Providence Youth In Peril From Jump

PROVIDENCE YOUTH AT PERIL FROM THE JUMP (Published in Providence Journal 8/23/19)

Providence, our Renaissance City, has suffered another black eye with the August 16th assaults and harassment of innocent bystanders by nearly 100 local juveniles. Many of these youngsters were riding stolen Jump rental bikes. Incidents on South Water and Killington Streets plus at India Point included physical assaults, intimidation and retail store shop lifting.

Are we surprised?

We shouldn’t be.

Anyone who took the time to read the recent scathing John Hopkins Institute’s report on the condition of the Providence Public School System could have predicted this type of behavior in our capital city.

Consider these two excerpts from the report:

“ There is widespread agreement that bullying, demeaning, and even physical violence are occurring within the school walls at very high levels, particularly at the middle and high school levels.”

“In a large number of classrooms, teachers did not press students to become engaged with the mathematics instructions, resulting in a variety of student off-task behavior: chatting with peers, checking phones, staring into space, or, in some cases, taking phone calls and watching YouTube videos. In some classrooms, this activity was loud enough to disrupt the learning of other students and, in some cases, led to student arguments that left the team concerned for student safety.”

This is the environment where Providence’s children spend approximately 6 hours of their time for 180 days of the year!

The biblical phrase, “As you sow so shall you reap.”, never seemed so sadly applicable.

If high school and middle school children see such lax discipline and disregard for decorum in one of the primary places which are supposed to help shape their future it takes a momentous amount of willpower to navigate unscathed. Statistics show only a heartbreakingly small percentage of Providence public school students move on to higher education.

I am not excusing the horrible actions of the young perpetrators. They chose to organize these near riots using social media, they chose to cut the locks and steal the Jump bikes, they chose to injure people and they chose to commit theft. They should be identified, properly disciplined and then given any available counseling.

My point is simply that the link between the deplorable conditions of the education process (including building conditions) and youthful criminal activity is both obvious and infuriating.

Many of our young students, unfortunately, have impediments to success before they even enter the first grade; generational poverty, family dysfunction, gnawing hunger and lack of good role models. Schools, along with churches, should be beacons of hope and inspiration not further causes of anxiety and fear. I know, and the Hopkins’ report agrees, that many individual heroic teachers and administrators strive daily to provide the best education possible despite the obstacles. However, the appalling statistical student failures across the board shown in the report call for draconian actions. Past incremental changes such as new superintendents, classroom restructuring and tweaked curriculums have not stemmed the continual erosion of the system.

New State Education Commissioner Angelica Infante – Green has embarked upon an intensive listening campaign as she gathers information from teachers, students, parents and administrators. On August 8th Infante – Green issued the initial order to begin the process of a state take over of the Providence Public School System for a minimum of three years. While pledging to work with the educational unions, she has allowed that the current contracts need appraising.

These actions have spawned the usual hand wringing and fear mongering from various entities. Upsetting the status quo is often lonely, precarious work.

While state take overs of schools have had varied successes and failures across the nation, Providence’s dire situation warrants a full and complete reset from the decades of decline we have all witnessed.

I not only wish Commissioner Infante – Green and our educators success, but also, fervently hope Providence’s next generation of students will be able to thrive and get a jump start towards happy, productive lives.

– END –

Jim Raftus is a retired marketing executive from Cumberland.
Contact: jraftus@aol.com

Oppositional Research

OPPOSITIONAL RESEARCH

I’m now several years retired. Starting to get bored. Thinking of running for public office. My main concern is the increasingly harsh nature of political campaigns. Candidates dive deep into rivals backgrounds looking for dirt. It is now called operational research.

Pondering this first ever candidacy I try to anticipate skeletons buried in my closet. I may have some issues.

Summer of 1955 the manager of the A&P Supermarket on Newport Avenue spots a nine year old me in my first and only attempt at larceny.

“Young man”, he scolds “I know your parents. If I ever see you doing this again I’ll have to tell them.”

To this day driving by this building, even though it is now Hasbro’s headquarters, brings back a feeling of guilt.

Spring of 1966 our group of young Rhode Island College students celebrate the first apartment one of us rents off campus. I apparently celebrated with one or two more Miller Hi-Lifes than normal. To keep me out of harms way my accommodating pals placed me in an empty bathtub. THERE MAY BE PICTURES!

Winter of 1966 I dodged the draft, sort of. Strange story. I was drafted. I said goodbyes to friends and family. My normally stoic father teared up as he dropped me off at Fields Point where I was to be sworn in and sent to basic training. While waiting to be given our instructions someone in uniform called out, “Raftus, is there a James Raftus here?”.

I was taken into a room and a doctor found a physical issue I knew nothing about and declared me to be 4-F. This was not a day the Army was doing physicals. It was a day to start your Army tour. I did not argue with their decision and returned to civilian life until April of 1968 when the U.S. Army, at this point churning through young men, changed their mind, re-examined me and declared me fit for duty. I enlisted and served until early 1971.

Summer of 1971 was a time to unwind after my Army stint. One evening I was standing on the deck of the former Jamestown Ferry which was docked in Pawtucket having been repurposed as and arts center for the city’s youth. I was offered, and accepted, my one and only hit of pot. The only effect it had on me was a mild headache.

Late Spring of 1998 I somehow forgot to pay my 1st quarter of Cumberland taxes and was two weeks late. This was the only time I ever had to pay a fine for local, state, or federal taxes.

I think that’s the extent of my personal rogues gallery. How embarrassing would this be to my adult children if it was exposed during the campaign? I can see the headlines from Fox News, “Progressive thief, drunk, draft dodger, drug addict and tax cheat runs for office in Rhode Island!”.

But wait, on November 8th of 2016 sixty three million of my fellow citizens voted for a candidate about whom the following was already known:

He had 5 military deferments including, although a self described “great baseball player” at this age, one for questionable bone spurs.

He had suffered multiple failed business ventures ending in bankruptcies.

His real estate organization was sued by the U.S Department of Justice in 1973 for racial discrimination.

He had cheated on all 3 of his wives, once, supposedly, with a porn star shortly after the birth of his son.

He was the first candidate in decades to not release his tax returns.

He bragged about grabbing women by their private parts.

Well, maybe, just maybe voters could forgive my sordid past. Yes, I just may toss my stained hat into the ring. Oppositional research be damned!

What should I shoot for, Town Council, School Board or something more ambitious?

– END –

Jim Raftus lives in Cumberland and is not running for anything.
Contact: jraftus@aol.com

Closing The Church

CLOSING THE CHURCH 1.

Because I’ve not been a regular church goer for almost five decades I reluctantly consented to attend the final Sunday mass at the soon to be shuttered St. Leo’s in Pawtucket. My reluctance was based on the fact that I knew attendance for this mass would be overflowing and I felt current parishioners and long time St. Leo’s attendees should not lose a seat because of me. However my sister, Virginia, who has been faithful to her faith, no longer drives and needed a ride.

St. Leo’s is a small church and all the familiar icons were on display as we entered; the side baptismal font presided over by a statue of the church’s patron saint, the pink ceilings with holy scenes painted in rectangular patterns and the Virgin Mother standing guard over the votive candles.

Five minutes before the start of the service the pews were packed, a very rare occurrence these past years. I sensed sadness leavened with inevitability in the mostly elderly gathering as Reverend Michael Sisco, escorted by altar girls and past parish priests, began the opening processional.

St. Leo’s had an outsized influence on the Darlington section of Pawtucket where I grew up. My family’s history ran deep. My brother, sister and I all attended St. Leo’s School next to the Church. Raftus baptisms, first communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals were all held in this Church. A memorial brick honoring our parents is part of a collection in front of the entrance.

Although I felt a stranger in the midst of these more diligent worshipers
I also felt a sense of peace as the familiar rituals of the mass unspooled. Prior to the mass my sister, wife, sister- in -law and I lit candles in memory of my older brother Mike who passed this past October. I took great solace in that. My wife and I also found joy, and surprising sentiment, watching the priest, Father Davenport, who married us on this altar forty four years ago return to help celebrate the mass.

For a reluctant attendee, a lapsed Catholic, I was experiencing a flood of emotions in this old building.

St. Leo’s Parish was established in 1916 and flourished for decades. In typical Rhode Island fashion it served a mainly Irish contingent while St. Cecilia’s Church barely three hundred yards down the street had a predominately French clientele. Attendance at both places of worship waned starting in the 1990’s. St. Leo’s was forced to close their school in 2008. In 2011 the decline in parishioners and income necessitated the merging of these two parishes into a new entity called the parish of St. John Paul II, a solution which caused angst on both sides as closure of one church seemed unavoidable. After much speculation the announcement of St. Leo’s closing became official in December of 2018.

Reverend Sisco, who has served as pastor for both churches the past few years, deftly used his homily at this final Sunday mass to mix sentiment with hope. He also leaned heavily on the beautiful sentiments of a letter written to him for the occasion by Sister Marie Fatima (Nunes) O.P., a long time parishioner who penned a powerful homage to the church’s past and to the endurance of faith which transcends any one place of worship. Her words, read by Reverend Sisco, reminded all that it is not the walls, the columns or the choir loft which keeps a religion intact, it is the faith of the people.

This last Sunday gathering was the mass of the Epiphany which celebrates the three magi offering of gifts to the baby Jesus. While there was no gift of a great personal conversion for me in my final hour in St. Leo’s I did feel a palpable resurgence of faith which may mean less reluctance to make occasional visits to places of worship of varied denominations to recapture that sense of shared community.

Funny how even a brother’s reluctant favor can restore one’s faith.

– END –

Will Clooney’s “Catch – 22” Be A Bomb?

WILL CLOONEY’S “CATCH – 22” BE A BOMB? 1

Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch -22 has sold 10 million copies since 1961. It appears on almost every “best of” literary list. I’ve read it five times. Late in Heller’s career he tired of answering why he had never written anything to surpass it. He’d reply, “Who has?”

Having flown 60 missions as a bombardier in WWII Heller wrote from deep experience. It was, however, America’s involvement in the Korean Conflict and its Cold War policies which provided his anger and angst to produce this iconic work.

Now comes the unnerving news that actor George Clooney has helped produce a six episode version of Catch – 22 which will air in May. This is not the first attempt at transferring Heller’s brilliant portrait of military absurdity from the page to screen.

In June of 1970 director Mike Nichols released his film version of Catch – 22. The results were mixed and many critics found the movie too confusing. One exception was the view of New York Times film maven Vincent Canby who declared that Catch – 22 was
“The most moving, the most intelligent, the most humane..oh, to hell with it!..it’s the best American film I’ve seen this year.”

As a fan of the book and as a Specialist 5th Class in the Army when the movie was released I approached it with wariness . I left the theatre conflicted, perhaps the only response possible to any iteration of this complex novel. The ensemble cast was amazing. I can now only picture Alan Arkin as Captain Yossarian. Arkin has the perfect furtive swarthiness to play the paranoid man trapped in the unending cycle of bombing missions demanded by Catch – 22.

Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles, Richard Benjamin, Jon Voit, Buck Henry and Bob Newhart were brilliant choices to play the menagerie of oddball characters created in Heller’s fertile imagination. Jack Gilford’s portrayal of the hangdog Doc Daneeka is a small, precious jewel. His explanation of Catch – 22’s provisions to Yossarian as they amble between roaring B-25’s taxiing on a dirt runway is a masterpiece in dialogue.

The book’s non-sequential, time warping scenes made the transition to screen difficult and Nichols only partly succeeded. Without a deep knowledge of the book, a viewer could be forgiven their confusion as time flits back and forth in a haphazard fashion.
Nichols main blunder was his elevation in importance of the black market profiteering escapades of Milo Minerbender. Too much time spent on Milo’s purloined grapes, cotton and parachutes caused the movie to almost lose its focus on the message of the insanity of war. Still Nichols managed to paint enough dark disturbing scenes of death, corruption and despair to avoid it becoming a comic take on war.

Press releases and trailers of Clooney’s adaptation hint at some changes. The purposeful chronological jumble of flash back scenes which propels the novel have been re-written to provide a more linear story line in Clooney’s effort. The video clips released also shows an emphasis on blood and gore. While true that many of Yossarian’s squad members perish, most of their deaths in the book are presented in an oblique manner.

Perhaps having six one hour episodes will allow a fuller rendition than the two hours of the 1970 version.

I was serving my own two year stint of duty at Fort Richards in Alaska when the film was released. I had already read the book twice. Therefore this reluctant soldier had to stifle a Yossarian like smirk when as part of my initial orientation, a one on one meeting with our young Captain he began thusly….

“Raftus, do you know why we are here?”

I thought silence the best answer, so he continued…

“If the big balloon goes up (military speak for a nuclear attack) the Russkies have an infantry battalion in Siberia ready to cross the Bering Strait. We are here to stop them.”

That sounded crazy, but arguing with him would only go against Catch -22.

– END –

The Last Pass (Book review published in ProJo on 11/23)

THE LAST PASS – (A BOOK REVIEW)
For seven seasons Boston Celtics teammates Bob Cousy and Bill Russell blended their disparate skills to form a devastating force on the basketball court. Two talents who appeared to share one vision of the game which almost always ended in warm celebratory embraces after another championship.

Surprisingly, historian Gary M. Pomerantz new book, “The Last Pass” portrays a post career schism between the legends which haunted Cousy for decades.
The author provides an intimate, detailed exploration into the complicated relationship between legends Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. What “The Last Pass” deftly delivers is two biographies wrapped in an examination of a nation in constant flux from Cousy’s birth year of 1928 to the present. While many colorful descriptions of their on court heroics are included they are merely subplots to the core of the story which is Cousy’s white man’s guilt for not understanding or helping to relieve the burdens his teammate, Russell, carried as a black man in the divided city of Boston and the discrimination he faced across the country.

Pomerantz conducted fifty three interviews with Cousy over a two and a half year period. Russell refused to participate. Although it is tempting to see the cooperation of Cousy and lack of cooperation by Russell as a distillation of their characters, Pomerantz shows us things were more complicated than that.

Both men began their journeys towards fame from impoverished beginnings. Cousy’s father worked on a meagre family farm in France before emigrating to New York in 1927. Russell was born in segregated Louisiana in 1934 and moved to a public housing project in Oakland, California at the age of eight.

The author provides an excellent retelling of the college exploits of these future teammates as they established their basketball credentials utilizing two opposite skills; Cousy’s innovative ball handling at Holy Cross and Russell’s intimidating defense for the University of San Francisco. The Cooz, as Cousy was known, was six years older than Russell and while he enjoyed great individual success during the early 1950’s with the Boston Celtics the team never achieved a championship. This all changed with the arrival of Russell in 1956 as the Celtics went on to win an astounding 11 of 13 championships during his tenure.

Behind the scenes of all this winning there were times of off court difficulties. In October of 1957 a coffee shop in a hotel the team was staying at in Lexington, Kentucky refused to serve two black players. All the Celtics black players decided not to play in the exhibition game they were to play in that evening. While Red Auerbach, their feisty coach, sympathized with the players he felt the problem was with the hotel and not the opposing team nor the organizers of the game who had sold 10,000 tickets. In the end the game took place with all white rosters including Cousy a decision he later deeply regretted.

Pomerantz paints the two men as, not surprisingly, sharing one common trait, fierce competitive natures which abhorred any defeats. Cousy and Russell were also prideful athletes, but Cousy was more of a loner subject often to tough self analysis while Russell was a much more confrontational and intense individual often offending Boston fans with his comments.

A wide array other characters are portrayed during the telling of these two mens’ stories, fellow Celtics: Sharman, Heinsohn, the Jones boys, Sanders…etc., competitors; Schayes, West, Chamberlain, politicians; JFK, Obama all make cameo appearances.

Cousy’s attempt, at the age of 90, to understand and rectify his perceived slight to Russell is captured by the books subtitle, “Cousy, Russell, the Celtics and What Matters in the End.”

“The Last Pass” is Pomerantz sixth book and adds to his solid reputation as a chronicler of sports, history and civil rights.

– END –

A 9/11 Legacy (Published in the ProJo) 2018

A 9/11 LEGACY

Seventeen years ago on September 11th the world lost the energy, potential and love of 2,977 souls. The families of those killed knew of their dreams as well as their accomplishments. Untold good works and unfulfilled ambitions all also died that tragic day.

Shakespeare in Julius Caesar famously wrote, “The evil men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

On this anniversary of that horrid day I feel both obliged and privileged to dispute the Bard’s ominous warning.

We lost my cousin Rhode Island native David Angell and his dear wife Lynn on American Airlines Flight #11. I have chronicled David’s success as a television writer and producer and Lynn’s incredible service and volunteer work at The Hillsides Center for Children in California in an earlier Providence Journal commentary. (September 11, 2013.)

After several years of failed attempts at cracking into the very difficult television industry David eventually broke through and in fact with his work on Cheers, Wings and Frasier ascended to the highest level of achievement as witnessed by his 8 Emmy Awards. Frasier became the most profitable comedy show in television history. David and Lynn reaped the benefits and in 1996 created the Angell Foundation and quietly began their amazing charitable journey. So under the radar was their philanthropy that even though David and I were peers and close first cousins who had many adventures together as he grew up in Riverside and I lived in Pawtucket, I knew nothing about the Angell Foundation until after their deaths.

Our family was last with them three days before their plane was hijacked. Frasier was still at the top of the ratings, but, David and Lynn told us that while he wasn’t retiring, he and his two partners had just structured a new schedule so that David would have to spend far less time in California. You see, David and Lynn’s real love was with New England; a condominium in Stowe, Vermont, a new home nearing completion on Cape Cod in Chatham and a town house on College Hill in Providence a city they truly cherished.

David was a proud member of the Providence College Class of 1969 and often worked closely with the school on special projects such as the Angell Blackfriars Theatre which was posthumously named after David and Lynn upon opening in 2005.

David and Lynn’s love of New England continues to be reflected in the grants awarded in their names by the ongoing Angell Foundation efforts. The Foundation focuses on assisting worthy organizations in just two regions; Southern California and New England. For the fiscal year ending this past June, nearly 17 years after their deaths, the Angell Foundation still awarded $630,000 to New England causes. This includes $175,000 to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, $30,000 to Farm Fresh Rhode Island and $100,000 to Rhode Island School of Design’s Project Open Door which assists underserved teenagers in the state’s urban core cities. In fiscal 2017 the New England initiatives received a whopping $1,220,000 in total grants.

Every year as the calendar reaches early September a sense of loss and sadness naturally comes over David and Lynn’s extended families as well as the other nearly 3,000 families affected. Our sorrow, however, is greatly assuaged as we reflect on the fact that David and Lynn’s generous spirits live on through the great work of the Angell Foundation they quietly established so long ago.

As a counterpoint to Shakespeare’s rather dark “evil lives on…” quote I’ll end with this from his 12th Night, “Some men are born great, others achieve greatness.”
– END –

APEX REMEMBERED

APEX REMEMBERED

The late Norman Fain, one of the principal owners of the Apex stores, would only occasionally visit his properties. Most times it would be at night about an hour or so before closing. Mr. Fain was a quiet, unassuming man and I think very few of his employees even knew who he was as he wandered the aisles dressed in a conservative, grey suit with a fedora perched on his head.

“Good evening, Mr. Fain.” I said as he entered the major appliance department in his downtown Pawtucket store where I worked part time after my Army discharge in 1971 and my return to college.

I continued, “I had couple in today who said they were great friends of yours.”

Mr. Fain half smiled, looked at my name tag, there was no reason he’d know my name, and replied, “Well, Jim, if I had all the friends who claim they are my friends when they come here to buy something, I’d be broke by now.”

“Keep up the good work.” he intoned as he headed for the garden shop.

These days I think of this, and many other memories, every time I drive past the rusting pyramid, the stain splotched facade and the unkempt grounds of the present, sad iteration of the once iconic Apex Pawtucket store.

My family, and I suspect many other local families, had a long history tied in with the Apex store evolution. Both my parents worked at the original Central Avenue location.
My Father in the appliance department (apple and tree analogy) and my Mother as an office assistant in the 1960’s.

My first job when I became old enough to work was in the product pick up warehouse. One of our many duties was bicycle assembly. To break the monotony of this boring task we devised a “test track” to assure the quality of our work. We built multiple ramps by angling shipping pallets propped up on mattresses and we’d ride pell mell over this course with tires squealing on the concrete floor. One afternoon a much older supervisor, perhaps back from a liquid lunch, ramped things up by constructing a circle of fire for us to jump through! So, if you received a singed bike for Christmas from Apex in the 1960’s now you know why.

Despite these shenanigans I was promoted and at 17 wound up as a salesman in the men’s clothing department. I was a very shy teenager and my first customer was a stunningly beautiful young woman who I guessed to be in her early twenties. I was so tongue tied I barely was able to answer her questions. She was buying an assortment of shirts and ties for her boyfriend. I was bedazzled! Who knew such angelic creatures existed? My nerves were so frayed during this, my first retail sales transaction, I could not even get her selection into the Apex shopping bag. With profound patience, and I believe a bit of humor, she helped me arrange the gifts to fit the bags.

During the next few years the Apex empire expanded with new stores and I managed to gain some maturity and much needed confidence. College and Uncle Sam intervened and yet, as noted above, I once again turned to Apex after my Army stint for a perfect part time job while finishing college. In fact it was while working in the major appliance department of the Warwick location that I was recruited by a wholesale distribution company and a long, satisfying marketing and sales career was launched.

So the dilapidated Pawtucket shell of my former employer, much in the news this past year, saddens me. The sorrowful condition allowed by present owner Andrew Gates, grandson of the Apex corporation founder Albert Pilavin, remains a blemish which makes more difficult the daunting task of revitalizing Pawtucket. Larry Lucchino, CEO of the Pawtucket Red Sox recently described Mr. Gates as, “ ..a stubborn owner.”

The Apex stores were always impeccably maintained, customer friendly and the Fain family were generous philanthropist. All of this is now destroyed. Mr. Fain, who passed
in 2003, would not be pleased. Neither are the many former employees of this once cherished institution.

The ballpark proposal failed. The city is talking about purchasing the Apex site for future development. Let’s hope the parcel becomes something to be proud of and the obstinance of one man does not prevail.

Now, here’s the truth about the real friends of Mr. Fain. If a sales associate at an Apex store noticed the numeral “3” as the third digit of the Apex credit card that signified a true friend of Fain and no credit checks were needed!

– END –

Jim Raftus, a retired marketing executive, lives in Cumberland.
Contact at jraftus@aol.com

Musings and reflections of a Commentary Writer. Watch for weekly post on Wednesdays.