Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Need a lift? Call me at Lyft

If it’s Thursday or Friday and you’re heading somewhere in the Bradenton-Sarasota-Tampa Bay area, now you can call on me and I’ll give you a “Lyft.”

I recently became a driver for Lyft to make some extra money (not to write a book, though that might happen), and on March 30-31, did my first drives for Lyft.

I’ll share my experiences and the tips I learned the hard way here.

Stay tuned.

April 1, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Wildest Times of My Life: Catholic School Bazaars in the 1970s

For many people, Catholic school is nuns, confession, communion, getting rapped on the knuckles and being terrorized into submission by adults who have an all-powerful invisible friend that confers on them the ultimate superiority.

As someone who began to question the whole religion thing early on but kept conforming, I suppose I was part of the problem. Later, I would condemn superiors who I felt “pretended to be religious” out of the desire for personal gain – going to the same church as the boss in order to suck up to him or her – but I have to confess I did it, too, for a while.

Where I grew up on 80th Street in what was then called Elmhurst in the Queens borough of New York City (a Zip code change much later resulted in the area being relocated into Middle Village) there were three big Catholic parishes: Our Lady of Hope (OLH), on Eliot Avenue; Resurrection-Ascension (known to all as RA); at Eliot Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard; and St. Adalbert’s (known as St. A’s), on 83rd Street in Elmhurst.

I went to OLH, my friend John across the street went to St. A’s and some of the other kids on the block went to RA.

Catholics might have seem repressed, but their fundraising bazaars have to be the stuff of legend. I still recall being taken as a child to the “Feast” in Brooklyn, where you could eat Italian food, bet on horse races (in the days before OTB) and gaze with fear and wonder at the guys in see-through socks on the street corners.

Closer to home, all three parishes mentioned above ran their own fundraising bazaars, and in contrast to the image of the Church as strait-laced and repressive, they could and did literally turn into bacchanals of food, fun and frivolity for all ages.

I didn’t lose my virginity at a Catholic school bazaar, but I bet there are plenty of my peers who did. I did have my first – and last – bad experience with alcohol at the RA bazaar, though, in which I actually blacked out. I experienced fun, disappointment and a lot more, and regret sometimes not being back there to experience them again.

Let’s just say that people really cut loose back then, and maybe the pope wouldn’t have approved.

Fun and games – and a surprise – at OLH
At Our Lady of Hope, the bazaar’s preparations would begin and we students would lose access to the schoolyard, which is where the bazaar’s attractions were located. Workers would assemble the tents’ frames, then put up the tents, and the students in grades one to three who sat in classrooms that overlooked the schoolyard would lose much of their sunlight.

No one cared because the bazaar was coming and that meant seeing friends outside of school, fun food and rides, as well as the possibility of prizes.

Access to the schoolyard had to be severely limited, and security obtained, especially after the prizes for the games of chance were distributed in the tents.

I remember one opening day as a small child, and I was waiting outside and watching as some misguided eighth-grader was dared to climb the fence before the bazaar opened. I recall that he climbed the chain-link fence and came down on the other side, but when he tried to come back his friends kept preventing him. Eventually, he was caught, brought back through the gate and released with a chewing-out.

In addition to the games of chance, there was gambling and kids my age were allowed to bet. There also was a ferris wheel and a couple of other rides.

I still remember that great year when, on the final night of the bazaar, a grand prize drawing was held for a bicycle. My brother Patrick won the bicycle.

The thing was, we thought we’d get the bicycle they showed in the tent, but my father instead received a boxed and disassembled bicycle. I think dad paid a local bicycle store $25 to assemble the bike, and I know Patrick got a lot of use out of it.

Disappointment at St. A’s
St. Adalbert’s had its bazaar after OLH and RA, when it held one, but it was a disappointment. In any case, we were bazaar’d out by this time, and because St. A’s had such a small outside area, nearly all of it was indoors.

Going all the way at RA
There were some wild times at OLH’s bazaars, but the biggest of them all was at Resurrection-Ascension. RA had a huge land footprint, including a gigantic schoolyard, and the rides were pretty extensive. The gambling operation was in a recreation building and down a flight of stairs, which protected it from the elements, and whenever I think of the RA bazaar I can remember it being packed with people.

As a teenager, I can recall some pretty brutal disappointments with girls, including finding out that the girl I had a crush on was a smoker, but there were fun times.

On one occasion, a girl got on this ride where you basically were on the end of a line and spun around. I was standing near her friends and she got on the ride and realized that she was losing her shoes. She was wearing these chunky wooden platform sandals that girls wore back then, and I guess she decided that she’d better take them off and toss them before they landed in traffic in the street.

One shoe landed near her friends, but the other whizzed past my head and hit someone in the crowd behind me.

One of my fondest memories is the walk down the tree-lined Eliot Avenue to the bazaar, and sometimes running into school friends on the way.

But as my crowd got older, we began to get a little crazier. My last memory of the RA bazaar must have been in 1977 when me and my friends went to a liquor store up Woodhaven Boulevard and bought a bottle of some concoction called “Rock and Rye.”

We had beer, and passed around the “Rock,” and were having a great time. My memory starts to fade in and out. I remember being on the Woodhaven Boulevard side, then somehow we were on the Eliot Avenue side.

I was lying on the sidewalk, and I heard one of my friends say, “He’s really drunk. We have to get him home.”

I then sat up and announced, “Let’s go.”

The next thing I knew, I was in my bed and I had a fat lip.

As it turned out, I had tried to bite the curb and my father had not smacked me in the face.

He opened the door to my room, saw me awake, and said, “Boy, you put on one hell of a performance last night.”

I remembered none of it.

Now it’s nearly 40 years later and I live in Florida. But I’ll never forget those times.

Memories
I posed a question on the Facebook group “You Must Have Lived in Middle Village if You Remember …” and got a ton of responses. Here they are, unedited:

Frank Nagy OLH had the Bazaars, I remember Puking on the “Tilt a Hurl” ride

Frank Nagy And the rickety Ferris wheel ride..

Vincent F. Safuto At the last RA bazaar I attended (1977, I think), I got so drunk I blacked out. Good thing my friends got me home.

Marty Muller I remember all the fights at the RA bazaar! Every year same shit ! Lol

Lawrence Burns My Dad worked the gambling tent and the poker games in the brothers house on Eliot ave..Those games went on all night till the early morning…..R.A. good times….

Teresa Grogan You could hear the shouts from the other end of the block “UNDER!!!!!” “It’s UNDER!!!!” LOL

Tony Marine My uncle also dealt poker there!

Jay Scahill Remember the ones at RA. Wish I had pictures

Christine Blondel Maddalena Lots of beer pot and fights lol

Maria Puglisi Definitely “Here comes the rollllll …Under!” lol & the Swinging Gym.

Lydia Bellafiore Best times of my life with my gramps

Debbie Hoffman-Silvagni RA bazaars, the best! Looked forward to it every year!

Doris Tavella I took all my allowance savings ($40 +) and gambled it away at over- under tables. Dang… my Dad was annoyed by my irresponsibility! That was odd, however in the 70’s that minors could gamble at RA ?
All good memories and my losses were like tithes to the church 🙏🏻

Vincent F. Safuto Back then I liked to gamble at the tables, but I had slightly better luck. I know that you could gamble at OLH and no one even bothered to stop you.

Doris Tavella Yes, I recall the tables and probably gambled at OLH. Got it out of my system before I turned 18 and as an Adult in Vegas, I usually go to the shows instead. Thanks RA and OLH… you taught me at a young age that I did not like to loose $

Ken Lenczewski Man, I was young but I remember the OLH bazaars. Lots of fighting and I heard someone was stabbed there

Doris Tavella PS…. I also puked after tilt a whirl and told my Mom it was because I ate belly bombers from White Castle on Queens Blvd. uhhh, oops, did I forget to tell her what I drank that night before the rides….LOL !

Vincent F. Safuto I heard about the dances at OLH that ended in fights and drug ODs, etc.

Ken Lenczewski There was some serious gambling going on in the cafeteria.

Vincent F. Safuto I remember at the RA bazaar one year a girl went on one of the rides and realized she was about to lose her shoes, so she reached down and tried to toss them to her friends.

One shoe landed nearby, but the other whizzed past my head and hit someone in the crowd. And remember, this was when teenage girls wore clunky platform sandals, not flip-flops like today.

Doris Tavella Ha ha, those platforms and clogs are back in style … especially the hard wooden ones like Dr. Scholls.

Vincent F. Safuto Doris Tavella All I can say is I was glad I wasn’t the one who stopped the shoe with my head.

Jeannie Opitz Hernandez Always went to RA

Carolyn Specker Cerrito Not the 70s, but the early 80s

Chris Kiernan Sure do
Worked them for years OLH

Tony Marine My family and neighbors worked the RA bazaar for years. My mom and aunt worked the stuffed animal booth, my grandmother used to sell paper chances that you would peel and read to see if you won. My uncle dealt poker. So many great memories. My cousin and I would buy a bag of zeppoli’s (sp?) and eat them behind the booth my mom worked in. I have a special memory too – my friend and I were riding the ferris wheel. It stopped at the top and we had a great view of the whole bazaar. We looked over across Woodhaven blvd, and there was a large, naked young woman walking across the street. She was wasted. She made her way across the street and started to mingle with the crowd until she was finally grabbed by the cops! True story.

Vincent F. Safuto Love these stories and they’re all great. Doesn’t anyone have photos?

Ken Lenczewski I love these stories, brings back so many memories

Joanne Stankovic Sorry, I would go to St. Margaret’s.

Maureen Zahn Scotch OLH bazaars were the best. I was young when we moved but it seemed like we would get a bag of zeppolis??, lots of powdered sugar!!

John Camilleri My Dad ran a lot of the OLH bazaars for years. I would work in the change booth. All everyone has commented is true, the rickety Ferris wheel, the gambling and what not. The big prize in one of the booths was a 12 inch BW TV!

Jeri Calvaruso Knobloch I went to OLH and I remember the carnivals well but don’t have any pics.

Denise Orphal Baietto I went yo the RA bizzare and won a bottle of wine when

Denise Orphal Baietto I was 16 lol

Martha Tambini I went to RA and just remember having to sell those chances for the bazaar.

 

March 22, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , | 1 Comment

The ever-forgetful Publishers Clearing House

They keep forgetting how to get to my house.

They fail to move online stickers.

They forget my prize choices.

They even lose my address and need to have it confirmed. Over and over.

They are the Publishers Clearing House.

For decades, and even after tons of legal action, the Publishers Clearing House has persevered. Its famous (or infamous) “Prize Patrol” is nearly legendary for its supposed surprise arrivals at people’s houses, presenting them with giant cardboard checks and life-changing sums of money.

Like the Reader’s Digest and Time-Life contests, which used direct mail, the Publishers Clearing House was a legendary user of “junk mail,” filling mailboxes with notices that the recipient was about to lose his or her “special status” because of failure to return an entry, and hey, an order would be appreciated even though ordering something did not improve your (massively low) chances of winning anything.

The movie “Nebraska” shows how seniors could be fooled by their clever language into thinking they had won the big money. Bruce Dern plays a sadly deluded man determined to walk to the headquarters of a company, letter in hand, to collect a non-existent prize.

I remember that people would show up at the Tampa airport, expecting to be presented with a big check for the Time-Life contest.

I once read that a big reason why the Reader’s Digest’s parent company is now a shadow of its former self was that it had to stop running its contest, which brought in tons of revenue, but also lawsuits over the wording of its mailings.

Publishers Clearing House has stopped sending me mailings, but I still get email, and the “official” certificates and other palaver have migrated online. I still recall, though, getting mailings telling me to sit down and then saying that my number was in the final run on the computer, and I might want to consider what I would do with several million dollars. I actually thought I might really have a shot, but noticed that the envelope it came in was mass-mailed third-class mail. Probably everyone on the mailing list got that one.

I’d get scripts I’d have to read, telling me that the last winner had not been enthusiastic enough.

I’d get maps and itineraries, showing nearby florists where the Prize Patrol would buy flowers for my wife (I’m single) and all I had to do was confirm the directions to my house.

Now it’s all online, and I’ve confirmed my address, confirmed the itinerary and “transferred” enough virtual stickers to make me want to hurl.

I read somewhere that in some states, Publishers Clearing House is enjoined legally from many of these activities. Not in Florida, apparently.

But before they finally “process” your entry, there’s the last thing. You click through all the sales pitches for all the goodies you don’t need, and “Wonderful Children’s Stories from the Bible” and so forth, and there’s the reminder that you haven’t ordered anything.

But you can pass that and then you are shown a fake progress bar and finally you’re done. You’re entered yet again in their contest, several months from now, to win the big grand prize.

Tomorrow you’ll get another email telling you the Prize Patrol lost your address, or the directions to your house or you need to transfer more stickers.

Sometimes, people actually win.

One time, out of a mailpiece, I was asked to write why I hadn’t ordered anything. The answer was pretty simple. I didn’t have the money to buy anything. Give me the big prize, I said, and I’ll order everything.

They never responded.

I never ordered. And won’t, until that check lands in my bank account.

In the meantime, I have to again confirm my address.

The Prize Patrol is so forgetful.

March 11, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , | Leave a comment

Thanking the people who got me going

When we embark on changes in our lives, we often leave behind people who have had a tremendous impact on us.

Recently, I was thinking back to the time in the late 1980s when I lived on Aztec Court in the Arbor Glen subdivision of unincorporated Palm Beach County, and the people who lived there. At the end of our cul-de-sac of two-unit townhomes was a married couple, Dave and Linda (real names are different, of course, and I saw from the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser website that they’ve moved on, as have so many of us who lived in those starter homes).

Dave worked for a company that did employment evaluations for people who could no longer do their previous jobs. He and his wife, who was from Kentucky, regularly held Kentucky Derby parties every year and I was invited, as well as their neighbor in the unit, a fellow named Stan. (Not his real name).

Stan and I both tried the singles circuit – without much success – and we had another thing in common: we both worked for the Postal Service. I worked as a mailhandler in the main Hell on Summit Boulevard in West Palm Beach, and he worked as a mailhandler at a post office in Boca Raton.

In fact, Stan and I had an acquaintance in common: Lou had been a postal supervisor who – amazingly – was a decent fellow and tried to fix Stan up with women. Even though the results had been disastrous, Stan still liked Lou. Through some process I never really got the whole story on, Lou ended up leaving management and became a mailhandler at the West Palm Beach main facility, and he and I became fast friends. We’d recite dialogue from the movie “Do the Right Thing,” (he loved to imitate Radio Raheem’s “Love, Hate, routine) and tell each other stories to pass the time.

(I suppose I should note that Lou was African American; his imitations were meant to honor, not ridicule, the movie and its characters.)

Of all the people I worked with at the post office, I missed Lou the most when I left.

Stan had worked in the past at the infamous Lordstown, Ohio, General Motors plant, and had been part of the big strikes that had taken place there over working conditions and abuse by the bosses, so he felt right at home in the post office of the time, except for the strikes. We weren’t allowed to strike at the post office, but I sometimes thought we should have done it.

It was probably Kentucky Derby day in 1987 and Stan and I had sat there and whined about our jobs to Dave, and he finally said he’d had enough.

“Do something about it,” he said, and offered to help us both.

“We’ll have you both over for dinner some night soon,” Dave said, “and I’ll give you the testing I give clients at my job, and then do the same evaluation.”

Dave was an amazing guy, and he and his wife soon had three adorable children. He said the testing normally cost hundreds of dollars, but he’d do it for us for free.

“I will note that how it turns out depends on your attitude, and how eager you are for a change,” Dave said. “I have seen that postal workers often don’t do very well because they can’t find a comparable job outside the post office.”

I didn’t care at this point. I wanted some direction and a few good ideas as to what I could do. The Postal Service had told me that I had nothing, no abilities, no skills, no opportunities. I needed an objective view, and Dave was offering it to me.

A couple of weeks later, Stan and I came over to Dave and Linda’s house, and after we ate he set everything up. Soon, Stan and I were taking tests, filling out forms and following instructions as Dave timed us.

We finished the work and relaxed in the living room with a drink or two, and Dave said he’d contact us in a few days with the results.

One day I saw Dave, and he said, “Come over tonight and I’ll talk to you about the results.”

I did. We sat down and he said, “Stop wasting your life at the post office.”

His evaluation of my results was that I had everything I needed to go to college and succeed, and that I should go to Palm Beach Community College (as it was called then) and register for classes as soon as I could.

The details are lost in the mists of time, and I’m sure Dave told Stan a similar story, but I realized that I needed to make a decision here.

It can be tough to get off a treadmill. I could have spent the rest of my life in the post office, wasting my talents and skills on a job that was never going to give me any satisfaction; in a corrupt, mismanaged organization that never was going to change; and I could look back on a life wasted in my old age.

Or I could take a chance, and do something. I had done it before, when I left Queens a scared teenager and came back a confident Marine. When I had left Long Island and moved to Florida. “It’s time to change,” I told myself.

Dave, thanks so much for showing me the way. Thanks to Dave, I have the great career that seemed impossible 30 years ago.

I overcame my fears, registered for college and soon was on my way to achievements that continue to this day.

I don’t know what happened to Stan. I hope he moved up to bigger and better things, too.

My path was hard, though my postal salary got me through college without any loans or grants as I worked my way through.

Amid the negativity of some of my coworkers and nearly all my superiors, all the way up to the top dope in the Postal Service, the postmaster general, I left the disaster area and soon was working in my chosen field.

What does this story mean for you?

Well, many years ago, there was a made-for-TV movie called “The Burning Bed.” The late Farrah Fawcett played a brutally abused woman – in a true story – who eventually waited until her drunk and passed-out husband was asleep, then covered him and the bed with flammable liquid and set it on fire. She then turned herself in to the police.

She was charged with murder, went to trial and was found not guilty because of the abuse she had endured.

The movie fictionalized some aspects, but when I saw it in the 1990s, one thing really touched me. In an effort to get away and develop herself, the wife began to attend college. She found other women there and a community of help.

But her husband kept coming back into her life, and there’s a climactic scene where he decides to burn her college schoolwork and textbooks. He picks up one of the textbooks, looks at it, leafs through it, and then snorts and shakes his head as he tosses it, and then a match, on the pile of books and papers.

In a symbolic way, he’s reasserting his power over her. In effect, he’s saying, “All this book knowledge is meaningless in the face of my power over you.”

Indeed, I often heard that the “book knowledge” I was pursuing would be useless in my future, and there were many nights when I would lie awake in bed and worry about my planned giant step into the unknown.

What if they were all right, and I was wrong?

But at college, I got the reinforcement I needed to go on.

I used to say that some of the smartest people in the county – the people at the community college and university – thought I was pretty darn smart.

And some of the dumbest people in the county – my bosses at the post office – thought I was a moron.

“I’m going to bet on the smart people every time,” I said, “ and not the dumb ones.”

In the end, I was right. Leaving the post office was the best thing I ever did.

What relevance does this have for your own life?

If you’re considering beginning the process of change, no matter how old you are, go for it. Try to avoid student loan debt but show that you’re determined to follow your dream, whatever it is.

It’s OK to be afraid. When I was in the Marines and was training for electronics at a Navy school, a petty officer in charge of the training said, “It’s normal to be afraid when you go out on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier during flight operations. But if there’s ever a day when you’re about to do that and you’re not afraid, that’s the day you better not step out onto that flight deck.”

Go out there.

Achieve.

You won’t regret it.

February 21, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons | , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Hidden Figures’ book is a story that takes off for many

The next time you go to an airport to catch a flight somewhere, take a break from your laptop or phone to look, and I mean really look, at the airplane that just rolled up to a nearby gate.

Once upon a time, a plane would have discharged a flight crew and passengers who were all white, all dressed up and all certain that America was the greatest nation in the world, and that the apartheid that existed in the South was the only thing that stood between us and Communism.

Today, people of all races, creeds, colors, national origins and political views not only fly the planes, but fly on them. Many see diversity as a strength, not a weakness of America.

But, just for today, look at the plane. Look at the wings. Why are they attached to the plane that way? What are those things on the wing? Why are the wings swept back like that? And who designed that tail? Why does it look that way?

The movie “Hidden Figures” is mostly the usual Hollywood treacle with a strong dose of truth, I must say, but in the book you get the whole story in all its glorious and challenging complexity.

The story by Margot Lee Shetterly is partially her own. She returns to her hometown in Virginia and her parents talk about the people in her community. Nearly all of them worked for NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, at the Langley Research Center, and their stories are the heart of “Hidden Figures.”

The conquest of the sky was fairly easy compared to winning the battle for equality. Virginia was a state that fought integration and equality between the races with every fiber of its being, and its politicians were determined that black people would always ride in the back of the bus, be educated in their “separate but equal” schools and eat in their own cafeterias.

But the federal government’s installations did offer a bit of a refuge.

It was a product of necessity. During World War II, NACA desperately needed smart people, and the country’s white population simply couldn’t provide enough trained mathematicians to do all the calculations needed to improve American aircraft before they left for combat in the skies over Europe and Japan.

More out of that desperation than a desire to make a social statement, NACA’s managers began recruiting blacks to work at Langley as “computers,” the people who did the engineers’ math and helped figure out how to squeeze every ounce of performance from an aircraft.

From “black colleges” in the region, they flowed into Langley, filled out forms, swore a loyalty oath and sat down at desks in the segregated West Area Computing Unit, and they saved the world for us.

Before American planes went to war, they went to Langley to be “cleaned up.” The process involved vast amounts of math as well as the removal of bumps and other interruptions to smooth airflow that could slow an airplane down or cut into its maneuverability.

The “computers” had to navigate a society outside the gates of Langley, and often inside, where Jim Crow was worshipped above all. Many engineers didn’t care what color the “computers” were so long as the numbers were right, but plenty of white workers resented having black people around, and outside the gates the rule was segregation, all the way, forever and ever, world without end, amen.

The end of the war seemed to mean the end of good times for the black computers, but then the advancing technology and the needs of the Cold War intervened. While some left Langley to navigate the segregated higher education still in force for more advanced degrees and in pursuit of goals such as becoming an engineer, many stayed and found advancement as their managers realized their worth and rewarded their skills and motivation.

Computers often left the West Unit to work directly with engineers on projects such as improving wind tunnels, developing and improving the delta wing, developing and improving swept wings and many, many more aviation areas.

As the Space Age dawned, some moved into the rocket teams that were forming and began looking at orbits, trajectories and the effects of heating on re-entry.

Sputnik was a shock to the system, and the work picked up dramatically as the nation pondered the Soviet challenge. One evening in 1958, the workers left their offices and slide rules at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and returned the next day to a new agency: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

NASA was pushing the envelope, as the test pilots would say, but for blacks at NASA the biggest challenges were not just at work. Virginia fought integration, as mentioned above, and even after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision some school districts resisted integration to the point that one Virginia school district even shut down its schools for several years.

One white parent insisted to a newspaper reporter that she’d rather have her children grow up ignorant than have them sit next to a black child in a classroom.

(Florida, another big NASA site, had its own issues. Manatee County did not integrate its high schools until 1969, and only then after fights and race riots.)

Just as today people might declare, “Free health care, then free housing, then Communism,” back then people said, “Integration, then Communism.”

But the “hidden figures” kept on calculating and kept on making progress. The technology advanced, and so did their skills. They loved their work, they loved America and they loved NASA and its missions.

Author Shetterly had to work hard to get these stories out, and some of them still haven’t been told. Many years have passed, most of those whose efforts got us into space have passed on or are in the realm of very old age, but those who are still around remember the days when they were young and doing the math that made our nation great and proud.

Today, segregation is part of a shameful past that is still so hurtful to many people. The “hidden figures” had to fight for something white folks take for granted: the right to go to school and get the best education and training, and to live where they wanted to live. Nearly every step of the black folks’ lives had to be taken carefully, and in trips through the Jim Crow South to visit friends and relatives they had to be careful not to anger a white person or persons on the way. The result could be fatal.

The movie, of course, is the usual Hollywood stuff, but it has its value. If it encourages people to pursue their goals and dreams, it will have done its job.

I would more highly recommend the book over the movie, though, to get the full flavor of the accomplishments of the “hidden figures.”

February 18, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Building your future, one step at a time

I recently read two articles that really inspired me, and the odd thing was that one of them was about a group that ordinarily I’d have a hard time feeling any sympathy for.

In The Daily Beast, a young Hasidic man (link: http://thebea.st/2hFsiwT) described how he decided that despite his community’s strictures, he needed to learn English and get an education. It might seem odd that someone born and raised in the U.S. would not speak English, but in his closed society in Rockland County, N.Y., such efforts were not allowed and could even make him unmatchable in marriage.

In a deal that went down late at night, he bought a small transistor radio and learned English, then got himself admitted to public school. Despite being totally unfamiliar with American culture, he managed to learn his way around and pursue his dreams of getting an education and a good job. There’s an amazing twist to the story, and I won’t give it away. Read it for yourself, and be inspired.

The other story, in the New Yorker magazine (link: http://bit.ly/2gKu2aF), is about men trying to build a better future for themselves after serving time in prison for crimes, many of them bad crimes, in California’s state prison system. Carl Sagan once said that it’s amazing how brilliance can sprout in even the most unlikely places. The men in the story discover books, start reading and become determined to better themselves. Sure, there are a lot of idealists out there who want to help them, but these men are so determined to get ahead and live life the right way that they forge ahead through the many disadvantages placed in their path. There’s still a ways to go for many of them, but they’re getting there.

When I worked in the post office, I remember that one time a woman came up to me and said that she wanted to go to college, as I was. This was in the early 1990s. I had long since given up hope for advancement in the post office, and was focusing on my next career. Her main worry, she said, was that having a college degree might hurt her chances of advancement in the post office.

This was not an idle worry. The Postal Service was and is notorious for limiting the advancement options of people with college degrees. Look, a place that would promote an elementary school dropout is not one that’s going to respect a diploma. Many postal managers were high school dropouts with GEDs who were very proud of their lack of education, which they saw as a sign of wasted time. Even other workers were negative toward my goals.

But I had set my sights higher and was determined to make something of myself. In the meantime, I tried to make change real in the post office, but my low position meant that my ideas never were taken seriously.

Oddly, I was aligned with the views of the postmaster general at the time, but local postal management told me his views had no relevance to the Postal Service. These were the same folks who thought the internet was a passing fad.

I quit the post office in 1994 and began making my way in a new field. I still watch as the post office tries to change and adapt, and cannot because of its leadership. Preventing the smart people from advancing was a good way to protect postal management, but the system is paying the price.

Individuals, though, have to forget this whole notion of blind loyalty to collective groups and forge their own path. It’s not easy, as the young Hasidic man finds out, and the cost can be your ability to ever connect with a woman, but it has to be done.

No one ever regrets going to college, no matter their age. If you’re thinking of doing it, do it! You’ll be glad you did.

December 14, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons | , , , , , | Leave a comment

J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” takes on, defeats stereotypes

A couple of years ago, I wrote a very critical blog post about a book, and the author actually responded.

The author had appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and I lambasted the author and host Terry Gross because I thought the story the author was telling was a complete whitewash. The author had spent time in prison and had read lots of books. He had dealt with the fact that his father was an immigrant by becoming a drug addict and committing strong-arm robberies in New York City.

Now he was “reformed,” he said.

I called B.S. on it all. Negative biographies have been all the rage for the past decade or so, and the “up from the gutter” narrative seems to require drug addiction, crime and more without any consideration for the victims of the author’s past behavior.

In reading “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” by J.D. Vance, I finally realized that this was a story of someone who should be admired. He grew up in the most unstable of families, in an area of the country where poverty is endemic and even the “good economic times” aren’t so great, and with a drug-addict mother who repeatedly goes into rehab, recovers for a time and then relapses, and a rotating array of men who take up with his mother, and comes out the other side determined to rise above his upbringing.

Vance should be a positive role model for everyone regardless of race or color. He had a vast amount of help, though, and he admits that for all the government programs that try to mitigate the poverty and its negative effects, without a grandmother such as his in your corner, you might not win in the end.

She’s a “hillbilly” of the old school, Vance notes, but she moved out of Kentucky with her husband as a young woman to Ohio, where the husband went to work in a steel plant. This was back in the day when a man with little education could take a blue-collar job, stick with the same company for 30 years, and build a life and living.

She has lots of regrets, and this grandmother admits to making a horde of mistakes. Vance is drawn to her despite her toughness (and maybe because of it), and she pushes him to greater achievements. Her lack of education motivates her to push Vance to get an education. When he can’t afford the university, he joins the Marine Corps and achieves success there, then leaves and goes to college on the GI Bill.

One of the best stories, though, is about how he was going to take an advanced math class and needed a $180 graphic calculator. He didn’t have the money, he recounts, and tells his grandmother he’ll have to pass on the class. Somehow, she comes up with the cash, buys him the calculator and then makes Vance bust his ass in that class.

She wants her money’s worth, she tells him in ways that go beyond words. Vance doesn’t disappoint.

Wherever Vance goes, and whatever he does, it’s clear that his grandmother is the North Star who guides him toward success. He wonders at times what his life would have been like without her insistence that he do his best.

Unlike those who think education just gives people ideas above their station, Vance’s grandmother tells him those folks are idiots. She’s so plain-spoken as to be very un-politically correct, noting at one point that her daughter, Vance’s mother, could have done better than trying to kill herself with the family’s new car. She drove it into a pole in a suicide attempt, Vance recounts, and his grandmother notes that it was a waste, and if she really wanted to kill herself, she should have just asked to borrow one of her mother’s guns.

This plain-spoken determination might seem a bit shocking to many of us, but it’s part and parcel of the life the “hillbillies” lead. Opinions are held, strongly and – Vance notes – even when they’re wrong and disadvantageous.

As for the term “hillbilly,” it is to most of us a very pejorative term and one I would avoid using, but Vance uses it and almost embraces it to define a sense of self, family and community even in the midst of terrible circumstances. These folks are pretty strong when you get beneath the surface, I say, and remember that in the main industry of Appalachia, coal mining, it was not uncommon for labor disagreements to be conducted with weapons, and sometimes automatic weapons, borne by police and others in authority and aimed at not only men but women and children.

That breeds a toughness that we city folk will never know, and I admire it.

Vance is a man after my own heart in so many ways. He’s probably the only U.S. Marine to enlist in the aftermath of 9/11 and not get married and have several children during his enlistment. It’s not like in my day, when women and their parents seemed to prefer that their daughter marry federal prison inmates instead of people in the military.

But Vance is so focused that it’s scary. And he’s not alone. He tells the good, the bad and the horrible of how life can turn out, as layoffs destroy the community that the emigrants from Kentucky built in the Rust Belt, and how they battled to survive.

The scourge of drug abuse nearly destroyed their families and their futures, but Vance tells of people who emerged from high school drug-free, went to college or into the service, and eventually went on to great careers or came back to try to rebuild their communities. Beneath the photos of the drug addicted are the regular folks who go to work every day and try to build something against the odds.

I had one worry as I read “Hillbilly Elegy.” It was that Vance’s grandmother was such a force in his life. She helped him with her letters when he was in Marine basic training and his tours overseas. What would happen when she died? Would Vance revert to the way so many others had been?

As it turns out, his beloved grandmother’s death while he’s in the Marines doesn’t divert him from the right path. He mourns and then continues on, finishing his Marine service, readjusting to civilian life and attending college. After graduation, he goes to Yale Law School, though his biological father dismisses it as the “liberal” thing to do. He doesn’t care.

Today, J.D. Vance is married and a successful man working for a capital management company out west.

His story is an indictment of the many efforts to “help” the poor and white working class, and the allure of some political candidates who want those votes, promise much and deliver little.

Ultimately, Vance is saying, you have to go out there, find the best mentors you can and do the work.

That’s a great lesson for everyone, and I highly recommend you read this book.

 

November 6, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Postal Service’s incompetent management can’t even train its employees

My comments are not statistically valid in any way, since they are based on experiences that happened more than 22 years ago, but maybe they’ll shed some light on what the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General is trying to do, which is discover why the Postal Service is spending tens of thousands of dollars for each new hire and why they are nearly all quitting soon after starting work, and why the IG will write a report that’s ultimately ignored.

I was a mailhandler in the Postal Service from January 1983 to June 1994. I was eager at the start, as most postal employees are, to become good at my job and to advance my career. I had heard that the Postal Service was a bad place to be an ambitious worker but was determined to be different. Even when I discovered that the mailhandler craft was disdained as “the strong backs and weak minds” of the system, I was determined to prove everyone wrong.

Having worked for United Parcel Service, I had few fears of the prospect of postal privatization, which I saw as a steppingstone to advancement opportunity. I had thrived at UPS, where I was a Christmas-temp, and had even been advanced from unloading large trailers to pre-loading the famous brown trucks that drivers took on their routes. I worked in a facility that had 40 workers on the night shift and one supervisor, and the workers pushed hard to get the job done because they were paid for a full night even if they got done early.

After I was assigned to the pre-loading, a second manager was brought in for the holiday rush, and part of her job was to help me learn ways to become more efficient in my work. Through her, I learned the importance of putting items in the truck in the correct order so the driver could deliver them. On a few occasions, I’d see a box with the dreaded “OOP” notation, meaning “out of place.” That meant that the driver had found the box but had passed the package’s destination and could not backtrack. I would have “made my book” at UPS but for the bad economy in early 1983. Still, I learned that it was important to train everyone fully in their jobs.

Needless to say, the Postal Service was a culture shock for me. I had taken the test for several crafts shortly after my discharge from the military, but was not betting on getting hired anytime soon. Indeed, I was beginning to pursue educational opportunities and when the Postal Service did hire me, I spent a couple of days wondering what I should do, as I had just started school and the schedule was going to be impossible for me to do both. At the time, I made the least bad choice and took the postal job.

Unlike the UPS facility, the postal facility had a horde of supervisors and managers, and training was not a priority. You learned as you went – if someone wanted to teach you – and while I was criticized for being to eager to learn outside my immediate work area I soon became good at my job. I was working in the Long Island area, where the union was pretty strong and management pretty laid-back.

But I couldn’t afford to live in that area, and eventually moved to Florida. Here I could see the challenge of massive growth – part of the reason I moved there – and the desperate need for change. Supervisors were less tolerant of new-hires and some were very abusive toward workers. Sexual harassment of female employees was rampant and, despite the promises made at orientation, usually accusations were dealt with through threats and extreme abuse and retaliation.

Again, training was never conducted for mailhandlers or casuals. (There was training for LSM operators, and that had to go continually because management seemed to have a goal of 100 percent turnover on the LSMs. They came close, especially with new-hires, very few of whom made their probation.)

I made it clear to my bosses that I wanted training to advance into management, and was basically shot down. Still, I managed to learn that there were correspondence courses I could take, including an introduction to postal management. I was warned that taking correspondence courses could actually hurt my advancement chances, but decided to take them nonetheless, figuring I’d learn skills that I could use outside the Postal Service.

The basic postal supervisors’ course, which no one else took in my facility, was an eye-opener. I really worked that course hard, learning how to deal with people and how to talk to them. Needless to say, reality was quite different but I have always found theory to be a good place to start. I was advised to stay away from the local community college but found that some of the bosses were teaching classes there in postal operations, so I took them and was not afraid to express my views. I probably destroyed my advancement chances in the Postal Service but it was worth it.

The funny thing was that – especially after the violence that broke out in facilities – I was mainly parroting what the postmaster general had been saying. Employees were reporting abusive work environments and often paying the price in severe retaliation despite promises of no retaliation. I learned that postal management was a good place if you were a liar, a sex harasser, an abuser, a practitioner of “creative postal math” and an all-around bad person.

When I finally got a chance to put theory into practice, the reality was that I was a terrible postal manager, as bad or worse than those I criticized. I was relieved and sent back to the mailhandler craft.

At this point, I had a decision to make. My first instinct was to quit. I have always been a deliberative person, though, and in my late 20s was too mature to act impulsively.

So I decided that the Postal Service was not the career for me, but decided to stay and use it to further my own goals. Despite the warnings, I trekked to the community college and began the long process of applying to become a student there. It was a lot of paperwork, and I had to take the ACT, but in the summer of 1988 I began my first course, Introduction to the Social Sciences.

I was advised repeatedly by people in and out of the Postal Service that college was a waste of time, and everyone had a Cousin Harvey who had a fancy degree and was working the drive-through at McD’s but I also learned that when people are afraid of your ambition, they’ll do anything and tell any lies to try and stop you from achieving.

College was like a dream come true for me. Not needing to take out loans or use Pell grants, I eagerly took classes and in three years had a two-year degree. I transferred to the state university and finished my college degree there in April 1994.

I was unusual. The Postal Service had then and has now very, very few college graduates, especially in its management and executive ranks. The facility I worked at in West Palm Beach had almost no college graduates in management, several high school dropouts in management and even a person with just a seventh-grade education in a management position. I had stopped even applying for postal management jobs, knowing I’d be rejected out of hand, and was soon searching for a new job outside the Postal Service.

I was gaining work experience through volunteer work and soon I realized that the best way to escape the postal handcuffs was simple: quit, then I’d have to be more aggressive in my job search.

To make a long story short, I did just that and soon was landing jobs. The confidence gained was immeasurable, and I feel sorry for those who are having a hard time and lack that confidence. I hear “no” a lot more, but that’s age discrimination, sadly. Too bad. I’ve been working and improving my skills and it saddens me that I might soon have no place where they will be wanted. The skills will be needed, but by someone younger than me.

The Postal Service has again abandoned the idea of training, from what I hear. New hires are thrown into work and fired if they cannot figure out the job. It’s a waste of money to hire people just so you can fire them, but as I saw 22 years ago, it’s the only way the Postal Service knows.

I still remember one holiday season when we had a mass of temporary employees milling around, and a supervisor who reprimanded me for showing them how to do their job. “It’s a waste of time to train these stupid assholes,” she said. “They were looking for a job here, so I know they’re idiots. We shouldn’t train people who are just going to quit or be fired.”

I tried to explain that part of the reason the new hires were having problems was because no one was explaining how to do the job, but she was a postal supervisor and I was a worker. I mentioned the postmaster general’s comments, and she said, “Fuck him. The supervisors run the Postal Service and not the postmaster general. Listen to us and not him.”

That attitude is alive and well in today’s Postal Service, and why its grand strategies will always fail.

June 20, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, Uncategorized | , , | 4 Comments

Pat Conroy wore the ring, and much more

Pat Conroy died Friday night, after my newspaper was put to bed.

I wanted to cry.

The son of the man who inspired the book and movie “The Great Santini,” the product of a military childhood and a military academy, who rejected the military but loved the men who defended the nation.

The son of the man who was so abusive, Conroy said once in an NPR interview that whenever the family moved to a new house his mother would have him look for hiding spots for when the “Great Santini” came home drunk and wanted to beat his wife and kids bloody and senseless, just for the hell of it.

I read Pat Conroy’s books when I was in the Marines. “The Lords of Discipline” touched me in so many ways. People keep talking about “The Prince of Tides” in Conroy’s obits, but it’s his book about “The Institute” that really got to me. It’s a tale of betrayal and stunning hatred and racism, and about a boy growing to be a man.

The betrayals are astonishing and maybe a bit overwrought, but hey, Conroy was the man who lived the hell and made the good money, so we can allow him a little leeway.
Plus, as he said in a memorable speech at his alma mater, the Citadel, He wears the ring.

After “The Lords of Discipline” was published, he said in his first speech at The Citadel in a long, long time, in May 2001, he had about as much chance of speaking there as Saddam Hussein or Jane Fonda. We writers like to settle our scores in the things we write, and you all know that I have settled plenty in my writing about the Postal Service. Except I didn’t hide behind fiction. I named names and described crimes and incidents in the post office that will never go punished.

Even then, the book hit close to home.

In his books “My Losing Season” and “The Death of Santini,” Conroy takes you into a family in which there is no fun in dysfunction. Pat recounts a beating from his father in which his mother coaches him on what to say in the emergency room.

On another occasion, at an awards ceremony for high school sports his father wrongly accuses him of playing a practical joke on another student and beats him bloody and senseless in the hall, in front of all the other people there.

Pat gets his rescuers off his father, they get into the family car and his father continues to beat him while driving them home, and after they get home.

Another trip to the ER. Another excuse.

And yet, there was a man – flawed though he was – who wanted to understand his father and his father’s rage that often flowed toward his wife and children.

In the book “The Great Santini,” the son says before the funeral of his father, who died after he crashed his Marine F-4 jet because a ejecting from the doomed plane might have sent it into a populated area — that in spite of everything he wanted to join the Marines, become an officer, graduate from flight school and come home as a Marine 2nd lieutenant with wings over his breast pocket.

Pat Conroy believed in the power of words over the power of fists. In “Lords” he is taunted because he’s majoring in English at the Institute, and because he plays basketball. Read that book and the description of the last game his character plays, a multi-overtime game against another military college that takes every last ounce of his strength and power.

OK, many of his books are overwritten. The critics will always have their say. I say, give the man his due. He wrote from a broken heart about a broken family and the broken lives it yielded. I nearly cried at the end of the nonfiction “The Death of Santini.”

The father, the monster and destroyer of his family and his youth, who drove away everyone, eventually dies. Still and all, the father says he made Robert Duvall a great actor in the movie version, though he insisted to the end that the beatings and all were just the product of a son’s overactive imagination.

Even at the end of “The Great Santini,” the son comes to understand the father amid his determination to never be that father.

Pat Conroy was imperfect. He drank too much. He ate too much. Some in his family said he remembered too much and wrote too much down.

That’s the thing about writers, and I include myself in that category. We see and hear too much, read too much into it, and then put our business on the street for all to see.

In August 1978, I was at a little place in South Carolina, you might have heard about it, called Parris Island. Platoon 2066 was doing the obstacle course one fine morning and those of us who were “eyeballing the area” could see that there was a large group of civilians watching us go through our ordeals.

I heard that they were cast and crew members of the movie “The Great Santini,” which was shooting in nearby Beaufort. They had come to see Marine training.

I fell from the ropes and into the water that day, and I sometimes wonder if Robert Duvall saw me fall. Or Pat Conroy. Or Blythe Danner. Probably not.

Hollywood had to tone down Conroy’s book to get military cooperation for it to be filmed and shown on military bases.

Pat Conroy is at peace now. I will miss him, but I will be sure to remember that when I do my next writing project that no one is feared more than the writer with the facts.

He wears the ring. He can say what he wants.

March 5, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Worrying about a fellow student and his anger

Back in my community college days at Palm Beach Community College, there was a general assumption that the campus was a safe zone where education could take place without fear of violence or other wrath.

While the college police department was often considered the joke of the campus, and its officers and managers little more than Barney Fifes, there was an understanding that you were protected from other students if they got out of hand.

The biggest worry was that because the campus buildings were basically open to the outside someone could intrude. One building had its bathroom access on the outside and I’ll never forget the morning I went into the bathroom to use the facilities and found a homeless man inside. It was a cold day and he was seeking the warmth of the bathroom, while I had to go. I actually smelled him before I saw him, and felt bad for him.

I’m sure women were even more worried about what they might find in their bathrooms.

Our college newspaper, the Beachcomber, was prone to mistakes and other hilarities, and I was a staffer at the newspaper then.

Mind you, lots of people signed up for the paper but very, very few actually showed up at the offices to do any work. For most, it was just so they could put on their resume that they were on staff at the paper. (This was true at the university, too.) It’s sort of like the scam that’s pulled at Harvard. Everybody and his brother is an assistant editor at the Harvard Crimson because everybody and his brother sign up to get on the masthead, but only a few people actually do the work.

The really committed (or crazy) folks like me who wanted a future in journalism actually showed up at the paper, attended meetings and wrote stories. I eventually became news editor basically by the process of elimination – or graduation.

I also came in and wrote and edited pieces. Layout was done at the printing plant, and because I worked nights I couldn’t participate in that.

My job meant I could only have a couple of outside activities at the school, and while my work is cringe inducing now (and I have two PDF files with it; someone digitized the old papers years ago) it shows that I was moving in new directions and learning new things.

But one time we had an incident that actually frightened me, and that’s not easy to do. I mean, I was sometimes worried that someone might be pushed over the limit and “go postal” at the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility, but it nearly happened at the college.

The crux of the dispute was that over a semester break, someone had stolen a computer from the newspaper offices. A report was made to the college police and an investigation ensued. At one point in the investigation, a suspect was named. I was in the clear because I knew I hadn’t taken the computer, though I had used it in the office.

The report with the name of the suspect blacked out finally was released but someone erred in the police department and missed an occurrence of the suspect’s name in the report. A student who had previously shown a volatile temper wrote a story and used the name of the suspect in his story, and was advised that while he could run the story, it had to go without the name of the suspect because it could interfere in the investigation.

The student became so angry and upset he began to act out, began to get violent in the newspaper offices and started throwing things around the office and making threats.

He was ejected from the offices, and then the campus altogether. He eventually was barred from campus after re-entering the campus to use a pay telephone.

I had seen him in full cry and was worried about my safety. Imagine if he had had access to a gun and brought it on campus. We have seen of late the result of people bringing weapons on campuses.

The ex-student wasn’t close to being finished with us, though fortunately it never escalated to weapons.

He bought the trademark for the newspaper and other college publications (Beachcomber had never been trademarked, even though it had existed as the college paper since 1939), and one day announced that he had “published” a sheet of paper that he called the Beachcomber. It was a single page of “news,” and he demanded that the college stop publishing everything with the name Beachcomber, and also sought damages because, he wrote in a legal filing, the college had published two “illegal” editions of the newspaper and the staff of the north campus was working on a magazine with the same name.

Oddly enough, we students were able to bring the right kind of firepower to the issue now. We were upset because the president of the college – whose ego is so enormous that I won’t profane the pages of my blog by printing it, but those in the know will find it easy to figure out – shut down all student publications.

He began bloviating that it might take years to straighten the mess out, but the editor of the magazine was a woman in her 40s whose husband was a lawyer, and he said that the college could publish “illegal” (by the bogus standard the ex-student had claimed) issues because the ex-student had no case. If the college was sued, it would win in court without even going to trial, as the case would be thrown out. The college had been using the Beachcomber name for decades and the ex-student had lied when he applied for the trademark because he said he knew of no other publication with such a name as Beachcomber.

We students who worked hard on the publications were upset, but our anger was directed in an appropriate way, and we eventually got our publications reinstated, then crowed over our victory.

The ex-student still occasionally made news, but mostly for being a jerk.

It was such a different time back then. We never even conceived that someone might come on campus armed and commit violence.

I’m glad it was resolved, of course, and that I got to move on and have a great career, but I wonder about what could have been, and it scares me.

November 20, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, The news business | , , | Leave a comment