Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Bandit Love"

This crime novel by Massimo Carlotto is an easy but compelling read. If you have an airline flight and want to avoid buying four newspapers and a crappy bestseller, order this from Amazon in advance. It's well written with a good translation, crime noir as they say but the protagonist is just as the one's in Andrea Camilleri's books. In this type of fiction that means that the author reflects his own mortality and his own aging in the plight of his subjects.

It's good stuff. Plan ahead. Don't read the Cincinnati paper or something from numb nuts like James Patterson.

Once again I retract. Obviously James Patterson is a fine businessperson, and maybe just a fine person, but there is better reading out there.

Massimo Carlotto - not pretty or complicated stuff, well written, and this one is a wealth of real knowledge on the Eastern European mafia, Kosovo in particular. It is so believable to me because the center is Pec, a town in Kosovo that I wandered into in 1971. When my two Georgetown friends and I drove into the town on a dirt road all of the children seemed to celebrate, the atmosphere was friendly, the area was destitute. It was like a parade coming in, kids and young adults patting our Renualt 4 and cheering. Our hotel plumbing system consisted of trenches down the hallways, turds passing by. That's the truth. We played spades and drank whatever home brew licorice liquor they served there. The people looked tough there, but we were unusual enough to be safe or one of my barrel chested friends looked tough enough to give second thoughts(RIP Dickie). We had been lost on dirt roads from Maceondia, had wandered into or near Albania, through gypsy tent camps, driving near one lane precipices, too near. We took a two day rest.

Carlotto cannot be far off. This is good bandit territory. The U.S. supported the establishment of the most powerful drug mafia in Europe. Serbia was evil, but there were not saints in the former Yugoslavia.

try this book.

"Jazz on a Summer's Day"

This 1958 documentary is a must see for music fans. Perhaps, dear reader, you already know that. It reminded me of my first visit to the New Orleans Jazzfest in 1978 when the crowds were not crowds, just loose groups of people congregating into an audience of music lovers. The Chuck Berry and Mahalia Jackson performances are unrepeatable film, Louis Armstrong is exceptional, Thelomious Monk starts things off, this preppy celebration is superb, beatniks with money from the Ivys having their good time.

Forget that editorial comment. This is great music. People who appreciate great music are my kind of people.

Monday, January 17, 2011

"The Snakehead"

"The Snakehead", subtitled "an epic tale of the Chinatown underworld and the American dream" by Patrick Radden Keefe, is great journalism. The drama surrounding and story behind the Golden Venture crash in the Rockaways back in 1993 is riveting stuff. The history of Chinatown tongs, snakeheads, gangsters, and strivers is interesting as well. The examination of the motives, plight, and legal challenges of desperate illegal immigrants who risk everything to chase the "American dream" is thorough and informative. Sister Ping is, in a way, New York Chinatown personified.

Familiarity with most of the nooks and crannys of the New York neighborhoods described was a hook as well as some experience with the culture Chinatown culture. That made the book especially compelling here but this reporting is the best kind of non-fiction, the kind that most fiction, certainly no crime fiction, cannot be viewed as a viable competitor for reader attention.

Everything about this book rings true. The truth is fascinating.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Another day in Manhattan

Politics are so touchy these days and the financial markets will go up until there is some seismic economic or geopolitical event that destroys the mood. The day to day rules. Another day in Manhattan follows, with observations whose intent is unknown, something to write about.

Off into the cold this morning on the LIRR. The first mission is to deliver my home- made beef and vegetable soup to my invalid in-laws and the previously mentioned Marron Glacés to the faux aunt and have a visit with all. The R is not in service so took the Q down to Canal and walked to over to Lafayette and through Columbus Park on the west edge of Chinatown.

In Columbus Park, at 10 in the morning at 20 degrees, four of the six picnic tables are taken by active card games, a felt spread on the tables and a crowd around in puffy jackets. I would guess that they are not playing for peanuts. That's why Las Vegas Sands(LVS) at $2.49 was the best and most confident buy here in the downturn why the biggest regret is recommending WYNN here at $15 and then not buying it myself when it got away quickly. The investments in Macau and Singapore by those firms represent a cultural understanding, represented by the freezing groups in Columbus Park early this morning.

Out of Columbus Park onto lower Mulberry and the block of funeral homes - there is a funeral procession of cars lining up, led by a current fine Cadillac cut down like an El Camino of the 60's(a car with a truck bay) with a board of flowers mounted standing upright behind the cab and then the bay of the truck filled with colorful flowers of all types. This was the lead car, followed by the hearse car and then maybe eight limousines with family and friends. Quite a display for an important man in the neighborhood no doubt.

Arrived at my destination, delivered my goods to the caretakers, and sat for awhile, watching some silly Robin Williams movie with my mute father-in-law, holding his hand. It's perhaps the easiest and most productive part of my day. There are no judgements and no measurements. You go on your senses. It seems right.

Afterwards it's to Big Wong for some take-out for the evening. The carney barker take-out guy is in full voice, shouting out orders and giving candy to every child and young adult in sight. I do not get candy. Ordering up some bok choy with garlic, tofu in garlic with mixed vegetables, hot peppers and noodles with grilled beef chow fun, and pork and shrimp dumplings, I wait my turn and head out with this great and inexpensive food.

Then I'm off to J. Crew mens shop on Broadway three blocks above Canal to return a pair of khaki slacks that I had bought last week. When I tried them on at the store they seemed to fit perfectly, but when I got home and showed K I felt like Pete in MadMen. I wear jeans almost solely and anything that even tries to cut a different or younger look doesn't work. They took them back effortlessly and the sales girl said, on my explanation, that "there is no redeeming quality in Pete".

Continuing my day I looked in a few Broadway stores, notably Topman, but could find nothing of interest. In fact it seemed as if some of the clothes were designed for one or two wears, style stuff for guys, then toss it. That's not me in the extreme. Most of my clothes are easily ten years old or much more, and that's fine.

Kept walking over to Lafayette looking for lunch and I passed Select and Morina and a couple of other places that looked too tedious for my mood so headed over to the NoLita part of Mulberry and found Balaboosta, a new Mediterranean spot with a slant towards North Africa and the Levant. Had a Tunisian sandwich with egg, tuna, lemon rind, potato and other stuff, but coveted the lamb burger with goat cheese and watercress that my table neighbor had. It is an attractive little place.

From there it seemed as if I should head home but not before a stop at McNally Jackson Bookstore, which is no doubt now the best independent bookstore in Manhattan there at 52 Prince. With a wide and well organized selection, a little coffee and sandwich shop inside, the best magazine and periodical section around, and an alert staff, the few older good independents on the upper east and west sides really can't compare. They can be unintentionally snooty, M&J is not at all, and there's as much going on in the way of quality presentations(stress quality) as at a flagship Barnes and Nobles. I find an obscure Italian noir crime mystery to try and buy, and note a few other books for Amazon consideration, I hate to admit that.

Finally it's off to the LIRR where this weekend the big guns are no longer out on the cops and soldiers for the first time in a month. That calls for a chocolate and vanilla swirl frozen yogurt and a Saturday Barron's, both teases that are pleasurable in the moment.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Barney Greengrass and Willie McCovey

Walking up Amsterdam Ave. this afternoon around 87th Street, I passed Barney Greengrass, the iconic deli that is generally viewed as having the best smoked sturgeon, salmon, and whitefish in New York City, which probably means in the United States.

Stopping, I looked into the two windows to see a plain set of deli counters and formica tables with the most functional of chairs. The display in the windows themselves was what caught my eye. The right window was full of family photos from 1908 on I guess, a history of Barney Greengrass, from Barney the father, to Moe the son, and now run by Gary the grandson. The left window was one of newspaper clippings, reviews, awards, and other notices like their annual Zagat rating, at one time as high as 27. The one exception to this whole display of Barney Greengrass memorabilia was a big photograph of Willie McCovey in the lower right corner of the left window. Now that caught my attention. I wonder if Willie is at Katz's too. What's the story here.

Willie McCovey of course was the famous baseball player and power hitter for the San Francisco Giants who was voted into Cooperstown on his first year of eligibility in 1986. He played for the hometown Danville Leafs single A minor league team in the Carolina League for a full year in, I think, 1957. Believe it or not, I can remember hanging over the dugout in a pre-game warm-up, Nehi orange soda in hand, and yelling "hit a home run Willie", and in his first at bat he hooked a line drive down the right field line, home run. I was, instantly, a fan for life. There's a big picture of Willie in my basement ping pong room.

Looking into the store and at the photos, it was obvious that sitting at a table going through the receipts for the day was the current owner Gary, who looked like Moe, who looked like Barney. I had to ask the obvious question and walked in, introduced myself with an apology for interrupting his work, explained my curiosity.

The answer, "He likes our sturgeon." That's it, I obviously thought with a blank stare. Gary continued, "Somebody introduced him to our store when he was in town sometime back in the '60's and he kept coming back. He still calls from time to time and I overnight him a shipment."

So that's the story of the Sturgeon King(Barney's moniker in New York) and Stretch McCovey, namesake of McCovey Cove in San Francisco, and for one summer a resident of Danville, Virginia.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Experiencing a Marrons Glacés

Shopping for stocking stuffers at Dean and DeLuca, there was a big stack of handsome of 12" by 6" little wooden boxes stamped in large letters "Marrons Glacés" with smaller letters below "Tradition France, depuis 1896", at least for this producer since they were mentioned in some literature prior to that.

Having never experienced this festive French delicacy, it was a why not, stick it under the tree and we can all try it. At the time of purchase I knew that it was some kind of candied chestnut but I somehow assumed that, for the price, there must be some sort of chocolate associated with it. There was not. It is a chestnut cooked in slightly vanilla spiced sugar syrup in copper pots, slowly stirred for a long time, until the syrup completely permeates the chestnut.

I was the first and, so far, only one to try one. My wife has apparently tried one in the past and remained silent. To justify the price, getting to the delicacies was a chore, with multiple levels of packaging, a Russian wooden doll came to mind. Finally there I peeled back the thick foil wrapper and found what looked like a little brain. Taking a bite, it somehow had a moderately firm but characterless texture. It was sweet but not disgustingly so, it was earthy tasting but not overwhelming so, it was incredibly heavy from the outset. Potato chips have nothing to fear.

Within just a few minutes I felt the potential for gout to set in. My wife has a non-related auntie in not so good health who adores Marron Glacés, and she will soon be getting a nicely wrapped package for Chinese New Year. I hope that she survives.

The Ebony Hillbillies

A few days ago on the Shuttle subway platform at Grand Central I was introduced to The Ebony Hillbillies. With trains coming in and out constantly, the Shuttle area is a place that almost everyone moves through quickly, looking to make a connection on one side of town or the other. Apart from that negative for buskers, it's also a great space as far as subway platforms go.

Relative to most performers, The Ebony Hillbillies were stopping a few people in their tracks and getting lots of dollars on the fly. They are superb entertainers and musicians. More importantly, they make people stop and smile. They smile. They are a cut above most of the buskers, even really good ones. It's like that experience of going to a club to see a headliner and the opening act turns out to be really good. That's until the main act comes on and there is no comparison - it's an unmistakeably different level of talent.

I bought a CD from the fiddle case and Googled them when I got home. They've played at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and this past June played at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. They also played at the Halifax County Fair near Danville in October, and here they are in the subway. CD's great, they are the real thing, what a treat.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Thank you Sheriff Dupnik

The comments by Puma County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik yesterday were unexpected. The horrible events were still being digested, and everyone in the news media and the political world was either dancing around or working to deny an important issue. Sheriff Dupnik, in a polite and straightforward manner, finally said what needed to said, the truth of the matter.

In his words, "the anger, hatred, and bigotry that goes on in this country has become outrageous" and that it is led by the "vitriolic rhetoric" by those "in the radio and t.v. business". He was too much of a gentleman, I guess, to mention the names of any prominent politicians.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Laptop larceny

A statistic in the WSJ yesterday was startling. An article on cloud computing, promoting the virtues of remote storage, stated "One study found that some 10,278 laptops are reported "lost" every week at 36 of the largest U.S. airports, subjecting companies to embarrassment and financial risk if important information is exposed."

No kidding. What was startling though was that number. If accurate, that means that well over a half million laptops are stolen or lost each year at the major airports. Add all other U.S. airports and the tendency of airlines and airports to minimize any loss, and the number could conceivevably be much higher.

It came as no surprise as I thought about the process of going through security. Give up your laptop, separately and out of a case, take off your shoes, your belt, anything in your pockets, get zapped and possibly frisked, and think about where your laptop is the entire time. It's a feast for agile thieves and any conspiring low wage screeners, either at the checkpoint or shortly after leaving as the discompulated traveler reorganizes.

What an enormous loss of property given the cost of laptops and what a huge opportunity for organized crime or just savvy lone hackers to make one's life miserable in a way that could be immeasurably greater than the immediate monetary loss.

Guess that this is just another tale from the annals of the evolution of the United States back to the structural and cultural model of an emerging market.