A different hero


In Central Park today, I passed a hot-dog vendor whose umbrella said “Historic Battery Park.” That’s located at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, near “Ground Zero.” Business must be better farther north.

There is much concern here about the businesses affected by the attack. Outside of New York, most of the concern seems to be for the airline industry. The U.S. government (i.e., taxpayers) is poised to bail out airline companies with billions of dollars. There seems to be some sense to that. If the airline industry collapses, it will take other businesses with it.

Some airline companies weren’t doing well even before the attack. Others were making money for their shareholders.

Earlier this year, my wife’s foster father died in Dallas. The mid-week short-notice round-trip fare from New York was more than $2100 each (it still is). The bereavement fare was $800. When we got on the flight (to Love Field), it was 2/3 empty.

Other businesses may wonder why they’re not being bailed out, too. As elsewhere, New York hotels are hurting. So is Broadway theater. The mayor’s press conference today discussed small business loans that are being made available.

But what about the tens of thousands of airline workers being laid off. Should we be bailing them out, too, or just airline stockholders?

I’m a stockholder and a worker. On paper at least, I’ve lost quite a bit of money in stocks since the attack. And today I got a call from a client canceling three upcoming days of work due to reduced revenues. Oh, well. I’m alive. I’m well. As those of you who have seen me know, I’m not in imminent danger of starving.

A classic New York joke has a old man emerging from a burning building and collapsing from smoke inhalation. A firefighter nearby folds his jacket and places it under the man’s head. Trying to reassure him before the ambulance arrives, the firefighter gently asks, “Are you comfortable?” The man stares at him and says, “I make a good living.”

As I mentioned in a previous report, I have always liked firefighters. They’re all brave heroes.

You’ve heard a lot about the New York Fire Department recently. They work for the city. But there’s a second group of uniformed personnel in New York who race to fires in red trucks. They’re the New York Fire Patrol. They work for the insurance companies. Their job is to spread tarpaulins and perform other functions that might minimize property damage.

All firefighters try to save both lives and property, in that order.

On the 11th of December in 1995, on the border of Methuen and Lawrence in Massachusetts, some 400 firefighters first rescued the injured and then attempted to save what property they could at a huge blaze. Despite exploding propane tanks, they managed to preserve one small part of Malden Mills, the largest employer in the area. Almost a million square feet were destroyed, and the property damage hit $500 million — in the same order of magnitude as the World Trade Center buildings.

The owner of Malden Mills, Aaron Feuerstein, was at his 70th birthday party that night, and his family was trying to keep the bad news from him. When he finally found out, he began making announcements: He would continue paying his staff (almost 3,000 workers). He would maintain benefits. He would rebuild. He even paid everyone a Christmas bonus.

Most media portrayed him as a saint (it didn’t hurt that the plant’s products, Polartec and Polarfleece, used recycled plastic). On the other hand, in some business circles, it is said, he was considered a fool for paying $15 million in salaries and benefits while the plant wasn’t functioning. Thomas Teal, writing in the November 11, 1996 issue of Fortune magazine, said Feuerstein was neither saint nor fool but a shrewd business manager.

“Why in the world should it be a sign of divinely inspired nuttiness to treat a work force as if it was an asset, to cultivate the loyalty of employees who hold the key to recovery and success, to take risks for the sake of a large future income stream, even to seek positive publicity?”

The missing employees from one of the large financial firms in the World Trade Center have been dropped from its payroll. Every day, new layoffs are announced. No one seems to be making any of the promises that Aaron Feuerstein made in 1995.

The mayor said today that he still hadn’t spoken to the third primary winner and, therefore, still wouldn’t reveal his secret political plan. He said it should be obvious. He talked about how short a time the winner of the election would have before taking office on the official date of January 1.

In two week and two days, about 10% of the debris has been removed.

My wife worked on a call-in show, “New York Voices,” on the local PBS station tonight. One guest, the documentary producer Ric Burns, said the events of September 11 made New York a shoo-in for the 2012 Olympics.

TTFN, Mark