Slices of "The Big Apple" This is New York City Wit, Reflections & Amusements: Cliff Strome

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My partner and I discussed the situation and arrived at $350,000 as the right number for several reasons. First, we knew that we were dealing with some very unsavory people and we had assumed that ultimately they were going to get their way by any means necessary. Responding with an inflated and unrealistic number would have been stupid and dangerous. It would only have intensified their frustration and justified their means to cross the line and get tough with us. This was not the time to be wishy washy; that could lead to swishy swashy, as in an underwater grave.

Secondly, we also knew that we could come up against the other types of people with their greedy self-interests. The lawyers and accountants we hired knew how to create fees that would mount quickly, especially, if we got the desired results. That road would be paved with cancelled checks, ours. I didn’t know who to fear the most, the professionals, the governments or the “boys”.

And finally, the best way to handle this was simply to make the best deal we could and move on, period! We weren’t looking for broken kneecaps or swimming with the fish and the prospect of prison was totally out of the question. I was married with two young children and didn’t need a new roommate for the next ten years! Not an option. “You want to be the wife or the husband?” “No, you can be the wife and I’ll be the abandoned husband. I’ll pass, thank you!”

I called Tony the next day and made the stated our position. Not to my surprise his reply was, “I can’t help you.” I told Tony that there was a little wiggle room. He was unimpressed, “Nah, let’s just go our separate ways and let the chips fall where they may, okay kid.” A real pro, this guy knew his business, the right messenger for the job. Then the shit hit the fan.

The following week, the mailman arrived at the store with a fist full of certified mail for us. We “heard” from The New York State Sales Tax Desk Audit Division, The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, The City of New York Department of Labor and of course the good old Internal Revenue Service. Now that’s power! These guys were heavies and they got right to the top. They had the connections to pull the right strings and potentially create problems for us. We were squarely in enemy territory.

I’ve seen this in the movies, on television, novels and newspapers but now we were in the spotlight and I didn’t like it, to say the least! It’s fun to watch and read about, but hey, I was not a big player, just one of thousands of shopkeepers in the big City, practicing my trade and suddenly when opportunity knocks on the door, we get slammed in the face.

I realized that behind every building, on every block there’s a story, a history, a struggle in this dog eat dog City. There’s power and it rears its ugly head and crushes the meek. But, it is the driving force that builds cities, creates empires, and enriches the wise, creative and underworld; it defeats the weak, inexperienced, meek and fearful. The human spirit, connections and balls or the lack of it, measures any gains or losses. Rules, what are they? Some play the game and adhere to fair play but we all know the mantra “nice guys finish last.” Ain’t it the truth! Thanks Leo, another gift from the Brooklyn Dodgers. We certainly were not saints either however, even if we did play by the rules that would not have changed the outcome by a nickel!

The next day I drove to Nyack Hospital, feigning chest pains. I checked myself into the cardiac care unit. Having a few “friends” there who were doctors, I told them the real reason why I had arrived at the hospital. They admitted me and performed the basic, non-invasive, series of tests as a matter of “good medical practice”. I remained there for several days, making the visit seem credible. One of my doctor friends cranked out a letter that I could not participate in any depositions or tax audits for a period of six months. So, the bean counter stepped in and did a pretty good job of handling the accountants and lawyers.

Why the opposition didn’t pursue the “picketing card” I’ll never know. They just didn’t. Perhaps it wasn’t necessary or was too risky, injurious to their client’s drug store business. That didn’t change the equation. They had reveals to us that they had valuable connections with the government agencies and we had no way to know where that path would lead us. We knew that it would be a picnic and that cutting a deal would, quite likely, take the pressure off.

As for the doctor “friends” they knew, due to my family history, high cholesterol, years of smoking and my zany lifestyle, in general, that they were releasing a walking time bomb from the hospital. That fact was confirmed a year later when I had quadruple bypass surgery.

One of my doctor “friends” had admitted to me, years later, that he had tried to convince his colleague that further testing would have been good medical practice. In this instance, I suppose, the protocol among doctors was to let the patient die or have a heart attack rather than violate their “hypercritical” oath! They proved to me that some doctors are strictly mechanics and should be saving cars, not souls. Trade me in for a ’57 Chevy! I love how many doctors and other well paid professionals brag about their success stories. It’s all self-serving heroics. The other tales are not part of the legend. Those patients don’t speak, they’re “sleeping” in cemeteries.

A number of months down the road, while in the midst of the audits, we settled for $150,000, the best deal we had felt we could get. After all the papers were signed we closed shop and lamented the cost of the fees and the taxes and then of course, divvying up the money between us, cut our little bundles in half. We each wound up with very little because my partner convinced me that we should take the money and invest it in Savings & Loan Bank stocks, a rocky ride that left us with even less. We tried to parlay the money into something large and had we not been so greedy and stupid we’d have walked away with much more. Good lessons don’t come cheap. That was a very good lesson and we paid the price.

What’s the moral of the story? If we had played it straight it wouldn’t have mattered in the end. The opposition had much bigger shoulders then we did and they would have resorted to any means necessary to get what they wanted, break our legs, etc. Of that I have no doubt. They also had the picketing clause to hold over our heads and friends in high places. They also had access to the store, off hours, and surely they could have created enormous physical damage to our little business as well.

We had made very good money relatively easily for five years and became weekly fixtures at Palm Restaurant. All in all, it was very worthwhile. The play with the stock market was a risk. It could have paid off but the proof was in the pudding. The problem was we got on and off the roller coaster at the wrong time and that was just bad timing, greed, arrogance, stupidity and youthful optimism, “irrational exuberance.”

It was a brief encounter with power, the way the real world works; how deals are made and how things get done in New York City. We didn’t have another planet to go to, so we were chased down the alley. Yeah, we played hardball with the big boys and we moved on because we were amateurs, novice kids who stepped up to the plate in the major leagues.

It’s a terrific story of two guys, on the pavement, to look back on and reflect. It’s part of the history of a couple of New Yorkers who became more so as a result. Hope it happens again because next time I’ll have a “dose of brains” to fall back on and perhaps the adversaries will have more generous authority from up above, but I doubt it. Life is a quid pro quo in New York City. It was major real estate, a sweet spot, a New York City assemblage, and a once in a lifetime opportunity, dashed. Certainly it was a fascinating ride. I’ll have another ticket, thank you, and take it wherever it leads me.

Same Face, Different Place!

Quite frequently, I have casual unintended encounters on the sidewalks of New York City with people whom I’ve known in the past and many that I haven’t seen for decades. These experiences never fail to amuse me.

Having an active life for years, intertwined with hundreds of people, I have been provided with the likelihood that per chance “bumps” from people, of years gone by, even in a city this size, happen quite often. It’s weird. How many times have I heard a shout from behind? "Cliff, how are you?" Quite a few and this isn't Main Street in Podunk, Mississippi! I do enjoy “running into people” from the past because it takes me back. I love seeing people who have vanished from my life just by happenstance. The problem though, at times, is very troubling to me. Here’s why:

Recently, while standing on the corner of 96th and Amsterdam, waiting for the cross light to change, a woman, standing next to me suddenly exclaimed “Cliff!” I turned around and racked my brain, having recognized her face, trying to recall who she was. Where have I seen her before, I asked myself? In the moment, I didn’t even try to figure it out. I had to initiate my reply without a clue as to who she was and try to conceal that I hadn’t the foggiest idea who she was. That’s like standing naked in the street. I've experienced this many times and what bothers me is that these people and I may have had a long and meaningful connection. Could it have been a former employee, a nurse, a neighbor or a woman at a bank who had cashed my checks or perhaps a former student, a vendor, doorman or a close friend of a friend? I'm not worried that I'm losing my mind. It's just that over a lifetime there are hundreds and hundreds of faces that are catalogued in the past and they fade from memory. More importantly, I want to avoid insulting any one. Surely, there's not a person on the planet that can remember the story behind all the faces in their life, right?

I dread these encounters because I don’t know what to say, "Ah hi, ah, how are you?"

Usually, I respond by saying, "Same face, different place!” with a broad, warm grin. I go directly to the point, my little phrase makes an admission, that yes, I’m human, and despite my embarrassment, I accept it, don’t be insulted. The fragility and certainly the hope that I have not insulted anyone is a priority. Why go ahead and have a five minute conversation before I admit that I just don't remember who you are or were? That would be jolting when you reveal that they have been talking with someone who pretended to know who they are.

If you do make believe that you know who they are then you are putting yourself in a vulnerable spot. On the other hand, I've tried that a number of times, hiding my little secret and before the end of the conversation, it hits me, ah yes, that's Amanda or Steve and, suddenly I recall the connection.

It had turned out, that in this instance, she had been a former employee. Having employed hundreds of people over a period of approximately thirty years, I let myself off the hook. I was guilty, but no punishment only because she didn’t seem offended. New Yorkers are, as a group, very understanding.

Recently, my wife and I were approaching Tom’s Diner, of Seinfeld fame and we were about to enter as a couple was emerging from within. The gentleman shouted my name with a smile. I had no idea who this guy was! He did look familiar though. I knew that I knew him, that’s all, but who the hell was he? Very frustrating!

I remarked to him, “Same face, different place!” Again, I confessed, to myself, right away that I knew the face but couldn’t place him.

“I’m Ira; I’m Susan’s partner in the eyeglass business!”

Sure, that was somewhat embarrassing for us both however; I had escaped the awkward moment by explaining the reason why I had failed to recognize him. Although I had seen and spoken with him many times, he was always in the optical store where I purchase my eyeglasses. He always was well dressed wearing a tie and never a hat, as he was on this occasion. Ira has no hair, bald as a peach, and that was his most distinguishing feature. It was concealed. What I should have done was to introduce my wife to him and then, quite likely, he would have introduced himself to her and as soon as I had heard the name, bingo! Instead, I said, “Oh, excuse me; this is Aline, my wife, so sorry for not introducing you.”

Then, I would have known instantly who Ira was, a duh, because he would have introduced himself. Next time, that’ll be the script. If I’m with someone, rather than trying to be cool and not introduce who I’m with, I’ll use that ploy to avoid embarrassment. If you are a New Yorker, keep that in mind. Others may not be as understanding or as forgiving as Ira. He understood completely. He’s a super nice guy!

In a city the size of New York City, and smaller ones too, I suppose, people create a web of many secondary and tertiary relationships; a dry cleaner, a bus driver, a waiter, a street vendor who pours your coffee for three years and you never knew their name; or a subway station clerk, most do not exist anymore, who you had seen daily and never a word was exchanged between the two of you, except the customary niceties “Have a nice day!” Over time, when you are "connected" by coincidence, or "knew" that person, when they had been a part of your existence, part of your routine, the past fades into a blur and you begin to question your memory. As time goes by, your routines change, your platform, tasks, interactions that often result in displacement and you suddenly bump into someone in a different environment, wearing different clothes, doing something other than what you were used to experiencing with them and you draw a blank! It's difficult to connect and recall who they were way back. Is this normal? I have mentioned this phenomenon to many fellow New Yorkers and they too have “same face, different place” experiences. They never believed that it was such a common occurrence. Trust me, it is!

I believe that this is largely an urban experience. It is unlikely that people from small towns experience such encounters often. Aren't they supposed to know each other and all their business affairs, what they ate for breakfast, who got a new car and who has been promoted at the local insurance agency? Are urbanites paying a price for living their lives in big cities like New York City by having these embarrassing encounters and living transient lives filled with “meaningless” relationships? Are we reminded, by this phenomenon, that there is a void in our existence, a transitory streak that we carry that will on occasion remind us that we live life at a pace that is too hectic, superficial and transparent? Like most stalwart New Yorkers, I do not agree and wouldn't have it any other way because those tertiary

relationships form part of the matrix of life. The more people whose lives I touch and who touch mine, the more enriched I feel, the more complete, interested and fulfilled my existence becomes. If I had to trade this in for the comfort and familiarity of small town life, I’d be bored and guarded because they could easily invade parts of my life that are private. The chatter would violate my personal existence. Living here, in a city where I don't know everything about everyone else and vice versa provides an endless inventory of contacts, opinions, ideas, smart, dumb and amusing people who will touch me and broaden my existence, with minimal invasion of my privacy. That's just a fraction of the excitement of New York City! Tomorrow I may run into someone that I haven’t seen in thirty years, hope so, unless of course, I owe them money!

“Instant Funship”

Throughout the years, living in New York City, I have been provided with innumerable opportunities to experience quality alone time. Being solitary in New York City is unlike anywhere else because there are always tons of choices that you can make. While I was in between marriages, for about six years, I was like a kid in a candy store. My choices were endless.

There were literally hundreds of opportunities to seek “instant funship” too. I am a man who has always enjoyed the company of others. Living in a very dense environment and not always having a friend at hand and not being much of a "phone person" I had felt compelled, many times, to leave my midtown apartment and “ply the pavement” in search of a good restaurant, one with an interesting bar scene and seek some “instant funship”.

An interesting bar is one with some empty seats, numerous people, well dressed, seated at the bar, better with some standees too, adding to the level of energy who are engaged in interesting conversation with a dose of humor, hopefully. I'd peer through the window, if possible, or open the door, enter and perform a casual cursory inspection and ask myself the question;

"Is there instant funship here?"

I’d stroll in, look around and determine the best place to sit or stand based on my assessment of the neighboring patrons, their appearances, the grouping arrangements, body language and with a bit of luck a dash of experience and I’d make my assessment. I’d order a drink and start by determining the chat-ability of the bartender as well. I’d ask, "So what's uppah?" or "So what’s going on here?" or "what’s shaken’?" or my favorite, “Uho’s in charge “ere?”

Bartender’s personalities are important for “instant friendship.” Often they hold sway over the type of people who frequent the place. After ten minutes or so, I'd make an effort to gain some attention, make a short comment or two, overhear the conversations close by, and gather my impressions of those who were engaged in the conversations. Are they smart, interesting, boring, comfortable in their skin? Do I think they would interest me and would I interest them? Were the conversations stale and mundane peppered with phrases, such as “where did you shop today?” or “I can’t stand that apartment, only one bedroom! I’m entitled!” or “My husband is so stupid and lazy; why isn’t he making more money?” and “Who won the hockey game last night?” and, my favorite, “I just traded in my year old Porsche for a new one!”

What would draw me in were discussions that either were somewhat esoteric, amusing, front page or humorous. “Where is this City going? “How is this country going to get out of this mess?” or “That guy Madoff is so sick; did he actually think he’d get away with it!” For me, sports is out, unless I want to make believe that I know what I’m talking about and fool the group. Just keep repeating, “Yeah, that was a fantastic play”, or “He should have made that play?” And the most useful, “Yeah, yeah yeah, yup, yeh, that’s right, yeah, yeah, so true, right.”

I’d devise my evaluation of the group. It only takes a couple of seconds. I don’t plan my intro, or an opener, a line that would evoke a reaction, or some comment that would dovetail with the ongoing conversation. I just open my mouth and out it comes. Truthfully, it’s a momentary burst, a comment, a thought or a question directed at the crowd or one individual that I chose. It’s my perception as a connector; spontaneity, whatever works. I take my opening shot. What have I got to lose? It’s fun; it’s a game, so I go for it!! I “work” with what I have in front of me.

Getting good at this has given me a lot of pleasure. I had developed a near perfect record of meeting friendly and connective people who have welcomed me into their chatter, in a New York City minute. I have mastered the art of playing a role, of steering conversations into all sorts of directions that are interesting and amusing by assessing them. I fully believe that again and again the chatter was all good, fun, light, peppered with laughter and engagement, that’s the objective. At times we got a little heavy, you know, religion, politics, morality that sort of stuff but, it’s always kept on the right side of civility. No barroom brawls, arguments or hard feelings.

Perhaps there's an art to it, no need to glorify it. There are those who have a seed that enables them to just open their mouths and create a connection, "a connector" one who truly likes people and is interested in them. That's me! So what, New York City is a perfect place for an urban extrovert and what’s wrong with that? “Don’t get me started!”

But, it’s not something you'd want to try anywhere, because there are many places that are socially against intruders, those looking to casually break into conversations, join the crowd and get involved in even the most innocuous discussions! I've been “around the block a few times" and trust me, you cannot do this everywhere. New York City is the best place to be if you are an “instant funship” kind of person. People here are ready and willing to give you a shot, that's New York City. "What's this guy got to say?" "Okay, just maybe, this guy is interesting and will add to the conversation".

Body language is an important factor too. Avoid being aggressive, sit or stand comfortably, take an interest in the conversation before you jump in, be agreeable, complimentary and listen to what they are talking about. By taking it in you are gathering points and as such they just may begin to ask you questions; "Do you live here?" “Married?” “Straight?” “What’s the most fun you’ve ever had?” "Do you come here often?" What do you do?" But, careful now! Then, after five to ten minutes of engagement, they dig deeper; "Who are you voting for?" Whether the conversation is deep or superficial, you can join in. It starts to flow, questions arise, give and take starts to evolve, introductions are made, and you’re in the game. Don’t challenge anyone or put them on the defensive. Avoid jumping into conversations that are personal, relationship discussions, health issues, financial, or heavy personal stuff, problems, train wrecks or depressing chatter. Know when to stay away.

If the conversation is light, show a distant interest, listen with one ear, subtly, and start out by keeping your mouth shut. Wait until eye contact has been made, exchange cheerful expressions, then,

"So you're here on business?" How'd you know that I'm not a New Yorker?" "I didn't, I just guessed it!" “But how'd you know?"

"Ah, that's a good question; do you really want to know?"

Don’t try this in the rural south, Midwest, Miami or Boston. These and other places, most places, will not “let you in” if you don’t look like, dress like, speak like and fit in, just like them. In most parts of this country there’s a certain “back off” effect and they will turn you right off. Boston, a nice town, can be surprisingly stiff, starchy and closed-minded. The Midwest has little or no interest in speaking with New Yorkers, they misperceive us as arrogant, know-it-alls, walking superiority complexes and successful, which, for the most part, many of us are, and that creates contempt. Miami is the coldest city in the United States. It’s a closed society that clings to its own types and that, in part, depends on the language you speak, what you drive and the part of town where you live, among others. Besides, it’s actually the northern tip of South America and the southern tip of the United States; two places in one with cultural and ethnic borders all over the place that don’t melt! New York City, being the melting pot, and the cornerstone of liberalism, has made “instant funship” possible. I’ve been at the other end of the stick and have been approached by others who have struck up conversations with me quite often. You see, I’m only one of many. Perhaps I should start an organization and name it NYIFC, New York Instant Funship Club. Wanna become a member? “Sure, let me make you a member!” (Victor Maitlin, Beverly Hills Cop, remember that scene?)

These encounters serve a purpose in a city the size of New York City. Even a New Yorker with family, friends, and business relationships will find themselves in an occasionally lonely moment and “instant funship” is the perfect cure. I've had countless conversations with strangers, found in good places, all of whom have interesting things to say about their lives, things we have in common and beliefs that we share or not. We do discuss everything in a civil, harmonious and enjoyable manner, complete strangers opening up to each other and sharing a moment, is all good, interesting, can be intellectually challenging, and most often lots of fun.

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