Screw Covid!

At 7:03 AM on Christmas Day, he loaded the bags of presents into the car, backed out of the driveway, and set off for New York.

The temperature was 30 degrees, a wet cold, which can be worse than 20 degrees of dry cold. He turned up the heat and loaded the address into Google maps.  (I know, he shouldn’t have done it while driving, but 7:03AM was an hour later than he had planned. And besides, who else would be out on Christmas morning?)

“Two of my kids are quarantining in New Jersey and one in New York, while I’m stuck in PA?!”, he had said to himself the night before, “Screw Covid!”

The rising sun was just a faint glow behind the thick fog that blanketed route 95 and drained meadows and towns of color all the way up and across the Verrazano Bridge. During the entire two hour drive, he saw almost no traffic, just a handful of cars actually following the speed limit and two ambulances dashing like greyhounds toward unknown hospitals instead of being stuck in traffic, sirens hopelessly screaming. It brought back memories of when 95 had first opened and felt safe and sleek.

His plan was to drop off the presents without being seen, just as Santa had always done. Now that the kids were grown, though, Santa would have to be more devious than usual. He’d have to sneak the presents onto front stoops or into apartment lobbies, in daylight, and then bolt before anyone noticed. 

The Manhattan skyline, filtered white by the mist, was unexpectedly etherial and silent. He scooted through empty Queens streets, marveling at a New York so peaceful and quiet, and came to a stop at a three story 1900’s high rise, still dignified, still impressive over 100 years later. Leaving the car running, he tip-toed into the empty lobby with two bags filled with multi-colored socks, artists’ pencils, photos of his son at age 3, and he couldn’t remember what else. Then he ran back to the car and gunned it for New Jersey.

Yes! One down, two to go. 

An hour later, he sneaked onto a grey porch, this time on his toes to minimize sound, in a drizzly, still sleeping neighborhood of Summit, New Jersey. Christmas tree lights flickered through closed curtains. The mist was rising a few feet off the empty street, revealing slumbering trees and silent shrubs, all well groomed and motionless. Another bag left, oh so quietly. 

Back to the car, back up the road, this time toward Morristown.

Two down, one to go!

The last house was ten yards from the road, down a steep set of wet, wooden steps  He duplicated the tip toe dash, this time holding onto the railing with one hand, while the other clasped the last Christmas bag – a hushed feat of balance and strength – but nothing compared to his footrace back up the stairs.

All three down! Including grandchildren!  

The drive back was anti-climactic (with the exception of more cars driving, two trucks barreling, and several ambulances dashing). So, while still in New Jersey he called his kids to see if they found the presents (and to gloat with silent pride). 

“Thanks, Dad. Did you get an Uber driver to deliver them?” asked the first one.

“All I can say is Santa did it”, deftly dodging the real question.

“Yes! What a great surprise!” said the second. “Are you here?”

“No.” he said. “You’re there. I’m here”, getting a laugh and again dodging the real question.

Then, the third: “Are you in Pennsylvania?” 

Later he came up with really clever non-answers like: “I’m always in Pennsylvania” , “Isn’t everyone?” and “Where else would I be?”

But he was tired and without wit. Taking over for Santa was a lot more demanding than he had thought. So he panicked.

“Yes, I am.” – A bald-faced lie, something he had raised these very kids to never do.

He felt guilty, but not for long. There are times when one has to lie in order to uphold the larger truth: Santa is real.  

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Clues For Finding A Great Book This Christmas

Clue #1: 

On the first page of the book, a guy leaves a large estate in BMW’s version of a James Bond car. He is deliberately T-boned by a box truck.

Clue # 2:

The heroine is a CIA agent living on Philadelphia’s Main Line (a place, we all know, where excitement and adventure are biblically forbidden).

Clue # 3:

By page 8, when most books are just starting, the reader is in Italy’s Vatican City watching the Pope scream in terror from his third nightmare this week. 

The book is titled: Main Liners Mysteries VI, Visions, the only unexciting line in 377 pages. It is the sixth in a series of page-turners from Barbara Clement, who invests each book with more twists and turns (and crashes) than a police chase through Rome.  

“Visions” in the title refers to that which I cannot reveal… on threat of…

…It was lunchtime on a fall day, the air filled with vestiges of a balmy summer.  She was sitting at a table on the porch at the Main Line Cricket Club. Her blond hair was precisely cut, her eyes warm and inviting as she sipped a cool drink and perused the menu. She was unaware of the lunch crowd chatter from adjacent tables.  

A man walked up to the table. He paused to look at her for a moment. Then, “Barbara?”

Oh, wait. That’s me. And The Main Line Cricket Club is a stand-in for the Merion Cricket Club, where the upper crust play tennis and cricket, and have since 1865. I’m there for a light lunch and conversation about Main Liners Mysteries VI, Visions.

I notice immediately that Barbara has a certain je ne sais quoi, the kind spies have.  I know. I’ve read John Le Carre and Tom Clancy.   

I ask why the book is set in The Main Line, instead of, say New York or Paris. 

The short answer: because that’s where she and the love of her life, her late husband Charlie Clement lived, and where she still lives. The long answer is more wandering. 

It starts as far away from the Main Line as one can get, not counting Camden. Born in Hutchinson, Kansas, she remembers a very midwestern father and having only one book as a child, The L’il Wooly Lamb. When she is a teenager the family moves to a colder version of Kansas, Minnesota. She completes a Degree in Psychology at the University of Minnesota in 3 years.

…Agents of the CIA noted her strong intellect and put her through a number of tests, each one designed to reveal critical aspects of her intellect and personality – aspects even she didn’t know. The results demanded immediate action. They dangled a hefty salary in front of her. She was torn between her father’s expectation of a cornfed life and…

Oh wait! That’s not from the book, either. That’s from her real story, except it was the NSA not the CIA. And once her father learned the salary, he cherished her independence.

Her career after the NSA includes stints as a columnist for a Staten Island newspaper, Vice President of Advertising and Creative services of a New York fashion company, then VP of International Public Relations for Estee Lauder. When her beloved Charlie changes jobs from Manhattan to the Main Line, she does, too, becoming Assistant VP for Communications and Public Affairs and Constituent Publications at Villanova University, during which she helps set up 6 month internship programs at the Vatican – the only such internships in the entire US.

…In 6 months the outgoing American intern turned the Vatican into her personal school room, absorbing daily routines and the inner workings of this Holy place. Her inviting looks were wasted on most, but occasionally, just occasionally, found admiring eyes…

No! That’s not in the book, either! Although a lot of the book’s action takes place in secret enclaves of the Vatican… with details only a studious intern could have brought back to Villanova…

After the other tables had cleared, I ask Barbara if she worked from an outline, as many authors do.

“Nope”, she says. “I just start writing and the writing takes me and the reader on a great ride.”

And a great ride it is.

Now, I could have included her story about her Jewish grandmother, Sophie, who became a Catholic to avoid discrimination … and at age 15 moved to the US after marrying a 30 year old guy…who disappeared with a new girl friend, not knowing his wife was pregnant… 

But that’s for Barbara’s next book. 

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

Thank you, Bob and Lou…and Phil…and Angelo!

I ran into Greg Landis last week. I hadn’t seen Greg since he and his older brother Jim closed Landis Restaurant, the best lunch place in Wayne, PA, not to mention the entire Main Line. It was right next to the old library, now a doctor’s office on Lancaster Avenue, which is next to a bank building that has had numerous owners over the decades.

Greg, still horse-country handsome, started up right where we had left off several years ago, when I moved out of the area – arguing politics. This time he didn’t love Biden, whereas years ago, he defended Clinton. He always argues policy and job effectiveness, not culture. So we may vote differently, but still remain friends. 

Novel, huh?

Across Lancaster Avenue from the now boarded Landis’ is D’Amicantonio’s Shoe Store.

Angelo D’Amicantonio, a custom shoe maker, came to Wayne from Italy in 1912. In those days people of means would never build homes on Lancaster Avenue because it was a dirt road populated by immigrant riff raff. With resulting low prices Angelo was able to start a shoe store there in 1932. Angelo’s son, Phil, followed in Angelo’s footsteps (if you’ll pardon the expression – OK, I admit it – a Dad joke). He was followed in turn by his sons, Lou in 1974 and Bob in 1978. You can see photos of Angelo and Phil behind the cash register Lou and Bob work today.

“Now”, notes Bob with a hint of a smile, “these buildings are worth a lot more than those homes.” 

The skills that Angelo brought from Italy and passed down to two generations, have made his store a stalwart of Wayne, PA for 89 years: repairing old shoes, softening the backs of new shoes, fitting the shoes perfectly, choosing manufacturers of high quality, and treating customers like family.

If you go to the mall for a pair of shoes, you may get the same brand and even at a slightly lower price, but you won’t have Bob or Lou to measure your feet perfectly or tell you why one shoe brand is better than another. They won’t fix the lace hook on your shoe, as Lou did for my son (“nah, no charge”), or identify my Plantar Fasciitis and give me inserts that made it go away (“Really, Henry. You gotta take care of that”). 

And I doubt very much that you’ll get a history lesson that puts a smile on your face.

That’s a hallmark of “Mom and Pop” places.

One day, when my kids were little and I was up to my eyeballs in work, I took them to Harrison’s, a small clothing store in Wayne where Lancaster Avenue seperates North Wayne Avenue from South Wayne Avenue. Richard Levy, the owner, found exactly the right clothes for each one, even as he helped other shoppers. On the way out I asked if I could send them in by themselves from time to time and have them charge clothes. 

“Sure”. No hesitation, no credit check, no “who do you know?” For the next 5 years or so, they got clothes and never – not once – came back with crummy clothes, or too many clothes, or ill-fitting clothes. Every time, I would drop in a day or so later and pay the bill. We’d chat. And I’d go back to work. 

Harrison’s and Landis’ are memories now, as are Sweet Daddy’s, Wayne Sporting Goods, and so many other stores that define Wayne, PA and all small towns.  

D’Amicantonio’s is about to join them. After over 40 years of 6 day weeks and no vacations, Bob and Lou are retiring. I asked Lou how they feel. 

“The tough part will be leaving the customers.”

I hope another family owned store will replace them, and not a CVS or Verizon or Wells Fargo or some other chain devoid of heart or soul. I hope the same kind of integrity and devotion three generations of D’Amicantonios gave to Wayne will move into the same building. 

And I hope, if you were lucky enough to know Bob and Lou, Greg and Jim, Richard, or any other owners of small shops in small town America, you’ll be thankful. 

I sure am.

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How Manchin and Sinema Beat McAuliffe

It’s the old story of Democrats herding cats vs Republicans walking in lockstep. 

While Democrats dithered and fought over Biden’s “Build Back Better”, Republicans quietly worked together promoting fear of Democrats… (well, Socialists, but that’s what Democrats really are, right?).

Two Democratic Senators and a handful of Democratic House members made Democrats look like the spoiled children they are. 

For weeks, Democrats Manchin and Sinema kept refusing to go along with the other 48 Democrats when 50 votes would have won. They wouldn’t even define what they wanted. And the arguments stretched through the summer like a bad Netflix series: the same inane plot every week. 

Manchin wouldn’t approve improvements slotted for one of the poorest states in the country – his state. He claims his reticence is based on national economic concerns, but it’s really about ego. Sinema, while standing for nothing, tried to wear the mantel of McCain who actually stood for something, all the while collecting huge amounts of Republican money.

For the first time in his life, Manchin, a multi-millionaire holds the rudder of the ship of state and he’s not about to let the crew – or passengers – tell him he can’t steer exactly, precisely, perfectly where he wants to steer. For the first time in her life, Sinema has everyone in the country asking what she wants as she basks in the glory of keeping them all looking for the perfect answer. 

This isn’t just a case of perfect being the enemy of good, it’s a case of perfect and good – even mediocre – being the enemy of narcissism.

Pelosi kept circling the herd, begging and pleading them to go in Biden’s direction. Schumer did everything but prostrate himself before Sinema and Manchin.   

If ever there was proof that members of Congress have one goal in life, to be re-elected, this was it. 

And it has continued for months, slowly and unrelentingly draining the Democratic party of relevance.

As the Virginia Democrats go down in confusion, talking, talking talking – and saying nothing, as Biden limps home from the COP26 Climate Change Summit, weakened by his inability to get things done at home, McConnell and the Republican army, along with Fox News, QAnon, Trump, DeSantis, and others, rub their hands together in anticipation of the 2022 midterms. 

Meanwhile, the climate keeps changing, the homeless keep filling the streets, mothers get no help with their newborns, drug prices make the sick sicker, the infrastructure continues to crumble, children go without care, education continues to slide, the healthcare system continues to spiral, the poor get poorer and the rich don’t care…

All thanks to Democrats doing what they do best: nothing – but talk and talk and talk and talk and….

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

Why are we so divided?

Is it Trump? Yes.  But he’s simply voiced what many Americans have been feeling for decades.   

Is it Capitalism? Yes, but just the unregulated part. Without regulation, capitalism is the law of the jungle. And the lions are winning. Hedge funds are buying healthcare practices and squeezing them for cash, threatening the health of people across the country. Companies like Comcast, Google, Facebook, which operate like monopolies, are killing the fundamental of capitalism, competition. Bezos came up with a brilliant answer to malls, which had been a brilliant answer to town centers. Now malls are racing town centers to oblivion. For many, Amazon is now the only place to shop.  

Is it Politicians? Yes. But just the corrupt ones… OK, pretty much all of them. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is time-honored and painfully true today. Politicians focus on getting re-elected, not serving voters.  The Citizens United ruling gave corporations the political rights of individuals.  Their money now swamps our entire political system, wielding more power than their employees, shareholders, or customers combined.

Is it Education? Yes. But primarily in places where there aren’t enough teachers, classrooms, or facilities.  Democracy needs an educated public in order to function. Our schools are failing our students and our democracy.

Is it Financial? Yes. Between 1963 and 2013 the lowest 10% of the country actually lost spending power. In 2006 the top 0.01% averaged nearly 1000 times more income than the bottom 90%. Is Bezos really 1000 times better than his warehouse workers? Guess who wants change and who doesn’t.

Is it Racism? Yes, by almost any metric you choose, from poverty to incarceration to healthcare to education to wealth. And what else but racism explains the recent efforts of Republican legislatures to suppress the Black vote? 

Is that why we are so divided? Yes, all of the above. But they are just symptoms of the divide. The root cause is more fundamental. And it’s been around since before the country was founded. 

It’s our White Christian culture.

The US, as a Southern Evangelical recently opined, was founded by White Christians, people with shared ethnicity and values, who were fleeing European monarchies. They conquered and chased native people off their lands. They imported African slaves. Their progeny over-powered Mexicans and grabbed a huge chunk of Mexico (Texas) in the process, not to mention parts or all of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Kansas.

Since the early founding we have prided ourselves in being the “melting pot” of the world, a place where people of all races and religions could live together. In fact, though, the “melting pot” has primarily consisted of White Christians from Europe.  

When the Irish fled the potato famine of the 1800’s and the Italians fled poverty in the early 1900’s, they assimilated reasonably quickly, in no small part because they were White and Christian. When the Jews immigrated after WWII, they faced resistance and still do 75 years later. They may have been white, but they weren’t Christian.

In recent years, more immigrant groups, fleeing other calamities, have arrived. Just as previous immigrant groups have done, many are moving up the ladder of the American Dream and into places of influence and power traditionally held by White Christians. But their skin isn’t white, their eyes aren’t always round, and their religions aren’t always Christian. 

And they’ve met increasing resistance from White Christian traditionalists. You see them at Trump rallies, mostly big bellied, big bearded men, shaking their fists and MAGA hats in angry defiance. But you also see them in more sedate settings, less cartoonish than Trump Land.

What links the two groups? Fear. Sure, some is racial. But most is White Christian’s fear of loss of power – over education, capitalism, finance, politics, and more. In other words: fear of cultural change.

As earlier Americans discovered for themselves, each wave of immigrants brings new ideas, new inventions, new energy to the country. A few examples: Sergey Brin (Russia), Eric Yuan (China), Oscar de la Renta (Dominican Republic), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (India). Moreover, the country needs these new Americans at every level, from farm workers to doctors to entrepreneurs.  

Most of these people may look and sound different, but they are as good at their jobs, as ethical, family oriented, caring, and patriotic, as any Mayflower descendant.  Why? Because they come here, not by accident of birth, but by choice and often at high risk.

The country is actually becoming the melting pot it was supposed to be. 

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)