Sense or Nonsense?

There’s a new restaurant in Philadelphia called “Mad Rex” that apparently offers diners an opportunity to experience life as it might be lived if they survived an apocalyptic event on earth.

Because isn’t that what we’re all looking to do with our entertainment dollar?

The Curmudgeon learned of Mad Rex recently courtesy of an article about the place on the philly.com web site. That article includes the following paragraph:

Gasoline may be in short supply, yet a hockey game’s on view above a bar lined with plush, upholstered armchairs. Scavenging for insect protein proves  unnecessary, as pan-seared scallops with thyme butter and caponata are readily available. And there is no need to pay obeisance to Immortan Joe to obtain fresh water. It — along with a cocktail made with elderflower liqueur, pomegranate juice, and a sprig of fresh rosemary — can be easily obtained by simply asking the friendly, efficient bartender in camo pants and a black pleather bustier (because, I guess, this is a sexy apocalypse).

Okay, so be honest: do you have any idea what the hell they’re talking about?

And then there’s this, which makes a little more sense – but in a way that’s pretty unsettling.

Maybe it’s the VR chamber, where customers can pay $2 per minute to play virtual-reality games without ever slowing down on their drinking; $18 camel bags of tequila punch are available to sip while you play. Maybe it’s the food, including the cook-it-yourself “Survivor’s Menu” of sliced beef, fish. and chicken delivered with a sizzling-hot black rock to grill it on. Or maybe it’s the decor: Mad Maxian outfits arrayed around the bar and dining room, a graffitied aircraft carcass crashing through the ceiling, hatchets and knives embedded in resin in the bar top, a wine cellar that doubles as a decorative weapons locker, and servers in outfits that are a mix of War Boy-chic and standard-issue restaurant worker. (The most convincing special effect, by the way, is the spattering of mysterious, wet-looking globules on the floor —  simulated fresh blood? — that had at least one guest treading carefully to avoid stepping in the mess.) One future draw may be the line of new “entertainment drinks,” including a flaming drink, a shot poured over wood smoke, and the Gryphon, a skull-shaped fishbowl drink for two that will include glowing ice cubes and a sugar cap that, when cracked, will release steam.

Maybe The Curmudgeon is just an old fuddy-duddy but this nonsense seems pretty ridiculous to him. Of course, so do all those zombie tv shows and movies and there’s a pretty big appetite among the viewing public for them.

It’s a big world, so there’s room for all sorts of strange things – different strokes for different folks. But to The Curmudgeon this just seems…weird.

And vaguely disturbing.

What Better Way…

…to tackle head-on the problem of rising prescription drug costs than to nominate as head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services a former executive of…

…wait for it…

a pharmaceutical company?

And not just that, a former executive of a pharmaceutical company who in the recent past said that

A vigorous and profitable drug industry is not a problem to be solved, but a goal to be encouraged.

Looks like all that Agent Orange talk about taking action to reduce the price of prescription drugs will be just that: talk.

Isn’t it Curious…

…how for decades low-income people and people of color suffered from the use, overuse, and abuse of opioids, obtained both legally and illegally, but now that white and middle-class and upper middle-class people are suffering from the same problem it’s suddenly a crisis of epic proportions for which so many people are demanding – demanding! – action?

Maybe Not Such a Great Idea

A new law Congress is considering would give the Pentagon, not the Food and Drug Administration, the final word on what new drugs could be dispensed on an emergency basis to soldiers in the field. The drugs wouldn’t need to go through the FDA; the generals would decide.

 

The Curmudgeon doesn’t know about you, but he’s not crazy about the idea of guys like this fellow…

 

And this fellow…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this fellow making such decisions.

Roy Moore is Right, Of Course

Right, that is, that the charges against him are politically motivated.

Of COURSE they’re politically motivated.

Which doesn’t mean the charges aren’t true.

But of course they’re politically motivated.

Because if Moore wasn’t a candidate for the United States Senate, if he wasn’t running for public office and involved in politics…

What, no hobby horse?

If he hadn’t said that Muslims are unfit to serve in Congress…

If, as a state judge, he hadn’t defied federal judges…

If he hadn’t publicly referred to Native Americans as “reds” and Asians as “yellows”…

If he hadn’t insisted that there are communities in this country operating under Sharia law…

If he hadn’t suggested that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 may have been caused “because we’ve distanced ourselves from god”…

If he hadn’t stuck to his belief that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., even after we all saw his birth certificate…

If he hadn’t asserted that god is the only source of laws…

If he hadn’t maintained that there’s no such thing as evolution…

If he hadn’t suggested that homosexuality should be against the law…

If he hadn’t done or said all of these things then no, no one would be making allegations about his conduct because he’d only be the dirty-old man leering at your daughter, or granddaughter, at the Waffle House or IHOP or Denny’s or the neighborhood diner.

You know, the guy who makes pretty much everyone who sees him squirm.

So what about the people of Alabama, who must decide next month whether or not to vote for him in the Senate election? So far, they seem to be standing by their man, accusations and all.

Which pretty much tells you why the picture you get in your mind when someone says “Alabama” looks the way it does.

So are these charges politically motivated?

Yes, of course they are.

But that doesn’t mean they’re also not true.

New Pleasure From an Old Friend

The Curmudgeon didn’t like high school music class more than any of the other kids. It was more like a “music appreciation” class during which we were exposed to different forms of classical music from different time periods and by different composers. As he recalls, the primary preoccupation of the students in his eighth grade music class was trying to figure out if it was true, as rumored, that the teacher, Miss MacDonald, had once been a Playboy centerfold who on those pages was known as “Peaches and Cream.” We didn’t really see it, but the very idea was so very tantalizing. As best he can recall, The Curmudgeon didn’t come away from those two years of music appreciation classes with any more appreciation of music than he had before those two years.

The library with the records in 1974

A few years after taking these classes The Curmudgeon earned his driver’s license and one of the first things he did with his new driving privileges – and something that gives you an idea of what a wonk he was/still is – was start using a much bigger and better public library than the one closest to his home, which he traveled to by bicycle. (For those of you from Philadelphia, this meant forsaking the Welsh Road branch for the Northeast Regional library.)

It was at this larger library that The Curmudgeon encountered…records! Actual phonograph records (it was 1974, people; it was a public library, not a museum). That was the good news; the bad news: no contemporary music. Instead, they were mostly classical records and show tunes. The Curmudgeon was disappointed, but it was hard to resist the temptation of free records to borrow so he thumbed through the rather small collection and came across a title that looked familiar: Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony in E Minor, often referred to as his “New World Symphony.” With no better selection criteria than a familiar name, The Curmudgeon picked up the record, checked it out, took it home, and played it.

And abso-freaking-lutely loved it. Those high school music teachers knew what they were doing: it was wonderfully melodic, with soft, sweet melodies and bold, galloping passages that dared you not to bounce up and down in your seat while they played. When the three-week borrowing period ended he went out and bought his own copy – a cassette! – and returned to the library and began withdrawing more titles with familiar names from past music classes: Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” (from fifth grade!), Brahms Number 4, Beethoven’s 5th (dum dum dum DUM!) and 9th (“Ode to Joy”), and others. He enjoyed them all and continues to listen to them, and others, to this day.

Or you can conduct with one of these, too

But Dvorak’s New World Symphony has remained his favorite all these years and he’s not ashamed to admit that he can both hum the entire symphony and will, on occasion and when alone, pick up a pen (or a spoon or a screwdriver) and “conduct” it.

Okay, so he’s a little ashamed, but only a little.

So flash this story forward from 1974 to 2017. When The Curmudgeon married he moved into his wife’s house and she owned one of those little Bose speakers (see photo). The Curmudgeon was unimpressed: his speakers, in his condo, are nearly four feet tall. After several months living in Mrs. Curmudgeon’s house the couple returned to The Curmudgeon’s bachelor condo for six months while their home was undergoing renovations that were done well but took waaaaaay too long. During that period The Curmudgeon borrowed the Bose and kept it in the room where he worked. Toward the end of the stay in the condo he performed a sound test with three devices – the boom box he had been using in that room for years, a cheap wireless system he had used for a few years in his condo’s kitchen, and his wife’s Bose. The Bose was the clear winner, so with it returning to its home in the family room in the house, The Curmudgeon decided to treat himself to a new little Bose for his home office.

He knew it was better and had been enjoying it, but one day – the day he started writing this piece – he played the New World Symphony on it for the first time.

Red, naturally

And it was amazing! He has listened to this piece of music probably several hundred times over the past 43 years and heard things he had never heard before.

And they were great! Little, subtle bits, extra beats, tones playing beneath the main melodies, instruments he didn’t realize even played during some parts of the symphony. It was a miraculous experience.

The Curmudgeon’s not telling this tale to endorse a particular kind of music or a particular kind of speaker. He just wants to observe that while we’re constantly on the lookout for new experiences and new things, sometimes there’s real pleasure awaiting us in the old and familiar, too.

But now, he can’t wait to test “Scheherazade.” And Brahms’s #4. And “Rhapsody in Blue.” And Holst’s “The Planets” – especially “Jupiter!”

Woe is Us

How else to feel after learning that the jury weighing the evidence in the federal corruption trial of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, shortly after retiring to consider its verdict, asked the judge to read back the definition of “senator” that was used in the trial?

That’s right: at least one person on the jury wanted help understanding what a U.S. senator is.

 

Woe is us!

A Quick Story, and Then, a Short Story

One of the later owners removed the “Nabisco” sign – the one The Curmudgeon could see from his childhood bedroom window – from the building

The tallest building in the part of Philadelphia where The Curmudgeon grew up was a Nabisco plant where, based on the heavenly smells emanating from it every time you rode by, they appeared to be baking Nilla Vanilla wafers. Although that plant was 4.4 miles from where The Curmudgeon lived (thanks, Mapquest!) he could see the bright “Nabisco” sign near the top of the building, just barely, through the trees from his bedroom window from December, when all the leaves had fallen, until April, when they started growing again.

Gone

Time has been unkind to that plant. Nabisco has been sold several times; a disgruntled former employee entered the plant and shot two people to death and injured a third (yay, easy access to guns!); and finally, a new owner decided it no longer needed the plant and announced it would close. Now, as the picture to the right courtesy of The Curmudgeonly Sister shows, the plant has been razed and all that’s left is a vacant lot.

The Curmudgeon majored in urban studies in college (he’s never been a very practical boy), so urban deindustrialization – the flight of industry from cities – has always interested him. In the 1980s that was the subject of the first novel The Curmudgeon attempted to write, and it was a disaster: one bad decision after another made it overly complicated and stupid and he abandoned the project. Years later, though, he tackled the same subject in a short story but this time he got it right (although it’s kind of long and a few of the references are a little outdated). Although the deindustrialization in this story is in a rural area, the basic ideas remain the same. Of all of the short stories The Curmudgeon has written over the years, this is one of his favorites. He hopes you enjoy it, too.

*            *            *

“When Enough is Enough”

This was always the strangest part of a visit for Jack Barton: knocking on the front door of the house in which he lived his first eighteen years. Every time he did this his mother would greet him with a warm embrace and declare “This is your home, Jackie, you never need to knock,” but he always feared walking in unannounced and startling his mother or, more likely, his semi-awake father, seated in front of the television.

“Jackie,” his mother declared as she opened the door and embraced him. “This is your home, you never need to knock,” she said as she kissed him on the cheek. His father, roused from his slumber, struggled slowly to his feet.

“Hey, Pop,” Jack said, extending his hand to the older man as he rose. Barton men did not hug other men.

It was mid-afternoon on the fourth Wednesday in November, and Jack Barton’s visit was serving a dual purpose: he came to join his family for Thanksgiving and to attend his thirty-year high school reunion.

Jack had mixed feelings about this visit – as he did about all of his visits to Porterville. It was his first Thanksgiving since his divorce from Sandy was final, and on top of that, his daughter Marla, away at college, informed her parents that she would be spending the holiday with her boyfriend and his family near Boston. The reunion was an obligation that he both welcomed and dreaded. He welcomed it because he truly enjoyed seeing his old friends and renewing acquaintances, which he seldom had much time to do on his typical, quick visits to Porterville. The downside was that as much as he enjoyed seeing these people, he inevitably found the experience depressing: the town was depressing to him, his old friends’ lives were depressing to him, and no matter how good it felt to come home and be surrounded by so much warmth and good feeling, it felt even better when he turned the key in his Lexus and watched Porterville disappear in his rear-view mirror. This, moreover, was going to be a long visit – his longest in more than twenty-five years, since his senior year of college – and he would not put Porterville back into his rear-view mirror, where it belonged, until Sunday afternoon, when he set would off on his four-hour drive back to New York City.

After taking his bag up to his old bedroom and rolling his eyes at the thought of sleeping the next four nights in a single bed on a mattress that he knew was nearly as old as he was, Jack returned downstairs and joined his parents in the living room for coffee. Ever since he and Sandy separated, their conversations were always the same: had he talked to Sandy lately, how was their grand-daughter Marla, when would they see her again, and was he dating anyone. He always thought it was the singular sign of his family’s utter lack of curiosity about the world that even though everyone knew that he traveled all over the country and all over the world as part of his job, his parents, his brothers, their wives, and most of his nieces and nephews never asked him where he had been recently, what he had seen, or what he had experienced. Instead, it was always the same conversation, and on this afternoon, that conversation over coffee eventually gave way to dinner, with his mother serving the first of what he knew would be several meals of high-calorie, high-fat favorites from Jack’s youth that he seldom ate anymore. While they dined on pork chops and mashed potatoes, Ted Barton inquired about his son’s weekend plans.

“Nothing really firm,” Jack replied. “I thought I’d go over to Snookies a little later” – Snookies was a local bar and community institution that Jack knew many of his old friends frequented – “then the football game tomorrow, turkey dinner with everyone tomorrow night, the reunion Friday night, and otherwise just spend some time with you and the guys and their families.”

Jack’s parents nodded approvingly. “The guys” and “their families” in this case meant Jack’s three brothers – Rick, Mike, and Kevin – their wives, and ten nieces and nephews, all of whom lived within twenty minutes of the home in which they were raised.

About an hour after dinner Jack quietly left the house, careful not to awaken his father, who was fast asleep in front of the television. Within minutes he was treated to a hero’s welcome as he entered Snookies.

The warm reception was no surprise: Jack Barton was Porterville’s greatest success story. Porterville was a small town in which few people went to college, few people ever left, and most people lived more or less as their parents did – working in the same jobs, living in the same neighborhoods, worshipping in the same churches, and sending their children to the same schools.

But not Jack Barton. The youngest of the four Barton brothers, he had done all the things Porterville boys do – hunting and fishing with his father from an early age, camping, little league baseball, high school football – but unlike his brothers and most other Porterville boys, he also had been very serious about his studies, and in particular, his math studies. His mathematical talent had been carefully cultivated by one of his high school teachers, and that, in turn, helped transform Jack into that true Porterville rarity of the mid-1970s: a native who left town to pursue a higher education. In this case, he went 175 miles southeast to Philadelphia, where he studied engineering at Drexel University. Once he headed east for his freshman year, Jack never returned home for more than a visit. Upon graduating from Drexel he went to work for General Electric, starting out as a production engineer at a manufacturing plant in Texas and then, over the next twenty years, working in eight different cities, with each new position bringing more responsibility than its predecessor. Along the way he earned an MBA to go along with a master’s degree in engineering, and by the end of his tenure with GE, he oversaw a group of the corporation’s domestic production facilities. After twenty years he left GE to join a consulting firm that advised investors on the acquisition of fading manufacturers and then helped those investors turn around the facilities they purchased. Jack had earned nearly a quarter million dollars a year during his last three years with GE – plus stock options – and in his new job as a consultant he easily earned twice that.

This success did not come without a price. Jack married a woman he met on his first assignment, in Texas, and their frequent moves made it impossible for Sandy to develop a career of her own and similarly difficult to develop friendships in communities she always knew she was really only visiting. In addition to all the moving from town to town, Jack traveled a great deal, especially to Asia to visit GE production facilities there, leaving his wife alone, occasionally for weeks and even months at a time, to run their household and raise their daughter. New York City had been the last straw for Sandy: she was a small-town girl and it was hate at first sight when they moved to New York. Despite living in a fabulous, $4 million co-op, she packed her bags and left just fourteen months after their arrival there. Jack knew he had no business being surprised that Marla did not want to come “home” for Thanksgiving: she had lived in many places but never in any of them long enough to consider them home.

But Jack’s old friends in Porterville neither knew nor cared about the hardships in their old friend’s life or the price he had paid for his success: they simply celebrated that success without envying his life in the least. While they knew, through his brothers, about the good living, the money, and the co-op, for example, they could not imagine any amount of money making it worth their while to leave Porterville – especially for New York City!

Now, though, at Snookies, it was the usual welcome-home banter: Jack buying beers for everyone, careful not to indulge his preference for mixed drinks and come off looking too high-brow, while being careful to pay with cash and not a credit card for the same reason. The topics of discussion were always the same: hair and weight lost and gained, Penn State football, and the recently completed deer hunting season. During these gatherings the men might occasionally talk about their own youth but seldom about their children; work was something you left behind when you punched your time card; and wives were never an appropriate subject of discussion.

“Work” for many of Jack’s high school buddies and other old friends, as well as for all three of his brothers, was the Staley Ironworks, a manufacturing plant that was the largest employer in the town of 3500. The Staley plant was nearly 100 years old, but after ninety years of family ownership it had been sold eight years ago to Amalgamated Industries, a large conglomerate in the GE mold. Because he had spent his entire career in and around production facilities, Jack had never understood Amalgamated’s acquisition of the works: did not understand how it fit into the company’s portfolio of businesses and did not understand how Amalgamated expected to wring out of the plant the kind of profits needed to justify its continued existence. After eight years, moreover, his puzzlement only grew because he had neither seen nor heard of anything the corporation had done to change anything at or about the plant or how it marketed the works’ products. Occasionally when he returned home he would hear murmurings of concern that Amalgamated was going to sell or close the plant, but none of the so-called signs that people told him about were what he considered to be legitimate portents of action by Amalgamated. During his two hours at Snookies he heard about a few of these signs from his old friends, but nothing that he felt deserved even half-serious consideration on his part.

At the football game the next day it was more of the same: old friends attending the traditional event, now accompanied by their sons and in a few cases their wives and daughters and even a few grandchildren. Many of Jack’s old friends had sons on the field and daughters on the sidelines, and they eagerly and proudly directed his attention to their blocks and their tackles, their runs and their throws and their cheers; he regretted that Marla was not with him. He shook many hands, hugged and kissed many wives, former girlfriends, and classmates, and heard many stories about eight-point deer, new cabins in the woods, and of course, Dodge and Ford pick-ups and SUVs. Eventually he found two of his brothers and sat with them and their families. When the game ended, many of the old crowd adjourned to Jean’s, a diner and perennial hangout for Porterville Regional High students and alumni. There, Jack committed his first social misstep of his visit, asking for balsamic vinegar for his salad. As soon as he saw the look on the waitress’s face he realized his error, but it was barely noticed amid the bustle of the afternoon.

*            *            *

To Jack’s surprise, Thanksgiving dinner was at his brother Mike’s, not at his parents’ house. Mike’s wife Diane explained to Jack in private that a few months ago, his mother had informed her daughters in-law that she was no longer physically up to the demands of having the entire family over to her house for a home-cooked meal. She continued to entertain, but she no longer prepared complete meals for the entire family. Jack realized that he sometimes forgot how old his parents were.

Jack had a wonderful time – as he always did. He loved and missed his brothers and enjoyed spending time with them, their wives, their kids, and now also the spouses of some of his nieces and nephews and their very young children.

One Barton Thanksgiving tradition was that after dinner, while the women cleared the table, the men stepped outside and smoked cigars. Jack was not much of a smoker – maybe two or three cigars a year – but he valued the tradition and this year brought a special treat: he had used his contacts in Central America to purchase a box of very fine Cuban cigars.

As the men – the five Barton men, joined by the husbands of Rick’s and Kevin’s daughters – sat on wrought iron patio chairs and smoked, Kevin interrupted their silent appreciation of their cigars.

“Jack, there’s rumblings at the plant again.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, there are always rumblings about the plant,” he replied, sitting back while looking straight ahead and puffing heartily. “I got an earful at Snookies last night.”

“I think it’s different this time,” Kevin continued.

“Why?”

“Accountants.”

“Oh.” Jack sat up. “When?”

“Two weeks ago.”

Not long after the Staley family sold the plant, rumors ran rife that Amalgamated had only bought the company to sell off its equipment and customer list. Whenever Jack was in town, people – knowing this was the field in which he worked – besieged him with questions, plied him for information, and implored him to share whatever he might know. He told them the truth: that he knew nothing and had heard nothing but certainly would not keep anything he learned to himself because with three brothers working there and his father on a company pension, he felt he had as much at stake in the plant’s continued existence as anyone. Over the years he had kept his eyes and ears open in search of information about the plant and even had several people within the industry doing so for him, but he never heard anything – not a word. Every once in a while one of his brothers would call him with the latest rumor – this was the only reason they ever called him – and finally, about five years ago, he had sat down with them on Christmas day and explained to them what they should look for.

“First of all, ignore all rumors,” he had told them. “Every time Amalgamated gets the plant to use a new supplier, someone who has no idea what he’s talking about is going to declare that it’s a cost-cutting measure designed to make the plant look more profitable so it can be sold and then the rumor will take off. It’s all nonsense, so ignore it.

“Also, don’t worry about strangers who come to visit the plant but spend all their time in the office. They’re not prospective buyers there to look at the books because the books are at corporate headquarters in Dallas, not here in Porterville. They’re probably from the corporate office and they’re there to talk to plant managers about corporate policies, benefits, HR, things like that.

“Be happy when guys who are dressed casually come into the plant and talk to foremen and workers. They’re me, fifteen years ago: production and performance engineers looking for ways to improve efficiency and boost performance. You’ll be offended by the questions they ask and think they’re second-guessing you, but they’re you’re friends: Amalgamated spends a lot of money on guys like them and only hires them when they think a facility is worth the investment.

“The people you need to worry about are the accountants. Actually, they’re valuators, not accountants. They’ll look at the equipment but won’t touch it. They’ll talk only to managers, not workers and not even foremen. They’ll know how old everything is and ask about maintenance records and condition. They’ll spend nearly as much time checking out the non-production parts of the building – the mechanical systems, the brick work, the roof. They’ll want someone to show them where the plant property lines begin and end.

“These guys are your problem: their job is to figure out what they can sell the equipment for and what the building and property might be worth. By the time they get there, they’ll already know what the business itself is worth.”

Now, Jack thought his worst fears – and those of his brothers – may have been realized.

“Tell me what you saw,” he instructed his brothers – and they did. He had prepared them well, they had been observant, and within a few minutes, Jack knew the ironworks’ days were numbered.

And his brothers could tell just by looking at him.

“How bad?” Kevin asked.

“Bad,” Jack replied. “What you just described is what I do all the time – and I’ve had it done to me in the plants I worked in and ran when I was younger.”

“So we’re done?” Rick asked. “Just like that?”

“I can’t say for sure, and I wouldn’t necessarily say right away, but they have the idea and they’re not likely to back off once they start. It could take months or even a year or two, but once they start down this path, they don’t usually turn back.”

“Why would it take so long?” Rick asked.

“Well, they have to find a buyer. Ideally, you show a plant to more than one company, try to get the best price, just like when you’re trying to sell a house. But they’re going to have a hard time doing that.”

“Why?”

“Because while you guys still do great work and seem to have decent sales from what I hear…”

“From what you hear?” Kevin interrupted.

“Do you think I don’t do everything I can to keep an eye on what’s going on here?” Jack replied. “Of course I do. I watch this place as closely as someone not at Amalgamated possibly can.

“Anyhow, I’m not sure they’ll be able to find a buyer. You have a decent customer base but no unique customers, you’re a union shop, the plant probably could use some modernization, and no one’s starting or expanding ironworks in North America anymore. The buildings aren’t adaptable to any other kind of production that’s still viable in this country and the land they’re on is practically worthless.”

“We’ve got ten acres. How can that be worthless?”

“If the plant closes the town’s economy takes a nosedive. No one buys property in a rural area in a depressed town.”

“So what do we do?”

“I’m not sure there’s anything you can do except ride it out and wait and see. But while I’m here, I’d like to talk to Amalgamated’s guy. Does Jeff Malone still run the plant?”

“Yeah.”

“He’ll talk to me. We met at an industry event a few years ago in Chicago and then again earlier this year – Easter, I think – when I was in town. He seems like a good guy.”

Mike said he was, and his brothers agreed.

“If he’s in town, we’ll get him. But it’s Thanksgiving and he has a few days off, so he may have gone home to visit family,” Kevin said.

“No,” Rick interjected. “His kid’s on the football team. In fact, he scored a touchdown today. He’s here. We’ll get him.”

No one enjoyed Jack’s Cuban cigars.

*            *            *

The following morning Jack arose early, ran three miles, and showered. He was drinking coffee while his mother cooked bacon and eggs when the telephone rang. A moment later his father entered.

“It was Rick. He said to come over after breakfast and he’ll take you to the works to meet with Malone.”

Two hours later Jack entered the Staley Ironworks for the first time since he was eighteen years old. Seated at a table just inside the entrance was Jeff Malone, who shook hands with the brothers and offered Jack a tour. Jack suggested that Rick wait in the break room – he wanted to do this alone – and he pointed in the direction of that space, surprising his brother, Malone, and even himself.

Malone started to lead Jack around the plant, pointing out the newer equipment, the equipment that was in line for repair or replacement, and some of the upgrades in the works’ capabilities since Jack worked there.

“How’d you know I worked here?”

“An educated guess. With three older brothers here, and your dad, it wasn’t much of a stretch to suspect that you might’ve put in a summer or two here along the way. Hell, it seems like almost every guy in Porterville worked here at one time or another in his life. You know, the Staleys kept great records and never threw anything away. I found your personnel file a few minutes ago. If you’re interested, you can have it.”

Jack smiled.

“That’s very kind of you. Yes, I’d like that.”

“But that’s not why we’re here, is it?” Malone asked.

“No.

“It’s happening, isn’t it?

“It appears that way.”

“Appears?

“Jack, I’m not a fast-tracker like you. My career with Amalgamated is as a plant manager, period. They provide the systems and the support and the marketing and I squeeze out as much production as there is to be squeezed. When they make decisions about closings, consolidations, and sales, they don’t consult me. They inform me.”

“And they haven’t informed you of anything?”

“Not in so many words, no.”

“But in other ways?”

“I’ve been down this road before. Two weeks ago, the corporate HR office sent me a list of plants with current or expected management openings in the next year and gave me a month to pick a few I’d like to visit.”

“A pretty clear signal.”

“I imagine so. What it doesn’t tell me, though, is whether they’re closing or selling. You know, I’d hate to see this plant close.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s still viable. It’s not like we’re losing money, because we’re not. We’re not making much, but we’re not losing. Our customer base is solid, though not growing, our cost structure is reasonable, and we have a great workforce.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“You know what the problem is: there’s making money and then there’s making enough money to justify continued investment by the corporation.”

“You say the cost structure is sound?”

“Yes.”

“Most American ironworks have union, wage, and benefit problems. You don’t?”

“I’m not saying it couldn’t be better, but really, it’s sound. The cost of living here is low, so the workers’ salary demands are really pretty affordable. We own the building free and clear and it’s in great shape. The Staleys took care of this place like it was their home. Energy is surprisingly reasonable. Health benefits are getting a little costly because we need to be a part of a national network, but corporate’s been looking into decentralizing and is trying to figure out whether the juice is worth the squeeze. In three years I’ve brought the head count down from 425 to 410 through attrition. There are about eight or ten people I’d like to get rid of because they’re just not very good workers, but between the difficulty of doing that with the union involved and the problems it would cause with the remaining workforce and the town, I think paying those guys and accepting substandard productivity from them is a reasonable cost of doing business.”

Jack raised his eyebrows: Malone knew his job.

“425 to 410. How low would you like to go?”

“I have to do five-year plans and projected attrition down to 385 in five years and no replacement until 363, which should take eight years, assuming I can get the union to go along with moving men from job to job as needed, which I think I can do.”

“Any chance I’d be able to see that plan?”

“Officially, no, but leave me your email address and look for it from a non-Amalgamated domain when you get back to your office Monday morning.”

Jack continued to look around as they worked their way around the plant. Occasionally, he stopped to inspect pieces of equipment, even getting down on his hands and knees to do so a few times. Eventually they worked their way back to Malone’s office, which was clean, unadorned, and tidy – the sign of an organized manager who spent most of his time on the production floor. Again, he was impressed.

“So sales are decent, if unspectacular, the plant’s in good shape, and the cost structure is reasonable. So what’s the problem?”

“Lack of growth. Industrially, Amalgamated is great – as good as anyone. But there’s not much marketing support for what’s evolved mostly into a patio furniture business. Also, iron is losing popularity among patio furniture buyers. Resin is cheap and colorful and you can leave it out year-round, let it get beat up, and go out and buy a new set every few years for not much money. This plant is capable of doing more, but the company’s never figured out how to sell anything we can do besides tables and chairs. The corporation’s too big to do anything besides mass marketing and that’s not where the iron trades are heading in the twenty-first century.”

“I see.

“Listen, is there any way I can get a look at the financials?”

“Are you kidding? I know who you are, so you know the people at Amalgamated know you, too. You can go directly to them or I can do it for you, but I’m sure they’ll roll out the red carpet for you.”

“You do it. A little credit with the corporate office in exchange for two hours on your day off seems like a fair trade.”

*            *            *

Fifteen minutes later Jack and his brothers sat in Kevin’s living room, talking and drinking beer. After insisting on their promise that what they were about to discuss would not leave the room, Jack laid out for them the entire situation as he saw it, sparing no details. While he needed to review a few aspects more than once, they understood virtually everything he told them – even, grudgingly, why it was unlikely that anyone would be interested in purchasing the works. They kept coming back, though, to one issue.

“I still don’t understand,” Rick began, clearly speaking for his brothers as well. “If we’re making money, why would they want to close us down?”

“Because you’re not making enough money for them.”

Mike rose and walked out of the room, disgusted with what he was hearing.

“So how much is enough?” Rick asked.

“There’s no magic number, if that’s what you mean, but they have a good idea of what they’re looking for and the works doesn’t reach it, doesn’t really come close to reaching it, and they don’t believe you’ll ever reach it. Closing has to do with what the financial people call the opportunity cost of money.”

“For us dummies, Jackie.”

Jack hated when his brothers did that, but he told himself that this was their crisis, not his, and he needed to be patient with them.

“’Opportunity cost’ has to do with what else you could do with your money besides what you actually end up doing with it. On a household level, for example, if you buy a bigger house, maybe you can’t afford as good a car, or you have to keep your car longer. Send your kids to camp and maybe you can’t afford a summer vacation.

“From a financial perspective, it’s what you lose when you make the wrong financial decision, or even just a different decision. Say you have your eye on $500 worth of hunting gear at the same time I tell you that if you invest $500 in a certain stock, you’ll probably double your money within a year. In your head, you know the hunting gear you already have will hold up for another season or two, but in your heart, you really want the new stuff and you want it now, so you pass on the investment. You buy your gear and the stock doubles in a year, just like I said it would. You got your gear, but in a way, it’s like you paid $1000 for it: the $500 you laid out and the $500 you lost by not taking my investment tip. That’s the opportunity cost of the hunting gear: what you paid and what you lost by making the decision you made.”

“The works, Jackie.”

“Okay, Amalgamated invests in the plant. It spends money on capital improvements, on training, on employees, on consultants, on marketing. In return, it’s making what I’m guessing is a profit of about three percent, maybe four percent, a year. Amalgamated has other operations that earn a lot more, and it also can buy new businesses that would earn more, too. Hell, they could take the money they invest in the works over to Porterville Savings & Loan right now and get a three-year CD for five percent. So that’s the opportunity cost of Amalgamated holding onto the works: every time Amalgamated invests a dollar in the works and gets two or three or four cents in return, it’s losing five or ten or even twenty cents on that dollar that it knows, absolutely, it could get somewhere else. Since they don’t believe they can ever get that two or three or four cents to go much higher, they want out.”

“I think I get it.”

“Listen, Rick, you have your money over at Porterville S&L, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And I’m guessing you pay a small monthly fee for your checking and get about two-and-a-half percent interest on your savings, right?”

“Pretty much.”

“So if another bank comes to town and offers free checking and three percent on savings instead of two, you’d change banks, right?”

“Hell yeah.”

“And that’s the position Amalgamated is in today. They’ve got buildings full of people who can each produce a half-dozen ideas for better ways to spend that money and get more bang for their buck.”

“And you’re saying nothing can be done to make the works more profitable?”

“No, not quite. I think the plant can stay a little profitable and that its performance can even be improved, but never improved enough to satisfy Amalgamated.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Think about getting a job as a manager of a 7-11 store. You’re paid $30,000 a year and the store makes $50,000 a year for the big corporation that owns it. The company’s expectation, though, is that all of its stores have to make at least $100,000 a year for the corporation to justify its continued existence, so after a few years of making only $50,000, it decides to give up and close the store so it can spend the money it’s spending on the underperforming store on a new store someplace else where it thinks it has greater potential. It’s that opportunity cost business again. Instead of looking for another job, though, you scrape together your life savings, buy the fixtures and equipment from 7-11, and take over the lease, and in no time, because of your experience as manager, you’ve got the store performing as well as it did when it was a 7-11. You pay yourself the same $30,000 salary that you made when you worked for the company and you’re still turning the same annual profit of $50,000, so what you’re really making for yourself now is $80,000 a year, which is a whole lot more money than you’ve ever made in your life. It wasn’t anywhere near good enough for the big corporation, but it’s plenty good for you personally.”

“I get it. And if you were running the plant, Jackie, you could make it do a little better, couldn’t you?”

“A little better? Yeah – but never enough to satisfy Amalgamated.”

“So what would you do that they’re not doing?”

“I’d have to do some homework, but I’ve always had a few ideas about how the works could carve out some different niches and develop a few new products to overcome how cheap it is to manufacture in China. It also would need to market its products differently and more effectively. On top of that, and based on what I saw today, I think you could make better use of technology, robotics, and computers in your production than you do now.”

“So why doesn’t Amalgamated do those things?”

“I don’t think Amalgamated is really equipped to do the more complex marketing that would be involved, and without that, the investment in technology would never pay for itself. But still, I’m sure the plant could perform somewhat better with the right changes.”

By this time Mike had returned and the brothers were all sitting forward. Their beer had gone warm. They looked at one another and Kevin finally articulated what they all were thinking.

“Then you figure out how we can buy the works from them and run it for us.”

Jack smiled. He had not seen that coming.

“That’s an interesting idea, Kev, but not realistic.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Sure it is. It’s what you do, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but it’s not that easy. First of all, where do you think you’d get the money to buy an ironworks from a large corporation? Second of all, I have a life elsewhere, a job elsewhere, a kid elsewhere.”

“C’mon, Jackie, you’re divorced, you don’t need that job or the money, and the kid loves you and loves it here but is grown and away at college and is never gonna spend more than about seven consecutive nights under your roof again.”

“Thanks for the reminders.”

“Sorry.”

Now Rick spoke.

“It’s not just us, Jack, and you know it. If the works dies, this family dies and this town and the towns around it die, too. It’s your three brothers and their families, 400 families, including a lot of people we all know. If the works closes, this all dies.”

Jack said nothing.

*            *            *

Six hours later Jack stepped back in time when he walked through the gymnasium door at Porterville Regional High. As soon as he did he was among those who received the most attention – not because of what he had achieved in life but because out of the 185 members of the Porterville Regional High class of 1977, he was one of just three who no longer lived in the area.

Jack was immediately comfortable and worked the room, shaking hands with some old friends and hugging others. They ate, they drank, they constantly reached into wallets and purses for snapshots of children and, in a few cases, grandchildren. With the help of a karaoke machine, every single member of the class of ’77 in attendance stood in front of the room and sang for the gathered. They told stories, they told jokes, they reminisced about school days and life since then.

Of the 185 members of the class of ’77, eighty-three were male – and fifteen of them worked at the Staley Ironworks. It was inevitable, then, that at one point in the evening, all thirteen of those fifteen present – and a few of their wives – cornered Jack in search of any insight he might have about the plant’s future. All of them were worried, all had seen the most recent troubling signs, and many had heard about Jack’s visit to the works earlier in the day. While he had never intended his visit to the plant to be a secret, Jack marveled at how quickly word spread in this small town.

Jack told his classmates what he told his brothers, only with fewer details and no lengthy explanations. He said he agreed that the latest signs were bad and that while he did not know for sure if anything would happen, it was his professional opinion that the plant was more likely to close than to be sold. The entire discussion took less than five minutes and was interrupted – mercifully, from Jack’s perspective – when the band returned from its break and the dessert buffet opened.

Those five minutes, though, changed the entire evening for Jack. In that short period of time, he saw worry in their eyes and he saw fear – fear bordering on panic. His old friends and classmates touched him. Now, whenever he spoke to someone for the rest of the evening, he thought about the obligations in that person’s life. When they told him where they lived, he thought about their mortgages; when they told him about their children, he thought about sneakers and braces and even college tuition, which was finally becoming a more realistic aspiration in Porterville; and when he saw someone with a scar or a limp or a story of a trip to Hershey or Pittsburgh for an operation, he thought about health insurance and the constantly rising cost of medical care. Despite the many miles he had put between himself and Porterville over the years, he still knew which former classmate had an autistic child, which were supporting elderly parents, which were fighting alcoholism, which had an occasional tendency to gamble away the weekly food money. Though they were no longer part of his daily life, they were still part of his life in a very real way that he did not entirely understand and he cared about them, worried about them – and he knew how many others were just like them, including the three who mattered most to him: Rick, Kevin, and Mike.

The reunion broke up shortly after midnight, and as Jack was leaving he was met at the door by Mr. Clayton, the teacher who had recognized and cultivated his talents so many years ago. They had spoken briefly earlier in the evening, and Jack generally visited his old teacher, who had retired long ago, every year or two and always remembered him with a Christmas card.

“This was a great reunion, wasn’t it, Mr. Clayton?”

“It’s been thirty years, Jack. I wish you’d just call me George. And yes, it was great. I go to reunions every year and I can’t remember a single one I didn’t enjoy. I see my students every day in and around town, but there’s something special about seeing them all together in one place in the school.”

“You’ll always be Mr. Clayton to me. It’s a sign of respect, and except for the parents of a lot of the people here tonight, you’re one of the few people I prefer to address like that.”

“Thank you, Jack. And you’re one of the highlights of my teaching career.

“But for the first time, I’d like to take advantage of that respect. Come back to the house with me. I’d like to talk to you.”

Jack agreed, and a few minutes later he sat in Mr. Clayton’s kitchen, drinking tea and munching cookies with his old math teacher and his wife, who clearly had expected them.

“Do you know why I asked you here tonight?”

Jack said he did not.

“I had a visitor this afternoon: your father.”

“Dad came to see you? Why?”

“Jack, I met your father about thirty-five years ago, when I called your parents in to tell them that I was going to fail Mike if he didn’t hunker down in my class. Your mother did most of the talking that night. I must run into Red a couple of times a month and he’s always unfailingly polite, but he seldom says more than hello.”

“Dad’s a man of few words.”

“I know. That’s why this afternoon was such a surprise. He showed up at my door, invited himself into my home, and proceeded to talk for about ten minutes – more words than in the thirty-five years I’ve known him. He was telling me about the works, and about your belief that its days are numbered.”

“I see.”

“Jack, do you believe in god?”

“Yes.”

“And have you ever wondered why god gave you, of all people, the special gifts you have?”

“Occasionally.”

“And have you ever considered the possibility that he gave you those talents for reasons other than helping to enrich the companies you work for and to provide a good life for your parents and your family?”

“Actually, I have. Not recently, but I have.”

“Well, then, I want you to consider the possibility that you were given those talents so you could serve the people of this town, including your brothers, in this time of need.”

“Mr. Clayton…”

“But I’m not suggesting that you do this to honor god. I’m not even suggesting that god is involved, or that this is part of his plan.

“I think it’s a good thing to do, the right thing to do. They’re all good, decent people, and you’re one of them even though you left this town so many years ago. I could see that tonight. You’re still one of us in ways that I suspect you can’t see for yourself.

“These good people need you. Without that plant, this town, the people who live here, would probably all disappear. Where do you think your brothers will find work for anywhere near what they’re making now? You and I both know they won’t – at least not around here. If they can find something at all – and that’s a huge ‘if’ – they’d almost certainly have to move. So it would be the break-up of your family – maybe your brothers all moving to different places, leaving your folks here to fend for themselves with no one to keep an eye on them. Have you looked at your father lately? He’s old, Jack – how old is he?”

“Eighty. Both of my parents are eighty.”

“Just a little older than me, but not much. But it’s not just your family. Multiply that scenario I just laid out by 400 – 400 families, not 400 people. Then add the people in this town who count on those families getting their paychecks: the tellers at the bank, the waitresses and cooks at the diner, the guy pumping gas, the teachers at the school, even Doc Kline, because no one would be able to pay him anymore.”

“And what about me, Mr. Clayton?”

“I’m a small-town math teacher, Jack, not a fool. I have a pretty good idea how much money you made at GE and how you’re doing now. You’re not working to make a living anymore, son: you’re working for the challenge. I might feel differently if you had retired, bought yourself a cabin in the woods or a boat or a condo on a beach somewhere and decided to sit back and enjoy the rest of your life. But you haven’t taken that path because like most exceptional people who make a lot of money when they’re still young, you still relish a good challenge.

“Well, son, I can think of no greater challenge than finding a way to keep that plant up and running and this town alive and no person who’s prepared more carefully and thoroughly to meet that challenge. You’ve trained your entire life for this, Jack Barton, and now, the true challenge of your lifetime is right in front of you. Don’t turn away from it, son. Don’t run.

“Now, though, I’m an old man who’s very tired. It’s time for bed. Finish your tea and lock the door behind you when you leave. Goodnight, Jack.”

*            *            *

Jack slept fitfully that night, his rest disturbed by the dilemma before him: the conflict between his brothers’ seemingly casual suggestion and Mr. Clayton’s challenge and, on the other hand, how he envisioned living – and not living – the rest of his life. While he had no special love for New York City and questioned how long he would remain there, he nevertheless recognized that it offered a great deal that he enjoyed: opportunities to see theater and ballgames, great music of many different types, distinctive restaurants, art, museums, real bookstores, and more. His job, too, offered a great deal that he enjoyed: challenging work, stimulating travel, brilliant colleagues, and regular interaction with some of the best business minds in the world. Porterville, and running the Staley Ironworks, offered none of this. After thirty years away from Porterville, he could not imagine being satisfied again with life there, or with life running the works. Even most of the small towns he lived in during his GE days were larger than Porterville and much more like real cities that offered the kind of diverse experiences Jack had first encountered in college in Philadelphia and had come to value so much over the years.

Yet what of this town, of his brothers, his parents, his old friends? Did he owe them nothing, have no obligation of any kind to them to try to help them through this potentially life-altering – and town-altering – crisis they faced? Did he even have the ability to help them? Was their situation salvageable even if he could bring himself to attempt to be their savior?

He rose at 6:30 and ran two miles. When he returned his mother was sitting in the kitchen, a pot of coffee brewing. He could hear his father upstairs, in the shower.

“I understand Pop paid a visit to Mr. Clayton yesterday.”

His mother poured him a cup of coffee.

“Do you have any idea how hard that was for him?” she asked. “Your father is a sweet and gentle man, Jackie, and Mr. Clayton is the only person I’m aware of who he’s ever hated.”

“Pop hates Mr. Clayton?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“He holds him responsible for taking you away from us.”

Jack said nothing.

“To go to his house yesterday, hat in hand, and ask for his help was probably the hardest thing he’s ever done in his life besides burying your baby sister. I can’t imagine.”

Again, Jack remained silent.

“Let me tell you a story, Jackie. Thirty years ago, as you know, Mr. Clayton pulled us aside on parent-teacher night and told us what a special student you were and how you’d be wasting your life if you spent it in Porterville, working at Staley. He practically begged us to let you go away to college. At first we were angry at him, but after a while we realized that the problem was that we didn’t like how what he told us could change our family. It took about a month, but after your father got over it, he called your brothers over to this house one day when you weren’t here and had a very short talk with them. I was there, and he swore all of us to secrecy, and I’m about to break my promise and hope that god will forgive me for doing so.”

“What, mom?”

“He told your brothers that you were different from all of us, that you were special, and that you had an opportunity to do something special with your life and that it was our job to make that possible.

“Didn’t you ever wonder how we were able to afford to pay for college for you?”

“I figured you’d somehow managed to save some money over the years.”

“Raising four sons on Staley pay? Not in this or three lifetimes, Jackie. Your father worked at Staley and so did your brothers, so he knew much money everyone made. He sat here, at this very table, thirty years ago, and told your brothers that for the next four years, he expected them to write him a check for a certain amount of money every month. He handed each of them a piece of paper with their amount – remember, Rick was already married with a baby, Kevin was a newlywed, and Mike was still single – so he expected something different from each of them. Your brothers never so much as batted an eyelash. They just nodded and said ‘Yes sir’ and did what they were told.

“You owe them, Jackie. You’ve repaid the money many times over with your help with babies and mortgages and the lodge in the Poconos and the computers for all the kids and the tuition money, but this is a different kind of owe.”

Jack was stunned.

“I had no idea.”

“But now you do, and now I ask you to do what has to be done. I also hope you’ll protect your mother from the wrath of the men in her family if they ever find out what I just did.”

They heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Jack’s father nodded at his wife and son. After ten minutes of coffee and small talk, Jack said he wanted to have breakfast with Mike and his family and ran upstairs to shower and dress.

A half-hour later Jack sat at Mike’s kitchen table, another cup of coffee in hand, with Mike, Diane, and their youngest daughter, Rachel. Now fifteen, Rachel was Jack’s favorite of all of his brothers’ children. He suspected that she was the brightest of his nieces and nephews and almost certainly college material. Rachel also reminded Jack of his own daughter in a way that melted his heart whenever he was with her.

Even though Jack had known nothing about how his own higher education had been financed, he had long ago told his brothers that he would take care of the cost of higher education for any of their children who wanted to pursue it – and much to his delight, several had taken advantage of his offer. Rachel was one of the last children still at home, and so far, Jack had paid for two college educations – Penn State, of course – and two nursing degrees. He had encouraged his own daughter to take Rachel under her wing and show her a little of the world outside of Porterville, and the girls had plans to spend their Christmas vacations together in New York City and to take a quick trip up to Providence, where Marla attended Brown.

“Rachel, your internet connection, is it dial-up or DSL?” he asked her. Cable, Jack knew, had not yet reached Porterville.

“Dial-up, unless you can talk some sense into my dad.”

“How about the library? Does it have DSL?”

“Nope.”

“Do you have any friends who have it?”

“No again. This is Porterville, Uncle Jack.”

Mike scowled at his daughter.

Jack thought for a moment.

“The bank. The bank must have a DSL line.”

“Bank’s closed today, Jack,” Diane interjected.

“Is Terri Jeter still the bank manager?”

“Yes.”

“And does she still live over on Porch Lane?”

“Yes.”

“Then I think I need to pay my old girlfriend a visit.”

“You and Miss Jeter?” Rachel asked, her eyes wide.

“Except for your mom, she was the prettiest girl in my class – and my date to the senior prom.”

“No way,” Rachel said.

“Yes, way,” Jack replied, laughing.

They all ate breakfast together, after which Jack took a walk with Rachel to catch up on her life and her studies. She, in turn, asked him about his recent travels, as she always did. He came away optimistic that with Marla’s help, he would be able to interest her in attending college – and not just Penn State, like her cousins.

By the time they returned to the house it was 10:30 – late enough not to worry about waking Terri Jeter. Jack drove to her house, which was just two minutes away, and after about two minutes of small talk – they had spoken at length the previous night at the reunion – he explained to her that he wanted her to take him to the bank so he could use a computer and her internet connection.

“Why?” she asked. She was not worried about Jack Barton robbing the bank, but it was unusual, to say the least, for a non-depositor to ask to be let into the bank on a Saturday.

“I guess you’ve been hearing about the works,” he said.

“Everyone’s been hearing – for years.”

“This time’s different, I think.”

“How?”

“Different signs – meaningful signs, not like most of the nonsense people have been talking about ever since the Staleys sold. I know this stuff, Terri: it’s what I do.”

“I know.”

“And you know what the plant closing would do to Porterville S&L.”

“With the mortgages we hold? I’d give us a year, tops.”

“I’ve been getting a lot of pressure ever since I set foot in town to do something to try to save the plant.”

“Can you?”

“I don’t know. I need to figure it out, do some homework, decide whether it’s even possible. That’s why I need to use a high-speed internet connection: to do a little research and link into some databases back in my office. Are you the only one in this town with high-speed access?”

“There are a few others, but just a few. But the bigger question, Jack, besides ‘can you,’ is ‘would you?’ I seem to remember you beating it out of this town the September after high school like your tail was on fire and never looking back.”

“That’s not true, Terri, and you know it. But to be honest, the answer to the question of ‘would I,’ at this point, is that I don’t know. I just don’t know. First, I don’t know if it’s something that can be done. No less important, I’m not sure it’s something I’m willing to try. Running the Staley Ironworks is not how I ever envisioned spending my life.”

“You’ve made a lot of money, Jack.”

“So everyone around here likes to tell me.”

“When is enough enough, Jack?”

“It’s not the money, Terri.”

“It’s not?”

“No.”

“Of course it is. It’s how you guys keep score, isn’t it?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. This is about my life and how I want to live it. Can I use the bank?”

“Of course. Let me get some shoes and notify the police.”

“Thanks.”

“Oh, by the way, can you run an Excel spreadsheet?”

“Are you kidding? I’m a banker. My death certificate is going to be printed on top of an Excel spreadsheet.”

“Good, then you can help. You’ve got a lot of skin in this, too.”

Twenty minutes later they were in the bank after Terri assured the police officer who met her at the door that she was not being forced to admit a robber. It helped that the officer was a friend of Kevin’s who recognized Jack.

For the next six hours Jack sat in front of a computer, taking notes, forwarding web site locations to his New York City office, and downloading and printing data. Occasionally he would hand Terri a piece of paper and explain to her what to do with the data he gave her. At one point he called Mr. Clayton and asked him to come help Terri construct data models. Mr. Clayton knew the math but did not understand the technology; Terri was as proficient with spreadsheets as she claimed but lacked the higher math skills Jack needed for this purpose. Rachel also showed up at the bank, on her bicycle, and went out and got food for them. When she returned, she helped Terri and Mr. Clayton with the spreadsheets – she understood both the math and the technology, much to Jack’s surprise and delight.

Shortly after six, Jack declared their work finished and thanked Terri and Mr. Clayton. Because it was now dark, he tossed Rachel’s bicycle into the trunk of his car, drove her home, and had dinner with her and her parents. When they finished eating he asked Rachel if he could borrow her computer and printer for the night. She looked at him quizzically but agreed, and they went to her room, disconnected the equipment, and carried it out to Jack’s car.

When Jack returned to his parents’ house, at about 8:30, he set up the equipment on the kitchen table and immediately began to work. He worked until three in the morning and then slept for four hours. When he awoke he skipped his morning run, showered, called his brother Rick, and asked him to assemble a small group, including their brothers, four or five co-workers of Rick’s choosing, the union’s business manager, and Jeff Malone, and ask them all to meet him at the plant at noon. Then, at his parents’ request, he accompanied them to church.

*            *            *

Jack was waiting at the works’ gate as eleven people arrived after him. Malone opened the gate and then the front door and led everyone to the lunch room.

“Thank you all for coming on such short notice. I’m especially grateful to Jeff. The rest of you should know that Jeff’s been as forthcoming with me as anyone in his position could possibly be. I also happen to know people in the industry who tell me that he’s an absolutely first-rate plant manager. He’s probably the reason you’re all still working today.”

Everyone looked at Malone; the person sitting beside him slapped him on the back.

“You’re all worried because you see signs that the plant is going to be sold or close. In the past you thought you saw signs and you were wrong, and I told you so and others told you so. This time I think you’re right, but only partly.

“The reality is that no one’s ever going to buy this place. The only people who run plants like this in the U.S. today are large corporations, and except in rare situations, they’re closing plants, not buying new ones. There’s not a corporation in the country today that’s willing to do what’s necessary to make this plant profitable enough to meet corporate profitability expectations. I should know: in my job, companies come to me to check out plants they’re considering buying, and I wouldn’t let any of my clients anywhere near a plant like this. To be honest with you, no one is interested in plants like this anymore.

“Today, this plant is profitable – but only a little. It can be made more profitable, I believe, but only a little – and never enough to satisfy any corporate owners. That’s why I believe Amalgamated wants to get out of Porterville, and it’s why I believe no one else is ever going to buy this place.

“A lot of people have come up to me in the past few days and asked me if I there’s anything I could do to save Staley. I’ve been doing some homework and want to present to you my preliminary thoughts. These thoughts also include the conditions I need to set to give this place a fighting chance, and they’re non-negotiable. If you guys are okay with them, you’ll need to sell them to your co-workers while I go back to my office in New York and figure out if what I propose is really possible and if I’m willing and able to do it. I have a lot more work to do. In the meantime, though, I need you to start talking up these ideas, if you’re interested in them, over the next week.

“So here goes.

“I believe Amalgamated will just give us the plant if we ask for it and gladly walk away with a nice tax write-off and some great PR. I’ve already put in a call to someone there and expect to talk to him on Monday morning. In the end, I think the final price will be one dollar, with us perhaps assuming some minor debt.

“The sale would be to a new corporation that would consist of the people who work at the plant at any given time. I’m not sure what legal form this new corporation would take; I’ll have to do some research on that, talk to a lawyer. Whatever form it takes, though, the people who work at the plant at any given time would be in charge – you’ll be the owners – so the union has to decertify as quickly as legally possible.”

“Hey,” hollered Ned Tressel, the union’s business manager.

“There’s no other way, Ned. This is essential and non-negotiable, but you and everyone else would still have your say, only as owners.

“Because iron products are so heavy and expensive to ship, there’s a degree to which we can continue to compete with goods made in China, but that’s a competition we can never really win. The best we can do is hold onto as much of your existing business as we can – the patio furniture, the bed frames, things like that.

“The advantage we have, as I see it, is that we have great craftsmen and are here in the U.S., so I think we can carve ourselves a new niche on top of what we already have as custom fabricators of high-end wrought iron products. We can do this by…”

“Hold it, Jack,” one of the men who accompanied Tressel interrupted. “If you tell us how you think you can make the works more successful, can’t Jeff just do it himself or go back and tell his bosses at Amalgamated?”

“Okay,” Jack replied, “I guess I haven’t explained this satisfactorily. Yes, he could – could as in ‘he has the ability to do it’ – but his ability isn’t really relevant to this situation.”

“I could leave if it’ll make everyone more comfortable,” Malone interjected.

“That’s not necessary. What I’m proposing are things that Amalgamated has probably thought about and rejected and that Jeff knows, too.”

“Then why should we do it now?” someone asked.

“Because our objectives are different from their objectives, and what I’m proposing meets ours but would never meet theirs. What I’m talking about are enhancements that would enable the works to survive on its own, outside Amalgamated, and preserve your jobs, but even these improvements would never be enough to bring the works’ profitability up to what Amalgamated needs to justify keeping it open.

“I was in Philadelphia a few years ago for my college reunion and saw a report on the local news about a crime wave in which thieves were literally stealing the wrought iron gates right off of older homes. There’s apparently a strong market for these kinds of gates throughout the country, and I remember thinking at the time that it would be an interesting new line of business for the works. I think we could develop some prototypes and market them among high-end developers, architects, and decorators. We’d market them at trade shows and home shows and have a web site that offers custom-designed gates and iron ornaments. We also could sell ornate window grates to people who live in cities and want extra protection for their homes without putting up plain bars that make their houses look like prisons. We’d market these through security consultants and security companies and have a separate web site for these as well. I also see possibilities for getting into benches, bed head-boards, ornate fencing and railings, trellises, maybe a few other things. Again, I have to do some more homework on this.

“These are very high-end items with much higher profit margins than the things you manufacture now. People are paying thousands and thousands of dollars for these products, and we wouldn’t need to sell massive quantities of these kinds of items to gin up our profitability.

“But all of this will come at a price. You have to spend money to make money. Let me lay it out for you.

“My rough calculations are that we’d need to invest about three million dollars to get this all started. The thing is, no bank is going to lend that kind of money to us, so there’s only one place we can get it: your pension fund.”

“Hey,” someone called out.

“I know,” he said. “But if you want to be owners, if you want to keep the works open and save your jobs, you’re going to have to invest in your company – in yourselves. It’s the only way. I estimate payback in about five years.

“But there’s more.

“No one would get a raise for at least two years, possibly three. I’ll have to bring in some sales and marketing people whom you’ll all dislike, and we’ll need to pay them more than any of you make. You’ll have to pay me, too: I’ll take whatever Jeff’s getting now. I’ll also need a plant superintendent. I’d love to have Jeff, but he has a family and a career with Amalgamated and is going to stay with them, although I’ll try to twist his arm to get him to stay. The new manager will also help me computerize some operations within the plant – things I’m sure Amalgamated knew were needed but didn’t do because the benefits would never justify the investment. I’ll also need money for consultants and marketing, to develop prototypes and trade show displays, for web sites, and for a good deal of travel for me and the sales staff. You’re also going to have to start paying for your health insurance: five percent right away and then five percent more a year, up to thirty percent at the end of five years. I’m pretty sure I can bring down the current premiums, but that’s a one-time saving on a cost that’s constantly rising.

“Right now the works has 410 employees. We’ll get down to about 340 or 350 over a period of years, but only through attrition. No lay-offs. Some people will need to change jobs, some people will move back and forth between different jobs. Their pay will stay the same whether the jobs they shift to are higher or lower. At the end of the pay freeze, we’ll adjust those who’ve moved up.

“Now the one thing you need to keep in mind is that with all of this activity, I don’t think Staley’s ever going to be a place that any real businessman would consider successful. Our goal will be to keep the plant going from year to year, keep all of you working. We’ll share our profits when we have some, but mostly we’ll have to invest those profits back into the business just to keep our heads above water. I also was thinking that we might put some of our profits into a scholarship program so that the sons and daughters of the people who work here are less dependent on this plant in the future. Eventually, when enough of you get old and retire, we’ll need to hire, but when we do, we’d have a new rule that limits employment to just one child of anyone already on the payroll. I’m not sure this model will sustain itself over the long run and we can’t allow a future failure to destroy entire families that have become dependent on the works – like it would if the plant closed tomorrow. Like it would to my own family.

“That’s it. Any questions?”

There were none. The men were overwhelmed by what they had just heard and were still absorbing it.

“Look, I’m part of this town, I’m one of you, I am what I am because of you” – he looked directly at his brothers and his voice cracked, but just slightly. “That’s why I’m considering doing this. I know what I’m doing, but I still can’t be sure this’ll work. What I’ve outlined to you in terms of what I’d need for this to have a chance to succeed – the union decertification, the loan of pension money, the wage freeze, and the health insurance participation – is not negotiable. It’s the only way we can get the money we need to implement this plan.

“Last night I put together some documents that explain some of this in greater detail. I’ll leave them with my brothers for copying and distribution and come back next weekend to answer questions and provide more information. In the end, if I’m going to do this, I’ll need a vote of the workforce on the plan, and I want eighty percent in favor if I’m going to uproot my own life to come back to Porterville to do this. Anyone not in favor needs to be prepared to go find another job.”

Leaving his brothers behind, Jack rose and left, returning to Mike’s house, where he took the computer and printer out of his trunk and carried them up to Rachel’s bedroom. The girl, alone in the house, watched as he quickly reassembled the components.

“They’re underpowered, sweetie,” he said. “I’m coming back next weekend and will bring you a laptop with some serious juice. Figure out what software you want and send me an email with your list. Anything you want. And tell your dad to get a DSL line for you – my treat.”

He kissed her and left, returning to his parents’ home. When he arrived, his parents and brothers and their wives were gathered in the living room.

“It’s a good thing you’re doing, Jackie,” his father declared, awkwardly throwing his arm round Jack’s shoulder.

“I’m so proud,” his mother said, kissing him on the cheek.

He smiled and ran up the stairs, returning two minutes later with his travel bag. His brothers each approached him and shook his hand. He walked out the door to his car, unlocked it, and looked back at his family as they stood on the front porch. Rachel rolled up to the house on her bicycle.

“Call Emily Warren,” he called back, referring to one of his high school classmates who was now a realtor, “and tell her to keep an eye out for a house for me. I can’t keep sleeping in my old room.”

He put his hand to his car door, then stopped.

“Come here for a minute, Rachel.”

The girl pushed down her kick-stand with her foot, left the bicycle on the sidewalk, and approached her uncle. He put his hand on her shoulder.

“Next weekend, young lady, you and I are going to have a talk about what’s going on in this town right now and why it means that you need to get out of here and get yourself a real education.” He leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek.

Jack turned back toward the porch, smiled weakly, got into his car, and drove off. It was only a little more than five minutes before he saw the last of Porterville – for now – in his rear-view mirror. He wondered about what he was getting himself into, and if he had lost his mind – or perhaps had even found it.

 

Small Town Government (part 2 of 2)

The photo to the right is of a tree across the street from The Curmudgeon’s home. The bright orange “X” means it’s been designated for removal.

By whom? So glad you asked.

By the Haddonfield Shade Tree Commission.

Seriously, the town in which The Curmudgeon lives has a shade tree commission.

You can’t make up this stuff.

According to the Shade Tree Commission’s section of the town’s web site – yes, the Shade Tree Commission has its own section of the town’s web site –

The mission of the Haddonfield Shade Tree Commission is to provide safe town trees while replacing, maintaining and preserving existing Borough trees and overall tree canopy. Unless a tree is unsafe, sick or dying it will not be removed. The community is best served and town budget expenses are reduced by maintaining existing mature trees rather than removing and replacing them without just cause. New trees are chosen for their historical longevity, disease resistance, growth characteristics and beauty. Only the members of the Haddonfield Shade Tree Commission and authorized Borough employees may decide whether a Borough-owned tree is healthy or still useful to the…

Yes, The Curmudgeon knows; someone apparently pruned the Shade Tree Commission’s mission statement, which is pretty damn ironic.

Its incompleteness notwithstanding, that’s the answer to the first question in the commission’s FAQ. The other questions in the FAQ are:

  • Which trees are owned by the borough?
  • Who is the single point of contact for borough trees?
  • Who are Haddonfield’s Shade Tree Commissioners and what is their authority?
  • When does the Shade Tree Commission meet?
  • Which trees are removed…why?
  • Which trees are pruned…why?
  • May a resident pay a private contractor to remove or prune a borough tree?
  • When are trees removed or pruned?
  • When are stumps removed?
  • How can I request a new tree to be planted?
  • Where will new trees be planted?
  • What type of trees will be planted?
  • May I plant a tree of my choosing on borough property?
  • May a resident pay a private contractor to remove or prune a borough tree?
  • How are disputes settled?

The Curmudgeon will spare you the answers but offer two observations.

First, he respectfully suggests that no one has ever, ever inquired about the single point of contact for borough trees.

And second, about that single point of contact for borough trees: is that single point of contact for the town’s residents or…for the trees themselves?

Another feature on the Shade Tree Commission’s web site:

New – Borough Tree Policies

  • FAQs on Borough Tree Policies
  • Summary of the New Shade Tree Ordinance (2014-12), passed July 15, 2014
  • Fees, Penalties, and Replacement Assessment Schedule Fees, Penalties and Replacement Assessment Schedule
  • Haddonfield Community Forestry Management Plan (CFMP), 2012-2016
  • Haddonfield Borough Tree Planting Species List

All of them have links to PDFs about the individual subjects.

But there’s more!

New – Shade Trees and Construction

  • FAQs on Shade Trees and Construction
  • Policy for Construction Fencing to Protect Borough-owned Trees
  • How to Identify and Measure a Borough Tree
  • Inventory of Borough Street Trees as of December 2014
  • Sidewalks and Trees
  • Avoiding Tree Damage during Construction
  • Treatment of Trees Damaged by Construction
  • Shade Tree Commission Meeting Tree Protection Form

And all of these have accompanying PDFs, too.

But we’re not done. There’s also

Shade Tree Program

  • Haddonfield Branch Managers, active tree care volunteers and residents
  • Tree Removal Partnership Program
  • Commemorative Tree Donation Program
  • NEW – Supporting Haddonfield’s Trees – NEW – Supporting Haddonfield’s Trees

Because with that last one, it’s apparently so important it’s worth saying twice.

And again, all of these individual items have corresponding PDFs.

But we’re not finished. Next, there’s

Guides to Tree Care

How to Plant a New Tree

  • Mulching Trees and Shrubs
  • Six Ways to Keep Your Newly Planted Tree Alive and Healthy

But we’re still not finished.

Shade Tree News

  • Looking for a family activity? Take the Haddonfield Tree Tour
  • Shade Tree Commission Walking Tour Brochure Shade Tree Commission Walking Tour Brochure
  • Shade Tree Commission Town Tree Tour

Again, with one item worth mentioning twice, and all with links.

And there’s one last section in the commission’s site.

Haddonfield’s 2013 Tricentennial Tree Program Results

  • Haddonfield Adds 100 Tricentennial Trees, News Release
  • Supporters of Haddonfield’s Tricentennial Trees
  • Tricentennial Tree Locations
  • Demonstration Video – Planting Container Trees in Yard Settings
  • Quick Guide on How to Plant a Tree

Haddonfield has what’s known as a commission form of government. Residents elect three commissioners and those commissioners select one among them – usually the one who received the most votes – to be mayor. The borough has the usual array of departments – revenue and finance, public affairs and public safety, and public works and property.

And the Shade Tree Commission is by no means the only such body in town. Other boards and committees are:

  • District Management Corporation
  • Environmental Commission
  • Sustainable Haddonfield – Green Team
  • Haddonfield Municipal Alliance
  • Historic Preservation Commission
  • Human Relations
  • Library Board
  • Partnership for Haddonfield
  • Planning Board
  • Recreation Committee
  • Senior Citizen Advisory Committee
  • Zoning Board

All of this government suggests that Haddonfield must be a pretty big place, right?

Well, not quite. All that government is in place to serve a borough of…

…11,400 people.

And a LOT of trees.

Seriously. That is one helluva lot of government for one little town, don’t you think?

Small Town Government (part 1 of 2)

The Curmudgeon admits to being a bit of a big-city snob. Born, raised, and educated in Philadelphia, he lived there for 46 years and is confident he will always think of himself as a Philadelphian. He finds suburban living only somewhat tolerable, but this is where life has taken him. When Mrs. Curmudgeon wants to tease her husband she simply asks, “Where do you live?”

The Curmudgeon has written in the past (here, here, and elsewhere) about Marlton, the first New Jersey town in which he lived, and observed that one of the biggest differences between living in a city and living in a suburb is that when you live in a city and your government is about to do something stupid or harmful you read about it in the newspaper beforehand but when you live in the suburbs and your government does something stupid or harmful you only learn about it after the fact. That’s because suburban newspapers are, in general, pretty awful. Most of them are just advertising rags with harmless, information-free articles sandwiched between ads for realtors, tree-trimming companies, funeral homes, and people who, incredibly, will come to your house once a week to scoop the dog poop out of your yard.

Marriage brought The Curmudgeon to a new town in New Jersey. Haddonfield is an upper-middle class community that makes this boy from a working-class part of Philadelphia very uncomfortable. It is Mayberry with money. The Curmudgeon has numerous bones to pick with the town, some of them real and some no doubt imagined, because he’s that kind of guy, but that’s not on his agenda today. It’s not even on his agenda tomorrow, when he will post a piece about his adopted home’s government.

As bad as most suburban newspapers tend to be, there’s one paper that covers several communities around the Haddonfield area that does a reasonably good job. It’s called The Retrospect, although when referring to it in conversation The Curmudgeon inevitably calls it “The Prospect,” which is an even sillier name for a newspaper. The Retrospect makes a real effort to cover government, which is what The Curmudgeon wants most from newspapers, but on occasion its oh-so-serious attempt at journalism only highlights some of the really, really strange things that some suburban residents find really, really important.

Like lights in the downtown. The following comes from a recent edition of The Retrospect and is about a town near Haddonfield called Haddon Heights (which is not to be confused with Haddonfield or Haddon Township).

Yeah, it makes The Curmudgeon’s head hurt, too.

It’s more than this, but not much more

The subject: whether the town should string additional lights around its downtown. Just one little piece of background information: the town’s “downtown” consists of just a couple of blocks of fairly shabby storefronts.

From The Retrospect:

Four strands of lights, to be hung in four new places on Station Avenue lamp posts close to the borough’s centerpiece train station, at the same time as the traditional holiday lighting, caused a small controversy at Tuesday evening’s Haddon Heights council meeting, with the council set to vote on the resolution authorizing the project. 

Civic business group Heights in Progress, which raised funds for and donated the 65-foot light strands last December, had also consulted local historic preservation expert (and Heights resident) Margaret Westfield on the most effective and “flowing” way to hang the light strands, and she was in attendance to assure council that her design is “predicated on this part of town being a historic district.’

 “The idea is to start small,” she said, and then possibly add more decorative – not holiday – lighting in the business district.   Joe Gentile, founder and director of Heights in Progress, who was also present at the meeting, said his group is in favor of decorative lighting on the street year-round. “We need to add some walkability to our downtown, not just during the holidays” said Gentile, “and more lights is a good start.”

The story resumes.

Not everyone in town is in favor of the new strands. During the public comment section, resident Marshall Hatfield asked detailed questions about height requirements over driveways, guide wire clearances, electrical specifications, and total electricity expenditure.

“My personal opinion is that borough council is using this holiday lighting ‘test’ without thorough research, without any criteria for success, and authorizing something that will conflict with the historic rhythm of the Haddon Heights Historic Business District on Station Avenue…The proposed lighting is more appropriate for holiday tree lots, backyard and restaurant patios,” he said.

 Councilwoman Kathy Lange assured Hatfield and the rest of the council that although the resolution was to be voted on at this meeting, the project is still subject to PSE&G approval, but that she had already ascertained the electricity cost is minimal under PSE&G’s municipal winter rate. She also reminded Hatfield that, as charter president of the Heights Preservation Society, she “has the bona fides, and would never support any project that would hurt the historic heritage” of Haddon Heights.

And that’s the hot issue in a town that’s just minutes from where The Curmudgeon lives.

Pretty spicy, eh?