Monday, December 28, 2009

40th Street (Cont. #3)

Another in a series of vignettes about growing up in Borough Park, Brooklyn (and, I guess, its "extensions" in the Catskill Mountains).

VI. Bunglow colony

I almost drowned at Roshwalb’s.

Roshwalb’s. At least that’s the way I remember the name. Roshwalb’s, one of innumerable cheap bungalow colonies in the Catskill Mountains, in places like South Fallsburg or Kauneonga Lake or Monticello, where first- or second-generation Jewish immigrants would go to escape the suffocating, blistering environment of 40th Street or any of the million streets like it in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan or the Bronx for a few weeks each summer.

Roshwalb’s, with its paper-thin bungalows and one hall they called the casino, was for the poorer Jews, like my family. Not like Kutchers, or Grossingers, or the Concord or the Nevele, which lots of people have written about, so I won’t talk about those hotels. Rather it was Roshwalb’s that was the type for my family, including my aunts and uncles and cousins.

We didn’t go to the Nevele or Grossingers. We didn’t care much for people who could afford those places.

On 40th Street, every August, my mother and father and older sister and myself, and later my younger brother and even later my baby sister, would pack a million clothes into heavy unmovable suitcases, load the suitcases into my uncle Lou’s car, and drive up along Route 17 until we got to the Catskills. Maybe stopping once at the Red Apple. Then Uncle Lou--the cabdriver who was sometimes a butcher and sometimes a candy store owner and sometimes other, darker, things that we never knew about--would drive us up to Roshwalb’s or other, similar colonies. My family didn’t have a car in those days. Only Lou had a car, a Studebaker, so we went with him.

Roshwalb's had a big house with many rooms, one room per family, and a communal kitchen, and off down the walk a bunch of connected bungalows or cabins. One family per cabin, which had cots, a bathroom, a tiny kitchen and a bedroom. And Roshwalb’s also had a lake. In summer, if there was a drought, the lake would be lousy, really crappy. But if it had rained during the night, the next morning the lake would be great, overflowing, so you could stand on the massive rock somewhat out from the shore and see the water overflowing the banks.

Many years later, when I revisited what was once Roshwalb’s, but what had become just a plot of land for sale, I walked down to the lake and saw, instead of a lake, a tiny expanse of water, maybe fifty yards long by thirty yards wide, choked with green slime. A very large puddle. I stared and stared, and then walked back to my car, and didn’t think about it. But in the days of the bungalow colony, it was a lake.

One summer, when I was little, I went swimming in Roshwalb’s lake. It had rained the night before, so the lake was great, really deep--so deep I couldn’t stand in the middle, but that was okay because I had earlier taught myself to dog-paddle. Then I paddled out into the center. My father and mother, and maybe my older sister, but I don’t remember if she was actually there, were sitting on a blanket on the sandy beach. My father was the only one in our family who knew how to swim. In Coney Island, he would swim out so far you could only see his head. We would all watch, standing on the shore, staring out toward the distant waves, not allowing ourselves to be scared that he was so far out he might drown. But he always swam back to the shore.

In Roshwalb’s, however, he never seemed to swim. He just sat on a blanket that my mother brought and laid out on the tiny pebbly sandy beach.

I was standing on the rock. Then I jumped in and dog-paddled into the center, which was way above my head. (I was very small, a lot smaller than other kids my age.) Somehow, and I don’t remember how, or why, I felt myself going under. But it was okay, because my father was there, sitting on the beach, looking out for me. If I were in any trouble, he would jump into the lake and rescue me. He was a great swimmer.

The water above my head kept getting higher and higher. Where was Dad? The water kept getting higher, and I kept going down, and where was Dad? And I kept going down, and down.

Until I knew that my Dad wasn’t coming, and I forced myself to lift my head, submerged in water, almost out of breath, and somehow raise my knees to my chest, which by magic made me float to the top, where I got air, and gulped and breathed air, and breathed and breathed, and then I paddled out to the big rock.

Where I stood, looking to the sandy pebbly shore, seeing my father on the blanket, looking at me.
Why didn’t you come get me? I asked. But only to myself. My whole life I have been asking that question, but only to myself.

Maybe he hadn’t seen me drowning.

* * *

Sunday, December 20, 2009

40th Street, Brooklyn (cont.)

Two more episodes from my years in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

IV. The fight in the locker room

At New Utrecht High School in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn—a few miles from 40th Street—there was a group of Italian guys who dressed in pegged pants and pink shirts and pointy shoes with metal taps on both the heels and toes. The taps made a clinking sound in the hallways, a warning to everybody else to step back if you knew what was good for you. They were the neighborhood's tough guys, most likely in a gang. Even though, sometimes, they would get together on the sidewalk and sing rock and roll acapella together.

One of those guys, Frankie, was in one of my classes. He was the only guy in that group who was small, like me. Actually just my size, and just about my weight.

One day we got into an argument. We were in class, I think it was home room, the first room you’d go to in the morning. We got into a real argument—I don’t know about what—and the way arguments between boys were solved in those days was, you’d turn it into a fist fight. But we couldn’t fight right there, of course, so the next best thing was to threaten each other that we would get you after school. So Frankie said to me, or I said to him, Be down in the locker room at 3 o’clock. And then Frankie said, or I said, I’ll be there.

And then I said, shaking so hard I could barely think, yet knowing I could never show him that I was scared, Just make sure you’re there.

The rest of the school day, sick unto death, I had to decide what to do. I didn’t really know how to fight, which was bizarre, growing up in a working class neighborhood, with teen gangs and such all around (the Ditmas Dukes were a few blocks away in one direction; the Gremlins in the other). And I was told by my mother, over and over again, that “Your father never got into a fight.” My mother said it proudly, but I knew the reason he never fought was that he was a coward—afraid of people to such an extent that whenever he’d meet someone new he’d emit a fear so powerfully I could smell it.

Anyway, I never learned how to fight. I never learned what every other boy in the world knew as a matter of course. Of survival. I never fought. My father, who only knew how to cower, never taught me.

What I did know that day, without knowing how I knew, was that if I didn’t show up, I couldn’t live with myself. I would be taunted, and pushed and shoved and punched and laughed at not only the next day, and the next, but for the rest of my life. And I also knew, that if I did show up, I’d probably be beaten to a pulp.

I showed up. So did Frankie, in the locker room, with the concrete floor and metal cabinets, which were in the basement of the school. But this time, it wasn’t just the two of us. Frankie showed up with four of his friends. All sporting the ducks’ ass haircut and curled-hair “bombs” down the forehead, and pegged pants and pointy black shoes with metal taps.

I think I froze. But I was there, and before I knew it, Frankie and I had our arms around each other’s necks in a mutual strangle hold. We were shouting at each other, something like “C’mon faggot, C’mon, faggot.” He landed a few punches, I’m not sure if I landed any. What I heard were all his friends cheering him on. “C’mon Frankie,” they said. “Kill ’im!” They were whooping and shouting.

Then at some point, maybe after about twenty minutes, or twenty hours, Frankie asked if I would “give,” which means give up, or acknowledge that he had won.

I said yes.

Then we shook hands. He left with his friends, who were patting him on the back and laughing and shouting.

I left, alone, and took the D train home to 1546 40th Street.

But the sick feeling I had had earlier that day had disappeared. In its place was one of elation, even though I had not been able to get Frankie to “give.” (That would have been gravy.) I had showed up. I had showed that even though my fearful, cowardly father had “never been in a fight,” even though I had incorporated his lifelong demons into my own guts, I had just faced an abyss, and plunged into it, and emerged whole.

I couldn’t wait to get to school the next day to see Frankie.

V. Bigger than myself

Girls and boys carried books differently in high school hallways. The girls at New Utrecht, in the 1950s, would hold a stack of books pressed in front of them, cradling them to their chests with both arms wrapped around them, almost like you hold a baby. It didn’t matter how many books they carried, or how different the sizes; they would hold all of them the same way. Inevitably, one girl with her books would say to another something like: “He was so cute, what a doll!” Then, after the briefest of silences: “But is he conceited!” And the other girl would nod, knowing beforehand what her companion would say, because she herself would soon say the same words, with the exact same inflection, to somebody else.

Boys didn’t carry books like that, and didn’t talk about girls that way. They would put as many books as they could hold into one palm, usually the right palm, and hold them tightly, fingers hurting from the strain. Their upper arm—from armpit to elbow—would be pressed against the side of their ribs, while their lower arm—from elbow to hand—stuck straight out, at a ninety degree angle to their upper arm.

If any boy was stupid enough to hold the books in the more comfortable way the girls held them, he’d be either hounded as a “faggot,” or, worst case, beaten.

How did boys talk about girls? When they did, which was rare (at least in my underdeveloped circles), it was more like, “Do you think she bends?” Not hard to figure out what that means.

One rainy day, as a junior at Utrecht (you rarely said New Utrecht; only Utrecht), I was walking through the front aisle of the assembly room, that big, cavernous room with a stage up front, and rows and rows of seats affixed to the floor. I walked the way any real boy would walk, with a hint of a bop—a slight bouncing motion, sauntering from left to right to left—which was supposed to show you were tough. I carried my books the boy way as well, holding too many in my hand. A curl of hair wound down my forehead. My pants were pegged, a recent development, and the heels of my shoes bore metal taps. All tiny me, making myself bigger than myself.

As I walked from one end of the assembly room to the other, I noticed a kid in a front row seat, some ten feet or so ahead of me, his legs spread out in front of him—blocking my path. The usual anxiety gripped me. Do I challenge, or retreat? Do I continue sauntering along, with my make-believe tough guy stance, directly up to him, daring him to make me alter my path, thereby either placing myself in a position to get pummeled, or forcing him to face my terrifying mercy? Or do I in fact alter my path, like a girl might do, say by changing my direction, walking up onto the stage, and passing around him, thereby letting him “win.” And thereby acknowledging that I’m a . . . nothing?

Since he didn’t seem too big, I took the first option. I stared at him, sauntering directly towards him with my books in my aching hand, implicitly threatening, praying to God to make him feel that if he didn’t withdraw his stuck out legs, he’d pay with his life.

He withdrew his legs. I bopped on past, walking straight into relief heaven.

* * *

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

40th Street, Brooklyn, NY

When I started this blog a year and a half ago, I thought I might devote it, in part, to my life growing up during the 1950s in the Brooklyn, NY neighborhood of Borough Park, where I spent the first 24 of my years. So far, I have resisted writing about that extended time. I'm not sure why; maybe it's because I'm afraid to do what James Baldwin said you have to do if you expect to be any kind of writer: you have to look into the abyss.

So here goes. Following are the first of a few episodes that I recall when I think back to them there days. They are not in any kind of publishable order; nothing chronological, nothing like a straight line from early childhood to adolescence to college age and beyond. They are just recollections, written as they occured to me when I started to (re)think about them. All the names have been changed, for obvious legal reasons. But the rest is true, at least so far as I recollect.

1546 40th Street, Brooklyn 18, NY.

That was my address in Borough Park, Brooklyn for years and years, before zip codes changed the Brooklyn 18 NY to Brooklyn NY 11218, and when everybody in the neighborhood was either Jewish or Italian working class, and all the buildings had stoops, so you could play stoop ball.

I. Roller Skates

It was just a few houses down from that four-family house that skinny, ratty Davey Stein, who everybody on the block knew was a bad kid, ran up to me fast when I was on roller skates. I was eight. He was nine and a half. The roller skates I rode back in 1950 were the metal kind that you could take apart with a special key, separating the front wheels from the back and, if you cared to, attach the two sets of wheels to a piece of wood--a two-by-four--and then nail the wood to a wooden crate that you got from the grocery store on 15th Avenue and make a scooter.

But I didn’t want to make a scooter then. I wanted to improve my ability to ride directly on the skates, zooming down the hilly alleyways that separated one house from another all the way from 15th Avenue to 16th Avenue.

Our universe.

I had just sped down one of those alleys, when Davey ran up fast to startle me, deliberately. He must have had some magical power, because my skates lifted themselves out from under me and rose in the air, with my feet still attached. I started to fall backward. Involuntarily, my right hand shot out and landed palm down on the pavement. Scalding pain seared through my wrist, up my arm and neck, and into my brain. Davey grinned down at me and said, “Awww, you gonna cry now, Nathan? Cry baby.” Then, loudly: “Nathan is a cry baby, Nathan is a cry baby!”

I won, though. I forced back the tears. “I’m not crying,” I said.

I never cried again after that, until I was in my forties.

II. Knuckles

You play knuckles?”

“Yeah, who doesn’t?”

So Barry Levine, big and fat, 16 years old, dealt out the cards to us on his stoop. Which was across the street from my stoop. Arnie was there, and Selvin, and Jake whose sister, whose name I forget, was ugly, and Mikey, and Harry Shapiro, whose father had a retail car franchise (I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded impressive) and me. Harry died two years later, when he was 17, from leukemia.

Knuckles was sort of like poker, but different. In poker, like five-card poker where you get rid of cards, or five-card stud poker where you don’t get rid of cards, or seven-card poker, you get dealt hands, and somebody wins. But in knuckles, no one person wins. Instead, one person loses. There’s one loser and the rest are winners. Instead of nickles or comics or baseball cards or anything like that, the only thing the winners get is a chance to smash the knuckles of the loser.

This is how you did it, in Borough Park: everybody gets dealt four cards. One guy throws down a card, and you have to match the suit. So, like, if he throws down an eight of clubs, you have to throw down any club you have. If you don’t have a club, you have to pick a card from the deck, and then again, until you get a club. Anyway, whoever is left with cards at the end, loses. If he has three cards, he gets three knuckles.

Here’s what that means: After you "win" (that is, don't lose)--assuming it’s just two guys who are playing (only guys, because girls didn’t play that game)--you hold a deck of cards, and you make sure to arrange them so that the bottom of the deck is not smooth, but jagged: one card up a bit, one card down a bit. Then you take the deck, and as the loser holds out his arm, straight out, in a fist, you smash the jagged edge, hard as you can, onto his knuckles. Make him wince. Make his knuckles bleed. Make him hurt so bad he can’t think clearly. Make him wish he could kill you. That’s how you show you’re a winner.

Then you play another round and hope you don’t end up holding cards.

Fat Barry lost the round, on that raw, windy November Saturday, 1957. When it was my turn to inflict the reward, I looked at his fist, inhaled, raised my own right hand high up and, holding the deck as tightly as I could, swung it down in a smooth arc. Fat Barry’s knuckles bled. Everybody around me said “Ooooh.” That was the best compliment I had ever received. I was glad, because I had always felt I was the weakest among them. Now I showed them that I wasn’t.

Fat Barry said, “Wait ’til next time, Nathan.” But I felt too good to care.

III: The Playground

The playground was two blocks away, on 38th Street between 15th and 16th Avenues, which abutted Dahill Road. All these playgrounds were built in the 1940s in working class neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. Generally, these block-long stretches of concrete, protected with bushes and a chain-link fence outside, were divided into two parts: one for the younger kids, one for the older guys. I say guys because I never remember girls hanging out in the older kids’ part, except if they were with some of the guys. Usually with the Italians.

The entire playground was made of concrete and steel. Nothing soft. The kiddie section had a large concrete wading pool that was turned on during summer. It also had wooden slat benches for fat parents who would watch their kids splashing or running around, a bathroom building that always seemed out of order, and a small building holding supplies.

In the very beginning, maybe the late 1940s or early 1950s, when I was very small, I used to see an attendant or two in a green uniform. Later on, they disappeared. With no attendants, the playgrounds seemed to operate themselves. At least at first. Ultimately, they began to deteriorate. But we didn’t see it then. Anyway, the kiddie part had a maze of climbing bars, which we called a jungle gym. Kids would climb to the top, and if they slipped, they would fall down hard smack onto the concrete. Rubber tiles weren’t used then.

By the time you were eleven or so, you would make sure to be seen only in the older kids’ part. Otherwise you were a baby or a “faggot.” The older kids’ part had a handball court, basketball hoops, and steel exercise or gymnast bars. These included a horizontal ladder, some ten feet or so above the ground, on which you could swing from one rung to the next until you got across. The older you were, or the bigger, or the more agile, the more rungs in between you would skip, so instead of moving from one rung to the next, you could skip one or two, swinging like a monkey. Underneath all the bars, again, was concrete, no rubber mats.

It was 1956. I was 14. A bunch of older guys, mostly Italian, I thought, or maybe with one muscular Jewish guy, in their late teens, were hanging around. The ladder was not being used, so I climbed up the side, reached for the nearest rung with one hand, and then swung away, deliberately skipping two of the rungs, to reach for the next with my other hand.

When I awoke, I found myself lying on my back on the concrete. I could barely breathe. I was scared, because I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. A bunch of the older guys were standing near me, looking down. One of them stood right next to me. He wore a black leather jacket with silver studs, jeans, which we called dungarees, and motorcycle boots--the standard gang and wanna-be gang member’s uniform. (Actually, that was only one uniform. The other was regular trousers pegged, or tightened, at the ankles, a pink shirt, pointy shoes with metal taps on the heels, and a duck’s-ass hair style.)

When I opened my eyes, I was staring up at the bottom of his boot, which he held about six inches above my head. He was grinning to his friends. I don’t remember what he said, but he was pretending to laugh. He also kept pretending to stomp his booted foot onto my head. He never actually did it, though.

Many, many years later, with all sorts of sociological and psychoanalytic smart-ass know-it-all under my belt, I thought back to that day, and concluded that he was just being macho, that he found it hard, in those pre-feminist times, to let on how he was really scared that this skinny kid spread out onto the concrete ground in front of him might be really hurt, and that he couldn’t admit to being scared, so he had to show how macho he was.

That day, of course, all I could do was stare up, make sure I didn’t cry, and try to catch my breath. Somehow, at some point, I got up, sat down near the chain-link fence at the handball court, and watched a game.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Disguised bigotry

The recent Swiss vote banning the construction of new minarets on mosques has generated a predictable amount of furious condemnation and applause around the world. For myself, the most disingenuous commentary comes from Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times.That is because his unstated but obvious support of those who voted against the construction not only amounts to the same old anti-immigrant xenophobia ("millions of Muslims have accepted European norms. But millions have not."), it has all the surface appearance of rational discussion. One part of his technique is the traditional half-truth: cite a few examples of Islamic fanaticism (a riot against Denmark, a religiously inspired murder in Holland--as if riots and religious murder were never known in yesteryear's Europe), and imply, without quite stating, that the minarets will foster more of the same.

But Douthat goes beyond the usual stereotyping. His concern is that Islamic immigration to Switzerland and other European countries is deeply undemocratic. Why? Because it was accomplished "in the absence of a popular consensus on the issue, or a plan for how to integrate them." In other words, since non-Muslims already living in European countries did not vote, or otherwise reach some "consensus," on whether to accept Muslim immigrants, the very existence of Islamic immigration is undemocratic. "Better," he said "if [European leaders] had let their voters choose."

Imagine Douthat's argument applied to the United States in years past, during the days of massive immigration to these shores from other countries. B
e Douthat: Cite the rise of organized crime here, and conclude that we should never have let the Italians in, or at least have allowed the pre-Italian residents here to reach a "consensus" on whether to accept them. Cite examples of Irish police brutality and corruption, and conclude the same for the Irish during the potato famine. Cite (my tribe) a few Jewish slumlords or corrupt bankers--or Ponzi schemers--and conclude the same for Jewish immigrants from Germany, Russia, Poland and elsewhere. And don't forget examples of cocaine smuggling, which can be used to question allowing natives of Columbia to come here. The list of ethnic stereotypes extends ad nauseum.

Now compare Douthat's disguised bigotry with the call issued by the Conference of European Rabbis. According to, the rabbis--who know all too well the nature and history of xenophobia--issued an immediate
condemnation of the Swiss ban. "During a meeting in Moscow [on December 4th, 2009] the rabbis declared the decision to be undemocratic for violating freedom of religion."


Saturday, December 5, 2009

A dollar ain't worth a dime anymore

My previous post ("Relatively speaking" December 1) generated a fair amount of interest. One reader suggested I solicit recollections from all of you about your first job, wage, and/or apartment rent. I took her up on it, and here are the responses.

She also suggested I add the prices of some general consumer items several decades ago. Difficult to find, but some average prices in 1965 are offered by
The People History.* I have no idea if they are accurate; also bear in mind that averages (means) can be very misleading. Still, these seem reasonable, if memory serves.

New house: $13,600
Gas per gallon: 31 cents
New car $2,650
Loaf of bread: 21 cents
Rent per month $118
Income per year $6,450

Arthur Zaczkiewicz: My first job was as a photographer's assistant in a studio on Long Island in 1982--another recession era, remember? I earned $150 gross for four days work each week ($336 today). I also did odd jobs to supplement my earnings, which brought my weekly, gross pay total to $190 ($435 today). My rent was for a share of a house, which was $150 per month ($336).

Ed Lieber: My first job, at db magazine, which reported on sound engineering (the company was located in the attic of the elderly couple who published it), I earned about $14,000 a year ($24,400 today). This was in 1989. I kept that job for four months, then moved to a position at General Media, the company owned by Bob Guccione, that published Penthouse magazine. I earned $21,000, also in 1989 ($36,600 today). Next, in 1990, was CMP, where I also earned $21,000 ($34,700). My next job, a year later, at Chilton, I earned $36,000 ($57,000). First big increase, you could say.

I didn't begin earning real money until ICD Publications hired me at a salary of $75,000 in the year 2000 ($94,000 today). I had been earning about $60,000 ($75,000) at HFN [Home Furnishings News], before ICD lured me away.

Celia Hartmann: I was a college graduate with an editorial assistant position--glorified title of Assistant Managing Editor, on a two-person masthead!--making $155 a week ($513 today) in 1978. I moved into a two-bedroom railroad on very Dominican West 88th street, New York City, the next year, sharing the $270 a month rent ($804 today) with a roommate.
I ate a lot of beans and knew every bar with free food at happy hour!

Anon: My very first job with a paycheck was the summer after high school in 1969. I made $50 per week ($295 today) for forty hours work; was that even minimum wage then? [Minimum wage in 1969 was one dollar per hour--NW.] I was an assistant in the career counseling office of a community college. I lived at home and gave the money to my Dad for my college expenses and clothes my mother was sewing. I didn't have a bank account until I left home that September and started on near campus.

It might be interesting if people also know their college debt. I borrowed $450 ($2,650 today) for my four-year BA. My first job in New York City paid $12,000 in 1978 (almost $40,000 today) with benefits and I got a new job by the end of the year for $15,000 (almost $45,000), also with benefits. I sublet an East Village four-room shotgun apartment for something like $175 ($520), then moved to a two-room, first floor, cave-like apartment in the West Village for $250 ($745). Those were the days. Now I make $37,000 working for a state in danger
of becoming bankrupt; no raises for three years, but I still have insurance and vacation days.

Phelan Wibecan: A friend got me a job at a Tower Records that had opened on the Upper East Side, New York City, in 1996. Shortly after that, I moved into an apartment in a then-undiscovered neighborhood called Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Rent was $600 a month total ($827 today), then split with a roommate. I survived on a routine of financial jockeying that consisted of cash advances from work, pleading phone calls to my mom, and a landlord who had accepted the fact that she'd get the rent eventually. If I recall correctly, I was making about $160 a week ($220 today)--five dollars per hour for forty hours, less tax.

Elissa Krauss: I paid $65 a month ($433 today) for a three-room, railroad, tub-in-kitchen aparment on East 11th Street between Avenues B and C, New York City, in 1966. I split the rent with my roommate [a mutual friend from City College days]. Have no idea what I made, but I suspect it was something like $30 a week ($200 today), since I was still a student, working part time.

Jennifer White Karp: I couldn't find a job after graduating college in 1993 (this was during the last recession) so I was waiting tables in a catering hall--it was miserable--and living at home while I sent out my resume. So I was thrilled when I landed a job as an assistant editor at a weekly newspaper in East New York, Brooklyn! This is probably the most dangerous part of New York City--and one of my first assignments was to visit the 75th Police Precinct (highest murder rate in the city) to report on the goods-for-guns exchange program that had just been launched.

I was so jazzed--I thought I was going to be doing gritty crime reporting! The salary was something like $18,500 a year ($27,600 today)--but it was enough for me to move into an apartment share in Long Beach with someone with whom I went to high school. We paid a ridiculously low few hundred a month (almost $450 today).

As for doing real journalism, the newspaper, "The Spring Creek Sun," was owned by Starrett City, the giant housing complex. The management wasn't fond of crime stories. So a story about a sniper on a balcony would be trimmed to practically nothing and buried inside. On the front page would be stories about what was going on at the senior center.

There were a lot of heavy snows that winter and I would spend the night with the receptionist and her family, who lived in Starrett. It was a very different place to grow up, compared with the burbs where I was from. Her kids came home directly after school and did not go out again until it was time to go to school next morning. It wasn't safe for them to walk alone to the community center while she was at work. It was grim but I covered a lot of interesting stories, even if we didn't get to run them the way I wanted. I was there ten months, when I found what I considered a higher-paying job: $25,000 a year ($36,400 today) at another weekly newspaper, this time back in the burbs. Still, it beat the catering hall.

*For average prices of food products in the 1970s, many by brand name, see

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Relatively speaking

My family is lucky. Although the nation's unemployment rate is reaching for the moon, our two daughters, six months out of college, have finally managed to find jobs. One--who graduated with a degree in anthropology--is a production coordinator in a film and video studio. She will earn nine dollars an hour, or around $18,720 a year for a forty-hour week. No health benefits, of course, but hey, what do you expect these days?

Her twin sister, with a degree in English, landed a freelance editing job for eighteen dollars an hour; that also amounts to around $18,720 a year for a twenty-hour week. She supplements it with occasional baby-sitting. And she just got a temporary second job, which should last about a month during the holiday season, in a women's clothing store, for eight dollars an hour. (Don't laugh: that's still above minimum wage!)

Since rents for vacant free-market apartments in New York City today are beyond criminal, they both have to live at home. There is a price to pay, however. As one sighed recently, "Simply having to be here, after being on my own for four years, is infantalizing."

Some perspective: In 1965, fresh out of college, with a degree in public administration, I landed a job as "information officer" (read public relations hack) at the New York office of the U.S. Department of Labor. (I had taken and passed the Federal Service Entrance Exam, for which I had been prepped, it seems, most of my life by my Depression-era father.) I earned, in today's dollars, over $61,000 a year. Full health coverage, vacations, everything else. Then I got a studio apartment on Manhattan's upper west side for eighty-six dollars a month ($590 today). The apartment, in a beautiful brownstone, had a full kitchen and a working fireplace. The multi-building landlord was obviously prosperous, even though all his apartments were rent-controlled.

The funny thing is, while I shake my head in comparing our daughters' situation to my own at their age, I really can't complain. Given the desperation of so many families today, struggling to survive the wreckage of our greed-fueled economy, our kids are doing okay. . . relatively speaking.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Don't sweat it

When I taught a graduate class on America's social movements at the New School University during the 1990s, one question I often received from students was why there seemed to be so little student activism around the country. Why had all the 'sixties movements died out?

One answer, of course, was that many of the goals of the earlier movements had been reached--partially, to be sure--especially concerning civil rights and feminism. But the more important answer was that student activism was indeed alive and well on campuses, if not quite on the scale that it had been. Students were, and are, actively involved in, among other things, gay rights, environmentalism, food cooperatives, and efforts to end the disgrace of sweatshops.

Just how active, and how successful, was seen recently with the report that Russell Athletic, a major supplier of clothing for sports teams and universities, had agreed to rehire all 1200 workers in its Honduras plant, which Russell had shut down after the employees unionized.

Russell's decision came about only after months of picketing and demands by United Students Against Sweatshops that their colleges and universities sever commercial relationships with the company. The schools agreed, and Russell capitulated. An astounding victory.

But there's another point to be made regarding this episode. Some observers are now saying that sweatshops, as debilitating as they are, are better than nothing, so stop fighting them. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who has done more to alert readers to crimes against women and children throughout the world than just about any other mainstream journalist or columnist, is among those who support sweatshops. His argument is that, although bad, "sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty." He has recently reaffirmed his position: "Americans are horrified by sweatshops, but nothing would help Liberia more than if China moved some of its sweatshops there, so that Liberians could make sandals and T-shirts."

Predictably, his justification has generated much outrage. Sabina Dawan at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, for example, replied that "The notion that taking advantage of a person’s desperation for economic gain is somehow morally defensible is preposterous." Alleviating poverty, in other words, does not require expansion of the dead-end horrors of sweat shops. Alternative strategies exist, she noted, such as those of The International Labor Organization’s Decent Work Agenda, "which focuses on the creation of decent employment, alongside social dialogue, social protection and fundamental principles and rights at work...."

And Josh Eidelson noted on his blog that while some argue that sweatshops in the United States were the springboard to a middle class existence for thousands of Americans, it was not the sweatshops themselves, but sustained organized opposition to them, largely through unions, that enabled the workers to realize their dreams.

The victory of United Students Against Sweatshops has demonstrated beyond question that the anti-sweatshop movement is the way to go.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Slow down...if you can

Ever feel that the holy grail of journalism--scooping the competition--is more destructive than helpful? That it would be great if this particular form of the rat race were put to rest? That the need to be firstest with the mostest undermines serious, careful digging and analysis, as well as depriving yourself of a major source of information, namely readers?

If you have, you're not alone. I just came across a concept known as "slow journalism" on the Campfire Journalism blogsite. It's difficult to define precisely, but its tenets, according to the blog, include the following:

"Gives up the fetish of beating the competition. Values accuracy, quality, and context, not just being fast and first. Avoids celebrity, sensation, and events covered by a herd of reporters. Takes time to find things out. Seeks out untold stories. Relies on the power of narrative. Sees the audience as collaborators."

Of course, if your editor, or client, has set a tight deadline, you have very little wiggle room. Still, slow journalism is a concept that deserves a lot more consideration.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gimme shelter

The recent decision of Pfizer, the $48-billion-dollar drug company, to reneg on its promise to build a new research division in New London, Connecticut and instead relocate elsewhere (taking some fourteen hundred jobs with it), is part of a scenario that has sent spasms of rage among conservatives and libertarians. Not that the rightists question the privilege of a corporation to do whatever it pleases--since corporate self-interest, along with absolute property rights--is at the very core of their ideology. Nor that they likely care the city will lose all those jobs.

Rather, their ire derives from the fact that Pfizer's offer to New London was predicated on the government seizing private property for the proposed research structure through the process of eminent domain, which is usually employed to meet some urgent public need (road safety, a water line route, a hospital, etc.). To the economic right, public need is virtually non-existent; private property is sacrosanct; therefore government seizure is the very essence of evil.

As a consequence of the seizure, several people lost their homes. So I find myself in a once-in-a-lifetime agreement with the right wingers, but for the opposite reason. I have never considered property ownership inviolable--and I say this as a small property owner myself, as well as a renter. To me, it is the right to affordable shelter--a very pressing public need--whether through owning your own home or renting it, that is, or should be, beyond question. My opposition, then, is that the Pfizer scenario reflected the dominance of corporate self-interest over public need.

In most cases today, the loss of one's shelter is a function not of an independent government's "interference" in the market economy, but of dominant private interests--capitalists--who, acting in their own self-interest, exercise undue influence to get government to do their bidding. As clich├ęd as it sounds, it is the private sector behemoths that pull the strings under which government officials act.

Think of the innumerable gentrification battles in New York City, Boston and other municipalities between gargantuan landowners and beseiged residents, mostly tenants but also small shop keepers. Think of every instance in which large landlords seek to evict tenants clinging to the few government protections they have, in order to make room for higher paying tenants. (In most of New York City's Manhattan neighborhoods today, a one-bedroom apartment typically rents for around $3,000 a month!)

As one who has fought for years against the dislocation of residents--tenants and small businesses--before the onslaught of corporate expansion and landlord greed, I have experienced time and again how large private sector interests dominate the urban economy, making life precarious for all but the very wealthy. In these battles, the government may be the public face of the "enemy." Behind the scenes, however, it is always the giant private interests--large real estate developers, landlords, highway promoters, universities (which are non-profit, but in name only) and others, that are the key actors. Funding them, of course, are banks and other private financial entities.

Therefore, it seems to me that the New London City's action, rather than consitituting an assault on private enterprise, was business as usual in a capitalist economy. You don't have to agree fully with Karl Marx, who (at least according to Leon Trotsky) regarded government, or "the state," as little more than an "executive committee of the ruling class." But he did have a point. Because while such a formulation may appear simplistic today, the New London/Pfizer case seems to typify that very government-corporate relationship. Pfizer made known its desire; the city government jumped to do its bidding; and people lost their shelter, all for a pie-in-the-sky promise of economic development that never took place.

* * *

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Estimates and projections

All the financial writers on your publication's staff have been laid off, so your editor wants you--with your zero experience in financial reporting--to prepare a story about the direction of key economic indicators over the next two years. The focus will be on corporate profits nationwide, and it is your task to come up with some reasonable estimate of how profits will fare.

And no, your article may not consist merely of dueling quotes, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman describes them, from economists with opposing views. You have to generate your own estimate, and then, perhaps, vet it with the views of experts.

Chill. First thing to keep in mind is that estimates--or in this case projections--are notoriously shaky things. The most solidly grounded projections can be upended by unforseen events: an unexpected war (think Iraq); the vaporizing of a bubble (housing, the debacle); implosion of some of the country's leading financial institutions (Bear Sterns, Lehman Bros.); a devastating earthquake.

But however common such cataclysmic events are today, you cannot approach your story with the view that they will always take place. You have to assume that the nation's economy does contain some degree of stabilization, without which no estimates, let alone projections, can be attempted.

So here's how to attempt it: We assume that corporate profits have a certain ratio (relationship) to Gross Domestic Product. Therefore,

1) Get an official listing of corporate profits over the past few years.
2) Get an official listing of GDP over the past few years
3) Get an official projection of GDP over the next few years.
4) Divide existing profits by existing GDP over the past few years. This gives you recent annual percentages--your ratios, in other words.
5) Now note if these percentages follow a slight pattern. For example, do they decline each year? Increase each year? Go up and down?

All this is easier than it sounds. Let's start with steps one and two. Both recent corporate profits and recent GDP figures are available from the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis. Click on this site, and go to Table 11. On the top line, you'll see that corporate profits for the past three years were:

2006: $1,608.3 billion (or more than one and a half trillion dollars).
2007: $1,541.7 billion.
2008: $1,360.4 billion.

In other words, recent profits in general (as of this posting) have declined over the past three years. No surprise there, given our deep recession. (Ignore the fact that some companies made out like bandits during the same time period.)

Now go to Table 9. You'll see that GDP was:

2006: $13,398 billion.
2007: $14,077.6 billion.
2008: $14,441.4 billion.

GDP rose slightly. (If only jobs and wages rose along with it! But stop digressing.)

Now divide each year's profits by that year's GDP. Use a calculator, or better still, a spreadsheet program like Excel. Here's what you'll find: In 2006, profits were twelve percent of GDP. In 2007, they were eleven percent. And in 2008, they were 9.4 percent.

In other words, recent profits appear to follow a slight downward pattern in relation to GDP, dropping by one to two percent of GDP each year.

You're almost done. Now you need to apply this pattern to the GDP projections, which you can get from the Congressional Budget Office. The top line of this report shows that the CBO projects GDP for 2009 at $14,163 billion; and for 2010 at $14,570 billion.

So take, say, 8.5 percent of the 2009 amount. Why? Well, it follows the pattern: it's nearly a point below the 2008 figure. (You can tinker with this percentage a bit, after you talk to an economist or two.) So you get $1,203.85 billion projected profits for 2009.

Now take, say, 7.2 percent of the 2010 GDP figure: you get $1,049.04 billion projected profits for 2010.

You now have your own projections. Are they accurate? Well, many factors affect profits, of course, and anything can happen to disrupt the pattern. But other things being equal, these projections are, indeed, reasonable assumptions.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Jobs: public transit vs. highways

With official unemployment in the United States above ten percent (considerably higher when counting underemployment and workers who have given up looking for jobs), it is good to see President Obama calling for massive investments in public energy improvements. But his recent praise of Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1950s-era promotion of the Interstate Highway System, as reported in a recent Bob Herbert column, was off the mark, especially since his speech was made before a startup solar energy company that says it will save tons of greenhouse gas emissions "which is equivalent to removing 4,500 cars from the road each year for the life of the project."

The irony here is that those 4,500 cars--and millions of others polluting our air year after year--owe much of their presence to the very same interstate highway system that Eisenhower championed. There is no question that highways, long touted as a solution to unclogging urban areas, in fact accomplish precisely the opposite, generating enormous sales of automobiles, as consumers seek to take advantage of more rapid car traveling. More highways mean more cars, not fewer.

This was noted decades ago. As one critic (Helen Leavitt, Superhighway Superhoax) wrote in 1970: "Our great urban centers have been subject to the busy concrete mixers and asphalt rollers in the guise of progress, where the ribbons of highway they create are further strangling automobile traffic, adding to the already dangerous air pollution levels and displacing the city's residents with still more cars while transportation daily becomes more difficult."

Who primarily benefits from the Interstate Highway System? As Leavitt noted, after Eisenhower made his proposal, "Capitol Hill was flooded with lobbyists representing contractors, oil, auto, real estate, trucking and concrete interests, all bent on establishing the biggest pork barrel legislation in the history of the United States."

Certainly, highway construction creates jobs. But jobs can be created by other undertakings, such as massive investments in public transportation. Thousands of employees are needed to build public rail systems; additional thousands of permanent jobs can be created to operate them, to maintain them, and not least to devise new technology for ongoing improvement.

Given the prevalence of the automobile in this country, and the fact that we take superhighways for granted, it is difficult to imagine what life in both urban and rural areas would be like if, instead of all the highways, we had efficient, safe, clean public transit, transporting thousands of people daily in comfortable high speed trains or other cleaner-energy "people movers." Difficult, but not impossible.

Think of fewer cars clogging our streets. Fewer accidents--yes, while highways are generally safer than unmended roads, fewer cars necessarily mean fewer crashes, and less road rage.

And try to think of the affordable housing that would not have been lost to highway expansion. And the rural areas that would have remained bucolic. And the large urban areas that would not strangle themselves on endless traffic jams and greenhouse emissions. In fact, when the occasional highway is removed, as the Preservation Institute notes, life becomes far more pleasant.

Jobs? Obama, and Herbert as well, are right to stress the central importance of job creation today. But we can do that without glorifying a boondoggle that has worsened our quality of life.

* * *

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Misleading percentages

When is a fact less than a fact?

When the fact is a percentage of a very small absolute number.

For example, I can state with near certainty that I gave more to philanthropy last year than most other Americans. Indeed, while individuals in general decreased their giving by 2.7 percent (even steeper after inflation), according to the Giving USA Foundation, I increased my giving by 100 percent!

What I'm not revealing, of course, is that my altruism amounted to precisely one dollar in 2007, and to two dollars the next year--a one hundred percent growth rate.

Okay, this is an extreme hypothetical example, but real life examples abound, especially in political campaign literature. A critique of the Michael Bloomberg campaign for Mayor in New York City, for example, cites US Department of Education figures showing declines in violent crime at certain Impact Schools during Bloomberg's reign "as large as 59 percent for major crime...and 33 percent for all crime...." But it adds immediately that "the numbers on which these percentages are based are so low that even very small numerical deceases create large percentage changes."

That's the key point. In one NYC high school, the critique notes, violent crime dropped forty-one percent between the 2004-5 to 2005-6 school years. A phenomenal decline? Not when you realize that the number of incidents in the earlier period was only seventeen, and in the later period ten. To be sure, any decline in violence is good news, but the percentages cited present an unwarranted picture of astounding success by the Administration.

As noted in one of my favorite books, "How to Lie With Statistics" by Darrell Huff (1954), "Percentages offer a fertile field for confusion. And like the ever-impressive decimal they can lend an aura of precision to the inexact."

For journalists covering political campaigns--or anything else--it's good to keep in mind Huff's admonition: "Any percentage based on a small number of cases is likely to be misleading. It is more informative to give the figure itself." (Emphasis added)
Full disclosure: The critique cited above was prepared by the former leader of a tenants organization in which I was an active member.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Citing imports to gauge US trends

Unless they work for Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan, even the rich are having problems these days. In fact, that's the theme of the story your editor assigns to you. Give examples, s/he says, of how the rich aren't buying as many luxury products as they once did.

You select jewelry (the non-costume kind).

Where to start? Typically, you call Tiffany's, and ask how business is doing. Or, you go to Tiffany's website, or to the website of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and get the company's annual report (10-K, in governmentese). From that, you compare this year's sales with last year's, and draw the appropriate conclusion.

But Tiffany's, no matter how prominent a luxury retailer, is still only one. There are many others, and most of them are privately held, which means they aren't likely to release their revenue or profit and loss figures.

So here's another approach: find out how the countries that export the most jewelry to the United States have fared in 2009 versus the year before.

Start with one of the government units that tracks imports and exports. It's the International Trade Administration. (There are others, but don't bother about them now.) Then click on "Consumer Goods."

On the left, you'll see a list of industries: click on "Jewelry."

When the new window opens, look for "Current Imports," and under that "Jewelry (except costume)." Clicking there yields a page of how all the major exporters--India, China, Thailand, Italy, Hong Kong, France, etc.--are doing. Glancing at the very last column on the right, you can see that all of them have sharply lowered their exports of jewelry to these shores, at least over the first six months (from January through June). India is down more than twenty-eight percent, China more than thirty-seven percent, Italy almost forty-two percent.

So this column contains the most important figures for your story. If these countries are shipping so much less, it can mean only one thing: the rich (and likely the upper levels of the middle class, which is also a vast market for jewelry) simply are not buying as much as they used to.

That's a good statistical grounding for your report.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bigotry resurgent

Three news items of recent days belie the oft-touted boast that, in light of Barack Obama's election to the Presidency, the United States is now largely "post-racial." Indeed, Obama himself has said as much. Further, with all the gains made by the gay and lesbian rights movement, we are said to be done with bias in that arena. And for a long time now, we've certainly been religiously tolerant.

Really. On October 15, a white justice of the peace in Louisiana denied a marriage license to an interracial couple, arguing that his sole concern is for the possible offspring of such a union, as he is convinced that neither white nor black society will readily accept them. Justice Keith Bardwell is worried that the hypothetically future kids will be treated, alas, unfairly. Unbelievably, he reportedly told the Associated Press, ''I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way.'' You can't make this stuff up. (Note: Bardwell resigned in November.)

Also that day, 53 House Republicans have demanded, in a petition to Obama, that he oust Kevin Jennings from his Administration position promoting school safety "because of his career as an advocate of teaching tolerance of homosexuality," according to a report in the New York Times. After all, they continued, the message of tolerance--which they label a "pro-homosexual agenda"--runs counter to the "values that many parents desire to instill in their children." Seems that to some parents, and to lots of Congresspeople, tolerance is simply intolerable.

And finally, another four House Republicans are warning that Muslim "terrorists" are infiltrating U.S. institutions, including Congress, by getting positions as interns. And no doubt by selling Halal food to unsuspecting Americans. And by refusing to drink alcohol.

That sound you hear is coming from the late Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, cheering and applauding from his seat of honor in hell.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Subjectively objective

Your story on how well or poorly American families fared in 2008 compared with 2007 is due shortly. You've completed all your interviews with selected families, and with two respected professors of economics. Income, not surprisingly, is the first issue you tackle. Here's where your hard facts come in. . .or so you think.

For your most important hard fact, you will cite data on income. But reviewing your notes, you see that one professor said families increased their income by nearly a thousand dollars during the year, while the other professor said household income declined during that time. Not only that, but the first professor said that 2008 income was over $67,000 per family, while the second maintained that, no, it was only around $52,000.

Both professors cited the same source: the U.S. Census Bureau.

Neither professor is wrong. The Bureau, rightly regarded as the gold standard in data collection on income and population, is also (in)famous for its blizzard of statistical reports, so many of which appear to present conflicting data, on the same subjects, for the same periods of time.

What does this mean to you, the journalist? It means you have to visit the Bureau to find the "correct" figure yourself. Not a daunting task, but it is essential that you pay close attention to the definitions the Bureau uses. For example, it makes a distinction between families and households. To confuse matters more, it has a separate definition for family group. And another for family households.

So in one report, Median Household Income in the Past 12 Months by State and Puerto Rico: 2007 and 2008, you will see that the estimate of median household income in 2008 was just as the second professor noted: $52,029, around six hundred dollars less than in the year before. But in another report, Median Income for 4-Person Families, by State, you'll find 2008 median income for this particular family composition just as the first professor said: $67,019, or some nine hundred dollars more than the previous year.

Further, one report uses fiscal years, the other calendar years.

There's really no rule of thumb regarding which figures to use. Most likely, your decision will reflect whether you want to show that we're worse off now, or better off. In other words, no matter how "objective" you think you are, to some extent the hard facts you choose to cite will reflect your subjective view. That's inevitable. If you wish to be honest, alert your readers to the differences between households and families (essentially, households may include people who are not related to each other). Full definitions are available at the Census Bureau site.

In the end, to maintain your integrity as a journalist, don't wave the flag of "objectivity." That term is a lot murkier than it appears.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fudging questions

More on surveys: As part of a story you're covering on some environmental issue, say logging, you're asked to guage local public opinion. To do that, you need to prepare a survey of a select population. (Let's assume you have access to the names and addresses or e-mails of a random sample of that population, obtained from a list broker.) So you set out to formulate the questions.

Be careful: the questions have to be as neutral as possible, a very difficult task, especially in light of the politically charged atmosphere surrounding all environmental issues. Indeed, many fund raising organizations, on all sides of an issue, often send out "questionnaires" that ask highly loaded questions. They appear to be neutral, but are anything but.

For example, a pro-logging group might include in such a survey a question that asks: "Did you know that trees are a self-renewing energy resource?" What they do not explain is that it takes years and years for a woodland to renew the trees that have been logged, especially in cases of clear-cutting. And that, in the interim, logging can cause flooding and other ecological disasters. Or they might ask, "Do you think trees, which are self-regenerating, should take precedence over the right of people to work their way out of poverty?" Which assumes--tugging at the heart-strings--that logging is the only way for the population in question to make a living.

On the other side, an anti-logging group might ask, "Which of the following is more important: preserving our environment, or allowing giant lumber companies to reap huge profits while destroying our woodlands?" The bias here is obvious: all logging is bad. What they don't say is that some logging, done carefully, has been found to be ecologically beneficial, by allowing for new tree growth. And some lands, placed off-limits to logging, suddenly become susceptible to even more environmentally destructive developments, such as strip malls.

Regardless of your own position on an issue, as a journalist you need to formulate your questions to reflect as much disinterest as possible. Only then will you be able to tabulate answers that are statistically meaningful, and thereby generate a story that is honest. You might ask, for example:

"Loggers argue that trees are a renewable resource. Environmentalists argue that logging is overly destructive of the eco-system. Which of the two positions most accurately reflects your views?"

Then give options:
A) The loggers' position
B) The environmentalists' position
C) Both have equally valid points
D) Not sure

You're on the way to generating public opinion statistics that are not only valid, but that give you an exclusive.

Monday, September 14, 2009


You're doing a story on public reaction to some local policy initiative, say a new park planned for the neighborhood. Normally, you go out and interview a few people, ask their views, and compile it into a story. But this time you want to get a more representative sample of public opinion than the views expressed by a few passersby. You do a Web or library search, and discover, alas, that no surveys have been done on this particular issue (call it the Park issue).

That means you have to do your own survey. But you don't have a background in statistics or market research. And you were never really good in those subjects anyway. No problem; it's a local story, so no need to hire a professional polling firm.

Your company allows you to buy, from a list broker, a list of randomly selected neighborhoood people, with their postal or e-mail addresses. (The random selection just means that the list is statistically representative of the community, so you're in good shape.) Your task now is to formulate the written questions. This is the most important part of your research.

Here's the wrong way to write it: "Do you support or oppose the new park planned for this neighborhood?"

Here's the right way: "Please indicate your position on the new park planned for this neighborhood:"

1) I support the park
2) I oppose the park
3) I'm not sure

Here's the wrong way for the next question: "Why do you support or oppose it?" Or: "Why aren't you sure?"

Here's the right way:
"If you support the park, please indicate why. Select as many reasons as apply:"

1) A park adds a much needed open-air resource to our congested neighborhood.
2) We need a safe place for children to play.
3) [Reason 3]
4) [Reason 4, etc.]
5) Other (explain): ______________________________

"If you oppose the park, please indicate why. Select as many reasons as apply:"
1) The park will raises taxes, which we cannot afford.
2) The park will require destroying our already small supply of affordable housing.
3) [Reason 3]
4) [Reason 4, etc.]
5) Other (explain): ______________________________

For those who are not sure, you can call or interview some of them later to discuss their hesitation.

Of course, there are other things to consider in conducting a survey. But the important point here is that written questions, unlike verbal questions, must be very tightly forumulated, with multiple choice options given to the respondents. That's what makes it possible to tabulate. It's what enables you to quantify public opinion: "X percent opposes the park, Y percent supports the park, Z percent are not sure."

And after you get the statistics, you can go back to interview some respondents to elaborate on their views.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Percents, perhaps

This may seem hard to believe, but I have often had to explain to journalists, both seasoned and newcomers, how to compute a simple percent change between one number and another. I'm talking eighth or ninth grade math here. Blame for this ignorance can be shared by many: our education system, the explosion of calculators, the computer revolution, whatever. Anyway, the math is simple: You divide the later figure by the earlier figure and subtract 1. But you don't need to remember that. Just follow these few steps, using Excel or any other good spreadsheet.

First, of course, get the numbers. Say a small nonprofit organization issues a statement that it has taken in $354,600 in donations in 2009, versus $329,089 the year before. By what percent has the organization increased its fundraising?

Open the spreadsheet. In the first "cell," that is, A1, type in the year "2009."
1) Tab over to the second cell, or B1. Type in the year "2008."
2) Tab over to C1. Type in "Percent change."
3) Now tab back to A2 (which is just under A1). Type in $354,600.
4) Tab over to B2. Type in $329,089.

5) Now tab over to C2. Here's where the computing starts: In C2, type this formula: =A2/B2-1.
6) You get 077522. That doesn't look like a percent, but it is. It's 7.8 percent. You can see that yourself by putting a decimal point after the 07. But here's an easier way (well, a more computer-savvy way):

7) Select the C2 cell, and search the formatting bar for the percent (%) sign. Click it. You'll see the C2 cell change to 8%. That's your answer, rounded. The organization increased its fundraising revenue by around 8 percent.
8) If you want a more precise figure, click on the "Increase decimal" icon on the formatting bar(near the % icon). That will change the 8% to 7.8%. Done.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The importance of imports (and exports)

You may think that enough has been written about the relationship between the housing bust and our current Great Recession to render the issue over and out, but your editor insists that the subject is of lasting interest. S/he assigns you to come up with a new angle on it, and this time, you'll need to back up your quotes and statements with some hard statistical data--that you have to dig up yourself!


You can do it. The main source for this type of information is the U.S. Commerce Department, which has a treasure trove of data on almost every conceivable economic issue. The problem is, its websites are often confounding even to the most savvy users. Still, you'll need to check it out.

The story angle you come up with is this: Given the housing bust cum recession, what's happening with imports of home products, like furniture? Most furniture, like so many other things these days, is imported. So,then, are imports of, say, upholstery, up or down? And by how much?

Go to the Commerce Department site that will lead you to the data.

Don't freak over the zillion items you see on the page. Just click on the following, in order:
1) Country/Product Trade Data.
2) NAICS web application.*
3) In the "Select 3-digit NAICS" search box, hit the down arrow and search for "furniture and fixtures." Click on that.
4) Then click "Go." (This is a must; lots of users forget this step.)
5) In the search box that says "Select 6-digit NAICS," click on the down arrow, and look for upholstered household furniture. Click on that.
6) Then click "Go."
7) In the date box, select the month and year you want, which as of this writing is June 2009. (The most current month is the default, so you may leave it as is.)
8) Along the first line, which says "World," look for "Consumption Imports." Under that, look for "Customs Value Basis."

Voila! Here's your data: It shows that the U.S., in June 2009, imported $14,624,000 worth of upholstery.

So what you do with that figure? Compare it with June 2008 (go back up and set the date to June 2008). Click "Go." And look: a year ago during the same month, we imported $223,894,000 worth of upholstery.

Now you have your story: thanks most likely to the recession and housing slump, imports of upholstery plummeted over the year! It makes sense: People who don't buy new houses don't need to furnish them. So importers cut back. All that's left for you to do is embroider your story with quotes and comments.
*NAICS, if you care, stands for North American Industry Classification System.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Corporate financial statements for dummies

Your publisher just laid off the entire financial reporting staff, and you, thrilled to keep your job but dreading dealing with numbers, are told to write a brief story, just a few column inches, based on a corporation's quarterly or annual report. The very kind that consists largely of columns of mind-numbing statistics, strange terms, densely packed data--everything you hate about financial information.

Don't fret, truly. It's much easier than you think.

First, get the data. If you can't get the latest annual (or quarterly) report at the company's website, go to the Securities and Exchange Commission website, and click on: Search for Company Filings. When the window opens, type in the name of the company (let's use The Home Depot for this example). A window will open with the company's name. Sometimes several companies have similar names, and they are listed here too; make sure you click on the correct one.

Another window will open, showing all the reports filed by the company. Look for the report labeled "10-K," and click on "documents." (If you're doing a quarterly report story, look for 4-Q.) In the next window, click on the first item, which will open the 10-K, otherwise known as the annual report.

The 10-K document opens. Don't bother reading the text. Just scroll down to a heading that says something like "Selected Financial Data" or "Consolidated Statement of Finances."

A financial page will appear. Don't panic: All you need are a few numbers: Net sales or revenue for the current year and the year before; and net income or earnings, also known as profit, for the two years.

These will give you a snapshot of how the company fared during the year compared with the year before. They will show you whether it took in more or fewer dollars this year through its sales, and whether it made a higher or lower profit--or even suffered a loss. If you can compute a percentage change between the two years for sales and profit--another very easy procedure--so much the better.

Want to appear more sophisticated? Check out the line that says "Operating expenses" for the two years. That will show you if the firm's expenses went up or down over the year. In other words, is the firm doing a good job controlling expenses, or a lousy job? Then you can use your journalistic skills to ask an appropriate company executive to explain why expenses went up, or down.

Executives are wont to complain that the net income or profit figure is somewhat misleading, since it has been lowered by things over which they have no control, such as taxes and interest payments. They say the real measure of how their company is doing is their "Operating income," which doesn't include taxes and interest. That's the figure, they say, that reflects how the company's own operations generate profit (or loss).

Okay, so you can use that figure in your story as well, but if you do, be sure to include it later on, rather than in the first paragraph: your primary audience is not the executives, but your readers: they want to know how the firm is doing overall, taxes and interest and everything else included.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Converting currencies

You're doing a story comparing wages in Europe and the U.S. The European figures, of course, are in euros, and the U.S. figures are in dollars. To translate one into the other is simple: go to a typical currency conversion website, such as Yahoo's currency converter and enter the relevant boxes. That will give you today's exchange rate.

But what if you're comparing wage differences over a period of years, say between 2005 and the present? You can't use today's rate for the four years, because the rate changes--daily, in fact. And you can't simply select an arbitrary day for whatever year you're following, because the rate in January may be different from that in September. You need exchange rate averages. Here's how to get them, from a site not well known: Oanda.

In the "convert amount" box, type in the exact amount of euros (or any other currency you're dealing with).
In the "starting date" box, go to January 1, 2005.
In the "duration" box, scroll down to "year."
In the "ending date" box, go to whatever date you are writing on (in this case, today's date).
Under "base currency," scroll down to euros.
In the "quote currencies" box, scroll down to US dollar.
Then click "Get table." That will give you the average dollar amount--the average wages--for the period of 2005 through today. Readers can now tell which wages were higher during the period: European or American.

And if you want to be a bit more explanatory, do this for each year (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009). Then you can compute the annual percentage differences for each currency: how steeply wages rose or fell each year in Europe and in the U.S.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Research tips for writers who hate numbers

I'm not sure why, but many reporters I've worked with over the years, either colleagues or outside journalists calling for information, seem to have a strong aversion to crunching numbers. (I'm excluding, of course, financial reporters.) They have no problem quoting "experts" who offer this or that estimate--on anything from the growth of inflation to the exchange rate of euros to the percentage change in some corporation's quarterly operating income. But they rarely seek to develop their own estimates, let alone extract signifcance from a column of numerical data.

What I hope to do with this part of the blog is to provide some simple steps for such writers or editors to get the numerical information they need, without trepidation, and without having to chase after some academician or security analyst. Some of the tips will be super-simple, such as going to a particular website and following the prompts. Others will entail a few more steps. But whatever the process, I hope to present it as easily as possible.

First challenge: measuring inflation, or translating dollars from years past to today. Suppose you're doing a story that includes somebody's salary in the year 1975. You find out, through an interview, that he or she earned $9,000. How much is that in today's currency?

Do this: go to the website of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics' inflation calculator. The caculator will appear. In the top box, type in $9000. In the second box, type in the year 1979. In the third box, type in 2009. Hit "calculate." The answer appears as $26,738.80; you can write something like "roughly $26,700."

Why "roughly?" Because the Bureau measures general consumer inflation, which is what most people are interested in. But that measure doesn't mean much to, say, a hospital or construction company or university, where costs tend to rise far more rapidly than basic consumer goods, like a basket of food. Later, we'll talk about how to measure inflation in those areas. For most purposes, though, the BLS estimate is appropriate: you don't need to call an economist to figure out what yesterday's prices mean in today's prices, or vice versa.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Unemployed blues

It's been eight months now since I was laid off from the job I held for ten years, and although I landed two freelance editorial gigs since then, they have both dried up, so now I'm back to the empty days.

I had been working almost steadily since the age of 17--I'm older than that now--when I graduated from New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., and got an assembly line job at a women's clothing factory in Manhattan for the summer. In the fall, I enrolled in evening classes at Baruch College, then a unit of the City College of New York, and found daytime employment as an office boy. My title was General Factotum, “a person with many duties, a handyman, a jack-of-all-trades” as the dictionary notes, for $45 a week. That's about $325 in today's terms, or just under $17,000 a year. (It would be virtually impossible to live on that today, especially in Manhattan, given the insanity of rents here--when will the current housing price "decline" significantly lower rents in this burg? At the time, however, it was manageable, because I was still living with my parents. And the City in those days had an excellent system of rent control, which allowed people earning as little as I did the opportunity to get a decent apartment.) Anyway, job followed job, almost consistently, through college and graduate school, through marriage and two kids, through recessions as well as booms.

So having no job to go to, or even to telecommute to from home, leaves me with a strange feeling, almost as if I am floating. "Unmoored" may be a better word. To be sure, each morning I dutifully check the appropriate job,,, etc.--pretending that some company somewhere in our ever-deepening economic abyss is looking for someone with just my skills. And that they'd want me to do freelance, or maybe part time work. Fantasyland.

I keep asking myself what to do now? Go to the new supermarket again, browse the Barnes and Noble or Strand bookstores again, meander for the umpteenth time through the city streets? A few days ago I read an article in the New York Times about newly unemployed people getting in touch with their inner entrepreneurs and creating their own businesses online. Sounds great, except my technological skills are so lacking I have absolutely no idea what to do. (It took me months, for example, to create this blog; and then I could not figure out how to add another post, until some "blog doctor" instructed me.) And my previous two experiences, many years ago, trying to establish my own businesses--one developing a new line of fashion-oriented greeting cards, the second setting myself up as an editorial/research consultant--went belly-up very quickly. I'm not exactly the entrepreneurial type.

Writing, of course, helps to ground me. Hence this blog entry. Okay, enough for now.