My Day With the 1%ers. – Published in the Providence Journal 7/17/14

BY JIM RAFTUS
I never envisioned Alec Baldwin and Nathan Lane would help change my views on really rich people.
I would describe my own political stance as slightly left of center, except in these divisionary days I have no idea where the center is, or if it still even exists. I do have concerns about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, but my day with Baldwin, Lane and the supporters of the Hole In the Wall Gang Camp gave me a new perspective.
Just prior to the 2012 election, my wife and I attended a charity event at the camp in Ashford, Conn., as guests of the owner of the company I used to work for. Lane was the emcee of the wonderful talent show and Baldwin was the auctioneer for the fundraiser.
Lane began his stand-up routine with a series of Mitt Romney jokes. When the reception to his humor proved tepid, Lane lamented, “Am I going to be the first person ever heckled off the stage of a charity event?” The liberal-leaning actor now realized many in the audience were well-to-do residents of Fairfield County and the Upper East Side. He was “in the belly of the beast.” As a veteran performer, he smoothly segued into several Joe Biden slams.
Following Lane, we were thrilled by a short violin concert by Itzhak Perlman and captivated by several songs from young camp attendees, all of whom are dealing with serious health issues. Anyone who could have a dry eye after watching them perform should get his tear ducts examined.
After leaving the theater, all the attendees headed to the hall for dinner and the auction. There was an array of interesting silent auction items and fine food to keep one busy until Baldwin took the stage to conduct the live auction.
He did a remarkable job, using humor to prod, tease and cajole the bidders into making serious bids for the various items. These folks, surely part of the 1 percent group, were digging deep to help the camp reach its goals. One of the most hotly contested items was lunch for two in New York with Bradley Cooper, a red hot actor. A middle-aged gentleman bidder, prodded by his teenaged daughter sitting next to him, raised the bid to an astronomical $95,000. The much-maligned and mocked Baldwin responded, “If you make it an even $100,000, I’ll match your bid.” Apparently, Baldwin donates all the proceeds from his Capital One commercials to charities.
I know cynics are going to say it is all about tax write-offs. However, I know some of the tax implications. It is not quid pro quo. You do not get a $100,000 tax break for donating $100,000.
The well-heeled people at this event gave in remarkable numbers. A prime example happened after all the items had been auctioned. The camp director took over and reminded everyone that it cost $2,500 for each youngster to attend for one week. No families have to pay for their children. It all comes from donations.
The director asked people who wanted to sponsor to simply hold up their bidding paddles and call out the number of campers they wanted to pay for. My former boss’s paddle was one of the first in the air. He is modest, so I will not divulge how many children he and his wife paid for. I will tell you that there was a thicket of paddles raised, with some individuals pledging to support 50 campers. You do that math. It was heartwarming altruism at the highest level.
The divisiveness between “classes” in this country is truly troubling. This day was a cautionary tale to me personally to avoid the stereotyping, which can block one from seeing the gray areas that exist in all arguments.
And, in fact, these folks don’t take themselves so seriously. At the end of his performance, Nathan Lane asked a friend and veteran character actor, Ernie Sabella, to join him on stage. Lane and Sabella are the two voices who sang “Hakuna Matata” in the “Lion King” movie.
Just before starting the song Lane turned to Sabella and said, in a just loud enough stage whisper, “Sing slowly, Ernie, they’re Republicans.”
The house came down.

Jim Raftus (jraftus@aol.com) is a retired marketing executive who lives in Cumberland

In Praise of Longevity – Published in Providence Journal 2/22/14

BY JIM RAFTUS
I’m always pleased when I see Roger Angell listed as a contributor in The New Yorker. I subscribe to The New Yorker because it keeps me on my toes, although I only get about half of the cartoons, and some of the fiction pieces leave me perplexed and, frankly, annoyed.
Angell’s work, however, is usually brimming with charm, intelligence and compassion. He has been a less frequent presence lately, but he can be forgiven. He is 93.
Fortunately, he was in the Feb. 17 and 24 edition. The New Yorker always includes a list of contributors: For example: “Jeffrey Toobin has written six books including ‘The Oath. The Obama White House and the Supreme Court.’”
Angell’s terse profile states: “Roger Angell first contributed to the magazine in March, 1944.”
That is two years before I was born — and I’m now undeniably into the senior, retired, fixed-income phase of my life! Angell was published in The New Yorker before the end of World War II. They’ve been accepting his work through 12 presidencies. In this modern era of instant fame and disposable careers, Angell sits proudly amid a pantheon of greats who have lived long and well.
Pablo Picasso created long enough to have, at least, five periods; Cubism, Rose, Africa, Modern and Blue. His initial work to receive notice was “The First Communion,” painted in 1896, and he unveiled the “Chicago Picasso” sculpture in 1967.
Jack Buck Sr. first broadcast a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game on KMOX radio in 1954 and he continued until 2001. He charmed the Midwest from Stan Musial’s fluid swing to Mark McGwire’s tainted 61-home-run season.
Leonard Bernstein studied as a youth at Tanglewood in 1940 and conducted his last performance at Tanglewood in 1990. The composer of “West Side Story” led the New York Philharmonic for two decades.
Helen Thomas was a White House correspondent covering presidents from John Kennedy to Barack Obama. She was a true pioneer for females in a traditionally all-male club, and press conferences were not done until she intoned, “Thank you, Mr. President.”
Angell’s article in the Feb. 17 and 24 New Yorker was titled, “This Old Man.” It is a poignant piece deliberately weighted with the winnowing of so many of his friends and family that comes with the passage of so many decades. It also, briefly and heart wrenchingly, describes the sense of invisibility that even someone as urbane and sharp as he feels when one seems merely tolerated during conversations.
Still, Angell’s humor and undampened spark for life shine through as he discusses the sexual yearnings of a 90-year-old or the joy of blogging. Here’s a writer who probably spent the first 50 years of his career changing ribbons on his Remington typewriter, rhapsodizing about the freedom of blogging. There’s a life lesson in all of this if we would just take the time to listen.
John Prine, singer/songwriter, who is in the fifth decade of his career, wrote a song called, “Hello In There.” It features this chorus:
You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day.
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”
Well, all I can say is, “Write on, Roger, write on.”

Jim Raftus (jraftus@aol.com) is a retired marketing director who lives in Cumberland.

Racism – The 3rd Rail of American Society – Published 12/08/14 Providence Journal

Jim Raftus: Have we become too complacent about racism?
Published: December 08, 2014 01:00 AM
Comments 1

BY JIM RAFTUS
Invariably, amid the heated arguments surrounding the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, many statistics will be used to justify a position — percentage of crimes committed by blacks, ratio of white police officers vs. minority population in a community, etc.
Here is a more personal statistic that causes me to deeply ponder. In my 68 years, most spent in Rhode Island, never has a black person been invited to a home I lived in. Conversely, I’ve only once been invited into a black home. It was in high school after a pickup basketball game. The visit lasted 15 minutes.
How is this statistically possible? Am I an anomaly?
My father, Leo, was born in Dorchester in 1910. At that time it was a mostly Irish and Jewish enclave. He moved to Pawtucket at the age of 12. By then, Dorchester was “transitioning,” including the arrival of black residents. My father was a good, kindly man. Everyone said so, but he was weighted down by his background.
Our few conversations about race were lower-case “All in the Family.” My father was not nearly as bigoted as Archie and I was not quite the far-left-leaning hippie of Meathead.
Dad once innocently told a story about a street fair when he was a boy in Dorchester where they played a game called “Hit the N—— on the Head.” It consisted of throwing a wet sponge at the top of young black boys’ heads protruding from holes in a cardboard rectangle. When I objected, he said the black kids were paid a nickel and gladly participated.
Late in life he made, if not friends, at least good acquaintances with a couple of black golfers at the old six-hole Silver Spring Golf Course, in East Providence.
While I was growing up in Pawtucket in the 1950s and ’60s, we Northerners clucked our tongues and shook our heads at the awful bombing of the church in Birmingham, Ala. We railed against Police Commissioner Bull Connor unleashing police dogs against blacks and bemoaned the murder of civil-rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.
Those evil, racist Southerners, we thought, can’t make peace with the blacks. Meanwhile, most blacks who migrated north continued to be herded, red-lined, into specific urban neighborhoods with poor educational opportunities and neglected infrastructures.
On my first day of basic training in Columbia, S.C., in 1968, the blacks in my barracks, upon hearing me speak, nicknamed me “Irish.” “Irish” I was for eight weeks, and I got along fine with the blacks who were, mostly, from New York City. My best friend, however, turned out to be named Moses McCutcheon, whose family worked a very small cotton farm not 15 miles from the base.
Blacks, like whites, come with a wide spectrum of pigmentation. Moses was the darkest black person I have ever met. With his Southern drawl and my Rhode Island accent, I’m not sure how we even understood each other, but we bonded.
One day the New York City blacks started razzing Moses about our friendship. He quietly, but decisively, pressed one of the agitators against a locker. Moses was short in stature but hard work on the family farm quickly turns a boy into a man. The harassment stopped.
Several weeks later, I was on a bus heading back to base after a trip to Columbia. The passengers were predominately black soldiers. As we headed toward the final few stops, a chant of “Kill whitey” began from, ironically, the back of the bus. When the bus made the next stop, the many blacks exiting threw punches at the few whites in their seats. Although I was not really hurt, the incident made me mentally replay my race discussions with my father. It took me a while to regain my quiet civil-rights advocacy.
Now retired, a full life in suburbia behind me, I see racial strife re-emerging, and I worry and question. Despite great gains by some blacks, politically and economically, far too many have been left behind. The progress of the 1960s and 1970s seems to have stalled for all but a select few.
Have we all been complicit? Have we been satisfied as long as the “problems” remained in Roxbury, East St. Louis, Harlem and South Providence? And the core question: Why have the races not truly more readily and happily mixed? Are the difference insurmountable?
My final question is to myself. Have I been all rhetoric? Too complacent, standing off to the side?
I would love to find Moses McCutcheon again. I would invite Moses into my Cumberland home.
Sixty-eight years is too long to wait.
Jim Raftus (jraftus@aol.com), an occasional contributor, is a retired marketing executive who lives in Cumberland.

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