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The Weekly Blague

My Great-Uncle Robert


The Spanish Civil War was the opening act of World War II. From 1936 to 1939, Spain's democratically elected leftist Republican government fought fascist rebels, known as Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco (still dead) and backed by Adolf Hitler, of Nazi Germany, who saw the conflict as an opportunity to test his weapons of war. Volunteers from many countries joined the XV International Brigade to fight alongside the Republicans. British writer George Orwell was perhaps the best known volunteer, and he documented his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. American volunteers joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and one of them was my great-uncle Robert Rubin Weber.


I knew little about my mother's uncle when I was growing up, other than that he was an "adventurer" declared missing in action in the Spanish Civil War and presumed dead and that I was named after him in the Jewish tradition of naming babies after deceased family members. Sixty-five years later, as I was writing A Brooklyn Memoir, I asked my mother if she could tell me anything more about her uncle. The only thing she remembered is that after a trip to the South Seas, he brought her back a coconut carved into the shape of a woman. He'd disappeared when she was 11. I'd never even seen a picture of him; nobody in the family had one.


As A Brooklyn Memoir was going to press, in 2019, I continued searching for additional information about Robert Weber and stumbled upon a page devoted to him in NYU's Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). I'd been spelling his name wrong. My mother finally told me that my grandfather had inserted an extra "b" into Weber to make it sound "less German." My grandfather and his wife and children were Webber.


I was 67 years old before I saw a photo of the person I was named after.



My great-uncle Robert Weber's passport photo. He was killed in action at the Battle of Gandesa, in Spain.


Robert Rubin Weber was born September 12, 1903, in Lomya, Russia, now part of Poland. He arrived in the US a month before his eighth birthday and became a naturalized citizen. His father, my great-grandfather, was Jacob Weber, who was born in Russia and died in 1935. Robert was a grocer like his older brother, my grandfather. The address listed on his passport, 442 West 23rd Street, in New York City, was most likely a rooming house at the time. He sailed for Europe aboard the Aquitania on January 12, 1938, landed in Spain on January 23, and served with the XV International Brigade, Lincoln-Washington Battalion (known as the Lincoln Brigade), rank soldado. Reported missing in action in March 1938, near Gandesa, as the International Brigade retreated from a fascist onslaught, he's now listed as killed in action.


I bring all this up because I was walking on LaGuardia Place a few weeks ago and was surprised to see an artistically striking selection of Spanish Civil War posters displayed in the NYU Kimmel Windows, a block south of Washington Square Park. The exhibition, which will remain on display until September 15, was co-curated by Miriam Basilio Gaztambide, an associate professor of art history and museum studies; Danielle Nista, an assistant university archivist; and several students. The posters got me thinking about my great-uncle again, and how I'd so recently come to learn anything about him, and how amazing it now seems that 85 years ago a member of my family, who'd probably never picked up a rifle, volunteered to go to war against fascism for a country that was not his own.


Tomorrow is my birthday, and, on this blog, I'm celebrating today and in weeks to come by remembering the man I was named after and the righteous cause he fought and died for.


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The Fat Man

Byron Nilsson as Sydney Greenstreet in his one-man show, The Fat Man. Photo by John Romeo.


Longtime readers of this blog, especially those who've attended my New York City events, will recognize Byron Nilsson as the MC. He's performed that duty three times, most recently in December 2019 for the launch of Bobby in Naziland (since retitled A Brooklyn Memoir). Soon after that event, a pandemic put the world into a state of suspended animation and brought public gatherings to a halt.


Now that Covid 19 has eased, I've stuck my toe back into the waters of society, and last weekend my wife and I ventured into the hamlet of Glen, in Upstate New York, to visit Byron and his wife, Susan Whiteman, now an elected member of the town council. The occasion was the premiere of a one-man show that Byron wrote and stars in, The Fat Man: An Audience With Sydney Greenstreet.


One of the advantages of living in a town like Glen, nestled amid farmland in the Mohawk Valley, and with a significant Amish population rolling by in horse-drawn buggies (as if the 20th century never happened), is that it gave Byron, as a member of an organization called the Glen Conservancy, the opportunity to acquire an old church building across the street from his house and turn it into Glen Conservancy Hall, a performance space featuring an eclectic program of music and theatre. This is where Byron debuted The Fat Man, on July 15.


Best known for his roles as Kasper Gutman, aka The Fat Man, in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Signor Ferrari in Casablanca (1942), Greenstreet, who played opposite such iconic figures as Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, was a man of great appetites who weighed as much as 350 pounds, and whose size was an essential element of his characters. Byron, too, has struggled with his weight and has a profound understanding of and sympathy for Greenstreet's battle with his waistline. This was his inspiration for writing and performing The Fat Man.


The play is set in 1949, in Greestreet's Los Angeles home. The actor, in ill health (he'd die in 1954, age 74) and near the end of his career, is expecting John Huston to join him for dinner and offer him a part in The African Queen, the movie Huston is about to film. The director is late, and as he waits—Waiting for Huston—Greenstreet sips tea, eats shortbread, drinks whiskey, and talks about his career, marriage, and weight. He grows increasingly tense and berates his housekeeper on the telephone; she's supposed to be there already to cook lamb chops for dinner. There are some funny bits, such as Greenstreet's impression of Lionel Barrymore, in a wheelchair, sputtering angrily, and an anecdote he tells about having played "a Negro jockey." "You don't believe I played a Negro jockey?" he says. "I was smaller then."


Byron has created for himself the role of a lifetime. To say that he inhabits Greenstreet would be an understatement. Skillfully directed by David Baecker, The Fat Man is a show that deserves to reach an audience well beyond Glen Conservancy Hall. I can only hope that it does, and soon.


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What's in a Name?


I launched this blog February 10, 2010, with an announcement that the Italian edition of my John Lennon biography, Nowhere Man, was going to be published by Coniglio Editore, and that I was going to celebrate with a pizza and a bottle of Chianti. I don't remember what I called the blog back then. I changed the name every few weeks. I do know that over the past 13 years and 5 months, as I posted sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, and sometimes monthly, I changed the name many more times.


If you logged on here four days ago, I was calling the blog "Flatbush Flashback," a reference to my most recent book, A Brooklyn Memoir. The blog served as an illustrated postscript to what I'd written about my old neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s. Before that, my posts about Beaver Street were an addendum to my analysis of the political, technical, and sociological ramifications of the pornography industry. I called the blog "The Daily Beaver." Scroll down the left-hand column (on a computer) and you'll see a list of all the other topics I've written about since 2010.


Lately I've been writing about whatever catches my interest on any particular day. So, if you've tuned in recently, you've read about legal cannabis in New York City, a 350-year-old tree in Washington Square Park, tenement buildings (which did, coincidentally, touch on Flatbush), and a visit to Uvalde, Texas, on the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.


It was time to change the name of the blog.


I stole "The Weekly Blague" from an Agatha Christie book I've been reading. There's a reference in Death on the Nile to a gossip column in a newspaper called the Daily Blague. The name made me laugh. I looked it up and was surprised to see that "blague" is a real word, though a bit archaic. I'm not going to tell you what it means, but I will say I'm using it ironically.


I don't know how long I'm going to keep that name. But for the time being, I am going to keep posting to The Weekly Blague about whatever's on my mind.


Conventional wisdom has it that people no longer read blogs, that they're very 2010, that readers want only microposts on social media. I don't buy it. A good blog is no different than a good newspaper. If you write about things people want to read, they'll find it. This blog has proven that many times.


Welcome to The Weekly Blague, however long it may last.


All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.


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The Unlicensed Cannabis Dispensary

I've been getting enough smoke in my lungs breathing New York City air. So I decided it was time to take advantage of legal cannabis and buy some edibles. Since marijuana was legalized here two years ago, so many dispensaries have opened that if you live in Manhattan, you don't have to walk more than a block or two to find one. The problem is that most of them are unlicensed, and you can't be certain of the potency or purity of their products. And the handful of licensed dispensaries charge a premium, sometimes two or three times what you'd pay for the same thing in a licensed dispensary in, say, Arizona.


Being the frugal sort, I figured I'd take a chance, save a few bucks, and check out an unlicensed dispensary on Hester Street that had caught my eye. How bad could it be? So I went to Smokers Paradise 2, hoping to score some brownies or cookies. There were two guys behind the counter, neither of whom spoke English very well. Considering it was my first time buying legally, the product was a drug, and I had questions, I should have walked out. But I was able to establish that all they had in the way of edibles was a wide selection of gummies. For no particular reason I chose Jolly Rancher. They were manufactured in Canada, and the entire package, according to the label, contained 600 mg of THC. The proprietor was, with some difficulty, able to communicate that one gummy was equal to one dose. The package was $20.80. I was able to pay with a credit card, which surprised me. I thought cannabis transactions were cash only.


There were seven gummies in the package. That meant that each one should contain about 85.7 mg of THC, more than enough to send me into orbit. (A standard dose is 10 mg, but I have a high tolerance.)


I ate one gummy and waited three hours. Nothing happened.


The next day I ate two gummies and waited three hours. Nothing happened. 


The next day I ate the last four gummies, allegedly 342.8 mg of THC, and waited three hours. Nothing happened.


Smokers Paradise 2 had sold me some very overpriced candy. It's the first time in my life I've been ripped off buying marijuana, and I've been buying it since high school. But I'm not going to get into an argument with the manager of a rip-off store. And I'm not going to tell Mastercard that I want a refund because the THC gummies I bought at an unlicensed dispensary didn't get me high. I'm just going to write it off as a research expense.


Next time I'll go to a licensed dispensary. Maybe they'll have brownies.


All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.


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


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