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11/08/06 12:00am
11/08/2006 12:00 AM |

The awesome legacy of New York City sportswriting — from Damon Runyon to Red Smith to George Plimpton and beyond — provides a daunting context for any individual with the ambition to follow in this historic litany. And yet for all of this accumulated greatness, has there ever been any more important figure in local arts and letters than the New York Post‘s own Mr. Phil Mushnick? Each week I tear down to the local newsstand to get a look at our collective conscience and moral barometer “Equal Time” column, and find myself driven into a cathartic state of spiritual clarity by his merciless critique of every depraved and degenerate aspect of our disgraceful abomination of a society. Finally, here is a man willing to scold us for enjoying sports. And not only sports!  Mushnick is furthermore prepared to go the entire distance and castigate any and all for the consumption of television, movies, the internet, and contemporary music. Should we find ourselves indulging in such transgressive enjoyments as pro wrestling or swearing, then best be prepared to feel the stinging bridle of this heroic gatekeeper to our values. What a relief it is! If there is one thing I strongly feel has been missing from my life it is the hectoring directives of an anguished middle-aged white man with a “traditional values” streak.

Privately, I guess I have for some time been operating on the assumption that when, God forbid, Phil Mushnick has performed his last clean-up action on this revolting hog sty of sports and media culture, I would naturally be the man to step into his enormous shoes. True, I haven’t been offered the job just yet. It simply occurs to me that I would be the next logical candidate to do what he does. To this end, I am always sharpening my chops, waiting for the undertaking of this massive and crucial enterprise. With apologies to the great man himself, here then are a few observations of my own:

The Straight Shot
by Timothy Bracy

***

Kudos to the PAX network for their recent uplifting documentary on Ralph Chipperman, a 13 year old boy who lost consciousness for several weeks after attempting to swallow a golf shoe, only to make a full recovery and realize his dream of working as an assistant rodeo clown in Memphis. If more networks showed inspiring stories such as these, rather than the sensational, salacious antics of Hulk Hogan‘s daughter, maybe we’d have a more moral society and I could turn the television on while wearing just a terrycloth robe.     

***

More trouble at the University of Miami, where a typical environment of ruffian gang violence has now escalated from on-field incidents to off-field tragedy. Until the blame for such miscreant outrages is placed squarely where it belongs — on video games and the permissive, teasing ramblings of Jim Lampley — don’t expect much to change in Coral Gables.

***

ESPN.com kicks off their coverage of 2006-2007 NBA campaign in typically ribald fashion this week with the screaming headline “Surprise Studs” this week. The sub-heading then goes on to read: “John Hollinger examines 11 guys who are exceeding expectations early”. Come on guys, are you writing an analysis of the forthcoming season or a sequel to Caligula?! Obviously a lot of these young guys are pretty easy on the eyes, but Hollinger needs to turn the temperature down or else get a new gig writing for Mr. Skin. 

***

Last week WFAN’S vaunted know-it-all Mike Francesa told a caller that in his prime Mickey Mantle “ran like a deer” and covered center field in Yankee Stadium “effortlessly”. Two days later he told another caller that the Yankee great was “like a racehorse” and “could get to every ball”. Well, which is it? Was Mantle a racehorse or a deer? Naturally Francesa, who obviously knows nothing about the animal kingdom, never bothered to acknowledge his flagrant contradiction. As for his blatant use of sexual imagery, I will abstain from sullying myself with further comment.

***

Visiting a friend in a commune in Staten Island, we decided to go the movies. I never cease to be amazed at the volume of smut Hollywood throws up on the screen year after year. Just trying to choose a movie that was not packed with reprehensible filth was nearly impossible in this place. Plus it looked like the booths hadn’t been cleaned in months. Disgusting.

***

While on the ferry home, my mind could not help but drift back to last year’s terrible “Sex Boat” scandal with Fred Smoot and the Minnesota Vikings. It also occurred to me that a lot of the other people on the ferry were probably thinking about it too. Sure enough, when I greeted a young woman in a low-cut tank top with a friendly, reassuring grin, she responded with the sort of vulgar hand gesture I am quite certain she could have only learned on MTV. Why she would elect to attempt to titillate me this way is utterly beyond my capacity to understand, but it seems likely that she was probably recently corrupted like the rest of us by certain shirtless photos of British soccer hero David Beckham. Note to Beckam’s publicist: his rippling abs and rock-hard, chiseled thighs may have made him a star worldwide, but we don’t need that sort of garbage here.

***

Ironic how certain franchises think nothing of marketing to children and then corrupting them with repeated exposures to the sort crass and sexually explicit materials that have filled our streets with hip hopping, gun toting rappers. The other night at a Rangers-Avalanche game, the geniuses at MSG thought nothing of using Murray Head‘s very adult 1984 smash “One Night in Bangkok” as music for a between periods ice show, despite the fact that I know from numerous personal experiences that Bangkok is no place for children at night. No one is disputing that it’s a very sexy song, but come on guys! This should definitely be kept under wraps until the after party.

***

There is something completely immoral about the way that boxing trainers sponge off their shirtless fighters between rounds. When is that vexing libertine cad Jim Lampley and the rest of HBO’s boxing team going to do the right thing and insist that boxers compete with their robes on?

***

Is no place in our society sacred? Sometimes when I feel like getting away from the endless acreage of tanned young flesh foisted on use by our advertisers, I like to relax at freeway rest stops. Would you believe that the Hollywood flesh peddlers will even follow us to this remote private sanctuary? I was lounging comfortably outside the James Fenimore Cooper New Jersey Turnpike rest stop the other afternoon when a large charter bus passed by with a large Nike ad featuring the leering Russian temptress Maria Sharapova on the side! Leaning forward in her tennis whites, the tender Lolita casts a gaze which in and of itself seems intent on breaking seven of the original Ten Commandments. For the sake of all that is right in the world, am I the only one with a single shred of restraint left on this planet? I’m going crazy here!

***

Anyway, you get the idea. As a professional writer let alone an arbiter of social values, obviously I have a long way to travel before I can compete with a moral titan of  Mushnick’s colossal stature. As has long been demonstrated by the great constellation of decency overlords in our contemporary society — Rush Limbaugh, Ted Haggard, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bennett — one does not simply declare himself competent to judge the lifestyle and consumer preferences of others. Instead, as Mushnick and I understand only too well, this requires a life of singular vigilance and a take-no-prisoners approach to defending the young people of America against the constantly encroaching specter of moral relativism. Instead of the roiling sinkhole it has become, the sports world must return to a simpler time when a child’s little league coach or favorite football player was a stalwart hero on par with our clergy and public servants. As Mark Foley says: "Kids deserve protection. People that are under the age of 18 need supervision by someone who will look out for them."

10/25/06 12:00am
10/25/2006 12:00 AM |

There are a lot of things that a man can safely do after suffering a couple of serious head traumas in a relatively short period of time — say, gather the mail, or perhaps even draw water from a deep well — but it is almost certainly not advisable to be sacked five times by the Oakland Raiders. Just the same, this past weekend Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger started in Oakland a week after suffering his second concussion in a period of three months. Rather unsurprisingly, he played badly, throwing four interceptions and looking a little tipsy overall as the Steelers fell to 2-5 against one of the league’s low rung teams. As fantastically distinguished a start to his career as Big Ben has experienced, it’s begun to seem ominously unlikely that this will be a ten- or twelve-year enterprise he is embarking upon. I am frankly agog that Roethlisberger was even in the game. Having witnessed in recent years the premature end to the careers of such all-time great quarterbacks as Steve Young and Troy Aikman by dint of the very frightening-sounding “multiple concussion syndrome”, it is boggling to me that the typically sensible and forward-looking Steelers would consider mortgaging their future for a Week Seven tilt against a one win team. There seems little doubt that veteran backup Charlie Batch, who filled in more than capably for Roethlisberger earlier this season, would have given his team at least as good a chance without running the risk of scrambling their superstar quarterback’s eggs for all eternity. 

I think that as fans we frequently overlook the degree of sheer physical duress under which professional athletes are constantly expected to perform. I remember a couple of years ago when the talented but injury-prone Falcons defensive end John Abraham was still playing for the Jets and, owing to a lingering groin problem, was unable to play in their two postseason games. James Joyce speaks of “the snow falling faintly upon all the living and all the dead,” but does not conjecture as to how the snow might fall upon those with a serious groin pull. Having recently experienced my first injury of this kind, allow me then to make amends for this literary shortfall: nothing falls faintly on a person in this state. Every step and gesture is a thundering, tearful agony. Nevertheless, the prevailing wisdom in the papers and especially the local talk show circuit held that however nettlesome Abraham’s injury, it surely could not be severe enough to justify missing the playoffs. The unanimity on this point was striking: this player was essentially honor-bound to “shoot it up and go.” I didn’t much like it at the time, and in my current predicament I am now fully persuaded of the inequity of this public verdict. Perhaps Abraham is a malcontent, a lollygagger, a locker room cancer. Perhaps not. I have no idea and no way of finding out.  What I can confirm is that if his groin malady was anything like this thing I’ve got going now he was probably too busy praying for sweet release from sentient humanity to memorize much of the game plan.  To bull-rush a starting left tackle through a roiling sea of pain-induced hallucination is a lot to ask of anyone.

NFL enthusiasts tend to fetishize certain famous, grotesque acts of extreme physical courage: Jack Youngblood and Terrell Owens playing Super Bowls on partially healed broken legs, or Ronnie Lott getting the tip of his finger cut off mid-season rather than miss any playing time due to surgery. And certainly this psychotic behavior suggests a real commitment by these men to their craft. But I mean, is this really that great an idea?
A common refrain amongst those who follow sports decrees that athletes earn enormous sums of money and thus should be happily made to endure grievous physical hardships. I guess that’s kind of true, but I wonder if that is really what they are being paid for? Certainly many entertainers are paid much more for providing considerably less amusement at no injurious cost. It is perhaps desirable, but certainly not conceivable, to think of Mel Gibson being pressured into performing dangerous stunts on a fractured ankle. That the insufferable irritant Jim Carrey was payed $20 million a movie all throughout the 1990’s to mug and caper and was never subjected to even one crippling hit from Cowboys safety Roy Williams seems manifestly unjust.

In the NFL in particular, where careers are short, contracts are never guaranteed, and the extent of the physical toll is often life-altering, it has always been difficult for me to comprehend the relative lack of empathy directed towards rehabilitating athletes. One need only to conjure the image of such great former running backs as Earl Campbell and Terrell Davis, broken and arthritic to an almost sadistic degree at far too young an age, to have a sense for what these players are sacrificing. Those aren’t even extreme examples: it is entirely common to see role players as well as superstars hobbled in the manner of serious accident victims. While the average life of an NFL player’s career is between 3 and 4 years, their life expectancy is around 62, or ten years shorter than the typical American male. Ten years! These are the sort of statistics one tends to associate with crocodile hunters and members of bands fronted by Jimi Hendrix, not with elite professional athletes. It is a fairly daunting thing to consider. Much as a habitual chain smoker makes an accommodations with his decision not to quit and all of the related ramifications, so must these guys know they may well be taking years off their lives each football Sunday.

One imagines that all of this must have been front and center in the mind of Giants running back Tiki Barber as he announced last week that this current season would be his last. This disclosure was at once startling and utterly sensible. There is always something profoundly dissonant about seeing any athlete retire at or near the peak of his powers. Such events take place so infrequently that they are almost inevitably greeted with a pronounced strain of skepticism bordering on outright disbelief. Comeback rumors followed Jim Brown for nearly twenty years after his retirement at age 29, and it is only very recently that it has been fully accepted by all but the most criminally insane that Barry Sanders has rushed for his last pirouetting three-yard loss. But my sense is that Barber is really done, and not just owing to his evident Napoleonic ambition to conquer the broadcasting world. More than that, NFL franchises have always treated players as conveniently disposable and employed certain antiquated notions of courage and loyalty to pressure them into frequently acting against there own self interest. When Barber got into a sniping match this past week with former NFL players and current ESPN reporters Michael Irvin and Tom Jackson, I think this specific issue is implicitly what they were arguing about. When Jackson and Irvin upbraided Tiki’s retirement announcement as a distraction to the team, his response (calling them ‘idiots’) felt in a sense like a sort fourth wall breaking, an intelligent football star recognizing the eroding double-edged fantasy of old-time team loyalty. “Before they use me up completely and leave me by the side of the road, I am outta here,” Barber seemed to be saying, groin and brains intact, heading off clear-headed into the sunset.

10/25/06 12:00am

In 1927, New York was the top of the world. Over a slim three year period, from 1928-1931, no fewer than three of the world’s tallest buildings shot up into the sky — 40 Wall Street, The Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building, the last of which remained the apex of height for 42 years. The city’s office space increased from 74 million square feet in 1920 to 138 million square feet in 1935 (per The Encyclopedia of New York City).  Thanks to Prohibition, we took full reign of the booze-fueled progress and our city surged spectacularly. However, as high into the sky as we could possibly go, there would be no point if there were no connections to the rest of the continental United States. We had all four East River Bridges, we had the Holland Tunnel, but we had no Hudson River Bridge. And so, in September, 1927, construction began on the George Washington Bridge.

Like so many other major municipal projects, including the abovementioned ESB, as well as Rockefeller Center, the GWB was built through the Great Depression, opening on Oct 25th, 1931. Chief Engineer Othmar H Ammann, from Switzerland, is easily the most accomplished bridge builder in NYC’s history — he’s responsible for more than half of the eleven bridges that connect NYC to the rest of the world. After working on the GWB and the Bayonne bridge simultaneously (the Bayonne opened one month later), Ammann went on to design and build the Triborough in July, 1936, the Bronx-Whitestone in April, 1939, the Throgs Neck in January, 1961, and the Verrazano Narrows in November, 1964; the last four he built were for Robert Moses’s expanding automobile empire. Ammann was such a successful engineer because he understood the necessity in building cheap yet building beautiful. All his bridges carry graceful designs that belie their tremendous load-bearing capacity — the GWB carries approximately 300,000 vehicles daily, under a combined weight of 113,000 tons of steel, 28,000 tons of cable wire and 200,000 cubic yards of masonry.

The GWB was built by the Port of New York Authority (now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) and upon its completion, it had the longest main span in the world, at 3500 feet; the previous longest span belonged to the Ambassador Bridge (connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario) at 1850 feet. Prior to the Depression’s onset, noted architect Cass Gilbert (the Woolworth Tower, the Old U.S. Customs House at Bowling Green, the U.S. Court House in Foley Square and the New York Life Insurance Building at Madison Square Park) intended to sheathe the bridge’s spare steel towers with concrete and granite slabs, but this was abandoned in face of the mounting costs. The bridge is the only 14-lane suspension bridge in the world – 8 on the upper deck and 6 more on a lower deck that was added by Moses in 1962. The GWB also boasts the largest free-flying American flag in the universe, at 90 feet vertical; the red  and white stripes are 5 feet wide and each star measures 4 feet in diameter. However, all you patriots out there have to wait to salute — the flag is only brought out for eight holidays a year.

Modernist maniac Le Corbusier was crazy about the George Washington Bridge, writing, in his When the Cathedrals Were White, "the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh.” Clearly words written by someone who has never hit traffic on the bridge. Happy 75th Birthday, GWB!

Matt Levy is a licensed NYC tour guide and Junior Partner of The Levys’ Unique New York!, a business he runs with his Dad  (www.vintagenytours.com);
they are proud to be the only family of licensed NYC tour guides. While
not leading tours, Matt likes long walks on the beach, kittens,
reading, writing, cooking, cooking with a certain pretty girl, dancing,
dancing with a certain pretty girl, talking, talking with a certain
pretty girl, and building tall bikes.

10/25/06 12:00am

Of all the bonds that a man can enter into — father to a child, husband to a wife, life-long best friends — there is none more solemn or unbreakable than his commitment to an NFL franchise. The fact that this blood oath is frequently entered into capriciously, in early childhood, and without the appropriate guidance from those who should know better is nothing less than one of the great ills of modern society. As one too young to protest its onerous consequences, I was indoctrinated into an abiding obsession with the Washington Redskins during the late 1970’s. This affection yielded dividends in my childhood years, as the team achieved magnificent on field successes and I felt rampantly engaged with life’s fruitful possibilities. But for sometime now the downward trend in the franchise’s fortunes has paralleled my own disconcerting spiral into something resembling a nineteen-car pileup. Some might elect to blame exogenous factors other than the Redskins. I myself perceive an inextricable link.

Under what circumstances can one disentangle themselves from their chosen team? What corrupt abuses must occur before a fully sanctioned change in loyalties may occur? Certain established religions regard those who divorce and remarry as existing in a permanent state of sin. Much the same can be said for those who abandon football teams without just cause and explanation: such apostates are necessarily humiliated and shunned at public gatherings. A society in which an individual just roots whimsically for whatever NFL team they feel like on a given day is teetering on the precipice of anarchy.

But what is the deal with the Redskins? When did I volitionally consent to this unending torture? Sometimes I wonder if my own team is in fact consciously acting against its own best interests. From the front office to the coaching staff, down to the execution on the field, I feel I can detect a pervasive, possibly incurable strain of mental illness. Is this grounds for annulment? Owing to a fearsome loyalty easily outstretching that of a mother elephant to her newborn calf, I suppose we will never know on my account. But the question does merit pondering. On the heels of a recent three-game losing streak, one ponders the question: when is too much quite enough? How many viscerally scarring and debilitating disappointments and recollections is any one man supposed to live with? After all, an elephant never forgets…

NFC East Mid-Season Roundup

When the 2006 NFL schedules were released last Spring, a cursory glance at the crushing year-long crucible facing the New York Giants suggested nothing less than a full-scale conspiracy headed by the league’s front office Olympians to bury Coughlin and company before they could ever get untracked. Not even Hercules in his labors ever had to start out with Indy at home, then travel to Philadelphia, then across the country to face the defending NFC champs in Seattle. Theseus may have conquered the Minotaur, but how would he have fared in back-to-back road games weeks six and seven in Atlanta and Dallas? And surely wily Odysseus would have frowned and fretted and found some way out of playing Jacksonville and Chicago in consecutive weeks in mid-November. And yet here the Giants stand, 4-2 and looking for all the world like the team most likely to derail the Bears NFC juggernaut.

Tom Coughlin took Bill Parcells to the woodshed this past Monday night. It was a little unsettling to witness such a one-sided outcome between two such evenly matched long-term adversaries. Parcells had entered the Monday night match-up in Dallas anxious to make a statement about his team’s Super Bowl potential, and walked off the field looking bewildered, disgusted and not a little old. It is now becoming apparent that the imperious old bastard will not turn the corner with these Cowboys — not this year and not ever. His final, desperate second half switch from limited but experienced quarterback Drew Bledsoe to untested Tony Romo served principally to underscore the main theme of the Big Tuna’s final act as an NFL head coach. Having now tried in relatively rapid succession Quincy Carter, Vinny Testaverde, Drew Henson, Bledsoe, and now Romo, it seems manifestly evident that the Tuna never really had a chance with any of these guys. Samuel Coleridge himself never conjured a more woeful refrain than that which has echoed through Parcells’s fraught four seasons in Dallas: "I just don’t have a quarterback." The Cowboys will be the first team he has ever coached that he did not get remotely close to a championship.

As one of Parcells’ unvarnished antagonists over the course of his two-decade coaching career, I am finding it weirdly difficult to glory in his Waterloo. Maybe it is the platinum dye job and shrugging resignation, with all of the vulnerability it implies. More likely this has to do with the melancholy with which I experience his long-standing rival Joe Gibbs spiraling into a similar state of ineffectual disarray with the equally hapless Redskins. Notably, Gibbs suffers from the opposite problem as Parcells — a sort of pathological loyalty which prevents him from making a change at quarterback even when it is apparent to a unanimous consortium of observers that he cannot ever win big with his hand-picked starter Mark Brunell. In his prime Brunell was a brilliant player, and part of the frustration as a Redskins fan is that he would, at age 36, still make an ideal backup. On a given day, with a rested arm and his legs under him, he is capable of rendering a defense helpless. The problem is that playing every week he is never fully healthy, and has various frailties have combined to make him all too easy for opposing teams to defend. With the Redskins now 2-5 and falling precipitously from playoff contention, it feels like time to turn the starting job over to last year’s first round pick from Auburn, the promising, strong-armed Jason Campbell. But true to form, Gibbs appears unwilling to make the move during the bye week, loyal to his guys, to a fault.

The finest quarterback in the division if not the best player overall remains Donovan McNabb of the Eagles. That this overpowering one-man wrecking crew remains in many ways overlooked and under-appreciated next to the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the world remains a sort of troubling imponderable, on par with the unexplained disappearance of “Funyuns” from supermarket shelves. At 4-3, McNabb and the Eagles have been unlucky. Beaten earlier this year on a miracle comeback by the Giants, and last week on a preposterously unlikely 62-yard last-second field goal by the Buccaneers, they could easily be leading the division. Regardless, McNabb, head coach Andy Reid and the rest have clearly put last season’s injury ridden, TO-addled debacle behind them and returned to the sort of physical, high-quality football which characterized their domination of the division from 2000 to 2004. Though unlikely to catch the Giants in the race for the NFC East title, it seems exceedingly likely that these two may cross paths in the playoffs. And when they do, the Giants may be the better team overall, but McNabb will be the best player on the field. Sometimes that alone can steer the ultimate outcome.

10/25/06 12:00am

This past Thursday it was New York’s pride and pleasure to finally host the 7th Anuual Latin Grammys at Madison Square Garden. To almost no one’s surprise, that Lebanese-Colombian bombast of bursting sexual energy, Shakira, shook those hips onstage and shimmied away with both the Record of the Year and Album of the Year. What’s more surprising is that it took the Latin Grammys so long to finally make it to our city, which many musicologists rightly consider the birthplace of Latin muscial styles such as Mambo.

At the turn of last century, East Harlem was the locus point for the burgeoning Italian immigration scene — mostly emigrating from Southern Italy and Sicily. In the 1920s and early 30s, prior to his spectacular run as Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia represented Italian Harlem in Congress. But the decimation of the Italian population during World War II, as well as the general assimilation into American culture and migration to the suburbs left the neighborhood ripe for the boatloads of Latino immigrants flooding the shores during the late 40s into the 50s. Most of these new New Yorkers came from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. With them came new culture, new foods, new religions and new sounds. Mambo can be traced to a pair of brothers in Cuba: Orestes and Cachao Lopez wrote a song called "Mambo" in 1938. The word means "conversation with the gods" and is also the name of a priestess in Haitian Voodoo. One can follow the lineage all the way back to African slaves who were imported into the Caribbean by the French colonizers in the 1800s and who mixed race with the Haitian natives. The original "Mambo" song was an amalgamation of the traditional European social dances (of various French, German and English traditions) but undercut with African rhythms. Orestes played the cello, Cachao played the bass and their orchestra struck up the first song to be considered a Mambo. However, Mambos cannot be music alone.

A decade later, another Cuban musician called Perez Prado emigrated from Cuba to Mexico and then New York, where he aggressively marketed his new moves: the Mambo dance. The Mambo can be danced in two separate styles — the single and the triple (sometimes called the double mambo); the former dance is the more traditional move, the latter is considered the predecessor to the cha cha cha. The moves took off like the hot new commodity that they were, and ballrooms throughout NYC began featuring mambo nights, most notably the Palladium Ballroom on Broadway near Times Square. Mambo could even be considered a catalyst for the rock and roll revolution, which followed shortly on the heels of its success. Famous Mambo players and dancers included Augie and Margo Rodrieguez, the Mambo Aces, Killer Joe Piro, and, of course, Tito Puente. In the heat of the live concert, all the audience were of one color: Afro-Americans from right across Fifth Avenue, Jews from the Lower East Side, Wasps from the Upper West Side and whatever leftover Italians were still in the neighborhood.

In 1954, the cha cha cha, an easier dance to move to with a more ferocious beat dethroned the mambo, and from there, mambo took a backbeat to salsa, merengue, pachanga and the boogaloo. There was a brief revival for the mambo in the mid-90s with “Mambo No. 5,” sung by Lou Bega but an original tune by Prado. Nowadays, as long as the music is thumping, anywhere in the city, the kids will dance.

Matt Levy is a licensed NYC tour guide and Junior Partner of The Levys’ Unique New York!, a business he runs with his Dad  (www.vintagenytours.com);
they are proud to be the only family of licensed NYC tour guides. While
not leading tours, Matt likes long walks on the beach, kittens,
reading, writing, cooking, cooking with a certain pretty girl, dancing,
dancing with a certain pretty girl, talking, talking with a certain
pretty girl, and building tall bikes.

10/11/06 12:00am
by |
10/11/2006 12:00 AM |

The water towers stand perched above the city like so many ancient, all-seeing sentinels. Either conspicuously set against the sky, sticking out against another ‘scraper, or ensconced in a hidden box built onto the roof, the water towers of NYC are an omnipresent aspect of this city’s architecture, but seem to stand somewhat empty, drained of their purpose. What are they for? Do they even work? More a realm of the forgotten New York, objects used only as noirish background for fedora’d detectives on rooftop chases, these rotundas of hydration are actually tools required by law in order to ensure that the city doesn’t burn down, or so that New Yorkers up high can get something to drink. And, as in so many other cases, it all comes back to the geography.

Thanks to the topography of the island of Manhattan – the bedrock of Schist, granite and dirt – water can’t be naturally pumped any higher than 6 stories, about 80 feet, or the force of gravity gets in the way. Once Elisha Otis invented the safety brake for the passenger elevator in 1852, buildings suddenly broke free of their 8-10 story apogee; hand in hand with construction came the necessity to deliver water farther than gravity would allow. The need for water started with drinking, washing and cooking, but developed into the all-important rooftop reservoir system in case of fire, as mandated by newly established fire codes at the turn of the century. Enter the Rosenwach family.

Harris Rosenwach, a skilled Polish laborer with a burgeoning trade in wooden bathtubs, storage and kitchen tubs, emigrated to the city in 1894 and started apprenticing at a Pike Street (later renamed Grand Street) cooper. In 1896 the head cooper passed away and Rosenwach purchased the company for $55. Back then, the basic material to carry any type of liquid was wood: it was sturdy, cheap and a natural insulator – think of the pickle barrels of the Lower East Side. “Three inches of wood has the same insulation value as 30 inches of concrete,” Wallace Rosenwach (grandson of Harris) cheerfully tells the viewer on one of the many promotional videos on his company’s homepage.

Harris passed the business along to Julius, Julius to Wallace, and Wallace to Andrew. Wallace invented the one-button machine currently in use at their mill on Wythe Avenue in Brooklyn. This apparatus cuts both ends of each stave simultaneously, grooves the edges and drills a tiny hole halfway along, which is used to hold the boards together before the galvanized iron hoops are slipped over the whole affair and compressed together. Not a single nail is used, and the boards are left unpainted, so that the wood breathes and ages better. The conical roofs are built from plywood, and each Rosenwach tank is topped by a four-sided 3-D “R.” An old tank can be disassembled and a new one put it its place in 24 hours.  A typical tank is twelve feet high, thirteen feet in diameter and holds 10,000 gallons. Each tank is expected to last from 30 to 60 years, and most of the 10,000+ tanks in the city were installed in the 20s through the 40s — meaning that within the last twenty years, the Rosenwach crew have had more repair and reinstallation work than new production. This proves their successful business model: when the product outlasts the competition, only the original production company can replace it.
In 1965 the city revised the fire code, and no longer required buildings to use water tanks in order to pressure water past the 6th floor, allowing basic plumbing to do the job. Regardless, all buildings with a water tank (or a few of them) in place have kept them along and in doing so, have maintained an indelible image of our simultaneously modern and antiquated New York skyline.

Matt Levy is a licensed NYC tour guide and Junior Partner of The Levys’ Unique New York!, a business he runs with his Dad  (www.vintagenytours.com);
they are proud to be the only family of licensed NYC tour guides. While
not leading tours, Matt likes long walks on the beach, kittens,
reading, writing, cooking, cooking with a certain pretty girl, dancing,
dancing with a certain pretty girl, talking, talking with a certain
pretty girl, and building tall bikes.

10/11/06 12:00am

It is all a blur this morning as I attempt to make sense of the outcome of Game 6 of the NLCS Playoffs last night. Owing to circumstances well beyond my control (a two hour lit course and a long subway ride home), I was only able to situate myself in front of a television at 12:42 am, well after the game had already concluded. I was understandably nonplussed, feeling once again that life had passed me by and reaffirmed in my view that no one should ever try to learn anything. Things soon changed, however, when I came to discover the enormous trove of e-mail, phone and text message accounts with which I had been deluged during the game. Suddenly I felt a bit like an archivist or social historian: picking through these various accounts created a sort of Rashomon-like sensation of relative truth and perception. A modified transcript follows here. Next time I think I’ll just skip class:

First Inning:

(Pete Hoffman): Okay… it is so ridiculous it is that John Maine is the starting pitcher in an elimination game. Jose Reyes is going to be a superstar, if he is not already. He reminds me of Rickey and Kenny Lofton with Omar Vizquel. D. Wright and Reyes are going to be one of the best left sides in history.

(My Father/Cardinals Fan): It’s hard to beat Reyes’s opening act, a liner that left the park at warp speed.

(Owen King): Jose Reyes has awesome hair. I can’t be the first to have made this connection, but his hairdo really reminds me of Sideshow Bob.

(Clint Newman): I’m at a very frightening bar in Gownanus. Two men just (incoherent) with a Russian mail order catalog! I can barely see the TV!

Third Inning:

(Hoffman): Interesting developments. Walking Pujols was the right move. I have played enough stratomatic against Pujols to know to walk him with the bases loaded with a two run lead. I don’t think Edmonds and Rolen (who looks awful) can beat even the lowly John Maine. Ronnie Belliard believes he is Manny Ramirez. Too bad he has none of his skills. He does share his girth and hairdresser. I’m not sure those count as skills. Maybe. If Oliver Perez starts game 7, I will eat my hat.

(Dad): Whoever wins the series, it has been fun to watch the Dominican playoffs.

(Newman): I just ordered two pitchers of (several unintelligible phrases in succession). But I just laughed and told Adam there was no way he’d ever find a giraffe to begin with. Mets look good!

Fifth Inning:

(King): Is John Maine the best pitcher ever to have a state for a last name? Is he the only one? There’s probably been some Dakotas in the big leagues, but I can’t think of any other possibilities off the top of my head. Am I missing someone obvious? Wilson Oregon, the flamethrowing rookie of the year for the Boston Beaneaters in 1894 who died in a tragic piano tuning accident?

(Dad): Both clubs are flawed. They both have a rotation of three good pitchers and a prayer. That favors the Cardinals tomorrow.

(Newman): I have now and will always maintain total confidence in John Maine. In my opinion (the remainder of the next two sentences appear to be written in Cyrrilic). This is interesting when you consider I had no idea he was even an electrician!

(Hoffman): My eyes are deceiving me. This is impossible. John Maine? Do people in Maine like him?

End 6th Inning:

(Hoffman): I’m surprised that Carpenter was taken out. He is the best pitcher in the National League and only threw 80 pitches and Looper has a terrible history in Shea.

4 Minutes later:

(Hoffman): Lauren is making me watch Project Runway. Argh. I think Uli is going to win. I have it in picture-in-picture but it is not the same without the audio.

Bottom 7th:

(King): In many ways this series has begun to take on many of the same of the tense qualities I have routinely come to associate with Project Runway. I like Vincent’s designs. He reminds me a bit of Pedro Martinez, only he can stay healthy.

(Hoffman): At the beginning of the year, I thought batting Lo Duca second was silly. He is slow and doesn’t get on base enough. But that hit proves his true value, he hits behind runners as well as anyone in the league. He constantly moved people ahead and even when he got out, he was making productive outs. I guess this is why Willie Randolph manages the Mets and not me.

Top 8th:

(Hoffman): This game is OVER.

(Newman): Vera Wang is filling in for Michael Kors! Or is this a rereun?!

Top 9th:

(Dad): It was in many ways a game decided by double plays.  The Mets’ were more numerous and timely.  The Cardinals got little out of their men on base.

Post Game:

(Hoffman): Well that was interesting. Billy Wagner is a great pitcher, but seems to have problems occasionally. He needs to throw more fastballs. I can’t believe John Maine pitched that well. I am waiting for Shea Stadium to split in two and for Satan grace us with his presence. Really impressive.

(Dad): For a fifth year in a row, the National League contenders beat each other senseless in a 7-game marathon.

(Newman): I mean can you even begin to grasp the absurdity of accepting a giant wooden horse from your enemies? What exactly is it they expected to do with this thing anyway?!

(King): Man, I hope the Mets can score enough to keep Wagner out of the game tomorrow. He looks really worn down. 

On to Game Seven…

10/11/06 12:00am

In the thickness of the afternoon fog, none of the pedestrians on the ground could tell exactly what had happened. One moment there was a low-flying plane overhead, the next, it was lost in the cloud bank and swallowed whole into the side of the midtown skyscraper, in a small yet terrible explosion. Upon impact, the plane’s fuel ignited, and the resulting fires tore through the world’s most famous office building. The plane’s pilot plus two other passengers weren’t killed so much as vaporized in the crash, and eleven additional people were killed in the aftermath. However, the damage, on the north face of the building between the 78th and 79th floors, was extraordinarily contained; the fires were put out in 40 minutes and the building was open again for business by Monday, still with an 18-by-20 foot hole in its side but essentially under control.

The more recent airplane crash on Manhattan’s Upper East Side this past Wednesday was, for all accounts and purposes, a tragedy. Cory Lidle, the recently acquired Yankees pitcher, and his flight instructor Tyler Stanger, 34 and 26 respectively, had apparently miscalculated their flight position over the East River and slammed into the Belaire Apartments building on East 72nd Street and York Avenue. Lidle only had 75 hours of flying logged in his flight book, but had been a confident and fearless flier, telling reporters, “I’m not worried about it. I’m safe up there. I feel very comfortable with my abilities flying an airplane." Investigations are pending to determine if there was a mechanical failure on the 2002 Cirrus SR20 aircraft, such as an airplane stall in which the plane simply wasn’t catching enough air to stay aloft. But more news reports are focusing on the 180 degree box-canyon turn that Lidle or Stanger was forced to make in order to avoid flying into La Guardia airspace, which, in turn, flew them straight into the 39th through 41st floors of the building, comprised of 2- and 3- bedroom apartments that sell for 1-3 million dollars. But with only two fatalities in this crash, this is no comparison to the large-scale calamity of July 28th, 1945 at the Empire State Building.

Lieutenant William F. Smith, a decorated veteran of 100 combat missions throughout World War II, was flying a B25 bomber from his home in Bedford, Massachusetts to Newark to pick up his Commanding Officer and head to home base in South Dakota. The war was almost over – Germany had surrendered on May 8th, but the bombs had not yet been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 28th of July was hot and muggy, and Smith’s flight plan had called for him to land at La Guardia. However, Smith’s confidence had gotten the best of him and he intended to pull on through to Newark. The last thing the radio controller told Smith was “At the present time, I can’t see the top of the Empire State Building.” The crash occurred on a Saturday, at 9:40 in the morning. The 79th floor was occupied by the Catholic Relief Workers association, and eight members of the office were killed when the plane sheared into the building at 200 miles per hour. Fourteen people died and the building was repaired within the week.

Truly the most incredible aspect of this history is the story of Betty Lou Oliver, elevator operator on the 80th floor. The force of the blast threw her from her post, and she suffered severe burns and injuries. After being given first aid, she boarded elevator car #6 in order to get to the ambulance waiting for her on the street. At about the 75th floor, the cables supporting the car, badly damaged by the B25’s wingspan (which, upon entering the building, sliced through the governor and safety cables on cars #6 and 7), snapped, sending the car into a total freefall, over 1000 feet to the sub-basement. The air pressure force from this 75-storey drop blasted the doors clear off the elevator, but astoundingly, Miss Oliver survived the plummet. Her incredible good luck is due to the coils of support cable underneath the car, which wound up and acted as a cushioning base for the elevator as it rocketed towards the ground.

One employee, Therese Fortier Willig, was in for some secretary work that Saturday and saw the plane hit and the fires rush through the building. She and some co-workers huddled in a small office on the far side of the floor, and waited for the firefighters to rescue them and walk them down the 70+ flights of stairs. Now 81 years old, Ms. Willig lived to see her son George, a toy inventor from the Bronx, climb the side of the World Trade Center’s North Tower in 1977 — he was the world-famous “Human Fly.” And 24 years after that, both witnessed the most sobering reminder yet that, with our worlds in the sky, we must always prepare for the absolutely impossible.

Matt Levy is a licensed NYC tour guide and Junior Partner of The Levys’ Unique New York!, a business he runs with his Dad  (www.vintagenytours.com);
they are proud to be the only family of licensed NYC tour guides. While
not leading tours, Matt likes long walks on the beach, kittens,
reading, writing, cooking, cooking with a certain pretty girl, dancing,
dancing with a certain pretty girl, talking, talking with a certain
pretty girl, and building tall bikes.

10/11/06 12:00am

Certain things a man does, he has no reason why. A long journey set upon that yields neither wisdom, knowledge, nor psychological benefit of any kind is a strange thing to volitionally enter into, year after year without reconsideration. I don’t understand why Pete Hoffman and I go every season to watch our Redskins play the Giants at the Meadowlands. We could do other things with our time, like drink castor oil smoothies or fall repeatedly from a high cliff onto a mine field. The aggregate score of the last two games played by the Redskins at Giants Stadium is Giants 55, Redskins 3. During those eight quarters the Giants have heaped countless abuses on the Redskins — acts of morally indefensible cruelty. Right before the end of the first half on Sunday, the Redskins force a fumble on a punt return near midfield, and a mad scramble for the loose ball ensues. It was a pivotal play in what was then still a 6-3 football game, and I had something like a clairvoyant intuition as to how it was all going to turn out. As gargantuan men pile upon one another, participants from both sides begin frantically gesturing to the officials that their team had recovered. But when the mass of humanity is finally untangled, it is Giants offensive tackle Luke Petigout with the football, and Redskin Philip Daniels laying prone and suffering, the apparent victim of a Class III felony. Pete and I exchange grim expressions, as the Redskins players gather around Daniels kneeling in solidarity.

A shrill woman in her middle 30’s sitting in the row directly behind us, attired in a homemade cheerleader’s uniform emblazoned with the Giants logo, leans forward and says significantly to Pete: “Isn’t it nice the way they pray for each other?” As the game progresses, it becomes gradually clearer that it is not football which interests her at all, but prayer. Late in the 3rd quarter when Redskins kicker John Hall pushes a 41 yard field goal wide left, she sensed the hand of God at work. Ebullient, she loudly proclaims to no one in particular: “It was headed straight through — just turned away at the very last second!” This is patently ridiculous — Hall’s aim suggested that the kick was intended to strike someone standing on the sidelines near midfield. Still, even if he had somehow made the kick I would still have refused her overture to join hands and sing Psalm 12, which I do not know the words to without the CD booklet.

Tiki Barber is certainly a good to excellent NFL running back, but it is extremely unclear to me why every time the Redskins come to play at the Meadowlands he is suddenly transformed into some kind of terrifying hybrid of Walter Payton and an armored assault vehicle. Were Barber to play every game at home against the Redskins they would have to make rule changes to keep the sport equitable. For instance, he would have to carry not a football but a live goose, and be outfitted not in cleats but in the sort of high stiletto boots favored by Jane Fonda in Klute. Maybe then he would not shrug of Redskins tacklers like a light misting rain. And what happened to the vaunted complex blitzing schemes of Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, long championed as amongst the league’s best minds and motivators? The Skins come after Eli Manning all day, sending safeties and cornerbacks from every direction, but failed to register a sack and rarely come close. After Manning sits in the pocket long enough to complete a 27 yard pass to Tim Carter just before halftime, setting up the field goal that would make the score 9-3, I can sense Pete slipping into the initial stages of a catatonic depression.

Several rows down, in the first section near the field, an exceptionally pasty, heavy set man in a Plaxico Buress jersey turns to face the crowd and began egging them on with a vigorous urgency. Despite his fidelity to the home team, he is immediately an unpopular figure and begins eliciting catcalls and insults from the other sections. “Sit down you jackass!” an elderly man two rows over from us shouts at the enthusiast with unbridled scorn, “I can’t see the game!” Visibly affronted, the pasty man grabs the shoulders of his own #17 jersey and begins aggressively shaking the article as if to say: “I am Plaxico Burress! You have no right to speak to me in this way!”

Giants Stadium is a curious venue. Amongst many patrons, vestiges of an old fashioned but very particular sort of hardscrabble East Coast fandom is distinctly in evidence. It is the ritual duty of NFC East rivals to acknowledge one another only by means of sheer belligerence, and so accordingly Pete and I, outfitted in Redskins regalia, are subject to every manner of vile mockery. Indeed, never in my life have I been made to feel so utterly assured of my physical resemblance to the patently private areas of a woman’s anatomy. And yet something in the derision feels half-hearted, almost apologetic. Some catch in their voice has me sensing that these men really do not hate me all that much for being a Redskins fan. In its purest, most unalloyed form the sort of regional hatred I am describing is something I associate with the brutal 1980’s scene at Veteran Stadium in Philadelphia, where the quasi-criminal former Eagles coach Buddy Ryan used to put out injury bounties on opposing players, and the malevolent fans robustly cheered Michael Irvin’s career ending neck fracture. But I can’t imagine Giants fans conjuring this magnitude of belligerence. I don’t even think they really want to kick my ass. Given the unseasonably warm weather, my supposition is that what they really want is a Gatorade. But at $7.50 a pop it’s a better value to shriek bellicose vulgarities to the nearest individual in burgundy and gold.

The score is now 16-3, but the deficit seems much larger. New York has just scored the first touchdown of the day and are kicking off to what appears to be an increasingly hapless and ineffectual Redskins offense. On another occasion, in another locale, 13 points would not seem an insurmountable advantage. Today everyone involved — players, coaches and attendees — seem to prepared to concede the point and head home. Just as the Giants’ Jay Feeley kicks off, the public address announcer regales the crowd with a blisteringly loud spin of “Welcome To The Jungle.” Somehow, it feels unnecessary. Certainly the Redskin players look like they have no further interest in going to “the jungle,” and likewise the Giant special teams doesn’t seem to really want to take them there. Quietly, almost imperceptibly, a deal seems to have been struck between them. “We’re playing again in eight weeks,” they seem to be saying, “let’s settle this when it’s not so hot.” A young couple seated next to us echoes this sentiment. “This game is over,” the man says, leaning into the drifting attentions of his young wife, “but this is a very good song for kickoff.” Perhaps. I’m surprised to see the Giants 300 pound backup quarterback Jared Lorenzen making an appearance on kick coverage. He looks likes like the old “Kool-Aid” man from the television advertising campaign of my childhood. I can’t believe we’re getting destroyed by the Giants again.

Few words are exchanged on the slow ride back to Port Authority. It’s been a squalid and desolate day for two desperately addicted Redskins fans and the well-known rules of post-loss engagement forbid any attempt at mitigating rationalizations at times such as these. We suck. We absolutely fucking suck. The anguish is personal and visceral. I blame the coaching staff for the game plan and the players for the execution. I blame Pete for not rooting hard enough and myself for countless failings to manifold to measure on a charter bus to midtown. As we say our sullen goodbyes at 14th Street and 7th Avenue, Pete finally breaks the hour long silence with a novel notion: “Well, maybe next year will be a night game!” Pray for me.

09/27/06 12:00am
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09/27/2006 12:00 AM |

Autumn in the city: the weather cools down and New Yorkers dress up; kids go back to school and tourists go back to the Midwest (and wherever). Fresh fruit and vegetable stands really stand out come the fall, and who can resist a fresh apple from the stacked pyramid at the local farmers market? Autumn is apple season after all, nowhere as naturally as New York. Hell, we owe our name to the fantastic fruit. But it wasn’t always so simple…

The first apple tree in North America was planted in Massachusetts by pilgrims in the early 1600s, a quarter century before the Dutch landed here in 1626. However, New York City can lay claim to the first commercial apple tree nursery, the William Prince Nursery, located in Flushing, in 1737. In 1758, a crop of Newton Pippins, probably from William Prince, was exported to London by special request of Benjamin Franklin, abroad and engaged in radical politics. This shipment across the ocean became the first exportation of fruit in North America. And in truly obscure longevity history, the oldest living apple tree in America was planted by Governor Pieter Stuyvesant in 1647, in what is today the East Village, at 13th street and 3rd avenue. The son-of-a-bitch (the tree, not Stuyvesant) was still bearing fruit until it was struck by a derailed trolley-car in 1866.

However, all this ephemera doesn’t become truly personal until it gets local: how and why our city got blessed with the nickname “The Big Apple.” It all comes down to the media. In 1924 a sports columnist for the New York Morning Telegraph named John J. FitzGerald called his racing report "Around the Big Apple." He picked up the phrase from a group of African-American horse stable hands, who were employed in the various racetracks around NYC. In the 1920s, NY was the 3rd largest horseracing town in the country: Louisville, KY (home of the Derby) was #1, New Orleans was #2, NY was #3. Because they called New Orleans the "Big Easy," because horses like apples, because the big money was here, these black stable hands referred to the city as the Big Apple, kind of like the Big Racetrack or the Big Gametown. The phrase caught on in select circles, but not with the general public.

Then in the 1930s jazz musicians started to pick up on the phrase. In the 30s, NY was the capital of the jazz world. Jazz aficionados would visit from all over the world to hop in and check out jazz hotspots in Harlem, on Swing Street (E 52nd between 6th & 5th) and in Greenwich Village. In jazz slang, “sugar” means “money.” The common refrain could be heard all over the city: “How’d you do last night?” “I made some sweet sugar.” An apple is the fruit with the highest natural sugar content. So where do you make the most sugar? In the Big Apple. This caught on slightly, and “Big Apple” lent its name to a nightclub at W 135th and 7th, a popular dance craze in the late 1930s and a film short released in 1938, all riding the wave of popularity. Cab Calloway once defined the Big Apple as “the big town, the main stem, Harlem!” But outside of the jazz scene, no one heard the phrase, and after WWII, it vanished once again.

Cut to 25 years later, the city in big trouble. From the mid 40s through the end of the 60s, 1.6 million people, mostly affluent white families, split for the suburbs and the exodus is called White Flight. In 1971, at the tail end of the Lindsay administration, Charles Gillett, the savvy President of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, conceives a strategy: convince people that NYC is best represented by an apple — juicy, plump, healthy, wholesome. Gillett probably found the phrase in an old tourism book from the 30s, then dusted it off and conquered the world with it: t-shirts, sweaters, bumper stickers, lapel pins, maps, billboards, souvenirs, etc. It took some time; we had to get through an additional 30 years of rollercoaster urban renewal. But today, New York City is among the safest large cities in the world. Try and remember all of this the next time you chomp down on a Jonas Gold or an Empire. Good for you, good for the city!

Matt Levy is a licensed NYC tour guide and Junior Partner of The Levys’ Unique New York!, a business he runs with his Dad  (www.vintagenytours.com);
they are proud to be the only family of licensed NYC tour guides. While
not leading tours, Matt likes long walks on the beach, kittens,
reading, writing, cooking, cooking with a certain pretty girl, dancing,
dancing with a certain pretty girl, talking, talking with a certain
pretty girl, and building tall bikes.