Take it to the bank

Robert Reich, Clinton’s secretary of labor, argues for Wal-Mart’s inclusion into the banking/credit field:

I say, let Wal-Mart under the tent. Commercial banking is now one of the stodgiest and least-competitive parts of the American economy. Fees and prices are way too high. Service is lousy. The industry needs a shakeup. Have you ever had a bank give itself an interest-free “float” on your money while you waited two weeks for a check to clear? Have you ever filled out twenty-five forms to get a simple bank loan? Have you ever collected anything close to fair interest on money you keep in your checking account?

I guarantee you Wal-Mart’s low-price business model will force complacent bankers to do better.

I’ve still never been to a Wal-Mart, but they’re building one about 10 miles away, so maybe I’ll check it out.

More on Jacobs

Witold Rybczynski at Slate has a brief appreciation of Jane Jacobs’s work. He points out that Jacobs largely ignored the suburbs, which is putting it mildly. In her best-known book, she considers them solely as a negative, the way most urban theorists do. Which reminds me that I need to get back to reading Bruegmann’s Sprawl sometime soon, maybe before I make the leap into that Robert Moses book. Guess I oughtta get to reading Rybczynski’s City Life sometime, too.

(And I oughtta get back to some of my ruminations on Jacobs & New Orleans)

No double-whammy, no double-whammy!

The City Journal’s Steven Malanga explains why my home state sucks:

But today New Jersey is a cautionary example of how to cripple a thriving state. Increasingly muscular public-sector unions have won billions in outlandish benefits and wages from compliant officeholders. A powerful public education cartel has driven school spending skyward, making Jersey among the nation’s biggest education spenders, even as student achievement lags. Inept, often corrupt, politicians have squandered yet more billions wrung from suburban taxpayers, supposedly to uplift the poor in the state’s troubled cities, which have nevertheless continued to crumble despite the record spending. To fund this extravagance, the state has relentlessly raised taxes on both residents and businesses, while localities have jacked up property taxes furiously. Jersey’s cost advantage over its free-spending neighbors has vanished: it is now among the nation’s most heavily taxed places. And despite the extra levies, new governor Jon Corzine faces a $4.5 billion deficit and a stagnant economy during a national boom.

While over at the New York Times, we find out that my hometown is about to be put back on the EPA’s Superfund cleanup list:

Contractors hired by Ford dumped tons of paint sludge laced with toxic chemicals and other polluted debris in a remote area of Ringwood around two Revolutionary War-era iron mines. Some local residents, most of them members of the Ramapough Mountain Indian Tribe, have serious illnesses, including certain cancers and skin diseases that have been linked to the toxins. They also have leukemia rates that are twice the statewide average, according to a lawsuit they filed against Ford in January.

Double Down

(Stories that begin with “I was a pizza delivery man” tend to go in a different direction than this one, so I apologize in advance for the letdown.)

I was a pizza delivery man one summer during my college years. My mom and I lived in southeast Pennsylvania, in a nice town close to the ivy-covered halls of Swarthmore College and one of the most depressed cities east of the Mississippi. When friends from my hometown in NJ would come to visit, they’d follow my directions from Rt. 95 and look around nervously, wondering why my mom had chosen to move to a ghetto slum. Within a mile or two, as they approached Wallingford, their moods would brighten.

When I began delivering pizzas, one of the other drivers stood beside me and pointed to the map of the delivery area. The area of Chester, PA cut off to the east by 95 was covered with cross-hatched lines. It may as well have said, “No man’s land.”

“What’s the deal?” I asked.

“We don’t deliver to that side of 95. Too many drivers got shot and had their cars stolen,” he replied.


“You want to buy a gun?” he asked. “I’m a licensed dealer.”

“That’s okay.”

(Keep in mind: this is within a year of my Napoleon Dynamite look)

I did carry a knife that summer, and kept a baseball bat in my car. I managed to make it through the season without getting into trouble, although I did pull out the bat once, when two guys were having a street-brawl directly in front of my car while I was on a delivery.

A year or two later, I drove a shuttle van during late-night weekend shifts for a motel near the Philadelphia International Airport. As part of that gig, I would drive the girls from the housekeeping department home when their shifts were up. They lived on The Other Side of 95. The side where there are corner bars with a line of guys 25 long waiting to get in, looking like a casting call for that bad movie-within-the-movie in The Hollywood Shuffle.

The trip was usually pretty easy, since I always knew how far I was from the highways. Still, a white guy driving a big van through Chester on a Saturday night must’ve seemed a little odd. If there were any cops on patrol, I bet they’d have been suspicious.

Why do I bring all this up? Because Chester’s getting a casino!

That’s right: this hideously depressed shipbuilding town has decided that the best way to revitalize its fortunes is to let Harrah’s come in and build a casino and racetrack.

Officials see the Harrah’s project as a potential economic engine that will bring new investment, service jobs and increased revenues to a Colonial-era city that has been battered by high unemployment, poverty, crime and drugs in recent decades [ . . .] While the city has not done an economic-impact study, [David N. Sciocchetti, executive director of the Chester Economic Development Authority] predicts the daily influx of visitors to Chester will prompt new restaurants, gas stations and businesses catering to tourists. He also sees an opportunity for companies that will supply the complex with goods and services.

No, seriously! The cure for their ills will consist of compulsive gamblers and track-denizens! Even better, the area upon which Harrah’s is building gets tax abatements, so the city and state won’t get as much of a benefit from the commerce!

I understand that Chester’s essentially a dead zone, and probably still doesn’t even have decent pizza delivery, but if you’re going to try to reduce crime, poverty and drug use, I’m not sure that slot machines and harness racing comprise a viable strategy.

Read all about it.

Husbands & Wives I

Amy & I went to see Walk the Line last night, since it was re-released this weekend. We missed it the first time around, as did a lot of other people, it seems. The 6:45 show at a smallish theater in suburban NJ was packed. (I hadn’t been in the place since I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark there. In its first run.) The audience was composed of middle-aged and older couples; the kids were all downstairs watching Underworld: Evolution or Tristan & Isolde (?).

We really enjoyed the movie. Having just finished that Sam Cooke bio, I was pretty familiar with how messed-up the touring life was for performers in the 1950s and 60s. Admittedly, that was mainly from the perspective of black gospel and then R&B tours, but a lot of that stuff (travel, booty) is universal.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance was a blast. I wouldn’t say he was “channeling” Johnny Cash, but he managed to capture the utter hauntedness of the role, the sense of a soul at tension with salvation and being damned-on-earth.

The opening image — a buzz-saw in the wood shop of the Folsom Prison — made me think of just that: the jagged teeth of the saw radiate out from the disc of the blade like sunbeams in a religious painting. Phoenix runs his fingers over the blades, triggering the long reminiscence that comprises the bulk of the movie. The saw looked like the harshness of salvation.

That said, Amy felt that Reese Witherspoon didn’t sound much like June Carter, but we both enjoyed the chemistry they had, and the exuberance she brought to the character. We also both thought, “Wow: someday, Cash’s daughter Roseanne is going to end up with Ron Rosenbaum proposing to her through his column in the NY Observer.” Good thing we’re getting married; no one else would put up with us.


Which brings me to this Moment I had. As I mentioned, the audience at the theater was all couples, generally in their 50s and older. Near the end of the movie, Cash finally gets June to accept his marriage proposal (he tries like 40 times over the course of their relationship) on stage during a show. It’s a pretty romantic scene (even though her character’s mainly been shown in relation to Cash, not as a person in her own right).

Naturally, I thought about how I proposed to Amy last May (the wedding’s 7 weeks from today, which is sorta mind-blowing). But then this Moment happened: I thought about everyone else in the audience. All of these older couples out on a Saturday night to see a movie: no matter how prosaic their lives may be, no matter what other experiences they’ve had, all of these people had the most romantic moments in their lives, that night (or day or morning) they proposed to their future spouses. You can bash the sentiment as much as you want, but all of those people felt at some point that they wanted to be with their partner for the rest of their lives.

I felt elated, as if I was soaking up the light of all those concentrated moments of love.

The Mean Streets?

Here’s a lengthy article about the “Red Light District” of northern NJ, South Hackensack. It’s about 25 miles from where I live, and one of our close family friends used to be a night-manager at the main motel that’s profiled.

The writer seems a little conflicted about what to make of the area. Sure, it’s a haven for sex and drug use, but it’s not like there’s any actual drug dealing going on there (that goes on in Paterson and Newark), just consumption. In fact, the more blatant aspects have been cleaned up, and crime rates are dropping each year:

The hookers who once trolled the highway were cleared out some years ago, but dozens of prostitution arrests in the past two years show the world’s oldest profession continues to be a moneymaker – behind closed doors.

Still, that hasn’t stopped officials from talking about redevelopment. The idea is, because the town is connected to Teterboro, a small airport used by Big Money, there should be high-end facilities to get a piece of the money. The problem with that is that Big Money doesn’t care about Teterboro’s amenities (the Plaza 46 Diner notwithstanding). The airport brings in traffic because it’s hassle-free and close to NYC. I can guarantee that P. Diddy doesn’t look at South Hackensack as a place to open a new club; he just likes being able to get his jet off the ground without the delays of Newark, Laguardia or JFK.

It all seems to come off as a non-story: some go-go waitresses are turning tricks; some people are cheating on their spouses; there’s a porno store; one of the 9/11 hijackers stayed at one of the motels the week before the attack (but there was no warrant for the guy, so the FBI & CIA remained uninformed). Probably the most objectionable part of the story for me is this:

Although the strip has been trouble for the town, in some ways it’s also been a blessing. Seizures have brought needed money to the Police Department, which has used the money to purchase four patrol cars, a communications system, new handguns and rifles, and new bicycles the past few years.

Because it implies that the police department busts some “behind closed doors” small-scale crimes to keep funding itself.

Ah, well. As the owner of the local car dealership put it:

“It’s a vibrant area that employs many, many people,” said [Eddie] Goldberg, the former head of the Business Alliance of South Hackensack. “There are no vacancies in any of the stores and there is no blight.”

Read the whole shebang.

Stern Effect

I’ve listened to Howard Stern‘s radio show since 1983 (I was 12). A lot of my friends refuse to believe this. Others think it makes perfect sense. When Howard first announced his move to satellite radio, many asked me if I’d buy a receiver and pay $12.95 a month to listen to him.

“Of course I will!” I said.

At the time, there was a lot of skepticism about Howard’s move. The stereotype was that his listeners were poor schlubs who wouldn’t pay to listen to radio. The analysts contended that Howard would have to draw at least 1 million new subscribers to Sirius to warrant his massive contract.

Fortunately, a friend of Amy bought her a Sirius receiver last year for Christmas. We activated the account a few weeks ago, and I began listening to The Chill when I was around the house.

Last week, I thought I’d buy a newer unit, and get a car kit installed so I could listen on the way to work. Know what I discovered?

You can’t find a Sirius unit for sale in the NY/NJ area. The Sportster Replay, which I planned to pick up, is impossible to find. Most of the other units are also sold out. (The Circuit City & Best Buy stores I stopped in sure had a lot of XM units for sale. Good for them.)

Now, I knew that Stern would easily pass the 1 million mark, but I have a feeling that next quarter’s financial statement will include a shocking amount of new subscriptions. But that’s what people get for underestimating the appeal of Howard Stern. For 20+ years.

Seasonal Anxiety

Big snow on Thursday night and Friday morning meant I was working at home yesterday. I took care of a lot of my magazine stuff (getting advertisers’ profile-pages approved for the year-end issue) in my home office while about 8 inches of snow piled up outside. At one point, I noticed that my neighbor across the street was clearing his driveway out pretty quickly with his snowblower. The snow was thick, but powdery, so the snowblower had an easy time of it.

A few minutes later, I noticed that he was clearing my driveway with it. I smiled, then ducked under my window, hoping to avoid a scene. My car was in the garage (no windows), so it was possible that he thought I was at the office. Either way, I just didn’t want to step outside and thank him.

This isn’t to say I wasn’t thankful. It’s just that I find it pretty uncomfortable to thank someone for doing unpaid labor in the cold, then walk back inside my warm house to drink hot toddies and think lofty thoughts. I would’ve felt obliged to get a shovel out and clean my walkway or something, just to show him that I, too, was man enough to work out in the cold. Even though I really wanted to be inside, where it’s warm.

He went on to do the driveway of another neighbor after finishing mine.

I also got my wood-burning stove working yesterday. It was the first time I tried it in about two years, since the “why is there a tremendous volume of smoke pouring out of the stove?” episode. Worked like a charm. Even better news was that I remembered the enormous cache of wood in my shed. The wood was left there by the previous occupant, so it dates from early 2003 or thereabouts. Since it’s so old, the wood catches fire really easily.

I still had my neurotic “let’s look inside and make sure it’s going” compulsion for the first hour or so. It’s the first fireplace/stove I’ve ever had, so — as with every other thing in the world — I’m afraid that there’s something I’m supposed to be doing that I just don’t know about, but is glaringly obvious to everyone else. (That fear has actually played a huge part in my life, but it hasn’t stopped me from achieving my long-time dream of having a successful career as a literary author. The fact that I can’t write has stopped me from achieving that dream.)

Anyway, there was no need to check up on the stove. My library’s nice and toasty, and if I really crank that bitch up, I might be able to cut down on the heating bills this winter.

I’m glad that my only dramas are self-inflicted.