More good news

According to the news scroll across the bottom of my cardi- machine at the gym yesterday — despite AIDs, Ebola, wars (religious and otherwise), drones, the NRA, global warming, coal and tobacco and asbestos, starvation, over-zealous police, and increasing wealth disparity — between 1990 and now the life expectancy of human beings worldwide has increased by six years.

So let’s hear it for us.

Way to go, human beings.

I just finished…

…”The End of the Story,” by Lydia Davis, and “The Chess Game,” by Stefan Zweig. I liked both. Zweig did a masterful job imagining (I think) himself into the mind of a man locked alone into an enduring solitary confinement. As for Davis, some novelists plot everything out in advance. Some say their characters take over and drive the action themselves. Davis seems to compose a sentence, and then that sentence drives her next one. That’s my major insight, and it was fun to see this play out across the pages.

My Latest

Fantagraphics has just published The Zap Interviews, a collection of conversations with the contributing artists to that culture-changing comic. I conducted one of those, with the incomparable S. Clay Wilson. (Well, he would concede that maybe Breughel compares.) I was also asked to write the Introduction, a request which made me proud. It begins:

Draw, Write, Talk
In his book “Writers’ Fighters,” the celebrated sportswriter John Schulian explains his – and other authors – attraction to practitioners of The Sweet Science. “Boxers,” Schulian writes, “not only lead more interesting lives than any other athletes, they are more willing to talk about them too.” I feel similarly about underground cartoonists. I have found them to be bright, witty, uninhibited conversationalists; and since they came of age in the 1960s, a time when, it seemed, all apples presented were to be bitten, the only commandment was to break commandments, and the golden rule was to do to yourself what you wished others would do with you, preferably in a hot tub while slugging Red Mountain wine, their conversations had much to draw from.

Bitter Orange

<To return to those thrilling days of yesteryear (my adolescence), here is one that appeared online at “The Broad Street Review,” under the title “The Square Jungle.” Its intro was lopped off, and I forget what else happened to it, but it did receive a nice reception.

Bitter Orange
“Did you know Blinky Palermo, the artist, took his name from Blinky Palermo, the gangster?” Bob Liss, the Herodotus of Hoops, asked me.
“Yes,” I said, “though I wouldn’t know a Blinky Palermo if it spat at me from the wall of MOMA. We must have read the same article in the Times.”
“Nope. This woman I’m seeing told me.”
“Did I ever tell you Blinky Palermo once gave my father a ride to my fathers-and-sons athletic awards dinner?”
“Not yet,” he said.

It was November 1955, and I was lettering in 105-pound football. That May, the Manayunk-born light heavyweight, Harold Johnson, who was so skilled and so dangerous he often had to go above his weight class to find opponents, had collapsed, seemingly without being struck hard enough to dent a lemon water ice, in the second round of a fight at the Arena with the Cuban heavyweight, Julio Mederos, a 4:1 underdog. Since Johnson had already collected the scalps of many of Mederos’s betters, including Ezzard Charles, Bob Satterfield, Nino Valdez, and Archie Moore (who, in fairness, it must be said, had four times skinned Johnson), this obliteration raised eyebrows, the most significant of which belonged to Pennsylvania’s first- term Democratic governor George Leader. Though Johnson explained he had been undone by a “bitter” pre-fight orange, handed him by a stranger, (its doping seemingly confirmed by the detection of barbiturates in Johnson’s urine), his license was lifted, and boxing was suspended in the commonwealth for 90 days until its purity could be restored. For this restoration, Leader ordered the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission to investigate the fight, the fruit, and related matters.
The commission’s chairman was Jim Crowley, one of the fabled Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. The Special Deputy Attorney General appointed to assist the investigation was the long-time Democratic leader of South Philadelphia’s 4th ward, my father. In his 20-plus years as an attorney, he had received several other plums from the party he served, but to my 13-year-old eyes, this was the coolest.
These hearings led to the questioning of Frank “Blinky” Palermo. In association with the Murder, Inc. alumnus, Frankie “Mr. Grey” Carbo, Palermo owned, controlled and/or managed a number of prominent pugilists, amassing great influence over who would fight whom, where, in exchange for what consideration, and, occasionally, with what result. He also ran Philadelphia’s largest numbers game, once maintaining its reputation for uncorruptibilty conducting a running gun battle with a welsher who owed him 75-cents. (I am unsure of his connection to either Johnson or Mederos; perhaps his general familiarity with the customs and practices of the industry made him appear someone likely to provide educative information.)
The Friday of my dinner, most likely due to Palermo’s reluctance to provide anything beyond references to the Fifth Amendment, the hearing ran late. My father, who had taken the train to Harrisburg, had no way to make it back in time for the bestowing of my letter. Hearing of his plight, Palermo, who’d arrived by Cadillac, offered my father door-to-door delivery, a courtesy from one sportsman to another. (One may question the ethics of an attorney accepting a favor from a gangster he is investigating, but if one is 13 and the attorney is one’s father, such questions infrequently occur.)
I don’t know what resulted from the hearing. Johnson won the light heavyweight title in 1962, at age 34, only to lose it to Willie Pastrano, another prohibitive underdog, a year later. Mederos returned to Cuba and obscurity. Palermo served 7 1/2 years for his part in some contractual negotiations which included two of his associates kicking the other negotiator nearly to death.. (He died in Philadelphia, at 91, in 1996.) And my father remained a Democratic Party loyalist, who was rewarded with a Common Pleas Court judgeship in 1965.
But before and after that, in commemoration of his service to the commission, he was able to command free tickets to the fights.

I was already a fan. At a time when neither the NBA nor NFL had much TV presence, boxing commanded prime time twice a week: the Wednesday Night Fights (sponsored by Pabst ) and the Friday Night Fights (Gillette). I saw many great brawls (Carter-Arujo, Carter-Collins, and Moore-Durelle are three I am sure of). I subscribed to Sport and S.I. and read Ring and Boxing and Wrestling. Bill Stern’s Favorite Boxing Stories was one of the first paperbacks I purchased. I could name every heavyweight champion in order. I could identify the Toy Bulldog and Wild Bull of the Pampas, the Manassa Mauler, Durable Dane, Fargo Express, Michigan Assassin, Boston Strong Boy, and Boston Tar Baby, Ruby Bob and Gentleman Jim, Jersey Joe, Li’l Artha, Hammering Henry, Slapsie Maxie, Two Ton Tony, the Black Uhlan and the Brown Bomber. I knew Stanley Ketchel was shot to death at 24 and Bummy Davis at 25; that Beau Jack ended up a shoeshine boy, Sam Langford blind and penniless, Joe Louis half-a-million in debt to the IRS, and Jack Johnson an attraction at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus.
None of these ends disturbed my dreams. I was a kid and “ends” were far away. They seemed part of the color and the drama of the sport. They were the way of men, and while I was on my way to becoming one, the full consequences of this development had not sunk in. You came out nobly with your shield or borne upon it. The bright lights poetically illuminated the center of the ring, while you returned to the darkness from which you’d come. In boxing, the best man won, no bad bounce to undo him, no teammates to weigh him down.
What could be fairer?

The first live fight I saw was from ringside, courtesy of my father’s connections, at Connie Mack Stadium, June 12, 1958. It was an all-Philadelphia gala. In the main event, the fading, formerly first-ranked welterweight Gil Turner was gifted a draw with the division’s rising star, Garnet “Sugar” Hart. On the undercard, the undefeated lightweight Len Mathews (10-0, with nine K.O.s) knocked the once formidable Henry “Toothpick” Brown into retirement in four. And in a battle of middleweights of whom few others wanted part, George “The Professor” Benton, a future Hall of Fame trainer, blasted Slim Jim Robinson through the ropes, unconscious, at my feet.
Over the next nine years, I saw fights at the Arena, the Blue Horizon, Convention Hall, and Atlantic City Convention Center. I saw Joey Giardello and Kitten Hayward, Bennie Briscoe and Gypsy Joe Harris, Von Clay and Don Warner, Leotis Martin and, after he emigrated from South Carolina, Joe Frazier. (I also once saw Palermo schmoozing in the Samsone Deli with his current tutee, Charles “Sonny” Liston. I did not interrupt the seminar to thank him for my father’s ride.) I read Hemingway and Liebling and, religiously, Jack McKinney in the Daily News. (I learned that Philadelphia fighters were known for (a) their left hooks and (b) shortening their productive years by beating each other up in gyms.) I was, I felt, earning my way into a brotherhood. I liked the chest-pounding suspense of awaiting decisions and the abrupt ends that could fall like guillotine blades before. I liked the smoke and the smell and the sweat flying when the heads snapped back. I liked the wised-up, sharp-suited men and flashy, bored women and imagining how their evenings would conclude. I liked that none of my friends shared my outre passion. I had taken these gifts from my father and layered myself with a distinctive depth.

One fighter whose path interested me, for its intersections of talent and fortune, was the North Philadelphia welterweight Charley Scott. His early results – losing four of his first eight bouts – suggested he pursue other employment. But Scott persevered – at one point winning 14 of 16 – climaxing with a ninth round knockout of Sugar Hart at Convention Hall, in October 1959, in what boxing historian/archivist John DiSanto calls “one of the greatest Philly battles ever.” That win vaulted Scott to the top of the rankings, making him next in line for a shot at Don Jordan’s shaky grip on the championship belt. But two months later, in need of Christmas money, Scott went up to Madison Square Garden on short notice and lost 5-4-1 to Benny “Kid” Paret. Paret got the shot and the title – and was later killed in the ring, defending it against Emile Griffith, whom he had called a “maricon.”
Scott never recovered from his war with Hart. He lost four of his next five. (Hart lost three of four and quit the ring.) Scott embarked on an ill-fated Odyssey that took him through Australia, the Philippines, Boston, Vegas, Paris, Fresno, Honolulu, New Orleans, Oakland. He lost 20 of his last 30, nine of his last 10. He retired in October 1966.

I was then one month into my final year at Penn Law School. It seemed a critical time. It seemed two Baskervillian hounds were clawing for my throat. I feared becoming a lawyer would imprison me within a conformity I dreaded. I hoped to write but feared the effort would expose I had nothing to say. Finally, I applied to VISTA for time to think it out.
I also sought experiences and places outside the classroom and corporate world that fit me. I volunteered in the offices of legal aid and the public defender and, some weekend nights, rode in a patrol car to observe the law at street level. I never caught a violent crime or observed a kicked-in door. Mainly I saw DUIs and domestic beefs.
One April night, two young officers shoved a broad shouldered 30-year-old – he looked 40 – against the booking desk. He smelled of alcohol. He wore a houndstooth cap. The fly on his stained slacks was down. He had a four-inch scar over one eye. The charges were Loitering and Prowling.
He had 62-cents and a billfold stuffed with papers. On a job application, he had penciled, “Have attain some excellence as a boxer.” “Hey, Pete, watch out,” one officer said. “This guy was a fighter.”
Pete laughed. “What’s your name?”
“Charley Scott.”
“Charley Scott?” I said.
He nodded.
I had seen him at Convention Hall the best night of his life. Now I saw him again. Grief and reason pin-wheeled in my head. He left for Detective Division, light on his feet, a fighter’s bounce headed toward the ring.

VISTA sent me to Chicago. A year later, I came to Berkeley and moved in with the girl to whom I am still married. I have seen one live fight since, two ham-and-eggers mauling each other for ten rounds in Oakland. I never read another Ring. I can still name the heavyweight champions but only through Ali/Frazier. My passion for the sport had vanished. I had never recovered from standing this close to its too-frequent consequences and seen them bouncing shabby, thick-tongued, unzipped out the shutting door.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I relied heavily on http:// phillyboxinghistory. com. for career records, dates, places, and results of fights to check my memory against and to fill in its holes. Any errors are my own.

I just finished…

Shadow Country by Peter Mathiessen. Set in southwest Florida, when it remained America’s Last Frontier, it is the tale of E.J. Watson, who loomed so demonic to his neighbors, that in 1910 twenty of them gunned him down. No one was prosecuted.

The book has an interesting history. Mathiessen first wrote it as a 1500 page novel, which was unpublishable. He then broke in into three 500 page novels, which were published over nine years. Still dissatisfied, he rewrote them into one 900+ page novel, which won the National Book Award (his third) in 2008.

The entire book is suffused with evil. Murder. Rape. Racism. Environmental degradation. Obliteration of souls. There are indications (strong ones) of this being Mathiessen’s view of capitalism, of it being how he sees America. No counter-arguments are presented to these views. There is no hope of man being capable of more than Mathiessen allows him on his pages.

Mathiessen’s life was an interesting one too. He served in World War ii. He was an expatriate writer in Paris with James Baldwin and William Styron. He started “The Paris Review,” with George Plympton, which, Mathiessen later revealed, was a helpful cover for his work for the CIA. LSD eventually led him to Zen and he became a Buddhist priest.

Where, I wondered, in “Shadow Country” was the detachment I associated with Buddhism? Where was the rose that grew from this garbage? His biography, I think, should be an interesting one.

Seeing Here

A few years ago, when asked my three favorite books, I replied The Recognitions, for its near opaque literary excellence, A Man With A Maid, in case I was alone on a desert island and in need of entertainment, and, for spiritual and moral guidance, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of What You See. After the most recent election returns, I began it again.

That book, by Lawrence Weschler, (Univ. of California Press) is a study of the visual artist Robert Irwin. It opens with Irwin taking Weschler on a tour of Los Angeles, where the artist had grown up. The adolescence the 1940s had provided him, as Irwin recalls, was composed of hot rods, gambling, dance contests, and girls. When Weschler posits that a reason for this grand time was that Irwin and his friends were about to be engulfed by WW ii, Irwin replies absolutely not.

“‘Look,'” he says, “‘Look at it here. Look at how it is: calm, sunny, the palm trees. What is there to get all fucking upset about?… This is reality. In other words, the war was not reality. The war wasn’t here. The war was someplace else. So any ideas you had about the war were all things you manufactured in your head from newspapers and that… (T)his was reality; this was my reality right here.'”

The morning after the election, I skimmed the newspaper, not lingering until I reached Sports. At the café, I hooked onto Pandora (John Coltrane) and shyed away from conversation. At the health club, I clicked “TV Off” while on the cardio-machines, so no scroll would deliver me the wisdom of Mitch McConnell.

Calm. Sunny. Double espressos. That was my reality. Mitch McConnell. John Boehner. They were someplace else.

Now if I can keep this up for two years.

On receiving an e-mail blaming the United States for ISIS

If I have it right, when it was pointed out to Ghandi that passive resistance would not have worked with Hitler, his reply was that you had to give it several generations. I am not sure even that would have worked. (It certainly have helped the Jews or gypsies, or gays or disabled in the immediate neighborhood.) But then wars haven’t gotten us too far either. There seems to be something in the nature of man that allows certain of them to rise to power which, when they have it, they use to torment others. But then what do those individuals or nations standing by who observe this do about it?

In an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Times, Arthur Brooks cited a study in which subjects were shown a.) a British sit-com; b.) a nature documentary; and c.) an “uplifting” Oprah episode. The Oprah watchers reported feeling the most optimism about humanity and desire to help others.
Is the answer more Oprah?

I just finished…

A medical “incident” (that’s the professionals’ term for it) and a crashed computer, whose replacement I am still being driven semi-batty by, have slowed me down; but let’s try to resume. Now where was I?

Oh yes, my readings. Well, while I’ve been away, I’ve completed Howard Sachar’s “A History of Israel,” which is excellent, but may contain more than you need to know — and my edition ended with the assassination of Yitzkak Rabin; Mark Kram’s “Ghosts of Manilla,” a few-warts-overlooked view of Frazier-and-Ali, written in a highly personal, slightly over-the-edge, but extremely effective style; and Lydia Davis’s “Complete Stories” (except there has been one collection since), which was wonderfully instructive as to what can be a story, or essay, or, even, blog.

I stand ready to discuss all or any.


It’s been a while. But I’ve been busy. So let’s get back to adolescence. This one appeared, on line, at THE BROAD STREET REVIEW, May 6, 2009, it’s title changed to “Growing Up At the Palestra, 1958.” It received a couple of nice responses, including one from Tink Van Patten’s brother or cousin.

Stanley Kessler’s father taught school with the guy who hired ushers for Penn football games. Stanley and I worked the fall of ‘56 and again in ‘57. You got $1 a game. You walked the ticket holders to their seats on the long, wood benches that ran up the sides of Franklin Field. You flicked the seats with a rag. If you had a rich alum or a sport on a date, you might catch a tip. I worked every game and don’t remember a moment or a player’s name. The end of the second season, the guy asked if we wanted to usher the Palestra. You got $2. You got no tips. You showed no one to their seats. You stood in the entranceway to your section and pointed up or down. You watched the games.
The Palestra was on 33rd between Spruce and Walnut. It had been Penn’s home court for 30 years; but, in 1955, four other Philadelphia area schools, LaSalle, St. Joseph’s, Temple, and Villanova, had joined the Quakers in an informal conference, The Big Five, agreeing to play each other and most of their “home” games there. It meant double-headers, three nights a week. Half-times and between games, the hallway that surrounded the arena’s core was a-jangle with buzz and laughter and “How you been, man?” “How’d you like my boy?” Fan and athlete circled flesh pressed against flesh, plaques on the wall conjuring heroes who had passed. There had never been anything like it.

Eighty percent of the players were local. They had played each other in school, in summer leagues, and on playgrounds. The rivalries were intense, the competition fierce, and the skill level high. (And that season, coming in to test them were Oscar Robertson, of Cincinnati, Jerry West, with West Virginia, and Philadelphia’s greatest player, Wilt Chamberlain, with Kansas.) If you were a basketball fan, you had rooted for your favorites from court-side through these levels; and, since the NBA allowed teams preferential rights to players from their areas, into the pros. (When Chamberlain joined the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959, with Paul Arizin, Tom Gola, and Guy Rodgers, four of its five starters were local.)
Rodgers was a senior at Temple in 1957-58. He led a prototypical Philadelphia team: small, highly talented guards (himself and Bill “Pickles” Kennedy); undersized, over-achieving forwards (Mel Brodsky and Jay “Pappy” Norman); and an earnest, if limited center (Tink Van Patton). All but Van Patton were products of Philadelphia public schools. So was their coach, the already legendary Harry Litwak, inventor of the box-and-one, master of the switching man-to-man zone, a wizard at transforming the unrecruited into the formidable. (Rodgers, who scouts had deemed “too short,” had an inch on Kennedy. Norman had come out of the service to play football and had bum knees. Brodsky was a walk-on, and Van Patton had busted a leg as a high school senior.) With another Philadelphian, Hal “King” Lear, instead of Kennedy in the backcourt, Temple had reached the semi-finals of the NCAA tournament two years earlier. This team looked better.
There are two types of sports fans. The more highly evolved savor the beauty of the movements, appreciate the finely honed bodies, derive joy from the physical excellence on display. They regard games as afficionados do ballet. I was of the lower kind. A fan who rooted out of his own discomforts and hurts and shortcomings. Who identified with a team or individual who appeared more talented, more powerful, more capable of vanquishing foes. Who won if they did. Whose value rested on these surrogates. “They keep score, don’t they?” is how I defended my position. “You don’t pay money for scrimmages, do you?”
Temple became my team of choice. Penn was Ivy League and, hence, effete. LaSalle, St. Joe’s and Villanova were too full of the older brothers of kids who’d hassled me and my friends as they’d passed through our neighborhood on their way home from St. Francis de Sales or Transfiguration (“Transy”) Elementary. But to a son of parents who had met at a fund-raiser for Spanish Loyalists, who had been raised on Paul Robeson’s Songs of Free Men, the scrappy, gritty Owls, from their cruddy, ghetto-bordering Broad Street campus, were the Brotherhood of Man personified. With Lear, Rodgers, Norman, and current sixth man Ophie Franklin, Temple had fielded more blacks than the other city schools combined. And with Brodsky stepping into the yarmulka of Fred Cohen and Hal “Hotsy” Reinfeld (and Joey Goldenberg and Stanley’s and my camp counselor, Gerry Lipson, on the bench), it also had the Jews. When Gerry introduced me to Jay Norman, on their arrival one evening at my section, and he had shook my hand, my 15-year-old allegiance was cemented.
After losing two of their first three games – in triple overtime, 85-83, at Kentucky, and two days later, at Cincinnati, when still physically and emotionally depleted – Temple had won 27 in a row, to again make the NCAA semi-finals and a rematch with Kentucky in Lexington. The game had aspects of the mythic. The ragamuffin Owls against the aristocratic Colonels. Kentucky had won three national championships (and one NIT) in the last decade; Temple had won none. Kentucky had Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey, and Lou Tsioropoulos (practically 4% of the entire league) in the NBA – and would have had twice that, but for the point-shaving scandal of 1952; Temple had no one. And in this time of Montgomery busses and Little Rock schools, Kentucky remained an all-white team, in an all-white conference, in a segregated state. (Unlike some SEC schools, Kentucky played teams with black athletes – but made little effort to control the insults and threats hurled from the stands upon them.) It seemed God had scripted the game to make a point.
Television had no interest in the NCAAs in 1958. I listened on a radio in the kitchen of a
girl named – no kidding – Hope. She dated the president of a high school fraternity to which I tenuously belonged. She’d invited Eric to a party, and he’d invited even his geekiest “brothers.” Gangly, gawky and eye-glassed, I felt about as desirable at parties as a banana slug on a pastry cart. The radio, with its game, was a place where I could withdraw and, through my devotions, feel myself a person of consequence, as I could not dancing to “Silhouettes,” while my partner’s eyes, I knew, sought Steven Silberfisch on Ben Borinsky.
On the hostile and malignant floor, even with Rodgers hampered by a bad back, Temple led by six with two minutes to go. Then Kennedy was called for a charge whose veridiculity, for 50 years, has been doubted by Philadelphians more fervently than Piltdown Man’s. A pass from Brodsky slipped through the rattled sophomore’s fingers. Kentucky 61-60. A knife in the throat. A scream in the night. An anguish oiled by Goya. The winners shellacked Elgin Baylor and Seattle for the title, and Temple waxed Kansas State, with Jack Parr and Bob Boozer, for third.
Sports, they say, prepares you for the world. Being a Philadelphia sports fan prepared you more than most. Jimmy Soo. Lenny Mathews. Charlie Scott. In future sessions, we’ll discuss Wilt’s annual dismemberment by the Celtics, the Phillies crash-and-burn in ‘64.