Joe Villari

In the 1940 Census, he is listed as the head of household at 912 Tree Street, Lower Moyamensing, Philadelphia PA. His wife, Frances, was a bit younger. Both were born in Italy (my Mother, Maddelena Villari, seemingly did not know her Mother was not born here, because she told me otherwise); Joseph in 1895, Frances in 1900. He arrived as a 16 year old at Ellis Island in 1911, after boarding a ship in Naples. I remember holding the woolen cap of his U.S. Army uniform, in which he served from 1918 to 1919, when he was sent to Camp Greenleaf, Georgia. The army record is surely accurate. I remember Grandpop (and I had only one, since my paternal grandfather died before I was born) telling me about the time that he and some army buddies scoured the streets of Chattanooga, TN, looking for a plate of spaghetti. I figure that Camp was no more than 20 miles away over the Tennessee line. If that was the worst that happened to Joe during his hitch, he didn’t have it so bad. He was naturalized in 1919.

He was not an educated man, although he was literate in that he could read and write. He got as far as third grade in Sicily, and Grandmom, the seventh. I was never quite able to figure out the details, but, God love them, they had an arranged marriage in Philadelphia, and they were inseparable until the end–over 50 years of marriage starting in 1922. I can remember Grandmom getting exasperated with Grandpop, usually starting out with “Joe!” But I never saw them fight. I never saw him really angry with her, or with anyone, for that matter. They were a big part of my world growing up–Hell, they were my world growing up. And I was lucky. Day care in extended Italian families was all part of the deal; and for me, it worked out wonderfully. I had four parents.

For a cabinet maker and a seamstress, they didn’t do too badly. They had three daughters and an income that would have been worth over $50,000 today in 1940. I remember when Grandpop died, my father, “Lou Larkins”, helped settle the estate. Dad was not the communicative type, but he was stunned at what Grandpop had been able to do. “Rich, I don’t know how the Hell he did it,” which was more or less a direct quote, a it being a stash of US Savings Bonds, that astounded my Dad. Yes, they raised a family, and yes they owned three homes in their lifetime. But they had no real expenses other than food, clothing, and shelter. Their family was everything. And I mean everything. And they were raising it in a country of genuine opportunity, genuine mobility, and, for what it’s worth, genuine democracy of which Franklin Delano Roosevelt was their patron saint. You may say, correctly, “but your grandfather was listed as ‘white’ on the census form”. Other Sicilians, like the ones who got strung up in Louisiana, were less fortunate. That was the extent of Joe’s white privilege. The rest was work, and I saw it, so don’t be giving me any crap. Maybe that country no longer exists. I frankly don’t think it does. But that does nothing to diminish what two very modestly educated immigrants achieved.

Joe’s life was uncomplicated. He went to bed around 8 or 9 PM. He rose at 4 AM. He commuted by trolley, subway, and the Ben Franklin Bridge to RCA Camden where he worked as a cabinet maker until 1960, when he retired. His big entertainment was the Friday Night Fights on our RCA (naturally) cabinet tv. He tended his garden in the front of the house–the rosa bushels (“rose bushes”) and enjoyed a glass or two of wine with spaghetti, bracciole, or some close substitute every night in the kitchen. The wine came from Tomasello in Hammonton, NJ, in large glass jugs. Vintage Tuesday, probably. He re-bottled it in a Four Roses Whisky bottle and after dinner, usually smoked his pipe on the front porch, depending on the season. Until he was well into his sixties, I never saw Grandpop in Church. That was for Grandmom, and I guess he had a good bit of that bred-in -the-bone anti clericalism that Italian men often had. In fact, the only real dispute I remember between him and Grandmom was over some building project at Saint Donato’s that Monsignor Pasta (Honest to God, could I make it up?) was dunning the parishioners for. I don’t know how much was involved, and I was a little kid. But I got the impression he thought Monsignore should keep his hands out our pockets. As he got older, and mortality dawned, he’d go on Sundays, usually dressed beautifully in a suit and box coat that would’ve done Luca Brasi proud.

Joe was stout. His English was a thing of beauty, and his son-in-law, Stan the Man, compiled quite a Joe Villari Concordance. When he finally moved out to the suburbs in the early 1960s, Grandpop set up a real vegetable garden that was in production all summer long. His deadly enemies were the “habbits” (rabbits) and them God-damna squirrels. What little profanity he used he saved for his varmint foes, although “managia” and “pada Madonna” did make an occasional appearance. Sicilian he saved for card games with his buddies, and I couldn’t understand a word. Of course, wine, laughter, and the less-than-transparent rules of the game, “Abriscula” (Briscola for Tuscan purists) didn’t help. Man what a character he was. When he was decked out in his rumpled farming clothes, deeply tanned, and grinning from ear to ear, he was a sight. If I managed to make an appearance, I’d be greeted with a boisterous “Reechee old boy!” I’d give anything to hear that again. It was no accident I took “Joseph” as my Confirmation middle name. In my own weird adolescent way, I thought he’d be with me forever. My friends fussed over Joe and Frances–“Such handsome people,” one said. Damn right. Dignified, hard-working, unassuming, you name it. How could you not love them?

When I say that Joe and Frances were generous with their family, I’m not exaggerating. In their house in West Philly, I can remember a time when Mom and Dad, yours truly, and an aunt who had taken ill (with her husband) were all in residence. Yeah, it was a big house, but Joe’s attitude was his entire family should be there. And on the major Catholic holidays–Christmas, Easter, New Year’s–everyone was there. We had these massive family dinners laid out in the kitchen, spilling over into the dining room, with turkey, spaghetti, soup, nuts, salad, fruit, pies, cakes, beer, wine, whiskey, more or less like in the Godfather holiday meal scene, sans fisticuffs. The benign Philadelphia presence of broadcaster John Facenda (our Walter Cronkite) was always hovering in the background on Channel 10, to the point where he was–as in so many other Italian families–more or less an honorary guest. These were all day affairs, at least, starting sometime early in the morning and stretching into the night hours. And always with Grandmom intoning “Nobody’s eating!” although Grandpop did a good imitation. Yeah, there were all the usual frictions. Probably even more I had no inkling of. But with Stan the Man and Joe Villari around, you really didn’t have to pretend much that we all liked each other, because sure as Hell, everyone liked them, and some kind of transitivity seemed at work.

I didn’t just like Grandpop. As a little kid, I worshiped him. In the summers, I guess when he was on vacation, he’d take me to the park to play horseshoes. He’d get me crackers and a soda. I think he let me win a lot, because I remember once I didn’t and started crying. God, he was so upset, but really amused at the same time. We’re talking about an event that probably occurred 65 years ago, so if you think his kindliness didn’t make a Hell of an impression on me, guess again. In 1960, he retired from RCA. I remember the surprise party the family gave him, the shocked look on his face as he came through the door on Haverford Avenue. That night, for the first time in my life, I got to stay up past midnight, all thanks to Joe, who joined me in watching Science Fiction Theater before the tv station signed off. Now you want to win a kid’s heart: let him win at horseshoes and stay up past midnight. It’s not complicated,

1960 was, in a lot of ways, a really critical year. Over Grandpop’s objections, my Mom and Dad moved just across the City Line to verdant Penn Wynne, which is today some kind of fairyland suburb that enjoys all the virtues of diversity, inclusivity, political liberalism, a Great Public School, you know, all that stuff that owns the Libs. Back then, it was nothing special, and some of the neighbors openly feared the integration of the neighborhood by Eyetalians (I first heard dago and wop on the mean streets of Lower Merion, for God’s sake). I think my Mom was worried I was in training to become some kind of city hoodlum, which seems laughable now. So for a while, I saw less of Joe (and Grandmom). I got yanked out of Saint Donato’s, where I was happy, and sent to Presentation BVM, where I was not. But in the meantime, not to be deterred, Joe found a nice stone house with a back back yard (i.e., potential farm site) in Penfield, a ten minute walk from where we had moved, albeit in Delaware County, far less distinguished than Montgomery Country. Who cared? We were practically reunited. Thank God. Suburbs or not.

I spent a lot of time at that house, particularly after school, in the years leading up to high school. Joe and I watched a lot of afternoon tv, which, in those days, seemingly included a lot of news. The news was not always good , with Cold War vibes, albeit leavened with Jack Kennedy’s press conference humor (and you wonder why Trump made so many of us ill?). There was also a good dose of Bull Connors’ dogs in Birmingham mauling Black people on film, great afternoon fare. Which we all watched in stunned and disgusted silence. I can say–and I’ll swear to it–I never heard a racist word in any language come out of Joe’s (or Francis’) mouth. Grandpop solemnly told me that Democrats were for the working man (him) and Republicans were for the bosses (them) and that was that. I think I unconsciously absorbed that assumption being around them so much. Joe had been out of work for three years during the Great Depression. He would’ve wondered how the Hell anyone with a brain in their head could have classified that as voluntary unemployment based on rigid money wage. Meanwhile, Grandmom, a crack seamstress, went out to work, sending her three daughters to be monitored by her mother on Cross Street in South Philly. You detect any running themes here: family, taking care of each other, a kind of gentle class consciousness based on decency and a peasant Catholic culture–if not rigorous church attendance? We do for each other. That’s a given. We’re loyal to each other. That’s a given. Coppola got a tart and aggressive version of it right: never take sides against the family. Besides, why would you want to? It wasn’t enforced by guns, dammit. It was enforced by an unself-conscious and implicit understanding of this was how the world worked. And, maybe until 1960 or thereabouts, it did.

Mercifully, Joe Villari died suddenly in 1978. He never suffered, and he was literally in the arms of his daughter and son-in-law, who frantically tried to revive him. His death almost killed my grandmother, who simply withdrew from life for a time. I remember running my fingers through his beautiful head of white hair at his wake, not quite comprehending what had happened. My Mother kept numbly repeating “He was so good to us.” I said goodbye at his graveside, in the bitter February cold, and walked away. I went back to his house and got plastered. Life was never the same.

The ship that brought 16 year old Joe to Ellis Island

Dick, This is Woodrow. Did I Wake You?

(The following is a text written 21 years ago on the occasion of a commemoration of Woodrow Borah, the Shepherd Professor, Emeritus, at Berkeley. I didn’t go, but someone–who knows, delivered it. It is verbatim. Borah once called me on a Saturday morning at 10:00 A.M. The title was his memorable opening sally. I had been up since 6:30 A.M. writing lectures.)

Lou Larkins

“Are you always that conventional?” Oh, man, what a line. My Dad, Louis Richard Salvucci, used it on a cute chick he saw on the 31 trolley in West Philly. I’m not sure how he got her number, but he asked her out. By phone. Party line–and you gotta be ancient to know what that was. Said cute chick told Louie she had no idea who he was, so how could she date him? Well, I’m here, and said cute chick was one Madeline Villari. My Mother. This was, what 1946 or 1947. So she went out with him. Sly dog.

When my Mom told me that story–and I was well beyond the age of reason–I never quite looked at my Dad the same way. Dude. You laid that line on a woman, otherwise known as my Mother? Shame on you. I wish I had thought of it first.

Let’s get something straight. Of all the people I wish I could get back in my life, my Dad is the numero uno. Maybe he’d be surprised, but maybe not. He was a deeply sensitive guy who rarely showed emotion. Which is why from the time he was in high school until the time he left us, his stomach was always killing him. He was under few illusions about life, but he never tried to push me one way or another. Probably because he knew what getting boxed in meant. He wasn’t about to do that to me.

He came from a big immigrant family originating on the Abruzzo-Lazio border, San Donato Val di Comino. I can’t remember off hand if he was one of 12 or 13, but he was next to the youngest. His own father was one of 17, which Lou never believed. No surprise, I was a singleton, a classic example of regression to the mean. I should be able to rattle off dates and stuff, but I can’t, other than 1937. That one mattered because that was when his father became a naturalized citizen. He, Alfonso, was an Italian emigrant and remained so, which meant my Dad was born–1919– unknowingly, an Italian citizen himself. God love him, he bequeathed dual nationality to me and my family. I stare at that EU Passport and figure, worse comes to worse, I’m gone. I owe you, Louie, once again.

I have an early shot of Louie, probably from the late 1920s, standing in front of Saint Donato’s parish school. Yeah, they named the parish after the town, since probably 75 percent of the families I knew started out there, with names like Cedrone, Antonelli, Gallo, Rufo, and Camilli. I know they didn’t realize that their ancestors had been decidedly tight back in the old country, and that there was a lot of inadvertent cousin marriage in West Philly. I always thought Italian Americans were crazy; but they were inbred, not nuts. In retrospect, it explains a lot of the stuff I saw or sensed. I often wonder if any of these families understood why ” ‘it’ just runs in the family.” “It” would make for an absorbing psychosocial history. Anyway, Louie is there, dressed in a dark suit, and staring fiercely at the camera. He must have been born serious, or pissed off, or both. In his high school yearbook, West Catholic 1937, there he is, a good looking guy–heh, heh, you devil–but described as “quiet, unassuming, workmanlike.” Boy, that was Dad. Was there ever a better description?

Now, Louie should have graduated in 1936, but a duodenal ulcer nearly finished him off (I know he was found, passed out, in a pool of blood, in the Men’s Room at West–and no, I never asked too many questions), which resulted in big time surgery in about 1953, by my guess. He had a Hell of a scar on his belly, and no, he didn’t have war stories, because even the Army wasn’t that desperate. He did war work that involved him stamping a lot of papers for “copper” bound for the “Manhattan District” in Chicago. He told me he figured it out after the War, copper being a codeword for uranium. He recalled on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, he was hanging with his friends in front of a garage in West Philly when the broadcast was interrupted by the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. You want to know how hard is is to think like a real historian? He told me that the first thing they all asked was “Where the Hell is Pearl Harbor?” and they had to go find a map. So when you think you can understand the behavior and mental world of some Genoese dude who sailed the ocean blue in 1492, please remember that we can’t even easily access the head of one of our own post-Enlightenment types in 1942.

Dad was a Swing Kid. And he played tenor saxophone. God did he love the Big Bands, especially Goodman. But interestingly enough, his saxophone heroes were Lester Young, Chu Berry, and Coleman Hawkins. At his funeral, one of his old friends told me his was the first guy in their circle to bring around Bird’s recordings. Dad saw Tatum live and told me I’d have to wait a bit before I got what Billie Holiday was doing. You do get where I’m going here, right? White boy from West Philly? I never heard him talk about Bud Freeman that way, and as I got older, I realized his love of early Getz was pure Lester Young–although I never pushed that angle with him. After all, he liked George Shearing too–and so did I. He played “Body and Soul” for my Mom once over the phone. Wildly romantic, no?

But, alas, Lou Larkins (I take it that was his “stage name” –I have no clue, but I did hear it once as a kid in West Philly coming from his friend Mike Renzulli)–did not follow music, or woodworking or electronics, or any one of a number of the manual arts at which he was truly–and I mean truly–gifted. Boy, when I compare my fumbling efforts to get a can open with my Dad doing plumbing on the home we moved to in 1960, I feel sort of foolish. Geez, Pop. I got your stomach. How come I didn’t get your craftsmanship? He could fix most anything, cars included. And he actually was, for a time, one of the first generation of people who could operate an IBM mainframe. He actually did contract work for Lawrence Klein and Morris Hamburgh of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s on the monsters that his employer, Oscar Mayer, rented out when they were idle. He’d take me down to the plant at 36th and Gray’s Ferry in Philly at night and let me punch cards while he wired panels. How the Hell he taught himself that is beyond me.

If there was ever a guy less suited to industrial accounting, it was Louie. He hated it, but he went to Penn at night in the 1950s to learn. He took care of his family, even though I know he would have sooner jumped off the Walt Whitman Bridge than go into the office. He had that sense of duty that so many of his generation did. You know, no one said this was gonna be fun. I had to grow up before I figured out how admirable he was, because there was no way a guy that creative should have suffered through the profession he did. When he’d take me to the Philadelphia Zoo, and we’d watch the big cats yell for their raw meat and purr (really) afterward, he was genuinely happy. When we went to the Franklin Institute and and he showed me how stuff ticked, he was genuinely happy. When we went to see the resurrected JATP together, he was happy. Or to see Ellington. Or Buddy. Or when he was entertained by Stan the Man, who was making some politically incorrect crack down the Shore, he was happy. Listening to Sinatra on a Friday nightwith Sid Mark and a glass of sherry and a cigarette made him happy. I know, cause I was there. We watched the 1960 Presidential debate together. We watched the moon landing together. We watched the Tonight Show together. We watched David Susskind together. We watched Bill Buckley together. I won’t say we never argued, especially as Vietnam and puberty were becoming twin curses. But he was always cool, and he never had to say much. And he didn’t.

I know he thought I put too much pressure on myself, but he never scolded. I had to laugh when he caught me with a bottle of wine in my car. His only question: “Who’s the joy juice for?” Since he liked the girl I was dating (so did I–we are happily married), his only words were “Be careful.” For a guy who must have spent most of his time not doing what he would have rather done, he was remarkably cool, if not necessarily tranquil. There was no bitterness that I can see now. Hell, he took things out on himself. Lou was no saint, but he lived a remarkably spiritual existence. Dad introduced me to Augustine and Thomas a Kempis. I know he felt that God had abandoned him somewhere along the way. But unlike most of us, he blamed himself, not God. “If thou art neither hot nor cold, I will vomit thee out of my mouth.” If he had a favorite saying, that was it. Think about it. When Dad retired, he became a daily communicant. It was no deathbed conversion. Something sustained him, and quite possibly, it was his faith.

I’d like to say Dad was happy in retirement, but I don’t think he was. When we came to visit, especially after we had kids, that visibly changed. We’d go down to the Franklin Institute again and ride the Conrail engine–Dad, me, and Martin. Or we’d go somewhere, maybe out to a train museum in Lancaster County, and just have a good time. For a bit, he’d be distracted, and his very personal version of the tragic sense of life would dissipate. That was nice to see. I didn’t know that the last time I hugged him–and told my Mom to stop yelling at him for some damn thing–that our next encounter would be in the same hospital, Fitzgerald Mercy, via which I entered the world forty or so years earlier. He was, unfortunately, on the way out.

Woody Allen supposedly said 80 percent of success in life was showing up. By that standard, Lou Larkins was, unbeknownst to himself, a great success. He showed up. Every day. I miss him. Every day.

Hello, Dick. What’s Up?

Earlier this year, I published an In Memoriam for my thesis supervisor, Stanley J. Stein, who died at 99. It was not easy to write. All the difficulties of graduate education, and they range from personal to professional, come back to you when you are asked to write a memorial. And there is one you never anticipated–the John Donne moment. You know, ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee, hotshot. Writing about someone who was like the major grown-up in your life after your biological parents reminds that tempus fugit. Today, you write for your mentors, but that assumes that you are now old enough to be shown the door too. If it doesn’t cross your mind, you’re a hardier soul than I am. Maybe you are.

One of my friends who read the memorial called it a “formal elegy.” Since this friend was a long-time Perfesser of English, I was pretty pleased, as if learning that I spoke prose for the first time. But, knowing me, he also said he doubted it really got to the core of the relationship between me and Stanley Stein. Well, yeah, you could say that. You know, Gibbon says that in the Roman Legions, discipline was such that the average soldier feared his officers more than his enemies. I think Stanley must have read Gibbon in junior high.

Which is not to say we didn’t end up as real friends, because we did. Or that I didn’t look forward–well, maybe that’s too strong–anticipate is better, my periodic phone conversations with him over the last twenty years. Talking to Stanley Stein was always a seminar, and there wasn’t much question as to who ran the show. I told friends nothing could take me back to those glorious 1970s in Princeton faster than having Stanley decide he was going to bounce a few ideas off me to see if I hadn’t lost my edge (what little I have) living in the Great Beyond. Like, conversations got serious in a hurry. After “Hello, Dick, what’s up,” there wasn’t much time for small talk. It was off to work. And keeping up with Stein was tough when you weren’t used to it.

Linda, my wife, friend, and fellow sufferer through graduate education, had a great description of a seminar with Stein. “He’d come out swinging. And he’d pound you into a corner. And, boy, you better be ready to have a comeback (or an escape route). Because, otherwise, you were finished.” Was that ever true. I once watched him interrogate a fellow student in American history(whom I know he liked) by asking “Having you read any Russian history? Have you read any German history? Have you you read any French history?” When he got a negative shake of the head to each more insistently uttered query, he finally exploded, “Well, what the Hell have you read?” Even now, I’m laughing as I recall this little pas de deux. Didn’t seem quite so entertaining then.

My first in the flesh glimpse of Stanley was in late Summer 1973, as Linda and I were trying to figure out a very complicated marital residence situation. We sort of decided, jointly, that if I was going to work with this guy, I better go meet him. So I (we) screwed up our courage and went over to Dickinson Hall, then the seat of the Great Princeton History Department (sic), down in the basement, to see him. I knocked tentatively on the door, he said come in, and there we were.

My first impression of Stanley J Stein was of a dapper little guy with an Adolphe Menjou moustache in an office neatly but fully stacked with old books, a thick stack of typescript in front of him, wearing a seersucker suit. Yeah, wearing a suit. In his office. In the Summer. Working. Since my undergraduate teachers had been, shall I say, somewhat less formal (not to say considerably less famous), I was suitably intimidated. And we didn’t exactly get off to a flying start. “I was trying to make myself scarce,” he said. From which I gathered he was not altogether pleased at the late-afternoon intrusion. God knows what I stammered, but what seemed like the very next question was “What do you plan to write your dissertation on?” Oh, sweet Jesus. WHAT? Again, God knows what I stammered. He looked distinctly unimpressed and said something like “Well, you know, sometimes people arrive and they are all on fire to do a specific thing.” On fire. Right. I just wanted to get the Hell out of the room at that point. It was, alas, a feeling I frequently had in my student* days at Old Nassau. The little asterisk is intentional. You get that when you are a product of the Graduate School at Princeton. You are never a Bentley Goldman ’06. You are, alas, always a Richard Salvucci* Kind of telling, ain’t it?

I don’t remember what Linda and I talked about after that, but I suspect both of us were a little shell shocked. Welcome to the NFL, rookie. Both of us would learn that Harvard PhD’s of a certain age, ethnicity and background shared a certain characteristic intellectual aggression that was not personal, but too direct to seem otherwise. The idea was that intellectual discourse was hand-to-hand combat, and you had damn well be ready to kill or be killed. Bernard Bailyn, Stein’s exact contemporary, had the same manner, and so did David Landes. Stein was no outlier, but it took some time in a Higgins boat on Nassau Street to figure that out. Actually, it took a lot longer than that. I got to know David Landes at Berkeley, and Linda really got to know Bailyn in the 1980s at his Atlantic seminars. It took about twenty years to get over the initial shelling, but the ordnance was always the same.

There are so many stories I could tell about my academic interaction with Stein as a student–frankly, I’ll have to leave some of them for a second installment. I’ll give you a taste here.

My first “homework” as a grad student almost stopped me dead. I had gone down to visit Stein in his office and was undoubtedly saying something stupid about economic history. He sat back regarding me and then came out with, “Dick, I want you to read Huguette and Pierre Chaunu, Seville et l’Antique.” I dutifully wrote this down, phonetically, since I had no French (we had a triple language requirement in Latin American history, even if we fudged by sticking to the Romance languages: I passed, dude, all of them. French after a week’s crash study). So then over to Firestone Library as it was then (not the Wall Street financed Taj Mahal it is now) and to the old card catalogue. Little did I know this was a repository of scholarship itself–I pray Princeton did not discard it–and went to look up “the book.” My first inkling that something was amiss was that I found so many damn cards for Chaunu. “Weird,” I must have thought, and then repaired to the dungeon of, I think, B Floor to go find “the book.”

Well, I found it. Did I ever. I pulled down one volume. Then another. Then another. Damn, it took up an entire shelf. Some of the volumes had two parts and some of the parts had two parts. I carefully cleared the shelf, walked up the stairs to Circulation, and checked the whole damn thing out, volume bu volume, with my name joining the ranks of predecessors on the circulation card, some of whom were well known historians. I do remember bringing the stack down to the graduate study room and putting them on my desk. Where they remained for a week while I frantically tried to figure out what to do with them. It made no apparent difference where I started or ended, not that I could read much of the text anyway. And the maps. And the tables. And the routes. And the cartograms. It got to be a kind of running joke among the other first years, until an advanced Europeanist told me there was a pretty good summary of the thing in one of John Elliott’s books, which I quickly acquired. And with a dictionary, a grammar, and lots of cigarettes, I slogged. And slogged. And slogged. I would occasionally report back to Stein who listened without saying much.

Now, the climax came when I had to produce a report for him, which must have been a mess. I can’t find it, and I still have some of that stuff. In any event, there was no letter grade, but a comment that Stein nearly eviscerated me with. “Dick, this is a good job. But you didn’t answer a basic question. So what?” I remember wondering how the Hell were you supposed to answer some existential question about the work of some bonkers Frenchmen that came down to why did you do this and what did you learn? I do think I got loaded that weekend from our perch in 903 Lawrence Apartments. It was quite a view in 1973, mostly sod farms on Route 1, little else. No malls. No corporate centers. You could get trashed and contemplate the Great American Question. “So what?” Years later, when I posed that same question to a couple of grad students at Berkeley, they regarded me as if I were some kind of madman. One of them said as much. For once, at the moment, I understood why I was supervising people older than myself who clearly weren’t pleased at being put in such a position. For once, they had no answer. “God bless you, Stanley. I shut them down today.”

Because Stein was in the throes of composing his (and Barbara Hadley Stein’s) magnum opus on the Spanish Empire, I didn’t see much of him until the end of my second year, right before my comprehensives. We were like two pipe bombs that crossed paths occasionally. I didn’t much like him. And, to be honest, I’m not sure he thought too much of me. He once wrote I had a critical mind, but it wasn’t clear that I had an original mind. Ouch. Can you imagine being 23 or 24 and getting clobbered that way? When I hear the current generation of students complaining about their teachers, the unfairness of life, and all the rest, I think back to that moment. Stein would have killed most of them. And he would have simply thought he was doing his job. And he was. There was no bs. I later joked that Princeton was the Parris Island of Latin American Economic History. Because it was. I told Stein that many years later and he laughed. He told me he ended up in the Navy only because the USMC wasn’t interested. No one ever accused the Marines of being too cerebral.

So when does this story become “And they lived happily ever after?”

Oh, boy. You got a minute?

I somehow managed to squeak through my general exams, although, quite honestly, I was by that point wondering why I had left the prospect of a nice career at a bank in Philly behind. And had once walked out of a seminar on a break and almost not gone back, were it not for the insistence of Linda, who basically said, since when do you run away from a challenge? And I almost never went to Mexico to do research, which is another long story. But while it isn’t irrelevant, it isn’t very edifying. So we cut to the chase.

Linda and I worked in the Mexican archives for the better part of eighteen months. Linda, who has her own Stein story to tell, got involved in her own research and ended up publishing a very well regarded paper in Historia Mexicana that won the Haring Prize. Yup. Would you believe that Stein read it as a seminar paper and actually gave it an A-? My theory, recently developed, was that her argument essentially contradicted one of the major points of the multi-volume project he and Barbara were at work on for 20 years. I think he admired the scholarship, but was ticked that one of his students may have been stealing his thunder. Stein was very smart, but very human. I honestly think he was thunderstruck That’s how it works sometimes. Since it’s Linda’s story, I’ll pass over the rest. But anyone who thinks either one of us sailed some “Hey Boomer” graduate program with a Club Med fellowship is apt to get some dirty looks and a curt, if not obscene, dismissal. Life, dear younger colleagues, is tough all over. That doesn’t change.

Living in Mexico and working in the archives every day–sometimes double shifts–was the education in “Latin American” history I never had. Basically you learned how to decipher centuries old documents written in some kind of scrawl in metallic, flaking ink and adorned with incomprehensible symbols that you asked the Mexican staff about. If you hit them on a good day, you got an answer. If not, you kept plugging. At first you had–I had–no idea of what I was doing, but there, buried in this stuff, you started to look for patterns, meaning, something that would tell you what the Hell you were trying to work out. It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle whose final image appeared nowhere. You had to conjure it up. That Stein called “historical imagination,” and he valued it even more than independence, a thick skin, or a facile line of slick historical trivia. If you had it, you were ok. If not, well, you’d find out. About 75 percent of the way through our stay, I sent him a forty-some page precis of what I thought I was seeing. To my utter amazement, he liked it. No, he didn’t say that, but the wind started blowing from the South for the first time, and I confess, it felt good.

Stein valued originality and independence of mind–frequently these are difficult to distinguish from absolute ignorance, which I displayed in abundance–and he had no reason to think I had anything on the ball until I showed him. And he wasn’t going to pat you on the head, hold your hand, anything. He was very much a tough sob because that was how he did it. And if you were going to do study with him, that’s how you were going to do it. It was, really, a compliment of sorts, although many of us had no clue. Especially me.

What really broke the ice between us finally was my finding the manuscript to an important mercantile bankruptcy which had long eluded his grasp. This was one of those dark basement “archives”, unorganized, no copy machine, places where current legal files were kept and the historical stuff just happened to be there. You had to beg your way in–and you got good at that in Mexico after a bit–and then you plodded. No finding aid. No calendar. Hell, barely any light to read by. Me and my buddy Gabe Haslip Viera sat in that dungeon for months inhaling God knows what and plowing through stacks of uncatalogued stuff, frantically writing down digests of what we read. One day, by luck or God’s grace, I found this case, which documented the collapse of a commercial house named Oteyza Y Vertiz. I knew that Stein was bugged by this particular case, but had never been able to make much headway with it. So I wrote him. Snail mail, right, it’s 1978. Lol. He called me. In the DF. At our apartment. I’ll never forget the tone in his voice: “You found the quiebra (bankruptcy)?” Man, if he could’ve come down on the next plane from New York, he would have. However he was teaching, so I told him I’d handle it. No microfilm. No xerox. Forget your little smartphones, yet to appear. I sat down for a week and transcribed most of the case. Yeah, you’re thinking brownie points, and I’m sure that entered my mind too. But actually, it was more like “Hey, this is amazing. It’s like walking around Mexico City in the 1790s and talking to all the big shots.” It wasn’t really work, and I probably got as much out of it as he ultimately did. Maybe more.

Coming home, writing the dissertation, teaching full time as Linda went back to class (and working on a biographical project directed by Frank Craven about wealthy Princeton boys from back in the antebellum day, of all ironies) was the kind of life that you really need to be in your late twenties to handle. A lot of stress, not much sleep, a lot of tobacco, not much bread, but, somehow, if you wanted it, you did it. And we both did in our own ways and at different schedules. This was by no means a solo thing. It never is. We both paid our dues, and plenty of them. I won’t dwell on it, but we did run out of gas in Princeton once. For a week.

I remember the triumphal moment in Berkeley when I sent off the finished manuscript to Stein, the thing I would defend as a dissertation. I was an Acting Assistant Professor making about 17K. Big deal, right. And it was all great fun right? Like Hell. I don’t think either of us could or would do it again.

As for Stanley, my day of the defense went ok–a small rumble with Herb Klein, down from Hudson U, notwithstanding (see, plus c’est la change, right). When we had finished up and we got ready to go to lunch at the Faculty Club, a first, believe me. I can’t remember much about it other than spotting that Olive Tree and Lexus guy holding court. But I do remember what Stein said to me about the dissertation before we left his office. “Dick. It’s a gem.” Yeah, Stanley J Stein said that to me, the kid from West-by-South Philly. Stein and I would go on to become colleagues and even very good friends, about which I’ll write some other time. But one thing no one can take from me: I earned his respect, and frankly, he earned mine. The difference was he really didn’t need mine, but it was nice to think that somebody as smart–and tough–as Stanley Stein liked and respected me. Priceless, as they say. Stockholm Syndrome, you say? Maybe.

Bless Me, Father, For I Have Sinned

If you were born sometime between 1945 and 1955, more or less, you remember the drill. On Saturday afternoon you summoned up your courage and went to church. Not just any church. You went to your parish church. And with seriousness of purpose. Because you were going to Confession. It was a familiar sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church, and you were there because you were human. You had sinned. Everyone sinned other than Jesus, Mary, and a few smart-ass kids in your parochial school class. They never were affected by PALEGAS, the acronym by which we remembered what the deadly sins were. Hell, they could probably really draw in art, sing in music, and clap the school erasers clean. The nuns loved them. You regarded them suspiciously as some sort of pain in the ass. They didn’t go to confession. Or if they did, they were in an out in a minute. Damn. Following them was not good. Some old Irish priest would say “You did what???” Or “explain to me exactly what you did with her.” Man, that always took time. And when you finally caught holy Hell from the priest and got to leave, the other people, especially the kids you knew, were grinning. Heh, heh. “I know what you did last week.” Yeah, they could guess. But you were saved. Temporarily. You said Five Our Fathers and Five Hail Marys if you were lucky. And you felt good for a day or so. You wouldn’t go to Hell that weekend. By Tuesday, who knew?

In retrospect, what seems like some sort of adolescent initiation into a shame culture probably had a deeper effect. For some of us, it would eventually drive us out of the Church. The pointlessness of pretending that you regretted doing something that you had no real intention or ability to stop doing–and inevitably, this was something mortally sinful, which meant go straight to Hell, dude–got to you. Or you took a deeper view. You figured you would suffer through this ritual because you should–and that was half the penance. You kept it up because, well, because the Hound of Heaven was there somewhere. You had to do it and you really were at a loss to explain why. Maybe it was neurosis. Or maybe neurosis was a modern name for God’s grace. But the reality of God and the sacred were there, like it or not. You felt it when you walked into a church. And you weren’t kidding around. You may have hated yourself for it, but you went along with it. And you probably struggled with it. As any sensible person would. Belief was not a choice. Any more than eye color, intelligence, or, God forbid, sexuality. Not that we ever discussed that much.

But for me, thinking over this part of my life in light of the Vatican’s latest pronunciation on the intrinsic disorder of homosexuality is a bit revealing. When you say to yourself, as I often do, how in God’s name do I continue to count myself a member of this homophobic misogynistic cult? What is there that keeps me hanging around, the dreadful revelations of pedophilia and corruption over the past few decades notwithstanding? There is, for some of us, the very slight suspicion that if we could somehow go back to the fourth century CE, that if we could could recover the early Christian communities whose bane was the Roman Empire, we might find what we were looking for. We might be totally off the mark as far as details go–the role of women, the view of sexuality, the frank theological anarchy–that we imagine the early Church to be about. But we don’t much care. If that wasn’t the Church that Jesus Christ founded, it should have been. This one, we fear, lost its moral compass well before Charlemagne knelt before Leo III in 800 CE. We are Christian anarchists, like it or not. We survive in the thrall of a miserable desire to know God’s will as interpreted by a bunch of curial bureaucrats who likely practice the very behavior they satanize. Bless me, father.

We live with cognitive dissonance as our creed. We are, as they say, “faithful Catholics”, at least in our own minds. Miserere nobis.

Hedging Your Bets

When I started reading economics, long, long time ago, I was taught the cliche about there ain’t no free lunch. Now in high toned circles of the Econ profession, I understand that there is some debate about that. Good. Intellectual differences sharpen thinking, although you’d never know that from a lot of modern American universities. But, I digress. I have come to understand in conservative circles there is something that you might term “a quasi-free lunch,” mostly one you can eat if you are a market fundamentalist. I’ve been mystified by this paradox for some time, because you’d think those for whom supply and demand are a religious icon of sorts might flee in terror from any such notion. Nope. They sure don’t. But I have a theory. Oh, oh.

Now the idea here isn’t very complicated. The future is basically unknowable, but it isn’t unpredictable. A ghoulish example. Since I am mortal, I will die. The probability is 100 percent, sniff. Now, ask me to pick a date. My primary care physician tells me she thinks I’ll make it into my 90s, so that gives me roughly 20 years to fool with. That’s 7,300 days. If we hopelessly oversimplify and say one day is as likely as the next (don’t try this on an actuary), then I have a 1/7300 chance of being correct about the exact date. That is, I have a .0001 chance of being correct, or one in ten thousand. More or less. Are you feeling lucky? Not that lucky, I’ll bet. Me neither.

Not to extend this depressing conceit too far, but the point is, I will die, I just have no idea when. And precisely because of this mix of certainty and uncertainty, I buy life insurance. I make a bet with my insurer each year that I may well cash in my chips before the term of my policy expires. I lose, right, but I win. Or my beneficiaries do, because my insurer has to pay off. My insurer loses, right? But look at this way. For thirty years or so, my insurer has been winning, for real, because I pay the premia, and get nothing in return. But when I do lose–er, win–my insurer has been winning for years, but can afford to lose. And this particular gamble involves not just me, but millions of other people who buy life insurance. The insurer is a bit like a bookie who use the losses of some to pay the winnings of the other, while keep a small slice of the handle for him or herself. Not for the faint of heart, but that’s why you only read about this stuff. It’s very risky.

But you know what else is very risky? Screwing with the lives and well being of people to whom you have a social, if not a fiduciary obligation. You are the governor of a state, or some other public official, you have a duty of care. Somewhere you probably swore to protect and defend the people of the great state of Whatever, so help you God. Quite. And when you manifestly fail in that duty, well, like Truman said, that’s where the buck stops. You can’t say “This is unacceptable” when something goes horribly wrong. Of course it’s unacceptable, you weasel. You didn’t do your job, but you want to posture and to strut around as if you were somehow the victim. Right. Welcome to Texas, and to the Republican party of Texas. The well of crocodile tears never, ever runs dry.

As so many other writers have emphasized, Texas is governed by a party that is really not interested in government, much less governing. They have been in power for over two decades, and, honestly, I’m hard pressed to think of a positive accomplishment to their name. They like guns, true enough. They think everyone should have one and in almost any venue you can think of, including churches and schools. They don’t much like women, it seems, especially outside of janitorial and reproductive functions, just as the Lord intended. To be honest, they don’t seem to like anyone other than white people, and when you come right down to it, I don’t think they much like Southern Europeans with olive skin. Which would include people like me, whom they confusingly label “Yankees.” Go figure. Logic doesn’t seem to be a strong point with them.

Now they claim to like honest-to-God capitalism and free markets, which, of course, make free people. It’s why Texans (the right kind) are free: free of income tax; free of other power grids; free of social capital; zoning; planning–you name it, they don’t want it. No sir. Now this sort of cowboy capitalism really confuses me, because it doesn’t appear to have much to do with reality. Since the future is uncertain and things do happen, it is hardly socialism to plan on having extra capacity in any business. Just in case. Like when I was a kid, Al the Barber always seemed to have an extra chair, because, as he patiently explained, you never knew when a wedding party was gonna show up. You didn’t want to turn away customers, so you made provision–you took out a form of insurance–knowing you could call a brother barber and have a station for him (it was always him in those days). Besides, what did it cost? Once the chair was there, it was there. You just had to make sure you could pay your bills at the end of the month, and it wasn’t like that chair was gonna make or break you. Since Al had been in the business forever, he had a feel for these things. They happened, he just couldn’t predict exactly when. He was a prudent businessman. And a good barber, too, as I recall.

Now, you’d think in the business of providing basic public services like water, gas, and electricity, you’d know there were times when demand was going to surge. Some pretty predictable, and some not. And you might even, if you paid attention, have some idea of when your productive apparatus might be likely to fail, especially if you had been around the business for years. So you hedged, right. You planned for the worst case, and then said “but what if it’s even worse than that? What could I do, within reason, to say the worst case might not be the worst case?” Don’t laugh. It happens. It happened at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in the old Soviet Union in 1986. The unthinkable happened. The “that’s impossible” wasn’t. And as a result, the world came very, very close to seeing large parts of Western Europe uninhabitable for God knows how long. How close? Go read Midnight at Chernobyl. But not before bedtime.

What happened there happened under the aegis of a corrupt and incompetent Communist Party and a bunch of apparatchiks whose job was to praise Lenin first, lie second, and then worry about the results. It happened that some of the very well trained engineers and physicists had actually worried that what sent the reactor (No 4) to kingdom come could actually happen. But no apparatchik let science get in the way of politics or their careers. Now doesn’t that sound familiar? We’ve known for some time that the Texas grid was vulnerable to extreme cold. We just chose not to do anything about it. Why? Well, it was unlikely to happen, as if the very meaning of “unlikely” wasn’t changing at the same time. Climate change is, in part, about extreme events, but we weren’t gonna worry about ordinary extreme events, let alone the possibility that something even worse could happen. And did. The extra capacity that might have prevented the disaster was–and isn’t–there, in any form, including weatherproofing wind turbines. But, hey, Texas Republicans bragged about cheap electricity. They still do. Maybe the benefit that came from paying a higher price, the clear ability to afford extra capacity without squeezing nickels, would have made for a greater margin of error. But, no, we don’t really have to pay for things here–any more than we have to wear masks to prevent viral transmission. The Lord provides: the quasi-free lunch is the Texas Miracle. God, like Lenin at Chernobyl, will watch over us.

And taxes. Ugh. As if taxing anything the market incorrectly overvalued–like the products of internal combustion engines–could ever be justified. Nope. There are no market failures in Texas, only a touching in faith that no “deadweight loss” from a tax could be compensated for by using the revenue raised for a more valuable social purpose. Like weatherizing Alamo Grid. Nah. Just like the guy here who refused to wear a mask in a Walmart by shouting “I’m a godly man.” Right. Faith-based market economics. Somehow, I’m glad I’m a heretic. And at this rate, I may end up as an agnostic.

The Ice of Texas Is Upon You

Baby, it’s cold outside. Well, finally, after a week, not really. And if you live in places where frozen precipitation and subfreezing temperatures are still part of the natural cycle, global warming or not, you’re thinking “What’s the big freaking deal? A little snow and ice and they go nuts? Like, up in the Panhandle and whatever the Hell they call it, doesn’t it get cold and snow pretty regularly? Yeah, Amarillo (no, not Armadillo, you idiot. Amarillo is Spain-talk for “yellow.” I have no idea why it is and really don’t give a rip.) Well, yeah, they average about 18 inches of snow a year. That’s more than Washington, DC gets, although I know DC doesn’t handle it too well either. But, still, Amarillo is Texas and you never heard of civilization ending there. Ah, don’t say it and I won’t. Nasty.

The year before we left Philadelphia, now, it looks like, maybe for good (cue the D minor blues), it didn’t get above freezing where we lived for a month. On end. I think that was the year of a 20+ inch storm, and me and my trusty Ford Fiesta never got stuck, never ran into anything, and it was plenty hilly. If you had any sense, you learned to drive in snow because there was usually plenty of it– before we decided we could use the atmosphere as a public toilet, and, get this, 5 degrees Fahrenheit ago (I got that Philly average increase from an NBER paper, by the way, and one of the authors works at Penn, so he must he right, Trump’s degree notwithstanding). We lived in an apartment in the Western suburbs that whistled in the wind. You wore Pendleton (I still have mine) and ate lots of homemade soup. Big. Freaking. Deal. Forget about real places like Maine or Minnesota. This was, for God’s sake, Philadelphia. So what is it about Texans and snow? Are they just really wimps at the core? Before you Yankees start nodding up and down and say “I knew it. Them guns that they worship are phallic symbols and the jacked up pickups and Texan monstermobiles are all clearly related to some kind of sexual inadequacy. I KNEW IT.” Well, it’s an entertaining hypothesis, but cheap gasoline and a state that, for the most part, has more wild animals than people in a lot of places is less provocative, but more to the point. Forget Freud. This is what the Econ call factor endowments. It explains a lot, believe me.

But it doesn’t explain what happened here last week, our own St Valentine’s Week massacre. And you may find it entertaining, schadenfreude at the Big-Mouth Braggarts brought low. I get it. When Joe Piscarcik called The Cowboys “Iran’s Team” I loved it too. I can’t go to Dallas without feeling ill, and the first time I went to Dealy Plaza, I broke down and cried. There were witnesses. That I get too. I don’t like the place much, if you couldn’t tell. But that isn’t much of an explanation either.

I got two stories here. One, yes, is climate. And the other is political. And you can make of them what you will. After 30 years here–longer than any other place I’ve lived–this is my best shot at explaining what should be a very teachable moment for Texans, but probably won’t be. Why that is we’ll get to as well. So be patient.

First of all, Amarillo or no, what happened here last week was extremely unusual. One report I read (in, of all place, the Philadelphia Inquirer), claims that last week was the second coldest recorded here since they starting keeping track, the other being, I think, 1983. Now 1983 was, quite literally, another era in Texas. Mark White was Governor (D). Bill Hobby (D) was Lt. Governor. The Texas State Legislature was overwhelmingly Democratic, in both chambers, about 70 percent. Hell, UT was 11-0 in the regular season, with its only loss coming in the Cotton Bowl. Like Archie Bunker said, “Boys were boys and men were men.” Now, you look at Texas today. Abbott and Costello, er, Dan Patrick, are Governor and Lt. Governor. Both are Republican and Abbott is more afraid of Patrick than he is of any Democrat. About 60 percent of the Senate is Republican and more than half the House is too. Instead of Lloyd Bentsen, we got John Cornyn. You starting to get the picture? The population of the state has grown from about 16 million to 29 million, which is not doubling, but it’s getting there. But wait, there’s more. The non-Hispanic (what is Hispanic anyway) white share of the Texas population has been plummeting since 1990, and only placed like California and Nevada have seen equivalent shifts. Minority majority, it’s called.

You’d sort of think this might mean the Texas legislature would have gotten more, not less Democratic, but that hasn’t happened. Indeed, the reverse in true. Look, I know more about the politics of the Republic of Texas in 1840 than I do about Republicans in Texas in 2020, and despite my best attempts to sort of figure out what’s happened within Texas legislative districts (https://lrl.texas.gov/legis/billsearch/searchresults.cfm?subjectList=Redistricting&action=clearAll), all I can really tell, pending a massive research project, is that redistricting within Texas (not just redistricting for Federal Congressional districts) since 1990 has become a free-for-all, and that the Mother of All Redistricting Dudes, Tom DeLay, the dancing pest controller, was, of course, a born and bred Texan down to his Baylor and oil-industry roots. I’m assuming that the Republicans in Texas reacted with the same fear and loathing of demographic change that they have preached on a national level. Besides, whatever happened to Barbara Jordan, Ann Richardson, and them tough-as-nails Democratic women. I think they’re making a comeback, but the intervening generation of Texas male Democrats hasn’t made my heart go pitter pat, you know. You got to give the Republicans credit here. They saw what was coming and worked to block the political implications. So you got a Republican legislature here, and the last thing you think about with these birds is fiscal progressivism. Texas doesn’t have an income tax, never will, and has one of the most regressive tax structures in the country, and that’s a fact. Here the poor pay, and we’ll be damned if we’re gonna let them vote otherwise.

What on Earth does that have to do with snow, ice and Texas’ latest catastrophe? Well, probably nothing and everything. The people now running this place (and their constituents) are some of the most ignorant market fundamentalists that God ever put on Earth. They never saw a tax they liked or a market they didn’t. They think social capital is socialism. And they got an allergy to planning–which we may charitably term high rates of discount. They care not for the future, and it’s the one thing that Jesus Christ said that “Christians” here do seem to take seriously. You can tell people that it’s probably not a bad idea to make even a relative modest expenditure on preventing what is admittedly a low-probability catastrophe. A catastrophe is just that, right. But even given the small chance of Hell freezing over again anytime soon, they ain’t worried about the future and they’re sure as Hell not to pay for anything that could keep natural gas lines or wind turbines from freezing up (Abbott’s pathetic attempt to blame the Green New Deal is so far beneath contempt that I won’t even discuss it. You’re gonna here more about Green New Deals than Commies in the future, in part because Texas Republicans probably find a lot to admire in the old Soviet CP. Good old boys, them Reds. They knew how to control people, dadgumit).

But wait, you say, what about climate change? What about it? Them pointy heads like Bill Nordhaus who have laid out the economics so clearly that even I can follow it keep referring to higher variance distributions of events. In plain English, this means that you can, so to speak, expect the unexpected more than you used to, because the meaning of “normal” has changed. So, for all I know, we may have a week in San Antonio with three snowstorms next February. Or a heat wave with a string of 90+ days. Who knows? That’s what higher variance means. Just like the climate scientists were predicting in the 1990s, when lots of people, myself included, wanted to see some evidence. You want to see real evidence? Come on down y’all. I’ll show you some. My beautiful garden lies in ruins. Forget Covid denial.

If you like cliches, here’s one for you. We got a perfect storm going here. Demographic change, political reaction, climate change, and market fundamentalism (which isn’t particularly good economics, for that matter, but that’ll have to wait for next time). And I hear from my California friends that there are just oodles of Golden Staters itching to go to Texas to avoid them California taxes. Don’t I know it? I see their license plates all the time here. I laugh. Do you really think those people, self-selected as they are, are gonna bring “liberalism,” whatever the Hell that is, to Texas, and turn the place blue? I was one of those refugees 30 years ago, way ahead of the curve, looking for a place that my University of California salary would actually put a roof over our heads, or at least contribute to one. We found it. But we were economic refugees then, not anti-taxers, and Welcome to the Third World. Where the living is cheaper, and the weather if fine. (Sarcasm) Welcome to Texas. That’s Texas, not Taxes. Cute. Is it gonna change soon? I doubt it. The Texas model works for a lot of people, especially at the top, most of the time. The ones at the bottom don’t count anyway, and we’ll try to make sure they either don’t vote, or that their vote doesn’t matter.

As The World Turns

When I was a very young kid, there was a soap opera. Soap opera means a show sponsored by some personal hygiene product. Shampoo. Soap. Underarm deodorant. I have very vivid memories of sitting on the floor of my grandparents’ home in West Philly and listening to the soaps on radio. Like, “As The World Turns.” Me, linoleum, and some incomprehensible story of love gone wrong on the radio. Hurricane Hazel was winding up, the sky was green, and some organ was piping minor chords to get us in the mood for some betrayal or other. Only later did it move to tv. But by then I was old enough to have some vague idea of betrayal, dum, dam, dum, as the world turns. With a globe spinning in the void.

It was a secure world, with all the normal worries of a sheltered childhood. Yeah, I had a crush on the girl next door and the kid down the street was a barbarian. Welcome to West Philly. You took the good with the bad: the Mummers, John Facenda, and the PTC. With the feral kid who made your life miserable for wanting to read a book. That was 66th Street. That was the 1950s. You walked to the movies; you walked to Catholic school; you hung out with the vo-tech kids, and you looked at the Edsel down the block. That was life. And, frankly, it was ok.

Family was very much a part of everything, in my case, three generations worth. We lived in a big old stone fortress in Haddington. It had a porch, a dining room, a breakfast room, a kitchen, four bedrooms, a bathroom, and a split basement that was part finished, and part washing room. There was a clothes chute that dropped two floors, so you could drop dirty clothes from the bathroom or the dining room (table cloths and such) directly into the washing room. You could also take a shot at dropping yourself. I was tempted, but timid. There was also an old coal bin, but it was a curiosity by the 1950s. We had something called hot water heat, whatever that was. The basement was occasionally used for soaking “fish stalk,” which I think was dried cod. It stank to high Heaven, but Grandpop liked it.

We always ate in the kitchen, with Grandpop presiding. We never used the breakfast room, and only on special occasions was the dining room summoned into service. There was a big old 1930s radio there that I was I had now, complete with multiple dials, bands, colored wheels, and all kinds of cool stuff for a kid. I messed with it, but could never get it to work. Besides, everything happened in the kitchen, where there was a little radio and a real fridge–not an icebox–and a cool linoleum floor that you could skate on by making wax paper covers for you shoes. I do remember several cracks ups involving the covered radiator on the rear wall–you could start, but stopping was tougher. My maternal grandparents tolerated all of this with good humor. And, really, for most of the time, they raised me. My parents worked.

This was a bilingual family, trilingual if you count Grandpop’s version of English. My parents both understood and could speak Italian, but rarely did. My grandparents spoke Italian to each other, and a mix of Italian and English to me. The Italian tended to come out in moments of extreme exasperation (“Ma che fai?” or on those furtive occasions when the kid wasn’t supposed to get it. So I had an odd vocabulary, little grammar, and a fairly good idea of what was going on in any language. To my everlasting regret, I could understand Italian, but never spoke it. Which explains how bad my Tuscan is now. No one was encouraged to speak Italian by the nuns at St. Donato’s School, resolutely assimilationist, where I started out, at 65th and Callowhill. We had our share of immigrant kids who could swear like sailors, and I did, of course, get some of that. God forbid one of the Cabrini nuns heard you winding up some choice obscenity. No one called your parents. You just got belted. End of story.

The neighborhood was cool. We had PTC trolley tracks running in front of the house on Haverford Avenue. They were probably distant relatives of the horse drawn line that ran through Haddington starting in the 1860s, although I had no idea then. There was no history for a little kid. Just the next day. And each day began predictably enough with an Abbott’s dairy truck, loaded with ice, trailing a dribble of water up the driveway behind the houses. You got milk in bottles. The church bells rang at 7:00 AM to call people to pray–St Donato’s was an Italian-language parish named after the small town in Val di Comino, on the Abruzzo-Lazio border in central Italy that populated that part of West Philly. We had Salvuccis, Cedrones, Antonellis, Rufos, Camillis, all related in impossible ways, going back 600 years. Oddly enough, we kept on intermarrying in America, and then wondered why half of us were nuts.

The driveway was for commerce as well as cars. Fruit vendors hawking “watermeloons, mezza pezza,” or free-stone peaches from Jersey, or huge, honest-to-God Jersey tomatoes, usually hit the block in the Summer. So did some guy pushing some concoction called Gevella water that my Grandmom used in washing clothes. There was a breadman, a laundry man, luxuries now unthinkable. Down the street there was a vegetable store spilling out onto the street where Grandmom would buy stuff and pass a few minutes gossiping with Madan’ana (I swear). At night, Reale bakers up the street put out wonderful aroma of fresh-baked bread, and I could hear the workers moving equipment around and the ovens sighing, especially with open windows in the Summer. My favorite hangout was Doc Renzulli’s drugstore at 65th and Haverford, where my Dad would go to commune with his homies and buy me a Superman comic book for a dime. Hell, I learned to read that way. Man of freaking steel. Ripped avant la lettre. In a chaste relationship with Lois Lane. All surrounded by the odor of a genuine soda fountain, where one of “Doc’s” guys made ice cream sodas. Like from scratch. If we were oppressed, I didn’t know it. And if we were privileged, you could have fooled me. I thought we were normal.

The furthest eastern boundary of my world was 63d street. That was Overbrook, and tonier then. My Dad, whom I adored, would take me to the PRR station there to watch the trains come through in the evening. Wow. The Broadway Limited would go flying through like a bat out of Hell around 7:00 PM, and there was always some enormous freight train spewing sand to improve rail traction running right up close to the station. My Dad got a kick out of the engines shaking the station apart. It scared the Hell out of me most of the time, but I can still see the Pennsy engines humping through, long before Al Pearlman and Stuart Saunders merged the PRR into oblivion with the New York Central. I learned to read the train signals and saw the station master water his plants. No, it’s not my imagination. Philadelphia was more civilized then in the 1950s, and it lingers in mind as a good proxy for what Heaven would be like if I ever get there. Yeah, sentimental. Too bad.

We had a couple of cars I remember, especially a Hudson and a two-tone 1955 Buick Century. The back of the Century was my throne and I got to watch the world between Philly and the Jersey Shore, really to the point where I could have driven it myself. My Dad smoked Salem cigarettes, the butts of which I would occasionally cadge when I caddied for him at Cobbs Creek Public Golf Course. Too bad they didn’t make me sicker . Too bad he never caught me. There was a spring just off the course, and we’d get water there. You could watch the Philly cops passed out in the Red cars, protecting and defending. I heard my first racial f-bomb casually dropped by, Ciro, the old guy who was the “attendant.” My Dad, a gentle soul, said nothing. He didn’t use that kind of language. Ever. He had graduated from West Catholic in 1937, having lost a year to a bleeding ulcer whose vestiges tormented him until he died of a glioma. Louie missed the war, but got everything else instead. To this day, I see him doing his Wharton School night class homework in the kitchen after working all day. He graduated about the same time I did from high school, a tribute to tenacity and his sense of dignity. Lou was a sax player turned accountant. He hated accounting. But he did the right thing by his family. You want to know why I don’t have much time for my current students? “But I have to work. I couldn’t study.” Really? Life’s tough, ain’t it? Did Woody Allen say 90 percent of life is showing up? Well, Lou showed up, just like his brother-in-law, Stan the Man. They were bound be a common working class ethic, a sort of code of masculinity that meant, as the Brits said, never complain, never explain.

My Dad knew there was a larger world out there. He’d take me to the Art Museum (fail), to the Robin Hood Dell (longhair music, fail), to Valley Forge (Mt Joy, total success), and when he could, to the Free Library, although that was my Mom’s gig. Me and Dr Seuss were tight, although I’m sure the political subtleties were lost on me, and still are. Dad listened to Dorsey and Goodman, but also to Bird and George Shearing. Even opera on the weekends, mostly with my Aunt Mary, who really dug it. So I knew the stuff existed, and when I wanted to start exploring for myself, I could. There was no pressure from him, just opportunity. My Mom glared at the B- in “conduct” on the report card from Saint Donato’s. That was her department. At which she was quite adept.

Grandpop worked at RCA Victor in Camden. He’d be up at 4 AM, the house still fragrant with the pepper and eggs that Grandmom made him for lunch the night before. On weekends I’d be up early, like little kids are. I learned how to make him coffee in an old percolator, which absolutely delighted him. In nice weather, we’d go and sit out on the porch. He’d smoke his pipe, Holiday Blend. Later in the day, early evening, he’d water the “rosa bushels” (more Stan the Man phonetic rendering of rose bushes) and the small, sloping patch of lawn that fronted Haverford Ave. We wouldn’t say much, but we had fun. You remember the smells, the sounds, the garish 1954 Ford two-tone (lavender and white) Ford parked by the corner. The old school mailbox on the corner. I can still see it all, permanently etched into my skull.

I never much liked Gary Wills, but he once wrote that “we grew up in a ghetto, but it was a good ghetto.” Good call, man. Some of us never really left, no matter where we ended up. It wasn’t Paradise, even then. But I don’t have to believe that if I don’t want to.

Pay me or trade me

Man, if you want to stop rational conversation in the United States, talk about rent control, taxes, or the minimum wage. “If we don’t do this, the world will end.” “If we do this, the world will end.” And in the background, some talking head, usually male, but nowadays, maybe a woman, saying the exact opposite to some befuddled broadcaster. What’s a good citizen to do? You could say “They’re all full of crap.” And maybe you’re right. Of if you’re in a seance with Harry Truman, you could ask for a “one handed economist.” On the other hand, you could say, as a friend of mine does, “two economists, three opinions.” That appeals to the cynical pomo in me. What, Pilate said, is truth? Good question, dude. Especially when redemption is on the line. Isn’t it always.

The Dems have tied themselves to the mast of raising the minimum wage to $15.00 an hour. That bald statement doesn’t tell you much. Joe Biden has said, incorrectly, its not a issue that has anything to do with the federal budget, so it merits separate treatment. Smart move, Joe. This way, you leave your credentials a sensible moderate intact. I get it.

But, really, why is the issue so controversial? I mean, really, unless you’re an Unpalatable or a Filthy Capitalist, how could you demur? I’ve seen the hurt in my Liberal friends’ eyes when I suggest the Neanderthals may have a point. Et tu, Salvucci? You can actually side with those people? Well, not exactly, but I know from which cave they spring. It is called a demand curve, and if you can get any closer to a religious dogma in neoclassical economics than “demand curves slope down,” you got to tell me what it is. Spare me the free lunch. No less an economist than Joel Mokyr insists that technology provides one, and he’s a Big Deal and I’m not. Besides, that’s not the issue.

Any economist trained anywhere other than a Red Roof Inn will tell you price and quantity are inversely related when it comes to demand. Forget all the nerd reasons that your econ teacher laid on you. It comes down to substitution. In the purest flavor of neoclassical stuff, no one needs anything, because there are substitutes for everything. If gin gets too expensive relative to other spirituous liquors, then you’ll switch to something else. Like vodka. It doesn’t have to be a perfect substitute. After all, the goal is to get buzzed, not to improve Scotland’s balance of trade. I know, not much finesse there for the connoisseur, but this isn’t The New Yorker. So if there are substitutes for everything, consumption is not an all or nothing proposition. You can always use a little less or a little more, depending on relative price. And, horror of horrors, that describes the labor market as well

For some reason, applying the theory of demand to people and jobs really ticks people off. Hey, that’s my brother you’re talking about. And he’s not a pineapple. We don’t traffic in human labor in the same way we traffic in kumquats. Really? Explain the Atlantic Slave Trade. Are you saying the enslaved were kumquats? No. Hardly. But it’s odd how the use of slave labor and the theory of demand make odd bedfellows. You think planters were happier when African slaves were cheap or expensive. You just answered my question. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s true. And saying it doesn’t make me a reactionary. Or a defender of slavery. Just an economic historian, which is much less sensational.

The idea that relatively high wages will make an employer think twice about hiring is hardly a stretch, especially if you’re talking about unskilled labor. By definition, unskilled workers have nothing distinctive about them (but they’re people, man! I know). If you’re picking up fruit at the market, and it’s all the same, which do you choose? Chances are, the cheapest one. Why pay a premium for something that has no distinctive qualities? Unskilled labor, alas, is like a generic fruit in the market. Push up its price and people start to look for a substitute. Saying you are going to help unskilled labor rise from poverty by raising the minimum wage is naive. What you’re gonna do is give someone an incentive to find a substitute for it. So, ultimately, at a certain level, the minimum wage is self-defeating. When I went to McDonald’s in France, there was no smiling employee to greet me and take my order. I got to talk to a screen. And collected my order by number. The Europeans have tougher labor laws than we do, and you can’t just fire someone because you’re in a bad mood. High wages have the same effect: they encourage substitution of capital for labor.

This isn’t politics, or shouldn’t be. In the same way face masks aren’t politics, or shouldn’t be. The virus doesn’t care, and, alas, the market tends not to either. “That’s why I hate capitalism.” Yeah. Your complaint is registered.

So you’d probably say, “Hey, you’re opposed to raising the minimum wage, right?” Ah, not exactly and not per se. For one thing, I was taught that inflation adjusted wages and prices do the heavy lifting in markets, and I’ll wager the real (inflation adjusted) minimum wage has fallen in the United States, so pushing the number of dollars up some is not likely to break any employer. And that’s what the studies all say, lately. Chicago, Seattle, Jersey, whatever. They strain to find substantial employment effects. The explanations are many and varied; if you’re that curious, go look at the current Congressional Budget Office report on the pending increase (https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2021-02/56975-Minimum-Wage.pdf). Yeah, I know, boring. Facts always are. Remember, find me a one-handed economist.

For another, I’m not sure I trust the studies because looking for an effect from a minimum wage increase after it’s happened is like trying to find the horse after someone unlocked the barn. Employers aren’t stupid, and even as we argue, I’ll bet a lot of them are figuring out ways to preemptively deal with an increase before it happens. Expectations matter, and people adjust. We know that. So Heaven knows how good the data is. At a local supermarket, the cart jockeys disappeared before the ACA went into effect. I know. But it’s Texas. I don’t disagree. The moral high ground has very little value here. It ain’t Seattle.

I guess my reaction to the CBO study is, well, how big is big, how bad is bad. Will the benefits, broadly measured, justify the costs. That is a very, very difficult question to answer, because a lot depends on who gets what of each. You pay, I benefit. I’m for it. If not, NIMBY. It depends.

It also strongly suggests that economic questions end up as political issues, as this one obviously is. Do you really think this one is any different? You think Trump made any sense when he said exports good imports bad? Like so much else the guy spouted, that was backward. Completely wrong. Who cared. You saw what happened. In his world, Lies Trumped Good Economics.

I suspect this is going to be decided politically as well, and believe me, the world won’t end if the Democrats get what they want. I believe in the principal of “This is not necessarily a great idea, but it’s time has come.” And an increase in the minimum wage sort of falls there. It will lift some people out of poverty, and there’s far too much of that in the United States. It will hurt some workers, and I suspect it will also act as a wealth tax of sorts, about which I am also vaguely supportive. Why? Because the alternative is worse. I don’t want to watch more people get talked into the idea that they don’t matter. And that invading the Capitol is their only way to make the point. Some mistakes you have to make. Welcome to the real world.

Stan the Man

“A car is a weapon. Weapons kill. They have killed and will kill. When you get into a car, remember, you are using a weapon.” That was a great moment in driver’s ed, old school style. Not exactly Montessori, huh. My “instructor” was a World War II veteran of the First Army, the Big Red One. He worked at Westinghouse in Lester, PA, in the Steam Turbine Division. He was a union guy. He smoked Camel cigarettes. I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think he drank Ortlieb’s beer, although I know he was both a Gretz and Schmidt’s aficionado. He played violin so badly that when he visited my cousin, who played fiddle with the Pittsburgh Symphony, someone told me my cousin ran around shutting the windows to make sure none of the neighbors heard the ensuing racket. God forbid they should think it was coming from him.

Stan came up the hard way. He came from a Polish-Hungarian family in North Philadelphia, and was a high school graduate. He had two brothers and a sister, as far as I know. Before World War II broke out, he was selling sporting goods at a store in Philadelphia on Arch Street named Passon’s. The place was famous, and I’m pretty sure my first baseball glove come from there courtesy of Stan. He was my uncle. I worshiped him. You want to talk about favorites. I had a lot of uncles and aunts. Stan and his wife, Dot, my Mom’s sister (Domenica) were my favorite people. I bore a distinct resemblance to Dot, so much so that people often thought I was her son. I can only imagine how much my Mom enjoyed that. She and Dot had been known to, er, lock horns a bit in their day. Like my Mom would spell her maiden name Vallari at South Philadelphia High to distinguish herself from Domenica Villari, who spelled it properly. God knows that that was about.

In any event, Stan met Dot before the war, and they were married when he came home. I have some of his letters because I have his scapbook from the army, as well as lots of pictures. They are really something. Stan was then known as Lutz, and he called Domenica “Dot” and wrote her when he could. Does this sound like a scene from The Best Years of Our Lives? Maybe it was.

Stan went everywhere on what he ironically termed “my last visit to the continent.” He was in Africa, Italy, France, Belgium and Germany. He was a radio operator and I have his citation for Bronze Star. His unit was getting hammered somewhere by heavy artillery fire, and, Stan being Stan, he stayed at his post, did his job, and probably kept a lot of guys from getting killed by coordinating movements and maybe helping direct return fire. I never asked and Stan never talked about it. He didn’t want to be thanked for his service. He disliked the VFW types and never, never went. I did ask him about that once and he said something to the effect that the people who had been in it–really been in it–didn’t want to talk about what they saw. And that was that. His only souvenir from the war was a case of malaria that I gather he picked up in Italy. I can still remember him getting sick in the 1950s with relapses of the disease. He never complained. Never.

Stan was an average guy, but not your average person, let alone your average Philadelphian. He was not a sports nut. He could’ve cared about the Phillies or the Birds, although he was proud of coming from the same neighborhood as Angelo Coia, who played for the Washington Football Team (oh God). He spoke some Hungarian and some Polish, and taught me how to pronounce the names of some of my Hungarian teachers at the Piarist high school I attended. I guess that was all he had, and if he knew how to swear, I never got any of it, thank God. I can imagine getting thrown out for running a Hungarian obscenity past the Headmaster.

What Stan did do was reinforce something already going on in my life. Stan loved swing bands. He loved Glen Miller (which I never really got into) and he loved Gene Krupa (which I did). When Stan finally managed to move into Delaware County and a new home, he had a Music Room built. The wall was plastered with autographed publicity photos of musicians and bandleaders from the 1930s and 1940s, including a signed one from Benny Goodman. Stan had a pretty fair record collection, and it was always fun going over there and listening to music. I first heard Roy Eldridge play “Rockin Chair” with Gene Krupa at Stan’s house, something I never quite got over. Together, Stan and my Dad were a one-two punch. While I got into rock like everyone did in high school, I also got into Goodman and James and Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. I know I spent as much time listening to those bands as I did to the Stones or The Temptations. To be honest, probably more. When I started learning trumpet, some of this got to be like study sessions. The first time I managed to play along with the trumpet section in Dorsey’s “Yes Indeed” was beyond cool. No, it isn’t difficult, but when you’re 14, you don’t care.

The really amazing thing about Stan was that he knew Gene Krupa personally, and spent time with Gene whenever he was in the Philadelphia area or South Jersey. He’d go up to the Metropole in New York City to see Gene as well, which I thought was just impossibly awesome. Cause it was. Stan had a cigarette lighter (remember those) from Gene, inscribed, a Zippo. Boy would I like to know where that ended up. I’d probably still be smoking if I had gotten it.

I’m not really certain how Gene and Stan became friends and I was too young to inquire much. The absolute high point of my early teenage life was when Stan took me to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City to see Gene with a small group, I think it was Summer of 1965. Stan brought Gene a bottle of Cutty Sark, which was apparently Gene’s beverage of choice, and between sets, we sat in his dressing room while he and Stan shot the breeze. I can’t remember what I did because I was so astounded to be there. Actually, I do remember talking to Jimmy Palmer, who led the House band at the Steel Pier. I was kind of asking him if I could take a crack at at one of the trumpet parts. Since Jimmy didn’t need any subs, and, at all odds, was too busy ogling Diana Ross to be much interested in any conversation with me, it didn’t happen. I did get to have a nice conversation with the pianist Dyl Jones, who was amazingly friendly and more than willing to answer all my idiot questions about what he was doing and how he did it. Gene’s regular pianist was John Bunch, whom Stan also knew well, but John wasn’t on the gig that time. I also got to see Carmen Leggio, who must have been between stints with Woody Herman. He didn’t say much, but man could he play.

Stan was a very, very generous guy. I know he was soft touch for hard-up musicians (isn’t that redundant?). At his funeral, I remember talking to my Aunt Dot, who was crushed. Apropos of nothing, she told me that a certain famous Philly tenor player had borrowed $100 from Stan, which went unpaid as Stan joined the departed at Sts Peter and Paul. Any Philly musician I tell that story to–of the few remaining from that guy’s generation–crack up when I tell the story. I take it our friend had a long-standing, dubious financial history, of which Stan was merely a part. The rest I pass over in silence.

When Jack Kennedy gave his New Frontier speech at the LA Democratic Convention, I listened from Stan’s basement. When I was home from grad school one summer and without wheels, Stan lent me his. He would pretty much do anything for anybody, even though he was making the transition to Reagan Democrat as the Party decided guys like him were dispensable. Believe me, Stan said a lot of stuff my academic friends would have been horrified by, but he was a working class white guy for whom generalizations quickly gave way to individual assessments. So most of the time, I just shook my head as I got older. What the Hell. He had a habit of being around at some of the most memorable times of my life, and that alone made up for anything else.

Stan died relatively young from mesothelioma, aka ship fitters’ cancer. He worked around steam turbines at Westinghouse, and I’m certain that’s where he got it. These days, he would’ve been part of a class action suit. The Nazis couldn’t kill him, but American industry did. I always found that very ironic. His death broke up a lot of people very badly, my Dad included, because Stan was a traveling companion, raconteur, and occasional partner in whatever crime my Dad could actually scare up, which couldn’t have been much. So when I hear people ranting about white privilege and Trump’s people, I bite my tongue. You can say what you want about white working class guys of his generation, but I know what I saw. I can’t listen to Krupa without thinking about him. And next to my father, I can’t think of anyone I miss more.