Monday, February 22, 2010


“Put your shoulder to it,” a chief petty officer might tell the swabbie pushing a mom or broom deck side, but in truth, there’s more dance than brawn.

The closest I ever got to a CPO was my Great-Uncle Herbert Gunther, a walking advertisement for tattoo parlors who charmed women in the Asian ports just after World War I. I was never a swabbie, except in my own home, where I can mop a deck mighty fine, thank you.

I can also do a broom dance, in the garage or on the basement floor. And I barely put a shoulder to it.

Decades ago, I was a jack of all trades at a smallish community newspaper in Nyack, N.Y., called The Journal-News. That was back when there was enough advertising to support newspapers chock full of local news, back when enough people read papers and back when costs were low enough that a chain didn’t come in and buy up the community paper and dress it like all its other papers, so as to attract national ads and raise stockholder income.

No, this was in the early 1960s, and I was a copy boy in addition to being the coffee guy, the perforated wire service tape collector (tape with holes was used to set type) and an in-training photog, writer, editor – almost anything connected to a newspaper that you wanted to be. The door was wide open to the individual with get up and go.

Some days I also did the floors, either by direction or because I just felt like grabbing a broom. I had watched the high school custodians handle brooms so deftly that not a hair was missed and with action so effortless that you thought the floors were made of polished marble.

These guys would start at the left side of a hallway, push the broom a bit, angle at about 45 degrees, then tap it until the collected debris fell off. They then began sweeping anew, this time maybe at 55 degrees. They would make a 10-foot forward movement, then circle back for a parallel sweep, and so on to until the width of the hallway was done. It was then onto to other 10-feet set of parallels, and eventually the pile of debris was picked up by shovel.

This was a sure dance of a particular sort, and you could put music to it, the notes so evident. At the newspaper, I adopted that rhythm as best I could, and I perform it still in my basement and garage. My wife Lillian loves the tune.


Monday, February 15, 2010


UPPER NYACK, N.Y. – At age 67, I’ve handled more than a few broken windows that required removal, repair and replacement, but it wasn’t until the last half of 2010 that I learned almost everything I know about doing so. This thanks to a volunteer rehab project at the Old Stone Church in this village just north of Nyack on the Hudson River.

I’ve written about this before, and you may recall that Win Perry, Joe Diamond, Vince Morgan and I have spent about seven months removing paint from 19th century double-hung sash, replacing broken glass, re-puttying, re-varnishing, installing antique sash locks and reinstalling the windows. It is probable that the sash, with their hand-made wavy glass, had never been removed, so we mimicked the hands and the work of craftsmen so long gone now that they could have been our great-great grandfathers.

What satisfaction resulted from the joint effort – a bunch of older guys not saying too much, just intently working at their own tasks, as directed by Win, the Upper Nyack historian and an architect by trade who knows period detail. As I have noted, it was his insistence on detail in every phase of the project that changed my work habits.

When I was a youngster in Spring Valley, my grandfather Arthur Sr. took me to his own workshop since he knew I had an interest in wood. We did a project together, but when it came time to clean up, I was lazy. In fact, my finish work on the small woodworking project was sloppy. I can still recall my grandfather’s words to my father that I had to learn patience and task completion. Well, 55 years later I finally have done so.

I have lived in two homes of my own and have added onto and rehabbed them and a dozen others belonging to family and friends, with all manner of plumbing, electrical and carpentry projects. That work was at first passable and then improved with experience. But all along, my modus operandi has been to get the job done. I could always hide the mistakes, in carpentry at least. I never compromised on safety, but I found creative ways to let other things slide.

Win, Joe and Vince, do not do so. They are like craftsmen of old, and I learned on the Stone Church window detail that, well, detail really counts. And detail means patience. And patience brings you on a journey not unlike what those who toil in monasteries must feel. You reach a point of deep quiet where your pulse is slow, where concentration is effortless, where your hands seem to know what to do instinctively. It all gets better the longer you stay.

My grandfather is finally back in the room, and I think he is smiling.   

Monday, February 8, 2010


I have never understood life’s complexities - love, hate, war, peace, success, failure. My limited brain focuses on absolutes, and while I can see the outline of supposed gray areas, I get a headache trying to fathom them. I am too simple for my own good.

One of my junior high school friends is a super intellectual, author of books and incisive major national magazine articles that have helped shape U.S. political thinking. He knows how to walk the talk in the gray zone.

I knew another person who is a math whiz. She can take the absolutes of that discipline and see the flexibility that nevertheless exists. Her brilliance and way of thinking mimic Einstein’s theories.

When I was much younger, there were those around me “deeply in love.” That initially euphoric state morphed into practicality with enough magic to offer some lasting storybook romance. It is a language difficult to understand if you can’t wade into the necessary gray areas of life. 

In sports, there is all this talk of absolute victory, yet the subtlety involved in getting there means some pretty good smarts must first be employed, a calculated run through the gray zone.

Yet being simple has benefits. You can offer bon mots that sound good, even connect to utterly deep meaning, if you are not required to discuss at length. It’s  a form of “twittering” on the Internet. You offer “tweaks” and move on.

And living simply means you don’t question too much – you take so much on faith, so you can exist, so you can survive. It’s fine as long as you don’t have too much time on your hands and feel the pull to look into the gray area. Then you need an aspirin.

Monday, February 1, 2010


In Nyack, N.Y., circa 1964, there was an old fellow with ever-present cigar at Arnold’s, the pre-chichi luncheonette where coffee and a scrambled egg on hard roll to go was 35 cents. These days the wonderful but unwonderfully expensive breakfast/lunch place at this location offers 10 varieties of pancakes alone.

In the old simplicity, “Moe,” which may or may not have been the cashier’s name, yet the name fits, would never look directly at you. His time seemed to be spent grunting, not in observation or conversation. But he was more than sharp enough to be the gatekeeper, and nobody got past Moe without paying the tab. He took the cash (no credit cards then) and the standard-sized check that the counter waitress had given you and threw the paper money on the marble shelf of the old wind-up register while quickly but intently squinting at the tab, which then went on a spike as he pressed the big keys on the National Register. The door popped open, and Moe reluctantly gave you the change, holding his fingers against the paper in hope of finding an extra bill there that should not be.

Moe came through the Great Depression, you see, and he was as frugal as he was downright cheap. And not too trusting. He was also Arnold’s father-in-law, and Arnold needed him as the gatekeeper. (Moe didn’t seem to need Arnold. Maybe he was looking out for his daughter.)

The old Nyack luncheonette, Moe, the cash register, the way you paid the tab, comes to mind because yesterday I tried to buy a copy of the Gotham tabloid, the New York Daily News, in Pearl River, a hamlet close to Nyack. It wasn’t an easy purchase.

In Moe’s day, which was also mine and quite possibly yours, I would pick up a copy of the News, tuck it under my left arm and reach in my right pocket for 5 cents, which would be slapped on the marble soda counter next to Moe’s register. Moe wouldn’t look up, but he heard the sound, and by its tone knew that you left 5 cents, not less. He also knew you had the paper under your left arm, for, as I said, he saw all, and Moe was the gatekeeper.

The entire transaction at Arnold’s, if you were just picking up the paper from the rack outside, hopping in, dropping the nickel and leaving, was a few seconds. But my Pearl River buy took considerably longer.

There I stopped at a chain store pharmacy, open 24 hours, which also sells newspapers, and picked up the Sunday News, took out $1.25 and plopped it all on the Formica, not marble, counter. I then turned to leave. The young fellow at the counter, about 60 years less in age than Moe, asked he if could have the paper I just bought. I gave it to him and asked why. He replied that he had “to scan it” before the cash register, an electronic model far removed from Moe’s brass one, could open its cash drawer.

Ah, "progress." But also a column idea.