One of the ideas at work — oops! — in my novel What’s Left, is work itself.
Most of us tend to think of it as menial labor, I suppose, but it doesn’t have to be. In the story, for example, Cassia’s aunt Pia has a way of making every task fun and meaningful. And Cassia and her brothers and cousins all put in hours at the family restaurant from an early age on.
Her aunt Nita also had some insights on work. Here’s one I cut from the final version of the book — we simply had more on our plate than we could manage:
Day by day Nita worked her column like a line cook … a station chef. And she dared tell me journalism’s not like an assembly-line job?
The poet Donald Hall once broke labor out into three kids: work, jobs, and chores. Maybe you’ll see how they differ.
Tell me about something you do for the pure joy of doing it, even though other people might think of as, uh, tedious work.
For some of you, this could be gardening or cabinetry or decorating cakes or arranging flowers or, well, you get the drift. For others it might be an art or sport or public service.
Is it something you also get paid to do? Or could you?
As I revised my novel What’s Left, I compressed the details regarding her mother’s book-publishing venture. Here’s how it stood in an early draft:
As her dream of establishing a small-press also takes shape, the family council decides not to include it outright among our Five-Spokes enterprises but rather to extend a ten-year microloan to allow her to retain full control of its success or failure. Her game plan anticipates a modest start, essentially continuing the annual calendar and the greeting cards featuring local photographs by Baba, as well as the release of the first volume of Nita’s collected columns. These are things Baba can shepherd along while Manoula finishes her degree. From there, a cookbook would be a no-brainer in the lineup, something Barney can begin putting together immediately. We know he’ll be fussy and irritable, miss deadlines, do the whole prima donna bit. Besides, he’s not a writer, so there will be extensive editing and revision. After that, Baba can worry about the photos. He says shooting food’s a specialty all to itself. You can bet, though, the results will be worth it. And all that’s before Manoula gets to anything like poetry or fiction.
This is so far from the snippy colloquial vibe the novel has since taken. Think of it more as a memo to the author in conceiving a plausible pathway to independent business success for Cassia’s mother. Or possibly just an old dream of my own, way back when, along with memories of a few difficult collaborators.
One struggle in shaping What’s Left was the matter of determining just how much of her family’s business side to include. Passages like this one ran the danger of turning the story into a case study for marketing or investment classes, rather than focusing on Cassia’s yearning for emotional healing.
Was I right in deleting the passage as too much “insider” insight for the novel? Or does it add to your understanding of Cassia, her mother, and her family? Do you ever dream of doing something the way her mother does?
You know the adage in real estate that location is everything, and you’ve no doubt seen spots where one failed restaurant is followed by the opening of another which also fails and then another. It might be a different kind of retailer but a similar pattern. Wrong location is the usual explanation, followed by the question of why anyone is foolish enough to repeat the disaster. Lightning may not strike the same place twice (though certain prominent heights would seem an obvious exception), but business traffic follows a different set of rules. Even one side of a busy thoroughfare might flourish while the same offering on the opposite side withers.
Now for the operation in practice.
A side street near us in our end of town has a charming carpenter-gothic style store we’ve watched undergo a similar sequence.
Back in the day before big supermarkets took over, such mom-and-pop groceries could do a lively small-scale business for a neighborhood trade. Send the kids off to pick up some milk, eggs, and maybe a head of cabbage or bag of flour. By the time we came along, this site was either struggling or posting a For Sale Or Lease sign, one owner after another. Just having bread, beer, and candy plus lottery tickets hardly made for a going enterprise, no matter how charming the setting. We wished them well, all the same, and actually lamented a bit when they went under. Something was obviously missing in the business mix.
And then, maybe five years ago, a new owner took over. We admired his low-cost, aggressive hustle – things like parking a pickup on a busy Central Avenue two blocks away and putting a big sign in its bed to alert passing traffic to his deli if they made a quick turn. It got our attention but not our business, we just weren’t ordering much food out and when we did, it was usually from a great Thai restaurant three more blocks away, a Lebanese takeout next to it, or a nearby pizza house. As for the milk-bread-beer-lottery tix, a chain convenience store sat next to the Dunkin’ Donuts on the big artery, though it too kept changing hands to a 7-Eleven at the moment.
Fast forward, it’s a Saturday afternoon my wife and I are both feeling too whatever to cook, we don’t want to spend much – and pizza is getting pricey – she suggests subs, I say fine but want something more satisfying than Subway.
That’s when she suggests Katz’s, where she had popped in a week earlier to grab a six-pack and was amazed by how great the place smelled. Good sign, trusting your nose. So we look up the menu online, see lots of tempting choices, and phone in an order. I trot off all of three blocks and am nibbling on amazing fries even before I get home. In short, we’re sold.
We can see why the place has taken hold and developed a loyal following. Sometimes we’re slow, OK?
It’s not a franchise chain, definite plus. The food is tasty, very, another plus. Some of the menu pays tribute to earlier occupants of the store, once the Busy Hill Market, local awareness. Breakfast is available all day, smart option, especially considering a lot of college students live in the neighborhood – well, they also likely go for the aforesaid beer cave. The prices are also affordable and the portions, generous.
Two sub orders later, we go for the pizza, and it more than lives up to our expectations. So we now have a new go-to pizza joint, unless we really want to splurge and go for Festa, another story.
Turns out the owner’s from Jersey, so he brings some deli savvy, and he has a great manager from all I see, and a skilled crew. None of these guarantee beating the odds, but we are impressed and definitely like the way it’s changed the neighborhood.
In my novel What’s Left, she has every reason to wonder about what she’s going to do when she grows up. Unlike many of us, Cassia could continue in her family’s business — there’s some security there — but she looks beyond that and sees … well, this is one view I cut from the final version of the novel:
Yet, when we look around, we see everybody doing the exact opposite: most people can’t wait to get away from their office or factory or showroom or classroom. American society these days exalts its leisure and scorns people who aren’t making the big bucks. That’s backward!
One of the lessons I learned as a cub reporter was the importance of respecting secretaries and janitors. They could give you some of your best story tips, if you listened. Most of them knew far more about the operation than the managers at the top.
Who do you know who’s not highly paid but makes a huge difference for those around her? (Or him.)
Here we are a full six months into the year, and the surge of record-breaking goes unabated.
Racist police brutality is unmasked nationwide, along with the violent suppression of peaceful protests and free speech.
Russian bounties on American soldiers goes unchallenged in the White House.
Wall Street is living in a disconnect with the economy in general while new Covid-19 cases and deaths soar to their highest levels yet – and promise to rocket quickly.
The widespread resistance to public health measures, and then their lifting, threatens to turns the economic hit of the earlier self-quarantining into a wasted expense. Now brace for the truly hard impact when we see what a full outbreak adds up to in costs, including lifetime chronic health problems for many survivors.
And we thought toilet paper and chicken or pork shortages were big?
Already, a wave of evictions is hitting renters who suffered from the mandatory unemployment in April and May. Where can they go? Looks like a lot of vacancies for landlords, too, not that they get any sympathy.
Here where I live, state government revenue is down 20 percent. The next budget round will be a bloodbath.
Who knows what’s going to happen to the crucial election season. National conventions? Door-to-door campaigning? Rallies?
Gee, remember the Senate’s so-called trial of Trump on impeachment charges back in February?
Oh, yes, drought or near-drought in June.
Curing my lifetime of writing headlines, I often felt I’d already seen everything. Nothing could brace me for this.
And now there’s an outbreak of rabbit Ebola, fatal in 80 percent of the cases. Yes, that’s what they’re calling it. Seriously. Wild or domestic, they’re doomed. Bunnies!
Forget the MAGA hats, it’s time for the sackcloth and ashes, friends. We need to repent and be saved. How about some true leadership, based on hard facts and courage?
As I’ve looked with delight at the renaissance of my small city’s downtown, one modeled in part on Jane Jacobs’ then revolutionary attack on urban renewal back in the ’50s, I am a bit bothered by how much of it is now based on a commercial cookie-cutter concept known as mid-rises – five-story stick-frame construction above a steel-frame pedestal that’s then given a brick or similar exterior facing.
It’s happening all over the country, actually, and not just in the heart of a city, either. Even here in Dover, we’re seeing something similar happening about a mile south of downtown as an over 50s-something neighborhood called Pointe Place with rents that astound me. Who can afford it? Some retirees, apparently. It’s a downtown within a doughnut, in effect. You can’t really walk there from anywhere else.
Of course, the Covid-19 pall casts a big shadow over these developments, but some observers say it might encourage more people to move from big cities to smaller communities like ours. We’ll have to be patient and see what actually unfolds.
As I’ve argued here in various forms, I’d rather have a real city center abutting organic neighborhoods, one with a funky fringe of mixed-use buildings, unlike apartment complexes surrounded by parking lots along the major highways or shopping strips.
What we definitely have here in Dover is the attraction of a river that rises and falls with the tide, as well as the historic mills once renowned for their calico and now serving as entrepreneurial incubators and housing.
Call it atmosphere and scale.
As Dover’s emerged as New Hampshire’s fastest growing city, the bulk of the new downtown residents are presumably singles and child-free couples, either young professionals or older folks who want the amenities of living close to restaurants, parks, and public events.
The retail and professional rentals are a larger concern, though, especially as many small merchants find themselves at a disadvantage against Amazon. Take the local hobby shop as an example. And that’s even before the bigger threat of coronavirus hit the entire economy.
Even so, these projects haven’t been on hold.
The old block may look charming in the photo, but the buildings were rundown and unwelcoming to pedestrians, as was the sprawling parking lot behind them. There was also a traffic bottleneck that’s being eliminated.
Unlike many journalists, who lust after the scoop – to be hailed as the first to the punch in revealing the newest surprise in a hot ongoing drama, especially – I preferred to wait for the dust to settle a bit so we could discern the bigger picture. Yes, I was still competitive, but too often all the latest clamor struck me as confusion. What’s REALLY going on here, rather than who’s speaking the loudest or all that, is what I wanted to hear.
(Actually, with the presence of ’round-the-clock cable news and Internet connections, it’s gotten much worse. Just look at how the current resident of the White House stirs up something fresh before the outrage of his last errant lunacy can even sink in.)
The Covid-19 situation is turning into something similar. Who can keep up with the story? There are so many elements, not just the latest numbers or locations.
We’re definitely facing some ominous long-term impacts here, and we’re not getting much clarity yet.
A big exception has been voices like the Atlantic, as well as the New York Times and Washington Post.
For me, many of the biggest issues emerge around the question:
Who’s going to pay for this?
Wall Street still hasn’t factored in the debt load, unless maybe as inflation. Make that HUGE debt load and HUGE inflation, unless the wealthiest five percent of the population come to the rescue, whether they want to or not. We can look at their gains via tax cuts as longterm loans to be repaid royally now.
As a few of the clairvoyants have noted, many of the problems now emerging have been long simmering and coronavirus is merely bringing them to the fore.
Student debt loan would be one, especially if bankruptcies become widespread.
The future of retailing would be another. And the entire medical system.
The lack of antitrust action in the face of cable operators, Amazon, Walmart, and the like would be yet another.
We get glimmers here and there, but little in the way of big pictures, which are ominous.
As one voice emphasized, we do have socialization in America, but not for the people. We’ve privatized profits while socializing risks for big corporations. That’s not real capitalism. Just watch as they line up for a bailout at the public trough. Keep an eye especially on the ones laying off people and closing plants while taking the aid for themselves and their overpaid top executives. How about tying any aid to an exchange of stock placed in public trust funds, for starters?
By the way, is anyone else aghast at the Donald’s insistence on putting his signature on those relief checks, as if he’s paying out of his own pocket? Such bombast!
One canary-in-the-mine-shaft question of mine asks:
How will performing arts organizations survive this shutdown?
For me, they’re essential components to society. The artists have trained all their lives for what are often marginal wages, and the supportive structures are not easily created. Rebuilding audiences will not be easy, especially in the face of damaged incomes in general. Yet they’re crucial to the fabric of civilized community.
Unlike sports, the arts don’t have huge advertising revenues. They reflect a number of similar services that make our communities better places to live, no matter how modest their seeming place in the overall scene. We need to make note of them, too, and redress the suffering.
Is anyone else watching the impact as Covid-19 spreads from the big cities into the suburbs and rural areas – that is, from urban (which also translates as black and immigrant and blue) into red-district Trump country? The virus is no longer a safe distance from “them,” or what was originally dismissed as a liberal hoax to tarnish their cult leader, and instead clearly appearing as a cruel reality. We’re back to the already fragile state of health care in rural America, for starters.
The fact is, at the rate Covid-19 cases were initially multiplying, we could have had 40 million infected people by Easter, had we not gone into quarantine. As I almost quipped back then:
How would the nation’s funeral industry cope with an extra 450,000 corpses?
Jack Shafer of Politico magazine recently aired his argument against including newspapers in stimulus aid for companies hurt by what he calls the coronavirus apocalypse. As his title says, “Don’t waste stimulus money on newspapers. You wouldn’t put a dead man on a ventilator, would you?”
It’s a harsh assessment, coming not from a right-wing fanatic but someone who values the experience of reading the news on paper. He knows all too well the precarious state of the news industry even before the Covid-19 devastation, and I hate to admit I have to agree with him.
If you want to see my take on some of the deep systemic financial problems, just turn to my novel Hometown News, available as an ebook.
For a little perspective, you have to realize you can’t even purchase blank newsprint for the cost of your local paper, and that’s without anything on it or delivery to your doorstep or favorite store or the box on the corner.
Shafer is not talking about the handful of national papers that are thriving, thanks to a surge of online subscribers during the Trump nightmare. He’s talking about the local papers across the country, many of them now owned by hedge funds and similar short-view gaming investors. The kind of enterprise that has gone from family ownership with roots in the community to a global conglomerate that sees money in liquidation, as in who-are-you-all-anyway and why-do-you-matter when it comes to the locals.
Well, with oil companies lining up for relief aid, newspapers definitely should be higher on the list. But I digress.
In some ways, the papers are a canary in the mine shaft, or a dinosaur looking into the eyes of an approaching train, if you care to mix metaphors. Remember what happened to the railroads, after all, when the Interstates were built … with public money. Again, I digress.
The biggest question for me is what happens to local communities if and/or when the local papers expire.
First, of course, is that the public loses an essential watchdog on grassroots level politics. Believe me, local officials act differently when they know they’re under scrutiny. It will cost you dearly when they’re not.
Covering their meetings and the impact takes time, knowledge, ability, and courage. If you’re simply blogging in your spare time, you can be bullied or miss the follow-up phone calls. ‘Nuff said there. We’re facing a threat to ground-level democracy, OK? How many of us can really afford a lawyer?
Second, though, is the loss of local identity. I think most newspapers have fallen down here, failing to raise distinct columnists you just have to read first thing in the morning, but that’s not the only problem. How important is your neighborhood and the general area to you, anyway? Do you even know your neighbors?
A third problem involves the local economy. For one thing, there’s been a huge shift in local retailing, from mom-and-pop stores to the big-box intruders at the mall or Miracle Mile and then online, as in Amazon. The mom-and-pops are the lifeblood of newspaper revenue. Those glossy inserts pay next to diddly. And when’s the last time you saw anything from that monster Amazon or even Craig’s list, which is killing the classifieds?
The obvious shift would be from on-paper publication altogether to online presence only, but no newspapers have figured out how to manage this. It requires subscriber-paid content. Web users are way too used to getting everything for free.
By the way, I hope television and radio are not included in the assistance packages. Yes, they, too, are suffering loss of ad revenue and audience. Rotsaluck. Their news coverage, meanwhile, often rips off a lot of newspaper stories and then act as if they actually had reporters there. Who will take up the slack? Again, rotsaluck.
Which leads me to one more thought. Sports radio. That once hot-in-the-ratings screaming format that pushed broadcasting from music to talk and then to professional, mostly, athletics – with regional loyalties and identity. What’s happening there, now that nobody’s playing?
The Swedish retailer of low-cost home furnishings, appliances, cookware, and the like is a magnet for folks trying to make the most of tight spaces like apartments. Say a challenge like a 400-square-foot apartment.
Even if you have an old five-bedroom home like ours, the interiors can be challenging. IKEA has frequently come to our rescue. Yes, some assembly is usually required, and I can attest it’s not always idiot proof, but overall, we’ve been pleased with the results.
The closest IKEA superstore to us is located south of Boston, and since deliveries aren’t cheap, it’s worth the four-hour round-trip, even if you get lost inside once you’re there, as I have. The cafeteria, by the way, is quite the bargain.
Are you one of those intrigued by the small-scale living space displays in the IKEA superstores?
In drafting my novel, What’s Left, some of my favorite passages came about while sketching the family’s business possibilities. What would be involved in transforming their restaurant? In expanding their real estate holdings? In undertaking alternative financial models?
Well, this is a novel, and in the revisions, they story’s become much more about Cassia than her parents’ generation or their roots. Or even my passion for architecture.