Thursday, January 29, 2009

Polar Bears Give Businesses A Boost

By Joseph Kellard

Andrew Loucas, who bought the long-established Laurel Luncheonette, at 300 W. Park Ave., three years ago, is getting accustomed to a certain ritual.

Each Super Bowl Sunday, participants in the Long Beach Polar Bear Club’s annual ocean plunge show up at the diner before their frigid swim to load up on carbohydrates, ordering stacks of pancakes and waffles —and lots of hot chocolate to go.

“Then the place empties out for about an hour before we get a few cold, wet people in here,” Loucas said, referring to the post-plunge diners.

The event, which benefits the Make-A-Wish Foundation, is now in its 12th year, and draws a crowd of thousands. Its success has created something of a one-day business boom in the dead of winter, and more Long Beach business owners are looking to capitalize on it.

The restaurant-bar Sutton Place is abuzz with customers from 11 a.m. to the end of the Super Bowl, according to its owner, Rob Richards. The ocean swim allows Richards to extend an already busy day by hosting a pre-lunge breakfast with complimentary bagels, coffee and hot chocolate.

“We pack the place early with kids, wives, husbands, grandmothers and grandfathers to meet and greet before they head to the beach,” Richards explained. “Then they come back immediately after and start getting ready for the game. By 1 or 1:30 the place is jamming.”

It doesn’t hurt that the restaurant, on West Park Avenue, is just a few blocks from where the crowd gathers, at Riverside Boulevard beach.

The Beach House, a sports bar and grill on West Beech Street, makes up for its distance from the event by providing swimmers transportation to and from the beach, after offering them bagels and coffee.

Ben Freiser, who co-owns both the Beach House and Speakeasy, which is also in the West End, said he has seen an increase in business as the number of participants in the ocean swim has grown.

Last year at the Beach House, Freiser said, his pre- and post-swim parties were unexpectedly crowded. “It used to be on Super Bowl Sunday in daytime, I had a skeleton crew on,” he explained, “and the last few years I didn’t have enough staff, because usually you don’t see any customers until close to game time, and now 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. you have a nice crowd.”

One group of West End polar bears gather at Speakeasy before and after the swim, when Freiser hosts a “more quaint, less raucous” post-plunge party. He said that more people appear to be incorporating the event into their other plans for the day, which has become a quasi-national holiday on which the volume of food consumed nationwide trails only Thanksgiving.

For the past five years, longtime Long Beach resident Mark McCarthy has jumped into the ocean before the game. After he opened Lola’s, on West Park Avenue, last January, he decided to get his business involved in the event after talking to two regular customers, the swim’s founders, Peter Meyers and Kevin McCarthy (no relation).

“They said that some people who had no place to go afterwards would go to the VFW hall, but people like the volunteers from Make-A-Wish and others would just wander around,” Mark McCarthy said. “So I said, let’s bring them all back to Lola’s, and whatever money we raise, we’ll give it to Make-A-Wish.”

So, from 1 to 4 p.m., McCarthy will host an unlimited buffet brunch — charging $20 for adults and $10 children — with the proceeds go to the foundation. “Times are tough out there in the world,” he said, “but they’re never too tough that we can’t help out other people.”

Other business are taking a more proactive approach by heading to the boardwalk. Swingbellys Beachside BBQ, another West Beech Street establishment, will offer swimmers and spectators an ounce of chili for the second straight year.

“The customers loved it,” said Brian Berkery of Creative Vibe, an advertising agency that promotes Swingbellys. “It was a huge hit.”

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Audrey Remo

Teacher, avid walker, dies at 87

By Joseph Kellard

Audrey Remo often put one purposeful step in front of the other.

Each weekday, the Long Beach woman hiked two lengths of the boardwalk with her walking club. She walked home from work at the middle school every day. Her vacations usually involved trekking in some corner of the globe. And she particularly enjoyed making shoeprints in the virgin snow outside her West Walnut Street home.

A snow-lover, Remo would forgo trips to Florida because she never wanted to miss a winter in Long Beach.

“It was always fun for her to get up early enough to make sure that, if there was a good amount of snowfall, she wanted her footprints to be the first in the snow,” said Lenny Remo, her son and a Long Beach City Council member.

Remo walked until a problem hip sidelined her at age 85. Two years later, on Dec. 29, she died of natural causes.

She and Eve Epstein formed a walking club in 1991. At one point, it numbered 11 members, and they covered the 4.2 miles of wooden planks Monday through Friday, every week, even in winter.

“Audrey was one of the fastest in the group and was always out front,” said Epstein, who noted that the club often paused so that Remo could greet her many friends.

“Everyone liked her,” Epstein added. “She was an outstanding woman:
bright, kind and very thoughtful and insightful.”

In May 2004, the club caught the attention of Newsday, which published a story on them, and Channel 21 picked up on it, doing its own feature.

For the past 10 years, Remo taught at the middle school — driving to work each morning with her husband of 59 years, the late Leonard C. Remo, and walking home each afternoon.

Rita Smith, who taught with Remo and joined her walking club, said, “She was a wonderful person who was exceptionally bright, and everyone loved her.”

Born in 1921, Audrey Gray moved to Long Beach from Manhattan with her parents and older sider to the W. Walnut Street home that she would live in the rest of her life. She graduated from Long Beach High School and New York University, where she met her future husband, Leonard. They married in 1943, before Leonard joined the U.S. Army and saw action in Sicily, Africa and France during World War II. She served in the True Sisters, an organization that rolled bandages during the war.

Once the couple settled down they raised their children, Lenny and Kathy, and taught together at Long Beach schools for more than 30 years. Remo spent most of them teaching reading at the middle school.

“She had a very good rapport with the children, and many of them were reluctant learners,” Smith said. “But she was very well liked by kids.”

Barbara Ruderman, who first met Remo in 1965 when their sons were in the same third-grade class at Central School, recalled that when a black family moved with several children into a two-family home on W. Hudson Street, Remo learned from one of their sons at her school that they all slept on the floor.

“And there she was carrying up mattresses, that she rounded up from her huge circle of friends in town, up the stairs into their apartment,” Ruderman said.

When on vacation Remo became a world traveler whose next adventure was always a previously uncharged locale, from Japan to Egypt to the Oregon Trail. She once caught a glimpse of Haley’s Comet while sailing through the Panama Canal. In addition to travel, Remo loved to read and enjoyed theater and art museums.

“This was a woman who, for the majority of her life, woke up every day and said I want to see what today has to bring, what’s going to be new and different, what am I going to learn or what am I going to teach,” Lenny said. “She was always positive and always looking to tomorrow.”

While still a teacher, Remo was a Pink Lady volunteer in the gift shop at Long Beach Memorial Hospital (now Long Beach Medical Center).

In retirement, she also gave her time to sit on the board of directors at the Long Beach soup kitchen, and was involved in the Long Beach Historical Society and the local Haddasha. About eight years ago, Nassau County named Remo their Senior of the Year.

“There was nothing that my mother would ask somebody to do that she
would not do herself,” Lenny said.

Ruderman described Remo as “a very generous spirit” who was always ready to lend a helping hand, and remembered how when Ruderman’s husband was on his deathbed at LBMC, Remo sat at his side each day.

“She was there on the day he died and sat with him the whole day until it was over,” Ruderman remembered.

Remo is survived by her son Lenny Remo and daughter-in-law Julie, daughter Kathy Remo and son-in-law David Kee, and her two nieces and two nephews. A memorial service will be held for her this summer. Remo dedicated her body to medical science.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

'60 Minutes' Features Flynn Family

DWI Tragedy Revisited

By Joseph Kellard

“I wanted that courthouse on top of him, I wanted him buried under the jail, I want him dead," Neil Flynn, of Lido Beach, said on “60 Minutes” last Sunday.

Flynn was referring to Martin Heidgen, the Valley Stream man who killed his 7-year-old daughter, Katie, in a horrific drunk-driving accident on the Meadowbrook Parkway three and a half years ago.

Flynn appeared in the opening segment of CBS's top-rated news show, which focused on Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice and her crusade to more severely penalize drunk drivers, and especially those who kill other drivers. The Flynn-Heidgen case was the centerpiece of the report.

Seated beside his wife, Jennifer, Flynn told “60 Minutes” correspondent Bob Simon, “I relive the crash, I think about it every day, I have nightmares about it every night, and I live my life without my daughter because of it.”

The crash Flynn relives occurred early on the morning of July 2, 2005. Driving north in a Chevrolet pickup truck at high speed in the southbound lanes of the Meadowbrook with a blood-alcohol content three times the legal limit, Heidgen slammed into the limousine that was taking Katie and her sister, parents and grandparents home from a wedding reception in Bayville, where she had been a flower girl at her aunt's wedding. While Heidgen suffered only wrist and ankle injuries, the limo driver, Stanley Rabinowitz, 59, of Farmingdale, was crushed to death, Katie was decapitated, and other passengers were severely injured.

Instead of manslaughter, the typical charge for a DWI fatality, Heidgen was charged with murder. So instead of facing a sentence ranging from probation to 15 years in prison, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 18 years to life in October 2006.

“The statute under which he was charged required us to prove that, through his actions, he had a completely depraved indifference to human life,” Rice explained to Simon. “His actions made the deaths of Katie Flynn and Stanley Rabinowitz inevitable. It was as inevitable as taking a gun and firing it at an individual who is standing five feet away from me.”

Heidgen's attorney, Stephen Lamagna of Garden City, told Simon that charging his client with murder instead of vehicular homicide was akin to treating him like a cold-blooded killer on a par with serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. “Are we as a society ready to water down what murder is and turn our sons and daughters into murderers who go out and drink and drive and cause a fatal accident?” Lamagna said.“No matter how tragic these cases are ... they're an unintentional act that was caused by the alcohol. But for the alcohol, this wouldn't have happened.”

Rice responded that being drunk should not absolve Heidgen of responsibility for his actions.

“What kind of lawlessness would you have if intoxication excused that kind of behavior?” she said.

Catherine Olian, the producer of the “60 Minutes” segment, told the Herald that the main reason the show's producers decided to spotlight this case was its groundbreaking outcome.

“There are very sad deaths from drunk driving all the time, and that wouldn't make us do a story,” Olian explained. “It was the fact that [Heidgen] was convicted of murder that made us interested in the story. That's when we thought how drunk-driving deaths are treated in the courts. Was this usual or unusual?”

The show began researching the story last spring, Olian said, interviewing prosecutors and defense attorneys in several states and looking into the range of laws dealing with drunk driving. “60 Minutes” staffers found that while some states —most notably, Texas — have tried drunk drivers for murder, no one had ever been convicted on a murder charge.

“I think it's about something that hits most people's lives in some way or another,” Olian said of the story, whose airing was delayed last fall due to constantly breaking news on the economy and the presidential election. “And I think it's a societal problem that people don't really know how to deal with.”

Simon told the Herald that what he took away from the story was that the tragedy had two sides — Katie Flynn's horrific death and her family’s agony over it, and Heidgen's future. “He's also dead because he'll be in prison the rest of his life,” Simon said. “That's also a tragedy and a waste, even though I think he deserves it.”

While Lamagna declined comment on the report, Rice said that the show “did an exceptional job of showing the inevitable consequences of drunk driving. It highlighted a life-and-death issue that's happening in every community across the country.”

Asked why she thinks her campaign to more severely punish drunk drivers attracted so much attention, Rice said she believes that, historically, prosecutors have been reluctant to push the envelope on the issue.

“I think that's because there are still so many people who sympathize with the drunk driver,” she said, echoing a point she made on the show. “That is the mindset we are trying to change here, and that's why I think it has a national appeal.”

On Tuesday afternoon, less than 48 hours after the show aired, Rice said her office had received hundreds of calls and e-mails. “They were thanking us for our leadership on this issue,” she said, noting that the volume of comments was unusually high.

Within 24 hours of the broadcast, there were some 500 comments posted on the “60 Minutes” Web site. Olian said that most were from viewers who disagreed with Rice’s stance.

“People who disagree tend to post more on any story,” she said.

Neil Flynn did not return a call for comment, and Heidgen declined to appear on “60 Minutes” because his case is under appeal.

Retailers Look Back on Holiday Season

Days before Christmas saved some Long Beach business owners

By Joseph Kellard

Fledgling retailers in Long Beach reported mixed results for a holiday shopping season marked by nationwide stores offering steep discounts, some as high as 75 percent off, while the economy sank further into a recession.

Some business owners were concerned as they struggled with poor sales and scrambled to adjust, while others told of a December that started slow but picked up just before Christmas.

“Basically what happened to me is that people started to shop much,much later, when they came under the gun to start shopping,” said Melissa Barnett, owner of Lil' Towhead, a children's boutique store on E. Park Avenue.

Thanks to this last push, Barnett said, her holiday season went better than expected.Of course, it doesn't hurt that Barnett's boutique sells ever-popular children's clothes and toys, particularly Melissa & Doug, a brand of wooden “learning” toys — puzzles, arts and crafts and blocks. In December, Barnett sold mostly accessories, such as scarves and gloves, as well as T-shirts and sticker books, all for $30 or less.

“I was stocking toys like every three days; they did really well for me,” she said.

Michael Muratore, co-owner of Rose & Eye, a West End boutique where all clothes are under $100, said business was steady throughout the holiday shopping season, but things took a turn for the better later on. “The last eight days were very, very strong days,” he said about the week before Christmas.

With just 27 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, five fewer than in 2007, Muratore predicted a rush late in the shopping season.

“I thought that would make a huge difference and push people to shop later,” he said, explaining that he worked at department stores for 20 years before opening his boutique in March 2007.

Another factor may have been the coupons for 20 to 50 percent off that he e-mailed to loyal customers 10 days before Christmas. Muratore also said he believes the reeling economy worked to his advantage. He expected shoppers to turn away from the mall stores selling T-shirts for $175 and venture into stores like his, where he sells similar styles for an average of $40. From Black Friday to Christmas, Rose & Eye sold mostly key items, from wrap sweaters to party dresses, he said.

At Frock, a women's clothing store across the street from Muratore’s shop on West Beech Street, owner Stephanie Thornton said the last couple of weeks in December were better than the first weeks.

“And I have to say that January is starting out a lot better than December,” Thornton added. “ ... Maybe it's that people who didn't get what they wanted for Christmas are coming out and buying it for themselves now.”

While Thornton's store highlights cocktail dresses for about $300, which she cut by 20 percent, Gracia dresses at $100 or less, and formal gowns ranging from $200 to $400, she said she sold lots of jewelry, which ranges from $15 bracelets to $200 designer gold-plate necklaces, as well as sweaters, scarves and other accessories. While Thornton, who opened her store in November 2007, began to bring in less expensive products before the holiday season kicked off, other retailers are only now taking this tack.

“I bought merchandise I had always bought, and somehow it isn't working,” said Susan Gelfand, owner of Josef ~ Rose, an East Park Avenue boutique specializing in fine handbags, belts and wallets.

Gelfand, however, is among the newest retailers in Long Beach, having set up shop late last summer. For 16 years, Gelfand, a Lawrence resident, operated her store in Deal, N.J., a heavily Sephardic Jewish community, where her clientele included people from surrounding towns wealthy enough to own horses.

“This is the first time I had what you would call a Christmas season,” she said. “Let's just say it was different.”

Gelfand said she has now learned to offer a more diverse price range, and she started the New Year by attending a trade show at the Javits Center to buy newer wares. She bought more non-leather bags that start at $40 than she stocked in her New Jersey store. And while most of her (non knock-off) designer bags, which include Isabella Fiore, Lockheart and Francesco Biasia, go as high as $700, most are in the $300 to $400 range.

Gelfand's neighbor, Roz Sterling, owner of Phoebe's, which specializes in handbags that sell for $50 to $300 and shoes that go for $40 to $300, said that after a rough holiday season, she plans to readjust her inventory by carrying more accessories and some novelty clothing items like tank tops and leggings. “I'm definitely carrying more pick-me-ups just to get people in the store,” Sterling said. “Hopefully that will be enough.”

Sterling started the holiday season by reducing virtually all her merchandise to half price, but since last September, business has remained way down from when she first opened in July 2007.

“It's definitely scary times,” she said. “We're 'on sale' like everyone else in the world and we're just plugging along. Hopefully there will be a change in the economy and in the consumer mindset. If consumers aren't spending money, nothing else matters.”