Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Highlight reel

When you’re at the top of your game and in a class of your own, there are more than enough people waiting for you to fail. This theory transcends sports, where certain dynastic teams and even star players are so unabashedly loathed that a good deal of fans will even cheer at the first sight of cracks forming in their seemingly impenetrable shield of success. In fact, this is the very nature of sport, where the act of succeeding is only fun when you’re among those looking down from the top.

So the doom-and-gloom propagated by the media Tuesday came as little surprise after the New York Racing Association announced the lacking attendance figures at the Saratoga Race Course. Of course, most cognizant viewers and readers realize this abrupt downtrend in racing fans was a product of the bombshell laid on opening day last week, when Mother Nature threatened to turn the grandstand into a makeshift Noah’s Ark for the rich.

All this was followed with a weekend forecast that seemed to mimic the Weather Channel’s recent series on tropical storms. Those who booked their trips in advance plodded through the thundershowers, which all but ruined the city’s Hat’s Off celebration on Saturday. Regional track goers did what they always do when the weather looks dreary: They stayed home. With six weeks of track season, anyone within a 30-mile radius of Saratoga Springs can readily make plans to go another weekend.

“We came into the 2008 Saratoga meet knowing that the economy, gas prices and a particularly early start in July would result in business declines compared to a record 2007,” explained NYRA President Charles Hayward. “But ultimately, we’re more dependent on the weather than anything.”

Naturally, there were a few fear-mongers in the media that picked up these less-than-reassuring words and ran with them. Unfortunately, one of these fear mongers was ESPN Network columnist Paul Moran, who lambasted the slow start and offered it as evidence of Saratoga’s impending demise.

“Wet weather during the meeting's first week is partly to blame for the pronounced if not troubling slump in betting and attendance but nature is not the only force at work here,” he wrote in the column published Tuesday. “The public response to the $7.50 can of beer, $12 martini, $15 glass of wine, $45 steak, the $450-a-day six-seat box, $10 on-track parking and $500-a-night no-star hotel room may be the indicators that summer in Saratoga has reached critical mass.”

Saratoga has reached critical mass? Well then that explains the ceaseless procession of new restaurants and hotels that seem to be showing up in any corner where the city allows them. That must also explain the state’s recent multi-million dollar commitment to expand the City Center and the millions NYRA recently plunged into improvements at the track. Yes Paul, it sure does look like Saratoga Springs is about to enter a long depression. Maybe that explains why developers are willing to build $500,000 condominiums that overlook Congress Park.

True, the Spa City is not immune to the economic downtrend that is about to wreck havoc on the upstate economy. But Saratoga summers have been one of the state’s top draws, excluding the more internationally recognized icons of New York City and Niagra Falls. Saratoga lies on a major rail corridor, within a short distance of an international airport and within an easy commute of the state capital. So it’s tough to say “[t]he party, if not quite over, is muted” with a straight face, especially if you’ve driven through the Capital Region’s other failing cities.

Moran’s other point about price gouging is a bit more credible, but not by much. When downtown was struggling to reinvent itself in the 1960s and 1970s, the only real way to capitalize on the track’s success was to lure business with the attractive prices of upstate New York; cheap food, cheap beer, cheap property, cheap women, cheap everything. Back then, the New York City dollar was worth three times as much in the Spa City. And it remained that way well into the 1990s, when the rebirth was complete and Saratoga emerged triumphantly from its fiery ashes.

By the turn of the real estate boom, the city had become so vogue that it’s downtown buildings were being valued at more than 10 times what many owners had paid for them. Rents went up and they were soon followed by prices and expectations. No longer was the standard steak-and-burger place welcome on Broadway, or any other street for that matter. The nouveau riche born out of the mortgage business windfall started demanding the same type of standards they enjoyed in the cosmopolitan areas of the country; designer martinis, chic accommodations, artisan menus and so on.

But these same ingrates haven’t raised their price expectations. They still think the pursuit of this living downtown will run them the same as it did three decades ago. Here in lies Moran’s quandary.

The truth is Saratoga is every bit as affordable as it once was. The only difference is that the high society living is once again being confined to those plutocrats who can afford it. The rest of us plebeians must forgo the Godiva Chocolate martinis, the 14-ounce Black Angus filet mignon and a chauffeured ride from the luxury suites overlooking the city.

That’s alright though. Procuring a dozen cold bottles of John K. Labatt’s finest blue label beer at the corner A-Plus costs a whopping $9.99, just $2 more than it did during racing season 15 years ago. There’s no need to fork over a Hamilton for parking, when the city is teaming with side streets where the parking is free and the walk to the track is pleasant. Instead of squandering $45 on a char-grilled steak downtown, the money could easily be invested in small hibachi, a side of cow and all the other accoutrements for a good ol’ fashion barbeque.

This is simple living cut from the opulence of Whitney galas and Ferraris, but it’s every bit as enjoyable. In fact, the editorial staff here at iSaratoga has found this sort of living more fulfilling than any drag through the highfalutin times of the rich. Perhaps it’s something Moran should take into account before his next column cheering for the demise of Saratoga.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Even in the go-go times of this cybernetic century, it’s difficult to represent your election district’s interest in a political party when your primary residence is more than 200 miles away. It’s also difficult to form an objective opinion about the inner workings of your party when you can only attend a small number of their meetings that happen to fall in between mid-terms, keg parties and on school breaks.

This reasoning hasn’t stopped the so-called “Democrats for Change” movement in the mule party from offering a pair of out-of-region college students as viable candidates to lead the city committee. The candidates –Ariana Vacs Renwick and David Lombardo –will be vying for the two seats in the city’s 25th election district during September’s democratic primary. While it’s easy to overlook their young age –a sophomore and senior in college –it’s a bit more difficult to fathom how they’ll return to the area for meetings when they’re coming from New Hampshire and Geneseo respectively.

Even more interesting is the fact that Lombardo is none other than the progeny of recalcitrant Saratogian editor Barbara Lombardo. As some may recall, the elder Lombardo was behind the newspaper’s endorsement for Keehn in the run up to the 2007 election. Can you say quid pro quo?

Conspiracy theories aside, the Democrats for Change slate of candidates reads more like a roster for the Valerie Keehn Booster Club than a viable direction to steer the party. It’s no bother for Shawn Thompson, the conductor of this out-of-tune orchestra, who doesn’t necessarily need committee members that will think, vote along the lines of their constituents or even attend meetings. He needs folks that are going to represent Shawn Thompson. And what could be better than a pair of wet-behind-the-ears rubes lackeys who are unlikely attend many party meetings?

As many know, Thompson is the commander in chief of a coup that is threatening to sweep through the city Democratic Committee. Already, Thompson’s splinter has been directly responsible for prompting two mayoral primaries and another for city court judge. This year, he’s waging an all-out primary battle to claim 24 out of 25 election districts in Saratoga Springs. The idea is to stock the committee with a majority of loyalists and shadow committee members so he can dictate a field a full slate of “Democrats for Change” candidates before the 2009 election.

Their mantra is fairly simple: Either you’re one of us, or you’re against us. If you happen to be among the latter of these two categories, you might as well have a bull’s eye painted on your forehead. This is likely why the “opponents” tab on this group’s Web site remains conspicuously empty. They’re going to need to upgrade their storage capacity to simply list all these names.

Of course, he isn’t getting much help in this quest from the one member of his group now in office. Characterizing Public Drama Commissioner Ron Kim’s second term in office as an utter embarrassment is putting things lightly. In just seven short months, he’s isolated himself from everyone else on the City Council, all but ensuring his limited scope of objectives –or is it his objective –will receive little if any attention.

Meanwhile, the Public Safety Department has become a laughing stock of city government, even more so than when it was besmirched by former deputy Erin Dreyer. Kim has accused the city mayor of “running City Hall like the Nixon White House” and has even spent $55 of tax dollars to print the ludicrous “Failure-ometer” he posted outside the city Police Department. Adding to this folly was his assertion that the poster would “go on tour” through the city, so everyone can see how absolutely insane the commissioner has gone.

Then again, Kim’s follies are probably a bit more marketable than the trail of news clips that trailed Keehn’s path through office. Her best accomplishment in office was presiding over a dead-locked council that wasn’t able to accomplish anything outside of steering the city’s Democratic electorate into voting for Republicans. And then there’s patronage sponge Lew Benton, who allegedly engaged in a heated City Hall screaming match with Accounts Deputy Michelle Boxley this month over her lack of support for Kim’s proposed Public Safety castle, even though it remains more than $1.7 million over budget.

So maybe Thompson has the right idea in offering a pair of committee candidates that haven’t yet secured the legal right to purchase booze. After all, he’s running out of names to throw into the fray without drawing a chorus of uproarious laughter from people in the know.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Alright folks, it’s time for a lesson in chemistry. There is only so much of a solid that can be suspended in a liquid. Eventually, the liquid will become ‘saturated’ and the solid will simply sink to the bottom of it. But through an act of physics –either shaking or some other violent disruption –far more solid can be dissolved in the liquid. This is what chemists call a ‘supersaturated solution.’

In as much, Wednesday’s deluge seemed to saturate just about everything in the Spa City. This included the 18,000 some-odd fans so starved for the sport of kings that they braved a ceaseless rain to see a slate of opening day horses so marred by changes that the original pink sheets proved largely useless. It rained for the red-eye breakfast. It rained through the first race. It rained, and then it rained some more.

But through an act of physics –or rather the media –the Capital Region was supersaturated with soggy opening day coverage. Just when it seemed like the readers and viewers couldn’t take another ounce of Saratoga coverage –just when it seemed all these trackside reports might diminish – another media source would jump in and shake things up. There wasn’t a news outlet within a 50-mile radius that didn’t have at least three representatives wandering around the water-laden Saratoga Race Course. In fact, it almost seemed as though there were more reporters and analysts than paying customers.

Perhaps the highlight of all this tripe was Liz Bishop –the longtime anchor of CBS 6 Albany –admit she plunged into a knee-deep mud puddle while broadly smiling at the cameras with her semi-soaked Saratoga-style hat. Note to Liz: the annual Hat’s Off ‘celebration’ isn’t until the weekend.

“…I ran into a woman as I came into the track and she was furious,” Bishop rambled. “She said you know what this rain is doing its preventing every woman in the Capital Region from wearing their best shoes to the track.”

Somewhere, there’s a feminist softly weeping right now. And to make matters worse, the CBS 6 crew didn’t even bother to show Bishop’s muddy feet. But in an attempt to gain an edge on the competition, they did do a historic montage of rainy days at the track; including one rather humiliating shot of veteran reporter Mary Beth Wenger looking very 1980s as she struggled onto a news van marooned in a puddle.

Like most regional papers, the Times Union jumped into the fray early, releasing “Saratoga Style” two days before the track opened. They were out-done by the Daily Gazette, which chucked their piece of race season litter in with their Sunday paper. Not to be outdone by their competitors, the TU has devoted a full Web site to all things Saratoga, complete with the usual Saratoga Seen and Talking Horses. They also include a host of videos that illicit a certain degree of pity for reporters Christen Gowen and Mark McGuire, who appear to be getting quite soaked in a short morning video. Despite the driving rain, McGuire manages a rather eloquent soliloquy about racing and the track that is worth a view.

Were the TU’s coverage to end here, life would be good. People could probably rest assured they had seen just about everything there was to see about opening day, horse racing, betting and the effects of rain thereof. But they had to take it one step further by goading a rather young looking female reporter into the meat-market of Gaffney’s to ask the Wednesday evening drunkards “what makes someone a bad kisser.”

“I don’t like the tongue,” commented one woman in the painful-to-watch video.

“I think I like a little bit of tongue,” interjected one of her friends.

Somewhere, there’s a sexual harassment lawyer smiling.

Of course, there were plenty of “man on the street” accounts from the race course. Yes, it’s wet. No, we don’t plan on leaving. Yes, we’re throwing cash at these damn horses in the hope of winning enough loot to put a down payment on one of the posh luxury boxes set up against the rail. All in all, these accounts more than forgettable.

And in other news, nothing happened. Or at least that’s the impression given by these media outlets, which don’t have enough cash to staff their newsrooms, but seem to have limitless resources when it comes to advertorials for the New York Racing Association. Undoubtedly, the anticipation among publishers and producers is that the supersaturating coverage will convince advertisers of the broad audience created when Saratoga’s population balloons to nearly 75,000 overnight. For the rest of us, it’s a long news-free ride until September.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Getting watered

While all the rubes up at the Saratoga Race Course scramble for somewhere dry on Opening Day, the editorial staff at iSaratoga felt compelled to direct fans toward the best places to get watered. As urban legend has it, Saratoga Springs has more bars per capita than anyplace in New York. Some bibulous bar patrons have even gone as far to say the city has the highest per capita bar count in the nation, a claim that is a bit more dubious than the simple statewide title.

But with more choices comes the difficulty in actually finding a watering hole that caters to one’s predilections. Take one wrong turn on your way to the meat market and you could find yourself sauntering through the last vestige of Saratoga’s roadhouse past. Conversely, you could be looking for a nice quiet place to imbibe and end up in the center of gay karaoke rendition of Sweet Caroline, or worse yet, the Parting Glass. So here’s bit of a road map to intoxication amid the track season revelry as it explodes across the city.

For the best results, it’s usually a good idea to start drinking once the happy hour deals touch down at 4 p.m. You’ll have time to hit a few races, but will beat the throngs of masticating tourons as they invade anything with a neon sign and an unlocked door. For the city’s best happy hour destination, it’s a toss-up between two gin joints probably better known for their accompanying restaurants. When it comes to cheap eats, the Mexican Connection off Jefferson Street takes the cake: Dollar tacos during the week and the best margarita in the Spa City, as well it should. The head bartender was the longtime tequila slinger from Margarita’s on Broadway. And whenever a bar boasts dessert tequila, it’s usually a good idea to give it a shot, pun intended.

However, some folks might not be into the whole eating thing when it comes down to getting buzzed in the afternoon. For them, there’s Brindisi on Broadway. Rescued from the scrap heap last winter, Andy Brindisi’s Italian bistro returns for another season. For the younger crowd, evenings at the place can get a bit frightening. Lounge-singer extraordinaire Al Bruno leads a sequin-studded, chest-hair showing, Hawaiian shirt-wearing romp of the 40- and 50-something folks through the wee morning hours. If this sort of thing isn’t within your purview, it’s best to show up promptly at the minute happy hours starts and the two-for-one well drinks start pouring.

Similarly, the adjacent Circus Café can be a cheap place to tie one on if it happens to be a Thursday night. Pints of beer are generously priced at $2, which is an abnormality in the Spa City to say the least. Here’s the catch: It’s also open mic night, which can be a good thing at times; Saratoga Springs boasts an incredible array of talented local artists who play the circuit around the city. But at times, a misguided “art student” will plug in and grace the bar with his or her newly found “mixing” skills on the turntable. On Saturdays, the Circus better lives up to its namesake by hosting a karaoke night. While there are no cheap drinks, this night is…well…different to say the least. It’s worth a stop for the shear spectacle of the event or if you fashion yourself as the next Liberace.

These are a pair of places some might not find, as drunks and weekend warriors are naturally drawn like flies to the booze stench wafting up Caroline Street. And there’s no denying it, either. Caroline Street is the uncontested beer-brawling, blood-spilling, chunder-flying champion of Saratoga nightlife. While the businesses along Phila, Putnam and even Henry Street have made inroads into establishing their own bar culture niche, there’s no better place to tie one on than among the watering holes lining the Spa City’s bourbon street.

First, let’s take a look the most obvious ones. Most touristas and high school throwbacks find themselves converging on Gaffney’s for an overpriced drink or six. Goofey’s is good for a drunken hoot or a quick rollick out at its expansive patio. But stay too long, you’re liable to leave penniless, with a black eye and someone else’s significant other. Like most places on Caroline, Gaffney’s is best enjoyed during the light of day, when all three bars are readily accessible and one can gauge the barometer of their intoxication by when the sun dips behind the looming restaurant.

Across the street is the City Tavern. In short, don’t bother. Expounding on this thought, the place is a dump. It gets too busy, the bars get too packed and the crowd is unruly. If you do find yourself skulking through the Tavern’s three levels, make a B-line toward the roof, the only redeeming quality of this joint. It affords folks a roof top view of the glorious Spa City sunset. Outside of that, you’re probably better off buying a 40 ounce at the A-Plus and brown-bagging it at one of the parking garages.

Speaking of sketchy, there’s Clancy’s and Trotters. Or is it Trotters and Clancy’s? No matter, both bars are equally shady and have been for years. They’re separated only by a small cement-laden ally running between the two and might as well be connected, were it not for a somewhat lucrative drug trade that sometimes occurs in this area. Times have changes in the Spa City, and many of the old school Saratoga hovels have been gentrified –take for instance the remarkable transformation of Solomon Grundy’s into The Stadium –Clancy’s and Trotters have remained true to their roots. Clancy’s is the after-hours bar for many restaurant workers because the place never seems to close. Trotters is simply a haven for unsavory characters. But if you can deal with them, there’s always dollar-beer night on Wednesdays.

If it’s cheap you’re looking for, travel no further than the mouth of Caroline, where rests Jim Stanley’s Tin N’ Lint, one of the oldest and most famed bars in Saratoga. Known locally as the TNL, the bar was at the vanguard of the 1970s counter-culture and is best known as the spot where folk singer Don MacLean –then a lowly busboy –scrolled the lyrics to American Pie on a cocktail napkin. Stanley’s philosophy is that he makes enough money without gouging his customers, so his drinks are almost always a dollar or two less than anywhere else in town.

But the real draw of the TNL is Stanley himself. He worked his way from a bouncer during the 1970s to become owner during the mid-1980s. Over the years, he’s seen an impressive array of historical figures pass through his bar; from Abbie Hoffman to the Pointer Sisters. He also had the honor of pitching Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers’ fame through the bar’s front door during the early 1980s. Apparently, Allman tried to cut up a few lines at a corner table, when Stanley grabbed him by the scruff. If you happen to be a late morning drinker, swing by pick Jim’s brain for some stories. You won’t regret it.

Many consider the Parting Glass the end-all and be-all of bars in Saratoga, but these folks are misguided. The Parting Glass is kind of like the Mall-of-America of bars, where it’s just so goddamn big and there’s so much to choose from that it becomes stifling. And because it’s such a draw for tourists, the bar suffers from indecisive drinker syndrome, meaning you could be waiting several hours for an amateur tippler to ask the bar keep about every third beer on tap. Hey, if you’ve got time and river dance is your cup of joe, by all means swing on down to the Parting Glass. You’re likely to find more accommodating bars elsewhere.

Yet on some excursions, atmosphere isn’t on the agenda. Often times, this is at the end of the night, when seeing straight isn’t high on the priority list and walking is on an as-needed basis only. For these folks, there is the Alley. Despite its alley-like appearance, the bar is actually named after the ‘road’ where it is located. Blink too quickly on a walk down Long Alley and you’ll likely miss the bar altogether. This is the place where you can strike up a conversation with non-English speaking Mexican nationals, count the aggregate number of teeth among patrons on one hand and find some choice bed companions overlooked by more discriminating tastes. Needless to say, the Alley doesn’t discriminate, unless of course you happen to look soft in the hands. It’s a working class bar and perhaps the last one in the city.

There are plenty of other bars here that deserve note and have received acclaim as nighttime destinations. But these are some recommended stops few of the tourist guides and diluted newspaper inserts ignore. Give them a shot and remember to tell ’em to keep some bourbon on ice for the slaving staff here at iSaratoga.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Monday morning quarterback

Monday mornings in the local daily newspapers often mimic the general overall attitude of the population that buys them: soft-minded, disinterested and not altogether too happy to be returning from two days of revelry. Often times, the Monday paper is utterly lacking in news content and instead relies on cushy feature articles to fill out both the front page and local section. Perhaps this is a projection of what people want as they return to the daily grind; a sort of light-heartedness they carried through a weekend sipping Mai Thais by the pool or grilling up some dead cow with the fam.

But occasionally, there’s a nugget of hard news to be plucked from the paper that’s worth more than a bathroom read during the morning ponder. At times, a truly interesting and newsworthy piece can be buried beneath the county fair wrap-ups and articles chronicling had-to-be there events.

Take for instance this dreadfully ironic Associated Press gem mined from the pages and pages of fluff choking the B-section in the Daily Gazette. The piece discusses a recent study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which found today’s newspapers are becoming “niche reads” as a result of narrowing their focus. Obviously, this narrowing is a result of tighter budgets, while the tighter budgets a result of waning advertising revenues and decreases in readership, et cetera.

As a result, American newspapers no longer stock bureaus in far-flung places or invest in resources to cover events out of the local purview. This shows too, because most front page coverage is devoted to articles of local interest. Unless something truly calamitous happens, most national news and nearly all international news gets truncated, pushed to the inside pages and obscured. In other words, the outlook for journalism is grim, right?

Not quite. The study found that the journalism industry is getting younger by the minute. Younger journalists mean a greater number of reporters are capable sucking the marrow from the technology now readily available to them. Their editors are slowly starting to take notice by allowing a greater diversity of projects in the newsroom.

The bottom line is that Web advertising hasn’t earned greedy publishers the same margin of profits they made during the pre-Internet days. Editors share a consensus among that something must eventually break and convince advertisers to at last buy online space as they would have in the paper back in the Dinosaur days of print.

If this breaking point taken as a given, then it is only a matter of biding time until the levee breaks, flooding newsrooms with the cash they need to produce hard-hitting journalism. One of these biding schemes manifested itself today in the Times Union, which produced an “exclusive” investigative story without allocating a single resource.

Posted on the main page of the TU’s Web site Tuesday morning was a piece about the potential environmental impacts resulting from natural gas drilling in New York’s upstate region. The author is among a dozen investigative reporters working with a non-profit organization called ProPublica. Founded less than a year ago, ProPublica is the brainchild of Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. The Manhattan-based organization claims it will eventually employ up to two dozen fulltime reporters, thus creating the “the largest staff in American journalism devoted solely to investigative reporting.”

“ProPublica will focus exclusively on journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them,” Steiger said after the organization’s founding last year. “We will be non-partisan and non-ideological, adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality and fairness.”

ProPublica is funded through an annual $10 million contribution through the Sandler Foundation, which was created in 2006 by a $1.3 billion contribution from former Golden West Financial owners Herb and Marion Sandler. Eventually, the news agency will seek other revenue sources, possibly from readers. However, it will maintain its non-profit status, thereby reducing the level of revenue needed for sustainability.

Stories produced by ProPublica will be farmed out to a variety of news agencies “in a manner designed to maximize its impact.” News organizations accepting the stories will receive them free of charge and with a period of “exclusivity,” according to ProPublica; an interesting prospect to say the least.

On a side note, it is rather incredible the TU is relying on this service, seeing as though they are one of, if not the only paper in the Capital Region with a genuine investigative reporter. Perhaps ProPublica should farm out its “exclusivity” to some of dailies in more dire condition, rather than augmenting the soon-to-be monopoly enjoyed by the ubiquitous TU. Not to mention, the TU’s investigative reporter seems a bit more well-rounded than the ProPublica fellow regurgitated from Columbia University’s journalism program.

Perhaps this is the model the United States needs to reinvigorate its newsrooms. ProPublica certainly has some lofty goals to reintroduce some much needed hard news into the mainstream of journalism. And perhaps taking a bit of capitalism out of the news business will spin new ideas among an industry that is perennially on life support. Still, it’s a sad day when the state of journalism has sunk to a point where a non-profit is needed to save the very lifeblood of the business.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Penis envy

Lloyd Blankfein glanced up from the resume he was scrutinizing to meet the eager eyes of a young man seated in his posh London office. He sported a sharp suit and a silk tie arranged in a perfect double Windsor knot that seemed to scream out ‘hire me.’ But is he Goldman Sachs material, the company’s chief executive officer asked himself silently as he continued studying the resume.

“So you graduated Yale with summa cum laude honors,” he interjected. “And you were top in your class at Harvard Business School.”

“Yes sir,” the young man replied.

“It says here you also captained the crew team and were president of the business fraternity,” he continued. “And when you graduated, you started your own mortgage brokerage firm that grossed more than $100,000 in profits in the first five years of business.”

“All true, sir.”

“You then took a year off to volunteer with the Peace Corp. immunizing underprivileged children in Sierra Leone and teaching the locals the finer points of crop rotation.”

“The pleasure was all mine, sir.”

He has all the traits of great executive, Blankfein pondered; but there is something about the young man that doesn’t rest well, despite the ironclad resume, amicable demeanor and impeccable skill at tying Windsor knots. There is something about his name. Somewhere he had seen it once before.

“Now tell me this Calvin,” he said in a somewhat gruff voice. “Is there anything you haven’t told me about yourself?”

Perspiration began to bead on Calvin’s forehead. Rouge began to color his cheeks.

“No sir,” he said pensively. “No, you’ve seen it all.”

Blankfein’s mind raced through the thousands of executive candidates and resumes he had leafed through over the years. Morett, Morett, Morett; where had this name surfaced before? Where had it made a lasting impression on him? Then it struck him like a bolt of lightning.

“You’re Calvin Morett, the penis guy…”

Yes, former class clown Calvin Morett continues to be immortalized as the fellow who crashed the Saratoga Spring High School graduation last month dressed in a penis costume. From now until the foreseeable future, Morett will be known as the high school alumni who returned to his Alma Ata in the puffy flesh-colored suit, squirting white silly string into the crowd gathered for the ceremonies at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

Morett was the punch line in a cornucopia of hackneyed headlines smeared across the Capital Region, as reporters and editors alike took bizarre fascination with his stunt. Then last week, his lore extended even farther as he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was sentenced to write an apology to all the Spa City grads who watched gag with a mixture of laughter and frustration; after all, it wasn’t exactly his graduation he was interrupting.

Clearly, Morett realized his prank was going to draw attention. He might have even realized his cameo at the event might prompt some area media sources to write accounts of his moment in the spot light. But it’s doubtful he ever realized his stunt would circle the globe, making him the planet’s de facto “penis guy” or “guy in a penis costume.”

Just in case anyone was wondering, Morett’s stunt has been picked up just about every newspaper in New York and most major publications in the United States. His sentencing alone was picked up by more than 100 news services. But his plea also caught the attention of the international press. Morett’s name appeared in journals published in Canada, Britain, Germany and even Australia. The headlines range from the catchy with Australia’s “Man apologizes for making dick of himself” to the sublime with Germany’s “Giant Goo Shooting Penis Terrorizes Graduates.”

From the Times Union’s “strange news” listing online to the more international Website, stunts involving a six-foot phallus, the police and silly string are bound to garner some attention. Often times, these events draw more publicity than the ones that should probably be drawing worldwide interest.

It’s doubtful this is what Morett had in mind when he staged the stunt, but it’s a reality in today’s media. One stupid stunt can quickly immortalize someone in the worldwide press. It’s a lesson some of the younger folks using, and should learn before devoting large tracts of the World Wide Web for photo documentaries of their weekend beer bash. And it’s one they should certainly grasp before pulling a gag at a mundane event where the mass media is looking for even the slightest distraction.

Then again, maybe Morett can capitalize on this pseudo penis envy to make himself some loot. After all, more than 179,000 people have viewed an online video of his graduation appearance, which sometimes translates into dollar signs in the advertising world. Perhaps in a few months, we’ll have Calvin Morett, private dick for hire. Hey, it seemed to work alright for another well known Dick.

Friday, July 18, 2008

If walls could talk...

Sometimes, it’s better to simply avoid asking who once lived in your house. Sometimes, it’s better to think an anonymous family once occupied the dwelling. Sometimes, it better to not know your abode housed two of the Spa City’s most noted scoundrels.

Such is the case at the palatial early 20th century home built at 595 North Broadway along the wealth corridor of Saratoga Springs. The home was constructed by Harry Pettee in 1921, two years after he was chased out of the city mayor’s office and two years before he disappeared with more than $300,000 bilked primarily from local residents.

Pettee’s long-obscured legacy is now the subject of a television program scheduled to air on HGTV Friday evening, according to the Times Union. Hosts of the program “If Walls Could Talk” poured through the home and historical documents in an attempt to reinvigorate the bizarre circumstances under which Pettee built and later abandoned the mansion.

Pettee was among a long line of one-term mayors who just didn’t pan out for Saratoga Springs (see: Valerie Keehn, Michael Lenz). His popularity waned after his carbonation business nearly sucked the life out of the mineral springs located on what is now the Saratoga Spa State Park. He was forced to sell, was disgraced out of office and eventually fled the area for more posh accommodations on the Manhattan peninsula. He returned periodically until disappearing for good in 1923, having absconded with $500,000 of investor and family money. This part of the tale is told well.

Yet both the TU and the hosts of the nationally syndicated program missed the modern –and arguably more sordid –figure linked to this property. And one who bears an eerie semblance to Pettee in both tendencies and scruples.

The year was 1997, when a jogger happened to notice the stench emanating from the Seaman Farm off Old Ballston Avenue. She quickly traced the reek back to an open pit filled with thousands of black garbage bags that contained pet carcasses. Littered among mass burial were a few other trash bags containing medical waste, household refuse and junk mail listing the address of a naturalized Canadian living at Pettee’s old abode.

For more than three decades, Terence McGlashan claimed to make his living through the sale of veterinarian supplies and through contracting out animal creations. But instead of burning the carcasses, McGlashan simply dumped them off at the 500-acre farm and paid Ralph Seaman a sum of $2 for each body he dumped. State investigators later found four mass burial pits containing the rotting remains of more than 40,000 pets McGlashan had collected from 83 veterinarians across New York and New England. At the time, pet cremations cost upwards of $150, meaning he made quite a nice sum from his pet cemetery.

The story made national news and McGlashan, under the unwavering scorn of scorned pet owners and animal rights activists, admitted to the charges less than a year after they were lodged. He was sentenced to serve six months in county jail, fined $5,000, and ordered to pay $25,000 to local animal shelters. The furor over the incident also prompted a would-be arsonist to lob a pair of Molotov cocktails at Seaman’s barns after the case came to a conclusion.

Strangely, the link between McGlashan and Pettee extends beyond their simply building a fortune off of defrauding local residents. Prior to his disappearance, Pettee was known for his frequent sojourns to the Sunshine State. So often were his trips he became known as the “Palm Beach-going mayor,” according to local author Hollis Palmer. McGlashan fled to Orlando – where there just happens to be another Saratoga –perhaps compelled by the spirit of Pettee or maybe convinced by the homemade bombs Seaman was prone to receiving.

The entry on the TU blog suggests the HGTV producers carved into the floors of McGlashan and Pettee’s old homestead and surprisingly didn’t find the cash the latter disappeared with. No word on whether they found a new cache of animal carcasses. Needless to say, if the walls at 595 North Broadway could talk, the modern-day residents there should ask for an assessment reduction.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Apparently, someone didn’t get the memo. Rather than beating sense into Ron Kim, someone appears to have inadvertently beat the sense out of the dreadfully misguided Public Safety Commissioner.

Sporting a nice shiner and an oversized bandage on his forehead, Kim told New Channel 13 about his plan to use the $4.3 million bonded for the long-awaited recreation center into the public safety facility. He said moving the money over would be “easy” for the city to do, given the present economic climate.

“That money from the rec center, if we are in tough economic times, can be shifted over to the public safety station,” he said during the interview.

Clearly, Kim doesn’t recall former city Finance Commissioner Matt McCabe saying the money bonded for the recreation center couldn’t be used for other purposes without damaging the city’s financial reputation. And obviously, Kim doesn’t remember his partner in politics –former Mayor Valerie Keehn –committing the city to the project. Nor does he seem to recollect the downgrading of the city’s credit rating just one short year ago.

Kim also forgets how his patron goddess figured to finance the recreation center project by using parkland fees collected from developers. At the time, Keehn was stumping for re-election under the looming prospect of having to raise city property taxes by 8 percent. She claimed the roughly $300,000 collected in developer fees and used “for park, playground or other recreational purposes” could cover more than half the project.

“We believe the city is now in the position to finance at least 50 percent of the indoor recreation facility through subdivision, condominium and site plan recreation fees," Keehn told the Daily Gazette last year.

These aren’t things that cross the mind of the cross commissioner, as he furiously argues for a public safety facility that is still more than $1.7 million over what the city has budgeted. Mayor Scott Johnson, one of the prime suspects in giving Kim his new eye coloring, has repeatedly stated that the public safety facility proposals are stalled for just this reason. After all, why would the city bond $8 million for a project that is sure to go over budget? Isn’t this the whole reason why Moody’s dropped the city’s credit rating?

Meanwhile, Johnson says tax payers have flung more than $250,000 out the window –just short of what Keehn’s highly touted developer fees –in bond payments for the political football called the recreation center project without a single shovel being lanced into the ground. With more than a decade’s worth of planning, the recreation center has remained mired in the City Council’s inability to come to a consensus on anything, much less a $6.5 million project.

Absent from the discussions of both the proposed public safety facility and the bonded recreation center project are any discussions on how the city will finance the upkeep on what will total more than 60,000 square feet of additional government-owned building space. McCabe warned of such a problem last year, both before and after the council sold more than $9 million worth of bonds to fund the recreation center.

Conversely, Kim has excluded such discussions from his agenda and hasn’t even said exactly what the city would do with the old police station once a new one is built. In fact, he hasn't even said where the city would come up with the money needed to complete the new station in the first place.

The sad reality is that city councils of the past draped the albatross of the recreation center around the city’s neck. Unfortunately, neither of the previous mayoral administrations ever envisioned the hostile economic conditions existing today and put money behind what Kim is now categorizing as an lower priority project. But at this point, the only way to ease this burden is to at last complete the project and hope Linda Terricola’s ludicrous claims come to fruition.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Wait...wait...don’t tell me

As the old saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. This is especially the case when one of those ‘wrongs’ happens to be a lawyer named Ron Kim. But in the process of doing something patently wrong, the city’s overzealous half-baked Public Safety commissioner may have actually done something right.

Kim’s most recent political flap started Monday morning, when either he or one of his minions made note of an astronomical parking ticket collection amassed by socialite-in-training Jennifer Wait. The glib reference was posted anonymously and off topic on a neighboring blog as a dig aimed at Jeffrey Wait, the young woman’s father and one of two Democratic candidates for City Court judge.

“[The] deficit would be no problem if Jeff Wait's scofflaw daughter would just pay the fines on all the parking tickets she’s accumulated in Saratoga Springs,” the anonymous poster wrote Monday evening. “Instead, she’s sent her father to embarrass himself by begging anyone who'll listen in City Hall to give her a sweetheart discount.”

The next morning, Kim got on the horn to the newspapers and elaborated on what would have been otherwise considered a political eddy created by the ongoing implosion of the city Democrats. Apparently, the younger Wait amassed $1,170 worth of fines while parking her vehicle along North Broadway over the past two years. The total was enough to put her name on a list of 180 scofflaws Kim ordered towed in an attempt to collect more than $150,000 worth of outstanding fines.

Sure enough, Wait’s car was towed and impounded until the city fines could be settled. And naturally, she asked her father to intercede on her behalf. Jeffrey Wait contacted the city attorney and asked for a plea deal. In turn, the attorney contacted Kim, who indigently put his foot down on top of any such deal. He said the father and daughter would need to appear in court, so that a city judge could mete out justice.

“…Here’s this guy running for City Court judge and he's asking for special consideration for his daughter,” he told the Post Star Wednesday. “To call me and blatantly say, ‘what can you do for me?’ I find disturbing.”

This is where Kim was inadvertently right. The city certainly had the upper hand in the case, seeing as though Wait’s tickets were far past delinquent and her car collecting impound fees. After 10 days impounded, the fees to recover the car alone would have been more than the parking tickets. So it really made no sense for the city to bargain, especially with someone who could more than afford the cost of the tickets. Trying a negotiating tactic like this in Albany after a tow is likely to garner more laughs than a slow leaking tank of nitrous.

The city ended up capitulating in court and the Waits walked away paying less than half the original fine total. While those paying the full outrageous amount of city parking tickets might find this slightly troubling, it does show a sense of compassion for city residents, even if they happen to roll with the wealthy. It should be noted that this compassion didn’t extend to the three other scofflaws snared under Kim directive, who paid an average of $1,061 in fines.

But all of Kim’s rightful actions end here. Were it not for his announcement to the press, the parking issue never would have made it beyond the halls of justice. Like most parking offenders, the Waits would have paid their fines to the city and been done with the issue. After all, parking illegally is a violation and not one subject to the same public scrutiny as a crime against the public good.

Kim’s faction of the party saw a clear chance to gain some political traction with the Democratic primary just a few months ahead. See, Wait is the preferred candidate of Klotzian Democrats; a faction some now refer to as the so-called Boyd and McTygue supporters. His challenger, James Montagnino, is allegedly the product of the Keehn splinter, of which Kim is a card-carrying member.

As the less fickle may recall, the city Dems endorsed Wait over the objections of the splinter faction. Right around this time, several newspapers published reports about Montagnino, a former referee in Westchester County matrimonial court, who was reassigned by the state court system after complaints were lodged against him in 2006.

In wake of this report, it’s easy to see why Kim’s faction would want to dig up dirt on Wait. And Kim’s assertion that he brought the issue into the public eye ‘because he didn't want to be accused of cronyism for a fellow Democrat’ is flat out ludicrous. When it comes down to brass tacks, he’s simply furthering the same politics of destruction that have brought the party to its knees lately.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Thrown into the fire

Editors at the Daily Gazette must be counting the seconds before Kris Thompson leaves his job at the Capitol. And they must be casually hoping his next career that doesn’t involve spreading blatant misinformation about the state Senate Majority leader.

For the second time in as many months, the Gazette was again burned by Thompson, Sen. Bruno’s most recent incarnation of a press secretary, when he swore off highly publicized rumors that boss planned to call it quits before his term expires in January. News stories began circulating about Hollywood Joe’s impending departure from office, mere moments after he unveiled plans for a high-speed freight service in Mechanicville. The statement most agencies cited was an insinuation the senator made about his seat remaining open for a spell.

“There'll be a vacancy until Assemblyman Roy McDonald gets elected in this district,” he told a gaggle of reporters gathered at the event.

Though slightly vague, this statement clearly indicates Bruno’s intentions to wrap things up early. But while all of the other news agencies were content to take the senator’s word for it, the Daily Gazette went a step further and asked for Thompson to elaborate. Thompson naturally decided to flatly deny the story every other news agency was reporting. So while the rest of the world was wondering why Bruno was stepping down early, the Gazette posted a Web story proclaiming Bruno’s statements were misconstrued.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time Thompson threw the Gazette into the fire. In late May –less than four weeks before Bruno announced his retirement –Thompson spoke glowingly of Bruno’s decision to circulate re-election petitions in Saratoga and Rensselaer counties. His assurances came after Bruno made a quizzical statement to the paper, saying that “everything is timely in this business.”

Naturally, the re-election story is ancient history now. Fortunately for the Gazette, the story about Bruno serving out his term didn t seem to make it to print. And the web version posted Tuesday has now been killed, clearly in wake of the veritable frenzy of media sources reporting Bruno’s impending departure. But it doesn’t change the fact that the Gazette was the only paper disavowing media reports up until early Wednesday morning.

In later news reports, Thompson seemed to back down a bit from the hard line he initially took. Instead of Bruno serving out his term, he told reporters the senator had no time frame for his departure and snidely remarked that “at some point in time, Joe Bruno will no longer be a state senator.”

Even this seems to be stretching the truth, given Bruno’s widely circulated comments Tuesday. For instance, he told the Daily News he plans to leave within a matter of weeks; something that sounds definitively like a time line.

“I have to extricate myself, at least in my mind, in order to do that,” he said. “So I'm looking at the best time now and I can tell you, I'm hoping maybe as soon as the next couple of weeks.”

Perhaps some of the blame can be heaped on the Gazette for taking Thompson’s word for it, but not much. His job detail –at least on a “day-to-day” basis now –is to converse with Bruno and relay accurate information to the press. After all, he’s not the one who takes a circulation hit when the information he doles out is patently wrong.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Smoky rooms and related metaphors

It’s hard to recall a time when the term ‘unity’ was used in the same sentence as the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee. For more than three years now, the party has forged divides that make the chasms of the Grand Canyon look relatively insignificant. But believe it or not, there was once a time when city Democrats regarded themselves as birds of a feather. And believe it or not, it wasn’t that long ago.

The year was 2000 and the mules had just finished a take-over of the City Council majority. As their leader, they selected a feisty young Saratoga Lake resident heading the gubernatorial campaign of then-state Comptroller H. Carl McCall. The selection completed what was nothing short of a remarkable ascension through the state and city parties. In less than a decade, he went from being a recent UAlbany graduate running smear campaigns for the state Assembly democrats to being the lead fundraiser for the party’s choice for governor. In the Spa City, he proffered a message of unity among Democrats, after the party unanimously selected him to replace then-Mayor Ken Klotz as their chairman.

“Ken Klotz and [Public Works Commissioner Tom] McTygue and [Accounts Commissioner Ben] Mirling, they embody what Saratogians want," Shawn Thompson told the Daily Gazette at the time. “There’s a lot of Democratic support out there and a lot of independent thinker…One thing I learned during the campaign - the voters of Saratoga Springs are going to vote for the best person.”

Then things started to change. McCall’s campaign was an abject failure after he spent all his energy warding off a primary challenge by Andrew Cuomo. Short a job, Thompson sought refuge working for the state Senate minority. Meanwhile, he brought his brand of rough-and-tumble politics to city politics.

First on his hit-list was long-time Republican Supervisor Skip Scriocco, who he unsuccessfully tried to torpedo by claiming the then-animal control officer was conducting county politicking while on the clock with the city. In the meantime, city Republicans were maneuvering around Thompson to reclaim the mayor’s seat in a tight 2003 election. The majority squandered, he cried foul and claimed the GOP was intimidating college voters casting ballots at Skidmore; another Thompson campaign that produced no results.

By 2005, Thompson became affiliated with the Democracy For America message that was sweeping through the party in wake of the failed presidential run by Vermont Governor Howard Dean. To this end, he recruited a quasi-Manchurian candidate in the form of special education teacher Valerie Keehn, who he vehemently tried to foist as the party’s mayoral candidate. Party centrists, however, found themselves backing Hank Kuczynski against Thompson’s wishes. The end result was a bitter battle between the emerging new school DFA democrats and the old guard, headed by the Brothers’ McTygue and Klotz loyalists.

Still, the party managed to pull off what many termed an election coup, sweeping democratic and democratic-leaning candidates into all five council seats. But despite the outward appearance of victory, the party was anything but victorious. Two of the newly elected candidates –the Thompson-supported Ron Kim and the McTygue-supported John Franck –were card-carrying Republicans just several years before their Democratic endorsement. And the feuding between Keehn and McTygue had only just begun.

Less than a year later, the dispute boiled over into the city court system, when a Keehn supporter and vice-chairman of the committee alleged intimidation at the hands of a McTygue supporter. Thompson refused to quell the fracas, insisting it was “a criminal matter that has spilled out of a political debate” and was better solved by a city court judge. The divide was deepened when Thompson –working through Keehn –launched a failed campaign to revise the charter and do away with the commissioner-form of government. The two-fold motive was fairly clear from the get-go: Oust McTygue from office and then win Keehn a four-year term as mayor. Of course, we all know how that panned out.

Today, Thompson is back in the news as he seeks reappointment to his spot on the influential state committee. He’s being challenged by Pat Southworth, the chairman of the Ballston Town Democrats and husband of recently elected Supervisor Patricia Southworth. Thompson’s supporters claim Southworth is bankrolled by the McTygue faction of the party, which is fueling the ongoing implosion.

“I am hearing that some on the committee carried petitions for Pat Southworth,” wrote Planning Board Chairwoman Nancy Goldberg in a leaked memo addressed to party leader Lou Schnieder. “And you say that you want to bury divisive business.”

The missive drew fire from Phil Diamond, a former McTygue backer and the man involved in the aforementioned fracas, who accused Goldberg and the Thompsonian (i.e. the Keehniac) faction of conducting secret organizational meetings behind closed doors and outside of the committee’s purview; in essence doing the very things Keehn once accused McTygue of doing. Of course, he was referring to the decision to pull Keehn’s name from the hat for Joe Bruno’s senate seat and swing support behind two-term county Supervisor Joanne Yepsen instead of Gillibrand operative Mike Russo.

“Who anointed the little group that recently met in a metaphorically smoke-filled room to select a candidate to run for Bruno’s seat,” he wrote. “Some of those who were present are not even on the Committee. Most of us who are on the Committee were not asked to attend. Why? Is this the way to reduce divisiveness?”

Diamond’s letter was broadly castigated by other Thompson supporters who claimed it wasn’t their backroom dickering that is ravaging the committee. Instead, they claimed it was the committee that was clearly endorsing Southworth for the seat behind the former city chairman’s back. Committee member Al Ormsby claimed the city Dems attempted to endorse Southworth without having a quorum and without allowing Thompson to present his case. Brucie Rosch, who just a month earlier circulated petitions to stack the committee’s leadership with Thompson supporters, claimed Southworth’s push for the state seat was “deceptive” because he never mentioned his opponent’s name when asking for an endorsement.

“We should begin to care how this sort of behavior would appear to other Democrats, whether a voter or elected officials at the State and Federal level, or members of the party structure” she wrote in the July missive. “It makes us look like childish fools, and completely untrustworthy.”

Childish fools? Untrustworthy? These are uncanny descriptors for the crew of operatives Thompson has seemingly led since his falling out with the committee in 2005. Granted, he’s probably in a better position to affect change, given his ties to the state party. But Thompson’s ties can’t seem to obscure the damage he’s caused by his ongoing attempts at a power grab.

In eight short years, Thompson has taken a formerly united party and given rise to a venomous faction of the party that has frightened all but a small minority of Democratic voters away from their slate of candidates. Perhaps Southworth isn’t the best candidate for the job. But he’s a candidate that isn’t Thompson, who has guided the party down a steep precipice seemingly for his own gain.

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