Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Holocaust Remembrance Week

When we say, “the Holocaust,” we all know what we’re talking about.  At the same time, it is one of the least understood major events of the Twentieth Century.  It’s certainly worth remembering, but a question that needs to be asked is:  who are we remembering? 


So, the question, or let’s say the two questions.  For one thing, regarding the dead, who gets included in the total?  And regarding the living, the survivors, who may be called a “Holocaust survivor?” 

I cannot say that I have any specific knowledge of the dead, except to say that the families left behind by my many American friends of Polish, Belorussian or Ukrainian Jewish background must certainly have suffered and died.  But of the survivors, I got to know one very well.  His name was Jack, and he was a client of mine.  He believed that he was qualified to receive German Social Security payments as a survivor, and he was referred to me only because my file at the Santa Monica Bar Association listed German as a language skill of mine. 

I agreed to help him where previously no one had.  The matter looked like a lot of work with a very low chance of success, and as Abraham Lincoln said, and I paraphrase, time is money for lawyers.   I thought, let’s give it a shot, this will be interesting.  And Jack was a great guy.  Every night he collected some food from restaurants, and bought more, and drove around giving food to the homeless in Los Angeles.  His only explanation was to say, “I’ve been hungry, I didn’t like it.” 

Jack was born in western Poland in the nineteen-teens to a family that was Jewish, but not particularly religious, and German, and proud of it.  Mostly you’d say that they were Polish though, the family had been there for many generations.  In 1939 the Nazis and the Soviets divided Poland after simultaneous invasions.  Jack was in the half that the Nazis took over.  Of course the family knew what had been going on in Germany, they knew about the bad treatment of the Jews of Germany.  Jack had a bad feeling about it all and decided to flee to the Soviet zone.  One brother was convinced to join him, but the rest of the family chose to stay put.  What could happen?  After all, the Germans had not yet started any kind of program of killing Jews, and the family members were identifiable as culturally German/Polish.  Sure the Nazis are a bunch of bastards, but these are the people of Goethe and Beethoven!   

So Jack said, “good luck,” and split with his brother on foot.  The brother got homesick almost immediately and turned back, but Jack made it to the Soviet zone.  It was all very dramatic, gunfire and hiding in the woods were involved, but he made it.

The bad news is that everybody in Jack’s family, including the brother, everybody but Jack, died in the ensuing Holocaust. 

That’s the bad news, and actually, there’s no good news at all.  He lived, but only barely.  The Soviets, of course, arrested him immediately.  He had blond hair and blue eyes, and he spoke Polish and German, so to them he was obviously a spy.  They sent him, and hundreds of thousands of Poles from the Soviet sector, to concentration camps, probably in Kazakhstan. 

For a few years there Jack was very hungry, those Gulag camps were hunger camps.  Many prisoners died of hunger, and prisoners survived by scheming to get enough food to live on.  Recalling this time years later, Jack developed a lifelong interest in alleviating hunger, God bless him. 

Later on he was chosen for some kind of Soviet sponsored Polish Anti-Fascist Army, towards the end of the war the Soviets were making plans for their take-over of eastern Europe.  After the war he emigrated to Israel where he fought against the English mandate and later in the new Israeli Army.  (He knew Menachem Begin.)  Eventually he emigrated to America, ending up in Los Angeles. 

So our first problem was this:  even though German Social Security seemed, to our understanding of their own materials, to include Jack in the group that qualified for payments, they had consistently refused his applications for years. 

I was by training a lawyer, but I decided that the best strategy here would be a public relations campaign.  I contacted them by mail, letting them know that I was now representing Jack, and please address all future correspondence to me, and by the way, here are the reasons that I believe Jack qualifies and could you please explain to me just how I am wrong?  I wrote to them in English; they wrote to me in German.  They just stuck to their “no.” 

I went to the Jewish community, the temples, the newspapers.  It was an interesting story, and it got some play.  Ari Noonan was a reporter at the Jewish Times who was particularly sympathetic and helpful.  I would send copies of the newspaper articles to the Germans with cover letters.  It did finally work, and they put Jack on the roles, even paying the arrearages back to the original application.  It was a good benefit. 

We now encountered problem number two.  The Times got some letters from L.A. Jews who were angered by Jack’s case.  “Who is this guy claiming to be a Holocaust survivor?”  They acted like Jack was defiling the memories of those who had died.  Jack was from the wrong country, wasn’t he?  And he had certainly been in the wrong camp system.  (Perhaps they would have given him some credit if they’d chosen to recall that his family had been wiped out.) 

I believe that those letter writers were victims of a common misconception about the Holocaust, or a set of misconceptions.  They thought that the victims were German, and they thought that the victims were gassed and cremated in the large, famous death camps.  In the event, only two to three percent of the victims were German.  There had been fewer than 500,000 Jews in Germany as of 1933, and more than half of them were allowed to emigrate.  Those that remained were killed later on, in camps.  The total number of victims is generally agreed to be about six million, and I, like most reasonable people, recognize that figure, but the remaining ninety-seven percent of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust came from outside Germany, most were Poles, Belorussians and Ukrainians.  Something like fifty percent of those victims were shot, not gassed, and they never saw even the gate of a camp, they were simply marched outside of town and killed. 

So is Jack a Holocaust survivor?  He was from a country where over a million of the recognized victims were killed, in the recognized way, and his family died with them.  Did his act of running away and surviving somehow remove him from consideration?  What about one of those rare few who escaped by jumping from the trains taking them to the death camps?  Should they also be disqualified? What about the Jews that worked for Schindler?  Or Ernst Leitz (Leica Cameras)?  

It would be better if we agreed to define the category “victim of the Holocaust” as generously as possible, and it would be better to do so not only for the dead, but also for the survivors.  Surely any Jew within a thousand miles whose life was in jeopardy, and whose family members died, was a victim.  Even if they survived, they were victims.  Oddly, the spirit of the German Social Security Code recognizes this to be true, even if some armchair historians do not. 


I chose to leave the Gypsies out of this discussion, but that doesn't mean that you can't bring it up. Actual Germans who were consigned to concentration camps but who were of categories other than "Jew" we can leave off.  They survived in much greater percentages, being kept alive for their labor. For the Jews, on the other hand, and for the Gypsies too, the Nazis saw greater value in their deaths.   

(Recommended reading:  “Bloodlands,” by Timothy Snyder, available anywhere that books are still sold.)  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Spooky music made by abusing turntables and cutting up and reforming vinyl records - Boing Boing

Spooky music made by abusing turntables and cutting up and reforming vinyl records - Boing Boing

I wonder if the inspiration for this is cosmic or divine, merely mechanical, spiritual or musical, something in between or all of the above.  It's creative, that's for sure.  The stacking of turntables and tone arms, the use of found objects like rolls of packing tape as spacers, the jury rigging of a pyramid of cut up spare parts, it borders on genius. 

Even if I had been the one to get this idea, I would end up not having actually done it.  For one thing, those records are sacred objects to me, cutting them up in various ways would be against my very nature.  For another thing, it looks like a lot of work.

Thanks to Boing Boing, a bottomless font of weird entertainment.  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Alan Price Set - Simon Smith & his amazing dancing bear 1967

This cover of a great Randy Newman song almost cuts the original, don't you think?  Alan Price obviously loves the song, and he really does it to death, with a nice band and arrangement to boot.

Alan was the musical heart of the Animals, you may recall.  This cut is from a solo album (his first?), and there are a few other Randy Newman songs on the album as well.  Alan was a fan, I would say.  Well I'm a fan myself, of the both of them. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster Trailer

Not all Godzilla aficionados like this movie, it often shows in the very bottom of ratings lists.  Contrarian that I am, it's one of my favorites. 

It is light on the Godzilla moments, the big man doesn't get much screen time here.  What this movie has is a great plot, wild human characters, a very Dr. No style criminal/terrorist/super-science group on a fortified, private island, and great, great native girl action, featuring the beautiful Mia Hama.  The terrorists have a pet sea monster to keep prying eyes away from the island, and guess who kicks his ass to save the day?  Yup, Godzilla. 

The movie might score low on the lists, but Mia Hama scores at or near the top of every aficionado's list of favorite Godzilla actresses.  So there's that.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Scoobie's Discovery: Adventures In Race Relations

Discovery is that part of a law suit where the two sides exchange information and prepare their cases for trial.  There’s written discovery, that’s a big part of it.  Depositions are involved too, showing up in person and answering lawyers’ questions. 

Scoobie was a client of ours, a plaintiff in a personal injury case.  “Scoobie” is not his real name, he actually went by the nickname of another beloved television character.  He was a hard guy to get ahold of, and the office had had no success in getting in touch with him about the discovery process.  Without his cooperation, the case would be dismissed.  No one else involved wanted to deal with it.  Let it blow up, there’s no money in it.  He’ll screw up the case somehow, it might as well be now.  Besides, a jury would hate him.  That was the thinking. 

Scoobie was a young man with a poor education and no job, and no prospects. 

I said, I’ll take care of it, no problem, I’ll go get the family to help me find him.  The address was a large but inexpensive home in a new development in the Eastern Empire of Los Angeles, in San Bernardino County.  It was a large, loosely connected, extended family consisting of a matriarchal grandmother and lots of children, grandchildren and cousins, aged from grammar school to adult men and women, a real houseful.  It was an African-American family. 

I got to the address at about 10:00 a.m., unannounced, ready to devote all day to it.  A large, powerful man opened the door.  He was initially very suspicious.  I am never offended by this.  In fact, I recommend that all black Americans be suspicious of any white man that they don’t know, and most of the white women too.  Was I police?  A parole or probation officer?  From Children’s Services?  Once I had convinced him and another adult man that I worked for Scoobie and was trying to help him get some money that was coming to him they invited me in and introduced me to grandma.

She was sitting in a recreation room, in some kind of huge Barcalounger, and I never saw her get up.  There was seating for at least fifteen people, and many children and teenagers were present.  The TV was on.  She sized me up and quickly accepted me at my word, and then I was in.  A pair of young men materialized.  They were very interested in the proceedings.  We sat around discussing strategies for finding Scoobie, and since the young men traveled in the same circles as Scoobie they were full of ideas. 

They figured that I would never find Scoobie on my own, so they offered to come with me.  I was delighted because this seemed to offer a real chance of success.  They thought that there was a good chance that he was at the home of one of his girlfriends, and they knew where several of them lived.  Along the way we could just ask people for possible leads.  They were really enjoying themselves, it was like playing detective. 
Scoobie was at the home of the second girlfriend that we checked.  He was a husky, Geri-Curled twenty-five year old, with that devil-may-care, always cheerful attitude that I have noticed many times in young men in his milieu.  Having given up on education and the job scene, and fully expecting to go to prison someday or get shot, he was well adjusted to making the best of everything that was available to him.  He and the cousins spoke a semi-dialect that was not quite Black English, but not quite standard either.  They were easy to understand though, and they were smart guys so they understood me just fine.  Having gotten acquainted, we all went back to the family home. 

I had brought along the written discovery, so we set up at the dining room table and got started on that.  Along the way a lunch of fried fish was prepared for everyone in the house.  It was cooked by the big guy who had answered the door, he was about thirty-five years old and he didn’t say much.  It was served in a paper towel, to be eaten by hand.  Delicious, by the way.  I ran the situation down for Scoobie and he agreed to be more cooperative in the future.   We had a date for his deposition the following week, and he promised that he’d show up.  I made sure to get as many phone numbers as I could in case we had to look for him again. 

He did, in fact, show up at the lawyers’ office for the depo, and he was on time.  One hour early, as I had instructed him, so that we’d have time to prepare.  One of the girlfriends drove him.  I used the common lawyer’s technique in these depo preparations.  You don’t want to just feed the client lies to say at the depo, you can’t just feed them a script, but you want them to say certain things and avoid other things.  You don’t want them to actually say out loud truthful things that you would then have to tell them, please God, don’t say that.  So you say, here’s how these things go, and launch off into some hypotheticals, if this is what happened, it’s bad, if this is what happened, it’s good, if someone says something like this, they’ll probably win.  “Just tell them what happened.”  I always threw in a “if I kick you under the table, shut up.”  Many people just ignore you, but some bright lights internalize your hypo’s very quickly and do a great job of incorporating the good points into their answers.  Scoobie was one of the good ones. 

To win his case, we would have to show that the landlord at the apartments where he had fallen down the stairs had prior knowledge of the dangerous condition.  This is never easy.  I had mentioned this, but I never feed him a particular strategy.  At the perfect time, he dropped in that he had told the super at the apartments about a loose railing on several occasions, but the super had just blown him off.  I had no idea whether this was true or not, but he said it on his own initiative so my conscious was clear, and my actions were ethical according to the rules.  He described running up the stairs and the railing coming loose in his hand, causing him to fall backwards.

He totally aced the depo, and he showed that he would be a great witness for himself if the case went to trial.  Before we left the building after the depo, the lawyer called me into his office and we settled the case right there. 

This was treated as some kind of miracle of mine back at the office. 

These were typical events  in the life of a lawyer in Los Angeles, and another episode in the adventures of a simple man trying to figure out race relations in America.  

Saturday, April 12, 2014

American Idol: Final Eight, 2014

American Idol has been going for a couple of months now and I don’t recall seeing any mention of it on Facebook.  I haven’t read anything about the ratings this year, but that can’t be a good sign. 

Ooops!  That’s “American Idol” and “Facebook” in the same paragraph.  There goes what’s left of my credibility after five years plus of writing this blog!  But I never claimed to be an intellectual or some kind of hipster.  I could claim that I was doing sociological research, but that’s not true.  I am proudly low-brow, although I do enjoy some of the finer things in life.  I do not place Facebook or American Idol among the finer things, but I enjoy them nevertheless. 

This week was the final eight, which is really too grand a title for this group.  To their credit, they do seem like a nice bunch.  Some previous seasons of the show have been dominated at this stage by a mix of the obnoxious and the dimwitted.  So a nice bunch week after week is refreshing, but it would be much better if more of them could actually sing. 

Malaya can hit some of the notes when she is in full afterburner mode, but at any level below that she is all over the place.  Her tone is consistently disagreeable.  She’s as cute as a button, and she seems very smart and decent, but I don’t think that she can really hear music.  She’s only sixteen years old, so maybe she’ll learn.  Some day, but not soon, I fear.

Dexter is a chunky farm boy who can almost sing.  He seems like a nice guy, and I’m sure he’s a big help at harvest time.

Gina is a cheerful girl who has a pretty good voice, but she doesn’t know what to do with it.  This week she sang “I Love Rock and Roll,” the Joan Jett song.  It was just awful.  Having a good voice and being a good singer are two different things.

Jessica Muse sings in the manner of a wedding singer going through the motions for a small payday.  I keep expecting her to introduce a groom dancing with his mother.  She sang “Call Me,” by Blondie.  It was very ordinary and devoid of emotion except for a pasted on smile.

Sam Woolf is so cute that he just may win the whole thing on that basis.  He sang, “Time After Time,” the Cyndi Lauper song.  He did a pretty good job.  He can sing, but he’s too shy to really let the sound out, he chokes it back as he’s singing it.  He can play the guitar pretty well, and the young girls understandably love him. 

Alex will be the most frustrating of this group.  He has real talent, the only one of the eight about whom that can be said.  He’s a performer, but as the judges have noted he has yet to figure out entertaining.  He wears an expression that is equal parts surprise, annoyance and disgust.  But he can sing, even if his voice is not exactly pleasant, and he’s a very good guitarist, and he comes up with his own very nice and very ambitious arrangements.   He is also, unfortunately for his chances, a poor wooden thing, prone to making odd faces and striking awkward poses.  Even his clothing looks uncomfortable. 

C.J. is another chunky guy who seems very nice.  I’m sure that he’s a good friend, and a good neighbor, and a helpful workmate.  He misses so many notes you wonder what key he’s looking for. 

Caleb is another one who can really sing, he’s an old-school, jet-propelled rock and roll belter.  He goes way up and he never gets lost.  Did I mention that he and Alex are kind of chunky too?  I think the rock n’ rollers usually get bounced about now.  If Caleb would lose the Veronica Lake hairdo and about twenty-five pounds he’d do better.   He’d be great fronting a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band that played biker bars. 

So I watched this mess and I wrote in my notes that the singer to be dropped this week would be either Malaya or C.J.  This insight amazed me in a way.  I mean, how did they end up at this point with the only two black singers in the competition being among the only black Americans who cannot sing at all?  That would seem to take real effort. 

And that’s the way it happened, I know my American Idol by now.  Malaya and C.J. were the bottom two, and Malaya was sent home. 

Of the remaining seven, Alex would be the clear winner if it were all about the talent.  Music, however, is never just about talent, particularly on American Idol.  Sam is the only one that is in the Idol mold, physically.  He has matinee idol looks, but I don’t think there is time to make him into a comfortable performer.  Harry Connick, Jr., one of this year’s judges for the uninitiated, suggested that he look up Ricky Nelson on YouTube for tips on how to play the sweet, attractive teenager with a guitar.  At the after party for the contestants Sam asked everyone if they’d ever heard of Ricky Nelson, and no one had.  They acted like the advice was ridiculous, on that basis.  Too bad, because if he could channel Ricky Nelson effectively he’d be playing to his own strengths and he’d win this year hands down.

Goodbye Malaya!  You’re a fine young woman and you’ll do well in this world, although probably not in the music field.  

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Budget - Professor Stanley Unwin gives his opinion

I'd never heard of this guy, but he's pretty funny, he's got a style.  Reminiscent of Professor Irwin Corey.  Polygenesis, no doubt.

The new Internet pathways introduced us, me and the Professor.  I was listening/watching a vid of the Small Faces lip-synching "Song of a Baker" on some English TV show and the Professor was introduced at the end.  "Master of gobble-de-gook" said the announcer.  Worth a look/listen, I thought. And he was/is. 

(Later on, after viewing Unwin and Steve Marriott interviewed on English TV from 1984.) 

Oh! it all comes back to me!  This Professor Stanley Unwin lent his talents to the great "Ogden's Nut Gone Flake" LP!  Oh, it's a small world, and memory will play its tricks, but with a little luck, we'll live until we die.

Filthy Buggers

The earth has cooled considerably since I was a boy in old New York City.  My corner of the city was College Point, a working class, industrial settlement on the East River across the Flushing inlet from La Guardia Airport, in Queens.  The city was eighty-one percent white in those days (and I’m not suggesting that that was a good thing), and there were three professional baseball teams (that, I think, was a good thing).  There have been many changes over the years.  Some of them are discussed, but many are overlooked.  One thing that seems to go unnoticed is that urban life is much, much cleaner now.

One thing that should shock the modern observer was just how filthy our lives were in the post-World War II years.  I suppose some families had a different experience, a cleaner environment, but the town in general, the stores, the schools, the restaurants and bars, and most of the domiciles, were almost all ancient, run down, and less than clean.  Dust and grime ruled. 

My little friends and I lived a kind of “Little Rascals” existence.  Like that movie gang, we spent a lot of time well out of the range of parental oversight.  In that simpler time, parents were content to let us go “out,” and spend whole days “doing nothing.”  Much of this nothing was accomplished in vacant lots, of which there were still many.  Some were primeval, no spade had ever turned the earth there.  We played in the dirt, making battlefields for little soldiers or roads for little cars.  We played marbles in circles drawn in the dirt.  Since it was New York, there were always construction sites too, often with huge piles of loose dirt for us to get creative with.  Dirt bomb fights were common there for a while.

Do children even play in the dirt anymore?  I think these days it is considered déclassé. 

Our hygiene was less than ideal as well.  I didn’t live in a house with a shower until I was married.  As boys, we took baths, and infrequently at that.  I can hardly believe it now, but even in those beastly New York summers we took one or two baths per week, and washed our hair once a week if that.  (Recall that this was the period when most boys loaded up their hair with products that ranged from greasy [Brylcream], to oily [Vasaline Hair Tonic], to down-right gunky [Oddel’s Hair Trainer].) 

Many of us lived in homes that were heated with coal.  I lived in such a house, a “two-family house,” with a coal bin in the basement, until I was ten.  The dust got everywhere.  The landlord had to go down and stoke a furnace periodically all winter, like a boilerman on the Titanic. 

We paid quite a price for these filthy habits.  We got sties in our eyes and boils on our backs, and frequent infections of other kinds as well.  Our war-experienced doctors were very blasé about it all.  They were just glad that the shooting had stopped.  They’d give you a tetanus shot with one hand while smoking a Camel with the other, sipping scotch between house calls. 

Disease was a much greater presence then.  My own sister came down with whooping cough as a baby, we were lucky not to lose her.  I was, fortunately, in the first generation to get polio shots by age six or seven, so much of that hardship was avoided.  We did, however, all get the then routine childhood diseases, chicken pox, measles and the mumps.  Mumps, in retrospect, seems like an almost comic affliction, with the puffy cheeks and all.  The reality was much worse.  My own case came soon after the chicken pox and the measles, all in less than a year, and my resistance was low.  I was sick as a dog for more than a week, with a fever so high that it was later blamed for my sudden onset of nearsightedness.  I remember the projectile vomiting very vividly, launching baseball sized things into the bucket next to the bed.  Now most of these diseases live only in memory. 

There were the non-routine diseases too, like scarlet fever.  Many boys and girls missed an entire year of school with that. 

Most children today seem to make in through to adulthood with their tonsils intact, never having become infected at all.  Quite the contrary, most of us got that infection too, and had the tonsils removed. 

It all seems unreal to me now, like some poor, stunted earth-like civilization visited by the Star Trek crew, or a bunch of “workuses,” (work house kids, one workus, two workuses) in a Dickens novel.   But we were relatively prosperous working class kids, some quite middle-class even, and it’s not that long ago really. 

Oh, I guess it was long ago.  New York changes more rapidly than most cities, many buildings, hell, whole neighborhoods have come and gone since then.  These days College Point is home to many of the new minorities in New York, Chinese and other Asians, Hispanics, even blacks.  Did I say minorities?  Whites are way in the minority now.  I’m not complaining, it’s a good thing.  That’s been the experience of New York for all of its history.  Ethnic groups move in, move out, and shuffle around.   All of these newcomers are fine New Yorkers, and I’m sure that they make great neighbors.   The fast food is much more entertaining than it used to be too, from what I see on Facebook. 

One thing is for sure:  these new Chinese, Korean, Hispanic, black or white children have a much more hygienic lifestyle than we did.  Oh, two things:  I’m sure that they’re healthier too. 


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Marvelettes - Please Mr. Postman (1961)

It's worth remembering that these songs were about the military draft.  (Except the ones that were about boyfriends in jail, like "Golden Teardrops," but there weren't so many of those.)

Any song about a boyfriend far away, like a thousand miles away, or daddy's coming home, or waiting until Bobby comes home, or a boyfriend being back, that was all references to the draft. 

How poignant is that?  Nice little stories.  Things are different now.