Archive for celebrity

A Fable for Our Time

A friend of mine recently returned home from California after two months traveling in France and England. As he unpacked his bags and settled back into his house, he sorted the foreign coins and bills accumulated while traveling and unspent at duty-free.  Looking ahead to future travel, he organized the currency into separate packets; when he was done, he had an unusual coin left over.  Not sure what it was, he sent me a photo, asking if might be legal tender and if so, where.

It is in fact a very rare and interesting coin that was once legal tender in a place many of us call the People’s Republic of New York.  They could be inserted into analog machines at the entrances to the most expansive public transit system in the world as payment of the fare; once in the system one could ride as far as one wanted for a flat fare.  They could also be spent, at full value, to buy snacks and sodas in bodegas and delis out in parts of Brooklyn like Bedford-Stuyvesant before they were gentrified.  I know this because, one day in architecture school and short of cash, I paid for lunch with one.

Artifacts like old coins tell us about worlds past, and this is no exception.  The People’s Republic of New York existed de facto as a city-state that enjoyed a unique status in the US as the center of culture, art, innovation, fashion, finance, commerce, architecture, and industry.  While the quality of its leaders varied, it was generally well-regarded as an enlightened progressive democracy that administered, in addition to its world-class transit system, an extensive network of public hospitals and clinics, the largest public housing program in the nation, and one of the oldest and largest public park systems in the country, free and accessible to all.  The Republic was also committed to education, a legacy of both the tremendous influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th Century, who valued education above all, and the reform movements of the early 20th century; the result was the creation of the largest public school system in the U.S. that produced generations of progressive leaders, successful professionals, acclaimed scientists, and world-renowned business  people, and a municipal university best known for producing more Nobel laureates than the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford combined.  The Republic was also home to the largest concentration of multimillionaires in the U.S., who consistently supported progressive social and political movements out of a sense of obligation to the common good.  In spite of its tremendous concentration of wealthy elites, the Republic also boasted the most economically and ethnically diverse population in the nation: people of all origins, races, and economic achievement lived together harmoniously in close quarters.  The Republic’s commitment to liberal values was such that reactionary aspirants to the Presidency of the U.S. sneered at its “New York Values” as a way to achieve acceptance among like-minded reactionaries across the nation; the residents of the Republic were taken aback, knowing as they did the things they valued most are education, hard work, success, and tolerance.

The decline of the Republic began in 1980 with the ascension of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency of the U.S., who declared government the source of all that ails society, installed hypercapitalism as the official state religion, and whose minions began the looting of the U.S. and the transfer of its wealth to gated communities in Orange County, Santa Barbara, Montecito and Silicon Valley in California; selected neighborhoods in Houston and Dallas, Texas; a family in Wichita, Kansas; all of whose  denizens acquired ever more expensive apartments on the Upper East Side  of Manhattan and bought their way  into the formerly progressive elites.  Despite glimmers of hope in the intervening years, the decline was irreversible by 2009, when the elites of the Republic sold the mayoralty to a local billionaire, who retired in 2013 and handed the office, reduced substantially in power, to a local populist as a sop to the masses.  In early January of this year, the Republic formally became known as Oligarkistan and is a province of Russia administered from Washington DC.

Today, the Republic’s public hospital network and housing system are in various stages of distress.  Wealthy donors support the parks lavishly, but selectively, focusing their efforts and cash on the park across the street from their apartments.  The transit system remains, although when it will be privatized, with the inevitable service cuts and distance fares imposed in the name of hypercapitalism, is anybody’s guess.  The coins themselves went out of circulation in the early 2000s when the information technology/data harvesting oligarchs took control of the monetary system.

My advice to my friend was to hang onto his coin as a symbol of a lost society.  It will almost certainly increase in value.

Why I’ll Miss David Letterman

We interrupt our usual program…..

Back in the early 1980s, there was this up-and-coming guy on television named David Letterman; our names, though spelled slightly differently, sound alike.  We also both live and work in New York, and although we’ve never met, I have had a lot of fun with it.

It started in 1981, when I was paged at a supermarket in Malibu (why is a longer story; suffice it to say that she was at the checkout and I was at the magazine rack in the back).  As I sprinted up to the front of the store, I saw that a crowd had formed, gawking and craning their necks for a celebrity sighting.  I stopped, threw out my arms, and exclaimed, “Sorry folks, it’s only me!”

As that guy on television became more popular, the pace picked up.  People started asking me to do stupid pet tricks.   I don’t have a pet.  I’ve always done a lot of business by phone; time and again I would call someone, his assistant would answer, and I’d announce myself as David Lederman calling for whoever.  More often than not, the response was something like, “Yeah, sure”, “Yeah, right,”, “No, it isn’t”, or “Hahaha, this is Jay Leno”.  Someone even hung up on me once, thinking it was a prank call.

From time to time, though, there have been benefits.  I was working as an architect in the 1980s.  When the time came to leave the small firm I was with, my then-boss made an introduction to Richard Meier, who, while not yet the starchitect he is today, was justifiably renowned.  Calling Mr. Meier’s office to make an appointment, I said no more than my name, and I was put immediately through.  When, a week or so later, I arrived for the interview, the receptionist turned bright red.  Clearly she had thought that she was dealing with a famous client; just as clearly, someone had reminded her that she wasn’t to put anyone through.

Then someone decided that I look like Jay Leno; I’ve never seen the resemblance.  At around the same time the requests for Top Ten Lists started. I was always at a loss for words until finally, during the Clinton years, I put one together: Bill Clinton’s favorite songs, including such hits as “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”, “Love to Love You Baby”, “Bad Girls”, “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” and six other similarly themed tracks.  And sure enough, someone at a party asked me for my Top Ten list. I rattled it off, emptying the room in the process.  Being funny is a lot harder than it looks.

I should have remembered that lesson later on when, starting my own business, I cold called a man in the entertainment business in Las Vegas.  I got him on the line and introduced myself, naturally, as David Lederman calling from New York. Without missing a beat he said, “Tell me a joke.”  And so I did.  The line went dead silent for an uncomfortably long moment.  Just because your friend who works on a trading desk thinks a joke is funny doesn’t mean that normal people will.

No one has asked me for a Top Ten list in years, but I still get asked if I get great tables at hot new restaurants.  I don’t.  I did, though, get bumped up to first class once.  We were flying to the Caribbean, and the lady at the check-in desk was thrilled to be able to tell her husband that she had met David Lederman.  She asked me to autograph something, handed me the first class boarding passes, and away we went.  As the other two couples we were travelling with passed by us on their way to steerage in the back, I got to say, just once, “that’s how I roll”.

At one time in my career I was running a field office in midtown, and Ed, one of my colleagues, was running another one on the Lower East Side.  When he called, weekly or so, I always knew it was him whenever my secretary told me that Paul Schaffer was holding on the line.  She never caught on, to our endless amusement.

New York can also be a very small place, and collisions are inevitable.  I have never actually met Letterman, but it turned out years ago that he and I were seeing the same cardiologist.  I found this out one day when on the phone with my doctor.  He asked for my birthdate; when I asked why he told me that we were both patients and he couldn’t keep us straight.  All I could say was, “I’ll give you a hint.  He had bypass.”

To this day, I can telephone someone, identify myself, and get something like Really?”.  I’ve long ago learned to say, “you’re the first one today.”  And in all these years I must confess that I have only occasionally watched the show.  But I did meet a young man at a party who worked for the show.  Intrigued by the idea of booking me, he thought it would be most entertaining if I could come on and talk about how having the same name ruined my life.  When I told him that it really hadn’t ruined my life, he lost interest and went to freshen up his drink.

Still, I’m going to miss him.