Friday, February 1, 2013

Fear Itself

Monday, January 28, 2013
Many of you experienced what I did yesterday, when I read the New York Times.  The paper decided on a format change, which caught me by surprise, although it may well have been announced in advance.  The most obvious changes are the use of horizontal lines above and below stories, and, most disturbing to my eyes, literally and figuratively, is the increased amount of white space on the page.  The stories are surrounded by much bigger borders, or so it seems, and the space between lines also seems more expansive.  An alternate explanation may be the use of smaller typeface which leaves more room between lines.  Whichever it is, combined with the wider (whiter) borders, there are fewer words in the paper per page.  The number of pages per issue varies with the season, with advertising accounting for much of the bulk.  But, now, on any given Sunday fewer words mean less news.  Shall we conclude that less is going on in the world than last week at this time?  May we expect that the future will be less event-laden than the past?  If this is true, one can draw comfort from anticipating the simpler times to come (reported in the simpler Times to come), along with the additional time made available to us by finishing the Times sooner.

Part of my regular Sunday reading is the society pages.  That term was abandoned by the Times and other newspapers decades ago, but, in so many ways, I haven’t progressed very far over the years.  Back in the day, the society pages were particularly fascinating to me because they revealed, to some degree, the workings of a foreign world to me.  Ivy League graduates with numbers in their names, descended from Ivy League graduates who often deposited their names on campus buildings, getting engaged or married to similarly-situated persons of the opposite gender.  Engagements were featured as well as weddings; engagement announcements accompanied by soft-focused photographs of the bride-to-be always wearing a string of pearls, while the wedding announcements had a picture of the bride in full uniform.  As I recollect, you got one exposure or the other.  Well, not you or me most likely.  Some things were constant: no pictures of men or dark people.  Few references to the ethnic mobs of Jews and Italians that populated the New York Metropolitan area in the 1950s and 1960s (my baseline).  A notable exception was the engagement announcement and lovely photograph of my dear friend Allison Berkley, sadly lost to us too soon, which must have been run around 1969.  Fortunately, Allison did not marry that guy, although his highly-respectable Jewish pedigree matched her own, qualifying them for space in the society pages.

With that rare exception, I read the society pages as a sociological exercise for many years.  Eventually, things changed, including the standards for inclusion in the Times society pages, which are now confined to Sunday. Only weddings are covered, but you can marry just about anyone and expect to gain some space.  So, now I read about plain folks like you and me, and even plainer folks in some cases.  However, I’ve observed an interesting trend emerging with the democratization of wedding coverage.  While much of the (now diminished) space in the society pages is devoted to wedding notices, headed often by a picture of the transiently-happy couple, the Times usually includes a couple of tales about how he and she, he and he, or she and she met, and the events leading to their special day.  These stories usually include a photograph of the wedding itself, maybe the first dance or walking down the aisle.  What you now often see, when they picture the setting for the exchange of vows, is a chuppah (clear your throat on the first syllable), the traditional open-sided shelter for a Jewish wedding.  However, in the non-Semitic realm, it is labeled a canopy, gazebo or some other polite term far removed from downtown Pinsk.  For instance, look at the pictures with the coverage yesterday of the wedding of David Muehlke and Patricia Choi, a pair “defined by . . . a commitment to service and their evangelical Christian ideals.”  One the three photographs shows the couple approaching a chuppah, which might as well have been left over from the Feinberg-Schwartz ceremony.  Check it out; think of the weddings of all flavors you’ve attended recently and keep your eyes open for pictures in forthcoming society pages, which should stand out even more amid all the white space in the reformatted New York Times.  Consider that white Protestant American children are spouting African-American jargon, eating tacos and getting married in symbolic Jewish houses.  And you wonder why gun sales are up?  

I realize that these words of wisdom don’t usually get to you for a week or more after being chiseled in stone, but some guidance, even if temporary, may prove valuable.  In this case, I want you to be aware of some reduced prices at lunch time on weekdays by Wo Hop, 17 Mott Street, now solidly positioned as the best classic Chinatown joint, except, as Jon Silverberg points out, for claustrophobes because of its small, cramped underground setting, which, to me, adds to its charm.  It serves what my mother used to call Real Chinese Food, an irrefutable characterization. Wo Hop is offering its soups, won ton, hot and sour, egg drop and an excellent corn chicken chowder, for $1 small and $2 large, instead of the regular prices, $2-3 small, $4-5 large, Monday through Wednesday.  For the normal appetite, a large bowl of soup and a plate of their All-World crispy fried noodles (80¢) will make a tidy lunch for slightly more than the price of a subway ride.  Also, on special, Monday through Thursday in this case, are several of their shrimp dishes at $9.95, notably shrimp with lobster sauce.  Hurry down.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013
A new biography of J.D. Salinger was announced today, to be published in September.  The publisher said: “Many of us who read ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ have, at some point in our lives, wished we could know the author better.  Now, we finally can.”  I thought about this and decided that I don’t want to know J.D. Salinger better, I want to know Holden Caulfield better, although, I have a feeling that I wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with either one of them.  If Salinger’s fabled reclusiveness extended to social encounters, it might make for an uncomfortable evening, while Caulfield’s spouting about phonies and the ducks in Central Park would be diverting, at least for the first few minutes.  

I wasted some time at lunch today, but I’d like to think that it resulted from a little bit of shame on the part of our financial trainwreckers.  In order to deposit a check, I looked on-line for the closest branch of Smith Barney, my stockbroker.  Note that I am much more concerned about Mott Street than Wall Street these days, but I have not completely divorced myself from the machinations of capitalism.  I found 1 Penn Plaza, immediately adjacent to Madison Square Garden, listed as the nearest location, but I was unsatisfied with this information. 1 Penn Plaza is on 34th Street, about halfway up the 12-mile length of Manhattan Island.  That left such a large empty space from midtown to the southern tip of the island, where the Staten Island ferry is free and affords a great view of the skyline and the harbor on a nice day, I called my broker’s office to express my disbelief in the accuracy of my own research and ask for his geographic assistance.  His secretary told me that 195 Broadway was an available location, which made perfect sense to me, as it sits only four blocks from Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange.

So, facing mild weather for the first time in about a week, I was pleased to get a chance to stride the 12 blocks or so to 195 Broadway, where I stopped at the desk (as if I had a choice) to ask for the Smith Barney office.  Well, they left the building a long time ago, I was informed.  Out on the sidewalk, I used my smartyphone to tell my broker’s secretary this news (not so new to the guy working the desk in the lobby).  Boing! 1 Penn Plaza it is, she told me after a pause of a couple of minutes to double-check.  To sum up, when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus comes to town, it is one block closer to Wall Street than is Morgan Stanley, with revenue of $7.5 billion in the last quarter of 2012.  Maybe I should invest in cotton candy.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
“You’re not in Chinatown anymore.”  This mosh-up of lines from two great movies came to mind as I ate in Sunny One Restaurant, 94 Chambers Street, today.  It is on a site that was an Indian restaurant when I started working downtown over a decade ago.  The Indian restaurant had a buffet at lunch, all-you-can-eat, music to my ears. However, when they stopped offering tandoori chicken, I stopped going, because it’s hard to get your money’s worth on spinach, rice and naan.  I was not alone in my disenchantment, because the Indian restaurant closed soon after this unfortunate change in menu.  Its successor, a seemingly-ordinary luncheonette, never attracted me and now has  been replaced by Sunny One.

As much as things changed, Sunny One had nicely refinished wood floors, bright coral-painted walls, 18 two top tables and 4 stools next to a small ledge, the more they stayed the same – a hot/cold food bar ran down the center of the room.  This was salad-bar style, sold by weight ($5.99/lb.), rather than buffet-style, one price all-you-can-eat.  Sunny One also had a very conventional menu, notable only for its $6 lunch specials, including rice, white, brown or fried, and soup or soda.  There were no surprises or cringe-inducing items among the three dozen main dishes.

I navigated the hot food bar, recognizing that some of the dishes may have long outlasted their half-lives.  I accumulated a little more than a pound of curried chicken, teriyaki chicken, General Tso’s chicken, Singapore mei fun, a sticky bun and one-half of a spare rib.  None of it was particularly good, but not particularly bad either.  This visit increases my count of restaurants, but not my appreciation of Chinese food.

Friday, February 1, 2013
It was amusing when that distinguished political philosopher Mel Brooks, in the guise of the 2000-year old man, attributed the origin of many of humankind’s greatest accomplishments to fear, capital F Fear.  However, these days, I believe that he is all too right.  Parts of two major populations that I identify with are strongly influenced by fear; irrational fear because everyday evidence refutes their concerns.  I speak of Americans generally and American Jews particularly, that is, segments within each of these populations.  First we have the NRA-types who require the possession of military-grade weaponry to get out of bed in the morning.  They don’t hesitate to express fear of, alternately, a tyrannical government poised to reduce them to serfdom, or an impotent government that will allow the marauders to capture their streets, their homes, their wealth and their loved ones (credit Jon Stewart with this observation).  Only ownership of incredibly-lethal weapons gives these folks a fighting chance to survive either or both scourges.  There is an interesting view of human nature that underlies this position, a twisted form of humanism – we are all the same; we are all Syria; we are all Rwanda.  Of course, many of us share the basic tenet of a common humanity, but see it manifested differently.  We are all Canada; we are all the Upper West Side.  Maybe the latter group, unlike the NRA-types, are sufficiently confident in their physical and mental attributes so as to be willing to face life’s challenges without putting fear first.

I don’t think that this world, this country, this city is free of anti-Semitism.  I believe that some of the scorn directed at Israel is rooted in simple dislike of Jews, not regard for the rights and welfare of Arabs.  I think that we must remain vigilant to expressions of anti-Semitism, as well as racism of all flavors.  (Note that sometimes support for our team morphs into denigration of their team.)  However, the campus of Brooklyn College should be as fear-free a zone for American Jews as one could find in the good old USA.  Yet, today’s Times has this headline: Appearance by Group Advocating Boycott of Israel Roils Brooklyn College.  An upcoming event that will include speakers from a pro-Arab group has roused the worst instincts of local politicians and, sadly, at least one nationally-renowned law professor.  Because the event is co-sponsored by the college’s political science department, but temporarily falsely advertised by students as “endorsed” by the department, Alan Dershowitz, an alumnus, is in a lather.  “Back in the day, departments did not take official positions on controversial political issues.”  Actually, Alan, back in the day, Brooklyn College’s president, Harry Gideonse, aggressively exercised his official position on behalf of controversial political issues, notoriously shutting down student publications that disagreed with him.  Maybe, that’s why, in retrospect, from the banks of the Charles River, the Brooklyn College campus seemed so pacific.  

The reported story is not without some amusement.  Some pro-Israel students are quoted about the “chilling effect” of the political science department’s involvement with the planned event.  “[T]hepresident of the Israel Club . . . said she did not want to mount a public attack on the department because she was a political science major.”  When a professor in class explained her support of the event to promote “an open marketplace of ideas,” another student did not raise her hand to  argue because it was only the second day of class and she did not want to antagonize the professor so early.”  Back in the day at CCNY (Dershowitz graduated Brooklyn College the same year my brother graduated CCNY), our government (not called political science) classes and student center were the site of fabulous debates on hot issues, so often guided by the saintly Stanley Feingold, without fear of retribution by faculty or administration.  Almost all of my classmates lived at home, had no involvement in organized athletics, and lacked refined social skills, which resulted in a devotion to debate and muckraking without the fear of repression that characterized Brooklyn College then, and apparently now. 

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