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

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Seeing spots? You're not alone.

By Dick Hirsch

Just recently, I drizzled a couple drops of soup on a pair of pants. It has happened before. I try to be careful, to place the napkin in a strategic location, but the law of averages dictates that a certain amount of soup---or sometimes sauce, gravy or salad dressing---is certain to drop occasionally from the spoon or fork to the lap below.

I try not to tamper with spots. Do it yourself spot removal is tempting, but can make a bad situation worse. So I took the pants to the cleaner a few days later, and I pointed out the soiled area.

“I spilled some soup,” I said, both an admission of a shortcoming and an explanation of the facts of the case.

“What kind was it?” the woman behind the counter asked.

I was startled by that question. I had never before been interrogated by a cleaner about the precise background of a spot that required removal. Usually they merely nod and and write up the ticket. I am embarrassed to report I could not recall the nature of the soup spilled.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Is it important?”

“Yes, quite important,” she declared. “Can you tell me this: was it a cream soup or a clear soup?”

I was positive it was not a cream soup, but I couldn’t be sure of the identity of the soup. It was either lentil or mushroom barley...or it could have been pea, I told her.

She seemed dissatisfied with my uncertain explanation, but made a few notes on the ticket, handed me my copy, and told me the pants would be ready Saturday. I am pleased to say that the spot was successfully removed. Whether I should attribute that result to the clerk’s investigation or enhanced cleaning techniques I cannot say.

However, that experience made me wonder. Is spot removal becoming a truly professional pursuit? In an attempt to answer that question, I embarked on an Internet search and found over 486,000 locations that purported to offer advice about solving that homely problem. They would surely tell me more than I would ever need (or want) to know about spots and their removal, although it is a specialty that has long interested me. I did browse, finding categories for different types of stains and spots, including grease, chocolate, blood, grass and ink.

There were some 13,900 locations dealing with the removal of mustard spots, one of the most dreaded of all stains. It urged blotting rather than rubbing and warned against the use of any cleaning agent containing ammonia, claiming the ammonia reacts with the tumeric in the mustard to set the stain even more permanently.

I was just a rookie when I discovered that one of the enduring failures of science has been the inability of researchers to discover and develop a satisfactory method for removing a spot from a necktie.

Yes, I understand there are many recommended strategies, but experience has proven to my satisfaction that it is impossible to successfully remove a spot from a tie. Many men try; they usually enlist the help of wives or significant others. Others immediately outsource, seeking professional assistance from a dry cleaner, but the results are always the same.

Typically, the appearance of the spot is definitely modified, but the result is not always an improvement. The density and consistency is reduced but the spot often becomes a larger smear or, on occasion, expands to a smudge.

Depending on the location of the spot, some wearers reserve those disfigured ties to be worn only under a sweater or a vest, a narrow form of damage control. The more definitive step is to discard the tie immediately and try to find another that resembles it. In the days when a suitable silk tie could be acquired for $10 or less that was often considered to be a merely incidental inconvenience. Now, with ties retailing for much more, replacement has become a major capital investment.

Alas, spot removal technology is lagging. Since there seems to be little research currently underway, I cannot offer readers the promise of new developments aimed at solving this recurring problem. Since bibs have long been out of style, I can only offer my sympathies over your past spotty records, hope that you have a steady hand, and urge constant vigilance, especially during the soup course.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Will the snowy side streets ever be plowed?

By Dick Hirsch

One of my first regular newspaper assignments was covering City Hall when Grover Cleveland first took office as mayor. He already had a considerable reputation as a lawyer, and was a regular patron at some of the city’s most popular saloons, where he often dined. He was known for enjoying conversation along with a schuper or two of lager with whoever was at the bar, no matter whether it was a bank president or a stevedore.

He had been sheriff years earlier, then concentrated on his law practice until he was urged to run for mayor as a reform candidate. The inauguration was January 1, 1882 and soon thereafter Cleveland was confronted with a major municipal crisis.

There had been a record snowfall and many citizens were agitated, still complaining a week later about the condition of the streets. Many were virtually impassable because of the drifted snow. While the main streets were cleared, many side streets remained clogged with snow.

Duffy, the news editor, shouted across the room to get my attention. I hurried over to his desk. He rarely summoned me in that way, so I knew it must be important.

“Kid,” he said, “the streets are in terrible condition. The horses can’t move very well in the deep snow and they can’t pull the wagons down the streets to make deliveries. I’ve had people calling me to complain. It’s a bad situation.”

Duffy always became excited when his telephone rang. The phone had only been invented six years earlier in 1876. Not many people had a phone so it was a novelty when the phone rang because few people could either make or receive a call. Duffy had one of the few phones at the paper; most of the others were in the advertising department. Should he actually receive a call, he knew it originated with an important person because there were so few phones in operation.

“Kid,” he repeated, “Schultz is snowed in on Altruria Street,” referring to the regular City Hall correspondent. “I want you to go ask Cleveland what the hell he is going to do about cleaning up the snow. Get right over there, kid.”

He always called me kid because he couldn’t remember my name. He had a poor memory for names. He gave me a stub of a pencil and a handful of foolscap and urged me to get the story, stressing its interest and invoking the importance of the people’s right to know.

I quickly turned to leave and just as I was walking toward the stairs leading to the street there was a shocking but timely development: I woke up.

Yes, I had been dreaming. Cleveland was long gone and already well-established in the history books, but, while personalities may come and go, some situations are eternal. Certain problems are apparently so confounding they defy solutions, thwarting the finest minds that can occupy the mayor’s office. Snow blocked streets is one of those problems. Yes, years ago the problem was less vexing because there were fewer cars and fewer streets.

Since the days of Cleveland---and possibly even during the administration of Ebenezer Johnson, the very first mayor----citizens have been rightfully complaining about unplowed streets. It is no different with the incumbent, Mayor Byron Brown. Like Brown, every mayor is frustrated and attempts to investigate and attack the matter as if it were a recent development. The standard approach is to convene a meeting in an attempt to develop a new initiative and solve the problem. Appointees are interrogated and warned of the consequences of the city’s inability to satisfy the public. They seem unprepared each time the city gets a foot or so, even though it is common knowledge that it does snow in Buffalo. The outcome of such planning is a new strategy, most often described as a “blitz.”

It is far from new. The narrative is always the same. You have heard the explanation, the story of how the main streets and bus routes have been cleared, with all the city’s snow fighting equipment thrown into the fray; but the side streets remain a problem because of...SURPRISE...BULLETIN...the parked cars, which make it impossible for the plows to clear the snow. In neighborhoods with no garages or driveways cars are parked at curbside.

Mayoral candidates are well aware of the side street curse before they’re elected. Why do they act so surprised each winter after the first big storm?


Sunday, January 04, 2009

Some notes on completion of a timely task

By Dick Hirsch

As we begin another year, I decided it would be a good idea to get my affairs in order. I now realize that statement has an ominous sound, so let me be more specific: I decided to clean up my desk.

My desk is very important to me. It’s an antique, a rolltop, built of mahogany, complete with a small brass plaque identifying the manufacturer. It stands out here in a modern office, surrounded by those steel and Formica kneehole models, each of which have a special niche for a monitor and keyboard. But the boss understands and copes with my eccentricities, and thus raised no objections years ago when I showed up one morning, accompanied by three guys, each of whom looked like he could carry a refrigerator upstairs single-handed.

They looked around, assessed the doorways, and calculated the best way to twist and turn the desk to put it in its designated location. Rolltops are more challenging than refrigerators because of their unique girth; they are bulky in every direction. The staff gathered around as the movers walked out to the van, then reappeared a few minutes later, grunting and groaning only occasionally as they navigated the aisles and then tipped and twisted it to get it through the final door into the office.

I bought the desk from a dentist. He kept it in his office, not in his examining room. He was closing the practice, retiring to devote his energy to more creative pursuits. The desk has a history. The dentist had purchased it from a proctologist, a fact that made a tremendous impression on me. In succession, their patients had sought advice and care for both ends of the body. Under my ownership, however, the desk work has related to less specific regions, just general writing and storytelling.

I still use paper in my work. I do my writing on a computer, but I make notes on paper, notes on things to do, persons to call and topics to consider. Frankly, I could not get along without paper, even though I recognize that paper, if not disposed of in a timely fashion, can result in a messy desk. For years I have read predictions of how efficient things will be in the future paperless society; I believe I am one of many who are delighted that particular era has not yet arrived.

True, my desk is somewhat disheveled, yet I absolutely know the approximate location of everything that is supposed to be there. You probably know people with a similar style; people like us remain suspicious of those with uncluttered desks.

One of the great characteristics of the rolltop desk has always been the many little drawers, niches and pigeonholes where various items and implements could be safely secreted, far from the desk top. I have a little drawer for stamps and another for a set of keys for the filing cabinet. There are other small areas into which materials can be placed for easy reclamation. The only trouble is that it is difficult to recall in which niche certain items have been placed. It is often easier to go on with the daily routine without disturbing the storage spots, while at the same time accumulating more materials of various pedigree. To counteract that pattern of behavior, it is important to have a comprehensive cleanup session on a regular basis.

My schedule provides time for an annual blitz of the desk aimed at ridding myself of unnecessary items which at one time must have been considered worth saving. I had been shirking that responsibility since the early 21st century, but I was determined to proceed this year.

I found a collection of rubber bands, some broken, and paper clips, many bent and reshaped for some forgotten special purpose. There were a number of pencils, both stubs and full size, most with broken leads, as well as ballpoint pens that had run dry. There were countless newspaper clippings reporting stories that passing years had made irrelevant, some letters that had been answered, and various scraps of paper bearing notes that related to what had become non-essential facts.

The most abundant harvest was the business cards, many belonging to men and women I haven’t heard from in years, and others introducing persons I no longer remember. The business card is an essential tool, but what is their shelf life? It is exceedingly difficult to flip a business card in the wastebasket. But there are times when it must be done.