The Old Predilection

Angell Went to the Free Library of Philadelphia last night looking for a dry martini.

Roger Angell, the baseball writer and a fiction editor of The New Yorker, was speaking to an audience of the institution's heavy financial hitters. Angell has written a free fall through his memories of 85 years of privilege, smarts and grace called Let Me Finish. Last week, I went upstairs early each night, awaiting its stories of fabled New Yorker characters, pick-up golf games on bumpy Maine fairways, and life with his mother, Katherine Sergeant White, and her husband, E.B. White. But it was the martinis that got me out of the house. He writes:

I still have a drink each evening, but more often it's Scotch. When guests come to dinner, there are always one or two to whom I automatically offer Pellegrino or a Coke: their drinking days are behind them. Others ask for water or wait for a single glass of wine with the meal. But if there's a friend tonight with the old predilection, I'll mix up a martini for the two of us, in the way we like it, filling a small glass with ice cubes that I've cracked into quarters with my little pincers. Don't smash or shatter the ice: it'll become watery in a moment. Put three or four more cracked cubes into our glasses, to begin the chill. Put the gin or the vodka into the pitcher, then wet the neck of the vermouth bottle with a quickly amputated trickle. Stir the martini vigorously but without sloshing. When the side of the pitcher is misted like a January windowpane pour the drink into the glasses. Don't allow any of the ice in the pitcher to join the awaiting, unmelted ice in the glass. (My friend likes his straight up, so I'll throw away the ice in his glass. But I save it in my own, because a martini on the rocks stays cold longer, and I've avoided the luke-warm fourth or fifth sip from the purer potion.) Now stir the drink inside the iced glass, just once around. Squeeze the lemon peel across the surface -- you've already pared it, from a fat, bright new lemon -- and then run the peel, skin-side down, around the rim of the glass before you drop in. Serve. Smile.

Anyway , he did no mixing on the stage, where he sat in a high-backed chair and chatted with Ben Yagoda, who has written a book on the magazine, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made. When Angell said he was 85, it made me want to see his ID. He is luminous, slightly stooped when he walks, but stately in repose and in crisp command of his stories and zingers, and worth quoting here for a few of the things he said.

Yagoda asked him right off what he thought of the Phillies:

Don't blame me for what's happened to their pitching, ok?

Much of the talk centered on the magazine where Angell has been on staff since 1956, where his mother and step father became institutions. He acknowledged that the stories about writer Joseph Mitchell were true - for 20 years the writer showed up each day at his office, wearing a long coat and a fedora or pork pie hat according to the season, and there was little sound of typing.

I think his expectations had frozen him.

Mitchell did know everything, however, about the city's most remote precincts and past times, and about the world beyond. And once, he turned out purling tales of the city. His colleague A.J. Liebling was always trying to stump Mitchell and once brought back from a taxidermist's shop a tiny skeleton of an opossum, which was remarkable for having a bone in its penis. Mitchell, pounding out a story, looked at the oddity on his desk and observed:

Pecker bone of a young opossum. Anything else you want to know?

Mitchell writes and talks of growing up in New York when one had the sense of living in a young country. America's history was so embraceable, that a man like Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice, could have shaken hands with both John Quincy Adams and John F. Kennedy.

Celebrities aren't around anymore like that. They're all in the Hamptons or dead.

He was asked why there are so many writerly books about baseball. He's heard that 400 are written each year.

Baseball is the perfect pace for a writer. Because it takes place slowly. An idea - some images - but an actual idea, as well as an occasional foul ball, might come to you.

Toward the end of his chat and the Q & A that followed, Angell fielded a question about Barry Bonds. He was reluctant to say to much because he is in the process of writing about the slugger battling Hank Aaron's home run record and accusations of steroids.

He still might be the best player, next to Willie Mays, who's played baseball.... It's an asterisk. But we live in a world of asterisks.

Never found the martini.

Posted 06/07/2006 03:49:54 PM

Wonderful post, Dan.

Posted 06/07/2006 08:14:46 PM

you spelled welcome wrong

Posted 06/08/2006 04:36:41 PM

Great post -- wish I could have been there. Loved this line from the excerpt: When the side of the pitcher is misted like a January windowpane pour the drink into the glasses.

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