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Roger Angell, the acclaimed New Yorker writer and editor, returns with a selection of writings that celebrate a view from the tenth decade of an engaged, vibrant life.
Long known for his range and supple prose (he is the only writer elected to membership in both the Baseball Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters), Angell won the 2015 American Society of Magazine Editors’ Best Essay award for “This Old Man,” which forms a centerpiece for this book. This deeply personal account is a survey of the limitations and discoveries of great age, with abundant life, poignant loss, jokes, retrieved moments, and fresh love, set down in an informal and moving fashion. A flood of readers from different generations have discovered and shared this classic piece.
Angell’s fluid prose and native curiosity make him an amiable and compelling companion on the page. The book gathers essays, letters, light verse, book reviews, Talk of the Town stories, farewells, haikus, Profiles, Christmas greetings, late thoughts on the costs of war. Whether it’s a Fourth of July in rural Maine, a beloved British author at work, Derek Jeter’s departure, the final game of the 2014 World Series, an all-dog opera, editorial exchanges with John Updike, or a letter to a son, what links the pieces is the author’s perceptions and humor, his utter absence of self-pity, and his appreciation of friends and colleagues—writers, ballplayers, editors, artists—encountered over the course of a full and generous life.
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Roger Angell is a senior fiction editor and a longtime contributor with The New Yorker. His writings for the magazine include reporting, commentary, fiction, humor, film and book reviews, and, for many years, the magazine’s Christmas verse, “Greetings, Friends!” His ten books include such baseball writings as The Summer Game, Five Seasons, and Game Time, and, most recently, a memoir, Let Me Finish. His awards include a George Polk Award for Commentary; the Michael Braude Award for Light Verse, presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters; a PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing; and the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest honor given to writers by the Baseball Hall of Fame. His New Yorker piece “This Old Man” won the 2015 prize for Essays and Criticism awarded by the American Society of Magazine Editors. He is a
member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Mr. Angell lives in New York and Maine.
Horses once abounded in New York, with a hundred and twenty thousand of them still in residence in 1908, when a reporter called them “an economic burden, an affront to cleanliness, and a terrible tax upon human life.” Their numbers declined precipitously thereafter, trailing off into art and sentimentality—who doesn’t remember the Steichen photograph of a misty, soft-edged Flatiron Building, with the silhouetted horse cab and plug-hatted cabbie in the foreground? Horsepresence took another hit last month, when the ancient Claremont Riding Academy, on West Eighty-ninth Street, closed its doors, reducing our equines to that redolent line of tourist-pullers on Central Park South. A few older city types (this writer among them) can remember cloppier times. The appearance of flower vendors, with their brilliantly hued horse-drawn wagons of blooms, was once a certain sign that another city spring was at hand. Taken along to the theatre by your parents, and in among the dressed-up, perfumed, and excited hordes in the West Forties before curtain time, you were watched over by godlike city mounties, unmoving atop their enormous steeds. (At school, ambivalently, you heard that these same Cossacks sometimes dealt less sweetly with political demonstrators in Union Square. Want to lift the embargo on Spain? Want to free the Scottsboro Boys? Bring along a handful of marbles to drop on the pavement: police horses hate marbles.)
Back to the stage: when the musical “Annie 2” opened, in 1989, the dog playing Sandy several times missed a bark cue in the second act: a vital bit of business in the plot. Quizzed urgently by the director and producers, Sandy’s handler said that the one thing that always made his thespian mutt bark was the sudden sight of a horse. At the next performance—and then at every performance thereafter—an assistant stage manager donned a full-sized horse head and stepped into sight in the wings on cue, producing the arf. Back to cops: when the mounted-police stable in the Squadron A Armory, on East Ninety-fourth Street, was closed, in 1966, a woman (it was my wife) alighting from a Madison Avenue bus at twilight was almost knocked flat by a riderless police horse, stirrups flying, which came wildly past her on its way home to its old barn. A minute later, a cab pulled up and an embarrassed policeman in jodhpurs got out, shaking his head, retrieved his animal, and trotted off toward their new stable, way across town.
Something’s sad about horses, and not just Barbaro. Who ever expected that they would be not just less frequent on the Central Park bridle path but gone for good? I walk my dog, Harry, on the path every day, and now it turns out that the end of horseback riding in New York is my fault, along with global warming. The recent proliferation of dogs and joggers and baby strollers on the broad, stony old bridle path had led to the dwindling numbers of Claremont customers. Some days you never saw a horse at all. A week before the shutdown, Harry and I were close to the giant plane tree on the northeast bend near Ninety-seventh Street when a clockwise equestrienne came walking toward us on a gray horse. She wore jodhpurs, black boots, a black top, and a black helmet, set straight on her head. She sat up tall, her spine strong, her heels tilted back, her hands at rest with the reins, her crop held at an angle. She looked straight ahead. Everything exactly right.
Harry, a smooth fox terrier, watched the horse and horsewoman with his usual extreme interest, giving this horse the attention it deserved. Here it came, five yards away, picking up its stonelike, clomping feet. Huge black holes for nostrils, legs knobbed like furniture, ears aloft, and the curved, satiny, massive rear end lifting and putting down the great package with springy ease. The nearer eye, straight above us, took us in and rolled away. The smell of the great animal—nothing else is like it—arrived and then went by. I don’t always know what my dog is thinking but this time I did: Holy shit!
Talk, May, 2007
The ballpark in this treasured spring-baseball photograph is a stretch of meadow or rough lawn in Bedford, New York, an upper-Westchester exurb where my mother and stepfather found a modest spring-and-summer rental in the first years of their marriage. Judging by the post-blossoming young apple tree just down the third-base line, this opening day fell on a mid-spring Sunday in, let’s say, 1931. Since the photo is undated, I base its time on the size of the pitcher, who is me, at ten and a half. The batter is my mother, Katharine White, and the tweedy, cautious catcher is my seventy-nine-year-old grandfather, Charles Spencer Sergeant, a retired executive of the Boston Elevated Railway. Not a great athlete, perhaps, but a man with a strong conceptual awareness of foul tips.
I can’t take my eyes off my mother. Her uniform, which appears a tad formal, is a well-cut suit skirt and a silk blouse, both in keeping with Sunday-outing styles of that time. Despite a certain wariness in her gaze and upper body, her stance is excellent—her weight mostly over the slightly flexed back leg, her front foot stepping boldly forward in preparation for the swing, which will initially take the bat up and back, then swiftly down into the reversing pivot and full-body turn that precede and accompany her Tris Speaker–esque, closed-stance cut at the ball.
My pitching form is O.K., too. Yes, I look more like a center fielder trying to cut down a speeding baserunner at third base or home, but give me a break, guys. By the looks of me, I go about eighty-two pounds here, and the angle of my arm shows an instinctive understanding of the physics of the fling. Only the greatest athletes seem to have this somewhere within them, an elegant je ne sais quoi that marks the Mathewsons and Mayses of each era and warms the hearts of even the idlest, most distant onlooker. The photographer, who is my stepfather, E. B. White, has snapped the softball in first flight, only a blurry yard or two out of my grasp, and this good fortune, taken with the tilt of my follow-through, allows us to supply the invisible arc of the sphere, a combined heater and changeup that will parallel the lower profile of the apple tree and, descending, cross the plate hem-high: a pitch taken by my mom for a called—called by me—strike one.
Way to go, kid.
Post, March, 2014
The Little Flower
Like every other New York kid who came into his teens in the nineteen-thirties, I had President Roosevelt by heart (chin, cigarette, Groton accent, T.V.A., soak the rich) but felt much closer to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Stubby under his operatic black hat, hilariously busy, looking by turns indignant, disbelieving, and delighted, the Little Flower had piercing dark-brown eyes and a thick jaw that looked punishing when he was talking about fat-cat landlords or Tammany bosses but often fell into an engaging, half-open smile. He ran New York for a dozen years like a manic dad cleaning out the cellar on a Saturday afternoon. The La Guardia voice was high-pitched, excitable, and whiny—I should know, because I listened to it, from the next room, for the better part of nine hours one January day in 1936, while I waited for our interview. Well, maybe not “our”—it’s not as if he knew I was coming.
Home from boarding school on Christmas vacation, I had taken the subway down to City Hall with my friend David Maclay, each of us being in need of a celebrity interview as part of the tryout for a school newspaper. We weren’t competitors—David’s new school was in Pennsylvania, mine in Connecticut—but we were emboldened by our eight prior years together as classmates at the progressive Lincoln School, on West 123rd Street, a fountainhead of juvenile overconfidence. Mulling potential interviewees, we had rejected Fred Astaire (too far away) and Joe Louis (too scary) before settling happily upon the Mayor, who was just then winding up his second year in office. Arriving at eight-thirty in the morning, notebooks in hand, we presented ourselves before the Mayor’s secretary in City Hall—a youngish, not unfriendly fellow whose name I have forgotten.
“Press,” I announced.
“Here for a—uh, interview,” David said.
“No appointment, I take it,” the secretary said. He carefully wrote down our names and the names of our publications, and showed class by not asking our age, which was fifteen. “Take a seat, boys,” he said. “It may be a while.”
We had expected this, and had come prepared with magazines but not lunch. Eagerly, patiently, wearily, we sat and watched and listened as politicos and petitioners, City Council members, women in hats, editorialists, judges, commissioners, and real-estate magnates arrived, were greeted within, reappeared, and took their leave. Even when the tall door to La Guardia’s office was closed, we could hear the ceaseless mayoral yammer, rising in impatience or laughter, cajoling and caressing in argument, like an offstage tenor in a bad opera. Longer than an opera. Noon came and went, the light crept across the dusty windows of our chamber. Noticing us at last, a motherly looking woman on the Mayor’s staff brought us a couple of chicken sandwiches and an Oh Henry! bar. We sat on. Dark had fallen outside when the secretary, emerging from a brief exchange with Hizzoner, beckoned us forward. “You’re on,” he said, “but make it snappy.”
I can remember La Guardia’s dishevelled black hair, and the tough gaze that flicked over us while he gestured us toward a couple of chairs. He was in shirtsleeves. The mayoral feet, below the mayoral leather chair, did not quite touch the carpet.
“Reporters—right?” he said. “What’ll it be, fellas?” Whatever it was, it didn’t go well. We had some questions about the transportation system, I think—the Mayor had been promising to take down the El lines along Sixth and Ninth Avenues—and maybe about his campaign against smutty burlesque shows.
“But I’m on record about all that,” he said, breaking in. “What else?”
“Is Tammany Hall about to—” David began.
“Nah!” he said, holding up one hand. “Not a chance!”
We weren’t quite done. “Sir,” I said, reading from lines that David and I had put together during our long wait, “each of us is in the ninth grade in a really good private school. Do you believe that there are any students in the New York public schools who are getting the kind of education we are?”
“What!” he cried. “What was that?” Nuclear fission had not yet been discovered, but the explosion before us now mounted and thickened abruptly, darkening around its whitish inner fires, and drooping foully along the top. Rumbling and squeaking by turns, waving his arms, the Mayor unloaded his full package. Why, the New York public-school system was the envy of the entire United States—no, the envy of the free world. Boys and girls of all races and origins and from every neighborhood came to it, flourished and grew wise, and were set free. Didn’t spoiled kids like us know anything? Look at Billy Rose! Look at Justice Pecora, Eddie Cantor, Elmer Rice—New York public-school kids all. Borough President Lyons. Jimmy Cagney. Ira Gershwin, Ethel Merman. What about his own wife, Marie La Guardia, who had gone to school on the Lower East Side? Why, he himself, born on Sullivan Street but exiled to distant outposts in his youth (the Mayor’s father had been a United States Army bandmaster), had passed his boyhood yearning only to come back and go to public school in New York. Scrawling excitedly, flipping pages, underlining, David and I tried to capture fragments of the oratory on our narrow notebook pages. Famous city schools abounded, the Little Flower went on—Erasmus Hall, Curtis High, Stuyvesant. Art and music instruction flourished here, as in Athens. Had he mentioned Eddie Cantor? By the third grade, talented city kids were already playing on municipal violins and clarinets, not to mention enjoying a nutritious and delicious hot lunch every day. High-school swimming pools! Foreign languages! Chess clubs! Greek and Latin, even! Football. Calculus— There was a pause, and we looked up to see the Mayor staring at us.
“Hold on,” he said. “Wayddd a minute! Did you two . . . ?” He pointed a finger. “Why, you kids set me up, didn’t you? You got me going—right?”
David and I exchanged guilty smiles. My face was hot.
The Mayor threw up his hands. “Ya got me,” he said. “I’ll be God-damned—I can’t believe it.” He shook his head. “Good night, boys,” he said, picking up some papers. “You got a hell of a story.”
Yelling and gabbling, David and I crowded onto the rush-hour I.R.T. and rode home in triumph. Each of our La Guardia stories subsequently saw print, and each of us made the paper. Was it that same week or later on, I wonder, when our exploit began to gnaw at me? Why should it have stayed with me all this time? All we had done was to strike an ugly pose, tell a trifling lie, in order to chivy some quotes out of an obliging public figure. How could we have let him down this way? We had behaved like little wise guys, just to get a story. We had become reporters.
Talk, February, 1999
Me and Prew
The U.S. Open tees off again Thursday, at the Congressional Country Club, in Bethesda, Maryland, and just the other day the Times had a piece revealing that during the Second World War Congressional’s svelte green layout and florid Italianate clubhouse had been the secret training grounds for commandos operating under the Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor of the C.I.A. War and golf are strange partners, but not to me. As an Army Air Corps sergeant stationed at Hickam Field, outside Honolulu, in 1944 and 1945, I soon discovered that the private Waialae Country Club, the best course in Hawaii, was reserved for Army enlisted men over the weekends. No officers allowed. I was an editor with the Seventh Air Force G.I. magazine Brief, a lively weekly with a westward beat of about two million square miles. We closed late on Friday night; Saturdays were workdays, but early Sunday often found three or four of us desk guys back at Waialae, where decent rental clubs and open tee times were miraculously available. The course, still the site of the Sony Open on the P.G.A. tour, nestles along the shore near Diamond Head, and it offered windblown palms, stunning surf and skies, and a chance for us to work on our hackers’ games without embarrassment. The left-hand side of one of the outbound holes was weirdly occupied by a spacious fenced-off zoo, and I can still recall setting up for my 7-iron recovery from another drive hooked into the weeds while under scrutiny by an adjacent kudu or giraffe.
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