Paul LaRosa's Blog
January 21, 2018
I went to see the David Hockney exhibit the other night at The Met (and if you want to see it, hurry because it’s only on until February 25th). Hockney, if you don’t know, is famous–at least in my book–for his California paintings that are large and vibrant and show off the stunning blue color found in backyard pools in Los Angeles.
I believe his paintings are popular because they are so accessible. It’s ‘easy art’ in my opinion, not to diminish it.
Normally at an exhibit like this one, I merely wander from painting to painting, reading the labels and wondering about the food in the restaurant. But on this night, I went on a tour of the Hockney exhibit given by one of The Met’s docents.
She was a pleasant woman and provided a few insights but, as I’ve thought many times before, critiquing an artist’s intentions is sort of like reading tea leaves. It’s a bit of mind-reading. She pointed to one Hockney painting of a fat guy sitting on an art deco sofa and said it was reminiscent of The Annunciation.
Huh? Maybe in some far away dope-smoking docent universe.
What struck me, as this woman described some of the actual techniques Hockney used, is how little I know about the physical act of painting. I have never used acrylic paint in my life, never painted anything more than a room. I’ve always wanted to give painting a go but never found the time.
I used to feel the same way about music. After a brief few months of playing as a teen, I gave up and never picked up a guitar again–until The Beatles’ 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan show. Something clicked and I bought a guitar and began taking lessons.
Three years later, I’m happy to tell you that–unlike painting–I now at least understand the mechanics of music, song-writing and guitar-playing. It’s not like I’d even classify myself as “good” but learning the chords and various songs has been the most fun I’ve had outside a bedroom. I now understand what Dylan and the Beatles and many others were up to when they wrote the songs of my youth.
And you know what? The songs themselves are genius but playing them is totally accessible. The idea that I can approximate the sound of a song like “I’m Only Sleeping” by the Beatles is….nothing short of astonishing to me.
I went to a lecture about a Beatles book last year and Beatles fan David Duchovny was on the panel and he told the host in all sincerity, “You can learn how to play the guitar like John Lennon.”
He’s right. No one would dispute John’s brilliance at songwriting but the songs themselves are mostly major and minor chords that anyone can learn with some practice. Practice is the key. As Bruce Springsteen wrote in his autobiography, he at first put down the guitar and stopped playing because it hurt his fingers. It does hurt at first! But those calluses do develop.
I guess the point of all this is that I now feel like I’ve stepped through a door to understand the physicality of music in a way I never did before I started playing. I feel like I’m on the “inside” of music albeit in a rudimentary way. I know the Beatles, for instance, love the B minor and A minor chords and the way they and George Martin transformed an acoustic song into something grand and layered in the studio.
I think painting or any creative art is probably very similar. Will I become Hockney in my old age? No but I’m telling you that, someday, if I could even approximate a painting of a bowl of fruit, I’d be delighted! Stay tuned….
January 13, 2018
Well, there was all of that but, at the end of the film, I was tickled and it wasn’t because of the acting of Meryl Streep (truly amazing yet again), Tom Hanks (how anyone can be so likable is beyond me) or the direction of Stephen Spielberg (does this guy know how to milk a scene or what?)
What made the film truly enjoyable for me was the way Spielberg and company captured the honest to God way print newspapers used to be produced.
I started in the newspaper business at The Daily News in 1975 and my first day there, one of my bosses told me I’d be witnessing the end of the hot type era and the introduction of computers. He was 100% correct and I thank my lucky stars I got in under the wire in time to at least see the dying days of hot type era.
The hot type production of newspapers was a Dickensian process that had not changed in nearly 100 years by the time I showed up. (For the whole story, you’ll have to read my memoir.)
In 1975, the composing room floor (where the newspaper pages were physically put together) was home to huge vats of molten lead. That lead was used to feed ancient black Linotype machines (I later saw one in a museum). The Linotype machines were operated by frail-looking men wearing glasses who were taking the typewritten pages of copy produced by reporters and making it into pieces of lead type.
The lead type spit out by those Linotype machines were printed backwards! That’s the way it had to be done because when those backward pages of lead were locked and loaded onto the presses, everything came out correctly.
I watched many times as a “printer” would assemble those backward pieces of metal into a page of the newspaper. That was truly a skill. Then the page was “locked” in place with a border that held thousands of tiny pieces of lead together and the call went out: “One boy with a truck.” A “boy” would run over with a “truck”—essentially a table on wheels—and the printer would slide the page onto the truck.
God help us all if a page fell, as one occasionally did. The editor would rage at everyone in sight and the deadline would be blown. And that’s another thing I like about the film—it depicted in a true sense how rude newspaper people could be on deadline and no one apologized or filed a complaint with HR. It was the stress of deadline and, if you didn’t like it, you could move on. Most just headed downstairs to the bar.
Assuming things went well, the boy with the truck would take it to the pressmen and the lead page would undergo another process that would create a flexible page that could then be loaded onto curved presses which would print out the newspaper, thousands at a time.
Somehow, all the pages were put together in the proper order and made into a newspaper which was tied in bundles and loaded onto actual trucks for delivery. It was an amazing physical process that happened several times a night!
When the presses started running, you could feel it in your ass as you sat in the newsroom. That’s why in the film, there’s a shot of the actor who plays Post reporter Ben Bagdikian smiling happily as he feels the rumble of the presses. His story–his byline–is being mass produced and soon will fly out into the streets. It’s the greatest feeling in the world!
“The Post” gets all of this right and it’s a marvel even if you aren’t fully aware of what you are seeing. What you do sense is the pride each of the trades had in the paper and how the drivers were as eager as the reporters to get the latest edition onto their trucks and into the hands of the readers.
You had to be there and I’m glad I was. It was an era, now thankfully reproduced in the film “The Post,” a film everyone should go see.
January 6, 2018
homeless families arriving at a city intake center 2016
It’s not news that there are a lot of homeless individuals and families in New York. The NY Times published an eye-popping statistic the other day that the city spends $575,000 each day to house homeless families in transient hotels for about 7,500 people.
By coincidence, I happened to be in a city office the same day this report came out and began chatting up a young guy who began telling me about his business–operating transient hotels for homeless families. He has 1,400 rooms scattered across Queens and Brooklyn and charges $200 a night to the city. I’m not great at math but that equates to $100 million gross dollars annually.
This fellow said his family never intended to get into the business of sheltering homeless families. The family just happened to own a bunch of cheap hotels, the kind you might see out in the far reaches of Queens as you head to the airport. They’re there but most of us don’t see them.
“About 4 years ago, the city called and asked us if they could rent five rooms?” he said.
Four years later, that number is up to 1,400 rooms. He says buses full of homeless families sometimes arrive in the middle of the night. All his hotels are now filled with homeless families. They do not house homeless men because of the drugs and alcohol, he said. Too dangerous.
“So what do these families get in the way of services?” I asked.
Turns out, they get daily maid service and three meals delivered each day plus snacks from Fresh Direct. In addition, a third party provider administers to the families helping them through the maze of city-inspired red tape. These third-party providers also help with enrolling the children in schools and making sure the families are getting all the services coming to them.
“Can they cook in their rooms?”
The answer is no. The city requires hotel owners to take out microwaves and not to allow hot plates because of the potential for fire.
“How long can families stay?”
The hotel owner said indefinitely but after 28 days, they must formally check out and check back in to avoid the city’s rent stabilization and residency laws.
“Do any families wind up getting jobs and moving out to apartments?”
“No, they’re lazy,” he said.
To be more charitable, these families are living under difficult conditions. No one would want to live in one room with their multiple young children with a minimum of services. Still, our tax dollars are paying $6,000 per month for each family, not to mention the cost of food. You would think the city could figure out a way to make this formula work better but so far, under Mayor de Blasio, they have not.
Homelessness is such an intractable problem. I do not believe it’s just a matter of affordable housing although that would help. Let’s face it, these families are incapable of providing for themselves so it’s our duty as responsible citizens to help them out. At what point, we’re being played for taxpaying fools, I leave that up to you.
December 30, 2017
I heard a startling statistic today. Since 2010, the USA has created 18 million new jobs, far more than were lost in the great recession. I told my wife that and she said, “Yes but what kind of jobs? They probably don’t pay much.”
She’s right and that’s what a lot of people say but, unlike the 1960s, these jobs may never pay enough. That’s why you cannot depend on a paycheck alone.
Let me tell you a story. One of my wife’s relatives–a single, never-married woman in her 80s–came to a realization back when she was working. She was a public school teacher in NYC and realized her paycheck would never give the opportunity to retire early and live independently.
So she did something about it. She bought some books and began studying the stock market, something she knew nothing about. She had a feeling it would be the key to making her into the independent woman she wanted aspired to be.
She did research and read a lot and began to carefully buy stocks. She wasn’t rich, didn’t come from money and, as I said, was a public school teacher. But she had the gumption and nerve and smarts to take control of her own life. The result? She became a millionaire a couple of times over on a public school teacher’s salary and retired early and has been doing what she wants for the past 30 years.
When I was in my 30s, I did pretty much the same thing. No one in my family ever owned stocks but I decided when my children were young that I would learn about the stock market. I bought “The Wall Street Journal’s Guide to Understanding Money and Investments” and studied it. I slowly began to buy stocks and mutual funds and contribute more to my IRA and 401K. I lived through some major market corrections and crazy times but I stayed in the market and today I’m happy I did.
What I’m trying to say is this: a paycheck will never provide enough to make you independent of your employer but the stock market may do just that. And it’s available to every American but only about half are invested in any way.
I’m sure many people, like me when I was young, find the market a confusing place. Others no doubt have little money and not enough to invest. But you don’t have to invest great sums. You can start small and invest a little each week. You don’t even have to be a great stock picker. Buy a mutual fund that mimics the S & P stock index and there you go. Almost anyone will tell you that’s the best investment.
It’s unconscionable that schools do not teach kids about the market and finance. Few of us will use geometry but almost everyone can benefit from even a cursory knowledge of the market. We graduate from high school, even college, as a nation of financial illiterates. (And as my wife points out–you don’t even have to be good at math, something I suck at.)
There is a lot of socio-economic inequity here. My father never owned a single stock and he and I never exchanged one word about stocks. Compare that to my son and I. I’ve been advising him about the market since he was a teenager and he told me that he’s up 30% from when he started investing.
You might say, yeah, but the market has been great for awhile now and that’s true. It is overdue for a correction but you know what? That’s the time to jump in! When the markets go down, you should buy. Buy low, sell high is rock solid advice.
Don’t be afraid. Jump in, albeit a little at a time. Just don’t be the half of American workers that ignore the market completely. A paycheck alone is not going to cut it. You need to take your financial future into your own hands.
November 13, 2017
The powerful men are falling like dominoes, seemingly every day, from accusations by women who were very young and very vulnerable but are not any longer.
To me, this feels like a new wave of feminism, one that might even be more powerful than the waves that have washed over us for decades.
What’s different this time is social media. Facebook, Twitter and social media in general take a lot of abuse (and they certainly have their flaws) but has any other medium given these sexually abused women such a powerful forum?
It’s true that most of the allegations (hello Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein & Louis CK) have surfaced first in fine publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the New Yorker, but the way the stories have spread and been added to would not have been possible without social media. And that goes for the publications themselves. Would they have been able to get those stories out and read by so many without Twitter’s help?
A side note here about Twitter. It feels to me like it’s the most powerful social medium there is. Not only does it have the President of the United States in its thrall but by facilitating hashtags like #metoo, it is responsible for this latest cultural revolution. I can see how Facebook might someday be passe and I can certainly live without it, but I would dearly miss Twitter. It’s all the more amazing that the company cannot figure out a way to make money. It is akin to the creation of broadcast television and there would be a giant hole in our culture without it.
What is going on with the endless charges of sexual abuse, harassment and yes, rape, is breathtaking. This may actually have lasting repercussions because, thanks to social media, any young woman can reach out and grab her abuser/harasser by the throat and bring him to his knees. Maybe this is what it took to teach men how to behave but fear and shame are powerful inducements and it feels like this revolution is for real.
Can anyone doubt the accusers are telling the truth? We’ve come a long way from the days when President Clinton’s paramours were met with scorn.
July 28, 2017
The MTA has a new boss–Joe Lhota–and the guy has a plan to fix the subways. That’s a good thing.
I’ve been riding the subways my entire life and it’s true–they’ve become more crowded, less civil and full of panhandlers. It’s pretty intense down there and I wouldn’t blame anyone for embracing the handlebars of a Citibike and hanging on with all their might. Of course, as rough as the subways are now, the ride is nothing compared to the late ’70s and early ’80s when they were covered with graffiti and had no air conditioning. Now THAT was rough.
(As an aside, it reminds me of the time then-Mayor Ed Koch, who used to be considered an outrageous politician in the pre-Donald Trump era, suggested he would have wolves guard the train yards to keep out the graffiti taggers. Wolves!! He settled on dogs and razor ribbon but I digress.)
One of Lhota’s ideas is to take out some of the seats and stuff more commuters into each car. As someone who often does not get a seat, I can’t say I’m opposed to this idea. While I’ve been mostly standing, I’ve become a student of how commuters find seats, give up seats and where they sit.
Here are a few observations:
— A woman will never sit next to a man if she has a choice.
— Certain ethnic groups will pretty much kill you for a seat. (I know, I know, it’s not very PC of me but, hey, I’ve been watching you!) The same ethnic groups do not respect the right of commuters to exit the subway car first and rush in like an angry herd of cattle late to the trough.
— No one wants to get up if they have a seat–not for a pregnant woman, an old man or a kids on crutches–but they will, grudgingly. Why do you think so many sitting commuters ride the subways with their eyes closed? They do not want to see anything that might force them to give up their seat.
— The only group guaranteed a seat are children. Now this makes me a little crazy. I can understand rising for babies and toddlers but I do not stand for anyone above the age of five. They can stand and build up that New York toughness.
— I don’t know why but older people do not ride the subways. I often play this game where I look around the subway car and count how many people I think are older than me. I’ve never gotten to five.
May 21, 2017
Fifty years ago this summer, the baby boomer generation went through its infamous Summer of Love. It was 1967 and anything seemed possible. Minds were being expanded with the use of LSD and Sgt. Pepper was in the air, along with a slew of other great music from the most classic of the classic rock bands. People advocated loving one another, not just physically but mentally and emotionally and anyway that was possible.
Part of the happy, blissed-out crowd at the Human Be-In in 1967, the event that kicked off the Summer of Love
It sounds naive now but it felt possible in that long ago summer. I was a bit too young at 14 to appreciate it all but I was aware of it. In the words of Stephen Stills, “there’s something happenin’ here.” Really, there was.
I’ve been reading a lot about that year in a new book “In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea” by Danny Goldberg who argues the legacy of 1967 lives on today. I’m not so sure.
Fifty years after that glorious summer, the United States is about to go through what can only be described as the Summer of Hate. We’ve never been so polarized in this country. The president hates the press and the press hates him back. The left hates the right and the right hates the left. On and on it goes. I don’t have to tell you because, chances are, no matter what side you’re on, you are convinced you’re right and the other side is a bunch of numbskulls. There’s no room for compromise in anyone’s eyes.
To run a country, I heard someone say, you need to be elitist and intellectual but you also need to be populist, to be aware of what the working class cares about. I think that was true when this country was founded and for much of its history.
The elites cared about the working man. Today, that notion, it seems to me, has flown out the window. Sure the elite class cares about the poor but the working class? Fuck ’em, they voted for Trump. They’re ignorant. They’re racist. They deserve what they get.
I can’t say it’s a one way street. The working man (and yes, I’m using vast generalizations here to make a point), think the elites are full of hot air and feel their disregard. Ask Hillary if you don’t think that’s true. They knew all too well what she was saying when she called them “deplorables.”
Bottom line: it’s terribly sad and terrible for this country. What happened to the ideals of the Summer of Love? I’d rather be naive than cynical. How and why did we devolve into this Summer of Hate?
April 8, 2017
A couple of my friends recently mentioned to me that I hadn’t been blogging as much lately and that’s true.
So why is that, I ask myself. I often talk to myself as I’m assured only the most intelligent people do. The main reason I find myself blogging less and not on Facebook as much is not because you know who is president although, truth be told, I don’t want to add my opinions to the zillions out there. And besides, you know what you think. I’m not going to change your mind. I also don’t want to give someone like that space in my brain–it’s crowded enough in there. So I skip pretty much every story about him and still know way more than I’d like.
I think the main reason I’m blogging less is because I’m playing guitar more. I took up guitar about three years ago. I’m not really sure why. It just happened and, since then, I’ve been taking lessons, watching Youtube videos and strumming away. I practice every day. I’m far from good but I’m getting better and now find myself with a set list of about 15 songs. (And no, kumbaya is not on there.)
I find it relaxing, playing and singing to myself. I do sometimes imagine a giant hook coming to yank me by the neck and out of the room but so far, my wife has resisted
I’ve also been taking swimming lessons for the first time in my life, trying to get beyond the one lap I can (barely) swim. I’m going for two. That’s my rather modest goal although I’d love to be able to go back and forth like some of you can.
Between swimming and playing guitar and yoga and, oh yeah, work, I find myself with less time to blog. But I do still enjoy it and interacting with all of you so I thought I’d let you know where I’m at these days. You’ll be hearing more of me although, hopefully, not when I’m singing.
March 20, 2017
Rest In Peace Jimmy Breslin.
I saw him first-hand at his best during the days when Son of Sam was writing Jimmy those crazy letters. I was then a copy boy scouring all incoming mail for yet another letter from the serial killer. Opening mail was never as exciting again.
Breslin was in his prime in the days reporters smoked cigars, drank whiskey (and just about everything else) and cursed a blue streak. I miss those days but I am so fucking grateful I was there to work in the same newsroom as Breslin and the great Pete Hamill.
It’s funny what you remember. Mine is a tiny silly detail. One night, the great Breslin was hungry and the only game in town was the 4th floor cafeteria which defined the term greasy spoon. Breslin didn’t care what he ate. He sent me down for his favorite sandwich–grilled cheese with tomatoes. I thought it sounded decent and began eating them myself and, whenever I do, I think of Breslin.
The thing about Breslin is that he never broke character, at least not around me. He growled, he cursed, and made mysterious references. But he was always Breslin and that was more than enough. A Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who owned this city. God bless….maybe I’ll have a grilled cheese with tomatoes today.
One final note. When writing about Breslin, everyone mentions his early column about JKF’s gravedigger but I always thought Breslin’s most affecting piece of writing was about his dear daughter Rosemary Breslin who died of a rare blood disease at the age of 47. I also knew Rosemary a little, met her in Los Angeles when she worked out there….check out Jimmy’s column below about his daughter’s death.
As it was with the mother who went before her, the last breath for the daughter was made before an onlooker with frightened eyes.
First, there were several labored breaths.
And here in the hospital room, in a sight not distorted by passion, was the mother sitting on the end of her bed, as the daughter once had sat on the mother’s in Forest Hills for a year unto death. They both were named Rosemary. When the mother’s last breath told her to go, the daughter reached in fear, but her hand could not stay the mother’s leaving.
By now, Rosemary, the younger, is married to Tony Dunne. He knew she was sick when he married her. He then went through 15 years of hospital visits, stays, emergencies and illness at home and all he wanted was for her to be at his side, day and night. His love does not run. And now, in the daughter’s hospital room, as it always does, fear and deep love brought forth visions of childhood.
The daughter is maybe 4, sitting on the beach. She wants money for ice cream. The mother’s purse had money to pay the carpenter at day’s end. Earlier, the mother had tried to pay a carpenter by check and he leaped away, as if the check was flaming. The daughter plunged into the purse and found no change for ice cream. With the determination that was to mark every day of her life, she went through that purse, tossing large bills, the carpenter’s money, into the air, digging for ice cream change. She sat there infuriated, throwing money into the sea wind. The mother was flying over the sand trying to retrieve it.
Another labored breath.
Then I could see her later, and with even more determination. Typing a script with tubes in her arms. Writing, rewriting, using hours. Clearly, being attacked by her own blood. She said that she felt great. She said that for 15 years.
I don’t know of any power that could match the power of Rosemary Breslin when sick.
Suddenly, the last breath came in quiet.
The young and beautiful face stared into the silence she had created. Gone was the sound of her words.
The mother took her hand, and walked her away, as if to the first day of school.
February 20, 2017
Trapped inside a very crowded subway car, I was feeling cranky, annoyed and even a bit nauseous. I was ass-bumping the person behind me (which is, I believe, a felony when one is below ground), and could smell what the person next to me had for breakfast.
It was impossible to hold a book and read so i plugged in my earphones, hit shuffle, closed my eyes and out came the sublime voice of Laura Nyro singing “Stoned Soul Picnic.”
“Can you surry, can you picnic?”
And just like that, I was transported out of that cramped subway car to a hot summer’s day when I was teenager, back on the bench with my friends in the projects where we spent a ton of time waiting for our favorite songs to play on small transistor radios.
I never knew what “surry down” meant, never mind “sassafrass and moonshine” so, when I had time, I did a little research. Turns out that Laura Nyro, who was born in the Bronx, made up the word because she liked the sound of it. She could have changed ‘surry’ to ‘hurry’ but that wasn’t the way Laura rolled.
She had a complicated history as a singer/songwriter/person and was very much a shooting star. She scored big time when, at the age of 17, she sold “And When I Die” to Peter, Paul and Mary for $5,000.
She then released several albums with a host of classic songs covered by other artists like The 5th Dimension. “Stoned Soul Picnic” was one of the group’s biggest songs and they were astonished it was written by a white girl. Other songs like “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Eli’s Coming” were covered by…just about everyone. But Nyro was a unique artist. By the age of 24, she retired but five years later, unretired and released a couple of other albums.
Her personal life was no picnic. She lived with Jackson Browne for a year, married, divorced, had a son and, when she died at the age of 49 from ovarian cancer (same age and disease as her mother), she was a committed lesbian and had lived for years with another woman.
When Nyro’s lover died soon after, the singer’s estate fell into the hands of a friend, not Nyro’s son. The two feuded over the singer’s estate and, for a time, he was not invited when his mother was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Using the name Gil T, Nyro’s son became a rap artist…perhaps echoing Nyro’s prescient lyric “And when I die, they’ll be one child left to carry on.”
Laura Nyro was a true New Yorker who sang doo-wop on the streets as a teenager so I know that somewhere she’s smiling at having made my subway commute just a little bit sweeter.