Taki LE MAÎTRE A Few More Liars A very long time ago, drunk in El Morocco, the premier dinner-nightclub of its day, I made friends with Alan Jay Lerner, the famous lyricist, upon discovering we were both boxers. (I had a black eye, he had lost an eye practicing the sweet science.) My dinner companion was Lee Radziwill, sister of the recently widowed Jackie Kennedy. Alan was with his then wife, Micheline. (If memory serves, Lerner married seven or eight times.) Alan invited us back to his apartment in the Pierre, where he played a few songs of an upcoming musical of his, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. (His last hit had been My Fair Lady.) The 1951 song was "How Could You Believe Me When I Said That I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life?" Lerner wrote its delightful lyrics for MGM's Royal Wedding, starring the great Fred Astaire and Jane Powell. Back in those halcyon prep school days we only listened to radio, and when the title of the song was announced we could hardly believe our ears. Then, in history class, Mr. Cook told one of my classmates that there was a song making the rounds written just for him. Bill Feingold was a Clinton clone, never confined by fact, and a bullshitter extraordinaire. He went out for no sports, whined when picked on, but was a genius in networking and arse-licking at a time when the former word had not yet been invented, and the latter was looked upon as worse than cowardice.
Reading the London Spectator a couple of weeks ago, I ran across a mention of the song. It sure brought back memories. In fact I remember the tune very well. I also remember Jane Powell chewing gum and giving hell to Fred because of his lying. So I had an idea. I rang up my two Vietnam buddies, Chuck Pfeiffer, Special Forces?Silver Star?and Billy David, Marine Corps?Bronze Star?and asked them if there was a way I could bribe or cajole a Marine or military band to play the tune of "How Could You Believe Me..." rather than "Hail to the Chief" the next time Clinton gives a fundraiser at taxpayers' expense in the White House. Neither Chuck nor Billy was of any help. Except to inform me that at veterans' military reunions, they no longer toast the Commander-in-Chief, but "the Office of the Presidency." Which means you can fool most of the American people, especially Noo Yawkers, but not everyone. (Incidentally, Billy David is a hell of a fellow. He believes there are only five things left in America to respect: The USMC, John Ford, Gary Cooper, General Electric and the Yankees; I agree with four of them, but GE is a borderline case. It owns a network, I believe, yet has done nothing to stop the mind-numbing rot, the violence and the political correctness.)
But back to lying. If life weren't as unfair as it is, Congress would indeed have passed a resolution replacing "Hail to the Chief" with "How Could You Believe Me..." It makes so much more sense. Especially when Hillary is around. Clinton cannot be called a chief in any sense of the word. Chief implies physical courage, something the Draft Dodger simply ain't got. It implies respect, dignity, gravitas and many other things. (During the Middle Ages, when chiefs were chiefs, the head would sit with his knights and fellow warriors, and outside the perimeter there would be clowns and minstrels and the odd singer of songs; now the clowns and Hollywood characters are inside the perimeter with the clown chief, and the knights who do the fighting are outside.)
All Clinton has is an ability to lie and charm people, things a real chief would not be proud of. He now refers to himself as a bulwark of the Constitution because those phonies in the Senate let him off. He brags about bombing from 15,000 feet an unarmed populace. He preaches to Yeltsin, who has probably killed fewer Chechen women and children than Clinton did Serbs. Worst of all, he and his ghastly wife have lowered the bar once and for all where public service is concerned.
Just take a look at what's happened to England. Tony Blair has adopted the Clinton way, i.e., he lies and does not bother to cover up his lies; he just repeats them. As Boris Johnson wrote in the Spectator, "When Blair is caught bare-faced in the act of deception, so blatant a liar that the smoke is billowing from his trousers, he just carries on. Under some kind of mass hypnosis, we all ignore the sulphurous odor of burning pants, because Blair ignores it." This is the Clinton school of governing in its essence: lie, lie, lie and lie again. Followed by the Blumenthal school of personal destruction of anyone who cries liar. Blair's Blumenthal is Alastair Campbell, a onetime porn writer. As Paul Johnson wrote, "the depredations of the Clinton White House are seen as a model of how to do things and stay in power."
Oh well, once upon a time we took lessons in manners from across the pond, now they take them from us. It even affects soi-disant celebrities. British actors used to behave themselves. Some of them were even knighted or ennobled. Now they behave as badly as, say, Steven Seagal, as objectionable a human being as I've come across. I had an opportunity to observe the "actor" last week at Roffredo Gaetani's brilliant bash at Serafina, on Lafayette and 4th St. (an amazing place and the best pizza in town by far), to celebrate Ferrari cars. (Roffredo is the Ferrari agent of Canada, Boston and Long Island.) I have never seen so many beautiful girls in one place.
Standing by the bar I watched Seagal?a man I had met before he went Hollywood and to Hollywood, and had found deeply unpleasant?confront Richard Johnson, New York's numero uno gossip columnist and a good friend. Seagal complained in a threatening manner about something Richard had written. "One of less spiritual strength would punch you out," said SS. Johnson, however, is no wimp. "Oh, should I step back?" SS: "It wouldn't help you."
As it happened, Richard Johnson did not step back. His motto is he'd rather be sued by a man for assault than to have to sue someone for libel. When Mickey Rourke, another phony tough guy, challenged Johnson about 10 years ago, Richard sent him a simple message: "Anywhere, anytime!" He never heard from Mickey again. Ditto with Seagal. There were handshakes all around until yours truly yelled that I would bet $1000 on Johnson against the bully. One of his pals, known as an arse-licker to the stars, Jason Binn (born Binstock but he dropped the stock into the bin, rather than the other way round) came up and tried to make peace. The words I used are not repeatable in a family newspaper.
This was the bad news. The good was that Jumbo Elliott, all 6-foot-7, 300 pounds, told us about the Ferrari Roffredo sold him: a 550 Maranello, specially made to fit him. Jumbo was so happy he lifted it up. Now that's a man no one would dare call a liar, not even the greatest liar of them all.
Toby Young ARRIVISTE Monica, My Stalker Well, I've finally made it. My efforts to scale the social peaks of Manhattan haven't been in vain. I've been given the ultimate seal of approval. I have a stalker. Now, I know that term is used very loosely. Most New York women refer to any man they bump into more than once in the course of a week as a stalker. Indeed, I've been called a stalker myself on several occasions, though I like to think that loitering outside a girl's apartment building, hoping to catch her on the way out, falls under the heading of good, old-fashioned persistence. Nevertheless, I think the term may be appropriate in this case. You be the judge.
It all began with a fan letter I received last October. The woman in question?let's call her Monica?praised my articles in New York Press and asked if she could buy me a drink sometime. She described herself as "a blonde, blue-eyed pixie" and claimed to have been featured in Tatler, The Guardian, Detour and Loaded, though she didn't say why. Loaded is the original lad mag, the blueprint for Maxim, so if she was in that, I thought, she must be pretty good-looking. Most promisingly of all, she said a poem of hers had been published in a British magazine called Chest Monthly.
"I have no idea what you look like or how old you are," she concluded. "I don't care. I like your ideas and your writing. It would be an honor to meet you."
It sounded too good to be true. Was some sadistic friend of mine playing a trick on me? I was reminded of the letters that the English poet Philip Larkin used to fantasize about receiving: "Dear Mr. Larkin, My friend and I had an argument as to which of us has the biggest breasts and we wondered if you would act as..." I wasted no time in replying, telling her I'd love to meet for a drink and including my phone number.
What an idiot.
A few days later she called. There was something a little strange about her voice but I decided to overlook it, at least for the time being. She then launched into a detailed account of how she'd licked Drew Barrymore in a nightclub. That was harder to ignore. Still, for all I knew she was Drew Barrymore's age and that was how women of their generation signaled their interest in one another. Images from The Howard Stern Show danced before my eyes.
"How old are you?" I asked.
"I'm in my 30s," she replied.
Yikes! That meant she was 45 if she was a day. I decided to wait a couple of days before committing to a date and told her I'd call her back. I reread her original letter and it wasn't quite as titillating the second time around. "I'm a poet and a performer," she'd written, "heading into filmmaking." That sounded a little ominous. On the other hand, there was always her career as a published writer to consider. Then I noticed it wasn't Chest Monthly that had printed her poem, but Chess Monthly.
I didn't exactly decide not to call her back, I just never got around to it. About a week later, though, she called me. This time she was a little more aggressive, suggesting various things we might do together. We made a tentative plan for the following Saturday, but I said I wasn't sure if I was going away for the weekend and that I'd call her on Friday to confirm. When Friday came I didn't bother to call, but she called and I canceled.
A few days later I received another letter from Monica. "Dear Toby Young," it began, "Our brief conversations and correspondence could be seen as a series of soft openings. I'm tremendously fond of that phrase 'soft openings.'" The letter was accompanied by various press clippings?though not her picture?including the poem from Chess Monthly and a report of the Drew Barrymore incident. It took place back in 1995 when Monica worked as a lap dancer at the Blue Angel, a famously skanky strip club in Tribeca. Apparently, Barrymore had turned up at the club one night and Monica had bound over to her and licked her neck. This contravened the Blue Angel's "No Saliva Passing From Stripper To Clientele" rule and she was fired on the spot.
Since I received the letter, Monica has called, on average, once every couple of days.
Believe it or not, this isn't the first time I've been stalked by a woman who takes her clothes off for a living. For a brief period I was stalked by Elizabeth Hurley. This was back in 1994 before she was famous. In those days I was the editor of a London-based magazine called The Modern Review and I published some naked pictures of her. The issue sold out and Elizabeth was furious even though similar pictures had appeared in various publications and?inevitably?Loaded. For a brief period I started receiving these anonymous messages on my answering machine, informing me how talented Elizabeth was and how loathsome I was in comparison. It sounded an awful lot like Elizabeth to me.
I was the first fan to be harassed by an obsessed actress.
Monica called a few moments ago, this time offering to buy me dinner at Pastis. I declined and told her I was pretty busy until January. Monica, if you're reading this, I hope you're not offended. I'm probably just being paranoid and all you want is to meet for a drink and a chat. But I'm British and we're not used to dealing with women like you. The truth is, with all your talk of "soft openings" and licking Drew Barrymore, you've scared the living daylights out of me. Can I suggest you try George Szamuely? He's a far braver man than I.
George Szamuely THE BUNKER Laws of Return Liberal outrage invariably follows a familiar, dishonest trajectory. And nothing is more familiar and dishonest than the stodgy old New York Times. Last week the Times ran a profile of Jorg Haider, leader of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party, now?following October's elections?the country's second largest party. The reporter made the obligatory horrified shiver as he pompously proclaimed that Haider's "appeal against 'overforeignization'?carries connotations of Goebbels." But what can one expect? Haider is an Austrian. And Austrians, as we are often enough told, are a morally retarded, not to say sinister, people. "The lingering suspicion of foreigners is tangible." Austrians "take out their frustration on the hundreds of thousands of foreigners living among them." Austrians tend "to feel more at ease?among themselves." We get the message.
The Austrians do not like foreigners.
Quite by chance, the very same day the Times ran a story about another people who tend to feel "more at ease among themselves." The tone, however, was very different. Under the anodyne headline?"Debate in Israel: Jewish State Or Now a Multicultural State?"?the Times insouciantly described the growing pressure within Israel to restrict immigration. Apparently a lot of non-Jews are coming into the country, particularly from Russia, and the ethnic basis of the state is under threat. The Times reporter, Deborah Sontag, correctly observes that Israel is "the Jewish homeland, established on a policy of ethnic preference." Israel's Law of Return had enabled anyone who either had a Jewish mother or who had converted to Judaism to acquire immediate Israeli citizenship. However, in 1970 the Law was amended to enable anyone who only had a Jewish father, a Jewish grandparent or simply a Jewish spouse also to claim Israeli citizenship.
To many in Israel this change meant a dilution of the Jewish character of the state. To the Orthodox rabbinate, moreover, anyone who had converted while a Conservative or Reform rabbi was officiating was not really a Jew at all and was, therefore, not entitled to Israeli citizenship. The current target of hatred in Israel are the Russians. One Orthodox member of Parliament described the Russian non-Jews as a "fifth column." A rabbi denounced the Russians for "defiling" Israel "with their pornography, prostitution, disease and alcoholism." Now imagine how the Times would respond if an Austrian, say, or a German or a Frenchman had used this kind of language to describe immigrants! Yet the Times reporter is remarkably short on outrage. If anything, she sympathized with their complaints: "[A] relatively prosperous and even peaceful society, Israel is actually a magnet, even to those who do not feel a Zionist bond." Immigration restriction is necessary?otherwise Israel could soon "be flooded not just with non-Jews but also with those infected by the anti-Semitism in their homeland."
Leave aside for the moment these fanciful and self-serving justifications. (Why on Earth would anti-Semites want to come to live in Israel?) What is clear is that, as far as the Times is concerned, the Israelis and only the Israelis are permitted to address themselves to the issue of the ethnic character of their state. Anyone else broaching the subject?a Jorg Haider, for instance?will immediately be denounced as "racist," "xenophobic," "nativist," "anti-Semitic" and drummed out of respectable society. Yet Zionism is a nationalist doctrine like any other. Its objective is to forge a state that embodies the political aspirations of its constituting nation.
Interestingly enough, there is one other country that operates a Law of Return?Germany. The German constitution granted automatic citizenship to ethnic Germans who may never have lived in Germany but were the descendants of German farmers and craftsmen who had settled in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 18th century. Liberals foam at the mouth at the mere mention of Germany's Law of Return. Turks, who may have lived in Germany for decades, are denied citizenship, they cry in horror, while ethnic Germans collect their passports on arrival to the country. Outrageous then, that anyone should consider ethnic origin as the basis for nationhood, rather than mere physical residence. There is only one explanation for it?German "racism." Yet Germany's Law of Return is actually more reasonable than Israel's. Ethnic Germans, though they may have lived for centuries in Kyrgyzstan, say, will still speak German. I do not speak a word of Hebrew and have never been inside a synagogue in my life. Yet I am entitled to Israeli citizenship since my mother was Jewish.
Like the Israelis, the Germans had a rather restrictive nationality policy. Up to this year, German nationality was determined by the nationality of one's parents, not by the place of birth. Foreign-born immigrants and their German-born children could apply for German citizenship provided they had legally resided in the country for 15 years and were prepared to renounce their original citizenship. For years liberals denounced this German system. It was based on "blood," they mumbled darkly. Under enormous foreign pressure, Chancellor Schroder's government changed the law earlier this year. Foreigners now have the right to apply for German citizenship after eight years of legal residence. Children born in Germany to foreign parents will acquire German citizenship at birth, provided at least one parent has lived legally in Germany for a minimum of eight years. Children acquiring German citizenship at birth will have to decide before their 23rd birthday whether they want to retain their German citizenship or their parents' citizenship except in special circumstances. There is still to be no dual citizenship.
Compare then "racist," "xenophobic," intolerant Germany or Austria with Israel. What triggered the Times article was recently published figures showing that during the first three months of 1999 non-Jews outnumbered Jews?55 percent to 45 percent?among immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Panic seized the Israeli body politic. Non-Jews were acquiring too much political clout. "The loopholes in the law must be closed,'' thundered Rahamim Malul, a lawmaker from the religious Shas party recently, "so that the state will not turn into a country where a large percentage of its citizens are gentiles."
And the loopholes are being closed. Immigration policy is increasingly restrictive. Many immigrants are unable to marry, since Orthodox rabbis (who alone are authorized to perform weddings in Israel) refuse to officiate at what they view as mixed-marriage ceremonies. An Israeli who wishes to marry a non-Jew must leave the country to marry. And even then the Interior Ministry may not accept the validity of such a marriage. Recently, it declared that non-Jewish spouses could not enter Israel under the Law of Return, but had to apply under regular immigration rules.
Every nation has the right to run its affairs the way it wishes to. We may not wish to live in Israel. But Israel is Israel; and the United States is the United States. The point is that every nation should also have the right to discuss its destiny in any manner it wishes to. It is intolerable that liberals have imposed this order whereby Israelis can happily debate the ethnic makeup of their nation while Americans who address themselves to such issues face moral opprobrium, marginalization and?who knows??one-day imprisonment.
Jim Holt THE TIRED HEDONIST Simple Gifts Waiting in a gift-wrapping line at Bloomingdale's about this time last year, clutching a purchase of Isotoner gloves intended for someone who would quite probably return them the day after Christmas, feeling a bit poleaxed by the strain of holiday shopping, I suddenly had a perverse whim to join SCROOGE?the Society to Curtail Ridiculous, Outrageous, and Ostentatious Gift Exchanges. It all seemed so futile to me at that miserable moment. Our models in the holiday gift-giving racket are supposed to be the three Magi, who bore gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. But it requires more than the wisdom of the Magi to gratify the jaded tastes of our spouses and friends.
Matters were so much simpler in the past. The ancient Romans, during the January calends, confined themselves to giving one another twigs plucked from the grove of the goddess Strenia. Our Puritan forebears in the colony of Massachusetts were even more sensible, declaring Christmas a day of penance and imposing a five-shilling fine on anyone caught exchanging presents. Nineteenth-century Americans made do with gifts of needlework, wooden toys, baked goods and other homespun items?boring stuff, admittedly, but cheap and easy to come by.
Our ancestors did not know what John Updike calls "The Twelve Terrors of Christmas," which include the Fear of Not Giving Enough, the Fear of Not Receiving Enough and the Fear of Returns. They did not have to shop with the stench of roasting chestnuts in their nostrils and the nauseous voices of Dean Martin, Vikki Carr and the Chipmunks assaulting their ears. They did not feel the pressure to find a "suitable" gift, which by definition must fall into one of two basic categories: (1) thoughtful; (2) expensive. Oddly, I have noticed that the latter sort of gift is invariably described as the former by the recipient: "Gee, how thoughtful?a Ferrari."
Christmas is really for children, but that only adds to my misgivings. Most children I am acquainted with have earned no right to yuletide gladness. In former days, it should be recalled, Saint Nick was as much a punishing figure as a rewarding one. Ashes and switches were the just deserts of noisy and disobedient children. Today's plump, jolly Santa Claus is as permissive as the rest of our society. (The emergence of this genial modern Santa began in 1822 with Clement Moore's classic holiday poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas"; before that he was depicted as a more elfin and mischievous figure, with an almost sinister aspect.) Expensive toys are indiscriminately bestowed by him on naughty and nice children alike, whose attitude, at best, is, "Get me the things I want and I might clean up my act." Advertising and peer pressure have filled American children with anxiety that Santa will not bring them precisely the gifts they covet. Christmas morning has been transformed into a primal scene of blighted hopes. Many tykes, I have heard, now require postholiday counseling to overcome the trauma.
For children you find truly loathsome, the best gift, I have discovered, is a scratchy wool cardigan sweater. If, on the other hand, it is the parents of the child you don't like, then give that child a set of drums.
If you are one of those extravagant men who keep a mistress, then you will probably have to buy her a navel jewel or somesuch. Wives, however, seem to prefer presents that are not freighted with romantic connotations, practical things, appliances that will lighten the domestic workload. Some years ago, for example, Henry Kissinger was rumored to have given his wife, Nancy, a tractor for Christmas.
For domestic help, there are a variety of "free gift" possibilities that should not be overlooked. If you chance to fly on the Concorde, for example, bring home the complimentary blanket and toothbrush, gift wrap them and give them to your maid or doorman.
When selecting presents for certain friends, you might take time to survey the universe of novelty items. Heavy boozers, for example, will appreciate getting the Sip-A-Phone, a fake cellular phone you can drink from, using the "antenna" as a straw.
Among the thousands of Christmas catalogs to order from, my favorite is the Richard Nixon Presidential Library catalog. It offers such items as a t-shirt emblazoned with the famous Oval Office photo of Nixon shaking hands with an obviously-stoned-to-the-gills Elvis, captioned "The President and the King."
Perfume always makes a nice gift. I especially like Envy, the newish scent from Gucci, although I hear they have an even more interesting one in the works that is to be called Sloth.
One of the cleverest strategies for dealing with the torturous exigencies of holiday gift-giving has been devised by Fran Lebowitz?not a woman to ooze good cheer during the yuletide season. For her, a single day spent in the serene precincts of the rare-book room at the Strand bookstore suffices. "I arrive in the morning when the staff does, take my lunch break when they do and leave with them at closing time," she says. "All of the people on my gift list get books, whether they can read or not. And, of course, I keep the most exquisite ones for myself."
This is a felicitous solution?yet not quite so felicitous as that of Britain's Queen Mother. Although I cannot get Buckingham Palace to confirm it, I have been told by informed sources that the Queen Mother habitually makes her Christmas gift purchases during the January sales, almost a year ahead of time. That is one royal economy, I think, which we would all do well to emulate.
Melik Kaylan SPY Suffering Safras Call it CNN-driven governance, call it neoliberal excess, but surely I'm not alone. My immediate reaction to news bulletins of Edmond Safra's death: If Bill Clinton has a human bone in his body he'd allocate public funds for community outreach programs in the art of dying. It will be too late for Safra, but at least he won't have died in vain.
Why is it that a tragically pointless and silly death generates as much irritation as sympathy? Safra locked himself in his burning Monaco apartment and wouldn't come out despite his wife's assurances on the cellphone that it was police and firemen?not hitmen?trying to reach him. Some months ago I shared a sort of premonitory experience with another Safra, one of Edmond's brothers in fact, number two or three in the banking dynasty. We sat at a round table at Daniel, flanked by Woody and Soon-Yi and this Safra's famous movie-producer wife, whom I won't name, among others.
The three Lebanese-born, Swiss-based, Jewish Safra brothers were educated in England. None were athletic or physically prepossessing. This one spoke with a nasal Mancunian midlands accent and could barely fit his broadly vested belly beneath the table, so he sat at a reclining angle. I sat next to him, at first with distaste. But in a few laconic remarks laced with hard-boiled masculine humor he had me hooked. There was a tough, sinewy intelligence in there somewhere. I watched him slosh and lip through the salad as only the truly corpulent can. He often held the bowl up to his chin to cut out the middle man, his belly. He was utterly unembarrassed and almost dignified. Weirdly, a powerful character.
Until he reached the end of the bowl, that is. He noticed some little nuggety things in the salad dregs and stared and stared at them. We all began to notice too, and gradually a nervy silence descended on the table. Finally he flailed wildly for the waiter, who told him rather apprehensively that these were bits of bacon. Safra went rigid. Then he fell apart totally. He sweated. He swore. He leaned back and hyperventilated, then suddenly got up and walked around the restaurant. He wiped his face several times. Woody Allen, who'd remained monosyllabic much of the evening, suddenly came into his own. You know that wheedling over-reasonable voice: "C'mon, c'mon. So what? So you're not going to be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Sit down, c'mon, you're forgiven already."
I rather liked this particular Safra, but he betrayed what seems to be a family trait, if his brother Edmond's recent panic-induced death is anything to go by. That is, an external toughness with a core of hysteria?in Edmond Safra's case paranoid hysteria, and probably with good cause. Edmond had everything to live for, having just made some $2 billion and change from the sale of his Republic Bank. But he'd never shied from the bare-knuckled approach to business, so he probably thought his enemies had finally arrived at his door in Monaco. He was surely very scared indeed not to heed his wife's entreaties to come out. Only a man certain of having lethal enemies would go down resisting rescue. And, as many papers observed, they were likely to be Russian mafia.
I never liked Edmond Safra, because of his attempt to muzzle a controversial New York article which looked askance at dealings by his Republic Bank. During the mid-90s New York was a genuinely independent investigative organ that sometimes offended the friends or business interests of one of the proprietors, Henry Kravis. On one occasion, the magazine published a story on the millions of greenbacks going out to Russia under the auspices of Safra's Republic Bank. Nothing illegal about that, in theory, except that in practice the Russian mob had to benefit from the promiscuous circulation of so many C-notes, or so the article suggested.
The scuttlebutt I heard is that Safra called up Kravis in a rage and withdrew financial backing for a huge project.
Cut to this year and the revelations of the Bank of New York's involvement in Russian money-laundering. Safra's Republic Bank was never accused of that, but it had, at the very least, apparently set up offshore accounts for Russian businessmen. Again, not exactly illegal, but why does anyone have offshore accounts? A long, long article in The New York Times some weeks ago outlined Bank of New York's shenanigans and made only one reference to Safra's bank, saying that the FBI had used Republic Bank to follow money circulating through Russia. In other words, Safra had helped the FBI?or cut a deal with them.
So New York did get a bite of a huge story, but they couldn't know how big it was. Edmond Safra, on the other hand, knew just how big were the enemies he'd made. He was tough enough to meddle with the press, but potentially confronted with an opponent, shall we say, less dedicated to free speech than even Safra himself, he crumpled at the core.
Minnie Raphael THE BROOKLYN VIEW Uncivil Servants Remember when Mayor Giuliani proclaimed that he was going to reverse the perception that New Yorkers are rude, discourteous people? Do you recall that he promised all civil servants would soon morph into polite, competent and civil individuals who would do their jobs with a pleasant attitude and a new efficiency and dedication to serving the public? And we, the public, revitalized by this great metamorphosis, would soon be happy, peppy and bursting with love as well?
It didn't work, did it? Maybe Rudy was too busy cracking down on us jaywalkers and gridlockers to notice, so I'm here to tell him that his city workers have treated his mandate the same way they treat the people they service: with sullen disregard.
In the past year I've had the pleasure of being misinformed, insulted and generally treated like dirt at three government agencies: the DMV, the Food Stamp Centers and NYS Unemployment. (I realize the last one belongs to Gov. Pataki.)
In reverse chronological order, I'll start with the DMV. Early last Tuesday I took the subway to lower Manhattan for a hearing regarding tickets I'd been receiving for a car I had sold four months ago. Explaining in writing, with proof attached, that I had surrendered my plates at the time of the sale and no longer had anything to do with the car didn't help. So, with all my papers in hand, I grudgingly appeared in person to rectify a situation that could have been avoided if only a cognizant being had paid attention to my correspondence.
When I got there I was told by the information clerk to fill out forms. I didn't have a pen, and when I asked the clerk if I could borrow one of hers, she looked at me as if I had asked for her wallet and coldly replied, "No." Okay, I thought, I'll get one at the counter. There were none. I went back and asked again, promising to return la plume as soon as I finished. This time I was told to (a) go out and buy one or (b) borrow one from somebody else and (c) stop bothering her because she was busy. Did I mention that all this time she was real busy discussing her ornamented nails with a coworker?
A nice man who had heard the exchange offered me his pen. Naturally, I told him what I wished I could do to the information lady. It involved a fork and her ear. He shrugged and said, "They're all nasty here."
My only consolation was the fact that the judge threw out all the tickets?but only after telling me that I could have cleared this up with a letter!
Back in June, an elderly relative asked me to be her food stamp representative, since she is homebound. I filled out the forms and spoke to a Mrs. Davis at the Food Stamps Center, who told me to bring them to her at Schermerhorn St. When I got there, the clerk told me there was no Mrs. Davis at that office. I explained that I had spoken with Mrs. Davis on the phone a mere 40 minutes earlier; I was sure I was at the right place. The clerk told me she knew her job and didn't have time to waste arguing with me. Go to the Lawrence St. office, she said.
The clerk at Jay St. told me I was in the wrong place; he sent me to yet another office. I went; still no Mrs. Davis. At that point, after criss-crossing the streets of Brooklyn for almost an hour, I demanded to know just where in the hell this Mrs. Davis was. A supervisor came over and told me to lower my voice; I told her to kiss my ass and left.
I called Mrs. Davis when I got home. She was sitting at her desk at Schermerhorn St. And yes, I went back the next day and got the food stamps, but only because I had visions of my relative eating cat food.
Last January I applied for unemployment benefits. I went to the office in Long Island City where, to my amazement, I saw a sign advising employees that discourtesy may result in disciplinary action. Then I met the interviewer and realized this sign was as effective as the ones on the subway telling us not to lean against the closed doors.
The interviewer checks your application for errors. (There is a video you are forced to watch that explains the application process. It is shown after you have filled out the forms.) Anyway, my interviewer was a master of subtlety. She knew how to come this close to being rude without actually breaking the rules. For instance, while she was examining my application, a man came up to her desk, waited for her to finish and asked for a new form, as he had made a mistake. She completely ignored him. When he excused himself and asked a second time, she looked at him as if he were a cockroach crawling across the desk, sighed and said the forms were right in front of him, just take one and sit down.
Then a man with a Latino accent made the mistake of raising his hand. After he had finished his question, she sneered ever so slightly and said the only language she understood was English; if he needed an interpreter, he should have brought one with him. Funny, the rest of us understood him.
As we were leaving, she explained that our forms should be placed face down in her file. Then she asked if we understood this, as if we had checked our brains at our previous jobs.
I know there are helpful, competent, even pleasant people working at these agencies, who realize they were hired not to give the public agita, but to facilitate the business of the city or state. I applaud them and regret they have to suffer a bad rep because of their inept, antagonistic coworkers. Unlike the maggots I met up with, they don't need anyone teaching them how to behave. But I can't help but wonder, where were they when I needed them?