A novel interruption

It’s been exactly one year since I published my first piece in this space. Since then, there have been 78 posts.

It’s time to pause. Time to stop taking notes while watching news and sports on TV, dissecting the coverage and the politics.

I’ll continue to start my day with the New York Times, and check out the Washington Post, CBC News, ESPN and other bookmarked sites.

In the coming weeks, I’m sure I’ll watch the Republican and Democratic conventions, as well as the Rio Olympics and my customary menu of baseball and golf.

I may post the occasional piece — if the subject is irresistible.

But I’m getting back to a novel I started in 1995 and thought I finished in 2010. Total rewrite. Could take awhile.

One scene, written with an assist from my cousin Brian, a rabbi, has survived in every previous draft.

I’m not certain it will make the cut this time. So, I offer it here:

On April 22, 1994, I went to synagogue for the first time since my bar mitzvah. I’d buried my father in West Palm Beach earlier in the day, flew home, and took a cab from the airport to Temple Aleph Gelt. Friday night services had just ended when I talked my way in to see the rabbi.

“I’m Rabbi Black,” he said. Sincere. Sweet. A kid. A mark. We were in a large boardroom. He motioned me into a chair. I looked him over. Dark curly hair, olive skin, full lips, puppy-dog brown eyes, a teen idol in a stylish pinstriped suit.

“Are you Jewish?” I asked.

“Of course, I’m Jewish,” he said with a wary smile.

“I don’t mean to be a wiseass. It’s just that I didn’t know Jews were called Black. Jews of color are usually Greene. Like Shecky Greene.”

“Well,” he said, “my father was Black. My grandfather was Black.”

“They were Negroes?”

“No, they were white.” He was playing along.

“I’m White,” I said.

“I can see that.”

“No, I mean my name is White. Charlie White. My father was White too. He’s dead.”

“I’m sorry to hear that – z ikrono l’bracha.”

“On Wednesday.”

“I beg your pardon.”

“My father died on Wednesday. On a golf course in Florida. He had a stroke hitting a five-wood on a par-three.”

My father’s funeral was in a tacky chapel that blended seamlessly into the abomination that is South Florida. My father loved it, of course, since everyone in the identical red-tiled houses of Shangri-La By the Sea – thirty miles from the ocean – came from the same Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods.

When I visited, which was as seldom as possible, I marveled at the goniffs who managed to drain the Everglades, cover it with concrete and Bermuda grass, fill the strip malls with kosher delis and Chinese restaurants, and entice millions of refugees from the Northeast to retire in the ideal habitat for alligators and other swamp creatures.

My father, who had owned a jewelry store in Flushing, moved a thousand miles to lose money at gin rummy and golf, complain about too much fat on the pastrami and too few pieces of barbecued pork in the pork fried rice. This went on for the ten years he lived in West Palm Beach, before he was struck dead on the twelfth hole at Royal Palms Golf and Country Club.

“I don’t believe I’m following you, Mr. White.” Rabbi Black said.

“Doesn’t matter. He’s still dead.” I paused and attempted to appear lost in thought, or grief.

The kid rabbi waited me out. When I didn’t say anything he offered, “Have you come here to seek counsel, or perhaps to say kaddish for your father.”

“No, that’s not it,” I replied. We were seated at one end of a long, well-polished table, fourteen high-backed chairs along either side.

“All right, Mr. White,” he started again, “what can I do for you?”

“I want to damn someone,” I said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Somebody just died and, before it’s too late, I want you to make sure he goes straight to hell.”

“You want your father …”

“Not my father.”

“Who?”

“A criminal who was never punished for his crimes. He died tonight. That’s what they say, anyway. Me, I’m not so sure. Could be a trick.”

“Trick?”

“Yeah, to make sure he beats the rap.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Look, I came here tonight because I’m a Jew. I didn’t know where else to turn. I’m facing a crisis of faith and, although I haven’t been to synagogue in more than thirty years, since my bar mitzvah, I’m still a Jew and I need your help.”

“But we don’t do that, Mr. White,” the kid said.

“Do what? Help Jews in need?”

“No, we don’t damn people. We don’t conjure curses. We also don’t believe in hell.”

“Who’s we?”

“Jews.”

“What do you – we – believe in.”

“We believe in God. We believe in study, and good works, and good deeds, living a worthy life.”

“So what happens after you die?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you think happens after you die?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“No.”

“What kind of man of faith are you?”

“An educated one.”

I smiled. He seemed to have won the argument, if you could call it an argument. I really liked this kid. I knew nothing of his – my – religion and wanted to hear more. He no longer seemed impatient with me. Maybe his rabbinical curiosity got the best of him. “Who is it you want to curse?”

“Richard Nixon,” I said, barreling ahead, “and there’s not much time. The son of a bitch just died.”

The rabbi chuckled. “A worthy endeavor,” he said, pausing as if to consider the challenge. “But since Tricky Dick wasn’t Jewish – at least I don’t believe he was …”

I shook my head.

“Well, then, I don’t see where he falls within our, er, jurisdiction – even if you and I had the power to curse him in death.”

I was running on instinct and adrenaline. This sounded like a technicality.

“Look,” I pleaded, “he was an off-the-wall anti-Semite – even if he did hold hands with Kissinger, who, as you know, is more German than Jewish – so he, Nixon, is – was – an enemy of the Jews. Don’t we have the right to curse our enemies?”

He appeared to politely consider this before saying: “I’m sorry, Mr. White, but I can’t help you. But your questions warrant study. That’s what we do, we rabbis, we study. And I will study your, er, dilemma.”

He stood. I stood. He extended his hand. I shook it.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “If you’d like to call me Monday, maybe I will have enlightened myself and can pass on to you what I have learned.”

“I appreciate that,” I said, suddenly exhausted and wanted to go home. “But I fear that by then the bastard may have slipped into heaven.”

He laughed. “Sorry, Mr. White, but you have a rather cartoonish Christian notion of life and death – the soul slipping out of the body, ascending to the clouds and beyond, St. Peter at the gate, admitting people as if he were a ticket-taker at Disneyland. We Jews believe in an all-powerful God. If He can create the world, and perform miracles, he can certainly schlep Richard Nixon out of heaven and deposit him in a more appropriate hereafter.”

He appeared pleased with himself and seemed to take genuine delight from our meeting. I gave high marks for his scholarly performance skills.

“Thanks, kid,” I said.

He shot me a stern grownup look. “You may call me rabbi, or Rabbi Black, or Mr. Black, or Ian.”

“Ian? Ian Black? Are you sure you’re Jewish?”

I never talked to the kid again. It was also the last time I set foot in a synagogue.

Officer down: Shots echo through history

You’d think from the breathless, oh-my-god coverage of the shooting in Dallas that cops in the United States had never before been mercilessly gunned down.

I’m not suggesting the five deaths in Dallas are insignificant, or don’t rate the media attention they’ve been afforded. Or lacked the requisite elements of a big story: major city-center under siege for hours; shootout and standoff; gunman expressing black rage through the barrel of a high-powered weapon.

But police officers were taking bullets before the advent of 24-hour cable news and cellphone videos posted on social media, before Americans could pick up assault rifles and a trunkful of ammo at the corner store.

A lot more lawmen were shot down in the Wild West of the 19th century and throughout the 20th, especially during the Prohibition era, the heyday of gangsters with Tommy guns. And again in the late 1960s and ’70s, when American cities were rotting, when black rage was first rising.

That’s when I was a reporter in New York, and covered the shooting death of a police officer and the near-riot that ensued. More on that later.

But first, some stats from one organization that keeps the grim tab across the U.S., the Officer Down Memorial Page:

  • The deaths in Dallas bring this year’s total of officers shot dead to 26.
  • Last year, it was 39.
  • In 2013, it was 33, the lowest total since 1887 – that’s not a typo – 126 years.
  • The count was mostly in triple figures every year from 1910 to 1940.
  • It topped 100 again in 1969, and stayed there through 1980, before beginning a steady decline.

But, since 1981, the numbers still add up – 2,259 officers shot dead.

(In Canada, where I live, there have been 23 this century.)

Like other gun deaths – Virginia Tech, then Orlando – one superlative can drive the headline: most.

The news from Dallas has focused on the most cops killed in one day since 72 died on 9/11.

But, just sticking to shootings, the five dead in Dallas are the most since 1932, when six Missouri lawmen were killed in a shootout with two murder suspects at a farmhouse in the Ozarks.

The most in U.S. history were seven Chicago cops killed when they tried to break up a labor protest in Haymarket Square.

Never mind that the Haymarket “riot” began when someone, possibly an agent provocateur, exploded dynamite in the crowd, or that the casualties were probably shot by other cops.

The bloodbath was blamed on immigrants, socialists and anarchists with a radical idea – an eight-hour workday. Four labor leaders were hanged.

Politicians across the country used the Haymarket carnage to execute a tough law-and-order agenda. Just as Nixon did in 1968 to win the presidency, exploiting a backlash against antiwar and black-power militants.

(Stay tuned for Trump and the GOP ramping up the fear machine post-Dallas.)

Which brings me to April 14, 1972, when I was a reporter for UPI in New York.

The news was that a cop had been shot at 116th Street at Lennox Avenue in Harlem.

I arrived to find a huge crowd gathered outside a Nation of Islam mosque, surrounded by dozens of jittery cops. There were also a lot of TV cameras for the assemblage to play to.

And that’s what it seemed like at first – a theatrical production, with all of us playing our parts: the menacing Black Muslims on the steps, guarding the mosque; the cops trying to shield their anger after one of their own took a bullet; the gathering storm of mainly young blacks filling the street; the mainly white press hoping to get the story and get the hell out of there.

The main character in this drama, Officer Philip Cardillo, was already dead, having been shot inside the mosque and whisked away.

He and three other cops had rushed into the building, responding to a call – it turned out to be bogus – of an officer in peril.

What they found instead were men who took offense at having their house of worship invaded by the enemy, responding with fists and the bullet that killed Cardillo.

I stood on the sidewalk, between the Muslims on the steps and the commotion in the street. It was early afternoon, a beautiful spring day, unseasonably warm and sunny. I wondered why all the kids in the crowd weren’t in school.

Then I heard a gunshot and watched the crowd compress, not running away but toward the sound of the shot. It turned out a lone cop had been pinned in the mass, fell to one knee, raised his revolver, and accidentally fired into the air.

But the crowd was in a fury. So were the cops, running around shouting.

Next thing I knew, the men in blue were pulling out and a little kid who couldn’t have been more than twelve walked up to me, smirked, hoisted his T-shirt, showed me a big gun stuck in his belt, nodded toward the cops and said: “When they’re gone, you better be gone too.”

He melted back into the mob. And an angel appeared at my side.

“You look a little nervous,” said Leon Pitt, the only black reporter I worked with at UPI.

“Did you hear what that kid said?”

“What kid?”

“The little kid with the big gun – he threatened to kill me when the cops leave.”

“So, I guess I better get you out of here,” said Leon.

And he did.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

I sometimes feel Paul Simon has been writing the soundtrack of my life.

Maybe it’s because we see the world from the same low angle, were both born Jewish, both grew up in New York at about the same time.

Can you imagine us

Years from today,

Sharing a park bench quietly?

How terribly strange

To be seventy.

So, when I read recently that Simon, 74, is thinking about not making any more music, I thought …

Oh, hell, I’m not sure what I thought.

Old friends.

Memory brushes the same years.

Silently sharing the same fear.

I bought the first Simon and Garfunkel album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, when I was commuting to my first job in Manhattan, exploring the city’s shadowy corners at night.

And the sign said ‘The words of the prophets

Are written on subway walls

And tenement halls

And whispered in the sounds of silence.’

It was about this time I clipped from a magazine – and carried in my wallet many years – a line scratched on a subway wall: It’s 3 a.m. and I’m scared.

In 1968, I packed that first Simon and Garfunkel album, and the second, and the third, in the trunk of my ’64 Mustang – white, with red interior, stick shift on the floor – and headed for the West Coast.

Before I left, I went to a movie theater on Third Avenue to see The Graduate.

Mrs. Robinson blasted from my radio all the way along Route 66, then in Benjamin Braddock’s tire tracks from L.A. to San Francisco.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

In the early spring, I was living with my girlfriend in the cheapest one-room apartment in Pacific Heights, at the corner of California and Laguna.

I kept getting turned down for newspaper jobs. She was renting cars for Hertz at the airport.

On the night of April 4, driving down the 101 to pick her up, the news on the radio was all about the assassination of Martin Luther King and riots across the country.

When we got home, we sat in the dark, a single candle burning, listening to the new Bookends album I’d picked up earlier in the day at Tower Records.

Time it was,

And what a time it was,

It was …

A time of innocence.

A time of confidences.

That girlfriend became my wife, then my ex-wife. She left with the Beatles albums. I kept Simon and Garfunkel.

Before we split, we had a daughter, Kate, who was weaned on Simon songs.

The monkeys stand for honesty,

Giraffes are insincere,

And the elephants are kindly, but they’re dumb.

Orangutans are skeptical

Of changes in their cages

And the zookeeper is very fond of rum.

Simon and Garfunkel split, I moved to Canada, married Linda, had two more daughters.

Zebras are reactionaries,

Antelopes are missionaries.

Pigeons plot in secrecy,

And hamsters turn on frequently.

The records were set aside, cassette tapes were plugged into the dashboard, replaced by CDs on family road trips.

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike,

They’ve all come to look for America.

In 2001, stunned by 9/11, we drove from our home in suburban Toronto to New York for Thanksgiving with our American family. I wrote a piece for the Toronto Star on the homecoming, punctuated by Simon’s American Tune.

And high up above, my eyes could clearly see,

The Statue of Liberty,

Sailing away to sea.

And I dreamed I was flying.

It ended with:

Linda and I went to Ground Zero, filing past the jumbled ruins with the silent and solemn queues, a cop keeping up a steady chant: “Please keep moving. Take your pictures, and please keep moving.” People did as they were told. Maybe we were all Canadians.

“What do you think?” Linda asked.

“About what?” I replied.

“About being here?”

“I’m not sure,” I said, “except everything’s changed.”

We walked through the financial district, to a restaurant at the South Street Seaport. I could see the Statue of Liberty in silhouette. A jetliner flew overhead.

But it’s all right, it’s all right.

You can’t be forever blessed.

Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day,

And I’m just trying to get some rest.

That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.

When I wrote a memoir in 2007, recounting of my life in journalism, I turned to Simon for an epigraph:

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school,

It’s a wonder I can think at all.

And though my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none,

I can read the writing on the wall.

When my daughter Jodie opened a Twitter account for me without my knowledge last year, instead of a photo she traced those first two lines from Kodachrome over a 1950s tableau of hot cars.

And, last week, when I sent my kids the story with Simon saying he may give up making music, daughter Lacey replied: “I now have Graceland stuck in my head.”

And I may be obliged to defend,

Every love, every ending,

Or maybe there’s no obligations now.

Maybe I’ve a reason to believe

We all will be received

In Graceland.

Uganda out, Kenya wavering

There was a time when countries used the Olympic stage to protest militarism, tyranny and oppression.

But, for decades now, most governments and their corporate partners have been invested in the business of the quadrennial spectacle.

And while pre-Olympic news reports from Rio have highlighted Zika virus and the city’s slums, crime and polluted waterways, only a cataclysm will supersede feel-good sports stories once the Games open August 5th.

Just in case, most large media outlets assign a news reporter to the Olympic city before and during the Games.

I was that guy 40 years ago, when an alliance of angry Africans ran me ragged in Montreal.

When they arrived in Canada for the 1976 Summer Games, many newly independent and black-ruled African countries were starting to flex their muscles, winning support for more and more sanctions to isolate the apartheid regime in South Africa and the racist government in Rhodesia.

They’d succeeded in getting South Africa kicked out of the International Olympic Committee before the Tokyo Games in 1964 and had done the same to Rhodesia before Munich in ’72.

In Montreal, they wanted New Zealand booted because that country had allowed its rugby team, the All Blacks – named for the color of its uniforms and not the color of the players’ skin – to tour South Africa.

New Zealand argued it had no control over a rugby team that had nothing to do with the Olympics. The IOC agreed.

But that didn’t satisfy the Africans. They launched what had become an Olympic tradition – a boycott.

The first serious move to shun and shame the Olympics came after the IOC awarded the 1936 Games to Berlin.

But calls for a U.S. boycott were drowned out by the head of the American Olympic committee, Avery Brundage, who railed about a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy.”

The show went on, with Hitler presiding, and goose-stepping Nazis providing the pageantry.

(Brundage would later stamp his brand of anti-Semitism on the IOC presidency, from 1952 to 1972, deciding after the Munich massacre of Israelis that a 24-hour pause in the Games was a suitable period of mourning.)

Twenty years after Berlin, the sorry state of the world precipitated the first boycotts of the Olympics.

It wasn’t a beef with the Aussies that kept countries from sending teams to Melbourne in 1956:

  • Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands protested the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
  • Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq cited the Suez Crisis.
  • China wouldn’t play nice with Taiwan.

By the time the Summer Games rolled around in July 1976, with memories of murder in Munich still fresh, the Olympics had truly become a political platform and a security-first show.

I was based in Montreal with UPI, having covered all the pre-Olympic comedy, mainly budget and construction fiascos.

Just before the July 17 opening ceremonies, word of the African boycott spread through Montreal like a bushfire.

And it was my job to chase it.

“Talk to the chefs de mission,” said UPI sports editor Mike Hughes.

“Why would I want to talk to the cooks?” I deadpanned.

He looked at me like I was the Olympic village idiot.

Mike was a man of the world, beginning with his exotic pedigree: born in India to an Irish-Italian father and Spanish-Portuguese mother, schooled in England, a veteran of the Royal Air Force before joining UPI in the 1950s.

He was about ten years older than me, but we seemed to get along well when we met in Montreal, killing a bottle of Johnny Red together before the Games began.

I realized quickly I could get his goat, as I did with my crack about cooks.

Leaving the press center, I began sprinting from office to office of the African teams.

My first stop was the chef de mission from Uganda.

“So, do you know Idi Amin? Nice guy?” I asked as an opener.

Receiving a quizzical stare as a reply, I got down to business: “In or out?”

“We’re going home,” he said.

“Mind if I use your phone?” I asked.

“Be my guest,” he said.

I called the UPI office in the press center.

“Uganda’s going home,” I shouted, and dashed to the next office.

All night it was:

“Nigeria’s out.”

“Tanzania’s out.”

“Ghana’s out.”

“Gambia’s out.”

“Kenya’s wavering.”

“Congo’s out.”

“Chad’s out.”

“Kenya’s out now – for sure – going home.”

By the end of the night, more than 20 countries had pulled their teams out of the Montreal Olympics.

This would be small potatoes compared to the boycotts at the next two Olympics.

Sixty-five countries joined the U.S.-led snubbing of the 1980 Moscow Games after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In response, the Kremlin and its toadies stayed away from Los Angeles in 1984.

Rhodesia, after it changed its name to Zimbabwe and the black majority took over the government under the brutish Robert Mugabe, would be welcomed back into the IOC in time for Moscow.

South Africa, as it moved from white apartheid oppression to democratic black-majority rule, was back in the Games at Barcelona in 1992.

Meanwhile, the IOC has moved from the hypocrisy of being the guardian of pure amateur sport to being the custodian of corporate interests.

If Panasonic and Samsung want to sell their toys in China, let’s give Beijing the Olympics – twice in 14 years.

Never mind that this summer’s host country, Brazil, is falling apart politically and economically, its government crippled by scandal and its people awash in poverty and crime.

Never mind that some athletes are afraid of the Zika virus, or human waste floating in the bay during the sailing events.

As long as Coke and McDonald’s are still on board, everything will be just peachy in Rio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re number one?

I fear for Brooke Henderson, the teenage golf prodigy, succumbing to the curse of the instant Canadian sports hero.

The 18-year-old from Ontario won her third LPGA tournament Sunday, at the same Portland (Oregon) Classic where she claimed her first tour title last summer.

But her biggest victory came three weeks ago, at the Women’s PGA Championship in Washington state, where she became only the third Canadian to capture one of golf’s majors.

That triumph was trumpeted with headlines both celebratory and chauvinistic.

  • Canadian phenom Brooke Henderson has ‘superstar qualities’ – Globe and Mail
  • Henderson’s win shared by a nation – TSN
  • Brooke Henderson has her Mike Weir moment – CBC

For Weir, it turned out to be only a moment, when the little lefty won the 2003 Masters and was instantaneously inflated into a giant in the history of Canadian sports.

Hero worship ensued. The media gushed. Corporate Canada swooned, throwing money at the first homegrown man to win a major.

Weir’s head swelled to Humpty Dumpty proportions. He precipitously fell down the golf rankings. (He’s now No. 1,703.)

Becoming a Canadian sports celebrity is easy. Staying at the top of your sport for more than a moment has proved tough.

I’m not talking about hockey players, or Steve Nash, or Fergie Jenkins. In team sports, birthplace can be merely a novelty, not a curse.

Not so with the two most popular individual sports, the glamor sports, golf and tennis.

There has never been a world-No. 1 Canadian golfer or tennis player. The same can’t be said for much smaller countries, such as Sweden (Borg, Edberg, Sorenstam) and Australia (Margaret Court, Laver, Newcombe, Greg Norman, Jason Day).

Yet the bar has always been low above the 49th parallel.

Eugenie Bouchard, now 22, was the Brooke Henderson of tennis just two years ago. And she didn’t even win a major.

Bouchard was the It Girl of Canadian sports in 2014, after losing in the semifinals of the Australian and French opens, and the final at Wimbledon.

The Montrealer was ranked fifth in the world, voted the Canadian Press female athlete of the year.

Her blonde good looks wooed Nike, a high-powered U.S. agent and a modelling firm.

Then, last year, her game went into the crapper. And it’s pretty much stayed flushed.

This weekend, she had a temper tantrum or two while being knocked out in the third round at Wimbledon.

A headline in the Daily Mail: Eugenie Bouchard faces fine after smashing racket during third round defeat …

The headline in the Toronto Star: Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard reaffirms her love of tennis

The Star, often a cheerleader, created the annual Lou Marsh Trophy, awarded to “Canada’s top athlete,” and named it for its sports editor after he died in 1936.

That year, the winner was Phil Edwards, known as the “Man of Bronze.”

An immigrant from British Guiana (now Guyana), the runner claimed his fifth medal – all bronze – in his third Olympics, the 1936 Berlin Games.

Ever since, the chant of We’re number three has periodically echoed through the annals of Canadian sports.

Olympians have won a snootful of Marsh trophies, for their excellence in such events as rowing, shooting, biathlon – skiing and shooting – kayaking, wrestling, bobsled, synchronized swimming and wheelchair racing.

Canadian Press hands out two athlete-of-the-year awards, one to each sex.

Greg Joy was CP’s man of the year in 1976, for his silver medal in the high jump at the Montreal Games, when Canada became the first host country not to win gold.

We’re number two!

Canadians have often changed their tune in recent decades, perhaps since Donovan Bailey won gold in the 100 metres at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, erasing the shame of Ben Johnson from Seoul in ’88.

But golfers and tennis players continued to be elevated above their accomplishments.

Sandra Post was the first Canadian golfer to win a major, the LPGA championship, in 1968, at the age of 20. She never won another.

But she wasn’t CP’s athlete of the year until 1979, for finishing second on the LPGA money list.

We’re number two!

Tennis players Carling Bassett and Helen Kelesi won the same award – twice each in the ’80s – and never won anything of note.

(I was assigned a story on Carling for Air Canada’s En Route magazine in 1981 when she was 13 years old. Her pedigree – granddaughter of media kingpin John W. Bassett and daughter of sports wheeler-dealer Johnny Bassett – was much the lure. Interviewing a child was a challenge.)

This century, the CP award has gone to tennis’ Aleksandra Wozniak (who?), Bouchard (twice), Milos Raonic (twice) and Henderson last year, after her first victory in Portland.

“There’s no question she’s going to be the number one player in women’s golf,” proclaimed one of the prophets on sports radio in Toronto on Monday.

We’re number one?

Maybe.

Someday.

Or maybe just for a moment.