June 16, 2012
A phone rang in the newsroom at around 8:30 am, and the caller had a problem. He was a shift worker who got off a half hour before and had been in the nearby tavern long enough to get into, first, an argument and, second, a wager.
This was happening in Perth Amboy, long before the advent of the Internet or, for that matter, desk-top computers. The reporter taking the call was surrounded by mechanical Royal typewriters. But none of this context was of interest to the caller. He needed an answer, and he needed it soon. The question: “Is a giraffe’s tail as long as its neck?” There was money riding on the answer and, one suspected, paper money.
The reporter didn’t promise to resolve the question, but he did promise to call back one way or the other.
The reporter riffled through the meager reference materials in the newsroom but did not find the answer. With an air of futility, he called the nearby Staten Island Zoo, and located a person who provided information that may or may not have settled the wager. The giraffe’s neck is about six feet long. Its tail is about three feet long, but the tuft of hair at the end could double the length. The reporter called the pay phone at the tavern, repeated the data and hung up, praying that there were no weapons on the premises.
I recalled this incident the other day when I heard on National Public Radio that a listener had complained about a report on All Things Considered about a round of layoffs at a group of newspapers in the South. The listener wanted to know why the NPR news staff thought the layoffs of journalists was any more tragic than the layoff of anyone else. I didn’t hear the broadcast the listener was referring to, so I don’t know if the NPR staff exhibited some disproportionate sympathy for people of their kind, but the exchange reminded me of something I don’t hear much about in the reporting and commentary on the decline of newspapers in the United States.
The giraffe incident was a lighthearted example of the role local newspapers have played in their communities, a role that usually dealt with far more serious issues than animal anatomy.
The local newspaper was the last resort for many folks who were trying to settle wagers, finish their homework, or save their homes, their families, or their lives. There is no way to calculate the number of questions that were answered or problems that were solved by personnel at the newspapers that employed me for more than 40 years. Occasionally these matters resulted in stories; sometimes they were very big stories. But in countless instances, the news staff acted as exactly what it was, a surrogate for the public, and might spend hours or days or weeks wrestling with an issue that never generated a word in print. “You are the voice of those who have no voice,” one of my publishers once told me, and we all took that seriously.
The news staff, cumulatively, had skills, knowledge, and contacts that many people did not have. And in the days when newspapers had significant circulation and influence on public opinion, the voice of a journalist on the other end of the phone was, for many, especially those in public authority, vox Dei.
But for those who called, whether readers or not, we constituted the only place to turn.
A friend once told me about a young woman, an immigrant, who was working in New York City as a translator. Her grandmother had come from the Old Country to visit her, and never went back. The grandmother’s visa had long since expired when she started to show signs of dementia. Because of the grandmother’s immigration status, the granddaughter was afraid to seek help but at the same time was afraid to leave her grandmother alone during the day. What, my friend wanted to know, did I intend to do about it? These folks had no connection to the newspaper; they lived in another part of the state. I called whom I needed to call and soon had a promise that the elderly woman’s immigration status would be normalized so that she could get the care she needed.
That’s one example. The women and men I worked with for four decades could contribute dozens, scores, of stories of that kind. I don’t know what will replace that resource, that safety valve —that friend who won’t turn away—in the life of a community.
January 2, 2011
Many months ago, I heard film director Paul Weiland interviewed on National Public Radio, describing what sounded like an interesting film that had been inspired by the catastrophes that befell Weiland’s bar mitzvah. The title of the film was “Sixty Six,” and I immediately put it on my Netflix queue, but it was flagged as unavailable until very recently. It was worth the wait.
The 2006 British film concerns Bernie Rubens (Gregg Sulkin), a nebish of a kid — Weiland’s alter ego — who is a misfit even within his own family. As Bernie sees it, the year 1966 will give him the opportunity to improve his image. He is preparing to become bar mitzvah, and besides believing the rhetoric about becoming a “man,” he envisions a reception that will be so grand as to eclipse the expansive party that was thrown for his abusive older brother Alvie (played by Ben Newton.)
Bernie’s inability to fit in either at home or out among his peers seems to escape the notice of his pretty mother, Esther (Helena Bonham Carter), and his eccentric father, Manny (Eddie Marsan). Manny co-owns a successful grocery store with his brother Jimmy(Peter Serafinowicz). When a new supermarket opens next to their store, Manny refuses to entertain an offer to buy the Ruben store, and this is indicative of a rigidity that affects everything he does and his personal relationships.
As Bernie continues with his grandiose plans for his bar mitzvah party, the family’s financial fortunes continue to decline until the boy has to swallow the reality that his reception is going to be modest event indeed. As though that weren’t disappointment enough, he is terrified that Britain’s soccer team will qualify for the World Cup Final, which is scheduled to be played in London on the same date.
The conventional wisdom is that Britain’s footballers are unlikely to survive the competition long enough to play for the championship, but the conventional wisdom is wrong and Brits everywhere are transfixed as their team faces Germany on the day on which Bernie had imagined himself as the axis on which the whole universe would be turning.
In one British review I read, the critic wrote that this film was reminiscent of Neil Simon at his best. I think that’s an apt comparison. Although there is a great deal of comedy in “Sixty Six,” the truth in the story, which Weiland wrote, is sometimes almost painful to watch — and I find that in some of Simon’s work. And yet, also as in Simon’s best work, the truth includes self discovery and redemption, and not only for Bernie.
This movie has a talented ensemble. Marsan’s performance in what for the most part is a very quiet role is at times disturbing as he portrays the humorless Manny’s odd behavior – driving dangerously below the speed limit, checking the car door a half dozen times to make sure it’s locked, hoarding his money in the attic and, most important, closing his mind to the painful period his younger son is living through. Gregg Sulkin is both funny and moving as the heartbroken and increasingly frantic Bernie, and Richard Katz is warm and humorous as the blind rabbi who prepares Bernie and other boys for bar mitzvah.
There were some comments when this film was released that it depended on stereotypes of Jewish people, although opinions seemed to vary as to whether those stereotypes were offensive. We didn’t detect any intent to ridicule or offend Jewish people, but it’s something to be aware of.
July 23, 2010
National Public Radio is running a series on “50 Great Voices,” and I was pleased to hear the other day that one of my favorite voices has been included — that of the Irish tenor John McCormack. You can follow the unfolding of “the list” by clicking HERE. I would have expected Enrico Caruso to be on the list – and he is – but Caruso has endured as an icon ala Babe Ruth. The name Caruso is known far outside of the circle of opera buffs; his name is a synonym for “singer.” McCormack, on the other hand, is known these days mostly by the musty crowd that lives with one foot in the distant musical past. People like me, for instance.
I developed an interest in McCormack when I was in my early teens. This came as a blow to my mother, because she was already getting auditory indigestion from the olio that poured out of my hi-fi: one minute Bill Haley & His Comets, the next minute Bach’s Mass in B minor, the next minute Florian Zabach’s violin, and the next minute Hank Williams. Mom preferred Zabach.
I stumbled across McCormack after I bought four LPs by the Italian tenor Mario Del Monaco. Listening to those discs launched me into a lifelong fascination with tenors, and I accumulated recordings by dozens of them, ancient and modern. It was inevitable that McCormack would be included, because he was a prolific performer, including many recordings. Connecting with McCormack also opened my ears to Irish music, because, besides his operatic career, he was a mainstay on the concert stage and his repertoire included the songs of his native Ireland. I found these irresistible because the melodies and lyrics are laced with both humor and melancholy. I acquired recordings by other Irish tenors, too, but no one seemed to approach McCormack.
When I became better informed about music, I learned that my instincts hadn’t failed me for a change. McCormack is highly regarded as a singer — unparalleled, in the opinions of some authorities — because of the extraordinary control he had over his breath and his voice. That is well displayed in his recording of his signature song, “I Hear You Calling Me.”
Very early in his career, McCormack sang under the name Giovanni Foli, deriving it from the name of his lifelong sweetheart and longtime spouse, Lily Foley. He was wildly popular at the height of his career and he earned, and spent, enormous amounts of money. He was also the soul of charity and was particularly generous with his time and his own funds in supporting the American effort in both world wars. He became an American citizen in 1917, a decision that wasn’t well received back home, and he took his citizenship seriously. He also supported many other causes, including the Catholic Church, and the Church bestowed many honors on him, including the hereditary title of count.
According to an often-repeated story, at a chance meeting between Caruso and McCormack, McCormack asked, “And how is the greatest tenor in the world?” To which Caruso replied, “And when did you become a baritone?”
Some of McCormack’s songs are available at the NPR site and at the web site of the John McCormack Society, which is at THIS LINK.