Impromptus

Stopping the show, &c.

by Jay Nordlinger

Last week, I began a column as follows: “The other day, I was ranting about something in a podcast with Mona Charen. (Nothing new there.) Let me give the same rant, slightly cooler.” You know, I’m going to do the same thing today. (Different rant.)

I’ve always wanted to be pro-union, I swear. (I’m talking about labor unions.) I’ve always wanted to support oppressed workers, trying to get a better deal from the Man. But, in my time and place, union members have behaved abominably. And my sympathies are generally with management.

I don’t like that this is so. But I feel I can’t help it (again, given my time and place). The Harlan County coalminers were a long time ago.

Did you hear about Carnegie Hall’s opening night? There wasn’t one. That’s because a group of wealthy stagehands decided that Opening Night would not take place.

Everyone was ready: the Philadelphia Orchestra, the conductor, the soloists, the ticket-buyers . . . Thousands of people were ready for Opening Night, but, hours before, the stagehands decided to cancel it. They struck. So Opening Night could not go forward.

These stagehands are incredibly lucky. The chief one makes 530 grand a year. His colleagues all make more than 400. We’re not talkin’ horny-handed sons of toil.

But, upset that some of their demands had not been met, they were able to cancel Opening Night. This is worse than the tail wagging the dog; it’s the tail banishing the dog from the house, or something. There are millions of unemployed people in this country, and I’m sure that many of them would be happy to set out chairs and music stands — probably for less than $400K a year. Some of them might even stoop to doing it for 295.

All of my life, I’ve seen movies in which businessmen are nastily greedy. In real life, union members can give these guys a run for their money, or surpass them.

People wonder why tickets to concerts and operas are so expensive, or why studio recordings aren’t being made anymore, or why there are fewer orchestra broadcasts and the like. Think union.

All God’s chillen got anecdotes, and I’m going to give you three. One night, I attended a concert in Zankel Hall (a venue in the Carnegie building). The executive director of the relevant concert series was onstage, welcoming her patrons. Someone yelled out, “Susan, use a microphone!” She responded that she was saving the organization $2,500 by not using a microphone — that’s what the union would have bilked them for.

Story No. 2: One night, I was in Avery Fisher Hall, sitting next to a Lincoln Center official. This was an orchestra program, and there was vocal music on it. I said to the official, “Why aren’t you using supertitles?” (As you know, these are words flashed on a screen above the stage. I had seen them used in Avery Fisher before.) The official said, “Because that’s a plug-in, and we can’t afford it.” I said, “What’s a plug-in?” She said, “A union member has to come to the hall and plug the device in.”

Last one: James Levine was giving a master class in Zankel Hall (I believe). He was coaching a young singer and a young pianist. At some point, he asked the pianist to lower the lid on the piano. As the young man moved to do it, a stagehand rushed from the wings, as though in a panic — and stepped in front of the young man to lower the lid.

Levine smiled at the pianist, wagged his finger, and said, “Not union.”

Let me go back to Carnegie Hall’s opening night, or non-opening night: You and I may say, “Shame on the union.” But what we should really say is, “Shame on us.” Shame on us — society in general — for allowing this sort of thing to happen. How did we get this way? How did we reach the point where a few guys can cancel Opening Night for thousands?

Why can’t we say to them, “Sorry you’re upset, sorry you aren’t willing to work tonight. But guess what? We’re going to do this thing. We’re going to have Opening Night with or without you”? I guess we just can’t. But I have trouble understanding why.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a headline that said, “Obama Has Accumulated More Debt Than All Previous Presidents Combined” (or something like that). That gave me a memory. During the Reagan years, Senator Moynihan said, “This president has racked up more debt than all of the presidents from George Washington to Jimmy Carter. He’s responsible for more debt than all the previous presidents combined.”

I remember how that rankled me. I felt that Moynihan had drawn blood against us.

In airports, I’m exposed to CNN, and elsewhere, I’m exposed to NPR. I was in a cab recently, and the driver was listening to NPR. Loudly. I know I’m a right-winger, but I promise you: What I heard, in those ten minutes or so, could not be distinguished from Democratic talking points.

Which is fine. If people want to devote radio stations to Democratic talking points, fine. But something called National Public Radio? Something that is, at least in part, I believe, taxpayer-funded? Can’t they make an honest woman of themselves and go private?

Landing at the Norfolk airport, I noticed that the flight attendant was pronouncing the name of the city in a peculiar way: Nor’-foke. In my experience, it’s somewhere between Nor’-fik and Nor’-fuk. Hard to communicate on a page, at least for me.

Do you know the Norfolk cheer? This’ll be a little risqué, so avert your eyes, if you like. It goes, “We don’t smoke, we don’t drink — Nor-folk!”

In Williamsburg, I met a man with a marvelous accent. Wish I had a recording. I asked where he was from. He said Roanoke. Wonderful, melodious, flavorful English.

Come with me to Wisconsin — to Milwaukee, specifically. At some point, along the river, I was face to face with the Fonz — a statue of Arthur Fonzarelli, the character from the sitcom Happy Days, which ran in the ’70s and ’80s. He was giving his trademark two thumbs up. I’d forgotten the show was set in Milwaukee.

I saw Henry Winkler once, on the streets of New York. (He is the actor who played Fonzie.) He looked pretty cool too, though not in a Fonzarelli way — in a less jaunty and cocky way.

Wisconsin ought to be a good place for a grilled-cheese sandwich, and, lo, it is. Ordered one at Elsa’s on the Park — ought to be in some Sandwich Hall of Fame.

I know I’ve mentioned this sign in Impromptus before — it’s one of the best signs in America. At the airport, after you’ve gone through security, which entails all sorts of discombobulation, you see “Recombobulation Area.”

Okay, move to Princeton — and another sandwich. A cheeseburger at Alchemist & Barrister. It’s called the Tiger Burger, and it was A-1. It, too, belongs in the Hall of Fame.

I got to thinking about the Princeton Tigers, and I had a memory from the Reagan years. (Yes, another one.) Word got out that the secretary of state, George Shultz, had a tiger tattooed on his rear end. Shultz is a Princeton alum. During a period when some conservatives were upset at the secretary, Pat Buchanan said — this is a close paraphrase — “The president ought to kick some fannies, starting with the one with the tattoo.”

Rick Brookhiser sent me something funny — a press release whose headline blared, “Israel Votes Against Funding For Cancer Patients.” Is there no end to the ways in which the Jewish state will be demonized?

Turned out the press release was from the National Republican Congressional Committee — and they were blasting a Democratic congressman, Steve Israel.

I think I’ll wrap up today, y’all, and see you soon.