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

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Memories of a special time and place

By Dick Hirsch

As the walls are about to come tumbling down at Memorial Auditorium, the air is thick with memories and reminiscences. Need I add to the clutter of television photo ops, newspaper feature stories and reminders from Mayor Byron Brown that most people have always craved a seat from the Aud that could be installed in their family room?

My preference has always been to ignore certain events that are being chewed on by all the other sources of commentary. There are enough other topics to fill this space, and yet there is occasionally the temptation to go with the flow, to fall in step along with the others and march along, searching for a new angle on a well worn story.

We all have memories of the building, the dusty, fetid place that was for so long a center for various attractions. It grew old before its time, but it was certainly versatile, hosting religious convocations, circuses, dog and cat shows, tennis matches, political rallies, rodeos...everyone who has lived in Buffalo long enough will have stories to tell, and not all of them will focus on hockey, basketball or wrestling, the three series of events which sold the most tickets over the years. Yes, we remember Iron Talun and Yukon Eric, Freddie Hunt and Roger Crozier, Hank O’Keeffe and Whitey Martin. But there were so many others who commanded the spotlight, if only for a moment or two...

I have a photo of a guy I have known well for years. It was made years ago in the basement of the Aud, a cavernous place. The guy was a reporter at the time and he was standing alongside an entertainer who would eventually evolve into an iconic figure, Elvis Presley. It was at a concert in 1956. I decided it might be interesting to contact the guy, and ask him about his memories of that one evening.

He agreed and recalled:

“The picture was taken before the concert while I was interviewing Elvis. The two men in the background were detectives, detailed to crowd control. The concert was in the late summer or early fall and it was a hot day and the place had no air conditioning. I went up to the auditorium area and it was packed, a complete sellout. There were some opening acts and the people were paying polite attention to them, but you could tell they were impatient for Elvis. This was 1956, remember, and he was a star, but not yet a worldwide celebrity.

“When the curtains parted and Presley suddenly appeared on stage in his fancy outfit, the place went wild, as you might expect. Most of those attending were teenage girls. What I remember most clearly all these years later was the constant shrill shrieking. Once he appeared, it never stopped, although it subsided slightly when he was singing.

“It was a constant noisy ovation, high pitched and almost frenzied, and it didn’t have many bass voices, mostly falsetto. I have never heard anything comparable since that night. And as I think of the building being demolished, I think of all those young girls in the audience and wonder how and where they are today.”

Success; the guy gave me a fine recollection and a new angle on the story. Figure it out. It was 1956. That was 52 years ago. Those screaming girls came from schools all over the city and suburbs, from places like Lafayette and Kensington, Nardin and Buffalo Seminary, Cleveland Hill and East Aurora.

The average age was probably somewhere between 14 and 17. That means---when you do the math---that those girls are women now, women most likely covered by Social Security and Medicare, many of whom are grandmothers, and some few of whom may even be great grandmothers. Some of them moved from the area years ago, but surely recall that night, the performance and the arena. Since they are all senior citizens, some may be living in retirement in places like Florida, Arizona or the Carolinas now, but I’ll bet that many of them still live in the area and still nurture vivid memories of that night with Elvis.

That’s the way it is with memories. They need not include the specific songs that were sung or who scored the most points. The most vital memories are of being with others at a certain place at a certain time. And, if you have read this far, you’re entitled to know that the guy in that picture with Elvis is me.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Changing seasons under a gingko tree

By Dick Hirsch

I am very fortunate to have my own personal indicator that reports the arrival of fall. In our climate, the seasons typically evolve from one to the other at their own pace, often frustrating those residents who, in the fall, wish to know precisely when to pack away the Bermuda shorts and put the heavy gear into service.

The calendar offers its traditional explanation of the beginning of each of the four seasons, but those provide generalized information, the same that has been dispensed for centuries, rather than specific data relevant to current conditions. Sometimes seasons linger far longer than predicted and other times they vanish far earlier than expected.

Fall is tricky. Where I live, people start buttoning up as the days grow shorter. But they never really are sure. This year we had a few November days that mimicked mid-summer; on those days I checked the temperatures in Savannah, Louisville and Raleigh and we were as warm or warmer than those places.

Just the opposite is true in the spring. Winter persists. Who wants to pack away the mackinaw when there is still the risk of flurries and freezing weather? There are many people, and I suppose I am one of them, who are reluctant to cling to the dictates of the calendar. They prefer some definite information, a signal, that the season has changed and it is time to change clothes and seasonal behavior.

I receive such a signal each year and on the day that signal is received I become secure in the knoeledge that fall has arrived. I don’t accept the arrival of fall with concern. It is a beautiful season and its arrival is heralded at my house in a very emphatic manner. I receive the authentic news from the gingko tree.

The gingko is the most elegant tree in the backyard. It is a native of China, but its seeds long ago were dispersed widely and we are lucky to have one. When it comes to appearance, it has a mind of its own. It sends limbs out this way and that in a seemingly unplanned fashion. Sometimes the limbs, some gnarled and twisted, converge and intertwine. It is a resilient and sturdy tree that for years has withstood the sometimes brutal assaults of unseasonable snowfall or unexpected high winds.

Once you see the leaves of a gingko tree, you are not likely to forget them. They are large and fan-shaped, about two to three inches wide. In the spring the leaves emerge very slowly, still fan shaped but tiny, just a size or two larger than microscopic. Through the summer the tree flourishes and is loaded with foliage of a deep green.

As I look out the window at this moment, the gingko is absolutely barren. And that status is the important part of the gingko personality and this story.

Unlike most of the trees of the forest with which we are familiar, the gingko does not reluctantly shed its leaves, dropping a few last week, a few additional this week, with still more scheduled for the future.

No, that’s not the gingko’s way. The gingko drops all of its leaves very quickly in a blizzard of green, usually in one day, sometimes with a few stragglers the second day. The dropping is like a sprint, evolving quickly; it is unannounced and not predicted on any calendar or any botany manual. But it is a rare sight.

I almost missed it this year, but my wife, Lynn, noticed a few leaves dropping and immediately summoned me to watch. I was in the shower but this is a sight available for viewing just once a year so I grabbed a towel and hurried to the nearest vantage point. The leaf drop, intermittent at first, quickly reached a heavy volume and continued for about an hour. It’s a hypnotic sight. The ground beneath the tree, which is a tall and burly specimen, was totally covered with those uniquely sculptured leaves. I was pleased to be a witness.

That is my personal signal of the arrival of fall. Message received. With the gingko, I need not study the almanac, or accept as fact the traditional seasonal rites of the calendar. There is no need to rely on the predictions of meteorologists. The tree is barren; that’s it. I have stashed away the Bermudas and resurrected the flannels and the sweaters from the closet. It’s fall. My gingko tree told me.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

It isn't gaming; the word is gambling

By Dick Hirsch

While manufacturing is still on the scrap heap and retailers look toward the holidays with extreme pessimism because of woeful worldwide economic conditions, gambling continues to be the major growth industry around Buffalo.

Let’s review for a minute.

There are 1,200 slot machines at Ft. Erie, 600 video gambling machines at Batavia Downs, and 900 at Fairgrounds Gambling at Buffalo Raceway in Hamburg. Have I left anything out? Oh, yes; in addition there are those 300 or so slot machines in that temporary steel “casino” built by the Seneca Nation near downtown.

That makes the total around 3,000 machines. Is that enough to serve the community properly? Or should we be seeking other opportunities? I hope those questions translate as rhetorical because it should be obvious that we have a sufficient number of gambling devices to satisfy the needs of our declining population, a population which the demographers have repeatedly characterized as among the poorest in the nation.

I understand that the urge to gamble can be irresistible for some individuals. The excitement is undeniable. The slots and related electronic devices beckon with their flashing lights and captivating graphics; they are very enticing. They are especially appealing to women, according to those who specialize in the treatment of gambling addictions. The studies show that women, some retired and living on Social Security, and others in the work force, view the slots as simple to understand, easy to play and a way to beat the odds and be a winner. They’ll often explain you can win as long as you don’t become discouraged and impatient and walk away. The strategy is to keep playing.

If you get the newspaper and pay attention, you can frequently learn about some of the female slot players. The ones you read about are the working women, usually office managers or bookkeepers, trusted women, who are in a position to quietly embezzle from their employers. It can amount to big money by the time they are discovered, fired, arrested, indicted and convicted. Men prefer sports betting; football, basketball, horses, as well as craps when available, but women love the slots. Lights flash and bells ring when someone wins. Word spreads. It’s addictive.

The amazing fact is that I have already identified 3,000 gambling devices in four nearby locations and I have not even mentioned the four full scale casinos, the Seneca Nation operations in Niagara Falls and Salamanca and the two casinos in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Fallsview and Casino Niagara. Among them, according to their web sites, they have over 11,000 slots and similar electronic machines. As I said, it’s a growth business.

I initially believed that the Niagara Falls casinos would be relatively positive additions, attracting more visitors to those tourist cities. I was only half right. It worked out that way in Canada, with the casinos stimulating additional development and sharing significant revenues with the community and the Province of Ontario. It hasn’t worked well in New York, however, where the Seneca Niagara Casino and hotel have had what is generally agreed to be a negative influence on business development.

As a friend, visiting the area, asked after touring on both sides of the Falls: “Why does it look like a neutron bomb hit Niagara Falls, New York?” The truth is that other businesses have a difficult time competing with casinos, especially those that pay no taxes. While “Vegas-like” is a common term used to describe development in Canada, desolation is an apt description of downtown Niagara Falls, New York. There, a development that was promoted as a stimulus, has had just the opposite effect.

I was reviewing the gambling-binge as I sat in my car on South Park Avenue near Michigan, just across from the site of the proposed Buffalo casino and hotel planned by the Senecas. The steel skeletons of the buildings stand there, but all work stopped in the wake of a federal court decision. The girders will be rusting at a faster rate over the winter, with only an occasional watchman to observe. It’s a pathetic sight, considering the money and emotions invested by all concerned. But it’s also reassuring for those who agree there are already enough opportunities within easy reach for those who wish to gamble.

That reminds me of one more thing: no matter what they insist on calling it, the business isn’t gaming, it’s gambling. Gaming is a euphemism, a semantic style designed to sugarcoat an unattractive reality, an attempt to make it more acceptable.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A legacy that needs no defense

By Dick Hirsch

My plan was to try to sneak in among a bunch of lawyers to attend one of those noonday lectures at which attorneys can earn Continuing Legal Education credits to meet state requirements.

I’ve always been relieved that there are no similar requirements for columnists, some program of Continuing Journalism Education. So why would I be so determined to spend an hour or more listening to a talk by a retired lawyer discussing such issues as developing a strategy for the defense, selecting a jury and examining witnesses, among other things?

Simple. Because the speaker was to be John W. Condon Jr., one of the cleverest, most colorful and successful criminal defense lawyers to practice in Western New York in the last 50 years. As it promised in the promotional mailer sent to attorneys:

“Condon has never been known to disappoint an audience.”

True. But there is always a first time. Condon, 86, and his wife, Joan, 79, were both killed last week in a two car collision in Hamburg.

I knew him a long time, first as a reporter and then as a consultant handling some writing assignments for him. I was captivated by his personality, by his unpretentious manner and by his demand for the facts, whether it related to gathering evidence for the defense or making a dinner reservation.

“Have you eaten there before?” he would ask. “What did you have? How was the service? Was it noisy.” And then came the clincher: “Would you go back?”

He didn’t enjoy noisy restaurants because he had a hearing problem which worsened over the years until he finally needed hearing aids in both ears. But he often made that disability a part of his courtroom behavior. When cross-examining a witness and his question resulted in a response that was damaging to the prosecution, he often feigned confusion, cupping his hand behind an ear and explaining:

“I’m sorry. I have a hearing problem. Could you please repeat that?” It was a favorite ploy and it enabled the jury to hear the testimony not once but twice. Condon was a convincing advocate, a skilled interrogator, a diminutive figure who seemed most comfortable in front of a jury. He was disarming, perhaps because he didn’t bluster. He recognized that prosecutors had many more weapons at their disposal than defense lawyers, but he made it his strategy to overcome that advantage with complete command of the facts and charming guile. He studied the facts of the case, was well-prepared, and was rarely surprised in the courtroom.

Condon devoted much of his career to the defense of reputed mobsters, and accused thieves, drug dealers and murderers. One client and his associates, aware that authorities might be monitoring their phones, adopted nicknames to try to conceal their identities. They referred to Condon as “Pluggie,” a reference to his hearing aids. He was always comfortable discussing his work, patiently explaining to those who asked the guarantees of the Constitution, emphasizing that any person accused of a crime deserved to be well represented.

He didn’t go into retirement with much enthusiasm. He would have preferred to remain in the game, but his hearing loss was too great a handicap. He still lectured at the UB Law School and taught a course a few years ago in criminal defense. It was oversubscribed. He also was a frequent lecturer at the Cardozo School of Law in New York, and often teamed with Barry Scheck, the nationally known attorney who founded the Innocence Project.

Condon tried wintering in Florida and it worked for awhile. An Irish Catholic, he owned a condo in a development where many of the other residents were Jewish. In his typical broadly inquisitive fashion, he began attending synagogue services, “just to learn what it’s all about.”

He schooled a generation of defense lawyers with on the job training. One, Joseph Sedita, observed: “From John I learned that an advocate can never be satisfied with what he thinks he knows because there is a big difference between that and what he needs to know.”

Said Mike Taheri, his last partner: “You had to be at the top of your game all the time when you worked with John. He was a great lawyer but a better person.”

Taheri and Sedita are among those who either trained with or collaborated with John Condon. Others are men like Joseph LaTona, Rodney Personius and Terry Connors. They are all Condon disciples and they provide a unique legacy.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Nerds continue to find strength in numbers

By Dick Hirsch

If summoned to testify, I will assert my position in the strongest possible manner, as follows: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a nerd.

Of course, nerdship is seldom a sought after characterization, and it is usually conferred not by the subject, but by others in a position to form an opinion about the subject person. But I think I know myself well enough and have been around long enough to reach that conclusion without fear of starting an argument.

The subject of nerds became a hot news item recently when the American Mathematical Society published the results of a new study strongly criticizing the methods employed in the teaching of math and the results achieved in math classes at schools in the US.

Although the study was just released and includes considerable new data, I could have predicted the findings, based on my own experiences. I never had much skill in mathematics, starting with arithmetic and struggling my way through algebra, geometry, trigonometry and ending my daunting and unfortunate run as a college freshman with calculus. What a relief it was when they posted the final grades in that course and I realized I had passed my last math course.

At each step of the way over those formative years, I was tortured by nerds. They didn’t do it purposely. It was just the ease with which they dealt with the most complicated problems and the understanding way they entered into class discussions. They knew what was going on. It was very aggravating. They were in the minority at my schools, but they were very influential. I was on the other side, the larger group of students who could be described by teachers as “also attending were...”

My only salvation was that I perfected the rudiments of spelling and sentence writing, then moved on to paragraphs and whole compositions, and was able to make a happy life for myself without worrying about numbers, except at tax time. The teachers of math at every level must surely recognize that most of their high school classes are filled with students like that, students who would prefer to be someplace, anyplace, else. It has always been that way.

The recent study found that many girls have exceptional ability in math but are never encouraged to pursue that interest. While they have the talent to become engineers, scientists or math researchers, they rarely consider those fields because talent in math is undervalued in the US. I remember a girl named Paula who sat next to me in trigonometry class and amazed me as she calculated sines, cosines and tangents without any fuss whatsoever. She was willing to help me whenever I seemed perplexed, which was often. If she had been encouraged, who knows, she could have been teaching physics or practicing civil engineering.

The study found that many of the best math students are immigrants or children of immigrants from countries where math skills are recognized and encouraged.

“We’re living in a culture that is telling girls you can’t do math, that’s telling everybody that only Asians and nerds do math,” said Dr. Janet E. Mertz, a medical school professor at the University of Wisconsin and the lead author of the study.

The math news made an immediate impression on me because I had been browsing through my copy of the 1867 Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of Buffalo. I received it as a gift several years ago and always wondered how long I would keep it before disposing of it. In it I found some of the type of puzzlers which terrified me in the old days and certainly must have made pupils uncomfortable in 1867. For example:

“John’s age is two-thirds of William’s, and the sum of their ages, diminished by five, is equal to 60; what is the age of each?” Here is another: “If nine oranges will buy 36 apples and four apples will buy one lemon, how many lemons will three oranges buy?” Or, how about: “A man bought a horse for $100, nine-tenths of what he paid for the horse is six-elevenths of what he paid for his carriage; what was the price of the carriage?”

It surprised me to learn as long ago as 1867 teachers were intimidating students with questions like those and saddened me to think over century later they are still using variations of the same theme.

If I spent the rest of the day, I’m sure I could so some figuring and find the answers, but, as always, I have more important things to do.