Roaming Freely at a Qualifying Round of the U.S. Open

Columnist Ralph Gardner Jr. finds no lines and plenty of action of the premier tennis tournament

Saketh Myneni, in action last fall at the Indore Open ATP Challenger tournament in Indore, India.ENLARGE
Saketh Myneni, in action last fall at the Indore Open ATP Challenger tournament in Indore, India. PHOTO: AMIT K JAISWAL/GETTY IMAGES

My main fear heading out to the U.S. Open qualifying tournament Tuesday afternoon is that I wouldn’t be able to find a place to eat.

During the main tournament, which starts on Monday, locating food isn’t a problem. Indeed, the U.S. Open is a veritable cornucopia of culinary options.

But I’d never attended the qualifying tournament before, and I envisioned a food desert, all the stands that will be humming next week, still closed. No place even to score a bottle of water against the scorching sun.

I was made aware of the qualifying rounds, which started Tuesday and end Friday, when I downloaded the U.S. Open app onto my cellphone, as I do around this time every year to stay updated on the action.

Not only that: The qualifying tournament offered free admission. When was the last time you got something for free at the U.S. Open?

Admittedly, you wouldn’t get to see Novak Djokovic or Serena Williams play. But the level of tennis—the qualifying tournament typically includes players ranked from 105 to 250 in the world—should be able to provide suitable entertainment.

Also, it would present an opportunity “to see tomorrow’s stars up close,” according to the daily program I received after passing through the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center’s metal detectors.

Previous qualifiers include reigning U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic on the men’s side, and Madison Keys and Petra Kvitova among the women.

But I cared less about big names than the small crowds.

The U.S. Open has simply become too popular. In 2014, attendance passed 700,000 for the seventh time in eight years.

I recall when, not that many years ago, you could meander from court to court during opening week, as if in a candy store, picking and choosing matches on a whim. But lately you have to get in line even to watch unknowns play.

My hope for the “qualies” was to recapture some of the spontaneity of old.

The tournament didn’t disappoint. The atmosphere had the slightly wistful feeling of a day at the beach shortly before the season starts, or after it ends, but the weather remains great and the water warm.

Arthur Ashe Stadium was shuttered behind high gates. But there was action on all the outside courts: 128 men and women have to win three matches to earn one of the 32 spots—16 for men, 16 for women—in the main draw.

“It’s tense,” said Jack Waite, the director of racquets at Burning Tree Country Club in Greenwich, Conn., and a 1992 competitor at the U.S. Open qualifying tournament. “You’re doing everything everyone else does, but it’s not the main draw. Anyone who can win three matches of a Grand Slam qualifier is a major achievement.

“One of the greatest free sporting events,” he added, “is the last-round qualifiers, which will be Friday. That’s where everyone is one match away; if you win that match you’re part of the show, the major leagues.”

Members of the Saki Squad cheered on Mr. Myneni during his qualifying round Tuesday at the U.S. Open. ENLARGE
Members of the Saki Squad cheered on Mr. Myneni during his qualifying round Tuesday at the U.S. Open. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mr. Waite had brought along a cheerleading squad for 27-year-old Saketh Myneni, one of Burning Tree’s teaching pros, who was scheduled to play Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany on Court 12. The group consisted of a couple of dozen club members—all wearing bright orange “Saki Squad” T-shirts—plus Billy Pate, the head men’s tennis coach at Princeton University. Mr. Pate had recruited Mr. Myneni to play for the University of Alabama when he was tennis coach there.

But since it was taking a long time for the previous match to conclude, a women’s three-setter, I decided to stroll the grounds. By the way, in the qualifying tournament both men’s and women’s matches are the best of three sets. In the main draw, it’s best of five for the men.

I caught a spirited match between Taro Daniel, a lanky Japanese player, and Renzo Olivo of Argentina. Then I went over to Court 17, a small stadium court, where American Melanie Oudin, who reached the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open as a 17-year-old in 2009, was playing Elitsa Kostova of Germany.

But the point was less the play, as good as it was, than the freedom to visit matches at will. It felt like boarding a time machine and setting the dial to 1968.

As it turned out, about half the food stands in the Food Village were open. And even though the service was just as lethargic as it is during the main draw, you had your pick of tables in the shade.

I made my way back to Court 12 as Mr. Myneni’s match was finally getting underway.

“It’s a tall order,” Mr. Waite said of his colleague’s chances against Mr. Struff, who was ranked as high as 46th in the world and would go on to win in three sets.

Mr. Waite extolled Mr. Myneni’s kindness while telling an amusing story of a mishap he suffered behind the wheel of a golf cart during one of his first days on the job at the country club.

It’s the kind of story that could be told, and heard, during a qualifying tournament.

A New Stand for the Best of the Wurst

Schaller & Weber in Yorkville expands with a sidewalk sausage stand

The Berlin Wall, one of the sausaged offered at Schaller’s Stube Sausage Bar in Yorkville. ENLARGE
The Berlin Wall, one of the sausaged offered at Schaller’s Stube Sausage Bar in Yorkville. PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

New York City’s multifarious food options can easily make one blasé. But a culinary possibility that never becomes passe, the news of whose arrival causes the heart to leap in happiness—as well, perhaps, as one’s cholesterol count—is that of a dependable new hot dog stand.

And happiness turns to something like bliss, even thrills, to discover the establishment is giving New Yorkers more options when it comes to this proletarian treat.

Such is the case with Schaller’s Stube Sausage Bar, a sidewalk stand that opened recently on the east side of Second Avenue between East 85th and East 86th streets. If the name rings a bell, that’s because it was started by Jeremy Schaller, the third generation of his family to run Schaller & Weber, the legendary German butcher shop and market next door. It opened in 1937.

“This was a drying room for the meats,” Mr. Schaller said as we sat in the stube’s cozy seating area. The antique scale is still there, as are the overhead rails that once delivered meat next door. “It goes all the way to the butcher station” in the shop, Mr. Schaller noted.

“These are all the recipes my grandfather brought in 1937,” he added, of their various wursts. “We never changed them.” Their delicate weisswurst has been a favorite of mine for years.

Jeremy Schaller, who is behind the new sausage barENLARGE
Jeremy Schaller, who is behind the new sausage bar PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

One might think that a hot dog stand with seating is putting on airs. That franks were meant to be consumed standing. I disagree.

While Papaya King, that purveyor of franks “tastier than filet mignon” at the corner of East 86th Street and Third Avenue, is the quintessence of the form, I’d enjoy my hot dog even more if there were stools, as Schaller’s Stube has, to watch humanity pass by Papaya King’s picture windows.

Mr. Schaller doesn’t consider Papaya King competition, even though it’s just up the block. “It’s a different kind of product,” he explained. “They are the real New York street food. This is more of the European street food.”

Mr. Schaller came up with the idea for his stube, which means “room” in German, on annual Oktoberfest trips to Germany and, in particular, on a trip to Berlin. “Things like this are quite common. It’s a place where you can go into and get a classic bratwurst or a currywurst, a really popular thing in Berlin at the moment.”

That’s sliced knackwurst topped with curry ketchup and curry powder. It’s served on a Balthazar brioche bun, as all the stand’s offerings are.

Schaller’s Stube Sausage Bar on Second Avenue. ENLARGE
Schaller’s Stube Sausage Bar on Second Avenue. PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

But given the menu, currywurst hardly qualifies as more than an amuse-bouche.

I have no idea the calorie count on some of these dishes, and Mr. Schaller said the restaurant isn’t required to list them on its menu. But rather than being concerned, it’s probably best to think of yourself as making a valiant stand against culinary political correctness.

For instance, there’s the Berlin Wall, which presents almost as towering a challenge to one’s appetite, and one’s oral cavity, as its namesake did to those seeking freedom in the West. The ingredients include a ½-pound kielbasa, American cheese, bacon jam, crispy bacon (it sounds redundant but it isn’t), chicharrones and diced onion.

The stube also serves an excellent fried chicken based on some ancient recipe from a Schaller family friend.

My only menu suggestion would be a frank wrapped in a flaky crust or pretzel, which are popular in Germany and Eastern Europe.

“Alex was talking about it,” Mr. Schaller said of chef Alex Melnichenko. “Some of the technology used in Europe is not available here.”

Mr. Schaller said he saw the addition of the sausage stand to the existing butcher shop as almost a business necessity.

Construction of the Second Avenue subway has resulted in “a 20% drop in revenue,” he said. “I felt there was something we had to do to get those numbers back up.”

The butcher shop has also been spruced up. “I wanted to make some adjustments to not alienate the old German customers, but to bring in a younger clientele and see what good quality we had.”

A view of the Schaller & Weber butcher shop in Yorkville. ENLARGE
A view of the Schaller & Weber butcher shop in Yorkville. PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

He added, “There’s a nostalgia towards the older shops,” in Yorkville, these days a remnant of the German neighborhood it once was. “I wanted to take advantage of that.”

Schaller’s Stube is still partially obstructed by subway construction. But Mr. Schaller looks forward to the day in the not-too-distant-future when his business can take advantage of the crowds entering and leaving the subway station, only a few feet away.

“This is all in anticipation that the subway will come soon,” he acknowledged hopefully.

He confided, “They’ve given us crazy offers on this building.” He meant developers. “It’s constant; it’s every week. I have no intention of selling this place.”

I asked him why.

“I just love this business. It’s really all that’s left of Yorkville. I grew up with everyone coming into the store appreciating it. The people really care about holding on to what’s left of it. To see that disappear would be too much of a shame.”

Norman Rockwell’s Soft Power on Display at the U.N.

‘We the Peoples’ exhibit runs through Sept. 15 in honor of the United Nations’ 70th anniversary

The ‘We the Peoples: Norman Rockwell's United Nations’ exhibit at the U.N. feature’s the artist’s works.ENLARGE
The ‘We the Peoples: Norman Rockwell’s United Nations’ exhibit at the U.N. feature’s the artist’s works. PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Other than causing traffic jams in September, when world leaders descend on the General Assembly, it’s hard to say what impact the United Nations has on the heartbeat of New York City.

I suppose it helps bolster our claim as a cosmopolitan metropolis—indeed as the capital of the world—but the average New Yorker already knew that.

The fact that I can’t remember the last time I visited—it may have been in high school—suggests that its role in the life of the city is less than integral.

However, I’ve been looking for an excuse to go back. While the organization hasn’t solved the world’s problems, you can’t spite it for trying. And my recollection from that long-ago field trip is that the U.N. boasts certain fun idiosyncrasies, such as issuing its own postage stamps.

The opportunity to return arose last week. It was to view a newNorman Rockwell exhibit, “We the Peoples,” a collaboration of the U.N., the United Nations Foundation and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Running through Sept. 15, it honors the 70th anniversary of the U.N.

While Rockwell may be best known for Saturday Evening Post covers that depict Middle American virtues, the U.N. and its humanitarian mission also attracted his attention.

Tourists admire the mosaic version of Norman Rockwell's painting ‘Golden Rule’ at the United Nations in New York on Aug. 5.ENLARGE
Tourists admire the mosaic version of Norman Rockwell’s painting ‘Golden Rule’ at the United Nations in New York on Aug. 5. PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“He came to this building just as it opened in 1952 with the mission of doing a work of art that represents the work of the U.N.,” Samir Afridi,a senior speechwriter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, told me as we toured the exhibition.

The result, at the height of the Cold War, was a moving, large-scale charcoal drawing. It portrays the ambassadors from the U.S.S.R., Great Britain and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., U.S. envoy at the time, seated at the Security Council. But behind them stand 65 people, representing the peaceful aspirations of the planet’s population.

The drawing was intended as a study for a painting that never made it onto canvas. It’s being shown at the U.N. for the first time.

However, elements of the sketch found their way into a full-fledged painting in the show, “The Golden Rule.” That was the subject of a 1961 Saturday Evening Post cover and the inspiration for a mosaic that first lady Nancy Reagan presented to the U.N. in 1985 on behalf of the U.S. The mosaic, a crowd pleaser judging by all the tourist cellphone cameras shooting it, is on permanent display, hanging down the hall from the Security Council chamber.

Indeed, the current show came about after Mr. Afridi’s inquisitive 6-year-old nephew saw the mosaic and asked why it was there. “I wondered too,” Mr. Afridi said. “I started researching myself,” and called the Rockwell Museum.

They told him of the study and helped fill in his understanding of Rockwell’s relationship with the U.N.

The Rockwell-U.N. connection also intrigued Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who fell in love with Rockwell’s work while a Swedish exchange student in Indiana in the late 50s. It also provided an excuse for a recent weekend trip to the Berkshires, where he was smitten by the study, finding it just as relevant today and embodying the U.N. charter’s “We the Peoples” preamble.

“When I got back Monday morning,” Mr. Eliasson recalled, “I said, ‘This is a wonderful piece of art.’”

The show also includes photographs of models Rockwell shot for “The Golden Rule” in his Vermont studio and quirky sketchbook drawings he made when Pan Am sent him abroad on behalf of their 1955 “Pan Am Was My Magic Carpet Around the World” campaign.

“We’re going to keep the U.N. drawing and have it on display when the world leaders come here in September,” Mr. Afridi explained.

Norman Rockwell’s ‘The Peace Corps in India,’ in the U.N.’s ‘We the Peoples’ exhibit.ENLARGE
Norman Rockwell’s ‘The Peace Corps in India,’ in the U.N.’s ‘We the Peoples’ exhibit.PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Since I was already in the building, I had no intention of squandering an opportunity to see the rest of the U.N., which I recommend to all.

While anyone can visit the free Rockwell exhibit in the visitor’s lobby, to see the Security Council and the General Assembly requires a guided tour.

The recently refurbished U.N. complex is a showcase of midcentury design. Indeed, it’s like stepping back into the 1950s, the Security Council chamber almost simultaneously provoking the same thought on the part of Kevin Hagan, my photographer, and me.

“It’s very Dr. Strangelove,” Mr. Hagan said.

Mr. Afridi corrected him. “It’s the peace room, not the war room.”

The General Assembly gently sparkled under subdued lighting. “We routinely have concerts here—Stevie Wonder, Sting…” Mr. Afridi reported.

The only disappointment was the U.N. store in the basement. They weren’t selling miniature cast-iron models of the building.

I’d have snapped one up and proudly displayed it on my mantelpiece, alongside my Empire State and Chrysler buildings.

My New Normcore Traveling Companion

When it comes to backpacks, simpler is better

Illustration:  ROB SHEPPERSON

After I’d booked my hotel and made my plane reservation, I realized there was one bit of unfinished business—besides figuring out how to pay for it all—I had to confront before I could go on vacation.

That was the purchase of a new backpack. I’m not talking about the major mountaineering backpacks that extend from shoulder to waist and climbers take up Everest; I had no intention of sleeping in a tent. I mean the more modest sort that second-graders use to carry their books to school.

My last backpack was a case study in storage logic and efficiency, with lots of beguiling nooks and crannies. But one of its shoulder straps eventually broke and it was all downhill from there.

I suppose everyone has slightly different requirements when it comes to travel bags. Mine include space for passport and tickets, of course, or at least a confirmation email.

But also for a set of travel binoculars so I can do some bird watching upon arrival.

As well as a bathing suit and a change of underwear and socks, should I be foolish enough to check my luggage and it fails to arrive at my destination at the same time I do.

And then there are things like medications, eyeglasses, pens, Band-Aids, a novel or two, a computer, and an all-important bottle opener.

My recollection is that there was a recent controversy concerning whether travelers should be allowed to carry small knives and scissors aboard planes. The Transportation Security Administration decided against it in the face of fierce opposition from the airline industry.

I believe there should be a hardship exemption for bar tools and accessories. I fully understand why you wouldn’t allow someone to bring box cutters, ice picks, meat cleavers, swords, baseball bats, brass knuckles, nunchucks, throwing stars, and firearms into the passenger cabin.

But my Swiss Army knife? Have you ever heard of anyone taking hostages with a Swiss Army knife? And it isn’t even the elaborate kind with 32 functions including reamer, wood saw, scissors and magnifying glass. Mine—a model is known as the “Waiter”—boasts nothing more sophisticated than a small blade, toothpick, tweezers, bottle opener and corkscrew.

It doesn’t seem fair that I should have to check my luggage and pay a baggage surcharge for the pleasure of being able to cut a slice of cheese or open a bottle of wine or beer once I reach my destination.

And even if the TSA allowed a penknife, you never know when you’ll run afoul of some foreign nation’s rules, as I did once over a beloved penknife secreted in my toiletry kit.

However, some overly ambitious Italian security official informed me the device would have to be checked as baggage or discarded. Since I was running late I chose the latter, and rue its loss to this day.

Women don’t typically have the problem of where to put things, because they typically carry purses. And my father used to wear a safari jacket. But I don’t see myself as the safari-jacket type.

I thought finding a replacement backpack would be simple and was actually looking forward to shopping at Eastern Mountain Sports, where I had store credit. But everything they were selling seemed either too expensive or complicated, with inscrutable tabs and strings, levers and webbing, that undoubtedly would come in handy were one’s ambition to climb the world’s 14 highest peaks in quick succession. But that seemed excessive for a beach vacation.

And with the event fast approaching, there was no time to waste. I dropped by Modell’s on the Upper East Side and was pleasantly surprised to discover they had a vast assortment of backpacks that seemed aimed at the back-to-school set.

I vowed to return if necessary, but stopped at Paragon Sports after a meeting downtown. My heart was set on a simple, elegant North Face backpack, perhaps in black. I’d recently spotted one on the back of a construction worker heading for the subway.

At Paragon, I enlisted the expertise of a sales associate who told me that if affordability and simplicity were my goals I need look no further than a Jansport. I momentarily resisted her advice, considering the brand, well…

“Lame,” said my younger daughter, Gracie, later, articulating my reservations.

Her older sister, Lucy, disagreed. “It’s so hip because it’s so basic. It’s normcore.”

I was hitherto unfamiliar with the term. But it’s a fashion trend referring to people who make no effort to distinguish themselves by their clothing.

And the sales associate was right. The model, known as the “Big Student,” featured cushioned ergonomic shoulder straps, three major pockets, including one with an organizer for pens, glasses, etc. There were also two zippered stash pockets where I would be able to store things for easy accessibility, such as my passport and Ambien. And all for $46.

All that’s left is for me to transfer my handy and harmless lobster keychain bottle opener, purchased last summer on Martha’s Vineyard, from my old backpack to my new one.

Now, if I could just persuade the TSA that a Swiss Army knife isn’t a deadly weapon.

Mollusks and Me: Learning the Art of Eating Oysters

Ralph Gardner Jr. samples seven kinds of bivalves with Danny McDonald of Pier A Harbor House

Oysters at the Pier A Harbor House. ENLARGE
Oysters at the Pier A Harbor House.                            PHOTO: JOHN TAGGART FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Oysters occupy a peculiar place on my food pyramid. I like them as much as the next guy—well, almost as much—yet still consider them strange and borderline creepy.

Danny McDonald, one of the owners of Pier A Harbor House, a restaurant overlooking New York Harbor in Battery Park, may have verbalized my reservations as we sampled seven kinds of oysters one evening.

“These are some of the only things we eat live,” Mr. McDonald observed, as he slid one into his mouth. I believe it was oyster No. 4, a Tomahawk from Shinnecock Bay. “That’s an unusual concept.”

I’ll say. I frankly hadn’t considered oysters in that light before. In fact, I hadn’t given their life cycle much thought at all. Which is sort of how I approach oysters in general. When it comes to other food groups, steak and chicken, for example, there’s a lot of chewing and savoring going on.

But with oysters, I mostly just swallow, frightened by their “It’s alive!” texture. If an oyster suddenly raised its voice and started to plead for mercy, it wouldn’t totally surprise me.

So my purpose in visiting Pier A—the structure was built in the late 1800s for the city’s Department of Docks and Ferries and the Harbor Police, and reopened as a restaurant in November—was both to face my fears and to educate my palate.

Our first oyster was a local Blue Point that Mr. McDonald squeezed lemon on, as he did all our oysters. Other than that, we ate them straight. No cocktail sauce of any kind.

Danny McDonald takes a slurp. ENLARGE

The restaurateur, an Irishman who developed his love for oysters as a teenager in Galway, also paired each variety with a different beverage. In this case, it was a light and tasty pilsner-style beer from Brooklyn Long Hall.

“I find them briny,” he stated.

So did I.

“They say oysters are like tasting the sea,” he added.

Indeed, that’s what I love about oysters, too. At their freshest—and this oyster tasted as if it had been plucked from the ocean seconds earlier—the little fella is probably triggering some inaccessible part of the brain stem that remembers when we traded our flippers for feet.

Or not. In any case, tasty as it was, I resisted chewing.

Our next oyster was a Naked Cowboy from Long Island Sound. It was light, rich and minerally. And paired with Guinness.

Mr. McDonald is a true believer in “terroir” when it comes to bivalves. “I go by whether they’re good this week out of this particular sound,” or even a specific harbor, following their freshness up and down the East Coast and into Canada.

Our neighbor to the north is where oysters No. 4 and No. 5—a Hurricane Island and a Beausoleil, both from New Brunswick, hailed from; the former paired with a Sancerre, the latter with Piper-Heidsieck champagne.

“We just did a little traveling without having to leave our seats,” Mr. McDonald boasted.

The flavor notes he sent me later described the Hurricane Island as tender and crisp with seaweed aromas. The Beausoleil as gently flavored, refined and yeasty.

I agreed it tasted refined. Though frankly, if you hooked me up to a lie detector, I wouldn’t have been able to tell one from the other nor either from their American cousins.

All tasted great, however. And the setting didn’t hurt—overlooking New York Harbor at sunset. At the time Henry Hudson sailed up the river in 1609, it was home to some of the most prolific oyster beds on Earth.

“In 1872, there was more money spent on the consumption of oysters in New York City than all other food products combined,” Mr. McDonald reported. “New York, before it became the ‘Big Apple’ was the ‘Big Oyster.’ ”

That was before overfishing and pollution helped destroy this precious natural resource. Efforts are underway to repopulate the beds. But it will be years, if ever, before the results edible.

The only oyster we tried that tasted different to my uneducated palate, and slightly less spirited, was also our only West Coast oyster—a Kusshi from Vancouver Island. However, the Riesling that accompanied it made up for any deficiencies.

Two of the oyster selections at Pier A Harbor House.ENLARGE
Two of the oyster selections at Pier A Harbor House. PHOTO: JOHN TAGGART FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“The difference is the West Coast have a deep shell and a very milky finish to the oyster,” Mr. McDonald explained. “I do very little West Coast. Because of where we are, we should be celebrating the diversity of the East Coast.

“There’s a lot of similarity between the Irish west coast and American East Coast oyster,” he added as he recalled his single-sitting oyster consuming record.

An all-day affair, it occurred at a place called Moran’s Oyster Cottage on the Weir in Galway. He and a friend split 12 dozen oysters. “And 40 pints of Guinness,” he added.

Which raises the question of how well he could even taste the mollusks by the midpoint in their session.

Our final oyster, by the way, was a Wellfleet from Cape Cod, which Mr. McDonald described as the “quintessential oyster—meaty, briny.”

Wouldn’t any oyster by definition be briny?

In any case, its brininess was quickly washed back to sea with the help of an excellent gin martini.

Look, a New Seuss Book! Alas, No Hook

Ralph Gardner Jr. is unimpressed by ‘What Pet Should I Get?’

Dr. Seuss's ‘What Pet Should I Get?’ on display at a bookstore.ENLARGE
Dr. Seuss’s ‘What Pet Should I Get?’ on display at a bookstore. PHOTO: JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES

I say this with a heavy heart: “What Pet Should I Get?” the just-published work by Dr. Seuss, is a big disappointment. It should have remained in the box where it was rediscovered in 2013 by Audrey Geisel, the widow of Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) and Claudia Prescott,Mr. Geisel’s longtime assistant.

I’m a longtime fan of Dr. Seuss’s work, though saying you love Dr. Seuss is about as subversive as saying you love the Stars and Stripes or your mom’s cooking. Well, maybe not my mom’s cooking.

But subversiveness lies at the heart of the author’s work. It’s his great gift to 5-year-olds of all ages.

My introduction to Dr. Seuss came through “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.” If you’d asked me, I’d have guessed it happened when I was a toddler. However, I see it was published in 1960, when I would have been 7, and probably didn’t read the book until I was 8.

That suggests I was somewhat delayed since it was a beginner book designed to help pre-readers recognize words.

It did much more than that. In a world of plodding “Fun with Dick and Jane” books, which felt like a forced march, Dr. Seuss showed not only that reading can and should be fun, but also that life was filled with invention, humor and surprise, rhyme marshaled for a higher purpose.

There’s very little invention and surprise in “What Pet Should I Get,” and no higher purpose I can detect.

I much prefer to contemplate “Horton Hatches the Egg.” It’s all about stamina and dedication: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant… An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent!”

Or “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” which I still read to my kids, now in their 20s, every Christmas Eve: “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store.’ Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

And “Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose,” a previously unknown 1947 work, at least unknown to me, that I discovered as an adult on some dusty basement bookshelf and also read to my kids regularly as they were growing up.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, it concerns Thidwick, a kindly moose who allows all manner of fauna—a Bingle Bug, a Zinn-a-zu bird and his wife, and up the food chain to include a fox, a bear and a swarm of 362 bees—to take up residence in his antlers.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away at this late date to report that Thidwick, who comes under fire from hunters who want to mount his head at the Harvard Club, manages to survive.

Though his unappreciative guests don’t, ending up on the Harvard Club wall after something totally unexpected happens: “Today was the day, Thidwick happened to know… That OLD horns come off so that NEW ones can grow!”

You get the sense as you read along that Dr. Seuss was as charmed as anybody by the twists and turns his mind took.

Or in “Horton Hatches the Egg” where the elephant’s faith pays off and he unexpectedly hatches an elephant-bird. Or in “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” when “Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, Was singing! Without any presents at all!”

In “What Pet Should I Get?” Dr. Seuss seems to develop no rhythm or stumble across any revelations. In fact, in the book’s “Notes from the Publisher” afterword it’s hypothesized that the work might have evolved to become “One Fish Two Fish…” The little boy and girl who star in it are the same.

While “What Pet Should I Get?” feels like a hot-air balloon tethered to the ground, “One Fish Two Fish…” gets airborne in the opening sentence: “One fish two fish red fish blue fish. Black fish blue fish old fish new fish. This one has a little star. This one has a little car. Say! What a lot of fish there are.”

And, as opposed to the garden variety animals the kids encounter in “What Pet,” “One Fish Two Fish” introduces them to all manner of fantastical creatures: a seven-hump wump; a Zans who opens cans, a Gox who likes to box.

The publisher’s note in “What Pet Should I Get?” describes “One Fish Two Fish” as having “no real plot.”

I beg to differ. The plot is as majestic as the Himalayas.

Indeed, Dr. Seuss reinforces it every few pages, with a telling refrain, a veritable mantra that I’ve been leaning on since I was 8: “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

A Prescription for a Pharmaceutical Ad

The creative forces behind television ads for conditions like heartburn or a leaky bladder


Many things puzzle me about modern culture. But near the top of the list are TV pharmaceutical ads.

I suppose it suggests that I fall into a particular demographic—those whose bodies are breaking down—but the shows I watch are littered with them. For example, the nightly news.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if I’m a fan of ads addressing conditions such as high cholesterol, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), heartburn or a leaky bladder. The problem is you can’t avoid them. Or at least I can’t: I’m probably one of the few who still don’t have, or haven’t figured out how to access, my cable provider’s DVR recording feature.

There’s also something mesmerizing about the commercials. Not because they’re chock full of fun. Rare is the pharmaceutical ad that breaks new ground when it comes to comedy. (Though they happily lend themselves to parody.)

Some of their strange charisma stems from the fact that the action on the screen often seemingly has little if anything to do with the medication being sold. For example, hay fever sufferers hiking through a poppy field or riding a zip line. Or the COPD sufferer being trailed around her office by an elephant.

And then there are the never-ending erectile dysfunction ads. Viagra finally grabbed me with the spots of beautiful women in bed talking to me directly. But after all these years, I’m still trying to decipher the Cialis marketing strategy that believes it’s arousing to show couples in separate bathtubs.

And then there are the voice-overs—the pretty images of happy people frolicking in nature or socializing at backyard barbecues belied by disclaimers that the medication can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and worse.

What pharmaceutical industry lobbyist was asleep at the switch the day Congress passed that legislation?

I feel bad for my wife. Not because she suffers from any of the aforementioned conditions; fortunately she doesn’t. But because I’m relentlessly turning to her and asking, “What were they thinking?”

Seeking answers to the question, on a recent afternoon I visited Havas Worldwide, a leading ad agency on Hudson Street, and Tonic, their consumer health and wellness practice.

My goal was to try to gain any insight into the creative process behind the TV commercials that haunt my waking hours.

Confidentiality prevented the ad executives from discussing most of their current clients by name, and perhaps professional courtesy from unloading on their competitors. However, they shared some of the considerations and restrictions—aesthetic, medical and legal—they labor under.

“They approve everything,” Katie Rogin, managing director, strategic planning, explained. She was referring to the FDA’s Office of Prescription Drug Promotion.

Managing director Paul Klein also made the point that sufferers of a particular malady may react more positively to an ad addressing their condition than others free of that disease.

Nonetheless, whether the topic is erectile dysfunction, genital herpes or asthma, the ad must be crafted in a way that sells but doesn’t oversell the product, transmits necessary information about the medication and its side effects, while somehow remaining life-affirming.

By way of example, they screened an ad for me they’d done for an overactive-bladder medication called VESIcare. I remembered it well because it was one of those that managed to push my buttons as I sat there with cocktail in hand waiting for the news to return and left me simultaneously baffled and annoyed.

The animated ad shows several women doing what women, whether incontinent or not, apparently like to do when they get together—go shoe shopping, walk their dogs, hang out by the swimming pool—except that in this case the ladies are made of plumbing equipment.

“We all have internal plumbing,” the voice-over begins. “But for some of us with overactive bladder, our pipes don’t work as well as they should. Sometimes I worry my pipes might leak.” At that point, one of the pipe women demurely raises a hand to her mouth.

Ms. Rogin put the challenge they faced in creating the ad this way: “How do you motivate people to talk about a condition they’re ashamed of?”

The answer, apparently, is that you perform voluminous amounts of market research and assemble focus groups the results of which, including pie charts, the team projected onto a screen at the front of the conference room for me to see.

The goal, explained managing director Phil Silvestri, Tonic’s chief creative officer, was to “try to create a lexicon. We got to ‘Just fix it.’ It’s a plumbing problem.”

Hence the pipe people walking pipe dogs.

No need to get too graphic or even reference the term “bathroom mapping.” Some people’s faucets leak. No big deal.

“We turned the problem into a fixable problem,” Mr. Silvestri boasted.

Perhaps just as importantly, “It passed legal,” Mr. Klein added.

MoMA Classes About Art—and Community

‘In the Making’ lets students learn by working with professional artists

Jaimie Warren works with students in MoMA’s ‘In the Making’ program.ENLARGE
Jaimie Warren works with students in MoMA’s ‘In the Making’ program. PHOTO:KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I experienced an epiphany—an extremely small epiphany, but an epiphany nonetheless—as I watched Keith Mendak lead an art class for New York City high-school students at the Museum of Modern Art.

It was part of “In the Making,” free, hands-on art classes taught by working artists, that meet at the museum over six weeks, three days a week, in July and August.

The reason I’m totally inept when it comes to home improvement—I parade around like a conquering hero on the rare occasions when I manage to hammer a nail straight—is because I hated shop.

And the reason I hated shop is because it was no fun. We made boring things like birdhouses. And if we tried to alleviate the boredom by talking to each other our shop teacher would slap us with 500-word essays about why we shouldn’t talk in class.

Artist Keith Mendak teaches students to plaster bicycle parts as part of his sculpture class, ‘You Think This is a Game?’ENLARGE
Artist Keith Mendak teaches students to plaster bicycle parts as part of his sculpture class, ‘You Think This is a Game?’ PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

If Mr. Mendak, a mixed-media sculptor, had been my teacher back then, who knows what heights I’d have scaled. I might have built my own house, and not just a birdhouse, by now.

On the afternoon of my visit, he was teaching about 20 students how to make a sculpture of a bicycle by taking an actual bike and creating a mold of it using plaster cloth and something called Plasti-Paste.

“I call this lesson ‘Tour de MoMA’ ” Mr. Mendak stated, alluding to the Tour de France that happened to be in progress that week.

As cool as the class is, the venue is even cooler. The program, which accepts 100 students from the city’s public and private schools and culminates in a teen art show, is held in MoMA’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building.

Indeed, the courses are conducted directly below the museum’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, filled on that afternoon with visitors and works by the likes of Calder and Picasso.

MoMA’s Calder Zwicky.ENLARGE

“I have a badge and I flash it,” joked 16-year-oldChelsea Arenas, a student at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, as she pointed to an official-looking piece of plastic hanging around her neck. “I didn’t know we got badges.”

Calder Zwicky, MoMA’s assistant director of Teen and Community Partnerships, said museum visitors can travel between Monet’s “Water Lilies” or Jackson Pollock’s “One: Number 31, 1950” and the student art show, which opens on Aug. 14.

“You can walk in through the museum and sculpture garden,” he explained. “It’s a way to bring young people’s art into contact with the general public.”

He went on: “A lot come from the public school system with very little hands-on art-making experience. A lot express that they feel creative. They want to be artistic. But don’t have the opportunity in their school.

“With the state of arts education,” he added, “we run the risk of losing an entire generation of artists.”

Students learn to make scary effects using household items in Ms. Warren's class, ‘Jaimie Warren's House of Horrors.’ENLARGE
Students learn to make scary effects using household items in Ms. Warren’s class, ‘Jaimie Warren’s House of Horrors.’ PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Not if Jaimie Warren has anything to say about it. Ms. Warren, a photographer and performance artist, was leading her own art class next door to Mr. Mendak’s. Called “Jaimie Warren’s House of Horrors,” and exploring “the boundaries of performance, video and good taste,” it also looked way more fun than anything I ever experienced in shop.

I don’t remember my shop teacher dressing up like Freddy Kruegerwith his flesh flaking off, as Ms. Warren had. “We’ve made homemade gak with Elmer’s Glue and Borax,” she reported.

She was referring to a greenish glop that would reasonably be expected to ooze from any 1980s “B” horror-movie corpse, the genre favored in Ms. Warren’s own energetically repulsive work.

“Do you want to add the jelly and see if it helps?” she asked 14-year-old Savannah Ingram, who seemed in need of moral monster-making support.

“I didn’t put enough flour in there,” Ms. Ingram said.

“But it looks really good,” Mr. Warren said encouragingly, of her student’s manufactured entrails.

“We did a little painting exercise to match the color of their skin,” the artist told me. “This is part 2. We’re going to make an animated GIF, a stop-motion piece,” incorporating, if I understood correctly, two types of blood and three types of guts.

The ultimate value of “In The Making,” and studying at MoMA, may not come from students knowing how to turn their old bikes into sculpture, or knocking next Halloween’s costumes out of the park, but in the students discovering others who share the creative impulse.

“We did a survey a couple of years ago about why teens were taking our courses,” Mr. Zwicky said. “It wasn’t for specific art making, or the museum. It was to find a new community.”

And while MoMA might serve mainly as a backdrop, there is something to be said—perhaps even something life-changing—for coming to feel at home at one the city’s premiere cultural institutions.

And being able to return for free. Students get a batch of family passes. And Mr. Zwicky reported that those laminated ID cards don’t expire until 2016.

Beyond Bid Calling: The Amazing Tales of a Top Auctioneer

Arlan Ettinger of Guernsey’s specializes in attention-getting sales

Arlan Ettinger leads the auction house Guernsey’s. ENLARGE
Arlan Ettinger leads the auction house Guernsey’s. PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

It must have been five minutes—no, make that one minute—into Arlan Ettinger’s tale of how he auctioned off the contents of the SS United States, the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic, that I realized the head of Guernsey’s auction house warranted more newsprint than I could give him on that occasion.

I met him in March at Urban Archaeology in Tribeca, where he was helping store owner Gil Shapiro ready such items as wrought-iron gothic gates from St. Patrick’s Cathedral and a 10-foot-high clock from the Troy, N.Y., train station to go on the auction block.

Mr. Shapiro, not Mr. Ettinger, was the reason for my visit. But Mr. Shapiro suggested that his friend’s career was at least as fascinating as his and that I should talk to Mr. Ettinger while he vanished to make a few phone calls.

Before I knew it, Mr. Ettinger was telling me how he’d hired 200 convicts from a halfway house in Norfolk, Va., to catalog the SS United States over seven consecutive days in 120-degree heat.

“ ‘You must be out of your mind: These people were in jail for theft,’ ” Mr. Ettinger said people told him. “ ‘You’re not going to have two spoons left.’ ”

Which would have been saying something because, before I stopped him, Mr. Ettinger was well on his way to providing me with an inventory of the ship’s contents. “There was a 26-piece place set for every passenger,” he explained. “And there was a 3,000-passenger capacity.”

That’s a lot of teaspoons.

“It stands to this day as the world’s largest auction,” he said.

A gold chalice recovered from a 1622 shipwreck will be offered at another attention-getting sale. ENLARGE
A gold chalice recovered from a 1622 shipwreck will be offered at another attention-getting sale. PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I reconnected with Mr. Ettinger last week at Guernsey’s offices in an East 93rd Street townhouse. He was gearing up for a typical attention-getting sale. This one on Wednesday from another vessel, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. It sunk off the Florida Keys in 1622 along with more than 40 tons of gold and silver, as well as more than 100,000 pieces of eight (Spanish dollars) and Colombian emeralds. It was discovered in 1985 by American treasure hunter Mel Fisher.

Sales that spark the public imagination are Mr. Ettinger’s specialty. Other auctions you may recollect include the 2002 sale of Jerry Garcia’s guitars; some of Princess Diana’s jewelry in 1999; the 2003 Mickey Mantle auction, including his rookie year contract and 1962 World Series ring; and a JFK auction that included the sailboat that the 35th president raced in Hyannis Port as a teenager, the Flash II.

Mr. Ettinger is a more-than-decent storyteller and each of the aforementioned auctions, and how they developed, came with a tale at least as good as the one about the SS United States and the 200 convicts.

Working with the prisoners, by the way, seems to have changed the auctioneer’s subsequent attitudes toward incarceration.

“They did a wonderful job,” he remembered. “How many must have been railroaded?”

Mr. Ettinger, 70 years old, grew up in Peter Cooper Village. As a child, he sailed toy boats on Central Park’s Conservatory Water. There, he met a talented adult model boat builder, who taught him how to make his own boat; the man came from the Isle of Guernsey.

“It became a romantic vision for me,” he said.

Mr. Ettinger got his start in advertising, then brought the techniques of Madison Avenue to the heretofore staid, upper-crust auction business, dominated by the likes of Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

His breakthrough came in 1983, when he was approached by a man who wanted to sell his collection of 90 antique carousel animals to raise $30,000 to pay for his daughter’s hospital bills.

“It would a stretch for them to bring $300 each,” Mr. Ettinger remembered.

The auctioneer did some research and discovered the animals were made by master carvers who emigrated from Europe at the turn of the 20th century. But instead of placing ads in upscale magazines, as the major auction houses usually did, Mr. Ettinger approached NBC’s “Today” show.

“If you could get the media interested you could reach a much broader audience,” he reasoned. “We lugged four or five carousel [animals] onto the set. That auction brought $1 million.”

Mr. Ettinger had similarly picturesque stories about tracking down a rare Maserati racing car in the Deep South, though for personal use; selling Mark McGwire’s 70th home run ball for $3 million; and beating Christie’s and Sotheby’s for the right to hold the Jerry Garcia guitar auction.

“I knew about the passion Grateful Dead fans had for Jerry Garcia and I felt the media would respond well,” Mr. Ettinger recalled. The atmosphere at the sale, held at Studio 54, resembled a festive Dead concert and everything that implies.

Needless to say, the auction did very well.

A Night in the Great Outdoors

Man-eating mosquitoes? Bears looking for a bed? Singing bullfrogs? A night in a treehouse is fraught with fears


If my writing sounds groggy, there’s a reason. I spent the night outdoors.

I hadn’t locked myself out of the house. My wife hadn’t kicked me out, either. It was more or less voluntary.

A few weeks ago my older daughter, Lucy, decided our treehouse could double as an outdoor bedroom. It’s not really a treehouse as much as a platform in the woods, about 100 yards from the house, and suspended among several trees.

I suspect the back-to-nature impetus was Botswana, where the family went on safari in April. On that occasion we slept in tents. But they were tents in name only. While made of canvas, they were the size and included the accouterments of a luxury condo.

Nonetheless, the experience planted the seed of sleeping in the wild.

Of course, there are differences between the Hudson Valley and the Okavango Delta. In our section of New York state you don’t have to worry about being devoured by a lion or stampeded by a surly hippo. On the other hand, our African tent came with indoor and outdoor showers and a roof to protect against the elements. The treehouse didn’t.

Lucy borrowed my credit card almost as soon as we returned and went on safari at Lowe’s and Wal-Mart. She bagged a queen-size air mattress and a battery-powered pump to inflate it. Online, she purchased mosquito netting that she resourcefully suspended from a steel wire she’d run between two of the trees.

There’s something to be said for sleeping under the stars. Unless it starts to rain.

Nonetheless, Lucy and her younger sister, Gracie, managed to spend several nights in the treehouse and return the next morning not only alive, but elated.

I remained dubious. I have enough trouble sleeping indoors. What made me think that spending the night in nature, among creepy crawlers and mysterious noises that could be anything from grazing deer to escaped convicts, would be more restful?

Also, my children are young and spit in the eye of discomfort. I long ago came to appreciate the virtues of indoor plumbing.

Plus, even in my youth I wasn’t especially good at camping, rarely roaming out of reach of my car, and sometimes sleeping in it if things got challenging.

But it’s hard to look yourself in the face knowing there’s a bed in the woods with your name on it that you haven’t tried.

So I did.

The forecast predicted zero rain with temperatures dipping no lower than the mid-60s.

The rest of the family had returned to the city, except for the dog. Which was probably both good and bad. On the one hand, I’d have the treehouse and air mattress all to myself. On the other, if I fell down its ladder while trying to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I’d be out of luck.

My main concern, after successfully managing to inflate the mattress in the late afternoon, was arranging the mosquito netting. I spent an undue amount of time doing so.

While it seems to work in Africa as a bulwark against malaria, I had my doubts about it succeeding at our place, where the insects are among the most plentiful, exotic and ferocious I’ve encountered.

I returned after dark, reluctantly tearing myself away from Netflix, and leaving the dog behind. I’d certainly get no sleep if she was running back and forth beneath the treehouse all night trying to figure out where I’d gone. And I wasn’t going to share the air mattress with her. Besides, how do you get a 60-pound pup up a steep ladder?

I came equipped with enough lighting for a major-league night game—flashlight, Coleman lantern and headlamp. Plus, my cellphone with its flashlight app.

I had mixed feelings about bringing the phone while roughing it. But I figured it could prove helpful to check the time or weather, or in case of emergencies. Such as if a bear tried to climb into bed with me.

That didn’t happen. The greatest impediment to sound sleep, besides my fears that man-eating mosquitoes would discover a breach in my netting’s defenses, were the bullfrogs in the pond the treehouse overlooks.

I became something of a student of their 3 a.m. vocalizations, even mistaking them for the dog barking violently back in the house, and on one occasion, for human voices.

Then again, the dog may well have been barking all night and trespassers trolling our woods.

But I doubt it.

Around 5 a.m. the frogs finally grew quiet, replaced by the chatter of birds, and the first strains of sunlight. Only one mosquito made it through the barricades, but I managed to thwart him by hiding under the covers and surprised myself by falling back to sleep.

When I returned to the house around 7:30 a.m. I startled the sleeping dog. She’d apparently decided I was never coming home and took advantage of my absence by commandeering a bed.

She probably had a better night’s sleep than I did.