Tuesday, September 23, 2008


September 24, 2008

Last week, as Lehman Brothers imploded, Merrill Lynch was being absorbed by Bank of America, and sub-prime bundlers were calling in their default credit swaps with AIG, my two sisters and I exchanged phone calls on the history of banking regulation. Our own, that is.
Somewhere in the late 1950’s, when we were in single digits of age, our mother walked us up a few blocks from our home in Norwalk to open savings accounts for us at Norwalk Savings and Loan. It was the beginning of our financial life.
"Mom and Dad were children of the Depression," said my sister Joanie, who now lives in Manhattan Beach. "Saving money was very important to them, and they wanted to get us into the habit early."
Our initial transaction, as I remember it, was genuinely personal. The young bank officer in his sharp suit and tie sat us down around a huge oaken desk, took three $20 bills from Mom, and in return presented us with magnificent grownups’ passbooks in which he had written our opening balance. Then he gave us a short pep-talk on saving our money.
"He also gave us little see-through piggy banks," remembered Jeannie, now of Mission Viejo. "That really impressed me then. I think I may still have mine around somewhere."
We all got into the savings habit. "By the time we graduated from high school," Joanie said, "Jeannie and I had enough to pay cash for a new Volkswagen."
Watching my money grow became an obsession. With a full piggy bank or a fistful of crisp dollar bills from birthday or Christmas, I’d enter that temple of commerce, stand on tiptoe at the teller’s cage, and exchange it all for numbers handwritten in my passbook. When I got to decimals in school, I’d calculate the compounded interest myself and scrupulously check it against the bank’s figures.
The details of these childhood recollections may be a bit overdrawn, so to speak, but they all conjure up one basic feeling: confidence. In our community, the bank was second only to the church in terms of stability. Banks and S&L’s were primarily local businesses — Norwalk Savings had no branches — that drew their funds from neighbors’ deposits and loans. Savers got a steady five percent return. Loans were straightforward — no adjustables, no balloon payments — and their interest rates were capped by usury laws. Saving and borrowing from banks was easily understood and absolutely reliable.
As my father tirelessly pointed out in our dinner-table discussions, it was the reforms of the New Deal that had made things so. As I found out somewhat later, the Glass-Steagall Acts of 1933 and 1935 separated low-risk depository banking from high-risk investment banking, controlled speculation by confining commercial banks within state lines, regulated interest rates on savings accounts and loans, and guaranteed deposits through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Within these structures, bank panics, which my parents had experienced first-hand as young adults in 1933, would never happen again.
The FDIC is still in place, of course, and then some — the Bush administration is now proposing to extend its coverage to money-market accounts — but its surrounding mechanisms, which were what made it unlikely it would ever be used, have gradually been dismantled over the last 30 years.
Now, interest on savings has become so laughable (last month my bank, on what it calls its "High-Yield" savings account, paid me 0.4%) that you might as well opt for your mattress as a comparable savings instrument. Interest on your credit-card debt is double-digit, and adjustable-rate mortgages beg foreclosure. And with interstate and worldwide commercial banking, the loan you signed at your local branch of Behemoth Bank has probably been sliced and bundled and bought by China.
What was lost in the march to deregulation in banking was a fundamental principle of the New Deal reforms: providing simple and assured vehicles for ordinary people to save and borrow. The philosophy of deregulation supposedly trusts that all people are wise and make good decisions, but what it really believes is that those who are simple and make bad decisions get what they deserve. This philosophy has manifested itself well beyond banking, in proposals to privatize Social Security and in offering those bewildering "options" on Medicare drugs.
The Reagan belief that government can’t solve problems because government is the problem has had a long run, but the present financial crisis may at last be putting the lie to it. In the face of a near panic, the country may be coming round to see, as it did in the 1930’s, that government is the most effective agent to promote the common good. In terms of personal economics, people may once again demand a return to stability in commercial banking: not "safety nets," not bailouts, but a reliable and rewarding system for saving and for borrowing, so that ordinary risk-averse folk, and even their children, can succeed not on craftiness but on will-power alone.
The worldwide financial system today is like electricity — hardly anybody knows how it works, but everybody expects that when they flip the switch the light will come on. It’s that sense of confidence and reliability that the Democrats should make the keystone of the upcoming elections. There would be no more effective TV ads than photos of the Depression-era bank panic, clips from an FDR speech, and the single tag-line: "Vote Democratic."
"Get this!" my sister Jeannie told me. "I went into Home Savings the other day, and what were they giving away for opening a new account? Electric screwdrivers! Then I went into my B of A branch, and what did they have at the door? A big bowl of suckers!"
You wonder if the banks saw the irony. Jeannie sure did.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


I was having a lazy lunch at a sidewalk cafe in the Village the other day, soaking up the last of the summer’s warmth, reading Plotinus.
"Excuse me, sir."
"Got any spare change?"
I looked up from my Cobb salad. It was a young Black man in sockless sneakers, cargo shorts, and a faded Jimi Hendrix T-shirt.
"Change? I’m sick of that word. I’m reading about immutability."
"I don’t mean change, I mean change. You know, jingle-jangle."
"Yeah, like my nerves. Well, since you brought up the subject, are you for Obama change or McCain change?"
"Dunkin’ Donuts change."
"Oh, you switched from Starbucks too. Surest sign of a faltering economy."
"Don’t waste my time, Mistah. Either you got it or you don’t."
"I don’t. I don’t got it and I don’t get it. Back in January, it was all so clear. Obama was that fresh face with fresh ideas we’d been longing for, and African-American too. We were sick of Bush in particular and Republicans in general. We desperately wanted out of Iraq, we wanted action on health care, we wanted a government that actually worked, for a change. Damn it, I’m saying it myself now. Hillary wanted the same things, but she wasn’t change-enough — too Establishment, too practical, too calculating, too Bill. ‘Change’ began to mean personalities, not positions. Even Teddy and Caroline rejected her. They saw in Obama the new New Frontier with that go-to-the-moon mentality. They saw the new Camelot. They saw Martin Luther King’s dream realized at last."
"My feet."
"My foot! Sorry, want to sit down? That was impolite of me. Want something? Burgers are good here."
"Coffee’s fine, thanks. Go on."
"Yeah. It was change-change-change, and we were so hungry for it we didn’t bother to ask what it was exactly, we were just enamored of the very idea of it. A bold, fearless plan to redirect the country would have forced voters to make a choice for or against a real change. But the issues weren’t the issue anymore. And the more Obama tacked to the center and hauled out the old pandering clichés, the more he began to look like your ordinary politician, except with a silver tongue. And if you don’t stand on substance, voters start thinking subliminally. A lot of White people who claim they aren’t racist will turn away from him because he’s Black."
"You’re telling me."
"Then enter McCain, that old war-horse, painting himself as Mr. Change. His positions are all Bush Lite, but by the time of the convention that didn’t matter, and he knew it. So to shore up his emotive base on the Christian right and try to cop the Hillary vote, he got Sarah Palin to run with him. She’s the governor of Alaska."
"That’s out there."
"In more ways than one. It was a brilliant stroke. It’s muddied up the lines all over the place. Home-schoolers are cheering, even though she’s never home. Hillary supporters are shifting over, even though Palin is Hillary’s opposite both on experience and on the issues. Undecided men are looking at her because her voice reminds them of some hyper high-school girlfriend, and she doesn’t wear pantsuits."
"That’s change."
"You bet it is, and the worst kind. It’s the real Bridge to Nowhere. But she’s put the sizzle on his tough old steak."
"Good metaphor, man. They call him a maverick, right? But in the Old West, a maverick was an unbranded steer. When I was a kid, I saw some classic TV shows about that on Nick at Nite."
"Exactly. And that’s why he may pull this off. He claims he can run with either herd, so he can ‘get things done’ in Washington."
"But isn’t he reactionary on almost everything?"
"I told you, that doesn’t matter. It’s the image. People think he’s James Garner or something. But if they put him in, they’ll find out who he really is."
"I see. You can put lipstick on McCain, but he’s still McCain."
"I wish I’d said that. So where were we? Have you got any spare change?"
"Not me. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose."
"Excuse me?"
"‘The more things change, the more ...’"
"‘... they remain the same.’ I knew that. You’re a hell of a panhandler."
"Actually, I’m a journalism student at NYU, researching a story. I think I just found one."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


September 11, 2008

The memories, now that I’ve decided to write about the subject, come back in horrific floods: the morning news bulletin that a plane had collided with one of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center and the initial talk of a "terrible accident"; then a second plane, and talk of terrorism; fuzzy long-distance shots of people jumping stories to their deaths, then the imploding towers; further bulletins of planes crashing into the Pentagon and some field in Pennsylvania; the column of smoke visible for days from the rooftops of the Bronx, ten miles to the north; the endless TV replays interspersed with live footage of people wandering dazed on the downtown streets with photos of the missing; the tolling bell and candle-light service at St. Augustine Catholic Church here, two days after the tragedy; the old woman who took my hand and whispered, "It’s Judgment Day."
There were few physical casualties here in the South Bronx, but everyone knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who had died in the cataclysm. A teacher at St. Augustine School, a former police officer, lost her sister in the towers and broke apart; after five years on disability, she returned to teaching, sharing her story of overcoming grief with hope and hatred with love.
Keith Outlaw, the young African-American pastor of St. Augustine’s, carried out his duties in a haze. "For days and days," he told me recently, "people would come to me in tears, and I tried to be strong for them. Then when they left I’d cry. I was really hurting. I cried so much during that whole period. It was beyond what we could ever imagine."
He did his part.
"When they called for clergy to bless remains in the morgues," he said, "I signed up. But so many had volunteered that I was pushed back to the second week. When I finally got there, I prepared myself to see bodies or large body parts, and the staff there warned us and gave us special headgear for the stench — but I didn’t need it. What came through by that time was just little bits of bone — the biggest I saw was about five or six inches long. There was no stench because there was no flesh — all the bones looked like they’d been in the desert for years. The doctor on duty told me the fire was like a thousand degrees — they were cooked.
"Of course at that point, they couldn’t identify the persons those bones belonged to, so there wasn’t much to be done. I said some prayers and that was it."
Jesus taught his followers to love and forgive those who hate them. How did he feel at the time?
"The love and forgiveness part was never there, to be honest. I was very angry and very hurt: How could they do this to them?"
"The only good thing I can say is that it really united people. Here in New York, the mood was so different from usual. People were actually kind to each other. We weren’t rich or poor, Republicans or Democrats, Catholics or even Muslims — we were all Americans."
It was the small things that often spoke the loudest to him.
"I remember watching a Red Sox-Yankee game in Boston that fall, and some fans unveiled a banner that read, ‘The Red Sox Love New York.’ Has that ever happened before or since?"
Another small thing: "I remember buying bananas from Colombia or someplace around that time, and the little sticker on them had the Colombian and U.S. flags crossed together and the words, ‘We are with you.’ We had the whole world behind us then.
"That was until Iraq. We were all united until Bush finished us off."
I would say that Iraq didn’t start the finishing off; that had been going on almost from the beginning.
It was a time of national trauma, and as with individual trauma, the country felt both angry and helpless at once, and looked to their leaders for support and guidance. As the woman said, it seemed like Judgment Day. But it was not so much a day of judgment as it was a day for judgment, the ability of true leaders to accurately evaluate a situation in the midst of the chaos, take visionary action, and inspire hope and trust. In the years following the tragedy, what we got from our leaders was the Office of Homeland Security, the Orange Alerts that only heightened the trauma, the squandering of the enormous capital of good will by an abrasive, go-it-alone foreign policy — and then Iraq, and domestic surveillance, and torture, and military tribunals, to all of which the country and its legislators passively acceded: the sure signs of ongoing trauma.
It’s been seven years, and Keith Outlaw continues to hurt.
"There’s still a wound there that probably will heal in time," he told me. "It’s less painful now, but it opens again every September."
Personally and politically, 9/11 is not behind us yet.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


September 4, 2008

Why are hurricanes given names? Long before the National Weather Service began doing it alphabetically in 1950, the colonial Spanish had done it using saints’ names, and in fact borrowed the word itself from the Mayan-Carib storm-god, Hurican.
It’s understandable. Hurricanes have a kind of organic life, and like certain animals, they remind us of ourselves: They are born; they grow up; some stay weak, others become powerful; they often behave erratically and destructively; they get old; they die — or more correctly, just fade away.
America’s most recent brushes with hurricanes have been eerily anthropomorphic. Three years ago, the one called Katrina laid New Orleans low and issued an indictment of the Bush administration’s negligence and incompetence better than any human whistle-blower ever could. To mark the anniversary almost to the day, Gustav appeared like some Nordic god to render judgment on the Republican party assembled in convention.
The plans of the gods often backfire, however. Though Gustav brought the whole Katrina nightmare and the government’s bumbling and often heartless response back to national consciousness, the hurricane also provided the Republicans unexpected opportunities: first, to knock their chief liabilities, the despised president and his conniving mentor Cheney off the St. Paul stage; second, to put a human face on the convention, turning it from the usual self-absorbed hoopla to a telethon for disaster relief, like Jerry Lewis was doing for muscular dystrophy at the same time; and third, to allow John McCain to project for the voting public his future on-the-ball and caring presidency by flying down to Mississippi to simulate taking matters in hand.
As Gustav aimed at the Gulf Coast, a third hurricane arrived from exactly the opposite direction — Alaska — and in exactly the opposite form — not a storm with human qualities but a human with storm qualities. As soon as she hit the mainland, Sarah Palin blew the shingles off presidential politics. Like all hurricanes, she started as a mild disturbance in an obscure place; few bothered to track her. But in the space of a few days she had become a Category Four, destroying the Democrats’ plans and forcing the temporary evacuation of pundits and strategists to firmer, if not higher, ground.
The gales now blow every which way. If McCain had chosen a male with the identical set of ideological credentials — evangelical Christian, anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-gay marriage, pro-drilling in wildlife refuges (Mike Huckabee, for instance), he’d have predictably solidified his conservative base and also predictably lost many swing-voters to Obama, a relatively simple cost-benefit calculation. But a young female throws everything into disarray. Palin may not finally draw very many disgruntled but issue-oriented Hillary women, but she’s got even them thinking twice. Those she will draw are the non-ideological independents and undecideds, female and male, old and young, people who vote from the gut, admiring the veteran McCain yet looking for freshness, youth, and that certain feminine quality to balance him out — yin and yang.
Hurricane Sarah has also blown to bits the "experience" issue. After all the harangues against Obama’s callowness, and despite McCain’s lame assertions that Palin as governor and former mayor has the "executive experience" that his legislator-opponents lack (he, the lifetime legislator, of course lacks it too), this woman clearly would not be ready on Day One; Obama looks like an aged sage next to her. She could possibly hold her own on domestic questions, but on foreign policy she’s swimming entirely beyond her depth; her learning curve will be as steep as it gets with just a few weeks to bone up to debate Joe Biden. McCain may be thinking of grooming her to lead a new generation of Republicans made in his image by giving her the task of cleaning up corruption and waste in the federal bureaucracy as she has been doing in Alaska. But what if the grooming is interrupted by the unthinkable, which in constitutional terms is what the vice presidency is for? If that occurs, what the country will get is an appointed, not elected, vice president to be her regent.
Finally, at least for now, there are all those tornadoes that continue to spin off her personal life, upending ideological preconceptions like so many mobile homes. People, for example, find it admirable that she exercised her right to choose by choosing to have her Down-syndrome baby, but disturbing that she’s forsaking the demands of his care for the demands of a run for national office. They find it socially typical that her teenage daughter is pregnant, yet ask themselves if for all her family values she’s not just another absentee mom. And then there’s that Alaska state senate investigation of whether she spitefully fired her public safety commissioner for not firing her estranged former brother-in-law, a state trooper.
Just when you think you’ve got things straight, another cross-wind knocks you over.
Right now, the peaceful eye of Hurricane Sarah is moving over the St. Paul convention center, but what will happen next? Like Hurricane Gustav, she may quickly turn into an un-tropical depression without doing great damage. On the other hand, fueled by the hot and murky waters of politics and the press, new furies may be yet to come.
Meanwhile, Obama and Co. are hunkered down in hurricane central, sifting through the latest bulletins and devising contingency plans.


August 28, 2008

Now that the pieces of the Democratic presidential puzzle have been put together, the picture turns out looking like a Picasso portrait: No part of the face is in the right place.
A year ago — or was it two? — when the pieces were all jumbled around, you may have expected that by convention time you’d see Hillary Clinton assuming the mantle of the beloved Bill, with the young and charismatic Barack Obama by her side, eager to be tested and tutored for the top spot eight years hence — the makings of an enduring Democratic dominance. Surrounding them, you’d see Senator Joe Biden, ready to lead the State Department, and the host of other eminently qualified primary candidates — John Edwards now excepted — poised to compose an illustrious, coherent cabinet.
Instead, you see the callow Obama at the center, the hoary Biden at his side, and the Clintons in the corner, relegated to symbolic votes and prime-time speeches.
Amidst the confetti and the roar of the crowd, the array on display in the Denver stadium may prick a pang of doubt in more than one Democratic heart. After all those debates and the retail politicking and the profligate campaign ads, could the (slim) majority of primary voters have gotten it wrong? Were they so absorbed in the intra-party drama that they could not see the realities of the national fight?
The picture only began to seem seriously out of whack at the Obama-Biden photo op last Saturday. Seeing them locked in the stereotypical candidates’ embrace, the elder statesman and the junior Senator, you couldn’t help wondering whether the Clintons were right. Months and months of allusions to Obama’s inexperience, supposedly disposed of by the results of the primaries, came haunting the brain like a 3 a.m. nightmare. So it might be true after all: Do the Democrats need a Cheney of their own to mentor their Decider? Will all the talk of new-generation politics and that stand-alone word "change," always more rhetorical than real, sparkle like fireworks in the Colorado sky — and vanish?
Obama’s own section of the puzzle is itself composed of many pieces which voters, even after two years of trying, still can’t assemble. Incredibly, the pollsters continue to find that large numbers of the electorate "don’t know who he is." Why? — His life’s journey has been spread before them insistently by the campaign and the media. Partly it may be insidious, subconscious racism, the kind that makes Whites look through Blacks instead of at them: the Invisible Man. But partly it may be Obama’s particular personality, where the fiery charisma he displays on the stump turns to a stutter in the interview or debate. Unlike the ironic and impish John Kennedy, the ebullient and engaging Bill Clinton, or the alliterative and incisive Jesse Jackson, Obama’s off-the-cuff presence is distant and humorless, almost robotic. In that respect, even many Blacks can’t figure him out: the color is right, but where is the soul?
Given the level of national disgust at the Bush administration and the general sympathy toward Democratic positions on major issues, Obama should now have a runaway lead in the polls; as it is, he’s neck-and-neck with McCain. Will the campaign emerging out of Denver be able to overcome the sense that somehow the arrangement is askew? Unless the Democrats, like a good art teacher, can reveal the beauty and the genius of their Picasso portrait by election day, people may end up voting for the devil they think they know.


August 21, 2008

Achieving effective political goals does not start with legislation, it ends with it. The way to bring about large-scale change is first to bring about small-scale change, change in individuals’ attitudes, practices, and vision of themselves and their communities. The sense of personal ownership of an issue is a powerful motivator, and it’s contagious, spreading from family to family and turning into political action.
This is what Barack Obama learned from his youthful years as a community organizer in Chicago, and it’s a major reason for the success of his quixotic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Though it has since hardened into the more-or-less typical political machine, his campaign started, you recall, as a movement, drawing its fire (and its dollars) from many thousands of people disillusioned by the system yet confident in the democratic process. Obama’s yes-we-can approach invited them to regain a personal stake in public decision-making.
The results of effective grass-roots mobilization can be significant, and the present revitalization of the South Bronx is a case in point.
The Bronx was burning in the 1980’s when a group of local clergy formed an umbrella organization called South Bronx Churches and invited the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) — from which Obama, at just about the same time, was getting his own training — to help them turn their congregations into agents of change.
Over the years, the IAF has expanded and refined the methods of community organizing that its founder, Saul Alinsky, developed starting in the 1940’s to confront discrimination in employment, housing, and public services in Chicago. Overall, it’s a kind of collective anger management: Take a disaffected community that’s seething with impotent and destructive rage and turn it into self-esteem and political power.
Developing community coherence is long, meticulous work. With South Bronx Churches, following the IAF model, it began with individual sessions called "one-on-ones." Organizers sat down with each head of the participating community groups, asking them to articulate their specific hopes for social change. These in turn repeated the exercise with one another and then spread it across their membership. Next came intensive meetings within their congregations and then with the entire organization.
Through this process, concerns common to the community came to light, and the list was long: housing, education, food quality, health care, drug-dealing, gun violence, police brutality, toxic waste dumps. Also through this process, natural (and often unexpected) leaders within the congregations were identified and trained in public speaking, running meetings, simulated encounters with public officials, and general bravery. It is amazing to see the transformations that occured with this training: Shy moms who’d been afraid to say a word at a PTA meeting became fearless, articulate advocates of their cause.
The movement was structured and mentored by the IAF organizers, but it authentically grew from the bottom up: People not only took possession of the issues, they took possession of themselves, following what the IAF calls its "iron-clad rule": "Never do anything for someone that they can do for themselves."
With the initial training accomplished, the group began to cut its teeth on small, achievable goals: petitioning for a traffic signal at a dangerous intersection, getting the police to break up a corner drug ring, forcing a landlord to repair an apartment building.
In the process, the people educated themselves about the structures of civic power to identify the levels of power that had to be confronted to most quickly and effectively bring about the desired results.
As the group gained knowledge and confidence, it moved to larger issues. The leaders, having studied a problem and formulated solutions, sought meetings with the responsible officials, who were then invited to speak at an assembly of the congregations.
IAF assemblies are rigorously disciplined. They begin on time and end on time, usually in an hour and a half. Each participating congregation is introduced, followed by several short inspirational speeches by members. A leader presents the issue to be addressed, and attending officials are given precisely five minutes to speak. (It is most gratifying to watch politicians in the midst of their bluster tapped on the shoulder by a neighborhood lady with a stopwatch.) Then the officials are asked pointed questions ("Will you back legislation to relocate this toxic-waste dump?") to which they must respond either "yes" or "no" — no qualifications allowed. After a round of thanks and a prayer, the assembly ends.
This is a compelling demonstration of people-power. Officials from the head of the housing authority to Mayor Giuliani himself, who once dismissed South Bronx Churches as another kooky fringe, eventually found it impossible to ignore. As reporter Sanford Horwitt wrote in the L.A. Times some years ago: "The fact that a politician can discern morality a lot faster in a roomful of registered voters has little to do with cynicism but says much about how the democratic process works — and has always worked — in our country."
The results were hardly instantaneous, but over the course of 20 years and through the mobilization of thousands, they came: Corrupt school boards were dissolved and new schools, some of them sponsored and mentored by South Bronx Churches, were built; acres of vacant lots were appropriated for affordable housing, much of which was also sponsored by South Bronx Churches; filthy public hospitals were modernized and re-staffed; waste dumps were relocated; the police force was retrained and redeployed to better serve the community.
The South Bronx is now beginning to flourish, thanks in no small part to the work of South Bronx Churches.
Obama’s experience in community organizing gave him the tools to mastermind his campaign. If only his experience will remind him that the politicians don’t own the issues, the people do.


August 14, 2008

Sheesh. I take two weeks off to go lap-topless in Seattle (paperless, TV- and radio-less too; take note, Mr. Gates), and what’s first up on the news when I return? Why, it’s Barack Obama, asking us fellow Americans not what your country can do for you. After eight-plus years of official avoidance of self-sacrifice for the national good, he must have felt it necessary to draw us back to it gently, with baby steps. So to begin, what you can do for your country is: Keep your car’s tires inflated and get a tune-up.
The opposition jump-started off that one. It took the Republican National Committee just a day or two to order up a bunch of tire-gauge sticks imprinted with "Barack Obama’s Energy Plan" and dish them out to reporters and supporters, many of whom promptly off-loaded them to e-Bay (going price: $7.49-$10).
Obama’s admonition, however, was not unfounded. Experts like the AAA and NASCAR have been saying for years that properly inflated tires and a well-tuned engine could improve your gas mileage by 3% and 4% each. If all the driving public began doing just those two things today, demand for petroleum could be reduced by as much as new offshore drilling might produce 20 years from now. John McCain himself eventually had to admit the same, causing Obama to muse snidely that he was now having debates with himself.
The flap, thus flipped, was a flop, and the pundits got great mileage out of it, making car-puns. That was actually the best part of the whole thing — or worst, depending on where you rank the pun as a form of humor.
I mean, they had a blowout. The cable guys especially, regardless of their balance or alignment, wouldn’t tire of it; they got all pumped up and kept the pressure on for at least two-sevenths of a news cycle. Government leaks, gas-bag politicians, and a flat economy all took a back seat, until John Edwards checked his side-view mirror and found Rielle Hunter was closer than she appeared. That jacked them up over something new — a story with legs.
Aw, go ahead: Think up some really smelly puns yourself; this paper welcomes letters to the editor.
Obama’s call to fight gas-price inflation with tire inflation does sound laughable at first hearing, but it’s far less so than McCain’s call for that "gas-tax holiday," which is just a silly way of asking what your country can do for you.
If you’ll allow me one last pun, I’d like to see Obama’s idea gain traction. As we’re all now coming to see, achieving energy sustainability and environmental improvement will be the result not only of enlightened public policy (presently running on empty) but of countless individual decisions by everyone who uses energy — that is, everyone. And since federal action on energy has sputtered and stalled for years, the decisions of individuals, businesses, and state and local governments become all the more important. The pinch of fuel prices on the pocketbook is raising consciousness faster than altruism ever could, and people are now scrambling for personal ways to conserve and preserve. Obama’s suggestion is hardly self-sacrifice — let’s hope he gets well beyond the baby steps pretty darn soon — but at least it’s asking what you can do for your country, as well as for yourself.
As far as driving is concerned, I find myself making new resolutions every time I hit fifty bucks on the pump. After getting over my laughing-jag at the Obama speech and the Republican backfire, I took out my old unimprinted tire gauge and portable pump, plumped up my tires, and added the task to my Day-Timer’s tickler.
Prior to that, I’d lowered my highway speed to 60 mph (55, the supposedly optimum speed federally imposed after the 1973 oil embargo and rescinded without forethought over a decade ago, somehow seems just a bit too slow). Coupled with a tune-up, this has brought the gas mileage on my classic 1984 Honda Accord up to a Prius-challenging 40 mpg. It also has a remarkable calming effect on my driving, except when tailgated by a towering truck or a senseless speeder.
I’ve given up drive-thru windows too, after suffering hallucinations of gas-pump meters racing blindingly like the National Debt Clock while I sat there idling. Good local governments would close all drive-thru’s permanently.
And speaking of idling, I’ve started treating stop-lights at empty intersections like stop-signs; if I see no pedestrians, cars, or police, I’ll proceed through them. Good local governments could substantially cut fuel consumption in their districts by turning traffic lights at low-volume crossings to flashing red. I’m sure I’ll get a moving violation sooner or later from some cop idling her patrol car in the bushes. No matter; I’ll go to court and plead innocent by reason of sanity.
Barack, I’m with you all the way on this one. I’d rather be a starter than an alternator.


July 24, 2008

Some years ago, I invited to dinner a young Nigerian who had just arrived in New York to begin graduate studies at Fordham University. As I whirred up some pesto in the Cuisinart, he looked at the appliance and said in amazement, "The White Man is great!"
"Say that again?" I asked in my own amazement.
He smiled. "It’s one of our adages. We say it whenever we see some wonderful new invention."
"He didn’t translate it literally," a Nigerian lawyer living here told me recently. "The phrase in the Ibo language is ‘Bekée bu ágbara’: ‘The White Man is a spirit’ The meaning is bigger than he put it. This is not a hollow proverb, either. It comes from our colonial experience to be sure, but it still expresses our awe at Western ingenuity."
The image of the White Man as the god of the modern remains in the psyches of the rest of the world. Like previous aggressors, he bestowed his diseases and plundered the land, but unlike them, he also remade their societies in his image, replaced their religious structures, gave them new languages and modes of thought. The traditional ways themselves never completely died, but they were transformed by this new spirit in their pantheon. Even those cultures strong enough to resist direct colonization, such as China and Japan, have been colonized indirectly by the technology, economics, and political structures of the West. Globalization is the White Man’s legacy.
This is why the face of Barack Obama is changing the psyches of the non-White world. The quintessential symbol of Euro-American power, the presidency of the United States, is being sought by a Black.
"Of course, Nigerians see Obama as a Westerner and as part of the American political establishment," the Nigerian lawyer told me, "but for the first time ever, they see a Western leader as part of themselves. Before this time, very few Nigerians could name the president of the U.S. But now excitement about the American elections is gripping everybody. People stay up late into the night looking at satellite news."
Put images of John McCain and Barack Obama side-by-side on the satellite news, and there is no doubt who gets the focus. A different view of America emerges.
Nothing could have been better or more timely than Obama’s current international trip. In the political doldrums of July in the U.S., between the primaries and the convention, he has moved to the world stage, and all eyes are fixed on him. Were he White, despite whatever new policies he’d promise, there would hardly be a ripple of interest — more American politics, that’s all. But his complexion and the ethnicity of his name, as well as his youth and energy, tap into the deep well of symbol and draw up something universal, transcending the old polarities.
Is this attraction ephemeral? It could easily become so, as symbol is tested by substance. But at this moment, immense psychological capital surrounds him. The very fact that a major American political party has nominated a Black as its candidate has generated a spontaneous wave of good will towards this nation, showing that its well-known principles of equality and opportunity are stronger than its equally well-known history of racism and exploitation. The Obama candidacy has commended the virtues of an open, multicultural society to the world in ways that previous presidents’ attempts at imposing "democracy" on other countries never could.
If Obama’s image is supported and sustained by a foreign policy of integrity, he could open doors to international peace and progress that have been shut for years.
There is no lack of suspicion that this hopeful vision of the United States is too good to be true. "If Obama is defeated," the Nigerian lawyer told me, "many in my country will believe it was because of his race."
That remains to be analyzed after the election. But for now, the stark symbol of the White Man as spirit is changing hue.


July 17, 2008

The morning glory is a seductive plant, with heart-shaped leaves and blooms of purple trumpets, the very symbol of love and passion. But it is a possessive lover, and in its ruthless drive for dominance it will strangle every competitor.
Before taking a planting bed at Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx, I’d had a long and abstract affection for morning glories. They’d always seemed so charming, so well-behaved, delicately climbing up neighbors’ trellises. All that has changed for me now: They are the weed above every other weed. Like lovable stray kittens that turn into ornery cats, they come up coyly in the spring along with the beans and the beets and the peppers you’ve planted, looking to the naïve like new-found friends.
"What are these?" I ironically test novice gardeners in the spring, pointing to the tiny hearts already sprouting in the untilled soil. "Some kind of flower?" they always respond. "They do have lovely blossoms," I tell them, "but they are the devil disguised. You must pull them out as soon as you see them or your plot will become a morning-glory patch in a matter of weeks."
They never listen. They may root out crabgrass and dandelions, but they’ll spare the morning glory. Soon they are in despair; it is taking over everything, twining around the tomatoes, creeping up the corn, choking the okra. To restore order, they must carefully pull the glories up by the roots, a task not only tedious but enfuriating: The more of them you kill, the more appear, wave after wave of attacking troops.
Genesis Park was carved out of a vacant lot 25 years ago by the Franciscan Brothers who had a monastery across the street. Legend has it that some visiting Brother, caring for the garden when the regulars were away, thought the bare fences needed adornment, bought a packet of morning glory seeds, and sowed them along the borders. Amazingly to me, this species, Ipomoea purpurea, designated a "noxious weed" by federal and state agricultural departments, is actually sold for real money in garden shops. You’d think the packets, if not banned entirely, would at least carry a warning, like cigarette packs do. This poor guy, like so many others, never knew.
The Brother went his way, but his work remained. Casting their seeds year by year, the demons spread from fence to plot to path, and even sprang up among the boulders of the rock garden. They have also become grotesque, their stems now thick and tough as baling wire, with leaves bigger than your hand. They grow so fast that without persistent pulling, the entire garden would be submerged beneath a weedy sea in a single summer. Even with persistent pulling, it is only possible to inhibit, never to eradicate.
In its June 29 issue, the New York Times Magazine ran a story by Tom Christopher about the research of Lewis Ziska, a "weed ecologist" at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on the effects of increased temperatures and levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide on plant life. In 2002, Ziska dug up soil from an organic farm in rural Maryland and poured it into three large beds, one at the farm, one in suburban Baltimore, and one in the city itself. The inner-city site, retaining heat from the surrounding pavements and CO2 from auto emissions, matched the average temperature and carbon dioxide levels projected for the planet in 30 to 50 years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Over five seasons, the weeds that sprang up in that plot grew two to four times the size of those at the farm, produced more pollen, and replicated far faster.
Uh-oh, I thought as I read: In the South Bronx, the future is now.
Weeds are weeds because of their genetic resourcefulness. As the earth warms and fills with growth-stimulating carbon dioxide, they will become an ever-greater menace to food crops. Along with their warnings of a weed-bound world, Ziska and his colleagues have proposed some creative solutions, including crossing wild, weedy grains with their cultivated cousins for a hardy, edible hybrid, and using starchy invasives like kudzu, presently devouring the South and moving northward, for biofuels.
That’s a weed ecologist for you, always on the sunny side.
My old friend Norman Bantz, the Yonkers beekeeper, read Christopher’s article and also found a silver lining. "That’s actually good news for bees," he ventured. "The more pollen in the flowers, the less the bees have to work to get it, and that means stronger, healthier hives. What are weeds to bees? Just another flower." Of course, more pollen may be bad news for allergy sufferers, though many people I know are turning to local honey, made from the same plants that afflict them so badly, as an antidote.
The day is hot, and passing cars and trucks are ladling their emissions over Genesis Park; it’s time to go on morning glory patrol. As I reach for the root of this noxious weed, I keep thinking there’s a gothic parable growing right there before my eyes, a tale of hearts and flowers and strangling love.


July 10, 2008

In 1956, at the age of 55, my bachelor Uncle Frank retired from his job as a bookbinder at Kalmbach Publishing Company in Milwaukee. He bought a new Buick and took it in a triangle across the country, first to Seattle to visit his sister Emma, then down to L.A. to his other sister Ida, then up the hypotenuse of Route 66 back home. He liked the experience so much that he did it every year thereafter for almost three decades. In fact, he made a life of it, leaving Milwaukee in September, spending the fall in the cool Northwest and the winter in warm Southern California, and returning to the Midwest in the spring for summer sausage and Summerfest. And he bought a new Buick every two years.
Uncle Frank’s retirement was built around the automobile, and not just driving one.
In 1937, the midst of the Great Depression, he and his younger brother Ted pooled their savings and bought both a new Dodge and several shares of Chrysler stock.
They saw the future.
Though Frank worked for a company specializing in railroad magazines — Trains and Model Railroader are still the anchors of Kalmbach’s now-eclectic list of publications — that form of transport was never a part of his investment strategy. He larded his growing portfolio with the Big Three automakers, and after less than 20 years of prolific stock splits and shrewd and timely trading, felt comfortable enough to leave the noise and glue of the bindery and live off his liberal dividends.
Last week, General Motors’ common stock closed below $10 a share, the lowest it’s been since 1954, when Uncle Frank was gobbling it up in anticipation. Two years later, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, underwriting the largest public works project in U.S. history, the Military and Interstate Highway System. Originally planned during World War II to expedite the movement of army convoys, the Interstate system was early recognized by auto manufacturers and trucking companies as their gift from heaven. As government-funded multi-lane highways with city-skirting loops linked the nation, and as railroads — unsubsidized and encumbered by pro-auto federal regulations limiting speed and rights-of-way — were pushed to the side-track of public policy, the rubber tire replaced the steel wheel as the cheapest and fastest mode of freight transport. Similarly, auto and air travel, now made comfortable and convenient, relegated passenger trains to the nostalgic.
The same applied to urban transport. As John Stilgoe reveals in his 2007 book, Train Time: Railroads and the Imminent Reshaping of the U.S. Landscape, in the early twentieth century Chicago had a complex system of underground tunnels through which electrified trains brought merchandise from the rail yards to the basements of downtown businesses, and left with mail-order packages to be sorted and shipped via the Railway Express Agency, the forerunner of UPS and FedEx. By the late 1950’s, as more and heavier trucks clogged and polluted the streets above, the tunnels were abandoned.
In rich, sometimes numbing detail, Stilgoe recounts other remarkable but now largely forgotten achievements of rail technology and logistics in the decades preceding the ascendency of the highway: the rapidity of mail and package delivery to the remotest parts of the country; the comfort, accessibility, and speed of vigorous and competitive passenger service; the efficiency of short-line railroads over trucking in moving raw materials to long-haul shipping points. He also paints a grim portrait of the future of our auto-based infrastructure: the deterioration of the Interstates, the ever-mounting congestion of metropolitan highways, and the related compromise of the quality of life for those living in the exurbs and daily facing dead-stop commutes.
Even before fuel costs started their shoot to the sky, Stilgoe saw the rebirth of railroads as "imminent," buttressing his argument with timely examples and predictions. Commuter-train rights-of-way, long abandoned and used as hiking trails, are now being converted to their original purpose; high-speed rail lines are starting to supplant the truck and airplane to move the bourgeoning volume of internet mail-orders; underground rail corridors will displace the truck for delivery of goods and removal of garbage in major cities; and far-flung commuter towns, when linked by rapid passenger and freight rail to their urban hubs, will take on a life of their own as companies find them convenient and attractive places to relocate.
As the price of fuel increases, rail transport presents itself as by far the better and more competitive alternative to highway and air, to customers and investors alike. The railroad industry estimates that trains currently move a ton of freight an average of 423 miles on a gallon of fuel, and hybrid locomotives are coming on line that will improve performance all the more.
Returning to rail may eventually generate some government support — McCain and Obama, where are you? — but it’s private investment that will bring in the vast amounts of money necessary for new track and technology. While the Big Three sputter down, prices of railroad stocks are moving up.
It’s back to the future. If Uncle Frank were around today, he’d be a railroad man.


July 4, 2008

Al Gore and his apocalyptic apostles couldn’t do it. Railroad fanatics with their striped caps and oilcans couldn’t do it. Urban gardeners dressed up like vegetables couldn’t do it. Even the green-is-chic fad couldn’t do it. It’s the hundred-dollar tank of gas that’s going to do it.
Sure, we’re all sort of concerned about climate change. We all marvel at the comfort, speed, and efficiency of the trains in Europe. We all gobble up books on living for a year exclusively on locally-grown foods, the latest family adventure. We all love the idea of a house that generates its own energy. But this is Fantasyland, Wonderland, Narnia, the world of the talking bee and polar bear, and Thomas the Tank. Only Tomorrowland will make us change, and right now that’s like looking in the wicked witch’s mirror: Our vision of the future is going from Autopia to dystopia, from sky’s-the-limit to sky-is-falling, from the Home of the Future to the Future of the Home.
We’re in the midst of a paradigm shift. The long-successful American economic model is swiftly moving east and south, while America is starting to bear the karmic consequences. Having sowed the wind, we’re reaping the whirlwind.
Five dollars — do I hear ten? — for a gallon of gas is no momentary blip, like the short-lived schemes of the oil cartels in the 1970’s to squeeze up prices by squeezing down supply. Asia has started its own torrid affair with the automobile, and petroleum producers are going full-bore to keep up with the new demand. The frenzied futures markets are influencing prices to some degree, but the operative dynamic is rudimentary economic law.
The economies of China, India, and Southeast Asia — with many parts of South America and Africa following apace — are achieving by themselves what American foreign policy had long tried to advance on its own terms. Some time ago, policy experts replaced the patronizing, static term "third-world countries" by the less demeaning, more dynamic "developing countries." To most of us, it didn’t matter what they were called; we presumed they would remain pathetically poor and ever dependent on our bread-basket for relief. It was heart-warming to hear about those "people’s banks" lending poor women a few bucks to start little weaving and farming businesses, but that was about as far as we thought things would ever go. Now governments all over are relaxing their ideological grip and allowing laissez-faire, early-American-style enterprise to flourish, first by embracing U.S. outsourcing and then by encouraging consumer economies of their own. The result in those countries is a growing middle class with growing middle-class tastes: home ownership, car in every garage, chicken or portion of pig in every pot. To our surprise, and to our short-term detriment, developing countries are doing something we never thought would happen: developing. And all of that takes fuel.
Running parallel with fuel is food. Another result of development is healthier people. As life expectancy increases, populations and their nutritional needs soar. The old paradigm’s method of food supply is large-scale industrialized agriculture, a system which produced astounding surpluses at very low cost in yesterday’s America, and which many developing countries are now adopting as national policy. Forests are giving way to factory-farms, and, as in India’s case, the hopelessly uncompetitive traditional farmers are giving up and selling out. Mass agriculture is fuel-dependant, both for production and for shipping, so ever upward goes demand. We’ll never see cheap gas again.
New paradigms — the Copernican Revolution is the classic example — are not imposed on a culture from above but gradually take root from below. In fact, those with the authority to impose things are usually the last to see what’s coming.
In our case, U.S. auto makers continued to churn out their long-time cash cows, the SUV’s, big pickups, and minivans, seemingly oblivious to the spiraling price of oil; only now, glutted with unsold vehicles, are they drastically cutting production while fuel-efficient cars from prescient Asia clobber them. As for our head-in-sand government, just a couple months ago, Congress passed its typical pork-barrel energy bill, protecting these doddering companies from so-called "unrealistic" mileage standards. And last spring’s Clinton-McCain "gas-tax holiday" proposal, laughed to scorn by the drivers it was supposed to help, was simply the distillation of the pettiness and short-sightedness that have sabotaged every attempt at a comprehensive energy policy for over three decades.
The same tunnel-vision applies to the rising cost of industrialized food, also petroleum-related, as transportation expenses increase and more acreage is devoted to biofuel crops. The ethanol bandwagon is another sorry example of the quick-fix trumping the what-if.
But now that the pump is talking to the pocketbook, people are taking whatever they can into their own hands. Ridership on once-despised public transportation is up in every major city and urban corridor; fuel-efficient cars are not just the choice of misers and greens anymore; and regionally-grown produce, now suddenly competitive in price with the agribusiness stuff, is flying out of farmers’ markets this summer.
As fuel prices continue their march to the sky, Americans’ concept of themselves and their country will radically change, from what they do to what they buy to where they live. Through much anxiety, disorientation, and economic devastation, a new paradigm of American life will evolve. Once in place in people’s minds, however, it will generate a new kind of prosperity and significantly enhance the quality of life.
Our fuel-fueled Tomorrowland is done for. Something truly new is right around the bend.


June 26, 2008

You boys and girls of a certain age will recall, clear as yesterday, the service-station ritual of old. As Dad fills up the tank while the attendant washes the windshield and checks the oil, you shift potently into the driver’s seat of the family’s new ’58 Plymouth wagon, feet straining to touch the pedals, one hand futilely fiddling with the futuristic push-button drive panel, the other hand tugging on a steering wheel as big as a yacht’s, brain swimming with the sweet smell of leaded gas and adventure. Dad pays the attendant, opens the door, reclaims his place behind the wheel, reaches for his record-book and pencil, and scribbles: "10 gals. 29.9¢/gal. $2.99."
Cheap gas had a very long run. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, in 1958 Dad paid less than $1.50 per gallon in today’s money, higher in fact than most of the following years till 2003, when prices started to creep upwards. Now that the creep has become a sprint, it’s beginning to dawn on America that what has often been called its "love-affair with the automobile" may be over for good.
The affair was a memorable one, and I’m glad I got involved. The annual summer trips our family took when I was a boy live mythically, even mystically, in my mind. Snatched for three ecstatic weeks from the desolate sameness of home in Norwalk, my two sisters and I discovered just how large the rest of life was. We marveled at the giant sequoias in California, the blue-black waters of Crater Lake in Oregon, the lunar landscape of the Meteor Crater in Arizona; we experienced the natural surrealism of the Petrified Forest and the unnatural surrealism of Mount Rushmore. And it was not just the destination that was magical, but the getting there and back as well: testing our reading skills on the Burma Shave signs along Route 66; spending nights in motel rooms shaped like Indian teepees; splashing wildly in over-chlorinated swimming pools; eating sleepy-eyed breakfasts in diners smelling of coffee, sausage, and griddle-cakes; wandering in wonder through the endless aisles of souvenir shops and using our allowance to buy a geode or a wooden pencil-box stamped "Tucumcari, N.M." — and always, sucking up the intoxicating scent of gasoline in places like Little America, Wyoming, "The World’s Largest Gas Station," with a bristling forest of pumps and a vast rustic dining hall serving ice cream made in heaven to ease the hellish heat of summer in the buttes.
When I grew up, I took to the road myself, crossing the country in my own car or driving someone else’s on those AAAcon delivery deals, veering off the interstates to camp in peaceful parks and to bump along the remnants of the old highways looking for the classic overgrown motel, the refreshing over-chlorinated pool, the homey roadside restaurant.
I made my last long trip, from Los Angeles to New York, in 1990 — total gas cost, less than $150 — and since then have traveled widely in the eastern states. Early last year, in the claustrophobic confines of winter, I re-read John Steinbeck’s 1960 ode to the road, Travels with Charley: In Search of America — I could not quite get to Kerouac — and fantasized buying a small camper (but not a dog) to pursue my own search, perhaps along the vestiges of the old Lincoln Highway.
I have since had to lay that fantasy aside, pending the winning of the lottery I never play. I may do it yet, if I can swallow the memory of how cheap auto travel used to be and treat my search for America like I would any big-ticket vacation to Europe or Australia: put away a whole lot of money, and go for it.
Our affair with the automobile may be at an end, not just on those romantic vacations but in our everyday relationship as well. As with any human breakup, there will be many messy things to deal with — distributing old photos of happier times, of course, but all the much harder stuff too, like where we’ll live and how we’ll get around. In the space of a few years, the cost of gasoline will drastically change us. But as with any human breakup, the change may actually be for the better.
As for now, while cringing at the hundred-dollar fill-up, boys and girls of a certain age can thank our lost love for a beautiful memory.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


June 18, 2008

"Hey, Roger, Jim Fischer here. Would you like a swarm?"
"Why sure. Where is it?"
"It was on a newspaper stand on the corner of 72nd Street and Second Avenue. Now it’s in a cardboard box in my car. I’ll bring it over."
I hastily assembled a wooden beehive, with empty frames of wax comb and some honey and pollen to make the place attractive. In short order Jim, a seasoned swarm-catcher and volunteer beekeeper at the Bronx Zoo, arrived at my apiary at Genesis Park Community Garden in the South Bronx and handed over the box, secured with tape. I opened it, knocked the bees down into the hive, and put on the lid.
I had a new colony.
That was on May 7. A week later, he called again. This time he’d collected a swarm from a tree in Riverside Park around 75th Street. I took that one too, hiving it above the first, separated by a layer of window screen — an apian duplex.
Both colonies are now thriving, filling the empty frames with honey, pollen, and thousands of bee-babies. I may get some honey from them before fall.
East Side, West Side, all around the town, swarms of honeybees have appeared on the sidewalks of New York this spring. In my nine years of beekeeping here, I’ve never seen anything like it. Besides the two Jim Fischer captured for me, I’ve gotten word of several more, including one that nestled on the outside wall of an apartment building near the Bronx Zoo, causing a secondary swarm of reporters, microphones, and cameras; an NYPD cop who’s a hobbyist beekeeper took that one away for himself.
Swarming is honeybees’ way of propagating their species. It is a collective form of cell-division, like amoebas do. When a colony grows too large for its quarters in a hollow tree or human hive, it divides itself in two. Half the bees fly off with their old queen, and the other half stay put with the new queen they have raised. Not even the experts know how individual bees decide which queen to stick with.
Swarming bees issue from their hive with a mighty roar and fill the sky in a chaotic cloud. Within minutes, however, they all come together at a temporary spot nearby — tree branch, fence, newspaper stand — in a tight cluster of thousands, sometimes as big as a basketball. There they wait, from a couple hours to a couple days, while scout bees fan out in teams looking for a permanent home. Through their famous directional dancing, the scouts communicate housing options to the cluster; somehow they decide which to take, and off they go.
We all know how we make decisions — or do we? — but how do honeybees? They’re just insects, they’re genetically programmed, they don’t think — or do they?
Beekeepers like me do all we can to inhibit our bees’ swarming tendencies, and for good reason: If they swarm and get away, you’ve just lost half your honey production because you’ve just lost half your workforce. In early spring, we try to relieve crowding in our strong colonies by creating artificial swarms, dividing each colony in two and introducing into the split-off portion a new queen, which we typically get through the mail for twenty bucks from queen farms in the South. Sometimes this procedure works; sometimes it doesn’t, and they swarm anyway. Bees aren’t domesticated like cows or chickens; you can try to out-guess them, but you can’t control them. As my bee-master, Father Bob Jeffers, often reminds me with monastic resignation, "You’re at their mercy."
When bees swarm, how do you catch them? Provided they aren’t on some tree branch forty feet off the ground, it’s easy: just spray them with sugar-water to get them nice and sticky like an undulating popcorn ball, shake them down into a roomy container, and dump them into an empty hive. Technophile Jim Fischer uses a portable shop-vac to suck them up and eject them through a hose into his catch-box. Despite their threatening appearance, bees in a swarm are very docile, heavy with honey they’ve gorged on in anticipation of what might be days of hungry house-hunting.
Where have all our city swarms come from? Unless you see one issuing from a hive, it’s impossible to tell exactly. Almost certainly most of them originated, directly or indirectly, from urban beekeepers’ colonies. The swarms we could not catch over the years found homes in New York’s expansive parkland, restoring a feral population once decimated by disease and development.
Swarms are an indication of strong, healthy colonies. Why is it that honeybees are thriving in the city while collapsing everywhere else?
Ironically, it may be that they have a much more natural environment here than in the lands of agribusiness. Unlike their commercial counterparts, trucked all over the country to pollinate endless fields of a single crop, they have a stable home life and a balanced diet of nectar and pollen from an immense variety of local flowering plants. And with far fewer pesticides and fertilizers applied to city foliage than to mega-farm produce, their food is purer, too.
Our season of swarms shows how, through the persistent work of urban farmers and conservation groups, cities like New York are becoming ecologically whole and at least partially self-sustainable again.
In simpler times, when people grew and knew their own food, they would rhyme: "A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon." As a minor poet of the Ogden Nash school, I’d like to add: "A swarm of bees in the Bronx is worth a prayer of thonx."
You know what I mean.


June 12, 2008

Now the marriage wars are really heating up.
On June 2, the California Secretary of State announced that the initiative measure to inscribe an exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage into the state Constitution will qualify for the November ballot. If passed, the amendment would trump the California Supreme Court’s May 15 ruling that expands the legal designation "marriage" to include same-sex couples, since now the word would be explicitly defined in the determinative document of the state.
The day before the California court’s decision, New York Governor David Paterson nationalized the issue by ordering all state agencies to treat as marriage every type of unitive contract from any state, no matter what it is called — marriage, domestic partnership, civil union. This highly creative directive makes an end-run around both the state’s high court, which in 2006 left the definition of marriage to the legislature, and the legislature itself, which has been deadlocked on a gay-marriage bill ever since. Though Paterson’s order will not affect court-related matters such as child custody, it is expansive enough to include, as the New York Times described it, "everything from joint filing of income tax returns to transferring fishing licenses between spouses."
And then, to further demonstrate the repercussions of one state’s marriage policy on others’, ten state attorneys general petitioned the California Supreme Court to stay the June 17 implementation date of its gay-marriage ruling, pending the results of the November amendment initiative; the AG’s feared being buried in an avalanche of legal challenges from gay couples who would drop in for a marriage license in California, which has no residency requirement, then press for validation from their own states. The Court turned them down.
So the circle gets wider and wider: more litigation, more legislation, more bitter contention, for a very long time to come.
In my two previous columns, I suggested that this legal morass would dissolve if states would disestablish marriage as the U.S. Constitution disestablished religion, affirming marriage as a fundamental civil right but declining to endorse any particular form of it. They would abolish their marriage and civil-union/domestic-partnership laws in favor of a universal contract with a neutral name, open to any two consenting adults regardless of sex or even implied sexual activity, with the full range of rights, benefits, and responsibilities formerly accorded only to marriages.
Officially disestablishing marriage would not be a contrary step; it would in fact most accurately reflect the changes that have been spontaneously occurring in American society over the last 40 years.
Nancy F. Cott, in her book Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Harvard University Press, 2000), describes this organic development: "By analogy," she writes, "one could argue that the particular model of marriage which was for so long the officially supported one has been disestablished. Continuing the analogy to religious disestablishment, one could say that with the weight of the one supported faith lifted, plural acceptable sexual behaviors and marriage types have bloomed." She compares our situation with that of early America, "when laws regulating marriage were on the books everywhere but the more effective validation of marriage came from local communities."
The pragmatic reasons for taking the logical step to disestablishment are summarized by Mark Poirot, a professor of law at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and an expert on gay-rights legal issues: "From the point of view of moderating cultural conflict and removing the culture war over marriage from the temptation of interminable battling over control of various territorial jurisdictions, perhaps another version of disestablishment should be considered: the state would no longer marry anyone, and would relegate the culture war over marriage to the private sphere altogether. In other words, the state would cease to provide the contested public good of the status of civil marriage, period."
From the perspective of public good, both governmental and private-sector policy has also decisively shifted away from supporting marriage per se and toward supporting family in its many forms as the fundamental good. Single parents, adoptive parents, and even (as in Salt Lake City’s health-care plan) dependent "adult designees" of a person’s choosing are increasingly being accorded the benefits and rights previously reserved to the married. And, as Nancy D. Polikoff, in her detailed study, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law (Beacon Press, 2008) points out: "A legal system in a pluralistic society that values all families should meld as closely as possible the purposes of a law with the relationships that that law covers. Marriage is not the right dividing line."
Polikoff asserts that the gay-marriage movement has shunned the needs of the wider alternative community by, ironically, employing the same argument as their traditionalist foes: that marriage retain preferred legal status over other kinds of family relationships. "While the movement for marriage equality has insisted it is fighting for same-sex couples to have the choice to marry, marriage is not a choice if it is the only way to achieve economic well-being and peace of mind." Instead, Polikoff calls for a single contract and body of laws encompassing every form of dependent or interdependent relationship — a "civil partnership," she calls it.
The idea of abolishing civil marriage has yet to exert much force in the marriage wars. There is still a presumption, both in the popular mind and in the body of judicial rulings, that government is either the guardian of a uniform divine or natural law or itself the creator of marriage. History has shown that neither of these positions is the case. Marriage in its essence and its interpretations — in its sexuality, psychology, spirituality, and communality — lies far beyond government’s control. The California Supreme Court’s majority opinion that civil marriage is necessary "to publicly and officially express one’s love" oversteps the legitimate function of law, which is to adjudicate contracts and protect families. Love is best expressed in the community, not the courthouse.
Marriage is a reality too intimate to suffer the pettiness of politics. As Harvard law professor Stephen Carter puts it: "Official acknowledgment of marriage causes enormous difficulty. One of the difficulties it causes is that marriage, precisely because of its honored status, becomes a prize for which people fight in the political arena instead of a part of the sacred side of life."
The public battle over marriage is destructive to the national fabric. It is also unnecessary. For the sake of the institution of marriage, the institution of government should get out.


May 29, 2008

In last week’s column, I wrote that the California Supreme Court’s May 15 decision extending the official designation of "marriage" to same-sex couples only heated up the marriage wars and guaranteed protracted litigation and legislation on all levels of government for years to come.
In this 5-4 determination, the majority held that California’s domestic partnership law, though virtually identical to its marriage statutes, violates the state Constitution’s equal protection provision by "denying the official family relationship of same-sex couples the equal dignity and respect that is a core element in the constitutional right to marry." The minority opinions contended that it was up to the voters, not the courts, to determine the legal definition of marriage.
Both of these viewpoints have their own merits; neither of them will solve the problem. Advocates of traditional marriage will ask California voters to approve a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, thus overruling the court’s decision; if this succeeds, advocates of gay marriage will bring the battle to the federal courts as a civil-rights issue.
Whatever the outcomes, and there will be many, any governmental decree or popular vote favoring one definition will alienate and enfuriate those who believe in another. Tinkering with marriage is not like tinkering with the tax code. The meaning of marriage involves people’s deepest personal feelings and religious convictions, and when the state treads in this realm, it treads on hallowed ground.
Is there a solution to this controversy? Yes: to disestablish marriage, just as the U.S. Constitution disestablished religion. Recognizing that the state’s primary interest lies in enforcing contracts and encouraging and protecting stable personal and family relationships in multiple configurations, it would eliminate its marriage laws and enact a universal, neutrally-named law applicable to all contracting couples regardless of sex or even sexual activity. It would affirm the fundamental right to marry but let individuals, religious organizations, and other social groups determine for themselves what marriage itself is.
Extracting the state from the marriage business is not as far-fetched an idea as it may at first sound. Until relatively recently in the West, marriage was primarily the domain of family, community, and church; the state had little to do with it aside from the practicalities of settling questions of money. In England, Parliament’s first major incursion into marital matters did not occur until 1753, when Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act tried to abolish do-it-yourself or "common-law" marriages, requiring a license and a Church of England wedding (except for Jews and Quakers). The Act — designed more easily to resolve inheritance disputes — was roundly ignored by those whose children had nothing to inherit.
In the early years of the United States, monogamous marriage was seen by many in public office as part of the national identity as a "White Christian society," and legislation to standardize it began to accumulate on the books. In her concise and insightful study, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Harvard University Press, 2000), Nancy F. Cott writes: "At the outset, state laws set a few, known boundaries — solemnization took a certain form; marriages could not be bigamous or incestuous or terminated at will; adultery and fornication were crimes." Even then, it was the local communities — the "informal public," Cott calls them — that substantially regulated their own conjugal conventions. "A community’s shared belief in the morality and utility of its marriage practices forms part of its sense that it is a community," she writes. "The informal public exercised the forces of approval and condemnation that shaped prospective and married couples’ behavior." Thus cohabitation, and marriages between whites and non-whites, were routinely accepted in certain communities while officially prohibited by their state’s laws.
As American society began to homogenize after the Civil War, state legislatures sought increasing control over both marriage and non-marital sexual practices. In some cases, they liberalized local customs by expanding the grounds for divorce and recognizing a wife’s right to her own property. In others, they constricted them, often oppressively, by withdrawing legitimation to common-law unions and the children that came from them, and by criminalizing interracial marriages, homosexual acts, contraceptive use, and — conspicuously in Mormon Utah’s case — polygamy. By the twentieth century, both federal and state governments were also using the economic tools of the tax code and social welfare programs to promote monogamous marriage.
For all that, marriage remained a creature of culture; the effectiveness of the laws depended upon a uniform national consensus on what marriage and acceptable sexual behavior were and were not. When the consensus began to break down in the 1960’s, the web of morality-legislation quickly disintegrated. As courts identified and refined the right to privacy, laws prohibiting all manner of consensual sexual relations both within and outside of marriage were struck down, the adverse legal consequences of out-of-wedlock birth were eliminated, the exemption for spousal rape was removed, and non-consummation as grounds for nullity was obviated by no-fault divorce.
Further detaching the state from marriage, other forms of family relationships were accorded legal status in many or most jurisdictions: Unmarried parents were held to the same responsibilities of support for their children as married couples; adoption was extended to single people and in some states to same-sex couples; and "domestic partners" — not only same-sex couples but widowed persons over age 62 (to retain survivorship privileges) and in some instances even blood-relatives — were granted rights and benefits similar or identical to those formerly reserved to the married.
Thus marriage is now regarded by the laws of progressive states as one form of family relationship among others. Arguments for a privileged status for traditional marriage still advanced by some jurists and legislators — monogamous procreation, households headed by the biological parents — have de facto been done away with by modern family law. Add to this the resurgence of the open practice of polygamy among Mormons and some Muslims, and it is clear that culture is regaining its ancient control of marriage,and the state is now helpless to define it. If the Episcopal Church, to use only one example, cannot uniformly do it, how can a court, legislature, or referendum do it?
The only equitable solution is the separation of marriage and state. I’ll explore the practicalities of this idea next week.


May 22, 2008

The marriage wars are heating up again.
Last week’s decision by the California Supreme Court to summarily extend the official definition of the word "marriage" to same-sex couples has not only ignited the already-smoldering movement to place the traditional definition of marriage into the state Constitution but has de facto shoved the question into the national election campaigns.
The California decision was essentially framed along the lines of that of the only other state supreme court to mandate gay marriages, Massachusetts: as an issue of civil rights. The argument can be summarized by syllogism: (1) the State of California recognizes marriage as a fundamental civil right; (2) Some Californians call same-sex unions "marriage"; (3) Therefore, the State of California must recognize same-sex marriage as a fundamental civil right.
Despite the meticulousness and indeed brilliance of the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, there is a critical flaw of logic in the syllogism. The flaw lies in the principle of formal logic that one cannot reason from a particular to a universal, only from a universal to a particular. Just because some Californians call same-sex unions marriage does not mean that their definition of marriage is applicable to all.
In the opinion, George took the opportunity to assert in the strongest terms that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is identical to discrimination on the basis of race or gender, based on the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Even though California’s Domestic Partnership Act is virtually equivalent to its marriage statutes in terms of the rights, benefits, and responsibilities granted to registered same-sex couples, the court concluded that it is discriminatory because it establishes a separate-but-equal two-tiered system, implying that these couples are "second-class citizens" compared to the traditionally married. The court’s way of rectifying this perception was to overturn present state law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
This still does not resolve the logical flaw.
The California court, like Massachusetts’, agreed with the argument of gay-rights proponents that denying the legal designation of "marriage" to same-sex couples is parallel to cases of racial or sexual discrimination, most notably in marriage law. It characteristically cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, Loving v. Virginia of 1967, and its prescient California predecessor, Perez v. Sharp of 1948, which struck down state laws barring interracial marriage. But these are bad comparisons, because the essence of the present question, the definition of the word "marriage," was never addressed in these cases. What was addressed was whether a Black person was an inherently different form of human being than a White person, a fundamental issue of what it means to be human. Marriage, on the other hand, is not a human characteristic but a social institution, a creature of culture. Whether or not to officially apply the term "marriage" to same-sex couples is thus not first a question of civil rights but one of cultural consensus — two very different things.
This is why the dissenting opinions of Justice Marvin R. Baxter and Carol A. Corrigan make better sens. "In my view," Corrigan wrote, "California should allow our gay and lesbian neighbors to call their unions marriage. But I, and this court, must acknowledge that a majority of Californians hold a different view and have explicitly said so by their vote. This court can overrule a vote of the people only if the Constitution compels us to do so. Here, the Constitution does not."
And this is what will happen next, just as it is happening all over the country. Opponents of gay marriage will introduce bills and ballot initiatives to define marriage constitutionally as the union of one man and one woman. As many California legal experts have pointed out, an amendment to the state Constitution will effectively invalidate the Supreme Court’s decision, since the role of the court is to interpret the Constitution, not countermand it.
Then enter the federal courts, with their powers to review state constitutions for conformity to the U.S. Constitution. That’s when the real fun begins. The framers of the federal Constitution devoted not a single word to marriage, leaving the regulation of this institution to the states. The federal government has itself weighed in with its Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, prohibiting same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits and guaranteeing the right of individual states to choose not to recognize gay marriages contracted in other states — but this law too will surely come up for judicial review.
The marriage wars, if conducted in their present form, will roil courts and legislatures at all levels for years to come. There is, however, a solution to the problem, which the California court hinted at but which no legislative or judicial body has yet enacted.
I’ll explore this solution next week.


May 8, 2008

The seventeen books of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament are for the most part not pleasant to read. Yes, you do have those hopeful, utopian passages about a perfect king ruling a perfected society in a world of perfect peace — "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares ...; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again" (Isaiah 2:4) — but they emerge from the text as surprises out of some of the direst, most scathing writing in all of literature.
The controversy surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s now former pastor, made me pick up the Bible and re-read some of those books. Wright’s message and rhetoric unsettled me, angered me, frightened me, just as the words in those books have long done: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such evil upon this place that all who hear of it will feel their ears tingle" (Jeremiah 19:3). My ears were tingling.
Wright, like many other African-American preachers, draws from the tradition of the Biblical "social prophets," who take the taken-for-granted, God-on-our-side political attitude and smash it to bits like a clay pot. Perhaps not coincidentally, his namesake is one of the greatest of these, Jeremiah, the man called from birth to unmask the hypocrisy and cocky self-assurance of his nation and its leaders.
Most of the prophets whose pronouncements were gathered into the books bearing their names lived during the eighth through the sixth centuries B.C., times of exceeding peril for the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Assaulted first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians (whose capitals, Nineveh and Babylon, both were in what is now Iraq), their leaders played games of international intrigue, waging wars and forming alliances to thwart imperial aggression and absorption. Thinking themselves righteous and backed unconditionally by the power of their God Yahweh, they refused to see and acknowledge that their kingdoms were disintegrating from within from greed, injustice, and the worship of "false gods." Around them stood a core of professional prophets, bureaucratic soothsayers who told them what they wanted to hear: Their nations were indomitable because God was with them.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos among others, were of a different prophetic stripe. Outsiders lacking professional credentials or credibility, they took an unobstructed view of the social and political realities and the dismal consequences that awaited, and the priests and politicians despised them for it. Amos, for example, who lived in the kingdom of Israel in the eighth century, provoked a priest to inform the king: "Amos has conspired against you here within Israel; the country cannot endure all his words." Amos replied: "I was no prophet nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores. The Lord took me from following the flock, and said to me, ‘Go prophesy to my people Israel’" (Amos 7:10-15). Considered laughing-stocks by the general public and sometimes subjected to imprisonment and torture (Jeremiah was once embedded for days in the muck of an empty cistern), they nevertheless refused to go away, relentlessly condemning the social sickness and offering prescriptions for reconciliation and peace.
Their calls for change went unheeded, and the destruction they predicted ensued. The kingdom of Israel was overrun by Assyria in 721 B.C.; Judah was obliterated by Babylon in 587.
When reading the prophetic books of the Bible, even devout Jews and Christians are tempted to think, "That was then." But these writings did not find their way into the canon of Scripture because they were historical documents but because they were timeless warnings: "Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with his neighbor; if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place, or follow strange gods to your own harm, will I remain with you in this place" (Jeremiah 7:5-7).
This is now.
That’s a sobering thought, something that few of us either want to hear or believe about ourselves or our country.
In his own way, Wright has done something of the same in our own time. His sometimes bizarre statements have enraged many — not the least his now former parishioner — but this is the prophet’s goal: not to comfort but to shock in order to disrupt complacency, to get people to see themselves and their situation with open eyes.
"Not ‘God bless America,’" Wright declaimed in one of his sermons, "God damn America." Infuriating, of course. But under this inverted rhetoric lies a disquieting truth: that God is not in our pocket, not the property of the U.S. government. If the nation acts with arrogance and injustice, God may well condemn it.
Obama and Wright have parted ways after 20 years, and it’s no wonder. Obama, despite his depictions to the contrary, is establishment now, and Wright remains the pricking prophet.
"Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability," Wright told the National Press Club. "Preachers say what they say because they’re pastors. They have a different person to whom they’re accountable."
Jeremiah Wright is no Biblical Jeremiah. He may be "egomaniacal," as some in the press have called him. But he’s served the prophet’s role. If only for a moment, he’s forced some of us — and maybe a few politicians as well — to squirm.


May 1, 2008

Deep in January, after the first primaries but before the shakedown, I wrote here that practically the whole slate of Democratic candidates at that time could form a ready-made cabinet. All but the fringes of them were not only qualified for the presidency but also peculiarly adept for other executive-branch offices: I suggested, for example, Joe Biden to head the State Department; John Edwards, Health and Human Services; Bill Richardson, Homeland Security; Chris Dodd, Education. Now that the choice for the top spot has come down to two — and will likely remain so right into the convention — the thought of that "Dream Team" continues to allure. Can the party coalesce around not only a single nominee but a circle of now well-known individuals who can fan out across the nation, presenting a unified set of program proposals as a refreshing and solid alternative to John ("Bush Lite") McCain?
That all depends on the two front-runners.
Cabinet aside, how Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama work out their relationship and their roles over the next months will determine the outcome of the national election and the future of the Democratic Party for years to come.
So what about that smaller version of the Dream Team, the "Dream Ticket"? Sizeable numbers of Democrats, including uncommitted "superdelegates" whose votes almost certainly will decide the nominee, believe a Clinton/Obama or Obama/Clinton ticket would be a perfect match. "It would be great to see them on the same ticket," Sam Spencer, an uncommitted superdelegate from Maine told the New York Times recently. "They have attracted so many new voters and so much excitement, it seems so obvious."
It does look quite natural. Obama and Clinton have been in the presidential spotlight for almost two years; to every American they’re as familiar as neighbors now, and both have generated enthusiasm and admiration abroad as well. Having either one of them off the ticket would seem strange, almost disturbing, like a divorce. After all those debates, we’re used to seeing them together, not only talking at one another but sometimes even talking with one another. We may dislike their bickering, but we’d hate to see them have a yard sale and break up the house. The apparent differences that have contrasted them in the primaries — Clinton’s experience and practicality and Obama’s youth and inspirational rhetoric, and their respective appeal to specific blocs of voters — would turn complementary in the national campaign. As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told the New York Times, "Obama and Clinton do fit in a jigsaw-puzzle way. She brings women, older voters, blue-collar workers, Hispanics, and he brings elites, liberals, the young and the crucially necessary black vote."
Clinton and Obama are generally compatible in their policy stances — most of the disagreements displayed in the debates are minimal and could be easily reconciled — but are they compatible enough personally to campaign and to serve as a unit? Many reporters and commentators assume that rivalry equals hatred, but is this possibly only a reflection of the animosity of their advisors, doing what advisors have to do to sway primary voters? As Goodwin says: "All of the arguments about how rivals don’t like each other would fall away if either thinks the other could help them win."
There’s no question that ego often overrules reason, especially in presidential contenders. Though the candidates themselves have never exactly ruled out taking the second spot on the ticket, many of their supporters say it would be a humiliation that neither could endure. But in the circumstances of this campaign, just how humiliating would it be?
Over the previous several decades, and particularly in the last two administrations, the actual role and the public perception of the office of vice president have significantly changed. John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s first VP, characterized the position as "the spare tire on the automobile of government." (Less felicitously, he also allegedly said that "the vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss.") But because the duties of the job are so meagerly defined in the Constitution — to preside over the Senate and to succeed the president in the event of death or incapacity — the powers of the office also have immense flexibility and room to grow under a president willing to bestow them. Most particularly, Dick Cheney has taken full advantage of the constitutional lacunae to turn the office into a virtual co-presidency. Though he has been disparaged by Democrats for being the power behind the throne, he has de facto given the vice presidency new stature in the eyes of the public.
Thomas R. Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s VP, told this sour tale about his own predicament: "Once there were two brothers. One went away to sea; the other was elected vice president. And nothing was heard of either of them again."
It will not be so in this election year. Whoever the vice-presidential nominee turns out to be, that person will be heard of — and heard from. If the candidates and former candidates can come to an understanding of shared power and responsibility, they can make the whole Dream Team a reality.


April 24, 2008

It’s less than 400 miles from New York City to Montreal, the distance from L.A. to San Francisco. But it might as well be the moon, or Paris — another world.
Last week I spent two days in this other world, at the invitation of former ER managing editor Mary Lynn Lyke, who flew in from her home in Seattle to visit her daughter Elizabeth, a junior at McGill University there.
There’s no better way to get to and from Montreal than by train. Amtrak runs its Montrealer service once a day from Penn Station, leaving at 8:20 a.m. and arriving — barring the inevitable delays from track work and the post-9/11 paranoid Canadian customs inspectors, in a little over ten hours. The fare right now is only $125 round trip. It’s quicker by car, zipping up Interstate 87, but you miss some extraordinary scenery and then you’re stuck with a vehicle in Montreal, noted for its parking hassles and intolerant drivers.
The train trip is as enjoyable as the destination itself — travel as it ought to be, spacious and comfortable, long enough for a good sleep and a good book, a time of relaxation and transition. And mercifully, you’re spared the humiliation of airport security — you take your shoes off to curl up for a snooze in your seat, not because some bureaucrats are afraid they might explode. Unfortunately, the dining car, that most cultivated facet of train-travel in bygone years, has been eliminated, so either bring your own picnic or be satisfied with the meager on-board snack service.
For the best view, pick a window seat on the same side of your compartment each way. Leaving Penn Station, the train snakes along the very edge of the Hudson River on the west for the 150 miles to Albany, affording spectacular views of the river and the palisades of New Jersey across it. North of Albany, it follows the bank of Lake Champlain on the east, another 120 miles of stunning beauty, with aquatic birds and other wildlife cavorting right outside your window.
Arriving at the Central Station in downtown Montreal just in time for dinner is like waking up from a dream — or falling into one. All the signs are in French and there’s French spoken all around you, but your English is still perfectly serviceable. In this almost completely bilingual town, you get all the charm of France with none of the linguistic embarrassment.
While hotel accommodations are comparable to major U.S. cities (more so now, as the value of the Canadian dollar surges), bargains abound. Mary Lynn found an elegantly-furnished two-bedroom condo right off busy Rue Sherbrooke for C$400 a week.
Museophiles both, our first destination the following morning was the Museum of Fine Arts on Rue Sherbrooke. Pressed for time, we reluctantly sidestepped its impressive permanent collection and zeroed in on the special exhibit, "Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today," which runs through June 8. Mounted in collaboration with the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Fototeca de Cuba in Havana, it presents works and artists virtually unknown beyond the island. Cuba’s troubled social history, as well as its natural beauty and its once-famed nightlife, are evoked in over 400 pieces of painting, sculpture, and photography. The moderne art of the 1930’s and the agitprop works of the Castro era are particularly enlightening.
Halfway through the exhibit, amazed by these revelations, I blurted out, "It’s great to see things opening up between Cuba and America!" I reddened when I came to my senses: I was standing in free-breathing Canada, not in the repressed and repressive U.S.A.
Following that remarkable morning indoors, we decided on lunch outdoors. After the coldest, snowiest winter in 35 years, the weather had just begun to warm, and the hibernants emerged in dizzy joy to take the sun. On Rue Crescent, a couple blocks from the museum, is a splendid restaurant district with everything from Mexican to Moroccan; most of the establishments have a second floor for al-fresco dining, an arrangement far superior to the usual sidewalk, above the belching tailpipes of buses, great for people-watching below, and inaccessible to beggars, who are ubiquitous in this tolerant town. We selected Pino, an elegant Northern-Italian place on the corner of Rues Crescent and de Maisonneuve, where a huge bowl of mussels in a spicy wine sauce, with a mesclun salad and dessert, cost only C$10. Along with other diners, including a group of McGill students saying to hell with upcoming exams and ordering pitchers of sangria, we soaked up the sun and reviewed our favorite pieces from the Cuba show.
Thus fortified, we made our way to the Museum of Contemporary Art in the sparkling Center City for a very different and unexpected treat: a floor-full of bizarre installations by two young Canadian artists, Geoffrey Farmer of Vancouver and Yannick Pouliot of Quebec. Most intriguing were Farmer’s obsessive "The Last Two Million Years," for which he meticulously cut out and mounted on cardboard hundreds of pictures and sections of text from a book of the same name, a popular summary of human history published by Reader’s Digest in the 1970’s, and arranged them on platforms and inclines taking up a whole room; and Pouliot’s reflections on furniture — Louis XVI-style armchairs placed in a warren of narrow wallpapered corridors, and among other surrealistic living-room items, a set of chairs stuck together and upholstered atop their backs like a Conestoga wagon. Only in Canada.
The following morning, we visited the expansive Botanical Garden at the far end of Rue Sherbrooke, where, aside from a few prescient crocuses, spring had not yet sprung. The greenhouses made up for it though, with their stellar orchid and bonsai collections and a butterfly exhibit at its fluttering best. After a light lunch and brief nap in the refuge of the condo, we took the subway to the Old Town section on the St. Lawrence River, both quaint in its narrow medievalish alleys and overly tony in its fashion boutiques and upscale restaurants. There we met up with Elizabeth and her several friends, flush from exams, who took us to the nearby Chinatown district for a peppery round-robin dinner at one of its many hole-in-the-wall,and wholly satisfying, eateries.
Two days in Montreal, two days up and back: a quick trip to another world.