Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Investigating the Financial Crisis and My Passion for Borsalino Hats

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 9, 2009

The mortgage, housing market, and stock market collapse were neither acts of nature nor products of cosmically ordained cycles or hypothetical laws governing hypothetical markets. They were the results of specific deeds by specific individuals — financial and corporate types out for riches at whatever cost, equally greedy and conveniently blind investors, and politicians and constituencies with minds muddled by neo-McCarthyite bashing of “socialism” and the New Deal and by the ethos and platitudes of “Reaganomics” and its successors. It is now time to assign blame where blame is due, but not necessarily for purposes of revenge …

In Where is Our Ferdinand Pecora?, in last Monday’s New York Times, author Ron Chernow wrote:

The moment calls for nothing less than a sweeping inquest into the twin housing and stock market crashes to create both the intellectual context and the political constituency for change.

And Chernow gives us an excellent model for such an inquest:

For inspiration, Congress should turn to the electrifying hearings of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee, held in the waning months of the Hoover presidency and the early days of the New Deal. In historical shorthand, these hearings have taken their name from the committee counsel, Ferdinand Pecora, a former assistant district attorney from New York who, starting in January 1933, was chief counsel for the investigation. Under Pecora’s expert and often withering questioning, the Senate committee unearthed a secret financial history of the 1920s, de-mystifying the assorted frauds, scams and abuses that culminated in the 1929 crash.

He describes Pecora in action:

The riveting confrontation between Pecora and the Wall Street grandees was so theatrically apt it might have been concocted by Hollywood. The combative Pecora was the perfect foil to the posh bankers who paraded before the microphones. Born in Sicily, the son of an immigrant cobbler, Pecora had campaigned for Teddy Roosevelt and been imbued with the crusading fervor of the Progressive Era. As a prosecutor in the 1920s, he had shut down more than 100 “bucket shops” — seamy, fly-by-night brokerage houses — and this had tutored him in the shady side of Wall Street.

Last month, I thought of Judge Pecora (as Ferdinand Pecora was later known) in a much different context. It was in Borough Park, in Brooklyn, and I was just about, as they used to say back in the heyday of Pecora’s career, to “plunk down two C-notes” for a new “lid,” an old-fashioned fedora, a high-crowned, broad-brimmed, Italian Borsalino, made of soft slightly-shining green-grey felt and lined with a hat band of equally soft leather.

I buy a new “lid” every few years, always in the autumn and usually when the economy falters and my own prospects wobble. A jaunty Borsalino equips me with the courage of those who made it through the Great Depression, makes me feel as tough as Bogart, Cagney and Edward G. combined, and gives my walk a bounce that would not have been out of place in, say, Minton’s in the 1940s or the Five-Spot in the 60s. When I was a kid, my grandfather would buy a new Dobbs hat every few years but a Dobbs was a stiff hat with a pre-formed shape that embodied more the ethos of the 1950s than those of the decades before or after. You’d rarely catch a jazz musician wearing a stiffly-formed Dobbs.

The first Borsalino I remember ever seeing or trying on came straight from the head of Judge Pecora. It was in 1962 in the old Barney’s Clothing Store (“Select, Don’t Settle … at Barney’s” as the radio jingle went) on 7th Ave. and 17th St. in Manhattan. I was 15 and had lied about my age to get a job working Saturdays and Sundays “writing-up” sales. The pay was minimum wage, “a buck and a quarter an hour.” My main task was to prepare invoices for customers’ purchases, note alterations, and send customers on to the cashier. I had other tasks as well. In those days, Barney himself, the founder of the store, a squat octogenarian, elegantly dressed but with the tough confrontational edge of a one-time Lower East Side street kid, still roamed the store, hunting out and berating shoddy employees and insufficiently deferential customers. On Sunday mornings, Barney would hand me a cash-stuffed envelop to pass to the policemen who came to deliver the weekly summons for violation of municipal “blue laws” prohibiting retail sales on the Christian sabbath. And, if customers ever dared to complain, Barney would give me the unwelcome task of throwing the complaint back at them. When a woman returned with a suit bought for her husband and shipped to her home,  claiming that it had arrived in need of cleaning, Barney shouted at me:  “Tell her the suit ain’t dirty, her husband’s dirty.”

One Sunday, I saw Barney in another guise. Uncharacteristically deferential and glowing with pride, Barney led a equally short, equally squat elderly man to my counter. Barney himself held the man’s new purchases for him. The man had hawk-like eyes, a protruding nose, and a giant cigar clenched between his teeth. He wore a magnificent gray suit tailored in the style of a past age, and carried a near-floor length camel-hair overcoat over one arm. In his hand, he held a very large velvety gray fedora with the crown indented vertically and with deep parallel creases along its sides. Older shoppers noticing the man stopped and pointed as if they’d seen a long-forgotten prize-fighter or film-star: “It’s Ferdinand Pecora; it’s Judge Pecora,” they said in amazement — this a third of a century after Pecora had made his name. Barney whispered in my ear: “Kid, take care of the Judge, and if you fuck up I’ll throw your ass out on the street.” I wrote up the Judge’s invoice and escorted him to the cashier. As he paid, he handed me his coat to hold and reached up and placed the fedora on my head. “You look great,” he said to me. “Remember,” he added, “work hard, stay clean, and don’t take any crap off of anyone.”

For better or worse I’ve tried to follow the Judge’s advice. Forty-six years later, I tip my hat to him and, for that matter, to Barney as well. I also tip my hat to Ron Chernow for the very timely resurrection of Pecora, his style, ethics, and deeds.


7 Responses to “Investigating the Financial Crisis and My Passion for Borsalino Hats”

  1. […] Great image of Humphrey Bogart and hat from City of Bellflower, news from 1957Steve Lewis writes a great story in his blog Hak Pak Sak about a by gone era and he offers this […]

  2. Prof. Daly said


    I found your post through the incomparable Doc Searls.

    It put me in mind of the time I had the great fortune to buy my own Borsalino direct from the source — the company’s own shop in Rome. I was there with my wife and our two sons, who were none too patient with the old man looking for hats. But I persisted, having waited decades to actually own a Borsalino. I looked at a bunch of hats, tried a few on, then found The One.
    Made of rabbit felt, it has given me more pleasure (and more protection) than almost any other product I have ever bought.
    Hats off to the Borsalino!

    ~Chris Daly

  3. Nick Givotovsky said

    Lovely post indeed – I also found it through the VRM list comment you made on the challenge of being understood by companies, either as their customer or one of their employees. It seems that Barney himself was very good indeed at making himself understood, by his staff and by his customers. The payment to you and the rest of in this instance was in the form of invaluable instruction from both Barney and Judge Pecora. Take care of the Judge indeed. Where is our Pecora?! Best- N

    • Nick,

      I’ve thought about your comment for a few days, especially re: the instruction I received from Barney. There were two sides to Barney’s words and what I learned from them. First, we all have a responsibility to “take care of the Judge,” whether Pecora or anyone else who in large measure or small stands up against injustice or violation of trust for the benefit of us all. The second side was also important. Barney’s unneeded threat to “throw my ass out on to the street” was one of the many early introductions I received about the nature of work and hierarchies, especially in America, where threatening of employees and what I call “management by terror” still often reigns supreme. “Management by terror” keeps employees off balance by continuously signaling to them that their worth and jobs are contingent. The goal appears to be to achieve compliance with short term tasks but this at the price of undermining long-term loyalty and adding of value. It is a continuous disinvestment in the human infrastructure comprising organizations. Astute employees soon realize from words such as Barney’s that they will never share in the cumulative value of any enterprise they help shape. They learn over and again “buck and a quarter an hour” employees always remain contingent and come and go like the tides. In the specific case of Barney’s, most of the value of the value of the retail empire its founders and workers created were passed within the family and mostly squandered by the third generation in expansions that reflected their visions of grandeur. If I am correct, Barney’s is now owned by an Middle Eastern investment concern. All this is oddly reflective of the larger story of US business and of the situation that Barack Obama inherits. Maybe the US would be a more stable and safer place — for itself and the rest of the world — if it no longer threatened to throw asses out onto the street and invested in its workers rather than treating them like momentary inconveniences.


  4. […] Comments (RSS) « Investigating the Financial Crisis and My Passion for Borsalino Hats […]

  5. nrgsphere said

    Stephen – You mean treating people like people, as ends in themselves, rather than means to an end, might be a preferable state of affairs? But keeping people “on their toes” by threatening their safety, be it economic or physical, has a long history of effectiveness and as such has been widely deployed in commercial, political and social settings. Undermining peoples’ sense of self worth through their commodification is also effective, in that it tends to breed a more ready conformity to norms of behavior supportive of agenda not necessarily native to ones own core interest, or even consistent with the values and aspirations of one’s truest self. Still, people do need to be kept “in line”, right? Or not.

    • Nick- Keeping people off-balance brings short term bursts in productivity and short-term stability. No more. It does not work over the long term. And it only works within the context of hierarchical, non-egalitarian profit-oriented structures. It depends on what one wants and which side of the labor-capital divide one identifies with. The stability of social-democratic societies is based on lowering the bar of that gap and making social, enterprise, and personal goals as congruent as possible. At the moment I am working on an article about differing approaches to conquest and control including that of the Ottoman Empire, which spread through infrasturcutural investment, assurance of uniform taxes and redress, and protection of local settlements, and of the Third Reich, which spread through violence, social anomie, and economic looting. The former lasted for 800 years, the latter for 12.

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