peavy
OF – Gary Sheffield
OF – Ken Griffey Jr
OF – Ichiro

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My First Goose

The slings and arrows of New York City Real Estate lead to the demise of the Gotham Book Mart. It is no more and as a result, one is left to wonder where do wise men go to fish?

Well, when the shop was around, you’d fish in the diamond district on 47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. I always had mixed feelings about the place. With every visit, it seems I had to witness pretentious managers dressing down some poor, enormously likable young person who’d the misfortune of working there. I was employed as an accountant by Lehman Brothers at the time and saw enough of such behavior during my working day, (ironically another institution undone by the world of real estate).

But Lehman was temporary for me during that time and it was not due to any prophecy I had of the firm’s demise. These were the days when I could actually say I had an agent shopping my novel around the major houses. I was soon to be a published author so visits to the Gotham Book Mart became a sort of obligatory pilgrimage. I felt my transformation into one of these folks in the picture below was imminent. Any day, my book deal was coming, whereupon I would complete my remaining days on this earth donning my tweed coat and horn rimmed glasses. A pipe would forever be clenched between my teeth and around me would be an impenetrable aura of wonder and a sea of fawning bookish coeds.

Needless to say, no book deal materialized. My novel sits in some unidentified location amid the chaos of my closet. There is no tweed coat and all around me is an impenetrable disquiet regarding my ability to endure another thirty-one years of accounting. But I am left with a handful of books I’d picked up at the Gotham Book Mart and these, I must reluctantly admit, would most likely not be found anywhere else in the city.

My wife subscribes to The Week. Breezing through it recently, I found they had Jay McInerney list his favorite books. Among them, he mentions Isaac Babel’s Red Calvary and more specifically, the short story My First Goose. It forced me to be reunited with this find from the GBM and I’m grateful for it.

McInerney described My First Goose as one of the greatest short stories ever written in any language. It is amazing, I'll give him that. Babel, a Jew from Odessa incongruously found himself in the Red Army while it raped Poland. His experiences led to the collection of stories that is Red Cavalry.

Most of these stories are about how humanity can somehow, warranted or unwarranted, eek through in the most awful of circumstances. In My First Goose, Babel presents himself as bookish soldier recently appointed to the staff of the division. His bespectacled appearance and educated manner are instantly met with resistance among his peers. The narrator quickly reacts to this treatment by retreating - he quietly reads a recent speech by Lenin in Pravda. But this leaves him restless and unsatisfied. He abruptly gets up and approaches a landlady whose house has been imposed upon by these soldiers seeking a spell of respite. He demands she feed him. She rebuffs, not rejecting his request directly, but by merely stating that she wishes to kill herself.

Babel's narrator then mercilessly grabs an adjacent goose, crushes its head under his foot and demands that the landlady cook it for him. Still not renouncing to her wish to kill herself, the landlady nonetheless takes the now-dead goose and resolves to cook it for the men.

These other soldiers, once outwardly hostile to Babel's narrator, now warm to him. Through senselessness, by becoming something inhuman to a woman enduring an inhuman occupation, this man has now enabled an acceptance among his comrades. His first goose. There would be more. And what a further toll those would take?

Uneasily, he sleeps that night. "I dreamed: and in my dreams saw women. But in my heart, stained with bloodshed, grated and brimmed over."

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

There Are Worse Things Than Being a Mets Fan

(My latest column with The Examiner):

My son is playing Dad’s Club Baseball here in Pleasantville. I find watching my son begin baseball to be an enormously pleasing rite of passage. The teams among the first graders all have names and uniforms adopted from the big leagues: Cardinals, Red Sox, Yankees and Mets. And I was further pleased to see that my son had lucked upon joining the Mets.

The New York Mets are my team, through and through. Throughout my life I have found this group of men, so buoyed by lofty expectations yet so mired in what seem at times to be immeasurable flaws, to echo my own toiling amid life’s wondrous yet often random existence.

For it was in Flushing, Queens that I was begat, if you will, just down the road from the now vanquished Shea Stadium, at a time when those gaudy orange and blue square plates still graced its fa├žade. Like any rebellious prodigal son, I have had my moments where I found allure in the colorless success of the Braves or the cool mechanical megalomania of the Yankees. Yet, there are fundamental elements in this life from which there can be no escape.

I called my father and told him the news of my son’s budding baseball days. He replied, “The good news is – he’s playing for the Mets…the bad news is – he’s playing for the Mets.” And so it goes – to paraphrase a great poet, he who was begat, begets.

But I’ve seen this process before. My older brother lavishes the New York Jets with a rich adoration which I believe they have yet to earn. And it was from our father, once a Jets season ticket holder, that he gained this condition which I can only describe as an enveloping insanity. Like his blood type or lyrical vocal pitch, it was undeniably inherited.

As for my own Mets devotion, I look to our mother, the daughter of a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. I grew up thinking everyone’s mother could rattle off baseball trivia. To this day, my mother addresses the Mets on her TV screen, complaining of haircuts and excessive jewelry as though these were her own sons.

For a while, my son was attesting to fully fledged Mets fandom. Although I knew I was to blame, I saw no severe ill-effects. We’ve developed a nightly routine whereby I let him watch a half hour of baseball with me. It is a ritual I hope endures until the end of time. His presence seems to have a calming effect on me. At one point during a game, he asked, ‘why are you not yelling at the TV’?

Yet I do worry if the lad can endure the toll that Mets devotion can bring. And so it is with parenting – the most difficult part is accepting that life’s ambiguities, difficulties and injustices cannot be shielded from those we wish most to protect. Becoming a parent has forced me to create that laundry list of all the things I don’t like about myself in the hopes that bringing these traits into the light will thwart their transference.

It has now come to pass that my son has decided he wants to be a Yankee fan. It’s an odd cocktail of revulsion and relief when your child looks at you and says, ‘no…I’m not going to be like you. I am going to be something better. I’m going to be me.’

And so it goes with fathers and sons. In all likelihood, he may return to the Mets, maybe. We are a combination of how we’re born and who we choose to be. In the overall perspective of the human condition, let a devotion to a balking, bumbling baseball team be the worst my son must endure.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Strange Stories, Amazing Facts

When I was eleven going on twelve, a fascinating book came into my life: Strange Stories, Amazing Facts by Readers Digest.

I was not a reader as a young boy and every book I attempted to read could neither hold my gnat-like attention nor contain any possible information I could deem remotely useful. Then this came along.

My mother was working for a religious educational director for the Catholic Church in the town next to ours. One day, her boss handed her this book, specifically with me in mind. They had been clearing out the library of the elderly monsignor and this book came with the added bonus of the odor of his cigars. To this day, it is impossible for me to look at this book without recalling that smell.

So what was in this book? Tales of the supernatural, mythical beasts, feats of improbable strength, a glimpse into the future (from a decidedly narrow cold-war, sci-fi perspective). It was all the things that a young boy wishes to have fascinating his mind, before his mind knows how to be fascinated by girls.

The chapter on the supernatural, I have perhaps read three dozen times. I’d always fostered an obsession with the paranormal, one that relentlessly annoyed my family. Here now was a book bearing evidence that ghosts were REAL – after all there were photographs of writings they’d scrawled on walls. You can’t refute evidence like that. One photograph even showed how some ghosts could actually present their reflection on tiled kitchen floors. It all gave me the dual relief and terror that comes with substantiation. (In consideration of all the paranormal superstition in those pages, I love the irony that this book came from a monsignor’s personal library).

The hard cover-bound formality of this book affected authority while offering the promise of knowledge and a toe-hold into the unknown. Things got weird for me by the time age twelve rolled about and it seemed all the boys in my class were completely seized by the alien abduction of puberty, a process that was eluding me. They’d all morphed into a budding, diesel fueled man-ness. A chasm developed between them and me and each day this chasm grew wider while its menacing voice grew deeper.

During this time, if felt like every boy I knew was abandoning me for a world where they possessed knowledge and experiences that made their lives more dynamic and successful. If only there’d been a book that explained life in all its mysteries and injustices.

Was Strange Stories, Amazing Facts that book? Well in the end, it was not of course. Sure, other boys were unfolding into the facts of life, but did they know all the Amazing facts? Did they know about the most haunted house in England? Did they know how the Jersey Devil could run through the night, burning his hoof prints in the ground? Probably not.

The interweb is rife with posts like this one – nostalgic yutzes like me fondly recalling this richly wonderful book of the ludicrous. And so many of these other voices echo what I’ve kvetched on above – wildly imaginative boys who’d stumbled over Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. In the end their remembrance is always the same – this book provided fun and escape for the fertile soil of an imaginative boy’s mind.

In my adulthood I often find myself mired in one predictably mundane rut or another. “Strange” and “Amazing” have become subjective gauges as I no longer seem to be surprised by anything. The concept of “Facts” has become elusive as well – nothing seems to be a fact anymore as the more I know, the less I understand. In the end, we have to look at life differently and realize that, when broken down into compartments; ordinary life can contain plenty that is strange and a lot that’s pretty amazing.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

LA Galaxy

When it was announced a few years ago that David Beckham was to come and play soccer for LA Galaxy, the team simultaneously revealed this new badge, replacing an earlier one that seemed lifted from an arena football league reject pile. This newer logo, and really the entire team name, appears to have been drawn from the imagination, not of a soccer fan, but rather from a Star Trek enthusiast living in his mother’s basement.

I wonder now, what badge they’ll adopt now that Beckham, surprising no one, has opted to leave after having had his fill of the sleepy experience that is Major League Soccer. I was thinking a regal intergalactic jackass might be appropriate.
But doesn’t the Galaxy have another mega-star?

Oh yes, Landon Donovan. Landon who? Yes, Landon Donovan the captain of your national team. He’s the quiet gentleman who’s opted for the sleepy confines of an MLS career having had his fill of the bruising intensity of Germany’s Bundesliga. I quote that California super-group, The Eagles when they sang, “Take it easy, take it easy…we may lose or we may win…”

Even with Beckham, this team did not make the playoffs last year. Apparently, management forgot that if players lacking talent receive one of Beckham’s magical free-kicks, you’re still not likely to score goals. And so far as Donovan goes, maybe Beckham’s enthusiasm brought down his mellow SoCal buzz – who knows. "I got me a peaceful easy feeling...."

It might be appropriate if the Beckham-less LA Galaxy should add “M” and “E” to their badge...or the jackass, as I noted earlier.