At Some Busy Firms, “Shop at Work” is a Perk

CHICAGO.  For Joe Klesjko, a trader at Wolf/Ram Associates, December is a hectic time of year, and not because of Christmas shopping.  “Our customers would trade 365 days a year if they could,” he says of a client base that hedges their exposure in world tungsten markets by buying the grey-white heavy high-melting ductile hard polyvalent metallic element under its other name–wolfram.

“Buy wolfram–sell tungsten!”

To make matters worse, Wolf/Ram doesn’t close its books until December 31st, and bonuses–if any–aren’t doled out until February, long after employees’ Christmas giving is over.  “I don’t know how much I’m gonna make in December,” Klesjko says.  “I can’t go out and buy Terri,” his third wife, “something expensive and end up with a credit card bill I can’t pay.”

“The pink Post-It Notes are very popular this year!”


So Klesjko’s boss, Mike Nilson, has come up with a new benefit to relieve employees’ stress over Christmas shopping and keep them focused on the bottom line.  “I call it ‘Shop at Work,’” he says.  But, this reporter asks, will gifts purchased on-line arrive by Christmas?  “Are you nuts?” he replies.  “I can’t have traders tying up their computers when the market’s open.”

A world of shopping–at your fingertips!

Instead of a Black Friday or a Cyber Monday, Nilson allows Wolf/Ram’s overwhelmingly male cadre of traders to take items from the firm’s office supply room during the month of December so they don’t waste valuable company time shopping for wives and girlfriends on-line or on the streets of Chicago.

“It’s been a godsend for me,” says Al Kowalski, at 55 the firm’s oldest trader in a young man’s game.  “Last year I gave my wife two eight and a half by eleven inch legal pads.  You should have seen the look on her face!”  Kowalski is divorced now, but says he understands that sometimes break-ups are best for both parties.  “Sure, I could have given her the long kind,” he says.  “But that wouldn’t have been fair to the wives of the guys in accounting, who love those fourteen-inch bad boys.”

Legal pads: Now available in pink!

In the supply room itself, twenty-something Mark Korsiki finds his job to be more fulfilling than he ever dreamed.  “It’s been really great to see guys come in here and put so much thought into whether they should get their wives an Acme ’Plan B’ Pencil Holder or a Princess-model Swingline stapler, in white or ecru,” he says.  “It teaches you that you need to think about someone besides yourself when you’re in a relationship.”

Eek–a mouse!

As for his love life, Mark says he’s waiting for the right girl to come along after suffering a post-Christmas break-up last January.  “The holidays are really hard on couples,” he notes.  “Last year I gave my girlfriend Cindy a 2015 desk blotter calendar, and she was so overwhelmed that I literally never heard from her again.”

Fine As–Phineas Newborn

The unappreciated genius is a stock figure in the literature of jazz, the art form that seems to require long-distance perspective–say, from Europe, or Japan–in order to receive the cultural approval it deserves. Sometimes beauty, like a prophet, goes without honor in its own country.

Phineas Newborn, Jr.

To the list of jazz greats who toiled in obscurity you can add Phineas (pronounced, improbably, “fine-as”) Newborn, Jr., whose failure to achieve the fame he deserved seemed at times self-inflicted.

Newborn was born in Whiteville, Tennessee in 1931 and paid his dues playing in Memphis R&B bands with his brother, Calvin, a guitarist. He recorded with locals including B.B. King in the early fifties, and played with Lionel Hampton and Willis Jackson before serving two years in the military. He moved to New York in 1956 and astounded critics and audiences alike with his precise virtuosity. He could play a fully-scored song with just his left hand, and is credited with inventing a double-octave technique. (This jackleg pianist isn’t quite sure what is meant by that, but it certainly sounds impressive.)

He was 23-years-old when he recorded his first album, The Piano Artistry of Phineas Newborn, Jr., an effort of which jazz promoter George Wein said “the only pianist who has as great, or greater command of the piano is Art Tatum.” Since Fats Waller said one night of Tatum when he saw him in a nightclub “God is in the house,” that would make Phineas a minor deity of the keyboard, one who had only to persist and endure (as Faulkner might put it) in order to become a major one.

Boston-born Roy Haynes, lookin’ preppy.

Jazz critic Leonard Feather seconded that appraisal and pronounced him one of the three greatest jazz pianists ever, but Newborn seemed to be overawed by the acclaim with which he was received when he burst god-like upon the world of jazz mortals. He stepped back from leading a group of his own to join Charles Mingus, then Roy Haynes, then faded from the scene, a pattern he would repeat several times over the course of his career.

Whether Newborn’s problems were physical or mental or simply a preference for his native Memphis, he retreated from the limelight, making only sporadic appearances before he resumed recording in the late 60′s. The jazz revival label Pablo recorded him in 1978 at a time when he was in danger of becoming a curiosity, the subject of a whatever-happened-to? question.

I saw him at the Berklee School of Music in Boston in the early 80′s, and the academic setting underscored the marginal place he had been relegated to in the jazz world; Symphony Hall, where by rights he should have been playing, was right down the street, but there symphonic warhorses and the Boston Pops reign. At intermission I walked into a bar across Mass Ave where the bartender had the TV remote in his hands and was asking patrons whether they wanted to switch from the Boston College game, back in the bounce-pass era of Dr. Tom Davis, to watch the Celtics. “Schoolgirl basketball,” snorted one patron, and the publican switched to the faster-paced game played by the pros. It was an apt metaphor, I thought, for the difference between Newborn and the lagging young pianists of the fusion era.

Newborn was a mentor and inspiration to a number of Memphis-based pianists who came after him including Mulgrew Miller, Harold Mabern and Donald Brown. He died in 1989 at the age of 57.

Saturday Night in Honky Town

It was Saturday night, 6:30, and we still hadn’t figured out what we were going to do for dinner.

“How about Chinese?” I asked my wife.

“That’s not a night out,” she said, “that’s more like take-out.”

“How about that new Mexican restaurant?” I suggested.

“It’s Saturday night,” she said with disdain.  “Eating burritos and black beans doesn’t put me in the mood for romance.”

As always, it fell to me to win the game of twenty-restaurant questions.  “How about Protestant,” I said, struck by inspiration.  “We haven’t eaten Protestant for awhile.”

Even the alleys are clean


“Hmm,” she hmmd.  “I could go for some mashed potatoes,” she conceded.  “But it’s so hard to find a parking space in Honky Town.”

She was right about that.  Most of the meters had been handed down through the generations, starting back when the cows walked off the Mayflower and first came to a stop.

“We could go to the The Busy WASP,” I said.  “They validate your ticket and when you get back to the lot you get six months commissions free on an exchange-traded fund.”

“We were here first!”


“Okay,” she agreed.  “Let me throw on something pink.”

I called and made a reservation for 7:30 and we headed out to the cute little suburb with great schools where we used to live, a place where “starter” homes begin at around $1.3 million–nice start.  We’d escaped from its mean streets when we became empty nesters, although we still bore the psychic scars deep inside.

“Lock your door,” I said to my wife as we pulled up to the first stoplight off the highway.

“Why?” she asked, but before she had the question mark out of her mouth we had already been set upon by one of the town’s infamous “squeegee” men, who began to wash our windshield.

“Hey,” I heard him say through my closed window.  “How’re you guys doing tonight!”  I could tell the guy was a pro from his infectious smile.  Thankfully, we’d been able to get our anti-WASP shots the week before.

“Fine, fine,” I said, lowering my window just a crack.  “Say, I . . . uh . . . don’t really need my windshield washed.”

“Actually, you do,” he said, scrubbing hard at one particular spot.  “You hit a bug, you’ve got a yellow goopy mess here.”

I was hoping the light would change, but the guy had hit the “Walk” button before he stepped into the street, and the extra time the town had added to allow toddlers to cross all by themselves put me at his mercy.  I was stuck.

“Who’s this for?” I asked with resignation.

“The Linden School PTO,” he said as he finished off the corners with what I had to admit was admirable technique.  “Give whatever you can,” he added, “anything over $5 is tax-deductible!”

I handed him a $10 bill and the light changed.  “Thanks a lot!” the guy exclaimed as we drove off.  “Don’t forget to vote Yes on the school bond issue!”

“I see what you mean,” my wife said.  “I’d forgotten how dangerous trips to the outer-city can be.”

“Damn honkies!” I said, disgusted that I’d let one cajole me into parting with my money.

“Uh . . . I don’t think they like to be called ‘honkies’ anymore,” my wife said hesitantly.  ”They’re ‘WASPs’ if you want to be politically correct.”

“I’ll call them whatever I want,” I said.  ”Remember, my mom’s ancestors came from Virginia where there was a whole lot of miscegenatin’ goin’ on.  For all I know I’m part Protestant.”

We drove into the restaurant district of town and I parked in the well-lighted lot off the main street.  I marked our spot on my ticket–for some reason all of them were painted “A-1″–and headed towards the restaurant.  We rounded the corner and, as soon as we hit the sidewalk, walked straight into my worst nightmare–one of the roving street gangs we read about in the paper, but always assume we’ll never encounter.

“Hi there!” a perky woman with frosted blonde hair said as she stepped into our path.  I looked at the embroidered monogram on her cable knit sweater–”LWV”–the most notorious suburban gang of them all, the League of Women Voters!

“We’re not from around here,” I said as I tried to shield my wife from the three women who emerged from the shadows of a Talbots awning.  Gang members are permitted only 2.3 children, and accordingly have to depend on intimidation to fill their ranks.

Where the gang hangs out.


“We don’t want any trouble,” I said.  “We know your lives are hard out here without diversity.”

The three looked at each other, held their collective breath for a moment–then burst out laughing.  I suppose it was better than getting roughed up, but still, my face turned red from shame.

“It’s no trouble at all!” the shortest of the three said.  “We just want to make sure you’re registered to vote!”

“You don’t need a holiday to give somebody a present!”


I was skeptical but my wife, perhaps sensing it was the only way we were going to get rid of them, agreed to take some literature.

“Thanks, I’ll be sure and read this very thoroughly,” she said as she gave me a knowing look out of the corner of her eye.  “You are . . . non-partisan, right?” she asked warily.

“Absolutely,” the gang leader said.  “We support goofy policy positions on both ends of the political spectrum.”

I breathed a sigh of relief as we walked away.  “I thought you handled that well,” I said to my wife.

“I could tell they were all pumps and no Pappagallos,” she said with a little snort.

“So–just preppy wannabes?”

“Right.  I coulda taken them all out with my Kate Spade handbag.”

Our two encounters with the wilder side of the suburbs had delayed us, and as we entered the restaurant we were dismayed to see a line, four couples long, ahead of us.

“Darn it,” I said with disappointment.  “I hope we didn’t lose our reservation,” I said.  I went up to the hostess and gave her our name.  ”We had a 7:30 reservation.”

She looked down at her computerized seating chart and made a little moue with her mouth.

“It’s 7:35,” she said.  “We had to give your table up.”

“I’m really hungry,” my wife said.  “I was looking forward to something cheesy, with spinach on the side.”

I heard a guy behind us clear his throat.  ”I guess some people don’t know about WPT.”

I got the sense he was talking to me, so I turned around with a self-effacing grin.  ”Were you . . . uh . . . talking to me?”

“Yeah,” he snarled.  ”White People Time.  That means when you have a 7:30 reservation, you show up by 7:25–at the latest.”

“Sorry,” I said.  ”I hope we didn’t get your expectations up.”

“No problem,” one of the women said.  ”We’re WASPs–we’re used to deferred gratification.”

Another man in the group was looking me up and down with a contemptuous smile on his face.

“I can tell you’re not from around here,” he said.

“Right, we came out from the city,” my wife said.

“I figured as much,” the guy said.  ”Look at those pants.”

I looked down to my cuffs which fell to my shoes with two breaks in the fabric, just like Enzo, my Italian tailor in the city recommended.  ”What’s wrong with them?” I asked.

“You should be showing at least one–maybe two inches of sock,” another man said.  ”It’s the WASP way.”

I had no idea I’d made a fashion faux pas, and I was starting to get a little uncomfortable.  ”I guess we’ll head back into the city and try you some other time,” I said to the hostess.

As we turned to walk out a guy stood up and blocked our path.  “Hold it right there,” he said firmly.

I’d had enough of the rough stuff for one night.  Maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I decided I wasn’t backing down.

“Outta my way,” I said, and at that the three other men who were waiting jumped up as well.

“No, seriously,” one of them said.  “We know the Jacobs from hockey . . .”

” . . . and we know the Jennings from lacrosse,” another added.

“We’ll take two tables of four, or one of eight,” the leader said to the hostess.  I could tell he meant business–he pulled a major credit card out of his wallet to seal the deal.

I looked him up and down.  There were too few of us, and too many of them.  Sometimes it’s better to run away, and live to dine another day.

“Thanks,” I said grudgingly.  “We appreciate it.”

“No problem,” he said with a sneer, taking no small delight in having faced me down.

The hostess picked up two menus, and we started to follow her to our table, when I felt the hard grip of someone’s hand grab me from behind.  It was one of the women, a tough-looking broad with a David Yurman sapphire bracelet on the hand that squeezed my shoulder–hard.

“Wait a minute,” she said, as she reached into her purse.

I’d left my Glock-19 in the car.  We were defenseless.  “Hit the floor!” I screamed at my wife.

“You’re not going anywhere,” the woman said menacingly, “until you buy a chocolate bar for my daughter Courtney’s soccer team!”


Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Blurbs from the Burbs.”

Hepcat Herb Clark: Bongo-Playing Poet Narc

“Beatnik” George Bermudez, an undercover narcotics officer, learned to play the bongos, memorized Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” and became a published poet in order to infiltrate drug rings.

Review of “St. Marks is Dead” by Joel Millman, The Wall Street Journal

“After I finish my solo do you guys want to buy and sell some drugs?”


As I rang the bell to the “pad” where I was told a crazy drug party was in progress, I gulped to clear my throat–I didn’t want to sound nervous when the host answered the door.  “Beatnik” George Bermudez had had his cover blown the Saturday night before, and I’d been called in to replace him while he went into hiding for awhile.  There was no telling what the beatnik drug “kingpins” would do if they caught a “rat.”  Make him watch an entire Professional Bowlers Association tournament–they were kingpins, after all.  Or it could be something worse, the ultimate in hepcat punishment: force me to listen to an entire evening’s worth of beat poetry.

I checked my shirt pockets; in one I had a voice-activated recorder to collect incriminating drug slang–“Mary Jane,” “weed,” “dope”–as evidence.  In the other, a Sony Walkman with a tape of Oscar Wilde’s “Amor Intellectualis” that I could listen to surreptitiously if anybody challenged me to recite one of his poems.  It was kind of a shibboleth among the druggie crowd; you had to know an Oscar Wilde poem by heart to make it into the inner sanctum, the room at the back of the apartment that had strings of beads hung from the lintel of the door frame to better conceal the illicit activity going on inside.  “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was no good anymore since Hernandez had been reverse-busted, and anyway, I could never figure out how your were supposed to get “jail” out of “gaol.”

Wilde:  “Please–leave me out of this post.”


I heard footsteps coming down the stairs and, when they stopped, I assumed I was being examined through the peephole.  The door opened just a crack–the “dealer man” didn’t unhook the safety chain–and I heard a voice say “Who’s there?”

“It’s me,” I said.

“Who’s is me?” the voice said.

“I think you mean ‘Who am I’–don’t you?”

“Don’t go all existential on me.”

“It’s not existentialism,” I said, bristling a bit.  “It’s just good old-fashioned grammar.”

“I had quotation marks–inverted commas–around the ‘me’,” the voice said.

“Oh, well, in that case, everything’s ‘cool’ man,” I said.  “I’m ‘Hepcat’ Herb Clark.”  I could have added the rest of my moniker–“Bongo-Playing Narc”–but I was undercover, and so was allowed to conceal my identity to the ‘perp.'”

I heard the chain scrape back through the lock, then the door opened and I saw him: Frankie “Skitch” Mayerson, kingpin di tutti kingpins.  “Who sent you?” he said.

joe friday
“You’ve got to get inside the druggies sick, demented heads!”

“Bongo Players Local 148,” I said.

He looked me up and down with a skeptical gaze.  “Lemme see your bongos.”

I pulled my bongos out of my rucksack.  It was usually full of rucks but I had tossed them onto the ruck pile back at my “crib” before coming over.


“Skitch” looked them over, nodded and twisted his mouth into a little moue of approval.  “Not as good as the ones George ‘Beatnik’ Bermudez used to play, but I guess they’ll do.”

I started to step in the door but felt the shock of a stiff-arm to my chest.  “Wait a minute,” “Skitch” said.


“Are you a published poet?”

He must have thought he was dealing with a real rookie.  “Of course I am.”

“Show me your publication credits,” he snapped.

“A day at the beach,” I said with a contemptuous grin on my lips.  “Like fallin’ out of bed.  It’s like takin’ candy from a . . .”

“Enough with the lame figures of speech!”

I reached into my rucksack and fanned my published poems in front of him, like a poker player showing a royal flush.  “Light, plangent voices, Spitball . . .”

He didn’t seem impressed, so I turned over my hole card.

“The Christian Science Monitor.”

I heard him exhale involuntarily.  “The same rag that published Sylvia Plath’s first poem?” he gasped.

sylvia plath
Sylvia Plath: If you close your eyes, you can’t tell us apart.


“The same,” I said, and rather smugly.

“Then you’re jake with me,” he said.  “Come on up.”

I climbed the steps behind him and when we reached his second floor apartment, I entered a den of iniquity.  Once you walked through it, you got to the living room of iniquity, then the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom of iniquity.

“Everybody,” “Skitch” said.  “I’d like you to meet ‘Beatnik.'”

“Hey, Beatnik,” everybody said.  They were slovenly dressed and had bad posture, but each one kept their quotation marks on straight.

“Are you going to play the bongos for us . . . like the last ‘narc’ did?” a guy named “No Nickname” said.

I glared at him.  A few of the other “Bohemians” in the room stifled laughs.  For a group that thought of themselves as “liberated” I thought it was hypocritical of them to stifle stuff.  But that’s how the “beat” crowd was; self-proclaimed non-conformists who dressed alike, talked alike and thought alike.  A bunch of malcontents who were only happy when they were unhappy.  So-called “rebels” who went out of their way to . . .

“Why don’t you stop your internal monologue and . . . like play something for us–‘Beatnik’,” a willowy blonde named “Venus” said.

“Crazy, man!”


“I’ll see you and raise you,” I said, narrowing my eyelids to grim little slits.  “I’m gonna play a bongo solo and recite a poem at the same time.”

There was a gasp from the assembled multitude of attitudinizing post-adolescents.

“That’ll be wiggy!” a woman in a French sailor’s shirt said over the shoulder of the French sailor inside it.

“It would be like breaking the sound barrier, Daddy-O!” a cool tool in a beret said.  “But . . . can you really do it?”

I snorted at him with disdain, and recalled a homely expression from my days of manual labor in one of the “m” states in “flyover country” unknown to these East Coast “sophisticates.”  Out where men were men, women loved them, poems rhymed and jazz had a melody.  “If you don’t think I can do it,” I said, “just hide and watch.”

A few of the crazy cats and kittens heeded my warning and crouched behind the second-hand furniture and coffee table.  “5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1” I counted down, like some mad German scientist about to launch a rocket Americans needed foreign help to build because of the over-emphasis on social skills to the detriment of math and the sciences in our K-12 education system.  And then I fired my jets and achieved lift-off:

Yeah, bongo-crazy baby . . .
You’re the one for me, oh yeah!
You’re oh-so-bohemian baby
Not at all meh!

I looked at the disaffected youth before me–they seemed to be “digging” my “groove.”

Everything’s ‘cool’ baby,
Although you lit a flame with your sparks!
I like your groovy nickname baby
which is held in place by
your quotation marks.


Willie Dixon . . . and Me

Worcester, Massachusetts is not even a byway, much less a highway, of the blues. Mississippi’s Highway 61, Memphis’s Beale Street, Chicago’s Stony Island Avenue, home of the Burning Spear–those public ways will take you to the blues, but not the streets of New England’s second-largest city.

Image result for isiah thomas
Isiah Thomas: “Who me? I wasn’t even born then!”

Worcester is better known for Isaiah Thomas (the colonial printer, not the basketball player), Bob Cousy (the basketball player, not the colonial printer) and not one but two members of The Algonquin Roundtable of literary wits, Robert Benchley and S.N. Behrman. Take that Hartford!

Isaiah Thomas: You can tell them apart by the extra “a”.

I have written elsewhere about my chance musical encounter with Mississippi Fred McDowell, but on the South Side of Chicago, where I played with that bottleneck guitarist, you’re surprised if you don’t run into a blues legend. In Worcester, you are more likely to see a Kilgore Rangerette than a member of the seminal group of musicians associated with Chicago’s Chess Studios, where the urban blues and r&b sound was forged.

Kilgore Rangerette (not shown actual size)

Worcester is better known as the place where a group of white British blues imitators–the Rolling Stones–dropped in to a club called Sir Morgan’s Cove to warm up for their 1981 American tour. These days, more people probably know about that surprise gig than anything S.N. Behrman ever wrote. Hell, more people claim to have been there (I wasn’t) than know who S.N. Behrman was.

Chess Records, 2120 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago

But it was in Worcester that I stumbled into a club one night with a friend to find Dixon, playing stand-up bass, leading a group of Chicago musicians that included Carey Bell, a blues harp player who never got the acclaim he deserved.

Image result for rolling stones sir morgan's cove
The Rolling Stones, Sir Morgan’s Cove, Worcester, Mass. I know the guy who took this picture if you’d like to buy a copy.

I’d seen Bell play when I lived in Chicago, but not Dixon, who was a patriarch of the blues. Gods do not answer letters, John Updike wrote of Ted Williams, nor do they play neighborhood gigs. Dixon’s relationship with the white owners of Chess Records was strained, however, and the friction stemmed from Dixon’s discovery in the 70’s, when his health was beginning to fail, of how much value he’d brought to the record label, and how little of it he’d received. Dixon consequently spent a good deal of time in his later years–the 70’s and 80’s–on the road, trying to support himself.

Carey Bell

The list of Willie’s compositions reads like a 60’s and 70’s hit parade; Back Door Man (covered by The Doors), Hoochie Coochie Man (The Allman Brothers, Steppenwolf, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix), I Ain’t Superstitious (The Yardbirds, The Grateful Dead), I Just Want to Make Love to You (The Animals, The Kinks, The Yardbirds), Little Red Rooster (The Rolling Stones) and Spoonful (Cream, Canned Heat, Ten Years After).

Willie Dixon

In short, Dixon was a Cole Porter and Gershwin Brothers of the blues, rolled into one. He even looked the part, as he was (to paraphrase a line from one of his songs) built for comfort and not for speed. Or to borrow the title from another song of his, he was literally 300 Pounds of Joy.

The crowd that night was small, which was good for Willie’s constitution, since he didn’t have to sing out over a noisy room, but bad for business, as the group was no doubt playing for a share of the gate receipts. At the end of their set, Willie asked if anybody in the audience wanted to jam.

There are certain opportunities that come your way but once in life. The tide in the affairs of the blues, as Shakespeare’s Brutus might have put it, was at the flood, and I took it.

I introduced myself as a former resident of the South Side of Chicago, and it was old home week. I told Willie I’d learned to play harmonica there, and Carey Bell offered me his.

Taking a harmonica from Carey Bell to jam is like being handed a violin by Itzhak Perlman in front of an orchestra. You need to remind yourself that you’re not going to do any better than him, so don’t get fancy. I don’t remember what we played, but my roommate told me afterwards that I didn’t totally embarrass myself. That’s how guys express their enthusiasm.

That experience links me to harmonica history in a very tactile manner: Bell no doubt swapped harps with James Cotton, who no doubt used Little Walter Jacobs’ instrument, so my lips can trace a lineage back to the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Blues Harmonica.  In case we ever kiss.

Years later I discovered a curious fact about Dixon.  He spent a year in jail not for the usual type of offense committed by a bluesman–assault with a knife or a gun, or selling drugs.  He refused to be inducted into the armed forces in 1941, saying “I was a conscientious objector, and wasn’t gonna fight for anybody,” and was arrested by U.S. Army officers right off the stage of The Pink Poodle bar in Chicago.  Dixon’s refusal was based on racial grounds, which he cited in his defense at trial:  “I told them I didn’t feel I had to go because of the conditions that existed among my people.”

Willie’s leg had to be amputated due to diabetes in the 80’s, and he died in 1992. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame posthumously in 1994, years after many of the white groups who made their names and fortunes singing his songs.

With the Federal Reserve, at the Saturday Matinee

The Federal Reserve will run advertisements in movie theaters urging consumers to use credit cards wisely during the holiday shopping season.

Bloomberg News

Everybody makes a big deal outta Black Friday and Cyber Monday, but it’s the Saturday in between that’s more important to America’s economists. I mean home economists, like my mom.

Because the Saturday after Thanksgiving is the day when moms have had enough of family togetherness and send kids like me and my friends Bobby Rouchka and Tony Scaduto to the movies before we drive them crazy running around the house. More kids go to matinees on that day than any other all year long! That’s why the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls it Red Licorice Saturday.

“We’ve had a lovely time the past two days. Now go to a movie fer Christ sake, would ya?”

So me and Tony and Bobby got dropped off at the MetroWest MegaPlex 16 by our moms, who then made a bee-line over to The Rat Pack Grille on Route 9 for Cosmopolitans or somethin’.

“Whadda you wanta see?” Tony asked.

“I wanna see ‘The Peanuts Movie,” Bobby said. I should tell you that Bobby is kind of a goody-goody. He’s won first prize for the highest grade in Catechism–a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary–for three years running. He volunteers to stay after school to wash the blackboards and bang erasers together.

“No way,” Tony says. “We at least gotta go for a PG-13. Sumpin’ like ‘Mockingjay, Part 2.’”

“I think that would be a venial sin,” Bobby says. You could almost see him praying inwardly: ‘Dear God in heaven, please forgive me if I am exposed to impure thoughts whilst watching Jennifer Lawrence’s knockers.”

Rated Go-Directly-to-Hell, Do-Not-Pass-Purgatory by the Catholic Legion of Decency

“You make the call,” Tony says to me.

I make a show of doin’ eenie-meenie-minie-mo but you can always massage the end–“My mother told me to choose the very last one to wash a dirty dish ra-ag”–to land on the one you want. “‘Mockingjay’ it is,” I say, and we buy our tickets and go in.

After loading up on over-priced candy, soft drinks and popcorn we take our seats in Theatre 13 and just in time too, ’cause the lights are already going down. We sit through the obligatory self-promotional folderol–MetroWest MegaPlex, Your Best Family Entertainment Value! Ha–not at $5.50 for a box of Jujubes.

Then comes the Courteous Filmgoer Guide–no talking, no feet on the seats, please remove hats, turn off cell phones. To quote Tiffany Ducharme, hottest girl in our sixth grade class–”as if” on that last one!

“I wanna see the previews,” Tony says, and I’m with him. You can usually see a lotta skin in the 45-second trailers for the adult films, unless they’re all weepy chick flicks. You know the kind–a woman’s husband drowns or cheats on her in the first reel and there’s a hopeful, redemptive conclusion in the third reel. When you walk out all the damp Kleenex tissues on the floor stick to your sneakers.

“We just have the fire marshall’s instructions,” I say to him, counseling patience. After being told not to smoke and where the exits are, we’re ready for an afternoon of fun when on comes–Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve System? There must be some kinda mistake!

“. . . and then Ronnie the Repo Man hooked a log chain up to the car and whoosh! It was gone!”

“Hello boys and girls,” the bearded economist intones warmly.

“What da hell is this?” Scaduto screams along with about a hundred other pre-pubescent boys.

“You know, the holiday shopping season is a lot of fun for kids, but when January comes around, mommies and daddies have to figure out a way to pay for all those wonderful toys,” Bernanke continues.

“I thought toys came from Santa,” a little girl behind us says, obviously troubled.

“Tell your parents to use credit cards wisely,” Bernanke drones on. No wonder Congress used to get mad when he came to talk to them–he’s boring!

“Pay your bills on time, and stay below the maximum credit limit,” Bernanke says with a look that has turned serious.

“I ain’t gonna stand for this,” Tony says, and begins the age-old chant that has rattled many a projectionist since Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, hit the silver screen.

“We-wanna-show,” Tony says, and others around us join in. “We-wanna-show, WE-WANNA-SHOW, WE-WANNA-SHOW!”

After a while it’s real loud, like a scene from those old prison movies when the inmates have finally had enough of the sadistic guards and the crappy food and start banging their tin cups on the bars of their cells yelling “LOUSY-*BLEEPING*-STINKING-SCREWS! LOUSY-*BLEEPING*-STINKING SCREWS!”

But unlike in the movies, our uprising has no effect on the bearded man on the screen. Barring some kind of Riot in Cell Block #9, the Federal Reserve isn’t going to back down on its mission to curb the out-of-control consumer spending that resulted in our current economic crisis which  produced a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency that–horror of horrors!–ate into the Fed’s jurisdiction.

“We can’t let them do this to us!” Scaduto says, standing up and turning around to address the kids–it’s an unlikely leadership role for a guy who repeated third grade. “If we let the Fed play a larger role in the realm of consumer credit,” he says, his voice trembling with outrage, “that means fewer toys at Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or what have you. I don’t know about youse guys, but I’m not gonna wait until the black helicopters land on my front lawn to take my Xbox 360 away from me!”

Tony’s been so successful whipping the kids into a frenzy that management has to act, and who should step out of the wings but Janet Yellen!

“Everybody please quiet down!” she says calmly but firmly, and the tide turns against our little mutiny, if only for a moment.

“You guys better listen or you’re gonna get in trouble,” Bobby says. Nice kid, but a real suck-up. He wants to go to heaven when he dies, but I’d rather be with my friends.

“The Federal Reserve has bought and paid for these announcements as a public service,” Yellen begins. “If you kids ask for too much this December, next year you might not get anything for your birthdays!”

We begin to compute the marginal costs and present value of future toys in our heads, using a dynamic model that takes into account stochastic variables and the possible decline of the dollar against the Chinese Yuan.

“She may have a point,” I say to Tony. “If we Americans don’t increase our savings rate, we’ll eventually become a debtor nation beset by runaway inflation while . . .”

Before I can finish, I feel the slender hand of Bobby Rouchka on my shoulder as he hoists himself up and stands on his seat.

“People have declaimed against luxury for two thousand years, in verse and in prose,” he shouts, and everyone in the theatre is stunned into silence. “And . . .” he continues, his voice lower now, and pregnant with meaning, “people have always delighted in it!”

“I don’t think you made that up, young man,” Yellen says, her eyes narrowed into skeptical little slits.

Voltaire: “This tricked-out jacket was a loss leader at Target!”

“I never said I did,” he snaps back at her. “It’s from Voltaire, who was a pretty smart guy.”

For once, the class weenie has come through. I look at Scaduto, and he looks back at me, a glint of mischief in his eyes.

“You know what to do, right?” he says, as he empties his Milk Duds into his pocket.

“Ab-so-lutely,” I say, as I do the same with my Black Crows. We place one end of the empty boxes in our mouths, and begin to razz the first female chairman of the Fed.  Soon the other kids have followed our lead, and Yellen is drowned out by the sound of a hundred candy-box farts!

“Stop it!” she says, covering her ears. We relent for a moment, allowing her to speak. “Perhaps the Fed hasn’t provided consumers with sufficient notice in advance of this year’s holiday shopping season, but what do you propose to do about the problem,” she asks, fixing her gaze on the newly-rebellious Rouchka.

Keynes: “That’s right, Bobby!”

“Kick it down the road to our grandchildren,” he suggests, his voice a model of dispassionate cynicism. “Just like Keynes said–in the long run, we’re all dead!”

Available in Kindle format as part of the collection “Our Friends the Fed” on

A Letter

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and the football team had gathered to check in their equipment at the stadium. The atmosphere was a mixture of chagrin and relief; the team had lost the last game of the season and finished 5 and 5, no great shakes, but at least all the hard work was over. There hadn’t been that many seniors on the team—only five—so that was some kind of excuse. There had been six sophomores who saw a lot of action on offense or defense, and a couple of others who played on special teams, so the coaches were optimistic about the future and in a good mood.

Joe was one of the seniors, and the only one who hadn’t earned a letter at the start of the season. He was a bit undersized, but there were smaller kids who were better than him. He was fast enough—technically he was a halfback and defensive back—but he didn’t seem to make good use of his speed. He tended to run in a straight line, as if he were a chalk mark on the coach’s blackboard, and so when a hole closed or never opened he went nowhere, and on defense, he’d run right at a guy who’d put a move on him and be gone.

He’d done everything they’d asked all four years he’d played, but he was still on the junior varsity the year before. He got a dinky junior varsity patch that he put on his right breast, but on his left all he had was a letter for speech and debate. From a distance they all looked the same, and so Joe would pal around with the other four seniors and hope that their reflected glory would shine a little status on him.

He thought he’d built up a fair amount of goodwill with the coaching staff, then the school had gone and fired the head coach from the year before and replaced him with somebody from a junior college in Kansas. It was the man’s first head coaching job—he was apparently an offensive genius—but it meant that Joe had to start over and show the new man what a hard worker he was even if he wasn’t that good.

The coach had laid down the law the first day of practice, August 15th. He’d handed out a mimeographed sheet telling you what the rules were; everybody had to get a crew cut, coats and ties on game day, no alcohol, no smoking, and an eleven o’clock curfew. There was to be an honor system—if you saw one of your teammates break the rules you had to turn him in. And you had to run a six-minute mile with your equipment on—after practice. You had to keep trying until you could do it.

Joe had accomplished the feat the first day—he’d been in training all summer long—but the coach barely noticed it. He just made a check next to Joe’s name on his clipboard and yelled at the others who came in behind him.

It had continued like that the whole season. Joe was on the scout team, but he was never called upon to play the part of the other team’s number one back; when the head coach stepped in to demonstrate something, he was always directing his instruction towards the first team. Joe might have been just a cog in the machine, his dad told him, but machines still needed every one of their cogs. Hang in there, he’d said; hard work is the one thing that’s always rewarded in this world.

You had to play twenty quarters—half the season–to get a letter; Joe didn’t know if the assistant coaches kept close track, but he knew he had been in nineteen. There were three quarters—two of them mopping up–against a weaker team the first game, and he’d allowed himself to get his hopes up. Then there were three non-conference games that he got into for two quarters each on the kick-off team. He figured if the team played halfway decent ball he’d get at least two quarters a game the rest of the way, once when they kicked off at halftime or the beginning of the game, a second time when they scored. By the end of the fourth week he had nine quarters.

The fifth week the conference schedule began, and the coaches began to pit one player against another for playing time to see who was tougher. They had “hamburger” drills halfway through practice every day; one-on-one challenges to see which kid would drive the other back, no “cupping” around because there were tackling dummies on either side so you had nowhere to run. Joe didn’t see what that had to do with his position; he was a back, not a lineman.

Some of the younger backs were sturdier, more compact than Joe, who was wiry. He’d tried everything to put on weight, drinking milk shakes and supplements, but then he’d run it off trying to stay in shape. He told himself it was better to be lighter and quicker and in good shape when August rolled around than to be heavier and puke up your guts the first week.

And so when it came his turn for the hamburger drill he got pushed around, and would grow frustrated that a bunch of sophomores were gaining on him, then passing him on the depth chart. He couldn’t believe the coaches would put some younger kid into a conference game that counted against a good team, he who’d been working so hard for so long.

So at the halfway point in the season he had eleven quarters, then he only got into two quarters the next three games, then only one quarter the last two games–that was nineteen. He figured they’d round up, or cut him some slack because he was a senior. It was no skin off their nose whether they gave out one more letter, he figured.

He sat on the bench next to his locker and fiddled with his stuff, waiting for the head coach to come out of his office so he could say goodbye and thank you, maybe talk to him for a second. His dad had told him that was important, that was something you’d learn in life; to make a connection with people, look them in the eye, make a good impression so they’d remember you when the time came to make an important decision. Joe knew his dad was talking about adult things like raises and promotions, but there wasn’t anything more important to him in the world right now than getting a football letter.

He saw the coach emerge from his office with Don, one of the sophomores, a little water bug of a kid with acne and glasses who didn’t look much like a football player, but who played with a reckless abandon that scared Joe a bit, and the defensive coach named Skip.

“Love to hit, love to hit, love to HIT!” Skip was saying as he put his arm around Don and clapped him on the shoulder. The head coach shook Don’s hand and said “You’re gonna be the first kid lined up outside the gate the first day of practice next summer, aren’t ya?”

“I’m gonna sleep outside the night before,” Don said with a big smile on his face. He shook Skip’s hand and walked off looking down at a piece of paper the head coach had given him, and the two coaches watched him go with obvious appreciation of a fine piece of football flesh.

“Coach?” Joe said softly and then, when he saw the two men talking to each other, “Coach?” a little more firmly.

“Huh? Oh, hi Joe. What can I do for you?”

“I . . . uh . . . just wanted to say thank you and I . . . uh . . . enjoyed playing under you, even if it was only this year.” He stuck out his hand and, after the coach looked down, they shook.

“Well, thanks, Joe, nice of you to say that. I came in not knowing anybody and it’s nice to hear I had some impact on people.”

“No, really, it was a great year even though we coulda done a little better, I think you’ve got a nucleus here for next year’s team.”

Skip interrupted to say “I’m gonna go to the equipment room to start taking inventory.”

“Okay,” the head coach said. “I’ll be in the office for awhile.”

The head coach turned and started to walk away as Joe spoke, after swallowing a little.


The coach didn’t hear him at first, so he spoke again.


“Yeah? Oh, sorry, I thought we were through here.”

“I was wondering . . .”


“I was wondering whether I was going to get a letter.” Joe looked straight ahead at the coach, but he felt the eyes of the players behind him trained on his back.

“A letter?”

“Right. I’m a . . . senior, and I think I got into enough quarters to get a letter.”

“Well, Joe, I don’t know what being a senior has to do with it. It’s not a perfect attendance award. You get a letter in football for accomplishing something, not just showing up. You have to get into the games and knock somebody on their butt.”

Joe inhaled, even though his lungs already felt full. “I think I had enough quarters, coach . . .”

“I don’t think so Joe. I’m pretty good at arithmetic. Even if you did, hell, son, you have to make a difference out there on the field.”

The room had grown quiet as the man and the boy spoke. “Coach, I tried to make a difference every time I got into a game.”

“This is a good lesson for you,” the coach said, then turned to face the boys sitting on the benches that ringed the room, “and for all of you boys. This is a life lesson for you all, right here. Don’t ever confuse effort with results—got it?”

Joe couldn’t see the boys behind him but he could feel them exhale, as if relieved that they were being spared as another was sacrificed.

“Before you got here . . .” Joe began, but the coach cut him off.

“It doesn’t matter what happened before I got here, son,” the coach said with a half-measure of empathy in his voice. “The only thing that matters is what I think because I’m the head coach now. If you can understand that, you can understand why I can’t just hand out football letters like they’re penny candy. That wouldn’t be fair to the other kids who came out and worked just as hard as you—maybe harder–but who got better than you, see?”

Joe looked down and said “I see,” and then “thanks.”

“No problem. Hey, good luck in college next year wherever you go, okay?”

“Okay,” Joe said.

The coach stepped into his office and Joe walked over to the bench and stuffed his gym bag with the few items of equipment that were his to keep; his mouth guard and his jockstrap and an extra pair of socks he kept in his locker.

He knew all the other boys in the room to call them by their first names, but he said nothing to them as he walked out.

Create a free website or blog at
The Esquire Theme.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,144 other followers