Tuesday, December 14, 2004

A love song I can get behind.

"The Subway Song" from 1948:

I'm in love with a girl and she loves me, too,
But our love life is hardly complete.
'Cuz she lives in Brooklyn on New Lots Avenue
And I live in the Bronx on 242nd Street.
We never bill and coo the way young people do.
Oh no, not we.
Those midnight hours of bliss when other couples kiss
We spend on the IRT.

When you hold her hand she kind of purrs,
But the train's so packed, you can't be sure you're holding hers.
You think of pretty things to whisper in her ear
But the train is making so much noise that she can't hear.
You may not know the fellow standing at your right
But you can tell exactly what he ate that night.
Though you've put a brand-new shirt on and your suit is pressed
By the time you get to Borough Hall you're half undressed.

Friday, October 8, 2004

Book stuffs.

How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis is probably THE saddest and most depressing non-fiction book I have ever read in my entire existence so far. It was published in 1890, and was a first-hand account of the utter squalidness of life in Manhattan's tenement neighborhoods. These days you can't even imagine the concept of ten families living in a single room with no windows or ventilation. But it was indeed a reality. More like a nightmare. There was even a reform movement where it was required that tenements have some sort of light/air source, and the city government actually had to send out people with saws to cut holes in every room in every tenement. Boggles the mind.

I've just cracked Luc Sante's Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, and it seems to be turning out to be a kind of modern rendition of Gangs of New York. It focuses on the decades specifically between 1840 and 1920, and all the city's nasty inhabitants and their places of ill repute. Good times, good times.

While on the topic of NYC history, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (wow, long title) is an interesting read. I don't actually have the book, though. So far I've just read a couple chapters when I have time to kill in the Barnes & Nobles. The information is vast and eye-and-mind-opening, stuff that just makes you go, "Dude, wow." On a readability scale, I think it often crosses the academic-y textbook line. But see, I skimmed through those parts. What interests me more are the personal statements and accounts and articles from that time period.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Cornfed midwestern misfits.

My next book conquest? Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, by Bryan Burrough. There's an excerpt from it in the August issue of Vanity Fair about John Dillinger's last stand. I mean, I am just a sucker for this stuff.

Interesting how Burrough cites the time period between 1933 and 1934. Interesting how the Federal Bureau of Investigation suddenly and forcefully came into play when Prohibition was on its way out. And when I say "came into play," I mean "grew a set of balls." According to Burrough, the FBI was pretty much worthless under J. Edgar Hoover from its inception, only investigating small crimes here and there. It didn't hold any real authority over anything. Agents couldn't even carry firearms, and if they needed assistance, they had to call the cops.

So what I'm interested in is, what sparked the need for the FBI to become what it is now? What kind of crimes, what kind of criminals?

Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker. Midwestern gangsters, Chicago types, people who packed heat under their coats and had their faces plastered on wanted posters and under newspaper headlines. These are names I've only heard about, but never really read about. Time to see what they did to piss off the Feds so much.

On a side note, the end of Prohibition in December 1933 meant that alcohol was legal again. So that meant big city bootleggers became unemployed. Gangsters now needed other forms of income. This is when they turned mainly to gambling and drug running, and I'm not sure, but I think it's also when crime became more organized in order to survive the change.

Not gangster-related, but I've also recently bought Hirschfeld's New York. Al Hirschfeld is my hero in terms of the ability to capture the essence of a person's face or their movement in a but a few strokes of a pen. His lines are...immortal.

Monday, April 12, 2004

The Cotton Club

Let me just say that I don't like Richard Gere. Really. I don't. He's like...the male Meg Ryan or something. No, actually, Tom Hanks is the male Meg Ryan. But jeez, I can't stand Richard Gere all the same.

However, as coronetist Michael 'Dixie' Dwyer in The Cotton Club.... He was pretty easy on the eyes. I'm ashamed of myself. I want to weep. What's more, the smug sonuvabitch played his own instrument, Richard Gere actually played his own solos. Damn you, Richard Gere, damn you for being so damned hot in a fedora and speaking with a hot 1928 New York accent, damn you. Oh God, I'm so ashamed.

Now that that's out of the way.

Honestly, this is a very muddled movie. Francis Ford Coppola was probably still in a wacky funk after finishing Apocalypse Now, and who wouldn't be? But The Cotton Club could've been so much better in terms of flow, because there are several plot lines going, and not enough depth is given to certain ones.

However, I give nice, big A-plusses to the music, the performances at the Club (portrayals of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway included), and the overall feel of New York in 1928 to 1932. Harlem, to be exact. But again, there could have been more soul.

Not that there wasn't any soul.There was Gregory Hines as Sandman Williams, a hoofer at the Club, and whenever he came on, he always made me smile. Diane Lane as Vera Cicero was adorable. She was beautiful. I haven't seen any of her movies before, but in this she was amazingly natural. (She reminded me of Thora Birch.) Nicolas Cage as Vincent Dwyer, Dixie's younger brother, was a scenery-chewer, but hey, I have nothing against nepotism when it's Nic.

My favorite characters, though, were club-owner Owney Madden and his right-hand-man Big Frenchy Demange, played by Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne, respectively. (And just to remind everyone, Madden and Demange were real-life gangsters who did work together.) Now, there's Bob, little Bob, and Fred, huge, big, former-Herman-Munster Fred. That is an odd couple if there ever was one, but boy, does it work. And while their relationship was fictionalized, I couldn't help thinking, "Omigod, theirloveissopure!" Because that's how it was! And it was so cute and heartwarming. Aww.

Overall it was fairly entertaining, but I was too distracted by how biased I am against Richard Gere for unidentifiable reasons.

Friday, April 2, 2004

Jackie Chan: gangster with a heart of gold

Last night I rented a Jackie Chan movie called Black Dragon, also known as "Miracle." Hong Kong in the 1930s. Jackie Chan in a fedora. Let the good times roll.

First of all, let it be known that I won't scramble after just any gangster flick. For example, there is no way in hell I'd pay anything to sit through Mobsters, with Christian Slater and Richard Grieco. Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Frank Costello, and Arnold Rothstein would be rolling in their graves. However, if it came on TV, which no self-respecting channel would ever air, of course, I'd watch. But only for the clothes.

Now, back to Black Dragon. Jackie Chan is so adorable it's not even funny. Well, yeah, it's funny, but so funny that it's not even funny anymore. I learned that this movie was a kind of martial arts loose remake of a Frank Capra movie...well, two of them, to be exact -- Lady for a Day and Pocketful of Miracles. However, Capra's movies were based on a Damon Runyon story called "Madame La Gimp." Runyon was the quintessential voice of Broadway in the late teens to the Twenties, and wrote the essence of what became Guys and Dolls. So as soon as Chan's Black Dragon launched into that plot line of a good-hearted gangster trying to help a poor flower-seller pretend to be a high-class woman to impress her daughter, whom she hadn't seen for years, and future son-in-law, whose father was in a prestigious position...I immediately thought of Runyon. Jackie Chan wrote and directed this movie, so he probably didn't even know how far back he was reaching, even further than Capra's version.

And by golly, this was a fun, touching movie, with a fair share of eye-popping action scenes. JC is a genius fight choreographer, make no mistake about that. The sets and costumes were great. The music was cheesy at times, but it only reminded you to lighten up. Oh, and speaking of costumes, the way Jackie Chan handled his hats...drool-worthy. As for the sets, there was this one conspicuous sedan, beige body with a burgundy top, that I kept seeing throughout the movie. It was used several times by the rival gang, but other times it was just used as a passing car, and I just thought that was pretty funny.

Yay for Jackie Chan. He can do no wrong.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Because troublemaking Italians are my thing.

Twenty-one-year-old Al Pacino's mugshot. Whatta punk!

But it still doesn't beat Frank Sinatra's. He was arrested on November 26, 1938 and "charged with Seduction."

Why does that make me swoon?

Thursday, February 19, 2004

So much to read.

I borrowed a copy of "The Gangs of New York" -- the book, not the movie. I've only had time enough to read the foreword, the introduction, and some of the first chapter, and I'm already enthralled, but maybe it's just me and my fascination with gangland culture. (Also, the descriptions of lower Manhattan and its streets and avenues are awesome. I work in the area, so it's cool to actually know where these streets are. Canal Street is so named because there was an actual river flowing down it. Fact!)

And I couldn't believe that this book was published in 1927. The Prohibition Era hadn't even ended. I'm still reading Jerome Charyn's "Gangsters & Gold Diggers," which I feel picks up on the story where Herbert Asbury left off. Because while Asbury was writing this, Owney Madden was still alive and kicking. He's mentioned near the end of "Gangs of New York," but as far as I can tell, Asbury says he disappeared from sight. I find this immensely interesting, because Charyn says otherwise. Sure, he may have dropped out of the public eye -- Madden didn't like publicity anyways -- but he was still actively operating on the underground.

Why do I focus on Owney Madden so much? I guess having read his story, he comes off as the quintessential gangster with a heart of gold. Tarnished gold, of course. In the latter part of his career, he wasn't interested in killing people anymore. He didn't find a reason for it, when a "smile and an occasional firm command by telephone" would get the job done. Mae West, who was one of his lovers, called him "so sweet yet so vicious."

Whether it's grounded in fact or fiction, historically accurate or just a perpetuation of a myth, whatever it was that this guy exuded is the stuff that just grabs my imagination and makes me wonder...

Friday, February 13, 2004

Diary of a gangster.

As I was saying in my previous post, this is what Owney Madden wrote in his diary for a newspaper reporter:

Thursday -- Went to a dance in the afternoon. Went to a dance at night and then to a cabaret. Took some girls home. Went to a restaurant and stayed there until seven o'clock Friday morning.

Friday -- Spent the day with Freda Horner. Looked at some fancy pigeons [Madden was a pigeon enthusiast]. Met some friends in a saloon early in the evening and stayed with them until five o'clock in the morning.

Saturday -- Slept all day. Went to a dance in the Bronx late in the afternoon, and to a dance on Park Avenue at night.

Sunday -- Slept until three o'clock. Went to a dance in the afternoon and to another in the same place at night. After that I went to a cabaret and stayed there almost all night.

Give this man a blog!

Dem guys and dolls.

I'm in the middle of Jerome Charyn's "Gangsters & Gold Diggers." Anybody who is even remotely interested in 1920s-30s New York should read this. It's informative and entertaining, with entertaining information, too.

Anyway, I've gotten to the part about a gangster named Owney "The Killer" Madden. He had black hair and bright blue eyes. He lived in Hell's Kitchen and had earned his nickname by age 17. In the Teens and Twenties, he became a part of New York high society and controlled everything from nightclubs, to speakeasies, to bootleggers, to taxi services. The guy was rich, liked to look good, and didn't give a fuck about cops because they couldn't touch him.

He had that kind of rep where if you got in his face, he'd smile at you and say, "I'm Madden. Who're you?" And you'd hightail it outta there.

He was a sucker for the ladies and had lots of "fiancees." He shot a guy in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, for courting one of his girls. Nobody would testify against him.

He had lots of enemeies, of course -- rival gangs. He was once confronted by 11 men who shot him to pieces. When the cops came, they let him bleed a bit before getting an ambulance. But he survived (though he would cough up blood for the rest of his life afterwards), which was unfortunate for those hitmen, because before you knew it those guys had dropped dead one by one.

I haven't finished reading about him, and I don't have the book with me right now, but I wanted to type up something that really intrigued me. At one point, Madden kept a diary for a newspaper reporter who wanted the lowdown on gangster life. It was simplistic and repetitive, but strangely and unintentionally funny.

What is it about this gangster aura? These were murderous criminals who shouldn't be lauded. Perhaps it's because the era of speakeasies and chorus girls is so far removed now, that it seems like a fairy tale. They're all just characters. But people died in their wake. Corruption in local government ran deep and rampant. To even be in the presence of these characters must have been frightening. I'm reconsidering even thinking about being a moll in a past life.

However, this hasn't curbed my infatuation with pinstripes and wingtips.

Monday, February 9, 2004

The Top 15 Mafia Valentine's Day Greetings

15> My love for you... it came and went.
So your feet are now in wet cement.

14> I'm here To fulfill your fondest wishes
Now that your husband sleeps with the fishes.

13> Lie down with me -- it's my final offa,
Or you'll be lying wit' Jimmy Hoffa.

12> I picked up this card from a slim selection
But that's all they offer here in witness protection.
Love, J. Doe

11> I've waited so long for you to be mine.
Now that Sinatra's dead, be *my* Valentine.

10> Be my Valentine, and we can do it execution-style.

9> Cinderella got her fella,
with a slipper made of glass;
So please be mine, Valentine,
or I'll have to whack your ass.

8> Violets are blue, roses are red,
I blew up your car -- So why ain't you dead?

7> The day we met, my little pet,
I knew with just one look
You'd bear a son, and now that's done,
So shut your mouth and cook!

6> Hey.

5> Youse da greatest. Youse da best.
But you're as untouchable as Elliot Ness.

4> Lust is fleeting, true love lingers.
Be mine always and you'll keep your fingers.

3> Hope da chocolates is good, but y'know,
dis ain't really what a guy's heart looks like.

2> Valentine, Dear, lend me a hand
So I won't be a self-made man.

and Topfive.com's Number 1 Mafia Valentine's Day Greeting...

1> When a goon makes you die,
Cuz you told him goodbye -- that's amore!