Composing Sticks, Pied Type and Despair

H.B. Rouse and Company's Composing Stick

H.B. Rouse and Company’s Composing Stick

This is a photograph of me holding a composing stick, circa 2015. If you know what this is, chances are that you’re…ahem, getting on a bit.

I first held one around 1965. I was thirteen and in seventh grade, and for students that weren’t considered college bound, most high schools offered Industrial Arts classes. The guys called them Shop.

As an introduction, we were offered a sampling of classes that were broken down by quarter. There was Metal Shop, where I made a cool, tear-drop shaped ash tray that I texturized with a ball peen hammer.

In Mechanical Drawing I learned how to develop a three-view drawing, which shows the front, top and right-side view of an object. We drew blocks of wood with holes drilled in them, and a lot of attention was paid to how precise our lettering was.

In Wood Shop I made a spice rack with a little drawer, which I proudly gave to my Mom even though she did not bake. Still, she thought it was beautiful — and in a way, it was.

But I was especially interested in Print Shop, because a couple of my uncles were printers who worked in New York City and were proud union members who were said to make good livings. I had intentions of following them into the business, so it made sense to learn whatever I could about the trade.

It was there that I learned that a composing stick is used to set type. The Chinese were doing something like it around 1040 A.D., but it is  Johannes Gutenberg who is credited with refining the technology and popularizing it in Europe around 1439.

Everything about raised or relief printing is physical and by today’s standards woefully clunky. Each letter is cast from a special, metal alloy, composed primarily of lead with a little tin and antimony mixed in. It is actually this special alloy that was one of Gutenberg’s major contributions. Word and line spaces (called leading) are made from the same material, and are measured in arcane units called ems and ens and picas.

These are arranged in a shallow drawer that is divided into separate compartments for each letter or space, and is called a California Job Case. Everything is arranged in a maddeningly illogical manner. The compartments vary in size (supposedly in relation to how frequently a letter is used), and though we were taught long-forgotten mnemonics to help us remember where everything was, finding each piece of type was tedious and time consuming.

To begin setting type, the column width is first set by adjusting the movable portion of the composing stick. This is the smaller, triangular piece that has a lever that when pressed down, snaps it into the stick. A piece of leading is put at the base and then single pieces of type are placed, one after another, left to right. To insure proper orientation, one has to make sure the notches on the type are always facing upward.

When a line is pretty much filled, it’s time to justify it. This is done by inserting additional spaces between each word until everything is snug between each side of the stick. If it isn’t snug pieces will fall out later, which usually means having to start over.

When a line is justified, another piece of leading is added on top and the process is repeated until the stick is full. At that point, the type is transferred to a flat metal sheet called a galley where ink is rollered onto the raised letters, paper is placed on top of them and a proof is struck. If mistakes are found, tweezers are used to pull out and replace letters that don’t belong.

The slug of type is held together with a hoop of string, so you have to be careful not to knock it over and mix everything up, which is called Piing your type.

After corrections are made, the type is transferred into a cast iron frame called a chase, where blocks of wood or metal are arranged around the type. Devices called coins are added and expanded with keys that look like what was once used to adjust old–time, strap–on roller skates. If properly done everything is locked–up in place, which is what this process is called: Lock Up. The chase is then put into a printing press, which is another big cast iron contraption. Here’s an old one (and you can see California job cases to its left):

Old style Platen Printing Press

Old style Platen Printing Press

Except for mostly small craft printers that do wedding invitations and books that are themselves works of art, none of this is done anymore. Digital technology replaced all of it. The word processor in your laptop usually comes with a hundred or so font styles that easily would have filled a small truck with California Job cases and set you back thousands of dollars.

If you know how to type, it’s an easy matter to create line after line after line of perfectly justified paragraphs without even having to hit the return key.

Beautiful page layouts are easily accessible, coming in the form of templates that were once done by Art Directors who devoted their lives to book and magazine design.

Even the function of printing is handled by digital presses that download digital files and produce hard copies using laser technology. Where once it wouldn’t pay to print a book unless you needed thousands, Amazon and others now gladly take orders for one.

So in many ways, the accessibility of technology has democratized a growing segment of the publishing industry. There are now a 150 million bloggers in the world, churning out god knows how many articles a year. In 2014, about a million books were published in the U.S. — four times as many as there were in 2010.

How can anyone keep all of this straight? The answer is: they can’t. There’s too much content and most of it is crap — just like its always been. The difference is: much of the crap used to be filtered out by the owners of those big, clunky printing presses who hired smart men and women editors who separated much of the wheat from the chaff. They weren’t perfect, but at least somebody was watching.

I guess it’s a good thing that just about anyone can get their ideas into a publishable format (including me), but the trick is still finding someone to read it. With so many voices vying for attention, that’s probably harder than ever.

Everything Reminds Me of Something Else

One of the dirty little secrets about Shop classes is that they were used as dumping grounds for guys with behavior problems — which made for some pretty raucous classroom antics and lots of laughs. Another is that they were used to park guys — and there’s no other way to say this — who had I.Q.’s that resided over on the extreme left-hand side of the bell curve.

One of the first things we were given to do in Print Shop was to set a paragraph of type using the tedious method I described above. It was a gigantic pain in the ass, but I’d say most of us were able to bang it out in three or four regular class periods of about fifty minutes each.

There were exceptions, with most extending the required time by two or three periods. The guy teaching the class continued to move through the course material as some of the slower type-setters stood hunched over their California Job Cases, composing stick in hand, searching for the proper pieces of type.

Even without putting a dunce cap on them, they were exposed to a steady stream of merciless teasing by me and my fellow printers. Over time they would complete their task and get back in with the regular class. This was true of all but one: a nice, hard-working kid named Jimmy, who didn’t belong in any high school class because I’m pretty sure he didn’t know his letters all that well.

But he kept at it, way longer than he should have. Weeks actually.  Our teacher could have just had him pull a proof of whatever he had and called the thing complete. What harm could have come from that? None, right, but he didn’t. Maybe somebody should have just done it for him, or given him theirs when they were done, but nobody did.

Every day he’d pull out his galley and carefully transfer the type into the composing stick and set about the arduous task of hunting every compartment of the job case until he found a letter that matched the one on his sheet. Many of us began thinking that he might never finish, but he did — sort of.

The day it happened most of us were working on other projects, maybe cutting silk screens or learning how to strip artwork into pieces of goldenrod paper for burning lithographic plates (don’t ask). I guess he was transferring the block of type to the proofing machine when it happened. I remember becoming aware of someone softly whimpering, and by the time I looked for its source, it had already given way to full-throated sobbing.

Our teacher had already gone to his side and was looking down on the bed of the proof press. He might have had his hand on his shoulder — I think he did. “It’s alright, Jimmy,” he said while patting his shoulder. “It’s alright.”

We were all straining to see what had happened, and a couple of the guys were asking Jimmy what was wrong. At first he didn’t respond, he was crying too hard, but he wanted to tell us. “What is it, Jimmy?” “You Okay?”

And then he got it out: “I pied it. I pied it,” he said with such heartbreaking sadness and regret that no one rolled out any of the derisive mockery that customarily greeted anyone baring such genuine emotion.  He was inconsolable. I felt bad for him. We all did.

Sometimes I think about this, usually when working on something where a wrong move can result in ruin. Don’t Pi it, I whisper to myself. Don’t Pi it. I can almost hear Jimmy cry.

Till next time patient reader


Senior Train Rides, Speonk, and Discrimination

My sister Margaret sent me a nice article by Newsday Guest Columnist, Tony Smolenski, who was reminiscing about commuting on the Long Island Railroad, and how his train was often delayed to allow the train from Speonk to “clear.”

Margaret sent me the article because it mentions the LIRR train station in Speonk, which figures prominently in an event that happened in June of 1970, which was when I graduated from Islip High School.

Even though everything was changing in the sixties, Islip tried to keep alive its long observed traditions. One that didn’t quite make it was Moving Up Day. Every spring we were marched onto the football field and corralled into separate class sections (freshmen, sophomores, etc.), where we were led in a goofy sort of Call and Response song, as each class Wove in and out the rows, physically Moving Up to the next class. I can imagine kids from the forties and fifties happily participating in such inspired silliness, but it was caput by nineteen sixty-seven or so.

By the time I was graduating, they were still sponsoring senior class trips. There was the winter daytrip to a Catskill resort (a separate caper), a trip to Washington D.C. (didn’t go), and as a final group activity, an entire train was let from the Long Island Railroad for an all–night excursion to and from Montauk Point.

We left at midnight, and it was widely known (and almost expected) that most passengers would already be fully intoxicated upon arrival. Furthermore, most were secreting enough contraband to last the night, which guaranteed there’d be a train full of drunken teenagers teetering between cars — which in those days were wide open.

The accommodations were impressive. There were club cars that were furnished with upholstered chairs, love seats and couches — but not what you would expect to see on a train; more like in a nicely appointed, though somewhat out of style house. There were cloth curtains on the windows, and tables were set up with a pretty decent buffet.

A freight car housed a live band, in which there was dancing.

My high school classmates were generally a nice group of kids who enjoyed having fun — but they weren’t particularly unruly or destructive. But soon after pulling out of Islip station, I had revealed to me a side of many that hitherto had gone unobserved.

Remember those curtains? Studious, college–bound kids from good families were ripping them off the walls. That nice furniture? Torn open, upended and I swear to God, literally getting its legs broken off!

This went on for a little while, maybe an hour, when the train slowed and finally stopped. A couple of Suffolk County Policemen came on board and after some hushed discussion with the chaperones, they walked through the train giving kids a suspicious onceover.

I figured they were just trying to scare everyone into behaving better, but if one of them had given me his badge and gun and put me in charge of keeping the peace, I would not have been more surprised than by what happened next.

The policemen came back to where me and a few other guys were sitting — and they didn’t look like they had good news. This was confirmed when we were told that we would have to leave!

Oh, God. How embarrassing! There must be a mistake. Did you say we have to leave? The train? Is there some reason for this? Did someone accuse us of something? Who? What did we do? Why are we being singled out?

The questions weren’t answered, but it was suggested that resisting wasn’t wise. I was sure we were being arrested—and for nothing! I hadn’t broken anything and I don’t think any of my comrades had either. Even so, seemed to me that further protestations would only prolong our humiliation. We stood and disembarked and alighted onto the tarmac of, yes, the Speonk train station. Here is what it looks like today:


It was maybe one A.M., and the early summer night was getting pretty cool. As the train chugged merrily out of the station and I wondered how I was going to explain this to my father, I realized the policemen were starting for their car.

“Excuse me, Sir. Are you leaving?”


“You’re not taking us in?”

“For what?”

“But you took us off the train?”

“We had to take somebody off.”

“What are we supposed to do?”

“Take the first train home in the morning.”

“When’s that?”


Okay. So what had happened was that we had been made an example of for the rest of the senior class. You’re welcome Class of Seventy!

The police cruiser rolled off, leaving us utterly alone under the few dim lights that illuminated the exterior of the small, then desolate station, which was locked tight.

There were six or seven of us castaways, but we were no close-knit group. We were from the same side of the tracks (wrong), but I was tight with just a couple. In a nod to good old fashion racism, the only black member of our class was also ejected.

It was too chilly to sit outside all night, and we noticed that a couple of hundred yards up-track there were some rail sidings where a westbound train sat idling. We decided to go and see if we could get on and maybe ride it back in the morning.

We climbed a ladder near the front of the engine and crept along a catwalk toward the cabin. As we neared it, a very fearful and ready-to-fight trainman leapt out from around the corner. In his shaking hands he held a large, cast iron wrench, cocked over his shoulder like a baseball bat.

Our hands sprang up and we stepped backward, assuring him that we meant no harm. After some tense moments we explained our predicament and nice guy that he was, he agreed to let us sleep in the next car. Not long after laying down, I heard someone grunt in pain. At first it was somewhat soft, but it slowly grew in intensity. Who could it be?

It was our Black friend, and it became clear that this was no case of indigestion. Something had to be done, so we went back to the engineer (very carefully), who after checking out the patient, called an ambulance which came and carted him away. He was having an appendicitis attack.

The next morning, we were jarred awake by the train beginning its run to New York. I’m not sure why, but the conductor didn’t ask us for tickets. Within an hour, we were back in Islip. All of us were tired, dirty and angry over our unfair treatment. Still, we ended up with a good story which made the injustice a little easier to bear — but just a little. I’m pretty sure ours was the final Senior Train Trip.

Everything Reminds Me of Something Else

I once had a parish priest, Fr. Jim McKenna, whose sermons I found particularly engaging. One of them dealt with discrimination and he recounted that he never realized how painful it was until he found himself on the receiving end. While making the rounds of a hospital and wearing his collar, members of another religious group literally turned their backs to him.

He asked if anyone had ever felt the sting of discrimination, and without any introspection on my part, the Speonk debacle leapt to mind. I was surprised because by then it was ancient history and not something I ever felt too bothered by. I’d told the story without bitterness dozens of times and usually received plenty of laughs. Still, I guess it left a little scar; funny how things like that work.

When Fr. McKenna retired, the parish had a going-away tea that I attended. We chatted and he told me that in seminary school he’d learned a little trick for speaking to congregations. They told him to identify a few people in the audience that seemed to be interested and to talk to them like it’s just the two of you. He said that I had been one of his guys over the years and thanked me for playing that role.

I said that it was me who should be thanking him. Thoughtful, relevant sermons are rare enough, but getting them with eye contact is especially uncommon. He was a good priest and I miss him.

‘Till next time patient reader.


Polar Bear Plunge 2015 and Catch 22

I went to Coney Island last year and watched a large group of people go swimming on New Year’s Day — but I didn’t go in. I blogged that I might return and get wet in 2015, but the odds were against it. Subsequently, a few friends said they if I did go back they wanted to come with me. One of them — Nan, who is an unheralded photo-mixologist and former next-door neighbor — said she’d always wanted to swim with the polar bears. In a flash of poor judgment, I said that if she went in, I would too.

That was last spring, when warm weather makes such commitments easy. As summer passed, and fall gave way to the chill of winter, doubts started creeping in. I wasn’t the kind of person who went swimming in cold water. Hell, I’m not even much of a swimmer in warm water! Still, I’d committed and knew I would never hear the end of it if I backed out – even if everyone else did — which was pretty much what happened.

But Nan didn’t, and my wife Dixie said she’d go, but not swimming. Same for my daughter, Sarah, who’s plan was to sit up on the boardwalk with her mother, maybe enjoy a bloody Mary and watch as I made an fool of myself.

Here’s a little movie I made about the day’s outing:

Everything reminds me of something else

When I first waded into the water, it brought to mind Joseph Heller’s great book Catch 22. If you haven’t read it, go get a copy. It’s acclaimed by some as one of the twentieth century’s most significant literarily works.

The book follows bombardier John Yossarian and his fellow airmen, who are deployed on an island in the Mediterranean Sea during WWII. The book is filled with quirky characters and many events are told from varying points of view and unfold out of sequence. In other words, it’s not easy to follow.

It’s an antiwar novel, but deals with broader themes, like the abuse of power and the hypocrisy of bureaucracies rationalizing absurd policies and practices. During the sixties it was embraced by young people who saw it as a reflection of their feelings about Vietnam. I was one of those kids and tried reading it, but had a hard time. I took another swipe at it in college and did better, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I read it again and got a better grasp. I’ll probably have to read it again — which I look forward to.

The first two thirds are funny. Yossarian’s observations of the insanity of the situation he and his fellow airmen find themselves in are spot-on. But as the book moves into the later chapters it gets dark. Many of Yossarian’s friends are killed or disappear, and then there’s the total destruction of a hilltop village, among other terrible things.

As I waded into the cold water of Coney Island, I found myself thinking of the scene where the full details of Snowden’s death are revealed. The young man is horribly injured and Yossarian doesn’t realize it. Snowden keeps saying, “I’m cold. I’m cold,” and Yossarian keeps assuring him that he’s going to be fine. “There, there,” he keeps repeating. “I’m cold, I’m cold,” Snowden repeats, over and over. “There, there,” Yossarian replies again and again.

Mike Nichols made an excellent movie out of Heller’s book back in 1970. It’s worth watching. (Mr. Nichols is one of just a few who won a Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony award.)

Here’s the trailer for Catch 22.

‘Till next time gentle readers.





Artie Kornfeld, Flower Girls and Blackjack

For quite awhile now, I’ve been returning to Bethel, New York for the anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. When I first started going back, we camped out on the original grounds — which were privately owned — and a few times managed to have an impromptu and totally illegal music festival. It was definitely low rent — and wonderful.

One of the stops I make every year is Hector’s Inn, which was where the bus from Port Authority dropped off me and Jimmy Barnett back in 1969. There really was a Hector, who was kind of famous for buying several truckloads of beer and selling it to Hippies at reasonable prices. Many years later I met him and told him that one of the first things I did when I got to Woodstock was buy one of those six packs. By then he was in poor health, but my story brought a little smile to his lips.

Across the street from Hectors is my Friend Larry Houman’s place, who married Hector’s daughter, Carol. They had set up a little shop that sells Woodstock memorabilia — which surprisingly is one of only a few in the area.

On Anniversary weekend, a lot of people show up at Larry’s and Hector’s, and this year that group included Arty Kornfeld, one of the two promoters who conceived of Woodstock and are most closely associate with it. I made a little movie about his visit. When you’re done watching, come back to this post to see what our little chat reminded me of.

Everything Reminds Me of Something Else

Artie helped write the Cowsill’s hit: The Rain, the Park and Other Things, and you probably heard the guy in the video getting sentimental over how much he loved the song. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the song (and flower girls), but the melody reminds me of when I was about fifteen years old and working as a Caddy at the Timber Point Country Club on Long Island. One of the kids who caddied there was a guy from Central Islip named Mousy.

Jimmy and I used to get up early and walk a couple of miles to Main Street and catch an eastbound bus on Montauk Highway, which dropped us pretty close to Great River road. All the caddies congregated there to wait for the “rich guys” in their Cadillacs to give us a ride to the country club — and they always did.

I met a lot of interesting men who belonged to that country club, and for the most part they were decent guys. The really interesting people were the caddies — which were kind of a mid-sixties cross between the Little Rascals and the Dead End Kids — even though a few of them were grown men.

There was Mister Turtle, who had to be in his sixties and as one might guess, made his way up the fairway at an exceeding slow pace. Another was Glub-Glub, so named for a speech impediment that clearly was the result of some kind of mental impairment — we Caddies were not know for our sensibilities.

There were a few local kids from the somewhat tony town of Great River, who showed up to earn a little spending money, but most of the other kids were from locals that were a few rungs lower on the socio-economic ladder. Some had already dropped out of high school — or soon would.

There was a “pen” where caddies would do what my mother called Shaping Up, which meant waiting for a job assignment — which didn’t always come. Carrying one golfer’s bag paid five dollars and twice that if you carried two. If the guy was worth a damn, he’d buy you a hot dog at the turn and usually tipped a buck or two on top of the rate. It could take five or so hours to get a round in, but back then, five or ten dollars went a pretty long way.

Sometimes you waited a good long time to Get Out, and being the good juvenile delinquents in the making that we were, we passed the time smoking cigarettes and playing Blackjack, which was where I was first exposed to high stakes gambling, which is a relative thing.

In the morning — before anyone got paid — you bet a quarter a hand. In the afternoon — after everyone collected their pay — the minimum shot up to a buck. It was entirely possible to lose in five minutes the money that took you a day to make, something I did once and will never forget.

At any given time there might have been eight or nine kids crowded around the small table we played on, with a another row or two behind them waiting to play. This was when the guys who bankrolled the house and dealt the cards got serious. After all, separating teenager punks from their hard earned cash paid better than carrying golf bags.

They dealt fast, and were on the lookout for anyone swapping cards. One day the dealer — a guy named George who had to be in his thirties and had a bump on the crown of his forehead that was way too similar in size to a golf ball — declared that no one could look at their cards until it was time to play them.

But Mousy fond this restriction an outrage, and refused to observe it. I can still remember him protesting: “We can look at our cards, Man,” and George answering just as insistently that if he did, he would not be allowed to play. Mousy would not give in, and after awhile a couple of the other players sided with him and George relented.

I was pretty sure Mousy was doing some card swapping or cheating in some other way, but I can remember his look of satisfaction as he peered at his cards and considered whether to hit or stay – as he began to softly sing Artie’s song.

Suddenly the sun broke through
(see the sun)
I turned around, she was gone
(where did she go)
and all I had left, was one little flower in my hair

But I knew
(I knew, I knew, I knew, I knew)
she had made me happy
(happy, happy…she had made me very happy)
Flowers in her hair, Flowers everywhere

I love the flower girl (I love the flower girl)
was she reality or just a dream to me
I love the flower girl (I love the flower girl)
well love show’d me the way to find a sunny day
(sunny day, sunny day, sunny day)

I love the flower girl (I love the flower girl)
was she reality or just a dream to me

‘Till next time friendly reader.


Ziplines, Rope Bridges, and Piano Deliveries

I’ve been to going to Mountain Jam for awhile, which is a three day music festival that’s held at the Hunter Mountain Ski Resort in Upstate NY. It’s a very good festival, with an interesting mix of old acts and new — discovered and undiscovered.

On my first visit I noticed that the mountain also has what is billed as the longest zip-line in North America. I’ve always been intrigued by these things, but not so much that I actively went out looking for one — now I didn’t have to.

With Hunter Mountain only two hours from the house, I made a mental note to get around to it one of these days, which never shows up on my calendar — even though the years keep peeling from it.

I’ve been trying to substitute such squishy resolutions with the actual making of arrangements, and though it doesn’t always work, I’ve had some successes. Taking the Zip-line tour is one.

Here’s a little movie I made about my outing:

If you’re looking for some excitement, not too far from home and costing about $120, check out Zipline Tours of Hunter Mountain. Fantastic!

Everything Reminds me of Something Else

As I crossed the alpine bridge, it reminded of a Laurel and Hardy Movie called Swiss Miss. It was made in 1938 and even for them, it’s plot is particularly ridiculous — and it is a gem.

The duo are mousetrap salesmen who have relocated to Switzerland. Why? Stan believes that since the Swiss make so much cheese, they’ll have a much larger mouse problem  — which will increase the demand for mousetraps! Through many absurd plot twists, the two end up having to deliver a piano to an isolated cliff house that can only reached by a suspended alpine bridge.

The only clip I could find was colorized (ruined) and I apologize for that, but the bridge crossing begins at around 1:40:

In 1932, Laurel and Hardy had another movie called The Music Box that involved the delivery of another piano — this time up a long staircase in Los Angeles. I’m including the link for all 28 minutes, which is a very nice, clean copy of the original.

The Music Box won the first academy award given for a live action, short film (comedy). Also, you might be interested to know that the stairway that appears in the movie still exists and is between the addresses of 923 and 925 Vendome Street in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles.

Till next time.



Ginger Baker and Old School Phonographs

I was surfing the latest Netflix offerings and noticed a new one: Beware Mr. Baker. Turns out the title comes from a sign posted outside Ginger Baker’s South African Home.

If you’re asking: Who is Ginger Baker?, you are not a Cream fan. If you don’t know who or what Cream is, you’re not a Rock Music fan, and almost certainly are much younger than me.

Cream was a band that had huge success in the middle sixties and is considered the archetype for 3-man Power Rock bands, and Power Rock in general. If you don’t know what Power Rock is, I can’t help you, but Cream consisted of Eric Clapton on Guitar, Jack Bruce on Base, and Ginger Baker on Drums. Here’s the trailer from the Ginger Baker movie:

The band was named Cream by its members because they were considered the very best musicians in the world. You could say they weren’t particularly modest, but if you research it, you’ll find that many people who are knowledgeable about such things actually agree.

Eric Clapton is a living legend and needs little aggrandizing. Jack Bruce has been called the best bass player ever, not to mention a great songwriter (he wrote most all of Cream’s hits). Probably least known is Ginger Baker, who virtually disappeared in the seventies. He resurfaced from time to time, but never regained widespread recognition.

When Cream was famous, I heard a rumor that Ginger Baker had the internal organs of a seventy-five year old man. The cause of this condition? The incredible amount and scope of the drugs he was abusing — especially Speed. In those days I didn’t question how a doctor or anybody else could make such a determination, but it turned out the drug abusing part of the rumor was probably understated.

While checking out upcoming performances at B.B. King’s in New York, I did a double take when I saw that Ginger Baker was scheduled. It would be with a three-man jazz ensemble, which made sense because both he and Bruce considered themselves jazzmen first. Not wanting to pass up a chance to see an original member of legendary Cream, I bought a ticket.

Here’s a little movie about it:

We didn’t get to see Ginger go off on any insane tirades, but he did tell the first guy who shouted something out to shut up. Though I doubt Ginger had the strength to mount any kind of attack on the guy, the call-out was enough to put an end to further interruptions from the peanut gallery.

I’m not much of a jazz fan, but I enjoyed the performance. Watching Ginger Baker drum at all was a treat, but I have to admit I left wishing I’d gotten to see him play when he was in his prime.

Everything reminds me of something else

The first Cream record I bought was called Disraeli Gears, which is said to come from a roadie’s malapropism. Seems Clapton was telling Baker that he was getting a new bicycle, and a roadie piped in that it came with Disraeli Gears. As Disraeli was a British Prime Minister in the 19th Century, what he had meant to say was “derailleur gears,” which in the sixties were a recent development, uncommon and expensive.  The band found it funny and decided it would make a good title for their second album.

Disraeli Gears was recorded in New York City in less than four days. It was produced by future Mountain bass player Felix Pappalardi, who with wife Gail co-wrote the song Strange Brew, which is on the album. (Sadly, in 1983, Gail shot Felix dead, and was charged with second degree murder. She spent almost two years in jail after pleading guilty to a lesser charge.)

The album was released in 1967 and was a huge record for Cream. It had a couple of gigantic hits on it, including Sunshine of Your Love. I remember listening to this record in my bedroom on a player that was a self contained unit. For storage, the turntable flipped up and the speakers on each side folded over it. In this position, there were clasps to hold everything shut — which made it somewhat portable. In a way, it was the nineteen-sixties version of an iPod. It looked something like this:

Sixties version of an iPod

Sixties version of an iPod

I would turn up the volume to ten and lean into the space between the speakers to try to get the full effect of the stereo separation. This was a time when headphones were worn by professionals in radio and television studios, not by young, pimply-faced Long Island teenagers.

If you look closely, you’ll see an arm extending over the turntable. Its purpose was to allow music lovers to pile up their vinyl records at the top of the spindle. When each record was done playing, the stylus lifted from the platter, moved out of the way and allowed the next record to be dropped onto the turntable. The stylus would then index to the beginning of the album, which allowed for a couple hours of uninterrupted play.

This was considered an unbelievable technological achievement — as long as you were willing to accept that the machine would scratch and eventually render all your records unlistenable. Most people didn’t seem to mind, but it was probably because they didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. They wouldn’t sell us a machine that would eat up our records, would they?

They sure would.

As archaic as these contraptions now look, the way of playing recorded music didn’t fundamentally change until the introduction of the iPod and other digital media players in 2001. The intervening years were occupied by expanded use of magnetic tape (Eight Track, Cassettes) and Cd’s — which still moved the recorded media across some kind of sensor — so very analog.

Not to worry: Almost everything from those days has been re-mastered and is available digitally (which some say isn’t as good as vinyl, but I can’t tell the difference) — and that includes Disraeli Gears and everything else Cream did — a great portion of which still holds up rather well.

Till next time.

B-17’s and Model Airplanes

For quite a while now, they’ve been flying vintage aircraft into a nearby airshow and making rides available to the general public.  For just as long, I’ve been meaning to go on one but haven’t gotten off my duff to do it — until last weekend!

What follows is the tale of my finally driving the twenty-five minutes over to Teterboro Airport and getting on the Yankee Lady, an honest-to-goodness B-17 Bomber from World War II.

Everything Reminds me of something else

From an early age, I was interested in building scale models, usually of battleships and airplanes, including the B-17. I haven’t bought a model in a long time, but I suspect the plastic parts still look like this:

All the parts are molded together using what is called a "Cold Runner."

All the parts are molded together using what is called a “Cold Runner.”

The first thing you do is break the pieces out of the runner system and then glue them together. I was about six when I built my first model—which was an aircraft carrier—and one of the first things I learned (the hard way) is that too much glue is far worse than not enough.

For a memory that’s over fifty years old, I can still almost see the special cement oozing from the seam between two parts of the assembly when pressed together. My father would try to wipe the excess away, but it was nearly impossible because the chemicals in the glue partially dissolved the plastic, which discolored and distorted it.


Model with paint, on a display mount — not mine!

Each kit usually had some special components, either clear plastic that was used for windows, or in the case of automobiles, red plastic that was used for taillights. These pieces were especially ruined by over application of glue, because it would fog up their transparency.

Special paints were offered in little glass bottles with metal screw caps, which you had to apply with fine point brushes. I was content to just put the pieces together, but I always applied the decals that came with the models. They were printed on clear plastic and mounted on wax paper that you dunked in water until you could slide them off and onto the model. Getting these things into position was not the easiest thing in the world.

Another thing I remember was the smell of the special glue, and warnings that it was never to be used in an unventilated area. I wasn’t told this then, but it was to keep me from getting high on the fumes.

It’s astonishing to me that airplane glue still contains dangerous chemicals that merit very serious package warnings. Just about anybody of any age can go into the store and purchase these products. I would’ve thought that in all this time safer replacements would have been found, but apparently not.

As we’ve moved to a virtual world, fewer and fewer young kids are building models—which is too bad. There is something about holding the physical pieces and assembling them that no virtual reality—no matter how sophisticated—can replace.

The business is still alive, primarily driven by adult enthusiasts who are making some pretty sophisticated models. Building one sounds like it might be kind of fun.

Till next time.

The Cyclone and The Warriors

Can I ride forever?

When I posted on my visit to Coney Island to watch the Polar Bear Club take their annual New Year’s dip, I mention that I was resolved to return there and ride the Cyclone Roller Coaster. Well I did, and here’s a movie about my little hometown adventure:

Everything reminds me of something else

In 1979, a movie named The Warriors was made, and its since become a cult favorite. It follows the adventures of a bunch of New York Theme Gangs who for reasons I won’t go into here are chasing the Warriors, a gang that happens to hail from Coney Island!

It’s based on Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel, which is loosely based on an ancient Greek story called Anabasis, which I am not familiar with and offer the factoid for those that are. The most concise movie review I saw on Rotten Tomatoes was by reviewer Bob Stinson, who offered: “Welcome Back Kotter meets A Clockwork Orange.” Nearly perfect.

So what’s a Theme Gang you ask? How about guys dressed up in baseball uniforms (nice until you see them swinging their bats at people’s heads), calypso dancers, suspendered mimes with top hats, a bunch of black dudes wearing satiny Kung Fu fighting robes (I think), and a group of gum–snapping, tough talking city girls who can probably kick all their asses.

Here are some scenes that didn’t make it into the original movie, but I’m including them because of several great shots of the Coney Island boardwalk, many with the Cyclone in the background.

The movie presages the whole dystopian craze that’s overtaken popular American literature and entertainment. Best of all, it is a travelogue through seamier NY, and what it looked like in the late seventies. I’ll leave you with the movie’s trailer:

Till next time,




Skyscrapers and Trench Coats

Lever House as shot from the Seagram's Building Plaza

Lever House as shot from the Seagram’s Building Plaza

Lever House was the second glass-box skyscraper built in New York, designed by adherents of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s International style of architecture. It was completed in 1952, and was the second to utilize a curtain wall exterior (the United Nations was the first). It has an innovative courtyard and public space, and a relatively small, glass enclosed lobby at street level. I spent a lot of time inside this building in the eighties, and snapped this picture last Saint Patrick’s day.

Lever House marked the transition of Park Avenue from a boulevard of masonry apartment buildings to one of glass, big-company office towers. It was declared a NYC Landmark in 1982, and went on the National Register the following year.

It was the pet project of Lever Brothers president Charles Luckman, who was described by most as a bona fide wunderkind. He left Lever prior to the building’s completion and returned to his first love — architecture, and boy, did he! He designed Madison Square Garden, the Aon Center in L.A., buidlings for the Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers and was part of the team that built that space-shippy looking building at LAX.

The Seagram Building

Across Park Avenue and on the south side of 53rd street stands the Seagram Building. Up until the early nineteen hundreds, it was where Steinway pianos were built. It is another building where I spent some time, but more about that later.

It was completed in 1958, and its primary design was by none other than Mies van der Rohe. This photo was taken at its base from its much admired plaza.

Seagram Building

Seagram Building

It was built on a steel frame from which non-structural glass walls were hung. Mies felt the building should externally articulate its physical structure and wanted its frame to be visible — but NYC building codes required that it be covered in fireproof material. That would ruin the esthetic, so to give the impression of an exposed frame, he applied non-structural, bronze-toned I-beams to the outside.

Phyllis LambertIt is thirty–eight stories tall and is among the finest examples of the functionalist aesthetic and corporate modernism. It would have been more ordinary hadn’t the CEO’s daughter involved herself in its planning. Recently divorced and studying art in Paris, Phyllis Lambert heard of her father’s plans to build what she considered a totally unremarkable company headquarters. She sent him a letter arguing for a more notable building, and convinced him to change his mind. Being the bosses daughter has its advantages, and she had the opportunity to work with Mies on the project, which led to her becoming an accomplished architect.

Like Lever House, the edifice has had enormous influences on American architecture.

Everything reminds me of something else

Trench CoatIn the early eighties, everyone was wearing Trench Coats, many of which were made by a company called London Fog.

In those days, Seagram Distilling used to have an annual Christmas party which was held in a large ballroom at their corporate headquarters on Park Avenue. Bars were set up in all four corners, and of course there was plenty of booze and non-stop delivery of quality Hors d’oeuvres. At the time, it was considered pretty lavish.

In the lobby were rows of self-serve coatracks for the hundreds of guests that attended, which was where I hung my beige London Fog before joining the party.

The affair was scheduled to end at eight or nine, but the group I was with wanted to leave early. I didn’t want to go, but for some reason felt compelled to leave with them. When I went to retrieve my coat, to my dismay I discovered that it was gone. It was late December and rainy and cold, so I needed a coat — not to mention that I didn’t want to buy a new one. 

But then inspiration struck. Rather than just steal some other poor slob’s coat (I admit, it crossed my mind), I would stay at the party until only one trench coat remained. That way, I’d have a coat for the trip across town, and maybe there would be a nametag or something inside that would allow me to contact its owner and arrange a switch. You never know.

As an added benefit, I got to stand around the bar for another hour or two, eating fancy Hors d’oeuvres, drinking top shelf liquor and having a delightful time. As the night wore on, the crowd thinned and I periodically checked the coatracks. Finally, with a few stragglers remaining, only one was left.

I could tell something was wrong the moment I lifted it from the rack: it was way too light. When I put it on, the sleeve was tight and came nearly to my elbow. As I struggled to put my other arm in, I could feel the fabric stretching across my back, and I half expected to rip it open like when David Banner changed into the Incredible Hulk. I could only secure a button or two, and its length reach only to mid-thigh. I looked ridiculous, but wearing it was my only option.

Wet and frozen, I made my way to the Port Authority and silently cursed the drunken fool who I imagined staggering down the streets of New York, dragging my coat behind him like a bride’s train, its sleeves so long they would have covered his freaky little hands and made buttoning it impossible. How could he have mistaken my coat for his? He was the size of a ten year old!

But I made it home and before discarding it, thoroughly checked it for any scrap of paper that might lead me to its owner. I so wanted to talk to this guy. Maybe he could say something that would explain everything — something I hadn’t considered. Sadly, there would be no such explanation — the pockets were empty.









Saint Patrick’s Day

The first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City took place in 1766, and was organized by the Irish members of two British Regiments that were stationed there, organizing themselves into The Society of the Friendly Brothers of St. Patrick.

Their observances included military men and civilians, who would toast the King (of England, damn it!), as well as the prosperity of Ireland — at least until the American Revolution started.

As the Irish population grew in New York, the celebrations spread to various parts of the city, and yes, to bars and taverns. The “Marching Tradition” took hold when different Catholic parishes around the city organized processions from their churches to the original Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which was downtown on Mott Street.

Interestingly, the old cathedral was once attacked by Know-Nothing nativists, which led to a number of riots and other physical exchanges. Part of what led to the friction was a book supposedly written by a young, mentally challenged woman (I’m not making this up), who had converted to Catholicism and purportedly was forced by nuns to have sex with priests for the purpose of providing newborns for some kind of bizarre sacrificial ritual.

Like the Know-Nothings of today, no evidence was required for believing these ranting, leaving them to conclude that the only logical course was to attack the cathedral. They didn’t reckon that the parish fathers might resist, which they did — firing their muskets through holes hastily cut through the church’s outer walls. To keep a watchful eye on the premises, soon afterward the Ancient Order of Hibernians set up headquarters across the street.

It was the Hibernians who In 1891 laid out the parade route that’s still followed, which runs up Fifth Avenue to Central Park, and passed in front of the new St. Patrick’s cathedral in midtown.

Even though there are no floats, autos or exhibits, over 150,000 people march. That would be like lining up every man, woman and child in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and marching them a couple of miles — many in bizarre costumes, some playing archaic musical instruments while others dance. To top it off: they get it done in about six hours.

I’ve gone to the parade before, but usually watched for only a little while because I was supposed to be doing something else — like working.

This year, I decided to make a special trip and bring the camera. The scale of the parade really is astonishing, and it’s amazing that it goes on while all other business in New York proceeds with little disruption.

This year it was very cold, and despite some shivering, I managed to get some interesting shots of the marchers, and a few of the LGBT protestors.

The parade allows no political groups to march, so in effect they ban any group that isn’t concerned in some way with Irish Heritage. I’m not sure they’ll ever change these rules (as the Irish are known for being a bit stubborn), but it is ironic that the parade has become as much a platform for dialog over inclusion, as it is for being a fine way of displaying one’s Irishness.

Here’s the slide show:

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Everything Reminds me of Something Else

I included a picture of New York City landmark bar, P.J. Clarks. Part of my plan was to stop in on my way home for a Pint of Guinness, which would be keeping with a tradition of at least having a pint of Guinness (but not necessarily at P.J. Clark’s).

Alas, the bar was packed to the rafters with similarly minded revelers and I just wasn’t in the mood for fighting my way to the bar. Instead I partook at another pub over on First Avenue, which I would not have done had I known that it would be served to me in a plastic cup.

A beautiful Pint

A beautiful Pint

Guinness Stout is never to be served in a plastic cup, but if there is one day above all others when it should not be, that day is St. Patrick’s day — and they charged me eight bucks, too, which really got my Irish up (which believe me, is none too fearsome).

Did you know that a true vegetarian will not drink Guinness Stout, no matter what kind of glass it’s in? It’s true.

When brewing beer, there’s a process called fining where unwanted solids are removed. To quicken the process, certain agents which are called finings are added to the brew (it’s done in making wine, too), which absorb these solids and are then filtered out of the final product.

I’ve written before how a recipe change can sink you in the brewing business, and this is especially true of a product like Guinness that has a near mythical aura surrounding it. Wisely, the brewers of the product are in no rush to make any changes, so they’ve been making it pretty much the same way since 1759.

The fining Guinness uses in its beer is called isinglass, which is made from dried swim bladder, which is an internal fish organ that helps the creature regulate its buoyancy in water. As a result, a really, really dedicated vegetarian will avoid drinking Guinness Stout.

It hasn’t kept me from having a Guinness from time to time (alright, probably a bit more often than from time to time), but I’m not a vegetarian. I try not to think about the isinglass, as its image wants to crowd out the normal, pleasant evocations brought forth by the black, white-foamed brew, and dampen them with disagreeable memories of cutting bait.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!