Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Special Day Remembered

I must have been around 10 years old when my Mom took me to the American Museum of Natural History. I don't recall if my sister was with us, and my younger brother had not yet made his appearance in the world. We didn't often get to go to places like this. My folks never owned a car so transportation was limited to subways and buses. I remember being impressed by the exterior of the Museum; I still am to this day. Shortly after its founding in 1869 by Albert Smith Bickmore, the Museum quickly outgrew its original location in the Central Park Arsenal and secured Manhattan Square, a block of land across the street from Central Park, between West 77th and 81st Streets. On June 2, 1874 the cornerstone for the Museum’s first building at 77th Street was laid by U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. On December 22, 1877 the first building opened with U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes presiding at a public ceremony.

Not to be outdone by its beautiful exterior, the exhibits and collections housed inside the Museum deliver everything a 10-year old boy could wish for. At the time, visitors were blown away as soon as they entered the lobby by a giant skeleton of Tyrannosaurus Rex, one of the largest dinosaurs that ever walked the earth. Most of the bones were real... fossilized Tyrannosaurus bones from two specimens discovered in Montana by Museum paleontologist Barnum Brown in 1902 and 1908. (I think it still stands there today, but posed differently now that we know more about how these creatures stood upright.) If I saw nothing else that day, the T-Rex alone would have justified the hour spent on the A train. My imagination was on fire five minutes into our visit.

I also vividly recall the dioramas set up in the Museum to entertain and enlighten as you walked the corridors on the 8 floors of the building. The Hall of Mammals with wild animals from all over the world in realistic poses and habitats; early man around the campfire; scenes of everyday life of Native Americans, Eskimos, Africans, Asians; the Hall of Ocean Life that brought the sea and all its creatures indoors; the Hall of North American Forests featuring a cross section of a giant sequoia tree over 1300 years old, showing historic events that were taking place as each ring on the tree was forming; it was really too much for a 10-year old to absorb. My poor mother was probably exhausted as I dragged her from exhibit to exhibit, yelling excitedly as we rounded each corner.

And then there was the Hayden Planetarium that opened in 1935. We walked into the dark theater and took our seats, not really knowing what to expect. As the lights went completely down and the show started, I became mesmerized. Remember, this was 1952, before the advent of space exploration and travel. The planets were flat images in a text book to most people, but the Planetarium show about the origins of the galaxy and planet earth changed all that. It was almost magical to me seeing the images of Mars, Saturn and shooting stars projected overhead in the night sky. I'd be willing to bet that the experience of seeing that show inspired more than one kid to pursue a career in science. I didn't want the show or the day to end, but it did. Mom took me to the snack bar for something to eat before we got back on the subway for the long trip back to Rockaway Avenue in Brooklyn.

I'm not sure what prompted Mom to make that trip with me in 1952. We didn't do many trips like that... maybe she thought I needed to have a little culture drummed into my barbarian head. I like to think she enjoyed herself, and that some of the things that fascinated me were of interest to her too. As kids, when we are doing things with our parents, like our family pilgrimage to Radio City Music Hall (
View Radio City Music Hall), or my father taking me to Yankee Stadium (View Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio), we tend to take them for granted. It's only when our parents are gone and we think back on those special moments we shared, that we appreciate what they did for us. Thanks, Tony and Fran, for making time for me.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Little GTO

This past Saturday we were headed south on the New Jersey Turnpike to Philadelphia . We passed a long line of vintage Pontiacs... Bonnevilles, Catalinas, GTOs and Gran Prixs, all driving in a caravan probably to some antique car show where collectors gather to share their enthusiasm for one of America's iconic automobile brands. They were mostly older guys like me, trying to hang on a little longer to their youth. In the mid-fifties General Motors dominated the automotive world. GM was such an economic force that it's Chairman, Charles Wilson, after being appointed Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense, is reported to have said: "What's good for General Motors is good for the country."

In the 1950s, GM was the largest corporation in the Unites States. A job there was pretty much cradle to grave security, especially after the rise of the United Auto Workers Union under such dynamic leaders like Walter Reuther. Gradually, the cost of paying union members, including extremely generous benefits, began taking its toll. Moreover, ridiculous union work rules cut into the productivity of the American worker, adding to GM's burden. Finally, the bizarre Detroit manufacturing philosophy of "planned obsolescence", the process of a product becoming obsolete or non-functional after a certain period or amount of use in a way that is planned or designed by the manufacturer, was the last straw and the beginning of the end for GM. Looming on the horizon, ready to change the auto industry in ways GM never imagined, was an unknown company from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Around 1959, Nissan Motors began selling its small Datsun sedans. Consumers laughed. Management at GM and other major US automakers, in their supreme arrogance, scoffed at the Japanese cars. This was America, and everyone knew that bigger was better, at least that's what they bet the ranch on. They lost. The steady rise in gasoline prices made the economical Japanese imports more desirable than their gas-guzzling US counterparts for many Americans. While the big three Detroit automakers continued cranking out big cars loaded with bells and whistles, Nissan, and later Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen, slipped in under the radar and stole their market with compact, reliable little cars. The rest of the story you know.

In the fifties and sixties, each GM brand had its own strong identity. Every boy on my Brooklyn block could identify a GM car a block away, and many could recite the model and year as well. By the 80s, GM's various brands all started to look alike - it was hard to tell an Olds from a Buick or Pontiac - no more 'Rocket 88' swoopy styling - just another blandly engineered' GM product. Around the year 2000, GM abandoned its Oldsmobile brand. This past May the last Pontiac rolled off the assembly line, leaving general Motors just three of its iconic brands, Chevy, Buick and Cadillac. In 2008 GM received billions in bailout money from the government, with up to an additional $45 billion more in future tax credits. In 50 years the once largest corporation in the United States was on its knees, victimized by clueless management, greedy unions and skyrocketing gas prices.

As we drove by those classic Pontiac cars, what should have been a celebration of American automotive history became in my mind more like a funeral procession for a lost American industry. GM is finally making the kind of cars that Americans want, but we are now playing catch-up in a business we once ruled.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Time Travelers

This weekend we took a trip in a time machine. Actually, we visited my son and daughter-in-law at their new digs in Philadelphia to help them paint and clean-up. The house is a vertical brownstone-style structure with four levels. It sits on Lombard Street in the beautiful Washington Square section of town, and reminds me so much of my old neighborhood in Brooklyn. The row houses are very similar to the ones I grew up in, maybe a little fancier.

What I love about the area is that it is a real neighborhood. Residential homes are mixed in with restaurants, stores and parks. People actually walk from place to place. It almost has a European feel with cobblestone streets, flower boxes in the windows, and beautiful ironwork gates and doors. The population looks like a mix of old timers who were born in and will die in the neighborhood, business people who want to live near where they work, tourists who come to see the Liberty Bell, young Yuppie couples with little Yuppie kids, and ethnic folk of all kinds living together. Too many neighborhoods like this one fell to urban blight, but you get the feeling that won't happen here.

A short walk away is the Italian market where familiar foods can be found fresh. These are not the mega stores that you need a map to get around in, but mom and pop operations that have been in the same families for generations. Men sit outside on sidewalks or under trees playing cards, drinking coffee and solving the problems of the world, while never missing a pretty girl that may walk by. We had dinner at a BYO trattoria called Giorgio's on Pine (located on Pine Street). The place was cozy, the food great and the owner very solicitous.

The local church is really two churches that combine to serve the parish, St. Paul's, and around the corner, St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, the oldest Catholic-Italian church in America. St. Paul's was also built with contributions primarily from Italian parishioners, as the benefactor plaque in the lobby shows...mostly last names ending in vowels. The interior of the church was filled with statues, many with Italian connections like St. Rocco who, though born in France, spent some years in Italy. The statue of Saint Rocco, patron saint of plague victims, is considered unique among theologians because of his pose; it depicts him with his left hand pointing to an open sore on his left leg. Few images of saints expose any afflictions or handicaps.

Real neighborhoods are hard to find any more. So many of us live in the suburbs where neighbors don't know one another, and people who walk the streets are eyed suspiciously from behind closed curtains. I remember walking down my block and knowing at least two-thirds of the people by name, and they me. People swept and hosed off their sidewalks, and would nod hello to anyone who passed. Sitting on stoops and trading gossip was raised to an art form. The local barber knew how you wanted your hair cut, the butcher would save you a nice cut of meat he knew you liked, and the bartender would be readying your drink before your behind hit the bar stool.

If you miss this kind of neighborhood, take a time machine trip to South Philly and revel in it like I did.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association