Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Please (Don't) Talk About Me When I'm Gone

Makes no difference how I carry on,
Remember, please don't talk about me when I'm gone.

It was the baffling and charming Michigan J. Frog who immortalized that 1930 song in his 1955 Looney Tunes debut as a boulevardier with a warm tenor and engaging delivery who drove each of his successive discoverers to bankruptcy by singing animatedly while in their presence and lapsing into a slow croak when pushed onto the stage to face a paying audience. Never mind that Ethel Waters, the Mills Brothers, Frank, Dino and Sammy (separately), Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Wills, Piano Red and Billie Holiday had already done the song, it was Michigan J. who gave us the definitive rendition and burned it into this nation's cultural psyche.

"Please Don't Talk About Me" is the plaint of a spurned lover begging the courteous balm of oblivion from his Beloved. Or it could as readily be the epitaph of one whose memory brings with it a mixed gratification. Everyone wishes to be spoken of well if they are spoken of at all, and everyone wishes to be spoken of. None of this "He was an all right chap, I suppose," or "Won't be quite the same without 'im but I expect we'll manage." It is human nature to imagine and expect that upon our leaving this vale we will be remembered in fond and glowing terms. Encomiums are better than brickbats; but brickbats are to be preferred over the mealy-mouthed, the lukewarm, the dismissive.

For my own part, I could not ask a better remembrance than one I chanced across in today's New York Times, apropos of a gentleman recently resident on Long Island (a protectorate of the United States lying just to the east of Manhattan and north of Puerto Rico). In September he made an untimely departure from friends and his family, the Fiumaras, a loss to cancer. The news account included this family photograph of the deceased, taken by a surveillance camera in the late 1970s. (The late Tino Fiumara is in the foreground. The 'A' and 'B' were superscribed on the photo by FBI agents for ease of identification.)

 "Don't look at the camera, Joey . . ."

An acquaintance told a Times reporter, “Law enforcement vilified him, and people who knew him liked him, so he was a complex guy. . . all I can tell you is he was always a gentleman with me, and I’m very sorry that he passed away.” A complex guy and a gentleman (with me, anyway). What warmer benediction could a person hope for when his work here is finished? Anyone might someday be satisfied with less - Bernie Madoff (another 'complex guy') should be so blessed by his former friends and acquaintances when he Rides the Log Down the River, having already been vilified universally, law enforcement included.

As it turns out, there were others, better acquainted with Mr. Fiumara than this acquaintance of record, who did not survive him and so were unable to record their own impressions of the more recently departed. Tino was known to be responsible for at least a dozen mob murders, some of them FBI informants, and thereby, in the words of the Times reporter, "helped transform New Jersey into the Genovese crime family’s abattoir."  (In case you needed another reason not to visit New Jersey.)

The Times story ran today, even though Tino's death occurred last year, because the FBI, in the wake of their multistate roundup of organized crime figures two weeks ago, wanted to make sure that Tino was actually dead. He was among the most elusive and least known of the major family heads. The Times reports that, "He routinely drove the wrong way down one-way streets, traveled up highway off-ramps, regularly switched cars and even rode a bicycle — sometimes traveling through parks into which cars could not follow — to lose his F.B.I. pursuers. He never used his home phone to discuss mob business and eschewed cellphones, communicating only with pagers and pay phones, and maintaining a list of some 20 locations at any given time where he knew he could be neither watched nor overheard." 

There is a moral to this brief tale. Take what care we might while we can, after we're gone we have little to say in how we are remembered and spoken of, if we are spoken of at all. Remember the words of Michigan J. Frog, "Makes no difference how I carry on."

It does bear mention that the person who gave the Times' reporter Tino's mild if heartfelt encomium was his attorney.

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