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.