Tuesday Morning: A Journal of my Experiences on 9/11 and since

September 10, 2011

I rise slowly and don my running shoes and shorts and head outside in to the cool air of the late summer morning. It is 4:45 a.m., and the darkness of night has not yet lifted. As usual, my run begins slowly, the first step being the most difficult. While it is cooler than I like (my preference is to run in warm, humid air) I begin to sweat after the first half mile as my body and mind warm to the idea of exercise. After the first mile, I am engaged.

There’s a section of road in my neighborhood that is shrouded by trees on both sides. In this stretch, there are no streetlights or homes, and I feel isolated, free and a little frightened. My senses are acute to sounds and sights in the darkness and I run on, pushing myself, sweat now dripping down my face.

The trees create a v-shaped wedge in the sky over the road where the limbs end, and this morning the stars and moon are particularly vibrant. I gaze upwards as I run, relishing the brightness of the sky, trying to find Orion’s belt. I recall a time when I was perhaps four or five years old, walking at night to the corner drugstore with my Father. My small hand in his, together we were in awe of the brilliant night sky. “Dad, look at the stars! There must be billions of them!” I exclaimed. I don’t really remember my Dad’s reply, but I believe that as we shared the spectacle, both of us felt insignificant, isolated and perhaps a little frightened. On that night so many years ago, I shared love with my Dad.

Running, I continue to take in the sky and my memories. I raise my arms skyward, and say a small prayer to God, to bless my family. I am one insignificant spec in the universe, just a minor cog in the great machine of the cosmos. I am content with my role, insignificant in the great scheme, but significant to my wife and especially my children. I thank God in my prayer, for putting me exactly where I am meant to be. Fear enters my mind for a moment as I consider the many things that can happen to my family that I cannot control, but it is my faith in God that enables me to believe that I will do my best to control the circumstances that I can. I am at peace with that knowledge.

Making the turn at the top of the road, I become attuned to the day ahead. My night of sleep was restless. In a few hours, I will be engaged in a conference call with the group president of my company, my boss and another corporate exec to discuss the contract renewal for one of my major pieces of business. Renewing the contract will ensure my employment for another few years, but there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the account within my company. Today’s call is my chance to plea my case, and to gain the senior level support I need to get the deal done. I mentally review my strategy and presentation as I finish the final mile. Preparing for this call had been my top business priority for four weeks, all my effort culminating in decisions that will be made in a brief few minutes. I gut-check my confidence level, and am satisfied that my preparation will pay off.

Shaving, showering, my mind focuses on what I know so well already. I anticipate the questions that will be asked, and recite the answers to myself. I mentally reassess and replay until I am dressed and heading to the train. I catch the 6:35 a.m. Amtrak Clocker to New York City.

The streets are crowded already as I begin my cross-town walk at 7:30. “Hello Boss! Where have you been?” exclaims my fruit-stand guy in his deep Middle Eastern accent as I approach his booth on 37th Street and 5th Avenue. Rahman and I have become friends over the years.

“Too many trips!” I say, “How you doin’?”

“Oh, boss, good good.” He smiles, and moves quickly to dispense my usual order.

Two navel oranges are exchanged for a buck, and I’m off to Food Merchants on 40th to get a small oatmeal and a large coffee. I tell the Hispanic guy at the counter to make the oatmeal plain, but he adds raisins out of habit since I have asked him to do so many times before. I don’t bother to correct him. It’s kind of nice to know that he recognizes me in the sea of humanity that passes by his counter every day. I’ve been a regular customer of the fruit stand and Food Merchant’s for five years, but don’t know much if anything abut the people who serve me. One of these days, I’ll ask, I say to myself.

For the second time this morning, sweat is dripping down my face as I enter my office. Like many others in New York, I am hard-wired to move fast, and the two-mile walk across town reheats me after my run. E-mail is checked, spreadsheets reviewed and food is eaten before my boss calls at 8:30. “You ready?”

I check my shirt to make sure it’s dried. “Yep, I’ll be right there.” I gather my materials for the call and go to his office.

Mark is of Armenian descent, and looks like an olive-skinned Wayne Newton. Couldn’t ask for a better guy to work with. He knows what the call means to me, and knows I’m prepared to compelling. I take a deep breath as he dials.

The words flow from me effortlessly, and the answers to questions are returned like gentle lobs in a junior league tennis match. The executives know I’ve done my homework, and seem to support my position. I am instructed to move forward on the contract with a few modifications with the strategy that need to be cleared by our finance people and our lawyers. I breathe a sigh of relief, which is interrupted by the shrill ring of Mark’s cell phone.

Mark peers at the Nokia screen to see who is calling, and frowns as he answers. He steps out of the office to talk to whoever it is. I continue the wrap-up with the execs on the speakerphone. Mark reenters, and his words take my breath away.

“Hey, did you guys hear that two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center?”

The execs on the other end of the phone are in Chicago and don’t seem to register the information, and I peer out the window on my right, but can only see the Empire State Building silhouetted against the blue sky. We quickly end my segment of the call, and I leave Mark’s office to so he can de-brief with the higher-ups.

Moving to a south facing office down the hall, I see thick black smoke pouring into the sky. From our location in midtown, we are about three miles from Wall Street, but it is clear that something bad is happening. I rush to my desk through what is now a vaguely empty office. It hasn’t registered with me that a lot of people have left. My voicemail light is on, and I pick-up a message from my Mother. She’s left the same worried message on my cell phone. I try to surf the web for information while dialing my wife. All circuits are busy. I try and retry my home and my Mom and Dad from both my cell phone and my landline. At last, I get a ring at my parent’s house.

“Please call Melanie and let her know I’m OK.” I instruct my Mom. She tells me what’s happening, and my breath is taken away for the second time as I pull up a .jpeg on nytimes.com. The picture shows one flaming tower, and a jetliner yards away from the second tower. “OK, Mom, this looks bad. I love you, and I’ll do my best to get out of here. I’ll call you when I can. Please get a hold of Melanie.”

Peering back into Mark’s office, I whisper and point south, “There’s smoke!” He’s still on the speakerphone and can’t hear what I’ve said. He’s deep into the discussion, so I leave. I recall that we have a videoconference room on the floor above, and there I find most of my co-workers. CNN has live video feeds from downtown. I gasp again as an image of a burning Pentagon building is flashed upon the screen. We are seriously under attack. Cecilia waves me to the seat next to her, and I see the tears running down her cheek.

“Oh my God…what’s going to happen next?” I shake my head, and don’t know what to tell her. I absorb the rapid-fire details from CNN. So far, as many as eight planes are unaccounted for. Three have crashed, and another may be down in Philadelphia – or is it Pittsburgh? I pucker at both ends. I live 45 miles from Philly. CNN loops back to images of smoking WTC towers.

I huddle with several co-workers back downstairs. What are you going to do? Where are you going to go? The bridges and tunnels are closed. What about a hotel? You can stay at my place. When do you want to leave? In a while. I’m not going anywhere. I’m leaving now. What if they bomb the UN? Grand Central? Empire State? We gotta get outta here.

Numb, I return to my desk. Garrett says, “One of the towers just collapsed.” My breath leaves again. Tom says, “Let’s get the hell out of here. Come up to my place.” I agree, leaving without being able to tell my wife where I’m going.

Five of us take the fire stairs down 13 floors to the lobby, carting our computer bags and other belongings. A few in my group carry luggage since they were either heading out or returning from business trips.

On the street, Tom and I look at midtown, our midtown, like it is now a minefield. We decide on a course up 3rd Avenue to avoid getting too close to Grand Central or the UN Plaza. Around 50th Street, we snake over to 2nd Avenue where the foot traffic is lighter, though there are thousands of people walking, but very few cars relative to a normal day.

It is irresistible to look southward at the now white smoke pouring from the carnage downtown. My group is solemn and the quiet within the foot traffic is unnatural, only occasionally broken by the harsh wail of a passing emergency vehicle. We speak from time-to-time, but no one really knows what to say. I recall a Life magazine picture of Vietnamese fleeing a battle area during the conflict, and suddenly it occurs to me that we too are fleeing a battle. My mind churns with uncertainty and fear, tempered thankfully by logic. Keep moving — get to higher ground, I tell myself.

I am full into my third sweat of the day as we stop at the 59th Street Bridge to watch literally thousands of people making the trek from Manhattan to Queens. A sea of heads and shoulders bob across the span.

Tom and I make eye contact at the sound of a jet overhead. Our last information told us that four hijacked planes were still unaccounted for. The sound grows and fades, and we cannot see a plane. I sigh, realizing that it was probably an F-16.

We are at war for the first time in our homeland, and I am in the middle of it.

And again, my cell phone cannot connect. Assess the circumstances, keep moving, stay cool, panic will not help, deal with what is in front of you. The five of us pick up our computer cases and bags, continuing to march the remaining thirty blocks.

We stop at a grocery store on 2nd Avenue to get a bottle of water for each of us. Huddling outside the store, we somehow sense that we are getting away from the danger since we’re in the 60’s street-wise. I notice a bank of payphones nearby. Remember those? We used to use them all the time before everyone aged 15 and older got a cell phone.

I pump in my home number and company credit card information, and at last hear the ring of my home phone. I do not care that the earpiece is covered with scum of an unknown origin. I only want to talk to my wife and kids.

“Hello?”

“Hi, it’s me.”

“Oh my God, where are you?”

I explain that we’re heading north to Tom’s apartment and outline my tentative plans to stay in the city. Relief washes over me (if relief can actually do that) with the sound of Melanie’s voice. I tear up and have a hard time speaking. “God, it’s horrible, hon.” I manage to state the obvious. We don’t know what more there is to say, so I tell Melanie that I’ll call her when I get to Tom’s or whenever I can.

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Bob takes the phone and gets through to his wife on my credit card. I imagine his conversation goes much as mine did.

Sweat stains streak my shirt as we at last reach Tom’s apartment. He and Bunny (that’s really her name, by the way) live in a one bedroom flat with their two young boys. They’ve been looking for a house in Connecticut or Long Island for a while, and are waiting to find just the right place. I suspect they’ll wait a little longer now.

Tom asks me to run to the grocery store with him so we can stock up on food. Though I feel like sitting, I agree to go. The usual heavy traffic in a Manhattan grocery store is trebled by the tragedy. People fear the worst, and stock up on cases of bottled water and staples to carry them for days if not weeks. Eerily, those in the store are quiet, and shopping goes on in a civil and relatively organized fashion. Tom and I stand in the express checkout line for those buying 15 items or fewer. Ahead of us in line is a woman with two overstuffed grocery carts – a violation that would usually draw the severe vocal wrath of Manhattan shoppers, but today is met with mild jokes. Nobody wants to be confrontational now. Our perspectives and behavior have already changed.

Outside the store, an elderly woman of European descent (I think, from her poor English) makes eye contact with me and begins a conversation. She seems to be scolding me for America’s arrogance, but I’m not really certain. I am tempted to tell her to fuck off, but can’t rationalize the logic of arguing with a little old lady who can’t understand me.

Instead I say, “This is a sad, sad day.”

She rambles on, thinking that I’m agreeing with her. I simply tell her to be safe and walk away.

Tom and I return to the apartment, and I am intrigued by the ergonomics of his home. In the bedroom, cribs for each of the boys flank a queen bed. Kids toys are stacked and stored neatly everywhere, and every square inch is well used. We laugh about it, and Tom says he won’t know what to do with more space when they move.

Bunny has the TV tuned to CNN, and we watch. The validity of new information seems questionable as we hear various accounts from a never-ending stream of ‘experts.’ All we seem to really know is that Osama bin Laden is behind it. Looking back, I don’t recall whether that was stated by any news organization, or whether those in my group and the New York population at large simply assumed it to be the case.

My shirt is dry again, and I realize I’m starving. I suggest lunch at a restaurant, and we debate the location. It is surreal to be discussing lunch spots, I realize.

Close to Tom’s apartment is a burger place called Jackson Hole. The only problem is that it’s not in Wyoming. Upper East Side Yuppies pack in to the Hole and every other restaurant in the area. Restaurant managers scramble to accommodate the unanticipated crowds. Outdoor cafes fill up first and it looks like a great summer Saturday afternoon in the city, except that it’s not.

We get a table and join the crowd, all of whom are watching CNN on the TV over the bar. Burgers and cokes arrive. We all wanted to have a beer, but agreed that we couldn’t if we had a chance to give blood later in the day.

As we watch, Mike and I begin to speculate on the death toll downtown. Are there 25,000 people in each tower, or 25,000 people total in both buildings? Mike guesses that somewhere between 10,000 to 15,000 people have died. I believe the number is lower – more like 5,000 to 7,000, since there was an hour or so to evacuate after the planes hit. I figure that a lot of people were still on their way to work when the planes hit, so the buildings weren’t full.

We watch the tape of the collapses. Tom, who has an engineering degree, figures that there were controlled explosions in the building that caused them to fall straight down. I agree; it looks just like a planned demolition.

After lunch, we return to Tom’s and learn that some trains are remarkably moving out of Penn Station and through the 100-plus year old tunnels back to New Jersey. Bob and I agree to give it a go, since we both live in the Garden State. We walk past a hospital on the way to the station, and push through a crowd of people to see if we can give blood. My type is AB negative, among the rarest types. Blood banks love to see me.

I tell this to one of the hospital workers. She says, “We’ve only taken in a few injured so far.” She tells me that they have banked far more blood than they can use already. Speaking with her, I realize that there are few survivors.

Bob and I step away, stunned by the revelation.

Somehow, in spite of the limited vehicle traffic, we manage to catch a cab. I can’t believe our luck. Having run four miles before work, and having walked another five in the city, it’s nice to get a ride. The driver hunts and pecks his way across Manhattan wherever streets are open.

Penn Station is crowded as though it were a holiday weekend. Every train is delayed. A man standing near me is covered in ash and soot, and his business suit is torn. Dried blood is caked to his face from a laceration on his forehead. We make eye contact, and I shake his hand. Quietly, I say “God bless us.” He nods, “Thanks.” Our commuting professional lives are juxtaposed with war.

Bob and I manage to catch a Northeast Corridor train after waiting for a half an hour, and are fortunate to get seats on a standing-room only train.

The car is very quiet in spite of the crowd. Bob and I begin to talk business, maybe because it’s a distraction. He asks if I’d consider working with him to start a brokerage business. I shake my head, and tell him I couldn’t take the lack of security, especially now. Bob sees my point, and realizes that risk has taken on a new meaning in the past eight hours.

Our train rambles through the tunnel under the Hudson River, and shoots out of the tube into New Jersey. En masse, heads turn to the left to look at the smoldering downtown skyline. I mourn with my fellow passengers, tears forming in my eyes. I cannot remember a sadder time.

Finally, I make it home. It is 6:30 and my kids noisily greet me, shouting “Daddy!!” like it is a normal day. They rush to me and hug my legs with so much enthusiasm that I almost fall over. Melanie and I embrace for as long as the kids will allow us to. She pours glasses of wine, and then another. My mind still races.

After the kids go to bed, I step outside in the darkness and gaze again at the brilliance of the sky. I push my trembling hands through my hair, and exhale. Why? What did we ever do to deserve this? I pray again.

I am back where my day began, under the night sky. I recall little from my conference call; it’s meaning has diminished. I recall my early morning prayer, and how thankful I was for my family, my role. Now more than ever, I realize two things. It is the people you care for in life that are important. And there are many things that can’t be controlled. I will do my best to control those circumstances that I can.

*********************

It is late Thursday night, September 13th, when a loud explosion awakens me. I shoot straight out of bed and run to the window, finally realizing that a thunderstorm is moving through. I go back to bed, but my heart is pounding and I do not sleep.

*********************

On the front page of the New York Times is a photograph of a hand-addressed letter the Senator Tom Daschle. The letter contained anthrax spores, as have numerous other letters that were sent to politicians, television journalists and a tabloid newspaper publisher. As it turns out, some of the letters passed through the large postal facility that serves my community, thus infecting several local postal employees. Our daily mail delivery slows to just one or two pieces a day, and no mail on occasion. Several weeks pass, and we begin receiving mail that has been irradiated to kill any anthrax spores. Many letters arrive in plastic pouches that are printed with a letter from a US Postal Service executive to explain what procedure was used to decontaminate the mail. We carry on in as normal a fashion as we can, despite constant reminders from our mailbox and the news media that our personal security is not a given.

*********************

Three months have passed, and the news media and the White House indicate that we are catching up with Osama Bin Laden. I’m not wild about the fact that we’re at war and that the Middle East has exploded with violence.

I see my fellow metro area residents returning to normal, as I intervene in a shoving match between two men on the train one morning. Three months ago, we were much more considerate of each other, temporarily it seems. It pisses me off that our newly found compassion is beginning to fade. But what the hell, we have to move on. That’s human nature.

Will our society gain a greater character from September 11th, or will the meaning of the experience fade like memories of a popular TV show or a Super Bowl?

**********************

It is January 11th, and the shock has faded. We talk about September 11th at work, but nobody tells tales about a friend or neighbor or cousin who died or narrowly escaped death anymore. We’re past the point of being shocked or amazed any further. We have grieved, and we bear physical and psychological scares, but we move on. We survive. It’s been happening since the dawn of man.

As it turns out, I am extraordinarily fortunate. Despite the fact that I live in the Metro area and work in New York City, I didn’t know anyone who died personally. All of my family, friends and acquaintances survived unscathed. About 40 people from my town perished, including another man with my name, Patrick Murphy. I saw his name on the memorial at our church, and I prayed for his family. For me, the terror was in not knowing what was happening, or what would happen next. For many other people I know, the terror was much deeper and will never go away.

I consider it to be no minor miracle that only 3,191 people perished on September 11th. Had the planes hit an hour or two later, or had they hit lower floors thus trapping the people above, or had flight 93 crashed into a populated area…the death toll would have been far greater.

Prior to September 11th, most people like me were concerned about very ordinary things…. our personal health and the health of our loved ones. Our 401(k) accounts. Saving for college and retirement. We did our best to keep the lawn looking nice. People like me lived to work, or worked to live. I vote for the latter.

After September 11th, our nation embraced a new ‘fear set’ if you will. Like people in the early days of the Cold War who constructed bomb shelters in their back yards, it is no longer irrational to worry about a major terrorist event. Hardware stores sell out of plastic sheeting and duct tape as people prepare for a chemical or biological attack. Grocery stores sell out of bottled water. September 11th has been a wake-up call of the most painful kind.

Will this be the beginning of a reign of terrorism in the United States, or was this an isolated incident the likes of which will be prevented through better intelligence and security in the future? Will these events encourage our federal leaders to take a more compassionate and humanitarian stance in foreign relations? Will our military endeavors backfire and create even greater animosity towards the US? I realize that we are entering an extremely dangerous time in history. Our actions now will create the world in which my children will live as well as any number of generations beyond them.

So we go on. My wife and I have further resolved to control the things that we can, and to not fret over the things we can’t control. We’ll do our best to teach our children to love and to be compassionate, and we will cherish our companionship every day that we have it. We are just minor cogs in the great machine of the cosmos, and we are content with the roles we play. We may be insignificant in the great scheme, but significant to each other, our children, family and friends. We thank God for putting us exactly where we are meant to be.

**********************

September 10th, 2011. The eve of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America. My classmates back in Wisconsin are celebrating our 30th high school reunion today at our town’s annual Corn Fest. I feel a small tinge of regret at not being there, but our life is in Maryland now, where we moved in 2006.

I often wonder if the terrorists have won. The United States has spent trillions on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bin Laden is dead at last, but our economy is in disastrous shape and millions are unemployed or under-employed. Perhaps this was Al Qaeda’s goal all along…bait us into a hugely expensive war that would have a lasting, generational effect on every man, woman and child in our country. It pisses me off.

My Dad once told my daughter, “…ALL wars are stupid…” He couldn’t have been more right. Yes, we have to fight for what we believe in sometimes. But there has been a lot of aggressive stupidity on the part of our nation’s leaders over the last 10 years.

We are hanging on. Melanie and I do our best to help our children grow and develop, and we are blessed with a great family. We thank God for that every day, and we relish our time and experiences together. Though times are challenging, our family is closer than ever. And that has always been the most important thing.

I wrestle with where we will be as a family in another 10 years. The kids will likely be off and on their own by then (or, maybe not). So much will be happening, and we will control what we can control, and do our best to not fret about the things we cannot control.

Sound familiar?

One Man’s Very Biased Perspective of the Big 10 Conference

November 20, 2010

I write this with full admission that I am biased as well as middle-aged.  I graduated from heaven (aka University of Wisconsin-Madison) in 1985, and I have found that my perspectives of the other institutions of higher learning within the conference has changed very little over these many years.  However, the conference has grown since I left it all those years ago!  Who knew that a school as venerable as Penn State would want to rub elbows with the likes of us?  They were the Kings of Football along with Notre Dame back in the day, and Nebraska was right there, too!

So let’s get on with the critique, OK?  I must further admit that my perspectives are too often shaped by athletics rather than academics.  To that, all I can say is that “I’m American” and that’s just the way ESPN has programmed me to think.  If you don’t like that, well, move to Canada.

In approximate alphabetical order, here we go…

University of Illinois

At Champaign-Urbana!  Wow!!  Sounds like a place where people have really great cocktails in the city, doesn’t it?  Funny thing, though.  I’ve been to Champaign-Urbana, and it’s really in the middle of a cornfield.  Totally not what you’d expect from the name, right?  However, I was there once for the Big 10 Rugby Tournament in the early 80’s (I’m sure you read about that or saw it on TV), and you know what?  We had a pretty good time.  Those Flatland kids sure could party in spite of the fact that the drinking age was 21 and getting into bars was a challenge.  The Police force there was also quite nice during that 2am traffic stop, and I think my police record has now been cleared in the State of Illinois.  Most memorable were the brick buildings.  I don’t know why, but I remember several of them.

Indiana University

Now this is the toughest school to get a read on since I’ve never been there.  But, I do know something about Indiana.  There’s an Interstate highway running through it (I-65) that does not have a single curve for more than 2,900 miles.  Amazing.  IU is renowned for its prowess in basketball and my mental image of the school is that everyone looks just like Bobby Knight, Gene Hackman or Steve Alford.  Or maybe Keith Smart.  That’s it…that’s all I’ve got on Indiana.  I’m sure it’s great, though.

University of Iowa

The thing about people from Iowa is that they will walk right into your house to use the bathroom without even asking.  How do I know this?  I once lived in a house adjacent to Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI and we often converted our small lawn into a parking lot on football Saturdays.  When Iowa was visiting in ’83, we made the huge mistake of renting parking spaces to these Iowa people who seemed to assume that their fee covered the use of the plumbing facilities.  Man, was I pissed off about that.  While I’ve never been to the University of Iowa personally, I have traversed across the state in a car borrowed from the University of Wisconsin for a funeral.  I can tell you that UW does not like it when you leave empty beer cans in their cars.

University of Michigan

Ah, perhaps the most arrogant university in the Big 10, if not the nation.  I’ve been to Ann Arbor many times, and it is quite clear that their alumni, students, fans and followers are all vaccinated against fecal stench syndrome.  Their shit simply does not stink.  Apparently, UM has quite an academic reputation since that fact is hammered home by anyone I meet who has ever paid tuition to attend the place.  Several years ago, I met a fairly overweight woman in her late 30’s at a cocktail party.  She was wearing a Michigan tee-shirt and was quite condescending in the fact that her school was better than mine.  I was too drunk to really defend all that, but I managed to blurt out, “your shit doesn’t stink, does it?”  She replied, “Of course not.  I’ve been vaccinated.”  I had to hand it to her.  That would be pretty cool.  I’ve also been to the ‘BIG HOUSE” where they play football in Ann Arbor.  Not a smelly fart at all among the home crowd.  Amazing.

Michigan State University

MSU and East Lansing will always hold a special place in my heart for the simple fact that the school admitted and subsequently graduated my very talented yet very emotional sister from it School of Veterinary Medicine.  Kathleen has a  personality that is part Kim Jong-Il and part Dian Fossey (of  ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ fame). She’s a handful.  Aside from that, I was under the impression for many years that it was always 40 degrees and sleeting in East Lansing.  But one day, I visited in May (for Kathleen’s graduation) and the sun was out.  The campus was beautiful.  And all was right with the world.

University of Minnesota

Now this is the school that has a rivalry with Wisconsin in football where the prize is Paul Bunyan’s Ax.  Whenever I see that ax on TV, I always think, “Man, is that small!”  I mean come on.  It’s only about 8 feet long.  Seems like a terribly small ax for a man whose fall during a bar fight left and impression in the ground that later formed Lake Michigan.  So I’m not sure what all the fuss is about that little ax.  It’s more like a toothpick for a guy like Paul.  The other thing about University of Minnesota is that its students never breathe fresh air or see the light of day from September to June.  Seriously.  The entire campus is comprised of buildings that are connected by tubes and tunnels like some kind of  Habitrail for humans.  Keep in mind that Minnesota receives 19 feet of snow a month during the winter, so this arrangement is necessary.  Also, all the women at Minnesota are Swedish-descended nymphomaniacs.

University of Nebraska

Not officially part of the Big 10 yet, but we are all looking at them like the foster child that will soon be moving in.  Football and corn.  Corn and football.  Ahman Green.  That’s all I got.

Northwestern University

“One of these things is not like the others…one of these things does not belong!”  Ah, Sesame Street.  I’m a connoisseur.  Northwestern is in Evanston, IL which is partly populated by leafy rich people and partly populated by street gangs.  There is no corn in Evanston, which is its most distinguishing factor from all other universities in the Big 10.  Northwestern has been locked into the Big 10 simply because it’s located smack in the geographic middle of the conference.  If Northwestern had its druthers, it would be Notre Dame.  However, we all know Notre Dame ain’t what it used to be,  so Northwestern is actually better off.  Plus, Northwestern has far fewer Catholics.  Takes the pressure off, doesn’t it?  I played in a rugby tournament at Northwestern once, and our team went to someone’s house where we were served brie.  I didn’t know you were supposed to eat the outside part of the cheese, too.

Ohio State University

Yes, I’ve left off the “THE” in front of this school’s name.  It just doesn’t make sense.  What, was there some other school out there saying “We’re THE OTHER Ohio State University?”  No.  So using “THE” is just silly.  But that describes OSU, doesn’t it?  A bunch of goofballs all stoned on buckeye ganja, if you ask me.  I’ve been to Columbus which is in The Ohio.  Pretty nice town, actually.  The campus was empty when I was there which makes me wonder if OSU football is really a product of some movie studio in Hollywood.  Or, perhaps everyone was in Vegas gambling with Art Schilchter.  I’m dating myself now.  Sorry.

Pennsylvania State University

Penn State is situated in the way-rural town of State College, PA which should not be confused with College Station in Texas.  It takes at least 6 hours to get to Penn State, even if  you live in State College.  The university is further situated on the top of a gigantic, tree covered mountain where the main predators are the Lions who say “NIT!”  Joe Paterno moved to State College from some place like the Bronx in 1908, and has not been able to find his way out ever since.  The Penn State colors are blue and white and the school has no logo.  They’re working on that, though.

Purdue University

Purdue is so rural, they don’t even have a post office.  How do I know this?  I dated a girl from the Chicago area in between high school and college.  This girl was quite nice to look at and very, very sophisticated compared to me.  She left after the summer was over to attend Purdue.  I wrote many, many letters to her (though I believe I spelled the word ‘rote’ back in those days), and she apparently never received any of them.  Hard to believe that the US Postal Service had overlooked such a large and formidable institution such as Purdue.  At one point, I drove down an exceedingly long, straight stretch of I-65 to visit this girl, but our meeting had to be very covert.  She said something about station wagons not being allowed near her dorm.  I think she married a spy and is now living in Russia.  But you didn’t hear that from me.

University of Wisconsin

Back in “the day,” we Badgers just didn’t give two hoots about football because we were too busy partying our brains out in every conceivable fashion.  I’m not saying this to brag…it’s true.  The craziest people in the Big 10 go to Wisconsin, and that’s quite a statement since I think everyone in the Big 10 is crazy.  But for me, Madison was heaven.  Don’t we all feel that way about our alma mater?  We should.  College is a special time.  Learning in the classroom.  Learning about ourselves.  Learning how to thaw out the frozen horn in a ’72 Pinto.  UW has changed over the years with its success in sports, however, students there are still prone to contract a debilitating case of MLS:  Madison Liberal Syndrome.  For me, MLS manifested itself in the growth of a huge Irish Afro and a propensity to hitchhike.  Though no one is ever cured of MLS, we can be in a perpetual state of recovery.  Those who don’t recover either go on to a life on the streets, or they become lawyers.  Regardless of the huge personal growth I experienced at UW, I regret not taking full advantage of the university academically (meaning, I should have gone to class).  What a school!  What more I could have learned!  On, Wisconsin! On, Big 10!

How GM Lost Me and My Generation

May 26, 2009

The American love affair with the automobile is a deeply emotional and fickle deal as we all know.  In part, cars define who we are, or more to the point – who we want people to think we are.  Who hasn’t gazed at the gleaming Mercedes S-Class lingering in the adjacent lane during rush hour traffic and thought, “Wow…that’s some car.  That guy must be a lawyer / CEO / NBA star!”  Conversely, who hasn’t glanced at the Kia nameplate on the car buzzing past us and wondered when the rear quarter panels were going to fly off?

 In truth, when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of solid, reliable transportation, there’s little separating that Kia from the Mercedes.  If well cared for, each vehicle will run wonderfully and will move you safely to and fro for years to come.   Sure, the Merc might have an extra toy or two to play with, but in the end, they’re the same.

 However, amidst that massive five-inch expanse between our ears, image is everything and all the auto marketers of the world have us wrapped around their little fingers when we enter the showroom for our next new life-changing purchase.  All, that is, except for General Motors.

 As a young lad, I had a pre-arranged marriage with GM.  It was my destiny to drive a topped-out Chevy, a nicely equipped Buick or the second-to-the-highest-end Oldsmobile in each season of my life.  I was primed and programmed to follow the Chevrolet > Pontiac > Buick > Oldsmobile > and possibly even a Cadillac progression.  It was unlikely that anything could derail this plan since it was one that had been well choreographed by my Dad along with the MBA’s in the towers in Detroit.

 Sure, Dad had that dalliance for a few years with AMC, but that was because we lived outside of Milwaukee and AMC was one of his clients.  I mean, it was a bit risqué when Dad rolled into the driveway one evening with a Javelin on loan from the factory.  All the men from the neighboring houses stopped on by to check it out.  Dad had brought something naughty home.  It was like having Bridget Bardot over for dinner.  For me, the Javelin experience launched a spurt of testosterone that had me shaving by age 10.  The next day, Dad returned with his Ambassador sedan and its ill-fitting switches and dials, boxy lines and wood veneer paneled body.  All was back to normal, and we ate Mom’s meatloaf in contentment.

 As AMC fizzled and the company was ultimately swallowed by Chrysler, Dad became free to play the field and again and it wasn’t long before his eyes turned to that tried and true old friend, GM.  This time though, Dad’s career success enabled him to shun Chevrolet and to climb the aspirational GM brand chain by signing on the dotted line for a brand new shit brown Buick Century.  We’d had the brochures in the house for months.  Every night, Dad and I would sit together.  He’d read the evening newspaper, and I would finger through the well worn pages of the brochure, fantasizing about interior and exterior color combinations and hub cap options.  I could never rationalize the value and appearance of a vinyl roof, and neither could Dad.  Together, we agreed that shit brown with a tan cloth interior was the way to go.  It was 1975 and I was 12.

 Weeks and days ticked by, and I was impatient for the car to arrive.  One day, Dad and the Century rolled in and I was euphoric.  The new car smell.  The fit.  The finish.  All so much better than that last Ambassador that Dad drove around!  The Century was the real deal, and we as a family had arrived. 

 Most fascinating to me was this thing on the Century called Cruise Control.  Cruise Control enabled the drive to set the car at a desired speed, thus allowing him to relax and focus on the steering and navigating required on America’s Interstate system while enjoying smoke or maybe a chat on his CB radio.  Cruise Control was a mystery to me…what happened when you wanted to stop?  What happened when you wanted to go again?  Could the car possibly steer itself, too?  I knew virtually all the functions of a car at age 12, but Cruise Control seemed straight out of ‘Lost in Space’ to me.  I peppered Dad with endless questions, and he patiently answered every one until I understood just how the Cruise system worked, and what every button and switch on the turn-signal lever did to make it function.  Fascinating.  Revolutionary!  Driving would never be the same, and Dad would be much better off for it.  10-4, good buddy.

 A few years later, the shit brown Century had logged more than 50,000 miles and it was clearly time for a trade-in.  Dad landed another winner with a loaded silver Century, this time with a maroon interior.  It was a really nice complement to the silver Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser wagon Dad had bought for Mom a year earlier.  We were a rising family and our success was marked by the cars we drove.  I took my driving test in the Custom Cruiser, and passed with flying colors.  Not too long thereafter, I spun the wagon around on an icy road while out driving with a bunch of buddies on a Friday night.  We narrowly missed landing in a ditch, and I swore to never drive so aggressively again. 

 The Custom Cruiser was a special car.  Like one of Dad’s old Ambassadors, the wagon had faux-wood panels on its exterior.  However, the Olds’ paneling was far more realistic than that on the AMC.  It was pure class.  I made out with a girl for the first time in that Oldsmobile, and I’m pretty sure that Sue was as much enthralled by the car’s leather-like upholstery and AM/FM stereo as she was with me.   How could she resist a GM and a GM man?  We necked to ‘Against the Wind’ by Bob Seeger who was, appropriately, from Detroit.

 But not all was well within the realm of my automobile consumption programming.  As Prince William and Prince Harry have occasionally strayed as members of the Royal Family, I too, began to find flaws in my Royal Family…the GM Family.

 With each new Buick or Oldsmobile that Dad brought home, I would run to soak in the new car smell, and to inspect each detail and feature.  In time, though, what I found was disappointing.  On each new model, I found that the speedometer and gauges were exactly the same as in the last model.  The radio and climate control knobs and levers were the same.  The switches and button on the turn signal lever that served to operate the once-novel Cruise Control system were the same, too.  And now that I was driving, I was perpetually irritated with Cruise system’s ability to work consistently.  It seemed that all that ever changed from one model to the next was a crease or two in the sheet metal and maybe a few color options.  Essentially, Dad bought the same car five times in a row, and I was getting really, really bored.

 One day, I stopped by a Pontiac dealer to pick up a friend who worked there as a helper.  I had a few minutes to kill, so I spent my time checking out the new models in the showroom.  I was clearly too young to be a buyer, so the salesmen left me alone.  What I saw was shocking.  The instruments in each Pontiac were, yes, exactly the same as in Dad’s latest Buick / Oldsmobile!  I realized in that moment that, beyond body design, all GM cars – whether they be entry-level Chevy’s or CEO-level Cadillac’s – were basically identical.

 And by identical, I mean…boring.

And by boring, I mean…not compelling at all.

And by not compelling at all, I mean…dang, GM, you got trouble.

And that, my friends, is where GM lost me.

And that, my friends, is where GM lost my generation.

 For the better part of 30 years or even longer, GM rested on its laurels and lost its mojo.

 Oh, I tried to hold up my end of the bargain.  As a new college grad with a brand-new job, I desperately wanted to make my mark in the world.  What better way to show my blossoming prosperity than by buying an entry-level Buick?  I could see myself, adorned in my new Jos. A. Bank pinstripe suit and tie, snug behind the wheel of a silver Regal sedan with maroon crushed velvet seats.  I was just like Dad, but with a bit of acne and a much smaller bank balance.

 So on a rainy night in Baltimore, I asked a young co-worker of mine to go with me to the local Buick dealer to see just what kind of a deal we could land.  We entered the lot and found a line of Regals (Regi?  What’s the plural of Regal, anyway?), including a silver with maroon interior beauty.  My heart leapt!  This was the moment I had been waiting for – no – that I had been bred and groomed for!  Though tainted, my destiny was on the verge of fulfillment.

 The sticker price on the Regal was something like $16,000…way out of my price range.  Steve and I wandered into the showroom in search of a salesman.  My palms were sweaty, and my heart pounded.  I knew car prices were flexible, but how could I negotiate exactly the deal I wanted the way Dad always seemed to?  The middle-aged manager eyeballed us across the showroom floor which was drowned in buzzing florescent lights.  He looked over to another middle-aged guy and gave a small nod.  This would be our salesman.  I’ll refer to him as Fats Callaghan. 

 Fats begrudgingly extracted his large butt from his chair, sauntered across the floor and greeted us.  I’m sure the florescent lights accentuated the circles under Fats’ eyes, but I recall thinking that he was potentially the most unhealthy person I’d ever seen.  Soon, Steve and I were seated in a cubicle with Fats to begin working on what seemed to me to be like the Treaty of Versailles.

 I fired the first salvo, “Fats, I really like that silver Regal out there.  I’ve spoken to a number of people who know about these things, and I’m pretty sure that you can give me a price that’s 20% less than the sticker price.  I’ll go $13,000.”

 Fats folded his hand across his expansive belly and stained tie, leaned back in his chair and said, “No.”

 And that was the end of it.  Steve and I left the dealership is his cool Honda Prelude with a two-liter engine and five-speed transmission.  My courtship with GM was brief and unrewarding.  I had gone to the alter that was my destiny, but the bride wasn’t just coy, she was cold.  And boring.  And not compelling at all.

 Sure, anyone can have a shitty experience with a car dealer.  That’s not a uniquely GM issue.  I’d bet that most people over the age of 35 have had a bad experience.  It wasn’t until the Internet came along and car buying moved online that the playing field began to level for the car-buying public.  But GM didn’t make it easy for someone as programmed as me to buy.  I really wanted that car, and they didn’t welcome me into the family!  I was ready to take my rightful place as a GM man!  I was ready to put my foot on the first rung of the GM aspirational marketing ladder!  Instead, I bought a Toyota Corolla hatchback.  It was 1987.

 In the 22 years that have since passed since that days, I have always yearned to buy a compelling and interesting American made car.  Ford has had a number of really nice models over the years such as the Taurus and the Explorer.  Their cars are solid, occasionally interesting but largely unremarkable.  Chrysler has had the best American car designs over the years, at least in my opinion.  My wife and I owned a Chrysler minivan which was a good but not terribly reliable vehicle for us.  And then there’s GM.

 Unfortunately, my perception of GM’s brands has only eroded as the years have gone by.  Chevy?  Unremarkable, tinny and cheap.  Pontiac?  Plastic looking body work and design that tries to hard.  The car of choice for young suburban administrative assistants.  Buick?  Welcome to the Hertz fleet.  Oldsmobile?  Isn’t that a Buick?  Cadillac?  Grandpa’s are cool, too.  And Hummer?  Don’t even get me started.    Saturn?  A fantastic concept that fell into the classic GM trap:  all their cars looked exactly the same for too long (though I wouldn’t mind having a Saturn Sky).

 Like Ford, GM has stayed afloat (at least until the economy when kaput) as a result of their robust truck and SUV sales.  But that’s not me.  I’m a sedan guy.  I need a businessman’s car for hauling clients out to lunch and golf bags out to the club.  I can’t tell an F150 from an Escalade.  Today, I drive a Toyota Avalon.  You know what that is, don’t you?  The modern iteration of the Olds 98.  Seriously.  But it’s not boring…it really is a compelling car!

 So the chips are down for GM.  They’ve got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.  They’re strapped with staggering labor costs and retiree benefit commitments not to mention a boring product line.  So what can GM do to regain me and my generation?

 For some in my generation, the answer is “make an even cooler SUV.”  That won’t work for me, though.  I’m not into gas guzzling behemoths.

 What I want now is what is right for me, my family and our world.  I want a reliable, interesting and roomy car that gets 50 or more miles per gallon and I want it at a price of no more than $25,000.  Faux wood paneling would be nice, too, but not essential (OK, just kidding!).

It can be done, and it should be done.  Chances are, it will be done pretty soon.

But can it be done by GM?


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