There is knowledge that predates memory.  There are things that you learn, and so things that you know, before you remember actually learning anything at all.  This woman is Mommy.  That man is Daddy.  The sky is blue.  Ed Koch is the mayor.  These things were just facts.  Incontrovertible, wonderful little facts.

I should back up.  I was born in Brooklyn and lived there until I was about six years old.  My friends with whom I went to High School1 like to give me a hard time about this.  They like to tell me I didn’t live there long enough to get to say “I’m from Brooklyn” in any kind of serious way.  But they’re really very wrong about this.

I remember when subway cars were covered in graffiti.  I remember those little metal handles that I couldn’t reach on the bus instead of the metal bars that transverse the coaches of today.  I remember walking over the bridge with my mom into Sheepshead Bay.  I remember the teenagers walking down the street with giant boomboxes slung over one shoulder.  I also remember that mugging was a think that really happened and that we never went to Coney Island because that’s where drugs were sold, and whatever drugs were, they were bad.  Most important of all, perhaps, I knew people who believed it was a cardinal sin to like the Yankees because once upon a time they were Dodger fans.2

My friends, on the other hand, were from the suburbs.  They came from towns that probably didn’t even have mayors, or if they did have mayors, children certainly didn’t know their names.  But I knew who my mayor was.  He was Ed Koch.  And he was a big deal, even to a kid.

Why was he a big deal to a kid?  I honestly don’t know.  In my own head, I have a memory of him being on Sesame Street once.  I’d swear on my best bottle of scotch that this is true, but I did a (brief) Google search tonight and could find nothing to corroborate this memory.  Still, if it is true, then he was trading in some pretty high valued child-currency.  So that’s one thing, at least.

For another, from the perspective of a Jewish kid, he looked and sounded and acted (through child-eyes at least) like somebody who would be your favorite uncle.  In fact, somebody you’d prefer to be an uncle over some of your actual uncles.  Beyond this, it gets fuzzy.  He was a presence, and no there’s doubt about that.  He was as much a part of the city as those graffiti covered subways and Delmar’s pizza and rainbow cookies.  Although when you’re a kid, you don’t think of these things as being a part of the city, but simply as being a part of life.

Keep in mind, Ed Koch was the mayor every single day of my life, from the day I was born until the day we left Brooklyn.  And I think he was still mayor when we moved back to New York two years later, though this time to Long Island.  In fact, he must have been, because I remember David Dinkens running for mayor and thinking it would be great if the black man won.3  So maybe this not only starts to get at why Ed Koch was an important character in the background of my childhood, but why to this day he has remained one of my favorite public figures.

We have a funny way of romanticizing things from our childhood.  Most things that we take for granted as children tend to take on a sort of warm glow as we get older.  The crenellated brickwork around neighbors front yards that I used to walk on, where the space between the bricks was just big enough to fit my little feet in, for example.  We had a pool in the backyard, which I barely remember.  But I remember the bricks.  And I remember Ed Koch.

Fast forward to 2009.  I discovered a program called Road to City Hall on NY1.4  And to my infinite delight, I discovered that Mayor Koch had a weekly segment where he sat with retired senator Al D’Amato.5  The two of them would shoot the political breeze for ten or fifteen minutes.  They would crack wise but they would speak wisely underneath it all.  The segment, by the way, was called Wise Guys.6

And do you know what?  I still loved this guy.  This wasn’t about nostalgia anymore.  Here was the real Ed Koch, in the flesh.  There are lots of words you can use to describe hizzoner, but the two words that fit best – and I think he’d agree – are “New” and “Yorker.”  Yes, he had the attitude.  And yes, he had the wonderful accent.  But there was more to it than that.

I once heard somebody describe New Yorkers this way: People in other parts of the country are nice without being kind, but New Yorkers are kind without being nice.  That was Ed Koch, I think.  He didn’t pull punches.  He didn’t sugar coat.  He damn well never told people what they wanted to hear.  But there was a kindness underneath this.  He loved politics.  He loved New York.  And he loved its people.  This last bit, I think is the most important.

I remember I met Governor Pataki once, at a museum function.  When I shook his hand, he looked right past me and his handshake was so weak I wondered how he ever got a job in his life.  I never got to meet Ed Koch.  But he was famous for being out on the streets, throwing his “How’m I doin’?” line at his fellow citizens.

“How’m I doin’?”  That’s something that stuck with my parents, I can tell you that.  Years after his mayoralty, if the name Ed Koch ever came up, my parents would look at each other and say, “Hey! How’m I doin’?!”  I’m sure there are people who think this was shtick.  But emperor Bloomberg, who supposedly rides the train to work,7 you don’t see him asking regular joes how they’re doing.  And Rudy?  “America’s Mayor”?  Fuggedaboutit.

Today’s New York is a bit sterile.  I’m not saying it’s worse.  It’s probably a better city to live in today than it was back then, by most measurable standards.8  And yet, it feels like it’s lost some of its soul, some of its grit, some of that edge that New Yorkers fancy themselves as being proud of.

To that end, I think Ed Koch reminds us – reminds me, anyway – of a city that doesn’t exist anymore.  A city that had CB’s and the Ramones.  A city without surveillance cameras.  A city that had xxx shops in Times Square instead of Disneyland.  But also a city with hookers and muggings and drug deals and a real AIDS problem.  Sometimes I want that city back, and sometimes I think that’s an insane idea.  But I’ll tell you this, I want that mayor back.

I want to say Ed Koch was one of a kind.  In a lot of ways that’s true.  You better believe there was only ever one Ed Koch.  But it’s also not true.  Because he was really just a regular New Yorker.  An exceptional New Yorker, to be sure, but a regular New Yorker all the same.  And there were lots of people just like him.  I don’t think we’ll ever see the likes of Ed Koch again, as much because he really was one of a kind as because, well, they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Farewell, Mister Mayor.  Rest in Peace.  Ya did great.

  1. On Long Island. []
  2. A point which probably deserves a post of its very own. []
  3. Paging Dr. King; Idealistic child, line 1. []
  4. It’s properly called “Inside City Hall,” but they change the name during the run-up to elections, and this is when I happened to find it. []
  5. Who I’m pretty sure is more crooked than a dog’s hind leg, but who is also endlessly charming. []
  6. Perfection. []
  7. I say “supposedly” because I’ve never seen it.  Never even met anyone who’s seen it.  But that’s his story and he sticks to it. []
  8. If you have the money.  But then, I suppose that’s always been true. []

The Joys of Radio

One of the more beautiful things about childhood is the way we use our imaginations.  We imagine anything anywhere and at any time.  It may look like we’re just stacking up pillows, but to us, it’s a fortress.  To grownups, they’re just a pile of blocks, but we know it’s a castle, and we know who lives there.  GI Joe doesn’t fight on the living room floor, he’s out in the desert or in the mountains or the beaches, defending America against COBRA (and possibly Zombies).  My parents were only vaguely aware that Normandy – Omaha beach, to be specific – had somehow come to occupy an entire room of our house.  It was, I should note, made quite clear to them however, that they were not to disturb the little green army men if they cared at all about a free Europe.1

But as we grow up and stop playing with toys, we leave these sorts of imagineered worlds behind.  Not entirely, of course.  I think that we like movies because they take us someplace else, and books too.  I also happen to think this has a large part to do with what’s behind the trending interest in the topos known as the “Zombie Apokalypse.”  I think people like to imagine themselves in a lawless broken down world.  How would they survive?  What would they do?  Are they up to the challenge?  For our parents it was the Wild West.  For us, I suppose it’s Zombies.

Movies, books, Apokalypseis Nekroplaneton2 are all fine vehicles for the adult imagination.  But for me, there is something particularly special about radio.  And more particularly, listening to ballgame or a hockey game on the radio.

Listening to a game on the radio is not really something that one can do casually, or sporadically.  Certainly that’s fine if all you want to do is catch up on the score, or have the game on in the background.  Now television is great because you can see what’s happening.  You can see how far the centerfielder had to run to make that amazing catch.  You can see the split save the goalie just made.  And there’s much to be said for that.  But your limited by where the cameras are.  You’re limited by what the director chooses to put up on the screen.

Oh but radio!  You can imagine all of it.  You can put yourself right in the front row.  Better yet, you can put yourself on the field.  You can be right there on the ice.  You can be the catcher, seeing that fastball whistling in at you, 95 miles per hour.  You can stand at shortstop and watch your centerfielder fly like superman.  You can be the defenseman trailing the play, and see the look of heartbreaking astonishment on your winger’s face as the goalie impossibly robs him.

You have to work for it.  It’s not easy.  You’ve got to take the time to shut out the rest of the world.  To close your eyes and listen.  I mean really listen.  When you watch a game on TV you’re only peripherally aware of the sounds of the game.  But when you close your eyes and listen to the radio, you can here the breeze, really hear the chatter in the stands.  The crack of the bat isn’t some dull noise that accompanies a picture anymore.  You anticipate it.  You hold your breath, your ears prick up…pop or crack?  That sound tells you what happened before the announcer does.  You can hear the sound of steel cutting into ice, boards rattling, stick on puck.  There’s a whole orchestra playing behind that ballet of a hockey game.  The music tells a story.

Baseball is a game that’s made for radio.  Baseball is always the same.  Players are exceptional.  They make exceptional plays.  But the game is always the same.  The batter always gets three strikes.  He always stands 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher.  You can see it without having to see it.  Not that the visual doesn’t have value.  The poise of Mariano Rivera.  The way David Ortiz towers over the plate like a volcano waiting to erupt.  Jose Reyes going first to third.  These are sights to behold, surely.  But in the moment, they’re abstractions.  The Mick could hit the ball for miles.  Jackie would have people on the edge of their seats, just waiting, waiting for  him to steal second.  It’s all happened before, and it will happen again.  So in baseball it’s all about the moment.  And radio allows you to transport yourself right inside that moment.  All you have to do is close your eyes, listen…and imagine.

And of course there are the announcers.  Some are better than others, of course, and some are head-scratchingly banal.  But you listen to them day in and day out, and you begin to form a relationship.  You know their mannerisms, you know how they think, you can almost anticipate what they’ll say next.  In a strange way, they become your friends.  You know them.  Last summer, I bought the MLB app for my iPhone.  I made it a habit of listening to at least a few innings of every game on the opposing teams broadcast.  It’s like being invited over to somebody’s home, somebody you don’t know that well, but somebody who loves the game like you love the game.  And you spend time with them.  You get their perspective, get to know what they think about certain players, how they read certain situations.  And then I’ll switch back to the home broadcast, and it’s like coming home for the late innings, opening some beers with a good friend.

Hockey, admittedly, is much harder on the radio.  In baseball, you know where all 9 men are at any time.  In hockey, without your eyes, you know where the goalies are, and maybe the puck carrier.  You have to fill in the rest with your knowledge of the game.  But it still works.  And man is it exciting!  A good hockey game has a pace.  It has its own rhythm.  And a good play-by-play man will capture that rhythm with his voice.  You feel the rise and fall, and you hear the crowd behind it all.  On a lazy summer Sunday, I can put a ball game on and easily drift off to sleep for a few innings.  But hockey?  Forget it.  My heart is up in my throat.

This winter I’ve been developing a new and perhaps somewhat unique relationship with hockey on the radio.  I am a die-hard Islander fan.3 As such, I’ve been listening to their radio broadcasts for years; especially in the last two years when I could no longer watch them on television.  But this year, as part of my ongoing effort to learn French, I’ve taken to live-streaming the Montréal Canadien broadcasts.  And although the Islanders will always be my one true love, because I’ve spent so much time listening to them (and reading about them), le CH have sort of become m’équipe adoptive.

At first, I was completely lost.  But with each passing period, I am able to pick out a little bit more.  And while I often don’t know exactly what’s going on, I can at least follow the play pretty well.  Doing so, however, ties in all of what I said above.  I listen to the sounds of the crowd, the sounds of the skaters, the sticks, anything that will give me a little more information about what’s going on.  And over it all, the rhythm of the call rides like a wave, catching it all up together.  In my mind’s eye, the picture may be a little grainy, and definitely fuzzy around the edges, but it’s still hockey and I can feel the rhythm of the game and I can imagine what’s happening.

And here too I’m developing a relationship with the announcers.  The excitable rapid-fire play-by-play man, who speaks with precision and enunciates clearly.  The slower, more monotone color man, whose conversational banter is almost impossible for me to grasp.  But how he felt about the Habs’ defenseman taking a penalty in the closing minutes with his team down a goal was perfectly clear in any language.

Maybe this isn’t for everybody.  Maybe some people need to see the game.  Maybe we don’t all have the patience or the attention span anymore to put everything aside for even an hour, to just sit, eyes closed, and listen.  And imagine.  But I urge everybody to give it a try.  You might be surprised by the places you’ll take yourself.

  1. I was perhaps a bit precocious. []
  2. The technical term I’ve logodaidalicized for such an event: lit: Apocalypse of the Wandering Dead []
  3. And I’ve been dying a hard death with that team pretty much every year since 1994. []

De Caeli Natura (On the Nature of Heaven)

Before I begin, I want to thank my friend Anne Thrope once again for contributing to this space last week.   Hopefully she’ll be kind enough to do so again in future.  As to this week’s post, I’d like to dedicate it to the memory of Christopher Hitchens.  What follows is a bit of irreverent fun on the nature of heaven.  Take from it what you will. 

(On the Nature of Heaven)

Suppose for a moment that you believed in heaven.  And suppose for a moment that it was the sort of heaven that more or less mirrored earth.  That is to say, it’s not just disembodied souls floating around on clouds playing harps.1  But rather a more tangible existence, with proper human bodies, homes with south facing windows, locally grown grass fed beef, bartenders who know how to make proper martinis,2 and true double headers.

But if we accept for the sake of this silly argument that heaven is indeed something like this, then it seems to me, we must consider two factors:  Age and Time.  Let us consider age first.  And by age, I of course refer to the manifested chronological age of the heavenly habitant.  I think we must concede that if one is to live – well, not live, strictly speaking, after all, one is only in heaven if one is dead, presumably3 – I say, if one is to live in heaven, one must be able to choose the age of the body in which they are going to putter around.  Else what kind of reward is a happy eternity in a frail old body?4  But even this raises a question.  Does one have the option of designing an ideal body for themselves, or must they choose a model only from a given point on their own linear chronological continuum?  Maybe it doesn’t matter.  If I could show up looking like my 25 year old self, but be able to hit the ball like DiMaggio, maybe I don’t need some idealized body.5  In any case, it seems some decision must be made, and ideally, the choice of body will be made by the end-user.  It may be that upon arrival one must fill out a survey in triplicate as to which of their previous bodies they would like to use.6   But since I can only assume (i.e. hope) that heaven is nothing like the DMV, perhaps the administrators conduct some kind of cranial scan and have your pre-chosen heaven-body prepped for you by the time you show up.

So to sum up the question of Age, let us conclude for argument’s sake that one can choose for oneself any one of their bodies from any given point along their own linear chronological continuum, and that body can then be endowed with any sort of physical prowess up to the heights of human limitation.  What then of Time?

When you get to heaven, when is it?  Is it when you died?  Is it the future you could never imagine or the past you wished you could have lived in?  Put it another way, would great Caesar’s ghost (GSG) have to wait 2000 years for the telephone to be invented on earth before he could make a call to great Pompey’s ghost?7  Does GSG text now, where he couldn’t before?  Or does he just skip ahead and communicate telepathically, since sooner or later somebody’s bound to come up with that?  In other words, does heaven, at any given time, contain the full scope of human innovation, available for all to use?  Imagine GSG sauntering over to Samuel Morse and asking him what he is clicking away on over there, and Morse has to say, “oh, it’s my telegraph, but you’re before its time so I shall have to ask you to piss off.”  Meanwhile, Morse wonders why Bell keeps holding a little tube up to his ear and calling it Watson.  And they all wonder who’s that arrogant SOB in the black turtleneck carrying a little glowing box with white wires running up into his ears.

Taking this to its (or at least, a) illogical conclusion, will technology at some point begin to affect the population of heaven?  I refer specifically to the Singularity.  Surely the population of heaven is dependent upon people dying.8  But if we achieve the Singularity, such that people can live on indefinitely in robot bodies, then it would seem that their arrival in heaven would be indefinitely delayed.9  Add to that the question of Singularitized robot procreation – to wit: do they? – and we may be faced with, if not the end of humanity, then the end of new people/souls.

The irony to all this, of course, would be that heaven turns out to be much better than being alive on earth.  Yet on earth, you have all these people prolonging their lives with robot bodies and electronic brains for the sole purpose of avoiding the afterlife.10  Meanwhile, all the people in heaven are stunned by this development.  They want to let everybody on earth know that dying isn’t so bad after all, come on in the water’s fine, &c.  But alas, there are only two rules in heaven.  1) You’re not allowed to tell living people anything about it.  2) Don’t be a dick.

In the end  In closing, it is of course impossible for the living to know anything about heaven.  Sure, one can go to church, or synagogue, or mosque or whatevs, but they’re all trying to sell you something of which they have no actual knowledge.  Sort of like buying a Conestoga wagon from some shyster in New Jersey because he completely sold you on how beautiful Oregon is.  Maybe Oregon and heaven are both truly beautiful.  But speaking strictly for myself, I ain’t taking his word for it.  At least, not at his prices.

Ultimately, we can’t know anything about heaven until we get there.11  But what’s the rush?  Heaven is for æternity, but life is quite finite.  So pour a drink, put on your favorite music and live a little!

  1. Although, I suppose they could be playing harps if they wanted to.  On second thought, maybe they could only play harps if they knew how to play harps in life.  Alternatively, perhaps entry into heaven entitles one to virtuosic skill at any instrument one desires.  Which would sort of take the fun out of meeting Beethoven, who, come to think of it, probably wouldn’t even be deaf in heaven.  But following this line of loonery to its logical conclusion, the fact that Beethoven could hear in heaven would at least justify your newfound fluency in late 18th-early 19th c. German. []
  2. Whatever you think about heaven, I hope we can all agree there is no such thing as a “vodka martini” there []
  3. ‘Tho I would make an argument that playing centerfield for the Yankees and marrying Marilyn Monroe can’t be that far off []
  4. To be fair, I suppose it’s a matter of perspective.  In the Republic, Plato has Sokrates have Sophokles say that old age is great because the body is no longer ruled by hormonal passions. (329c: ἁϲμενέϲτατα μέντοι αὐτὸ ἀπέφυγον, ὥϲπερ λυττῶντά τινα καὶ ἄγριον δεϲπότην ἀπέφυγον.  I am most pleased to have escaped it [τἀφροδίϲια – aphrodisia], as if I had escaped from some raging and wild master.) []
  5. Plus, by virtue of this being heaven, chicks needs must dig me, right? []
  6. Or future.  Suppose I get hit by a bus when I’m nine.  Maybe I’d still like to utilize my 25 year old (temporally non-realized) body. []
  7. And incidentally, is the ghost of Pompeius Magnus – i.e. Pompey the Great – great Great Pompey’s ghost?  Great Pompey’s great ghost? []
  8. If we accept the premise that one can not be born into heaven, but only die into it, then it stands to reason that there are no unwanted pregnancies in heaven.  Likewise, if we accept that heaven is a place where nobody ever gets sick, then the need for condoms in heaven is entirely obviated.  Amen. []
  9. One might wonder, tangentially, how this would effect the heavenly real estate market.  I suspect that, even now, there is rampant speculation taking place.  Operating under the premise that everybody who is born will die, and that there are mathematically (failing some wepic disaster) far more people yet to be born than are now living, or indeed have ever lived, then heaven must constantly be looking for new places to stick the people who are flowing through their golden gates and planning ahead for those yet to come (or go, from our perspective).  So imagine the poor schnook who locks up a gazillion acres of heaven-space and starts developing luxury condos, manor houses, chalets, villas and whatever else the lately departed/newly arrived will want, only to find out that due to the Singularity demand has been crippled.  From there, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where the speculator/developer starts sneaking not-so-deserving souls over the border in the back of his van just to recoup some of his losses.  Now you’ve got an inlegal inmigration problem.  This naturally creates a host of headaches for HHR (Heavenly Human Resources), because all of a sudden you’ve got souls who were heretofore good people, but are now showing signs of xenophobia, raising the question: can/should they be kicked out of heaven for such narrow-minded bigotry?  And you thought the only thing heaven had in common with Arizona was a lack of sales tax. []
  10. For the first time since people discovered heaven, nobody’s dying to get in!  #zing []
  11. Or don’t get there, as the case may be []