Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Roast Beef Sandwiches

I grew up worrying about the atomic bomb and the 15 cent fare. For the first one we had Duck and Cover drills. For the second, we followed the progress of what was ordered from the deli.

I still think about the atom bomb, but I really find myself thinking more often about the 15 cent bus and subway fare. This proves what stays uppermost in a New Yorker's mind long after immediate threats have passed. The fare has always been almost pegged to the price of a slice of plain pizza. And at the current $2.25 it doesn't really seem that bad, adjusted for inflation, to be compared to a price that was existence more than 50 years ago. And just think, it really was once a nickel.

In the 50s and 60s the most important thing in New York City was the preservation of the 15 cent fare. And it was preserved, even after numerous contract expirations with the Transit Union came and went. Money was always found to provide wage increases and preserve the fare. For years.

It doesn't take much to make me think of things and every morning on my way to work when I walk down Seventh Avenue I pass an old, but well preserved, 1920-1930s office building, now condominium, named KhEEL TOWER. It sits on the SE corner of 28th Street. The name is carved, as shown, as part of a granite archway over the entrance. The entrance is flanked by two very contemporary storefronts: T-Mobile on the corner and Starbucks on the other side of the entrance. And nearly every morning, until the other day, I always wondered if the building had anything to do with Theodore W. Kheel, the labor negotiator who seemingly single-handedly helped the contentious sides come to agreements, and in the process also SAVED THE FARE.

I could have easily Googled the name and likely found out if the building and Ted Kheel were connected. I didn't think he had anything to do with it. It wasn't his style. Invariably, by the time I'd reach 27th street on my way to hanging the left at 26th Street, I'd forget about the whole fit of association and would instead concentrate on crossing the street safely.

And as soon as I'd think of Ted Kheel I'd think of the 15 cent fare, Mike Quill, head of the Transit Workers Union, threats of strikes and how we'd hear news reports on the "progress of the talks." I'd also think of hearing that when they took a recess from the talks, whether they were in the same room, or separated in different parts of the hotel, that the principles were still talking, but were taking a meal break and sent out for roast beef sandwiches. Meal breaks were good, because that meant the talks hadn't broken off. There might not be a strike. The fare might stay the same.

Always roast beef sandwiches. It's only now occurring to me that we never heard about corned beef on rye, pastrami, brisket, or ham and cheese. And definitely not tuna fish. It was always roast beef. Negotiators eat roast beef. I wouldn't really know if there was some reporter who might have asked if anyone ordered anything other than a roast beef sandwich. If they did ask, they were probably working somewhere else the next day.

And in the two years I've been walking past KhEEL TOWER I also knew I had never read an obituary for Ted Kheel. I knew he had to be in his 90s and that when he died, maybe I'd learn more about the building. Was there a connection?

Ted Kheel was born in Brooklyn of a wealthy family. His father, Samuel, was in New York real estate. I no longer wonder about KhEEL TOWER.

Except for that funny typeface.


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