Archives for category: personal history

FLORENCE UNFOLDS

 

Hurricane Florence visited last week and dropped enough rain to warrant a tsunami of cable television coverage. The forecasts were dire for our Durham, North Carolina residence.  A late shift took the worst of the wind and rain two hours south and left us with, essentially, a tenacious but otherwise unremarkable four-day rainstorm.  Some localized flooding occurred but our community missed the much-hyped direct hit.  Of course, I’m delighted the storm didn’t live up to expectations. Unfortunately, the impulse to disregard future warnings might be stronger as a result.

 

*****

 

Skepticism about the meteorologist/media combination is not new to me.  When I was little, my family listened to KYW News radio every morning during breakfast.  At the slightest hint a snowstorm might approach I took a rooting interest as fervent as I felt for any sports team.  “Maybe school will be closed,” I cheered/prayed/hoped.  My mother, a public school librarian, added her hopes, too, though with less enthusiasm.  Perhaps, having lived longer, she knew the unlikelihood of a large-impact storm in far-sub-Arctic Philadelphia.

I’m not sure why I rooted so hard for a day off.  School was not onerous for me and my at-home activities would not have been so fabulous.  Truthfully, I didn’t like cold weather and had limited enthusiasm for sledding, fort building and snowballing due to the resulting cold fingers and toes.  In addition, I would have been expected to shovel our front walk and might even have been guilted into clearing several of the neighbors’.  Two doors down, in particular, lived an ancient widow (I now realize she was probably in her 60’s.)  Somehow, a no-cash economy prevailed on 50thStreet circa 1962; she paid me with one or two old golf balls she had saved for decades or, perhaps, a tennis ball that no longer bounced.

Perhaps, I cheered on snow forecasts for the same reason I cheered for Nixon during the Kennedy debate or for the Cubs against the Phillies.  I wanted to get a rise out of my father who calmly, confidently, and almost always correctly intoned:  “They’re wrong.  It’s not going to snow.”

When it didn’t snow, my father never bragged.  In a way, his silence was even more infuriating than if he’d danced a jig in celebration. “Implacable” is a word that comes to mind.  “Smug” is another.  Oh, how I wanted it to snow.

 

*****

 

My early working life featured a couple of notable storms.   In Summit, NJ, in 1982, I was a first-month lawyer when the forecast called for some flurries, and it improbably snowed ten inches in the middle of April.  The storm disappointed doubly since I’d been counting the days to springtime, and it occurred on a Saturday.  I didn’t even get a day off!  Several years later, around 1985, a much-ballyhooed hurricane called Gloria aimed at northern New Jersey.  The forecast was so dire that the law firm I worked for allowed us to go home at the first gust of drizzly wind.  My co-workers and I gleefully anticipated several days off.  With sincere apologies to anyone who lost their home to Gloria elsewhere nothing stronger than steady rain ever reached Ridgewood.  We shuffled into the office the next morning shaking heads and complaining, as usual:  “Weathermen are idiots.”

 

*****

 

Moving forward twenty years my attitude towards predicted storms had inevitably become my father’s.  I assured my disappointed children as he’d assured me: “It’s not going to happen,” every time the television and radio foretold a weather apocalypse.  Also like my father, I was always right… until a storm named Floyd.

It was 2005, and we lived in Ramsey, NJ in a contemporary-style cedar shake house as leaky of air as a sieve.  The builder seemingly built it as a contribution to the utility industry.  Still, I loved the look of our house and, in particular, the fact that the garage was not visible from the street.  I reveled in not being part of the car culture dominating suburban America architecture.  Landscaping hid a driveway that curled down from the street to a below ground entrance.

Floyd approached like numerous events before it, as a weeklong media extravaganza. Reliably, the storms ran aground at the coast an hour southeast of us.  Alternatively, some storms came from the west but ran out of steam over Pennsylvania.  For whatever meteorological or topographical reason, in my prior twenty-three years of life in northern New Jersey, we never bore the full brunt of a hurricane despite almost annual predictions.

What I remember about Floyd is not so much the wind as the frenzy of the rain.  It fell sideways, splatting against the thin walls like hail.  The gutters gurgled in harmony.  And it wouldn’t stop.  For three days the rain continued.  As always, water rolled down our driveway and followed a stone path to the right of the garage doors through the backyard where it disappeared into the woods.  The first unusual thing I noticed during Floyd was that our back yard eventually began to retain a few water puddles of water.

Slowly, and then more quickly, these puddles resembled little ponds and then formed a lake.  My teenaged children gleefully raced out to enjoy floating in our backyard on a neighbor’s rowboat.  “Fun” I thought, at first, until I realized the water in the yard was approaching the garage from one direction and rain was still rolling down the driveway from the other.

“I think it might reach the garage,” I said, in unconcerned understatement.  I knew we had a sump pump in the basement for just such an event.

“Glug, glug,” went the sump pump continually from its subterranean hole in a corner.  Never having considered the matter before, I imagined the sump pump discharged somewhere distant.  Only during Floyd did I realize it discharged through a pipe onto our front lawn and, from there, the water eventually found its way back to our driveway.  But the discharge was only a tiny piece of the crisis; the first significant problem arose when the pump’s plastic discharge pipe, which ran up the corner of my wife’s office just off the recreation room in the basement, failed.  A spray of water shot through the air soaking, among other things, my beloved ping pong table, my wife’s collection of educational consulting books, family photographs, the kids’ astro-turfed indoor soccer area (didn’t everyone have one?) and a large carpet.  We turned off the pump and ran around frantically with towels.  “Nothing could be worse than this!” I declared.

Still, the waters around the house seemed to hold back despite a continuing deluge; the backyard continued to fill and would do so indefinitely, I imagined, for a few more ridiculously naïve minutes, while we struggled to deal with the sump pump calamity.  And then, as though one water molecule communicated a signal to a trillion others, the water at the garage entrance began to creep towards the house.  It was like a scene from a horror movie.  Even a perfectly functioning sump pump would have been overwhelmed.  The situation had become much, much worse.  In about ten minutes, the entire garage and surrounding office and recreation area succumbed to ten inches of water.

 

*****

Though I’m still to the skeptical side of the spectrum about meteorologists and media hype, Floyd showed how wrong I could be.  There may be more misses than hits, but having experienced what a monster storm can do, I learned a few things, namely:  the disasters that arise may not all be ones you anticipate; the media goes overboard but they are not ALWAYS wrong; and, it’s best to view natural disasters on television, from a distance.  I wish for a quick and safe recovery to all who have found Florence to be more of a hit than a miss.

 

 

 

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A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

 

 

 

 

I turned off the television following a re-broadcast of “Schindler’s List.”  Though I’ve seen it several times over the years it always leaves me speechless for a while.

“That wasn’t much fun,” I finally said to my wife, Katie.

“There’s more to art than just enjoyment,” she sagely responded.

“I know,” I said, like a petulant child. “But who aims to torture the audience?”

We smiled at each other and said, at the same moment:  “Iris.”

 

*****

During a visit to Rhinecliff, NY last summer, our friends, Donna and Rick, invited us to join them to see an opera at Bard, the local college, where a Frank Gehry-designed concert hall anchors a scenic campus.  Though fond of classical music, I’d never attended an opera in person.  When I heard about the evening, I assumed we’d be seeing one of the anchors of the repertoire, something by Puccini or Verdi or Mozart.  Boy, was I surprised!

 

*****

 

“Who?” I said.

“Mascagni is the composer,” said Katie.

“I’ve never heard of him,” I said.

“I’m sure the opera will be enjoyable,” she said.  “After all, it’s a summer college presentation called ‘Iris.’  It’s probably a comedy.”

“That’s true,” I agreed.  Mascagni, I speculated, was probably a pop sensation in the 1890’s.  We shared a great dinner with Donna and Rick and then drove to campus. After admiring the beautiful setting and building, we filed inside.  We found our seats, the lights dimmed and the orchestra commenced an overture both melodic and romantic.

“This will be nice,” I thought.

Suddenly, the melody stopped and a discordant murmur issued from the strings.  The curtain lifted to reveal two performers, a man and a woman, dressed in rags. They appeared distraught, thrashing and wailing while hidden figures above them atop a wall ripped pieces of paper and dropped them, like confetti, on the performer’s heads.  For several moments this activity held my interest. Unfortunately, it continued for twenty minutes.

Katie and I looked at each other and fought the urge to laugh, as though we were Mary Richards at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown.  (If you’ve never seen it, go to YouTube).  The “action,” if that is the right word, never changed much over the next two hours. Rags and debris, cries and moans, deaths and dismemberments.

Occasionally, the music swelled with snippets of melody, but they never lasted long.  What kept us in our seats was the expectation that relief must be on the way.   A happy ending must be just around the corner.  But, no, Mascagni had different ideas.

At intermission, during which a sizable portion of the audience departed, I read the detailed program notes. Mascagni, it turns out, had early success.  His opera, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” remains a beloved favorite to this day.  But he came to believe applause during his operas was insulting and intrusive.  Therefore, he constructed his later works to minimize the possibility of adulation.  Each time the music in “Iris” built towards conventional beauty, Mascagni brought it down with a crash.  Any time a singer appeared to be on the verge of an ovation, he or she retreated offstage to be replaced by a scene both ugly and sad.

“How did ‘Iris’ become popular?” I wondered.

It didn’t, is the answer provided by the program.  Its most recent revival was in the 1930’s in Europe when, perhaps, discordance seemed de rigeur.  Personally, I will be surprised if “Iris” is revived again in this millennium.

As to Mascagni, he was confident his new ascetic aesthetic would become popular.  He felt “purity” was a virtue greater than “beauty.”  It’s not up to me to declare he’s wrong.  Time has told the tale.  Mascagni’s contemporaries, like Puccini and Verdi, are still famous and beloved.  Beyond his youthful “popular” works, Mascagni is forgotten.

 

*****

 

Following the opera, Rick and Donna took us to an on-campus tavern and performance space.  A rock band played loudly while a mostly college-age crowd danced and drank.  Normally, this is not my scene and I would seek a fast exit.  But this time, I enjoyed watching everyone have fun.  The mood was festive.

“Sorry about the opera,” said Rick. “We had no idea.”

“No problem,” I said.  “I suffered for two hours but gained a memory to last a lifetime.”

 

 


SPECIAL DELIVERY

 

Due to equal parts nostalgia and habit, I subscribed to the local newspaper when I bought a new home last year. It is tossed from a car, shrouded in plastic, to the end of my driveway. Only two or three other homes in my community are similarly barraged, a far cry from the uniformity of newspaper saturation in not-so-distant memory.

A man named Calvin delivers the papers, usually. Most days, he arrives before I am awake. I first communicated with him directly only because I called the circulation department to advise that my Sunday paper had not arrived for the second time in a month, and an exasperated representative said: “Here’s Calvin’s number. He just gets angry when we call. Maybe you’ll have more luck.”

This suggestion seemed strange.

I asked: “Do you think a customer should confront someone who visits his home every day? And should you really have a hostile deliveryman?”

“Oh, he’s not mean,” said the representative. “He’s just ‘different.’ We don’t have many deliverymen these days. We have to use who’s available.”

 

*****

 

When I was little, in early 1960’s West Philadelphia, a slew of delivery and service people were connected with our household. As such, they were tangentially connected to me. As to newspapers, my family received the “Inquirer” every morning and the “Bulletin” every evening. I never met or even saw the delivery persons. I’m not sure they angled for year-end tips the way they might now with holiday cards accompanied by self-addressed, stamped envelopes. Paper routes were profitable.

Less anonymously, a man named Mr. Tribble cut our lawn throughout spring and summer and raked leaves in autumn. A woman named Naomi ironed our shirts and sheets once a week. A farmer named Mr. Abba brought milk and eggs. A franchisee of “Charles Chips” brought snacks. Mr. Davis washed the windows each spring. Mr. Brown failed to complete necessary repairs. And a succession of women including, but not limited to, Essie, Pearl, Gina and Jasmine pushed mops and vacuums with varying degrees of diligence.

Looking at this list, it seems I lived in a veritable Downton Abbey. But, in reality, we were modestly above “middle class” and lived in a comfortable, but unremarkable leafy neighborhood. My father chose to work seven days-a-week at his clothing store and, to make up for his lack of assistance on the home front, I suppose, afforded my mother the means to employ “help.”   Except for vying with Naomi for the Breyers’ coffee ice cream in our freezer, I rarely interacted with the service people beyond a nod or to say “hi.”

 

*****

Upon answering the phone, Calvin deployed alternative pleading like an experienced defense attorney.

“I’m sure you got the paper,” he said

“No, I looked all over. No paper,” I said.

“Maybe somebody stole it,” he suggested.

“I’m sure no one stole my paper,” I said.

“Well, my wholesaler didn’t give me enough copies this morning,” said Calvin.

“The wholesaler?” I said.

“Yeah, and I had car trouble, too,” said Calvin.

I recognized there was no point in expressing skepticism or being angry. “In the future, I just want the paper to come,” I said.

“Gotcha,” said Calvin. “I won’t miss again.”

 

*****

 

By 1974, when I left for college, most of the characters had disappeared, except for a weekly “cleaning” woman, the deliverer of the morning newspaper, and Mr. Tribble’s son, who had inherited his father’s lawn-cutting business. In just ten years, a revolution like the present-day Amazon phenomenon seemed to have wiped out such service providers, at least for homeowners who were not conspicuously wealthy. Supermarkets provided eggs, milk and cookies. The evening paper had gone bankrupt. Window cleaners and handymen were scarce.

 

*****

 

The next morning, I opened the front door intending to walk to the driveway and nearly tripped over a pile that included not only the local paper, but also a New York Times, a Wall Street Journal, and another local paper, the “Herald.” This abundance continued for a week. One day, Calvin included a Barron’s, another day the Financial Times. I couldn’t keep up. My reading area resembled a tornado site.

I called Calvin again.

“Thank you for all the papers. I appreciate the extras. But I can’t read that much. The local paper is enough.”

I didn’t tell him I’d already transitioned to reading the NY Times on-line. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

“Gotcha,” said Calvin.

“And you really don’t have to get out of your car and place it at the door. I’m happy to pick it up from the driveway,” I said.

“Are you sure?” asked Calvin.

“I’m sure,” I said.

“You’re great,” said Calvin.

I hung up the telephone basking in the approval of my newspaper deliveryman. Though I’d never met Calvin in person, I felt like I knew him. But I was also questioning if I WANTED to interact with my newspaper deliverer.

 

*****

 

Not long after, I went out one morning to retrieve the paper and found none. I wondered, as I stood, empty-handed, not for the first time, if continuing my subscription was worthwhile. My mind reviewed well-rehearsed arguments: “I can read any paper I want on-line for less than paper delivery.” “Less paper and gasoline is better for the environment.” “I won’t have to call Calvin anymore.”

At that moment, a rattletrap SUV raced down the street, its fenders scratched and dented. Exhaust belched from the rear. Calvin had arrived.

“Sorry I’m late,” he shouted, as he pulled up.   “Sorry. Car Trouble.”

Seeing the car, I believed him.

Calvin appeared to be of an indeterminate age between forty and sixty-five. A gold front tooth nestled among several open spaces. He hadn’t shaved in awhile.

“Are you Sanders?” he asked through the open driver-side window, as the car idled like an asthmatic.

“Yes,” I said, taking the paper from him.

“I need a new car,” he said. “But since I bought this damned paper route….”

“You bought it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Calvin, a far-off look in his rheumy eyes. “Thought it was a good deal.”

I immediately contemplated the last person who’d invested in a Moto-Foto franchise around 2005 or, as the expression goes, “Whoever bought the last ticket on the Titanic.” I didn’t know what to say.

“Maybe it will get better,” was the best I could muster, my tone and forced smile almost certainly giving away my doubtfulness.

“Don’t know,” said Calvin, slowly shaking his head. “Don’t know ‘bout that.”

No words filled the moment, just car exhaust.

“Well, nice to finally meet you,” I said.

“Yes, “ said Calvin. “Have a good day.”

He drove off. One thing had become clear: I will continue to subscribe to the local paper for however long it lasts.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

AN UNLIKELY BROMANCE

 

For some reason, I’ve recently been pondering our relationship to politicians.  There can be surprises.  Consider Frank Rizzo, the mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1980. During his term, he distinguished himself for brutishness. Describing how he intended to deal with opponents, he declared, on several occasions: “By comparison, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.” For reasons I never understood, my non-threatening, mild-mannered father adored this man.

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Before he was mayor, Frank Rizzo had served as police commissioner. His reign featured continual charges of police brutality. Admittedly, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were challenging times for big-city police. Potentially violent protests bubbled up from radical students as well as from organizations like the Black Panthers. To be fair, many credited Rizzo’s aggressive tactics with keeping a lid on several situations that could have spiraled into deadly riots. Even his opponents admitted as much, though they were grudging in expressing admiration, understandable from their perspectives on the receiving end of nightsticks.

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Considering my father’s clothing store was in a neighborhood conducive to trouble, I eventually comprehended why Frank Rizzo’s “law and order” platform appealed. But his manner was so repugnant! Opponents, including my siblings, referred to him as “Ratzo.” Yet, my father, in the face this scathing skepticism and derision, remained supportive.

 

*****

My father was an active member of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. This was a robust organization in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the street featured over one hundred stores. By the late 1960’s, however, Marshall Street’s customer base had moved away and development of malls added another challenge. In a misguided effort to revitalize the old shopping area and its deteriorating neighborhood, Philadelphia bought out and razed half the stores with the stated intention of rebuilding them. Half the remaining stores were left empty. Unfortunately, the city’s “Redevelopment Authority” ran out of money before the “redevelopment” part occurred, leaving a skeletal streetscape like a depression-era movie. By then, my father was the only storeowner willing to act as “President.” As such, apparently, each year, commencing in 1972, he received a Christmas card at the store signed: “Mayor Frank Rizzo.”

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“Look what I have here,” proclaimed my father, proudly brandishing the card when he strode into the house after work. “It’s from Frank Rizzo himself.”

“He didn’t really sign it,” said my mother.

“I don’t think he knows how to write,” said my sister.

A teenager at the time, I found my father’s worshipful attitude oddly touching. I’d rarely seen him express affection for a public figure, even an entertainer, aside from Ed Sullivan. And I’d NEVER seen him express affection for a politician. Yet, here he was, wielding a Christmas card as though it were the sweetest thing he’d ever seen. I wanted him to be right. I wanted to believe the card was truly “personalized” but, after looking at the machine-like tone of the ink, I, too, concluded someone had stamped “Mayor Frank Rizzo” onto a standard mass-produced card. I remained silent.

Certainly, I thought, my father, a confirmed skeptic, would look at the card again and agree he was mistaken. He had to know the new mayor had more to do than individually sign hundreds of Christmas cards that were sent to every club and organization in the city. Shockingly, instead, my father doubled down on his faith.

“I’m sure he signed this himself,” he said, “and I want to send him a card back. Do we have any Christmas cards?”

“We have Hannukkah cards,” said my mother.

“Can we get a Christmas card?” he asked. By “we,” he clearly meant my mother.

“I’ll get you one tomorrow,” said my mother. Not generally given to blind obedience, she, too, seemed taken aback by his fervor, and, perhaps, a little touched.

 

*****

 

The receipt of the annual holiday card from Mayor Rizzo became something of a family joke. My mother, sister and I looked forward to making fun of it, but each year, we were a little more private about our scoffing, a little less likely to do it in front of my father. His earnestness was simply too sincere to mock — openly. So proud of his personal connection to Philadelphia’s most powerful man, my father would bring the card home and place it prominently on our fireplace mantle, front and center of any other cards.

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After the first year, my mother automatically presented my father with a card to send in response, without discussion. For the next seven years, as long as Frank Rizzo was mayor, she’d even address and stamp the envelopes, a task my father somehow handled at the store, but couldn’t manage at home.

“Should I sign ‘Lou’ or ‘Louis Sanders?” he would ask, each year.

We would stifle the roll-of-the-eyes reaction and urge to say: “It won’t make any difference. He won’t read it anyway.”

“Either way will be fine,” my mother would respond.

 

*****

 

 

As the 1970’s proceeded, Marshall Street, which barely survived, continued to deteriorate. Additional store closings and robberies sapped my father’s determination to remain open. After being pistol-whipped by a thug in 1979, my father reluctantly agreed to give up his business of over fifty years. But what about the building? My father listed it with a realtor for $50,000, but no one made an offer. Hardly anyone looked. It was in a worthless location.

 

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“Someone offered $2,000 today for the bricks,” he reported one evening, dejected, as we sat down to dinner.

“Why don’t you call the mayor?” said my mother. “His term ends in a week. It’s now or never for him to reward your loyalty.”

It was clear to me that her tone was ironic, but my father’s expression brightened.

“Do you have the number?” he asked.

Home for the holidays from law school at the time, it occurred to me I’d never seen my father dial the telephone at home. My mother found the number for the Mayor’s office in the phone book and wrote it down for him. He went into the adjacent kitchen where there was a phone. As he shut the door I heard him pronounce:

“This is Lou Sanders, President of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. Is the mayor in?”

My father’s discussion continued for several minutes though I couldn’t make out every word.

“Who could he be talking to?” I wondered aloud.

“Who knows?” said my mother. “I guess the mayor has employees.”

“Dad’s probably interrupted their card game,” I said.

“Good thing the Eagles aren’t playing now — they’d never have answered the phone,” said my mother.

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I heard the kitchen door open, and my father returned to the dining room.

“Well?” said my mother.

“Who did you talk to?” I asked.

“The mayor’s assistant,” said my father, casually. “Is the coffee hot?”

“And what did he say?” asked my mother.

“We’ll see,” said my father. “I told him to thank Mayor Rizzo for the Christmas card, and to wish him well in his retirement next week.”

“That’s all you discussed, for ten minutes?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” he repeated.

Coyness was not a personality trait I’d ever seen in my father. Clearly, he was not going to share any other details of his conversation. When he left the room several minutes later I said to my mother: “It’s kind of sad he’s willing to humiliate himself like that. I bet the mayor’s office had a good laugh.”

She nodded in agreement.

Imagine our surprise a week later when my father received a check in the amount of $48,000 from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. A short cover letter advised that the City had chosen to purchase my father’s building “in its ongoing campaign to accumulate valuable commercial properties.”

An unknown clerk had signed the letter, but a handwritten postscript appeared at the bottom, in blue ink: “Warmest regards, your friend, Frank.”

 


RELATIVELY SPEAKING

 

 

The recent killings in Orlando, Dallas and elsewhere thrust madmen into our consciousness. Their insanity follows a string of similar outrages.   Despite wall-to-wall media coverage few of us can begin to fathom the mindsets of these murderers. The simpleminded among us, including a candidate for president, ascribe killings solely to religion. Like most religions, Islam can be interpreted to support murderous behavior. So can Christianity. Remember the Crusades? The solution, if there is one, continues to elude mankind. Yet, to focus on faith ignores the fact that Tim McVeigh (Oklahoma City) was not a Muslim. Neither was Lanza (Sandy Hook), Holmes (Aurora), the perpetrators of the “original” Columbine massacre, or the killer in Charleston, Dylan Roof.

 

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In America, the combination of easily obtained guns and twisted minds is closer to the common denominator. Many of our politicians flail in the face of NRA pressure. A sizable portion of the population finds the simple explanation for mindless slaughter (radical Islam) appealing. They buy guns in the hopes of keeping themselves safe, ignoring the FACT that they thus render themselves and their families more likely to experience suicide, manslaughter or murder as a result.

 

*****

 

I’m not aware of ever having interacted with a murderer. Studies indicate one in 1,360 Americans will participate in a murder, with higher concentrations in urban areas and lower in rural. (Google “How many Americans are murderers?” to review the literature). Statistically speaking, it’s likely I pass one or two every time I drive on the highway. Murderers don’t murder every moment. While this in no way excuses them, for most, their crime is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Whether their act reflects uncontrollable passion or requires months of preparation, it’s only a tiny portion of the totality of their lives. Criminals they may be, but they still stop at traffic signals, still purchase and eat food, still root for their local teams. At the other end of the spectrum are mass murderers and, on a larger scale, masterminds of ethnic cleansings, genocides, holocausts.

 

*****

 

In an NCIS episode I recently viewed, Tony, the goofiest of the agents, brags that an “Ancestry.com” search disclosed his “long lost relative, the 17th Earl of Trent,” a nineteenth century English nobleman. Tony declares to his co-workers:   “Not only was the Earl rich, but also a painting shows he was handsome.” Tony affects an English accent. Initially, Tony’s co-workers refer to him as “M’lord,” and he struts with characteristic pomposity.  Days later, however, Tony’s further research reveals that the Earl became a criminal. He died shamed and penniless after being linked to Jack the Ripper, a notorious serial murderer. Needless to say, Tony loses interest in genealogy.

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“Imagine if you had such a relative,” said my wife, Katie, after the program ended.

“Well,” I said, and paused for effect. “I can top that.”

“You can?” she said.

 

*****

 

Lazar Kaganovich was my father’s cousin, the son of his mother’s first cousin. The name may be unfamiliar to most readers, but cousin Lazar was Stalin’s right-hand man throughout the 1920’s and 30’s. More than any other Soviet official, he shaped the agricultural policies that effectively caused famine throughout Ukraine and neighboring Soviet republics. Tens of millions died as a result. Kaganovich clothed his intentions in virtuous language but extensive literature shows little doubt he intended to cull the population.

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Kaganovich was sufficiently cunning to survive the countless purges for whch Stalin was famous. In fact, Cousin Lazar lived well into his nineties, just months shy of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Throughout his life, Kaganovich remained an unapologetic champion of Stalin and his policies. While still a powerful member of the government after Stalin’s 1953 death, he engaged in shouting matches with Premier Khrushchev whom he thought too liberal. Just months before his death, he decried the weakness of Gorbachev and complained the Soviet Union lacked the will to crush dissenters.

How do I feel about my tenuous relation to a man who deserved to join Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot in the pantheon of twentieth century agents of death? Not good. It’s disturbing. I suspect my father felt that way, too, because he never mentioned his connection to Kaganovich in my presence. After my father’s death, I found a trove of newspaper articles he’d saved and confirmed the connection with older relatives who also had never spoken of it.

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*****

What would cousin Lazar think of modern suicide bombers? All evidence indicates he was a tough SOB, belligerent and merciless. But he definitely was not suicidal. His will to survive was his salient feature. Killers who see death as their own salvation would probably have disgusted him. Long-term programs, not spontaneous shooting, were Kaganovich’s specialty. The phrase: “Five Year Plan” was his contribution to twentieth-century history. Though the results of his collectivization schemes were disastrous (“Famine” is the word most connected to Lazar Kaganovich) his emphasis on central planning shaped all of Soviet history and still influences the ruling party in China.

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*****

 

I’m not concerned I contain an “inner Lazar” who is going to emerge. I confine maniacal ruthlessness to the tennis court. And my agricultural plans don’t extend beyond a modest backyard garden.

In case I haven’t been clear enough, NONE of Kaganovich’s horrors are excusable or laudable. But he is somehow easier to relate to, and not just because he is actually a relative of mine. He had a purpose. He persisted. He achieved a lot, all terrible.

My cousin raises huge questions. Was Kaganovich outside the realm of “normal” human experience or were his superhuman powers of perseverance and determination merely at the far end of a continuum? Was he insane in his tolerance of mass suffering or merely a master of organization gone awry? Are his descendants in any way implicated in his actions? Perhaps, if I had a PhD in psychology or sociology I could delve deeper into these questions, but I still would not find a definitive answer. The issue is too complex. As an obvious example, the debate on the issue of guilt among Germans, as individuals and as a society, continues seventy years after the end of the Nazi era.

To conclude, I can state that Kaganovich was a significant historical figure; he left an imprint on human history.  The modern mass killers, domestic and foreign, share the characteristic of being no-bodies – insignificant, contemptible scabs on the human experience.   There’s no honor in being related to Lazar Kaganovich. I merely observe that his evil has stood the test of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

TO THE BEACH!
Although healthy and involved in various athletic activities, try as I might, it’s delusional to think of myself as still in my thirties. That ship sailed several decades ago. My thoughts are wistful as I stand like a statue in the surf at Carolina Beach watching my friend Mike, a decade older than I, frolicking amidst the crashing waves like a porpoise.  He whoops with joy. He leaps. He splashes.

“Why can’t I enjoy the beach like that?” I wonder, as I inch in up to my knees.

“Oh yeah,” I remind myself, “I didn’t even like going ‘down the shore’ (what Philadelphians call ‘to the beach’) when I was little.”

 

 

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*****

 

In large part I blame the ancient wooden building where we stayed. Mrs. Bernstein’s rooming house in Atlantic City could not have been scarier to me if it were haunted. My grandparents started going there well before my birth and, for reasons incomprehensible to me, my parents continued to visit there as late as the early 1960’s. One of my earliest recollections took place in front of Mrs. Bernstein’s, a struggle, from my perspective, as significant as Gandhi’s. I sat outside on the sidewalk and refused to go in.

“It’s going to fall down,” I said (or words to that effect). “I’m not staying in that dump.”

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My protests were in vain. Once inside the bastion of faded wallpaper and threadbare, musty carpets, an additional early childhood memory involved lying on my stomach on a lumpy bed, groaning because of a sunburned back. Finally, I recall the kitchen or common area on the ground floor populated exclusively by large-bodied, loud-mouthed, chain-smoking Quebecois, shouting, cursing and singing in their strange language. There may only have been four or five men but, in my recollection, I perceived there to be a hundred.

Travel between Mrs. Bernstein’s and the beach also spawned doleful memories. (Disclaimer: I wasn’t the easiest-going little kid). My parents and I lugged mismatched beach chairs, towels and an umbrella. Though only two or three blocks long, the trudge seemed endless to my five-year-old self. The air hung hot and humid. Little planes buzzed above advertising local restaurants or shows, none of which were relevant to me. Once we arrived at the boardwalk, constructed like a wall in front of the beach, I remember splinters sticking up from the planks, litter everywhere and hordes of clamoring people. Then, as now, there were stores selling junk, tee shirts and more junk.

My mother purchased my cooperation in the schlepping operation with the promise of a visit to the one redeeming aspect of Atlantic City: the fudge shop. No dummy, she held this inducement over my head as something we would obtain on the walk home, after the beach, “so long as everything went well.”

 

*****

 

Related to the development of my poor attitude about the beach was the subject of swimming. When I was about eight, I recall attending Sesame Day Camp. Many people recall their summer camps as special places of growth, discovery and the development of lifelong friends. I hated every minute.   I ONLY wanted to play baseball with other kids who also ONLY wanted to play baseball. I didn’t want to shoot arrows, row boats, sing songs, look at someone holding a frog, or make ashtrays.

 

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At the end of each day, after the typical regimen above, my fellow campers and I arrived at the pool, where I experienced abject failure for the first time. Though the sixteen-year-old counselors offered their finest tips, for reasons unclear to me, nothing stuck. Easily the best ballplayer in my group (a skill neither prized nor acknowledged by the others) my swimming aptitude predicted a career as an anchor.

I couldn’t master breathing, and I couldn’t master kicking. I disliked water in my mouth, nose, ears or any other orifice. It didn’t take long before they moved me from general instruction to remedial work in the shallow end with the other losers, the kids who could barely walk on land, let alone swim in water. By summer’s end, I could splash around and tread water with my head held as far above the water as possible. If my stroke had a name, it was the “reverse ostrich.”

 

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*****

 

Mike asks if I like to swim in the ocean.

“Do you mean, like with my head and eyes under salt water?” I ask.

“Well, yes,” he says, kind enough not to add: “Is there another way to do it?”

“No, I’m really happy about up to here,” I respond, indicating my mid-section. “I’m barely competent swimming in a pool, so the ocean….”

I’m relieved that Mike’s already leapt into the next wave before I can complete my explanation. After he emerges from another session of body surfing, Mike is exultant. But he’s a gracious host and understands I’m out of my element. He gestures with his arms: “Well, at least you can enjoy the beautiful beach.”

He’s right about that. Carolina Beach is broad and clean, the sand fine and white. A few other visitors walk along holding hands, relaxing or picking up pretty shells. Every few hundred feet, an individual or family has set up a colorful umbrella and chairs. Sand plovers skitter delicately back and forth with the tide. Even the seagulls are relaxed, in stark contrast to the ones in my New Jersey memories.

In my recollection the beach in Atlantic City resembled Normandy on D-Day.  Large shells with jagged edges threatened my feet.   Families placed chairs, blankets and umbrellas practically on top of each other. Massive seagulls dive-bombed for food, screeching maniacally, like pterodactyls.

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Once my family settled into our spot in the sand, I didn’t lack ambition. With my plastic shovel and bucket in hand, I aimed to dig to China. Discarded popsicle sticks shored up the hole as I dug. My parents offered to accompany me into the surf, but I had little interest in anything but digging. Alas, I never reached China. Though frustrated, I didn’t ask to leave the beach. Perhaps, that was the value of Mrs. Bernstein’s; once I got out I wanted to stay away as long as possible.

 

*****

 

A storm approaches to cut our visit several hours short. We’d enjoyed two nights at Mike and Sue’s. We’d had terrific food and conversation and a mediocre four-way game of Scrabble. (Mike won). I’m happy to have happy beach memories to overlay my old ones. Who knows? If I can find goggles large enough to cover my entire head and more secure than Fort Knox against leakage, maybe next time I’ll brave one wave. It’s never too late to start.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


CHEF SANDERS

 

We’ve been invited to a dinner party this evening, and I’ve been asked to make my famous cheese pie for dessert. Technically, it’s a “sour cream cheesecake” and derives from pages 611-612 of the 1948 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.   Few of my fans know that. They believe (or claim to believe) that I’ve created the recipe through decades of trial and error. Or, perhaps, they believe it comes from a long line of family pastry recipes. Uncomfortable living a lie, but not so uncomfortable that I would tell them directly, I write this post to blow my own cover.

 

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The culinary arts are not a field in which I’ve excelled. Though pretty solid in breakfast options, e.g., French toast, pancakes, oatmeal, my greatest skill in the estimation of my children is the ability to spread butter and jelly evenly on a piece of toast. All three lauded my expertise when they lived at home. Did they simply feign enthusiasm to extract additional before-bed snacks? Is that a cynical question? No, I believe I truly am gifted at spreading. Still, their flattery highlighted the lack of other tasty arrows in my quiver. EXCEPT for the cheese pie.

Somehow, to the apparent joy and relief of my wife, Katie, every time we are invited to a dinner or party my cheese pie is requested as our contribution. Accordingly, we keep a supply of pie-crusts in the pantry. And I know where to find Breakstone sour cream and Philadelphia cream cheese in the local supermarket. (Only name brands suffice).  Has Katie created this demand with subtle hints to our hosts? Am I being cynical again?

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*****

 

My lack of development in the kitchen can probably be attributed to the model established by my father. Note that I did not say: “blamed.” He was, after all, a normal man of his era in the sense that he did not consider the kitchen to be his domain.   Plus, a child shouldn’t blame every shortfall on his parents any more than he should claim a child’s triumphs. Heaven knows I’m not implicated in my son’s gift for chemistry. Like me, my father had one specialty, namely: fresh-squeezed orange juice.

In my childhood recollection, my father used an ancient, hand-powered metal machine that looked like a combination of a water pump and an oil derrick to make delicious juice 365 days a year. More likely, there were times when oranges were not available, or we ran out. But memory sometimes gilds reality to the point of improbability. For this story, I’ll just go with it.

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Each morning, I arrived in the breakfast room to the sound of KYW News Radio in the background. Several steps away, in the kitchen, my father would be slicing four or five oranges in half and crushing them into juice. He would place the empty rinds in the previous day’s newspaper and fastidiously discard them in the trashcan. He then placed three glasses with bright orange nectar on the round breakfast table for me, my mother and himself.

We rarely spoke during this ritual except for him to express disgust at the odors that our cats, Farah and Cubbie, had produced in their litter boxes in the adjoining powder room. This communication by my father was non-verbal, along the lines of “Feh, eccch, phew.” My job was to empty the messes before sitting down to eat. My mother would typically be preparing eggs or toast or pancakes or assembling bowls of cereal.

 

*****

The 1960’s were a simpler time in many ways. Orange juice, for instance, was known as a pure pleasure. I enjoyed it; I expected it; I hadn’t yet learned to say: “But it has so much sugar,” as we do today. “Real” orange juice also didn’t yet come in a package; Minute Maid was only available in concentrated form and tasted far inferior. Dare I say I took my father’s efforts for granted?

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     When I returned home from college or law school a decade later, packaged orange juice had improved markedly. I noted that my father’s juice machine had migrated to the back of a drawer; he usually poured juice from a box by then. We all remarked at how “real” it tasted. Only now, four decades later, do I recognize we’d lost something special.

 

*****

 

Not all my cream cheese pies have been successful. Once, I forgot to add sugar. Another time, I absent-mindedly doubled the recipe and couldn’t figure out why the pie erupted volcanically all over the oven. Worst of all, I once mistook the cinnamon container (an ingenious ingredient I add between the cream cheese and sour cream layers) for a curry powder container. They look alike! Really, they do! The taste was… not so good.

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I’m still producing cream cheese pies even though we’ve deduced in recent years that I am lactose intolerant. This malady has caused my personal consumption to decline, though not to disappear.  After all, the chef must make sure his product is decent, right? But I’m less inclined to eat half a pie over a two-day period as I might have in the past.

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Today’s pie has turned out successfully. Per usual, I regret not having made a little mini-pie to enjoy at home tomorrow. Thinking of the thin legacy of Sanders men in the kitchen, I think I’ll go down the basement now and see if I can locate a box that holds the antique juicer. Damn the sugar. It’s time we experienced something delicious.