Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Marketing Shivers

There can't be anything else worse for business than to have the owner of the company sail off a cliff and be killed while using the company's product. But this is exactly what happened when James W. Heselden, owner of Segway, the company that produces the one-person electric personal transportation vehicle that somewhat resembles a pogo stick with wheels, fell 30 off a cliff in England while using a Segway all-terrain type model.

Mr. Heselden bought the Segway company in 2009, and was also the inventor of other industrial products that were used by the military.

Imagine Emeril cooking up a pot of something, spooning it to an observer, or even tasting it himself, and he suddenly starts choking and dies on the set. Cut to commercial.

Years ago the Hale-Bopp comet people collectively committed suicide. When their bodies were found in their dormitory-type quarters they were all clad in Reebok sneakers. Certainly not the association Reebok was looking to be part of: outfitting a suicidal cult.

And there were the Reverend Jim Jones people who added poison to Kool-Aid and wiped themselves out years ago in Guyana. Sidewalk sales of Kool-Aid surely fell after that for a while.

It's not always suicide that can taint a product. Years ago on Randalls island the Road Runners Club of New York held a 6-Day marathon race. It was certainly an ultramarathon. The runners got rest periods, but basically keep running around a quarter mile track. It was difficult getting corporate sponsors because no one wanted their logo on someone's shirt as they were being carted to the morgue. Luckily, no one died, and the event was never held again.

Enterprise embarrassments can happen in restaurants, as well. Pete Hamill tells the story that one night when he was in the Lion's Head pub someone at an adjoining table apparently just keeled over and died of a heart attack.

This caused either Pete, or someone with him, to ask the waitress, "What did he order?"

New York.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

You're Fired!

They were separated by a few days, but both major newspapers have now weighed in with news obituaries on Joyce Beber, 80, who as co-founder of Beber Silverstein and Partners advertising agency created ads for Leona Helmsley so well that she was fired four times by the Queen herself, sometimes for very non-advertising reasons.

Stephen Miller in the WSJ first covered the news in the WSJ, and now Douglas Martin has caught up in the NYT.

Each obituary reveals some of the same things, and each revels some things the other doesn't. They are intersecting Venn diagram circles that both need to be absorbed for a fuller picture to emerge.

Billy Martin was fired five times by George Steinbrenner for achieving success and notoriety, in sometimes alternating forms, some having nothing to do with baseball. Joyce deserves a plaque somewhere, just maybe not in an outfield. Perhaps a courtyard.

Now Billy, Leona, George and Joyce are no longer with us.

There might be those who moan that the outsized personalities are disappearing and are being replaced by committees. I don't think this is the case. There are plenty more where they came from. Rupert Murdoch, Jeffrey Zucker, Larry Ellison, Oprah Winfrey, Elizabeth Taylor, are all still with us. Create your own list.

And wait.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On the Bowery

New York City once had a distinct Skid Row. It was the Bowery.

This was the name of the major street that Skid Row was on, as well as a reference to anything having to do with a skid row in New York. The street is still there, and still named Bowery, but things have changed.

The thoroughfare Bowery is only one of two in New York City that I've ever been aware of that does not have a Street, Avenue, Boulevard, or any other designation following its name. The other is Broadway. Symbolically, worlds apart.

Bowery, as a street is really Third Avenue south. The section of Third Avenue, south of Cooper Union is named Bowery. I don't exactly know when it ceased to automatically connote Skid Row, but it did for much of the 20th century. A majority of the people alive today would not associate the area with what I and others of a 'certain age' remember the area to have been.

The family flower shop, that I've referred to a few times, was actually "uptown" from the Bowery, being at 18th Street and 3rd Avenue, nearly ensconced in what could be described as the tony, leafy Gramercy Park area. Nearly. We were close.

In the late 50s and 60s, my formative Manhattan years, 14th Street was a bit of a barrier in keeping the souls of the Bowery from wandering uptown and panhandling in a better neighborhood. Of course it wasn't electrified, and it didn't require a passport or a stop at Customs, but it seemed to represent a street too far uptown that any of the guys would venture north of in search of money for a drink.

Some did cross it, and they didn't blend. And sometimes, when someone's need for money was so acute and their judgment so poor, they occasionally stooped to grab the geraniums we had for sale in front of the flower shop and walk off with several and head for Phil's Neapolitan restaurant and bar at 17th Street, where they would try and sell or barter the pots for a drink from a hoped for sympathetic bartender. Usually, they didn't get that far.

As soon as the geranium disappearance was realized, it was always my job to set off after the unsteady fellow and demand, wrestle, whatever, convince the individual that the pots were not his, and that he should give them back. To me.

I never liked doing this, but the job fell to me because before my father got to the shop from his real job, the only adult in the place was my septuagenarian great-uncle, who didn't walk so well himself. Uncle Pete, by virtue of being a bachelor at the start of World War II was drafted into the Army. As best we ever figured out, he was at least 45 at the time, but he had a pulse and decent vision. So he served his new country by handing out uniforms in the Quartermaster Corps in Kentucky. I was always proud of his discharge papers that said he was of 'excellent character.' Hangovers did affect the person you might meet, however.

So, catch up to the geranium thief I did, always without too much incident or a struggle. I repossessed geraniums as a youth.

What brought these events into active memory was a story I recently saw in the WSJ discussing the documentary ‘On the Bowery,’ a 1956 production that broke new ground in film making. The film has ascended into ‘classic’ status amongst those in-the-know. The movie was being shown at the Film Forum, a retrospective movie house on West Houston Street in NYC for a run of a few days.

The WSJ news story was more than a listing. It was wrapped around a fairly large picture of what was really the opening shot of the movie: a street level view of the Bowery with the 3rd Avenue El overhead, filtering shafts of sunlight onto the cobblestones of the street below, something like looking up through an open Venetian blind. I wasn’t all that old, but it is a scene I do remember.

If it wasn’t for this newspaper story the film would have come and gone, like it probably has a few times in its existence, and I would have never known about it. It is hard to imagine what might someday replace newspapers for efficient and comprehensive delivery of information. But right now I don’t have to give that too much thought. Abraham Lincoln observed that the good thing about the future was that it doesn’t get here all at once.

The film follows three individuals who are not actors, but are indeed Bowery people. I have to say, I grew up hearing them referred to as "bums." It's taken a long life to be a bit kinder in word to what they were, and what they can still be, even if not concentrated in one particular part of the city.

The film basically follows a few days in the life of Ray Salyer, someone who comes to the Bowery as a destination, because basically, he likes to drink, even though he does take breaks from it. He fairly quickly returns to it, because the Bowery is the best place to do what he likes.

Ray is not yet emaciated from prolonged drinking. He doesn't shuffle, and he looks reasonably fit. He is a rugged, good looking individual and might, without too much of a stretch, remind someone today of George Clooney as he looks in his current movie poster for 'The American.' A reviewer in the The Christian Science Monitor says he looks a bit like Gary Cooper.

Reading about the film after seeing it I read that Mr. Salyer was indeed offered roles in Hollywood after the film was released. He turned down a $40,000 contract, saying something, Greta Garbo-like that, "I just want the Bowery and to be left alone."

He apparently didn't disappear into the background all at once. He let himself enjoy some celebrity status when he appeared on an April 24, 1957 telecast of Mike Wallace's 'Night Beat' show on Channel 5, from 11-12 AM. The show's lisiting described that "journalist Carl Rowan and Bowery denizen Ray Salyer" would be Mike's guests. Mike is still with us. I wonder if he remembers Ray.

But Ray felt the Bowery was his home, and he really wasn't heard from again. There were no news obituaries like those for Andy Warhol's film people. Perhaps Ray did go to Chicago eventually. Perhaps he turned things around through A.A. Whatever he did, he did it with few noticing anything.

The most visible of the other two people given screen credits in the film is Gorman Hendricks, a older fellow to whom the film is dedicated. Gorman helps Ray in a few ways. He helps relieve him of his suitcase and few possessions, but then turns part of the hocked value into a handout to help Ray leave the Bowery. Gorman it turns out passed away soon after the film was released.

Visible in one quick scene is a storefront window that says 'Travel Bureau' in a gold leaf lettered arc. Its appearance is almost comical. But as incongruous to its surroundings as it might be, it might also be optimism. There is a way out. Ray doesn't turn here, however.

The bar scenes can be quiet, or raucous, as the number of men in the place increases and the amount of liquor they consume goes up. It never takes much. The bars are not full of men wearing sports logo shirts and hats. In fact, the film is during warmer weather, and few hats of any kind are in evidence. The closest thing there is to sports is an association you have to supply yourself. There is one fellow who is wearing a very rumbled pullover shirt that has the number 12 on its back. Joe Namath’s number, but Joe hasn’t shown up anywhere with that famous number yet. Wait a few years. The wearer is way ahead of his time.

You can catch some signs of what the prices were then. Scotch is 55 cents a shot. Seems like everyone should be drinking that at that price. But muscatel and small glasses of draft beer seem to be what sells. Coins are dropped and pushed forward on the bar. No folding money.

I knew an alcohol counselor once who told me that he met an Indian chief on the Bowery. Twice. Once when he himself was among the inhabitants, and another time when he was there as a therapist. Best he could remember, it was a different chief.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Remembrances of Things Past

Reading the 'The Man Who Never Returned,' by Peter Quinn doesn't require you to be of a certain age and a native New Yorker. It does help, however.

Mr. Quinn is of a certain age, is a native New Yorker, grew up in a political atmosphere, worked in one as an adult, and has been forever fascinated by the disappearance of Judge Joseph Force Crater since sometime between birth and learning the multiplication tables.

So, if you’re old enough to remember Automats, Schrafft’s, the Savoy Plaza, the Third Avenue El, and of course Penn Station (pictured above) before it was torn down and replaced by what still makes some people cry, then there is good likelihood that the fictionalized account of solving New York’s longest running missing persons case is for you.

It is 1955 and Fintan Dunne, Peter Quinn’s free-lance detective has been retained by a media mogul to solve the Crater case, just in time for the 25th anniversary of the Judge’s permanent disappearance that will neatly coincide with a magazine launch by media mogul’s publishing empire. The Judge has been missing since August 6,1930, after hailing a cab (not yellow) upon leaving a restaurant on West 45th Street after having dinner with some people. He was actually unheard from for a month before anyone officially notified anyone that perhaps something happened to him. And he had friends. And a wife.

The Judge Crater case is a true story. The Judge has been missing for 80 years. This is longer than Jimmy Hoffa, and just as unexplained. No doubt someone’s speculation is true. But which one?

Mr. Quinn’s detective, Fintan Dunne, through logic, interviews, old police contacts, favors and speculation of his own, solves the case. Or, does he?

Of course we know, however, that Judge Crater is still considered missing, and the circumstances unexplained. But after reading the book you do accept that the Judge is still missing. Yes, but should he be?

As Mr Quinn observes, if the interest of the living brings some comfort to the dead, then whatever the circumstances of the Judge's demise, he's resting more than comfortably somewhere.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


September 11, 2001
September 16, 2002
Forever linked.

The dates on the stones let you measure the time
Of the lives that lived in between.
The bracketed years reveal to the current
The joys and the troubles they've seen.

On any given day a person is born
You can record the date of their birth.
And on any given day a person can die
And you can record that they've left this earth.

And the morning we made our dusty descent,
An accomplishment undiminished,
We learned of the others and their bracketed date,
And our own, that remained unfinished.

So it is incredible to believe the end can be met
At the hands of someone we knew.
He put an end to life, he put an end to himself,
But he didn't put an end to you.

No one ever dies
Who lives in hearts
Left behind.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

You Had Me At

Michael Burn, 97, Writer and Adventurer

I was probably going to read this obituary just based on the individual's age. Being 97 in 2010 puts you way back there. And there's little I like to do more than think about all that went on in a life that spanned nearly 100 years. But the fine tuned lead by William Grimes clinched it:

Michael Burn, a British journalist and author whose eventful life included an early flirtation with Nazism: a daring commando raid on the fortified port of St. Nazaire, France; an imprisonment in Colditz Castle; a love affair with the British spy Guy Burgess; and a timely intervention in the aftermath of World War II that saved Audrey Hepburn's life, died September 3 at his home in North Wales. He was 97.

Routine stuff. Until the Audrey Hepburn part.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Nose Knows

I only read about the recent race call at Monmouth race track where two horses, one named Mywifenosevrything and the other named Thewifedoesntknow were battling each other down the stretch, vying for the lead. The legendary Monmouth announcer, Larry Collmus was not about to let a once-in-a-lifetime moment pass and accurately made the call, literally and symbolically..."Mywifenosevrything, Thewifedoesntknow...they're one-two...of course they are!"

The horses continued toward the finish line, with Mywifenosevrything prevailing with a two length victory. Thewifedoesntknow finished second, creating a $29.40 exacta.

Giving horses cute, smashed together names is not common, but there's a bit more of it than they're ever used to be. A quick look at either name and it seems completely unpronounceable, foreign. Finalists at some European match, in almost any sport. A closer look reveals that the letters represent words, with no spaces separating them. The Jockey Club, controls the naming of horses and sets a basic length rule that the name cannot be more than 18 characters, including spaces. There are other considerations applied to weed out sexual innuendos, politics, religion, and other taboo topics that might inflame someone.

Thus, the words 'my wife knows everything' get a bit of a Twitter condensation to make the phrase conform to the space rules. 'The wife doesn't know' just sheds the apostrophe.

When playing exactas, it is common when selecting two horses to "box" the order of finish. This means two bets, one for each outcome. It's a hedge, but not one everyone uses. Some people will just make the bet a "straight" proposition, with no hedge.

Given the names of the horses, it's hard to imagine that anyone felt they needed to hedge the bet with a "box." The names should, and this time did, create a predictable order of finish that didn't need a bet being wasted going the other way.

But true to this country's use of replay and rematch, the two horses are again meeting in a race tomorrow. There are other horses in the field, and the order of finish is not really pre-determined. Cute names or not, it is not however uncommon for a one-two finish to be repeated the next time out.

Time will tell. It always does. You can bet on it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Just in Case

My funny bone has been tickled a bit lately. I'd like to think the editors at the WSJ are giving Stephen Miller a little more leash with his obituary writing lately. It's just the playful little boy in me with a frog in his pocket.

How else can you explain that Mr. Miller got away with referring to the recently departed host of the PBS show 'Star Gazer,' Jack Horkheimer, as a "slightly cracked character." It's a great obit about someone I knew nothing of, and now wish I had. I think I might have enjoyed looking up and bumping into Jack on TV, pulling in his take on "naked eye" astronomy. Who even knew that looking up at the sky could be described as "naked eye astronomy?"

And today's obit, on a legendary creator of knives, Bob Loveless, who lived to be 81, chain smoking his way without a tooth in his head, who wore a ".45 sidearm strapped to his belt." as he worked alone, often to midnight, turning out high end hunting knives.

Mr. Loveless apparently became interested in knives when he faked his age at 15 and joined the Merchant Marines, witnessing a few knife fights in foreign ports.

It's not in the obit, but you can bet it crossed Mr. Miller's mind to somehow work in that Bob Loveless was so well prepared in his work that even in his own workshop he brought a gun, just in case a knife fight broke out.

An editor probably got in the way.