Monday, May 30, 2011


Dusting and reading the daily paper are probably the two things one does on a regular basis with the least payoff. I know what to expect on the editorial page (that fossil George Will and the four regular letter writers who desperately want a return to the year 1450), and every other page for that matter. I skip the local crime unless it is really local and I should know about it (however, there were a pair of burglars living incognito within sight distance, and I only found about it after I asked a neighbor why they suddenly moved out leaving the garage so damaged). I had wondered what was going on with the new local hotel that mysteriously shut down a month after it opened -- that was not in the paper either. I can, however, find out in detail the tax and budget machinations of a small school district across the river, which is good since I care so much about that.

I probably only read it because looking intently at my oatmeal for ten minutes might lead to mental imbalance. If I didn't skip George Will the result would be equally bad. The only bright spot is the comics, except they're all the same bit replayed endlessly. So I save Doonesbury for last and it doesn't seem like such a waste. There are a few good classified ads, too: someone actually has a fully restored 1948 Packard for sale at a very reasonable price. Now that would be a ride.

On Saturday a front-page article titled "Scrimping travelers turn to buses, trains" caught my eye due to Uncle Cliff's recent epic train trip North and back again. And I'm always interested in economics in the real, not theoretical, world. The author was one John Luciew, whom I remembered as the writer of some previous well-done pieces. I was rewarded with the one exquisite candy in the box.

Rus made the point in a blog essay a while back about the real differences between any sort of professional wordsmith and a writer. Just four paragraphs in, he brought the subject into focus, followed by details about a few individuals from all sorts of backgrounds and places departing and boarding a bus at the downtown Transportation Center with: "like Forrest Gump at the bus stop, travelers at the HTC have stories to spin." By the way, Jack Kerouac had been there, stuck in the waiting room one night in the late 1940s. He hated it. Charles Dickens had crossed the river over the long, dark wooden Camelback Bridge into Harrisburg almost a hundred years or so earlier. He hated it too. The 2011 travelers were not cranky, but surprisingly upbeat, despite their circumstances.

The beauty of this story was in the organization (I wish some teacher of English of journalism has clipped it to show beginners how it's done). Each story was summarized to lift it to the universal, then brought down to the person's name, age and tale. Either Mr. Luciew was lucky enough to find the right people, or has a knack for spotting them, or used some literary license to select from among many during a day -- whatever the raw material was, he hit the essential notes without hyperbole or sentimentalism.

Each rider was under economic constraints; they weren't just joyriding. Mike from California, who was not getting along with his wife due to unemployment, spent 45 hours on the bus to visit his daughter and family in Wilkes Barre, his stay to be open-ended in the hopes of a job there. Despite good reasons not to be optimistic, he said people were "good." Carnies were traveling to link up with their shows; they knew the nomad life that the inexpensive bus line made possible. A 68-year-old widow from Oregon spends a month each year visiting family in State College, PA and Newport News, VA. She says she'll keep doing it as long as her health holds out. Experienced chefs without a regular gig like Cyrus are heading to big cities for a week or a weekend to help out the still-prosperous restaurants for special events. Just like a journeyman in the Middle Ages: the more things change...

The final story deservedly took the most space: having earned a master's degree in her mid-twenties, Anne, having no luck finding employment, was traveling to join her boyfriend who is in exactly the same situation in Rhode Island for a Memorial Day get-together. She said they'll have the best holiday ever, with a view of the water and friends for support. "I'm in a good space right now," she said. "Hey, we're alive!"

So, like looking out back all year to see one hummingbird, I guess I'll keep reading the paper to find stories like these.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Move Along, Nothing to See Here

Film director Paul Morrissey

Unless I really have nothing to do, I probably won't click on the "next blog" spot atop the usual BlogSpot page. For some reason, I only get (1) mommy blogs, (2) Christian religious stuff, (3) odd young Asians who seem particularly scatterbrained, and (4) gardening blogs, which I'd normally like, but actually manage to be boring.

I guess the bulk of blogs are like FB posts about what's happening in the author's life, or what they wish would happen because nothing is. Very occasionally you will find some interesting autobiography -- I mentioned one a while back by a feisty middle-aged South African lady who was scandalously humorous and quite insightful. Unfortunately, you would have to click away most of the day to find one like that. At the other end of a spectrum spanning comedy to tragedy, I read many installments penned by a depressed writer in New England who lived alone but definitely had something to say; the last one was very dark and after that, nothing. I wonder about him. If he's gone, at least someone remembers him.

I've enjoyed telling my sparse little story and putting down ideas that have been floating around in my goldfish bowl head. As Buffalo Springfield put it, for what it's worth.

Here are some (mildly) amusing leftovers that didn't fit in with previous narratives:

Almost Famous

In New York, near Grand Central Terminal, I passed former football player Jim Brown on the sidewalk. Coincidentally, I'd just read his book and was going to tell him that when someone else brushed by and engaged him. So Jim doesn't remember me but I do remember him. By the way, he's a lot smaller and more compact than you'd think. Today's NFL line would have made his career about an hour long.

On one of our many trips to play in North Carolina, the members of Morning Disaster and I were enjoying breakfast in an iHop (we usually didn't stay the night, so it must have been a long weekend mini-tour), when in the booth in front of us the duo Peaches and Herb were not enjoying theirs but were in a fierce little argument instead. This was the original and first of three Peaches. We could see why she didn't stay until the next hit song about twelve years later.

When I briefly lived near Cambridge, MA during the winter/spring of 1967, a roommate somehow knew the film director Paul Morrissey (known primarily, but erroneously, for his association with Andy Warhol), who stayed the night once. He had made Chelsea Girls the previous year. He left behind a chocolate brown, military-style shirt which I wore when back at RPI/VCU, but it did nothing to boost my celebrity status.

Cracker Paradise

The three of us rented a three-story townhouse nicely situated between ocean and bay on skinny Topsail Island, North Carolina, one summer. Unfortunately, it was the same weekend a hurricane came that way. Before all the horizonal rain and disappearance of the road, however, we used the crabbing gear in the garage, along with some rank-smelling chicken necks from the Food Lion, and caught a big tub of crabs off the pier on the bay side. It's just like bringing goodies in from the garden: growing or catching your own food is an exciting experience. And oh, do fresh boiled up crabs taste good with mass quantities of beer on ice. With the Beach Boys playing loud on the boom box, that, my friend, is about as good as it gets.

We Were at Animal House

The Morning Disaster's agent pretty much booked them in Richmond, Raleigh/Chapel Hill, and Carlottesville. College towns, si; fraternity houses, no!

We were in the basement of an oh-so-typical frat house full of future John Birchers. They didn't particularly like the music (except for Joe's "Great Balls of Fire," of course) and they didn't like the look of us, either. We packed up quickly, sensing the mood turning sour, and unlike every other time when we could just leave them all passed out, a group of the crew-cut morons followed us out through the dark, tree-shaded parking lot. Not being inebriated gave us an edge, and we took a roundabout route to the car, which was a large Pontiac we had rented that did not look like it would be ours. We made good our escape back to the Bat Cave!

Spy Kid

The fellow I replaced at the Pentagon as his enlistment was ending was one smart cookie, and trained me well. He had come to D.C. as a staff member of a Wisconsin representative and had a job lined up with the Tavern Owners Association trade group for when he became a civilian again. He seemed to have it together, but toward the end he told us his home life was a mess and his wife was going to leave him and go back home. Good riddance, we thought, but he was still in denial. Soon after he left, several of us were interviewed by someone who flashed a badge and I.D. card. It seems a KGB agent had somehow (how?) noticed his distress and had tried to recruit him with promises of money he could use to convince his wife to stay. He had immediately gone to the FBI who let the agent know to beat it. We only held Secret clearances in our office, which is pretty low by Pentagon standards, so how useful his intended victim could have been seems questionable. I guess our Boris Badenov just had a monthly quota to meet.

I tried a little undercover mission, too. A cousin worked a couple of basements below in computers (back when they used FORTRAN and such), so using a visit to him as a cover, I went to the map supply room which was nearby, where obviously I had no legitimate business. I'd heard there were amazingly detailed maps of the U.S. (not highly classified) and some really cool ones of the USSR and Vietnam. I wisely decided not to try to get one of the hot ones, and found one of this area. I took it home in my briefcase (the way all us spies do) and found they were detailed indeed: my grandfather's house and garage were clearly marked with little black boxes. Many years later when we lived south of here near Lewisberry, I used it to find the remains of old farmhouses and outbuildings, as well as a very long-forgotten cemetery in the brush.

Princess in the Tower

A person who had worked in theatres and hotel/casino entertainment venues told me these tales:

Present for the opening of one of the early Trump resorts, Ivana noticed that the grass plot the searchlights were stationed on was ruined, probably by leaking diesel from the generator. Since it was visible from the higher rooms on that side, she became upset and demanded something be done about it at once. With the opening ceremonies about to start, there was no time or personnel to replace the sod, so my acquaintance told someone to wipe the dead grass down and paint it green. That actually worked!

He had dealt with a whole range of celebrities and I remember two of his characterizations: he said that Dolly Parton is even nicer in person than in public and he'd gladly work with her anywhere, anytime. Whoopi Goldberg, on the other hand, he found imperious and nasty. Of course, it could have been tight shoes or a bad cue. I'll bet Dick van Dyke would be great company.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wrong Turn on Rights

Anything carried too far becomes annoying at the least and very dangerous at the extreme. This truth, easily come to after rational observation and experiment, is often lost sight of by a humanity that really loves to overdo anything whenever it can. People often confuse their inability to control their destructive habits and passions with what they think of as their rights. Crude wants are not rights.

Despite their well-funded and emotionally extreme claims, organizations do not have rights. Only individuals do. States do not, despite two hundred years' worth of yelling about them; they have powers and obligations. At the height of the post-Civil War domination of the nation by business and its vanguard, the Republican party, in 1886, the misnamed Supreme Court established (in Santa Clara County V. Southern Pacific Railroad) that corporations are persons under the Fourteenth Amendment and had the same rights as their shareholders did individually. This monumental sea change which radically redirected the course of the United States and the lives of its unfortunate citizens is said to have actually been the result of an intentional misrepresentation inserted into the Court record by a reporter who as a former railroad president. In all this long while, this has never been corrected; once big business had its boot on our necks it was not about to remove it. The 2010 Citizens United decision confirmed this all-encompassing power by removing any limit on corporate funding in politics, once again hitting the "rights" note: any such restraint, they said, violated big business' First Amendment right of free speech. Bags of money do not constitute speech.

So corporate giants and monopolies now had the rights of individuals (the only place they should reside) but almost none of the obligations. When a person exercises power any way he chooses without regard to consequence, we call him a sociopath. This development was foreseen and feared by leaders such as Jefferson and Eisenhower; the latter must have felt like Cassandra.

On an everyday level, the same assertions of a right to misbehave and make others miserable or put them in danger occur. When their noise or careless action affects others and deprives those others of their rights to peace, security and safety, the line has been crossed from right to wrong. Like a boundary fence, your rights end where mine begin, and vice versa. Our cult of unthinking and egocentric individualism is as distasteful as its opposite, regimented totalitarianism. It is the tyranny of one.