Category Archives: In Memoriam

In Memoriam: Jimmy Breslin

Chuck Berry died yesterday.  That’s gobbling up a big chunk of the news cycle, as well it should.  Berry was not only a phenomenal talent, but a figure of singular importance in American cultural history.  However, I’ll leave others to sing his praises while I ponder the passing of another, lesser known giant.

Jimmy Breslin died yesterday at the age of 88.  And make no mistake about it.  That’s Jimmy, not James, no matter what his birth certificate said.

Largely unknown nowadays to most outside New York City, and even to those within the boroughs under the age of 50, Breslin was a longtime columnist for several city newspapers.  He was also a bestselling author of numerous books, most successfully with his 1969 novel The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a send up of the Mafia that was made into a forgettable film starring another iconic New Yorker, Jerry Orbach.

But at mid-century, when newspapers were central to American life, Breslin was among the best known writers in the nation.  And the whole time he was quintessentially New York. Continue reading In Memoriam: Jimmy Breslin

In Memoriam: Muhammad Ali

Photo by John Peodincuk/NY Daily News Archive via Getty ImagesAs a boy, I was a Ken Norton fan.  That means I spent the 1970s rooting against Muhammad Ali, which was usually quite fruitless.  Any Norton fan could tell you: our man had beaten him two out of three, although the judges robbed one of those from Norton with a crooked decision.

So when the vampiric Leon Spinks shocked the world by outpointing Ali in 1977, it was a cause for celebration.  And when Ali got revenge in the rematch, it was to be expected.

The underlying story, however, was that when someone like Ali loses to someone like Spinks, it’s time to hang up the gloves up.  Yet Ali kept going, trudging through a series of embarrassments.  By the time Trevor Berbick finally pummeled him into retirement in 1981, it was hard to hate on Ali anymore.   He seemed like just another sad pugilist who’d hung around long past his due date.

It was also increasingly obvious to most observers that Ali was becoming what was then known as “punch drunk.”  The more technical terms was dementia pugilistica.  Today it’s it’s called CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopahty), the form of brain damage that makes parents think twice about letting their kids play football.

As I came of age during the 1980s, I learned more about Ali, née Cassius Clay.  As a boxing fan, I came to appreciate that he was, in fact, almost certainly the greatest heavyweight of all time,  and undoubtedly one of the greatest boxers of any class.

But far more interesting was the life he lived outside the ring. Continue reading In Memoriam: Muhammad Ali

The Public Professor Site Redesign

cropped-Profile-Picture.jpgFive and a half years after its initial launch, this site is receiving a substantial update for the first time.  Some of it is aesthetics, with new colors, imagery, and font.  Some of it involves updating content.

The “Pages” at the top of the site (eg. “Me” and “Books I Done Written”) are not only renamed, but also updated.  Click inside and see.

In addition, I’ve added two new pages: “Books I Might Write” and “CV.”  The former contains brief overviews of book projects I’m working on.  Beyond the infamous Communities book that was responsible for launching this site but has yet to see the light of day, there are also working manuscripts on music and misadventures from the road.  The “CV” page contains my Curriculum Vitae, which is what professors call their resumé.  Is our pretentious Latin name for it better than your pretentious French name for it?  Who knows.  The bottom line is, we’re all pretentious.


P.S. Yes, I’ll keep blogging here on the front page.  If you’d like to sign up for email notifications, or get them via Facebook or Twitter, that’s just to the right near the top of any page.  Viva la blog! (That’s pretentious Spanish for, “None of this stuff ends up on my resumé.”

In Memoriam: Lemmy

Ace of SpadesThe first time I heard of Motörhead was in the late 1980s.  I was a DJ at WCBN-FM, the college radio station in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  During my late night shift, someone called in a request  for “Ace of Spades” off the band’s self-titled 1980 album, their fourth.

I shuffled through the stacks and found the record.  The cover featured three guys in the desert wearing black leather and cowboy hats.  One of them had a bandalero.  Another wore a serape.

Maybe they’ve got a ZZ Top kinda thing going on, I thought to myself as I slapped the album on the platter.

No.  They did’t sound like ZZ Top. Continue reading In Memoriam: Lemmy

In Memoriam: Yogi Berra

As a boy of 8 and 9 and 10, growing up in the Bronx, I was a big New York Yankees fan.  When you grow up in the Bronx, that’s really all there is to brag about.  A zoo and the Yankees.

Nearly every game aired on channel 11 WPIX, and I watched as many as I could, which was nearly all of them.

The Yankees are by far the most successful team in the history of American sports.  Not even close.  They’re probably the most successful team in the world.  For this reason, rooting for the Yankees has often been equated with rooting for a large, wealthy corporation like IBM or GM.  I’ve always thought it’s a very poor analogy.

Rooting for the Yankees is actually like rooting for the United States.  Each in their own way, the Yankees and United States are the 300 lb. gorilla, that most powerful of entities winning far more than anyone else.  Their wealth creates many advantages.  Supporters expect them to win, and they usually do.  Opponents absolutely revel in their defeats.

All that success means you will be adored by some non-natives who are tired of losing and want to bask in your glory, even if it must be from afar.  But mostly you are hated.  Anywhere you go in America, some people love the Yankees and many more hate them.  Just like the United States is either loved or hated everywhere else in the world.

Who hates IBM? Continue reading In Memoriam: Yogi Berra

In Memoriam: David Letterman

David LettermanAside from the occasional sporting event, it’s very rare that I watch live television anymore.  Hulu often makes me wait a week for many shows, but that’s well worth the convenience of watching them whenever I want.  Meanwhile, Netflix makes me wait the better part of a year and charges me $4/month (I split it with a friend), but that’s well worth never having to watch any goddamn commercials.

Plus, you know, the joys of binge watching a series.  It’s like going face down into a bowl of chocolate pudding and nearly suffocating in the most wonderful way imaginable.

But last night I fired up the flatscreen and fiddled with the rabbit ears to catch David Letterman‘s grand finale.  And I’m glad I did.  Despite the commercials. Continue reading In Memoriam: David Letterman

In Memoriam: Spock

Mr Spock by ZootCadillacThere are many obituaries of Leonard Nimoy being written and published in light of his passing today at the age of 83.  I will not add to them.  I won’t pretend to offer insights into his life or even his career as an actor and director, which spanned six decades.  Instead, I will mourn the passing of his most famous character, Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

I watched a whole lotta Star Trek growing up.  Way too much, no doubt.  When I was in elementary and junior high school, it was running fast and furious in syndication.  In New York City that meant every evening before or during dinner on WPIX channel 11.

Probably about 200 nights per year for several years I watched an episode of Star Trek.  There were only 88 total episodes, so you can do the math.

The peak of my devotion came in late junior high school.  My friend Erik and I took the subway from the Bronx down to the Penta Hotel in Manhattan, across the street from Madison Square Garden on 7th Avenue.  They were hosting a Star Trek Convention and Nimoy was the guest speaker.

I didn’t really know what to expect.  All I knew was that I loved the show and was curious about delving deeper into it. Continue reading In Memoriam: Spock

In Memoriam: Mario Cuomo

Mario CuomoI was nearly 10 years old during the 1977 New York City mayoral election.  Old enough to remember, but too young to really understand.  All me and my friends knew that is that it was coming down to Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo, two city boys, one Jewish and one Italian.

“Did you hear?” my friend asked me?


“There are posters that say Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.”

We laughed at the rhyming ditty.  We laughed at the word homo.  We laughed because that’s what we’d learned growing up in 1970s America: laugh at fags.  They’re ridiculous.

It wasn’t just a 10 year old’s version of an urban legend either.  The posters were real.  For the rest of his life, Cuomo denied having had any involvement or knowledge of the ugly, homophobic smear campaign.

Koch won despite the controversy, and went on to become a three-term mayor of New York.  He would never get married, never publicly admit to being homosexual, and never forgive Cuomo for the slur.

Cuomo would bounce back, however.  Continue reading In Memoriam: Mario Cuomo

In Memoriam: Betty Bacall

Lauren BacallIn the late 1960s, when my father was just starting Ken’s Home Improvements, the contracting business he decided to get up and running now that he had a young son *cough* he relied on recommendations to get his first customers.

An early break came when someone recommended him to New York Times film critic Rex Reed.

Reed was by then one of the nation’s top critics, a bestselling author, and he had landed himself an apartment in The Dakota, the landmark Manhattan building on Central Park West.  It would later become infamous as the home of John Lennon, when he was shot in front of it in 1980.

The Dakota is hard to describe.  How many apartment buildings do you know that have their own Wikipedia entry, complete with a list of notable residents and cultural references?

It’s the only building I can think of that’s had the distinction of being jarringly out of place not once, but twice. Continue reading In Memoriam: Betty Bacall