Category Archives: Society

Why soft drinks and food stamps don’t mix

As I stood in the checkout line at my local supermarket the other day, mentally complaining about the continually rising prices of food, I noticed a couple ahead of me piling up cigarettes and beer on the conveyor belt. It caught my attention because they had been paying for their groceries with food stamps supported by your tax dollars and mine. That left them plenty of cash for the beer and smokes.

Ah, the cradle-to-grave welfare system. Why use your money for the basics of life when someone else’s money will get them for you? In effect, you are buying their drinks and smokes.

There are, of course, some people who can’t exist without assistance, but I see so many examples of people simply milking the system — put bluntly, stealing money from my pocketbook — I have less and less sympathy all the time.

Just this week, the partial collapse of an old brick residential building locally forced tenants of an apartment to find accommodations elsewhere. I felt bad for them at first. Then it was revealed that the building was Section 8 housing in which a big chunk of the rent is paid by, guess who?, you and me through our taxes.

On the surface that’s alright because some people need such assistance. But, only family members are allowed to reside in each unit and their total income must be below a certain level to qualify. It turns out one of the occupants was the boyfriend of the mother of the family, not a legal family member. Plainly put, this lout and loutess were jobbing the system to get cut-rate rent for her and rent-free housing for him while other members of the community whose taxes are supporting them are worrying about making their own rent or mortgage payments.

These are far from isolated cases. When they keep popping up generation after generation, I root for some tighter oversight of welfare programs so the truly needy are aided and the truly cheating are exposed. Thus, I was thrilled when I recently heard Mayor Michael Bloomberg was petitioning the federal government to allow New York City to prohibit food stamp recipients from using the handouts to purchase soft drinks. A small step, but better than no step, unless you’re among the soft drink makers/distributors/sellers and their cohort (snack food manufacturers, for one) already whining about the proposal.

Why is this a positive step for society at large? Besides the obesity problem, to which sugary drinks contribute mightily, take a look at the numbers.

There are 1,700,000 New Yorkers getting food stamps. That is roughly equal to the combined entire populations of Vermont, Wyoming and Washington, DC. If each food stamp recipient bought just 1½ soft drinks daily, that would come to about $2,500,000 a day, or $76,500,000 a month of your money being spent. That last figure exceeds the annual gross state product of each of 13 states: Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming. Perhaps you’re beginning to get an idea of the enormity of the topic.

By the way, if you think my figure of 1½ soft drinks a day to make my case is too high, consider that all available data puts the average American’s soft drink consumption at 3 quarts per week. We’re the largest soft drink consuming nation in the world. And you and I are buying the sodas for a lot of those people.


Sanitizing literature a dirty business

The current heated debate over befouling Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by replacing the word “nigger” with “slave” isn’t the first such instance of weak-kneed response to real or manufactured sensibilities. Illustrative of how ludicrous the debate itself has become is the fact that the word in question is not uttered on radio or TV shows and not printed in newspapers, although it frequently is heard in rap lyrics.

Back in 2002 the New York State Education Department tried using its “sensitivity review guidelines” as a pretext for sanitizing portions of great literature before they were presented to students taking the Regents English exam. That sort of execrable evolution of the brainwashing of American children was defended on a variety of laughable levels. For example, the department’s assistant commissioner for curriculum defended messing with great writers’ work by insisting, with tortured logic, that “even the most wonderful writers don’t write literature for children to take on a test.”

At the time, as a columnist for the Times Union, I noted that rather than using classic literature as a springboard for thought and discussion — two things the sanitizers apparently feared they have failed to educate students to handle — such blockheads think it is within their purview to distort, deconstruct and otherwise demean literature to suit some moronic “sensitivity” guidelines they’ve dreamed up. Political correctness run further amok. Cathy Popkin, the Lionel Trilling professor of humanities at Columbia University, said it best at the time when she called such editing dishonest and “the practice of fools.”

If the public allows such antics as the word-swap in Twain’s work to continue without a loud and sustained outcry, what next? Stories about Jews by Nobel winner Isaac Bashevis Singer stripped of any reference to Jews because some people use the term as a derogatory one? If we don’t put a stop to these efforts to recreate reality in a version only the fools can stomach, we might wind up with “editing” such as these examples I was able to whip up in just a few minutes:

“The Merchant of Venice,” by William Shakespeare, Act 2, Scene 3:

Original: “Most beautiful pagan, most sweet Jew! If a Christian did not play the knave and get thee, I am much deceived.”

Sanitized: “Most beautiful person of undecided religious persuasion, most sweet person of Semitic extraction, and I mean that in the best possible sense. If a person adhering to Judeo-Christian teachings did not play the knave and get thee, I am much deceived.”

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” by Lewis Carroll, Chapter V:

Original: “Are you content now?” said the Caterpillar. “Well, I should like to be a little larger, sir, if you wouldn’t mind,” said Alice. “Three inches is such a wretched height to be.” “It is a very good height indeed!” said the Caterpillar angrily, rearing itself upright as it spoke (it was exactly three inches high). “But I’m not used to it!” pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone. And she thought of herself, “I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended!” “You’ll get used to it in time,” said the Caterpillar; and it put the hookah into its mouth and began smoking again.

Sanitized: “Are you content now?” said the three-inch high Caterpillar. “Well … there certainly is nothing inherently wrong with being three inches high,” said Alice. And she thought to herself, “I can understand how, in the way life has victimized him, the creature would be so easily offended.” “We all are equal in every way,” said the Caterpillar, slapping on another transdermal nicotine patch.

“War of the Worlds,” by H.G. Wells, Book 2, Chapter 8:

Original: “The streets were horribly quiet. I got food — sour, hard, and mouldy, but quite eatable — in a baker’s shop here. Here I came once more upon the black powder in the streets and upon dead bodies. I saw altogether about a dozen in the length of the Fulham Road. They had been dead many days, so that I hurried quickly past them. The black powder covered them over, and softened their outlines. One or two had been disturbed by dogs.”

Sanitized: “The streets were horribly quiet. I got food … in a baker’s shop here. Here I came once more upon the … powder in the streets … and … I saw … black … dogs.”

So proud of you, hon

What is it about pro athletes and precocious actresses and singers who love to procreate all over the place?

Have they never heard of (a) birth control, (b) marriage, (c) self-restraint, or, at least (c) respect for the kids they’re going to usher into the world?

The latest breathless announcement lapped up by the paparazzi, TMZ, gossip columnists and other barnacles on society is that actress Natalie Portman, 29, is pregnant and not married, but thrilled about her situation. In a statement to Entertainment Weekly mag, she gushed:

“I have always kept my private life private, but I will say that I am indescribably happy and feel very grateful to have this experience.”

Oh, did I mention that she’s also in the middle of promoting the hell out of “Black Swan,” her latest movie?

Getting it off their chests

The city of Guelph, in Ontario, is known primarily for three things — a vibrant indie rock music scene, its large number of Victorian style buildings, and its passion for lawn bowling.

However, some residents — and visitors with a cause — want it to be known for two things: women’s breasts.

The great breast movement … uh, topless outburst … demand that women be treated equally when it comes to baring their chests as men may do with impunity has led to protest actions, legal demands and an upcoming court case that may test the support … uh, the uplifting … uh,  whether they can overcome generations of societal frowning (perhaps even while peeking) on uncovered epidermal areas.

Go here for a video of a topless day’s activities in Guelph. (Scene from same shown above.)

Or, for the sake of context, see this excerpt from the agonizing Emmy Awards red carpet interview conducted with “Mad Men” co-star Christina Hendricks by a ludicrously childish questioner.

Cap Region cops often a force of farce

After promising myself to take the summer off from blogging on this site, I had to reverse my field. The question of what the hell is it about cops in the Capital Region of our befuddled state made my do so.

The laughing stock known as the Schenectady force has an almost-daily revelation of misconduct, often of a personal-behavior nature — pelting citizens with eggs, getting into bar fights, harassing ex’s, the former police chief and his wife being intimately involved with a drug ring.

Albany city cops have been revealed to have amused themselves by taking free meals from a now-indicted restaurateur while allowing him to be a parking ticket scofflaw and sell alcohol to underage drinkers. And others on the same force got their jollies buying illegal automatic weapons they had confiscated over the years.

The Rensselaer city force used to be as big a joke as Schenectady’s, but that at least has calmed down in the past couple of years. Now we have a Troy city cop, who doesn’t live in the city as required by statute, who may have been involved in a DWI incident that was covered up by a suburban cop helping a buddy in blue. And, of course, the city won’t talk about the incident because it characterizes it as a “personnel matter.” Which is bullshit. It’s a criminal matter. If you or I had been under scrutiny, they would gladly have talked about it. And talked and talked.

We have, unfortunately, gotten to the point at which the doomsayers who see our society crumbling have to be given their due. With a clearly non-functioning state legislature full of greedy cretins, a probe into voter fraud allegedly involving numerous members of the Troy City Council and city government, a do-nothing Rensselaer County legislature not worthy of the paint to put its name on a door, and you have to be excused for wailing in frustration and fear.

As the late satirical cartoonist Walt Kelly said in his long-gone strip “Pogo,” “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The sun will go out tomorrow …

… Well, technically on June 13. That’s the last scheduled day for the “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip.

The generation that doesn’t read newspapers won’t notice becoming the first generation not to see Annie and her entourage in print, but the Harold Gray creation has become an American icon since he introduced the first strip all those years ago.

Annie has spawned everything from merchandise to comic books to a Broadway show and movie simply titled “Annie” to a sexual parody, “Little Annie Fanny,” in Playboy magazine.

The curly-haired orphan with the pupil-less eyeballs and her dog, Sandy, and her fabulously wealthy guardian, Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, romped through adventure after adventure during the Great Depression, World War II, all the wars since then, endured 15 presidential administrations, a few kidnappings, and even some domestic industrial espionage plots. If Annie seemed to be perpetually youthful for a now-86-year-old woman, chalk it up the fact she was born on February 29, a Leap Year day, and so only marked a birthday every four years.

As with so many comic strips, Annie has run her course. She once was published in hundreds of newspapers, but now is in fewer than two dozen. However, hope springs eternal. The final Sunday panel will end with a cliffhanger.

Take me out to The Felon

The other shoe finally dropped in an Albany, NY, courtroom yesterday. Joseph L. Bruno, the cocky former State Senate majority leader, was sentenced to two years in prison on his conviction for violating the federal law concerning theft of honest services.

Bruno, who loves nothing better than making self-congratulatory speeches — well, he also obviously likes doing business with friends who can enrich him, spent 40 minutes of the judge’s time boo-hooing about his hardscrabble upbringing and shoring up his own personal code of ethics, That was before the judge — who had to take a 10-minute pee break a half-hour into Bruno’s monologue — sentenced him to two concurrent two-year terms.

Bruno was freed on bail, awaiting a possible U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a suit challenging the legality of the theft of honest services law. He then headed for a meal at the iconic Jack’s Oyster House in downtown Albany with his son, Kenny.

Don’t be surprised if the elder Bruno continues his freedom by showing up at the Joseph L. Bruno Stadium on the Hudson Valley Community College campus in Troy when the minor league baseball season begins. Something soothing about basking in the glow of your own name.

And, speaking of Hudson Valley CC, it now has two edifices named for convicted felons. The McDonough Sports Complex was named for the late Ed McDonough, the Rensselaer County Democratic Party chairman and powerbroker who served federal prison time for municipal corruption, and the aforementioned Joseph L. Bruno Stadium, named for the now-convicted felon who behind closed doors steered taxpayers’ money to the college to construct the stadium that, in a move he and his aides said was a surprise to them, then was adorned with his name.

So, here we have an ever-growing, taxpayer-funded college with two of its most prominent facilities proudly bearing the names of convicted crooks who enriched themselves in money and power at the expense of you, me and every other New Yorker.

Local media and sports fans like to refer to the stadium as “The Joe,” short for Bruno’s name. A suggestion: Why not re-name it it Felony Field, and just call it “The Felon”?

Better still, HVCC President Drew Matonak should extend the courtesy to the public of starting a push to change the names of both sports complexes. Lingering honors to dishonorable politicians have no place in the community.

Right up my alley

Some of my early growing-up years were spent in a little community that had what we could euphemistically call “quaint” ideas about class and status.

As I grew older, I recognized them for what they were: Mind-numbing rules of thought and conduct that assumed most people would know their place in society and not try very hard to rise above their station. This was a holdover, I presume, from the Great Depression, when anyone who had anything was jealously watched by those who went without. Perhaps even a bit of the old European classism mentality as well.

One of the major determinants lay in where one began. If you lived in the West End, chances were your house was a little bigger, a little nicer, and so you were presumed to be of a better class. If you lived on the North Side, as we did, chances were your house was small, your job was in a factory or on a farm and you stayed there unless you were visiting the neutral grounds of the sprawling town park that separated the neighborhoods.

Between these extremes were the people who everyone in every neighborhood looked down on. They lived along the narrow cinder streets generally referred to as “alleys.” A lot of their dwellings were tiny, sometimes ramshackle buildings tucked in between storage sheds and garages.

The few black families in town — far fewer than today — lived in such places, as did those from broken homes — also far less prevalent then than now — along with those who just didn’t succeed in the world. The common denominator was that they all were dirt poor.

I went to school with some of the alley kids. There were stretches when we weren’t much better off financially than a lot of them. I guess that’s why I didn’t pay much attention to status. In fact, our backyard led to a place called Apple Alley, where a couple of my baseball-playing pals lived, so I knew it well.

Today, it’s known as Apple Avenue, a gentrified area of cute little apartments, converted garages, neat gardens tucked into the former junk-strewn spaces, all because people realized it was a smart move to invest in every bit of property within walking distance of the ever-growing university campus on the edge of town.

I now live in Troy, a small city on the east bank of the Hudson River in Upstate New York. It has some small groups that occasionally put its alleys under a microscope, but not nearly enough. The city has dozens of miles of such pathways. In essence, such groups here and in other localities are looking for ways to improve the alleys, which in some cases would mean clearing brush that blocks them, or recommending better security lighting or simply coming up with ways to make them more useful. Regretably, nothing much came of it, in large measure because it is not a priority for the city government, whether it be Republican- or Democrat-controlled.

Coincidentally, for several years I have been unscientifically but common-sensically checking the city’s alleys and have come to various conclusions. Among them:

• Too many alleys have been allowed to become open-air dumps for the convenience of some people. The city, under several administrations, has been made fully aware of this yet does virtually nothing about it.

• Alleys are undervalued in Troy, as they are in most cities. Instead of continuing to see them as furtive places to be shunned, some entrepreneurial types might consider the example of Provincetown on Cape Cod. Many of its once-neglected alleys have been transformed into pedestrian pathways between neighborhoods. Buildings have been converted into charming little homes and B&B’s with postage-stamp gardens. Some spots have become home to clusters of tiny stores that put less strain for rent and utilities on small-business owners.

One of the things some people push is creating alleyway wall murals to brighten the city. I have my doubts that painting pretty pictures on the walls will do much to alleviate the piles of illegally-dumped trash and garbage, the cigarette butts, discarded Styrofoam coffee and soft drink cups, and other assorted debris — all dumped there on a regular basis and inexplicably tolerated by the businesses bordering the alleyways. Paint doesn’t go far enough to foster an improved set of sensibilities by the city that fails to demand a permanent cleanup and among the peope who live in the community yet turn a blind eye to the problem.

However, it that’s what it takes to get things rolling, my heartfelt encouragement is with these people.