Sunday, September 27, 2015

199. Roughriders on West 44th Street

     West 44th Street between Sixth and Fifth Avenues in Manhattan is not my turf, and for at least three reasons.  On the north or uptown side of the street it harbors in close proximity (1) the exclusive Harvard Club rising in stately neo-Georgian splendor at 35 West 44th ; (2) the very private New York Yacht Club at no. 37, a 1901 Beaux-Arts concoction jutting huge galleon-style windows over the street with sinuous braids of seaweed, as well as snails, shells, dolphins, ships, and leviathans in limestone -- a nautical extravaganza over which J.P. Morgan once reigned as commodore; and finally, for a very modern touch, (3) the Sofitel New York at no. 45, a luxury hotel where room 2806, the presidential suite, goes for $3,000 a night, and where, in another room, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund and a leading candidate for the French presidency, was accused of sexually assaulting a maid.  And all three flying the flag!  With all due respect to Old Glory, I repeat that this is not my turf, because (1) I didn’t go to Harvard, (2) I don’t have a yacht, and (3) I don’t need a luxury hotel, least of all one that may have witnessed the grievous misdeeds of M. Strauss-Kahn.

Harvard Club

New York Yacht Club

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Sofitel New York
Rob Young

    And yet recently I found myself hurrying along that very block.  My goal  was neither the Harvard Club nor the Yacht Club nor the Sofitel, but another noble structure where I had never to date set foot: the New York City Bar Association at no. 42, an imposing Gilded Age edifice completed in 1897 and  

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New York Bar Association 

fronted by two soaring Doric columns.  Between those columns, taking shelter from a hint of rain, I waited patiently for the friend who had invited me to this address for a special occasion having nothing to do with the Bar.  As I waited there in my “business casual” attire—a polo shirt and slacks – I saw an endless procession of lawyerly types in jacket and tie and toting a bulging briefcase come and go, making me feel still more out of place.  Finally, toward noon, I ventured inside and beheld, stretching away into the inner recesses of this landmarked monument, a marble entrance hall worthy of Versailles.  Though tempted to explore, I did not proceed farther, since my destination was immediately to my right: the Hughes Room, a handsome high-ceilinged room with a woody feel that I peeked at from the doorway.

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The entrance hall, which I longed to, but did not, explore.

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The original Roughrider, 1898.
     What brought me for the first time ever to the Hughes Room?  An invitation from my friend to attend a meeting of the Roughriders, a name that, for a history buff like me, evokes images of Teddy Roosevelt rampaging up San Juan Hill and into the White House, his wartime exploits having made him vice president and then president in his own right.  But no, the Roughriders, who got their name from the room at the Roosevelt Hotel where they originally met in 1956, are also known as the Toastmasters, and are a club of middle-class professionals working to hone their skills in public speaking.  At first thought there’s something rather quaint and charming about the notion of public speaking, suggesting the popular and often lucrative lecture circuits of the nineteenth century when Americans, having neither radio nor TV, flocked to lectures by visiting speakers (Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan among them) in quest of entertainment, instruction, and inspiration.  But the Toastmasters, as we shall see, are a distinctly twenty-first-century breed of public speakers, very earnest and very professional.

     When my friend arrived, a young Taiwanese-born woman of many talents and many languages, she ushered me into the room, introduced me to several friends, and waved me toward the buffet luncheon.  Being famished, I helped myself generously and sat down at the long table in the center of the room and, even as I gobbled, took in my surroundings.  The Hughes Room is a handsome woody chamber with dreary rows of gray law books on low shelves around the walls, two chandeliers with ornate curlicues, handsome leather armchairs (like the one I was sitting in) with gilt-studded arms, and an impressive fireplace over which, in a thick gilt frame, hangs a large full-length portrait of a bearded gentleman who reeks of dignity and authority – surely Charles Evans Hughes, a former member of the Bar Association, who had given his name to the room. 

Charles Evans Hughes, as Governor of New York.  Not the
portrait in the Hughes Room, but still reeking dignity.

     I suspect that the assembling members of the club were little aware of Mr. Hughes’s presence, flanked though he is by two smaller portraits of likewise imposing dignitaries, and I myself only vaguely recalled him as a Supreme Court justice and an almost-president.  Later research would establish him as having been (though not simultaneously) Governor of New York, Associate and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Secretary of State and, in 1916, the Republican candidate for the presidency who lost out to Woodrow Wilson in a very tight election.  Legend has it that he went to bed thinking he had won, but by morning more results had come in, making Wilson the winner.  When a journalist phoned Hughes’s residence to get his reaction to the news, Hughes’s son or a servant (accounts differ) answered, saying, “The President is asleep.”  The journalist then replied, probably with a touch of malice, ‘When he wakes up, tell him he isn’t the President.”

     All of which has little to do with the Toastmasters, except to help establish the setting and my reaction to it.  The Roughriders Toastmasters Club meets every Thursday from noon to 2:00 p.m. to provide a workshop where members can perfect their speaking and leadership skills in a professional and supportive environment.  I was especially eager to attend this meeting, since my friend would be giving the climactic last speech of a ten-step program, each step of which involves giving a prepared speech with certain objectives in mind.  Just how this worked I would soon learn.

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Curriculum of Toastmasters International, of which
the Roughriders are an affiliate.

Chris Charabaruk

     At 12:30 sharp the meeting was called to order by the presiding officer, a charming Japanese-American woman whose very presence there, reinforcing that of my Taiwanese-born friend, demonstrated the group’s diversity.  Yes, they were all well-educated and successful middle-class professionals with mysterious letters (ACB, CL, CC) appended to their names, but within that group there were members of very different backgrounds.  My friend, for instance, had worked in various business jobs on two continents and, besides her native Chinese, was fluent in English and Japanese and had some knowledge of German.  Also in the room were an African-American and an Orthodox Jew.  What brought these people together was a community of interests and purpose.  A good mix, worthy of New York.

     After some opening remarks, the fun began.  First, the Table Topics, brief impromptu talks on the theme “Where did the summer go?”  This prompted memories of summer jobs and summer vacations.  One speaker told of attending a Boy Scout camp and making a bit of money selling snakes, which for some reason were in hot demand.  Another told of mowing lawns and doing yard work, his toil seasoned by winks and come-ons from housewives in the absence of their hubbies – evidence of the looser morals of the 1970s, he observed, without relating what then, if anything, resulted.  (A good speaker’s ploy: leave them wanting more.)  Then and throughout the meeting, some speakers stayed close to the lectern, while others ranged freely about; all used gestures effectively.  The talks were carefully timed, with no one to go over the time allotted.  Members then voted on the best Table Talk speaker, and the winner received an award.

     Next came the main course of the banquet, the four prepared speeches.  By now I was impressed by the speaking skills of the members, who spoke without the notorious American mumble (we often speak in a monotone, barely opening our mouth), without ums, and without amplification.  (An example of ums:  “I’m glad you asked that because … um … it’s especially relevant to what … um … we’re taking about.”)

     The first speaker I had some trouble understanding, perhaps because of projection but perhaps also, in that high-ceilinged room, because of acoustics; but she was well received.

     My friend was the second speaker; her theme, “Life Is Better in Two,”  was meant to inspire.  The gist of it was simple: should a single woman of 38, committed to her work and successful, get a dog, as a friend suggested, or instead start looking for a husband?  (Which reminds me of the old radio soap opera “The Romance of Helen Trent,” which asked if a woman 35 or older could still find romance; needless to say, Helen did, albeit in a respectable 1930s way, thus giving hope to frustrated housewives throughout the nation.)  While speaking, my friend smiled graciously and seasoned her talk with humor, and in her quest for a husband stressed the importance of not giving up.  After some missteps she did indeed find a husband – a handsome, gray-haired older man who was sitting at the far end of the table – and has now been happily married for five years.  When she took him to Taiwan to meet her family, who had all but given up on her marrying, they liked him immediately, though she had to school him in the ways of Chinese culture, very different from ours.  Though hers was a serious theme, and inspiring, she had us smiling or laughing throughout. 

     (Another point of view is of course possible.  Recently a Visiting Nurse from the Caribbean came to my partner Bob, absolutely radiant with joy; the mere sight of her gladdened us both. “You know why I’m so happy?” she asked, unsolicited.  “Because there’s no man in my life!”  She left us almost singing.)

     The third speaker, giving a step #2 speech meant to inform, had chosen the theme “Accentuate the Positive.”  She asked if we knew, on average, what percentage of our thoughts are negative, and solicited guesses from the members.  (Hazard a guess; the answer follows below.)  She then emphasized the need for positive thinking and at one point had us singing that old song, “You’ve got to accentuate the positive.”  Her message resonated with me since, being under great pressure that morning, I had probably registered 90% negative, though attending this meeting brought it down to 10 or less.

     The last speaker, already a professional speaker, had for a theme “Take Me to Your Leader” and emphatically made the point, “You yourself are your leader,” with all the responsibilities entailed.  Not a bad conclusion to that segment of the meeting.

     Members then voted for the best speaker and, to her genuine surprise, my friend got the award.  Evaluations of each speech by another member followed, for the group has no instructor, and members are always evaluated by their peers.  The evaluations were detailed, often complimentary, and tactful in criticism, with attention to facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and the use of humor.  Another member serving as “grammarian and um counter” then made a report, having kept track of grammar lapses and those invasive ums.  There can’t have been many of either, since the report was brief and now escapes my memory. 

      The meeting adjourned at 2:00 p.m. on the dot, at which point members engaged in a social free-for-all, and the babble level rose.  My friend  introduced me to her husband – the first prosecutor I have ever met -- who said he has stories from his work to tell, but not until he retires.  He was impeccably dressed, spoke with rather clipped words, and struck me as very New York, being charged with energy, but channeled energy, disciplined --  in the courtroom, I suspect, a power to reckon with.  Who today, come to think of it, could have more need of good public speaking skills than an attorney addressing a jury?

     So ended my session with the Roughriders, unique in my experience: a friendly bunch but serious, very professional, highly motivated, submitting readily to a structured environment where speeches are monitored by a timekeeper, grammar lapses are noted, and ums are counted.  My friend has urged me to come and speak to them, but given the level of their skills, I wouldn’t so presume; I can just imagine the awkward pauses, the grammatical lapses that would occur, and the ums that would multiply to the point … um … where the counter … um … would lose count.  Besides, I’m a writer; my concern is with the written, not the spoken, word.

     Regarding prepared speeches, I have one cautionary remark.  The challenge is to keep them spontaneous – the same challenge that actors face in performing a role over and over again.  But in this regard the Roughriders did rather well.

     I have often been struck by the contrast between the cultivated, articulate, disciplined speech of British public figures and the mumbling, rambling flabbiness of our own.  Granted, some of our presidents have acquitted themselves fairly well.  Roosevelt – not the Roughrider, the other one – had a patrician grace seasoned with humor that went over with the masses, and he left us some memorable phrases:

·      “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  (From his first inaugural address, in the pit of the Depression.)
·      “I welcome their hatred.”  (Referring to the forces of “organized money.”)
·      “A day that will live in infamy.”  (Of Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.)

FDR giving a fireside chat on the radio -- a tough act to follow.

     His successor, Truman, was feisty and blunt on the stump – no refined speaker, but with a directness that got him elected.  Eisenhower, while eminently likable, rambled a bit, and his slurred speech – “in’erestin’” -- drove English teachers to despair.  John F. Kennedy had wit, but Lyndon Johnson did not; his folksy Texan ways failed to inspire.  Jimmy Carter had sincerity, and Ronald Reagan projected warmth, made people feel deep-down good.  Poppa Bush admittedly lacked “the vision thing,” but he is not alone.  Bill Clinton was garrulous, using five words where two would do.  Baby Bush could walk onstage with a snappy stride, but his few memorable utterances were uninspired, if not calamitous (“Bring ’em on,” when our troops in Iraq had their hands full).  Our current President has certainly had his moments, but we need more of them.  Conclusion: most of our post-World War II Presidents could have profited from a few sessions with the Roughriders – in fact, most of them needed the whole ten-step program.

File:Statua di Daniel Webster a Central Park - NYC.jpg     This was not always the case with our public figures, as seen in two famous speeches delivered by American politicians of another age.  In 1830 Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts took on Senator Robert Hayne of South Carolina in a passionate speech defending the Union and the Constitution, his words flowing so smoothly and eloquently that one who heard him likened them to the steady flow of molten gold.  Resonating even today, and carved in the pedestal of his statue in Central Park, is his concluding affirmation of “liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable.”  Many consider this the most eloquent speech ever delivered in Congress. 

     For the second example of good public speaking, we’ll fast forward to 1896.  At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Representative William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska delivered a speech that pitted silver versus gold as legal tender (or, more accurately, silver and gold versus gold alone), the West and South versus the Northeast, the common man versus Eastern elites, farmers and laborers versus businessmen and bankers, the agrarian Great Plains versus Wall Street in the distant, wicked city of New York.  A passionate speech eliciting much applause, it concluded  dramatically, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”  As he spoke these words, he pressed his hands to his temples, then extended his arms to his sides and held this pose briefly, as if offering himself as a sacrifice. 

     Hammy, we may think today, but things were different back then.  As he left the podium to return to his seat, the audience sat in stunned silence, and Bryan feared that he had failed. Then, suddenly, the convention hall burst into pandemonium as delegates cheered and tossed hats and handkerchiefs in the air, and hoisted Bryan to their shoulders to carry him around the floor in triumph.  Often hailed as the most effective American political speech ever made, the Cross of Gold Speech made Bryan, at the tender age of 36, the 1896 Democratic candidate for the presidency.  Bryan lost the election to the Republican, William McKinley, but from then on he was a major political figure to contend with, and the Democratic presidential candidate again in 1900 and 1908. 

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An artist's portrayal of the pandemonium following
Bryan's Cross of Gold Speech.

     Obviously, in those days public speaking counted; it could vault you into  influence and power.  As for today, with the pre-election presidential debate season already in full swing, well seasoned with impassioned shouting matches and insults, I’ll let the voters decide who measures up and … um … who doesn’t.

     Papal mass:  The Pope left yesterday, after a tumultuous greeting here, and the city can now breathe a sigh of relief and try to get back to normal (whatever that may be).  Yesterday he celebrated a Mass at Madison Square Garden for some 20,000 people.  Tickets were almost impossible to come by, and hours ahead of time there was a line that stretched for fifteen blocks in Midtown.  What's not so well known is the fact that a special team of volunteers were on hand, stationed throughout the Garden, to make sure that everyone who received the host at Communion consumed it, instead of taking it home as a souvenir.  So far as I know, no unpleasant scenes resulted, and the hosts did get consumed.  Outside the Garden all kinds of papal souvenirs were available, including T-shirts, caps, squeezable dolls, umbrellas, and an 8-inch-tall bobblehead beaming a benign papal smile.  

     Sex sells:  An artist friend showing at the recent Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit told me, “Red sells.”  When I went home and checked the five works of his that I own, I found that two of them had a dash of red right in the center, immediately drawing the eye.  Yes, red sells.  And when I checked the number of views for the last post of this blog, “New York Hustlers,” I found that the total for the first  day it appeared (Sunday) was 206 – far more than usual.  And for Monday it was 140, and for Tuesday, 150 – again, more than usual for the days following publication of a post.  My post wasn’t about hustlers in the sense of male prostitutes, but viewers coming to the post didn’t know that.  And who, besides Americans, were interested?  The Irish.  And which other posts are perennial favorites?  Man/Boy Love: The Great Taboo (#43, Jan. 20, 2013), the all-time favorite, and Francis J. Spellman, the Controversial Cardinal (#136, July 20, 2014), which ends with the inevitable question: Was he or wasn’t he?  Yes, sex sells.

     Coming soon:  New York Humor.  Is there a New York sense of humor?  For New Yorkers, what is funny and what isn’t?  In the offing: Bedford Street, then Hate.  And maybe – just maybe – the imperious Donald (and I don’t mean Donald Duck).

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

     And oh yes, the book:  From those who read it, a review in Amazon would be much appreciated.