Sunday, April 25, 2021

Just a minute

The Colonel and some of our Area and District Managers. The handsome youngster behind me is Bill Roquemore, then the DM in Columbus, later a Pizza Hut executive and a Pizzeria Uno franchisee. Bill is one of my dearest friends. 

Sometimes a bit player makes a lasting impression. They don’t play a major role, yet you remember them for decades. Jimmy Ackerman of Perrysville, PA is one of those. For reasons I can’t explain he popped into my mind Saturday. He was a blip on the radar screen of my life but has stuck with me for more than forty years. Remembering Jimmy propelled me into a mental inventory of others who made a big impression in a minor role.

In the spring of 1976, I was promoted to vice president on KFC Corporation. I had spent three years as executive vice president and general manager of a small subsidiary. I performed both roles through July 4th, our nation’s bicentennial. I know this because Peggy, Garrett and I celebrated the milestone in historic Lexington, MA, a couple of towns over from our home in Lincoln. The backstory is unimportant other than as a lead-in to meeting Jimmy.

Undertaking the unlikely turnaround of KFC’s northeast region required a move to the New York City area and the regional office in Greenwich, CT. Turnaround understates the situation substantially. KFC was in a tailspin, a situation well known in the executive suite of KFC and of its parent, Heublein, the Smirnoff and José Cuervo folks.

The chairman of KFC, Mike Miles and president, Jim Willie recognized that KFC was in the tank and that their 800 company-owned stores were operated like dog meat. I have a stronger descriptor in mind. And my northeast region was the worst of the worst. KFC had just launched a monumental quality control push intended to raise operating standards in the stores. It was named QSC, for Quality, Service and Cleanliness of which we had little. 100% was a perfect score. For example, the inspector took the interior temperature of the fried chicken with the handy probe thermometer in his pocket. It had to register at least 140 degrees and ideally 160 degrees which proved that it was fresh. Below 140 it had to be thrown out much to the chagrin of the store manager.

As part of that QSC effort I began visiting every district and every store in my 229-store region that included New York City, the worst of the worst of the worst.  Some sage at home office in Louisville told me, “If you can fix that sorry son of a bitch they ought to give it to you.” So, I inspected all the stores with the area manager (about 10 stores) and the district manager (from 25 to 66 stores). One of those visits was to the Pittsburgh district where I toured and inspected all 39 stores in DM Ray Reimer’s realm. They were crap.

Standing tall among the midgets was Jimmy Ackerman’s Perrysville store. It was a jewel. Jimmy had operated the unit for ten years. He had painted the place himself. It was polished to a sheen. His employees were crisp and enthusiastic. Though the establishment was a plain box from the 1950s it glistened with pride. He operated it like it was Jimmy’s Fried Chicken. I was blown away. Ray Reimer, whose best days were frying chicken when he was in high school didn’t recognize the talent and commitment in his midst. Reimer is the fawning dude with the white belt and shoes at the top of the page.

The answer to why Jimmy was still a store manager, I hypothesize, is that he didn’t look like multi-unit management material. He was round, bespectacled and self-effacing. And Reimer was a Neanderthal. Pittsburg workers put their heads down and wait their turn. So did Jimmy. I marveled at the blue collar mentality and allegiance to company that I observed throughout the Steel City.

Jimmy Ackerman became an area manager soon after my visit. One of the best. And when KFC announced its top ten area managers in 1977, Jimmy was among them.

I remember the name of exactly four store managers out of the 229 in my region. Notable among them were Jimmy Ackerman and Deepak Patel from the 23nd Street store in Manhattan. Deepak was a 1977 top ten store manager out of 800 across the country. He was the face of the immigrants who operated so many of our New York stores and who contribute so much to our country. Virtually every manager in NYC was a person of color and a third were immigrants. I don’t remember a single white male manager. Deepak, unlike most KFC managers, was a college graduate who pursued the American dream the old-fashioned way, by working harder and smarter than everybody else. His pride in his store was as palpable as Jimmy’s. Though I met him just once he made such an impression that I Googled his name several years back. I didn’t find that Deepak. The ones I did find were all doctors. Did you know that 25% of physicians in the United States are foreign born and that 8.5% are from India? Most are in the country on visas that bar them from changing employers or moving to another state, even temporarily, a restriction that makes it difficult to move to Covid hotspots. Makes no sense to me.

Jimmy and Deepak were honored at our 1977 national convention in New Orleans. It was a highlight of my life.

The South Bronx in 1977

There was a third store manager whose name I don’t recall. He deserves better. I’ll him Mustapha. He operated a store in the Bronx across from a burned-out city block that looked like Bagdad after the bombs. New York was on fire in the mid-70s. I was strangely oblivious to how bad the racial unrest was. Mustapha was north of fifty and had a PhD in Chemistry. He had the proud bearing of the professor he had once been. He operated his store with utter precision. His store was, in short, perfect. He fell into a conversation with me as if we were peers. He wanted to tell his story. It was apparent to both of us that he was beneath his station. He was an imposing and powerful figure, perhaps a retired general. I asked how he became a (lowly) KFC manager. He told me that he’d immigrated to the U.S. a decade before. He had located in New York and had become a high school chemistry teacher in the South Bronx. He described how he couldn’t tolerate the disrespect that American students showed him. In Egypt, he told me, the teacher was the absolute ruler of his realm and that respect was demanded and given. He simmered. He channeled his discontent into making his store the best it could be.

Two others I remember for less August reasons. One I recall for a name that's out of Scorsese movie. She was Chickie Faracca who managed the unit on the Cross Bronx Expressway. The other was Leroy Capers who was the size of an NFL lineman and ran what the highest volume KFC store in the world at Herald Square. Leroy held the title till the Moscow outpost opened. Oh, and Chickie was sleeping with her Area Manager, Enzo Caltanissetta. Speaking of names.

I met Deepak and Mustapha one time. It couldn’t have been more than an hour. It doesn’t take long to recognize a stellar human being. With luck you never forget them.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

To do or not to do

Walk on by, Madrid

Out of the shadows, Las Vegas, NM

Much has been written about the ethics of photographing the homeless and downtrodden souls we see on the street. Of late the chance of witnessing this kind of misery has grown exponentially. San Francisco is the poster child for the plight of homelessness and for our collective inability or unwillingness to deal with it. My examination of photographing those who are less fortunate was prompted by an essay in Medium back in February. It stuck with me. Then I was touched by the response that the top two photographs elicited on Instagram last week. You’ve seen them but the stories they tell are germane to the context of this post. 

The Medium article makes the case that these people are invisible to us and we perform a service when we shine a light on them. I’m not quite as sanguine but I'm chewing over that perspective. I worry this kind of photography may be maudlin and cheap tug at the heartstrings.

Center of inattention, San Miquel de Allende

Talking hands, San Francisco

Human conditions, San Miguel de Allende

One man band, San Miguel de Allende

In your face, Los Angeles

The thrust of much of the commentary about this fraught subject is that we must treat the human beings in our visual narratives with respect. Most of us try to avoid seeing these people. That’s painfully obvious in the top image. It makes the case that we either don’t see these human beings, or we will them to disappear. That’s why they are often described “unseen” or “forgotten.” They and their human condition warrant memorializing. Yet photographing the vulnerable among seems voyeuristic and an intrusion into their space. It is awkward and it does violate their privacy. But is it more of a violation than photographing a laughing family on a picnic?

The case can be made that any candid shot of a woman or man on the street is intrusive. But that it’s really taking advantage when the person is distressed, incapacitated and helpless. Candid street photography is worthy social commentary if it brings attention to a shameful situation. Is it also shameless?

Most of my street photography is of ordinary folks doing ordinary things, of everyday lives being lived. More than a few are lighthearted. Today I’m shining a light on subjects that I am almost embarrassed to have photographed.

In broader terms the street photographers fall into two camps, anonymous flies on the wall and those who engage the prospective subject and acquire permission. Some even pay for the intrusion. That’s been happening since the early 19th century when photographers had to hire their subjects because exposure times were so long. Engaging potential subjects is fine. It's a choice. Posing your model ala Diane Arbus is perfectly appropriate, too. Pay them if you must, but you’ll get a different, and I’d argue, a less real result than truly candid shot.

I am very much of the fly on wall persuasion. It’s best that the victim doesn’t know you’re there.

I recall being chased down Turk Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin by a homeless couple yelling, “Get out of here, motherfucker. Give us some goddamn respect.” I turned my back and walked as fast as my little chicken legs could go.

I’ll tell you one thing. There could have been whole more street photographs in this post. Thank me for my discipline.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Thinking Tall

In this shot from the 1980 opening of my second Pizzeria Uno in Cambridge, Massachusetts I'm bracketed by a couple of college footballs gods, on the left is Ike Sewell an All-American guard at the University of Texas from 1923-1925. He founded Pizzeria Uno in 1943. On my right is Mark Olivieri, an undersized but ferocious linebacker at Tulane. He was the star of the Green Wave's 14-0 win over mighty LSU in 1973, the first since 1948. Mark played at 5'-11" and 220 and was the last cut of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974. At that hot moment when I was 38 I was taller than Mark. 

I’m obsessed my height or more correctly by my lack thereof. My obsession has worsened as I’ve become a gnome. One of the markers of osteoporosis is that you’ve lost more than 1-1/2 inches of your former self. I qualify and then some. I’ve gone from a person who thought of himself as a little tall to someone how realizes he’s short. Yet I still feel a little tall despite evidence to the contrary.

I also seem taller than I am to others. I think it’s that I have the legs of somebody 6’-2". Even as the withering that has accelerated the last fifteen years people will say things like, “You must be close to six feet tall.” Or when I lamented about my diminution to a couple of painter friends from southern Colorado, they responded, “You’re not short!” Even a close friend whose husband is 5-9ish recently guessed, “You’re 5’-11” aren’t you? Uh,no.

When I joined the Army Reserve in the summer of 1960 the weighing and measuring folks called me 5’11”. I don’t remember the specific event, but I guarantee that I stretched my back, lifted my head and put some air between my heels and the floor. I always elongate by back, tilt my head to its tallest disposition and raise my heels off the ground to get maximum altitude. 

For the last five years since I got my osteoporosis diagnosis, I’ve tallied 5’-91/2”at my Osteo doc’s office. Then in my February visit the bone density tech measured me at 5’-81/2”. Is that even possible? Can a person actually lose an inch of height in six months?

You know you’re short when people that you have always considered short are taller than you are. That happened as recently as last Monday. When we left our new accountants office, we ran into acquaintances we know from the art world. John Crouch, the husband of the couple has always seemed short to me, but when I stood across from him, he was as tall as I am. His ever-present Stetson and cowboy boots may have contributed to the illusion of height.

And speaking of cowboy boots, they have been my favored footwear since I was 10. When I was in Manhattan during the summer of 1966 I was dubbed “Tex, the singing cowboy.” But you can call me Tex or Mister Tex.

Assuming that I was a legit 5’-11” at some point in my life, when I wore boots, I was 6'-1" to my fans and to my deluded self. Then when I gave up my cowpoke affectation five years ago and returned to the sneakers of my collegiate years, I lost two full inches.

So, it’s cowboy boots starting now, pilgrim. As my late friend Jim Crivits liked to say, "Win if you can. Lose if you must. But always cheat."

Sunday, April 04, 2021

A man of few words

Work in Progress

I have few words and certainly no images to share. I’ve discovered that extruding a garden variety 800-word blog is the stepchild to writing an 80,000-word page turner. My friend and now life coach, thank you John Ellsworth, has covered me up with concrete processes for constructing a novel, the mechanics of said pursuit. Without these planning and plotting tools a fella will flail away, take way the hell too long to produce even one book, and all the flailing will come to naught. According to a book that John recommended and which I read in a single sitting I am a “pantser” meaning that I write by the seat of my pants while I need to be a “plotter” which should be self-explanatory. Hell, if I wanted to be a bricklayer, I’d have bought a trowel. And all I have is this stupid computer.

The truth is that the strictures of book construction make sense to me even If I don’t fully grasp them yet. In the early going I’m still pantsing and the plotting or planning parts languish in the nether regions of my brain. Right now, I’m mired in the character development phase as I flesh out the protagonists of the novel of which there appear to be two. I didn’t know there would two such characters until I’d written the first 500 words, my daily goal for now according to John. “That should be easy for you” John suggests. Easy for you to say, Mr. 2,000 words a day. 

In the aforementioned book the author speaks about getting a call from her publisher. Her publisher tells her that she wants to publish her next book in the fall and needs the manuscript in three weeks.  The publisher asks if she can do that. Is she sure? Our author responds, and I paraphrase liberally, “Sure. I do it all the time.” And she proceeds to deliver a 90,000-word novel in three weeks. The secret is that our author had already outlined the entire book and after re-acquainting herself with the outline she knew she had a good one. She says that she can do such an outline in a few hours. I am blown away and challenged to give it a go.

When I began writing, the presumptive hero of the novel was known to me. Then my keyboard named him. Those little squares have minds of their own. I knew what the character did for a living. I chose a profession which would put him in situations where he would stumble into trouble. And I knew his, he is a dude, personal demons before the first keystroke. But when I began writing the character became real to me. The second protagonist grew from knowing what makes the primary character tick and where their lives could intersect. If not on a collision course they are placed on the same turf at the same time and sparks fly, both good and bad. Beyond character one’s flaws, fierce antagonists by any measure, I have yet to discover his archenemy. If I’m conceiving a series of books headlined by our hero, the malevolent super genius villain will emerge from the situations I’ll create. That’s the plan, Stan.

And for those of you who scoff, “You mean to tell me that you’re thinking about a series of books when you can’t even write one?” Uh, definitely maybe. 

And now for some construction work.


Maxwell Edward James struggled down the steps of his rent-controlled apartment on 11th Avenue. He’d lived in the below grade apartment in Hell’s Kitchen since he returned from the first Gulf War. The $1,400 a month he’d been paying since 1991 made the trim two bedroom a luxury that he could afford. He’d be paying $5,000 if he rented the place today. Freelancers like Max live from assignment to assignment. He accepted the uncertainty that came with his freedom to come and go as he pleased. Freedom was job one. $5,000 was not only be out of reach but he had to have a second bedroom for writing and editing. He was a one-man production team that sold finished television news stories in 9 minute segments. Video, stills, narrated, edited and ready to broadcast from the field via Max's second bedroom.

At $1,400 he couldn’t even live in Queens or Hoboken.  Hell, he couldn't live in Newark, heaven help him. And he didn’t want any part of it anyway. To Max Manhattan was the center of the known universe, and Hell’s Kitchen had been his neighborhood for going on 30 years. He knew the rhythms of the place. He He knew every street, alley, gin mill and bodega from 42nd Street to Central Park and West Side Highway to Times Square.  

Everybody in the neighborhood knew him. They stood by him though he was a pugnacious sort when he had a load on. They dismissed the occasional dust-up because he was one of their own. Even the beat cops looked the other way. And the other guy started it didn't he?

According to his building super, Javier, “Max is a stand-up dude. He paid his dues in Iraq, didn’t he? Cut him some fucking slack.”