Monday, February 22, 2021

REAGANOMICS...ARGENTINE STYLE

 When I heard earlier this month that former Argentine President Carlos Saúl Menem had died on Valentine’s Day at age ninety, I immediately remembered the days leading up to his decade-long reign. I recalled standing in line to take a bus and thinking that the bill I was holding in my hand to pay the fare, and from which I would get scant change in return, just five years earlier had been worth a thousand dollars. That had been at the outset of the first democratic administration following the more than seven-year nightmare of bloody military rule.

Carlos Saúl Menem

I’m talking about the administration of President Raúl Alfonsín, for which I had held out such high hopes for the dawn of a brand new Argentina, or rather, for a return to the country’s salad days of the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries when the world saw it as one of the Western nations most likely to succeed. Alfonsín had overwhelmingly won the 1983 election from the ever-popular Justicialist Party, founded by the late Argentine strongman, General Juan Domingo Perón. And indeed, he hadn’t disappointed true democrats at a purely political and philosophical level. Alfonsín had headed up one of the most decent, democratic and human administrations in Argentine history. He had won renewed respect for the country worldwide, after the horrific history of the military regime that had slaughtered thousands of opponents and involved the country in a ten-week war with Britain. His administration made human and civil rights its centerpiece and championed the rule of law as a universal norm for just government.

But if there was ever a case to be made for the idea that “It’s the economy, stupid!” Alfonsín’s five and a half years in office were it. All the good he had done made no real difference where the rubber met the road, once the bottom fell out of the economy.

Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín
In its final days the Alfonsín administration was confronted with widespread supermarket lootings, mass demonstrations and Peronist-led general strikes. After meeting at the Presidential Residence in the northern Buenos Aires suburb of Olivos with Peronist presidential candidate Carlos Menem, then-governor of La Rioja Province, Alfonsín agreed to early elections, which Menem won handily against the governing Radical Party candidate Eduardo Angelóz. And with hyper-inflation soaring out of control, Alfonsín handed over power to Menem five months before the end of his six-year term. It was the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in Argentina since the nineteen-thirties, and marked the end of constant pendulum swings between civilian and military rule in the country.

Then again, it wasn’t like anybody prior to Alfonsín had been able to handle the recalcitrant economy either. Take, for example, the preceding military regime. Many conservative international economists tried to strike a balance in their criticism between the brutal nature of the Armed Forces government and the apparent “seriousness” of the junta’s economy team headed up by Cambridge-educated, “Chicago school” economist José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz—known to his friends in the Anglo business community as “Dr. Joe”. Turns out the only thing “serious” about Dr. Joe and his team was that they weren’t given to smiling.

And before that, it was the last administration of General Perón, who came back from Spain after almost eighteen years in exile, following his overthrow in a bloody 1955 military uprising. I arrived in Argentina in October of 1973, right about the same time Perón returned. And so it was that I got my first lessons in Argentine politics and economics.

General Juan D. Perón

When I first arrived in Argentina, two currencies—new pesos (or pesos ley) and old pesos—circulated simultaneously and prices were often exhibited in both. Most people on the street talked in old pesos. I recall that, at the time, the cost of a newspaper or a cup of coffee was one peso ley, or a thousand old pesos. In other words, the devaluation had clipped three zeros off of the currency. I remember Whitie, my father, at some point in god-knows-what year, being nonplussed by the fact that in some sort of Argentine currency, my monthly pay was six million pesos. My son the millionaire! Whenever one of his friends would ask me “how I was doing down there”, Whitie would grin slyly and say, “Tell him how much you make, Dan!”

More surreal still, however, was the fact that under the last Peronist administration headed by Perón himself, my pay at the Buenos Aires Herald, the newspaper where I was a reporter, was equivalent to well under fifty dollars a month, but my wife and I could live modestly well on that. In fact, I was feeling quite flush by then, since the two jobs I held during my first eight months in the country were, first, as a night bellhop in a downtown four-star hotel, and then as a rental agent for Avis Rent-a-Car near the city’s port district. In neither of those jobs did my pay reach thirty dollars a month. So landing a job as a reporter at forty-odd dollars a month was not only about having the job of my dreams, but also about moving up in the world economically.

More surreal still, however, was the fact that under the last Peronist administration headed by Perón himself, my pay at the Buenos Aires Herald, the newspaper where I was a reporter, was equivalent to well under fifty dollars a month, but my wife and I could live modestly well on that. In fact, I was feeling quite flush by then, since the two jobs I held during my first eight months in the country were, first, as a night bellhop in a downtown four-star hotel, and then as a rental agent for Avis Rent-a-Car near the city’s port district. In neither of those jobs did my pay reach thirty dollars a month. So landing a job as a reporter at forty-odd dollars a month was not only about having the job of my dreams, but also about moving up in the world economically.

I think the managing editor at the paper only made a little over a hundred dollars a month at that time. But it was like Monopoly money. As long as you remained on the game board in Argentina, your pesos had real-economy value. So we all moonlighted as free-lance correspondents for international publications to make some real-world money because, if not, we were basically held hostage by the Argentine economy and couldn’t afford to travel outside of the country’s borders.

At one point during the year that Perón once again reigned before dying and plunging the country into chaos, I recall a rally at which he complained that he couldn’t understand why everyone seemed to be so preoccupied with the dollar-peso parity. Who cared, he asked the crowd, what the dollar exchange rate was? This was Argentina, he pointed out, where people earned and spent pesos. Then pointing to a laborer in the crowd, he asked rhetorically, “How about you, pal, when was the last time you saw a dollar?”

On Perón’s death, the country entered a new and ever darker phase in the highly incapable hands of his third wife and former vice-president, “Isabelita” Perón (née Martínez)—who this month turns ninety, and, with Menem’s death, has become Argentina’s oldest living former president. Violence between squabbling bands within the politically eclectic Peronist movement was wreaking havoc, with Isabelita being manipulated like a hand-puppet by the extreme right, in the person of a former Federal Police corporal and part-time dabbler in the occult called José López Rega—a.k.a. “El Brujo” (The Sorcerer)—a sinister character who had been a faithful servant to Perón. The economy was left basically rudderless, with a succession of wildly ineffectual economy ministers. By the time Isabelita’s government was overthrown in 1976, annual inflation was nearing a thousand percent and real wage values were plummeting.

"Isabelita" Perón 

Americans will ask me, “How could you possibly survive?” But the truth is that such situations are never black and white. For instance, we had bought our first apartment—a little two-room in an enormous efficiency apartment block—with a ten-year mortgage loan provided by the finance company that belonged to the same firm that had constructed and sold the building. By the time the Peronist administration was overthrown, mortgage loans were almost non-existent, but if you got one, payments were indexed. In a country with hyper-inflation the result is that people who buy anything with an indexed loan are likely to lose it, because wages never keep pace with inflation and it eventually becomes impossible to keep up the loan payments.

In our case, however, the loan contract we signed was payable in nominal (not indexed) pesos and at a fixed interest rate. What this signified was that, with inflation soaring to astronomical levels, the fixed terms of our contract made our monthly payments and interest laughably low. Although we had only been paying for less than two years on a ten-year mortgage, when I got my yearly bonus at the end of 1975, I was able to walk into the finance company and settle the rest of my debt in cash, and still have money left over. So what was a tragedy for some was a bonanza for us.

This period was followed by a new economic revamp under the military junta that replaced the Peronist government, following a coup d’état and the introduction of the “peso fuerte” with which several zeros were again knocked off of the currency. This time it was pegged to a floating exchange system created by the previously mentioned conservative economist José Martínez de Hoz as economy minister.

But that system also had disastrous results, despite all the flattery that Dr. Joe received from international economists, bankers and business people. I recall that after making the equivalent of under six hundred dollars a year less than five years earlier, I was now making over forty thousand dollars a year working at the same newspaper, at a time when, in the US, a new Chevy Impala cost under five thousand dollars, and a good dress shirt ran eight dollars. Thanks to the convoluted monetary exchange system that Martínez de Hoz introduced (and which I doubt anybody but he understood fully), in Argentina an equivalent car cost forty thousand and a similar dress shirt one hundred. Ever quick on their feet from years of practice shadow-boxing with the economy, middle-class Argentines took advantage of the fact that they were suddenly affluent everywhere but at home and started traveling the world, bringing back everything imaginable from abroad. Their battle cry on these foreign shopping sprees was “dame dos” (give me two).

Alfonsín and Menem - peaceful transition
The nineties were the era of Menem, who came to office, as I say, in the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in Argentina since the nineteen-thirties. He was in office from 1989 through 1999, thanks to a Constitutional reform sponsored by his administration. When he first took office, Argentine presidents could only serve one six-year term, and had to be out of office at least six years before they could run again. Under the Constitutional reform that Menem pushed through Congress, the presidential term was shortened to four years, but, as under the US Constitution, with the possibility of one re-election for another four years.

Opposition analysts argued at the time that it was all well and good for the US-style Constitution to be updated to introduce such popular and necessary guarantees as an anti-discrimination clause and eleven articles specifically safeguarding human rights. But they were concerned that Menem was employing these and other amendments to facilitate his own reelection aspirations and to provide himself with an entire decade in power. The two-term clause shouldn’t, his opponents argued, be applicable to the president whose own administration had promoted the change, or who had been elected under the terms of the former Constitution. He should have to leave office after his original six-year term.

Menem doubled down and not only won re-election, but also had his legal team argue that he should be able to run for third term in 1999 as well, precisely because he had first been elected under the old Constitution. His second election had been carried out under the norms of the new Constitution, which permitted him to run for a second term. But the fact that the Peronists lost the mid-term congressional elections in 1997, and that his programs were showing signs of irreversible wear and tear by 1999, made any intention of running again a moot point.

Some of Menem’s fans have tried to cast him as “the Argentine Reagan”. But Reagan was never anything like as pragmatic as Menem. Reagan was a conservative in a conservative party, who merely introduced a new and ever more corporate elitist twist to what his party already championed. Menem, on the other hand, was a populist from a classically populist pan-Argentine movement that had always railed against Yankee imperialism and the evils of capitalist multinationals, as well as against Marxism. Hence the slogan: Neither Yankees nor Marxists. Peronists! But despite that fact, he reversed engines and embraced not only the United States but also the major tenets of neo-liberalism—privatization and an unfettered free market. (So...welcome to the trickle-down fallacy...Argentine style).

Suffice it to say that Menem, a provincial caudillo from La Rioja, a province with fewer than three hundred fifty thousand people, surprised everyone at home and in the international community, by doing the political and economic opposite of just about everything in General Perón’s playbook. But he did so while still wrapping himself in the flag of Peronism and while still frequently invoking the words and person of the late Argentine strongman, who, although dead since 1974, still today casts a long and enduring shadow on Argentine politics.

Instead of championing state control of the economy, nationalization of foreign assets and a position of non-alignment with the bipolar world powers of the Cold War era as Perón had done, Menem embraced the neoliberal bent of Reaganism, firmly aligned the country with the US, sent troops to be part of Coalition and UN peace-keeping forces in the Gulf and Kosovo, and introduced a wave of privatizations that stripped Argentina of practically every state enterprise that it had ever owned—an enormous state military-industrial complex that had been built over the course of the previous century and that had been expanded in the half-century from the days when Perón was in his heyday. And instead of prioritizing the Argentine worker and the labor unions that Perón had adopted as his own, he gave almost pandering priority to big business and its anti-labor whims.

The provincial caudillo

Most of the privatizations floated former state companies on the international market, which provided Argentina’s disgruntled international creditors with a chance to acquire them, frequently under ridiculously advantageous terms. The gem of the divestiture process was Argentina’s oil giant, YPF (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales). I remember that, at the time, I was contracted to write about the YPF sale for a New York Times supplement on Argentina’s privatizations. As usual, I researched by carefully choosing contacts to interview from my days working for Platt’s Oilgram. I tried to find experts from both sides of what was indeed a controversial topic so that I could then make an educated analysis. Most fairly glowed talking about how great it was for the country, and indeed for YPF, that Menem’s economy minister, Domingo Cavallo, had decided to divest YPF by going public with it on the New York Stock Exchange in an IPO worth six billion dollars.

However, several nuts-and-bolts oil industry experts cautioned me not to believe everything I heard. The IPO was “a gift” they said, “a fire sale”. And they showed me how, if the Economy Ministry had bothered to take the time and effort to do it, YPF could have been broken down into exploration, production, services and other operations and sold in pieces to other oil industry players for a total of at least nine billion dollars instead of six.

In writing the story, I was careful to give ample coverage to both sides of the debate. Reporting, not editorializing, and permitting the reader to reach his or her own conclusions. But the story came out in the Times the same day that the Harvard-educated Cavallo arrived in New York City for the YPF launching, and he was very likely one of the first to read it. Later that day, I got a call from a contact in the press section at the Economy Ministry who told me that Cavallo had specifically ordered him to “dis-invite me” from ever setting foot in the ministry again as long as he was the minister in charge. (So I know how CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta felt).  

I’m no fan of Carlos Menem’s. I would be all too accurate if I were to say that his political and personal life were fraught with controversy and charges of corruption and criminal behavior.

Indeed, he was accused during his tenure and later tried for illegal arms trafficking. Namely, the clandestine sale in 1991 of Argentine-made military-grade weapons to Croatia, which, at the time, was at war with Yugoslavia, and in 1996 to Ecuador, which the year before had been involved in the brief Alta Cenepa War with its neighbor, Peru. After leaving office at the turn of the century, he was held under house arrest from June to November of 2001, on charges surrounding these arms sales but later fled with his second wife, Cecilia Bolocco, and their infant son to her native Chile. By then under the presidency of opposition politician Fernando de la Rúa, Argentina sought extradition, which the Chilean Supreme Court eventually denied.

When in 2004, Argentina’s new Peronist President Néstor Kirchner had warrants for Menem’s arrest canceled, the former president returned to the country, where he faced new charges of embezzlement and failing to declare funds that he had in a Swiss bank account. It wasn’t until 2013, under the administration of Kirchner’s widow, Cristina Fernández, that he was acquitted of those charges. He was, however, previously sentenced to seven years in prison for the arms trafficking charge, and eventually to four and a half years for embezzlement and bribery but was immune to incarceration on either sentence due to his status as a member of the Senate.

Menem was also the subject of a probe into the 1995 explosion of a munitions factory in Río Tercero, Córdoba Province, which killed seven people, injured three hundred others and flattened part of the town. The explosion was suspected of being intentional as part of an attempt to cover up the illegal arms sales for which Menem was under investigation. This incident continued to haunt him for the rest of his life. Menem was scheduled to attend related legal proceedings earlier this month, but died before his court date.

Photo-journalist José Luis Cabezas

And then there was the murder of photo-journalist José Luis Cabezas. A shadowy and erstwhile faceless figure called Alfredo Yabrán who worked closely with Menem’s government and operated international airport warehousing, was suspected of involvement in the illicit arms trafficking operations as well. After the reporter snapped a picture of the elusive businessman at a beach resort in 1997, Cabezas was kidnapped, tortured and murdered, and his body incinerated in his rented car. The ensuing scandal and reported connections between the president and Yabrán embarrassed Menem. Yabrán was suddenly a marked man. During a police raid on his home, Yabrán died of a shotgun blast to the face. His death was ruled “suicide”.

The pic that killed Cabezas
But the most scandalous of worldwide coverage was reserved for accusations that Menem had covered up the international conspiracy that led to two infamous terrorist attacks on Argentina’s Jewish Community. On March 17, 1992, the Israeli Embassy in downtown Buenos Aires was the target of a suicide bomb attack that demolished the building and left twenty-nine dead and two hundred forty-two injured.  Two years later, on July 18, 1994, a suicide car bomb attack destroyed the Argentine Mutual Israelite Association (AMIA) in mid-town Buenos Aires, killing eighty-five people and injuring hundreds more. Although no one has ever been brought to justice for the two incidents—the two worst terrorist attacks ever perpetrated in Argentina and among some of the worst worldwide—there has been persistent evidence of direct involvement by agents of the Iranian government. Just as persistently, Menem has been accused of involvement in the cover-up surrounding both bombings.

Israeli Embassy bombing
Decades later, during the last year of the presidency of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Federal Prosecutor Alberto Nisman leveled formal charges at Menem for the cover-up, and indicated that the Kirchner administration was now involved as well. But the case simply went away after Nisman was found dead in the bathroom of his apartment, with a gunshot wound to the head. The Kirchner government portrayed Nisman’s death as “a suicide”, but the prosecutor’s family and independent investigators suspected homicide.

There is no way that any of this could be the subject of a “forgive and forget” attitude from civilized, democratic society, but the lasting legacy of Carlos Menem, despite all of his unforgivable failings, is that, for almost a decade, he provided the common citizens of his country with a kind of on-the-street economic stability like many had never known in their lifetime—if at significant future cost to the economy and to political stability. While one much-heralded plan after another had failed over the course of successive administrations since the nineteen-sixties, Menem, pragmatic as Perón himself, swiftly moved to strike a pact with the most diverse sectors of Argentine society, and then, while the honeymoon lasted, began opening up the economy to foreign investment, vastly expanded imports and foreign trade, initiated negotiations with international creditors and then tackled hyperinflation.

AMIA bombing

This last, for the man and woman on the street, was the singularly most important plank in his platform. He did it by returning to the peso (yet another new peso), which he pegged to the dollar at a constant parity of one peso equals one dollar. This parity was maintained through a policy of so-called “convertibility”, by which pesos and dollars could be transacted, paid, saved and spent interchangeably, thus taking all pressure off of the exchange rate, and off of inflation as well.

What this meant was that, for the first time in at least a quarter-century, Argentines knew what things cost, because the economy was dollarized in terms of both prices and wages. It was a tremendous relief to a population long accustomed to expecting bad surprises with every purchase and to rushing out to buy dollars on the black market as soon as they were paid, before their pesos could deteriorate—sometimes by the hour. A relief too for people terrified of what could happen to loans, mortgages and other types of credit that they might take out for longer than a month at a time. Suddenly, credit was viable in Argentina, and the government moved to quickly “bankerize” the economy with the introduction of bank accounts in both pesos and dollars and the widespread use of credit and debit cards.

The one to one convertibility measure remained in effect for the entire time that Menem was in office and created a kind of domestic confidence in the economy that young to middle-aged Argentines had never known before. Many people, including my wife and me, were able to earn and save dollars during that period and for the first time found that we could afford to buy a new home, new cars, new imported goods, and to also put some money away for a rainy day. The country’s entrepreneurs and creatives were full of new and ambitious products, and people with the right skills could find well-paying, meaningful work.

Frail and elderly Menem with daughter
 and faithful companion Zulemita

For a decade in the nineties, Menem, then, made many middle-class Argentines feel like they were living in the real Western world, that they were the proud citizens of a swiftly emerging nation. Even large numbers of Argentine professionals, previously lost to the “brain drain” of earlier decades, would come home from abroad to enjoy the “Argentine miracle”. Some might call it “a long con”. They wouldn’t be wrong. But for a decade until it all came crashing down, most of us had a good run and didn’t want to look at the fact that Menem had sold the country to the highest bidders in order to finance this party and that the pain of the ultimate fall would be excruciating.

It was a matter of survival for Carlos Menem to remain politically relevant. Ever the provincial caudillo, he managed to cling tenaciously to his Senate seat—and his legal immunity—until his death. Judgment now will be reserved for posterity.

 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

GROCERY STORE

 

I guess the first real knowledge of social economics I had came from the neighborhood grocery store, I’m not talking about supermarkets, which we Ohioans also frequently call “the grocery”, as in, “I’m going to the grocery, I’ll be back in an hour.” No, I mean the little mom-and-pop stores that catered to people before we all became so vehicular.

It was through my older sister Darla that I learned about financial responsibility. Mainly, that if you were close to somebody who, through no fault of their own, has less than you, then you were morally obliged to help them out. So it was probably at age three or four that my sister—not without a certain measure of reluctance—helped me start laying the groundwork for my future philosophy of democratic socialism. I had the advantage, in my initial contact, of being the beneficiary of it. And I learned it with and from her in what was for us—at ages five or six and three or four—our sole economic marketplace: Tillie’s grocery store.

Tillie’s was located less than a block from our house when we lived on North Defiance Street in our home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio. It’s proprietor, Tillie Neidemire, was the holder of the key to our then modest dreams: little novelty toys and games, comic books, pop, ice-cream bars and a dazzling case full of penny candy. The greatest attraction of this candy was not only its fetching aspect or anticipated flavor, but also that we could afford it. Or better said, Darla could afford it. She could even afford the occasional ice-cream bar. I could as well, but much less so, and that’s where the lesson in enforced solidarity came in. 

Whitie, our father, was a great believer in teaching children “to respect money.” A nickel, he felt, wasn’t “just a nickel” if you didn’t have it. If you were broke, a nickel was a lot of money. He’d grown up during the Depression in a rough neighborhood on the South Side of the industrial town of Lima, located half an hour north of our home town. He’d seen his father lose every cent he’d saved over the course of a couple of decades when the bank where he kept his savings collapsed, before the days of the FDIC guarantee.

At the time, his father owned a grocery store. Like all mom and pop groceries back then, credit was extended to regular customers, with the record being kept in a notebook and without either the convenience or the bureaucracy of credit cards, which didn’t exist yet, and wouldn’t for another few decades. So when my grandfather’s regulars became victims of the Depression as well, and could no longer pay their bills, his business too went the way of his savings.

The influence of what happened to his father back then—my grandfather would later emerge like Phoenix from the ashes and retire, not wealthy, but certainly well-to-do—seemed to have had a profound influence on Whitie as a child and the fear of “losing everything” remained with him throughout his life. That made him a man who was very careful with money.

So as very young kids, we had an allowance. If I remember correctly, mine was a quarter and Darla’s was a half-dollar, and it was up to us to learn how to manage it. We could blow it and trinkets and sweets and be penniless until payday rolled around again, or we could budget from one allowance to the next. It was up to us how we wanted to live.

When I griped about my allowance being smaller, I was told that Darla got more because she was older. So, I got my first lesson in seniority as well. But poor Darla received a hard to swallow lesson as well. If you had seniority, you also had responsibilities. If she went to Tillie’s and I asked to go along, she had to take me, make sure I got over and back across the one street we had to negotiate, and if I was broke, she had to share, because she made more than I did.

Darla, then, could never make plans for her money other than deciding to save it. If her fifty-cent piece went into her piggy bank as savings—in other words, if she decided to “invest it in the future”—then, I was on my own. But if she decided to treat herself and my more meager allowance was already gone, then she couldn’t just say, “Tough!” and enjoy it in front of me. She had to get something for me as well. I never thought about it at the time, but on days when she was particularly peeved about the unfairness of this arrangement, she was probably not the best person to be in charge of making sure I got across busy Defiance Street safely. But in the end, I survived.

Tillie lived in a house that was kind of beside and above the store and she’d had a side entrance put in that was elevated and accessible by a set of mill-ladder stairs. So when you came into the store and the bell above the door jangled, if she was in her house she would appear suddenly on the landing above the steps.

I found her intimidating. I’m sure she was perfectly harmless, just tired of having to attend unaccompanied children who visited the store to buy ten cents worth of candy and took an endless amount of time choosing what they wanted. It was as if we were invading rather than visiting the grocery. And as if, by coming to the store to make a purchase, we were infringing on her precious solitude. So her “friendly” greeting was often, “What do you kids want?”

The obvious answer would have been, “What do you think? Sweets!” But we usually remained there in polite silence until she could make her way down the mill ladder and behind the counter. It was a glass-front closed candy case so that kids couldn’t just reach in and serve themselves. You pointed, “One of those, one of these over here, a couple of this kind...” etc. Can’t say I can blame the lady for getting cranky.

But you could tell she ordered her merchandise with her miniature clientele in mind because she had a good selection of some of the most attractive of penny candies and chocolates: round butter caramels with pressed powdered sugar centers, coconut bon-bons, licorice and red lightning rods (which are now called twizzlers) all-day jawbreakers (which I fractured my teeth gnawing to nothing in an hour and which Darla could make last for days), super-hot cinnamon squares, suckers and lollipops, big sour-grape gumballs, Bazooka bubblegum and Double-Bubble, candy hearts, Tootsie Rolls, Necco Wafers, and all of the best-known candy bars—Milky Ways, Mars Bars, Sky Bars, York Peppermint Patties, Mounds, Almond Joys, Three Musketeers, Clark Bars, Zagnut Bars, Butterfingers, Bun peanut clusters (maple for Darla, vanilla for me), Hershey Bars... And then there was her little freezer stocked with popsicles, ice-cream bars, Eskimo Pies, Drumsticks, Fudgesicles and Rainbow Bars that were orange sherbet on the outside and rich vanilla on the inside.

The store was an old, dark, tired-looking place with squeaky, sagging floors, but for us, it looked like heaven. We missed it when we moved from Defiance to South Pine Street.

There, on South Pine a couple of doors south of Benton Street, we didn’t have a grocery very close by. But we were older. I was five and my sister was almost eight, and our mother trusted Darla to get me to the grocery and back in one piece. It wasn’t but a block from where Darla had to accompany me to Bible School, which, that first summer, was held at the Salem Church. That meant crossing three major streets. Fred’s Eastside Market was a block further east from the church, where two of those streets, Mechanic and Pearl, came together in a wedge.

Fred was a nice man who wore horn-rimmed glasses and always had a kind of half-smile on his face. He was soft-spoken and treated everyone, including children, like valued customers. The store had dark red shingles. It was up off the street a few steps and faced the tip of the wedge instead of either of the two sidewalks and was fronted by a porch that gave onto the wedge and onto the two streets. Fred often had fruits and vegetables in crates out there on the porch, neatly angled against the front of the building so that customers could see the merchandise and the prices posted on cardboard signs. He also had a little signboard at the point of the wedge, where he posted the week’s specials.

The candy section was up close to the counter on the right side of the main aisle as you came in. If Fred’s wife was in the store, she was usually posted sitting on a high stool behind the counter. Her character was more like that of Tilly’s so we “felt right at home.” Whenever unaccompanied kids came into the store, you could almost hear her sigh of irritation. She hadn’t mastered that “oooooooommmmmmm” attitude of Fred’s. She would sit there smoking a cigarette, the pack on the counter beside her, and would keep an eagle eye on kid-visitors. There was no candy case at Fred’s. It was an open display. And I’m sure that pilfering must have been a serious problem.

You did well to have your purchase in mind before you entered the store, because if you were under five feet tall, you weren’t going to be given much time before Fred’s wife would say, “You kids planning on buying something or are you just going to hang around all day?”

Fred’s was our go-to junior-economy marketplace for about three years until Whitie decided he hated the little house he’d bought and moved us into a big, old, rambling home in the seven hundred block of West Auglaize Street. We would only be there for about another three years before he again moved us, this time into a new home on Kelley Drive, across the Auglaize River and a field from our old place. But although my parents would live there for the rest of their lives, my fondest memories of any of our homes are of that beautiful old house on West Auglaize.

And it was there too that we had the best of all grocery stores, a place called Wahrer’s Grocery. The back of our house and backyard looked onto Pearl Street, and Wahrer’s was at the end of the block at the corner of Pearl and Buchanan. It was presided over by Clara Wahrer and her husband, Frank, two of the kindest people I ever met. There too, the candy display was where they could keep an eye on it, not from the counter, but from the kitchen of Mrs. Wahrer’s home at the back of the store, the door of which was always open, since it was from there that she mostly managed the place. It didn’t take much management, though, because she had a clerk named Judy who was almost like a granddaughter to her, a funny, zany, laughing girl who loved kids and whom kids took as one of their own, a “big girl” with a friendly sort of authority, but a girl all the same, not quite an adult. She liked to pinch our cheeks and ruffle our hair and make gentle fun of us.

At Wahrer’s kids never felt like they were a nuisance or as if they were unwelcome. Mrs. Wahrer knew us all by name and greeted us from her kitchen door. If she especially liked you, she might even invite you into the kitchen for cookies and milk, and to watch her big, cabinet-model, color TV, one of the first in town. There weren’t many shows that were in color yet then and something I remember about her set was that when you watched it in black and white, it was more like blue and white. Strange.

Clara’s penny candy display was, or should have been, award-winning. She had, for instance, and incredible variety of licorice, both black and red: lightning rods, “shoestrings”, strips rolled into a tight spiral with a tiny licorice-flavored hard-candy ball in the middle, plus the more expensive bars (five cents) of Switzer’s Old Fashioned Licorice and Switzer’s Cherry Licorice, and sometimes she even had dark green spearmint lightning rods. There were jellybeans and tiny rolls of Smarties, little paraffin bottles with a swig of fruity soft-drink in them, rootbeer barrels and cola barrels, lemon drops and little envelopes of Lik-M-Made guaranteed to stain both your tongue and first finger the same bright color of your favorite flavor. She had Lifesavers and Sen-Sen, marshmallow chicks and marshmallow sugarcones, Hot Tamales and gumdrops, Redhots and candy corn, and every type of bubble-gum and jawbreaker imaginable.

There was hardly a candy bar that you could name that Clara Wahrer didn’t sell, including a favorite of mine, Hershey’s semi-sweet chocolate. She sold Coke in a stubby six-ounce bottle for five cents each. She charged you a penny deposit on the bottle if you took it with you, so you were sure to bring it back (that’s how we recycled back then). But she was perfectly willing to trust you to sit on the front steps, drink it, and bring the bottle back in, if you only had a nickel. 

At Halloween she handed out miniature loaves of Wonderbread for Trick or Treat, and for a penny you could buy sweetened paraffin buck-teeth, scarlet lips and black mustaches to disguise yourself with, and then to chew when you tired of masquerading. She also had edible candy bracelets and necklaces for the girls (or even for the more secure of boys) and candy cigarettes in packs that looked a lot like the real thing, for those who wanted to look movie star cool while getting their sugar.

But besides all that, Clara had an incredible range of ten-cent individual pies. Cherry, apple, blueberry, wonderful pies each with two matching sugar-glazed crusts. Or, for a nickel, you could have chocolate-coated marshmallow pies—Jack Horners, Moon Pies, Mallomars.

As groceries went, Wahrer’s was a slice of paradise, and we visited it every chance our financial resources allowed.

When we moved to Kelley Drive, there were no grocery stores. It was a “new addition”. It was also eminently residential and just outside of the city limits, so it had no commercial activities at all.

But by then, I was twelve. I had a paper route, odd jobs, a brand new bike I’d bought, and cash in my pocket. I was grown up and independent. Almost a teen. I was no longer tied to the few blocks around home. I was free as a bird. I could ride to any grocery store, and every grocery store, I felt like visiting.

And did!   

 

 

 

 

Friday, January 22, 2021

INAUGURATION DAY AND OUR BETTER ANGELS

 
Every four years, the United States of America inaugurates a new presidency. It doesn’t matter if, as a result of free and fair elections, a president remains in office for two terms. The winner of the November election, no matter who he or she might be, incumbent or successful challenger, must be sworn in to a brand new term after four years have elapsed.

Until this year, many of us Americans took this ceremony for granted, giving no real thought to how unique a thing it is in the world. The words “peaceful transition of power” have seemed almost as mundane to us as “have a nice day” or “thank you for your service.” Formalities that are expected and almost socially compulsory. But the fact that it has been happening like clockwork every four years ever since the first president of the United States, George Washington, rejected the idea of being an emperor and “presided” over the federal government for the two terms that he thought prudent and then retired after a peaceful transfer of power to John Adams, is nothing short of a miracle.  

Although he established an important precedent by serving two four-year terms and no more, Washington’s reasons for leaving were political and personal—including a major rift between Jeffersonian Republicans and Hamiltonian Federalists, which was his main reason for staying for a second term, so as to act as a peacemaker in his troubled cabinet. But it seemed clear to him after two terms that his remaining in office might only deepen the divisions. And so, he withdrew his candidacy for a third term and peacefully and graciously handed over the post to the next president.

A Federalist, Adams would only serve for one term before Thomas Jefferson was voted in to replace him. But even in these troubled early days of the new nation—which famously led to Jefferson’s first Vice-President Aaron Burr’s shooting and killing Hamilton in a duel—presidents were legitimately voted into office and certified by the Electoral College, and each and every transfer of power was prompt and peaceful, no matter what kind of bitter political rivalries might separate the candidates. It was, in fact, Jefferson, who had acrimoniously feuded with Washington and Hamilton, who encouraged Washington to stay for a second term and offered to quit the government as well if the first president didn’t remain in office. And it was Jefferson, too, who cemented the eight-year mandate precedent that Washington set by also leaving office after his second term and peacefully transferring power to the newly elected James Madison, who, along with Hamilton and John Jay, had collaborated in the writing of The Federalist Papers, which would greatly contribute to the ratification of the nation’s Constitution.

It was thanks to the clear democratic vision of these first patriots— who, no matter how they might disagree on the issues, agreed on the importance of each voice being heard and each issue being debated in a climate of democratic order—that set the guidelines and code for the future. And with each new peaceful transfer of power, democracy, and so the nation, only grew stronger.

This “established order” and peaceful transfer of power that we have so taken for granted, have continued unabated throughout the two and a half centuries of US history. Even in the most troubled and divisive of times, indeed, even during the years before, during and after the Civil War. One president after the other has respected the will of the people and the rules of the Electoral College and peacefully ceded power to the next without incident, most with extraordinary grace and an almost ritual respect for the democratic process. A very few—John Adams, who bitterly opposed Jefferson’s Republicanism; his son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, who abhorred the seventh, Andrew Jackson; and  Andrew Johnson, a Southerner who opposed Reconstruction and hated the next president and Union hero, Ulysses S. Grant—snubbed their successors by refusing to attend their inaugurations. But all of them, to a man, respected the democratic process and quietly and peacefully left office when the people and the people’s representatives determined that their time was through.

This year’s Inauguration Day, celebrated last Wednesday, was anything but mundane. Never has an Inauguration Day been less taken for granted by a large segment of the population. Because, for the first time in history, the peaceful transfer of power came under serious and unequivocal threat. And so too did two and a half centuries of US stability and American democracy. For the first time, a president who lost a free, fair and democratic election sought to deny the results, fabricate a false narrative among a radical segment of his followers, and remain in power by inciting violence against another branch of government. In other words, for the first time, the United States has failed to have a peaceful transfer of power in keeping with our nation’s democratic norms.

Four years ago, few of us would ever have thought such a scenario was possible. It could never happen in the United States of America, many were convinced. That was the sort of thing that happened in unstable “third world” countries, not in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

But it did, and created the biggest threat to democracy and to the integrity of the nation since the Civil War ripped the country in two. That’s why, when a new president was sworn in last Wednesday at high noon, I, along with many other Americans, I’m sure, had a knot in my throat and tears in my eyes as I watched. It was the emotion of joy that welled up in me, despite all of my hard-earned cynicism about politics and politicians.

The tears and emotion weren’t, I realized, for the new president, no matter how much I wish him well and hope he’ll have enormous success. Rather, they were for democracy, tears of relief that it was still standing, though badly battered, and clearly not out of the woods yet. My joy was that our two and a half-century experiment in representative democracy had survived a very clear and present threat. We had, to a much greater extent than many of us cared to admit, dodged a bullet, stemmed an insurrection, overcome a rebellion against the majority will, a revolt that counted on the active assistance and authority or the passive acquiescence and silence of far too many internal players. People we Americans have voted into office, and who failed miserably to honor our trust that they would keep their vow to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Lincoln's second Inauguration
As I’ve been thinking about these things, I’ve been recalling the messages of Inauguration Days past. The sixteenth president’s, for instance. Emerging from a bitter war of brother against brother—a war with the unconscionable injustice of slavery at its core, a prolonged war from which, under Abraham Lincoln’s leadership, the Union emerged victorious—instead of taking the victory lap he so deserved, instead of warning the former Confederate States that they had best have learned a lesson, because if not they would be in for another whipping, the president chose his second inaugural address as an occasion to promote unity and forgiveness.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all,” he said, “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Jefferson and Adams - "difference of opinion,
not principle."
I spoke earlier of the bitter feuding between Federalists and Republicans in the times of the forefathers. And it was seldom any worse than between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. And yet, despite Adams’ inaugural snub, Jefferson’s inaugural speech was clearly democratic and conciliatory. “Every difference of opinion,” he said, “is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

At another dire time in our history, Franklin D. Roosevelt admonished Americans in an inaugural address not to let their fate be guided by fear, another factor that has governed us for the difficult past four years. To Roosevelt’s mind, fear was of poor counsel in seeking to overcome the enormous challenges of the Depression. Solutions needed to be bold, sweeping and aimed at lifting the entire country out of crisis—advice our current politicians, who have been grudgingly doing as little as possible to tackle the current major crisis, would do well to heed. Accordingly, he said, “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

FDR "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

I am old enough to vividly recall another famous inaugural address. John F. Kennedy was an inspiration to many Americans on both sides of the political spectrum, but also generated rage among tribalists and white supremacists because of his reverence for the civil rights of all Americans. His message was one of pure patriotism and service. He basically told Americans of all walks of life to stop asking what was in it for them when it came to defending democracy and serving the advancement of the nation. Famously, he said, “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.” More specifically, he advised, “... (M)y fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Our better angels...
Nor did Abraham Lincoln sound the clarions of battle and division in his first inaugural address, right at the beginning of what was to be America’s most bloody and bitter war, and even as the Southern slave states were seceding from the Union. That speech was just as unifying and inspiring as his last, and even more poetically beautiful. In it, he said, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

As we approach the next four years, after the last four which were, unquestionably, some of the most divisive in our history, we would do well to re-read and recall the words of all of these great leaders. But we should particularly take to heart those of Lincoln, who is taken by many to have been the gold standard for selfless, patriotic presidents. We should remember his words and try to see past the divisive rhetoric and actions of the last four years, draw a line and start a new road on which we allow ourselves to be guided by “the better angels of our nature.”


 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

APOLOGIES

My apologies for the tardiness of the following post, which should have come out on January 7th. The extraordinary circumstances unfolding in the United States have kept me busy researching and writing editorials for my political blog, A Yankee At Large <yankeeatlarge.blogspot.com>

I hope you enjoy this latest entry, Secret Dreams, Secret Talents. Many thanks for reading and following me. I look forward to your comments.