I realize the New York Jets have at least some issue with their identity. They’re named for New York yet they play in New Jersey. Their home stadium is called Giants Stadium. But why in the earth would they assemble for the kick off against the Buffalo Bills to the Dropkick Murphy’s “I’m Shipping Up to Boston“? I’ll take it as some kind of weird homage to the team that has won two World Series victories in the last five years.
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I can’t think of a Thanksgiving in my lifetime that has been so wrought with a national sense of economic insecurity. The circulars in both daily newspapers seem to be offering unnaturally-low prices, so low, in fact, it prompts me to wonder what calamities will befall us if Friday is not a big shopping day. Anecdotal reports of job cuts are growing as companies grapple to deal with a rapidly changing business climate. Stories that Al Qaeda is targeting Amtrak’s rail corridor, used by so many travelers to get to their loved ones for the holiday, only magnify the sense of unease.
Thanksgiving, like July 4, is a purely American holiday with a purpose behind it — allowing us to give thanks for the blessings we do have. I think of my neighbor relaying to me his personal story of coming to our country after being a slave laborer in Nazi work camps.
Even as these times evoke — but do not emulate — the terrible period America experienced in the 1930s, we remember solace exists in community, friends and family. These bonds are unbreakable — although it may take a holiday for us to recognize them.
Panelists at a Suffolk University discussion today on the financial crisis refuted two major points that have become articles of faith on conservative talk radio: 1) that the push started in the 1990s to open up mortgage-lending to minority groups is a primary cause of the crisis; 2) that the animating government action of the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act laid the groundwork for the disaster. (BTW, I’d post a popular video that makes those points, but it has been removed from Youtube.)
The executive vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Lynn E. Browne, took aim at both these items. On the question of so-called loosening of lending standards for members of minority groups, she was forceful. She referenced an early-1990s report produced by the Boston Fed that has become a cause celebre on the right.
“You want to treat people fairly,” she said, going on to refute the idea that the study promoted a lesser-standard for mortgagees. “The study showed that the same standards were not applied,” she said.
On the CRA, she pointed out something I had not heard in the media. “The bulk of the institutions that issued these loans were not covered by the Community Reinvestment Act,” she said.
Aside from Browne’s perpsective, the panel was heavy on free marketeers as most exemplified by the provocative Harvard professor, Jeffrey Miron. The event was co-sponsored by Suffolk’s Department of Economics, Beacon Hill Institute and College of Arts and Sciences.
Miron was sharply critical of the economic bailout plan. “Government’s response to this is an unmitigated disaster,” Miron said. “Government will take similar risks in the future,” he warned.
When the discussion — in response to a question about bank panics — turned to psychological need to shore up the banking system to prevent panics, the executive director of the Massachusetts Mortgage Brokers Association, Kevin Cuff tersely put the bailout plan into perspective. “That’s what the bailout was,” he said.
Finally, it was hard not to empathize with the hundreds of Suffolk students who jammed into the Walsh Theater for the talk. They were greeted grimly by Henry Kim, an Associate Professor of Economics at Suffolk University, who related a common conversation he has with prospective graduates.
I ask them ‘What do you want to do when you graduate?’ They say ‘I want to go to Wall Street and work for an investment bank.’ That answer has to change because there are no investment banks any more.
I asked one back-pack carrying student on his way out of the talk whether the crisis had affected him. “Not yet,” he said. “But it probably will.”
The New York Times reported yesterday that The New York Sun is in a relentless fight for new investors. It may close come the end of the month. If you know anybody looking to place a major investment in a feisty New York daily call Seth Lipsky or e-mail me. With that said, I’ve got a column in the Sun that transcends money.
Las Vegas is a city that is home to many celebrities — old and young. So it’s no surprise that throngs of visitors poured into the Harmon Medical and Rehabilitation Hospital in early September. The only question the nurses and medical staff had was which patient were all those guests coming to see?
Some theorized it was a mayor or high-ranking politician. Or, in a glitzy city filled with entertainers and singers of many different eras, perhaps the patient had been one of those. It’s possible that in another culture, one less obsessed with fame and wealth, the subject of all the well-wishers could have been a celebrity in his own right.
With the economy teetering on the abyss and people on Wall Street obsessed with the bottom line and their own financial existence, Charles “Chuck” Hawk, who died of cancer on September 15, is a reminder of basic values, building blocks more fundamental than money to the foundation of our existence.
I know him because he was married to my aunt, Sandra Katz, with whom he lived for more than a decade. By trade, Hawk was an insulator. A former member of the U.S. Navy, he was a union man through-and-through. He also ran, unsuccessfully, for Nevada’s state senate eight years ago.
Most importantly, Hawk built and rebuilt lives on a personal level. A while ago, he realized he was an alcoholic. It wasn’t enough for him, though, to attend meetings regularly. He helped others get and stay clean, one person at a time and, as they say in the world of recovery, one day at a time.
Under most circumstances, I would have never gotten to see the full value in somebody like Chuck Hawk. Like everybody else, I’m preoccupied with the details of my own daily existence. Back in 2001, though, my father, Gerald Gitell, decided to leave Boston, where he had been grimly subsisting for two decades as a taxi cab driver, and move to Las Vegas. A former member of the United States Army Special Forces, he had been one of the elite “Green Berets.” A graduate of Boston University, he trained at Fort Bragg, N.C., and was shipped to Vietnam. Like most of today’s veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, he saw combat as well as the deaths of innocent civilians with whom he worked closely to win over to the American side of the war.
During the two decades when my family and I watched helplessly as my father lived as a kind of recluse, sleeping fitfully in a couch pinned against a wall, keeping erratic hours, and failing to escape from his prison of a life, we failed to convince him to seek help. He rejected the suggestion that he should visit a Veterans Administration facility or any other kind of therapist. And, despite his pride in his military service — a bronze Green Beret statue sat on his refrigerator for years — he avoided attending reunion events or talking to friends from the army.
A few years after his move to Las Vegas, his sister Sandra, invited him to move in with her and Hawk. That’s when Hawk got a hold of him. First, he started to tell my father about a friend, a fellow vet, who sought treatment at a place called the Veterans Center. Then, he arranged for my father to meet this friend. Finally, he convinced my father to go there and start talking about those bothersome things, a process that helped to unburden those issues for him.
Over time, my father changed. Whereas he previously avoided talking to strangers about the war, he began to attend weekly therapy sessions with other Vietnam combat veterans. Before he was almost exclusively a loner, but over time he began to dedicate himself to assisting other people, particularly younger veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Earlier this month he made sure to go to the sparsely attended funeral of a member of the 10th Mountain Division who had come home from being wounded in Afghanistan and then had taken his own life. After that, he vowed to make sure that future funerals would receive more attendees.
None of that would have happened had my father never met Hawk. And he was only one of the hundreds, if not thousands of people, to whom Hawk gave succor. Americans need more people like Hawk in the trying days ahead.
Jim Albrecht writes up a hilarious account of his Alaska upbringing in Slate:
For a long time I’ve been an Alaskan in exile, spending only a portion of each year (the sunny part) in the homeland. As a result, I am the only Alaskan that most of my friends know. So, when Sarah Palin was picked as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, the e-mail poured in. “Not all Alaskan families are as weird as the Palins, right?” wrote a friend from California.
“Let me assure you,” I wrote back. “They are all freaks.”
I then described, at some length, the neighborhood I grew up in. There were my parents, superorthodox Catholics, complete with backyard statuary. Across the street, an Air Force officer and family. Next-door to them, a gay couple. Not just gay, but extra-flaming, mow-the-front-lawn-in-a-nightshirt-and-nothing-else kind of gay, walk-into-a-bar-yelling, “A beer for the queer!” kind of gay (in Alaska, in the 1960s!). My parents kept an extra set of house keys for “T-Bird Tommy,” as the more flamboyant partner was known, so that when he came home drunk and couldn’t find his keys, he would have a nearby spare.
The Sarah Palin boomlet has subsided. Barack Obama is gaining traction on the basis of economic upheaval. Today’s Real Clear Politics poll numbers show a dramatic turn-around since last week. A CBS/New York Times poll has Obama beating John McCain by 5 points.
This underscores too things: 1) All along I’ve said the big issue in this race is the economy. Let alone Hillary Clinton, if the Democrats had nominated Richard Gephardt, they would be winning big at this point; 2) The importance of unanticipated events. The Talmud says people make plans, G-d laughs. This is true in politics as in life. Few pundits foresaw the tumultuous business conditions we have undergone in the past several weeks, such as the disappearance of Lehman Brothers from the American landscape.
I tried to cover the war crimes conference in Andover over the weekend. I spoke to a few attendees, but couldn’t gain entry. Instead I watched it on the internet. Read the whole New York Sun column here.
Where the conference broke new ground was on the amount of time and discussion focused on getting members of the uniformed officers corps to come over to their side. The rhetoric went so far that the organizer of the conference and the dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, Lawrence Velvel, attempted to stop it.
A Brattleboro, Vt., activist and author of a successful petition in his town calling for the arrest and indictment of Messrs. Bush and Cheney, Kurt Daims, addressed the audience: “We have been trying to tell Congress, ‘don’t fund the war.’ We’ve just got to go around them,” Mr. Daims, a panelist, said. “We don’t talk to the president … We don’t talk to Congress … We talk to the military and say ‘Hey, your oath is to the Constitution, not to the president.'”
Mr. Velvel urged Mr. Daims to tamp down his call for activists to attempt to convince sympathetic officers to disobey orders. Mr. Velvel stressed the imperative to maintain “civilian control of the military,” which he called the “very thing that prevents a coup d’etat by the military in this country.”
The news on the financial front is bad, perhaps even apocalyptic. I can’t say I know enough about the world of money right now to be able to hazard a guess on what will happen. I suppose, though, that makes me as smart as anyone else during these turbulent times.
Given the dramatic period we have entered, I made a foray into a world I would usually avoid this weekend. I spotted an internet ad for a Trump Wealth Institute seminar and thought it might make for a good column. While I ultimately wrote up something else, I can’t waste the chance to describe this unique experience.
My invitation called for me to arrive at the seminar 30 minutes prior to its 9 a.m. starting time. When I got there, a number of people, most of them elderly, were already sitting in easy chairs outside of the ballroom that would house the program. I sat down while an older, semi-coherent man peppered me with questions about the size of my Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. I left the foyer and came back and sat next to two men a few years younger than me dressed in chinos and button down shirts. I tried to make the most of the opportunity of the down time, querying them about their presence at the event. Each muttered something about trying to learn something about the real estate business, then cut the discussion short.
I noticed the diverse group of people who took registration cards. There was a pair of young Central American women dressed up as if they were going to church. I observed several other groups of non-English speaking people as well as a number of 60-something women who reminded me of my mother. Inside, I saw a few African American faces, some Asians, Latinos and whites. The only thing that seemed to unify this oddball crew was a desire to financially better themselves during a downturn. If that was the goal, the seminar run by Rick Brown, a self-described member of Donald Trump’s financial empire, didn’t disappoint.
I’m not saying that Brown’s caused anyone to get rich. But his almost two-hour routine played on the insecurities and fears, hopes and dreams, which we all as Americans possess. Before saying more about Brown, I can tell you that Trump not only lends his name to these functions, which amount to little more than a live infomercial, he also appears before the group in a brief video, like a capitalist version of Chairman Mao in a Communist China reeducation camp. “You’re going to learn the Trump way to get cash back when you buy a property,” Trump bellowed on the video. “You’re going to learn the Trump way to build your real estate empire property by property.”
Interestingly, though, Trump was not the star of the show. That honor fell to the aforementioned Brown, who entered the ballroom dramatically after the Trump video wearing a black suit and red tie. “You have to learn to take care of yourselves,” he told the attendees. “There’s no more job security in this country…It’s financial security that counts.” Within a few moments he had the entire group say aloud “I have to stop working this hard.” At another moment, he prompted the crowd to repeat the words “I need at least $3 million.”
To his credit, Brown announced at the beginning of his seminar what the game was about. He was there to sell a $4000 tuition program at the Trump Institution, which, he added, was tax deductible and he was authorized to offer for $2000.
Soon after he began to speak, the two younger men with whom I had spoken, got up to leave. When I asked them why outside of the hotel, one of them said sternly, “thanks. We’re all set.”
It’s just as well because Brown was only getting started with his preamble, one relevant to the financial news we are currently witnessing. “This is a meltdown. It’s historic, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. We have not seen the bottom yet,” Brown said.
He was only warming up. Soon he spoke with anger. “They took advantage of good hardworking Americans…And they’re going to pay for it.”
I’m not a member of any of the Evangelical churches. But this is what Brown’s speaking style reminded me of. He was gripping, compelling, moving. At times he spoke sternly about the financial plight most Americans find themselves in. “You better watch out where you bank,” he hissed knowingly. At other points, he was folksy, telling a story about how he, on a weekend clad in jeans and rugged jacket, approached a property owner to tell the man of some $500,000 in special loans and grants he was eligible for, only to find him arrogant and all-knowing.
He was equal parts, a snake oil salesman, an adviser, a therapist, a preacher, a talk show host. He spoke quickly, but slowed up at times. By his own description, he is not a college graduate, in contrast to his brother, whom he said, always doubted everything but couldn’t find a way to make much money. His eyes twinkled. He laughed derisively. He made jokes that caught everyone’s attention: for example, he described how he could use his computer and Trump tools to find out almost everything about a given property. He paused, said “but nobody can find that Bin Laden guy,” and gave a loud “ha!”
I don’t know enough about real estate to make any judgment about the overall Trump program. I stayed only through an hour and forty-five minutes of Brown’s talk, but that in and of itself says something. After all, I’ve seen Barack Obama speak in person almost 30 times, and I can say that there are moments even in his best speeches where I’ve drifted off. Brown held my attention as well as that of almost everyone in the room for most of that time.
He also made good use of the Trump name and reputation. “One thing about us. Everything we touch turns to gold,” he boasted. “We make a lot of money in real estate.” My favorite was when he mentioned the Trump casino. “Yeah. We own a casino. We don’t gamble in it,” he said to hoots of laughter.
As far as the substance goes, I’m, of course, skeptical; maybe I’m too much like Brown’s brother. One of his money-making examples involved dividing a one-unit property into a property that could contain a number of lots. I couldn’t get all the details but it amounted to getting pre-approval to change the zoning from the county or municipal authority. In Brown’s example, the zoning official was more than happy to make the change because the instructor advised attendees to go in and ask that person his or her “expert advice” – “expert advice” being a key phrase that touched the ego of underappreciated zoning officials. When Brown concluded the story with the person making a considerable profit, the older, semi-coherent, man I had seen before the program began, exclaimed “that’s a good idea!”
It might be a good idea some place, but I don’t know anywhere within Route 128 where an investor can snag some kind of zoning-pre-approval, at least without investing all kinds of money in lawyers and government relations firms. In our region, filled with neighborhood activists, environmental and community groups, various political officials and bureaucrats, such changes are unheard of. Perhaps there are more relevant examples in the $2000 program, but the scenario just didn’t seem very probable for eastern Massachusetts.
Which is really too bad. The people I saw at the Trump seminar were looking for something that really went farther than money. They were looking for a better life. And they were looking for hope during a difficult time. Maybe Brown’s words can give confidence to would-be entrepreneurs to take control of their lives. I don’t know. People presumably go into seminars like that with their eyes open.
Having said that, I believe this Rick Brown would make a fabulous profile for a glossy magazine or the subject of a screenplay. He reminded me of Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia or, even more, of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. He’s a unique American character, one worthy of further study, even if it won’t make me $3 – or even $1 million.
Sometimes I forget how long I’ve been watching and covering politics. A story in today’s New York Post brought it back to me. “Statehouse Sting Snags Queens Pol,” the headline read. Local pols, don’t worry. The representative in question works in Albany, not Beacon Hill.
According to the Post, Anthony Seminerio, created a phony consulting firm to receive cash from those seeking favors in New York’s state capital.
In one episode earlier this year, Seminerio allegedly pocketed $390,000 from a hospital in his district whose officials approached him for help securing extra funding during threatened budget cutbacks. In several taped phone conversations, Seminerio said he would “go rattle some cages,” but only if the officials “find me a check.”
“That kind of relationship you can’t buy for a million dollars,” he said in one recorded conversation.
The Village Voice has an even better alleged quote:
“I was doing favors for these sons-of-bitches there, you know, they were, they were making thousands. ‘Screw you, from now on, you know I’m a consultant.’
Here’s how I come into the story. A dozen years ago, I was covering New York politics for the Forward. Unlike my colleagues who focused mainly on the Jewish world, I was a political junkie, interested even then in the vague workings of outer-borough politics. When an old classmate called me up and offered to take me on a tour of his home neighborhood, Howard Beach and Ozone Park, I eagerly said yes. I was curious to get an inside glimpse of the area that was home to Gambino family mob boss John Gotti as well as the scene of an ugly racial incident in the 1980s.
My friend drove me around. We passed some local Italian bakeries. Then we stopped underneath an elevated subway line on a busy street. “I’d like to introduce you to somebody,” my friend said. He took me inside to an old political clubhouse. In an outer room, a few old ladies were sitting on bridge chairs sipping coffee out of styrofoam cups and stuffing envelopes. We went farther in and reached a back room. The scent of seafood hung in the air. There, behind a desk sat the massive frame of Anthony Seminerio, elected two decades earlier and a man, who has reportedly spoked of being “John Gotti’s assemblyman.”
My friend introduced me and we chatted briefly. He showed more interest in holding court for his supporters and supplicants than in talking to a reporter from an obscure Manhattan weekly. At one point, we were interrupted by a campaign worker running up to him with an aluminum container of what looked-to-be frutti di mare.
“Tony, Tony, my scungilli never comes out good. It’s dry,” the man said woefully. Seminerio showed a hint of annoyance and then growled slowly: “Put a little lemon in it.”
The whole scene was right out of the movies. I didn’t pick up any evidence of corruption though. Seminerio seemed the kind of outer-neighborhood ethnic pol whose main focus was on his constituents. His web page, which provides many numbers of use to neighborhood residents, certainly reflects that.
The irony here is that somebody with Seminerio’s connections probably could have made a lot of money if he had only resigned from the legislature and waited the appropriate period to become a lobbyist. It all would have been legal.
I haven’t been able to discern a plea from the press coverage around his arrest. The Post reports that his wife when leaving federal court “told reporters, ‘Drop Dead!’ and stuck out her tongue.” The New York Sun says his office declined to comment and that his attorney could not be reached.
The sad things is, should Seminerio — who looks like a larger version of Paul Sorvino, the actor who played Paulie in the Scorsese classic Goodfellas — ultimately be found guilty and have to serve time, prison is no longer as depicted in the movie. Seminerio won’t have followers to prepare razor thin slices of garlic or hot sausage for sauce or even lemon for the scungilli.