Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Ed Asner, "Lou Grant," and my early-career taste of "The Front Page" era of newspaper journalism

     The TV show "Lou Grant" did not push me toward newspapers. By the time it debuted on Sept. 20, 1977, I had just started college pointed in that direction. But you can bet I watched all five seasons, and again in reruns, as I hoped to launch my career.

    The show bore some realism, aside from the literary requirement that two reporters and one photographer do all the important work at a major Los Angeles metro. This wasn't "Love Boat," where a revolving cast of guest stars could grab pen and notebook each week. 

    I can't remember if I wanted to be Joe Rossi or Billie Newman, although I did have a crush on one of them.

    Ed Asner's recent death got me nostalgic for the days I watched him as the editor Lou Grant. The show depicted a newsroom that soon would die, not that anybody knew it at the time. The Internet soon killed classified ads, a newspaper life blood, sending an entire industry down a sinkhole.

Robert Walden and Ed Asner in "Lou Grant."

     At the same time, the Internet ignited a revolution that decentralized news dissemination, which had centered in newsrooms and network studios.

   As a newspaperman, I deeply felt the crumbling of print journalism, although I came to appreciate how change was necessary on so many levels.

    The fictional Los Angeles Tribune newsroom led by Lou Grant mirrored most real ones around the country. It was very white and very male. Now cringeworthy, to be honest.

    Although newspapers and online publications still have miles to go to create staffs that mirror an increasingly diverse population, many are making an effort. Hiring journalists of color and members of the LGBTQ community can only help raise the sagging -- some would say depressed -- level of trust that the public has in the media.

    That said, I am grateful I was able to start my career at the tail end of what I describe as "The Front Page" era, referencing a farcical play about newspaper reporters that was written in the 1920s and subsequently adapted into a variety of movies. Most of you probably remember the Walter Matthau-Jack Lemmon version from 1974.

    My first daily-newspaper editor was Lou Grant personified -- not the version from the eponymous drama, but from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

    B.W. was a middle-aged, balding, roly-poly graduate of a major metro newspaper who covered the Mafia then settled into a career at small papers helping young reporters make their way in the craft. Bob was also a cliché.

    He always had a bottle of cheap whiskey in one of his desk drawers and invited reporters into his office for a daytime belt. He said and did other things that would get him fired in half a minute today. While interviewing young women for reporting jobs, B.W. would sometimes emerge from his office, which had glass windows, to comment on their physical appearance.

    B.W. also conducted a lot of business from a barstool at a nearby bar, which also would not go over well in 2021.

    It's easy to look back and see how wrong all this was, but I'd be lying if I denied that working for B.W. was a load of fun for a newbie in his 20s.

    A couple of years later I went to the Oakland Tribune, which had a newsroom stuffed with oak furniture that would have been state-of-the-art in the 1920s. It also maintained old-fashioned wire machines that made a constant clickety-clack noise while spitting out stories on a continuous roll of paper, which copy clerks ripped out of the machine to distribute to editors. When a major story broke, the machine would ding four times.

    Diversity was not an issue at the Tribune, which was owned by a Black man, Robert Maynard, and had a staff of editors and writers that looked more like its community. But it still had its share of old-timers, some crusty, some not.

    I sat aside a reporter named Bill Eaton, a soft-spoken man in his 60s who captivated me with stories about his airplane and flying and always had a supply of grape Bubble Yum that he shared liberally. Bill died of a heart attack ishortly after remarrying, which saddened me immensely.

    Not long after, the Tribune made me a baseball writer. That essentially ended my days of working inside newsrooms. 

   Nostalgia is quite the hallucinogen. It can create euphoric memories while blocking our ability to reason that things can be much better today. It's OK now and then to be Abe Simpson yelling at clouds as long as you don't go on about how much bigger and fluffier the clouds were 50 years ago.

    Ed Asner was a great actor and "Lou Grant" was a great show. And I'm grateful I got a taste of the newsroom life that he and the show depicted before it disappeared into a 21st century that demanded more equality and diverse thoughout.

    Today we have newsrooms real and virtual that pump out copy from a diverse array of people that we could not have foreseen 40 years ago. A lot of it is crap; more of it is very good. 

    I just hope that 40 years hence today's young reporters can say that journalism got a lot better during their career spans, as it did mine, and that the cynical distrust of earnest people who carry pens, notebooks and cameras will have disappeared into the ether as well.

--30--


Friday, April 2, 2021

On senior discounts, our screwed-up society and reaching an inevitable nexus

     At a Noah's this morning, the kid behind the counter gave me an unsolicited 10 percent senior discount on my bagel sandwich. The clichéd response would have been indignation, a harrumph and a demand to see the manager.

    Not here. I was like, "Score! That's 60 more cents to toss into my Hair Club for Men fund."

    Bring it on, corporate America. Dear landlord, if you're reading this, how about 10 percent off my rent? Hey, Artichoke Joe's. Gimme $100 in chips for $90. I'm old. I've earned it."

    People tell me I look younger than 60, but the Noah's clerk can be excused. I was unshaven, and had just finished a two-mile power walk and desperately needed to pee. Maybe the last thing that got me the discount. With apologies to Simon and Garfunkle, the senior-citizen theme song could be, "Hello bathroom my old friend."

    I don't feel 60, whatever that's supposed to feel like. I've dropped nearly 20 pounds post-retirement and resumed a regular walking regimen. Fitness seems like a common-sense priority for anyone who alights from the figurative treadmill of the daily work grind, not just to potentially extend life, but to make retirement pursuits more enjoyable.

    Still, turning 60 hit me harder than 50 did, and more mentally than physically. 

    You do the math and realize how much of your life has passed compared to how much remains. The temptation to brood over mortality sometimes overpowers your gratitude and mantra that every year after surviving cancer is a gift. 

    The despair of moving into my seventh decade is really not a function of the ever-louder TICK TICK TICK of life's clock, however. Most of the time I am blessed with the perspective that comes with good health -- physical and financial -- and the zen of  the unrelenting cycle of life and death that comes to all beings, planets and galaxies. 

    We all die. You'd have to have quite an ego to take it personally.

    It took me awhile to divine the true source of the intermittent despair. It has everything to do with my second-favorite topic beyond baseball -- politics.

    We white, straight males have enjoyed a privilege of ignorance, sheltered from the breadth of the racism, misogyny, sexism and anti-gay hatred that still make life miserable for so many Americans. That ended with Barack Obama's ascent to the presidency in 2009, for it smoked out all the creepy-crawlies who felt aggrieved by the maturity this country showed in moving forward.

    By the time Donald Trump befouled 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in 2017, the state of America had become all too clear. On Jan. 6, 2021, when the nation survived a white-supremacist coup attempt, nobody could deny how backwards we have gone.

    Therein lies the nexus with my impending senior-citizenry.

    I know our society is fucked up. I know it will be repaired. But the realization that I won't live to see it hit me like a Wile E. Coyote anvil to the head. 

    Granted, this is selfish. Working to improve life for the next generation is our sacred duty, right? Designing and laying the foundation for a beautiful building should be just as rewarding as seeing it gleam in the skyline, no?

    But I still wonder how Gaudi felt when he knew he would never see a Sunday service in his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia. Was he OK with that? Saddened?

   The pursuit of instant gratification is ignoble, but difficult to shake just the same.

   We who will not live to see the society we idealize have a recourse. We can get off our butts and do what we can to accelerate the process. Now, in retirement, I hope to find my way there. My initial weapon is social media, saying what's on my mind and hoping I can make at least one person think.

   You can help us, youngsters. Keep feeding us bagels at 10 percent off so we have the energy to help enrich your lives down the road.


Saturday, March 20, 2021

Time for my first post-retirement mailbag!

     I miss doing mailbags now that I'm retired from covering the Giants, so I asked my Twitter followers to send me questions about anything not related to the 2021 Giants, whom former colleague Susan Slusser are covering so well.

    I got a lot of questions about my 30 years on the beat, especially food and travel. I answered a bunch, starting with a question from former beat-mate Kerry Crowley.

    Q: @ko_crowley: What's your ideal three-city, National League road trip? On a newspaper budget, which hotels would you stay at and what bars/restaurants would you visit?

    A: On your newspaper's budget? Does Motel 6 have a loyalty program? 

    I kid. I kid.

    I've gotten this question a lot, usually not from overachieving Gen-Zers with bad haircuts, but Kerry's question had no spelling errors so I picked it to bat leadoff.

    I would go with New York, Chicago, San Diego. The first two should be obvious. These are two of the world's great cities, alive with people, great places to eat and drink (back in the days when one could do that) and in Chicago, of course, Wrigley Field. I went there dozens of times, and the awe and mystique of being there never disappeared.

    San Diego is a terrific city and perhaps the only place I'd settle if I chose to leave the Bay Area. The baseball vibe around Petco Park is almost Wrigley-like. The Gaslamp Quarter houses all sorts of food and drink. An abundance of young folks make it vibrant, especially on weekends.

    As for hotels and food/drink:

    New York: Unfortunately, my two favorite haunts (Foley's, Finnerty's) are no more. Trying to pick one bar or restaurant in this city is challenging. If I were there for one night, I'd dine at La Nonna in Little Italy because it offers the menu of now-closed Pellegrino's next door. Amazing Italian cuisine, and Mulberry Street is a trip back in time. I don't have a favorite hotel in New York, but I like staying in Chelsea. Good neighborhood and central.

    Chicago: Lou Malnati's for pizza. You'll thank me. The Lodge is a small bar on Division Street that used to be a big player/coach/writer hangout and still has a unique vibe (and great jukebox) for those who want to escape the thump-thump-thump of the bigger places in on Division. And at least once you have to go to the Billy Goat Tavern, the inspiration for John Belushi's "cheezborger, chips, Pepsi" skit on Saturday Night Live. I like staying in the North River section.

    San Diego: Cafe Sevilla in the Gaslamp is an amazing tapas place with a great wine selection. If you ever meet Kerry, ask him about the time he almost called an ambulance for me there. I like the Hilton Gaslamp hotel, a short walk from the ballpark with a nice, understated Italian place around the corner (Toscana) that has good breakfast and coffee in the morning.

    Q: @alexsensei: Any good stories about the crazy travel schedule for beat writers?

    A: Craziest day was Game 162 in Denver in 1998. The Giants rose that day unsure if they would fly to Atlanta to start the National League Division Series, Chicago or New York for a one-game play-in or home after being eliminated. 

    It came down to the Giants-Rockies, Cubs-Astros and Mets-Braves games because the Giants and Cubs opened the day tied at 89-72 for what then was a lone National League wild card. The Mets were a longer shot at 88-73.

    And we all had to fly that night to get to New York or Chicago, or the day after for Atlanta, and really spent most of the day ignoring the Giants-Rockies games with our heads buried in airline websites.

    Newspapers do not like to pay day-of-flight rates, so we all used every ounce of our sneakiness and knowledge of flaws in airline ticketing conventions to buy flights for every city. (The airlines have long since gotten wise and now use website algorithms to prevent such shenanigans.)

    We lucked out when the Mets fell behind early and it was clear they'd be eliminated, so New York was out. Naturally, though, our game in Denver and Cubs-Astros in Houston were nuts, and with every twist and turn at Coors Field or the Astrodome we'd be yelling, "We're going to Chicago!" "We're going to Atlanta!" "We're going home!"

    When the Giants took a 7-0 lead in the fifth inning it became clear that we were going to Atlanta for the Division Series -- until the Rockies came back for six in the bottom half. The racking of press box nerves intensified as our game moved into the ninth inning at 8-8 and Cubs-Astros spun into extras at 3-3.

    At the very moment Neifi Perez homered off Robb Nen in Denver to beat the Giants 9-8, the Astros scored a run in the 11th off former Giants closer Rod Beck to bet the Cubs, which meant a one-game playoff at Wrigley Field.

    Beck saved that one, and the Giants were eliminated.

    I had much worse travel days, but none as nuts.

    Q: @milesdividendmd: Ted Cruz: Love him or adore him?

    A: He makes me laugh every time I see him because....

    Wait, I thought you asked about Ted Lasso.

    Ted Cruz is a hump.

    Q: @almajir: What do you miss the least about covering baseball?

    A: Zoom group interviews and the lack of personal interaction with players. But since that is temporary, I have a broader answer.

    I won't miss the silly "who tweeted it first?" race that has become a cottage sub-genre of sportswriting. Scoops are now measured in seconds. You'll often see a "so-and-so has signed with the this or that team, I have learned" 30 seconds before the team announces it to everyone.

    When Twitter arrived, we on the beat tried to add a measure of civility to the pregame manager interviews by asking reporters not to tweet news such as injuries and lineup changes until the group session was done, because it seemed rude to make the skipper talk finish his answer while staring at 20 reporters typing into their phones.

    The only time I remember breaking the rule was when Bruce Bochy announced his retirement. We all did. After a while I gave up caring because there was no way to stop this rudeness. 

    Fortunately, my editors at The Chronicle realized good sportswriting was not about who tweeted first, but the follow-up reporting and analysis that added important perspective.

    Q: @seharmon: What do you miss most about being on the beat?

    A: The flip side to the previous question has an easy answer. I miss the press-box camaraderie with fellow scribes and talking ball in the dugout during batting practice with whatever baseball folk happened by.

    In a press box, you laugh more in one night than most people do in a month at other jobs. I never took that for granted. Now, I have to laugh at Kerry's haircuts remotely.

    Q: @kelly7552: Have you ever had an uncomfortable experience as a Jewish sportswriter?

    A: Nah. The pain from the circumcision was gone by the time I covered my first game.

    Seriously, though, no. I can't remember any issue like that.

    Q: @gingerkid1616: Do you think it’s fair that some players who accomplished more in let’s say 5-6 years of their career than most ever do or take 15-20 years to accomplish are not voted into HOF because they didn’t have 10-15 good years due to injury etc...?

    A: I love this question because it underscores how ball writers, like any electorate, travel many routes to arrive at their ballots.

    I probably land in a minority who believe that anyone who impacted the game in a major way regardless of stats should qualify, which is why I voted for Tommy John every year. When you volunteer to be a guinea pig for a radical surgery that would change the game so radically, you deserve a plaque.

    John won 288 games but earned what I view is a silly epithet as a "compiler," whose stats are less valued because he gathered them over such a long career. But Jesus, if you can pitch for 26 seasons bisected by an experimental elbow rebuild now eponymous, they should create a Hall of Fame around you.

     As to the question, Sandy Koufax was elected on the first ballot after six remarkable seasons that followed six that were "meh." So there is a precedent. But nowadays most voters want to see at least 10 years of greatness. Without that they land in the "Hall of Very Good."

    I feel the Hall has room for six great years and 26 steady ones.

    Q: @gillee: Is there an embarrassing @extrabaggs story you are hoping to pay him back with? 

    A: Do I have stories? 

    Absolutely. 

    Can I ever tell them? 

    No.

    Andy has something on me that he and I term the "nuclear option," great for blackmail. Why do you think I'm always ripping on Kerry instead?

    OK, I'd probably do that anyway.

    Q: @grobbex2: Bonds vs. Kent dugout fight. Anything you can tell us we don't already know?

    A: After the game, Barry Bonds bolted from the tiny clubhouse at Jack Murphy Stadium as if the place were on fire. But Jeff Kent stood by his locker waiting for us. He was smart. He knew that with Bonds gone he owned the narrative. David Bell, the subject of the fight, wouldn't talk.

    Kent did the writers another huge favor. He refused to talk until the television cameras left. I don't know why he did that, but we hated the TV cameras because the stations often sent them without reporters, so they would collect video based on our questions. They were enjoying the fruits of our work.

    At first they wouldn't leave, and here's the part none of us will forget.

    The Giants had a young media-relations guy named Matt Hodson (now with the Twins), His bosses felt this would be a nice, easy assignment for a newbie to go on his first solo trip. It lasted just three days in San Diego. What could happen?

    Then, of course, the 2000 and 2001 National League Most Valuable Players went at it in the dugout, a fracas shown on TV.

    "Hoddie" became an animal. He started screaming at the TV guys when they wouldn't back away from Kent's locker. "You heard him! Back off!" They tried to sneak video and audio from the other side of the clubhouse, but Hoddie drove them off.

    We learned, of course, that Bonds was actually the "good guy" in the fight protecting Bell from Kent's haranguing over a defensive play on the field.

    SOME QUICKIES

    @RayHorwath1: Do you prefer the Oh Henry candy bar to a Baby Ruth? 

    Baby Ruth by a mile. I don't like Oh Henrys.

    @margiehmb: When it is all safe again to travel, where's the first place you'll go out of state? Out of country?

    Maui, then Italy. I blame Stanley Tucci for the latter.

    @SamTass: Do you plan on ever taking road trips to attend baseball games now in retirement?

    Yes, maybe even San Diego and Denver in September -- leisure only.

    @be_a_backstop: How many rental bikes/scooters lying on the middle of the sidewalk have you thrown into the bay?

    Moi? That's not ecologically correct. Next mailbag, ask me how many I lifted off the sidewalk or wheelchair curb cuts and tossed them into bushes.

    @gmanderson88: Any substance to the rumor that you are practicing trombone in preparation for joining your high school bandmates on a reunion tour, maybe play another Super Bowl?

    No, I live in an apartment building and some of the neighbors own guns. As for the Super Bowl, Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars have my contact info.

    ENDO

    








    

    

    


    

 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Fans of the Pink Pony, Don and Charlie's and the Italian Grotto in Scottsdale need to start new traditions

    My good friend and former colleague John Shea went on a doleful nostalgia tour after he arrived in Scottsdale for spring training the other day. He texted a string of photos that showed the Pink Pony, Don and Charlie's, and the Italian Grotto in various stages of afterlife.
    
    The shuttered Pony still had the outline of its name on the building, faded though legible, with the ground-to-roof painting of a baseball on its north side. 
    
    The Grotto still had its signage affixed to the signature red-painted, clapboard facade, one noting that it was established in 1977, plus a banner promising a new Italian bistro COMING SOON.
    
    Don and Charlie's...well, if you loved the place, steer clear of the corner of 75th Ave. and Indian School Road, where a half-built boutique hotel rises where the restaurant was demolished.
    
    The Pony, Don and Charlie's and the Grotto were the holy trinity of hangouts for generations of Cactus League visitors. All three are history.
    
    And you know what? That's OK.
    
    You probably figured this blog was headed in a different direction, a lament of the loss of younger days, special memories and friendships. 
    
    But I won't go there. 
    
    am as nostalgic as anyone (mostly for my hair) and I will miss all three restaurants. But mostly I'll miss seeing their proprietors, and this is where a tour of memories crashes headlong into the realities of age and mortality -- for people, places and things.
    
    What made these eateries and drinkeries special was not the caricatures of patrons, mostly long-tone, that adorned the walls of the Pony, nor the millions of dollars of sports memorabilia that filled every empty space of Don and Charlie's -- even the ceilings. Nor was it the incredible Italian food at the Grotto, which disproved the adage that a tourist attraction and mouth-watering cooking somehow are mutually exclusive.
    
    These restaurants were an extension of the people who largely created them and held onto them until they could hold on no longer.

    The Pink Pony was Charlie and Gwen
Briley. Charlie did not actually open the restaurant. He tended bar there before buying it around 1950. There, the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and other baseball greats sat in booths with other baseball folk telling tall tales (and a few truthful ones) as they bit into some of the best steak and chops in the Valley.
     
    One of the best moments of my baseball life happened there, when I was invited to dine with Joan Ryan, Stephanie Salter and others in a booth with Bill Rigney, the baseball lifer who managed the Giants when they moved west, and again for a forgettable 1976 season.
    
    "Rig" was one of the game's best storytellers. I was not a pup at the time but was still mesmerized. I couldn't tell you one of those stories now. My mental hard drives aren't what they used to be.
    
    Gwen ran the Pony for six years after Charlie's death in 2002 before selling. Others tried to keep it going. One restaurant group inadvisably attempted to turn it upscale, with gourmet food and modern furnishings alongside some of the old memorabilia, which were displayed as an afterthought.
   
    How did that go? 

    You saw the photo.
   
    By then, Don and Charlie's long had supplanted the Pony as the IT place in Scottsdale. 

The hotel being built where Don and Charlie's once stood.
    Don Carson, a Chicagoan whose family still runs and old-school, wood-paneled steakhouse in the Second City called Carson's, moved to Arizona and opened "D&C" in 1981 with a partner not named Charlie. In fact, there was no Charlie. As Don tells it, the name was a joke to annoy an associate named Charles who hated being addressed with the nickname.
    
    D&C was a great spot for baseball people because Don ensured they could eat without being bothered. Scouts, players, GMs, broadcasters.... More nights than not  Bud Selig and Bob Uecker dined there. They are among Don's best friends.
    
    Fans might think it a sacrilege that Don sold the building to a hotel developer, but he earned the rest after 38 years and wanted to provide for his family. He was in his mid-70s when the restaurant closed in 2019 after he enduring a list of orthopedic maladies that no single human should experience.
    
    Don and Charlies without Don Carson seems unfathomable to me. Maybe I view it differently because we are friends. It's more personal, and I did have the luxury of eating 8 million D&C ribs.
    
    The Grotto's closure surprised a lot of us. We arrived in Arizona last spring to see it shuttered. It, too, had a single, legendary owner, a New Yorker named Garry Horowitz, who talked in the raspy voice of a longtime smoker and was -- how shall we say it? -- colorful.

     With his temper he had no compunction against ejecting diners for sins such as sending a dish back to the kitchen. Some of the Grotto's crowd-sourced reviews online were hilarious, noting that the food was great but the owner nutty. 
    
    But Garry was loyal to his friends and employees, many of whom worked there for decades and returned multiple times after they quit or were fired.
    
   Garry came to Giants practices and games religiously. Near the end of each spring he would call me over to say, in his unmistakable New York accent, "I think they're gonna be OK, but they need one more playuh."
    
    The Grotto was a favorite of my late friend Pedro Gomez, who died unexpectedly on Super Bowl Sunday, and any nostalgia that drips from this piece comes from my heartsickness that Pedro is gone.
    
    Again, though, imagining the Grotto without Garry is a stretch.
    
    Times change. Memories endure. But the day comes for the next generation to create its own memories in its own places. Dining has changed since the Pony, D&C and the Grotto came to be. Steaks, chops and big Italian meals, though wonderful, are not what most younger folk have in mind. 

    My friend Alex Pavlovic, a millennial, loves a particular salad place. Kerry Crowley, who was born three months ago, indulged me in a few trips to D&C but enjoys his healthy food as well. 

    For decades, Giants beat writers christened spring training with a group dinner at D&C. That disappeared long before the structure did.
    
    I do feel for those who for years promised themselves they would go to Scottsdale one day and have the ribs at Don and Charlie's. I get it. That they cannot do.
    
    They need to start new traditions. The rest of us are not too old to follow them.  Traditions are about people as much as institutions, especially at these three joints.
    
    I'll miss them, but won't mourn them.


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Laughing Through the Horror

   One of the funniest American comics is Emo Philips, a Chicagoan whose unique shtick marries a childlike persona with humor that can be silly, biting and intellectual.

Emo starts his act with some variation of this this joke:

"When I was in high school I went to my prom. My mother said, 'You should wear your grandfather's tuxedo.' I said, 'That's a good idea,' so I grabbed a shovel…"

That's not the Emo joke that brings me back to this blog.

It's this one:

"My sister married a German man. When he came to visit I took him to a bagel shop. He said, "This is delicious. We can't get bagels like this in Germany,' and I said, 'Well who's fault is that?'"

I howled the first time I saw that joke on video and again when he told it at the Punch Line a few years back, which might seem an add reaction from the son of two Holocaust survivors.


I laughed because I knew my father would, even if he did spend three years in a variety of concentration camps, and I knew my father would laugh because it would not have been the first time.

Dad had thin, straight, dark hair. My sister and I used to comb part of it down his forehead, in a slant. One of us would hold the comb in a way that only a small part was visible and we'd hold it between his nose and mouth, like a mustache.

He seriously looked like Hitler, and on cue, he would launch into a loud German rant that sounded exactly like the führer at one of his rallies. It was hilarious, and he enjoyed doing it to make us laugh -- a man, mind you, who lost most of his family in the camps and spent years wondering if he would live to see tomorrow.

Few camp survivors remain. Some are interviewed, and many say that humor was an important coping mechanics, which is unbelievable considering the horrors and losses they endured.

We've all seen photos of concentration-camp prisoners squeezed together on their "beds," nothing more than wooden bunks, as if they were sardines in a can. Sadly, we've also seen photos of these emaciated men and women upon their liberation.

I never asked my dad specifically if he and his cellmates found ways to laugh, but it's hard to imagine surviving so many months and years without siphoning what humor remained deep within their souls to stay sane.

Dad died in 2008, at 81. When my mom died in December, at 88, we had to empty her apartment. My sister Janie took all the photo albums and loose pictures, and she found a remarkable artifact, the earliest photo of Dad we had seen.

It was an ID picture affixed to a document from the United States government declaring that he was liberated from the camps, where he was held as a "political prisoner," and officially stateless. The paper allowed him entry into a displaced-person's camp in Germany, where he remained for a time before emigrating here.

It's a remarkable document, dated in September, 1945, mere months after his liberation from Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. He was 18. (The May 20, 1926 birthdate was wrong. He was born six months later.)

The document suggests he had a number tattooed on his arm, which is odd, because he didn't. In the photo he looks relatively healthy, doubtlessly benefiting from the food and medical care the Allies provided in the months after liberation.

When Janie saw the photo she made an astute observation: that pained look on my father's face that hardly masked the torture and pain that still must have welled within.

Ella and Ben Schulman, 2005

This was not the visage I remember from our decades together. Of course he exhibited anger, sadness and every other human emotion, but unless I missed it because I wasn't astute enough to seek it, I don't recall seeing the expression that he had, as Binem Schulman, in that black-and-white photo affixed to a wrinkled, tarnished document.

Human beings have a remarkable ability to overcome, or at least mask, the tragedies that befall them.

Dad seemed to succeed quite well until his final years, when his dementia brought him back to World War II.

Before that, he laughed a lot, and understanding the way Jewish people have used centuries of oppression as comedy material, it suddenly was not a stretch to imagine him and others like him turning to humor in the camps at times to dull the remaining senses.

I never asked if that was so. Now I wish I had.


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Celebration


Dear readers, I wrote this for the Oakland Tribune in August, 1991, 25 years ago this month.
*****
You are 9 years old and it is August, and you understand nothing about dog days and stretch drives and pennant fever. You only know that come Sunday, for the first time in your life, you will see baseball played in three dimensions, not behind a flat, black-and-white screen.
You ride shotgun in your father's '59 Chevy Bel Air, the one with the tail fins that look like Catwoman's eyes. The tickets sit in an envelope that won't leave your hands. Stuck there. As the signs for the ballpark appear, you crane your neck every which way to steal your first glance of a major-league baseball stadium
Your dad makes the final turn and it appears before your eyes in one bold stroke. Your brain can't process the image fast enough. They showed you pictures of the Taj Mahal in the third grade, but the Indian palace is nothing more than a Lego project compared to the ballpark, its perfectly rounded frame, the flags stationed beyond center field, the thousands of cars that surround it like moths around a porch light.
Once inside your senses are simply overpowered by grass as green as green should be, a diamond as perfect as anything your mother has shown you through a jewelry-store window, the smell of hotdogs being grilled, vendors tossing double bags of roasted peanuts to patrons 20 years away and the patrons chucking quarters back, the fat lady next to you scratching her pencil across a scorebook you don't understand while taking up both armrests, your first view of a real fly ball and how it seems to hang in the air eternally, the sound of 30,000 people cheering as one.
Your dad is sitting next to you. Your team loses 3-2, but it's hard to be disappointed. It's a day you'll never forget, your first major-league baseball game.
You celebrate August.
*****
You are 14 years old and you do understand dog days and stretch drives and pennant fever. You are at the stadium with your dad, this time chauffeured in a 1970 Impala . . . no tail fins, just a lot of car. The stadium looks smaller but the hot dogs smell s juicy as ever. You think less about your father next to you and more about your little sister at home, and revel in the knowledge that you're here and she's not.
The final score means more because you know your team is fighting for a pennant. A win, and you feel good on the ride home; a loss, and you sulk. Later in the evening you and your father argue about whether you can have money for this or permission to do that, and you go to bed angry.
You are 23 years old and you love 400 miles from home. Baseball is more than a pastime, it's an obsession. You visit a different ballpark than the one from your youth and you go with friends. You use your own money and your own car. The stadium is just a building, the hot dogs just an expense. You don't think much about your father; you hardly talk to him. Your new team stinks, but you go every week because it is late summer and it is where you should be.
You celebrate August and you celebrate the game, because it is bigger than you or your father or your friends or your team.
*****
You are 28 years old and you write about baseball for a living. You still live 400 miles from your youth, but you talk to your dad more. Old bad feelings are wisely forgotten as youth matures into adulthood. It is November and you are back home, and you use your connections to score two 50-yard-line seats to the NFL team that you watched with your father when the leaves turneded brown. Because of your job, you can't spend August afternoons together anymore.
You pull into the stadium in your car, a little Honda, two of which could have fit into your dad's Impala. You sit and watch the game, and the enjoyment on his face as he watched the game, knowing full well his spark is not drawn from the field, but from you, and the fact that your are there.
You are 31 years old and it is August. You are sitting in the baseball press box covering a game and the phone rungs. It's your father, from 400 miles away, and he's watching the game on cable. He wants to know about a certain play, why the umpire ruled the way he did. He wants to know why his favorite team, the one you watched together in days gone by, has started to stumble.
You are struck by a warm feeling that things are good, even if you are not close. You look out your press box window and see fathers and sons.
You see the game unfold before them, and you celebrate August.
*****

Postscript: The father and the son had 40 more years together after that first ballgame before the father passed away, beloved, after a long and interesting life.

Ella, Henry and Ben Schulman, 2008. Two months later, Ben left us.