Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Day of Liberation Not Yet Fulfilled

Tuesday’s weather forecast included snow with temperatures hovering a few degrees below the freezing mark, colder if you calculated the wind chill. It’s the forecast for Auschwitz, Poland, fitting weather for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp where more than one million, mostly Jews, were slaughtered during World War II. 

By contrast, the atmosphere seemed a little out of whack when our family visited Auschwitz during the summer of 2008. The sun shone brightly. The grass was lush and verdant. Birds chirped. Everything was neat, in its place. Serene even. Color was everywhere. It made it difficult to comprehend that this was the epicenter of man’s bestiality toward his fellow man. 

A former Polish military installation of mostly brick buildings, Auschwitz proved to be too small for the mass murder the Germans had in mind. So they built Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, just down the road. That’s where the often-pictured railroad gateway with the Arbeit Macht Frei (work brings freedom) slogan greeted the wretched crammed into boxcars, most of them transported from Hungary and surrounding countries during the latter stages of the war. Those “fortunate” enough not to be immediately consigned to the “showers” and crematoria at the rear of the camp found shelter in row after row of wooden barracks (I’ve previously written how the Nazis carried fire insurance provided by Allianz for the structures: http://nosocksneededanymore.blogspot.com/2010/01/chain-of-one-person-events.html). 

We’ve all seen concentration camp scenes from movies. They’re often rendered in black and white or gauzy color meant to take the life out of the reality. Now a museum dedicated to preserving the memory of those killed and meant to be a cautionary monument to the extremes every generation must guard against, Auschwitz, to me at least, did not evoke the same sense of loss and despair I experienced when visiting Holocaust memorials in Washington, DC, New York City or Jerusalem. It lacked context. Personalization. Scope. 

Sure, the seemingly endless number of victims was remembered through mounds of luggage. Eyeglasses. Shoes. Hair. But what escaped my consciousness was an overwhelming feeling of individual suffering, of agony, of crushing horror and hopelessness. The museum was…too clinical. Too…German. Apparently, mine was not the only such reaction. Plans are underway to humanize the tragedy (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/24/world/europe/for-auschwitz-museum-and-survivors-a-moment-of-passage.html?smid=nytcore-iphone-share&smprod=nytcore-iphone&_r=0). 

Will it matter? Will mankind stop mass murder and genocide? The record over the last 70 years is not reassuring. Think China’s Cultural Revolution. Cambodia’s Killing Fields. Rwanda’s Hutus and Tutsis. The massacre of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Boko Haram in Nigeria. Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Assads in Syria. Sunnis and Shia in Iraq and Syria. 

I don’t find it depressing (ok, too depressing) that atrocities of unspeakable scale still occur. What I find truly depressing and maddening is that the civilized world does not or cannot, or does not want to, stop them from happening. With all the knowledge and technology available to us, with our commitment to “Never Again,” again keeps happening again and again. 

The commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz should be a moment of reassurance. Sadly, it has not yet attained that status.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Look to Becket to Solve Mystery of Deflategate

Finally, a controversy of national, possibly international, import worthy of my sleuthing talents. Finally a brouhaha worthy of, and waiting for, presidential pronouncement, equal to, if not exceeding, previous statements on the absurd rush to arrest a distinguished Afro-American Harvard professor caught in the act of breaking into his Cambridge, Mass., home, arrested merely because said professor was black, or the tragic, possibly fatal, mistakes awaiting Afro-American young men encountered by police. 

Yes, we now have a cliffhanger of a crime that defies explanation and threatens to upstage the NFL's Super Bowl party. Deflategate. How could 11 of 12 properly inflated footballs each lose two pounds of pressure per square inch from the moment two hours and fifteen minutes before game time that the officials handed the balls over to the New England Patriots till half time of their conference championship game against the Indianapolis Colts when the refs re-measured the pressure inside the balls?

Who did it? We don’t know. We know the why. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is on record as saying he prefers underinflated balls. Brady denies any involvement in the deflation scandal. So does coach Bill Belichick.

It’s too much of a coincidence to believe all but one ball lost air pressure naturally without the aid of knowing hands and a small air pin.

The mischievous, illegal deed had virtually no impact on the game—New England handily won 45-7. In the first half, using soft balls, Brady’s bunch scored 17 points. In the second half, with regulation balls back in play, Brady engineered 28 more points. Go figure.

But who did it? We can’t go to the videotape, or maybe we can if the perp did it on the sidelines. Surely a camera must have caught the pigskin paring. Probably a long shot at best, however. 

Instead of the videotape, let’s go to the movies (or stage play) of…Becket, a dramatic presentation of the war of wills between former best friends King Henry II of England and Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. Frustrated that Becket continuously thwarted his designs, Henry voiced out loud his exasperation. “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?,” Henry is said to have uttered. Four well-intentioned knights, patriots all, took it upon themselves to commit murder in the cathedral, a crime for which Henry took the blame and some punishment, though not excommunication. 

So here’s my theory—knowing Brady’s preference for underinflated balls, someone, or some few, on the Patriots’ equipment squad took it upon themselves to let the air out of the balls. For all we know, this practice could have been standard procedure before all games this season and many a season prior. No one was the wiser until the cheating was discovered during the conference championship game. 

Will we ever find out who did it? Doubtful. Will Belichick and Brady be punished? Maybe the coach will be suspended for a few games next season, as he is the person ultimately responsible for everything football related. Brady will walk away with no penalty other than a cloud over his once hallowed reputation.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Slip Slidin' Away

Did you see televised footage of cars and trucks skidding on icy roadways across the country Sunday? It was further validation of the reason Gilda and I chose not to live in one of the river towns of Westchester when we moved here 37 years ago and a reminder of one of my scariest moments driving a car.

During the winter of 1973 I was a reporter for The New Haven Register. My beat covered the suburban towns of Seymour and Derby, Conn., two communities along the Naugatuck River, separated by the larger but still small city of Ansonia. Municipal boards met at night, after which I would drive about 15 minutes to the Register’s bureau office in Ansonia, type my story and transmit it before midnight by Scan-a-tron to copy editors in New Haven. 

After a city council meeting in Derby ended around 10 one wintry, freezing-rain night, I headed my usual way to the office. It was a switchback route, each leg of the trip descending deeper to the bridge on Division Street, the link to Ansonia. But when I made a right turn down one sloped road I quickly noticed cars lined up not parallel to the street but rather perpendicular to it. In fact, three were wedged across the width of the entire street, each about 15 feet above the other. 

Immediately after hitting the brake, my Buick Skylark started slip-slidin’ away on the ice. Seconds later it, too, was perpendicular to the road, coasting sideways downhill. Amazingly, the car came to rest snugly secure between two parked cars. Not a scratch or dent suffered by any of the cars. I was not out of danger, however. 

Suspended midway down the street, I was the bulls-eye (did I mention the color of my car was red?) for the next vehicle that was bound for Ansonia. I didn’t have to wait too long. Once more I watched in amazement as that car as well skidded into a perfect fit between two parked cars some 15 feet above mine. 

The police finally arrived, though they could do nothing to free our cars until the freezing rain stopped overnight. They did get me home to Seymour. 

A few years later, after I started working in Manhattan and Gilda and I decided to move to Westchester, we looked at apartments in Hastings, Tarrytown, Dobbs Ferry and Irvington, but the steep hills of those river towns reminded me of my night of terror. No way would I knowingly subject either of us to a similar escapade on icy, steep roads. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Tribute to Jean-Claude Baker of Chez Josephine

I religiously read obituaries in The New York Times, not, as the saying goes, to find out if I’m still alive. Friday night I was startled to read about the passing of Jean-Claude Baker, apparently by his own hand. He was found Thursday in his car at his East Hampton, NY, home.

I doubt most of you knew Jean-Claude. I can’t say I had more than a passing awareness of him, either, until about a year ago. I didn’t know him as a friend. Rather, he was the co-owner and maitre d of Chez Josephine, a French bistro on West 42nd Street off 9th Avenue in Manhattan, a few doors down from Playwrights Horizon, a theatre group Gilda and I and our friends Jane and Ken have been members of for more than 10 years, enjoying four to six plays a year, several of which have gone on to win Pulitzer prizes.  

We used to attend weekend matinees then visit a museum before dining at restaurants all over the city. A few years ago we switched to evening productions with dinner at nearby restaurants, including Chez Josephine. In truth we dined there at first because of its proximity to the theatre. We kept going back because the food, the service, the piano-bar ambiance, the decor and the convenience made each meal memorable and delectable. If you’re anything like me, you grew up hating liver. But the pan-seared calf’s liver at Chez Josephine is to die for. And its shrimp cocktail is among the plumpest I’ve enjoyed.

Jean-Claude often would be standing directly inside the front door, cheerfully dressed in a high collared tunic. About a year ago when Ken and Jane had to miss our night at the theatre, Linda and Jacob took their places. Intrigued by all the pictures of Josephine Baker, the American chanteuse Parisians adored, decorating the walls, Linda asked Jean-Claude about them.

He enthusiastically joined our table recounting a quick summary of his life while bringing over a copy of a book he had written about Josephine, the woman who had taken him in as a struggling teenager in Paris and for all intents and purposes adopted him, one of about a dozen waifs she mothered in the City of Lights.

The last time we ate in Chez Josephine was in early December. Jean-Claude was not in his usual spot greeting patrons. I asked if he was in but was told he was taking some time off at his East Hampton home. Reports of his death said he had been depressed for several years. How sad that a man who had given so much joy to friends and strangers would succumb to demons inside his mind (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/16/nyregion/jean-claude-baker-a-restaurateur-dies-at-71.html?ref=obituaries). 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Listen to this Hypochondriac: Get an Annual Physical

Let’s right away identify the elephant in the room. I’m a hypochondriac. At least that’s what Gilda and some of my friends believe, based on all my kvetching about assorted aches, pains and ailments, real and, according to them, imagined. Okay, if that’s how I am to be typecast, so be it.

But to look at me—tall, thin, standing erect, active when I want to be even as I approach my 66th birthday in seven weeks, one would be hard-pressed to think of me as damaged goods. Yet underneath my epidermis danger lurks. I have high blood pressure. I am a diabetic. I have high cholesterol. I have high triglycerides.

I tell you all this not to evoke your sympathy but rather to prompt your attention to the need for annual physicals, especially in light of a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece entitled “Skip Your Annual Physical” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/09/opinion/skip-your-annual-physical.html?smid=nytcore-iphone-share&smprod=nytcore-iphone&_r=0).

Written by Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an oncologist and a vice provost of the University of Pennsylvania, the article implied limited benefit from regular checkups in the absence of compelling symptoms.

Don’t listen to him. Take my conditions, please (sorry, couldn’t resist that small homage to Henny Youngman—if you don’t know who he was, google him). Diabetes. High blood pressure. High cholesterol. High triglycerides. They are all silent invaders. Without routine blood tests of the annual physical they would not have been discovered until debilitating illness or even death might have come knocking at my body. Instead, with the aid of medications, changes in my diet and exercise routine I am able to combat and control the invasions.

Are annual physicals costly? For sure. Do they mostly reveal nothing? Yes. Dr. Emanuel argues a paltry few patients benefit from annual physicals. I am one of them. I have known intelligent, even brilliant, friends who skipped annual physicals and have paid dearly for enabling silent but deadly diseases to fester inside them. 

Consider the alternatives, not in some abstract way. Consider what it would mean to you and your family to know you are healthy or not, and, in the latter case, that you detected your condition early enough to live with it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Fear Factor in Journalism

Have you ever done, or not done, something out of fear? Have you ever crossed to the other side of the street to avoid a group of teenagers, white or black? Have you ever decided not to travel to a distant land because you feared violence?

I can honestly and unashamedly say I am guilty of letting fear control some of my actions. Though I have traveled to Israel numerous times, even during an Intifada, I have avoided vacationing in South America, part of an irrational fear and prejudice stimulated by too many clich├ęs about banana republics and banditto violence.

I don’t know about you but I am in awe of foreign correspondent who thrust themselves into tense surroundings in countries where they mostly do not speak the native tongue. While hordes of civilians and even military personnel flee scenes of combat, war correspondents charge toward the front. Don’t they have family to go home to? Don’t they fear for their lives, particularly in the Middle East where journalists are now prized for their hostage qualifications as stars of potential videotaped beheadings?

For journalists, the front lines no longer are confined to zones of deadly combat exchanges. The brutal massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, an act of butchery regrettably easily duplicated anywhere in the world by terrorists acting individually or in groups or even by state supported thugs, makes that plain.

We can track down perpetrators (as they did Friday in France), even stop them before they implement their evil, but we will never be able to eradicate the threat to society, not as long as crazed fanatics can distort a religion or creed and manipulate an individual to abandon all decency and kill at will.

During my working career as a journalist I didn’t have to fear my decisions would affect anyone’s life or death. That’s not to say fear did not enter some of my editorial and publishing choices. It was a fear based on economic consequences. Would we lose advertising if we criticized a supplier? Would we lose circulation if we questioned the strategy of a retail company? Would we lose an exhibitor if we didn’t shave booth costs or provide a better location on the trade show floor?

I’d like to say I resisted all those temptations to journalistic integrity and independence, that they all stemmed from my bosses’ blind pursuit of the almighty dollar while I remained true to the journalist’s separation of church and state—editorial and sales. There were times, I acknowledge, when I gave in. I rationalized that even The New York Times, no matter what its editor might say, made decisions based on current or prospective advertisers or which politicians the paper favored or rejected.

I compromised my values. Nobody died or was injured because I succumbed to my fears. Nor did any heinous philosophy spread. Simple commerce was transacted.

Fear has killed far more stories than the abhorrent attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo. Even as the world, particularly the journalistic community, extols “Je Suis Charlie,” few if any publications or Web sites have reprinted the images of Mohammed that provoked the assault. 

Should they? Sit quietly in a room surrounded by pictures of your family and decide for yourself. What would you do?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Revisiting A Night in Court

The slowdown in arrests by New York City policemen has taken its toll on the proceedings of a venerable institution—night court, as related in Thursday’s New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/08/nyregion/quiet-in-the-court-drop-in-arrests-slows-new-yorks-busy-legal-system.html?smid=nytcore-iphone-share&smprod=nytcore-iphone&_r=0).  Forty-four years ago, as editor of Calling Card, a Brooklyn College newspaper, I spent time in night court. Here’s what I published back on October 15, 1970:

Room IIA of the New York City Criminal Court Building was filling up pretty quickly. By 8:25 p.m., almost all of the seats were occupied, but the stream of people seeking entrance didn’t subside. Women, some dressed up in fancy overcoats and beauty-parlor hairdos or wigs were, at time, joking with each other, but for the most part, they wore the concerned faces of mothers and friends seeking comfort in their time of hardship. The faces of the men also revealed the tense situation of the courtroom appearance. As if in an attempt to minimize their presence in court, the people talked in hushed tones about the everyday occurrences of life in our city—the men whispered about the last Jets game while the women talked quietly about the rising cost of eggs. All of them, however, were united in a common bond—they were all Black or Puerto Rican.

An appearance in court, even to an innocent bystander, evokes feeling of inconsequence and unimportance. One is overwhelmed by the austerity of the surroundings, the paneled walls of the room, the elevated seat of the judge, and, above the seat, the hallowed words, “In God We Trust.” To a Black man, the emotions seem to be even more exaggerated, for he lives in a white man’s world of equality and justice where even god is not to be wholly trusted—he, too, is probably white. Sitting there in court, one could sense their apprehension, their feelings of impending doom. Their only hope was a compassionate judge, one who wouldn’t set bail too high and force upon the accused a prolonged stay in the Tombs. 

As if in answer to their hopes the judge entered. The bailiff bid everyone to rise, and in stepped a man wearing a conservative grey suit. Immediately his most obvious characteristic was noted by all—the judge was just as black as the rest of the people in court. The honorable Dennis Edwards, Jr. seated himself and reluctantly, it appeared, ordered the proceedings to start. Tonight, the only business at hand was the arraignment of prisoners, setting their trial dates and the amount of money needed to post bail. Boredom traced its way along the lines of the judge’s face as he sat, head resting in the palm of his hand, listening to the steady drone of the bailiff. As each prisoner approached the bench, the only voice to be heard was the full rich baritone voice of the bailiff apprising the gallery of the crime allegedly committed by the accused. The monologue would continue at a steady rate for about fifteen seconds, during which time the prisoner was told his constitutional rights. How he was expected to understand this mumbo-jumbo was not the court’s concern. If the prisoner was Puerto Rican, all the better—no translator was present.

The sequence of events, the policeman bringing the accused to the bench where the charge was read and bail and trial date were set, was repeated for half an hour. There was little talking in the room, everyone straining their ears to hear what was taking place. One defendant, a Puerto Rican, when told his bail was $1,000, asked for a reduction. His wife, through the aid of a court appointed lawyer, said she could raise, maybe $500. Leniency by the court was requested. An indifferent denial was received.

And so it continued for thirty minutes, followed by a short recess and a resumption of more of the same. Justice wasn’t being served, only delayed, and the boredom of the proceedings could be seen all around the courtroom—the judge staring blankly at the walls, a court lawyer, waiting for assignment, biting his fingernails, and, in the last pew of the room, a drunk sleeping off his latest binge. His grey hair was strewn all over his head and unshaven face, and he wore his socks in the typical style of the Bowery bum—rolled down to the ankles. How he was able to stay undetected in court wasn’t hard to figure out—the guards were all too bored to notice him. As long as he didn’t snore, he fit in with the rest of the scenery just as if he were part of the woodwork. Perhaps he was dreaming about better times, when courts of law will be obsolete and only rarely used. For his sake, I hope he wasn’t dreaming about that, for when he would wake up and see where he was and what was taking place around him, the stark realization of our court system would be enough to drive the man to drink.

Friday, January 2, 2015

New Year's Thoughts, Some Old, Some New

Nothing says the start of a new year like…a reprise of a previous blog posting! I was inspired to repeat myself by an article in the New Year’s Day New York Times (“Grand Arcade Is Once Again a Sight All Can See”) about public tours of the magnificent lobby of the Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/01/nyregion/off-limits-for-over-a-decade-lobby-of-woolworth-building-is-open-for-tours.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C{%221%22%3A%22RI%3A5%22}&_r=0). Thanks to my enterprising wife, I didn’t have to wait for a most fascinating tour of the lobby. She arranged a captivating 90 minute group viewing for three couples last April. 

So, without further ado, here’s what I wrote in August 2012, followed by some new thoughts as we embark on 2015:


An Empire Built on Nickels and Dimes  

Ever been inside the Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway in lower Manhattan? During my early days reporting on the retail industry, I went there often to meet with executives of what at the time was one of the most diversified international retailers, though not one of the most successful. Today, all that remains of that empire are memories, folklore and just one enterprise, Foot Locker.

Today’s nostalgia is prompted by reports the top 30 floors of the 57-story, Cass Gilbert-designed landmark building have been bought, to be turned into high-priced condominiums (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/08/realestate/top-floors-of-woolworth-building-to-be-remade-as-luxury-apartments.html?_r=1&hpw). How ironic these multi-million dollar residences will sit atop a building paid for from the proceeds of a nickel and dime store chain. Frank W. Woolworth paid for his edifice in cash, $13.5 million, what today would be the equivalent of nearly $300 million. 

The neo-Gothic structure, tallest in the world when it opened in 1913, was never meant to be solely the province of the Woolworth Corporation. Its headquarters staff used just a few of the floors, 44, 45 and 46, as I faintly recall. Some of its divisions, including Kinney Shoe Corp. from which Foot Locker sprang, had offices elsewhere in Manhattan. 

I first entered the Woolworth Building in late 1978, as part of research for a January 1979 feature on the company’s 100th anniversary. The building was nicknamed the “cathedral of commerce” the day it opened. Like the Gothic churches of Europe, the lobby’s vaulted ceilings, mosaics and stained glass made one feel insignificant. See for yourself: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:WTM3_PAT_M_IN_NYC_0021.jpg  

It inspired awe. And wonder, not the wonder of reverence, but rather the wonder of consternation. How could any company that produced such magnificence sink to a level of mediocrity and even insignificance? How could its executives fail to recognize changes within the retail industry? 

To be sure, the variety-store oriented Woolworth brain trust had diversified, investing in discount stores (Woolco), specialty stores (Susie’s Casuals, Anderson-Little, Richman Bros., Kinney), off-price stores (*J. Brannam), and international divisions (Canada, Mexico, Germany, Spain, Great Britain). Without going into an exhaustive explanation of what went wrong with each, the short story is they all underachieved. They were either closed down or sold off, save Foot Locker. (After shuttering the variety stores, Woolworth changed its name to Venator Group, then Foot Locker.)

Here’s one example that encapsulates the mentality of what went wrong. As they had for decades during the heyday of the five and dime store era, everyone took their 30-minute lunch break at 12 noon sharp. Executives and secretaries. It was impossible to reach anyone there by phone during that half hour. Nor was it possible to reach anyone after 4:30 pm., even if you were calling from the West Coast. They all went home. 

Modern day retailing needs found no home at 233 Broadway. No doubt, the new homeowners atop the Woolworth tower can expect to have all their modern day housing needs fulfilled. 

New Year Thoughts: Now that the holiday gift-giving season is over, we have about 30 days of silence before we hear again one of the most obnoxious radio commercials ever transmitted, the voice of Rocky Moselle pitching the Star Register “gift that lasts a lifetime” for just $34.99. Next time he’ll be hawking his star-naming scheme as an eternally loving Valentine’s Day gift.

I’m amazed that people, real people, actually respond to this shpiel, but I guess the aphorism about a sucker being born every minute is right (FYI, P.T. Barnum did not say it; rather it is widely believed to have been uttered by David Hannum, a contemporary and competitor of Barnum the showman). 

Aside from envy (“why didn’t I think of such a money-making scam?”), the Star Registry has generated its fair share of criticism and, thankfully, some amusing parodies including this one from Derfmagazine.com:

NEW YORK - Rocky Moselle, Spokesman for the international Star Registry, reported this week star names for all of the stars in the universe were sold out during this busy Christmas shopping season. Because experts believed the star inventory in the universe was infinite, the company was shocked by this sudden inventory depletion. In response to this crisis, the International Star Registry has announced plans to launch a new venture entitled, “International Grain of Sand Registry” which will allow the same gullible customer base to purchase and copyright a name for a grain of sand somewhere on earth. Also being market tested is the, “International Blade of Grass Registry”. 

Enough Already: I’ve written about liberties scriptwriters take with my given name, using it for characters as varied as inept, funny policemen to docile family dogs. For my 65th birthday last March my sister sent me a birthday card with a picture of a cat on the front with the following message: “This is Murray. Murray loves to be treated, pampered and be the center of attention.” On the inside it said, “So on your birthday, eat, drink and be Murray.”

I had previously seen this card, as well as a Christmas card that portrayed a Jewish looking Santa Claus shrugging his shoulders and saying “Murray Christmas.” I actually bought hundreds of them and sent them out to business associates many years ago.

The latest “ecumenical” stab at my name came from the animated TV show, “How Murray Saved Christmas,” broadcast in early December. Just so I’d know what I was writing about I taped it and watched a few minutes at the front and back of the show. Ugh. Please, Hollywood, can’t you find another funny name?