Monday, December 13, 2010

U.S. Banks: Serve More CoCo, Please

I like my financial advisor. I even trust the guy.

So when he called a month ago to see about adding more funds to my stocks portfolio, it pained me to say no.

Not because he's done a poor job managing my investments; he's kept me whole through the shattering economy.

"Nick, I won't give Wall Street more than the bare minimum. Not until I see actual change in how success gets measured and rewarded. If I fund the same old jackassitude, who's the real jackass? The one pouring the feedbag."

He didn't fight me on the point. We wondered if any bank would risk being the first-mover in restructuring compensation. Fast forward a few weeks and ding! We have a winner. Maybe.

Barclays Capital wants to issue contingent capital securities, or CoCos, as part of its compensation structure. According to Reuters Breakingviews, this is a good idea worthy of regulators' endorsement. I agree.

The CoCos pay a fixed return –8 percent annually, vested over three years - that would fall in value if the bank suffers big losses. So bankers would have an incentive to protect against losses, not just look for short-term hits of profit. Imagine that:  paid for long-term performance. Let's hope British authorities let Barclays have a go. And that the Yanks catch up and latch on.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Who Killed My Neighbor?

Someone murdered April Wagner and dumped her body beneath an exterior staircase behind St. Raphael’s Church on 41st St. – four blocks from my house. According to a New York Post police blotter column, a maintenance worker discovered her badly decomposed remains on August 18, 2009.

Did she die three days earlier or five? Did she die there, or did her killer shove her corpse into that shadowy spot? What caused her death:  stabbing, blunt force trauma, gunshot, strangulation, suffocation?

Who was this young redhead looking down her nose at me as I read the Crime Stoppers poster seeking information about her death?

I spotted several such posters around the Port Authority last fall. Each time I walked past April Wagner’s defiant face, I felt a chill crawl up my neck. No one cared about me when I was alive; no one is losing sleep over my homicide.

I wondered if April was right about that. Crime Stoppers and the NYPD printed posters; surely they wanted citizen-detectives like me to dig into this case and help solve it. Right?

The poster provided few clues. No cause of death, no information about April’s past, not even her age. Was she homeless? A sex worker? An addict? A Bon Jovi fan? A waitress? A mother? No answers.

Who was running this investigation? Tips could be dialed into a hotline, but who’s in charge? No names.

Around Thanksgiving last year, I decided to ask three officers who were sitting inside Empire Coffee, discussing a favorite cop-talk topic – retirement – that offered me a way into my topic:  jurisdiction.

“Gentlemen, who handles homicide cases in Hell’s Kitchen?”

Their spines straightened, jaws clenched. They wanted to know why I was asking. I told them about April. One explained how the area got jigsawed.

“We’re Port Authority Police. We handle cases inside the building and around its immediate perimeter. Midtown South handles some Hell’s Kitchen crime; 10th Precinct handles others. Where was the body found?”

I told them. They conferred, not entirely sure which unit would be in charge of the 41st Street and 10th Ave homicide. The superior officer said, “10th Precinct. Chelsea.” I thanked them; they didn’t appear thrilled with my interest in the intricacies of their profession.

I went to the 10th Precinct station soon after. The detective in charge of the Wagner case, Det. Barberra (phonetic spelling), was not in. Another detective listened to my questions and answered none. “It’s an active investigation; we can’t discuss specifics.”

“How are citizens supposed to help the police if the police won’t provide any information about the murder or the victim?”

“If you want to leave your card with me, I’ll give it to Detective Barberra.” I left my card; no one contacted me. Not a big surprise. When it comes to information, law enforcement largely remains a one-way street.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate police officers, I do. The NYPD saved my life a few years ago. I know how awesome cops can be. They could be even more effective if the system allowed citizens to better understand (and potentially solve) cases like April Wagner’s murder.

It can be done. I saw it being done in Greenville, South Carolina.

A poster taped up at the Greyhound bus station there outlined multiple cold case murder investigations, listing the victims’ ages, professions, cause of death, and other details (not many, but plenty) that reasonably inform the populace. The GPD Web site does the same and provides complete contact information for officers in charge of each case. Kudos to Chief Terri Wilfong and her team.

Unfortunately, the NYPD’s Web site does not publicize its cold cases. We can study mug shots and grainy video stills of its “Most Wanted” criminals; we cannot learn about cases that do not have suspects.

I tried.

In June 2010, I called the 10th Precinct to check the status of the April Wagner investigation. Detective Barberra was not in. Lieutenant Burgos told me the case was still open and that officers, “were speaking to some individuals to help us with it.”

I wanted to make one more attempt to learn at least April’s age and cause of death. I filed a request for her death certificate from the city health department, enclosing the $15.00 fee. On June 16, the city returned my check along with a form letter, a check mark in the box that says, “A death record is not a public record.”

By July 2010 most of April’s Crime Stoppers posters had been taken down. One remained stuck to the front window of Project Find, a homeless shelter across Ninth Avenue from the Port Authority. I called the Crime Stoppers number to see if I could obtain some posters. The operator said I would have to ask Detective Barberra to request posters on my behalf. I didn’t think that would be a good use of his time.

Sorry, April. You’ve been dead for over a year, and that’s still all I know about you.

Equivalency Exam: Soybeans and Labor

Strong societies form, grow and improve through capitalistic activity. Up to a point.  A point Western society passed 20 years ago with the Internet’s arrival.

We’re now one global economy, people.  Mourn the atavistic American Dream all you want, but crying won’t change a damn thing. (I’m sad, too. But I’m a capitalist who hates delusional thinking more than I fear change.)

Modern capitalism mystifies. Owning the means of production no longer puts you in charge of your economic destiny. Being a worker – whether unskilled or multi-degreed – puts your labor on the global market to be priced, diced and sliced as a commodity. It’s galling. It’s also reality. Many of us have yet to accept this fact.

I winced while reading the August 17 NYT story about union workers fighting wage cuts at the highly profitable Mott’s factory:

Tim Budd, a 24-year employee who belongs to the union’s bargaining team, said he was shocked by one thing the plant manager said during negotiations.
“He said we’re a commodity like soybeans and oil, and the price of commodities go up and down,” Mr. Budd recalled. “He said there are thousands of people in this area out of jobs, and they could hire any one of them for $14 an hour. It made me sick to have someone sit across the table and say I’m not worth the money I make.”

I empathize with and share Mr. Budd’s plight. But so does the lawyer whose practice competes with Mumbai attorneys; the North Carolina chocolate artist whose livelihood is threatened by one guy, Anthony Ward, who’s managed to corner the world cocoa market; the sick-making Mott manager whose job can end any time the Dr Pepper Snapple board decides to shutter his plant.

We are all at the mercy of this merciless system. I don’t see how individuals can win within its confines. And I don’t know what will happen next. Revolution? Maybe.

Or maybe we’re asking the wrong question.

Mr. Budd laments having his worth diminished via lowered wages. True, in economic terms. But what if we started asking ourselves about worth-metrics outside the capitalistic system? Could societies improve through people uniting to increase worth that cannot be measured in dollars? It’s difficult to wrap our brains around the concept, so entrenched are we in money-minded methodologies.

I believe we should try. If global capitalism is a game we cannot “win”, let’s find another. I’ll play if you will.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Southern Comfort

Inscription on an old federal building in Asheville, North Carolina.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

See Something (Nice)? Say Something.

Talking with strangers is a neglected free entertainment, requiring only curiosity and nerve. When initiated with a compliment – and without any agenda material, sexual or political (tough to imagine, right?) – such conversation is bound to lead somewhere interesting. Even a simple acknowledgment of someone’s existence can make that someone’s day.

It’s easy. Why don’t we do it more often?

A recent encounter had me renewing my vow to say something nice when I see something nice.

I went shopping for NYC postcards to send to Australian friends. Just outside Time (sic) Square Convenience on 42nd St. were two racks to twirl through. One featured cheap snaps – 5 for $1 – of landmarks. The other offered fanciful pictures of Gotham graffiti, open fire hydrants and street vendors – 2 for $1.

A thin woman with graying curly hair crouched near the second rack, refilling slots from an open briefcase.

“Do you work for this company?” I asked, searching the back of a card for a name. It was a woman’s name. “Are you the photographer?”

She looked up and slowly stood. “Yes, I made these pictures,” she said.

“They’re fantastic. Great work, Genevieve Hafner,” I said.

She smiled. “Oh, thank you very much.”

I bought six.

I wondered how she made ends meet as an East Village artist. I didn’t ask. But now I look for her each time I pass the shop. She’s known.

[Three pics above are my photos of the postcards created by G. Hafner; poor quality is my fault, not hers.]

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pondering Squandering

A howl from the bowels of nonprofit development, The Ask by Sam Lipsyte is a perverse heist-movie of a book. Coen brothers funny, it offers poignant humiliations and not-quite redemption.

A scene on page 270 between narrator Milo and his preschooler, Bernie, struck me dumb. I’ll spend the summer mulling over this Lipsyte insight.

“Listen,” I said.
“Yes, Daddy?”
“Squander it. Always squander it. Give it all away.”
“Give what away? My toys?”
“No, yes, sure, your toys, too. Whatever it is. Squander it. Do you understand?”
“Not really.”
“Don’t save a little part of you inside yourself. Not even a scrap. It gets tainted in there. It rots.”
“What does?”
“I can’t explain it right now. Someday you’ll know. But promise me you’ll squander it.”
“I promise. What’s squander?”
“You don’t need to know that yet. Here’s what you need to know:  The boy can walk away from the ogre’s castle. He doesn’t have to knock. Some people will tell you that it’s better the boy get hurt or even die than never know whether he could have defeated the ogre and won the ogre’s treasure. But those are the people who tell us stories to keep us slaves.”
“Daddy?” said Bernie.
“Can I have a stegosaurus cake for my birthday like Jeremy got?”
“Yes, of course. For your birthday.”
I yanked him to me, buried my face against his strong, tiny neck.
“I love you, Bernie.”

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lines to Admire

In The Pregnant Widow, Martin Amis sweeps us off to an Italian idyll circa 1970. Idle thinking is not featured in its prose. Here's an exemplar, from page 310 in a chapter called "Coda. Life."

The Italian summer – that was the only passage in his whole existence that felt like a novel. It had chronology and truth (it did happen). But it also boasted the unities of time, place, and action; it aspired to at least partial coherence; it had some shape, some pattern, with its echelons, its bestiaries. Once that was over, all he had was truth and chronology – and, oh yes, the inherently tragic shape (rise, crest, fall), like the mouth on a tragic mask: and this is a face that is common to everybody who doesn't die young.

But it turns out that there's another way of doing things, another mode, another genre. And I hereby christen it Life. 

Life is the world of Well Anyway, and Which Reminds Me, and He Said, She Said.
Life has no time for the exalted proprieties, the ornate contrivances, and the intense stylisations of kitchen-sink.
Life is not a court shoe, with its narrowing heel and arched sole; Life is the tasteless trotter down there at the other end of your leg. 
Life is made up as it goes along. It can never be rewritten. It can never be revised.
Life comes in the form of sixteen-hour units, between waking up and going to sleep, between escaping from the unreal and re-embracing the unreal. There are over three hundred and sixty such units in every year.

Gloria Beautyman, at least, will be giving us something that Life needs badly. Plot.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Dead Guy as Life Coach

Gurus with respectable intellects are a tough get. I found mine in Irwin Edman, Columbia University philosophy professor circa 1929. He may be dead, but he’s good.

His essay “On American Leisure” resonates now as much as it likely did for folks in flapper gear who were failing to embrace joyful, spontaneous experiences.

Seized by the American compulsion to be all you can be, they had turned leisure into another opportunity to pursue excellence, not happiness.

Here he schools me on how to put a cease-and-desist order on anxiety.
Why is it so difficult to relax and take pleasure in a moment?

The desire for speed, the desire for luxury, the desire for first place – these are indeed three deadly enemies of leisure.

As a knowledge worker, I find I can’t shut all the input valves, not because I desire all that data, but because I fear if I don’t “keep up” I will be left behind.

We have turned our idle hours into the hurried business of getting short cuts to knowledge. Outlines simply are a way of applying efficiency to culture as well as business.

You suggest that our whole culture has a means-to-an-end tinge. We read to have something clever to say at the next party, not for our own silent pleasure. We go to parties to meet superior business connections or romantic partners, not for conviviality. We see classical concerts not out of a love for the music, but to reinforce our identity as educated, classy people. What gives?

We flee to society, dull though it be, through the fear of the greater dullness of being alone.
We hurtle along at a breakneck speed, physically and spiritually, for fear of the drabness and futility we might feel if we slowed down.

What are we supposed to do then? Become hermitic monks?

One need not follow Thoreau into the wilderness to practice his isolation, nor Buddha into the desert to achieve his mediation. There is peace in a city apartment if one will but stay at home an evening to find it, and Nirvana to be found at home in one’s own mind.

What about other people?

Good conversation is certainly one of the most enlivening ways of leisure, and good conversation is something between solemnity and absurdity.

And it cannot happen when the time is structured by means-to-ends dynamics, right?

In America, of late, we have had to choose between talking on ‘subjects’ solemnly and schematically, or babbling nonsense, doing anything rather than talk. We have grown a little weary of talk that is all smart and burnished; we have grown tired, too, or talk that sounds like the overflow program of a literary club.

We are, I think, beginning to learn again the joy of conversation, a light and easy play of minds and tempers over common human themes.
Wish I knew where your acolytes hang out, sans MeetUp agendas or other overweening frames. Why is a return to reflection and genuine engagement so important?

We may talk much about the future of America, and think to measure its destiny by statistics of its educational, economic or political changes. But the outlook for our country lies in the quality of its idleness almost as much as anything else…We may still find time to live rather than time to kill.

For if we do, we shall have learned what the spiritual life really means.  For it means nothing more than those moments in experience when we have some free glint of life for its own sake, some lovely unforced glimmer of laughter or reason or love.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cuddly Ambiguity?

While trawling for opportunities, I’ve repeatedly encountered a trendy new job requirement:  Must be comfortable with ambiguity.

What an admission for companies to make!

If they are using the correct term [a big IF, but that’s another post], employers are giving applicants fair warning:  You are about to enter a land of inexact language, indecisiveness and nebulousness.

The honesty is refreshing. The implications are terrible.

I can understand wanting people to be equipped to handle uncertainty, change and shifting priorities. The stiff, the stodgy and the stubborn don’t find favor in any successful business today.

However, being comfortable with ambiguity implies that one is OK with not having a clear ambition/product/process. It implies that vagueness, double-speak and evasive behavior are acceptable. Isn’t ambiguity part of the problem, not an attribute we should be proud to contribute as part of the solution?

What if employers instead sought out the individuals who can lead with intelligence, care and clarity?
Such people do not have all the answers; the best ones would unambiguously admit the same.
But then they’d grab their chisels and start chipping away at the challenges confronting the business.

I’d put my money on action-Jacksons over ambiguity-cuddlers any day.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Uncooperative J&J Fuels Dissident 1982 Tylenol Murders Theory

Johnson & Johnson, trusted maker of baby shampoo and medicine cabinet staples including Tylenol, is currently under investigation by Congress.
The feds question the company's manufacturing quality-control processes, transparency with the public regarding safety concerns, and accountability, given several recent recalls. For a recap of the charges/stonewalling, read this NYT piece.
What's intriguing about this situation is how it connects to the infamous – and still unsolved – Tylenol poisoning murders of seven Chicago-area residents in 1982.

A decade ago, I published an investigative profile of the prime suspect, a man who is still being questioned as the possible "madman" who, according to the official story, either purchased or stole bottles of Tylenol capsules from retail locations, inserted capsules filled with potassium cyanide into these bottles, put the bottles back on store shelves and then waited to see who would eventually purchase and ingest the deadly poison.

A former J&J employee, Scott Bartz, has a decidedly different theory, one that's becoming more credible in light of J&J's evasive behavior of late.

Bartz believes the 1982 contamination likely happened during the repackaging and distribution of Tylenol capsules, not at retail.

On his exhaustively detailed Web site, Bartz explains how a J&J-affiliated employee would have had the opportunity to slip the cyanide-laced capsules into the supply chain without detection. He further shows how – in his opinion – J&J deftly kept investigators obsessed with finding a "madman" haunting stores, rather than probing its less-than-pristine manufacturing facilities and its many middlemen "contractors" who handle all those over-the-counter medicines you think are carefully monitored, tested and secured.

I've followed this case for a long time, and the more I dig, the deeper the rabbit hole seems to go. I didn't know the "repackaging" industry even existed until I met Bartz. I find his research fascinating, but frustratingly difficult to verify.

One unequivocal fact remains:  the victims and their families have yet to receive justice.
Perhaps the heat coming down on J&J will thaw their cold case.
Turn up that sunshine, Congress.

Friday, June 4, 2010

History Repeats. Literature Reminds.

Between the BP disaster, the flash crash, the Guatemalan sinkhole and that revolting cat litter ad campaign Cats Against Clay, I’ve been a wee agitated and blue. 

My escape hatch? Classic stories by “Lost Generation” writers.

Hemingway’s Indian Camp was brilliant, if not exactly a picker-upper. I reached for a Nathanael West collection. 

Miss Lonelyhearts nearly stopped my heart. But his short novel, A Cool Million published in 1934, had me laughing – and crying – with recognition.

The hard-luck tale about “the dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin” seemed ripped from the headlines I was trying to avoid. 

Let’s see, we have…
  • Crooked bankers foreclosing on a widow, not because she was so terribly behind on her payments, but so that an interior decorator could dismantle her cottage and set it up in his Fifth Avenue boutique as a marvelous exemplar of shabby chic.

  • This same lifestyle merchant executing perhaps the first-recorded viral marketing scheme:  driving a team of horses through Central Park, “not for pleasure, as one might be led to think, but for profit. He had accumulated a large collection of old wagons in his warehouse and by driving one of them in the mall he hoped to start a vogue for that type of equipage and thus sell off his stock.”  

  • Environmentalist rage expressed by one Chief Israel Satinpenny railing against the palefaces’ pillage, “all the secret places of the earth are full. Now even the Grand Canyon will no longer hold razor blades. Now the dam, O warriors, has broken and he is up to his neck in the articles of his manufacture.  He has loused the continent up good. But is he trying to de-louse it? No, all his efforts go to keep on lousing up the joint. All that worries him is how he can go one making little painted boxes for pins, watch fobs, leatherette satchels.”

  • Tea Party-types led by a former U.S. president who’d be a fine cuddle for Ms. Wasilla, “How could I, Shagpoke Whipple, ever bring myself to accept a program which promised to take from American citizens their inalienable birthright: the right to sell their labor and their children’s labor without restrictions as to either price or hours?  The time for a new party with the old American principles, was, I realized, over-ripe. I decided to form it; and so the National Revolutionary Party, popularly known as the ‘Leather Shirts,’ was born. The uniform of our ‘Storm Troops’ is a coonskin cap like the one I am wearing, a deerskin shirt and a pair of moccasins. Our weapon is the squirrel rifle.”

Oh, Mr. Whipple. We’ve met before. Mr. West reminds us that we’ll meet him again and again.
Might as well squeeze a chuckle from the chaos.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Not Even a Fleeting Glance at Consequences

On Memorial Day I joined the crowds waiting to tour the USS Iwo Jima at Pier 88.
It’s not often we get a chance to board such an impressive vessel staffed with polite young people looking quite spiffy in their uniforms.

Walking the gangplank into its hull was an exercise in humility. What thick steel! What massive capacity – loaded this day with amphibious assault vehicles, tanks, helicopters and other military might which visitors were encouraged to touch, to pose for pictures upon, to fantasize about commandeering.

What an utter lack of evidence indicating its true purpose and effects.

I commend the government for allowing its citizenry to inspect how our tax monies get spent, but to understand the potency on display we should have been able to chat up a wounded soldier, a war widow and an Iraqi mother whose children now exist only in those PowerPoint slides denoting civilian casualties.

War is not as sexy and fun as posting pictures of yourself holding an unloaded M16 off the sunny coast of Manhattan. The smiles would not be as wide if we had to wipe blood from the trigger. Let’s remember that, and not just on Memorial Day.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hombre with Hustle

Meet Pablo Juan Solis, the future president of Guatemala. Doubt me?

From his half-completed home in Santa Cruz, Pablo is running a capitalist empire with a social conscience.

We met him first as proprietor of a Spanish school. Soon Pablo revealed his bustling tour business and took us out for a spectacular day around Lake Atitlan. We spoke about his ambitions and learned that Pablo also...

Teaches English to indigenous populations
Provides Spanish classes via Skype each morning at 6am for doctors at the Mayo Clinic
Studies law at the university on weekends [and worked with Nobel Prize-winning activist Rigoberta Menchu]
Helps manage a local job training and community center
Paints signs for businesses
Monitors environmental health of Lake Atitlan, promoting sustainable economic growth
Parents his new baby boy, Alan, with his wife Paulina
Uses Google Chrome [it hasn't even formally launched in the U.S.A. yet!]
Is 24.

He puts we "busy" people to shame. I'm glad for it!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Futile Frugality

I'm starting to feel foolish about being a saver.

Writing isn't a big-bucks pursuit, but I've managed to support a decent lifestyle and sock away at least 10 percent of my gross income every year of my professional life.

My reward for this fiscal discipline? 1% interest. Inflation ran at 2.63% during 2009. 

Soon banks will be asking me to pay for the privilege of storing funds they can lend out at much higher interest rates. Where's the incentive to save? We're all aware that the financial crisis has hit over-leveraged customers. But what's not discussed is how those who eschew debt are paying dearly for doing the "right" thing.

Back in 2000, the average 6-month CD paid 6.5% interest while inflation was at 3.7%. This seems to my non-mathematical mind to be a golden ratio of sorts. I'm not suggesting we go back to, say, the rotten early 80s when a CD could pull 15.77% and inflation was 8.4%. But come on, bankers. Give a girl a reason to keep feeding the piggy.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Public Servant Whose Salary I'm Pleased to Pay

Robert J. Freeman is, appropriately enough, the man to see when looking to free government information from reluctant agencies.

As executive director of the Committee on Open Government, Freeman advises journalists and other interested citizens on the laws and procedures for accessing government records in New York.

I called him to discuss a criminal case that's currently "under seal." He had the answers I sought [though not the news I wanted to hear.]

Contact the good people at COOG if you're feeling foiled by FOIL matters. They know best how to negotiate bureaucratic minefields and access information to which we are all entitled.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Crazy Busy Beautiful Available Now

Busy ladies, have we got a sassy beauty book for you.

Kitchen Table Productions [Carmindy, Sarah Burningham, Jay Sternberg and yours truly] put together the best, budget-friendly beauty tips for gals who want to glow on the go.

You'll find answers to your most vexing makeup questions [Can a nervous Nelly handle liquid eyeliner? Yes.]

You'll chuckle at Carmindy's advice on tackling "The Nasties" e.g. zits, hangovers and, oh yeah, passion rash from necking with bearded boys.

You'll learn simple ways to update your usual looks, and come away with some wacky tips from ladies across the USA. Who knew Elmer's Glue worked as a pore strip?

Indulge in some girly fun! Order here for only $9.35!