Monday, June 28, 2010

Theft of Mail

He would come by my office each morning to drop off the mail and talk football. Like many in Miami, where in 1985 football was the only sport, Danny was a diehard Dolphins fan. The team was coming off its most successful season since its back-to-back championships of the early ‘70’s. In 1984, after a 14-2 regular season highlighted by the record-setting play of second-year quarterback Dan Marino, the Dolphins swept through the playoffs before succumbing to the San Francisco 49ers and Joe Montana in Super Bowl XIX. The team and its fans approached the coming year with anticipation and enthusiasm and Danny, a stocky twenty-year old with an open disposition and infectious laugh, was caught up in the excitement of the city’s expectations. With Marino at the helm, the Dolphins were expected to be title contenders for many years to come.

I was not a Dolphins fan. Earlier that summer, after graduating law school, I had moved to Miami from New York and commenced working for a large downtown firm, waiting to hear whether I had passed the Florida Bar. I met Danny my first day at the firm. He was a part-time college student working in the firm’s mail room, charged with the morning’s gathering and distributing of mail. When he reached my office, he would always stay a few extra minutes to discuss the upcoming NFL season. Danny knew that I rooted for the hated Jets, yet he enjoyed chatting with a fellow sports enthusiast, and seemed to take particular pleasure in attempting to convert a sporting enemy.

As the start of the season approached, I perused the Dolphins’ schedule and found two games of particular interest: a Monday night October 14 affair against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and a November 10 battle against my Jets. The firm at the time represented the Dolphins, and I was put in touch with Matt, a front office team employee who would provide me with quality seats. Matt advised that the tickets would be mailed to me at the firm in early September.

The weeks went by and I settled into my routine as a new working lawyer. Danny would continue to drop by to discuss the Dolphins’ prospects. I learned in early September that I had passed the Bar, and was sworn in later that month. The Dolphins dropped their opening game on the road to the Houston Oilers, but recovered to win their next three, setting up their Monday night showdown with the Steelers.

October 14 approached and I had not received my tickets. I called Matt, who assured me they had been mailed weeks ago. He suspected that the tickets had been stolen, a common enough occurrence that the team had postal agents at the stadium on game days to deal with confirmed instances of mail theft. Matt sent me replacement tickets and instructed me to speak with an usher if I found anyone in my seats. The usher would, in turn, contact one of the federal agents on premises.

On the day of the game, I arrived at the stadium and found several individuals in my seats. As instructed, I notified an usher. A few minutes later, several agents appeared, flashed their badges and asked us all to follow.

We were led to a windowless room in the innards of the stadium, where the agents questioned the seats’ occupants on the source of their tickets. Although I was out of earshot during much of the questioning, I could see one of the individuals become increasingly agitated. He was a muscular man in his mid-twenties, and he was clearly not happy.

During a break in the questioning, one of the agents came to me and explained what he had learned. The muscular man was dating the sister of someone who worked at the firm’s mail room. The agent asked me if I knew a “Danny,” and I responded that I did. Danny had apparently sold the tickets to the muscular man, never disclosing where he had gotten them

The muscular man was prepared to cooperate with the agents in setting up a buy of the tickets to the subsequent Jets game. He knew it would mean the end of his relationship with Danny’s sister, but he did not seem to care. The agents wanted to catch Danny red-handed, holding the stolen Jets tickets. They asked me not to say anything to anyone at the firm, and to act as if everything were normal.

I returned to my seats at the end of the first quarter. Although the game was close and the Dolphins won 24-20, I do not remember much of it. My mind was on what had just transpired, and what was yet to come.

Over the next several days, Danny maintained his usual routine. He continued to drop by my office with the mail, discussing the previous week’s game and the upcoming matchups. I tried to act as if nothing had happened, although I suspect that I did not approach our conversations with the usual enthusiasm.

About a week later, I received a call from an Assistant U.S. Attorney. Danny had been arrested when he attempted to sell the stolen Jets tickets to an undercover agent. He was charged with Theft of Mail, a violation of federal law and a felony. I was now free to disclose the situation to the partners at the firm, which I did, to their surprise and disappointment.

Much occurred over the next year. The Dolphins lost three of their next four games, but recovered to win their final seven and finish at 12-4, atop the AFC East. After edging out Cleveland in the AFC Division Playoff, they were soundly defeated by the underdog New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, one game short of the Super Bowl.

Patricia, my fiancée at the time, moved to Miami and we made plans to marry in New York in December of 1986. I left the firm in late November of that year to join a smaller firm where I spent the next seven years and eventually became partner.

I heard nothing further about Danny until I received a call from the Assistant U.S. Attorney in early December. Danny’s case was set for trial on the very day Patricia and I were scheduled to fly to New York for our wedding. He asked me to appear in court and testify. He promised to put me on the stand early, giving us sufficient time to make our flight.

When I arrived at the courthouse and met with the Assistant U.S. Attorney, he appeared worried. There was a glitch with Danny’s case, he said. Because the tickets had been delivered to the firm’s mailroom before they were stolen, Danny’s attorneys argued that they had ceased to be mail, and the Theft of Mail charges could not stand. The judge seemed to be considering this argument, and the Assistant U.S. Attorney was concerned that the case would be dismissed before it went to the jury.

As promised, I took the stand early that day. I was questioned by the Assistant U.S. Attorney on the circumstances of my purchase, the non-delivery of the tickets, and what I had seen when I arrived at the game. My testimony lasted perhaps a half hour. There was no cross-examination.

As I was leaving the courthouse during a break in the proceedings, Danny approached me. He apologized for his theft and extended his hand, which I took. I wished him luck, and meant it. I had no desire to see him go to prison.

Later that day, Patricia and I boarded a plane for New York, where we married a few days later. When we returned to Miami from our honeymoon, we went about our lives, she at the University of Miami, where she had enrolled in the MBA program, and I at my new firm. Every day brought new challenges, which we met hand-in-hand, with the hope of the newly-married.

I never learned what happened to Danny. I suspect that the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s worries were justified, and the case against him was dismissed. If that is indeed what happened, I hope he made the most of his opportunity. We do not always receive second chances in life.

Despite the heroics of Dan Marino, the Dolphins finished the 1986 season a disappointing 8-8, third in the AFC East, and out of the playoffs. They have never returned to the Super Bowl.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

From the Streets of Boston

I could feel the tension. When Johnny Temple, former bassist for the indie rock band Girls Against Boys, and founder and publisher of Brooklyn-based Akashic Books, introduced author Dennis Lehane at the 2010 Miami Book Fair International, it was clear that something was awry.

Lehane was there to discuss Boston Noir, the then latest volume of Akashic’s “Noir” series, which spans the globe in search of authors and stories within the genre. Prominent authors gather tales set in their home cities and, as designated editors, work with contributing authors to compile final anthologies. Each editor also includes one of his own original stories, since name recognition helps book sales.

Lehane was part of a panel of “Noir” editors, each charged with a different city, who were to discuss the process of putting together their respective books. Temple introduced the panel, providing glowing compliments for the work of Les Standiford (Miami Noir), Denise Hamilton (Los Angeles Noir), S. J. Rozan (Bronx Noir), and Paco Ignacio Taibo II (Mexico City Noir). When he reached Lehane, however, his tone changed. Although Lehane was by far the most recognizable name on the panel, Temple was less than effusive in his praise of Lehane’s work.

Lehane admitted during the panel presentation that he was editor of Boston Noir in name only. Most of the editing was done by Temple, himself, effectively forced upon him by Lehane’s laissez faire approach and inability to meet deadlines. His most significant contributions to the book were writing an original story and lending his name to the project.

Lehane’s commitment to Boston Noir and adherence to deadlines may certainly be questioned, but not the quality of his writing. He is a gifted writer, one of the finest in crime fiction. His crisp, sharp dialogue evokes the sounds of Boston’s underclass, while his vivid storytelling has readers reliving scenes long after the books are closed.

Since 2003 he has become a Hollywood favorite. It was then that director Clint Eastwood released the cinematic version of his 2001 novel Mystic River. The film, one of the year’s best, earned critical acclaim and Academy Awards for actors Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. The storyline deals with child abuse, friendship, tragedy, redemption and revenge. Like most of Lehane’s work, it is set in and around Boston and is filled with disturbing and lasting imagery, which Eastwood’s film worked hard to capture.

In 2010, another big-name director brought his work to the big screen. This time, it was Martin Scorsese, creator of such classics as Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Raging Bull, who adapted Lehane’s compelling, yet flawed 2003 novel, Shutter Island. The story represented a departure for Lehane. He abandoned the streets of Boston to tell the tale of two U.S. Marshals searching for a woman who mysteriously vanished from an island institution for the criminally insane. The film is not among Scorsese’s best, yet it may be said that even “Scorsese light” is better than most. The same may also be said of Lehane. While his attempt at gothic storytelling only partly succeeded, his writing remained clean, concise and evocative.

Lehane has been reluctant to personally turn his novels into screenplays, claiming that he has no desire to “operate” on his own child. His introduction to Hollywood, however, led to his joining the writing staff of the critically acclaimed HBO series, The Wire, for its third season in 2004, at the suggestion of his friend and fellow writer, George Pelecanos.

Some of Lehane’s best writing may have occurred before he commenced his dalliance with director-auteurs. From 1994 through 1999, he penned five crime novels which are among the genre’s best of the past twenty years. The works, A Drink Before the War (1994), Darkness Take My Hand (1996), Sacred (1997), Gone, Baby, Gone (1998) and Prayers for Rain (1999), evolve around protagonists Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, both raised on the streets of Boston and dealing with harsh realities of the present while fending off ghosts of the past. The best of the series is the second, Darkness Take My Hand. Its closing scenes are possibly Lehane’s most memorable and disturbing. Of the five, only Gone, Baby, Gone (2007) has become a film, a surprisingly good adaptation by director Ben Affleck.

Lehane often hinted that he would never revisit the world of Kenzie and Gennaro, claiming that he had put those characters through much pain and hardship, and preferred to let them live the rest of their fictional lives in peace. He has apparently reconsidered. A new Kenzie/Gennaro novel, the first in eleven years, Moonlight Mile, will be released in November.

Lehane’s most recent novel, The Given Day (2008), is his first attempt at historical fiction. Set in 1918 Boston and spanning a period of one year, the story centers around a family enmeshed in the life and politics of the time, and deals with such events as the end of World War I, the Boston police strike, and the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. It is not Lehane’s best work, but it is ambitious, well written and entertaining.

Lehane has indicated that The Given Day is the first of several historical novels he intends to write, all set in Boston at different periods. He cannot predict when the second volume of this series will be completed since, as he demonstrated in his dealings with Johnny Temple, he is not very good with deadlines. Some readers will bemoan the fact that his apparent lack of discipline will lead to long gaps between books. However, if his coming novels are as good as his past, the wait will be rewarded.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Love Sets

I had known her for ten years. She was my best friend’s sister, a pretty redhead with a petite figure, probing blue eyes and an inviting smile.

I first met Patricia during my freshman year at Regis High School, a small Jesuit school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Her brother Eric was my classmate, and he endured a daily one-hour trek to school from Queens, while I was fortunate to reside a few short train stops away, near Times Square.

Because we lived in different counties, Patricia’s and my early years were spent in each other’s periphery, occasionally crossing paths at school events. Most of what I knew of her I learned through Eric, who regaled us with stories that highlighted her humor, wit and charm.

As time passed, we saw less of each other. I graduated high school and began my own daily commute to Fordham University in the Bronx, while Patricia traveled into the city to attend NYU. Eric had left New York for Georgetown, so Patricia and I rarely coincided.

After college, I moved straight to law school at NYU, while Patricia went abroad, spending a year as an au pair with a German family near Frankfurt. Years later, Patricia would tell me how alone she often felt during that year away from her family. Holidays were particularly difficult, with the knowledge that her parents and siblings were together celebrating the season, while she was alone with strangers thousands of miles away.

After graduating Georgetown, Eric moved back to New York, where he worked as an international banker on Wall Street. For the first time since high school we were both back in Manhattan, and we utilized the weekends to catch up on the past four years. Every Saturday Eric would gather a core group that would avail itself of the pleasures of the New York night life. I was part of that core group, as was Patricia, now back in the States and also working in the city.

My most vivid memory of those days involves a tennis match at Madison Square Garden. Eric had obtained four tickets to the finals, a highly anticipated bout between Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. We sat near mid-court, Eric alongside a mutual friend, and I next to Patricia. None of us played tennis in those days but, being the sports junkie I have always been, I knew the rules and happily shared my knowledge with Patricia.

I explained the concept of games within sets, alternating service, and the tennis meaning of “love.” I find it curious that many who follow tennis do not know that the term originates from the French l’oeuf, or “the egg,” which describes the shape of the number zero.

Patricia was a quick study and immediately picked up the intricacies of the game. We were both rooting for Connors, largely due to McEnroe’s well-deserved reputation as a brat, a reputation he picked up on Long Island, a few short miles away from where Patricia grew up. Connors had a similar reputation in his early years, but had mellowed with time, or at least exhibited a sense of humor when engaged in his often outrageous behavior.

The match was long and grueling, reaching a final set that saw the participants make several unforced errors, a telling sign that they were both exhausted. In the end, Connors reached back and, in a manner reminiscent of his younger days, rushed the net and smashed key passing shots past McEnroe.

When the match ended and Connors dropped to his knees in celebration, Patricia and I celebrated with him, embracing briefly before stepping back and assessing each other. As I looked into her eyes, I saw a smile spread across her face, a smile that brightened everything and everyone around her.

We have been together for twenty five years, most of them spent in Miami, where we moved after I graduated law school. Our twins are now in college, our daughter at NYU, where Patricia and I spent several of our formative years, albeit at different times. Occasionally our daughter will travel to Penn Station and board a train to Virginia to visit her uncle Eric, unaware that, just above her head, within the hallowed grounds of Madison Square Garden, a couple not much older than she once partook in a magical moment of victory, euphoria, and the beginnings of love.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Words on Canvas

My daughter’s recent reading of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime brought memories of my own experiences with the book nearly thirty years ago, at a time when the twin towers still stood and the world was much more innocent. I was in college then, commuting daily from my family’s Manhattan apartment to the Bronx, where the green landscape of the Fordham University campus temporarily replaced the grayness of my Hell’s Kitchen surroundings.

A book always accompanied me on my forty minute train ride to and from school. It was during those trips that I became acquainted with the New York of the early 1900’s depicted in Mr. Doctorow’s work.

Ragtime blends historical figures such as Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud, Harry Houdini and J.P. Morgan with fictional characters of Mr. Doctorow’s creation. The novel, written in 1975, depicts an evolving city: New York becoming the economic center of the world while dealing with issues of racism, terrorism and political corruption.

A cynic might say that Mr. Doctorow’s early twentieth century New York is not much different from today’s Gotham. The city of my youth continues to deal with the same issues that troubled Ragtime’s protagonists.

Yet my reading of the novel always carried me from my seat on the D train to the magical place of Mr. Doctorow’s creation.

What makes Ragtime memorable is Mr. Doctorow’s telling of the tale. He writes in long, flowing paragraphs that smoothly gravitate from scene to scene and character to character. There is a lyrical overtone to his writing, bringing to mind the music of the era which gives the work its title. Yet the images raised by Mr. Doctorow’s writing are quite visual. His transitions from scene to scene are reminiscent of large canvas paintings, where the eye shifts from figure to figure, each telling its own unique story.

In 1981, director Milos Forman attempted to bring Mr. Doctorow’s vision to the big screen. The film, best remembered as James Cagney’s last, had much to admire: strong acting, vivid cinematography and a memorable musical score. Yet, like most cinematic versions of notable novels, it fell far short of Mr. Doctorow’s original.

My daughter’s decision to read Ragtime was based on my recommendation and the fact that Mr. Doctorow is a Professor of Creative Writing at New York University, where she just completed her freshman year. Yet none of that mattered when she finished the book in a few short sittings. She was able to see Ragtime for what it is: quite simply, one of the ten best American novels of the second half of the twentieth century.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Chapter One

On April 5, 1993, Charlie Hough, a grizzled knuckleballer known by all to be well past his prime, stood on the mound of what was then Joe Robbie Stadium, looking for the signal from his catcher, Benito Santiago. At the plate was Jose Offerman, the shortstop for Charlie's old team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Charlie's new team, the Florida Marlins, was about to play the first real game of its existence a few short years after being given life by a group of major league owners thirsting to expand into previously unexplored geographic areas, and hungry for the added cash that expansion inevitably brought. The Marlins had struggled through an expansion draft which brought them unproven minor leaguers and major leaguers who had once been or never quite were. They wept after their President suffered a fatal heart attack during the team's first Winter Meetings. They looked ahead to their first opening day, playing meaningless Spring Training affairs and counting down to the first pitch of the team's first season.

Charlie Hough moved into his windup. The sellout crowd of excited fanatics and pretenders laughed, screamed and fought to capture the moment. Flashbulbs exploded throughout the park.

The ball left Charlie's hand and fluttered towards Benito's expectant mitt.

Every book has a first chapter. Every life has a first breath.

So it begins.