Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Loose Lips (Leaks) Sink Ships (Presidents)

Writing for MSNBC Michael Moran wonders if George W. Bush is looking at the leak that will eventually sink his presidency.

“They begin, invariably, without much fanfare. The Paula Jones saga began with a story in a London newspaper about Bill Clinton’s 'sexual peccadilloes' written off by the American media for weeks as typical Fleet Street scandal mongering. Iran-Contra, the tangled affair that bedeviled the last two years of Ronald Reagan’s tenure, started with the otherwise unremarkable crash of a small plane over Nicaragua that turned out to be an illegal CIA gunrunning operation. For President Richard Nixon, of course, it all began with a ‘a two-bit burglary’ at a hotel called The Watergate.”

Now, due to a loose end that is suddenly being tugged at hard, by all sorts of people who know how to play the game, Bush -- in total denial -- may well be seeing the first stage of the unraveling of his administration. That is seems to involve such weasels as Karl Rove and Robert Novak is almost too sweet to be believed.

Read the story on MSNBC.

Monday, September 29, 2003

A New Storm Brewing in DeeCee

The story that the White House, itself, leaked the story that outed a C.I.A. undercover operative is gaining momentum. Some seem sure it was none other than Karl Rove who dished out the payback.

“…some of the 10 Democrats seeking to challenge President Bush in 2004 said the disclosure of an ambassador's wife as a C.I.A. officer demonstrated that the Bush administration was intertwining politics and national security and could not be trusted to investigate itself.

‘This administration has played politics with national security for a long time, but this is going too far," one of those Democratic hopefuls, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, told Reuters, suggesting an independent commission look into the accusations. 'I don't think, in this administration, the Department of Justice will have the credibility it needs to reassure American allies abroad, and people around the world, about this matter.’”

Read the New York Times story.

Saturday, September 27, 2003

International Protests Oppose Iraq Occupation

Coordinated protests of the occupation of Iraq occurred in cities across Western Europe, as well as in Turkey and South Korea. Read the story on Reuters.

Iraq Spells Trouble for Bush

Writing for BBC News, Matt Frei wonders if Dubya is on his way to being the second Bush to be a one-term president.

"...The last time [George W. Bush] sat on the high backed chair of the general assembly - more of a throne in fact - on which speakers are placed before and after their speech, he looked like a patriarch who was holding a wayward family to account. This time he came across as a fidgety schoolboy, anxious to leave.

To read the piece click here.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Dems go toe-to-toe in NYC debate

Here's a crisp account of the Democrats' cat-fight debate on Thursday night:

"...Despite preaching the virtues of training their guns on President Bush, the other candidates' rhetoric evolved at times into biting personal attacks and sharp policy disputes with their competitors on stage yesterday."

Sounds like fun! To read the rest of it click here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Unplugged

On the Friday morning (Sept. 19) after Hurricane Isabel blew through town the sky was blue and the air smelled clean. The residents of the Fan District, at the heart of Richmond, Virginia, woke from an uneasy sleep. Day One of the unplugged life was underway.

Before the worst of the storm passed, about midnight, Isabel tossed huge trees around like a handful of Pickup Sticks. Power lines snapped. Cars were crushed. Roofs caved in and basements flooded. As the shocking and unprecedented devastation dealt out by the previous night’s onslaught of wind and rain was revealed to the stunned urbanites, so, too, did the reality of widespread electricity deprivation.

On my block the lights came back on Wednesday afternoon. Other areas of the Fan are still doing without.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Hurricane Isabel

We made it through the storm. Thursday night Isabel rocked Richmond, a city not accustomed to such extremes. The Fan District was hit hard. Power is still out in a good part of the Fan, including my little nook. I'll be posting an account of what happened. No time now.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Remembering Hazel

Ed Note: The smell of the storm and the sound of the wind-driven water were exciting. As a six-year-old, looking out of the bay windows of the dining room, Hurricane Hazel made a big impression on me.

The tall pine trees behind the outbuildings were whipping around in the wind, when suddenly I saw what was both thrilling and sad. The Umbrella Tree (our family name for it, I don’t know what kind it was) was pulled up out of the ground. It was in the air for a moment with its roots torn and exposed – this was a big tree – before it came crashing back down, almost completely upside down, to fall on its side.

In a fickle flash of its gray wrath Hazel killed what was my favorite tree to climb. Never again would it provide shade for the white lawn furniture that rested in the part of the yard we called, The Dell.

In reading about the path that's being predicted for Hurricane Isabel, I see that this new storm is being compared to Hurricane Hazel (1954). Old Hazel left a mark on the East Coast as few storms have. The path brought it through Richmond, up from North Carolina, on its way to Toronto.

Here’s AccuWeather.com on Hazel:

The strongest storm of 1954 was the legendary Hurricane Hazel, a powerful Category 4 storm that brought estimated winds of 150 mph when it made landfall in the Carolinas on Oct. 15. The storm retained strength fairly far inland, causing 100 mph winds as far north as Pennsylvania and New York. The damage in 2000 dollars was estimated at approximately $4 billion, and when totaling U.S. deaths with those in the Caribbean and Canada, the death toll was more than 600.

Here are some links to read more about Hazel:
Intellicast.com
CBC
AccuWeather.com

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Clark To Run for President

Apparently (retired four-star) General Wesley Clark has heard the call and felt the draft. Reports out of Little Rock say Clark will throw his hat into the ring tomorrow, to become the 10th Democrat in the race for the party’s nomination to face George W. Bush in 2004.

“…Clark's resume is formidable,” reports the New York Times, “Rhodes scholar, first in his 1966 class at West Point, White House fellow, head of the U.S. Southern Command and NATO commander during the 1999 campaign in Kosovo.”

Clark’s entry into the race comes at a time when only one of the other nine candidates’ campaigns seems to have gained any traction, that being Howard Dean. It says here that Clark will immediately pass by most of the other Dems and become a serious challenge to Dean. This, as other better-known candidates such as Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. John Kerry seem to being fading from the picture.

To read the Times story click here.


Monday, September 15, 2003

HOTH 27

High on the Hog (No. 27) will unfold on Richmond's Libby Hill on October 11. The acts that will appear live on stage are: Johnny Houston, Debra and Pat with Gayle McGhee & the Nocturnes, Li’l Ronnie & the Grand Dukes and Big City. As always, admission is free. Food (get there early to be sure of getting a barbeque plate) and beer are available and moderately priced.

In order to truly appreciate what High on the Hog has become, one must first understand that when it began the odds were stacked against it. In the late '70s, Richmond was anything but an outdoors rock 'n' roll party town -- if you tried to mix amplified music with fresh air, you were likely to attract more cops than guests.

So when HOTH began to reoccur each year on Libby Hill -- with top-notch saloon bands such as Memphis Rockabilly and Good Humor performing on an improvised stage in the alley behind Chuck Wrenn’s house -- it was not backed or sanctioned by anybody beyond the stalwarts who threw it together. Eventually the party outgrew the alley, moved across the street into the park and became a legit tradition in spite of what had been Richmond’s rigid rules.

Money has been raised for good causes and the party, now a classic, has grown to the point that thousands show up every year on the second Saturday of Hogtober.

California Recall Halted by Court

Court-ordered sanity, of a sort, returned to California on Monday:

'"The Secretary of State is enjoined from conducting an election on any issue on October 7, 2003,' a three-member panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in its 66-page opinion that sent immediate shockwaves through the state.

"The court stayed its order for seven days to allow the parties to either appeal its ruling to a full 11-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit or directly to the U.S. Supreme Court."

Read the story on Reuters.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Disaster in the Making

"If Iraq is another Vietnam, when will we know it?" asks Eleanor Clift, writing for Newsweek.

Then she asserts: "As the architects of the minimalist strategy that has left U.S. forces stretched thin in Iraq, the Darth Vaders of defense will bear the blame if the pace of reconstruction doesn't improve. Firing Rumsfeld would be tantamount to admitting the Iraq war was a mistake, which is why it probably won’t happen."

Click here to read Clift's take on where we are on the roadmap to disaster.

Saturday, September 13, 2003

The Only Way Out Is Forward

Col. Mike Turner, writes: “…The operation was a unilateral, conventional, U.S. military operation against a Third World power which, in the final analysis, posed only an indirect and peripheral threat to U.S. vital interests. The operation lacked formal United Nations backing and broad international support, two factors that eventually sapped U.S. will and drained our resources. Mission success was ill-defined, and administration officials, assuming a quick victory, adopted and stubbornly adhered to a tragically simplistic and naive view of the both the military forces required to achieve military victory and the level of societal change necessary to win and sustain the peace.”

Is Turner referring to Iraq, or Vietnam, or both?

In his piece Turner makes an eloquent case for winning in Iraq. Read the Newsweek story.

Art: What It Is

By F. T. Rea

In a Virginia courtroom about 20 years ago I witnessed an entertaining scene in which an age-old question -- what is art? -- was hashed out in front of a patient judge, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the parade of exhibits and witnesses the attorneys put before him. The gallery was packed with paint-speckled-blue-jeans-wearing art students, gypsy musicians, film buffs, and various other stripes of weekend anarchists.

At the crucial moment a popular college art professor was testifying, as an expert witness. He was being grilled over where to draw the line between what should be, and what should not be, considered as art. The Commonwealth’s Attorney asked the witness directly if the beat-up piece of paper in his hand was actually art.

“Probably,” shrugged the prof. “Why not?”

The flyer, promoting a midnight show at an area cinema, had been posted on a utility pole near a college campus. Rather than pay the small fine for breaking the city’s law forbidding such posters on poles in the public way, the defense attorneys attacked the statute itself. They asserted that their client had a right to post the handbill and the public had a right to see it.

The stubborn prosecutor grumbled, reasserting that the flyer was no more than “litter.”

Eventually, having grown weary of the high-brow vernacular being slung around by the witnesses supporting the theater manager, the prosecutor tried one more time to trip the clever witness up. As soup cans (Warhol’s) had just been mentioned by the art expert, the lawyer asked, “if you were in an alley and you happened upon a pile of debris spilled out from a tipped-over trashcan, could that be art, too?”

“Well,” said the witness, pausing Jack Benny-like for effect, “that would depend on who tipped the can over.”

The line went over like Gangbusters!

The courtroom erupted into laughter. The obviously amused judge bit his lip, while he allowed the laughing to continue long enough to convince the crestfallen lawyer to drop that line of questioning. The city lost the case.

Although I got a kick out of the crack, too, I’ve always thought the prosecutor missed an opportunity to hit the ball back across the net.

“Sir, let me get this right,” he might have said, “are you saying the difference between art and randomly-strewn garbage is simply a matter of whose hand touched it; that the actual appearance of the objects, taken as a whole, is not the true test? Furthermore, are you telling us that without credentials, such as yours, one is ill-equipped to determine the difference between the contents of a trashcan and fine art?”

Yes, the prosecutor gave up too soon because, whether the wise-guy professor admitted it, or not, that is where he was coming from. A smart lawyer could have exploited that angle.

Still, the prosecutor’s premise/strategy that an expert witness could be compelled to rise up to brand a green piece of paper, with black ink on it, as “un-art” was absurd. So, maybe the wily artist would have one-upped the buttoned-down lawyer, no matter what.

Perhaps the fundamental question really shouldn’t be – what is art? After all, any town is full of bad art, and good art, and all shades of in-between art. Name your poison. Rather, it’s probably better to ask – what is worthwhile or useful art?

Then you become the expert witness.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Johnny Cash Dies in Nashville Hospital

Recording artist Johnny Cash, known to his fans as the Man in Black, died today (Friday) from diabetes-related complications. He was 71. Only four months ago his wife, June Carter Cash, died of complications from heart surgery at age 73.

Other than Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash is the only person to have been inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To read the New York Times obituary, click here.

Here's the link to an NPR page that has its obituary for Cash and other audio files.

By the way, Cash’s 1971 song, “Man in Black,” underlined his anti-war (Vietnam) stance. Whatever worries he had then, as a country music artist from the South, didn’t keep him from speaking his piece. Today, we must suppose, Clear Channel would banish him from its 1,200 radio stations’ play lists for being unpatriotic.

Here’s a slice of Cash’s explanation for why he chose to wear black onstage:

“…Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.”


Thursday, September 11, 2003

Downtown Richmond's Direction

According to its web site, Save Richmond is a group of "artists, musicians, painters, sculptors, writers, dancers, poets, DJs, promoters, composers, dramatists, web designers and arts-related small business owners living and working in Richmond, Virginia."

The group is working in opposition to some of the measures that have been, and are being, put in place to revitalize Downtown Richmond. Here's a short list of what the group is calling for:

"Respect for the city's street-level arts and music scenes; less emphasis on costly and artificial downtown projects, more emphasis on historic preservation and organic culture; an open environment of city government where new ideas and opportunities can plug in; tolerance toward gays and other alternative lifestyles."

The group also opposes the new increases in the City's meals tax and admissions tax. To read its open letter to the City of Richmond click here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

For the Next SLANT

Ed. Note: The email posted below was sent out to our list of likely suspects. It is being posted in this space in hope that it will inspire a SLANT Blog reader to participate.

Avant-Garde, a late-60s magazine that I admired in those days, used to run features that offered the reader a collection of short answers to a question, culled from a group of well-known people. Usually the group of know-it-alls ran heavy on artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and so forth. The editors once asked 25 “noted Americans” to say who they thought was the most hated man in America.

The answers, taken as a group, were quite interesting.

Another time the magazine's editors asked a panel of 35 to name the machine they hate the most, and why. Then another panel was asked to predict what ordinary thing, in their time, would be transformed into a classic, 20 years into the future.

That last one was fun. I remember someone said something like -- Converse's (Chuck Taylor) canvas basketball shoes will be rediscovered and seen as cool by a whole new generation.

That one has turned out to be a screaming bulls-eye; take a look around.

For the next issue of SLANT, I want to run a collection of answers to that same basic question -- predictions on what thing, in the midst of our everyday life, will become classic, or perhaps much-collected ultra-kitsch, 20 years in the future.

Like Avant-Garde, I’m leaning the panel toward artsy folks (as far as who I've sent this email to). Because of space limitations, please keep your prediction, with whatever accompanying explanation, under 100 words. I’ll print as many responses as space permits. The deadline for copy to be emailed (ftrea9@yahoo.com.) to me is September 22 (but sooner is better).

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Activists Moving On

At MoveOn.org they don't pull any punches and they have become quite active in matters political during the last year: "Impeachment. The 2000 Election. The California Recall. The pattern is becoming clear: there's a group of men in power who will do anything to consolidate that power, including undermining our democratic institutions. We've got to fight back."

To visit to this organization's web site click here.

Monday, September 08, 2003

"... His hair was perfect."

Iconoclastic singer/songwriter Warren Zevon died on Sunday (Sept. 7). He was 56 years old. Click here for MSNBC’s obituary.

On Aug. 30 NPR did an excellent piece on Zevon’s recently released album, “The Wind.” Fans of the old excitable boy should click on this link that takes them to the NPR site. Once there click on “Listen to Weekend Edition - Saturday audio” to hear Scott Simon’s interview with Warren’s son, Jordan Zevon, who helped to produce his father’s last project.

The days slide by
Should have done, should have done, we all sigh
Never thought I'd ever be so lonely
After such a long, long time
Time out of mind


-- from "Accidentally Like a Martyr" (1978) by Warren Zevon

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Fancy Melons

Fiction by F. T. Rea

“Com’ere Bustah,” the old coot barked gruffly. Slouched on a bench of stone and wood, he wore an oversized pea coat and a dark blue knit cap. Most noticeable were his pale swollen ankles, showing between high-water plaid trousers and scuffed brown brogans with twine for shoelaces.

Roscoe Swift was content to ignore the rumpled stranger until he made his purpose clear: “Gotta match?” Out in the bay, Alcatraz was partially visible in the chilly fog. The thick gray sky was speckled with noisy white seagulls.

Roscoe approached the weather-beaten character cautiously and handed him a matchbook. The old salt lit his crooked, hand-rolled cigarette. Then the man coughed, cleared his throat, and spat triumphantly on the heavy support of the nearby tourist telescope. Roscoe watched the oyster slime its way off the heavy base to collect on the pavement.

After a couple of greedy pulls on his smoke, the ungrateful man threw the matchbook into the bay and said, “Look’ere kid, yer no prodigy.

Annoyed, Roscoe looked in the water for the matchbook. It floated up so he could still read the type on the cover. It said Fancy Melons.
“No sir, heh, heh, yer just another thin-skinned boy -- ha! maybe a skinless boy -- trying to bluff his way into heaven,” said the old timer, as his pale blue eyes twinkled in a maze of wrinkles and broken capillaries.

The sea breeze gusted. When Swift rolled over, he woke up startled and confused. Reality at the moment was no less weird than his dream had been. He found that he had been sleeping on a stack of inflated rafts on the sand. Suddenly, it was a beautiful morning in Virginia Beach and Roscoe was very thirsty.

Slowly, he began to remember climbing the lifeguard stand on the beach to the top of a pile of rental rafts lashed to it. Strangely, in the moonlight, it had made sense to sleep on an open-air perch, 15 feet up. He shuddered as he thought of the old man in the dream that was already beginning to fade away.

Then he realized he was still dreaming.

*

April 9, 1980: Roscoe Swift woke up already aware of the warm, moist air wafting through the slightly open bedroom window. Contrary to the weather forecast, it was still raining. Selena Cross, asleep on her back, didn’t stir as he deftly climbed over her and down from his loft.

The dream-within-a-dream he had just endured was a familiar haunt. It went all the way back to when he was 16, shortly after he actually did wake up on top of a stack of rafts on the beach. Roscoe shut off the alarm clock, so it wouldn't ring, and he gathered up last night’s clothes -- a black “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” T-shirt, khaki shorts, white socks, and high-top Converse All-Stars -- on his way to the bathroom.

Dressed and finished with the bathroom, Roscoe passed the shoulder-level bed. Selena looked too good to be true. Indeed, their six-week-old secret affair -- out of context from all else -- seemed dream-like much of the time to him.

Leggy and graceful, bright-eyed Selena had a feline quality that Roscoe told her was reminiscent of a young Brigitte Bardot, in “And God Created Woman.” While such a comparison was obviously meant to flatter, it also recognized her natural talent for mimicry and disguising her thoughts. To him Selena always seemed to be working from a script.

Roscoe and Selena had a big day planned -- a stolen day, removed from time. As he headed for the kitchen to scavenge up some breakfast, she opened her eyes, unbeknownst to him.

Selena Cross waitressed three nights a week at Soble’s on Floyd Avenue. To protect her image as one who never partied after hours, or strayed from her main squeeze, Selena invented a system to facilitate her “sessions” with Roscoe. On the nights she worked, he would swing by the bar on his way home from work at the Fan City Cinema, where he was the manager. Her fiancé -- a 30-year-old antique dealer, with money to burn -- traveled frequently, usually for a couple or three days, on short notice. If she was free and feeling amorous Selena would wear her honey-colored hair in a ponytail, to signal Roscoe she would be showing up at his place later. That way they could confine their conversation in the restaurant to small talk and leave at different times without huddled discussions.

In spite of the obvious chemistry between the two of them, Selena had convinced herself this subterfuge kept her coworkers and the bar’s regulars from suspecting anything.

In the summer between high school and college Selena had learned a lesson about being caught with her pants down, literally. Her outraged boyfriend, a judge’s son, beat her up. When the bruises faded she left her hometown for good. Sometimes, Roscoe didn’t know whether to believe Selena. Nor was he sure the ponytail really had everybody fooled. Still, with the bangs, it was a great look for her. Just the sight of that ponytail, bobbing and swaying as she walked, had a hypnotic effect on him.

Until this particular occasion it had been her custom to leave Roscoe’s carriage house apartment, in the alley behind the 1200 block of Franklin Street, before the first light of day. This time her fiancé was scheduled to be away longer than usual. Thus, this was their first morning together.

Roscoe Swift, 32, was a divorced wannabe filmmaker, who was too existential for his own good. Having had the same job for nine years, he could coast most of the time. Selena was a 23-year-old art history graduate. She led a disciplined, goal-oriented life and was ready to make her mark on a world of unlimited opportunity. Aside from a shared taste for Rockabilly music and a similar appreciation for black humor, they really didn’t have much in common. Generally, Selena didn’t talk about the past and Roscoe didn’t talk about the future.

Roscoe switched on the radio and opened the refrigerator. Then he remembered that Selena had wolfed down his leftover pizza. He was out of eggs, too.

What he had to work with was: a half-loaf of wheat bread, an almost new stick of butter, jars of mayonnaise, mustard and strawberry jam, a box of fig bars, a tired-looking head of lettuce, a bottle of extra dry domestic champagne, two cans of ginger ale, seven cans of beer and an empty pizza box.

Roscoe took out the champagne and sat it on the counter next to a small watermelon Selena had brought with her from the restaurant. As he carved up the melon, he whistled along with the radio to the classic Everly Brothers’ not-so-thinly-disguised ode to masturbation: “All I Have to Do is Dream.”

Selena, naked but for her thick socks, entered the room without making a sound. Amused that Roscoe hadn’t noticed her, she leaned her butt against the damp windowsill and folded her arms.

“Morning!” said Roscoe. “Hot coffee, buttered toast and cold champagne, with a watermelon spear, served in a pewter goblet. Presto! A perfect rainy day breakfast.”

Selena grinned. “I like rainy days. With no shadows, colors look more thick and juicy…”

“Miss Cross,” said Roscoe, “would you please slide the coffee pot onto the burner. It’s already loaded up.”

“You betcha,” said Selena. “Watermelon and champagne, together?”

“Yep,” said Roscoe, watching the gas flame burst into action, “this is an old Southern favorite. They call it a ‘Spring Fling.’ You haven’t heard of it?”

“No, but it’s so appropriate,” she said with a yawn. The gesture fit well with her decadent rich girl act -- sometimes Selena almost seemed to have walked out of a F. Scott Fitzgerald story. Given her blue-collar, small town background, it was a persona he enjoyed watching her affect.

Roscoe popped the cork off the bottle of bubbly and the moment’s perfection promptly fizzled. The bubbly wasn’t!

“Goddamn it!” he growled in a tone she hadn’t heard from him before.

While Selena’s body language had seemed to suggest that something other than breakfast was on her mind, anyway, the suddenly crestfallen Roscoe was focused on the flat champagne.

“I’ll be right back,” Roscoe blurted out, grabbing a hooded sweatshirt. He ran three-and-a-half blocks to a neighborhood wine shop in a steady rain, convinced the owner to open early, and returned with chilly bubbles aplenty.

“When you’re wet, you look fantastic!” Selena said, at first sight of him.

That prompted an impromptu session, with Selena seated on the porcelain kitchen table. Once again, they delighted in their collaborative ability to please one another. If anything, it was still improving. And, that was that.

The rain stopped and the clouds parted as they polished off their perfect breakfast with gusto. During the drive from Richmond to their destination, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, Selena and Roscoe sang along with a taped compilation of cuts by Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe.

Smitten with the sight of her, Roscoe could hardly keep his eyes on the road. “I’ve smiled at you so much I feel like a Cheshire cat on two hits of acid,” Roscoe deadpanned, as he pulled his pale yellow 1973 Volvo wagon into the parking lot of the quaint Hilltop Hotel.

As soon as they got to their room, Selena went to the bathroom. As he waited, Roscoe lit a joint, took a hit, and asked, “Do you still want to go to the horse races in Charles Town? We’ve still got the rest of the day to go sightseeing, or do whatever…”

“Whatever suits me fine,” said Selena, as she opened the door wearing only the Fan City Cinema T-shirt he had given her. That, and a spectacular smile.

“What the hell,” said Selena, who rarely smoked pot, “Up here I’m as out of town as it gets, give me a damn toke of that.”

After her second hit, as she passed the joint back to him, Selena lifted her right foot to rub the instep along the back of her left calf. Roscoe stepped closer, tossing the joint at the bedside table’s ashtray. Her head tilted slightly to one side. The air between them was charged.

She pulled at his belt buckle as they landed on the bed. His hands cascaded along her rib cage to her bare hips.

Then Roscoe heard a loud explosion; he flinched. “Wha, what the hell was that?”

Selena laughed as Roscoe rolled onto his back, seemingly dazed. “What was what?” she cooed.

“That sound; like a gunshot, or a bomb,” he gasped. “That bang! Didn’t you hear it?”

“Passion!” she said, widening her eyes. “Pure, pure passion!”

Roscoe was disoriented. Hadn’t the noise been real? Hadn’t she heard it, too? He sat up. “Come on Selena, you didn’t hear that sound?

She kissed him with such fury that he had to stop talking.

Soon, thoughts of fiancés, ex-wives, everyday concerns in Richmond, horse races in Charles Town, and especially mysterious explosions in hotel rooms were put aside. Later they slept the sleep known only to earnest lovers, who’ve given their all to the moment.

*

The next day, in spite of his efforts, Roscoe was unable to determine if Selena had actually heard the explosion he had. They talked about it during the drive back to Richmond, but she never gave him a straight answer. She enjoyed teasing him -- maybe this, maybe that.

Exaggerating her southern accent, Selena would say, “Pah-shun.” Eventually Selena’s evasiveness began to rub Roscoe the wrong way, so he stopped asking.

They finished off the drive with little to say, accompanied by a Kraftwerk tape, turned up loud. He dropped her off at her Volkswagen bug, parked in a lot near his place. She planned to stop by her apartment and then take care of some errands. Selena’s parting words were: “I’ll call you around dinnertime, about getting together later, if you’re up for a encore session.”

At 6 p.m., that same day, when Roscoe got home from playing Frisbee-Golf, he found a message Selena had left on his answering machine. Essentially, it said her fiancé had returned from his business trip, without warning, two days early. Roscoe felt a sense of panic, wondering how much the man knew. There must have been some gossip. Although she said twice that everything was “fine,” the fact she said it at all gave him a bad feeling.

The end was abrupt: Harper’s Ferry proved to be the finale for Selena and Roscoe. Two months later, Selena’s wedding took place in her husband’s hometown, Alexandria, Virginia. After a honeymoon in Ireland, the newlyweds surprised everyone by deciding to set up residence in Annapolis, Maryland, instead of Richmond.

And, that was that, except for this postscript on a chilly rainy day about a year after Harper’s Ferry. Upon returning from a week’s stay in San Francisco, Roscoe found a paper bag on the driver’s seat of his Volvo when he got home. In it was a bottle of Dom Perignon, along with half a small watermelon and an unlabeled tape cassette. He shoved the cassette into the stereo and switched the ignition on. Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” poured out of the speakers.

“Passion,” said Roscoe with chuckle nearly as dry as the bottle of bubbly next to him. He let out the clutch and turned up the volume.

* * *

(Illustration by F. T. Rea)

This Modern World

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow’s blog is always packed with good stuff. His ‘toons (This Modern World is seen regularly on Salon’s web site) are funny and on-target, politics-wise. To check it out, click here.

From Swagger to Stagger

Anticipating Bush’s address to the nation, on television tonight, Maureen Dowd underlines the snowballing problems for the president. Was he conned into all the bad moves he’s made by those fork-tongued neocons? Now that he’s crawling back to the United Nations, poor Dubya is getting flak from the right, as well as the left.

Meanwhile, Maureen muses: “…Does Mr. Bush ever wonder if the neocons duped him and hijacked his foreign policy? Some Middle East experts think some of the neocons painted a rosy picture for the president of Arab states blossoming with democracy when they really knew this could not be accomplished so easily; they may have cynically suspected that it was far more likely that the Middle East would fall into chaos and end up back in its pre-Ottoman Empire state, Balkanized into a tapestry of rival fiefs -- based on tribal and ethnic identities, with no central government -- so busy fighting each other that they would be no threat to us, or Israel.”

To read the whole piece click here.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Central Time

Fiction by F. T. ReaAugust 16, 1966: Roscoe Swift sat alone in a day car slowly rattling its way into Central Station. The solitary sailor had spent the last hour turning the glossy pages of Playboy and contemplating infinity. As the train lurched he glanced out of the window at Tuesday morning, Chicago style.

Roscoe had sequestered himself from the marathon poker game in the club car. The stepped up call for wild cards and split pots, by the various dealers, had finally driven him from the table. His resolute grandfather had schooled him to despise such frilly variations on the already-perfect game of poker.

“Gimmicks like that were invented to keep suckers in the game,” was the old man’s admonition.

This was hardly the day Roscoe wanted to invite the sort of jinx that might be set in motion by disregarding absolutes.

In the magazine’s lengthy interview section LSD pioneer Timothy Leary ruminated on his chemically enlarged view of the so-called Youth Movement. Professor Leary called the current crop: “The wisest and holiest generation that the human race has yet seen.”

The subculture forming around psychedelic drugs in that time was opening new dimensions of risk for 19-year-old daredevils. Roscoe wondered if he would ever do acid. His friend Bake had tripped and lived to tell about it.

There was a fresh dimension to the conflict in Vietnam that month, as well. The Cold War’s hottest spot was being infused with its first batch of draftees; some 65,000 were being sent into the fray, like it or not. Until this point it had been the Defense Department’s policy to use volunteers only for combat duty.

Also, on the home-front, quakes of change were abundant: A 25-year-old former Eagle Scout, Charles Whitman, climbed a tower on the University of Texas campus and shot 46 people, at random, killing 16; comedian/first amendment martyr Lenny Bruce was found dead -- overdosed and fat belly up -- on his bathroom floor; news of songwriter/musician John Lennon’s playful crack -- “We’re [the Beatles] more popular than Jesus Christ now” -- inflamed the devoutly humorless; and reigning Heavyweight Champ, Muhammad Ali, bent all sorts of folks out of shape with his widely reported quip -- “I ain't got nothing against them Viet Cong.”

Since leaving Main Street Station in Richmond, Virginia the morning before, Roscoe had traveled - via the Chesapeake and Ohio line - through parts of West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana, on his way to Illinois.

Taking leave from the airbrushed charms of September’s Playmate of the Month his mind kaleidoscoped to the sound of his girlfriend Julie’s laughter.

As a preamble to Roscoe’s departure for basic training he and Julie had spent the weekend in Virginia Beach, trying their best to savor the bittersweet taste of war-torn romance, black and white movie style. As luck would have it, the stately Cavalier Hotel’s central air conditioning system went on the blink the Friday they arrived.

Since the hotel’s windows couldn't be opened that meant the sea breeze was unavailable for relief from the heat wave. Nonetheless, they stayed on, because the hotel itself, a stylish relic of the Roaring ‘20s, meant something. After two years of catch-as-catch-can back-seat romance, this was where they had chosen to spend their first whole night together.

That evening they stretched out on the bed and sipped chilled champagne. With the hotel-supplied fan blowing on them at full blast, suddenly, a good-sized chunk of the ceiling fell onto a chair across the room.

After Roscoe mischievously reported the strange problem to the front desk -- “I hate to sound like Chicken Little, but perhaps you have a safer room?” -- Julie suggested a barefoot stroll on the beach to cool off.

Walking in the surf, neither of them had much to say. An hour later Julie and Roscoe were happily soaked as they returned to the hotel. With a little snooping around the pair discovered the door to the Cavalier’s indoor pool was unlocked. As it was well past the posted time for the pool to be open and the chlorine-smelling room was nearly dark, they reasoned that the facility was at their disposal for a little skinny-dipping.

*

Stepping off the train, Roscoe was two hours from another train ride. This one, aboard a local commuter, would finish the job of transporting him from Richmond’s Fan District - with its turn-of-the-century townhouses - to a stark world of colorless buildings and punishing grinders: Great Lakes Naval Training Center was his destination.

In the last month Roscoe had listened to plenty of supposedly useful yarns of what to expect at boot camp. Concerning Chicago, he could recite facts about the White Sox, the Cubs and the Bears; he had seen the movie about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the big fire; he thought Bo Diddley was from Chicago. One thing was certain, Seaman Recruit Swift knew he was further from home than he’d ever been.

Outside the train station on the sidewalk, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” -- a novelty tune on the summer's Top 40 chart -- blared appropriately from the radio of a double-parked Pontiac GTO.

After laughing at the ironic coincidence of the music, Roscoe, Zach, Rusty, and Cliff - comrades-at-arms in the same Navy Reserve unit in Richmond for four months of weekly meetings - considered their options for killing the time between trains, and they spoke of the ordeal ahead of them.

“That’s it, man.” Rusty explained. “The Navy figures everybody eats Jell-o, so that’s where they slip you the dose of saltpeter.”

“Get serious, that’s got to be bullshit,” said Zach. “The old salts tell you that to jerk you around.”

“OK, Zach, you can have all my Jell-o,” Rusty offered.

“Not even a breeze; what do y’all make of the Windy City?” asked Cliff. “It’s just as damn hot up here as it was in Richmond.”

A couple of blocks from the station the team of eastern time-zoners, outfitted in their summer whites, stopped on a busy corner to scan the hazy urban landscape. Finding a worthwhile sightseeing adventure was at the top of their agenda.

Answering the call, a rumpled character slowly approached the quartet from across the street. Moving with a purpose, he was a journeyman wino who knew a soft touch when he could focus on it.

In a vaguely European accent the street-wise operator badgered the four out of a cigarette, a light, two more cigarettes for later, then a contribution of spare change. When the foul-smelling panhandler demanded “folding money” Roscoe turned from the scene and walked away. His pals followed his lead. Then the crew broke into a sprint to escape the sound of the greedy beggar’s shouts.

Rusty, the fastest afoot, darted into a subway entrance with the others at his heels. Cliff was laughing so hard he slipped on the steps and almost fell.

As Roscoe descended the stairway into the netherworld beneath the city, he was reminded of H. G. Wells’ “Time Machine” and observed, “I guess this must be where the Morlocks of the Midway would live; if there are any.”

Zach smiled. No one laughed.

The squad agreed that since they were already there, and only Rusty had ever seen a subway, a little reconnoitering was in order. Thus they bought tokens, planning only to look around, not to ride. Roscoe, the last to go through the turnstile, wandered off on his own to inspect the mysterious tracks that disappeared into darkness.

Standing close to the platform’s edge, Roscoe wondered how tightly the trains fit into the channel. As he listened to his friends’ soft accents ricocheting off the hard surfaces of the deserted subway stop, he recalled a trip by train in 1955’s summer with his grandfather. Roscoe smiled as he thought of his lifelong fascination with trains. Unlike most of his traveling companions, he was glad the airline strike had forced them to make the journey by rail.

Walking aimlessly along the platform, as he reminisced, Roscoe noticed a distant silhouette furtively approaching the edge. It appeared to him to be a small woman. She was less than a hundred yards down the tracks. He watched her carefully sit down on the platform. Seconds later she slid off, disappearing into the dark pit below.

Although Roscoe was intrigued, he felt no sense of alarm. Not yet. He didn’t wonder if it was a common practice for the natives to jump onto the subway tracks. He simply continued to walk toward the scene, slowly taking it in, as if it were a movie. When Zach caught up with him Roscoe pointed to where the enigmatic figure had been.

Roscoe shrugged, “What do you make of it?”

To investigate the two walked closer. Eventually they saw a gray lump on the subway tracks.

Zach asked in a hushed voice, “Could that be her?”

When the unmistakable sound of a train began to report from the tunnel’s void, what had been a puzzle was solved.

Roscoe screamed at the woman, “Get up!”

The scene took on a high-contrast, film noir look when the tunnel was lit up by the oncoming train’s light. The two desperate sailors waved their arms frantically as they ran toward the train to get the driver’s attention. The woman remained clenched into a tight ball, ready to take the big ride. Suddenly the brakes began to screech horrifically, splitting seconds into shards. Metal strained against metal as the train’s momentum carried it forth.

Roscoe's senses were stretched to new limits. Tiny details -- angles of light and fragments of sound -- became magnified. All seemed caught in a spell of slow motion and exaggerated intensity.

The subway train slid to a full stop, about ten feet short of creating a grisly finish. Roscoe and Zach sprang from the platform and gathered the trembling woman from the tracks. They carefully passed her up to Rusty and Cliff, who stood three feet above.

Passengers emptied from the train, as well as the driver. Adrenaline surged through Roscoe’s limbs as he climbed back onto the platform. Brushing off his uniform, he listened to the conversation between the driver and the strange person who had nearly been splattered about the area.

The gray woman, who appeared to be middle-aged, spewed thank-yous and explained her presence on the tracks to having “slipped.”

In short time the subway driver acted as if he believed her useful explanation. Zach pulled the sweaty man aside to point out another angle on the truth. Roscoe began to protest to the buzzing mob’s deaf ears, but stopped when he detected a second feminine voice describing what sounded like a similar incident. He panned the congregation until he found the speaker. She was about his age.

Filing her fingernails with an emery board -- eyes fixed on her work -- she told how another person, a man, had been killed at that same stop last week: “The lady is entitled to die if she wants to. You know she’ll just do it again.”

As she looked up to inspect her audience, such as it was, Roscoe caught Miss Perfect Fingernails’ eye. He shook his head to say, “No!”

The impatient girl looked away and gestured toward the desperate woman who surely had expected to be conning St. Peter at the Pearly Gates that morning, instead of a subway driver. “Now we’re late for our appointments. For what?”

Roscoe watched the forsaken lady -- snatched from the Grim Reaper’s clutches -- vanish into the ether of the moment’s cheerless confusion. Shortly thereafter the train was gone, too.

“Well, I don’t know about you boys,” said Roscoe. “But I’ve had enough of Chicago sights for today.”

On their way back to daylight Roscoe listened to his longtime friend Zach tell the other two, who were relatively new friends, a story about Bake: To win a bet, Bake, a consummate daredevil, had recently jumped from Richmond’s Huguenot Bridge into the Kanawha Canal.

“Sure sounds like this Bake is a piece of work,” said Cliff. “You said he’s going to RPI this fall. What’s he doing about the draft?”

“This is a guy who believes in spontaneity like it’s sacred,” said Zach. “Roscoe, can you imagine Bake in any branch of military service; draft or no draft?”

“If he can hack being told what to do at art school, I’ll be surprised.” observed Roscoe.

“Hey, man, I’m not so sure any of us belong in the service,” Rusty volunteered.”

“I hear you.” Cliff concurred.

Upon rejoining the others from their Virginia contingent at Central Station, the four sightseers found a legion of additional boot camp-bound sailors from all over the country. For the men assembled, a two-year active-duty hitch in the Navy Reserve was preferable to rolling the dice on what the busy Selective Service system might dish out.

Rusty and Zack eagerly rehashed the morning’s bizarre adventure: “One of them told me there’s been three suicides in Chicago’s subways this summer,” reported Zach. “Could it be the heat?”

“I still had no idea what they were doing when I saw these two fools hopping off the platform, right in front of that train,” Rusty chuckled. “Hey, I couldn’t see squat on the tracks.”

“She’s probably standing on the roof of a skyscraper, right now” Zach theorized. “And, I’m sorry, but I’ll let some other hero break her fall.”

*

Aboard the train from Chicago to Great Lakes Roscoe sat by the window considering the unseen dimensions of his new role - a GI sworn to stand between what is dear to America and its enemies. Only days before, as he walked on the beach with Julie, he had felt so sure of being prepared for the task.

Yet as he sat there, with miles of unfamiliar scenery streaming by, Roscoe felt waves of trepidation washing over his easy confidence. On top of that, he wished he had gotten a little bit of sleep during the trip.

With their destination only minutes away the four Subway Swashbucklers opted to get in a few hands of stud poker; to accommodate Roscoe, wild cards weren’t suggested.

Sitting on an ace in the hole, with a king and ten up, Roscoe called Zach’s fifteen-cent-bet. There were no pairs showing and the bettor had just drawn a jack to his queen.

Cliff mentioned that the Treasury Department had announced it would no longer print two-dollar bills. “And, I heard boot camp pay comes in the form of -- what else? -- two-dollar bills.”

“Where’d you hear that?” Zach challenged. “I bet it’s bullshit.”

“Maybe we’re going to get the last of the deuces,” said Rusty. “And, I’ll take any of them you don’t want.”

Roscoe’s mind wasn’t on payday or the poker game. He was daydreaming about Julie; smiling on the beach, teal-colored eyes glistening, sun-streaked hair livened by a gust of wind.

Roscoe grappled with his thoughts, trying to pull them together: memory, urges, and anticipation all marching to the steady beat provided by the tracks. It occurred to him there was something more than mere distance between his seat on that train and what had been his life in Virginia.

“If time has borders, between one age and the next, it might be thicker at the border?” Roscoe asked no one in particular.

Rusty, the dealer, batted Roscoe’s oblique remark away, “So, are you calling Zach’s bet, or what?”

Expressionless, Roscoe stared at his fourth card, a queen. He pulled out a cigarette. Nodding toward Zach’s hand -- a pair of jacks, showing -- Roscoe flipped his up-cards over, face down. “OK, even if saving the Queen of the Subway from certain death doesn’t count for shit, anymore, there are certain standards that still don’t change; not for me.”

Rusty shrugged, “Meaning?”

“So, this disposable hero won’t pay a cent for a fifth card to fill an inside straight,” said Roscoe, lighting his cigarette. “First hand, or last, it’s still a sucker’s bet. And, I’ll sit the next hand out.”

“Whatever you say, man,” Rusty laughed. “But we’ve probably got time for just one more hand. Sure you want to quit now?”

Roscoe took a big drag of the filter-tipped Kool and drank in the moving picture of Illinois that was streaming past his window. The railroad ties were clicking monotonously. He thought about how movies depict motion by running a series of still pictures through a projector. However, with the memory picture of Julie he’d just conjured up it wasn’t frozen like a still. Nor was it in full motion. The image moved ever so slightly, capturing what amounted to a single gesture.

After receiving their last cards Cliff and Rusty folded, too. Zach smiled broadly and raked in the pot. Cliff gathered the cards and began to shuffle; preparing to deal the next hand.

“You in, Swift?” inquired the dealer. “The game is seven-card stud. The ante is still a quarter.”

“This time let’s make it 50 cents,” suggested Rusty, sliding two quarters into the center of the makeshift card table.

“Last hand? I’m in,” said Zach.

Roscoe blew a perfect smoke ring, which he studied as it began to float out of shape. He promised himself that no matter what happened to him, he would never forget that smoke ring.

Roscoe smiled, “OK. Deal me in.”

* * *

(Illustration by F. T. Rea)

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Court Acts to Block New FCC Rules

In yet another stunning blow to the Bush administration, in what seems to be a cascade of bad news in the last couple of weeks, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (in Philadelphia) granted a stay, preventing the controversial new FCC rules regarding ownership from taking effect today.

“‘…Given the magnitude of this matter, and the public's interest in reaching the proper resolution, a stay is warranted pending thorough and efficient judicial review,’ the three-page judicial order stated, issued five hours after a hearing.”

Read the story on Reuters.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Middle East Scorecard

Maureen Dowd’s scorecard tells a grim story:

“…The neocons wanted to marginalize the wimpy U.N. by barreling past it into Iraq. Now the Bush administration is crawling back to the U.N., but other nations are suspicious of U.S. security and politics in Iraq.”

It all makes us wonder, what has the Bush administration done that could be called a success? To read Dowd’s latest click here.

Monday, September 01, 2003

Who’s Sorry Now?

Writing for the New York Times, Maureen Dowd offers her take on the squabbling inside the Bush administration, over who's to blame for the mess and what to do next:

“…American foreign policy has been guided by the vice president's gloomy theories that fear and force are the best motivators in the world, that war is man's natural state and that the last great superpower has sovereign authority to do as it pleases without much consultation with subjects or other nations. We can now see the disturbing results of all the decisions Mr. Cheney made in secret meetings.”

Click here for a few laughs at the expense of Cheney, Rove, Wolfowitz of Arabia, etc..