Monday, January 18, 2021

Remembrances and appreciations, 2020

I gave 2020 the bum's rush in my last post, but promised to follow up with my annual post offering remembrances of those lost the previous year, along with appreciations of those who have helped or inspired me. Here it is.

The year 2020 saw a grievous loss to the Hamill family, to Brooklyn, to New York City, to literature and journalism, and to the alumni of the Lion's Head, including me, in the deaths, in unseemly quick succession, of the brothers Pete Hamill and the much younger John Hamill. Pete had been in poor health for some years, so his death was not unexpected, but still felt deeply. I first met Pete in 1995, when I went to a midtown Barnes & Noble to buy a copy of his autobiography A Drinking Life and have it signed. As I handed him the book, I told him I'd started drinking at the Lion's Head about a year after he'd quit drinking, and that I knew his brothers John and Denis Hamill. This got a necessarily short conversation going - there were others in line to get their books signed - and Pete wrote in mine, "For Claude, who keeps the flame alive." About nine years later, having had no further personal contact with Pete. I saw that he would be on a panel discussion at Brooklyn Borough Hall, and I went because whatever they were discussing interested me and because Pete would be there. When the discussion ended, I went up to Pete, sure that I would have to re-introduce myself. Before I could say anything Pete held out his hand and said, "Claude, how are you?" I saw him again twice before he died. The first was at a memorial gathering for the late Lion's Head bartender Paul Schiffman, during which we had a longer conversation than we'd had at Barnes & Noble; one that left me laughing appreciatively. The last was at a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society (now the Center for Brooklyn History) about the Brooklyn Dodgers, roughly ten years ago. After this, he had to be helped off stage and put into a wheelchair. This done, I went to him and mentioned my name. He seemed to remember, and we simply exchanged best wishes. 

I got to know John when he became a bartender at the Lion's Head. Mixology was just one of John's many talents. As his obituary notes, he was a reporter for the New York Daily News, as was brother Pete, who later became its editor. Brother Denis is a Daily News columnist. Like Denis, John was also a screenwriter, co-authoring two Hollywood screenplays. Despite his having opposed the war in Vietnam, John served there as a combat medic, was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, and is credited with having saved the lives of at least two fellow soldiers.

John and I quickly became friends when he started his Lion's Head gig. We shared two loves: the Mets and Irish music. We also had similar views on social, political, and economic issues. (At the time I was probably more "conservative," which is to say "liberal" in the classical sense, on the economic stuff.) We lost touch for a while after John moved to California, but re-connected through Facebook, where we became avid readers of, and commenters on, each other's posts. Our last Facebook exchange was a few days before his death from COVID-19, which must have come quite quickly. Before I started writing this, I looked at his Facebook page, which is still lively with reminiscences by family and friends. It was there that I found the image that I put at the head of this post, the Irish toast, "May we be alive at this time next year." It was posted there by his friend Chris Tracy.

Along with the one-two punch of the deaths of the Hamill brothers, there was another death that hit me hard, that of Judy Dyble. Like that of Pete Hamill, hers was not entirely unexpected. In my Remembrances and appreciations, 2018 and '19 I told of how I had fallen in love with her voice in 1970, when I acquired the first Fairport Convention album, how we had met, if only electronically, in 2008, and how this blossomed into a trans-Atlantic Facebook friendship that led to my learning of her lung cancer diagnosis in 2019. We stayed in touch through the first half of 2020, with her delighting me with news of the British music scene, photos of her rescued greyhound Jessie, and zany recipes that usually culminated in a kitchen-destroying explosion. There were few mentions of medical problems; nothing that seemed immediately dire. In early July she posted that Jessie had gone for a visit to her daughter's; this should have been a warning. After a few days silence came the announcement of her death.Above is a video of Judy, with Songs from the Blue House, doing Joni Mitchell's "I Don't Know Where I Stand." This is the song she sang on Fairport's first album that made me fall in love with her voice. Many years later, that voice was still lovely.

In earlier posts I've noted, ruefully, that with advancing age each year brings increasing numbers of losses of family and friends, as well as of people I've admired in various realms, such as art, literature, music, theater, politics, and sports. 2020 unsurprisingly proved no exception to this sad rule. Certainly the most consequential loss was that of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I consider the loss of singer and songwriter John Prine, for the beauty, incisiveness, and influence of his writing and singing, very significant. Others from the music world I mourn are Bob Shane, the last surviving founding member of the Kingston Trio; Bonnie Pointer of the Pointer Sisters; Rush drummer Neil Peart; Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green; and bluegrass guitar ace Tony Rice. From showbiz, Sir Sean Connery left us shaken, if not stirred; Alex Trebek, game to the end, gave his final answer; and Terry Jones has made his last foray into medieval history. Baseball lost three great pitchers: Whitey Ford, the Yankees' "Chairman of the Board"; Cardinals' fireballer Bob Gibson; and Tom Seaver, "Tom Terrific" or "The Franchise" to long time Mets fans. Oh, yes; the Mets had a lousy season, but more about them in the "appreciations" below. Ailurophiles and existentialists mourned to loss of Henri, le Chat Noir.

In addition to the loss of the two Hamill brothers, the ranks of former Lion's Head regulars continued to be thinned. Those we mourn include jazz critic and "combative cultural gadfly" Stanley Crouch; Pulitzer winning journalist Jim Dwyer, poet Derek Mahon, and raconteurs par excellence Arthur Friedlander and Jerry Schindlinger. I'm sure to have missed a few; my apologies. My thanks to Dermot McEvoy for keeping us informed.

2020 was an unusually violent year. New York City suffered a large increase in homicides, though other serious crimes declined. The deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd led to protests nationwide.

It was a very trying year for friend and fellow Robinson High alum Cheryle Cerezo-Gardiner, who had to witness the ravages of cancer on her oldest son, Martin Jacinto Cerezo, who finally succumbed in January. 

On, now, to the positive side of this long screed. In my remembrances and appreciations for 2019 and 2018 I paid my respects to two women whose courage I had found inspiring: Jennifer Garam and Lauren Jonik. Both are still well and flourishing. As a cancer survivor, Jennifer recently had a check-up to assure the cancer was not recurring. Everything proved OK. I'm sorry to know that, with the onset of the pandemic, she decided to leave Brooklyn. I regret no longer having her as a neighbor, though even before COVID our face-to-face, as opposed to on line, encounters were rare. Perennial optimist that I am, I don't share her outlook for the city's future, though I realize some things will never be the same. In any event, I respect her reasons for leaving.

Lauren, who lives with the ongoing effects of Lyme disease and who survived sexual assault, is continuing her work toward a master's in media management at The New School, and with her writing and photography

About those Mets: When Steve Cohen was announced as the new principal owner, I had some trepidation. I worried that, as a successful finance guy, he would assume he knew all he needed to know to get top performance from a baseball team, and would staff the baseball operations with sycophants. I was encouraged when he said he would make my fellow Harvard Law alum Sandy Alderson (we didn't overlap; I was class of 1970, he was of '76, but I got to meet him at an alumni gathering when he was the Mets' General Manager) as the team's President. During his tenure as GM (2010-18), which was cut short by a bout with cancer, many players who are mainstays of the current roster were acquired, and the Mets went to their fourth World Series (2015). I know little about Alderson's choice for GM, Jared Porter, but his record seems encouraging. I can't quibble with retaining Luis Rojas as manager; the Mets recent woes seem not to stem from inept field generalship but rather from uninspired, and sometimes inept, play. The trade that brought Francisco Lindor to the Mets has scribes wondering if this could make them at least divisional title contenders next season. As a long suffering Mets fan who once remarked on the team's "ability to rouse hopes, then smash them like cheap china," I'm leery of being too optimistic. Still, it's new ownership and management, and reason for hope. Update: Hardly had I written this than the news came out that Porter has been fired as GM after confessing to sending an "explicit" photo to a woman reporter several years ago. Trust the Mets to come up with some last minute drama.

There are many others I could praise for the encouragement they have given me along the way, including, as always, my wife, Martha Foley and my daughter, Cordelia Scales. (For those familiar with her as Elizabeth or Liz, she has decided to be known by her middle name. I think it's a fine name - ask Shakespeare - and I approve.)