Friday, April 30, 2010

April 30, 2010--New York Royalty

Call me naive, but I always thought that there was just a handful of people in the line of succession to the British throne. The long-suffering and long-enduring Prince Charles, of course; his and Diana's children, William and Henry; and then if I were pushed to think further about it (which is unlikely), Charles' brother Andrew and Andrew's kids.

About a dozen in all. After all, there would have to be a royal holocaust to need more than ten or twelve successors lined up.

But then in preparation for returning to New York City after five calm months in South Frorida, I peeked at the Metropilitan section of Sunday's New York Times and found an article, "Getting the Royal Treatment," (linked below) about a whole lot of European royal descendants in a version of exile, and perhaps waiting, in the city.

Prince Dimitri Karageorgevich from the former Yugoslav royal family and Prince Philippos of Greece; Count Riprand Arco-Zinneberg and his wife Archduchess Maria Beatrice of Austria; and such like.

The article is full of anecdotes about their reduced lives in the Big Apple. How P.D. (as his friends understandably refer to the unpronounceable Prince Karageorgevich) shops at the Food Emporium for his lettuce. And how some are happy to be out from under the burden of royal formality and posturing. In the ultra-democratic New York, Peter Karadordevic, the son of Crown Prince Alexander of Yougoslavia, tries not to flaunt his title or background when working to build a small graphic design business.

So, from this royal reportage, I am reminded about what I will be returning to in In New York in a few days--the pretending, the striving, the rich mix of people and their diverse lives.

But one more thing struck me, it seems that in addition to Prince Charles and his progeny, P.D. is also in the line of succession to the British throne. 1,375th to be exact.

If you check Wikipedia, as I did, you will see that many, many thousands are in that royal queue; and I feel certain that like P.D. they each know exactly where they stand.

For those interested in how these matters work--how one gets on that line--here from Wiki is how it works:

The line of succession is restricted to the heirs of the Electress Sophia of Hanover, as determined by male-preference primogeniture, religion, and legitimate birth:

A person is always immediately followed in the succession by his or her own legitimate descendants (his or her line) except for any legitimate descendants who already appear higher in the line of succession. Birth order and gender matter: older sons (and their lines) come before younger sons (and theirs); a person's sons (and their lines), irrespective of age, all come before his or her daughters (and their lines). (Elder daughters and their lines also take precedence over younger daughters and theirs.)

The monarch must be a Protestant at the time of accession, and enter into communion with the Church of England after accession.

Anyone who is Roman Catholic, becomes Roman Catholic, or marries a Roman Catholic is permanently excluded from the succession.

A person born to parents who are not married to each other at the time of birth (a bastard) is not included in the line of succession. The subsequent marriage of the parents does not alter this. Under British law, a child born to a married woman is assumed to be the child of her husband.

Apart from identifying the next monarch, the line of succession is also used to select the Counsellors of State (and a regent if the need arises) under the provisions of the Regency Act 1937.

From this, I did not have to look too closely at the list of names to see if I was included. But I will be keeping an eye out for P.D. at the Food Emporium.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

April 29, 2010--Stimulating

Back in December, on the drive south to Florida, I reported anecdotally from the road about the progress of the federal stimulus program.

With little to do, to break the tedium of the interstates, we counted all the workers we could see during about 1,000 miles of driving. I was distressed to find fewer than 100 actively involved in highway projects. Though we drove through about half a dozen significant-sized construction sites, most had no one at all actually at work.

So as we headed north yesterday to retrace our route, anticipating that things would not be any more stimulating (though I am writing this from historic and picturesque Beaufort, South Carolina) we again decided to again count workers.

I am pleased to report that though Florida's Republican governor Charlie Crist probably ruined his political career when he agreed to welcome Barack Obama and openly accept federal stimulus money (this unleashed a storm of know-nothing Tea Party outrage and he is a sure loser in the upcoming GOP senatorial primary to a know-nothing challenger), he made the right decision as a citizen of Florida because even before we got as far as Orlando we had counted many hiundreds of (mainly) men at work at good-paying jobs.

In fact, there were so many toiling on highway and bridge projects that we stopped counting before we reached the Georgia border. Though we did notice hundreds more at work along I-95 in Georgia. I suppose Governor Sonny Perdue (no relation of the chicken man Frank), though condemning the federal stimulus bill, more surreptitiously accepted the money and I am sure has been running around the state for all the ribbon cutting ceremonies. Taking credit for what he publicly opposed. In contrast to Crist's act of political courage, Governor Perdue is writing his own profile in political cowardice.

We look forward to what we will find later today in North Carolina and then Virginia and Maryland. More of the same i suspect.

Some good news at last.

Footnote: The hotel where we are spending the night is in Congressman's Joe Wilson's district. He is the one who shouted "You lie!" as President Obama delivered his State of the Union address. Word on the street here is that did him a world of local political good and that he is a shoe-in for reelection.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

April 28, 2010--Goldman Thoughts

Watching the Senate hearings on Goldman Sachs, I have two thoughts:

First, with Republican members such as Tom Coburn (who coldheartedly last month single-handedly cut off unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans) so seemingly bent out of shape about the shenanigans that were standard procedure on Wall Street, what really was going on downtown must have been worse than previously thought.

For GOP politicians who believe that nirvana is to cut taxes for the wealthy and deregulate all forms of business so that the so-called free market can work its magic, to be so publicly upset with the boys from Goldman suggests that either they have read the polls that indicate about 65 percent of Americans want to see Wall Street more strenuously regulated or even they cannot avoid the truth of what happened.

To see Republicans so casually comparing Wall Street, as represented by Goldman, to be no better than a gambling casino--in fact Coburn went further than one of his Democrat colleagues to say that at least Las Vegas casinos aren't rigged: betters know the odds before playing while on Wall Street the odds kept changing and the investment-bettors never were informed--suggests to me that was too much fraud for even the GOP to deny.

Let's hope, therefore, that after grilling the Goldman employees they go back to the floor of the Senate and vote for strong reregulation and stop their absurd spinning and filibustering.

Second thought:

It both angers me and breaks my heart to see these young, bright market-makers, as they describe themselves, wasting their time at Goldman where all there was and is to do is to make money essentially via fraud or dissembling by packaging and then pawning off on their clients financial products that have no utility whatsoever and do not in any measurable way contribute to our economy or our national well being.

How sad that none of them thought for a second to do something worthwhile: start a business that would actually do something and create jobs, go to medical school, engage in research, become an architect, or think about teaching.

For them, there is still time. God knows they have the resources they need to make a career change.

Footnote: While the hearings proceeded, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by about 215 points, or 2 percent, while the value of a share of Goldman stock rose by nearly 1 percent.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

April 27, 2010--Snowbirding: Osso Bucko

If you’re looking for French food and happen upon Chez Provence, forget it. Even a quick glance at the menu would reveal that, in spite of the place’s Francophile name, everything is Italian: Veal Parmigiana, Chicken Parmigiana, Eggplant Parmigiana, Zitti Parmigiana, Penne Parmigiana, and Parmigiano Parmigiana.

With Parmigiano Parmigiana I am having a little fun. But nothing else here is exaggerated.

If you do not want something Parmigiana, there is Chicken Marsala, Chicken Picatta, Chicken Scarpiella, Chicken Marinara, and the same preparations in veal—Veal Marsala, Veal Picatta, etc.

But then there are the specials to give one hope. Maybe there will be something almondine. Trout peut-être? But before the waitress gets to them, she tells you to ignore all the prices on the menu.

“Come again?” I say.

“If you look closely you will see that everything is either $15.95 or $16.95. And a few items say $2.00 extra. But as I said, forget all of that.”

“You mean the listed prices?” I was totally confused.

“Yes, those. Except if tonight was Saturday.”

“Then the prices would be . . .?

“As they are listed.” Our waitress was bright and beautiful and seemed to enjoy the give-and-take. “But since today is Friday, tonight I mean is Friday,” she broke into a broad smile, “everything is either $13.95 or $14.95. Or if it was Monday through Thursday it would be the same. $13.95 or $14.95. What’s listed as $16.95 tonight is actually $15.95, and . . . ”

I interrupted her, “I get it. And those dishes listed as $15.95 are $14.95.”

Glowing with delight she nodded, bouncing up and down.

“But what about the $2.00 extra?” I couldn’t restrain myself from asking, “Is that different tonight as well?” I can at times be quite a pain.

“Yes, that’s the same every night.”

“But what about the Mussels Marinara? There’s no price listed next to them. It just says ‘$2.00 extra.’” I didn’t allow myself to point out that “Mussels” was misspelled. On the menu it read “Musscles.” Sort of a hybrid mash-up spelling that combined the bivalves with the contractile tissue.

She said, “Oh, no one ever asked me about that before. To tell you the truth, no one I waited on ever ordered them. But I can find out for you if you want some.”

“No, thanks. I was just asking.” I didn’t mention that if no one had ordered them recently I was not going to risk getting hepatitis by eating unfresh mussels.

Now that we had that settled, she added, “But also notice that it says right down there in the lower right-hand corner,” I slipped on my reading glasses, “it says that if you pay by credit card instead of cash, we apply a surcharge of a dollar a person. So you can save a dollar more by paying in cash. Then, with all the prices tonight $2.00 less than what it says on the menu and if you pay by cash—and that would include the gratuity—you will see that you can save $6.00 a couple.”

Pleased with herself, she clapped her hands in triumph and her smile broadened even further so that she was now fully aglow. “Any question?”

One of my cousins said we might have some. Not about the pricing but maybe about some of the items on the menu. And, turning back to the specials discussion, asked if there were any to tell us about.

“Oh, yes,” she said as perky as a human is capable of being, “We have some lovely ones. But before I describe them to you I have to tell you we have to charge either $15.95 or $16.95 for them.” Noticing our confusion she quickly added, “But that’s only because they are special.”

“How much would they be if we came back on Monday?” Again, I was being bad.

“Like with the mussels that’s not something anyone ever asked me. But I could find out for you if you’d like.”

“No, that will be fine, thank you. Just please tell us what’s special.” I was hoping maybe something French. But as it turned out the soup was Minestrone, the special pasta was with artichokes, and the fish was Livornese style. With a tomato. onion, caper, and black olive sauce. “The sea bass will be $16.95,” she chirped, “Fish always costs a little more.”

Then before anyone could raise another question, perhaps thinking we were concerned that the specials were $2.00 more than any of the regular items—with the exception of the mussels/musscles—she quickly added, “But everyone should know that, at no extra charge, everything comes with soup or salad, rolls and butter, of course the entrees, and coffee or tea, and dessert. We have six very nice ones, which if you’d like I can tell you about right now. Many of our customers like to know in advance about the desserts so they can think about what to order for their main dishes.”

Being drawn into thinking about dessert and coffee before ordering I noticed for the first time that in addition to the traditional table setting of cutlery, napkins, bread plates, salt and pepper, there were also coffee cups at each of our places. Not a good sign I thought. The only other places where they do this, I realized, were in the dining rooms of assisted-living facilities. I was hoping that the food, Italian though it be, would not be of the institutional type. A good sign was that the knives and forks were not made of plastic as they typically are at care facilities.

But I quickly put that thought out of mind. Though, looking around Chez Provence I did notice canes and walkers stashed at most of the nearby tables. And so if the low prices and the huge quantities promised suggested I should not have high expectations for the food, noting this kept my hopes further restrained.

But we were there for the camaraderie, not gourmet dining, and thus commenced to order. Rona asked for the bass, which actually turned out to be fresh and well prepared; one cousin ordered the Eggplant Parmigiana, which turned out to be so massive that what he left over overflowed a large Styrofoam takeout box; another asked for the Veal Marsala, which arrived dry and chewy; Chicken Cacciatore was another order and when it arrived it looked indistinguishable from the Veal Marsala; and I ordered the Osso Bucco.

“The what?” the now confused and furrow-browed waitress asked.

“The Os-so Buc-co,” I said again, this time more slowly, articulating each syllable and being sure not to make things more confusing by using any of my limited restaurant Italian. It was a busy place and quite noisy. “You know, the veal shank. I don’t order it often, but I do occasionally like a good Osso Bucco.” To help her, I worked that third mention of the dish into the conversation.

“Oh,” she burst back into a radiant smile, “You mean Osso Bucko.”

Now it was my time to be puzzled. Noticing this she took the menu from me, folded the pages back and pointed to where it was listed. “See, Osso Bucko.”

Sure enough, in bold print there was another menu malaprop—just as she had pronounced it: Bucko, not Bucco.

It too turned out to be rather tasteless but who cared; we all had a good laugh about it and everything else. And, when the bill came, we decided to pay cash and save a dollar more. Since only Rona’s special was the full $16.95, overall it was an irresistible deal.

Monday, April 26, 2010

April 26, 2010--CDOs and S&M

Unintentional satire is my favorite kind. So I was amused to stumble on the following story in Saturday's New York Times.

At first I thought I was hallucinating and thus had to read it twice. Here's the story:

There was this Derivatives Association conference in San Francisco. Lawyers, financiers, investment bankers, and above all traders showed up to hear about "Systemic Risk: Advances and Challenges in the Wake of the [Financial] Crisis" and "Collateralization and Netting." Whatever that means, though I assume "netting" means making money.

Between panel discussions there was lots of chat about the potential changing environment for derivatives trading. If President Obama and the Democrats in Congress have their way, these transactions will be brought more out into the light of day. What has to this point been a largely unregulated, opaque marketplace will become, to use the word of the day, more transparent. And presumably less profitable.

I am not holding my breath waiting for this to happen since a literal well-financed army of lobbyists has marched on the Capital to press senators from both parties to keep their hands off what they call the Free Market. Forget for the moment that that legendary Free Market has functioned more like a rigged gambling casino (maybe to Republicans even the rigging represents freedom); forget for the moment that hedge fund managers who have been at the epicenter of the crash, with the connivance of Congress and the previous administrations, have special dispensation from most forms of taxation; what was concerning to the folks who convened in the City By the Bay were the consequences to their own personal bottom lines if even modest new regulations are approved.

It was reported (full article linked below) that young derivatives traders are now questioning whether or not they should stay in the business. The Times reported that during the conference their seniors attempted to calm them down. One said, "I think people have accepted that regulation is going to happen and that the business will probably be less profitable."

"Even so," I'm sure they counseled their young wards, "you should hang in there because there will still be plenty to go around. But in case you are unconvinced," I can almost hear them saying, "think about what it would be like if there weren't derivatives and CDOs to pedal and sell short. You'd have to get a real job and actually work for a living. So stay loose and think about sending your resume to Goldman Sachs."

But sitting in on speeches and panel discussions can take its toll on participants; and so perhaps inspired by senior members of the Republican National Committee who not too long ago spent some quality time at an S&M club while they were huddling in San Diego, the derivatives boys took Thursday night off and made their way to Supperclub, a joint where weary traders could flop on beds that covered the club's floor while staff massaged them all over.

Newly relaxed, later the same evening some wended their way to the Supperclub's S&M chamber where . . .

But this is too much information for me. If you must, use your own imagination.

Then, fully stimulated and remotivated, they returned to the hotel, the luxe Fairmont on Nob Hill, for another day of hearing about how to make big bucks no matter what Congress and the president come up with.

And of course I am assuming that after all was said and done and they departed, they wrote off even the tab at Supperclub as a business expense. There must also have been a workshop at the conference about to get away with that. Perhaps moderated by the RNC's Michael Steele.

Friday, April 23, 2010

April 23, 2010--SEC-XXX

Republicans are trying to turn the porno scandal at the Securities and Exchange Commission into a case about not adding any new regulations to the SEC's toolkit.

If staff there had stopped searching Porno sites and had only been enforcing the regulations that already exist, there would not have been any financial crisis. In other words, no new regulations are needed.

A few points.

During the Bush administration, when all the surfing incidents occurred, staff at the SEC in effect were told to ignore existing regulations. Since Bush and his people were against regulating the financial industry, looking the other way while the shenanigans were underway was a strategy to get out of the way of the free market working its magic. The rest of that approach is history. (See New York Times article linked below.)

Thus, to focus on the porno is a juicy attempt to distract us from the essential issue--not what SEC staffers were doing when they were effectively told to just show up for work, but rather the mandate to look the other way. With nothing to do, including ignoring the evidence that Bernie Madoff was puling off the largest Ponzi scheme ever, SEC employees sat in their offices playing on-line solitaire and downloading X-rated material.

And of course, in this attempt to try to trick us into looking the other way, GOP leaders are intentionally ignoring the fact that the SEC, even it was on the case, did not, does not have the authority to keep an eye on derivatives trading, the heart and soul of what got us into the mess in the first place.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

April 22, 2010--Let Them Drink Wine

After bankrupting Citibank and then having taxpayers bail it out, the bank's CEO, Vikram Pandit, took himself out to a posh lunch at one of New York City's swankiest spots, Le Bernardin, where lunch will set you back at least $100. Depending, of course, on the wine you choose.

In his new book, The End of Wall Street, Roger Lowenstein, gets so fine grained in his distressing and infuriating report on the likes of Mr. Pandit, that he even knows about the wine he drank that afternoon.

Vikram Pandit was apparently dining alone, probably enjoying the memories of all the fast ones he and his colleagues had gotten away with and then, when things had gone south, how fortunate he was to be heading a bank that was not only too big to fail but too arrogant not to fire him for incompetence and malfeasance.

He was probably looking to do a little celebrating about his good fortune--that he wouldn't be tossed out on the street where he belonged, albeit with a platinum parachute.

So he perused the wine list to see if he could find anything by the glass that appealed to him. Seeing nothing worthy of his connoisseurship and self-worth, he decided to order a whole bottle; but since he is a moderate man, he drank just one glass, leaving the rest to be poured down the drain.

To quote Lowenstein, he was looking for "a glass of wine worth drinking." Happily, he found something--a few sips from a $350 bottle seemed to suit that bill.

Speaking of the bill, to pay for lunch I assume he used his Citibank credit card.

As they say, "For everything else there's MasterCard." Or, in his case, "For everything else there's Uncle Sam."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

April 21, 2010--New York Yankees vs. Goldman Sachs

A number of people, including Andrew Ross Sorkin in his recent column in the New York Times (linked below), have compared what has been going on on Wall Street to a gambling casino.

They remind us that the stock market was organized at the end of the 18th century to help manufacturers and other merchants raise money so that they could start or grow their businesses. But in recent years it has become just another place to bet. Las Vegas on the Hudson.

In fact, many trades and transactions are no longer referred to as "investments," but rather, much more honestly, as "bets." Like "long bets" for traders who see the value of what they purchased going up over time, or "short bets" for those trades they expect in the short run to lose value.

We are learning more and more about these kinds of bets as the true story of what was going on behind the scenes that led to the recent crash are being forensically exhumed and exposed to public scrutiny and outrage. Like the hanky-panky at Goldman Sachs that the SEC cited earlier this week in its civil fraud suit.

It is a particularly good place for the SEC to start to hold these guys and many others like them hopefully accountable for what they perpetrated. Good, in part, because Goldman is the poster child for this sort of abuse and the nature of what they are accused of pulling off is rather easy for the uninitiated, me very much included, to understand.

They asked a hedge fund manager, John Paulson, to guide them in selecting a package of mortgage-backed bonds that were knowingly worthless and about to collapse. They then put these together into something called the Abacus Fund and sold a bug hunk of it to Paulson.

He bought it short, that is expecting, actually knowing it would default soon and he would cash in big time. And then of the other side, Goldman represented this same fund to some of its best clients, including many teachers and civic workers pension funds, as triple-A rated. That it was a good long investment/bet. With Goldman's recommendation, these funds bought Abacus as fast as Goldman could make it available.

What Goldman didn't tell anyone was they on their own had bought a batch of Abacus shares--knowing it would fail. Which it then proceeded to do, netting Goldman and Paulson billions in "profit." The pension funds, on the other hand, lost billions and millions of police and firefighters and teachers saw their pensions threatened.

Writers such as Sorkin have been trying to come up with analogies to make vivid the true perfidy of what Goldman, with Paulson's help, cobbled together. Some have compared it to a car maker building and selling cars without breaks. Not a bad comparison, considering all the news about Toyota.

Sorkin compares the Goldman scam to sports betting, like a bet on the Yankees vs. the Oakland Athletics. But he says, this doesn't quite capture what Paulson-Goldman were up to since in this analogy we're only talking about a sports bet. Just the gambler gets burned. In the Goldman case, other investor/bettors get hurt as does the larger global economy.

Not a bad analogy but it too has its limitations. Here's a fuller comparison to bet on a baseball game:

What Goldman did was to fix the outcome of the game before inviting anyone to bet on it.

Let's say you were inclined to bet on the Yankees which, considering the strong start they're off to this year, would not be a bad idea. But what if the bookie (Goldman) knew privately that A-Rod was not 100 percent and would not be able to play and that Derek Jeter would need to tend to a family emergency. Again, information not disclosed to you. To rig things even further, if your neighborhood bookie, with a knowing wink, lied to you by telling you that he heard that Ryan Sweeney, Oakland's current leading hitter, was injured, chances are this news, plus that about Jeter and Rodriguez, would have encouraged you to bet more on the Yanks than you had intended. After all, what gambler can pass up a sure thing?

So you place your bet on the Yankees. In the meantime, your bookie bets some of his own money on Oakland, knowing they in fact have the edge. And then of course Oakland triumphs. You lose a bundle and your bookie and the guy who supplied him with insider information both clean up.

This is more like what we're talking about when it comes to Goldman and John Paulson and the Abacus Fund.

When gamblers fixed the World Series in 1919 by getting the White Sox to throw games, the team for years thereafter was called the Black Sox and the gamblers went to jail.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

April 20, 2010--Snowbirding: Rapture (Concluded)

Mike lives in a small blue stucco house with Mediterranean flourishes and a huge garage close to the Intracoastal Waterway. His yard was cluttered with a rusted bike, warped water skis, a jumble of diving equipment, and assorted parts from boats and cars, including at least 20 hubcaps of various sorts. But the rest of the place, including the grounds, was well kept. “I do all the work myself,” he said as a form of greeting. He was dressed in camouflage shorts; black T-shirt; scuffed boots without laces; and, I noticed since the last time I saw him, had had his hair cut to resemble Rob’s Marine-style buzz-cut.

“You’re looking buff and ready for action,” I said with a nervous laugh, not prepared for how transformed he looked.

He ignored my comment but with a welcoming smile in his usual friendly way said, “Take a look around, there’s lots to see.” And there was. All sorts of gardening equipment, fertilizers, weed killers, insecticides, and mounds of coiled garden hoses. At least a dozen of them set out at ten-foot intervals surrounding the cottage, all connected to an improvised series of linked water faucets.

“Those are in case the place catches fire,” he said, noticing my curiosity about all the hoses. “I don’t trust those 911 folks in case of an emergency. I’m prepared for everything. See, I even have three gas-driven electric generators and enough fuel in that tank over there to keep these suckers running for a least a month. But come, let me show you what I got inside.”

He withdrew a small remote control device from his pocket, pointed it toward the two-car garage, pressed a button, and both doors began their slow, simultaneous ascent.

“Don’t be shy.” He sensed my hesitation and took hold of my arm as he did the other day when we were having coffee, “Here follow me.” Which I proceeded to do.

“Over there in the corner. See that?” He pointed to the back of the garage where it abutted the house. “That’s where I got my water. Need lots of that. Last time I counted I had more then 250 gallons. That’ll take me a far distance. Quite a few months. They all say water will be the most important thing to have when things hit the proverbial fan.”

And as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed there were no lights in the garage—maybe, I thought, to conserve his use of power when it hits that fan. But I soon could see what looked like a mountain of gallon-sized water jugs. “That’s quite a stash,” I said. “Like you said, enough for a long time. And kept in those jugs it should last forever if you need it to.”

“Like I told you the other day, things will start happening around here sooner than you think. I don’t expect too much dust to collect on them or my other stuff over there. They’ll be put to use before you know it.”

Lining both sides of the garage, rather than the usual tools and suitcases and other assorted stuff folks in Florida store in their garages since houses do not have basements, Mike had arrayed his dozens of 55-gallon drums. So many were packed into the garage that there was only a narrow aisle separating them.

“I’ve been putting these in over some time as you might imagine. Got the drums army surplus. Didn’t cost all that much. But you’d be surprised how much things such as dried beans will set you back these days.” He slapped his hand on the top of one and it gave back a deep sound. “Filled right to the top, as you can hear. This one with pintos. Lots of good protein in those babies. But, as I said, I’ve had to take my time filling 'em up. Didn’t have the spare money to do it all at once. Thankfully there are those Costcos down here. Big box places, where I can get a good price for my staples.”

“This is really something, Mike. Very impressive,” I said with sincerity since in its own way it was. Not that I agreed with what he was saying about the future, but one had to admire his seriousness and tenacity. “What’s that? Over there?” There was a stack of about a dozen large cartons.”

“Oh, I forgot to mention them. My flashlights. Got fifty of those. Big ones. Like the cops use. Plus about 1,000 D-type batteries. Can’t have too many of them.”

“Amazing. Truly amazing. I do have to hand it to you. You really are ready.”

He smiled at me, happy to have my affirmation. “For just about anything. But come on, come inside. It’s hot out here. Nothing much to see in the house, not of this sort, but we can have a cold drink. Just water or juices. I don’t have anything hard around anymore. I’m in the process of trying to purify myself. Part of the preparation.”

“Water would be fine for me,” I said, “I’m parched and could use some. Thanks.”

I sat at a small Formica table in the kitchen while he retrieved a water jug from the refrigerator. Like the ones stashed in the garage. He poured me a large glass, which in one gulp I half emptied.

“So tell me, Mike,” I asked as he slid into his seat, “how did this all begin for you? The Rapture, I mean.”

“The short version is that when my wife walked out on me, Judy, that was what about three years ago, I was totally lost. My whole life was devoted to her. To our life together. We had no kids, she couldn’t conceive they told us, but we had each other. And I thought things were working pretty well. But then one day I came home from my grocery route and she was all packed up, sitting right here where you’re squatting,” I squirmed in my seat, “That’s OK,” he said, noticing my discomfort, “I’m well over what happened. I had been blind, so to speak. I didn’t notice how unhappy she had become. And I didn’t know up to then about what had been going on with her and Herbie, who lived right over there. Across the street. Right under my nose. I’m sure you know about these sorts of things. Not from personal experience I hope. Well, I didn’t.”

“I’m sorry to hear this, Mike.” This time I reached over to touch his arm.

“I appreciate that but no need to feel bad for me. It was like my eyes all of a sudden were opened. To what was going on between us—rather than what was not going on—and a lot of other things. But to get to your question, about the bigger stuff, I got to the truth from adversity. That’s how I found my way to the Final Days. And with the help of another neighbor. Janet is her name. Now, don’t be suspecting anything like that. It’s been pure Platonic from the git. And most important, spiritual. She brought me to this awareness. This knowledge. Simple as that.”

“If I may ask,” I continued to probe, “and you can tell me, ‘None of your business,’ why this and not something else?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a more conventional form of belief. Or some new interests. Or looking for another relationship. This is pretty all-encompassing, isn’t it?”

“Fair question, which deserves an honest answer. I was so burned by what Judy did, fairer, by what happened, that none of those kinds of things would have rescued me. I needed something bigger. Much bigger,” he extended his arms to their full breadth. “And, since I’m being totally honest with you, I was so uncertain about life, about what it means and where it’s headed, I was so riddled with worries, that I needed something that offered the answers I desperately needed.”

He paused to take a series of deep breaths, “And like I said, to deal with the anxiety and, yes, the fears and terrors. About what will become of me, what it all means. In fact, does it mean anything? I was asking myself questions like that. I felt I had lost so much that I needed to have something big enough to totally fill up that empty space. And then some.” He remained quiet again to allow that to sink in.

“It’s really the then some that I was focusing on,” he continued, “I wanted, needed something bigger than life itself to provide answers and meaning to me. I may not look it, but I’m that kind of guy.” He was smiling broadly as he said that.

“Since you’ve been so open and honest with me, Mike, let me try to respond in kind. OK?” He nodded, still grinning. “About this we totally disagree,” I avoided eye contact as I said that, “I don’t believe anything of this sort and from what I’ve read a lot of the theology behind these beliefs is not that sound. It doesn’t bear up under close scrutiny.” He moved as if to interrupt me.

“Wait, wait, let me finish. But, having said that, I totally agree about the importance of attempting to live a life of meaning,” he backed off and resumed his nodding, “but for me it’s of a different sort, which we can talk about at another time if you’d like.” He indicated that he would like that.

“But I have profound respect for the issues you are struggling with and, though I don’t agree with the conclusions you’ve come to, I have great admiration for your searching and for what you’ve found. Even that. What you’ve found. I respect it while remaining skeptical. In fact, I am hoping you’re dead wrong, no pun intended,” I tried a smile of my own, “and thus will not soon be taken away, Raptured as you would put it, so we can continue these discussions for many more years.”

With that we exchanged high fives, embraced, and I left him standing in the driveway, waving at me as I could see in my rearview mirror, surrounded by his survival gear.

Ex-Marine and former stealth operative, Rob and I continued to meet for coffee and he kept me filled in about his views of the deteriorating state of the world’s economy and up to date about the increasing pace at which he was acquiring and stashing Krugerrands. But after my visit with Mike, he was nowhere to be seen. It seemed to me more than coincidental that he had shown me his place, we had had our discussion, and then he stopped coming by for breakfast. But how could there in fact be any relationship, I wondered, between these events? We had parted on very good and affectionate terms.

Rob and I asked around, but no one reported seeing him. Not Richard who owned the newsstand nor Bruce who had a nearby clothing store. Places where Mike liked to hang out and chat. Very unusual. Very unlike him.

So I began to call him and email, thinking, since he lives alone, he might have been taken ill and was too under the weather to come out and might even need some help. Lots of flu and virulent bronchitis was going around.

But my calls went unanswered and he did not respond to the emails. We began to worry. Maybe . . .? But we cut those thoughts short as too upsetting and so Rob and I decided to drive over to his house after coffee to see what we could see.

Everything I had noticed the week before was as it had been it—the car parts, the bike, the gardening equipment, the stacks of coiled hoses. His boat was still on its trailer and parked under the open carport. But there was a stillness about the place that felt very different than when I had been there. Nothing stirred, not the air, not a leaf, not a blade of grass.

I said, “Let’s go ring his bell. Maybe he’s inside. In bed.”

Rob strode up the gravel path and began pounding on the door. “Gentler,” I said, “We don’t want to give him a heart attack.” Ignoring me, as if annoyed by the lack of response, Rob continued to pound on the door while at the same time, with his other hand, he repeatedly punched at the doorbell. I could hear its sharp sound ricocheting off the tiled floors and throughout the house.

“That will wake the dead,” Rob said. “Which of course he could be from the look of things.”

“Don’t even think that,” I said, “There’s no way that could have happened to him.”

“But that’s all he ever talked about. Dying. And of course being reborn and living forever after whatever it is he said was about to happen.”

“The Rapture,” I said softly as if to myself.

“Yeah, that. Maybe that’s what happened to him. The Rupture.”

Rapture,” I corrected him, “When they take you up to heaven. Not ‘they’ but God. At least that’s what he believed.” I caught myself using the past tense.

Rob dismissed that with a sweep of the back of his hand. He continued to hammer on the door.

“Let’s go around back,” I said. And I thought, as skeptical as I am about these matters, maybe we’ll see some sign of what might have become of Mike. Perhaps even that little pile of clothes he always talked about, with his watch and glasses neatly placed on top.

What was I thinking? I’ve been spending too much time with folks such as Mike. But, as he had challenged me, I needed to keep an open mind, didn’t I? Including about something that to me seemed so preposterous. All right, I corrected myself, not preposterous but seemed very, very unlikely.

“You look in the windows,” I suggested to Rob, “And I’ll look around the grounds. Let’s see if we can find any signs of him.” Even his clothes I admitted to myself. I was that concerned and worried that it was distorting my thinking.

There I was using some of his eschatological language and images—signs of having been Raptured. Piles of clothes. But mainly I looked for different kind of signs. Not with a capital S, as he would have put it.

Nonetheless, I scoured the grounds looking for any kind of signs. Even those in which I did not believe. About these matters, one can never be certain.

As it turned out there were no signs of him then or thereafter. Not inside the house or outside. And never again did we see Mike at breakfast.

From what Rob was able to learn from one of his local banking friends, there was a simple, if sad, very-Florida explanation—Mike’s house had an underwater mortgage that he could no longer carry. He had simply slipped away from his house one night, leaving it in effect to the bank.

Monday, April 19, 2010

April 19, 2010--Snowbirding: Rapture (Part One)

I am having coffee with Rob Roberts and Mike Maloney. Rob, 77, is an ex-Marine; and after serving in Korea had a series of jobs in Eastern Europe that were a cover, we suspect, for an association with the CIA. He won’t talk directly about any of that but very much enjoys dropping hints about what he might have been up to in Berlin and Warsaw during the Cold War. He’s put on some weight since those times, “fun times” he calls them, and has had a couple of stents installed; but he retains more boyish joie de vivre than someone half his age, and still sports the buzz cut he had when he was slimmer and engaged in various forms of service.

“So I was trying to sell these Polish guys some telephone equipment,” he confides in us, “I could tell they were more interested in pumping me for info about these electronic switches that were just being developed. Not that we could sell these characters the latest stuff. That was all classified. Whatever they could manage to get from us they would send on east to you-know-where. But,” this is when he would wink at us, “but they didn’t know what I was tryin’ to learn about their business. If you get my drift.”

We do get his drift.

Rob is a good guy--a really good, harmless guy as only someone his bulk can be--and he’s also a gold bug. He has a couple of Samsonite briefcases filled with Krugerrands and is getting ready for the Second Depression, which he claims will make the first one look like “a walk in the park.” “I don’t have any plans to sell apples like my old man. Those times killed him before he ever got to be 50. Worked his ass off, played by the rules, and those banks screwed him. Mark my words, just like these days. This ain’t gonna happen to me. No how, no way.”

Mike, who is still in his 50s, drives a grocery delivery truck and also thinks things will get much worse. But in his case another Great Depression would be the least of what for him would define much worse. In fact, he sees things as getting so dire that he’s stocking up on survival supplies. He has a two-car garage, he tells us, filed with hundreds of gallons of bottled water and at least twenty, 55-gallon drums packed with rice and dried beans. Between now and when everything crashes, in his case literally crashes, his main worry is that Florida’s legendary humidity may cause the beans to swell and burst their plastic containers.

The crash, the end Mike is waiting for is the big END. The final one. Not the Mayan 2012, but the Apocalypse. The one he says that is prophesized in the Bible. So when he listens to Rob going on and on about stashing gold, he says, “What good will your gold do you when the Rapture comes. Nothing from this world at that time will be worth shit. Not a penny, not even a Cougarrand.” At this intentional malaprop he unleashes his high cackle of a laugh. He may be a bit morbid but he never fails to like his own jokes. And he enjoys having a little fun with Rob.

Rob looks at him like he’s crazy and wonders out loud, “Well, if my Krugerrands won’t be worth nothin’ what good will your rice and bans do you?”

To me, both Mike’s and Rob’s are good questions.

“Tell me more about the Rapture,” I ask Mike. “I’ve done some reading about it, but I’d like to hear how you see things unfolding.”

Rob swivels his stool away from both of us, he has heard enough over the years of what he considers Mike’s craziness, and resumes his struggles with the Sun-Sentinel crossword puzzle. “What’s a six-letter word for ‘Sneak,’” he says to no one in particular.

Mike pulls his chair closer to me both to get some distance from Rob and to assure he won’t be overheard. I feel myself surrounded by covert operatives.

“It’s like this,” Rob begins, holding onto my forearm. I slide my coffee mug to my other side, to my free hand. I feel certain I’ll be needing more caffeine to fortify me. “All the signs have to be right before anything big can happen.” He sneaks a glance toward Rob to make sure he is fully preoccupied. He has no need to be concerned. When Rob is into his puzzle, nothing distracts him.

“First, they say, there has to be a world government and a single currency. And I’m not talking his gold Cougars.” He nods his head in Rob’s direction. “I used to think that way about the UN. Up there in New York. But that wasn’t what we were waiting for. We were wrong about that. But take a look at what’s happening in Europe. They have that Euro now, don’t they? No more Francs or Dotch Marks,” he smiles at another of his locally famous slips of the tongue, “or whatever they had in Spain. Pesos, I think. This is feeling to me what’s prophesized. The Signs, we call them. Signs of the End.”

“I’ve heard about that,” I say, though I decide not to correct the specific details of his eschatology. “What else, what else are you keeping an eye out for?”

“Well, most important, is the Rapture. You know about that?”

“A little.”

“It’s when the folks God wants to save right away, the best people from his perspective, get brought right up to heaven. To live there with Him forever. It will be like one day they will disappear without a trace. Except that since God takes them as naked as the day they were born, the only sign that they were here will be a neat pile of all their clothes and whatever else they were wearing at the time. Even their watches and eyeglasses. Right there all neat on top of the pile. Because they won’t be needing them where they’re going.”

“Incredible,” I say, “But what about everyone else? Those not Raptured, I mean?”

“You mean like me and you?”

“I assume it won’t include me, but why not you? What are you expecting?” He looks around to make sure no one was listening or could hear. It was nearly 10:00 o’clock and the place had pretty much cleared out. The only ones on our side of the counter were Mike and me and Rob, who was still totally absorbed in his puzzle.

“What’s a five-letter word for ‘Talk Show Host’? Begins with an O,” I hear him ask one of the waitresses.

“’Oprah,’” Lucy says as she races by with a long line of dishes balanced on one of her arms.

“I’m not expecting to be in the first wave of the folks whisked up to heaven. I’ve tried to live a good life,” he shrugs, “but I’m not too good at all the holy-rolling required. I get to church for most of the holidays and try to live the straight and narrow, but I know my weaknesses. I’m no Tiger Woods, mind you, but, like I say, I have my weaknesses.”

“So what then do you think will happen to you? After the Rapture I mean?”

“Nothing good. But as the Good Book says, I’ll have my second chances. Actually, one last chance. When the Antichrist shows up—who, by the way, may be already here,” he whispers right in my ear “but there’s no need to talk about that right now. And the whole world goes to war. That’s when I might be able to do myself some good.”

“I’m not following you? Do yourself ‘some good’?”

“Yeah, by getting with the right side and helping to bring about the Millennium. When Christ returns for a second time—we call it the Second Coming--when there will be 1,000 years of peace. That’s what ‘millennium’ means—a thousand.” I nod. “And then all those who have been good, from His perspective of course, will get a final chance to join those who were Raptured a long time ago. Before the Days of Tribulation and things like that.”

“And you . . .?”

“I’m preparing for those days. The Tribulation ones.”


“By packing in all those staples. Like I told you. In my garage. Ones that won’t spoil.”

“The rice, the beans, the bottled water?”

He smiles at me. “Them and more. I figure, if I can get through those days, I got a chance of straightening out my life and then have a shot at the biggest thing of all.” He points up toward the water-stained acoustical tile ceiling. “Up there, I am saying. And when I say ‘up’ I mean ‘up’ with a capital U and a capital P.”

I get his point and hear Rob over my shoulder ask, “What’s a three-letter word for ‘The Dark Side’?”

“’Yin’,” Lucy says, exasperated with him, as she clears a table, “You know, like from ‘Yin and Yang.’ How’s it you’re doing the puzzle and I know all the answers?” Rob doesn’t bother to pick his head up or even glance in her direction.

“You should come by one day and see,” Mike whispers conspiratorially.

“See what?” He has lost me with his own, idiosyncratic version of the Rapture and End Times

“My garage. Where I have all the stuff stashed. Not as glamorous as his gold coins, but what we’ll all really need when those days arrive.” With that he leans even closer to me and mouths, “And they could be sooner than you think.”

“Actually, I don’t . . .”

“I suspected you’d say that. But don’t you like to think you have an open mind? If you come by my house I could have some of the other people there who are also getting ready who could tell you better than me what’s going on.”

I was in fact curious. All I knew about the Final Days was from reading some of those Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. And from other books that are more objective critical histories about the people who have led the effort to convince people that the signs are gathering for the Rapture and what will follow. Paul Boyer’s work, for example. When the Times Shall Be No More. Books that are more my kind of source.

But just reading paled in comparison to having the chance to talk with Mike and seeing what he was up to at home. So I say, “Actually, I’d be happy to come by when it’s convenient for you. But if it’s OK, I could take a pass at meeting your friends. Maybe another time. Right now being just with you is enough for me.” There was a limit to how far I wanted to be drawn into this.

So, with Rob still not done with the crossword puzzle, Mike and I agree that I would come by later in the week.

To be concluded tomorrow.

Friday, April 16, 2010

April 16, 2010--SCUDS

I have a cousin who lives in Israel. In Jerusalem. Though his parents are among the so-called Ultra-Orthodox, he is quite secular. He doesn't wear a yarmulka, he isn't Kosher, and if he had his druthers he'd move to the United States. He is here now visiting family members and looking around to see if he might find work. He has dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship.

The other day, over brunch, the conversation drifted toward what life is like in Israel and U.S.-Israeli relations. In regard to the latter, there was much talk by him and other family members about how though Barack Obama says the right things about U.S. support for Israel, his actions suggest he is really more pro Palestinian.

When I argued that there will be no peace or security for Israel until and unless they make a two-state deal with the Palestinians who surround them I was looked upon with skepticism and, worse, as if I were naive. He didn't express it quite this way, he is entirely too nice, but I could sense him wanting to say, "What do you know from the comfort of your life in America? You don't know what it's like living with your enemies."

In fact, more directly, my young Israeli cousin said, "Obama wants us to stop building more settlements. But we have to. Our enemies are right there in East Jerusalem, and the reason we are building more housing there is so we can secure ourselves by living right next to them." Some of my other cousins nodded in agreement.

Again out of politeness, mine this time, I did not say, but thought, "How does living closer to your enemies protect you? If you have enemies, wouldn't you want to put more distance between you and them? Or try to make a deal with them in which you both agree to end hostilities?"

We changed the subject before I could tell him that I see the Israelis to be on a ruinous path. At some point the U.S., in spite of the powerful Israeli lobby here, will realize that being joined at the hip with Israel is not in our best strategic interest--it engenders hatred for us in many dangerous parts of the world--and the best way to be a helpful ally is to press them to make a deal with the Palistinains. Endless confrontation will inevitably lead to a war of annihilation.

Further, as more time goes by the more likely it is that the Palestinians and other Arabs who live in Israel, and are citizens, will outnumber the Jews. At the moment, about 25 percent of the population of Israel are Arab Israeli citizens and they are growing in number much faster than Jewish Israelis. At some point, to contain them, Israel will likely feel compelled to set up its own version of an Apartheid system. Such a system is already half in place, with all sorts of restrictions placed on Arab citizens, but is likely to expand.

Most disturbing, before too long, the states that surround Israel, especially Iran and Syria and and Hezbollah which is located in the Syria-dominated parts of Lebanon, will so build up their offensive military capacities, that there will be no more Seven Day Wars, where Israel, with a tiny population, will be able to dominate the region with one hand tied behind its back.

Arguably, Israel "lost" the recent "war" in Gaza and, earlier, the one against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The next one will be even more dangerous to Israel's survival unless the U.S. in a major way intervenes directly. And how many in the U.S., if push comes to shove, will agree to join a third or fourth war in the region? Maybe only John McCain.

In truth, my cousins and I made little progress. We were all pretty dug in. But then on Thursday I saw three articles in the New York Times that offered evidence for the views I had been attempting to articulate. I will be forwarding them to my cousins as soon as I finish this.

The first reports about how nuclear weapons officials are now saying that Iran will, within the year, be able to begin to produce weapons grade nuclear material. What wonderful news.

Second, at his press conference the other day, after the nuclear proliferation summit in Washington (a historic one we might have noticed if the media could have dragged themselves from focusing most of their attention on Tiger Woods and the increasing number of kidnapped blonde girls in Florida) the Times reported that President Obama spoke about how a deal between Israel and the Palestinians was in "America's strategic interest." Not only Israel's. But ours too. Amen.

And third, there was an article (linked below) which reported that Syria has been supplying sophisticated, accurately-targetable Russian SCUD missiles to its Hezbollah friends in Lebanon. And that Hezbollah is securing them in underground bunkers. SCUD missiles that can easily reach and do serious damage to Tel Aviv.

So, I say to my truly wonderful and talented cousin, moving into the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem and the other occupied territories will not make you safer but rather will make things worse. Much worse.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

April 15, 2010--What Will Henry Say?

Let me call him Henry.

At least three times a week, over cups of coffee, we sit side-by-side at the counter at the Green Owl and fight about politics. He is a libertarian Republican who is fiscally and ideologically quite conservative, but about matters such as abortion and gayness he is about as progressive as I am.

Compared to most conservatives I encounter here, who tend to stick to the GOP talking-points that include making things up (such as there were no acts of domestic terrorism during the Bush-Cheney years and the health care bill just passed calls for death panels and will raise taxes for everyone), Henry is smart and well versed in his version of political truth.

He skeptical that humans contribute significantly to global warming and has read selections from the science and semi-science which makes that case. And he has even read the Kaiser Family Foundation's excellent summary of the actual health reform bill and not just the Rush Limbaugh-Michele Bachmann-Sara Palin caricatures.

He makes you crazy but in a good way. Occasionally I surprise him by acknowledging that while listening to him, arguing with him, I have actually learned something. Even changed my mind.

Back from him, on the other hand, I have yet to hear that something, anything I have said or passed along to him to read has caused him to rethink one of his positions. In this, he, like those on the extreme right (and the extreme left), is a True Believer.

So I even hesitate to pass along to him the most recent New York Times column by Andrew Ross Sorkin. (Linked below) What's the point? The title alone should suggest why it would be a waste of my and Henry's time--"Surprise! The Bailouts Are Working."

Because if there is one thing that makes Henry as crazy as he makes me when citing the novelist Michael Crichton as a sound source on the myth of global warming, it is to try to convince him that the bailouts that were actually instituted during the last months of the Republican George W. Bush's presidency were not thinly disguised efforts to nationalize the banks, General Motors, Chrysler, and the rest of the American economy. For Henry, and other fiscal conservatives, though they recognize that TARP was passed by Congress during a Republican administration, he and they claim that Obama, who had not yet been elected, had an undue hand in shaping it and of course was mainly responsible, after he was inaugurated, for implementing it. He seized the power and resources it offered, they ahistorically claim, to take long strides in leaidng American down the path toward socialism. For Henry, letting the blind hand of the free market work its magic was all that was needed to keep us from plummeting into another Great Depression.

But what, as Sorkin suggests, if it the freakin' thing actually worked? The banks and others that were bailed out with taxpayer money have already paid back almost all that was advanced to them. And to boot they paid us substantial amounts of interest. Many billions of dollars. And the U.S. government has either already disposed of its ownership stake in most of the financial institutions or is about to do so for those that remain. GM appears to be not far behind in paying us back, and Obama is looking forward soon to extracting the government from owning a big piece of the auto industry.

So what was so wrong with TARP? And if Obama is a socialist, how come he is selling our stakes in the banks and other financial institutions? Why not retain them as one would expect socialists to do?

Maybe he's not such a Commie after all.

This of course does not mean that our economy has been restored. There is by far too much unemployment and too many hard-working people are still losing their homes. But in the meantime, in regard to the affects of TARP, I am waiting to hear from you Henry.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

April 14, 2010--I Know Nothing

TV's Hogan's Heroes is one of my favorite guilty pleasures.

You must have seen it. Set during World War Two, Colonel Hogan, an American airman, is assigned (yes, assigned) to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany; and with his merry band of confederates wrecks havoc on the Nazi war effort. Mainly by sabotaging supply trains, helping high-value actual prisoners to escape, and aiding and abetting the German underground.

They accomplish all of this as a result of Hogan's creativity and audacity; but they are greatly helped by the fact that the prison's commandant is a vain fool and the principal guard, the bumbling and adorable Sergeant Schultz, is more interested in the food and other goodies the heroes slip him than keeping a close eye on their activities.

In fact, he knows exactly what they are up to but opts not to report them because this would cut off his snacks and get him in trouble with the Gestapo. So he looks the other way.

When Colonel Clink, the aptly-named commandant, does ask him what is going on, Schultz always says, "I know nothing. I know nothing!"

Schultz's now-famous response could serve as the name for the times in which we are now living: The I-Know-Nothing Era.

In his Sunday New York Times column, Frank Rich did a masterful job of describing our times in these Schultzian terms. (Linked below.)

He begins by quoting from Alan Greenspan's recent testimony on Capital Hill when he was pressed about his role in not noticing that the economy, which he was responsible for monitoring and guiding, was ballooning out of control. The former Chairman of the Federal Reserve said, "I was right 70 percent of the time, but I was wrong 30 percent of the time." Quite a confession from the legendary Oracle, and one of Ayn Rand's disciples, who was attempting to claim he was an innocent bystander when all the hanky-panky was going on.

Rich wryly adds, "If the captain of the Titanic followed the Greenspan model, he too could claim he was on course 70 percent of the time."

He goes on to enumerate a too-long list of other leaders in various fields who looked the other way in an attempt to avoid responsibility. It is a very bipartisan list of knowing nothing. And long enough to generate scripts for another TV sitcom, or tragedy.

We have Greenspan's successor, Ben Bernanke, who was an intimate part of the problem which he is now largely responsible for solving. But he too, like Big Al, has yet to recognize much less take real responsibility for the economic collapse that occurred on his watch. Ditto for our current Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, who was up to his hips, while the head of the New York Fed, when all the fun and games were getting underway. He as well now says he knew nothing much.

And let us not forget or exempt Robert Rubin, who when Bill Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury, presided over the final deregulations of financial institutions begun during the Reagan years that almost everyone blames for encouraging the shenanigans that occurred then and continues daily on Wall Street and within the ironically-named investment banks. And then after returning to the private sector, while chair of the Citibank board, Rubin also looked the other way when his bank got itself deeper and deeper into the skeevy business of sub-prime mortgages and their derivatives.

In his testimony last week, Rubin said that at Citi he did not have any "significant operational responsibilities." For someone with nothing much to do, he sure did all right when it came to compensation--he thus far has netted at least $100 million for doing nothing.

And knowing nothing.

Read Michael Lewis' The Big Short if you want the inside story of those under-regulated times and/or want to get sick to your stomach and/or are thinking about joining the Tea Party. In regard to the latter, maybe, after reading Lewis, you will have more reasons to do so. Things were and are that bad.

But my favorite Schultz Defense is the one still being perpetrated by Dick Cheney and his lapdog Rudy Giuliani--that under George Bush, they delusionally continue to say, there were no acts of domestic terrorism, while under Obama there have been. Yes, like the underwear bomber a few months ago whose attempt literally fizzled while, as I seem to recall, on September 11, 2001, unless Bush was inaugurated on September 12th, Bush and Cheney had been co-presidents for nearly eight months when there was that act of terroristic barbarism.

Or am I the one who is confused? I forget, was Bill Clinton still president?

But when Dick or Rudy says, "I know nothing," I believe them--they indeed do know nothing.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

April 13, 2010--Phil Mickelson's "Win for the Family"

As Phil Mickelson strode up to the 18th green in Augusta, with his ball safely on the green and a two stroke lead, he was about to claim his third Green Jacket. CBS's sports anchor, Jim Nance, couldn't restrain himself from gushing, "It's a win for the family." (See linked New York Times article.)

He couldn't have been clearer in pointing out the contrast between Phil-the-family-man and Tiger Woods (who finished tied for 4th) the philanderer.

Thus, the sacred grounds of this temple of golf was in the process of being resanctified.

Even casual followers of golf know how hard things have been for Phil's family. His wife Amy and his mother have both been battling breast cancer. To acknowledge that, on his cap, Mickelson wears emblazoned a pink ribbon almost as prominently as the KPMG and Barclay's Bank logos.

His wife and mother are apparently doing as well as one could hope, but it has been a very trying and emotional time. With victory in hand, when he walked off the 18th green, he embraced Amy, who though weakened by her chemotherapy treatments managed to be there. With tears flowing in high definition, and surrounded by his three daughters, it was a moving family scene indeed. It couldn't have happened to apparently nicer people.

Jim Nance and his colleagues hardly needed to point out that Elin Woods and her and Tiger's two children were nowhere in sight.

Nor did any of them point out that Jim Nance himself recently had had some family "issues" of his own. I would be loath to mention these if Good Jim had managed to restrain himself with the win-for-the-family business. And if, politically, he wasn't such a conservative, family-values fanatic. So much so that he's a regular on the Rush Limbaugh Comedy Hour. And is known to be considering a political run of his own--maybe for the Senate, seeking to represent Connecticut. But there is more about Jim, as you will see in a moment.

This was the culmination of the hypocritical piling on. A day or two before they teed off, Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne publicly chastised Tiger Woods, saying, "It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us and, more importantly, our kids and our grand kids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations we saw for our children.”

Neither he nor his predecessors ever spoke equivalent words about golf legend and legendary womanizer (that was the euphemism used back in the day) Arnold Palmer. And make no mistake, everyone close to the game knew what Arnie was up to between rounds.

In his book, Arnie & Jack, though Ian O'Connor skates lightly over Palmer’s considerable reputation as a ladies’ man, he leaves the last word on that to Arnie himself who, in a quasi non-acknowledgment acknowledgement, says: “I knew a lot of ladies, but I didn’t, I wasn’t one to. ... That was more the talk than it was an action. It was a myth. ... I think I knew a lot of people and I was nice to them and that’s how this all got construed.”

And let us recall that the fabled Augusta National Golf Course itself is not worthy of declaring itself a national course. It has only 300 members, mainly rich and semi-famous white men. Actually, only men. And about all but one white.

Women have been systematically excluded from membership from the beginning, including being deflected from ever thinking about joining the likes of Bill Gates, Jack Welch, and Warren Buffett in the smoking lounge. These noted humanitarians raised not a peep when this was put to the test a few years ago, much less even contemplated resigning in protest. It must be those tacky green jacket that only members and Masters Tournament winners are allowed to possess.

A final word about Phil Mickelson. He is probably the straightest arrow in town. This may be facilitated by the fact that his wife, prior to her illness, followed him to ever tournament in which he played. To celebrate his accomplishments and perhaps to keep an eye on him.

But then again, until the Enquirer broke the news about Tiger, everyone thought that he too was a great family man. So let's hold off either anointing Mickelson as husband of the year or being unduly cynical about what might or might not be the truth about his fidelity.

And, yes, a final work about Mr. Nance. I can't get him out of my mind. Mr. Family Values get tangled up in a messy public divorce a couple of years ago. At 51, he was caught cheating by his wife of 26 years. His playmate at the time was about 23 years old. Nothing wrong with May-September romances but they are best confined to unmarried men. Especially those who are so eager to make snide comments about other's peccadilloes.

Maybe what Rush's best friend was up to was some preemptive philandering. Why wait to get into the Senate before getting in on the action.

Monday, April 12, 2010

April 12, 2010--Snowbirding: The Weather

You speak to her.”

Rona handed me the phone while I mouthed, “Who is it?” She turned her back as I took hold of the handset and walked away.

“Yes? This is Steven. Hello. Who’s this? ”

“Didn’t you say to me,” it was our New York friend, the novelist Peggy Spiegelson, “that you never wanted to live in a place where the primary topic of conversation is the weather?” I nodded and, as if she could see me, she continued, “Well, all I heard from you this winter was ‘Today started out nicely but then the clouds came in and before sunset we had a thunder storm.’”

“Well, we did have many days like that and . . .“

“And then all you talked about,” there was no way to interrupt her, “was how cold it was down there during January and February, ‘When we woke up this morning, can you believe it, it was 36 degrees and there was even frost on the windows.’”

“But it was cold then. And didn’t I also tell you that I had no right to complain? That if we were up in New York it would have been good to have 36 as the high for the day?”

“Yes, you did say that very thing. More times than I want to recall.”

“So? What’s the big deal?”

“Just listen to yourself. Do you know how boring you sound?” I had to admit she was probably right. “The breakfast group met at Balthazar this morning for coffee—Sharon [Short, the noted fashion editor] and George [Western, the noted interior designer] and James [Gilbertson, the noted sociologist]. The usual regulars. And though since you left they made the tartine portion even smaller, and raised the prices, and no longer serve jam in ramekins, most of the time we talked about what’s become of you and Rona.”

“I can’t believe that.”

“What? About the jam or that we spent the whole morning talking about you?”

“That you were talking about us. I’ll manage to live with the jam situation when we get back in a few weeks.”

“None too soon. We’ll have to do a lot of remedial work on the two of you. And please don’t show up in green pants.”

“I don’t have green pants. Though I did buy a pair of red ones at Last Call." I was having fun with her. There is no way I would buy much less wear red pants. I held back from adding, "At least not until next winter."

I did ask, “But tell me more about the jam. I assume they’re still serving jam with the croissants.”

“In those tiny jars that you used to get on airplanes.”

“Do they charge for them? That wouldn't surprise me."

"Not yet," Peggy said with exasperation.

"And what about the butter? Is that at least still in the ramekins?”

“They now serve pats. Wrapped in some kind of foil.”

“Ugh! I hate that. You get butter all over your fingers when you unwrap them.”

“One thing that’s promising though.”

“And that is?”

“You’re sounding more like your old self. You still have some of your New York spunk. Maybe we have less work to do to deprogram you. Sharon was worried sick that with your obsession about weather you might also come back full of reasons why we should feel good about the Tea Party.”

“Well, she’s sort of half right. They do have . . .”

“This is just too much,” she screamed before I could say I was just kidding. But she hung up on me nonetheless.

And then just last evening, Rona and I were sitting out on the lawn after our late afternoon beach walk and saw two of our neighbors who live in Massachusetts wandering toward us with cocktails in hand. We hadn’t seen them for a while—they had been too busy with work to get here the past two months—and so there was a lot to catch up with. Mainly about their health and their three children and seven grandchildren.

Everything they reported was good news, which we were very happy to hear. We had been worried about them.

“Look,” Bill said, interrupting the updates, “that looks like a rain cloud to me.” We all craned our heads to look to the south where he was pointing. And sure enough, a few ominous clouds appeared to be gathering.

“For these parts, a typical mid-April, late-in-the day weather front.” Everyone turned to Rona. “On the Weather Channel they said we should expect this today.” We all gave her our full attention and nodded. “But they also said there was nothing to be concerned about. The weekend should be beautiful. Partly cloudy with high temperatures in the mid-seventies. And not much wind. Just enough to keep things cool, the bugs under control, and the ocean in a nice state of agitation. I love it when there’s some chop on the water. Like now.”

The three of us turned to the ocean, to follow Rona’s gaze, and sure enough there was just the right amount of chop on the water. Though there was a fly that was buzzing around my uncovered head not disturbed by the breeze.

“I should have worn my cap,” I said to no one in particular, while swatting at it.

“This breeze is just perfect,” Sally said. “There’s a touch of humidity in the air and it takes the edge off of it. This is the best time of day. But how was it, the weather I mean, since the last time we were here?”

“Let’s see, it’s been about eight weeks, hasn’t it?” Sally and Bill nodded. “That was late February. Is that right?”

“Yes, about then,” Bill said. I could see him counting the weeks on his fingers. “A little more than eight weeks. And it was very cold then. For here, I mean.” Now Rona and I were doing the nodding. “What was it?” he turned to Sally, “lows in the upper 30s and highs most days only in the 50s? I think they set some weather records. For all time lows.”

“We do remember that,” Rona said while looking toward me for confirmation, “in fact on the coldest day, the one where the high was only 49, the heater in our place stopped working. These units, we learned, produce both cold and hot air but they're really designed for air conditioning. Not heating. So it was probably overstressed by all the heating we were asking it to do.”

“That happened to us too,” Bill said. “And you’re right about the heating and cooling. This is supposed to be Florida where even in the winter you have to heat the place only once in a while. But luckily they came to fix ours right away. It was a switching problem. What about you?”

“The same with us,” I said. “Luckily. But you know,” I quickly added, “considering the weather we missed in New York this winter, where there was a lot of cold weather and at times a great deal of snow, as I kept saying to our Florida friends who were complaining all the time about how cold it was, I kept saying to them, ‘I’m the last person to have the right to complain. I'm so fortunate to be able to be here, to be able to afford to be here when it's so cold and wintry up north.’ And, as you said, if we had been in New York, on many days we would have been thrilled to have 38 or 45 degrees as the high for the day.”

“Look there, look at how those clouds are forming.” Again Bill was pointing to the south. “I bet before too long we’ll have that rain storm Rona heard about on the Weather Channel.” Again we all twisted in our lawn chairs to get a better look.”

“I agree,” Rona said, “I’m sensing some rain in the air.” Sally’s chair almost tipped over from her effort to get a more direct view of the sky.

“I think I felt a drop,” I said. “I’m usually the first one to know when it begins to drizzle. Since I have no hair on top of my head, I can feel the first drop.” I brushed at my scalp both to draw their attention to my balding and also as if to brush away the beginning of the rain.

“It would be a shame if it developed into a storm,” Bill said, “We have reservations to have dinner at Veri Amici and I much prefer to sit at one of their outdoor tables.”

Always wanting to look on the bright side of things, very much including the weather, Rona reassuringly offered, “Again, the Weather Channel promised this was going to be a passing event.”

“I hope so,” Sally said, “This is our first night here in almost two months and we were hoping for a real Floridian evening. You know, under the stars with a gentle breeze and no threat of rain.”

“You know, since I had that arthroscopic knee surgery, to shave my cartilage,” I added, “it’s like having a barometer in my leg. Whenever it’s really going to rain hard, a few hours in advance it gets stiff and even painful.” I pulled up my trouser leg to show them my repaired left knee. “And I don’t feel a thing now. Look.” I flexed my leg to illustrate. “A good range of motion and no stiffness or pain.” I smiled at them, also to try to reassure them that they would have a lovely diner under the stars. “So you can count on beautiful weather later this evening.”

“But now I too am feeling raindrops,” Bill said, looking a bit deflated. “Though the restaurant does have a nice awning and if it does rain there’s something nice about sitting under it and hearing the sound of it.”

In an attempt to change the subject from the weather in Florida, Rona asked, “So how was it up in Massachusetts the past two months? From what I read, it sounded as if it wasn’t too bad. I mean the weather.”

“And that made me feel better about being here,” I jumped in to say, wanting to help make Sally and Bill feel better about the weather changes we were witnessing. “Better because when we’re here and I read about the awful weather you have up there I feel guilty that we’re lucky enough to be down here escaping the cold and snow.”

“You shouldn’t feel that way,” Sally said. She is the kind of person who is inclined to say things such as this to help you feel better—she is a junior high school guidance counselor back in Massachusetts and does that professionally. “You both worked hard for so many years that you’re entitled to be able to get away and live the good life.” She spread her arms to take in the full expanse of the lawn and ocean as if to define further what she meant by the “good life.”

“It’s really staring to rain now,” Bill said, hunching over to keep the still gentle but intensifying rain from pelting his entire body. “Maybe we should call it an evening. Since Rona says it will be nice over the weekend we’ll have more time to sit out here together. Assuming she and the Weather Channel have things under control.” He winked at her while beginning to get up.

“But Rona’s right,” I said in support of her forecasting, “Look, look over there. You can see the rain clouds breaking up and they’re moving east, aren’t they? Which means that this shower will soon be over. More important, she’s right--you’ll have perfect weather for dinner tonight.” Appreciating my confirmation, Rona was smiling and nodding enthusiastically.

Later that evening—and the weather did clear up well before Sally and Bill left for Veri Amici—Peggy called again from New York. “Sorry I gave you such a hard time this morning,” she said, in her most contrite voice, “Do hurry back. We miss you. Darling George said it’s not as much fun here with you guys out of town. Isn’t that sweet since he’s really the one who’s always the most fun.” That was pure Peggy. “And Jim, you know how political he is—almost a real socialist—he said this morning, I forgot to tell you, that he’s actually interested in hearing what you have to say about what all those smart Florida kind of conservatives have been up to. The only conservatives within five miles of here are the ones wanting to conserve what’s left of the original design of Washington Square Park. But by Florida standards, even they are Commies. Talk about boring.”

“We will be back in about three weeks,” I assured Peggy, “and we’ll be eager to fill you in on what we’ve been hearing and learning. It is very interesting. In fact, we spend so much time talking about political things and health care and economics that we hardly have any time to talk about the weather.” I smiled toward Rona.

“I was just joking about that earlier today,” she tried to reassure me, “Really.” She paused then added, “Well, at least partly joking. Talk about the weather to your heart's content.”

Same old Peggy I was pleased to hear. And said, “I knew you were joking. Particularly the ‘at least partly’ part. But, by the way, the weather,” I couldn’t help myself from adding, “has been very nice, though it was showering a couple of hours ago. That’s Florida for you--sunny one minute, teeming the next.”

I smiled at Rona when I read the note she had passed to me. “Stop lying!” it said.

“And,” Peggy laughed before she needed to hang up and race uptown to the theater, “we promise to forgive you even if you show up in those red pants.”

Friday, April 09, 2010

April 9, 2010--Post-Racial?

From a posting on the political website, The Daily Kos:

Is America Now A Post-Racial Society?

Many believed that the election of Barack Obama brought to a close the long, painful, and ugly history of race and racism in the United States. But as the incident with Henry Louis Gates last summer, and the more recent shenanigans with Tea Party activists suggest, racial divisions remain. Which is closer to the truth?

A recent survey directed by University of Washington political scientist, Christopher Parker, finds that America is definitely not beyond race. For instance, the Tea Party, the incipient movement that claims to be committed to reigning in what it perceives as big government, appears to be motivated by more than partisanship and ideology. Approximately 45 % of whites either strongly or somewhat approve of the movement. Of those, only 35% believe blacks to be hardworking, only 45 % believe blacks are intelligent, and only 41% think that blacks are trustworthy.

Perceptions of Latinos aren’t much different. While 50% of white Tea Party supporters believe Latinos to be hardworking, only 39% think them intelligent, and at 37%, fewer Tea Party supporters believe Latinos to be trustworthy. (Full posting linked below.)

Clearly, there is still a lot of work to do

Thursday, April 08, 2010

April 8, 2010--Snowbirding: “If He Wasn’t Dead Already, I Could Kill Him”

“With gold selling for $1,100 an ounce, why do I need these earrings, which I never wear?”

Rona was raising a reasonable question. She did have that pair of hoop earrings which I don’t think I ever saw her wear during the thirty years we’ve been together. “I’m sure you’re right, you don’t wear them; but it feels a little tacky to me to go to one of those We Buy Gold places. You know, the ones in almost every shopping plaza here that have guys in Uncle Sam suits standing out by the road trying to get you to pull in.” Rona was smirking at my pretentiousness.

“I’m serious. These places give me the creeps. The other night on TV, during the local news, I saw one of these gold-buying places advertising that they not only buy rings and old watches but also dental gold. Gold teeth! If we went to sell your earrings there and someone was selling his gold teeth it would male me feel as if I was in a Nazi concentration camp. You know, like at Dachau where they . . .”

“Why is it that everything reminds you of the Nazis? That happened more than 60 years ago. Of course it was terrible, barbaric, but isn’t it time to lighten up?”

“Of course you’re right. I am making selling gold sound worse than I’m sure it is.”

“So you agree then? For me to sell those earrings? I could go by myself, of course, but I think we’d do much better negotiating prices if you were also there.”

“You think we’d have to do that? Negotiate, I mean.”

“We’re not talking Tiffany’s.” That I clearly understood, “But rather that place up Federal Highway called ‘Goldfinger’ or the one in Boynton Beach called ‘Old Golds.’ You know. Named after the cigarettes.”

“I know the places. Very clever names,” I said with more than a hint of sarcasm.

Rona then added without looking me in the eye, “And I also brought to Florida your Uncle Ben’s gold watch band. You know, the one his friend Danny gave him as a gift after Ben bought himself that Patek Philippe. The watch your father inherited after he died.”

“But didn’t we agree we’d keep it as a remembrance of Ben—it was the only really spiffy thing he ever bought for himself.”

“The watch, of course. That is and always will be special and we’ll pass it on to someone in our family, telling them how important a family heirloom it is. But the band is different. Remember the Tourneau people told us a leather band is classic and we bought a really nice one for the watch?” I did recall that. “And they said about the gold band that it was a very nice and generous gift, but for that watch, inappropriate.”

“You still have it? The band, I mean.”

“Of course, what would I have done with it?”

“I suppose what we’ll do now—try to sell it for the gold. At $1,100 an ounce, after everyone’s cut, we should get, what, at least 50 bucks?”

“I assume more, but fifty dollars is still fifty dollars.”

“As long as we don’t go to Goldfingers. I hate James Bond movies and so that I couldn’t bear. And as long as no one in the store is selling his teeth.”

“That’s a deal!” And with these conditions agreed upon, we exchanged high-fives.

The next morning, after coffee at the Owl, we headed up Federal Highway in search of just the right place for us. I insisted, after we passed a store that had hired a clown to lure business, that we would look for a more dignified situation. “Maybe up near Palm Beach,” I ventured. “There’s no way that that crowd would go to a gold buyer who hired a clown or a chicken.”

And sure enough, before too long, Rona spotted a place in a high-end shopping plaza with a discrete sign—Fine Estate Jewelry. Gold Bought. And below that, even more discretely, Highest Prices Offered. Perfect!

After we were buzzed in a young man with a British accent slid over to us to ask if he could be of assistance. He was wearing a charcoal gray suit and an immaculate shirt with crisp French cuffs—both unusual for informal South Florida except for staffs at funeral homes. I was duly impressed.

“We have a few pieces that I think are 14 carat,” Rona whispered. She was looking in the direction of a woman at another counter who was being helped by another young man, similarly attired. It must, I thought, be a version of a uniform. They were deep in conversation and Rona did not want to even unintentionally break their concentration. In places such as this, either selling or buying expensive jewelry or gold, privacy was to be respected.

“Let me take a look,” our perfectly-groomed young man offered.

Rona rummaged discretely in her pocketbook for the small Baggie in which she had the earrings and Ben’s watchband. I noticed, as she spread them on the black velvet pad on counter, that the tiny pile also included the perhaps-gold pin New York University gave her after ten years of service. I was surprised to see that there; and, knowing universities’ lack of true generosity, I suspected she would find that it was at best gold plated and that that would bring her disappointment.

“If he wasn’t dead already, I could kill him.”

Where was that coming from? Who said that? I wondered with a start. How uncharacteristic to hear something like this in such a luxurious place. This was more a setting for whispers, small gestures, and subtle exchanges. The staff, after all were wearing jackets and ties!

“If I told him a thousand times, I told him once, ‘Morris,’ I would say to him. His name was Morris. ‘Morris,’ I would say, ‘If it’s too good to be true, it’s true.’ Anyway, something like that.”

This was coming from the elegantly dressed, bejeweled woman at the other counter. “He would make fun of how I said these kinds of things, but he understood. He ignored me and made fun of me, but,” she said bitterly, “whatever he pretended, he understood.”

Rona is better than I at ignoring these kinds of conversations, but voyeur that I admittedly am, while she continued to show the young man her gold pieces and he ran the laser and chemical tests to determine if they were in fact gold and if so of what kind, I edged closer to the women to listen in on what else she might say about Morris.

“’How can it be true,’ I said to him, as I said a thousand times at least, ‘how can it be that while everyone else is going up and down,’ I meant their money in the market, ‘how can it be with him it always goes up?’ He would say to me, ‘Just go to Worth Avenue and let me worry about money. I make it; you spend it.’

“And that was true,” she continued her confession to the salesman, “He was right about that. That’s where we began and that’s where we ended. Him making and me spending. Like that poem.”

“By Wordsworth, I think” the young man said. “From his sonnet. About getting and spending.”

“Yes, that’s the one. I love poems. They say so much with so few words. And for Morris, that’s where he ended. Getting but at the end with no money left, floating in the swimming pool. Face down. I found him like that. In his sweat suit. A heart attack they said he had. I didn’t let them do an autopsy, but I can assure you that he had a strong heart.”

She paused to compose herself. “A broken man. No longer a man really. With nothing left of what he most valued. More than his own children and grandchildren. Much less me!” She spit that out.

“’Don’t worry,’ he said when he talked with me, ‘I’m taking care of you. You’re still my little girl.’ My friends thought that was so sweet. Married almost sixty years and he still considered me his little girl.”

The salesman smiled at her, but she ignored that, “There is nothing sweet about a nearly 80-year-old woman being compared to a little girl. It was how he disregarded me, dismissed me, and avoided taking me seriously. Nothing sweet about it at all. And you call this taking care of me? All I have from that taking-care-of are these.” She gestured with contempt toward the pile of necklaces and earrings and broaches.

“But at least I have them and a few other good things that maybe I can get enough money for before I too wind up in my version of the swimming pool.” She dabbed a tissue at her eyes and shrugged.

“The last thing I want to do is go live with my children. They have offered to take me in—I of course also have to try to sell the house. At least that part of it that isn’t owned by the bank. He did that too. Mortgages on top of mortgages. To give to that man. That beast. To invest. Which is a joke. There were no investments. Just that pontoon scheme.” The young man chose not to correct her.

“I of course said no to my son and his wife. They have their life and I have what’s left of mine. And now there is just this.” She ran her hands again through the mound of jewelry. “But thank God at least for that. Otherwise I’d be out on the street or packing groceries at Publix. One of our friends, he’s 75, that’s what he’s doing. He’s a bag-boy at Publix. With the Haitians. Can you imagine?”

I stared across the shop as the gold buyer placed her jewelry on a small scale. “And another thing,” she said, turning to look off into space so as not to be a witness as he weighed and measured the remains of her life, “though I knew what was happening, what was going to happen, and though I did try to get him to listen to me, to really take care of me and us, as anger built in me, and it did, it did—I knew that what I understood was happening was, as I said, was too good to believe—still I never thought to leave him, to insist on my share of what we had accumulated, to protect myself. I stayed, I stifled myself, all long knowing what was happening and what I was doing to myself, I stayed for one reason, no two, for two reasons. Because he was my husband, and in my way I continued to love him and, though I’m sure you can’t understand, because I wanted to take care of him.”

The young man had finished his assessment of the gold she had brought in to sell and wrote a number on a card and passed it across the counter to her. She switched to her reading glasses, which hung from her neck on a gold chain. I could see her fingering that chain as if to wonder if maybe she should put that too on the scale. She looked with sadness at the card, shrugged her shoulders again, and nodded yes, as if to say, “What else can I do? I have little else left. Of my jewelry and everything else that has been my life.”

But she said, so softly this time, and without anger, that I had to strain to hear most of what she said. “Isn’t that ironic? How he all the while . . . he was taking care of me, and as it . . . out he wasn’t; and then how I thought I was . . . care of him, which I too wasn’t.”

The young man asked if she wanted cash or a check. Still not facing him, as if talking to no one but herself, she indicated she would prefer cash. “Who knows . . . at the bank. They . . . I’ll take cash please. Yes, that would be better.” She continued to stroke the chain that held her reading glasses. And her pearl necklace.

Rona pulled me away from my eavesdropping, though I strained to continue to listen to her final words. “Look,” she said, waiving a fist of cash in front of me, “Five hundred and fifty dollars! For the earrings, the watchband, and my NYU pin. That too turned out to be gold. 14 carat. And you said we’d be lucky to get fifty.”

Noticing that I was distracted and not paying full attention to her, “She tugged on my shirt, “Did you hear what I said? How much money they gave me for that handful of gold?”

“I did,” I said, still only paying half attention.

“What’s going on with you?”

“I can’t believe what I just heard?”


“From her.” I nodded in the direction of where the Palm Beach matron was still at the other counter. I leaned closer to Rona, and whispered, “She just asked him how much he would give her for Morris’, I mean her husband’s two gold teeth.”