Shortly before leaving California a week and a half ago to visit my family back east, I got this e-mail from my excited dad:
Subject: Fligth to Mars
Photo credit: Bill Brent
It was a play on words (and a clever one too — you go, Dad!) and also an in-joke: “Fligth to Mars” was the misspelled name of a ride at Adventurer’s Inn, a small amusement park that used to exist in Queens when I was a boy. I didn’t realize just how little a boy I was until I read that Adventurer’s Inn was condemned in 1973, when I was just seven. I have clear memories of several visits there. Of course the condemned site remained for a long time until it was finally bulldozed, and I passed by it many more times as I got older; perhaps that’s what kept the memories fresh. Is there a sadder sight than a long-abandoned amusement park?
I think I was the one to notice the misspelling on the Fligth to Mars ride, and it’s been a catchphrase in my family ever since. The ride was your typical motorized cart traversing a funhouse on tracks. One time while on that ride, just before emerging back into daylight, I felt something smack the top of my head, hard enough to startle but not to hurt. I tried to convince my parents that a piece of wood or something had dislodged and landed on me, and I was even briefly convinced that there was a new area of flatness at the top of my skull as a result. They never believed me, and so I doubted it too — until today, when I read that Adventurer’s Inn was condemned soon thereafter!
Photo credit: Bill Brent
And look! The Batman slide! I remember that too. To a seven (or less) year old it was terribly daunting. But also tempting — it was a Batman slide! How could I not? Finally on one visit I worked up the nerve to give it a try. I got a mat on which to slide down, and I lugged it up and up the stairs in the interior of the structure. At the top, facing the maw opening onto an abyss (or so it seemed), my courage flagged and I froze. A queue of eager, bigger kids began to grow behind me and I believe I started taking some verbal abuse. Finally I turned around, feeling miserable, and began down the staircase as other kids muscled past me on their way up. At the bottom I surrendered the mat and was comforted by one or both parents, applauding me for resisting the pressure to go ahead, and assuring me that I never have to do anything I don’t want to do. I’m still sorry I never braved the Batman slide, but I think the humiliation I felt on that long climb down the stairs has been usefully instructive all my life.
O cruel fate! To go in a few short years from the top of his profession to a failed run for local office to jail time on charges of tax evasion and finally to a watery grave.
But as I read the news item about the drowning victim, I became confused. It said he was 38 years old, two years younger than me. There’s no way he was 19 when I first dined in his award-winning restaurant, The Primadonna, in 1987. After quite a bit of clicking around to sort it out, I discovered that the victim was a different Pittsburgh restaurateur named Joe Costanzo.
I had been hunting for news about “my” Joe Costanzo when I ran across the drowning story. The last I heard of him, he had pleaded guilty to tax evasion and was facing some jail time. Apparently he’d cooked the books of his restaurant in order to cover the expenses of his failed candidacy for some local office. He’d been forced to sell The Primadonna and then had been pinched for the crime.
I was a great Joe Costanzo fan. I still am. His crime might have spoiled it for me, but around the time of his guilty plea he issued a public mea culpa that took full responsibility and expressed genuine regret. It’s too bad that such a thing is as rare and noteworthy as it is, but with it he retained my respect.
Here’s a letter I sent to him in happier times — July 1999.
Mr. Joseph Costanzo, Jr.
The Primadonna Restaurant
801 Broadway Avenue
McKees Rocks, PA 15136
Dear Mr. Costanzo,
Some of what you’re about to read I told you in person last week when I and several friends dined at your restaurant. But I felt it appropriate to tell you again in a more tangible and thorough form.
In the late 1980’s I had just graduated from Carnegie Mellon and had begun my professional career working for the university. Eager to spend my new salary, I seized upon an early glowing newspaper review of The Primadonna. Not knowing exactly where McKees Rocks was, and having no idea how to find Broadway Avenue once I got there, I nevertheless hopped in my car with a sense of adventure and eventually made my way to the finest Italian meal I’d ever had.
Now, that’s no idle boast. Before coming to Pittsburgh for college, I lived in New York City, home to numerous authentic Italian restaurants, and I enjoyed lots of them. Indeed, good Italian food was one of several things I missed about New York when I moved to Pittsburgh. But finding The Primadonna did more than fill a void — for me, it raised the bar.
For a few short years, I was a frequent visitor to your establishment, and I took pleasure in introducing dozens of different friends and relatives to your superb cuisine and unequaled hospitality. Then, alas, in 1992 I took a job in the San Francisco area.
Last week was my first visit to Pittsburgh in seven years, and I made a beeline for The Primadonna. For in those seven years, despite San Francisco’s (otherwise well-deserved) reputation for being home to many of the world’s best restaurants, an exhaustive search failed to turn up even one Italian eatery that offered the faintest shadow of Primadonna’s wonderful hearty food and jovial atmosphere. Everything’s either a pizza joint, or nouvelle, or pretentious, or — worst of all — all three.
(The closest I came in my search was three hours from San Francisco. North Lake Tahoe has a family-owned restaurant called Lanza’s that is hearty and jovial, though not nearly as accomplished in the kitchen as your talented staff.)
To tell the truth, I was a little nervous last week on arriving at The Primadonna for the first time in so long. After treasuring my Primadonna memories for seven years, and after seven years of anticipating another meal there, how could it possibly live up to my expectations? But I needn’t have worried. Everything was fantastic — just the way I remembered, if not better.
After my meal, I shook your hand and told you some of what you’ve just read. Although by now you must be well-accustomed to lavish praise of your restaurant, you seemed genuinely moved by my testimonial. You remembered me from those early days and thanked me with a bottle of salad dressing. Thanks for that touching gesture, but more importantly, thanks for the wonderful times I’ve had at The Primadonna and the ones still to come.
I was pleased to see that your business is thriving and wish you unending success. It won’t be seven years before my next visit to Pittsburgh, and you can be sure that The Primadonna again will be my first stop.
I had a pretty good educated guess. I knew that shows like Batman and Star Trek, both of which premiered in 1966 (which I knew because I’ve been a big fan of both and because I was born in 1966), were prominently marketed as being “In Color.” And I knew, from watching too many reruns on TV in my childhood, that the first season of I Dream of Jeannie was in black-and-white. A major studio sitcom like Jeannie would not have premiered in black-and-white at the same time that the networks were premiering their shows in color. So Jeannie premiered in 1965 or earlier — but not much earlier, because by its second year Jeannie was in color, which was still new enough in 1966 that it formed a major part of a show’s promotional campaign; and because it was descended from a line of shows in the ordinary-guy-living-with-someone-or-something-magical genre (including Mister Ed, My Favorite Martian, and Bewitched), a genre that was itself no older than the 1960’s.
So 1964 or 1965. I guessed 1965 — and I was right! I won the LP. (I forget what it was.) Andrea was duly impressed. “And today that woman is my wife.”
Today too I have season 1, disc 1 of I Dream of Jeannie at home from Netflix. We watched a couple of episodes yesterday, and they were in color! Alas, a trivia fact with which I wooed my wife has gone down the memory hole.
At least it makes sense to colorize Jeannie, with its faux-Persian costumes, genie-magic visuals, Florida setting, and parade of Playboy-era sex kittens (on the arm of bachelor astronaut Roger Healey). And to this untrained eye the colorization looks well done. But I will never understand what possessed someone to colorize Dynamite Hands. Dynamite Hands is the first of two “features” in Movie Movie, a film that harks back to the days of seeing double features for a nickel. Dynamite Hands is an affectionate parody of every morality play ever set in a boxing ring (notably Body and Soul). It’s the “B” picture before the main attraction, Baxter’s Beauties of 1933, a Busby-Berkeley-style musical. George Burns introduces the films by saying that, back in the old days, movies were in black-and-white — “except sometimes when they sang, it came out in color.” Dynamite Hands was in black-and-white and Baxter’s Beauties was in color — only someone colorized Dynamite Hands for cable TV, making a liar of George Burns.
It has taken just a fraction of my lifetime for digital technology to totally transform many aspects of life and society, usually for the better (unless you’re one of those weirdos hoarding the world’s dwindling supply of vacuum tubes for that “warm” tube-amp sound — warm tube-amp buzz, says I).
So you might be forgiven for thinking that a “digital prostate exam” sounds like some kind of high-tech 21st-century diagnostic technique, possibly involving a full-color 3-d computer display.
But you’d be oh so wrong. Well, except for the 3-d part. All I can say is, it sure feels analog.
I was at the counter of Carl’s Jr., ordering a cheeseburger and fries, when I reached for my wallet and… it wasn’t there.
(*cue Psycho music*)
For maybe the second time in my whole adult life.
I’m pretty sure it’s at home in the pair of shorts that I too-hastily changed out of yesterday. But it sure is an unsettling feeling not to have any money, credit cards, or ID. Fortunately, Danger provides free peanut butter, bread, apples, and bananas, all of which I ate for lunch. Mmm.
I’ve resurrected another post from my defunct old website in response to a Ken Jennings blog topic — this one about a puzzle that obsessed him as a kid.
The one that obsessed me for a while in seventh grade was in Games magazine, and it led more or less directly to my present career as a computer programmer. It was called The Calculatrivia Marathon.
In late 1978, shortly after I began attending Hunter College High School, Games Magazine published a contest that it called “The First — and Maybe the Last — Calculatrivia Marathon.” First prize was:
A 16K Apple II Home Computer System (with both integer and floating point BASIC in ROM, RF modulator, and cassette tape recorder)
The contest consisted of dozens of trivia questions, each of whose answer was a number. Entrants were required to answer all the questions, then plug the resulting numbers into a fearsome-looking mathematical formula to determine the value of “x.”
I don’t know exactly why this contest captured my imagination, nor why the first prize was so appealing to me (I had no particular interest in computers before then) — but it did, and it was. I set to the task with a single-mindedness that my new teachers wished I would devote to my homework.
At one point I got stuck on the question, “Number of Best Actress Oscars won by Katharine Hepburn.” (Little did I imagine then that in the future I would become involved with The Internet Movie Database, which can supply that answer in a matter of seconds. But in 1978 there was no World Wide Web and we had to do research the old-fashioned way.) I called the research librarian at the New York Public Library and asked the question, and was amazed when the librarian replied without hesitation, “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that; it’s a contest question.” Did they somehow keep track of all the trivia contests going on in the world? Well, I guess that’s what made them research librarians at the prestigious New York Public Library. I tried a research desk at a less prestigious library and got my answer. (Three, at the time; she later earned a fourth for On Golden Pond.)
After I assembled all my trivia answers, I consulted my math teacher, Ms. Krilov, for help in interpreting the formula. At the tender age of twelve, you see, I’d never seen a fraction with another fraction in the numerator or denominator. After that was cleared up, I plugged in my numbers and began calculating.
The first two or three times I got totally different answers. But in the end I got a number I could feel pretty confident about. It was something like 117345.0625.
The contest had been hard, very hard — and I had finished it. Surely only a very few others had gotten as far as I had? My chances of winning the grand prize were clearly very, very good. Of course, I had no idea what such phrases as “BASIC in ROM” meant. During the few months before the contest winner was announced, I went to the school library and checked out “A Basic Approach to BASIC,” by Henry Mullish, and read it cover-to-cover. Then I read it again. When it was due back, I re-checked it out.
In this way, while waiting to hear from Games Magazine, I learned to write computer programs; and today, programming is my livelihood and my chief avocation.
I am finally motivated to start my own blog, though what I’ll put here I really don’t know. For now I’ve got to get something written down to surmount the first-post obstacle.
I’ll probably write about fatherhood from time to time. I may give updates on my various self-improvement projects, such as learning to play music and improving my fitness. (“Self-improvement is masturbation.” –Tyler Durden. To which I say, “OK.”) Perhaps I’ll post some greatest-hits articles from my old website (now offline) and from e-mail, etc. And I’ll almost certainly relive past glory from my pre-fatherhood days of book-writing, plane-flying, company-starting, etc., though you should not get the idea that fatherhood put an end to my adventures; on the contrary, it’s my biggest one yet, and I’ve still only just begun.
Among the things that made me finally start this blog is Ken Jennings’ blog. Ken is the Jeopardy! über-champion from a couple of years ago. He’s also a terrific blogger; his blog is among the handful I read daily. Coincidentally, the day I started reading it, he blogged about the unavailability of the Kevin Kline Pirates of Penzance movie on DVD, while a DVD of the Central Park version of the same production arrived at my home from Netflix. So I sent him mail about that coincidence and we began a correspondence in which I posed some of my clever movie-connections puzzles to him, and eventually to the readers of his message forum. Oh yeah, those puzzles are something else I can put here.