Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

An old friend drops by during a dream

There are so many of my friends who I miss now because they have died.

I got to know some people who were 20 to 30 years older than me, and while it was a joy to experience their friendship, knowledge and experience, in the back of my mind there was always the recognition that someday they might be gone.

They still show up in dreams, and recently a friend who I lost in the late 1990s turned up, Allan Rubin. It was nice to “see” him again.

I suppose my first big loss was when my second cousin, Angelo Tagarelli, lost his beloved wife, Veronica. I won’t go into the details but her health began to decline and I still remember the terribly sad day when I sat there at the funeral home and watched Angelo cry about how she was everything to him.

Living on the other side of the state and pursuing my own ambitions and career, I couldn’t be there for Angelo. Losing him was a terrible blow, and I miss him. He and Veronica have turned up in dreams, and it’s always good to see them. I wish I could go back in time to when they lived in their house on Sea Pines Lane in Lantana, where Angelo ruled the garage with the two 1970s-era Buicks, one for him – he called it “Esmerelda” – and one for “the queen.”

In recent dreams, I found Norma and Murray Cossey, who I also miss terribly. Their loss was inevitable, of course, but hit me very hard. They fought and struggled in their lives, and achieved astonishing success that shows the benefit of hard work and a willingness to embrace new technology. I still have their HP scanner-printer and use it occasionally to scan photos, mainly just to remember that they were the greatest people I’ve ever known.

But it’s Allan Rubin, who never sought the limelight, whose recent appearance in a dream caused me the most happiness.

Allan was a Bible expert, though he was an atheist. Culturally, he was Jewish, and he was a liberal but also a hard-nosed businessman who believed in the values of hard work and effort. One time, in the lobby of The Palm Beach Post, he pointed to the Linotype on display and drew a crowd as he explained how it worked, and how he’d used it to start his business making legal forms.

“I hired a guy to work the Lino,” Allan told me one time, “but he was an asshole who wouldn’t do what he was told. So I watched him work for a week, then fired him and sat down to do the work myself.”

It might seem if you listened to Allan that he was racist against African-Americans, but he actively sought to hire people for his business who wanted a chance to work and earn a living. And he was always proud of the fact that during the Newark riots of the late 1960s, his business had survived, he said, because his workers had banded together and defended it against the rioters.

To me, he was a friend and he was always eager to teach me new things. He’d put me to work on his computer, cataloging the countless books he owned on religion and adding new ones to the database. We’d talk about every topic under the sun. One time, he bought a new Lincoln Town Car and described how he’d sold his other car for less than it was worth to someone who needed a car.

We went up the Florida coast to somewhere for an atheist event, and had stayed overnight. The following evening, he tossed me the keys to the Town Car and said, “I’m pretty tired. Drive to your place and I’ll be rested enough to drive myself home.”

What a joy it was driving that Lincoln. That was some car.

Allan helped out groups financially, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation and even gave knowledge and advice to religious groups that sought it. One religious group, little known in our modern world but of moderate size in the Middle East, has as their object of veneration John the Baptist.

He didn’t believe in any religion, but the ways people found to express religious views fascinated Allan. He told me he’d talk for hours with a leader of the John the Baptist group in the U.S., giving advice on how to present their views.

I still remember the day when, after a couple of weeks of not hearing from Allan, his accountant called to tell me Allan had died. His health had been in decline for a while, but I was shocked and saddened, and I failed to go to his memorial service for some reason.

In any case, he turned up in a dream the other night and was pretty friendly. It was good to see him again.

It might sound macabre to be out there talking about how glad you are to see dead friends in dreams, but I find it comforting. They are gone, but live on in my memory and occasionally my brain brings them out when I’m asleep. It is a bit jarring to see someone in a dream who I know is gone but I guess I have to live with it.

I still miss these friends, though, and wish they were still around.

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June 25, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , | Leave a comment

Colleges that drop football should be cheered, not jeered

When the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also known as UAB, announced it was going to drop football, it was as if the Marines had decided to stop training for amphibious invasions or the Air Force was dropping fighter plane training.

There’s a dangerous notion afoot in the realm of higher education that goes something like this: “Real universities do football.” It’s been around since the turn of the last century and it brings up the heroics of Knute Rockne, George Gipp, former President Ronald Reagan in the movie on Rockne, the phrase “Win one for the Gipper,” the culture of football in states like Texas and Florida, and the belief that football can redeem young men from the scourges of drugs, drink, poverty and premarital sex.

A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times took readers to one of the worst parts of Florida, an economically deprived town of South Bay on the south edge of Lake Okeechobee, where high school football was the key – not to better education – but to escaping from the town to colleges where the educational expectations are minimal but the gridiron hopes are astronomical.

The message young men get is simple: Football pays. Learning doesn’t.

It’s easy for teenage boys to buy into this culture. Older men are out there pitching it every day and offering approval for those who worship at the altar of athletics. The one or two former players who actually make it into the National Football League are lionized as the examples of what can be achieved if one gets the breaks. And for good measure, there are those who reached the heights and fell back, tempted by the evils of the big city: drugs, booze, easy women, easy paychecks that vanish.

Or their body fails them. A turn the wrong way can turn an ankle into a mass of bone and gristle that never regains its former form. Knees break, brains get squished around and you see the result of the old joke of the baseball scout: “Want to sign for a bonus or a limp?”

I was of the most despised class of student at Florida Atlantic University in the early 1990s, the commuter student. Oddly, the professors and adjuncts didn’t imbibe the culture of denigrating the commuter student. There were many in the administration and the student body who viewed the older undergraduate as a kind of hit-and-run driver. We came to the college for venal purposes, just for our own selfish benefit, and left with education and a degree, but hadn’t really put our hearts into it.

One professor told me that the commuter students he knew made his work worthwhile. “You guys show up on time for class, turn in your assignments, sit in the front, participate and have life experience to bring to class,” a political science professor told me.

Sure, there were bright folks among the traditional-age students, but there were a lot of people who lived in the horrible dorms at FAU, joined every club and extra-curricular they could find and whined that they were bored.

“Where’s the football team?” students at FAU would sometimes ask, and they were stunned to learn that they had signed up for a Florida university that had committed the ultimate sacrilege: it did not have a football team.

Though FAU had a good complement of other sports in which it competed with other colleges, including baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis and more, the one that really counted was football. Some students left FAU, and an editorialist on the student newspaper declared that if you thought coming to the university was a mistake because they forgot to tell you about the lack of a football team, you probably were right.

One year, an April Fool’s Day issue of the University Press, the student newspaper I worked on, had a fake front page announcing that a football team was being started.

Florida Atlantic University was less like the University of Florida or Florida State University or Florida A&M, and more like the University of Central Florida or Florida International University or University of South Florida.

The student body was skewed older by people like me who were writing the checks for our tuition, living in our homes and ambitious to change our lives. We didn’t live on campus and didn’t have to cope with the dislocation of leaving our parents’ home because we had dealt with it years before.

Perhaps the traditional-age students of that time (the late 1980s, early 1990s) were frustrated by the lack of a unifying ideal like a football team. But even back then there were many colleges without football teams.

One thing that stands out is an AT&T commercial from the late 1980s that played to all the stereotypes of the young college freshman. The voiceover went like this: “AT&T understands the special relationship between fathers and daughters.” (It was a more innocent time. Today that has a mind-bending double meaning.)

It went along the lines of an 18-year-old girl heading off to college and dealing with the dislocation of being away for the first time. She repeatedly calls her father, often late at night, in tears over being lonely.

Then, one day, she attends a college football game and the team stages a stunning come-from-behind victory. She again calls her father late at night, in tears but in tears of joy, to announce, “Dad, we won! We won!”

The message is: college football is my new family structure.

Football and college have been associated, as I said, since the late 1800s.

Corruption in the college game has been endemic, and the movie “The Freshman” from 1925 and starring Harold Lloyd, was a comedy that, according to Wikipedia, told “the story of a college freshman trying to become popular by joining the school football team.”

One of the funniest quotes is an intertitle: “Tate University — A large football stadium, with a college attached.”

For many people, especially parents struggling to pay for their children’s college, the thought of having to pay to have their progeny attend what is basically a minor league football team with a college attached adds insult to injury.

UAB noted in its press release that it was giving up football because it was “financially unsustainable.”

Here’s the full quote, from SI.com: The fiscal realities we face — both from an operating and a capital investment standpoint — are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the Athletic Department and UAB,” (President Ray L.) Watts said. “As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the Athletic Department, football is simply not sustainable.”

Far from being the source of financial largesse, the football program was sucking the university dry in a financial sense. According to an article in The New York Times by Joe Nocera:

“Watts, it turns out, is a Birmingham native who played football in high school and who attended the university. He gets how important football is in Alabama. But in pulling together a five-year strategic plan for the school, he came to the obvious conclusion that it simply made no sense to continue fielding a football team. (The school is also eliminating its bowling and rifle teams.)

‘Our athletic budget is $30 million,’ he told me when we spoke. Of that amount, $20 million comes directly from the school — either through student fees or direct subsidies from the overall university budget. A consultant Watts hired concluded that it would cost an additional $49 million over the next five years to keep the football team competitive with the other schools in Conference USA.
‘We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,’ he said. Then he added, ‘This is driven significantly by the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics.’

Not surprisingly, students, players and boosters were horrified that an economic decision was being made to drop football, but why is that so surprising? Other colleges have made the decision to leave the gridiron and have gone on to great success in an academic sense. In fact, some have reinvested the money in intramural sports, allowing more students to actually play sports than watch sports.

Sure, there is dislocation. Scholarship players dreaming of an NFL deal can go elsewhere and retain eligibility, but students claim that the heart and soul of the college is being cut out.

That’s nonsense. UAB didn’t even have a football stadium. It’s true that a stadium is a sunk cost that makes it harder to cancel the game, but other uses can be found for a facility that’s maybe used 12 times a year at most for its intended purpose.

Florida Atlantic University finally did get its football team. In late 2001, the team, attenuated by about half because of academic eligibility issues, played its first game.

The need to use Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale and Dolphin Stadium in Miami limited attendance at first. The opening of a $70 million stadium, to be funded by private donors, student fees and naming rights, had to be delayed until 2011.

Florida Atlantic has won some games, but gets beaten badly by stronger opponents. When I was working for the Gainesville Sun, FAU was paid $750,000 to play the University of Florida in then-coach Will Muschamp’s coaching debut on Sept. 3, 2011. UF won easily, 41-3.

The battle over whether FAU should have a football team had gone on through the 1990s, and a rigged survey seemed to show that local businesses were in favor of it, so long as they didn’t have to pay for it through higher taxes.

The argument at the time was that the Boca Raton area was not a community, and having FAU football would make the area a community.

It’s a common argument when a sport that is not present in an area is trying to establish itself against strong opposition. “We’re not a community” is a catch-phrase that you hear a lot when someone wants the government to front them the money for a stadium.

I always thought that FAU was a special place with a focus on academics and developing people in the community who would go on to great things, and that sports would be in the background. Watching it succumb to the football culture hurt. This college, opened by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, was to be the kind of place where learning and scholarship ruled.

It would stand apart from UF and FSU, but now it longs to be in that august company with football teams that mostly are paid to lose. It’s sad. Very sad.

Many colleges have made the calculation UAB made and turned in their helmets and shoulder pads. Sure, you take a big hit up front, but in the end UAB will find its way.

It saddens me that FAU will probably struggle along. Maybe, with enough time and effort, the team will become a winner, but the opportunity cost will be incalculable.

UAB made the right choice. Let’s hope more follow.

 

 

December 17, 2014 Posted by | Education, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A friend teaches me about business

Of all the people I miss because they have passed on, the one who was a major influence on me and my views was “Lou,” a fellow I met through an atheist group that I had joined.

Lou lived in Boca Raton, in a very nice development, and I began to visit his house sometime in the late 1980s. We’d sit in his home office and talk about religion, which he dismissed as nothing more than “a business.”

“It’s the biggest, most profitable business in the world,” he’d tell me again and again. “And I know business.”

Over time, his story came out. He had not even finished high school and had joined the Navy in World War II. Sent to the Pacific, he spent the war working in supply on islands. I don’t think he ever saw any combat.

After the war, he returned to the U.S. and began a business in Newark, N.J., that made legal forms. One time, after I had started working at the Palm Beach Post, I took him to the paper. He took one look at the Linotype on display in the lobby and began to describe how it operated.

He had bought a Linotype for his business, he said, and hired a man to operate it. But the arrangement wasn’t working the way he liked, Lou said, so he watched the man for a few days as he did his work, fired the man and started doing it himself.

“He was a jerk,” Lou said.

Lou had a partner in the business, a man who was a lot more hard-edged. Lou could be pretty hard on people, he told me, and sometimes would set me straight when I was wishy-washy in my own thinking.

I felt like there was a sadness about Lou. In his garage was his car, and his late wife’s car. He never talked about her, though he did mention selling the car. He eventually bought a Lincoln Town Car in the mid-1990s, and my great thrill was the time we went up to Longwood, Fla., for an atheist group meeting, and he let me drive the car. It was really a beauty. I’m not a fan of big sedans, but that Town Car really moved well.

In his politics, Lou was hard left. He viewed the purpose of business as making money but also providing a reasonable living for workers. His partner disagreed, he told me, and often they would be sitting on the partner’s yacht while the latter inveighed against the minimum wage and other benefits workers were getting.

Lou pointed out that their business paid more than the minimum wage, and better even than the unions could get their workers. He also liked to mention that they took advantage of tax breaks, federal programs for training workers and more. While many of the employees in his company were immigrants, Lou said, there were many black people working there.

Lou tended to be a hands-on manager, and he’d clear jams at the printing presses by diving under the press to fix problems, often ruining his good clothes. “I didn’t care,” he said. “I needed to set an example.”

As I mentioned, Lou described how he kept the unions out of his shop by the simple expedient of finding out what the unions thought they could get, and beating their offers. It cost them some profit, but kept the workers loyal.

That paid off one night in a way that went beyond dollars and cents.

In reaction to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., rioting broke out in cities in the U.S. Lou was home that evening and saw what was happening in Newark on TV. He feared that the business he had built with his partner was going to burn down like so many others.

The next day, he drove out to the building, and found, to his amazement, that the building was still standing and intact. He asked a worker what happened, and was told that the workers had armed themselves with whatever they had at hand. When the rioters came to torch the building, they had defended it, telling them that their employer was a good man who didn’t deserve to lose his business.

Of course, Lou knew that they were also defending their own livelihoods, but all those years of paying good wages and offering benefits – and being demanding of his workers – had paid off in one moment during the infamous Newark riots.

It shocked him how companies exploited workers, he said. “How are these people going to live if you don’t pay them?” he’d ask. And they certainly wouldn’t stand up for you if the chips were down.

Lou said he was touched at what the workers had done for him and his partner, and it kept them in business though the late 1960s and 1970s.

I’ve never had a business or workers to supervise, but I will always remember that aspect of my conversations with Lou, and especially his memories of that moment when his workers stood up for themselves, and for him.

December 5, 2013 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You don’t need brick pavers to remake a downtown

As I count down the months until I move to Ellenton (almost two months left) I am eager to experience the wonder of the long walk again.

In Gainesville, of late, walking in my area was never that much fun of an experience, and you couldn’t do much walking at night because of the neighborhood. During the day, it could also be a hassle due to the large trucks, people running red lights and more that happen when you mix pedestrians and vehicles.

In Covered Bridge in Ellenton, the interior roads are not perfect for walking, just very, very, very good.

The big problem in Gainesville is that they’ve caught downtown dress-up fever, and that means that to create a “walkable” community, it has to be “unwalkable” for months while the brick pavers are installed. In addition to the need to block the sidewalk, installation of the pavers requires very loud equipment to cut the bricks to shape them just so, which means lots of noise so you can’t hear podcasts or music, and lots of dust and crossing the street to avoid being hit by a car.

Projects to remake an area also can be hazardous to the health of the businesses already there. The infamous Main Street project in Gainesville turned the road into an obstacle course and killed a number of businesses before it was finally finished.

Back in the 1990s, I remember that the U.S. 1 improvement project through Boca Raton nearly wiped out the business district. When it becomes too hard to drive into a parking lot for a business, people vote with their feet.

My favorite catastrophe brought about by a redevelopment plan happened in a private strip mall area, though. Back in the late 1990s, I was working as a copy editor for an outfit called Bankrate.com, and our offices were across the street from a plaza that had parking outside, and a ring of storefronts facing inward. You parked – or crossed U.S. 1 – and entered through an opening in the ring.

On my first visit, I found a place to eat and it was OK, but a few weeks later, it was like entering Hades. The owner had decided to spruce the place up and had chosen an Italian look. This meant brick pavers and lots of other work, and the ringed-in area was full of construction workers engaged in all the activities associated with cutting bricks and other activities that seemed to involve lots of noise and dust. The workers also smoked incessantly.

The air was dense with brick dust, the noise of the brick cutters was brutal, and the parking lot was filled with construction vehicles. Business owners were gathering together to complain that they were being ruined by the noise, dust and more. Men with leaf blowers fanned out at times to blow the dust into the air.

“This is killing my business,” one woman business owner shouted to another over the howling racket.

The eateries closed down eventually, killed by the access difficulties and the fact that you couldn’t have a quiet conversation in the restaurants. When the work was finally done, the plaza looked really nice, but it was deserted.

Most downtown redevelopment schemes I’ve seen seem to work at cross-purposes, mainly because the people often don’t know what they want.

For example, suburbanites like myself are used to the easy availability of parking spaces. Bringing us to places where you might have to drive around and look for a spot, then parallel park on a busy road, can be a challenge. Throw in the fact that suburban shopping places offer free and reasonably parking, and the downtown areas invariably try to charge for parking or levy fines for overstaying an arbitrary limit, and you have a recipe for disaster as people come to downtown for the amenities, then must watch the clock and leave early to avoid a parking ticket or towing.

There has to be a middle ground somewhere.

One interesting thing about walking is that I could walk another route, but it’s far less interesting and also annoying. Employees of Shands Hospital congregate and often block the sidewalk because they can smoke on the sidewalk, and it can be a pain to have to dodge smokers and hold your breath while you walk.

Plus, my favorite route includes the university, and the view is always great.

January 6, 2012 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment