John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: September, 2015

Bel Shapiro’s Vacation Story

Annabel Shapiro, the youngest daughter of my old London mate, John, recently returned from a vacation in the Canary Islands.


Known to her friends as Bel, she is both founder and operator of an award-winning,  London-based food cart known as The Bell & Brisket. In business for about two years Bel and her associates operate at both scheduled and serendipitous locations throughout greater London. They are engaged in what is known locally as “the kerb life.” While they take their food seriously, not so much themselves. For example dubbing the converted horsebox/food truck: “The Whoresbox.”


For the record, the main ingredient is brisket or as they also call it on the other side of the pond, salt beef. The brisket is hand cured locally and served on traditional boiled Jewish bagels or local rye bread with pickles, relish and cheddar melted by means of a blow torch; a nice touch.


Here is the message Bel sent to her father describing her diving experience in the Canaries:


So I went diving today, brilliant as always, but there’s a kind of etiquette involved that really makes me laugh.


At about 8:30 AM all the local dive schools converge on the same dive spot on the coast. There are standard trips the instructors take you out on so they know it like the back of their hands. What makes me laugh is that there are classic stereotypical behaviors from each school that all have their own branded vans and gear.


There are the Germans who stand there broad chested and Aryan barking orders at their group. Their kit is immaculate, gas tanks all lined up facing the same way, equipment in the sun with flippers and wet suits matching like a row of backing singers in a band. Everything perfect, slick and on time.


There are the Spanish, swarthy, tanned and sinewy like well-whittled wood, with hipster beards, tie die clothes and flip-flops. With sharp, angular faces; they are born to look good in a wet suit. They just rock up and dive on their own time; manana, manana.


Then there are us Brits. The school is run by Dave and Paul who seem to be having a competition to see who can get the biggest gut into a wet suit. Paul is winning but Dave likes a smoke and gets as many fags in as possible before he actually has to go under water. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d cracked open a can of Stella before the dive. Their van is a bit shit. The door handle came off in my hand. But they are salt of the earth and I had a great day with them. Gawd bless the Brits!          

The One Hundredth Edition

The piece I selected for this edition is one of the last I wrote before I began this blog. Before it begins, I want to thank all of my loyal readers who have offered your wonderful comments and observations. I enjoy your responses.


Secondly, I invite readers who would like to write a guest blog to do so. I will work with you on your submissions and I will never publish a final version until you sign off on it.


Port Washington Pigeons


The Long Island Railroad is engaged in a perpetual conflict with those pigeons that inhabit their Port Washington station. It is a losing fight. Despite each new and more inventive obstacle that the LIRR erects to make the creatures’ lives uncomfortable and drive them away from their nesting spots, these dirty birds either find alternative locations to live and breed or learn to co-exist with these man-made distractions. When the railroad placed netting on the underside of the weather canopies, the pigeons moved to the canopies that cover the platforms. So the LIRR retaliated by adding spikes to the tops of the rafters the flying rats were using for their homes. Having lost this spot, some birds merely shifted their nests to the tops of the message boards and television monitors that dot the platforms while others simply maneuvered between these spikes. It is almost a certainty that they will find new locations once the LIRR blocks these spots.


The pigeons have been residents of the station for so long that they have accommodated themselves to this world finding new ways to feed themselves. They understand the pace of the day avoiding the hordes of “Dashing Dans” and “Dashing Janes” as these commuters hustle through the station during the morning and evening rushes.


But, between 10 am and 4 pm, they take advantage of the relatively slow pace of activity to find their daily fare. When a train arrives from Penn Station and the passengers depart, the doors remain open for New York City bound passengers. The birds confidently approach the open doors and hop on board individual coaches to bob and weave under the seats prowling for any discarded food. Some uninitiated arriving passengers can be startled by their appearance especially when a bobbing head appears as if from nowhere beneath their seat. Others try to drive them from the train by standing up and waving newspapers at them but this foolishness just causes a commotion for everybody by having birds taking flight in these confined quarters. Veteran riders learn to live with this invasion and the pigeons take little notice of them.


The pigeons have developed a sense of when the doors will close and when they should abandon their hunt to exit the train. It may be the announcements that are always made shortly before departure, simply pure timing or even the warning bell that signals imminent departure.


But every now and then a preoccupied pigeon misses “last call” becoming an involuntary westbound passenger. The captive bird takes this in stride, calmly making its way to a door located on the left hand side of the coach. There the bird waits patiently for the doors to open once the train arrives at Plandome, the next station on the line. A quick hop off the train and on to the platform, the bird usually checks the platform to see if a snack is close by before lifting off for its five-minute flight back to Port Washington.


A Porsche 911 Story

Please understand that I know very little about cars especially macho or muscle varieties. But even I am somewhat familiar with the venerable Porsche 911. The New York Times recently reviewed the 2015 rendition of the 911 GTS. The reporter, Tom Voelk, waxed eloquently about the performance and features of the $142,300 version he was permitted to test. Witness the following: “With the engine singing baritone from behind, 0 to 60 miles an hour is a 3.8-second thrill ride.”


Still Mr. Voelk’s review noted the 911’s aging features: “The 911’s delicious analog nature is a blessing in our digital world.” Or: “Issues? At $142,000, a backup camera would be nice.”


In summary, he compares the 911 to “…a BMW 18 that’s bursting with new technology. One is a Rolex. The other an Apple Watch.”


Which brings me to my 911 story; years ago, my firm arranged for a European colleague to attend a month-long summer course at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University. Designed as an intense mini-version of an M.B.A. program this chap would have little free time except for the middle weekend. Since Dartmouth is about 50 miles from our New Hampshire house, I invited him to spend a relaxing weekend with us.


We shall call him Broker X to protect the innocent. Known as a charming rascal, Broker X readily accepted this invitation and I drove him to Marlow after picking him up from his campus quarters. Tall and thin, he had a way with women and could instantly charm them. This despite suffering from bad skin that one could sum up if being uncharitable: “One day his face caught fire and they put it out with a fork.”


Despite this handicap, a church lady once remarked about Broker X, “I don’t know what it is about that man but I cannot be in the same room alone with him. If I am, I start to feel funny inside.”


The highlight of his visit was a round of golf at the Hooper Golf Club in the town Walpole on the Connecticut River. Hooper is a lovely little course with nine fairways but with 18 tee boxes. Cut into the forest, several fairways look down toward the river and neighboring Vermont.


My then 14-year-old son, Michael, joined Broker X for the round. “Tell me Mister X, what kind of a car do you drive back home?


“A Volvo,” he replied.


“No, no, I am not talking about your company car, what kind of a car do you own back home?


“Ah, a Porsche 911.”


“I’ll tell you what; we have a blue Ford Escort back home. How about I’ll trade you the Escort for your 911?”


“I don’t think so.”


“Okay then, I’ll throw in my 16-year old sister!”

Indonesian Adventure

The New York Times recently published an extensive account of a trip to Indonesia that I sent to my buddy, Geoff Jones. In their salad days, Geoff, and his wife, Judy, traveled to remote and exotic places seeking unconventional adventures and Geoff recalled several of his experiences on their trip back in the mid 90’s:


The only way that we could travel from island to island was by air. They operated like a local bus service and we mostly flew on one of two airlines, Merpati and Simpate, both owned by the Suharto family. They were simply awful. They had a terrible safety record and were infested with roaches. On one flight my seatback collapsed into the next row making it impossible to fasten my seatbelt. That wasn’t all, comically; the airplane featured two ordinary chairs situated near the door. They were moved out of the way for boarding, etc. and were used by the cabin crew for takeoffs and landings.


At one airport, my friend, Randy and I, decided to exchange $100 bills for Rupiah, the local currency. I don’t recall the rate of exchange but the stack they gave us was so large that they also gave us large size super market paper bags to cart the money away. When Randy and I returned to the luggage carousel where Judy and his wife, Toni, were waiting, they looked at the bags with surprise and asked what we had purchased? We replied, “Nothing, but look in here.”


We all nearly collapsed with laughter. The Rupiahs were so worthless that our stash consisted of one inch bundles of filthy colored paper with a rubber banded sample of the denomination around it. To purchase something, we counted out bundles, not the bills,


That airport was also a zoo. The luggage carousel didn’t actually move and the luggage arrived on old pickups. The handlers slid the bags down a ramp going in various directions depending which of the raised slots on the carousel slide they happened to hit. On the ceiling, a mounted fan rotated around in a vain attempt to moderate the intense heat inside the terminal. The fan didn’t have any blades. Between the money exchange, the luggage and the fan, we nearly pissed in our pants.


Indonesia is so big that it spans seven time zones. Ethnically diverse, it is heavily Chinese in the West but gradually turns aborigine as we traveled east. On a two-hour plane flight you feel you have crossed into a new world and not that you are still in the same country. A flight from Java to Irian Jaya made about a half dozen stops. On another from Jakarta, we reached our destination, Jojakarta after dark, tired and sweaty. The airport was deserted and we had to change terminals. Finally we found a terminal that listed our flight. I felt so dirty that I bought a shirt to replace my filthy one and changed in a bathroom. It was a neat looking Garuda Airline shirt but later in the trip after washing, it shrunk to the size of doll clothing. It might have fit “Ken.”


We visited with tribes slightly beyond their stone-age head-hunting days. The women were bare-breasted and wore a net cloth around their waists that served as a soft cover up and was also used as a shopping bag. The men split penis gourds and western garb depending on whether they were farmer/hunters or shop keepers. We did see a family mummy. We were treated to tribal meal rituals where pigs were shot with primitive bows and arrows and cooked on hot stones though we declined to dine. On one occasion, they brought out the seated mummy for us to see. It began to rain so one of the tribe produced an umbrella and held it over the old fellow.


We discovered Durians. For the uninitiated, these fruits native to Southeast Asia, are supposedly delicious and can be made into ice cream. However, they are infamous for their fecal odor. Toni tried a cone on a taxi ride smelling up the cab until the driver forced her to toss it out.


Of course much has changed in the last twenty years but this narrative gives you an idea of what a unique adventure this could be. But if you are interested in a beach vacation, limit your adventure to Bali.



LGA Is A Fourth World Airport

I’ve analyzed the newly proposed plan to reconstruct and resurrect LaGuardia Airport from the horrible condition that it has sunk into and I say with absolute candor, “You can’t shine s***!”


The existing facilities are overcrowded, worn down and broken. The main terminal, now known as Terminal B, opened fifty-one years ago in 1964 in a much quieter era before the 727 and the DC-9 revolutionized domestic air transportation. Terminal B was designed to have flights arrive and depart from four separate wings that connected to various areas in the main building. Security was minimal back in the day and each wing had its own security check-point. I always understood that if you had to transfer from one to another, you had to exit the secure section and be screened all over again. Today, in our post-September 11, 2001 atmosphere, this enhanced process is a logistical nightmare. That was my understanding but it turned out not to be the case.


My cousin, Bill, recently made two trips from Texas to LaGuardia. His first round trip was on American. On the return leg the airline changed his gate from C-4 to A-12 after the TSA had cleared him and he arrived at the original designated gate. He told me, “I did not want to go through that barbaric process again so I asked a Port Authority cop if there was a way to avoid it?”


“Yes,” the cop replied and directed me to a non-descript door. “Go down the stairs and a van will take you to Wing A.”


“He must have called ahead because no alarm went off when he opened the door and when I reached the bottom there was a driver waiting for me. After driving me to the correct wing, he watched me very carefully to be sure I entered the right stairwell. I climbed the stairs and out another unalarmed door although there may have been a guard nearby.”


Just one example of how broken this airport is. But the overwhelming issue is LaGuardia cannot be fixed. I remember a flight from DFW to LGA years ago. I was sitting next to a young man, a new flyer on his first flight. Understandably excited and scared, he asked me what the takeoff will be like. “Oh that will be as easy as can be. The runways at this airport are about 12,000 feet long. There are separate runways for take-off and landings that are widely spaced and the pilots have all the room they need.”


He looked too relieved for his own good so I continued, “The problem will be landing at LaGuardia; that will be like trying to put the airplane down on to a postage stamp.”


To make sure he understood, I pointed the field out to him as we banked over Flushing Meadows Park. My reward was watching his eyes grow to the size of silver dollars.


The site for LaGuardia Airport was originally picked to be convenient to Manhattan and be accessible to both land and sea planes. At the time Imperial (British Airways) and Pan American Airways were the primary trans-Atlantic carriers and both operated multiple engine flying boats on their overseas routes.


Hence LaGuardia sits on a peninsula with water on three sides, the East River, Bowery Bay and Flushing Bay. Over time the airport has been expanded and been manipulated as much as humanly possible. The land side is locked in behind the Grand Central Parkway along its entire length and three residential communities, East Elmhurst, Corona and Jackson Heights. About half the airport was originally built on top of semi-stable fill requiring a dike and pumps to keep it from flooding during high tides.


The two runways are perpendicular to each other and can only be used one at a time. They were extended to 7,500 feet in length in the mid-1960s to meet the minimum distances needed by medium size jets for takeoff and landing. These extensions were erected on two massive concrete piers strong enough to take the shocks of countless aircraft touching down.


Scary enough but there is more. Only one end of one runway has overshoot protection; i.e. an area to stop an airplane in an emergency. On two others, the water is the only choice and the last, the parkway.


In closing, the most modern terminals, transportation hubs, air control systems or travel amenities can do nothing to alleviate what ills LGA.


My suggestion, have pilots change their announcements to: “Ladies and gentlemen we are cleared for landing / takeoff and now, let us pray.”