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

Sunday, June 28, 2009

His business is picking up

By Dick Hirsch

As an environmental activist, guys like Pepper don’t get much credit. That’s because he gets so little attention, operating quietly, doing piece work. That means he picks up one can or bottle at a time, unless he is fortunate enough to have developed some rapport with certain homeowners or business operators. They will take the time to collect a batch at home or office and save them until the regular day he appears in their neighborhood, pushing his shopping cart. With an eye for the prizes he is seeking, he thoughtfully sorts through the refuse in search of returnables which he can redeem and collect the cash deposit.

People like Pepper are on the front lines in the struggle against litter. They scavenge and salvage what others discard. If the Returnable Container Act or so-called “bottle bill” has had any success since it became law in New York State in 1982, it is because of men and women like Pepper who sweep up some of the mess created by the rest of us.

Pepper and his colleagues were elated when they heard the news of the passage of legislation that would add provisions to the law, requiring a deposit on water bottles. The New York Public Interest Research Group estimates that two billion water bottles are discarded every year, some tossed at curbside, in parks and other public places. It has been described as a dreadful waste of resources, since each of those bottles is made of plastic, as well as a blight on the landscape.

Those issues aside, when Pepper heard the news earlier this year that the new provisions making water bottles returnable had been added, he wasn’t thinking of the time and materials needed to manufacture an endless supply of bottles that would end up as waste, rolling in the wind. He envisioned the new source of income that would soon become available to him, all those water bottles he had seen but rejected for years, and all the nickels he would gain by collecting and redeeming them.

A lean disheveled man with a frazzled gray beard and a face weathered by too many days in the sun and too many nights sleeping under the bridge, Pepper rarely shows much emotion. When I mentioned the water bottles, he became excited and incandescent. Previously he did various odd jobs but for the last three years he has been devoting his efforts to patrolling various neighborhoods, pushing his cart up and down his favorite streets. He concentrates on the West Side but travels to other sections, too.

“It’s gonna change my life,” he said. “I’ll be rich.”

Obviously Pepper spends little time reading the paper so I had to give him the bad news. A federal judge had issued an injunction, questioning the constitutionality of the legislation and postponing the anticipated effective date of the new law. The judge’s opinion focused on the special New York bar coding requirement which is included in the law to ensure bottles sold in the state are redeemed in the state. The ruling concluded that requirement violates the interstate commerce provisions of the US Constitution. There will be further legal arguments and the possibility that water bottles will continue to be exempt from deposits and returns.

That ruling pleased the water bottlers, the bottle manufacturers, the petroleum and plastics companies that provide the raw materials used to manufacture the caps and bottles, the printers who make the labels, the agencies that handle redemption and others who have profited by the public’s growing attachment to bottled water. It disappointed all the usual environmental groups, organizations that had been lobbying for years to reduce what they perceive to be a costly and wasteful addiction. In addition, it frustrated state officials who were eager to begin collecting 80 percent of the unclaimed deposits on all beverages, supposedly worth $115 million, money now kept by the bottlers.

“Leave it to the politicians to screw things up,” observed Pepper after a moment of reflection when he learned that his projection of increased income was invalid, his plans for an enhanced lifestyle thwarted. That seems to be a view shared by many.

“I only wish they’d have a deposit on wine bottles because I see an awful lot of them,” he suggested, as an alternative revenue source.

That’s unlikely, but we will be hearing more about bottled water, nickel deposits and the emotions the issue provokes. This is probably as good a time as any to mention that the going rate for water from my home faucet is $2.86 per thousand gallons. (end)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Farewell to the weekend as we knew it

By Dick Hirsch

When I was a college freshman, I had a class on Saturday morning. Do I remember the subject? Of course not, but if I had to guess, I would say it was World History.

I settle on history because the schedule makers never would have arranged any courses in math or the sciences for early Saturday morning, when the minds of students were likely to be dulled by the activities of the night before and less receptive than any other day of the week.

What did I know about life? I was a blank slate during registration that first semester, an innocent high school graduate. It took me a full twelve years to learn most of the intricacies of public education, now I was thrust into a whole new venue. Some alleged advisor must have told me that certain classes met on Saturday mornings---following the Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday regimen---and urged me to take that course with a bright, engaging new instructor.

Yeah, sure, bright and engaging. Hindsight tells me that he must have been new to the faculty, because who else would have accepted such a dismal schedule? There we were together, a collection of unsophisticated lambs, at 8:40 AM, each and every Saturday for an entire year.

But it turned out to be a learning process. I learned a bit about the history of the world---1066 and all that---but the most memorable lesson was never again to register for any courses that met on Saturdays. Better to stay longer on Tuesday and Thursday and avoid any serious attempts at formal education on Saturdays. My best information is that Saturday classes long ago disappeared from academic schedules.

That is all history. Schedules continue to shrink in the academic world and Friday is becoming a victim---or should I say beneficiary?---of the trend to revise Friday, so it completes the evolution and is accepted as a weekend day. Students consider Thursday afternoon to be the beginning of the weekend. Surveys have shown that far fewer classes meet on Fridays than on other days of the week. Can you guess the busiest days? If you chose Tuesday and Wednesday, you would either be very perceptive or else on the staff at the office of some college registrar.

College officials, who long ago abandoned Saturday as a day for learning, have been struggling for several years to restore Friday to its traditional role as just another school day. They stress the many factors of efficiency and economy. It seems counter-intuitive to have most of the classes jammed into four days, creating scheduling problems that result in crowded classrooms. They enumerate other problems as well, but the campaign for restoration of Friday has had limited success.

Traditionally, trends are born on the campus. The validity of Fridays as workdays has also been called into question in the business and professional mainstream, among workers and managers, for whom Friday has become a day that no longer possesses the clout of the other days of the week. It was just last year that the owner of a successful local business enlightened and shocked me when he declared:

“Thursday is the new Friday!”

He was planning a corporate party at which customers would be entertained. He insisted on a Thursday, explaining that a Friday, any Friday, had lost its luster and was no longer acceptable. One of his top executives offered mild resistance, defending the various benefits of Fridays and extolling its attributes, but the boss prevailed. The Thursday party was a major success, well attended, with very few invitees declining.

If you are shocked by this revelation and insist on seeing additional evidence, you don’t have to believe me. Consider your own experience. Do you find it difficult to reach certain business associates by phone on Fridays? If you are a golfer, do you find it more difficult to arrange a tee time on Fridays?

Or what about meetings? Why are most meetings held on Mondays through Thursdays? Is that a coincidence? Or is it just another symptom of the malaise that is gripping Friday? On a more personal note, ask yourself when was the last time you contrived an excuse to be absent when some customer wondered whether you could attend a meeting on Friday afternoon?

I understand the factories, offices and executive suites are all very busy on every Friday in China and India. Does that send you any kind of message?

Friday, June 12, 2009

After all these years, still a blue blazer

By Dick Hirsch

So there I was, packing my suitcase to travel to the class reunion and wondering whether it was possible to avoid taking my Navy blue blazer to wear at the class dinner. Was there a viable alternative, I wondered.

It was what might be called a rhetorical wonder because I knew the answer before I started any serious wondering. The answer was “NO;” a substitute could not be found for that most versatile of all items of men’s clothing. The answer, as always, would be a blue blazer accompanied by either gray slacks or khakis. Of course I knew in advance that nearly all the classmates who attended would make exactly the same choice. It was the accepted uniform of our time for any “occasion,” so once again we would look like a glee club or a bunch of conventioneers all wearing the same outfit.

Years ago, if I had written about the wisdom of such a monumental decision, it would have been a topic that would have appealed only to men. That has changed and the blue blazer has become gender neutral. Women years ago recognized the adaptability of the jacket and added it to their wardrobe basics.

My introduction to the blue blazer was as a college freshman. Back home while in high school, I don’t ever recall seeing any of my contemporaries wearing one. There were those periodic “dressy” occasions that called for wearing a jacket and tie, but the jackets were usually herringbone or plaid, houndstooth check or Harris tweed. When I became a collegian, I immediately noticed the upperclassmen, as well as some of my new classmates, wearing the blue blazers, usually with the embroidered college seal sewn over the left breast pocket.

After a few weeks, I checked my budget and then marched down to Slossberg’s Campus Shop, nearby at the corner of Broad and Vernon streets, and bought my first blazer. Little did I realize that, as I was being fitted and the sleeves measured for shortening, I was experiencing what would later be regarded as a defining sartorial moment. The appeal of the blue blazer, a characteristic that transcends the passage of time, is that it is truly a switch-hitter since it can be considered either somewhat formal or somewhat casual, depending on the venue.

The pedigree of the Navy blue blazer has been fairly well established. It was conceived in the late 1830s by the captain of a British frigate, the HMS Blazer. Anticipating a visit to the ship by Queen Victoria, he wanted the crew to be especially well clad. He took his idea to a tailor who made the original design, using blue serge, he cut and sewed double-breasted jackets with two rows of brass buttons down the front plus brass buttons on the sleeves. The Queen apparently was mightily impressed and soon officers and sailors of the entire Royal Navy were being measured for the blazers. The term blazer is derived from the name of the ship, but it wasn’t long before yachtsmen, members of private clubs, and students at colleges and prep schools in England began adopting the style. They added a special touch, the embroidered seal of their organization on the left breast.

The design quickly crossed the Atlantic to the US and jumped the Channel to France and was soon popularized in much of the world during the 20th century. While the original blazers were double-breasted the most typical models now are single-breasted. Today they are sold in a whole spectrum of colors, but Navy blue remains predominant. While serge was the cloth of the originals, flannel became the fabric of choice, and now other lighter weight fabrics are used for summer wear.

My own history with the blue blazer has continued since that original purchase. It seems to me that it is a wardrobe basic, even for those who rarely wear a jacket. There is one quality of the blue blazer that was stressed to me by a retail clothier of note. Extolling its virtues, he noted one possible negative characteristic: “In Navy blue flannel, it picks up everything but girls.”

A few years ago I unexpectedly encountered an old friend, now a prominent surgeon in Boston. I was wearing my blue blazer and a pair of khakis. He took one look and observed:

“After all these years, you’re still a preppy.”

I disagree with that assessment. If I really were a preppy by today’s standards, I’d be wearing jeans.


Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Wrong numbers in the age of the cell phone

By Dick Hirsch

“Hello,” I said. Static was the only clear response. I tried again, only this time louder, with an exclamation point. “HELLO!” more static.

As background, I should explain that the majority of the calls I receive on my cellular phone are wrong numbers. Often in a rush to communicate, people frequently hit a wrong button or two, and they reach someone like me, an unwitting bystander. Although no surveys have been released, I understand that it is a common occurrence.

I am not claiming my own experience is typical, but I can say for certain that I get at least as many such calls as I do calls from people who are actually trying to reach me for some reason. I know that may be difficult to believe, but it the truth. Only a few people know my cell phone number. I prefer it that way.

As far as I am concerned, the main reason for having the phone is the ability to make calls; it does not indicate the willingness to receive them. It’s a great convenience, one that Alexander Graham Bell could never have foreseen. But would he have applauded? By now I’m an established cellular user, but it is relevant to note that I was the last person in my family to go cellular. The children were way ahead of me.

I still can rightfully claim that I continue to make most of my calls from a regular phone situated either at home or office, the kind that has become widely known as a “land line.” The percentage of such calls is dropping as the number of cellular calls increases. I was flipping through the annual report of one of the major telecommunications companies recently, and that figure jumped off the page. It won’t be too long, some experts predict, before the bulk of calls will be cellular.

“HELLO!” I said again. There was no static this time, only dead air. I flipped it closed.

I was almost shouting. It is a common reflex when there is no response. But in this case, I was sitting in one of the worst of all possible places to get such a call: in a restaurant. I’ve seen and heard other people on the phone in restaurants and I’ve always dreaded being in that position. The tables were fairly close together, the kind of setting that is ideal for a private conversation with a companion. But when the phone rings and there is either static or dead air, the tendency is to start elevating the decibel level. It’s embarrassing. I was intruding on the lives of others.

I chose the easy way out---the side door. I input the number of the caller and this time there was a response, overlaid with static, but it was obvious he didn’t know me and I didn’t want to know him, so that ended that episode of telecommunications. Stay tuned for further experiences.

While phones are still primarily designed to carry voices, my geek friends are all extolling the praises of text messaging and twittering. They assure me this is no longer the wave of the future, it is the wave of the present: they are celebrating the concept of less talk and more hunting and pecking, transmitting messages, some of which could even be considered important. If you are not a texter, you are on the verge of old.

It reminds me of one of my prehistoric adventures, sitting before a Teletype machine, conversing in print with a distant colleague. The technology covered long distances but we were only about 25 blocks apart. We considered it to be a very advanced technology, typing and transmitting stories, certainly faster than carrier pigeons. When there was nothing else to do is became an engaging time waster, conducting a two way conversation via the written word.

And so it is today, in its current incarnation, a useful tool of communication, as well as an engaging time waster. The buttons are so small, that typographical errors are common, and yet....who cares? People are texting. I had dinner recently with a man who makes it a habit to be gadget and tech savvy. His soup got cold as he was fiddling around on his lap. I couldn’t imagine what he was doing so I had a look: Nothing serious, naturally, just some casual twittering.

As was so often said in the old days: Don’t call me; I’ll call you.