Friday, December 30, 2011

The Truth About Black Friday

I expected better from the NY Times. I did not expect The Times would recycle, as it did in today’s article on the troubles at Sears Holdings, the often-reported but factually false statement that “retailers make all their money at Christmas. Or they don’t make any money at all.”

Black Friday. How often have we been “treated” to media reports that Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, derived its name because it is the day when the ledger books of retailers turn from red ink to black as shoppers rush out to buy, buy, buy all the stuff they’ll put under the Christmas tree, or Hanukkah menorah, for friends, family and mostly themselves?

Perhaps at one time, when retailing was an industry of mostly small, independent merchants, the Black Friday tale was true. But in today’s chain-store dominated retail world, most companies already are flush with profits. At the risk of bogging you down with too much data, take a gander at the list of 54 retailers below. All of them are public companies that reported results through the third quarter of their current fiscal year (the period ended for most around October 31, well before Black Friday). Next to each name are its net earnings in 2011 versus the same nine-month period in 2010. Losses are noted in parentheses.

You’ll notice that of the 54 companies, just 12 reported losses this year; nine did so a year ago. Some companies, such as Big Lots and Lowe’s, had lower profits this year compared to 2010, but they still showed black ink well before Black Friday.

It is true a bad holiday shopping season could easily wipe out any accumulated profit during the prior 39 weeks. But that doesn’t excuse inaccurate reporting that retailers make all their money at Christmas. Though we will never be spared the incessant hype for Black Friday and beyond, hopefully next year we won’t be told companies like Macy’s, which recorded more than half a billion dollars in net earnings through October, needs Black Friday to start earning a profit.

Company—9 mos. 2011—9 mos. 2010
Wal-Mart $10.980 billion vs. $10.781 billion
Target $1.948 billion vs. $1.885 billion
Dollar Tree $300.4 million vs. $234.8 million
Big Lots $92.3 million vs. $112.5 million
Dollar General $474.2 million vs. $405.3 million
Duckwall Alco ($550,000) vs. ($5.4 million)
Fred’s $23.6 million vs. $21.0 million
Home Depot $3.109 billion vs. $2.751 billion
Lowe’s $1.52 billion vs. $1.73 billion
Sears Holdings (includes Kmart) ($743 million) vs. ($232 million)
Belk $57.5 million vs. $32.6 million
Bon-Ton ($90.3 million) vs. ($63.5 million)
Dillard’s $322.4 million vs. $70.0 million
JC Penney ($65 million) vs. $118 million
Macy’s $511 million vs. $180 million
Saks $37.8 million vs. $22.9 million
Nordstrom $447 million vs. $381 million
Kohl’s $711 million vs. $626 million
Ross Stores $465.2 million vs. $393.0 million
Stage Stores ($1.7 million) vs. $5.7 million
Stein Mart $14.1 million vs. $29.9 million
TJX $1.02 billion vs. $1.01 billion
Urban Outfitters $146.0 million vs. $197.7 million
Abercrombie & Fitch $108.1 million vs. $57.7 million
American Eagle Outfitters $100.4 million vs. $53.6 million
Buckle $95.4 million vs. $85.2 million
The Children’s Place $53.0 million vs. $51.0 million
Gap $615 million vs. $839 million
Ann Taylor $84.4 million vs. $65.4 million
Cato Corp. $54.7 million vs. $47.9 million
Charming Shoppes $11.1 million vs. ($23.6 million)
Chico’s $115.8 million vs. $94.7 million
Coldwater Creek ($86.9 million) vs. ($7.1 million)
Limited Brands $491 million vs. $352 million
New York & Co. ($28.0 million) vs. ($91.5 million)
Talbots ($58.6 million) vs. $13.6 million
Wet Seal $14.0 million vs. $7.3 million
Big 5 Sporting Goods $11.7 million vs. $16.6 million
Cabela’s $73.0 million vs. $45.9 million
Dick’s Sporting Goods $152.8 million vs. $94.6 million
Golfsmith $6.5 million vs. $222,671
Hibbett Sports $43.2 million vs. $33.9 million
Office Depot $75.3 million vs. $53.7 million
Staples $701.1 million vs. $607.2 million
Books-A-Million ($10.4 million) vs. $2.2 million
Build-A-Bear Workshop ($8.1 million) vs. ($8.2 million)
Michaels Stores $79 million vs. $0
Toys “R” Us ($194 million) vs. ($162 million)
GameStop $165.2 million vs. $170.2 million
Williams-Sonoma $114.3 million vs. $86.8 million
Guitar Center ($64.8 million) vs. ($54.2 million)
Best Buy $467 million vs. $626 million
RadioShack $60.3 million vs. $149.1 million
Tiffany $260.8 million vs. $187.2 million

(Editor’s Note: This will be the last posting of 2011. Thank you all for sticking with me. If you like my musings and rants, tell a friend or relative to log on and sign up. It’s free, and sure to be topical and probably controversial in 2012. I hear there’s an election coming up... Have a happy and healthy New Year!)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Is Sears Worth Holding?

It’s the post-Christmas season, that favorite time of year for stock analysts and business journalists to bang out on their keyboards early obituaries for Sears Holdings, operator of Sears and Kmart stores. The latest hospice vigil comes on the heels of the company’s announcement it would close 120 stores after disappointing holiday sales.

For more years than not over the last nearly four decades, I have been part of the annual exercise of wondering just how long these two venerable retail chains could survive. Seemingly year after year, customers have abandoned Sears and Kmart for fresher, more nimble, more price sensitive competitors, be they Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, Bed Bath and Beyond, Old Navy or

A true test of whether a company can, or should, survive, is the answer to the following question—would you miss it if closed its doors forever? Syms and its subsidiary Filene’s Basement are in the process of shuttering. I was a frequent Syms shopper. I must have bought at least 20 suits from Syms over the years. Though I haven’t bought a suit in about five years, I still liked walking the stores, both the one across the street from my former office and the outlet in Westchester. Just last week, for old times sake, I stopped by the Syms in Westchester. It was a depressing visit. Customers were picking over the bones of the remaining merchandise and fixtures. I’ll miss it. Maybe Century 21 will take its place. That would be nice.

Would you miss Sears or Kmart? I would. More Sears than Kmart. I’ve bought many a tool from Sears. Craftsman tools. Break them and get a free replacement. I broke the shaft of an awl back in my firewood-splitting days. Brought it back to Sears for a replacement, no questions asked. I’ve bought washing machines, dryers, a freezer and a refrigerator. I’ve bought apparel there as well, nothing fancy, just some shirts, underwear, Levi’s jeans. Everything I’ve bought at Sears, it seems to me, I bought on sale, perhaps even clearance. And that’s part of the company’s problem. Almost nothing in Sears is worth buying at full price, nothing enticing to make me want to go to Sears. Even its Consumer Reports top-rated laundry machines weren’t appealing until they went on sale and the salesman had to throw in added incentives.

Still, knowing Sears was there, and possibly carried what I wanted, was a comfort, a crutch to my consumerism. I’d miss Sears if it weren’t there. There was a time, from 1980 through about 2000, when I was fortunate enough to be the first journalist to interview every new, incoming head of Sears. I also knew the chief executives of Kmart, back then an independent company not part of Sears Holdings.

I can’t say I enjoy shopping at Kmart. It just never feels right inside its stores. I never find any apparel, except Hanes or Fruit of the Loom underwear, worth buying. Except, one time I bought a silk tie in a Kmart outside Detroit. I can’t tell you how many of my friends complimented me on that tie. I resisted asking them for $3 so I could buy one for them.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Art in the Hinterlands

For the second time this month the NY Times has reported on culture coming to northwest Arkansas, specifically on the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. For those not in the know, Bentonville is the corporate hometown of Wal-Mart, the largest retailer, indeed the largest company, in the world. Crystal Bridges is, in the words of the December 4 Times piece, “the ambitious pet project of Alice Walton, 62, who, as the daughter of Wal-Mart’s founder, Sam Walton, is the third-richest woman in the world, according to Forbes.”

Here are links to the two articles, in the order they appeared:

I met Alice Walton twice, in 1981 and 1982, if memory serves me right, each time at the conclusion of a canoe trip for stock analysts and journalists attending Wal-Mart’s annual meeting weekend. After the Saturday morning shareholders’ meeting, Sam Walton would command a flotilla of mostly New York-based numbers crunchers and Wal-Mart executives. We would end up at a campsite beside the river where Alice was busy preparing Mulligan Stew for the ragged pack. I can’t say it was the most savory meal I’ve eaten, but after you’ve been dipping an oar for more than three hours it was quite appreciated. The cold beer washing it down enhanced the flavor.

Alice didn’t get involved in the retail enterprise, so I didn’t really follow her career which included interests in finance.

I’m not sure where Alice got her penchant for art, but I’d bet it was from her mother, Helen. Before one of her parents’ vacations, a trip to Europe reminiscent of scenes depicted in many a book or movie about an American matron touring the Continent to soak up culture, Sam Walton called our office in a tizzy. Speaking to one of my former bosses, the late Dick Groberg, he pressed him for the names of retailers he could visit while Helen made her way through the galleries and museums of Europe. Sam Walton didn’t build an empire by poring over artifacts and paintings. He took inspiration from current enterprises, wherever they might be.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Season of Giving and Taking

In this season of giving, news reports remind us it also is the season of taking, as in “Shoplifting tab to hit $1.84B,” according to the Associated Press.

The AP story said in the “four weeks leading up to this Christmas, an estimated $1.84 billion in merchandise will be shoplifted from retailers in the U.S., according to The Global Retail Theft Barometer. That’s up about 6% from $1.7 billion during the same period last year.”

No doubt about it, “five-finger discounts” are trending up, what with an economy that hawks purchasing at too many people unemployed or too underemployed to afford all the goodies they and their families want.

The dirty little secret of retail losses from what the industry calls “shrink,” however, is that insiders—retail employees—steal more than customers. It’s been that way for years. Employee theft accounts for about 44% of all losses, compared to 36% from shoplifting. The rest, the AP reported, results from vendor theft and administrative error.

Some years ago I heard about Kmart’s efforts to control insider losses. Management would review each employee’s monthly store purchases. If they fell below a certain percentage of take home pay, red flags would be raised. After all, why would an employee not buy household and health and beauty aid supplies, stationery and other commodity purchases at Kmart, where they’d get an employee discount? One possible explanation would be the employee was simply taking home the goods without paying for them. An investigation would follow.

The story, perhaps, was apocryphal. But I always thought it had a ring of authenticity to it.

Choose Your Obscenity: Which to you is more obscene, the throngs of mostly young men who grappled last week to get their grubby hands on $180 a pair Nike Air Jordans, or the $88 million reportedly paid by the 22-year-old daughter of a Russian billionaire for a 6,774-square-foot penthouse apartment at 15 Central Park West in Manhattan?

Perhaps neither affronts you. By my very question you can surmise I find both disdainful. Push come to shove, as happened across the country with the Air Jordans, I’d have to say I am more repulsed by the real estate transaction (I also wasn’t too excited by another deal at the same address, a mere $24 million for a three-bedroom apartment.)

I’m not against the free market setting prices. But let’s be real, people. The apartment doesn’t come with Central Park thrown in, just a view. I’m not sure if the apartment comes furnished, but even if did and everything inside it was trimmed in gold, $88 million is a little much. I’ve seen castles and mansions, all with extensive grounds, that would sell for less.

As Gilda pointed out, one has to wonder from where the money to afford these purchases came. The Russian father is an oligarch of questionable morality and business dealings. While rank and file Russians struggle, oligarchs and their minions have brazenly usurped wealth, natural resources and power.

The Manhattan real estate market has been pumped up by financial industry bogeymen, er, I mean, moneymen. Naw, I mean bogeymen. Rarely do they contribute anything tangible to human endeavor. Their sole purpose is to make money through arcane, manipulative practices few understand, fewer regulate. Their mistakes plunged the nation and world economies into turmoil. Millions lost jobs, retirement savings, homes. With rare exception, only they and their gilded lifestyles have rebounded. They’ve made it almost impossible for ordinary people to invest without anxiety as their computer-generated trading systems produce huge stock market fluctuations, not just daily but also hour to hour.

It’s hardly a wonder, therefore, when the common folk fight for a pair of sneakers. It’s the most tantalizing asset many of them will ever own. Which is an obscene commentary on our society.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Blink Before Brinkmanship Returns

Now that House Republicans have blinked and joined their Senate counterparts in recognizing politics as the art of compromise, 160 million Americans can enjoy two more months of lower payroll taxes, while the unemployed can breathe easier for another eight weeks with jobless benefits before brinkmanship returns to the nation’s capital in the form of another exasperating debate on fiscal policy.

Try as I might to avoid political commentary, it’s virtually impossible. So here goes...

During his tenure representing the state of Wyoming in the U.S. Senate (1979-1997), Alan Simpson was not on my list of favorite senators. The tall, craggy 80-year-old conservative Republican could be quite charming, folksy and jocular, but his politics was clearly way to the right for my tastes.

Simpson, however, by his own admission on the Brian Lehrer Show on NPR Wednesday, would find it impossible to get a Republican nomination today as he’s an advocate of personal privacy, which means he supports gay rights and abortion rights. As co-chairman with Erskine Bowles of the Deficit Reduction Commission, he also acknowledged the need to raise more revenue through new or higher taxes, heresy among Tea Party members and the Republican faithful who have lined up like lemmings behind them.

Switching over to the EIB (Excellence in Broadcasting) Network to listen to some conservative talk show “wisdom,” I was disappointed Rush Limbaugh was on vacation. But his substitute, Mark Davis of WBAP in Dallas, didn’t fail to deliver more grist to the mill. He praised, for example, Republican members of the supercommittee charged with working out a deal on the budget for sticking to their guns. In other words, for not compromising. It was another unfortunate example of standing on principle at all costs, even if it meant the government might shut down, the public would be hurt and trust in elected officials to effectively govern and legislate decreased.

Davis also debunked the argument that conservatives are racist. His proof—they went “ga-ga” over Herman Cain and their favorite Supreme Court justice would be Clarence Thomas. At the same time he decried Attorney General Eric Holder for playing the race card to explain why he and Barack Obama are viciously attacked. It’s just policy differences that bring on the attacks, he said.

My need for some Rush was somewhat sated by a commercial featuring his mellifluous voice. He was pitching membership in the Heritage Foundation, a think tank dedicated, he said, to personal liberties. I wonder, though. What’s more personal than choosing your sexual orientation, or choosing whether to carry a pregnancy to full term? Not sure, but I would guess Alan Simpson would have a hard time being a member of this right-wing organization.

Simpson also had some interesting thoughts on Newt Gingrich and why so many Republican leaders have trouble supporting his candidacy for president. Seems that when Newt was Speaker of the House he agreed during a private meeting with President George Bush the First to a plan to buttress the economy that included a tax hike. Bush reluctantly agreed despite his “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge. But when it came time to vote, Gingrich publicly repudiated the agreement. He is untrustworthy, not a man of his word, said Simpson. Not surprising, therefore, that Bush 1 yesterday endorsed Mitt Romney.

Of course, Republicans aren’t the only ones dishing out disappointment this holiday season. Obama has indicated he would sign a bill permitting indefinite detention for not only foreign nationals but also for American citizens thought to be supporters of terrorism. Incarceration without trial could last as long as hostilities remain active. Since there’s no foreseeable end to terrorism, even after Osama bin Laden was killed, anyone detained could languish in prison forever. Obama has been as bad for civil liberties as Bush 2.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Random, and Not So Random, Acts of Kindness

They are beautiful, heartwarming gestures I do not mean to belittle. But the anonymous charity of Secret Santas randomly giving out $100 bills to those they think are in need, or paying off a stranger’s layaway charges at Kmart, is not the answer to the paralyzing and pervasive poverty enveloping our nation. They are not the solution to a capitalist system that has divided our country, indeed, large parts of the rest of the world as well, into spheres of plenty and spheres of void.

However generous they are, random acts of kindness should not lull us into believing they can relieve our fellow citizens of the trauma of unemployment, of the despair of having a loved one in need of medical care without adequate health insurance, of squelching the pangs of hunger that ache each night in the bellies of too many of our young.

My conservative friends and relatives tell me government is not the answer. They would have the hungry and the needy rely on the generosity of their fellow human to ease their pain and tribulations, all the while exhorting them to bootstrap themselves into success. Newt Gingrich would dismiss child labor laws and have children of poverty clean schools so they can learn a work ethic, as if taking away the functions of school janitors is any way to reduce unemployment or increase the take-home pay of the working class.

I seem to recall George H.W. Bush more than 20 years ago waxing euphoric over a “thousand points of light” to help transform the country. Perhaps people are more charitable these days. But the number of families living at or below the poverty level keeps growing. The gap in income between the average worker and the average chief executive keeps growing. “Shared sacrifice” is a phrase that needs to be parsed in a new way—corporate executives get more shares, while the rest sacrifice.

Temporary generosity has but a temporary impact. Even if all of those who can afford it tithed, we would still require government intervention to bolster the economy and provide a safety net. How else to explain corporate America’s reluctance to invest in the United States, to hire more workers, even as companies sit on a treasure trove of cash. Neither government regulation nor a high tax rate is strangling our economy. Rather, it is the way we compensate our executives. They manage for short term gain, their bonuses tied to an annual bottom line. Say what you will about’s products and services, you can’t deny founder/CEO Jeff Bezos has stuck to his guns in defending a long-term strategy that has bedeviled Wall Streeters seeking more immediate returns.

Mitt Romney wants everyone to know not all businesses succeed, so don’t blame him if some of the companies his Bain Capital acquired filed for bankruptcy or had to lay off workers. Fair enough. So then let’s not allow him to scald President Obama for investing U.S. funds in Solyndra, a solar energy company that went belly up. New technologies need government assistance, sometimes direct, sometimes indirect. An example of the latter is the sales tax exemption many online retailers have enjoyed versus brick and mortar stores.

Compassionate conservatism is another hollow term. Even when conservative dogma is based on religious belief, as with the Right to Life movement, compassion for the unborn is not extended to the newborn. Conservatives want cuts in aid to dependent children, in early education programs, in school lunch programs.

Let’s not abandon the less fortunate. Let’s continue to donate food, clothing, dollars to worthy charities and individuals. But let’s not forget that without government assistance far too many of the citizens of the richest country on earth would not have a roof over their heads, meals to be eaten, schools to attend, pre- and post-school programs to enrich their growth years, doctors to visit, jobs to go to each day. These are not random acts of kindness. They’re the very foundation of what a government is supposed to do—protect and care for its citizens.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cracked Teeth

I’d like to blame AARP for my cracked tooth, but I can’t.

Let me explain. Thursday evening I was leafing through the December 2011/January 2012 issue of AARP The Magazine and came across a nutrition article entitled, “Go Nuts!.” It extolled the virtues of eating various nuts to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol. Almonds, in particular, also were said to reduce insulin resistance, a quality important to someone with borderline high blood sugar levels, as I am.

Friday morning I cracked my tooth on an almond. I can’t blame AARP, however, because almonds have been part of my breakfast regimen for more than 15 years. Almonds, cashews, raisins, red grapes, an apple, a banana, some cheese or Trader Joe’s O’s, with an ample helping of whipped cream—ambrosia of the gods, I call it—have nourished me most mornings.

So you see, it’s not as if I can blame AARP for turning me on to almonds. AARP should have be a little more circumspect in its suggestions, though, considering its age-based membership of 50-plus adults is prone to deteriorating dental work. Perhaps I should have taken a clue from the table of contents teaser copy for the story. It read, “Get Cracking.”

The first time I cracked a tooth on some food was slightly more than 20 years ago. I went to Los Angeles to meet with the president of Vons Supermarkets early one morning at a new concept store, Tiengas, targeted toward the expanding Hispanic community. It was a beautiful store, with lots of food preparation stations, including a tortilla maker in the middle of the store and more fresh food and meat cuts than I’d ever seen (you wouldn’t believe parts of a pig I saw displayed there that I’d never imagined people ate).

Anyway, at the conclusion of the store tour, I was invited upstairs to the manager’s office for some breakfast. As my cholesterol was pretty high back then, I deferred the offer of rancho huevos, essentially scrambled eggs. My host persisted, however, saying it would insult the cook who had come in early just to prepare the breakfast.

On my first bite I felt a crunch. I jumped back asking if the cook had left egg shells in the mix, only to realize I had cracked my tooth on the softest of foods. How embarrassing! How upsetting that I might incur a $550 dental bill for a crown, the going rate at the time.

Talking over my predicament several days later with a friend who headed our company’s human resources department, we agreed I would submit a worker’s compensation claim. After all, the only reason I put the eggs into my mouth was because the Vons president insisted. It was clearly a work-related claim, I reasoned.

The compensation board agreed. I received full reimbursement for the crown.

The same happy result cannot be related about the fate of the Tiengas experiment. Management closed the stores after determining Hispanics preferred shopping in traditional stores with enlarged ethnic offerings rather than their own supermarkets.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Kosher Style

Interesting article in the Dining section of the NY Times Wednesday on how the kitchen inside the White House was koshered in advance of the Obama administration’s annual Hanukkah party for some 550 guests (

Now, I won’t go into how arcane and puzzling some of these preparations must appear to non-Jews, and even to many Jews. After all, to non-believers most religions have practices that seem outlandish, if not downright pagan. It’s hard getting around built-in biases that our own beliefs are sane while others are zany.

One of the main tenets of strictly kosher food is that meat and dairy products must not be co-mingled, neither in their preparation nor consumption. There are a mind-boggling set of rules, codified in the Shulchan Aruch, a mid-16th century compilation by Joseph Caro, that serves as a roadmap for observant Jews to follow in all aspects of their lives. (FYI, the literal translation of the term Shulchan Aruch is “set table.”)

The rules and precepts about kosher food, by the way, are mostly not from the Bible. They were formulated by rabbis and sages who lived before and after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 and the resulting Diaspora. They chose, for example, to interpret the Torah’s admonishment not to cook a baby goat (a kid) in its mother’s milk as a blanket prohibition on mixing and eating dairy and meat products at the same time. They also opted to place fowl into the meat category while keeping fish parve (a Jewish term signifying a food is neutral and can be eaten with either milk or meat).

Today’s observant Jewish family generally has several sets of dishes, flatware and cookware, as only glass utensils may be interchanged for meat and dairy use after proper washing. Crockery, china, even stainless steel, are thought to retain traces of food, so observant Jews have separate meat and dairy utensils. But two millennia ago, even less than 600 years ago when Caro compiled his seminal work, it was hardly common for households to be wealthy enough to afford multiple sets of dishes and cookware. Back then, it was sufficient to simply clean utensils after any use. With rising economic status, household possessions and customs changed, but Caro’s text did not.

Which brings me to a tale I heard several years ago from a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary that puts in context the shifting laws about kashrut. As the story was told, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), a renowned Orthodox scholar considered to be a leading arbiter of religious issues, was left to his own devices by his wife for about a week as she visited family in a different city. When she returned she was appalled to find her kosher kitchen compromised, with dishes, pots and pans used for both dairy and meat meals. How could the learned rabbi been so careless?, she demanded to know. Rabbi Soloveitchik replied he had consulted the Shulchan Aruch, which in 1565 made no mention of separate dishes, requiring only that utensils be cleaned after each meal.

So much for relying on centuries-old texts. And for being a typical male (at least of his generation), who paid no attention to what went on in the kitchen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Déjà Vu, Retail Edition’s promotion last weekend suggesting customers walk into brick and mortar stores to price goods with a smartphone app and then buy them from Amazon with a 5% discount up to $5 has engendered an intense war of words, casting the online behemoth as anti-Main Street and a pox on the small business, national economy.

Naturally, Amazon rebuts the charges, but the brouhaha is just the latest iteration of a century-old battle between entrenched retail operations and newer, evolving, more efficient modes of consumer goods distribution. In this battle, only the most nimble, well-financed retailers survive, yet they, too, may be challenged by future concepts that convey products at less cost to the retailer and consumer.

One of my mentors, the late David Q. Mahler, used to say all revolutions in retailing reflected fundamental shifts in distribution practices. The department store concept that began in the mid-1800s aggregated diverse products under one roof. Five-and-dime stores brought products to the masses at affordable prices. The mail-order houses of Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Co. extended the purchasing options of rural America. Supermarkets transformed the way households bought staples and necessities even as they initiated the self-service revolution by placing products within reach of each patron. Aided by the interstate highway system and the resultant migration of families to the suburbs, the regional mall shifted the nexus of shopping away from urban centers. Specialty stores thrived in the malls, while off-the-mall discount stores and category killers democratized distribution of name brands. As chain stores grew ever stronger, retailers grabbed power from manufacturers. Over the last 10 years power has changed hands once again—the Internet has placed it into the hands of every consumer.

Back in July 2008 I wrote in an editorial for Chain Store Age that QR Codes, coupled with the ubiquitous camera-equipped cell phone, may well change the way retailing is conducted in the future. Well, the future has arrived, with Amazon being one of the first to exploit its potential. Being a big advocate of in-store retailing, I don’t like what Amazon did, but holding back the tide of innovation is not a viable long-term strategy for store-based retailers.

This week I heard some merchants are considering charging consultation fees (good towards a purchase) should a customer mine them for information and then turn around and not buy a product. It might work for big ticket items such as electronics, housewares or furniture, but it’s hardly a prescription for extending a welcome to the public.

Coping with the next retail revolution segregates winners from losers. Traditional, full-price retailers such as Gimbels, Sage Allen and Herman’s Sporting Goods ranted against the discounts extended by the likes of E.J. Korvette, Caldor and Ames. Eventually, they folded, as did those very discounters that didn’t adapt to the fiercer competition from Wal-Mart and Target.

The next retail revolution has arrived. No amount of pouting at Amazon will reverse the sweep of change.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Politics, As Usual and Unusual

You might have noticed I’ve taken a short hiatus from political commentary. It’s hard, repetitive work continually finding fault with politicians. Look what Gail Collins of the NY Times has to do—each time she writes about Mitt Romney she has to figure out some way to include the fact he strapped the family dog to the roof of the car when he took his family on a vacation to Canada. If I were paid to write about politics, I’m sure my keyboard would be ablaze with fiery ire. But since this is just an avocation. I’m trying to keep my biases in check. At least for the short term.

Speaking of my biases, I’m against men showing skin when they cross their legs. So it was comforting to see President Obama learned his lesson and wore appropriate high socks during his Sunday 60 Minutes interview. Correspondent Steve Croft, on the other hand, exposed his shins to America. Disgusting.

(Real long-time readers of this blog might recall one of my earliest posts railed against the “shins of the president.” As it’s a short entry, I won’t make you click a link to it, I’ll just reproduce it here:

“Now a word about proper sock length. Watching a clip Sunday of Barack Obama on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," I was struck by the fashion no-no displayed by the president. Sitting with his legs crossed, Obama showed viewers several inches of bare skin where his pants leg did not meet the top of his socks. It is inexcusable, it’s a fashion faux pas, especially considering his wife’s keen fashion sense, that the commander-in-chief of the United States does not wear knee-high socks when he is dressed up. Indeed, anyone, anyone who is in politics, in business or in any way in a public situation, should wear knee-high socks. There is nothing appealing or sexy about seeing a man’s shin-bone skin. Bottom line—if you’re going to wear socks, make sure they cover all of your lower leg. Here’s hoping someone in the White House reads this before Obama’s appearance on Letterman tonight.”)

Someone with sartorial sense and a keen eye must have gotten to Obama.

My “vacation” from political writing has coincided with the ascent of Newt Gingrich as a key player in the Republican presidential sweepstakes. How interesting that many evangelicals and other supposedly values-oriented religious voters have made light of Gingrich’s rather sordid past. They’ve thrown their support to the twice-divorced former speaker of the House. They’ve chosen to ignore his abandonment of the Protestant religion in favor of Catholicism. They’ve accepted his admission of past sins, even the one where he told a previous wife he was leaving her while she suffered from cancer. They don’t hold it against him that he twice (at least) had affairs while married, that he hypocritically tried to impeach Bill Clinton for actions from inappropriate extra-marital sexual activity while he himself was guilty of the same vice. How beguiling that he ignored one of Jesus’ most famous precepts, “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

But then, it is hard to fathom an electorate blind to the failings of their anointed leaders. Ronald Reagan impregnated Nancy Davis before they were married. Not to be outdone, Democrats stood by Clinton and John F. Kennedy. It’s only when they flaunt their improprieties, as Gary Hart did, or try to cover them up, as John Edwards did, that voters rebuff them. Gingrich, with his deep, stentorian tones, has embraced his imperfections, has recanted his sins, so attractive to an evangelical community that sees salvation in faith by atonement.

What they don’t see is how destructive GOP policies on health care, unemployment compensation, pollution, education support and other social issues have been and would be to the family. There can be honest disagreement over abortion rights, but when did the Bible lose its compassion for the poor, for the downtrodden, for the orphaned? When did it become religiously acceptable for the community to abandon the less fortunate? When did the Bible end its advocacy that the rich take care of the needy? The Bible is not a capitalist manifesto. If anything, it is a social contract where those better off are instructed to help the rest of society.

Perhaps if they studied which political ideology has time and again worked to make life easier and more comfortable for the vast majority of our nation, and not an exceedingly small sliver, they will rethink their support for those who would strip away benefits from the masses while safeguarding the treasures of millionaires and billionaires.

If Only He Had Taken the Bet....I’d be $10,000 richer. Like Mitt Romney during Saturday night’s Republican presidential candidate debate with Rick Perry, I proffered a $10,000 bet, the subject of which was, who hosted the mid-1950s CBS TV show, You Are There?. My adversary, a much smarter fellow than I, whose adult education class I attend, and who shall remain nameless so as not to embarrass him, said it was Edward R. Murrow. He said he had tapes at home with Murrow as the host.

I, on the other hand, vividly remember the host being Walter Cronkite. One of my earliest TV memories is watching You Are There. Cronkite would relate the background for the half hour program that recreated historical events as if they were developing news stories, then place an earphone to the side of his head while intoning, “You are there.” The show’s dramatization of the David and Goliath story stays with me even to this day. At least in my mind’s eye, the climactic scene begins with David reciting the 23rd psalm as he walks out to confront Goliath.

Google “You Are There Walter Cronkite” if you need validation of my claim. Murrow, it turns out, hosted another show, See It Now, a newsmagazine and documentary series, also on CBS.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Christmas Story

They were selling poinsettias at Wal-Mart today, $3.47 for a basic, potted, 6-inch, red-leafed flower associated with Christmas.

I admit it. I was a real rube when it came to poinsettias (and lots of other things) when I left the sheltered confines of Brooklyn in September 1972 to become a reporter for the New Haven, Conn., Register. I had never heard of poinsettias, much less actually seen one. It’s not the type of plant one finds around Jewish homes.

Yet one of the big stories of 1972 in New Haven was the poinsettia scandal. I was too embarrassed at the time to ask anyone what a poinsettia was, too timid to delve deep into this religious crisis. As best I can remember it, one or more people in the city administration took advantage of the municipality’s annual poinsettia purchases, intended for public distribution, to spruce up their own holiday surroundings at, shall we say, less than cost.

Who knew there was more yuletide foliage than a Christmas tree, some holly and mistletoe?

I consider myself fortunate I don’t celebrate Christmas. Not from a religious reason. I’m sure it would be nice to be part of the majority, for a change. No, my reason is far more practical. If I were Christian I would have to decorate a Christmas tree and set up an elaborate outdoor light display. I have no doubt Gilda would mandate it. She’s told me I lucked out not being Christian. I'd have a real problem fulfilling her wishes. No way I would be able to string those lights across our bushes and doorfront, much less get up on a ladder to hang lights from trees, eaves, gutters and other points higher than six feet. I'm fortunate to get our electric hanukkiah to light up on the window sill, though too often I get the number of candles to be lit each night wrong. No, I'm much better off not having been chosen to hang Christmas decorations.

But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy them. In fact, riding around looking at Christmas decorations is one of Gilda’s and my favorite December jaunts. We used to have full cul-de-sac decoration-participation on Briga Lane and surrounding streets a few blocks from our home, complete with bumper to bumper gawkers every night. Over the years, however, many of the homeowners moved, replaced by families who are a little less effusive about their holiday light treatments.

Ah, well, there’s always Dyker Heights in Brooklyn. An area just southeast of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, Dyker Heights was unknown to me as a child. But since Ellie has lived in Brooklyn for the last few years we’ve made an annual pilgrimage to be overwhelmed by the creative, large displays set up on the porches and fronts of the row houses that dominate the mostly Italian neighborhood. It might cost you a few bucks to feed the charity kitty of some of the homeowners, but it’s well worth the donation.

Rather than bring out peaceful thoughts among mankind, Christmas has a way of igniting controversy. Too much of it is politically tinged with liberal vs. conservative doctrine. For a somewhat humorous take on the war on Christmas, here are two clips, one from Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, the other from Bill O’Reilly of The O’Reilly Factor (I’m sure you can guess which side each falls on. FYI, the O'Reilly clip reprises some of Stewart's commentary before getting to his response.). Enjoy:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Remembering Pearl Harbor Day

Most of us can recall September 11, 2001. But where were you December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting U.S. entry into World War II?

Okay. You probably weren’t alive 70 years ago, and those who were likely were too young to remember anything meaningful about the day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “will live in infamy.” But as I pondered how to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day yesterday, I realized my regular Wednesday chore of delivering Meals on Wheels in Yonkers would bring me face to face with women who were in the prime of their lives when our nation’s security and relative tranquility ended one Sunday seven decades ago. There wasn’t time for long interviews, just a few questions about how they experienced the war years.

With her marriage scheduled exactly one week later at a synagogue in the Bronx where she lived at the time, Sally picked up her wedding gown December 7. Her marriage to Sol went on without a hitch, but within six months her husband entered the army. She was 20 years old. Like many brides of servicemen of that era, Sally followed her husband around the country as he underwent basic training, first in Hattiesburg, MS, then in Baltimore. After Sol shipped overseas to fight in Italy, Sally moved back in with her parents. She worked as a clerical assistant to an army lieutenant at 55 Beaver Street in Manhattan. Her husband returned safely after the war, as did her two younger brothers who served in the Pacific theater.

Another 20-year-old, Shirley, lived in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, with her widowed mother and 10-year-old brother. Shortly after the war began, her mother developed viral pneumonia. Her doctor recommended an extended stay in Florida, so the family trained down, no small feat in those days when travel was largely restricted to moving military personnel. They stayed in Miami Beach for six months. After returning to Brooklyn, Shirley’s friend got her a job as a clerical assistant in a costume jewelry company. A short while later she was promoted to showroom saleswoman dealing with resident buyers for stores throughout the country.

The youngster of the trio I interviewed, Gertrude was 19 when she listened to the radio reports of the Pearl Harbor bombings. A high school graduate who eventually became a full charge bookkeeper, she hadn’t been able to secure a job before the war, but shortly thereafter obtained one at the Wright Aeronautical plant in Woodridge, NJ. Each morning another worker would pick her up at her home in Inwood in upper Manhattan. They’d drive across the George Washington Bridge to work. Because of her mathematical bent she was chosen to be a precision inspector for assembled impeller shafts, a critical part of the engine of B-29 Superfortress bombers.

After several B-29s crashed, the cause was determined to be faulty impeller shafts. Assembly of the plane engines halted until re-inspection of all impeller shafts could be conducted. As each impeller shaft bore the mark of the inspector who processed it, it was not difficult to pinpoint who had approved faulty production. Over the loudspeaker of the plant, Gertrude was summoned to the manager’s office high above the assembly plant. While she climbed the steps to his office, co-workers whispered she was the guilty inspector. Not a comfortable moment for a young woman not yet 20. Gertrude was told that of all the impeller shafts re-inspected, hers alone were perfect. Henceforth, only she would inspect impeller shafts. The other precision inspectors would be reassigned. She would work six days a week. When she wasn’t there, production would stop.

It was that way for about 18 months, until the Japanese surrendered. That day, Gertrude recalled, Wright Aeronautical announced that the 17,000 employees who had worked three shifts at the Woodridge plant need not come back anymore. Their jobs, the nation’s job of defeating Japan, and before that Germany and Italy, had ended.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Engaging Excalibur

In case you missed the news, as I did during my trip to California a week ago, Steuben Glass closed its sole factory in Corning, NY, last Wednesday, bringing to an end 108 years of iconic American creativity and fanciful gift-giving, the latter once the retail inventory is sold off. Pieces of Steuben Glass grace the homes of high society and were a preferred gift by American presidents to visiting heads of state and royalty. Sadly, crystal masterpieces no longer reflect prevailing consumer tastes. Steuben Glass has lost money for years (

When my brother Bernie asked Annette to marry him more than 42 years ago, my sister Lee and I sought a suitable engagement gift. We sallied forth to Fifth Avenue, inside the Steuben gallery store. Though fascinated by many of the designs, they seemed a bit too stuffy for our tastes. But when we saw the Excalibur, a multi-faceted block of glass with a mock sword protruding from the top, we were enthralled. The combination paper weight and letter opener captivated us. We were sure Bernie and Annette would love it. Until, that is, we found out the Excalibur cost $750 ($4,400 in today’s dollars), way too much for our collegiate bank accounts. We settled, instead, on a carving board and knife set from the Georg Jensen store down the avenue.

We couldn’t resist, however, telling them what they missed out on receiving. So you can imagine my surprise and joy when I opened my birthday present from the betrothed couple a few months later. An Excalibur of my own, which still stands proudly on my desk. Of course, they purchased a $15 or so knockoff, but the sentiment is what counts. Right?
Don’t tell me if it isn’t.

Unsung Heroes: Bernie appreciated my swift publication of his idea for a blog on inventions that have made life simpler and easier ( But he noted I fulfilled only part of his suggestion. I failed to mention a central point of the blog should have been that the creators and inventors of those ideas for the most part failed to gain the public recognition they so deserved. They aren’t celebrated the same way Jonas Salk is lauded for his polio vaccine, or Steve Jobs achieved near sainthood for his Apple products.

Fortunately for me, Bernie didn’t ask me to research the names of the creators on my list. But they do all merit our thanks.

Thank you as well to three thoughtful readers who sent in their suggestions:

Jerry S. for the remote control;
Barbara B. for Post-its;
And Walter S. for the delete button on the computer.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Good News: Gun Sales Are Up

For all you Obama fans, or reluctant fans, out there, here’s a portent of good news—guns sales hit record numbers on Black Friday (

The counterintuitive omen signifies the initial evidence the conservative crowd may have realized the goal of giving the president his walking papers will be harder than getting Congress to pass compromise budget legislation. On Black Friday, the FBI received a record number of requests (129,166) from gun dealers for background checks on prospective buyers. Requests exceeded by 32% the previous high, set on Black Friday 2008.

In case you fail to see the significance of that prior record date, it was the first Black Friday after the election of Barack Obama. Gun toters and Second Amendment advocates feared Obama and his Democratic Congressional majority would push through more restrictive firearms laws (which they didn’t), so they rushed out to fill their gun chests with all manner of revolvers, assault rifles and semi-automatics.

Prognosticators often look for outlier signs to aid them in forecasting the future. For example, to predict manufacturing output they check the level of corrugated box shipments. To audit retail inventory levels and divine sales, analysts scour container shipment availability months before the holiday season.

Though gun enthusiasts explain the surge in purchases to more women wanting protection, as well as those who have newly discovered the sport of shooting and hunting, my money is on the political explanation. Crime statistics also don’t corroborate another reason advanced, that the sour economy has fostered a more dangerous environment. As the NY Times reported last May, “The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years, a development that was considered puzzling partly because it ran counter to the prevailing expectation that crime would increase during a recession.

“In all regions, the country appears to be safer. The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States. Small towns, especially, are seeing far fewer murders: In cities with populations under 10,000, the number plunged by more than 25 percent last year.” (

Yes, the reason for higher guns sales seems obvious. Given the antipathy even Republican voters have to their slate of potential presidential nominees, and the outright disdain the public has for the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, fear of Obama’s re-election and Democratic ascendancy in the House appear to be driving gun purchases. It might not be a rational response, but no one ever accused gun purchasers of acting rationally.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

California Winds, Elvis and Nixon

Gilda and I got caught up, actually, grounded would be a more appropriate word, in the Santa Ana winds that pummeled Southern California Wednesday night. The winds knocked out power to Los Angeles International Airport just as we approached the terminals in the rental car shuttle. Suddenly all the street and traffic lights went out, as did the lights in the buildings inside and outside the airport.

For almost an hour we waited inside a terminal lit by just a few overhead lights powered by emergency systems. We were taking the night flight back to JFK in New York. It was supposed to land around 5 am Thursday, early enough for us to beat the rush hour traffic on our way home to recuperate before Gilda goes back to work Friday. But as the delay endured, I realized we would land in the heart of rush hour. I also realized we might not get out because aircraft coming into LAX would be diverted because of the power failure. Indeed, Jet Blue personnel at first asked us to go down to the baggage area to board buses to take us to Long Beach Airport where our diverted plane was headed. After 15 minutes or so of waiting for buses, Jet Blue reversed course and told us to go back upstairs as the plane had reverted to its original destination once power had been restored.

Controlled chaos ensued. Imagine your worse day at the airport, trying to get through the security check. Or imagine the longest serpentine line at Disney World. We finally took off two hours late. I barely slept during the flight. Gilda didn’t sleep at all. The only consolation for us was that the passenger for the middle seat in our row never showed up so we had room to spare. And when we arrived at JFK our luggage was among the first to come down the shute. The ride back to Westchester, however, was just as I feared, almost continuous traffic.

During our trip to Los Angeles, the main purpose being attending the wedding of my sister’s oldest child, Ari, I accomplished a feat I’d venture to say few if any of you have—I can now claim to be among the chosen who have visited the birth homes of both Elvis Presley and Richard M. Nixon.

Elvis was born in Tupelo, Miss., in a two-room house. I had traveled to Tupelo with one of my advertising salesmen. We were early for an appointment, so we played tourist to see where the King’s life began. It was truly humble surroundings.

Visiting Nixon’s birthplace was an intended tourist stop. Gilda and I planned a few extra days in LA after the wedding to avoid any travel delays from the long Thanksgiving weekend (ha!). We chose to go to Yorba Linda and the Nixon Library and Museum because of the new Watergate exhibit rather than visit the Reagan Library in Simi Valley.

Nixon’s birth home is part of the compound. Standing on the very spot where his father built it from a kit, it is a modest home of some 900 square feet. The Nixon boys lived in the attic, now off limits to visitors because of the low ceiling. As his mother rarely threw out anything, almost everything displayed in the house was original to the family.

The presidential museum itself is impressive in appearance but with the exception of the Watergate wing is mostly a whitewashed history of the 37th president. You might be wondering why a facility dedicated to the memory of Richard Nixon would be so honest about his downfall. It’s because the museum no longer is privately run by friends and supporters of the Nixon, but rather, it is part of the National Archives. Watergate was the first exhibit area government historians and archivists worked on. Here’s an interesting article contrasting the Nixon and Reagan libraries:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Blame My Brother (I Always Did)

My brother Bernie had some suggestions for blog topics, including today’s edition, so if you don’t like it, blame him. Trust me, it’s very satisfying to do.

Anyway, his suggestion was to list creative ideas or inventions that have made life simpler and easier, such as wheels on luggage. Sounded interesting, so herewith my hastily prepared list without the not-so-obvious, such as laptop computers or anything Apple. Feel free to send me your choices which I don’t promise to include in a future post but may if there are sufficient usable contributions.

1. the aforementioned luggage with wheels
2. resealable ziplock plastic bags
3. one size fits all chenille gloves
4. the pocket nail clipper (the most versatile cutting tool you can carry around)
5. retractable gel point or rollerball pens
6. anything Polartec—vests, gloves, sweaters, sheets
7. pocket toothbrushes
8. daily dose pill boxes
9. folding umbrella baby strollers
10. personal portable fans with spray misters
11. intermittent windshield wipers
12. heated car seats
13. passenger side car air conditioning/heating controls
14. electric plug outlets under airplane seats (when available)
15. charging stations at airports
16. whipped cream in a can (my personal favorite. Yes, it’s been around a long time, but whipped cream to me is ambrosia of the gods)
17. trial/travel size health and beauty care products
18. ratchet screwdrivers
19. DVRs (and before them VCRs)
20. electric heated mattress pads
21. tasting stations at Costco
22. E-Z Pass

Okay, that’s my quick list. Your suggestions gratefully accepted.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Predictions Come True and Some Corrections

As I predicted, Black Friday madness turned violent. Reports of gunfire in South Carolina from a possible robbery in a parking lot and pepper-spraying by one shopper trying to diffuse the competition seeking an X-Box player in a California store vied for headlines with another pepper-spraying incident, this time by a security guard in North Carolina trying to retrieve a cell phone that had fallen from a display.

Rome had its Circus Maximus and then the Coliseum where the public was entertained for days on end by games, gladiator contests and pageantry. We have Black Friday and subsequent sales days from now till Christmas, and then the post-holiday clearance sales period. For some lighter fare, we have the continuing series of Republican Party presidential debates.

It’s hard to believe we’ve matured as a society from those ancient times.

Corrections: In my last blog on Cooper Union and Brooklyn College, I made several mistakes when writing about Open Admissions. So here’s a cleaned up version, thanks to Gilda’s keen editing eye and better memory:

Gilda and I attended Brooklyn College, the closest entity to free higher education. Back in the late 1960s, Brooklyn College and City College accepted only the best students, basically anyone with an A average. B students went to one of the other City University of New York schools, such as Hunter College or Queens College. Tuition at Brooklyn College each semester was $50 ($332 in current inflation adjusted dollars) plus the cost of books. Today, tuition is $2,565 per semester for matriculated full-time students. Since it was a commuter school, few if any students incurred housing costs.

Shortly before we graduated in 1971, the City University of New York initiated Open Admissions. Mostly anyone with a high school degree could attend. Brooklyn College began accepting students with less than an A average. Quality deteriorated. The grand experiment failed. The school has reverted to a more stringent admissions policy. I’m not familiar with Brooklyn College’s current academic standing, but when Gilda and I attended, it was a top notch liberal arts institution, virtually free to all who qualified.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Message on Eating Better, Hoarding and Free Tuition

With Thanksgiving upon us (mostly inside us by now), it’s hard to think about anything but food, so I’ll lead off with the thought that I eat better today than when I grew up because of TWA’s frequent flyer program.

Rarely did my mother’s dinner table exhibit any green-colored food item. The occasional broccoli head or asparagus spear showed up drooping in its limpness. My mother served no vegetable not thoroughly overcooked. I think she stayed away from serving green peas because they reminded her of my lousy eating habits. She claimed I drove her to return to full-time work in my father’s factory because I would throw back at her the peas she placed on my high chair tray.

Gilda had little success at first altering my diet. If meat and potatoes were sufficient for my father, they were good enough for me. All that changed about 10 years into our marriage. As an early member of TWA’s frequent flyer plan, I took advantage of first class upgrades when the elite section had seats available (back then just being a member of the program entitled you to free upgrades at no cost in miles).

During one transcontinental flight, the first class stewardess offered cold asparagus vinaigrette as an appetizer. Naturally, I passed, but then had second thoughts. Why not take full advantage of my first class status? It was a decision that changed my gastronomic outlook. I’d never before tasted properly prepared asparagus. Delicious. In short order I even became a delighted consumer of that most vile of childhood revulsions—Brussell sprouts. It helps that Gilda has become a gourmet cook.

The neurosis du jour is hoarding: At least three reality TV shows. Newspaper articles or columns such as the one Jane Brody wrote the other day in the NY Times (

I'm a semi hoarder. Gilda’s always complaining I never clean out the week’s worth of newspapers from the kitchen until recycling day. Yes, Your Honor, I’m mostly guilty of that transgression. And my desk is a magnet for all sorts of papers and junk. When it gets really cluttered I spend half an hour throwing out really old papers whose reason for keeping in the first place escapes me.

My hoarding habit centers mainly around various pieces of apparel. I’m partial to pocket T-shirts, so naturally I bought a rainbow’s worth of shirts. I’ve also never come across a coat department that didn’t tempt me. Accordingly, our front hall closet is chock full of coats and jackets chosen to keep me warm in gradations of 10 degrees in temperature, but I’m clueless as to which one to wear on any given day. I have separate pairs of gloves, and scarves, for each coat.

Later, rather than sooner, I wind up donating a good portion of my excess apparel to charity. But while it’s in our closets, Gilda gives the greatest gift a hoarder can receive—patience.

Free No More? One of the last citadels of free college education, New York City’s Cooper Union, may begin charging tuition to undergraduates for the first time since 1902 (

Gilda and I attended Brooklyn College, the closest entity to free higher education. Back in the late 1960s, Brooklyn College accepted only the best students, basically anyone with an A average. B students went to one of the other City University of New York schools, such as City College or Queens College. Tuition each semester was $50 ($332 in current inflation adjusted dollars) plus the cost of books. Today, tuition is $2,565 per semester for matriculated full-time students. Since it was a commuter school, few if any students incurred housing costs.

Shortly after we graduated in 1971, Brooklyn College initiated Open Admissions. Anyone with a high school degree could attend. Quality deteriorated. The grand experiment failed. The school has reverted to a more stringent admissions policy. I’m not familiar with Brooklyn College’s current academic standing, but when Gilda and I attended, it was a top notch liberal arts institution, virtually free to all who qualified.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Taking the Pledge

The failure of the Congressional supercommittee to reach a deficit reduction compromise is being hailed and attacked as a victory for Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform organization. For those not familiar with Norquist and his outfit, they are dedicated to the proposition that the fewer the taxes levied on the public the better. Moreover, Norquist has signed up almost every Republican of note to a pledge never to vote for another tax increase. Thus, any compromise by GOP lawmakers that included additional taxes, especially on the wealthy, would have been a violation of the non-binding but politically pragmatic oath they signed.

Speaking to NPR today, Norquist discounted any criticism from members of the Grand Old Party, such as David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, that his pledge ran counter to the national interest. “They’re no longer Republicans,” he reasoned.

I won’t venture into purely Republican internal squabbles, but I would like to suggest an alternative to the no new taxes pledge. How’s about a pledge that in the richest country in the world we don’t let children go to sleep hungry; or that we provide workers with a livable wage; that we don’t allow corporate executives to reap huge bonuses while everyday workers are laid off or have their wages and benefits slashed; that we don’t reduce veterans’ benefits; that we provide affordable health care to all who need it; that we protect our citizens from unscrupulous corporate greed, unsafe products, pollution, and unsafe working conditions?

Conservatives would say I’m advocating a welfare state, that in this land of opportunity if you just worked hard you’d have everything you require or want without the need for government intervention or assistance. Sadly, they are not only mistaken, they are also ignorant, for history has shown time and again that without government oversight and control companies and individuals cheat, pollute, harm, oppress, violate the law and take advantage of the less fortunate. The argument that the free market will regulate offenders hardly compensates those who are offended, surely not in a timely manner.

Few people like to pay taxes. But the alternative is either anarchy or a system where the elite live well and the rest of society does not.

No Sympathy: I don’t have much sympathy, check that, I have no sympathy, for the laid off workers from the financial sector, as depicted in a NY Times article today (

Oodles and oodles of dollars were made over the last 20 years by Wall Street practitioners cobbling together mergers and acquisitions, LBOs and IPOs, managing hedge funds that only the wealthy could afford to invest in. At the end of the day, any day, though they made tons of money they hardly ever produced anything tangible, of lasting value. They destroyed as many companies as they saved.

Tell me, what child or teenager, except the Michael J. Fox character Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties, wakes up and says, “When I grow up I want to be an investment banker”? No, I’d wager the idea of Wall Street first entered their brain when they read or saw movies about the fast and luxurious life of financial honchos.

Assuming many of these unemployed financial types are good with numbers, perhaps they should reconnect with some down to earth values and look into teaching math. I understand there’s a real need for math teachers in many school districts.

I’m apparently not alone in my unsympathetic response. Check out the feedback to the original Times article:

Monday, November 21, 2011

Catching Up On My Reading

Sometimes I feel there’s just too much stuff to read. I marvel at those who have the time, perhaps I’m really envious of their inclination, to read books and magazines and newspapers and blogs and, oh, you get the picture. I thought today I’d comment on some articles of recent and not so recent vintage:

Earlier this month (Nov. 6) the NY Times magazine section did a short blurb on Switzerland joining other European countries and San Francisco in passing a law making it illegal to own just one guinea pig. Seems the critters are gregarious and prone to loneliness if they don’t have a mate, same sex or not, so the law is intended to avoid animal cruelty. I wonder if the writer, Jacob Goldstein, is aware that in her early journalism career Gail Collins, the paper’s Op-Ed columnist, and her husband Dan Collins, kept two guinea pigs. They named the fur balls Lionel and Stewart, after the owners of the New Haven Register, Lionel Jackson, and his son, Stewart. Dan and I were both reporters for the Register. Gail, at the time, ran an independent news service covering the Connecticut state legislature.

Spare the Rod: The next day The Times ran a story on the merits, and dangers, of spanking children. Followers of a Bible-belting (pun intended) preacher, Michael Pearl, have been accused of going too far in their administration of corporal punishment, resulting in the deaths of several children (

I was spanked as a young child. My rump felt the wrath of my parents’ hands when I misbehaved. My father threatened to use a belt, but never did. Merely unfastening his belt produced the desired effect from me and my siblings.

In justifying their physical discipline regimen, Pearl’s adherents often cite the Bible (“He that spareth his rod hateth his son”). Of course, many choose to focus on more tolerant and loving prescriptions from Scriptures. They recognize that some passages, such as the admonition to stone a stubborn and rebellious son at the gates of the city, are no longer acceptable behavior, unless you’re a Taliban or some other Islamic fanatic.

As for my two children, I don’t ever remember spanking them.

Payback Time: For all those NY Jets fans who disapproved of my schadenfreude moment when their team lost to the lowly Denver Broncos last Thursday, Sunday night was their moment of gleeful revenge as my NY Giants played ineptly in losing to the down and hopefully not resuscitated Philadelphia Eagles.

No Deal: It appears at this writing the Congressional supercommittee charged with finding a deficit reducing formula has been unable to accomplish its mission. Each side points to the recalcitrance of the other to compromise. Congress no longer is an institution where priority is given to the people’s business. Rather, members are more concerned with ideological purity and their ability to win re-election.

No less an observer than former Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist was quoted in The Times on Saturday thusly: “There was much more willingness (in the past) to reach across the aisle in a bipartisan manner for the good of the country as opposed to the next election.”

Black eyed Friday: USA Today, among others, is reporting a backlash by consumers and store personnel against retail companies that will be opening for business on Thanksgiving ( Just remember—I was among the first to rant against this despicable and demeaning practice (

What Would John Hughes Say? USA Today reported over the weekend the increase in high schools doing away with student lockers ( Don’t these well-meaning school administrators know they could be stifling the creative juices of the next film chronicler of American youth?

Learning the Trade: Sunday’s Times carried a story on the poor job law schools are doing preparing graduates for real world lawyering ( I’m not a lawyer, but I can relate to the predicament new attorneys face learning their trade.

After earning a master’s degree in newspaper journalism, I thought I was qualified to be a reporter. Until, that is, I covered my first Board of Selectmen meeting in Seymour, Conn., for the New Haven Register. Oh, I easily followed the reports on requests for more sewer lines and the need to replace police cars. But I was confounded (perhaps even dumbfounded) when the discussion turned to the town’s budget. The selectmen kept talking about “mill rates,” not a term ever mentioned in any of my journalism classes (by the way, my professors also never told us what a selectman was).

It was only when the selectmen excused the reporters present for a short period while they discussed in executive session some personnel matters that I was instructed in the finer points of Connecticut town finances by my kindly competitor from the Ansonia Sentinel. Property taxes on buildings, motor vehicles and other major capital goods such as boats funded town finances. Assessments were based on the value of property. The tax per dollar of assessed value was expressed in the mill rate. One mill was one-tenth of a cent ($0.001). Each governing municipality set its own mill rate every year based on the community’s overall budget needs. If Seymour had a mill rate of 20, for example, a house valued at $200,000 would be taxed at $4,000. If the town had to spend more money the following year for new police cars and other projects, the mill rate might jump to 23, meaning the taxes on that $200,000 home rose to $4,600.

It was all Greek to me that night, but it quickly taught me real-life reporting was much more mundane and complicated than the glorified depictions seen in the movies and on the nightly news.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sharing Some Values

Two days ago Finley marked his second birthday (we celebrated with him last Sunday). Gilda and I are so proud of the way Allison and Dan are raising him, of the choices they make, of the values they are imparting (for an update on how Finley’s doing, here’s a link to his blog:

Values. It’s a word much in the news these days, what with the presidential election and the jousting between Barack Obama, Democrats, Republicans and the Occupy Wall Streeters being daily fare in the media. To me, it seems some of our public servants have forgotten the meaning of, or warped the meaning of, values in our society. Expediency and brazen political pandering have trumped reason, consistency and caring.

I’m forever amazed that even our most conservative politicians do not understand poverty is not a choice people opt for, that living in a state of need is not a life choice, that being unemployed, often despite higher education degrees, is not a consequence of their laziness but rather the result of an economy that has cratered because the 1% of the population that controls the financial system screwed up. Was it wrong for people to want a home, to want to live the American Dream they had been told they were entitled to all their lives, even if they knew in their guts they were getting in over their heads? Probably. But are they more or less culpable than the people, those one-percenters, who advanced them the monies to go deep into debt and who rigged the system to benefit themselves if the poor souls defaulted on their mortgages? Anyone with a decent sense of values would have no trouble answering that question.

How could anyone turn their backs on the hungry? Just come down and observe the needy, as I did today after dropping off our monthly donation to the White Plains Food Pantry. Her budgets have been cut, and more people are applying for relief, said Lorraine, the director of the food bank. As if oblivious to the plight of their fellow Americans, another civic group was spreading tablecloths for a nice luncheon in the same room where dozens of thankful recipients waited for their weekly bags of groceries. They couldn’t wait to move us out of the way, said Lorraine.

In what still might be the richest country on earth, more than one in five young Americans live in poverty, a million more than a year ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. How shameful.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has evoked many conflicting responses, but insensitivity to the economic polarization afflicting our society, and that of other countries, is among the most repugnant. Sure there are some who joined the demonstrations because they were looking for a good time. Or they were ”professional” protesters. But the vast majority were down on the luck Americans who either cannot get a job or are underpaid and cannot meet all their obligations.

Congress rightfully criticizes the exorbitant pay handed out to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac public service executives. But nary a word is expressed about the gazillions made on Wall Street. Virtually no one has been held accountable for the banking and mortgage debacles of the last few years.

Rep. Michael G. Grimm (R,C-NY) said Tuesday the OWS “people have overstayed their welcome and it’s time they get the heck out of New York City. Between the filth, the smell, the incessant noise, and threat to public safety, they have done nothing but cause a nuisance to the people who work and live in Lower Manhattan. They’ve cost the city and surrounding businesses millions of dollars, and it’s time these people find a more productive use of their time. New Yorkers have had ENOUGH!...It has been two months and now it’s time for the OWS protesters to pack up their tents, buy a bar of soap, and head home.”

No mistaking Grimm’s grim sentiments about the value of the OWS protest. I just wonder what he would have thought of the colonial protests against British rule. Does he think our forefathers were united from the get-go in their beliefs, that they were organized in their demands, that it was all kumbaya in Valley Forge and Philadelphia?

Perhaps Grimm would do well to study this quote from Thomas Jefferson: “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.”

A most interesting comment was aired during Wednesday’s Brian Lehrer show on NPR. “In 1998, capitalism defeated communism. In 2008, capitalism defeated democracy.”

On a Lighter Note: Am I the only person in America who never watched Regis Philbin with either Kathie Lee Gifford or Kelly Ripa? ... I’m not proud of it, but I admit to some schadenfreude after watching the NY Jets lose to the Denver Broncos last night. I really don’t like the Jets. Never have. Go Giants. ... I was never happier to gain 2-1/2 lbs. than I was this morning. When I first stepped on the scale I was lighter than a week ago, cause of alarm as I had not dieted and could think of no reason except unknown illness for the sudden loss of weight. After shifting the scale to a different spot on our tiled bathroom floor, my true weight reappeared. Phew.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Down Memory Lane

I was less than enthusiastic about what Gilda was set to do. I couldn't stop her from knocking on the front door of the home we lived in 38 years ago in Seymour, Conn. I'm glad she did. She is so much braver than I when it comes to nostalgia tours and necessary, potentially embarrassing, intrusions if one truly wants to go back in time and place.

With our lucky 11:11 date buttressing our plan, Gilda and I set out last Friday to retrace our early roots together, our first four years of married life when I was a cub reporter and then a bureau chief for the New Haven Register and Gilda was a nursing student at the University of Bridgeport and then a newborn intensive care nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

We drove up Route 8 from Bridgeport to Shelton, my second year beat assignment and scene of the largest industrial arson in U.S. history. We had just gone to bed Saturday night, March 1, 1975, in our Seymour apartment when my boss, Don Anderson, called from nearby Ansonia to ask what I was doing home when half of downtown Shelton was ablaze. I quickly rushed to the fire and stayed there most of the night as the Sponge Rubber Products Company plant (formerly owned by B.F. Goodrich) burned down. Authorities quickly determined it was a case of arson and who did it. But the already depressed economy of the Lower Naugatuck Valley towns of Shelton, Seymour, Ansonia and Derby took a hit as 1,200 jobs were lost. Today, the site of the factory is a park along the Housatonic River.

Driving over the aptly named Bridge Street, we made out way into downtown Derby. Thirty-nine years ago, as I drove through Derby for the first time during my job hunting travels, I thought it looked like Dresden after World War II, with dark, hulking, dilapidated buildings blotting out the sun. Hours later, when the co-managing editor of the New Haven Register, Murray Farber, offered me a job, he said the assignment would be covering Seymour and Derby. I inwardly cringed at the prospect of revisiting Derby on a daily basis but quickly accepted the $150 a week position ($773 in today’s values).

Derby’s downtown is brighter today. Gone are the turn of the 20th century buildings along the riverfront. Though still not vibrant, the area is less depressing. Deeper into the city, along Elizabeth Street, Griffin Hospital, where Gilda did some of her nursing school training, where they clung to the tradition of wearing uniform hats and pins, where the nursing stations were at the far end of each corridor and the head nurses ruled with iron fists, the hospital still stands and is now affiliated with the Yale School of Medicine.

Also on Elizabeth Street is the now shuttered Dworkin Chevrolet where we bought our first car, a Vega, in 1973. A few blocks closer to the downtown the temple we attended, Beth Israel, has been turned into a New Life Community Church, the only outward sign of its previous calling being the Hebrew words etched into the façade near the roof: “The world stands on three things: justice, truth and peace." It was in Beth Israel that we sat with other congregants Yom Kippur morning 1973 wondering about and praying for the fate of Israel after the surprise attacks by Syria and Egypt.

The women of Beth Israel always were amazed Gilda had met and married a Jewish man at college. She’d gently respond that with 95% of Brooklyn College’s 30,000 student population being Jewish it would have been hard not to find a mate from the “chosen” religion.

As we drove north toward Ansonia, we passed the restaurant where we’d treat ourselves to a meal away from home, the McDonald’s on Division Street straddling the border with Derby. Spector Furniture in Ansonia is still open for business. We bought our first TV there, a Magnavox, plus a desk we still have, now consigned to our garage. Around the corner, the Register’s bureau office is long closed. It was in that office I first heard the phrase “to Jew someone down.” It was not a saying common to the Brooklyn shtetl I grew up in.

Before visiting our first home, we entered downtown Seymour, dominated by a post office two to three times the size required for a town of 13,000. As related by local historians, the town benefited from a bureaucratic mistake. Seems the post office the head of the congressional oversight committee had earmarked for his hometown of Seymour, Ind., had mistakenly been erected in Seymour, Conn.

The locals are trying to remake downtown Seymour into an artsy community, with antique and curio shops. They need more restaurants, though the one we lunched in, Jimmie’s Place, was a classic throwback saloon with lobster roll, French fries and cole slaw for $8.99, a hard to beat price.

The house we lived in had been divided into a two-family dwelling. We had three rooms on the first floor: a big country kitchen where Gilda learned to cook, a living room and a bedroom with bright red walls when we first moved in but quickly painted over to reflect Gilda’s more refined sensibilities. Upstairs, our landlord’s daughter and son-in-law lived.

As I stood at the bottom of the porch steps, Gilda knocked on the door. The twenty-something woman who opened the door cheerfully let us in. Her big dog, and really big husband, gave her the confidence we weren’t going to harm her. Their family had bought the house from the previous owner and converted it back to a one family home. Our bedroom was now an office. The kitchen had been expanded and updated. They seemed happy there.

As we drove to and through New Haven where we lived for two years in a subdivided Tudor mansion off Forest Road (Gilda’ couldn’t gain access to that apartment unit), we reflected on how far we had come during the last 39 years. More on that, perhaps, another day.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Eleven Eleven

Look at your calendar. It’s the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year of the millennium.

For Gilda and me it couldn’t be a more auspicious day for, you see, 11 is our lucky number, and by extension so is 11:11 and 11:11:11. It began our first night of marriage in our first apartment in Seymour, Conn., nearly 39 years ago. As we cuddled in bed, we glanced at one of our wedding presents, a digital alarm clock, the type back then that flipped over numbers in the way airport terminals would display flight information. The clock had been a gift from one of my father’s friends from Israel. The clock read 11:11.

Since then we’ve noticed how elevens have intersected our lives. I am 11 days older than Gilda. In 1984, we moved into our current house, 11 years after we married. The street address number is 11. Dan’s favorite NY Giants football player growing up, Phil Simms, wore number 11 on his uniform. It’s the number Dan has always chosen for his sports activities. Dan and Allison started dating 11 years ago. My mother’s birthday was November 11.

Today’s Veterans’ Day, a time to remember all who selflessly devoted their energies and sometimes their lives in defense of our freedoms and those of many oppressed people. Gilda and I won’t forget them, but we’ll also commemorate the special intersection of elevens with our lives together.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Corruption of Power

I’m continuously amazed by the random confluence of real world events and aspects of my life and those close to me. Monday I wrote about Gilda’s link to Magic Johnson’s announcement 20 years ago that he was HIV+. Gilda had been part of a research study back then that showed the HIV virus could not be transmitted via sweat, meaning Johnson and other players need not worry about close body contact during a basketball game.

Today, as I was riding around listening to sports radio talk show hosts comment on the horrific alleged child sex abuse incidents at Penn State University and their belief that long-time coach Joe Paterno should resign or be fired before this Saturday’s game because of his moral failure to pursue the charges against his long-time assistant and friend Jerry Sandusky, I realized the team’s next game is against the University of Nebraska. Ellie’s fiancé, Donny, is from Omaha. He and his family are BIG Cornhusker fans.

As I write this the university board of trustees has just decided Paterno cannot retire at season’s end under his own terms. They voted his immediate dismissal. If I had a vote, I’d have cast it for immediate termination.

While details of Sandusky’s alleged child molestations have come out, including eye witness accounts, it is fascinating to note the parallel reporting of the alleged sexual bias charges leveled against Herman Cain. It might have been plausible to think one woman could be delusional, or motivated by self-interest or revenge for a perceived slight. But now that five women have become part of the record, it is more plausible that Cain is a serial abuser. Perhaps he doesn’t see his behavior as such. After all, anyone who can say he was joking about electrocuting illegal aliens as they try to come across our border, might not realize the impact his words and actions have. As the head of the powerful National Restaurant Association, and before that as CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, he possessed power over these women.

Power. As the saying goes, it corrupts. Paterno at Penn State was considered a king, the most powerful man in Pennsylvania. Cain had power, the power to provide employment, or take it away. What does it say about Cain that he does not remember any of the incidents raised by the five women, that he had difficulty recalling settlements in several of the cases, that he couldn’t remember acknowledging the settlements some 10 years ago when he first sought elective office? What does it say about Paterno for not alerting police to the alleged monstrous behavior of his subordinate? Have we learned nothing from the scandals within the Catholic Church, that we should immediately report alleged abusive acts to the police?

Here’s another sign of how deeply troubled and wrong-centered we are as a country: Scott Pelley on the CBS Evening News tonight devoted 23 seconds to Tuesday’s elections in Mississippi and Ohio, results that have wide implications on national politics. In Mississippi, voters rejected an anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution that would have set the beginning of life at fertilization. In Ohio, voters rejected efforts by the Republican governor to limit collective bargaining rights for public employees.

While those two stories got a combined 23 seconds of air time, Pelley devoted 20 seconds to news that Eddie Murphy had resigned as host of next year’s Academy Awards telecast, a story more appropriate to Entertainment Tonight than the evening news.

The news just gets dumber and dumber.

Monday, November 7, 2011

This Magic Moment

Perhaps you heard him on some sports radio talk shows today commemorating the 20th anniversary of the day he, Magic Johnson, one of the premier basketball players of his and all-time, stunned the world by announcing he was HIV+. Unlike other HIV+ celebrities, such as Rock Hudson, Johnson was at the peak of his career, leading a vibrant life. He was still an active member of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Magic’s admission helped transform the public perception of HIV patients. Johnson became the face of HIV and its successful treatment.

Twenty years ago Gilda was the research coordinator of the Division of Infectious Disease at NY Medical College/Westchester County Medical Center. She studied Hepatitis, Lyme Disease, and HIV, contributing to numerous research papers.

Among the first studies she worked on was one that directly affected Magic Johnson and all other athletes. The study explored whether the HIV virus could be transmitted through sweat. To gather the sweat, HIV patients were placed in steam rooms. Their sweat dripped into plastic gloves to be tested.

The bottom line: HIV was not passed on by sweat. It was safe for Johnson and other athletes to continue playing together without fear of contracting HIV from the sweat of an infected player.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Marathon Man and Other Sports Updates

It’s NY Marathon Sunday.

I’ve never run a marathon, never took up jogging for that matter. Bad for the knees, I always reasoned, only to have my precautions wasted. My knees were assaulted during a basketball game some 15 years ago when they hooked up with a much stronger set than mine. Knee on knee contact is supposed to be among the most intense of injuries. I wasn’t bothered by the contact when it occurred but within two years I underwent surgery on my left knee. After returning to the hardwood upon completing my rehabilitation, my right knee started acting up. Rather than undergo another operation, I stopped playing basketball. It was no big loss to the game James Naismith invented.

My physical problems not being the intended reason for this blog, let me continue with my marathon memory. Gilda’s brother Carl did run marathons, so one Marathon Sunday some three decades ago we decided to brave the chilly weather and cheer him on. We waited behind blue police barricades at the 20-mile point, up in the Bronx. Carl was a good runner. We expected him to pass within an hour of the leaders.

We waited and waited for nearly four hours. No Carl. Numb from the chill and hungry, we headed home, figuring Carl must have pulled up lame before our vantage point. Being pre-cell phone days, we had to wait until we returned home to contact him.

Turned out Carl was not injured, that he indeed had kept to his expected pace. But the stress of the race had so contorted his image that we didn’t recognize him as he loped by. Ah, well...

Carl doesn’t run marathons anymore, but he jogs almost daily with his German shepherd dog Pas in Riverside Park and environs.

Swimming Update: I still need water wings. Or those pastel water noodles to stay afloat. A couple of things conspired to thwart my effort to learn to swim last summer.

First, my friendly, competent instructor Ken and I couldn’t maintain a consistent lesson schedule. I think it had something to do with Ken and his need to go to something he called “work.” We managed just three lessons, including the one where Ken had to “rescue” me in deep water. Perhaps that led to reason number two—Ken needed angioplasty shortly thereafter. Well, there’s always next year, but I’m going to insist Ken take a physical before he gets back into the water.

Kim and Kris: If you’re waiting for my thoughts on the nuptuals that are no more, sorry to disappoint you. I do hope, however, the public is not being set up for a spin-off reality series on Kris Humphries’ comeback attempt to be Mr. Kim Kardashian or his battle to re-enter the real world.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Green Giant Chevy Vega

Today marks the 100th anniversary of Chevrolet, that iconic American automobile brand.

The first car Gilda and I bought with our own money was a Chevy Vega. In 1973, we paid Dworkin Chevrolet in Derby, Conn., $2,100 ($10,188 in today’s dollars) for the privilege of driving a four-cylinder, forest green hatchback. We took out a 9% two-year $1,800 car loan. My parents were upset we didn’t borrow the money from them, but we reasoned we needed to establish a credit history to enhance our chances of securing a mortgage one day.

I loved riding around in that car. It was not peppy, but it reliably got me where I wanted to go despite an on again-off again oil leak common to many aluminum-engined Vegas. Plus, the hatchback proved useful in toting things, especially tree limbs I would find along the roadside for the wood-burning stove we installed in our first house in White Plains seven years later.

It was at that house our son Dan had his first driving experience at the tender age of 4. While I raked autumn leaves, Dan sat in the Vega’s driver’s seat with the car parked in the sloped driveway near the closed garage. He somehow managed to engage the gear shift. Fortunately, the car stopped as soon as it rammed into a panel of the garage door. It was hard to tell who was more shaken by the experience, Dan or his parents.

Since the Vega didn’t have air conditioning (I foolishly believed the salesman that a/c wasn’t necessary in Connecticut), I installed a small fan to the dashboard. I added a Citizen Band radio during the CB craze 30 years ago, playfully giving my handle as the Green Giant.

In 1986 as I waited to make a left turn in downtown White Plains while picking up some last minute supplies for Gilda’s Passover seder meal, the Vega was rear-ended by a teenage driver who mistook the accelerator for the brake pedal. I wasn’t hurt, but the back of my car was crunched into the rear wheels. I had it fixed but the Vega was never the same. My brother-in-law needed a car to drive to Camden, NJ, every day, so we arranged for him to take title after I made one last business trip in it to New Jersey. As I approached the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel the muffler fell off. By the time I reached the Manhattan corner where I was to give the Vega to my brother-in-law, the car could barely travel more than half a block without stalling. Clearly my Vega was sending a message our time together was over.

Driving Blocks: I’m six feet tall, Gilda almost a foot shorter, so it was not easy finding a car we both felt comfortable driving. In 1979, within a year after Dan was born, Gilda could no longer abide the Buick Regal my father had given us a few years before in exchange for the red Buick Skylark Gilda had learned to drive in and had lovingly named Bertha. We embarked on a car buying excursion that reached its height of frustration at a local Chevy dealer. When Gilda complained she couldn’t reach the pedals even when the seat was positioned as close as possible, the salesman countered that other short people had no problem. Further, if she really had a problem she could have wooden blocks installed to raise the level of the brake and accelerator pedals.

We quickly beat a retreat from the dealership and found joy with a Datsun (now called Nissan) Sentra wagon. Perhaps it was because Japanese are generally shorter than Americans, it was eye-opening to sit in a car that easily accommodated our different heights. Maybe that’s one reason Japanese cars enjoyed such success in America over the last 30 years.

Copycat Cain: So how upset or flattered should I be that one day after I wrote about Herman Cain’s presidential aspirations the NY Times co-opted my headline “Cain Not Able” for a column by Maureen Dowd (

I don't think its a copyright violation, just another example you no longer need to rely on The Times for commentary.