From “Multitudes: An Unauthorized Memoir”
by Sam Smith
I long avoided San Francisco because I considered earthquakes one hazard I could easily eliminate. That was before both my sons took up periodic residence there and gave me the courage and purpose that I lacked. Now, my 17-year affair with the Bay Area is being interrupted as my youngest son pursues his dreams, along with far lower housing costs, elsewhere. Some of my own dreams, though, I’ll be leaving behind, albeit admittedly only daydreams and those of the variety that break up easily like a cell phone call in the basement.
Still, over time, the San Francisco became one of the markers by which I judged my life and a siren occasionally luring me away from a hometown I all too frequently found alien, arrogant and antagonistic to the human spirit. I had even picked out the decrepit Sausalito houseboat to which I would flee when the capital became too much, provided the current owners didn’t mind.
I’m not much of a traveler; I share Dr. Johnson’s view when he was asked whether Rome was worth seeing: “Worth seeing, yes; worth going to see, no.” And when I do go, I am an ecological and ethnographic visitor, rather than an iconic one. I burn out early on cathedrals and museums but never tire of the human and natural landscape.
So while my wife went into a store in Chinatown, I leaned on a parking meter outside and watched three blind tourists with long white canes casually navigate the crowded sidewalk and stop in front of a display to ask the Chinese store owner what it was about. It could have happened anywhere; still it reminded me of a friend’s comment that San Francisco was too diverse to be polarized.
It’s also too hilly to be dull. Most cities are naturally flat and artificially vertical. In San Francisco it’s the reverse; you can stand on the hills and look down at the puny human attempts to puncture the heavens. In keeping with this reverse geometry, part of the horizontal end of town, the waterfront, got that way with the help of building rubble from the 1906 earthquake. The vertical helped create the flat.
A major attraction of that waterfront, Fisherman’s Wharf, is scorned by locals but since it was one of the first places we had visited I wanted to see it again. In 1989 a bunch of sea lions had just started making themselves at home on the docks near Pier 39 and I remembered one insolently stretched out on the deck of a sailboat.
Eventually, the sea lions would begin “hauling out” in large numbers. Now there are sometimes hundreds of them lolling about, harrumphing, and flopping on each other like members of some weird religious cult. What attracted them is subject to dispute. They may have been encouraged by the change in the herring run following an earthquake or by a sea wall that keeps the great white sharks away. As I watched them I felt a bit of envy, for there are no sea walls in Washington to protect us from the great white sharks that prey on our city.
We had unapologetically gotten to Fisherman’s Wharf by cable car. I like toys and San Francisco has the world’s largest toy train layout with cable cars and trackless trolleys and streetcars from all over that still wear the colors and symbols of their original routes. There is even a streamlined PCC car delivered to Philadelphia Transit just one year after my family moved to Philly from Washington. Every time I saw it, I wondered if it was one that I had ridden as a boy along Germantown Avenue’s 23 route.
Having the world’s largest toy train layout would be considered “inappropriate” in Washington and devoid of essential “gravitas.” To travel from the nation’s capital to a city that apparently has never heard of these words is invigorating. It brings to mind the week I spent in the National Air and Space Museum working on a magazine article. At the end, I interviewed the director, Noel Hinners, remarking at one point that I had found something almost childlike in the museum. He was not bothered in the slightest but said, “There is nothing more stultifying than being pushed into the common conception of adulthood. If enthusiasm, hopes and dreams are associated with childhood, I hope we never grow out of them.” You don’t meet many people like that in Washington. There are a lot of them in San Francisco.
And it wasn’t just the moving machinery of San Francisco that fascinated me. I keep note of jobs I would like if I ever get bored with my present occupation. On the list have been things like piloting the General Jubal A. Early, a ferry barge, across the Potomac River at Poolesville back when the pilot house consisted of one overstuffed armchair in a corner of the deck. But I also wouldn’t mind joining the exclusive guild that runs the cable cars. Seldom is rugged mechanical movement accompanied by such humor, hauteur, harassment and hospitality.
One conductor, at the end of the line, pulled out his thermos of coffee and a sandwich and, using the cable car bench as a chaise lounge, pretended not to notice the 50 or so passengers waiting to board who, in turn, were trying to ignore the not very good guitar player making not very funny allusions to their lack of fiscal support as they waited. The guitar player was one of the few grumpy people I ran into this time and he thought he was just being ironic. There was, in casual contact, far more friendliness than I find in Washington anymore.
While Washington’s downtown is dismally conventional and desiccated, San Francisco’s is more like an untended garden. San Francisco gives the impression that it is against the law to tear anything down. The new seems to be stuffed into leftover space. DC used to have that feel. You could go into an old office building and expect to see Johnny Dollar come into the narrow hall from behind one of the dark wooden doors with a glazed window. You don’t find those kind of places in downtown Washington anymore; people who think they’re serious prove it by being exactly like everyone else who thinks they’re serious. Which means the quirky, the individual, the comfortably archaic no longer have a place.
The people are the same way. Downtown in San Francisco, I noticed a man in a unflawed suit mainly because he seemed out and about in the wrong city. On the crowded sidewalks, there is indifference, there is suffering, there is style and there is pretense and hyperbole, but the pompous and the rigidly conventional seem rare.
Then there’s the politics. For example, the Green Party candidate for San Francisco mayor got 47% the last time. I’ve never lived in a place where 47% of the people agreed with me on something that important and different. When I left San Francisco after a visit, I would sometimes think that I should move there. Until there came a time when I left and thought that I should have moved there. Inertia had taken its toll.
And then the words of Willy Brandt would come back, explaining why he returned to Germany from exile in Norway after World War II: it was more important to be a democrat in Germany, he said. The same is true of Washington.
Before someone writes to tell me, let me tell you what I didn’t see, a portion of which was recently described by Chris Carlsen in the Attitude Adjuster blog:
“San Francisco is a city founded before the abolition of slavery, a city that came to be a center of wealth and power through the rapacious exploitation of cheap labor and natural wealth, especially the living critters of the Pacific Rim. . . Southern gentry arrived early and brought with them their pro-slavery ideas, but the outlaw city that grew even faster made room for a western terminus of the Underground Railroad, and gave political strength to the admission of California as a ‘free state’.
“The racist urges of the new American Californians were directed first to the liquidation of the native peoples indigenous to the quickly disappearing paradise, and then against the growing population of Chinese who were crossing the ocean to escape famine and war and stake out new lives in western North America. Vicious violence and legal repression went hand in hand until well into the latter half of the 20th century. Few remember now that the great baseball player Willie Mays could not buy a house in San Francisco when the Giants first arrived in 1958 due to racist restrictions on property deeds. . .
“San Francisco is the home to the union bug, a symbol of working class solidarity whose first expression was the white cigar makers of SF assuring customers that their cigars were made by ‘WHITE MEN.’ Local unions have a long, sordid history of racist exclusion, and the businessmen who dominate the city’s history have often turned to scabs and strikebreakers that exacerbated racial tension. So goes the history of social alienation, class conflict, exclusion, and racist hierarchy which has done as much to shape San Francisco as anywhere else in this upside-down North American society. It remains very much a live context for today’s city, though not often widely acknowledged in our self-congratulatory liberal smugness.”
On the other hand, part of the advantage of going to another place is to get away from context and deconstruction and recover the pleasure of the first impression, the casual observation, the image happily free of the pain that made it all possible.
My first impression of Marin County, for example, came on a foggy night winding our way up a road that seemed to lead nowhere, but with extraordinary effort. The road clung to the side of cliffs and mountains without concern as to whether we would be able to do the same. I was reminded of something a Mainer once told me, “I believe in terra firma. The more firmah, the less terrah.” I hunkered down and we made it to Slide Ranch, an agro-eco education center where our oldest son was interning and waiting for us in the dark at the beginning of the drive. The next morning I looked around and decided that Slide Ranch had been so named because of the likelihood that it would soon slip off its cliff and into the Pacific.
For the next few months, through conversations and letters, we absorbed some of the feel of Marin County, well enough that when my son called to say that a staffer had given birth that morning, I casually responded, “Oh yeah, did you go?” and he replied equally casually, “No there were a lot of people already and they thought the interns would be too many.”
The Bay Area treats its stereotypes the way some places care for their old buildings. Even the tourist guides are different. This by Robert Plotkin in the Coastal Traveler:
“Heretics and iconoclasts retreated and dug small pockets of eccentricity. This magazine is a guide to towns that are the Stalingrads of anti-corporate resistance. They fortunately share no resemblance to the grim post-modern cities of the Soviet Union. Many of the hippies who moved to Northern California were the scions of educated East Coast families and picked unusually scenic spots to build their utopias.
“Here, you can skinny-dip with counter-culture revolutionaries living in oceanfront redwood forest, taste the wine produced from Internet bubble profits, cage dive with Great White sharks, browse independent bookstores, chase your girlfriend down a trail, lie on your back in the grass and let the hawks teach your boy about predatory behavior.”
And here is Plotkin’s description of Bolinas, which is where Volkswagon buses used to go when they died:
“There is no sign to the town. A shadowy organization called the Bolinas Border Patrol pulled signs down until Caltrans gave up. There is a border patrol because people who move to Bolinas do so to escape corporatized America and regard the border as at least metaphysically real. . .
“Bolinas has rejected an economy based on tourism. But like a rejected suitor who only becomes more ardent. . . tourists brave the warnings because the eccentricity of the town and its resistance to tourists are what make it unique and worth visiting. It is a conundrum that hasnâ€™t been solved by townspeople. . . “I saw a man drive a stretch limo Hummer into Bolinas, where many residents have “Hummers Suck” bumper stickers on their cars. . . The stretch Hummer was chased down the street by taunting residents.”
There is one problem with all of this. I noticed it on a trip to Berkeley a few years back: those selling revolutionary literature and countercultural icons were all my age. I got the same sense this time; the revolutionary was no longer prospect but history. I recalled seeing French war veterans rolling down the sidewalks of 1950s Paris in wheelchairs and then going back some years later and not finding any. And twice on the streets of Capitol Hill in the 1960s I was stopped by black men who wanted to buy my beagle; they still thought the migration to the north could be reversed and that they could go back to hunting in Carolina. Walking around Marin County I also felt on the cusp of the past.
Then we drove towards the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore,. The 70,000 acre park was established by John F Kennedy. In present day dollars, it cost around $310 million, less than half of what the city of Washington is paying for a new baseball stadium.
Most of Point Reyes was owned in the 1850s by a San Francisco law firm which leased it to dairy ranchers. Some of these ranches still exist and they date to just a few years after the arrival in California of my wife’s great-grandfather, Charles Schneider, a 20-something immigrant from Germany who crossed the continent from Wisconsin in search of gold. He stayed enough and found enough to make it back home and open the local store in Friestadt.
Driving over the cold, wet, tough plains of Point Reyes I thought about the three twenty-somethings – Charles Schneider and his two great great grandsons – who had each come to California looking for something important. Unlike them, I had come without expectations and found far more than I had imagined. To be sure, I didn’t look hard enough to be disappointed. After all, I had more reality at home than I needed; I didn’t have to take it on vacation. Besides any place with the politics of San Francisco that also collects old streetcars and is nice to sea lions deserves some uncritical affection. I am more than glad to help.
Singing for the chief
The US Capitol Police force was once comprised mainly of young men benefiting from the patronage granted their fathers by various members of Congress. It was a fairly pleasant crowd and you knew you were not just dealing with a law enforcement officer but perhaps a grad student whose dad was a buddy of the majority leader.
My favorite Hill cop story from that period involves a friend who was a bagpipe playing Lebanese Catholic from Boston who knew everyone in the Demcratic Party and worked for a number of them including Massachusetts governor Foster Furcolo and, later, Ted Kennedy. She was on her way to an LBJ State of the Union from Boston but was late and arrived from the plane still carrying her bagpipe case in which rested not only the instrument but some pita bread her sister had made.
In a hall crowded with some of America’s most powerful, my friend was told by a Capitol police officer to open the bagpipe case. The officer was disturbed by what he found inside. “Don’t worry,” said my friend. “It’s just a bagpipe and some pita bread. . . Call your chief and tell him Terri Haddad is here with her bagpipes. He knows me.”
The officer did and at the other end the Capitol Hill police chief issued one blunt order: “Tell her to play ‘Danny Boy.’
And so for the chief and many of America’s most powerful, she did and then was allowed to repack her instrument and go hear the speech.
Resurrection in a pew
SAM SMITH – The memorial service for Gene McCarthy ran a bit long, considering it was a tribute to a man who had once suggested reducing the number of commandments from ten to four. And it was disturbing to see Bill Clinton shamelessly delivering a tribute to a man of integrity, especially one who had once suggested, as a reform, that “we fire all the Rhodes and Oxford scholars and everyone from Arkansas.” But then there was also Peter Yarow singing and the moving memorials and the brass section of the National Symphony and, most of all, the guy sitting next to me in the National Cathedral pew.
With pleasant earnestness he had turned to me before the service and asked, “Tell me, what did he do? He ran for president, didn’t he? And was he a senator?”
I was stunned, wondering what had led him to enter the cathedral in the first place, but straight forwardly described McCarthy’s experience in 1968.
The man was interested and noted, “I wasn’t here then but I just liked the way he stood up for the truth.”
A light clicked. “You were in Vietnam,” I said.
“Right. It really screwed you up. Every day you thought you were going to die. I’m still screwed up.”
During the service, my neighbor made copious notes and took photos with his camera.
At the end of the service, I shook hands and said I had been glad to meet him, adding, “Was it worthwhile?”
He smiled. “It was unforgettable. I feel alive again.”
A confederacy of doers
I had never been invited to dinner by Ralph Nader before, so I figured I’d better check it out.
The hall where the drinks were being served could have been at any one of the scores of events Washington was throwing that night, but the difference soon became apparent. The difference was in the cause and the crowd. It was a confederacy of doers gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the publication of one of the most important books of our moment in history: Unsafe at Any Speed.
It had to be a large room because Nader, after all, was the guy who introduced cloning to contemporary progress. The business of leadership, he says, is creating more leaders, not more followers and the fruits of his labor were there: people like Lowell Dodge, Joan Claybrook, Sid Wolfe, John Richard, Teresa D’Amato, Russell Mokhiber, and Carl Nash. And reporters who shared or spread Nader’s sense that the truth – whether in a Vietnam village or in a automobile factory – even if it doesn’t set you free, may at least keep you alive. Reporters like Jim Ridgeway, Bill Greider and Sy Hersh. And people who had taken the Nader idea and applied it to other things, like Linda Schade of True Vote, currently leading the fight to make elections in Maryland safe at any speed of vote count.
Auto safety seems so reasonable today, but when Nader proposed Unsafe At Any Speed to a big publisher, he replied that “Alas, I fear it would only be of interest to insurance agents.” Around that time, my wife, then assistant press secretary to Senator Gaylord Nelson, pitched a auto safety article to Parade Magazine that drew on Nader’s work. They weren’t at all interested.
The auto manufacturers, however, quickly saw the importance. Jim Ridgeway – whose coverage of Nader drew the attention of Unsafe’s eventual publisher, Richard Grossman – described in a 1966 article the industry’s reaction to the “lanky Washington attorney of 32 who recently has been getting publicity because he went after the automobile makers.” His landlady got a call to find out whether he paid his rent on time. His stockbroker was called by an investigator who claimed to be representing someone who wanted to hire Nader. The editor of a law journal for which Ralph had written was approached the same way and asked about Nader’s drinking habits. An attractive brunette approached him and said that a group of her friends were interested in foreign affairs and they wanted to get all viewpoints. Would he join them? He claimed to be from out of town. Oh that’s all right, the woman said. The meeting’s tonight. The next day, the man to whom Nader had dedicated his book, got a call from an investigator wanting to know about the activist’s sex life and left wing leanings. And later that afternoon, Nader discovered two men following him as he flew back from Philadelphia from an appearance on the Mike Douglas Show. . .
If that all seems out of another time, consider this: from the moment Nader testified to the Ribicoff committee on Capitol Hill to the time that America had new federal car safety legislation that is still saving lives took all of about six months. Try to get anything done in Washington today in six months.
But that was a time of Phil Hart and Gaylord Nelson, not Tom DeLay and Duke Cunningham. And a time of Jim Ridgeway and Sy Hersh and not of TV toy journalists who look as though their last beat had been covering themselves at a beauty parlor.
Of course, the stories are still there. Dr. Sid Wolfe is doing much the same thing with medicine that his friend once did with the auto industry. Medicine – that’s medicine, not disease – is one of our major causes of death through such things as adverse drug reactions and hospital infections.
Yet if you read the morning paper, you will get little idea of the problem other than as incidents without context, as if each bad drug was an exception to the general rule of benign health care. Perhaps even the user’s fault.
Just like, forty years go, they said about auto crashes. Until Ralph Nader came along.
Marion Barry and me
Marion Barry and I split over a quarter century ago. I can’t remember the exact issue, but it was one time too many that Marion had promised one thing and then done another.
I first met Marion in 1966. We were both in our 20s and he was looking for a white guy who would handle the press. He had just organized the largest local protest movement in the city’s history – a bus boycott – and I had participated and written about it. The typical twenty something doesn’t get over 100,000 people to stop doing something for a day. I gladly took on the assignment.
We hit it off and remained allies even after the day Stokley Carmichael walked into SNCC headquarters and said that we whites were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement. Barry would later describe me as one of the first whites who would have anything to do with him. I backed him when he ran for school board and in his first two mayoral bids. And in those days, I have to say, he got pretty good press.
But even by the time of the second run for mayor I was feeling queasy. A friend and I held a fundraiser for Marion and I introduced him. I started out by listing the reasons why people might be ambivalent about Barry and then add, “On the other hand. . .” Marion pointedly wiped his brow.
I was already becoming aware of Marion’s addiction to that most dangerous, if legal, drug called power. Later, I would be listening to a talk show discussing a book about cocaine in the executive suite and suddenly realize how similar the two addictions were and how I could no longer tell which was affecting Barry more.
I saw less and less of him. We had lunch one day but I told him some things he didn’t want to hear and he later told a reporter, “Sam’s a cynical cat.” In 1986 I told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “He’s basically done to ethnicity what Ronald Reagan has done to patriotism. He’s turned it into a personal preserve.”
But I still saw that it was a complex story. At one point, Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, asked me to do a piece on him. I told him that I would be glad to but that I wasn’t going to trash Barry. And I suggested a headline, “Failing the Faith.” A few days later, Peters cancelled the lunch at which we were to discuss the article and never got back to me. The next thing I knew, the Washington Monthly ran an article by Juan Williams trashing Marion Barry and using a variety of the headline I had suggested. Williams was on his way.
When Barry ran for mayoral reelection the last time, I took the position that I was all in favor of redemption; I just didn’t see why you had to do it the mayor’s office. I broke up one talk show host by suggesting that Barry follow the example of a recently disgraced Irish bishop and go help the Indians of Guatemala.
On another talk show, Barry said that the press was always blaming him for all the city’s problems. I said that wasn’t fair; I only blamed him for 26.7% of the city’s problems. “I’ll buy that,” Marion replied. . .
Yet I also knew that Barry – like other urban ethnic politicians – had far more to blame than himself. Whatever his faults – he knew he had been granted dispensation because – like a feudal lord – he provided significant favors in return. Barry had lived in Memphis and I often suspected he had learned his politics from Boss Trump. For he understood the quid pro quo of traditional urban corruption that had helped the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Poles break down the worst corruption of all – that of an elite unwilling to share it power with others. It was far from a perfect deal but in the interim before the “reformers” seized office again on behalf of their developer and other business buddies, more people would get closer to power than they ever had or would again. It happened in Chicago, in Boston and in Washington.
And now the reformers are back. The young gentrifiers who think the greatest two moments in the city’s history is when Barry went to jail and when they arrived in town. And their politicians, who don’t feel it necessary to even tithe to the people.
The last time I saw Marion was at a public dinner. He had first run into my wife and asked, “Where’s that sonofabitch?” But when he saw me we hugged because despite all our differences we both know we are still kin in a too tough world. I’d just lucked out better. – 1/06
Talk radio the way it’s supposed to be
One of talk radio’s best hosts is gone for now. Your editor has done more than 600 talk shows but few calls delighted him more than one from Charlie Spencer at WHYN asking him to be on his Saturday morning program in Springfield, Massachusetts. The program was rated tops by Arbitron for the area and was one of the original progressive talk shows in the nation, beginning in 1993.
Sharing space with the likes of Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Howie Carr, he wasn’t a shouter and he wasn’t a debater. Like my other big favorite, Richard Kaffenberger of KAAA and KZZZ in the tri-state area outside of Las Vegas, he understands that radio is really the ultimate conference call and that the proper patois is conversation not bombastic rhetoric. Every week Kaffenberger leads a conversation between a real conservative and myself. It was on this show that I got conservative journalist Marc Morano to admit he was a “a la carte” socialist since he used Washington’s subway system. “You’re a subway socialist,” I had told him. “You’re just not a healthcare socialist.”
Secular Franciscan Spencer has kept busy since leaving the show. He writes, “I spent most of August in Bolivia spending time traveling the headwaters of the Amazon investigating Conservation International’s role in Madidi, in addition to learning from the Andean people. . . I still retain my position as Curator, Wildflower Gardens, Stanley Park of Westfield, molding and managing the second largest public woodland wildflower garden in Massachusetts. I’m also working on an internet ‘field guide to eastern wildflowers.'” Not your typical talk show host in more than one way.
I grew up on radio as conversation. As a kid in Washington I listened to a local show hosted by Arthur Godfrey who casually demeaned the “dirty old bear” in front of one of his advertisers, Zlotnik the Furrier. Later, in Philadelphia, I listened regularly to one of the first of the late night talkers, Steve Allison, who claimed to be the “man who owned midnight” and was, as far as I could tell, right. At my college radio station, I practiced the tradition as best I could, coming to regard my audience much as a blind man might: they were present, just unseen. They weren’t there to be manipulated or yelled at; they were, after all, your friends.
Later, as a radio newsman, I would run into these friends on the street. Or they would call in with their news tips like the man who started coughing as he described a nearby apartment fire, finally saying, “I think . . .(cough) I’d (cough) better go now.” And Dan, who lived alone with his multiple police scanners and would call to say, “I’ve got a body for you, Sam.” Another dollar went to Dan for his tip.
I remember once, as a guest host on the DC public radio station, gently scolding a caller who had questioned guest Sy Hersh’s patriotism: “Look we’re all good Americans here. . .Else we wouldn’t be listening to WAMU.” It wasn’t strictly logical, but it shut the guy up.
You get used to that sort of thing. Once in San Francisco I got a call from a guy who wanted to complain about aliens. It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t Mexicans that bothered him but those from outer space. “Look,” I replied, “I think we ought to treat space creatures like all other newcomers to this country. Welcome them and make them part of us.” The caller hung up without debating the point.
In recent years, talk radio has too often become pompous, tedious, raucous or just plain nasty. Somewhere between Diane Rehm and Rush Limbaugh, however, there is a happy valley of conversation that a few hosts like Charlie Spencer and Richard Kaffenberger have used with great skill. It doesn’t seem to hurt their ratings and they probably could do just as well nationally as they do at home. After all, part of the secret of America finding itself again is to stop yelling and start talking with each other.
eeting Sweet Daddy Madison
Every time I get totally fed up with Washington, something happens to remind me that some of the best of the city isn’t gone, only hidden.
Like the big house on Portal Drive across the street from the one towards which I was heading for a holiday party. I had never seen in this city such an enormous display of Christmas decorations complete with “Seasons Greetings” in lights larger than on any local store.
It was explained to me that the house belonged to Bishop S. C. Madison, patriarch of the House of Prayer for All People, an institution deeply rooted in the history of the city and now spread from California to Florida to New York.
Because of the spectators, it was almost impossible to drive up the street and find a place to park. Later the crowd grew as a brass band began playing jazzed up Christmas carols and other music outside the home. A bus pulled over and let more visitors out. All without a single mention in the media, another part of America that survives underneath the radar.
After awhile, a minister came across the street and invited us to greet the bishop. A small group of us, including another black preacher, A. Knighton Stanley, made our way through the crowd and towards the long steps atop which stood an elderly Bishop Madison flanked by several security men.
Madison and Stanley are both significant figures in local culture, both have roots in the Carolinas, but are quite different in their stories. Madison is a native of Greenville, South Carolina, reared from childhood in the House of Prayer where he later served as a deacon. He became a minister at age 17 under the guidance of Sweet Daddy Grace and by 23 was already on the general council of the church, becoming its bishop in 1991.
A. Knighton Stanley, has been senior minister of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington since 1968. He is a graduate of Talladega College and holds a master’s degree from Yale University and a doctorate from Howard University. Active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Stanley has become a familiar name on civic boards.
As we walked across the street, I mentioned to our minister host that I had covered the 1960 funeral of Madison’s penultimate predecessor, the remarkable Sweet Daddy Grace. The minister lit up and said, “We’ve got to talk.”
He led us up the steps and introduced the bishop to Stanley, then to the host of the party that was our original destination, and finally to a white couple who just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
The bishop offered blessings and It occurred to me that while I may never meet the Pope this wasn’t bad for seconds. We were invited into the house where perhaps 20 smiling, gracious men and women stood around with that ambivalence of those alternatively responsible for security and hospitality. After a tour of the dining room, we were shown an alcove where stood a white statue of Sweet Daddy Grace. I admired it, but couldn’t help the sacrilegious observation that his fingernails were a lot shorter than when I last saw him lying in his coffin. Behind us, a young man sat at a tiny spinet playing the quietest Christmas carols I had ever heard. We turned and went to the living room where Bishop Madison was now seated, exchanged greetings again and departed.
Serendipity over, we resumed our plan for the evening, which was to see “Good Night and Good Luck,” the story of Edward R Murrow’s battle with Joseph McCarthy six years before I had covered the funeral of Sweet Daddy Grace. That funeral had been part of a 22 year old white guy’s introduction to black Washington just as listening to and watching Edward R. Murrow had encouraged an even younger white guy to go into journalism in the first place, just as a few months after Sweet Daddy Grace’s funeral this same white guy found himself embroiled in proving to the US Coast Guard that he was a loyal American despite what the federal government thought of his parents, just like the security case at the beginning of “Good Night and Good Luck.”
I went home feeling I had had a good night and good luck.
SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES – The Washington I had returned to in the summer of 1957 was, on the surface, a quiet, rarely air-conditioned southern town. When I first got to Argonne Place, I noticed that the Ontario Theater was playing Love in the Afternoon. At the end of the summer it still was. The radio stations were playing Pat Boone’s Love Letters in the Sand. At the end of the summer they still were. When I worked the late night shift, I would drive to the suburbs listening to a program on WOL called The Cabbie’s Serenade — dedicated, said the host, Al Jefferson, “to all you guys driving the loneliest mile in the world.”
Despite the apparent somnolence, DC was actually undergoing a mass migration of blacks from further south. Almost from its beginning, DC had been the first stop in the promised land. Now the city had just turned into a majority black town.
Despite the demographic trend, however, there was nothing remotely approaching black power. More than once, when calling the DC police dispatcher to check on the overnight action, I was told, “Nothin’ but a few nigger stabbings.” It had, after all, only been twelve years since the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell arrived to take his seat in the House of Representatives. Stepping into his office for the first time he found a memo on his desk headed “Dos and Don’ts for Negro Congressmen.” One was “Don’t eat in the House dining room.”
The city was run by three commissioners appointed by the president. Many, though, assumed correctly that the real commissioner was the director of the very white Board of Trade. The local papers routinely listed the race of victims and perpetrators in crime stories. A Washington Star veteran recalled “the grieving widow who called me one day after I’d done an obit about her late husband, in which I had referred to him as a D.C. native. “‘He wasn’t no native,’ she shrieked. ‘He was as white as you or I!'” And when I went to cover the annual Brotherhood Week luncheon at a local hotel, a reporter friend leaned over and said, “Do you notice the only Negroes in this place are the waiters?”
This same reporter called me at 2 a.m. the morning after the funeral of Sweet, Precious Daddy Grace, the colorful bishop of the United House of Prayer for All People. “I’m down here waiting for them to choose Daddy Grace’s successor,” he whispered into the phone, “and I’m the only white person here. How about coming down?”
I had covered the funeral earlier that day and had been struck by the jewelry bedizening the lifeless and red, white and blue long finger-nailed form of the late charismatic who one paper said resembled Buffalo Bill. I got dressed and joined my friend at 601 M St. NW — two young, unwelcomed white guys sitting quietly in the pre-dawn darkness of a church basement hallway waiting for the end of a seven-hour deliberation. Finally, the 224 elders from as far away as New Bedford, Mass., and Miami selected Bishop Walter McCullough by about 30 votes.
Daddy Grace has been born Manoel da Graca, a Cape Verde immigrant to New Bedford and a cranberry picker who would come to claim that God had also come to America in his body. He would eventually give baptisms to up to 1,000 at a time and accept “love offerings” from female followers. Among the tenets of his theology: “Salvation is by Grace alone. Grace has given God a vacation. If you sin against God, Grace can save you, but if you sin against Grace, God can’t save you.”
Daddy Grace, came to DC in 1927 and, according to Molly Rath in Washington City Paper, left this world a debt-burdened $25 million estate including an 85 room mansion in Los Angeles, a farm in Cuba and a coffee plantation in Brazil. Along with quotations like, “If Moses came here now he would have to follow this man,” pointing to himself.
The west side of the Capitol
YOUR editor enjoyed lunch today with his wife at Jimmy T’s five blocks down East Capitol Street from where George Bush and his capos were being given four more years to do damage to their country, its constitution, its culture, and its environment — not to mention further mischief to the rest of the world. The inauguration was taking place on the opposite side of the Capitol and there were hardly any cars or people and no signs of security.
The counter at Jimmy T’s was full so we sat in a booth. The TV was on but no one looked at the inauguration and the sound was turned to WASH-FM – loud enough so you couldn’t hear the helicopters overhead. For as long as it takes to eat a short stack with bacon and drink a cup of coffee we could pretend everything was okay.
The other day I walked by the Capitol and found myself wondering why we weren’t more paranoiac during the Cold War. When Johnson and Kennedy and Nixon were president you could still wander about the Capitol’s halls and through the associated office buildings as though you were actually a part owner. Yet if Tom Ridge had been in charge of setting the alerts for that era, he would have run out of colors. We were in far more danger than we are now.
Even if one wants to argue that a dirty bomb in a backpack is more dangerous than a clean bomb sent by a rocket or that a few suicidal young Arab guys are more dangerous than divisions of well dressed Soviet troops, you still do have to argue the point and that in itself suggests that the response should be somewhat similar.
But there’s little similar about it and as I walked down the hill by the Capitol it suddenly struck me that this isn’t about me and you; it’s about them. We are being governed by some intensely frightened people. From George Bush on down. Much of the homeland security business, in Washington at least, is to provide personal protection to important people from the consequence of the extremely bad things they are doing. We are the victims of both Al Qaeda and Il Dubya, told to give up our rights and freedoms so that the worst leaders of our entire history can go about their business without having to suffer for it. The whole city of Washington has become the armored vest of the Bush administration and Congress.
EIGHTH STREET SE is one of those places progress didn’t think was worth messing with. They even ran out of fire engines by the time it burned in the 1968 riots leaving the Marines from the barracks to send some sentries to guard the laundry through which their dirty uniforms flowed. A Sunday or two after the riots, three ministers held a sunrise service out on the street, but not much has happened since.
Thirty-five years later it offers little but utility – a headquarters and laundry for the Marines; a Popeye’s; overflow space for the Shakespeare Theater; a Seven-Eleven and a Subway, the sina qua non of urban survival; one of Capitol Hill’s two hardware stores; a dollar emporium; video stores, a fire station, and some restaurants that were looking for cheap space. It’s one of the few urban strips where you’ll find homeless, yuppies, gays, Marines, firefighters, and Shakespearian actors all enjoying the same space.
The secret of such places is their non-discovery and 8th Street was too close to the already found and desiccated to last. It is, after all, the holy jihad of planners to root out such heresies and turn them to the path of progress. Having already done their work in downtown, where the last of the quirky and the human have been exorcised, they are now turning towards our neighborhoods, promising the infidels there that no block shall remain unplanned. They even have over a hundred places picked out for monuments now that the center city ceremonial parking lot has been filled. And no one will ask the good citizens of Brookland whether they really need a statue of Robert Dole on a horse.
They have already discovered 8th Street, which is now being spruced up as part of Main Street, a campaign to cleanse America of urban greasy spoons, seedy emporiums with seedy customers, and places of scruffy usefulness. My neighbors seem to welcome it. I have gently tried to suggest that they should welcome instead being one of the few hoods in America with two hardware stores, but in this land only resurrection ranks ahead of progress.
It is absolutely predictable what will happen. Eighth Street will become a tree and bench lined paragon of new urban style; in fact you may even get confused and think you’re in downtown Alexandria or Warrenton, for progress comes in only one flavor these days. The rents will rise to meet the charm and the scruffy and the seedy and greasy will not be able to pay the rents and will be gone. In its place will come antiseptic, clerical urbanity.
It is already happening even as the street is torn up for the greater glory of God and revitalization. Payless Shoes will soon be replaced by Paymore Coffee, a.k.a. Starbucks, where you can drink your latte grande and be grateful that 8th Street will soon be just like everywhere else.
The Bronx ate my postings
Your editor’s casual inattention to duty over the past few days is in part the result of an unpredictable pleasure of parenthood: being swept into the migratory path of one’s children – in this case from Long Island to the Bronx.
For the past eight years I have been an occasional visitor to Suffolk County, discarding stereotypes in favor of a view based on innumerable random experiences ranging from the pleasures of the Montauk coastline to the less pleasurable experience of being imprisoned with my wife and a crew member for 45 minutes aboard the Bridgeport to Port Jefferson ferry on a 85 degree day.
I have come to learn that Long Island does indeed have more shopping malls per square mile than just about any place on earth, but that not far behind is the acreage devoted to farming, some of the most productive in the state, that no one had bothered to mention to me. I have learned to expect to drive within blocks from a corner dominated by a futon discount store to a revolutionary era post road whose buildings and trees still remind one of what once happened here.
It is a place where the past and present have been dumped together, a place that can spawn both Walt Whitman and Bill O’Reilly, and where patriotic icons of post-constitutional America sprawl about the landscape like exhausted geese unable to reach their destination, yet where you can attend a Unitarian church and hear a guitar backed choir singing about Joe Hill.
Except when out on the battlefield known as the Long Island Expressway, the residents seem quite content with their inconsistencies. They neither brag about them nor even seem to notice them. It is the stranger, arriving with misapprehensions, who finds it all extraordinary.
But now, as uncontrollably as a tie-up at exit 47, it is time to leave Long Island and make friends with North Bronx, site of my daughter-in-law’s next adventure with the medical profession. From a little cottage within walking distance of Long Island Sound to the eighth floor of an apartment building overlooking a subway yard and distant Manhattan. From a landlord who happily enclosed a porch for our granddaughter to the complexities of getting a new rug in an old, large New York apartment building. To one who has always felt threatened by the negotiations of everyday New York life, I watched with amazement as my son and wife double-teamed the issue with the aid of a cleaning woman who said she had told the super “I wasn’t going to clean that rug because it was a waste of money. He was going to have to get a new one anyway.”
Even as this is written the apartment is being repainted and rerugged and I have turned my energies to other matters like checking out the stores within walking distance and finding some lights for under the kitchen cabinet. We also ate in a restaurant that offered cream cheese for your bagel in two varieties: full or schmeared.
I am already proud of my new proxy neighborhood and am making secret plans to run my granddaughter for lieutenant government based on her connections with both Suffolk County and the Bronx. She walks with the self-assurance of a New Yorker so the rest shouldn’t be difficult.
Meanwhile, I apologize for the dilatory postings and expect things to be back to normal by Tuesday.
A half century of American music
Last evening I went to a party for fellow musicians given by singer and trombonist Dave Burns, who for more than three decades and 2,000 gigs has headed the Hot Mustard Jazz Band, a fixture in the Washington area. Burns has been singing since the age of two when, in Pineville Kentucky “they’d put me on the marble counter at the drugstore and I’d sing songs for a penny.”
As the Princeton Alumni Weekly explained it, “Burns ran away from Pineville at 15, living a hobo-like existence until landing in D.C., where he dropped out of high school three times before joining the Air Force. A ‘voracious reader,’ he realized he’d need a degree after his tour of duty and audaciously applied to Oxford, the University of Kentucky, Occidental College in Pasadena, California – and Princeton. ‘I told them if they took a gamble on me I wouldn’t disappoint them,’ he says of Princeton. True to his word, Burns won a Fulbright scholarship and joined the Foreign Service.”
I realized when I looked around the room that I was looking at a half century of American music. There was the sainted Keeter Betts who has played bass for just about everyone in jazz locally and nationally, clarinetist Wally Garner who recalled playing with Louis Armstrong, the jazz writer Royal Stokes and musicians with whom I had shared gigs like Gary Wilkerson and Don Rouse. All of us were playing in the 1950s and some even earlier.
It struck me later was what an atypical Washington evening it was. I gave up my own band seven years ago and I had kind of forgotten what a pleasant, friendly bunch of people jazz musicians can be. All those breaks; all those conversations. I suspect it has something to do with the genre, which requires both individuality and cooperation, something I once described this way:
“The essence of jazz is the same as that of democracy: the greatest amount of individual freedom consistent with a healthy community. Each musician is allowed extraordinary liberty during a solo and then is expected to conscientiously back up the other musicians in turn. The two most exciting moments in jazz are during flights of individual virtuosity and when the entire musical group seems to become one.
“The genius of jazz (and democracy) is that the same people are willing and able to do both. Here’s how Wynton Marsalis describes it: ‘Jazz is a music of conversation, and that’s what you need in a democracy. You have to be willing to hear another person’s point of view.'”
What I learned on my vacation
SOME YEARS BACK a high schooler by the name of Sam used to take out our office trash and serve as our computer consultant (in no particular order). Sam is now with a major government contractor complete with a top secret clearance, but I always save up a question or two for when our paths cross, as they did this summer at a wedding.
I asked Sam what it meant when one of my laptops refused to start at all unless I randomly pushed various buttons twenty or thirty times until I happened on the right combination.
“Sounds like you need a new computer.”
I wasn’t going to let him get off that easily, so I mentioned that Maine had been extraordinarily damp this year and did he think that might have something to do with it. He immediately brightened and told me of the time he had recovered a wet cell phone by sticking it in the oven for an hour at 150 degrees. Sam suggested that I do the same.
On my return I quickly decided I had a choice: either Best Buy or the oven. I chose the latter and, being a bit more conservative than Sam, put my laptop in for a half an hour on warm. It then started up immediately.
Unfortunately, the bad weather continued and my laptop returned to its persnickety state. Not wanting to press my luck, I fooled around with the buttons and discovered something further. On the front edge of the Toshiba were a series of buttons I had heretofore ignored. On testing them, I discovered that, in the right sequence, my computer would still not turn on, but that Dinah Washington, who was neatly stored in my media library, would. Further, a little experimentation informed me that once I heard Dinah I was only a button push or two away from full operation. I have been doing this ever since, adding only a minute of downtime to my day, and holding Best Buy at bay for at least another month.
Architect John Wiebenson died the way he lived – helping somebody and fixing something. He had gone to Martha’s Table to check out a fumed filled space below an old auto garage planned as part of the social service organization’s expansion. The fire department said later that only 4% of the air down there was oxygen, not enough to keep someone alive. In fact, for several hours the only people who went in wore gas masks and hazmat clothing.
But Wiebenson was not easy to dissuade once he decided something needed to be done. And he had imported to this capital of risk aversion some of the casual affection for adventure of the Colorado in which he had been raised. Wieb, as everyone called him, simply did what he thought had to be done.
Which is one reason there was housing for Resurrection City in the 1960s and the Old Post Office is still on Pennsylvania Avenue and some of the niftiest maps of DC were published and Bread for the City got a new headquarters. And some landscaping. The Washington Post that the organization had told Wieb it couldn’t afford any landscaping. The executive director “arrived at the site one Sunday to find Wiebenson there, digging with a shovel and pulling weeds.”
Wieb was also one that tiny party of architects who really understand that buildings are meant to serve people and not the other way around. He also understood that one of the ways this happened was with spaces that made you happy. Joanne Leonard wrote in the Washington Post, “With cutout paper letters stuck to the window of his Connecticut Avenue office, John Wiebenson identifies himself and his partner, Kendall Dorman, as ‘basic’ architects.”
I knew that office well because for 23 years I was a subtenant in a back room at ridiculously low rent. It was a complicated arrangement because while I was Wieb’s tenant, he was my cartoonist, and I had the only fax machine on the floor. And the only bathroom. Wieb created for the DC Gazette (now the Progressive Review) the first urban planning comic strip in the country, Archihorse, a subtle graphic blend of his professional and geographic background.
One of the things I noticed along the way was how comfortable Wieb was with something that either bores or baffles some architects – the details of making your dreams actually function. There was just no conflict in Wieb’s mind between imagination and results. It had to be different and it had to work.
His house was right around the corner on S Street where he lived with Abigail – his wife, anchor to windward, enthusiast, calmer down, brightener up, and head of Lowell School – plus three sons striving to outdo their father in independence, competence, and humor. They lived in an anarchistic mélange of styles, but mostly in a place that, while lacking the look, still somehow had the feel of a western cabin that you had just entered after a long ride in the snow.
It was there that Wieb had presided over Wild Man Nights, Friday meals at which he and his young sons would prepare and eat a meal without any utensils or normal table manners, picking up steaks in their hands and smashing baked potatoes with their fists while reading and discussing the latest comic books. Like most of what Wieb did or built, Wild Man Nights had several primary characteristics: they were different, they were fun, and they worked.
What you have read here over the years has been deeply affected by my proximity to this remarkable man who loved freedom and common sense and helped me to cling on to them. I hope I can still do it without his encouragement and laughter.
In a few days your editor will return to that town of which – in Gore Vidal’s novel of the same name – Senator Burden Day remarks, “hypocrisy is our shield; inaction is our sword.” It is a place where (as Russell Baker once noted) solemnity is confused with seriousness and where clichés pass for ideas, projections cross-dress as reality, and no one can remember what anyone did more than six months ago.
To suggest how different it has been the past few weeks on the shores of Casco Bay, Maine, I have made a list of some things about which I have talked that never seem to come up in Washington. The converse is also true. For example, the topic of terrorism was raised only once, by my younger sister who has recently joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary. She mentioned that she had been assigned to patrol aboard a Casco Bay Line ferry during the Code Yellow alert. And what, I asked, would you have done if you had found a terrorist hidden among the tourists and islanders on their way to Chebeague or Peaks? “I would have told the captain,” she explained. It sounded sensible to me.
On the other hand, here are some of the other subjects that did come up:
Is the tree whose large limb fell across the Burnett Road likely also to collapse against Charlie’s house?
Is it true that ospreys and seals, while accustomed to motorboats approaching, are spooked by brightly colored kayaks?
Why are clam prices so high and why isn’t the lobster business better?
How Paul at the Bow Street Market is dealing with his meat delivery problems.
Is grazing young steers for the season and then selling them preferable to a year-round livestock program?
A discussion with Andy, the state park director, and his assistant Patty about the best way to handle the brown tail moth crisis slowly spreading along the Maine coast.
Further discussions with the aforementioned on whether hardwood or softwood tree were most likely to grow in an untended pasture.
Whether a dowser should be called in to find a desired well. I offered a recollection of the time when my father got Henry Gross up from Kennebunk for a whole day. This man was so impressive – after all, he had found water in Bermuda simply by dowsing over a map – that two of his fans joined him on the daylong expedition to our farm: one was the novelist Kenneth Roberts and the other was the actress, Bette Davis. When my father died, the minister apologized to the family as we approached the grave site for the diggers had struck water. To the minister’s mixed confusion and relief, we all laughed.
What is the best dinghy to replace the old leaky one? And what to call it?
Simultaneous contact with which two metal objects gets the lawn mower going despite a broken starter?
Can anyone remember such a foggy August?
The politics of buying a lighthouse.
A brief conversation with Tommy as he was leaving the Jamison Tavern after dinner in order to go to Portland, where he would captain a tugboat helping a tanker into port that night.
How to get a bit out of a recalcitrant keyless chuck?
My latest acquired Maine story, to wit: Bert and I was walkin’ along the shore when a seagull shat on his head. “You want some Kleenex?” I asked him. “Nope,” he said, “that bird’s left already.”
And soon, so will I.
My late Aunt Kate
Although a Republican, my grandmother had been an active suffragette. She had three sons. One was my father. Another was lost off Admiral William Halsey’s first command while going forward to secure an open hatch in a stormy sea. The third was Ludlow, who gained early folk hero status for me because of his acquisition of the entire family attic for a large-scale train layout. By the time I found it, the rolling stock was down to an engine and several cars, but Ludlow had made his own rails and switches and had covered all the attic floor with them in the manner of a major freight marshalling yard.
As if this were not honor enough for one uncle, Ludlow had also been married to Katherine Hepburn, a marriage that soon proved incompatible with Hepburn’s stage and movie career. They were divorced three years before I was born.
My father always seemed annoyed at the mention of Hepburn, perhaps out of loyalty to his brother, and I felt tension when my mother would speak fondly of her and of the lively dinners at Granny’s house when she was present. Granny also liked Hepburn. The three strong women had much to talk about.
Even Ludlow, it would turn out, was still fond of his ex-wife. In later years, very quietly, the two would see each other and, after the death of Spencer Tracey, spend weekends together. Once – only once and when I was young – I met her. My father reluctantly took his family backstage at a Philadelphia performance. She looked down at us and explained how she really loved Lud but had loved her work more. It sounded reasonable to me.
A cousin of mine recalls as a youth being seated in the front row during a performance and noticing that Hepburn seemed to be playing directly at him. He was flattered, but not completely surprised. After all, Hepburn had lived for a while at his grandmother’s house when his mother was young. Afterwards, he was taken backstage to meet the actress. Hepburn remarked that she had noticed him in the audience. My cousin was delighted until she added, “You were the only person in the audience chewing gum.”
Over the years my father and Ludlow grew apart. Ludlow seemed disinterested in seeing his brother. My parents finally invited themselves for a visit in Connecticut on the way to Maine. There they found a man struggling with a deeply alcoholic second wife and they understood and the barrier was broken.
By then, however, it was too late to get to know this charming and bright man who had been an early expert on computer installations for banks and who, to the end, still had a model railroad layout. I saw him a few times, always with a sense of denied discovery.
So there were many stories I never heard. Like the one Hepburn told in her autobiography of Ludlow and a friend renting a stone hut near the Bryn Mawr campus, where among other things Luddy, as she called him, took nude photos of Kate. Like the time Luddy, before they were married, accidentally set himself ablaze while lighting a fire with kerosene with Hepburn leaping from the tub and directing, in the nude, their housemates as they saved both my uncle and the house.
Things like that weren’t meant to happen in my family.
In her autobiography, Hepburn regrets her treatment of Luddy, saying that “the truth has to be that I was a terrible pig.” She then describes the uncle I never knew:
“Luddy could make anything work – my life – the car – the furnace – the this – the that. Carpenter-mechanic-plumber. It was great. But mostly – from the beginning – he was – what shall I say? – he was there. . . I could ask him anything. He would do anything. You just don’t find people like that in life. Unconditional love.”
I think I, too, would have liked him very much. Love in my family was always conditional.
After my father died, Ludlow and Kate made a number of visits to my mother in Maine, usually in the fall after children and visitors had left. On the first, she stopped by the home of an older neighbor to ask for directions. Mrs. Nason, every bit as comfortable in her being as the stranger, said, “Why you’re Katherine Hepburn. You must come in and have lunch.” Hepburn settled for directions and continued down the country road.
Ludlow and Kate traveled with Hepburn’s aging secretary and carried a toaster oven so they could avoid eating in public. Visiting my mother, however, had other risks, once verging on the mortal as my mother, who drove with exuberance on the back roads, sideswiped a truck coming the other way, totaling her car and in the process nearly killing herself, Hepburn, her brother-in-law and the aging secretary.
Katherine Hepburn did not take umbrage at this, however, perhaps because she and my mother shared a fascination with each other, the actress once telling a friend, “If someone would write a play about Eleanor, I would take the part.” I would have enjoyed seeing that play. – SAM SMITH
This issue is coming to you from the emergency center of the Progressive Review, just six blocks from the U.S. Capitol, where – more than two days after the snow started falling – the major arterial of East Capitol Street has yet to be plowed.
Your editor has spent much of this holiday weekend searching in vain for the “massive snow storm” promised him by Channel 5. In fact, the best I could come up with – absent cheating by measuring drifts – was a moderately impressive 13″ in my back yard.
Anyway, the problem with snow in Washington is not the precipitation but the difficulty in removing it. Some years back, when Marion Barry was mayor and I was not yet on the Washington Post’s blacklist, I was asked by the paper to write an Outlook section piece about a recent storm. I decided to compare Washington’s snow removal with that of another town I knew well, Freeport, Maine. As it turned out, Freeport had one percent of Washington’s population but ten percent of its road mileage. If memory serves, Freeport did the job with five trucks while it took 150 in DC – or three times as many per mile.
In the most recent storm the figure for DC was up to 300 trucks with plows although the city’s geography hasn’t expanded in the interval. This would mean that it now takes six times as many trucks per mile to clean a Washington street than it took to clean a Freeport road a decade ago.
Admittedly things are a bit simpler in Freeport and there are not as many cars parked where they shouldn’t be. Further the pace is decidedly slower. I once got a call from the local highway director who wanted a meeting. I invited him over for coffee and after a half hour of discussing the interesting irrelevancies of day he laid out his problem: would I mind if he cut a few alders that were blocking the view around a curve?
Still, a road is a road and snow is snow whether they’re in Washington or Maine. Something else has definitely happened over both time and space to make it much harder to plow a path – and it isn’t the weather.
My suspicion is that snowplowing, like everything else in this fair city, is being over-managed. That would explain a snow plow going down a street with a supervisor’s pickup truck ahead or three plows moving ad seriatim down an already well plowed street. Fortunately, however, the mayor was in Puerto Rico when the storm broke so he didn’t have time for his normal response to crisis: which would have been to call a ‘town meeting’ to seek input on outputting the snow.
There is at least six degrees of separation between DC’s winter practices and the small town plowers given 20 or 30 miles to clear and not to come back until it’s done. It is not that the latter are more competent, it is just that their local governments have more trust in their competency so the whole operation is much simpler.
As in public education and other government matters, we are spending enormous sums to make sure nothing goes wrong but in fact are just increasing the number of people able to screw things up.
There are certain jobs that do not lend themselves to the bureaucratic pyramid – they are jobs in which employees carry most of the capacity for good or evil in their own skill, judgment and ethical standards. Jobs like teaching school, patrolling a beat, or plowing a street. Training makes them better; bureaucratic systems rarely do.
It is something that Washington doesn’t understand at all, which is why I will remain in the Review’s emergency center save for an occasional visit to the Congress Market or Jimmy T’s grill until it all blows over.
The Bush codicil
I woke up this morning to find in the Washington Post a map of the damage that a radiologically dirty bomb would do if it exploded at a certain location in downtown DC. The area of serious damage came within five blocks of my house.
The dividing line between a policy issue and a crisis is personal proximity and frankly I’m getting a little pissed off. While I realize that one has little control over such matters, I still feel it grossly unfair that I should die because of the arrogance, stupidity, and desire to prove himself to his father of a nepotized preppie Yale frat boy in conspiracy with a megalomaniacal Israeli war criminal. Besides, such sickness is not covered by my Blue Cross.
Just to be on the safe side, however, I have written a codicil to my will in case others survive the current insanity better than I. It goes like this:
“I do hereby declare, make and publish this as the First Codicil to my Last Will and Testament.
“FIRST, being of sound mind (at least until the nerve gas attack), should I die a victim of the Bush war on whatever, I urge my heirs, assigns, and anyone else who is interested to regard George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Ariel Sharon – just for starters – as major co-conspirators in my death. Their reckless and despicable behavior placed their puerile political ambitions over simple safety and decency. They wrongly regarded the sanctity of their grandiose policies as more important than the peace of tranquility of my ‘hood. Like many Washingtonians, I would have much have preferred being the citizen of a serene and happy city than of a cruel and mindless empire.
“SECOND, though I may have died at the hands of a Muslim or Muslims, I hold no anger towards their religion or culture. People who have been screwed for as long as they have sometimes do stupid things out of desperation especially when a country as big and powerful as America declares de facto war against them. And I still, somewhat naively I suppose, expect graduates of Yale to act with more maturity and sense than, say, a member of a Chicago street gang. In any case, I urge my heirs, assigns and others to continue eating at Middle Eastern restaurants, to say something friendly to a Palestinian being harassed at the airport, and to buy a hot dog from the Egyptian vendor around the corner from my office if you happen to be in the vicinity.
“THIRD, should any commentator or journalist be so brazen as to use my death as an example of why we should continue the war against Muslims or whatever, I give my heirs, assigns, and others explicit permission to call him or her a “lousy, rotten, low-down sonofabitch” and such other language as would not be permitted in court. This especially applies to Bill O’Reilly, Steve Emerson and most of those writing op eds for the Washington Post and New York Times.
“FOURTH, I urge you to join with others to bring our land back to its senses, to end policies that are brutal and self-destructive such as our treatment of Palestine and the embargo against Iraq, and make America once again a place that is admired rather than hated.
“FIFTH, remember not to drink the beer in the refrigerator until it has been decontaminated.”
Ernest Percell White Jr.
In the early 1990s, Ernest White asked me to be a regular guest on his TV show otherwise comprised of African-American journalists. During a time in which that I was being isolated from my own culture, another had welcomed me. It would have been an unblemished pleasure had not the black city served by the program been under severe attack. A combination of a fiscal embargo by Congress and fiscal mismanagement by the local government would soon lead to a federal takeover of DC and the largest de facto disenfranchisement of American voters since the days of Jim Crow.
The show really had viewers. One day, a DHL guy delivering a package to my office gave me a second look and said, “Didn’t you used to be on TV talking about DC?” It led to a long discussion about the sad state of the city and how hard it was to find any discussion of it on the airwaves. On other days people would stop me on the street and just start talking about the city as though we had always known each other.
The television station was owned by the University of DC, the land grant campus that served as an educational underground railroad for the neglected and forgotten young of the city. The fiscal problems of the Washington had already hit UDC. The elevators could no longer be relied upon; it was wiser to walk the four flights up to the studio. The air-conditioning in the studio became unreliable and finally one night the station manager told us they could no longer afford to continue the show. In our place, the station began running stock footage from NASA.
The faculty protested the budget cuts and the students tried to rebel and even blocked busy Connecticut Avenue one day. But the city and its politicians failed to respond and the president of the university, a weak man of colonial sensibility, went to the White House and sat silently as other heads of black colleges futilely made what should have been his case.
After the TV show was canceled, Ernest asked me to appear weekly on his radio program, Cross Talk, an outlet for those seldom heard in this capital of power and pretense. Ernest and I got along well One day we were discussing Marion Barry’s revival as a mayoral candidate. “I’m all for redemption,” I told him, “but I don’t see why it has to be carried out in the mayor’s office.” I then described an Irish bishop who had resigned when a long-ago affair with a woman had been revealed. He had gone off to tend the Indians in the Guatemalan mountains. That, I suggested with a straight face, was a good model for Marion. The thought of Marion Barry taking care of Guatemalan Indians was too much for Ernest who broke up completely.
A couple of years later, after the university’s faculty had been slashed still more and the public relations and alumni affairs offices had been closed and the water cooler was no longer being stocked, the station manager came in one day and told us to make the show a good one because it was to be our last. The university was preparing to sell the station in order to help cover its deficit. Just one mile to the west was Radio Free Ward 3 — WAMU, the public radio station of affluent Washington with its pristine studios and prissy paradigms. Somewhere in that mile crossed the city’s fault line.
At first it appeared that a Christian sect would buy WDCU, but the deal fell through. Eventually the station was purchased by the Shrine of the Immaculate Center, C-Span, allowing the city’s establishment to hear still more affirmation of its pet paradigms.
I wrote later, “Cross Talk on WDCU has gone off the air after fifteen years. The show’s demise had been run by guest hosts since the recent serious illness of longtime host and maximum Washington spirit, Ernest White. Ernest called in the last day, and I told him the truth, which was that in the forty years I had been around broadcasting, I had never had a finer time then when working with him.
“Before Cross Talk I had been one of the commentators on Channel 19’s Ernest White Show. I used to call myself the “real earnest white on the Ernest White Show.” Towards the end, Adrienne Washington and Jerry Phillips and I started to mix it up. One viewer wrote: “After the rather lively discussion on crime . . . it suddenly dawned on me that Sam Smith and Adrienne are married and Jerry is Sam Smith’s dad. Just listening to the interactions between the three of you reminded me of a few discussions I had with my ex-wife and my own dad. Those were heady days, but I’m sure glad they’re over though. So Ms. Washington, tell that wonderful husband of yours that you both have to nip these strong emotional responses toward one another in the bud. Don’t’ be afraid of marital counseling, either.'”
As the station disintegrated so did White – with AIDS, drugs and alcohol. A man who had been one of the few true links in a fractured city was spotted begging for change outside the annual dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus. The Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy wrote:
“White had been one of black Washington’s most treasured resources . . . For White to end up unemployed, homeless and begging on the street gave the phrase ‘disposable society’ a painful new face. White had helped hundreds of people. During one of his many on-air Thanksgiving fund-raisers for the homeless, he received a telephone call from a woman who said she had been on the verge of committing suicide but had changed her mind after hearing him play a song of salvation. After the show, White took the woman several bags of food and clothes, then talked her into surrendering her life to God.
“Now, at age 52, White himself is in trouble. A viral infection in one leg left him in a wheelchair, and his descent into alcohol and drugs was so stunningly swift that nobody really knew how to help him. Efforts to provide him with temporary shelter, food and clothes did not amount to much, for none of those things could ultimately address the spiritual crisis in which he was embroiled. A month ago, after being kicked out of a local motel for having undesirable guests, he moved into the Randolph Shelter in Southwest Washington, where he now wages nightly battles with lice, rats and crack addicts.”
As White was falling apart, the city he had loved was being bullied, squeezed, and demoralized by the federal takeover. Schools would be closed, health clinics eliminated, inmates sent hundreds or thousands of miles away to privatized gulags. A form of socio-economic cleansing was underway, only with budget cutbacks and tax policy rather than with land mines and rifles. The corporatist technocrats of both parties wanted Washington rich and free of human reminders of the failure of their inhuman policies. They wanted a Singapore on the Potomac.
In Ernest’s obituary in the Post, Claudia Levy wrote:
“Mr. White’s friends, including a number of journalists whose careers he helped, said they tried to help him in turn but were frustrated at his inability to cope. He stayed at homeless shelters and motels but mainly lived on the streets.”
A few days ago, Ernest Percell White Jr passed. He had given so much life to the city but died a lonely metaphor for its own slow disintegration.
Tale of two cities
FORTY-FIVE YEARS AGO this summer, at age 19, I arrived in Washington to begin working as a radio news reporter. I would return to college in the fall with the promise of a fulltime job upon graduation. I had no trouble accepting the offer.
Washington had been my home until I was ten and from the moment I came back it seemed to be home again. But a home that had changed.
A Republican was in the White House instead of the Democrat for whom my father had worked. Three years earlier my public elementary school – along with all the other public schools in the city – had been desegregated. The horse drawn vendors crying their wares outside the window were gone although the most recent census had still found Georgetown with 226 of its 1,663 occupied dwellings without a private bath and 135 without running water. We had lived on the same street as some of these dwellings, even though ours was a newly constructed modern house and my father was a middle level government official. The schools were integrated now but few white middle level government officials would live on the same street as their black postman anymore. Segregation would henceforth be measured in miles rather than in blocks.
The streetcars were no longer ancient double-enders but mostly streamlined cars, even including one that had been air-conditioned. Air conditioning was taking hold elsewhere as well. In the streetcars, attached to advertising cards announcing government clerical jobs, were postage-paid postcard applications. Black Washingtonians were taking the cards and mailing them to friends and relatives further south, which is one reason that between 1940 and 1970, the city’s black population doubled while the white population declined by more than half.
It was then, as it had always been, a better place for African-Americans than the rest of the south. Still, in DC segregation had only been a custom and not a law, and not even the Supreme Court could ban custom, and so DC remained in many ways – noted and unnoted – a segregated city. In many ways it still is.
Yet if the curse of the south survived, so did the blessings. You found it in the human pace, the civility, and in the soft stillness of summer. Along the one-syllable, two-syllable, three-syllable blocks of older Washington you couldn’t miss it: the leafy canopy, the tableaux on porches and stoops, and the sounds — a siren, a cry, a song — all the more startling because of the broken quiet. It was during these slow, pregnant green days that Washington became most true to itself.
It was a place that white outsiders tended to dismiss. New Yorkers complained of the lack of bagels and good restaurants. Until air conditioning, the British embassy declared Washington a tropical hardship post and allowed its staff to wear Bermuda shorts. John F. Kennedy said it was a city of southern efficiency and northern charm and those from other places laughed with him.
But it had quite a different meaning to newcomers from further south. With the help of federal employment and white flight, DC became a deep well of opportunity. The new residents weren’t always welcomed, even by a long established black community that shared some of the biases of the white city and sometimes referred to the newcomers as “‘Bamas,” – too black, too uneducated, and too poor. As late as the 1980s, a newly named, dark-skinned head of Howard University walked into the hall where all his predecessors’ portraits hung. “I realized then,” he said later, “that I was Howard’s first black president.”
Kenneth Carroll, who grew up in public housing, described the contrasting views in the Washington Post:
“You will not refer to the nation’s capital as D.C. in my classroom,” screamed Mrs. Hillman to the 25 brown faces populating her third-grade class at the Lucy D. Stowe Elementary School in Northeast. Had I not been 8 years old and a coward, I would have told Mrs. Hillman that for us, Washington and D.C. were entities separate and apart. Washington was the White House, monuments, slick museums, ornate embassies; it was where our parents worked. D.C. was neighborhoods, playgrounds, stores, churches and relatives. It was where we lived.
By the mid 1960s, the second city was coming into its own. The spirit of black power, the confluence of the civil rights, peace, and self-government movements, new musical energy, and an extraordinarily vibrant art scene made it clear where the real city was.
For about fifteen years, DC thrived – refusing to be the silent, stolid servant of the nation and demanding its own time and ground. Although no one admitted it publicly, the riots around the country helped, and in the six years following DC’s own insurrection, the capital colony was given an elected school board, a non-voting delegate in the House, and an elected mayor and city council, albeit of limited power.
For young whites, it rivaled Berkeley and Madison. For women it was as good a town as you could find. For blacks there was the spirit proclaimed in the mid-1970s by Parliament-Funkadelic founder George Clinton:
- We didn’t get our forty acres and a mule,
- But we did get you, CC . . .
- A Chocolate City is no dream,
- It’s my piece of the rock and I love you CC.
Carroll described Chocolate City as “cultural muscularity flexing itself.” Part of that, of course, was Marion Barry. But Barry, along with many other African-American politicians, assumed that black power had tenure. He forgot how many were just waiting for the stumble. Barry would desert the progressive politics he once led and become an easy – and easily exaggerated – target for those who had never liked black power in the first place and were discovering that cities were too valuable to waste on the ghetto. You didn’t have to sound prejudiced anymore, all you had to say was “Barry” and white people knew just what you were talking about. He became gentrification’s excuse.
As early as 1981, I sensed the change and wrote a piece for the Washington Post that began:
Could you stop the renaissance of Washington a minute? I want to get off. I have to run down to People’s and restock my inventory of Rolaids before reading one more article about how the city is being reborn, revived, and revitalized. This city – the Paris of prevarication, the London of dissemblance, the Florence of deceit – has outdone itself: It is telling itself and the world that it is getting better.
Without a doubt, there is a new Washington, but it does not follow, as The Washingtonian suggested recently, that the city is “coming of age.” And there certainly is no renaissance – for that you need ideas . . . The much touted physical changes of the city have produced little other than rampant displacement, creeping homogeneity and an overabundance of automatic teller machines. Washington’s “greater sophistication” is virtually indistinguishable from rampant cynicism and mindless profligacy, and its autoerotic fascination with power for its own sake threatens to prove that masturbation does cause insanity.
The real story of the new Washington is that the told story is a lie. Strip away the icons of progress – Metro, the East Wing, the Kennedy Center, Neiman-Marcus and Pisces – and you will find a new Washington that is not vibrant; it merely vibrates. A Washington that is not more sophisticated because it comprehends and considers less. A Washington whose interest in culture is marked more by acquisition than by appreciation. And a Washington whose power is, in truth, declining because it has lost the key component of respect. . . . The new city is [one] of real estate dealers rather than merchants, the city where you damn well better not leave home without. It is the clone of Gotham, sire of scandal so tawdry that it has discredited political corruption, the city in which a day’s work can consist of a memorandum revised, a two-hour quiche lorraine and martini lunch and four phone calls to say you’re all tied up.
Nonetheless the city was, by its leaders’ accounts, on a roll. Nobody noticed that as DC spent hundreds of millions on economic development, families moved out of town in huge numbers, jobs for local residents declined, and sales tax revenue barely kept up with inflation. And nobody noticed that the vaunted subway had, in fact, made it easier for residents, businesses, and tourists to leave the city yet use it when desired on a virtually tax-free basis.
In the 1990s, with Barry turning the city into a late night TV joke, deficits climbing, and whites realizing they shouldn’t have tossed away their cities, DC once again became a target. Weak places are often the first to be dislocated by history’s change of course and DC – the local colony, not the federal capital – was one of the weakest places in the country. The federal government reseized power, increased control over the justice system, cut back on self government, and let services to lower income residents deteriorate or disappear. By the mid 1990s the socio-economic cleansing of DC was well underway. In 1997 I wrote:
It is not just that something terrible has happened; it’s also that we’re not meant to notice or, if we do, not to say anything about it. It’s as if the normal business of revitalization always included abrogating democracy, tearing down schools, slashing health clinics, disassembling our one public university, hauling citizens off in handcuffs for forgetting to renew their licenses; and sending our wayward young to privatized gulags hundreds of miles from family and community.
The one comfort of the silenced city is knowing you are not alone. When we meet we hug more, in the manner of those who have lost someone shared deeply.And we talk more. An African-American accountant working out at my health club says quietly, “They want us out of the city, but I’m not going.” A street vendor and I talk of the city’s troubles for a while and then I ask, “Why do you bother to stay?” And he sits me down on a low wall of the bitterly named Freedom Plaza, pulls out his wallet and shows me photos of his kids: “This has been a wonderful city to me. I’m staying here for them.”. . .
Every day about 20 more people move out of town than move in. They leave because of opportunity, a better dream, eviction, anger, or the end of endless patience. Yet many stay and in their willingness to remain a while longer lies Washington’s future. It will not be found among the city’s princes in their downtown everything-controlled offices trying to figure out why things didn’t work out like they had on paper.
It will be found instead along shaded streets where people understand that community does not have a bottom line; there is no balance sheet for friendship; shared history does not depreciate in value, and a decent, humane culture is not for sale. It will be found in the courage of those who, though still unheard, preserve in small places the true values, hopes and ecology of DC as they begin one more Washington summer without justice.
Kenneth Carroll, writing in 1998, noted that “today, the most common question for successful black Washingtonians is, ‘Why are you still in D.C.?'” It is a question I often ask as well as I move through a city that has lost competence, conscience, and charm. It is now a place corrupt and contented. Its scribes tend to be sycophants or stenographers. Its local officials act like bureaucrats in the India of the British Raj. Artists can’t afford to live here. And there are 120,000 fewer children than 30 years ago, and with them have gone their laughter, imagination, and hope.
I am most days an exile in my native town, living in a place whose values I don’t like, whose symbols are jarring, whose language is neither colorful nor convincing, whose obsession with security just creates new fears, and whose ambience often has all the soul, substance, and permanence of a downtown hotel lobby.
I find myself, forty-five years later, more of a pariah than when I started. I’ve covered more administrations than Helen Thomas – but from the street rather than from the West Wing. I believe journalists should identify with their readers more than sources and I believe news should be new and so I write new things. Some people take it personally, as though I rebelled simply to annoy them. They make little jokes about the fact that I’m different, as if I had a moral obligation to be like them. When they see someone like me coming, they close the doors of their institutions, their imaginations, and their hearts. We, after all, are thieves who may abscond with their most precious possession: the tranquility of unexamined certainty.
But that’s all right because the best period for a revolution of the good is when one is young. To be twenty or thirty and part of an uprising of the collective soul is a rare gift of life. It does spoil you, though, for you go through the rest of your time wondering why that moment went away and why nothing seems able to bring it back. What was unexpected, both in timing and intensity, was that I would not only live through one of America’s great revivals but during a subsequent era when my country — without debate, consideration, or struggle — decided it didn’t really want to be America any more . . .
And then I stumble into a friend from the silenced city, or I wander into an Irish bar in Brookland where most of the customers are black and a Gene McCarthy poster is on the wall, or I drive through the green canyon of Rock Creek Park, and I am reminded that DC’s heart is still there, even though splintered by numerous alien settlements, a sort of Palestine of the soul. I also remind myself that those determined to rid America of the values that served it well for two centuries had only used DC for research and development. Now they have a whole country to play with. Now there is no escape.
I sometimes think of the DJ who called himself ‘Bama and said that “90% of the people in DC spend 90% of their time bragging about how great they are. But you can’t brag and move at the same time, so while they’re standing there bragging, you just slip right on by.”
And I sometimes think of what Willy Brandt said when asked why he hadn’t stayed in Norway, to which he had escaped during World War II. It is more important, he said, to be a democrat in Germany than in Norway.
It is really important to be a democrat in Washington these days. And besides, if I can help it, I don’t want the story to end like this
Game of chance
THE new prostate cancer study confirms what many have learned on their own: the disease is one of the better crap shoots going. Your editor has some interest in this matter since come December it will be ten years since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I had surgery the following spring.
I was not totally unprepared, thanks to having worked with Julius Hobson, one of the country’s most underrated civil rights leaders. Between 1960 and 1964, Julius Hobson ran more than 80 picket lines on approximately 120 retail stores in downtown DC, resulting in employment for some 5,000 blacks. He initiated a campaign that resulted in the first hiring of black bus drivers by DC Transit. Hobson and CORE forced the hiring of the first black auto salesmen and dairy employees and started a campaign to combat job discrimination by the public utilities that led to a permanent court injunction to prevent Hobson from encouraging people to paste stickers over the holes in punch-card utility bills. Hobson directed campaigns against private apartment buildings that discriminated against blacks and led a demonstration by 4,500 people to the District Building that encouraged the District to end housing segregation. He conducted a lie-in at the Washington Hospital Center that produced a jail term for himself and helped to end segregation in the hospitals. His arrest in a sit-in at the Benjamin Franklin School in 1964 helped lead to the desegregation of private business schools. In 1967, Julius Hobson won, after a long and very lonely court battle that left him deeply in debt, a suit that outlawed the existing rigid track system, teacher segregation, and differential distribution of books and supplies. It also led, indirectly, to the resignation of the school superintendent and first elections of a city school board.
Hobson was also a statistician with a well honed inclination towards the rational. In the early 1970s he came down with multiple myeloma. A testimonial evening brought out 2,000 friends, enemies, and observers of Hobson including ex-student and still apostle Stokely Carmichael. Hobson was there at what he described his “wake,” sitting in a lounge chair and smoking a cigar that helped quell the nausea created by the drugs he was taking. Joan Baez sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, and Stokely Carmichael quoted Nkrumah: “Revolutions are made by men who think as men of action and act as men of thought,” His teacher mother, up from Alabama, ended a powerful speech with the benediction, “Go, son, go,” which brought the audience to its feet.
And then Julius went home, went into remission, won a seat on the city council and lived for a number of more years. I wasn’t as surprised as I might have been because I recalled, early in his disease, Julius dispatching family members to the Library of Congress to find every article and book on the subject. Before it was over there were few people who knew as much about multiple myeloma as Julius did.
So when I was told I had prostate cancer, I went straight to my computer and began extracting – from distant sources and with unfamiliar protocols (for in 1993had access only to the Internet and not the Web)- every article I could find.
I made a flow chart that listed the risks and advantages of each of the various treatments, which led me to conclude that in my case surgery was the best option. I told my doctor about the chart. He had discovered the cancer but he had also gone to the University of Virginia and a combination of medical and cultural caution led him to say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have done that. I don’t think even doctors should do that.”
On the other hand my urologist, Nick Constantinople, studied the chart, suggested a few corrections and then asked for a copy of the revised version. He knew, as I did by that point, that it wasn’t just about medicine but about chance.
Besides, a few years earlier I had already probed the limits of medical knowledge after injuring my back while weightlifting. Even after going to the physician for the Washington Capitals and with weekly visits to a sports medicine clinic, eight months later I was still spending half the day working on the floor for relief. I finally recovered thanks to the magic of an Alexander technique practitioner.
I would occasionally think: so this is what it was like in the 19th century before everyone expected the doctor to have all the answers. In both my cases, I felt oddly in charge of my maladies. Like deciding whether to hold them or fold them.
In the end, I was happy with my choice because I didn’t have to worry about some axis of evil in my body over the next decade. Of course, prostate cancer, like breast cancer, might not be such a mystery if we spent more time and money investigating possible environmental factors. But in the meanwhile, during an era when government is eliminating our right to think for ourselves, medicine at least still leaves us with a few choices, even if the odds are not in our favor. As Damon Runyon put it, “Life is six to five against.” – SAM SMITH
THERE WILL PROBABLY be no e-mail edition on Monday, although headlines will be posted at prorev.com. The reason for this is that your editor had been called to jury duty. On three or four occasions in the past, I have been dismissed owing to my belief in the constitutionality of jury nullification and the unconstitutionality of the drug war. The last time, the judge and I had a nice bench conversation on the former subject, he noting that he had recently taken part in a debate with Paul Butler, a black professor who has urged African-Americans to make more use of the technique. I told the judge that my problem with Butler’s case was that it was based on ethnicity rather than the much stronger historical arguments. The U.S. Attorney did not look happy as we chatted.
The only time I actually sat on a jury was on June 6, 1989 and that was for just 20 minutes. It was a White House demonstration case and the defendant, Jon E. Haines, was accused of assaulting a police officer. Haines was of moderate height, with rusty brown hair, a moustache and beard. He was wearing a blue-gray suit and a red and blue tie.
The first witness was a Park Police officer and the first question was would she please identify the defendant. She pointed out Haines’ attorney, Mark L. Goldstone who was of moderate height, with rusty brown hair, a moustache and beard. He was wearing a blue-gray suit and a red and blue tie.
She was dismissed and a second witness, another Park Police officer, was called. Meanwhile Goldstone gave his client his legal pads and papers and told him to “act like a lawyer.” Asked to identify the defendant, the officer also selected Goldstone.
We were sent to the jury room while the law in all its majesty decided what the hell to do. Which was to drop the case. 7/02
One of the hazards of leading a visibly active life is that someone may ask you to serve on their board. In my case, the risk has declined markedly in recent years thanks to a growing assumption that the purpose of a board of directors is to raise money and not to offer direction. Since I’m the sort of person who has a hard time even asking someone to change a ten dollar bill, there has been a lessened demand for my services.
I’m not, however, such a bad board member in the right circumstances. If the body is new, brave and slightly chaotic, I can offer a bit of gratuitous imagination, generate a few laughs and share the pragmatism of a petit bourgeois businessman, a somewhat unfamiliar skill in the non-profit world.
For example, as one of the resident Philistines on the then new DC Community Humanities Council, I developed the exclusive Bang/Buck Ratio, by which I rated, with consummate objectivity, each of the grant requests. I also provided cartoon minutes of meetings and, according to the official version of those minutes, once actually got the group to accept my solution to the perpetual issue of the proper relationship between executive director, executive committee and board:
“The item concerning budget amendments (Section IV,A) was resolved by S. Smith’s ‘Principle of Escalating Anxiety,’ best explained as follows: ‘If it doesn’t make [the executive director] nervous it’s probably okay to let her handle it. If it does, she goes to the executive board. If it makes them nervous it’s probably a matter for full council consideration.’
See how simple these things can be?
The humanities council, happily, was new, brave and slightly chaotic. I loved our meetings, our arguments and my fellow board members. Besides, with how many groups can you go on retreat and end up playing jazz harpsichord in some West Virginia condo with a philosophy of science professor who carried around a miniature trumpet in his attache case?
I currently sit on the board of the Fund for Constitutional Government, which would be a delight even if it wasn’t helping the cash flow of groups protecting scores of government whistle blowers, uncovering tons of government waste and fighting innumerable would-be censors of the Internet. This worthy organization was founded by Stewart Mott, who also, as far as I can tell, funded much of the 1960s. I was approached by the president of the board, Anne Zill, who suggested that she and Mott come over and have lunch with me. That day I may even have worn a tie and I’m sure I replaced my running shoes with loafers, but it wasn’t necessary. Zill and Mott arrived at my office, each carrying a motorcycle helmet. Right away I knew we shared a paradigm.
The fund’s board meetings average somewhere between four and six hours in length, shared by some of the most competently eccentric folk I have met in this fair city. Journalism grant committee meetings take almost as long over lunch at La Tomate, as one might imagine of a confabulation that includes Christopher Hitchens, myself and Hamilton Fish Number Whatever He Is from the Nation.
During board meetings we hear reports from some of the most useful people in America (our fundees) as they patiently deal with some of the most contentious people in America (their funders). At one end of the large table sits Mott, who may or may not be wearing a day-glo orange hunting vest, and the chair, Russell Hemenway, who is almost certainly wearing a suit in which each pin strip has been individually pressed. Hemenway, accustomed to the more sedate ways of the Big Apple, regards us not unlike a grandfather painfully observing his obstreperous, penultimate genetic responsibilities. You soon learn that when Russ stops glaring and stands up that the party is over and we actually have to do something.
Since my wife has been involved in a number of more well-mannered civic enterprises, I have found around the house books on board governance, the well-functioning non-profit and so forth. I get the impression that the authors don’t have the slightest idea of what they are talking about. For example, I have served as president of three organizations, helped to start nine and served on the board of 15 and have never had a strategic vision even in the middle of a dark and stormy night.
Here, on the other hand, are some of the key principles of a well-functioning board that I have discovered:
– Ideally, the organization should be new and, if not new, should at least be doing something that is new. You can easily test a group’s raison d’etre by attending a board meeting and calculating how much time is spent on matters that, if you had just wandered accidentally into the room, would in no way identify the organization’s reason for existence. This includes all discussions of budgets, by-law changes, and most mission statements. The only mission statement I ever liked was that of the Seattle alternative paper, Eat the State. Its mission statement declared that missions had been created by the Catholic church to subjugate the Indians and that “we oppose them.”
– A good time to resign from a board is when it discovers that it doesn’t have a personnel policy and decides to do something about it. Bear in mind that one of the most important American organizations of the last century was the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. It went some 40 years without bylaws or a constitution.
– In the best organizations, the relationship between the executive director and the board is relaxed, cooperative and productive. No policy directive can create this. There is also a good relationship between the organization and its volunteers, the latter being regarded as assets and not as annoyances. As non-profits strive to be more “professional,” as opposed to being acts of grace, then – as Emily Dickinson wrote – “a formal feeling comes – the nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.”
– The best boards have a passion for something greater than the personal interests of anyone in the room.
– Board debates should favor philosophical, political and aesthetic matters. Detailed discussions of finances and structure should be left to committees.
– Boards should be picked in such a manner that the chosen will not bore each other. Preferably, in fact, they should inspire, entertain and enlighten other board members without the latter minding a bit.
– Don’t let yourself be chosen as a token anything, unless you plan to parlay it into higher office. Being a token merely allows others to become smug at your expense.
– Retreats should be held with some frequency, ideally in surroundings more reminiscent of summer camp or a Masterpiece Theatre 19th century setting than of whatever it is you are actually meant to be doing.
– All the foregoing will fail totally if the one great principle of board governance is ignored: success is directly correlated to the quality of the food served. This does not necessarily mean expensive food so much as attention to detail and taste. For example, many a worthy cause has foundered on an inadequate selection of donuts. Others have assumed, quite wrongly, that because their cause was noble and pure, their provisions should be likewise. A board meeting is no time for nutritional proselytizing. Or for skimping. Above all, the cookies should be fresh and the mayonnaise plentiful. I have watched once outstanding non-profits wither into obscurity for failing to observe these simple rules.
In short, the best boards are conspiracies of the creative and confederacies of the competent, filled with guerrillas of the good and Aquarian anarchists working for something far grander than themselves. And the smartest among them know that salvation lies not in the proper mission statement but in the right menu.
In the shadow again
Living in the capital colony always has its share of special problems, but they gained particular poignancy when disaster struck both New York City and Washington on the same day. Despite being the area’s most deadly event since the battles of the Civil War, Washington found itself bringing up the rear in national sympathy just as, on better days, it does in national respect.
Even allowing for the difference in the scale of the twin traumas, there was clearly also a difference in how everyone – from natives to media to distant public – reacted to the attacks on the nation’s economic and political centers. It was a difference that illuminates how we really feel about these places.
In Washington the specific quickly becomes abstract, the personal transformed into bloodless policy. In New York, even the most abstract becomes local and personal. This is not something imposed from outside. The residents of both cities accept their roles – the New Yorker as meat of myth, the Washingtonian as messenger of meaning.
And so it was that while Rudy Giuliani was rounding up the city like a lifeguard after spotting a shark, Washington mayor Anthony Williams went into his bunker and didn’t think to reassure his constituents until the middle of the afternoon. The leaders of the rescue effort in New York were so endearing that David Letterman even had the city’s fire commissioner as a guest. All most Washingtonians know about their fire chief was that he tried to prevent some of his black firefighters from having dreadlocks.
On that bad morning, people here filled the streets, walking and driving away from what in better times had been known as the capital of the free world. Official Washington had responded by turning a disaster it didn’t understand into one it did: a traffic jam. Soon, the traditional icons of order began to appear as well; the city’s dozen or so different police forces were augmented by camouflaged soldiers standing by humvees parked on the sidewalk. Thinking about the possibility of someone crashing into the Capitol building just six blocks from my house, I felt less than reassured by all this activity; it had the aura of belated bureaucratic compensation rather than rational response. When I turned on the TV, all of New York seemed part of a great rescue operation. In Washington, the rescuers were isolated across the river at the Pentagon while the rest of us engaged in a muted ritual of dignified angst. It’s one of the divisions of the town, like black and white, rich and poor. There are relatively few who know how to do things like save lives in a burning building. The rest of us write about it, come up with strategy options to do it better next time, or lobby members of Congress to ignore these options. It is a city of too many words and too few tears and laughs.
But it’s the way we’ve been taught. Especially by Republican presidents, the only CEOs in America who think good management consists of repeatedly badmouthing one’s employees. Until the Taliban cropped up, George W. Bush considered DC a reasonable alternative. He spoke of it as though it were a place outside of America despite the fact that most of those who give Washington a bad name come from somewhere else. When he delivered his revised State of the Union address, he introduced the mayor of New York City in the balcony but not the mayor of Washington. And when it was decided to close certain streets and bridges and scare the tourists away with camouflaged solders and humvees, nobody at the White House bothered to discuss it with the local police or other city officials.
It’s not just Bush, though. A Democratic representative even suggested that because the city did not have a proper emergency plan its congressional budget approval ought to be delayed, this in a town where hotel occupancy had suddenly dropped to seven percent. And instead of the honest anarchy of sorrow, the Senate invited professional grief counselors to testify so we could learn how to manage our mourning just as we think we manage everything else.
The scale of the New York catastrophe was much greater, but as Dylan Thomas said of the Battle of Britain, after the first death there is no other. It is all one. And now parts of our city are dying as well. The restaurants, the businesses dependent on those rows of yellow school buses lined up like number ten pencils in a stationary shop, the recent immigrants who earned their living at these places.
It’s not just a capital, it’s home. Behind the C-Span cyborgs, beyond the marble and the memoranda, concealed in the fog of pomposity and prevarication lies a real place, with real people in real mourning, and real firefighters doing brave things, and real other people who suddenly found nothing was quite the same. Save a tear for them, too, will you?
One of your editor’s guardian angels for over thirty years has been an improbable New Zealander by the name of Des Wilson. After dropping out of school at 15, Des arrived in England as a young man with only a few pounds and a lot of ideas. Since then he has started a housing program called Shelter; written for a number of publications; run for Parliament; and headed campaigns to get the lead out of gas, the secrecy out of information, and the Liberal Democrats into office; chaired Friends of the Earth; and written numerous books including a couple of novels in one of which I appear as a harried homeowner in council housing and, in another, my wife is an environmental activist in Portland, Maine. Once, at Buckingham Palace, Des stepped on one of Queen Elizabeth’s corgies. I suspect he said, “Bugger off,” but he has never admitted it.
In 1970, I heard Des speak about Shelter at a meeting of a housing and planning group on whose board I sat. I invited him over for a drink afterwards and — with a few interruptions for campaigns of one sort or another or for gainful employment – he never left. He has advised, entertained, employed, and insulted me in no predictable order and I have tried to return the favor.
Among his gifts has been to guide me in the way of British journalism, which still regards power with proper skepticism, the media as a lusty trade rather than a pompous profession, and words as something to be enjoyed and not merely processed. Thus it was that when a British hack filed from Africa word of a colleague’s demise, “Headley dead in uprising,” his editor, with an eye on circulation, fired back a telegram: “Why you undead?”
Des knew a reporter for the Observer by the name of Fergie who frequently vanished for lengthy periods, wiring repeatedly for more expenses. Once he wired to London to say he had information about a tribe of 100-year-olds in Ecuador but needed funds to travel there. He received the money and disappeared. Weeks later he wired for more funds. Reply: “What about tribe of 100 year olds?” Fergie wired back: “Alas, died of old age.”
On a trip back to London, Fergie promised to drink from every bottle on the long shelf above the bar in the Observer’s local pub. After two hours he demanded food and was given the one remaining pork pie. He kept drinking until the pub closed. He then returned at 5:30 PM to finish the task looking terrible. “Fergie,” cried the bar-tender, “you look dreadful.” “I know,” said Fergie. “I feel dreadful. It must have been that pork pie.”
Des was once in Ayachucho in the Andes waiting for his plane to Lima. The plane finally appeared but kept flying on without landing. “What the hell…?” snorted Des. “Its OK,” said an Ayachuchoan, “It does that sometimes. It’ll stop tomorrow.” So Des re-booked into the hotel, returning the following day. The same. “Most unusual,” said the local. He re-re-booked into the hotel and returned the following day. The plane finally landed. As the pilot stepped off the plane wearing 1930s style headgear, a crowd gathered around him and began arguing. Explained the Ayachuchoan, “Problem not over yet. Now it has to decide where it’s going next.” The ever resourceful Wilson plowed into the crowd waving his passport, pointing to the imprimatur of the Queen and her demand that her subjects be well treated by all and sundry. The pilot, impressed, announced that the plane would be going to Lima.
His later work led to a lot of speeches. Once he was speaking to a club in Lincolnshire. Before introducing him, the chairwoman bemoaned the small crowd and chastized the program committee saying, “We’ll never get better speakers until we improve attendance.”
On another occasion he was invited to speak to a dinner of county estate agents. The dinner dragged on and Des noticed that no only was a front table of agents getting drunk but they were betting among themselves on something.
Des finally got up to speak to a crowd that was half asleep and half inebrieated. He was only a few minutes into his talk when one of the men at the front table held up a sign that read, “Please stop talking or I will lose my bet.”
Finally, he reached what was, in his mind, a true pinnicle of achievement. He was named to the English and Wales Cricket Board.
Cricket, it has been noted, is the game in which “you have two sides: one out in the field and one in. Each man that’s on the side that’s in goes out and when he’s out he comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out. When they are all out the side that’s out comes in and the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get those coming in out. When both sides have been in and out, including the not outs, that’s the end of the game.”
But it is serious business. Here is an actual quote from Sourav Ganguly during the 1991 test match between India and Australia: “This was the greatest Test I have played in. To come back and win after being asked to follow on is what dreams are made of.” Harold Pinter even rated cricket ahead of sex among God’s great gifts, although he admitted that sex wasn’t all that bad.
If you think my own disinterest in cricket is just so much more American jingoism, permit me to call to my defense George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, the former preferring baseball because it took less time and the latter refusing to play cricket because “requires one to assume such indecent postures.”
Given my indifference, I was hardly prepared to deal with an early morning’s call from Des announcing that he had resigned from the England and Wales Cricket Board over its planned Zimbabwe tour and that the decision was splashed all over the British media.
My initial response was, so this is how Tony Blair gets away with it, but after further inquiry and a little multitasking at my computer as Des spoke, I came up with the Guardian’s lead:
“English cricket’s attempt to adopt an ethical stance over the proposed tour of Zimbabwe was in tatters last night after the resignation of Des Wilson, the former Liberal Democrat party president hired by the England and Wales Cricket Board to develop a ‘moral’ policy over the scheduled tour. Mr Wilson resigned citing ‘profound differences’ with the other members of the ECB’s management over the tour, which is scheduled for October. The ECB has come under considerable political and public pressure to cancel the tour because of human rights abuses by Robert Mugabe’s regime.”
My respect for the man soared. Who else would think of using cricket as a weapon of mass destruction against the egregious Mugabe? Come to think of it, who in America would leave any board anymore because of a moral issue?
There were, of course, a few unsettled questions, like if this effort was successful, would Mugabe know enough to understand whether he was in or out, and if they finally did get him out would he merely assume that he could come in?
Still, I had to hand it to Des. After all these years, he had finally come up with a good reason for the existence of cricket.
American journalism died when it began to take itself too seriously. Des has helped me keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be that way. It also helps to have someone in your life who, when you write or say something about which you should have thought more, puts down his glass of Scotch and says, “Good God, Smith, have you gone completely mad?”
DES WILSON (R) WITH AUTHOR
Keeping the faith
(I am occasionally asked why I sign my letters, “Keep the faith,” and of which faith am I speaking. When an ex-Mormon-turned-Episcopalian journalist raised the issue, I sent this reply]
Far be it for me to distinguish amongst such ancient and venerable theologies, but the major faiths include the Moslem, the Christian, the Jewish, and the Seventh Day Agnostic. During the sixties on Capitol Hill there was a faith headed by Sister Imogene Stewart, Prime Minister of the Revolutionary Church of What’s Happening Now. Garrison Keeler speaks of the Church of Our Sister of Perpetual Responsibility. And, finally, there are also the Frisbeterians who believe that when you die your soul goes up on the roof and nobody can get it down. I will not advise you as to which faith to follow, but I seem to recall that there is an outstanding warrant against you for apostasy in one religion already, so be careful.
Episcopalism – whether of the low and lazy sort, the high and crazy variety, or the broad and hazy subset – is not really a faith, but something between a club and a conspiracy for the restraint of trade. My current faith tends to be a mixture of pantheism, transcendentalism and mid-period Zuni shamanism, although I sometimes refer to myself as a recovering Episcopalian.
The phrase ‘keep the faith’ is most prominently associated with the late Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who in one session of Congress got more good legislation passed than has been achieved in all the years since his expulsion. He, of course, added the familiar “baby” to the phrase. I went to interview ACP once on Capitol Hill and as he opened his bar to display a variety that would have done Clyde’s Tavern proud, he said, “This, Sam, is what come from serving the lord.” I found his variety of faith quite appealing.
I believe that the phrase also has a bit of Irish provenance, although I am certainly not proselytizing for the Mother Church. It is a phrase I use only with people whom I presume to have a faith worth keeping even if they (or I) am uncertain as to its nature. If it makes you more comfortable, I could change to “Keep a faith” in your instance.
1941 OLDS HYDROMATIC
Dead Hubcap Society
Your editor welcomes readers to join him in forming the Dead Hubcap Society, open to anyone whose lifetime fleet of personal vehicles has included at least half made by brands no longer in existence. With the passing of Oldsmobile, I barely fall into the category – having owned two Olds, two Plymouths, two Chryslers, one Volvo, and a Honda. My wife came to our marriage with a VW Bug, which disappeared from production and then returned, so we’ll consider that a wash. The first Olds – a 1941 model – was bought in 1961 while in the Coast Guard literally from a little old lady who only drove it on Sundays. It had 26,000 miles on it, still smelled new, and featured a Hydromatic Drive. Unfortunately the final attribute lasted only about six months and I sold the car to a engineman first class who managed to convert it into a semi-automatic. The second Olds, a station wagon, was in an accident that necessitated a complete paint job. Unfortunately, I did not make my intentions adequately clear and the whole vehicle was repainted red, including the grillwork. It was thereafter known as the “Outboard Apple.” The Volvo didn’t run when it was cold, hot, or wet and was quickly replaced. The Chrysler was called Gloria because it was sick transit. The Honda was stolen twice. The first time it disappeared from a parking lot right next to the Brookings Institution. The DC constabulary thought we would not see it again but at 11:30 that night I was awoken by the Prince Georges County police with word that it had been located at a public housing project recently in the news for the frequency of its murders. We were invited to retrieve it promptly or it would be taken as evidence in a drug bust. Which is why, at 1 AM, my wife and I found ourselves in a parking lot in the most dangerous locale in the Washington region. The second time, no one found the Honda . . . One month later our Plymouth mini-van was totally demolished by a cow.
My parents could easily have joined the Dead Hubcap Society having had at one point in the mid-fifties a 1952 DeSoto station wagon (the first new car my father had purchased since 1936), a 1948 Chrysler New Yorker, a 1946 wooden Plymouth station wagon, its 1941 forerunner, a 1946 six-wheeled Dodge Army personnel carrier, a 1939 Plymouth laundry van, a 1938 Cadillac four-door convertible, and my mother’s 1936 Plymouth. In 1955 I drove to college in the then 14-year-old Plymouth wagon and little concern or surprise was expressed when the front hood flew up at 60 mph on the New Hampshire Turnpike. The mangled hood was secured with a jury rig and the car continued in service. There were, however, limits. When the DeSoto, with more than 100,000 miles on it, lost its front wheel on the Maine Turnpike, it was reluctantly retired.
How Nader won
It was just another morning.
I drifted into the purgatory between sleep and NPR, my bifurcated mind struggling towards daylight as Cokie Roberts explained with patronizing certainty to a gratingly cheerful host why the system was still under control and why Ralph Nader would prove to be no more than a mild case of political heartburn.
I slipped back into a dream. Things were happening of the sort that don’t hold news conferences. The sophisticated corruption of one candidate and the frat boy corruption of the other were deeply eroding voter interest in either. Supporters and news commentators didn’t help with their implications that the pair enjoyed sovereign moral immunity — telling voters that “everybody does it” when really only a small handful could away with it.
There had also developed what a psychologist might describe as the obverse of mass psychosis, a biologist might call a virus of virtue, or a physicist might call a phase transition of the soul. If you were in none of these professions, however, maybe it felt most like those moments when you turn the car around in a driveway, finally admitting you have taken the wrong road. More and more Americans had that feeling.
Where it began, nobody knows; there were too many bubbles when the pot started to boil.
There was, for example, the bar where a voter first said the words that would become an election year fad — a beer glass lifted to the toast, “This one’s for us” and everyone at the table responding in kind, first with their beer and later at the election booth.
There were the union leaders who publicly toyed with the idea of endorsing Nader as a way of putting pressure on Gore, but whose temporary political tactic had become a lasting political principle in the minds of many members.
There was the farmer looking at the box of cereal in the supermarket and realizing how little some other farmer had received for what went into that box.
There was the teenager who would say later: “I told my friends, like let’s start a revolution and they were like ‘nah, we’ve got too much homework’ and then one day someone was like ‘how?’ and so we started.”
There were the posters cropping up at colleges around the country announcing post-election parties with popular bands, the admission to which would be a ballot stub or a “I Voted” sticker.
There was the Christian fundamentalist who realized that it was sometimes better to disagree with an honest politician and than agree with a dishonest one.
There was the black mother who had voted Democratic all her life realizing that it was Democrats who had taken away her income support and sent her son 200 miles away to a privatized gulag for a minor drug infraction.
There was the liberal who had listened to Democrats tell him for eight years that Clinton was the best president their political party could ever hope for. And so he left the party.
There was the man who told a reporter, “I guess my apathy just ran out.”
There was the couple who wrote the Green Party, “Our families have been union organizers, civil rights activists, peaceniks, all our lives. . . and we voted the Democratic ticket. We agreed with Mr. Nader, but believed ‘he can’t win.’ . . . It needs to change and the change begins with us, so after all these years, we will vote the Green Party ticket. Every journey begins with that first step.”
There were the voters tired of being called Clinton-haters simply for expecting their president to play the game straight.
There were elections elsewhere that weren’t meant to happen, leading to a leftist-led united front in London and a rightist-led united front in Mexico. In Mexico, the campaign appealed to the jodidos, which is to say, those who have been screwed. The phrase made its way north into the Nader campaign. In London, the new coalition included a woman who used to chain herself to buses and a man who once went to court dressed as a gorilla after refusing to pay a bus fare. It also included a former Tory candidate for mayor and another former opponent who warned the new mayor that if he did not put London first, “we will, I promise, kick your ass.” Things weren’t meant to happen quite like this in the Third Way about which the media wrote incessantly, but as the Nader campaign was learning, perhaps there was a Fourth Way as well. Or maybe it was really just the First Way back again. A way with real if uncomfortable coalitions of mutual interest rather than with a false consensus created by the pornography of propaganda.
Nader and the Green Party somewhat belatedly noticed that the crowd running ahead of them was their own campaign. They came to realize that it wasn’t so much a better platform they had to offer, but a better way of thinking about and dealing with such things, a way that had once been a natural part of American democracy but which had been systematically destroyed by a politics maniacally devoted to creating anger, division, and demons. Americans didn’t want just the right answers but a better way to discover them. Alone among the candidates, Nader had the courage, decency, honesty and imagination to help it happen. Alone he was trusted. He found himself becoming less and less the didactic instructor and more and more the dependable relative helping to put the family together again.
It wasn’t that issues weren’t important, rather that they could not be resolved in a country in which there were only winners and losers, pariahs and power-mongers, the badly defeated and the totally unrestrained. Nader repeatedly promised not to trim his arguments, but he also promised not to use divisive, manipulative and corrupt means to accomplish what his arguments could not.
He started turning up in all the wrong places, sometimes quoting the Brazilian Archbishop Helder Pessoa Camara: “Let no one be scandalized if I frequent those who are considered unworthy or sinful. Who is not a sinner? Let no one be alarmed if I am seen with compromised and dangerous people, on the left or the right . . . My door, my heart, must open to everyone, absolutely everyone.” He also quoted Thomas Jefferson: “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.”
When a reporter asked him whether he wasn’t too radical for America, Nader described himself as a moderate of a time that America had been long promised but which had not yet come.
As the campaign went on, America slowly began rediscovering itself, feeling better about itself, and being less angry with others. It was no longer obsessed with hidden dangers but began thinking about long-concealed possibilities. It could even think of the future and smile.
The voters didn’t agree with Nader on many things but he was the one in the race who had kept the country’s faith throughout his life and even, when in the wrong, hadn’t used lies to get there. To more and more, Nader was only a first step but an absolutely necessary one.
And so on election day America gave itself another chance, using nothing more revolutionary or sophisticated than a change of heart, and a trust in instinct over propaganda, self-interest over spin, decency over power, and a vision that now saw the future as a frontier rather than as a mandatory sentence . . .
It was just another morning.
Cokie Roberts was gone now and the gratingly cheerful host was interviewing a sports writer about baseball and I lay there wondering whether anyone would go to the stadium if ball games were as predictable as politics, if Cokie Roberts could explain to us just exactly how they would turn out, if the system always won.
I reached back and tried to retrieve my dream from the purgatory between sleep and sound. As I picked up the pieces, I noticed something different about them — different, say, from the time when, in my morning mind, I had blended a traffic update and Silvia Paggioli’s report and saw Serbians advancing down Connecticut Avenue. This time, my fantasy was totally without fantasy. All it required to be true was for people to think something they had not thought for a long time, to decide that the past was over, to refuse to be hustled and cheated anymore, to try a new road, to think and dream for themselves — just as was supposed to happen in a democracy — and then to tell others what they had thought and dreamt, giving the others courage to try the same thing . . .
It was just another morning.
I got up and wrote it down so I could pass it on.
The news said the weather would be variable. Maybe politics still could be as well.
In the time before the walls of the capital were irrevocably breached by the bagel boosters of Manhattan, the technocratic terrorists of the Harvard Business School, and the hubristic hordes of Yale Law, Washingtonians often spoke of things other than work, power, and food. Restraint on the latter topic was immeasurably aided by a lack of restaurants, modest menus, early closing times, and a peculiar local tradition of surly waiters.
The food was often more nondescript than bad, which was all right because restaurants then were places to go to be with your friends rather than to be seen by your adversaries. Eating out was an extension of community, not politics by other means, or a stage on which to display one’s exquisite and ostentatious knowledge of trivial gastronomic variations.
Of course, community and good food are not mutually exclusive; a few examples of their synergistic potential still survive even in boomer Washington, most notably La Tomate on Dupont Circle, AKA the Review’s conference room. It’s the sort of place that, when the owner died a few years back, 500 people showed up for his funeral including politicians, cops, and this alternative journalist.
But for the most part, Washington’s better known restaurants mimic the brutalist capital culture they serve, places of power and image, of price and pretense.
In 1987 wrote a piece for Washington’s City Paper in which I complained:
“Life in Washington’s slow lane is under siege. The culture of the more than half-million residents who don’t subscribe to the Washingtonian, who think of game plans only on fall weekends, and who eat at the 537th best restaurant in town and honestly believe they have had a good meal is threatened by in intrusive, presumptuous, and pompous elite so insecure it must remind us every day in every way that it is in town. This elite is not content with the mere possession of money, power, and success; it feels compelled to plaster its icons and totems all over town, giving the place the oxymoronic aura of franchised trendiness, coincidentally destroying the places and symbols of indigenous Washington.”
It being also quite a literal city, the restaurant critic of the Washington Post, Phyllis Richman called to inquire the name of the 537th best restaurant in town. I quickly devised an answer, bestowing the honor on a hole in the wall on New York Avenue I had recently visited. Richman wrote a piece in which she called me a “capital curmudgeon,” and noted that my ranking was a bit off since the place in question had an award from another publication hanging on its wall.
When I wrote that, I was actually thinking of places such as the long-gone DC Diner into which came cops, drunks, prostitutes and college students returning from dates or, on early Sunday mornings, from the midnight mass that the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception thoughtfully provided the Catholic young and restless. My routine was to order the steak and egg breakfast. A beefy cook would grab a couple of eggs and burst them on the grill. The steak followed. He then reached over for a handful of home fries from the foot-high pile that sat nearly cooked in a cool corner of the stove. Almost simultaneously the chef lunged for a fistful of salad from a five gallon potato chip can resting under the counter and plopped it into a side dish. During the whole procedure no kitchen utensil touched his hands, yet few meals have tasted as good.
Or Spack’s Chicken on the Hill, which had a storefront windows filled with an 1883 Swiss music box, an airplane propeller, opera glasses, statuettes and drug store jewelry. There are Arabic sabers hanging over the restroom doors and travel posters on the wall. Also “the world’s smallest bar” — a few shelves filled with miniature liquor bottles. “Now someday this place is going to have class,” Spack once told our reporter, Greg Lawrence. “You know — cosmopolitan, relaxing, with fine music from the past. For instance,” he said as he reached for an object under the counter, “this vase from Europe has been dyed by its creators in pigeon blood. Now I ask you, what other cafe on Capitol Hill features decorations dyed in pigeon blood?”
There was a whole subset of restaurants, though, that specialized in surliness: Martin’s in Georgetown, the AV Ristorante on New York Avenue, and a Capitol Hill favorite, Sherrill’s Bakery. Sherrill’s is about to close to make way for yet another Starbucks, purveyors of hot, flavored water and milk to urban sophisticates who enjoy hearing themselves say, “one latte grande with a chocolate biscotti, please.” The only place in America where you have to take a Kuder preference test before getting a pound of ground coffee.
Sherrill’s wasn’t like that. Once when a parent asked for two donuts for her kid, the woman behind the counter said, “he only needs one.” On another occasion, a dissatisfied customer picking up her cake became so frustrated she threw her acquisition at the staffer and stormed out. The sort of place you miss when it’s gone.
There are still a few real Washington eateries left, though. Like Jimmy T’s just five blocks from the US Capitol. It hasn’t been refurbished in over three decades, the paint hangs like stalactites, and when we entered the other day, the kid sitting on the stool was told to “go in back and get your shirt on. We’ve got customers.” The only sign on the place is a neon one in the window that says “OPEN.” You just have to know where you are.
They don’t waste money on signs at such places. My old office, not too many blocks away, was right next to Helen & Lee’s Carryout. They would advertise their pork chop sandwiches and other specialties as “recommended by our five doctor sons.” Then Helen died and for years thereafter, the carryout had a sign that read, “& Lee’s Carryout.”
The other night, Hallmark put on one of those sappy movies I never watch, except this time the setting was DC, so I did watch it. There was a scene in which the leads went to a funky eatery in Georgetown, except they don’t have any funky eateries in Georgetown, and so they ended up across town at Jimmy T’s. I was reminded of my conversation with the owner during which I had listed some of Washington’s rudest restaurants. He said, “And don’t forget me.” As I was leaving, I shook his hand and said, “My name’s Sam,” and he looked me straight in the eye, and said with perfect impassivity, “Mine’s Juanita.”
I’m going back.
Elian comes to the hood
[In 1999, a six year old Cuban boy, Elian Gonzales, was found off the Florida coast in an inner tube. Conservative relatives in Florida fought for custody of the boy in a seventh month standoff until the Supreme Court ruled he could go home with his father. In the meantime, he found exile in your editor’s neighborhood.]
SAM SMITH – Readers may recall that early in the Elian caper, your editor was asked whether he and his wife would be willing to rent their house to provide shelter for the Cuban tike and as many of his nuclear family, classmates, physicians and so forth as could squeeze in. My keen journalistic nose sniffed a possible story and besides the suggested rent intrigued me.
But I had married the virtue, good sense and neighborly consideration that I lacked and so the notion was soon deflated. I did, however, suggest to my cut-out that Elian consider Rosedale, a farm house on a nearby estate owned by Youth for Understanding. It was, I suggested, ideal for the purpose since it was probably already well wired to the Central Intelligence Agency.
In Washington, you develop a sense for such things. In individuals it is suggested by a certain vague and antiseptic charm, in organizations by a certain vague and antiseptic languor about matters of normal concern, such as public relations and fund-raising. Youth for Understanding, a well-endowed student exchange program, was started in the early 1950s during a time when the agency was being especially solicitous towards the young, co-opting the National Student Association, dragooning Europe-bound Ivy Leaguers and so forth. Among the rogue influences it presumably wished to counter was that of the Experiment in International Living, a progressive exchange program favored by students not all that interested in joining the establishment. YFU became an establishment alternative to the Experiment.
So why would your editor, of all people, propose such a locale? The story goes back 25 years when Rosedale was owned by the National Cathedral. It had been used as a boarding campus for wealthy southern Episcopalian girls attending the National Cathedral School. The DC riots of 1968, however, had dampened white southern enthusiasm for Washington and the Cathedral found itself with, so to speak, a very white elephant.
At the time, I was one of 300 advisory neighborhood commissioners elected for the first time in the city. Since the commissioner idea had been one of my pet projects, I took my responsibilities seriously, never more so than when word came that the National Cathedral planned to sell beautiful Rosedale to the Bulgarians for an embassy and chancery. The neighbors were beside themselves, their favorite position, and I was more than willing to join the fray.
We set about with vigor to block the Cathedral’s plan. A member of the family that had formerly owned the land spoke wistfully of it having been passed to the church “in Christian trust.” Terry Lenzner’s father-in-law provided counsel not only on commercial, but canonical, law. For my part, as a recovering Episcopalian turned navipasqua (one who goes to church only on Christmas and Easter), I was more than happy to take on the bishop. His was, after all, a religion that included among its sins acts of supererogation — which is to say doing more good works than the Lord demands of you — clearly not a faith to be trusted in a planning dispute.
We finally bearded Bishop William Creighton in a crowded meeting at St. Alban’s school. Noting that the bishop was seated between his treasurer, a CIA official, and the head of his foundation, another agency man, I prefaced my remarks by remarking that it looked as if the score was Caesar 2, God 0. Creighton did not flinch but when it was his turn to speak, he pulled out the stops, suggesting an anti-Eastern European tenor to the community’s opposition. I’d been mau-maued by a few black militants but never by a whole Bishop of the Episcopal Church. When it was my turn, I looked Creighton right in the eye and told him what I thought of the charge, concluding that “on the whole, I have been treated better by Bulgarians than by Episcopalians.”
And I wasn’t the most vociferous. Still, the Cathedral held its ground until someone uncovered an ancient written agreement that the Cathedral would not act except upon consultation with the neighborhood. And so another commissioner and I wrote the bishop accusing him of “bad faith,” the moral hand passed to our side and it was not long before Ambassador Popov and his embassy were gone and Youth For Understanding was making an offer, encouraged — I did not doubt — by the two agency men at the head table, Robert Amory and Richard Drain, the latter one of the brains behind the Bay of Pigs disaster.
I considered myself a practical pol and had no objections to replacing high-rise diplomats with low-rise spooks. All we now wanted was the historic right of residents and their dogs to wander across the grounds. The easements were eventually signed and the neighborhood enjoyed 25 years of what amounted to a private park. It was the scene of touch football games and amorous assignments and floating Frisbees. And the dogs could run at will.
With so much happy use, it would be wrong to begrudge Elian an opportunity to enjoy it as well. But he will not come alone, he will be accompanied by men in black vans, big guns, and bland faces whom we will be paying (for reasons that remain uncertain) to protect a Cuban kid the way they protect, say, a vice president or a cabinet official. They will undoubtedly tell the neighbors that they can no longer use Rosedale as they have in the past. And the same rules will apply to dogs. The day-glo green tennis balls will thus remain unmasticated behind bushes and in crevices until the administration and the courts figure out finally what to do about Elian.
I have already apologized to one neighbor for having ever suggesting Rosedale, although it was probably far from a unique idea. As former commissioner of District 7C, however, I also strongly suggested a review by a dog-owning attorney of the relevant easements, particularly those sections relating to the rights of canines. Perhaps the park could be divided in two — a dog walk and an Elian walk [which is what the Secret Service eventually did with the longest yellow police tape I have ever seen] In any event, it is only fair that Elian share Rosedale with the neighbors and their dogs. No issue is so important that it justifies denying a dog’s place in the sun.