Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Jim Griffin: one promise he couldn't keep

By Dick Hirsch

I will always remember my first personal conversation with Jimmy Griffin. He was the councilman representing the Ellicott District and I was the new reporter on the City Hall beat, a boy competing against men with years of experience. I was able to develop what every reporter cherishes: a reliable source. Some reliable sources are more reliable than others, but this one had a superior track record.

Griffin was serving his first term on the Common Council, elected as a Democrat, but he quickly began showing indications of independence, voting the way he wanted to vote, rather than the way the Democratic Party chairman, Peter J. Crotty “suggested.” The Democrats caucused each Monday afternoon before the Tuesday meeting. Even then, three of the favorite adjectives used to describe Griffin’s temperament were irascible, independent and pugnacious.

I was working for the morning paper, so I always lingered late, attempting to discover what major issues were decided at the caucus. Usually, I learned nothing. But that Monday I discovered from my reliable source that Jimmy Griffin announced he would no longer vote with the Democrats, that he was tired of taking orders from Democratic headquarters, and that although he was still a Democrat, he henceforth planned on voting independently. I wrote the story disclosing that decision and it was on page one the next morning.

Soon after I arrived at City Hall that day, he suddenly stalked into the Press Room on the second floor. I was the only one there at the time. He was beyond agitated. He seemed just short of a rage.

“You wrote that story about me?” he said. There was a question mark at the end of the sentence, but it clearly was no question; it was a declaration. “You never talked to me.”

“Yes,” I said, all at once remembering the legends of Griffin, the ex-paratrooper, throwing an occasional punch for emphasis when he became irritated. My knees must have been wobbling.

“Why did you do that?”

By now we were standing toe to toe and I had to think of an an answer.

“That’s my job,” I said. “That’s what I do for a living. You were probably going to announce it today and the other paper would have published the story first. My job is to get the stories first.”

That explanation must have appealed to him. He was a person who understood the challenges faced by the working man, even when that man happened to be a reporter. He paused, smiled, and clapped me on the back.

“OK,” he said, “only next time ask me. I promise I’ll always tell you the truth.”

When he died Sunday, (May 25) I thought of that first meeting and the bond it established. He was nearly 79, but with that twinkle in his eyes and the spring in his step, he seemed much younger.

Over the years he remembered the meeting as well as I did. We became friends. He moved on from the Common Council to the State Senate, where he became known as the Democrat who often voted conservative. He later became mayor and served a record 16 years. I was gone from the newspaper reporting business by that time, but, among other things, I conducted a live weekly program on Channel 17. I interviewed him many times, and he was always as advertised: earnest, feisty and and outspoken. Once, during a blizzard, the others who were supposed to join in a panel discussion canceled. Station personnel hurriedly made plans to air a substitute program. I reassured them. As promised, Griffin arrived on time and we did the interview.

During all those 16 years, I devoted a portion of my time to defending Jimmy Griffin from the criticisms of many of my friends, relatives and colleagues. They assessed him based on his style and decided he was narrow minded and belligerent, a true redneck. We had differences, especially regarding his overheated anti-abortion rights rhetoric, but I urged people to look beyond style to accomplishments, to the job he was doing as mayor; the condos on the waterfront, the ballpark, the new homes, the hotels, the theater district, the promises made and kept.

Just as I remember our first conversation, I’ll remember our last. He wasn’t feeling well. “I’ll be fine in a few days,” he said. “I promise I’ll call you.” That was one promise he couldn’t keep.


Monday, May 26, 2008

The joy of just hanging out

By Dick Hirsch

By way of introduction, allow me to reveal that one of the essential appliances in our home is the clothespin, the venerable wooden clothespin with the spring that snaps and clamps. I mention this with the absolute assurance that it is one of the characteristics that differentiates us from most of our relatives, friends and acquaintances.

Occasionally I will be asked to replenish the supply of clothespins when they are missing or broken. I always know about where to find them, on a remote bottom shelf, along with certain other products for which time is running out and there is limited demand.

Why clothespins? Am I a hobbyist making little mannequins or other cute little crafty items? No. These pins are for use on our clothesline, where they are employed to temporarily affix damp clothing, fresh from the washing machine, to be dried by sun and breeze.

Is this a new concept, developed by the environmentalists, eager to save energy? Nope. It is an old fashioned way of drying clothes, one to which my wife, Lynn, and I have been dedicated for many years. During good weather, we hang out. Yes, we do have a dryer, but we use it only when conditions warrant, which means when it is raining, freezing, sleeting or snowing.

We live on small street in a big suburb. I wouldn’t call it an upscale location, but it isn’t downscale, either. Let’s specify that it is mediumscale. In the years we have lived there, I have rarely, if ever, seen an active clothesline on the street.

When we moved in, we checked with the next door neighbors and they had no objection, but we always wondered whether our clothesline was offensive to any others, whether it was a topic of conversation. Years ago, soon after we arrived, we were at a neighborhood gathering, where we met other residents.

“Oh,” said a woman from down the block, when introduced to my wife, “you’re the one who likes to hang laundry on the line.” We could not argue with that characterization.

Another time, one of our law-abiding, well-intentioned friends, warned us that she understood that the hanging of items on a clothesline might be violation of a local statute. We ignored that warning, continued regular use of the clothesline, and have never been threatened with legal action of any kind. For the purpose of this discussion, I checked with enforcement authorities in three representative locales, Amherst, Clarence and Orchard Park, and found that none had any prohibitions. It is possible, however, that certain subdivisions---places where the sight of hanging sheets or undies is considered unseemly or vulgar---may have deed restrictions which forbid the use of clotheslines.

In the past, devotees of clotheslines were generally motivated by the freshness of the laundered items.

“Smell these sheets,” my wife will often implore me, especially in the spring, after a winter of using the clothes dryer. “Look at these white whites.”

It’s certainly true that outdoor hanging does impart a very agreeable aura to the laundry. Turkish towels are the only regular item that flunk line drying; they are too stiff.

The big news now is that our side has been reinforced by the green movement, the environmentalists who are seeking ways to improve the planet, conserve energy and reduce global warming. The use of clotheslines has become a conservation issue.

In Aurora, Ontario, not far from Toronto, a local controversy has developed, with the “right to dry” group seeking to overturn a local ordinance that bans the use of clotheslines and drying racks. As a demonstration of solidarity, the mayor, Phyllis Morris, has begun to hang her own laundry and earlier this year petitioned the provincial government to declare local clothesline bans illegal and described them as “a barrier to conservation.” Legislation to eradicate existing clothesline bans has also been proposed in New Hampshire, Connecticut and Colorado.

That is encouraging news to those who have dared to be different and have been using clotheslines. Now it is not merely an issue of extolling the virtues of a laundering method that produces fresh smelling, naturally dried items. That argument always proved unconvincing to people who insist the dryer is one of technology’s great triumphs.

Now the argument can focus on the importance of saving energy, reducing emissions, preserving the glaciers and defeating global warming, all of which helps identify a person as a good citizen. If those are among your goals I can suggest some outstanding sources for clothespins.


Friday, May 16, 2008

For a balanced diet, add an occasional food column

By Dick Hirsch

We were headed out to dinner with our 7-year-old house guest, so, seeking to stimulate her interest as well as her appetite, we inquired about her favorite restaurant food.

“I like pizza or spaghetti,” she said.

Great. That was no big surprise, and we knew just the place, so off we went to one of the area’s many renowned spots that has specialized for years in such saucy cuisine. Once there, the guest studied the menu for a moment and when the waitress arrived, she placed her order with obvious enthusiasm:

“I’ll have a grilled cheese sandwich,” she said.

“This place has terrific pizza,” I reminded her. “I thought you liked pizza.”

She said that she does like pizza but she likes grilled cheese sandwiches even better.

So it goes: another reminder of the enduring allure of the grilled cheese sandwich and its appeal to young and old, especially young. I suppose much of its charm is based on its predictable blandness, although among sandwiches it is one of the most versatile, since it can be modified in so many ways. I saved a menu from a popular spot in New York called “Say Cheese!” which offered grilled cheese sandwiches in at least 50 different variations. The differences were defined by additives that ranged from the simple, such as bacon or tomato, to the peculiar such as slices of pear, avocado or beets.

Our guest seemed delighted with her sandwich, which was just what she expected. That is part of the appeal, too: the diner knows exactly what to expect and how it will taste. And, as a food expert might say, “It’s impossible to wreck a grilled cheese sandwich.”

The sandwich species is quite resilient. After decades of noisy emphasis on a continuing parade of diets, most of which warned of the perils of the regular eating of bread in large amounts, the sandwich has managed to outlast many of the diet promoters and their books.

As you probably have heard, the sandwich was reportedly developed in England in 1762 by John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. He was First Lord of the Admiralty and Capt. James Cook, the revered explorer, discovered a small group of islands in the South Atlantic which was named after Montagu, the Sandwich Islands. You wouldn’t rush to visit there.

I have no information on the makeup of that first sandwich, but, considering the time and location, I might guess that he served a slab of nicely fatted mutton, accompanied by a tankard of dark ale. That sounds good, even now, doesn’t it?

From another viewpoint, the word sandwich is somewhat unique. It is most often used as a noun, but it is also a verb, describing a setting in which a person is surrounded in close quarters by other persons or objects. Even in an upscale restaurant a diner can feel sandwiched when the tables are crammed together.

Diversity, much sought after today, is a feature of sandwiches. Almost anything works. Years ago, not a soul had even heard of a Portabella mushroom, now it’s on the sandwich list in many places. I just recently scanned a magazine story purporting to feature the newest “in” sandwiches. Most had various ethnic backgrounds and included combinations not readily available where I dine. I’m still in the universe of ham and Swiss on rye, roast beef, egg salad, and baloney or other cold cuts. Burgers will get no mention here because they are in a category all their own.

I am still impressed with the record of a physician of my acquaintance who dined in the hospital cafeteria with regularity for over 37 years, always having a tuna salad sandwich. He never bothered ordering anything else until one day he chose sliced turkey on a whole wheat toast with lettuce and mayo.

The biggest sandwich innovation started slowly in the 1950s, being marketed by delis and taverns under different regional names. In Connecticut, for example, where I ate my first, it was called a “grinder.” Elsewhere, it could be known as a “hero,” a “hoagie,” a “bomber,” an “Italian” or a “submarine” sandwich, all employed a long roll shaped like a submarine and stuffed with the customer’s choice of various meats, cheeses, vegetables and condiments. The sub, with aggressive marketing, today holds a commanding position among present day sandwiches.

The sandwich of whatever shape has withstood diet trends. I continue to endorse a specimen so simple and satisfying that it needs only initials. That would be PB&J.


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Gas prices; once hovering, now soaring

By Dick Hirsch
I suppose if I write a column about the escalating price of gasoline a lot of people will read it. Of course, I feel that way about all my topics, but gas prices at this time in history are, well...they’re getting more historic every week. The price of a gallon of gas still astonishes people in the US, even though we are still lower than most places in the world.

As this is being written, the price of regular at stations is around $3.83 a gallon. When I wrote my first stories about gas prices years ago---during the occasional price-cutting wars---the popular verb used was “hovering.” Prices then were always hovering around a certain level.

Gasoline prices stopped hovering several years ago. Since then they have been soaring and they continue to soar.

People are trying to curtail their use of gas, but driving has become addictive, a bad habit. I drove across the state to the Albany area recently and the New York State Thruway seemed as busy as ever and at some service stations motorists were waiting in line to fill their tanks.

With all of that as background, I was motivated to conduct some modest research related to gasoline marketing, seeking the answer to a question that started nagging me even before I was old enough to drive. The question is this:

Who conceived the idea of adding nine-tenths of a cent to the price of every gallon of gas?

I must have been around 12 years old when I had a flat tire and walked my bike to Baker’s Esso, where one of the guys patched the tube. No charge. My dad was a customer. While there, I asked Woody Baker how come the prices of gas always had that extra decimal, almost a penny extra. He was playing cribbage in the office at the time, and the players all laughed. But Woody looked up from the table, shrugged, and explained: “That’s the way gas is sold.” I still can’t find a much better answer.

I’ve checked all the usual sources and I do not have a clear explanation. Nobody really knows. But everyone knows that every station in every locale has a supply of those small number nine digits to be mounted on signs at the stations.

How did this happen? It apparently has nothing to do with the pumps registering in tenths of a gallon and it is unrelated to the various taxes that are significant part of the price of every gallon sold. There is only anecdotal evidence, but the accepted explanation is that it allowed the gas retailers to add almost a penny to the gallon price in a very sly way. Consider my own example, mentioned above. I really didn’t pay $3.83 a gallon, I paid $3.839, which in reality is $3.84. That isn’t worth discussing, is it? But it once was much more meaningful. When gas was selling for 19.9 cents a gallon---and there are people still driving who claim to remember prices in that neighborhood---adding the nine tenths resulted in a significant markup, about five percent.

At today’s levels, with prices approaching $4.00, or, more precisely, $3.999 per gallon, that extra decimal point isn’t a source of concern to any motorist. But doesn’t it seem obsolete now, a relic of another age? Is it time for the retailers to retire those nine tenths signs as they concentrate on collecting the big money for fill ups?

The news isn’t all good among gas retailers. With prices as they are, more and more customers are using credit cards. Some businesses are estimating that 60-70 percent of gas is purchased using a credit card. One unnoticed result is that the credit card companies are experiencing a windfall. For example, VISA and Master Card will be deducting about 2 percent on every gallon and American Express charges 3 percent. Do the math: when a gallon is charged at $3.999, the credit card company charging 2 percent immediately claims 8 cents per gallon. A 15 gallon purchase would give the card issuer $1.20.

I realize we’re talking about pennies here, but who could blame the independent station operator from forsaking gas sales and concentrating on repairs. The large retailers with multiple locations sell most of the gasoline and they are seeing thousands of dollars go to the credit card companies.

You have no doubt heard the advice: “Save the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.” Benjamin Franklin didn’t say it, but somebody did.


Friday, May 02, 2008

Despite the advice, things still get fouled up

By Dick Hirsch

There is so much advice available these days that it’s difficult to understand why things can get fouled up. But they do.

Advice has always been easily divided into two types. The first is the kind that might be called professional, for only the obvious reason: because you pay for it. The other advice sources are free. The area of free advice has been expanding exponentially in recent years, causing what might be characterized as an advice glut.

There has always been more free advice available than professional advice, but the free advice category has become so large and demonstrative that the amateurs now dwarf the pros. That growth has caused me to wonder whether the authorities should at long last rewrite the well-known estimate of the value of free advice.

The advice monitors have traditionally issued this definition of the presumptive assessment of its value: “Free advice is worth exactly what you pay for it.”

Years ago that might have been true. It may still be true today, but the horizon for advice has been substantially widened. Yes, there surely has been growth among the professional advisors, but it hardly matches the availability of free advice.

The vast majority of that free advice comes to us through the courtesy of the media. The Internet is surely the most prolific source of advice of every description. Got the hiccups? Just tell that to your search engine and in less than a second you will have over 2,820,000 sources of information and cures. Having trouble with your bed of petunias? No problem: here are 640,000 articles, more than anyone would ever, ever want to see.

Let’s consider the daily newspaper as another obvious example. Years go, every paper of any size had a writer who would offer cooking hints, typically advising on a new recipe for making a tuna casserole or a lemon chiffon pie. Many papers published a daily syndicated advice column on domestic affairs, offering husbands, wives, parents and others, sage counsel on family matters. The sports page often had “how to” columns on bowling or golf. That was about the extent of the available advice. The rest of the paper was filled with the news of the day, a concept which has apparently become obsolete and been growing less urgent as newspapers seek a different role. Newspapers have become primary advice givers in every phase of activity. TV, too, has an excess of advice, an endless supply that is both variable and seemingly inexhaustible.

Yes, we are in an era of advice overload and, welcome as advice has always been, there is an obvious downside. What do you believe? Some of the advice is conflicting. Much of the advice relates to health, often counseling both boomers and their parents on how to remain healthy and vibrant.

Is Vitamin D beneficial? If so, how much? If not, why not? What about the salutary effects of grape juice? Is it good or does it contain too much sugar? What about weight training? More and more men and women are at the health club, seeking new ways to forestall the inevitable. Should they be doing curls and benchpresses? Or will that cause unwelcome joint and muscle stress?

Yes, too much advice can be confusing, especially when it is acquired at no cost.

You understand that I wouldn’t be writing this if I had not recently adopted some advice that I read about in the paper or discovered recommended on the Internet
That is exactly how I came to be doing pushups and crossword puzzles, not at the same time, of course, but on a regular basis. I don’t remember why I stopped doing pushups years ago. It surely is a basic exercise, but for some reason I stopped. Now I have started again, having read that it is effective and important for building upper body strength. It requires no special equipment and can be done anywhere. The same is true of crosswords. I never bothered with them, but I have known people for whom crosswords were considered ideal brain calisthenics. Cruising, as many of us are, through middle age, crosswords have a certain appeal.

Time will tell if any of this free advice proves worthwhile. Meanwhile, I just learned that Idaho has allocated funds to begin teaching chess to all second and third graders. Should I be considering chess lessons? I welcome your advice.