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Monday, June 18, 2007

Ignited memories....

A lecture point I made in tonight's class and associated news story had me thinking about growing up in Brooklyn this evening.

The lecture point was about how leadership changes -- especially sudden, unexpected ones -- can alter the structure and behavior of organizations. No big deal as a bullet on one of my powerpoint slides, but it begged for an example and there were two ready made ones in today's business news.

This AM's New York Times had a story about the leadership transition at HBO when its CEO resigned after getting caught in a bit of a scandal. The second story popped up in my email just as I was starting class as a NYT news alert: Terry Semel of Yahoo! had resigned as CEO of that company under pressure from shareholders unhappy with the company's stock value performance.

It was the Terry Semel story that got me thinking about having grown up in Brooklyn, specifically in the Brownsville section, and more specifically on Saratoga Avenue between Pitkin and Sutter. (The Wikipedia entry on Brownsville notes that among the notables who came out of the neighborhood were a range of folks from Aaron Copland and Alfred Kazin to John Gotti and Mike Tyson). According to family legend (and my own vague recollections), at some point in my very, very young years I accidentally set fire to some furniture in the Semel family apartment while Terry (and/or his older sister) were babysitting me. It wasn't a big fire -- I believe it involved some newspapers on a chair and my curiosity about the silvery looking gadget called a "Zippo" (again, my memory is very vague on such matter; hell, I can hardly recall what I ate for breakfast!).

Now Terry Semel is unlikely to recall the incident, although he is three years my senior and (again, if I recall) was punished as much as I was by our parents. But the news of his position shift (I believe he will now be chair of the Yahoo! board of directors) and the fact that I am back teaching and wandering in NY (if only for the summer) did trigger thoughts about how much things have changed over the past fifty years on the mundane level -- and yet how much remains the same for kids growing up in Brooklyn and other parts of New York.

This reflection continued as I took the subway and bus to the place I am staying in Manhattan. I was an early transit rider -- again, memories are vague, but I am pretty sure I was making my way around Brooklyn via bus and subway by age ten or so. Short trips to an aunt's house or to my grandparents' used clothing shop in East New York or to Hoyt Street where my parents worked for different stores. (For details I would have to rely on my older sister who seems to have better recall of my adventures as a kid than I do...). In many respects, for me the subway rides are as grimy and sweaty and noisy an experience now as then -- and as fascinating as a people-watching experience. I have been on many other subway systems since, but with the exceptions of Chicago and Boston, none come close to experience of New York, in both a positive and negative sense.

The same can be said for the bus rides, with one major change: the cell phone. As I took the last leg of my journey to the upper west side on the M86 Crosstown, I was struck by how many folks were using their phones, chattering away often as they entered the bus and throughout the entire ride until they got off at their stop. At least half the passengers on this relatively full bus ride were either on their cells, playing with the Treos or Blackberrys (including me, I might add); if you add the folks who were otherwise "plugged in" to their iPod or Bluetooth headsets, the figure would go to three quarters of the passengers. As self-involved temporary co-residents of the vehicle, the bus riders no longer engage in the awkward interactions that subway riders still experience because the phone signals cannot penetrate the underground tubes -- the avoidance of eye contact, the attempt to ignore the banter and noise made by others, the indifference to strange odors and screaming kids, etc. (all captured so well in the famous Seinfeld "The Subway" episode, although I have to admit I have never seen a naked man on any of my subway rides...).

So, despite Metrocards, refurbished subway cars, moderately improved buses (e.g., "articulated buses"), and all the other improvements that the New York Transit folks have brought on over the past half century, the NYC experience remains as fascinating for a 60-year old people-watcher such as myself as it did for the ten year old.

Thanks to Terry Semel for triggering all that....


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