Sunday, August 11, 2013

Transitions From Legos to Purses, From Minimum Wages To Yankees and a Remembrance

This time I really do have a pretty legitimate reason for going dark over the last 10 days. For most of that period Finley and Dagny, along with their parents Dan and Allison, came down from Massachusetts to spend a stay-cation week with us. They enjoyed a trip to the Bronx Zoo, Coney Island (the boardwalk, kiddie rides, the beach and lunch at Nathan’s), Muscoot Park and LegoLand. 

But what might be considered the highlight of the visit, at least for Finley and Dan, was the retrieval from the attic of hundreds, if not thousands, of Lego pieces Gilda and I thoughtfully stored for our grandchildren some 25 years ago. I’m not sure who was more enthralled by this reclamation, Dan or Finley. Our grandson was genuinely excited by the battery-operated train, and the helicopter and police wagon with flashing lights and sirens. As much as the resurrected Legos brought back memories of Dan constructing a whole village on most of his bedroom floor during his childhood, Dan was clearly the most captivated. When all the grownups had stopped watching a movie to go to bed Thursday night, Dan stayed up another half hour, rebuilding planes, aided by the schematic instructions we had carefully saved.   

Friday morning Dan and Finley were back into the Legos. In case you’re wondering, we did not ship the Legos home with Dan and Finley. As if they needed a further incentive to visit, Finley and Dan (and when she’s older, Dagny) have another reason to venture south.

Anyone who believes racism, overt or subtle, does not exist, not just in our society but worldwide as well, was treated to another dose of reality this past week when Oprah Winfrey was steered away from looking at a $38,000 purse to a less expensive handbag in a Swiss boutique. Though the store claims it was just a misunderstanding, there’s little doubt the salesperson assumed a person of color could not afford a $38,000 purse, so why bother wasting time. 

Beyond the black humor (pun intended) of perhaps the richest woman in the world (white or black) not being treated royally, here’s my question—who really needs a $38,000 piece of stitched leather? The excesses of the outrageously wealthy over the last two decades have been grotesque, with too many buying automobiles for sums greater than many people pay for homes. Oprah is a symbol to many who struggle every day. Why would she so blatantly flaunt values that do not correlate with her core audience?

When I was young, our relatives and family friends would put a dollar inside any new wallet my brother, sister or I received. Lee double-dipped when she received a new purse. It was always a nice surprise to find the cash inside our new wallets and purses. I wonder, how much does Stedman have to put inside Oprah’s new pocketbooks? Anything less than a cool grand would seem rather cheap, don’t you think?

Speaking of cheap, I’m pretty supportive of fast food workers seeking a more livable wage. One of my first big stories in trade journalism for my former company dealt with efforts to raise the minimum wage back in 1977. The restaurant industry railed against it, claiming any increase would shove operators over the brink, forcing them to close down, resulting in fewer foodservice employers and employees. My publisher wanted me to write a story supporting those assertions, but the facts, as I researched them, showed otherwise. That story wound up winning a corporate prize as the best news article of the year.

You might have heard Fox Business News anchor Neil Cavuto last week rant that too many people disdain working for fast food eateries. “It’s like jobs aren’t enough these days,” he opined. “They damn well better pay well or folks just really aren’t going to apply for them at all. Did I ever tell you that when I was a kid, you’d be grateful for any job you could find. Now a lot of kids are just the opposite, turning up their nose at fast food jobs that go begging at 11 bucks an hour. It’s true!”

The 54-year-old commentator said that when he was 16 he eagerly took a minimum wage job at $2 an hour at Arthur Treacher’s in Danbury, Conn., the first rung on his ladder of success. But as Mother Jones pointed out, Cavuto has a problem with math, which kinda kills his credibility as a financial expert. His $2 an hour in 1974 adjusted for inflation would be about $9.47 today; “Cavuto made the equivalent of $1.22 per hour more than the current minimum wage in Connecticut today and $2.22 per hour more than the current federal minimum wage (of $7.25).”

Mother Jones noted “Cavuto's riff also misses the larger point, which is that the living-wage fight isn't about 16-year-olds with no kids whose parents cover their basic living expenses. The median fast food worker is 28 years old, and the median female fast food worker is 32. Their wages have dropped an average of 36 cents since 2010. And they're making less than Neil Cavuto ever did.”

On another fast food point, I stopped in McDonald’s a few times recently. The Golden Arches might still be considered fast food, but I can vouch that service is definitely NOT fast. With its extensive and growing menu McD’s has a real systems problem from the time an order is placed until food is delivered to the customer. 

It’s hard to watch the NY Yankees these days, even when they win, which they don’t do often enough. Forget about the A-Rod mania. No one will come out ahead in that fiasco. Friday night’s and Sunday’s games versus the Detroit Tigers showed how fragile the Yankee season is. Mariano Rivera blew two saves (three in a row going back to last Wednesday in Chicago against the White Sox, the first time Mo has done that in his illustrious career). In 54 previous innings against the Tigers he had yielded just two home runs. He gave up three in two appearances this weekend. 

If Yankee fans can’t count on Mariano to nail down victories, who can they rely on? For the moment, it seems to be Brett Gardner, both in the field and at bat. He made a game-saving catch Sunday against Torii Hunter and then belted a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth. This after getting the game-winning hit Friday night after Mo blew the save. 

Gardner’s heroics would have been appreciated, and Rivera’s travails lovingly tolerated, by Herb Bilus who passed away August 1, a week after his 92nd birthday. Herb loved the Yankees, the NY Football Giants, politics, current events, poker and other card games, his community of Bloomfield, NJ, and, most of all, his family.   

Even to funerals I rarely wear ties these days. Yet it would have seemed disrespectful not to wear one to pay my last respects to Herb. So there I was in tie and suit, at the service and then internment in a cemetery with a picturesque view of the New York skyline. Herb was one of the Tom Brokaw-coined “greatest generation,” a Coast Guard veteran of the D-Day landings. As the last of the vanguard who made our world safe for democracy die off, taps reverberates through the grassy knolls of their final resting places. Often it can be a recording. For Herb, a solitary live trumpeter played the soulful notes as an honor guard saluted and then rolled up an American flag that draped his coffin.

I knew Herb for just 25 or so years. He was the father, father-in-law and grandfather of some of our family’s closest friends. Here’s a reprise of what I wrote about Herb on the 66th anniversary of D-Day:

Surrounded by two of his three daughters and their husbands, three of his six grandchildren, two great grandchildren, a grandson-in-law and a couple of friends of the family, Herb Bilus had steak for dinner Sunday evening. Sixty-six years ago to the day, June 6, 1944, Herb enjoyed another steak off the shores of Normandy after his Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) #96 delivered its first load of soldiers to Utah Beach as part of the greatest invasion in history.

Hard to believe Ensign Bilus and his cohorts would stop for a hearty meal while the fighting raged, but his commander had promised steak for all officers if they came through their first mission successfully, and so the officers, perhaps even the total crew of 22 Coast Guard sailors, celebrated their good fortune before going back to secure another load of 120 4th Army infantrymen bound for the beaches of France. Herb’s LCI was part of Flotilla 4, a group of 24 LCI ships. They made their initial drop during the sixth wave, roughly six hours after D-Day landings began. By the end of the day, four of their ships were lost off Omaha Beach.

It was off Omaha Beach Herb witnessed true courage, and fear, under fire. It was the task of each LCI to deliver its precious cargo of fighting men as close to the beach as possible, close enough so they could wade ashore without being sucked under by the weight of their packs. Anyone who has seen the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan may remember scenes of GI’s dropped off too soon. As they hit the too-deep water, they sunk to the bottom, drowned before firing a shot. Saving Private Ryan was closer to D-Day reality than any other movie, says Herb.

On one of their runs at Omaha Beach, under heavy incoming fire, a high ranking Navy officer ordered Herb’s ship commander, a Coast Guard lieutenant, to lower his ramps to drop off troops. The lieutenant disobeyed the direct order, arguing the water was too deep. While the Navy man dropped off his load to a watery death, Herb’s skipper steered his ship closer to the beach, giving his soldiers a chance to get to shore “safely,” if such a term can be used to describe any landing that day.

The lieutenant, Marshall was his first name (Herb recalls his last name but I’m going to leave it out for what will be evident shortly), was unusual for a couple of reasons. Jewish by birth, Marshall refused to use his last name. It was too ethnic. Even when a telegram came for him under his full name, he would not acknowledge it.

Herb also suspects Marshall was gay. He was a real dandy, going off by himself during shore leave, wearing felt gloves and carrying a swagger stick. An artist, Marshall painted a mural about Flotilla 4 in the English estate house provided to them in Dartmouth by the author Agatha Christie.

They lived in close quarters aboard LCI #96. Herb has trouble reconciling current opposition to lifting the ban on allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the armed forces.

In a few weeks, Herb will be 89. He’s considered a youngster at his independent living residence in downtown White Plains. They don’t start counting your years until you’ve completed nine decades. Herb’s full of life and stories. Those interested in reading more about Herb’s exploits can do so by linking to an oral history he provided Rutgers University:

For those who don’t know, Herb’s daughters are Jane Gould, Pat Lager and Fran Bilus Feldman.