Monday, July 30, 2012

Calamity Mitt

There’s an exegesis that major calamities suffered by the Jewish people occurred through the ages on the ninth day of the month of Av, known in Hebrew as Tisha B’Av. Calamities such as the destructions of both temples in Jerusalem 656 years apart, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans. 

Tisha B’Av was commemorated over this past weekend, coinciding with Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel and Jerusalem. Need I say more? No, but I will.

Despite what Sheldon Adelson and other near-sighted people, including some of my friends, think, the worst development for Israel would be Romney’s election. As he so mis-ably demonstrated yet again on his “world tour” of England, Israel and Poland, Romney has no idea how to speak diplomatically. After publicly insulting the British, he publicly insulted the Palestinians. No amount of backtracking can remove his lack of diplomacy. Perception is reality in the eyes of the Palestinians. He has given them no reason to believe he would be an honest broker of a fair and equitable peace (

Palestinians are industrious. Educated. They have been productive citizens and residents wherever they have been given an opportunity. The tragedy of the Mideast is that too many Arab countries used them as pawns, consigning them to live in squalor instead of absorbing them into society, as Israel did with Jewish refugees who had to flee repression in Arab countries. Romney naively attributed the economic disparity between Israelis and Palestinians to “culture.” That’s but one of the reasons.  I don’t have the time or inclination to expound on the full set of reasons. Perhaps, given all his money, Romney can hire experts who could educate him on the differences between the two peoples.

As could be expected, Romney was well received by Israeli hawks for his no-questions-would-be-asked-nor-criticism-leveled should Israel decide to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Just as candidate Barack Obama in 2008 expressed sympathy for those living near the Gaza Strip under constant danger from missile attacks and condoned retaliation, Romney scored points when he said, “We respect the right of a country to defend itself.” Romney also fawned on the Israelis, and further angered the Palestinians, by saying Jerusalem was Israel’s capital. 

Interestingly, Romney, and for that matter, most other politicians, have chosen to stay silent on a more imminent threat to Israel and other Western countries, namely, the huge stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction in Syria that could fall into the hands of terrorists or unstable factions should the government of President Bashar al-Assad tumble. Would Israel and the United States risk a foray into Syria to secure these stockpiles? Israel is already distributing gas masks in its northern regions, but the threat would be far wider to the Jewish state, indeed, to the world at large if groups like al-Qaeda or Hezbollah had access to these WMDs. 

Romney always seems to be trying to say what he thinks his audience wants to hear. Back in Great Britain he opined he would restore the bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office. Sounds great to an Anglophile. Churchill was the symbol of British grit in World War II, the staunch anti-Communist thereafter, originator of the term “the Iron Curtain.” But what do India and other non-Caucasian members of the United Kingdom think of Churchill? Reading about the fall of the British empire, Gilda has related to me stories of how racist Churchill was, how he felt Indians were inferior people, and thus could be sacrificed (read that, starved) so Anglo-Saxons would have enough food during WWII. Millions in India died after their foodstuffs were shipped to the British Isles. 

Perhaps Romney wasn’t aware of this “small” fact. I, for one, wasn’t aware of it until recently. But I’m not running for president. My comments won’t anger a nation. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Flights of Fancy

How fast can you get from La Guardia Airport to John F. Kennedy Airport? 

Mapquest says it takes 17 minutes to drive the 11.48 miles between the two Queens airports. I did it in 8 minutes one Sunday morning some 20 years ago. And that included paying and exiting the parking garage at La Guardia and entering a parking lot at JFK.

Just as I hope my blogs conjure up memories for my readers, I’m reminded of personal events by articles I read. Today’s withdrawal from the memory bank was prompted by last Sunday’s NY Times article, “Right Day and Airline. The Airport? Um, No” (

I was scheduled to fly to Las Vegas in early May for my first exposure to the annual convention of the shopping center industry. Back then, pre-9/11, it was not uncommon to arrive at an airport just minutes before departure time. I gave myself plenty of cushion for the 8 am flight by sauntering into the main La Guardia terminal at 7:40. I looked up at the America West flight schedule screen. Odd. There was no listing for the non-stop flight to Las Vegas. It took several seconds for it to register in my brain. My flight was scheduled to depart from Kennedy, not La Guardia!

I raced back to my car, parked on the ground level of the garage. 7:42 am. Luck was with me. There was no one ahead of me at the parking lot toll booth. I hurtled onto the Grand Central Parkway into the Van Wyck Expressway, for once a road that lived up to its name. With virtually no other cars on the Van Wyck that Sunday morning, I floored the accelerator of my 1986 Mazda 626. I veered into a parking lot at JFK. 7:50 am. 

I could easily make the gate by 8 am if I just walked briskly but remembered the advice I’d been given to get there early as America West usually overbooked this flight and wasted no time in bumping no shows. The next flight was not until late that afternoon. I ran from the parking lot through the terminal to the gate, arriving just before 8, to find out the flight was delayed for half an hour because of mechanical problems. I checked in. My seat had not been given away. 

Arriving at the wrong airport led to my one and only helicopter ride. I wasn’t at fault that time. My La Guardia-bound flight was diverted to Newark. Rather than shuttle-bus a handful of us to Queens, the airline transported us in style, aboard a helicopter. The vertical sensation of lift-off and descent, plus the bird’s-eye view of the Manhattan skyline, made for a memorable experience. I truly get the whirlybird fascination.

Getting to the airport at an appropriate time is but one of the travel offenses I have inflicted on my family. During our family’s first trip to England around 1986, we almost extended our stay in the Mother Country. We had to race through the terminal, like OJ in an old Hertz commercial, to get to our plane before they secured the boarding area. When Gilda and I attended a retail industry conference in San Antonio, I was embarrassed to find out we arrived one day late and our room had been reassigned. Only through the intervention of the conference chairman did Gilda not terminate my existence then and there.

Perhaps my most almost-egregious mishap occurred during a trip to Luxembourg. I was a featured speaker at a SAP software conference. Gilda and I turned my speaking engagement into a two week trip through Amsterdam, Brussels and finally Luxembourg. We arrived in Luxembourg Monday evening. I was to speak Wednesday morning, so Tuesday we decided to tour the city. 

As we waited for our car to be brought to the front of the hotel Tuesday morning, I thought I’d go to the restroom on the lower level. The conference registration area was on the way, so I took the opportunity to tell the coordinator I’d arrived safely. She was more than relieved—she said they were wondering where I was. I was to give my presentation in 20 minutes! 

Zounds! Yikes! Sacre Bleu! I no longer had to go to the bathroom. Instead, I raced upstairs, found Gilda wandering the lobby and told her I had to hurriedly change out of my jeans into my suit because I was to go on in now less than 15 minutes. I made it back down with a minute or two to spare and with the resolve to double and triple check my schedules from then on. How embarrassing that would have been had I failed to deliver my presentation after enjoying a two-week vacation underwritten by their confidence in me? It makes me shutter to think of it even to this day.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Klimt-o-maniac and Other Faux Pas

Do you like to be reminded of your embarrassing moments? Obviously I do, otherwise this blog site would be much leaner. Being able to take a joke, be at the receiving end of repartee, is a trait to be cherished, so much so that the company I worked for included an analysis of one’s sense of humor, defined as not taking oneself too seriously, as part of its mandatory psychological test for all new hires.  

All that by way of reporting to you that this morning’s Weekend Arts section of The NY Times carried a 6-1/4” x 5” photo of Gustav Klimt’s “The Black Feather Hat (Lady with Feather Hat)” that is part of the Neue Galerie’s 150th anniversary celebration of the birth of the artist. The Vienna-born Klimt is remembered most for his stunning and somewhat haunting portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the most memorable of which hangs in the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue at 86th Street.

How this tidbit of art news relates to my embarrassing moment centers on other Klimt paintings that hang in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, which our family visited back in the summer of 2007. Enchanted by Klimt’s The Kiss, I wanted to point out a detail to Gilda. As a bifocal wearer, I’ve always had difficulty at museums gauging distances to paintings, no more so than when I extended my right index finger toward The Kiss. I accidentally, repeat, accidentally, touched the painting’s protective glass shield. Alarm bells blared. I jumped back, waving my hands like an umpire signaling “safe.” My family, especially Ellie who works for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was mortified. I beat a hasty retreat from The Kiss. 

My manual dexterity, like my eyesight, leaves much to be desired, so whenever I manage to fix anything around the house I consider that more than a minor miracle. So does Gilda. Currently, I’m on a hot streak. Within the last two weeks I fixed mirrored bi-folding doors of Gilda’s main closet (careful readers would deduce she has more than one closet) and replaced the electric timer for our outdoor lights. The last time I tried to stretch my winning streak to three, I flooded the basement of our first house. If you care to read about that sad enterprise, here’s a link:

Olympic Moment: Are you primed for the Olympics, beginning tonight? I can’t say I am. Not being a swimmer, I don’t relate to human fish knifing through the water, or doing somersaults on their way down from 12 meters above the surface. Nor do I get too excited about basketball. Or soccer. Or Greco-Roman wrestling. Or weightlifting. Definitely not weightlifting. 

The last sprinter that captivated me was Wilma Rudolph in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. I’m not a total snob when it comes to the Olympics. I do thrill to individual accomplishments, like that of Usain Bolt. But for the most part, over the next two weeks I suspect I will watch more Yankees games than Olympic moments. Tough choice tonight—opening ceremonies or Yanks vs. the hated Red Sox. Picture-in-a-picture, anyone?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Obamacare for Corn, Ichiro, Banking, Neo-Cons

(Editor’s note: Slight delay in posting today’s blog as I was constrained by holding Dagny during a quick trip to Boston to visit the new granddaughter and her brother Finley.)

As news reports of the drought across much of the nation, particularly in the breadbasket corn belt states of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, kept spreading in the media, I turned to Gilda last week to sarcastically suggest it wouldn’t be too long before President Obama would be blamed for this catastrophe. Sure enough, on Tuesday night’s Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert reacted to information that 90% of Iowa farmers had federal crop insurance by declaring it “Obamacare for our corn.”

It’s not too far fetched to think Obama would be blamed. After all, many of the water-parched states are electorally red, meaning they lean toward Republican and conservative candidates. Conservatives keep calling him a socialist, and in case you haven’t heard, Russia has been suffering from drought conditions for years longer than the U.S. It’s only natural, then, that God is exacting punishment on America because of its “anti-religion” leader just as He (for sure, not a She) is doing to the godless Rooskies. 

On the other hand, perhaps God is punishing those red states for being so intolerant to those who don’t match their DNA and beliefs, such as gays, Mormons, abortion rights advocates and immigrants (legal and illegal).

Ichiro to the Rescue? Now that Ichiro Suzuki is a NY Yankee, there is speculation he may finally make it to the World Series. If their play come October in any way resembles their last seven games, however, the Yankees once again will go home before the championship contest. 

Though they have the best record to date in baseball, they are vulnerable to good pitching that limits their home run output, as the games against the Oakland A’s and the Seattle Mariners showed this week. They won just two of seven games, repeatedly failing to score runs without the aid of a home run. Teams they would face in October would have better than average pitching, so a short playoff run is not inconceivable. 

Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez’s broken hand injury, suffered in Tuesday’s loss to Seattle, is further validation he is a schlemazel. Three Yankees were hit by pitches during the game—Derek Jeter, Ichiro and A-Rod. Only A-Rod sustained an injury. He may be out six to eight weeks. As I wrote back in February 2011, A-Rod is more schlemazel than a schlemiel

“For those not familiar with the Yiddish terms, a schlemiel is a person who, despite the best of intentions, always fouls up. A schlemazel is an unfortunate soul, a person to whom misadventure always falls. To gain a deeper understanding of the distinction between the two, think of a schlemiel as a bumbling waiter who spills hot soup on a patron; the person drenched by the soup is a schlemazel. Active or passive, schlemiel or schlemazel, A-Rod can’t catch a break.”

Financial Misadventures: James “Jamie” Dimon, chairman, president and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, has predicted there will be no more surprises similar to the $6 billion-and-mounting loss from speculative trading. He believes we need less, not more, regulatory oversight of the banking industry. Does anyone truly believe him?

Does anyone else find it ironic that the new basketball home of the Nets in Brooklyn will be called the Barclay Center, named for the same bank that is a key player in the Libor-fixing scandal? Barclay, along with other banks, reportedly shaved points in setting the interest rate banks charged each other to borrow funds. Hmmm...shaving Sports fans will immediately get the connection. All others, google “point shaving”.

Neo-Con Comeback? Mitt Romney, currently on a trip to England, Poland and Israel, leveled a broadside against President Obama’s foreign policy earlier this week. Nothing new here, it being the season of politics. Similarly, there’s nothing new about Romney’s foreign policy advisors. They’re mostly neo-conservatives, the same sad sack lot who brought us wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Does the country really want to go back to a world view based on belligerency rather than diplomacy? 

While on the subject of politics, have you noticed the terms POTUS and SCOTUS creeping into coverage and TV fare? For the uninitiated, POTUS is President of the United States; SCOTUS is Supreme Court of the United States.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"Now Is Not The Time." WRONG!

Say what you will about New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, but he is not afraid to take on hot-button issues, whether it be his proposal to ban over-sized sugary soft drinks to combat obesity or his advocacy of stricter gun control laws made all the more pressing in the wake of the Aurora massacre. 

One is left to wonder about the leadership potential, the guts, the independence, of such politicians as New Jersey governor Chris Christie who lamely hewed to the Republican/National Rifle Association party line that now is not the time to have a discussion of gun control. To which I would answer (for Mayor Mike): If not now, when? (The full quote from the Jewish sage Hillel is,  “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”)

Okay, perhaps it is too soon to digest the full context of Aurora. But what about Columbine? That was in 1999. Or what about Virginia Tech (2007)? Or the shoot-em-up in Tucson (2011)? Just when will it be the right time to talk about appropriate gun control?

Both political parties have abandoned any pretense of relevancy when it comes to protecting our citizens. With almost unanimous support by our nation’s police chiefs for stronger gun control laws, ex-prosecutor Christie’s failure to speak out forcefully about this life and death issue shows him to be a gutless politician. Where is his outrage that a special interest group has co-opted our nation’s safety? 

Christie is no worse than President Obama or his mind-numbing challenger Mitt Romney. It is not enough to be healer-in-chief. When will we come to our senses and realize no one needs semi-automatic guns and large ammunition clips? These are not sporting gear. They are tools by which to kill and maim in the extreme. 

It’s time we abandoned the pretense that restricting these sales somehow violates the Second Amendment right to bear arms. It’s time we corrected our course and choose to go forward into the second decade of the 21st century instead of lurching backward into the 19th century when carrying firearms into a saloon was standard practice. We’re making it easier, not harder, for people to carry weapons, even concealed weapons. 

The height of absurdity will be seen next month when Republicans gather in Tampa for their nominating convention. Tampa won’t allow anyone to carry a water pistol near the convention center, but will permit the carrying of concealed weapons. 

According to a Monday NY Times article, “In May the city adopted a temporary ordinance that will clamp down on protests in dozens of blocks near the Tampa Convention Center. Among other things, the ordinance requires a permit for groups of 50 or more to gather in parks; sets a limit of 90 minutes on parades; and bans an array of items, including glass bottles, aerosol cans and pieces of rope longer than six feet. It also provided for an official parade route for protesters along with viewing areas.

“During public debates, some Tampa residents and City Council members opposed the rules, calling them excessive. Others complained that while the ordinance outlawed water pistols, actual pistols were allowed for those with permits to carry a concealed weapon. Although Tampa's mayor, Bob Buckhorn, had asked the state's governor, Rick Scott, to ban firearms during the convention, the governor has refused.”

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg vented his frustration today by suggesting police departments across the country go on strike to express their support of tougher guns laws, a work stoppage action by public servants hardly in line with the position he or any other mayor would sanction in normal times. Which leads one to wonder, do we have to suffer through a disastrous shooting at the GOP convention for our politicians to separate their act from the yahoos at the National Rifle Association?

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Real Mass Murderers Among Us

Safe to say, Afro-Americans have suffered more discrimination in our society than any other population segment. Yet, other than Colin Ferguson, the Long Island Railroad shooter who killed six commuters and wounded 19 others in 1993, I’m hard-pressed to recall any other instance over the last several decades when an Afro-American vented his frustrations and executed a mass shooting and murder as perpetrated last week by James Holmes, another white man, in Aurora, Colo., or in Columbine, Colo., or at Virginia Tech, or in Tucson, Ariz., or just last week ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where, thankfully, none of the 17 people shot in a bar died (okay, technically, the Virginia Tech shooter was Asian, but hardly a member of a discriminated race).

Through their gangs, blacks have the unfortunate habit of shooting and often killing their own, both gang members and innocents, often children unlucky to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Those are serial events, not the singular violence shooters like Holmes trigger. You’d think if anyone could be justified in taking it out on society it would be an Afro-American, or maybe an Hispanic-American. Thankfully, they don’t.

I don’t mean to belittle the tragedy in Aurora, but the real tragedy of America is that gang-related murders evoke little more than hand-wringing and not enough resolve to alter the conditions that are killing hope in minority neighborhoods. In Chicago, for example, 272 have been killed this year through June 30, mostly from gang-related incidents. That’s up 36% from a year ago. 

Since the mass assault in the movie theater in Aurora we’ve been trying to analyze the alleged shooter, determine his motive, flesh out his psyche, somehow try to figure out what would drive an individual to do such an extreme act against society. Perhaps it would be more worthwhile to figure out why whole groups of men have abandoned social mores. Let’s figure out how to stop their discriminate and indiscriminate shooting rampages.

We’ll never stop random acts of mass murder, no more than we can eradicate random acts of terrorism. But we must work to stop what has become “institutionalized” murder by gangs, even if it’s against other gang members. We don’t tolerate Mafia wars. We shouldn’t tolerate minority wars. We cannot allow neighborhoods of our cities to degenerate into semblances of drug-cartel controlled Mexico where the value of a life has lost its true meaning. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Harlem Nights

As I recall the meal some 15 years ago, it was not too memorable. At least as far as taste goes. But as a cultural experience, it was worthwhile.

I’m referring to a pilgrimage to Harlem my staff, Gilda and I made one evening to eat in Sylvia’s Restaurant. The famed soul-food eatery is experiencing additional melancholy recognition these last few days, ever since it was announced Thursday owner and founder Sylvia Woods had died at 86 after suffering the last several years with Alzheimer’s disease.

At the suggestion of Matt, one of our editors, we took the subway uptown to 125th Street that warm, summer evening. About six of us. Some of us must have eaten fried chicken. Maybe some collard greens. Perhaps there was a pork chop. Like I said, the food did not register as among our greatest meals (a review confirmed to me by two other participants that evening). We did not feel different, out of place. We did feel we had tasted part of the culture that makes New York City vibrant.

Some 30 years earlier, during my freshman, or maybe sophomore, year at Brooklyn College, I enjoyed another Harlem experience, a Bill Cosby and O.C. Smith concert at the renowned Apollo Theater. My friend Paul and I were among the few white faces in the crowd. This was, after all, 1968. Few Caucasians ventured onto 125th Street at night back then, even to see Bill Cosby. We sat high up in the balcony, as far back as we could.

Smith performed first, taking particular pleasure in singing his hit, “Little Green Apples,” to Cosby’s wife, seated in one of the stage-right boxes. Cosby emerged from the wings to visually express his pique at being so publicly cuckolded. The crowd roared.

Cosby ended his routine around midnight. The Apollo was just heating up, but we didn’t stay. It was a long subway ride back to Brooklyn. 


Friday, July 20, 2012

Orchard Street Connection

Was down on Orchard Street in Manhattan last evening observing Ellie getting fitted at Adriennes for her wedding gown for next month’s nuptials.

To those not familiar with Orchard Street, a little history. Located in the heart of the Lower East Side populated by waves of immigrants, especially Eastern European Jews in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century, the narrow-laned Orchard Street has always been a mecca for savvy shoppers and sharp retailers. Above the shops, immigrants lived in squalid, cramped quarters of walk-up apartments. Today hip, young people share the confines with newer immigrants. The neighborhood is gentrifying with trendy stores and restaurants.

As a child I would tag along with my father and my mother as they plied the small, merchandise-stuffed storefronts looking for bargains in apparel, textiles and electronics, all the way kibitzing with the merchants along the busy street.

Orchard Street has a long history with our family. After my father came to New York from Danzig, Poland, in 1939, he worked for his cousin Morris in a shirt store on Orchard Street. It was there one day, when he was several steps up on a ladder, that he met my mother for the first time. It was sort of a prearranged meeting, but my mother’s hair was not very cooperative that day. As family lore tells it, her hair was downright scary, so much so that when dad gazed upon her for the first time, he fell off the ladder. Nevertheless, they agreed to go out on a date that Friday night, to see an operetta, Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus

When he arrived at her parents’ door Friday evening he was met by an attractive young woman whom he assumed was one of her three sisters. He was only slightly embarrassed but quite relieved and happy to discover his date stood before him. They married six weeks later.

Ever the businessman my father opened his own shirt shop on Orchard Street after returning from military service in World War II. His store was at 99 Orchard Street, in the shadow of what today is the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street. Indeed, a year or so ago the museum contacted me for information on his store as part of its research on an exhibit of businesses of the Lower East Side. I never knew of that store as I wasn't yet born when he ran it, but an older cousin who worked there provided details. As Herb explained to me, it was common back in the 1940s for my father to give a helping hand to relatives and friends who needed a first job. 

As a child, I was aware of and intrigued by my father’s familiarity with the merchants along Orchard Street. I now understand from where his knowledge derived. It seemed only fitting then that his granddaughter came full circle back to Orchard Street to choose her dress for her wedding which will take place 11 days shy of what would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary.

Monday, July 16, 2012

"I Know Nothing"

Sunday’s season opener of Breaking Bad and an article in Monday’s NY Times prompted today’s blog entry. In Breaking Bad, sleazy attorney Saul Goodman advised Skyler White she should think Hogan’s Heroes if she’s ever questioned by authorities. Today’s Times reported on efforts to eradicate real or imagined cockroaches in Naples, Italy (

Both media evoked memories of my first trip to Israel during the summer of 1966. As a high school graduation present, my parents sent their 17-year-old son to Israel for six weeks and to Italy and France for two more. In Israel I stayed mostly with my sister who was studying in Jerusalem for two years. During one of my touring trips, I visited Ashkelon, a city on the Mediterranean that had some famous ancient ruins. 

I checked into a hostel and was assigned a shared room. My roommate was not in after dinner when I lay down to read. From the corner of my eye, I detected something dark moving near his bed across the room. I got up, put on my distance glasses, saw it was a big cockroach and smashed it. I returned to bed. About 15 minutes later, I detected more movement coming from the area of the kill, only this time the dark spot was a much larger mass. They say cockroaches can survive an atomic blast, but there was no way that bug could have resurrected itself from the thumping I gave it. I guardedly advanced to the killing field. The cockroach was in fact moving, but not under its own power. An army of ants had surrounded it and were bringing the feast home.

I heard the lock to our door jiggling. I ran back to bed and resumed reading. My roommate, a tourist from a Scandinavian country, introduced himself, turned to his bed and stopped in his tracks. “What’s this?,” he asked. “What?,” said I. He pointed to the ant colony on the march. As Sgt. Schultz in the then-popular TV show Hogan’s Heroes used to say, I sheepishly replied, “’I hear nothing, I see nothing. I know nothing.’ Perhaps you should call the front desk and have them bring some bug spray.” 

I have no doubt he saw through my ruse, but he was diplomatic enough not to say anything. I, meanwhile, went to sleep with one eye figuratively open. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Social Networking

Highly unusual occurrence on the softball diamond this morning. As the first player, a young man perhaps 30 years my junior, stepped into the batter’s box against me, both teams cheered, “Let’s go Murray.” I quickly ascertained the batter shared my name, an anomaly I hadn’t encountered in close to 30 years of playing in the Sunday Jewish organization softball league. It’s most unusual to meet anyone younger than I with the name Murray. As I’ve written in the past, Murray is a moniker usually confined by script writers to policemen or dogs ( 

My last name is even more unusual than my first. People often mistake it for Forester, like the Subaru car, or Old Forester bourbon. But it’s Forseter, an Americanization of Fürsetzer. When we grew up, my brother, sister and I thought the only post-World War II surviving Forseters were our family and that of our father’s brother, Willy. All told, eight of us.

So when a St. Louis-raised colleague remarked he’d gone to school with an Elliot Forseter, I told him it was not possible. No doubt Elliott spelled his surname differently, I said. Naturally, an argument ensued. We wagered 10 bucks on who was right. To settle the matter, I trekked down to our fifth floor office to look in a St. Louis phonebook used by our directory division. Sure enough, Elliot Forseter was listed there in black and white. After forking over the $10, I called my father to ask who was this guy, Elliot Forseter. “Oh, that’s Allen’s son,” he said. “Allen!?!,” I screamed into the phone. “Who are these people? Where did they come from? Why hadn’t we heard about them before?”

My father didn’t really have a good explanation as to why he didn’t stay in touch with his St. Louis relatives, or for those in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that used a Fursetzer spelling, or a Forseter cousin who had lived in Queens but died in the mid 1950s. Since I traveled the nation quite a bit back then, I was determined to meet Elliot next time I was in St. Louis. Only trouble was, I rarely visited St. Louis. 

Several years later, in 1986, en route to Las Vegas, I had a one hour layover in St. Louis, too short a time to leave the airport but time enough to contact Elliot by phone. He wasn’t home. As I explained who I was to his wife, I could visualize her looking into the phone and saying, “Yeah, right.” I told her I’d follow up with a letter. On the plane ride to Las Vegas I long-handed a legal-sized, seven-page letter detailing our family history. Elliot checked with his uncle, Isadore Forsetzer, in Florida before replying. Elliot, too, had no idea he had any Forseter relatives, as his parents had divorced 26 years earlier when he was 13 and his father moved to Los Angeles (by weird coincidence, to a home around the corner from my sister). He enclosed a picture of himself and his family. He could have passed as one of my father’s sons. 

A few years later I actually visited Elliot and his family, as well as my cousins in Minnesota. We all said we would stay in touch. That was 20 years ago. I have not stayed in touch. Sadly, I inherited my father’s anti-social gene when it comes to distant family relations. Maybe it was a universal Fürsetzer gene. My cousins haven’t stayed in touch, either.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Marvin Traub, Beach Bums, Sex, Norman Sas and Obama

Hail and Farewell to the Prince: I met the indefatigable Marvin Traub several times, while he was head of Bloomingdale’s and during the last 20 years when he was thought to be too old to run the trendsetting Upper East Side emporium and started his own international consulting company. He was a paragon of the “retailing is theater” school, perhaps its greatest practitioner, a merchant prince who captivated a generation of shoppers and thereby transformed a sleepy, discount-oriented department store propped between Lexington and Third Avenues in Manhattan into an essential stop by every New York visitor including royalty, show biz luminaries, and everyday gawkers from around the United States and the world.

Traub died Wednesday. He was 87. The obituary in The NY Times ( did not come close to revealing the magnetic personality and command Traub had on retailing and pop culture, especially on New York City. When the city teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in the mid 1970s, when the city dangled perilously close to lawlessness in the 1980s, Bloomingdale’s shone as a beacon of cache and refinement. There were many New Yorkers, including one of my staff writers, who made Bloomie’s a daily must-visit. 

There are comparatively few retail geniuses at work today, men and women with ideas and visions that transformed the buying and selling of goods. Eugene Ferkauf, who founded E.J. Korvettes and modern discounting, died a few weeks ago. Traub was among that pantheon of leaders. 

Passing The Times: Our daughter Ellie and her husband-to-be Donny are trendsetters. At least as far as knowing which beach to sun and surf at. They discovered Fort Tilden beach in Queens a good four years before The Times named it “one of New York’s great hidden beaches” a few weeks ago. Kinda disappointing The Times didn’t include them in any of the 14 photos that accompanied the article, though I might have been a little taken aback if Ellie showed up as one of those beachgoers who “go topless.”

You never know where or when your past will intrude on your present. Reading through the Letters to the Editor of last Saturday’s Times I came upon a short note from Ira Sohn reacting to an opinion piece from Bill Keller advocating a national ID card. I’ll pass on the desirability of such a card. I was more interested in Ira Sohn. If he’s the Ira Sohn I think he is, we attended high school together in Brooklyn, Yeshivah of Flatbush, graduating in 1966. Our senior class secretary, Ira Sohn is a professor in the economics and finance department of Montclair State University. 

Sleepy Head: Whenever I would yawn in front of my mother she’d call me “sleepy head” and suggest, “You’d be less tired if you didn’t fool around at night, but then you wouldn’t have as much fun.” 

She must have been onto something, if a survey published in the NY Daily News is a true indicator of national behavior. Seems an online study of 1,000 people commissioned by Trojans, the condom maker, has found New Yorkers have five times as much sex as the average in 10 major cities across the nation ( 

For what it’s worth, while I could believe there’s more action in the Big Apple, I don’t believe the rest of the country lags so far behind. 

Speaking of Action and having fun, one of the best games of my 1950s-early 1960s childhood was electric football, a precursor to today’s video game versions of mayhem on the gridiron. The inventor of electric football, Norman Sas, died last month. He, too, was 87. Younger readers might not know about electric football, but those of us of a certain age remember it fondly and with some degree of exasperation when your felt-bottomed players failed to go in the direction you wanted them to. Here’s the obit on Norman Sas:

Communicator-in-Chief: Teasers for a Charlie Rose interview of Barack and Michelle Obama airing Sunday night on 60 Minutes have the president saying, "The mistake of my first term—couple of years—was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that's important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times."

Wrong. We did not need another Reagan in the White House. We needed another LBJ, someone who could whip recalcitrant Democrats into line and even pull some Republicans into the fold to pass legislation this country needed. Instead, we got a hands-off chief executive who naively believed Republicans were joking when they said their main task during his presidency would be to make sure it lasted just four years. He naively believed they would put country first, would work with him. So he wound up squandering Democratic majorities in the House and Senate during his first two years in office. 

He’s too laid back for the fight he is in. He needs to be more Harry S. Truman, less Jimmy Carter. He needs to show he wants to be our leader. Tell us stories if you want to Mr. President, but don’t forget to tell us what you will do in the next four years and ram home what benefits and programs Mitt Romney would remove if he gets to sit behind that desk in the Oval Office. 


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Name That Reading Assignment

I guess I may now have to read “Atlas Shrugged.”

“The Fountainhead” with its superhero Howard Roark has always been one of my favorite books, not that I was an unquestioning adherent to Ayn Rand’s form of individualism and capitalism-at-all-costs philosophy. Being a simple man, I just liked the story of overcoming insurmountable odds. I loved the opening line, “Howard Roark laughed.” 

Naturally, I thought I’d read Rand’s other classic, “Atlas Shrugged,” after I finished “The Fountainhead.” But I just couldn’t get into it. Now, however, I have reason to pick it up anew. You see, Allison and Dan made Gilda and me grandparents once more, a girl this time. They named her Dagny Eaton Forseter. Eaton is for one of Allison’s father’s family offshoots. Dagny, on the other hand, left me wondering where, oh where, did that come from? 

My friend Jim knew right away. As soon as he heard the name he said, “Dagny Taggart.” He knew Dagny was the name of the female protagonist of “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand’s 1957 opus that delineated her philosophy, objectivism. Jim also suggested that if Dan and Allison have another girl they could balance out the political winds by naming her Angela, after Angela Davis.

There’s no denying, Allison and Dan have been most creative in their choices of names for their offspring. Perhaps it’s a reaction to their frequently shared names. In Dan’s elementary school grade, there were four other Dan’s among the 20 boys. 

I thought Finley was rather unique when I first heard it, but it’s commonplace when compared to Dagny. Derived from Old Norse, Dagny means “new day.” According to Think Baby Names, among the 4,276 most popular names for women, Dagny ranks 4,252. It’s a safe bet there won’t be too many Dagnys in her classes, though Allison said she taught a Dagny a few years ago. 

Dagny is beginning to grow on me. Doesn’t hurt that she’s a real cutie, looking much like Finley did as a newborn. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Sense of Higher Purpose

Among the most e-mailed recent articles listed by The NY Times was a piece on Apple’s store employees titled, “Apple’s Retail Army, Long on Loyalty but Short on Pay” ( 

As someone who covered retailing for more than three decades, I learned very little from the extensive reporting. It was not news to me that Apple, like most retailers, pays its store staff little more than minimum wage despite counting on them to rack up among the highest, if not the highest, sales per square foot among chain store retailers. 

Buried deep in the article was the following paragraph which explains to a large degree why Apple can get away with low hourly wages: “The phrase that trainees hear time and again, which echoes once they arrive at the stores, is ‘enriching people’s lives.’ The idea is to instill in employees the notion that they are doing something far grander than just selling or fixing products. If there is a secret to Apple’s sauce, this is it: the company ennobles employees. It understands that a lot of people will forgo money if they have a sense of higher purpose.”

That last sentence—”It understands that a lot of people will forgo money if they have a sense of higher purpose”—really got me. It brought me back several decades to a presentation by then CEO and founder of Crate & Barrel Gordon Segal. Asked by a Wall Street investment analyst to explain the success of his home furnishings chain, Segal attributed much of it to the dedication of store associates, men and women often with a degree in art or design or teaching. They had a talent for connecting with people and for feeling good about their work. That transcendent feeling, Segal said, allowed Crate & Barrel to keep salaries low because the staff received inner fulfillment from their work in lieu of demanding higher wages.

That’s the same management philosophy that for years buttressed the belief that public employees—firemen, police, social workers, sanitation workers, teachers, nurses, even the military—could be hired at low starting salaries. The tradeoff many of these workers, and government officials, accepted was better health care and retirement benefits. Now slash and burn governors, mayors and their legislative henchmen are trying to balance the books on the backs of government workers. 

Sure, there were and are some malingerers among them. What industry doesn’t have its share of goof-offs and people who take advantage of the system? But do we seriously believe teachers are not among the most important members of society and thus should be valued and paid appropriately? Does anyone seriously want to haul trash—even if it’s just their own trash— in the frigid dead of winter or the blazing hot summer? How about running into a burning building to save someone who might not even be inside the inferno, but firemen go in anyway because a family member or friend suspects a loved one is inside? How many of us are ready and willing to put our lives on the line each time we don a uniform to protect our cities or to safeguard our nation from attack in foreign lands? 

Perhaps what we need is a little more introspection about the good government workers bring to our standard of living.