Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Evening News...Philly Cheese-Steaks??

I'm not being smug when I say I haven't watched network television news in ages. It's not as if I'm reading Proust or the Economist instead.
Actually, I'm likely to be TiVo'ing "Reno 911," the "Daily Show" or the "Colbert Report" to watch later.

But the other day, while feeding the parrots, I did accidentally catch the last 15 minutes of the CBS Evening News, and I must report that my jaw dropped at how fatuous it had become. No wonder they're sobbing about the ratings.

For some reason (oh ... ratings) the program was being broadcast from Philadelphia, with the Katie Couric's preternaturally pastel visage centered against the backdrop of the Philadelphia skyline as seen from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art -- you know, that venerable institution best known for the scene of Sylvester Stallone's triumphant arm waving in "Rocky." For a while, there was even a statue of Mr. Stallone's Rocky looming on the landing above the steps. I am happy to say it has been moved elsewhere.

Obviously, the idea on the CBS News was to present Ms. Couric in the same setting and with the same implications as Rocky -- a come-from-behind fighter, bound for glory.

Now, I have a friend who knows Mr. Stallone well, and he is said to be a genuinely nice man: self-effacing, courteous and generous. Over a decade ago, while on a book promotion, I encountered Ms. Couric on the set of the "Today" show. Let's just say that she did not strike me as a nice person. I'm glad she has now been removed, too, from the steps of the Art Museum.

But I digress. My main reaction to seeing the CBS News after so long a respite was that it had no news -- at least during the 15 minutes the birds and I watched. We're involved in an insane war without a way out, the Arctic ice shelves are melting, the three branches of the government are bristling with lunatics, one in four Americans believes Jesus is about to lift them rapturously into the skies, Rudy Giuliani is a serious candidate for president -- and CBS News is using half of its news time to show what was nothing more than a travelogue about some burg like Philadelphia!

I'm from Philadelphia, and I remember what a hilarious wreck of a town it was in the late 1970s, when there were actually four daily newspapers (nobody remembers the loony Philadelphia Journal, alas, and people are even now forgetting about the Bulletin, once the largest evening paper in the country, which went belly-up in 1982).

I left town six years before the second and more famous "Move" fiasco, the one where the mayor ordered a neighborhood bombed (and ended up burning it down) to flush out a maniac radical group. But I remember the first bloody confrontation, in 1978, when police stormed the Move headquarters like an avenging army after a tense month-long neighborhood lock-down ordered by the thuggish mayor and former police commissioner, Frank Rizzo, who died in 1991.

(Very few people recall that Richard Nixon considered (and was barely dissuaded from) choosing the tough-guy Rizzo as the new vice president after Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, having copped a plea to money-laundering and tax evasion. Rizzo, had Nixon chosen him, would then have become president the next year, when Nixon himself resigned in disgrace. Man, did we dodge a bullet on that one!).

In 1980, Philadelphia became even more interesting when the old mob boss, a coot named Angelo Bruno, got blown away by an upwardly mobile rival -- and suddenly the Philly mob was the most savage mob in the country, with the possible exception of the even more scary Irish Westies in New York.

(A quick Philly mob story: Many years later, I got to know a former Philadelphia mob capo named Tommy Del Giorno, who was in comfortable hiding after leaving the federal Witness Protection Program, to which he had repaired after turning informant for the feds. Tommy was a short, wiry guy who, like a lot of mob guys, was actually very funny, though he did admit to killing five other mobsters in the course of business.

Tommy, who had been allowed to take his money with him when he entered the program, worked various legitimate jobs while in the program, including one in a restaurant. He told me this about the difference between civilian life and the mafia, in an interview that I did with him in 2000 for the New York Times: "All the time I was in the mob, I never wanted to kill anybody. Out here in the legitimate world, there's 10 people that I've met that I would kill. These legitimate people are worse than mob guys.")

OK, so that's sort of the Philadelphia I remember.

On the CBS News last week, they wasted my time (and my birds' time) slobbering over every standard tourist cliche about Philadelphia: Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell; the Art Museum steps (not its collection, mind you), and those two goddamned cheese-steak joints that the travel harpies unfortunate enough to get assigned to write about Philadelphia always gush over. The two joints are in grubby South Philadelphia -- Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's, across the street from one another, rivals for the supposed title of greatest cheese-steak in the world.

Now, anybody remotely familiar with the subject knows that Pat's and Geno's are O.K. at best, their main assets being that they are open 24 hours a day, and if you have a hankering for a big greasy cheese-steak after the Phillies game, or after a long night out, they're there for you.

In fact, I do remember one strange time after a long night with a gang of press and movie people at Ed (Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks) Piszek's wonderful but short-lived Philadelphia Press Club. I think it was in 1977.

My evening somehow ended up after 3 a.m. at Pat's King of Steaks, in the company of a very famous, and very famished, Hollywood actress who told me she would have me killed if I ever put it in the paper that we had lurched down to Pat's, just the two of us, to wolf down cheese-steaks at that hour of the night. She had on sunglasses, and an edge of the cheese-steak smudged them with grease as she devoured it, as I recall. She's not as famous now, but a promise is a promise -- and a threat is a threat, as my mob friend would agree.

Anyway, who cares about the CBS Evening News, another dinosaur trudging off to the tar pits? But I must say the segment on cheese steaks got my attention, at least enough to want to set the record straight.

One reason for this odd attention to cheese-steaks is that, having put on weight with all the traveling I do, I am on a diet. And when you are on a diet and you grew up in Philadelphia, there is nothing quite as riveting as the image of a belly-buster of a Philadelphia cheese-steak.

The cheese-steak sandwich is unique to Philadelphia and its suburbs in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Yeah, I know they sell them elsewhere, but they're not the same. There is something especially unique about the roll. Every Philadelphia native I know who's moved elsewhere (and that would include all of them) wonders why you can't get a Philadelphia-quality torpedo roll anywhere else in the country. Trust me: You can't.

But unless you're towing around a beautiful, sloshed and hungry starlet who absolutely demands to go to Pat's, there are tons of great cheese-steak joints in the Philadelphia. Here's a link. On that list, many of the cognoscenti would settle on Frank's, at 4th and South. Ignore any links on the list to cheese-steaks that are sold anywhere more than 60 miles from Philadelphia.

For another Philadelphia specialty, the sub-like hoagie (a masterpiece of sandwich construction), the White House Sub Shop in Atlantic City is mobbed (I mean, crowded) and justifiably renowned. They also make great cheese-steaks.

Now I gotta go feed the parrots. Nothing like chopping up some nice broccoli, some fruit, some string beans and a hardboiled egg and tossing in some pistachios and walnuts (that's the birds' dinner) to get your mind off cheese-steaks and onto that nice broiled piece of fish (that's mine).

Luckily, Philadelphia is a 2-hour drive from my house.


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