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!”

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#804)

The Thing on the Bedside Table
by David Benjamin

“Life! Life, do you hear me?! Give my creation LIFE!!”

          — Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein (1974)

WASHINGTON D.C. — The beautiful woman with the strangely Oriental eyes, cantilevered cheekbones and subtly protruding lips awoke, as usual, at 4 a.m. and drowsily regarded the thing on the bedside table.

It was pale pink, shriveled, wrinkled and slightly damp. In the dim light, it reminded her of a used condom. She arose from bed and turned, as the door opened. The family’s ancient retainer turned on the light and wheeled a battered air compressor into the the palatial boudoir.

“Good morning, Mungo,” she said.

“Morning, Madame,” said the old man.

For a moment, they stood silently staring at the thing on the bedside table. “I can’t help but think,” said Mungo, “of a discarded snake skin.”

The beautiful woman favored Mungo with her brief, cool, enigmatic smile. “If I’d only known,” she said, “ before the wedding.”

Mungo didn’t reply. He picked up the seemingly insignificant shred of translucent membrane, found a tiny rectum on its surface and attached the air compressor. He flipped a switch. The powerful device suddenly, almost miraculously, filled and expanded the bedside object with hot air, until it stood six feet tall and naked, swollen vastly in its midsection, with soft, tiny fingers, a bald pate and no visible lips.

“Mungo, please,” said the woman, “put on his underpants. I really don’t want to look at… well…”

The old retainer hastily complied.

Although now fully inflated and coursing with oxygen and fluids, it showed yet no sign of animation. Mungo undertook to dress it in a costly, perfectly tailored Italian silk suit, over a white shirt of Egyptian cotton. Meanwhile, the beautiful woman mounted atop the thing a golden mane, fashioned of fine polyester strands. She glued the flamboyant toupée in place and swept it back, lending it the look of a windblown blond duck perched atop a marble bust.

A look of pathos clouded her lovely face as she studied the daily handiwork she shared with Mungo, and only Mungo.

“The tie is too short,” she said. “Re-tie it. And don’t forget to Scotch-tape the short end.”

“Of course, Madame.”

After this correction, Mungo proceeded to apply a thin coat of spray paint on its face, transforming its hue from a fish-belly pallor to the interior of an underripe muskmelon.

“Perfect,” said the beautiful woman. “Lovely.”

“Almost forgot,” said Mungo, finding beside the bed a thin metal shaft. “If I don’t put the steel in his spine, he’ll start flopping around like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.”

Now fully dressed, adorned and erect, it remained inert. The beautiful woman said, “Try some of his favorite words.”

Obediently. Mungo leaned close to its ear and said, “Tremendous! Really tremendous! Believe me! A wall! A WALL!”

This elicited no response. The old family retainer kept plugging. “Wharton! Best school! High IQ. So high you wouldn’t believe! Believe me! Energy! Enthusiasm! Beautiful buildings! Big hands! Big everywhere! Just tremendous! Incredible! Unbelievable! The blacks, the Jews! They love me! Love me! Bigly! Three hundreds and six electoral college votes! Biggest in history! Best in history! Biggest! Best! Fine-tuned machine! Biggestbest! Trust me! I KNOW!”

Its surface trembled but its eyes stayed shut.

“I think, Madame,” said Mungo, “that we’ll need stronger measures today.”

“Very well. Piss him off.”

Mungo nodded, placed his mouth next to its ear, and whispered a single word that sent a violent shudder coursing through its bloated form.

“Hillary!” hissed Mungo.

“Good, it’s working! Keep going.”

Mungo stepped back and calmly intoned a bruising series of inflammatory exclamations. “Obama! Disgraceful. Total disaster. Worst in history! Little Marco! Dishonest media. Crooked Hillary! Illegal leaks! Mexicans! Judges. Real leaks! Fake news! Shut up! Illegal votes! Millions! Disgraceful. Illegal aliens! Disgusting. Muslims! Nuclear holocaust! Nordstrom’s! Unfair!”

With this stimulus, it began to twitch and rock in place. Its lipless mouth began to squirm. A thin strand of drool emerged.

“He’s ready,” said Mungo. “Crank the engine, Madame.”

The beautiful woman sighed. While Mungo placed a live cell phone in its left hand, she lifted her nightgown and positioned her pussy within reach of its right hand.

Wearily, she sighed and told Mungo, “Okay, rev ‘im up.”

Mungo, assuming a tone of abject desperation and palpable fear, said, “Oh, but please, sir. Please don’t. Please, I need this job!”

It stirred. Its eyes flew open. They flickered once and rolled back. But then they focused keenly and malevolently on the cringing face of Mungo.

Simultaneously, its little left thumb began to click frantically on the cell phone, misspelling an insult — in capital letters — to Pope Francis, while its tiny right hand ground away at the beautiful woman’s reluctantly exposed genitals.

After a moment, the woman detached herself from the claw in her crotch, stepped back, rearranged her negligee and said, “Well, God help us, it’s morning in America.”

“You,” it growled, leering at the old man. A reddish tinge glowed beneath its orange surface. Its mouth twisted with malicious pleasure. “YOU?” it roared.

Juicily, it spit out its two favorite, life-giving words like dum-dum bullets into the face of the ancient retainer: “You’re fired! FIRED!”

It went on, of course. Once activated it always went on. “Get out! Out of my sight! You’re disgusting! Horrible! You’re a disgrace! Total disaster!”

Etcetera. It was the normal start to a normal day. While it spouted away, the beautiful woman and the old, discreet butler guided it out toward the world where it raged and fumed incoherently, uttered statements of colossal ignorance and lied gloriously. In bursts of energy provided by an 18-hour supply of hot, compressed air, it alternately insulted and demeaned vast swathes of humanity in swift and dizzying succession, only to turn an instant later and plead pathetically with great masses of total strangers to please, please like me, love me, like me, admire me, worship my wealth, envy me my luscious wife, say good things about my golf swing, adore my every bizarre impulse and trust my every preposterous outburst.

As it crossed the threshold into another day of ineffable tremendousness, it turned toward Mungo, whom it had just fired. It shook the old man’s hand possessively and said, “I’m really a swell guy, by the way. Really. I am. They all love me. All of them. Believe me. Who are you?”

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#803)

Knock yourself out, Mom
by David Benjamin

“Each team will have six to nine players on the field, instead of 11; the field will be far smaller; kickoffs and punts will be eliminated; and players will start each play in a crouching position instead of in a three-point stance.”
                                             — New York Times, 31 Jan.

MADISON, Wis. — Alarmed by a steady decline in participation by school-age kids, not to mention all those compound fractures and head injuries, USA Football is changing its rules. Predictably, there are traditionalists who fear that this sissification of Pop Warner football will produce kids untrained, unhardened and useless to high school, college and professional coaches.

How easily we forget all those gridiron legends who never played organized children’s football. Jim Thorpe, for example, and Red Grange, Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Jay Berwanger, Vince Lombardi, Ray Nitschke, Pop Warner.

Not to mention me.

For generations, kids like Jim Brown, Night Train Lane and me played ball on sandlots, in yards and pastures, and in between the parked cars on city streets. We waged gridiron battles in a parent-free era of unsupervised sports, long before the first 40-year-old suburban sadist with a clipboard ever lifted a three-foot, 50-pound linebacker by his facemask and told him to get out there and kill.

When I was the newbie in eighth grade, the kids in my neighborhood welcomed me into their weekly game of tackle on a vacant lot down by the Wisconsin & Southern railroad tracks. Our rules were a lot like USA Football’s just-announced reforms. We didn’t, for example, know a three-point stance from the Peppermint Twist. For a kickoff, we simply heaved the ball to the receiving team and ran like hell to beat it there. We eliminated punts by establishing midfield as the “first-down” line. This gave each team, at most, eight plays to score.

The first team with five touchdowns won the game. We could usually squeeze in eight or nine games before it got too dark to see one another.

We had no actual “teams.” Every week, we chose up all over again. One of our captains (who took turns picking players) was always Roger Westmont — tall, handsome, athletic and alpha. After a while, the other chooser — to my lifelong surprise — was me.

(A brief, apologetic explanation here: Somehow, I turned out to be the best open-field runner that fall among the kids of Waunona Way. This qualified me for “captain,” a weird experience for a wallflower who’d spent his entire previous recess career hanging on the fringe and waiting to be “the last kid picked.”)

Our total “equipment” consisted of one football, preferably inflated.

Back in my hometown of Tomah, a kid once got a shiny new helmet with a one-bar facemask (think Johnny Unitas) for his birthday. When he showed up to play, we all told him don’t be stupid. Take it off or go home. He never wore it again.

We didn’t do penalties, but we had rules, largely unspoken, all basically covered by the axiom: “Play fair.” You couldn’t go for another kid’s head and you never, ever, led with your head. The occasional dispute was settled by arguing.

Our field was “natural” and not exactly flat. There were a few humps here and there and a dip around midfield that was mushy after a heavy rain. The only lines on the field were imaginary. The sidelines were the trees.

The only spectator we ever had was the odd kid who arrived late because he had a paper route. Our parents had no idea where we were or what we were doing. We probably could have been more adept at blocking, tackling, running, throwing and operating the single-wing option-veer, but we would’ve needed an adult for that sort of uplift. We got enough of grownups (and uplift) every day at school.

Occasionally after a play, a kid would sit still for a moment, rubbing a bruise, licking blood off his knuckles or gasping for breath after Fat Tony landed on him. But then someone would say something like, “Hey. You quittin’ or what?” After which he’d bounce off the grass and line up for the next play.

None of us ever needed an ambulance. Which begs the question: Was this serious football? Maybe not. But every Wednesday down by the tracks, there were a dozen kids pounding on each other and rolling around on the ground for two solid hours, finishing off with a pigpile and limping home late for supper, dog-tired, bruised, scraped and smeared with grass stains. It seemed pretty serious to me.

There was this one play, for instance. I had just eluded the entire opposing team, except for one lonely defender. I was streaking down the treeline. The sun was sinking on the gray horizon, a light mist was blowing on my cheeks and the world was my oyster. Except for the one kid between me and the endzone: Roger Westmont. He had a perfect angle on me. I decided what the hell, I’ll run right through him.

Oops.

We were both nearing Mach One when Roger went airborne. Leading with his shoulder, he hit me like a hot-rod Lincoln on an open stretch of blacktop. The impact drove the ball into my diaphragm and lifted us together several feet into the sky. We came to earth in the woods, plowing a path six inches deep into dead leaves and humus, leveling several saplings and launching a flock of pissed-off chickadees into a hysterical chirpfest. We ground to a halt ten yards deep in the forest, just shy of a serious tree.

After shutting down for about 30 seconds, my lungs kicked back in and I was able to speak. “Good one, Rog,” I said. We helped each other up.

Roger and I, and all of us, survived collisions like that partly because we were young, lissom and unprotected. We wore no armor and had no illusions of invincibility. We had no trophies to win, no fans to impress, no parents to live up to. Nobody told us to “leave it all on the field.” Nobody was watching.

I doubt that USA Football, even in its best intentions, could ever restore that sort of purity and that much joy. Parents have long since taken the fun out of football.

But here’s an idea: Take the kids out of football. Give it to their parents. They are, after all, the ones who really care. Dress up all those gung-ho moms and dads in uniforms, spend a fortune on pads and jam helmets on their heads. Give ‘em the ball and encourage them, literally, to knock themselves out.

Trouble is, I doubt that the kids would hang around to watch their elders clothesline one another and stagger off the field with pulled groins and subdural hematomas. Kids, I suspect, don’t share grownups’ tolerance for watching family members play bad football.

Ideally, they’d all sneak off in search of a vacant lot near the tracks.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#802)

Imaginary icebergs
by David Benjamin

“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”
                                                          — Joseph Stalin

MADISON, Wis. — There’s little evidence — even in the alt-right online sixth dimension — that ravening hordes of “illegal aliens” are swarming across the Rio Grande and killing Americans. The firmest numbers I could find on this claim were in the right-wing Washington Times about a year ago, which counted 124 homicides committed by undocumented immigrants between 2010 and 2015.

Sounds like a lot, until you dig down. In those six years, there were 95,876 other murders in the United States (give or take a few). The illegal-alien share in all that bloodshed comes out to .00129 percent, or one out of every 774 murders. Putting this into perspective, you’re eight times more likely be killed by a cop, 2,170 times more likely to be offed by your wife (if you’re a guy), and 5,271 times more likely to be strangled, shot or immolated by your husband.

Obviously, if you want to drum up hysterical fear of immigrants, statistics like this don’t really sell the goods. What you need is the perfect anecdote, a story so wrenching, touching and emotionally charged that even a skeptic is appalled into silence. If you’re talking about wetbacks on homicide sprees, your story begins and ends with Kathryn Steinle, killed in San Francisco on 1 July 2015 by a chronic border-jumper named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.

Steinle’s death is, at first blush, the xenophobe’s perfect storm. The victim was young, beautiful, bright (a Cal Tech grad), bursting with promise and — most important — white. The shooter was a career offender swarthy of complexion who’d been deported five times, only to sneak back into America, only to be arrested, convicted, imprisoned, and deported again to his native Mexico, only to sneak back across the border.

Add to this San Francisco, the most notorious (to the right wing) of all so-called “sanctuary cities.” Even worse, Wandering Juan was only on the street because a Frisco judge had just vacated a marijuana warrant that was too old — 20 years — to prosecute. Meanwhile, nobody in town had told the feds from ICE that Lopez-Sanchez was at large.

If various authorities in at least four states (California, Washington, Arizona and Texas) had been more effective in kicking Lopez-Sanchez back to Guanajuato and keeping him there, Ms. Steinle would be alive today. Before the shooting, Lopez-Sanchez had been jailed in San Bernardino County for entering the U.S. without a pass. Once released, he wasn’t deported. And, apparently, nobody in California knew that he was a fugitive from Texas, where he was on probation.

Lopez-Sanchez’ vocation of petty crime spanned five presidencies and two agencies, INS and ICE. All of the horses and all of the men under Reagan and Clinton, two Bushes and Barack Obama couldn’t keep this bad hombre out. The lawmen who kept catching Juan treated him more as a pest than a monster, probably because — until the shooting — he had no record of violence. His thing was narcotics. He fed his habit by selling heroin and marijuana, for which the best market in the world is America. This explains why Lopez-Sanchez wouldn’t stay put down yonder.

Kathryn Steinle’s death was a confluence of heartbreaking happenstances. Four days before the shooting, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ranger, in the city for business, parked his vehicle near the Embarcadero, a popular tourist mecca on San Francisco Bay. Someone, possibly Wandering Juan, broke into the car and hit the junkie jackpot. Just lying there was a .40-caliber handgun.

Of course, the BLM doesn’t routinely issue guns — especially .40-cal cannons — to its employees. This was a “personal” weapon that its owner hadn’t very carefully concealed.

Lopez-Sanchez either stole the gun or acquired it from the thief. His rap sheet suggests that he had no plans to use it. However, before he got around to selling the gun, Wandering Juan, who was habitually stoned, took it into his head to stroll by the Bay and plunk a few sea lions. Considering his history and his high, it’s likely that if he’d aimed directly at Kathryn Steinle and fired, she would have gone unscathed. But he wasn’t trying to shoot her, or anyone. Ballistics experts confirmed that the bullet that pierced Steinle’s aorta had bounced off the pavement.

The killing, by a small-time felon waving a stolen handgun, was almost surely accidental. This likelihood is among the many ironies that render the story all the more poignant.

The biggest irony, of course, is that we’re all talking seriously now about erecting a $21 billion wall to protect the homeland — from the Beaner Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight. We’re looking at an extreme case of anecdote abuse.

I hasten to emphasize that a good anecdote, applied properly, is a neat expository device that helps make thorny issues accessible. Every day in the news, we see reports about complicated crises that people need to know, but they’re hard to explain. So, to draw readers in, the resourceful reporter will often lead by telling the story of a real person whose situation illustrates the dilemma.

Typically, the story then goes from the specific to the general. The reporter marshals testimony, documentation and measurable evidence to verify the scope and urgency of the issue that was capsulized in the opening anecdote. In professional journalism, the anecdote never stands alone. It rests atop a pyramid packed with proof, context and meaning.

An anecdote without a pyramid, however, is just bar talk. Or it can be magic. Sell the story as though it’s the tip of an iceberg, an example among thousands, and suddenly a singular outrage — like Kathryn Steinle's murder — becomes an epidemic that threatens to shred the very fabric of civilization. In reality, it threatens nothing, but never mind. By emphasizing certain details and omitting others,  the magician of hyperbole — without actually lying — can transform a single senseless crime into a holocaust and mount a statue of its luckless victim, bathed in floodlights, atop the Great Wall of Paranoia.

Kathryn Steinle’s loss is a heartbreaking story. But it has no pyramid and there is no iceberg. It’s not the story of alien invasion and liberal appeasement trumpeted by its hucksters. Certainly, some of the undocumented who sneak into America are drug mules and junkies. A few are rapists, even killers. But most are maids, tomato-pickers and gardeners — as well as the odd honor student, poet or chemical engineer. These arrivals to our teeming shore pose problems, but they aren’t big problems. After all, this is America. We’re better here at unfolding the couch and finding an extra blanket than anywhere else on earth.

The bigger problem today is a flood of scary stories too pat to be true, spun by blowhards too smug to believe. Rather than freaking over a trickle of Muslims and Mexicans, we should be focusing our fear on the propaganda that’s abroad in the land, and the totally “legal” people — millions of us — who swallow it.

The barbarians, Gracie, are not at the gate. They’re in the West Wing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#801)

… or the Highway
by David Benjamin

"He didn't like it. That song stuck and he couldn't get it off his shoe. He always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent.”
                     — Tina Sinatra, on her father’s opinion of “My Way”

MADISON, Wis. — I was impressed, perhaps awestruck, by Rachel Maddow’s restraint on Inauguration night. She didn’t flinch, didn’t curl a lip, didn’t roll her eyes as “president” Trump took to the dance floor and tripped the leaden fantastic to his favorite tune, “My Way.”

Really?

I grew up to the voice of Frank Sinatra. He was everywhere on radio, TV, in the movies. And he deserved all the glory he got. My favorite Sinatra cover was his wistful rendition of the Kingston Trio song, “It Was a Very Good Year.” His talent was eclectic and extraordinary. He proved he could dance with Gene Kelly in On the Town and Anchors Aweigh. He showed that he could hold his own with actors like Laurence Harvey (The Manchurian Candidate) and Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity), even Grace Kelly! He maintained a standard of excellence for decades, despite a notoriously unhealthy lifestyle. When Sinatra finally slipped into a late-career decline, I tried to look away.

But he was hard to avoid.

Although he had mostly lost his voice, he kept recording. He could still fill a ballpark with adoring septuagenarian bobby-soxers, all paying triple figures to hear Frank croak out “New York, New York.” He wasn’t proud of what he was doing then, for the money. You can hear it. But he kept stroking.

Listen to Sinatra on his last few pop hits, “Strangers in the Night” and the vaguely incestuous duet of “Something Stupid” with his talentless daughter, Nancy. There’s contempt in his voice for the shmaltz and bathos in these fifth-rate ditties. Still, I forgave Frank for these sides because, after all, he’s the jazzman whose phrasing and insight turned “One for My Baby” into the perfect lament to lost love. Nobody ever sang “Chicago” quite so infectiously or “I Cover the Waterfront” so hauntingly.

So, okay, Frank. I grant you “Strangers in the Night.”

But I had draw the line when Paul Anka stole the melody of a rinky-dink French pop song, wrote new lyrics and then offered it to Sinatra. Frank should have known better. He should have said, “This low I will not stoop. Give this turkey to Frankie Laine. Or sing it yourself.” But Sinatra gave in and recorded “My Way” — a self-congratulatory snatch of doggerel that begins as a paean to rugged individualism but sinks, by its last verse, into the desolate sneer of a dying shut-in. It became, of course, one of Frank’s biggest hits.

And this I cannot forgive.

Of course, Sinatra paid his penance. The fact that millions of fans revere “My Way” as Frank’s last testament is a crowning indignity. He couldn’t get through a concert, in his final years, without having to drone this self-piteous dirge.

Sinatra came to deplore the song, which is easy to understand if you listen dispassionately: “… when there was doubt, I ate it up and spit it out…” Yecch. Lines like this bespeak neither Paul Anka nor Sinatra. Songwriter Anka, probably while drunk, conceived a a black romance, its protagonist a bitter recluse isolated by a sourceless anger, irreconcilable to the thousand compromises we all make in life, else we are crushed. The result: an ill-rhymed elegy to macho fantasy, the testimony of a loser who thinks he won by never backing down, never checking his impulses, and never diverted — by love, leisure or laughter — from his dogged plod.

True to the lyric, Sinatra had regrets, especially about having to sing “My Way” over and over again to a million starstruck geezers. The song diminished him, made him common. Listen to his other work, especially in those elegant mid-career albums after his celebrity had faded and he grasped so much better the lyrics — both sad and joyful — into which he was breathing life. Watch him, exuberant and athletic in High Society, or tortured by mortal frailty in The Man with Golden Arm, and you see an intricate, thoughtful actor who had studied and pierced the depths of his characters. By all accounts, Frank Sinatra was both selfish and gregarious, often impetuous, sometimes needy, frequently arrogant but equally tender and generous, and — ultimately — inscrutable. He was both larger than life and humbler than his cynical Rat Pack persona. He was a cat with nine lives and a hundred mythical faces. He bore no resemblance to the deathbed whiner depicted in the lyrics of “My Way.”

Sinatra, remember, was a street kid who savored the company of the rich and profligate. I doubt that he ever aspired to epitomize the “forgotten man,” whoever that is. And he absolutely did not want “My Way” as his epitaph. Given his druthers, I think he might have chosen “Come Fly With Me.” But “Autumn in New York” would be just as good. There’s also this sparkling version of “You Make Me Feel So Young” on Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! Or, well… so many choices.

Anything but “My Way.”

Which brings me to Donald Trump, who sincerely loves the song. Which figures. The man’s inclination toward self-congratulatory shlock hardly comes as a shock. But think about it. What if Trump had, for once, confounded our expectations, swept Melania onto the dancefloor and cued the bandleader to play “It Was a Very Good Year,” or perhaps the Sinatra cover I’m listening to at this moment, “Maybe You’ll Be There”? You should hear it!

If Trump had revealed momentarily that he has, at least, please, just a hint of good taste in music (or something!), well, some of us — perhaps even me — might have entertained one (fleeting) hope that we might yet be spared the “American carnage” of doing it his way.
 
And if he had, what about Rachel?

She’s a softie. She would’ve smiled.