Friday, April 21, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#811)

It’s a holey whole hole
and it just - plain - isn’t

by David Benjamin

“For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.”
                                ― Louis L’Amour

TAIPEI — Whenever I’m in one of these farflung outposts, I eventually turn to myself indignantly and say, “Hey, Gomer! What the hell are you doing here?”

I know it’s a lousy excuse, but I’m probably here because of the library. In the little town where I grew up, it was the only place for miles and miles around that could even be remotely regarded as a portal to the world. I had no idea of its power. The library ruined me.

It actually started with Dr. Seuss. One day, my first-grade teacher herded her whole class down the hill to the Tomah Public Library, up the stone steps, through the doors, where suddenly you could smell books like the breath of ten thousand dead philosophers, and then down the wooden steps to the “reading room” — I mean, what the hell was I doing there? I couldn’t read yet. And what’s a philosopher?

They sat us down in front of a librarian, who read to me — well, us. But I took it personally, because she was reading Dr. Seuss — Horton, Bartholomew or If I Ran the Zoo, one of those contagious concoctions of verbal melody and subversive fancy that whispered to me, “This is what you want to do.”

I do? Me?

Well, I did. I started writing my first novel in third grade, but it wasn’t exactly my idea. I was mimicking Beatrice Dwyer, classmate, nemesis and sweetheart, who was writing stories and reading them aloud. I said, “Wait a minute. I can do that.” So I did. Forever after. To my mother’s chagrin.

By then, I’d made the library my refuge. Life elsewhere in Tomah was small and hard — my parents busting up, Mom moving us around, my sister Peg hogging the bathroom, other kids kicking my ass in school, the TV on the fritz.

My library card, bent and dog-eared, was my ticket out. Dark wood and a constant hush, except for the creak in the staircase as you climbed, until the altar became visible, librarian presiding with stamp and inkpad. More books than I could ever read, but I could try. I squandered the shank of my childhood in that bar, partly to escape my home, but mostly to discover — and confirm with every book I read — that my destiny wasn’t Tomah at all, but out there. Someplace else.

I escaped for a long stretch into the lyrical South of Joel Chandler Harris. The drawl and blend, peppered with apostrophes, in the voices of Uncle Remus, B’rer Rabbit, B’rer Fox, B’rer Bear, challenged and captivated me. Harris has long been a controversial figure — a white author exploiting the vernacular of just-freed slaves and illiterate field hands, taking credit for their rich oral tradition and the magic fables that sprang therefrom. But my God, if no one capable of writing them down had listened to those folktales, found a way to translate their dense and musical argot into prose and share them with the world, what a loss to human culture— as though The Iliad and The Odyssey had perished on Homer’s deathbed.

During and after Uncle Remus, I prowled the library like Frank Buck in the jungle. I harvested eight, ten books at a time, devouring and digesting them, overnight. The first few times I appeared behind a stack of books half my height, the librarian said, “Are you sure you want all these books?” After a while, she understood, stamped the return date (ironically, because I was supposed to keep them two weeks) and sent me along. I was back the next afternoon.

I sailed the wine-dark sea with Robert Lewis Stevenson and went beneath, at least once a year, with Jules Verne. I read all the Landmark biographies, from Ben Franklin to Bob Hope. I tramped the Yukon with Jack London and Dangerous Dan McGrew. I spent Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo with General Doolittle and six hellish months with Richard Tregaskis on Guadalcanal. When I read Holling Clancy Holling’s classic history of a fictional snapping turtle, Minn of the Mississippi, I fell in love with natural history and checked out every field guide in the library, from bugs and arthropods to birds, mammals, fish, trees, flowers and fungi, reptiles, amphibians, cetaceans and crustaceans, including Pagoo, the hermit crab immortalized by, yes! Holling Clancy Holling. I lived the life of an otter, a cougar, a wolverine, a beaver and a wildlife photographer.

H.G. Wells launched me into space years before Gagarin and Shepard got there. Natty Bumppo led me through the Adirondack woods with Chingachgook and Uncas, and Mark Twain led me away from them with a blast of mockery. But Twain restored my wanderlust, with Tom and Huck on Minn’s Mississippi. A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court made me a time traveler and sent me into the history stacks, where I stumbled across the inimitable Hans Zinsser — Rats, Lice and History — whereat, also, I became a lifelong disease buff.

As a good Catholic, I knew my proper place of worship was St. Mary’s, up on the hill. But I looked around the church, every day (I had to) — whether I was in the pews, serving Low Mass or up in the loft singing the High Mass Agnus Dei with my classmates — and there was damn little to read. The joint had no books.

Okay, that’s not entirely accurate. Every Catholic church has three books, if you count the hymnal in the pew. There’s the Bible, but only one copy, it’s on the pulpit and you don’t dare borrow it. Finally, in St. Mary’s, every kid shlepped around his (or her) Daily Missal, which you used to follow along. It was “required reading,” so nobody actually read it. It contained no adventures and scant romance. There appeared no pirates, no prisons, no Indians, cowboys, soldiers, gangsters, no jungles, no mountains, no guns, not even any missiles, in the Daily Missal.

Which is why inexorably, irreversibly, the Tomah Public Library supplanted St. Mary’s as my place of worship. Because it had books, piles and piles —

There’s this scene in Centerburg Tales. A story called “Pie and Punch and You-Know-Whats” starts out with a mysterious figure entering the lunchroom of Homer’s Uncle Ulysses. He deposits in the jukebox a tune that he warns Homer to never play — which Homer and his pal Freddy immediately play, turning all of Centerburg into a community of compulsive crooners who can’t shake this contagious, maddening song about the holey whole hole in a whole doughnut.

The library looms as the town’s salvation when Homer recalls a book with an earworm antidote, a tune in which you must “punch, brother, punch with care, punch in the presence of the passenjare.” But Homer can’t remember either title or author, only — vaguely — the color of the cover. And so, a great, desperate, caterwauling throng descends upon the Centerburg Public Library, yanking books from shelves, appalling the librarian (until she starts singing, too!) and leafing frantically through every blue-backed or brown-backed book in search of relief.

A towering heap of discards accumulates, creating a scene the reader needn’t imagine because the storyteller, Robert McCloskey, is also a crack illustrator. When I was a kid, I lingered over that image — a mad Babel of flying fiction and exhausted singers — and pictured myself leaping, from the library balcony into that mountain of books.

An ocean, rather, where a fervent reader could paddle and dive, drinking in a paragraph, spitting out a pithy quote, spotting Moby Dick, frightening Pagoo, peering through a porthole of the Nautilus, where Capt. Nemo beckons me inside. Takes me around the world, 20,000 leagues or so, and drops me off… where?

Taipei? Cool!

On the waterfront, if they ask for a ticket, I reply, of course! Right here, in my Roy Rogers wallet, bent and dog-eared, punched with care, hundreds of times,  60-odd years ago in a little brick building — still standing and full of the world — in the 700 block of Superior Avenue.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#810)

Open Sesame
by David Benjamin

WASHINGTON — I thought it would be tough getting onto the White House grounds until I asked for help from the sneakiest political insider in D.C., an old friend from the Nixon/Agnew days who goes by the name of Kafka.

Kafka said, “Hey, no sweat. We’ll just waltz in through Devin’s door.”

“Devin?” I asked.”You don’t mean Devin Nunes, the disgraced chairman of the House Intelligence Committee?”

“That’s the one,” said Kafka. “He’s a good soldier. And give him credit. He might’ve spilled his guts about everything else, but he didn’t tell anybody about the door.”

National security prevents me from saying exactly where “Devin’s door” is, but there it was. “Voila,” said Kafka. “Hidden in plain sight.”

Just beyond this ill-secured wrought-iron gate, I saw the Rose Garden and the stately columns of the White House. The only evident sentries were two clean-cut kids, dressed like Mormon missionaries, who looked no older than 16.

“Hi, guys!” said the girl effervescently. “I’m Brenda!”

“And I’m Skippy,” said her young male counterpart.

“Wait a minute,” I said, as Kafka tried to hustle me through the gate. “Where are the White House guards? Where’s the Secret Service?”

“Oh, well, we’re, like, honorary Secret Service,” said Brenda, flushing proudly.

“Honorary?” I said. “But you look like you’re still in high school.”

Skippy took this one. “We are! We’re both honor students at The Blood of the Lamb Christian Academy in Methane, Iowa. We won the essay contest.”

“Essay contest?”

“Yes, the National Defenders of The President Essay Contest. It was sponsored by the Young Republicans of the Upper Midwest,” said Brenda. “And Skippy and me, golly, we had to enter because we’re, like, officers in the Eichmann Faction of the Young Republicans at school.”

“Yeah, we’re, like, role models,” said Skippy.

“ Wait! Eichmann?” I said. “That rings a bell.

“You really don’t want to go there, pal,” whispered Kafka, trying to nudge me along.
 
“You mean,” I said, “Adolf Eichmann?”

“Yeah, that’s the one,” said Skippy. “He was, like, the President or something in the Forties or Fifties, when everybody was, like, ‘I like Eich.’ Y’know?”

“Wait a minute, I think you kids have your Ikes mixed — ”

“Anyway,” Brenda said. “The essay topic, well, we loved it, ‘cause we’re, like, huuuuge Trump fans, y’know? Bigly!”

“Well, what did you write about?”

“The title was, ‘How the Sun Rises Metaphorically Out of Donald Trump’s Ass,’” said Skippy. “You see, a lot of the contestants didn’t get the ‘metaphor’ part. You’d be surprised how many of our friends really think the sun — ”

“But we weren’t, like, fooled,” boasted Brenda. “I mean, really. We might be just high-school students, but we weren’t actually, like, born yesterday.”

“I see,” I said. “So, you’re well-informed?”

“Oh, yes! We, like, read a lot. Y’know?”

I couldn’t resist a little quiz. I said, “So, how many people attended the Trump inauguration?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Skippy. “Seven million. The crowd stretched all the way to Maryland.”

“And Barack Obama was born…”

“In the village of Hugga-Bugga, in the Marxist jungles of darkest Kenya,” piped up Brenda, knowledgeably. “His mother was a race traitor from Kansas and his dad was a silverback lowland gorilla named Coco. I bet you don’t even know what the name ‘Barack Obama’ means in African.”

“In African? No, can’t say as I do,” I admitted.

“It means ‘Melvin of the Apes,’” said Skippy. “If more people only knew this, the American people wouldn’t have suffered through, like, eight years of, like, living hell, y’know?”

As Skippy was making this extraordinary assertion, I saw, approaching, two burly Secret Service agents decked out in black suits and Ray-Bans. I said, “Uh oh, the bulls.” Brenda and Skippy were unfazed.

They raised their hands, halting the agents. Brenda said, “Back off, boys. We got this.”

“Don’t worry, boys,” added Skippy. “We’ll get the signatures.”

“Signatures?” I asked, as the two agents meekly withdrew.

Kafka, obviously embarrassed, said, “Well, the only condition, before you can enter the White House grounds nowadays, is you gotta sign a Loyalty Oath.”

“A Loyalty Oath? Like the red scare in the Fifties, with Tailgunner Joe and the HUAC idiots?”

“Different times, different idiots,” said Kafka. “That was loyalty to America. This one’s more, well, personal.”

“Personal?”

Skippy, glowing with loyalty, held out a clipboard. Already signed by many others, the oath read, “I hereby swear absolute, heartfelt fealty, even unto death by horrible, horrible torture, to Donald Trump, smartest guy and greatest dealmaker ever in the world who got, like, thousands of electoral votes in history’s biggest landslide — ever — and never, ever, not once, laid a finger on a woman who wasn’t asking for it, passionately attracted to his bod and already starting to take off her clothes. So there. Sign below.”

“I have to sign this?”

“If you want to get in,” said Skippy.

“Don’t worry,” said Kafka. “Everybody signs. Look, here’s that Egyptian guy, Sisi. And Xi Jinping. Look here, even Ivanka has to sign in, every day.”

“Yeah!” said Brenda. “And she’s, like, a relative (but, like, Jewish, y’know?).”

“See here,” said Kafka, running his finger along the humiliating column of signatures. “Even Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the — ”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “isn’t that him? Paul Ryan? Over there?”

It was. Hastily, I consigned my soul to Trump and led Kafka by the sleeve, to Paul Ryan, who was rubbing a chamois cloth diligently over the finish of the presidential limousine.

“Mr. Speaker, my God!” I said. “What are you doing?”

Ryan rolled his eyes and spoke to Kafka. “Who is this guy? And what?” he said. “He was taking Moron Lessons from Brenda and Skippy?”

Before Kafka could answer, Ryan said to me. “What’s it look like I’m doing, dumbass?”

“Well, it looks like you’re detailing Trump’s ride.”

“Bingo,” said Ryan. “If I do a good job, then I’m a loyal do-bee. And I get a ten-minute private audience with His Imperial Tremendousness.”

Kafka whispered, “Hey, these days? It’s all about love, man.”

I shook my head. “Well, waxing the car,” I said. “I guess that’s better than having to kiss his sunrise ass, huh?”

Both Kafka and Ryan turned to stare at me, piteously.

“You mean?” I asked.

“You actually want to meet the guy, right?” said Kafka. “In the Oval Office?”

 The Speaker of the House handed me a tube of Chapstick and a Kleenex.

“Pucker up, dude.”

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#809)

The ghost of Bessie Smith
by David Benjamin

“… Oh, how that boy can open clam/ No one else is can touch my ham/ I can't do without my kitchen man…”
                         — Bessie Smith, “Kitchen Man”

MADISON, Wis. — Picture Bessie Smith, belting out one of her bluesy anthems from the ill-lit corner of a boisterous, drafty roadhouse somewhere in the bayou country of west Mississippi. She’s surrounded by musicians — a drummer and a guitar man, a stand-up piano with a dervish pounding the keys, a couple of sweaty men with horns, a girl too young to be in a joint like this rattling the tambourine — who all seem to be competing with her to be heard. She’s wearing a sequined dress that sparkles and a head scarf that screams. She’s flashing that big ivory grin and leaning back, shaking the moon with every gut-busting note and smutty innuendo. By now, she’s had enough whiskey to be loose, fluid and winkingly lewd as she improvises new lyrics to her own songs.

“You’re a good old wagon, daddy, but you done broke down…”

Bessie’s voice is like a train-whistle cutting into the wee-hours blackness all around, defeating the players but losing its way now and then, here and there, amidst the riotous party in this clapboard tumbledown. Along the bar, drinkers are shouting their orders — barrelhouse kings with feet unstable, sagging, reeling, pounding on the table — and the barkeeps bellowing back. In one corner, three, four, five biglegged women in print dresses and rolled-up stockings trying to sing along but don’t know the words and besides, they’re too high to harmonize. Across the room, two dangerous men arguing thunderously over a high-brown honey who’s given them both the slip as she saunters out the door with a third man who already has his eyes down her dress and a hand on her ass.

The scrape and shuffle of dancing feet on the slivered floor, flesh on flesh, breaking glass and desperate laughter, grunts of lust and stage-whisper refusals (or the giddy squeal of carnal assent), all the while the night invades through gaps and weathered knotholes — owl screams, cricket chirps, the whine of a million skeeters and a choir of baritone bullfrogs — boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM. The only white face in the place is pinched and avid, an itinerant musicologist working a primitive recorder, struggling to capture live on a celluloid cylinder the rude genius of Bessie’s blues. But even this reverential device, its steel stylus hissing softly, sifts into the din that swells all around, mindlessly rising up to drown Bessie’s peerless, joyous performance.

Bessie, of course, minds none of the pandemonium she has wrought. This is her briar patch. Near the stage, a handful of devotees presses close, their ears attuned only to the goddess, their lips following her lyrics, their eyes alight whenever she makes up something mildly obscene from out of the blue. Bessie belts on, her song the pure thread that explains it all, makes it all possible, lends coherence to this stormy evocation of Sodom before the lightning struck.

Somehow, this unlikely scene came to mind as I tried to somehow organize all the media mishegoss stirred up by Vladimir Putin’s meddling in last fall’s U.S. election fiasco. The Electoral College Blues?

I know, Bessie, Vlad and Donald Trump seem the strangest conceivable bedfellows — until you give the thought a chance. More and more, political scandals in America resemble a Reginald Marsh canvas overfull with drunks and floozies, drinking, dancing, shouting, singing, fighting and fornicating inside a broken-down blind pig in the heart of a bog. One side accuses, the other side denies passionately, then turns the tables, crying “You did it! Not we!” A shred of evidence, like a snatch of sliphorn jazz, emerges, blows up so suddenly huge that it collapses upon itself and convinces no one, eventually shaming the hapless sleuth who dug it up. A thousand reporters, commentators, analysts and propagandists chime in, create a hubbub that smothers the few provable facts,  befuddles a million minds and spooks the horses into the quicksand.

Investigations — each with a vested interest and a foregone conclusion, each discredited before they’ve begun, each populated by cherrypickers who trumpet half-baked findings that foster their cause, while wailing denial and disgust at opposing panelists promoting their own portfolio of dubious revelations — stumble along fitfully. The ever-rising roar threatens, at last, without resolution, to simply deafen everyone in the joint — beating an empty barrel with the handle of a broom, hard as they are able, boom, boom, BOOM.

There’s a clear thread here somewhere, like Bessie’s voice and her immortal poetry…

When it thunders and lightnin’ and the wind begins to blow
There’s thousands of people ain’t got no place to go…


The thread is the actual evidence. It’s the truth. It’s the testimony of someone who was there, who saw it all, who played a part — the bottleneck guitar, the clarinet, the little gal with the tambourine — who knows the music and sang the words. The thread is John Dean in the Watergate scandal, or Joe Welch at the Army-McCarthy hearings.

The thread is proof, on paper, on film, on that waxy cylinder scratching every note, every syllable and flourish, making it permanent and irrefutable. It’s Nixon’s Oval Office tapes or Denny Hastert’s hush money.

The thread, underlying all the hollering, emotion and disputation, is the truth. It’s as clear and vital as Bessie’s voice. It’s the only reason that all the other noise ever rose up in the first place.

But we don’t have that imaginary record of Bessie singing her from her soul in a fictional backwater dive. We know she did that stuff in joints like that. But there’s no film and there was no musicologist on the premises. It was all drowned out long ago and time has swallowed every trace. Even the songs that we’ve preserved are mere ghosts of the Bessie Smith who gave voice, strength, music, joy and momentary liberation to a people whose swamp was all around and farther from the hope of dry land than any black eye could see.

The truth beneath this latest uproar — this glut of Trumpian uproars — is somewhere, like Bessie’s spirit. It can’t be silenced, it will never die.

But most of us have never heard even Bessie’s ghost. Most of us never will.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#808)

Where have all the soldiers gone…
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Used to be, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a GI. Well, a former GI. In the bygone halcyon days of universal conscription, every male had to do his hitch, or get really creative to duck Uncle Sam.

My dad, who was eligible for World War II, got a medical deferment. When the next war, in Korea, rolled around, he was healthy as a stallion, but got off again because he was sole support — a role he observed with a rascal air of devil-may-care — of a family of four. But Dad was an anomaly among the adult males in town, most of whom had served in some unit in some outfit that had done serious combat somewhere. Plus, we had the VA Hospital on the north side of town, crawling with vets, and Camp McCoy out on Highway 21, where you couldn’t swing a dead cat without, well, you know the rest.

Two features distinguished Tomah’s grizzled ex-GIs. One, they were alive and eternally grateful for that. Second, they said almost nothing about their service, perhaps out of modesty, more likely because they just wanted to forget, most likely because they didn’t have words to explain to “civilians” what they’d experienced in Bastogne, or Kwajalein, or somewhere in the sky above Italy.

They certainly didn’t need to explain GI life. Popular culture, throughout mid-century, was thick with references to basic and barracks, furloughs and foxholes, from Sgt. Bilko to “McHale’s Navy,” from here to eternity. Every kid in town knew the Army hierarchy from buck private to bird colonel. We were fluent in GI slang, from SNAFU to semper fi. Our comic book diet included monthly fixes of Beetle Bailey, Sad Sack and Sgt. Rock. One of the tunes that still goes through my head is a MAD magazine chicken-brass anthem, to the tune of “Anchors Aweigh” that begins, “Off we go, into the barracks yonder,/ Pulling an inspection again…”
 
And we played soldier more than we played cowboys-and-Indians.

In America then, military service was one one of life’s inevitabilities. Few of us imagined ever going to college. All of us expected to be GIs.

The veterans around us had lived through a perilous personal trial that had changed them forever, but few ever boasted or bitched, or even waxed nostalgic about their hitch, because all the other guys had marched to the same drummer. Historian Stephen Ambrose dwelt eloquently on the fact that in the great conflicts of our past, citizens were soldiers and soldiers were citizens. We all did it. We all had to.

My favorite movie GI is Captain Miller, the platoon leader in Saving Private Ryan. His real-life job is a mystery to his men ’til late in the film, when he reveals himself as a “schoolteacher” — an educated man in an 8th-grade world.

Capt. Miller’s presence on a bloody plain among ignorant men was a measure of the parity imposed on all American males by the draft. The U.S. military grew over the years into a crucible that defied class, ethnic, religious and — finally, by order of Harry Truman — racial barriers, more effectively than in any other institution. The Army remains today a sort of retreat from complexity where all men — and now women — are created, ordered around, broken down, built up, live and die in a community where, like it or not, we’re all in this together.

When my turn came around on the guitar, the war was Vietnam. The draft was still at work but it had loopholes. If you got into college, you had a reprieve of four or five years, long enough to find a doctor who could diagnose you into a permanent deferment. If you were rich, your old man probably knew a general or a senator who could stash you safely in the National Guard. The melting pot was going cold. The war became a meatgrinder reserved for the dumb, the poor and the pure.

But even in its waning hour, the draft had profound consequences. Many young men (like me) doubted, opposed or hated the war. But we couldn’t just leave it up to the jungle-bound suckers who didn’t have an angle. The draft made you decide. The draft forced you to think about your deeply held values, if you actually had any: Do you hate the war? Do you hate it out of principle, or just fear? Do you hate all war, or just this one? Do you love America? Do you believe in the military?

I had to face the old men of my draft board and answer all those questions. Plus this one: Kid, rather than go to war, are you prepared to go to prison?

Since 1970, no young man has been compelled to answer these questions. The greatest moral dilemma of my lifetime is now a mere hypothesis. No choice is necessary.

Now, with only a handful among us — the dumb, the poor, the pure — choosing to serve, most of us opt by default not to be citizens. We muddle along, dubious of our government but tolerant of the wars it wages on our behalf. To soothe our conscience, we’ve made those who bear our arms into generic “heroes,” without asking of them anything noticeably heroic. To be deemed a hero now is to simply put on the uniform. But now, the uniform defines you as a career soldier, the sort of mercenary myrmidon maligned throughout most of American history.

In the era of the citizen soldier, the principle was that we’d fight as long as must, then go home to families, farms and factories. We’d turn back into regular people. War was more a matter of necessity and dread than ideology and glory.

Today, we field a professional army whose members are remote from our families, our communities, our everyday lives and body politic. We idolize them ritually in flag-draped pageants before the football game, but hardly anyone knows them personally. Our new-breed of GIs (can we still call them such?) are deployed, re-deployed and re-deployed beyond the limit of emotional endurance, in a far hemisphere, among angry natives and bomb-strapped zealots. But our empathy is desultory.

Today, we don’t seem to be waging real war anywhere, although we drop tons of ordnance, vaporize civilians, obliterate neighborhoods, enrich the Warbucks plutocracy and shovel treasure into a ravenous Pentagon. We boast the biggest cannon-fodder industry in earthly history, a spendthrift foreign legion commanded ridiculously by a septuagenarian draft-dodger for whom glory is a ceaseless genital itch.

Am I alone in thinking that the draft wasn’t so bad after all? That maybe it was better — more American — when our GIs were milkmen and welders, paperhangers and schoolteachers, everywhere amongst us and, from the day they got in, they couldn’t wait to get out.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#807)

The tortured trees and
scary waiters of blvd. St. Germain

by David Benjamin

PARIS — The Ville de Paris is destroying the evidence.

For decades on the boulevard St. Germain, its plucky trees would welcome the spring by putting out new shoots, slender green tendrils reaching hopefully toward the fickle sun. And then, in the fall, just after each of these infant branches had raised its first proud little crop of leaves, municipal workmen would come along with bucket trucks and hedge trimmers. They slashed every new growth back to the nub, like black-site torture artists snipping off fingers and ears in a Turkish dungeon.

What they left behind, in winter, was a long row of leafless cripples, their trunks and limbs grotesquely bent and foreshortened, like skeletal hands thrust from the graves of tormented polio victims buried alive.

Now, the city is tearing up the trees, replacing them with unsuspecting sycamore saplings, still too young to be trimmed. The old trees? There are only three left now between the blvd. St. Michel and place de l’Odeon. I picture a mass grave somewhere beyond the banlieues, where sado-arborists with chainsaws reduce the uprooted shade-trees of St. Germain into three-meter lengths and hurriedly cover them with quicklime.

As I strolled the boulevard, I bade the last three survivors adieu, wondering how quickly the city’s shame will reduce them to stumps and sawdust.

On the other hand, the new sycamores look nice. Their shade will be denser, their display prettier. They will better adorn one of the great avenues of the world, the Fifth Avenue of the Left Bank.

The blvd. St. Germain begins and ends on the Seine, curving southward while the river bends north. A walk from one end of the boulevard, at the Assemblée Nationale, to the other, where the pont de Sully crosses the Seine, is a pleasure both familiar and changeable. It’s a long, prosperous street rarely crowded, but there’s always a parade, featuring some of Paris’ suavest swells and silliest tourists.
 
On the morning I lamented the boulevard’s tortured trees, I was bound westward, slowly. My first landmark was an urban oasis named for its ancient church, St. Germain des Prés. Its most famous restaurant, Les Deux Magots, facing the church, is where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvioir — according to legend — occupied a corner table, billing, cooing and occasionally ripping each other’s hearts out. But I passed Les Deux Magots, preferring to have my third coffee at the Café de Flore, which The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik — in defiance of his forebear, Janet Flanner — once declared more hip than the stodgy old Magots.

As I claim a table on the chilly terrasse, I don’t see Gopnik’s distinction. Both joints cost too much and they’re packed, in the daytime, with goggle-eyed Chinese tourists, a few furtive honeymooners from Japan, a scattering of checklist travelers from the U.S. drinking the cheapest fluids on the menu, and the inevitable flock of Italians who — for some reason — never travel in groups smaller than twelve. The clientele on a Tuesday forenoon are little more chic and cosmopolitan than I — who have all the slick savoir faire of a drunk doughboy on the town in a set of ill-fitting civvies.

Real Parisians sometimes outnumber the rubberneckers at lunch hereabouts, but they don’t really claim their turf at the Flore and Magots ’til ‘round midnight. And then, well, maybe Gopnik can tell which crowd is cooler, but I’m oblivious to such patrician nuances and just glad that both joints have a bottle of Glenmorangie.

The waiters of St. Germain have a reputation for snootiness. Tourists — especially Americans — live in mortal fear of Parisian waiters, some of whom actually cultivate their scarinesss. But Hotlips and I learned early that they can be subdued with a measure of chutzpah and a little bit of comical French.

At the Magots and Flore, the servers are prompt, polite, multilingual and exquisitely correct. Not cuddly, but not scary. Scarier, for example, is the fact that the Flore is one of the few remaining Paris venues with a W.C. concierge. From a comfortable chair at the entrance, she directs men to the Hommes and women to the Femmes. In return, she expects a few coins in her spotless little saucer. She either curses her visitors softly but audibly if they don’t know what the saucer’s for, or she beams at them with loving irony when they have no idea of the going rate (no more than 40 cents) and blow a couple of euros on the privilege of peeing at the Flore.
 
Hotlips and I used to know the scariest waiter on the blvd. St Germain, personally. He’s retired now. He held dominion over a wonderful place on the east end of the avenue, called Chez René, where the specialty is the boeuf bourgignon in an ink-black wine gravy that’s been simmering in the same pot for 100 years. When we first faced him, he loomed like a headmaster out of Charles Dickens, stern, icy and expectant. What were we doing in his section? Had we read the menu? Did we understand — or, more important, did we appreciate — the menu? Were we ready? Did we belong?

The blvd. St Germain is the birthplace of existential doubt. This waiter was its apotheosis. If he walked away and never took our order, would we still exist?

The Scary Waiter exerted no pressure, of course. That would be improper. He simply stood, gray and magisterial, posture-perfect, and witheringly patient. We managed to order, in French, and had the good sense to stick to the specialités de la maison and drink the sublime house beaujolais. We hoped this pleased him. We wanted to please him. The waiter — we never learned his name — performed impeccably, and understood everything we needed by eye contact alone. But he was not warm.

Not ’til we’d been back to Chez René about four more times.

Then, one chilly autumn night, perfect for hot hearty meat dishes, we reserved a table in the Scary Waiter’s section. I was surprised that the owner, on the phone, recognized my name. When we arrived, around 8:30, there was the Scary Waiter, greeting us at the door, smiling and shaking my hand, kissing Hotlips on both cheeks and guiding us to our table. The owner patted me on the back. His wife hailed us from behind a small mountain of charcuterie.

Somehow, that evening, we crossed the invisible threshold and became regulars. There’s nothing better in Paris. You are as effusively welcome as, before, you felt congenitally alien and secretly scrutinized. Your table is prime, your favorites are known. The menu is superfluous. You’re family. The Scary Waiter is suddenly Santa Claus.

Chez René was our first Paris experience as regulars. We have a few other spots now, too. But cracking the scariest waiter on the blvd. St. Germain? Nothing will ever top that.

Then we lost him. A few years ago, we returned. He was there, but not the owners. They had retired. New — younger, less rumpled — people were in charge. The tables were slightly rearranged. The menu had been tweaked. And the Scary Waiter, who hurried to our table to welcome us home, told us that he, too, would soon be gone.

He was anxious that night to assure us that the new owners hadn’t screwed it up. Chez René would be the same as it was. We thanked him and enjoyed his service all through our dinner, and tipped him excessively and said reluctant goodbye. But we knew he was wrong.

Without him, yes, it’s still comfort food on a cold night in Paris. But it’s not the same.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#806)

"Oh Lord, please don't 
let me be misunderstood"
by David Benjamin

“As members of the winning team, Trump supporters have no urgent need to understand the other side.”
                                   — Amanda Hess, The New York Times

PARIS — Pundits — especially the sensitive, liberal ones — keep telling me how important it is to understand the complexities, anxieties and pain of the “angry” nihilists whose votes put Donald Trump in the Oval Office, in his bathrobe at 4 a.m., with the nuclear button an inch away from his twitchy little finger.

I’ve heard, ad nauseam, from experts on the op-ed page, trolls on Facebook and drunks in bars that I’m powerless to pierce the mystery that shrouds all those pissed-off white guys who think they’re somehow special for just being white, who barely passed high school (or didn’t), who can’t find a fulltime job and if they did they couldn’t hold it, and they haven’t read a book voluntarily since the onset of puberty.

Understand?

Why?

I have yet to meet a white nationalist who wants to understand me.

I’ve never encountered a machine operator, a loading-dock hand, or a cashier at Walgreen’s who wanted to plumb my psyche and peer into my soul.

In all the months I worked at Addison Steel in Orlando, not one of the welders, fitters, painters, truckers and rednecks there showed any interest in the range and depth of my burgeoning intellect.

My career at Beacon Auto Radiator flew by without an inkling of concern, from my fellow autoworkers, about my spiritual well-being or emotional needs. Nothing!

In my two summers at the cannery in Waunakee, I fielded not one single probing question from my blue-collar peers about my philosophy of life, my favorite poet, my preference between Miro and Picasso. They just didn’t seem to care.

This pattern seems to run pretty much the whole gamut of all the factories, car washes, warehouses, kitchens and farms where I worked, hauled, crawled and mopped to pay my way through, high school, college and alimony.

Is it me? Do I seem unapproachable? Did my erstwhile co-workers secretly ache to know, to understand me, but they were shy, tongue-tied, intimidated by my steely gaze, my Freudian beard and my 69 inches of stature? Or did they just not give a shit?

Perhaps they pity me. In recent encounters with these horny-handed sons of toil about politics or Trump, I always re-discover how naive and childlike I am, how unschooled, compared to them, in the ways of the “real world.” I’m soft, effeminate and cloistered, they explain. I have no grasp of reality. I’ve never had to fight for anything, never had to get my hands dirty, never looked into an empty pantry with two kids hungry and three days ’til payday.

I “don’t get it.”

Get what? What’s to get? And why is it so hard to get?

Over the years, often to keep my job, I’ve had to “get” some pretty hard stuff. I’ve had to to understand — and then explain to people even more ignorant than me — issues in the law, for example, or physics, education, polymer chemistry, beta blockers, electronics, assembly-line technology, finance, sports, journalism, ethics, religion, Jerusalem in the first century, food, travel, art, microwave radiation, pottery, computerized tomography, exercise physiology, photography, cellular telephony, just-in-time inventory control, Japanese gangsters, literature, poetry, music, the law of diminishing marginal returns, and the migration of ions through a semi-permeable membrane. I wrote a whole book about sumo.

So… as a lifelong know-it-all, I find particularly galling the charge that I cannot grasp the angst of a restive throng who wear their grievance on their bumpers, on t-shirts and on the front panel of their adjust-o-band baseball caps.

Besides, they’re wrong about me. I get it. I understand.

Most of us understand. It’s not rocket science to appreciate and empathize with the anguish of folks who’ve been denied, foreclosed, fired, demoted, red-lined, evicted, stopped, frisked or otherwise screwed by the system. After all, most of us — more than Trump’s true believers can possibly understand — have also been screwed by one system or another.

You live long enough, you’re gonna get screwed.

Just about everyone where I grew up in Tomah — neighbors, friends, family, classmates — got screwed somewhere along the way. The grownups all around me had worked hard, with their hands, on their knees, up ladders and down holes every day. For all this, they barely got by, squeezed every nickel, and never took a vacation longer than two weeks or farther than the back yard.

Every man I knew in my childhood was a white working class male, in a white working-class town in flyover, trailer-park America. My grandfathers were a plumber and a machinist. Neither had ever seen the inside of a high school. Dad was a bartender. Mom was a high-school dropout single parent who sold washer-dryers, waited on tables and cheated on the Welfare Department to keep food in the fridge.

All the women and men whom I knew, admired, loved and trusted — except my teachers — were undereducated. Most were underemployed, at jobs that insulted their innate intelligence. They sweated all their lives and ended it all with a pittance. All along, they knew they’d been handed the shitty end. They knew that the wealth earned by their work would mostly serve to enrich a handful of strangers living in towers in faroff places who didn’t give a rat’s ass who these people were and whether their jobs would give them cancer and kill them before their time.

They understood that the system, as Bernie and Trump revealed to no one’s surprise, is rigged. Always was. In the mantra of my grandfather, Archie: “Them what has, gets.”

Despite this fate, those forebears — my role models — fought it out. They kept struggling, set aside a few dollars and a lot of hope for their kids, and they survived. At times, they even thrived, because they chose not to let the system break their spirit. They never looked for someone to blame — at least not when they were sober. They never succumbed to self-pity.

Then, at some point after Vietnam, that spirit dissolved. America became a nation of victims. Battered by oil sheiks and ayatollahs, by housing bubbles and the Great Recession, by 9/11 — especially 9/11 — and egged on by demagogues waving the dark flag of fear, fear and fear itself, we accepted our national defeat.

There’s a familiar pathology to victimhood. Victims have few friends and many enemies, most of whom they’ve never met. They’re isolated, like the solitary lush at the end of the bar weeping into his Miller. Bring them together and they form not a team, but a mob. They chant, roar, curse, throw stuff and look for someone to beat up, lynch, stone, burn at the stake.

Victims don’t ask questions, don’t seek answers, don’t expect solutions. There are no solutions. They’ve given up. The best they can hope for is catharsis.

Donald Trump is a giant bladder swollen with catharsis. He articulates their self-pity, magnifies their paranoia and validates their bellyache. He’s a face on a t-shirt, with no answers longer than 140 characters. His followers will remain victims. Their only consolation will be a pack of lies direct from the White House. He’ll screw them and they’ll love him, as they blame others for their plight and feel oh, so sorry for themselves.

They say we should try to understand this.

We already do.

To hell with understanding.

For the sake of their children and our democracy, we have to rescue these ignorant yahoos from their abyss and welcome them back to the America they’ve forsaken.

The only way to do that is to beat them.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#805)

Jack Palance takes charge
by David Benjamin

“Net neutrality requires internet services providers to charge equal rates and offer equal speeds for all data usage. Without the policy, a telecommunications company — like Pai’s former employer Verizon — would be allowed to impose blocks on websites at its discretion or allow providers to create so-called fast lanes for preferred sites while other internet destinations lag on slower connections”
                                    — Kelly Weil, The Daily Beast

BARCELONA — It’s always about cattlemen and homesteaders.

At the Mobile World Congress here last week (an annual pilgrimage with Hotlips, crack technology reporter), I got my first glimpse of Jack Palance, new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

His civilian name is Ajit Varandaraj Pai, but as an aficionado of Western movies since Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, I instantly pegged this tall, cool drink of rotgut as the cattlemen’s official, dressed-in-black, silver-plated, pearl-handled gunslinger.

In the movies, the cattlemen are few but powerful. They lean back on their chairs in front of the saloon and palaver about the “free range,” meaning that it should be free for them to graze their beeves unfettered — from the rim of the Rockies to the Big Muddy floodplain — devouring its bounty entirely for their own enrichment and denying it to anyone who might prefer any purpose other than fattening a herd of steers that stretches as far as a cowpony can gallop in a hard-ridden hour.

When the cattlemen talk of grass and wildflowers, they use words like “fodder” and “feed.” Their word for oak and willow, hickory and spruce, is “lumber.” They don’t refer to “soil,” but call it the “range” or ”grazing rights.”  Likewise, they never say “water,” but “water rights,” which are privileges exclusive somehow to cattlemen, and their cattle.

The cattlemen’s nemesis are homesteaders, whom the cattlemen deride as “sodbusters,” johnny-come-lately settlers who arrive with the belief that the “open range” is as open to them, to their uses and dreams, to their families, farms, fences, crops and livestock, as it is to the cattlemen.

The cattlemen’s eternal mission — in movies, life and metaphor — is to disabuse the homesteaders of this democratic delusion.

The American struggle has always pitted an established few, claiming everything, against a sun-browned immigrant multitude who, after a week, or a month, or a lifetime of grueling labor, come around to harvest time — or payday — expecting, at least, something.

The few, who own the purse and knot the pursestrings, typically reply, “No. It’s ours.” And if the many put up a fuss, the few — the cattlemen — bring in a well-dressed assassin to reinforce their “rights” — to everything.

We’ve all seen the movie.

In the realm of telecommunications, which provides people access to phone calls, TV, radio, social media and“alt-right” propaganda, the “open range”is called “net neutrality.” The “open net’s” cattlemen are its colossal service providers — mainly AT&T, Verizon, T- Mobile and Sprint — the kings of the range.

We’re the homesteaders.

“Net neutrality” is the Homestead Act. It lets us share the Internet equally with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. Net neutrality means it’s okay to put a fence around our vegetables and draw water (“content”) from the same creek where AT&T’s longhorns trample, piss and scare away the beavers. Net neutrality isn’t everything. But it’s something. Until January 20, it was protected, sort of, by the FCC.

That’s when the cattlemen installed their gunslinger.

The first thing Jack Palance — rather, Ajit Pai — did when he came to town on the cattlemen’s dime was to kill an investigation by previous chairman Tom Wheeler. He was probing “zero-rating” plans that apparently permit mobile phone users to stream data, in Pai’s words, “for free.” Wheeler focused on the speed limits applied to this “free” data. He suspected that zero-rating might favor certain data over other data, to “bait-and-switch” consumers (homesteaders) into paying extra for less “buffering.”

There’d still be water in the creek, but it wouldn’t be as deep, swift or clear.

“Cattlemen? Damming the creek? Hogwash!” said Pai, twirling his six-shooter.

In the movies, the first thing Jack Palance did when he came to town on the cattlemen’s dime was to kill Stonewall Torrey, the bravest homesteader on the range.

In the movies, the cattlemen declare that they’re entitled. They own the range, the water, the mountains and the forests, because they got here first. In fact, we know — from history class — that they only got here early. Before the range was safe for cattle to graze and cowboys to call home, the government moved in, displacing, marching, starving, raping, cheating and killing off the native people who really did get here first.

The Internet is like that. The Web’s forgotten founding natives were a bunch of far-flung U.S. government hunter-gatherers who turned electromagnetic spectrum into a sort of magical planetary party line that I don’t even remotely understand (even though I’m regularly asked to write about it). As word spread and gold was discovered on the Web, its founders, like the Mohicans and Sioux, were shunted onto a reservation — not even allowed to open a casino.

The telecom cattlemen wasted no time taking over the range. They became regulators against regulation, infesting the FCC and insisting that they’re entitled because they were here all along. Whenever they got a Republican president, they hired a gunslinger to deal with the squatters.

We’re the squatters. We lean on fences and talk, we plow the back forty, feed the pigs and pull up the occasional stump. But, as a fighting force, we’re a mess — dispersed, disorganized, insolvent, outsmarted and outgunned. Now that Jack’s in town and Stonewall is six feet under, who’s left to protect our homesteads? Who’s going to keep the creek flowing? And where the hell is Shane? Why is he riding off into the sunset? Why is he leaning over in the saddle?

“Shane?! Come back! SHANE!”