Hanging With Pro Tennis Players—of the Past

Ralph Gardner Jr. hits the players lounge at the U.S. Open

Former tennis pros Gene Mayer, left, and John Lloyd in the players dining room at the U.S. Open.ENLARGE
Former tennis pros Gene Mayer, left, and John Lloyd in the players dining room at the U.S. Open. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Peter Bodo, tennis writer par excellence and an old friend, was looking around the players lounge at the U.S. Open Tuesday afternoon trying to find any players who looked familiar.

“I recognize a couple of faces,” he said. “You recognize the type. If they’re under 25, blond and with a French braid, it’s a player.”

Typically female.

The males tend to be well over 6-feet tall, with zero percent body fat and the kind of profound tans that come from pounding tennis balls all day all summer long under the hot sun.

“Every year it becomes much less exclusive,” Mr. Bodo added, of the population that rates tournament credentials. “There’s 128 players in each singles draw. They have coaches; they have friends; they have parents.”

I also spotted at least one baby in a stroller.

Less exclusive, perhaps, but still exclusive enough for me.

I’m frankly unsure what my fascination is with the players lounge at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open is unfolding this week.

Gene Mayer on the court in 1981.ENLARGE
Gene Mayer on the court in 1981. PHOTO: DENVER POST VIA GETTY IMAGES

I suspect it dates back to Forest Hills and the West Side Tennis Club, which hosted the U.S. Open until 1977. I recall walking into the clubhouse as a fan and seeing star players draped across the couches. There was a charming, homey intimacy to the place, not that you’d ever approach tennis greats for an autograph.

However, the U.S. Open today is anything but intimate, and becoming less so every year. I suppose venturing into the players lounge—where the media are allowed—is an attempt to recapture some of that spirit of old.

Not that you’re likely to see Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic napping on the sofas or taking on challengers at one of the two foosball tables.

“The first week the players lounge is like junior heaven,” Mr. Bodo explained, still looking around for a familiar face. “They’ve got nothing else to do. They lounge around on the sofas all day and play with their video devices.

“If it’s a middle-aged guy in a track suit it’s a trainer,” Mr. Bodo—the author most recently of “Ashe vs. Connors: Wimbledon 1975: Tennis that went beyond centre court”—went on. “It used to be you could tell the Eastern Europeans. They had shiny track suits and plastic shoes. But that was the old days. Everybody is styling now. The sport’s been pretty upscale.”

We made our way into the dining room, a large, crowded cafeteria with tables and banquettes overlooking the practice courts where Mr. Bodo identified Riley Opelka, a 6-foot-10-inch junior who serves the ball in the mid-130s. Mr. Opelka was checking out the salad bar.

Writer Peter Bodo in the players lounge at the U.S. Open.ENLARGE
Writer Peter Bodo in the players lounge at the U.S. Open. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

While I’d never heard of him, I had heard of John Lloyd and Gene Mayer, players from the golden Connors-Borg-McEnroe era. They hailed Mr. Bodo.

Mr. Mayer reached No. 4 in the world in 1980; Mr. Lloyd, a British former player and a sports commentator who lost the 1977 Australian Open final to Vitas Gerulaitis, may be best known in the U.S. as Chris Evert’s first husband.

“I play tennis with wealthy clients in Palm Beach,” Mr. Lloyd reported as he pointed to knees that bore the scars of surgery. “We only play on clay. I make them do the running.”

José Higueras, a Spanish clay court specialist from their era, who helped coach Michael Chang to the 1989 French Open title, dropped by to chat. Mr. Lloyd admired his flat belly as well as his healthy knees.

“Everybody is getting hip and knee replacements,” Mr. Mayer said.

After Mr. Higueras departed, the other pros launched into a lament about how little tennis history today’s younger players know.

“With the coming of big money, things have been totally transformed,” Mr. Mayer observed.

John Lloyd in 1982.ENLARGE

Inevitably, this caused the gentlemen to reminisce fondly about the time before big money. “They’d pay you £200 under the table,” Mr. Lloyd said of some tournaments, where he’d supplement his income by playing cards in the clubhouse. “ ‘Lloyd, you’re on court now,’ ” he was told, responding, “ ‘There’s more money in the pot than I’m getting. You have to wait.’ ”

They also marveled at the superior condition of today’s athletes. “ Björn Borg told me he never stretched once in his life,” Mr. Lloyd said.

I brought up the Forest Hills club house, which led to a story about a dust-up involving Romanian Ilie Năstase, one of the top players of the ’70s, who had a talent for getting under opponents’ skin.

“I saw two players get him up against the wall with their fists cocked,” Mr. Lloyd recalled. “We all sat around pretending we were fixing our grips.”

The combatants were separated, Mr. Lloyd recalled, by Mr. Năstase’s Italian bodyguard, who apparently existed for that purpose.

Messrs. Mayer and Lloyd agreed that if current Australian player Nick Kyrios, who recently trash-talked about the girlfriend of opponent Stan Wawrinka during their match, had been playing in their era, there would have been “none of this stuff about tweeting and fines,” Mr. Lloyd said.

“You’d have sorted it out in the locker room.”

TV News Pioneer, at 91, Has Stories to Tell

Gabe Pressman, one of the country’s first TV news reporters in the 1950s, is still churning out pieces

Gabe Pressman at his home in Manhattan.ENLARGE
Gabe Pressman at his home in Manhattan. PHOTO: AGATON STROM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

At 91-years-old, Gabe Pressman isn’t quite as nimble as he was when he became one of America’s first TV news reporters in the 1950s. But when he arose to address his fellow New York Press Club members at their annual awards ceremony in June, his admonition to jealously guard the freedom of the press was as full-throated as ever.

“I think I’m sort of a nut job on the First Amendment,” he admitted when we got together at his Central Park West apartment last week.

“I probably said something about de Blasio’s attitude towards the press,” he added. “Which I felt was quite restrictive at the time.”

Mr. Pressman’s message to his colleagues was never to fear speaking truth to power. “If the press doesn’t stand up for that, no one else will,” he said. “It’s unusual for anyone in authority to stick up for the press. We have to do it for ourselves.”

Mr. Pressman has been doing so at least since he went to work for the New York World-Telegram newspaper in 1949, becoming its City Hall reporter.

Actually, his career dates back even further. As a 9-year-old growing up in the Bronx, he produced a family tabloid distributed at his grandparents’ Friday-night Sabbath dinners. “I put out ‘The Hot News’,” Mr. Pressman remembered. “ ‘Cousin Teddy Cuts First Tooth.’ ‘Grandma Makes Sponge Cake: She uses real sponges.’ ”

In 1954 Mr. Pressman moved from print to radio and to WRCA, the predecessor of WNBC. There were two stations with the same call letters, one radio, the other TV. Television news was still in its infancy, the day’s news delivered by what Mr. Pressman described as “Golden Voices” from the age of radio.

“It was very dull,” he recalled.

His radio work “quickly transitioned into TV.”

“I felt it was important I run around town and cover as many stories as possible,” he said. “A lumberyard fire in Teaneck at 6 o’clock. City Hall at noon. A homicide in Brooklyn.”

Mr. Pressman has covered 10 New York City mayors, among his favorites Robert F. Wagner Jr., though perhaps for somewhat selfish reasons. “In the beginning when I was trying to bring a microphone into City Hall some [print journalists] were pretty nasty.

“Wagner said, ‘Gabe can bring a microphone into any press conference I have.’ He established a precedent.”

Gabe Pressman in a photo holds a microphone near Marilyn Monroe. ENLARGE
Gabe Pressman in a photo holds a microphone near Marilyn Monroe. PHOTO: AGATON STROM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mr. Pressman has been at WNBC ever since (with the exception of 1972-79 when he worked for WNEW—now WNYW). He still works there, has an office at 30 Rock, and does neighborhood profiles, from the Garment District to City Island, that air regularly.

“Part of my effort,” he explained in an email, “to brainwash my fellow journalists into doing more human-interest stories about the people we serve.”

To give a sense of how often Mr. Pressman has been witness to history, he neglected to mention he’d interviewed the Beatles on their first trip to New York.

I discovered the fact when I found a 1964 clip on YouTube of a back-and-forth between him and Paul McCartney outside the Plaza Hotel. The clip was part of a 90th birthday tribute to Mr. Pressman from the Inner Circle, a parody group started by City Hall reporters. Mr. Pressman has performed in its skits over the years, occasionally portraying men of the cloth, such as Cardinal John O’Connor.

“I’ve been cast in many non-Jewish roles,” he reported. “It felt good to wear those robes.”

But about the Beatles.

Mr. Pressman: “What place do you think this story of the Beatles is going to have on the history of Western culture?”

Mr. McCartney: “You must be kidding with that question. Culture. It’s not culture.”

Mr. Pressman: “What is it?”

Mr. McCartney: “It’s a good laugh.”

He also covered Fidel Castro, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Woodstock. “The desk didn’t want to send me. I campaigned for two days to get there.”

And former President Harry Truman, when he regularly visited New York after his presidency during the ’50s, stayed at the Carlyle Hotel, and emerged at precisely 7:20 a.m. for his morning constitutional up Park Avenue with a gaggle of reporters in tow.

“He loved the whole experience,” Mr. Pressman remembered. “He’d stop at every streetlight and say, ‘Boys, you have to respect the light.’ And taxi drivers would say, ‘Hey, Harry!’ He had a great appreciation for people.”

A hallway in the apartment Mr. Pressman shares with his wife, Vera—they have one child, Michael, 31, and Mr. Pressman has three older children from a previous marriage—is filled with photos and memorabilia.

They include a handwritten note from former President George H.W. Bush when he served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

Both he and Mr. Pressman were named to a 1972 New York magazine list of “The Ten Most Overrated Men in New York.”

“I was lucky,” the future president wrote. “But you earned it.”

Ambassador Bush and his wife, Barbara, invited everybody on the list to a cocktail party at their suite at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

“We all showed up except Javits,” Mr. Pressman recalled, referring to the late U.S. Sen. Jacob Javits. “He didn’t have a sense of humor.”

My Ping-Pong Paddling by Tennis Star Rafael Nadal

Columnist Ralph Gardner Jr. got a little advice on his game from Swedish table-tennis champion Malin Pettersson

(See Video:  http://www.wsj.com/articles/my-ping-pong-paddling-by-tennis-star-rafael-nadal-1440982530?tesla=y)

14-time tennis Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal also knows his way around a ping pong table. Watch as he and Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach, play ping pong against WSJ’s Ralph Gardner Jr. and table tennis champion Malin Pettersson. Photo: Peter Foley

There is little chance I could win a point off Rafael Nadal in tennis. He’s a 14-time Grand Slam tennis champion, even though he’s in something of a slump at the moment, entering this week’s U.S. Open seeded eighth.

But it turns out that in ping pong, where we faced off against each other Thursday evening in the courtyard of the New York Palace hotel, we’re somewhat more evenly matched.

“Sometimes in tennis tournaments we have ping-pong tables in the players lounge,” he explained. “And when I was a kid, we were always playing.”

The beauty of ping pong, unlike tennis, is that you can quickly develop the unwarranted belief that you’re talented.

“It’s not very difficult at the beginning to hit the ball,” Mr. Nadal agreed. “That’s why everybody thinks they can play well at the beginning. But when you play with somebody that really practices it’s impossible.”

That’s also true.

When I was invited to play against Mr. Nadal, known as “Rafa”—the event was a cocktail party in the tennis star’s honor—I decided it might be wise to take a lesson first to reduce the potential for humiliation.

I was pretty good on the resort hotel circuit when I was 12. But that was about a half-century ago, and I haven’t played much, or at all, since.

So I called up SPiN, a ping-pong club in Chelsea.

The club courteously arranged to have Malin Pettersson, a 14-time Swedish table tennis champion, give me a lesson.

Ms. Pettersson said she quickly disabuses SPiN’s patrons, men in particular, of the notion they can defeat her. “I’m sure Nadal would think he could beat me,” the ping-pong champ boasted. “No way.”

SPiN, in the basement of a building on East 23rd Street, has a bar, lots of couches and, happily, ball boys who scooped up the results of my errant shots with equipment resembling the fishing nets that children use to catch crabs at the beach.

I played three games with Ms. Pettersson, who informed me that games these days are to 11 points rather than to 21 as they were in my era—and even took a few points off her. But that’s only because she was humoring me.

When I asked her to play as she would against a professional opponent, there was so much spin and placement on the projectile I couldn’t do much except watch it fly by.

She offered to accompany me to my match against Mr. Nadal. I agreed knowing I could use all the moral support I could get. Also, it would be cool showing us with a 14-time Swedish ping-pong champion in tow.

When the organizers heard I was traveling with a posse, they thought it would be fun if Ms. Pettersson and I played doubles against Rafa and Toni Nadal, his coach and uncle.

Rafael Nadal and Ralph Gardner Jr. after facing off in table tennis.ENLARGE
Rafael Nadal and Ralph Gardner Jr. after facing off in table tennis. PHOTO: PETER FOLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

It was a wise move. Because if I’d had to face Rafa alone—as pleasant and even self-effacing as he seemed to be—he’d probably have died of boredom. Toni Nadal also appreciated the human backboard that Ms. Petersson provided for his shots.

Also, I’m not used to performing in front of crowds, in ping pong or anything else.

And there were at least a couple of hundred people clicking photographs of the tennis star and Tommy Hilfiger underwear model on their cellphones, as waiters served pigs in blankets on trays decorated with sneakers and tennis ball-shaped cake lollipops.

Toni Nadal, astute coach that he is, quickly perceived my lack of talent—it helped his diagnosis that I frequently whiffed the ball, though I attribute that to nerves—and compassionately suggested we warm up together while Rafa and Ms. Pettersson did the same, as if we were preparing to play a doubles tennis match.

I’m relieved to report that while Rafael Nadal is one of the greatest clay-court tennis players in history, that talent doesn’t totally translate to a ping-pong table. “Not at all,” Rafa admitted.

Ms. Pettersson described his ping-pong game as cautious.

However, the tennis great said, “I always believed that practicing as many sports as you can helps to become a better sportsman in general. So I was playing football when I was a kid; ping pong the same.”

I even managed to get off a couple of smashes at the champ’s expense, even though we didn’t keep score. That helped calm my nerves, redeem a speck of self-esteem and, most important of all, will allow me to boast in perpetuity that I won two points against Rafael Nadal. Though not in his best sport.

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.