Saturday, June 30, 2012

Unplugged: Waking Up the Day After

On the Friday morning after Hurricane Isabel blew through town (Sept. 19, 2003), the sky was blue and the air smelled clean. The residents of the Fan District, at the heart of Richmond, Va., 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 devastation dealt out by the previous night’s onslaught of wind and rain was revealed to the stunned urbanites in the Fan, so too did the reality of widespread electricity deprivation.

Still, faced with all sorts of uncertainty and disconnected from the doings in the rest of the world, many wandering the streets like zombies on that morning faced the immediate problem that there was no hot coffee to be had.

For hundreds of his neighbors, Manny Mendez, owner of Kuba Kuba, took care of the coffee shortage on that surreal morning. Boiling water on the restaurant’s gas stove and pouring it over sacks (improvised coffee filters) in a big colander, Mendez and his staff doled out tasty Cuban coffee to anyone who stopped by.

While opportunists in other parts of town were marking up prices on candles, batteries, ice, generators and anything else for which the supply was short and the demand was great, Kuba Kuba was pouring strong coffee for one and all at no charge — free!

“What are we going to do [under these circumstances], charge people for coffee?” Mendez asked rhetorically with a shrug.

When word got around that Kuba Kuba — at Park Avenue and Lombardy Street — had hot coffee, the crowd on the sidewalk outside the small restaurant swelled. Into the afternoon the size of the gathering fluctuated between 20 and 40 people at a time. Many neighbors met for the first time. By the time the coffee-making effort shut down in mid-afternoon, 100 gallons of free coffee had been served in paper cups.

By then several of Manny’s tables were on the sidewalk, with chairs arranged around them. Out came the boxes of dominoes.

The marathon dominoes scene continued for hours under the lights of a borrowed generator. Players sat in for a while, then sat out. Neighbors appeared with what they had in the way of libation. They swapped stories and the laughter from what had become an impromptu party drove off the demons that lurked in the eerie darkness, only 50 yards away.

Dominoes shark Manny Mendez was all of sx years old when he boarded an airplane with a one-way ticket to a totally uncertain future in the United States. In 1968, for people such as the Mendez family, getting out of Cuba was worth the risk of fleeing into the unknown.

The day little Manny left Cuba, his father was thought to be in Spain, as he had been deported. His mother was crestfallen when told that there were no flights going to Spain on the day her family was offered its chance to flee what Cuba had become. Recently released from 13 months of confinement at an agricultural labor colony, she opted to board the Red Cross-sponsored Freedom Flight for wherever it was going.

On Aug. 2, 1968, that airplane took Judith Mendez and her two children, Manny and his sister, Judy, away from Cuba. It landed in Florida. Upon touching down, Judith Mendez called her relatives, who lived in Richmond, to tell them the good news.

To her surprise she was told her husband, Manuel, was already in Richmond.

After a spell in an apartment building at Harrison Street and Park Avenue, the Mendez family moved to the 3400 block of Cutshaw Avenue, where several other Cuban families had settled. There was one car, a ’56 Chevy owned by his uncle, for the whole group to share.

Manny’s father had been an accountant in Cuba; in Richmond his first job title was “janitor.” As time passed, Manuel Mendez improved his situation and became a leader of the growing Cuban community in Richmond by making regular trips to Washington, D.C., to buy the essentials for Latin cooking and other imported goods unavailable in Richmond.

“Papi, how often did we used to lose power in Cuba?” Manny asked of his father during one of the dominoes games.

In his distinctive accent, with the timing of a polished raconteur, Manny’s father rolled the “r” as he said, “Oh, about two or three times … a night!”

Those gathered laughed, having instantly gained a wider perspective of coping with bad luck. Manny’s mother and the Cuban employees of Kuba Kuba laughed the loudest. Then, too, that may account for why Kuba Kuba routinely carries candles for sale along with other sundries.

The dominoes party broke up about 1:30 a.m. Most of the crowd returned to homes without power — with strange noises in the anxious quiet — no televisions, no Internet, and refrigerators full of risky food. No doubt, some of those dominoes players that unusual night carried away a new appreciation for people who can handle hardship with grace. Some may have even gained a new sense of how it must be in places where millions do without power, in one way or another, most of the time.

-- 30 --

-- This piece originally appeared in Style Weekly in 2003.

The tax liberals and musicians deplore

Don't understand why Richmond ought to abolish the seven percent admissions tax that is hobbling show business? Tax attorney J.C. Wilmore has posted a piece at his political blog that puts the issue in a new light.
Eliminating the Admissions Tax would actually increase the net amount of revenue the City of Richmond collects by boosting the amount of sales tax, meals tax, and real estate tax the city collects.
Click here to read “A Fish Story” at The Richmonder. 

Click here to visit Stop Taxing Tickets, the Facebook group dedicated to abolishing Richmond’s seven percent admissions tax.

Click here to read  Richmond's "Show Biz-Stifling Tax,"which is an OpEd piece of mine on this topic that ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch last summer.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The sore loser blues

For whatever reasons, it seems many Republicans had expected Chief Justice John Roberts to be on their side and willing to play team ball on Obamacare. After all, he was a Bush appointee. So, they thought the fix was in and the head umpire was in on it.

With the announcement of the decision, it has turned out that those smug Republicans’ expectations have now hoisted them on their own petard.

Consistently, it has been Republicans who have been harping on the evils of an activist judiciary that overturns the work of elected lawmakers. Conservatives have held that the will of the people is best expressed through legislatures. Over the years they’ve decried decisions that struck down laws that institutionalized segregation and injected Christianity into public schools. 

Now that the Supreme Court has upheld what Congress itself passed on health care reform, I’m amused to see that some Republicans still see the justices with which they disagree as being activists ... ruling by fiat, etc.

It seems the term “activist judge” has always been a propaganda device and little more. And, when bullies become crybabies it’s never a pretty picture.

Meanwhile, the adage, “nobody likes a sore loser,” makes me wonder how independent voters are viewing the shrill bellyaching that we’re hearing from some of the unhappy folks who had expected the Court to make Obamacare disappear today.

Do independent voters really want to hear another tired version of the Sore Loser Blues, sung off-key?

*

Update: So far, my nomination for the biggest Obamacare sore loser -- with an asterisk -- is Virginia's AG, Ken Cuccinelli. He's still pouting because the Supreme Court didn't even want to hear about HIS case. Yes, the grandstanding Cooch filed his own suit, apart from the other states. But it turned out Virginia's case was the tree that fell in the woods with no judge to hear it -- thus the asterisk. 
  

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Offshore strings attached to dark money?

Remember how many times conservatives have said they’re afraid of the United Nations having too much power, because it would give foreigners say-so over us?

Remember how many times Republicans have decried foreign influences on our government?

Now, post-Citizens United, do right-wingers like it that corporations can flood American elections with dark money, because they think it will help conservatives get elected?

Now, do those same conservatives really think cash from foreigners isn’t already pouring into American political campaigns?

Why wouldn't billionaires and poobahs who own stock in multinational corporations want to influence elections in the United States?

Why don't Republican UN-hating voters worry about the foreign strings attached to large money from anonymous players being donated to Super Pacs?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Pomplamoose

From what I’ve gathered Pomplamoose was an online collaboration out of San Francisco that began a couple of years ago. It has since evolved into a band. The video above is of one of their original songs; most of their videos are of interesting/quirky covers of well known old songs.

Here’s a link to another song of theirs, If You Think You Need Some Lovin'.

This link will take you to a Pomplamoose cover of Nature Boy, which was a big hit for Nat King Cole. There are plenty more of their videos at YouTube. 

Anyway, when it comes to music, I’ve always been partial to interesting harmonies. And, I tend to like it when humor is woven into the process. So, if you hated Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, or the Bonzo Dog Band, or Devo, maybe this isn't for you.

UVA presidency battle background

So, when the story broke about the forced resignation of the president of the University of Virginia, I had no idea what brought Teresa Sullivan to suddenly quit after only two years on the job. It seemed to come from out of the blue.

Being old and out of touch with much of what goes on, I’m getting used to things making little sense to me. So, I read a few articles in the days following the news. I didn’t have much to say about the imbroglio that ensued, because reading between the lines wasn't easy. In other words, the stories about online studies disputes and large contributors didn’t quite ring true ... something seemed missing.

Could it all really be about personality clashes? Why was Larry Sabato saying it was all going to blow back on Gov. Bob McDonnell? 

Well, it seems my problem was that I was reading articles that were tiptoeing around the politics. To understand better what unseen forces have been at work in this brouhaha I needed to look to the dark side of the political spectrum -- the perpetually angry vast rightwing conspiracy.

It’s funny. When I first saw that Sullivan had been ousted, I wondered if it had anything to do with the recent legal attacks on UVA by the commonwealth’s attorney general, Tea Party darling Ken Cuccinelli ... attacks that failed miserably in court. But I dismissed the thought, laughing at myself for assuming the worst about grandstanding arch conservatives, when I had no evidence.

Now, it turns out my knee-jerk pessimism was on the money, so to speak. Yes, it appears this nasty business has been, among other things, another contrived episode in the campaign to destroy public education, as we’ve known it to be.

Sullivan has been perceived by some ultra conservative players in the background of this picture as a lily-livered liberal. They see Sullivan as tied to Elizabeth Warren, who is a high profile consumer advocate Democrat, who happens to be running for the Senate in Massachusetts. 

Here are two eye-opening examples of the thinking behind getting rid of Sullivan. Click here and here. There’s plenty more out there.

So, in some ways of seeing it, this complicated story has been another battle in the same tiresome culture war that has had us arguing forevermore about everything from climate change to evolution. From gun controls to abortion.

So it goes...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

La Jetée


When I first saw New Wave director Chris Marker's remarkable 27 minute film, "La Jetée" (1962), in 1972 at the Biograph, it knocked me out. I watched over and over. In the history of cinema there may be no better example of “less is more.”

Here's the whole film in HD. Unless you are fluent in French be sure to enable the subtitles feature and, either way, watch it on full screen.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Etch-A-Sketching a new Romney

When I hear Mitt Romney saying he will work with Democrats to find permanent solutions I have to laugh.

Who is he kidding?

Romney is going to work with Democrats like John Boehner has? Like Eric Cantor has? Like Mitch McConnell has?

Muscular Tea Party Republicans don't "work" with Democrats. They brag about their intransigence!

Etch-A-Sketch erasing aside, the Romney who was debating the other Republican hopefuls a few months ago wasn't talking about consulting Democrats for anything. Speaking of those debates, is Romney still talking about "self-deportation"?

Here's the truth: When you won’t take a step toward common ground, when you refuse to budge an inch, you're not “working” with anybody else.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Wise-Up, Richmond. Stop Taxing Tickets


What is your city council representative’s position on the seven percent admissions tax Richmond takes from (almost) every ticket sold in the city? No offense meant, but I doubt you know the answer to that question.

Do you understand why some savvy Richmonders have been calling for the abolition of that particular tax? By the way, these savvy Richmonders are not anti-tax zealots who want to starve the government. This isn't split along partisan lines; it's not a Republican Party or a Democratic Party issue. It's a common sense issue that show business folks who have dealt with it understand all too well.

Click here to read some background. Click here for more background, if you like. Click here to visit the Facebook page for the group Stop Taxing Tickets.

With regard to the admissions tax, there are five options listed below. Which of them would you like to see your next city council representative adopt as their position on this matter?

  • Prompt abolition: The seven percent admission tax is totally wrongheaded and is stifling the growth of show business. It should be abolished immediately. 
  • Experiment No. 1: As an experiment to see how it would go, the seven percent admissions tax should not apply to tickets sold by nonprofits.
  • Experiment No. 2: As an experiment to see how it would go, the seven percent admissions tax should not apply to tickets sold to exhibitions to be presented within the Arts District.
  • Mock concern and delay: Perhaps the seven percent admissions tax should eventually be phased out, but in these tough times no changes should be made. It needs more study, blah, blah...
  • Shrug it off: Voters don’t care about this issue; the seven percent admissions tax is not a problem and no changes are necessary.
*
Bonus for reading this far: Here's the link to a short video on an aspect of this topic.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Brileys


Richmonders experienced an abrupt change in the standards by which news was gathered and presented 28 years ago. Having terrorized the town with a series of grisly murders five years before, on May 31, 1984, brothers Linwood and James Briley led the largest death-row jailbreak in U.S. history.

In all, six condemned men flew the coop by overpowering prison guards, donning the guards’ uniforms and creating a bogus bomb-scare to bamboozle their way out of Virginia’s supposedly escape-proof Mecklenburg Correctional Center.

While their four accomplices were rounded up quickly, the brothers Briley remained at large for 19 days. The FBI captured the duo at a picnic adjacent to the garage where they had found work in Philadelphia. Linwood was subsequently electrocuted in Richmond on Oct. 12, 1984; likewise, James on Apr. 18, 1985.

While the Brileys were on the run and for some time afterward the media coverage, both local and national, was unprecedented. During the manhunt the Brileys-mania led to stories about them being spotted simultaneously in various locations on the East Coast from North Carolina to Canada. When I noticed kids in the Carytown area were pretending to be the Brileys, and playing chasing games accordingly, well, that was just too much.

My sense of it then was the depraved were being transformed into celebrities so newspapers and television stations could sell lots of ads. Once they were on the lam, if it came to making a buck, it didn’t seem to matter anymore what the Brileys had done to be on death row.

“OK,” I said to a Power Corner group in the Texas-Wisconsin Border Cafe on a mid-June evening, “if the Brileys can be made into heroes to sell tires and sofas on TV, how long will it be before they're on collectable cards, like baseball cards? (or words to that effect).” To illustrate my point I grabbed a couple of those Border logo imprinted cardboard coasters from the bar and drew quick examples on the backs, which got laughs.



Later at home, I sat down at the drawing table and designed the series of cards. To avoid race humor entirely I used a simple drawing style that assigned no race to the characters. The sense of humor was sardonic and droll. I elected to run off a hundred sets of eight cards each, which were put into small ziplock plastic bags, with a piece of bubble gum included for audacity's sake. I figured to sell them for $1.50 a set and see what would happen.

Traveling about the Fan District on my bicycle it took about three days to sell the first press-run out of my olive drab backpack. New cards were designed, more sets were printed, more plastic bags, more bubble gum. A half-dozen locations began selling “The Brileys” on a consignment basis.

Sales were boosted when the local press began doing stories on them. For about a week I was much-interviewed by local reporters. The Washington Post ran a feature on the phenomenon and orders to buy card sets began coming in the mail from Europe.

Reporters called me for easy quotes to fill articles on death penalty issues, as if I was an expert on the subject. That I was opposed to the death penalty seemed to strike them as odd. Moreover, finding myself in a position to goose a story that was lampooning the overkill presentation of the same press corps that was interviewing me was delicious fun. In the midst of a TV news story I announced that T-shirts commemorating the Brileys' 1984 Summer Tour were on the way.

Apart from my efforts, the hated Briley brothers’ chilling crime spree and subsequent escape inspired all sorts of lowbrow jokes and sick songs, and you-name-it, which did indeed fan the flames of racial hate in Virginia.

Naively, I felt no connection to that scene until a stop at the silk screen printer’s plant suddenly cast a new light on the fly-by-night project that summer's effort was. Walking from the offices to the loading dock meant passing through a warehouse full of boxes, stacked to the ceiling. Suddenly, I was surrounded: Four or five young men closed in and cornered me.

Some of them, if not all, had box cutters in their hands; all of them were definitely black. At that moment I felt whiter than Ross Mackenzie. Tension filled the air when their spokesman asked if I was the man behind the cards and T-shirts.

As it was not the first time I’d been subjected to questions about the cards, I quickly asked if any of them had seen the cards, or had only heard about them. As I suspected, they hadn’t seen them.

Luckily, I had a pack in my shirt pocket, which I took out and handed to the group’s leader. As he studied them, one by one, his cohorts looked over his shoulder. I explained what my original motivation had been in creating the cartoons. No one laughed but the spell was soon broken. I let them keep the cards.

Later I was in a drug store, restocking one of my dealers for the cards, when a white lady with blue hair approached me. She worked there and had seen the cards, which she found unfunny. She told me her husband was on the crew that had cleaned up the crime scenes after some of the murders. Then she said if I was going to profit from it, I should be man enough to hear her out.

So, I did. She gave me specific details. It was mostly stuff I had known, or suspected, but the way she told it was brutal.

At this point the success of my absurd art project seemed to be going sour. I got a call from a reporter asking me what I had to say about Linwood Briley having made some disparaging remark about my cards. I got peeved and asked the scribe what the hell anybody ought to care about what such a man has to say.

Like it or not, I had become a part of what I had been mocking in the first place.

Shortly afterward the cards and T-shirts were withdrawn from the market. Unfortunately, without the context of the 1984 news stories being fresh the humor aspect of the cards is somewhat arcane now, because all the images were based on details from those well reported stories.

Three years later I was in the Bamboo Cafe, standing at the bar at Happy Hour, having a beer and talking with friends about sports (probably). A middle-aged man I didn’t know stepped my way to ask furtively if I was the guy who “drew those Briley cards.”

After I said “yes,” and introduced myself, he asked me a few questions about the cards. Then he spoke in a hushed tone, saying something like, “What about those missing cards?”

“Missing cards?” I returned. “Are you asking why I skipped some numbers?

He nodded and reached in his pocket to pull out a full set of The Brileys, still in its original plastic bag.

Wanting to end the conversation quickly -- that he had the cards with him was too strange for me -- I told him the simple truth with no jokes: “OK. First, I wanted to imply there was a vast series out there, without having to create it. Then, I wanted the viewer to maybe imagine for himself what the other cards might be.”

The collector put his cards back in his pocket. He stepped away, plainly disappointed with my easy answer, which gave him no dripping red meat to savor. That night the truth without hype was of little use to my public, such as it was.

-- 30 --

For more stories from the growing collection of stories called Biograph Times, please click here

At the end of the 'no compromise' road

Honest reasonable people disagree all the time. It's human nature. What happens next is what matters. How do they find common ground and deal with their disagreement?

When they refuse to even listen to the other guy's point, progress becomes difficult. When compromise becomes a dirty word and people start talking about "second amendment solutions," bad things cans happen. Such was the case in Richmond when Reconstruction ended, 142 years ago.
However, George Chahoon, who had served as mayor during the last two years of Reconstruction, refused to recognize the validity of the process. Although the transplanted New Yorker had a considerable following around town, he was seen by Ellyson’s backers as a lowdown “carpetbagger.” After all, Chahoon had served at the pleasure of the military overlords.

When neither man would give ground, the city itself fractured. As positions solidified, the split became a chasm; the result of which created two separate city governments. There were two police departments, two City Halls, etc. Brawls became commonplace as the supporters of both men sought to press their case on every street corner. Chaos, with gun-play aplenty, ensued.
 To read "Richmond's Bloody Interregnum" at the Fan District Slant click here.   

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Politics of the Centrifuge

At the Fan District Slant there's a new version of Politics of the Centrifuge up at that new web site for commentary on politics and popular culture.
Instead, we live in a time of rampant certitude. Of certitude, philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) made a timeless observation:
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.
So, a modern political debate, whether it’s on television or at happy hour, usually amounts to people slinging harsh and practiced talking points back and forth, without either side reacting to what is actually being said.  

Today, instead of politics of the melting pot, we have politics of the centrifuge. 
 Click here to read the entire piece. 

Unvarnishing Virginia History

-- Originally published by STYLE Weekly in 2007

Robert E. Lee (Jan. 19, 1807-Oct. 12, 1870),
fashioned after Jean Antoine Mercie's Lee Monument,
which was unveiled in 1890.

Note: The piece above, "Mercie's Lee," is an ink and pastels study of the statue of Robert E. Lee that is on Monument Ave. in my neighborhood. Three years in the making, French sculptor Jean Antoine Mercie's Lee Monument was unveiled in 1890.

*

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 all public junior high 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 struggles of 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. That's the reason the heritage clingers like the best.

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 and such wealthy families had a lot of say-so.

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 denials of history — to do with slavery — that were crammed into that old public school textbook.

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. I realize his reputation has taken somewhat of a beating in recent years, but the dual sense of tragedy and dignity his statue conveys remains striking. In his time and place, torn between loyalties, it seems to me Lee tried to do what he saw as his duty.

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

-- 30 --
-- Illustration by F.T. Rea

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Strange Case of Gus the Cat

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-ohaIkmTZU_0/TYOKL0YuoAI/AAAAAAAAAxw/v5kt5utrTbc/s1600/gusstacywarner.jpg



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 plush basket in a display window facing the street.

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’ 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 Xerox 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 with attribution, 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.

“The next thing you’re going to tell me is Shakespeare actually wrote all those plays," Ted said mockingly. "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. One obvious truth about Gus the Cat was that he had grown quite accustomed to having a public.

*

Note: An earlier version of the fanciful piece above was published by Richmond.com in 2000. The photo of Gus was taken by Stacy Warner for Richmond.com at that time. On June 19, 2001 a cat alleged to have been the authentic Gus the Cat was found dead in Carytown Books; he was estimated by the bookstore's spokesperson to have been about 18 years old.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Banjo Conmen


Upon hearing the news of Earl Scruggs’ death earlier this year (Mar. 28, 2012), my thoughts went straight to a 36-year-old memory connected to a movie that played for two weeks at the Biograph Theatre (which I managed at the time) in January of 1976. The film was “Banjoman” (1975).

As “Banjoman” had only been in release for a couple of months when it played at the Biograph, the two young independent producers/distributors of the movie starring Earl Scruggs said they were learning their business on the fly. When their 105-minute movie opened at the Biograph they were there, too ... they had brought the 35mm print with them. It was their monster-sized sound system that we used to present the film to our patrons.

Richard Gilbert Abramson and Michael Varhol are credited as the production’s directors. Although I’m not certain, I think they were the two guys I dealt with in the story that follows.

The filmmakers were my age (I was 28 at this time). And, I almost think there was a third guy, but I’m not sure. My bosses in DeeCee had booked the film sometime after meeting one (or more) of the filmmakers in a social situation; I don‘t remember the details.

Traditional distributors, like Paramount, Warner Bros., and so forth, generally shipped the prints of their films by way of a courier accustomed to handling them. Although it was unusual for people to travel with a print of a movie in the trunk of their car, it was not unprecedented. As an independent exhibitor the Biograph booked product from various sources that a large movie chain would have routinely ignored.

“Banjoman” was just such a situation and its distributors actually hung around at the theater during screenings. They seemed like nice enough guys.    

It was unusual when my bosses had me pay the distributors directly in cash from box office receipts. But I didn’t question it. We even advanced them some money against anticipated receipts, when they had to leave after the first week to work in another city. 

Since they didn’t have much in the way of pressbook materials, ad slicks, etc., I created the Biograph’s display advertisements for the newspaper using stills from the film I had half-toned and setting a little type. That led to me agreeing to create similar materials for them to use in other cities. We agreed upon my price. It was something like $250, plus what it cost me to produce a stack of different sized ad slicks for them to use in the future.

At that point I think they had two other prints of their movie (with sound systems) working on the road. We kept in touch by telephone. They were anxious to get their new promotional materials from me for their other playdates. I did a rush job for them which they said they greatly appreciated.

Then came the day to ship their print and sound system to them in another city. The run at the Biograph was over. When the truck driver came by the theater he told me his helper wasn’t with him, so he said I needed to put the equipment on his truck. Well, at the time, I was the only one in the building and I was nursing a slipped disc in my lower back.

Unless I wanted to be laid-up for a spell, I couldn’t lift the stuff.

When the driver asked me how long it would take to get somebody there, to do the lifting, it annoyed me. I told the driver it was his job to get that junk on the truck, just to come back the next day with a helper. Yet, as I spoke with him I suddenly had a hunch that something was wrong. 

The truck driver shrugged and said, OK, he’d come back tomorrow. When I told one of the “Banjoman” guys what had happened, he said there was still plenty of time to get the equipment set up for the next engagement. So shipping it out the next day would be fine. Later that day the mailman delivered a bank notice that a $200 check they had written to me had bounced.

At this point, in addition to that check, they owed me another $600, or so, most of which I owed to a printer. And, they owed the Biograph maybe another $300, because in the second week of their film’s run it didn’t live up to expectations, so it failed to cover the advance in rental they had received.

By coincidence, I talked with my friend Dave DeWitt right after I got the rubber check in the mail. Dave had moved from Richmond to Albuquerque about a year earlier. At this time he was hosting a late night movie program on television there. When I told him about the check and about my hunch not to ship the equipment, he said he’d heard about the guys who had produced "Banjoman."

Dave told me he wanted to do a little checking up on them; he called back soon to tell me the jokers I’d been dealing with had left a trail of angry people behind them out in the West, back when they were shooting concert footage of Scruggs' tour. It seemed they had found ways to do a lot of things without paying up front. They had also ripped off a movie theater that had played "Banjoman," just a month before.

After that unsettling news I told the guys who had been conning me that until they settled up, I was keeping their sound equipment and print of "Banjoman." They threatened me with legal action. After a couple of months with no word from them I sold off their sound equipment, it was the sort of stuff a band might use.

Then some time later, maybe another couple of months, I was indeed served with legal papers. They sued me for about $90,000. Don't remember how that figure was generated. I laughed and offered them their print and about $800, which was what the equipment brought in, minus what they had owed the boys in DeeCee and me.

Over the telephone line the Banjo Conmen huffed and puffed again. I went ahead and sent them their print right away, cash on delivery, of course. After a few weeks of silence, they agreed to take the $800. My guess is most of that dough went to their local attorney. 

Ever since this oddball episode, whenever I hear Earl Scruggs’ banjo, I can't help but think of the weaselly Banjo Conmen; maybe after writing this account of their skulduggery that particular haunt will fade into the mists. RIP, Earl.      

-- 30 --

Biograph Times: The Handbill War of 1982


The Handbill War of 1982 tells a story about defending art and live music in the Fan District 30 years ago. Although some might say it was about defending trash and trash culture. The story is part of a collection of stories I've written called Biograph Times.
It felt to me like the City of Richmond was not only trampling on my freedom of speech rights, but it was trying to destroy the nightlife scene in the Fan District. The local authorities were trying to scrub away what some in Richmond had come to see as an undesirable element. 

Which meant I decided to go on stapling fliers to utility poles, more or less to invite a bust.

It wasn’t long before a polite cop showed up at the Biograph with a flier for the movie we were playing, “The Atomic Café.” He said he had removed it from a pole in the neighborhood. I admitted to putting it up and was issued a summons. Due to procedural delays, it took over four months for my day in court to arrive.

Which was fortunate, because I used that time window to build my case.
Click here to read the entire story.

The project of documenting selected shards of time from decades ago is nearing completion. I've got a few more pieces to finish, then there will be some tidying up to do to pull it all together.

After all that, I hope I will have the makings of a book about a time and culture I thought I understood when it was happening. Of course, writing about it now makes me laugh at that notion. Whatever mistakes I've made in recalling the events described in Biograph Times were unintentional, at least on a conscious level.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Enough of Recall Elections!


No, I didn’t want Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker (depicted above) to defeat Milwaukee’s Mayor Tom Barrett.

After all, Walker has been a Poster Boy celebrity for the nationwide ambitions of Tea Party Republicans and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to do as much damage to America’s union movement as possible.

As the political landscape is spread out today, with the unleashing of Super Pac money the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision brought on, if unions become toothless in the scheme of things, it will make for the most tilted playing field, money-wise, geezers like me have ever seen.

Thus, while it may be ruthless, it is entirely understandable why the elephants want to crush the donkey’s resources. What would be next on such a power-consolidation agenda is anybody's guess. 

Money angles are what most of the liberal analysts have seized upon to talk about. Walker's bravery and manly charisma are what the conservatives like to dwell on. But there were other considerations in play in yesterday’s news-making events in Wisconsin.

In the first place, this election was a do-over. Walker defeated Barrett a year-and-a-half ago. So, at least at this desk, there’s some question about whether Barrett was really the best candidate to run against Walker. Which leads me to my next point: What do I know about Wisconsin’s politics?

Moreover, how much do the jabbering experts on the cable news channels know about the history of politics in Wisconsin, far from either coast?

So far, most of them seem to be seeing the 2012 recall elections in Wisconsin through a national prism, as foreshadowing for the Romney vs. Obama showdown. History tells me that approach is frequently a shallow reading of situations in states with their own peculiarities, involving particular personalities.

What I do remember about Wisconsin is that it has been a home to outspoken partisans on both the left and right ... sometimes simultaneously. It’s my understanding the guys who wear those triangular wedge-of-cheese hats drink a lot of brandy and beer up there; I probably heard that in the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café, a favorite long-lost local dive. Hey, in 1966, I spent the better part of a day in Milwaukee. And, I surely did enjoy watching Russell Wilson (Collegiate HS in Richmond) play quarterback for the Badgers last season.

No, I don’t really know much about Wisconsin. Neither do a lot of people.

Yes, yesterday’s thumping of Mayor Barrett was due in great part to his lack of money. On top of that there were the losing candidate’s weaknesses, but I'd like to add that it also had to do with recall elections.

Yes, in spite of all the hoopla about Wisconsin’s impact of national politics, some voters who may happily vote for President Barrack Obama in November didn’t support the Democrats yesterday, maybe because they think recall elections are bad medicine.

Unlike the talking heads on TV are wont to do, I won’t guess at how many.

But I do know that today’s trend that has bad losers refusing to accept the results of elections is a growing problem on both sides of the aisle. The eight years of crying about the stolen presidential election of 2000, on the part of some Democrats, was bad form. Today, the refusal of some Republicans to accept Obama’s well-documented history as legitimate is outrageously tedious. 

My thinking is that if a Governor is convicted of a felony, throw the bum out. Short of that, the voters are stuck with the winner for their entire term. If you want shorter terms, to be safe, or term limits, then fine. But as much as I wanted Walker to lose, and I’m worried about what his victory will mean for unions, I’m still not so sure there should have been a special recall election in Wisconsin, in the first place.

So, if Walker’s victory means there will be fewer recall elections in America's future, well, that will be the silver lining to what was some cloudy bad news.

-- 30 --
 -- Illustration by F.T. Rea

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Wisconsin: Politics as usual, or a tipping point?

Rather than promote a program or a candidate, in the new millennium voters are routinely inundated with advertising that was designed to make them loose faith in democracy and ignore the voting process. To Republicans, bad weather on election day is a good thing. Rain or shine, the GOP also likes to use robo-call campaigns to give voters bum steers on election day.

Traditionally, low turnouts do favor Republicans, so it‘s no wonder they have also been concentrating so much on making it harder to vote in lots of states.

In 2012, have Wisconsin’s voters been grossed out by an avalanche of lying political ads? Will they just stay at home today? In tough economic times, will citizens in Wisconsin who are pissed off that so much money can be poured into an ugly struggle for power stay home, too?

Stemming from that avalanche, can voters be convinced that instead of greedy bankers, teachers and firefighters are actually the villains responsible for today's economic woes? Or, have we reached a tipping point with politics as usual?

Perhaps none of the conventional wisdom about turnouts will apply to 2012. 

Tonight Wisconsin will provide some answers.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Samuels on Broad St. parking woes

Richmond's Second District representative on City Council, Charles Samuels, issued a statement earlier today about headline-making Fan District parking problems: 
Over the past several days, I have been engaging with residents and business owners concerning the parking issues on Broad Street in Richmond's Fan District Neighborhood.  I have reached out to the Richmond Department of Public Works Office of Parking and the Richmond Police Department to find a solution that will not only address the parking problems, but also keeps local residents safe.

Based on these conversations, I am planning on introducing legislation in Richmond City Council that will encourage the Administration to review the parking laws on this corridor. A year or two ago the Administration and I reviewed the cruising laws on Hermitage Road and we found options that allowed for additional parking. I am hopeful we can do the same here.

Residents in that area who have been instrumental in helping to revitalize West Broad Street by being willing to live there should not have life made harder for them by outdated parking rules.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Growing Richmond's Show Biz Scene


Instead of systematically stifling show business, as it has done for the last half-century, imagine stuck-in-the-mud Richmond suddenly wanting to make a genuine effort to cultivate a downtown entertainment scene. What would be the first smart thing to do?   

With three recent posts at his blog, The Richmonder, J.C. Wilmore focused on Richmond's wrongheaded admissions tax. The video above imagines vacant buildings being filled with entertainment venues. The excerpt below is from a post that explains some of how the admissions tax is hurting Richmond.
The admissions tax actually costs Richmond more revenue than it brings in because it discourages the formation of an entertainment sector in Richmond that would generate significantly more revenue than Richmond would lose if it eliminated the admissions tax. I'll write more about the negative impact of the admissions tax tomorrow. 
Click here to read Wilmore's "Growing the entertainment sector is the way to move Richmond forward."

Click here to read Wilmore's "Repealing the Admissions Tax won't blow Richmond's budget."

Click here to visit the Stop Taxing Tickets Facebook group.

Click here to read, "Not the Ticket," my piece on the admissions tax issue that ran in Style Weekly in February.