Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Leaning Tower of San Francisco

By the year 2100, the area where I live will be under water.

Fortunately for me, I will be long gone. Not only will I have cagily sold my condo the day before the market peaks, and passed papers the day before a 100 year Sandy-style storm floods my building, but – by 2100 – I will be long DEAD and gone.

Boston’s Back Bay (there’s a reason it’s called Back Bay) and the flats of Beacon Hill (where I live) are built on reclaimed land. In fact, the landfill that reclaimed it came, I believe, from the lopped off top of Beacon Hill. This made Beacon Hill less of a hill, while also making Beacon Hill more of a neighborhood.

All of the residential buildings in the hood are old. Old-old. My block dates to the early 1860’s. And one of the peculiarities of old buildings is that most of those put up on reclaimed territory have wooden pilings.

Despite the future coming of the great flood, one of the problems in my area occurs when the water table drops. When that happens, those wooden pilings dry out. So most of the homes on the flats (and, I suspect, in Back Bay) have had to replace their pilings at some point.

When I lived on Brimmer Street, the back yard of the house we lived in was a mucky construction zone for months while our landlord replaced the pilings. Fortunately for us, the pilings in the building where I now live were replaced prior to our buying our condo.

Still, there are plenty of things to worry about – that Sandy-like storm, for one - which could send the Charles River gushing through the windows on my lower floor.

There are other problems, as well.

Right after my renovation project finished last fall, the floor in the front ground floor unit fell about 3/4”. This came as quite a shock to the 99 year old fellow who lived there and his home health care attendant. My unit, which also has a ground floor component, dropped a bit in the corner by the door, but was mostly spared the full drop.

At first, we were concerned that the entire building was compromised – visions of the firemen coming and giving us all 5 minutes to pack what we could – but it turned out to be a relatively small-p problem. Bad, but not condemn-the-building bad.

In any case, I fully understand how unnerving it can be when bad things happen to good buildings, especially for the residents of said buildings.

Thus I read with interest a story in The Boston Globe the other day on San Francisco’s Millennium Tower, a lux-y condo building that, when its apartments were up for sale seven years ago, neglected to disclose a critical point. Sure, they notified prospective owners that the they might hear street traffic, and that the landscaping specs could change if the plants they thought they were going to use weren’t available.

But the 21-page disclosure document left out what owners of units in the buildings now say was a crucial detail: that the building had already sunk more than 8 inches into the soft soil by the time it was completed in 2009, much more than engineers had anticipated…

The Millennium Tower, which its developers say is the largest reinforced concrete building in the western United States, has now sunk about 16 inches and is leaning 6 inches toward a neighboring skyscraper. The building’s tilt has become a public scandal, a dispute that has produced a wide-eyed examination of whether San Francisco’s frenetic skyscraper-building spree was properly monitored by city authorities. (Source: Boston Globe)

I guess it goes without saying that an issue like this is of particular concern in a city like San Francisco, which has been known to have an earthquake or two. And which – unlike other cities with tall buildings – doesn’t have bedrock to anchor its skyscrapers. (Despite it being built on swamp, the tall buildings in Boston’s Back Bay bore through the landfill guck and get built on bedrock. There aren’t really any tall buildings on Beacon Hill itself.)

Needless to say, the Millennium Tower condo owners are none to happy, as they’re looking at property values that will be worth a lot less than what they paid. The sewage connections may fail. The elevators could stop functioning if the building keeps tilting. And then there’s the ultimate fear: someone figures out it might topple and declare the building uninhabitable. See you in court!

Nicholas Sitar, who’s a civil engineering professor at U Cal Berkeley is quoted in the article saying, “Any time you have a tall structure leaning, you have to start looking very carefully.”

I’ll say. (Building overboard…)

The entire situation sounds like a big finger-pointing litigation in the making. When the Millennium Tower was built, it was one of the first skyscrapers that went up in its district. There weren’t any regulations in place on how to deal with it. Developers hadn’t built there in the past because the land was too squishy, but engineering improvements over the years made them believe that it was now okay.

Among the other things that have come out is that city correspondence with the engineers responsible for the Millennium Tower project “had disappeared from the files.” There was no rule saying the city had to keep them, so they didn’t. (Really? Isn’t most correspondence these days electronic? Doesn’t EVERYTHING get saved. I see a voyage of discovery coming up. This will be keeping lawyers busy for years to come.)

The tilting tower has produced introspection among engineers in part because when the building was completed the developers received at least nine awards for “excellence in structural engineering,” among other citations.

That introspection has led to a suggestion from one engineer that the way to save the building is to get rid of the top 20 floors. Which might be okay – if the horror show of living through your building being dismantled for a couple of years is ever going to be okay -  if you hadn’t paid $2M+ to live on one of those top 20 floors.

My brother Tom is a civil engineer, and over the course of his career he’s worked on a number of major projects. No skyscrapers that I know of, but some plenty big deals. (Tom was lead engineer on Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles stadium.) Shortly after 9/11, he told me that, from an engineering perspective, the Twin Towers did their job. They weren’t designed for a massive airplane to deliberately fly into them, but they were, Tom said, sufficiently well built that they lasted long enough for a lot of people to get out safely. I’ll have to ask him what he thinks about the Leaning Tower of San Francisco. I’m just glad I don’t live in it.

Monday, September 26, 2016

You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound dog

Last Friday, Bruce Springsteen was on Stephen Colbert to promote his new book, Born To Run. Colbert’s show takes place in the Ed Sullivan Theater, and the conversation between Colbert and Springsteen turned to what had been a seminal event in Bruce’s life: watching the first appearance of Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show.

I looked it up, and that first appearance was on September 9, 1956.

Like most Americans alive on September 9, 1956, I was sitting in front of the TV watching Ed Sullivan. How do I know most Americans were watching Ed Sullivan that night? Well, somewhere I came across an estimate that, by 1956, 70% plus homes in the US had a TV. Multiply that by a Neilsen rating of 86.2 – thanks, Wikipedia, I really should make a donation…. – and you get 60% of everyone. Oh, I know, this calculation is imperfect. Maybe my four year old brother Tom was watching, maybe not; and my 9 month old brother Rick was probably in bed. And, as this was the midst of the Baby Boom, plenty of other households had little kids who would have been too fidgety and squally to sit through Ed Sullivan.

But I was six, pushing seven, and I surely was able to watch the really big show (actually pronounced ‘shew’), as Ed would have had it. And my sister Kath was, too.

We, of course, were a family of Ed Sullivan regulars.

First off, there didn’t used to be all that many choices. In 1956, there were three broadcast networks, and that was about it. Later on, there were UHF stations unaffiliated with a national network, but if there were any broadcasting in the Worcester area in 1956, they weren’t beaming into our living room. We got the Boston stations – 4, 5 and 7, and the Providence stations – 10 and 12. (Poor forlorn little Worcester: we didn’t get a TV station of our own until Channel 27 blew into town. I take it that it’s now a Spanish-language station, but back in the day it carried excellent content like reruns of B&W 1950’s TV shows, Abbot and Costello and Bowery Boys films, and a really low-rent version of Bozo. Given the caliber of high-rent versions of Bozo, it’s difficult to imagine a low-rent version being even worse, but trust me on this one.)

But we were Ed Sullivan watchers not just by the baptism of there being not much else on, but by the desire watch it.

For one thing, Ed Sullivan was a Catholic. (Extra points for being an Irish Catholic.) So what if he always seemed so pinched and dour. So what if his wife was Jewish. He was on of us, which made Sunday night with Ed almost a Holy Day of Obligation.

Not to mention the varied entertainment that the show offered: Metropolitan Opera singers, guys spinning plates on their noses – for acts like this, my father would always ask out loud how someone managed to find out they had this talent  - Borscht Belt shtick comics, bits from Broadway shows, classical violinists, dancing bears… And, of course, on September 9, 1956, Elvis Presley.

We watched in the living room of the new house we’d moved into just a few months earlier, moving on up the hill behind my grandmother’s, into a single family home that I believe was smaller than the flat we had in my grandmother’s decker. But which was ours. Sure, the rooms may have been pokey – the bedrooms, once the beds and dressers went in, had maybe 10 square feet to maneuver around in. And we’d left a large eat-in (and sleep-in*) kitchen with pantry for a tiny little kitchen in which, once everyone was squished around the new Formica dinette set, no one could move. But it was ours. It had a far bigger yard to run around in than Nanny’s decker did. And we didn’t have to worry about disturbing Nanny’s peace. (Not to mention that it had the unimaginably posh extra of a second bathroom.)

So there we were, on Sunday night, September 9, 1956, watching Elvis Presley wiggle his hips and sing “Love Me Tender,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and a tiny bit of “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog”.

I don’t remember the music. Nor do I remember that Ed Sullivan was out that night, and Charles Laughton was the substitute host.

I do remember liking it that Elvis shook it up, and that he reminded my quite of bit of my sixteen-year old Uncle Bob, who also had black pompadour-ish hair and a penchant for outsized sport coats. (Or did Bob adopt this look post-Elvis? In any case, Bobby was one of my heroes, having won me a plaster-of-Paris kewpie doll at Riverview Park in Chicago on one of our visits to my mother’s home ground. Plus Bobby had the immense cool to hang foam dice in his hot rod. What’s not to love?)

But mostly what I remember was school the next morning.

When Sister Aloysius St. James asked our class whether anyone had watched Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan the night before, 50 little hands shot up. We were so little – only six or seven – we didn’t yet smell a typical nun trap. You’d think that, having endured the first grade torture chamber run by Sister Marie Leo the prior year, we would have wised up. But, no.

Having told us we could put our hands down, she asked Question Number Two: how many families turned off the television set once Elvis Presley began performing?

This time, only Francis George’s hand was raised.

Ah, Sister Aloysius St. James told us with a sigh, there was only one decent Catholic family in our entire class, and that was the Georges.

I’m not sure what words she used to describe Elvis, but I’m sure evil and sin factored in there. Filthy probably, indecent. She may have thrown in immoral, although none of us would have known the word.

When Bruce Springsteen saw Elvis Presley, he was inspired to become a rock and roller.

Me, I thought Elvis, the way he swiveled his hips, was funny. But the next morning, when Sister Aloysius St. James asked her question, and told me and 48 other little kids that our families weren’t very good, the little seed was planted in my little mind that kept asking and asking and asking: if they’re telling me that my mother and father are bad people for watching Elvis on Ed Sullivan, what else are they telling us that flat out isn’t true?

Anyway, I hadn’t realized that I’d missed the 60th anniversary of Elvis on Ed Sullivan. But know it now, thanks to Bruce’s book tour. The book sounds pretty interesting by the way, even if you’re a casual or non fan of The Boss.

Meanwhile, I wonder whether Francis George is still a good Catholic, or whether the pronouncement on his family’s goodness woke him a bit up, too. 

*Sleep-in kitchen, you might be asking yourself? Yes, indeedy. Our kitchen, as did my grandmother’s, had a studio couch in the kitchen that was used for seating – the kitchen was truly the hub of the hangout universe – and, when folded out, sleeping facilities for two guests.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Do the laws of supply and demand not apply to the food industry?

Well, Mario Batali’s Eataly is coming to Boston.

For those not among the cognoscenti, Eataly (great name, by the way), is an Italian markeplace: restaurants, food shops, gifts, take out. It’s going in the place where the tired Prudential Food Court drearily lived for years. (Think Panda Express and cookies.) I’ve been by but not into the Eataly in NYC (the other US city that has one is Chicago), and it looks like just the sort of place that will lure me in: all sorts of pasta, all sorts of breads, gelato – I’m guessing. And only a 10 minute walk from my house.

I need a new serving bowl for pasta. I now know where to look.

I hope that Eataly doesn’t cut into the business of the still-standing little mom and pop shops in the North End. And I’ll back that hope with a vow to continue to nip down the alley into Bricco, right off Hanover Street, when I’m in desperate need for some magnificent Italian bread.

Still, I’m quite sure that I’ll get sucked into Eataly sooner rather than later. Just to see what will be on offer in their 44,000 square feet of marketplace.

Meanwhile, the thing that’s got Boston buzzing about this is wondering where they’re going to find the 600 workers they need to staff it.

Boston, it seems, is already suffering from a “massive shortage of food-industry workers.”

“It spreads what’s already in short supply even thinner,” said Jason Santos, a Boston restaurateur who plans to open his new Back Bay restaurant, Buttermilk and Bourbon, around the same time Eataly debuts.

Said Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, “It’ll obviously exacerbate what is already a very delicate ecosystem as it is today. There’s no question it’s going to have an impact.” (Source: Boston Globe)

A side point:

Am I the only one whose stomach gives a heave at the thought of a restaurant called Buttermilk and Bourbon. Buttermilk is for making Irish soda bread and pancakes. What’s that got to do with bourbon? I know it’s been a long time – decades, in fact – since I downed any brown spirits, but I was known to quaff a Jack Daniels or two back in the day. I must admit that I drank Jack in some putrid combinations – with Coke, with cranberry juice (a Scarlett O’Hara?), with (can this be right?) Hires Root Beer (diet) – but bourbon and buttermilk?

I’ll have to peek in when I’m storming past to get to Eataly to buy my pasta bowl, but I suspect I’ll take a pass on dropping in. Probably not aimed at the geezer demographic, no longer able to hold their liquor, anyway.

Why is Boston so strapped for restaurant workers?

It’s the result of a convergence of factors: a public transportation system that isn’t conducive to the late nights and early mornings typically required in restaurant work; and the rise of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, which often pluck from a similar pool of job candidates.

Not to mention that the rents here are sky high, so a “line cook making roughly $13 an hour” is not going to be living anywhere near where they work. (Good thing there’ll be Uber and Lyft drivers to get them back out to the hustings.)

What Eataly has going for it is Batali’s celebrity and its reputation “as a promising place for innovative, ambitious talent.”

There are some minor concerns that they’ll be poaching “talent” from other restaurants, but Eataly doesn’t want to be a disrupter in that sense. And the North End establishments contacted don’t believe that Eataly will be wooing away their employees. (Their business, maybe.)

Anyway, it’s been a while since I took Economics 101, but I did have my own personal economist by my side for all those years, and, let’s face it, when you lie down with an economist, you wake up with supply and demand curves in your head.

And that tells me that the solution to a labor shortage is to pay the workers more.

The alternative seems to be leaving positions unfilled, or hiring folks who are less qualified. (Just how qualified you need to be to sell bags of pasta, I don’t know. I suspect I could do it. But restaurants will need people who know how to cook.) Leaving positions unfilled and/or hiring the unqualified tends to translate into poorer product and service. Which does tend to sent customers packing.

I know that there are those who would argue that raising wages will just get restaurant owners to automate everything, removing the need to have all those greedy, whining, pesky workers around bugging them.

But some places do need real humans. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be waited on by a robot, unless I was completely zonked on bourbon and buttermilk, by which point I probably wouldn’t care. And I may want to talk to a human about which pasta bowl to buy.

So let’s hear it for wages going up in Boston’s food industry. Perhaps coming soon to an Eataly near you.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Onward, Introverts!

I was going to use “Onward, INTJ’s” as my title, but then somehow I came across an online argument about whether NPD’s (i.e, those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder) were more likely to be INTJ’s than they were to be other personality types. And then I tripped on whether INTJ is the perfect personality type for someone with Asperger’s. So I said, why advertise my INTJ-ness. Let’s just go with the Introvert part.

But by way of context:

Anyone who has worked in corporate America has no doubt taken a personality test at one point or another. In one company I worked for, they gave us a quick and dirty test as part of a sales kickoff. As it turned out, all the sales people were Reds (or, as we called them, Flaming Reds), while everyone who was at the sales meeting who worked in a corporate function was an Orange, Blue, or Green. If they’d been a bit more Myers-Briggs-y, they’d have told us the Blue and Greens were the introverts, but, as we were the hold back, observe and analyze types, us Blues figured this out for ourselves.

I’ve also done the Enneagram, but I lent my really good Enneagram book to someone and never got it back, and I don’t remember what I was.

But I do remember when I was Myers-Briggsed.

I was at Wang, where entire swaths of the workforce took the test, and then went in their groups to off-sites to figure out what to do with it.

I was an INTJ.

Which stands for Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, and Judging.

Attention, Mr. Spock!

While I am certainly a well-compensated Introvert, and I’m not on the extreme end of that scale, this was the first I’d heard about being one. (The Red-Blue-Green-Orange scheme must have come later.)

I’d always known I was an oddball. It was good to have confirmation.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Myers-Briggs is a personality inventory that puts the theories of Carl Jung, all those archtypes, into practical, everyday practice.

You’re either an Introvert or an Extrovert. Intuitive or Sensing. Thinking or Feeling. Judging or Perceiving. (And, yes, you’re right, some of these words and categories don’t seem to make sense.)

I’m an INTJ. We’re the “Architect”. Our opposite numbers, ESFPs, are the “Entertainer.” While I actually find myself plenty entertaining, being an entertainer is my idea of a nightmare.

Anyway, according to 16 Personalities – which, by the way, has changed Perceiving to Prospecting, for some reason - here’s what INTJ-ness is all about:

It’s lonely at the top, and being one of the rarest and most strategically capable personality types, INTJs know this all too well. INTJs form just two percent of the population, and women of this personality type are especially rare, forming just 0.8% of the population – it is often a challenge for them to find like-minded individuals who are able to keep up with their relentless intellectualism and chess-like maneuvering. People with the INTJ personality type are imaginative yet decisive, ambitious yet private, amazingly curious, but they do not squander their energy.

Yep. Mostly.

With a natural thirst for knowledge that shows itself .early in life, INTJs are often given the title of “bookworm” as children. While this may be intended as an insult by their peers, they more than likely identify with it and are even proud of it, greatly enjoying their broad and deep body of knowledge. INTJs enjoy sharing what they know as well, confident in their mastery of their chosen subjects.

Yep. Entirely.

A paradox to most observers, INTJs are able to live by glaring contradictions that nonetheless make perfect sense – at least from a purely rational perspective. For example, INTJs are simultaneously the most starry-eyed idealists and the bitterest of cynics, a seemingly impossible conflict. But this is because INTJ types tend to believe that with effort, intelligence and consideration, nothing is impossible, while at the same time they believe that people are too lazy, short-sighted or self-serving to actually achieve those fantastic results. Yet that cynical view of reality is unlikely to stop an interested INTJ from achieving a result they believe to be relevant.

That’s about right.

I was wondering just how much ethnicity (my antecedents being Irish and German) factored in here. 16 Personalities handily lets you find out. As the world turns out, the Irish are more apt to be Introverts, Intuitive, and Thinking than are the average persons in Europe. And Germans are more likely to be Introverts, Intuitive, Thinking, and Judging. Achtung, baby: ve have a vinner!

But enough about me putting the “my” in Myers-Briggs by running on about my personality inventory. (Jeez, am I really an NPD?) What triggered this post was an article in a recent Economist on the unfortunate, shabby (as they have it) approach that the corporate world takes to us introverts:

The biggest culprit is the fashion for open-plan offices and so-called “group work”. Companies rightly think that the elixir of growth in a world where computers can do much of the grunt work is innovation. But they wrongly conclude that the best way to encourage creativity is to knock down office walls and to hold incessant meetings. This is ill-judged for a number of reasons. It rests on a trite analogy between intellectual and physical barriers between people. It ignores the fact that noise and interruptions make it harder to concentrate. And  companies too often forget that whereas extroverts gain energy from other people, introverts need time on their own to recharge. (Source: The Economist)

Italics mine!

The other day, I had an on-site meeting with an open-office client. Although I don’t go into meet in person with my clients very often, I have a few that I occasionally drift in to see. This company is not my only open-office client, but it has embraced the concept with a vengeance. It gives me the willies.

The recent fashion for hyper-connectedness also reinforces an ancient prejudice against introverts when it comes to promotion. Many companies unconsciously identify leadership skills with extroversion—that is, a willingness to project the ego, press the flesh and prattle on in public. This suggests that Donald Trump is the beau idéal of a great manager.

Italics again mine. Beau idéal my royal, INTJ arse.

Yet in his book “Good to Great”, Jim Collins, a management guru, suggests that the chief executives who stay longest at the top of their industries tend to be quiet and self-effacing types. They are people who put their companies above their egos and frequently blend into the background.

“Good to Great” is one of those business books I have around somewhere. I think I read it. Part of it, anyway. (I think I had to for a client, for some reason. I don’t feel I’ve read it. I’m such a thinker!)

The article goes on that companies need to do something to make the workplace a happier milieu for their introverts: quiet areas, offices. I’d add not promoting all those self-aggrandizing blowhards to the mix. Unless those self-aggrandizing blowhards are managing robots:

One study that looked at operations lower down an organisation shows that extroverts are better at managing workers if the employees are just expected to carry out orders, but those who tend towards introversion are better if the workers are expected to think for themselves.

Fortunately, my career has been in technology – albeit in marketing – where it’s mostly okay to be an introvert.

Extraversion and introversion aren’t black and white, they aren’t binary. Most folks are on a continuum.

But I’m happy to see my peeps get their day. Onward, Introverts!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

“Ten Restaurants that Changed America”

Not that I was ever a foodie, but back in the day my husband and I did a lot of eating out, and a lot of that eating out was done at high-end restaurants. In our later dining out years, we settled into being regulars at a couple of locals, venturing out occasionally to try something new. But we pretty much knocked off of our lists any place where you even vaguely had to dress up.

Not that Paul Freedman’s new book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America, is all given over to foodie places – hey, HoJo’s is on the list!. But the review I read of it in The New Yorker got me thinking about some of the fine – and not so fine – dining Jim and I did over the years, and I found that I’d actually been to six of the places on the list. Not bad, especially when you take into account that one of them (Delmonico’s) went out of business in 1923, and another (Le Pavillon) closed when I was in high school.

Knowing little about the points that Freedman is actually making in his book, let’s start with Le Pavillon, in NYC.

While Le Pavillon was before our time, my husband and I used to go to NYC fairly regularly, and in the early days, we used to make sure that we had at least one meal at Caravelle, Lutece, or La Côte Basque.

La Côte Basque, which was founded by Henri Soulé  - founder of Le Pavillon, so I’m only one degree of separation - was pretty much our favorite. I blogged about our adventures there a couple of months back. La Côte – I can still picture the wonderful murals on the walls – had fabulous food, and you could often spot a quasi-celeb there. One time it was some cast members of the soap All My Children, another time, some big executive who was much in the news at the time we spotted him, as someone had just done a tell-all book on the shenanigans at his company.

After La Côte closed, we tried The Four Seasons and absolutely hated it. Beautiful, in a retro Mad Man kind of way, but completely uninspired. I remember my veal chop was okay, but my dijon shrimp appetizer – shrimp with a plop of mustard – was pretty blah. When the waiter asked whether I liked it, I told him I thought it was somewhat boring. He reported back to the kitchen and someone wearing a toque blanche came out and stood in the door and glowered at me.

For a couple of years, Jim and I alternated trips to NYC with trips to California. In San Francisco, we ate a bunch of the biggies (L’Orangerie, Ernies…), but the one that made the Freedman list was the Mandarin.

I remember thinking that the food was overrated – I liked Shun Lee in NYC better – but my purest recall was reaching under the table for some unbeknownst reason and finding it rimmed with a bunch of wads of chewing gum. Completely disgusting, and put me off my feed. So maybe the food really was great, but I just could get by the chewing gum.

Jim and I ventured out of SF a couple of times, to Berkeley and Napa. But I don’t think we ever ate at Chez Panisse. The one Berkeley meal I remember was at a not-so-good Thai place. We over-ordered and didn’t like the food, but were embarrassed to tell the waiter we didn’t want doggy bags. We gave it to a homeless guy. Hope he enjoyed it more than we did.

In Napa, we ate at a couple of places that I believe were sort of Chez Panisse-y. (The Mustard Grill?)

The final restaurant on the “Changed America” list where I ate with Jim was Howard Johnson.

I’d eaten at them before – hey, I’m a New Englander – but my most memorable time was when Jim and I went winter camping in the Catoctin Mountains with a couple of his friends. After a couple of nights nearly freezing to death, we took a break to stay at a HoJo’s in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where, after taking much-needed showers, and taking much-needed naps in a much-needed warm bed, we ate in the restaurant. Nothing has ever tasted better to me than that grilled hot dog.

A couple of places on Freedman’s list I made it to without Jim.

Somewhere along the line, I ate at a Schrafft’s, although I mostly know them from being a candy company in Boston, and for their building, which still stands, in the Charlestown section.

On my second trip to NYC, as a college student, I ate at Mama Leone’s. Loud, hectic, and not especially good, unless you like watery ravioli. But, hey, we were college kids – not to mention tourists – and what did we know. At one point, Mama Leone’s opened an outpost in Boston, and I ate there once on something of a lark with a couple of friends. As a free appetizer, they put out a plate of olives. I chose a large one, and, when I went to bite into it, my teeth hit bite marks. Fine dining at its best.

In 1972, my college roommate and I drove cross country, and our one fancy, dress up meal, was at Antoine’s. I even remember what I wore – a purple jersey mini-dress – and what I ate – Oysters Rockefeller and Pompano en Papillote. And I remember that the service was very solicitous. Touristy, hell yes, but, when in tourist-ville. Fast forward a decade or so, and Jim and I spent a long weekend in New Orleans. I think we took a pass on Antoine’s. But we did eat bread pudding every day.

Sylvia’s, despite all of our New York trips, was not a place that Jim and I ever ventured to. Maybe next time I’ll do the Harlem Shuffle on up there!

Meanwhile, the book sure looks interesting. With my waitressing past – including stints at two of the oldest restaurants in America, Durgin-Park and the Union Oyster House – I’m quite sure I’ll find it interesting.



Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Just in case you were wondering: an update on Nubrella

Since I’ve now been blogging for a full decade, I frequently see news stories that update news stories I posted about in the way back.

The latest was an article from The Boston Globe last week about Alan Kaufman and his Nubrella, the subject of a post I did in 2010.

For those who haven’t memorized everything I’ve written, the Nubrella was the umbrella reimagined, a hands-free helmet like apparatus. When I wrote about it, I was considering investing in a Nubrella – which I really want to type as “NUMBrella” for some reason – rather than continuing to buy a couple of crummy umbrellas each year. At the time of my writing, Kaufman was about to appear on Shark Tank. And I was going to watch to see what happened:

I will definitely be tuning the Tank in when they consider Kaufman's Nubrella. And I'm absolutely considerinnubrella.pngg a purchase - although, at $49.99 plus shipping, that's a good 5 or 6 crappy, fall-apart umbrellas from Filene's....

Plus there's the goofy-looking factor. Do I have the courage to be seen in one? Can I, for once, be an early adopter of brave new technology, rather than a second-waver?

Stay tuned. I'm seriously considering a purchase. (I will be ordering the one with the black back, which looks like a cross between a gun turret in a WWII bomber, and an Amish buggy. What's not to like?)

Well, I guess I get to award myself a couple of Pinocchios here. Not only did I not watch Kaufman on Shark Tank, I did not seriously consider a purchase – at least not starting the minute after I hit “publish” and uploaded the post. (Meanwhile, forgive a bit of a sniff-sniff boohoo-ery here. In 2010, I was buying all those crappy umbrellas at Filene’s Basement, which went out of business in 2011. Fortunately, Marshall’s and TJ Maxx, or Staples in a pinch, are good sources for cheap near-disposable umbrellas. Still, having shopped there for my whole entire life up until 2011, I do miss me my Filene’s B.)

Anyway, Kaufman is back in the news. In fact, he’s suing the Sharks.

By now, most of us know better than to take “reality” TV at face value. But Alan Kaufman, a Newton entrepreneur who pitched his hands-free “Nubrella” on ABC’s “Shark Tank” back in 2010, claims in a lawsuit that the show’s producers didn’t just fudge a few inconsequential details for the sake of drama — they lied about nearly everything.

A verbal agreement made on air that would have seen two of the “sharks,” or judges, invest $200,000 in Nubrella? Kaufman said he never got a penny. And a follow-up episode in which Nubrella appears to sign a distribution deal with The Sharper Image? Completely fabricated, he claimed.

Kaufman claims these distortions — along with re-runs of the show that depict an outdated version of his product — have brought him to the brink of ruin. So last week, he filed a pro-se lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court against the media and production companies behind Shark Tank, seeking compensation for lost investment opportunities, a cut of the revenue earned each time an episode featuring Nubrella airs, and a clear label indicating when the episodes originally ran. (Source: Boston Globe)

Is Kaufman the only person on the face of the earth who doesn’t get that “reality” shows are anything but? And after they treated him so shabbily – the two Sharks who said they were considering investing in him ended up blowing him off – why did he agree to make a follow up, ‘where are they now’ episode, in which he’s seen making a deal with Sharper Image. (Which he now claims had such a rotten reputation that they were the last place he’d have done a deal with.)

Anyway, Nubrella is running out of money, and Kaufman believes that the fact that neither the Shark money nor any deal with Sharper Image materialized is making investors reluctant to smile on his Nubrella.

There are a number of things that Kaufman has going against him.

First, he’s representing himself. I suspect that whatever defense Shark Tank mounts will be anything other than pro se.

Second, he had sued the show earlier, and:

…accepted a $20,000 settlement from Sony. His new lawsuit focuses on the damages allegedly caused by frequent re-runs of the episodes since then.

I’m just a pro se blogger, but I’m guessing that this isn’t a really strong legal leg to umbrella stand on. Don’t we all know a rerun when we see one?

On the other hand, a couple of the other entrepreneurs who’ve gotten into the tank with the Sharks have also had issues with them.But no one, it seems, has been as litigious as the Kaufman.

The Nubrella look has improved greenhouse_sharktank-7_business (1)over the years: it’s not quite as ridiculous looking as it once was. It’s grown up. It looks like something that an amateur drone operator, or a birder, might wear. And Kaufman’s positioning instincts also seem to have sharpened up. He’s now more narrowly focused, aiming his ware at “people who work outside: photographers, construction workers, and so on.”

Anyway, both money and inventory are running low for Nubrella. Alas, because there’s supposedly a big deal in the making:

A major fast food chain is considering a large order, he said; its workers, who use tablet computers outside to take orders from cars stuck in long drive-through lines, will wear Nubrellas when it’s raining, to protect the devices.

Having worked for many years in a seat of our pants tech company, I know those ‘prosperity is just around the corner’ deals quite well. Good luck with that.

In the meantime, despite all that’s happened, Kaufman would like to appear again on Shark Tank.

“Just be fair. Tell the truth,” Kaufman pleaded. “Put me on the air and let’s tell the audience, ‘this is the new design, and I never did a deal with Sharper Image.’ ”

Now that episode I’ll tune in to.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Fill ‘er up

My father was a good one for taking the family out for a spin, and on many of those spins, we headed west, out of Worcester, on Route 9. On those spins, we would pass one of my favorite gas stations.

It may seem peculiar that a child would have favorite gas stations, but I had two (neither of which was the gas station where my father filled ‘er up). One was the Esso station in Webster Square. This cathedral of fuel had a massive red dome. I adored it. The other was in Spencer, on Route 9, and had an apartment over it. And not just any old apartment. This one had a portico with stone columns that held up the front part of the apartment. I fantasized living there. What could be more fun than living with half of your home suspended over nothingness – nothingness other than a couple of gas pumps? And what could be a better bonus than being able to breathe in gasoline fumes, and seeing all those rainbow gasoline swirls that appeared in puddles after a rain storm?

Other than these two specials, most gas stations in those days were strictly utilitarian. Some were cleaner than others, but that was pretty much the only differentiator. That’s changed a bit. These days, you can find a few gas stations where they’ll still pump your gas (and, pretty please, clean your windshield) for you. And more than a few gas stations that have a convenience store where you can get junk food, sodas, and lottery tickets.

The Guess Corporation will be taking things further – a lot further – when it opens its members-only luxury GAS statoinstation in Greenwich, Connecticut. In order to join, your household has to have a net worth of $50M. But that’ll get you access to more than just a gas station. The space will also include a convenience store, designer clothing boutique and waterpark.

Once the Greenwich GP Club – the first of what the Guess folks guess will be have 250 clubs in its empire - opens,

… elites won’t have to wait next to some Joe Schmoe at the pump: A valet and concierge will greet members upon arrival before whisking their cars away to get fueled, hand-washed and waxed.

While waiting, members will be able to relax from their lives’ difficulties in a sleeping suite or catch up on business in a video-conference room…An on-site steakhouse will offer more refined food for travelers than hot dogs or beef jerky. (Source: USA Today)

Sleeping suite? It’s so taxing to motor over from your mansion in the leafy confines of Greenwich that you need to take a nap when you get there?

And although I was enough of an odd-ball that I once wanted to live over a gas station, I’ve become a bit more refined in my tastes. Sure, I’d buy a bag of M&M’s or Swedish Fish in the convenience store, but I wouldn’t actually eat under a gas station dome, hot dog or steakhouse.

“Greenwich is considered an ultra-affluent city in America, and we think it is important for GP Club to have a presence in the city,” Tiffany Taylor, a Guess Corporation vice president, said in an email to the Time.

Welcome to New England, Tiffany. But I gotta tell you, Greenwich is a town, not a city. These things matter in these parts.

The annual membership fees haven’t been revealed quite yet, but they do entitle members to take a nap, buy designer clothing, pump gas, or run a business meeting at any of the other GP Clubs.

But I don’t think there’ll be all that many out there.

In fact, I’d be surprised if the Greenwich edition – at least as currently spec’d – ever gets off the ground.

For one thing, there really doesn’t seem to be much cachet to joining a gas station, and cachet is a lot of what ultra-tony Greenwicah is all about. Oh, sure, this really isn’t a gas station. It’s a private club. Just one that’s dedicated to taking care of some retail and other “needs”, rather than to Cos Cob hobnobbing, golf, or racquet sports.  Maybe there are enough hedgies there who’ll be willing to spend big bucks, just because they can. But it just doesn’t seem Nantucket red, college-snob enough to attract that many members.

Seems moreTrump-ish to me than Greenwich. But what do I know. Just googled the primary results, and damned if Trump didn’t get 500 more votes than Kasich there. Maybe if they put in gilt toilets in the rest rooms, and ormolu pumps. It will be the best ever. They say.

Fill ‘er up.