Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Power Lunches

I’ve had what one could call two power lunches, one real and one more in jest. I’d held off writing this entry but one of the participants has been in the news lately and another always is.

The first took place in the home of the Power Breakfast, The Loews Regency Hotel in New York City, in fall 1988. I was in the city for an awards ceremony and expected to spend time with the executives in our company’s New York office. They were all too busy upon my morning arrival, so I called my father’s 89-year-old cousin Rosalie to tell her I was in town. She was meeting a friend for lunch at the Regency, which her husband had owned before selling it to the Tisch family, and asked me to join them.

The 540 Park restaurant was elegant, to say the least (a turkey club sandwich will now set you back $22), with the tables well spaced for privacy and quiet conversation. Seated at the next table, over my left shoulder, were Mr. and Mrs. Armand Hammer. The 90-year-old chairman and CEO of Occidental Petroleum, which he joined in 1957 when it had three full-time employees, looked like a rather dour sea captain in his blue double-breasted blazer with gold buttons. His wife – the third Mrs. Hammer who would pass away the following year – needed assistance in cutting the meat on her plate, for which Mr. Hammer enlisted the aid of their waiter. I don’t remember them conversing much. Armand Hammer died in 1990, while still leading Oxy Pete.

We were finishing up lunch when the occupants at a table in the far corner stood up to leave. I was struck by a tall, attractive, impeccably dressed blond woman, who had been seated next to a gray-haired man with his back turned. He got up just after her, and I recognized the impeccably dressed Senator Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican candidate for U.S. President. Goldwater had retired from the Senate after declining to run for reelection in 1986 and spent a good part of his later life (he died in 1998) lamenting the rightward drift and increasing influence of Christian fundamentalists in the GOP. The companion most likely was the woman who would become his second wife (32 years his junior); he had become a widower in 1985.

The story wouldn’t be worth retelling except for the sequel. Upon returning to the office, the receptionist asked my about lunch. “It was very interesting,” I replied. “I had lunch with Armand Hammer and Barry Goldwater.” On my first day back in Chicago, one of the big office gossips said, “I hear you had a very interesting lunch in New York.” She thought I’d actually dined with them.

The second one – a real one – took place in 2006. After a Wednesday noon basketball game, my friend Jon asked if I were having lunch in the 2nd-floor Grill Room. We usually don’t check up on each other, but this time he wanted to fill a table because then-Sen. Jon Corzine was coming to meet with him. Corzine at the time was head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), and he was soliciting a contribution from Jon, whose brother Corzine knew in Washington.

Four of us joined Corzine, and the main discussion topic was basketball, not politics. Corzine had grown up outside downstate Taylorville and had been a 6’3” walk-on forward on the freshman basketball team at the University of Illinois in 1965 (freshmen weren’t eligible for varsity sports back then). He said he would have played with us but was nursing a knee injury. Corzine then told us another basketball player – who would be receiving big DSCC support – was on his way in to join us: State Sen. Barack Obama, who had won the Senate primary election less than a month before.

Obama breezed in – he was already on a hectic campaign schedule – and pulled up a chair, declining lunch because of his limited time allotment. The talk again turned to basketball, and we invited him to both our lunchtime games and Jon’s Saturday game in the suburbs during the summer. As a novice to the big-time political arena, he told us Michelle had him on the “No Basketball List,” worried that an injury would hobble him and his campaign. I met him once again right after he announced his Presidential run and reminded him of the standing invitations; Obama laughed and said he heard Saturdays were “a great game” (he has a friend who plays) but he still hasn’t joined us.

His stay lasted only about 15 minutes, and people asked me for my take on him. Just from that short time basically shooting the breeze, I believed I was in the presence of greatness, just by the way he related to everybody around the table. I told people I thought he could beat Hillary Clinton for the nomination and anybody the Republicans would slate against him and only lament not putting money on it.

Despite being in the ticketed section in Grant Park on November 4, 2008, we were far back and could barely see the podium. It didn’t matter; we were there when the historic announcement was broadcast on CNN and the new First Family strode out to greet the celebrants. Just two years earlier, the man shook my hand, clasped my left shoulder, looked me straight in the eye and thanked my for the time. I think he’ll fare much better next year than Corzine did this year.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Lace 'Em Up and Get Out on the Ice

It’s outdoor ice-skating season, and Chicago has several attractive rinks. I didn’t make it to any last season but will soon be lacing up the Bauers and heading to Millennium Park. Ice-skating is a great way to exercise and take one back to youthful days.

Millennium Park ice rink

My brother and I learned to skate at age 6 the old-fashioned way: our parents somehow found two pairs of hand-me-down skates (I remember one being from a second cousin), which our mother put on and pushed us out on to the ice. In those days, the ice was natural, having been “flooded” by the park district with no barriers. The season lasted as long as temperatures remained regularly below freezing.

We had each other to flop around with and be teased by a few girls in our class who were already accomplished skaters. By the end of the day, without help or lessons, both of us were making good progress gliding along, as opposed to “walking” on the ice. I don’t think it took more than a session or two to join the other skaters going counter-clockwise around the rink.

Originally, the rink featured a warming house that was essentially a shack with a hot stove in the center. Despite there being bars around the stove, one winter my brother somehow managed to stick his rear end through the wide space between the bars to warm his wet pants seat. He stayed too long and ended up with a burn on one of his cheeks. A modern brick facility replaced the old warming house shortly thereafter.

Watts Park Fieldhouse

As accomplished skaters with growing feet, we required new skates almost every year. One such shopping trip took us to Mages Sporting Goods in downtown Evanston on December 1, 1958. On the way, we heard on the radio about a huge fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago. Upon arrival, the store was buzzing with the news, and we were particularly struck by the fact that many of the children were 9 years old, our same age. The fire resulted in the deaths of 92 students and 3 nuns.

The very active 1958-1959 season would be the last one for my extended skating career. Warmer winters and switching to basketball resulted in very few days at the rink in subsequent years.

The park district sponsored senior and junior hockey leagues in its weathered wooden-boarded rink off the main rink. For us juniors, there was no checking or lifting the puck, so only the goalie wore pads. We hardly looked like today’s kids. Our team, the Silverstreaks (we pulled the name out of thin air), won the four-team championship, edging out the Blackhawks, Rangers and Sputniks. We missed the medals ceremony – nobody informed us about it – and but still collected the silver first-place medals. I have several weathered clippings showing season standings and scoring, including one with “1 0 1” for GOP Presidential candidate Fred Karger.

Hockey medal, 1959

Skating races were another popular event, with heats for several age groups. I won the semi-final for 9 year-old boys, partly by knowing the post position meant the shortest distance around the oval. Lining up there again for the finals, I broke fast at the gun but not fast enough; the boy next to me cut in front and fell, taking us both down.

Skating races, 1959 (I'm on far right)

For years I owned a pair of leather CCMs with steel toes, the fashion for hockey skates. I took them to college and skated in the public rink in the Chestnut Hill section of Boston, but that was pretty much it. The skates remained in the closet for a number of years, taken out for skating with our daughter at McFetridge Sports Center and a friend’s birthday party at a Skokie ice rink.

Marisa at McFetridge Sports Center

The opening of the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park in December 2001 provided a beautiful setting at an unbeatable price: free if you bring your own skates, $1 to rent a locker. As I prepared to resume skating again, I remembered something that bugged me in my youth. While gliding around the rink on weekends, I’d see old/older men in beat-up skates and vowed never to be one of them. My old CCMs would qualify me as just such a guy, so I headed to Sports Authority and purchased a pair of Bauer Impact 75s. They look exactly like the skates rented by the park district, which makes me look like an old dude in new skates. After my first time out, I learned to under-dress (coat goes in the locker) because one can easily work up a sweat.

Cold weather is expected this week, so now may be the time to go. Anybody out there care to join me and recapture a joy from your youth?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dedicated Follower of Fashion

One finds he is getting old in many ways, the latest being that other than some expensive English-made shoes and a $10,000 IWC watch, I saw nothing interesting in the latest New York Times men’s fashion supplement. Despite rarely wearing one these days, I still look most closely at men’s suits. Even with several pages devoted to top designers, not one suit piqued my interest, other than to wonder who would buy most of them.

Even during the 1970s, the publishing industry – in which I toiled for the first 10 years of my professional career – didn’t require a suit and tie. I had a basic blue suit for weddings (my own included), funerals and a few special occasions. At one time I owned a blue-striped Haspel seersucker suit that was machine-washable. Fashion usually dictated when to buy a new suit, since they never wore out.

In contemplating a career change, I knew my new profession would demand a suit, so I began purchasing them at end-of-season sales. Other than finding something I liked for a decent price, two challenges loomed. The first was the drop – the difference in the coat size and the waist measurement for the pants, usually 6 inches – was always too small in my slimmer days, requiring massive alterations in the slacks. The second was my broad shoulders caused a bump running horizontally a few inches below the collar, which often necessitated two or three fittings to get it right. Luckily, I found a brand – Calvin Klein – and retailer – Baskins – that made a good fit. The tailor at Baskins who did his magic must have departed a few years later, so I switched to Bigsby & Kruthers, then the foremost suit retailer in Chicago. Buying on sale at the end of a season resulted in a wardrobe by several suit makers in some differing styles.

The perfect solution to my workplace haberdashery came shortly after starting at The Financial Relations Board. Samir Shasha, a nattily dressed native of Iran, suggested his custom tailor, P. Charlie, who visited Chicago several times a year. Charlie (not his real name), a native of India who lived in Hong Kong, took a suite in the Ritz-Carlton to meet with clients. His prices were reasonable, especially with the custom measurements eliminating hacked-up trousers and ill-fitting shoulders and permitting several choices in color and detailing. I eventually settled on one style (after ordering a few double-breasted models when they were in vogue twenty years ago): two-button ventless jacket, Armani-type lapels, flapless side jacket pockets, four functioning sleeve buttons (leaving the bottom one unbuttoned is a pretense I avoid), pleated trousers and 1 ¼-inch cuffs. My motto was, “I may not be the smartest guy in the office but I dress well.” Until Casual Friday hit, I had a regular rotation of five winter and five summer suits.

Between the casual revolution and being self-employed for 11 years, some of my remaining suits are more than ten years old. Each was made by R.M. Rock, who took over Mr. Charlie’s client list after he retired. Rock’s Custom Tailor is known for his Business School Tradition campaign, in which he markets to the top graduate schools of business across the country. The very few I’ve purchased lately now are slightly different; the top button is higher on the jacket, which now has flaps on the side pockets, and the trouser pleats are gone.

Today’s suits hold no interest for me. The current trend is jackets with side vents, which is fine if you have a small butt. Another is peaked lapels on single breasted jackets, especially on the skinny-cut models. Cuffs are gone, which make trousers look even worse if they are hemmed too short. The three-button jacket trends appears to be over.

I may someday be ready for an additional summer suit, but so far one new one and two older ones will do. Hope that new one isn’t my last one, if you know what I mean.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Little Respect

Janet and her mother, Rebecca, taught a combined 70+ years in this nation’s urban public schools. When my mother-in-law started her full-time career in Brooklyn, she was netting out about what she was paying the sitter to take care of my brother-in-law. Janet began in 1973 as a day-to-day substitute, making $40 a day. We would wait for the phone to ring in the early a.m., find out if the school was within driving range (I worked in Skokie back then), then rush to get her to the assignment on time. Teaching back then was an honored and respected profession.
Teacher's Certificate, 1974

Both were lucky to retire at opportune times. By the late-1960s, the New York City Public Schools were in disarray, as the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis caused teachers’ strikes tinged with anti-Semitism – ironic in that there were Jewish quotas when Rebecca started three decades before. She retired in June 1973 and started collecting her pension. The city’s well-documented financial crisis began shortly thereafter, and subsequent teacher pension plans were not nearly as good. My in-laws moved to Florida one year later; with my father-in-law’s more modest pension and a lower cost of living, they lived a nice but hardly opulent retirement before each passed away in their late 80s. Thank you, Albert Shanker.

Janet heeded Rebecca’s advice: earn an advanced degree, become a specialist and get out of a 30+ children classroom. Her first master’s degree was in reading. Even as a specialist, she would spend hours outside the classroom grading papers, devising lesson plans and making progress reports (punching holes in Chicago Public Schools-provided forms with an official CPS paper punch). So much for the so-called “short day” for teachers. The CPS, in its inimical wisdom, did away with reading specialists a few years later, so Janet then earned a master’s in special education. Until her final year, when a new principal didn’t want the reputation as an easy grader, she received Superior ratings every year. Her service at the last school was long enough for her to teach two generations of students.

Janet's Classroom

In Janet’s case, full pension benefits kicked in at 34.5 years of service, paying 75 percent of the average salary for the last four years of service. She considered teaching longer, in order to get a higher pension (replacing a low earlier year with a higher last one for calculation purposes) and keep far superior insurance coverage. Janet opted to retire on time, but the prospect of working for what would have amounted to a full-time job at a 25 percent salary was only a minor consideration. She was tired of the ancillary day-to-day crap that made the education of children a third or maybe fourth priority in the CPS and the continuing disrespect shown to her profession.

Janet's Classroom

Teaching, like many service professions today, makes its reason-for-being almost secondary. For example, the top priorities for public relations agencies are new business development and agency profitability; serving clients comes somewhere after these. Tough luck if you’re good at what you do; the higher you get in the organization the less important it becomes. As for the argument that poor teachers are protected, I’ve seen plenty of poor PR practitioners kept on for any number of reasons.

In the CPS, the priorities are roughly the following:

  1. Satisfying various mandates like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, most notably the emphasis on test scores.
  2. Protecting your turf from incursions by fellow teachers (in Janet’s case keeping classroom teachers from dumping their kids on her without authorization) and principals’ dictates.
  3. Following CPS regulations on filing reports and the like.
  4. Educating children to become thinking, functioning members of society.
I’ve always maintained that Janet had three jobs: babysitter (simply keeping order), instructor (getting the children to become those thinking, functioning members of society) and socializer (teaching society’s mores in the absence of sorely lacking parental guidance). One would think you could get rich doing that. I’ve also challenged any number of people – directly and through correspondence – to try teaching in an urban public school and see what it entails. The badmouthing of teachers would drop significantly, although it may make no difference in Chicago because of continuing efforts to expand charter schools that hire non-certified teachers, pay them below-union wages and benefits, and don’t offer tenure. Thus comes my call for respect.

The current dust-up here is appalling for several reasons, the primary being the almost total lack of respect for CPS teachers by Mayor Emanuel and the new superintendent, Jean-Claude Brizard, along with their hand-picked school board. At first, they stated insufficient funds let the CPS out of paying a 4 percent raise. They then started beating the drums for a longer school day. Rather than meeting with the teachers to determine how best to implement programs uniform across the system for the 2012-2013 term, Rahmbo and The Blizzard began offering 2 percent raises and various other incentives to schools that would vote to abrogate their contract and opt for a longer day, either immediately or in January. Where, may I ask, is that money going to come from?

Luckily, most of the teachers wouldn’t bite – somebody with a son working for the mayor tried to tell me it was a success – and only a handful of schools took up the offer. This is due in great part to the leadership of CTU President Karen Lewis, the only black woman in the class of 1974 at Dartmouth College. Unlike the last CTU head, who basically served as Arne Duncan’s lap dog and found English to be more like a second language, Lewis is a strong and articulate leader facing a deck neatly stacked against the union by the mayor, the superintendent, the board and their cheerleaders at the Tribune. To twist a Seinfeld line, “Who wouldn’t love a longer school day?” The CTU is on board but, as a friend pointed out, Rahm has a sense of entitlement about this issue. It’s his way or the fucking highway, which is pretty much how he put it to Lewis during one of their chats. She sternly but politely came back at him, knowing the bully wasn’t going to get his way.

So here’s my advice, Rahm. Show some respect to the hard-working teachers and invite the best minds (plus Brizard) to sit down and map out a strategy for next year’s term. Given that student performances have shown little improvement during the last twenty years, despite the hype from Duncan and Paul Vallas, what’s the harm in waiting another ten months? But don’t ask Janet; she’s neither ready to forgive nor forget your attitude toward her and her colleagues. Common courtesy, you know, doesn’t cost one cent, and maybe you can contribute to restoring teaching to an honored and respected profession.

NOTE: After the threat of losing a lawsuit over unfair labor practices, the board agreed to halt its efforts to institute a longer school day during the 2011-2012 term in return for the CTU dropping its suit. Both sides will be meeting on how to implement a longer school day for the 2012-2013 term.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Season Ends; A New Year Begins

As part of my speech at my daughter’s bat mitzvah twenty years ago, I noted that being Jewish and being a White Sox fan both involve large amounts of tradition and faith.  For example,  “As Jews we say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ while as White Sox fans we simply say, ‘Wait ‘til next year.’” In 2011 and as 5771 becomes 5772, the end of the regular baseball season and the beginning of the Jewish New Year coincide almost exactly, making the perfect time to think a bit about both.

Sox fans started the season with high expectations based on solid starting pitching, a new left-handed power hitter and a pretty solid line-up both on the field and in the bullpen. I won’t rehash the disastrous start to the season, only to note through early June, I’d seen 7 wins and only 2 losses, which at one time consisted of half of the team’s home-park victories. During the week of May 16-22, I attended three games in five days, all with my cousin Jim and all Sox wins. The season was looking up, after seeing Mark Buehrle break the MLB record for most interleague wins with a 9-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers and former Sox hurler Jon Garland. By June 9, the Sox were now only 3 games under .500 and 5½ games out of first place. Then tragedy struck the next day.

Alex Rios crosses home plate vs. the Dodgers,
May 21, 2011

Jim, one of the world’s foremost pediatric oncologists, would miss the next homestand in early June for his annual rafting trip with former Camp Ojibwa young men in the Grand Canyon. Before departing, he told me after 15 years it would be his last, owing to various complications. While watching the Sox about to blow another game in the late innings, I received a call from my cousin Cathy. “Are you sitting down?” she asked. “Jimmy’s gone.” I knew what she meant. My first thought was an accident but it turned out to be most likely a heart attack.

Dr. Jim Nachman

Rather than refer directly to my blog item about Jim – “Requiem for Doc Nach” – I’m including a link below from a blog post by the mother of a former patient. Please read it; he was an incredible man, pure and simple. I proceeded to see the Sox lose 10 of the next 12 games, with final win coming on the second-to-last game of the season. Some were major blowouts, leading to early exits from the ballpark.

Thus the season turned out to be a huge disappointment. Ozzie is gone, Buehrle’s probably gone and 2005 is a distant memory. I guess it’s fitting, since it pales in perspective to Jim being gone. The photograph below was taken at my second game back after Jim’s death, the first in his seats. After posting the photo on the Internet, stating I still couldn’t grasp Jim was gone, a friend gave some good advice: think in terms of “he won’t be here today.” I’ve thought that way in my five subsequent games in Section 126, Row 9; it helps but it still hurts.

Section 126, Row 9 Seats 1-4

Cathy is going to keep Jim’s Sox tickets for next season because the experience, she says, “is my life.” I know of what she speaks. Dad took me to my first Sox game either 53 or 54 years ago. Although we weren’t season-ticket holders, we attended a number of games every year, including the last one together behind the Yankees dugout on a sold-out Bat Day (see my November 2010 blog entry “The Major Gives Us a Day to Remember”). I had tears in my eyes after the final out at Comiskey Park in 1990, as I saw my life flash before me. That same year I attended the last Opening Day at the old ballpark with Jim (the only time in a suit and tie) and enjoyed many other games with him, including Game 1 of the 2005 World Series, the 2008 tiebreaker and Buehrle’s perfect game. I missed Jim’s presence when Buehrle basically said his farewells after last night’s game. Opening Day 2012, my third “new year,” just won’t be the same either.

View from Section 126, Sept. 13, 2011

This Rosh Hashanah thus becomes a time of more reflection. My uncle Alan passed away in July, after leading an almost entirely healthy 82 years, in California. I have two friends – Mitch and John – who are battling serious health issues. This provides perspective on what’s truly important in life. Given my various strokes of luck and good fortune, I am still very thankful at this holiday season. L'shana tova tikateivu v'teihateimu – sh'nat osher, bri'ut, v'shalom. I wish all my family and friends a happy, healthy and peaceful year. And a division title at the least would be nice too.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Far Away But Close By

During an earlier time, news that an airplane carrying a Russian professional hockey team crashed shortly after takeoff, killing 43 of 45 passengers, simply would be added to the list of such tragedies. With the internationalization of the game, during the past season I saw three members of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) play in Chicago and south Florida, as well as their newly appointed head coach serving as an NHL assistant coach. Ironically, only one was Russian. I’ve also seen another player in 2008 and two assistant coaches play for the Blackhawks.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

The fall of the Soviet Union brought players from Russia and Eastern Europe to the NHL in increasing numbers during the 1990s. For the 2000-2001 season, 87 Russians were playing fulltime in the world’s premier hockey league. The 24-team KHL, formed in 2008-2009 after the Russian Super League disbanded, quickly became the second strongest professional hockey league. Numerous circumstances, including financial incentives by the KHL, reduced the number of Russian players in the NHL to 27 (plus 10 from former Soviet Socialist Republics) in the 2009-2010 season.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was formed in 1949 and came from the Super League with 19 other teams for the inaugural KHL season. It finished third in the Western Conference in 2008-2009 but advanced to the finals before losing in seven games to Ak Bars Kazan. Lokomotiv was defeated in the Western Conference finals during the last two seasons and had made a number of roster changes for the start of the 2011-2012 season.

Here are those I’ve seen:

Brad McCrimmon. The long-time NHL defenseman played alongside some of the game's best, including Ray Borque, Paul Coffey, Chris Pronger and Nicklas Lidstrom. McCrimmon, 52, spent the last three seasons as an assistant coach with the Red Wings, where Marisa and I saw him behind the bench during the February 18, 2011, game vs. the Florida Panthers at the BankAtlantic Arena. He was about to coach his first regular-season KHL game.

Asst. Coach Brad McCrimmon (left) behind Ruslan Salei (#24), Feb. 2011

Ruslan Salei. The 36-year-old Belarusian also had a long NHL career, finishing a final season with the Red Wings in 2011. His slashing penalty at 19:38 of the 2nd period led to the Panthers’ second goal, 5 seconds later. He was on the ice for the Wings’ winning goal at 12:28 of the final period. Salei played one season and part of another with the Panthers before being traded to the Colorado Avalanche for Karlis Skranstins in February 2008.

Ruslan Salei celebrates with teammates after Todd Bertuzzi's winning goal, Feb. 2011

Karlis Skranstins. I saw the Latvian defenseman play for two teams in one season and a third team last year. Skranstins, 37, played his first full NHL season with Nashville in 1999-2000 before being traded to the Avalanche four years later. He was with the Avs at the United Center for a game vs. the Blackhawks, shortly before being traded to the Panthers for Ruslan Salei. I attended a Panthers game vs. the New York Islanders less than two weeks after the trade. His final two NHL seasons were with the Dallas Stars, which included a game witnessed from the first row of the United Center in December 2010.

Karlis Skranstin (#37) skates behind Jonathan Toews, Dec. 2010

Alexander Vasyunov. The young Russian left-winger played 18 games in his only NHL season with the New Jersey Devils, including 4:16 in a December 2010 victory over the Blackhawks. Only 23 years old, he played with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl before joining the Devils’ American Hockey League team in 2008.

Josef Vasicek. His seven-year NHL career was almost over when he played for the New York Islanders vs. the Panthers in March 2008. The Czech center, 30, served two stints with the Carolina Hurricanes.

The most noted player on the team, Pavol Demitra, was a member of the Vancouver Canucks when I saw the team play the Hawks and Panthers during the 2009-2010 season but he sat out both games with injuries. The Czech center, 36, broke in with the St. Louis Blues in 1993. He had three 30+ goal seasons with the Blues.

Alexander Karpotsev and Igor Kovolev served as assistant coaches for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Karpotsev played parts of four seasons in the early 2000s with the Blackhawks. His trade that sent Brian McCabe to Toronto in 2000 was one of the worst in team history, just behind the Esposito-Hodge-Stanfield trade to Boston. McCabe is still active in the NHL, having been the Panthers’ captain last season until being shipped off to the New York Rangers before the trade deadline. Karpotsev's final season in the NHL was a short one, 6 games with the Panthers in 2005.

Brian McCabe (#24) skates off the ice after Dennis Wideman's goal coming 5 seconds
after a slashing penalty to Ruslan Salei, Feb. 2011

Although this may seem harsh, Hawks announcer Pat Foley was spot on with his assessment of Karpotsev after a trade to the Islanders for a 5th-round pick.

Kovolev also had a disappointing career with the Hawks, having spent parts of two seasons in the minors six years after joining the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1997. The left-winger registered only 9 goals and 20 assists in 82 games in his first season with the Hawks. Kovolev returned to Russia and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl for the 2004-2005 season, retiring as a player after the 2009-2010 season.

The NHL was already experiencing the tragic deaths of three players during the off season, two by suicide and one by accidental drug-and-alcohol overdose, when the news of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crash was announced. Because professional hockey has expanded far from the days when almost all of the pros were Canadian, a plane crash in Russia has wide-ranging and, of course, sad repercussions.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dade Behring and Mitt Romney: A Complex Saga

The role of GOP candidate Mitt Romney with Dade Behring, a Chicago suburban-based medical diagnostics company, and its Chapter 11 bankruptcy has already been reported. Some say it exemplifies Romney as a job destroyer and company wrecker, while others absolve him of any responsibility and point to the company’s renewed strength after the filing. Having done work for Dade Behring during the late 1990s, I’ve found the facts lie pretty much in between.

A private-equity group led by Romney’s Bain Capital (of which he was a co-founder) and Goldman Sachs purchased Dade International from Baxter International in 1994, paying $450 million, of which only $85 million were their own. In 1997, it merged with a German company, Behring Diagnostics, a spin-off from Hoechst AG (now Aventis). Hoechst, Bain Capital and Goldman Sachs became the major shareholders. Dade Behring eventually became the world’s largest company solely devoted to clinical diagnostics, reaching $1.2 billion in sales and 6,400 employees worldwide by the end of the decade.

Despite the growth and attractive product line, Dade Behring experienced a weakened financial position due to adverse currency-exchange and interest rates and overleverage. According to reports, the company slashed at least 1,000 jobs along with its research and development budget. Still, it made a major transaction in 1999, for which I played a marginal role, that is most controversial.

In the face of  balance-sheet problems, Dade Behring still borrowed to buy a significant block of its equity stake owned by Bain Capital and Goldman Sachs. On May 3, I issued a news release for Dade Behring, working with and getting approval from Joe, Bain Capital’s public relations counsel, announcing the company would repurchase about $400 million of its stock and retire those shares. Bain Capital and Goldman Sachs were paid $365 million, more than four times their initial investment. The transaction, which raised Hoechst’s ownership from 32 percent to 50 percent, helped boost Dade Behring’s debt to $902 million at the end of 1999 from only $373 million one year earlier.

Some interesting dynamics then came into play. I compiled a list of questions the company might get from the media and other audiences. The first one was something to the effect of “Will the company be able to service the added debt comfortably?” I was assured it would. I also asked whether this was undertaken in order to pay the private-equity investors a dividend in light of an adverse IPO and M&A environments. Again, management said it was based on a sound business decision.

Interestingly, Joe and I had identical roles: keep the companies’ names out of the news. One year prior, Bain Capital had acquired a 93 percent stake in Domino’s Pizza. “The number of Bain execs interviewed about the deal?” Joe said. “Zero.” He assured me they wouldn’t talk about this one either. The transaction also elicited a call from a Barron’s reporter who was doing an article on companies that avoid paying dividends to investors (in this case, those other than Bain Capital and Goldman) after reaching a certain ownership threshold. Working with Dade Behring management, I made the case that the company was not required to pay additional dividends because certain covenants weren’t met. The publication came out on Saturday morning and Dade Behring was not included.

As the company’s financial position continued to decline, a creditors’ committee claimed that certain owners, directors and advisors – including Bain Capital and Goldman Sachs – had engaged in “illegal dividends, illegal stock transactions and impairment of capital,” as well as other acts. No legal action resulted after Bain Capital and Goldman Sachs agreed to purchase debt from some of the other lenders.  Still, on August 1, 2002, Dade Behring declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, suffering under a debt burden of $1.5 billion.

This was a prepackaged bankruptcy, which is much less onerous than going bankrupt sounds. The same team at Kirkland & Ellis that reaped $100 million in fees for handling the United Airlines bankruptcy devised a plan whereby the company’s debt would be swapped for equity and Dade Behring would go public. With the company’s operations basically unaffected, the company emerged only 47 days later as a Nasdaq-traded company. Out from under its debt load and a newfound allegiance to shareholder value, Dade Behring returned to the growth mode, with sales reaching more than $1.7 billion in 2006 and a headcount of 6,000. The following year, Siemens acquired Dade Behring for $77 a share – it had gone public at $10 – with total proceeds of $6.4 billion.

So here’s my view on what this has to do with Mitt Romney. At the time of the massive stock buyback, Romney had left the firm three months previously to head the 2002 Winter Olympics. He told the New York Times in June 2007 he had no role in the transaction that ultimately helped drown the company in debt, although a former Dade CEO is quoted that Romney was much more involved in the portfolio companies than one would expect. Romney told the Times, “It is one thing that if I had a chance to go back I would be more sensitive to. It is always a balance. Great care has got to be taken not to take a dividend or a distribution from a company that puts that company at risk.” Romney said taking a large payment from a company that later failed “would make me sick, sick at heart.” Dade Behring in fact did not “fail,” although Bain Capital’s practice of pulling dividends out of portfolio companies early on in its ownership contributed to other companies going under. In this case, either either poor analysis or the desire for ROI propelled Dade Behring toward bankruptcy. Because Bain Capital and Goldman Sachs employ mainly MBAs from the top schools, I'll bet it was the latter.

My advice to Democrats (the clowns/nuts/fools in the GOP running against Romney can do what they want): forget Dade Behring. Although the story contains the usual greed about fees to the detriment of financial strength, one really can’t make the case for job destruction and the company became very successful in the end. Any of us could have bought Dade Behring stock at $10 and sold it for $77; you didn’t have to be a private-equity heavy. Shareholder value was enhanced after all; too bad Bain Capital had to be a major beneficiary.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Birthday Baseball (and Hockey)

I’m going to tonight’s Sox-Yankees game on what would have been my father’s 94th birthday. This reminds me of a birthday celebration at Comiskey Park on Aug. 8, 1965. The Sox played the Cleveland Indians that night.
Ticket stub, Indians vs. White Sox

In those days, before everything had a price, one could get messages posted free on the Sox O Gram, MLB’s first message board installed by Bill Veeck during his first ownership run. Our mother called the Sox offices and arranged to have a surprise birthday greeting for our father on the scoreboard. With video screens still in the future, there figured to be plenty of time for the message to appear. We settled into our uncle’s seats – Box 45, Tier 6, Seats 1-4 – and hoped for a Sox victory.

Comiskey Park scoreboard, 1967
Sox O Gram is at left

In all-too-familiar fashion, the Sox fell behind early and their weak hitting – the team batting averages during the mid-1960s were .246, .230 and .225, with no .300 hitters – the prospects for a comeback looked bleak. After the Indians scored 5 runs in the 7th inning to go up 6-1, in unprecedented fashion, my father announced, “We can leave now if you want.” With the greeting still not posted, my mother, in equally unprecedented fashion, quickly replied that we’d stay. You can guess the rest: the Sox failed to mount a rally and after 3 hours and 18 minutes and a 6-4 loss, the message never appeared. It was the last time mom ever turned down an opportunity to leave a Sox game before it ended.

As for my birthday, I’ve attended a sporting event only once on the appointed day, the Montreal Canadiens vs. Boston Bruins on March 22, 2007. My friend Nate Greenberg, in his 34th and final year with the Bruins, put my birthday greeting (thankfully sans age) on the scoreboard. Shortly thereafter, his press box phone rang; it was the PR director, who I’d met during my visit to the old Garden 12 years previously in its last year, checking to see if I was Nate’s former college roommate. This certainly will be the first and last scoreboard greeting, as that one was free too.

View from the Boston Garden press level,
March 22, 2007

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Requiem for Doc Nach

My cousin, Jim Nachman – “Doc Nach” as he was known to many – passed away suddenly on June 10 while on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. He was one of the foremost pediatric oncologists in the world. Jim was seven months older than my twin brother Frank and me. Rather than concentrating on his many notable professional achievements, which can be found on the Comer Children’s Hospital Web site or the Chicago Tribune obituary, here are a few anecdotes about the guy we called Jimmy.

 Jim, Cathy and Bob, 2009

Even before we moved to the North Shore at age 6, we took part in softball games at our cousins’ house at 7411 S. Oglesby. They were actually played over two yards: home plate and the infield were in the Hershmanns’ yard and the outfield was just south in the Nachmans’ yard. That a fence ran between them was a minor inconvenience, but not for Jimmy, who always cleared the yards. Jim was also the star of Bash-O, played with a rubber ball thrown at an outline of the strike zone on the side of the insurance company building at the end of the block at 75th Street, as well as leading the Oglesby Sluggers.

7411 S. Oglesby Avenue

When we were kids, parents couldn’t simply purchase a replica baseball jersey with your favorite team and player. They had to buy a plain wool uniform, then sew the team logo on the front and number or numbers on the back. I remember that his younger brother Bobby had number 8 for Walt Dropo, the big first baseman. In 1958, however, Dropo was sent to Cincinnati and the Sox acquired Ray Boone, who now wore number 8. Jimmy took to calling his brother “Bobby Boone.” Bob didn’t like that, and his escalating irritation only caused Jim to keep up his “Bobby Boone” taunts . . . . a real big-brother prerogative.  Boone was sent to Kansas City the next season and Harry “Suitcase” Simpson took over number 8. I don’t remember Jimmy calling Bobby either “Suitcase” or “Simpson.” 

We always looked forward to the long trips from the North Shore to South Shore, although I don’t know how happy my father was before the Kennedy and Dan Ryan were constructed. Seders were at Aunt Ros and Uncle Adolph’s, with furious hunts for the afikomen, knowing the reward was a box of baseball cards. Jim was a particularly aggressive forager. And somewhere I have black-and-white photos of the five young Nachmans, mugging for the camera, at an oppressively hot Nachman/Wolfson Rosh Hashanah gathering in Hyde Park. Jimmy, of course, was front and center.  

Early on, Jim wanted to follow in Adolph’s footsteps and carry the pediatricians’ black bag. While at medical school at John Hopkins in the early 1970s, Jim worked in the emergency room. After relating some of his experiences treating victims of violence, one of us said, “But you’re not doctor yet.” Jim replied, “When somebody comes in bleeding profusely from multiple stab wounds, he doesn’t ask to see my credentials.”  While in Baltimore, one of Bill Veeck’s young sons was wheeled in for an emergency appendectomy. Jim regaled the lad with tales of exploding scoreboards and a World Series on Chicago’s South Side; to his chagrin, the kid couldn’t have cared less. 

On Adolph’s advice, Jim chose a specialty rather than a career as a family physician. Not surprisingly, he became one of the most noted children’s cancer specialists in the world. And it was the occasion of a meeting of this august group in Rome that provides Jim’s greatest anecdote. 

The physicians were on buses when they were informed that Pope John Paul II had heard they were in town and, awed by their work with children, invited them for a private service. The buses headed directly to the Vatican, where they were ushered in for the service. After its conclusion, the doctors lined up to greet the Pope personally. I don’t know about you, but I would have headed straight toward the end of the line. 

Jim, however, found himself probably number 6 in the procession. Of course, the first five were Roman Catholics, and each knelt, kissed the Pope’s ring and otherwise observed the rituals of the church. Jim, as he told it, stepped up, looked the Pope straight in the eyes and extended his hand. The Pope enthusiastically shook Jim’s hand and said, with a sly smile, “This fellow must be Jewish!” It turns out this was the correct protocol for a non-believer but I don’t think Jim knew that going in.

 If there were a sin of caring too much, Jim would have happily pleaded guilty. Two years ago, he and I went back to his apartment after a postponed Sox game, ostensibly to watch a Blackhawks playoff game. O.K, I watched while he alternated between making calls to and receiving calls from any number of patients, former patients, campers, Camp Ojibwa alums, students he’d mentored and various other friends and well-wishers. The concern shown for each one was incredible. But if you really want to know the essence of Jim Nachman, it was a simple two-sentence introduction to Janet and me of a young man joining us before a Sox game: “He was one of my patients,” Jim said. “He graduated college last week.”

With Jim before Game 1 of the 2005 World Series

Recollections of cousin Jim can’t be complete, of course, without including the family’s love for the White Sox. Adolph saw his first Sox game in 1921 and went continuously, except during the war years in the South Pacific, until a few seasons after the 2005 World Series victory. Jim picked up the season tickets in Box 45, Tier 6, some time after returning to Chicago and then split season tickets in the 5th row behind the 1st base dugout at the new ballpark. We watched several memorable games together, including the first game of the 2005 World Series, "black-out” tiebreaker in 2008 and Jose Paniagua’s disastrous one-third of an inning appearance. A last-minute ticket for a game against Tampa Bay in 2009 resulted in Jim, Cathy and me witnessing Mark Buehrle’s perfect game. Our last game together, with Cathy, was less than a month ago, our third in five days. Cathy will now carry on the Nachman family tradition of yelling, “Throw strikes” when Sox pitchers hit a wild streak.

Jim and Cathy after the perfect game, 2009

It’s said we tend to make saints out of mortals and mortals out of saints. About 15 years ago, our family attended a fund-raising dinner where Jimmy was the organization’s first honoree. When told we were Jimmy’s family, the guests treated us like royalty, simply because of our relationship, and many spoke in hugely glowing terms about Jim. I mentioned this to a friend, whose daughter was just starting medical school, saying, “They talked about him like he was God.”  He replied, “When he saves your child’s life, he is God.”   

Finally, I’ve said this about very few people: Presidents, prime ministers and Popes are replaced, but you can’t replace Dr. Jim Nachman. If he’s in a better place, I sure would like to see it, because Jimmy traveled the world first-class, dined at the best restaurants, watched sporting events and plays from premier locations, loved his family and friends and was loved by scores in return, and made a living saving children’s lives. How much better can it be?
View from Jim's seats at Sox Park

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Hand in my Gym Bag

Last week, the public relations firm Ruder Finn announced that Peter Finn, son of co-founder David Finn, is establishing his own agency under the RF corporate umbrella. From my dealings with the agency, I’m not surprised, given one of his sisters did so a few years back and his other sister is running the agency. Peter is not one of my favorite persons, in part due to a maneuver that led to a very quick start-up of a successful business.

I worked for what was then Ruder Finn & Rotman in the mid-1980s. The Ruder name is a bit misleading, since co-founder Bill Ruder, who passed away earlier this year, was out of the business by then. The Rotman name came from the merger with Chicago-based Harshe-Rotman & Druck, which was run by Morris Rotman and his son Richard. I’ve known Richard since grammar-school days, which helped land my job there. The New York and Chicago offices interact very little, mainly due to animosities between the Finns and Rotmans. In fact, the Rotmans kept me from getting axed when management demanded cuts in Chicago, despite the agency suffering from lower billings nationwide.

 My first experience with Peter Finn involved the transfer of the View-Master account from Chicago to New York. Despite running a very successful account for the then publicly owned toy company, the client wanted it moved to New York, where View-Master had an office in the Toy Building on 23rd Street. The transfer was scheduled during the Toy Fair in New York, but I ran into a huge problem: nobody from New York would return my calls regarding the account. Finally, two days before departing for New York, I called Peter Finn but was told he probably couldn’t make it into the office from Westchester because of a forecast of snow. Exasperated, I said bluntly, “Look, I’m handing you a good account, and you don’t have to sell to get it. Just get somebody there.” They did, but Finn never made an appearance to meet the CEO.

Ten years after leaving the company, I found myself back in Ruder Finn’s Chicago office, but not as an employee. The Rotmans sold out in 1987, and the Chicago office went through a series of general managers and steadily declining billings to the point it employed less than 10 professionals. My position at Golin-Harris had just been eliminated, and the person who had hired me at GH – Paul Rand – was now the general manager at Ruder Finn Chicago. In a very short tenure, he quadrupled billings and brought the place back to life. Still, the full-floor offices had so much vacant space he put a plastic sheet over the entry into the west section and told visiting clients the area was undergoing renovation. The art-conscious Finns sent their curator to check out the office (typical of their priorities), and she immediately torn down the sheet. It went back up minutes after her departure.

I rented an office at Ruder Finn for a nominal charge, working on my own accounts and helping out on RF accounts, including a large project for Standard Register. When Paul left Golin-Harris (I was still there), he suggested we eventually start our own agency. Since he is a bright guy and very entrepreneurial, I agreed, knowing it wouldn’t be immediate. About the time I arrived in late 1997. Paul told management that he was going to leave to start his own agency, not go to a competitor, and would stay on as long as needed to show the new GM the ropes. They said that given the large amount of empty office space, we should explore a joint venture. At their request, Paul sent them a business plan. Peter Finn and two other executives agreed to meet with us on a Friday in mid-January 1998 and discuss arrangements over lunch.

We knew something was amiss when after calling from the airport, it took about two hours for them to reach the office. Upon entering the conference room with a fourth mystery man, they summarily booted me out. From what I gathered, they had picked up a local attorney on the way and the fun would now begin. About an hour later, they walked into my office and said sternly, “Paul Rand has been dismissed and ordered out of the office. The computer system has been taken down and the locks have been changed.” They then told me I was he was “in trouble” and probably so too was I, then ordered me out of the office and to come back in three hours to discuss my fate. “Back in the USSR,” I thought.

Like the Golin-Harris people, Finn and his boys didn’t figure they’d be tussling with somebody with brother at a top labor law firm. Before leaving the office, I called him in Denver. First off, he told me, they would have to go through eviction proceedings to get me out of the office, since I wasn’t an employee and had cancelled checks showing their tacit approval of the rental agreement. He also told me get local counsel to sit in on the afternoon meeting. Feeling relieved, I returned two hours later and plunked myself down in my office. The RF boys suddenly got more polite when informed I’d have a lawyer present. Paul figured they had polled the Chicago clients and found all would go with us (and a third partner), which led them to play along with the joint-venture scheme until the Friday massacre.

The RF boys obviously knew they had nothing on me – they’d hinted at some kind of conspiracy bullshit – so the negotiations came down to an annual report I was writing for one of their clients. At first they told me not to tell the client that Paul was gone; since I knew they already knew, I told them I wasn’t going to be party to such charade. In addition, RF knew they needed me to finish the report or they wouldn’t get their money either, so we made a fair agreement.

To facilitate my departure that day – I would henceforth work at home – I told them they could search my things, figuring they wouldn’t want to be bothered . . . but they did. They wanted to look through all the files on my computer discs, which they had no right since I had my clients’ work on them. But the crowning touch was having the great Peter Finn search my gym bag. I’d planned on a noon basketball game but never made it. I watched him rummage through a shirt, shorts and socks before suddenly halting at the touch of an athletic supporter. I bit my tongue to keep from both laughing and making a snide remark. After retrieving my discs from the CFO, I told him, “Tony, just for the record . . . tell Peter the jock strap was clean.”

So here we were, ready to start a company, sooner rather than later. We each bought laptops over the weekend (the third partner was coerced into staying at RF) and borrowed office space in the same building from the marketing firm designing the annual report I was writing. Within two years, the agency grew to 50 people; an office in Austin, Texas; and billing of $4.5 million. Doing well is the best revenge.

The pettiness didn’t stop there. Bea, the RF Chicago receptionist dating back to the Harshe-Rotman days, retired in early 1998, and several alums – including Paul and me – were invited via telephone to her farewell party. About a week later, the inviter, a veteran staff member who was a colleague there back in the mid-‘80s, called and started the conversation with a very embarrassed “I’m sorry, this wasn’t my idea but they’re making me do this.” Management had demanded the guest list, then told her to un-invite certain people. So pardon me if I don’t send Peter Finn a potted plant or work of art for this new office, although an old athletic supporter just might be appropriate.

Friday, May 20, 2011

An Unbreakable Record

My one baseball game at Milwaukee’s County Stadium resulted in witnessing a record that probably will never be broken. I met the record holder years later but had forgotten about his dubious distinction.

County Stadium

Periodically, Major League Baseball tells the umpires to strictly enforce the rules governing balks. The year 1963 was one of them. Balks can be called on a number of infractions, some obvious, others not so obvious. The umps thus cracked down on the more subtle forms. On May 4, 1963, my father, brother and I traveled to Milwaukee for the Braves-Cubs game. We had excellent grandstand seats but rain began falling early in the game, causing a delay and a move to shelter. Making our way to the press box, Jim Enright, a reporter for the Chicago American and one of my father’s clients, found an empty room for us, directly behind the plate. We remained there for the rest of the game.

The starting pitchers were Bob Shaw for the Braves and Glen Hobbie for the Cubs. Shaw, the White Sox pitcher who defeated Sandy Koufax, 1-0, in game 5 of the 1959 World Series, pitched for Kansas City for part of 1961 before being traded to the Braves during the off-season. The Cubs’ potent line-up included Lou Brock, Billy Williams, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, while the Braves featured Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews.

Bob Shaw, 1959
The game was tied 1-1 when things got interesting in the top of the 3rd inning. Al Barlick, who umpired from 1940-1971 and would be elected to the Hall of Fame, was behind the plate. He and his crew called three balks on Shaw in the inning, for which he remains tied for the MLB record. They called two more on him until he was ejected for arguing the calls with one out in the 5th inning. The Cubs scored five runs in the inning on the way to an almost four-hour, 7-5 win and an eventual series sweep. The hitting star oddly enough was backup catcher Merritt Ranew, who went 3 for 4 with two RBI.

1963 Topps Card

Only 8,524 fans witnessed the record five balks on the overcast Saturday afternoon. Other records set were most balks by a team in one game – 6 – and most balks in a game by both teams – 7 – as Paul Toth of the Cubs and Denny Lemaster of the Braves each added one. The commissioner quietly told the umpires to ease up after this fiasco.

Evidently, MLB forgot this lesson in 1988, when balks were called strictly again after a rule change in the definition of a "complete stop." Three pitchers were called for four balks in a game, including Bobby Witt of Texas and Rick Honeycutt of Oakland on successive April days. Oakland and Montreal set the records for balks in each league that season, with 76 and 41, respectively. The rule was changed back after the season ended. Doing the math, we’re due for another crackdown in 2013.

Bob Shaw would end his career with the Cubs in 1967, with a record of 108-98. I met Shaw before the White Sox played the Dodgers in the Turn Back the Clock Game in 2005, commemorating the Dodgers’ first trip to Chicago’s South Side since the 1959 World Series. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember about his record until my brother reminded me after hearing I’d chatted up Shaw. I’m reasonably sure of being the only one at the ballpark that night who had seen him balk five times 42 years earlier. He probably would have gotten a kick out hearing that.

Bob Shaw, 2005

Saturday, May 14, 2011

To Ring or Not to Ring

Recently a few columns and Web posts have discussed whether or not a man should wear a wedding ring. I’ve never worn one, having made my definitive decision two months after our wedding.

Like some men have noted, I’m not much interested in jewelry. That includes necklaces, rings or wrist adornments other than watches. Trying to be a non-traditionalist and the fact my father didn’t wear one, I decided against a wedding ring 38 years ago.

My father wore a ring, which he received in 1932 for his religious school confirmation. The silver ring has his initials in gold and a small diamond that came from a stickpin his father received for being the president of South Side Hebrew Congregation. It contained no engraving in the inside. He wore it on his right hand. I don’t know why he didn’t have a wedding ring.

My grandmother and father at his wedding,
Sept. 3, 1946

Barely two months after our wedding, my father was rushed to St. Anne’s Hospital from his office after suffering a heart attack. Upon arriving after a 45-minute drive from the suburbs, I was informed he had passed away (“A Sudden Death in the Family,” December 2010). Shortly thereafter, John Weil, his partner’s son who had accompanied him in the ambulance, gave me an envelope with his personal effects. I immediately emptied the contents on to a table, a decision quickly regretted, for I should have waited to compose myself and prepare for the inevitable reaction. The larger objects tumbled out first – wallet, eyeglasses and probably keys – followed by his ring. The ring, however, didn’t simply drop on the table but rather rolled away at a rather rapid pace. It was still rolling when I slapped my hand down and scooped it up.

The Ring

Because he never took it off, the ring in my hand conveyed the blunt reality that he was dead. Despite contemplating this likely outcome during the drive, holding the ring sent a shock through my system. Instinctively, I put it on the fourth finger on my left hand (it was too small to get on my ring finger). With my limited knowledge of jewelry, I didn’t know the ring could be sized, which was done the following week. I’ve worn it ever since. A second fracture of my left ring finger (luckily I wasn’t wearing the ring either time or it would have been cut off in an emergency room) a few years ago caused me to wear the ring on my right hand for some time until the swelling subsided. 

Marisa and I, Florida, 1983

 Early on, I considered purchasing a wedding band. As silly as it may sound, I thought it would diminish the significance of this most valuable possession. Other than memories, I have only a pair of his cufflinks, formal stud set, 80-year-old Underwood typewriter and a handkerchief with his embroidered signature. The ring’s religious significance also seemingly transcends it being a gift for a 15-year-old boy and a keepsake for a not-so-devout son. I would wear only one ring, and this was it.

Union Prayer Book, presented by South Shore Temple on
my father's confirmation, June 12, 1932
My father wore the ring for almost 41 years; I've worn it for more than 38 years. This often causes me to think about many things, most notably the fragility of life. One such issue is not the one brought up in all of the discussions; you'll just have to trust me on that.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Room for the Night

My first hotel stay in Philadelphia was totally unplanned and memorable, to say the least.

The journey to the Hotel Adelphia began, oddly enough, in Boston. My brother’s girl friend attended college in the area, and occasionally I trekked up from eastern Pennsylvania to spend a weekend. She would find dates for me, which is how I met the wonderful Connie (we reconnected via Facebook 42 years later). During a spring trip, one of her friends introduced us to two friends visiting from Philadelphia, one of them a tall and very pretty Temple University student.

Although not particularly aggressive, I nonetheless tried something totally out of character. Inquiries found her name – Randy – and phone number and the fact that she remembered who I was and would be amenable to a date. Back then, long-distance phone calls were a big deal, especially since we freshman weren’t allowed telephones in the dorm rooms. I filled my pocket with change and called from a booth in the University Center. The conversation went well, and we arranged to meet in Philadelphia two weekends later. I neglected one important detail: to find a place to stay in a men’s dorm that night, which I’d done each time in Boston.

We spent a very pleasant spring evening together. Another couple – the guy was a year ahead of me at Lehigh – joined us. We saw “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and dined near Rittenhouse Square, which I would revisit for the first time last summer. We parted ways at her dorm, after which the guy drove to his parents’ house in the suburbs without asking my plans. So here I was, a white kid in a sport coat and tie, on North Broad Street around midnight. Frugal as I was (and still am), I opted to take a bus downtown, sleep in the bus terminal and take the 6 a.m. Penn Stage bus back to Bethlehem. 

Rittenhouse Square, 2010

A bus finally arrived in approximately 20 minutes. After the door opened, the woman next to me began screaming at the bus driver about her perceived long wait, telling him somebody had been mugged in the interim. Great, I thought, but now being on the bus negated that worry. Unfortunately, I forgot the location of the bus terminal after getting off at City Hall. The City Hall courtyard was deserted as I cut through south to Chestnut Street, passing only a lone black GI, who looked at me like I was nuts. At 13th Street, I spotted the Hotel Adelphia and figured this had better be my accommodation for the night.

Hotel Adelphia

My anxiety increased when while checking in, two women came out of the bar in identical dresses and tipsily informed the deskman they’d just been up to one of their rooms and found a man in the bed. House rules required a bellman to take me to the room (I didn’t tip him because I didn’t have any luggage), which was stiflingly hot. After opening a window, my next stop was the bathroom – or what I thought was the bathroom. The light revealed only a sink and shower in the tiny room. You can guess the rest.

I slept well enough to make the 8 a.m. bus back to school. The 60-mile trip didn't end fast enough.  I transferred to college in Boston the following year, so I never called, wrote or otherwise communicated with Randy again. Her Facebook page is gone (she seems to have led a good life with a nice Jewish boy from Penn), so I can't send her the link to this post. The Hotel Adelphia is now the Adelphia House, a rental apartment building.  Reviewers give it low marks; why am I not surprised?

Adelphia House