Monday, November 30, 2009

Rites of the First Born

I find myself staring at Finley’s picture for minutes on end. Perhaps all first-time grandparents do the same, caught up in the thrill of looking at their line extension, at the blissful beauty of an innocent face sleeping peacefully. I just turned the desktop screensaver of my computer into a Finley picture frame, first time I ever put a picture on it. But I wonder—will I do the same for the next grandchild? For my daughter’s first child when he or she arrives?

When my parents’ first grandchild, my brother’s son, showed up, they were still relatively young and vibrant. Dad was 64, Mom 58 (Gilda and I are 60—don’t worry, she has no problem revealing her age). They cradled Eric in their arms. Bounced him on their knees. Mom tried to stuff him with chicken noodle soup. When Eric was old enough to hang on, his grandfather turned into a bucking bronco. All those westerns Dad watched proved to be invaluable training.

Three years later Dan was born. He was their second grandchild, followed within the next nine months by my sister’s first child, Ari, and Eric’s sister, Karen. Mom and Dad tried to be as excited, but the novelty and age with its creeping infirmities made these family additions a little less dramatic. I can’t recall Dad ever dropping down on all fours and giving Dan a ride on his back.

It’s only natural that the first born, child or grandchild, is showered with the most attention, but the desire to “not behave like our parents” is deeply rooted. Only time will tell if I am successful. I didn’t always succeed when raising Dan and Ellie. My inner ear caught me repeating phrases my parents hurled at me when growing up, phrases I had vowed never to say to my children.

Perhaps with more diligence and awareness, and with better health, I will do better when the next grandchild, and the next one after that...arrives.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Roads Not Traveled

During the last 32 years my work provided one of the all-time great benefits. I was able to travel extensively throughout the United States and abroad, often with my wife, sometimes even with our children. Because of my work we’ve visited England, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Germany, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Japan, Spain and Gibraltar. My travels transported me to all but five states—Alaska, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and New Mexico.

Through these trips I managed to see some of the wonders of the world and America. One Sunday before a new Montgomery Ward store opened in Colorado Springs, I drove up nearby Pikes Peak. I observed alligators and crocodiles in the Everglades, walked the Alamo (much smaller in real life than in the movies), hiked among the redwoods of Muir Woods outside San Francisco and down part of the path of the Grand Canyon, visited the Emperor’s Palace Gardens in Tokyo, the spas of Carlsbad inside the Czech Republic, The Tower of London, The Berlin Wall and East Berlin, to name just a few.

I don’t want to give the impression that these business trips were all play. Indeed, I regret not doing more. For instance, a business friend of mine took advantage of his trips to watch a baseball game in almost all of the major league ballparks. I should have done that. And I didn’t visit some of the great museums in cities like Chicago, or Los Angeles.

But the most disappointing aspect of my travels only recently came to light with the airing of The National Parks, America’s Best Idea, a PBS documentary. Hour after hour Gilda and I sat spellbound by not only the natural beauty of our land but also by the stories of individuals, private citizens and civil servants, who exulted in and shaped our national treasures. I’ve been to California at least 30 times, but never visited Yosemite. Not tragic, but truly disappointing.

Our children, Dan and Ellie, have traveled cross country by car. The only family picture in our bedroom is a black and white print of them sitting atop a crest overlooking a mountain range in Zion National Park in southwest Utah.

I never fully appreciated Dan’s passion for the parks, his desire to get married under one of the arches in Utah’s Arches National Park. He settled for getting married overlooking the Hudson River, but after seeing the Ken Burns documentary, I understand, a little better, his rapture with the parks.

When Gilda eventually retires, we’ll be taking a long trip out West, discovering all that we missed along roads not traveled in states we think we already experienced.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Rodents and Other Must-Have Toys

It’s been 20 years or so since I’ve looked through a Toys “R” Us circular in earnest. But grandparenthood has a way of pulling you back to earlier, more simple times.

Hold it. I’m not sure of that last thought about simpler times, how accurate it is.

The other day I saw a piece on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric that examined the inventory shortage of the hottest toy of the year. What toy is driving kids crazy? It’s a furry hamster on wheels! A rodent! Kids want to play with rodents! Check it out, on kGbEGKL

For those who couldn’t load the video clip, here’s a link to a story from Saturday’s NY Times,

Now, before you go saying that Mickey Mouse is a rodent, as is Mighty Mouse, and Rocky is a squirrel, and Chip and Dale are chipmunks, let me point out that all these furry hamsters do is move in the direction you point them, or in the (curved) tracks you lay in front of them.

Sure they’re cute. But if this is what it will mean to be a grandparent, finding the must-have toy for my grandchildren, I have a lot of re-education to go through.

When our daughter Ellie was almost three years old, her favorite doll was a big, hard plastic-faced one she called Sally. Sally looked really ratty. Her blonde hair was a mess. Her clothing was Salvation Army salvage. Ellie loved Sally, but her parents had a hard time allowing her to take Sally out in public. They thought it would look more appropriate to their station in life if Ellie was seen hugging a Cabbage Patch Kid.

Trouble was, CPK’s were in short supply. You couldn’t find them anywhere. Parents were desperate, willing to pay as much as 10 times the regular price.

In October of that year Gilda and I attended a retail conference. During dinner one night we sat with Burt Adelman, the head of Lamston’s, a NY-based variety store chain, and his wife, Bunny. Bunny and Gilda, along with my boss’s wife Trudy, schemed up a plan to trick Burt into securing a Cabbage Patch Kid for Ellie’s upcoming birthday in December. To Bunny’s question of what Ellie wanted, Gilda replied a Cabbage Patch Kid, but none could be found anywhere. Burt took the bait and, sure enough, within a week’s time a box appeared on our doorstep.

But that’s not the end of the story. No sooner had we put away the doll than an invitation arrived at my office from Coleco, the licensee of the CPK franchise. For the first time ever it was sponsoring a CPK float in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. My family and another of my choosing were invited to view the parade from the balcony of the Sheraton Manhattan Hotel. My brother’s family came with us.

It was an exciting day. The huge parade balloons were at eye level. Though it was bitter cold outside, we were toasty warm inside, eating a sumptuous brunch. As a token of their appreciation for our attendance, Coleco gave the four youngsters in our group their own CPK dolls, plus assorted CPK merchandise such as lunchboxes, earmuffs and records. For good measure we also took home two dolls that were table centerpieces. Ellie now had more CPK dolls waiting for her attention than almost any other kid alive.

You’ve probably guessed by now...Ellie couldn’t care less for any of them. All she wanted was Sally. We wound up giving away all but one CPK. Of course, several years later Ellie did develop a love of Cabbage Patch Kids and we had to go out and buy a whole new family of dolls for her.

I might be a little rusty, but I’m definitely experienced at this must-have toy mania.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Special Person's Day

I could tell from Maggie’s expression that she couldn’t see me among the hundreds of adults amassed before her. I was sitting way in the back for her third grade Special Person’s Day assembly. In retrospect, I would have been easier to spot had I been standing, but I didn’t think of it soon enough. At first, I had a hard time finding my eight-year-old grand-niece as well, but it turned out I was directly in front of her, 30 long yards away as she stood with her classmates on the stage at the front of the large hall, a red bandana atop her hair. I repeatedly waved, but she didn’t see me.

The singing began, patriotic songs in honor of Veterans' Day. Between the first and second songs I read Maggie’s lips as she whispered to Sam standing next to her, “I think my uncle is not here.”

She kept scanning the audience. She was going through the motions singing the songs, visibly sad thinking I wasn’t there. I ached to call out. I sat up as straight as I could, hoping she’d pick me out. And then, during the next to last song that thanked the special persons for coming to school today, she saw me. Her eyes twinkled. She smiled, and for the rest of the song her right sleeve brushed her eyes several times. I misted up as well, relieved, and I projected out that in a few years my grandson will experience similar days at school with his special persons, a different one every year.

Once you’ve given your commitment to attend, you can’t expect a child to understand why you didn’t make it to school that day, on time. Traffic, work, petty illness—nothing can get in your way. Nothing can top that moment of recognition when you lock eyes and the child knows you cared enough to be there, that he or she mattered more than anything else in your life.

Special Person’s Day started out many years ago as Grandparent’s Day. Someone figured out that death and distance precluded some children from having a loved one in attendance, so the event was changed to Special Person’s Day. At our children’s elementary school, Gilda pushed through the changeover while she was PTA president. She’d gotten the idea from my brother’s wife, Annette. Their children’s school in Rockville, Md., had made the transition.

I wasn’t the first Special Person Maggie had invited. Her father and our daughter Ellie secured the honor in prior years. But it’s good to know that, no matter what year, being a special person provides lasting enjoyment for both the child and the adult.

A Name for the Ages

The coincidental timing of current events with the biblical narrative as it plays out in the weekly readings of the Torah can be eerily comforting.

Last week my grandson, Finley Hawthorne Forseter, was born (follow his blog at As is the custom in Jewish families, Finley’s Hebrew name was given to him at his Bris, his ritual circumcision, which occurred yesterday. He was given the name Yakov (Jacob) in honor of my deceased father and his mother’s paternal grandfather who passed away a year ago. My dad’s Hebrew name was Yakov. James Mixter Sr. was not Jewish, but James usually is translated as Yakov.

Each week in synagogue, Jews read a portion of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses). The full portion, referred to as a parsha, is read on Saturday morning. But on Monday and Thursday mornings the first 12 or so sentences of the longer portion are read. Sort of like a preview of what is to come on Saturday.

During the fall, the readings comes from the Book of Genesis. Last week’s Torah portion was titled Toledot, (Generations, in English). It begins at Chapter 25, verse 19 of Genesis, with the birth of twins to Rebecca and Isaac. Yakov was one of those twins, Esau the other. Finley was born at 7:01 am, right around the time last Monday morning when Yakov’s birth would have been read in synagogue.

This was not the first time the story of the patriarch Yakov impressed itself on the narrative of my family. The week my father died in 1998, the parsha of the week recounted the last days of Yakov’s life in Egypt. I was struck at the time by the commonalities Yakov and my father shared. Yakov died in a land not his own, a land he traveled to when adversity, a famine, struck his homeland, Canaan. My father, too, fled his native land, Poland, right before the outbreak of World War II. Like Yakov, my father and his family prospered in a new world.

Like Yakov, my father was a patriarch. He was a leader not only to his family but also to many of his business associates, the synagogue in Brooklyn he served as president for many years, and to the many refugees from the little village of Ottynier who left to find a better life. For many, many years he was president of the First Ottynier Young Men’s Benevolent Association.

I met James Mixter Sr. just two or three times, but it was obvious he was a man of warmth and uncompromising integrity. He was a leader in his own right. Prior to last year’s New Hampshire presidential primary, John McCain personally called James Sr. to discuss what needed to be done to secure his support. You don’t have to agree with a man’s politics to appreciate the values and standing he brings to a community.

Finley Hawthorne Forseter, Yakov Forseter, sockless for now, has some mighty big shoes to fill.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Oprah Packs It In

Oprah Winfrey will end her syndicated broadcast talk show in September 2011. 9/11. Funny how some dates forever are associated with significant events.

Oprah’s decision to abdicate network television in favor of cable for her own channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network, will have financial repercussions throughout the media industry, including for Oprah herself. At this time there are no plans to shift the Oprah Winfrey Show, network television’s top-rated talk show, onto her cable network. No matter how it affects others, I’m betting on Oprah to come out on top. To be sure, she’s had setbacks. Everyone does, including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, and anyone else who takes risks. As the first Afro-American billionaire, she’s proven she’s a savvy businessperson.

Though her gabfest has aired for 23 years, Oprah’s one hour presence on my TV screen through the years can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Oh sure, I’ve seen clips of some of her famous interviews rebroadcast on TV news reports and YouTube, but I’ve sat through an entire show less than a handful of times. I do recognize that she has entertained, informed and influenced our society for nearly a quarter of a century by advancing our national dialogue on a wide range of issues. I’m not trying to be elitist or snobbish with my diffidence toward her show. It’s just that her show is not really my cup of tea.

For that matter, I’m not a Judge Judy or an Ellen or a Jerry Springer type of guy, either. Nor do I like to listen to Entertainment Tonight or the Insider, especially lately now that they’ve stopped pure “reporting” and gone into a more confrontational format of bickering panelists. Is anyone out there listening to the volume of distaste and diatribe our society is spewing out there every day, be it from The View or from Fox “News” Network or CNBC?

We have totally abandoned civility. How can individual acts of kindness compete with terabytes of tantrums?

I am aware of no instance where Oprah Winfrey degraded a guest. Yes, she took some to task, like the author whose book she touted who turned out to be a fake. But her reputation as a cultural icon stemmed from her treatment of others with respect. By others I mean not only her guests in the studio and on stage, but also the seven million guests who tuned in almost daily to be enlightened and uplifted.

September 9, 2011, will be her last network broadcast. I might tune in that day.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Black Friday Madness

We are a few days away from one of the consumer- and media-frenzy days of the year. Perhaps second only to election day, Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving when most retailers launch massive early morning sales promotions—is an occasion for the media to trot out their vast resources to cover the story. Helicopters hover over crowded shopping centers, reporters wade into throngs of shoppers, cameramen angle for the best shot of the hordes galloping into and thrashing about, and sometimes trashing, stores in search of loss-leader bargains galore. At the end of the day, reporters opine on the meaning behind Black Friday as a portend of full holiday season sales, even though the history of retailing during the last decade or longer reveals that Black Friday no longer carries such importance. Rather, the weekend before Christmas and the week after have eclipsed it, while the Internet has intermediated it as well.

But the public needs its images, so Black Friday has turned into a circus, promoted by a willing combination of media and retail companies, each group with its own economic wish list it wants fulfilled.

For the record, Black Friday refers to the day when, in the past, retailers finally saw their balance sheets for the year turn profitable because of all the post-Thanksgiving sales rung up. True or not, the day after Thanksgiving has come to enjoy notoriety beyond its real importance.

This year’s Black Friday also will commemorate the senseless death of a Wal-Mart temporary worker, Jdimytai Damour , trampled last year by unruly crowds in a Valley Stream, N.Y., store. The incident gave an unfortunate true meaning to the term “door buster” sales.

For more than 30 years I observed retail companies plan the hype for Black Friday, with little regard to customer or worker safety. Last year’s tragedy, not the first time life and limb sustained damage, prompted renewed emphasis on security. The NY Times recently detailed some of the precautions Wal-Mart and other retailers will employ. Tactics will include opening Thanksgiving morning at 6 a.m. and remaining open through Friday evening, as well as patrolling entrances and supervising lines near most-wanted merchandise that will go on sale at 5 a.m. Friday. Here’s a link to the article,

But lost amid the rush to buy and sell is the loss of dignity foisted on our consumer society. Why do retailers create the conditions that turn customers into desperadoes? Why do retailers turn their workers into hall monitors at best, untrained policemen at worst? Why will they now steal from them one of the few days, Thanksgiving, when they could be home with their families? These are not life’s necessities being promoted. Customers could wait another day to buy, and workers another day to sell, flat screen televisions or digital cameras.

With an unforgiving economy making shoppers more eager than ever to secure the lowest price possible, I fear for the safety of anyone who is foolish or desperate enough to shop early, or unfortunate enough to have to work those pre-dawn hours. Last November in my retail industry magazine, I editorialized that “the frenzy of early-morning specials demeans shoppers and workers and puts them at physical risk. I fear that this year’s economic condition will supercharge Black Friday madness. Any store that does not safeguard shoppers and staff with adequate security will be negligent, morally if not criminally.”

Let’s hope that sanity and security abound this Black Friday and that we have no more economic casualties like Jdimytai Damour.

Friday, November 20, 2009

What's in a Name, Part II

Gilda and I will be making our way up north this weekend in advance of our grandson’s Brit Milah (also known simply as a Bris, a ritual circumcision) on Monday.

Finley Hawthorne Forseter is just four days old but already he’s giving me angst. No, it has nothing to do with the Bris. It has everything to do with a name. Not his. Mine! What will he call me once he’s able to articulate syllables?

It’s not as if I have a year or so to make my choice. His parents have advised they will be preconditioning him to my name (and that of his grandmother) in the days, weeks and months ahead. So the selection has to be made pretty quickly.

Sabah (Hebrew for grandfather) is out. I’m just not comfortable with that affectation. Gramps, Grandpa, Grandpa Murray...I’m really at a loss.

Any suggestions?

Tech Breakthrough

Yesterday I experienced a major technology breakthrough.

I joined both Facebook and Twitter.

Now that I’ve posted more than 50 blog entries, it looks like it may be more than just a passing interest. So to get in front of as many eyeballs as possible, some of my more tech savvy friends (that’s all of you) have urged me to go on Facebook and Twitter.

In advance I apologize if that means some of you receive multiple notices of new postings as I will continue to send out email alerts. Thanks for your understanding and continued readership.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Educated Consumer

Sy Syms died Tuesday. One of the earliest apparel off-price retailers whose tag line was “An Educated Consumer Is Our Best Customer”, Syms is largely responsible for one of my main dilemmas in retirement—what should I do with all the suits and sports jackets I no longer am required to wear?

When I started working in Manhattan in March 1977, I owned two suits, a light brown corduroy suit and my blue wedding tuxedo. Work on Park Avenue mandated a more extensive business wardrobe, but my salary at the time dictated a prudent approach. Through my sister-in-law Annette I discovered the value of being a Syms shopper, especially if you obtained a Syms credit card. Only by using the Syms credit card could you get your money back if you returned any purchase. Otherwise, you’d get a store credit. That was a deal clincher for me, as anyone aware of my shopping habits knows I am the consummate return artist, almost never fully satisfied with anything I purchase. No matter how good the deal, I’m always comparing prices and value in subsequent stores I visit.

Shortly after Syms opened a store in Westchester not far from our home I became a real clothing addict. The compulsion to buy and buy even more got more complicated when Syms opened a store one block away from my office about 10 years ago.

I’m embarrassed to say that even though I haven’t bought a suit or jacket in more than a year, currently hanging in my closet are 15 suits and 22 sports coats and more dress pants, shirts and ties than I care to count. There are outfits for all seasons, but the hard numbers cannot be glossed over. Even when I go to synagogue I rarely wear a suit, though as stated in a past blog, I do wear socks.

Yes, I could, and have, donated clothing. But I still can’t totally accept that this retirement gig is permanent, so I’m reluctant to part with my stash of threads. I figure that as long as I don’t gain or lose too much weight (I have lost a few pounds in retirement), I won’t have to buy any new tailored clothing, regardless of my future status.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

All Aboard!

Pop-up stores are all the rage in retailing these days. For the uninitiated, a pop-up store is a temporary location, usually a kiosk or vacant storefront, in a high pedestrian traffic area. Retailers and consumer goods marketers use pop-up stores to promote new products or take advantage of prime selling seasons in areas where they have no stores. In the past, pop-up stores in Manhattan have featured Charmin’ toilet paper and Meow Mix cat food. Target has plopped a pop-up store in Manhattan, where it has no outlets.

The latest pop-up store to crash the NY market comes from Lionel Electric Trains. The 109-year-old company opened its first ever retail location Thursday at Rockefeller Center, on 50th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues (editor’s aside—I particularly liked the fact that Lionel’s release said 6th Avenue and not Avenue of the Americas). The 1,100 sq. ft. store will stay open through January 5.

Train sets and the holidays go hand in hand. The Citicorp Center between Lexington and Third Avenues at E. 53rd St. turned its basement atrium into a model railroad paradise for some 20 years. But the bank announced last year that it would not lease the 31-train display as part of its fiscal belt tightening. Reuters reported the savings would be about $240,000. Bad news for the some 125,000 people who came each year to view the trains circle a route from Weehawken, NJ, to a fictional town in the Hudson River valley, then up to the Catskills and the Adirondacks.

One of my favorite toys growing up was a Lionel train set. Even more fun than just playing with it alone was when I combined my tracks and cars with those of my friends Lenny and Richie. We’d spend hours trying to assemble the best layout, hooking up our three heavy transformers, and then, just when we were ready to chug off, one of our mothers would end the fun by calling out, “Supper time.” Then the disagreements began over who owned which track. We’d argue and vow never to share again, a preview of modern-day merger and acquisition corporate fallouts. Our pique usually lasted until the next day.

The best train set-up I ever saw as a boy was in my cousins’ home in Garden City, Long Island. In the sub-basement of their split-level home, Uncle Ben had built a massive landscape, elevated on plywood sheets. It was an HO gauge model, smaller than a Lionel set. But it had lots of moving parts, a platform where milk cans could be loaded onto a freight car, blinking lights warned of approaching trains, and a gate came down to block cars from crossing the track when the train whizzed by.

Trains, real or models, are a constant source of fascination. A train is said to be among the best locales for a movie or play (think Twentieth Century, or Murder on the Orient Express, North by Northwest, Silver Streak, The General, The Lady Vanishes or Van Ryan’s Express, to name just a handful). They bring out the inner child in us. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sockless in Massachusetts

I had been meaning to write a blog about my pending grandparenthood. Baby Boy Forseter’s due date was December 6. Plenty time to collect my thoughts. Plenty time startled awake at 4:36 this morning by a phone call from our son Dan saying Allison’s water had broken during the night, they were at the hospital and Allison was 5 cm dilated! By 5:09 the count had climbed to 9.5 cm!!!

Yikes. Finley Hawthorne Forseter arrived at 7:01. His paternal grandparents made the mad dash to Newton Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts and saw him at 9:40.

Yippee. And more emotions than I can recount here. You may be waiting for some grand eloquence on seeing the next generation presented before you, but I’m too overwhelmed at the moment.

Still a little skeptical about Finley’s genealogical purity as a Forseter. For one, he’s got normal sized and shaped ears. Second, he hasn’t cried all day. Third, his intestines seem to be working just fine. Fourth, he popped out in just a few hours, unlike his father and Aunt Ellie who each spent more than half a day floating down the birth canal, much to their mother’s “delight.”

Of course, he does have one factor in his favor. Like his father (and no doubt his mother) and his aunt, he is a B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L baby. I’m not expressing bias. It’s my considered opinion as a journalist with skills honed during 40 years of reporting truth, justice and the American way.

That’s it from the new baby home front. And yes, I entered grandparenthood as sockless as Finley entered this world.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What's in a Name?

My given name suffers from Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome—it gets no respect!

Can you think of another name more associated with comical characters? Consider...there was Murray the Dog on Mad About You. Murray the Cop on The Odd Couple. Murray the Robot in something called The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, a 2009 movie based on a comic book series by Rob Zombie.

According to one reviewer, the animated film “follows the craziness of El Superbeasto (Tom Papa), his one-eyed, slutty sister Suzi-X (Sheri Moon Zombie) and the horny robot that she built named Murray the Robot (Brian Posehn). The three, mostly Suzi-X and Murray the Robot, must battle through hordes of zombie Nazis and stop the evil Dr. Satan (Paul Giamatti) from marrying Velvet Von Black (Rosario Dawson), who is a stripper that El Superbeasto is lusting for and the only woman who can turn Dr. Satan into the powerful monster he wants to be.”

Gee, I always wanted to be in an adventure movie. No comment on the horny aspect of my character. By the way, here’s a link to the actor who voices Murray the Robot. You’ll recognize him from Just Shoot Me or The Sarah Silverman Show.

I was reading the Sunday NY Times Arts & Leisure section today, an interview with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner on their 2000-year-old man shtick, when I came across this bit of interplay:

REINER: (He notices that Mr. Brooks is twiddling his thumbs.) Now watch this. Who was the first one to twiddle his thumbs?

BROOKS: Murray.

REINER: Murray? (He laughs)

BROOKS: Murray, the cave man.

REINER: What made him twiddle his thumbs?

BROOKS: He couldn’t go on the hunt. He had hurt his foot very badly the day before, a musk oxen had hurt his foot the day before, so he was in the thumb—he was in the cave, twiddling his thumbs. He was the first one to betray this nervous disorder, thumb twiddling. And when we all came back, we noticed it. We said, “Murray, kung voo roch mush?” We talked in a different language.

REINER: Yes, I see.

BROOKS: Cave talk (for) “Why the hell are you twiddling your thumbs.”

It’s an honor to be part of Mel Brooks’ and Carl Reiner’s zaniness (here’s a link to the full interview,, but did you notice that Reiner laughed at the mere mention of my name?

Perhaps, forget perhaps...positively, the most tenacious Murray tormentors are the creative people behind the Muppets and Sesame Street. They have no less than eight Murray characters: Murray, a member of the All Monster and a Guy Named Murray Chorus; Murray Monster; Murray the Minstrel from Fraggle Rock; Murray the Mediocre (magician); Little Murray Sparkles; Murray Beethoven, the honker; Murray Matisse; and just plain Murray, a furry blue monster from We All Sing Together. Check them out,

They’re not even apologetic. Here’s what Sesame Street puppeteer and head writer Joey Mazzarino had to say about using the name Murray:

“We were trying to figure out a name and I think a crew guy or a producer said he looks furry, how about Furry Murray? My grandpa’s name was Murray, and I was always naming characters Murray, like Little Murray Sparkles, there’s a Murray in the Halloween video. And I was like great, it’s my grandpa’s name, so I’m going to use it. And then the Word on the Street thing came about, and there was a marketing campaign behind it as a promo for the show, and we were trying to figure out who to use, and they said they really liked those Murray and kid videos, and we took a chance. People saw it and recognized it as Sesame Street right away, so it turned out to be really great. And then we did those Murray Has a Little Lamb pieces, and those were the greatest shoots ever.”

My father wanted to name me Max, after a brother who died in the Holocaust. My mother thought Max was too much of an Old World name. They settled on Murray. Max went to my cousin, Uncle Willy’s son. He was constantly teased when growing up, called Maxie the Taxi after an Eddie Cantor diddy. Here’s a link,

You be the judge...would I have been better off as a Murray or a Max?

Friday, November 13, 2009

My Lou Dobbs Story

Lou Dobbs is looking for another job. I hope he doesn’t ask me for one again.

Memories can be tricky. I can’t vouch 100% for this next tale, but I am pretty sure it happened...

Back in the late 1970s, I turned down Lou Dobbs for a job as executive editor of Chain Store Age General Merchandise Edition.

The now famous, or infamous, CNN ex-anchorman wasn’t famous, or infamous, back then. He was a standard TV journalist between station assignments. During our interview it became clear that any print job he secured would be a stopgap position until another one under the klieg lights turned up. So I passed on the opportunity to hire him.

Chain Store Age’s loss was Ted Turner’s gain.

At least that is how I remember it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lingering Thoughts

CBS Evening News with Katie Couric reported tonight that a major coastal storm is hovering over Virginia instead of moving north.

Could it be that God is punishing Virginia for voting in a Republican governor last week? Hey, if fundamentalists can invoke God for their causes, why couldn’t He/She be seen as the cause of disproportionate rain in Virginia when He/She’s not happy with the way humans behave? It wouldn’t be the first time God used a little, okay, a lot, of rain to express displeasure with mankind.

If I lived in New Jersey, to the north of Virginia, I’d seriously be looking into gopher wood stockpiles...

The lingering storm is not the only contributor to GOP angst. Republicans, and even some Democrats, are all over President Obama for taking too long to decide on a new Afghanistan policy. You’d think our political leaders and pundits would have a sense of history.

Do they not recall that 45 years ago Congress rushed to judgment after two U.S. destroyers allegedly were attacked by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin. Less than a week after the alleged incidents, our elected representatives on August 7, 1964, green-lighted the Vietnam War by passing, almost unanimously, the Southeast Asia Resolution, aka the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, granting the president the authority to use military force without having to secure a declaration of war. It is now generally agreed that no such attacks took place.

Many, including myself, have warned that Afghanistan bears too many similarities to the Vietnam debacle. Why would anyone begrudge Obama the time needed to form a valued judgment? Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling to the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Caution, not cowboy diplomacy, is required. Cut the president some slack, and hope, pray, that he reaches a decision that will not burden our country for decades or fill our military cemeteries with the prime of our nation.

The Trench Coat Caper

When she was 21 and getting ready for her first job in New York, according to Tuesday’s NY Times, Angela Ahrendts bought a Burberry trench coat. Today she’s CEO of the iconic British company (

When I was 28 and getting ready for my first editorial job in New York, I decided to buy a trench coat as well. I hadn’t needed one before. Though a reporter, I was no foreign correspondent, unless you classify the Lower Naugatuck Valley of Connecticut as foreign soil. The dapper look of a trench-coated reporter would have been as incongruous as a tuxedo-clad journalist among the factory workers of the Valley. I hardly ever wore a sports jacket or tie, much less a suit. But my new job on Park Avenue required more dignified dress, so a top coat, a trench coat, was in order.

I couldn’t afford a Burberry. I found a more reasonably priced alternative, a Fox Run, light tan, double-breasted coat with a Burberry-inspired design for its removable lining. Apparently, I wasn’t the only newly hired field editor to find the Fox Run trench coat attractive. So did Mike Friedman, a writer for one of our other publications. Mike was a sci-fi aficionado who went on to become an author of Star Trek paperback books. A hastily prepared trip to Cleveland turned out to be a less than fulfilling literary excursion for him.

In his dash to catch a plane, Mike grabbed the first Fox Run coat he saw hanging in the common closet of our office. We wore the same size, so his mistake was not immediately discernible. It was only after he reached for the sci-fi novel he always kept in his front pocket that he realized his mistake. Instead of the book, all he found were my gloves. By then it was too late to return. My coat made it to Cleveland, and back, years before I did. Mike and I exchanged coats when he returned.

The switched coat caper was not the only time my wardrobe was filched from the closet. One Friday afternoon as I prepared to leave for home, I couldn’t find my Yves St. Laurent blue blazer. Thinking back to what happened with Mike, I searched for a sports jacket left behind. But there was no other jacket hanging in the closet. I went home distraught.

To my surprise, Monday morning my blazer was back in the closet where I had left it on Friday, but without any telltale clue, such as a scrunched up movie ticket or a matchbook cover, to reveal where it had been over the weekend. Though none the worse for the wear, I vowed never again to leave anything in the closet. The next day I brought a hanger for my cubicle.

Of course, that didn’t stop a real thief from making me a victim in our office. Back in the more lawless days of the 1980s, I started carrying two wallets, my real one and what I called my “mugger’s wallet” that I kept in the vest pocket of my suit jacket that I now always hung in my cubicle. The mugger’s wallet held a $10 bill, some of my business cards and my frequent flyer and hotel cards that I hoped would confuse a mugger into thinking he had stolen my credit cards.

One evening when leaving work I noticed my mugger’s wallet was missing. More distressing than the actual loss was the realization that someone had been able to infiltrate our office. A few weeks later a building manager several blocks away called to say he had found my wallet and credit cards in a stairwell. At first I told him he was wrong, but then realized he must have my mugger’s wallet. Sure enough, he did. When I picked it up, I noticed all the travel cards shuffled around. The $10 was gone, but the ruse had no doubt frustrated the thief. I smiled all the way back to my office.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans' Day Salutes

I was born in 1949. That means I came of age, draft age, during the height of the Vietnam War. Like 99% of my draft age friends and family, I did not serve in the military. I’m alive today, but not totally sure I’m as complete for it.

Perhaps I’m being naïve and simplistic, and probably too sentimental and starry-eyed, but I’ve swallowed the pap that says military service builds lifelong bonds with a band of brothers. I’ve accepted the Hollywood version of combat as character-building. So my lack of military experience is a missing part of my armor.

It’s Veterans’ Day today, and though I salute the men and women who have protected and continue to guard our liberties, I ultimately have no regrets that I thwarted Johnson’s and McNamara’s desire to send me to a rice paddy half way around the world to be fodder for what is now acknowledged to have been a war that could not be won. Even McNamara, several years before he died, owned up to the evil delusion he perpetrated on our country.

139. That was my March 6 birthday lottery number in 1970, my senior year at Brooklyn College. With my education deferment about to expire, my draft notice came in early spring. Report in 10 days to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn for a physical. Time to put my action plan into practice.

I had read in “1001 Ways to Beat the Draft” that the military had an acceptance table based on weight and height. At six feet, which I was, you had to weigh at least 131 pounds. I weighed 134. I had 10 days to lose enough weight to get under the minimum, and then some, because the book also said they could keep me for three days of observation, read that, time to fatten me up for the kill.

God bless Dr. Stillman, as in Dr. Stillman’s Water Diet. His regimen, much like the latter day Atkins Diet, permitted only proteins and required drinking 80 ounces of water a day. For 10 straight days I avoided all carbohydrates, all fruit, anything but meat, fish, eggs and water. For years my mother had tried to fatten me up, forcing me to drink milk shakes spiked with a raw egg that my sister gleefully recalls preparing, even threatening to send me away to a special camp for the undernourished. Now faced with the prospect of her youngest child being shipped off to Vietnam, she reversed course. She worried I was eating too much of my restricted diet. She removed food from my plate.

The fateful day at Fort Hamilton, the scene played out much as it did to Arlo Guthrie in the film “Alice’s Restaurant.” The sergeant told us no one, absolutely no one, would fail the intelligence test. We walked around the physical area in our skivvies, holding our valuables in see-thru plastic bags. Medical technicians poked our arms to draw blood. They couldn’t find the veins of a really fat guy ahead of me. He fainted. At the urine sample station, real or sarcastic offers and requests for extra fluid abounded. At the weigh-in, I tipped the scales at 124 pounds.

Ten days. Ten pounds. They could still keep me for observation. I cautiously approached the decision desk. They could keep me on base for three days, or ask me back for another physical in six months. They deferred me for a year.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was forever safe. The draft never reached number 139 again.

To celebrate my immediate victory, I took advantage of the free meal they provided in the mess hall. I remember I ate breaded, yes, breaded veal cutlet, corn niblets, mashed potatoes, rye bread, banana cream pie, Coca-Cola. Army food was delicious.

Today is Veterans’ Day. It’s also what would have been my mother’s 92nd birthday. I’ll pause to honor both today.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Reflections on Fort Hood

In the aftermath of the Fort Hood massacre, Monday’s NY Times carried an article (“Complications Grow for Muslims Serving Nation,” that invites commentary on two parts of the story.

First, a personal note—during World War II my father spent some time at Fort Hood prior to his discharge.

Now on to the Times story.

Midway through the article, a veteran, Amjad Khan, is depicted as saying that “the most difficult part of his wartime service came before he was deployed, when a senior officer found his Islamic faith cause for suspicion.

“He said, ‘I have to watch my back because you might go nuts,’ ” Mr. Khan recalled.”

I don’t doubt this happened. There are bigots throughout the military, regardless of rank.

What the remark reminded me of was a similar though antithetical incident in my uncle’s wartime experience. Uncle Willy, my father’s brother, survived the Nazi extermination of his family and friends in their Polish-Ukraine village in October 1941. He hid in the area for two years until the Russians liberated the region, whereupon he was conscripted into the Russian army and sent to Siberia for training. When his unit was ready to be sent to the Western Front to fight the Germans, they mustered at the base. As was the custom of the Russian army, the commandant asked if any soldier had reason not to be sent to the battle lines. Uncle Willy and several other Jewish soldiers stepped forward. They told the officer they did not fear the Germans. What they feared was getting shot in the back by their fellow soldiers, many of whom were anti-Semitic Ukraines. The commandant kept them in Siberia. Uncle Willy always suspected he was sympathetic because secretly he might have been Jewish.

The Times article also reported on a debate within the Muslim community about the righteousness of a Muslim “engaging in combat in a Muslim country on behalf of the United States military. The consensus was yes, provided the conflict met the Islamic standard of a ‘just war,’” which one scholar explained as, “in the Koran it says that war is to end the state of oppression and to uplift the oppressed,” but that the killings of civilians, local corruption and prisoner abuses had undermined the support of Muslims for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is very difficult for me to understand the Muslim community’s antipathy toward the U.S. military when every day Muslims are killing Muslims through indiscriminate acts of terrorism within Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even more difficult to understand is why the Muslim community has not universally and publicly condemned the perpetrators, especially when, according to the Times article, returning U.S. Muslim veterans “hear at their local mosques that they will go to hell for ‘killing Muslims.’” The double standard makes no sense.

I can understand why Muslims would compare their situation to “the Civil War, where brothers fought each other across the Mason-Dixon line.” But their predicament is not unique in the annals of our military history. The largest group of immigrants to the United States came from Germany. Before both World Wars, German-Americans had to reconcile their allegiances, as did Italian-Americans and Japanese-Americans during WWII. Though religion did not enter their deliberations, they chose to fight tyranny, even if it meant possibly facing their kin across enemy lines.

Our pluralistic nation of immigrants has been a beacon for people of all creeds, races, ethnicities and religions. For many of them, the military has been the closest thing to a melting pot. Our military has not always been right. Innocent civilians sometimes are killed. Rogue servicemen sometimes do bad things. But the overall conduct and intent of our military are exemplary, and we should be proud of their service, every day and on Wednesday, Veterans Day.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Chipping Away at History

Today marks the official twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the climactic events of the last century.

I wasn’t present when East Germany relaxed the rules on border crossings on Nov. 9, 1989. East and West Berliners rushed to the Wall, climbing atop the 12-foot high barrier to celebrate. But I did make a side trip to Berlin on February 16, 1990, just three days before the section of the Wall near the Brandenburg Gate was to be torn down.

I had been attending a conference in Dusseldorf, inside Germany’s western border. It was a no-brainer to make a quick, one-day jaunt to Berlin and back, to be able to walk through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, to say, “I was there.”

I knew in advance people were chipping away at the Wall, so I stopped at a Woolworth store in Berlin to buy a small chisel and standard-sized hammer. When I arrived at the Wall that rainy and snowy day, I discovered how pitiful my purchases were to the task at hand. The reinforced concrete gave no quarter. You couldn’t even classify as pebbles the pieces I managed to dislodge.

Standing next to me was a man with a huge sledgehammer and 30-inch chisel. He was breaking off softball-size or larger chunks. He took pity on me and offered me his tools. As I remember it today, my new efforts were hardly more rewarding. He took pity on me once more, and gave the Wall a few choice whacks for me. I left Berlin with a bagful of souvenirs, most of which I gave away to family, friends and colleagues at work. I kept the two largest pieces, one to display in our living room, the other to be mounted on a plaque and hung in my office.

For the April 1990 issue of Chain Store Age, I wrote a column about my exploits, aptly titled, “Chipping Away at History.” Berlin today is a vibrant city, unified and culturally important. It’s hard to reconcile the Berlin of today with what I saw 20 years ago. But all I have to do is pick up the piece of the Wall in my living room to recall the divisions of an earlier era. And recall that I was there when at least part of it ended.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

That Championship Feeling

I was pretty excited and emotionally drained when the Yankees won their 27th baseball championship Wednesday night, but my all-time cathartic sports experience was the Stanley Cup victory by the NY Rangers in 1994 which ended 54 years of frustrating hockey for Rangers fans.

Aside from the Yankees, the two teams I root for are the NY Giants football team and the Rangers. I have almost no interest in watching basketball, and only if really bored will I watch a sports event that does not involve any of my favorite teams.

I became interested in hockey in 1962 because of Elliot Levine when I entered 9th grade. Elliot was a rabid Rangers fan. Those Rangers teams were led by Andy Bathgate, Camille Henry, Jim Nielsen, Harry Howell and Gump Worsley. Rooting for the Rangers back then was an education in humility.

I first met Elliot in 1957 when I was eight-years-old, my second year at Camp Massad Aleph in Tannersville, Pa. Though a scrawny (read that, really skinny) kid, I was a pretty good athlete. The prior year I was arguably the best in my division.

So on the first day of my second year at Massad, I was quickly alerted to the prowess of one of our new bunkmates. I was told he could punch a ball all the way up the hill to the flagpole, a truly prodigious feat. With trepidation, I stepped outside to witness what proved to be an accurate accounting of his talent. He also could pitch softball better than I. He was, in short, a better athlete.

Naturally, we sustained a rivalry throughout that summer and the next three that we shared together, culminating in an after-lights out fight one Friday night when we were 11. The fight ended after he flipped me against the metal frame of a bed and a counselor mercifully showed up to end the mismatch. Actually, it didn’t quite end there. As we wanted to tangle, the counselor said, let’s do it the old fashioned way, with boxing gloves. Elliot outweighed me by about 30 pounds, but that didn’t matter to anyone except me. I’d like to say I acquitted myself admirably, but I’m still a little woozy as to the particulars of that encounter.

By the time we re-engaged in high school, our rivalry had pretty much ceased. I even turned out to be the pitcher on our school softball team, undefeated our senior year. Elliot played shortstop. Elliot took me to my first hockey game at the old Madison Square Garden. I became hooked with the sport. I suffered through the lost opportunity years of Gilbert, Ratelle, Hadfield, Park, Tkaczuk, Nevin, Stemkowski, Neilson and Giacomin.

When the Rangers traded Ratelle and Park to the hated Boston Bruins, I lost interest in hockey. It was not rekindled until the Mark Messier-Adam Graves-Brian Leetch-Mike Richter era. Messier remains the single greatest team leader I have ever seen. I won’t recount his exploits here, except to say that he not only guaranteed a Stanley Cup, he virtually single-handedly delivered it. He surely willed his teammates to victory.

The night the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, I stayed up into the early morning hours watching highlights and locker room interviews. Though I had waited just 32 years, my whole body felt released from the weight of 54 years without a championship.

Fifteen years have passed, but the good feeling remains. It’s been nine years since the Yankees last won the World Series. Yes, I’m overjoyed they won again. But it feels nothing like it did back on June 14, 1994.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Saying Hello to Celebrity

My family wanted to know if I’d be going to the parade up the Canyon of Heroes for the World Champion NY Yankees today. After all, isn’t that the type of thing retirees and those otherwise unemployed get to do without fear of repercussions from taking off from work?

Yes, I guess they’re right. But no, thank you, I won’t be among the millions standing in the chilly autumn air along Broadway, waiting for the fleeting moment when Derek or CC or A-Rod or Hideki rides by and maybe even waves in their direction.

My appreciation for their performance is much more personal, the same as it was when I watched them win. I prefer viewing any of my favorite team’s playoff games by myself, so I can think along with the players and coaches, rant against the lousy, gushy TV commentators, and generally act or act up as I see fit, without fear of embarrassing myself. I don’t need the company of others to cheer along with, or commiserate with if they lose.

Gilda thinks I’m an old fuddy-duddy. Guilty, probably, but I have come to prefer to express my appreciation personally and in a quiet way, even years after a player retires. Sitting in the Los Angeles airport three months ago, I recognized a gentleman who sat down about 30 feet away. I calmly approached Dave Winfield, shook his enormous hand and thanked him for his years as a Yankee. I did the same thing in the St. Louis airport with David Wells the winter following the perfect game he pitched as a Yankee. I shook Joe Torre's hand on a plane down to Florida a few years ago. On the southeast corner of Lexington Avenue and East 55th Street, I said hello to Shelley Duncan last year after he exited a Starbucks. Twice over the last two years at the opposite corner I said hello to Johnny Damon, once when he was with his wife and child.

You’d be surprised how many celebrities walk among us. Over the years, just in the one block radius from my former office on Park Avenue between 55th and 56 Streets, I saw Richard Lewis, Alan King, Dustin Hoffman, Neil Simon, Steve Allen and Audrey Meadows, Ricky Gervais, Jackie Onassis, and Cheryl Tiegs, who I almost followed into a flower store on 55th Street.

I enjoy the excitement of the impromptu encounter, the instant identification of the celebrity and, whenever possible, the quick and quiet expression of appreciation for the work they have done. I never ask for autographs, and most importantly, try not to alert others so the celebrity doesn’t become an object of attention. They’re usually flattered to be recognized, and equally happy not to be exposed.

It will be bedlam downtown today. Not a scene I care to share.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Instant Replay Plus Bases Loaded

Now that the World Series is over with a deserved Yankees victory, let me share with you my ideas for how instant replay can be made part of the game, at least as it applies to the post season. Also, I’ll pass along an idea for better reporting when bases-loaded situations occur:

Instant Replay: As in the last two minutes of each NFL football half, all close plays (but not balls and strikes), would be reviewed by a 7th umpire sitting in a TV booth. He, not the managers, would initiate reviews throughout a game. He would send an electronic signal to the home plate umpire and crew chief that a review is underway. Based on available TV shots, usually ready within a minute, he would make the right call.

Would it lengthen the game? No doubt. But adding only 2-4 minutes of a 210-minute (or longer) game for a few close plays would not be burdensome, especially when you consider that the integrity of the game was at stake and that often it could be accomplished during the same time that a manager is contesting a call.

The argument about affecting the “pace of the game” advanced by Commissioner Bud Selig and others is specious. Teams already delay the flow. During the Yankees-Angels league championship series the Yanks deliberately threw over to first and had mound conferences to give Mariano Rivera time to warm up and enter the game. It was a blatant stall, pointed out by the TV announcers. The umps knew it and were powerless to stop it. Selig couldn’t stop it, either. So let’s not hide behind the “pace of the game” argument.

Technology is available to rapidly and usually unequivocally “call” the game’s most contested and controversial plays. These are not judgment calls (e.g., if Reggie Jackson purposely stuck his hip out to deflect a throw in the base path in the 1978 World Series against the Dodgers). Bang-bang plays that can change the course of a game or series (such as the two blown calls at first base in Game 2 of the Series) can and must be called correctly. Instant replay, when conclusive, can do it without materially lengthening the game.

Bases-loaded reporting: I often hear announcers citing the batter’s experience in past bases-loaded at-bats. Yet no one ever cites the equally important statistic of how pitchers fared when confronted with the bases loaded. (Statistics are used for relievers and inherited runners, but to my knowledge nobody is tracking how pitchers do with the bases loaded.)

Moreover, it might be even more enlightening to reveal how they pitched with the bases jammed with no outs, with 1 out and with 2 outs (same thing could be done for batters) as the pressure to perform clearly changes with the circumstances of how many outs there are.

Remember, if any of these suggestions make their way into baseball, you read it first here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Diversity in Retailing

I read yesterday that Eric Watson, vice president of Talent Acquisition and The Office of Diversity of Food Lion LLC, one of the largest supermarket operators in the country, received the first-ever Diversity Champion Award from The Diversity Forum, a non-profit organization that promotes diversity and inclusion in business (

Good for him. I bring this to your attention because I had the honor of including Eric as a featured speaker in April 2006 at the first, and regrettably only, Retailing in an Age of Diversity Conference co-produced by Chain Store Age and DiversityInc. As I editorialized at the time, the conference proved to be one of the most satisfying and proudest moments of my time covering the retail industry. But it also was one of the most disappointing and frustrating days.

Though some-90 executives attended, they came almost exclusively from the largest retailers, companies such as Wal-Mart, The Home Depot, Ace Hardware, J.C. Penney, Staples, Target, Kohl’s, and Nordstrom. Hardly any retailer with less than a billion dollars in sales found it important enough to send at least one representative to hear information and strategies to help diversify their organizations. I was distressed at their lack of interest.

The audience that day was a true rainbow coalition. But it was not representative of what I witnessed during 32 years of attending conferences. At most forums and tradeshows, the number of Black, Hispanic and Asian participants was woefully lacking, especially when one considers that the percentage of employees from those groups within the retail industry is significant. Over the years, more women did show up at industry events, but their numbers at industry conferences, too, failed to measure up to their roughly 50% employment rate in retailing.

I have no acceptable explanation why minorities are not more universally represented among the most visible ranks of executives of retail companies and their suppliers. I just know that three decades of observing conference attendees left me as color conscious in 2009 as I was in 1977 when I began covering the retail industry.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Concourse Was Grand

Name a great city and you probably can think of a great avenue. In London it might be Oxford Street, in Rome the Via Veneto. Chicago has North Michigan Avenue, Paris the Champs-Élysées. New York City is blessed with thoroughfares of distinction in its boroughs—Queens Boulevard in Queens, Ocean Parkway and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue and Riverside Drive in Manhattan. In the Bronx, the Grand Concourse dominated the architecture of the city’s northernmost borough.

As noted in a NY Times article on Monday,, there are “grand visions for a faded Bronx boulevard.”

Though the Concourse has become more hospitable over the last decade, anyone who witnessed its grandeur from the 1920’s through the early 1960s would lament the loss of its stately and noble past.

Perhaps a family story would put the once-proud stature of the Grand Concourse in perspective:

In 1921 when she was three years old, my mother came to New York from Poland, her family being one of the last to enter before the United States imposed immigration quotas. They settled in the Bronx. Her father was a jeweler, and though his wife always regretted leaving the parquet floors of their home in Ludg, he earned enough by the time my mother was in high school to move the family to an apartment on the Grand Concourse.

Several months later my mother ran into a boyfriend who had suddenly and mysteriously stopped dating her. She asked him, why?

“Sylvia,” he is said to have told her, “by moving to the Grand Concourse you moved above my station in life.”

Monday, November 2, 2009

Standing By, Helpless

I never learned to swim. I’ve learned to live with that deficiency, that failure to be able to fully enjoy water sports with family and friends. But I’ve always wondered what would happen if I saw someone drowning in deep water, too far out to reach with a pole or some other life-saving device. I couldn’t jump in to save them. I’d be tormented by the prospect of just having to stand there, helpless.

Three more editorial staffers at my former publication lost their jobs today. It hurts beyond description not being able to help. There’s nothing I can, or could, do. But that doesn’t soften the blow, dry the tears, shake me out of the miasma of depression.

Job reductions throughout journalism no longer surprise. Large and small publishing enterprises keep hacking away at the one resource that made them great—their people.

One long-term and one hopefully short-term problem stripped the publishing industry. An unforgiving economy doesn’t want to invest in capital spending. It refuses to invest in more employment, so consumer spending remains sluggish, keeping advertisers at bay, forcing publications to cut back. Soon, hopefully soon, the economy will right itself. We may not return to previous spending levels, but times will be more robust than now.

It is the second problem that is more vexing.

The Internet has been seen as an information blessing. True. Information is more readily available than ever before. It has opened up communication and information to all quadrants of the world.

But the Internet is a curse for all but a relative few information-providers. Thousands of hard-working (and probably thousands who didn’t work so hard) journalists, advertising salespeople, production associates, and support personnel have lost their jobs because of the free-flow of information. “Making money on the Web” is an oxymoron for most publishers. It drains resources. Those remaining, employed journalists must dilute their work, contributing to print, online, audio and even video reports. More often than not, they are working for reduced wages.

I don’t know where it will end. For three of my former associates, it ended today.

Valley of Remembrance

The “Living In” feature of Sunday’s NY Times Real Estate section profiled Oxford, Conn., a small town noted to be 87 miles northeast of Manhattan (,%20conn.&st=cse) . I would venture to say most of you have never been to Oxford, but for Gilda and me it was the backyard of our first two years of marriage which began in 1973.

We lived in the neighboring town of Seymour, one of the two communities I covered for a year for The New Haven Register. Derby, the other part of my beat, along with Ansonia and Shelton, the latter which I covered my second year at The Register, comprised the Lower Naugatuck Valley. In many ways, these communities were prototypical mill towns that had seen better days decades earlier. The first time I drove through Derby I thought I was riding through Dresden after the War.

Connecticut has a reputation as being affluent, erudite, fall-foliage cheery, men and women clad in turtlenecks topped by tweed or corduroy sports jackets, with or without suede patches at the elbow. In other words, a perfect Lands’ End- or Talbots-type state. In truth, many communities live up to that Nutmeg State picture. And then there’s the Valley.

When we lived there, the Valley had yet to undergo gentrification. It was the expectation, indeed the fervent desire, of most families that their teenage boys directly join their fathers after high school on the assembly line at the brass, copper and rubber mills strung along the winding Naugatuck and nearby Housatonic Rivers. This desired fate persisted even after many of the mills closed down or reduced their workloads and became hulking shells of what they once were.

There was an ingrained distrust of outsiders in the Valley. But the Valley’s location made it a desirable nesting ground. The towns were perfectly situated bedroom communities for professionals commuting to New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury, Danbury and even New York. Subdivisions sectioned off farm land. But worse than these single family tracts, as far as long-time local residents were concerned, were the multi-unit family developments springing up. Apartment houses or townhouse projects were anathema. They bred “transients,” people who would tax municipal services without replenishing tax coffers. Condominium was a dreaded word.

My first day on the job as a paid reporter reflected this parochial attitude. Don, my bureau chief, grew up in the Valley. He took a jaundiced view of a condominium development going up in Derby. It was way behind schedule, he believed, which to him meant the builder was hiding something, perhaps a lack of funds that would leave Derby with a blighted, half-finished project on a main artery. He told me to check it out. I found the builder at a different project, a subdivision going up in Oxford. To my novitiate questioning, his responses seemed plausible and genuine.

When I returned to the newsroom in New Haven and told Don I didn’t think there was a story there, he exploded. Don was a stocky, cigar-chomping, crew-cut wearing, no nonsense Scandinavian. He picked up my Royal (non-electric) typewriter and threw it to the ground. For a second I thought he’d transport me out the third floor window. Everyone in the newsroom came to a standstill.

After a few heart-stopping moments, we mutually agreed I would do more research. By the end of the week I put together a weak story implying local dissatisfaction with the pace of construction. The project eventually did get completed. Never again did Don ever raise his voice to me. He taught me how to be a reporter in real life, not a diploma holding “journalist.” I came to learn to respect and love Don as a boss and mentor. And friend. For many years I considered him the best boss I ever had.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Knocking for Trees, Not Candy

I don’t remember celebrating Halloween when I was growing up. Never went Trick-or-Treating.

Last night kids everywhere asked for candy, though just one girl came by our home (maybe it was the misty weather that kept them away). I can’t recall the last time a Trick-or-Treater asked for money for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund that was heavily promoted as a Halloween charity when I was young.

Even though I never went Trick-or-Treating, I did have the “pleasure” of knocking on strange doors asking for donations.

Growing up in Brooklyn, I went to a private Hebrew school. Each year we’d be required to raise money for the Jewish National Fund. The JNF planted trees in Israel. To incentivize us to bring in donations, prizes were distributed to the best producers at the end of the money drive. Our teachers would keep score of how much we’d raise. For each dollar brought in, we’d receive a leaf that was pasted on the outline of a tree. The more leaves you amassed, the better prize you received when the charity drive concluded (the best prize, to me, was a balsa wood airplane with a metal clip front you could fly).

One measure of how far we’ve regressed as a society is the thought that as an under-10 year-old I was permitted, nay, encouraged, to wander by myself around blocks of apartment houses and single-family attached homes, knock on strange doors and ask for money for a cause that two-thirds of my Jewish, Italian and Irish neighbors had no interest in supporting. Even the one-third who might be considered sympathetic more often than not stiffed me.

It was tough trying to earn your wings back then. But, at least, there was little concern expressed about the dangers that no doubt lurked behind strange, closed doors.