Old, Fat, and Drunk

 

Fred Exley is mentioned in the same breath as Hemingway, London, et al. The great writers cut down by the drink. It turns out that I learned a lot of this connection well after I photographed him and in the process managed to piss him off.  I was assigned to shoot the author in mid-September ’88. I met the AP writer, Bill Kates, out at the house on Cazenovia Lake where Exley was staying. It was 9:30 in the morning; a beautifully cool, sunny, breezy day. I knew next to nothing about Fred Exley. I hadn’t even read his best known work, “A Fan’s Notes.” So I went into the assignment with a certain degree of indifference. When we got there though, he broke out cans of cold beer. Don’t remember the brand, Bud probably. But that little wrinkle warmed me to my subject considerably. Now I was thinking that this was really cool. I was catching a mid-morning buzz with a famous writer. Dig it. But I was still kind of at a loss as to what to do with the guy. What kind of picture. I didn’t see any sense in posing him. The setting was irrelevant. So I just shot tight pictures of him hanging out. In hindsight I would done things much differently. A backlight portrait, something of that sort. Because the pictures I made sucked. They were really bad. For starters, the light was brutal. And I didn’t even bother to put some fill on him. His manner was intimidating, too. He talked about attending the Super Bowl and sitting with Morgan Fairchild. He referred to her as “a fucking cunt.” That made me wonder whether the root of his sentiment was really Morgan Fairchild’s issue. That kind of matter-of-fact aside left me with little initiative other than sit on the side while he conducted the interview, shoot a few photos, and drink beer with an edgy writer. In any case, when the story and the pictures were published, he was pissed off. At me. Very personally, seriously pissed off at me. For making him look “old, fat, and drunk.” And he had every right to be pissed off at me. The pictures did make him look old, fat, and drunk, especially in that god-awful, harsh, direct sunlight. And frankly, I was never all that upset that Fred Exley had it out for me. It was like a badge of honor. We might as well have gotten into a drunken bar fight in Havana. That scar right there? That’s where the legendary Fred Exley really wanted to break an empty rum bottle over my head. 

Market Report, 4/14/18

My first market of the year. No excuse for not going earlier, like in February, but there it is. Lots and lots of people still can’t get their heads around the idea that fresh in-season local produce is only a fraction of what’s happening up at Syracuse’s Saturday regional market  Nonetheless, I immediately showed how out of shape I am by getting ripped off right out of the gate. I jumped on the first duck eggs I found for $6.50 per dozen. One building over another guy had them at $5 per. Stupid, lazy, undisciplined. One of my market enablers, Seely, actually used a pretty foul reproductive anatomical analogy for what I did, but it was right on and I deserve it. And what’s worse is that I’m going to plow right through those eggs, which are now tainted by my embarrassment, just so I have to run back out next week to restock at the lower price. This what happens; this how I box myself into making unnecessary decisions to cover my tracks… But I also got a 7.5-oz. bag of dried wild porcinis for $5. That was a good buy. I’ll reconstitute them and set them in the white of my sunny-side duck egg omelets. Take some of the sting out of being publically humiliated. I also picked up a pint of hand-crafted switchel for $5. It doesn’t say “hand-crafted” on the label, but that’s what it is now that I bought in the wake of the duck egg debacle…  My friend Yann is another of my enablers, but even worse because he’s a local food celebrity and therefore a recognized and revered figure at the market. Food shopping with him is like getting stoned with Willie Nelson. The headiness of the company excuses the immorality of the excess. Anyway, he claimed one last exemption from a normally-weekly venture for what he assured me was his last ski outing of the season. I strongly suspect that  “skiing” was really “bunny hopping” from patch to patch of remaining manufactured snow. That’s all the hand crafted he was getting this morning…

Wafer Madness

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I know what’s going down with the Necco Wafers. Almost all of Central New York is vulnerable right now to the recent national panic buying of the marginally-worthy candy, but I’m right on top of it. I’m in a good place with the Necco’s.

The Washington Post hitched a ride on the recent Wafer run with a story this morning that confirmed the atmosphere of instability surrounding the 170-year-old New England candy company’s future. The Necco’s plant, located just outside Boston in Revere, Mass., is facing closure and the potential layoff of its 500 employees for lack of new ownership. The attendant ripple of anxiety has been felt nationwide as formerly indifferent consumers are now faced with the very-real possibility that they will no longer have Necco Wafers around to dismiss by their own choice.

Some places in CNY are offering the humble tablets, referred to fondly by some as “plaster surprise,” still unbothered by hoarders and speculators, who have been driving the widespread wafer madness. The Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse for example, is still an unassuming, reliable source of Necco Wafers. You can find them there, ready to disappoint, with the familiar “faintly-resembling chocolate” and “hint-of-mixed fruit” flavors. They’re an appropriate theme candy in the museum–historical setting, historical candy. Yours for a buck and a quarter per roll, plus the 8% state sales tax. No finder’s fee yet. Now here’s my end of it: I happen to have a part-time gig at the museum, which includes running the shop where you can cop some Necco’s without drawing much attention. That means that for a few hours a week, I control a nice, cool, quiet point of purchase of a white-hot commodity. A few critical hours in a really good place. My stock is on a fast rise.

Up to now, the product has been kept out in the open in the museum shop, tucked in with the rock candy on a stick and the olde-fashioned candy sticks in a jar. They’re part of the authentic Erie Canal candy experience we provide. Which is to say that they’re as comparable to today’s sweets as were the Canal-era Tinder and Bumble. I’ll tell you what though, starting right now, that merch is going in a secure location behind the counter, along with the Erie Canal baby formula. We have to discourage pure Necco’s being purchased in bulk, ground up, cut with Dr. Scholl’s foot powder, repressed, and winding up passed off as “oNcc Wafeers.” My buyers have to be able to trust the Necco they’re getting from me.

So for the short term, the way I see it, we have a healthy, vigorous convergence of fortune. Those 500 Necco Wafer crafters in Revere, their livelihoods on the line, are now putting out a must-have product. A cult product. And I’m seeing to that product while there’s bedlam in the street. It’s not a bad place to be.

 

 

 

Fire Insurance

Look, the way I see it, you own prime real estate in mid-town Manhatten, you put up an impressive (and well-built) 644-foot building, you get to do whatever you damn well please with it. And if it’s in a really, really primo spot, like, say, 725 5th Ave. between 56th and 57th? Slap your name right on that bad boy. Go ahead and call the number of floors too, while you’re at it. Because it doesn’t matter how many floors there truly are–it’s your (well-built) building. So if the floor count is actually, say, 58 stories? Call it 68, what the hell. On paper it’s a 68-story structure. People like being on  higher floors anyway, and they’ll gladly pay more for space on them. Everybody wins!

Now here’s the thing: If you’re holding a 68-story (well-built) property that in reality has only 58 floors, you got 10 phantom floors there. Hell, you’ve got floors to play with. Floors in reserve. Something bad, like, say, a fatal fire, happens on one of the actual floors? There are, on paper, 10 more stories! You’ve literally got floors to burn! So just take one of those 10 blank floors and sub it right in there. Presto! Clean, history-free floor! That blaze never happened in your 67-story (well-built) building. And the fatal? Who lives in a non-existent space? I never saw the guy. Besides, you, the (well-built) structure’s prominent namesake have a handy tag for anyone who thinks they’re safe in an apartment that had no sprinkler system installed: (LOSER!).

 

 

Tiger Woods Finishes 2018 Masters

Tiger Woods is back again. Cynics and naysayers alike were silenced as golfs iconic driving force, a man of iron determination, completed the 2018 Master’s tournament by firing a 3-under 69, leaving his indelible claw marks on this appearance for the ages at 289, tied for 31st place as he clacked his way into the clubhouse .

It was Tiger’s first attack on the Master’s field since 2015, a two-year gap. It was also just Tiger’s second hunt for victory at Augusta since 2013; he’d been missed 3 of the last 4 Marches Through the Azaleas. Venerable CBS golf-whisperer Jim Nantz described this year’s links showdown “the most anticipated Masters of our lifetime.” Had Woods climbed to the top of the mountain and held on,  it would have been one of “the epic moments in sports,” commentator and former Green-Jacket wearer Nick Faldo agreed.

As it was, Tiger commanded epic galleries of devout patrons. (No mobs, please!). They watched transfixed by his every move, some urinating involuntarily at the power of his explosive drives off the tee. Tournament committee members had taken great pains to  vet unfamiliar petitioners for grounds access. Any prior, visible indications of undesirable behaviors or general uncoolness were considered to be sufficient cause for Augusta National to issue “redacted exposure” tickets, holders of which were only allowed terse recaps of Tiger’s stroke-by-stroke progress by designated spokes-marshals. Exchanges of rumor and gossip among spectators, especially regarding Tiger’s daily color schemes, were strictly prohibited to prevent deviation from PGA-approved reverence. Indeed, the shouting of certain clothing combinations, like “argyle sweater vest and grey slacks!” following shots were among the forbidden vocal expressions at Augusta.

Woods started Sunday’s final round having shot 73,75,72, which adds up to 220, tied for 40th place (T40 on the leader chart). That was better than the tee totals of greens glitterati like Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, and also Sergio Garcia, who didn’t even make the cut. Tiger’s 4th-round tee time of 11:40 am was a little embarrassing perhaps; his playing partner Rafa Cabrera Bello might have drawn up his shirt collar a bit, but the matter at hand quickly turned to the pursuit of feathered outcomes as the drama of each hole unfolded underneath foreboding skies. And TW didn’t disappoint, although he was careful to temper his releases of profound greatness. Following a frenzied, bowel-voiding 5-hole run of bird-par-eagle-par-bird from 13 through 17, the Tige-meister thoughtfully brought his congregation softly back to earth, landing gently with a soulful bogey on 18. It was magnificent.

The last few hours will proceed for the players still on the course at Augusta. The canned birdsong, the immaculate greenscape, still alive with what we all saw or at least heard tell of this April Sunday. If you’re not driving a Buick by now, why, you just don’t understand golf.

 

The Lady Who Cried

The State Fair is an annual ritual for so many people. As a local photojournalist I assigned to cover over more than 30 years of the fair and a wide spectrum of names who have dropped by the fairgrounds. I’ve photographed visits by a sitting U.S. president and his senate-candidate wife, as well as other political figures, popular music performers , and oddball celebrities. All of them drawn, however briefly, to that 10-day event held in our community. Not one of them was remotely as interesting as the countless other folks I met whose names I don’t remember. And certainly no one more than memorable the lady who cried.

On the first day of the fair one year, I was sent out to the Horticulture Building to photograph a woman from Madison County. The homegrown garlic she had entered in the produce judging had won First Place Premium. In the whole state. Right from her garden in Madison County to first place in the whole state. And not only that but she was going to get her picture in the paper so everybody could know all about it the next morning. By the time I met her she had already been crying. I made the pictures in short order and then we talked for a little while. She was as you might imagine a lady from a rural area. She was very sweet, in a flower-print country dress, with grey hair and glasses, and quite overwhelmed by the experience. I was humbled to consider that I was part of a big moment in her life.

I had never given much thought, especially at that early point in my career, to the idea that for most of the people I met every day, being photographed for a newspaper or magazine was a really big deal. In the course of my everyday job, I never saw the point of view of the high school athlete or a person with an achievement who didn’t normally command that kind of attention. All of the famous people I’ve covered sure as hell didn’t share that perspective. But my experience with the garlic lady at the fair, and her own reaction to unexpected attention, came back to me in another way just a few years later.

Living in upstate New York is such a joy for me because we’re surrounded by beautiful countryside. Things like our farms, lakes, streams, woods and fields, that so many other people come from other places to experience here, I get to be around all the time. One year, for example, a friend offered me a little garden plot to play with. So I decided to grow tomatoes. I did that in no small part with that lady from Madison County and her prized garlic in my mind. I immediately imagined how cool it would be to even enter something in the state fair. With that I got to work on the tomato garden. I put in the manure and I staked and trimmed the plants and made sure they were watered every day. Then in June I had to go over to the fairgrounds and pay the five-dollar entry fee for my Roma-variety tomatoes. Cool. Every day I tended the garden and talked about rain and fretted about wind storms with people at the farmers’ markets as if I knew what the hell I was doing. It was a blast. Then one day I got my entry tags in the mail along with my complimentary fair passes and exhibitor’s parking permit and now this was just over the top. Never mind that I would have my usual press credentials that got me into the fair and let me park wherever I wanted. No, I had to experience this as purely as I could. I didn’t just take a day off for it. I took the day before, the day of, and the day after the start of the fair. At sunup on opening day of the fair–Judgement Day–I went over to my tomatoes, carefully selected the five best representatives from among them, according to the judges’ specifications of color, condition, uniformity, and the other two I’ve forgotten. Then I took them over to the fair.

As soon as I got into the Horticulture Building I felt like a fraud. I mean look at these people–their straw hats and denim overalls and flower aprons. These are crazy people. Ringers. They’re probably looking at me like I just bought my entries from Wegman’s. Jeez, if some idiot runs out of tomatoes over at one of the sausage stands they’re gonna come for mine first. I must have been an easy read because the woman at the check in could see that I had no idea what I was doing. She asked politely if it was my first time entering and after a mumbled reply, she kindly helped me set up my spot. I might have been clutching the hem of her dress during all this, but the tomatoes had to be sweating from their own nervousness. That was it. I left my entry on a straw plate in the midst of all the other tomato entries and went home with a really good story that would certainly end with humiliation the next day. That would have been fine because I had already had more fun than I ever expected. I was thankful the lady from Madison County got me to try finding out just a little of what she felt leading up to the day I took her picture.

I really don’t remember many of the details from the next morning. Just that I was standing in front of the straw place mat with my five tomatoes on it. But those couldn’t mine because there was a ribbon for Third Place Premium next to them. But that was my name right there on the tag and now I’m can’t move and here comes the nice woman who helped me set up yesterday. She was all smiling at me, “Third Premium on your first try. That almost never happens,” she said. Then I was crying big fat tears and shaking and my nose was running… That was what the lady who cried was all about. Right then and there I understood exactly what she had felt on her own day just a few years before.

I walked on air for the rest of the morning. I under the impression that everybody at the fair was looking at me thinking I was wearing a Third Premium ribbon for having faded jeans. I had pinned the thing to my pants leg. The prized tomatoes ended up at the food bank. I went back to work photographing famous people, and also, most especially, other folks who I understood a little better now. I knew something.