Monday, January 19, 2015

IT'S THE MIDDLE CLASS

     By Arthur H. Gunther III
     It’s all about the middle class, and it's not a selfish thing. The people in the middle historically prove to be the rescuers of both the lower and upper classes, the lower because when you have a vibrant middle class, long-term, benefit-added professional jobs are created, and that economic stability builds hope, grows compassion and renews  neighborhoods. The upper classes, well they actually make more money, for investment in enlarging the middle class and making it hum brings economic stability that multiplies. (The post-war G.I. Bill took non-high school graduates from the Great Depression and sent them to college and trade school and so brought the prosperity of the 1950s and beyond.) 
     Today, after decades of declining re-investment, insufficient re-tooling and a lack of smarts by American business, after years of well-intentioned but bureaucratically misapplied government over-regulation and, now, because the dictatorship of the uber-wealthy by special interest rules our nation, the American middle class, created by the Industrial Age, Progressivism, two world wars and manifest destiny, is surely disappearing. And with it, the re-nurturing of democracy that the Founders intended. 
     Corporate greed is sending jobs to China and elsewhere. Focusing on the bottom line instead of the future of the economy is creating a third world-like underclass that permanently will be out of work or in low-skilled jobs with no pensions and self-purchased health care. 
     At stake is much more than the loss of buying power. No democracy long sustains  without a healthy middle class. Small towns and suburbs will further decay, and costly, debilitating  crime and social problems will rise. Some cities will fall as well, though parts of others, like Manhattan, will be protected enclaves for the penthouse rich. Children will be lost as progress regresses for the almighty dollar.
     When you have government that wisely regulates business, as did Republican Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, when there are commonsense rules to control greed, when business reinvests in the workers that make them money by providing reasonable wages;  by assuring pensions and health care; by supporting collective bargaining; by investing in infrastructure; by paying corporate taxes because that money regrows in job renewal; by fair trade practices; and, mostly, by an attitude that those who have must help those who have not, the pay-it-forward theme of human decency, then you rebuild a nation once proud of itself.
     It is appropriate on this day, which honors Martin Luther King Jr., to quote the late civil rights leader: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Injustice is also cause for possible rebellion, the  “Let them Eat Cake” dismissal of the growing greedy the match that could light the fire.
     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, January 12, 2015

'FIRST LADY OF NYACK, ALWAYS'


By Arthur H. Gunther III
NYACK, N.Y. -- Helen Hayes, once and for a long time the “First Lady of the American Theatre,” soon will no longer have her distinguished name on Broadway. The Helen Hayes Theatre on West 44th Street, the second to honor her since 1955, will change its marquee, the new non-profit owners selling naming rights in that wonderfully awful new tradition. Yet this grand thespian, who owned an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony, will never lose her mark in the village she called home from the 1930s to her passing in 1993 at age 92.
Actress Hayes, who called herself Charlie MacArthur’s wife in this Hudson River village, the lady who entertained World War II troops at the Camp Shanks embarkation camp in Orangeburg, the president of the Nyack Garden Club who had meetings among her beautiful backyard roses, was well sought after on stage and screen but in Nyack, the ordinary pace of life was just as much a lure.
Though the death of her daughter Mary in 1949 devastated her and put her husband, co-author of the famous “The Front Page” play about newspapermen, in never-ending sadness until his own passing in 1956, Miss Hayes made the show of her life go on, increasingly in extensive charity work. Her particular devotion to the Helen Hayes (rehabilitation) Hospital in West Haverstraw was a long-running, deeply felt effort until her death.
Often, notables are splashed in self-promoting, even outrageous and scandalous behavior on the front pages of supermarket tabloids, magazines and now in social media, Helen Hayes preferred her publicity to be her body of work, her village life in Nyack and her charity efforts.
Yet, as one theater critic wrote, Katherine Cornell (Miss Hayes’ friendly rival and also variously known as  the “First Lady of the American Theatre”) played every queen as a woman and Helen Hayes every woman as a queen.”
I can attest to that, having waited about 10 minutes on the old living room couch in Miss Hayes’”Pretty Penny” mansion before she came down the grand stairs so that I could get photographs for the old Journal-News.
This actress, who played Mary Stuart and, of course, Victoria, eventually descended the curved stairs, but slowly, almost pausing on the first landing, which was next to a large portrait of her as one of the English queens.
It was grand entrance, quite theatrical, but totally lost on a country bumpkin like me who was already thinking about his next photo assignment.
The photos were taken, and Helen Hayes was most accommodating. (I found that almost all actors I photographed took easily to the camera and especially to directions, as they knew their best poses and also were used to stage and screen nudging).
Now, so many decades later, I wish I had spent more time on that assignment, which was one of perhaps four or five that shift. I wish I had taken more shots of  the actress, even asked a polite question or two. What opportunity was lost.
Broadway will soon lose “Helen Hayes” in lights, for a second time, but the memories this lady of the boards for 80 years left the masses and the individual will continue to shine most brightly. She will always be the "First Lady of Nyack.'


(Perhaps the firm that buys naming rights to the present Helen Hayes Theatre will simply buy them in her name, keeping Miss Hayes on Broadway for years to come.)

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, January 5, 2015

REASSURANCE IN AN OLD DINER


By Arthur H. Gunther III
Small diners in my part of the world in lower New York State a few decades back were known for tasty, homemade food served by owners and their staff who seemed like family, especially for the regular customers. They were homes away from home. Actually they could be small theater for the characters within.
Each diner -- Hogan’s, Tiny’s, Sparky’s, etc.,  often several in every village and town -- was small enough -- like an old railway dining car -- that you were intimate with the other patrons but also, if you buried yourself in your newspaper, you could be by yourself. Not unlike the table at home where your siblings might be jabbering away but quiet you wanted to be lost in your thoughts. It was possible even in small spaces. 
Our diners, like small-town eateries anywhere and even the intimate ones in cities back when the eateries were just that --simple -- knew their customers. Those regulars would be greeted accordingly, usually with voices loud enough so that the rest of us took notice and either said hello or mentally checked off our list that another member of the “family” was in the “house.” Reassurance, again. 
Diners offered further intimacy with staff, including the waitress who knew all about you, who had your order placed even before you sat down, who kept a pencil in her hair and a check pad in her apron pocket, even if she took your order by memory.
And there was the grill cook, the fellow at the “flat top,” who had home fries simmering on low heat in the back left and who used the full surface to griddle pancakes, eggs over easy, burgers, onions, without burning anything, his hands quick to open up the left-side refrigerator where he took out American cheese or reached overhead to pull bread from the Pullman loaves left by the local commercial bakery, Ramapo or Widman’s. The cook was truly intimate with the customers, some of whom would purposely sit in front of him to watch him work. One advantage was that you could fine-tune the time on your eggs. Some of these grill cooks, like others in the old diner industry, were itinerant, and they came for a few months in summer and went south in the winter. But they were as regular as a clock in showing up at the right time.
The customers were regular, too, in their often quirky ways, as in any family. One fellow I recall stirred his coffee about 15 times, after loading it up with five spoons of sugar. Then he banged the spoon on the rim of the green java cup as if to wring out the last drop. Finally, with an “ah,” he began to literally slurp the coffee. Did this each and every time. Did that routine for years. And, funny as it was, it was reassuring to the other regulars in the old diner. Reassuring to him, too.
In those days, the police chief came in, the mayor, the auto mechanic, the principal. Everyone knew each other or of one another, often going back generations. So there would be nods and small questions, like “How’s the vegetable patch this year, chief?” Overall, it made for trust, especially with the police. They were your neighbors.
Maybe the world, at least parts of the American world, especially our cities and anonymous suburbs, could use a few of the old diners, their staff, their food, their patrons. They could use reassurance from "family."
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.