Thursday, October 3, 2013

Public Urination -- It's Baaaack!

Now that the two candidates have been decided for our next mayoral election, I'd like to share with them a story that pretty much sums up life on the streets of New York after three terms under the Bloomberg administration: It was a perfect September day. The sun was shining and I felt a soft, silky breeze as I rode my bike through Central Park, making my way past Strawberry Hill to 72nd Street. There, on the edge of the main drive, in broad daylight, in front of dozens of tourists, joggers, and dog walkers, I saw a man watering the bushes. Or so I thought, until I realized that the thing he was holding was not a hose, and the stream of liquid coming out of it was not water. No, it wasn't some poor elderly man with bladder control issues who didn't have time to find a men's room. In fact, there was something brazen about this guy, who made no attempt to be discreet. He had a look that said, "This is my toilet, and I dare you to try and stop me." It's not the first time I've seen this along the crowded streets of our city. In recent months, I've witnessed men peeing against storefront walls in the middle of 42nd Street, at Spring and Seventh, and Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. Often, this public pissing is taking place with police standing just a few feet away, either indifferent or oblivious, I am not sure which. So what does this have to do with New York's next mayor? It's a warning sign for the road we're on as we head back to those pre-Giuliani days of unsafe, uninhabitable streets, when the squeegee guys routinely ambushed cars, smeared windshields and intimidated drivers into giving tips. Public urination is taking spitting in the street, littering, and not cleaning up after your dog to a whole new level of filth and depraved disregard for civility and public hygiene. We are slipping fast, and we need a strong new leader who is not afraid to be a badass to stop the decline. I wasn't able to find specific stats that show how many public urination tickets have been written over the past few years. But the number of criminal defense lawyers who turn up on an Internet search offering their services for people charged with the offense would suggest the numbers are astronomical -- and that's just the people who get caught. Anecdotally, this kind of behavior -- along with spitting and littering -- has gotten noticeably worse since I first moved to the city in 2001, and New York's dubious honor of being rated the dirtiest city in the U.S. by +Leisure proves it. A recent poll by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism would suggest most New Yorkers agree, finding that 71 percent felt that public spitting has become a problem in New York City, turning our streets into a miles-wide Petrie dish. "What's your problem, this is New Yaawwk!" I can hear Lewis Black say. He recently produced an otherwise brilliant video celebrating this city's "Eff You!" individualism, featuring cops high-fiving these public pissers. But this is NOT all our city can and should be. We shouldn't have to step over bags of uncollected garbage, dodging rats and toxic slime on our way home from dinner, even in the "nice" neighborhoods. Our bike lanes shouldn't be treated as gutters for loose litter and filth. Go to any other major city in the U.S. and around the world -- Paris, London, LA, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago -- and the relative cleanliness of those streets puts us to shame. You can change the culture of a city. It is possible to raise the standards and expectations of our citizens, and it all boils down to leadership. I used to live in Hong Kong, a densely crowded place known for people coughing up loose phlegm in the middle of the street. That all changed after SARS in 2003, when the Hong Kong government launched a high-profile campaign, imposing and strictly enforcing spitting bans. London did the same in 2009. I'm not exactly sure why our city has turned into such a cesspit over the last few years -- no doubt the reasons are complicated. But I suspect it has something to do with the fact that our city workers (including the sanitation department) haven't had a raise in years, and there are about 4,000 fewer cops on our streets compared with the Giuliani days. I don't buy that we don't have the money -- we pay more in city taxes than most other municipalities, and we have some of the wealthiest taxpayers in the country. It's a problem of rampant fiscal waste and misplaced priorities under a mayor who has lost touch with the needs of the average New Yorker. In his last term, he has become more interested in creating a legacy of nanny-state legislation than focusing and following through on the nuts and bolts of running a vast metropolis. So although it doesn't grab the same headlines as "stop and frisk," I'd love to this issue to be raised in some of the upcoming mayoral debates. I'd like to hear exactly how Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota plan to roll up their sleeves and clean up our streets. At this point, I don't know who I would vote for, but this may not be the place and time for a warm and fuzzy populist. Although I consider myself to be as progressive as the next Huffpost blogger, I readily admit that when it comes to the city I've adopted as my home, I have double standards. Getting New York back on track will take cojones, and yes, maybe even a candidate who isn't afraid to say he's willing to run over a few kittens to get the job done.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Winner, But Never Champion

By Nelson Montana.Artist, Composer, Actor, Author
The Winner, But Never Champion
The bell rang. And what was one of the most anticipated fights of 1948 had begun. The Cuban Hawk, "Kid" Gavalan who had bolo-punched his way to be a top contender in the welterweight division, was going up against the Brooklyn born favorite, Rocco Rossano, known as much for his movie star good looks as he was for his quick hands.

Both were upcoming, yet accomplished (each with over 40 wins), though the two styles could not have been more different. Gavalan was a brawler with unpredictable moves and sledgehammer fists. Rossano was crafty and shrewd with the footwork of a flyweight and a rapid-fire jab that always seemed to find its mark. The sportswriters would say that by the time you threw a punch at Rossano he was somewhere else. It was the terrorizer against the technician. This was going to be good. Or at least it should have been.

As it turned out, it was all over in a matter of moments. Gavalan knocked out Rossano after only two minutes and four seconds of the first round and went on to become champion. As for Rossano ... he was through. Like so many fighters from the Golden Age of boxing, Rocco, who rose to meteoric heights of recognition, just as abruptly finished out of the top spot and out of the public's consciousness.

In boxing, anyone who isn't champ, no matter how highly ranked, is just on the short list of losers. That's what makes boxing the perfect metaphor for life itself. It's a microcosm of blue-collar existentialism -- harsh, unforgiving, brutally tangible and with the daunting reality of an inevitable fall from grace. Eventually, the cruelest of all enemies will get you -- age. Then there are the other variables. In the case of the Gavalan/Rossano bout, it's an example of how two men's destinies were decided by a series of circumstances that are both curious and contradictory.

That fight may be just a blurb in the record books, but to me, it means more. There's a history behind it that has not been told -- because it's known to very few people. I'm one of them. Rocco Rossano was my father.

Rossano's real name was Montanino. He used the alias as a form of I.D. to begin fighting professionally while still under age, dropping out of school in order to pursue his training. You see, in the post depression years, if you were one of nine children of immigrants, work opportunities were limited. Everyone labored at whatever they could get and wherever they could get it. And there wasn't much. Boxing was enormously popular and the tougher men got into the game for some quick money. Most didn't make it past a few club fights. The better ones made a few bucks (sometimes at the expense of their faculties), and the best went on to have a career, albeit a short one. Rocco was the youngest of the three Montanino boys who made it to the big time, and it was he who achieved the most success. He was a prospect, a "contender" and, ultimately, an also-ran.

By the time I was born, those days of glory and gore were all behind him and he didn't talk much about it. My dad never cared for the limelight and despised the phonies or, as he called them, the "hangers-on" who just wanted to bask in the temporary limelight until the next sensation came along. He dismissed his ex-celebrity status as a fleeting phase of youth. But the Gavalan fight ... that was the proverbial bitter pill that he never did swallow.

Credit: Nelson Montana
I'd watch his eyes as he grasped for the memories of the night that decreed his future. He'd play it down, but I knew... there's no way that can't hurt. He wasn't one for making excuses but until his final years he always claimed he was set up. He swore he was drugged and didn't even remember stepping into the ring that night. He assumed it was someone at the restaurant where he ate that afternoon who had a bet down on Gavalan. My mom suspected it was one or more of the shady characters in the inner circle who owed too much money to too many of the wrong people. It's the old cliché -- "he wuz robbed." His skills were exploited and eventually sold out by those in control who were greedy and corrupt. Things haven't changed much in the last half-century or so.

Throughout the years I often wondered how accurate that assessment was. Many fighters claim they don't remember getting KO'd, so my dad's recollection could hardly be considered accurate. Was his loss a rationalization that he just didn't have what it took to make it to the title? After all, Gavalan was one of the all time greats. Maybe his recollection was akin to the Christian Bale interpretation in The Fighter of Dickie Ekland whose claim to fame was that he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, though it was more of a slip. There were slight variations on the Gavalan/Rossano story, depending on who was telling it, but the consensus among friends and family members was that something was off that night, though no one had any more evidence beyond their own speculation. It's only natural that they would be biased.

I've come to accept the fact that people need to blur the memory of their failures and the boxing game is fraught with them. My dad did make some money, all of which he invested in a business that went bust within a year. He spent the rest of his life working on the docks in lower New York. After several years of hard labor, he managed to relocate the family to the suburban town of Elmont, Long Island -- quite a step from the streets of Brooklyn. Yet, all he had to show for those battles in Madison Square Garden and the St. Nicks arena were a broken nose and a tattered scrapbook. There's also a video, compiled of some film footage of a few of his fights. In one scene he's shown fighting Philly favorite Eddie Giosa, who had a piece written on him a few years back that appeared in The New York Times as one of the forgotten masters of the game in the "best ever" era of welterweight boxing. The video clip shows my dad knocking him out.

Rocco Montanino, aka Rocco Rossano, passed some time ago, and the controversy was set to rest for good, or so we thought. Just recently, when my brother Michael and I were going through some old furniture that had been in storage for years, we discovered some discarded memorabilia from dad's fighting days. Amongst the old clippings and faded photographs was an article in the May 29, 1948 edition of the New York Journal-American by famed sports writer Bill Corum titled "The Strange Night of Rip Van Winkle. What happened to Rocco Rossano?" In the piece he spoke of meeting Rocco in the dressing room minutes before the fight with Gavalan, expecting him to be warmed up and raring to go. He was asleep -- out cold in his robe on the table. No one else was in the room. It was Corum who woke him. He writes: "Rossano, just grunted ... looking like he'd give anything to just go back to sleep. He got dressed, but like a fellow who'd been waked in the middle of the night and had to go out on some unwelcome nocturnal errand."

Just as the announcement came on for the main event, Rossano's manager barged in and said "Let's go Rocky, you're on!" His eyes were glazed and he was laggard in his movements as he walked through the arena. Corum continues: "When Rossano got into the ring he was shaking his head as if he were trying to get himself fully awake."

Once in the ring, my dad was known to jump and fidget and throw blinding combinations in preparation to the encounter. Instead, his hands were at his side, which is where they stayed as he walked across the ring, defenseless. Within seconds he was down. Still, he rose to his feet, just to get floored a moment later. And again he got up. Finally, Gavalan gave his infamous windup and lethal overhead right hand and Rossano went down for the final count.

After reading that piece, something became very obvious to me. The stories and the claims that I presumed were exaggerations and justifications were indeed true. It was a set up for Rocco to lose. They knew he'd never throw a fight, so they made sure of it by drugging him.

It's taken a long time, but I see this as a vindication. My dad was a man who showed insight, integrity and surprising artistic ability (he drew and painted and did woodwork), but he grew up at a time when people of that social status didn't have the luxury of having their creativity encouraged or even recognized. So he brought that raw, innate talent into the ring and took it as far as it could take him in a field that most people can't imagine venturing into. But sometimes fate has other plans. At least I now know that, besides being one of the best in the world, maybe ... just maybe ... he could have gone all the way.

What was rightfully his was never fully realized, but now I know the truth. And I can see my father's legacy in a different light. The mystery is solved and along with it is the acceptance of both the tragedy and the triumph. The bell has rung. But this time, he's still standing.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Interview with Michaele Salahi

Thursday, May 6, 2010

George Cloutier's Latest on BusinessWeek... collaboration with me of course.

Good Morning America Interview with Queen Latifah

Check this out. My latest collaboration -- with the Queen -- drops today.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Watch out for Queen Latifah's new book, "Put On Your Crown," due out on May 6. This is an inspirational opus to help young girls build self-esteem, and it's being published in hardcover by Hachette's Grand Central Publishing.

Yours truly helped put it together. And yes, she is as nice in real life as she seems in her public persona. The image and the woman are one and the same.


Here is my new BusinessWeek posting for George