The Homeless

The weather in Florida dropped to mid-forties last week.  Out of storage came the heavy sweaters, socks, long pants, caps and fleece jackets, now the attire day and night.  Patti and I bundled up and went for brunch in West Palm at Howleys Diner on South Dixie, an active street much like Second Avenue in New York City–lots of restaurants, simple fare and shops offering everything from clock repair to fancy, out of date furniture consignments.  After a brief wait a table was available.  Seated next to the entrance we felt a cold breeze each time the door opened.  Our coffee had just been served when a disheveled young man wearing a dirty Santa hat entered.  Unkempt beard, loosely hanging, tattered clothes, he had the appearance of too much time on the streets and not enough time cleaning up.  He seated himself next to us and I instinctively pushed my chair away from him and closer to Patti.  Not a peep from Patti, casual and unnerved as she can be.  Anxious about his close proximity, I looked about and to my surprise there was the manager holding a large to-go cup of hot coffee.  He set it carefully in front of the young man, who picked it up with both hands and sipped cautiously, not wanting to spill a drop of the precious commodity.  The manager hovered over him and gently coaxed the visitor out the front door.  I was relieved, but ashamed that I reacted the way I had, so ill at ease by his presence.

I have encountered homeless people in New York for years; they are more prevalent now, since Covid. I walk around them sitting or lying on the sidewalk in front of CVS on the corner of 68th street and Third Avenue.  I fear many have burned bridges with family and friends and lack any support system.        Mental illness pervades the homeless population.  I have empathy and the desire to help and pressing some cash into an open hand temporarily assuages my guilt. I held out a sandwich once and was told “I don’t like turkey.”  I offered what I thought was needed, but it was not what was wanted.  Advocates for the homeless have a mantra: “We can’t take away their right to be homeless.” But what does “right to be homeless” mean? What about the right of the average person to feel unafraid when they pass a homeless person, given the number of recorded random attacks? Most homeless are not of sound mind, so are they capable of making decisions in their own best interest?  If not, is leaving them on the street and labelling it as their “choice” or “right” morally wrong?  Isn’t “homeless” a spectrum — from the single mom who has to live in a motel or in her car with her kids because she was evicted, to the violent, mental hospital patient released prematurely for lack of beds?  If they are not capable of helping themselves are our politicians doing enough? I am troubled by the “homeless” problem and all of its implications and questions.

The weather has returned to the usual 80 degrees.  I suspect the young man in the Santa cap found the shelter up the road on South Dixie.  The line for a meal and a place to sleep starts snaking mid-day in Florida.  I am going to seek out answers to some of my questions and do more to help.

Hard Stop

Hard Stop – English (plural hard stops); Noun

  1. A definite time when someone must end a task in order to meet another time commitment.
    1. I have a hard stop at 4pm, so please try to cover everything in the meeting before then.
  2. Making time for yourself to do what matters most- taking care of yourself to restore and reset the body, mind and soul; to make time to spend with family and/or friends.
    1. I have a hard stop at 2:00 – we’re going to a concert with the kids

The phrase “hard stop” became part of my vocabulary during Covid lockdown.  Working from my home offices in East Hampton, Florida and Maine during the period between March of 2020 throughout 2021, I felt strongly that I could not be fixed to a computer zoom screen 24/7.  My practice is not a 9 to 5 routine.  Client emails and calls come in from as far away as Malaysia and London and from all over the United States.  My responsiveness is key to my client relationships so I am constantly drawn to the phone and computer.  Hence, the need for regular mental health rest time. During lockdown, it was impossible to get away from the computer as it was never more than a few feet away.  Thus the term “hard stop” came into regular use and practice and continues to this day.  My office does not schedule calls before 9:00am or after 4pm.  There is still business activity outside of those hours, but not generated by me or my staff unless it is a matter of utmost urgency. 

                My friend and colleague Thom took it upon himself to incorporate the term into dictionary format –and enshrined the phrase on baseball caps for everyone as holiday gifts.  I think Thom’s definitions are good ones.  We all need time off.  Those of us in the service business – professionals, white collar, blue collar—are instantly accessible through cell phones and computers for work-related matters these days.  No more letter writing to inquire.  Just bang out a few words with “call me.”  I cherish my time off.  I now spend more leisure time playing tennis, swimming, painting and today– writing a column.  I am no longer driven by meeting billable hour goals.  I’m 83 years old – I can fairly say I am due some time off. Yes, I believe Thom really got the idea. Hard stop.  

Out of the Mouths of Children

Much has been written of adult friendships and maintaining relationships.  Recently, the New York Times ran an article extolling the benefits of friendship as a way to improve quality of life physically and mentally.  It is a timely topic these days.  Mental health issues may be more easily dealt with when there is a friend to talk to and commiserate with when feeling low.  I find it encouraging that my grandson Billy confided to his mother about his own feelings of loneliness while he was at sleepaway camp last summer (Billy has okayed my sharing his experience):

“Sleepaway camp was my darkest days.  I never felt so alone,” he confessed.  “I had no friends.  It was there I decided that I would never feel that way again.” 

Billy was homesick and it was his first year at a camp.  The other campers had long-established connections going back many summers and it was hard to break into the group.   Billy has matured over the last year to a point to where he now feels free and comfortable enough to express his feelings.  I was proud of him.  I had encouraged him to go to camp.  His father, who did not have a good experience at sleepaway when he was young, assured him he could leave if he didn’t like it, but Billy stuck it out.  Billy was starting a new school in the fall and knew he did not want a repeat of his camp experience.  He went out of his way and made a real effort to connect with the kids in his class.  Today, at his new school, Billy has a bunch of new buddies, and his social life is almost as busy as his grandpa’s. 

Billy related his experience in a recent Uber ride:  

“I was driving up Park Avenue with my new best friend the other day and I looked out the car window and I said to myself, I did it. I’ve got a best friend, and everyone accepts me.   My friends are cool and this was my goal. My Bar Mitzvah will be the best party ever.” 

The New York Times article relates how keeping friends is not effortless.  Billy concurs: 

“You know it takes hard work to make friends.  Finding real friends is not easy.  Me and all my friends—all we do is laugh and do silly stuff.” 

That’s my Billy-boy.  I am looking forward to having Billy and his companions up at camp on the lake being silly.

What Would Mark Twain Say?

For the past several months I have been intrigued by author Mark Twain’s time out west.  I came upon a book entitled Mark Twain in California by Nigey Lennon, which gave me insight into Twain’s early journalistic years on the Nevada-California border, and then in San Francisco where he wrote for the Morning Call.  Prior to starting my research, I only knew Twain as the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

His career as a frontier journalist began following a stint as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River.  Samuel Clemens was his name by birth, but it was on the water that he gained his pen name, from the shouts in riverboat jargon for two fathoms –“mark twain!”– i.e. the safe water depth for steamboats.   He headed west after the start of the Civil War and, failing at mining the Comstock Lode, took up writing for the local papers.  This part of his life was of special interest to me because rumors have been circulating for years that Twain wrote for “The Mountain Messenger”– an assertion long disputed by Twain biographers and scholars, who allege that what appeared in the Messenger at that time under a pen name was only the reprint of an “unremarkable” piece he wrote for a San Francisco newspaper while “hungover.”   Journalism at the time barely resembled the rigorous, present-day “All the News That’s Fit to Print” style of The New York Times.  In fact, Twain wrote under multiple pseudonyms, including “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass” and simply “Josh,” among others, and his journalistic focus tended to be on barroom “squabbles the night before…usually between Irish and Irish or Chinese and Chinese, with now and then a squabble between the two races for a change.”

 Notwithstanding the historical facts -or fiction-I thought it would be interesting to imagine, based on Twain’s own words, his view of current events if he were writing for the Messenger today.  So, what would be Josh’s take on the current political climate? Today everyone is squabbling, especially between political parties as well as politicians of the same stripe fighting amongst themselves.  Twain’s quip, “I breakfasted every morning with the governor, dined with the principal clergymen and slept in the station house,” might apply to Trump’s rapid decline in popularity among his own supporters after hosting controversial dinner guests at Mar-a-Lago.  On other issues, Twain’s habit of speculation with mining stocks led to an observation which might apply to the crypto-fraud debacle of today: “The wreck was complete.  The bubble scarcely left a microscopic moisture behind it.  I was an early beggar, and a thorough one.”  

 Twain was a frontier humorist who dealt on corrupt politicians.  He finished his California journalistic career in San Francisco writing humor, philosophizing and moralizing.  Twain would have found plenty to write about in the past year in America.  We could use a bit more of his ethics – and humor– these days.

A Letter to Ukraine

My Dear Beloved Mother and Father,

As I write to you from my well-lighted and warm home in America, I see images on the nightly news of our hometown, Kherson, being brutalized and bombed by the Russians.  In February, when the invasion of our country started, you made the decision to wait out the war, but by April it was no longer safe to drive the streets of Kherson with the Russian soldiers terrorizing the residents who were trying to survive, simply looking for food and shelter.  When you made the journey west to Lviv to find safe harbor I knew it would be dangerous but you made the right choice to go.  Though it is under Martial Law, at least Lviv is not occupied by the aggressors.

We know how fortunate we are to be here in the U.S. and think of you constantly.  When I look back on it, winning the green card lottery to emigrate to the United States in 2007 was a miracle.  I remember telling you both that Viktoryia and I were moving to America.  You were gracious and did not guilt us for leaving our home and country even though it was heartbreaking for you and us.  I know Vasyl leaving in 2019 to practice medicine in Slovakia was another blow to our nuclear family but you supported his decision as well.  Our lives outside of Ukraine are bright and promising.  I am attending law school to build on my education in Ukraine and hopefully someday I will be a practicing lawyer in New York.  My daughters were born here.  How fortunate we are here.  We can only be so happy though, knowing you are still suffering through this war with its many atrocities which you have described to me over the last several months—so much worse than what we see here in the U.S. news.  We do everything we can from here, focusing on raising monies through our non-profit organization, Help UA Inc., for purchasing, packing and shipping clothing, medical supplies, uniforms, safety equipment, hygiene products and other essentials to Ukraine.

We pray for your safety and health in your temporary home in Lviv and we look forward to the day when we can all be together again in a peaceful world.

Your loving son,

Simon

Simon Andriychuk is a 39-year-old Ukrainian American who has lived in the U.S. since 2007 with his wife and children.  An attorney in Ukraine, Simon has worked at my law firm since 2016 as a paralegal and is now studying for the New York Bar.  His extended family remain in Ukraine. This letter was edited.

Dinner at Mar-a-Lago

Driving out of Mar-a-Lago was a bit disorienting in the dark.  The Secret Service agent, dressed in black, directed us past several government vans through an exit onto Ocean Road, leading to Southern Bridge.  I soon realized we were using the private driveway of the former President as it was far off the main road where most of the traffic went in and out of the Mar-a-Lago compound–otherwise known as the “Southern White House” when Trump was in office.   Patti and I had been invited to a gala event there as guests of the Major of the local Salvation Army, to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the organization.  The Salvation Army is a faith-based charitable foundation which Patti and I support through their scholarship program. 

When I first received the invitation, I was uncertain whether we should attend.  It had only been two weeks since Trump broke bread with the white nationalist Nick Fuentes and the rap artist Ye, both notorious antisemites.   That was on the heels of the subpoena raid by the FBI in August searching for government documents which Trump allegedly illegally removed from the White House.   Then an article in the Palm Beach Post reinforced how Trump sympathizers use Mar-a-Lago as a venue to curry favor with him.  All of this made me uncomfortable about attending the event.  But my friend Bill, who is head of the Board of Trustees at Salvation Army, assured me that the Salvation Army gala would not turn into a political affair.  The landlord would not be there to promote his recently announced candidacy.

Mar-a-Lago, as most readers may know, was originally the estate of the late Marjorie Merriweather Post, built in 1927.  The exterior architecture is in the style of a Mediterranean villa, while the extravagant interiors could be described as Trump’s version of Versailles. The Salvation Army event was men in white tie and  women in long ball gowns.  It felt like something from a bygone era.  I found myself standing aside most of the evening observing the grandiose furnishings and architecture.  I kept looking for signs of the owner, but the only evidence were secret service agents milling about, identifiable by their earpieces and the official-looking badges hanging from their belts.  I must presume if Trump intended to make a surprise appearance the metal scanners would have been present, no cell phones would have been allowed and the women’s purses would have been searched.  The only telltale signs of Trump in the house was his name on the wifi and a single framed award at the entrance to the women’s bathroom, honoring his restoration of Mar-a-Lago.  I never made it into the men’s room, but having been to his golf club in the past, the walls there are filled with his pictures and awards. 

                My takeaway is that Mar-a-Lago will return to its historical significance as Marjorie Merriweather Post’s once magnificent home and not Trump’s preferred venue for favor seekers, once his political career ends.  Going by the comments overhead around the pool before dinner, the Salvation Army event was the beginning of the end of Mar-a-Lago as a club to “meet and greet” Trump.  Notwithstanding the fact that this was a Florida crowd, the attention to Trump will fade and membership to the club will not be Trump driven.  In my view, if Trump had shown that night, there would have been a “fire drill” – some would have headed over to shake his hand, but most would’ve headed for the door. But he didn’t show up fortunately, and Patti and I got a few dances in before we left.    

At the Counter

At Greens, my go-to lunch counter after exercise, I overheard the guy at the next counter seat ordering for himself and his “best friend.” Green’s is a homey, old-fashioned pharmacy that has been serving the north end of Palm Beach since 1942.  The waitresses at the breakfast-lunch counter know many of the patrons by name, most of whom are year-round locals.  The fire rescue gang are always there – a good place to be if you need emergency help.  The local Palm Beach police are also regulars– not an ideal place to be disruptive, or a criminal.  All in all, it is a warm, nostalgic environment, just down the road from the famous Mar-a-Lago.  Back to my neighbor at the counter.

“Grilled cheese and tomato,” he said to the waitress.

“And for your best friend?” she responded.

“Oh a hamburger will do,” he said.

“Lettuce and tomato with french fries?” she asked.

“No I can’t give my buddy that stuff,” he said.

“Your friend ill?’ she asked.

“Nope, he isn’t a person, he’s a dog,” he answered. “He is my only friend,” he said laughing. 

Well, why not.  Friends come in all shapes and sizes – humans and pets.  I have best friends going back to my grammar and high school years as well as college and beyond –not to mention several four-legged “best” friends throughout my life.  My friends from Rochester, probably my oldest friendships from childhood, have a connection through our shared history together, of our families, early education, careers, heartbreaks and love lives. My good friend Bobby recently told me: “Lenny, I like you more as an adult than I did as a little guy!” Now that’s love if I didn’t know better.  

I find there are always opportunities to meet new people who eventually become regular acquaintances, friends, maybe best friends. I make an effort because I believe those connections are tantamount to a happy life, and science is showing that they can even lead to a longer life. 

Friendship means opening up, to admit someone new into one’s world. In the long run it is always worth the risk.  I cherish the shared experiences with friends – outdoors, fishing and camping, dining, traveling, talking about books and business and the state of the world.  Friendship also requires forgiveness–overlooking the immature remark or even the breach of trust. 

I consider this column an important part of maintaining my friendships because it is a way of staying in touch.  Friends who read it often respond with some kind of feedback and depending on what I’ve written about, share similar experiences of their own. I am often delighted to learn new things about old friends through this column.

I feel fortunate to have as many friends as I do.  On Thanksgiving, I received notes and emails from all over —Tennessee, Colorado, California, Wales and Iceland.  I embrace my friends, literally and figuratively – I am one of those huggers.  I am grateful for all those who I call and who would call me friend—including the latest four-legged one, Patti’s dog Wally.  

Thanksgiving

This is my 83rd Thanksgiving.  I don’t remember the first one.  It was probably snowing.  The early years are a blur, but I do recall sitting around the large, otherwise unused dining room table with the crisp, white holiday tablecloth which had been properly stored, washed and ironed for the occasion.  My mother’s special china, brought out for Thanksgiving and the High Holidays, was carefully laid out at each place.  My dad always sat at the head of the table and was served first.  Mom never seemed to sit down.  She was always jumping up to respond to dad’s commands.  She ate while preparing the meal and snacked her way through our dinner.  The menu was a blend of old world and new – the traditional turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie was served alongside beef brisket, matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish and kugel. Everything was kosher. The early holidays were special in that all five of us were together –my parents, me, my brother Marty and sister Ruby.  In later years my sister brought her new husband, but my brother was a no-show after 1951, once he left for college and then his life beyond, dealmaking in New York City.   Thanksgiving holidays for me represent different parts of my life.  Early childhood, brother and sister at home, the years I returned for the holiday from college followed by marriage, and then returning to my childhood home with my late wife and our young children.  After my parents retired to Florida, our family Thanksgivings were on our own in East Hampton. 

                Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that is fixed in the calendar, always the fourth Thursday of November.  These holiday milestone markers remain the same, while the participants and locations change, dictated by where one sets down a home.  Looking back over 83 years of Thanksgivings, reflecting on memorable times with parents, siblings, loved ones past and children, I realize it is a holiday about looking to the past, not the future.  Unlike New Year’s celebrations when we look ahead, Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful for all we have and have had, and for simply sitting at a table to share a meal with those close to us — being in the room where it happens, so to speak.  I look forward to this year’s Thanksgiving, despite the fact that we are not all at the table.  Each Thanksgiving is a short, shining moment in life’s story – enjoy it while you can. 

The Magic of Hurricanes

Hurricanes can be terrifying as Ian recently demonstrated on the west coast of Florida. Last week, a category 1 called Hurricane Nicole threatened the east coast. It was a major disruption coming soon after a minor one — the clock change from daylight savings time. Adjusting to sunup and the hour setback was always distressing when I wintered up north. Yet the threat of a category 1 did not raise my blood pressure. I believe when you live waterside you assume the risk. That is a choice one makes—perhaps it is a lifestyle or even a sense of adventure. I choose to wait out hurricanes. This time I was lucky.

The streets looked like a modern-day ghost town. Restaurants and shops closed early once the alerts started to spike between cell phones and the tv weather reports. An evacuation order was in effect in Palm Beach so roads emptied of cars and trucks as the trade parade started crossing west over the bridges that serve Palm Beach. As the transient working population left together with many of the island residents, many headed for hotels inland in West Palm Beach, everything quieted down except for the wind, which steadily picked up momentum. The periodic rain droplet fell yet many sidewalks and streets remained dry despite the scattered precipitation and wind gusts. The stormy, tropical air was refreshing. The temperature was a steady 75 degrees. It was a Caribbean Island feel. The waves along Ocean Road topped the hard revetment structures. Waves as high as 20 feet crashed onto the waterfront roads, where locals out walking recorded the wave action on their cell phones. It was a dangerous walk since a rogue wave could easily overwhelm anyone in its path.

The social life of this new Caribbean-like island continued on, with a few storm-influenced modifications. As restaurants were closed, friends took to each other’s homes and apartments for cocktails and quickly thrown together dinners planned in anticipation of the storm touching down later on. Locals are always prepared for a hurricane party. Extra umbrellas and flip flops are always on hand. Even the recent memory of Hurricane Ian didn’t scare off everyone from enjoying the evening. With storm shutters fastened down, candles and flashlights were standard hardware should the power go out. In preparation of full electric failure, ice was stacked in buckets and cold food was the fare on offer. The phrase “house buttoned up” was heard frequently. Cars were parked in covered areas to avoid falling trees. Patio furniture was brought indoors. “Why not” was the common response to an invite from the neighbor downstairs whom one never met in five years of residency in the same apartment building. We all watched the weather reports on tv, with its repetitive charts and projections. After nothing but midterms news the change was a relief. The counterclockwise spin of the hurricane drove the action northeast. On the tv screen, the white swirling mass moved two inches to the left and up. Those two little inches meant our Category 1 hurricane was just downgraded. The next morning, I awoke and thought I was still dreaming. Just like that a category 1 hurricane became a tropical rainstorm. That relief felt something like magic.

Showing Up

           Recently one of Patti’s tennis teammates was heard complaining about the fact that she was not selected for a particular match simply because she had not been present at the beginning of league play. Notwithstanding a valid excuse, the players that showed up ready and fit to play at the start of the season competed for slots in the lineup. Those that drifted in after several weeks found all the competition slots filled. Good reasons aside, showing up on time is Rule One on the competitive playgrounds of life. 

The incident brought to mind my experience with the Kodak Park Athletic League during the summer of 1951; I was 11 years old.   After tryouts for the softball team, I was selected for second base. I felt up to the task of defending my piece of the field.  My confidence was further boosted because our neighbor, the wealthy owner of the local Ford Dealership, had gifted me my own softball bat for the season.  Before the first game, there I was, bike ready to travel to the field off the Memorial Bridge and inside Kodak Park, the largest employer and possibly landowner in all of Rochester. The ten of us from diverse parts of Rochester all showed up well in advance of the opening pitch.  That game was the highlight of my summer.  However, the stars were not all in alignment. My softball career was interrupted abruptly and with very little warning and I had the uncomfortable task of telling my coach I was going to miss the next game.  The trouble started because my older brother, Marty, a senior in high school, graduated a semester early and headed to Alfred College to enter midterm in December–he was fearful of being drafted into the Korean War conflict and had hedged his bets by applying early for college. This would be the last summer my dad could count on Marty to run the parking lot in his absence.   For some reason my parents decided to take their one and only vacation of their lifetimes in the summer of 1951. Marty did not want to babysit me. He planned to work the parking lot during business hours and then party in the evenings with the cash he made during the day. How did Marty get away with this?  Well he was the oldest son and the prince.  I had no option but to join my folks, my sister and her husband on the vacation trip to Atlantic City. I am certain my sister did not want to go either, but without her my dad could not read the maps provided by Triple A.  So there I was, crunched between my sister and her husband for the non-stop drive from upstate New York to southern New Jersey. I should have stayed when I got there– in l958 I went back for college at Rutgers in nearby New Brunswick.  But that’s another story.  At the missed game, the coach handed out t-shirts printed with our team’s name in bold lettering: RUBY (coincidentally that was also my sister’s name).  Because I missed that game, I never got my t-shirt.  All for not showing up.

No matter the excuse there no substitute for being prompt and in place when your name is called. I learned a good lesson and it has stayed with me. Kodak is gone and I no longer play softball, and these days, as an attorney, it is usually others showing up to meet with me. On time.