Sunday, January 19, 2020

445. Thank God for Hate


Work on the new book creeps along with renewed problems, because of continued frustrations with the new Mac.  I was tempted to suspend this blog until further notice, then decided I could manage to do the post below instead.  But I may yet have to suspend it, until the worst problems are resolved.  

"Don't know what'll come tomorry and don't care one God damn, sir." -- Union soldiers, 1864.

For a clue as to why this so bothers me, see my poem "Neatnik," published online in Blue Lake Review, December 2019.

                      Thank God for Hate

My endless ordeal adjusting to a new computer has made me think a lot about hate, the kinds of hate, and what it can do to you.  As followers of this blog well know, for many reasons I once loved Apple, Inc., but now, with the installation of my new iMac, I have come to hate it.  I have succeeded in transferring files from the old iMac to the new one, but the files are frozen, pending my buying Microsoft Word and installing it in the new iMac.  This I’ve never had to do before, but I’ve tried repeatedly, and Microsoft has always refused the payment, though no one knows why.  Then, with help, I managed to purchase it, but my files are frozen, until I purchase Word, which I have already done.  The latest twist: I must uninstall Word and then reinstall it.  All this has worn me out.  Result: I hate both Apple and Microsoft.

We use the word “hate” rather loosely.  I admit to saying, and quite often, “I hate liver” or “I hate pop-up ads,” but this isn’t real hate, just a strong dislike.  For  me, real hate is visceral, goes deep.  It isn’t the feeling of a moment; it lasts.  It may subside for a while, but it is still there, waiting for a chance to resurface.  And it hardens you, blunts your better feelings, even kills them.  So there you have it.  Real hate is

  • Visceral
  • Perennial
  • Destructive

Does my antipathy to Apple and Word go this far?  Maybe, maybe not.  We’ll see. 

Have I ever felt real hate?  In my childhood I hated bullies, for I was a bookworm who wore glasses, an easy mark for some aggressive kid eager to play tough and show his manhood.  But this never achieved the level of true hate.  

There was one teacher, Miss Kiess, whom I feared and came to hate.  She was my seventh- and eighth-grade music teacher, a hard little gray-haired woman with a wry, often ironic sense of humor, who delighted in humiliating the weaker kids — the ones deficient in musical ability —  in front of the whole class.  I feared her, therefore came to hate her.  Which shows how hate develops.  What we fear, we come to hate.  But my hate of her had limits; I didn’t wish her physical harm, I just wanted to be free of her, and finally, after two horrid years, I escaped.  My hate of her wasn’t visceral, perennial, or destructive; it didn’t warp my psyche.

          Have I ever seen real hate?  Once, years ago, while dining in a student restaurant in Lyon, France, I heard a great crash at another table.  Everyone, myself included, rushed over to see what was happening.  There, confronting one another amid a clutter of smashed dishes, were two male students.  One had a look of rage such as I have never seen since; it warped his reddened features.  The other, distraught, kept yelling, “Il ne comprend pas la plaisanterie!” (“He doesn't understand a joke!”).  An older restaurant employee, a burly male, separated the two, and order was restored, but I have never forgotten the look of rage on that one student’s face.  He was on the verge of violence.  But was that hate?Visceral and destructive it was, but maybe not perennial.  Maybe just the hate of the moment, in which case, by my definition, it isn’t true hate.  

           Though not usually given to outbursts of rage toward others, as opposed to rage toward God, nature, gravity, destiny, Karma, and myself, I have occasionally felt a surge of anger.  Once, when talking on the phone to a male insurance rep about some complicated matter, in exasperation I muttered to myself, “Jesus Christ…!” (I get very religious when angry).  The rep immediately announced, “Profanity is not necessary.”  His comment enraged me.  To my regret, gentility prevailed, for I didn’t shout at him the thought that surged in my mind:  “Sir, that remark was not intended for your ears, but since you choose to comment, I will tell you that, if I want to use that kind of language, I fucking well will!”  Later, I was surprised by the intensity of my anger.  So we are all capable of rage.

          But rage is not hate, unless it expresses some deep, persistent feeling.  So my righteously proclaimed hate of Apple and Microsoft, though provoked by constant frustration and resentment, is really a momentary outburst of rage.  I can’t imagine it lasting forever, nor would I want it to.  With ample cause, I’m ventilating, expressing my frustration at the endless complexities of adjusting to a new computer, despite the well-meant attempts of many to help.  

*                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *                
         The text above is the post I originally intended to publish.  But since writing it, I have experienced more troubles with the new Mac, which I have christened the Shitbox.  In this post I wanted to include several amusing photos of myself, some showing me smiling goofily and endearingly at my old Mac, while in others I threaten the new Mac with a hammer.  The post would have humor, and a light tone at the end.  But after further frustrations, being totally unable to insert the photos properly and caption them, I have rejected that conclusion as too feel-goody, too optimistic, too bland, too naive.  My anger won’t permit it.

          Now I feel my moments of rage hardening into a steady, settled resentment that indeed approximates hate.  Not that I’m going to start smashing computers or picketing an Apple store — not my style at all.  Instead, I can imagine a quiet, passive, but enduring hate, rekindled at intervals by the memory of previous woes, or worse still, by a repeat of them.  Hate doesn’t have to rage and bluster.  It can sleep in you and be wakened — perhaps to your astonishment — at intervals.  It may warp and harden you, but you can learn to welcome the warp and the hardness, to respect them, even love them.  Hate has energy; it makes you feel more alive.  It can become an essential part of you, a cherished part, even the core of your being.  It can tell you who you are, and in doing so, give you intense satisfaction.  So thank God for hate: it gives us energy and joy.

©   Clifford Browder  2020

Sunday, January 12, 2020

444. Mystery Man


This is the first post using my new Mac desktop computer.  Some of you know the horrors I've been going through, horrors of transition, which I've recounted on Facebook.  But also, here's a

                                  FRAUD  ALERT

In the course of installing my new printer and computer, I've encountered them three times.  

1.  Having trouble with my old printer, I googled for help, found myself on the website of some outfit called adv soft LLC that I'd never heard of.  A male Asian, fluent in English but with a noticeable accent, worked with me for two hours trying to fix the printer, finally gave up and said I needed a new one -- advice that, even now, I think justified.  He then offered me various pricey plans for support, once I got a new one, and I settled for the 6-month plan, subject to my review.  I then, in a moment of sanity, googled adv soft LLC and learned that its services were unreliable, and that many complaints had been lodged with the Better Business Bureau.  Contacting the outfit, I got a smooth-talking woman and told her I didn't want or need their services.  She canceled my plan, but said I would be billed for a one-time session.  Though I anticipated a big bite of a charge, I was never billed, probably because I knew too much about them, might cause trouble.

2.  While trying to install my new computer, I asked for help, got a phone number online, and got the same male Asian with the same outfit.  Once again, I had been lured onto the adv soft LLC website.  "I don't know you!" I told him (though I really did) and hung up.

3.  The following day, when I tried to sign in to my new computer, I got a dramatic big-screen message that Mac OS X had been invaded by a virus; serious damage would be done, unless you phoned this phone number for help.  It sounded a bit like a scam, but when I was blocked again and again from signing in, I tried the phone number, but got no answer because it was early -- before 9 a.m.  Then, remembering another phone number given me by Apple Support, I tried it, got an immediate answer, explained the situation, and was told, "Don't phone them. This is a scam!"  Up until now, I thought adv soft LLC guilty only of overcharging -- legal and all too common in the capitalist world.  But now, with their phone number associated with a scam, questions of legality came up.  The Apple Support specialist I was dealing with spent a whole hour trying to remove the malware from my computer, and finally succeeded.  Day 2 on my new Mac, and it had been invaded by malware -- what a downer!

FRAUD  ALERT:  Beware of an outfit called adv soft LLC.      They are suspect, have many BBB complaints.

Why is this outfit still in operation?  I have no idea.  But now, on to another mystery, a man of mystery to many of us.

                                  Mystery Man  

                      He knew Goethe and Jefferson, inspired 
                      Darwin, and was celebrated worldwide, 
                       yet we don't even remember his name.

Until recently the name “Humboldt” meant only one thing to me: a river in Nevada that in the nineteenth century surged up mysteriously from a spring, then flowed sluggishly in a somewhat westerly direction, and finally sank down into the ground and disappeared.  It was a rule among the explorers of that time that if you got lost in a desolate hinterland, the only thing to do was follow a stream until it flowed into a river, and then follow that river, and any larger one it flowed into, until you reached the coast.  Rivers were supposed to always flow downstream toward a coast.  And what is now the states of Nevada and Utah then constituted the Great Basin, a desolate region where rivers like the Humboldt rose up out of nowhere, flowed on for a while, and then sank back into the earth.  God help any lost wanderer who followed them in hopes of reaching the coast.

File:Humboldt River Papa 2.jpg
Settlers camping by the Humboldt River, 1859 (retouched).

         When the westward covered wagons of the emigrants reached this region, hoping to make it over the Sierras into California before the first snow, their trail followed the Humboldt.  The native peoples of the Great Basin were not formidable mounted warriors like the Sioux or Cheyenne or Apache, but weaker tribes supposedly pushed by stronger ones into this desolate area, where they survived by eating roots and grasses. The coming of the wagon trails was a blessing for them, since here was food waiting to be snatched.  No need to attack the settlers; just send a few arrows into their livestock and wait.  The settlers might then carved out some choice meat for themselves, but they would have to lave the carcasses behind.  Then, as the wagon trains plodded dustily into the distance, the native peoples would help themselves to a banquet of carcasses.  They’d never had it so good.  And that was all I knew of the Humboldt River and   history, without a clue as to where the name came from, and why, or what the river’s condition is today.  

(Note: The above account of the native peoples of the Great Basin along the Humboldt River are my recollection of accounts by the early settlers of that time, who had little interest in studying the aborigines.  I doubt if it does justice to the inhabitants of that desolate area, who were probably Paiutes.)

         The first traders and pathfinders to discover the Humboldt gave it a series of names, none of which stuck.  Then, in 1845, the pathmarker and future presidential candidate John C. Fremont made a map of the region and gave the river its name.  So Wikipedia informs us, without bothering to explain who or what Humboldt was.  But Fremont knew.  Humboldt was Baron Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the son of a Prussian noble, a much-traveled scientist and explorer famous in his time, but for many of us, forgotten today.

         And how do I connect Humboldt to New York City?  It’s a strain, I’ll admit, but in 1869, the centennial of his birth, there were worldwide celebrations, and 25,000 people marched along Manhattan’s flag- and bunting-adorned streets in honor of him.  Today I have to wonder what scientist’s name could inspire such festivities in this busy metropolis.

File:Alexander von Humboldt Litho.jpg
Humboldt in old age, 1857.

         Here I won’t give a detailed account of Humboldt’s lifelong pursuit of scientific knowledge, but only a few highlights.

·      Though his widowed mother thought him dull-witted and therefore destined for a career in the Prussian public administration, where she could keep an eye on him, his early contact with the botanist on one of Captain James Cook’s voyages to the Pacific inspired in him a longing to become a world traveler and explorer himself, and so escape maternal domination.
·      Even though his passport from King Carlos IV of Spain allowed him to visit Spain’s vast holdings in the Americas from 1799 to 1804, he described objectively what he saw there, and denounced Spain’s monopoly of the booming silver mining in Mexico, and the abject poverty of the people in Mexico City.
·      In 1804, when on his way back to Europe, he was invited to the United States, so President Jefferson could get advice from him about exploring his recent purchase from Napoleon of a huge territory, the so-called Louisiana Purchase, that almost doubled the nation’s size. Jefferson then corresponded with him for years.
·      In that same year he was introduced to Napoleon, whose subsequent coronation he attended.
·      He was a friend of Goethe, who shared many of his interests and delighted in his conversation.
·      The young Charles Darwin signed up for his famous 1835 voyage to the Galapagos Islands as a result of reading Humboldt’s seven-volume account of travels in Spanish America.
·      In 1827 he began giving lectures to European audiences, free and open to both sexes and all classes, about his earlier explorations in Spanish America.  He wanted to summarize all that was known to the natural science of his day, and how it was all interconnected.  As a result, he has been hailed by some as the father of environmentalism.  
·      Little of his personal life is known, but he seems to have fought off an attraction to young men in his early days, and later may have fathered three or more children with the wife of a servant whose family lived with him for years.
·      When, in 1859 at age 90, he died, he received a state funeral in Berlin.  Ten years later, in 1869, the centennial of his birth was celebrated worldwide, with festivities in New York, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Moscow, Alexandria, Egypt, and Melbourne and Adelaide, Australia.  His fame, a London newspaper reported, was “bound up with the universe itself.”

File:Alexander von Humboldt Denkmal - Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.jpg
A statue of Humboldt at the Humboldt University in Berlin, 2015.
Christian Wolf

         Given his deserved renown, I am chagrinned at learning only now something about the career of a man whose name I formerly associated with a sluggish river in the desolate stretches of nineteenth-century Nevada.  Also bearing his name are the Humboldt Current, which flows along the western coast of South America, and the town of Humboldt, South Dakota, in the township of that name, in (I'm not making this up) Minnehaha County.  

          (Never heard of Minnehaha?  For shame!  You must never have read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, published in1855, where she figures prominently as the love interest of the protagonist, Hiawatha.  I'll say no more of Longfellow's masterpiece, except that it begins "on the shores of Gitche Gumee," a name that has lived in literary infamy ever since.  But I digress; forgive.)

Source note:  This post was inspired by “The Magnetic Polymath,” Miranda Seymour’s substantial review of two recent books on Humboldt in the New York Review of Books of December 5, 2019.  Which proves that I read more than the Sunday New York Times, though not, I confess, The Song of Hiawatha.  

Coming soon: The Killer of Alexander the Great.

©  2020  Clifford Browder.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

443. Apple, Inc. -- I Hate It


I have just acquired a domain name that is unique -- mine, and no one else's:

What the point of it is, aside from denying it to anyone else, escapes me.  So far, it has proved utterly useless.  Maybe I'm doing something wrong.  But when some domain name registering outfit offered to register it for only $97, marked down from $300, I knew to immediately delete their e-mail.  

          If anyone wants to know about any of my books, forget the domain name and go here, to a post devoted to my books, their cover illustrations, summaries, and reviews, and nothing else.

                           Apple, Inc. -- I Hate It

Hate Apple, Inc., the company I love to love?  Until last Friday, such a thought was unthinkable.  I hate Big Tobacco, loathe Big Pharma, and harbor undying enmity for Big Oil and certain other conglomerations that pollute our lives, but for Apple, Inc., as longtime followers of this blog well know, I nurse a love that throbs to the very crux of my being.  And this when Big Tech -- such monsters as Apple, Amazon, and Google --  are being called to account worldwide.  Why this passion of mine?  Many reasons:

  • It gave me my computer, an ancient Mac desktop that I have had for years, ancient but still gamely functioning, the best computer I have ever owned.
  • The nearby Apple store on 14th Street and Ninth Avenue, spacious and flooded with light, has served me well.  Smiling young people in blue outfits greet me at the door, answer questions, and give directions, and on the top floor a Genius does wonders to repair or enhance my ancient desktop.
  • Surging to new heights in the market, Apple stock is sexy.  It's "with it," it's "hot," it dazzles.
  • As of 2018, Apple has the highest market value ($961 billion)  in the world, and is also, with net income of $59 billion, the most profitable.
  • Years ago, on a modest scale, I made what's known as a "killing" in the stock.

          About that "killing": years ago, when Apple's cofounder and presiding genius, Steve Jobs, was rumored to be ill, the stock plunged.  Jobs was Apple's Wunderkind, the guy who again and again created gadgets that no one needed but everyone wanted, a master of invention and design.  Like Edison with the phonograph and the electric light, and like Bell with the telephone, he changed the way we live.  In photos he himself was West Coast casual.  In contrast to the more formal jacket-and-tie look of Wall Street, he had the California look: super informal, with either a sweater or a shirt with an open collar, and plain, old, ordinary jeans.  Which mattered not at all, for his gadgets flew off the shelves, and his computers were slender, sleek, and sexy.  But now the market was saying that, without him, Apple would lose its magic, its fantastic moneymaking ways.  

File:Steve Jobs.jpg
Steve Jobs, displaying a Mac laptop in San Francisco, 2008.
Matthew Yohe

          I disagreed.  Even without him, I figured, Apple would keep its pizzazz, continue to innovate and dazzle. And so, following the old rule, buy when everyone else is selling, I bought.  Not a huge amount, just what I could manage, but I bought.  And soon enough, it happened: the stock bottomed out and soared, soared, soared, and with a few slumps along the way, has been soaring ever since.  Oh glory!  A modest commitment, but the best investment I have ever made.  I still get a warm, oozy feeling in my innards knowing that, just this once, I was right when everyone else was wrong. And so, through thick and thin, Apple and its stock are precious to me: my one and only corporate inamorato, my sine qua non, my Big Rock Candy Mountain.  Maybe Ayn Rand was right: greed is good.  (Of course.  But for whom?)

          When Jobs, who was indeed ill, left the company, I held on to my stock.  Likewise when, in 2011 at age 56, he died of pancreatic cancer, for I had faith in the company and in Jobs's successor, Tim Cook.  Though born and raised in Alabama, Cook was another tall, lean, spectacled Californian who favored unpretentious jeans (except when admitted to the Oval Office).  And gay, too, as he announced in 2014, the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to do so.  He did it, he said, after getting letters from young kids struggling with their sexual orientation.   

          One more reason to hang on to my stock: in 2012 Cook declared the first dividend since 1995.  It was modest, as dividends go, but a dividend.  What else could he do, being under stockholder pressure, with the company sitting on $100 billions in cash?  And those billions took him to the White House, whose occupant respects fortunes and success, and to meetings with foreign heads of state as well.  Such is our democratic aristocracy.  Movie and TV stars have money, fame, and glamour, but CEOs have power and respect, and it takes them far.  

 biFile:Donald Trump and Tim Cook 2018-04-25.jpg
The gray-haired Cook on the right.  We know who's on the left.
The subject of their talk: trade.  April 25, 2018.

          Even if Apple could no longer trot out amazing new gadgets, I was sure that just updating the old ones would keep the cash flowing in.  And if it opened stores in China, where a new middle class was yearning for Western paraphernalia, and especially for the magic of Apple's products, the inflow of cash could only increase and accelerate.  (A concern that took him to the White House for a talk on trade and tariffs.)  So I, who dislike gadgets and keep them to a minimum in my life, have continued to love Apple, Inc., and its products.  All corporations have their faults, and Apple is no exception, but the very thought of the company still warms me to the cockles of my heart.  Until now, at least.

          So why this change of heart?  Last Friday I made a momentous and long-delayed decision: I would get a new computer.  My old one still worked well, but for many reasons it needed to be upgraded, and soon.  So I ordered one from Apple -- a desktop like my old one -- and paid an extra $9 for expedited delivery: it would come by 12 noon that very day.  Soon I got an e-mail telling me that it had left the warehouse and was on its way.  I was thrilled.  New vistas opened to me, things my old Mac couldn't do.  A new Mac at last: it was really happening!  

          Tracking it, I learned that it would arrive at 10:59 -- in ten minutes!  I got everything ready, knew exactly where I would lodge it, pending installation.  But 10:59 came and went: no computer.  I tracked it again: it would arrive at 11:30.  Hoping they would bring it up the four flights, I planned a generous tip, counted the minutes, paced the floor, waited.

          But 11:30 came and went: still no computer.  But they were pledged to deliver it by 12 noon; that's what I had paid for.  And at 12 noon, predictably now, no computer.  Yet tracking said it had been delivered -- an error or a flat-out lie -- for downstairs there was nothing, just an empty vestibule yearning to be filled.

          With difficulty I contacted Apple Support by phone, got profuse apologies, was told that they would refund my payment -- not just the $9 but the entire cost of the computer.  So my wasted morning ended with the letdown of letdowns:  I would have to buy the damn thing all over again!  

          Like a dank fog, disillusion crept in, dampening my affection for Apple.  It had betrayed me in the worst way, raising high hopes only to deflate them.  Will I order another Mac?  Of course; I've already done so, and it should come next Tuesday.  Will I continue to see in Apple, Inc., the object of my dreams, my sine qua, my Big Rock Candy Mountain?  Tuesday will tell.  Meanwhile, that mountain is beginning to look a bit worn, a bit barren, and maybe more rock than candy.  Alas.

Coming soon:  As promised before, either a scientist once hailed worldwide but now forgotten by us, or a killer of 52 billion people. Unless, of course, some personal crisis barges in and plants itself in my psyche.

©   2020   Clifford Browder

Sunday, December 29, 2019

442. The King of Harlem


My interview with Colleen Chesebro, novelist and word witch, is still available: go here and scroll down.  But the link to this blog will get you only to post #417, "Kill," since that was the latest one when the interview was done months ago.  

When is a fraud not a fraud?  

Nothing new about my forthcoming nonfiction title until the holiday season is over and we're into the New Year.  But I'm planning already for entering it in book contests (with caution, since some of them are frauds) and soliciting reviews from trusted sources (with caution, for some of them are frauds).  Indeed, what is and what is not a fraud can be debated forever.  Everybody wants an author's $$$, and if you see them all as self-serving frauds, you'll end up miserably alone, your books unknown, unreviewed, and unsold.  So you get info from online sources (with caution, for ...) and take your chances.

For information about my published books, go to my Amazon Author Central page.


The King of Harlem

He swaggered on the streets with a look of bold command.  The street kids watched in awe, envying his custom-made suits and shoes, his full-length leather coats, his designer sunglasses and flashy ties.  Everything about him said money, power, success. When he drove about in his Mercedes-Benz or his Cadillac, there was often a beautiful woman beside him, and she was not his wife.  He was said to be fabulously rich and to have Mafia connections.  

         Rumors held him responsible for the heroin pouring into Harlem, and even into the rest of New York State, and into Pennsylvania and Canada as well.  His investments included gas stations, travel agencies, and apartment complexes.  If a police surveillance team tried to follow him as he drove through the streets of Harlem, he led them on a merry chase and often shook them off.  He was indeed the King of Harlem, but having beaten several charges, he was known by another name: Mr. Untouchable.

         Anyone familiar with chapter 11 of my book Fascinating New Yorkers: Power Freaks, Mobsters, Liberated Women, Creators, Queers and Crazies, will have recognized this swaggerer as Leroy Nicky Barnes, the Mafia’s agent in Harlem in the 1970s.  My book recounts Barnes’s ongoing story, climaxed by his appearance, under the name “Mister Untouchable,” on the cover of the Magazine section of the New York Times of Sunday, June 5, 1977 – a cover that I remember well.  

          That cover, with the dapper, clean-shaven Barnes projecting a look of smug invulnerability, so angered President Jimmy Carter that he ordered his attorney general to "get" Barnes, and get him he did.  Trial and conviction followed, with Barnes sentenced to life in prison without parole.  Then, learning that his former associates were squandering his fortune, he testified against them, leading to 44 indictments and 16 convictions, one of them for an ex-wife.  In return for his cooperation, Barnes got his prison sentence reduced to 35 years.

         So why, 42 years after his arrest, am I mentioning the former King of Harlem?  Because it has just been revealed that he died of cancer in 2012.  And why is this revealed only now?  Because, when he was released in 1998, after serving 21 years, he entered the federal Witness Protection Program and lived quietly under an assumed name.  As well he might, since his former associates had put out an eight-million-dollar contract on his life.

The New Nicky Barnes

The post-prison Nicky Barnes was not the swaggerer of yore.  Bald and limping, he wore baggy dungarees and drove to work in an unpretentious used car.  As of 2007 he was working 44 hours a week in an undisclosed job in a middle-class white neighborhood in an undisclosed state, content in his anonymity and routinely taking home doggie bags from restaurants.  And how was this known?  Because in that year, 2007, he published a memoir, Mr. Untouchable, written with journalist Tom Folsom.  
          "Nicky Barnes's lifestyle and his value system is extinct," he said that year in an interview.  "I left Nicky Barnes behind."

          He didn’t want the memoir to glorify him.  Being on a tight budget, he just wanted to make a few bucks.

          While in prison, Barnes had done more than learn humility.  He earned a college degree, taught other inmates, and won a poetry contest for prisoners.  He had indeed left the old Nicky Barnes behind.  Except that the old Nicky’s story could bring in a bit of needed cash.wo

          The key lesson of Nicky Barnes's story:  If you're up to your ears in crime, hunker down.  The last thing you should want is to attract attention.  The smart Mafia men know this; we rarely hear of them, don't even know their names.

          For a sketch of Barnes’s life, see chapter 11 of my book Fascinating New Yorkers.  You will find more about that title in my post BROWDERBOOKS; scroll down to the NONFICTION section.  It is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Source note:  This post was inspired by Sam Roberts's obit of Barnes in the New York Times of Sunday, June 9, 2019. 

Coming soon:  Two possibilities:

  • A world-famous explorer and scientist whom Jefferson and Goethe came to know, and who was hailed in New York by 25,000 people marching in the streets, and in Berlin and Moscow and Buenos Aires and Melbourne as well -- a man most of us today have never heard of.  
  • The world's most savage killer, responsible for the death of Alexander the Great, the Visigothic king Alaric, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Byron, and some 52 billion other humans over time.  
Both subjects can be linked, however tenuously, to New York.

©   Clifford Browder  2019


Sunday, December 22, 2019

441. The Man Who Saved New York


In case you missed it last week, see my interview with Colleen Chesebro, novelist and word witch.  For the interview, go here and scroll down.  But the link to this blog will get you only to post #417, "Kill," since that was the latest one when the interview was done months ago.

For information about my published books, go to my Amazon Author Central page.

             The Man Who Saved New York

New York City Bankrupt?

It was 1975, not a good year for the city of New York.  Streets and bridges lacked basic maintenance, Central Park was littered with trash, its benches unrepaired, its plants untended.  Everything about the city looked shabby, dirty, neglected, and crime was high.  As a result, families were abandoning the city for the suburbs, shrinking a tax base just when more tax revenue was desperately needed.  Then, to make matters worse, citizens were startled by a shocking bit of news: New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy.  Not operating at a loss, as it had for years, but on the verge of real, actual, no-other-word-for-it bankruptcy.  Its bonds had fallen in price to unprecedented lows, sending the interest rates soaring.  But even at such bargain prices, who would risk buying them, if the city might default?  The banks, tired of 
making loans to a city that always needed more loans, had denied further credit. 

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         “Who’s been minding the store?” citizens asked, their eyes flashing bewilderment and anger.  The answer: a long string of mayors who, to avoid the unpleasantness of proposing new taxes to voters, had come up with this or that stratagem, kicking the financial can down the street.  For what official, with an election approaching, wants to tell voters that higher taxes and fewer services are desperately required? 

         It even got personal.  When I visited a friend in Washington, and the New York crisis came up in conversation, he launched into a testy diatribe, beginning with “You New Yorkers” – an appellation that I always resented, since I didn’t go around saying “You Washingtonians” or “You  Inside-the-Beltway People.”  He then informed me, “New York is done, finished, played out!  Financially a ruin.  It will never recover.  A hick town from now on.  Kaput!”  This too I resented, but could in no way refute.  His assertions  seemed to be reinforced by the headlines every day.  

         A great debate raged: should the city be allowed to go bankrupt, or not?  Some, including the president, thought that the bankruptcy would and should be no one else’s concern, since the city’s failure would not affect the wider economy; in short, it was New York’s baby to tend to, and no one else’s.  But others insisted that New York’s bankruptcy would have a devastating affect on the U.S. economy and global financial markets, therefore the city must be rescued.  Being a financial ignoramus, I didn’t know who was right, and didn’t want to let personal bias – my love of New York – sway me.  So to my Washington friend and others I proposed, “Since we don’t know how a bankruptcy will affect the nation, the only way  to find out is to let it happen.  So let the city go bankrupt, and we'll see.”  Not the most enlightened solution, but a challenge to those opposing it.  Meanwhile, a savvy employee at my local bank was telling clients in no uncertain terms, “Buy New York City bonds!  This is the chance of a lifetime.  You’ll never see these interest rates again.  New York is not going to declare bankruptcy.  They won’t let it!”

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         (In this controversy one sees, playing out yet again, the perennial conflict between upstate and downstate, New York City and Albany.  I have discussed it in post #18, “Upstate vs. Downstate: The Great Dichotomy,” which became chapter 21 in my award-winning nonfiction title No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World.)

Fekix Rohatyn to the Rescue

         So how did it all turn out, and why bring up now this painful chapter of the city’s distant past?  I bring it up because the man who saved the city – yes, it was finally saved – was Felix G. Rohatyn, and he died on December 14, age 91 (my age --  hmm), at his home in Manhattan.  That his obit in the New York Times begins on the first page of the front (current news) section of the hefty Sunday Times (very rare), and continues inside for a full page and a half, indicates his significance.  So who, younger people may ask, was Felix G. Rohatyn?  A hero to some, a villain to others, but he saved the city from bankruptcy.

[This is where you'd expect a photo of Rohatyn, wouldn't you?  Sorry, there ain't one.  Not without paying a fee.  Odd, since he was such a public figure, and photos taken by  government photographers in the course of their duty are in the public domain.]

         In 1975 Rohatyn was a well-connected and highly respected partner of the Wall Street investment firm Lazard Frères.  A financial wizard, he was often consulted by influential businessmen and politicians.  “Felix the Fixer,” they called him, not always as a compliment.  He was a deal maker, a mastermind of mergers and acquisitions.  Then, in late May of 1975, he was summoned to the Midtown offices of Governor Hugh L. Carey and informed that the city was about to default on almost $3 billion in loans: $900 million due in June, $1 billion due in July, and another $1 billion in August.  For these men of power, default was out of the question, and they convinced the president.  Rohatyn was appointed to an advisory panel that quickly proposed the creation of a Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC) that would oversee the city’s taxes and spending, a creature of the state that would be independent of the city, with Rohatyn as chairman. 

         Mayor Beame protested, local politicians fumed, and the city unions screamed, but the governor signed the bill and MAC became the city’s vigilant overseer, and would remained so until 1993.  Through financial legerdemain such as only he could orchestrate, Rohatyn got the city through its August obligations, but even that wasn’t enough; investors still didn’t trust the city, wouldn’t buy the bonds that MAC issued.  So Albany set up the Emergency Financial Control Board with Rohatyn in charge, to manage the city’s finances.

         In September, Governor Carey and his staff met with President Gerald Ford and his advisers in the Cabinet Room in the West Wing of the White House to discuss the financial crisis in New York: a good indication that more than the city was involved.

File:Photograph of President Gerald R. Ford and His Advisers Meeting with Governor Hugh Carey and New York Officials in the Cabinet Room to Discuss the Financial Situation in New York City - NARA - 7582447.jpg
The governor and his people on the left, and the president and
his people on the right.  Rohatyn in the middle on the left.
Hopefully, the coffee and snacks helped them reach a decision.
Suddenly, a hitch:  the president threatened to veto the federal loan guarantees proposed by Rohatyn.
This was reported memorably by the Daily News of October 29, 1975:
                                                FORD TO CITY:
                                                   DROP DEAD

The president was still convinced that a city bankruptcy would be temporary and tolerable.  He changed his mind only when Arthur F. Burns, chairman of the Federal Reserve, returned from a meeting with European leaders to report that his threatened veto would roil global financial markets.  So the president backed down and Rohatyn's plan went through.

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The Price That New York Paid

         The city was saved, but at a cost: it had surrendered control of its finances to the state.  Was Rohatyn a hero or a villain?  As an unelected official, he now had unprecedented control over the city’s finances.  To judge by photos, he was a sober, stern-faced man.  “I get called in when something is broken,” he explained in an interview.  “I’m supposed to operate, fix it up, and leave as little blood on the floor as possible.”  What made his intervention successful was his skill in negotiating, backed up by his access to power, his management of public opinion, and his adept use of words as well as numbers.  He extracted agreements from bankers and union leaders alike.  The result: police layoffs, higher taxes and transit fares, tuition fees for the City University of New York, and subjection to the solons of Albany.  Editorialists editorialized, politicians raged, and mayor after mayor complained of the time they had to spend in Albany, begging favors from the state.  But the city, at a price, was saved.  Only Felix Rohatyn could have pulled it off.  No saint, but a hero, not a villain, and that’s how he should be remembered.

         In time, the hardy souls who bought MAC bonds at depressed prices reaped a rich reward.  As well they might.  Think twice and three times before consigning to the financial trash heap the city of New York.  If it has the chutzpah to use it, the city has one resource always available: the power to tax, and millions of citizens obliged to pay.  (Unless, of course, they have the wealth and wits to hire a good accountant or financial adviser.)  But at times the city needs a Felix Rohatyn to plead, wheedle, and browbeat it into action.  And the city too, thanks to him, benefited.  MAC came to reap substantial surpluses, and Rohatyn channeled these funds into schools, transit, low- and middle-income housing, and the hiring of more police to deal with the crack epidemic of those years.

Felix Rohatyn: From Refugee to Wall Street

Rohatyn's career was spectacular.  Here are some facts about it.

·      He was born in Vienna in 1928, the only son of a Jewish brewer, his mother the daughter of a prosperous banker.
·      Hitler’s coming to power in Germany in 1933 prompted the family to move to France in 1934.
·      In 1942, after France’s defeat, German occupation, and the installation of the collaborating Vichy regime, Rohatyn’s mother, now divorced and remarried, fled Europe, taking few possessions with her.  She had her son carry gold coins stuffed in toothpaste tubes.
·      Resettled in Manhattan, Rohatyn learned English and majored in physics in college.
·      After time in the U.S. Army, he joined Lazard Frères on Wall Street and was with them for forty years.
·      Having met her by chance while returning from a trip to Europe, he tutored Edith Piaf in English in the Park Avenue apartment that she shared with other nightclub singers.
·      By the mid-1970s he felt nostalgia for the world of gentlemen’s agreements that he had known, which was then giving way to hostile takeovers, corporate raiders, and high-risk trading, operations that enrich only a lucky few.

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Source note: This post is indebted to Sewell Chan’s obit of Rohatyn in the  New York Times of Sunday, December 15, 2019.

Coming soon: The King of Harlem.

©   2019   Clifford Browder