Wanted: a soul-tracking GPS device

My portable GPS device seemed to know where I was even I didn’t. All I could see were the lights from other cars in the blackness of the night. I was tired and tense. I wanted to get myself, my wife and the rental car back to the airport in Jacksonville, Florida, before something went wrong. To do this, I had to trust a mysterious voice at each turn in the road. How could it pierce the darkness? It was like the voice of God telling me what lay two miles ahead.

My mind was unsettled. You make plans, and God laughs. Certainty becomes uncertainty. I needed a GPS device that would tell me where my brother George had gone. He was alive a month ago. Now he was dead. I had sat through his funeral that morning at Jacksonville National Cemetery and heard the mournful sound of “Taps.” I had seen the small wooden box containing his ashes placed in a columbarium niche and the faceplate screwed into place.

How could my brother, a big, strapping guy, and his 84 years of living be in that small box? What had become of the corporate executive who had led company operations in Spain, Brazil and Japan? Where had become of his thoughts and memories, his dreams and ambitions? What had happened when the life switch suddenly went off?

There were no prayers at the service, no priest, no guide to the afterlife. The former Catholic altar boy had left the church decades ago for reasons he never revealed, his son said in a eulogy. A minute of silence would be appropriate. The green grass and nearby pond looked peaceful. Two military honor guards conducted the flag-folding ceremony with precision and dignity. My brother had served in the Army during the Korean War, but he had not gone overseas. Family members were surprised that he had wanted a military funeral.

Young relatives spoke of George’s warmth and humor. I recalled a distant, sterner figure. He was 15 years older than I and was gone from the house during most of my childhood. When I was in college, he made occasional visits from his home 90 miles away. I believe my mother instigated these trips, perhaps hoping he could play a parental role. I recall strained conversation at uncomfortable lunches. He did, however, buy me a small, Honda 90 motorcycle to enhance my social life. During the Vietnam War, when I was in trouble with the government, he gave my mother money to pay my lawyer’s bills. We never talked about that.

 My oldest brother, Ambrose, died in 2008 at the age of 79. He was the first of my three brothers and four sisters to die. George, the second child, was the second to die. “Now we are six” was a line I heard several times at the funeral.

The trip through the Jacksonville night Friday ended without mishap, and without answers to life’s big questions. Maybe there aren’t any. It’s nice to see the sun and a blue sky this morning.

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Sorry to see this custom-made blazer depart

P1030369My old black blazer fit fine. I figured, at first glance, it would be appropriate for the event. The three front buttons were cut too low to be stylish, but this custom-made blazer had a timeless appeal. Good men’s clothing doesn’t go out of fashion.

 That was the selling point pushed by Peter Navin, owner of Navin’s Custom Clothiers, when I ventured into his shop in Sacramento’s Downtown Plaza 30 years ago. Yes, “ventured” – as in daring to do something risky or audacious. Who was I to be going to a bespoke tailor? Wasn’t that kind of pretentious and shallow? “Don’t be putting on the dog,” they had said in my Irish Catholic neighborhood in New York. God forbid! Indulging a liking for good clothes could be a mortal sin.

Battling negative voices was the development theme of my mid-30s. I wasn’t a 1960s radical taking on the Establishment anymore. I was an up-and-coming journalist and a single guy intent on my social life. I wanted to dress the part. But that took an effort of will. At upscale men’s stores like Irwin’s and Bonney & Gordon, you didn’t just walk in, grab size 38-32 slacks off the rack and pay the clerk.

No, you had to try on each garment and discuss the material and fit with unctuous salesmen intent on making you look your best. I learned the basics of color coordination, tie knotting and how much shirt cuff to show with a sport jacket. In the process, I learned that my body had imperfections, like arms of slightly different lengths. Coordinating the fit of shirts and jackets got tricky.

Perhaps custom-made clothing would be the solution, I thought. I gathered up my nerve and headed for Navin’s Custom Clothiers, which stood alone at the west end of the mall and conveyed at aura of exclusivity. I felt vague anxiety about being an impostor, a mere wage earner who really belonged at Macy’s, and what price I might pay for my pretentiousness.

Mr. Navin exuded the graciousness of a host welcoming a client of discerning taste. He brought out rolls of wool, silk and linen cloth. I would choose the material, color and precise pattern for my blazer. There would be not one fitting, but several, over the course of weeks. The jacket would flow over my shoulders and chest, and the sleeves would be adjusted for the half-inch difference in the length of my arms. A fit to perfection.

And the price? Mr. Navin shrugged at though this were a matter of no consequence. I was clearly a man who appreciated quality and could afford the best. He politely whispered an amount. I nodded my head.

The black blazer bolstered my self-confidence through many social outings. It was classy and understated and rolled through the years with dignity. In the past decade, I brought it out for special occasions. When I took it out of the dark recesses of the attic closet this week and tried it on, I liked the look.

But on closer inspection, I discovered that it had fallen on hard times. Moths had nibbled a few small holes in the wool. Repairs seemed liked an affront to this fine jacket. It would have to go gentle into that good night.

 I guess I’ll get a new black blazer, but it won’t be same – not the jacket and not the man.

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DeMarcus Cousins is a downer on upbeat Kings


DeMarcus Cousins

DeMarcus Cousins

A perceptive, tolerant human being I know had this to say about DeMarcus Cousins: “He may be a jerk, but he’s our jerk.”

The comment came from a longtime Sacramentan who looks for ways to get beyond negative experiences and deal positively with trying situations. Always on the lookout for psychological self-improvement, I wonder whether I can embrace Cousins’ jerkiness and derive more pleasure from the Kings’ improvement this season.

I have managed to watch all or part of the Kings’ first 10 games, which includes six wins, despite intense irritation with Cousins’ whiny, pouting histrionics. Just as I’m enjoying the remarkable moves of scorer Rudy Gay and controlled play of point guard Darren Collison, along comes the 6-foot-1l, 270-pound Cousins to undercut their performance and hurt the team he claims he wants to lead.

Consider Cousins’ meltdown in the first-quarter of Saturday’s close win over the San Antonio Spurs, last year’s NBA champs: First, Cousin commits a charging foul and starts yapping at the refs; then he grabs a rebound, dribbles the length of the court instead of passing and puts on a power move as though to prove how tough he is; and finally, he loses control and gets a technical foul.

The result, in the biggest game of the young season, is that Cousins gets benched after nine minutes of play and sits out the rest of the first half. Apologists claim Cousins gets overly emotional on the court because he wants to win so much. In reality, Cousins puts his need to throw a tantrum above the needs of the team.

As coach Michael Malone said of Cousins: “I’ve also got to monitor where he is mentally. Is he allowing the foul trouble to take him out of the game, and if he is, I have to get him out because he’s not only hurting himself, but he’s hurting the team.”

Unfortunately, Malone needs Cousins to perform. “We’re not nearly as dangerous of a team, especially offensively, when he’s not on the floor because of his ability to score, get to the free-throw line and generate looks for his teammates.”

Before the San Antonio game, according to the Sacramento Bee, Cousins averaged 5.4 fouls a game and fouled out of two games. He also has two technical fouls this season and appears headed for his customary spot among the leaders despite his proclaimed goal of getting five or fewer this season.

This behavior by the Kings’ star comes in the course of the best start for the Kings in what’s now his fifth season. In his four previous seasons, Cousins has been the mainstay of teams with a collective record of 102 wins and 210 losses. So much for Cousins’ passion for winning.

Even though Cousins has an improved surrounding cast this season, you have to wonder how this talented loose cannon will affect team morale as the season wears on. Cousins does not have a reputation for making the players around him better, nor of endearing himself to teammates.

Maybe the excitement this season will be to see how far Cousins’ upbeat teammates can carry their $62 million star.  


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Legend of Frank the Indian takes odd turn

The other day, my older brother John emailed me a picture and asked whether I knew who the dignified-looking, white-haired man was.

“Looks like an Italian notable,” I responded.

“That’s our Indian, Frankie Lia,” my brother replied. He had done a Google search and found a 2010 obituary.  Frank had died at age 81 in Yorktown, Va.

Frank the Indian loomed large in my childhood imagination. First, he was one of the big guys I idolized when I was kid hanging around Braddock Park; second, he was only real-life Indian I knew in my Queens neighborhood largely populated by Catholic Irish, German and Italian folks; third, he looked like a warrior, standing about 6 feet 4 with wide shoulders, jet-black hair, olive complexion and a chiseled face; and fourth, he played fast-pitch softball barehanded.

Everyone who hung out at the park in the 1950s vividly remembers Frank the Indian scooping up hard-hit ground balls and catching line drives in his bare hands. In a recently released film documentary titled “The Braddock Boys,” a nostalgic look back at the park, one of the old-timers asks “Remember Frank the Indian?” and another exclaims, “Yeah, the guy who played barehanded.”   Even after 60 years, the legend lives on.

The fast-pitch softball games, played on the park’s unforgiving asphalt, were a big deal when I was a kid. My brother, nine years older than I, was the star windmill-style pitcher. The benches were jammed with spectators. Basketball games came to a halt. Competitive emotions ran high. Errors were unforgivable. Yet Frank dared to play the infield barehanded like the warrior he was.

Frank was a few years older than my brother and his crowd. He didn’t hang around after the games, and I never heard him utter a word, a silent Indian for sure. Although New York City and Long Island had a long Indian history (most of it exploitative), the little I knew about Indians was mostly negative and scary. At Our Lady of Lourdes grammar school, the nuns liked to give graphic descriptions of the torture endured by Father Isaac Jogues at the hands of the ungodly Iroquois Indians. I retain an image of hot coals being stuffed down the missionary’s mouth. (A Wikipedia article fails to support that specific torture image and says he was tomahawked in 1646 by Mohawks, a tribe in the Iroquois Confederacy.)

So those were my memories of Frank the Indian when John delivered the stunning news that Frank wasn’t really an Indian. He was Italian. As best he could recall, some of Frank’s peers back in the late 1940s spread the tale that Frank was an Indian and it stuck. Even though John came to realize as a teenager that Frank was Italian, he didn’t enlighten his kid brother of that fact until the other day. I’m sure all of my childhood friends have no doubt Frank was an Indian.

John did mention that Frank had been quite a basketball player. He shot two-handed set shots off the dead spot in the top right quadrant of the rectangular backboards and was always good for two points, John said.  “If you got him mad or winning meant staying on the court, he would put the real defensive pressure on so you couldn’t move to shoot or drive. R.I.P., Frankie.”

Frank had a good life beyond Braddock Park, according to his obituary. He won a basketball scholarship to Hofstra University on Long Island and was a four-year letterman. After graduation, he had a successful sales and management career, was married for 52 years, and had four children and eight grandchildren. In retirement, he was a dedicated volunteer who tutored students. He had a Catholic funeral service.

Why did he play softball barehanded? I don’t know. Maybe he was a poor Italian kid who couldn’t afford a glove.




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Local hotels get hard elbow from Kings’ owners

Local hotel owners, particularly in downtown Sacramento, can’t be enthusiastic that the owners of the Sacramento Kings plan to build a 250-room hotel next to the new arena. Area hotels struggled through the deep recession and are only now beginning to enjoy modestly higher occupancy levels and room rates.

Decreased business during the recession was exacerbated by this fact: In the years leading up to the recession, Sacramento added two downtown hotels and many suburban hotel properties, the Sacramento Business Journal noted in October. This created an oversupply of hotel rooms, which in turn lowered rates and occupancy.

Even in good times, Sacramento’s hotels are considered bargains compared with those in San Francisco and other tourism and travel markets in Northern California. For example, San Francisco hotels in August had a 93.2 occupancy rate and an average rate of $273.72, according to the Business Journal. Sacramento’s figures were 74.8 percent and $104.90.

Given that most fans attending arena events came from Sacramento and neighboring counties, local hotels won’t see much of a boom in business. What downtown hotels like the Hyatt Regency, Sheraton Grand and Embassy Suites will see is a new competitor enjoying some buzz from its proximity to a “world-class” arena and siphoning off money from a very limited pie.

The same will be true for a boutique hotel planned at the corner of Seventh and L Street, where the old Marshall Hotel provided accommodations for low-income tenants until they were deemed too shabby to go with the new arena. Last February a developer announced plans for an upscale hotel up to 17 stories tall at this site ever so close to the Kings arena.

Meanwhile, across the Sacramento River, up-and-coming West Sacramento still has hopes for a hotel and conference center along the riverfront, despite some setbacks last spring. Will a new arena hotel undermine West Sac’s revitalization efforts near Raley Field? Probably so.

Despite the hype generated by arena proponents,  new sports arenas don’t create an economic boom for cities that buy into them. They merely redistribute local spending, mostly to the benefit of millionaire team owners.

The Sacramento City Council needs to ask hard questions about who would profit from this proposed hotel, and what kind of development would be most beneficial for downtown Sacramento. The council needs to do more than rubber-stamp every proposal put forth by the Kings’ owners.

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