Monday, December 29, 2008

I Am Curious Too

December 29, 2008
You won't find a stranger movie this year than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. After all, you only have a couple of days left.

Some years ago I read a little book of F. Scott Fitzgerald's called Stories from the Jazz Age, and all I remember about it is the title of the book--which coined a term often used to describe the 1920s--and a strange story about a man who was born old, literally, and aged backward for the rest of his life. A decidedly curious tale, I didn't particularly like it, but I never got the concept out of my mind. Here it has turned up, revamped into a luscious film and enhanced by plot additions, elegant art direction, costumes, authentically mystical New Orleans settings, and irresistibly attractive actors.

I met my 14-year-old grandson Elias at Port Authority yesterday with the idea in mind that we might catch a flick (actually anticipating seeing Valkyrie. He told me he wasn't interested in that one--his current prejudice is against the Scientologist bent of the leading man--and I couldn't persuade him to try Frost/Nixon or Doubt, so we settled on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and settled in for a long afternoon of escape.)

The New Orleans backdrop is appropriate for the mythical quality of the movie. Without giving you any more of the plot, I will say that the beauty of the the film is in its quiet seduction into a world where odd things happen and time moves backward as it advances. The picture above shows the protagonist at the moment he is in his prime and catches the lady when she is at the same place in time. We've seen him looking wizened and ancient when we know he is really an adolescent, and we've experienced the sensations of life running in reverse to the point where we accept the alternate reality and anticipate it. So romantic, the film caused me to wonder whether it could be classified as a chick flick, but with its complex story and inevitably unsettling ending, I decided not. It has much more range than that. It will appeal to a segment of the vast viewing audience, male and female, who are capable of suspending disbelief and entering a world of true mystery and beauty--in spite of the strangeness of that world.

One last note. Brad Pitt narrates with the perfect cadence of New Orleans. His accent has that trace of southern-U.S combined with the quirk of some port cities, especially New Orleans. You may wonder why he says "uh-athe" for earth, something like "wake" for work, and "chache" for church. It only tells us that he's spent enough time listening to people in New Orleans to know how they sound.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Best Christmas Greeting

December 27, 2008

Make no mistake about it--having grandchildren is like nothing else in the world. My 11-year-old grandson, Andy, wrote special messages to everybody in his family this year, thanking his mother for keeping a roof over his head, his feisty older brother for being there for him, and this to me, the grandmother who has great expectations and tons of love for him. I don't think I have to add anything to his message, except I hope you are all so lucky!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Armchair Adventures: Christmas Movies

December 23, 2008

I love some of the classic Christmas movies--the black and white antiques that remind us of simpler, more romantic times. I discovered a lost gem called Remember the Night, with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray a few weeks ago on Turner Classic Movies. The more I watched, the more I was drawn into this situation of a hardboiled shoplifter-babe getting a ride home to Indiana for Christmas with the D.A. who will be prosecuting her when they return to New York. I'm delighted it will be shown again tomorrow night at 11:15 and at 6:15 on Christmas morning.

This is decidedly not usual fare. As I watched the sophisticated romantic comedy unfold, I was impressed by its gritty characters bandying back-and-forth their witty repartee. I said to myself, this dialogue is so good and the situations and characters so odd it could have been written by Preston Sturges. But then, never having heard of the little film, I realized there were lots of good writers working in Tinseltown in those years. Imagine my joy at looking it up on Google later and learning that it was indeed Sturges' work, the very piece that launched him as a pioneer filmmaker who insisted on directing his own scripts.

I won't give away any more of the movie's plot in hopes you can make time to catch it on the tube yourself, except to say it features Beulah Bondi in one the most sympathetic roles she ever played, and a touchingly young oddball Sterling Holloway as a delightful, dear dimwit. The plot has little twists and an unexpected ending, but it is vintage stuff that will warm your heart and make you glad it's Christmas.

Bondi is also present in the ubiquitous Christmas offering It's A Wonderful Life, playing Jimmy Stewart's mother in the saga that the critics seem to have just discovered is a dark look at American life as it dealt with money matters in the days surrounding the Great Depression. I love everything about this picture except the delivery of that beautiful last line by one of the least talented child actors Hollywood has ever produced. Her linereading always makes me want to erase the whole thing and start over, but all I can do is just pretend it's being said sincerely, with a real child's wonder, rather than the singsong phoniness coming from that irritating little girl.

I love the really old versions of A Christmas Carol, in black and white. For the first time this year I caught the 1938 version with Reginald Owen, and it's a beaut. I have seen Alistair Sym do the role, and he's a scarier, less dimensional Scrooge. Interesting that Hollywood seemed have found the perfect Bob Cratchit in the genial Gene Lockhart who played the role to perfection in both films. In the Owen version his daughter June, later to be best known as Lassie's "mother" in the television series, plays one of his children. There is a collection of Scrooges to choose from. Of course there is Scrooged, with Bill Murray, and a dancing and singing Albert Finney in an English spinoff that seemed more a knockoff of Oliver! with one fun song, "Thank You Very Much!" But for the song, that whole movie just seemed hokey to me. You might get the impression that I'm a purist, and maybe I am, but I did especially love Reginald Owen film. My eyes were never dry when there was any member of the Cratchit family in the scene, and when Scrooge insists to the ghost of Christmas present that his nephew is truly in love.

Everybody has a favorite heartwarmer or two for this time of year. The Miracle on 34th Street works every time, with the moppet-sized Natalie Wood who doesn't believe in him until she meets the real Santa Claus; and Meet Me in St. Louis has Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to Margaret O'Brien, for God's sake. The original The Bishop's Wife features some very beautiful people--Loretta Young as the wife in question, and Cary Grant as an extremely erudite and elegant angel--while the bishop is a kindly if benighted David Niven--all of whom are made better by their experience together at Christmas. There are lovely Christmas moments in both versions of Little Women, and we purists prefer the Katharine Hepburn one, even though we grew up watching the Technicolor version with June Allyson. The Man Who Came To Dinner will always have a place in my heart since I directed the play as my first outing with my own theatre company.

The Wizard of Oz is a lifetime favorite movie of mine, especially appropriate at Christmas although there is not a single reference to any holiday in it. It is a wacky tale about a little girl from Kansas who goes over the rainbow and meets a bunch of insane grownups who protect her from a wicked witch and her brigade of evil flying monkeys--surely I don't have to tell you this. Just rent it and get out the Kleenexes. There is no better time than Christmas to enjoy a good, happy cry and be glad you're alive.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas in Hoboken

December 19, 2008
That's the view out my window. We can see the back of the buildings across the courtyard as the whole of Hoboken fills with snow so thick it turns everything grey, white and black.

At Christmas time in Hoboken the greys are broken by trees filled with colored lights. There are lights on the handrails going up the stoops; there are wreaths on doors. Every business has a sign that says "Merry Christmas" and the churches hold out welcoming candles. I'm in the mood for Christmas this year. Looking out my window, I'm happy to stay inside and watch the whirling snow.

It seems to me that as deep winter sets in, the few days of lights, parties and well-wishing are especially comforting. I pull out my Christmas music and dream of sugarplums and eggnog (the real stuff, not out of a package) as Joan Baez sings to me of the infant in the manger, and I think about what Christmas is all about.

I think I escaped the orgy of materialism that characterizes Christmas for so many. I've got nobody to ask for a gift, so I buy little things for myself that I really want, telling myself that it's for Christmas. My grandsons always ask for cash, and they clean up at this time of year. They get little gifts as well, of course, and every aunt and uncle sends money, so they can buy what they want. I'll spend the few days with them--Elias turns 14 on the 23rd, and we usually go out to his favorite restaurant and have Chinese food that night. Christmas Eve we have seafood, as a nod to the boys' Italian connections, (besides, we all love seafood), and we have a tree. No doubt where they live there will be a great deal of snow, so they may make a trip to Hunter Mountain to ski. Christmas Day will be quiet, and we've been invited to a friend's house for the feast. The new tradition of potluck for holiday meals strikes me as not only appropriate, but a beautiful way to bring guests into the festivities.

The season is profound, spiritual, and even romantic--as long as you're not making it about how much you have to do, how much you have to spend, how much you have to cook, even how much you have to decorate. I won't even open the little box of ornaments I've saved for some 40 years, but I'll think about how pretty everything looks anyway. I'll feel the peace of the season, and the hope for better things ahead.

After the new year, the country will really begin to feel the pain the mismanagement of our precious optimism and talents has wrought. From all accounts, 2009 is going to be a difficult year for all of us. But not today, not this Christmas, not if we can only recapture the spirit the season exists to engender.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Star for Hoboken

December 12, 2008

I looked for Frank Sinatra's house before I even moved to Hoboken. I had the address, 415 Monroe Street, and I had my walking shoes on. I knew the house was no longer there, but I wanted to see the neighborhood.

What I saw was a nicely-scrubbed row of houses, some quite old, but all in good shape, and some new buildings that clearly Frank Sinatra never saw. I found the star on the sidewalk in front of where the old tenement building of Frank's early years had been. I walked around the neighborhood and saw an old man walking into a place called Antique Bakery, with its storefront window piled with the rightly famous rounds (all sizes) of Italian bread. I could have been walking on a street in Florence or Rome.

No question about it, Frank Sinatra walked these streets. It's his birthday today, and I'm going to have a marathon of his music in my own home--old records like "In the Wee Small Hours" and some going back to the years when he sang for the Tommy Dorsey band. I'm sure there'll be Sinatra movies on the tube, maybe Young at Heart, the remake of Four Daughters, in which he played the John Garfield role and made it his own, or dancing with Gene Kelly in On the Town. At least in my imagination, I'll raise a glass to him in the old Rat Pack days, when he lit up Las Vegas with his band of talented drinking buddies.

Sinatra and Hoboken had a tenuous relationship after he moved on. The more the town liked him, it seemed, the less he liked it. Many locals were hurt by his ambivalence about Hoboken. When I talk with my blog-buddies about Frank in Hoboken, their admiration for his talent is tinged with bitterness about his personality and his behavior as a big star. The Hoboken in which he grew up was a different place from the little jewel we know today. It was tough and grimy, and though he had it good--with a doting mother and enough pals who were connected with the powerful mob of the day--his character had been forged in the blue-collar Hoboken world and tempered by early success in show business. Everybody has a Frank Sinatra story or two, and not all of them are pleasant. But some of them are wonderful.

His songs were the soundtrack of my early days. My mother used to sing, "It was just a neighborhood dance," (which I was later to learn was Frank's "Oh, What It Seemed To Be,") as she did chores around the house. When I was a little girl, the Swoonatra phenom was in full swing, and we thought it was hilarious that teenagers would keel over at the skinny guy's concerts, saying, "Oh, Frankie!" I wonder if they ever said that. Soon I was a teenager, riveted by his performance as Maggio in From Here To Eternity, and swooning a little myself as his casual swinger Charlie is hogtied by Debbie Reynolds in The Tender Trap.

Complex and fascinating, Sinatra the man has been the subject of many books and articles. Whenever a celebrity on a talk show has a Sinatra anecdote, I sit up and listen well. There's simply something about the guy. And it's something to think about, at least on his birthday.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Wherefore Hoboken?

December 9, 2008

Want to know what I like about Hoboken? I'll tell you what I like about Hoboken.

It's a small city that feels like a part of Manhattan. It's in a state that is as varied as it is provincial--a little of everything. You can walk everywhere, and I do, even when the weather is frigid as it was yesterday. I went to the gym at 3 in the afternoon--a first for me at that hour--expecting the temperature to be so intolerable I would have to turn back. (Don't forget, I moved here from the South a year ago, and I spent the whole of last winter suffering in the cold.) By 3 P.M. it was a balmy 30° degrees, and I was sufficiently bundled. I hardly felt the chill as I walked my brisk six-block hike to the sports club. I felt infinitely better after a brief workout and browsed in the big CVS for lotions and potions, finding a lotion to my liking and getting one of those delightful receipts that offers you $5 off your next purchase of $25 or more. (My lotion was less than $25.)

Hoboken has a funny name. I met Jerry Stiller last year, and when I was introduced the person said, "She lives in Hoboken." Stiller gave me that famous New York quizzical look and said, "You live in Hoboken?" I still don't know what he meant by that, but I'll assume he knows what a cool place Hoboken is and that the question was posed in admiration.

I have a friend who writes a New York blog, and he maintains that the Upper West Side, where he has lived some 40 years, is really a small town where everybody knows everybody and many are related. Never mind that the "everybody" includes famous playwrights, artists and noted Jewish intellectuals like my friend. Living in Hoboken I can have dinner with him from time to time and be regaled with stories of his famous friends and acquaintances, as I shall do this evening.

If the Upper West Side is a small town, Hoboken is certainly a small town too. We have our celebrities, although some are dead. I often see Danny Aiello lunching at Tutta Pasta, and every store plays Frank Sinatra music on the sound system, especially at Christmas. For a small town Hoboken has great food and great eaters. Hoboken has little mom-and-pop stores (way more per capita than the Upper West Side). Hoboken is authentic, an American original born out of the immigrant experience and the working class. Hoboken has heart to spare, and memories, and a future.

I moved to Hoboken from a little town in the South that was undergoing a total upheaval and really moving into the 21st Century, with huge new buildings, excited new residents, and a penchant for tearing out the genuine to replace it with the phony. Some tell me the same thing has happened in Hoboken, but when I go to the library or the train station or eat at Helmer's or the Elysian or Leo's Grandez-Vous, you couldn't prove it by me.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Here's To the Offbeat

December 6, 2008

If you're looking for something a little offbeat to read, I just discovered that my friend Rupert Schmitt had published a book of poetry. There is nobody more offbeat than Rupert who spent a few nights in my garage a year or so ago, not long before I moved to Hoboken.

Here's one of his poems.

Film Against Mountain

Are you too sacred
To catch on film?

You have strategies
From Rock to Rattle my ego.
Your vastness
Shakes my center.

Am I mocked?
Will I remember mountain
On the lost roll of film?

Immoral to consider
Looking at you
As one of 36 slides
Stuck in a folder
In a box
Buried under the talus slide
In my bedroom.

On your slopes a man loses
If he pounds his chest
Look at me!
Look at me!
Look at me!

Months later
I found the film
Within a tube
In its can,
Jammed in the glove compartment
Of my bright red Rambler wagon.

There is no competition
Memory versus film
The trap of emulsion.

Mountain Spirit is seared into my brain
Like filet mignon wrapped in bacon
At Antoine's in New Orleans
When I was eighteen.

Even that is not as offbeat at Rupert himself, but it demonstrates his magic. He dwells in many places at once, bouncing happily off the walls and contemplating the mysteries of the outdoors. A retired environmental scientist, he is now a performance artist, poet and painter living in Arizona and going where he likes. He loves animals and nature, and his book The Interview reflects that. He is at once serious and whimsical, funny and profound. In his poems he captures many facets of a life lived for its own sake, full of love and the adventure of small events and odd creatures. He writes of cats and water birds, of family and love affairs. He looks at the world with wonder, humor, and sometimes anger. Even though not always thorough and disciplined as a poet--and never lengthy--he is always original and always delicious.

If you're interested, the book can be ordered from, for Christmas or if you're in the mood for something a little offbeat yourself.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Cool-Colored People

December 4, 2008

The other morning I had the Today program on as kind of white noise to my life and I looked up and there was the most gloriously beautiful woman I'd seen in years, singing an odd song called "If I Were a Boy," in front of crowds standing outside in the cold, bouncing to the rhythm, and mouthing all the lyrics with her. I watched the whole performance, intrigued with the song and the singer, and learned at the end it was the famed Beyoncé. I need not tell you at this point that whatever the opposite of hip is, that's what I am.

Seeing this elegant icon sent me back to my high school days in Alabama. We had a girl in the class who had moved to town from Chicago and she was telling us about a book she'd just read stating the premise that by the year 2000 there would be so much intermarriage in this world that there would be no separate races. Everybody would be a beautiful beige color and they would share the most attractive physical characteristics of all races. She said she couldn't wait to see that day.

Needless to say it didn't happen exactly the way her book predicted. Don't forget the time and place she was reading it; we had never even seen an interracial couple. But watching and listening to Beyoncé, I was struck with how close we are coming to the day when the melding will take place. It didn't happen in Y2K, but look around you at the beautiful people who are beginning to surround us, the cool people who are a mixture of colors and ethnicities. Their stars are rising, and they are already among us. From actors like Terence Howard and Halle Berry to the president elect, the number of cool people in the spotlight--people who happen to be of mixed racial background--is notable and growing, and will probably change the world in less than a generation. The day hasn't quite come, but it is drawing closer. Look around you.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A New Year Begins

December 1, 2008

Today is my first anniversary of living in Hoboken. On December 1, 2007 I moved into an empty third-floor walkup on Hudson Street with big plans about making a new life in an old city. I had sold my car, had numerous yard sales to get rid of a lifetime of collected stuff, and given tons of clothes to the local thrift shops.

I’ve come a long way in this year. Even though I had purged so much of my furniture and onetime valuables, I found that what I'd kept more than filled the 800-sq.-ft. apartment. Luckily there were lots of big closets, and most of the stuff was shoved in. I bought a little single bed since the bedroom was too tiny to get even a double in comfortably. I was also able to use the little room for my laptop. I began my new blog.

Right away I found a doctor, a dentist, and the public library. I explored Hoboken on foot and got a little disoriented looking for basics like the A& P; tried to adapt to the colder climate, and wrote about all my new situations on the blog. A compulsive blogger in my home town, I knew writing about my life helped me clarify things in my own mind.

The enormity of what I had done was slow to sink in. I thought about the climate, the isolation, the difficulties of getting everywhere on foot-the blank slate that lay before me--every morning. There would be no phone calls, no board meetings, club meetings, organizational meetings. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t experience this as loneliness, but rather as a transition to something I couldn’t possibly understand. It seemed like an opportunity, but I couldn’t define for what.

I felt a little uncomfortable in my own skin, as if I were in a dream or on vacation in a place where I could speak the language but nothing else. I would get confused on the city streets, even in my old neighborhood in Manhattan. I took it slowly and didn’t push myself into doing too much too soon. It seemed as if my feet always hurt, from the walking and from minor foot surgery I had endured at the end of summer. I was never sure my clothes looked right--everybody in New York and New Jersey seemed to wear black all the time, not the bright colors and patterns I had been looking at in the South for almost 20 years. It took time to realize that this was less about Hoboken than about myself, facing a new phase of life in which I had to admit the person in the mirror looked didn’t look much like the self I had come to know.

Writing a blog about these things was helpful in surprising ways. Within a few months people were actually reading the blog, which had not necessarily been the case of my blog in my home town, “Finding Fair Hope.” On the Fairhope blog I had had a few regular readers, but most of them were people I had known in the distant past, keeping in touch with me from far flung outposts. I had about five regulars from contemporary Fairhope, and they were all people I knew who seemed a little discomfited by the thought that I might quiz them about the blog the next time I saw them. Hoboken brought me an average of some 40 readers a day, and they began to make themselves known to me by sending me emails and commenting on the blog.

Cristina wrote, after reading a post about me getting lost in the cold looking for the A & P, that she was new in town too and that maybe we could have lunch together sometime. She later told me that my blog posts sounded like a voice in the wilderness of someone who needed help. She is a special and generous person who has meant almost as much to me as my lifelong friends in my few months of knowing her. She and her husband run a company in New York, but she is always available to drive me anyplace either of us wants or needs to go, and we have a wonderful time together. It’s very odd to me that without prompting by me to do so, she never read the blog before or after her first time, yet I can email her for requests like a drive to the airport or the doctor’s, and she never refuses.

Gradually I have learned my way around. Working at it, I don’t find the walking of a couple of miles a day a hardship any more; over and over I tell myself “It’s good for you.” When I moved from a third floor walkup to one that was on the fourth floor, I had little problem with it.

Writing a blog has enriched my life enormously. Old Hobokenites discovered the blog and began to email me with tales from the past--high school pranks, characters they used to know, and desciptions of Hoboken in bygone days. They eagerly shared stories of the waterfront (The Barbary Coast), and On the Waterfront, the restaurants and ice cream parlors, the fabulous Fabian Theater, and Palisades Park. I learned about Mr. Stover, the high school principal, and the day some adventurous boys trapped a flock of pigeons in the piano before assembly, only to see them released onstage by an unsuspecting pianist. I learned about Eddie the Criminal, who worked as sort of a bouncer at Abel’s Ice Cream Parlor where the high school crowd hung out. I learn about Alan Freed’s rock-and-roll shows in Hoboken and Jersey City. I've written blog posts about most of these tales; if you're new, feel free to browse.

I’m glad to be here. After a year I know that I’ve made a good decision. I’ve experienced a lot of milestones so far and I've seen many sides of Hoboken and myself during these days. I’m closer to my daughter and grandsons and they all love to visit Hoboken. I'm part of the boys' life now. I've reconnected with old friends who remain in New York, and I can get there in a few minutes. Thinking about Hoboken, I know it holds more adventures for the years to come.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Another Day, Another Turkey

November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving in Hoboken is a little different for me, partly because I’m not cooking. I’ll leave tomorrow afternoon for a visit with the family in upstate New York and come back Friday by noon for a little Hoboken day-after-Thanksgiving party. This will be my first Thanksgiving in the Northeast in a long time. Have you ever noticed that the day before Thanksgiving always seems like Friday, Thanksgiving Day always seems like Sunday, and then you get Friday the day after again followed by Saturday. No wonder we’re confused!

Sometimes the holiday gets out of hand. I love the movie Home for the Holidays when everything goes wrong until it goes right—a warm and funny romantic comedy with people like Dylan MacDermott, Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft and Robert Downey, Jr. Rent it—it’ll take you right into Christmas!

Hoboken used to have the tradition of trick-or-treating for Thanksgiving. That’s right, it was a custom in Hoboken and other urban areas surrounding New York (notably Brooklyn) for little kids to dress up in rags and go door-to-door asking for change on Thanksgiving. I think Halloween was more for pranks, but there was some request for candy and handouts too. The costume of the day was “ragamuffin,” a look that was once acceptable for children in Hoboken, especially on certain days. We still have the Ragamuffin Parade, but these days it’s on Halloween.

I like to cook so I’ve always enjoyed Thanksgiving. It’s a nice meal because, for one thing, it’s a feast, and secondly because it’s so easy. Nobody wants you to veer too much from the traditional, especially from their favorites. It’s a menu that is prescribed by law, with the few variations being allowed for occasional modifications of the side dishes or the rather recent admission of wine to the table. As to the difficulty, and the extended preparation time we see taking place over the years, let’s face it, somebody is making much ado where it’s not necessary. All that’s important is the smell of roasting poultry coming from the kitchen. Even as a young bride who had hardly seen the inside of a kitchen I was able to cook a turkey without a whole lot of agony. I was married on October 29 (1960) and prepared not only a roast turkey for the boss and his wife, but also oyster dressing for it. That’s the only thing I remember making, but it was a hit, and there was no flop.

I decided turkey was so easy I should cook it often, and I did, that year. But I don’t any more. I hardly make it for Thanksgiving if I can avoid it; I think duck is better and I don’t get any objections from my guests. I vary the side dishes from year to year, but love the homemade cranberry-orange relish that is made in the food processor (and not cooked). I discovered rutabagas about 10 years ago and love the look of them on the Thanksgiving plate. Pecan pie I mastered at a very young age (I was lying about not having seen the inside of a kitchen). I’ll never forget how, a few years ago, I tried to spring an exciting dessert on the assembled crowd – my own creation based on Maida Heatter’s Polka Dot Cheesecake. Ms. Heatter’s features huge, gorgeous chocolate polka dots within the cake; I made a pumpkin cheesecake mixture and piped it in similar fashion, and my eaters looked as if I had just shot the dog. “Where’s the pecan pie?” was all that they said. I love it, but I hadn’t known pecan pie was a requirement at every Thanksgiving meal.

My daughter is known as an expert baker of pies; this year we’re going to have apple and pumpkin. I’ve seen Thanksgiving turn from a relatively simple family holiday in my childhood (Mama always baked a chicken) to today’s overdone overindulgence pushed by the turkey industry, the cranberry industry, the orgy of television specials on heroes and the needy (and, this year, “going green”), and that old Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover.

My Thanksgiving advice is to do it your way, the less fanfare the better—have a small potluck with favorite family and a few friends, and a little gratitude for your good fortune in having them. Keep in mind what we learned from the pilgrims: Thanksgiving is a beautiful day, but it’s probably going to be a long, cold winter.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Lament for the Soon-To-Be-Late DNR

November 24, 2008
Daily News Record was one of the many trade publications under the Fairchild banner--a small, family-owned trade publisher whose flagship was Women’s Wear Daily. Begun at roughly the same time, DNR and WWD covered the apparel industry, the former being the bible for the men’s wear trade and the latter for women’s wear.

I started my New York career as a secretary to the two editors of DNR in mid-1960s. They were drinking buddies as well as industry scribes—as different as two Jewish writers could be. Mort Gordon was tall, smart and sexy while Herb Blueweiss was short, balding, hyper and sometimes enigmatic. Herb liked to read and attend the theater with Martin Gottfried, Fairchild’s critic, and Mort, a bachelor, was content to attend industry functions and do as much skirt-chasing as time allowed. The two worked so well in tandem that they were referred to by staff as The Bobbsey Twins. It was, all in all, a fun place to work.

At one point Gottfried commented to Pat, my forerunner as assistant to the duo, that it must be great fun to have Herbie as a boss. Pat responded, “You’d think that, but Mort’s better to work for.” Mort was a good editor and a gentle guy with people; he was the one we’d take our stories to if we had a problem.

Fairchild was housed in two buildings, back to back. The front door was at 7 East 12th Street, an entrance into a modern if characterless building where the sleeker publications were produced. A plain lobby housed a front desk and a bank of three elevators. If you took this elevator to the third floor you were in the world of Women’s Wear Daily, full of chicly dressed young women at desks with typewriters, reporting on the future of hemlines, and a few hapless males writing about the business side of the women’s fashion industry.

If you were going to the Daily News Record office, you had to make a trek through these desks on past the fey characters of the art department on the right and through a passageway to the back building. This structure was decidedly old, housing some geezers who wrote columns called “Words at Random,” and “Cotton Grey Goods,” as well as some serious guys discussing such topics as the necktie market, textile machinery, the staying power of the “mod” fashion in the youth market. You would also see a passel of merry pranksters looking for their next big journalism break. As a secretary, I fit cozily into that latter category.

You could also enter DNR the back way, up the stairs or in the creaky old elevator in the shabby 13th Street building. At that end of the room were the financial desk, the legal reporters, and a smattering of other market desks.

I worked at DNR off and on for some six years from the mid-60’s until the early 70’s when I left for good for the greener pastures of public relations, but I left having made the acquaintance of some of the most interesting characters of my life, and having made some friends I still see today. There is a surreal quality to my memories of the place. Every reporter, every editor, even the copy kids—all were distinct in his or her view of their employment. They took their work with a grain of salt, but basically performed it well. It took some doing for an incipient novelist to call on the little knitting mills producing men’s sweaters and report the company’s financial and marketing plans.

We all weren’t incipient novelists, of course, but I think most of us thought of ourselves as writers. Some went on to become well-known as television personalities, drama critics, columnists for New York Magazine or denizens of city’s night life. This was a stopping off place on the way to a big break, and the hilarity of the lunch hours and after-hours imbibing had little to do with the markets we covered. We liked the company, we even liked our jobs, but we approached everything with irreverence and attempts—sometimes quite successful—at wit. We impressed ourselves and each other. We traded quips with members of the art department and Chauncey Howell, who already had a column with his name on it in WWD.

One of our number got promoted to a management position, the ultimate betrayal. He became in our minds—as put by one left behind—a toady for the Establishment, admonishing us to shape up and keep the noise down, that sort of thing. Once when he gave us a dire warning that there would soon be a salary review, we decided this would be a great opportunity to put on an all-company show, “The Salary Revue,” with songs and sketches from all departments. We were occupied for several weeks dreaming up musical numbers for the non-event to come. For George Washington’s Birthday, we thought a historical pageant would be in order. Who would play George? John Pareti wanted to be Cornwallis “because he made out pretty well after the war.” We fulminated on possible casting until that fantasy project faded away only to be replaced by another.

There was an older lady with a personality column who took her job very seriously. She was really interested in the men’s wear industry, and counted many of its executives as her friends and contacts. She was on the phone all day long, usually talking rather animatedly, and once when she was not at her desk someone answered her ringing phone for her and was immediately sorry. This was before the days of the cleaning staff wiping down such instruments, and the mouthpiece of her phone was green with dried slime.

Maybe it was because we were all young and optimistic that it seemed like such fun to work in an atmosphere of controlled chaos and actually produce a daily newspaper just like in the movies. It was a profound experience in a decidely frivolous setting, and those of us who reflect on it now have mostly happy memories. You had great hours, for one thing, arriving at 10 (or later if you had arranged an appointment in the market), went to lunch at noon; and, because your business of learning everybody’s business was so often facilitated at lunch you might not get back to the office until 2:30. To improve your focus you could take a half-hour coffee break and leave the office at 5.

Talk about a great neighborhood to work in! Around the corner, there was a Schrafft’s on Fifth and 13th Streets, and a Longchamps in the middle of the block. I used to spend some lunch hours trying on hats at May’s on Union Square, I can’t imagine why. David Platt, who later went left the company for a long stint as fashion editor of Playboy, used to fret that I wasn’t checking out the chapeaux for little animals that might have been left there by other customers. Usually the office crowd would eat at a place called The Terrace, or one of the many coffee shops surrounding the building, but for a treat we’d try the sweet little Italian joint called Il Bambino at 12th and University Place. None of those places still exists—Scrafft’s became a western-themed hangout, and the other places were gutted and replaced many years ago. Fairchild Publications moved to the old Ohrbach’s building sometime in the last century. Daily News Record kept the name (or initials, anyway), but hadn’t been a daily for years.

A friend from those days now writes a blog on being retired in New Jersey. He sent me a link to a news article that DNR will cease publication with today's issue and the men’s wear market will be covered by WWD in a special section once a week. I’m sure its time had come, but for many years it was a solid little news outlet for an often overlooked industry. And, like Fairhope and Hoboken, it was a great place come from.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hoboken B & R

November 20, 2008
If you were born and raised in Hoboken, you know what B & R means. If not, here’s what it means: Born and Raised in Hoboken. Jim B., who sent me this picture of Hudson Street in the 1950’s, was B & R, as were Slezak, Dennis (The Rabbi), and probably most of my readers.

I was neither born nor raised here, but I’ve had numerous communications from those who were. They talk of growing up with the smell of coffee from the Maxwell House factory, bread baking at the Wonder factory, Oreos baking and Tootsie Rolls free for the asking. (Little kids would stand beneath the windows of the Tootsie Roll factory and scream for freebies until a soft-hearted worker would toss a handful out the window.)

I’m sure there was the smell of longshoremen down by the waterfront, of steel engines near the train station, the cleaning fluids in all the halls of the tenements every Saturday morning. All in all it was a fragrant place to live. It remains so today, but the smells are emanating from restaurants and kitchens, as the factories are no more. In the hall of my old apartment building, the scents of Indian cooking wafted from the apartment below mine; walking down Washington Street, you can still smell coffee (from Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbuck’s, or Panera Bread) or garlic and tomatoes from any one of a number of Italian restaurants.

There were always great places to eat, like the Blue Point or Biggie's or any one of the pizza parlors all over town. Some are still there but aren't the same, at least not the way they are remembered. The Blue Point was at 10th and Willow Avenue, and Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé would go there after working on the Steve Allen Show. There were lots of theaters, including the fabulous Fabian, at the lower end of Washington Street.

Boys were employed to hang the clotheslines when one broke. I doubt if they were paid for this treacherous work, but their mothers volunteered them. They carried the lines around their neck, a hammer to secure the loose spikes, and they had to climb outside the building to hang the lines, while watched by the housewives of the neighborhood from their fire escapes. Up on Hudson Street, the clotheslines were out back in an alley, also a great place for playing ball. Each pole had about 20 clothes lines coming from several directions on it so climbing up on it was a hazard. There were spikes on the pole to climb up.

Kids played most kinds of ball in the alley between Washington and Hudson Street. On what is called the yellow flats, all the basements were connected which were great places to play. On Hudson Street there was a basketball net on the Gate at 12th street. Stickball and football were at Bethlehem Stadium (the yard side of Hudson Street).

Teenagers hung out at Umland's or Abel's and listened to the music from the juke box. They danced, fell in love, ate ice cream and had the kind of good time we can only remember. Around in some neighborhoods they were able to get beer from time to time, usually to regret it, and, although marijuana was available, it was not particularly sought. Ice cream was the universal choice.

Almost everybody was Catholic, and the many churches and clubs attest to this fact. There were more bars per capita than in any nearby center of population, and some of them you didn't want to go to. But everybody went to one at least once in a while.

Hoboken's been cleaned up a lot, but a newcomer like me can't help but be a little envious of the earthy, gritty upbringing of anyone who brags about being Hoboken--B and R!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How Not to Fix a Leaky Faucet

November 18, 2008

Ever since I moved to the new place I've been bothered by a dripping faucet in the sink. Such things are common and easy to fix, so I've had it on my mind to do it for weeks. There was a problem with my dishwasher, so the condo owner and her boyfriend came to work on it, both armed with information they had gotten from the Internet.

I should have been somewhat leary, because what they learned didn't really help and she ended up having to buy a new dishwasher for the place. But the idea of learning simple tasks from the Internet intrigued me and I Googled "fix leaky faucet." There were a number of places to go and I found this one which featured an attractive, upbeat lad named Ian who walked me throught the process step by step, ending with the phrase, "Now you're golden."

Over the weeks I began studying his little video. It was so easy. I even had those tools. I tried some of the steps, and found that the old wrench and pliers I had were rusty, not the size I needed, and useless. I bought new ones. I bought a box of all-purpose washers. They weren't the right size for anything. I bought a box of assorted o-rings. They were all sizes, but no two alike, so I bought a second box in case I would need to fix both faucets. I walked myself through the process several times, and nothing seemed to be quite right. I hoped I wouldn't have to replace the "Cold" faucet because I couldn't screw that one off.

Today was the day. I had bought some pipe joint compound which seemed to be the final step in assuring I'd be golden.

I brought a couple of towels into the sink area where I would be working, as Ian had instructed me to. I set out all my tools, taping off those that Ian said to so as not to damage the threads of the screws. He didn't mention taping might make the tools less efficient--in fact, he hadn't mentioned that anything could go wrong.

First off, I turned off the water valves tight. Then I removed the one faucet I had learned in my practice sessions that I could. Disaster. Thinking I was turning the water valves off I was actually turning them on full force! The kitchen was pretty well flooded by the time I got down under the cabinet to turn both valves in the other direction. Luckily I had lots of towels in a bag to give to Goodwill, so I mopped as I went.

When you get the faucet off, its bare bones don't look like those of Ian's faucet. The new washers and o-rings didn't seem to go anywhere, and pieces of the little faucet skeleton were everywhere, none fitting where I had thought it would. I fiddled and fussed and could not get the joint compound tube open. I tried a nail. I called a friend in Alabama who said just to break into the tube and throw the thing away when I was finished. I did that. This joint compound also didn't look like Ian's, which came in a tube too, and looked like spackle or white grout. Had I gotten the wrong kind of joint compound? Mine was runny and grey-green. At last I managed to smear some on the faucet joint, but I didn't make a nice firm seal as Ian had promised.

But I got it all back in place and turned on the water. It spewed from the faucet without my turning it on, and would only turn off by using the valve under the sink. I'm sure I did everything right. It would have been easier to have called the landlady, which I must do now anyway. She and her fiancé will simply watch Ian and come over and fix the faucet or maybe she'll send a plumber which is what I really need.

Look, nobody is good at everything, I tell myself. If Ian has a blog, I'll bet somebody else writes it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Polar Opposites

November 15, 2008

This political season has brought us a pair of females who ask to be taken seriously. They rose like cream toward the tops of their respective tickets, and, although they are polar opposites, they may have changed the landscape of presidential politics forever.

Hillary Clinton is serious, intelligent, demanding, competitive, perhaps more than a little strident. As the wife of a favorite president, she garnered support for her own run as a U.S. senator and took the post as a stepping stone toward her dreams of higher office for herself. I said no to her all along, but after her fierce and relentless primary campaign for her party's nomination, I came away with some admiration for her along with increased conviction that she has as many political liabilities as she has strengths, the main one being an inability to work with people or see them clearly. Her campaign was a shambles almost from the first, with her operatives dropping along the wayside like flies as she became more determined to topple Barack Obama, himself a phenomenon in many ways not unlike her husband.

It was a painful campaign to watch, yet Obama held steady and gave her as good as he got, albeit with more restraint and grace. Pundits on the tube hounded him to turn ballistic, make the horse race more exciting (to them) and give the audience more fire. Instead, he worked directly with the American people and with his own organization in building a constituency based on respect for him and desire to have a brave and wise person as president of the embattled and weary nation.

Then came John McCain's choice as Sarah Palin, governor, to be his vice presidential running mate. We all made her acquaintance one night when she appeared as brightly as a shooting star on the horizon, making a sarcastic, bitter speech with a plastic smile on her face and in her voice. Here was a new political creature, pretty and with no baggage, the polar opposite to Hillary Clinton. She bragged about being a soccer mom, and told us that was like being a pit bull. She denigrated the Democratic candidate as being inexperienced compared to her, although the more we learned about her the more we saw what a lie that was.

By now Hillary was on the sidelines, and we had a couple of months to examine the Palin resumé and find it wanting. Day after day my email contained heaps of communications from women all across the country, all with more information about the ineptitude of Ms. Palin and her colorful dealings and family in Alaska. There was a certain amount of fear in these notes, fear that this interloper might actually win. She was too much like the women we had known in our youth, those clever incompetents who liked nothing so much as proving the advantage of looks over intellect.

Clinton's whole life has been a testament to her brain power. She famously met the coming young star of Harvard Law School, Bill Clinton, in the library, having been the smartest girl in her class everywhere she had ever matriculated. He has often called her one of the smartest people he has ever known, and few have disputed that. Her personal style, however, has needed an overhaul from time to time, and she has endured it for the sake of her ambition. She did not share her husband's enormous skill with people, although she was not without wit and a certain charm as she cultivated an impressive career in the wake of his.

Sarah Palin went from beauty contestant to sports news wannabe and on to the office of mayor of a minor town in a state quite remote from Washington, D.C. Defensive about appearing ignorant, she took neutral questions to be an attempt to insult Alaska, all the while looking like a million bucks (or at least $150,000) and allowing her party to play that up with a wardrobe to match. She was a lot of style with very little between the ears, while over in the Democratic Party there was still Senator Clinton, an example of the contrary.

The country has rejected both these women for the posts they were seeking, marginalizing them at least for the nonce, and I think that's a good thing. Clinton will surely find a solid place in President Obama's coterie (as long as it's a place high enough for her comfort), and Palin is not likely to go away in the near future either.

Neither of these contenders has the potential to be a great leader. But in a weird way both have blazed a trail for women of the future. And their participation in the process has prepared us all for the bumpy ride toward a real hole in the glass ceiling.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Your Inner Doctor

November 13, 2008

Last April I checked out a book from the Hoboken Public Library called The Art of Aging. It must have been a breakthrough moment because I remember about 20 years ago reading a book called Stop Aging Now! and I thought I had it nailed. The right vitamins, a regimen of exercise, a handful of blueberries every day and the occasional glass of red wine, a happy attitude--and age would never catch up to me.

Then little things began falling off my body. Gradually my hair went from an attractive streak job to a rather unflattering grey (which I found cosmetic ways to defeat), I ached in places I'd never ached before. The inevitable leaves of the calendar rapidly fell away, as in an old movie, and the changes caught my attention. Aging was indeed beginning to happen, and I'd better make the most of it.

I relocated from my hometown, which was aging me more than I wanted to admit by being flooded with people who in the name of "improvement" only sought to tear down the old and replace it with the tacky. Like so many, I fought against the tide of development as long as I could. Unlike many, my choice was to ameliorate my agony by relocating to a place in which I had no history, but one which had a history of its own I could latch onto and enjoy.

In the quaint and not incidentally historic building that houses Hoboken's library, I found the book The Art of Aging by Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D. I read it with relish, and posted on the blog a recommendation to my readers on May 7. Even today I find myself thinking about what I learned from this eminently readable little book.

One of the points Dr. Nuland makes is that as you age, you have to become your own primary care physician in a way. I don't know if he put it that way, but his theme was that only you really know when little things are going wrong, and it behooves you to address these little things before they become big things.

In other words, you have to become sensitive to your inner doctor. The longer you tell yourself, "Oh, that's nothing, everybody has that," the less likely you are to get a symptom cured or to find a larger cause of it. You can't, on the other hand, bother your doctor with every question or complaint, but if you make up your mind that you're the main doctor, you'll have a better idea when it's time to call in a pro.

I have found the Internet to be a tremendous help in my medical education. For example, I attended a movie in Manhattan in a nice cineplex I knew from the old days, and at some time during the film I noticed painful bug bites on my elbow and arm. Mosquitoes? The itch felt like mosquito bites, but much more powerful, and there was a line of them up my arm! I could hardly concentrate on the movie, I was so distracted by the thought of getting to a drugstore and getting some relief.

When I got home I put my handy search engine to work, and discovered that there is an epidemic of bedbugs all over Manhattan. I had noted upholstered chairs in the theater, and had no doubt that somebody had brought an infestation from home. I read up on bedbugs and trembled in my boots that I may have brought some home in my pocketbook, but I endured the itches and eventually they went away. None of the insects remained in my clothing or my bag. Unfortunately I found there really is no cure for the itch, but alcohol and an over-the-counter cream helped a little.

I had a similar experience with hoarseness. It was at the time I was in the play. I had to clear my throat all the time; my voice was getting weak, and I feared throat cancer or at least nodules on the larynx which might prevent my ever speaking onstage again, or worse. I looked it up phlegm in the throat on the Internet and found that it can be caused by post-nasal drip, which can be cured or at least controlled by using a little "neti-pot" of a saline solution in the nose. I tried it first thing in the morning and last thing at night for about a week, and it cleared up the laryngitis and the sinusitis that had caused it.

I called upon my inner doctor and didn't have to go to an outer one. These were minor symptoms, but very worrying and if the home remedies hadn't worked, of course I would have gone to my doctor. But the art of aging requires a little wisdom and resourcefulness (both of which are supposed to come with age) as well as the patience to endure, which may or may not ever come. If you're going to have to age anyway, you might as well learn the art of it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Stranger in the Night

November 10, 2008

I had had a couple of nice days visiting with the grandkids. I missed tv--they don't have one--and was removed from my computer for two days, so I'd spent a few hours catching up on what I could from the reruns of the Sunday morning political rehashes, plus Property Virgins on HGTV. I was ready for bed when that was over.

Fell asleep expecting as good a night's rest as I have described to you in a previous post. I would have achieved this but for a strange chime at about 1 A.M. It was not the alarm clock, as I first thought, but a brief musical sprinkling that I didn't recognize. I lay awake long after it was over trying to identify the electronic source of my disturbance. At length I remembered, it was my cell phone. Not a phone call, but the little sound signaling that I am getting a text message.

I got a series of text messages before when my brother was in the hospital and my sister-in-law, distraught in a waiting room, distracted herself by texting everybody she could think of. At that point I had no idea of how to return a message to her and found her late-night communications distressing. Later, when relocating to a new apartment, I had gotten my previous domicile rented to a young woman who used texting all the time and showed me how to receive and send the messages when necessary. However, I seldom do it and get so little use from my cell phone I can only assume my call is an emergency. I lay awake trying to decide whether to check the text message.

I decided at last to check it out. It was a stranger in the night, and I don't mean Frank Sinatra. Seems my message had come from and it read, "/yo/hey mate Market Wizard stock African Diamond Co AFDM" Just what I needed to be awakened in the middle of the night to find.

Anyway, I was awake now, and, contrary to my post about how easy it is to fall asleep again, it clearly wasn't going to be easy this time. I checked out a rerun of Meet the Press, channel surfed a little--there was a wonderful show on PBS about monkeys--and turned back into the bed where I lay for hours with my eyes closed telling myself it didn't matter whether or not I fell asleep. At last I did fall asleep, and woke up about 7:30 feeling tired and having no idea how much sleep I'd gotten (or how much I'd missed). I vowed to write a post about the stranger in the night on the blog, get to the gym, and try once more to have a normal day. I'll let you know how that comes out.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Here's That New Day Again

November 5, 2008

Every once in a while, a politician ignites his following and convinces them that if he is elected it will signal a new day in America. I've heard it said many ways, and the fact that there are people who buy the whole package and cling to it all their lives, remembering "it was different then," says as much about our need to hope, remember, and dream as it does about the actual time, place and candidate.

I don't think any American today is without some of that feeling now that we are going to have to get used to saying "President Obama" after last night. There will be some who regret his victory, but I expect them to be hoping right along with the rest of us. We were at such a low point, there was really no place to go but up.

And the vast majority of us are more than up, we are way up. I tried to say as little about my political leanings as possible, on the blog or anywhere, with an almost-superstitious fervor based on the knowledge that few of the candidates who had won my heart in the past ever won enough others to get elected. It looked to me, after seeing the crowds flocking to hear him every time he spoke--even overseas on his brief visit there--that it was going to be an Obama landslide. Others told me that the people going to hear him speak weren't voters, which made no sense to me. You'd get dressed and go out at night to park in a crowded parking lot and hear a politician speak for an hour but not bother to go cast a vote for him?

Those eloquent speeches, with his lilting cadence and that occasional upward inflection ending his crystalline sentences, were worth the nagging worry that there might somehow be a madman with a gun in the crowd, as in the movies or in the memories of those of us who lived through less-controlled times. Again, I tried not to talk about it. At times I did talk about it some in order to warn the evil spirits that we were onto them.

It's been a tense 21 months at best, from the beginning when he looked like a simple dreamer, an upstart who didn't understand the political process, to night before last when he looked wise, as brilliant as ever, but seasoned and Presidential, still crafting his speeches, still delivering them with the illusion of the first time.

And then there was yesterday, the glorious day when it all came to a head. Long lines at the polls, smiling people on the street, and a late night when we watched the returns holding our breath. The grace in his acceptance speech, and his theme that he expects something of us, individually and together now, and that he will take care of the big stuff while expecting us to take care of the small. I feel as if I'm awaiting orders from a superb commanding officer. What will he ask of me? Shall I write something for him? Shall I put on a play? Would he like a little more money?

This morning there was an email from him on my computer. He wrote it last night before he left for Grant Park. He thanked me and assured me that it was I who won this thing, and he wanted me to know that he knew that.

Wasn't that nice of him? I'm not the one who went out there day after day for 21 months, endured the outrageous slings and arrows of lesser mortals, had my name dragged out constantly by the chattering classes on television, second-guessing my every move and utterance. He was. ("Why doesn't he get down and dirty? Why doesn't he fight back? Why does he always look so cool?") I'm not the one who was able to ignore this and show my true self, calm and considerate, using my mind to process the chaos around and simply move toward a goal. He was. I'm not the one who organized millions of people, young and old, to work in whatever way they could with a promise of little more than "change." He wa. I'm not the one who made the run for the Presidency meaningful to a cynical and discouraged country. He was. I'd like to think I helped, but it was damned little compared to what he did.

And I can't wait for his new day to start. It's looking better already.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting Lines in Hoboken

November 4, 2008

It's 4 P.M. now and I've noticed a lot of hits on the site meter with the search words "Voting Lines in Hoboken." Worry about whether or not they'll be able to get into the polls brought people to my blog, but in my previous election-day post I haven't addressed the voting lines in Hoboken. I voted at 7 A.M. and the lines were no problem at all. I'm in Ward 5, District 5, which may be a light area, but all day long I've walked past polling places and seen a few people going in, but no off-putting lines.

After work, say in an hour or two, there'll probably be more traffic. But I don't think Hoboken will be one of those places in the country where it takes hours to get to the voting booths. All this pre-voting drama kind of reminds me of Y2K at New Year's in 2000, when the whole world was supposed to shut down because the computers stopped their counters at 1999. It didn't happen. There are some places in the country that may not have been prepared for the huge voting turnout, but most saw it coming and got ready.

Let's just hope voting is this thrilling from now on!

The Big Day Has Arrived

November 4, 2008

Last night I was just wishing it would all be over. Surfing the channels I heard expert after expert expounding on the horse-race possibilites, "If McCain carries Pennsylvania..." "If Obama carries Ohio and Indiana..." and on and on into the night. I am so tired of such blather that my head aches, to say nothing of my cardiovascular system and my blood pressure. Study their positions, listen to their speeches, and make up your mind. Try to accept the possibility that the person leading the party you usually oppose may have something to say other than the one your knee-jerk impulse tells you to support. We've had 21 months to think about this, and sure enough, some people have changed their minds, but today's the day to go stand in line and vote.

I've already voted. Polls open in New Jersey at 6 A.M., and I was in the line at about seven. A nice, healthy turnout, but not discouraging because it was a quick vote and everybody seemed upbeat if not downright excited. At my polling place, it was mostly white people, but a handsome young black man, looking for his line, smiled at me and said, "Look at this!" and I said, "It's great!" and he said, "It sure is! It's awesome!" A couple in the line next to me had a stroller with two little kids in it and one kept saying, "Is Daddy going to vote? Is Mommy going to vote?"

I have a friend who tells me most of the people he admires agree with him that "One man, one vote" is an absurd system that will never work. He recommends books on the subject. Another, who writes a Hoboken blog, says it's sad that given the choice, most Americans are going to vote against their best interests.

I really can't agree with this. I don't know how it's going to turn out, and I'll admit that I don't always think the best person in the race wins, but I like the system and I love the process of voting.

No one can deny that this is the most important election of our lifetimes. I grew up with old men in the White House--FDR, Truman, Eisenhower--and was too young to vote in 1960 when John F. Kennedy ran. But I haven't felt the electricity in the air like that on voting day since then. I've watched John McCain carefully and considered the possibility of voting for him because I remember him from the Straight Talk Express days. I decided not to vote for him for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I am genuinely enthusiastic about his opponent. Good reason to take an active part, I'd say.

I don't have time to write a real political entry this morning. I have work to do. I'm off to Obama headquarters to help get out the vote.

My readers may not vote the way I do, but I'm sure they believe in elections and will cast the vote for the person they feel most qualified. As for me, they're waiting for me to take my shift.

Tomorrow will be another day. But this is the big one.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Sleeping Well Is the Best Revenge

November 3, 2008

Sleep is good for you, America. I don’t know where we seem to have gotten the idea that it was a sign of weakness.

Over the years I've gone from being the sleepiest child in the neighborhood (the lady next door once found me asleep under a bed in her house in the middle of the day) to having occasional bouts with insomnia, to a regular pattern of waking up at about 3 A.M. and not being able to fall asleep again. Probably the pattern was made worse by having a remote control in my bed and via television enjoying the switchable presence of Jay Leno, ABC World News Now, the choice of a couple of movies all the time, and cooking and decoration shows at all hours.

That all changed when I moved to Hoboken. I only bought one tv. I was removed from the residue of problems of my own and my friends and relatives. I began sleeping heavier and longer than I had in years. I don’t know how to account for it, but from the first it felt good to get all this sleep. I’m beginning to wonder if narcolepsy is a sign of aging. Maybe it’s because I’m still kind of on vacation from my life. Until the move I was fraught with responsibilities and a certain amount of low-grade, under-the-radar stress all day, and at night I had that tv in the bedroom. Almost as soon as I moved here last December, I found myself sleeping through the night again, experiencing heavy dreams, and waking up refreshed.

I’m sure being removed from my daily stress did it, but I have new stuff: I totally fired my old life, live alone in a strange city, have the daily job of learning the ropes and coping with all the new situations of a total upheaval. That’s not stress?

Apparently not so much. I’ve reverted to my old childhood sleep patterns, and occasionally even grab an hour’s nap during the day. I haven’t been found dozing under the neighbors’ furniture yet, but I’m getting a lot of sleep. On the other hand, sometimes I wake up abnormally early, say 4 A.M., but if that happens I make myself comfortable—go to the bathroom, eat a little yogurt, curl up under a cozy throw in the living room and watch a little neutral tv (NO politics!), and when I start to yawn—it might be as long as two hours—I go back to bed. Then I can sleep another couple of hours.

Here’s the thing of it: Nobody thinks they can do that. “When I’m up, I’m up!” they say, and they make it true by leaping out of bed at the first glimmer of consciousness, turning on all the lights, making coffee, shoving papers around and generally acting as if the day had started. This is followed by a day of feeling sleep deprived and cross. Now, I know it's going to be difficult to do this if you're reading this at your desk just before a big meeting, but it will be worth it tomorrow if you start this sleeping-more project tonight.

Falling asleep seems to be a major accomplishment. We get performance anxiety about being able to do it.

My technique on my early-morning wakeup is to give myself the gift of going back to bed happily. Look, it’s still early, still dark, that bed has all those soft covers, and I’ve got a few more hours before the rest of the world wakes up. I’ll just lie down here and close my eyes—and not open them for two hours no matter what. Maybe I won’t sleep, but I’ll take deep breaths, think how lucky I am, and rest my eyes.

It almost always works. Even helps with the Daylight Saving Time nonsense somebody imposed at the wrong time of year (Why make the days shorter in the winter when they are naturally shorter?).

And when it doesn't work--on those nights when it feels as if I'm not going to fall asleep at all, one Benadryl will do the trick. I have a rule not to take more than one a week, and I seldom resort to that. I also remember that in my case it will take almost an hour to kick in so I don't let performance anxiety get in the way. Alternatively, if I detect a few unidentified aches and pains, I allow myself one or two ibuprophen tablets or an aspirin. But mostly I just lie down, review the good stuff of the day and ignore the bad, take deep breaths for five minutes, all the while thinking about how lucky I am to be alive and ordering a good dream by imagining something pleasant like a field of daisies or the breeze on my skin as waves lap on the beach.

Getting more sleep would be better for everybody. Put it on your list of New Year's Resolutions. In fact, it should be on the national agenda. I hope that early in his administration, the next President makes a beautiful speech about its importance. It would put me right to sleep.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Making a Salad out of Frank Sinatra

October 31, 2008

Sandwiches are a Hoboken specialty. The city abounds with wonderful Italian delicatessens. Those Italians know how to make bread and cold cuts, and when they pile them into different combinations--heaven is not far away.

Not long ago I discovered a sandwich known here as the Chicken Frank Sinatra. It's made with some balsamic vinegar splashed onto good Italian white bread. A little arugula doused in vinagrette is added, then a layer of sliced grilled chicken, topped with a few marinated artichokes, slices of tomato, and some mozzarella. Half of one of these babies is plenty for lunch, and you can have the rest some other time.

How about this: When you get the sandwich home (particularly if you're on the Atkins diet or some version and you're not wild about balsamic vinegar), you take one half, remove the vinegar-soaked bread (and put it in the fridge for later), take all the insides and combine with about one cup of salad from those salad bags everybody keeps around these days. Put all on a chopping board and chop into bite size pieces. Now place this mixture in an eating bowl, toss with your favorite dressing, and eat.

My favorite dressing, by the way, is homemade vinagrette, and I almost always have it on hand. I make in by taking a teaspoon or so of dijon mustard, adding a generous pinch of salt, a splash of vinegar, a drop of honey, and beating like crazy for a few seconds until all is dissolved nicely. Then I slowly add Italian olive oil (extra virgin) until it is a nice amalgamation. Your favorite dressing may come out of a bottle, and that will work for this salad too.

The Chicken Frank Sinatra Salad doesn't need much dressing. There is already a little oil and vinegar here and there in the sandwich, after all. But to my way of thinking, it does need a couple of tablespoons. Save leftover dressing; you won't have it for long. And be grateful you live in Hoboken where you're never far from a Chicken Frank Sinatra. If you live somewhere else, you're on your own in finding the ingredients.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Halloween in Old Hoboken

October 29, 2008
The above vignette adorns the restaurant-bar Tenth and Willow, replacing the outdoor tables framed in vines and blossoms of the summer. Fall is here.

A few weeks ago I ran a few pictures of some of the home decorations going up on upper Garden Street, and Jim B., a former citizen of Hoboken, wrote:

"Liked your pictures on Garden Street. Looked very familiar. At this time of year [in the old days in Hoboken] you would see lots of empty boxes of grapes, since a lot of the people made their own wine. But now they decorate with mums and suburban looking things.

"Here is something about older Hoboken trick or treating. First, there is a mischief night before, where you would have socks filled with flour and leave markings on lots of the buildings. Sometimes eggs as well.

"But for Trick or Treat, you had to go floor to floor, then building to building, lots of stair climbing, and going from hot hallways to cold outdoors. You rarely went outside your own few blocks unless you went with classmates after school. My brother and I would usually go to the houses on 12th and Hudson and on Washington. On the Washington Street side, you didn't even have to leave the buildings since they were all connected through the basements. You could go to every building on Washington Street without going outside. There was a connection in the basements that made it simple. There was always a parade around Brandt school, sometimes outside the school, sometimes on the roof. The roof was where we had our Phys Ed classes.

"Most people were generous, and if they were not, the socks with flour returned oftentimes. The police usually had the streets cleared by about 9:30 or so."

I'll bet my readers can come up with a lot more memories of their Halloween activities. Let me hear them.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hoboken Blackout: 2008

October 26, 2008

I was thinking about a lot of things last night when the lights went out. My new apartment is totally electric, and I had some pasta and sauce on the stove. I had just gotten home from the British production of Chekhov's The Seagull on Broadway, and was processing the experience while I prepared for a quiet evening at home. I had answered my email and was mulling over what I would write about the play on the blog.

Then everything went dark. As in the coming of a hurricane in Lower Alabama, I was plunged into darkness. It was only 6:15, so there was a little ambient light in the apartment. There was even a flicker of electricity about five minutes later, and it looked as if this might be over soon. I searched for my flashlight and some matches, but found neither as the lights went out again, this time for hours. I realized there was no reason to try to make a meal so I grabbed a cooling sausage out of the sauce, scarfed it and put my feet up, trying to use meditation techniques to deal with the impending dark as the light eked out of the room. Out my window I could see the trees in the courtyard bending as they were whipped this way and that with the wind and lashed with rain.

It was too dark to read my watch. I didn't know how long it had been, but I rightly guessed about an hour when I decided to go to the street, where surely the bars of Willow Avenue would be filled with people discussing the blackout by candlelight and with beer.

At the beautiful restaurant-bar on the corner of 10th and Willow, a man was taking down the outside umbrellas. Inside, a few couples seemed to be deep in conversation. The umbrella man told me there was a power line down at Hudson and 11th Street and that only sections of the city were without power. I didn't see any huddled masses to join, and that bar scene seemed to be too self-contained for me to crack, so I walked south toward Rogo's. Three guys stood at the door, and I went in and stayed with them and a good pinot grigio until all the lights they had on batteries gave out, leaving the group with votive candles on the bar and a couple of pizzas delivered from Torno's. They called the power company and we were told we'd have service by 11:17. I asked if anyone had matches, and they didn't, so I went out into the rain and into CVS which was as bright and noisy as if there were no storm.

CVS doesn't carry matches. I came home and went to bed, still no idea what time it was, but guessed it was about eight. I figured that if I could fall asleep, lights coming on at 11:17 would wake me up and I could take care of the kitchen at that time.

All of a sudden the lights came on. I grabbed my watch and it said 9:00. I set all the clocks, ate the pasta, cleaned the kitchen, watched a little tv, and was back in bed in an hour.

This morning all the lights are working. Now I can think about that production of The Seagull before I go on the tour of Hoboken houses.

Monday, October 20, 2008

My Date at Helmers'

October 20, 2008
Helmers' is one of the oldest restaurants in Hoboken, dating from the days before WWI when Hoboken was a German-dominated town and a favorite of beer lovers from all over New Jersey.

I first heard about it from Jim B., formerly of Hoboken but now a solid citizen of Mount Laurel. He emailed me soon after discovering this blog: "Helmers is on the corner of 11th and Washington. It looks just like it did in the early 1950's. Food and bar look the same too. We used to get the following:

* Steak sandwiches with tons of butter
* A mustard pickle mixture
* The mother would be by the bar with desserts which always had cake and strawberry. In the 1970's we would take my daughter there and she always had the strawberries. Now she goes back to Hoboken for the dancing and eating."

Well, that sounds pretty good. Hoboken b-&-r known as Downtown Chick told me that it was burned out completely and rebuilt to look exactly as it had. Knowing she was Italian I asked what she ate, and she said, "Steak sandwich, whaddya think? I'm gonna get sauerbraten?"

I met one of those who worked on the restoration and he promised to meet me there for a drink one day. I tried to set it up this weekend, but it didn't happen, and I kept thinking about that steak sandwich.

I slept late this A.M. after my show business adventure, but decided to treat myself after my gym experience on 14th Street. I went into Helmers' and ordered a steak sandwich to go. While waiting, I saw the huge list of beers and observed that the guys at the bar were drinking some light-colored brew out of dainty steins of some kind, with a slice of orange! Never saw that before.

I confess I'm not much on beer, so I wouldn't know. I Googled "slice of orange in beer" and discovered the practice has been encourage by a Coors product which is cloudy in color and said to be enhanced by the taste of orange. These guys were not drinking anything cloudy.

I waited and waited for my order. I checked out the menu and saw that the most German thing was wiener schnitzel, which I love, but there were also some bauernwurst dishes and a wurst platter. I liked the lady behind the counter. It seemed a family kind of place, redolent of beer and kraut. Not fancy like the Elysian, but homey and folksy. The service was very slow for the specialty of the house, and when I got it home, I confess I was underwhelmed. If it hadn't been for the home fries and the buttered toast beneath the slices of not-tender beef I might actually have given Helmers' of Hoboken a bad review.

But I loved the atmosphere and surmised that you don't go there for the food. And when my friend is up for it, I'll go again and drink something German with my wurst platter. Maybe I'll go ahead and put a slice of orange in it.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Back in Show Business

October 18, 2008
It was a good rehearsal. The women in the play are talented and awesome, and the characters they are portraying are uniquely "Old Hoboken." Of a certain age, they are a "sewing circle," meeting on a regular basis where they drop any pretense of being ladies, they can talk openly of sex and the earthy side of the filming of On the Waterfront. They rehash old quarrels, mourn old friends ("She was the greatest slut who ever lived."), open old wounds, and settle old scores right before our eyes.

It is not a play that would have gone over in Fairhope. In Hoboken, it'll bring the house down.

In fact, this is a workshop reading, and I'm the outsider, the narrator who sits on the side and reads stage directions when it might clear up for the audience what action is going on in the play. The actresses were all in appropriate costumes last night, but I just came in my jeans and will wear all black tomorrow. I am an adjunct to the production, a retiree who writes a blog about Hoboken. This theatrical debut is a perfect beginning of the end of my first year in Hoboken.

The reading will be done at the Hoboken Museum, and has been sold out, so they've added a second performance at 8 P.M., which I'm sure will fill the little space too. The play will go on to a real production as part of a Hoboken trilogy by the late Louis La Russo II, author of Lamppost Reunion and Sweatshop.

The theatrical atmosphere is familiar and fun. As I walked home in the crisp fall air last night, I thought, "Well, you're back in show business."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Debate Review

October 16, 2008

No, I didn't watch the debate, but I reserve the right to review it.

There are so many experts parsing all the commentary made by the two candidates that you really don't need my opinion on that, especially since I didn't watch. What they miss is that the debates are not about content at all; they are about television.

This was established in the very first television debate, in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, and has never changed. That night the commentators, most of whom were listening on the radio, announced that Nixon had won the debate. He made his points clearly, addressed the issues in the right tone, and bested his young opponent by being a better debater.

But the viewers on the little black-and-white sets of the day saw a fresh, handsome face smiling naturally while an angry balding guy with a five-o'clock shadow and a moist upper lip glowered and carped. They liked the cut of the younger man's jib, they liked that easy laugh, and there was something obnoxious about the darker, hostile other guy.

But year after year, particularly when the two parties wrested the power to conduct the debates away from the more neutral League of Women voters, the debates have retained their one consistent characteristic: Cosmetics. (When the League managed the debates, at least there was a nice crowd of contenders, and a chance for some back-and-forth from candidates who had valid points to make outside the mainstream. Democrats and Republicans declared having such a broad field was unfair to them, since none of these others would win the Presidency, and after all, this democracy business is all about winning.)

Now we get three debates between two guys, and another one between two other guys. That this year the v-p debate produced a guy who was female is beside the point. She was admired for her use of the camera, her ease with telling off the moderator, and her televisual charm.

Even after the third debate of the principle players, the talking heads were focused on the least important thing about the debate, what they were saying. One of them said things that put him clearly in the Liberal column -- heaven forfend -- and the other outlined a Conservative agenda. This is the subject of all the talk today.

Not to worry. The viewers saw something else altogether. They saw a nervous, uncomfortable older guy who looked like a smile would break his face, snapping at the younger, smiling, odd-looking dark guy who tended to drone on in boring, professorial sentences as if we might be asked to take a quiz later.

Then the polls showed the professor inspired the most confidence. He "won" another debate. He may actually win the Presidency. But I'm not counting on it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Another Debate, Another Yawn

October 15, 2008

Even a hardened political junkie like me can get tired of an endless campaign like this one. I'm probably going to skip the debate tonight.

I'm told that the meat of the upcoming debate will be the confrontation by John McCain of Barack Obama on the earth-shattering relationship between candidate Obama and Chicago education reformer Bill Ayers. If he sees fit to bring this up, McCain will be prepared to point out that Obama has obfuscated and denied this relationship, clearly indicating Senator Obama's ability to gloss over the facts and present a false front to the American people. After all, early on in his career, Obama attended a fund-raising "Meet the Candidate" coffee in the home of this violent and unrepentent terrorist.

Now I must come clean myself: There are less than six degrees of separation between me and Bill Ayers. I lived on the Upper West Side in the late 1970s and my daughter, a teenager who often needed pocket money, had a part-time job at a day care center alongside Ayers and his wife, who were working under assumed names since they were at that time still under cover for their activities in the previous decade. They were a committed couple with a child in daycare, and she reports that they were the last people anyone would have thought had been involved in the overthrow of anything.

Did you notice that I said all this happened in the late 1970's? The assumptions of the sixties, that the center would not hold and that the upheaval of the younger generation ("Make Love, Not War") would threaten the American way of life forever had become out of date and the few urban guerillas left were coming clean and paying their debt to society in various ways. This was before Sarah Palin was born, and I'm here to tell you the times were a-changin' and then changin' back.

Most of us observed from outside, held down jobs, raised kids, and observed the political scene with some unease on both sides. Raised with a comfortable Eisenhower in the White House, we had wanted someone with youth and vision from our team in that post, and soon after he got there, we lost him.

So what scares us most about the upcoming election is the frenzy John McCain's side seems to be welcoming. McCain himself claims to be oblivious of this, and says it's just the same at Obama rallies (occasional boo's, which Obama quells like a high school history teacher with a scolding, "We don't need that."). The debate is unlikely to reveal anything new, and if it does, that 20-second clip will be shown a zillion times on the next 24-hour news cycle.

People feel passionately about their political choices, and nothing I can say is likely to change anybody's mind. I despair at trying. You have probably guessed my own leanings, and I do have a suggestion for you if, as John McCain says, you don't know "who Barack Obama is." The man has written two books to explain that to you. His autobiography, Dreams from My Father, is an easy read and a beautiful, inspiring work. If your mind is already made up, which it probably is, you might assume it's a tissue of lies from beginning to end. But it's not a polemic designed to incite you to any political action. It's one of those books about a unique life that might make you think once or twice about the diversity of lives in our nation.

I doubt that the debate will do that. I think I'll check out Turner Classic Movies and watch Fred Astaire tap dancing.