Sunday, December 20, 2009

New York Schools Lose To Empire City Casino

While New York’s schools are scrambling to replace state aid that’s being withheld by Governor David Paterson and anticipating even bigger shortfalls in funding for next year, a little-noticed change in a formula in the regulations covering Empire City at Yonkers Raceway is taking even more money out of their budgets. It’s part of a bailout just like those that Washington used to save Wall Street banks, multinational insurance companies, and Detroit automakers. But Washington didn’t step in to rescue the casino—this particular $56,000,000 bailout was funded by New York’s school children.

Even without the bailout, the casino has generated some exceptionally good income for the Rooney family, owners not only of the Yonkers Raceway and Empire City Casino but also of the six-time Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Before I get into some mind-boggling numbers, a little background might be helpful. Empire City, the home of what must be one of the world’s largest collection of 25-cent slot machines (more than 5,000 coin guzzlers of all denominations), opened in October 2006, five years and many lawsuits after the New York legislature authorized it. Advocates of video gaming pointed to the economic boon it would bring to the city and their arguments eventually won the day.

Today, thousands of gamblers flock to Empire City from Westchester, the Bronx, and beyond, filling the 5,000-car parking lot and streaming off buses from Long Island, Queens, and Northern New Jersey. There seems to be a crowd at any time of the day or night, a mix of the under-employed, the over-worked, retirees, guys with dates, gals in groups, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, all looking for a little escape and a chance to stick their hand in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. According to Empire City General Manager Robert Galterio, the average visitor spends $75 in the casino, less than the cost of a ticket to a Broadway play or two tickets in the cheap seats at the new Yankee Stadium.

Empire City is certainly a major contributor to the local economy. The casino and track is Yonkers' biggest single taxpayer and largest private employer with 1,250 on staff, up from about 300 in 2005 before the casino opened. The annual payroll is now about $30 million and the majority of the employees are from lower Westchester and the Bronx.

Here’s the mind-boggling part: in the fiscal year ending in March 2009, Empire City raked in nearly $500 million dollars after paying off the winners. Of that, the Rooney family kept about $212 million, which they used to cover operating expenses, marketing, and debt service on the $285 million construction cost of the facility. While they don’t reveal net profits, Galterio doesn’t deny that there’s plenty left over.

The state education fund comes out a winner, too, since it receives a big chunk of all gaming in New York as part of the incentive for communities to allow the casinos and lottery to operate. In the 2008/09 fiscal year, though, the state’s school children did without a cool $56 million less than they should have received because the share of casino profits allocated to the education fund was cut as part of a bailout of Empire City engineered to help them meet mortgage payments and increase the amount spent on marketing the casino and racetrack. The loss in the current fiscal year will be the same if not larger. The original formula included in the legislation authorizing the establishment of the casino called for nearly 59% of the “Net Win” from the gaming machines (the amount lost by bettors) to go the state education fund. Under the new formula approved by the state legislature, that share became 44%, with the difference going to the casino operators.

Galterio explains that the formula was temporarily corrected to adjust for a planning error. He said all the studies done to arrange construction financing for the facility proved to be grossly optimistic. "In the summer of 2007, our lenders came down pretty hard on us and our interest rates went up," he says. "We borrowed $285 million to do the job, and our interest expense went up to $30 million per year." Without that big interest payment, he says, the operation would be profitable. That shortfall was covered by reducing the amount sent to the state education fund.

This year’s casino revenue grew as a result of another change in the formula. The amount allocated to marketing was doubled, again at the expense of the education contribution. "They allowed us to promote more, to advertise more, do better marketing, increase direct mail, do a lot more promotions and contests on the property," Galterio explains. He also said that the company is now allowed to use those funds to promote the racetrack as well as the casino.

The idea was that more advertising would increase the revenue, which would pay off in the long run with more dollars for everyone, including the education fund. Play has indeed increased, with average revenue per machine per day growing substantially this fiscal year so far. While the distribution formula phases back to the original levels starting in 2010 (unless there's another bailout), the education fund will be short-changed in the meantime, although it will receive some benefit from the additional marketing. For the April-November, 2009, period, the casino's "Net Win" is up about $47 million over the same period last year. Of that increase, $17 million went to the schools, which is nothing to sneeze at. Under the old formula, though, the state education fund would have received $43 million more at a time when it sorely needs it.

In all fairness, it should also be pointed out that the "lost" funding for schools wouldn’t exist in the first place if the casino hadn’t been opened. And the City of Yonkers receives about $20 million which goes to the city's schools. Still, Empire City’s owners seem to have profited most from the latest deal. If the operation was profitable before the interest rates increased, it must be considerably more so now that their entire interest expense is covered—-and then some—-by the shift in fund distribution away from schools and into their coffers.

The bargain is one that NY State Assemblyman Mike Spano of Yonkers had no trouble supporting. He and Assemblyman Gary Pretlow of Mount Vernon sponsored the legislation. "This is the big kahuna," Spano says. "The biggest beneficiaries of that track are Yonkers and the state of New York. No one wants to see it falter. It is imperative that that track operates and thrives and continues to do well."

The school children? Their well-being is apparently not quite so imperative.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Monday, December 14, 2009

Call For Support For Westchester Libraries

It's budget crunch time in Westchester, which means it's time to review the importance of libraries to our way of life. Following is some information I sent recently to my county legislators.

Westchester County funding support many of the services the Westchester Library System provides to our 38 members libraries and the 480,000+ Westchester citizens who have library cards. I venture to say that the 7.5 million visits paid to Westchester’s libraries annually exceeds public use of just about any other institution in the county. County support is vital in providing the services that make those libraries important contributors to our economy and our way of life.

Here are some of the WLS functions funded in whole or in part by the county:

Central Catalog of 5.4 million items. We expect to add 280,000 listings in 2010, handle 850,000 “holds” for patrons, and continue to expand El Catalogo En Espanol, our unique service for this growing portion of the Westchester community. By supporting the Central Catalog instead of expecting each library to provide its own catalog, the county not only provides an essential service to library users, but saves local libraries hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

Inter-Library Loan Service delivering 2.8 million items. This county-funded program enables local libraries to purchase fewer items for their individual collections while still giving patrons access to a wide range of materials. Through WLS, the cost per delivery transaction is only eighteen cents.

WLS IT Services provides maintenance and support (not to mention centralized purchasing) for over 1,000 computers at member libraries. The free public Internet access enabled by this service is essential to job-hunters, students, and others with limited or no Internet access at home.

The WLS WEBS Education and Career Counseling provides employment counseling for over 3,000 Westchester job seekers in programs held at member libraries.

The WLS Health Advocacy Resource Centers assists 2,800 senior citizens (and others) navigate health insurance and services.

All of these programs and services contribute to the economic well-being of Westchester County, which is but one compelling reason for continued support in the county budget. In addition, of course, our quality of life is greatly enhanced by the libraries in our communities. This year, for example, over 43,000 children attended more than 2,650 programs at member libraries and read more than 557,000 books as part of the Summer Reading Program. Westchester librarians answer some 1.6 million reference inquiries each year.

As economic hardships press upon them, we can only expect Westchester’s citizens to turn more and more to their local libraries for help finding jobs, learning new skills, improving their business operations, managing their health care expenses, and dealing with the vicissitudes of today’s economy.

The generous support provided in past years by Westchester County has helped WLS and its member libraries meet the demands of the county’s citizens in an efficient, cost-effective manner. I urge the County Legislature to continue that support in the 2010 budget year.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Insightful Interview of Christiane Amanpour

My colleague Rima Abdelkadar recently interviewed journalist Christiane Amanpour about her new program on CNN. I was particularly intrigued by Amanpour's thoughts on the difference between fact-based reporting and commentary that's passed off as news by many voices in both old and new media. Her thoughts on why Americans don't get intelligent news coverage of international affairs are spot on.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Can Votes Save The Third World?

I just finished one of the most thought-provoking books I've ever read. It's Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places

Paul Collier, professor of economics at Oxford and Director for the Center for the Study of African Economies, contends that our obsession with democracy as the be-all and end-all of governance for every nation in the world is a big mistake. He points out that voting is good but far from a panacea for developing countries who lack the social structure, legal systems, stability, and economic prospects to make the results of their elections work. Collier's contentions aren't based on guesswork, either, but rather on statistical studies that examine not our beliefs about developing countries but the reality of them.

I was particularly intrigued by his comments about the Democratic Republic of Congo, which provides numerous examples of the situations he explores. Here's one passage that neatly sums up the current status of the legitimate Congolese mining industry:

"Is democracy the key to peace in these societies?....The recent record is not entirely encouraging....

"Take the transitional government of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Knowing that they had only three years in power before facing elections and the possible loss of office, ministers set about plundering the public purse. But the public purse was pretty small because tax revenue had withered away: as you will see, low taxation is part of the strategy of misgovernance. But plunder can extend beyond tax revenue. One strategy would be to borrow: saddle future citizens with liabilities and run off with the proceeds. Unfortunately for the new leaders of the DRC, this strategy was not feasible: President Mobutu had already used it to the hilt so that the country was beyond its neck in debt. No bank was going to lend.

"But there was an alternative. The Congo is mineral-rich. Much of these resources are unexploited because under President Mobutu it would have been folly for a company to incur investment necessary to sink a mine. The president was stuck in what economists call the time-consistency problem: because he could not bind himself from confiscating investments, no sane company would make them. But by the time of the transitional government the global boom in commodity prices had changed the calculus of risk: it was worth paying a little something for the exploitation rights that the transitional government could legally confer. And so the ministers of the transitional government of the DRC mortgaged the future of its citizens as surely as if they had issued debt, by selling off national assets at bargain prices. A few months ago I had lunch with one of the shrewd purchasers of these rights: a good lunch it was too. He became a little upset when I told him that the rights ought to be renegotiated."

While I found most of Collier's observations highly believable, I can't say the same for his proposed solutions, which I found mostly impractical or even totally impossible except in theory. Still, the solutions he proposes are like the rest of the work--very tasty food for thought.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Friday, November 13, 2009

Two Great Library Events

I had not one but two gratifying library experiences yesterday.

The first occurred in my tiny local library in West Harrison, NY, a place I often go to clear my head after I've finished writing for the day. As I sat reading a newspaper, I couldn't help but overhear an older gentleman tell the desk clerk he would like to get a library card for his nine-year-old grandson. I idly looked up to see the man standing at the desk, the boy beside him ogling the DVD rack next to them. The librarian explained the simple form and showed the grandfather to a table near me to complete the paperwork while she gave the boy a brief tour of the library.

When the grandfather finished filling out the application, he glanced at me and our eyes met. I smiled and nodded. He did the same and said, "It's a great day, isn't it?"

I looked out the window at the cold, gray rain that had been falling all day, then turned back to him just as his grandson came up to the table with an armful of books and videos. "Yes it is," I answered. "It's a great day."

A few hours later, I had a gratifying library experience of a different kind. It was the Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration and Annual Meeting of the Westchester Library System, a consortium of 38 public libraries serving Westchester County, NY. While I knew this was a special occasion, I was astounded by the turnout: well over 200 library lovers packed the venue!

In addition to the WLS staff and trustees (myself included), there were dozens of library directors and staff members, friends' groups, board members, and just plain folks who had gathered to show their love of libraries and the people who make them possible. Even though election day was more than a week past, we even had an impressive array of county and state legislators. It was truly heart-warming to see a diverse group of this size gathered for such a cause.

Three awards were given out by WLS Director Terry Kirchner and Board of Trustees President Patricia Fontanella. The Service Award was presented to Jean Reidy, nominated by the Somers Public Library for her years of dedication to the library community. The Support Award went to The Friends of the North Castle Public Library, which sponsors the fabulously successful Armonk Outdoor Art Show each year, raising thousands and thousands of dollars for the library. The Innovation Award was presented to Greg and Pat Keenan, owners of the Uno Chicago Grill in White Plains. They came up with a weekly--free--pizza party to reward young readers that has been hugely successful.

The program also included several pertinent speakers including Bill Ryan, President of the County Board of Legislators, Mitch Freedman, WLS Director from 1982-2005, and Siobhan Reardon, WLS Director from 2005-2008 and now President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

The keynote address was by Marilyn Johnson, author of This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All
and The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries (P.S.).

As Marilyn spoke about the magic that happens in libraries, I couldn't help but think of the small bit of magic I'd seen earlier in the day when the boy and his grandfather came for the first time to the West Harrison Library. Like every day, yesterday was a great library day.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Insurance Companies Have A Lot Of Gall

As Congress continues to flip-flop like a beached mackerel over the public insurance option and health care reform, I received notice today of my new health insurance rates for 2010. The increase was enough to give me heart failure, but I stopped and pulled myself together when I realized I really couldn’t afford to get sick right now. Taking deep, calming breaths and trying to think happy thoughts, I did the math just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. I can’t afford mental health care, either.

Yep, I was right. The increase in my premiums for next year is a smooth 18%. Thank goodness I didn’t have any serious illness this year…can you imagine how much my rates would have gone up if I’d had any claims? At least I can get insurance, unlike a whole bunch of other Americans who can’t afford it or are too sick to get coverage.

Maybe my insurance company is struggling, I thought. Maybe they are on the brink of collapse, a disaster that would be precipitated by competition from the public insurance option they so vehemently oppose. They are publicly traded, so that information is pretty easy to find. Next step: the financials.

How about that? 2009 quarterly revenues for the first nine months are substantially ahead (+7.6%) of the same period last year, which was up from 2007, which was up from 2006, which jumped substantially over 2005 (due to an acquisition), which was up from… get the picture. Earnings per share aren’t bad either, increasing 35% for the first nine months of this year from the same period in 2008. Guess their health isn’t so bad.

While the insurance companies continue to block the public option and Congress continues to cater to them, though, my heath is deteriorating fast. Deep breaths...deep breaths...deep breaths.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Monday, September 14, 2009

You Can Help Women In The Congo

If you want to do something positive for the people of the Congo, join the Heart of Diamonds team at the NY Run for Congo Women on Saturday, September 26. It will be held on Roosevelt Island in New York at 8:30 AM at Firefighter's Field. Registration is only $25 and funds raised go to support the work of Women for Women International in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

This four-star charity helps women provide for their families by teaching them skills they need to end the cycle of poverty and suffering. It advances funds to help them start businesses and teaches them to protect themselves against the terror around them. Even if you can't participate that day, donations of any size are very welcome and--what's more--your contribution will be matched by a wonderful supporter of Women for Women International who has pledged an additional $100,000 for that purpose!

Today in the DRC, people are struggling to maintain peace and rebuild their lives after one of the deadliest wars in all of history. As many as 6,000,000 people have died as a direct result of the ongoing conflict. Perhaps even worse than the loss of life is the staggering number of women and children who have been tortured, mutilated, and sexually violated by forces vying for control of the Congo's mineral wealth. As you may have learned from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent trip to the DRC, rape as a weapon of terror in Congo has reached epic proportions. The women of the DRC desperately need our help right now.

Won't you please join us? Invite your friends, too. Even if you can't participate that day, your contribution will do a world of good for women in the Congo. When you sign up for the run, don't forget to join the Heart of Diamonds team. And when you're there, pick up some raffle tickets for a chance to win some great prizes including autographed copies of Heart of Diamonds.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Fascinating History Of Golf In Westchester

An often-quoted but much-disputed belief holds that New York's Westchester County is the birthplace of golf in America, a claim based on the undeniable date of the establishment of St. Andrew's Golf Club in Yonkers in 1888. The details of the club's founding--along with a delightful collection of other facts about golf in Westchester--are to be found in a fascinating double issue of The Westchester Historian, the publication of the Westchester Historical Society.

Westchester Historian"Under the Apple Tree: The History of Golf in Westchester County" was written by Dr. William Quirin, official historian of the Metropolitan Golf Association and the author of 40 books on golf and racing. I had a tiny role in the work when I had the pleasure of reading an early version and offering a (very) few editorial suggestions last year.

Among the issue's many treasures are dozens of pictures, old and new, of golf then and now in Westchester county. Among them are sketches of the the clubhouse at Pelham and photos of the 1911 Men's U.S. Amateur Championship at Apawamis, Gene Sarazen playing night golf in Briarcliff and Annika Sorenstam teeing off at the JAL Big Apple Classic at Wykagyl. The pictures are worth revisiting time and time again.

While Quirin gives plenty of ink to important events in golf history like the role Wykagyl played in the founding of the PGA, Knollwood's grill room discussion between Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones that led to the establishment of the Master's Tournament, and Winged Foot's storied role as a championship venue, he also dug up some slightly more obscure tales that I found even more interesting. Briarcliff Golf Club, for example, was a nine-hole course built in 1902 by Walter Law for the guests of Briarcliff Lodge. Quirin says,

" boasted a most unusual first hole--a 250-yard par 4 starting from a tee atop the pro shop in front of the Lodge, with a toboggan-slide drop of 250 feet down the hill to a green nestled in the valley below near Dalmeny Road. Gene Sarazen made a famous hole-in-one there in the 1920s."
You won't find the course today, but nearby is Trump National, built on the other side of the road on the site of a course originally known as Briar Hall, designed by Devereux Emmet and opened in 1922.

The public courses aren't ignored, either. Quirin gives an excellent account of the beginnings of daily fee golf in the county with the building of Mohansic Golf Course in Yorktown, which was opened in 1925 by the County Parks Commission.

This publication belongs in every golfer's library no matter where you live. Copies are available for only $15 directly from the Westchester Historical Society. While you're ordering, consider a membership to show your support for the organization's work to keep our past alive.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Women For Women Founder Weighs In On Clinton Visit To Congo

Among the important commentators about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo was Zainib Salbi, founder and CEO of Women for Women International. Her appearance on Jim Lehrer's PBS NewsHour added welcome depth to the coverage of Clinton's visit.

I'll be sponsoring a team in the New York Women for Women International Run for Congo Women on September 26. Last year, my wife and I were happy to raise a significant amount for the group's efforts to help Congolese women rebuild their lives. I hope you'll join us in supporting the cause this year. Even if you can't run, a small donation can make a big difference in the life of a women in the Congo.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Friday, July 31, 2009

A Tale Of Spinal Torment - Part 3 of 3

There were other treatments I may try next time. One is chiropractic. Dr. Philip Striano of Hudson Rivertowns Chiropractic in Dobbs Ferry suggests a course of stretching on the DRX9000, the latest high-tech device for relieving pressure on the disc. In my case, he said, “The machine is able to slowly stretch the scar tissue to make it more linear, actually remodeling it to allow the nerve more room.”

Dr. Sharma agrees, with a caveat. “That traction can be helpful because it temporarily opens up that space where the nerve roots are,” he says, adding, “But it’s not permanent.” That’s okay by me. Apparently, neither was my surgery.

In a demonstration session, I started with a heat pack to loosen the muscles, then I laid on my back strapped to the machine with my knees supported. Striano explained, “It pulls in an algorithm of pull-and-relax, pull-and-relax, so the muscles don’t go into a protective reflex spasm.” In English, he meant that a steady pull would cause the muscles to pull back—hard. During the session, I felt my torso lengthening slowly as it was stretched, then relaxing as the pull was decreased. It would have been easy to fall asleep. At the end of the session, I felt like an accordion relaxing back to a normal posture under the influence of gravity.

The other alternative isn’t whiz-bang new; it’s an ancient treatment first described in 475 BC in Chinese literature. I’m talking about acupuncture, of course, or the insertion of fine needles into the body at specific points. Dr. Sharma says it helps about two-thirds of back pain sufferers, although more frequently simply by relieving chronic pain for an indeterminate period of time. When I described my symptoms to Dr. Gabriel Po-Jen Lu, a Scarsdale MD who practices the ancient art in a highly scientific and quite modern way, he said, “The acupuncture itself doesn’t decompress the disc, but it will relieve the muscle spasms, decrease cramping, improve circulation, and release endorphins, which is your body’s natural pain killer. It isn’t a cure, but it will make your life better by relieving the symptoms.” A typical session lasts fifteen to twenty minutes and costs $75 if administered by an MD like Dr. Lu. Most practitioners recommend a course of three treatments to evaluate the effectiveness in a given patient.

The docs tell me that I’ll be facing this the rest of my life and probably will have some arthritis problems in the back at some point too, so acupuncture sounds fine to me. In fact, just about any of the many treatments available—body-numbing drugs, endless rounds of abdominal crunches, injections in the spine, sweaty contortions in the hot Yoga studio, machines that pull me like taffy, or needles that re-channel my chi—are better than flopping around helplessly on the tile floor like a fresh-caught mackerel.

Part 3 of 3 (originally published in a slightly different version in Westchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Tale Of Spinal Torment - Part 2 of 3

Ten years ago, my diagnosis was based on an X-ray. Now, I also had an MRI and an EMG, or electromyogram, where they shot electrical current through needles into my legs at various places and recorded what happened in the nerve roots. It wasn’t fun, but it could have been worse.

Dr. Sharma told me I had three treatment options: non-operative (medication and physical therapy), interventional (a steroid injection in the spine), or surgery. When I immediately opted for door number three, he suggested I rethink my choice. In my case, he said, “The likelihood is that the scar tissue will come back, so surgery probably wouldn’t have a long-term effect.” Plus, as Dr. Sharma so graphically put it, “Nerves in general don’t take a joke well, so the more you manipulate one, the more likely it is to have a more persistent dysfunction. If you had a big honking disc fragment causing the pain, we could have gone in again, but your imaging studies didn’t indicate anything other than some scar tissue and a slight herniation.”

So we started with anti-inflammatory medication and some aggressive physical therapy under the guidance of Debbie Bisaccia of Reforming Rehab in Harrison. Bisaccia gave me a vigorous core-strengthening regime to follow that included several different kinds of crunches, routines with the Swiss exercise ball, resistance bands, and Pilates reformer. The goal is to strengthen the complex net of muscles that surround the spine, reinforcing it and making it less susceptible to pain-inducing movement.

I got stronger, but the problems didn’t go away so I went for an epidural steroid injection, which is a cortisone shot like you might get for tendonitis. In this case, it goes into the spine while you lie wide awake and very, very still. I wasn’t worried, because the shot was administered by Dr. Maria Cabodevilla-Conn, the same angel with the needle who gave me the EMG, so I knew she had a steady hand. Believe it or not, the treatment hurt like hell for just a moment as the painkiller took effect, then was no more painful than a normal injection.

The epidural made a big, big difference. It looked like I wasn’t going to need surgery after all, but my leg and foot still acted up more often than I liked, so I started considering non-traditional options while I kept up my therapy routine at the gym (my generous insurance company refused to pay for further physical therapy, apparently because I no longer had one foot in the operating room).

My wife arranged a session for me with Toni Goodrich of the Yoga Center of Greenwich. She helped me into some Bikram Yoga poses and talked me through some stretches to open up the channels the nerves follow from the back, through the butt, and down the legs to the feet. When I told Dr. Sharma about the experience, he explained, “The sciatic nerve passes in and around the muscles in your buttocks and your legs. Those stretches keep those muscles from compressing and irritating those nerves.” Whatever. The yoga stretches really helped. I added them to my time at the gym and good things began to happen.

Part 2 of 3 (originally published in a slightly different version in Westchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Tale Of Spinal Torment - Part 1 of 3

The day I decided to have back surgery, I was in Seattle on a business trip. Just as I stepped into my hotel room’s shower, I sneezed, sending a bolt of pain down my leg that literally knocked me down. There I lay, hoping desperately the seizure would stop so I wouldn’t have to scream for help. I didn’t want the bellman to come into my room and find me writhing naked on the tile floor.

That episode was the culmination of years of back problems, debilitating muscle spasms from my neck to my butt, days when one of my arms was paralyzed, nights when I couldn’t turn over in bed and mornings when I couldn’t get out of it. When I collapsed to the bathroom floor in Seattle ten years ago, I had undergone months of treatment for a garden variety herniated disc—muscle relaxants, pain medication, physical therapy, bed rest, ice, heat, you name it, I’d tried it. The pain, primarily sciatica (a severe stabbing pain that shot from my lower back down my leg to my foot), came and went—but mostly it came—until the day it decided to stay.

Every case is different, of course, but according to the Annals of Internal Medicine, low back pain like mine is the second most frequent reason for physician visits, vying with sniffles and other symptoms of colds and flu for the top spot. Rumor (and educated opinion) has it that so many of us suffer from back problems because our bodies evolved to run on all fours across the savannah rather than walk around upright lugging golf clubs or shopping bags. There was also no notch on the evolutionary ladder that rewards sitting behind a desk pecking at a keyboard all day.

My herniated disc was L5-S1, a common problem area between the lowest lumbar vertebrate and the sacrum, or tailbone. The doctors I saw explained that a disc acts as a shock absorber sitting between the bones in your back. It looks kind of like a jelly donut. If you damage your back, either through a cumulative, repetitive injury over time or in an acute, one-time incident, some of the jelly stuff in the middle squirts out. When it pinches a nerve, you fall down naked on the floor.

Not wanting that to happen any more, I underwent a discectomy, where the surgeon cuts away a little bit of bone and ligament in the affected area, moves the nerve—gently, please—out of the way, then scrapes away the offending hernia so it no longer bothers the nerve. Instant relief.

Except…there was some numbness in my right foot and a little tingling in that leg from time to time. It wasn’t much though, and the surgeon said it would probably go away with time. I gratefully learned to live with it—it wasn’t pain.

Fast-forward ten years. I started having severe cramps in my legs and greater numbness in my foot. The spasms bothered me first at night, then during the day if I sat for long periods, finally even while I was walking around. I went to my family physician, Dr. Robert Fusco, who eliminated as many possible causes as he could and sent me to a back specialist.

Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Krishn Sharma of NY-Conn Orthopedic in West Harrison explains what had happened in the ten years since my back operation: “Anytime you do surgery, scar tissue forms. If we take away some ligament and bone in your back, your body will fill in with a fibrous, scar-like material. That can trap the nerve root and cause you to have some new symptoms, especially if you re-aggravate it.” My pain moved from my back, which doesn’t hurt at all most of the time, to my legs.

Part 1 of 3 (originally published in a slightly different version in Westchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Friday, July 10, 2009

Support For Library Book Sales

Library book sales are one life's great opportunities. They're usually sponsored by friends' groups or other non-profit organizations who use them to raise money for programs and other special library events that enrich our communities. Almost invariably, they're operated by volunteers and depend entirely on donated books from library patrons for inventory, so nearly every dollar spent at a library book sale goes toward the library itself. You gotta love 'em!

Unfortunately, library book sales are also often poorly publicized. That's where a new online service comes into play. It's, a simple yet promising directory of library book stores and book sales recently launched to supply book lovers with an easy source of information on sales near them. The site is still in beta stage, so the volume of listings is in growth stage, but it looks like the service has great potential.

Listings are free, as is use of the site by book buyers looking for sales to attend. You can search for sites by state, zip code, and date, and also set up your own calendar to save sales you've spotted that you don't want to miss. It should be a boon to book lovers everywhere and hopefully help library supporters hold even more successful sales.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Sobering Love Song For Africa

Africa: Altered States, Ordinary MiraclesAfrica: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles
by Richard Dowden

As an author and activist, I am generally optimistic about Africa's future, but Richard Dowden tempered my hope with a sobering dose of reality based on his decades of reporting on the continent. His powerful guide to sub-Saharan Africa is a must-read for anyone who hopes to understand why Africa is the mess it is.

Dowden is the director of the Royal African Society and spent two decades as Africa editor of the Independent and the Economist. His book is filled with both studied thoughts on the forces that have shaped Africa's history and pertinent personal tales of his experiences there. His message is ultimately fairly simple: Africa's problems can only be solved by African people.

The depressing counterweight to that conclusion that I drew from Dowden's accounts is that corruption is so ingrained throughout the power structure of most nations in Africa that it is unlikely that solutions can ever be implemented.

Having set my latest novel in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was particularly interested in his conclusions about that beleaguered nation:

"In December 2005 a new constitution was confirmed by a referendum and elections were held in July 2006. The assumption of outsiders was that, forced to govern together, the warlords would check each other's theft and violence. The opposite happened. They keep the country divided, cut deals with each other and filled their pockets."
Dowden makes another observation which mirrors my own experience:
"Despite the politics of theft, violence and patronage, Congo still inspires great patriotism among its long-suffering citizens. They may have little loyalty to institutions or a ruler, but Congolese believe desperately in the Congolese nation and a few are prepared to fight its looting bosses."
Africa - Altered States, Ordinary Miracles reveals Dowden's great love for the continent he has spent his life discovering. It is no dewy-eyed romance, however. He reveals all his lover's warts and blemishes, bad breath and occasional frequent bouts of ill-temper in a paean to her beautiful potential.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Elston Howard - A Strong Reminder

Elston and Me: The Story of the First Black Yankee (Sports and American Culture Series)

by Arlene Howard with Ralph Wimbish

The story of Elston Howard serves as a great reminder to us all that racial prejudice did not end when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Howard's unsuccessful quest to become a major league manager also isn't ancient history; it happened well within our lifetime and should be a part of our collective memory of how fine, good men can be mistreated based on the color of their skin.

Arlene Howard and Ralph Wimbish did a fine job of showing all sides of Elston Howard--the athlete, the father, the coach, and the husband. The book contains great accounts of the highlights--and the low--of his tremendous career in baseball. I particularly enjoyed the reminiscences of Yogi Berra, a man who played a number of roles in Howard's life.

The authors had longtime personal ties to Elston Howard, of course, which lends even greater authenticity and authority to the book.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Inventions For The Family Business

The electric light bulb transformed civilization. And if some family business owners had the chance to release their inner Thomas Edison, they’d come up with their own bright ideas to make managing a family firm a lot easier.

Joe Stone of Systems & Methods Inc. in Carrolton, Ga., would like to have consultations on demand with his father, Bob, who founded the company in the family’s living room in 1971 and retired in 2003.

“I’d like to have a talking portrait of him on the wall,” says Joe, now the CEO of Systems & Methods, which handles data processing for government offices in several states. “A lot of our company culture is built around what he stood for -- and what he still stands for.”
Today, the third generation is beginning to take its place at Stone’s company.
“We have everything from in-laws to outlaws to ex-laws,” he says.
He says he’d like to leave the next generation a time capsule containing a message that his father passed on to him:
“Keep an open mind and a broad sense of humor. You’ve got to approach every day just like that.”
Chris Combe, president and CEO of Combe Inc. in White Plains, N.Y., likes the idea of another kind of capsule -- one that might be swallowed.
“I love the energy and fun of creative meetings,” he says. “How about a capsule that keeps innovation at top of mind 24/7?”
Combe’s company was founded by his father, Ivan, whose innovative personal-care ideas spawned Just For Men hair color, Odor-Eaters, Lanacane skin-care products and Cepacol oral-care remedies.

In addition, Combe says,
“Please invent the genie that will grant each of our 621 worldwide employees passion for his or her work every day!”
L.R. Gardner, who works for his father running their chain of 22 Crackerbox Convenience Stores in Arkansas, would appreciate a father-son communications device.
“I got promoted once and didn’t know about it until I got new business cards,” he relates cheerfully. “They said I was vice president. I wondered if that would show up on my paycheck, but it didn’t. At least I got new business cards.”
Having a management position in the family business means multi-tasking, according to Gardner, which would make a dial-up “how-to” database nice to have.
“I found out I’m the IT director here,” he says. “How did I find that out? If something breaks and everybody screams at you to come fix it, you’re the IT director. I’ve got about 17 hats and one salary.”
Speaking of salary, Gardner says,
“If my father were talking about my salary, he’d have some illustrations and maybe a pie chart.”
He figures his father doesn’t need any inventions to explain it any more clearly than that.

This article originally appeared in Family Business Magazine

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Heart of Diamonds Reading At Chappaqua Library

Earlier this year, the Chappaqua (NY) Library invited me to speak about current events in the Congo and read from Heart of Diamonds. One of the great features of the library's speaking events is that they record them on video, making the programs available online and on DVD as part of the library's collection. You can see the entire program I did by visiting and choosing the program labeled "Congo" in the album strip at the bottom of the page.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Another View Of Aid To Africa

Dead AidDead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa

Dead Aid
is an interesting, provocative look at the foreign aid industry and its effects on Africa. Dambisa Moyo, who formerly worked for Goldman Sachs and the World Bank, draws a conclusion not unknown to others in the field: development aid (as differentiated from humanitarian aid) has not only done little good for the nations of Africa but has indeed caused great harm. While I don't necessarily disagree with her conclusion, I didn't find her arguments particularly convincing.

There is no question that much of the aid intended to build economies in Africa has been grossly wasted, stolen, and misused. There is little to show for the trillions of dollars that have been poured into the continent--a failure with numerous causes. But Moyo's main premise is that aid itself is the cause, that it creates a culture dependent on foreign handouts and rife with corruption that, according to the author, apparently wouldn't exist if aid weren't available. I find both arguments hard to swallow, especially since they are based mostly on the logical premise of cum hoc ergo propter hoc (with this, therefore because of this). In this thinking, when aid is given, the recipients don't develop other resources, therefore aid causes them to not try. It's the same argument that's been used for years to oppose welfare programs applied in this instance not to individuals, but to entire nations. I find that a little facile. I suspect aid fails more often because it is poorly structured and managed, an argument that Moyo essentially dismisses out of hand.

Whether you agree with Moyo's reasoning or not, you have to seriously question the solutions she proposes. While outlining a litany of worthwhile approaches to economic development including micro-lending, opening markets in the developed world to African products, and more foreign direct investment (FDI), her silver bullet is a solution only an investment banker could love: the bond market. Somehow, Moyo expects the magic of the free market financial system to end corruption in Africa, stop wasteful spending, and power the continent out of poverty. I react to that proposal the same way Jaime Talon, one of the lead characters in my novel, Heart of Diamonds, did when confronted by a similar argument about a panhandler in New York: "What matters is that right now--today--that man over there is hungry. Somebody needs to do something about that, not just ignore it and hope the holy and all-powerful market economy will provide a solution."

I have to ask, given the brilliant performance of Wall Street and Fleet Street in providing structured finance for America and Europe, how can we expect them to solve the problems of Africa? These are the people who brought us sub-sub-prime mortgages wrapped in gilt-edged bond ratings and called gold. Their ability to assess risk and police wasteful government spending in Kinshasa is rather suspect, at least to me. I also fail to see how corrupt leaders and their minions will be any less likely to steal funds from private lenders than they are from the World Bank. Perhaps my most significant objection, though is when Moyo says the developing nations will be better served paying ten percent interest (the rate she quotes for emerging market debt in 2007) than the 0.75% they are charged by the World Bank. How does that work to anyone's advantage other than the investment bankers?

Don't misunderstand my review. I agree with many of Moyos' conclusions and her objections to the current approach to foreign aid. Mandating the purchase of American products with American aid dollars, for example, is enormously wasteful, self-serving, and undoubtedly harms the African farmers and manufacturers such aid could help. She's also dead on when she calls for an improved business climate in Africa so that direct investment, both foreign and local, stands a better chance to succeed.

Pulling Africa out of the swamp of poverty is a complex operation. I applaud Dambisa Moyo for presenting a provocative set of arguments in clear, understandable layman's prose. Dead Aid brings an important subject into the public eye.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Thursday, May 14, 2009

WBAI-FM Features Heart of Diamonds

Heart of Diamonds will be featured on AfroBeat Radio at 2:30 PM, Saturday, May 16. Listeners can hear it on WBAI FM 99.5 or streaming online.

AfroBeat Radio host Wuyi Jacobs has been examining many aspects of the Congo crisis for several weeks, talking to activists and writers such as myself. During our interview, I'll talk about how the very real war over the Congo's mineral wealth shaped my novel Heart of Diamonds. We'll also discuss some of the DRC's unfortunate history and, on a more positive note, what I see needs to be done so the country can achieve its wonderful potential.

Listeners will also have an opportunity to get a copy of Heart of Diamonds as a premium during WBAI's fund-drive.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sahsa Cooke's Moving Recital

It isn't often a performance moves me, but it happened during mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke's recent appearance with the Orchestra Of St. Luke's at Alice Tully Hall. The occasion was The Irene Diamond Concert, an annual benefit for Young Concert Artists. Ms. Cooke was one of three honorees. Her smooth, powerful voice was the perfect instrument for four of the six melodies in Hector Berlioz's Les nuits d'ete, Op.7.

The tonal perfection of Ms. Cooke's voice didn't surprise me since I've heard her before. The range of emotion she achieved was truly remarkable, however. The first piece, Villanelle, was brimful of happiness. In the second, Le spectre de la rose, she dominated the orchestra despite the softness of her voice. L'ile inconnu, the fourth selection, was a tonal conversation perfectly delivered. It was in the third piece, Sur les lagunes, however, where Ms. Cooke achieved a depth of sadness that needed no translation. Vivien Schweitzer's NY Times review the next day said tears were on Ms. Cooke's face and I can believe it, having felt them swell up in my eyes as well.

Opening the program that evening was harpist Emmanuel Ceysoon, who performed Reinhold Gliere's Concerto. Op. 74. The piece is a series of variations on a theme, but this interpretation made them all of one continuum, which was quite pleasing.

Pianist Jean-Frederic Neuburger closed the program with Camille Saint-Saens Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22. He successfully balanced the many different themes in the work--some capricious, some thundering--with technical and dynamic proficiency.

The Young Concert Artists is a nonprofit organization that has promoted musicians like Emanuel Ax and Murray Perahia. Unfortunately, director Susan Wadsworth said that evening that this will be the last concert in the series until economic conditions change and the donations which make it possible pick up again.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 6 of 6

American citizens struggling to get by can find some relief through official channels, skimpy as it may be. The welfare system, public housing, and other forms of taxpayer-supported economic assistance are closed to undocumented immigrants, however. “There’s a constant claim that they’re getting welfare, they’re getting Medicaid. This is nonsense!” says attorney Vanessa Merton. It’s simple, really. If you’re not a citizen, you can’t qualify for Section 8 Housing, Medicaid, Aid to Dependent Children, or other forms of public assistance.

An overwhelming percentage of immigrants pay taxes, by the way. Not just sales and excise taxes like you and me, but income taxes as well. Even undocumented workers can be issued an official Tax Identification Number by the federal government--and most of them get one because it improves their chances of landing a job. It looks just like a Social Security number and allows an employer to withhold state and federal income taxes.

Employers may not lose much sleep over I-9 forms (the Employment Eligibility Verification statement) but they’re meticulous about following IRS rules. “We don’t want to have any problems,” McGrath says. “We withhold their taxes. They pay taxes.” Then he adds, “They’re members of society.”

Many illegal immigrants have other expenses. Juan (not his real name), who lives in Mount Kisco, NY, agreed to pay a “coyote” in his native country $6,000 to get him here from Guatemala four years ago. Juan makes his payments religiously because the coyote charges 25% interest if he doesn’t. “I don’t pay, my father has to sell his home,” he says. Juan is a 23-year-old day laborer, so every penny counts. If he can avoid deportation, pay off the coyote, and somehow stick it out here long enough to get his papers through some quirk of bureaucratic fate, he hopes to someday start a little construction business.

In the meantime, like 60,000 other undocumented immigrants in Westchester County, Juan lives and works in a shadow economy that’s slowly becoming illuminated by the glare of public attention. His fate is entwined with his boss’s. As the anonymous landscaper said, “If they get sent home, I’m out of business.”

America has work to be done; the world has people eager to do it.

Part 6 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version in Westchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 5 of 6

Even after dealing with (or avoiding) the immigration authorities, the struggles don’t end for immigrants when they land that cushy job mowing lawns in Bedford, NY. “For an immigrant, the worst part of your life is the insecurity and the anxiety,” according to Vanessa Merton, Supervising Attorney of the Immigration Justice Clinic at John Jay Legal Service at Pace University in White Plains, NY. “Because you’re afraid of the government, you’re vulnerable to victimization by employers, service providers, even the mechanic who fixes your car. What are you going to do? Go to the cops? These people are effectively living without the protection of the law.”

Then there are the struggles of daily living compounded by low education levels, a high cost of living, and, above all, the language barrier. Learning English is usually the first goal of most immigrants, despite the common misconception that they don’t want to learn the language of their adopted land, according to Martha Lopez, Director of the Westchester County Office for Hispanic Affairs in White Plains. “But if you go to the not-for-profit agencies that provide English as a second language programs, they are packed,” she points out, “All of the classes at BOCES, for example, are very well attended.” Neighbors Link in Mount Kisco provides ten ESL classes every week, morning and evening. At 11 am one day I was there, about fifty men and a handful of women were avidly drilling work-related English terms like “hammer” and “ten dollars per hour.”

It’s not easy to learn a second language, as just about anyone over the age of fifteen can attest. It’s even harder for immigrant adults. As Lopez explains, “If you come here with very low levels of education, or you are working seventy hours a week, learning a second language is very challenging.”

“Because the education level is often low,” Bracco adds, “they don’t know phonetics in their own language. Many times, they also haven’t learned how to learn. It sounds like a cliché, but many of them have been working in the fields since they were eight years old.”

According to the Census data, the median annual earnings of men from Mexico employed full time in Westchester County is $15,000. Women earn less--$10,000 on average. It would be tough to support a family in West Virginia on that income, much less in Westchester. To get by, many immigrants put up with less-than-ideal housing. A bed in a shared apartment can cost $400 a month, according to Bracco. That’s for a bed, not a room. Groceries aren’t any cheaper just because you speak Spanish, either. Nor are clothes, shoes, aspirin, or the washing machine at the laundromat.

Part 5 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version inWestchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Marek Fuchs Brings Cold Case To Life

A Cold Blooded Business: Love, Adultery, and Murder in a Small Kansas Town A Cold-Blooded Business: Love, Adultery, and Murder in a Small Kansas Town

You can tell Marek Fuchs is a reporter by trade. His facts are presented in a logical yet tension-building order, his characters are true and reveal themselves mostly through their own words and actions, and events and circumstances are weighted appropriately to their impact on the story rather than their potential to produce book-selling blurbs. It is this professionalism that separates A Cold-Blooded Business from many other examples of the true-crime genre.

There is plenty of melodrama in the story itself, and Fuchs puts it all before the reader without making you wallow in it. The Church of the Nazarene could have been depicted as a near-cult for example, but it was portrayed instead as a fundamentalist sect for Christians who don't believe you have to wear wool underwear to feel closer to God yet want the protection of a semi-closed society that holds itself just slightly holier than everybody else.

The characters reflect reality, too. All three of the main players, victim David Harmon, his wife Melinda, and their eerily successful and intimate friend Mark Mangelsdorf, are real people who lean on their religion when they need it, being very careful to not look at the underpinnings of their beliefs too closely lest they learn the foundation is a bit shaky. Fuchs did an especially fine job of demonstrating how Mark turned away from the religion of the prairies to worship at the altar of the corporate boardroom with much the same calculating proficiency he used to purchase, use, and hide the murder weapon that apparently has yet to be found.

I appreciate the way this story was told without the sensationalism that pervades and overwhelms most such books. At the hands of a skilled reporter like Marek Fuchs, A Cold-Blooded Business carries you through a sordid affair without making you feel like a rubber-necker sniffing around the blood stains at a highway fatality.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Friday, April 17, 2009

Book Lovers Learn Why Congo Matters

With the ever-increasing protest over the conflict causing the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it's easy for us to overlook the other, very important reasons we should all care about what happens in Congo. I briefly spoke about "Why Congo Matters" at the 18th Annual Westchester Library System Book & Author Luncheon.

You can hear my remarks in an mp3 file at

As you can tell by the stillness of the room while I spoke and the applause following, the response was very gratifying. Many of the more than 200 audience members approached me afterward to express surprise, not just at the atrocities that have gone unchecked for fifteen years but at the potential impact the DRC could have on Africa and the world if it were a peaceful, stable nation.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 4 of 6

If illegal immigrants are determined workers and we need them so badly, a casual observer might wonder, why don’t they enter the country legally in the first place? That’s what our ancestors did, isn’t it?

The current generation of immigrants would do that, too, but under current law, it’s practically impossible to enter the United States to work, according to Gloria Roman, an immigration counselor for NY Catholic Charities who works with hopeful immigrants in Yonkers, New Rochelle, Port Chester, Peekskill, and Mount Vernon, NY. She says there are only four ways to immigrate legally: through petition by a close family member who already lives here with permanent legal status or citizenship; through sponsored employment in a very few skills areas (Nobel prize winners are automatically admitted—really); by seeking asylum from personal persecution; or by winning one of a handful of visas in the State-Department-run lottery.

Petition by an immediate family member is the way 65% of the 51,513 persons who immigrated to Westchester County in the 1990s got here, according to the Citizenship and Immigration Services. Today, Roman reports, that is not an easy route. Even if there are no hitches, a family/relative petition can take a year just to process. Plus, she says, “In order for a person to be here, their sponsor has to show they have financial resources so the person won’t become a public burden. If you’re living at the poverty level yourself, that’s impossible.” She tells the story of a man in Port Chester. He is a legal permanent resident (i.e., has a coveted green card, which allows him to live and work here although he is not a citizen) who wants to bring his wife and three kids to America from Mexico. The man makes $15,000 per year. The government required him to show earnings of $32,000 to support a family of five.

Country-of-origin quotas are another big obstacle to legal immigration. Even if you otherwise qualify, according to the Citizenship and Immigration Services, you may be delayed for years by the State Department, which actually issues the visas according to formulas dictated by law. On the surface, the system sounds fair and relatively innocuous. Congress limits the total number of family preference and employment visas combined to 366,000 total each year. Where it gets tricky is that no more than 7% of those—or 25,620—can come from any one country. The quotas for Mexico are oversubscribed immediately every year; those for Liechtenstein and Iceland go unused.

The thicket of immigration law is one few professionals can navigate, much less those from outside the system with a rudimentary grasp of the language. “Before the 1996 laws, out of a hundred people who came to immigration lawyers, you could help 65% of them. Now you can help maybe two,” says Vanessa Merton, Supervising Attorney of the Immigration Justice Clinic at John Jay Legal Service at Pace University in White Plains.

“The problem is the system is so difficult to navigate,” says Anthony Uzzo, a painting contractor in Katonah, NY. “I’ve tried to help guys, even help them fill out the forms, but even I couldn’t figure out what they had to do. ”

Part 4 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version inWestchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 3 of 6

One of the largest misconceptions about the undocumented immigrant workforce is that they are primarily day laborers. They may be the ones we notice most often, but they really represent only about 5 percent of the total, according to Carola Bracco, executive director of Neighbors Link, a community center in Mount Kisco, NY. “Another misconception is that they are all men. There are also a large number of women. The women get here the same way guys do. Plenty of them literally walk.” She continues with yet another side of the story: “There are children who come here alone as well. Oftentimes, the teenage children come having run away from their country because a parent has had to leave them behind.”

“A lot of kids ride on top of trains to make it across Mexico. It’s a horrendous journey. They go through hell to do it.” What drives them? “In general,” she says, “we have no concept of how bad it is” in many of these countries. “People are willing to risk everything just to get here.”

What are these people doing here? Working—hard. Graciella Heymann, executive director of the Westchester Hispanic Coalition, a non-profit human services agency headquartered in White Plains, NY, says, “I always tell people to look in the parks at the nannies taking care of the children. Look at the construction sites, restaurants, landscaping projects. Look at the services performed and see who actually does them. Our standard of living depends on them.”

The only law that can’t be broken is the law of supply and demand. “Immigration law is not in touch with economic reality,” says Heymann. “That’s why it gets broken.”

Raul (whose name has been changed for this story) obeys the law of supply and demand--although he broke other laws to do it. Raul is one of those slightly dangerous-looking young men you see hanging around in a cluster on the street corner. He is the one in the paint-spattered jeans and the sun-faded baseball cap. He has a somewhat hunted look on his face, which makes you wonder whether you should cross the street to avoid walking near him. You shouldn’t be afraid, though; Raul, 23, was an elementary school teacher in Guatemala before he walked across half the North American continent to get to Mount Kisco. Actually, he didn’t walk all the way; the “coyote” arranged a series of van, bus, and truck rides to bring him from Guatemala.

“In my country, I make two-hundred dollars a month,” Raul explains. “I was a professional, but I cannot afford to marry and have a family.” Now, Raul paints houses when he can get work, which is usually only two or three days a week in the spring, summer, and fall. With luck, he’ll pick up some odd jobs in the winter--unloading trucks or doing some light carpentry, perhaps. That means he will earn maybe $11,000 this year, or about five times what he’d make in Guatemala. He’s been here three years and shares a small apartment in Mount Kisco with seven other people. He is here because, in the United States, “anything could be possible.”

Once someone like Raul is here, it isn’t hard for an employer to hire him. Despite legislative efforts to ensure that only legal immigrants find employment, employers can hire just about anybody without breaking the law. “We always take identification,” Phil McGrath says. “We go by the book.” McGrath owns a restaurant in Pleasantville, NY. The vast majority of businesses do the same, requiring job applicants to show proof they can work in the US legally and have a Social Security or government-issued tax ID number so taxes can be withheld. But, as McGrath points out, “You can go down to 42nd Street and buy as many Social Security cards as you want.” Businesses aren’t required to validate their workers’ documents, which wouldn’t be practical anyway. As McGrath says, “If somebody comes in and shows me a Social Security card and a license, or a visa, an INS card, how am I to know if it’s legitimate or not?”

The business owner makes copies of the documents and has the employee fill out a form (an I-9) swearing that they’re allowed to work in the US. These documents are carefully filed away on the premises (but not with the immigration authorities or anyone else). The Citizenship and Immigration Service (formerly the INS) rarely inspects those records, unless they’re pursing a specific individual. If an actual—but stolen—Social Security number is used, the employer has no way of knowing otherwise, so taxes are withheld and benefits simply never claimed. If the tax ID number is legitimate (and you can get one by mail from the IRS with copies of any two of thirteen different documents including foreign voter registration cards and driver’s licenses), a record of the employee exists—but it’s not linked to any immigration records.

Part 3 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version inWestchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Heart of Diamonds at WLS Book & Author Luncheon

WLSI am very pleased to be one of four authors on the program at the 18th Annual Westchester Library System Book and Author Luncheon, April 16. I'll be speaking about Heart of Diamonds, my thriller about diamond smuggling in the Congo, as well as about the current humanitarian crisis in the country.

Also appearing on the program will be Hallie Ephron, author of Never Tell A Lie, a tale about what we know and don't know about the people in our lives. Marek Fuchs, another local author (he lives in Hastings, NY), will be talking about A Cold-Blooded Business, his true crime story of how to get away with murder--literally. Multiple-award-winning author Laura Lippman will appear as well. Her latest novel, Life Sentences, is about a memorist who explores a story about a former classmate accused of a heinous crime.

The WLS Book & Author Luncheon is held annually during National Library Week to increase awareness of the many important contributions libraries make to their communities. I'll also be talking about my role as a WLS trustee.

The luncheon is sponsored this year by Con Edison, Entergy, and the H.W. Wilson Foundation. Entergy Nuclear will receive the National Library Week Recognition Award for its continued support of the WLS and its mission to ensure that all Westchester County residents have seamless access to excellent library service.

The event will be held at Abigail Kirsch at Tappan Hill in Tarrytown, NY. Tickets are $75 for general admission and $100 for a Library Patron, which includes a journal listing and special invitation to an author reception at 11:15 AM. Proceeds from the luncheon are devoted to WLS advocacy efforts to raise awareness for the 38 public libraries who are members of the consortium in Westchester County. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 914-231-3226 or go to the Westchester Library System web site.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 2 of 6

Time after time, employers claim, jobs go begging if only fully-fledged American citizens are allowed to apply. Anthony Uzzo, owner of Artisan Partners, a painting contractor in Katonah, NY, says, “I can’t find a native-born American who will do the work--even though I pay as much as fifteen dollars an hour and give bonuses, paid vacation, and sick days.” And with the demand for labor strong, and the number of legal immigrants very restricted, it’s not surprising that illegal immigration fills the void.

Carla Massimo, owner of Maplewood Domestics in New Rochelle, NY, says she couldn’t operate her business without workers from outside the country. “In twenty-four years, I’ve never been able to hire enough women from this country. I wouldn’t have a business without the immigrants.” Most of women who work for her are from Peru and El Salvador. “It’s like a chain of people. I find somebody who does a good job, they recommend somebody, and so on.”

There is a huge demand for labor in this county, which will, one way or another, be satisfied by immigrants. “It’s not really the cheapness of the labor; it’s the availability of the labor that makes the difference,” says Carola Bracco, executive director of Neighbors Link, a community center in Mount Kisco, NY, that provides ESL classes, computer training, and a job bank, as well as serving as a day labor hiring site.

Restaurateur Phil McGrath confirms Bracco's observation that low wages aren’t the reason most businesses hire immigrants. “It’s not because the labor is cheap,” he says. I would pay anybody the same amount to come here and cook.” He pays just slightly below union wage scale for New York city restaurant workers and points out that entry-level jobs like dishwasher don’t pay much regardless of the country of origin of the person who holds them. Labor costs represent about 40% of a restaurant’s operating costs, according to McGrath, so substantially higher pay scales would put menu prices farther into the stratosphere.

No matter how fairly employers like McGrath and Uzzo pay, statistics indicate that if immigrants hadn’t been pouring into places like Westchester County during the last decade, you’d probably be eating at home and watching the remaining paint peel off your kitchen walls. From 1990 to 2000, the total population in the county increased by 48,593. Nearly every one of these new Westchesterites--96% to be exact--came from foreign countries. In fact, one out of every five people who lives in Westchester today was born outside America. Of these, 119,883 are not citizens, although many hold the precious green card that gives them legal status.

How many are without documents? According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, DC, 29% of the foreign-born residents in the US are undocumented migrants. If that ratio holds in Westchester, there are about 60,000 illegal immigrants living--and working--in the diverse New York City suburb. And since it’s a pretty safe assumption that the illegal population is under-counted (it’s hard to count people who hide), this figure is certainly a minimum.

Part 2 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version inWestchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 1 of 6

Ever eat at the Iron Horse Grill, the consummately polished restaurant just around the corner from the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY? Phil McGrath, owner and chef, has been dishing out Timbale of Peaky Toe crab and seared diver scallops with creamed leeks and oyster mushrooms for the past eight years to an appreciative audience and great acclaim. But of course he can’t—and doesn’t—do it alone. Even in this intimate sixty-seat establishment, he has help, lots of it. Four servers, a bartender, a bus person, two food runners, plus four people in the kitchen. Many of these men and women hail from Ecuador and Guatemala and Mexico, and some, perhaps, came to this country illegally.

McGrath requires documentation from everyone he hires, but some of his employees may be among the 60,000 illegal immigrants in our county who serve your dinner at restaurants, cut your grass and plant your shrubs, scrub your floors and polish your silverware, wash your cars and starch your shirts, watch your kids and empty your great aunt’s bedpan in the hospital.

They are the men and women who make America work. And now they and the people who employ them are nervous. Really nervous. They’re nervous because they’re caught in the floodlights of the national furor over illegal immigration. A landscaper who refuses to be named for this story says, “They are terrified.” She quotes rumors that police rounded up 150 men for deportation in Mount Kisco and were setting up roadblocks on Central Avenue in White Plains in May. “They are going after employers also and fining them $10,000,” she adds. None of these tales are true, but they reflect the current state of mind. Congressmen and radio talk-show hosts and letters-to-the-editor writers are ranting about shipping eleven million of them back home and building the Great Wall of Mexico to keep them there.

As unrealistic as some of the proposals may be, our borders are going to be tighter and everyone’s way of life will be affected. Because when it comes right down to it, our local economy, if not our entire way of living, would grind to a halt without illegal immigration.

Take Phil McGrath’s restaurant, for example. “You’ve got to find that help somewhere just to make sure your business survives,” he says. “In Westchester, you’re not going to get many Americans who want to wash dishes and sweep floors.” Once upon a time, teenagers might have filled those jobs, but no longer. “Because of the wealth in this county, it’s hard to get a teenager to work,” McGrath says. “Their parents pay somebody to mow the lawn; the kids don’t want to work for a landscaper. The kids belong to the golf club; they don’t want to work on the golf course.”

“On a broader scale, who’s going to pick the apples and the asparagus and the tomatoes and the cotton?” McGrath adds. “Americans tend to not want to do that labor. Our fruits and vegetables would cost three times as much as they do now if it weren’t for the immigrant labor.”

Part 1 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version inWestchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Congo In Crisis" At Suffern Library

The crisis in the Congo is the focus of the talk I'll be giving at the Suffern Free Library Monday, March 16. I'll also read from Heart of Diamonds and show photos from my travels to Africa.

A diamond smuggling scheme drives the plot in my novel, and it represents in many ways the fight for control of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s gold, timber, uranium, copper, coltan, and other natural resources. That struggle has caused nearly six million deaths since 1998, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II.

The talk is at 7 p.m. The library is at 210 Lafayette Ave.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Speak Up For Libraries

When times are tough--as these certainly are--more and more people turn to our libraries for assistance and relief. National estimates of increased traffic in public libraries are echoed in Westchester (NY) county, where I am a trustee of WLS, the cooperative system that serves the 38 public libraries in the county.

Choose a metric:

circulation through our inter-library loan program is reaching an all-time high

people are standing in line waiting to access the Internet through our libraries' computers

enrollment in our career planning program, WEBS, is bursting at the seams (as you might expect)
In short, free public libraries have never been more valuable to the citizens of Westchester county than they are right now. With the economic downturn expected to last many, many more months, this trend is bound to accelerate.

That's why it's more important than ever than our libraries receive as much support as possible from our public funders at all levels. Michael Borges, Executive Director of the NY Library Association, makes the case in this video of his appearance on Senator Liz Krueger’s (D-Manhattan) cable show and NYLA's testimony before the Joint Legislative Budget Hearing.

Both the NY State Assembly and the Senate are preparing to release their budget proposals next week. Despite receiving approximately $24.6 billion in federal stimulus funds, including $2.4 billion for school aid over the next two years, NY state threatens to cut Library Aid funding.

Now is the time to tell your state representatives and senators about the urgent need to restore the proposed 18% cut in Library Aid that will impact all types of libraries, public, school and college. The quickest and easiest way to make your voice heard is to use NYLA's easy online advocacy center.

I hope you'll speak up today.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Time To Break The Silence For Congo

Two strong voices for the Congo were heard recently on NewsChannel 8, an affiliate of WJLA-TV 7 (ABC) in Washington, DC. They are Nita Evele, Co-Chair of Congo Global Action, and Kambale Musavuli, an activist with Friends of the Congo. Their appearance was part of the growing chorus of voices asking the world to step in and stop the violence against women and other depredations against the civilian population stemming from the struggle to control the DRC's mineral wealth. You can watch Nita and Kambale make an articulate, impassioned case for what we can do to break the silence.

I'll be doing my part in the weeks ahead as I continue my speaking tour with appearances at the Suffern (NY) Library on Monday, March 16 at 7 PM and the Shrub Oak (NY) Library on Sunday, March 22, at 2 PM. I'll discuss the current situation in Congo and read passages from Heart of Diamonds that illustrate the dire plight of the people of that war-torn nation.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the