Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘Haverford College

baggage-claim-2Yesterday morning I flew from Denver to Austin for 4 days of topping up my grandfatherly batteries.  When I got to the baggage claim area in Austin, I went over to monitors to see which carousel my bag would be coming in on.  The second listing on the screen was an arrival for flight 1147 from Austin!

That’s right, Flight 1147 (the name of the airline is being withheld to avoid a lawsuit) was going from Austin to Austin.  (As my old Haverford College classmate Dave Barry says, “I’m not making this up.”)

At first I thought it had to be a mistake.  But then it hit me.  No, it wasn’t a mistake.  It was just another creative attempt by a struggling airline to  BEAT THE RECESSION.

I would love to have been a Japanese tourist taking photos (nobody pays any attention to a Japanese tourist taking photos) at the meeting where they came up with that idea.

“Come on, guys, there must be something else we can do to avoid losing our jobs.”

“Maybe we should schedule more flights.”

“Don’t be silly.  There aren’t enough people on the flights we run now, so we lose money on every one.  The more we schedule, the more we lose.”

“How about if we get more people to fly?”

“We tried that last week.  It didn’t work. ”

“OK, then, let’s run fewer flights.”

“That’s not going to work either.  Then we don’t cover our overhead.”

“You mean like the building?  Maybe we can get a smaller building”

“I mean like your salary.  Maybe we should get you a smaller salary.  The problem is that our costs are too high.”

“I know, let’s cut back on services.”

There’s a stunned silence in the room.

“Wait!  I’ve got it!  Let’s schedule flights from airports to the same airports.”

“Yeah, right.”

“No, I’m serious.  Think about about.  What’s our biggest expense?  Fuel.  How much fuel is it going to take to taxi out onto the runway, sit for 20 minutes, and then come back to the terminal?”

“Maybe you’ve got something there.

“That’d be bound to increase our on-time arrival percentage too.”

“It might.  If — and this is a big if — we could manage to get the planes back to the terminals on time.”

“And we wouldn’t need nearly as many staff checking people in and handling their bags.  Who’s going to bring a suitcase if they’re going to be home in an hour anyway?”

“Practically no one.”

“We could save a lot of money on the planes, too.  I mean the planes wouldn’t even need engines would they?  Just one of those little tractors to pull them away from the gate.”

“We’ve got plenty of those already.”

“And no toilets!  The doors would have to be there, of course, but there wouldn’t need to be anything behind them.  We’d just keep the seat-belt sign on for the whole time.”

By now the ideas would be flying (unlike the planes) fast and furious.  Skip ahead a year — a venture this complex is going to take lots of planning, isn’t it? — and voila, we have a flight from Austin to Austin.

By the way, the arrival listing on the computer monitor in Baggage Claim showed that Flight 1147 was scheduled to arrive 90 minutes late.

pirateAbout 5 years ago, when I was still living and working in Europe, I was spending a lot of time working in Zurich. One night I was having trouble sleeping, and I turned on the radio in the hotel room to the BBC. A piece came on about Postville, an isolated small town in northeastern Iowa. In the late 1980s, Postville, like many small Midwestern towns, was having trouble. The local meatpacking plant had closed down a few years before, all the young people were moving away to Chicago and Minneapolis, and in 10 or 15 years, the town would be out of business. Which really upset the locals, many of whose families had been in Postville since its founding in the 1850s.

Then, one day in 1987, an entrepreneur showed up and purchased the plant with the intention of reopening it. The townspeople were delighted. There would be jobs and economic development, and Postville would be saved from extinction.

Except that the entrepreneur was a Hasidic Jew from the Lubavitch sect in Brooklyn, and the plant would be a kosher one. Kosher meatpacking plants are not your typical “outsourcing” venture. A large percentage of the work must be done by specially trained, orthodox Jews.

So in moved 30 orthodox rabbis and their (large) families. Still wonderful, thought the locals. This is America, it’s the melting pot. We’ll accept and absorb anyone. And the townspeople, being the welcoming folk that they were, formed a welcoming committee to help the Hasidim adopt to life in rural Iowa. There would be a “buddy system” matching the Hasidic children with local children at the local schools. There would be dances for the older youth. And the Hasidic women would be invited to come help out preparing for the Postville Christmas Bazaar. But first, the townspeople and the Hasidim would get together for a spare rib barbecue picnic! (As my old Haverford College classmate Dave Barry frequently says in his syndicated newspaper column, “I am not making this up.”)

The Hasidim immediately let the locals know that they had no intention of being absorbed.  Their children wouldn’t be going to the local schools; their sons wouldn’t be dating the townspeople’s daughters, and their daughters wouldn’t be dating the townspeople’s sons; and the Hasidic women wouldn’t be working for the Christmas Bazaar. And not only weren’t they going to eat spare-ribs, they weren’t going to eat anything that they hadn’t prepared themselves. Ever.

The townspeople were, of course, profoundly offended and an epic culture clash ensued. But economic salvation is economic salvation, and both sides determined to make the best of it. The next thing that happened, however, is that meatpacking plants have a lot of low-paying, dirty, dangerous jobs that neither the Hasidim nor the locals were willing to do. So in came a large number of immigrant workers from Eastern Europe and Latin America. And Postville, a town of 1,500 people which had never knowingly seen a Jew or a black in person before (of course they’d seen them on TV and the movies, just not in person), suddenly had a population of 1/3 people of color and culture.

Even though I had not yet started my writing career, I recognized this as a story of great dramatic potential, and I wrote it down in my “Ideas File.” A year and a half after I retired, after I’d completed and had some success with my first two full-length plays, I contacted Stephen Bloom, who had written a book entitled “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.” Bloom was the one I’d heard being interviewed on the BBC program. We negotiated and signed a contract for me to purchase the theatrical rights to the book, and I set about writing a play “inspired” by the events in Postville.

AP Photo, The Waterloo Courier/ Matthew Putney

AP Photo, The Waterloo Courier/ Matthew Putney

But in May, 2008, there was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on the Postville plant.  The raid uncovered a large number of illegal immigrants, some underage workers, and various other labor infractions. While I had heard rumors about this sort of thing before I started outlining the play, I had decided that the themes for the play would be completely different.

  1. Change is inevitable. It’s not as though the alternative is living eternally in the 1950s and being happy and prosperous forever.
  2. Change hurts, and when people are hurt they often react in inappropriate ways.
  3. The American melting pot model is no longer universally applicable. Not everyone wants or needs to assimilate and disappear into the American “mocha mix.”
  4. Somehow, people will reach a new working arrangement and learn to live together.

I had consciously chosen to ignore the raid and its aftermath – fines, arrests, the meatpacking company going into receivership, general uproar. But in the 8 months since the raid, there has been ongoing news coverage, and I was becoming increasingly concerned that my play was being hijacked. People would expect to see the raid and its implications addressed.

Then, last week, I came up with a way to incorporate the events but not turn the message of my play on its head. Some unhappy locals would have instigated the raid by tipping off the government.  When the raid comes and the plant closes they, along with everyone else, realize that an uncomfortable truce was greatly preferable to extinction.  The plant re-opens, and life goes on at a new level of compromise.

I had a reading of the first half of the play last night, and I think it’s going to work. Wish me luck, and watch out for “Postville,” which I hope to complete in the next 3 or 4 months.

Some people are born to curmudgeonhood (curmudgeonness? curmudgeonity?), some people achieve curmudgeonhood, and some have curmudgeonhood thrust upon them.  While it now all seems to have come so easily, I suppose I’ve worked hard to achieve my current position atop the Curmudgeon Pantheon.

When I was a kid, way back in the middle of the last century, I guess I kind of enjoyed the “Holiday Season.”   I remember first being profoundly annoyed at all things Christmas in my second year at Haverford College.  I lived in a suite with 3 other guys, and one of them, Ned, took out a tape of Christmas carols and started playing it a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving.

What’s so bad about that, I can hear you asking.  Everybody starts playing  Christmas carols (and putting up Christmas lights, and ringing bells at you outside of stores,  and sending you letters asking for money, . . .) around Thanksgiving.  But Ned had a single, 60 minute tape of Christmas carols, and he played it continuously, over and over again, more or less around the clock.

How many times can you be expected to listen to Gene Autrey singing “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer” before you start to lose it?  So after the first few days, I very politely suggested to Ned that he take his f*^%ing tape and shove it up his f*^%ing a^%#.   (As you can see, I’ve always been a patient person, sensitive to the feelings of others.)

Ned was, and I’m sure still is, one of the world’s professional sweet guys, and patiently explained to me that Christmas carols are something deep and meaningful that he grew up with, and not being a Christian, I just couldn’t understand.  I got no support from my other two roommates, one of whom had disappeared into the library in early September and didn’t emerge until graduation 3 years later, and the other of whom was another professional sweet guy who had grown up with Christmas carols, and why couldn’t I understand just how important it was for both of them, anyway?

The tape continued to play 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, and by the time school closed for the holidays, I’m not sure whether I was closer to suicide or homicide.  But I was certainly relieved that my ordeal was over.  Right!  On our return to school in January, out came the tape again, and Ned played every waking hour for another two weeks.  He was just so sorry to see the Christmas season end, he  had to listen to those wonderful, nostalgic songs another 3,000 times!  Even then, he couldn’t bear to stop cold-turkey, but tailed off gradually, playing the damn thing off and on until Easter.

Is it any wonder I’ve never been the same since?  Believe me, the steps were deceptively small and easy to take from carol-terror to decoration-angst to “You know what you can do with your ‘Ho, ho, ho,’ you red-suited weirdo!”

Sinterklaas.  Looks different from the other red-suited dude, doesnt he?

Sinterklaas. Looks different from the other red-suited dude, doesn't he?

As you may know by now, I left the U.S. in 1974 and didn’t return for good until 2004.  During those 30 years, my mania was mostly dormant.  Christmas celebrations just weren’t all that big in Iran or Israel.   And Western Europeans take a much less overt, less time-consuming  approach to the holidays.   In Holland,  preparations start about December 4th, and the whole thing is over on the 6th, the day after Sinterklaas comes riding through from Spain on his white horse.  That’s right, there’s nothing universal about celebrating the 25th.  In the U.K., nearly nobody puts up Christmas lights.  You see a few decorations in the stores for about a week, and on Boxing Day, the 26th, everything mercifully disappears.

But after I moved to Colorado in 2004, all that anxiety came rushing back.  Two weeks before Thanksgiving that first year, my new favorite radio station — a country music station, for crying out loud — started playing Christmas carols 24/7.   A week later, 11 of the 13 houses in my cul-de-sac put up Christmas lights, and didn’t take them down until mid January.

Fortunately, I seem to be getting over my little problem.  Last January, I even volunteered to help my next door neighbor take her lights down.

“Here, you shouldn’t be doing that alone.  Let me get it for you.  Oh, that’s too bad, I seem to have broken that string.  And there, I’ve broken another.  I’m so sorry.  How clumsy of me to step on those bulbs like that.  I’ll just get those strands now.  Oops!”

Heh, heh.  Sometimes, it’s all worth it.

My family was upper middle class, and although we lived in the bleeding-heart liberal left Washington, D.C. suburb of Chevy Chase, Md., my parents never had much interest in anything other than saving for retirement.  So although I was vaguely aware that my schoolmates were more sensitive, caring, and politically involved than I was, I was too wrapped up in being horny 24 hours a day  to be bothered much about it.

Somehow, I ended up at the even more bleeding-heart liberal leftist Haverford College, just outside of Philadelphia.  A few days after I arrived, I was at a mixer with Bryn Mawr College, and I ended up sitting with two Bryn Mawr freshman who spent the better part of two hours talking about how they were going to be, well, sensitive, caring and politically involved.  All I was interested in was getting into their pants, and they were talking about whether they were going to volunteer with “Amnesty International” or “Medicines Sans Frontieres.”  By the time I graduated I was more than vaguely aware that I was not as concerned as most my peers, but other than participating in one anti-Vietnam protest march — hey, everyone else was going — I’d managed to avoid being bothered much about it.

I left the U.S. in 1974 and spent almost all of the next 30 years living and working overseas — Iran, Israel, Germany, Holland, and the U.K., with extended periods of time commuting Monday through Friday to assignments in Italy, France, Belgium, and Spain, among other countries.  (When people ask me about it I tell them that I was just trying to stay ahead of a parking ticket I got at the Philadelphia airport in 1972.)  There was a lot of moving in those years, in all of those countries other than the U.K. I was speaking languages other than English, and I was traveling 48 weeks a year.  So not becoming too involved with anything other than my family and my career was pretty easy.

From reading the “International Herald Tribune” and “Newsweek” in the early 1990s, I knew that something called political correctness was sweeping the U.S. and would eventually make it over to Europe (as most American  cultural fads seem to about 10 years after they hit the U.S.).  Then, in 1995, I was working for a computer company which had just ended its “special relationship” with a particularly Evil Car Company and I was leading a team that was supposed to develop a methodology for competing for their I.T. business.  A hot-shot process lady was sent over from the U.S. to work with us.  Before we could start each meeting, she insisted that we all “check in” first.  Checking in apparently meant: 1) that we all had to tell each other something personal and revealing about ourselves; 2) that we each had to talk about our expectations for the meeting; and 3) that we had to talk ad nauseum, usually with tears streaming down our faces, about how we felt about our co-workers and the process.  (“Thank you for sharing.”  “Thank you for caring.”)  Checking in usually took about half of our work time.  I was astonished and absolutely appalled.

On the second day I suggested that maybe it would be a good thing to actually start work.  The process lady looked at me very seriously and said, “Do you mean you don’t want our company to become a Learning Organization?”  Obviously “Learning Organization” was a reserved word with which I was not familiar.  My reply was swift and brutal.  “Call me a crusty old fart, but we’ve got 3 months to do a shit-load of work.  If the boss comes to me in a month and asks, ‘How’s it going?’ and I tell him, ‘Well, we haven’t actually don-angrystarted work yet, but we’re all feeling really good about the process,’ he’s going to kill me!  We’ll keep doing this over my screaming, bloody corpse!”  For 30 seconds, her mouth flopped open and closed, but no sound came out.

It was lucky for me that we were not in the U.S.  She later told me that if we had been, she would have submitted a suit against me on the spot for sexual harassment.  What the things I had said had to do with sexual harassment I never could figure out, but obviously touchy-feeliness and political correctness are like secret societies.  You have to work your way up to the appropriate levels of knowledge over a period of decades.

In any case, my self-proclaimed designation of “crusty old fart” seemed to fit and, greatly encouraged by me, it has stuck with me ever since.  So much for my budding career as a touchy-feely political correctnik!

When I was getting ready to retire, I made a list of 20 things I was looking for and a list of places and compared them.  Boulder, Colorado came out way on top, and I moved there in 2004.  Boy, was I in for a shock!  Commonly referred to locally as “The People’s Republic of Boulder,” the city has more massage therapists per capita than any place else on earth.  You don’t own a pet in Boulder, you are the pet’s “guardian.”  The city has spent years debating how the prairie dogs, which are epidemic around here, should be controlled or whether they should just be allowed to take over the city.  Seminars on things like, “Living a Sustainable Life,” and “Opening the Circle” are well attended daily occurrences.  The first couple of years drove me absolutely crazy!

Don’t get me wrong, I am concerned about the arts and the environment and spend a significant amount of time working with a number of non-profit organizations.  It’s just that I don’t wear it on my sleeve and spend most of my time trying to keep from crying because it’s such a big, tough, unfair world.

At this point, I’m kind of numb and, other than an occasional curmudgeonly outburst which deeply offends the locals, I control myself pretty well.

Well, enough for my opening salvo.  If I don’t get deported, I’ll be back with more.