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

Friday, January 29, 2010

A winter tale

By Dick Hirsch

I don’t know about you, but if I am going to be cold, I would much prefer to be cold in Buffalo, rather than in Florida or some other sunbelt location.

I realize the snowbirds will never understand the reasoning that led to that kind of attitude, believing it to be a commentary on their lifestyle. It isn’t. It is merely a statement of fact, arrived at after many winters of consideration. Where we live, we look at the calendar and know what to expect. We also have learned to expect the unexpected. The snowbirds embark annually for Florida in the belief they know what to expect there. But they are never prepared to expect the unexpected.

For them, this has been an unexpected winter, and it seemed like a very good time to declare my position. Many people spent much of January shivering, whether they were in Buffalo or Florida. The snowbirds chronicled many tales of woe, characterized by a friend who winters near Naples and who told of teeing off when the thermometer was just above freezing. In the nearby orange groves the smudge pots of old had been replaced by sprinklers designed to create an icy coating, insulating the fruit.

“We’ve never had it like this before, and chilly weather never bothered me,” he observed. He quit after 12 holes and rushed to his apartment to take a long, hot shower.

After hearing several reports like that I realized that where I live the expectations are clear and those who choose to stay the season seldom do much more than the usual griping. Here, cold is a feature on the menu. Still, it’s possible to be sensitive to the cold, without allowing it to become a topic dominating behavior and conversation.

In my own case, I can quickly identify a draft, any time, any place. If there is a leaky window or a blower ill-advisedly circulating a current of cool air, I notice it immediately. I try to either remedy the problem or else make a strategic relocation. This is a skill I must have inherited from my mother, who had an uncanny ability for detecting drafty spaces and suggesting how to avoid them.

At the same time, I’m very familiar with winter. Over the hears, I’ve ridden in a city snowplow, interviewed those marooned in unlikely havens and critiqued the city’s various clumsy attempts to plow the side streets in a successful fashion. I learned about lake effects at the knee of a renowned meteorologist. Despite that background, I remain somewhat bitter over Buffalo’s reputation as the home office of winter.

Just the other day I was doodling on the computer and for some unknown reason, I entered “Buffalo, NY” in the area of Google called “Images.” The immediate response from the search engine was a list of Buffalo topics, the leading one being “Buffalo snow.” When I clicked that, the result was a depressingly sizable collection of photos depicting past Buffalo blizzards, people trudging down the middle of snow-covered streets or digging cars out of snowdrifts. I wished that a topic other than snow would have led the Buffalo list, but I suppose facts are facts.

To make a comparison, I entered Syracuse, NY. We all know that Syracuse actually gets more snow than Buffalo during most winters, yet Google, that supposedly trustworthy source of information, had not a single mention connecting Syracuse with snow. I was hoping our climate would receive more objective treatment on the information superhighway, but, no; Syracuse gets the snow and we get the headlines and the visits from the Weather Channel.

I drove to Syracuse twice during January. In both cases, it was cold and clear in Buffalo. On the same days, within a 25 mile area both east and west of Syracuse on the Thruway it was snowing, blowing and blizzard-like.

I suppose it’s a testimonial to the power of the media, especially television. On several occasions in the past I’ve accused the networks of making Buffalo a winter cliché, a locale doomed to be perpetually associated with winter weather. As soon as significant snow begins to fall, network news editors in New York order video from the local affiliates and BINGO!, we’re getting another 90 seconds of winter infamy.

We must accept it because it is not likely to change, but neither are my feelings about cold: if I am going to be cold, I’d rather be in Buffalo, where the other day it felt like spring.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Are they pants or trousers?

By Dick Hirsch

Of all the observations that Julius Hertling has made in his nearly 60 successful years in business the one that was clearly most insightful was this: No matter what new fashion trends develop, men will always wear pants.

There may be those who might claim that was an obvious conclusion, but Hertling made it at a time when the attitude in the business world was changing, shifting toward a code of informality often described as “dress down.” It started with casual attire on Fridays and soon, in many places, that approach became standard in offices throughout the week, swamping the typically conservative world of men’s fashion.

Suits and ties remained in the closets on most days, in favor of sweaters and sport shirts. That was bad news for the men’s clothing industry; many old line manufacturers failed. Clothing is Hertling’s business, as the owner of a company founded by his father in 1925, a company that manufactured quality suits, sport jackets, blazers and other essentials, including trousers, all of which could be classified as traditional.

Hertling calls them trousers although he agrees the term pants is just as accurate.

“Trousers sends the message of quality, made from better goods by more skilled workers,” he explained. “It’s also a more polite term.”

So it was in 1997 that Hertling aimed his company in a different direction, based upon his conclusion that men would always wear trousers, no matter what other unexpected trends engulfed the market. Since that time, his Brooklyn factory has made only trousers, the type of traditional clothing sold by upscale stores around the country. Each merchant establishes their own price, but the Hertling trousers generally retail from $145 for a pair cut from cotton fabric to around $225 for wool.

Hertling is 84 now, but is in his office on Greenpoint Avenue before 8:30 most mornings and says he has no plans to retire because he enjoys his work too much. He says what is “in” or “out” of fashion has always been difficult to predict, but he has no plans to return to the manufacture of suits and jackets.

“I have no hard evidence but I have the feeling that the suit and more formal business dress may be coming back,” he said. “In bad times men have had a tendency to dress up again. Busy times for suit makers have gone hand in hand with past recessions. We have also seen the closing of many fine independent men’s shops around the country, but I suspect we may soon see a reversal of that trend. Men can’t get the same service shopping in the big stores or ordering from the catalogs.”

Hertling grew up in the clothing business, often accompanying his father, Morris, to the factory on Saturdays. He did occasional odd jobs but didn’t become an employee until he returned from military service in 1946 following the end of World War II. he worked in manufacturing learning the rudiments of cutting, sewing, pressing and all the tasks required to assemble an article of clothing. Eventually he bought the company. Neither of his two sons ever evinced much interest in the business; one is an attorney in New York, the other a journalist in Paris.

How did I come in contact with Hertling? That’s a reasonable question. I noticed one day recently that several of the trousers in my closet seemed to have what I considered to be an extra belt loop. If you investigate in your closet, you’ll find that your pants will have either six or seven loops. Why do mine have eight and what good is the eighth? I asked that question of Ethan Huber, whose family owns a local store that is a cathedral of traditional clothing, and the source of my trousers.

“Those are Hertling trousers and all of them are made with eight loops so they don’t need a hanger loop in the back,” Huber said.

I accepted that explanation but felt there had to be a better reason, so I phoned the source, describing to Julius Hertling the pair of trousers I happened to be wearing that day.

“That’s true,” said Hertling, “but that extra loop makes the belt be better balanced and it is also another visible way of differentiating our products from the competition, a mark of excellence. We do everything we can to make a better trouser.”

Then as an afterthought, he added:

“I have the same pair of trousers you do, and they’re one of my favorites. I hope you’re glad to hear that.”

I was.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The trouble connecting the dots

By Dick Hirsch

I wish I could predict that I would be able to connect the dots in the new year, but I doubt it. Why am I so pessimistic? Because if I haven’t been able to connect the dots so far, how could I possibly expect to connect them now?

I am not alone in this concern.

Be honest and truthful as you ask yourself this simple question: Have I been able to connect the dots?

I know a number of intelligent people and most of them are frank to admit they have failed in any recent attempt to connect the dots. During discussions, a small but assertive minority will make some flaccid claims that on certain occasions they have had some limited success with the dots, but I don’t really believe them.

As the world has become more complicated and ominous, additional stress has been placed on the ability of those in positions of influence to connect the dots. Meanwhile, the dots themselves became much more difficult to isolate, identify and link. The object, of course, for those who may never have tried, is to carefully join one dot to the next, leading to an eventual solution. We are told that solutions to some of the most intimidating problems will be clarified if we could only connect the dots. For years there were few references to the importance of the dots, but that changed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the days that followed, the dots became more critical.

My experience with connecting dots is limited to those few pages in the coloring books we had at home when I was a child. I usually concentrated on the coloring pages, striving to stay within the lines, but when a page with dots presented itself I immediately responded to the challenge by connecting them without difficulty. They were simple; 1, 2, 3 and so on, up to 50 or 100, resulting in completion of a recognizable drawing. They were very elementary and that is the cause of the situation we have today.

Our educational system failed us by strictly limiting dot connecting opportunities, only publishing the most rudimentary problems. I understand there were some books solely devoted to dots, but I don’t recall ever seeing one. By the time we were in fourth or fifth grade we were no longer connecting dots; no self-respecting child of that age would want to be seen dallying with dots. It was considered a childish pursuit.

If only we had been given the chance to deal with more challenging dot structures....

Is it too late?

I decided a survey of dot connecting opportunities might be both enlightening and timely. My first stop was the neighborhood dollar store where the clerk immediately directed me to the aisle with the coloring books and crayons. There was a sizable inventory of coloring books, but only a few had any pages devoted to dots. The dot pages were just as I remembered them from years ago, containing a very simple collection of dots sprinkled on the page, which, when connected, yielded outlines of rabbits, dogs, trees and similar familiar objects. I was disappointed but not surprised. Those few pages clearly didn’t provide even the most basic kind of training required to prepare children for the kind of dot connecting ability needed by adults today.

You may not realize it, but there are many more dots in circulation than ever before. The dot has surpassed the period---the spot that goes at the end of sentences---and the point---the essential character that defines every decimal. The period and the point have been overwhelmed by the preponderance of dots.

I conducted an Internet search for dot books and found that publishers still believe they should be part of their product lines. There are many opportunities for purchase of dot books, some supposedly developed for adults, including one grandly entitled “The Greatest Dot Book in the World,” available at Another site offering such books is

Have I placed my own order? Well, let’s just say I am considering it since we can all use some practice in dot connecting. One conclusion I reached while reflecting on dots is this: if you look back at your own experience, the location of the dots that played a part in your life is now very obvious. That’s what is known as hindsight. While history is always relevant, what we need is dot connectors with foresight....


Monday, January 11, 2010

A quiet man and his singular triumph

By Dick Hirsch

Among a small but discerning group of adherents, Ed Bergmann is a man to be cherished and glorified, a man who deserves accolades for his singular accomplishment. But he seeks no acclaim, preferring, instead, to operate quietly and unheralded, dedicated to the work that he feels fate has chosen for him.

Like countless other individuals, after years of regular work in a job at which he found success but not true satisfaction, destiny took him in an unexpected direction. When Bergmann first arrived in Buffalo from what was then Czechoslovakia in 1970 he was 34 years old, an energetic and personable man with spring in his step and independence on his mind. He wanted to operate his own business.

So he became a house painter. He had no fear of extension ladders and dormers topping three story frame homes on small lots in the older sections of the city. He hustled for business, knocking on doors and promising quality workmanship and prompt completion of the work. He rejected inferior paints and assured his customers that he used the best materials and would avoid spattering droplets of paint on the driveway or the front walk. He scampered up those ladders, worked long hours, acquired a lengthy list of satisfied customers, and seemed to enjoy his work.

But as he grew older, scaling the ladders and positioning himself on the scaffolds became less appealing. While house painting had enabled him to provide for his wife and family, there was lurking in his mind a feeling that he should find an opportunity to do something more significant than scraping and repainting clapboard siding.

“Painting is a good business and most customers appreciated our work because their houses looked much better with a fresh coat of paint,” he said. “But I was getting tired of it.”

It was about that time---1986---when fate intervened. On this particular day, Bergmann and his wife, Anna, went shopping at the Broadway Market. They shopped there often and usually the visits were uneventful. This time it was different. As Bergmann searched for a parking space, cruising slowly down Gibson Street, on the west side of the market, he noticed a for sale sign on a building near the corner of Sienkiewicz Place. It was a narrow two story building, with a residence upstairs and a tavern on the first floor. The tavern was called The Three Deuces, a meaningful name to poker players, as well as a salute to the building’s address, 222 Gibson.

Bergmann, then 50 years old, decided he could envision himself as the proprietor of a neighborhood tavern rather than a painting contractor. He bought the building and the business for $35,000, did some work to spruce up the appearance of the place, received the necessary licenses, and soon was situated behind the bar.

All of this provides an interesting example of a mid-life career change, but it doesn’t explain the action that transformed Bergmann into a personality revered by those who know of his primary accomplishment.

Bergmann is a beer drinker, a description that applies to many from his native land, both Czechs and Slovaks. He resolved to introduce his clientele to what he believes is the world’s finest beer, brewed since 1842 in the town of Pilsen in his homeland, a brand called Pilsner Urquell. It is a brand so deified in the world of beer drinking that it was responsible for the creation of a whole new category of beer: pilsner. It could occasionally be found in bottles in those days, but Bergmann resolved to buy it in kegs, thus enabling him to serve it on draft.

That sounds like a simple goal but it turned out to be a daunting experience. He located a distributor who imported the kegs, but who would not arrange a Buffalo delivery. He did deliver to a club in Rochester, however, and Bergmann proposed a plan in which he would drive to Rochester on a prearranged schedule and load his car with the precious pilsner. He did that for some time until the distributor realized he had an indefatigable advocate for the beer and arranged for it to be delivered.

Now he patiently draws drafts of Pilsner Urquell at $2.50 a glass, while regaling visitors with tales about his most famous customer, Dominick Hasek, the renowned Czech and former all-star goal tender for the Buffalo Sabres. With pride, Bergmann serves what he regards as the world’s best, but if you don’t like it he’ll be glad to draw you a glass of Pabst Blue Ribbon for a dollar a pop.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Curiosity is healthy and easier than pushups

By Dick Hirsch

Many people do a little self-assessment at this time each year and that is exactly what prompts me to make the following admission: when I was a kid in school I never asked many questions. However, I’ve been making up for it as an adult and apparently that is a very positive approach because curious people appear to be healthier, according to a number of studies.

Many people adhere to specific diets, restricting their intake of foods associated with certain ailments. Some of my friends take vitamins. I realize that vitamins, especially C and D, are highly recommended. Others swallow a daily regimen of supplements, formulations such as Flax Oil, Melatonin or that famous duo of Glucosamine & Chondroitin. A growing number exercise. They lift weights, jog the streets in all kinds of weather, or spend time operating sophisticated equipment at the health club, all designed to make them grunt, groan and eventually render them fit.

Those folks all claim they derive substantial benefits from whatever strategy they have adopted and I salute them for their efforts and their dedication to the task of staying well.

My own routine is somewhat different and in many ways more challenging than popping pills or cavorting with a medicine ball. Can you guess? I ask questions.

Am I kidding? No. How many questions? Should I be keeping track? Would you? I try to ask between 45 and 60 questions each and every day, weekends included. Is that enough? What about vacations? If I stay home, the total is about the same but if I should travel the number of questions asked always escalates because I’m in unfamiliar places seeing new things and different people. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

I have no way of knowing whether I am asking enough questions to stay in good health because the articles and studies regarding the benefits of a curious nature never mention any precise measurements or guidelines regarding the manifestation of curiosity.
When did I start asking questions after such a taciturn boyhood? How should I know? Was I shy? That’s certainly a possibility, isn’t it? Was I intimidated by speaking in a classroom or before a large group? Could be, but then how come I won a public speaking prize in seventh grade? It is complicated for anyone to trace the development of personality traits. It’s challenging, don’t you agree?

Could I have matured? Could I have been described as a late bloomer? Is that a rhetorical question? Absolutely. Who can say for sure what transpired? By the time I signed on as a reporter for the college weekly I seemed comfortable interrogating the dean or even the president without concern. What was my style in those early days? Was I an abrasive or polite questioner? Neither. Have a changed my technique? What do you think?

Curious people, each of the reports explain, seem to enjoy life more, doing different things and adjusting easily to different situations. As a result of their inquisitive nature there apparently is evidence that such people live longer. Have you read about those findings? Does that seem like a worthwhile goal? Am I claiming my behavior complies with those standards? Nope. That would be presumptuous, wouldn’t it?

Have you ever been suspicious about some of the popular psycho-babble studies that are reported in the press? I don’t blame you. Who wouldn’t question some of their claims?

Yet it strikes me as an interesting path to longevity, don’t you agree? The assumption is that the questioner gains knowledge by eliciting answers. Thus, could such a person believe he or she was simultaneously becoming both smarter and healthier through questioning? It sounds positive, doesn’t it? But is there a downside? Can asking questions be considered offensive or antagonistic? Don’t the questions require asking in a way that avoids offending others? That is absolutely correct.

So what is the bottom line? How did I know readers would request information regarding the bottom line? Why? Because it is such a common query. Why so common? Because when certain unskilled questioners can think of nothing further to ask they resort to inquiring about that elusive fact, the bottom line.

In my own case asking questions has proven to be the keystone of my career and I always plan to ask more questions next year than last year. Incidentally, I recognized long ago that I’m much better at asking questions than I am at answering them. Isn’t that a positive bottom line?