There were some interesting pitfalls to our game. My sister, 2-1/2 years younger than me, was wild about a local Baltimore television program named "Kid Stuff." It began with a video of young children simultaneously releasing brightly-colored balloons into the air, which was my sister's favorite part of the show. It was followed by a few minutes in a large room with children enjoying finger painting, cutting out colored paper, and similar creative activities. The show ran for only five minutes, and began at exactly 4:25 p.m. Monday through Friday, just before The Flintstones. My sister would be upset for the rest of the day if she missed even a few seconds of it and would wail loudly enough to be clearly heard by our next-door neighbors, so I had to make sure to keep careful track of the time. I usually had to leave the whiffleball game in the middle of an inning and get someone to pinch hit, pinch run, or otherwise replace me while I made sure to find my sister and remind her not to miss her show. Often she would also be playing with friends and could be found almost anywhere near the house or the school diagonally across the street and sometimes in a completely unexpected place, so this could be a time-consuming task. My sister knew how to turn on the television and switch the channel to her program, but she didn't wear a watch and strongly preferred that I take full responsibility for ensuring that she saw the show each weekday. Even when my friends weren't visiting, or when we were playing board or card games instead of whiffleball, I had the family responsibility of tracking down my sister for our daily ritual. This continued for two or three years until she finally declared one day that she was a big girl and didn't have to "always" see it. I noticed that she would still watch "Kid Stuff" a few times a month for a while, but eventually it stopped being important and she became involved with completely different activities. When I asked my sister about it the other day, she told me her clearest memory was running as fast as she could to the house and downstairs into the den to catch her favorite program usually within a minute before it started.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (December 21, 2016): When I was in seventh grade, our social-studies teacher decided to teach us and all of her other classes an important lesson in the U.S. political system. She designated two student candidates to compete in a mock election; each of those created a mimeographed handout indicating their positions on various issues which we had one week to study. A week later, all of our classes combined to meet together in the huge Sudbrook auditorium with a capacity of over a thousand people to hear speeches by each of the two candidates and to count our secret written ballots afterward. It was unusual to meet anywhere other than our usual classroom or to see our friends from other classes during the school day, so there was a lot of extra chatter and the teacher kept having to tell us to shut up. Each of the candidates delivered his or her prepared script, describing their campaign platform and what they promised to do when elected. The oratories were not exactly professional, and we had to keep from falling asleep with the inconsistent rambling, dull topic, and generally amateurish atmosphere. Suddenly, after the second candidate made her pitch, a loud voice was heard in one corner of the auditorium: "Mark Mayer! Make him the write-in winner. Vote for Mark Mayer, that's M-a-r-k M-a-y-e-r." The teacher had a lengthy journey to reach the place where this student was seated. As she was about to determine who was responsible and to reprimand him, another voice was heard from the opposite side of the auditorium proclaiming, "We need Mark Mayer. Ignore the other two and cast a write-in vote for Mark Mayer. It's your civic duty." The teacher was confused, not sure if she should continue with her pursuit of the original heckler or whether she should hunt down the second offender. Then, from way up in the balcony came the voice, "Vote Mark Mayer. He's the only one right for today's society. Don't delay, cast your write-in vote for Mark Mayer today." During the next several minutes, eight or nine students made similar loud pleas, always from parts of the auditorium where the teacher couldn't make a timely interruption.
We voted, and not surprisingly, Mark Mayer was the landslide victor. The teacher had completely lost control of the room by that point, but restored some order by asking Mark Mayer himself to approach the lectern and deliver his acceptance speech. Since he had no prepared text, he was flummoxed and sheepishly meandered to the stage, but amazingly had enough guts and raw ability to give a far better impromptu presentation than the two "real" candidates had done. We applauded raucously, and shouted "Mark Mayer" over and over again until the teacher forced all of us to return to our regular classrooms until our lunch break. I just spoke with Mark Mayer the day before yesterday, and he told me that the teacher called him privately into her office because she believed he had orchestrated the hilarious distraction. However, he convinced her that he was totally innocent, and she believed it since he was always one of the goody-goody students who didn't concoct stunts like that. We later discovered that the culprits were the usual group of class clowns and a few extras who thought it would be a real coup to upstage the carefully prepared lesson. They secretly stayed after school a couple of days earlier to figure out when they would interrupt and exactly where they would sit in the auditorium. It worked out even more ridiculously than they had expected, with the teacher being repeatedly surprised and confused; whenever she was set to punish one student, another one distracted her with his or her loudly broadcast plea. In the end, I suppose we did learn something about the U.S. political process and how it can easily become chaotic and unpredictable.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 13, 2016): When I was growing up, our family would travel twice each year to visit my father's father who lived by Pelham Parkway and Williamsbridge Road in the Bronx. My Dad was the driver and I was the navigator; we would follow a familiar route of crowded highways to an unglamorous but consistently reliable and inexpensive place called the Andrea Motel (which still exists today) adjacent to the Cross Bronx Expressway, where all of us would stay in a single large room for several days. We would drive over to my grandfather's apartment; he was on the top floor of a six-floor brick housing project constructed shortly after World War II. Even today, I can recall the smell and atmosphere of his place--a combination of Eastern European Jewish food, a stack of Yiddish newspapers, dishes and silverware which had been made decades earlier, and my aging grandfather himself who was thrilled to see us and mostly loved to tell personal stories about the "good old days" before "everything started changing." I found out later that he had led a complicated life from growing up in a border town named Brest-Litovsk where his father made and sold flour from grains, and where he emigrated in 1910 at the age of 20 to the United States to avoid being drafted into the Russian army. Naturally he was soon drafted into the U.S. Army and served in World War I before working most of his life as a subway conductor on the D train. I got to know the local playground, filled with graffiti about the New York Mets and Jets and some less savory topics, and even became streetwise at a young age with the occasional homeless person, drug addict, juvenile delinquent, and a cross-section of Bronx characters which were entirely different from the relatively sheltered existence in my insular middle-class Baltimore neighborhood.
One day in my sixth-grade history class back in Baltimore, our teacher asked if any of us had been to New York City. I responded that I visited every year which surprised her and the class. She asked me to describe one of my trips, and when I tried my best to portray an accurate portrait, she kept correcting me to intersperse frequently-heard media stereotypes like enormously tall buildings, tourists, taxis, theater, and late-night cafes. I explained that perhaps part of Manhattan might be like that, but Pelham Parkway was entirely different. She refused to believe that my grandfather's building had only six floors and that the kids there were a lot like the ones back home except they rooted for the Mets instead of the Orioles and tended to interrupt more often and more confidently. I explained that the local eating spot was an ancient-looking diner with all green walls and tables which closed even earlier than the ones in Baltimore and had odd menu items like blintzes, potato pancakes, borscht, and pea soup; the waitresses seemed almost as old as my grandfather. The teacher's retort was about the Automat where you paid coins and had your food delivered by a machine. The class looked back and forth between us, totally amazed and confused, trying to figure out which fantastic-sounding tale was true and who was inventing impossible stories.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 7, 2016): When I was in kindergarten and first grade, there was a weekly exercise to encourage us to save money. We were each required to figure out a way of bringing in a quarter once a week to add to a kind of savings account. I remember that it was challenging to invent a way to get a quarter one way or another, sometimes by doing work around the house, and it was even more difficult not to spend it on something like candy or all kinds of other tempting goodies. Somehow, over the course of the school year, these eventually added up to one hundred quarters, which were then used to purchase a fifty-dollar U.S. savings bond with an initial face value of twenty-five dollars. Like the quarters, these bonds couldn't be spent immediately; we had to wait a half year for them to be redeemable which seemed like an eternity. We were encouraged not to cash in the bonds even when we were finally permitted to do so, in order for them to accumulate interest over a period of years. This was emotionally tough, but eventually I became adjusted to the idea of having money which was growing but which I wouldn't actually spend until some unknown time in the future. I continued to track the interest schedule for years, figuring out how much the savings bonds were worth as I was growing up. As a kid, I had no idea what I would actually do with the money--I had several alternative plans, but kept changing my mind about every month. As time continued to pass, these bonds surpassed their face values and kept growing. Many students spent these immediately, being unable to resist getting a bicycle or something else which they could actually use. Many other students weren't even able to save up enough in the first place, either literally being unable to afford to spare quarters or, much more often, not having the discipline or psychological ability to give up something known in the present for something ambiguous in the future. More than half the class never purchased a single savings bond.
For whatever reasons, after my family moved to a different school district, the new school didn't belong to this U.S. government program, so for several years I didn't purchase any new bonds and held onto the old ones. The next time I received any of these savings bonds was when I received a surprisingly high number of them for my Bar Mitzvah. Nowadays, you almost never hear about anyone giving someone a U.S. government bond as a present. All of these including the original ones continued to accumulate interest, until finally I cashed them in gradually while I was in college, each time to avoid having to borrow money. I redeemed the final one just after my twenty-first birthday, shortly before I found a summer job between my junior and senior years which for the first time paid me more than my total expenses. From this summer job, and once again resisting the temptation to buy lots of new clothing or to move out of my one-room attic apartment, I was able to accumulate over one thousand dollars in the summer of 1981--which my Dad then tricked me into putting mostly into an IRA account so I once again had nearly all of my money in something which I couldn't actually spend until I was at least 59-1/2. I diligently put as much into this and similar accounts as I legally could for the past 35 years, thus rarely having more than a small amount of money that was available to spend. Once I had set up my initial retirement account, I made my first investment in something which fluctuated in value. If it hadn't been for the first savings bond I began with as a five-year-old, everything might have been different afterward.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (September 11, 2016): I have always been a huge fan of music performed on instruments which had been popular a few hundred years ago. There aren't many people who can perform some of them including the baroque trumpet and the theorbo, but they have a unique sound when a competent ensemble is recreating a composition by Palestrina or debuting a new work from a modern composer using old instruments. At least since the 1990s, this festival occurred each July in Bennington, Vermont on the campus of Bennington College. Besides the music, I loved visiting several covered bridges, buying food at nearby farmers' markets, taking my car to a gas station where they cleaned my windshield and otherwise behaved as in the Great Depression, and walking through classic historic districts and the burial place of Robert Frost. Bennington College kept their rental costs low, so the public could attend all of these concerts for free. It was an ideal arrangement, with one tiny negative detail--the college refused to provide air conditioning in its performance halls including the main auditorium. The musicians repeatedly asked for window units, portable units, or whatever else could be provided due to the lack of central air conditioning, but were always met with the response that their rents were low and the school hadn't had air conditioning since its founding so it wasn't about to tamper with tradition.
Whether due to global warming or just bad luck, the summers became increasingly hot near the beginning of the 21st century. The Amherst Music Festival had to gradually accommodate visitors--giving out free bottles of water, keeping the doors open at all times, reducing the indoor lighting intensity, and providing dozens of portable fans scattered throughout the performance areas. These all helped a little, but each year seemed to be more oppressively hot and humid than the one before. Finally, in their last year, the temperature approached one hundred. During a production of an opera by Handel, the performers visibly sweated in their elaborate period costumes and the floor had to be repeatedly mopped in between scenes. Many musicians had to clean sweat off their instruments during brief breaks in their playing. During the final act in a packed auditorium, the conductor was forced to take an extra long break before the final scene to give the musicians sufficient time to recover and to prepare themselves for a particularly intense musical and dancing sequence. When the performers took their bows, there was a loud clunking sound and a wild scramble--not from the musicians or the performers, but from the audience where someone had fainted onto the hardwood floor. I guess that was the last straw, since the following year the festival was relocated to Connecticut College in a much less scenic part of New England (although with a bit of its own history) and where the tickets cost twenty dollars per performance instead of being free of charge. During the first year of this festival, the modern central air conditioning was so overpowering that I had to bring a sweater to each concert.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (August 1, 2016): In the late 1980s, I played the piano Tuesday and Thursday evenings at the Box Tree Restaurant on East 49th Street in Manhattan. It was one of the few places in the city where classical music was welcomed, and there was a special alcove on the second floor where the sound of the piano could be heard throughout the restaurant. There were some interesting perks to this job, including being paid in cash, and having my choice of meals each night at no extra charge. I soon developed my favorite food preparations which the chef abbreviated to a single word when I arrived, such as "spinach" or "dill." I got to know the waiters and waitresses and bus boys best; we would often chat whenever I stopped for a brief break. The maitre d', who was a rather fussy and particular fellow, usually told me the kinds of music he preferred, with the implication that if I were to perform something not on his list then it wouldn't bode well for my job security. Naturally I couldn't help being mischievous, and would periodically interpose something which I was certain he hadn't heard before including several of my own compositions. One day I decided to play a few songs from Scott Joplin's little-known opera "Treemonisha," and I was surprised when the maitre d' specifically complimented me on "Aunt Dinah Has Blowed De Horn." He insisted on my telling him the composer, but I intentionally kept it a secret. I also favored some of the lesser-known George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy tunes, being a huge fan of music from the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of my all-time favorites is "Kitten on the Keys" by Zez Confrey, which a fellow living in a basement apartment next door to me in my home town of Baltimore would request whenever he would catch me entering my house.
Some of the diners got to know me well, and would ask to hear the same tunes each time--usually a movement from a symphony or piano concerto which would present an interesting challenge without an orchestra being handy. One solution was to play "A Fifth of Beethoven" by Walter Murphy, based upon the first movement of the fifth symphony. I had memorized this piece during my junior year of high school when performing it made me extremely popular with my classmates. Upon hearing it, the maitre d' would comment that he didn't realize Beethoven had invented disco. "Moonlight Sonata" was requested so frequently that I almost always substituted something else like "Songs Without Words" excerpts by Mendelssohn or "Scenes from Childhood" by Schumann. The customers knew what I was doing but were mostly happy anyway, as was the maitre d' since these selections were near the top of his list. One snowy day in January, there was a drastic change in management and nearly all of us were soon terminated--not necessarily to the benefit of the restaurant which subsequently received some infamously scathing reviews. To console myself, I walked to the nearby library, found a copy of Market Wizards by Jack D. Schwager, and began a very different career.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (June 17, 2016): When I was a kid, I used to have a summer membership each year to two different swimming pools. The one where my family and many of my friends belonged was called Colonial Village, and featured a moderate-sized swimming pool with a diving board. My sister liked to try all kinds of fancy diving moves, while my brother would swim laps incessantly, oblivious to whatever else was going on around him. My favorite activity after some deep-water swimming was to go to the snack bar which featured Cohen's Coddies for 15 cents apiece--a chunk of fresh lightly fried fish between two Saltine crackers with optional spicy mustard to put on top. I later met Mr. Cohen who made these codfish paddies for decades, but that is another story which I have already described in previous reminiscences. I also belonged to a second swim club called Milford Mill which was much larger. In addition to the usual outdoor pool, there was an indoor pool which was ideal for frequent Baltimore rainy days, and since the club had formerly been a commercial quarry, it had been cleverly converted into a "big quarry" and a "small quarry" for swimmers. The big quarry had something like a zip line where you could go a long distance from the top into the water, along with a few islands and some very deep water. The small quarry was mostly for younger or much older swimmers who didn't want to be constantly distracted by the zip lines and some aggressive swimmers. The atmosphere at Milford Mill Swim Club wasn't nearly as genteel as it was at Colonial Village, with some rough kids and occasional juvenile delinquents. The club was featured in several movies including John Waters' Cry Baby and Barry Levinson's Liberty Heights. Not surprisingly, both of those directors were born in Baltimore.
I was playing tag with a few friends when I decided to try a contrarian strategy. It seemed logical to hide in the big quarry with its huge size and frequent distractions, but eventually my bright red hair would be noticed even from a long distance and I would soon be tagged by one of the faster swimmers. One day, I decided to go to the regular outdoor pool. Even though it was much smaller than either quarry, it sometimes became incredibly crowded with lots of kids and toy stuffed animals. I hid in the shallow water so that my hair was surrounded by a crowd of people just wading and not going anywhere, which made it almost impossible to see me unless you were a foot or so away. As a result, the other kids kept finding each other, but I remained undiscovered for more than a hour which was some kind of record in our group that stood for several weeks until someone hid in the bushes at the edge of the property (which we concluded was cheating). Unfortunately, time hasn't been kind to the Milford Mill Swim Club; it wasn't properly maintained in recent years and was eventually purchased by a mosque. The imam's living quarters were severely damaged last October in a fire set by kids of the same age as I had been when I used to swim there, between 11 and 13 years old.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 20, 2016): In the mid-1990s, I had a job with a company called ILX Systems which was run like an extended family. As part of my work, I sometimes walked or took the subway to train clients in using the ILX Workstation to help them accomplish more, partly because it would encourage them to get their colleagues to also order workstations to increase the company's monthly profit. I mostly visited users who were within walking distance in downtown Manhattan, and one day I was given the assignment of assisting a few people on the American Stock Exchange. The people I met there seemed to be repeatedly distracted by their co-workers, telephone calls, and being frequently alerted about trades for several securities for which they were making a market. Somehow they were still able to concentrate on what I was saying. It was impossible for me to find any of the people with whom I was meeting; someone who worked for the American Stock Exchange spent the entire day escorting visitors to those with whom they were scheduled to get together--not just for security, but primarily because it would have been impossible to find anyone without help. It was like being in a complex rat's maze, with passageways going in odd directions and with computers crowded everywhere to create numerous and almost random narrow passages. One area opened unexpectedly into a huge, ancient room where I could see the original ceiling and walls from when the building was first constructed. There were people running all around, making it necessary to constantly step aside to get out of their way. Just before I reached the exit, I turned around to take one final look at this unique building, and a fellow asked me, "Do you want to know what we really do around here?" I wasn't sure how to answer, so he told me, "Come over here and I'll show you."
This fellow introduced himself: "Call me Amadeo. Everyone does." He took me behind one of the specialists' desks, where the exchange had an arrangement with well-capitalized organizations which had the obligation to always set a bid and ask price for various securities. Unlike most of the other specialists, this fellow wasn't part of a corporation; he was a self-made man who had been doing this for decades and was about to retire. His name was Amadeo, and he patiently took me through his daily routine. "See that ticker up there?" he pointed to where prices were being reported as soon as anything traded. "I'm the one in charge of that security. Here, you can see the bid and ask prices. I'm going to outbid this fellow by one sixteenth, so I'll be the highest bidder and I'll pick up the next market sell order." He did so, and then said, "Now watch the same spot on the ticker. You'll see my trade going through for a thousand shares." Once that happened, he waited briefly while watching one monitor intently, and then told me, "Someone just hit my bid. Now, I'm going to sell those shares, so I'm placing an order one sixteenth below the current ask price. Then I'll just wait to be filled." Perhaps ten to fifteen seconds later, he suddenly announced, "There it is. Sold for a total profit of three eighths, four hundred and six hundred which equals one thousand. Where else can you make three-hundred seventy-five dollars a couple times a minute?" I was privileged to see this fellow at the end of his career, eager to show me how he had become so adept at his business. At one point, someone nearby shouted, "Joe needs us to take a hundred thousand XYZ. Who wants to buy some?" Amadeo immediately yelled, "I'm good for fifteen thousand." A few other specialists shouted that they would purchase five or ten thousand shares apiece, and pretty soon this fellow had found enough buyers to cover the entire sale. Amadeo patiently showed me a list of the securities he was trading, and asked me which one he should slightly outbid or underbid to make the next trade and why I would prefer that one over the others. "I can sell first and buy back second, instead of first buying and then selling. It works either way." He also showed me how much he was paying in commissions on each trade along with a constant stream of details, and then he would quiz me to see if I understood everything. I learned more in about a half hour than I did in the rest of my career combined about how experienced market makers do their job. I remember other exchange workers watching us astonished; apparently he had never selected anyone to be his apprentice before. Amadeo, if you are still around, thank you very much for that amazing lesson which has served me incredibly well throughout my career.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (April 20, 2016): With a socialist running for U.S. President, I am reminded of the years I had lived in New York City in the mid-1980s. My favorite theater was called Theater for the New City on 10th Street and 1st Avenue, and I still go to shows there just about every year. In those days, I would sometimes attend two or three performances per month, so I got to know the actors quite well. One older fellow, who looked remarkably like Ray Walston of "My Favorite Martian" fame, told me to return on a particular Saturday night because they would be having a bunch of old British socialists getting together for a sing-along. I thought he was kidding, but when I arrived he began to lead an entire large room of mostly expatriates from the U.K. in one classic British empire song after another. He dressed appropriately in a sequence of hilarious uniforms and hats including one which made him look like a South African general from around 1900. Periodically, he would make a toast "to the Queen" and everyone would reply after him, "To the Queen!" I almost felt as though I had been magically transported several decades back to London in the period between the two World Wars. My favorite song was entitled "Two Lovely Black Eyes" and it was the only one where I memorized both the catchy tune and the clever lyrics. I returned for a few years thereafter, as this was an annual event, and looked forward each time to singing loudly along with my favorite British drinking hall song.
A few weeks ago, I was visiting a friend named Kurt from Europe who was playing a CD of his favorite Italian arias sung by Luciano Pavarotti. Kurt just listened to them quietly until finally he recognized his favorite tune, "Vieni Sul Mar," which encouraged him to belt out his best bass voice along with the CD. As I listened, I said to myself, "Wait a minute. That's the same tune as 'Two Lovely Black Eyes,' but with unfamiliar words. Pavarotti must have stolen it." I looked up this song on the internet and it claimed to be either an ancient Russian ballad using different lyrics, or else it was allegedly Brazilian and was entitled "O Minas Gerais"--sung at all official events in that part of Brazil. Apparently no one wants to admit that they might have borrowed this centuries-old song from anyone else. I did a more intensive investigation, but it remains unclear where the tune actually originated. I guess everyone wants to claim ownership of anything which is so popular.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (January 26, 2016): When I was a kid, I used to love to listen to baseball games on the radio. I got into this habit from my mother's father, who would take me to several Orioles' games each year at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, and who would almost always be listening to the game and to any other sporting event if he wasn't there in person. I had a favorite transistor radio, which still works today, which I would put under my pillow and listen to especially during West Coast games which often didn't end until after 1 a.m. when I would be fast asleep. Even after I began to wake up at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. to deliver newspapers, I continued this habit. In recent years, even with all of the latest technology, I still purchase transistor radios. My favorite modern model is the Sony ICF-S10MK2. The radio is literally indestructible. When I had the first one, I would sometimes drop it until the battery holder literally didn't fit, and even then the batteries have stayed obediently within their slots even without the outer encasing shell. One day the radio stopped playing, so I put it into the trash. When I went to put the garbage outdoors, I heard music coming from the trash can; it was the radio which had revived itself. It still plays today. Another radio of the same model stopped working last weekend, and then started again two days later. The mechanism which shows you which station you are tuned to broke on one of them and you can see something which looks like a red rubber band sticking out, but you can still tune it by guessing roughly where you are on the dial--the sound is just as clear as before. The worst problem I have had with a few of these is that the volume control can deteriorate to the point where you can't play it softly. Not a single one of these has permanently stopped functioning. Another valuable feature is that you can put horrible expired batteries into it, and it will still run until eventually it sounds choppy and you know it's time to replace them with less used batteries which I had discarded from some device like the cable TV remote which is much snootier and only runs well on new ones. Exactly how this particular transistor radio is able to be repeatedly reincarnated is a mystery, but I accept it rather than questioning the process. Both AM and FM stations usually come in clearly, although the radio antenna will tend to break off unexpectedly after a few months. Several times, one of these radios began to break apart into two pieces, but I just gently pushed them back together into place. I have a shelf where I keep all of these which I have bought through the years. I can often be found carrying one when I am jogging, walking, or otherwise traveling from one place to another. Perhaps other owners of this radio don't have the patience to realize its magical powers, so it has become more difficult to find in recent years and--with fewer vendors from which to purchase it--the price has increased from ten dollars around the turn of the century to roughly eighteen dollars today. If you like buying items from the world's best-known online store where they don't care about making a profit as long as their stock price is high (a.k.a. Amazon), it is available there. Luckily I still have one unopened in its original package from the "good old days" as a backup in case I get tired of reusing one of the old workhorses. In some ways, this radio is like the Model A Ford from the 1930s--it will keep running forever if you just keep it around and don't give up on it. Now I just have to wait a month for spring training to begin.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 24, 2015): In my previous reminiscence I mentioned visiting Iceland with my brother Dan in 2001, and how by the strangest coincidence of my absentmindedly bringing the wrong passport to the airport we fortunately ended up avoiding returning to the United States on September 11. When we were finally on a flight from Reykjavik to New York, the U.S. closed its airspace and we were forced to land with several other Icelandair flights full of passengers in Montreal. The immigration procedure is to go through United States customs while still in Canada, instead of after returning to the U.S. as is the case when visiting most other countries. In those days, as it was until very recently, it was illegal for most Americans to visit Cuba, so many would sneak in by first flying to a Canadian or a Mexican city and then taking a nonstop flight from there to Havana. The Cuban government knew that they shouldn't stamp U.S. passports because if an American were discovered to have visited Cuba then he or she was typically fined about ten thousand dollars with larger penalties for repeat violations. So Cuba would give U.S. visitors a driver's-license-sized piece of cardboard called a Cuban identity card which would be stamped when entering and leaving that country. This card was supposed to be discarded after departing from Cuba, but many Americans would end up keeping it in their wallets as a souvenir of their adventure. This often proved to be a very expensive souvenir indeed, because when they attempted to re-enter via Canada or Mexico they would sometimes end up getting searched in order to find the Cuban identity card as indisputable proof of an illegal visit. I believe that a U.S. government agency paid bonuses to customs inspectors who discovered such identity cards.
There were certain profiles of people who would be searched much more frequently than other passengers because it was considered more likely that they would have visited Cuba: two guys traveling together; anyone who wore straw hats and brightly colored shirts; anyone who attempted to board a U.S.-bound flight shortly after another flight had arrived from Havana; anyone who traveled at certain times of the year when it was popular to tour Cuba; and perhaps anyone who didn't look as though attending a Canadian hockey game was a likely reason for a visit. By coincidence, my brother and I fit all of the above criteria, so when we were in the airport in Montreal, Dan and I were pulled aside by two U.S. customs inspectors. Instead of asking me to open my luggage, then asked me to take out my wallet, which immediately alerted me to what was going on since I had read books about this topic. "We didn't go to Cuba in case that was what you were thinking about," I foolishly remarked. Naturally, this encouraged one fellow to literally take out each credit card, license, shopper's discount card, library card, and every single bill in my wallet--and then to repeat the process, just to be sure that he didn't miss the Cuban identity card. During this time, I kept making sarcastic remarks about how they should be searching for real criminals and what a beautiful place Cuba must be for them to be so diligent in picking through my wallet. Finally, they let us go without examining my brother's wallet or our luggage, so I figured that must be the end of it. Which it was, for awhile, until I went abroad a year later and was detained upon returning by customs inspectors for more than a half hour while being interrogated with personal questions about the "purpose of my visit" before being allowed to enter. I assumed that this was some odd new process implemented after 9/11 and that I was simply misfortunate in being randomly selected for the extra intense screening, but then it happened on each of the next few occasions when I returned to the United States--including once when I entered via automobile near Niagara Falls from a visit to friends in Ontario. Finally, when it happened one more time when flying back to the U.S. and the person questioning me seemed to be much more understanding than most of them had been, I asked him if there was a reason that I kept being stopped. "Yes. I can't give you details, but you have been on a certain list since September 2001 which requires us to detain you each time you re-enter the country. I apologize for any inconvenience this has caused you." "Can I get my name removed from this list?" I asked, finally realizing that it wasn't just a sequence of random searches. "Here is a form you can fill out and mail to Homeland Security. I can't guarantee what will happen." After returning home, I carefully completed the lengthy questionnaire and mailed it. Several months later, I received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security which informed me that they couldn't tell me whom they contacted or what they discovered, but my name was removed from the list. Since then, I haven't had any problems when coming back to the United States. A few morals of this story include the following: 1) it is sound advice not to talk back to officials who may have the power to exact unexpected revenge; 2) there is a way sometimes to resolve issues if you can calmly identify them; and 3) even if you're not paranoid it doesn't mean that you aren't being watched one way or another.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 11, 2015): Near the end of the summer in 2001, my brother Dan and I were set to fly from New York City to Iceland. Just as we were about to board the airplane, a burly fellow blocked me from entering. "Is everything okay?" I inquired, puzzled as to what could be causing a problem. "Yes, you don't have a valid passport," the official declared, "so we can't allow you to go to Iceland." "I am sure that it hasn't expired and there shouldn't be any other difficulties, so please tell me what is wrong." "Certainly. The photo looks nothing like you and the names don't match either." I looked at my passport and to my surprise I realized that I had grabbed it without checking it--and it was my wife's instead of my own. Chagrined, I explained that there wasn't nearly enough time to return home and back again in time for the flight. "In that case, you'll have to go tomorrow at the same time and return one day later, so you won't be coming back on September 11," the official declared in a tone which made it clear that arguing was pointless. What did it matter if we were returning on September 11, 2001 anyhow? Surely the following day wouldn't be much different. In those days before modern instant messaging, I found a special machine which accepted money for making long-distance telephone calls. I put in a ten-dollar bill--and nothing happened other than the machine happily swallowing it up without giving me any minutes to make my call. Fortunately, the person in charge of its maintenance was there by coincidence a few minutes later, found my bill stuck in the machine, and let me try again a second time which succeeded. Our good luck continued when the people with whom we were staying allowed us to adjust our scheduled visit forward by one day on both ends. As it turned out, it would have impossible to return to any airport in the United States on September 11, and our September 12 flight for the same reason ended up being postponed until the 13th--which was almost postponed yet again. I had to literally drag my brother out of a swimming pool in the Reykjavik suburbs in order to barely arrive in time to board the last van heading to Iceland's main airport that day, where several reporters were interviewing people about the tragic events of that week. On September 11 itself, Dan and I had a rare opportunity to attend special religious services that evening in honor of the victims of the terrorist attack; these were held simultaneously in every house of worship in Iceland. I vividly remember our lighting candles as others around us were also doing--most of whom had never visited the United States. In addition to my foolishness in bringing the wrong passport for the flight departing the U.S., there was an even thornier problem with immigration officials when we attempted to return to the United States which I will talk about in my next reminiscence.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (October 23, 2015): My Mom was raised in Rochester, New York, which BestPlaces.net describes as averaging 86 inches of snow each year. Some of the white stuff has already fallen there this autumn. According to my mother, the plows would routinely pile up this snow in whatever manner would interfere as little as possible with daily activity, and people would go about their usual business. When she was fifteen years old, my Mom moved to Baltimore and was excited about seeing her new high school--Forest Park--on the very next day. When she arrived at the school, however, the doors were locked and no one was there. Thoroughly baffled, my Mom concluded that she must have gotten the starting time wrong or perhaps there was a special Maryland holiday which didn't exist "up north." She returned home to tell her parents, and they were convinced that she was just afraid to go or was making up a tale. So my grandfather telephoned the school, and was puzzled when no one answered. Finally he contacted the mother of someone in my Mom's class who stated matter-of-factly, "Didn't you see the snow outside this morning? There must be four or five inches of it already and it's still coming down." "Sure, I saw it when I woke up," my grandfather responded. What does that have to do with the school being closed?" The person on the other end gasped briefly, paused for several seconds, and finally continued: "Maybe it's different where you come from, hon, but a couple of inches is enough to close everything down around here, not just the schools. I'll bet your street hasn't been plowed yet, and before you go shopping you might want to call ahead so you won't be disappointed. Talk with you soon." After my grandfather hung up the phone, all three of them laughed uproariously. Imagine closing school because of snow! What a truly crazy city they had moved to. Then they laughed some more. My Mom passed away last month and on the day of her funeral the schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County closed two hours early because of excessive heat. My Mom would have loved to tell about that also. I don't usually include links in my reminiscences, but you can click on my Mom's obituary here from the Baltimore Sunpapers which was brilliantly written by their senior writer Fred Rasmussen.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (September 25, 2015): When I was at college, I improved my grades by getting to know the smartest students in each of the classes. One fellow was especially knowledgeable about mathematics, so we ended up working together on numerous school projects. He had grown up in a relatively insular neighborhood in Baltimore where it was considered unusual to go "all the way downtown" to buy clothing or to attend a play or concert. I decided to surprise him by inviting him to visit New York City which he knew only from television and movies. I intentionally selected non-touristy activities so he could see what the city was really like. I wasn't nearly as familiar with New York in those days as I am now, but I knew enough to take him to see part of Brooklyn, and especially to go to restaurants with cuisines which he hadn't tried before including one upscale place which had just been opened by the People's Republic of China. He had never been to a Broadway show, so I got tickets near the front center for a Saturday matinee performance of the musical "Nine." I was familiar with the show's dialogue, so I was surprised to discover that many of the actors and actresses decided to have fun that afternoon and improvised many new lines. They ended up trying to outdo each other with how outrageously they could invent creative dialogue. At one point, the female lead addressed me directly to ask, "Who are you, and where are you from?" Completely startled, I responded, and the back-and-forth patter continued for a few minutes before she resumed with the actual show. My friend barely blinked an eye, telling me afterward that he thought it was a typical part of a Broadway performance to have a dialogue with someone on stage. He ended up enjoying the trip immensely, although I noticed that he didn't return for several more years so perhaps he was more overwhelmed by our experience than I had realized at the time.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (August 4, 2015): Since it is the middle of the summer, perhaps a relevant reminiscence would be recalling my worst summer camp experiences. I went to a huge variety of these kinds of places, starting at a local religious camp when I was not yet in kindergarten, and ending with what turned out to be my favorite place called the Walden School--which I enjoyed so much that I return each year as I did during the past week. Now, back to the horrors of pre-Walden camps. Camp counselors are usually adept in getting along with all kinds of people and are mostly great with kids, but a few of them take this kind of job to be in charge of whomever they can boss around. I remember one camp where two counselors disagreed vehemently about which one had the more athletic kids in his bunk. Unable to decide conclusively merely by bragging, they decided to settle the issue by putting us through a series of grueling drills. Such activities included racing uncleaned rowboats without oars but with plenty of rotted leaves and bird droppings (I'm not bad at paddling, I found out), carrying a load of bulky, sharp rocks across a huge sunny field riddled with yellowjackets (like bees, but they tend to sting much more frequently), seeing how fast we could run through a busy parking lot with our shoes untied and quite a bit of traffic passing through, and--best of all--challenging us to sneak the farthest into the girls' section before getting caught. Our consolation prize at the end of that day was receiving an orange dreamsicle at the end for being on the winning side; oddly enough, this image remains sharp in my mind decades later. At one allegedly religious camp, we watched a decidedly secular close-up video of someone dissecting a live frog; this permanently steered me away from a medical career. On a similar theme, we encountered the skeleton of a dead dog on the same hike where we ran out of water in our canteens. This time, our counselor actually came through by begging a local store for a bag of ice which he didn't have money to pay for; we quickly melted it and drank the whole thing out of a single large collective plastic bag shared by the dozen of us. On the positive side, the more creative counselors tended to be less sadistic and we had a chance to make all kinds of cool stuff to bring home. Ah, the good old days.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (June 29, 2015): When I began high school, there was an assembly which we were compelled to attend which featured a married couple from Holland who had barely escaped being deported to the concentration camps by the Nazis. They were rescued by Americans, and performed a catchy original tune about American jeeps saving their lives. Afterward, I went to talk with them, and found out that they had the same last name as a pair of lively twin boys who were in my class and who were their kids. The parents found out that I was a competent pianist, and I discovered that they had started their own church about one mile from the house where I was living with my parents. They wanted someone to play piano for their Sunday morning services, so we quickly reached an agreement and I began the following week. It was a lot of fun, since the pastor had a terrific sense of humor. On one song, he would play guitar while I was performing on piano, and then we would quickly switch instruments for the second verse and back again for the third verse as if nothing unusual had happened. After services, there would often be a special collection of Dutch food with which I wasn't familiar at first but soon came to enjoy more than most American cuisine. At lunch, I met some unique people in the congregation who came from all over the world. After lunch we would sometimes go back to their main house adjacent to the church and perform music together for a few hours. As with everything in life, I thought this might continue forever, but sadly at one of these performances the church committee took a vote and decided 13-12 that they wanted a different pastor. Forced out of the church which they had started three decades earlier, their lives changed dramatically and I never saw them again--except of course in Facebook photos where the past goes on forever. Even more sadly, one of their twin boys in my high school class died of cancer a few years ago. I sometimes get together with the other twin brother and his older sister who love to relive the good old days. Even though the last church performance was 36 years ago, I can still vividly remember the details of the building and the faces and the mood, and even the taste of the homemade Dutch lunches.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 26, 2015): In October and November 1987, I spent some time in Tokyo and had an opportunity to experience their unusually extended period of prosperity shortly before it ended. Not wanting to pay too much for a place to stay, I was lucky to find an affordable inn called "Ijinkan" which in Japanese means foreign-people's house. Of all the people staying at the inn, really a small private house, I was the only one who wasn't working and who was visiting for a relatively short time. It is almost always much more interesting to be with people who are required to learn about the local culture because they have become part of it through their employment. At Ijinkan, which was centrally located although a somewhat longer than average walk to public trains and the "chikatetsu" (the Tokyo subway), there were six people from Ghana. The Japanese trust the Ghanaians to do skyscraper construction, so all of the people there routinely worked on the outsides of buildings many stories high. They taught me how to eat fufu, beginning with a potato or tuber which would be mashed in the center of a huge tray, encircled by several bowls. Each of these was filled with a different "sauce" such as vegetables, fish, legumes, and other choices, often accompanied by a kind of spicy liquid. We would eat communally, all sharing the same central tray, by grabbing a piece of the fufu and dipping it into one of the surrounding bowls. I learned how to prepare a few of the sauces and experimented with my own variations which they would laugh about whenever I got too creative. Fortunately, besides their native language of Hausa, they spoke fluent English with a lilting accent. They never got tired of asking me about life in America and dreamed about visiting there, especially New York City. I got along best with a fellow named Kwality. We would explore many of the neighborhoods of Tokyo together. With my bright red hair and beard and elevated height compared to most Japanese people, and his even taller and coal-colored features, lots of people stared at us. Sometimes older folks would walk up to us and touch us to be certain that we were real.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (April 14, 2015): My personal participation in the U.S. political process dates back to 1976. In that year, Jimmy Carter's brother Chip addressed our completely filled high school auditorium, explaining how the U.S. would be a better place if his brother were elected. I was rather unimpressed by his rambling and overly patriotic speech which left lots of issues unaddressed, but unfortunately there was no forum for asking questions. Later the same year, I became involved in helping the campaign manager for a local candidate named Tucky Heller. The campaign manager and I knew each other well because he was a teacher at the high school which I attended. In the contest, there were nine people competing to fill three open seats. My first job in the campaign was to go around the county putting bright blue signs on lawns, which involved stapling the signs to posts and pounding the posts into the dirt. I was chosen mainly because I was the youngest and among the strongest volunteers in the campaign--and perhaps more importantly because I was eager and unlikely to complain about the hot and humid working conditions with almost no breaks. By the end of one full day of doing this, I was completely exhausted from the physical effort. My favorite part of the contest was when I was recruited to hand out literature to all voters on election day at the school across the street from my house endorsing Heller's candidacy. This was a lot of fun, especially since many friends and neighbors recognized me when they were heading into the school to vote so I had a chance to chat with lots of people. By law, I had to remain a certain distance away from the school's entrance at all times, and was occasionally asked to move several feet back by one of several supporters of Heller's opponents. The next day, I was delighted to discover that Tucky Heller wound up in first place among everyone who had voted at that school. Unfortunately, she didn't fare as well in the rest of the county and ended in fifth place overall. Since only the top three finishers were the victors, she missed out. I guess there weren't enough volunteers in the campaign to put up signs and to assist at all of the many other schools. I have never again become as actively involved in politics as I had been at the age of sixteen.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (March 22, 2015): When I was a kid in Baltimore during the 1960s, we had all kinds of food delivered to us by people who specialized in particular items. My Dad used to go to work very early with the carpool, so usually it was my Mom who answered the door when they rang. The egg man always tried to get my mother to buy brown eggs or something unusual, but she would rarely vary from her favorite one dozen large. The same was true with the milkman; I used to peek at wonderful-looking ice cream and other goodies, but My mom usually bought exactly one gallon of whole milk and nothing else. The fellow who brought kosher meat had the greatest variety, and it took my Mom the longest time to decide. Often she and my Dad would get into arguments later about what they should have gotten instead, or why the lamb chops had become so expensive, or whether the supplier had changed for the chicken. Less frequently, a fellow would walk around with a cart selling fresh fruits and vegetables; with his darker skin and unusual accent, it was almost as though he had arrived from a different world. There was another fellow--none of these were women--who would bring all kinds of household goods like brooms, washcloths, and sponges; I would usually already have left for school by the time he arrived, so I mostly heard about him second hand. I took all of this for granted, until quickly all of them somehow disappeared within a year or two. Along with our neighbors, we ended up getting almost all of these from a supermarket located about 1-1/2 miles away. I was puzzled why the world had changed and what had happened to all the people whom we used to see every week for many years, telling variations of the same jokes which I got to know by heart and swapping stories about our families. Many years later, When I was on the back streets of Istanbul, I saw a fellow strutting slowly down the street holding a cart laden with fruits and vegetables, singing an unfamiliar tune. One woman opened her fourth-story window: the man stopped and she rapidly lowered a bucket on a rope with a stack of money. The vendor took the cash, put bunches of bright-colored goodies in the basket, and then the woman carefully raised the bucket using the rope back up to her window. With the transaction complete, the man leisurely continued his stroll while resuming his strange song. In my mind I was eight years old again, watching and listening to the egg man hawking his brown and blue delicacies.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (February 24, 2015): In the spring of 2002 I visited Istanbul for 1-1/2 weeks. It's a fascinating city which everyone should see at least once. Turkey had gone through a financial crisis in 2001, so its currency had plummeted to more than one million to the U.S. dollar. The fluctuations remained dramatic and gyrated wildly in real time, so it made it challenging to exchange money. One day, instead of going to the local bank where they seemed to take about a half hour and required all kinds of paperwork, I found a branch located a few blocks away in Sultanahmet where they were much more organized, where no paperwork was required other than briefly flashing a passport, and where the rates were more favorable--at least officially. I noticed that of all the money changers, one woman was incredibly efficient and there was a huge line waiting for her which moved many times faster than all of the other lines. Intrigued, I stood in that line and observed what was happening ahead of me. Because the exchange rate of the Turkish lira was changing so rapidly, the business only posted a new rate after it had recently changed by roughly a half percent to one percent in either direction. Occasionally the rate would jump by two or three percent either way. Watching carefully, I noticed something which completely fascinated me. The woman would take the money from the American, British, German, Japanese, or other foreign tourist, and would quickly enter the current rate in her official computer database. She would then do some paperwork or otherwise bide her time for a few seconds until the rate changed, at which point she would immediately complete the transaction. If the rate moved in her favor, she used the original rate at the time the tourist deposited his or her money with her. If the rate moved against her, then she would enter the new rate on her computer. She'd point out to the customer that the rate had changed, and therefore the customer would have to accept the "new official rate." Since she didn't enter the new figures whenever the change was in her favor--which on average happened half the time--she pocketed the entire difference for herself. With about fifteen people ahead of me in line, I became an expert in her approach and computed how much money she was making from this clever form of arbitrage: at least fifty U.S. dollars per hour and closer to one hundred dollars during busy volatile periods, which was probably many times her official salary and likely put her total compensation on a par with the bank president. When I arrived to change several hundred dollars into Turkish lira, I put down my money. As she had done before, she waited for the next tick; when it moved against her by more than one percent, she pointed out the new rate. Having learned her tricks, I told her that since she had accepted my money at the rate posted at that time, she was legally bound to abide by it. As she hesitated, I pointed out what I had observed while waiting in line, and commented that her supervisor might be very interested in knowing more about her amazingly profitable method. She understood my implication and quickly gave me the original rate which saved me about five dollars. This wasn't my only experience that day with local workers enhancing their official salaries; one taxicab driver a few hours later tried to fool me into believing that I had given him hundred-thousand-lira notes instead of the actual million-lira bills which I had used to pay him. Fortunately, someone else had warned me about this scam in advance, so I had separated my money in a way where the sub-million denominations were in a separate, more easily accessible wallet which I hadn't used to pay him. The fellow was baffled when I showed him what I had done, and I even quizzed him to see if he knew the names of the people on these bills which I had taken time to memorize. In the end, he missed out on the moderately generous tip which I usually like to give when I'm traveling. I looked for some sort of policeman but of course none was to be found nearby. I'm just guessing, but the cab driver probably learned his scheming while plying his trade near the center of the tourist trade and couldn't resist continuing it since it yielded him almost twice as much money as a more honest approach. Possibly these two events happening nearly simultaneously was a mere coincidence, or perhaps an unexpected crisis encourages some to capitalize upon morally dubious opportunities which often arise during periods of confusion. As an interesting footnote, not long afterward when the U.S. dollar was fluctuating rapidly versus the euro--although not nearly as crazily as the Turkish lira had done--another woman tried almost the identical scam at a bank in Venice. She was stunned that I could figure out what she was doing since there were only two people ahead of me--just enough to observe her method and to recall what had happened in Istanbul. My father was with me at the time, and he was startled to see her give me several additional coins after I insisted upon it. My Dad asked me, "How did you figure out so fast that she tried to cheat you?" I told my Dad: "Two years ago I would have been easily fooled, but if you live long enough eventually you learn a few things. As Yogi Berra supposedly said, 'you can observe a lot just by watching.'"
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (February 8, 2015): When I was at the Johns Hopkins University in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a room where almost everyone went in order to share the same minicomputer (Maryland 110, for those who are familiar with the school). There were perhaps fifty to one hundred teachers and students throughout the campus simultaneously connected to a DEC-10 minicomputer; each person had the illusion that he or she was exclusively using the machine, whereas it was actually a timesharing method where each user would get perhaps one hundredth of a second of usage out of each second of real time. Such was the state of computers in those days, before each person had his own machine and more than a decade before the internet would become a dominating force of technology. The main problem for the administration was in allocating time on this computer; their approach was to allot each person exactly two hours per day. Once that quota was exceeded, you had to leave your seat and let the next person take over. It was absolute bedlam on Tuesday afternoons and evenings, because a popular introductory computer class inevitably had their homework assignments due on Wednesday mornings. In order to clear out the rush of students so I could do my own work, I assisted the beginners with their programming assignments--thus teaching me to quickly find bugs in computer programs which remains a useful skill even though I'm not very talented at designing such programs from scratch. By around 10 or 11 p.m., it was finally possible to get some real work done. If there was a lot of homework assigned to me on any particular day, which was (and still is) unfortunately rather common at this institution, I would be reluctant to leave at 2 a.m. when the guards would come in to force us to leave until 7 a.m. the following morning. Several of my fellow students and myself learned all kinds of tricks for stalling the guards into waiting longer before kicking us out, such as getting them interested in a video game or bribing them with their favorite food and drink. After several weeks, we knew exactly who could be persuaded with Tugboat Annie's french fries or by being invited to compete in one of the earliest person vs. person video combat games. I routinely carried around chocolates of one kind or another, a habit which I have continued until the present time. It's amazing to think about how different it is today where most students can't remember the internet not existing and there almost doesn't exist a computer which is shared by many simultaneously.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (December 1, 2014): When I was a kid growing up in Baltimore, our family would frequently visit the Bronx where my father's father lived, in order to spend time with him. While we were driving along the New Jersey Turnpike, I naturally became curious about the city on the other side of the Hudson River. What was Manhattan really like, anyway? I didn't find out for many years, until one fine day in 1971 when my Mom decided to have all of us get on the subway at Pelham Parkway in the Bronx and take it to midtown. The ride itself was an unexpected delight of people of all kinds getting on and off. I wondered what would happen when all the seats were taken; I got my answer when people were forced to stand and to hold onto the railings. The ride seemed to last forever, until finally many people crowded out at the same stop. We took an entertaining tour of the NBC studios at Rockefeller Center, watching as the workers put together television programs. I wondered how they could coordinate everything so precisely to avoid any obvious breaks between each of the presentations. Back outside, the smell of roasting chestnuts encouraged me to get Dad to buy a bag of them for me, although they tasted very different from what I had expected: oddly nutty and chewy and not at all like peanuts. I was surprised how many people were walking around--where we lived in Baltimore it was common to drive even to travel one block. I remember looking up at the Empire State Building nearby, and then on one street gazing all the way downtown and noticing an even taller building which I didn't recognize. "That's the World Trade Center," my Dad said. "Is that the building which keeps getting taller each time we visit Grandpa?" I asked. "Yes, that's it. I think they're finally done constructing it." Finally, when it was time to return to the Bronx, my sister asked my Dad to buy the New York Times which was very thick, so it must have been a Sunday. After she looked through it, my sister started crying. "What's wrong?" my Mom asked her. "Someone stole the comics!" my sister wailed. My Mom complained to the newspaper vendor and discovered that the venerable Times, in spite of its heft, doesn't have any comic strips. To my amazement, the vendor gave her the comic section from another newspaper at no charge. Just about everything I thought I knew about New York City changed on that day.
About forty of us took the two-hour bus ride--it was the first time most of us had traveled so far together. One usually shy student unexpectedly began telling a story, and then someone else embellished it, and pretty soon we invented some hilarious tales which I wish I had written down. I had attended opera performances in Baltimore, but something about being in an "exotic" place made it seem special, plus I was surrounded by people whom I had mostly known since I was seven years old. Afterward, we went together to a spacious Greek restaurant which featured a troupe of dancers performing on one side of the room. After I enjoyed moussaka and tzatziki for the first time, all of us got up one by one and joined the troupe, including Mr. Rivkin himself, trying our best to imitate the style of the professionals. Mr. Rivkin even initiated a few dances of his own--we found out later that he had lived in Greece as part of a bridge-playing European tour (yes, the card game). Some of the other customers thought we were part of the planned show and eagerly threw one-dollar bills at the feet of the most talented improvisational dancers in our class. 37 years later, Mr. Rivkin is still teaching languages, and I'll finally have the opportunity to watch him lead a Latin class next week. Perhaps we can go to an interesting Greek restaurant afterward.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (September 19, 2014): I'm always fascinated when I meet people who have seen me before. Sometimes I'll run across someone who remembers me from a conference where I spoke a few years back, or from having been in one of my classes at school. We'll often share memories of teachers that we knew or what happened with unique folks from the "good old days". Recently, a potential subscriber contacted me because he had read one of my reminiscences from 2007 about Barrow Lodge, a summer camp I attended with my parents and my younger sister (and my younger brother too, although he was inside my mother's clearly pregnant belly at the time) a few weeks before starting first grade. This fellow, somewhat older than myself, claimed that he had gone to Barrow Lodge the same year and remembered seeing me there along with my younger sister. This seemed rather far-fetched, so I asked him what he recalled about me. "Each morning, you'd be sitting by the piano before breakfast, playing a song from a Broadway musical, and your sister would be right next to you singing along." This comment completely stunned me, because I was certain that no one but my parents would have remembered such precise details from way back in 1966--and perhaps even my parents have forgotten them. When I arrived at Barrow Lodge, I immediately explored the entire grounds as kids love to do. I was so excited to see a piano, tuned reasonably well, that I would rush to get there each morning before anyone else could beat me to it. When I was a kid, my favorite piano sheet music at home included the songs from "My Fair Lady" and "South Pacific"; at the age of six I felt most competent performing those tunes from memory in front of strangers. My sister, at that time only 3-1/2 years old, didn't want to be left out. She learned some of the easier words and music from the same songs, sat next to me on the piano bench, and eagerly joined in as much as possible. This fellow claims to have some old photographs of Barrow Lodge, so it would be a thrill to see what the place used to look like either with or without me in the images. Meanwhile, if you remember me from way back when, or even from a few years ago, please send me an email and let me know about it.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (August 12, 2014): Usually we think of the younger generation as being more "hip" and "with it", but there can be exceptions. In 1970, my Dad surprised me by purchasing a book entitled New York Times Great Songs of the Sixties. I scanned excitedly through the tunes and recognized many of them, but one by the Beatles was unfamiliar. Being pretty good at sight-reading, I began tentatively singing "Hey Jude". My Dad stared at me and blurted, "You really don't know it? Let me sing it for you," and proceeded to give a rousing rendition right there in the car. I wasn't accustomed to my father being such an energetic performer, and I was embarrassed not to know it. Over the next year, I ended up hearing "Hey Jude" on the radio dozens of times, and I quickly learned to play it by heart on the piano. My Dad is still ahead of me when it comes to pop culture; earlier today he decided that he wanted to be able to make a telephone call from his iPad instead of having to walk over to his land line, so he found an appropriate "app", downloaded it, and called me. I've done some interesting things in my lifetime including feeding emus in Australia and watching a centuries-old corn worship ceremony in an Ecuadorian village, and I even remember seeing one of the original Apple computers in the 1970s, but I have yet to download an "app". One of these days, perhaps. Someone once told me that Betamax had been made obsolete by VHS, which puzzled me since I hadn't personally used either one, and now both of these have long since gone into oblivion. My ignorance of television shows is even more glaring, but on the other hand I can describe in excruciating detail most of the episodes of "Columbo" and "Northern Exposure". Most things in life either interest me intensely or else not at all.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (July 9, 2014): In October-November 1987, I was fortunate to be able to visit Tokyo during the final years of Japan's stock-market and real-estate bubble. On my first day, I was confused by jet lag and naturally puzzled by being in a completely different part of the world for the first time. Fortunately, a fellow who was able to speak English offered to help me. After assisting me in locating the traditional Japanese inn which I had booked in advance by old-fashioned snail mail, and arranging everything with the owner, he took me to what he assumed would be my favorite part of the city--which was Hiroo, a sort of "little America" something like the Chinatowns you find in many parts of the world. When we emerged in this particular Tokyo district, I laughed aloud at all the English-language signs and recognized many of the eating establishments as being well-known U.S. chain restaurants. My new friend asked me what I was laughing at; I tried to explain the incongruity of seeing a copy of an American neighborhood which was superficially accurate, but obviously foreign in so many ways which were difficult to quickly enumerate. I apologized for not being able to properly explain why I was repeatedly giggling. This helpful fellow accompanied me to one upscale restaurant, where in spite of the English-language menu and a clearly conscious attempt to copy the atmosphere of a similarly named place in the United States, there were numerous signs of local culture. The employees still said "Irasshaimase (welcome)" as each person entered; the wait staff would bow before greeting any customer personally; and the dishes included distinctly non-American features such as small sour plums next to each bowl of rice and chopsticks instead of American utensils. One American custom persisted in this particular place, which was a maddeningly slow level of service. My friend ended up arguing with the manager about this problem and we were asked to leave; before I could protest or do anything, he paid for both of us with no tip (another non-American touch) and suggested that we go somewhere else. I had read in a book about Japan that crossing your chopsticks before you depart any building signals that you're displeased, so before we left the restaurant, I took the pair of chopsticks at the top of my rice bowl and put them in the shape of the letter X. My friend laughed hilariously at what I had done; when I asked him to explain what was so humorous, he had the same difficulty I had experienced an hour earlier in explaining the cultural incongruities. We ended up leaving little America and taking the subway to a totally unpretentious and delicious Cambodian-style restaurant in a more traditional part of the city; afterward, my friend ended up walking me all the way back to my inn to make sure I didn't get lost in the dark amidst the confusing Tokyo street signs. In spite of my ignorance, I spent a fascinating two weeks and hope to return one day.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (June 6, 2014): In 2006 my wife and I had the privilege of visiting a small town named Hope, Alaska, which was one of the original gold-rush towns in that state at the end of the 1800s. We were there for a few days in the middle of September, which is not a popular time for tourists and featured beautiful autumn colors--almost all yellows, without the reds and oranges that I'm used to seeing on the East Coast. The main exception was the bright red fireweed which seemed to grow wild everywhere. There were several signs on front lawns because of the upcoming election, some of which promoted a candidate for governor I never heard of named Sarah Palin. We went inside a tiny restaurant; after we sat down, all of the people at the other tables grabbed their chairs and placed them around our table, figuring that we must be much more interesting than whatever they had previously been chatting about. We were soon barraged by friendly questions. "Where are you from?" they inquired. "We live in a small town in New Jersey with a population of about 40 thousand people." One woman laughed and said, "A small town around here is Sunrise where we moved a few years ago. Because there are five of us, the population increased by one third." One fellow started a business showing summer tourists how to pan for gold. I decided to walk around by myself early the next morning in the oldest part of town; when I looked back I thought I saw a wolf following me. I figured that wasn't possible, so I kept walking, and the wolf continued to track me. He didn't get any closer than about 25 feet, but he didn't get farther away either. I turned several corners and kept changing my route, figuring that he'd give up sooner or later, but he stayed the same distance behind me for about ten minutes. I finally walked past where I saw one older man relaxing outside on his porch and told him, "You won't believe this, but the wolf behind me has been keeping pace with me everywhere I go." He chuckled loudly and told me, "That old wolf has been following quite a few tourists around here for eight or nine years. He's completely harmless, but one time a grizzly bear came into town and he scared it away, so we make sure he has plenty to eat. Don't worry; after another fifteen minutes he'll give up." That's exactly what happened, almost to the minute; he turned away indifferently and trotted down the street to an unknown destination. The wolf had served as my personal escort in that quirky town. At the post office, the woman in charge chatted with each person who came in, asking surprisingly personal questions about their families, friends, and upcoming plans; there was also a bulletin board posted with a variety of handwritten notes addressed to other residents who would pick them up as part of their daily routine. Although the town had a strong internet connection and the usual modern amenities, the attitude and habits of the people in Hope perhaps hadn't changed very much since 1899.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 20, 2014): One of my earliest memories related to politics was the Presidential election of 1968. As the date approached for the November event, there was a lively discussion at school about who would win. Some of my third-grade friends and I decided to do an internal poll to see what most students thought about Humphrey vs. Nixon. There were about thirty people about my age who favored Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat. Only one blue-blooded fellow whose name ended in III, who could trace his family back to the Mayflower or some such ship, and who lived in one of the 19th-century mansions in the historic district on the other side of the main road openly wanted the Republicans to prevail. To me, it seemed like a lopsided contest. After all, wasn't my elementary school representative of the nation as a whole? Obviously it wasn't, since Nixon was declared the winner in a relatively close contest. At first, I was baffled--could there really be millions of people like our upper-crust schoolmate? Was it possible that some students lied about their choices? Several years later, I read an article which analyzed the same election. A number of university professors were asked about their preferences and most responded that they preferred Humphrey. However, a follow-up interview and some kind of analysis using eye measurements showed that many professors weren't telling the truth--they actually preferred Nixon, but didn't want to admit it openly for fear of being labeled too conservative by their colleagues or for unknown other reasons.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (April 30, 2014): In January 1992, I met Jack Rodney for the very first time in his adopted city of Seattle. In those days, he and his wife Robin were living in a modest house in a marginal neighborhood since that was all they could afford. My wife and I noticed that one side of the house next to the bathroom had undergone some recent construction efforts. I asked Jack about it, and he told us that while he was taking a shower one morning the bathroom wall on that side of the house collapsed--leaving him naked where the whole neighborhood could see him. Like all of Jack's tales which I would hear over the decades, they were a combination of reality and just enough exaggeration that the line remained blurred between truth and fiction. During our one-week visit, Jack took us on an extensive walking tour of the city from his point of view, being sure to inject political commentary, aesthetic criticism, and comparisons to his travels to other parts of the United States as we strolled through his favorite neighborhoods. Jack published several books about his personal experiences, created videos, composed songs, drew posters, and otherwise utilized his talents in numerous ways. Some of my favorite conversations in recent years happened when Jack was riding his bicycle to get into better shape; he called me from his cell phone to chat for as much as an hour at a time to encourage him to keep going while we were talking. He loved to comment on the people he met along the way, to describe the views in the distance, and to discuss the creative projects next on his agenda. Jack especially loved riding or walking along the waterfront anywhere in the world; during his annual treks to New York City and New Jersey, I would seek out those places which I thought he would most enjoy exploring with me. After several years battling cancer, Jack passed away less than a month ago. I'm going to miss those cheerful and colorful telephone calls with Jack telling me about all the amazing events he was witnessing during his bicycle journeys.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (April 3, 2014): I know a couple who are very devout believers in their faith. Since we are old friends, we like to attend any religious events where they are active participants. Several years ago we participated in a special occasion in New York City where the wife was singing along with a large choir as an important feature of the service. We made sure to arrive early, so she could see us clearly in the pews near the front. Most of the congregation were dressed conservatively and behaved more decorously than most audiences do at a symphony hall performance. At one point during the ceremony, I decided to look around at the lavish sculptures, carvings, and stained-glass windows which must have cost millions of dollars. My eyes at first passed quickly over a particular statue, which was a part of a historical tableau illustrating the Noah story in the book of Genesis. When I gazed at it more intently, I realized that what was probably intended to appear like an ancient cave dweller carrying a club for hunting animals looked amazingly like a baseball player at bat in the major leagues, complete with a hat which was similar to a baseball cap and a perfect Derek Jeter stance at the "plate". As the choir transitioned to a quiet passage, I had to strain to stop from laughing under my breath, which drew the attention of a close friend of mine seated on my right whom I have known for decades. He whispered to me, "Is something funny?" I pointed to the statue and asked him, "What does that look like to you?" At first he saw the caveman, and then finally he realized what I was talking about and started giggling. The husband of the singer who was directly in front of me, and the most avid baseball fan of all of us who hates to miss a single inning of any Yankees' game, became distracted by our antics. His normally dour personality manifested itself as he turned directly around and openly scolded me for disrupting the service. I couldn't resist quietly telling him, "Look over there at the sculpture in the farthest left corner." He scanned the tableau, puzzled as to why we were so excited by it. I paused and then stated calmly, "This guy pinch hit for Moses in the bottom of the eighth." After a few seconds, he broke out in loud hysterical laughter for perhaps the only time in his existence, immediately drawing a sharp disapproving frown from his wife on stage who was concentrating on delivering her alto passage. She must have thought that the three of us were total idiots, which no doubt was exactly what we were at that moment.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (February 18, 2014): Until I was about fifteen years old, I used to get sick surprisingly often. I would get each disease just before there was a vaccine for it: rubella, the mumps, chicken pox, and just about everything else. In 1970, I broke my arm on my birthday chasing after a Wiffle ball and getting my leg stuck in a wooden fence. When the doctor took off the cast after seven weeks, he told me I had to wear another cast for five more weeks. After my arm finally healed, I was able to go on a family vacation from Baltimore to St. Louis. We flew on Allegheny Airlines, probably because it was cheap; the plane stopped in Cleveland and Indianapolis and Chicago along the way, and I threw up when we finally arrived in St. Louis. I quickly recovered from the nausea, but the very next day I developed a severe flu and could barely walk. Fortunately, my uncle whom I was visiting had a fascinating chess book written by some American guy I never heard of named Bobby Fischer. I also learned how to use a Japanese abacus and became surprisingly adept with it. I finally recovered the day we were set to fly back home--fortunately, my Dad decided to switch us to a nonstop flight on TWA which in those days had by far the best service of all the airlines. I still remember the excellent meal we were served; perhaps I was grateful for the first food I could really appreciate since the flu kept me from tasting anything for a week. All I saw of St. Louis was whatever was visible through the car window to and from the airport, which I barely remember, and I haven't returned since. A year later I learned a song on the piano called the St. Louis Blues.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (December 13, 2013): I had a childhood friend named Brett Boal who had a lot in common with me--we both enjoyed learning and writing music, we hung out with the same crowd at school, we loved hiking in the woods, and we wanted to eat ice cream as often as we could. We disagreed about our favorite flavor: he wanted butter pecan, whereas I had a strong preference for coffee. Since my parents didn't allow me to drink coffee even though they made it frequently, it was a sort of forbidden pleasure, so I made sure to have as much coffee ice cream, coffee-flavored candies, and anything with the name mocha. Our favorite place for ice cream was called Price's Dairy on Liberty Road in Baltimore, where we always encountered several of our classmates around 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Especially if it was a humid summer day, as it often is in Baltimore, Price's had some of the most reliable air conditioning in town back in the 1960s, so it was a very popular choice. Sometimes we would have to wait fifteen or twenty minutes to get a table, but we didn't mind leaning against the wall, making faces at our classmates, inventing ridiculous comments to distract the people working in the restaurant, and otherwise bothering as many people as possible. Besides ice cream, they also had milkshakes, and "Cohen's Coddies" which I talked about in a previous reminiscence--little codfish cakes on saltines with mustard. Brett's favorite activity was telling everyone else what incredibly amazing things he had done during the past week, both real and imagined. For example, he played cornerback on several pickup football teams, and one of his favorite accomplishments to brag about was not allowing any wide receivers to catch a pass during the past week as long as he was covering them. As boys of seven, eight, or nine years old, most of our conversations were "debates" about whether it would be better to be run over by a dozen 18-wheelers or to be bit by ten thousand fire ants. It was only much later that I learned that, oddly, the girls in our class didn't discuss these important matters--we were still too young back then to think about girls being anything other than a nuisance. When you're a kid, you believe that anything wonderful must last forever, so it was a rude shock when Price's Dairy closed and was soon replaced by a McDonald's. Apparently the owners were getting older and were offered a price (pun not necessarily intended) they couldn't refuse, so they sold out. Since then, I haven't found another ice cream cafe that has generated so many fond memories, although one little cafe in Manhattan comes close.