Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Weekly Screed (#847)

Talking the talk is not enough
by David Benjamin

The family of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., has asked Americans to honor the slain civil-rights leader on his birthday by some act of public service. My gesture this year consists of a letter, mailed on 15 January, to Congresswoman Mia Love (R-Utah) who has both protested by her words and enabled by her political complicity the naked racism of the current Oval Office occupant.

Dear Congresswoman Love:

I’m writing to suggest, in all humility, that there is no place for you in the Republican Party. You do not belong because you are a Haitian-American. You do not belong because you are a black woman. You do not belong, simply and irrefutably, because of the color of your skin.

I say this despite the eloquence, bravery and alacrity of your response to a president of your party who last week profanely condemned, out of racial animus, your nation, your heritage and the brothers and sisters of your race.

You said — and I record this because it deserves to be remembered and repeated: “The President’s comments are unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values. This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation. My parents came from one of those countries but proudly took an oath of allegiance to the United States and took on the responsibilities of everything that being a citizen comes with. They never took a thing from our federal government. They worked hard, paid taxes, and rose from nothing to take care of and provide opportunities for their children. They taught their children to do the same. That’s the American Dream. The President must apologize to both the American people and the nations he so wantonly maligned.”

It took other members of your party — the white males — much longer to react to the President’s tantrum. Your answer was immediate, heartfelt, vehement and entirely appropriate.

But it’s not enough.

When I was growing up, in a reliably Democratic-voting family, I had good reason — if I knew better — to be ashamed of my family’s political loyalties. The Democratic Party in those days harbored a coterie of Southern bigots who — although supportive of the New Deal’s social progressivism — clung to a vicious and pervasive system of uniquely American racism. For a century after the Civil War, Southern Democrats wrote and enshrined Jim Crow laws, turned a blind eye to the lynch mobs who enforced those laws, and formed a united front to obstruct efforts by their fellow Democrats — and most Republicans — to remove the de jure and de facto tentacles of apartheid in America.

However, at a time when I was coming of age in politics, learning its mores and nuances, I watched as one of those Southern Democrats, President Lyndon B. Johnson, change everything. LBJ contrived — at peril to the electoral future of his party — to heal forevermore the racial schizophrenia of the Democratic Party.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, forced through Congress by the implacable will of President Johnson, placed the Democratic Party firmly and finally on the side of justice and equality. I hasten to admit that the Democratic Party has hardly been consistent or vigorous in its commitment to racial justice. Black Americans have continue to have grievances with a political party for whom they vote overwhelmingly. They stick to the Democrats because in almost every election, their opponents offer no credible choice whatsoever. But I’m consoled by the knowledge that the Democratic Party offers no refuge, nor even a toehold, for the white supremacists, neo-Nazis and resurgent Klansmen who have always infested our body politic.

The same caveat has not applied to the Republican Party for fifty years. A half-century of institutional racism in the GOP began when candidate Richard Nixon’s pandered to white race hatred with his so-called — and successful — “Southern strategy” in 1968. This pattern has waxed and waned, but it was never abandoned by a GOP that often treated unspoken racism as a means to its ends. It sank to new depths with Trump’s slanders against Mexicans, black neighborhoods, Muslim gold-star families and non-white “shithole” countries.

Trump’s racism is not, as many commentators — Republicans among them — have made clear, unique to him. It is an institution. Trump serves merely as the Republican Party’s white-pride orange-coiffed apotheosis.

He hates you, Congresswoman Love, because you are black.

There is ample evidence of the GOP’s acquiescence to the tribal racism upon which it has come to depend in an increasingly multicultural United States. The most telling recent example is the pusillanimous reaction to Trump’s inflammatory insults to Africa, Haiti and, yes, Norway, by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Embarrassed again by the bigot in the White House, the Speaker could only characterize Trump’s racist taunts as “unfortunate” and “unhelpful.” A few days later, Dr. Ben Carson, Trump’s only black Cabinet member, reprised Ryan’s chickenheartedness by standing before a black audience on the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and noted that Trump’s vile words were “not helpful.”

Need I point out the political implications of the repeated term “helpful,” in that it refers not to the moral depravity of Trump’s outrage but to its potential effect on Republican electoral prospects?

I understand that it’s the prime directive of every elected official to get re-elected, to stay in office on behalf of your constituents. You must make the demeaning sacrifices and accept the compromises that make re-election more likely.

But today, Congresswoman, you risk clinging to your position at the price of your soul, to the detriment of your people — black Americans, Haitian-Americans, the black and white people who live in every “shithole” derided by Trump, and of the people of America from coast to coast who have come here from every corner of the earth, inspired by the words of Emma Lazarus:

“… Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Your duty, if you truly believe in that golden door, is to shed your loyalty to a political party which, for your lifetime, has shown no allegiance to you, to your people, or to the magnificent contributions that black and Haitian-Americans have made — with precious little recompense — to the nation’s culture.

You owe it to your constituents and to your conscience to show that your courage goes beyond words. You owe it yourself to walk away from a Republican Party that has sold its soul to white nationalism, a morally bankrupt fraternity of old white men that refuses to reject the racism in its midst and the racist vulgarian in the White House.

It’s relevant to note that hundreds of Democratic elected officials and millions of white Democrats left their Party after passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act. They did so in the cause of racism. You have the opportunity to take the same step in reverse, in the cause of racial justice.

The Democratic Party would, I suspect, welcome you. I like to think that even the Republican voters of Utah would be willing to overlook your new party affiliation and reward you for your  extraordinary integrity — a miracle, indeed, of strange device among this sorry generation of spineless Republicans.

If not, if joining the loyal opposition results in the surrender of your sinecure in Congress — as a victim of Trumpist racism — you would truly lose nothing more than the company of scoundrels.


Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Weekly Screed (#846)

Ou sont les gadgets d’antan?
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — We came to know him as Franky the Hawk but he was actually a peregrine falcon. He used to visit our bird feeder in California, looking for breakfast.

He always got served.

Whenever Franky flew in, I halted my labors to watch life and death unfold in our driveway. As hawkshadow passed over the feeder, all the sparrows, finches and towhees bickering there would cheezit into a big bush beside the drive, whose branches were too dense for Franky to penetrate.

A patient raptor, Franky would light on the fence above his avian buffet and wait. He knew that, in a minute or so, an impetuous sparrow or foolhardy finch would make a dash for freedom. When that happened, whoa!

I never really saw Franky nail Tweety. There would be a darting flutter from the heart of the bush, at which Franky became a blur flashing toward the fated fugitive. Falcon and quarry would struggle fleetingly, not for a full second, on the driveway. The mad chirping in the bush, suddenly, went silent. On the ground, perhaps a spot of blood or a lost feather. Then, whoosh. Gone.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been awed by my encounters with falcons, snakes, sphinx moths, trees in bloom, frogs in heat, great blue herons in the mist and loons crooning eerily across the lake at dawn. Surprises like this — a  black racer that exploded beneath my Keds and streamed in sinuous zigzag through a sea of bluestem, timothy and Indiangrass, while I chased hopelessly — have fired my curiosity and inspired my imagination. Under my breath, I say stuff  like “Oh my God,” or “Holy shit,” or simply, “Wow.”

This week I found myself remembering Franky the Hawk — and the liquefaction of his strike — while attending, as I do annually, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the greatest gadgetfest on earth. I inched amongst the throngs, who jostle wide-eyed along endless aisles of temporary carpet, their sanity assaulted by a tin-roof roar of Orwellian synthemuzak and the relentless Roy G. Biv strobing of a hundred thousand epileptic diodes. Amidst it all, I overheard them — as they caressed the screens, leered transfixed at ultra-HD 3-D demos and timidly fondled a thousand dazzling prototypes: “Oh my God!” “Holy shit, Bob!” “Wow!”

And of course, “Cooooooool!”

I wonder, am I jaded — to never be as thrilled with a Bluetooth-activated, deep-learning equipped, robotic orgasmatron as I am with the thought of a hundred-mile coral reef formed inch-by-inch over millenia by polyps no larger than a pinhead? Or am I a Luddite so hidebound that I cannot appreciate even the most ingenious of technological innovations?

I hope perhaps neither. After all, I’ve been writing dutifully — with some measure of competence — about gadgets for (oh my God) more than thirty years. I even ghostwrote a book about inventions. I found many of those breakthroughs (Arthur Jones’ Nautilus machine, Yuma Shiraishi’s VHS video format, Godfrey Hounsfield’s discoveries in computerized tomography) downright gripping. Even cool. Inventions make great stories.

And there are gadgets I love. My first sight of a Linotype machine almost got a “wow!” out of me. It’s a towering Rube Goldberg maze of levers, pivots, nuts, bolts, wheels, chutes and rods that somehow turns the manual tapping of a qwertyuiop keyboard into a flow of molten lead that trickles into narrow steel molds which — once it’s cooled — becomes row upon row of “hot type,” a wonderful term that evokes the frenzy of legwork, cajoling and reporting, editing and argument that turns into news. Smearing ink on those perishable strips of hot type demands a companion technology that changed the arc of civilization the day Johannes Gutenberg thought it up.

Trouble is, the mechanical miracle of the Linotype had already faded before I first beheld it 40 years ago. Now, you need a museum to see one, and there is likely not a living typist who knows how to squeeze from it even a single quick brown fox. As for Gutenberg, one of the coldblooded neo-shibboleths of the 21st century goes, “Print is dead.”

Therein, however, lies one of my misgivings about high technology. It doesn’t stick around long enough to love. Most gadgets, from storage media (remember cassettes?) to operating systems (o Unix, o mores!), are not merely supplanted sequentially by newer versions. They’re erased from the very history of technology by creators whose voracious revenue stream demands an endless cycle of mandatory “upgrades.”

“Consumers” are consumed by gadgets that do stuff we don’t particularly want gadgets — or anyone — to do. Until today, billions of people have lived and died on Earth without once being informed, constantly and involuntarily, of their heart rate. I met a nice Frenchman at CES who was promoting an interactive, wireless, ergonomic “smart” wine storage system. Who asked for that? Who ever said we need a rack that talks back?

Among the signal successes of techno-progress are the myriad gadgets that do things worse than they were done before, and don’t last as long. For example, your classic black Western Electric bakelite telephone wired into the grid still works better, comes through more clearly, covers more territory (all of it, actually) and tolerates more abuse than any smartphone will hope to do for the next 50 years. Remember the scene in The Day After Tomorrow when the only phone that worked in all of Manhattan was a landline pay phone on the mezzanine level of the New York Public Library?

Consider, for another example, a pre-ECU Ford F-150 pickup truck.

This Ford — let’s say the ’75 model — starts up when you want it to, turns off when you kill the engine and goes where you steer. It’s easy to fix with a standard toolbox and you don’t have to know a lot about either auto mechanics or computer diagnostics to fix it. At worst, all you need to know is a guy, in greasy coveralls, named Jeff or Kenny. A ’75 F-150 will never, ever, be obsolete. Chances are, you’ll die before it does.

The same won’t apply to the 2020 F-150, which Ford is billing as a “computer on wheels.” It’ll offer lots more functions, many of which the truck will take over from you (whether you want it to or not).  “Under the hood,” there’s already more stuff to go haywire than either you, Jeff or poor dumb Kenny is gonna know how to fix. A new “suite” of integrated ECs will make this once-humble truck so digitally sophisticated that it will be serially obsolete on a more or less annual schedule — unless, of course, you believe the Elon Musk fairy tale of free, “seamless” over-the-air software upgrades  beamed directly from a cosmologic cloud into the brains of your Ford.

Used to be, you got a Ford pickup and you could drive that heap ’til the floor rusted out from under you, or it got totaled by a drunk yuppie in a Land Rover. The new models won’t last that long — which is the point. Because tech gurus like Musk and Huang need constant technological churn to keep the revenue flowing and their mystique alive, we’ll never again see a gadget as faithful and sturdy as a ’75 F-150.

Speaking of lifespans, I looked it up. Peregrines live about 13 years, or about twice as long as your typical Mac. But there are are quahogs older than the United States. And up on the timberline, the bristlecones have been subtly photosynthesizing sunlight — without even an a occasional tune-up by Jeff or Kenny — since 3,000 years before the Immaculate Conception.

Maybe it’s just me, but that — I think — is, like, Oh my God.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Weekly Screed (#845)

Plus ça change…
by David Benjamin

“In the noisy aftermath of babble and talk and jokes and laughter, the junior Senator from Wyoming exchanged a look of open hostility with the senior Senator from Utah; the senior Senator from South Carolina, looking as sleepy and somnolent as before, gave one small chuckle and slapped the Majority Leader on the knee; the senior Senator from Illinois shook his head pityingly at the senior Senator from Minnesota, who pursed his lips and looked sadly disapproving; and the Majority Leader bowed with a grateful grin to the Vice President, who smiled with satisfaction in return.”
                       — Allen Drury, Advise and Consent

MADISON, Wis. — One of the forces that hooked me for life on politics was Allen Drury’s now-classic novel of Washington intrigue, Advise and Consent, whose 1962 film version popped up the other night on TV.

Watching the movie, I was initially amazed by how little the U.S. Senate has changed in some 60 years. Today, as in the 1950s, the Senate is composed almost entirely of rich white males. In the film, only two girl senators — one played by a shockingly youthful Betty White — are in evidence. I also glimpsed a Hawaiian senator who was maybe half-Japanese. Otherwise, the U.S. Senate features no one darker than a venti skinny vanilla latte.

But as the story wore on, I detected deviations from the current code of Capitol Hill protocol. The line twixt the two political parties is fuzzier in Drury’s depiction than it is now. Although the differences are evident, the words “Democrat” and “Republican” never cross the characters’ lips.

Certainly, the sides were neither so far apart in 1959 — nor were they as tribally polarized — as today they are. Drury’s senators are collegial and cordial, kidding one another from desk to desk, sparring amiably over policy differences and gliding, after hours, into a D.C. social whirl in which they  wear matching tuxedos, attend the same parties and hold manly all-night bipartisan smokers, complete with poker, whiskey, cigars and a little elegant mediation provided by the casually breathtaking Gene Tierney.

There are, of course, antagonists, else there would be no plot. Foremost among them is Sen. Seabright Cooley, an atavist curmudgeon from the Jim Crow South who’s a sort of cross between Dixiecrat firebrand Strom Thurmond — who served for two generations at the Senate’s beacon of race hatred — and the more subdued and courtly Albert Gore. Charles Laughton portrays Cooley in a rumpled linen suit with a sly drawl that suggests he was having more fun than anyone else in the movie.

Cooley’s nemesis is a Wyoming liberal (oxymoron alert!) named Fred Van Ackerman, played with vulpine intensity by George Grizzard. Together, they serve to highlight the story’s two maguffins: Commies and homos.

The Commie is Robert Leffingwell, nominated by the president to be Secretary of State. In the face of red-baiting suspicion from Cooley and his cohorts, Henry Fonda plays the part with an air of cool forebearance. Fonda also gets the best line of the movie, an ironic jab at the timeless anti-intellectualism of the American right wing. To update the quote, just substitute the word “elitist” for “egghead.”

Responding to an inquisitor who suggests that Leffingwell is too brainy for his own good, Fonda agrees: “I’m not only an egghead, I’m a premeditated egghead. I set out to become an egghead and at this moment I’m in full flower of eggheadedness, and I hope to spread the spores of egghead everywhere I go.”

Leffingwell’s sense of humor doesn’t help. America in the ’50s was enthralled by a mirthless terror of Russia and its insidious Communist dogma. Leffingwell’s nomination is stalled when the committee learns that he hung out with a Red named Bukowski when he was in college at the notoriously pink University of Chicago.

That was then: The Republican Party was the vanguard of anti-Russianism. It sent forth, in full roar,  America’s most ferocious red-baiters, from Tailgunner Joe and Tricky Dick to Pat Buchanan and the Gipper.

And this is now: Instead of waving blacklists, pounding gavels and grilling anyone who ever ordered a Black Russian at the Bistro Bis, all the president’s men are kool with the Kremlin. The president himself has brown-nosed and thumb-wrestled with a Russkie named Putin who not only made his living as a Soviet spy but, before taking over as czar of all Russia, served as capo di tutti capi of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti.

Every tragedy needs a Hamlet. In Advise and Consent, it’s Utah Sen. Brigham Anderson (Don Murray), a buttoned-down Mormon with a frigid wife. Brig unearths the full Marxist dossier on Leffingwell. As he’s preparing — reluctantly — to spill, he fends off pressure to cover it all up from his liberal colleagues, and even from the president. But Brig crumbles when Van Ackerman threatens to expose what happened during the war, in Honolulu, where Brig was lonely and lovelorn and had this bunkmate…

The skeleton in Brig’s closet is so unspeakable that the film never utters its name. However, we get to follow a desperate Brig to a dim-lit cellar in Greenwich Village where stereotypes in tight mauve t-shirts sit close at tiny tables, holding hands, listening to Jimmy Scott, smoking French cigarettes and drinking pastel cocktails with ingredients like creme de menthe and Dubonnet. The anguished senator finds Ray, his GI buddy — blond and lovely with perfect hair — and realizes that the jig is up.

Brig, of course, is obliged by the mores of both society and Doubleday in the 1950s, to kill himself, which he accomplishes by jabbing his jugular in the toilet. This leads to a dramatic dénouement, which I won’t ruin for you. You should read the book. It’s a humdinger.

Again, what a difference. Today, Allen Drury would not feel obliged — lest he lose his Reader’s Digest condensation and the Book of the Month — to kill off poor, torn Brig. Who among current-day senators — or voters — would care? Nowadays, my own senator is “openly gay.” Same-sex marriage is rampant in the land and transgender folks are welcome — according to a broad national consensus — to use any john where they feel comfortable.

Except, well…

We have this president whose “base” is America’s last bastion of homophobic panic. Last year, Trump issued orders to purge transgender GIs from every barracks in the republic. Right around Christmas, he suddenly fired the entire membership of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, which monitors the health of 1.2 million people affected by HIV. Gay people, who've read the handwriting faster than the rest of us, are nervous.

If Allen Drury were with us today, he’d also be nervous, because Brig’s suicide might not seem credible to a hip 21st-century readership. He’d need to craft a slight revision toward the end — something like this:

Instead of the humble and cerebral Harley Hudson, the VP is a fanatic homophobe named Mike who has spent most of his career writing laws that protect Christian shopkeepers from having to wait on dykes, fags, trannies, hippies, infidels and atheists. Horrified by the imminent danger that Brig Anderson — a Mormon blasphemer besides being queer! — might impose his homosexual lifestyle upon every innocent child of every senator, Mike strikes a blow for purity. First thing, he disbands the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and sends all those diseased fags back to the bathhouse where they belong. Then, he follows Brig into the Senate Men’s Room. As Brig unwittingly unzips, Mike unsheaths a razor blade…

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#844)

Colder than a catlicker’s nose
by David Benjamin

“We strongly encourage all New Yorkers to stay inside as much as possible… as the cold weather continues. Check on neighbors when you can and bring your pets inside.”
          — Mayor Bill De Blasio, New York City,  temp. 19° F

“That’s winter in Wisconsin. It’s nothing really out of the ordinary.”
      — Steve Grenier, Public Works Director, Green Bay, temp 0° F

MADISON, Wis. — It warmed up a little around here today. I could tell by the time it took my mustache to freeze.

Before facial hair, when I was a schoolboy at St. Mary’s (the public-school kids across the street called us “catlickers” — clever, huh?), I used my nose to test the cold. I’d wrinkle it, then feel for how long it took to unwrinkle. Once in a while, it just sort of turned into a misshapen icicle above my upper lip and wouldn’t wrinkle at all. That’s when I knew it was time to get back indoors.

This morning, the national weather issued dire winter warnings, as though folks can’t tell it’s cold outside without an app that says so.

(Science quiz: At what temperature does a smartphone freeze?)

Hereabouts, we take a frigid few months stoically. We have to. Our outlook inhabits our faces, not just noses and mustaches, but frosted eyebrows and mouths, especially mouths. We tend to converse in a laconic, tightlipped mumble (Wisconics) whose practical purpose is to shield your teeth — lest they freeze — from the prevailing 30 mph northerly wind.

Mounted on the only hill in town, St, Mary’s was, of course, exposed to the wind. The jet stream, hurrying as though late for Mass, swept unimpeded over our naked playground from origins somewhere north of Howling Dog, Alaska. We greeted it at recess. Three times a day, our teachers tossed us into the jaws of the Yukon. Recess was their blessed respite. One of us would have to die before they gave it up.

Most days — above zero — were warm enough for us to play two-line soccer on a field of hard-packed snow, or icy enough to slide downhill, lose our balance, fly backwards and crack our skulls. Now and then, this occasioned a little bloodshed and the odd subdural hematoma, for which the school nurse’s universal treatment was a Band-Aid. When the cold dipped into double-minus digits, however, the urge for childish frolics withered. Then, we just huddled, like penguins at the Pole. Our only shelter was a set of monkey bars, which did nothing but stoke our sense of irony. If the gale raking the hilltop was fierce enough, you could hear the frost-rimed steel pipes softly humming, like a ghostly chorus of dead sled dogs.

Last night on television, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar mentioned that the temperature in International Falls had hit minus-35. There was a note of macho pride in her voice.

This I understood. I remember 35-below here, one crisp day in January, at the corner of Simpson Street and Hoboken Road, where a dozen kids convened every morning to wait for our school bus.

Back then, no one thought of closing schools just because it was cold out. Half of our parents had grown up in farmhouses whose only heat was a Franklin stove in the kitchen and the bathroom was a one-hole privy, ten icy yards from the backporch.

On the day it hit minus-35, the air was strangely lucid and slightly tinged with a sort of glacial blue. Somewhere — maybe on the next block, maybe a half-mile yonder — someone dropped a set of car keys. The sound jarred on my eardrums. When it’s that cold, sound carries forever. We all listened to the plight of a dog, pushed out the door to pee, whining pathetically — his voice so clear that he might have been shivering beside me. Soon, the dog was barking in painful bursts and we — all of us at the bus stop — cringed in frigid suspense ’til he was let back indoors. Or died.

We’ll never know which.

We were all underdressed. The contemporary fabrics — orlon, canvas, nylon pile, one-ply wool — were ill-suited to an Arctic blast of this ferocity. So, we huddled, clenched and stomped, hoping that our bus driver had gotten the engine to turn over.

Getting the engine to turn over was my version of Jack London’s campfire. On days when Mom was due early at Clyde’s, where she sold appliances, I was the kid designated to “warm up” our car, a ’61 Fairlane that Keener, one of my friends, had nicknamed the Brown Bomb.

The Brown Bomb didn’t have a manual choke. Hence, turning her over at any temperature below 10° required a combination of surgical finesse on the gas pedal and the unlikely intercession of a capricious God who felt no compunction against freezing me to death in my mother’s driver’s seat.

I should have worn my coat to fire up the car, but why bother? It offered no protection where I needed it. The Brown Bomb’s seat covers were vinyl, a space-age synthetic that always seemed to me, on cold days, colder than everything else. Before I could even think about igniting the reluctant Fairlane’s ill-maintained six cylinders, I had to squeeze behind the wheel on frozen vinyl that crackled angrily at my intrusion and streamed icy daggers up my ass and into my bones.

By trial and error, over two or three winters, I had learned how to caress her accelerator with my right foot while gingerly trickling quarter-teaspoons of cold-thickened gas into the Brown Bomb’s slutty carburetor. I observed the etiquette of teasing her starter at various durations, a bare second at first, then a little longer, but never — ever — grinding it. The Bomb’s feeble battery had a life force more tenuous than a geriatric hummingbird’s. On good days, if I didn’t flood the bitch, if the battery felt a little sparky and if God was in a good mood, the Bomb would catch weakly and fade, but last another two seconds on the next try and then finally, like a drunk coughing up phlegm and hawking into the toilet, she would sputter to life and keep going.

At which I would turn up the heater, full blast, and sprint back into the  house. “I got it goin’, Mom.”

“Oh, well, turn it off on your way to the bus.”

Mom wasn’t due at Clyde’s ’til nine. But now she knew the car was going to start up and get her there. She would face one less horror that day.

There were other days, too often, when God and the Brown Bomb said no. At which Mom said, “Call Clyde.”

Clyde was a half-blind angel in bearish human form who adopted us — Mom and her three offspring — as his surrogate family, rescued us from frequent folly and loved us more than his own two ingrate kids loved him.

A few years later, I faced the local Draft Board — whom I had petitioned for status as a Conscientious Objector. Clyde showed that day, bearing witness on my behalf, impressing his fellow veterans with his dignity, simplicity, affection and class. He saved me from ‘Nam and probably my life.

I never saw him again. That was the last time I was able to utter the two words that brought to our broken home on Simpson Street a hint of order, a ride through snow and ice, a sense that we had someone to watch over us.

“Clyde’s here.”

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#843)

New York polite
by David Benjamin

“It is one of the sublime provincialities of New York that its inhabitants lap up trivial gossip about essential nobodies they’ve never set eyes on, while continuing to boast that they could live somewhere for twenty years without so much as exchanging pleasantries with their neighbors across the hall.”
                                             — Louis Kronenberger

MADISON, Wis. — Happenstance has dragged me here and there. So, I know places. I’m still surprised about this. As I was growing up in a hamlet called Tomah (the Athens of Monroe County), I didn’t have any expectation, or any discernible desire, to know anyplace at all. I was rooted there, in juvenile ignorance of mountains, tropics, great cities and scenic vistas.

There were, of course, a few expeditions, most notably a train ride to Milwaukee with my grandfather to attend the auto show, where my scenic vista was a lot of brand-new ‘58s parked on rotating stages. And then there was the highlight of my ephemeral Cub Scout career, a bus trip to Minnesota, to visit Niagara Cave (no relation to the Falls).

Once below ground, I was the only kid in my “den” who knew beforehand the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. I was a library rat, and I’d already read at least two books about caves. I had pondered spelunking as a vocation. That might have been the moment I realized that I could probably teach the Cub Scouts more than the Cub Scouts could teach me. Later, I had the same problem with 4-H. By the time I hit ten, I was an intellectual snob, even though I hadn’t been anywhere beyond Harmony, Minnesota. And I didn’t expect to go.

Only when Mom uprooted me and moved to Madison did I discover that I’m a city kid. Well, I’d suspected as much, even in Tomah, where our last dwelling was a second-floor slum that overlooked the town’s main drag, which was also Highway 12. All night, 18-wheelers — bound for Chicago, New York, Sioux City, San Pedro, Paris, Bangkok, the moon! — roared past and rattled the frost off our windows. Every Friday night, the street was thronged with shoppers ’til 9 p.m., and still busy thereafter — with drunken farmers, carousing GIs from Camp McCoy and a few loose women — ’til 2 a.m. when the Crow Bar, the Elbow Room, the Hofbrau, the Sportsmen’s Bar, the pool hall and three other downtown taverns had to close. I was a main-street Bedouin with no curfew and I loved it. I delivered handbills for the Coast-to-Coast hardware and had a connection for remaindered comic books at Burris’ five-and-dime. During the holidays, Christmas came to me. All the stores were on my block and the guy selling fresh-cut trees set up shop at the foot of our stoop. My favorite carol was “Silver Bells” because I honest-to-God thought that living on Superior Avenue was “Christmas-time in the city.”

After a while in Madison (pop., 125,000) and a few urban stops that followed, it came to me that every city is no bigger than Tomah once you get to know it. First thing you do, you find the library.

Among the cities I’ve stumbled into is Boston, where I lived on St. Botolph Street, survived the North End, holed up in Jamaica Plain, and hung out at Sgt. Brown’s Memorial Necktie. I’m also pretty much at home on the Peninsula just south of Frisco (which the folks in Frisco don’t like you to call Frisco). I got to know Tokyo well enough to write a guidebook or two and get myself in trouble with the Sumo Association. I’ve roamed Paris so much that I even — occasionally — surprise Maribel, my French tutor. She learned from me, for example, that there are four screaming madmen on the facade of the city hall in the Tenth Arrondissement. But hey, Paris is still her turf far more than it is mine. I’m the Cub Scout, she’s the cave.

I don’t know New York like that. But I lived there for a while and I recognize it, understand a few of its idiosyncrasies, can tell a native from a hick at first glance, know how to buy meat at Zabar’s and cheese at Murray’s.

One of the lessons that changed me from a bumpkin to a street urchin was figuring out pedestrian style. In Tomah, it’s easy, genial and voluble. You pass close and say “Good morning.” We call this “Wisconsin polite.”

Your typical Tokyo walker, however, is territorial and aggressive. They come straight at you and dare you to crash head-on. One day, after seven years in Tokyo, I wearied of playing the patsy in sidewalk chicken. Enough, I said, and hip-checked a 100-pound geezer into a vegetable bin. Ah, sweet victory!

In Paris, they’re arrogantly oblivious. You’re the invisible man, shrinking aside lest you’re squished ‘neath Gallic disdain, a smear on the sole of a tasseled loafer.

But New York, well…

Fear — no, suspicion — is your co-pilot. New Yorkers give their fellow walkers a judicious berth. Whether Bleecker Street or Myrtle Avenue, you steer right, clear a dozen inches and never make eye contact. New York is mecca for weirdos who need only a glimpse of pupil to bond with you for life or — too often — death. One veiled glance can trigger an endless lunatic monolog, a pursuit of a thousand city blocks or a dozen years of miserable marriage.

Or all three!

Last week, on a crowded stretch of 47th Street, I was overtaken by a New Yorker. As he brushed past, through tourist-tangled holiday traffic, my hand clipped his arm — lightly, briefly. He turned his head, not looking at me but showing just enough cornea to express displeasure. Our contact seemed barely worthy of acknowledgment, but noting his attention, I kicked in my Midwestern manners and said, “Excuse me.”

This had no effect. He offered no response, withdrew his gaze hastily and visibly increased his pace away from me. At this, my (dark) city self took over. As I always do when I extend courtesy and get none in return, I said, mostly to myself, “Well, excuse you, too.”

But he heard! The head turned and, for an instant, the gecko-eye glared.

Here then, is what I’ve come to regard as “New York polite.” He had bumped into me without remark but had greeted my apology with a dirty look, followed by a second dirty look when I heralded his rudeness.

So, how is this “polite?”

Hey, we’re talkin’ New York here. He did not halt, grab me by the lapels, shove me against the wall, bang my head and yell into my face, “Hey! I’m WALKIN’ heah, m***********!”

All in all, a swell guy.

Next day, back in Wisconsin, at my morning coffee outpost, I encountered a fellow patron in a narrow space between tables. Immediately, I said, “Oops, sorry.” He said, “Oh no, excuse me!” We both smiled and made room. As we squeezed past each other, he patted my back amiably and wished me good morrow.

Poor bastard wouldn’t last ten minutes in Brooklyn.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#842)

Perverted and proud
by David Benjamin

“Thou shalt not diddle thy neighbor’s daughter.”
               — Eleventh Commandment, Exodus 20; 17.5 (deleted)

MADISON, Wis. — The Internet is just brimming over with surprises — like the other day when I tried to access the NAACP, for reaction to the election of Democratic senatorial candidate Doug Jones, a result fueled by black voter turnout. However, I suddenly found myself looking, live onscreen, into the white face of a middle-aged guy with a pencil mustache, twitchy lips and hair plugs.

“Hi there, guy,” he said. “Welcome to to the website of the NAAACP. I’m Dr. Francois Feely, executive director. What can I do ya for?”

Since I happened to know that the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is Derrick Johnson, I was puzzled. Francois Feely smiled genially, and said, “Oh, I get it. You were looking for the NAACP, the outfit with all those African-Americans, right? Well, we’re the NAAACP. And I wanna tell ya, guy! Since the special election in Alabama, we are fit as a fiddle and ready for love!”

I asked. “Three A’s?”

“Yes, the N-triple A-CP,” gushed Feely. “The National Association for the Amatory Advancement of Chickenhawks and Predators.”

“You mean — ”

“That’s right,” Dr. Feely broke in cheerily. “We are the sword and shield for the ancient tradition of intergenerational romance.”

“You mean, child molestation?”

Dr. Feely winced, but carried on amiably. “That’s an unfortunate characterization, soon to fade from common usage, thanks to Judge Roy Moore’s glorious victory Tuesday.”

“Victory?” I said. “But, er, Judge Moore lost.”

“Lost the election, yes. But who cares about that?” exclaimed Dr . Feely. “Our victory — my goodness! We scored a triumph for every redblooded American male who really, truly LOVES children. Six hundred fifty thousand politically reactionary, lily-white, small-town, family-values Republican moms, dads, grandmothers and grandpas came out in droves to validate, celebrate and group-hug an accused pedophile who had (they say) preyed on a veritable platoon of underage virgin girls! I mean, shazam, Sgt. Carter!”

I couldn’t dispute Dr. Feely’s interpretatation. Rather than vote for a moderate Democratic civil-rights hero with a spotless reputation, more than a half-million Alabamians — and the Republican National Committee — had cast their lot with a theocratic bigot with a throbbing jones for Lolita.

“The entire Christian evangelical community has come over to our side. We can start dating their little girls and boys, holding their hands in church, leading them out behind the rectory. Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last, free at last. Out of the closet and into the kindergarten. Perverted and proud!”

I tried to suggest to Dr. Feely that an apparent outpouring of Republican support for one horny judge way down south in Dixie might just be an aberrant moment — a one-night stand— for conservative voters.

“What?” scoffed Dr. Feely. “Do you honestly believe that the GOP can put the K-Y jelly back into the tube?

I shuddered at the metaphor but pressed on. “So, you think this movement has momentum?”

“Momentum? This is a tsunami of l’amour! Do I think the lonely kiddies of America — and Europe, Thailand, the Philippines — don’t want to be held, caressed, fondled and smothered by the sort of love their parents are too inhibited to provide them? Fuggedaboudit! Besides, isn’t it nakedly clear now that Republicans, in Alabama and beyond, have opened their minds and hearts to to the pedophiles of America the way we open our flies to their three-year-olds?”

I really didn’t want to answer this question.

“You don’t have to answer,” said Dr. Feely, letting me off the hook. “The voters — the doting Christian parents of Talladega, Sylacauga and Tuscaloosa — have welcomed us spiritually into their tots’ boudoirs. They finally understand that sexuality has no bounds, that no romance can be constrained by age or the absence of pubic hair. Love, as John Lennon said so poignantly, is all you need.”

I objected to the mention of John Lennon, but Dr. Feely was rolling. “We’ll be fighting hard for Judge Moore, of course. We’re thinking about a presidential run. It could turn out to be a Trumpian landslide! Sure, the Democrats might have the gay vote. But now, the Republicans have every pederast and peeper from sea to shining sea. We’re on the march — in raincoats and see-through dungarees.”

I wondered aloud whether Judge Moore, in light of a defeat that was triggered by credible accusations that he stalked teenage girls and seduced them in the hallways of the courthouse, would welcome the support of the “NAAACP.”

Dr. Feely candidly admitted to some concern. He said, “Well, according to our own ecumenical deviate grapevine, there are rumors that the judge has lost some of his interest in blossoming nymphets. His appetites seem to have shifted in a different direction.”

“Well, that’s good news for the daughters of the New South. But what could have lured Judge Moore away from little girls in pigtails and pinafores.”

Francois Feely cleared his throat and leaned close. “Well,” he said softly, “do you remember that horse he rode in on?”

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Weekly Screed #841)

Barn cats, Botox
and fiscal conservatism
by David Benjamin

“I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing. As opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies." 

                                                   — Sen. Chuck Grassley

Ever since mein Drumpfenfeuhrer started stumping for the most tremendous, super-duper, kickass tax cut in the history of White House generosity, I’ve been thinking about my Uncle Harry and my dad, Big Bill.

Uncle Harry had cats, lots of them. They all lived in his barn, bred there, fed there and bedded there. Their diet consisted entirely of food scraps and mice, mostly mice. The barn was a veritable cornucopia of edible vermin. Uncle Harry and his wonderful wife Lou, in all their sixty-odd years on the farm just outside Tomah, never bought a bag of cat food and, if they’d been presented with a can of “Fancy Feast,” would have likely stirred it into one of Lou’s casseroles and eaten it themselves.

As for Big Bill, I went to him one summer in desperate need of a baseball glove. I was scheduled to play baseball in the St. Mary’s altar-boy picnic and I had no mitt. But Dad, as was his wont, was flat broke. A fifteen-dollar Roberto Clemente outfielder’s glove was spectacularly beyond his means. Mom was even less solvent and I failed in efforts to squeeze a loan — for a $3 pseudo-glove available at Steele’s Rexall Drug — from my sister, Pinchpenny Peg. I went gloveless to the picnic and struck out four times. It wasn’t ’til Christmas, when Big Bill floated his annual holiday loan (and ruined his cash flow for the next six months) that I got my glove from Santa. No kid ever cherished more passionately a five-fingered slab of cowhide.

Harry and Big Bill came to mind a while back, after I’d written about how to simplify the 2018 and 2020 electoral message of the Democratic Party. I boiled the policy formula down to six letters: FCUCPW, which stand for “free college, universal coverage and public works.”

I didn’t bother to defend or elaborate these proposals in much detail because a) they’re self-evident, b) they’re intuitively necessary, c) they’ve been tried and proven in most of the developed nations in the world, and d) they conform to a century of Democratic Party ideals and values.

However, among the objections to FCUCPW was a question from a friend who’s a “closet Republican.”

(Closet Republican (klaz´it ri pub´li kan) n. [[OFr, small enclosure, dim. of close, L republica < res, thing, affair 1. one who, although self-described as “independent,” votes reliably for Republicans, never speaks well of Democrats and cannot name a Democrat he or she respects, spouts GOP and/or Fox News talking-points while never delving deeply into political issues or showing any interest in politics until, roughly, the last two weeks before a national (never local) election  2. low-energy, low-information voter…)

This friend — let’s call him C.R. — retorted to my proposal with the seemingly sensible question: “How ya gonna pay for that?

The only cogent response to this facile jerk of the right knee is: “This is America. We are not the richest nation in the world. We are the richest nation in the history of the world. We can afford to pay for any goddamn thing we want to pay for.”

For example, C.R’s fiscally conservative Republicans in Congress (who coined the phrase, “How ya gonna pay for that?”) just wrapped a $1.5 trillion Christmas gift for the richest plutocrats in America. Well, to be “fair,” I have to concede that about $300 billion in tax cuts will be divvied up among roughly 304,000,000 “ordinary” Americans (reaping, per capita, about $700 a year — for a while). About $200 billion will go to the 50,000 richest dead people in America ($3.6 million each). The remaining trillion will be used to swell the Scrooge McDuck money pits of the largest corporations in the history of the world, who will a) tuck it away in nameless banks and numbered accounts in Grand Cayman, Lichtenstein and Cyprus, and b) kick it back thankfully to Republican candidates.

Most nations, ripped off to this extent, would simply collapse. The United States, the richest nation ever conceived, will take this colossal larceny in stride and just keep on spending, wasting and feeding gourmet cat food to Fluffy.

Here’s where Harry and Lou become relevant. How can we afford to rebuild our schools, create an entirely new renewable power grid, save our bridges from crumbling, open 100,000 day care centers, restart the space program, build new hospitals that welcome people to use them — affordably, and send our kids to state college for free?

Why not, when we can easily afford to do for our pets what Uncle Harry never imagined doing for his hundred generations of barn cats?

Every year, according to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spend $60 billion on pets, including $23 billion on food, $14.39 billion on supplies and medicine, $15.73 billion on vet care, and $5.24 billion on grooming and boarding. (This doesn’t include the the furniture they destroy, the rugs they ruin, the songbirds they kill and the shoes they eat.)

Consider also the issue of my baseball glove. When Dad bought my Christmas mitt, he increased his annual expense for “youth sports” from zero to about fifteen bucks. Of course, the number reverted to bupkes the following year and every subsequent year. Dad’s total youth-sports outlay for my entire childhood came down to about 85 cents a year.

If we had all stuck with Big Bill’s average of less than a buck a year, would American society suffer? Probably not. Kids would still feel the compulsion to go outside and play — something. I did. But never mind. Nowadays, youth sports cost American families $15.3 billion every year. The average lacrosse parent forks out $7,956 a year. Your typical hockey mom and dad cough up $7,013 for skates, pads and uniforms the kid will outgrow every year ’til he or she is 20 years old. The annual toll for Little League is $4,044, which would have buried me under a pile of 270 Roberto Clemente outfielder’s gloves.

The average family’s monthly outlay for youth sports, according to an Ameritrade study, equals their mortgage payment.

And then, for one last example, there’s Botox. Of the $16 billion Americans spend on elective cosmetic surgery — not usually covered by health insurance — $2.7 billion goes for these really icky injections, straight into women’s faces, of the botulin toxin, a poisonous compound that smooths wrinkles by paralyzing nerves. Think Cher. The arithmetic I learned at St. Mary’s School informs me that this expenditure on toxic vanity is enough to rebuild St. Mary’s, and the public school across the street, at least 500 times — at today’s prices.

So, how we gonna pay for that?

This might be the stupidest question in the history of the richest nation in the world. We’re already paying, and paying, and paying.

We’re just buying the wrong shit.