Friday, July 31, 2009

The Stretch

http://fdhub.net/wp-content/uploads/2007/08/10-26-04bounce_story.jpg

The pair of seats above was acquired at the last game played at Parker Field in 1984. With the help of my then-girlfriend, Tana, we literally ripped them up from their platform. Others were doing the same, as the authorities actually allowed/encouraged it. A few days later the grandstands were torn down. The glove is my 1976 model Nokona.

Note: With no baseball in Richmond this summer, I’ve dusted off an old piece I wrote for STYLE Weekly (published Oct. 4, 1999).

*

With the turning of the leaves, The Fan District of Richmond, Va., will again be transformed into a living impressionistic cityscape. As they always do, the season’s wistful breezes will facilitate reflection.

All of which leads to the fact that yet another baseball season has come and gone. After 6,783 games, the last game ever has been played at Detroit’s fabled Tiger Stadium. The Giants and the Astros will be playing in new parks next season as well. The World Series, first played in 1903, will soon be upon us. Although baseball’s claim as the National Pastime may no longer hold up, the colorful lore generated by the magic of events at baseball parks probably outweighs that of all the other sports put together.

Of my childhood memories few are more pleasant than those associated with attending baseball games at Parker Field. I began going to the games with my grandfather when I was about seven. Naturally, we pulled for the pinstripe-clad V’s, the home team. I eagerly drank in all I could of the atmosphere, especially the stories told about legendary players and discussions on the strategy of the game.

As I got older I began to go with my friends, most of whom played baseball. We usually took our baseball gloves with us to the game. We’d go early so we could watch the V’s warm up. As often as possible we talked with the players. If one of them remembered your name it was a source of pride.

A highlight of each spring was the day the New York Yankees came to town to play the V’s, who were part of the Yankees’ farm system. It was a geographically convenient stop for the Bronx Bombers because they were on their way North from their Florida spring training camp. Thus, this dress rehearsal game would always take place just before opening day.

Consequently, I saw Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and the other great Yankees of the late ’50s and early ’60s play in Richmond.

In those days, baseball was clearly the most important thing in life to me and that meant Parker Field was like a temple. When we cheered the heroics we witnessed, and rose for the seventh inning stretch, and stayed until the last out regardless of the score, it was tantamount to exercising religious rites.

A few seasons before they tore Parker Field down (it was dismantled in 1984 and in its place stands The Diamond), I experienced one last thrill at the old ballpark. This was when my daughter, Katey, was about 7 or 8.

The home team by then — as it is now — was The Braves. Katey, her mother, and I were sitting in box seats as guests of neighbors who had gotten comps from a radio station. It was Katey’s first trip to Parker Field.

The spectacle itself was interesting to her for a while. As it was a night game, the bright lights were dazzling. The roar of the crowd was exhilarating. Being old enough to go along on such an outing, instead of staying at home with a baby sitter, was a boost to her morale. Nonetheless, by the middle of the game Katey was getting tired of sitting still and bored with baseball.

During the sixth inning it fell to me to entertain, or at least restrain her, so the others could enjoy the game. I tried telling her more about the object of baseball, hoping that would help her pay some attention to the game.

That didn’t work for very long. She was soon climbing across seats again and this time she knocked a man’s beer into his lap. As the visiting team began their turn at bat, in the top of the seventh, I got an idea and asked Katey if she wanted to see some magic. Of course she did.

Then I got her to promise to be good if I showed her a big magic trick. She agreed to the terms without qualification. Making sure she alone could hear me, I pulled her in close and whispered my instructions.

The gist of it was that she and I, using our combined powers of concentration, were going to make everyone in the ballpark stand up at the same time. Katey was thrilled at the mere prospect of such a feat. I told her to face the ongoing game, close her eyes, and begin thinking about making the crowd stand up.

After the visiting team made their third out, I cupped my hand to her ear and reminded her to think, “stand up, stand up …”

As baseball fans know, when the home team comes to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning everyone stands up, ostensibly to stretch their legs. It’s a longtime tradition called “the seventh inning stretch.” There’s a mention of the practice in a report about a Cincinnati Red Stockings (baseball’s first professional team) game that took place in 1869.

Tradition aside — when Katey turned around, opened her big blue eyes and saw thousands of people standing up — it was pure magic in her book. No one in the group gave me away when she told them what we had done. As I remember it, she stayed true to her word and was well-behaved the rest of the game.

Sports dilettantes today complain that baseball games are too slow and meandering. While I admit baseball has its lulls, nonetheless there are textures and layers of information present at baseball parks that are just too subtle and ephemeral for the lens of a TV camera to capture. To appreciate them you have to be there, and you have to bother to notice.

Sometimes there’s even a hint of magic in the air.

-- 30 --

Note: Here's a short list of some of the standout players who wore the uniform of the Richmond Braves (1966-2008): Tommy Aaron, Sandy Alomar, Steve Avery, Dusty Baker, Jim Beauchamp, Steve Bedrosian, Wilson Betemit, Jeff Blauser, Curt Blefary, Jim Breazeale, Tony Brizzolara, Brett Butler, Paul Byrd, Francisco Cabrera, Vinny Castilla, Bobby Cox, Mark DeRosa, Joey Devine, Jermaine Dye, Johnny Estrada, Darrell Evans, Ron Gant, Jesse Garcia, Ralph Garr, Marcus Giles, Tom Glavine, Tony Graffanino, Tommy Green, Johnny Grubb, Albert Hall, Wes Helms, Mike Hessman, Glenn Hubbard, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, David Justice, Ryan Klesko, Brad Komminsk, Javy Lopez, Adam LaRoche, Mark Lemke, Rick Mahler, Andy Marte, Kent Merker, Dale Murphy, Joe Niekro, Phil Niekro, Larry Owen, Gerald Perry, Chico Ruiz, Paul Runge, Harry Saferight, Jason Schmidt, Randall Simon, John Smoltz, Mark Wohlers, Brad Woodall, Tracy Woodson, Ned Yost and Paul Zuvella.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ruffled Feathers and Cold Beer

There's a new OpEd piece of mine up at Richmond.com. It's about the curious story of what happened in Cambridge, Mass., to do with the arrest of Henry Louis Gates on July 16, and the overblown aftermath.
President Barack Obama’s "acted stupidly" remark on July 22 about an arrest in Cambridge, Mass., ruffled feathers coast-to-coast. He has since volunteered that his choice of words may not have been the best.

Nonetheless, for the last week Obama has heard a steady stream of rebukes. Folks have said they were deeply offended and absolutely outraged. Although some reactions have obviously been exaggerated for effect, that doesn’t mean this brouhaha is a waste of time.
Click here to read "Ruffled Feathers and Cold Beer."

*

Update: After a conversation with friends last night at Chiocca's, I'd like to add an update. A couple of guys said, if they were Sgt. Crowley, they wouldn't go to the Suds Summit, to help the president cover his exposure. Well, in spite of how much Obama's detractors are enjoying the flurry of attention his faux pas has garnered, apparently it was Crowley who first mentioned a get-together over beers. Click here for more background.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

To hell with Pete

Pete Rose

Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, you've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

With apologies to Joseph Welch, I have to say in the strongest way I can that Selig must turn his back on the recent push to pardon Pete Rose, which would mean changing MLB's standards.

Selig has presided over an era of sleaze (1992 to present), steeped in steroids. For many years he turned a blind eye to that brewing scandal. The list of his bad calls is too long to recount now, but determining the home team in the World Series by which league wins that year's All-Star game is near the top of the list.

His one saving grace, to me, has been that he honored the memory of his predecessor, Bart Giamatti, by holding firm on Rose's well-deserved lifetime ban. A banning that Rose, himself, agreed to in writing in 1989. And, then he whined about ever since Giamatti died, soon afterward.

On top of that Rose clearly represents the worst in competitive spirit. In the way he approached the National Pastime he brought only an insatiable desire to call attention to himself, as an individual. The dirtball deliberately injured another player in an All-Star game, just to make a hot-dog play in an exhibition game.

But because the standards of baseball have been so splattered with smelly mud during the Selig era, in retrospect, Rose's gambling-on-baseball sins now seem pale to some. Horsefeathers!

No doubt, we're soon going to see Pete Rose on ESPN, crying like Brett Favre, begging to be pardoned, so he can be voted into the Hall of Fame. Fans will be voting in online polls ... and the precious game of baseball will be hurt once again by individuals whose greed trumps all else.

-- Illustration by F.T. Rea (2000)

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Case of Gus the Cat

Note: An earlier version of this piece first appeared at Richmond.com in January of 2000.

*

Though cynical people like to say, “All cats are gray in the dark,” the difference between this and that counts with me. Thus, if for no other purpose than to satisfy my own curiosity, I set out to find the truth about Gus, the cat that had long presided over lower Carytown from his display window roost.

The mystery began in the course of a casual conversation about re-makes of old movies. Film buff Ted Salins, a regular among the society of conversationalists who gather at the tables on the sidewalk in front of Coffee & Co., tossed out that the cat living next door in Carytown Books is not the “original” Gus.

Since I’ve known Salins, a writer/filmmaker/house-painter, for a long time, I suspected his charge was a setup for a weak joke. To give him room to operate I asked, “So, this Gus is an impostor?”

“Just like Lassie, several cats have played the role of Gus over the years,” Salins said matter-of-factly.

Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that Gus, someone else’s cat, had slowly become important to me over the years. In the past I’ve been told that he’s over 15, maybe pushing 20. Who can say what that is in cat years? He still has a few teeth left.

“You see, in ‘91 I had lost my beloved Skinkywinkydinky in a separation,” Salins went on, as if revealing a dark conspiracy. “When I first saw Gus, I took to him because he reminded me of Skinky. That Gus wouldn't let you touch him. But, this Gus…”

“Ted, this is absolutely the most off-the-wall nonsense you’ve come up with yet,” I accused.

“The place has changed hands a few times since then,” Salins smugly offered. “The problem is each owner falls in love with the cat and keeps it. But since Gus has become an institution in Carytown, each set of new owners has to find another cat that looks like Gus. The switch is made at night in order to preserve the secret. I’ve seen it.”

Before I could say “horsefeathers,” another member of the Carytown intelligentsia, who had just walked up, spoke: “Salins, as usual you’re all wet,” said artist Jay Bohannan. “That is not only the same cat, but Gus is, let’s see, yes, he’s nearly 70. That particular cat is probably the oldest cat this side of the island of Lamu.”

I laughed at Bohannan’s crack and excused myself from the table to let them hash it out. The two of them have been arguing good-naturedly since their VCU art school days in the early ‘70s.

Walking toward my car, Ted’s suggestion of a fraud having been perpetrated on the public bothered me. I felt certain that if somebody had actually installed a faux Gus in the bookstore it would have been all over the street the next day. As I tried to imagine people spiriting nearly identical cats in and out of the back door, in the dead of night, the matter wouldn’t rest.

So I turned around and went into Carytown Books. The shop’s manager, Kelly Justice, who has worked there for six years under three editions of ownership, scoffed at Salins’ charge.

“Anyone who knows Ted, knows he’s a nitwit,” said Ms. Justice with a wry smile. “More likely than not, this is an attempt to raise funds for another one of his documentaries.”

When I told her about Bohannan’s equally outrageous suggestion that Gus was almost a septuagenarian, Justice laughed out loud. “Perhaps Jay and Ted are both trying to hitch their wagons to Gus’s star,” she suggested playfully.

Back outside, Salins and Bohannan were both gone. So I walked east on the block to Bygones, the collectable clothing and memorabilia store known for its artful window displays. Since Maynee Cayton, the shop’s proprietor, is an unofficial historian for the neighborhood, I decided to see what she knew about Gus.

Cayton, who has been at that location for 16 years, said she had some pictures of the block from the ’30s and ‘40s, but she didn’t think she had any shots of a bookstore cat. However, she did remember that when she was a child she saw a gray and white cat in the window of what was then the Beacon Bookstore.

“It was in the late ’60s, I think it was 1967,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “And I’d say it was a young cat. Either way, I can’t believe the feline impersonator story, so maybe it was Gus.”

The next day, Bohannan called on the phone to tell me he had something I needed to see right away. He was mysterious about it and wouldn’t explain what he was talking about, except to say that it was proof of his claim about Gus the Cat.

Unable to let it go, I told him I’d stop by his place to see what proof he had.

Bohannan’s apartment, located between Carytown and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, was an escape from the modern world altogether. It’s furnished in a pleasant mix of practical artifacts and curiosities from yesteryear. The heavy black telephone on his desk was almost as old as Jay. Next to the desk was a turn-of-the-century gramophone. Bohannan, himself, dressed like a character who just stepped out of a Depression-era RKO film, reached into a dog-eared manila folder and pulled out a photograph. When I asked him where he had gotten the picture, purportedly from about 1930, he shrugged.

In such a setting, his evidence of Gus’ longevity took on an eerie authenticity. Sitting in one of Bohannan’s ancient oak chairs, surrounded by his own paintings of scenes from Virginia’s past, I thought I could see the cat he claimed was depicted in the storefront’s window. Why, it even looked like Gus.

Jay told me I could keep the photo, it was just a copy. What a scoop!

Later, when I looked at the grainy picture at home, I could hardly even see a cat. The next day, back in Carytown, I spoke with several people who hang out or work in the neighborhood. A few actually thought Bohannan’s bizarre contention could be true. Others agreed with Salins.

One man, who refused to be quoted, said he was sure the original Gus was an orange cat. A woman looked up from her crossword puzzle to note that Bohannan's evidence was at least as good as what she'd seen on the Loch Ness Monster.

Then the whole group of chatty know-it-alls went off on the general topic of conspiracy theories and hoaxes. At the next table a woman in a straw hat started sketching the sidewalk scene.

A few days later, I saw Ted Salins holding court in front of the coffee shop. I told him what Kelly had said about his claim and I showed him Jay’s so-called proof that Gus is ancient.

Ted said mockingly, “The next thing you’re going to tell me is Shakespeare actually wrote all those plays. Look - it’s not the same cat. Live with it. This Gus is a ringer, maybe three years old.”

Turning around, I looked through the storefront’s glass at good old Gus in his usual spot. He looked comfortable with a new electric heater under the blanket in his basket. It dawned on me that there was a time when Gus used to avoid me, as well. Now he seems happy for me to pet him, briefly.

Pulled back into the spell of the mystery, I wondered, had Gus changed or had I? Gus stared back at me and blinked. Like one of his favorite authors, J. D. Salinger, Gus wasn’t talking.

Gus was smiling as only a cat can; a smile that suggests equal parts of wisdom-of-the-ages and dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers. The truth about Gus the Cat was that he had grown accustomed to having a public.

*

Note: On June 19, 2001 a cat alleged to be the authentic Gus the Cat was found dead in Carytown Books. The piece above was published by Richmond.com about 18 months before that date.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Duck Baker: Sweet Georgia Brown



My old friend Duck Baker passed through town over the weekend. Although he's not in Richmond much these days, he grew up in the Fan District. Like some of you, I missed his show at the Ashland Coffee and Tea on Thursday night.

So, here's a little dose of Duck as consolation. I've heard him do this one live lots of times.

Click here to visit Duck's web site.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

'Chinatown'

Right now I'm watching "Chinatown," which is not only a great flick, it takes me back to another time like no other.

Directed by Roman Polanski "Chinatown" premiered at the Biograph Theatre on June 28, 1974. In my nearly 12 years as manager of that cinema, I can't remember being more stunned by the first screening of a movie.

During the film's run the Biograph's staff and regular patrons played at finding obscure foreshadowing clues and such in the background and dialogue. Clearly, it was rare fun for us to have the best first-run picture in town, exclusively, for most of a summer. Then we closed for a quickie renovation, which converted the Biograph into a twin cinema.
Forget it, Jake ... it's Chinatown.
"Chinatown" remains my all-time favorite to this day.


-- Illustration by F.T. Rea

Driving with scholars

Balcomb Greene (1904-90)

In 1969 I had what was a dream job; it was also an intense education. My chief duty was to drive visiting scholars around Virginia from one university campus to the next in a big black Lincoln. It was better than going to school...

Each week, under the auspices of the University Center in Virginia -- a consortium of Virginia colleges and universities -- there was a new scholar in a different field. Somebody had to haul them to lectures, dinners, convocations and to hotels throughout the week.

Naturally, in the crisscrossing of Virginia, the wiseguy driver and the actually wise bona fide scholars had a lot of time to talk. Some of them kept to themselves, mostly. Others were quite chatty, in several cases we got along well and had great talks.

Three of them stand out as having been the best company on the road: Daniel Callahan (writer/editor at Commonweal Magazine), Henry D. Aiken (writer/philosophy professor) and Balcomb Greene (artist/philosophy and art history professor).

Callahan challenged me to think more thoroughly about situational ethics and morality. He was happy I was reading the books of Herman Hesse and others. He turned me on to “One Dimensional Man,” by Herbert Marcuse.

Callahan was quite curious about my experiences taking LSD, we talked about drugs and religion. Click here to read about him.

Aiken (1912-‘82) was then the chairman of the philosophy department at Brandies University, he loved a debate. He was used to holding his own against the likes of William F. Buckley. Talking with him about everything under the sun in the wee hours, I first acquired a taste for good Scotch whiskey (which I haven't tasted in many a year).
From a ‘pragmatic’ point of view, political philosophy is a monster, and whenever it has been taken seriously, the consequence, almost invariably, has been revolution, war, and eventually, the police state.

-- Henry D. Aiken
Aiken, like Callahan, agreed to help me with a project I told them about -- inspired by popular new magazines Ramparts, Avant-Garde, Rolling Stone, etc. -- at 21-years-old I wanted to jump straight into magazine publishing, with no experience, ASAP.

That dream stayed on the back burner for 16 years, until the first issue of SLANT came out in 1985. However, the biggest influence on the way I went about publishing SLANT flowed from my association with Greene (1904-90). He was, by far, the rent-a-scholar who was the funniest and the one who had the biggest influence on me.

The son of a Methodist minister, Greene grew up in small towns in the Midwest. He studied philosophy at Syracuse University, psychology at the University of Vienna and English at Columbia University. Then he switched to art, having been influenced by his first wife, Gertrude Glass, an artist he had married in 1926. He became a founder of the avant-garde group known as American Abstract Artists in 1936.

After World War II, just as abstract art was gaining acceptance, Green radically changed his style. He began painting in a more figurative, yet dreamy, style that fractured time. Click here,
and here, to read about Greene and see examples of his work.

One day I’ll write a piece about the visit to Sweetbriar with Greene. It was a hoot collaborating with him to have some fun putting on the blue-haired art ladies of that venerable institution. This time my mention of him is to get this piece to I.F. Stone. It was Greene who gave me a subscription to I.F. Stone’s Weekly.

I.F. “Izzy” Stone (1907-89) was an independent journalist in a way few have ever been. In the 1960s his weekly newsletter was a powerful voice challenging the government’s propaganda about the war in Vietnam. Click here to read about Stone, and here.
"All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out."
-- I.F. Stone
Stone remains one of my heroes. At my best, over the years, I have emulated him in my own small ways. Thank you, Professor Greene.

-- Photo of Greene from Harmon Meek Gallery web site

Friday, July 17, 2009

Wilder Still

[Squirrelly2.jpg]

A new piece about former Governor/Mayor Doug Wilder is up at Richmond.com., "Wilder Still," penned by yours truly.

That Wilder was the first black governor of any American state since the last Ice Age was duly noted; he became somewhat of a national celebrity because of it. Two years into his term as governor, in 1992, Wilder overplayed his hand: His open flirtation with running for president went over like a lead balloon. That episode began what became a series of squirrelly moves.
Click here to read the entire piece.

-- Illustration by F.T. Rea

Thursday, July 16, 2009

RT-D's Massive Resistance apology

In an unusual editorial the Richmond Times-Dispatch has issued an apology, of a sort, for its role in the shameful mid-20th century effort in Virginia to maintain Jim Crow laws and customs, and thwart the Supreme Court's 1954 decision that rejected the separate-but-equal doctrine.
Massive Resistance inflicted pain then. Memories remain painful. Editorial enthusiasm for a dreadful doctrine still affects attitudes toward the newspaper. Many remember. We understand. Words have consequences. Artful paragraphs promoted ugly things. Stylish sentences salted wounds. Euphemism was profligate. As members of the Fourth Estate these pages did not keep a proper distance, either. The debate is over. It is done.
Click here to read the entire editorial.

Is an apology delayed better than no apology?

Well, it depends. Sometimes it is. Sometimes maybe not. Ask Robert McNamara's ghost about that extremely delayed Vietnam War mea culpa.

Note: The Feb. 28, 2007, issue of STYLE Weekly featured a Back Page a piece by yours truly, "Unvarnishing Virginia History." It recalled how prevalent the thinking was that set Virginia on the course to Massive Resistance in that time.

Unvarnishing Virginia History
by F.T. Rea

Having grown up in Richmond, I’ve been steeped in its dual sense of bitterness and pride over matters to do with, and stemming from, the Civil War. Perhaps thinned out somewhat by time, it remains in the air we breathe at the fall line of the James River.

Most of my life has been spent in the Fan District, which is home to four statues honoring heroes of the Confederacy. Beyond monuments, to know what it was like in Richmond in the past, we look to history. It comes to us in many ways — stories told, popular culture and schooling among them.

In 1961, my seventh-grade history book, which was the official history of Virginia for use in public schools — as decreed by the General Assembly — had this to say about slavery at the end of its Chapter 29:
...Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to those arguments.
In 1961 I had no reason to question that paragraph’s veracity. Baseball was my No. 1 concern in those days. Now those words read quite differently.

Living through the Civil Rights era, with its bombings, assassinations, marches, sit-ins, boycotts and school-closings, did much to show me a new light, to do with truth and fairness. However, for me, there was no moment of epiphany, no sudden awareness I was growing up in a part of the world that officially denied aspects of its past. More than anything else, it took time. Life experience taught me to look more deeply into things.

Now I know that dusty old history book was a cog in the machinery that made the Jim Crow era possible.

Nonetheless, that same history book’s view of how it was for those enslaved is one that some Virginians still want to believe. It’s probably what they were taught as children, too. Some call it “heritage.” Many of this persuasion also cling to the bogus factoid that since most Southerners didn’t hold slaves, the Civil War itself was not fought over slavery.

Which is preposterous.

Of course poor Southerners, those who weren’t plantation owners, had little to do with starting the Civil War. Generally speaking, poor people with no clout don’t launch wars anywhere; rich people with too much power do.

So, for the most part, the men who fought in gray uniforms were doing what they felt was expected of them. As with most wars, the bulk of those who fought and died for either side between 1861 and 1865 were just ordinary Joes who had no say-so over declaring war or negotiating peace.

In Virginia, many who chose to wear gray did so to reverse what seemed to them to be an invasion of their home state.

Yet, if the reader wants to understand more deeply why Virginia eventually left the Union, to follow the secessionist hotheads of South Carolina and Mississippi into war, here’s a clue from Chapter 30 of that same history book, which opened with this:
In 1790 there were more than 290,000 slaves in Virginia. This number was larger than that of any other state...
Those 290,000 slaves were worth a lot of money to their owners.

Thus, the largest part of the real blame for the bloodshed of the war, and the subsequent indignities of the Reconstruction era, probably rests with wealthy slaveholders who would not give up their investments in cheap labor without a fight.

Readers interested in how much the official record of the Civil War has changed over the decades since the Civil Rights era should pay a visit to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. Its telling of the story of the Civil War is now based on the unvarnished truth.

Moreover, I am proud to be a Virginian. There’s plenty of Virginia history that has nothing to do with picking sides in the Civil War. My ancestors go back to the 1600s in this commonwealth. But I will not stand with anyone who chooses to stay the course with the absurd of denials of history — to do with slavery — that were crammed into that old public school textbook.

Even the Museum of the Confederacy, for now still housed in what was the Richmond home of the president of the Confederate States of America, is apparently poised to change its name to reflect its modern mission — telling the history of that time accurately, rather than to simply memorialize the Confederacy.

As for my friends in Richmond who haven’t had a fresh thought on matters racial since they were seventh-graders, well, I don’t want to pick a fight with them. So mostly we talk about other things — baseball still works.

All that said, Robert E. Lee, whose spectacular monument I see every day, remains a Virginian I admire. The dual sense of tragedy and dignity his statue conveys is striking. In his time and place, Lee clearly did what he saw as his duty. How can an honest person not respect that?

After the war Lee urged his fellow Virginians to let it go — to move on. That was good advice in 1865. It still is.

-- 30 --

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Another parade of poseurs

Following the confirmation hearing for Sonia Sotomayor, President Barack Obama's nominee to replace Justice David Souter, I'm once again struck with how predictable this process always is.

From AP:
While Souter was appointed by a Republican, President George H.W. Bush, he frequently sided with the court's liberal bloc on controversial issues such as abortion and affirmative action. As a result, if confirmed, Sotomayor appears unlikely to alter the court's balance of power on those issues.

Click here to read the entire article.

What happens every time is that too many politicians assume that whatever shade of politics they think they see inside the head of the nominee will be the platform on which their decisions will stand. And, they say so over and over again.

Which is tantamount to saying to prospective justices that they won't be able to be objective when they are hearing and deciding cases before the Supreme Court.

Perhaps that's because so many of the politicians, themselves, seem incapable of escaping their prejudices, or acting in a way that clashes with the perceived interests of their important financial backers. It seems the cynical pols believe everyone smart enough to get through law school has to be just as willing to twist the truth for the sake of political gain as they are.

Insert your favorite lawyer joke here _______.

Yet, there's a long list of justices who surprised nearly everyone with the tilt of their decisions after they got confirmed. Chief Justice Earl Warren, who served from 1953-69, is the first who comes to mind. In fact, Souter, who Sotomayor is hoping to replace, turned out to disappoint many a conservative Republican.

In truth, America's entire system of justice depends on judges being able to make sound decisions that might go against their own personal opinions. If we all start believing that no one is capable of being fair, when they are called upon to do so, there isn't much hope for our society.

What I see in all that posturing and bluster is politicians playing to their base. Grandstanding is a more polite word for it than some others. And, it seems to happen every time, regardless of which party is in power.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Beginning of the end of the City's admissions tax

Chuck Wrenn at Shenanigans' 2008 Christmas party
(photo by Artie Probst)

Standing outside the Greater Richmond Convention Center, on the morning of July 7, Chuck Wrenn and I talked about the extraordinary meeting we had just attended. And, of course, we digressed a bit into talking about old times, as we tend to do when we get together these days.

In 1972 Chuck and I were part of the original staff that opened the Biograph Theatre at 814 W. Grace St. We've been partners in lots of projects since then, but not so much in the last 15 or so years. It was at the Biograph we first came to grasp what a problem the City of Richmond's admissions tax posed to movie theaters and anybody else who sold tickets to any kind of show.

It was probably 35 years ago that Sam Benheim, the then-general manager of Neighborhood Theatres (the dominant chain in Richmond at that time), told me how the tax got started. He claimed it was during World War II that the concept of an admissions tax began in Richmond -- the money went to war bonds.

When the war ended Richmond's city council decided to keep the tax money the public had gotten used to paying, it was maybe four percent then.

Later the percentage crept up. A few years ago it went to seven percent, where it is now.

Doug Conner, 9th District representative on city council, ran the informal meeting, which was hosted by the convention center’s manager, Mike Meyers. Among those who were also in attendance were: the executive director of the Greater Richmond New Car Dealer Association -- Johnny Cates; the president of the Arts Council (soon to be known as CultureWorks) -- John Bryan; the originator of RVANews -- Ross Catrow; representatives of the Byrd Theatre and some guys who work for the City.

Since then several others have come forward to say they want to be at the ad hoc committee's next meeting. It's not a big snowball, yet, but it's rolling.

Click here to read my most recent attempt to explain why the admissions tax should be 86ed, ASAP.

Chuck kept expressing his amazement that after all these years someone in City Hall is finally listening to the case for removing the tax. It's great to be teamed up with him again. And, yes, I'll take a shot of that Bushmills Chuck is offering in the photo above, to celebrate the beginning of the end of Richmond's admissions tax.

More news soon...

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Addicted to Choice

"Whatever gets you through the night 'salright, 'salright
It's your money or life 'salright, 'salright”

-- John Lennon

Note: This piece was originally published in STYLE Weekly 10 years ago. I dusted it off, touched it up and ran it at SLANTblog a couple of years ago. Now, after reading Chris Bopst's column on greed in Brick (which I read in a Facebook note), I'm offering it up again.

*

Obsessions, compulsions and addictions have always been in play. Now we see a somewhat new twist in driven behavior: In a time of plenty, some seem to have become addicted to the act of choosing between this and that. This group has developed what amounts to a jones for choosing from a smorgasbord of options. They get high on making choices.

Yet, as with any buzz, when it subsides the anxious feelings it allayed return with a vengeance.

Thus, choice addicts find themselves living in a continuous loop of shopping and making choices in order to cope with their habit. This is beyond consuming, it's just about choosing.

Of course Madison Avenue, great facilitator in this shop-’til-you-drop scenario, has long depicted “choice” as utter bliss: Yowsah! Yowsah! Yowsah! These space age disposable widgets come in five designer colors.

Choice has also been a hot political buzzword for some time. To a person wanting to express a belief that a woman is absolutely entitled to opt for an abortion, choice is a useful word for a slogan. It implies that ending the pregnancy is a matter of a person having dominion over her own body, rather than submitting to an authority claiming to represent society’s collective will.

Of course, those calling for “choice” in this case see the individual’s right to choose an abortion as trumping whatever damage, if any, might be done to society by the abortion.

The notion that it should be fine for any citizen to pull his tax money out of the funding of public education, in order to finance sending his own child to private school, has been called “choice” by its advocates.

While this argument appears to be resting on a convenient logic, it ignores the long-held American tenet that everyone in the community has a stake in public education, regardless of how many children they have.

In both cases, the sloganeers show a telling awareness of the lure the word “choice” has today. Perhaps this is due to some new collective sense of powerlessness in the air. Or maybe the scam aspect of selling folks their own freedom is as old as dirt.

In “One-Dimensional Man,” German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) warned us in the 1960s about illusions of freedom: “Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear.” Marcuse’s keen eye saw the counterfeit aspect of the processed brand of freedom wielders of easy credit felt, even then, as they exercised their prerogative to select one set of time-payment obligations over another.

Marcuse’s hard-nosed take on what he saw as controls over modern society is out of style today. But his view of how language is predictably used by a few of us to manipulate the rest of us is still as valuable as ever.

French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-PĂ©rigord’s (1754-1838) words on the topic of language remain crisp today. Talleyrand offered, “Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”

British philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) went further: “Speech was given to man to prevent thought.”

OK, so tricky lingo has long been used to shape perception. However, as a true believer in the unfettered streaming marketplace of ideas, I expect tortured language and agenda-driven slogans to come and go. My point is that the act of choosing should not be so highly valued that it comes at the expense of appreciating what happens after the choice is made.

Some folks put a lot of store in choosing the perfect mate. They shop, and they shop, to be sure. But from what I’ve seen, what couples actually do, after their choice/commitment, has a lot more to do with the success of the relationship than anything else. Of course, some just keep shopping, vows or not. They can’t stop shopping and choosing.

Can constantly switching TV channels for hours be a more satisfying experience than watching one interesting program? Well, the answer probably depends on whether you value what comes after the choice. But no matter what the nervous viewers do they will inevitably be exposed to plenty of commercials prompting them to make more choices.

Bottom line: Choice addicts are schlemiels, because every time they accept that their options are limited to what’s on a menu put together by someone else, they are surrendering control to the list-maker. Meanwhile, the mountain of disposable widgets and schmidgets grows, evermore, as choice addicts cast off yesterday’s tarnished urge, to grab after today's sparkling urge ... to get through the night.

-- Words by F.T.Rea; Lennon illustration by Mike Lormand

Monday, July 06, 2009

No regrets about this incident

When there’s a tragedy, to do with kids shooting up their schools or getting killed at a wild party, memories of my own tumultuous high school days pop up.

In the mid-‘60s, in my crowd we were so reckless with drinking and driving our cars -- and the daredevil stunts -- it’s hard to believe more of us didn’t get killed in high school.

Still, it was a safer time in some ways, in that hard drugs and weapons were not near the top of the list of risks we routinely faced at school. By the time my daughter, Katey, was in high school guns and harder drugs were much more available to kids. However, one episode from my daughter’s freshman year in high school clearly stands out as a time when something terrible could have happened … but we were lucky in that it didn’t.

Katey went to Open High, here in Richmond, where the students were allowed to take a wide range of classes in locations away from Open’s Jackson Ward location, then at 00 Clay St.

A few blocks from the school’s downtown headquarters, there was a large dilapidated warehouse-like building that was being rented out by the room as cheap art studio space, and whatever…

At this time, I was still somewhat plugged into the artsy night life scene in town. So when colorful stories from the wild parties in the aforementioned old building began to circulate, they easily found their way to my ear.

In the process I discovered that my daughter was involved. When I inquired discreetly about the situation, my attention was soon focused on a group that was congregating in one of the building’s larger rooms. The group called itself a “philosophy club.”

It was headed up by a big-haired character who drove a cab and taught an elective philosophy class at Open High. Actually, the class met regularly in the leader’s bachelor pad in the aforementioned building. From what I could gather, his place had become something of an anytime hangout for a group of teenagers.

In the guru’s view, it appeared there was nothing intrinsically wrong with a middle-aged man seducing 15-year-olds.

To learn more I went to see the principal of Open, ostensibly to ask her some questions about me teaching a film-appreciation class there. During the conversation, I inquired casually about the aforementioned philosophy class.

She became agitated and asked me what I knew about that particular building and the philosophy club. At that point I held back what I had heard. Instead I asked her how much she knew about the club’s leader/teacher.

The disturbing details of what she blurted out next were similar to what I had been told. When I confirmed that I had heard similar rumors she got more upset. She confided that she had already decided that day to pull the plug on the edgy philosophy class at Open.

While that was good news to me, I knew it wouldn’t necessarily stop the kids from hanging out in the old building, behind its locked doors.

I knew I needed to pay a call on the self-styled pedagogue, but that proved harder than it should have been. No one answered the door. So, I left off a message that I wanted to write an article about the club’s good work with alienated teenagers. The guy went for it and called me on the telephone.

We set up a time for me to visit.

The so-called “philosopher” gave me a tour of the huge, dungeon-like space. It had been years since I been inside that building; it struck me as worse looking than I had imagined. He assured me most of the parents of the full members and novices were quite happy with him, because they believed that with his patter he was connecting in a positive way with their hard-to-reach children.

Yes, the youngsters partied sometimes, he admitted with a wee twisted smile. But they were doing so under his enlightened supervision. Plus, the novices were also learning the value of hard work by hauling off tons of the building’s ambient rubble as part of their initiation into the club. He said the Libertarian in him then bartered their labor with the landlord, to pay his rent. That way he could channel more of the money the members raised, through their various projects, to video equipment and other such philosophical tools.

By the time we got back to his desk I had seen plenty and heard enough. No matter how alarmed, or nonchalant, one might have chosen to be about his convenient morality, regarding the corruption of innocence, the building itself was scary as hell.

Yes, that building could easily have served as the setting for a parent’s worst nightmare.

Sensing the time was right, I interrupted his self-serving presentation. Abruptly, my tone changed.

Borrowing from the miles of gangster movie footage I absorbed during my days as manager of the Biograph Theatre, I narrowed my eyes at the startled man the way Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum might look at a traitor.

Then I explained to him that I wasn’t there to bring him trouble over whatever twisted, or illegal, shenanigans had already gone on in there. What I was there to say was that I did not want MY daughter in THAT building again.

Calmly, I said from that moment on, I would hold him personally accountable. He seemed to get my drift. The threat of bodily harm, while not stated, was implied.

Having said my piece, I left before my tough guy impersonation wore too thin. Later that day, I confronted Katey, telling her about my visit with the bogus teacher.

In so many words, I said I had reason to believe the philosophy club’s less-than-perfect master was a garden-variety child molester. A sicko who was using access to drugs and the building’s tomb-like privacy to lure children away from any and all scrutiny.

While Katey objected to a few of my characterizations and interpretations, she couldn’t deny that some of it was true. At the end of our talk, she was told she was forbidden to go in the place again.

Subsequently, when the warehouse fakir told his followers that Katey Rea must be kept out, well, some took it to mean she was a squealer. That became a bigger problem when the school’s principal called the cops a few days later to investigate the whole mess.

Because I had been spotted by club members, when I paid my courtesy call on their leader, they jumped to the conclusion that Katey’s father was the whistle-blower; she was blamed for their trouble. It was mostly a bum rap, but it stuck.

It wasn’t much longer before the philosophy club, itself, was 86ed from the warehouse. The cab-driving guru faded into the mists.

In the short run, Katey paid a bitter price for the clumsy moves I made in my effort to protect her. She endured being ostracized from the supposedly cool kids group for a while. Not easy for a 14-year-old.

Now I know we were all lucky. Some kids may have learned a lesson the hard way, but there were no funerals.

Katey learned a firsthand lesson about the vagaries of cliques -- never again was she a slave to her fear of an in-crowd’s wrath.

When all this went down, I was improvising, doing what my instincts told me was right. But since it caused Katey some trouble, I worried for a while that maybe I should have handled it differently.

Looking back on this story of what didn’t happen, 24 years ago, I'm happy to say to Katey's two children, Emily and Sam, that their Doo-Dah -- my grandfather name -- now has no regrets about this incident whatsoever.

Kass 333



This morning I thought of Carole Kass, longtime movie critic at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who died at the age of 73 in 2000. To read the obituary I wrote then for Richmond.com, click here.

During my nearly 12-year stint as the manager of the Biograph Theatre I spoke with Carole nearly every week, often more than once. She came to the theater regularly to review first run pictures and to see movies she liked on her own time. Plus she was there for various social occasions and occasional publicity stunts. In the process, over the years, we learned to trust one another.

Truth be told, Carole was the best friend the Biograph had in the mainstream media.
One of the Biograph owners, Alan Rubin, with Carole Kass (1974)

About a year-and-a-half before she died, I delivered a video tape to her at her home. It was a tape I had shot of her appearance at the Carpenter Center with Joan Rivers, which was part of the local Jewish Community Center’s forum series (there's more on this in the obit). At the time it was generally known that Carole was battling cancer. After her retirement she had even written about it for the newspaper.

The tape included Rivers’ talk to the audience and what followed, which included a Q and A session in which Carole asked Joan questions from cards from the audience. At the end of the tape there was a surprise tribute to Carole that I had staged, shot and edited without her knowledge.

The R-TD’s then-executive editor Bill Millsaps helped me with the stunt by asking all the writers to come outside for about 20 minutes. Others from the local film buff community, including former staff members at the Biograph, were also asked to be on hand.

The cast was directed to walk around, then stand applauding in front of 333 W. Grace St., an entrance to the newspaper’s building that no longer exists. I had help shooting the scene from Jerry Williams and Ted Salins, who manned two of three cameras I used.

Later I edited the three tapes' footage into a short piece, using music from the movie “8½” for sound; the imagery also imitated it, somewhat. That particular Fellini flick was one of her favorites. No one told Carole anything about it; it was beautiful teamwork.

When she saw the tribute footage, watching it with pain as her only companion, Carole couldn’t believe all those people has been assembled just to give her a standing ovation. She thought I had somehow found the footage, somewhere, and spliced it onto the tape. She recognized the music, of course. Carole thanked me warmly, but added a gentle scolding for trying to trick her about the mysterious scene shot for some reason in front of the old entrance to 333.

Carole called then-television critic Douglas Durden, only to hear from her old friend (they sat at desks next to one another for years) that it all had been just as I said.

After talking with others at the newspaper, Carole called me back to laugh, cry and apologize for not believing me. She went on to say that what had started out as a rather “bad day” for her -- coping with the indignities of her situation -- had been changed into a “good day.”

As my mother died of cancer in 1984, I could grasp what Carole might have meant by "good days" and "bad days."

Eleven years ago it began with an idea for a gesture to lift an old friend's spirits and let her know how much her colleagues, and the rest of us, appreciated her. The finished product and Carole's reaction actually turned out better than I had envisioned, which is rather unusual for my bright ideas.

Back in the summer of 1998, I gave a print of the tape to Saps, to say, "Thanks."

Naturally, the JCC (the original client) got a tape. Except on YouTube, no one else has seen it, as far as I know. Note: what is shown in the YouTube video above is just the 90-minute tape‘s last two minutes and 39 seconds.

And, dear reader, a good day is wished to you.

-- Photo Gary Fisher

Sunday, July 05, 2009

What would Bukowski say?

http://fdhub.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/bukowski3.jpg

“If you don’t have much soul left and you know
it, you still got soul.” — Charles Bukowski

– Bukowski illustration: F.T. Rea

Friday, July 03, 2009

Sarah the mysterious

Is Sarah Palin the next talking head on TV? Is she running for cover, or running for president?

Slid in under the door, with a long weekend and the frenzy over Jacko's death serving as distractions -- with no warning or explanation -- what a bizarre story!

Williams: 'I was wrong'

Columnists routinely remind their readers of when they were right. Sometimes they come right out and say, "I told you so." Other times they disguise their reminders by draping them with clever phrases, turned just so.

When a columnist says "I was wrong," it is unusual, but that's exactly what Michael Paul Williams did in Thursday's Richmond Times-Dispatch.
In hindsight, my frustration at inaction on the ballpark issue had clouded my reason. Shockoe Bottom has proven itself to be an impractical location for a ballpark. Too many people think baseball there is a poor fit.
Click here to read the entire column.

Williams went on to tout the slavery museum concept as most appropriate for Shockoe Bottom. And, in wrapping it up he referred to a feud between former Mayor Doug Wilder and state Sen. Henry Marsh. This is a battle that has had quite a bit of effect on all sorts of happenings political.

That it still matters today is both sad and silly. But with Wilder grudges seem to matter more than anything else.

Last summer Wilder blew off the splendid unveiling ceremony at Capitol Square for the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, a magnificent sculpture by Stanley Bleifeld. He couldn't bring himself sit on the platform with certain other Democrats. Afterward, he refused to even say why he missed the event.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Charlie's olive branch

Mr. Baseball on the Boulevard, himself, Charlie Diradour, now wants reconciliation.
Today Charlie Diradour extended his hand in peace to those in the opposite dugout at a press conference he called. Connecticut, the giant Indian sculpture, looked down over the scene, a thick layer of pollen dusted over its head and shoulders.
Click here to read the story by Al Harris at Richmond BizSense.

Diradour said he is shutting down his web site, BaseballontheBoulevard.com and launching a new web site called FriendsofRichmond Baseball.com. He also called upon Mayor Dwight Jones to respond to the Opening Day Partners proposal to refurbish The Diamond for $28 million.

Diradour claimed no one in Jones' office has gotten in touch with ODP's chairman Peter Kirk, who released his company's plan to the public on June 9.