Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for the ‘Eclectic’ Category

Pulchritude, Passion, and Some Marketing Tips for Crisis-time Entrepreneurship

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 31, 2009

My friend Abu Cihan (out of respect for his cultivated anonymity I am using his honorific rather than his real name) is a great historian of Ottoman and Turkish identity and an almost equally great admirer of ladies both big and bigger.  He also is treasure trove of American pop culture trivia.  Still,  Abu Cihan was surprised recently when I told him that the great Jewish-American singer and vaudevillian Sophie Tucker was not only a very big woman but a very passionate one as well, with a string of husbands and a very liberated lifestyle long before the late-20th century idea of  “liberated” was ever articulated (Note: Tucker was also a union activist and a generous giver to charities).

Like all moderately emotional one-time Lower East Siders, I still unashamedly weep at Tucker’s over-the-top Yiddish-language tribute to the ur-Lower-East-Side stereotype of  “Mayn Yiddische Mammeh” but I love even more the tough and resilient acceptance of the fleeting nature of sexual and emotional attachment that radiates from her theme song “Some of These Days” (a powerful tonic, by the way,  for any readers emerging from broken relationships).  For the story of “Some of These Days” in Sophie’s own words click here.  For a terse time-line of the life of its unsung, and most likely under-compensated, composer, African-American songwriter Shelton Brooks, click here. Better yet, to listen to a 1920s recording of  Tucker performing  “Some of These Days” (with the Ted Lewis Orchestra) click here.

Thinking in an East Side way often sets me to thinking of Joe and Paul.  Joe and Paul, in fact, were really just Paul, Paul Kofsky.  The short version of the story (for a longer one click here) is this: Early in the twentieth century Paul Kofsky opened a clothing store in Brooklyn.  Times were tough and most one-person operations were doomed to failure.  So, to add substance and repute to his ailing venture, Paul invented an imaginary senior partner, Joe, changed the name over the door to Joe and Paul, and business soon boomed.

During the Great Depression, Kofsky turned to advertising.  He paid legendary Yiddish music hall composer Sholem Secunda (who wrote the original “Bei Mir Bist Shayn” only to make the mistake of selling it to a promoter for $25.00) to compose a radio advertisement jingle for Joe and Paul.  Kofsky, who had always dreamed of  a life on the stage, performed the jingle live himself, dashing from one Yiddish- and English-language New York radio station to another to sing it.  The tune soon became a hit and remained ubiquitous into the 1950s, when Cuban-born band leader Pupi Campo even recorded a cross-over Latin version of it, more likely than not with a young Tito Puente in the background.

To listen to Kofsky singing his original ode to Joe and Paul click here and click here for Pupi Campo’s cover.  For those who do not understand the vanished interim wandelsprache of NYC Yiddish, my own bland translation (minus Kofsky’s Yiddish-language scat-like embellishments) is: “Joe and Paul, a store, a pleasure; there you can cheaply buy a suit, a coat, a caftan, all perfect, so be sure to buy only at Joe and Paul.”

Why do I tell these stories?  Simple, because in the midst of the present “crisis” it is important for all of us to look for the imaginary senior partner within, to be confident enough to sing our own praises, and never to bemoan what or who we have lost.  And now … will someone please point me to the nearest radio station!

Posted in Broadcasting, Change, Eclectic, Identity, Music, Popular Culture | 1 Comment »

Transparency, Backgammon, and the Imperialism of Poker

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 18, 2009

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Late in July, the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC  (New York  Public Radio)  featured an interview with John Palfrey, a law professor and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School.  The subject: Transparency in government.  The central issue: Is the Obama administration living up to its promises of full transparency in policy making and governing?

Mr. Palfrey’s interest in transparency reminded me of a telephone conversation I had two years ago with a colleague of his at the the Berkman Center, Charlie Nesson.  Mr. Nesson tracked me down in Sofia, Bulgaria to ask my opinion on the topic of a paper he was about to give at a conference in Croatia.  His thesis: That the  teaching of the game of poker in the Middle East would be a way of inculcating American values in the region, an easy task, he proposed, since the Middle East had no games of its own.  I asked myself what these values were and asked Mr. Nesson whether he had ever heard of backgammon.

My conversation with Mr. Nesson stuck with me.  Over the time since,  I realized that his idea provides a wonderful analogy for the causes of the quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan and of the domestic and international economic disasters that American values and Americans’ ways of spreading them have created.

First, the idea of “teaching,” an core element of the colonialist and missionary mindset, and of class division and failed noblesse oblige at home. “Teaching,” in this sense, is based on the idea that “they” are inferior or incomplete and that “we” have the answer, and that if  they would only, in so far as their imperfect natures permit,  be like us and know what we know, they would acknowledge our superiority, accept their places, and all would be well.   From the British in India and the Dutch in Indonesia to Rumsfeld’s loopy analogy of teaching Iraq to be democrat and self-governing like a father running alongside a child learning to ride a bicycle, such “teaching” dehumanizes “them” and (self-) deludes and eventually undermines “us.”

Second, the “values” of the game:  Poker involves memory and an ability to count cards but at bottom it is a game of bluff.  In poker, cards are held close to the chest and the value of one’s hand is determined less by the cards one holds than by what one can deceive opponents into thinking one holds, i.e. the creation of the illusion of value where there is none, an underlying principle of the finance-, toxic-loan-, and non-earned-bonus-based economy and an axiom of marketing.  The means for such deception?  The identification and exploitation of opponents’ weaknesses and insecurities and a concerted attempt to keep them off-balance, activities also pursued at S&M clubs and the foundations of lopsided relationships, personal, sexual, communal, and economic.  American values indeed.

Third, backgammon: Proposing solutions based on  poorly informed assumptions has been the method and death-knell of American policy making and implementation. The Middle East and bordering regions indeed do have games of their own and backgammon — tavla, shesh-besh, et. al. — is the most ubiquitous.  Unlike  in poker, in backgammon, as in chess, another game of Near and Middle Eastern origin, opponents see each others’ pieces; there is no bluff or room for marked cards.  Moves are based on assessment of situations, envisioning of scenarios, knowledge of the game, and sensing opponents’ styles of play.  The only psychological pressures on opponents’ psyches are the speed and virtuosity of one’s moves and the “kibbitzing” of observers.  And then there is the matter of the dice; Istanbul-based historian of medieval and early-Ottoman Anatolia Sara Nur Yıldız reminds me that the rolls of the dice in backgammon sharpen our readiness and abilities to react quickly and effectively, openly and transparently,  to whatever circumstances life and serendipity may confront us with.  Finally, backgammon is integrated into daily life in a way that poker is not.  Unlike poker, backgammon is also played outside of dark, smoke-filled rooms and for the sheer thrill of the game as much or even more than for the money.  Stroll the streets of Istanbul or Aleppo, Gaza or Tel Aviv, and one will see backgammon played in tea and coffee shops, whether during daytime breaks, or in marathon evening sessions, both as an anchor for sociability and as a cerebral workout.

My counter-proposition to Mr. Nesson”s would have been to send thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of Middle Easterners to the USA, “embedding” them, as it were, in banks and corporations and at the highest levels of government to teach Americans the game and values of backgammon.  But, it seems, John Palfrey may have beaten me to the punch. By advocating for  transparency, he gives the impression that his colleages at the Berkman Center may have put their well-worn decks-of-fifty-two back in their boxes and, in their stead, taken a few backgammon sets off the shelf.

NB. A cautionary note to future lecturers: Speaking in southeast Europe about teaching lessons to the Middle East and, by implication, the Muslim world, can be incendiary.  As those of us who have lived in the region know, the physical and cultural ethnic cleansing of the Turkic and Islamic presence that began in the regaion early in the 19th century with Russia’s “Drang nach Süden” and the concommitant rise of Pan-Slavism and formation of exclusionary, exclusively-Christian nation states, has made any proferred cudgel — literal or figurative — with which to beat the Muslim world, or  Muslims and other minorities locally, most enthusiastically welcome.

Posted in Eclectic, History, National Identity, Politics, Religion | 1 Comment »

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.

Posted in Client Relations, Commentary, Eclectic, Economy, History, Politics, Work | 7 Comments »