REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (April 8, 2013): From 1986 through 1988, I lived in the Italian section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, near the corner of Powers and Lorimer Streets. The owner had planned to rent the apartment to an Italian couple, but on the day when their advertisement appeared in the New York Times, it was icy and most people didn't want to venture outside, so I had the first chance to take it which I did immediately. Most of those who had settled in this area were from the part of Italy near Naples (Napoli). The neighborhood was a fascinating throwback to life a century earlier. Around the corner on Lorimer Street was a bakery where they continued to use coal-fired ovens to make bread; their only concession to "modern times" was baking whole-wheat loaves each Wednesday and Saturday morning. I used to take a loaf to work each Wednesday, because my colleagues loved to use the bread to make sandwiches or for a snack. There was a cafe on Graham Avenue which still exists today, called Fortunato Brothers, where most of the "regulars" spoke in Italian. They served thick coffee served with sweets, with gelato available in the warmer months. Except for one corner by the front window, there were no women present; there was an unwritten custom that only men were expected to sit in certain areas and talk about life in the old country. Sometimes the men would vociferously argue to the point where actual fighting threatened to break out. I slowly learned enough Italian to be able to communicate in simple terms, and of course I also became familiar with some popular curses which I didn't dare to repeat. There was a neighborhood restaurant on Lorimer Street called Milo's which also apparently still exists, with beers costing fifty cents apiece. The patrons at the other tables would ask me all kinds of questions as soon as I sat down, treating me as a part of their extended family. The head chef at Milo was a quiet fellow who loved to hear compliments about his food, although the person really in charge of the place was Milo's wife--a tiny woman with very definite ideas about life; their daughter was the waitress. When I would walk down the "side streets" in the evenings, the people who lived there would put folding chairs right in the center of the sidewalk, as though these were extensions of their living rooms. The most surprising thing about this neighborhood was that if you wanted to return to the late twentieth century, you could enter the subway "L line" on Lorimer Street and you'd be on 14th Street in Manhattan in ten minutes.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (March 11, 2013): When I was a kid in the 1960s, the local school called Bedford Elementary had barely changed their traditions from the Great Depression and from earlier customs established during the nineteenth century. We had a spring festival each April when most of the trees were flowering. For two months prior to the event, each of us would walk around the neighborhood and sell tickets for 50 cents apiece--worth about five dollars in today's money--in order to raise funds for numerous after-school programs. The students who sold the most tickets would get special recognition and certain privileges. Each ticket would be filled out with the name of the person, their phone number, and their address; obviously there was no email or cell phone at that time (and not even any calculators). On the day of the fair, each ticket was attached to a balloon, and a few thousand of these balloons of many colors would be filled with helium and released simultaneously as the local reporters would cover the event for the newspaper and WBAL-TV. The most popular snack was a peppermint stick stuck into a lemon, which apparently dates back before 1900 in some parts of Baltimore. We had other games of chance where you would typically pay a dime per game and each winner would get a unique prize. At the age of six, my sister won a purple cow with a head that would bobble up and down, which she still has after all these years. Sometimes the school would get telephone calls or letters a month or more after the balloon ascension from those who had found the balloons and their tickets which had instructions to either write or call a particular telephone number. These letters arrived from many different states as far away as Ohio; in those days, few people responded by telephone because a relatively brief long-distance call of that kind cost about twenty current-day dollars. The vice principal of the school had a map of the U.S. posted in the hallway, and would put a pin into each spot from which a communication was received. The spring fair was an opportunity for new neighbors to introduce themselves to long-time residents and for students to see their teachers and administrators in a more relaxed setting. I wonder how many places in the world still have these kinds of annual celebrations.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (February 18, 2013): At the age of five, my Dad tried to teach me to play the piano. After a year or so, he got tired of the effort, especially since he couldn't play it himself, although he understood the rudiments of reading music and knew enough to help me to begin sight-reading the scores of "My Fair Lady" and "South Pacific". Sight-reading is a skill where you play a piece for the very first time and try to reproduce it exactly as it's written. When I was six, I auditioned at Peabody music school in Baltimore, where the person in charge of deciding whether I was accepted or not was a young woman named Lynn Hebden. "Mrs. H" realized that I was a bit nervous, but she could also tell that I liked to show off, so she started by asking me a few silly musical jokes so I would feel more comfortable during the audition. In addition to asking me to play some songs which I had prepared in advance, Mrs. H gave me a piece to sight-read. I did very well until the final note, which I discovered later was intentionally impossible to read to see how potential students would react to confusion. She also had me look away from the piano and guess which notes she was playing; my Dad had done that since I was about three years old, so I surprised her by getting almost all of those questions right. I guess I did okay overall, because I soon began taking piano lessons. A few years later, Mrs. H taught me music theory and creativity as part of a new course of study called "Musicianship" which was connected with an amazing summer music composition camp known as the Walden School. Many years later, I gave a modest donation to Peabody and Mrs. H invited me to have dinner where she could personally thank me. I haven't seen Lynn Hebden for several years and discovered sadly that she passed away last week. I'm sorry that I didn't have a chance to personally perform a few of my compositions for her which she would have enjoyed.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (January 29, 2013): When I was in high school, I was fortunate to obtain a job as the secretary of an unusual and highly profitable company run by a friend of the family and located just one block from our house. The company was called Embassies International, Ltd., and served as a middleman to foreign embassies which were interested in buying anything from the United States. There was a huge order of crude oil by the Republic of Swaziland during the late 1970s, which was celebrated by a party at that country's embassy in Georgetown. The CEO of the company invited me and my girlfriend to attend the festivities, which were lavish and featured many of Swaziland's top citizens wearing the traditional robes of that nation. I dressed in my best suit--really, my only suit in those days--and picked up my girlfriend to drive her to the event about 1-1/2 hours away from our Baltimore neighborhood. When we arrived, we were overwhelmed by being surrounded by people of such different backgrounds who went out of their way to make us feel welcome. As we were sipping fine wine and enjoying unusual food I had never seen before, I began to realize that there was a life far beyond what I had known growing up in a middle-class neighborhood with relatively predictable career opportunities. Because it is so difficult to find parking in Georgetown, I finally located one area which to this day remains my secret spot whenever I visit. Walking back several blocks from the embassy to the car after it had turned dark, my girlfriend and I marveled at the dazzling way the houses shone on the streets and wondered if we would ever be able to afford such luxury and get to know such illustrious people.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (January 3, 2013): In 1981, between my junior and senior years at college, I had a summer job which paid $7.50 per hour--a wonderful wage at that time. I used some of the money to pay for rent, food, and clothing, and was designing plans for the rest of it. At the beginning of the next calendar year, I was visiting my parents and showed my Dad the forms I needed to complete my taxes. "Here, let me take care of that for you," he offered, which was surprising since I had been doing my own income taxes for a few years. "Sure, Dad," I told him, "go right ahead." He finished more quickly than I could have done, and his penmanship was as usual precise and easily readable. I glanced at the bottom line, and was surprised that I wasn't getting the refund I had expected--and actually had to pay the IRS some money. "Hey, are you sure you computed this correctly?" I asked. "Of course," my Dad insisted, "I've been doing this since long before you were born." I looked carefully at the entire federal form, and noticed an odd line about an IRA contribution. "Dad, what is this IRA thing? Have they invented a new tax?" "No, just the opposite. This allows you to save money on your taxes by reducing your income. More importantly, putting your money into a retirement account will teach you important discipline which I didn't learn until it was too late." "What is a retirement account, and what does this mean?" My Dad patiently responded, "You should go to the library downtown [the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore] and investigate a new law which was just passed last year. You can save money for your retirement, and you can defer your taxes until you withdraw it later in your life." "How much later--five years or so?" "No, when you're 59-1/2 or older." "Are you kidding?" "No, that's the rule, unless you want to pay various penalties." "How should I invest the money?" "That's for you to choose," my Dad chuckled, "you're going to have to do the hard work of making a decision." After many hours of research and contacting people and listening to financial programs on the radio, I eventually settled on the T. Rowe Price New Income Fund, a fund of top-rated U.S. corporate bonds which still exists and which at that time was yielding 17.1%. It was my first contrarian investment. My Dad's intervention enabled an important early step on my road to becoming a money manager.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (December 20, 2012): When I was in high school and college, I used to drive a "classic" 1969 Ford Falcon. I had to get a front-end alignment once every few months, and I had to add a quart of oil about twice per month. In those days, I figured that this was typical maintenance for an automobile which had been driven for more than 100 thousand miles. When I was finally able to afford a less-old Corolla, I was stunned to discover that I didn't have to add quarts, and that I actually had to change the oil periodically because it would deteriorate. I was also surprised when the local maintenance guy didn't recommend the "usual" front-end alignment. Many years later, when I was talking with an expert on automobiles from that era, I mentioned the '69 Falcon and he immediately responded: "The alignment is always going out of whack and you have to keep giving it more oil." I was surprised that he knew the exact details. He was thoroughly amused when I told him that until I was in my mid-20s, I believed that all old clunkers had the same defects. While I was jogging a few months ago, I saw a car just a few blocks from my house which looked almost exactly like the one I used to drive more than three decades ago--it was even rusted in many of the same places. I'm tempted to knock on the house nearby and talk awhile about the "good old days", but so far I haven't done so.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (December 16, 2012): When I was a freshman at college, my roommate had a sign which said "WJHU--On Air, Keep Out". I asked him what it meant, and he told me that he had stolen it from the student radio station. I didn't even know that Johns Hopkins had a real radio station, so I asked him where it was located--it was in the basement of one of the buildings I went to every day, but hadn't bothered to investigate thoroughly. I went to WJHU the next day, discreetly returned the sign, and spoke with several of the people working there including the station manager who admired my speaking voice and asked if I wanted to audition as the nighttime sports broadcaster. It wasn't very glamorous like the main daily half-hour newscast at 5:30--which I would eventually co-anchor two years later--but after some testing I was given the chance to put together my own five-minute sports summary, mostly regarding baseball and the "O's", which I delivered at midnight. Other than some humorous remarks about my Baltimore accent, they loved it and pretty soon I was broadcasting the sports news several times per week at 11 p.m. and at midnight. After my very first broadcast, I remained in the studio to see what would happen next. The disc jockey immediately played a song I had never heard before entitled "The Train", written by Suzzy Roche of the three-sister group "The Roches" from their album of the same name. To this day, I always associate the two events together: this song, which I soon learned to sing and to accompany myself with on the guitar, and my first time live on the radio. A few days ago, I was fortunate to see Suzzy performing with her sister Maggie in Manhattan. The very last song they played was "The Train". After the concert, there was an opportunity to walk onstage and speak with the performers, so I told Suzzy the story about my first radio broadcast and how it was followed by hearing her song for the first time. She wrote down my tale to talk about in a future concert.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 26, 2012): In 1984 I had a girlfriend from south Georgia who decided to move to south Brooklyn near Kings Plaza. One humid summer weekday in the early evening, we decided to drive south on Flatbush Avenue across the toll bridge to the ocean. We saw a sign advertising "Breezy Point", but the person at the gate told us it was for private residents only, so we headed the opposite way and turned at the first opportunity. It was a place called Fort Tilden--and to our great surprise there was almost no one there. We found out later that most people preferred to go to popular Riis Park or farther east along the Rockaways. One or two signs warned against swimming, but we couldn't understand why there would be any serious problem or danger. We waded into the ocean and kept going until we had to swim--the only people around us who dared to venture into the water. We were soon joined by one bold teenage couple. There were no lifeguards nearby, so probably it was a bit risky in case we got swept away by the tides, but the waves were relatively calm and unusually warm. We felt as though we had the entire Atlantic Ocean to ourselves, and we stayed until the sun began to set. For the next several weeks we often returned, and even on the weekends there weren't many people on the beach. During the winter, my friend got cold and homesick and decided to return to south Georgia, and I haven't seen her or Fort Tilden since then. During the recent news about Hurricane Sandy, there was a lot of talk about Breezy Point which suffered severe damage and a raging fire that destroyed many homes. I finally found some photos including shots of Fort Tilden which not surprisingly was also significantly damaged. Whenever they get the place fixed up, I plan to return with my bathing suit and a few friends. I have been to many ocean beaches, but this one in New York City was the most placid and deserted.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 15, 2012): When I was visiting Istanbul with my wife, her father, and my father-in-law's fiancée in 2002, I noticed an Indian restaurant which reminded me very much of those back in New Jersey. (I have never been to India, so I can't tell you what they're like in that country.) The interior furnishings were delightful, and we were seated in a private nook between two main floors. I looked at the drink menu, and saw that we had a choice of various teas, along with apple lassi, orange lassi, and banana lassi. From my New Jersey experience, I knew that "lassi" is a classic Indian drink made from yogurt, fruit, and ice, sometimes spiced with sugar, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, and/or cinnamon. When our waiter arrived, each of us chose one of the lassis. When he was about to leave to return to the kitchen, I called our waiter back briefly with this encouraging remark: "Please tell the chef that I have a suggestion for his menu which I think will make this restaurant more profitable." Within a few minutes, he returned with the head chef and the chef's chief assistant, as they were both curious to discover my idea. "Here's my recommendation," I explained, "you have apple, banana, and orange lassis on your menu, and I'm sure they're all popular. However, you'll probably sell even more drinks if you offer your patrons a fourth choice: mango lassi. Perhaps both of you are from India, and you remember that drink from when you were growing up." This produced an immediate hearty laugh from all three of them, which I didn't understand until the assistant chef responded: "We love your suggestion, and we'll make you a deal. You tell us where to buy the mangos--anywhere within a hundred kilometers or so--and we promise to add mango lassi to the menu." I was stunned, realizing that I hadn't considered the possibility that there were no mangos in or near Istanbul. Whether this remains true today is a fascinating question.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 7, 2012): My wife and I celebrated our honeymoon in Providence, Rhode Island, with side trips to Newport and Block Island by boat. Providence probably doesn't sound like the classic exotic destination, but we had recently returned from Marrakesh and were looking for a less challenging vacation. There were still some Portuguese fishermen who went out in the early morning to make their catch, and returned as I went out for my daily jog. The late eighteenth century architecture is charming, and we were treated wonderfully by the couple who were the host and hostess at our bed and breakfast. We didn't tell them that we were on our honeymoon, but they went out of their way to be welcoming and helpful. They even picked us up at the ferry when it arrived although we hadn't requested it and didn't know that they would be there. The woman baked a full plate of homemade chocolate-chip cookies just for us. Near the end of our visit, we discovered that the couple who ran the bed and breakfast were having marriage problems, and were trying their best to keep everything going. Five years later, my wife and I decided to return to Providence. We drove up to the bed and breakfast, and it had completely changed. The only way I could be absolutely sure that it was the correct address, other than my memory, was the fact that its front steps were far more worn than those of its neighbors. We knocked on the door and a woman we hadn't seen before opened it. She knew the entire history of the house, and told us that she had purchased it a few months after our honeymoon when the couple who ran the bed and breakfast split up. We practically begged her for the new address of the woman who had been especially kind to us, but the new owner had promised to honor the previous owner's privacy so we couldn't get it. We gave the new owner our contact information and told her to please give it to the previous occupants, but we haven't heard from any of them. By an interesting coincidence, we seem to run into quite a few people who at one time or another resided in Providence--far more than those who lived in my home town of Baltimore.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (October 29, 2012): This week's storm reminds me of one which happened two decades ago in December 1992. At that time, I was living in Hoboken, New Jersey and was working in Jersey City. Since the towns are next to each other, I could have walked back and forth, but I was generally lazy and took the PATH train which was cheap and direct. On that fateful Friday, when I arrived at the train station, I was told that "because of the storm" there were no trains running. I said to myself, "Wow, they're a bunch of real wimps around here. It's barely drizzling," and proceeded to walk to work. I was surprised to find a lengthy row of automobiles backed up on Observer Highway and thought after a little reflection, gee, maybe it really is raining a wee bit harder than usual. When I arrived on Marin Boulevard where I made a left turn to go to Jersey City, I was stunned to see an actual wave moving toward me, as though I were wading along the Atlantic Ocean. The water came up to my knees and soaked my socks and shoes. You would think that this would be enough to coax me back to my one-room apartment sublet, but I plodded on. In Jersey City, there were cars abandoned in the middle of intersections and water which would have gone above my waist if I had continued on my planned path--so I took an alternate route on a parallel street. When I arrived at Harborside, I had to hold tight to a pole for a half minute because the wind was whipping fiercely against me; the gusts exceeded 70 miles per hour (about 115 kph) and caused the Exchange Place revolving doors to spin around and around. When I made it inside the building where I work, I realized that almost no one was there except for a few people who lived a block or two away. The company arranged for a special van to bring each of us personally back to where we lived; the driver couldn't believe I had walked all the way from Hoboken. It would end up being several days before the water fully receded and transportation returned to normal. Unlike the current situation, the storm was barely anticipated in advance and its severity came as a huge surprise.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (October 15, 2012): When I was in college, I lived in a one-room attic apartment which included a ladder going to the roof. It was on 33rd Street between Calvert and Guilford, a few blocks' walk from Johns Hopkins and about twice that distance from Memorial Stadium. This old Baltimore arena was the predecessor to Camden Yards, and featured the characteristics of many old-fashioned ballparks in those decades: numerous seats where views were obstructed by large supporting poles; antiquated displays without slow-motion replay; inefficient methods for entering and leaving the stadium; and a complete lack of sophisticated marketing and advertising techniques. In other words, it was a wonderful place to watch a baseball game. They didn't have fancy ways of encouraging the fans; about the only artificial sound you would hear would be an approximation of an old-fashioned military trumpet playing "charge". From my roof I would listen to the game on the radio, and when I heard the "charge" on my radio, I would turn the radio down temporarily to hear it coming from the stadium itself along with the crowd yelling "Charge!" On Monday evenings, they sold upper-reserve tickets for just three dollars, so I would often go with friends to the games and cheer on the team in person. The Orioles always had excellent teams managed by Earl Weaver in those years. The very year I left Baltimore, the team rapidly deteriorated and didn't truly revive until this year when they recreated some of the old magic in their new ballpark.
In 2002, I was visiting my sister who lived on the top floor of her building. She had a staircase which went to the roof, so I walked outside. It had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. I heard the sound of distant cheering and shouting, and discovered that clearly visible in the distance was the ballpark where the Giants were hosting the World Series. Suddenly, I heard the "charge"--much more muted than I remembered it from my youth in Baltimore, but my sister lived farther away from the stadium. I was immediately reminded of the time I was twenty years old, sitting on my old roof on 33rd Street, turning down the radio so I could hear everything live. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had been listening to the high point of the Series for the Giants, who were ahead but later lost the game and the championship. Perhaps they needed me to stay on the roof a bit longer, rooting for their team.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (September 26, 2012): In today's world, it's hard to imagine that in 1977 there was only a single computer in all of the Baltimore County public schools. I was excited to be able to take a new introductory course taught by my favorite math teacher which involved learning to program in Fortran. In addition to having just one computer, there were only two keypunch machines--and both of those were located in the same huge room as the computer. So we had to mark our Hollerith punch cards using black Sharpie markers, and of course if we made one mistake while filling out a card, we would have to throw it out and redo the entire card. Several of the students in the class had seen science fiction shows like "Lost in Space" and "Star Wars" and were expecting something like talking robots, and had difficulty with the course material. Their solution was to carefully track the straight A students and to see what happened with those students' card decks once the geniuses were done with their homework assignments. One friend of mine positioned himself strategically near a trash can hidden from view of the instructor. As soon as an A student would toss out his or her set of punched cards into that trash can, my friend would discreetly rescue it and reuse the deck with a few minor changes to make it seem like his original work. His main problem was acting quickly enough, since a few other struggling classmates learned the same trick and would race him to the trash can.
The fellow who ran the computer lab had a strange personality of equal parts geek, obsessive compulsive, and enraged. His pet peeve was when a student mistakenly caused the paper in the printer to surge out wildly because of specifying one line per page--one of the easily-made mistakes of Fortran programming. He instituted a penalty in which anyone who used the printer that way had to stay for an extra hour to help him clean up the computer lab. Each day we were there, one or two students would be stuck with this undesirable janitorial task. I always chuckled whenever I saw the paper spewing rapidly out of the printer, causing the fellow in charge to scream at the top of his lungs, proclaiming that we were the most incompetent computer programmers in history.
There was a bus which took us to and from the school with the computer once every two weeks during the classroom time itself. However, we had several homework assignments which required more work near the computer itself, and since many of us didn't have drivers' licenses or automobiles, we needed carpools to go to and from the computer center. This always led to an interesting dilemma in which we had one car to take six or seven students. In the end, we all crammed in and somehow made it there and back. It's amazing to think how many millions of times more powerful the tiniest smart phone is today when compared with that old mainframe.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (September 10, 2012): I periodically travel to meet with subscribers, usually at a restaurant for a meal. Last year, I was in Paris to meet one fellow who had been receiving my daily updates for several years. However, I didn't realize that he put my updates in Google Translate or a similar software program which converted them into a choppy form of French. When we met, it was immediately obvious that he couldn't speak English--and I can't speak French. He brought along two young people, a man and a woman, who were to serve as his translators. The only problem was that these two folks were attracted to each other and were delighted to be able to spend so much time together; they spent the entire dinner flirting and translating almost nothing. After struggling for several minutes, I was able to discover from a fortunate chance remark by the female translator that my subscriber had lived for several years in Buenos Aires. Realizing a resolution to our dilemma, I began speaking in my best schoolbook Spanish which I had learned for five years in junior high and high school, but hadn't studied since then. The subscriber and I ended up both speaking our favorite second language--not competently, but usually well enough to understand most of what the other was attempting to communicate. It was an interesting challenge to discuss the financial markets, current politics, and the latest sports news in a language other than English for two hours, with some humorous misunderstandings throughout.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (August 23, 2012): During my freshman year at Johns Hopkins, I decided to audition for the college radio station. They had me put together a five-minute sports report based upon the UPI headlines which were continuously grinding on an old-fashioned machine which used a lengthy spool of cheap beige-colored paper. I practiced my delivery, and when they liked what they heard, they assigned me to begin the same day for the midnight newscast. When I was done, I asked the people still lingering around the station at that hour, "So, what did you think?" "Well," the station manager responded, "your writing was excellent and your delivery was consistent and clear. However, there's just one problem." "what's that?" I wondered out loud. "Let's just say that everyone out there who can pick up the WJHU signal can tell that you were born and raised in Baltimore," he quipped, and everyone else in the room started laughing. I hadn't even thought about it when I was growing up, but I was in a radio station in Baltimore surrounded by people who were from somewhere else and who were thoroughly amused by my accent. Until I was in high school and began to appreciate regional speech variations, I thought everyone said "eh-oh kay, hon" when accepting a request to do something.
I began the painful process of listening each day to the news broadcasts of Ann Taylor, who was then a young broadcaster with a nearly perfect method of speaking and almost no detectable regional accent. I think she just retired last year after decades in the business. It took time, but within a few months my co-workers and the station manager were very impressed with my "progress", and gradually promoted me. By my junior year I was co-anchoring the main 5:30 p.m. daily newscast, and was training other freshmen for the midnight shift. A few years after graduation, I moved to New Jersey and now when I visit Baltimore I have to catch up with the latest changes: a new restaurant or an unexpectedly renovated neighborhood. I appreciate the career opportunities that became available to me from having developed a more polished form of communication, but whenever I hear a born-and-bred Baltimorean, especially in some of the more insular neighborhoods like Highlandtown with their very sharp local accent--something like Cockney would sound to a Londoner--I sometimes regret having lost my original form of speech.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (July 15, 2012): When I was in my first year at Johns Hopkins, I was paired in the freshman dorms with a rather unique roommate who was a huge fan of the Grateful Dead. I had a top-notch eight-track player which was still a pretty big deal in the late 1970s, and he never tired of playing "American Beauty" over and over again. Because of the way an eight-track player works, when it gets to the end of an album it starts over again from the beginning, and keeps on going indefinitely. I am sure that I fell asleep dozens of times listening to "Box of Rain" or "Ripple" or "Truckin'", until one or the other of us would awake around two or three o'clock and shut it off. For this and numerous other reasons, I decided to find my own apartment off campus for my sophomore year. I finally located the ideal place: an attic on the third floor of an old Baltimore rowhouse within a seven-minute walk of the campus. There was a married couple living on the second floor, and one day I noticed a letter in their mailbox with a recognizable font and colors. They were Grateful Dead fans, so I bought them the "American Beauty" record album. They loved it, and often played it far into the night. If I thought I had escaped from listening to those songs again at 1 a.m., I was badly mistaken. At least the volume was lower since it was coming from the floor below me. I bought the same record for myself, but I couldn't bring myself to open it.
A few years later, I had graduated from college and was living nearby in downtown Baltimore. My girlfriend was looking through my albums one night and picked one out. "I've always been a big fan of theirs, but I haven't heard any of these songs since college. They almost never play them on the radio. Look, you haven't even tried this one out." For the next year or two, I would often listen well past midnight to "Box of Rain" and the others. Nowadays, if I dare to go to YouTube and select a Grateful Dead song--even an unusual version covered by "Adelle the Great" on ukulele--my wife will immediately run over and complain as she's a sort of an anti-fan of the group. Now I mostly hear the music in the back of my mind, triggering long-ago memories of studying for exams and remembering people I haven't seen for three decades.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (July 8, 2012): I visited Tokyo in October-November 1987. Although I had prepared for the trip by studying Japanese for a year and reviewing several maps of the city, it's almost impossible for a non-resident to not get lost every five or ten minutes. Unlike most Western cities, Tokyo doesn't have a grid pattern: to save space for much-needed residential buildings in a city with a huge population and earthquake codes which forbid high-rise apartments in most areas, the houses are crammed together with tiny alleys between them. The numbering system is sometimes chronological rather than navigational, and most streets have no names. Even with a modern GPS it's quite challenging. On the evening of Monday, November 3, I was visiting a jazz club in a unique Japanese neighborhood in Shinjuku and lost track of the time. I went to the subway, which I was finally beginning to understand, but I had just missed the last "chikatetsu" of the day. Nearby was the national railroad, which was still running for another half hour, so I caught the final train back toward my neighborhood. It was amazing how many people were drunk, several of whom wanted to tell me their life stories in badly broken English. I finally got out at the stop which seemed to be closest to the inn where I was staying, although I wasn't sure how to get there. While I was looking at a map, a formally-dressed businessman asked me in slightly accented but otherwise fluent English, "Can I assist you with finding your way?"
I told this fellow where I wanted to go, and he pointed out the best route. Fortunately, it went past the subway stop which was most familiar to me, and I thanked him. Before we departed, he said, "I don't meet many Americans. Let's have a beer at a nearby pub." It was a little after 1:00 a.m. and I was tired, but I decided it would be an unusual opportunity to experience some of the local culture. Surprisingly, the pub was nearly full of people, which seemed odd for a Monday night. "Is it always this crowded?" I asked him. He told me his name, and informed me that the next day was a holiday called Culture Day so many of his co-workers were "partying on". He insisted on treating me to one dark beer after another, and finally around 3:30 a.m. I limped out and walked back to the inn. I wasn't even sure if I would be able to enter, since there was an ongoing debate at the inn about whether or not to lock the front door at 2:00 a.m. because of some recent burglaries in the area which were rare for Tokyo in those days. Fortunately, the non-locking contingent had won, at least for that day. The next morning, I remembered that this fellow had invited me to meet his wife and young son for lunch, so we met in beautiful Rikugien Garden and spent several hours together getting to understand each other. It helped that he and his wife were both fluent in English, since they could see that my Japanese was terrible. I wanted to ask some personal questions, such as whether the man's wife was accustomed to her husband arriving home late, but I decided to be tactful since they were so kind and generously didn't allow me to pay for anything. At the end of the day, they bought me a locally made hand fan in the historic neighborhood of Asakusa, near Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate). I can still recall the taste of the anko (Japanese red bean paste) which the family bought from a street vendor in the same neighborhood.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 31, 2012): When I was growing up in Baltimore, our family's favorite restaurant by far was a local chain called Pappy's. Instead of offering pitchers of root beer like every other place, they called it "birch beer" and served it in "schooners". Each Pappy's had a player piano with working piano rolls from the 1920s. My sister, brother, and I loved to watch our pizzas and sandwiches being made behind the glass partition where you could see the chefs at work; we were always looking for clues to determine whether they were making the actual food which would be served at our table. I especially remember when we visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina for one week where the temperature was in the high 90s every single day. We returned to Baltimore on a cool evening with the temperature around 66. We drove to our favorite Pappy's, parked as close as possible to the entrance, and rushed in as though it were January. In those days, we thought the restaurant would continue forever, but in the 1980s the owner decided to close the popular franchise. I still sometimes quote their motto: Pappy's will make you happy. In my mind I can still see the red-and-white patterned tablecloths and their logo of a smiling chef holding up a freshly cooked pizza.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 16, 2012): In 1997, the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was published. It described a highly unusual murder case in Savannah, Georgia which encouraged many to visit that fascinating city--including my wife and myself. We flew to Charleston where we planned to spend a few days in that charming Southern town before continuing the trip by automobile. I had rented a subcompact car at an unusually low rate and was curious about whether we would be encouraged to upgrade for a higher price. Sure enough, almost as soon as we arrived at the auto rental counter, the agent told us: "You can upgrade to a premium deluxe vehicle for just twelve dollars per day." I explained that I was happy with our choice, but he insisted: "Just consider how you will feel driving the finest car in our lot, a 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme". I thanked him for offering us the opportunity, but refused it again. "Let's make it just ten dollars per day more." This was reduced to eight and then five, both of which I politely refused. Being forced to surrender, he proudly proclaimed: "At no extra charge, you fine folks are about to experience the best of what General Motors has to offer." We finally walked into the area where all of the cars were parked--to discover that every single one of the two dozen vehicles present was a 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
On our first day in Savannah we signed up for a horse carriage tour of its famous squares. Our carriage driver stopped by the Hilton to pick up a man who at first appeared to be homeless, but who began to converse with us in a fashion which proved that he couldn't be judged solely by his unkempt hairdo and carelessly casual clothing. I finally asked him: "Do you live on the west coast?" This persuaded him to admit that he was Tracey Walter--a Hollywood actor who played the philosopher mechanic in Repo Man and has appeared in dozens of other roles.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (April 15, 2012): When I was a teenager in Baltimore, my friends and I liked to hang out at local places where we would run into each other frequently, and where we could share a ride in case one of our old cars broke down or ran out of gas. Once in awhile, however, especially on the weekends, we sometimes liked to drive all the way downtown to a place which was formally called the Great American Melting Pot, but which was commonly nicknamed "Gampy's". In those days when Baltimore restaurants generally closed around 9 or 10 p.m., it was one of the rare places which was open until 1 a.m. and which served their full menu after midnight. They had some classic dishes, such as stuffed eggplant, and it seemed as though the prices never changed. Not all of their stories were happy ones: the Baltimore Sun had a front-page story about a murder there very early one morning in the late 1970s. Throughout college, I continued to go to Gampy's whenever I wanted to get away from the immediate Hopkins environment, and I soon found myself eating there several times per week when I got a job after graduation which sometimes required me to work until almost midnight. There were some months when I ate at Gampy's more often than I ate at home. After moving to New Jersey, it became my default restaurant whenever I returned to Baltimore to visit my family and friends, and it was like going back into the 1970s again. About a decade ago, either my taste buds became more discerning or the food deteriorated, or perhaps both. One day in 2006, my wife and I were staying at a bed and breakfast within walking distance of the place. We walked over to Gampy's for dinner, but it was dark and looked deserted. "It's closed forever," someone shouted from across the street. I couldn't imagine it, but I checked around the next day and alas it was true: Gampy's was no more. Since then, a few places have come and gone at 904 North Charles Street, but they haven't been able to improve upon its quirky atmosphere.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (March 4, 2012): On July 17, 1996, my wife and I flew from JFK to Quito, Ecuador to spend a couple of weeks exploring that fascinating country. The next morning at breakfast at our hotel, everyone was talking about a flight which had left JFK at almost exactly the same time bound for Paris, which unfortunately exploded due to what was later concluded to be an engine problem. I didn't know until two weeks later that my favorite music teacher, David Hogan, had been on that fatal flight. In another odd coincidence, our hotel in Quito was perched on the side of what I thought was a tall mountain. "It's not a mountain, it's a volcano called Pichincha", explained the innkeeper. "Really?" I puzzled. "Is it active?" "Actually, it is," she responded, "but it hasn't exploded since 1660, so you don't have anything to worry about." I wondered to myself whether this confidence was the same as investors had in emerging markets like Korea at that time, just before they experienced some of their worst losses in history. A little more than two years later, I opened the newspaper on my way to Manhattan and the front headline was this: "Volcano in Ecuador stuns local residents by exploding for the first time in centuries . . . ." along with a photo of municipal workers trying to clean up volcanic ash which had swept across parts of the city. One fascinating part of the trip was traveling along an old railroad line from Otavalo to Ibarra. Having no train to use on the track, a Bluebird bus from the United States was adapted to fit the purpose, and ran smoothly during the entire trip. Local dogs loved to bark at the bus-train at every step of the journey. Looking on the internet a few minutes ago, I see that this "train" service has been suspended indefinitely, so it will have to remain a fond memory.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (February 14, 2012): Since I moved to the New York City area in 1985, I have been consistently visiting two pushcart vendors each week; for years we have known each other's names and intimate details about our private lives. One fellow named Sean has been selling fruit and vegetables at the same place since the late 1980s; next to him is Tony from the Greek island of Karpathos, who has been at the same spot offering knishes and hot dogs since 1981. Last month, I was buying some persimmons, oranges, and eggplants from Sean when Tony walked over and stepped behind Sean's cart as though he were Sean's assistant. "Hey, what are you doing at my stand," joked Sean. "Don't you have any customers of your own?" "I'm helping Steve pick out the two best eggplants out of all the ones you have for sale. Being from Greece, I know more about eggplant than you ever will, and I want to be sure Steve gets only top quality instead of some of the junk you offer." "Hey, watch it", retorted Sean, "all of my stuff is the best." Through the years, people have helped me with all kinds of tasks, but I have never had someone serving as my designated eggplant shopper, painstakingly picking out the two best out of a hundred eggplants. Sean told me later that it was the first time he saw Tony do something like that in all the years he knew him, so I'm flattered that Tony took the time to help me. The dish of sautéed eggplant in olive oil I enjoyed that evening was excellent, so kudos to both the seller and the picker.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (January 30, 2012): When I was 18 years old and a freshman at college, I decided to look for a job to earn some money and gain some experience. I went to the university's career counseling center, where in those pre-internet days they handed me a thick folder with local employment listings seeking Johns Hopkins students and stating the desired qualifications. One description stood out from the rest: "Enthusiastic student wanted to run errands, meet with clients at country clubs and elsewhere, and be a chauffeur. Tennis experience ideal; a clean driver's record is essential. Periodic trips will be taken to New York City and Washington, D.C." Intrigued, I contacted the fellow, who was a wealthy businessman named Al Eisenberg. He had made several films, some of which are cataloged in the Library of Congress, and took numerous photographs of me while he was interviewing me for the job. He told me later that he wanted to see how I would handle unexpectedly being in the limelight. I soon discovered that Al was eccentric in many ways: he wanted me to film him playing tennis with his friends, and he had a Japanese girlfriend living with him named Etsuko-san who was 32 years younger than himself. Besides doing more driving in one month than I had previously done in an entire year, I was introduced to many wealthy and famous people as a teenager and overcame my natural shyness to be comfortable and confident in their presence. I also learned the critical importance of introducing myself to literally everyone, including the people working in the mailroom and the ball boys and girls on the tennis courts, since they might end up helping me in unexpected ways. Some of those personal connections later proved to be invaluable in establishing my career. Al and I would sometimes go running in Central Park, and he played tennis until he was ninety. Decades after I had stopped being his employee, he and Etsuko-san continued to invite me to dinners and social events where I was frequently introduced to their fascinating colleagues. I also learned about Al's charitable activities and sometimes participated in deciding which ones were the most worthy of receiving his donations. Al passed away in 2010 at the age of 94. In addition to a small monetary gift, Etsuko-san gave me his favorite winter coat which I wear proudly.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (January 9, 2012): In the months leading up to my thirteenth birthday, I was excited about preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. During the final days, our house was overflowing with relatives visiting from around the United States and Canada. It was a hectic time in which I wasn't getting enough sleep, while worrying about whether I was sufficiently prepared, and loving every minute from talking and being with so many people whom I rarely had a chance to see. When the actual day arrived, I was in a daze and barely knew what I was doing most of the time, although fortunately I was able to concentrate during the most critical moments. After a week had passed and the excitement had died down, and it was back to normal life again, I began the task of preparing thank-you cards for those who had given me checks and gifts. I was careful to write each letter individually based upon the kind of present I had received. Most were delighted with my notes, but several people began to discreetly ask me or my parents if I had perhaps forgotten about them. They wanted to know: why hadn't I cashed their checks? I was puzzled about this, and carefully went through all of the boxes to make sure that I hadn't overlooked something buried somewhere. I was convinced that nothing was misplaced.
In those days, I rarely dressed up for anything unless it was a special occasion. A half year after my Bar Mitzvah, I won a classical piano competition and was selected to perform at a formal recital in Leakin Hall at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. I took out my best suit--really my only formal one in those days--which I hadn't worn during the intervening months. I thought it didn't fit right, and that perhaps I was outgrowing it. I looked in the mirror and one side appeared to be oddly bulky. I turned the suit upside down, which caused about seven or eight envelopes to plummet to the floor. I had forgotten that in the excitement of my Bar Mitzvah day, I had stuffed these into my inside coat pocket. Naturally, each one contained a card and a check. After the recital was over, I had to face the embarrassing task of contacting several confused gift-givers to explain sheepishly what had occurred. To this day, whenever I put on a formal jacket, I instinctively check the inside pocket to see if there are any goodies lurking within.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (December 20, 2011): When I was at college in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I drove an old Ford which used to burn about a quart of oil each week. There was no long-term parking on campus which was both free and legal, so I repeatedly took chances with violating the various parking restrictions. I often barely dodged the school's traffic police, but about once every two months I would get a ticket. When I would receive such a violation, I had the choice of either paying the fine--which I refused to do--or to give an explanation as to why I had broken the rules. I took this as a challenge to my writing ability and my creative talents, and invented a completely different excuse on each occasion. I was encouraged by my very first effort, which succeeded, and continued to have each ticket forgiven for one reason or another. In other words, they were buying my almost laughable explanations for my errant behavior. Finally, with just one month before graduation, I received a notification in my mailbox: "Ticket challenge denied. Must appear in person at Garland Hall basement." I was stunned that, just as I was almost done with my college years and my necessity to keep dodging the law, fate had finally caught up with me. With no choice but to follow their command, I dressed in my only interview suit and showed up as requested. I asked what was wrong with my explanation as to why I had parked illegally--the real reason being that I had spent far too much time at an event with cheap jazz and free snacks and was a few hours over the limit. The young woman in charge of handling the fines responded, "Your challenge was intelligently written and we were going to forgive your ticket. But before we did so, we looked into your file." They took out a folder in which--to my amazement--they had saved every single one of the excuses I had mailed them during my four years at the university. "Look at these. We figured that anyone can be excused once or twice, but we've already let you go about twenty times and you must know that you haven't paid us even once. So we got together and discussed your case during lunch, and we concluded that just to be fair you have to pay us this time--in cash. The only reason you've gotten away with it so far is because you write so much better than the other students." Seeing that I had reached a dead end, I took out twelve bucks and left it on the table, and made a final remark. "Before I go, I hope you have all been thoroughly entertained by my explanations. You probably won't encounter another student like me for awhile. If it's okay with you, I'd like to save these past excuses for my personal files. Maybe I'll even write a story about it someday." As a postscript, when I was invited to lecture at Johns Hopkins in 2009, I went to Garland Hall and the same woman was in charge. She didn't recognize me at first, but then she said, "Don't tell me you've gotten another parking ticket. If so, you'll have to pay it immediately."
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 30, 2011): When I was six years old, I attended my first "Family Day" at Westinghouse where my father ended up working for more than 38 years. I had never seen a computer before, and had no idea what they were except as they were portrayed in my favorite television series, "Lost in Space". So when they had a modern one on display for visitors to use, I took a close look at it. The machine took up almost an entire huge room, with flashing red lights and spinning tapes and all kinds of other parts which I found to be puzzling but exciting. I kept waiting for it to talk with me in a deep robot-like voice, but it just stood its ground and functioned quietly. Since this was the "good old days", there was no speaker or monitor; the only way the computer could communicate with the outside world was via an old-fashioned printer where it would write a question on an endlessly spooling roll of rough off-white paper and wait for me to type a response. I sat down in a chair which was set up in front of the printer, and answered a series of questions about my health, my date of birth, whether I ate certain kinds of foods and exercised, and other personal data. I was curious to know what it was going to do with all of this information. After a pause, the computer informed me of the exact date of my death, including the day of the week! I turned around quickly to my father, who was watching the entire interaction, and asked him, "How does it know for sure?" Dad told me, "Even computers can't use magic. It's just making an educated guess and could be wrong." I still remember how bitterly that disillusioned me about technology. I don't think I've recovered yet.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 17, 2011): When I was sixteen, I was having great difficulty deciding which career to pursue. I didn't have that many role models, and I wanted to find something which I would really enjoy. I spoke with my parents about it, and my father found a special counseling program at the Jewish organization B'nai B'rith. When I arrived, I met with a fellow who was at least 80 years old, and who reminded me a little of my father's father. He told me: "I probably look ancient to you, but I have an amazing modern machine next door." I thought he was joking, but he led me into the adjacent room and there was actually a computer--obviously not like the kind you see today, since it took up almost the entire space. "We got this second hand since it would have cost a fortune to buy new, but it works. You won't believe this: here's a completely automated questionnaire with all multiple choice. Once you complete it, the computer will tell you your future." I was quite skeptical, but I thoughtfully spent 1-1/2 hours answering the questions. When I was done, the computer listed my top three career choices: 1) investment counselor; 2) financial newsletter writer; 3) tax accountant.
I went back to the old fellow in charge and showed him the results. "I never heard of these careers before, except for being an accountant which my dad told me was boring. What are they?" I asked him, more anxious than ever about having to pursue something I didn't know about. "Don't worry," he told me, "I don't actually listen to the computer. What you are going to be is an electrical engineer." "An engineer? How did you come up with that based upon this survey?" "Survey, shmurvey. I have a friend who's the Dean of the School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins. If you apply for Early Decision (meaning that you have to commit to going if you're accepted in the autumn of your senior year), you're in." The old fellow seemed odd, but he was true to his word: he told his friend the Dean about me, and I was accepted for Early Decision at Johns Hopkins in what became the Whiting School of Engineering. It took me one semester to realize that I wasn't cut out to be an engineer, and another 25 years to discover that, of course, the computer was right after all on each of its three choices. Perhaps our fate is completely predetermined.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (October 18, 2011): When I was in my senior year of high school, I took an introductory computer course which included a class bus trip to the only school in Baltimore County which had a computer--an IBM 1130. If we couldn't complete our homework in time, we had to arrange for carpools to go there after school. It was therefore a major adjustment when I went to Johns Hopkins in 1978 and there was a real mini-computer called a DEC-10 made by Digital Equipment Corporation. All of the students and professors shared the single computer using "dumb" terminals, most of which were located in a single large room. For the first time, I learned that there was such a thing as a word processing program, a very early predecessor to today's Microsoft Word. I learned it so well that I began teaching it to several other students. I completed my first-ever school assignment with that program, an essay for a class on philosophical aesthetics. One day, I noticed that everyone but myself had received their papers back, graded by the professor. After class, the professor called me aside and told me that he found something suspicious about my paper which he wanted me to explain before he would grade it: the right margins were all evenly aligned. He implied that I must have purchased the paper from one of those shady companies where you send money and someone professionally writes one for you. I said to him, "Follow me and I'll surprise you." I took him to the room with the computer terminals and introduced him to the word processing program, demonstrating that I could align the right margins, or change the font, or--what stunned him the most--I could take a sentence or even an entire paragraph from one page and move it to another page. Like most professors who were not in the computer science department, he was completely unaware that such technology existed. The next morning, I saw him logging in and showing the program to another humanities professor--who gave a demo to another professor in the afternoon. In my own quiet way, during my freshman year, I started a mini software revolution.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (August 8, 2011): The first time my wife and I went to Bermuda, we were surprised to find that it is not legal to rent a car because it would make the roads too crowded for the locals. You either have to travel everywhere by taxis, which can be difficult to find, or you can use the excellent local bus and ferry system. Since our bed and breakfast was a short walk from a ferry stop, we bought a weekly pass and enjoyed mostly traveling by boat. One time, however, we needed to go in a direction where there were no ferries, so we decided to walk for about 45 minutes. Knowing the situation, some local people offer rides to tourists as a courtesy. One friendly fellow named Johnny Hawker pulled off to the side of the road and offered to drive us wherever we wanted to go. We got to enjoy his company so much that we ended up meeting his whole family and treating them to dinner. On the way back from the restaurant, we made a wrong turn and suddenly found ourselves on what would normally be one of the busiest roads in Bermuda, according to our driver--but was completely deserted at rush hour. We finally figured out that there was a 10K running race going on. We had somehow managed to elude the race organizers and had snuck onto the course. We zipped past hundreds of runners who were puzzled by our presence; some of them thought we were an official pace vehicle. We opened the windows and began to shout out encouragement to several runners, such as "Keep on chugging!" and "You're doing great!" Eventually, a race organizer stopped us, no doubt to tell us we had to find a way quickly out of the designated zone. Before he had a chance to say anything, I asked him cheerfully, "How are we doing? We've passed lots of people and we think we have a great chance to win this thing." The fellow laughed and let us continue on our way until we finally reached our destination.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (July 26, 2011): When I was a teenager, I was hired to play keyboard for a local church each Sunday morning. The pastor was a warm, wonderful man named Ernest H. Cassutto. He led the congregation from his guitar in a rousing chorus on several songs, and was always incredibly enthusiastic about life in general. He loved to play jokes on the congregation, such as when he would signal to me in the middle of a certain song which we had prearranged in advance: I would take his guitar and he would sit at the keyboard and we would continue as though nothing had changed; then we would switch back again before the song was over. He was delighted that I could learn new music quickly, and often played a private joke on me by giving me the sheet music for a new song right in the middle of a service with no time to rehearse it with him. He would wink at me and say quietly, "I know you can handle it." In those days when Baltimore was mostly segregated economically, racially, and religiously, his congregation was an amazing blend of many different kinds of people. Pastor Cassutto usually invited me into his home for a delicious kosher lunch after each service. It wasn't until an entire year had passed when I discovered from the local newspaper that he was one of the last surviving Jews of Rotterdam during the Holocaust and was miraculously rescued from the Nazis just before he would have been killed. I was completely oblivious to the reality of church politics, and was stunned when one day the church board voted with the slimmest possible majority to have him removed as pastor. We stayed in touch for several more years, and he never lost his excited, all-embracing outlook toward the world until he passed away in 1985.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (July 1, 2011): In January 2011, I visited Scottsdale, Arizona. The main purpose of the trip was to meet subscribers--one fellow in particular who writes his own highly informative newsletter cleverly called "The Middle End"--and to see how the collapse of the real-estate bubble had hit that part of the country particularly hard. While I was there, some friends and I visited Taliesin West where Frank Lloyd Wright had lived during the final decades of his life. At one point our large tour group entered a room with a grand piano, where the tour guide looked at me and stated, "You look like a pianist. Can you please perform for us?" I was surprised, and then launched into my favorite Chopin Nocturne, Opus 9 Number 3. The impromptu recital went much better than expected--probably because I didn't have time to get nervous. The rest of the tour group was certain that we had arranged everything in advance. One of the features of the tour was seeing how Wright had arranged a special conference room which he used in order to get new architectural commissions. He designed this room so that if he stood in a certain place, he could overhear conversations in other parts of the room where potential clients thought they were speaking privately. He could then modify his approach accordingly. Wright built the room so that he could subtly adjust the light according to the mood he wanted to create, and also to permit his wife--who doubled as his business manager--to enter and leave as necessary without being noticed. He even arranged the room so that when the sun was setting, it would create a dramatic interplay of shadows just as he was preparing his closing sales pitch.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (June 5, 2011): In 1975, our family decided to take a vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Literally as soon as we arrived, my dad trapped our Plymouth Fury III in the sand, requiring the assistance of several neighbors to help dig us it out. Among other highlights of the trip included our automobile truly breaking down one afternoon, leaving my sister, my brother, and I to spend several hours at the Bodie Lighthouse while the car was being repaired. My sister and brother watched the same introductory video several dozen times. This didn't appeal to me, so I spent the afternoon gazing at an aquarium where a crab was trying repeatedly to devour a terribly sick fish which was swimming upside down. Finally, after my brother and sister had joined me, the crab achieved her task and we all cheered. One evening, we went to see a reenactment of the lost colony of Roanoke, which was no longer lost a few years later when it was discovered by some archaeologists and reported in National Geographic.
My parents had heard from allegedly well-informed individuals that we should visit an island to the south called Okracoke. This involved having to drive our car onto a special and somewhat costly ferry from the mainland. We did so, and when we arrived on Okracoke, there were wild horses running around. This thrilled me and my siblings, but was not what my parents had hoped for. Perhaps they expected some kind of upscale version of Disneyland, or a luxury resort, or something else. We drove for 14 miles along the entire length of the island, which had more wild horses, a lot of wildlife and huge trees, and no habitation. At the southern tip of the island were numerous tents and two restaurants: a fancy one and one which was clearly intended for the local working-class inhabitants. For whatever reason, my parents decided that we should eat at the more modest establishment, which my dad nicknamed "Okracoke's Finest Greasy Spoon". After we were seated, I was fascinated to overhear the conversation at the next rambunctious table, which sounded like English but wasn't any dialect with which I was familiar. A couple of decades later, I discovered that this island had one of the last remaining outposts of descendants who were still speaking a form of Elizabethan English. My parents were unaware of my linguistic observation, being primarily obsessed with whether our entrees were sufficiently cooked and whether the mushrooms in the soup were canned or fresh. I thought that our Okracoke visit was the most memorable part of our entire vacation, with the possible exception of visiting Kill Devil Hills where the Wright Brothers had made their historic first flight, but my mother declared on the 14-mile drive back to the ferry that "this was the biggest waste of time since aunt so-and-so took me on a trip to some long-forgotten town a few decades earlier". I immediately wished we could see that town also.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 18, 2011): Near the end of 1974, when I was in ninth grade, my father called me into his home office. He loved to sit in an old wooden chair, to spread out all of his papers in a certain way, and to show me whatever he was working on. On top of his desk were about two dozen pamphlets of various kinds. "Can you tell what these are?" he asked me. I read carefully through one of the pamphlets, which was an eight-page summary of the financial markets with perhaps thirty charts of various "aggressive growth funds". All of the funds had lost at least one third of their value in less than two years, with some of them down by more than half; these losses were highlighted in boldface. "Do you want me to guess whether these funds will go up or down in 1975?" I inquired. "No, although your opinion on that topic would also be interesting. I'm going to help your Mom cook dinner. While I'm doing that, I'd like you to read through these carefully, and when you're done, let me know what you think." I spent about an hour comparing about fifteen financial newsletters of various kinds, and then I went to see my Dad who was ready to serve dinner. "Did you reach any conclusions?" he inquired. I told him, "Yes, I have. Even after reading all of these opinions, I don't know whether gold or the S&P 500 is going to go up or down, or what those aggressive growth funds are going to do. But it's obvious that most of these people need help with their writing. Even at the age of fourteen, I could edit all of these and make them sound much more professional and convincing." My dad looked me directly in the eye and replied: "It's a career that you should seriously consider, and it's probably more financially rewarding than being a professional musician or a fiction writer." "I don't know, Dad," I responded, "how do these people advertise their existence?" He thought for a moment and finally commented, "That's a good question, but you have several years to find the answer." As it turned out, I had more than several years, since it was almost 22 years later when I began my financial blog and more than 31 years before I started my daily subscription service. Father knew best, even if it took me a few decades to realize it.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (April 24, 2011): Last week I visited the Bolton Hill neighborhood in Baltimore where I used to live. I was walking by one house with its classic marble steps, which were being cleaned in a fashion I had never seen before: using some kind of modern contraption instead of the traditional scrub brush. The husband of the woman doing the cleaning told me: "My wife is really cheating, since she knows she should be down on her knees doing it the old-fashioned way." Just then a fellow walked by to see what was going on. I told him, "I used to live in the neighborhood," and gave him my former address from the 1980s. He responded: "I live in that house now." We talked for awhile about how he had fixed the place up, and the beautiful stained glass, and the enclosed back garden, and some other unique features including a few former notable residents. He finally said to me, "Let me have your business card, and I'll arrange for you to see what it looks like these days." When I gave it to him, he gasped and showed me a pendant which he carried in his pocket. He excitedly exclaimed: "Look closely at my family's Scottish crest, which dates back to around 1300. Notice the brown fishes all swimming to the right, and one white fish swimming to the left. [My logo has several brown horses running to the right, and one white horse running to the left.] The surrouding Scottish motto can be translated as "he who goes against the consensus achieves the greatest prosperity". I couldn't believe what I was seeing, but had to admit that besides our sharing the same address in different decades, our philosophies were startlingly similar. It was also an unusual coincidence that we encountered each other at the same place and at the same time. Would you call this a Black Swan event, or was it inevitable?
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (April 4, 2011): In October and November 1987, I spent two wonderful weeks in Tokyo. One morning I took the subway to a sushi restaurant in Nihonbashi, the traditional business center of the city. It was about 11:15 a.m., and there were surprisingly few people in a carryout place which had a reputation for having among the best-prepared lunch dishes in the financial district. The owner spoke with me, partly in his poor English and partly with my poor Japanese, and we ended up chatting for more than a half hour. Suddenly, he told me in clear English: "You should leave the restaurant now." I was puzzled why he would suddenly behave so brusquely after we had such an intimate conversation about our personal lives. Disappointed, I went ahead and took his advice. Within a minute of my walking out, a huge crowd of people suddenly emerged, pushing and elbowing their way into the restaurant. Puzzled, I asked someone nearby who from his mannerisms appeared to be an American expatriate who was fully familiar with the local scene. "Everyone around here hates to take a break from work for lunch unless everyone else is also taking a break at the same time. People don't even like to take a vacation unless their co-workers are all taking vacations the same week. So exactly at twelve noon or a few minutes afterward, when the head boss in any office gets up from his desk to go to lunch, a thousand lower-ranking co-workers will follow his lead and do likewise. The restaurants all suddenly get crowded simultaneously and everyone tries to be first in line. Hopefully the owner was kind enough to warn you in advance so you didn't get trampled." I responded, "Indeed, he did exactly that, although I thought foolishly that he was being rude rather than being considerate." I ended up returning to the same sushi place several times during my stay, and was smart enough to remember to leave on my own each time in advance of the noon crush.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (March 7, 2011): In the early 1980s, I went to visit a good friend from high school who was attending the University of Chicago. We were exploring a part of the city which was far from the university, and stumbled upon an Indian grocery. I spent most of my time perusing the unusual array of spices and foods, and then my eyes noticed a collection of cassette tapes. "These are only 1.50 or two dollars," the proprietor told me, "maybe you would like to try this collection of ghazals, which are love songs." I bought a tape entitled "Main Aur Meri Tanhai" featuring Jagjit and Chitra Singh; the store owner explained that it was one of the best-selling song collections which had come out very recently and was extremely popular in India. As we were about to leave, he told us: "We are just starting a brand-new restaurant in the space next door. Perhaps you two would like to be my first customers for lunch." We looked into the adjacent room and saw a rickety old refrigerator laboring away in the corner; a few spare tables; no decor; and walls which hadn't been touched in many years. Nonetheless, we decided to give it a try. He recommended that we start with mango lassis, and took a fresh mango from the grocery into the small cooking area in order to prepare them. The entire meal took a long time since everything had to be similarly carried by hand from one room to the other, with no assistants. It was excellent and we were delighted to receive constant personal attention. We ended up coming back two more times that week, and enjoyed an entirely different combination of dishes each time. For whatever reason, we ended up not returning until January 1990. We were amazed to see the exact same space, except the grocery had become part of the newly expanded restaurant--complete with white tablecloths, a completely full dining area even during a relatively early hour for dinner, and a small line of people waiting for tables. The headwaiter asked if we wanted to put our names down for reservations, and then looked at us more closely. "Weren't you here a long time ago?" he inquired. "Yes, we were your very first customers." "Ah, the mango lassi and the tape of ghazals!" he laughed. How he had remembered those details I don't know. We received extra special service that evening, and made sure to go back there several times during my next few visits to Chicago. Meanwhile, I have memorized my favorite song on the tape, "Hum Bhi Sharabi", and perform it sometimes at special events.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (February 21, 2011): (I have had to leave out a few details in order to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.) Several years ago, I had traveled to a different part of the world. I stayed at a bed and breakfast which was run by an artistic woman. On the day I arrived, my hostess was scheduled to have a nighttime opening of her latest creations at an art gallery in town, and invited me to attend. I slept for several hours in advance of the event, and when I arrived I was lively and outgoing. This was fortunate, since a planned cocktail party continued for several hours beyond the scheduled time. After being introduced by the artist to several of her friends, a woman approached me and began to speak with me in Spanish. I was a bit puzzled by her choice, but since several languages were being spoken all around me with people switching effortlessly back and forth, I figured that I'd try my best to remember my five years of junior-high and high-school Spanish. After several minutes of initially struggling, I was able to converse more competently than I had expected. We ended up carrying on a lengthy discussion, which eventually turned to a sort of question-and-answer quiz about a particular country, which by pure chance I had been required to write about when I was in eighth or ninth grade. She seemed surprised at my complete ignorance of some facts, and my precise detail about others. We ended up chatting for about two hours altogether--after which she told me in slightly accented English, "I'm impressed. Of course I can speak your native language fluently, but I wanted to test you out. Since I'm the Princess of _________ , I'm entitled to act a bit royally now and then." She left me her business card containing a local address and quickly departed. I turned to my bed-and-breakfast hostess and told her what had happened, and asked if I had been played for a fool. "I can tell you that she really is the Princess of ________ . I met her through the friend of a friend, who told me to invite her to this event, and to promise not to let anyone know who she was or that she would be here." The next day, I stopped by the Princess' local office, but was told that she "suddenly had to leave for ________ and doesn't know when she'll be back". I never saw the Princess again.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (January 31, 2011): Several years ago, my sister and I were both visiting our parents in Baltimore at the same time. She wanted to visit a small quaint town on the Eastern Shore called Centreville. After driving and chatting while crossing the scenic Bay Bridge, we soon arrived in town and walked on the old, uneven brick sidewalks. We stopped in the local library, where they were having a book sale. I looked at a few of them, expecting the usual Stephen King paperbacks, Readers' Digest Condensed Books, and so on, and was stunned to find some real rarities. I told my sister, "Let's go across the street first to the general store." She asked me, "Don't you want to buy some of these books?" I responded, "Sure, but let's do that first." In the store, I saw that they had special bags of local pecans for six dollars, so I bought one and a few other unique items which could not have come from anyplace else. Then we went back to the book store and picked out some amazing stuff like a beautiful old photo book of London during the Blitz. When it was time to pay for the large collection I had accumulated, the librarian said to us: "Are you brother and sister?" "Yes," I remarked in surprise, "how did you know? Most people say we don't look at all alike." "You don't, but it's the way you act with each other. I see that you patronize our local businesses, so I'm going to give you everything at half price."
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (January 19, 2011): In 2003, my wife and I decided to visit Panama. From the capital city, you can take a relaxing, inexpensive, slow boat ride to the island of Taboga, where you can watch the ships leaving the Panama Canal while enjoying the birds and other tropical scenery. While we were on the boat, we met a fellow who traveled around the world selling eyeglasses, and who had some amazing stories which were more than enough to last us during the entire hour to the island, and during the hour return trip. I gave him a CD of my original music as a parting gift. A few years later, my wife and I were in Miami and I heard someone shout my name from a distance. I approached the source of the voice, and looked at this fellow while he just stood there and smiled. "Do you remember me?" he teased. I responded by asking him if he was still selling eyeglasses, when he realized that I knew who he was and where we had met before. "Have you ever had this happen to you, where you see someone again whom you never thought you'd encounter?", I asked him. He told me, "Yes, it happens all the time. I've seen one guy five times in five different cities; I think he believes I'm stalking him."
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (December 19, 2010): About a decade ago, I purchased so many shirts that I ended up with a large surplus, so I stopped buying them altogether. Earlier this month, I visited Florida, and due to a mysterious cause my suitcase literally burned sometime between check-in in Philadelphia and pick-up at Tampa's baggage claim. Since every single one of my shirts and pants had been destroyed, I knew I'd have to go shopping for new clothes. I went to a well-known store with several brands of men's clothing. The new pants fit exactly as they have always done, but I was frustrated when I discovered that all of the size large shirts were far too spacious to even remotely fit. I hadn't worn anything of size medium since I was a sophomore in high school, but needing something to wear I decided to try one of them as a last resort. Amazingly, every single brand I tried fit perfectly, so I ended up buying six new medium shirts. Not being in the clothing industry, my theory is that as Americans have become increasingly obese in recent years, manufacturers are adjusting by making more generous shirts for each size. As people who wear large gain weight, they continue to buy bigger large shirts; those who are medium keep buying bigger medium shirts. Everyone stays happy, fooling themselves into believing that they're just as slim as ever. Either that, or I've actually been shrinking rapidly, and will soon be able to audition as a munchkin in a sequel to the Wizard of Oz.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 28, 2010): When I was living in Baltimore, I didn't like driving in the snow, which often melted into slippery ice. In those days, I lived downtown and had a job in Hunt Valley, so on snowy days I would take a bus which fortunately stopped just down the street from the industrial-automation company where I worked. The bus only ran once an hour, so if I chose to take mass transit to work, the return bus ride always left at the same time and I soon became familiar with some of the regular passengers. The very first time I was on my return trip, I sat next to a grizzled old fellow with a mischievous smile in a window seat near the back who told me his name was Sonny, and who loved to tell stories about how Baltimore used to be "back when it was a real city and the working guy had a chance". I was startled when Sonny showed me a can of beer hidden deep inside his bag, and offered to share it with me. Knowing it must have been illegal to drink on a city bus, but wanting to be friendly, I gulped down a few sips of National Premium, which Sonny assured me was "still the best brew in Baltimore". Although the bus commute took about twice as much time as when I drove, since we made so many stops, I looked forward each winter to seeing Sonny and listening to his tales of the "good old days". In August 1985, I moved to New York City and that was the last I saw of him. In my mind, I imagine Sonny offering National Premium beer to some other young fellow who was fortunate enough to ride next to him on the Hunt Valley local.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (October 31, 2010): In the 1980s, I was very fond of the "Travel" section of the Sunday New York Times, which unfortunately has since badly deteriorated in quality. I would often read only that section and ignore the remainder of the newspaper. In the more sophisticated sections of Manhattan, one could find as many as a dozen discarded Sunday papers in any street-corner wastebasket. One Sunday morning in 1989, I went jogging and didn't leave myself enough time to take a shower afterward before leaving to meet a few friends. I headed out in my clothes from the previous day, with my hair unbrushed and not having been cut for several weeks. Being in a rush, I took less time than usual to arrange myself, so my belt was asymmetric, my shoelaces were lopsided, and my clothes were more badly mismatched than I had realized. It was quite hot and humid, so I began to sweat as I walked quickly in the westernmost part of Greenwich Village, with its cobblestone streets and expensive row houses. I realized that my hair had become so stringy that I had difficulty keeping it out of my eyes, while my shirt was hanging out of my trousers and looking sloppy. I decided that before I would enter the meeting place with my buddies, I would go into a restaurant restroom and spend several minutes making myself more presentable. I spotted an ideal place for that purpose, but before entering, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the Sunday New York Times "Travel" section was conveniently located on the top of a wastebasket just a few feet away. I reached over to pick it up with one hand, and put the other hand out to balance myself. I suddenly felt something metallic in my open hand. Puzzled, I looked to see that a well-dressed older woman had placed a quarter in my palm, and was walking away with her back to me. She must have perceived me to be a homeless man.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (July 12, 2010): In February 1999, my wife and I visited an ancient site in Mexico called Monte Alban. These ruins included a ball field where winning and losing could literally be a matter of life and death three thousand years ago. Most of the visitors were obvious tourists, but one couple stood out in their native dress and manners. Since my wife can speak Spanish fluently, we walked over and began to talk with them. They told us about how they appreciated the traditions of their ancestors which had sadly been lost through the centuries, which is why they wore clothing which had to be made laboriously by hand. Their lunches consisted of old-style recipes which had been passed down through generations and included no concessions to modern times. All of a sudden, I heard a cell phone ringing; the man pulled out his handset, which was much more modern than my own, and took the call. He quickly placed several buy and sell orders, since he was the head trader for an investment fund based in Mexico City. In much of the world, old and new have been learning to coexist in amazing ways.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (March 24, 2010): When I was a senior university undergraduate, I was walking one late Friday afternoon toward my apartment a few blocks away from the campus. Usually I wore very casual attire, but for the final class of the week I often dressed up since there was an event at the Rathskellar most Friday evenings which I liked to attend. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a group of people on the lawn who would not normally be there, and decided to take a detour to see what was going on. I was startled to see an array of lavish food and drink (alcoholic and otherwise) which rivaled that of the best restaurant in Baltimore. Not sure what to do, I noticed that everyone around me was wearing a name tag, and that immediately to my right was a table full of unclaimed name tags. I quickly went over, picked one up which looked reasonable, and put it on my shirt pocket. I then proceeded to mingle with the other folks; fortunately, my jacket and tie helped me to fit in comfortably, and I even met a few interesting people. I made sure not to overlook my main objective as I progressively enjoyed the fanciest meal during my entire time at college, eaten almost entirely with toothpicks as I frequently obtained refills of high-quality red wine. Fortunately, the person whose name tag I had appropriated either never showed up, or didn't notice what had happened, and not a single person displayed any doubt that I really belonged there. The next issue of the school newspaper had a front-page photo about a special reception to dedicate a new building on campus; while everyone else appeared to be toasting the camera, I was off to the side but still clearly visible, wine glass in hand, obviously intent on completing my repast.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (January 24, 2010): A few years ago, I took a business/personal trip to Toronto, a city which I have visited perhaps a dozen times because I have many relatives who live there. One Saturday morning when I had some free time, I decided to go jogging for a little over an hour. After running past a zoo and a cemetery, I found myself in a neighborhood of charming, relatively small historic houses with the sign "Welcome to Old Cabbagetown". The place looked vaguely familiar, so I figured perhaps I had briefly driven through the area at one time while on the way to someplace else. I ran down one street which looked more unusual than the others, even though it appeared to be a dead end; this led to an even more interesting block and yet another dead end. I looked up and saw the sign "Alpha Avenue". This suddenly triggered an event from two decades earlier which had become completely forgotten in my conscious memory.
In 1986, I visited Toronto with my girlfriend; we stayed at a bed and breakfast in Cabbagetown for several days. In that pre-internet era, it was more of a challenge to find landmarks in any part of the world. We had a book about Toronto which was wonderfully written, but which frustratingly had no maps whatsoever. While we were able to find most of the places in the book which sounded worthwhile, one place remained tantalizingly elusive throughout our trip: Alpha Avenue. For more than a year afterward, whenever we were unable to accomplish something, one of us would say that it was like trying to find Alpha Avenue. It became a metaphor for our relationship. After we broke up, the whole episode somehow vanished from my mind until I went for a jog 20 years later. It's odd how our memories can trick us in unexpected ways.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (October 11, 2009): When I was attending college in Baltimore three decades ago, there was the Charles Theater, which showed the latest popular art films and which is still operating today--and then there was another cut-rate theater which showed more obscure art films, and which has long since gone out of business. In those pre-multiplex days, this cut-rate joint had only a single screen with a single film, which would be shown twice each evening. My best friend at school usually accompanied me to these events. General admission was $2.00, while the cost was just $1.00 for students and senior citizens; this disparity inevitably caused some arguments about exactly who qualified in both categories. One early winter evening's scheduled feature was "Promised Land" by Andrzej Wajda, the famous Polish film director. After the lights went down, the film began with a tank rolling across the desert; some murmurs of discontent began to be heard in the audience. After about one minute, the dialog began; while the subtitles were in English, the language being spoken was clearly Hebrew rather than Polish. There were louder mumblings from those watching the film; then the title was clearly displayed: "Promised Lands" by Susan Sontag. Pandemonium broke out as nearly everyone rushed simultaneously to receive a refund; with the confusion over how much each person had originally paid, it rapidly became nearly a mob scene. Some were shouting about the theater's incompetence in not even realizing that they had the wrong movie. I have not seen either film since then, but I will never forget every moment of the opening scene and especially the incredible emotional transformation of the audience.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (August 25, 2009): A few years ago, my wife and I decided to take a vacation in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. We selected a charming bed and breakfast run by Jim Addy and his wife, which had received strongly favorable reviews on several internet web sites. As we walked through the small, hilly city on our first day, we noticed a high frequency of political signs on many lawns: "Re-Elect Jim Addy, Mayor". As the bed-and-breakfast host was graciously pouring our tea the next morning, I asked him, "Am I being served by the mayor of this fine city?" "Indeed you are!" he replied. "We intentionally don't mention that fact in our advertising." By another odd coincidence, his wife had been my brother's English teacher at Baltimore Polytechnic High School before she retired. Unfortunately, whether due to the responsibilities of being mayor or for personal reasons, this bed and breakfast is no longer in business. I see that Jim Addy has invited President Obama to attend that city's 150th anniversary of John Brown's Raid which helped to start the U.S. Civil War.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 25, 2009): In December 2008, my wife and I visited New Orleans. It was an unusual visit in many ways; on our first day there, they had their heaviest snowfall in eight years. Kids had a wonderful time building snowmen which they had previously only seen on television. We walked through a fascinating neighborhood called Bywater, which includes the street named Desire, and serendipitously found ourselves at the monthly Bywater Art Market. We purchased an unusual wooden sculpture of a cat made from a gourd--but the real highlight of the market was a fellow selling huge, rich chocolate truffles. We bought several, and then ran into him the next day at another outdoor fair in Washington Square Park where several remnants of snowmen could still be found, at which we purchased several more. He had some free time, so I spoke with him at length and discovered that the chocolate maker and I were born and raised in the same neighborhood in Baltimore. A month later, when our family was making plans for our parents' 50th wedding anniversary, I discovered that the chocolatier's grandfather was the rabbi who officiated at my parents' wedding.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 3, 2009): Earlier this month, I hosted my first True Contrarian conference. One of the features was touring New York City, which included walking on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach. We also stood on the front deck of the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island and back, passing by the Statue of Liberty. As our group of thirty disembarked in Manhattan, carrying our conference bags, one middle-aged Staten Island fellow confronted the person who happened to be in front of our group and who was leading the way forward. It was not myself who was fated to face this inquisitor--but a bright young man named Martin. "What kind of group is this?" challenged the local Staten Island fellow, who appeared to be rather red in the face and excited about something. "We're part of a financial conference," Martin responded. The fellow turned angrier, and retorted, "Oh, so you're the ones who messed everything else up for the rest of us!" Martin began to respond, but the fellow continued, "Don't you think we should do something for the little guy in manufacturing who can't get a break?" Martin, who works for an oil refinery, immediately blurted, "I'm in manufacturing myself." The fellow brightened noticeably and said in a much calmer voice, "In that case, maybe you folks are okay, as long as you keep guys like us in mind and try to get us back working again the way things used to be." I'm not sure that we true contrarians can save the world, but at least we can try to help this fellow and those like him make the most of the money they have been able to save.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (February 16, 2009): In August 2003, my wife and I were traveling through one of our favorite U.S. states--which name I will intentionally not mention here. We were in transit from one bed-and-breakfast inn to another, and decided to stop in a local pizza place for supper. The front door was closed, but we heard lots of voices near the back, so we walked around and found a massive pizza-making operation in full swing. The setup was completely informal, as though they weren't expecting any customers. We spoke with one of the workers who was taking a break, and discovered that this establishment had built up quite a nationwide reputation; they mail-ordered thousands of their brand-name pizzas all over the country each week. We watched as the dozen or so workers, all in their late teens and early 20s, formed an elaborate assembly line: throwing the dough into the air; forming the pizzas; putting sauces and other goodies on them; running to put the pizzas into their boxes for shipping; and other highly kinetic activities. Everyone was generally laughing, sometimes cursing, and otherwise appearing to enjoy a wonderful time. I was astonished that with their being constantly in motion, they did not tire out more easily.
I walked over toward the lively assembly line, and commented to someone that they seemed to get along amazingly well with each other. This statement was followed at first by complete silence, and then by hilarious laughter which seemed far out of proportion to my remark. A short while later, they huddled in the corner for what looked like a brief private conference, after which they gradually became as animated as they had been at the beginning. Our meal was delicious, and I made sure to thank them profusely before we left.
When we arrived at our inn, the proprietress asked us where we had eaten dinner. We told her, and her eyes opened wide. "You mean they're still serving over there?" she exclaimed, rather surprised. "Sure," I responded. "We had to go around back to get in. They didn't have any formal tables set up, but when they saw us, they found a couple of chairs and an old bench, and brought us a pizza with tap water on the side." "I guess you don't know the story," she sighed. "Last summer, one of the young workers was shot and killed in back of the place, a couple of hundred yards away from the building. They never figured out who did it, but they lost their license to operate as a local restaurant. They only do mail orders these days; the internet has really helped them stay in business. You must have been the first people to eat a sit-down meal there since last year. The local newspapers still mention the incident every now and then, but everyone figures it's just one of those cases which will probably always remain unsolved."
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (January 19, 2009): Shortly after I graduated from college, I met a fascinating fellow who was born and raised in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem. His name is Mike Benlian. When he was seventeen, his entire family moved to the Boston suburbs, which for him was a huge culture shock. He was also a true contrarian of sorts; I used to suggest that we play tennis at my favorite courts, but he said: why go there since the courts are too crowded? So we drove instead to Glen Burnie, a working-glass suburb, and sure enough there were tennis courts available even at the busiest times while the softball fields and basketball courts were overcrowded.
One of Mike's goals was to find the cheapest falafel place in the Baltimore area, which took on the aura of a holy grail as we would travel from place to place, often not knowing the exact address or the name of the establishment. (At least we got to learn the back streets quite well, even miles away from home.) He often made homemade pizza for both of us and dreamed about opening his own pizza place, which he planned to name "I Love You Pizza". Mike had an incredibly dry sense of humor which influenced my own way of thinking about the world. We usually got together at least a few times per month, sometimes just sitting around talking about how if we were in charge, the world would be a much better place. Whatever he did was performed with incredible energy, with even ordinary household chores always pursued with the most amazing degree of concentration. Sadly, when we both left Baltimore in 1985, we somehow didn't stay as close over the long distance. I hope Mike found his falafel heaven and that there's an "I Love You Pizza" out there somewhere.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 28, 2008): When I was a teenager, I had a newspaper route for several years. I would wake up at exactly 4 a.m. every day to bundle Baltimore's "Morning Sun"; after riding my bike on the route, I would be finished shortly after 5 a.m. After having breakfast with my father who woke up each business day at five, I would usually go back to sleep for an hour before rising again to go to school. Since it was my responsibility to collect payments in addition to making deliveries, I made sure to deliver all papers on the porch instead of just tossing them carelessly in the general area of the driveway. I prided myself in being able to hit almost any exact spot from a long distance, and often collected some generous tips from customers.
One afternoon shortly after I returned home from school, a fellow with a gruff voice called to complain that he hadn't received his newspaper on a particular morning two weeks earlier. I asked why it took him so long to notice, and he responded that he realized it immediately--but he had been very busy that month. I suggested that maybe he had simply forgotten, or that someone else had brought in the newspaper. He sounded certain, so I agreed to stop by to discuss it with him.
When I first arrived, I stuck with my story that he must simply have misplaced it. However, out of the corner of my eye, I could see something in the bushes which to my peripheral vision appeared more and more like a yellowed copy of an old newspaper. I tried to avoid staring directly at it, while my argument became increasingly feeble as I realized he was right. Finally, I apologized profusely to the fellow, reimbursed him for the missing paper--and when I was sure that he was well inside his house, quickly retrieved the sun-faded Morning Sun out of the bushes and brought it home.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 9, 2008): I was invited to be the featured speaker at a financial conference in Costa Rica near the end of 2007. Among other amazing activities, about a dozen of us rode horseback on the beach by the Pacific Ocean just south of the city of Jaco. We were trotting along in a leisurely fashion, when suddenly one woman and her horse started flying down a small side road at about 30 miles per hour (48 kph)! We were startled and afraid, since she was less than a half minute away from intersecting the main coastal highway with its cars and trucks surging at twice that speed. Fortunately, the manager of the equestrian club was able to coax his own horse to accelerate rapidly enough to overtake the runaway steed and to push the wayward animal into a ditch just a few seconds before both had reached the highway--with only minor injuries to all involved. We later discovered that this woman's stallion was a retired racehorse that had not run at such speeds for several months--but which must have gone through a middle-aged crisis and wanted to regain its lost youth.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (September 21, 2008): There is a card game called Pit that I learned as a teenager, which is great when you have five people and your original planned outdoors event is rained out. It's easy to learn--you have five different "suits" each of nine cards, and the cards are shuffled, giving nine to each player. (Nine of the Jacks, Queens, and Kings count as a separate "suit".) You repeatedly trade your cards with other players, by shouting out the number of cards that you have of a particular suit (you don't mention the suit) which you then trade with someone else who shouts out the same number. So if you shout "three", then you wait for someone else to also shout "three", and you then give that person three of one suit (such as hearts) for three of whatever suit that person wants to give up. (It's cheating if your three cards traded consist of two or more suits.) Any number from one to eight of one suit can be traded at a time. As soon as you have accumulated all nine cards of any given suit, you put your cards face up on the table and declare victory. If two players get nine of the same suit simultaneously, the first one to place his or her cards on the table wins.
I made the unforgivable error of playing this five-handed game with one attorney among the five players. Everything went fine for about a half hour. Then, we experienced a hand which seemed to go on interminably. After about ten minutes, I looked over at the attorney; he was just calmly smiling, and not trading with anyone. After several more minutes of being puzzled, I finally realized what had occurred: he had accumulated at least one card of each of the five suits. While he couldn't possibly win that round, he knew that no one else would prevail, either! I'll let you figure out the moral of this true tale for yourself.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (September 7, 2008): When I lived in Baltimore, I wanted to visit my best friend from high school who was going to school at the University of Chicago. There were no direct flights from Baltimore, so I booked a trip from Washington National [now called Ronald Reagan]. Although I thought I had left plenty of time to drive there, I became hopelessly confused as many of the main streets were blocked off for some political function or another, and I hadn't studied the route well enough in advance. While mired in a particularly bewildering stretch with a lot of traffic circles, I noticed that a D.C. taxicab was driving immediately to my left. I motioned to the driver--who may have thought I was crazy, but who had the presence of mind to pull over to the side of the road where I joined him. "I'd like you to take me to the airport," I pleaded, "but first you have to take me to a parking lot where I can drop off my car." Fortunately, he knew of a reasonably-priced place nearby, and I made it to the airport just in time. The toughest part was remembering how to get back to that parking lot in the dark when I returned home from Chicago on a night flight.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (August 10, 2008): Two decades ago, I worked for a company which sent me on a business trip to a suburb of Albany, New York one weekend per month. One autumn Sunday, I decided to explore downtown and walked around the area near the state office buildings. I was carrying a small bag of food, and stopped for a break on a park bench before continuing with my tour. I was startled to observe that a squirrel, spotting my food, scampered within an inch or two of my fingers--as though he expected me to feed him. I withdrew a cracker from my bag and, sure enough, he gently took it from me. I was quite surprised by this, until I realized that I was seated in an enclosed, tree-shaded area of about a dozen closely-spaced benches where the local office workers probably took their daily lunch breaks. Over a period of weeks or months, they must have domesticated this squirrel to the point where he no longer feared humans and expected them to give him treats. I went back the next month and he was there waiting to receive my goodies. After that, though, even though I returned to the same bench several more times, I never saw him again.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (July 27, 2008): When I was in my senior year in high school, I took a class entitled "Introduction to Computer Programming". The course was so new that the teacher had to take a special intensive summer class to understand the material. At that time, there was only one computer in the entire county where I lived, so our class had to get there via a bus ride once every second Monday. There weren't enough keypunch machines for us to punch our old-fashioned Hollerith cards, so we had to buy black Sharpee markers to construct our program "decks". If we needed extra time to finish our work, we had to arrange for private carpools on Wednesday afternoons for those of us who were fortunate enough to have both drivers' licenses and automobiles. Every now and then, a hapless student would instruct the printer to spew out reams of paper at a time, which always caused the computer operator to become incredibly enraged and to treat our entire class to a stern lecture. Fortunately, our teacher maintained a wonderful sense of humor throughout the year, which contributed greatly to our interest in the topic.
After having so much fun in high school, I decided to take a somewhat more advanced class during my first semester at college. Unfortunately, the professor was far less inspired and interested in his students than my high-school teacher had been, so the class (for me, at least) soon deteriorated into boredom and confusion. When it was time for the final exam, we were supposed to find a computer terminal and figure out how to write a computer program to accomplish a particular task. I was rather slow in getting to the computer room: by the time I arrived, all of the terminals were taken except for some ancient machines that loudly clanged with each keystroke and printed out cheap, faded yellow paper. So I was stuck having to work for eight consecutive hours with paper constantly pouring out and forming a huge yellow mass that soon covered my entire working area.
By the time I was finished, I had no idea how to arrange my work into a coherent summary. So I just played around with the massive paper roll for about a half hour, and finally figured out how to roll it into a scroll somewhat resembling a Torah (and nearly as thick). I found a huge rubber band that held it in one piece, and handed it in. Being completely indifferent at that point, I figured the professor may as well fail me if he wanted to. Amazingly, I got a better grade than most other students--since I was "humble enough to do my work using a permanent medium--and to show, step by step, all the mistakes I had made before I finally figured out a correct solution."
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (July 14, 2008): It has been very trendy lately, with a slowing global economy, to tell stories about being frugal--so I figured why not give my own penny-pinching reminiscence.
When I was a kid, my mother's father took me to some wonderful baseball games at the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, the predecessor to Camden Yards. I got hooked on the American League sport, and soon learned to root against the New York Yankees. After college, I moved to New York City and began to regularly purchase discounted mini season-ticket Yankees' packages that would go on sale around Thanksgiving for the following year. I always select the best bargain seats that are still available, but since there are so many season-ticket holders whose families go back decades, this still means sitting pretty far away from home plate.
Lately I've been going to "the Stadium" with a die-hard lifetime Yankee fan named Keith, who knew the names of all the retired Yankees' numbers even before he could read or write. We naturally prefer to watch from a closer vantage point than our official seats, which means moving down surreptitiously during the game. Our favorite move is to go to the loge section--even better, the MVP loge section, if possible, close to where the broadcasters view the game. Wearing a tie and general business attire helps greatly; the ushers usually challenge others to show their tickets, while moving aside for us and apologizing while doing so.
Several weeks ago, we attended the debut pitching performance of phenom Joba Chamberlain. With very few unoccupied spots available, I was reluctant to try to improve our location, but Keith insisted. As we were heading toward the lower and closer area of the ballpark, I grabbed a barely touched bag of peanuts that some fans had left in their haste before departing the game quite early. When we identified one of the very few pairs of seats in the loge section that were unoccupied and sat down, I immediately offered those peanuts to the guy sitting next to me. This had the desired effect of convincing the nearby usher that it really was our assigned area. By the end of the game, our somewhat inebriated neighbor who had eaten almost the entire bag of peanuts started calling me his best friend. It was truly a grand time at the old Stadium.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (July 1, 2008): My wife and I went hiking several years ago on a steep trail in a town called Gold Bar, Washington. We had just completed most of the ascent, when we realized that it was about to turn nearly vertical. We took a break to admire the marvelous view, and wondered whether we should continue to the top of the mountain. Just then, a fellow who must have been in his 80s rapidly approached behind us, and without hesitation, continued rapidly toward the summit. We were astonished, and wondered who he might be. When he passed us again on the way down, we asked him if he had hiked this mountain before. "Only about a dozen times a day, nowadays," he responded as he continued to quickly descend. "As you can see, I'm not as young as I used to be, and I carry this walking cane with me most of the time. But the view is as magnificent as ever, and I'm not going to allow myself to deteriorate without a fight."
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (June 26, 2008): When I was in high school, I had a friend named Ken whose father Sal loved to tell stories around the dinner table. Unlike myself and most of my friends who ate our biggest meal of the day around six or seven in the evening, my friend and his family dined at 3:30 sharp--which also made it convenient to watch "All in the Family" on TV. After school ended at 2:30 p.m., Ken and I would often walk over to his house, so I was invited to quite a few dinners through the years (my mother always wondered why I wasn't as hungry as I should be). Sal's favorite story was about the time when he was helping his oldest son load several heavy packages onto the train at Penn Station in downtown Baltimore. He was about to leave, but the doors had firmly shut and could not be opened even with several other people trying to assist. By the time he found a conductor, the train had left the station--on its way to the next stop more than 60 miles away in Wilmington, Delaware. In those days before cell phones, all Sal could do was to make an expensive long-distance call when he finally arrived in Delaware and tell his wife that he'd be quite late for dinner that day, as he was in Wilmington and would have to wait for the next train back. As the years went on, this tale accumulated numerous additional humorous embellishments which may not have been entirely true.
Sal pretended to forget that he had recounted one or another version of this story dozens of times earlier, so he would frequently retell it and improve upon his earlier attempts. One fine Saturday morning, my father drove his brother, who lived in New York, to the Baltimore train station and still had not returned after nearly two hours. Finally, the telephone rang and my mother answered it. "You'll never guess where your father is!" she screamed. "Wilmington, Delaware, no doubt," I calmly replied.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (June 15, 2008): For many years, I took a commuter train at 9:30 p.m. which stopped in my town exactly seventeen minutes later. I took this train so often that I got to know practically everyone else who rode it along with me, including especially the gregarious conductor who had been in charge of that route since about the time I was born, and was close to retirement. We used to talk about everything from the weather to the financial markets to what we were planning for our weekends. Several years ago, there was a political maneuver by a wealthy nearby town which caused this locomotive service that had operated since just after the Civil War to be permanently terminated in September 2004 in my town and in two other towns. On the last scheduled day of its operation, I had to take an earlier commuter train for an important meeting--but I headed out after dinner to the train station to say a final goodbye to my favorite conductor whom I knew would be passing through my town for the very last time. When he arrived, even though it was after dark, he somehow knew to look for me and saw me standing on the platform. I expected him to wave and maybe say a few words; instead, he completely stopped the train and talked with me for several minutes, lamenting the concept of "progress" before finally starting up the train again and completing his ultimate ride on that line.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (June 1, 2008): Each year, the city of Montclair, New Jersey has a special festival in their largest open meadow entitled "May in Montclair". One of the most popular features is an exhibition of real Scottish border collies by world-renowned trainers of those dogs. The handler wows the audience by showing how sheep and geese will move together in the exact direction that he requests, by using his dogs to herd them. Several years ago, he began the demonstration as he usually does, by letting three sheep out of their holding pens. He didn't expect that his sheep would dash off toward the end of the meadow and beyond, traveling well over 20 miles per hour. You should have seen the looks on the faces of a pair of joggers on a nearby running path when these three sheep suddenly bounded in front of them, practically knocking them over, followed shortly thereafter by one very eager border collie.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 11, 2008): In July of 2000, my wife and I stayed at a bed and breakfast place in Bermuda that was owned by a wonderful man named Westmore Bean, who rented out the basement of his house to us. Mr. Bean taught me the rules of cricket, cooked some local specialties, and reminisced about life on the island going back to the 1920s. In preparation for the trip, I had printed out roughly 200 pages from the internet which dealt with all aspects of the history of Bermuda: why people wear Bermuda shorts, what to see in each of the individual islands, and so on.
On the night before our flight home, our place was covered with randomly scattered internet printouts, as I had been too lazy to put them into any kind of meaningful format. I wasn't eager to bring the huge amount of paper back on the return flight, so I tried to throw it out--but I could not fit it into the trash can, since it was in such disorganized form. I therefore sat down to put it into a single pile that could be easily discarded. While I was doing that, I began to organize the papers into categories: by island, west to east; by historical significance, earliest to latest. Before I knew it, the whole pile was perfectly arranged--and so I couldn't bear to throw it out! So I simply left it for Mr. Bean to take care of after we left. As a gift after we got back to the U.S., I mailed him a videocassette of "That Touch of Mink", starring Cary Grant and Doris Day, which Mr. Bean had watched being filmed just one block away from his house.
In April 2004, we returned to Bermuda. His bed and breakfast was no longer in operation, so we stayed elsewhere. We decided to pay Mr. Bean a surprise visit. It turned out that he converted the basement into a long-term rental. We sat for more than an hour, talking about everything that had happened since we were last there. Unfortunately, his wife had recently passed away. As we were about to depart, Mr. Bean thanked me for the video, and said, "Before you go, let me show you something which you'll find interesting." He returned with a book, bound by hand, which contained all of the 200 pages that I had left in a pile. A friend of his who was cleaning the place after our departure had noticed it, and decided to surprise him by having it specially bound at a local print shop. Mr. Bean showed off the book proudly to everyone who came to visit.
In his early 90s, Mr. Bean died less than a half year ago. He will be missed.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 4, 2008): When I was in high school, I had a friend named Kelly who enjoyed playing Led Zeppelin songs on electric guitar. Being a pianist myself, we worked out duets and performed in the neighborhood. When not playing music, Kelly was the biggest sweet talker (a.k.a. b.s.-er) that you could imagine. One day, I bet him lunch that if I dialed a number at random, he couldn't keep the person on the telephone for a full minute. He immediately accepted my challenge. I literally just picked out numbers without even looking at them, and a woman answered the phone. Kelly not only was able to keep the conversation going for more than three minutes, but in another three minutes had arranged a date with this woman. After high school, I didn't see him again for about a decade, when I ran into him in a well-known local music store where he was looking for some special guitar picks. Not surprisingly, he had become the lead salesman for some kind of shady outfit. I'm sure he's still out there selling timeshares or arranging subprime mortgages, and working on the arrangements for a few Zeppelin tunes.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (April 27, 2008): When I was a student at Johns Hopkins, my academic adviser was Dr. Jan Minkowski. He was the kind of person who cared about not just the obvious academic achievements of his students, but also their lives as a whole. When I was having difficulty deciding which classes to take in my sophomore year, he suggested, "Take differential equations--that's something you'll use over and over again." I responded naively, "I'm sure that once I finish my final, I'll never see another differential equation in my life." I was wrong; for more than a decade, I have been working with differential equations every day in computing options prices. He knew exactly which professors made their classes interesting, and who made their students learn how to think. Dr. Minkowski also made sure that I was introduced to ideas and people who later made a major difference in my life. On graduation day, he somehow located me amidst the massive crowd of students to give me some final words of encouragement. Sadly, Dr. Minkowski died before I had a chance to go back and thank him.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (March 31, 2008): When I was in college, I joined the chess club which used to meet each Saturday night starting around 9 p.m. and often going well past midnight. The only room large enough for us to meet at that time was in the same building and also the same floor as the university's Rathskeller, which used to blare loud disco music most Saturday nights. Eventually, we got used to playing chess with "Staying Alive" in the background and the reflections created by bright strobe lights.
On one Saturday evening, the disco DJ stayed home and I was invited to perform at the Rathskeller on a grand piano for a special "Western Night". This was great fun, as people crowded around the piano to sing some old cowboy songs from the 1800s. Around midnight, so many people were leaning on one side of the piano that its weakest leg gave way and it suddenly collapsed onto the floor, dragging down a few dozen beers and creating an amazing mess--not to mention a loud dissonant crash. Luckily, there were no real injuries. I brushed myself off and walked over to the chess club to see if anyone was still around.
There were still several intense chess matches in progress, so I sat down and watched. Not one person noticed that I was dressed as a cowboy with a ten-gallon hat. A few minutes later, a few of the women who had been gathered around the piano noticed me sitting in the club and walked over. One of them gave me a passionate kiss--which finally induced a few of the chess players to look up from their games.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (February 18, 2008): When my sister Beth was in ninth grade, she began an independent science project that took several months to design and investigate. She created a special colorful display on a wooden board; she accumulated a huge amount of data; and one day after exhausting herself with some meticulous painting, she asked me what I thought. I looked carefully at everything, and finally told her truthfully, "You've done a wonderful job collecting information, and your artistic ability is amazing. What you need is some way of connecting it all together." "Can you be more specific?", my sister insisted. "I'm not even sure what I'm looking for," I admitted. "Let me study it this weekend." That Saturday afternoon after piano and composition classes at the Peabody Preparatory, I went to my favorite hideout, the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, and spent a few hours skimming through several science books. I was beginning to get discouraged, when finally I discovered something called the "chi-square test". I borrowed the book, studied it, and explained it to my sister. She immediately realized its importance, and redesigned her entire project as though she had years of experience with significance levels and frequency distributions. In a major regional competition, my sister won numerous awards from the state statistical society and other organizations.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (February 12, 2008): I visited Tokyo for just over two weeks in October and November 1987. When I was there, I stayed at a traditional Japanese inn which had one distinctly nontraditional feature: all of the other guests besides myself were working full time on tourist visas. One fellow was a lively Australian chap from Brisbane, who sang and played traditional American and Australian folk songs on his guitar near subway stops. That might sound like an unpromising way to survive in the world's most populous city, but he actually earned more money than any of the other people who were staying at the inn. From time to time, passersby would leave him tips as large as ten thousand yen (at that time, about $70 U.S.). Having stayed for more than two years at this inn, he coaxed the proprietress into giving him a special monthly rate and in eventually occupying the most desirable room available. We discovered that we could both speak some Spanish, so we would converse in that language when we did not want the other residents to understand what we were saying. That was especially true when he told me about his unfortunate and rather lengthy experience in a Mexican jail after he was caught with a small amount of marijuana on a music tour. Some of this guy's adventures, if they were true, would make Crocodile Dundee seem like a hopeless wimp in comparison, although they can not all be reprinted on a family-friendly web site. This chap made friends with the inn's other residents by always having on hand a generous supply of high-quality whiskey.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (January 21, 2008): In May 1984, I decided to drive from Baltimore to Chicago to visit a good friend from high school who had moved there. His older sister was also living in the Windy City at that time. I usually flew, but for whatever odd reason, for the first and only time, I decided to drive. After supper, I began to head west into the sunset of the Blue Ridge Mountains at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday evening and arrived at 4 p.m. the following day, having driven for 16 hours and taken two separate 3-hour naps on my car seat in the parking lots of two chain motels. I didn't bother to stop for food along the way. (That's what I call traveling in style!) When I finally arrived in Chicago, I contacted my friend and invited him out to dinner. We had quite a full meal, after which his sister unexpectedly called and invited both of us to have dinner with her an hour later. Naturally, we accepted, and all of us went to a popular Thai restaurant where I eagerly downed a second and even larger feast. My friend, not surprisingly, was barely able to eat anything. "What's wrong with you?" his sister worried. "Don't you have a good appetite these days?" "Maybe he's not accustomed to the spicy Thai seasoning," I suggested with a sly smile.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (January 8, 2008): When I was in second grade, we moved from one part of Baltimore to another. At the new school, each class was learning a different song for the school musical to be performed in December, "The Wizard of Oz". The assigned song for our class was "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead", and since we had moved several weeks after the fall semester had started, I worked diligently each evening and even on the weekend to memorize the words so I could catch up with everyone else. Finally, I came in one day confident that I would be able to sing along with the other students in the class--and that day I was abruptly transferred to a different class. "No!" I screamed, "not a whole new song!" (The story has a happy ending, as I was able to eventually also memorize "Follow the Yellow Brick Road".)
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (December 12, 2007): When I was in high school, the father of one of my best friends became my buddy. His name was Jack Martin, and we shared a love of music. Especially during my college years and for a few years thereafter, we went to see some truly great jazz and folk performers together: Count Basie; Pete Seeger with Arlo Guthrie; Oscar Peterson; Ahmad Jamal; Anita O'Day with Harry "Sweets" Edison; the Modern Jazz Quartet. I especially remember a concert in a small, crowded club in downtown Baltimore featuring the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli; during a break between sets, the violinist's forty-something backup band took a much-needed break, while Mr. Grappelli himself, at that time in his mid-70s, played jazz piano throughout the intermission.
My favorite time with Jack was a fine early summer day in 1984. We drove early in the morning to a waterfall in western Maryland where we sat and talked about life for several hours. In the afternoon, we went to visit a friend of his who had four musical children. They each performed a classical piece in turn on their various instruments, starting with the youngest, as I accompanied them on the piano. The oldest one, about sixteen years of age, played Bach's Violin Concerto #2; this well-known work has a piano reduction that would have been impossible for me to sightread competently if I had not practically memorized it several years earlier to win a statewide competition with a violinist friend in high school. All of us shared a delicious and leisurely dinner together before we returned home. Either before or since, I cannot recall a more memorable day.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 26, 2007): When we were growing up together in Baltimore, my sister had a close friend for many years named Janet. Unfortunately for my sister, Janet's father was given a promotion which involved moving to Buffalo, New York, which is several hundred miles away. About two years after they moved away, our family drove to Toronto to visit our cousins. As we pulled into a motel in a small town called Painted Post, New York, the immediately adjacent parking place was simultaneously taken by Janet and her family, who--unknown to us--were driving to Virginia Beach for a vacation. That remains to this day as the most remarkable coincidence that I have personally experienced. It was a somewhat embarrassing event for Janet's father who was scolding Janet as we got out of the car, not realizing that we were right next to them quietly watching--except for my sister who was jumping excitedly up and down.
The same evening, our two families enjoyed a wonderful dinner together. Afterward, having forgotten that we had driven so far during the day, I turned on my favorite radio which I had packed and which was tuned as usual to listen to the Baltimore Orioles' baseball game. In another surprise, the game came in almost as clearly as if we had been in Baltimore--I guess the same AM radio frequency was not used for a very long distance north of my home town.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 11, 2007): When I was studying at Peabody Institute in Baltimore, there was a fellow who used to hang out with me named David Buechner. Even in those days, he was a sensitive and intelligent performer who often discovered nuances of interpretation that I had overlooked, and therefore I often asked his advice before important piano recitals. One day more than three decades ago, I forgot my library card, but I wanted to borrow Debussy's beautiful "Estampes", with my favorite "Gardens in the Rain". I asked David if I could borrow his library card, and he said okay. When I offered to return it to him later, however, he insisted that I keep it. I thought he might change his mind, so I kept it at all times on the top of my dresser.
The library card expired in May of 1976, but I couldn't bring myself to discard it. I have relocated more than a dozen times since then, and yet David's library card has always remained on my dresser. Various people through the years have asked me why I have someone else's library card so prominently displayed. I do not even have my own library card or almost anything else from those days, so it is rather difficult to explain. A couple of years ago, I saw David mentioned on the front page of the New York Times magazine. Unlike myself, he is still performing full time, although life has changed for him in rather unexpected ways. If he wants his library card back, I'd be delighted to return it to him.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (October 22, 2007): For many years, I have been attending an event each January in which sophomores and juniors from my alma mater visit Manhattan for a few days. I serve as one of their mentors, telling them about how to pursue job opportunities in finance, and the best way to make the most useful personal networking connections. During the first few years of mentoring, I was barely older than the students whom I was assisting, so when they asked me when I graduated, I would always joke that it was "before you were born". This response would inevitably generate great laughter. Now, it is no longer humorous--at least to me--because it is true. If I continue with this mentoring program long enough, I'll eventually be able to say honestly that I graduated before their parents were born.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (October 8, 2007): Just over a year ago, I was in Alaska during the beautiful autumn season that lasts for only a couple of glorious weeks in September. While driving on the highway to Seward, I noticed a photographer standing patiently by the side of the road, so I parked and walked over to him. "Look at that," he pointed to a craggy stone hill nearby, "that's a family of Dahl sheep. I've never seen them at such close range." I asked him, "Do you live around here?" "No," he replied as he began to rapidly take one photo after another, "I freelance for National Geographic. They're going to love this." As he took dozens of photos, I slowly took out the digital camera that I had not had time to familiarize myself with before the trip. I had the owner's manual with me, but it took several minutes to figure out how to use the camera properly, during which time my amused pro had taken probably two hundred shots. Finally, when I had everything set, the sheep had gradually moved well up the mountain, so even with the strongest zoom lens my photos looked like indistinct white dots on an autumn landscape. At least the colors turned out brilliantly.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (September 23, 2007): In February 1984, I was scanning the advertisement section of a local Baltimore newspaper when I noticed that some historic sheet music was for sale. I called the number listed in the ad, and made an appointment to visit a house in an old section of town, owned by a woman named Hoffman. When I arrived, this woman told me that she had music from songs which had made the "Hit Parade" back in the forties and fifties. I saw a grand piano in the room, and asked if I could try sightreading some of the music to see if I liked it. As I did so, her brother George showed up, and told me the piano was for sale along with the music--so I ended up buying both. After arranging to pick up the piano a week later, George asked me: "Do you have a little more time? Let's try some of these." He played and sang for about ten minutes, then got up for a moment. I immediately sat down on the bench and cheerfully offered, "That's wonderful, now let me try a few." We went back and forth for four or five hours, until finally George told me, "I'm tired. Let's do that some more when you pick up the piano next week."
Just before I left, I noticed a bass in the corner of the room. I inquired politely, "Does anyone play that?" He responded with a chuckle, "Oh, sure, I have fun sometimes when no one is really listening." When I returned a week later with the moving people, the sister was very agitated. She told me, "George just passed away this morning after riding his bicycle. He collapsed right after he got back and died instantly. I hope you like the piano. Meanwhile, my brother's burial will be tomorrow," and she gave me the address. I hardly knew what to say. When I showed up at the funeral home, I was startled to see a full jazz band performing tunes just as they famously do in New Orleans when a well-known musician dies. I asked someone, "Is this the funeral for George Hoffman"? "Yes, of course," this person responded, "didn't you know that at one time he was the best-known jazz bassist on the East Coast?" I was stunned, and responded honestly, "No, I didn't realize that. I've only heard him singing and doing Hit Parade tunes on the piano." The other person glared at me as though I must be crazy.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (September 9, 2007): I have a brother named Dan who is 6-1/2 years younger than I am, and is much more intelligent than myself. When Dan was a kid, he always wanted to learn new games. In the spring of 1970, I broke my arm, so I stayed inside for most of my summer vacation that year. My brother was usually around, and kept pestering me to teach him something more interesting. I finally surrendered and told him, "I'm going to show you a simple game called chess which I'm sure that you will enjoy." I figured that Dan would soon give up due to the difficulty, but amazingly he quickly grasped even the most obscure rules. Over the course of the summer, he improved so much that I told my dad that Dan knew how to play chess. My dad laughed, until they played against each other and my brother easily won. When American Bobby Fischer contested the world championship versus Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972, and the whole country wanted to learn the game, Dan taught his five-year-old friends how to play. After joining the chess club at his high school, which consistently won state championships, my brother at the age of fourteen was able to beat me routinely without much of a challenge. At the age of sixteen, Dan won a citywide tournament, brought home a huge trophy, and--just as world champions Bobby Fischer and Paul Morphy had done before him--announced at the peak of his accomplishments that he was permanently retiring from the game.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (August 5, 2007): Way back in 1966, our family stayed one week at a mountain camping retreat in the Poconos called "Barrow Lodge". Each morning, all of the residents got together to sing the official camp song, which began like this: "We welcome you to Barrow, we're mighty glad you're here . . . ." After all of us sang the song in unison, the parents split up from the kids, not to get together again until after supper. We had a wonderful time, so a few years ago I was telling a co-worker about the place. He insisted that it never existed, so I told him, "I'll bet I can even find the camp song on the internet". I was wrong--it was nowhere to be found. The only reference to "Barrow Lodge" was a small radio station. So, in frustration, I sent an e-mail to the owner of the radio station, telling him that there used to be a real place called Barrow Lodge, and sending him the lyrics to the camp song. I didn't expect any response, but I quickly got back a corrected version of the lyrics, along with a question as to how I knew about the camp. The radio station owner was the son of the couple who had started the place in the 1940s. Unfortunately, the camp lasted only one year after our stay; the Federal government forced his parents to sell using eminent domain, with the intention of building a dam--which was never built. The land remains abandoned to this day. The radio station owner had saved some promotional postcards about the original Barrow Lodge, and graciously sent me one--which stands proudly on my piano. An identical postcard four decades earlier had encouraged my parents to take us there in the first place. There are currently two different Barrow Lodge postcards for sale on Ebay (is anything not available on some online auction site these days?), but I have no intention of selling mine.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (July 23, 2007): For one year I had the most peculiar white-collar job that you can imagine. I worked for a company that had an interlocking series of computer programs. The problem with these programs was that they did not synchronize with each other, since some of them ran too quickly, while others were slow. There was no easy way to speed up the slow ones, but there was a simple way to slow down the fast ones. Every computer language has a command which tells the computer to "do nothing" or "take a break for a certain exact period of time". The programs I was working on had an instruction called NOP, which means "perform no operation for 2 clock cycles". My main job for the year was to add as many NOPs as was needed to ensure that hundreds of programs ran synchronously. One of the few breaks I got from this rather tedious task was whenever one of the shared computer machines began to act crazy. The first time this occurred, I happened to be very close to where my boss was sitting. I told him confidently, "I can fix this!", even though I had no idea what to do. I asked everyone to please leave the room, so that I could work without distractions. I then turned off the computer, and turned it back on. Amazingly, this solved the problem. People asked me what I did, but I didn't want to give away my secret. After that, every time one of the main shared computers went haywire or crashed, I would be asked to fix it. More than 80% of the time, simply restarting it did the trick, but I still insisted that everyone leave the room first, to create the illusion that I was doing something really unique. To this day, I think my co-workers didn't learn my secret. Please don't tell them.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (July 8, 2007): My sister got married in Venice six years ago, so several of us spent about a week there during the time of the wedding. I wore my favorite straw hat, which sometimes makes people think that I am impersonating Vincent van Gogh. My sister dressed each day in her unique style, while a friend of my sister had braided her hair with various dyed shades of blue, white, and pink, rather like an exploded peppermint stick. As we visited the fascinating neighborhoods in that old city--Cannaregio is my favorite section--we tried to capture parts of Venice through film. Every time we tried to get a good angle for some shots, especially when we were in a popular part of town, we found ourselves being approached by quite a few tourists who wanted to take photographs of us. Many others pointed, gawked, or otherwise commented on our presence. It was simultaneously flattering and annoying--a little taste of what it must be like for a famous person to travel around the world.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (June 27, 2007): In August 1974, our family took a vacation to a remote part of West Virginia--so remote that I repeatedly paid for very small items in local stores with dollar bills, since I was getting real silver dimes and other very old coins in change. Somehow, word got out that President Nixon was going to resign, so people from miles around gathered at the single color television in the nearest town's main lodge to watch the historic event. As Nixon made his speech, some people laughed derisively, as others wept; many just stared passively, while a few simply got up and walked out of the room. My sister and brother had the right idea: while the rest of us were listening carefully to the President, they played the pinball machines in the back room.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (June 17, 2007): I was hiking one day with some friends in a forest located on top of a ridge. We had a wonderful time, but it became dark sooner than we had anticipated, and it was clear that we had not allowed sufficient time to return to the starting place of our hike before it got dark and the trails would become very difficult to follow. There was a town below us which had well-lit streets, so we decided to quickly descend before we had difficulty finding our way. Fortunately, we found a relatively easy path that was not too steep and did not have any poisonous plants or sharp thorns. Just when we thought everything was going to be fine, we discovered a very large dog, weighing at least 150 pounds, that was too eager for us to reach the bottom. We tried to distract him by throwing some sticks in the opposite direction, but that had no effect. Soon the dog started barking loudly, which attracted the attention of the owner of the property. Fortunately, the owner did not begin shooting! He was rather startled to see the seven of us suddenly appear on his land at dusk, but he was gracious enough to grab his dog and permit us to cross through his house into one of the streets of the town. We apologized for causing him trouble, and he said it was the first time that such an event had happened in the fifty years that he had been living there. We later discovered that he was a rather famous person who had moved to the U.S. from Europe shortly after World War II. The next time we hiked in the same forest, we made sure to check the time of sunset before we began.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 28, 2007): This is probably the only reminiscence I have written about someone else's reminiscence. In my update from September 20, 2005, I talked about how from 1969 through 1977 I would spend a couple of hours each Saturday at Baltimore's historic Enoch Pratt Free Library (see link immediately below). They had an unusual collection of books, including probably the sole remaining copies of some works. One of their books was a very plain paperback which had been written by a working-class man from the Bronx, called "Bronx Cheer". The author's name was Julius Jacobs. The pages of the book were obviously unprofessionally typeset, as though someone simply put them through an old-fashioned typewriter and perhaps checked briefly for errors if time permitted. The book was written by an old man who clearly wanted to leave some legacy of what it was like growing up in that borough of New York City during the early part of the twentieth century.
The writer has a quirky, original viewpoint on life--such as pointing out that the profession of physician has so many precisely named subspecialties, whereas his own career as a dishwasher allows no distinction between those who are adept at cleaning glasses from those who are best at washing silverware. His conclusion is that the greater the money involved, the finer the distinctions--which is absolutely true if one sees what has happened with the sudden explosion of classifications of modern art these days. One of the more amusing recollections is when the author climbs onto a roof to get a closer look at an unusual architectural detail, only to get unwanted attention from a passing policeman who thinks he has more nefarious intentions. The author is a feminist years ahead of his time, proposing the word "xe" which would serve as a neutral pronoun instead of saying "he or she".
By the time I had finished reading "Bronx Cheer" thirty years ago, I decided that one way or another, I wanted to write my own reminiscences for others--even if mine would probably be hopelessly unable to meet his impressive standard. I also felt sad that I couldn't purchase the book, because I sensed that I would never be able to locate it again. However, that was before the internet and Amazon; I see that "Bronx Cheer" is currently available in theory from a few places, although in practice it is rather difficult to locate. One of these days, I'll have to get a copy and reread it, to see if I can gain some additional insights.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (April 11, 2007): When I turned 13 years old, like most Jewish adolescents of that age, I had a Bar Mitzvah. There were months of preparation in chanting the Torah and Haftarah, and in preparing for relatives and friends to visit--some of them from quite far away. By the time the day arrived, I felt I was ready, but I had not expected the crush of people who surrounded me almost nonstop during the Bar Mitzvah weekend. One of the features of the occasion is receiving gifts--which seemed to happen in frenzied clumps. I tried as best I could to make sure that I did not misplace any of these presents, and meticulously wrote down the name of the giver along with each gift in a special book. About one week after the celebration was over, and life had returned to normal, I wrote thank-you notes to each of the gift givers. At least I thought I had; as the months slowly passed thereafter, about a dozen people began to make subtle remarks--mostly to my parents--about not having received thank-you notes. They also made puzzling comments such as "are you people loaded--how come you haven't cashed my check yet?" My parents and I concluded that some of the gifts must have been overlooked somehow, but even after turning the house upside down, we didn't find any additional ones.
In those days, I was studying music at the Peabody Preparatory Institute. About once or twice a year, I would be invited to give a piano recital or to enter a competition. I was in one such competition about a half year after my Bar Mitzvah, waiting backstage with my piano teacher who was helping me with final preparations. She told me, "I'm not worried about how you're going to perform--I only get a little nervous about how you look. Why does your jacket look tilted?" I had no idea what she was talking about, and told her so. "See that; it's not balanced properly. Let me help you fix it." She opened up my jacket--and out of its pocket dropped a dozen envelopes. The other students in the competition looked at me strangely as I began to laugh uproariously, since nervousness is usually the only emotion just before going on stage. I think this strange incident helped me to perform more calmly that day. As you can guess, those envelopes were Bar Mitzvah gifts that I had placed there during the rush of receiving presents six months earlier, and had totally forgotten about. Since I only wore my "fancy" jacket a few times each year for special occasions, the recital was the first time that I had worn it since my Bar Mitzvah.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (February 21, 2007): I have only played golf twice in my entire life. The second time, which happened a couple of months ago, will be described in a future reminiscence; now, I will concentrate on the first time, which was way back in June 1978. I had just graduated from high school a week earlier, and my girlfriend invited me to spend several days with her and her brother in their cabin on an island in Virginia, immediately adjacent to Chincoteague (of "Misty" fame). When we arrived the first evening, her brother asked if I would like to play golf with him at 4:30 a.m. the next morning. That sounded ridiculously early to me, but I didn't want to seem like a sissy, so I immediately responded, "Certainly." When it was time to head to the course, I observed that he was wearing high boots more suitable for duck hunting than for golfing, and a very ragged pair of old blue jeans. I also noticed that we had plenty of clubs, but only a handful of balls, so I politely inquired if we were going to pick up some extra balls along the way. "Yes, we are," he laughed, "you'll be quite a busy bee. I may not play golf very well, but I always run a surplus." I had no idea what he meant, but went with him willingly. I thought I would show how generous I was by bringing enough money to cover both of us, but the clubhouse looked abandoned. "Don't we have to pay something to golf here?" I asked, puzzled. "I see a list of prices." "Oh, just forget about that, no one charges on Wednesdays. The course is completely trimmed and cleaned from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each Wednesday, so no one is around to collect the fees. Those of us locals who appreciate the true meaning of frugality always play early Wednesday morning. There's nothing like high, tall grass to separate the men from the boys!" I didn't want to appear to be a spendthrift, so I kept my mouth shut as we went to the first tee and started to play. As we walked down the first fairway, he pointed out a water trap just to our left. "I don't think we have to worry about that one--we've already gotten past these hazards," I pointed out. "I never skip a water trap!" he boasted. "Let's go." He then proceeded to walk right into the pond, all the way to its deepest point. Now I understood why he was wearing those boots and jeans. Naturally, I had only my regular shoes and designer pants, which were about to become quite soaked. "Put your arms in all the way as though you really mean it," he exclaimed, and soon we had found five thoroughly dirty balls that had gone into the muck. "Wonderful! Right over there is a sand trap, so let's get ready to dig." I cannot even remember how well I played, since the entire morning was a blur of bending over in smelly, muddy, algae-ridden pools of something like water, and plowing through sand mingled with bird droppings. We ended up staying more than four hours and playing all 18 holes. We also ended up bringing back well over a hundred golf balls, which left my golfing buddy absolutely delighted. Ironically, to this day, the only thing I remember vividly about the entire vacation was the golfing experience.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (February 6, 2007): About a decade ago, I booked an airport rental car at a surprisingly low rate from a well-known nationwide chain. When I arrived after my flight to pick up the automobile, the manager asked with a smile, "Would you like to upgrade from your compact car to an Oldsmobile Cutlass S to make your ride more pleasant? It will only be an extra ten dollars a day." I thought about it for a moment, then politely declined. Barely a few seconds later, the manager tried again. "Surely, sir, you would prefer a more comfortable and luxurious method of transportation. You can have the Cutlass S for just five dollars more per day." "No, thank you," I insisted, "I'll just stick with my compact car, but I appreciate your offer." "How about a mere two dollars a day extra--you can't beat that for a deal!" "Thanks, but no thanks." I asked the attendant for the keys, and he walked me over to my vehicle--which was an almost new Oldsmobile Cutlass S. The only cars remaining on the entire lot were all of that model.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (January 16, 2007): When I was in Tokyo in October and November of 1987, I walked east of the Sumida River late one afternoon into a working-class neighborhood where few tourists bother to go. I found a small park where there is a bronze statue of a bull. It is considered good luck to rub the part of the bull which corresponds to that part of your body which is feeling pain. The brightness or dullness of each area showed where most people had chosen to touch the bull. After examining this, I decided to slowly wander around the park, not having any particular purpose in mind. I saw a park bench and decided to take a break. Soon afterward, an old man who was similarly wandering around the park sat next to me. Neither of us said anything for a few minutes. Finally, I decided to attempt my very poor Japanese and remarked, "Good day, is your health well?" To my great surprise, the man responded in fluent, unaccented English, and proceeded to tell me his story. His parents had been killed by the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, so he was raised in an orphanage by Americans for several years during the occupation. He had always been interested in visiting the U.S., but had been poor his entire life, and so never had the money to afford such a journey. The man told me I was the first American he had ever met in that park. I hardly knew how to respond, so I told him that I just wanted to learn more about the world. He responded with a nod. We each sat in silence for a few more minutes, and then slowly went our separate ways.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (December 21, 2006): When I was a student at Johns Hopkins, I had an excellent economics professor named Dr. Carl F. Christ. By the way, his last name rhymes with "grist", not with that guy whose birthday is being celebrated next Monday. Each winter, the sophomores and juniors from my alma mater who are getting a minor in business visit New York City for one week, to learn about potential employment opportunities. I have been attending these gatherings for several years. Last year, I received an unexpected surprise when Dr. Christ showed up along with the students, and was deservedly given a special honor. I was even more surprised--and, frankly, a bit disappointed--when I discovered that Dr. Christ already knew all of the economists' jokes that I had learned from the internet. My favorite of these jokes is about a student who visits his favorite economics professor 25 years after graduation, and arrives on the day of the final exam. The student says to the professor, "I can't believe you're still asking exactly the same questions, word for word! I'll bet I could still get an A if I took this test today." "I'm sorry, but you'd fail," responds the professor. "The questions are exactly the same, but the correct answers are completely different."
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 19, 2006): There's an old saying that a man may be a king to some, and a pauper to another. When I was thirteen, I was involved with a youth orchestra that was conducted by a dynamic, fiery leader whom everyone in the group loved and followed without question. He demanded very high standards and his young followers consistently exceeded them. His teenage orchestra met across the street from the Peabody Institute of Music each Saturday afternoon and won many state and even national awards over the decades. Unfortunately, this same fellow had a thankless, but higher-paying, "day job" at a public junior high school as the conductor of each grade level's own band. All of the classical music that he loved had to be "dumbed down" repeatedly so that it could be followed by the students--many of whom were, shall we say, less than talented. He was derided by many, including some loudly complaining parents, as out of step and "into" the wrong kind of music. He frequently became frustrated with some who never practiced and others who repeatedly hit glaringly misplayed notes. The lowlight of his career was one day when he became particularly irritated at one indifferent kid who was beyond incompetent. While in a raging tirade, his toupee flew off flying into the front row of band members, exposing his bald head to a raucous cacophony of dissonant jeers.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (September 10, 2006): A lot of times I'm asked how I originally got interested in metals. Many years ago, at the age of 8, I took a special summer class in geology along with other kids my age. One of my fellow students was named Alan Kahn, who had a Jewish father and a Chinese mother. We soon became great friends. Each week, after the classroom session was over, we would go with about one dozen others--mostly boys--on an old school bus and drive to a site where we would all grab interesting rocks from a cliff or from some other huge deposit. Most of these were in western Maryland, a traditional mining area. Alan was obsessed with building the best possible maze for his gerbils, so he used to bring home huge slabs of pig iron, granite, quartz, and every other type of rock, to make an incredibly complex maze in his basement that would have made the Flintstones proud. After a few months, he must have had the smartest gerbils in the Baltimore metropolitan area. One day I taught Alan and his brother how to play bridge; about a month later, he and his brother handily beat myself and another friend who had been playing for a couple of years. We were baffled until Alan showed us how he had developed an elaborate cheating system by kicking feet with his brother under the table. Unfortunately, Alan moved to Pennsylvania in 1970, and I never found anyone else who was that creative in his leisure pursuits.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (August 4, 2006): At the age of fifteen, when I was studying music one chilly Saturday winter morning at the Peabody Preparatory of Music in Baltimore, a sharply dressed nine-year-old boy approached me and asked if I could please turn pages for him. Assisting other students was a common courtesy, so I told him that I would happily do so, and could he please lead me to his classroom. The boy's father appeared, and told me that the request was not for a lesson, but for a recital later that afternoon. The father then invited me to have lunch at an elegant restaurant in the neighborhood with himself, his wife, and the kid. I happily accepted, surprised that I would receive such royal treatment just for turning a few pages at some obscure "Prep" recital that perhaps a dozen people would attend. After our meal, we proceeded to the back of the main Conservatory concert hall, which made me wonder why we were taking such a circuitous route to the building where I had always given my own student piano recitals. Suddenly I found that we were ascending the backstage area at one of Baltimore's premier concert halls, with several dozen professional musicians around me tuning up their instruments. I was puzzled, so I blurted out, "What's going on?" The boy's father replied, "My son, who recently won the U.S. under-ten piano competition, is about to perform Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. It is the final rehearsal and the media should be in attendance. Please follow him onto the stage and sit to his left, where we have placed an extra seat for you." The boy's parents left the stage. A moment later, the curtain rose, and as I walked to my seat, I heard a sudden loud applause. I turned toward the source of the noise, and gasped as I faced the largest audience I had ever seen anywhere, complete with TV cameras zooming in and out. The boy remained quite relaxed throughout, but I don't think I have ever been as nervous as I was during that performance. Fortunately, my page turning was sufficiently competent that it did not interfere with his playing. The father was gracious enough to give me free tickets to the final concert the following week, which the young prodigy performed without sheet music, and which received very favorable nationwide publicity.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (July 11, 2006): When I lived in Baltimore, I used to go to several shops and restaurants for as much as two decades, and got to know the proprietors at some of them quite well. When I finally left in 1985, I didn't have a chance to say goodbye to all of them. Earlier this year, I was visiting one of my favorite delis from the old days, known as Edmart, on Reisterstown Road. They sell something called "hamish mustard" which is out of this world. I thought I recognized the person behind the counter, but I couldn't be sure. He stared at me for a minute, then exclaimed with genuine concern, "You haven't been in here in awhile. Is everything okay?"
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: TORONTO, PART 1 (April 12, 2006): I have family all over the world, but the greatest concentration of my relatives live in Toronto. In 1976, we had our biggest-ever family reunion in that city, and I met some of my cousins for the first time. I still keep in touch with most of them. While we were there, we went to the Ontario Science Center, which I still rank as the best of its kind. In the center (or, should I say, "centre") of the complex, visible from any of the other rooms, was a huge contraption going all the way from the floor to the ceiling. It was patterned after the inside of a computer chip, in which wires conducting electricity go through a series of Boolean "gates". Each gate has two inputs, each of which can be either on or off; each gate has one output, which is either on or off depending upon the values of the two inputs. The gates were arranged in a complex cascading pattern going from the ceiling to the floor. Anyone who wanted to be the next victim of this contraption voluntarily ascended a staircase to a central area in which this person could set the values of all of the inputs to the uppermost gates, those closest to the ceiling. The remaining gates would be triggered deterministically depending upon the results of the outputs of the other gates. An enormous bell on the side of the room was apparently set to ring if someone correctly set all of the inputs in the exact sequence necessary to trigger a positive output from the bottommost gate. Over the course of the few hours that we were in the science center, the bell did not ring even once. An amazing parade of folks gave it their best shot, but inevitably failed. I didn't see anyone under the age of twenty attempt to figure it out. Suddenly, my nine-year-old brother ascended the steps, which caused a ripple of laughter and a lot of fingerpointing. On his first try, the bell loudly rang. They didn't realize they were looking at a future science professor.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (March 12, 2006): My project leader at work, who sits immediately adjacent to my desk, is from south India. His wife is from the same area of the world, and she prepares a traditional lunch for him each morning which he takes to work in several plastic containers. Every so often, my colleague prefers to eat out at a restaurant with a few of his colleagues, rather than eating his wife's home-cooked selections, but he dares not tell his wife that he has not finished her food. Therefore, he inevitably offers me the lunch. That's great for me, since it is excellently prepared and delicious, and is also sure to be vegetarian, since his wife does not eat meat of any kind. The first time that I was offered these delicacies, I made sure to meticulously wash each of the plastic containers afterward. Apparently, my co-worker was not doing the same, so his wife was puzzled why suddenly they were spotless. He didn't want to tell her that he wasn't eating the food, so he came up with some excuse that is known only between the two of them. Since then, she must wonder why once or twice a week the containers are so clean, whereas they are not on the other days. As far as I am aware, neither of the two is a reader of my web site. Thus, the secret is safe and they should maintain family harmony, which is important since they have two young sons.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (February 26, 2006): Many years ago, I was visiting the small town of Dahlonega, a quaint old historic gold mining town not far from Atlanta. Years before gold was discovered in northern California, there was a gold rush in North Carolina and Georgia, substantial enough so that U.S. mints were established in Charlotte and Dahlonega to make coins from the gold mined in each region. In Dahlonega, there is a fascinating gold museum, and even some gold mining still going on by mom-and-pop operations in the area. The Appalachian trail is also nearby. While walking around less than a block from the town square in late December, I was puzzled to see more than a dozen people bending over, apparently picking up the recently fallen autumn leaves, and putting them into bags which had been apparently brought along especially for the occasion. I thought to myself, "What a strange activity--don't they hire someone to do this kind of work?" I went over to one of the leaf pickers, and asked him, "Is this a kind of volunteer community service that you're doing by picking up the leaves?" He laughed heartily and responded, "These aren't leaves, they're pecans which fall from those big trees up above every year at this time. They're six dollars a pound at the corner store. We don't mind if outsiders join us." So, I went to my car to retrieve a canvas bag, and was appropriately occupied for the next hour. They were delicious.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (January 22, 2006): My brother is a well-published professor and researcher, and had been living within driving distance of my home since 1988. This past year he received a wonderful job opportunity in a distant city, even including full paid college education for his children, so he decided to make a move. I knew that this meant seeing him a lot less often, and was concerned that we would begin to lose touch. One evening, a few months ago, I was just beginning to walk home from the train station when my cell phone rang. It was my brother, who had just gotten into his car to drive home from his laboratory, and on a whim, decided to see if he could reach me. By an amazing feat of serendipity, although we are not even in the same time zone, our commuting hours from work to home exactly coincide. We now sometimes talk a few times per week. For fun, I'll have my brother listen in as I stop at a bakery and chat with the people behind the counter, or I'll hear my brother stop at a gas station and fill up the tank (sometimes he asks me to guess the price per gallon). It's not quite the same as when we shared a bunk bed all those years ago, but we're enjoying the unexpected chance to communicate so frequently.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (December 26, 2005): In October and November 1987, I was fortunate to be able to spend some time visiting Tokyo. I could write several dozen reminiscences of that trip, with the smell of persimmons in the air, elevated trains running determinedly here and there, and the most unusual people that I met in the city's small parks. There was a series of over one hundred woodblock prints that were done of Tokyo by an artist named Hiroshige a decade before it became the modern capital in 1868; almost all of them show the famous Mount Fuji in the background, usually partially covered with snow. In real life, a resident of Tokyo almost never sees Fuji-san: besides being 60 miles away, with modern industrial pollution in Tokyo and frequent fog by the mountain itself, it is primarily a vision of the imagination. After I had spent about two weeks in the capital, there was one especially clear November afternoon that was said to be among the crispest in months, so I took the opportunity to ride an elevator in the downtown Kasumigaseki building all the way to the observatory level at the top. There were several dozen people milling around, almost all with cameras: most of them were locals with the same idea that I had. All of us looked in the direction of the famous mountain, but not even the faintest outline could be seen. Gradually, the hour became late, and as the sky became dimmer, most of the previously hopeful onlookers began to descend. Finally, the last brilliant light shone a deep orange, and suddenly Mount Fuji appeared, in all of its glory, perfectly backlit by the sunset. A few people gasped, and the entire room crowded together to take photos for one glorious half minute; then the sun's rays dimmed for the last time, and Fuji-san faded once more into invisibility.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (December 4, 2005): For the past nine years, I have lived across the street from a man named Roy. I don't even know his last name, but he was the first person other than the landlord to say hello, and had the most interesting stories about growing up in Scotland and how he studied piano from a young age. I invited him over to hear me perform some of my songs, and soon we became good friends. After listening to his brogue for several months, I decided to try to imitate it--when he wasn't around, of course. I eventually wrote a Scottish whaling song in Roy's honor and had the privilege of performing it for him before anyone else could hear it, including intentionally attempting to mimic his thick accent. He was totally silent for a full minute, then chuckled that "it sounds like the kind of tune we used to listen to around the fireplace when I was a kid". Roy then added, "Were you trying to sound like me, or did I just imagine that?" I continued to practice imitating his voice, but never got it precisely right. Roy loved to tell stories about "the good old days". He was always outside, chatting with neighbors, playing soccer with kids that happened to be walking past, or working on his house--if he would finish remodeling it, he immediately ripped it apart again, so that he could do it better the next time, and the next. Roy passed away this past Wednesday.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 22, 2005): I studied music for ten years at the Peabody Preparatory Institute in downtown Baltimore. The main building in those days looked very much the same as when it was first constructed, with almost everything decades old, including the ornate contraptions needed to get drinking water, the long, narrow benches on each floor, the elevators which had to be operated by a live person, and even the light switches, which were of the small black pushbutton variety not seen in most other buildings in the U.S. since the 1920s. One room even had a telephone dating back that far; although it no longer functioned, it still had its phone number imprinted (only six digits!). One day, I was sitting on the bench in front of the main elevator on the basement level, with my music books spread out along with my lunch, as I tried to eat while studying Mozart's 20th piano concerto. I always loved the basement floor the most, as I could hear distant sounds of many different instruments coming from all directions, mingled with the muted shouts of the ballet teacher barking directions to her students at the far end of the hall. A friend of mine boarded the elevator, telling me he was going to the fourth floor, the topmost one in the building. Feeling somewhat mischevious, and knowing that it would take a few minutes for the elevator man to stop at each of the floors along the way to let people out and in, I gathered together my books, my drink, and my food, put them quickly in my bag, raced up the marble steps to the fourth floor, unpacked everything, and arranged it as similarly as possible on an identical-looking bench in front of the same elevator. When my friend walked into the hallway, he stared at me for a few moments, then turned back into the elevator, wondering why he had ended up where he started. The elevator man had to explain to him that he really had changed floors. Finally, after another half minute, he broke out laughing, and kept on laughing for an unusually long time.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (November 1, 2005): In junior high school, I had a very unusual teacher of social studies for eighth and ninth grade. He was a charismatic man, but somewhat vain, and always eager to have the last word. On occasion, he would ask one of the students to make a paper crown. He would take his chair, place it on top of one of the tables, put the crown on his head, and declare himself king of the class. He gave each student a nickname, and called each of us by that name, rather than by our true name. I was "eighty-eights" because I played the piano, which has 88 keys. When the class would get too rowdy, he would inevitably shout, "All right, babies, sit down!" He had a previous career as a magician, and when we least expected it, he'd pull something out of a student's ear, or something equally whimsical. To his credit, he always made the class lively and informative, and was well prepared for each lesson. The other teachers considered him something of a freak, and did not always include him in their social gatherings. Once, we were studying the California gold rush, and he asked me to sing a few songs that were in the textbook. I'll never forget the first line of one of the tunes: "The happy days have passed, the mines have failed at last . . . ." For a teachers' talent show, he was the hit of the evening, performing incredible magic illusions. His greatest ability was to make even the most boring topic seem exciting.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (October 25, 2005): Three decades ago, my family took a car trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My father decided that we should visit the starkly beautiful Bodie Lighthouse, which would have been an excellent idea, except that there was a sharp nail located in one of the parking spots in the lot, which our automobile naturally drove directly over, making the right rear tire immediately very flat. Given the somewhat remote location, we were stuck at the lighthouse for five hours. Bodie Lighthouse is located on a tiny island, and the opportunities for exploring it by foot are limited, especially as most of the small "land" area is below sea level, quite marshy, and not really walkable, even if you have thick waterproof boots, which we did not. There was a ten-minute film on the second floor introducing visitors to the history of the lighthouse. There was also an aquarium on the first floor that featured two healthy goldfish, one very sick goldfish, and one small, young crab. Well, there you have it. My brother and sister each watched the film, and watched it again . . . about 25 times altogether. After seeing it once, I concluded it wasn't going to win any Academy awards, so I went downstairs to see if the crab could catch the sick goldfish. After more than four hours, and about a hundred attempts, the crab finally succeeded. That was my cue to finally go to the bathroom. Oddly, when I look back on the trip, the Bodie Lighthouse is always the first thing that comes to mind, even 30 years later.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (October 16, 2005): When I was at Johns Hopkins, I joined the chess club, which met every Saturday night at 8 p.m., and was run by a real chess aficionado named Steven Immitt. There was no rule about who could join, but only guys did. The only space large enough to hold the dozen or so chess games that were typically played simultaneously was a room in the basement of the Student Union building. The same basement was host to the university's Rathskeller, a place where students would party hearty every night of the week, but especially boisterously on Saturday evenings. This was in the days when the drinking age was 18, beer was cheap, and disco dancing a la "Saturday Night Fever" was king, so it was common to have well-dressed, but very drunk students saunter, or more accurately stumble, from the Rathskeller into the chess club, and challenge one of us to a game. We had a grandmaster in our group, who loved to challenge these overdressed inebriated strangers, and who refused to play anyone unless there was a stake of at least a quarter. The rest of us usually witnessed at least a few speed-chess contests between this genius and some sorry drunk frat boy, the latter who soon proceeded to lose a few bucks, and then would usually turn either somewhat violent or occasionally break down in tears. The campus security had to be called in at least once per month when the situation would get out of hand, especially if the player had a few pals with him. A general melee sometimes ensued, with chess pieces, clocks, and/or a few bodies flying, and a lot more excitement than you usually associate with that usually sober, intellectual board game. On rare occasions, a female student wanting a break from the Rathskeller noise would wander into the club, leading sometimes to even more interesting situations to be described (perhaps) in another reminiscence.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (September 20, 2005): For ten years I studied piano and music composition at Peabody Preparatory in downtown Baltimore. I soon discovered a marvelous quiet sanctuary only a few blocks from the music school, which was the main branch of the Baltimore Public "Enoch Pratt" Library. Upon entering the massive old building, the main hall had incredibly high ceilings, with dozens of the old-fashioned card catalogs arrayed in a few dozen rows in the center. Paintings of Baltimore's entire founding Calvert family, including distant cousins, hung along the walls, as though one had entered the home of a wealthy and very eccentric surviving member of that family. If one continued in a straight line, one entered an even more unusual inner room, with a loft level of ancient books that appeared to rise into the sky, and which was apparently entirely inaccessible by normal human means, unless one had developed the ability to fly, since it was more than fifteen feet up, with no obvious staircase or ladder. The room contained a massive globe that the public was permitted to use and explore closely, as well as the library's primary collection of up-to-date reference volumes. On other floors were complex labyrinths of all kinds of books, including some very old ones, as well as the most modern, and an entire room of the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe. Walking into the building was like entering a temple; exiting, like returning to reality after a strange dream. Once, when I was nine years old and departed by the main entrance, I was immediately approached by a street bum who begged me for a quarter. That was an even more startling return to the real world than I had bargained for.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (August 15, 2005): When I was in junior high and high school, I had a friend whose father was a jazz musician named Jack. Jack had later left the music business to become a salesman, but continued to closely follow the jazz music scene. As my own music knowledge, which began with classical piano, gradually evolved into a broader appreciation of all kinds of music, Jack served as a teacher of jazz, going with me to see whom he considered the best performers of the 1980s, whether or not they were famous. We went together to nightclubs, to outdoor pavilions, to concerts in local universities where some of the greatest unheralded players sometimes had an audience of only 40 or 50, and even to shopping malls. In some cases, it was years later before I realized how special and unusual was this musical journey. On one occasion, we drove early on a Sunday morning for 1-1/2 hours to visit a friend of Jack who lived in a tiny town in western Maryland. His friend was also a former musician, and he had five kids still living at home, all of whom played different instruments. I ended up accompanying each of them in turn on the piano as they played everything from a Mozart violin concerto to a modern jazz clarinet improvisation. Although they had never seen me before, or even heard of me, they all treated me like part of the family and fed both of us a marvelous supper, after which more music followed. It was an unexpected day that I will never forget.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (July 4, 2005): When I first moved to New York City, I interviewed with many companies before finally deciding where I wanted to work. One of these interviews was at a bank on a very cold early December morning in 1985. I had been preparing to purchase a new overcoat since the previous winter, but had continued to procrastinate about making the purchase, so I was stuck that day having to wear an old navy blue sailor's pea coat with threads literally hanging off the sides, and with a few noticeable holes in various places. When I arrived at the interview, I naturally did not want the person meeting me to see the coat under any circumstances, and got a lucky break: the interview was on a high floor of the building, so when I arrived at the lobby, there was a closet with coat rack right there, near the elevator. I asked the doorman if I could use the coat rack, and he said to go right ahead. By the time I arrived at the interview, I looked professionally appropriate. After meeting with several people, and having what I thought had been a very successful afternoon, the last person interviewing me, a vice president, decided for whatever reason to accompany me all the way down to the lobby, as he was leaving for the day. When we arrived at the ground level, the doorman immediately understood what was happening, and did not attempt to retrieve my hopeless garbage from the closet. However, as we went to go outside, the vice president realized that I was going into the 20-degree evening without an overcoat. He inquired, "Aren't you going to be a bit uncomfortable outside?" I didn't know what to respond, so I said in a cheerful voice, "Well, it's just a short walk to the subway, and the wind has died down quite a bit." He called my bluff, and I had to stop from shivering as we went together to the #2 train downtown, and headed to Brooklyn, continuing the interview informally. He finally departed at the Atlantic Avenue stop to catch a commuter train, about a 15-minute ride from the bank. I waved goodbye, discreetly returned to a train going the other way, and returned to the interview building. Unfortunately, another person who had interviewed me was leaving just as I was about to take my coat out of the closet, so I had to whirl around, say a few pleasantries, and again go outside in the cold for a minute to wish him a proper farewell. I returned once again, and finally was able to get my coat in quiet and peace. Before returning home, I went out one final time in the chilly evening to purchase a proper winter coat. After all that, I didn't get a job offer from the company, for reasons unknown.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (June 19, 2005): When I was near the end of my junior year in high school, we were offered the unusual opportunity to take a class in computer programming the following year (1977-1978). The reason was that the county where I lived, Baltimore County, Maryland, obtained its very first computer for use by students. (They previously had other computers for government use only.) Because one computer had to be shared by all high schools in the county, a strict timesharing arragement was necessary; every second Monday at 10:30 a.m., we would arrive by school bus at Loch Raven Senior High School, and enjoy the use of the computer for exactly 1-1/2 hours. If this was not enough time to complete our assignments, we were permitted to optionally share private carpools to attend the school between 3:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday afternoons. Since there were not enough keypunch machines for the Hollerith cards that we had to use, we were given Sharpee black markers to manually mark the cards; if one minor error was made on any card, it had to be thrown away. Inevitably, once or twice each hour, one of the students would make an error on the card and request a full page between each line sent to the printer, rather than a single line; this caused paper to come flying out wildly, the printer to become jammed, the computer supervisor to become enraged, and a screaming tirade to follow. Ah, the joys that today's kids will never experience.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (June 5, 2005): Whenever I visit my parents in northwest Baltimore, I enjoy taking a long morning run through the neighborhood just north of where they live, where there are a lot of horse farms and private tennis courts and swimming pools, and the scenery is spectacular. From time to time, I was sure that I spotted one or two buffalos along one section of the run. I thought perhaps that I was imagining it, but I found out from a family friend that a somewhat quirky guy had been keeping buffalos on his property for several years, and enjoyed showing them off. I conjured up a fantasy whereby the buffalos would somehow get free, and terrorize the tony neighbors. Each morning, on my commute to downtown Manhattan, I pick up "Metro", one of the free newspapers that are handed out each morning to New York City area train commuters. On the front page of the April 27, 2005 edition was a huge photo with this story: "An American bison tramples through a makeshift barrier of lawn chairs and netting, knocking down a police officer on a tennis court at Greene Tree gated community yesterday in Pikesville, Md. A herd of American bison escaped from Buzz Berg's Stevenson, Md., farm, and police corralled the nine buffalo into the courts . . . ."
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 30, 2005): In the summer of 1983, I worked with an interesting man named Bill Knox who lived in Rockville, Maryland. One Friday afternoon he asked me, "Would you like to go flying tomorrow?" I didn't know exactly what he had in mind, but I met him just after dawn at a tiny airport only a ten-minute drive from where I lived, and soon we were airborne in his twin-engine four-seater Cessna. He flew the tiny plane along roads that I had only seen while driving and we covered parts of four states altogether (MD, VA, WV, PA). After about half an hour in the air, I asked him, "What are these controls doing on my side of the airplane?" He said, "You can fly this baby equally well from either seat; let's see how you do on your side," and proceeded in a few seconds to remove his hands from the steering wheel, push a button, and give me full control over our destiny. After recovering from the sudden surprise of what had happened, I was able to guide us pretty well for the next half hour; of course, all I did was make minor adjustments to our speed and make a few slow, easy turns, but it was the first time that I had been a pilot, and was a real thrill. As we approached our destination, Bill took over in order to land the vehicle, and I thought that would be our adventure for the day, until he said he wanted to take a glider around some particularly challenging and partially uncharted peaks in the Appalachian Mountains. That was too risky for me; while he went up in the glider to happily flirt with the fine line between life and death, I hiked alone up the highest ski trail in the area, enjoying the wildflowers and being on solid ground. He returned safely, after which we flew in the Cessna back to our original point of departure. Bill and I got together a week later to see Mose Alison perform in a small club in Georgetown, D.C.; it was a fabulous evening. A week later, Bill suddenly took a job in another town, while I simultaneously moved to a new neighborhood in Baltimore; in the confusion, we lost touch with one another and have not been in communication since. P.S. If you haven't crashed your plane yet and you're still out there somewhere, please contact me.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 23, 2005): I usually pride myself in being able to find my way back to wherever I want to be, even when I am thousands of miles away from home. Once, however, I got lost less than a mile from the house where I spent most of my childhood. My sister and I were visiting our parents several years ago, when we decided to go jogging together. We started out toward our former high school, then took a familiar path through the woods. We thought we were following along a well-marked stream trail, but soon found it became increasingly overgrown, and after making a turn toward what we thought was the main road, found ourselves surrounded by a thicket of thorny brambles with no obvious way out. Our only clue was the sound of heavy, fast traffic nearby, indicating that we were only a hundred yards or so from the Baltimore Beltway. We spent several minutes trying to find our way back to the original trail, or else some alternative path to a known area. We were almost ready to give up and run painfully through the sharp thorns toward the sound of the traffic, hoping to hitchhike a ride from a passing motorist on the highway, but we finally saw some trampled twigs where we must have entered originally, and rediscovered the main passage without getting too badly scratched. The moral of the story is that even the most familiar path can sometimes lead to utter confusion.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (May 15, 2005): About a decade ago, I went to Philadelphia with some friends. They didn't want to take Amtrak, since they said it was too expensive, so we took a PATH train--basically a subway--to Jersey City, where we switched to another PATH train to Newark, and then at Newark, switched yet again to a New Jersey Transit train to Trenton. Once in Trenton, we had to purchase tickets for the Philadelphia transit system, known as SEPTA (not to be confused with a septic tank). The train in Trenton was only a few minutes away from departing, and it is a long walk up a staircase to get to the human ticket sellers, so most people were buying their tickets from a machine on the train level. My ticket cost $3.20, but I didn't have anything other than a few $20 bills that I had recently gotten from an ATM machine, so I put in one bill and hoped for the best. On the PATH system, often the change from a large bill in those days arrived in the form of clunky dollar coins from 1979. I was prepared for that, but I guess that near Philadelphia they had run out of those coins, and they don't like to give away their quarters so easily, either, so after a brief pause, the machine gleefully spit out 168 dimes. It was like winning the jackpot in Vegas, except that the dimes were bouncing all over each other and rolling around the platform, and meanwhile about a dozen people behind me in line were impatiently waiting for me to pick up my "winnings". The total trip to Philadelphia took about 1-1/2 hours more than the Amtrak train, so the actual savings was questionable. I got a slight measure of revenge on the return trip when I paid for my New Jersey transit ticket, and for those of my companions, entirely from those dimes, but it took a few weeks to disgorge my coat pockets of all of the ten-cent pieces. The worst part: not a single one of the 168 was a silver (pre-1965) dime.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK--A MOTHERS' DAY TALE (May 8, 2005): The most physically painful experience of my life occurred when I was just 3-1/2 years old. I was going to preschool as a part of a carpool. The driver that day, who was the mother of one of the other kids, was slightly impatient when I was leaving the car, and did not check carefully enough to ensure that my entire body was out. She slammed the door on my left ring (fourth) finger, almost severing it in half. To her credit, she quickly rushed me to the hospital, and the surgeon was able to sew it rapidly and efficiently enough so that, even though there is still a visible scar, it does not adversely affect even the most difficult piano playing. Perhaps that is not the most upbeat story, so here is another: my great-grandmother (my mother's mother's mother) always loved to prepare special food and a lively atmosphere whenever I visited her house, and tried to encourage me in whatever I was doing, such as learning to play the piano. Her greatest lesson to me was to keep pursuing your dream, no matter how difficult it may seem.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (April 27, 2005): When I was a kid, our family joined the local swimming pool, called the Colonial Village Swimming Club. One of my favorite activities, after leaving the water, was to walk dripping to the snack bar to buy little codfish cakes served between two Saltine crackers and lavishly dabbed with sharp mustard--all for just 15 cents apiece. A good friend of mine lived down the block from me; for many years, we invented our own song-and-dance routines that we performed for our parents and for whoever else was unlucky enough to be around at the time. I was visiting my friend and his mother several months ago, and we spent some time talking with his mother's friend, an older gentleman who was interested in telling tales from the past. He asked me what I remembered of Baltimore in the olden days, and I told him my fond memories of the codfish cakes. "Do you know what they were called?" he asked me. "No, I forgot", I admitted. "They were called Cohen's Coddies," he replied. "Oh, yes, that's right. How do you remember such a detail?" "I'm the Cohen who started Cohen's Coddies."
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: I enjoy eating Haas avocados, which are an especially tasty variety with a black craterlike skin. After I eat one, I take the hard central pit, which is inedible, and put it into whatever pot of dirt is most conveniently nearby. About 80% of these pits just sit there and slowly decompose, but the rest, after taking several weeks to germinate, can surge rapidly to a height of ten feet or more. My wife eventually got weary of seeing yet another avocado plant, so I began to take the pits to work to plant them next to the usual boring office greenery that one finds in any professional building. Nothing happened with the first few pits, but finally an avocado tree arose close to the staircase leading down to the next floor. It soon towered above all the other plants nearby, so more and more people began to notice it. I pointed it out to a few of my co-workers, one of whom started calling me "Farmer Steve". Then, one late evening--as I found out second hand the next day--someone from another department brought in a large pot of dirt, carefully dug up the tree, and transplanted it into their own pot, so they could bring it home. Imagine that, an avocado tree thief right in my own building. I'm still eating avocados and still planting them, so sooner or later, another creation will arise to take its place. Perhaps I'll have to hire an armed guard for the next one.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: Last week, one of my co-workers left the company where I am employed as a computer programmer. Whenever this happens, the rest of us quickly descend like vultures on the departed person's desk, to see if there are any goodies worth taking. Sometimes one finds nothing but a few paper clips. Other times, one might find a decent book or a useful computer accessory. As I was going through this man's treasures, I found something I had never seen before in the desk of a fellow programmer: a tabla. For those who are not familiar with Indian music, a tabla is a conical drum carved out of a solid piece of hardwood. It is a real one, too; not some plastic or cheap imitation, and is accompanied by its proper holding stand. I do have some co-workers from India and Pakistan, but the person who left the company is of Italian descent. Naturally, I couldn't resist playing it, which garnered quite a bit of attention from everyone else, who wondered where I got the instrument. Then, a few days later, the person sitting next to me decided to go through the remaining items in this person's cubicle, and found--seriously--a second tabla(!), which he immediately began to play. Now we can perform duets. How someone happened to own--and discard--two of these Indian drums is an interesting mystery. I do have this person's forwarding e-mail, so I can perhaps satisfy my curiosity by finding out the rest of the story.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: In my freshman year in college I drove a very used Plymouth Fury, which looked almost like an ancient, faded blue monster compared with the small Japanese cars that had become popular after oil prices had surged. On one of the first warm days of spring, during the height of the evening weekday rush hour, I became impatient as I had to wait three times for a traffic light to change before finally being able to make a left onto the main road. I screeched my wheels and "burned rubber" as I turned the corner, so even though my speed did not approach the posted limit, a policeman looked dimly upon my driving manner, and flashed his lights as he approached from behind. Even if I had wanted to pull to the side of the road, there was no way to physically do so, as I was already in the rightmost lane. Meanwhile, the traffic cop was four or five cars behind me as all of us moved less than ten miles per hour on a very crowded Charles Street heading downtown. As I signaled for and made a right turn onto University Parkway, the policeman had a bright idea and took a shortcut through the driveway of the corner apartment building in order to catch up to me more quickly. At that point, the traffic became even more intense, so we were going only four or five miles per hour, and I noticed that an amazing event had occurred--the cop was actually four or five cars ahead of me, instead of behind me. Not eager to keep pace, I slowed down to maybe two or three miles per hour, and the cop noticed my maneuver, so he slowed down to match my snail's pace. After another minute, I was almost not moving at all, and he eventually stopped, so I did also. I thought that he would simply get out of his car and walk back on the sidewalk to give me a ticket--something he probably wished later that he had considered--but instead, we remained in a frozen stalemate for another few minutes. Finally, the policeman himself burned rubber and surged across to the opposite side using a short break in the median strip to head the opposite way in an attempt to catch me from the other direction. That was a hopeless idea, however, as the traffic was simply too heavy for even his flashing sirens to have any effect. It was a simple matter for me to keep driving slowly forward as, surrounded by dozens of cars, I was soon unreachable a few blocks away. I kept looking in my rear view mirror for the next several blocks, and still looked even after I had driven a few miles on the rapidly moving Jones Falls Expressway, just in case, but nothing ever happened. I guess the moral is that even the best shortcut has its pitfalls.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: In January 1987 I had an interview with a company that had offices in both Manhattan and Staten Island. I performed well at the Manhattan meeting, so all that remained to be hired was a brief visit to the Staten Island office. In order to get there, I had to take a subway to downtown Manhattan, board the Staten Island ferry, and finally connect to a bus for a half-hour ride, a total of nearly two hours. After all this traveling, and being a full hour early for the scheduled interview, I noticed some tall cattails growing on the side of the road that were just the right size and color to go nicely into a large basket at my girlfriend's place. Since the temperature was several degrees below freezing, I didn't notice while I was picking them that they have tiny but definitely prickly thorns. My hands began to bleed, but I was oblivious to this, and continued to the site of the interview. I found a place to unobtrusively hide the cattails, and foolishly without going into a bathroom, I headed toward the receptionist. She noticed my hands, which by now were turning a bright crimson, but she didn't say anything about them directly, merely asking me if I was feeling O.K. I responded that I never felt better. I was directed without further ado to the head of the department where I would be working, and that person and myself noticed simultaneously that I looked like Frankenstein after a particularly gory feast. I couldn't even figure out for a moment what had happened, until I realized what should have been obvious. After the interview, I had to carry the cattails onto the bus heading back to the ferry; if you have never tried to fit several pointy nine-foot objects onto a crowded public vehicle, it can be quite a challenge. On the ferry itself, the main difficulty was preventing a strong wind from carrying them into the water. An elderly woman noticed my unusual baggage and made an excellent sketch of my holding them, which cost me several bucks, but was definitely worth it. Then I had to get on a subway and avoid poking anyone's eyes out, and finally walked to my girlfriend's place. Epilogue: She hated the cattails, and I didn't get the job. (Post-epilogue: Two months later, my girlfriend dumped me, but let me keep the cattails. I think I was left with the better end of the bargain.) Moral: If you depart from the usual path, expect more thorns than praise.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: At the Walden School music composition summer camp in 1974, discussed below in another reminiscence, one person was chosen by the faculty to serve as the "secret inspector". This person had the task of carefully examining all dorm rooms to make sure that all beds were made properly, all trash cleaned up, and other standards generally enforced, and to report any violations to the camp staff. It was necessary that the identity of the secret inspector not be revealed, so that we would not attempt to bribe this person, or to otherwise act in a way which would adversely affect his or her duties. Unknown to the rest of us, one of the female campers surprised the secret inspector when she returned unexpectedly to her room one morning and found him there, but she was sworn to secrecy. On the final day of camp, we had to guess who the person was. About three quarters of us, including myself--especially myself--thought that it was Jeff Cohen, since he was a couple of years older than most of us and had known connections among the faculty. Jeff has since gone on to considerable fame as a classical pianist living in Paris. But a contrarian approach would have worked better, as the secret inspector turned out to be none other than my own roommate.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: Two years ago, I was at work in downtown New York City when the person sitting in the cubicle next to me said his chair was shaking. I thought he was joking, until about a half minute later when my own chair began to rattle and then the apparently solid floor below us began to vibrate. Soon, we could hear books and glasses crashing down all around us. A few people started yelling, and shortly thereafter an announcement was made on the fire system to "please evacuate the building through the stairs". When we gathered on the sidewalk below, a few hundred of us could talk about nothing else but what we figured was the first serious earthquake in Manhattan in history, until we noticed that only people from our building were clustered outside. Everyone else from neighboring offices and down the street was working at their desks as usual, apparently unconcerned. Puzzled, we couldn't figure out what was going on, until a fire department investigation determined the cause of the tremors. An aerobics class of fifty people was entirely responsible for creating resonance and massive vibrations that had affected a dozen floors of a major skyscraper.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: As mentioned in more than one previous reminiscence, in November 1977 I played piano for our high school production of "Guys and Dolls". One of the liveliest and cutest members of our cast played the role of a "Hot Box girl", performing two burlesque numbers in the show. As a student, she was quiet in class, but outside the classroom, she was very outgoing and enjoyed life fully. She was always the center of attention when we would go to the local diner during rehearsal breaks. Since high school graduation, I have not seen her again, but three years ago I was, shall we say, somewhat surprised to see her name in print. In the "New York Times" Sunday "Styles" section, from September 2, 2001, was a front-page article by their lead society writer, Guy Trebay, entitled "All Undressed and So Many Places To Go". On the page 8 continuation, she is given two full paragraphs. One sentence should suffice for a family-oriented web site: "For herself, however, the experience of going naked at Lighthouse Beach this summer was liberating."
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: I used to attend a summer music composition camp known as the Walden School. It was run by an energetic, inspiring man named W. David Hogan, Jr. We were each assigned to a kitchen crew in order to set out the dishes and silverware, and to serve the food and drink. There were two crews per meal. One day, our crew showed up as usual, but the other crew was nowhere to be found. We didn't know what to do, so we decided to do the best we could with our limited numbers. Naturally it took twice as long to set up as usual, so we still had a few tables to go when the counselors and kids began to pour in for supper. We tried to work a little faster, when the other crew suddenly showed up. It turned out that they had been playing a close game of handball that went into overtime, and they didn't want to interrupt the game to do something boring like setting the tables. The second, tardy crew tried to cover up for their misdeed by rushing to set out the final table, which was comprised of the most senior staff and counselors. They did a good job at first, but when they served Mr. Hogan himself, the head of the tardy crew rushed just a little too energetically, and tipped an entire meal and large cup of grape juice onto David Hogan's freshly washed shirt, tie, jacket, and pants, not to mention splattering the director's face with some kind of vegetable medley. Needless to say, that particular crew did quite a bit of floor scrubbing, lint cleaning, and every other conceivable and inconceivable task for the remainder of the summer without a complaint.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: When I was a kid, the most popular birthday activity by far was to have a duckpin party. In Baltimore, unlike other American cities, almost every bowling alley is divided into two halves. In one half, there are lanes with tenpins that require fifteen-pound balls and where you throw the ball twice per frame, as you can find throughout the U.S. In the other half, there are lanes with pins that are much smaller, known as duckpins, for which you throw a ball weighing only 3-1/2 pounds, and where you get three throws per frame. It's more difficult to throw a strike (all pins down in a single throw) or a spare (all down in two throws) with duckpins, since the ball is far less powerful, so a score of 120 is considered very good. Kids almost always prefer duckpins, because they can hardly lift the larger balls needed for regular tenpins, and because it has been the norm for Baltimore youth for decades (although this tradition has somewhat faded in the past twenty years, alas). Our parents would drop us off at the bowling alley, whereby we would bowl for about 1-1/2 hours. Afterward, we would gather in a big room nearby to eat strawberry ice cream and pound cake, and be entertained by someone dressed as a clown, who would then suffer the indignity of having leftover melted ice cream and cake thrown at him whenever any of his antics were less than excellent. As a true contrarian even then, I decided that for my ninth birthday, I would have my friends meet at Patapsco State Park just west of the city limits. Instead of bowling, we all went on a five-mile hike along a stream with a waterfall, and instead of ice cream and cake, we had barbecued goodies with lemonade and root beer. The general attitude afterward was "it was weird, but we had a lot of fun and we learned something". I guess that's similar to the reaction of those who read this page after perusing the usual web sites.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: In the summer of 1983, I went to visit my best friend from high school, who had moved to Chicago to attend the university in Hyde Park. He was rather busy during the daytime hours, so I explored a lot of the city on my own. One morning around 10 a.m. I headed for a park, and discovered an elaborate sculpture which looked like it might be or once have been a fountain. I walked over to it, and finding it intriguing in its design, I went toward its center to examine it more closely. Suddenly I heard a whirring sound, and soon discovered that it was very much a live fountain, which began to spout prodigious amounts of water. Since it took me quite some time to climb out of the middle of the contraption and move away from the range of the spray, I was thoroughly drenched, at which time the fountain shut down as rapidly as it had started up. I walked around to the other side of the massive sculpture and saw that it was called "Buckingham Fountain", which I later discovered was the most famous fountain in the city. Its posted hours of operation were clearly in the afternoons and evenings only, so the person in charge of its maintenance must have turned it on that morning solely for my benefit.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: In my senior year in high school, there was a family living next door that had grown up in the farm belt of North Carolina. They grew corn and other crops in the back yard, instead of planting the traditional lawn grass, and they had a huge dog which lived in a doghouse in the front yard. One day in January they went on vacation for two weeks to visit their family back on the farm. While they were gone, a small brown-and-white stray dog moved into the doghouse and begged for scraps in the neighborhood. Whenever I left the house for a walk, the stray dog would follow me for a block or two, unless our own family dog was with me, in which case it would stay at a distance and whimper. After a week had passed, the dog was still in the doghouse and I knew it would get kicked out the following Sunday when the next-door family was scheduled to return. On Saturday afternoon, as snow flurries fell, I walked to the library to return some books, and the dog followed me all the way, more than a mile, but stayed just outside the library door. I only took about half a minute to drop off the books, but when I went back outside, I couldn't see the dog anywhere. I looked around for almost an hour, then gave up and walked home. Perhaps the stray dog somehow sensed that the doghouse would no longer be available, and decided to head for a new place to live.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: Several years ago I was teaching piano in Chinatown in downtown Manhattan. My star pupil not only improved his performing ability, but also began to write his own songs. One day, he surprised me by telling me he was treating me to supper for my birthday. I selected my favorite Thai restaurant called "Thailand" at the corner of Baxter and Bayard Streets (it has been there now for twenty years). My protégé asked me what to order, and I told him probably he should get one of their excellent curries, but not the "jungle curry", since that would be too spicy for him to eat. Naturally, he ordered the jungle curry, telling me that since he was from southern China, he could certainly eat much hotter food than any red-haired wimpy American from Baltimore. I warned him again to get either the red, green, or yellow curries instead, but he insisted, so I intentionally ordered the yellow curry for myself, the mildest of their signature dishes, so that he could swap later without losing face. When the jungle curry arrived, my overeager student took one bite, then without a word switched plates with me. I was truly surprised when he discovered that even the yellow curry was a lot spicier than anything his mother usually cooked (he was only a high school junior at that time, and had not eaten out very frequently), since that was mild even to my taste. I ended up eating both of our entrees, encouraging him to order something even more harmless than a Big Mac, such as pad Thai, but he was too embarrassed to want to order anything further at that point. Finally, the bill arrived, and he made a great show of very proudly taking out his first, very recently obtained credit card to pay for both of us, only to discover that the restaurant accepted only cash; he had less than five dollars in his pocket. We have since become good friends, although to this day he becomes upset if I remind him of this incident.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: In the late summer of 2001, my brother and I visited Iceland. We went horseback riding, swam in thermally heated pools, went biking, and marveled at the Northern Lights (the aurora borealis). I had met an Icelandic man while playing bridge on the internet; we later sent e-mails and talked on the phone, and he was kind enough to drive my brother and myself around the country for two days. We saw amazing geysers and waterfalls, wide open countryside with a few domestic animals, and a generally austere landscape. Rainbows were almost an everyday occurrence. On the second day together, after we had just visited an ancient Icelandic graveyard, my friend said, "I'm not sure why, but I'd like to hear the news on the radio for a few minutes if you don't mind." My brother and I couldn't understand what was being said, but my friend told us "the World Trade Center was just hit by an airplane." That didn't make any sense to us, and then shortly thereafter he told us "another plane just hit the other tower, and they say it's terrorism." We drove immediately to my friend's house and, just as we arrived and turned on the television, on CNN we saw the South Tower fall.