Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Smile and A Shoeshine


“Be liked,” Willy Loman tells his sons in Death of A Salesman, “and you will never want.”

I’ve read Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning many times in my life, studied it in college, watched several TV productions, and even listened to a LP version of the story.

But I never saw the show performed live until Saturday, when I went to see Phillip Seymour Hoffman take on the role of the doomed salesman, and it hit me harder than I was expecting.

The play can seem both dated and topical, a time capsule from a distant age, but also a harsh reflection of today’s corporate battlefield, where the obsession with profits can obliterate years of hard work and dedication, all in the name of the so-called “free markets.”

My father was a salesman who worked for Tobin’s First Prize Meats, an Albany-based wholesaler, for over 20 years and many scenes in the play were painfully familiar.

And if I see some of my father in Willy Loman, I also see a lot of myself in Biff, the son who never becomes a man. I wasn't the high school hero like Biff, but as an adult I stumbled around for years trying to find a career and I know I caused my parents a lot of worry and heartache.

My father loved selling, something that seems so alien to me, even though as a reporter I employ some of the same techniques when I try to land an interview or nail down a story.

Brooklyn was my dad’s territory and he knew every street, avenue and boulevard and the best way to get to them. When I was a kid I used to ride with him as he traveled through some of the borough’s roughest neighborhoods to see his butchers.

I got accustomed to the smell of sawdust and the blast of freezing air whenever someone opened one of those the great refrigerator doors.

'Sell the Sizzle"

My father used to have these sayings about his profession, like “sell the sizzle, not the steak.” And he’d always tell us “if you sell yourself cheap, people will buy you cheap.”

He had his bad days, of course. One time, someone at the head office had screwed up an order to one of my dad’s accounts. When my father walked into that butcher’s store, the owner mercilessly berated him in front of all the customers.

“And I had to stand there and take it,” he told me.

But that’s the life of a salesman, who, the play tells us, “is way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and shoeshine.”

Tobin First Prize Meats was eventually sold and, in a sadly typical story, a bunch of bottom feeders came in and ran the business right into the ground. My father lost his job and came frighteningly close to losing his pension.

My mother said my father never got over losing the Tobin job. It had great benefits and a sense of loyalty that seemed to run in both directions. It just didn’t run forever.

While Willy Loman stresses the importance of being liked, how being well liked is key to be successful, his neighbor, Charley, asks “does J.P. Morgan care if anyone likes him or not?”

Just change the name to one of these capitalist commandos that we have running around today and the question still stands.

Who really cares want anyone thinks of you in this era of mergers, acquisitions, and outsourcing? Willy’s wealthy brother, Ben, speaks for both time periods when he tells Biff “never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You’ll never get out of the jungle that way.”

As Willy’s plans fall apart and the bills pile up, he becomes convinced that he’s worth more to his family dead than alive and that, too, had an eerie resonance with me.

My mother once told me that she was worried about my father as he struggled to find another job. He had parked his car some place to rest one afternoon, but had left the engine running.

He woke up before something terrible happened and I think he just got careless, but my mother started crying as she told me this story, clearly frightened by my father's behavior.

God knows I butted heads with my father a lot over the years, but after seeing this show, I feel like I know a little bit more about him. Like Willy, my father has his fears and dreams. I just wish I could have gotten to know him better while he was still alive.

At the end of the play, Biff says his father had all the wrong dreams, but Charley points out that a salesman has got to dream.

It comes with the territory.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Truth be Told


As someone who writes for a living, I have developed a strong distaste for clich├ęs.

Falling back on a worn out phrase insults the reader and cheapens the writer.

There are times when you’ll be forced to drag out some clunker--like when you’re on deadline and your editor is screaming at you to file the story this very second or he'll send you out the door in a body bag.

But even in those stressful times, you can turn the pressure into fuel, letting your mind stretch beyond the familiar to grab hold of something exciting.

One of my least favorite expressions is “truth be told.” It has this faux upper crusty sound to it and, more importantly, it really shouldn’t be necessary.

Why do you have to tell me that you’re telling me the truth? I would hope that you’re telling me the truth all along without having to advertise the fact. Has everything you said before you dropped that phrase been untrue?

This old line came to mind as I listened to the monologist Mike Daisey try to explain the fabrications in his show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” to Ira Glass, host of NPR’s show “This American Life.”

TAL had broadcast a portion of Daisey’s show, where Daisey describes his trip to China to speak with workers at Apple Computer factories about harsh the condition they are forced to live under.

The show was TAL’s single popular podcast with 880,000 downloads. And on Friday, TAL retracted the entire story.

I find this very upsetting because I’m such a big fan of both Mike Daisey and TAL. I’ve seen several of Daisey’s shows, interviewed him for a story that publication I was working at that time ultimately decided not to use, and hung around to meet him after seeing “The Last Cargo Cult.”

The Truth is Out There

He is a master storyteller, capable of creating incredible images with his words. I’ve taken some solo performer classes at The People’s Improv Theater and Mike Daisey is a huge name in the business.

I was thinking of seeing the Steve Jobs show on Friday night. The show closed today and the reviews were so enthusiastic that I really felt I should get a ticket before it was too late. And then the retraction story broke.

It was painful listening to Daisey try to explain away the fabrications as “theater” rather than journalism. Such a commanding figure on stage, he sounded contrite and cowed as Ira Glass interviewed him.

There were a few moments when Daisey took so long to respond that I thought the program had gone off the air. But he was actually struggling to come up with answers to some pretty tough questions.

In what critics have called the most dramatic moment in the show, Daisey talks about meeting an old man who been fired from the Foxconn factory after mangling his hand in a metal press.

Daisey tells how he takes out his Ipad, switches it on and shows it to the old man, who has never seen one before. He tells Daisey’s interpreter that the device is “a kind of magic.”

There’s just one problem: the interpreter said it’s not true.

I just can’t buy the “theater” excuse. This may sound terribly naive, but if someone says they went to China and spoke to factory workers then I expect that person to be telling the truth—no embellishments, fabrications or exaggerations.

The truth is too important to manipulate, especially when the subject matter is as serious as the plight of these factory workers. Distortions like these only make the task of trying to help them more difficult.

Daisey gave a prologue to this afternoon’s show, which he posted on his website. In it, he says he stands behind the work and that he has made some changes to it, including a reference to the TAL controversy.

He reminds the audience that story-telling is the oldest form of theater and adds that the “truth is vitally important.”

I’m disappointed, but I’ll still go to Mike Daisey’s shows. Because in spite of all the complaints, I’m still a big fan--truth be told.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Fork Not Taken


Yogi Berra said it best: “When you get to a fork in the road, take it.”

I learned the value of these words on Saturday when my sister and I took her cat, Smokey, to the veterinarian in Manhattan.

This was the first time we made this trip since Smokey’s brother, Tuxedo, died back in January.

I was behind the wheel and it was painful seeing my sister walk toward the car with only one cat box in her hand. Smokey was flying solo now.

But Smokey doesn’t like to fly or ride in the car for the matter and he made his feelings known by howling for the entire length of the trip. Nothing my sister said or did could calm him down; he just wailed and wailed.

I don’t like driving in New York and that’s why I gave up my car years ago when I moved back to the city. Between walking, riding the subway, and taking the express bus, I do just fine. (Check out my buddy Ron’s post about this same topic over at Vent.)

But taking Smokey on the subway is, of course, out of the question. All the noise and banging around would drive him crazy. And I'd be right behind him.

We usually go to the vet in the morning, when things are a little quieter, but Smokey had an afternoon appointment this time and that proved to be a bit of pain. There were more cars, more pedestrians and much fewer parking spots.

I felt like we were trapped in some bizarre theme park. There were sirens coming from all directions, cars all over the road and idiots walking out into the street every time I blinked.

We circled the block searching for a spot and my sister was about to have me put the car in a lot—which is a major investment in New York—when I saw a car pulling out of a spot on the corner of the vet's block. What luck!

Unfortunately there were two cars behind me as well, and when I stopped to try and get the spot, horns started blaring at me, mixing in with Smokey’s howling.

I saw angry faces in my rearview and I to tried to get out of their way, but I only managed to box in the people who were trying to get out. Finally they pulled out and we saw they had parked illegally in front of a fire hydrant, so the whole schlamassel was for nothing.

Beep-Beep!

I pulled aside and the two losers behind me went roaring down the street honking their horns.

What gets into people when they drive? Yes, I know we were holding up the works, but it wasn’t that long and certainly not worth all the outrage.

Luckily, some very nice people were walking to their car down the block and they told us to follow them so we could take their spot. I was grateful, of course, but I quickly put that aside so I could go back to stewing about the honking idiots.

“I’m glad I made them wait,” I grumbled.

But that kind of thinking—or lack of it—only spreads the hostility and there’s plenty of that in the world already.

After all, Yogi tells us “if the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.” And how could you argue with that?

It wasn’t until we were inside that I realized there was a valuable lesson here. The two drivers were dopes, yes, but the real role models were the people who gave us their parking spot.

They didn’t know us from a fork in the road, but they had helped us out of a tight spot. Those are the people to emulate, I thought, those are the ones to remember.

As Yogi would say, “you can observe a lot just by watching.”

As we were leaving we ran into this lovely elderly woman who was bringing her little dog to the vet in a shopping cart. She was dressed very stylishly and I held the door open for her while my sister took the cart.

She thanked us and then, noting the cat box, said, “good luck with your little passenger.” The entire encounter lasted less than a minute, but it was so pleasant that I'm still thinking about it.

Now I wish I could say the trip was uneventful, but there were a few slip-ups.

First, I crossed over a couple of lanes at the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel toll plaza in my zeal to reach a cash lane—a vanishing breed in these days of EZ Pass.

Then I went down the wrong exit and wound up on the BQE. Like Yogi, I had made too many wrong mistakes, and, as we all know, a wrong mistake is the worst kind.

But my sister directed me to the Atlantic Avenue exit and we were soon heading in the right direction.

We had met some nice people, we had gotten home in one piece, and I had gotten an important lesson in human behavior. Yogi would’ve been so proud.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Man O'War


I just saw “War Horse” on Broadway with my family yesterday and although it was about as subtle as a kick in the head from a Clydesdale, I had a great time.

The tale of a boy and his horse who are dragged into the screaming hell known as World War I, “War Horse,” —now the subject of a Steven Spielberg film—is the kind of production that the word “extravaganza” was coined for.

The cast is huge—as if a Cecil B. DeMille picture had jumped off a movie screen. The effects are stunning as puppeteers bring the horse, Joey, to life and recreate ferocious battles and doomed cavalry charges across No Man’s Land. This is theater as theme park.

The story could not be simpler—basically "Lassie" with hooves and a bridle, but there’s so much going on you probably won’t object to the lightweight plot.

Nick Stafford’s play is based on a Michael Morpurgo’s novel and it premiered in October 2007 at the Royal National-Olivier Theatre in London. The play opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on Broadway just about a year ago and it has received five Tony awards.

In researching the novel, Morpurgo learned that a million horses from the U.K. had died during the war and he reasoned that an appalling total of 10 million horses were killed in the war to end all wars. Of course, when human beings are dying in such hideous numbers, not too many people were worried about horses.

Giddyup!

The puppeteers are quite visible as they move about the stage, but you stop seeing them after a short time as you watch Joey grow from a foal to a full-fledged equine.

Albert, a young Devon farm boy, loves Joey, but Albert’s drunken loser of a father sells the horse to the British Army for 100 pounds. Refusing to give up on Joey, Albert lies about his age and joins the army to track down his beloved horse.

The play brutally illustrates the insanity of the cavalry charge in the age of mechanized warfare. The sight of doomed soldiers raising their sabers as the ride straight into withering machine gunfire makes you shake your head in horror and disbelief.

Two scenes stand out in my mind. The first occurs when Albert arrives in France and sees a group of mangled soldiers dragging themselves toward the ship that will take them home. They look like creatures from a monster movie.

The second happens in the middle of a battlefield where Joey comes face to face with a tank, yes, a tank. Two different two centuries seem to collide as machine and animal square off. It is a moment of incredible stagecraft.

The funny thing is I usually admire how plays can capture our imaginations with little more than a bare stage, where actors take us away with just their words. But then I also thrive on independent films while taking in Hollywood blockbusters. That’s what make horses race.

I was teary-eyed at the ending, of course, but that’s hardly news to anyone who knows me. "War Horse" will never get confused with “Waiting for Godot,” but it’s still one hell of a ride.