Monday, June 28, 2010

WEATHER AND DEMOCRACY

     I guess people born and raised in areas of great humidity adjust to that, perhaps even prefer the wet warmth. But for those of us who live where there are seasons, it is unavoidable stickiness. The common refrain up north here near New York City is that “I don’t mind the heat (say 90 degrees, which is hot for us), but I can’t stand the humidity.”

Of course, the same lips, including mine, also form the words, “I don’t mind the snow, in fact, it’s beautiful, but the ice, no.” Obviously there are regional variations to the weather – the dry but very hot conditions of the Southwest, for example. In Texas, where I visited in December and found temperatures in the mid-70s, that was a cold snap, and some were pining for summer’s constant heat wave.

At least many in Texas, though not all, have air conditioning, and in the Northeast, etc., too, or “chillers” or  heat pumps. This is America, and the middle class, low, true middle and high, has made creature comforts widely available. The seasons are more a function of the outdoors, if you choose them to be.

The great middle class civilizes America, even applying it to home and car comfort, and as such is a bulwark for democracy. I cannot imagine what social troubles might ensue if suddenly there was a reduced middle class and, so, less paid-for AC and heat.

This is not 1936, with a Great Depression having thwarted American higher expectation and materialism not yet the routine anyway. The middle class was much smaller, though it had begun to develop at large in the dizzy-hot economy of the later 1920s. It took the Depression tryouts of one government program after another, some failing, some not, some working, to keep the people’s mind off their class worries. World War II production and post-conflict largesse brought a real American middle class, along with government as an economic but increasingly involved, even smothering “buddy.”

Now, as the rest of the world also develops a middle class, our own is shrinking from high unemployment, The AC is still on in the great heat, and there is warmth for most in winter. Yet, where there are seasons and where there are not, there is a growing, disturbing worry that when it gets hot and when it gets turns cold, there  won’t be relief. Government only does so much, for it spends largely in deficit, not investment.

In the old days, the middle class came to the rescue. Or at least the aspirations of those seeking such status propelled effective government of least, but necessary, intervention. Soon enough, who will stave off the humidity?

Monday, June 21, 2010

A ROAD CHANGES DIRECTION





     WEST NYACK, N.Y. – It’s déjà vu all over again as Route 59, one of the state’s major highways, returns to two lanes after about 52 years. It’s just for a time, but for people like me, so few of us now, it’s like returning to the countrified area of lower New York where I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s.

What’s happening, or beginning to happen since the Albany budget crisis may delay work, is that New York is getting around to replacing the four bridges along Route 59 that cross the Hackensack River and the West Shore rail line. The approach is to cut off one side and take out those bridges first, then reverse the process. Ironically, after only a half century of use, the Department of Transportation has chosen to replace the newer bridges first. Those left from the 1920s will soldier on until the children get new shoes. Perhaps that says something about old-style durability.

Traffic east and west has been routed from four lanes to two, over the old crossings. I drove that route the other day, riding across the old bridges eastward for the first time since 1958. Though the vista has changed as you leap over the railroad tracks and then across the beginnings of the Hackensack River (which later gathers force as it heads for New Jersey and the Atlantic Ocean), the goose-pimply feeling was that I had returned to my teen years, sitting in the back seat of my dad’s Ford, brother Craig next to me and my mom in the front.

We would have been headed for Nyack on a Saturday, then a thriving, typical American town, pre-mall, pre-suburban shopping strip, where shoes, dresses, shirts, sporting goods and five and dime items and so much else could be bought, shoes repaired as well, clothes left at the tailor, baked goods picked up, with time left on a very ordinary but oh so wonderful family outing for a stop at the Main Street diner or soda fountain.

Nyack – all American towns – have changed now, downsized, gone out of business or morphed into trendy weekend stops for restaurant goers or antique hunters.  The four-lane highways built to them, as was the enlarging of Route 59 half a century ago, somehow caused traffic to bypass, to race instead to super malls. The mom and pop places downtown could not compete, though some precious ones still remain in Nyack and in other Americana.

There are so few like me who still recall old Nyack, and the original two-lane Route 59, too. I ride that route of the Old Nyack Turnpike in memory now, though the Albany reconstruction will, for a time, sharpen the focus as I actually get to cross the bridges in the “right” direction. Déjà vu all over again, and I smile at the picture.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

HOW JON'S DAY BEGAN


     NYACK, N.Y. – Once upon a time but for a long 50-year run, there was at 53 Hudson Avenue in the downtown heart of this Hudson River village a thriving newspaper which daily gave birth under the masthead The Journal-News. It was blessed with many “Front Page” characters over its decades, perhaps a karmic tribute to the famous Ben Hecht/Charles McArthur play written just up Broadway.

In the mid-1970s, The Journal-News would add to its wonderfully odd roster one Jon Murray, then toiling in the trade at The Reporter Dispatch, a sister paper across the Hudson in Westchester County. Once destined for pro baseball but sidelined with injury in the way hopefuls are, Jon first was a sports writer, since he had to do something with his love of the game, and he was a good one at that. But he was also an artist, not the sort who makes a living at painting, but one gifted with creative graphic design. The mini-gods who ran the RD saw this talent and moved Jon from sports to the copy desk, assigning him to “dummy” or lay out newspaper pages.

And Jon was good at that, too, quickly becoming known for eye-catching front pages in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when newspapers were getting away from cover pages with lots of gray type and small photographs. Jon made these presentation fronts sing, adding grabber headlines, big photos and creative typography.

When a position opened up at The Journal-News in the mid-1970s, Jon took it and eventually became chief copy editor, the “slotman” job, the person who, in pre-computer days, sat in the slot of a horseshoe-shaped desk and parceled out pages to be dummied, stories that needed headlines and photographs requiring captions. He also did the front page, always the key design element.

The man was unflappable on deadline and constantly gracious. He ordered no one around. On busy days, say when a heavy Wednesday paper, replete with many ads, had to be dummied, Jon would simply say to his copy editors or deskmen: “Put your sneakers on.” And they did.

Jon’s daily rhythm began with a ritual. His first task wasn’t his tea, or the initial look at that morning’s wire service material or getting his desk in order. Jon began his day with a trip to the pencil sharpener, where he slowly but deliberately put a fine point on his No. 2 pencils, precious tools to this artist. That task took about a minute, and the deskmen (and women), already in their seats, laced their sneakers at the sound and sight of Jon readying his pencils. The race to deadline was next, and all knew it.

This newspaper artist would remain with The Journal-News for about two decades, and his ritual stayed the same, even after the paper gave up pencils and layout sheets for computers. Jon continued to rout hand-drawn design to his copy editors, who then filled in the blanks on the monitor screens, and the sound of the pencil sharpener was, as ever, the factory whistle.

Monday, June 7, 2010

SEEKING THE OLD SYNERGY



     There is a synergy, a working relationship that creates an enhanced, combined effect, when three people are lucky to hit the right notes in a given profession. That was the score when George (Weep) Chalsen, Aloysius (Al) Witt and Arthur (Art) H. Gunther toiled at the old Journal-News at 53 Hudson Ave. in downtown Nyack, N.Y. It was a decades-long partnership that was to be repeated many years later in the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program in nearby Spring Valley.

Newspapering, like a breakfast program, means meeting deadlines, and there is no room for lollygagging. Weep, who never sat down,  was always on the move, a 50-year printer who daily felt the hot sweat of casting metal type and arranging it to form words on the printed page. At the RIBP, he sweated, too, as a longtime soup, vegetable and grits cook.

Al was chief photographer for years at the JN, and he had to be ready at a moment’s notice to grab his camera and take a breaking news photo. He was also adept at working with the public. In a previous existence, of which Al had a few, he was a camera salesman at Macy’s Herald Square in New York City, so he had perfected the art of talking to people.

At the RIBP, where Al worked in various positions for 25 years, he continued his gift of schmoozing the public, entertaining and putting at ease fellow volunteers and program participants. His old ability to grab a camera and get to the job at hand easily translated to changing the breakfast order when food supplies abruptly ran out or taking on other tasks when there was illness.

Now this Art Gunther fellow, 21 when he came to the newspaper in 1964 as a “flyboy” (one who “caught” newspapers as they flew off the “fly” or end of the press), and who then became a copyboy, was taken under Al’s wing at the JN. He saw the potential for photographer in me, a gift from mentoring Al that led to many full-time positions at the paper over 42 years: writer, layout man, editor, editorialist, essayist.

In those decades, I would find synergy with both Al and George. The first thing a newspaper editor learns is that he must have a friend in the composing room if he is to meet deadline. George, always with exacting standards, was that fellow, and he made my career happen as much as Al.

George and Al eventually retired, with Al coming first to the breakfast program at United Church, then some 12 years later, George and his wife Phyllis. I later learned of the RIBP and told Al that I would be there as well when I retired. When I found out that George was already on board, I moved up the date and began in the  RIBP almost five years before I retired.

It was a no-brainer to work the synergy again with Al and George and to help the people of Spring Valley, once the home of the Gunthers dating back decades. I also went to Boy Scout meetings at United Church, back in 1955, so it was a coming home in several ways.

George passed last year, and Al again “retired,” deep into his 80s while still looking 65.

The synergy today at the breakfast program is the cooperation between Phyllis, Carol, Moucille, MaryAnn, Helen Jean, Elnora and Jane. (I’m the only male except when Pat Gorman occasionally volunteers.)

In 2010, I constantly remind myself how much better Al and George did the full trick, with Art the helper, not the fellow who inherited being cook and bottle washer. At least I have the old synergy to push me toward the standard.