Saturday, April 18, 2015

Silver Slugger Opening Day

It’s that special time of year as baseball rises with the spring Crocuses, throwing off the winter and March madness.  For us in Florida, it’s the end of Spring Training games but the beginning of the minor league season.  In Palm Beach Country we have the A plus league playing in Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium, fielding teams from Florida’s west and east coast.  Although the official opening day at the stadium was the week before, for us “Silver Sluggers” Wednesday night was our opening day.  It was a lovely spring/summer early evening, in the low 80’s with a light breeze, the Jupiter Hammerheads (the Marlins’ farm club) playing the Clearwater Threshers (Philadelphia’s farm club).

Less important than the outcome of these games (either the Hammerheads or the Palm Beach Cardinals play; both share the stadium, one being the home team while the other is on the road), is the game itself, how it’s played, major league in every respect, the pristine field, the beauty of the game.  “Silver Sluggers” – 55 and over – get to enjoy all those Wednesday games, $25 for the entire season, including a hot dog and soda!  How can you beat that?  And there we share the experience with similar minded friends, all of us sitting practically on the field behind third base.  Unlike the big leagues, it’s an opportunity to really feel part of the game.

The flag was at half mast, in honor of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, history and baseball inextricably intertwined.

I’m particularly interested in some of the left handed pitchers, as my high school fantasy was to pitch in the big leagues.  So, I was thrilled to see a lefty pitch, Jarlin Garcia of the Hammerheads who started Wednesday’s game, working 6 innings, giving up no runs with 4 strike outs and 2 walks.  Not a flame thrower, but he was bringing his fast ball in the low 90’s balancing those pitches with off speed stuff.  The 22 year old kid from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic has potential.

Some excitement at the game was the presence of  Domonic Brown, the big Philadelphia Phillies regular right fielder who was playing on rehab assignment.  He went 1 for 4.

The game itself was decided in the ninth inning when Clearwater scored all 7 of its runs, beating the Hammerheads 7-4.  But, as I said, that was less important than just being there.  Let the games begin!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Spot of Bother

Mary, my “virtual friend,” comes through again.   Who knew that some of the more interesting book recommendations would come from someone I haven’t seen in 45 years, an ex-employee who contacted me out of the blue.  She knows my taste in reading better than most, having before recommended The Ha Ha by Dave King and a couple of real classics, Stoner, by John Williams and Wallace Stegner’s The Angle of Repose. 

Maybe she suggested A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon because like the protagonist, George, I’m retired.  Dying is on his mind, not that death itself scares me. Perhaps the way we die might, but if I get lucky, one day I’ll just not wake up.  The real problem is an existential crisis as the world goes on while I return to nothingness from which I came.

So I have to agree with Haddon who writes somewhat amusingly, most men of George’s age thought they were going to live forever….Obviously it would be nice to go quietly in one’s sleep.  But going quietly in one’s sleep was an idea cooked up by parents to make the deaths of grandparents and hamsters less traumatic.  And doubtless some people did go quietly in their sleep but most did so only after many wounding rounds with the Grim Reaper.  His own preferred exits were rapid and decisive.  Others might want the time to bury the hatchet with estranged children and tell their wives where the stopcock was.  Personally, he wanted the lights to go out with no warning and the minimum attendant mess.  Dying was bad enough without having to make it easier for everyone else.

Haddon is an English writer and one better be prepared for some very understated Brit humor to get the most out of this novel, not to mention place and cultural references that might not be altogether familiar to an American reader.  As I read the book I had the vague idea of asking the author whether I could attempt to “translate” the novel into a screenplay, with an American setting and references – it seems to be so ideal for that treatment like the works of similar fellow novelists, Nick Hornby and Jonathan Tropper -- but alas the French beat me to it having already filmed it as Une petite zone de turbulences.

In many ways the novel reminds me of the much underrated Alan Lightman novel The Diagnosis which one could call a “pre-retirement” man’s nightmare of devolving into insanity, a Kafkaesque plight caused by the modern working world.  Unfortunately, I read that novel before I started this blog so to reconstruct it here for comparison purposes I’d have to read it again.  But I was aware of the main character’s dilemma as I read this book.

It is the post retirement world of George, who was a manufacturer of children’s playground equipment, which is the setting for a surreal illness of existential angst in A Spot of Bother.  George is convinced that he has a cancerous lesion, one that has been diagnosed as eczema, so nothing to worry about, right?  Wrong.  A spot of bother, indeed.

His mind was malfunctioning. He had to bring it under control….He needed a strategy. He…drew up a list of rules:

1.       Keep busy.
2.       Take Long walks
3.       Sleep well.
4.       Shower and change in the dark
5.       Drink red wine.
6.       Think of something else.
7.       Talk.

George is a disconnected introvert, and suddenly as I write this I’m thinking of some of Anne Tyler’s men, particularly Liam Pennywell from her novel Noah's Compass. There are definite similarities.

Back to George’s story which is but one of four in this novel, revolving about each other as a diagram of an Atom and its components, a dysfunctional nuclear family and its offshoots.  First, there is the story of George and his wife of many years, Jean.  But Jean has a lover, David, with whom George worked, and thus a second story.  Then there are George and Jean’s two adult children, each with their own tales of love.   Katie is intent on entering into a second marriage to Ray, a blue collar kind of guy, generous and loving to Katie and her son by her previous marriage, Jacob, but not having the “approval” of her family (and she wonders, of herself).  And there is Jamie, who has finally come out of the closet, bewildering his parents, madly in love with Tony, who has rejected him.  Angst to the fourth power.  But George is little touched by this as he slowly descends into a kind of madness, especially after secretly seeing his wife and David engaged in sexual intercourse on his own bed (it’s not a pretty sight and Haddon hilariously captures the moment and George’s reaction).

Yet at the heart of the story is George’s obsession with death which arises even when he is having fun with his grandson, Jacob.  He’s amazed by the child’s skill with technology.  Which was how young people took over the world.  All that fiddling with new technology.  You wake up one day and realize your own skills were laughable.  Woodwork.  Mental arithmetic….Maybe George was fooling himself.  Maybe old people always fooled themselves, pretending that the world was going to hell in a handcart because it was easier than admitting they were being left behind, that the future was pulling away from the beach, and they were standing on their little island bidding it good riddance, knowing in their hearts that there was nothing left for them to do but sit around on the shingle waiting for the big diseases to come out of the undergrowth. Hilarious, but true!

The author writes with in compelling unpretentious style, cramming these stories into one hundred and forty four interconnected chapters (yes, 144 or about 3 pages each).  Yet it’s a very readable, engaging work, full of droll humor and some pathos.  It seems to gather momentum, exhorting you to read on.  All these stories converge in the end, a little too neatly in my opinion. Although the book is not in the same league as the three novels I mentioned at the onset of this entry, Haddon is a talented young novelist, so perhaps his best is yet to come.
A Recent Sunset

Monday, April 6, 2015

Hagelstein Bros., Photographers

One of the “missions’ when I started this eclectic blog many years ago was to capture some family history.  Much of that history involves a photography business that had been in our family for three generations, one I walked away from in favor of striking out on my own, becoming a publisher instead.  I essentially wrote the early history of the firm in this entry, so no sense repeating it here.  

However, a reader recently brought my attention to a Hagelstein Bros. catalog that I never knew existed which was being sold by an antiquarian firm.  It was issued around 1931, a catalog consisting of about 40 inset photographs, screw bound in leather, “Hagelstein Bros” die stamped on the front cover.  This was around the time that the firm had completed its metamorphosis from a portrait studio to a commercial one.  I surmise this catalog of sample photographs was put together by my grandfather, Harry P. Hagelstein, to show the firm’s capabilities.

Grandfather, Father, Me
I’ve said little about my paternal grandfather simply because I hardly knew him. He died when I had just turned eleven.  Not surprisingly, what I vividly remember was his funeral, an open casket in the living room of his home which later became my Uncle Phil’s home.  I remember the surreal experience seeing him in that particular place. I would have been better off viewing him in a funeral home as nightmares followed for weeks.  This is his brief obituary from the New York Times’ archives:

Harry P. Hagelstein on Jan. 3, 1953 beloved husband of the late Mathilda Hagelstein, father of Marion Hoffman, Ruth Baumann, Lillian Schaefer, Philip and Robert Hagelstein, brother of Kate McClelland; also survived by eight grandchildren.  Services Monday, Jan 5 at 8.15 PM at his residence, 86-47 109th St. Richmond Hill.  Interment Tuesday 10 AM, The Evergreen Cemetery

He successfully steered the firm into its next phase, taking it over from my great grandfather and then my father and his brother continued to run the business after my grandfather’s death.

I occasionally receive requests for more information regarding Hagelstein Brothers, which was established right after the Civil War and lasted until the 1980’s, a remarkable feat for a photography business.  I have no regrets walking away from the firm.  My father, who was an excellent photographer, and my Uncle Phil, who dealt with the customers and the business end, failed to reinvent the firm.  When more and more advertising was migrating to magazines and television, they kept to their mission of producing duplicate prints for salesmen’s samples, beautiful color ones – they had extensive printing facilities in their studio at 100 5th Avenue, working closely with Kodak in perfecting color work.  They would have been better off dropping the printing part of the business and expanding their photographic work, but they did not and so their business slowly migrated elsewhere.  Nonetheless, during its heyday, the business flourished, even surviving the Great Depression relatively.

Naturally, I bought that unique catalog. I’ve tried to reproduce the photographs here, although it’s difficult to do justice to them in this particular space.  As period pieces they are fascinating.  Many of the photos are of furniture, which was their area of specialization.  However, in the 1920’s and 1930’s they obviously covered much more, such as photographs for the Siegel mannequin catalogs – exhibited at Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, and Best & Co.  There are scenes from apartments and a number of department stores – a restaurant, rug displays, and jewelry displays.  There are park views and street scenes, including two time-exposures of Times Square.  One shot depicts office workers in a record keeping department.  Lobbies of a hotel and a bank are pictured along with an A. Schulte tobacco store, as well as documentation for insurance after a fire.  The firm was obviously trying to showcase its versatility. 

I conclude the photographs with a brochure my father created right after he returned from WW II, taking the firm to its next step and finally into color photography.  When I worked for him during the summers of my high school and college years, I started off as a delivery boy, usually running back and forth between his studio and the furniture exchange. Earning my wings in that area, I became a photographer’s assistant for the next few summers which meant working under hot lights getting the scene perfectly set up, tipping lampshades so they were perfectly straight while the photographer watched behind the lens.  Finally I “graduated” to processing color negatives, working in a lab, half the time in the dark, photographic chemicals filling the air (and my lungs). 

My father was probably disappointed I did not carry the business forward, but never in his wildest imagination (or my grandfather’s) would he think this old, 1931 catalog would be “published” in a media such as this. 


This is a post script, an email I received from a reader that sheds more light on the history of the company and the demeanor of my father and uncle.  Joan worked for the company towards its twilight years and I am grateful for her insight.  I also append my response.

Hi Bob,
I have been reading with great interest your blog about your dad and uncle.  You see, my father, Howard Math and grandfather, Jesse Math, had a business Tri State Industries that used the services of Hagelstein Brothers.  In fact, in the late 60's and early 70's I worked in the office of the photography studio.   I vividly remember your handsome dad, Bob and the bachelor, Phil.  Both such lovely, lovely men.  I answered phones and typed captions for the photographs.  I specifically remember a rather grouchy gentleman that worked there, I think as a guy who set up the displays to be photographed.   I remember I spelled Caribbean incorrectly, and he was quite angry with me.

At lunchtime, I remember crossing busy 5th Ave and eating at that terrific, busy coffee shop across the street.  The Squire?  Not sure of the name...

I was a teenager at the time I worked for your family.  They invited me back to work every summer during school break and even the first summer I was married.  Soon after, I lost contact.

I remember you lived in Richmond Hill, Queens.  Your dad described it as the area at the end of Queens Blvd.  Is that right?  And, I do remember wishing your dad would stop smoking.

Anyway, I have very fond memories of those days.  Your dad and uncle always treated me with great respect and warmth.

I wish you continued special memories of two very special men!

Best regards,
Joan Math Wexelbaum

Dear Joan,

How thoughtful of you to take the time to write to me with your memories of working for Hagelstein Brothers.  You are not the first reader of my blog to do so – my Dad and my Uncle obviously touched many lives.  But yours is the first from a former employee.  As you know from my blog, I worked there myself during the summers in high school and college.  By the time you were there during the summers I was gone, but occasionally I would drop by my Dad’s office – a few steps up from reception -- for lunch with him and my Uncle as I worked at a publishing firm ironically only a few blocks up 5th Avenue so it is possible we met.  And indeed I believe the coffee shop was The Squire.  You have a very good memory.  Very juicy hamburgers as I recall.

You obviously took the place of the very loyal “Miss Marks” who had been with the firm for decades.  After she left, they were hiring fill-ins.  It was about that time that the business was beginning to go downhill and I don’t think they wanted any permanent help in the office, my Uncle filling in when there was no one to replace Miss Marks on a temporary basis.  I think I remember the curmudgeon you are thinking about and I seem to remember he had an unusual first name, Grosvenor?  He was abrupt with everyone, including me.  Strange about the things we remember – yours mostly of a positive working experience, disrupted by an incident which you keenly remember, not spelling “Caribbean” correctly.  Don’t worry, I failed the “spelling test” given by Arco Press when I was seeking a publishing job out of college.  I was (and still am) slightly dyslexic.  Their loss, I figure, as I had a very successful career in publishing and never regretted not joining my father’s firm other than I felt for my Dad and Uncle as the business began to fail and they became too old to work through the challenges.

Yes, my father’s smoking bothered me too.  He was hell bent on self destruction though as he had a troubled marriage.  I write about some of it in my blog but not the deep sordid details.  He died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 68 and his militant smoking was probably at least partly the cause.  My poor Uncle died of Alzheimer’s in his 80’s, a particularly unfitting end to a life of a man who was so well read and educated, who gave up other opportunities to remain true to the family, even sacrificing some of his salary for my father to “keep the peace” (unsuccessfully) between my father and my mother.

And, yes, Richmond Hill, was my “home town” and that of my father and grandfather, south of Queens Blvd.  I’ve been meaning to write more about my Uncle, who was indeed a bachelor, and he was gay, but those things were never discussed in those days.  I sort of knew, but did not change my affection for him.  In many ways I considered him my “intellectual father,” but because of conflicts with my mother could never really get close to him.  My one regret was not interviewing him in depth as he was the family historian.  I carry the torch in darkness.

If Tri State was in the furniture business, no doubt I processed prints and negatives of their finished goods during my summers there.

I’m so glad that you wrote.

Many thanks, Bob Hagelstein