The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘childhood’ Category

LENNY

It was a very quiet apartment building.  The forty units were mostly occupied by older people whose children were grown and had started families of their own.  Of the seven or eight children who were being raised there, we had all come from families who believed that their children should learn how to behave in public as well as at home so there were never any youthful disturbances which might annoy the other residents.

One of my earliest memories was of the two men who were the Superintendent, Juan Espinoza who was an immigrant from Cuba and his assistant, Lenny.  While I’m sure that I knew Lenny’s surname as a child, I’ve long forgotten it.  But while I may have allowed Lenny’s last name to escape my memory, I’ll never forget the man himself.

Lenny was a gentle, kindly, Big Ben type of fellow, but without the facial hair.  In his day had he had the opportunity to go to college, he easily could have qualified as a member of the school’s football team, at least based on his impressive size.  But that wasn’t why people noticed Lenny.  He had an unusual physical condition which I have never seen again in anyone else.  On his face there were outgrowths of skin, some the size of exploded popcorn.  It was impossible not to notice them – and I couldn’t help myself from seeing them.

I remember being six or seven and going with my mother to the grocery store when Lenny was in the hallway, mopping the floor.  And I remember asking my mother, “Why does Lenny have those bumps on his face?”  Fortunately, I had the good taste to ask this question when we had exited the front door and were far out of Lenny’s hearing.

My mother responded, “I don’t know, dear.  But we must always remember neither to criticize people nor make fun of people because of the way they look.  They can’t help the way they’re born – but they can control the way they behave – just as you can.  And Lenny is always there whenever we need some help in the apartment and does his job very well. That’s what we should remember.”

Although as I mentioned, there were only a few kids in the building, there was one boy who, despite his parent’s best efforts, occasionally had an outburst and broke all the rules of how to be a civilized young person.  He constantly referred to Lenny as “The Freak”.  Of course, like most cowardly people who enjoy belittling others, he only said that when Lenny wasn’t present.  At least that was a blessing.  I could only imagine how hurt Lenny would have been had he heard that comment.  And, although most of the rest of us kids told him that his statement was rude and cruel he persisted in referring to Lenny with that term.

At some point I came to the conclusion, largely based on this one kid’s bad behavior, that boys were more likely to be bullies than girls.  That is until recently.

I was watching a clip on Fox News on the most recent Republican presidential debate which was aired on “The View,” a program that I have never watched.  Of the people who I presume are co-hosts, the only one I recognized was Whoopi Goldberg.  But I did recognize the same sort of vindictive and vile level of incivility that my fellow apartment dweller used against Lenny.  Except that this time it was directed toward Carly Fiorina.  What’s disturbing to me is less that these women acted as though they were vicious attack dogs than that they have an audience which apparently enjoys watching them trying to dismember another human being.

So I guess these folks missed the lesson that my mother taught me when I was a little kid.  And, come to think of it, I believe the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said pretty much the same thing in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

SCRUPLES

There I was in the bulk food section of the supermarket I shop most frequently.  I was in the market to buy some dried cranberries but thought that the $9.99 per pound price was a bit high.  I’ve seen them on sale for half of that.  But as I lingered near the small bins of dried fruit, I happened to notice that the store also carried dried blueberries.  I seldom see them on the market, even at Whole Foods which has a far larger bulk section.  I understood why when I checked the price.  They were $17.99 per pound.  (By contrast I had just seen fresh blueberries on sale for less than $2.00 per pound).

As I pondered, a young woman whom I took to be a part of the Millenial Generation based not only on her apparent age but the fact that her left arm was completely obscured by a swath of tattoos and she had several noticeable facial piercings including a large stud that protruded from inside her mouth into both her cheeks, walked over to the dried blueberry bin and began scooping its contents out and into the plastic bag she had opened to hold them.

I couldn’t help make the comment, “Well, you must be the winner of the latest Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes.  Those berries are really pricey.”

Without hesitating she said, “Oh, well I have a system.  See I just mark them with the code for the raisins which are $3.29 per pound and then I use the self-checkout so that none of the store employees even looks at them.”

I was stunned at this response.  Not because she admitted to me that she was stealing, but in the fact that she showed neither conscience or regret at what she was about to do – and apparently had done in the past.

Momentarily, I thought about engaging her in a conversation about her theft.  But as I thought about it, I doubted that no matter how brilliant a sermon I delivered in less than thirty seconds I would have an impact on a woman who was in her mid to late twenties and who already should know what I would say.  But I did feel that I had to say something, so I told her, “Well, if I were you I don’t think I would put up any reference to your ‘system’ on your Facebook page.  You know that’s out there forever and one day might come back to haunt you.”

She responded, “Oh, you’re soooo right.  That’s really good advice.  Thanks.”

And with that she went off to complete her theft.

I remember taking a five cent candy store from the corner store when I was a kid.  I intended to pay for it – in fact I had the money – but Max who was one of the owners was in the back of the store, there were a lot of customers in the place and I was afraid to leave my nickel on the counter where anyone could have picked it up.  So I left the store without paying.  (I was in a hurry to get to my piano lesson).

Not only did I leave with the Baby Ruth – I left with a guilty conscience, feeling that I had stolen something even though I had the full intention of paying for it.  I wasn’t concerned that I would be caught on video since that technology had not yet been invented.  So I got to my lesson which went poorly because I couldn’t concentrate on either Chopin or Debussy.  All I could think about was the candy bar which had made its way out of the wrapper and into my stomach on my walk to my lesson.

My lesson ran from six to seven and the corner store closed at seven.  But I practically ran the half mile to see if they might have stayed open a little later than usual.  But when I got there they were closed.

I remember having a terrible night.  I was unable to concentrate on my homework and I barely remember what we had for dinner.  My sleep was disturbed by my guilty conscience.  I know I woke up several times in the course of the night which was very unusual for me as I could generally sleep through the loudest noises.  But not that night.

The next morning, tired from what was a very poor night’s rest, I got ready for school extra early.  Breakfast was at the usual time but I needed a few minutes extra because I had to stop at the corner store, pay for my candy bar and get the horrible monkey of theft off my back.

I remember bolting my breakfast down to my mother’s consternation.  I told her I had to get to school a little early.  And as soon as I had devoured the last crumb of toast I grabbed my school books, my poorly prepared homework and left the apartment.

When I got to the corner store, Max’s partner Fred was working.  There were a couple of customers in the store waiting to check out with their items who were ahead of me and I didn’t have a lot of time or I would be late for school.  Naturally, one of the customers had a question about a pen that he was considering purchasing and I remember feeling frustrated that this man was going to make me late for first period.  For a moment I thought about leaving and coming back after school was over.  But I knew that if I didn’t clear this up before school I wouldn’t be able to concentrate all day long – and we had a history test that day.

Finally, it was my turn.  I explained that I had taken the candy bar the day before and that Max was in the back looking for something for a customer, that I was afraid to leave the nickel on the counter with other people in the store and that I was running late for my lesson.  So I paid him the five cents and the thing I most remember was the smile he gave me.  Fred thanked me for my honesty and said not to worry about it.

I always liked both Max and Fred and would never do anything to hurt them.  And I think that they knew that.  It was hard not to like Max because he was the spitting image of Kukla on “Kukla, Fran and Ollie”.  And Fred was about six feet four and looked a lot like Fred Gwynne.

A few days later I went into the corner store to buy another candy bar.  Max was manning the fort.  As soon as I walked up to the counter with my purchase he said, “Well, here’s the little person who tried to bankrupt us.”  I was mortified – until I realized that he was joking.  And then he said, “Fred told me what happened.  Just so you know, if I’m ever in the back and Fred’s not working, just take what you want and come back to pay for it later.  We both trust you.”  That statement has stayed with me over all these years – and may well be the finest compliment I have received in my entire life.

It’s hard to explain why people do the things they do.  I can certainly attribute my sense that I need to be honest as something that my family drilled into me both in words and through their own example.  I like to think that I’m fortunate that somehow it sunk in.  My folks were both scrupulously honest and it was with a sense of trepidation that I mentioned this incident to them.  It was a few days later at dinner and I was waiting for an appropriate lull in the conversation to bring it up.

They listened to my account and my father who stopped in the store almost every day said, “Yes, I heard about it from both Max and Fred last week.  And I hope that you learned from this.  You should always allow yourself some extra time in the event something comes up which might make you late for an appointment.”

Mom’s take was different.  She said, “You know you shouldn’t be eating candy bars late in the afternoon.  They will spoil your dinner.”  Apparently my father had already told her about his conversation with the two store owners.  And that was the end of that traumatic episode in my life.  .

In the absence of good parental guidance, I guess it’s not surprising that far too many of our younger members of society don’t see things in quite the same way as many in my generation.  Perhaps science, the new god that we believe will solve all our ills can come to our rescue and develop a pill that instills scruples in the person who swallows it.

I guess the only question is, would there be any demand for the product?

THUGS

I’m not sure how old I was but my first bicycle came with training wheels.  You may know the type if you’re old enough.  There were two extra tires attached to the back in order to stabilize me as I peddled down the street.  And then came the big day.  My father said that it was time to take off the training wheels and let my bicycle be a real bicycle with only its original two wheels to carry me on my voyage.  That was a day when I had a great deal of fear and trembling as I watched my father remove the two wheels on which I had come to rely.

We came down from the apartment with my newly stripped bike and my father helped me up into the seat.  I practiced mounting and dismounting several times, Dad holding the handle bars until I started to feel comfortable with doing it.  And then we took off, my father running at the side of the bicycle as I uncertainly wobbled down the street.  The wobbling was less noticeable the faster I went – but my father had a little problem keeping up at the faster speed.  And then, he let loose his grip and I was on my own, flying down the street with a big grin on my face.

Off we went to Central Park where I rode around for well over an hour, my confidence in my ability growing by the minute – but always under the watchful eye of my father should something unexpected happen.  This was in the days before helmets or body padding the thickness of the Great Wall of China.  If a kid fell off a bike there was a high likelihood that there would be some abraded skin – but that was life and if that child were smart enough would review what she or he did wrong to avoid a repeat engagement of the same kind.

Several weekends went by and my father always accompanied me on the biking outings.  Even though New York was safer than it is today, my parents were perhaps over-protective of their only child.  Or maybe they just took a deeper interest than parents today.  If I were to go to a friend’s apartment for a party, Dad always walked me there and picked me up when it was time to go home.  Even then there were evil people in the world – a fact that was lost on me but quite evident to my parents based on their own experience.

Well, about three weeks after I first got my taste of freedom, one Sunday Dad and I were off to the park when my father noticed that there was a parking space across the street which would be legal parking until Tuesday.  I think our De Soto spent more time looking for a parking space due to New York’s alternate side of the street rules than actually taking us anywhere, so if Dad could grab this spot he was set for two days.  (He took the subway to work).  So he rushed down the street to our car and left me in front of our apartment building holding my bike and waiting for his return so that we could go off to the park.

As I was waiting his return, a kid, probably four or five years older than I was, ran up to me, pushed me to the ground and stole my bike.  I tried running after him but he obviously had an advantage and he reached Park Avenue way ahead of me.  He turned the corner when I was still half way to the avenue and by the time I got to the corner he had disappeared.  My father saw me without my bike and although he gave up the wonderful parking space to give pursuit, we never saw that kid again.

That was the first time I heard the word “Thug.”  My dad used it to describe this boy’s actions both to me and to the police.  But, needless to say, the young criminal got away with his theft and I never saw that bike again.  If I were to make a guess, I would say that my assailant was Hispanic – probably Puerto Rican as most Hispanics in New York at that time came from that island.  Dad didn’t use the term “thug” to describe him because of his ethnicity but because of what he had done.  Theft and pushing little kids around was thuggish behavior – then as now.

The recent protests in Baltimore and elsewhere throughout the country have caused this word which I considered long dormant to resurface into the vocabulary of our media and politicians.  Obama used it to describe the criminals who earlier this week looted the CVS pharmacy, destroyed 144 cars and set fire to a row of apartment houses.  But there are some in this country who want to make the use of “thug” the center of our focus on what is happening in our inner cities – likening it to the pejorative term, “N*gger.”

Using the term thug proves to their minds that America is indeed a racist country.  What a waste of time – and, sadly, a large percentage of the media, either because of their extreme aversion to asking pithy questions or more frighteningly because they are unable to formulate them, is perfectly happy to play this game.  Media, give it a rest already.

There are some people in this world who are thugs, plain and simple.  They take advantage of others whether it’s through rude behavior or worse, behavior that is rightly illegal.  Destroying a car is an act of thuggery; throwing rocks at other people, police or otherwise, is an act of thuggery; setting an apartment building on fire is an act of thuggery; stealing a little kid’s bike is an act of thuggery.

Thugs should go to jail.  Hopefully, unlike the Mayor of Baltimore who apparently ordered the police to “stand down” as the rioters had their way under the theory that, “It’s only property,” those in positions of authority in cities where these demonstrations transgress the line from peaceful protest to outright thuggish behavior will take the appropriate action.  Society as a whole, black and white alike, would be better off with these rabble rousers under lock and key rather than roaming our streets and endangering our populace.

OLD FOLKS

Perhaps it was the fact that I was so devoted to my maternal grandmother but I have always preferred the company of people older than myself rather than those my own age.  After all, two sixteen year olds have only the perspective of life that they have gleaned in perhaps ten truly cognitive years – and that might be a stretch.  But a thirty year old to my then teen age mind, well that was someone who had really lived.  And a sixty year old.  A sixty year old to my thinking was a venerable shrine of living history.   I viewed elderly people as true treasures.

When I purchased my condo in Chicago I was in my mid-twenties and by far the youngest owner in the building.  Before I could complete the transaction, I had to appear before the condo board and get their approval.  The board had the reasonable responsibility of trying to make sure that new owners would observe the condo’s rules and would be an asset to the building and its owners.  Naturally, I approached this meeting with a great deal of gravity and seriousness and received the required imprimatur.  (While I chalked this up to my professional presentation and polite manner, as I learned later, this was a mere formality as a rejection meant that the association would have had to purchase the unit itself – and there was at that time no reserve fund to accomplish that).  Nevertheless, I took my approval as a reminder to be a good, polite and caring neighbor.

Several years went by and a few of my new neighbors urged me to run for election to the board.  I really didn’t have an inclination to do so as I was putting in eighty hour weeks at my business and didn’t want the distraction.  But after a considerable amount of arm twisting by one of them in particular I agreed to throw my name in the hat for one of the openings.  I prepared a brief resume so that the owners could have a more in depth look at my background and that was included with the bios of the other candidates.

The night of the annual meeting and election finally arrived.  There were three vacancies and six candidates for those positions.  And when the votes were finally tallied, I had come in dead last.  I must admit that while I was ambivalent about serving on the board, losing was rather irksome.  I thought to myself, “What have I done to offend people?”  My ego was bruised,  so when the friend who had pushed me into running came over to console me with the words, “Don’t feel bad – everyone loses the first time they run,” I didn’t accept that as graciously as I might.

Well, things have a way of working out.  I did not choose to participate as a candidate in the elections the following two years but thereafter, as a matter of self-interest, (I wasn’t happy about the way our funds were being spent), I decided on my own to seek office.  This resulted in my serving on the board for eighteen years, six of those as president.  One of my fellow board members was a man then in his late seventies.  I had gotten to know Harold and his wife Viola because of my work getting out the Republican vote in the precinct.  They were two of the very few registered Republicans to be found in the neighborhood.

The bio I had submitted had included the fact that I was one of the principals in an executive search business.  I had no idea what Harold had done for a living since he had summed up his life experience with the word, “Retired.”  But after our first board meeting, he approached me and said that he had devoted his life and his career to being the owner of an employment agency – so we definitely had something in common.  He offered to share some of the stories about his and his wife’s experiences running what, as it turned out, was the very first employment agency that received a license from the State of Illinois in Chicago – back in the 1940’s.

Originally, the employment agency business was dominated by companies that charged the applicant if they found him or her a position.  Later, as labor became more scarce and business expanded, employers began paying those fees.  But in the old days, it was customary for the employee to pay the agency that secured his employment – an amount that was dictated by the Bureau of Employment Agencies at 84% of the first month’s salary, payable in three monthly installments.  That was how Harold and Viola had built their business.  They had a specialty.  They placed domestic help.

Several months later I ran into Viola as I was leaving for work one morning.  She invited me to join Harold and her for dinner the following Saturday.  I gratefully accepted their invitation and rang their doorbell promptly at six thirty that night. We had a delightful dinner and although I offered to help clean up, Viola said that wouldn’t be necessary – she would take care of it.  Harold invited me to join him in the living room for a brandy.

As we sat on their comfortable sofa, I noticed that there were large volumes, at least thirty of them, on their library shelves.  Two of these volumes were on the coffee table.  Harold reached for one of these and said, “You might find this interesting.  I took pictures of all the people who Viola and I put to work.”

He reached for the first book and opened the cover.  There was a picture of a large black woman with a young, smiling Harold and Viola, their arms around her and a caption that read, “Jewel Samson – March 8, 1941 – Cook – Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Feingold, 538 North Dearborn Street.”  Page after page, book after book contained these pictures with the titles Washer Woman, Assistant Cook, Housekeeping, Driver and the names and addresses of their employers.  The pictures had one thing in common.  Every one of the new employees was black.

I was impressed at the sheer number of people for whom this couple had found employment.  And perhaps I was even more impressed that Harold had the presence of mind to document his many years in business in this manner.  I told him as much.

He said to me, “You know it was a struggle.  There were a lot of times that I wasn’t sure we would make it or be able to keep the doors open.  But somehow, something always happened and we got over the hump.  But you know what the biggest challenge was?  In those days, a lot of black folks didn’t trust “’ol Whitey’ as they used to phrase it.  So let me show you the pictures that saved our business.”

Harold got up from the couch and reached for a much smaller photo album.  He sat down next to me and opened the book.  On the first page was a picture of Harold as a child with his parents and on the second a picture of Viola and her family.  Despite their extremely light skin, both Harold and Viola were black.  I would never have guessed that, despite knowing them for quite a few years.

So Harold hung blown up copies of these two photos in his office and pointed them out to all new applicants who came by for job interviews.  That gained the trust of those who might have had qualms about working with a white-owned business.  And that business grew and prospered for more than thirty years until the couple retired.

Old folks.  You can learn a few things from them if you take the time.  They’ve been around.

THE MATHEMATICS OF POLITICS

I remember my first job as though it were yesterday.  I was probably ten or eleven years old when I got hired.  Now I have to admit that I had an “in” getting the position.  My father ran the company.

On many Saturdays my father would go in to his office and take me along with him.  I particularly enjoyed that on days when it was raining and the prospect of spending time in Central Park on the swings had little appeal.  (That was back in the day when a youngster like myself was freely allowed to swing on these wonderful contraptions, before we viewed this as a life threatening exercise and prior to the time when we considered parents who permitted this to be guilty of child abuse and neglect).  Incidentally, with the hundreds of times I played on the swings I never suffered any injury which exactly mirrored the experience of my friends and classmates who similarly played on them.

There we were at Dad’s office.  There was no hustle and bustle as on a normal workday.  At most there were four or five employees in the whole place.  Mr. Chen, who wired lamps, might come in if Dad had received an influx of orders resulting from one of the trade shows that occurred around the country on a monthly basis.  I adored Mr. Chen.  He taught me to count to ten in Cantonese and showed me how to wire a vase and turn it into a lamp.  Under his close supervision I probably made forty or fifty lamps over the years.

I also liked Carmine who was in charge of the shipping department.  He would let me follow him, watching him pick inventory from the metal shelves which housed it, placing each item on one of the carts used to transport the merchandise until the order was complete and ready to go to the packers.  After following him over the course of several Saturdays, it occurred to me that I could pull the inventory and asked him if he would let me fill a small order – just to prove that I could.  After a moment’s hesitation he agreed.

And so off I went with my order and my cart.  By this time I knew in which rows various of the items could be found.  My biggest challenge was reading the handwriting of some of Dad’s salespeople – who would have gotten extra attention from my grammar school teachers who still believed that “neatness counts.”  The other challenge was that the inventory racks were quite high – and one of the items was on the top shelf – way too high for me to reach safely – either for me or the vase.  So I filled the rest of the order and told Carmine that I had left the cart in front of the remaining item but couldn’t get it down.  He smiled at me, I think recognizing that I had been prudent, walked over to the rack and finished the order.  After that he allowed me to help him whenever I asked to do so.

But my favorite department was billing.  Generally, the department was quiet on Saturdays.  But I had gotten an education in how to use the billing machines during a school break from the woman who was in charge of the department.  Her name was Rachael.  She had gorgeous black hair and a beautiful smile and was one of the most warm and friendly people I had ever met.  I asked my father why she was never there on Saturdays.

Dad explained that she was a Sabra, born in what was then Palestine and was an Orthodox Jew.  My father explained that Saturday was the end of her weekly Sabbath and that she was not permitted to do any work on the Sabbath.  My father also explained that he let her go home earlier than usual on Fridays, particularly during the winter, so she could get home before the Sabbath began.

Rachael had fought in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.  That explained the ugly scar that extended down from the left side of her neck to below her very conservative dress.  That wound had happened as a result of her being in the wrong place when one of the Palestinians used a flame thrower against her.  In that same attack her brother had been burned so badly that he died as a result of his wounds.  So I only got to see Rachael occasionally.  But when my father knew that he would be bringing me to the office, she always gathered a number of orders that were ready for billing so that I could keep myself occupied.

Saturdays at Dad’s office usually started at around eight in the morning and by noon he had caught up with his paperwork and was ready to call it a day.  That meant I was going to get paid for my efforts.  That compensation took the form of lunch at Vito’s, two doors down from our office.  Since I’m pretty sure that my father would have fed me anyway, I guessed that I was really working for free.  But that was okay with me since I felt that I was getting on the job training and was, in some indirect way, helping out and making the business more successful.

Vito’s was – well, it was a dump – but the food was terrific.  Vito had figured out that the truck drivers and office workers who worked in the neighborhood and patronized his restaurant were more interested in getting a good meal at a good price than they were in ambiance.  And there was no better food than one of Vito’s meatball sandwiches served in a crusty Italian roll and slathered with a generous helping of his homemade marinara sauce.  This was not food for the chic because there was no way to consume it without getting sauce on your chin and fingers.   Notwithstanding, I think even Emily Post would have approved of a meal at Vito’s.

I hadn’t really thought much about my first job experience until yesterday when I read that San Francisco had voted to phase in a minimum wage of $15.00 per hour over the next few years.  As I thought about it, my father probably violated Federal and NY state child labor laws not to mention the minimum wage laws which were in effect at the time.  While I was unaware of these back then, I am glad to report that despite this parental “abuse” I didn’t suffer any permanent psychological or other damage as a result.  I didn’t realize that my father was taking advantage of me.  I actually looked at the experience as providing me with an education in how business worked.  As it turned out, those Saturdays at my father’s office helped me in my own business many years later.

Now I realize there are divergent views on whether raising the minimum wage is a good or a bad thing.  Those who support increasing the minimum wage make arguments that include “paying a livable wage is a fundamental matter of equity” and often characterize those with a different view as being “cold, heartless people who put profits over people.”  Together with that assessment is the implied or stated view that these same people would be perfectly happy if all these minimum wage workers just died.  Of course, that  takes the issue beyond the boundaries of having a real debate on the merits or demerits of such a raise and turns it into a name-calling event.

Let’s set aside the counter-argument that any raise in the minimum wage will result in further automation of some of those positions, meaning that there will be fewer workers earning more – or, in fact, anything – and focus on the purported cupidity of businesses – interested in maximizing profits – even at the expense of personnel.  If we accept the credo that businesses are simply motivated by profit, we need to consider what the net cost of a wage increase does to the bottom line.

Wages are a fully deductible expense to a business – so any increase in the minimum wage would, to some extent, be offset by a reduction in state and federal income taxes that would be collected.  Perhaps more importantly, we hear anecdotal stories about minimum wage workers who are unable to make it on the income from their employment and who qualify for various welfare programs.  Wouldn’t raising their hourly rate potentially exclude some of them from being the continuing beneficiaries of these programs – thus saving not only their employing companies but all taxpayers from providing these benefits?  If that’s the case, the intelligent business person should eagerly embrace such a wage increase.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the minimum wage argument is that it suggests by the mere act of guaranteeing a higher minimum wage, whatever that number might be, it will impel the country into a new age of prosperity.  If that were the case, we could eliminate world poverty by suggesting to the governments of Mexico, Sri Lanka and Liberia among others,  that they adopt an American style minimum wage for all their citizens.

The citizens of San Francisco voted in this minimum wage increase overwhelmingly.  They also returned Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a staunch advocate of the measure, to the House with 82.4% of the vote.  I wonder why she never thought of my simple solution to world poverty herself.

ICE CREAM AND POLITICS

I still remember the look of disbelief on Grandma’s face that evening at the dinner table.  It was a Sunday evening in the early fall of 1956.  We had just finished our first course, homemade chicken noodle soup, and Grandma had pulled the beef roast from the oven and set it on the platter in the center of the dining room table.  My father had already started on his salad.  We usually gave him a five minute head start on the lettuce and other veggies that were in his salad bowl since he chewed his food so thoroughly that not giving him a few extra minutes meant that we would have finished our meal and had to wait for him to polish off the rest of his food before we could begin on dessert.

Mom and Grandma had cleared the main course dishes from the table and were in the kitchen scooping out the ice cream.  Normally, Grandma would have baked a cake or pie, but we had gone to Tyce’s Farm in New Jersey on Saturday and she had purchased a half bushel of peaches.  That afternoon she had spent the time after church peeling them, making a sweet syrup and putting them into containers so that they could be frozen and we could enjoy them during the winter.

We had a relatively small refrigerator with an even smaller freezer compartment on the top of it.  She needed to make room for all her soon to be frozen peaches, so the Dolley Madison ice cream which was in there had to go.  Hence our ice cream dessert that night.  We had two of the three flavors that were generally available then, those being vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, and I requested a little of each of the first two.  I would then moosh them together and turn them into a lovely light brown soft mixture which I relished as I took each teaspoon full.

As we enjoyed our ice cream, Dad mentioned an article that he had read that morning in the Sunday “Herald Tribune.”  The presidential race was getting into full swing and he noticed that President Eisenhower was being honored at a fifty dollar a plate fund raising dinner to be held at The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  That caused my always frugal Grandmother’s look of shock as she paused with her spoon of ice cream between her bowl and her lips.

“Fifty dollars for one meal?  What are they serving to be worth fifty dollars a person?  This entire meal for the four of us cost about six dollars – and we have leftovers.”

“Well, for fifty dollars you probably get chicken.  If you want roast beef, I think they serve that at the hundred dollar dinners,” my father replied.

My grandmother’s look was so filled with amazement that you would have thought that she had just seen a ghost.  There was no way that she could process either how someone would have the nerve to charge fifty dollars for a meal – or anyone stupid enough to pay it.  She had only a basic grasp of the political process – although she was always one of the first people in line on Election Day to make sure that she would make her voice heard.

My parents and she had voted for Ike in 1952 and would do so again – although my father played with the idea of casting his ballot for Adlai Stevenson.  He admired Stevenson’s intellectual prowess – but dad was a practical, bottom line person.  He might have admired Adlai’s intellect – but he knew a lot of very bright people who were unable to translate their genius into anything concrete that actually worked.  And he, together with many others in the country, remembered Eisenhower’s part in eliminating the Nazi threat from Europe and the world.  In addition, the country seemed to be moving in the right direction under Eisenhower’s administration.  And Dad didn’t believe in changing horses in midstream.

There was one other factor that played into my father’s thinking.  He didn’t have a great deal of faith in members of either party to fulfill their campaign promises.  This was not merely a matter of a contumacious agenda on their parts.  But there were the realities of political machinations, deal making and such, which might preclude even the best plans from being enacted to the nation’s benefit.  Perhaps it was cynicism – or perhaps it was just a clear perception of the way things were.  Overall, the checks and balances that the Founding Fathers had written into the Constitution were both a good and bad thing.

There was one other thing that played a part in my dad’s thinking.  Unlike today, the person for whom you voted basically was pretty similar to the person for whom you didn’t.  It was a little like ordering ice cream.  Whichever flavor you ordered, you still got a chilled dessert.  And things today haven’t changed that much.  The only real difference is that there seems to be only one flavor available for the devotee – and that flavor is Rocky Road.

THE CHANGE PURSE

It was a Christmas present from my mother to hers.  Perhaps you might not consider it to be a gift of significance, a mere change purse and, for that matter, one that looked like the one that Grandma had in service for a decade, but you would be misinformed.  There was no “accessory” that was more important to Grandma than this little black leather purse with the silver-like top and clasp.  It was at the center of her managing her finances – a matter that she took with the utmost seriousness.

Grocery shopping was an almost daily routine in Grandma’s life.  She reasoned, “Why would I stock up on produce which will only lose its freshness in the refrigerator if I can buy something daily at the produce stands?”  Of course, like most businesses then, the stands were closed on Sunday so Saturdays were particularly busy.  Most people who had the time seemed to share Grandma’s view on buying lettuce, tomatoes and cantaloupes.  It was a part of their daily lives.

When Grandma went to the store she would, of course, take her purse containing her little bit of monetary treasure.  The change purse, sometimes bulging with coins and sometimes quite slim, was always at the bottom of the purse, usually with a few other items placed on top of it, perhaps so that a potential purse snatcher might miss it in case he made a dash and grab.  The outer part of the purse had a zippered compartment in which the few bills that Grandma would take with her were carefully folded, the larger denominations, never more than a twenty, were nestled, secured inside the smaller bills.

When the clerk told her the total of her purchases, Grandma would reach in her purse, unbury the change purse from its hiding place, open the clasp and begin counting out change.  It was always better to try to pay for as much of the purchase with coins before having to resort to using paper.  Those bills were hard to come by.  But I wondered, “Where did all the money that filled that change purse come from in the first place?”  And then one day I found the answer.

On the third of each month, or the fourth if the third fell on a Sunday, a little group of our apartment building’s residents would assemble near the mail boxes in the downstairs hallway.  Our mailman, Mr. Shapiro, right on schedule, would appear promptly at nine thirty to distribute the mail to the forty boxes.  The group, including Grandma had two characteristics in common.  They all had gray (or very little) hair and they all were awaiting the arrival of their monthly social security checks.  Since we lived in one of the “A” apartments, our mail was deposited early on in this process which was a good thing since then Grandma could collect it and return to the chores she had set for himself to accomplish that day.

But how did that one piece of paper turn into all those coins and the green money with the pictures of presidents and other important people?  That was my first lesson in banking and finance.

Grandma bought all the groceries for our family of four and paid for them out of her social security check – a check that was for a little more than one hundred fifty dollars a month.  The Saturday after she received her check, she and I would make our way to Fourth Federal Savings and Loan Association to cash it.  Despite the fact that there was a bank just a few blocks away, she went to Fourth Federal because they paid an extra one quarter percent interest per year (four and one quarter percent) and because they credited all deposits which were made by the tenth of the month as if they had been made on the first.  Ten days of extra interest and a higher rate.  Despite her third grade formal education, Grandma understood the basics of economics and interest.

She had been one of the earlier depositors with Fourth Federal and owned Account number 1093-4.  The four signified that her current passbook was the fourth one they had issued for her account, the other ones having been filled with earlier transactions.  She still had these old books and showed them to me.  The first two had been handwritten but Fourth Federal had moved into the modern age of technology and had since implemented a system where these transactions were printed by a machine at each bank teller’s work station.  What would they think of next?

There were two things I noticed when I looked at these passbooks.  The first was that ever since Grandma made her initial ten dollar deposit, she had never made a withdrawal.  The only entries were additional deposits and interest that had posted to her account.  Month after month and year after year she had continued to add to her account without fail.  This stemmed from her belief that if you didn’t have the money to buy something you did without and her second belief, probably stemming from earlier hard times and doing without a lot of things that she would have liked to have bought her daughters or herself, that this little nest egg was inviolable.

When we got to the S & L, Grandma reached in her purse to pull out her check and endorsed it.  She carefully entered the amount on the line that said “Checks.”  She then pulled out her change purse, unzipped the pocket containing the bills, pulled them out and counted them.  These were “leftovers” from last month.  That month she had saved twenty-two dollars after paying all her expenses.  She subtracted that and the twenty dollars she saved each month and requested her cash back in the amount of one hundred eight dollars.

The teller, a middle aged woman who had been with the S & L since they opened asked how she would like her cash.  Two twenties, four tens, two fives and eighteen singles.  Eight of those singles would be set aside for a two dollar a week donation to be placed in the collection plate at church.

When Grandma received her money, she held it in her hand and we returned to the little desk that had the deposit and withdrawal slips on it.  She pulled the twenty-two dollars from the side pocket of her change purse and sandwiched those bills in with her withdrawal, making sure that all the bills faced in the same direction before zipping them back in the pocket and burying this little hoard in the bottom of her purse.  We then began immediately for home without stopping since this was far too much money for a person to carry on herself at one time.

But before we left the S & L, Mr. Bohanek, the president stopped by to say hello to us.  He was a ruddy faced, sandy haired man with tortoise shell glasses who always enjoyed speaking with his depositors.  He and the loan committee decided to whom their institution would make loans, long before there were such things as credit scores.  Instead, they based their decisions on a person’s character and credibility.  They must have been good judges of those as rarely did they make a loan on which the borrower failed to make repayment.  Perhaps that also was a statement about how people treated their financial responsibilities in those days.

When we returned home, Grandma put her purse on the little desk in our apartment’s foyer.  She removed the change purse, unzipped the side and pulled out all but twenty five dollars from the pocket.  That would be more than enough to buy the groceries for the week.  The rest went into a yellowed business size envelope that she had used for many years to house the remainder until it was needed.  That envelope went back into the secret compartment in the desk.  And then the change purse went back into the bottom of her purse where it would rest until her next shopping trip.  She used this change purse for the next eleven years until her death.

I still have that worn black leather change purse.  It is a relic of a simpler time, a time when people had a different attitude toward life.  It was a time when we appreciated the simple things and were grateful for the gifts we had received in loving friends and families.  It was a time when simple things were more than enough to keep us happy, believing that if we had enough simple things they could grow into great things and the future would be bright.  It was a time when security meant having a little black leather change purse, bulging with coins with a few bills neatly folded in a little zipped up pocket on the side.  It was a very good time to live in America.

AN EARLY LIFE LESSON–PART II

It was the final Friday of school, the last day I would enjoy the comfortable security of Mrs. Bounds class.  I liked Mrs. Bounds.  She used to tell us about growing up on a small farm in Canada.  It sounded like a good life – but a lot of work.  She and her four siblings were expected to do their part planting and harvesting the crops and collecting the eggs.  I knew I was going to miss her.

When the bell rang, a sense of jubilation ran through the room.  It was electric as my classmates rushed to get out and start their summer, dumping their books in the trash as they left.  Some couldn’t even bother with that formality and merely left them on or by their desks.  I took my books, cleaned out my desk, wondered for a moment who in the next class would sit in my seat the following  year.  But I didn’t have a lot of time to think about that.  I had a mission I needed to start.

During the two weeks from the time I had asked Mr. Tiffany’s permission, I had already set the wheels in motion.  There was a Gristede’s grocery store between my apartment and school and I had gone in several times to ask if they had any cardboard boxes that they would be able to give me.  I already had nine boxes and grandma had picked up another four at some other stores.  Our small apartment was starting to look like a cardboard jungle.

Grandma had allowed me to use the wire grocery cart that she wheeled behind her when she went on her shopping trips to get fresh fruits and vegetables.  It was waiting for me in our foyer when I got home.  I put my books on the desk and immediately returned to school.

I had decided to start on the top floor and work my way down.  The top floor where the older kids had their classrooms was the fourth floor.  I maneuvered the somewhat flimsy cart up the stairs and began by going into the furthest room from the stairwell.  I wanted to be able to track which rooms I had emptied and which might still contain some treasure.

I only completed picking up the books from two rooms and my cart was piled high.  But it was too heavy for me to wheel easily so I had to pull half the books I had accumulated out and put them inside the door of the second room.  I could see this was going to be a bigger project than I anticipated.  With some trepidation I approached the stairwell and the three flights down to the street.

It was pretty difficult getting that first load down the stairs because the cart’s wheels weren’t very thick and it listed from side to side as I gently tried to coax it along.  When I got my load downstairs and started to pull it home, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to collect all the books that I knew were discarded.  I only had three hours until the school would be locked so I revised my plan.  I decided to attack the lower floors first in the interest of saving some time on the stairwells.

Back and forth, load after load.  I was not only getting tired but hungry.  And dinner was going to be ready soon.  I had pretty much resolved that I couldn’t do much more and that I should make this my last load when I encountered Mr. Tiffany.  I hadn’t expected him to be there.

He asked how my project was going.  I explained that I had hoped to clear out the entire school but I hadn’t even finished the first floor classrooms.  I think he sensed that I was both tired and a little disappointed.

Then he said he had some paperwork to do on Saturday and that he would be at the school from nine to one in the afternoon if I wanted to keep working at my project.  By this time my legs were feeling so wobbly and my back was getting sore from loading books at school and unloading them at home.  But I didn’t want to look like a quitter so I thanked him and said I would be back in the morning.  I wasn’t looking forward to fulfilling that commitment.

While she was cooking, Grandma had filled most of the boxes with the books I had brought home.  Even one of my favorite dinners of liver, bacon, onions and a baked potato with a nice salad wasn’t able to erase the fatigue that overwhelmed me.  And her home made apple strudel merely reinforced my need to sleep.  I went to bed within ten minutes of eating dinner.

The next morning I woke to a nice breakfast and then back to school.  As I pulled my cart, I saw that Mr. Tiffany was walking down the street.  He reached the front door precisely at nine o’clock.  I finished the first floor and a few rooms on the second, making another six round trips.  And then I could see from the clock on the wall of the study hall that it was two minutes to one.

I walked down to Mr. Tiffany’s office, pulling my cart and knocked on his door.  He invited me to come in and I said that I had done all I could and wanted to thank him for letting me work on Saturday and wished him a pleasant summer.  He smiled and wished me the same.

After church on Sunday, dad and I loaded up the car.  That took over an hour and we headed down to Barnes and Noble.  Dad went in while I stayed with the car since we were double parked and dad had turned on the flashers.  He returned with two young employees who helped carry our boxes inside while two other employees began calculating their value.  When the final box was unloaded, dad spotted a parking space, told me to wait on the sidewalk by the front door and hurriedly parked the car.

By the time he and I went into the store, the clerks who had been pulling out the books had only two more boxes to evaluate.  It only took them a few minutes and then they told us the total they would pay me.  When they said, “The value of your books is $1,085.50” I’m sure my mouth widened enough to have put a small cantaloupe in it.  And immediately I thought, “I didn’t even finish two floors.”  I later learned that my old enemy envy had brought with him another vice, greed.

Dad smiled at me and said, “Good job,” and collected the money from the cashier.  I had never seen so much money.  When we got in the car to drive home, he handed the cash to me and asked if I had given thought to what I was going to do with it.  Since I had been hoping perhaps to earn one hundred dollars, this large amount was far beyond my expectations.  I had made no plans for its use.

At dinner that evening my new found wealth was the only subject of conversation.  Grandma who was typically direct had remembered that Mr. Tiffany had suggested a contribution to the school.  She didn’t ask me whether I was going to do that.  She simply asked, “So how much will you be giving to your school?”  Nothing escaped this lady’s attention.  And a question such as that coming from her was less of an inquiry than it was a demand that I behave responsibly.

I thought about it for a minute and asked, “Would three hundred dollars be good?”  I winced a little as I computed that was three years’ allowance – gone in one moment.  She nodded, “That would be good.  And I’ll bake a box of cookies for you to give Mr. Tiffany.  By the time you start school it will be cool enough to bake.”

On my first day of the new school year, mom closed her store early and met me at Mr. Tiffany’s office as the school day was concluding  She carried with her grandma’s cookies and the envelope containing the three hundred dollars and my handwritten note (my mother oversaw its composition) which read:

Dear Mr. Tiffany,

Thank you for giving me the chance to earn some extra money.  Enclosed please find three hundred dollars ($300) which I would like you to accept on behalf of the school.  My grandma baked some cookies to thank you – but they wouldn’t fit in the envelope so they’re in a separate box.

Very truly yours,

 

I thought up the last line myself and when my mother read it she laughed.  But she allowed me to keep it in my thank you note.

Mr. Tiffany thanked mom and me and we went home.  He didn’t open either the envelope or the box of cookies while we were there, but it seemed to me that after that he always had a little extra smile for me when we passed in the hallway and I received the Good Citizenship Award that year.

As to the rest of the money, I made my first stock investments, five shares of Celanese Corporation of America and three shares of Dow Chemical.  The remainder went into my college fund.

My classmates still lived in their fancy co-operative apartments on Park Avenue and they still received distributions from their trust funds.  But I had something that none of them could claim.  With the help of my family and my school, I had taken an idea and turned it into a reality.  That was an accomplishment which no one ever would be able to take from me.

I was ten years old when this happened.   And that was a very good year for me.

AN EARLY LIFE LESSON–PART I

Having the opportunity to receive a private school education had both its benefits and its drawbacks.  As a child, only the negatives were clear to me and it would be many years before I recognized the advantages I had received because of my parents’ self-sacrifice so that I could attend.  But the most important lesson that I learned was that what I thought of as a disadvantage when I was a schoolchild was actually a great character builder and provided one of my most important early life lessons.

That big negative to my young mind was that I was the poorest kid in my class.  No one had to point this out.  I figured it out on my own.  I knew where my classmates lived and I knew where I lived.  I knew the amount of my allowance and I knew my classmates got three or four times as much.  I knew that my classmates’ dads were doctors and stock brokers and my dad was in sales.  And I knew that I was the only child in my class whose mother worked.  And with all that knowing I came to know envy.  And it ate at me quietly, stealthily, continuously.  I didn’t like my new guest – but I didn’t know how to rid myself of him.

It was mid-May and the school year was drawing to a close.  Because part of our tuition paid for our schoolbooks we were free to take those home and keep them if we wanted to review their contents.  But most of my classmates couldn’t wait to dump them in our class wastebaskets when our last class was finished – as if to say they had been given a reprieve from the oppression of having to learn – at least during their summer vacation.  I had seen that behavior play out the previous two years.

I happened to be looking through the newspaper one night and saw an ad that Barnes and Noble had placed.  The ad said that they bought used school texts.  And an idea came to me.  Maybe they would buy all those thrown out textbooks that my schoolmates couldn’t wait to consign to the trash.  So I called and asked if they would buy fourth and fifth grade textbooks.  The young woman who answered my call said, “Barnes and Noble will buy all school texts.”  After I thanked her I got very excited and couldn’t wait to discuss my idea with my parents – to collect all the textbooks that were thrown out and sell them to this bookseller.

Over a baked chicken dinner that night I told my father what I wanted to do and asked if he would help me.  Before he answered, he took a moment, tilted his head and his always kindly eyes seemed to moisten a little bit.  He said, “If that’s alright with your school, I’ll be happy to help you.  But you need to ask the principal for permission.”

The following day I was at school a little earlier than usual.  I went to my homeroom and Mrs. Bounds was writing on the chalk board when I walked in.  I asked her if I could have permission to see Mr. Tiffany.  I had something to ask him.  She agreed and I left the room and walked quickly down the stairs to his office.

When Mr. Tiffany’s secretary showed me in, my heart skipped a beat.  My interaction with him was limited to watching him on the stage during assembly leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance and to three days when he taught my English class when our teacher was out with the flu.  Most of us kids did not voluntarily seek out an audience with him.  And those who were sent there by their teacher always appeared a bit shaken by the experience.  He was a tough cookie.  Tough – but fair.

I was relying on that rumor of fairness to get me through and I hoped that I would be able to spill out the words in a sensible way to make my case.

Mr. Tiffany sat behind his desk as I explained why I had sought an audience with him.  He listened attentively as he placed his hands on the blotter in front of him.  His hands and fingers never moved once he had properly placed them and he never took his eyes off mine.  Finally, I had presented my request as best I could.  I remember feeling nervous to be in front of him as a penitent, begging that he would grant me this small sop.

Perhaps a minute after I had concluded he finally spoke.  Here it was.  The pronouncement.  The verdict.  The final judgment from which there could be no appeal.  As he began to speak I could feel my pulse pounding.

“How did you like your school year,?” he asked.  I had no idea why he would ask me that.  That wasn’t the reason for my visit.  But if it came from our principal there had to be a reason – unfathomable to a mere student.

“I liked school very much this year – especially math and history,” I answered.  I wanted him to get to the point of my request.  But he kept on talking about my experience and what I had learned.  And the more he talked about academics, the surer I was that he was going to deny my request.

But he finally paused, leaned back a bit in his chair and said, “The fact that you’re trying to be enterprising shows initiative.  We hope to encourage that in our students and I’m happy to allow you to engage in your project.  There is only one thing I would like you to consider.”

I had no idea what it was he wanted me to consider since I already had a plan for how I was going to pull off this money making venture.

“It would be thoughtful, when you sell the textbooks, if you would consider making a donation of part of your earnings to the school.  Whether you do or not is up to you.  And if there isn’t anything else with which I can help you today, it’s time for you to return to your classes.”  And with that I was dismissed.

In tomorrow’s installment, I’ll tell you how this ended.

CHILDHOOD LESSONS (THE RED BOX)

My father came from a family of seven children.  They had all the amenities of life – an apartment, food on the table and the need for every family member to pitch in to keep the first item over their head and to make sure there was something to put out for the evening family meal.  You might call their existence, humble.  They may not have had much but the were grateful for what they had.

Their meager lives meant that in order to survive they were keen observers of reality and were motivated by a simple principle known as common sense.  They had no choice but to be practical and do what worked because the alternative was too awful to contemplate.

My father, having been raised in this environment, naturally passed along some of his family’s simple wisdom to me.  Among those lessons which he ingrained in me were, “If it sounds too good to be true – it probably isn’t;” “Never put all your eggs in one basket;” and “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

When my father was a child he would occasionally receive a few pennies from his family on important occasions like his birthday.  In addition, my grandfather encouraged him to keep and save a penny or two each week from the money he made delivering papers.  And then, of course, there were those incredibly lucky moments, as he came home from school, when he might find a penny on the sidewalk that someone had dropped.

Now it might not seem like much to us today as we debate whether we should even continue minting Lincoln cents, but in those days there was such a thing as “Penny Candy” – and would you believe you could buy it for just one little copper cent.

My grandfather encouraged his children to save by giving each of them a little blue box.  He instructed them to take each of the pennies that they had saved and place them in this little savings bank and further instructed them that when they had accumulated five pennies they should bring them to him and he would exchange them for a nickel.

The day came when my father had accumulated his fifth penny.  He emptied his little blue box and brought them to his father who, true to his word gave him the nickel he had promised.  He also gave my father a little green box, together with instructions that he should deposit his nickels in the green box and when he had five of them he should bring them to him and he would exchange them for a quarter.

Of course, many months went by before my dad saved up twenty-five cents, but that day finally arrived.  As instructed by his father, he emptied his green box and took his five nickels to the family’s patriarch.  Once again, true to his word, grandfather handed him a Standing Liberty quarter and told him to put that quarter in the little red box that hung from the wall in the dining room.  He told dad that, “The red box is the family’s joint savings account.”  Never questioning the wisdom of his father, dad deposited the quarter in the red box as his siblings and parents looked on.  When the coin fell, the family all applauded.

My father, who was only twelve at the time, said it was two years before he understood that the red box was a gas meter and his deposits to the little red box helped keep the gas flowing in their little apartment.

Things were simpler then.

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