Thursday, May 23, 2024

Trip Advised Her

Mom in the garden of Baghdad's Zia Hotel in 1957.
Just from her posture and facial expression, you can tell how hot it was for this girl from Maine!

Are you well-traveled?  

And by well-traveled, I'm thinking of people who do more than just travel a lot. 

Although I don't like to travel, I know most people do.  Some of them simply enjoy being able to brag about where they've been and what they've seen.  Others of them, however, truly consider the world to be their oyster, as the saying goes.  

These are people whose passports read like encyclopedias.  People for whom travel isn't a hobby, but a gateway to cultural exploration.  They seem to be at home no matter what country they're in.  They delight in the unassuming ways humanity, however diverse, tends to share common traits, like the happiness of a smile, or the satisfaction of a well-cooked meal. 

Like me, my mother is not well-traveled.  But she's traveled farther than I have.  Considering her sedentary, domestic lifestyle, one might be surprised to learn that Mom's past nevertheless includes one pretty incredible global trek.  It took place in the 1950's, long before international travel was as economically and logistically attainable as it is today.  And her destination was Baghdad, Iraq, of all places!  A city in a country that still remains resolutely removed from most touristy agendas.

She took an ocean liner over there, across the Atlantic and Mediterranean.  Their crossing was inordinately rough and many passengers became sick, but although it was her first and only trans-Atlantic voyage, Mom didn't.  They stopped in Barcelona, Spain, where Mom took a day trip into its mountainous countryside.  They also stayed in Beirut, Lebanon, for a couple of weeks.  She flew back via Frankfurt, Germany, and Paris, France.  She never went abroad again, except to Canada, and never even bothered to update her passport.  But as she recalls that adventurous spring and summer of 1957, she marvels at what she experienced as a poor country girl from coastal Maine.

After graduating from high school, Mom had gotten a job working as a nanny for the Howards*, a wealthy New York family with a country home on Blue Hill Bay.  That family's patriarch was an esteemed medical doctor who worked for the Rockefeller Foundation.  His job was to evaluate medical needs in emerging countries and help local governments establish best-practice protocols for their public health services.

You see, during the years following World War Two, America found itself as our planet's primary purveyor of beneficence.  Our country had not suffered the physical ravages of two successive wars in Europe or Asia, so we weren't spending our post-war economy literally rebuilding, either socially or physically.  And our industrial might had generated many philanthropists who wanted to extend economic advantages and humanitarian assistance around the globe.  For the Howard family, that meant living abroad for 20 years, in Brazil, Iran, Mexico, Iraq, Switzerland, and Colombia.

When they left Maine for the Middle East, the Howards had five children.  A sixth would come later.  Mom had been working almost a year for them, and was getting ready to go to college in the fall of 1957 when the Rockefeller Foundation intervened.  The Howards asked her to accompany them to Baghdad to maintain a semblance of continuity for the children, at least until Mom began her freshman collegiate term.  So she was abroad from March until August.

On the day they arrived in Baghdad, a fierce sand storm enveloped the city with insidious grit.  What a welcome, right?  She did the children's laundry every morning in a bathtub, hung the diapers (cloth, of course) and other clothing on the porch, and within half an hour, they were completely dry!  The Howards joined a British social club and an Iraqi country club so Mom could take the kids swimming often in their pools.  At one of the clubs, an employee discreetly approached Mom and quietly asked if she needed him to hire for her a nanny to help look after her children!  Mom wondered how old (or young) he must have thought she was to have five kids, with the eldest being 10 at the time.  

Until their family's rented house was ready, they stayed in Baghdad's legendary Zia Hotel.  The Zia was a grand old-world edifice with faded luxury and a verdant garden overlooking Iraq's prehistoric Tigris River.  In 1928, Agatha Christie stayed there and based one of her mystery novels in it, so that tells you something of the property's gravitas.  Mom thoroughly enjoyed her own stay at the Zia, and especially their kitchen's greengage plum compote, which is a stewed and sweetened Middle Eastern treat.

Aside from Iraq's heat and dust, the major readjustment Mom recalls was having to ignore the little lizards that would constantly be climbing the walls inside the Howard's rented house.  It was a fairly gracious abode, inside a walled compound, with a garden featuring trees, shrubs, and grass.  The Howards employed a cook, Sami, who was from India, and prepared mostly an American diet, including a delicious apple pie!  There was a cook's helper, a chauffeur, an older married houseboy named Hassan, and a dishwasher who Mom recalls didn't like using soap.  At least they didn't have to boil the water; it was safe to drink from the faucets.  Mrs. Howard shopped for fruits and vegetables at local bazaars, and Mom would wash, dry, and peel all of the fruit since, unlike vegetables, they would be eaten raw.

On the Fourth of July, the Howards were invited to Baghdad's American consulate for an Independence Day party.  Mom recalls seeing its American flag - the first one she'd seen since departing America in March - and almost bursting into tears.  She hadn't realized how much she missed something most of us take for granted.

As she prepared to enter college, Mom returned to America on a trip Dr. Howard had personally arranged and funded.  The airline was Lufthansa, and the first leg of her journey was from Baghdad to Frankfurt, where she was scheduled to stay overnight.  For that, she had to take a bus from the airport to the hotel, a ride for which clerks at Lufthansa tried to make her pay on the spot.  However, before she'd left Baghdad, Dr. Howard had made clear to Mom that she wouldn't have to pay for one single thing out of her own pocket.  And unlike Mom, he was wise to the ways of international travel, and he knew she was a prime target for scam artists.  So while Mom doesn't remember why Lufthansa said she had to pay, Dr. Howard's parting words rang in her ear, and she recited them to anybody who would listen:  "Dr. Howard said I didn't have to pay for anything."  

Even though nobody in Frankfurt had any clue who "Dr. Howard" was, or why he mattered!

And sure enough, Mom didn't end up paying anything extra.  Well, not in Frankfurt, anyway.  And actually, she did purchase something for which nobody had planned.  Although it was late summer, and she'd been born and raised in New England, Mom discovered she was literally freezing in Germany, after spending half the year in the Middle East!  The previous day, when she'd left Baghdad, it had been 120 degrees in the shade.  So before she went back to the airport the next morning, she found a shop with early opening hours, and purchased a tan, thick, wool cardigan sweater in an effort to warm up.  She remembers being so unnerved being on her own in a foreign country, she didn't dare cross any street to find a clothing store - she just walked around her hotel's block until she found one that was open!

Mom got to Paris just fine, but once again, Lufthansa clerks raised an obstacle.  They claimed she had to check something on her ticket, and even though there probably was a ticket office at the Paris airport, nobody told her that.  Instead, they instructed her that she had to leave the airport and go to a ticket office in the city.  Remember, Mom was hardly savvy about anything regarding international travel.  So she took a cab from the airport into Paris, and paid for it herself.  

What "Dr. Howard said" meant even less in Paris than it did in Frankfurt!

Mom's flight to the United States didn't leave until evening, so she had some free time.  And her unexpected detour placed her right in the middle of one of the world's most glamorous cities, which for anybody else would have been a wonderful diversion.  But not for Mom.  Anxious and probably reeling from some culture shock, she fell apart in the ticket office, confused over why she had to have her ticket checked, why she had to leave the airport, and not knowing how she'd find a city cab - with her limited high school French - to take her back to the airport. 

The Parisian clerk who processed Mom's ticket couldn't help but notice her distress.  She took pity on Mom and calmed her down.  Her shift was about to end, and she had an American boyfriend, a soldier posted in Paris as part of NATO (this was right before France began transitioning from that post-war military alliance).  He owned a car and the three of them could go back to the airport and take in some sights along the way. 

As you can imagine, Mom suddenly felt incredible relief!  And when she met the clerk's boyfriend, he was as accommodating and sympathetic to Mom's plight as his girlfriend was.  They went out and got something to eat, and the boyfriend indeed drove them around so Mom could see the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe.  Since by then it was dusk, and Mom was dazzled with all the city's glitter and lights, they probably took her by other tourist spots, but she was too overwhelmed to appreciate each one.

They got her back to the airport in plenty of time for Mom to make her flight.  The clerk even went into the terminal with her and made sure she encountered no other problems, accompanying Mom up until the final boarding gate.  While Mom was in college, the two of them became pen pals, as the clerk and her boyfriend eventually married, had children, and moved to the United States.  After that, they lost contact.

Years later, I was privileged to meet Dr. and Mrs. Howard in Maine.  They were both incredibly charming and still appreciative of Mom and how she'd contributed to their family.  Their remodeled and expanded farmhouse represented a miniature museum of their life abroad, filled with furniture and art collected from the various countries in which they'd lived.  As Mrs. Howard gave me a tour, I couldn't help but realize how much she seemed like a museum docent, pointing out various artifacts from their cross-cultural history.

The Howards obviously were more than just well-traveled.  Mrs. Howard was an accomplished artist and philanthropist in her own right who occasionally sent Mom postcard copies of paintings she'd created and donated for fundraisers across the world.  Most of their children ended up living abroad after they were grown, becoming a truly international family.  When Mrs. Howard passed away several years ago, her kids made sure Mom knew the funeral details.  Even they have fond memories of Mom, as she does of them.

Mom also remembers that Parisian clerk with considerable affection.  She and her boyfriend went above and beyond, graciously extending some global compassion to somebody whom other Lufthansa employees considered just another naive passenger.

Indeed, human kindness can literally go a long way, no matter our journey.

Nigerian Madonna, a watercolor by Mrs. Howard in 1987
benefiting UNICEF and a children's home in Nigeria


* Out of respect for the family, Mom asked that I not use their real name.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Have a Seat

My father's desk chair for his little home office.
Mom got it for him in the 1970s from a mail-order company
It arrived as a kit which Dad then assembled himself.

For eight hours every workday, many Americans sit in chairs.

And if those chairs aren't comfortable for them, those Americans tend to complain about it.

Sophisticated ergonomic chairs have become their own industry, since medical problems can be caused at least partially by poorly-designed chairs.  Supportive seating equipment is to the modern American office what hardhats are at construction sites, and goggles at welding shops.

I used to work for a major national healthcare company, at one of their regional distribution centers here in North Texas.  My boss, and his boss, were in charge of facility management.  We had a secure cold storage area, where at one time, the bulk of this country's flu vaccines were housed (talk about "cold" "storage"!).  This facility also featured a vast traditional warehouse, an intricately complex robotic storage/retrieval system from Germany that sorted a myriad of small drop-ship medical items, and two separate call centers on two floors.

The German robot broke down a lot.  A LOT.  Often, my boss and his boss could address its maladies, and there was a separate room full of computer servers just for that robot.  Whenever I'd see my boss's boss suddenly burst from her office and sprint to the robot's computer room, I knew we were down!  There were several times they had to call for emergency technology teams to fly here from Germany to fix it.  

The warehouse workers had multiple layers of protective rules from widely-adopted industry standards and government regulations that addressed most of their problems and safety concerns.  Even though we didn't have a union shop, all OSHA rules still applied, and they are many, and detailed.  The bulk of my job involved making sure we stayed in compliance with them.

Meanwhile, the call center workers in our building didn't have the same type of protocols regarding their comfort, health, or addressing whatever safety issues they encountered.

Issues like really uncomfortable chairs.

Long before I worked there, their office staff had been complaining about the chairs in which they sat.  As the company had grown over the years, combining employees from acquired companies, it had collected not just personnel, but all of the office equipment associated with those other firms.  You wouldn't think office chairs would factor significantly into the merger and acquisition activity that has taken place during America's healthcare industry consolidation, but they did.

Up in the second floor call center, which was the larger of the two in our building, very few people had the same style of chair in their otherwise uniform cubicles.  And none of those chairs were new.  Many of them featured all manner of amateurish ergonomic fixes, usually involving pillows from home and duct tape.  Not only did they look awful and unprofessional, they really didn't provide their occupants with the support they needed to sit for eight hours every day while they typed away on computer keyboards and handled one phone call after another.

Ultimately, it wasn't the aesthetics of those chairs that finally got to company managers.  It was the ever-increasing complaints from employees forced to tolerate the ergonomic dysfunctionality of those chairs.  I'm not sure about the raw data regarding non-ergonomic chairs and health problems, but for a healthcare company, things finally clicked:  Uncomfortable workers were not a good selling tool when those folks were on the phones with customers all day long.

So eventually, the decision was made to get rid of all the old call center chairs - every single one of them - and replace them with a standard ergonomic model for everyone.  Nothing fancier for supervisors, nothing piecemeal for one person to claim any disadvantage if they considered their new chair inferior to somebody else's.

I was not directly involved in selecting that new chair, but I heard it was quite a process in and of itself.  Management contracted with a third-party chair supplier who then brought on-site an assortment of models from various manufacturers for employees to evaluate.  I was told things upstairs became intense.  Apparently it was a combination of excitement over finally getting to participate in some progress, mingled with anxiety over this progress getting botched if an inferior chair was selected.  Whatever the emotion, there were plenty of them while folks registered their preferences.

And I get that.  My job involved a lot of walking in the cold storage area and warehouse, so my workdays weren't all spent in a chair.  And corporate America, no matter the industry, isn't known for robust employee engagement.  So being able to help create a significant solution to a real problem was no small thing.  The drama of that process was tiresome, but understandable.

But we hadn't seen anything yet.

A new chair was finally selected.  Dozens of them were ordered.  I think we were talking about 60 or 70 of them.  When the new chairs arrived, everyone's mood upstairs turned positively ebullient!

Meanwhile, my bosses and I had been discussing how we were going to dispose of 70 office chairs, all of them in various stages of dilapidation.  Considering the size and purpose of our facility, we certainly had huge dumpsters out back, but those were already being filled from our normal activities.  Would a local charity take them?  No, because even the needy shouldn't be expected to want what we'd already deemed uncomfortable and even unhealthy.  I can't remember how we'd decided to dispose of them, but suddenly, it didn't matter anyway.

You see, it was my task to get the old chairs out of the cubicles and make sure everybody got a nice new chair.  I remember going upstairs and being in a good mood, anticipating participating in something grand and fun with long-suffering co-workers.  What could go wrong?

I began with the cubicles that were currently unstaffed, pulling out the chairs and lining them up against a wall.

"What are you going to do with those?" one of the call center employees suspiciously snapped.

"Um, they're getting disposed of," I replied nonchalantly.  I thought nobody wanted these chairs.  People had been complaining about them for years.  It's why the company went through this huge process to buy new ones.

I was wrong.  

Instantly, a whole new maelstrom erupted.  "But I want to keep my chair!"  Over and over, co-workers began to chime in.  "I've sat in this chair for years!  It's like an old friend!  It's got character!"

Seriously.  People who one day before had professed loathing and disdain for their chairs were now strenuously protesting their removal.

I stopped, went downstairs, and told my bosses.  The three of us were incredulous.  And it didn't take long until managers from upstairs had been marshaled by their subordinates to insist we let people simply take their old chairs home with them.

Yes, they wanted the new chairs for their cubicles.  But they wanted their old chairs at home for their nostalgic value.

So I went back upstairs, and simply pulled out all of the old chairs so they lined the large room's walls.  Employees from the chair supplier then started dispersing new ones to each cubicle.  This furniture reshuffling took place while employees continuously juggled phone calls from customers.  They'd be taking their old chairs to their cars after their shift was over.

But not everything was over.  Out of the blue, a new cry emerged.

"Hey!  What about people on the first floor?  We want old chairs too!"

"Hey!  What about us administrative assistants in the executive offices down the hall?  Maybe we want old chairs too!"

I kid you not - suddenly junky old chairs were all the rage.


My boss's boss had an MBA in facilities management, and she was as much in the thick of this as my boss and I were.  Other senior executives got dragged into it as well.  Before too long, we ran out of old chairs, so the disposal issue evaporated as a consideration.  We ended up giving away more chairs than the company had originally planned, and buying a few more new ones just to stop the chaos.

It all gave fresh relevance to the phrase, "No good deed ever goes unpunished."


Thursday, May 9, 2024

I Smell


One of this spring's heavily-scented blossoms on our backyard's enormous magnolia tree,
just as it was opening.

Do you smell?

I do.  I admit it.

And I'm not talking about our body odor.  I'm asking if your sense of smell helps color your world.

That's what my sense of smell does.  It reminds me of long-ago memories, whether they're pleasant or not.  My sense of smell tells me of changes in the weather.  And yes, at those times when I can smell my own body odor, it annoys me.

I used to purchase expensive cologne to help mask my B.O.  When I lived in New York City, I would take special trips up to Bloomingdale's on Third Avenue to purchase their then-exclusive line of Lauder Men cologne that for some reason, they sold only in the women's fragrance department.  I remember the clerks would acknowledge my savviness when as a man, I'd stride right up to the Lauder Women counter on Bloomies' fabled, gaudy main floor and ask to purchase their men's product! 

"Ahh!  You know your fragrances!" they'd invariably exclaim with approval, knowing "ordinary" customers had no idea to get a man's fragrance from a woman's counter.

I admit it made me feel kinda special, knowing I possessed an urbane fashion secret in New York City, of all places!  It really burst my bubble when eventually, I overheard somebody joke that they smelled of Lysol after I'd hugged them!

I remember marching myself immediately into the bathroom, taking my shirt off, and sniffing deeply into my armpits.  Sure enough, as a day wore on, that pricey Lauder fragrance would mingle with my body chemicals to turn what in the store smelled so sophisticated into merely eau de Lysol.  After that, I became even more deeply conscious of how other people receive my smell.

When it's humid here in north Texas, where the atmosphere generally stays quite arid, I can smell in the air distinct whiffs of a heavy, moist, musty aroma I smelled daily on my morning walks to the subway in Brooklyn, New York.

Early on those metropolitan mornings, I'd trot down three flights of stairs in our 90-year-old apartment building, which itself exuded nearly a century's worth of diverse residential odors.  I'd then burst from a cramped, stuffy vestibule into what passes for fresh air in Gotham.  I would immediately encounter increasing layers of must-tinged aromatics, walking across our building's private concrete courtyard, its pavement usually still glazed with a fine dew from a night only recently ended.  It was probably the most peaceful time of the day for our neighborhood, and its nuanced smells helped me imagine how that big, grand city was itself rolling out of bed and getting ready for whatever cacophony its denizens would be soon creating.

I can tell you I can't remember anything remarkable odor-wise about my walks back to that apartment during the evening rush!

And when I later lived in Manhattan, mostly all I ever smelled on my walks was exhaust from motor vehicles... and waste rotting in fetid garbage cans lining the sidewalks in my Kips Bay neighborhood.

Yesterday, I was getting my car serviced at a garage I've used for years.  Thankfully, although it is now old, my Honda doesn't break down often, meaning I rarely have to visit my mechanic.  They're located in a small town near my house which has a liberal smoking ordinance allowing for indoor smoking if certain mechanical ventilation standards are met.  And I could distinctly smell cigarette smoke in the well-air-conditioned waiting area.

There was no actual smoke, which told me the ventilation system was working well, and indeed, the place was absolutely FREEZING inside!  But there's no disguising cigarette smoke, especially these days, when so many places even in Texas prohibit indoor smoking.  For me and my nose, having such smoke-free ubiquity makes those instances when it exists even more noticeable.  So eventually, since it was a nice morning outside, I opted to retreat to a shaded bench on the opposite side of their front door.

And I realized how the odor inside my mechanic's place of business was bringing memories to my mind that I hadn't visited for a long time.  Helping grease those memories was my location:  That garage is just down the block from a restaurant where years ago, I worked as a host.  And the host stand was near the front door, which was also near... the restaurant's large bar.

Since this was located in the same municipality as my mechanic, the restaurant's bar also was specially-ventilated to welcome smokers.  Fortunately, the ventilation worked quite well, and I was never really bothered by the smoke itself.  But the odor was still there, especially in the woodwork, carpeting, and furniture.

Then I began to remember all of the various other smells more unique to that restaurant.  Foods obviously have odors, as do the different spices and seasonings in their recipes, which together create unique fragrances for everything from chips and dipping sauces to fajitas and varied beverage options.

After a six or eight-hour shift, I discovered, those smells tend to stay with a person.  I never liked leaving work smelling just exactly like greasy chips, melted cheese, and charred fajitas.  I've never had another job whose essence literally traveled with me, embedded in the fibers of my clothing.

My boss expected me to wear a dress shirt, dress pants, and necktie for every shift, which meant most of my dress clothes ended up smelling just like the restaurant's interior, no matter how often I washed the shirts or took my clothing to the dry cleaner's.  In fact, I'm convinced those dry cleaning chemicals actually served to sear the restaurants' odors into my clothing permanently.

When I eventually got another job, I threw out all the clothing I'd worn at the restaurant.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm mildly autistic, or on "the spectrum" describing that condition.  I've heard autistic people tend to have especially sensitive senses when it comes to smells and odors.  Like the memories of Brooklyn that automatically pop into my consciousness on heavy, humid Texas mornings.  

I have a good friend who shares my interest in cologne, and I'm not ashamed to admit that one afternoon, we actually found ourselves going from one shop to another at a posh Dallas mall sniffing tons of fragrances just for the fun of it.

An emerging category in the personal fragrance industry has become unisex fragrances, or smells that aren't designed for any particular gender.  While overall, the science of how personal fragrances get blended seems to depend more on marketing than biology, my friend and I both find the unisex confections far more pleasing than most fragrances marketed for a specific gender.  They're neither sweet nor musky, but far more complex, with aromas more evocative of ideas and places than emotions or sexuality.

Then, of course, there's that most elusive of all First-World fragrances:  the prized New Car Smell!  Actually, I've heard that some people can't stand the new car smell, but I've never, ever met one of those people.  I have friends who've recently purchased brand-new vehicles and while yes, their cars each have a distinctive, mechanical, synthetic aroma, both are surprisingly pleasant, as industrial aesthetics go.  I've heard that major automotive companies have actually researched the materials, fabrics, and fluids out of which motor vehicles are built, painted, lubricated, and detailed in a quest to determine the chemical recipe of a new car smell - and they haven't been able to do it.

Which, actually, protects the profits they generate whenever they sell brand-new vehicles, right?  No matter how accurately a spritz of bottled "New Car Smell" might smell, it's not like its pricetag could possibly match those dizzyingly-high numbers on dealer windowstickers.

But then too, whether in paper or coin, even money has a scent.


Monday, May 6, 2024

Dad's Caged Dad?

(Note:  This essay was originally posted in 2017.  I have revised it to better depict the humanity of a relative I never knew.)

I have an undocumented immigrant in my family tree.

Well, at least one we know about.

He was Caucasian, which might surprise you.  He didn't breach any border crossing.  Nor did he pay any human traffickers thousands of dollars to get here.

Although... a form of human trafficking does factor into his story.

We're not completely sure of how he got to America.  But according to family lore, as far as my aunt Helena was concerned, what we think we know tends to make sense.  And the timing works.  We'll never know definitively, because our family's undocumented immigrant died in the 1950's.  As a naturalized United States citizen.  And an alcoholic.  

And because he was an alcoholic, he was not fondly remembered by his children.  Neither in the quantity of stories they recounted to us about him, which were few indeed.  Nor in the affectionate, poignant qualities relayed with what memories they did share.

My aunt, who died in 2016, and my Dad, who died in 2015, were his children.  So the undocumented immigrant was my paternal grandfather.  He died long before my own parents ever met.  And for years, Mom didn't know much about him either, because Dad, Helena, and their mother hardly ever talked about him.  

Early in their marriage, Dad did explain to Mom why he listened to so much classical music.  It was because the only decent memory he had of his father was intertwined with the genre.  As a toddler, Dad would sit in his father's lap while his father listened to classical music on the radio.  And sometimes, his father could be calmed during angst-saturated alcohol binges if he could hear it.  That meant the intricate strains of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms became a sort of soundtrack of serenity for their family.

Eventually, Dad told us about the evening he got home from work, as a college student back in Brooklyn, and opened the door to the apartment he shared with his family.  And there was his mother, and Helena, standing on the other side of a short, portly figure crumpled on the floor of their apartment's foyer.

It was my grandfather.  Dead.  My grandmother had arrived home first, and then shortly thereafter, my aunt.  And then Dad.  Dad closed the door, and the three of them stood, silently, looking down at the man whose drunken stupors had become legendary in their cloistered neighborhood of Finntown, in Brooklyn's Sunset Park.  

Dad recalled that his sister and mother and he were numbed by a mixture of relief and grief - but not grief that he was gone.  It was grief about how much the family had suffered, living with a hardened alcoholic all those years.

Finally, if only to break the heavy silence, Dad voiced a question devoid of emotion:  "Well, who do we call?  Will Halversen's take the body away?"

Halversen's was a long-time Norwegian funeral home on Sunset Park's 8th Avenue.  But I'm not even sure there was a funeral.  A cousin in Finland recently found an old, grainy photo of somebody who looks like my grandfather in a casket with flowers displayed nearby.  But no notation anywhere as to the photo's subject matter.  It's possible that my widowed grandmother mailed the photo to our Finnish family as a formality, or maybe the photo is of somebody else entirely.

We do know he's buried in Brooklyn's historic Green-Wood cemetery, in an underground 3-level vault (even Gotham's graves are high-density).  But the other two levels of his grave remain unused.  My grandmother and aunt bought the set, but couldn't bear to be interred along with him.  They're buried elsewhere in Green-Wood.

My grandfather was born in Finland, in a sliver of that Nordic country invaded by Russia in the Winter War of 1939, about two decades after his "immigration" to America.  My Mom has several silver spoons with which my grandfather's sister was able to escape as their family's home in Viipuri faced imminent danger from the invasion.  The town of Viipuri, still in Russian hands, is today called Vyborg.

As a young man, my grandfather set off from Viipuri as a sailor, or seaman, or deckhand, working on trans-Atlantic steamships and freighters.  We have records of him attending the venerable Seamen's Church Institute in Lower Manhattan, along the docks that used to spike outwards from the Financial District.  At the Seamen's Church, dating back into the 1800s, worship services and socioeconomic programs were geared to maritime workers from around the world, coming ashore in odd shifts, at the mercy of an industry rife with corruption, and achingly lonely from months-long stints at sea.

And this is where some unsubstantiated world history enters his story.  The following narrative comes from Helena's recollections of something her father told the family at some point.  I didn't ever hear mention of it until after I was grown, and only from her.  I can't remember my father ever broaching this topic.  So while its provenance lacks proofs, it does answer some questions, even though - and even because - it's quite unsettling.

According to Helena's version of her father's account, his last working sea voyage was a freshly-loaded freighter from the Caribbean headed towards Europe.  Oddly enough, the seamen had been strictly instructed to stay away from a locked portion of the ship's hold, below deck.  Which, of course, was like telling a bunch of teenagers not to do something.  Before too long, my grandfather and some of his shipmates had broken into that forbidden part of the ship.  And what they saw deeply distressed my grandfather.

There, in the locked part of the hold, were men.  

Black men, in shackles.  Caged, as it were.

From factual evidence regarding a new mailing address he established for himself in New York, we believe this happened sometime around 1913, which initially made me dubious.  Slavery was still a thing, that long after America's Civil War?

Apparently, an illicit fragment of it was, since it was a topic of grave concern for the League of Nations during the 1920's.  Somehow, somebody apparently arranged for these men to be smuggled aboard without the crew's knowledge, and ostensibly in Europe, they were going to be off-loaded, and probably shipped to yet another destination.

We don't know more details about that discovery today, but back then, my grandfather knew exactly what was going on.  And he wanted to be no part of it.  Absolutely not.

The ship's next port of call was New York City, with which my grandfather was somewhat familiar from previous visits.  He likely knew there was a vibrant Finnish community in Brooklyn, and that he could become culturally absorbed there without attracting much attention.  So when they docked in New York, my grandfather simply jumped ship - literally - forfeiting his pay in the process.  And he walked away from those caged human beings, off of the pier, out onto the streets of New York, never to work on ships again.

My father took this photo of his father - the older man at left, and again in the mirror, top right -
in their Sunset Park apartment in the late 1950's, not long before his death.
It's one of the few known photos of my grandfather.
Nobody can remember who the other two men are.

Eventually, after he'd married and become a father, my grandfather obtained his United States citizenship, but we don't know how that evolved, either.

The young woman who would become my grandmother, who arrived from Finland years later, spent her first night here on Ellis Island because her American sponsor didn't show up to claim her.  That was one of the legal ways people got into our country back then - by having a sponsor in America vouch for you.  Officials on Ellis Island herded those migrants whose sponsors hadn't claimed them into a large cage with iron bars for the night.  My grandmother could hardly sleep, what with the utter lack of privacy, and worrying about what might happen to her.  The next morning, she made sure she was at the front of that cage.  In my mind's eye, I imagine her cage was probably larger than the cage my grandfather saw on that ship, but the possible irony seems eerie, right?  Both of my paternal grandparents, arriving in different ways, had cages feature prominently in their coming-to-America stories!  

Eventually, a sternly-dressed woman strode into Ellis Island's fabled immigration hall, having just gotten off of the visitor's boat from Manhattan.  She walked right up to my grandmother, and asked her in perfect Finnish if she wanted to get off that island.

"Of course I do," my spunky grandmother eagerly replied.

"Well then, just follow my lead," the anonymous woman ordered.  She turned to an immigration clerk, and said she'd come to claim my grandmother, and had a job immediately for her in Manhattan.

"Is this true?" the dispassionate clerk managed in broken Finnish.

"Of course it is!" my grandmother retorted, completely unaware of what that job was.

My grandmother Laitinen's first US employer
lived in this townhouse, 60 W. 11th Street
in Greenwich Village. I took this photo in 1986.
Historians call it "the 1843* Samuel Cooke
", built by Andrew Lockwood and first
occupied by a ship captain named Samuel Bourne.
Lockwood was one of the developers of 11th Street,
which at the time was at the city's northern reaches.
The property's first auspicious owner had been
Cooke, who was rector at New York's famed
St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church.
Other owners would later rent it out
to various occupants, so we don't know who my
grandmother's celebrity employer was.
More recent owners have included the son
of the late publisher Malcomb Forbes.

(*The historical plaque affixed to the
home's fa├žade says it was built in 1842
The two woman left the hall and got on the next boat to Manhattan as soon as possible.  And that night, my grandmother found herself working as a maid at a glittering party at a Greenwich Village townhouse that was rented at the time by a well-known silent movie producer.

As they say, "only in New York," right?

At some point, obviously, my grandparents met, got married, and had children.  My grandfather never seems to have held down a steady job, and eventually came to be known mostly for his prodigious drinking, and for writing a somewhat regular column in the local Finnish newspaper, New Yorkin Uutiset.  He wrote pieces about current events, philosophy, and life on the sea under the pen name "X Seaman," since that's what he was.  Years later, Helena learned that the prestigious New York Public Library had some of his articles on file as part of their cultural heritage archives. 

After my aunt's death, Mom eventually found among her effects a personal journal of her father's.  It was a stunning discovery, because my father and Helena certainly never, ever publicly acknowledged its existence.  In it are pages and pages of hand-written notes, pontifications, aspirations, prose from classical literature, quotes from famous historical figures, Bible verses and prayers - some in Finnish, some in surprisingly good English, and all by hand.  He drew utopian cityscapes and landscapes, and much of the lettering is in elaborate script.  The artwork at the top of this essay is an example.

From some of the dates he provided, his work appears to have started during those long ocean voyages, but they continued well into his New York City life.  He penned deeply eloquent prayers of dedication after the births of both of his children.  They reflect what must have been an aching sort of love for them, tinged perhaps with formidable intimidation by the responsibilities of being their father.  

The poignancy Mom and I definitely never heard in their recollections of him echoed to us from the journaling he crafted in their honor.  She and I came to the conclusion that they likely never knew he had that journal while he was alive, and after he died, none of them ever wanted to look inside it.  That Helena kept it all the rest of her life strikes us as mysterious.  What also remains mysterious is why he left the maritime life for good.  No specific mention is ever made - at least in English - of his transition from ships to Sunset Park.

A family friend who knew my grandfather in Brooklyn's old Finntown has suggested that one of the reasons for his drinking - despite Finns being notorious for their alcohol consumption - might have stemmed from his atrocious discovery on that trans-Atlantic ship.  As a Finn, back in the days when Finland was virtually 100% Caucasian, my grandfather would have barely known about slavery, and to him it likely would have been something that horrible people had done back in another time and place.  Not on board a ship he was working!

So for all the agony my grandfather gave his family through his drinking, maybe there was an explanation, if not an excuse.  His probable distress over unwittingly witnessing the horror of human slavery may have ended up putting him in another cage of alcohol abuse.  Even though we can't know for certain, I completely see the plausibility of such a scenario because I know from personal experience:  We humans sometimes handle stress in a variety of unhealthy ways.  

Life often is unfair.  Sometimes egregiously so.  Both in what happens to us, and how we respond.  It's not the most comforting epitaph, of course, but maybe my grandfather's story exemplifies that fact.  And maybe also serves as a cautionary tale.

After all, the epitaphs for you and me haven't yet been written!

Friday, May 3, 2024

Subway Robin Hood


My father as a Brooklyn teenager

Was your father ever in a street gang?

Growing up in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood, my Dad's childhood was never one of affluence.  His mother worked multiple housecleaning jobs while his father was, um, rarely gainfully employed.  None of their neighbors nor friends were wealthy by any economic measure.  And yes, in such neighborhoods, at least in big cities like New York, street gangs have historically been an unavoidable part of life.

Not that Dad was ever a member of a street gang.  At least, not in the "West Side Story" sense of the term.  But he did "run" with a regular "pack" of other guys around his age... and I mean, they RAN.  They raced each other around the park, the beach, and down sidewalks.  They played stickball in the street, and sprinted with gusto from base to base between parked cars and fire hydrants.  They ran up and down the stairs inside apartment buildings when it was raining outside.  A lot of it was noisy and gritty, but virtually none of it was criminal or harmful.

Most of the time, anyway.

There was one day down in fabled Coney Island, when a friend of Dad's was fooling around with a broken glass bottle, and tossed it to him when Dad wasn't ready for it.  Not that anybody can ever be "ready" to catch a broken glass bottle, but kids goof off with all sorts of potentially dangerous objects without a thought to logic or care.  And some random ideas that, for the briefest of moments, may seem fun or winsome can in the next brief moment become neither.

This was one of those random ideas that should not have been exploited.  As the broken glass bottle, all jagged edges and surprisingly heavy, crested in the air, its trajectory turned to just the right angle.  It met my surprised father's forearm as he reached up instinctively to try and catch it without realizing what it was.  And yes, there was a lot of blood.  Everywhere.  And this didn't happen in front of their apartment building, or down in the avenue, but in Coney Island!  Miles away by subway.  

For the rest of his life, Dad sported a sizable scar on his left forearm from that harrowing day.

After I graduated from college and was working back in New York City, I learned from my aunt Helena, Dad's sister, that he'd had - of all things - a NICKNAME!  Yes, a bona-fide, urban gangster-esque nickname bestowed upon him by his neighborhood pals.  Remember, in the culture of the street, even if you're not part of a vicious criminal element, you don't really ever get to pick your own nickname.  The other kids give you your nickname, whether you like it or not.  And Dad didn't like his.  

It was... "Zeke".  

Actually, as nicknames go, "Zeke" isn't that bad, is it?  But like I said, it was my aunt who told me Dad had a nickname.  Dad had never said anything about it as my brother and I were growing up.  So during my next phone call with Dad, I asked him about Zeke, and while he wasn't upset about his sister spilling the beans, I never could get him to elaborate about it.

His street years were so far removed from the suburban, corporate lifestyle into which he'd matured that reliving memories from those days made him uncomfortable.  Those memories of growing up as a first-generation American, with an alcoholic father, were undoubtedly painful for him.  He went into the Army after high school not so much out of patriotic duty, but to try and put some literal and emotional mileage between his adult self and his childhood self.

I never met my paternal grandfather.  To this day, we know precious little about him.  We know he did manage to eke out something of a journalistic reputation writing for one of the local Brooklyn newspapers catering to the city's Finnish immigrant community, which was clustered around Sunset Park.  We've heard that some of his articles are today part of the archives at the New York Public Library featuring collections from the city's vast, diverse legacy of culture-specific journalism.  

Indeed, before the Internet and social media, printed newspapers were a key source of language-specific information for the many niche cultures and diasporas populating the city's ever-evolving immigrant communities.  Brooklyn's Finntown is considered to have been the largest group of Finnish immigrants in America.  And while my Dad had a number of Finnish friends during his youth, Brooklyn's spectacularly broad cultural milieu meant he also had Italian, Polish, Swedish, Norwegian, Irish, and Jewish friends. 

But getting back to newspapers.  As America's long-time journalism epicenter, New York City boasts a robust history with the medium, at one time having 15 dailies.  Back then, as throngs of office professionals and blue collar laborers descended into the subways to go home every weeknight, most of them would purchase the latest evening edition of their favorite newspaper to learn what had happened while they'd been at work.

Remember, they didn't have their personal social media accounts to visit during spare moments in their day!  Oh, how did they cope?

Along with several of his neighborhood pals, my father attended Manhattan's High School of Aviation Trades, which is now located in Queens.  Back then, aviation was still an emerging industry, and while Dad never went any further with an aviation career, he was pleased to see my brother do so.

Attending the Aviation Trades High School meant Dad and his friends were riding the subway to and from school every weekday, during both rush hours, like so many other commuters.  If I had been an urban teen, riding the subway to and from school like he did, I'd like to imagine myself using that time to study.  

My father, however, apparently preferred to use his subway commutes more for fun with his friends.

Well, "fun" as defined by unchaperoned adolescent juveniles, anyway.

Once, after I'd moved back to Texas from New York, in a rare - I mean, RARE - moment of fond recollection, he launched into a dinner table story of the times during their commute home from school when he and his fellow classmates would literally snatch newspapers from the clutches of unsuspecting subway riders.  

Yes, you read that correctly.

Back then, you see, the subways weren't air-conditioned, meaning that for much of the year, to circulate air, each subway car had windows that would be open.  They featured larger openings than the windows on today's trains, and were double-hung.  That meant they didn't have today's narrow partial-fold design, which likely was invented to thwart just the type of activity in which my father participated years ago.

As a subway train would be pulling into its next station, it would be slowing down while passing by rows and rows of people standing in tight rush-hour formation right along the edge of the platform.  And nearly all of those people would be holding an evening newspaper they'd just purchased.  Meaning each newspaper was completely hiding their face as they scanned headlines, using up every spare moment before the subway's doors opened for them to enter.

Dad even paused in mid-recollection to check with me:  "You know from living in New York, we fold our newspapers in halves length-wise, because when you're in the subway, space is at a premium."  I nodded in agreement.  It was a luxury for New Yorkers to be able to open up a fully-unfolded newspaper at home, where other people wouldn't be pressing against you in the crowded confines of a public bus or train.

Well, my quiet, honorable father and his high school friends would use that opportunity, riding inside their moving subway car, to lean through the open windows facing the platform, reach out, and literally grab newspapers from the hands of passengers waiting on the platform!  Because the papers were folded as I've described to you, they fit nicely back through the subway's windows!

The kids would then bring the paper into the subway car, unfold it, and yell out gleefully, "OK, I've got the Times here - who wants it?"

Or, "I've got the Herald-Tribune, or the Daily News" or whatever... and somebody in the car who didn't already have a paper would call out, "I'll take it", and my father and his friends would give the paper to that person.  Even the ethnic or foreign-language newspapers - usually somebody would take them.  Hey - they didn't have to pay for it.  Because the papers would be folded up, Dad and his friends usually couldn't tell which brand each was until after they'd hauled it back into the subway car.

At the next station, they'd repeat their exploits, and again at the next.  To be as adept as they were with their prank, they obviously must have done it during more than one subway ride.  I don't know what happened as the train would eventually become populated by people who'd had their newspapers snatched at prior stations.

As he described his exploits, my father was genuinely giggling - he hardly ever giggled! - at the recollection.  But then he caught sight of my mother at the other side of the dining table, and she was horrified!  Here he was, her kind and moral and loving husband, telling us about how he enthusiastically stole somebody else's property and gave it to yet another person on the subway!

He was the Robin Hood of subway newspaper readers!

I'm laughing out loud even as I type this recollection - both at the story Dad was telling, and the abruptness with which he cut it short after Mom started protesting!

It would be easy to cite an ethical argument against what he did, but I can guarantee you this:  If my brother or I had EVER done anything similar to what my Dad professed to have done on the subway, Dad himself would have been furious with us.

Oh, that Zeke.  He must have been a handful.


Saturday, April 27, 2024

Dapper Dad


Do you know what these are?

Most men today hardly ever dress up, but those who do can likely identify these as... cuff-links!  They're jewelry used instead of buttons to fasten the ends of sleeves on French cuff shirts.  They link both sides of a sleeve cuff, hence their name.  

In style they can range from the simple to the ornate.  These are not even gold-plate; they are gold-tone metal with plastic jewel-like end tips.  But they are monogrammed - with "S.L.", my late father's initials!

My father came from a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.  For an incredible 13 years in the 1950's and 1960's, he put himself through night school at Brooklyn's prestigious Pratt Institute while working days at a company called Richmond Screw Anchor, when its headquarters were also in Brooklyn.  They designed and fabricated various steel components used in industrial concrete construction - things like bridges, dams, and airports.

Dad was fond of joking that around his 12th year at Pratt, as he was rushing up a flight of stairs on his way to class one evening, a professor he'd had years earlier saw him and greeted him with, "Ah, Laitinen!  You teach here now?"

In mid-climb, Dad breathlessly replied, "No, I'm still trying to get out!"

At any rate, he did have a day job, which explains why college took so long.  His day job paid for all his schooling and a hobby that he enjoyed for years - dressing well.

Back then, everyone dressed-up for all sorts of occasions.  They dressed-up for work, of course.  They dressed-up to attend sporting events, of all things!  That meant wardrobes needed to stay stocked with dress clothes.  And to hear Dad himself tell it, he was more than happy to comply.  He enjoyed nice clothes because they helped give him a broader identity than being just another guy from Brooklyn.

On occasion, he'd joke that his penchant for clothes ended when he got married - and had to spend his money on other things!  Maybe by default, being married and having a family gave him the broader identity clothing never could.  After he had kids, his wardrobe truly became unremarkable, and frankly, I was surprised when years later, I learned of his former fixation on fashion.  Nevertheless, while he was single, Dad apparently helped make one particular New York City clothing store quite profitable:  the legendary Barney's.

After a stunning run from discounter to bespoke destination retailer, an over-leveraged Barney's closed in 2020.  They had begun in 1923 with low-priced menswear, and for a while billed themselves as the seller of more suits than any other store in the world.  They employed nearly 150 tailors, a stunning number for any clothier.  Expansion eventually added 21 stores to their portfolio, including several in Japan.  

Twice they tried sustaining a store at Northpark Mall in fashion-crazy Dallas, but surprisingly those attempts both flopped.  Maybe partly because Dad, although by then also in Texas, no longer spent his money on clothing.

Shucks, Barney's had already enjoyed a good run with Dad as a customer anyway.  He'd begun patronizing their Manhattan store in the 1950's, when Barney's transformation from discount to designer was under way.  My Dad couldn't afford the highest of their new price points, but he managed to contribute mightily to their bottom line anyway.  Virtually his entire wardrobe came from Barney's.

Since I never knew Dad as a fashion plate, and I never saw him wearing French cuffs, I never saw these cuff-links until I was cleaning out his bureau after he'd died.  And he died of dementia, which rendered his memory unreliable at best, and literally empty on the worst days.  So I'm not completely certain he purchased these cuff-links at Barney's.  But even his sister said he never bought clothing anywhere else back then, so it stands to reason that these were theirs.

Throughout his life, though, he did wear a lot of neckties.  Since they were part of the corporate American office uniform up until his retirement years, one didn't need to be a fashion plate to need neckties.  Fortunately, Dad genuinely enjoyed getting new ties for Christmas and birthdays, which made shopping for him easy!

And I can say that going deep into his dementia journey, although his neckties hadn't been from Barney's for decades, he could still remember how to tie them.  Even his bow ties, which Mom ordered from a company in New England specializing in non-trendy accessories.  Since I could never master the art of tying a bow tie, the fact that Dad could remember how, years after his diagnosis, seemed remarkable to me - and a testament to how some things we learn at an early age can stick with us no matter what happens to our brain.  When I finally had to begin pre-tying his neckties, and then helping him put them on for Sunday church, the process itself took me back... Not just to my teenage years as Dad was teaching me how to tie my ties, but further back, to days I never knew, when in my imagination he was himself learning how to master the art.

A good necktie knot isn't as easy to craft as one might think.  And the conventional process by which a person learns how to do it usually involves a surprising amount of interpersonal proximity, as the tutor necessarily comes close to their pupil's neck.

When I worked at an upscale clothing retailer during my college years, helping another man tie his own tie was one of the most awkward parts of my job.  Actually, now that I think about it, back when tailored clothing was fashionable, much of the process required to achieve that tailored aesthetic involved distinct levels of personal-space-invasion.

Which brings us back to Barney's.  Dad had a wonderful tale about a day when he was in their store, purchasing a new suit, and having it fitted by one of their fabled tailors.  As Dad stood in a three-sided mirror, dressed in his new suit, a tailor busily marked necessary alterations to its drape.  

Suddenly, an old man darted into the fitting room, and intentionally strode up to Dad and the tailor.  He authoritatively reached out and pulled at the fabric, gauging the material's nap.  He leaned in to scrutinize several markings the tailor had made.  With barely an expression of any kind on his face, or even in his voice, he finally pronounced judgment:  "Good fit." 

And at that, he turned, and strode out of the fitting room as purposefully as he'd entered it.

The tailor kept marking and measuring, silently.  As if nothing unusual had just happened.  But Dad was unsettled by such a bizarre interruption from such a tactile stranger.

"Who was THAT?"  Dad incredulously asked the tailor.

Without missing a step or looking up, the tailor mumbled, "Oh, that was Old Man Barney."


Monday, April 15, 2024

Treating Fake Affection


My family's last collie, Feliz.  He hated having his picture taken!


We humans tend to crave affection from others.

We tend to seek affirmation from and acceptance by other people.  And the more reciprocal that affection, affirmation, and acceptance becomes for us, the stronger our relationships tend to become.

And strong relationships can be a powerful balm in the midst of all that troubles us.

Unfortunately, developing rewarding human relationships can be a daunting challenge.  Selfishness, neuroses, and personalities usually get in the way.  It doesn't matter the category of relationship, whether professional, familial, romantic, or platonic:  Cultivating a productive, reciprocal partnership with another human being usually defies ease.

Occasionally, we will meet somebody with whom we just "click", and relationship development seems to happen all on its own.  For those of us who've had those types of relationships, we know how rare they are.  How much nicer life would be if we had more of them, right?

Well, maybe this is where the increase in pet ownership comes in.  Because as our American society becomes ever more fragmented, as more people seem to celebrate those things that separate us, human beings may increasingly be turning to pets for the affection, affirmation, and acceptance we used to seek from other humans.

Dog ownership in America, for example, has been growing for years.

City parks designed for dogs have become a huge deal now.  Time was, only doting ladies of a certain age would bring their fluffy pooch into a store or restaurant, but now far more people feel comfortable doing so.  In my college days, I didn't know any fellow students who had a dog or cat.  Responsible pet ownership costs money and time - two things college students tend to lack.  These days, however, judging from all the students living in large college housing complexes near me, many of them own dogs, because most times of the day, they're out walking each other.  

Hey - with some dogs, it can be difficult to tell whether the canine or the human is leading the walk!

Even in my suburban neighborhood, it seems the percentage of dog ownership has increased exponentially recently.  Of course, there have always been neighbors with dogs - shucks, my parents and I used to have a handsome pure-bred collie who loved his daily walks.  However, dog walkers have become an even more ubiquitous presence on our shady streets.

Statistics say cat ownership is growing as well, but here's the thing about cats:  Humans may "own" cats, but how often is it more accurate to say that cats own their humans?  Cats may be affectionate, but dogs seem to be far more affirming and even forgiving of their humans.  Which for many people may make them more rewarding to have around.  One usually doesn't have to work hard at winning the affections of dogs.

But how genuine might that affection be?

Maybe for humans who've conditioned themselves to be satisfied with immediate gratification, it doesn't matter if affection of any kind is genuine.  Or maybe it's just that affection from a dog doesn't need to be genuine - just enjoyable, no matter how existential it may be.  And in the grander schemes of life, maybe it doesn't matter either way.

Last night I had a conversation with a neighbor whose family got their first dog last summer.  As my neighbor has joined the legions of other daily dog walkers, he's noticed that many of them carry around handfuls of doggie treats.  Whenever they see another dog, they eagerly hold out hands full of the treats and give the other dogs an opportunity to nosh on those treats.  

When I used to walk our collie, that never happened.  People simply didn't walk around with doggie treats.  However, I understand why it's become a thing:  It's an easy and superficial way of keeping the dogs quiet as they pass, and establishing what they think is a sustainable, affirmative rapport with the other dog for the next time they encounter each other.  Which, of course, for neighbors, will probably literally be again tomorrow.

And it doesn't take long to condition dogs into expecting any human they encounter will have hand-held treats for them.  I've watched some of the interactions just in the street in front of my house, and can see where some dogs now actually expect and anticipate treats.  As soon as the treats have been passed out, the dogs utterly lose interest in the humans who've just fed them.

Another neighbor of mine further down the block, however, has grown tired of this practice.  He mentioned to me a couple of weeks ago that he wished people wouldn't try to buy his own large dog's affections with handfuls of treats.  Yes, they ask permission before presenting their hand to his dog, but now it's too late.  He has realized what has happened with his own dog.  His dog automatically searches for hands - anybody's hands - because he's been conditioned to expect a tasty treat from it.

His dog no longer relies on natural canine instinct to decipher "friend" from "foe".  His dog no longer rewards natural affection from humans as a sign that they're safe for him to approach.  His dog now simply looks for the treat.  And when he doesn't immediately find any, he turns sullen and disengaged.  

That's like a lot of us humans, actually.  Right?

I'd already noticed that about his dog.  When they first got him, his dog would come up to me and let me pet him and fuss over him - no foodie treats from me at all - and he was content to be rewarded by physical affection.  As I'd chat with my human neighbor, his canine companion would stand next to me, pressing into my legs, letting me pet his furry back.  That was his reward - a type of companionship, which he appeared to even enjoy returning.  But now, the dog comes up to me and instantly - instinctively - searches for my hands with his greedy schnoz.  And since he won't find any doggie treats in them, he reflexively turns away in disgust.  It's sad to experience.  And my neighbor doesn't like it either, but what can he do?  He says almost everybody else in the neighborhood carries treats with them, and he's too mild-mannered to ask them to stop.  It's probably too late now anyway.

I have noticed that my next-door neighbor's pet has also started sniffing my hands when we first approach each other, and when he doesn't find any treats, he's soon trotting away.  That's not how he first treated me when he was a puppy.  His owner, like my other neighbor, has noticed the change, but he doesn't know how to deal with it either.  And frankly, it appears that both dogs still treat their owners with an affection that is stronger than the immediate gratification of hand-held treats.  Which, for them, is a good thing.  And since they're not my dogs, none of this is really any problem of mine.

Nevertheless, I wonder what it says about our society in general.  As loneliness increases in our country, perhaps it's simply one of the coping mechanisms people are creating for themselves.  Exploiting dogs with treats seems a less risky tactic than trying to exploit humans with our far more valuable emotional, financial, and relational assets.  Especially for people like me, who seem to have a difficult time cultivating healthy interpersonal relationships.

After all, when dogs "bite the hand that feeds them", it's mostly a physical pain.  But when humans do it, the pain goes far deeper.

The dogs, meanwhile, seem to treat this new trend in stride!


Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Woods Drive a Snapshot of Arlington's History

I am a board member of the Heart of Arlington Neighborhood Association in central Arlington, Texas.  I was asked by our board president to write up some information regarding the history of our neighborhood, and this is one of my efforts:

(In the photo: Long-time next-door neighbors Billie Farrar, Eleanor Grace Martin, and James Martin, at Dallas' Meyerson Symphony Center, circa 1990)

Woods Drive Housed a Generation of Arlington's Merchants

Arlington used to have a real downtown that was the growing city’s central business district. 

Those were the days of the local merchant, before Amazon, before Internet retailing, before Walmart, and before shopping malls.  The days of raw entrepreneurship, or what we nostalgically call “mom-and-pop’ and “brick-and-mortar” commerce. 

The merchants who worked in central business districts also tended to live in clusters.  Throughout history, actually, around the world, merchant classes operated economically and socially in relative proximity to each other.  And of all the streets in Arlington that have housed this city’s ever-changing roster of civic leaders - streets like West Abram, West Park Row, South Center, Southwood, Meadow Oaks, and Shady Valley - perhaps none has been home to a larger concentration - economic, educational, cultural - than Woods Drive. 

Woods Drive runs through what was the historic Elm Shadows Farm between Johnson Creek and Center Street.  Elm Shadows Farm was the Moore estate, named after the family which subdivided it during the 1950s, although most people now popularly call it “the Goat House”.  You can’t miss it, since its current owners have maintained their farmstead exemption by perpetually housing goats, geese, and other barnyard animals on what remains a large property. 

Although the street is admired for its tall trees, Woods Drive is technically named for the Moore family’s patriarch, Woods Moore.  Virginia Lane is named for the Moore's matriarch, and Thomas Place, Patrick Drive, and Michael Court after their three sons. 

Originally, Woods Drive ran from a cul-de-sac behind the Moore estate to a dead-end where Mill Creek Drive now intersects.  As Arlington grew, and the Moore's further developed their farm, Woods Drive was extended in the early 1960s to include a connection with Center Street near Pioneer Parkway. 

By today’s standards, the houses may not be opulent, but at the time, they were larger than conventional ones and loaded with features we take for granted today.  Two-car attached garages, sliding-glass patio doors, at least two living areas, and at least two bathrooms were common amenities of these homes. 

If that wasn't enticing enough for you, consider who your neighbors were: 

F.M. "Tiddle" and Hazle-Vern Terry.  They owned Terry Brothers Pharmacy, which was something of a landmark near Arlington’s iconic mineral well.  Their house, built in 1954, is still owned by an heir.  For the record, the very first home to be built in Elm Shadows is on Virginia Lane, and only recently changed ownership to a family outside of the original owner’s heirs. 

Hayden Johnson.  He was related to the Terry’s, and owned an appliance store where the Flying Fish and other restaurants are now located.  A subsequent owner of his house was George S. Wright, while he served as dean of UTA’s architecture school. 

J.C. and Lillie “Bill” Watson, co-owners of an upscale chain of fashionable department stores in Arlington, Hurst, and Grand Prairie.  Their house, designed by Mrs. Watson herself, is still owned by an heir, and their former store on Arlington’s West Main Street, with its wavy Mid-Century Modern awning, is now an office building for UTA.

H.E. and Burney Pearl Caton, owners of both a popular “five-and-dime” retail shop downtown, as well as a company that manufactured decorative clothing ribbon downtown.  One of their customers was Macy’s department store in New York City.  Heirs of theirs still live on Woods Drive. 

James and Eleanor Grace Martin.  James served as a long-time AISD superintendent, during most of the district’s rapid growth, and Martin High School is named in his honor.  Eleanor Grace opened her art space above the store owned by their neighbors, the Caton’s.  She called it “the Upstairs Gallery” for obvious reasons, and kept the name when she relocated to a house on W. Abram St., as the Caton’s store would be demolished for the construction of Arlington’s original Central Public Library.  A Martin heir still lives in the neighborhood, and heirs still run the gallery. 

Happy King.  He was a long-time builder and developer in Arlington.  His company constructed several of the houses in Elm Shadows, and most of what are now called “the Air Force Base streets” clustered around Park Row and Collins Street.  One of his downtown projects, at 300 W. Main St., remains mostly intact. 

William “Bill” and Billie Farrar.  They first owned B & B Supermarket (for Bill and Billie), at the southeast corner of Park Row and Collins St.  Billie eventually went into real estate, becoming a pioneer of the industry in Tarrant County.  She was the first Realtor in Arlington to complete a $1 million sale - a farm where Highway 360 and Sublett Road now intersect.  Heirs still own her office building on Park Row near Cooper Street. 

Catherine Coulter.  Okay, so she never owned a business in Arlington, but she’s our neighborhood’s bona-fide celebrity.  She is a famous novelist and long-time resident of the San Francisco Bay area who spent part of her growing-up years with her family on Woods Drive.  Her father, Charlie, was an aeronautical engineer and her mother, Betty, was a musician who wrote and published her own educational books for piano. 

Lena Hornaday. She owned a popular restaurant, La Tapatia, for 27 years.  Hers was widely reputed to be Arlington’s first and, for a while, only Tex-Mex restaurant.  She retired in 1974, and a Comet Cleaners now occupies the 2-story building at Division and West streets.  Her house is still owned by an heir. 

Dan Burkholder.  He was a noted jazz musician who conducted bands and orchestras for celebrities such as Bob Hope and Dean Martin.  He also taught at UTA, and was a philanthropist to UTA’s music department. 

Howard “Gumpy” Moore.  He was an heir of Arlington’s fabled Moore Funeral Home family, and namesake of Howard Moore City Park off of Davis Drive, in honor of his long-time chairmanship of Arlington’s parks board.  For the record, Moore family heirs also built a house on Patrick Drive, and they were not related to the Moore family which owned the Goat House. 

Judge Bill and Barbara Hughes.  Bill was a lawyer and a widely-respected Tarrant County judge.  Barbara was a longtime public school teacher, and both were prolific philanthropists.  Their house is still owned by an heir. 

James and Bea Horsman.  It wasn’t downtown, but in a strip shopping center at the northwest corner of Park Row and Collins, where the Horsmans owned an upscale childrens clothing store.  After Six Flags Mall opened in 1970, their store began to fade in popularity.  Bea eventually worked for Billie Farrar as one of her agency’s Realtors.  Their address technically was on Michael Court, but their long side yard ran parallel to Woods Drive. 

Dr. Mo-Shing ChenDr. Chen was an internationally-renowned electrical engineer who taught at UTA for over 40 years.  He began several programs in the electrical engineering department that still exist today, helping to give the department its impressive global reputation.  He and his wife, Dr. Flora Chung-Hsia Huang, raised their two daughters on Woods Drive, and both of them are now doctors as well. 

Gene Allen.  He started a popular 3-store Hallmark greeting card chain in Arlington, with locations on Park Row, Randol Mill Road, and Little Road.  His home was designed with a flat roof to give it a West Coast aesthetic.  It is two doors down from another flat-roofed house on Woods Drive, designed by and the personal home of Alvin Mikusek, a local architect. 

And speaking of architecture, it is believed that 2003 Woods Drive was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West studio in Arizona. As one of America’s most influential architects, Frank Lloyd Wright helped invent and promote the “prairie style” design movement and the long, low ranch style house, which became a favored residential model during the Mid-Century Modern aesthetic, not to mention most of the houses built up and down Woods Drive. 

The first homes on Woods Drive were constructed in 1954, around its northern cul-de-sac.  Ironically, the last home built on Woods Drive, the Watson home, was constructed just up the hill from that cul-de-sac in 1966.  Four years after that, Six Flags Mall opened at Division Street and Highway 360, and Arlington’s downtown would never be the same. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Leaving Antidepressants Isn't Easy

My crystal Swarovski "Volcano Pyramid" prism with a damaged edge
(the puffy-looking shape in the middle - a significant imperfection)

Last October, I posted about my decision to stop taking my antidepressant prescription medications.

Several months later, I'm checking back with an update to that post.  I don't want to be melodramatic, but I also don't want to minimize the struggles of going without antidepressants.  

The summary version is that I'm not doing as well emotionally as I was when I was still taking my full antidepressant dosages.  The only two benefits I can see are that, one; I haven't yet returned to any of my antidepressants since last fall.  And two, I've lost more weight, and appear to have plateaued in terms of my weight loss.

So, I've lost emotional ground, but I've also lost some physical baggage, meaning my slimmer appearance hides what's going on inside.  I'm also finding that as I lose weight, I'm getting more wrinkled, which is making me look older!  I used to enjoy looking considerably younger than my years, but now, it seems the inverse is happening.  So in terms of aesthetics, my weight loss has become a net neutral. 

Anyway, the bigger story is inwardly, since I'm struggling more with my depression now than I have in decades.

Turns out, in terms of masking my depression and helping me be more productive as a human being, those antidepressants probably were far more effective than I thought they were.  The longer I go without them, the less competent I am at adjusting to negative things and surprises.  And whereas I used to suspect my antidepressants of sabotaging my joy and peace, I now realize that without antidepressants, I have even less of either joy or peace.  I used to scoff at the notion of emotions governing so much of my behavior, but now, I lament how so much of my logic, industriousness, and discipline gets eroded by emotionalism.

I've tried to modify my behavior to accommodate my deteriorating emotions.  My biggest change:  I've stopped most of my news consumption.  American politics, Christian nationalism, the Israel - Hamas war,  all sorts of racism, and hatred in general have taxed me emotionally.  Suddenly, I find I simply can't absorb it all.  My fearfulness factor is sky-high.

While I used to regularly and verbosely blog here about news items and current events, I no longer can stomach even the most cursory glance at the headlines.  I  have an acquaintance who is a professional journalist, and he confirmed that disconnecting from the news is a prudent move for me, at least for now.

As a person who used to seek out the news, especially looking for stories about which I could blog, that has been the biggest change for me.  A dear friend of mine in Dallas used to tease me about "doom-scrolling", since he's long said the news media revels too much in life's horrors and tragedies.  Now I realize how even trolling basic headlines has become a form of "doom-scrolling", since the Internet appears to have forced the journalism industry into competing for the most salacious stories.  News outlets survive today by trying to generate views and click-throughs, because those are how they calculate online advertising rates.  

I reported back in October that I seem to always be on the verge of crying, and that has only become a more pronounced sensation.  Loud and sudden noises also distress me more than ever, while crowds of people - no matter who they are - intimidate me. 

Apparently my antidepressants were my go-to coping tools.  Some things did upset me, but not to the degree they do now.  It has been discouraging for me, as supposedly a "person of faith", to realize that after all these years, I apparently don't trust in the God I've claimed to embrace.  After all, if I did, would I be so incessantly anxious, even as a chronically clinically depressed person?  

Realizing how desperate I was becoming, I reached out to the senior pastor of the Dallas church in whose choir I used to sing, and we've met a few times for some counseling sessions.  Even though our church numbers about six thousand members, we've known each other for quite a while, and I'm grateful he makes time for me.  He's not a therapist, but as a theologian, I'm asking him questions about faith that he's answering with candor and grace.

It's too early to know how much of a help he's been, but even knowing he's willing to try is itself helpful.  I'm not paying him, he knows I'm neither wealthy nor influential, and he's not anti-antidepressants.  He attended my father's memorial service so he knows all about my concerns regarding dementia.  Nevertheless, he warned me I might still have to go back on antidepressants depending on how things evolve.

So obviously, I have no cheerful update here.  No philosophical or theological insights.  No profound one-liners.  This is simply a status update of where I am at this moment, approximately six months after stopping my antidepressants.  People ask me if losing all this weight (85 pounds total since the start of Covid) makes me feel more energetic, but no, I feel even more lethargic than ever.  You see, I haven't lost weight in a healthy way - it's all been through stress.  

There have been a few days where I almost caved and started taking those "happy pills" again, but - for better or worse - the ominous specter of dementia has proven stronger.

Even with my problems, there are other people who are living with griefs and pains far worse than mine.  My pastor calls these "bitter providences" of God, Who, although He is good, certainly allows plenty of bad things to happen to His followers - even through no fault of their own.  

Saying "things could be worse" may not necessarily be a healthy response to anyone's crisis, but it can be helpful to keep some of these considerations in perspective.

So for now, I'm staying the course, away from antidepressants.  I'm finding that this is not the easier path, but perhaps its benefits will come in the long run.