The Daily

Nostalgia

The Jimmy Winkfield Stakes

June 12, 2014 | by

A racetrack in obsolescence.

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Photo: Ilya Lipkin

Every year on the third Monday of January, the Aqueduct Racetrack, in South Ozone Park, Queens, runs a six-furlong race in honor of Jimmy Winkfield. The choice of date, Martin Luther King Day, is not accidental. Of Winkfield’s many accomplishments, which include winning the Russian Oaks an incredible five times for Czar Nicholas II, he is best known as the last black jockey to run a winner in the Kentucky Derby, in 1902.

To be black in the world of horse racing was no easy thing in the early part of the twentieth century. Winkfield, born in Kentucky, had enjoyed a storied career in Russia and France, but when he returned to America he was forced to enter a reception held in his honor through the hotel’s service entrance, with the bellhops and the kitchen staff.

Because of the raw January weather, attendance at the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes is usually rather sparse compared to the bigger events at the height of the racing season. This year, my older brother Ilya and I saw the race completely on a whim—we thought it might be fun to trek out to the Aqueduct like we used to when we were younger. Back then, if the weather was fine, our father would drive us to the track out in Ozone Park, a favorite destination for the unattached men in the neighborhood. Edik from the dry cleaners down the street was a fixture there, as was Pavel, the bartender at the Pennant Sports Bar on Northern, and Parsons, whose brother was an orderly at the elder-care facility where our grandfather died. To me, gaining admission to that world of working men was no less exciting than the races themselves. I watched with great interest as they quaffed beer and studied the odds on the board and cursed when they invariably lost their money. Being a bit older, Ilya had a better sense of what was actually going on. He nagged Pavel until the bartender showed him how to decipher the near-hieroglyphic racing form. The one time my father let him place a bet, we won eighty dollars. It proved to be a red-letter day, because that same afternoon, I fed a carrot to Cigar, the Hall of Fame thoroughbred, just before the first big win of his career. (The Aqueduct now runs a race in his honor as well.) Read More »

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A Little Circus

May 5, 2014 | by

American Masters’s Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself premieres nationally Friday, May 16, on PBS. The network has released a few short clips in advance, and they paint a pretty picture of life at the Review under the Plimp’s tenure. The portion above finds Robert Silvers, Jonathan Dee, and others reflecting on Plimpton’s business acumen—or triumphant lack thereof—and the relaxed tenor of his leadership. “I think it meant a lot to him to have this kind of camp,” Silvers says. “It was a whole little world, you might say. And he was the king of it. And he was a ringmaster, you might say, of a little circus there.”

Below, Peter Matthiessen, who died last month and who had been the last living founder of the Review, discusses the magazine’s ambitions—its approach to fiction and poetry, and its early coups with interviews.

 

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A Vintage Plimpton Prank

April 1, 2014 | by

Today’s been so chock full of hoaxes, shenanigans, pranks, put-ons, spoofs, tomfoolery, and good-natured hooliganism that we’ve almost forgotten to remind you of the hoaxes, shenanigans, pranks, put-ons, spoofs, tomfoolery, and good-natured hooliganism of yesteryear. One case in particular merits revisiting: we speak, of course, of a 1985 hoax executed in grand fashion by our late founder, George Plimpton. PBS’s American Masters tells the story with help from Jonathan Dee:

For the April 1, 1985, issue of Sports Illustrated, George Plimpton wrote “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” a profile on an incredible rookie baseball pitcher for the New York Mets. Sports fans took his April Fools’ Day joke seriously. Even other journalists were willing to believe a novice could throw a 168-mph fast ball, thanks to his Buddhist training (Sidd was short for Siddhartha, the title character of Herman Hesse’s novel). To keep the hoax going, a nervous George Plimpton relied on a young Jonathan Dee, now a famous fiction writer but then an associate editor and Plimpton’s personal assistant at The Paris Review. Dee describes Plimpton’s tense days surrounding the hoax in this film outtake.

American Masters’ Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself premieres nationally Friday, May 16, on PBS.

 

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Sweets for the Sweet

February 6, 2014 | by

cookie carnival

A still from “The Cookie Carnival”

I devoutly hope there is an academic somewhere writing a serious essay about the role of anthropomorphic comestibles in Depression-era cartoons. I am no authority, but it seems pretty clear to me that, besides the obvious economic implications, all this humanized food has a great deal to do with gender norms, and attitudes toward food, and probably class, too. Disney’s 1935 Silly Symphony “The Cookie Carnival” would have to be the centerpiece of any such argument.

“The Cookie Carnival” is a Cinderella story that focuses on a sort of proto–Miss America boardwalk parade in which various confections compete for the title of “Cookie Queen.” In describing the plot, I can do no better than Wikipedia, which undertakes the task with commendable thoroughness:

Various sweets and goodies of Cookietown are preparing to crown their new Cookie Queen. A parade of potential candidates passes by, all based on various cakes and sweets. Far from the parade route, on what would appear to be the wrong side of the peppermint stick railroad tracks, a gingerbread drifter overhears an impoverished sugar cookie girl crying. Upon hearing that she cannot enter the parade because she hasn’t any pretty clothes, he hurries to remedy this, concocting a dress of colored frosting and candy hearts. He covers her brown hair with golden taffy ringlets and adds a large violet bow to her dress as a finishing touch. Thus attired, she is entered as the final contestant in the parade: Miss Bonbon. Read More »

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Reading Through the Leaves

November 5, 2013 | by

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I was recently asked by a Canadian online magazine to visit with the books on my shelves, to find what I’ve hidden in them over the years—old boarding passes, postcards, grocery lists, a love letter never sent. Yes, I found all these things, but mostly I found tree leaves in my books. The editor wanted a picture, fifty or so words, but I kept writing because it bears explaining why I do this—how I take leaves back to my apartment to identify them, compare them to pictures in other books; and once I’ve named them, or sometimes because I’ve failed to, how I feel compelled to keep the specimens—from ash trees, lindens, London planes, honey locusts, and as-yet unknown (to me) trees all over Brooklyn. They are slipped between pages of novels, story and essay collections, a biography, books I have read and often reread, and when I open them later, forgetting myself and the last day I read that book and where, and under what tree, the leaves reenact the fall, not just one leaf but several, all different sorts, falling, or it’s the fragile end of a branch of a pinnate leaves that’s waiting for me, as here in this photo.

I do this in part because Brooklyn, and Brooklyn Heights in particular, where I’ve lived for over twenty years now, has always felt a refuge from a New York City urbanity that is unabashed and demanding, denuded of softness. The streets in Brooklyn Heights in spring, summer, and every year longer into fall are canopied by the copses of trees, reaching for and finally catching each other. These streets feel like invitations to secrets—the right to secrets—to full breaths and quiet even in this city. The other reason I do this, will always do this, owes to my grandfather, who was an arborist, or tree surgeon, in Vermont. Truth be told, he taught me nothing about trees. I was too young to ask, and in my teens, approaching my twenties, when I did think to inquire, he didn’t seem to care to talk about all the trees he’d pruned, saved, and declared beyond saving, especially during the height of the Dutch elm disease in Vermont, when he and his crew carved up hundreds of elms and carted them away for burning.

He wanted to talk about his life before he was married and settled with children and responsibility in Bennington. He’d been a salesman, an itinerant in the 1920s, and lived in rooming houses up and down the East Coast, from New York to Florida, with other young men similarly and mostly happily unmoored. He saw in my youth his own and described men he’d protected from bigger men, men he’d hit, drank with, women who’d been kind, whose faces now were simply the faces of angels, that out of reach. He died when I was nineteen before my sisters and I had all the right questions to ask, so now I can’t stop asking when I look up from my reading on a city bench or stoop: Is that a Chinese scholar tree? Is that one a Norway maple? I asked recently while reading Grace Paley’s collected stories, reading I first did in the nineties and still do fairly often now, for the immediacy and singularity of Paley’s voice, her frankness and energy (partly a gift of city living and loving), and her humor even when confronting human sorrows and disappointments. The book is full of dust from leaves, like the ones pictured here, that want to disintegrate. I won’t let them. I close the book and reseal them—keep the conversation going.

Amy Grace Loyd’s debut novel, The Affairs of Others, was published by Picador on August 27. Loyd is an executive editor at Byliner Inc. and was the fiction and literary editor at Playboy magazine. She worked in The New Yorker’s fiction department and was associate editor for the New York Review Books Classics series. She has been a MacDowell and Yaddo fellow and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

 

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Unbroken Crayon

August 20, 2013 | by

one wax crayon

Everywhere I look there is paint. In the bristles of the brushes, hastily run through the sink, that bake atop the windowsill, on the collage of red and black splotches staining the metal table, filling bottles on the back shelf with tempera greens and blues, and dirtying the smocks my classmates gleefully slip on. To them, making papier-mâché panda bears out of old newspapers is a reward for practicing rows of cursive Ks and struggling through multiplication quizzes. I am the one who stares at the clock waiting for a sluggish second hand to make its orbit so I can be a minute closer to the well-worn marble notebooks tucked inside my desk.

Mrs. Grigg is our art teacher. She has a mane of gray curls, wears long, flowing skirts, and smells of musk. I discover that her first name is Yolanda, an ethereal departure from the Pats and Joannes who preside over the PTA bake sales, and I think maybe I can ask her what is wrong with me. Yolanda will tell me the truth. But I see the way she scowls when my ruler fails to prevent crooked lines, and when my green, left-handed scissors leave ragged edges, maligning what could have been a perfect triangle. So I remain silent. One day we are making Santa Clauses out of construction paper. For the artistically average children they will become centerpieces at the Christmas dinner table. I will toss mine into a garbage can on the walk home from school. As I curl strips of white paper around a pencil to make Santa’s beard, frustrated they aren’t half as springy as those the kids around me are churning out, I sulk.

“Are you miserable?” Mrs. Grigg asks me as she shifts the glasses from around her neck to the bridge of her nose and peers at my deformed Santa. I nod. Finally, I tell myself, Yolanda realizes no good can come from me sitting in this room pretending I have a shred of artistic talent. I fear art class almost as much as gym, where I can’t dribble a basketball and am picked last for teams. Even when the kickball is placed on home plate instead of rolled to me, my foot fails to make contact. Surely, being uncoordinated is punishment enough for an elementary school girl surrounded by ruthlessly laughing children. But Mrs. Grigg does not tell me I can sit in the corner and read my language arts textbook as I have dreamed. “You should have told me. You could have made a dreidel,” she says. She leaves me choking in the mist of her earthy perfume before I can tell her I am not Jewish. I continue winding shreds of paper around the unsharpened No. 2, one eye on the clock. Read More »

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