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

Sunday, August 30, 2009

How to do a honeydew

By Dick Hirsch

Here I am, thumping again, hoping for better results than I’ve had in the past, but well aware that the results of my thumping will probably continue to be disappointing.

I seldom do any thumping during the rest of the year, but each summer at the appropriate time the persistent side of my personality takes charge and my approach becomes to try, try again. So I thump. On occasions I’ve told myself that the thumping was a waste of time, an obsolete procedure I should abandon. Yet when the time is ripe, I just cannot forsake the old ways.

Thus, my quest for an outstanding and memorable honeydew melon continues.

I prowl the produce aisles of the supermarkets and pick through the piles of melons at the farmers’ market, always seeking promising candidates. No, of course, I don’t thump every honeydew. First they must pass the smell test.

Many melon mavens rely solely on their sense of smell. They insist they can detect melon quality merely by the sniff test; they hold the melon under their nose, rotate it slowly while quietly inhaling. They don’t snort. They concentrate on the area of the melon where it was attached to the vine, starting and ending at that point, and quietly breathing and assessing the distinctive fruity aroma. Then they make their selection based on the evidence they feel they’ve detected.

I follow that approach, but I don’t consider my nose to be well educated enough to make my choices based only on a sniffing examination. First, I employ a brief smell test, rejecting those green melons that were harvested prematurely, those that are obviously ordinary, bruised, overripe, or should be disqualified for other reasons, including appearance.

Those that pass the preliminary examination then get the thump test. I am an ambidextrous thumper. Depending upon the location of the honeydew display, I’ll cradle each specimen with one arm and thump with the other hand, making a loosely clenched fist and striking the skin of the melon gently but firmly with the second knuckle of the forefinger and middle finger of the operational hand. I learned this approach years ago from my friend, Benny, who had a long career as a huckster of fruits and vegetables. He was a thumper. He would cock his head slightly, leaning toward the melon and listening intently as he thumped. I met him one day in a produce department and he agreed to demonstrate his thumping technique, the technique I eventually adopted. As I watched, he tested a number of melons, thumping, listening carefully to the sound produced with each melon, and finally making his selection.

“This is an outstanding specimen,” he raved, presenting it to me as it were a treasured relic. “You won’t be disappointed.” I accepted the melon, gently placed it in the shopping cart, and only then did I ask Benny what I believed was a critical question.

“What exactly am I listening for?”

He said no one had ever asked that question before. There was a long pause as he reflected, trying to define the precise positive sound for which he listened while he thumped.

“If it sounds hollow, it’s no good,” he said, “so put those back and try some others. What you are looking for is a deeper sound, a sound that has a strong feeling that comes from a ripe, sweet melon.”

I nodded as if I understood, but I was still uncertain. I’ve been listening ever since, attempting to differentiate the hollow sounds from the deeper sounds of the prime specimens. That is not easy work.

As I’m sure you must know, the search for a superb honeydew melon is difficult and frustrating. Despite my best efforts and the good work of my wife, Lynn, who has her own strategy, we’ve had to be satisfied with mediocre melons. We have flunked many melons in the search. I believe I was in eighth grade when I was fortunate enough to be served a fabulous wedge of honeydew; even at that age I knew it was extra firm, tasty and juicy. In my innocence I anticipated many more melons as good as that. It hasn’t worked out that way, but the search goes on.

Should you happen to see me thumping a melon at the market, please refrain from interrupting me since concentration is essential in searches such as this. Despite the past record, I remain optimistic and still hope for success. I’ll be glad to advise you later but I cannot undertake freelance thumping assignments.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sex and its impact on car choice

By Dick Hirsch

Women find men more attractive if those men drive luxury cars. Of course I realize that could be considered an inflammatory statement, certainly not typical of the calm and measured tone with which articles of this nature usually begin. I recognize that by writing that sentence I make myself vulnerable to allegations of gender insensitive or worse. I deny that. Calm down ladies, it’s just an assertion, not an accusation.

As you might have suspected, there is a point to be made here. It has little or nothing to do with the women who may or may not be familiar with the various automotive status symbols. Furthermore, it doesn’t focus on cars and the men who drive them.

The subject at hand is academic research and how it often conducts serious studies delving into some of the damnedest subjects. Off in the research centers and the laboratories, experts spend their days and nights analyzing data, making computations, attempting to uncover and explain many of the major questions that confront the rest of us.

I suppose they have an occasional coffee break and take time out for lunch, but the image I’ve always had is of those men and women being tireless practitioners, relentlessly probing some of the issues that have traditionally perplexed the general public. They are dedicated to the task, determined to find the answers that will enlighten and perhaps add to that great inventory of human knowledge.

Some of those investigations end in uncertainty and disappointment for the participants, but others yield results of public interest. Those findings are normally first published in scholarly journals and later they are often reported by the mainstream media. Such reports always attract attention for the revealing material they include as well as the statistics that support the conclusions.

I’ve always been attracted to such news reports. Perhaps you’ve had the same experience, but I’ve often wondered about who decides which issues to study, which mysteries need solving. For example, many of the studies deal with health and fitness, foods, medications and vitamins, and they often produce information that contradicts earlier studies. Some of those results may even contribute to progress, an important goal for those involved in research.

However, there are other studies dealing with seemingly less important topics. What percentage of pizzas contain pepperoni? Why don’t some people like mushrooms? How often do people have oatmeal for breakfast during August as compared to February? Among males in the 25-35 age group is the market share of boxer shorts increasing compared to briefs?

Those are just a few that come immediately to mind, topics about which, at considerable expense, much research time has been devoted. The question frequently asked in the real world is this: Does it really matter?

Sometimes the result of all the research tells us what we already knew and have known for years. That is where the well-known “duh” factor becomes apparent with the question of luxury cars and the appeal of their male drivers to women. For those who may be unaware of its meaning, “duh” is an expletive that need never be deleted. It is often uttered in response to statements regarded as uninformed or obvious.

A recent study published in the venerable and widely respected British Journal of Psychology reported that “men who drive luxury cars are found to be more attractive than those who drive subcompacts.” Duh. Guys, how old were you when you first became aware of that fact?

As part of the study, participants were shown pictures of a model, a person of the opposite sex, sitting in two different cars. One was a silver Bentley, the other was a red Ford Fiesta. While the men participating found the female model equally attractive in both settings, the women in the study rated the male model “significantly more attractive” when he was seated behind the wheel of a Bentley. We don’t encounter many Bentley’s in our neighborhood, but I believe that silver sedans or convertibles by Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar or Cadillac would produce similar responses.

My first car was a seven year old Dodge, dark green, with an automatic transmission, a sluggish pickup, four doors and the lingering aroma of cigar smoke from the previous owner. It took me from here to there, but it did nothing to enhance my social life. I always blamed the Dodge for that condition and now that feeling has been confirmed by this recent study. Duh.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fewer socks than feet among airline passengers

By Dick Hirsch

Each and every time I take a plane to somewhere I marvel at the appearance of the passengers. I’m not talking about age, gender or ethnicity. I’m talking about garb, the clothing choices made for travel from the wardrobes of the various passengers.

Traveling by air was once regarded as a choice reserved for the upper crust, men who wore suits and ties and women who dressed as if they were going to lunch at a fancy restaurant. Destinations were less remote and ordinary folks went by train, bus or drove in the family Plymouth or Pontiac. Wealthy people took planes and dressed for the occasion. The mode of dress they chose was noticed and eventually emulated by other less affluent travelers, who adopted the techniques of the upscale, seasoned passengers. Their hope clearly was to look the part of an experienced and sophisticated airline traveler. The result was that a trip on an airliner was considered to be a classy affair.

I realize I’m showing my seniority, but I can testify that the cabins were filled with men and women who donned some of their finery for the flight. That was a long time ago, of course, and that is why when I fly I continue to examine the look of my fellow passengers in amused amazement.

Informality reigns today. People dress for a plane trip as they once would for a bus ride, not that there is anything wrong with that.

On a recent flight, I decided to scan the preflight waiting area and seek out any men wearing a tie and jacket. This was on a Thursday afternoon and I was wearing a knit shirt and a pair of khaki pants. The plane we were boarding carries about 150 passengers and the flight was nearly full. I prowled around the room, planning to discuss the dress issue with all the men wearing ties. Better hurry, I thought, because flight time was approaching and we would be boarding soon.

It turned out that I did not need to rush. Of the whole group, there was one man in a tie and jacket. The jacket was plaid, the shirt blue, the tie yellow and the slacks beige. He didn’t appear to be self-conscious, but he was well aware he was different and he was somewhat defensive. (The only other ties to be seen were being worn by the captain and first officer.)

“I’m a businessman and I’ve been away for a few days and I am heading home,” he explained. “I always dress this way. Even if I had the time I wouldn’t bother to change my clothes for the flight. Why should I?”

He claimed there are always more jackets and ties on Monday morning because there are more business travelers on those flights. That seemed like a logical contention.

That brief interview completed, I decided I had the time to look for the most informal passenger I could find. Informality is generally considered a specialty of younger persons, both men and women, and assessing and judging truly informal dress is a very subjective undertaking. First I should report there were far fewer socks than feet on board, considering all ages and genders. There were some notably short shorts as well as Bermuda shorts. Finding the most informal subject was a far more difficult task than searching for the tie wearer.

My final choice was a man of considerable maturity with gray hair and a short but unsculptured beard, wearing sandals, Bermudas and a T-shirt from which he had trimmed off the arms, the result giving the armpits plenty of visibility and fresh air. We were boarding and I didn’t bother interviewing him. It’s probably just as well.

Of course the evolution of dress of passengers is only one of the noticeable changes in commercial air travel. Once considered adventurous and later a symbol of wealth and status it became more commonplace over the generations, especially after deregulation in 1978. The saga of commercial air travel, from the passenger’s viewpoint, is told in an intriguing new book, Flying Across America: The Airline Passenger Experience, by Daniel L. Rust, (University of Oklahoma Press, 260 pages, $45.) Complete with archival photos and reproductions of advertising literature, the book provides a colorful and entertaining history of the passenger experience.

The demographics and the clothes weren’t the only changes. There were once restaurant meals served on china. The menu on most domestic flights today features snacks; pretzels, chips and an occasional cookie, symbols of how far commercial aviation has traveled.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Echoes of the past in the Statler lobby

By Dick Hirsch

I stood at the railing on the mezzanine, looking and listening to the lobby below, hoping to discern some echoes from the past.

Once a center of activity each noon, it was virtually deserted the other day as lunch time approached. Standing more than a floor above at eye level with those giant crystal chandeliers, I could even overhear the conversation of two women hurrying toward the Delaware Avenue entrance.

“So I don’t know why they waited so long for us to move,” one said. “We know where we’re going but we won’t be leaving for at least a month.”

“Too bad,” said the other. “I remember this place when I was young.”

Many people remember the Statler when the hotel was the place to be, a solid presence anchoring Niagara Square, a monument to the business foresight of E. M. Statler and the stage upon which civic and social occasions of every kind were celebrated. Now somewhat forlorn with vacant rooms and shabby carpeting, it has retained its basic character and continues to be alluring. All the building requires is a visionary with deep pockets.

It is being offered to the highest bidder at auction on Aug. 12. Will there be bidders? What will its future be?

It is amazing that I could be standing above and looking below at 11:50 AM on a weekday morning and eavesdrop on a conversation in the lobby. In its heyday, there was an almost constant hubbub. The lobby was filled with traffic; there were lines at the busy registration desk and the seven elevators were in constant motion, carrying passengers to and from the 18 floors above. A person could stand in that lobby at busy periods and be virtually assured of meeting friends or acquaintances, some walking through the lobby from Delaware to Pearl, others intent on stopping at one of the Statler’s attractions.

In addition to the Terrace Room which was the main dining room, a person interested in food or drink could choose the Cafe Rouge, an elegant space that was a bistro before that description came into commonplace usage. It had a light but diversified menu, and it served from breakfast through late night.

Just across the lobby was the lounge, a stylish setting with soft lights, tables for privacy, comfortable stools at the bar, and a cadre of attentive bartenders who seemed interested in their work and proud of their neatly pressed Statler uniforms. If neither the cafe nor the lounge seemed exactly suitable, just a corridor away was the Statler drugstore. It was stocked with all the usual medications and sundries, but perhaps was most famous for its soda fountain, behind which short order specialists worked to prepare what many believed was the best tuna salad sandwich within miles.

The Statler was the area’s most popular site for meetings. Organizations of every kind---civic, political, social, religious---would hold their annual banquets and other affairs there. The largest would convene in the Statler Ballroom and smaller groups in one of the private meeting rooms on the mezzanine. The groups would range from Catholic Charities to the Republican County Committee, from the Bailey-Delavan Businessmen’s Association to the Civil War Roundtable. Newspaper editors often assigned reporters to attend some of the meetings in hopes of finding a story. Sometimes there were stories.

One of those stories developed when a well known community leader asked me to look for him in the Statler lobby, often a convenient meeting place. He escorted me to the 12th floor where, in the State Suite, he introduced me to President Harry Truman, retired, and in Buffalo for a speaking engagement that evening sponsored by Canisius College. We had an amiable talk. President Truman was among many distinguished Statler overnight guests.

E. M. Statler began his business career in Buffalo in 1896 with a restaurant in the Ellicott Square Building. He built the first Statler Hotel at Washington and Swan in 1907 and built the present Statler, with its 1,000 rooms in 1923. Before he died in 1928 he owned hotels in Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, New York, Boston and Pittsburgh. The chain continued to grow after his death and was sold to Hilton in 1952 for $111 million.

The Statler hosted many wedding receptions including my own. I can still remember that formation of waiters in their short crimson jackets, marching into the darkened Terrace Room, each holding aloft a plate of Baked Alaska, the flaming dessert.

Yes, I did detect some echoes from the past...but nothing about the future...