Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Every year several dozen people leap off the Golden Gate Bridge. 225 feet below, the water is cold and the current is strong. Few survive. In 2004 Eric Steel set up a camera and shot for a year to explore this phenomenon in this unique place. He did capture people in the process of jumping, and his film, “The Bridge,” is haunting and powerful.

“The Bridge” focused public attention on what has been a recurring issue in my beautiful city: Should we take steps to prevent would-be leapers from leaping?

Inevitably, taking steps means putting some sort of barrier in place. Putting some sort of barrier in place creates design and engineering problems. Over the years various proposals have been put forth, and for one reason or another none of them has gotten past the talking stage.

Recently, the talking has been supplemented by specific suggestions for how to do it. We, the public, have been asked to make suggestions and tell the bridge authorities what we think. I went online and joined my fellow citizens in expressing an opinion. My opinion was simply – do nothing. As it turns out 75% of us felt this way.

A more formal public hearing was held. Of the five designs (each costing $40-50 million to implement) only one, a net that would catch the leapers after they leapt, received any degree of support. I must say that of the various proposals, that was the only one that I would accept, but I wondered how that would really stop a determined person. We were assured that the net would so enmesh the jumper as to make it next to impossible to get loose and jump again.

All of this, however, is not the point. The point is that if someone wants to kill himself, unless he is behaving in a way that is a cry for help and is in fact asking us to stop him, we have no right to get in his way. (Change the gender in the previous sentence if that makes you feel better.)

I know there are people who fail in the attempt and later on say they’re glad they failed, but that doesn’t change my opinion. Admittedly, I think the Golden Gate Bridge is exquisitely beautiful as is, and I don’t want to add fences or other contraptions that will detract from it. But more importantly, I don’t like the government telling us what we can and can’t do, unless it has to do with harming others.

So like I said – do nothing.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Paul Byard

Part of my early morning ritual is to check the obituaries in the New York Times. All too often these days I see a familiar name. And so it was this morning when I read, “Paul Byard, 68, Dies; Architect Renovated Landmarks.”

My thoughts went back to more than 30 years ago when Paul and I were colleagues at the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC). Paul was a UDC lawyer; I was Executive Assistant to UDC’s President, Ed Logue.

In 1972, a small group of us went on a work trip to Europe. To be more accurate, I’d call it a UDC-sponsored trip, not really work. Or to be really straight, let’s just say it was a boondoggle. Our stated purpose and rationale was to visit and learn about housing developments and new towns in several countries. In fact it was an acknowledgement and thank you from the boss.

Our itinerary included England, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Soviet Union. One night in Moscow we went to the circus and returned to the hotel a little before 9. We wanted something to eat so we stopped at the restaurant. The sign on the door said they were open until 9:30. When we asked for a table a large woman in a white uniform sternly said, “No food. Nyet. Clos-ed.” We pointed out that the sign said they were open. Again, “No food. Nyet. Clos-ed.”

We persisted, but to no avail. At this point my friend Paul Byard had had it. This was our fourth day in the Soviet Union and a series of unpleasantries that had accumulated now overflowed into outrage. To get the full impact of the moment you had to know Paul. He was an elegant gentleman. Raised in a proper northeast elite environment, he never raised his voice. He always reminded me of a young Bill Buckley, brilliant, well tailored, almost like someone from the 19th century. His obituary says he was “unfailingly dapper, with a broad chin perpetually set at a jaunty angle and a patrician mid-Atlantic accent.”

He was a product of Yale College, Cambridge University and Harvard Law School. Then, in his mid-30’s Paul changed course and went to Columbia’s School of Architecture to pursue his real passion. It is no surprise that he became a successful and respected architect. He headed up both his own firm and the historic preservation program at Columbia.

Paul moved close to the woman in the white uniform, drew himself up to his full height of 6’3” or so, leaned down into her face and said, “You are the most thoroughly disagreeable people I’ve ever met. Now, we want to eat. Give us a table.”

She might not have understood all his words, but she got the message. “Vodka. We serve vodka.”

“Fine,” he answered. “Vodka.”

“And orange juice,” she added.

“Good, vodka and orange juice,” he said.

“And caviar.”

“Perfect. Vodka, orange juice, and caviar,” he echoed.

We’d given in to all her demands. Poor little chubby lady in white. She was left with no options and led us to a table. In the end she brought us some other food as well. We got fed, but it was a challenge. Thanks to Paul, we were up to the challenge.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Fair Exchange?

Yesterday the Israelis made a trade. They released five live Hezbollah fighters who were being held in Israeli prisons and the remains of several dead ones. In exchange they were given the dead bodies of two Israeli soldiers who had been captured a couple of years ago.

The key figure in the swap was Samir Kantar, one of the Arab world’s icons of armed struggle, who’d been imprisoned for nearly 30 years. Kantar had been serving multiple life sentences for killing three Israelis, one a 4-year-old girl, in 1979.

In Beirut, thousands of ecstatic supporters cheered Kantar, welcoming him home as a hero. In Israel they held a couple of funerals.

I wouldn’t have made the deal. Releasing a guy who should have been locked up until he died and in return getting some dust or bones or whatever in a box is not a fair exchange. Wait. I can already hear the screams of dissent for my unfeeling, uncaring point of view. “This gives us closure.” “Now our loved ones can rest in the sacred ground of the country they loved.” “At last my boy is home.” Etc.

Those remains in the boxes aren’t your son, your husband, your father. What is there is simply what’s left of the case he occupied while he was alive. You don’t need the box or a gravesite to remember him. Your loved one lives in your heart and your memory. Closure is not a fact. It is a way of being. It is not dependent on some physical remnant.

I know. I know. I’m in the minority on this one. (So what else is new?) However, it should be noted that there were some dissenting voices in Israel. I noticed that the family of the people Kantar killed thought setting him free was the wrong thing to do. So as usual, what we have to say depends on what we already think.

If Kantar had been swapped for two Israeli captives who were still alive, now that would have been a fair exchange. But alas, that was not to be. Instead they got two black boxes.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

No Place To Go

I like to follow the news. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. And during a political season I particularly like to follow political news. So every day when I’m not doing anything else I turn on TV to check out the news. And every day I get pissed off at what I see on the tube.

Except for Charlie Rose, who is like a breath of fresh air, there is no place to go to find a balanced, informative discussion about politics or anything else for that matter.

I usually start with MSNBC because their views are in tune with mine. Which, of course, is the problem. I shouldn’t be listening just because I can find someone who agrees with me. Their partisanship is boring.

I then go to CNN. Once in a while there will be a reporter worth watching, someone like Christiane Amanpour. But usually it is something insipid or people on different sides of an issue yelling at each other.

Headline News is similar, except their stories are often of no interest to me or I’m already familiar with the news they’re covering.

Fox is at the other end of the continuum from MSNBC. I usually disagree with everything they have to say. Since their bias isn’t to my liking, from time to time out of desperation I may check them out, but rarely do I linger for more than a few moments.

In a way, during the day CNBC is a refuge. While they may be yelling at each other, it is about financial issues and usually I either don’t know or care about the subject they’re covering. So it is less offensive.

Like I say, there is no place to go.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Totally Disgusting

Again this July 4th morning, seemingly by accident, I turned on the TV and found myself face-to-face with the annual hot dog eating contest held at Nathan’s in Coney Island.

I have no interest in this event. I find it disgusting to watch. Who cares how many hot dogs somebody can eat in ten minutes? It is like a mini-reality show akin to determining who can last longer in a pit filled with maggots. And yet it seems that every year, by accident, I end up turning it on. There are those who would say my protestations are bogus and there are no accidents in the universe. Maybe they’re right.

Anyway, since we’re here I might as well tell you what happened. The announcers, breathless in anticipation of the great event, set it up for us. There are a dozen or so competitors, some huge guys, 300 to 400 pounds, a couple of petite Asian women, and the two world champions, Tekeru Kobayashi from Japan and Joey Chestnut from San Jose, representing the good old red, white and blue on this Independence Day.

Kobayashi has won this event six times, but Joey beat him last year. Can Kobayashi with his superhuman jaw muscles regain his title? Will Joey cannonball the dogs and buns into his mouth as he’s done before? The time has been shortened from 12 to 10 minutes. Will that change our heroes’ strategy? Are there any dark horses who can challenge these two?

The countdown begins. The seconds tick off. The contestants, on a platform facing thousands of hungry fans, hunch over the table. The assistants stand ready to keep their plates full. And off they go.

I can’t stand to watch when these people start shoveling food into their mouths. They drool. They bounce around. Some have a steady rhythm. Others shove and stop, shove and stop. The minutes go by. First Joey is ahead and Kobayashi seems lackadaisical. Then Kobayashi catches up. Then it is neck and neck. All the other eaters are way behind and have no chance. I am listening to the announcers and from time to time turn around to watch. I can’t believe they won’t choke to death. I can’t believe they’ll be able to continue. The crowd is screaming.

As the last minute begins they both pick up steam. Kobayashi is ahead. Joey is ahead. Now we can’t be sure who is ahead. And then it’s over. Time’s up. Who won? No one knows for sure. There’s a delay. Finally, they announce it’s a tie. They’ve both eaten 59 hot dogs in the allotted ten minutes. What now? A tiebreaker. It’s like a penalty shootout in football. Each will be given five dogs and the first to down them wins.

At this point I’m watching. Disgusting it may be, but I want to see what happens. The hand to mouth shoving and gulping and shoveling and drooling begins again. It’s close. And then it is over. It looks like another tie to me, but the judges rule Joey Chestnut has retained his title. The USA is triumphant.

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord. It is finished. I can go on with my day. Congratulations, Joey. You’ve made us proud.