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Flatbush Flashback

Death of a Salesman

 

In the summer of 1967, when I was 15, my "Uncle Paul," as I call him in Bobby in Naziland, took me on the road to make a few sales calls with him—an adventure I'd been looking forward to since school ended. He worked for Highlander, a women's suede and leather coat manufacturer. His territory was upstate New York.

 

One afternoon we were in a women's clothing store in Utica (or maybe Rome), in the buyer's office, sitting opposite his desk. Paul introduced me as his nephew and launched into his sales pitch, about fall's hot new suede fashions, which, if stained, could be easily cleaned with an ordinary pencil eraser—that was, supposedly, a big selling point.

 

The buyer—pudgy, middle-aged, and with a receding hairline—was resistant. There was too much inventory, he said. Other Highlander coats weren't selling as expected.

 

Had I been in my uncle's chic Italian size-nine loafers, I'd have given up then. I thought there was no chance the buyer was going to buy. I was ready to leave.

 

But my uncle kept pressing him, charming him with jokes about Cary Grant, stories about women and deep-sea fishing, wearing him down, veritably seducing him. By the time he was through, the buyer had agreed to buy 10,000 dollars' worth of suede coats, and my uncle had earned a 15 percent commission.

 

The buyer then looked at me and asked, "Do you know that your uncle's the greatest salesman in the world?"

 

"Yes," I said, swelling with pride, amazed at the turnaround I'd just witnessed. I thought that I, too, might want to be a salesman.

 

You won't find the above story in Bobby in Naziland. It occurred outside the book's time frame. But you will find other stories about my uncle. Some are not flattering, but all are true. What I wrote in the book about "Uncle Paul" was my way of coming to terms with a difficult relationship with an uncle who was like my older brother when I was a kid. I worshipped him because he was living proof that it was possible to escape from the kind of life I felt trapped in. With his salesmanship skills and "winning personality," he'd escaped from a similar life. My uncle represented everything a lower-middle-class kid might dream about: money, success, expensive cars, and exotic travel.

 

When I was 19, and in the throes of rebelling against everything, my illusions about my uncle fell away. I saw him for who he was—the deeply flawed man I'd write about in Bobby in Naziland. I was so angry at him, for reasons I won't go into here, I stopped talking to him; I cut him out of my life.

 

As I matured and became more accepting of people and their flaws, we reconciled to a degree. We talked and spent time together.

 

I'm writing this now because on July 20, my uncle, 81, died from Covid-19 in a Florida nursing home. I'd last spoken to him several months ago. He was unhappy with where life had ultimately taken him, and I'd gotten the feeling that he didn't want to talk, that there was nothing more to say.

 

Due to the pandemic, there was no funeral. So I sit here, in New York, sorting out a spectrum of emotions and memories accumulated over a lifetime. I prefer to dwell on the positive.

 

My earliest memories of my uncle are from 1956. He was a starting offensive guard on Brooklyn's James Madison High School football team, and my parents took me to games to watch him play, though I could never seem to pick him out on the field. His football career ended when he tore up his knee. I can picture him in an autograph-covered cast, recuperating on a green couch in my grandmother's living room.

 

When I was older, he sometimes took me deep-sea fishing, for blues, fluke, flounder, and porgies, on the charter boats at Sheepshead Bay. "Let's cut a slice of life," he'd say, as we set sail. Fishing was another thing he excelled at, and he was passionate about it. There were days, especially when we went for blues, when he was the only one on the boat who caught a fish. He once took me to Montauk to go cod fishing. It was my best fishing day ever. You dropped your line in the water and out came a fish. We caught hundreds of pounds of cod between us, which we gave away, except for a couple of fish we took home for our mothers to cook.

 

Also when I was 15, he took me on my first airplane ride, to Cleveland. He had to go there to pick up his car, a silver Cadillac, which he'd left in a parking lot when he had to fly back to New York for an emergency. He wanted me to keep him company on the drive home. Riding on a jet plane and spending an entire day with my uncle, traveling 465 miles in his Cadillac, was the most thrilling thing I'd done at that point in my life.

 

He took me to Ranger hockey games at Madison Square Garden and Titan football games at the Polo Grounds. We spent afternoons cruising around in his other car, an MG convertible, which was almost as exciting as flying in a jet. And he turned me on to the Beatles "White Album," though I don't think he ever got past side one.

 

My uncle might have been a salesman, but he was no Willy Loman. If anything he was more akin to an honorary member of the Rat Pack.

 

I hope what I've written will provide some comfort to those who knew him by his real name.

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it again.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

 

 

 

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Name That Year: July 27 Edition

 

July 27 is my birthday and it'll be here before you know it. It's also fellow Brooklynite Bugs Bunny's birthday, though he's considerably older. (He was born in a rabbit warren under Ebbets Field.)

 

I'm not going to say how old I'll be because that will make me feel older than I am (and older than I feel). But the information's out there. You can look it up.

 

Or you can read the list, below, of nine newsworthy events, which I've compiled from a chapter in Bobby in Naziland. Everything on the list took place in a 12-hour period, from 8:30 p.m., July 26, to 8:30 a.m., July 27. See if you can guess the year. The answer is in the UFO video at the end of the post.

 

  · Eva Perón—"Evita"—the first lady of Argentina, died, at age 33.

 

  · Objects unknown—UFOs—traveling at speeds between 100 and 7,000 miles per hour, buzzed Washington, D.C.

 

  · The stock market reached a 22-year high.

 

  · King Farouk of Egypt was deposed in a bloodless coup.

 

  · A woman flying Pan American airlines, from Rio de Janeiro to Rome, was sucked out of the plane off the coast of Brazil when the emergency door popped open.

 

  · U.S. B-29s bombed North Korea's electrical power grid.

 

  · At the Summer Olympic Games, in Helsinki, Bob Mathias broke his own world record for the decathlon.

 

  · The New York Yankees were in first place in the American League, and the Brooklyn Dodgers were in first place in the National League.

 

  · Cleveland Indians third baseman Al Rosen was leading the American League with 18 home runs, 4 more than Mickey Mantle of the Yankees.

 

 

Bugs Bunny's July 27, 1940, debut. If you're of a certain age, you've seen it many times.

 

One of the multitude of UFO sightings that occurred during the month of July, many years ago. Find the answer to the "quiz" in this video.

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it again.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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How Hot Was It?

 

"She always began with the heat wave that baked New York City that July. 'It was 95 degrees every day,' she'd say. 'Some days it hit a hundred. And we didn't even have an air conditioner. Do you have any idea how uncomfortable it was to be nine months pregnant in that miserable little apartment?'" —from Bobby in Naziland

 

The heat wave of 1952 began on June 26, when the temperature in New York City hit 100 degrees. It continued throughout July. The "she" in the above excerpt is my mother, and her meteorological memories of the days surrounding my birth, amidst a frenzy of UFO sightings, are accurate.

 

  · July 14–23, 1952, was the hottest 10-day stretch in New York's recorded weather history, dating back to 1871.

 

  · July 1952 was the hottest calendar month the city had ever endured.

 

The first four summers of my life, 1952–55, were the hottest four consecutive summers on record in New York; the temperature went above 95 degrees on 41 different days. And I was in Brooklyn for all of them.

 

Somehow, we got through those heat waves without air conditioning. I didn't know anybody who had an air conditioner, in part because a 5,500 BTU machine, in the mid-1950s, cost about $350, the equivalent of $3,386 today. But money was beside the point. The building I lived in and most of the other buildings in the neighborhood, constructed in the 1920s and 30s, weren't wired for air conditioning. Flatbushians could only dream of air-conditioned apartments.

 

I can picture myself, age six or seven, lying in bed, coated in sweat and trying to fall asleep on a sweltering night. On the floor next to the bed is a little spluttering fan tilted upward, its breeze wafting over my body and doing almost no good at all. How I longed for a moment of coolness.

 

In those ancient days, if you couldn't afford to escape to the Catskills for the summer, you cooled off at the beach, at a public swimming pool, or in an air-conditioned movie theatre, probably on Flatbush Avenue.

 

These days, I'm fortunate to be sitting in a large room cooled by a 12,000 BTU Frigidaire AC. And that's a good thing—because, out of an excess of caution, I wouldn't consider going to a beach or pool, and New York movie theatres remain closed.

 

So I'm staying right where I've been for the past four months. It's safe here, and there are books to be written and books to be read. Summer, after all, is a good time to catch up on your reading. And if you're reading this blog, you might also want to pick up Bobby in Naziland, if you haven't done so already. It may be just the cure for the summertime blues, despite what Eddie Cochran sang in the long, hot summer of 1958.

 

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you really should buy it.

 

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No Asterisk for Maury Wills

 

"With the transistor radio pressed to my ear, I can feel the electricity of 25,000 people in Dodger Stadium and a million more who are tuned in coast-to-coast. I can feel it pouring into Maury Wills, surging through his body. The Dodger infielder, having drawn yet another walk against the Chicago Cubs, takes a huge lead off first base, and the frenzied L.A. crowd, knowing he's feeding off their energy, is on its feet, chanting 'Go, Maury, go!' willing him to fly, to again steal second, now only 80 feet away." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

In the summer of 1962, I listened to a lot of baseball on a transistor radio my parents had given me for my birthday. Mostly I tuned in to the Yankees, the reigning World Series champs. Since the Brooklyn Dodgers had split for L.A., in 1957, I'd become a Bronx Bomber fan. There was no choice, really. I never understood how anybody could root for the Mets, the "lovable losers" created out of thin air, in 1962, to replace the irreplaceable Dodgers.

 

When the Yankees had a day off, I'd listen to a Dodger game if I could find one. Of course it bothered me that "dem bums" had moved 2,500 miles away, but fellow Brooklyn Jew Sandy Koufax was still a Dodger, so I felt a connection to "dem," though Koufax had been injured in July and was out for the rest of the season.

 

Even without Koufax, the Dodgers were a thrilling team—thanks to Maury Wills, a player I could relate to, despite his lack of Jewishness. Unlike my Yankee idols, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, who blasted baseballs into the bleachers, Wills, a 5-foot-10-inch, 160-pound infielder, who never hit more than six home runs in a season, got by on pure speed. I, too, was a fast runner and I devoted a significant portion of my childhood to trying to figure out how to apply my speed to baseball, even though my hitting abilities were akin to those of Gus Bell, the Mets right fielder, who finished the '62 season batting a hefty .149. If I could just find a way to get on base, I thought that I could be like Maury Wills.

 

With Wills providing the spark, the Dodgers were locked in a life-and-death struggle for the National League pennant with those other New York deserters, the San Francisco Giants, with the winner gaining the right to lose the World Series to the invincible Yankees.

 

Hanging out in front of my house or wandering around the neighborhood, I'd listen to Dodger games, the voice of Vin Scully transporting me to distant ballparks where I'd become one with the crowd, urging Wills to get on base and make something happen—and just about every time he came to bat, something did happen.

 

Though hitting an unspectacular .299, Wills's blazing speed forced errors, turned routine ground balls into singles, and turned walks into triples. His on-base percentage was .347, and every time he got on base, everybody watching or listening to the game knew he was going to try to steal—second, third, and sometimes home. There was little anybody could do to stop him. In 117 attempts, he was thrown out stealing only 13 times—8 of those times on hit-and-run plays when the batter didn't hit the ball. No team's entire roster had more steals than Maury Wills alone. The Washington Senators came closest, with 99.

 

Wills stole his 96th and 97th bases, tying and breaking Ty Cobb's record of 96 steals, which had stood for 47 years, in the 156th game of the season, on September 23, 1962, in a 12–2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. (No asterisk for Maury!)

 

The Dodgers and Giants both won 100 games, finishing tied for first place and forcing a three-game playoff series. On October 3, in the seventh inning of game three, Wills stole his final base of the season—number 104.

 

But the Giants pulled the game out—1951 déjà vu all over again!!!—and went on to lose the World Series to the Yankees.

 

I watched game seven on TV, a 1–0 nail-biter at Candlestick Park. The game ended as Willie McCovey lined out hard to second baseman Bobby Richardson, with the tying and winning runs on second and third base.

 

Somewhere Maury Wills, the National League MVP—Willie Mays of the Giants, batting .304, with 49 home runs and 141 RBIs, finished second in the balloting—was watching, too.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can buy it again).

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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40 Sacred, Scruffy Acres

 

"Once I was allowed to cross Caton Avenue on my own, I could play baseball anytime I wanted, though not terribly well, on the sacred, scruffy sandlots of the Parade Grounds." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

The official name has always been Parade Ground, but nobody called it that. Today, these 40 acres of ball fields, unrecognizable to my eye, are partitioned with fences and covered with artificial turf. A sign over one of the entrances confirms the official name, so maybe modern-day Flatbushians call it Parade Ground.

 

Fifty-five years ago, when I lived a half block away, on East 17th Street, everybody called it the Parade Grounds, plural, and there were no signs indicating otherwise. To say "Parade Ground" doesn't sound right to me and never will.

 

It was a wide-open space and there was no artificial turf, either. Astroturf, as it was first called, didn't exist. The Parade Grounds were, as the above excerpt says, a collection of dusty, scruffy, unmanicured baseball fields. Blades of grass were few and far between. When you played ball there, especially in the summer, you'd return home covered in gritty red clay.

 

Come autumn, combination football goalposts and soccer goals appeared, and gridirons were marked off. Though somebody must have played soccer there, I never saw anyone do it and I didn't know anyone who did. The Parade Grounds were for baseball and football because that was the American Way.

 

And the grounds were sacred, especially if you were Jewish and loved baseball, as most of us were and did. The Parade Grounds were where Jewish, Brooklyn-born Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, of Lafayette High School, learned to throw his unhittable curve ball before joining the Brooklyn (soon-to-be LA) Dodgers.

 

In the above photo, taken in 1928 from a rooftop near Coney Island Avenue, the Parade Grounds look similar to the way they were in the 1950s and 1960s. The corner of Caton Avenue and Stratford Road is behind the trees on the upper right, and Parade Place, which turned into East 17th Street when you crossed Caton Avenue, is at the upper left.

 

The number of times I crossed Caton Avenue with either a baseball mitt or football tucked under my arm is incalculable.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it again.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

 

 

 

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