Sunday, January 26, 2014

AS THE KETCHUP FLOWS ...



By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@hotmail.com

    It may seem hilarious and even back-woodsy, but there was a moment, a long one, when at 2 a.m. in a diner, say Hogan’s in West Nyack, N.Y., when you instinctively pulled up your feet as the floor guy came by, splashing Clorox and water at the terrazzo floor. Hey, if he hit your shoes, they were washed too -- for free.
     Hogan’s, the old one, the place that looked like Edward Hopper’s image of a diner, was not fancy, although the food, short order mostly, was so well practiced a craft there that it could have been cordon bleu. Hogan’s would not be fancy -- it’s clientele would not have that. It was just a down-to-earth comfortable joint, and joint was OK. It connected the dots in your life.
     I’d hit the place, sometimes, after my photographer shift at the also old Journal-News in nearby Nyack. I might sit at the counter, where stools were placed on a bulkhead, so you didn’t worry about the floor guy. Other times I was too tired for that and needed a rest at my back, so I took to one of the 8 or 10 booths along the defining front windows of the railway car-like diner.
     Also at about 2 a.m., the waitress would come by and swing a fresh bottle of ketchup across the table, and you hardly noticed that either, reflexively reaching for it with left hand while grabbing the near-empty with the right and then swinging that back to her in a return shot. You did this with the sugar, too.
     It was life in an old diner, and if you were a regular like me, you were family, so you helped out. You may not have known the cook, the waitress, the floor guy by name, but a wink or nod was all you needed to keep in touch anyway. Diners weren’t much about talking.
     Ketchup was a quality marker in the old diners. Hogan’s used fresh stock to refill, but some others watered the mix. Aficionados, and they went to old diners, too, understood that ketchup, a freshly filled bottle, had to be slapped at the bottom to get the flow going. Or you could use the old slide-in-the-table-knife trick. If a full bottle poured easily, it wasn’t choice.
     Like everything else at Hogan’s, the ketchup passed mustard. In that, and in the place itself, the new day’s anchor was set at its mooring for night newspaper stiffs like me.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. Contact him at ahgunther@hotmail.com. This essay may be reproduced.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

PULL-CHAIN MEMORIES


By Arthur H. Gunther III

     Many of the older homes I walked into as a youngster had one- or two-bulb ceiling fixtures in the middle of the room, operated by a long pull chain that hit any tall fellow in the head. These lights, the fashion of the time when electricity first came to old houses in old villages, were literally illuminating after gas jets, but they were awfully harsh, directing shadows on people and furniture, as in the film noir treatment of a Raymond Chandler mystery.
    So it is that I have erased any trace of ceiling fixtures in every home I’ve owned, save the kitchen. And even there task lighting not only makes for better veggie cutting but sets the mood. Kitchens, like living rooms, bathrooms ad certainly bedrooms are all about mood.
     My Spring Valley, N.Y., grandfather had a wonderful “standard lamp,” which others call floor lamps, but the British moniker sounds more accurate since movable lighting became common fare almost as quickly as did ceiling fixtures. My grandfather had his placed next to a large and comfy chair, and the 100-watt bulb seemed to provide the sun’s touch for any a youngster’s reading of the Saturday Evening Post or a New York City tabloid.
     His lamp, like the original ceiling fixtures, had a pull chain, not a twist knob, not a push-pull contraption, both of which you always seem to fumble for in the dark, almost knocking over the fixture.
    No, a longish pull chain with a glass bauble at its end, which swung and hit the lamp’s upright pole three or four times. It was easy to locate because of the glass and the chain itself. Its action was smooth, and during the 15 or so years I sat next to that standard lamp, the chain never failed.
     There was certainty in its action, yes, and also sureness that I would soon be comfortable in a chair where while others in the family talked, I could get lost in a tabloid or magazine.
    Contrast this pull chain, which turned on a world of delight, to the dangling one from ceiling fixtures that cast harsh light, the mysterious mood of which was dreary.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. Reach him at ahgunther@hotmail.com. This essay may be reproduced.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

CONTRAST AND AN IDEA


By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@hotmail.com

     A recent New York Times edition unintentionally offered proof of the growing American economic contrast in this topsy-turvy world of post-recession stall.
     On its Opinion Page January 6 was a third-position editorial, “Republican Disdain for the Jobless,” which rightly castigated the GOP for not extending temporary unemployment benefits for 1.3 million. Just two pages later, on the back cover of the first section, in obvious, deliberate and expensive “paid position” advertising, was a call by the famous Bonhams auction house for a very rare and expensive automobile.
     Such contrast between the rich and those who are not. Collector car prices continue to rise, almost exponentially, as Wall Street investments pay off and as corporate salaries/bonuses increase, while permanent unemployment and under-employment escalate, too, but not in the same fun way.
     It is irony that with the same newspaper, the front section of The Times, January 6, 2014, a relative few but nevertheless expanding class of our people could read the classic car ad and ponder offering a bid for such needless luxury while others, also a growing number of our people, might glance in nothingness at the same ad as they wrap themselves against the overnight cold on the streets or in the ever-longer employment line.
     This isn’t a liberal’s lament, for this columnist believes in the promise of individualism, even if it must be rugged. There are enough without responsibility for self, and government programs cannot prove a lifetime -- sometimes generational -- parent.
    Yet in a more enlightened time, and that is what America is supposed to be in 2014 -- it is not 1914, nor 1814 -- economic, and, so, social progress must depend as much on those with resources as it does on pulling yourself up with bootstraps. Otherwise, what is the purpose of democracy? Isn't it a progression of betterment for all?
     A modest parting of the super-rich’s riches, aka a “trickle,” could begin a re-employment boom in this once middle-class-led nation. Dare we say, the rich would be even richer?
     Now, you can get fancy with this argument, and so probably stall it, which seems Congress’ way these days. For example, you can say that big government costs too much and that reducing it -- its reach into our lives --  would prompt investment in new or modified industry and business. Doesn’t work that way, so proclaimed  bully pulpit Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who waited and waited for a “trickle,” and when he saw no tap open, offered the “Square Deal,” anti-trust actions and improvement of urban working and living conditions to fuel a progression that made solid the nation’s emerging middle class. And the rich made even more money.
    You can and should argue that big government is its own enemy, for even in good intention, large bureaucracy is ripe for overcharging, waste, corruption by special interests and most fertile for endless red tape. Involving responsible, government-checked private business is better for employment and cost control than government-run bureaucracies. (This may prove true for Obamacare, largely a private system, once the government application end of it runs better.)
  The road to less government spending, and, so more money for all  taxpayers, is jobs in new-world business, technology, industry. That requires seed money, as surely as did the lift out of the Great Depression that World War II spending and then the great G.I. Bill brought to our nation. Think of how many professionals came out of the G.I. Bill, how much growth there was in the middle class. Less government regulation can be the result of greater, meaningful employment.
     The popular Pope Francis says his grandmother would say that “burial shrouds have no pockets.” You cannot take your money with you, and if you are super-rich, you don’t even know your worth. Why not do good with some of it, “pay it forward” as it were? Invest in re-shoring the middle class. There would then be less of a need for government programs. And have greater faith that people will better themselves if you also invest in their dignity, their humanity. Contrast that with the greed that now exists, with "A Christmas Carol" playing all year long.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. Contact him at ahgunther@hotmail.com. This essay may be reproduced.

   

Sunday, January 5, 2014

ONCE UPON A CLOTHESLINE


By Arthur H. GuntherIII

     My Colorado pal writes on a subject that many of us recall -- clothes drying not in a metal machine but on a line. Elaine Muise Calabro, once of Rockland County, N.Y., says she “preferred to line-dry clothes, and always did when weather allowed while the kids were young. Nowadays, many subdivisions will not allow clotheslines of any sort. Ridiculous, when we are forced to recycle, pay for ‘alternative’ renewable power sources in our bills, etc. If solar-powered heating/cooling is such a great thing, why isn't solar-powered clothes-drying actively encouraged? ...”
     Her remarks recall a column I originally wrote, on July 15, 1997, for The Journal-News in Nyack, N.Y. Entitled “Stringing ideas on a line,” it went like this:

           Remember the laugh your mother gave when, as a youngster, you took in the stiff-as-a-board wash from the backyard clothesline? The pants looked as if they had been in a press.
     We do not see many clotheslines anymore, and my guess is that there are more busy psychiatrists and pharmacies these days partly because of that fact.
In a slower age (although my mother, who always worked as well as kept house, never had a ‘‘slow’’ day), everyone seemed to have a clothesline. In my youth, I lived in several sections of Rockland, including Sloatsburg, Tallman, Airmont, Pearl River and, mostly, Spring Valley and Hillcrest, and in each neighborhood there were many clotheslines or clothes poles, usually homemade contraptions built with whatever lumber was handy.
My mother’s line was the ubiquitous white cotton twill, drawn through two pulleys and knotted. There was a line keeper, which helped prevent sag, and, of course, the usual canvas bag full of clothespins, preferably spring-loaded. Trees served as poles.
 Every Saturday morning in the 1950s, on what was everyone’s main wash day in Hillcrest, this lazy fellow would be awakened by the squeak-squeak of the pulleys as my mother hung the wash. It is a sound that, to this day, recalls the peaceful weekend lounging of a teen-ager. Lazy me rolled over and went back to sleep.
 My mother would take her time hanging the wash. It almost seemed like therapy of a sort, time to get out of the house, to feel the fresh breeze, to smell a new morning and to let her mind wander. As she sorted the wash, she also seemed to sort her thoughts, and I do not doubt that it gave her a sanity boost.
At other homes, where the clotheslines might be closer together, there was over-the-line talk between neighbors, and for many this became a ritual not to be missed. Gossip was exchanged, hopes were defined, news was spread. If a photographer could have spent some time at such a clothesline gathering, he could have captured facial expressions ranging from interest to skepticism, to wonder, to joy, to sadness. But almost never boredom.
 I’m told that in the old New York City neighborhoods, where buildings’ rears met in a courtyard, there would be a central pole to which were attached many pulleys carrying lines from second-story-unit windows. What gathering spots they must have been, with enough news daily to fill a weekly paper.
And, of course, everyone would know everyone else’s fashion. When you hang it all out, including your underwear, that’s not hard to miss.
My mother used to carry the wash in a straw basket, which she had for many years until it literally fell apart. When I first carried it out for her, as a little fellow, it was so heavy that I could hardly do so. By the time I was a senior in high school, it was light, and I was aware that I would not be doing the chore much longer. I wished for the old moment when it had been heavy.
  You do not see many clotheslines anymore, with dryers in homes and with people too busy to take time for such labor. Life seems too quick for passing, even absent, thoughts, strung along a line ready to evaporate, as with the water in the clothes.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. This essay may be reproduced.