Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#775)

A letter to my Senator
by David Benjamin

The Honorable Tammy Baldwin
United States Senate
717 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-4906

Dear Sen. Baldwin:

Not too long ago, I went back to my childhood hometown of Tomah to drop off a copy of my latest published novel, A Sunday Kind of Love, at the offices of the Tomah Journal — the newspaper I had read every week when I was growing up, in the living room of my grandparents’ house on Pearl Street. It’s difficult to express my surprise when I got to the Journal office and found that the door was locked.

The Journal was operating. There were people inside. I could see them. But they were locked in. I was locked out.

Perhaps I was more shocked than most people because — for more than seven years — I was the editor of a weekly newspaper, in Massachusetts, the Mansfield News. In that capacity, I couldn’t have imagined locking the door to my office. A locked door — or even a door! — was antithetical to my purpose as the editor of the News. I was the guy in town whom anybody, anytime, could walk in on.

Once, Barney Frank walked in. Another time, a member of a town board who also had business ties to the Patriarca crime family, walked in and told me that he would kill me if I kept reporting his run-ins with the Mansfield Police. I believed him. Three different times, a high school freshman walked in and asked for a job as a stringer for the News. Since I didn’t have a reporting staff beyond myself, I hired each kid and proceeded to teach him the techniques, style and ethics of journalism, as best I could. Each of these exceptional boys thrived at the News. After graduation, they went on to college at Vanderbilt, Georgetown and the University of Chicago.

Today, the opportunity Bill, Frank and Tim had — to learn the news hands-on and close-up, with personal guidance from a “professional” (I use the term loosely, because I never attended an actual journalism school) — doesn’t exist in Mansfield. The News, once an independent newspaper and job press, has been reduced to “penny press” status, after being bought out by an out-of-town regional newspaper chain. The News no longer sits in the Town Hall every night, taking notes on the meetings of the Board of Selectmen, the Health Board, the School Committee, the Zoning Board of Appeals. The News no longer pores trough the police log every Wednesday afternoon, and it doesn’t exert a tireless vigilance over the government and business of the community.

The News has a “telephone editor” now, located in a distant city, transcribing obituaries, wedding announcements and the school lunch menu. Its “coverage” of local political affairs depends on the word of local officeholders issuing press releases. The practice of journalism in Mansfield is extinct.

Recently, I got a heart-warming note from a Mansfield resident, formerly the assistant superintendent of schools and one of my regular targets of scrutiny, who said, simply, “We need you back.”

The same fate has befallen Tomah, where the Journal is now the property of Lee Enterprises, an Iowa “media company” that owns more than 350 weekly and daily publications in 23 states. It’s traded on the New York Stock Exchange. So is the gigantic Gannett news group, and the McClatchy group, the Tribune Company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, every major television network and radio group. This ownership model is a major reason for the decay of journalism. Most Americans today get what little news they consume — whether online or in print — from immense corporations whose fealty is neither to its readers nor to democracy, but to a handful of wealthy shareholders and to the caprice of the traders on the floor of the Stock Exchange.

This is why I’m proposing to you a possible legislative solution to what has been called “the death of print” and the precipitous decline of professional news-gathering in America.

Another example. My wife, Junko Yoshida, went to work more than 25 years ago for EE Times, a technology journal that simply had no peer in its field. The team Junko joined at EE Times is one of the best groups of newsmen and newswomen I’ve encountered in my career. EE Times, which was privately owned by a husband and wife in Manhasset, New York, had a worldwide staff whose credentials in both engineering and reporting offered its demanding and erudite readers a level of breadth and depth unmatched in its field.

Less than a decade later, after its owners retired, EE Times was purchased by a publicly traded media company that proceeded — in order to meet its quarterly projections — to reduce its scope, fire its journalists, designers and photographers, to close its offices in Europe and Asia, in the Midwest and Northeast. Today, EE Times, which abandoned print several years ago, is sustained heroically by four fulltime reporters, including my wife, and a handful of free-lancers (some of whom, like myself, often pitch in without pay).

Clearly, publicly held media companies — whatever their quarterly results — have done far more harm than good to the practice of journalism in America. And yet, more and more, only publicly held media companies practice journalism in America.

The classic model of the news organization, typified by the old EE Times, but also by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the old Hearst and McCormick empires, still exists. But the paternalism of the grand old newspaper chains is an institution that can’t be revived or replicated in these times. Nor should it be.

Nevertheless, we need a new way. Today, millions of Americans get their news online, often from “aggregators” who compile reports from other sources — including all those dying newspapers — or from profoundly unreliable sites that have a partisan, ideological or outright propaganda agenda. Ironically, the popularity of aggregators poses a reverse-pyramid dilemma. The more people use these typically free sites to consume news originally reported by the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post or even USA Today, the fewer people use — and pay for — that information from its real source. As aggregators grow, they imperil the existence of the vital sources from which they aggregate.

Which brings me to my solution. We need more journalists. Not the self-appointed pundits and single-issue bloggers who populate a million parasitic “news” sites on the Web. We need trained, paid professionals who know AP style, who grasp the differences between news, analysis and commentary, who understand the absolute imperatives of attribution and corroboration. We need legitimate news organizations where J-school grads can go for hands-on experience writing the news. We need small newspapers — both online and in print — weeklies, dailies, alternative tabloids that turn young stringers into conscientious reporters and dogged investigators. We need a citizens’ tribune who sits nearby the council table in every community, taking notes, shooting pictures, asking questions, quoting politicians and making them accountable for their words, their actions, their promises and their mistakes.

My solution is inspired by an idea that I first heard floated early in the Obama administration, for a national development bank. Launched with a principal of some $30 billion, its purpose would be to give loans and grants for major infrastructure projects, public, private and hybrid.

My variation: A national journalism development bank. The amount of capital would be much smaller than an infrastructure development bank. Its annual outlay would be, in my estimation, somewhere between $500,000,000 and $1 billion.

The sole purpose of this money would be to pay the salaries of reporters, mostly on the local and regional level, mostly in print and online (rather than television). At an average salary of $50,000 a year, an outlay of a half-billion dollars would employ 10,000 professional reporters.

In fact, since some of this money would cover salaries for lower-paid interns in some big-city newsrooms like those at the Times or the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, a half-billion or so would stretch beyond that minimum pool of 10,000 newly compensated journalists — many of whom would be restored to the community of ink-stained wretches after being laid off by Wall Street bean-counters.

You ask, how would this National Journalism Development Fund (NJDF) choose its beneficiaries. Easily. A local news entrepreneur would send in an application form that demonstrates the intent and the credentials to cover the news in, say, Tomah, in competition with the non-doing ghost of the former Journal. Or the local Lee Enterprises stringer for the Journal could send in the same form, vowing to restore the paper’s integrity by staying in town and doing the local legwork the old Journal used to do. Each application would seek enough funding to cover the number of salaries needed to gather and produce the news. All other expenses would be up to the applicant to cover, preferably by selling ads and soliciting sponsors.

Administrators at the NJDF would be tasked to judge applications indulgently. After all, an outlay of $70,000, to cover the salaries of a local editor and reporter, is chump change in the great Washington budget scheme. If, after a year, the little newspaper office couldn’t renew its application because it couldn’t rustle up enough advertising or build its circulation beyond friends and family, the grant would be withdrawn and given to a new set of news entrepreneurs.

Of course, there would to be some sort of oversight. Ideally, the NJDF would hire teams of regional inspectors with a journalism background to monitor the performance of all these new-sprung or rejuvenated newsrooms. What a great job for a retired newspaper editor. These inspectors would focus on each news organization’s commitment to serving the community, providing as much information as possible and doing the journalist’s most vital mission: civic education. All other details, including prose quality, good photography, appealing design, would be secondary.

In short, this is money that should be easy to get and hard to lose. The thing that makes a journalist professional and makes him or her want to be a better journalist is getting paid for the job — not enough to get rich, but enough to offer the assurance that this essential democratic vocation has true and irrevocable value.

Newspeople are a lot like teachers. Firefighters. Cops.

Why do this?

Journalists are a dying breed, literally. Their place is being usurped by amateurs, opportunists and conspiracy theorists. At some point, when the number of responsible, professional, ethical journalists sinks below some point of critical mass, citizens will no longer see enough real news to distinguish it from bullshit. If there’s any doubt that American journalism is approaching that critical mass, I need only cite the political success of Donald Trump, a man who conflates fact and fancy, has no idea that he’s doing it, and has millions of followers who share his seditious ignorance.

And how to pay for it? Where will the billion come from? I suggest that we assess the very people and organizations who right now cling parasitically to the last few bastions of professional news-gathering. Every aggregator provides links to the sources of its blurbs, headlines and news briefs. Every aggregator, in order to collect advertising revenue, assiduously counts every “hit” on its site and every click to every link. These hits and clicks number in the billions. It would be a small matter to monitor all these online visits to all the aggregrators and all their sources and charge each aggregator a tiny fraction of a penny (or, preferably, a whole penny), for each hit, click, link and visit — NOT payable by the consumer. Yahoo, Google and Facebook would have to cough up the pennies.

And if there’s extra money? Give the reporters a raise.

Obviously, all I’m proposing here is a rough sketch of what would be a complicated and contentious law. Cynical old editor that I am, I expect this idea not only to go anywhere, nor do I expect a response. But I urge you to suggest the notion to a few of your colleagues in the Senate, and pass it by a few reporters. The responses will be interesting. My wife, who has seen the depopulation of her own newsroom, told me — at first blush — that I was full of crap. But after reconsidering, she conceded that maybe I’ve got something here. After all, if you take the personnel cost out of the newsroom, everything else suddenly starts to look affordable — especially if you can publish online and don’t have to buy ink, paper and press time.

Sorry if I’m long-winded. But I needed to make the case for the care and feeding of real journalists, and explain why a system of no-strings support for the dissemination of the news, objectively and universally — down to the grass roots — is not only possible in a digital 21st-century America, but necessary.

Sincerely,

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#774)

The year of the Ape Man
by David Benjamin

“I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.”

— John Dryden, Conquest of Granada (1672)

MADISON, Wis. — Lately, my know-it-all attitude has been getting me into trouble. A high-school friend accused me of elitism for flaunting my vocabulary and looking down my nose at Donald Trump’s less-than-erudite fans.

Of course, right away, Tarzan came to mind.

The imagery of the “noble savage” has been a staple of Western culture since More, Milton and Montaigne. It’s been appropriated by social engineers, Marxists, racists, outlaw bikers and NewAgers. It was trashed by Hobbes and vilified  by Dickens: “His virtues are a fable; his happiness is a delusion; his nobility, nonsense.”

Traditionally, the noble savage is brown, black, yellow, red — providing a sublime contrast to the overly couth dandy who has lost touch not only with nature, but with God and his own humanity. As Baron de Lahontan (an effete honky if ever there was one), wrote, the noble savage “… looks with compassion on poor civilized man — no courage, no strength, incapable of providing himself with food and shelter: a degenerate, a moral cretin, a figure of fun in his blue coat, his red hose, his black hat, his white plume and his green ribands… For science and the arts are but the parents of corruption. The Savage obeys the will of Nature, his kindly mother, therefore he is happy. It is civilized folk who are the real barbarians…”

Literature has long glorified the innocence, resourcefulness, uncluttered intellect and rugged sex appeal of the romantic primitive. Adam and Eve were our first noble savages, ruined by the serpent-hung Tree of Knowledge. Voltaire, in Candide, celebrated the insightful clarity of the unschooled ingénue. Kipling gave us Mowgli. Fenimore Cooper created Natty Bumppo, whose woodsy Mohican sidekick, Chingachgook, bestowed all the education Hawkeye would ever need. In Moby Dick, a pallid and pusillanimous protagonist learns life from Queequeg, a worldly-wise and racially exotic harpoon-chucker who can’t read a lick.

Not to mention the simple but perspicacious Tonto turning to his kemo sabe and saying, “What do you mean ‘we,’ paleface?”

For 20th-century Americans, however, this ideal is neither aboriginal nor alien. He’s Johnny Weismuller, the Olympic swimmer whom MGM cast as the second cinema Tarzan (after the forgotten Elmo Lincoln).

Tarzan’s author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, conceived him as a suave English gent wearied by the pomp and pretense of high society. To cure his malaise, he trades in tweeds for loincloth and moves to the heart of darkness, where he might have languished forever as a pulp-fiction curiosity. Hollywood, however — with a keener grasp than Burroughs of le bon sauvage — stripped Tarzan’s Oxford veneer, reduced him to monosyllabic purity and rendered him as a foundling Romulus raised by gorillas.

Hollywood’s Tarzan transformation gave ordinary white folks, in a fiercely segregated world, a noble savage who looks like them and sounds even dumber. This flattering variation prevailed ’til the Tarzan franchise lost Weismuller, sank into B-movie farce and lost its mojo. Since then, no comparable icon has risen to take Tarzan’s place — ’til now.

Donald Trump has turned the myth topsy-turvy. Before the Trump epiphany, the sickly urbanite — stuffed with book-learning, lounging in his gazebo, sipping sherry and snuffling up organic arugula — was white. Now, suddenly, that yuppie snob stultified by civilization has emerged as a darkskinned poseur. He’s mocha-colored, Harvard-cured, condescending, politically correct and ludicrously out of touch with the silent and suffering but nobly ignorant and rurally pure masses…

… of white guys.

Donald Trump has cornered the market on romantic primitivism and roared — without irony — at the top of his lungs: “I love the poorly educated!” Trump has seen the savagery that infects men who’ve been displaced, confused and enraged by 21st-century globalism, and he’s declared it noble.

Rousseau’s “good wild man” is now the embittered workingman who can’t earn a living wage in the digital, cybernetic and multinational economy. Today, the noble savage is a jobless hardhat who stands gazing at a vast mothballed steel mill the way a Sioux brave once scowled forlornly at a great plain bereft of buffalo. The noble savage today is a smalltown big-box stocker with a wallet full of food stamps, shuffling past the Walmart-shuttered storefronts on Main Street. Like the native plainsman, today’s noble savage is blessed with resources no longer valued.

He was a warrior who, blindfolded, could assemble an M-16 in two minutes. But he’s been discharged. He has a GED in a Master’s-degree era. He’s a stand-up guy who, in a bygone paradise, could split a rail in one blow, shoe a horse, dress a hog, deliver a calf in a blizzard and shoot the feelers off a fly from a hundred yards.

And swing from tree to tree?

The noble savage, ca. 2016, doesn’t get Jane. He doesn’t even get introduced. It’s too cold to live in a tree. He can’t survive on bananas and coconuts. And the natives don’t like him any more than he likes them. Only Donald Trump —who needs the votes — thinks this chronic loser is any nobler than the next slob in the mob.

The noble savage, ca. 2016, isn’t Tarzan, but he might be Blackhawk.

Pushed westward by white civilization and denied the lands and game that had sustained his tribe for eons, the great Indian general waged a brilliant, futile war against a bungling but far more numerous U.S. militia. After his defeat, Blackhawk consented to a “goodwill tour.” His captors paraded him through Eastern cities, exhibiting him to gawking crowds, petty dignitaries and bigoted plutocrats as the essential, authentic noble savage. Everyone was magnanimous to Blackhawk, because they knew — better, and sooner, than he — that he was already extinct.

If you ask Dickens, he never existed at all.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#773)

… Real white of you
by David Benjamin

“You're a slave in your own country, White Man. Each year you get to keep less of the fruits of your labor; each year it gets more difficult to carry the burden the aliens have placed upon you; each year the cheap labor of aliens makes your future less secure…”
— George Lincoln Rockwell

MADISON, Wis. — In the aftermath of seven killings on the streets of America, our black spokespeople seem to be acquitting themselves so much more gracefully than their white counterparts.

While Donald Trump was channeling Richard Nixon with a nudge-wink proclamation about being “the law and order candidate,” and George W. Bush was issuing vague nostrums about our worst selves and our best intentions, black speakers were responding to tragedy with eloquence, indignation, complexity and solutions.

In a Dallas eulogy during which he chided all Americans for our indifference to bias and a high tolerance for violence, President Obama spoke healingly: “I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel. ‘I will give you a new heart,’ the Lord says, ‘and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.’ That’s what we must pray for, each of us. A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.”

Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown defined the deadly gap between cops and the urban community more clearly than most people have ever heard when he said, “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African-American community is being raised by single women. Let’s give it to the cops to solve that as well. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

Even a 15-year-old, Cameron Sterling, who had seen video of two Baton Rouge police officers pin his father, Alton Sterling, to the ground and pump him full of 9mm slugs, spoke gently of brotherhood and reconciliation. “I feel that people, no matter what the race, should come together as one united family,” said Cameron. “There should be no more arguments, disagreements, violence, crime. I feel that everyone, yes, you can protest… But protest in the right way — with peace, not violence.”

The kid has a point, but the kid’s black, swimming against a tide that has reinstated whiteness — the mere genetic absence of pigment — as an active political ideology. For a swelling swath of the electorate, being white is sufficient as a political identity. Neither Democratic nor Republican, Libertarian, Socialist or Green. Just…

…colorless.

Donald Trump, bless his tiny heart, has become the prophet for the national white people’s revival movement. Loyalists praise his willingness to “say what he thinks,” without regard to “political correctness.” But, really? I see a man more politically correct than Hillary or Bernie. If Trump were really saying what he thinks, candidly expressing the deep-dyed id of the nation’s aggrieved Caucasoids, he would come right out and roar, “Hey, I’m white and I’m entitled — because I. Am. White.”

(Yes, I understand that he’s not strictly white. Depending on foundation, blusher and lighting, he ranges from a sort of carbon-monoxide pink to an overripe apricot tone. But let’s not split hairs.)

Trump is not saying, “You people, my white followers, are better than all those Others — because You. Are. White.”

At Trump’s rallies, the microphones occasionally capture true believers spewing what they think and feel, words Trump still avoids because he’s trapped in the craven grip of political correctness. He has been caught using the “f” word but never the two syllables that would bring Trumpniks to their feet in ecstatic ovation. Trump says, ironically, “I love my protesters,” even as he urges the mob to beat them up. But what he means, and the  mob knows it and adores him for it, is: “I love my niggers.”

Followed, of course, by: “Get ‘em outa here!”

Although he’s still pulling that knockout blow, Donald Trump intuits how we working-class white males feel. Nobody knows the troubles we’ve seen. Along with the decline of an almost exclusively white middle-class America, white males have been ridiculed into absurdity by beer ads and the Farrelly Brothers. We’ve lost jobs, income, houses, opportunities, marriages and — if all those Cialis commercials are any indication — our very manhood. Our wives are using separate bathtubs.

We need someone to blame. We need to lash out. We need to throw a punch, ideally at someone who’s not looking. Our corner man? Trump.

The thing is, guys…

What’s been taken from us hasn’t gone to the dusky outcasts whom we’ve dumped into ghetto schools, redlined out of our neighborhoods and racially profiled into the biggest incarceration state in the history of the world. While we’ve been recently screwed, they’ve stayed screwed all along.

Face it, man. You can’t lose your job — and your career, your dignity and your erection — to a black guy who hasn’t been around to take it because he’s been in jail since he was 14. Or to a Muslim refugee languishing in an ICE detention cell. Or to a Mexican tomato-picker, a single mother, an unemployed teenager or even a Chinaman in Shenzhen. All these “losers” are even more impotent than you are.

That Chinaman didn’t pick up his marbles and move all U.S. computer manufacturing, all the mobile device making, every TV factory, all the shoemaking, garment-making and most of the steelmaking from the U.S.A. to sweatshop nations where 12-year-olds work for a dollar and a dime a day.  Patriotic, GOP-voting Americans did all that packing up and hauling ass. Big fat pink Americans — men who look a lot like Donald Trump, men know the secret handshake and play golf at the country clubs where the vast majority of us white guys can’t afford to even peek through the fence.

Talk about walls? Guys like Trump have been walling us off all our lives. Go ahead, Bubba — try trespassing at Turnberry. And don’t even think about applying for work there, or at Mar-A-Lago — not as long as there are dirt-poor Haitians, desperate Dominicans and H2-B temporary visas.

Donald Trump keeps telling white men we have enemies. He’s right. But he’s not pointing his stunted finger toward all the copper-toned upper-crusters like him who’ve taken the loot and bricked it up inside their gilded tax shelters. Trump is benevolently scattering at our feet the scraps, chicken bones, potato peels, fish heads and big promises that have always been the bounty of riffraff like us. If we ask, “Why so little?” he points warningly downward into the teeming depths.

He says, “Look out below.”

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#772)

Fix it, America
by David Benjamin

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.”
— Samuel Johnson

MADISON, Wis. — Sam Johnson’s observation on the nature of knowledge keeps coming back to me, sometimes unexpectedly. The latest occasion was a comment by Paul Krugman in the Times about the percentage of American jobs devoted to manufacturing.

Despite assertions by politicians about factories being the backbone of the U.S. economy, the actual share of jobs in skilled manufacturing at its peak never reached 30 percent. Krugman wrote, “To get some perspective: in 1979, on the eve of the great surge in inequality, manufacturing accounted for more than 20 percent of employment. In the 1960s it was more than 25 percent.”

In those ‘60s, when I was a kid, my maternal grandfather T.J. was a master plumber, a farmer and a smalltime land baron. My dad was a house painter, which he hated, and a bartender, which he loved too much. Mom, who had to get a job after she fled Dad, waited on tables, sold appliances and occasionally sat in the dark, smoking a cigarette and wondering where it all went wrong.

The closest we had to “manufacturing” among my extended family of soldiers, sailors, plumbers, barbers, barkeeps, butchers, hash-slingers, cobblers, mechanics, housewives, Avon ladies, traveling men and shitkickers was my grandpa, Archie, who worked at the Milwaukee Road frog shops.

A “frog,” in railroad parlance, is not an aquatic amphibian. It’s a huge mechanical slab that makes it possible for a train to shift course onto an alternate roadbed. A frog is an elegant piece of brute engineering that imposes order on the great railyards of the world, forming mighty, moveable laceworks of steel — shifting, clanking and screaming in concert — that turn gold in the angled glow at sunrise and aspire to art.

For a century, railroads recycled their worn switches in infernal blacksmith shops manned by machinists, where the reek of scorched iron and a fine mist of toxic steeldust floated from lung to lung. Archie put in 40 years at the frog shops, coming home every day blackfaced with soot. It took him ten minutes with pumice soap to scrub the grit and iron filings from the creases in his hands.

Archie never made anything new for the Milwaukee Road. He was a repairman. He belonged to a team who, in their small way, kept the vast flow of goods and people all over America trundling on its prosperous way.

Sometime around mid-century, railroads began closing repair shops and firing their human muscle, opting to discard their broken switches and busted turnouts. One by one, the railroads went broke. The Milwaukee Road shops, still operating in Tomah when Archie retired, are gone now. The railroad went belly-up in 1980 and the shops are now an empty space next to Highway 12.

Walk down any railbed in America today and you’ll find — quietly rusting among the ties and tracks — a small fortune in salvageable (or re-useable) spikes, switch handles, fishplates, rail joints, e-clips and other high-carbon sculptures, all turned to waste because America has stopped fixing things.

In Sam Johnson’s formulation, we’re depending solely on what we already know. We don’t look anything up or ask someone else. We’ve decided not to fix, or even acknowledge, the hole in our brain.

History teaches that the fixing of all the old things made before creates more jobs than the making did. Fixing things is beautiful work because it conveys to manmade objects an intimation of immortality. I know there are frogs out there, somewhere on the rotting railbeds between Chicago and the Pacific, that Archie reamed and cut, fitted, brazed, welded, ground, sanded and polished. Those frogs are still holding up, perhaps barely. But they’d hold up for another 50 years if there were a frog shop and a few proud machinists to bring them in and restore their blue-black fortitude.

When Archie got off work, he kept fixing things, at the pioneer bungalow on Pearl Street where Annie and he raised my dad, then me. When they moved in, their home had no basement. So Arch dug one, and put a new furnace down there, wore out that furnace and installed a new one. In 1928, he built a garage and laid a concrete path from house to garage to the little cold-water cottage at the bottom of the lot. He also planted a couple of blue spruces that grew 50 feet and toppled over in a gale, at which he planted two new ones. There were also a juniper, a maple and a birch that he dug up in the woods and hauled to Pearl Street— not to mention the honeysuckle bush, the willow and the bridal wreath, which I don’t know where they came from. He rebuilt my grandma’s kitchen, put in trellises, planted a rhubarb patch and graveled around the foundation so Annie could grow digitalis, violets, columbine and bachelor’s buttons.

Archie was, every day — at work, at home — repairing and rebuilding, upgrading, replenishing, embellishing. It was how he made his living and, mostly, how he spent it. The neighbors did the same — Tillie on the right, the Kimptons on the left, the Koniceks and Herdriches across the street. Anyone who let his upkeep slip was a bad neighbor.

I think of my grandfather, Arch, as a symbol — perhaps a hero — for an America that was always fixing things that broke, or oiling them, tightening them, smoothing and painting them before they had the chance to break. He knew that what you fix ahead of time will cost less than if you let it go to hell and have to buy a new one.

I wonder if we’ve become a nation throwing good stuff away before its time, not fixing things and not even looking around to see what needs fixing — a place where we’re all each other’s bad neighbor.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#771)

The roar of the grease stain,
the smell under the hood

by David Benjamin

“Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.”
                                                                                   — E. B. White

MADISON, Wis. — The presumptuous Republican presidential candidate styles himself as a man of the people, the buddy of the working class. But how can a guy call himself a populist if he’s never been an engine listener.

You know what I’m talkin’ about.

The first engine I had to seriously listen to, after I got my license, was Mom’s ’57 Plymouth. By then, it was eight years old and we called it “The Heap.” It creaked at every joint, burned oil lustily and whined in an off-key falsetto whenever it shifted gears. It died in a pothole so deep you could’ve filled it up and made a swimming pool.

The Heap was my mentor in engine-listening. Like every car I’ve ever driven, it was untrustworthy. Something could go haywire any second, and I wouldn’t know what was wrong or how to fix it. But most cars, if you cock an ear and pay them heed, will warn you a little while before they self-destruct. The phrase I’ve uttered most often while driving is: “What’s that sound?”

When it was “right,” The Heap’s engine had a certain sclerotic rhythm, rather like an emphysema victim hawking up a six-ounce loogie. Disgusting? Yes, but this was normal for The Heap and you knew you were probably going to make it to the store and back. But if the usual cacophony was suddenly augmented by a deathly rattle, a weird tweet or an ominous knocking, you broke into a cold sweat, offered up your angst to Jesus and just hoped you could finish the trip before the explosion.

And when I got home: “Mom, there’s a funny sound under the hood.”

“Oh my God!” Then, a wave of wracking financial sobs.

Smells also matter. Every old car stinks, but each one stinks in its own way. As long as the stench is familiar, this POS is gonna get there. New smells, however, spell new trouble.

My most spectacular concert of sound and odor occurred in Rosemary, the ’66 Ford Econoline van I drove in college. Rosemary’s engine was right inside the cab, under a steel hood between driver and passenger. Engine-listening in an Econoline was a course in automotive music appreciation. Every note and nuance played intimately into my right ear.

I knew well beforehand that Rosie’s radiator was riddled with cancer. I could hear its distress. I could smell the scorched metal in its overstrained coils. I could feel its stinging corrosion like an outbreak of prickly heat. But I couldn’t afford a new radiator. So I bought sealant and nursed Rosemary.

You know what I mean.

I sealed and nursed for months, until, well…

When she blew, it wasn’t loud. She just went, “Foom,” and the cab all around me was enveloped in a cloud of lime-green, eye-stinging, Prestone-flavored mist. It fogged my windshield within seconds, blinding me to the road, other cars, pedestrians. I could barely see the steering wheel. So, of course, I turned on my windshield wipers.

Peering intently, I could see— there they were — my wipers, whapping away pointlessly on the clean outside of the windshield. Eventually, I turned them off, stuck my head out the window and guided Rosemary to the curb, without killing anyone.

All this comes to mind because I’m looking for a new — I mean, used — car. My current heap is an ’01 Nissan Sentra named “Kek,” after the first letters in an old license plate. Kek still putters along, but her heater stinks, her AC is uncool and the CD player goes periodically into a pixillated frenzy before sinking into sullen silence. There’s also a three-year-old noise “underneath” that no car guy has ever figured out, and I recently had to hunt down the source of a violent clattering that emanated from my left-front wheel-well.

I mean, Kek runs. But I’m all the time listening and sniffing. She’s a teenager now and I don’t trust her. Well, I never did. No one should trust a car.

It’s not like getting a new (used) car is any sort of solution. My next car will be crammed with ticking time-bombs called ECUs, full of software that’s full of bugs that no one can see or predict — like fanged bacteria crawling around in every car’s retarded brain. But we need a car, so we’ll end up picking one.

We just won’t trust it.

Which brings me back around to the GOP nominee, who in his whole silver-spoon life has never listened to an engine. He doesn’t even know there’s anything to listen for. The only smells he can possibly associate with a car are the fine tang of rich Corinthian leather, the ambience of spilled champagne and the scent of (a lot of) women. He has no idea how it hits your nose when a loose tuft of insulation makes contact with a heating coil.

I do. You do.

He doesn’t. He’s spent his life sealed inside a sound-proof climate-controlled mobile boudoir. He lets his chauffeur do the engine-listening, but doesn’t know he’s doing it. His pink, baby-soft, manicured hands have never unscrewed a drain plug, popped a distributor cap, jiggled a battery terminal, loosened a lug nut, wired up a dying muffler or used a crescent wrench to close a circuit in the engine block when the starter’s on the fritz.

I have. You have.

Nor has he ever been in a car that’s thrown a rod at 75 on the Interstate. Never looked into the rearview mirror to behold a vast rooster-tail of mysterious smoke, stained red by the taillights. Never walked six miles down the shoulder of a dark backroad looking for an open gas station. Never looked down to see the blacktop going by through the holes in the floorboards.

I have, you have. We all have.

But not him. Ever.

Do you really think you can trust a guy who trusts his car?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#770)

The NRA’s worst nightmare
by David Benjamin

“The Bible says that homosexuals should be put to death… Obviously, it’s not right for somebody to just, you know, shoot up the place…  these people all should have been killed, anyway, but they should have been killed through the proper channels…”
Pastor Steven Anderson, Faithful Word Baptist Church, 14 June

NEW YORK CITY, Nov. 1, 2016 — The mass slaughter that took place yesterday at the nation’s largest pet shop appears to have decisively shifted the long-stalemated gun control debate in the United States.

On a peaceful, festive Halloween afternoon in Manhattan, a heavily armed gunman — later identified as Akhmed B. “Benny” Bemish of Hauser Street, Queens — burst into the vast, multi-floor Pet World emporium on 2nd Avenue, and opened fire. Horrifically, the madman seemed determined to target puppies and kittens. He bypassed, for example, the cockatoos and parrots who began screaming and uttering strings of obscenities, and such larger, less cuddly targets as boa constrictors and ostriches.

This atrocity took the lives of 63 adorable puppies and mewing kittens before NYPD Tactical Police were able to storm Pet World and blow Bemish to Kingdom Come. Since then, the backlash has been overwhelming. Some of the Second Amendment’s most stalwart defenders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are admittedly reconsidering their position on personal ownership of combat weapons like the .50-caliber Beowulf assault rifle now made infamous by the Bemish rampage.

“Sen. McConnell,” said a spokesman, “is heartsick. As you know, he’s a great dog-lover who often hunts with his coonhounds, Old Blue and Bingo, in the Kentucky woods. He believes deeply in everyone’s right to charge into the natural world and shoot almost anything that moves. But in light of this outrage committed by a twisted freak against the very essence of innocence, the Senator has decided that thoughts and prayers are a piss-poor response.”

The scene at Pet World, according to witnesses, was nauseating. One employee described an infant Dalmatian ripped to shreds, and peke-a-poo pups riddled beyond recognition. “If you’ve never seen a little-bitty baby Bichon Frisé lying in a pool of gore, with no head — just a sticky ball of bloodsoaked fur — you have no concept of true horror. I’ll never be able to sleep again,” she said.

A policeman at the scene, later identified as Sgt. Waldo Hoople, burst from the store white-faced and weeping. Fellow police were unable to stop him from leaping into his cruiser. He sped away, lights flashing, siren screaming. Asked where he had gone, a patrolman said, “Where’d he go? Home, of course. He had to hug his rottweiler.”

Indeed, dog and cat lovers everywhere are holding their pets just a little closer in the aftermath of this unspeakable act of anti-animal animus. Commentators are comparing it to the 9/11 attacks and Hitler’s Final Solution. “Only worse,” said a tourist in Times Square, visiting from Wichita. “These little snuggle-pusses had no idea what was going on,” she said. “But the Jews saw Nazis all over the place. They had to figure their number was up.”

Within hours of the tragedy, which also claimed the lives of three Pet World employees, a bipartisan Congressional coalition had drafted bills to tighten background checks. Their proposals could also end the so-called gun-show loophole, massively increase the budget for mental health intervention, and ban blind people with seeing-eye dogs from carrying firearms.

The Pet World holocaust, during which furious police pumped more than 400 rounds into the lifeless body of Akhmed Bemish, drew no immediate comment from the NRA. But late today, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre warned against overreaction and leveled his fire at Bemish’s furry victims.

“Until we gain some control over the pets that infest and threaten our very way of life, incidents like this are inevitable,” said LaPierre. “These unhealthy creatures crap on our sidewalks and pee on our shoes. They bark all night, they shed all over the furniture, they track mud into the kitchen and they fill our lungs with cat dander. Hey, and don’t even get me started on fleas!”

Despite the NRA’s pleas for sanity, the entire nation is searching its conscience. Both ordinary people and experts on the psychology of extremist violence wonder how society could have sunk so low that it could cheapen the life of, for example, a four-week-old Pet World cocker spaniel named Poodgy, who sat helpless in a wire cage while a lunatic with a machine-gun ran amok. Poodgy perished in a hail of gunfire.

“Americans are among the most resilient folks on earth,” said Dr. Garrett Huxley, Chief Shrink at the world-renowned Bismarck Institute of Bad Behavior Studies. “We have an incredibly high tolerance for senseless violence.”

Huxley explained, “We can deal emotionally, say, with Elliot Rodger blasting four or five stuck-up sorority girls in Santa Barbara. In a way, we understand, because everyone’s been rejected by a member of the opposite sex. Likewise, we understand Jared Loughner going after Gabby Giffords because, really, who doesn’t despise politicians, especially Democrats? Likewise, we can easily see why a racist kid like Dylann Roof would shoot up a church full of black people, or why Omar Mateen would need to purge his latent homosexuality by gunning a bloody path through a gay nightclub. We can even feel a pang of sympathy for Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer. Sure, we all like kids, but have you ever seen one throw a tantrum at the shopping mall? You wanna strangle the rotten little moznik.”

But Dr. Huxley added that, even in America, where guns are the foremost icon of our historic victory over the redcoats, the Indians and the Clanton gang, there must be a limit. “Guns everywhere, for everyone, yes. Concealed and open carry, why not? Guns in schools, guns in bars, guns in crowded theaters, guns at Trump rallies, guns in the Mormon Tabernacle, assault weapons in nursery schools, okay, fine. But , but — ”

Here, the previously cool, collected psychologist welled with tears.

“But puppies? And kittens?! My God! The humanity!”

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#769)

The universal kitchen table
by David Benjamin

“Out of the kitchen, to stew is to fret, to worry, to agitate. In the kitchen, however, to stew is to have great expectations”
                                                — Molly O’Neill

PARIS — In another life, with another wife, my in-laws were Ralph and Edie, who lived above a store in Jamaica Plain, in a neighborhood — just up the street from the notorious Bromley-Heath housing project — that the Times nowadays would euphemize as “gritty, “ or maybe “sketchy.” You went to sleep there — if you kept a window open — to a concert of drunken outcry, breaking glass and the odd, distant gunshot (or backfire, cherry bomb, who knew?).

With four kids in various states of high-decibel metamorphosis and no time for housekeeping, Ralph and Edie’s place had the feel of a bivouac for transient combatants just behind the lines of an endless, low-scale war that no man, recalling the words of Tim Buckley, could find. Hanging out there took some getting used to, especially with the occasional roar that emanated from Louie’s room.

Louie was Edie’s dad, an ancient shut-in — scrawny, disheveled, hard-of-hearing and cantankerous, a fearsome figure who inspired no fear because Edie’s kids were tough as nails and ironic about Louie’s ravings. He was this family’s version of the crazy aunt in the attic.

At Ralph and Edie’s, one learned to tiptoe through the chaos, the inert bodies — kids, their friends, total strangers — strewn among the strewn shoes, unfolded laundry and empty containers — toward the kitchen, a brightly lit oasis where the grownups gathered, Ralph and Edie, Uncle Richie and Aunt Mary, Mrs. Cody from down the street, anyone else who happened by. This was a stationary but a moveable company. The kitchen was no more orderly than the rest of the second-floor sprawl, but its rude bounty was dependable. It was where troubles were aired, problems parsed, reality explained and sighed over, and a ray of hope — occasionally — shone briefly before fading into resignation. All this happened in an air of rough congeniality, thanks to Edie’s boundless love and Ralph’s air of priestly forgiveness.

The table was too big. It took up most of the kitchen. It was scratched, scarred and always a little greasy. When food appeared — this happened steadily without much regard to the concept of mealtime — things had to be moved among the table’s clutter — ketchup, mustard, mayo, bottles, books, toys and playing cards, dirty dishes, hats, gloves, pants, mail, the Globe, the Herald-American or the Phoenix — to make room for clean plates, cups and silverware. But room was made. And over victuals — Edie’s meat, potatoes and boiled-to-death vegetables or Ralph’s vast platter of chicken wings in sticky orange sauce — the world would circulate around the table, plucked, picked at, poked and examined in terms both simple and profound. Here was a kitchen table, a platform bounteous and boisterous, in the great tradition of the kitchen table.

I thought of Edie’s kitchen here last week. My latest wife, Hotlips, and I fled the Paris downpour into a favorite haunt, Le Roi du Pot Au Feu. Immediately, we understood that our reservation had been unnecessary. Here was not so much a restaurant as an oversized kitchen with a few partitions and better hygiene than Edie ever managed in her whole life. Here was a place that could be transplanted, lock, stockpot and wine barrel, to the semi-mean streets of Jamaica Plain. Our host was Ralphlike, easily warm but not effusive, quickly getting us off our feet and into a corner with a red checkered tablecloth and the wine already uncorked and waiting — which he poured almost as quickly as I looked at the bottle.

No wine list, no menu. Our host said, “Le pot au feu?” We said, “Bien sur,” and that was that. Quickly appeared a bowl of clear soup and soon after, the pot au feu, a boiled beef dinner piled with leeks, potatoes, carrots and turnips, accompanied by a chunk of shankbone, its marrow (os a moelle) intact. There is no three-dog-night meal in Paris homier than Le Roi’s beef stew. It provides comfort true to Ralph and Edie’s kitchen, complete with the gentle ministrations of a host who seems to have known us since we were kids off the street dragged upstairs by Patty, or Lisa or little Ralph. The kitchen-table feel of the joint only gets cozier as we listen to the staff arguing over our heads and a shifting cast of characters passes through, nudging us, ignoring us while glancing at us in casual measurement — as we do them.

And then Louie arrives — not the muppet grouch from upstairs in J.P. This grandfather, pronounced “Louie” but spelled “Louis,” is entirely French, quiet and decorous — only similar in age and frailty.

Our hostess has to help him to the table across from us. His skin is papery, his hair wispy. He sighs heavily as he sits, the exertion of his journey visible in the vein that throbs on his temple. He whispers his order, soup simply and os a moelle, three chunks of shankbone with hot marrow and toasted bread, a calorie explosion that poses no danger of adding an ounce to his scant and willowy frame.

He is dressed beautifully, in a dark suit of vintage provenance, immaculately laundered, freshly pressed and buttoned down. His tie is plain and dark against a white shirt, with cufflinks. He’s a Parisian of the old school. He has never worn this suit with a colored shirt — not even a subtle pinstripe — in his life. Nor will he ever. He has never set foot on the street with a scuffed shoe, or a naked breast-pocket.

We observe him askance, cautious not to intrude. We fall a little bit in love, because Louis carries us back to an elegant epoch when even a beef-stew dinner — in a menuless bistro with nameless wine and the din of curse and clatter from the plongeurs in the kitchen — required a suit-and-tie, an air of genial dignity and a handshake from an avuncular maitre d’ in a soiled apron.

Across the aisle from this stubbornly proper grand-père, we toast the wife whom he has unwillingly outlived and feel at home with him and with our host and hostess, the Ralph and Edie of rue Vignon. And we settle a little deeper into the kitchen table that makes the world go ‘round.