Another Sad Goodbye

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We’d stopped in front of College Hall at the statue of Benjamin Franklin to take a quick picture of our daughter, who’s thinking of applying to study at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania.

An older gentleman walking by said to me in a distinctive Greek accent, “So, is she the candidate?”  The face was more than a bit older, but I recognized the voice at once. It was Tony Tomazinis, a Penn professor of city planning I remembered from my time there, way back in the 1980s.

We talked and laughed for a few minutes and I asked about one of his colleagues, my mentor, Seymour Mandelbaum. “He passed away last week,” he said, eyes downcast. Unsure I’d actually heard what I thought I did, I stuttered and choked through an “Excuse me?” Yes, he said, Seymour had died suddenly. The department was distraught.

We shared some memories and said our goodbyes and Tony walked on.

Seymour was a great human being – a wise person, a deep thinker, a brave writer. He was also a kind and gentle soul. He was at ease with himself and others, funny, warm, kind, challenging.

Had I visited Penn a year earlier, or even a month, I might well have stopped by to see Seymour, a professor and mentor who’d made a substantial contribution to my life. I hope he knew what he’d meant to me, for I likely never told him directly – a boneheaded mistake I now regret deeply and, for Seymour’s memory if nothing else, hope never to repeat.

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Charles Barkley Got a Crush On Me

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He came to an NBA champion Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers team as a wild-playing rookie from Auburn. He was thick, big and broad, a little undisciplined, never able to control his weight.

In his final year playing professional basketball, his team’s media guide listed him at 252 pounds but, as a rookie, he seemed closer to 350. His face was round and childlike. He was, for want of a better word, pudgy. It looked like he hadn’t yet quite lost his babyfat.

Next to the sleek, controlled and experienced pros he played with on the Sixers (e.g., Dr. J, Maurice Cheeks), he looked like a puppy who hadn’t grown into his paws.

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One night during Barkley’s rookie season, thanks to the person I was dating at the time, I enjoyed the game from courtside seats. It was amazing to see these athletes play the game from that close; there’s nothing like proximity to make the game come alive.

I remember one play in particular.

I was speaking to the person next to me when I saw her eyes open very wide and she said the word “God” almost inaudibly. I looked to the court just in time to see the huge and growing form of Charles Barkley flying at me in pursuit of a loose ball. In my memory, it looked something like this, only moving way faster:

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No time to move.

The next thing I knew – literally, the very next thing – he slammed into me at full speed, driving me into the court and destroying the chair I was seated in. And when I say destroyed, I mean collapsed it pancake-flat.

He pushed off my chest to get up and back into the game. A Spectrum employee came over to pull the chair off the floor and place a new one in the now-vacated space. I, of course, was still prone, only slowly regaining awareness. My friend helped me up and into the new chair and after a few minutes another Spectrum employee came over to give me a towel to wipe myself down (it had taken me a few minutes to realize just how wet I was). That was it.

I’ll never forget being full-out flattened by him but, to this day, Charles Barkley has never said a word.

Bars I’ve Known

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I’m not much of a drinker anymore, but at one point in life, my social world orbited elliptically around bars. Here, a remembrance of some.

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Gil & Frank’s Mayflower (the site, above), Potrero Hill, San Francisco: This was a bar of working-class regulars who would arrive after work, mostly in and around the then-active docks, and stay until closing almost every weeknight. “Happy birthday to you” was on the jukebox. I once saw Art, the regular bartender, slap a guy for ordering a blender drink. Yeah, that kind of bar. Gone now.

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Murphy’s Tavern (site, above), Philadelphia: I lived a block away. Rolling Rocks were $1. Bring a five and have quite an evening. Bring a twenty and be a king. One of the bartenders, Murphy’s son-in-law, used his shiny steel hand/hook to open bottles. Murphy, whom everyone called Murph, used expressions like “See ya’ in church, boss,” as he slugged guys on the shoulder. He would walk all young ladies out of the bar when they left to make sure no one lurked outside intending to do them harm. A must in my West Philly neighborhood. Now a burger joint, I hear.

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The Dubliner (above), 24th Street, San Francisco: A good joint. They sponsored our softball team for many years and we more than repaid the investment by making it our post-game clubhouse. Still going strong, with a new generation of bad softball players.

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Tosca (above), Columbus Avenue, San Francisco: One of San Francisco’s most beloved institutions. There is always a great mix of people here, businesspeople, actors, musicians, politicians. I urinated next to San Francisco’s former mayor, and now California’s lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom, there. Funny man. But a highlight for me was one night when Lauren Hutton, who really is radiantly beautiful, sat between me and my friend Fish and talked with us for hours. The jukebox has a beautiful selection of arias. Still very much open, thank God.

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Lefty O’Doul’s (above), Geary Street, near Union Square, San Francisco: They used to have a guy named Al Rik playing goofy old tunes on the piano in the front. Corny and old-fashioned, even 35 years ago, when I first ventured inside. The hof brau will slice you up some fresh turkey, roast beef or ham any hour they’re open. A must-stop. Open right this minute. Go.

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The Mauna Loa (above), Fillmore Street, near Union Street, San Francisco: Owned by an old high school teacher. When some of my friends visit, it’s still a place we always stop, out of respect if nothing else.

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Satisfaction (above), Durham, North Carolina: The bar was brand new when they sponsored our summer softball team, which tells you something about its longevity. I can still remember some of the songs we’d regularly play on the jukebox after games. You don’t want to know. My hand to God, a teammate used to light potato chips with her cigarette lighter, then put them out on her tongue. Not saying it was smart but it was, you know, something to do. Smoking very much allowed in tobacco country. Open and, I hear, thriving.

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The Irish Pub (above), Philadelphia: I have very fond memories of this place. I’d invariably meet or run into wonderfully fun people there. I remember laughing all the time amidst happy and boisterous crowds. Sadly, I don’t know the fate of this place.

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Savoy Tivoli (above), North Beach, San Francisco: A classic North Beach hangout on upper Grant. Pool tables. Outdoor tables. Good bar. A great mix of people, some reading books they’ve just purchased at City Lights, couples on dates, groups of guys getting together after work to hang out and tell each other lies, some people just stopping to smell the roses. Open.

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Over an entrance gate at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania is the inscription ‘We will find a way, or we will make one;’ that’s the English translation of a quotation from the Roman general Hannibal, who would neither be turned back by enemies nor terrestrial boundaries in pursuit of his goals. [For all those Ivy League intellectual showoffs, however, the Penn inscription is actually in the original Latin ‘Inveniemus viam aut faciemus.’]

And so the inscription remains, since it inspired the great Benjamin Franklin, who founded the university in 1740, and it has continued to inspire work at the university since.

There’s a very big room in an engineering building on the University of Pennsylvania campus that houses an artifact. And, as is frequently the case with so many tools built for war, its most significant and lasting contributions have been toward peaceful purposes.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the 1930s and into the first years of the Second World War, it became very clear the military desperately needed more of what would now be called computing power to better complete the increasingly complex tasks of using even the contemporary technology of war.

To illustrate the importance and challenge of accurate calculations in wartime, just imagine, if you will, the number of computations it would take to fire a weapon at a target. Now, imagine how many it would take if the target were moving. Imagine if the weapon itself was moving. Imagine if the motion of both weapon and target were irregular. A concrete example? One ship firing at another, both making evasive movements in a rough ocean with lots of wind.

So, in response to these sorts of challenges, military engineers built what is widely thought of today as the world’s first super-computer, ENIAC [Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer].

The machine itself is huge; it literally takes up every inch of a very large room about the size of a fair-scale lecture hall. ENIAC was programmed by physically connecting cables between ports in the machine’s exterior structure. Programmers rolled heavy rubberized cables on large wheeled carts around the room and plugged them in as directed by sheets on a clipboard.  New problem? Better give it a little time. New sheet, new alignment of cables.

Still, ENIAC was thought of as a marvel, as it was a huge improvement over what preceded it. Many subsequent calculating machines followed ENIAC, each with greater capacities and higher levels of computing power. Before long, there were ‘supercomputers’ developed at other American universities, and some in several other countries as well. A contemporary forecast by a highly regarded engineer supposed that, one day, there might be a powerful computer in nearly every country on the globe.

That’s one computer per country; this brave forecast was just slightly under the actual global penetration of computers, which currently stands just under 2 billion.

I guess, though, we can’t be too hard on the original forecaster. Economic, industrial and technical conditions have changed just that radically since the late 1940s. Even your phone, much less your computer, is faster, easier to obtain and use, has more computing power and capacity than ENIAC did, and all at a fraction of the cost.

This distance between prediction and reality is nothing new, of course. As our societies continue to progress and evolve, as we push forward with new things, both found and made, we will continue to outstrip projections of those who must live in the hard and limited reality of the present day.

On the Road Again, Nelson!

I used to drive with the window down, my left arm resting on the door. Never had air conditioning in those days. Summer or winter, the rolled down window was all there was.

Always had a cassette player, though, so I could blast the Doobie Brothers, Jimmy Buffet, the Crusaders, Weather Report, Bonnie Raitt, or whatever else I was listening to at the time and sing along.

I hear your voice everywhere

It’s echoes of love

Making me look back over my shoulder

Echoes of love are started all over.

Something like 30 years ago, I had a teeny, white Renault. Never went very fast, even going downhill. Got blown around a lot by big trucks on the freeway. In their rearview mirrors, I could see the drivers laughing as they passed. I guess they didn’t see many Renaults in North Carolina. Could also have been because I had a license plate that said “SLUG.” Or maybe it was because you didn’t often see big guys like me driving little cars they could barely fit into.

I suppose I should have given them the benefit of the doubt.

One winter night in Philadelphia, I was stopped at a red light. The guy next to me motioned for me to roll down my window. He leaned over and yelled, “Hey, brother, they build that car around you?”

The light turned green and he took off laughing.

It was a honey of a car, though. Still maybe the best I’ve ever had. Reliable. Great gas milage. Easy to work on. Once replaced the gas tank by myself; wouldn’t dream of even trying it with my current car. Couldn’t go fast, but it did make it cross-country more than once, packed floor to ceiling with all my worldly possessions. Truth is, I’d probably still have it if it wasn’t totaled by a drunk driver one night. I saw it for the last time, there amidst the auto ghosts on Pier 40, where they towed it after the accident.

Folded up like a little, white, French accordion, my hand to God.

So Long, Dick

For some of my readers, this will come as news. Before the ubiquity of online social media, Google, YouTube, NetFlix, and iTunes, you pretty much had to rely on local radio and, to a much lesser extent, television for introduction to new music. Or maybe, if you were really lucky (as I was – thanks, Melecio), connected and knowledgable friends.

The rest of America relied on Dick Clark and/or Don Cornelius. (You can read my thoughts about the passing of Don Cornelius here.) Clark’s show started as a local affair in Philadelphia; it grew to become Bandstand, then, as it went national, American Bandstand. From the start, a couple of things were obvious: (1) Dick Clark was and was always going to be the adult in the mix – this was no ersatz kid – and (2) he loved music and musicians.

He seemed genuinely happy interviewing the kids who danced on the show and wore the latest fashions (My God, the crushes I had on Bandstand’s cast members.). Clark dug deeply into what they liked about what they’d just heard. American Bandstand, courtesy of the host’s earnestness, must have been gold for the research departments of the nation’s advertising agencies.

Over the years, Dick Clark presented a dizzying array of artists. Maybe not always the best artists, although that can be debated, but the variety was both odd and amazing. Reading the list induces incredulity. Here’s a (very) partial list:

Sam Cooke, Bill Haley and the Comets, Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Fats Domino, Till Tuesday, The Jackson Five, The Beastie Boys, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Sonny and Cher, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Don McClean, The Temptations, ELO, Jethro Tull, The Young Rascals, Culture Club, James Brown…

Clark became the butt of jokes and a hollow self-parody of his better self at some point, then, in part due to a severe stroke, was seen only as the wooden television presenter of New Year’s Eve. It was a crappy public end to a long and storied career dedicated to something as great as popular music.

May Dick Clark rest in eternal musical peace.

Goodbye to a Philadelphian

Jimmy Ellis (third from left, above) started, like so many of his generation and place, singing in church. But it wasn’t long before he and friends gathered at favorite streetcorners in his hometown of Philadelphia. (The tradition of streetcorner vocal groups continues in the City of Brotherly Love.)

The cops in Philly called these boys, huddled around trash-can fires for warmth and attention, tramps. Ellis famously remarked that, if he and his singing mates were going to be tramps, they were at least going to be high-class tramps. So, they added a second “m” to their group’s name and became The Trammps, a funky-ass soul and disco group that recorded their first album in 1975. By 1977, their disco mega-hit, “Disco Inferno,” could be heard literally everywhere – in discos, of course, on radio, in cars, schools, around city streets, and on TV dance shows.

Here’s a video of The Trammps performing their biggest hit, “Disco Inferno,” which they continued to do on tour until 2010. Makes me smile every time. (By the way, be sure to notice the fine threads. Wish I had an orange suit.)

Ellis died last week, at the age of 74, while I was away. I didn’t want to let his passing go by without taking a moment to remember him. Rest in peace, Jimmy.