Friday, March 31, 2006

A glove story

Sunday, April 2, is baseball's Opening Day, the real first day of spring.

Fourteen springs ago, my son’s eyes brightened when he saw his first baseball glove. He was about to start a sort of pre-school for baseball players, and he couldn’t contain himself as he buried his face in the smell of new leather. He was only 4 and had only tossed a ball in the backyard, but his very own glove … well, that was just too much.

“I love baseball,” he said, and I laughed.

He delighted in the game, as if it were born in him. He even had a pretty good arm for a 4-year-old. Maybe it was born in him.

My grandfather, an Arkansas sharecropper, played town ball in the dusty days of the Depression. He was a wiry boy in his late teens who left the fields at the end of the day to play on a loosely gathered team that traveled no farther than nearby towns on weekends. The games were attended by the local farmer’s daughters, and among them was one who’d become my grandmother.

It was my grandfather who took me to the first professional ballgame I ever saw, and I got a glimpse of the last golden days of Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris – all in separate states of decline in the summer of ’66 – as the Yankees lost to the California Angels in extra innings. I was only 8, but from where we sat just off the first-base line, I saw instantly I’d always love baseball, too.

My grandfather must have known. A few days later, he bought me my first real leather glove, a Willie McCovey model that was a little too big for my hand. We sat on his back porch where he coaxed and rubbed it with Neatsfoot oil, making the pocket as soft as outfield grass, while he told me stories about his baseball days in long-past Arkansas summers.

It wasn’t just baseball he missed, but his roots, too. He eventually left his farm to make a better life for his family by working in factories on the West Coast, but he couldn’t leave baseball. He’d spend Saturdays at ballparks and I still marvel at his uncanny ability to watch the Angels on TV while listening to a Dodger game in his transistor-radio earpiece.

A couple baseball seasons passed before I hit my first Little League home run. Not one of those five-error, inside-the-park bag-cleaners, but an honest-to-God-over-the-fence-not-under-it homer. They gave me the ball and life was good – until the next game when I struck out three times swinging for the fences. I wanted so badly to give my second-ever home-run ball to my granddad, a trade for what he’d given me.

Nine summers later, my grandfather died. My hand had long since grown into his glove and I was playing my first and only season of semi-pro ball – the last summer I’d ever play organized baseball.

In that twilight of dusty roads, night games in small towns and fresh-sprinkled grass, my life connected with my grandfather’s in a way I never really understood before. In the oiled, brown leather of my old Willie McCovey glove, my grandfather’s memories were preserved and my hand fit perfectly there.

I sat on the floor with my own son that day, coaxing and rubbing his new Ken Griffey Jr. mitt with Neatsfoot oil, telling him stories about games won and lost a long time ago. I told him, as simply as I could, that his great-grandfather was a baseball player, too.

Maybe he loves baseball in a different way than his dad. Like so many things a 4-year-old sees, it’s all a happy adventure without an ending.

And his Ken Griffey Jr. mitt was more than a tad big for his little hand, but in a few summers, softened with more Neatsfoot oil and memories, it fit as well as it should.

“Why do we rub oil on it, dad?” he asked me so long ago.

“So it will be soft,” I told him, “and so you’ll have it for a long time.”

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Elvis did it

If you're one of those people who hears hoofbeats and immediately thinks, "Here comes a herd of long-extinct eohippuses from 50 million years ago, likely regenerated in DNA experiments directed by the Gnomes of Bilderburg in concert with the undead Nazi Josef Mengele and Big Oil!" ... well, you need to read Mark Morford's column, "Long Live the 9/11 Conspiracy," in today's San Francisco Chronicle. Much of it relies on Mark Jacobson's New York magazine piece, which merely whets the conspiracy theorists' appetites.

Morford is a radical Leftist wing-nut with a gift for sarcasm, but his column (which contains links to many of the conspiracy sites) will certainly get blood pumping to parts of your anatomy that haven't had a good spurt in a while. That's his job. In part, he writes:
"You probably already know that much of what exactly happened on Sept. 11 remains deeply unsettling and largely unsolved -- or to put another way, if you don't know all of this and if you fully and blithely accept the official Sept. 11 story, well, you haven't been paying close enough attention."

Why did a lot of stockholders in American and United airlines sell short on Sept. 10? Who can explain the collapse of a building that wasn't hit? Is it true no blood or major wreckage was found at the Pennsylvania crash site? Is any of that even true? Was there a second shooter? Were aliens involved?

The Radical Left -- which applies brainpower only selectively -- will accept as Gospel that Dick Cheney personally piloted all four airplanes, bailing out just before impact. The Radical Right -- which applies brainpower only selectively -- will call it the REAL 9/11 conspiracy and look away. Nobody will seek reasonable and logical answers for the real remaining questions.

Me? Hell, I believe Osama bin Laden and his vampires planned it, and it turned out even more grotesque than they imagined. And Osama must be sitting back in his Pakistani villa right now, laughing at how Americans are obsessed with making every event more complicated than it is. He accomplished more than he expected: He has us chasing shadows and looking under the bed at night.

And, of course, if you hear hoofbeats, think the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Squatters' dream homes

Twin Palms is the four-bedroom, 4,500-square-foot mini-mansion in Palm Springs where Frank Sinatra lived 1947 to1954. He sold it and moved across town, and over the next 50 years or so, Twin Palms became a bit of a wreck. But it was recently restored by three New Yorkers who rent it out for $2,150 a night in season.

That's just the beginning of the story told by J.R. Moehringer, one of the best writers -- as opposed to reporters -- in the newspaper game today. His story, "The House I Lived In," appeared in the Los Angeles Times' West magazine last weekend. Moehringer spent 24 hours in Twin Palms and captured all its history and color -- and ghosts -- on paper. Here's part of it:

"Suddenly you're overwhelmed by the desire to tell someone where you are. You phone your friend Emily in Chicago. Guess where I am. Where? Frank Sinatra's house. Really? Sitting by his pool—the same pool where Lana Turner went skinny-dipping! I hope they changed the water, Emily says. I hope they didn't, you say.

"You're not comfortable with idolatry. You've never conceded any kinship with people who worship celebrities. You once visited Graceland and felt very distant from the throngs standing in line, waiting their turn to walk across Elvis' shag rugs. You shuddered at the ghouls who logged onto eBay and bid for Britney Spears' used chewing gum. But Sinatra is different, you tell yourself. Sinatra is—you know, Sinatra."

Moehringer has the benefit of an L.A. Times press badge to get him into cool places, but we have our imaginations. If you could spend 24 hours in any famous person's home -- let's assume, if he/she is alive, that you're there on an empty weekend -- whose home would you haunt? Why?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Sex and the City (Salt Lake, that is ...)

Somehow, I don't think it will be long before you hear about this story in the Utah news ...

Bikini Cuts is a men's hair salon where the stylists wear bikinis, and it has recently opened two Salt Lake City-area shops. Their web site says:

"At Bikini Cuts it’s not just about getting the best haircut you’ve ever had, it’s about having the best salon experience of your life! We all know how uptight and girlie most salons are, so here at Bikini Cuts we do everything we can to make the Bikini Cuts experience the best salon experience a guy can have!"
Oh man, a guy can get a haircut, a scalp massage, a pedicure or manicure, hand massages ... and look, the waiting room has "Maxim," not "Better Closets & Under-Bed Storage"!

Dammit, this is one of those times I wish I had hair. But I also wonder how long it will be before the generally uptight populace of Salt Lake City makes those girls wear one-piece swimsuits and raincoats.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Abdul's fatal choice

Everybody in Afghanistan says Abdul Rahman must be insane for switching from Islam to Christianity. While an Afghan court has dropped charges against him -- yes, it violates the law to switch religions in Afghanistan and the penalty is death -- that's not the worst of it: Radical Muslim clerics have simply declared poor Abdul must be torn limb from limb for the intolerable profanity of abandoning Islam. This comes very close on the heels of the insane religious murders purportedly inspired by a ridiculous newspaper cartoon.

The Christian Science Monitor has an excellent piece today about the throny issues involved when a Muslim would rather switch than fight.

OK, we have our own radical Christian freaks here, and they occasionally suggest that somebody should die (Pat Robertson) or that their choices in life ensure a grotesque death and afterlife (Rev. Fred Phelps) or even become politico-religious terrorists (Tim McVeigh.) So the West is certainly not without examples of its own bloodthirsty forms of ecclesiastic intolerance, although the rest of our culture actively keeps those freak shows in control ... we execute our terrorists, we don't exalt them.

But, man, Islam's preeminent radical bloc makes it exceedingly difficult for the rest of the world to care about Muslim issues, much less to embrace or support them. To draw and quarter a person for changing his faith, to behead innocents because they were snatchable, to crash planes into buildings because Muslims can't live with infidels, to assault embassies because of a newspaper cartoon ... it seems too much to expect tolerance from Islam. And part of me is eager to allow them to live their lives within their own codes ... but doggone it, they don't seem satisfied to let diverse faiths exist, and they keep killing people to prove it.

(And I wonder what radical Muslims think of the thousands of Americans who become Muslims, such as Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Louis Farrakhan? Somehow I suspect they wouldn't get much sympathy in the next fatwah. )

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Pick the fight ... finish the fight

Ever since President Bush said this week that American troops would not be pulled out of Iraq before he retires in 2008, I've been troubled by a little schoolyard rule: If you start a fight, you better be ready to finish it.

And today, the Denver Post gave voice to that sentiment in an editorial, "Bush should finish what he started." It said, in part:

"If U.S. troops are still in Iraq in 2009, will a large number of them still be dodging improvised explosive devices, or will a small force be on bases, advising Iraq forces? (Similarly, it's unclear what the president meant last week when he said Iraqi forces would be responsible for 'more territory' than the U.S. by the end of this year.) ... And the president's larger task is to finish what he started - not to leave it to the next president or create more uncertainty for the government and people of Iraq."

Yes, World War II, Korea and Vietnam spanned several administrations, but Bush has not yet convincingly explained the importance of remaining in Iraq for 3 or more years. He hasn't even set out a clear plan for what will happen in his last 2-plus years of his Administration, so it seems imminently unfair for him to hand this thorny problem to the next American president ... who will likely be the candidate who promises the clearest, smartest exit strategy.

Should American troops be pulled without regard to the consequences? No.

Are there reasons they should stay? Probably.

Should the President explain better the need for keeping them at risk? Absolutely.

Will he? The president has shown little inclination to be open about his decision-making, and unfortunately, it's unlikely he's going to start now.

Monday, March 20, 2006

'One Good Horse' ... a review

The subtitle on Tom Groneberg's "One Good Horse" is "Learning to Train and Trust a Horse." But this is no guidebook for would-be horse-whisperers, equestrians or rodeo cowboys.

Sure, the story is built around Groneberg's relationship with a young horse. The ranching business is going to hell and Groneberg's wife has just learned she's pregnant when he finds an unbroken horse, in which he invests his money, his time and his sense of self.

But this memoir is so much more. It's the story of a man finding his place in the world. It's the story of a romantic dreamer putting down roots. It's a story of the inexplicable bonds between cowboys. It's a story about who we see when we look in the mirror. And it's the story of a father confronting some of his worst fears.

At least four stories unfold simultaneously in this plainspoken cowboy poet's story. Groneberg explores the latigo mythology that haunts him, the landscape of his western Montana community and his own heart (which might be inextricable), the birth of a son with Down Syndrome, and his passion for one good horse, which after a lot of thought, he names Teddy Blue. The name isn't merely a poetic accident.

"One Good Horse" is marbled with the colorful life story of Teddy Blue Abbott, a true post-Civil War cowpoke from the heyday of Texas trail drives, Charlie Russell and Billy the Kid. In the British-born Abbott (who died in 1939 at age 78), the reader sees the ghost-mentor Groneberg never knew. He's the cowboy Chicago-born Groneberg always dreamed of being.

But Groneberg's more cowboy than a lot of five-generation Montana poseurs who are more hat than cow, and never knew anything else. For more than 10 years, he's been a cowboy because he chose the life, not because it chose him. And this highly personal chronicle -- an extension of his earlier "The Secret Life of Cowboys" -- he opens his heart in ways few cowboys ever do. The painful revelation of his newborn son's incurable genetic disorder sparks his commitment to be as good a father as he can be. And for him, that even more important than being a good cowboy.

The layering of Teddy Blue Abbott's historic adventures with Groneberg's contemporary life is reminiscent of "Battlefield" (1992) by Peter Svenson, an artist who learned about life, love and farming when he unwittingly buys an old Civil War battleground. Svenson cross-cuts historic accounts of the combat and his more sedate skirmishes with seasons, farm equipment and the ghosts of history.

In both books, this contrapuntal structure adds depth and wisdom, but Groneberg goes a step or two beyond the mere juxtaposition of twin stories from separate centuries. This is not just a story of a love for the western landscape, but also a story about the landscape of a heart. It's not an epic story, but its themes are grand.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Egyptian Chronicles

AT GIZA, October 2001 (Ron Franscell)

Dawn Michelle Baude is a Fulbright Scholar and author living with her 9-year-old son for five and a half months in Alexandria, Egypt. Her "dispatches" take the form of 1,500-word essays on a variety of topics, which she then emails to friends and fellow travelers all over the world. They blend a scholar's observations, a poet's love of language and a true traveler's sense of the erotic. For security reasons, she doesn't blog her "chronicles," so I won't reprint any here ... except to say that her latest, "Pyramids," grew out of a visit to a speech by The Supreme Guide of the Council of Antiquities at the Biblioteka Alexandrina. Dawn wrote, in part:


But like a description of a piano concerto as a fixed scale of sound arranged in mathematical sequence, an empirical description of the monument omits more than it includes. Every time I visit the pyramids I am abashed at the sheer weight and mass of their physical presence, an experience that is felt rather than rationalized, almost as if the physical fabric of space could, at pharaoh's request, alter not only the perception of time, but also the perception of self.
Coincidentally, the pyramids drifted through my mind this week. I literally just returned from a brief trip to New York City, where I'd never visited for more than an airport layover. Walking my narrow path in the magnificent canyons of midtown Manhattan, I marveled at the enormity of that place, which was every bit as gargantuan as I had imagined.

My mind develops panoramic images of places I've never visited. These images are often larger-than-life because they don't just employ geography and latitudes; they also comprise great events and historic people. Great drama requires a great stage, does it not? Consequently, when I finally visit, these places tend to be, in fact, much smaller than I imagined. Dealey Plaza, the Murrah Building's block in Oklahoma City, the Parthenon, the World Trade Center's footprint, the Alamo, even the OK Corral ... none as physically colossal as I had imagined. (Dealey Plaza's intimacy was so startling that it dashed any flirtation I'd had with two-shooter theories ... a 12-year-old with his grandfather's misfiring deer rifle could have easily plinked the President from the Schoolbook Depository's sixth floor.)

Not so with New York City ... nor with Giza, where I visited a month after Sept.11, 2001. I'd flown into Cairo to take the pulse of the Arab/Muslim street, and to prepare to cover some international war maneuvers in the Sahara, while U.S. warplanes were bombing Afghanistan. The pyramids were ageless and magical. These were places that matched or exceeded my fancy (or my delusion.) I'll admit that I thought the Sphinx was much arger than its reality, but the Great Pyramids were as breathtaking as I thought they would be. The supremacy of reality or a failure of imagination? Maybe a little of both.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

MANHATTAN DIARY: Street scene #2

The shadow of the Empire State Building falls across
midtown Manhattan at 3:35 p.m. Wednesday

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

MANHATTAN DIARY: Brushes with greatness

One of the most fascinating things about New York City is its museums, where you can get up close and personal with the works of great artists, past, present and future.

I spent the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To be able to stand inches from a van Gogh masterpiece ... priceless. Can you identify these details from other great works hanging at the Metropolitan?





Top, Roy Lichtenstein; middle, Rembrandt; bottom, Picasso

Monday, March 13, 2006

MANHATTAN DIARY: Huddled masses

WAITING FOR THE LIBERTY FERRY, 2006 (Ron Franscell)

Some journeys take you farther from where you started, closer to where you come from. Stepping off the ferry at Ellis Island, a thousand miles from home under soft skies, time and space had compressed. A thousand footsore people spilled down the heaving gangway, yearning to breathe free on dry land and speaking what seemed like a thousand different tongues. We'd already paid for passage, but most had come for Liberty, and the stop at Ellis Island was simply part of the price of admission.

It was already late in the day when we arrived. Light slanted through the enormous windows in the great hall. Over more than 60 years -- from 1892 to 1924 -- some 20 million immigrants passed through this room, this gateway to a new world, a new life. Among them was my grandfather.

On October 17, 1911, Pietro Franscella arrived on the steamer Niagara from Le Havre in northern France. He was 17, alone, having traveled from his small village in the Italian-Swiss Alps to come to America, perhaps giving his philandering father Paolo a convenient scapegoat for a young neighbor's pregnancy. He had $25 in his pocket, mostly to pay for a train ticket to Colorado Springs, where some of his mother's family lived. When the American clerk asked him his trade, he said he was a farm laborer, as so many did, but he didn't want to work in the fields. No, he told the clerk, he was not an anarchist. No, he was not a polygamist. Yes, he had a sponsor, his mother's brother in Brooklyn who'd promised to meet him at the "kissing gate."

I found a copy of the ship's manifest in one of the Ellis Island computer archives. At first, his name didn't come up and I presumed he'd been lost to pen-and-ink American bureaucracy. He'd always told the story of how he'd become an American from the start, dropping the Italian "a" from Franscella, and transforming Giuseppe Pietro Franscella to the name on my grandfather's mailbox: Joseph Peter Franscell. But a Park Service clerk peering over my shoulder suggested a couple tricky clicks, and there he was, officially and forever. He'd given only his middle name, and there was that ancient "a," proud as hell.

I paid for a laser-copy of the ship's manifest, and went out into the Registry Hall, where he'd likely waited for hours -- maybe longer -- with other immigrants to be examined and questioned, perhaps detained further, perhaps sent away. I sat on one of the old benches, my legs thick and exhausted from a day standing in lines, holding my balance aboard the boat, going halfway up every wrong block, standing in more lines, finding something to eat, and following a thousand people wherever they were going. The light had sunken further, and I wondered: When did they stop being tired? Was it when they set foot on the mainland? Was it when they stepped into the first street where they heard a language they recognized? Or did they never stop working to earn what they'd won?

Later, I wandered into a small exhibit in what was once the infirmary and looked at the things they'd carried: Wedding dresses, china, sewing machines, shawls, photographs, holy books. But they brought more, like the strange musical instruments of faraway places, porcelain figurines, even hand-painted Easter eggs. And again, I wondered: If I were a 17-year-old kid leaving home, what would I have taken? What did he take?

I can only imagine the difficulties of his journey. For me, interpreting the babble of a subway map, unscrambling the train codes, turning a dollar bill into a metro card, and screwing up the courage to dive into rush-hour's human torrent for a simple ride Uptown -- my first -- was a simultaneously vexing and invigorating adventure. I take the wrong train, it costs me, at worst, two bucks to turn around. He came much farther, and there was no going back.

My grandfather died in 1985 at age 90. He ended with far more than he brought, including three sons of his own. In 1911, he'd come West from New York, met my grandmother in Colorado, pressed farther to San Francisco and later Los Angeles, where he was a chef in a fancy Hollywood hotel and bought little parcels of land here and there. He taught me to fish in the streams of the High Sierras and cooked every meal that was ever served in his house. And although he'd long ago dropped the vowels and the names that marked him, he never lost the rich Italian accent, and thank God for that. It's the voice I hear in my dreams of him.

He never spoke of New York City to me. But he was here, however briefly. New York was the gateway to his new life. And a good, long life it was. I have spent only one day here understanding my grandfather's journey, which has now lasted 95 years. It was worth the trip because some journeys take you farther from where you started, closer to where you come from.

Statue of Liberty, 3:15 p.m. Monday

MANHATTAN DIARY: Street scene

Brian McMullen offered his services on a whim while
waiting for his wife Monday night on Broadway
5:15 p.m.

UPDATE: After I sent Brian this photo, he emailed back on March 21 to tell me about the rest of his afternoon...

Hi Ron.

Thanks so much for taking the time to send this photo along. (And thanks for the fifteen seconds of blog fame!)

Believe it or not, I ended up with four takers that afternoon. My first "customer," as it were, was a girl in her mid-teens. She approached, smiled, and asked what I was offering, exactly. When I explained that I was simply picking noses, she asked if I'd had any takers. When I said I hadn't, she offered her nose and said, "Okay, let's have at it." As I approached her right nostril with my right pinky, her friend asked, "So are you a performance artist?" I think I was more nervous than she was. (By the way: her nostrils were clean when we started, so it wasn't too gross.)

My second customer was a Japanese teenager who approached me thinking that HE'd be able to pick MY nose for free. As he reached an extended index finger toward my face I chuckled, shook my head, and explained that I'd be the one doing the picking, if he was interested. At this point, maybe a dozen young people had stopped to watch, and several of them urged the Japanese guy to "do it." He thought about it, then I picked his left nostril with my right index finger.

Half an hour later a group of three teenage boys came up and all dared each other to "do it, do it, do it." Two of them finally decided to do it after asking me lots of questions. Were my gloves clean? "If you're waiting for your wife, where's your wedding ring?" (I showed it to them through my latex glove.)

I was out there for about an hour and a half before my wife Katie came by. In that time I had about 50 people take my picture -- four of whom gave me a dollar each to have their picture taken with me. One person had her picture taken with me, then handed me a Christian tract.

I still have my sign. I might "strike again" sometime in the next couple weeks if I find myself hanging around a busy public area with nothing else to do.

With my appreciation and fond memories,
Brian McMullen

Sunday, March 12, 2006

MANHATTAN DIARY: Rain in the river

Times Square, 9:05 p.m. Sunday

Rain falls into the great river that is New York. The city soaks up morning drizzle and even on a Sunday, shakes it off the way city dwellers shake the rain off their umbrellas before they enter Bergdorf's. As with a river, the rain can't stop the inexorable traffic, certainly doesn't slow it down. The sidewalks are still teeming, wet but undaunted. It dampens only the light.

For breakfast, I bought a bagel slathered in cream cheese at a little deli just off Times Square, not far from the hotel. At a nearby table, three young Bohemians talked about the great Manhattan novel, or rather, why none had ever been written. Not Salinger, they said, nor McInerney. I could only eavesdrop. Whether such a novel had or hadn't been written, I wouldn't know. It's not for an outlander to know. But clearly these three had never seen themselves or their place rendered in ultimate prose.

The paths in Central Park were rain-slicked. I wandered without the handicap of a destination. The ice on the lake hasn't yet melted. A saxophonist found a dry spot beneath a stone bridge to play, and the echo of "Danny Boy" could be heard a half mile away. A little girl in a purple slicker played in a puddle. A Jack Russell terrier, taking his owner for a walk, barked at squirrels searching for last fall's caches.

Lunch at a kosher deli, where I was one of the few non-Jews in the place. No yarmulke, no side curls, no black felt hat or long black frock. Just a Yankees cap to fend off the rain. I picked up a Jewish newspaper from an empty table and read a story about this strange Texas "Jew-boy" who was running for governor in Austin. Last week, it's a nice little feature about Kinky Friedman; today, it's foreign news in Brooklyn.

The afternoon was slipping in and out of little corners of New York. Trump Tower, Bryant Park, St. Patrick's Cathedral, NBC News, The Gap (to replace trousers in a lost piece of luggage), and a ride on the ferris wheel inside the Times Square Toys R Us just to prove I wasn't yet too old.

The rain stopped before dinner at O'Lunney's Irish Pub on West 45th Street. Bangers and mash, and a couple Guinneses. Bread pudding and a Bailey's coffee. For that, I passed up Brazilian, Indian, Argentinian, Japanese, Chinese, Italian and barbecue -- all in about a two-block walk. God, I love this place.

Why? Choices. You can find anything you want -- and a lot of stuff you don't yet know you want. I might never want it, but there's something comforting about knowing it's there. Every 10 steps, a new discovery, something you never saw, or expected to see. Like the rain. And this city, like a great moving stream, proves you can't step in the same river twice.


Skyline reflected in rain-slicked street

Saturday, March 11, 2006

MANHATTAN DIARY: Big city, bright lights

The last time I saw the New York skyline was 27 days after 9-11, from the surreal distance of Newark, a brief layover on my way to the Middle East to explore related mysteries as a reporter. It was the closest to New York City I'd ever been, and it felt like far.

Today, I came back. I made the short journey from Newark to Manhattan on the train that runs through bleak, cemetery-gray Secaucus, with a young black conductor who kissed a girl in the seat in front of me and shouted at the rest of us, and hitched a ride uptown from Penn Station with a cabbie named Atwal who wore a Sikh keski and said very little. Before the soles of my shoes had even touched Broadway, this place made me want to write about it.

And so I will over the next few days. I don't expect to expose any overlooked secrets -- how could a city through which millions of souls drift every day have any real secrets? I'm just a pilgrim stranger here. Salinger, Styron, Wharton and Wolfe lived it; I'm just passing through.

More tomorrow ....

Friday, March 10, 2006

Sending the wrong message?

President Bush is now saying the failed port operation deal with a United Arab Emirates is sending the wrong message to America's allies in the war on terror. It's too bad he didn't worry more that his handling of the proposal sent the wrong message to the American people.

But what is the message being sent to foreign nations? Is it really that bad?

We've sent the message that the President of the United States must actually answer to the American people occasionally, even when he thinks he's above it all. If that doesn't illustrate how democracy works, we can't illustrate it.

We've sent the message that we're a diverse, tolerant nation ... but we aren't fools.

We've sent the message that money can't buy everything. The United Arab Emirates are accustomed to get what they want by dint of wealth (previously, a very American notion) so it's good to show that Americans aren't merely worried about cash.

We've sent the message that we're now taking our borders and security slightly more seriously.

We've sent a message that we need fewer fence-sitting chums and more unambiguous allies in this messy world. We needn't pander to nor curry favor with wafflers.

And we've sent a message to the President: You presume too much. Your secrecy and your mysterious motives make us question your future authority. Don't push it.

No, we haven't sent the wrong message. If the United Arab Emirates (or any other foreign power) believed they were entitled to running American ports, they presumed too much, and we sent a message that nobody should presume they are entitled to such control on our soil.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Barking up the wrong tree

I just came back from the supermarket, where I was buying my dog Cagney a new bag of dog food. Among the brands was a "new" one: Disney's "Old Yeller" dog food.

It's bad enough that we now have fictional animal spokesmen endorsing products for animal consumers. But who, I wondered, wanted their dog to be just like Old Yeller ... a rabid mutt who had to be shot just to avoid a gruesome and painful death?

Yeah, that's what I want for Cagney.

What's next, Macavity Mouse Toys? Jaws' Goldfish Food? Cujo Chewbones?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Got ink? Visit a monk

Well over a millenium ago, Christian monks in Europe were making their own ink so they could painstakingly copy and illuminate holy works. They didn't invent ink -- although the history of ink is rather convoluted -- but they certainly perfected it at a time when we sorely needed this particular tool, which we take for granted in our ball-point, ink-jet, text-messaging modern world. In fact, maybe ink ranks among the most important inventions in man's history (certainly for us newspapermen and authors), but we only care about it when the damn printer goes faint ... and then we'll desperately pay $30 for less than a half-shot of it.

So in an interesting twist on history, anybody with a printer who wants cheaper ink can now turn to ... a monk.

Actually, many monks. They are LaserMonks. com, and they'll sell you a printer cartridge cheaper than OfficeMax or Office Depot -- and the brothers will put your money to work doing God's work while you splatter your words and graphics and photos all over a billion different kinds of paper (which they can probably sell you, too.)

The "LaserMonks" are brothers of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank in Sparta, Wisconsin. Founded in 2001 by some enterprising monks, LaserMonks "follows in the tradition of monastic business endeavors, uniquely blending philanthropy, spirituality, and enterprise to support a life of prayer and charitable service," according to its web site. Income from selling deeply discounted printer cartridges (the best deals are on re-conditioned cartridges) helps cover the monks austere living expenses, and the rest underwrites charitable works all over the world. It's always nice when history comes back around to leave its mark ... in this case, an indelible one.

I just ordered some cartridges from the monks. Their online "shopping cart" is as simple as Amazon's, and their price on five inkjet cartridges were about half what I'd pay in a retail store -- without half the satisfaction or fun.

So you get cheaper printer ink, the monks generate some cash flow -- and you have the benefit of knowing you've helped somebody someplace in this messy world. It's a entrepreneurial world, even at the Cistercian Abbey apparently, but you can bet Office Max isn't turning its profits into charity. Plus, you can tell your friends you buy your ink from monks.

Got ink? See a monk.



Friday, March 03, 2006

Name a history. Any history.

Just ahead of me in the Post Office line today, a 30-something African-American woman was buying stamps. The clerk handed her a page with a first-class image of Hattie McDaniel and she squinted as she studied it.

"Who's this?" she asked.

"That's Hattie McDaniel," the clerk -- also black -- told her.

"What'd she do?"

The clerk's eyebrows went up slightly.

"She's the first black woman to win an Oscar."

"An Oscar? I'll be," said the customer. "What movie?"

"Gone with the Wind."

"I'll be," said the customer, who started to leave, but then turned back with one last question. "Wasn't Black History Month last month?"

~~~~~~~~~~~

It's not a black thing. Americans aren't strong on their history. It doesn't matter if you want to talk about ethnic histories, war histories, state histories or politcial histories, only a relative handful will grasp the salient points.

Last March for Texas History Month, we surveyed more than 100 Texas-educated people of all ages with 10 basic questions about the state's colorful history (which is required curriculum in public schools.) The average person got only five correct. That's won't exactly earn a gold star. In fact, it's an F in most schools.

"If you don't know where you've been, you have no identity and you can't make good decisions about your present or your future," said Mary Kelley, assistant professor of history at Lamar University.

Love the history you've got, folks. It's the only one you'll have.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

D'oh! Why do we need so many rights, Marge?

In America, where we only seem to know our rights when we wanna sue somebody, a sobering new study proves we don't know our amendments from a hole in the ground.

In fact, the poll showed Americans know more about "The Simpsons" than they do about the First Amendment, on which our entire values are based. Or was that Duff Beer?

Only one in four Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.) But more than half can name at least two members of the cartoon family, according to a survey.

The study was done by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum. It found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just one in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms.

It gets worse, according to the Associated Press. More people could name the three "American Idol" judges than could identify three basic First Amendment rights. Advertising slogans were more recognizable than freedom of speech or religion.

Worse still, the survey found about one in five people thought the right to own a pet was protected, and 38 percent said they believed the right against self-incrimination (the Fifth Amendment) was a First Amendment guarantee.

OK, I won't even get into the recent survey in which 90-plus percent of Americans believed their free speech should be totally unregulated by government ... but two-thirds of them believed the government should regulate OTHER peoples' free speech.

Are we really so self-absorbed in this country that TV shows are more important to us than our fundamental beliefs? Next thing you know, they'll tell us more Americans can quote Paris Hilton than Ben Franklin. Shoot me now.