Friday, March 20, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#713)

The ‘right to work’ for nothing
by David Benjamin

You got me workin’, boss man, /Workin’ ‘round the clock. /I want a little drink of water, /But you won’t let Jimmy stop…
                                                                 — Jimmy Reed 

MADISON, Wis. — The relationship has rarely been amicable between dedicated American businessmen and the pampered laborers who rake in obscene amounts of remuneration for the little work they do. Fortunately, a tiny elite force of “efficiency experts” emerged years ago to bring order to this disparity, turning the production process into cold, crisp, clear statistics and guiding management in its mission of whipping the working class into shape.

Foremost among these geniuses of productivity is my old friend, Smedley — who consulted in the efforts of Gov. Scott Walker to castrate labor unions and elevate Wisconsin into a “right-to-work” state. Now, Smedley is drawing up the last phase of Walker’s dream. “We’re poised to strangle organized labor in America, dismember its body and bury the pieces in widely scattered landfills.”

Smedley said, “Scooter told me. It’s not enough to deny the silly notion that workers have ‘rights.’ These chronic goldbricks — who’ve been raping the economy since Samuel Gompers — have to be crushed and demeaned until they do what they’re told without a peep. They must come to see the smallest workplace benefit — like 60 seconds, once a day, to take a leak — as a gift bestowed on a case-by-case basis by Bosses whose only moral responsibility is profit.”

I said this sounds pretty harsh. Smedley reminded me that “efficiency” is harsh because capitalism knows no mercy. He noted, “Scooter is the ideal hero of a new labor regime, because hasn’t worked at a real job for even a day in his whole life. With no capacity for empathy with rank-and-file slobs, Scooter can focus totally on making the frustrated dreams of every beleaguered Boss come true.

“And the Boss,’ Smedley added, “is the savior of the American way of life.”

“But now that he’s passed a ‘right-to-work law, what more can Walker do?”

“The answer lies in that very phrase: ‘right-to-work,’” said Smedley. “It embodies the steady, patient dismantling of the labor movement. The Bosses have framed the debate, twisting language to their advantage, often with the unwitting assistance of organized labor. Indeed, the term, ‘organized labor,’ was long ago embraced by unions despite its evocation of ‘organized crime.’ When Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to label the giants of industry as ‘organized money,’ the pejorative never caught on. That was the Bosses’ first semantic victory.

“But the biggest,” said Smedley, waxing almost philosophical, “was turning the word ‘union’ into a profanity. ‘Union’ was once the labor movement’s pride. ‘A more perfect union’ is the first ideal stated in the Constitution. We waged a Civil War to preserve the Union. But, today, most loyal Americans regard ‘union’ as a synonym for laziness and disloyalty, for refusal and insubordination on the job.”

I agreed. “Even ‘right-to-work’ is a linguistic contradiction,” I said. “It means ‘the right to lose your job to someone who’s willing to work for less.’”

Smedley only smiled.

“Okay, so,” I said, “the bosses have framed the discussion. What next?”
“Workers are still ruining the economy by expecting too much. They want houses when they should be happy with tents. They want cars when they only deserve shoe leather. They want sick days, coffee breaks, day care, health coverage, Sundays off and — God help us! — overtime pay. They’re running amok!”

“So, what’s the answer to all this greed, selfishness and luxury?”

“Auctions,” said Smedley. His saturnine smile reminded me of the Grinch. “We’re talking about the logical climax of the right-to-work crusade. We’re talking about putting out to bid — once a year — every job below senior management”

“I see,” I said. “So companies would bid for the best qualified people by offering the highest possible pay for each position?”

Smedley laughed out loud. “You really don’t get it, do you, kid?”

“Well, I guess not. I’ve worked all my life.”

“This explains why you don’t get it. You have no aptitude for leadership.”
Smedley said that in the brave new world of Scott Walker (and other state-house visionaries), workers would auction themselves for the lowest possible wage.

“Let’s say you want to flip burgers at Wendy’s,” explained Smedley. “You offer the Bosses the current minimum wage, $7.25 an hour. Another guy says he’ll do it for seven bucks. A woman interrupts, willing to sell herself for $6.50, after which the first bidder cuts his price to six even. When the auction is over, Wendy’s has a sweet one-year, cash-under-the-table deal with an illegal Salvadoran for 60 hours a week at a buck-and-a-half an hour. And you know the beauty part?”

“There’s a beauty part?”

“Wendy’s doesn’t even have to pay the simple bastard. He’s illegal. His only recourse is outfits like the National Labor Relations Board, which was long ago neutered by K Street lobbyists, right-wing Congressmen and plutocrat campaign donors like Dave and Charlie Koch (who, by the way, actually have a framed, notarized deed for Scott Walker’s soul — it’s hanging in their garage).”

I was still trying to make sense of Smedley’s plan. So, I said, “But if this auction scheme of yours takes hold — ”

“Oh, it’ll take hold, son. It’s as American as rhubarb pie.”

“But eventually,” I hypothesized, “the bidding will hit zero. People will work for nothing — like bloggers at the Huffington Post. We’ll end up with a system of de facto slavery across vast swathes of America.”

“Well, duh,” said Smedley. “It worked before, didn’t it?”

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#712)

“You wanna make somethin’ of it?”
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Unlike Ernest Hemingway, Nelson Algren and Opie Taylor, I didn’t engage in a whole lot of pugilism in my school days. Every normal kid in the combative 1950’s had ample opportunity to get beaten into tapioca by thugs at recess. However, operating under the assumption that I couldn’t possibly prevail against the sadistic hulks who roamed the playground like Jurassic reptiles, I learned how to evade most near occasions of bloodshed.

In retrospect, I’m a little regretful. Later in life, I learned that I have a certain moronic tenacity and a talent for taking a punch. Beating me senseless was a little like whacking a sheet hanging on a clothesline. I just kept hanging there, white and limp, while my assailant grew ever more arm-weary, knuckle-raw and aggravated.

But in grade school, I didn’t know how durable I was. Instead, I figured out how easy it can be to talk your way out of a potential subdural hematoma. I also noticed that, whenever a ruckus broke out on the St. Mary’s School playground, the final act was an anticlimax imposed by a grownup — usually Father Mulligan — who required the combatants to emulate Jesus and shake hands.

As testament to the warped psychology of kids, these coerced truces often evolved into friendships.

I remembered all this while pondering the fuss in Washington over President Obama’s delicate nuclear-arms talks with Iran. The Republicans — who took the extraordinary measure of writing a cautionary primer on U.S. civics to Iran’s ayatollahs — have stipulated that their idea of foreign policy involves neither my conversational strategy nor Father Mulligan’s invocation of divine authority. A handshake is unthinkable, and talking? To those guys? Just plain sissy.

I realize that it’s metaphorically dubious to suggest an exact parallel between schoolboy playground battles in the 1950’s and 21st-century nuclear diplomacy, but this GOP stunt nevertheless harked me right back to noon recess at St. Mary’s.

I mean, you remember how it went. The first kid, usually without evident provocation, would get himself chin-to-chin with some other kid. He would address him by his last name (fights never began on a first-name basis), followed by something like, “You’re a slime-sucking horse’s ass!”

To which Kid #2 would wittily respond: “Oh yeah?!”

Back to Kid #1: “Yeah!”

After which, the second kid was required — according to time-honored juvenile protocol to say, for example, “Yeah, well, (Last Name), you’re a pigfaced pile of crap.”

A few more “oh yeahs?” and “yeahs!”, culminated then in the rhetorical gauntlet-blow, always framed as: “Oh, yeah? You wanna make somethin’ of it?”

This was the cue for dialog to end and combat to commence, with lots of rolling around on the playground and body blows that had no effect because each kid was wearing a winter coat, two layers of clothing (one flannel, one wool) and long underwear.

What I figured out around fourth grade was that you could reliably forestall one of these contretemps by altering the standard liturgy, essentially tossing in an “Et cum spiritu tuo” where a “Christe eleison” was supposed to go.

For instance, let’s say Laufenberg, one of my more dependable antagonists, got into my face and delivered his line about me being a slime-sucking horse’s ass. Rather than taking his cue and intoning the obligatory but hackneyed, “Oh, yeah?”, I would cross him up with, “Jeez, John, d’you really think so?”

Laufenberg, expecting a question but not that one, would hesitate. This gave me time to rustle up a little more food for thought: “OK then, John, but what sort of horse?” Laufenberg might rally with a cunning riposte like, “Hunh?” But, by then, I was positioned to defuse the threat — and launch a general equine debate among the kids gathered ‘round — by asking, “I mean, could I be an Arabian horse’s ass? How ‘bout a mustang? Or a Clydesdale? A Shetland pony’s ass maybe?”

Forgive the obviously flawed metaphor, but it seems to me that, ever since the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, the ayatollahs have been saying to America, “You’re a slime-sucking horse’s ass,” and the U.S. response, for 35 years, has been the same old, “Oh yeah?” Followed by you-know-what — which would probably be OK if we’re talking about a couple of ten-year-olds on a parochial-school playground.

But here, the “you-wanna-make-somethin'-of-
it?” part involves hydrogen bombs. This is why, at last, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry surprised the ayatollahs and said, “Jeez, guys, d’you really think so?”

This altered liturgy now seems to be approaching the “What sort of horse’s ass?” stage. I think this is good, but it obviously violates the Republicans’ foreign policy principles, which appear to be stuck on the “oh-yeah?-yeah!-well-you’re-a-
pigfaced-pile-of-crap!” plateau. GOP senators are so miffed over the Arabian vs. Clydesdale discourse in Geneva that they’re writing mash notes to mullahs.

Ironically, Sen. Cotton’s Letter to Tehran is another positive sign. My old foe Laufenberg wasn’t known for parsing the Marquess of Queensbury Rules before grinding some kid into the asphalt at recess. If he had, he wouldn’t have remained — from 1st through 8th grades — the alpha-male Cro Magnon whom we all knew and feared. The last thing a true bully ever does is explain himself.

The President is getting the mullahs to explain themselves, and recess is already a little safer. But even if he can humor the Iranians, he faces a bigger challenge with the local bullies, who’ve been calling him a pigfaced pile of crap — and worse — for more than six years now. I don’t think they’re going to let up.

As Dorothy Parker didn’t quite say, “You can lead a horse’s ass to Congress, but you can’t make him think.”

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#711)

A snatch of trade-show jazz
by David Benjamin

BARCELONA — If it’s March, it must be the Mobile World Congress (MWC). January was Vegas and CES. Been to IFA, NAB, CATV, DVB (in Dublin, with whiskey tastings and dog races — loved that), Electronica, CeBit (in Hanover, proudly known as “The Armpit of Lower Saxony"), IBC, even once hung with the leisure suits at the RCCC wing-ding in Grand Rapids.

Here, it’s “cellular devices,” everyone peering into 5-inch screens, thousands of phoneblind geeks veering and stumbling, like the first reel of The Day of the Triffids and I’m Howard Keel. What am I doing here? My only phone sits on a table at home.

I’m a spy at a Star Trek convention. Everyone is breeding tribbles and hoarding dilithium crystals to warp themselves into strange worlds (5G, wherever that is) whence no nerd has gone before. Over there, back to back, two propeller-heads staring into the hypno-screens of their “communicators,” executing a Vulcan mind-meld and catching up on Kirk’s weight-gain issues. Except, well, this starship voyage is real. These mooks are serious. They have the power, the money, the technology to make all of us into trekkies, transporting us into text-eternal exile on the mothballed transport Botany Bay, somewhere beyond the Neutral Zone.

I’m the only one without a smartphone. But I’m a certified smartass, and I’m carrying a book (Deadwood by Pete Dexter), just in case things get boring.

And they do get boring.

Up on the huge screen before the “keynote” session (how can a speech be “key” if there are two or three of them every day?) a six-foot portrait of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook feuhrer. A hero here. For most of us a lot more ambiguous. Internet pioneer or a greedy little dropout with a Napoleon complex? What have you done to my privacy, Zuck?

Oh God, there goes the music. Throb, throb, wham! At 120 decibels. Every high-tech trade show I’ve been to… How many years? Giant speakers and a beat dumber than Diana Ross singing “Baby Love.” Thump, thump, thump, not even a “thumpety” in between. Speakers the size of a two-car garage, and music composed by gifted gorillas force-fed barbiturates. Makes Iron Butterfly and Twisted Sister sound subtle and sophisticated. Wham wham wham, screech, THUMP.

Picture Beethoven here, feeling the throb. Smiling. Glad to be deaf.

But it works, Makes you grateful when the human speakers finally hit the stage, spouting drivel but so much more tuneful than the alleged music of the concussive fanfare. It’s hard to trust anyone, or any organization, or any  collection of 90,000 like-minded trade-show zombies whose musical taste stinks this bad.

Next year, I bring tomatoes.

Not to eat.

As the alleged “music” humps and thunders, words two yards tall explode on a stageful of screens. Theme seems to be “ME.” Mobile entertainment? Massive entropy? Mind-numbing ennui? The flicker-flashing, epileptic uber-images — shades of The Andromeda Strain? — assist in conveying the existential apotheosis of consumer gadgetry… my Internet, my money, My health, My education, MY travel, MY entertainment, MY friends, MY identity, MY lobotomy!

OK, I added that last one.

By and by, a woman marches on stage. She has quiet self-assurance of a wounded cobra. Her name is Anne and she’s Director General of the GSMA — which used to stand for something, but now it’s NBI. She makes it clear that she wants everything “connected.” Connected cars, bikes, mopeds. Connected toothbrushes. (You get a shock if you skip a molar.) Connected suitcases. Connected suicide bombers destroying five different Burger Kings simultaneously.

Oops. Wait. We already have that.

Even so, what they don’t seem to have is connected security. To get as far into the Fira Barcelona as this “keynote,” there are security checks over and over. Six times. The only guys not carrying mobile phones are shlepping machine guns. And the uniforms! Lapis lazuli with red epaulets. Charcoal from head-to-toe with a jaunty maroon beret. Dark khaki with form-fitting body armor (a full metal jacket) and bloused pantaloons. Desert camo with forest-green trim highlights and patent-leather, steel-toe jackboots. Spain is the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré of military haute couture. Generalissimo Francisco Franco lives!

Nice thing about Spain? They hire pretty girls to stand around directing the clueless. Uniforms aren’t as varied and flattering as the cops and soldiers’ outfits, but they’re cute, in navy blue with red blazers, red scarves. One senorita smiles glowingly and Ray Charles bubbles ineluctably upward…

“See the girl with the red scarf on! She can do the dog all night long, oh-oh yeah…”

Along the way to the keynote, tall unnerving banners declaring the “unleashing” of various “markets.” From what? I pass under “South Africa Unleashed.” But didn’t that happen, finally, in ‘94? There are more unleashings — Colombia (a little scary — cocaine, anyone?), Peru (would anybody notice?), Russia (fine, but can we snap that idle leash onto Vlad the Terrible?). Wait a minute. “Germany Unleashed”? Even after 70 years, the idea of the Fourth Reich — unleashed Rottweilers and Dobermans (and Angela Merkel in a pants suit!) galloping amok across the Englischer Garten, mangling poodles and swallowing Yorkies whole? — tends to trigger my weltschmerz.

Besides “unleashed,” the big word here, in the corridors, on banners, printed in nine-foot letters on the show floor, is “INNOVATION” (all caps). Same as at CES, same for years at IFA, NAB, IBC, Electronica, etc. Marketing types in geekworld use “innovation” the way teenagers use “like,” “y’know,” “dude,” “awesome.” Y’know? Like that, dude.

Picture a precocious Mobile-Worlder, 13 or so, checking it all out, saying, “Whoa, hey! Awesome, I mean, like, the innovation here, I mean, y’know, these innovative dudes’re awesome at y’know, like, innovating, dude! I’m like, whoa. Y’know. I mean, that’s what it is, dude, like, innovation!”

Yes. I know. (Scotty, quick! Beam me up.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#710)

Overheard at an ISIS barbecue
by David Benjamin

SOMEWHERE IN SYRIA — A trio of Islamists — Ahmed, Mohammed and Kurlijo — gathered round a campfire, a Christian baby roasting on a spit.

One says, “Ah, I love the smell of barbecued infidel in the morning.”

“It’s night time, Mo,” replies Ahmed.

“Hey, look,” says Kurli. “It says on my iPad that America is spoiling for a big-ass ground war against us, right here. They’re ready for a whole new quagmire.”

Mo: “That would be great. Think of it. We get to kill Americans, break the hearts of their moms, break up American marriages, orphan American kids and  devastate their families. And the beauty part: We don’t have to go anywhere or spend any money. No air fares, no phony passports, no huge MasterCard bills for explosives and blasting caps at Home Depot. We just squat here, pick off redneck kids from Oklahoma and Utah, behead the occasional reporter and then, like Geronimo and the Apaches, we melt into the desert. Allahu Akbar, baby!”

Ahmed: “I don’t get it. They’re safe, across a whole ocean, thousands of miles away. All their own Muslims are Westernized, petty bourgeois, tamer than hamsters and under surveillance by Neighborhood Watch. Why in Allah’s name would they want to ship their children over here to get killed, maimed and screwed-up for life with PTSD. Haven’t they seen American Sniper?”

Mo: “Americans? Man, they’re all crazy. But the craziest of ‘em all belong to this big political party. Old white men who get some sort of sick thrill rounding up teenagers from small towns and urban ghettos, duding them up in camouflage costumes and shipping them off to die pointlessly in Third World hellholes like this miserable slab of barren ground right here. Yo, Ahmed! Keep the spit turning.”

Kurli: “So, you’re saying there’s a permanent war party in America?”

Mo: “Yeah, they call themselves lots of things. Conservatives. Patriots. Republicans. Chicken hawks. But it all comes down to flag-waving, saber-rattling and sacrificing the young for the sake of getting a few Golden Agers re-elected.”

Ahmed and Kurlijo shake their heads in wonder at the absurdity of American militarism. Mo points at Kurli and says, “Hey, what’s that you’re sitting on.”

Kurli: “What? Oh, that’s my Koran.”

Mo: “Our most sacred book? The reason we’re out here, freezing our tuchises, slaughtering Yazidis and Shiites and harmless Jews? We massacre whole villages for looking cross-eyed at the Koran. And you’re using it as a sit-upon?”

Kurli: “Hey, lighten up, Mo. The ground is cold.”

Mo: “You should be reading the Koran, not using it to keep your ass warm.”

Kurli: “So, Mr. holier-than-thou. You’re saying you can read?”

Mo: “Well, not exactly. My imam says education is against Allah.”

Ahmed: “The imam’s right. Who reads? We live — happily ignorant — in a tribal, oral, virulently anti-intellectual culture that has devolved tragically from the scientific progressivism of our Ottoman forbears.”

Kurli: “You’re making us sound like Southern Baptists.”

Ahmed: “Hey, if the sandal fits, man. We’re functionally illiterate, unemployed, politically reactionary, chronically pissed off and we love guns. And all we really know from sacred scripture is what we hear out of wild-eyed preachers who think the Great Satan is on the march and the world is coming to an end. We could all close our eyes and imagine we’re in Mississippi.”

Kurli: “What’s Mississippi?”

Mo: “Hey, please, man. Do me a favor. Get off your Koran already.”

Kurli finally relents. Sitting on the cold ground, he fans the Koran and says, “I can stare at this book for a year and not understand a word. But maybe that’s the secret of jihad. Maybe what keeps us fighting is what not what we know, but what we don’t know about Islam. Let’s face it. When you’re talkin’ scripture, most of us couldn’t tell the difference between Mohammed and, say, Matt Damon.”

Ahmed: “Hey, Matt Damon I know. I love that guy. Even if he is an infidel. I mean. He’s macho but he’s also sensitive, y’know?”

Kurli: “Yeah, those ‘Bourne’ movies were great.

Mo: “Except for the last one. But that wasn’t Matt Damon.”

Ahmed: “No, it was that Chris Pine guy. The one from the Star Trek remake.”

Mo: “Hey, now there’s something I could do all day — watch Star Trek flicks. Spock. Uhura. Captain Kirk! Wouldn’t it be a gas, killing Americans with phaser guns? Zap! Zip! Bwee! Or better yet, just stun ‘em. And then slice off their heads!”

Ahmed: “I’d just as soon kill ‘em outright. I know too many guys got tennis elbow from sawing off the heads of missionaries. The pain is excruciating.”

Kurli: “That’s the thing I can’t figure out. They know we like to behead outsiders, right? They know we’re penniless sadists with nothing to lose. They know this whole place is just rocks, camels, the occasional sandstorm, and homely ignorant women cloaked in tent-canvas from head to toe. Why do they keep coming? Why do they fight an enemy who runs away and hides until they give up and leave, even if it takes a hundred years? Why do they send these nice young kids for us to frustrate them, blow them up, cut them to ribbons, screw with their minds and turn them into homeless drunks and cripples living out of garbage cans?”

Ahmed: “ Funny, isn’t it? Now and then, we do a suicide bombing in the neighborhood. Or we mimic some white-guy hero from Western history, like Henry VIII or Robespierre, and we hack off a few heads. Meanwhile, for the sake of political gamesmanship, they sacrifice thousands of their own children in an unnecessary war on the wrong side of the world. And it’s us they call barbarians?”

Kurli: “Go figure.”

Mo: “Hey, the Christian is medium-rare. You want me to carve?”

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#709)

The lost Nazi
by David Benjamin

PARIS — The report is sketchy, as usual. A Parisian living somewhere on the Left Bank went to his cave, or wine cellar, to fetch a bottle. He discerned there a furtive figure — a shadow, really. It flickered across the edge of his vision and vanished into the vast network of tunnels beyond the cave, the great underground cemetery of the poor people of Paris, known as the Catacombs.

The witness only thinks he saw someone. There were no marks or footprints. The bottle’s empty cradle contained a single coin. But the witness wasn’t sure if he might have taken the bottle upstairs and uncorked it a week, or a month, before. The coin might have been there all along, misplaced and unnoticed. 

This scantly reported incident revived one of my favorite Paris mysteries, the weird case of the lost Nazi. The legend dates from the battle to liberate Paris in August 1944, when — it is said —German soldiers chased several Resistance fighters through the Left Bank streets of Denfert-Rochereau. The rebels fled through a secret entrance to the Catacombs, which served as a Resistance hideout during the Nazi occupation. The most daring of the Germans followed them — and disappeared. Like many careless explorers before, he apparently got lost among the Catacombs’ more than 200 miles of tunnels. They had begun as limestone quarries but were turned into an ossuary for more than six million dead Parisians.

After the war, that chase through Denfert-Rochereau was forgotten. But in the next two decades, sightings of a subterranean shadowman, a spectral glimpse in the gloom, kept haunting the back pages of Paris journals. These dubious tales came often from residents whose cellars adjoined the Catacombs. But engineers and workers renovating the quarries also spoke — timidly and infrequently — about an underground wraith who came to be known as le Nazi perdu, “the lost Nazi.”

The lost Nazi gradually evolved into a French equivalent of those Japanese soldiers, left behind on remote South Pacific islands, who went on hiding in the jungle and fighting World War II twenty or thirty years after Japan’s surrender.

But in 1957, researchers at the Freie Universität Berlin issued a report responding to the Parisian stories, It verified that virtually every Wehrmacht soldier assigned to Paris in August 1944 was accounted for — either killed, captured or evacuated — by the German high command. All but one.

His name, according to the report, was Willi Knorber. Despite his Parisian nom de guerre, he was probably not a Nazi. The German records reveal that he was from the bleak and sunless cliffside village of Mossfurt in Lower Saxony, and was drafted into the Hitler Youth in 1942 at age 13. Willi then became one of the child soldiers pressed into the Wehrmacht as Hitler became desperate for manpower. Willi’s been listed officially as “missing in action” since August 20, 1944.

Willi Knorber was just the sort of rural bumpkin in Paris who might stumble into a subterranean labyrinth and never find his way out. The Catacombs are a great, death-whispering sanctuary so deep and so serpentine that they could hide a scared, lost boy-soldier from a man-eating world long enough and safely enough to make a hermit’s life seem to him, by and by, like Heaven under earth.

Even after the Knorber file emerged, tales of le Nazi perdu were dismissed as Paris’ version of alligators in the New York sewers. Harder to ignore were reports from Left Bank denizens about stolen wine, purloined potatoes, the disappearance of a moth-eaten blanket or a jar of fig preserves from the family cave.

Early on in these “burglaries,” coins of 10, 5 or 50 reichspfennigs were left behind at the scene of the crime. When these coins ceased to appear, believers in le Nazi perdu logically suggested that Willi had just used up all his change. Then the coins returned, in currencies German, French, American, Japanese and, lately, euros. There was, of course, no way to trace them to purses and rucksacks “lost” by tourists in the Catacombs.

About 20 years ago, sightseers began to talk of a haunting figure among them in the tunnels. He was gaunt and funereally pale, dressed raggedly, as quiet as the skulls and bones all around. His witness, often, would turn to peer more closely, only to see no one. He vanished as suddenly and silently as he had appeared.

Finally, there’s the story of little Patty Brill, the American seven-year-old who — several years ago — wandered into one of the Catacombs’ thousand side-tunnels, triggering parental panic, a Muslim abduction scare and 20 hours of searching by everyone from the Paris cops, to the Sapeurs et Pompiers of the fire department, to a cabal of secret cataphiles who in defiance of authority use the limestone underground as both nightclub and cathedral. Patty, when she suddenly reappeared, said she’d been led, hand in hand, by a tall, stooped “old guy” who spoke softly in an odd language and slipped her somehow through a locked gate into the main passageway. A further manhunt found no sign of the “old guy.”

As a journalist most of my adult life, I’m inclined to scoff at legends like Willi Knorber, the lost Nazi. But I’ve been a romantic since I was Patty’s age. So, I prefer to think that Willi, a boy thrust bewildered into the Third Reich meatgrinder, muddled, in the endless tunnels of Paris, into a separate peace. He found there a way to survive and, perhaps, to atone. He was able to wall away the horror that brought him to Hitler’s darkened City of Light. With Paris as his roof, he has eluded the barbarity and carnage that signifies the human condition since the summer day when Willi tumbled, like Alice, into the rabbithole.

I like to think Willi’s still among us, a leathery codger with neither politics nor philosophy, still nicking the odd bottle of Medoc or Muscadet (and leaving a euro). He’d be nestled in a passage where no one else has set foot for 200 years, since that last monk genuflected on the cobblestones, crossed himself and deposited the last anonymous skull in the vast and trackless “Ossuaire Municipal de Paris.”

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#708)

My car, the mother… board
by David Benjamin

PARIS — Over the past few months, I’ve been conducting an informal survey, asking friends and strangers this question: “What’s the best car ever made?”

My dad’s choice was a ’55 Chevrolet Bel Air in which he used to kick up gravel and raise hell in Tomah. Mine was also a Chevy, the ’57 Bel Air driven by Dick Albright, my best friend in high school. Other selections I gathered along the way included, of course, the ’65 Mustang, the ’73 slant-six Plymouth Duster, the ’63 Citroen DS, the ’56 Chrysler New Yorker, the ’64 Olds Toronado, the ’66 Alfa Romeo Spider, the ’64 Lincoln Continental, the ’78 Pontiac Trans Am, the ’64 Jaguar XKE, the ’83 Mercedes-Benz turbo-diesel, the ’69 Beetle and the ’71 Dodge Charger. A homeless guy on the Strip in Las Vegas just said to me, “Studebaker. Any Studebaker. They were made of steel.”

Notably common to all these choices is that none of them even remotely reflects 21st-century automotive genius. The closest was the ’95 Hummer, which a post-Boomer regarded as kind of nifty.

I’m not a car guy. I wasn’t curious about this question until the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas was invaded by every auto manufacturer on earth, each promoting what they call the “center stack,” that blinking, beeping multimedia tumor that has swollen up between the driver and passenger seats. Your typical “center-stack” — which has nothing to do with transportation — has an eerie resemblance to a Roswell alien and includes controls for communications, emergency services and global positioning. But its main purpose is what the industry calls “infotainment” (a term that rivals “webinar” as the ugliest biz-lingo coinage ever conceived).

In Dick’s beautiful ’57 Bel Air, the “center stack” consisted of an AM radio with five buttons to pre-set favorite stations. Closer to the steering wheel, there were buttons (or “touch-pads”) to control the heater, the fan and a windshield defroster that took five minutes to melt an area the size of a quarter. There was also a cigarette lighter. This wasn’t much but the result was a dashboard with an elegant simplicity and a space-age aesthetic that stands the test of time. That old dash still looks way cool after 58 years.

Dick’s Bel Air, bless its heart, had broad sprawlable bench seats, front and back. It was built before the unfortunate advent of the bucket seat, a pernicious Puritan regression that ended the era of front-seat sex — even the head-on-shoulder snuggling depicted in countless Fifties lithographs and car ads in Look, Life and The Saturday Evening Post.

No mass-production vehicle since 1957 has improved significantly on the Bel Air’s roominess, sturdiness, mechanical integrity, power, comfort, design or ability to pick up girls. In many respects, cars were pretty much perfect by 1960. Nothing more needed to be done.

Certainly, there have been advances since then, with better production technology, quality control, safety and fuel economy, smaller engines with equivalent power, pollution reductions, lighter materials, air conditioning, cup-holders, FM radio, etc. But this is all engineering. A lot of stuff got better inside the car while the exterior up and lost its mojo.

When you think about cool-looking cars, you think classic Porsche or James Bond’s Aston Martin. You think of the Beach Boys ’62 409, Johnny Bond’s Hot Rod Lincoln, Steve McQueen’s ’68 Mustang, or that wonderfully weird-looking ’51 Le Sabre that Buick was afraid to manufacture. “Cool” is not a word that springs to mind today at the sight of a four-wheel lozenge-with-headlights that looks like GlaxoSmithKline designed it to fit less painfully into snug orifices for laxative purposes.

My current car is an ’01 Sentra. Its moving parts date back pretty much to ’57 and it works fine — as long as I submit it regularly to mechanics who know what to tighten, where to lubricate and how often. Since I got it (used), my only major repair was replacing the electronic control unit (ECU). It died at 70,000 miles and rendered the car instantly inert. My new ECU cost $2,000. The dealer told me he’d had six similar failures — which doesn’t sound like many ‘til you multiply by Nissan’s 1,100 dealerships in just the USA. That’s $2.2 million in one model year for replacing a motherboard that can keep a car from running but can’t make it run.

When I look at my survey, I notice that everybody’s idea of a great car doesn’t have a motherboard.

Luddite though I seem, I’m not opposed to automotive progress, even under the hood. Eventually, I believe, all cars will be electric or hydrogen- powered. The question is, should they continue to look like half-sucked cough-drops? Or might it be nicer if they resembled that ’55 T-Bird my uncle Herb drove into town one day? Or that truly cherry ’61 ‘Vette (later updated to a ’63, then a ’64 Sting Ray) that Martin Milner and George Maharis used to tool around America in “Route 66”?

(Of course, there will still be ugly cars on the road. Always have been — the Edsel, for example. The AMC Pacer was an aesthetic travesty. And every Oldsmobile in the 1980’s should’ve been driven to the nearest quarry and torched by juvenile delinquents. The ugliest of future cars will be the “autonomous,” or “self-driven” variety. They’ll look like stretch sedan-chairs and they’ll have their own lane on the road. Inside, without drivers — whipping along at 18 mph — will be the blind and the halt, the unlicensed and the DUI-disabled, and thousands of geezers who had their licenses revoked. I picture them in there napping, watching “Wheel of Fortune” re-runs on the Game Show Channel, playing canasta.)

I’m not opposed to progress but I recoil at useless complexity. I know that computers in cars are here to stay. But why so many so fast? Neither my old ’66 Ford Econoline (Rosemary) nor my ’94 Dodge Lancer (the Beige Bomb) contained a single CPU. Now we’re making cars with 300 CPUs requiring a fussy network of operating systems, links, buses and bypasses to keep from shorting each other out and frying the magneto. Senator Edward Markey has just issued a report about the vulnerability of car computers to being “hacked.” Someone far, far away, he warns, can now seize control of your Beamer and run you remotely into a not-so-remote bridge abutment. Don’t laugh. Sen. Markey’s nightmare was the thoroughly credible plot last year for an unfunny episode of “Person of Interest.”

Cars don’t need to be laptops on wheels. They don’t need to be smartphones that can go ninety while scheduling Junior’s piano lessons, monitoring Suzie’s soccer practice, surveilling Dad’s lunch meeting and superimposing “Game of War” in transparent 3D on the windshield.

Oncoming traffic ought to be the only thing visible in, on or beyond the windshield — even though it’s boring. The steering wheel ought to be the only thing the driver controls by touch. People don’t need to be convinced by advertisers that careless, discourteous and distracted driving is OK now because technology can take over and steer the car and hit the brakes and veer across three lanes while you text sweet nothings to your cutie or try to find the burning cigarette in your lap.

A car can be beautiful, as has been proven a thousand times. A car can be fun, as Burt Reynolds demonstrated perhaps more convincingly (and recklessly) than any other driver. A car can be simple enough to be kept in flawless repair by an East L.A. high school dropout with a six-drawer toolbox and a manual grease gun.

Over its more than two centuries of existence, the car has become far more than its inventors — Cugnot, Rivaz, Karl Benz and even Henry Ford — ever imagined. Depending on what a person makes of it, a car can play many roles. A car can be bedroom or playroom, dining room or barroom, boardroom or hangout, or even — in a pinch — a household. It can be a sidekick, a spouse, a shrink, an adventure, an escape, a phallic facsimile, a feminist flying-carpet, a lifesaver, a murder weapon and a coffin. A car can be a cash cow for automakers, especially if it’s glutted with features, options, gimcracks, doo-dads, tweeters, woofers, undercoating and a “center-stack” packed with HD, Netflix, killer apps, satellite maps and dancing colored lights. But, for all that, a car is nothing but sheet metal and noxious fluids if it doesn’t get you from here to there.

A car still has to be a car.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#707)

I was Charlie
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Considering the travesty at Charlie Hebdo this month, you might think that the worst thing that could happen to a satirist is writing (or drawing) stuff that gets him killed. This ain’t necessarily so.

Whether they’re going for laughs or not, lots of people get killed for writing stuff. Thomas More, decapitated in London. Madame Roland, guillotined in Paris. Fritz Gerlich, executed at Dachau. Daniel Pearl murdered in Pakistan. James Foley and Steven Sotloff, beheaded on YouTube. Dozens of rank-and-file journalists bite the dust every year just for filing straight, factual, unfunny news copy.

For a satirist, the real crusher isn’t death. It’s when people just don’t get it.

The irony of Charlie Hebdo is that the editors and cartoonists got killed because their murderers actually got the joke, and didn’t like it. Charlie Hebdo’s satire was so obvious that even a literal thinker could follow along.

I know the feeling. I wrote my first spoof in fourth grade, about my teacher, Mrs. Ducklow. I handed it in proudly, certain that she’d be dazzled by my suavity and rapier wit. So, when Mrs. Ducklow hied me grimly into the hall, I had no idea what was up. Father Mulligan — the jolliest Irishman in town — was waiting there, doing his best to look stern. The two grownups loomed over me. They explained that making light of established authority was “disrespectful.” Worse, when attempted by a parochial-school popinjay like me, satire was an actual sin.

Luckily for me, I knew my catechism. It didn’t contain one word about satire. Humor might piss off Jesus, but it requires no Act of Contrition.

After I had recovered from the inquisition in the hallway, I grasped vaguely that my mistake was not that I had mocked authority but that I had mocked it weakly. Through trial and error, I gradually learned that satire is a cruelly difficult discipline. It has to work on two, or three different levels. It should make some people laugh out loud, while others knit their brows in puzzlement, and everybody else? Well, they didn’t even realize they were in the presence of a gag.

My first successful adventure in satire was nothing I wrote. It was more like a stroke of guerrilla theater, from out of the blue. One summer, my sister Peg and I were evacuated to a 4-H summer camp near Wisconsin Dells. The camp featured thrills like canoeing, near-drowning, hiking, lanyard-braiding, saluting the flag at dawn, mosquitoes, horseflies and three-hole outhouses. I actually don’t recall any of that “fun,” because I went astray on the first day and lost track of the agenda.

It all started when the counselers handed everyone a rawhide necklace attached to a blank wooden square. They told us all to etch our first name onto this plaque — which we were supposed to wear at all times. If we did, the counselors lied, we’d all get to know each other and make lifelong friends.

Back at St. Mary’s School, my name hadn’t made me many friends. Everyone knew it but mostly they called me other — less friendly — names. “Shitass” and “peckerface” were both popular. This history left me a little jaded about the value of first-name promiscuity.

As I gazed at my empty nametag, I found myself toying with a deviant notion. I had stumbled into a sort of identity void where nobody but Peg (whose cabin was on the other side of camp) knew me. I was nobody. I could be anybody.

So, when I put “Charlie” on my name tag, no one challenged it. There was no one who knew otherwise. I became Charlie. Charlie became me.

And Charlie turned out to be a whole different kid. At St. Mary’s, I was meek, mild, outcast and downtrodden. Charlie, on the other hand, was this brazen, outgoing. mischievous hepcat and — here’s the weird part — he was musical.

OK, I can’t sing. Never could, never will. I’m like Theodore Roethke’s serpent. But Charlie? He knew a lot of dumb, mildly vulgar kid songs. By slightly re-writing the lyrics and inserting the names of fellow campers, he tapped a demand I couldn’t understand. He was making fun of kids — and myself (Charlie couldn’t sing, either) — and they loved it. By Day 2, Charlie was not only rendering snatches of off-key doggerel for anyone who requested a tune, he was getting paid for it. In nickels, dimes and quarters, Charlie was making more money in an hour than I made in a half-day of mowing Grandpa Schaller’s endless lawn.

On the third day, Peg realized that this idiot minstrel everyone was giggling about was her brother. She accosted me and insisted that I desist being Charlie, lest she die of embarrassment. I told her, hey, we’re all strangers here. And Charlie has no sister! Peg was safe if she just avoided me. At this, she got a little angrier, told me I was ruining 4-H Camp for her and stomped off in a huff. She didn’t get it.

I had achieved satire.

Here I was ridiculing people and getting paid for it. I was making a mockery of woodcraft and leatherwork and all that other campy crap. Even worse, I was lampooning the sacred concept of friendship through nametags.

I did make friends, but these were mainly the kids who got the gag. They liked both of us, me and Charlie. Better yet, I made no enemies — except for Peg,

Of course, my truce with literal thinkers didn’t last. I read Twain. I read Swift and moved on to Mencken. My loyalties shifted from Superman and Scrooge McDuck to Groucho Marx and Alfred E. Newman. I began to dip my pen in acid. Enemies materialized. By high school, I was getting into lots bigger trouble than I ever would have imagined that day in the hallway with Father Mulligan.

Nor would I have expected a massacre in Paris 55 years later to remind me of those days at the Dells when I whimsically morphed into a jester named Charlie. But, as the late, lamented jesters of Hebdo so terribly demonstrated on the 7th of January, once you’ve etched “Charlie” onto your nametag, there’s no turning back.

You’re Roethke’s serpent and you’ve got sing, “… like Anything!”