I'm taking a few days off from work. Yeeesh. I need it. During my hiatus, I'll be writing in this space with less regularity. Or not at all. I'll be back "in business" on September 6th. I'll see you then.
When I got home last night, around 7:15, rather than going up to my apartment, I took the elevator down to the sub-basement and picked up my 1966 Simca 1600 from the garage attendant.
Some months ago, I had been planning to trade-in the old girl. A 51-year-old car—and a Simca to boot—often causes more problems than it solves. That is, she seemed to be on the fritz more often than she was running.
I called Lothar, the world’s finest Simca mechanic, who has a small shop down in Tom’s River, New Jersey.
“You will not sell the Simca,” he gutteralled. “Like new a top I will make her run.”Lothar was true to his word, and since I picked up the car at his garage a couple weeks ago, she purrs like a kitten on Miltown.
“She is tight as Kelsey’s nuts,” Lothar said when I picked up the machine. And to be sure, the Simca gleamed a gleam any new car would be proud of.
“I have fix-ed the transmission with a new Hurst,” he began, “replaced the motor with an in-line four twin turbo from a 2014 BMW 3-series. The wipers she are new and the heater works now like the gates of Hell.”
We negotiated the bill, with me paying more for the repairs than the car cost in the first place. But that’s ok, I figured. For one, my wife will never find out. For two, the Simca is a beautiful car. And finally, and most important, I’ve grown attached to the machine. If Lothar says she will drive like a dream, well, I believe the old guy. For all the bumps and grinds I’ve had with the Simca, for all her idiosyncrasies, in truth, she’s seldom let me down.
I pulled the Simca quickly onto the East River Drive and headed north to the Triboro Bridge, which some technocrat somewhere has decided to rename the RFK Bridge. But the Simca and I refuse to call it that. It’s the Triboro and will be until I die, like Uncle Slappy still calls Kennedy Airport Idlewild Field.
I drove out to LaGuardia to pick-up Aunt Sylvie and Uncle Slappy who had just flown up from Boca on the 4:45 Jet Blue from Fort Lauderdale. Shockingly enough the flight was right on time, and just as I pulled to pick-up section C, Aunt Sylvie and Uncle Slappy rolled up with their roller bags and waved me to the curb.
“How was your flight,” I began.
“Feh,” Uncle Slappy answered. “I asked for a drink and they ran out of seltzer. This is 2017, who runs out of seltzer.”
Aunt Sylvie countered, “It’s a very popular drink.”
“Popular schmopular,” Uncle Slappy spat. “I’m 89 and a half, if I want a seltzer, a Sprite they shouldn’t try to pawn off on me.”
I tried to break the downward spiral.
“We have at home,” I said, “all the seltzer you can drink, Uncle Slappy. We’ll be there in 14 minutes according to the GPS.”
“Ach,” he spat again. “The GPS knows how thirsty I am?”
I snuck off the Grand Central at the Hoyt Avenue exit, headed down to 21st Street past the Astoria Houses, and took the 59th Street Bridge across the river—thus avoiding the toll on the Triboro. Uncle Slappy, naturally, noticed my maneuver.
“Things are rough with you, boychick? Taking the detour.”
“Oy, Uncle Slappy. If I took the Triboro and paid the toll, you’d ask if I were made of money. If I avoid the toll, you ask if I’m broke. Truth is, I’m doing fine. My investments are at an all-time-high, my apartment’s appreciated beyond my wildest dreams and I’m very happy in my job. I'm just trying to get you some seltzer.”
Uncle Slappy looked out the window as we sailed across the bridge and took in the always-breathtaking Manhattan skyline.
Aunt Sylvie said simply, poetically, “The city sparkles.”
Uncle Slappy agreed. “Like seltzer,” he said. “Like seltzer.”
After six hours on a Mexican Greyhound bus, I arrived in Corpus Christi two hours late, just before midnight and walked the six blocks to the same motel I had checked into almost six months earlier when I was heading down to Saltillo back in early June.
With barely more than a dozen words between us, I had shoved $21 across the scratched formica counter and the night manager on duty shoved a key back to me.
“Elevator through the lobby on the left,” he said without looking up.
“Is there someplace to get some dinner?”
“AJs might be open. Take a right out of the front door.”
I found the stairs and hustled up one flight to my little square room. I threw my team duffle on the bed and put on a new t-shirt. I had been wearing the old one for 17 hours since I left Saltillo. I washed my face, and the water in the basin ran brown with the dust that came off. I combed my hair and brushed my teeth then tripped down the steps to find a burger.
The streets of Corpus Christi were wide and empty. The storefronts were gated shut and the only light came from a flickering street lamp a block ahead. In a minute I found AJs, a long rectangle of a place with five vinyl covered stools at a worn counter and six tables for four or two shoved intermittently against the back wall.
I took “The Bridges of San Luis Rey” out of my pocket and leaned on an elbow and waited for the counterman to bring me a menu.
He decided to skip that step. Instead he walked over with a damp rag and wiped the counter in front on me and gave me a distinctly Bronx-like “what’llitbe.”
In five minutes he was back, pulling a bottle of ketchup out of his apron pocket and with a burger and fries in one hand and a vanilla milkshake in the other. He placed them in front of me and went back to the other end of the counter where he scraped clean the grill with a dirty spatula.
“You’re not from around here,” he said over his shoulder, and not stopping his scraping.
I Sam-Spaded an answer, “I’m not from around anywhere.” I took a bite, “But I’m heading back anyway.”
Truth be told, I hated the idea of heading back to the crypt that was my parents’ home and the judgment and petty meannesses they would visit upon me.
“I played last season in the Mexican League,” I chewed. “Down in Saltillo.”
He walked over my way and leaned on the counter, his cigarette dancing off his lower lip like an acrobat.
“Good enough to play,” I answered, “Not good enough to keep playing.”
He laughed at that and went out from behind the counter and walked to the front of the place, straightening chairs and tables as he went. He pulled down the steel storefront and locked it shut with a giant Master lock, the sort which came down like leaves in the fall when it became dark.
I looked at the bill, and left a five on the counter and got up to leave.
“Good night,” he said and he opened the door for me to exit.
Then he put out his hand to shake mine.
“Even if you’re not good enough to keep playing,” he told me, “you keep playing.”
He went back into the joint to out the lights and head home.
All it takes is a quick taxi ride around New York to see that something is rotten in the state of retail. On some blocks it seems there are more storefronts empty than filled. And every day it seems that some retail denizen has turned belly-up and their neon has been replaced by a giant TO LET sign affixed to their plate-glass. Many people, consultants and other sundry experts among them, attribute this condition to Amazon and their technical prowess. Amazon, after all, can get you anything cheap, faster and with less hassle than anyone else. So competing retailers are told they must modernize and technologyize in order to survive the Amazonian juggernaut. I can take nothing away from Amazon's technological acumen. But I think the reason for Amazon's success is not their modernity, but, instead their old-fashion-ness. What Amazon does better than anyone else is digitally replicate the virtues of shopping in a small American town a century or so ago. First, like an old-fashioned shop-keeper, they greet you by name. Imagine that, a store that knows its customers. Can you imagine that in a Target, or a Home Depot, or even a local boutique? Second, they know what you've bought before. And so, can make appropriate and astute recommendations. Again, in most retailers today you can't find sales-help, much less sales-help who are knowledgable. Third, there are times when after you've bought something, the price has decreased. What does Amazon do? They surprise you by refunding you 27-cents or two-bucks or a nickel. It's a s e m i o t i c way of showing you they're looking out for you. Above are just three examples not of modernity but of a sort of Andy Griffith/Mayberry old-fashion-ness. My two cents says as agencies try to streamline efficiency and call "getting an ad done," delivery, they should think not ahead, but behind. What was it like 75 years ago going to a small sign-painter and getting a poster done? Of course technology changes so our world changes today more in a minute than it used to change in a century. But most people hunger for connection, personal service and respect. If that's delivered technologically and digitally, all the better. If you can "scale" service, friendliness and being polite, no matter what business you're in, I think you're on the right track.
I am fast coming to the conclusion that I no-longer share a language with many of the people around me. In fact, in many meetings I take a sheet of paper (remember paper?) and start marking down words people use that I don’t know the meaning of. Or, better, words that are so over-used, so vague, so pretentious, that they have no meaning altogether.
In my darkest moments I wonder if many people have lost the understanding what language, written, visual and spoken, is supposed to do in the first place. It seems that many of us are trading in a language that obfuscates rather than communicates.
That’s a roundabout way of saying in about half the meetings I sit in, I don’t understand what’s going on, because I don’t understand the meaning of the language being used.
Let’s take a look at a term so simple and ubiquitous that you probably don’t even notice when it is used: nurture email.
I heard that phrase yesterday and all of a sudden, galloped off thinking about it. Let’s see, I said to myself, email’s been around for 20 years. If I’ve gotten 100 emails a day every day for 20 years, I’ve received 730,000 emails in my life.
It’s safe to assume that some of those emails were nurturing, but, and perhaps this is due to my horrid childhood, I’ve never felt nurtured.
I wonder if the same loose-lipped bullshit that allowed Dick Cheney’s CIA to call torture “enhanced interrogation,” allows us to call junk-mail (itself a euphemism for, simply, junk) nurture emails.
Mind you, I am not picking on email here. What appalls me is our sloppy, meaningless use of language.
I’ve never leaned forward.
I’ve never dwelt in an ecosystem.
I’ve never been on a customer-journey.
I don’t know what agile means, or robust, or hundreds of other terms that are so widely used mean.
If you have any interest at all in good, clear communication, I would ask you to read writing that is good and clear to see the difference. Pick-up something by MFK Fisher, or AJ Liebling, or, Updike, or Roger Angel, or my Twin Peaks of good writing, Joseph Mitchell and Robert A. Caro.
There is a precision in their work, weight, distinction and meaning. Clarity. You might be tired of me banging this drum, but to bastardize Con Ed's old mantra of "Dig We Must". I believe that Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," (here) should be read three times a year by everyone who makes their living with words. It might not be the worst idea to clip out his six rules and post them by your keyboard. I may very well be the oldest extant copywriter in New York. Working to be a clear writer has, I believe, kept me active. Which is better than inactive.