Saturday, November 28, 2009

Scarlett's Pain

I saw an article in today's paper about a custom shoe store, Silvio Lattanzi's, on Madison Avenue that charges up to $25,000 for a single pair of shoes. The store's owner says she has no lack of plastic surgeon has purchased 70 pairs in the past 10 years. The shoes are custom stitched in Marche, Italy and take 30 hours to make. Supposedly the shoes will last a lifetime, as long as you have them resoled periodically for a measly $250. For 25 grand, these shoes should make Tiny Tim dance like Fred Astaire!

I buy my shoes on sale and never pay more than $50 a pair. I asked myself how much money would I have to make to spring for $25,000 shoes. The answer is no matter how much money I had, I would never pay more than a few hundred bucks for shoes. I can't imagine how much better my feet would feel, and I would be saving $24,800 a pair! Then I would have enough left over for some $5,000 socks. Has the world gone mad?

I was born after the Great Depression, but I saw the effect it had on those who went through it. Even after the economy recovered, these people couldn't give up their frugal ways, no matter how well off they became financially. Nothing was wasted. My mother couldn't bear to see food thrown away. Clothes were recycled among family members. Luxuries like eating in restaurants and going on vacations were non-existent. I guess I feel closer to that generation and that mentality when it comes to spending money than I do to the Generation X and Y kids who believe in buy it now on credit and damn the consequences.

We're OK financially, but I still try to spend carefully. Even in my later years, the habits acquired over a lifetime are hard to shake, and I'm one generation removed from those who lived through the Depression years. That unhappy period in our country's history left a mark, or maybe put more correctly, a scar on my parents' generation. There was no welfare check, no food stamps, no homeless shelters...the poor were lucky to get something to eat on a bread line or from a compassionate neighbor. Even though the "recession" we are currently in is supposed to be the worst since the Great Depression, it's just not the same.

That's why I harp on the spending and saving habits of many young people. I saw the scars left on my parents' generation from an economic collapse fed by greed and over-extended credit. They were afraid of ever being that poor again, and that fear restrained them from economic excess; if they wanted something, they sacrificed and saved up for it, usually paying cash and not digging themselves into holes that led to bankruptcy. If there was ever a line that expressed their determination to never again live in poverty, it was uttered by a broken but still feisty Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind after she had lost Tara and everything she owned: "As God is my witness they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again."

Too many people suffering through the current recession will never feel that fear. They may cut back out of necessity now, but the minute things get better and credit loosens up, there will be smoke coming off their Visa cards once again. They'll be buying houses and cars on a wing and a prayer, not caring whether they can afford them, but simply because they want them. The notion of saving went out with the poodle skirt. It took almost 70 years for this country to see an economic collapse anything like the Great Depression. I get the feeling in my bones that the next one won't take nearly that long.


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Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Huckleberry Friend

Last night we watched a 90-minute special on the life of the great lyricist, Johnny Mercer. Honestly, it was Friday night and I put the show on thinking we'd watch for a while and doze off. An hour and a half later, after being glued to the screen listening spellbound to a parade of one great American hit after another, we finally went to bed wondering how so much talent could be packed into one small package. What are the odds of a young man born into a wealthy Savannah banking family becomming arguably the best lyrics writer the world has ever known.

The show was interesting enough from a musical perspective alone, but just as fascinating was the story of Mercer's life. His father and grandfather grew wealthy in the banking business, and Johnny was sent to the same private schools on the assumption he would follow in their path. The Great Depression put those plans to rest. His father's bank failed and the senior Mercer disposed of all his personal wealth, close to $1 million (serious dough in the 1920s) in an effort to pay back the bank's investors out of his own pocket. Think for a moment what type of honor-bound man it took to do that. Then think of the greedy scum who nearly bankrupted the country a few years back. My, how things have changed.

Down to his last $2,000, Johnny's father gave him $1,000 to make a career for himself. Johnny was thankful and promised to someday pay his father back. Always a gifted jazz and pop musician, he moved to New York and began honing his craft. His first big hit was a catchy tune called "Jeepers Creepers", a phrase uttered by a very young Henry Fonda in a forgetable western of the day. Johnny had a gift for words. His southern-flavored vocabulary gave his lyrics a relaxed, easy sound, perfect for the first big artist to fall in love with Mercer tunes, Mr. Bing Crosby.

Mercer had a performing side as well, and starred on the very popular Paul Whiteman radio program. Hit followed hit as Johnny collaborated with so many gifted music writers. They say he wrote at least one song with over 200 separate partners including the talented Harold Arlen, his most prolific partnership. Soon Hollywood beckoned, and Mercer began writing memorable music for some of the top films of the day. He collected fans of his music among tinsletown's top movie stars and recording artists including Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald. Johnny, despite being married, fell in love with Judy Garland and carried a torch for her the rest of his life.

One day, unhappy with his lack of control over what kind of records he could record and distribute, he and a friend started Capitol Records with a loan of $10,000. Johnny didn't really care what kind of music the public wanted, he recorded only what he liked. Along the way he nurtured the careers of headliners-to-be Nat King Cole, Rosie Clooney, Jo Stafford and Lena Horn. He wrote with giants in the business like Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, and Henry Mancini. Evidently Johnny's taste in music was shared by the public, as Capitol Records took off. He subsuquently sold his shares in the company and grew very wealthy.

It would have been easy to kick back and enjoy his money and fame, especially after people's musical tastes changed as rock began to eclipse pop on the American music scene. Instead Johnny traveled to Europe where he collaborated with new partners like Andre Previn and Michele Legrand, and gained new fans. By the way, being an honorable Southern gentleman, he also returned to his home in Savannah and settled all the debts his bankrupt father could not square so many years past. WOW! Sit back now and enjoy what has become the signature song of the great Johnny Mercer. Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany's


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Tuesday, November 17, 2009


When I call any company or organization these days for assistance, I try to prepare myself mentally ahead of time. Almost always, to get the help I seek, I must first, like Frodo the Hobbit taking the ring of power to be destroyed by fire in Mordor, pass through a series of dangerous encounters at the hands of the enemies who stand between me and my quest. Truly it takes courage to stay on the path, for there are many pitfalls along the way.

The first challenge is to find a phone number to call.
On most bills or invoices, they tell you a thousand things you don't want to know, but the phone number to call for help....good luck finding that. It's rarely on the front of the document, they reserve that for important stuff like showing the interest rate for late payments out to 11 decimal places. If it's there at all, it's on the back buried in all that boilerplate in six point type that the regulatory agencies force them to disclose.

If you are lucky enough to find a phone number and dial it, you now enter the pushbutton maze that passes for customer service. "Press 1 for English". Now I'm pissed off even before I talk to anyone. "We're sorry, our operators (one broken-down employee who has failed at every other job they tried) are busy helping other customers." Then, "Your call is important to us". Bulls**t, or I'd be talking to somebody by now. I don't have the patience to wade through the maze so I start frantically punching "0" the minute I hear the recording, in the hopes of getting a live operator.

Surprisingly, this often works. We are now ready to deal with door number two. "Morrin! Joowish to oddor sunteen?" Excuse me?! After several painful exchanges, with her getting more annoyed with me each time, it seems she was saying: Morning! You wish to order something"? Now we're cooking. She continues: "Wha July do water"? I'm in trouble again. More back and forth gets me a translation: "What would you like to order". I'm nearly in tears, but  finally (I think) get my order placed.
"Ten-joo-berry-muds" she cheerily concludes. "You're welcome" I answer.

If you're lucky, you may get a service rep who actually speaks English. Don't gloat, you ain't there yet. The first thing they try to do is transfer you to someone else. "Oh sorry, you need the parts department". "Wait, please don't transfer me...." bzzzzzz. "We're sorry, our operators are busy helping other customers."  Or you might get the rep who's been on the job for two hours and breaks off every 30 seconds to nervously ask the a**hole next to her (whose been on the job six hours) how to resolve your problem.

The kicker is the e-mail you later get asking you to take a short survey about your service experience. "On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being very poor and 10 being excellent, how would you describe your experience with us". Er, -9. Every once in a great while, when Jupiter aligns with Mars, and you get a polite, articulate, helpful person who immediately solves your problem, you sit down and weep. When will corporations get it? Never, I fear.



LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Long Island Wineries

I love wine. I still enjoy an occasional cocktail. but my drink of choice to lift the spirits and soften life's cares is wine, especially red wine. We're not connoisseurs by any means, but our tastes have evolved somewhat. My wife Jasmine and I started out many years ago searching the "sale bins" and found a number of reds ranging from drinkable to surprisingly good. California reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Sirrah were high on our list. Then we discovered good wines from Australia and South Africa, especially Shiraz, that found their way to our table. My son Matt, after several trips to Italy, has us turned on to Italian wines like Chianti and the Super Tuscans...even wines like Aglianico that are made around Basilicata, the region in southern Italy that my family came from.

On our own recent trip to Italy we sampled a number of good wines, in fact, I don't recall ever ordering a bottle that disappointed. We drank mostly Chiantis since we were near the region in Tuscany where it is produced. We took a full day tour of the area that is marked by hills covered in vines. We learned about the strict standards under which Chianti wine is produced if it is to earn the distinction of displaying the black rooster icon on the label at the neck of the bottle. There are growers associations that visit local wineries to ensure the standards are being conformed to in order to protect the integrity and quality of Chianti made in the region. Of course we sampled wines from local wineries, making for a very pleasant afternoon.

Yesterday, with friends, we made our annual pilgrimage to the wineries on the north fork of Long Island. Where the Long Island Expressway ends and Route 25A begins, a winding trail takes you through a countryside whose climate and sandy, rocky soil make it a perfect place to grow wine grapes. There are about 40 wineries here, most of which have tastings daily, and who sell some pretty good quality wines. It was a simple business many years ago when we started going, but many of the wineries have grown, and the tasting rooms have become elaborate, high-ceilinged structures that are beautiful in themselves. Typically they open out into the vineyards where tables have been set up for picnicking by visitors. On weekends, entertainment is often available, and the wineries have also become popular wedding venues.

A little further out on 25A, near the ferry to Orient Point, is the picture postcard town of Greenport. This little seaside village is dotted with shops and restaurants, and is very pleasant to walk around in the summer time. In the harbor are boats ranging from Mom and Pop skiffs up to magnificent, million-dollar yachts. All along 25A are antique stores, ice cream shops, farm stands that sell flowers and produce, and some lovely older homes. In the early fall the town sponsors a fair with street vendors and a local parade. It's like the town that time forgot...I would highly recommend a day trip, whether or not you're a wine lover.

We lucked out yesterday and caught a gorgeous sunny November day in the sixties for our annual visit. The trip is special for us because it is made with close friends we have known for over 40 years, since we were all young and poor starting our families in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn. We ended the day with my car trunk (and our stomachs) full of wine from respected wineries like Pindar, Osprey Dominion and Corey Creek. A good Italian dinner at Aunt Suzie's in Brooklyn was the finale...what better way to spend a day. Cheers.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thoughts for Today

Yesterday morning I pulled off the Garden State Parkway in south Jersey to pick up my usual Burger King breakfast before heading out to the golf course. There in the parking lot, occupying the first two spaces, stood a white Mercedez-Benz. I wanted to wait for the driver so I could ask him or her if they believed driving a $50,000 car entitled them to two parking spaces. (What I really wanted to do was take my car keys and leave my signature of disapproval down the sides of this moron's vehicle.) In case you hadn't guessed from past rants, people who act like they're better than the rest of us bring out the wild-eyed lunatic in me.

Election results are in. Mike Bloomberg, after spending the equivalent of Bolivia's GNP on his reelection campaign, wins narrowly over Democrat William Thompson in the NYC mayoral election. I think I have more face recognition than Thompson, a guy with zero buzz. I think the Dems were shocked to see how even this bland non-entity almost beat the mighty Bloomberg. They had probably conceded that Bloomberg was unbeatable, but oh how wrong they were. People were P.O.'d over his overturning the term limits law, and it showed. If the Dems had run any kind of viable candidate, they'd be sitting in City Hall this morning.

Republicans won some big gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. It shows to some extent that the charasmatic Obama is not invulnerable. He campaigned mightily in New Jersey for Jon Corzine, but to no avail...even a shady character like Chris Christie beat him. The message is clear: the people will not be snake-charmed (well, not always anyhow). Corzine's administration was beset by corruption scandals that rocked voters, even in New Jersey, a more corrupt state than New York, and that's saying something. New Jerseans also pay the highest taxes in the nation, not exactly a campaign slogan for the incumbent. When Corzine ran in the last election, he recorded an ad that said: "New Jersey, hold me accountable". Well they did, Jon, they did.

The Yankees play tonight for their 27th World Series. A.J. Burnett, the guy who refuses to pitch to the team catcher Jorge Posada, but insists on throwing to his preferred catcher, the light hitting Jose Molina, flat out sucked in game 5. I'm tired of all these prima donna pitchers whining about pitching on three days rest. Suck it up pretty boy and extend yourself for the team that pays you millions to play a boy's game. I wonder how far we'd get calling in to work on a Tuesday and saying we couldn't possibly come in until Friday at the earliest! Puh-leeeze.

Jesse Ventura, ex-WWF wrestler and ex-Governor of Minnesota (there's a sentence we never thought we'd ever see) was on Larry King last night and said a profound thing, something he rarely does. An election analyst was talking about how the Republican gains might cause moderate Democrats to reconsider their position on health care for fear they would see the same voter backlash at the polls. Jesse said: "Notice how they don't care what their constituents want, or what's the right thing to do, they only care about what they need to do to get reelected". Bulls eye Jesse, you have defined the thought process of the career politician in a single sentence.

I see in today's Daily News that another incident of road rage resulted in a Brooklyn driver being shot to death. Yesterday on Staten Island a man was arrested for taking a baseball bat to the other guy in a minor fender bender. What the hell are we be becoming! If somebody cuts in front of you, honk or even flip him the bird if it really makes you feel better, but for crying out loud, holster the Glock. Traffic disputes have been going on for as long as I'm driving, but the manner of resolving them has grown very nasty. My wife is always telling me I'm going to get shot one of these days. Maybe I'd better start listening.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association