Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Forgotten Holiday

This week, across America families will gather and enjoy the traditional Thanksgiving feast of Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and the rest. With its roots in harvest festivals conducted by the earliest European settlers in North America, our modern Thanksgiving is a uniquely American tradition.

But as traditions go, Thanksgiving has in recent years become the major holiday that retailers have decided to ignore. Retailing now moves from the pumpkins and goblins of Halloween directly to the reindeer and sleighs of Christmas. There appears to be no room for turkeys and Pilgrims.

As recently as the 1970s, the decorations and marketing themes seen in stores would be Halloween, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas. The Christmas season had a quasi-official kickoff day, the day still often referred to as Black Friday. When the stores all opened on the Friday after Thanksgiving, their bright Christmas decorations would suddenly be in place.

Black Friday, by the way, is called that not because of some dire event such as the Black Tuesday associated with the 1929 stock market crash. Nor does there appear to be any substance to the theory that the day is so named because the day after Thanksgiving is so busy for retailers that it "puts them in the black." We first heard the term during our college years when a fellow student had a part-time job at Macy's, and she considered the term to be rooted in the dread the store employees had for the day.

Many of the police departments served by The Badge Company must make special preparations for the crush of traffic that occurs on this day.

But now the Christmas decorations appear well before Thanksgiving, with the result that two things have been lost: Any retail celebration of Thanksgiving, and any excitement connected to the start of the Christmas season.

We do not know whether there are marketing experts who, after studying the buying habits of consumers, have determined that flattening Thanksgiving with the steamroller of Christmas marketing truly results in greater holiday sales. But we doubt that it makes that much of a difference. Yes, consumers are greatly influenced by advertising and marketing, but does the presence of lighted trees in the stores and Karen Carpenter singing Merry Christmas, Baby on the Muzak in early November really cause people to spend more than they otherwise would over the course of the season?

All we know is that we miss the Thanksgiving decorations, and we miss the colorful start to the Christmas season that used to take place on Black Friday. And we are becoming fearful for Halloween, as it may be next. We have seen some Christmas decorations appearing in October.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Governor

On Wednesday, during the 93rd annual conference of the New Jersey League of Municipalities in Atlantic City, an older gentleman stepped around the corner and stopped in front of the Badge Company's display. I'm Brendan Byrne, he said.

We've heard of you, we replied. You've been in the news from time to time.

We recognized him even before he introduced himself, but we were struck by the moment: It was not a surprise to see Byrne attending this conference, but it was a surprise to see him simply touring the exhibits without fanfare. The former governor was alone. We were surprised by how he could so easily walk the aisles and stop to talk. We would have expected Byrne to be unable to avoid interruptions and unable to shake hangers-on.

This is not to say that Byrne is no longer relevant. He was at the conference to participate on a panel of former New Jersey governors, a panel which discussed the performance of the current governor, Jon Corzine. The panel was comprised in a manner that gave Byrne some distinction, as he was the only member of the group to be elected and re-elected. Fellow Democrat Jim Florio sat alongside Bryne, but Florio served only one term after failing to win re-election. The Republicans were represented by John O. Bennett and Donald DiFrancesco, both of whom served as governor but neither of whom was elected to the position. Whether by design or by happenstance, no other former governors, not Republicans Tom Kean and Christie Whitman, nor Democrat Richard Codey, were on the panel. It is not likely that Jim McGreevey was considered for participation.

We spoke briefly with Byrne, answering his questions and telling him how we are regular readers of the column in the Star-Ledger where he and Kean debate current topics. He then thanked us and moved on. A surprisingly low-key encounter with a man whose influence on New Jersey was significant and lasting.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Flying Fuzz

Lawrence C. Michaels was a career law enforcement officer in southeastern Pennsylvania, who rose through the ranks to become Chief of his department, and who later was elected and re-elected to the position of County Sheriff. But he led a double life. Away from the job, Larry Michaels was a championship-winning race car driver who was given the nickname, The Flying Fuzz.

Now, we're not talking about NASCAR or Indy. But we are talking about the same race cars driven by the likes of Mario Andretti and Ray Evernham early in their careers. The cars are known as TQ Midgets, and from the 1960s into the 1990s Larry Michaels was one of the top dogs in what was then a very competitive form of racing.

The number of individual race victories recorded by Michaels is not documented, but he did earn the season-long series championship in the mid-1970s, driving a car that he built and maintained himself. In fact, as modern racing began to move away from home-built cars to manufactured ones, Michaels chose to continue to do it his way. That was the challenge he preferred.

Unfortunately, when the night of the championship awards banquet arrived in the year that Michaels won his championship, he was unable to attend due to a multiple homicide in his jurisdiction. Racing was his passion, and he rarely missed a scheduled event, but the job came first. Many of the speedways at which Michaels raced and won are now gone, victims of rising real estate values. Pine Brook Speedway in New Jersey. Freeport Municipal Stadium and Islip Speedway in New York. Dorney Park Speedway in Pennsylvania. Riverside Park Speedway in Massachusetts.

Sadly, Michaels is gone, too. It was our pleasure and privilege to count Larry Michaels as a friend for 30 years. He was respected, admired, and loved in both the law enforcement and racing communities. At his passing, a long line of mourners extended around the funeral home and along the street as cops and racers alike came to pay their respects to The Flying Fuzz.