October 2015


That Old Woman in My Building Who Died


She was an upbeat talkative type: “I used to live on the 17th floor also.” “Yeah, I was married too.” ”You make a cute couple.” “Are you an actor? You have a presence about you.” When I would run into her, she always had something nice or complimentary to say.


She seemed kind. I once saw her bringing a dish of food to the quiet man on my floor across the way, who would one day wind up in prison for stealing presidential artifacts. 60 Minutes was all over that story. Which makes me think of that line from the old TV series Naked City, “There are eight million stories in the naked city….” But that’s a story for another day.


The story for this day, is about that old woman in my building who died, “after a brief illness,” so read the note at the front desk. It also had a picture of her so that tenants like myself, who didn’t know her by name could make the connection. (Yes, the cliché about New Yorkers not knowing their next door neighbors is sadly true.). So it’s also a story in a way, about stereotyping, and constructing little narratives in our heads about people we really don’t know. Especially concerning those “of age.” Being seen in their current context as they now move slowly through their remaining lives, we can’t imagine them back in the day. So we sometimes concoct a storyline for them, that often turns out to be so mistaken and short sighted.


Mine in this case would have read something along the lines of… a humble and kind woman, who must have been attractive (and still trying to present a more youthful and stylish appearance), and who liked to chat and make connections with people, because she lived alone and was probably lonely.


Obviously retired, she probably had had some sort of basic job associating with everyday people; why else would the prospect of my possibly being an actor seem interesting or exciting to her? And all upbeat countenance aside, was she one of Dorothy Parker’s sad “ladies of the corridor”?

Then a while reading The New York Times, right there in a 1,000 word obit taking up almost a half of a page— complete with a picture of her on the job and in action, and noting she had won five Clio Awards—there she was:


Joy Golden Dies at 85; Made Ads With Punch Lines


“… an advertising executive who wrote copy for Maidenform bras and Talon Zippers during the “Mad Men” era but found her true calling in the 1980’s when she created the humorous radio spots for Laughing Cow cheese, died on Aug. 29 in Manhattan. She was 85.”


Advertising Age, the industry bible which had once been required reading for me, went even further than the Times in praise of Joy Golden, calling her “An advertising legend…a trailblazer…an inspired and inventive wit with a larger-than-life-personality … She invented hundreds of iconic characters for her funny and sometimes racy radio commercials.”


In probing still further, another obit suggested that she was a real life forerunner to the fictional Peggy Olsen from Mad Men, given their similarities in starting at lowly desk jobs and rising through the ranks of a male-dominated industry.

In Ms. Golden’s case, she escaped from the steno pool, by “rewriting the copy she was supposed to type and showing it to the firm’s head writer, who promoted her to junior copywriter.”


Then, in her own words taken from a 1992 interview, and with no due modesty, there’s this passage.

"Little did I know that (Laughing Cow) would make me famous. I went from nothing to international fame. I was in The New York Times, Museum of Television and Radio and I said, 'Goodbye' to the world and said 'I'm opening my own business'(Joy Radio). I was 55 and I was a hit, kids."

So much for my narrative.


I sent emails to both of her daughters (in my “lonely life scenario,” there were no kids), expressing my condolences. I left out the part about my faulty fiction. Or about my implicit ageism (though “I’m no spring chicken” myself, as evidenced if nothing else, by the very use of that archaic idiom). While displaying no outright bias against their mother, I didn’t exactly reciprocate her good graces in my response to her either.


Old people can make us nervous I suppose. They have no resume, so to speak, and they’re reminders of time passing and mortality. So we tend to humor them.


I’ll be going over to check out her work at the Museum of Television and Radio, about which she said: “The induction ceremony was the most fun I’ve had since my second divorce.”


Joy Golden. Rest in peace.












Chess: An Obsession, The Cold War and the Madness of Bobby Fischer



“Pawn Sacrifice,” an independent niche movie, incorporates all of the above. And in so doing, turns out to be compelling on so many fronts.


Take chess itself. A “game” once described by poet Peter Kane Dufult as…

“…an Armageddon of pure mind
rages on a tea table. Consider
the evanescent kingdoms
of ivory and malachite,
how they triumph and topple;

One indulges in such battles of the mind at one’s own peril, for there is no luck factor in chess upon which to blame defeat. If you lose, it is because you were out-smarted, and not due to a bad roll of the dice, or other such quirks of fate. Hence, a loss can be tough to swallow. Then wrap your head around the idea that after only one move by each side, White and Black (and White always has the first move), there are 400 different positions that can result. After just four moves? 71,852! And as the game progresses, those numbers go beyond the scope of human comprehension.


In spite of all this, or maybe because of all of this, once exposed to this world of Medieval Kings and Queens and their phalanxes of Pawns, it can become an obsession. A notable case being that of Marcel Duchamp, one of the so called fathers of Dadaism, who at the peak of his fame, abandoned his art to purse to a life of studying and playing chess: "I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art—and much more.”


Far less notable and on a personal level, my own obsessions with this “artistic war” in the pre-computer/internet 70’s, resulted in my playing in a couple of 4-man tournaments through the mail. The heart would pound every three days at the mailbox in anticipation of an opponent’s postcard response to my last brilliant move.


These days eschewing human opponents altogether, I take on computer programs that are commensurate with my level of skill. Though there’s something missing in the satisfaction of a victory, as the computer doesn’t care when it loses. So I get the obsessive passions associated with chess. But the mental instability of Bobby Fischer, with a paranoia so colossal and unbridled, is a whole other story. One which this film tells well, through a fine performance by Tobey Maguire.


To the complexities of chess, combined with the volatility of Fischer, throw in the weight of The Cold War, which hung heavy in the air when he sat down to play Boris Spassky, the reigning champion from the Soviet Union, for all the marbles in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1972. And what transpired, is something for the ages.


Liv Schreiber’s portrayal of Boris Spassky, a nemesis from the Evil Empire, is every bit as good, if not better than Maguire’s Fischer. Both are so spot on in bringing back to life, The Cold War across a “tea table,” especially for those of us who might recall all the hoopla in real time.


Time magazine previewed it. Network TV anchors reported it as global news. ABC’s Wide World of Sports and Sports Illustrated treated it as if it were a sporting event. A local PBS station in New York covered it live. Live being defined here as telephone messages dripping in from Iceland over the course of a two to four hour game, which were then translated for viewers by a neophyte “broadcaster” named Shelby Lyman, as he moved pieces from slot to slot on an overhead board. A panel of experts would then analyze the nuances in those moves that were escaping the rest of us. Which included a good many who did not know their “horse” (Knight) from their elbow.

Yet we watched. And watched. And watched. Through 21 games of the match. Until Fischer, who once charmingly stated in an interview on the Dick Cavett Show in ’71, “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego,” had done that very thing to Spassky and his no doubt cheating Commie cohorts. So brilliant was Fischer’s play, that Game 6 of the contest is said by many to have been the greatest game of chess ever played. First a win in the space race! Now this! And what can we expect next from Bobby Fischer, American hero?


Spoiler alert… nothing. Well not quite. He would pop up in the news from time to time for one thing or another. But he forfeited his title by walking away from the world of chess and did not play in public for nearly twenty years. Anti-Semitic (though he himself a Jew), and forever railing against the Russians and communists (though his own mother was herself a Russian-communist), he later added the United States to his enemies list: “I want to see the U.S. wiped out. Death to the U.S.”


It made the list because in his playing a rematch with Spassky in 1992 in Yugoslavia—against an executive order issued by George H.W. Bush, forbidding engagement in economic activities within that country—a warrant was issued for Fischer’s arrest. To avoid deportation, he sought and received asylum in Iceland. (And by the way, he beat Spassky again 10-5.).


While the movie rushes through the end game of his life, it does provide actual footage of the real Bobby Fischer, then transformed into a rather unkempt heavyset white-bearded man at 64 years old, and still crazy after all these years. This, shortly before he died in 2008. An enigma to the end, to say the very least, he is still considered by many grandmasters to be the best chess player ever.


Even if you don’t know the game, check out the movie. It is to chess, what “Moneyball” was to baseball. A story about the game, yet something much more. “Pawn Sacrifice” makes the right moves in a way, that can resonate with fans and non-fans alike.






Hockey Game at the Garden


They scored and scored and scored and scored
up and down the ice at will
as I sat there with my date.
First period; first date.


“This usually doesn’t happen,” I said,
“the puck finding so much net.
Gotta’ be a record.”
She smiled a come-hither smile. And it was:


Most scoring in the shortest time
between two teams at the start of a game
you can look it up.
The rhythm of the contest settled down.
Then rolled over
exhausted with itself.


And over a cigarette later—tied at 4
and with still a period to come
she asked me if I’d like to go.


And leaving the game behind
I went.


                      Ron Vazzano







Parsing “Yogi-isms"



When Yogi Berra died last month at 90, all media accounts of the news went beyond his illustrious Hall-of-Fame baseball career and military service in World War II for which he earned a Purple Heart, and of course came down to rest squarely on his worldwide renown for being the master of the malaprop. That’s how most people today know him having never seen him play, though my remembrance of his playing days goes back to my first visit to Yankee Stadium in 1952.


As defined by Webster’s, a malprop is a usually unintentionally humorous mistake or distortion of a word or phrase; especially: the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context. It has its origins in the 1775 play The Rivals, by way of a character named Mrs. Malaprop, who is noted for her comedic misuse of words.


Coming from Berra’s mouth, such malaprops have come to be called Yogi-isms, and The New Yorker many years ago said of him that “Hardly anybody would quarrel …that Winston Churchill has been replaced by Yogi Berra as…the favorite source of quotations.”


He allegedly once said…

“I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.”

I say allegedly, because as Yogi has mildly protested…

“I really didn’t say everything I said.”

What he meant to say of course, was… “everything I was supposed to have said.” But when you’re a kid born of poor Italian immigrants and come from The Hill in St. Louis, and you drop out of school after the eighth grade to help support your family, you don’t know nothing about good grammar. And you say the right things, but they come out wrong.

In The Yogi Book (1998 Workman Publishing Company) he expounded on many of them, including his signature quote:

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

His explanation? “That was my answer to a reporter when I was managing the New York Mets in July 1973. We were about nine games out of first place. We went
on to win the division.”

In a broader sense, how many times do we give up in situations that seem hopelessly lost? How many times are people given up for dead, only to pull through? So yes, it isn’t apparently over, until it’s actually over. In the absence of qualifying adjectives—a classic Yogi-ism!

I once tried a variation on this, in a tiny three line poem I entitled “Off the Bat of Berra.”

It ain’t overt
‘til it’s overt.
Then it’s over.

Then of course there’s this mangling of tenses:

“The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Yet isn’t this something being lamented today? That the future of “Gen Y-ers” isn’t as bright as that which once stood before “Baby Boomers,” owing to various economic factors? Not what Yogi had in mind exactly, but so applicable; so true.


And speaking of economics, he once stated that…

“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”

He goes on to support this contention by saying, “Who would doubt this? I notice it especially when I go to buy my papers in the morning at Henry’s in Verona New Jersey.” That’s good enough for me.


Rounding out a personal list of favorites with these half-dozen (in no particular order)…

“Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel.”

I get it. Luggage gets banged around regardless, whether cheap or sporting designer labels. And since it isn’t really used that often relative to other things we buy, does it have to be of the best quality? Are we trying to make a statement at the airport carrousel or serving a utilitarian purpose? Good point Yogi.

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Try getting a table at that hot restaurant. After a while, you give up having to make a reservation weeks in advance. For that matter how will I know how hungry I’ll be that night when I finally get in?


Another classic:

“It’s déjà vu all over again.”

dé-jà vu 1 a: the illusion of remembering scenes and events when experienced for the first time.

Yog’ is seemingly being redundant here. (Is anyone ever just dundant?) But what if something keeps happening over and over and over again, as what Yogi described with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hitting home runs back-to-back in 1961 for seemingly, the umpteenth time? And can you not have multiple déjà vu experiences about a lot of different things? Or “déjà twos?” I’m with Yogi.

This exchange between Yogi and his wife Carmen could have been right out of Burns & Allen or the Marx Brothers.

Yogi: “Where have you been?
Carmen: “I took Tim (their son) to see Doctor Zhivago.”
Yogi: “What the hell’s wrong with him now?”

Rim shot! No comment necessary.


And there’s this, with its existential sounding overtones…

“It gets late early out there.”

Of course, he was simply referring to playing left field at Yankee Stadium in late autumn during World Series time when shadows would creep in, and an outfielder could have a tough time seeing the ball off the bat.

Yet, the inference is obvious. Anyone approaching the autumn of their years, would concur that the years fly by all too quickly, and that yes, “it does get late early out there.” Yogi, the existentialist. Who knew?

And finally, there’s this gem that contends with the choice Frost made in his poem “The Road Not Taken:”

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

According to a piece in the New York Times, people in Montclair N.J. (where Yogi lived), “are quick to point out… that there really is a fork in the road where Edgewood Road splits with Edgewood Terrace…you take it—and either way ends up at Berra’s house on Highland Avenue.”
And so when Yogi came to that final grand fork in the road last month, he took it. But through his Yogi-isms, he will live on forever. Which can last an eternity





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