My late 20th century middlebrow center of gravity
Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:
- My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
- I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
- I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
- I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
- I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
- Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
- I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
- I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
- Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
- I miss American Heritage magazine.
- I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
- I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
- My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
- Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
- Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
- I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
- My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
- I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
- Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
- Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
- Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
- I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
- I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
- Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
- There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.
A nostalgic afternoon in Manhattan
Over the years I’ve learned quite well that I am a creature of (1) nostalgia; (2) habit; and (3) cities. All of these came together on a Sunday afternoon in Manhattan.
As I mentioned in my last post, I made a quick weekend trip to New York to attend a workshop. I decided to extend my stay through Sunday afternoon and play tourist in Manhattan. Well, maybe not as a true tourist, as I spent twelve years in New York (1982-94), but certainly as a visitor enjoying the metropolis.
I started my day with an early lunch at the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger, a Greenwich Village diner at Broadway & Astor Place that I’ve been frequenting since my law student days at NYU during the early 80s. Consistent with almost every visit there for some 34 years, I enjoyed a bowl of the Cozy’s incredibly good split pea soup with croutons. Of the hundreds of items on the Cozy’s menu, I’ve probably tried less than a dozen of them: Split pea soup, turkey burger or hamburger, rice pudding (best I’ve ever had), or maybe a sandwich or a breakfast platter for a rare change of pace. That’s it!
Next was a walk up Broadway to 12th Street, home of the mighty Strand Bookstore, one of the largest used bookstores in the nation. When I first visited New York in the summer of 1982 in anticipation of starting law school that fall, the Strand was one of the few things on my must-see list. During law school years and beyond, a weekly visit to the Strand was part of my routine. Back then, it was a crowded, musty, dusty classic old used bookstore, and I loved the place. The Strand has gone slightly upscale since then, but every visit brings back fond memories and yields some new goodies.
I then walked up one block on Broadway to the Regal Union Square Stadium movie theatre, where I saw a revival screening of “Singin’ in the Rain” — my favorite movie of all time — as part of a 65th anniversary celebration of the film’s first release. As I wrote here three years ago, I had never seen this movie until the fall of my first year at NYU, when I was in desperate need of a study break and saw that it was playing at Theatre 80, a famous old revival movie theatre in the East Village. Little did know that within thirty minutes into the screening, I would know it was becoming my favorite movie.
Theatre 80 was small and cramped, but the crowd was loved the movie and applauded after the popular numbers. Regal Union Square had super comfortable seats and a huge screen, but the crowd was more sedate. Given my druthers, I’d prefer the Theatre 80 setting!
When I lived in New York, every week I’d pick up the latest copy of The Village Voice, the legendary alternative weekly. Founded in 1955, the Voice was still very much a part of New York’s cultural, political, and journalistic scene during the 1980s and 1990s. I loved its hard-hitting local political coverage and commentary, taking on the city’s power brokers with gusto. I also looked forward to its event listings, which played to those of us on a budget. Many a weekend was spent at movies, plays, programs, and other events touted in the Voice.
The current issue of the Voice, pictured above, showed how the times have changed. Running across the top was a bow to legendary Voice writer and reviewer Nat Hentoff, an iconoclastic defender of free speech and jazz aficionado, who passed away last week. The cover features were devoted to ways in which we can cope with the ups and downs of 2017, with an emphasis on mindfulness, healthy habits, and decluttering. It’s an interesting collection of articles, but the editors of the Voice circa 1987 would not have gone there.
Of course, anything to do with my experience of New York yesterday and today must include its sprawling subway system. As much as I love New York, its subways — more than any other element of life there — remind me that I now appreciate Boston’s smaller, slower scale in ways that I couldn’t have imagined, say, twenty years ago. The photo above captures just one of two big pages of weekend routing change announcements due to repairs, which are pretty much ongoing. By contrast, Boston’s comparatively compact subway system is much more manageable, notwithstanding its own major needs for upgrades.
And speaking of the creature of habit part, yes, I’ve mentioned most of these places and things on multiple occasions on this blog, usually with the same soggy sentiment. What can I say? They are parts of the story of my life and the sources of many treasured memories. I hope that you, dear reader, are not too weary of reading about them!
A quick trip to Brooklyn: A meet-up of past and present
During a quick visit to Brooklyn for a workshop related to my work, I didn’t expect that a nostalgia trip would be part of the deal. But it came with no extra charge!
As I wrote in 2015, I lived in Brooklyn for nine years, which back in the day was a housing refuge for fellow Legal Aid lawyers and other non-profit and public sector types pushed out by the sky high rents of Manhattan. I spent chunks of that time traipsing around Brooklyn Heights, a beautiful, historic neighborhood located one subway stop away from Manhattan.
This workshop was hosted by the First Unitarian Congregational Society in the Heights, located in a beautiful Gothic Revival building erected in 1844. As I approached the church on my walk from the subway, I encountered a familiar building that I hadn’t seen in decades: The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, Second Department. Oh my! I was admitted to the New York Bar in a ceremony there, and as a Legal Aid lawyer I would argue cases before the appeals court in its majestic courtroom.
I’m the kinda guy who doesn’t like to be late for things. Especially when I’m relying on public transportation to get me to and fro (which is, basically, almost all the time), I plan to get to my main destination a little early. The subway zipped me over from Manhattan to Brooklyn in minutes, so with time to kill and some rumbling in my stomach, I found Fascati Pizza, a classic New York slice joint, and ordered a slice of thin-crust cheese pizza. It hit the spot on a cold, wintry day — hot, flavorful, and crispy underneath.
Of course, my main purpose for this brief Brooklyn sojourn was not to wallow in memories, but rather to attend a workshop on bystander intervention training for harassment and related situations. The topic is pertinent to the work I’ve been doing on workplace bullying and abuse for many years. You can read a write-up on this excellent training session that I posted to my Minding the Workplace blog.
And so I found myself interspersing good memories with the work I’m doing today. The two are fairly distinct. My focus on issues of workers’ rights, workplace bullying and abuse, and human dignity was not on my radar screen when I was a young lawyer. I was drawn to law school generally by an interest in politics and a desire to engage in good works, but I was pretty clueless on so many things. Fast forward to today, I’m feeling the march of time, but I know what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.
Right now, however, I wish I could go back to that pizza place for another slice. My mouth is watering just looking at that photo.
Good food and sights in Boise
One of the benefits of being in academe is the opportunity to travel to interesting and new places for various academic events. I had the pleasure of making a quick trip to Boise, Idaho, to participate in a conference on equality in employment at the University of Idaho College of Law. The conference itself was excellent, and it gave me a chance to see something of this beautiful, compact city.
The unexpected bonus was the delicious food. The University of Idaho treated us to a couple of wonderful dinners at local restaurants, including a first-rate steak at a place called The BrickYard.
In addition, I met up with long-time friends and colleagues Gary and Ruth Namie, founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute, for breakfast on Saturday before catching my afternoon return flight to Boston. They took me to their favorite breakfast place, the Original Pancake House, famous for its apple pancakes that take 45 minutes to cook. I managed to polish off my plate pretty quickly.
In case you want photographic proof that I saw more of Boise than its eateries and a university conference room, here’s a shot of the beautiful State Capitol building, located in the city’s downtown.
And although you can’t see much of it, here is Boise State University’s football stadium, featuring its famous blue field.
Imagining the Ye Olde English coffee houses
In 1750, the first coffee house in England opened in Oxford, and it wouldn’t take long for the concept to take hold across the country. According to Aytoun Ellis’s The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-Houses (1956), by the end of that century, London was home to over 2,000 coffee houses, located throughout the city!
Ellis used the term “penny university” because a penny would gain entrance to a place of strong brew, the newspapers and periodicals of the day, and lively discussions about politics, literature, and commerce. Not surprisingly, when it came to ambience, location mattered a lot. Coffee houses located near universities filled with intellectual exchange. By contrast, much business would be conducted at coffee houses located in commercial districts. And still others would be host to gambling and other less refined activities.
Though I’d enjoy a quick time machine visit to a few of these old coffee houses, I doubt that I’d long to spend much time in them. I imagine that many were pretty loud and boisterous places, whereas my ideal of a coffee-consuming establishment is a café quiet enough to read or do a little work. Some brew to help awaken the mind and a place to sit down and read (or think) big thoughts . . . I like that.
Food marketing terms that make our mouths water
Marketing experts, I confess: If you advertise any food product using the word “homestyle,” I am roughly 150 percent more likely to buy it. I don’t care if we’re talking about homestyle auto parts with sauce, it still sounds better than regular auto parts with sauce.
Of course, we know that advertisers use homestyle because using homemade would be patently dishonest, unless a production facility roughly the size of Rhode Island counts as a home. So style it is.
While procrastinating on writing one of my exams, I took a few minutes to ponder other food marketing terms that may or may not work on me. I’m thinking more in terms of eating at home, rather than at a restaurant:
- “savory” — Makes me think, yummy.
- “gourmet” — This one may be too over the top. Especially if it’s frozen.
- “robust” — A hearty meal awaits.
- “satisfying” — Because who wants to still be hungry after eating?
- “crisp” — Because I’m not one to crave salads or veggies, this one isn’t a big mover.
- “crispy” — Okay, now we’re talking. As in crispy pizza. Or those crispy onion strings to improve the veggies.
- “zesty”– At least it suggests something with more than added salt to give it flavor.
- “tender” — Yup, works for me.
- “bakery” — Even if the bakery is a bunch of machines and assembly lines.
- “fresh” — Again, it has that salad/veggie taint, but it beats “old” or “decaying.”
- “handpacked” or “handcrafted” — I just hope they washed their hands.
- “artisan” — Yeah, but even Domino’s has artisan pizzas. (They’re not bad.)
- “easy,” “simple,” and/or “quick” to prepare — I’m for it.
And then there’s the gold standard of food marketing to guys like me: “delivery.” Where’s the phone?
Nostalgia for a New York experienced and occasionally imagined
My annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to New York included a traditional feast with family and friends and a lot of walking around to absorb the sights and sounds of the city. And while my trusty smartphone is not exactly state of the art, it continued to take decent pictures, a few of which I’m happy to share here.
Besides our Thanksgiving dinner, my favorite part of this visit was going with my cousin Judy, a true connoisseur of the New York theatre, to a performance of “The King and I” at Lincoln Center. Starring Kelli O’Hara (Anna) and Hoon Lee (King of Siam), this revival of a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic was simply breathtaking in every way. As the lead of this superb cast, O’Hara was other-worldly good, with flawlessly beautiful vocals and acting chops that brought a deep emotional intelligence to this show.
Returning to old haunts is usually part of any New York visit for me, and the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger at Broadway & Astor Place in Greenwich Village is a standard bearer. I’ve been going to this diner since my law school days at NYU, and almost every order includes a bowl of their awesome split pea soup.
You may be wondering, where are the people in these photos? As I explained in a post last year, although this particular Thanksgiving gathering has been a part of our lives for well over a decade, for some reason no one has ever started taking pictures! Phone cameras abound within our group, and at least some of us are of Japanese heritage! The statistical odds against this shutter shutdown must be off the charts.
My hotel was in lower Manhattan, so I did quite a bit of walking around there. Above is 120 Broadway, home to the New York Attorney General’s Office, where I spent three years as an Assistant Attorney General in the Labor Bureau before I started teaching. Robert Abrams was the AG then, and he set a high standard for the office. Many of my former colleagues have gone on to distinguished leadership positions in public service, the non-profit sector, and private practice.
Above is a place that exists for me in a kind of historical, imagined New York: Delmonico’s steak house in the Wall Street business district, a legendary dining establishment going back to the early 1800s. I’ve read about Delmonico’s in non-fiction books and novels about New York, and I’ve heard that they make an exceptional steak. But I’ve never eaten there! Someday it will happen. Medium-well for me, please, with a side order of hash browns.
When I lived in New York, a hefty share of my modest paychecks went to the Strand Bookstore. In recent years, the mighty Strand has undergone some interior remodeling to give the place a slightly more upscale feel, but it retains much of the dusty used bookstore feel that made it such a fun book hunting ground years ago. There I made my one Black Friday purchase for myself, a Folio Society edition of T.E. Lawrence’s (Lawrence of Arabia) Seven Pillars of Wisdom. With its slipcase and in excellent condition, I got it at a fraction of its original price.
My gustatory intake also included a couple of truly excellent tacos at La Palapa, a superb (and affordable!) Mexican restaurant on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan’s East Village. Cousin Judy happens to be a manager at La Palapa, but I’d be raving about it even if I didn’t have family working there.
My cousin Al gave me this new history of St. Mark’s Place. St. Mark’s is a culturally famous street, with a history rich in noted writers, musicians, artists and other historically significant folks. Today it has not escaped the sky high cost of Manhattan living, but it’s still a great site of urban Americana. And paging through the book, I imagine incarnations of a New York that I’ve never personally experienced. Such is the pull of this little island.
The finer things: Books, movies, coffee
As my friends will readily acknowledge, my spending priorities do not extend to matters of wardrobe, home and office design, and other things domestic. But in the Kingdom of Geekdom that is my world, books, movies, and coffee are more likely to separate cash from wallet. And on occasion, I will indulge in select higher end purchases in each of these three categories.
Let’s start with books. Powered by my ability to rationalize virtually any book purchase (not much willpower there, folks), I have become fond of editions published by the Folio Society, a British entity that specializes in collector-quality volumes of fiction and non-fiction works that have stood the test of time and critical review. Folio Society books are beautifully designed and produced, with print quality that is very easy on these middle-aged eyes.
But Folio Society editions are quite pricey when bought new, often ringing in at between $50 and $100 per volume and sometimes much higher. Consequently, I am judicious with purchases of new Folio books, usually waiting for sales when I will permit myself on occasional splurge, such as a stunning edition of Howard Carter’s The Tomb of Tutankhamun. More frequently, I will scour used bookstores in person and online for copies in quality condition. Perhaps a silver lining of today’s retreat from hard-copy book reading is that fine quality used volumes can be had at bargain prices.
Next, on to movies, where DVDs from the Criterion Collection catch my eye. Criterion editions are first-rate prints of acclaimed films, accompanied by lots of extras on the DVD and a booklet with original essays about the film. Pictured above is one of my favorite movies, “The Naked City” (1948), a classic crime story filmed on site in post-war New York. The Criterion edition is a beautifully restored print, capturing the city’s vistas in sharp, vivid black and white.
Relatively speaking, Criterion editions are not as expensive as Folio Society books, but they are priced at premium rates nonetheless. Here, too, patience and bargain sleuthing yield dividends. Barnes & Noble runs a half-price sale of Criterion Collection films once or twice a year, and poking around online will uncover pre-viewed copies at decent prices as well.
Well kids, if we’re talking books and movies, then coffee can’t be far behind. I save money by usually making coffee at my home or office. Yet I must confess, my tastes are more expensive than Maxwell House or Folger’s. I often opt for a fair trade blend from my beloved City Feed & Supply store across the street, or maybe a good brand on sale at the local CVS.
And here’s the splurge: Recently, I used a gift card from GoCoffeeGo to try the house blend from Henry’s House of Coffee, a popular, long-time San Francisco coffee roaster. I must say that it is one of the best, most aromatic coffees I’ve ever had. This will have to be a periodic treat rather than a regular presence in my coffee rotation, but it’s so good that I’ll continue to make the occasional purchase!
National Coffee Day: Ramblings of a middlebrow coffee connoisseur
I don’t know which trade association declared it as such, but today is National Coffee Day. And so I join with millions of others in offering a toast to the marvelous brew.
I am a relative latecomer to the party. I didn’t start drinking coffee until my mid-30s. Once I started, however, I was on my way. Fortunately, this also marked a sharp decline in my consumption of soft drinks. Since then, in addition to reaping the potential health benefits of coffee (e.g. here, here, and here), I’ve spared my system, oh, about ten gazillion tablespoons of sugar and high fructose corn syrup!
Like many, I start my day with a big cup of coffee. I’ll often follow with a cup later in the day, especially when my natural late-afternoon energy lull kicks in. On occasion, if I’ve got work to do during the evening, I’ll put on a pot of coffee for burning the midnight oil. (Its effects on my eventual sleep usually manifest at the other end; it doesn’t stop me from getting to sleep, but I’ll wake up earlier with a slight buzz.)
In other words, I’m a moderate but resolute coffee drinker. I don’t down gallons of the stuff, but it’s part of my every day routine. And without question, I typically associate coffee with work. Both its stimulant qualities and the idea of drinking coffee tell me it’s time to be productive.
I usually make my own coffee. At home I use a standard drip coffee maker. I’m partial to Equal Exchange’s fair trade blends, which I buy at the small food/convenience store across the street. At times I’ll buy coffee online to swap in some variety. At work we have a Keurig coffee maker in my office suite. My selection of K-cups varies, from Dunkin’ Donuts dark roast to trying out brands on sale at nearby stores.
When I started drinking coffee, I added creamer and sugar. A couple of years ago, I dropped the sugar. Now I drink it either black or with enough creamer (usually a coconut or soy product, or, in a pinch, Coffeemate).
At a cafe, I’ll usually opt for a basic cappuccino, maybe with a teaspoon of sugar. But I’m not into fancy coffee drinks. I simply don’t have the patience to fashion the order.
Decaf? No. It’s just wrong.
As you can tell by these ramblings, I’m a middlebrow coffee connoisseur. I don’t grind my own beans or use a French press, but I prefer my coffee a good step or two beyond sludge brews. There are a few brands I avoid because, frankly, they don’t even smell like coffee when you open the package. But otherwise I can pretty much make do with whatever finds its way into my mug or cup.
A cool breeze in the neighborhood
It was such a pleasure to be outside today. Originally I decided to go into downtown Boston, but after weighing the long mass transit delays caused by some weekend track work on the Orange Line (my subway line into the downtown), I opted for a walk around part of my Jamaica Plain (JP) neighborhood, with a couple of planned pitstops.
It was a great decision. The weather was perfect: Sunny, 70s, with a cool breeze.
Boston’s history of urban planning and design is one of big hits and big misses. Among the former is the Southwest Corridor Park, a stretch of parkway that runs roughly parallel to the Orange Line tracks. I decided to take a walk along the park before cutting up an intersecting street toward the shops and eateries of JP.
As you can see, it’s a really nice, picturesque walk. On the right are a man and his dog. As I approached, I said hi to the doggie, and he turned out to be a happy pooch. JP is a very animal friendly neighborhood, and this little guy was only one of several canines I encountered on my afternoon walk.
Many moons ago, JP used to be a suburb of Boston. This short stretch of the park below may represent what the neighborhood looked like generally before it became more urbanized. Looking at the photo, it’s hard to believe that subway and rail lines are dug out on the left and that a city street is on the right.
I eventually walked out of the park and up a street toward the heart of JP. My first stop was Papercuts, JP’s new and only standalone bookstore. I wrote about this great little indie bookshop back in December. Today I picked up a couple of paperbacks, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933).
Next came a late lunch at the City Feed & Supply on Centre Street. (The City Feed’s original, smaller store is just seconds away from my condo.) I opted for a soup & sandwich, featuring the jerk chicken soup pictured below and half of a Cuban sandwich. Both were delicious.
I spent some time at City Feed enjoying my food, catching up on e-mails via my iPad, and reading the Sunday newspaper.
Then it was time to walk back home. I pretty much reversed course, except when I got to the Southwest Corridor Park, I stuck to the paved areas running alongside the grass and the dirt pathway.
I had intended to be a bit more productive today, but I’ll get some work done tonight — uh, at least after watching the NBA Finals on television.