by Shaun Costello
There are two books that sit on the night table next to my bed, and have sat there for many years. Two books I rely on to enliven my usually lazy intellect, and to remind me of a world outside my own, the sanity and insanity of which, never fails to immeasurably kindle a fire in my day. Both books give me direction, and clarity. They clear things up. The readings can be long or short. Sometimes a chapter. Sometimes a sentence. Occasionally, a subjunctive clause. But I seldom put them down without feeling a bit better than I did before picking them up.
The first is BLUES, by John Hersey. It is a lengthy conversation between two characters, the Stranger and the Fisherman. It takes place on Martha’s Vineyard. The Stranger notices the Fisherman preparing his boat for a day on the water in pursuit of Blue Fish. He speaks up, and asks the Fisherman why he fishes. He admits to never having done so himself, and that he has often wondered why men fish. It is a mystery to him. The Fisherman takes this Stranger in tow. He asks the Stranger if he’d like to come aboard, spend some time on the water, and share the experience. Reluctantly at first, the Stranger boards the boat. What follows is a summer on the waters of the Vinyard, as the Fisherman enlightens the Stranger to the saga of the mighty Blue Fish, and the reflections of poets, from Homer to Elizabeth Bishop, on the emotions and complications of fishing. Each chapter ends with a recipe for cooking the day’s catch, and a poem relevant to the experience. Hersey, in this book, celebrates the seas, their life, and life itself.
The second is Isaac Bashevis Singer – The Collected Stories. Singer wrote in Yiddish. Did you know that? Singer, along with Philip Roth, is my favorite writer of fiction. His stories are invariably filled with tales of the Kabbalah – Magic and Jewish mysticism. From the Shtetls of Nineteenth century Russia, to 1950’s Miami Beach, his tales are both hilarious and terrifying. Elfs, Demons, Dybbuks, Magic, Golems, and the relentless mysteries of the Kabbalah. Singer seems so familiar with Jewish mysticism that I sometimes wonder if he was part Elf, himself.
© 2019 Shaun Costello
THE DEUCE – BACK IN THE DAY
by Shaun Costello
The Times Square subway station, my portal to the neighborhood, was an intense assault on the senses. A sudden, almost overwhelming surge of smells and filth hit you as the train doors slid open to the rush of urine, and cotton candy, and damp humanity, and hot dogs on their revolving spits, and vomit, and baked goods like crumb cakes and bran muffins and pretzels, and the garlicky pungent scent of Gyros slowly rotating, and everything suddenly interrupted by someone chasing a pick-pocket through outstretched hands asking for dimes, and a tidal swarm of the disenfranchised huddled in groups, trying to stay warm. And this entire sensory phantasmagoria was musically scored by the over-modulated sound of Kool and the Gang wailing “Jungle Boogie” from the cheap speakers over the door to the subterranean record store. And then the cold again as you climbed the stairs to the street, and there it was, “The Deuce”.
Forty Second Street between Times Square and Eighth Avenue had pretty much the same chaotic intensity as the subway station, except brighter and colder. The sidewalks were covered with evidence of the previous night’s activities, and silent men with brooms were sweeping out the entrances to the many movie houses that provided a dark haven for degenerates on the prowl, and warm place to sleep for those who had no alternative. When I was a bit younger, Jimmy and I spent many a night with friends from High School in these theaters, where you could see three action pictures for a buck, and where the predominantly black audience threw empty soda cans at the screen to warn the hero that a bad guy was sneaking up behind him. Jimmy, Herb and I would haunt these shabby venues, watching bad prints of older action pictures, and endlessly quoting lines of dialogue from the movies to each other, competing for who could sound more like Lee Marvin or Burt Lancaster. We became the Three Musketeers of 42nd street, playfully window shopping Cheap Men’s Clothing, Army/Navy, Discount Electronics, Peep-O-Rama, Nedicks, GIRLS/GIRLS/GIRLS, Souvlaki/Gyros, Tad’s Steaks, Pinball-Palace, Te-Amo Cigars, Orange Julius, Modell Sporting Goods, Movieland, all the daily offerings of “The Deuce”.
Why I found this degenerate atmosphere to be the soothing, nurturing, cradle of comfort that drew me like a moth to a flame, is difficult to describe, particularly to those who never experienced it, or never needed to. Today’s Forty Second Street is a Disney-driven, squeaky-clean, family-friendly, vanilla canyon of imitative tourist attractions that might just as well be found in Kansas or, better yet, Orlando. But back then, before the bulldozers cleared away the grunge of reality to make room for the plasticine, cellophane wrapped Valhalla that would replace it, “The Deuce” was the Mecca for those restless souls who prowled the canyons of Manhattan’s West Forties looking for the shit.
by Shaun Costello
CONFESSION: A life-long aversion to, and hatred of, Picnics. I know, I know, the conjured image of a meal on a blanket in a meadow has great appeal, but in my experience, the reality of a picnic is disastrous. I have experienced this dreadful reality many times, mostly in New York’s Central Park. I realize that I will draw the wrath of picnic aficionados everywhere, but, in my view, the awful truth must be told.
The Fantasy: A wicker picnic basket filled to the brim with ripe cheeses, fresh fruit, French bread, and white wine; set down upon a plaid picnic blanket, in a sunny meadow, on a lovely Spring afternoon.
The Reality: No one owns a wicker picnic basket. They exist only in movies or books or Williams Sonoma catalogs. So you leave the market with paper bags filled with the necessary ingredients for the task at hand – the aforementioned cheese/fruit/bread/wine. You have not yet discovered that you have forgotten much-needed utensils like a cheese knife, plastic cups for the wine, and napkins – who remembers napkins during an epicurean adventure? And off you go, in search of exactly the right piece of pastoral paradise in which to experience this celebration of grassy gastronomica.
The walk is a little longer than you anticipated, carrying a bit more than you thought you might need, so a few stops become necessary to rearrange the baggage. You didn’t really have a plaid picnic blanket (does anyone?) and your down comforter didn’t seem appropriate, so you bring a sheet. The loss of a romantic element perhaps, but it would have to do. Now to find exactly the right spot. The park is a bit more crowded than you anticipated. Kids on bikes. Frisbee enthusiasts. Packs of dogs chasing tails. Screaming babies; it wasn’t like this in the movie I saw, and far from being a modern-day version of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of Le Grande Jatte.
Wait, there’s a lovely spot under that elm tree. Upon arrival, we find a freshly deposited pile of dog poop exactly where we wanted to spread our blanket. Exhausted, we settle for not quite what we had hoped for, but hey, it’s outdoors, regardless of the noise coming from that not-too-distant boom box.
The sheet is spread upon the grass. We double over one side to hide that stain we forgot was there. We sit down on the sheet and begin to open the paper bag containing the ingredients for our al fresco fantasy. As we empty the bag, we are surprised by the amount of plastic packaging in which our meal is contained.
As the food is arranged on paper plates, a small mountain of plastic rises to a surprising height. It is now time to discover the forgotten cheese knife, plastic cups, and napkins; and Oh Shit, I forgot the corkscrew. We can always drink from the bottle, provided there is some way of opening it. I scan the horizon. There must be a neighboring pickicker who was smart enough to pack the right tools. I see a family on a nearby blanket, and there’s an open bottle of wine – an answered prayer.
I explain my plight to Mr. and Mrs. Corkscrew. I feign embarrassment, and grovel a bit. Mr. Corkscrew is unsympathetic. “How do I know you’ll bring it back?”, he asks. I point to my girlfriend, just fifty feet away, sitting on our sheet next to an unopened bottle of wine. Mrs. Corkscrew speaks up. “Ask him for a deposit, Morty”. A deposit? Morty Corkscrew agrees. “Yeah, twenty bucks and it’s yours. Temporarily that is, until you return it. Then you get your twenty back”. I hand him the twenty, and Morty Corkscrew hands me the implement. Commerce.
The transaction and task completed, and now back in possession of my twenty bucks, I thank Morty and Mrs. Corkscrew, and return to my girlfriend who is sitting on her sheet, to begin our gastronomic adventure.
The French bread is now a bit stale, but it seems to go well with the Brie cheese, which is spread on the bread with our fingers, having forgotten a cheese knife. Fingers that, after a bit of licking, are wiped on our sheet, since we have also forgotten napkins. Invariably, while making a descriptive hand gesture, one of us knocks over the wine bottle, creating a puddle in the middle of our sheet. While attempting to deal with the spilled wine, I notice that the mound of Brie cheese on the paper plate next to me is now covered with ants. For some reason my mind drifted off to a childhood fable of civilizations where people ate ants, and other insects. The growling sound in my rear brought me back to the present. I turned to come face to face with a large, mangy looking mongrel of a dog, who had been involved in tail chasing, until he decided to come over to our little slice of paradise to express his sudden and intense dislike of me and everything I stood for. He bared his teeth, in a low frequency growl, necessitating my stillness and silence. Then suddenly, he leaped forward snapping up our French bread, and took off across the field, his mouth carrying half a loaf.
Breadless and wineless, with sticky fingers and the tarnished reality of a fantasy undone, we pack up what’s left, and head home. On the way, we dump our picnic ingredients, and a fair amount of plastic into the nearest trash can. And, in an act of surrender for attempting a foolish fantasy, we dump the wine-soaked sheet as well.
I do not hesitate for a moment to proudly admit that my favorite meals have been consumed while sitting at a table, far from the mercy of Morty and Mrs. Corkscrew, and bread-thieving dogs.
THE GODFATHER THROUGH A DIFFERENT LENS
by Shaun Costello
In a recent trip to my local library, I came across a crisp, new paperback edition of The Godfather. I have seen the movies (I and II) an embarrassing number of times, but read the book just once, in 1969 when it was first published. So I took it home, curious to know if it still packed the original wallop that made it a blockbuster best seller. The opening pages contained two introductory pieces. The first was headlined A NOTE FROM ANTHONY PUZO, SON OF MARIO PUZO, and it was in caps, as I have written it here. It was two pages of unreadable gibberish, intended, I suppose, to give this volume some kind of familial, folksy varnish, an idea probably hatched in the eager mind of an underpaid, over-confident wannabe in a cubicle at Penguin Random House, where ideas like this one flourish until they flounder of their own mistaken value.
Next came an Introduction by Robert J. Thompson, who turns out to be (I’ll insert this verbatim) The Founding Director of the Center for Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, where he is also the Trustee Professor of Media and Popular Culture at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Well, that’s a dizzying title indeed. I wonder how it fits on his business card. It seems that this worthy academic has published five volumes, all about television, and is now busy finishing his sixth, a history of the medium. The introduction, entitled Introduction, was eleven pages of hyperbolic hipster speak, the pages numbered, as intros so often are, in Roman Numerals. Eleven glib and wittily urbane pages seemingly designed to place Mr. Thompson somewhere between being the lost Corleone son that Puzo left out of the book, and someone you might bump into para-gliding at Club Med, wearing an ill-fitting speedo. And certainly, someone to avoid, should you find yourself behind him on line at Starbucks.
Publishers mystify me. Can there be a book, other than Mein Kampf or The Bible, that has reaped higher revenues for its imprint, down through the years, than The Godfather? I’m guessing not. Yet, at a new projects meeting, in the conference room at Penguin Random House, as ideas were suggested around the table, some young literary Turk spoke up and said, “Maybe it’s time for another go-round with The Godfather”, which was probably received, in equal measure, with the appropriate grunts and moans. To which our young hero responded, “No wait, it might work. Provided we package it correctly. Let’s get someone who knew the author well, maybe a Puzo family member, to write a short introductory piece. And then a project narrative by a media writer. God knows, there’s no shortage of them. We include them as ‘extras’, like a director’s commentary track on a DVD. Packaging. That’s the ticket”.
Ideas like this are not necessarily suicidal, provided somebody rides heard over them, supervising quality control over who is chosen to write the ‘extras’, and what is written. But, more often than not, corporate auto pilot takes over, and important details are ignored. Hey, it’s The Godfather. They’re going to buy it no matter what. So, an intern was tasked with going through all those dust covered rolodexes in the storage room to come up with a willing Puzo family member. This process yielded Anthony Puzo, the author’s son, who gladly agreed to write a few pages about the pain his father went through in struggling to create his masterpiece. And a quick Google search revealed an unlimited number of media writers, with Robert J. Thompson’s name up there at the top of the list. An academic with a title a big as the Ritz. Thompson quickly agreed to deliver eleven pages on The Godfather’s impact on Pop culture over the 48 years of its existence. Hey, the guy’s a Trustee Professor. Whatever he writes will be just fine. Even if it’s eleven pages of self-indulgent clap trap, constructed to portray Thompson’s awareness of the impact of the Godfather on pop culture, rather than the impact itself, and as a result, exuding the coolness this academic feels is his due.
The packaging aside, let’s get to the book itself. It still works. It’s a well-constructed story, with colorful, memorable characters, a brisk pace, and a satisfying conclusion. The only real fault I could find with it is Puzo’s prose. While his descriptive narrative is fine, the dialogue is sometimes awkward and forced. Also, the male-female relationships seem a product of the era (the 1940’s), and the characters (depression era Italian Americans). That said, many of the conversations between the sexes are cringe-worthy. The addition of Francis Ford Coppola, as co-writer for the movie screen plays vastly improved the dialogue, and cleaned up much of the book’s murky areas.
This brings us to a question I have asked myself many times over the years. Could Mario Puzo have written The Godfather, had not Peter Maas written The Valachi Papers? Although published in 1968, Maas wrote most of his book between 1963 and 1965. Valachi’s startling revelations about organized crime in America, before Senator John McClellan’s Senate Subcommittee in 1963, proved to be an embarrassment to J. Edgar Hoover, who had insisted for over thirty years, that the Mafia did not exist in America. Between 1963 and 1965, because of his friendship with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Peter Maas was given unlimited access to interview Joe Valachi in his prison cell. These extensive interviews would eventually yield Maas’s book, The Valachi Papers. But Hoover was dead set against the publication of a book, the contents of which would make him out to be a fool. After Kennedy left office, in 1965, Hoover put pressure on Lyndon Johnson to lean on Kennedy’s replacement at Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach, to prevent the publication of Maas’s book.
For over two years, Maas negotiated with Washington to get some version of his manuscript published. He finally succeeded in getting approval to publish a heavily censored version, and The Valachi papers was finally published in June of 1968. Much of Valachi’s elaborate testimony before Congress in 1963, was revealed and expanded in Maas’s book, and America became aware of the details surrounding the enormous criminal enterprise that J. Edgar Hoover had repeatedly insisted was non-existent.
The details, and the history of La Cosa Nostra both shocked and fascinated the world. Joe (Joe Cargo – shortened to Joe Cago) Valachi was born in 1904, in East Harlem to an impoverished Italian American family. He ran with a gang of thieves, committing small burglaries until finally being inducted, in a formal ceremony, into The Genovese crime family. The book revealed his involvement in The Castellammarese War in the early 1930’s. This war pitted the two most powerful crime bosses of that era against each other. Joe (The Boss) Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano would battle for supremacy in New York’s criminal underworld. These were two old time gangsters, called by the younger soldiers “Mustache Petes”. They would compete in deadly combat for the title of Capo di tutti capi (Boss of all bosses). After the death of both gangsters, an organization was formed by this criminal society’s rising star, Charles Lucky Luciano, who would consolidate New York’s criminal gangs into the Five New York Families, overseen by an organization known as The Commission, that would resolve disputes between the Families peacefully. This organization would become known, among its members as La Cosa Nostra or This Thing of Ours. Details were revealed in Maas’s book, like the oath of Omerta, or silence, adhered to by members under penalty of death. The sacred ceremony of admission to La Cosa Nostra. The structure of the society, imitating the hierarchical fundamentals of the Roman Legions. Details about the characters, the language, and the structure of this criminal society were now public knowledge, due to Valachi’s testimony, and Maas’s book.
A year later, in March of 1969, The Godfather was published to rave reviews, and quickly became the best selling novel in the history of publishing. And what was contained on the pages of The Godfather? The oath of Omerta, The Five Families. The Commission, the language of this criminal society; all originally revealed a year earlier in The Valachi Papers. Could this be coincidence?
I knew Peter Maas pretty well when I lived in The Hamptons. Many of us played tennis on Peter’s har-tru court, at his house in Bridgehampton. So, one day I asked him. Did Mario Puzo ever call him up to thank him? He took the high road, which was typical of Peter. He told me that he knew Mario, and liked him. The Valachi Papers, while not yielding the fortune Puzo had made with The Godfather, had also been a best seller, making Maas quite a bit of money. He was sanguine.
My conclusion, from all that is written above, is that The Godfather could never have been the iconic literary conflagration it became, without the publication of The Valachi Papers, a year earlier. Peter Maas had supplied Mario Puzo with the historical events, the characterizations, the language, the structure of La Cosa Nostra, and the every-day experience of ‘life in the mob’, without which, The Godfather could never have been written.
© 2018 Shaun Costello
THREE GREAT LOVE SONGS FROM WORLD WAR TWO
Separation is the common theme – listened to by wives and sweethearts on the home front, and by husband and lovers, overseas in distant lands fighting in the war. A horrific, yet romantic time, and these three songs must have helped and hurt in equal measure. And they’re lovely indeed. I remember these three vividly because my mother used to sing them around the house, and play them on the record player when I was a small child.
YOU’LL NEVER KNOW…1943
Music by Harry Warren and Lyrics by Mack Gordon
The hit recording was by British songbird Vera Lynn.
I’LL BE SEEING YOU…1944
Music by Sammy Fain and Lyrics by Irving Kahal
Originally written in 1938, but made famous in the 1944 movie I’LL BE SEEING YOU, which made it a big hit, and one of WWII’s great love songs.
IT’S BEEN A LONG, LONG TIME…1945
Music by Jule Styne and Lyrics by Sammy Cahn
The hit recording was by Harry James and vocalist Kitty Kallen
© 2018 Shaun Costello
A TARNISHED SHARD
by Shaun Costello
America used to have allies in this world: England, Canada, France, the NATO Alliance, and the rest. We went through WWII together. We were united as common democracies. Now America has turned its back on our long-time friends, and has reached out to our new pals – the Gangster dictatorships: Putin’s Russia, Dudirty’s Philippines, and North Korea. We no longer have any trade partners. Trump disbanded the TPP, giving all of Asia to China. We are in a Tariff war with our former closest allies, Canada, the EU, the UK, and Mexico. We, a nation of immigrants, have closed our borders to those seeking asylum from violence and political turmoil. America has made a mockery of its constitution. Trump has done exactly what he promised his hateful, racist followers, during his campaign. He has destroyed the structure and integrity of the American government. The occupant of the White House is no longer the leader of the free world. He is, instead, an opportunistic, self-serving, self-promoting greed monger, hell bent on filling his pockets with every penny he can pilfer from America’s coffers. And his poll numbers are going up. America likes him. America’s once-shining star is a tarnished shard of the nation that gave hope to so many.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Not any more!
GREEDY FACEBOOK TAKES ON NEW ROLE – AMERICA’S MORAL COMPASS
By Shaun Costello
Facebook, sometimes known as the AMERICAN BOTS AND TROLLS SOCIETY, in an attempt to reverse the world-wide perception that its rabid greed for advertising revenues, and lack of interest in who exactly does that advertising, was directly responsible for putting Donald Trump in the White House, is taking on a new role as America’s moral compass. Yes folks, there’s a new Sheriff in town, and his name is Mark Zuckerberg, and he’s the Imperial Wizard of Facebook’s Morality Police.
Facebook’s membership will now he held to a whole new set of codified regulations that will determine what can be said, and what can not, on the pages of this vaunted internet venue. So, Facebook’s subscribers will be punished, as compensation for the internet cash cow’s greed and irresponsibility.
On May 25th, someone shared an article on Facebook about the dubious behavior of a State Representative in New Hampshire. (Link Below)
It seems that, in an attempt to prevent the moral hazards of public nudity, the politician stated that, if a woman were to expose her breast in public to nurse an infant, he had the right to grab the breast in question. I was outraged by the brazen insensitivity and sanctimonious presumptions in the politician’s statement. So, beneath it, in the comments section, I wrote, “Men are such assholes”. A few hours later, I was notified that I was to be blocked from posting on Facebook for a period of three days, for breaking Facebook’s new code of regulations. I was stunned. In an attempt to appeal what I considered to be an outrage, I clicked on a few boxes until I found myself offered a venue to explain my outrage. Into that box, I typed the following:
“The comment that I made in response to a New Hampshire State Representative, who stated openly that if any woman in his state bared her breast to feed an infant in public, he had the right to grab it. I responded, “Men are such assholes”. Was the New Hampshire Representative blocked for making this horrific remark? Of course not. It’s bad enough that Facebook helped put Trump in the White House, but now Facebook takes on the sanctimonious role of The Morality Police. And by the way, I stand by my comment”.
When I clicked send, a notice appeared that said, “We could not process your request. Please try again later”. I tried ten additional times and got the same notice each time. This tells me, of course, that the appeal function, falsely offered by Facebook, is intentionally defective; to create the illusion of fairness, while blocking one’s ability to effectively protest.
So, Facebook’s advertising juggernaut, which has conspired to give the world President Donald J. Trump, marches full speed ahead, with multi-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, a knight in shining armor at its head, sowing the newly embraced seeds of morality, as it reaps its fortunes, unregulated by a cowardly Congress, tacitly approving a State Representative’s threats to grab the breast of any woman who has the temerity to nurse her child in public; while simultaneously punishing its membership for calling him an asshole.
© 2018 Shaun Costello