Sunday, December 8, 2019

My Off Broadway Acting Debut A Telepathic Success


I made my Off Broadway acting debut Saturday night.

In a Playwrights Horizons production of “The Thin Place,” I uttered the last word of the one-act play. Without any rehearsal or advance preparation. I hit my cue. To the utter amazement of Gilda and the rest of the audience. 

It wasn’t the first time I strutted my thespian talents. When I was 13 I played Rusty Charlie in a summer camp production of “Guys and Dolls.” I knew my lines back then as well, though, to be honest, the director asked me to silently mouth the last word of the “Fugue for Tinhorns” opening song because I could not master the desired harmony.

There was no music involved Saturday night. I simply had to project one word from my seat at the extreme right of the first row of the audience.

Wait. First, a little background on “The Thin Place.” Written by Lucas Hnath who also authored “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” “Hillary and Clinton,” and the “The Christians,” “The Thin Place” deals with the possibility of an alternative universe and paranormal communication, sometimes between the living, sometimes between the living and the dead.

A young woman, Hilda, recounts how she and her grandmother would endeavor to communicate telepathically. Sitting in an armchair on a stage devoid of anything else but a narrow table lodged between a second identical armchair, Hilda said her grandmother had subsequently died. Looking directly at me she said I somehow reminded her of her grandmother. That I looked like her.  I stroked my beard in amazement, but she just continued reminiscing about her young life with her granny and her later adult life which had become entwined with Linda, a medium who acknowledged that conjuring up the dead was a trick she performed as a less expensive but more result-oriented therapy than professional medical help to relieve the anguish her customers had from some unresolved conflict with the departed.

At the end of “The Thin Place,” sitting in the chair from which she had never moved over the play’s 90 minute span, Hilda again faced me. She wanted to demonstrate telepathy, the way she did it with her grandmother. She took a pad and marker pen out of the table drawer, wrote down a word, held it to her chest and implored me to concentrate on this unknown word that she would be trying to transmit to me, her imaginary grandmother.

I thought “meatloaf” would be an appropriate homey memory but when she looked at me and asked what I had heard in my head, just behind my forehead, I replied, too softly at first for her, let alone for the audience, to hear. Louder, I said, “Umbrella.” Turning the pad toward the audience she revealed what she had written—Umbrella. The audience gasped. The stage went dark. The audience clapped.

Immediately my 15 minutes of Off Broadway stardom began. Audience members approached me to ask, Did I really receive a telepathic message? Had I been primed by the theater staff prior to the performance to say umbrella? Was I an actor planted in the audience?

No, on all counts. Just before I was ready to say “meatloaf,” I heard a faint but distinct metallic voice say, “Umbrella.” I quickly processed my role, though to be sure I at first whispered “umbrella,” hoping Hilda could read my lips. With her encouragement I repeated aloud the last word of the play.

Seated next to me, Gilda was the most confounded. She had not heard the electronic transmission. I checked around my seat. No receiver or speaker anywhere. My seat was no different than anyone else’s.

My 15 minutes of fame was nearly up, we were already standing outside the theater when I recalled retailers have sometimes used narrowcasting technology to direct messages to workers or shoppers in specific locations so as not to alert or bother customers or staff throughout a store. Messages such as a special sale for those currently in the housewares department. Or staff should clean up a spill in aisle eight. 

The theater must have targeted a narrowcast to my seat alone. I couldn’t prove it but it is the only rational explanation. I was, after all, not Hilda’s grandmother. And though “meatloaf” would have been a much better word, I had no license to alter the playwright’s dialogue. So with a smile as my umbrella, I uttered the last word of the play. 

Friday, December 6, 2019

Impeachment Charges, Biden Lets Loose and Historic Facts


Here’s an example of what one of my graduate school journalism professors called a “nothing new” headline:

“House Impeaches Trump.”

Here’s another example:

“Senate Acquits Trump.”

It doesn’t take a genius to know as sure as the first headline will be realized before Christmas, the second will follow in short order, possibly before the end of January.

Unless Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has an epiphany and switches his allegiance from the autocratic orangeman in the White House to the U.S. Constitution there is scant expectation Trump will face any penalty greater than history’s assessment of his guilt. 

However, in the debate over what charges the House of Representatives should level against the nasty-man-in-chief, there is an important bit of politics that must be played out. Should Trump be charged merely with abusing the power of his office for personal and political gain through an attempted bribery of the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden in return for arranging a White House meeting and unfreezing Congressionally approved military aid, or should the House lay out a laundry list of offenses including obstruction of justice? 

Those in favor of the former argue it would be a more focused indictment, easier for the public to wrap its mind around. That argument, however, presumes the possibility of a conviction. 

Ha! It will never happen (not “would never happen” which implies “maybe;” under McConnell it is a certainty the Senate will not convict).

The Democratically controlled House, therefore, should engage Republican hands by throwing the kitchen sink at Trump, forcing GOP senators to go on the record to condone each and every behavior that is injurious to American interests and constitutional norms. Make each senator run on his or her compliance with actions they would never tolerate if a Democratic president undertook them. 


A Biden Bite: A show of raw emotion was just what Joe Biden needed to spark his candidacy. But I would suggest the former vice president should not have called an Iowa farmer a “damn liar” during a campaign stop Thursday for regurgitating Trump and Fox News charges that he sold access to the Obama presidency and helped his son Hunter obtain a lucrative job with an energy company in Ukraine, a position for which he had no experience.

Instead of directly insulting the 83-year-old retired farmer, Biden should have countered thusly: “You’re repeating falsehoods, lies, that were created by Russia and Vladimir Putin and promulgated by his corrupt ‘useful idiot’ in the White House and his unscrupulous supporters in the House and Senate. You’re repeating a false narrative which is undermining our democracy.”

Biden took a more in-your-face response. It displayed fire in the belly that has been lacking and, if he is fortunate enough to secure the Democratic Party nomination, will be required if he is to successfully confront Trump.


Historic Facts: Just when you thought the public could not get any crazier, here are two stories that boggle the mind:

A majority of Republicans believe Trump is a greater president than Abraham Lincoln (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7742883/Majority-Republicans-think-Donald-Trump-better-president-Abraham-Lincoln.html). I’ll let you parse that one without further reflection on my part.


Here’s the Mideast Problem in Brief: In a speech in November, Riyad Al-Aileh, a Palestinian political science lecturer at Al-Azhar University, said Jews only came to the region “as invaders 70 years ago.” Another Palestinian “intellectual,” Abir Zayyad, an archaeologist and member of Fatah’s Jerusalem branch, asserted “We have no archaeological evidence of the presence of the children of Israel in Palestine in this historical period 3,000 years ago, neither in Jerusalem, nor in all of Palestine.” 

So there you have it—A rejection not only of Jewish heritage in the land of Israel but also, by inference, of the existence of Jesus, his visit to the temple in Jerusalem and his later return to the city, his trial and crucifixion. A rejection of Roman historical records. It makes one wonder how any peace can be achieved when one side is so delusional. 

Monday, December 2, 2019

139: Memories of the Draft Lottery 50 Years Ago


Fifty years ago today, December 2, I walked into Brooklyn College’s Boylan Hall cafeteria a depressed senior. The night before, my birth date, March 6, had been selected as the 139th number drawn in a televised national draft lottery. With my educational deferment set to expire in six months I sadly expected a letter inviting me to a physical examination to assess my fitness for assignment to Vietnam. We had 549,000 soldiers stationed there in 1969.

As I sat commiserating with friends at the Knight House table, Ronnie Sperber (now Tokatlilar) set up shop a few tables away. She was selling yellow buttons with large brown numbers, lottery numbers, on them. The daughter of one of my father’s landsleit from Ottynia, Poland, Ronnie cheerfully handed me a 139 button, no charge. I wore it through May of 1970 when the expected letter from my local Selective Service board arrived. I had 10 days to report to Fort Hamilton for my physical.

I immediately sprang into action. I had not wasted those six months. I had researched ways to beat the draft. Flunking the intelligence test was not an option, eventually confirmed by the sergeant who administered the exam. Merely correctly filling out one’s name assured a passing grade, he advised.

As the military could keep you for three days after your physical the idea of doing something to momentarily alter blood pressure or blood sugar level was not feasible. I also rejected enrolling in divinity school, a path chosen by some of my friends. Nor, for practical reason, could I seek further deferment by registering for medical school—I still had another half year of undergraduate classes before I would earn my degree as I had changed majors too many times. Uncle Sam didn’t care. My 2S college deferment status expired after four years, not when I received my sheepskin.

My only hope was found inside the pamphlet “1001 Ways to Beat the Draft.” Or so I thought all these years until I scrolled through a PDF copy last night and couldn’t find the relevant section (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=miua.2917616.0001.001&view=1up&seq=2&size=200). What I do remember is discovering my escape plan while sifting through a similarly named book in the college bookstore located just yards away from the Knight House cafeteria table.

Inside that blessed book was a table defining height and corresponding weight acceptable for admission into the armed forces. Anyone 6-foot tall had to weigh at least 131 pounds.

I stood 72 inches tall when the Selective Service Board letter arrived. I tipped the scales at 134 pounds. I had spent 21 years trying to put meat on my bones. To no avail I had swilled milk shakes laced with raw eggs. I had been threatened with being sent to a special summer camp where they would fatten me up. I had, to put it bluntly, made my mother sick with anxiety over my skinny malink physique.

The letter transformed her. Oh, she continued to dote over how much I ate. But her mission now was to reduce, not increase, my consumption. She became a partner in my plan to beat the draft by adhering to the Stillman Water Diet to lose 10 pounds in 10 days.

Dr. Stillman’s diet permitted only proteins. No starches, fats or carbohydrates. No fruit. No vegetables. Only meats, poultry, fish, hard boiled eggs, all accompanied by 80 ounces of water a day.

On the day of my physical—May 6, 1970—I weighed 124 pounds. A seven pound cushion in case the military chose to keep me for three days to fatten me up. Today, I am still a six footer. I weigh 165 pounds. I think I am skinny. Just imagine how I must have looked 40 pounds lighter.

I received a one year 1Y physical deferment. The Army didn’t keep me for three days. To celebrate, I walked over to the mess hall for a truly delicious meal of breaded veal cutlet, corn niblets, mashed potatoes, rye bread, banana cream pie, Coca-Cola. 

Lottery number 139 never came up again in the military’s need for more fodder in Vietnam. I’m forever indebted to Dr. Stillman. He died in 1975. He was 79. Ronnie is still adorning people—she designs and sells her own jewelry.

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Streets of New York Are Just Not the Same


Every weekday a copy of Gothamist Daily arrives by email. Gothamist, its Website says, is “about New York City news, arts and events, and food, brought to you by New York Public Radio.”

More often than not I just scan the headlines, but one tickled my interest last week. Written by Jeremiah Moss, the article was entitled, “The Diamond District: ‘One Of The Last New York Blocks Left In Manhattan.’” 


I share these with you because my family has a link to the Diamond District, the stretch of West 47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. The wedding band I wear on my left hand, the wedding band and engagement ring Gilda has worn, the same for my brother’s wife and my sister, and the baubles that adorned our mother, all came from the Diamond District. But not from just any merchant of jewels along that street of treasures. Ours came from the shop our mother’s sister, Aunt Vicki, and her husband, Uncle Harry, had at 55 West 47th Street. They had prime real estate in the Diamond Exchange building—a window kiosk to dazzle the imagination of any lady and her paramour. 

Fifty years ago, when I was most familiar with 47th Street, the Diamond Exchange housed a honeycombed floor of activity. It might still do so today. I do not know. Aunt Vicki and Uncle Harry relocated their business to Los Angeles in the 1970s. 

For a more personal perspective, I emailed the Gothamist article to one of their sons, my cousin Stanley. Also a jeweler, Stanley shared his memories vis-a-vis those of Jeremiah Moss:

“Interestingly....this is obviously the 47th Street of today....not the 1960’s and 70’s.

When we were there, there was no falafel and such. It was Berger’s deli, the Smokehouse restaurant or the Blarney Stone. 

“The Persians came to America, especially Great Neck (where his family lived), in the late 1970’s, the Israelis in the 1980’s. 

“The character of the street changed dramatically, both the people and the jewelry itself. 

“Many of the sons of successful jewelers actually moved off the street and into offices upstairs, away from the “new” riffraff. LOL 

“By the late 1990’s, the old timers, the Eastern European Jews....many with numbers tattooed on their arms were gone. Passed away or retired to Florida. 

Walking down 47th Street is just not the same.”


Broadway Blues: I could say the same for Broadway from 8th Street to Houston Street. It was on that stretch of pavement that my father’s factory jumped from one address to the next as his leases came up every five years or so forcing him to relocate either because the rent became too high or the landlord, in many cases New York University, opted to turn factory lofts into upscale apartments. 

718 Broadway. Then 692 Broadway (above Tower Records). Then 683 Broadway. Then 611 Broadway (above what is now a Crate & Barrel). From the mid 1950s to the late 1970s the factory ricocheted along Broadway. It was one of many owned by small manufacturers sewing lingerie and knitwear in buildings 10-12 stories high with service establishments on the ground floor. 

When residents, not businesses, started populating the buildings, NYU turned street level space into a shopping and restaurant mecca. Even Bloomingdale’s chose to open a store on Broadway as the retail district expanded to Canal Street. 

A mall without doors. As my cousin Stan said of 47th Street, Broadway today is just not the same. 


The Rent’s Too Damn High: Sunday’s New York Times provided another sad glimpse of the changing Manhattan landscape. Chelsea Convenience Hardware is closing, a victim mostly of a steep rent increase and the evolving way consumers shop (https://nyti.ms/2QGNbwA).

After reading the article, take a few moments to read some of the comments. Mom and Pop stores close not just because of rent increases, or Amazon, or competition from big box retailers. Or maybe because their service and selection were sub-par. Or a combination of all factors. 

But whatever the reason(s), one cannot disagree that the landscape of a neighborhood changes. It’s just not the same. 

Friday, November 22, 2019

Go Ahead, Investigate


Let’s assume for a moment that Joe Biden remains the frontrunner for the Democratic Party presidential nomination and becomes its standard bearer. All the while he would be subjected to a withering attack by Donald Trump and his henchmen about his alleged improper interference in Ukraine’s investigation of corruption.

Wouldn’t it be more advantageous to Biden and the Democrats to welcome an investigation of his activities in Ukraine, even if it is by a Senate committee chaired by Republican Lindsey Graham (https://apple.news/AE77c2J_rSMO7QmZAxgtyEg)? If Graham’s committee displays bias the Democrats could always convene a House investigation that would afford Biden a more evenhanded venue. Such a House probe could call witnesses Graham might not wish to testify.  

If Biden is telling the truth, that he did nothing improper, imagine how that would buttress his candidacy and undermine Trump’s. It’s a play he should be willing to undertake to squelch not the drip, drip, drip of Trumpian tweets but the deluge of misinformation and outright lies cast his way. 

Republicans also want to investigate Hunter Biden’s role as a director of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. For someone with no background in the energy field, Hunter was paid a ridiculous amount of money. Millions, it has been reported.

What Republicans are forgetting is what transpires in the Senate can be replicated in the Democratically controlled House. Donald Trump’s children can be investigated by multiple House committees for their international and domestic businesses. Just as Hunter Biden is maligned for trading on his father’s position as vice president the Trump progeny can be scrutinized for how their businesses benefitted from their relationship with the president.

Taking advantage of familial ties to our nation’s chief executive is nothing new. Presidents with siblings or children who created some embarrassing moments include Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan.  


Service to The Crown: If you are among the fans of The Crown, the fictionalized Netflix series on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, you might have already seen episode two of the third season of the series. It is 1965 and the new government of prime minister Harold Wilson is facing a financial crisis. The country’s deficit is running some 800 million pounds. Its only hope of avoiding economic ruin is to receive a cash infusion from the United States. But president Lyndon Baines Johnson is no friend of Wilson (Wilson didn’t support the Vietnam War), so despite the special relationship enjoyed for decades by the two countries, Johnson is loathe to bail out the British.

Spoiler alert—The solution concocted by the Brits is to stroke LBJ’s ego, to soften him up to give them what they want.

All this maneuvering 55 years ago has a very current ring to it. The key to currying favor with Trump parallels the same path. The Saudis knew this and did their best to shower affection on Trump during his state visit. The British did as well. So did France. And China.

Ego enhancement and money in his pocket ignite affection from the grifter-in-chief. Politicians, foreign dignitaries and business executives with their lobbyists know this, too. They have eagerly paid top dollar at Trump hotels. In addition, Trump has squeezed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars from the U.S. treasury to pay for his frequent golf and weekend visits to his various golf courses and resorts. In just the first five months of his presidency, the Secret Service spent more than $250,000 at Trump properties (https://apple.news/AT-qUCIbxScC2kjjCdeh9lg). 

Though Trump was shamed into cancelling the G-7 economic meeting at the Trump National Doral in Miami, the Republican National Committee has jumped in to pick up some of the revenue slack by booking its winter meeting at the resort. 


Taking Credit: Even fabulously successful businessmen get caught up with Trump infallibility. In Texas Thursday Trump took credit for the opening of a plant that makes Apple computers. He did so while standing next to Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive officer.

Cook knew the plant had opened in 2013, during Obama's presidency, but he chose not to correct Trump, not to his face or in subsequent comments. 

It is speculated that truth-talking is less important than corporate profits which Trump could affect through his tariff policies (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/21/business/dealbook/trump-apple-tim-cook.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share).


Thursday, November 21, 2019

Expect Impeachment But No Conviction


After three sometimes gripping, at time contentious, sometimes pedestrian days of hearings by the House Intelligence Committee, the questions to be answered are, Did Donald Trump’s actions rise to the level of an impeachable offense? And, given the Democratic Party majority on the committee and on the Judiciary Committee which would have to pass impeachment charges, and its majority in the full House of Representatives which has to affirm the charges which would then be sent to the Senate for consideration, is there any prospect that the Republican controlled Senate will vote to convict and thereby remove Trump from office?

Yes, the House will vote along party lines to impeach; no, the Senate will not vote to remove.

There was no smoking gun testimony as there was during the Watergate hearings and impeachment inquiry. No secret tapes (as far as we know). Nothing and nobody to testify to direct person to person dialogue with Trump about his actions to withhold congressionally approved military aid to an ally unless Ukraine investigated Joe and Hunter Biden.

Unless, and it is a big unless, former national security director John Bolton chooses to testify. Assuming, of course, that he would finger Trump for actions specifically in violation of his oath of office. 

At the end of the day Trump will get off with no more than a slap on the wrist. Like a cookie jar pilferer who gets caught by an admonishing mother, he no doubt will return to equally provocative acts, believing that as long as the Senate remains Republican controlled he will be immune from removal.

Here’s another question central to our democracy—when, if ever, will Republicans return to their long held beliefs? When will they once again condemn executive office overreach? When will they recall their opposition to a ballooning national debt and their desire for a balanced budget? When will they again champion unfettered foreign trade not hamstrung by tariffs? When will they advocate for strong and respectful international alliances? When will they rebuke a president who trusts Russia more than his own intelligence agencies?

Is the answer only when Democrats regain the presidency?

Have we so tribalized our politics that we cannot accept any action by a president from the opposition party, and the corollary, that we blindly accept whatever “our guy (or  gal)” does?

Has our politics become so toxic that anyone we disagree with immediately becomes the object of smear campaigns and physical threats? 

Don’t expect answers from me. I’m as perplexed, as depressed, as woebegone as you. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

News of the Day and Tomorrow: Nikki Haley, Trees, Thanksgiving and Black Friday


Profile in Discouragement: Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley appeared Sunday on CBS Sunday Morning. In a segment of the interview conducted by Norah O’Donnell about the impeachment inquiry, Haley said, “The biggest thing that bothers me is the American people should decide this. Why do we have a bunch of people in Congress making this decision?”

For a public figure who many are touting as a future Republican presidential candidate, the former South Carolina governor demonstrated a naive understanding of government. Haley should realize that senators and representatives are sent to Washington not just to rubber stamp their state’s voter preferences or to blithely rubber stamp or reject a president’s agenda, but also to be leaders, to exhibit profiles in courage by supporting positions that are good for the country even if they are not compatible with the narrow interests of their respective electorates or political parties. They, after all, swore an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. No such avowal is required of the general population, though newly enfranchised citizens and members of the armed services swear their allegiance to our country.

Moreover, to follow through on Haley’s premise, surveys have shown a sizable majority of Americans believe in compulsory background checks before a gun may be purchased. Similarly, other gun control measures are majority-favored. Yet Republicans continue to refrain from enacting any such proposals. 

Taken a step further, what Haley seems to be endorsing is the supreme executive, a president who really does not require any other branch of government. His or her way or the highway for anyone who disagrees with the chief executive. 

The impeachment proceedings and a Senate trial will show in startling relief just how far Republicans have subsumed their allegiance to the Constitution in favor of service to a president who has obstructed justice and encouraged foreign interference in our “free” elections. 

Later in the interview Haley acknowledged that Donald Trump’s verbal assaults on four first term congresswomen, telling them to go back to their own countries even though they are all U.S. citizens, was unbecoming from a president. But she defended his actions, saying of the representatives categorized by Trump as “the squad,” “Don’t bash America over and over again and not do something to try and fix it.” 

Huh? Has she not been keeping abreast of policy initiatives they have put forward? I don’t agree with all of their proposals but clearly they have been trying to do something to improve our country.


Tree Time: Last week a Norway Spruce from upstate New York started its travel to Manhattan for its crowning as the annual Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center. The tree will be festooned with appropriate decorations—some 50,000 lights— in time for a December 4 unveiling on live television. 

Gilda and I are “big tree” fans, and by that I mean we really like trees, especially big trees. Our favorite is a copper beech, or mostly any beech variety. 

One of our more interesting days while visiting Scotland recently was a visit to Dawyck Botanic Garden, a 65 acre garden and arboreta eight miles south of Peebles. The trees are magnificent, especially the Douglas firs. 

You might be interested to know that the majestic Douglas fir, so common in the Pacific Northwest, is named for a Scottish botanist, David Douglas, who “discovered” them during an 1824-27 expedition. He brought seeds of the Douglas fir and about 10 other conifers back to Britain.

While on the subject of trees, Normandy, France, is known for its apple trees. But the French, at least in Normandy, don’t eat the fruit. Rather, they wait until their particular specie of apple tree drops its fruit. The apples are then gathered and fermented into hard cider. As the climate in Normandy is not conducive to growing grapes for wine, cider with an alcoholic kick makes life très jolie. 


Once an Editor …: I’ve been retired for more than 10 years now from Chain Store Age but my LinkedIn page still attracts onlookers every week. Recently I’ve been inundated by one head hunter organization sending me job opportunities. I’m flattered but not interested.

Perhaps my admirers are impressed that retailers are coming around to my way of thinking, at least when it comes to one of my fervent opinions. About a dozen years ago I editorialized that the madness of Black Friday was demeaning to customers and store employees. As retailers desperately tried to corral more consumers they chose not to wait until Friday morning. Many opened their doors on Thanksgiving Day itself, another intrusion on family get-togethers, particularly for store personnel who had to leave hearth and home to harness hostile shoppers intent on beating anyone in their way to a desired purchase.

It’s not a tidal wave yet, but I am encouraged by the number of chain store companies that will be closed all day on Thanksgiving. Here’s a list of the retailers I am aware of: Army and Air Force Exchange Service, Academy Sports and Outdoors, Ace Hardware, BJ’s, Costco, Hobby Lobby, HomeGoods, Lowe’s, Marshalls, Petco, Sam’s Club, Sierra Trading Post, Stein Mart, T.J. Maxx, True Value.