Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lost in Histories 52: A New Yorker in the White House?

It’s too bad we’ve had to give up our wild mad dreaming of a three-way race to DC between three spectacularly different New Yorkers. What would’ve been a Subway Series for the political world would also have thrust New York back into the spotlight utilizing different talking points, as opposed to the standard triumvirate of money, media and fashion. Alas – it is not to be: for better or for worse (Florida was saying “for worse”, but we know better) we have “Benito” Giuliani finally out of the public eye, possibly for good. First strike, yerr out. Then our Mayor-turned-third party hopeful Bloomberg turned out to be treating the whole thing as a flight of fancy: if the man had been serious at any point in the game, then we wouldn’t have put up with over half a year of dilettantish media posturing and “will he or wont he” journalistic grab-assing. Second strike. I can certainly tell you that if I were to run for Prez, there’s no way I’d fool around for even a second in the stages of the setup — zero-sum game. And now, with the unstoppable juggernaut of Obama barreling through eleven straight state wins, it seems like our last shot with at putting a New Yorker into the White House — she might be from the Midwest, but Senator Hillary Clinton’s been working for New York — might not make it past March 4th. The whole thing reminds us of a little bit of forgotten NY history, most notably a brilliant, doomed politician named Al Smith, nicknamed “The Happy Warrior."

Born in 1873 in the multi-ethnic, multi-culti Lower East Side neighborhood, Al’s earliest memories were of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Smith had Irish, German, Italian and English grandparents, but he most closely identified with his Irish-American roots. When Al was fourteen, his father was killed, and Smith dropped out of St. James Parochial School (in today’s Chinatown, off Chatham Square) in order to work at the Fulton Fish Market — twelve-hour days, seven days a week to support his family. He never returned to formal schooling, so that later in life he was proud of boasting that he “graduated from Fulton Fish Market Academy.” It was here, in the heart of NY’s working-class shipping industry, that Smith decided to dedicate his life to serving the people as a public servant.

Smith soon became tight with Tammany bigwig Charles F. Murphy, also known as Silent Charlie, for his teetotaling and restrained personal lifestyle, also his clean(er than previous Tammany Hall Chief) political relations. Under the auspices of Tammany Hall, Smith was elected to the NY State Assembly, where his first big break was as vice chairman of the commission formed to investigate the horrendous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. Smith, along with future Senator Robert F. Wagner Sr, were seen as practically starting FDR’s New Deal in NYC, pushing heavily for immigration and work hour reforms. Smith was elected Governor of NY State in 1918 and served four terms.

Smith was tremendously proud of his achievements in progressive politics: rent control, tenant protection, low-cost housing, improved workers’ compensation and work hours all forged forward under his stewardship; his oft-repeated catchphrase was “The cures for the evils of Democracy is more Democracy!” Moreover, Smith was damn proud of being the first Irish-American and Roman Catholic Governor in America, and saw himself as representing the teeming immigrant millions. He looked the part too, with a bulbous honker of a nose, a spattering Noo Yawk accent — “his was a voice with trumpets in it – it summoned people to a cause,” per Ric Burns — and a perpetual cigar end chomped out of one side of his mouth.

In 1928 Smith decided he could do more for the country than just for the city, and he ran in the primaries for the Democratic ticket, and won in a landslide. This, however, was the beginning of the end for Al Smith. What worked in NYC most certainly wasn’t working for the rest of the country, and as Smith traveled by train from state to state he learned that his big city ways of liberal accomplishments and pro-immigrant speechifying weren’t welcomed anywhere else. He was despised in some places — his campaign train route rode past burning crosses in Oklahoma, courtesy of the KKK. He was insulted, derided, savagely attacked, and seen as a caricature of the loathed NY immigrant face, which was a complete stranger to the Midwest and South. Smith’s campaign was a dismal failure — in a competition between the country and the city, the country won overwhelmingly. Although Smith carried the twelve largest cities in America, he lost practically every single state, including his own, to Republican candidate Herbert Hoover. Then, less than twelve months later, under the stewardship of President Hoover, the stock market crashed, and we all know what happened then.

(originally published on on 2/26/08)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ruth Weiss Levy, 7/11/49 - 2/18/98

(the plaque reads: Ruth Weiss Levy
In Life She Sought And
Freely Gave Wisdom, Truth,
Beauty And Love. In Death
She Encompassed The Light)

I Love You Mom.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

NYC Tour Guide goes to ABA Convention in VA Beach; Calamity Ensues.

Well, not really. What it was, was a week spent in gorgeous Virginia Beach, attending a humongous convention and learning the fine art of corporate schmoozing and all-out networking, in order to refine my skills in the perplexing but engaging world of group travel. ABA stands for American Busing Association, and it is made up of the people who get groups (students. senior citizens, adults) to travel across the country, mostly by motorcoach, and go sightseeing & travelling & spending their hard earned money. It is a multi-billion dollar business, and it encompasses thousands of people - this convention had 3200 delegates present. It happens every year in a different city, and each year grows larger and more extravagant. The convention lasts a week, and is chock full of leadership seminars, website optimization lessons, sightseeing around VA Beach, evening events with free food and open bars, broadway showtune lunches, and speeches by corporate honchos while one stares into their grilled tuna salad. The entire thing leads up to the extremely important 7 minute speed-networking sessions. But, lets start at the start.

After almost missing my plane down to Norfolk, I sat down in one of the many available seats and took out my book for the 45 minute flight, when the nice middle-aged couple next to me turned and said "Excuse me, are you Matt Levy?" to which, in my absolute incredulous disbelief, I responded "Of course I am. Do I know you?" It turns out that their 12 year old son, from Fairfield, CT, was on one of my Ellis Island Immigration Heritage Tours last June, and my grinning face made it into their 8th grade yearbook, and my tour was one of the highlights of the year, and I'm something of a minor celebrity back home. The grinning parents insisted on taking my picture via cellphone, as their son "Simply wont believe we ran into you." It was an auspicious beginning to an awesome week.
Picked up at the airport by one Rick Feneis - a totally awesome 40 year old party maniac and graduated Beach Bum who lives with the love of his life Cheri, and the cutest dog in known existence, Tiki Joe. They live in this perfect re-creation of a Miami Beach Bungalow with brightly painted walls and mosaics, they also strive to spend as much time as possible on OTBs (other people's boats.) Their 3 kids (from previous marriages) are all off on their own, and Rick & Cheri are hosting a Somalian "Lost Boy" named Yakk in their pad for 6 months and have been to many of the Caribbean and Pacific Islands, including a bunch I didnt even know existed. I met them through Couchsurfing, and they are quite simply dolls and darlings. They treated me as one of their own, with my own bedroom and bath, an ample supply of beer, and they also were so kind as to drive me around to the convention on certain days when they could afford to, as well as take me out to local seafood joints where I stuffed myself stupid on steamed shrimp and snow crab, tuna tacos, and the best Oysters Rockefeller I've ever had.Sunday was sightseeing day - I opted for a hiking & biking afternoon in which a busload of 40 were zipped out to First Landing State Park, near the site of Christopher Newport and the Virginia Company colonists when they arrived in the New World. It was nice, but probably not nearly as awesome as the offered adventure of Biking & Kayaking. It was just too cold that Sunday (60 degrees, normal for February in VA Beach.) After the hike & bike was the POLAR PLUNGE!

A Polar Plunge is where a group of people, for whatever reason, decide to charge into the Atlantic Ocean wearing whatever they may choose. The Polar Bear Club does it every January down in Coney Island, they do it for chutzpah. We did it to raise money for the American Cancer Society - and I promised everybody who donated a minimum of $25 that I would do it in my Speedo (so named Blue Lightning) and send the donators pictures. Suffice to say, it was cold. 42 degrees Fahrenheit cold. Numbing the skin and the fingers and toes cold. Especially as I was wearing nothing BUT BLUE LIGHTNING. The pictures and movie do a far better job than my chattering lips and frozen tongue could do.

Sunday night was a Superbowl party in the company of Pittsburg Steelers fans. And even though I'm a native New Yorker, I went to college in Boston and became a Red Sox fans while there, and therefore my heart was with the Pats, and it broke just as easily in those last two minutes.Monday came along, and it was business-time. The Convention building has two floors - the ground floor is divided between the Marketplace Trading Floor and the Meeting Floor. The Trading Floor is where CVBs (Conventions and Visitors Bureaus - basically the selling team for any small town, city or state) and attractions (anything from the Colonial Williamsburg camp to Broadway Showtix to Blue Man Group to Atlantic City Casinos setup their info tables, chock full of free crap - grilled Spam, courtesy of the Minnesota Tourism Board? Have a can of Dr. Pepper, thanks to San Antonio, Texas! Free mini shredded chicken sandwiches, by way of Birmingham, Alabama. Drive a mini-racecar, paid for by Charlottesville NC, host of the 2009 ABA convention.The Meeting Floor is the heart of the convention - where buyers (motorcoach operators and tour companies) sit behind tables and listen to sellers (sales people like myself) pitch either a city, hotel, attraction or service. The second floor is all small meeting rooms for the free conferences, like High Five Strategies for Website Optimization, and Are You a Poser or a Closer? inspirational talks (which, despite its twerpy name, was awesome and highly motivational.) I attended a fair share of these, some while hungover, over the next few days. I also found time to drive my rental car over to Colonial Williamsburg and wander their 18th century streets for a few short hours.

Along with motivational speakers there was a lot of research to do when my turn came in front of the Buyers. When one can whip out some information about their company in the middle of an interview, it makes the interviewee sound sharp, prepared, and ready for a business relationship. In order to bust out with "I see that you send approximately 50 groups to NYC a year, 65% of which are seniors and the rest are split between students and adults," well, it makes one sound like a damn good business prospect. And it worked (we hope.) During the 7 minute networking sessions (in which the sellers have to scurry between 8 different rows of Buyers sitting behind tables and leave some sort of lasting impression as these people meet
thousands of sellers over 4 days, all pitching essentially the same product - either a hotel, a restaurant or an attraction - well one has to stand out somehow. Luckily for The Levys' Unique New York! we happen to have two excellent things going for us.1) People will always come to NYC. We arent some tiny little town in the middle of the Ozarks trying to sell their Appalachia Bluegrass Festival (which sounds awesome by the way). People want to come to NYC, will always come to NYC, there's no sell needed for that. And
2) We're selling ourselves, selling New York. And who is better at being Matt Levy and selling Matt Levy than Matt Levy? It's what I made my Graduate thesis out of, people! Being Matt Levy! We happen to sell a product (young, energetic, enthusiastic, entertaining and educational tour guide) that syncs well with my personality. So it just came naturally. The most important trick I had to remember was to eventually shut-up and listen to the Buyer to see what they needed, what they wanted in a tour guiding company. I walked away from my 20 + 7-minute appointments with a sense of confidence and pride that I love what I do for a living, and I'm working hard at making a living at it. And with some serious follow-thru and a continuation of all the things I've done so far, this convention should turn into a rousing success for LUNY!

Along with some more boozing, schmoozing, stacking up on free stuff (Wisconsin cheese stickers anybody?) manic dancing, losing car keys, finding car keys, enjoying a day with 82 degree weather, hitting an awesome Salvation Army and buying some badass felt fedoras, and impressing the hell out of everybody with those manic dance moves, that pretty much rounded up the week in Virginia Beach. I flew home with my head high for the family biz.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Lost in History vol. 50 - Year of the Rat? Don't we got Enough of them Already?

And another Chinese New Year came and went, with firecrackers in the air, bright bursts of multi-colored party decorations festooning what few trees are left in Chinatown, confetti in the gutter, oranges on the cheap paperboard signs promising untold good luck and the glitter of gold paint everywhere. Unfortunately, we missed it, as we were down in Virginia Beach at a tourism convention. And we hate missing street carnivals and joyful celebrations, especially celebrations in Chinatown, our flat-out favorite neighborhood. So when we learned that the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) was hosting a Chinatown walking tour with a particular focus on the signs, symbols and good fortunes of the Year of the Rat, we gladly signed up to get down with our four-legged furry friend. Only in New York would people pay good money to spend time with these scurrilous creatures.
Our guide was Erica Jee, an interested and interesting Chinese-American from California, and a former educator at MOCA who was back in town to help out with the local festivities as well as the museum’s events. She was visibly sad to be on the East coast during the Chinese New Year, as it meant she was missing her family get-together and feast back home. Regardless, it was her pleasure to provide an hour-and-a-half walking tour of Chinatown for a small group of twenty people, mostly New Yorkers, but with the occasional out-of-towner. All of us were interested in the cultural meanings of the public revelry on display in one of just two working-class neighborhoods in Manhattan that still receives immigrants on a regular basis. (The other would be Washington Heights.)

Our tour started in Columbus Park, at the intersection of Bayard and Mulberry streets in the heart of “Old Chinatown,” and catty-corner to MOCA’s tiny museum space. Erica explained that the newly refurbished park has many amenities for the dozens of Chinese seniors and residents who utilize the green-and-asphalt: tai chi, checkers and cards, reading the paper, feeding the birds and talking about current events. The park was particularly empty this Saturday, which might have been due to the gray skies, but was more likely due to the fact that during the Chinese New Year, people spend lots of time at their family homesteads. For the Chinese, their New Years is like Christmas and Thanksgiving combined: feasts and gifts, which include money, flowers, fruit and toys.

The Chinese New Year, Erica went on to explain, was based on the Lunar Calendar, so that the date changes from year to year. What’s more, the cycle runs by twelves, so every twelve years, the dates switch back, as do the personifications of each year. The Year of the Rat, the first symbol of the dozen zodiac signs, therefore invites a season of change and renewal. While crossing through Chatham Square we heard the pop and burst of small-scale fireworks, which are traditionally used to scare off evil spirits. (At least symbolically. Never underestimate the thrill and fun of fireworks to bring crowds together. The Chinatown fireworks pre-Giuliani used to be much larger, but now it’s a small, controlled burn in the center of Chatham Square.)
We headed towards the Bowery, but ducked into tiny Doyers Street, one of the most whimsical streets in the city, as it runs one block long, and at a sharp right angle. Decades ago, it was far from whimsical, as it was known as “Bloody Doyers,” as the ninety-degree turn allowed Chinese Tongs (Mandarin for “hall” as in “hall of brothers”) to sneak up on each other, but nowadays has multitudes of barbershops. Chinese custom maintains that one should always get one’s hair cut before the New Year, so that one doesn’t cut away the good luck approaching. Erica wouldn’t say anything with certainty, as she maintained that customs shift from family to clan to region, as well as mutate over the centuries.

One thing that has stayed true through the ages is the symbolism of fruit and flowers in the New Years’ iconography. Since the Mandarin language is pictorial and glyphic, there are a lot of homonyms inherent in the system. The ubiquity of oranges in Chinese culture makes sense when one understands that "orange" sounds like "fortune" in Mandarin (and, come to think of it, English as well). "Fish" sounds like "abundance." "Bat" means "luck" and "green" also means "wealth." As the tour rounded up, we stopped to purchase an orange or two for fortune’s sake, as another burst of confetti exploded above us. Happy 4709, everyone!

(originally published on 2/12/8 in