Friday, November 30, 2012

Fan District Softball League Nostalgia

The Biograph Naturals in 1980. (Original photo by Phil Trumbo.)

Referred to as the “hippie league” by softball players who played in the polyester-clad softball world governed by recreation and parks departments, the Fan District Softball League had its own style, which leaned toward cotton, silk-screened T-shirts. Its games were played on “open fields,” rather than in softball complexes with fences. Among other things that meant the Fan League featured a style that put more emphasis on defensive play, rather than simply a home-run derby, with big-bellied Bubbas trotting around the bases.

It also meant the league’s activities received less scrutiny by authorities outside of itself, which was viewed then as a good thing.

The somewhat unorthodox Fan League bubbled up out of the pop culture ooze of the summer of 1973, which was the heyday of WGOE, the daytime AM radio station that then dominated the Fan District in a way that's never been equaled. Its sound could be heard in the shops and on the sidewalks of the bohemian commercial strip of West Grace Street, adjacent to Virginia Commonwealth University. Anyway, it was WGOE that set what eventually became the Fan League in motion, when its promotional softball team of deejays and a few ringers -- the ‘Nads -- played a few games against impromptu squads representing a few regular advertisers on the station, mostly bars.

By the next summer teams began to jell into rosters, but there was no formal schedule. Fields were still being commandeered, rather than secured by arrangement with any proper authority.

By 1975 the name Fan District Softball League had come into use and the six-team organization had its first commissioner — Van “Hook” Shepherd. Cassell’s Upholstery beat the Bamboo Cafe in a one-game playoff for the first season’s championship finale. The four other teams in the league that inaugural season were the Back Door, Sea Dream Leather, Uptop Sub Shop and WGOE.

In 1976, in addition to the regular season the league staged two tournaments. Teams representing the Biograph Theatre, Hababas, J.W. Rayle, deTreville, the Pinheads (the VCU sculpture department and friends) and the Rainbow Inn were formed in 1976.

As the years wore on more bars, and whatnot, came and went. During the first decade of summers of the league’s existence, next to the music and bar scene, softball-related activities were at the heart of the Baby Boomer-driven culture in the Fan District.

Unlike most softball leagues in those days, the FDSL usually had lots of fans at its games. Of course, the kegs of beer that were around — which meant free beer — probably had something to do with that. The freewheeling FDSL was also the only organized-yet-independent softball league in the Richmond area.

Thus, the Fan League governed itself, made its own schedule, cut its own deal with the umpires, etc. It remained so through its last season in 1994.

*

On the first Saturday of May, every year since 1980, a softball reunion is held. Anyone who ever played on one of the Biograph softball teams from any year has been welcome, along with their families, friends, etc.

Serendipitously, that first reunion/old timers game was staged on the afternoon in which the Kentucky Derby would be run. The game was played at Thomas Jefferson HS. Afterward, most of us went to the Track Restaurant to join a Derby-watching party already underway.

The reunion subsequently became an institution and it’s been Derby Day ever since. Over the years, the game has moved around to various locations. Several of the guys at the most recent gathering were teammates of mine in 1976, the first summer of organized softball at the Biograph.

We called our team the Swordfish, after a joke in a Marx Brothers movie. That first year the Swordfish played a schedule that was not set in advance. Instead, our practice was to challenge established teams to play us for a keg of beer.

The lucky Swordfish won 15 games of the 17 we played that initial season. In spite of having few experienced softball players on a roster made up of employees, old friends and a few film buffs -- including two French guys who'd never seen a baseball game -- we probably won half of those keg games by coming from behind in late innings.

Typically, our opponents saw themselves as more experienced/athletically superior, which only made it more fun when they bumbled their way into handing us the victory. That first year, it was uncanny how often those supposedly better teams seemed willing to overplay their hands.

Now, having played and observed a lot of organized softball, I know that virgin Swordfish squad was absolutely charmed. In any sport, it was the loosest team with which I’ve ever been associated.

Both of the Swordfish’s losses came in extreme situations. The first was the championship game of one of the two tournaments we entered. Yes, we won the other one.

The second was played inside the walls of the old state penitentiary. Located at Belvidere and Spring Streets, the fortress prison loomed over the rocky falls of the James River for nearly 200 years (it was demolished in the early-1990s).

As it happened the guy in charge of recreation at the pen frequented J.W. Rayle, a popular bar of the era, located at Pine and Cary. During a conversation there he asked me if the Biograph team — I played outfield and served as the coach — would consider taking on the prison’s softball team on a Saturday afternoon. Chuck Wrenn, the bar manager at Rayle, had already told the guy the restaurant's team would do it. So I went along with it, too.

As it turned out the first date the prison guy set up was canceled, due to something about a small riot.

OK.

A couple of weeks later the Swordfish entered the Big House. To get into the prison yard we had to go through a process, which included a cursory search. We had been told to bring nothing in our pockets.

As we worked our way through the ancient passageways, sets of bars were unlocked and then locked behind us. Each of us got a stamp on our hands that could only be seen under a special light. Someone asked what would happen if the ink got wiped off, inadvertently, during the game. He was told that was not a good idea.

OK.

The umpire for the games — Rayle played the prison team first, then the Biograph -- was Dennis “Dr. Death” Johnson, a rather high-profile Fan District character, at the time, who played on yet another team. Among other things, Johnson did some professional wrestling, so he was good as hamming up the umpire's role.

The fence in left field was the same high brick wall that ran along Belvidere Street. It was only about 230 to 240 feet from home plate. Yet, because of its height, maybe 30 feet, a lot of hard-hit balls caromed off of it. What would have been a routine fly ball on most fields was a home run there. It was a red brick version of Boston’s Green Monster.

The prison team, known as the Raiders, was quite good at launching softballs over that towering brick wall. They seemed to have an unlimited budget for softballs, too. Under the supervision of watchful guards, about a hundred other prisoners seated in stands cheered for the home team. Actually, they cheered the loudest for good plays in the field and sliding collisions on the base paths.

During a conversation with a couple of my teammates behind the backstop, I referred to the home team as “the prisoners.” Our opponents’ coach, who was within earshot, immediately stepped toward me. Like his teammates, he was wearing a typical softball uniform of that era with “Raiders” printed across the chest in a script and a number on the back.

“Call us the Raiders,” he advised, somewhat sternly, as he pointed to an awkward-looking mural on the prison wall that said, “Home of the Raiders.” It looked like a jailhouse tattoo, blown up large.

OK ... it was obvious, I had made a faux pas.

“While we are on this ball-field, we’re not The Prisoners,” he said with, ahem, conviction. “We’re the Raiders.”

“Raiders,” I said. “Right.”

“And, all our games ... are home games,” he deadpanned.

We all laughed, grateful the tension had been broken. The Raiders coach patted me on the back and thanked us for being there, for agreeing to play them.

In a tight, high-scoring affair the Raiders prevailed. Johnson knew how to play to the crowd with his calls, too. Afterward, I was glad the Swordfish had met the Raiders. And, I was glad to leave them, too. Located smack dab in the middle of Richmond that prison was a perpetual nightmare in our midst. 

In terms of winning and losing, the Biograph teams that played on in the FDSL through 1994 never found anything close to the success that first year's team knew. Still, popups and bad hops aside, I'll wager most of the guys from the 1976 team remember more details about their meeting with the Raiders than many of the games we won playing at Chandler Ballfield, the home of the "hippie league" for 18 years.

*
In 1978 the league expanded to 12 teams. That's the year the FDSL began throwing a party draped around its All-Star Game, in the middle of each season. Each summer in mid- to late-June, the stars of the Mars Division played the stars of the Jupiter Division. As I remember it, Buddy Noble came up with the notion of using planets for the names of the two six-team divisions.

The method for selecting the all-stars varied with the year. Occasionally there were votes held, more times there were caucuses of the bossiest guys; the best teams always put more men on those squads. Other times, each manger just named three players from his team. No matter how it was done, popularity, or the lack of it, always influenced the results. 

In 1980, blonde bombshell Donna Parker and the aforementioned Dennis Johnson made a memorable appearance at one of the All-Star Games at Chandler Ballfield. The ever-outrageous Johnson was dressed in his Dr. Death mask and wrestling costume. His date was outfitted in a black leather bikini. Space limitations don't allow for elaboration at this time, but Johnson left town soon afterward.

In 1982, the Bamboo Cafe went through the regular season undefeated, 33-0, but lost to its bitter rival, Hababas, in the finals of the playoffs. Throughout the decade of the '80s one of those two outfits won the playoffs every time.  

For several years during the ‘80s the all-star exhibition/party was staged at the Colombian Center in Henrico County. That era had the largest turnouts for the annual event, as between 200 and 300 people paid five bucks each to attend. Once admitted the beer was free and the food was plentiful.

 In the foreground: Artie Probst, Fitz Marston and Paul Sobel at the 1985 All-Star Game at the Colombian Center.  

One particularly hot day for the party, according to the Budweiser truck guy, the attendees went through 22 kegs of beer. Figuring 200 beer drinkers, do the math.

For music, a couple of years Chuck Wrenn deejayed the parties. In 1986 the Motovators played live. The softball games were played on what was a field always in poor shape -- rocks in the infield and overgrown clumps of weeds in the outfield. We played with a rule against sliding on the base paths, to prevent injuries. The late Pudy Stallard was once called out, when, out of habit, he slid into second to beat a throw from the outfield.   

In 1987 and ’88 the food contest was at the center of festivities. Each team put out a spread to share and the consumers voted for the best of them. Some teams went to great lengths to coordinate their overall entry, others simply had people bring out covered dishes and whatnot.

The most talked about of all the efforts was the 3rd Street Diner’s 100 pound hamburger in ‘88. The beef was packed into a giant patty at the Diner. It was hauled around with great care, so as not to break it apart. The huge bun was put together at the Tobacco Company and baked in one of its large ovens.

Cooking the burger on an open grill at the picnic site turned out to be the best part of the ordeal. There must have been 25 experts and assistant experts standing around that grill, opining on how to go about doing the the job. The burger itself was a good six inches thick. The flipping of the thing, to cook it all the way through -- without having it fall apart -- turned out to be an engineering task.

After all the kibitzing, it was done without mishap, much to the delight of one and all. A spontaneous celebration ensued ... smoke-um-if-ya-got-um. 

The FDSL also established its Hall of Fame in 1986. The first class was elected by the 12-team outfit’s designated franchise representatives. To be eligible then one had to have retired from play and considered to be among the founders. Ten names were selected as the first class of Hall-of-Famers.

The same rule held true in 1987, when six new names were put on the plaque. However, by 1988, a few of those who had been inducted into the Hall had un-retired.

So, in 1988, eligibility to the Hall was opened up to anyone who seemed deserving. Those already in got to vote, as well. Nine new members were selected. The meetings to select new inductees were always quite lively, as were most FDSL meetings, the voting process was probably no more twisted than any hall of fame’s way of choosing new names.

For 1989 six additional names were added. The class of ‘90 included seven names, and in ‘92 the last five names were tacked on. In all, 41 players and two umpires were tapped. The list leans heavily toward those who made significant contributions to the league's lore in its early years.

Those men who were inducted into the FDSL’s Hall between 1986 and 1992 are as follows: Ricardo Adams, Herbie Atkinson, Howard Awad, Boogie Bailey, Yogi Bair, Jay Barrows, Otto Brauer, Ernie Brooks, Hank Brown, Bobby Cassell, Jack Colan, Willie Collins, Dickie deTreville, Jack deTreville, Henry Ford, Danny Gammon, Donald Greshham, James Jackson, Dennis Johnson, Mike Kittle, Leo Koury, Jim Letizia, Junie Loving, Tony Martin, Kenny Meyer, Cliff Mowells, Buddy Noble, Randy Noble, Henry Pollard, Artie Probst, Terry Rea, John Richardson, Jerry Robinson, Larry Rohr, Billy Snead, Jim Story, Hook Shepherd, Pudy Stallard, Durwood Usry, Jumpy White, Barry Winn, Chuck Wrenn.

At this writing, by my count, nine guys one the list above have died, with Henry Ford being the most recent to pass away. 

As an organization, the Fan District Softball League lasted 20 years, which was a wonder in itself. There are plenty of true stories from those years that are almost unbelievable. 

-- 30 --
This story is part of a collection of stories at Biograph Times

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What binds the Virginia GOP together?

Looking at the squabbling Virginia Republicans makes me wonder what does really unite them as they face 2013. At this writing, they seem to be turning on one another. So, as a supposedly like-minded group, when push comes to shove, what do the members believe in?

Judging by the most recent elections, with so much emphasis on “we built it,” “legitimate rape” and “Benghazi-gate,” now it’s not so easy to say what’s what within the Grand Old Party.

In 2012 Republicans talked a lot about ideology. Religion. Money. Yet, whether they would agree, or not, here’s my take: One thing that bound them together through the election season has been that Republicans no longer believe in people.

Ouch!

Furthermore, the voters in Virginia noticed. 

OK, I just thought of another thing almost all of the country club Republicans probably agree about: They are cocksure their political party should be holding the levers of governmental power. Longtime Republicans still know they don’t want the community-organizing Democrats to hold the power.

And, whether Virginia’s GOP holds a convention or a primary to nominate its gubernatorial candidate next year won't matter much on Election Day in 2013. The voters will be more interested in knowing whether the candidate believes in people, as in "we the people."

Not a percentage ... all of the people.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Chasing Dignity

-- A version of this piece was first published by STYLE Weekly in 2006
“…Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth. Sometimes, though, there is a ghostly rumble among the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones that swings me back into the early twenties when we drank wood alcohol and every day in every way grew better and better, and there was a first abortive shortening of the skirts, and girls all looked alike in sweater dresses, and people you didn’t want to know said ‘Yes, we have no bananas,’ and it seemed only a question of a few years before the older people would step aside and let the world be run by those who saw things as they were — and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more.”
– from “Echoes of the Jazz Age” (1931)
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In the summer of 1978, with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” playing to the delight of a midnight show packed house, a fight broke out in the middle of Grace Street. Insults, rocks and bottles flew back and forth between the two factions of four each: VCU frat boys vs. an Oregon Hill crew. Their battle was unfolding a perilous 25 to 30 yards from the Cinemascopic all-glass front of the Biograph Theatre.

The box office had just closed and the cashier had started her count-up. At the same time a group of my Biograph Swordfish softball teammates was in the lobby playing a pinball machine. As manager, I felt obliged to drive the danger away, so I opened an exit door and yelled that the cops were already on the way, which they were.

That was good enough for the frat boys, who scampered off. Their opposites simply switched over to bombing me. As they advanced rocks bounced closer. A tumbling bottle shattered on the sidewalk. I closed the door, then a piece of brick smashed through its bottom panel of glass to strike my right shin.

When we lit out after them, there were six or seven men running in the impromptu posse of employees and pinball players. The hooligans scattered, but my focus was on the one who’d plunked me. Hemmed in by three of us in a parking lot, he faked one way, then cut to the other. His traction gave way slightly in the gravel paving. As he stumbled to regain his balance I tackled him by the legs.

The others got away. With some help from my friends, we marched the captured 19-year-old back toward the theater. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my limbs. During the trek east on Grace, the culprit said something that provoked one in my group to suddenly punch him. That, while the punchee’s arms were being held.

A policeman, who had just arrived, saw it. He sarcastically complimented the puncher for his aggressive “technique” before the street-fighting man was hauled off in the paddy wagon. In contrast, I told the vigilante puncher he had overreached in hitting the kid unnecessarily, especially while he was helpless.
Surprised by my reaction, my softball teammate laughed.

Which prompted me to say something like, “Hey, we’re no better than the fascist bullies we’ve claimed to deplore if we resort to their tactics.” He disagreed, saying essentially this — that his summary punishment would likely be the only price the little thug would ever pay for his crime. Another in the group agreed with him. Others saw it my way, or they said nothing.

It wasn’t long after that night I found myself poring over an essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.” The excerpt above is the evocative piece’s last paragraph. During that rereading, it occurred to me the shattering glass door had been the sound of the hippie era ending for me.

Yes, as the '70s fizzled away we baby boomers were about to discover that our sweetest day in the sun -- with its righteous causes and rock ’n’ roll anthems -- had been another dollop of time, a period with its look and sound. In some ways, the Roaring ’20s redux.

A month later I agreed to the court’s proposal to drop the assault charge, provided the brick-thrower was convicted of a misdemeanor for breaking the glass and paid for the damage. A payment schedule was set up. As we spoke several times after that, I came to see the “hooligan” wasn’t really such a bad guy. Payment was made on time. Eventually, he asked for the name of the man who’d punched him. While withholding the name, I agreed with him that the blow had been a cheap shot.

About a year later, on a late summer afternoon, a thief snatched a handful of dollar bills from a Biograph cashier, then bolted out the front door. The cashier’s frightened look triggered an alarm in your narrator’s sense of duty/propriety; her face was quite expressive.

As this happened half of my lifetime ago, I was still young enough to think chasing criminals down the street was normal. Quaint as it may sound now, it seemed then that some collective sense of dignity was at stake.

In short, it took less than 10 minutes to discover the thief’s hiding place, then turn him over to the policemen who’d shown up. During the search I received some unexpected help in cornering the thief. As I had run west on Grace Street behind the 20-year-old grab-and-run artist, another young man — a total stranger — had jumped out of his pickup truck to join in the chase.

Later, when the dust settled, I thanked the volunteer and asked him why he’d stopped. He answered that he knew I was the Biograph’s manager, because a buddy of his had once pointed me out. His friend? It was the same Oregon Hill street-fighter I’d tackled a year before.

My assistant thief-chaser also told me his friend assured him I’d dealt fairly with him. Consequently, a favor was owed to me. Before he left, my collaborator said that in his neighborhood the guys stick together. Thus, he’d supported me in my time of need, to help pay off his friend’s debt. We shook hands.

Over the years what connects those two chase scenes has become increasingly more satisfying. No doubt that’s because so many times over the years, in dealing with bad luck and other ordinary tests of character, I’ve done nothing to write home about — even the wrong thing.

At least in this story, maybe, I got it right.

The point?

Dear reader, in spite of the wall-to-wall cynicism of our current age, there really was a time when cheap shots were seen in a bad light. Moreover, returning favors was part of what held things together. Through the mist of “ghostly rumbles” and “asthmatic whispers,” to some graying hippies, that hasn’t changed.

-- 30 --
Click here to read more stories from this collection at Biograph Times

Who Needs The Bijou?

Some people, those who want to do more than survive -- by consuming and discarding indiscriminately -- need art in their lives. Beyond their basic needs and material comfort, their happiness is tied to appreciating artistic expressions -- paintings, sculpture, music, dance, writing, movies, etc.

Of course, once folks are exposed to art in its various forms, they inevitably make comparisons and develop preferences. While many will continuously attempt to duplicate pleasant experiences with art, in whatever medium, others will look more deeply into it and ask questions. They are the seekers.

To amuse themselves, persistent seekers will uncover and follow what seem to be threads to different manifestations of art, sometimes it's experimental art that challenges the establishment. The most relentless of seekers sometimes band together to share their quests for finding better entertainment, perhaps even a touch of enlightenment.

In Richmond, the most devout seekers of art on film currently need to have a place to gather their energies to focus on their common quest. They need a center for the appreciation of cinematic art. They need a new place to watch good movies, old and new, and exchange their thoughts with one another over beer or coffee ... maybe even a wee bite to eat.

They need The Bijou.

Yes, film buffs, this is a teaser; it’s the first post about a project that’s in the works. Soon, more posts will follow at SLANTblog to explain what, when and where The Bijou will be.

Maybe the who will include you?

Etch-A-Sketch campaigns don’t work

It seems many of the noisiest Republicans want to blame their failure to win the White House on having nominated a bad candidate. The same was said of McCain last time.

What the chattering blame-assigners can’t seem to grasp is that the mean-spirited rightwing positions a Republican candidate has to swear allegiance to during the presidential primary season makes the eventual nominee unacceptable to a growing majority of America’s voters.

Romney just proved Etch-A-Sketch campaigns don’t work, anymore. And, suppressing the vote with gimmicks didn’t work, either.

Instead of planning more dirty tricks and planning to dump more Super Pac money into misleading ads, GOP strategists ought to take a fresh look at their out-of-date policies. What Republicans really ought to think about is WHY they haven’t been able to nominate a better candidate in the last two presidential races. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

1993: SLANT Forum

After the article below, by Charles Slack (Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan., 31, 1993), appeared in the RT-D, my concept for conducting ad lib live discussions in a coffee shop was briefly adapted to radio.

It lasted only a couple of months, because the advertising time wouldn't sell. I bought the hour from WTVR and then brokered the 30- and 60-second time slots I sold for advertising. But the jaded merchants I tied to sell that commercial time to mostly wouldn't believe a topical talk-show could be successful without a clearly rightwing, or a clearly leftwing, host dominating it.

My thinking was that it was more interesting if the host was more a provocateur than a partisan.

The reluctant clients would tell me they actually liked the show, but they still thought most listeners would prefer a different kind of show. Basically, they didn't see the need for the live audience in a restaurant and they thought the public wanted to hear a wiseguy insulting callers on the telephone.

That wasn't what I wanted to do.

While it lasted, doing the SLANT Forum show live -- with an opinionated audience on hand -- was great fun. Katey, my daughter, was in on it as a regular commentator. The programs were staged at Coffee & Co. in Carytown and World Cup on Robinson St. I still have tapes of them.
SLANT FORUM: TALK ABOUT A GREAT IDEA
'INFORMATION PARTY' REDISCOVERS LOST ART OF CONVERSATION 
This is the MTV generation, right? Generation X. Raised on "The Brady Bunch." Life reduced to sound bite. Conversation is as old-fashioned as doctors' house calls and the milkman delivering a pint of cream to your door. Everybody knows that nobody talks anymore.

Then what are the 30 or so patrons of The Bidder's Suite on West Grace Street, many in their early 20s, doing here on a Monday night with the music turned down?

As it turns out, they've paid a 99-cent cover charge for the sole purpose of doing what everyone says people just don't do anymore -- having a conversation. Welcome to the Slant Forum, billed as an "Information Party."

At the microphone is F.T. "Terry" Rea, publisher of Slant, one of the city's longest-running alternative publications. Some of the topics are straight out of the headlines -- date rape, gun control, gays in the military. Others take a lighter look at popular culture.

Rea says the idea came to him late at night. He jotted down a few notes. "When the idea hit me, I got very excited. The next day I looked at my notes. I was still excited."

That being his acid test for ideas conceived in the dead of night. He contacted his friends at The Bidder's Suite, a coffee house/restaurant/ bar on West Grace Street. The restaurant was closed on Monday nights. How about opening it up for weekly discussion nights? Rea would charge the 99-cent cover, the restaurant would serve its usual menu of sandwiches, appetizers, coffee and drinks.

"I'm from the `60s generation," says Linda Beales, who owns the restaurant with her son, Jame-Paul Owens. Ms. Beales says she'd like the place to capture the atmosphere of coffeehouses that flourished around the country in the `60s.

The Bidder's Suite already features poetry readings and acoustic guitars. So why not discussions? Rea and The Bidder's Suite vow to hold the discussion nights each Monday as long as interest is sufficient.

A little after 8 p.m., Rea gets the evening under way with a trivia contest and the first of three pre-set discussion topics. If you've followed Slant magazine's iconoclastic take on Richmond life but never met Rea, you expect the 45-year-old to look sort of funky, with long hair, perhaps, a full beard, and a T-shirt with some anti-establishment slogan.

Instead, Rea appears with short hair, button-down shirt and a striped sweater. He looks more like a schoolteacher than a rebel. And that's exactly his function in these discussions. He's like a teacher -- one of those cool ones who lets the kids express themselves without fear of reprisal.

Except it's better than a classroom here, according to patron Paul Hudert, a student at VCU. "You get to voice your opinion. It's more personal."

Hudert's friend, Lisa Clayton, says she prefers the give and take of the discussion over simply absorbing facts from the media. "The media give you one opinion. They tell me the same thing over and over." The first subject Rea has selected for the evening is "anti-classics," meaning those aspects of popular culture that seem prevalent today but are destined for history's dustbin with the likes of the Hula Hoop and Pet Rocks.

The discussion starts promisingly, but soon degenerates into a personal listing by patrons of likes and dislikes. Smoking is on the way out, one patron declares. Anti-smokers are on the way out, says another. When the subject runs out of steam, Rea declares a short recess, then returns with a discussion about what Bill Clinton should do with Saddam Hussein.

What follows is a literate, informed debate with opinion ranging from lay off the Iraqis to finish the job that George Bush started. Gregory Maitland, who has served in the Army and is now a cook at The Bidder's Suite, was working the night the first forum was held in December. He was so intrigued by the discussion that he requested Monday nights off and has returned every week to participate.

Maitland says he comes "not just to state my opinions, but to hear others." He believes, "We're in a new age, from `This is what I think and that's all that matters' to `What's your opinion?'"

Many of the participants are regulars, but new faces have been appearing each week, Rea says.

VCU students Amy McGahan and Hugh Apple dropped in after seeing a Slant ad posted in another restaurant.

Ms. McGahan says, "The thought of people coming together and talking seemed really cool. It's encouraging. You get so tired of watching TV and going to the movies."

Though the crowd leaned toward students in their early 20s, the mix is not limited by age. Gayle Carson, who returned to college after leaving 20 years ago, says, "I'm one of those people who like to voice an opinion.

"Even though we've had some intense discussions, it's never gotten to the point that it's beyond polite conversation."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Cheaters

Thanksgiving is a day that inevitably conjures up ghosts. The story below is about my grandfather, Frank W. Owen (1893-1968), when he was 65. 

Now that I've turned that same age, my perspective on the events described has changed, somewhat, because I first wrote "The Cheaters" 22 years ago for SLANT. A later version of it was published in STYLE Weekly in 2000.

The photograph of my (maternal) grandfather below was shot when he was in the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, when they were stationed in Texas in 1916. He was part of a contingent assigned to protect the border, because Mexican revolutionary/bandit Pancho Villa had supposedly been crossing over to raid small towns. Later the Blues were thrown into WWI in France. 


F.W. Owen was the best story teller and lesson teacher I‘ve ever known. I'll be thinking of him as I sit down with my family later today for a meal.

The Cheaters
by F. T. Rea


Having devoted countless hours to competitive sports and games of all sorts, nothing in that realm is quite as galling to this grizzled scribbler as the cheater’s averted eye of denial, or the practiced tones of his shameless spiel.

In the middle of a pick-up basketball game, or a friendly Frisbee-golf round, too often, my barbed outspokenness over what I have perceived as deliberate cheating has ruffled feathers. Alas, it's my nature. I can't help it any more than a watchful blue jay can resist dive-bombing an alley cat.

The reader might wonder about whether I'm overcompensating for dishonest aspects of myself, or if I could be dwelling on memories of feeling cheated out of something dear.

OK, fair enough, I don't deny any of that. Still, truth be told, it mostly goes back to a particular afternoon's mischief gone wrong.

*

A blue-collar architect with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway for decades, my maternal grandfather, Frank Wingo Owen was a natural entertainer. Blessed with a resonant baritone/bass voice, he began singing professionally in his teens and continued performing, as a soloist and with barbershop quartets, into his mid-60s.

Shortly after his retirement, at 65, the lifelong grip on good health he had enjoyed failed; an infection he picked up during a routine hernia surgery at a VA hospital nearly killed him. It left him with no sense of touch in his extremities. Once he got some of his strength back, he found comfort in returning to his role as umpire of the baseball games played in his yard by the neighborhood's boys. He couldn't stand up behind home plate, anymore, but he did alright sitting in the shade of the plum tree, some 25 feet away.

This was the summer he taught me, along with a few of my friends, the fundamentals of poker. To learn the game we didn’t play for real money. Each player got so many poker chips. If his chips ran out, he became a spectator.

The poker professor said he’d never let us beat him, claiming he owed it to the game itself to win if he could, which he always did. Woven throughout his lessons on betting strategy were stories about poker hands and football games from his cavalry days, serving with the Richmond Blues during World War I.

As likely as not, the stories he told would end up underlining points he saw as standards: He challenged us to expose the true coward at the heart of every bully. "Punch him in the nose," he'd chuckle, "and even if you get whipped he'll never bother you again." In team sports, the success of the team trumped all else. Moreover, withholding one’s best effort in any game, no matter the score, was beyond the pale.

Such lazy afternoons came and went so easily that summer there was no way then, at 11, I could have appreciated how precious they would seem looking back on them.

On the other hand, there were occasions he would make it tough on me. Especially when he spotted a boy breaking the yard's rules or playing dirty. It was more than a little embarrassing when he would wave his cane and bellow his rulings. For flagrant violations, or protesting his call too much, he barred the guilty boy from the yard for a day or two.

F. W. Owen’s hard-edged opinions about fair play, and looking directly in the eye at whatever comes along, were not particularly modern. Nor were they always easy for know-it-all adolescent boys to swallow.

Predictably, the day came when a plot was hatched. We decided to see if artful subterfuge could beat him at poker just once. The conspirators practiced in secret for hours, passing cards under the table with bare feet and developing signals. It was accepted that we would not get away with it for long, but to pull it off for a few hands would be pure fun.

Following baseball, with the post-game watermelon consumed, I fetched the cards and chips. Then the four card sharks moved in to put the caper in play.

To our amazement, the plan went off smoothly. After hands of what we saw as sly tricks we went blatant, expecting/needing to get caught, so we could gloat over having tricked the great master. Later, as he told the boys' favorite story -- the one about a Spanish women who bit him on the arm at a train station in France -- one-eyed jacks tucked between dirty toes were being passed under the table.

Then the joy began to drain out of the adventure rapidly. With semi-secret gestures I called the ruse off. A couple of hands were played with no shenanigans but he ran out of chips, anyway.

Head bowed, he sighed, “Today I can’t win for loosing; you boys are just too good for me.” Utterly dependent on his cane for balance he slowly walked into the shadows toward the back porch. It was agonizing.

The game was over; we were no longer pranksters. We were cheaters.

As he carefully negotiated the steps, my last chance to save the day came and went without a syllable out of me to set the record straight. It was hard to believe that he hadn’t seen what we were doing, but my guilt burned so deeply I didn't wonder enough about that, then.

*

My grandfather didn’t play poker with us again. He went on umpiring, and telling his salty stories afterwards over watermelon. We tried playing poker the same way without him, but it didn’t work; the value the chips had magically represented was gone. The boys had outgrown poker without real money on the line.

Although I thought about that afternoon's shame many times before he died nine years later, neither of us ever mentioned it. For my part, when I tried to bring it up, to clear the air, the words always stuck in my throat.

Eventually, I grew to become as intolerant of petty cheating as F.W. Owen was in his day, maybe even more so. And, as it was for him, the blue jay has always been my favorite bird.

-- 30 --

Friday, November 16, 2012

Smooth Noir: Starring Joe Camel

Here's a flashback to an issue of SLANT 20 years ago. It was printed when the infamous Joe Camel ad campaign was still popular. Tobacco was still riding high ... but not for long.

In August of 1992 the art above appeared over the text below:
It's Happy Hour. Rebus starts the Lamberts, Hendricks and Ross tape that he had selected to kick off his shift. In walks his first customer.

It's Joe Camel, smooth matchbook celebrity.

Although Rebus recognizes him immediately, even without his makeup, he doesn't call attention to it. Joe looks like he would rather not be bothered.

Joe: Two shots of Cuervo Gold. No fruit. No salt.

Rebus: Hey pal, if it's been that kind of day, let me buy the first one. It's the...

Joe: THAT kind of day? Yeah, I guess it's been about as bad a day as ... forget it.

The bar's only customer slaps the first empty glass down onto the cold marble as Rebus turns the stereo's volume up a notch.

Joe: The tests came back. It's the Big C. I'm doomed. It's too late to operate. Just like that -- cancer. Kaput!

Rebus: Well, er, in that case, I'll spring for the second one, too.

Joe: Thanks.

Rebus: How about a sandwich?

Joe: A sandwich?

Rebus: Sure. Like something to eat. We've got a killer cold meatloaf sandwich, or...

Joe: Cancer of the hump.

Rebus: The hump?

Joe: They said my five-pack-a-day habit probably had nothing to do with...

Rebus: I didn't even know you had a hump. Like, it never shows in the commercials.

Joe: I wear a corset. We all do. It's part of the act. The Mad Ave. geniuses want smooth camels, not hunchbacks. Hey, let me tell ya, they tighten those babies down with a torque wrench.

Rebus: I won't say anything about it.

Joe: I'm not hungry. How 'bout another shooter?

Rebus: Sure, ah, did the doctor, er...

Joe: Did they say how, how long I've got?

Rebus: Yeah. No offense meant.

Joe: Maybe the weekend.

Rebus: Cancer of the hump! What a bad break.

Joe: I deserve it.

Rebus: Hey, nobody deserves hump cancer. Not even...

Joe: I do man. I'm paying the price for selling my soul to the devil. All those kids.

Rebus: Kids?

Joe: Innocent children that Joe Camel suckered into smoking the product. It's karma.

Rebus: You didn't invent cigarettes.

Joe: Above all else, be smooth. Don't you want to be the smoothest dude?

Rebus: Come on Joe, kids are going to smoke cigarettes regardless of...

Joe: Maybe, but this campaign was slick. They brought in behavioral voodoo scientists.

Rebus: Joe, it's not your fault. You've just been dealt a bad hand. Joe, ah, that is your real name?

Joe: What's in a name? What's real? Way back, maybe before your time, people knew me as Clyde. Since then I've...

Rebus: Right! Clyde. I knew you looked familiar. Yeah, you worked with a cat named Ahab the Arab. But, now you look, like, ah, wider.

Joe: You're talking 30 years since that gig. Who hasn't put on a little weight?

Rebus: I can dig it. But it's still not your fault if a kid smokes. Everybody's got to earn a living. You're like Tony the Tiger or Ronald McDonald, or...

Joe: No! I knew it was wrong. I went to the meetings. I knew the marketing strategy. We were going after third-graders. It was sick.

Rebus: So, what are you going to do?

Joe: Get drunk, then make a plan.

Rebus: Good move. Ready for another?

Joe: I wonder if strapping my hump down made the cancer, ah...

Rebus: Maybe it's never too late to beat the devil. They made you a celebrity; call a press conference. Go public with it. Confess! Drop a dime on the subliminal sleazemeisters.

Joe: Do you really think people would listen?

Rebus: The Marlboro Man went clean.

Joe: You're right! I knew getting drunk was a good idea. Hand me that telephone. I'll do it. I'll blow the lid off the...

Rebus: That's the spirit!

Joe: I've got work to do; call my agent. And, you know what?

Rebus: Chicken-butt!

Joe: Let me try one of those meatloaf sandwiches. And, some coffee.

Rebus opens his eyes. The dream was OK until that business about the meatloaf sandwich. Not to mention the stupid chicken-butt joke.

He gets out of bed and walks toward the bathroom. On the way, Rebus remembers the Joe Camel jacket draped over the chair by the door. A steady customer had given it to him at the bar. He picks it up and throws it into the trash can next to the toilet.

Rebus: Sorry Clyde, I'm not taking any chances.

-- Fini --

California Dreaming for George?


As the dust settles on his most recent loss, feel free to make up your own caption for this family portrait of then-Sen. George Allen and his family that once hung in his home. Don't know if it's still on display. By the way, the painting was done by a VCU-trained artist.

As for what Allen's next move ought to be, maybe Southern California is calling him home.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Money mostly wasted?

After the Citizens United decision and the 2010 midterm wins for the Republicans, a lot of pundits, both on the right and the left, tried to sell us the idea that huge money funneled into advertising would deliver the White House and a majority in the Senate to the GOP in 2012.

Over and over we were told billionaires would open their wallets for the Republicans and Democrats were doomed!

Well, it didn’t happen. The money Karl Rove and his allies poured into the effort didn’t pay off.

Should we assume Romney would have lost by a larger margin without all the Super Pac dark money spent on his behalf? Or, was it that Romney and some of the Republican senatorial candidates were just so-o-o bad. Were their ads not as good as the Democrats’ ads?

Democrats would surely like us to believe the election proved that Americans prefer the way they stood on the issues. There is probably some truth to that, but I think it was probably more. 

Once all the dust settles, it will be fascinating to read about why those predictions didn't hold up. Partisan considerations aside, could it be that political advertising, itself, just isn't as effective as it used to be?

Was all that money mostly wasted?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Benghazi-gate?

By all means, let’s have a full-blown investigation in the Senate over what happened in Libya, to do with the four Americans killed on Sept. 11, 2012.

While it may be a little premature to compare the Benghazi-gate investigation to the Watergate or Iran-Contra hearings, as some Republicans are already doing, I still want to know what went wrong and why. If what comes out makes the State Dept. look bad, then so be it.

However, I’m not interested in hearing Senators claiming everyone knew that something bad would happen on the anniversary of 9/11, so we should have been prepared ... everywhere in the world. Nor am I interested in hearing about how not invading Libya was Obama’s big mistake.

I am particularly not interested in combing through the salacious details of outed secret romances.

Hey, if we want to investigate how lies and miscalculations have gotten Americans killed, we could start with how the invasion of Iraq was sold to America. A lot more than four people died over that colossal foreign policy mistake.

So, let's see what happened in Benghazi. And, let's remember that some of the Americans in the State Dept. are still serving in dangerous places. No president can will that reality away.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Is Cuccinelli Yesterday's Conservative?

Republicans in Virginia need to wake up. The results from Election Day are there for all to see ... unless denial prevents one from looking at the harsh numbers. 

A lot of Republicans around here were positive former-Gov. Mitt Romney would win. They were dead wrong.

Too many Republicans thought former-Sen. George Allen would be a good candidate.

They were dead wrong, too.

Allen’s baggage was too heavy, there were lots of ticket-splitters, who voted for Romney but couldn’t stomach voting for Allen. Being the conservative in the race just wasn’t good enough this time. The Old Dominion is changing. 

Earlier this year, too many in the Republican caucus in the General Assembly thought their backward-looking proposals to do with abortion would slide through that legislative body without creating big problems with female voters.

They were doubly dead wrong.

Those photographs of mean cops, outfitted to control a monster riot, pushing around peacefully assembled women in Capitol Square must have turned plenty of politically moderate voters into Democrats in 2012.

Next year if Republicans offer up a gubernatorial nominee who is still spouting Tea Party talking points, warmed over from 2010, they will probably lose, again.

What about Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s future? Remember all the grandstanding legal action he initiated that has blown back into his face? If Republicans wise up and turn away from his swaggering, arch conservative style, how will he respond?

Maybe he’s the next Virgil Goode.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

Redskins Bandwagon, Not So Fast

On March 8, writing for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Michael Martz and John O‘Connor reported that the Washington Redskins and the City of Richmond had been talking about the pro football team conducting some of its preseason practices in Richmond in years to come.

Although I was somewhat puzzled with why the team’s front office would want to leave Northern Virginia, to hold three weeks of preseason football practices in Richmond, in July! it was delightful news. Naturally, I hoped for the best. After all, I’ve been a Washington Redskins fan longer than I can remember. It goes back to when I was a little boy watching games with my grandfather, who was a Redskins fan.

He was also a WWI veteran, so I’m thinking about him today.

On June 6, the RT-D’s Olympia Meola  reported bigger news about the Redskins, this time from Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office.
The Washington Redskins will move their summer training camp to the city of Richmond in 2013, at a site not yet identified. 
Although "a site not yet identified" seemed strange, at first that didn't worry me. Hail to the Redskins!

On June 30, Robert Zullo wrote in the RT-D about a search committee devoted to finding the best site for the Redskins to conduct their practices next summer. The article said the committee would report its finding in mid-September.
A panel appointed by Mayor Dwight C. Jones will consider at least 10 city sites for the Washington Redskins summer training camp that is planned to arrive in Richmond next year. The 18-member committee is composed chiefly of representatives from local business, banking and higher education and is tasked with advising the mayor's office on locations and financing related to hosting the three-week training camp.
The process that followed did begin to raise worries. At first I thought they were doing it backwards. Why conduct a study that should have been done before the Redskins and Richmond announced they had come to an agreement for a deal?

On Aug. 31 Michael Martz reported on the site-choosing process.
Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones says he has two "very good" sites for the Washington Redskins to bring their training camp next summer — City Stadium or behind the Science Museum of Virginia. Now, the city has to find $9 million to $10 million to build the facilities the NFL franchise expects at one of the sites by July.

"Now we are in a position to put our (funding and sponsorship subcommittee) to work and figure out how we're going to bring in the money to get the job done," Jones said at a news conference Thursday at the McGuireWoods law firm in downtown Richmond.
By this time it looked to me like the decision had been made behind closed doors to use the behind the Science Museum option, but for some reason the mystery was being perpetuated. Why the dog and pony show?

It reminded me of when the Richmond Flying Squirrels pretended they were letting the fans pick the nickname for the team. But for a baseball franchise to use an old radio station type of phony contest, to drum up interest, was fine. And, it worked like a charm.

However, for a city to indulge in such a bogus promotion didn't make much sense to me. So, I wondered, what else could it be?

Then, on Oct. 23, came the devilish details: The Redskins/Richmond deal involves Bon Secours Health System, the old Westhampton school building and the grounds surrounding it. It also involves another development in the East End by Bon Secours. It's very complicated. Ordinarily, it would take months for a Richmond City Council to properly study such a far-flung agreement.  

And, this piece by STYLE Weekly's Scott Bass followed on Oct. 30.
"We don't think a 'rush job' is fair to the public nor in the best interests of the city," Loupassi and Goldman write.

Indeed, the mayor gleefully tells reporters at the Leigh Street Redskins site Oct. 22 that construction could start as soon as that afternoon. "The Redskins want to be ready to use this in 2013 so you might see something happening before you leave here today," Jones says to hearty chuckles. "It's got to happen very fast."
Today’s RT-D story, “Richmond council set to vote on Redskins deal tonight,” by Robert Zullo, adds more to my sense that timing had a lot to do with the way this has played out. Now City Council is under the gun to act swiftly. Members don’t have much time to ask questions about all the facets of this deal.

It looks to me like the mayor is trying to steamroll this thing through. That doesn’t mean anything illegal has been done. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad deal for tax payers in Richmond. What it does mean is that the mayor needs to be taught a lesson about what can happen to guy who is too pushy and too slick.

Vote on Redskins deal tonight?

Please, not so fast. And, didn't we just have an election? What do new members of council think?

City Hall needs to sell us this deal. City Council members, new and old, need to ask lots of questions of the salesmen who are in such a hurry.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Post-election musings: Is it third party time?

Most of the time, especially in the weeks leading up to a presidential election, I turn my back on discussions about third parties. But if there is a good time to talk about building a national alternative to our cumbersome two-party system, it’s now, just after the election.

Still, I would have little interest in a third party that would be primarily rooted in ideology. So, with the election now in the rear-view mirror, what about a third party that is tough on Wall Street, antiwar, but totally pro-environment?

Not traditional liberals. Not nostalgia-worshipping conservatives. This party would have no part of the culture war -- no religious fanatics onboard, please.

As a party, it would also stay out of most squabbles over immigration by simply advocating the pursuit of the most practical course, with few preconceived notions about what is proper. What we can't keep doing is ignoring laws, or selectively enforcing them.

This new party would advocate letting in more sunlight on the dark role behind-closed-doors lobbyists play in directing zillions of government dollars to benefit mammoth corporations. It would be about slashing the budgets for defense and foreign aid. It would call for ending another war the USA lost -- the drug war. 

It would also champion campaign finance reform in a big way, calling for drastic measures to reduce the role that soul-sucking, big-budget advertising plays in elections.

Of course there are individuals in both major parties who say they support some of those ideas. None of it is new. But both parties, as they are presently constituted, would have trouble with actually doing a lot of the stuff mentioned above.   

Hey, I’m not saying I would automatically support such a new political party, but I do wonder if a viable alternative organization, fashioned somewhat along those lines, may be more possible now.

Yes, as we looked forward to the wrangling of the upcoming lame-duck session in Congress, I'm wondering if a national political party that isn’t run by ideologues and old hacks could put down roots coast-to-coast, via the Internet, in 2013.

One more question about predictions

Did Nate Silver make a prediction for what percentage of Tuesday morning’s swaggering Republicans would be hissy-fit-sore-losers-in-denial on Wednesday morning?

Then, the same on Thursday morning, and Friday morning…


Thursday, November 08, 2012

What Can Stop the GOP's Meltdown?

The day after the election, Wednesday, I declared a one-day moratorium on gloating and sarcasm over the election results. In the same spirit, I resisted the urge to offer advice to any Republicans I encountered. At happy hour at Chiocca’s, facing a few grumbling conservatives who were itching to harass a handy liberal, it wasn’t easy to stay true to that spirit of restraint.

Now the moratorium is over.

Accordingly, on Thursday, the Republicans who got their collective ass kicked royally on Tuesday ought to take a good look at some bad moves they’ve made since they celebrated their midterm victories in 2010. They need to cast off their dry-rotted blinders, pronto.

If they do they might see that the explanation for several of the losses the Republican Party absorbed on Tuesday was tied to how much the USA has changed in recent years. The percentage of the total vote that is white male has been steadily shrinking and it's going to continue to do so.

Which means it’s time for some conservative old goats to face the music.

Speaking of goats, if the Republican Party continues to allow the likes of Karl Rove, Grover Norquist and Rush Limbaugh to shape its agenda, while those three guys will do just fine, the GOP itself will continue its meltdown.

The Tea Party-driven strategy the congressional Republicans have used for the last two years blatantly turned its back on solving problems. Their only goal was to deny any success whatsoever to the president, in order to defeat him on Nov. 6. No doubt, if they continue to try to sell their obstructionism as patriotism, they do so at their own peril.

Given Tuesday’s results, it seems that nefarious strategy backfired. Now, facilitated by their own noisy denials of post-election reality, the meltdown process is intensifying.

Conservatives who despise the union movement have been bashing teachers as if they are the problem with government spending. Forget about borrowing money to prosecute wars, it’s the teachers! In doing so, Republicans come off as anti-public education and that will never set well with middle class parents and young voters.

Last night, professional wiseass Andy Borowitz wrote on his Facebook page: “To survive as a party, the Republicans need to welcome people who believe in different things than they do, like science and math.”

Feeling it had the momentum to elect almost anybody, the arrogant GOP fielded some Looney Tunes villains as candidates in 2012.

At the top of that list was Missouri’s senatorial candidate, Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin. As Akin is a plain fool, the Republican powers that be in the Show Me State had to know that. But it looks like they mistakenly thought anybody could beat Claire McCaskill.

In Virginia, George “Macaca” Allen was another obviously bad candidate. He was damaged goods and Virginia Republicans knew that. But they must have figured it was in the bag, anyway.

Hey, couldn’t almost anybody could beat that liberal Obama ally, Chairman Tim Kaine?

Apparently there was a good amount of ticket splitting in the Old Dominion, where Romney voters couldn’t vote the straight ticket, if it meant supporting Allen, a man widely viewed as an obnoxious bully.

A big part of how Republicans in Missouri and Virginia could believe those two Democratic candidates would be easy to beat was that so many conservatives live in a virtual echo chamber when it comes to following politics. They see most of the mainstream media as prevaricating liberal tools, so they put their faith in the Fox News brand of truth and parrot its talking points.

No one should be surprised when bad candidates lose.

Like it or not, running a national campaign is the test for president. It may not be the best way to audition candidates for the job and campaign finance reform is sorely needed, but as of 2012, it’s what our system provides.

Well, Obama’s advisers just ran a masterful campaign. They targeted the key battleground states and won them. Colorado! Iowa! Nevada! New Hampshire! Ohio! Virginia! Wisconsin! Lots of young voters look at those results without seeing ideology.

No, they see competency.

At long last, Republicans have to accept that when they use thinly-veiled appeals to racists, as they did repeatedly during the 2012 campaign, they are constricting their party’s growth. Such tone-deaf reaching out to the most hateful elements of the electorate has to stop.

The same goes with opposing same-sex marriage and trying to outlaw abortion. The justification for those two backward positions is tied to old time religion, and they are both killer millstones.

While I could easily go on lecturing my stubborn happy hour pals and their ilk, instead I’ll sum it up this way:

Unless Republicans can learn from their mistakes and start to articulate a smart, up-to-date approach to conservatism, one that appeals to tomorrow’s multicultural voters that might want to see more imagination, efficiency and prudence in the way government does business … then, tha, tha, that’s all folks!

-- 30 --

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Remembering 'The Sound'

Today, my delight at the wins for Barack Obama and Tim Kaine is pure and overflowing. So much so, I'll save the I-told-you-so stuff for tomorrow; same goes for the sarcasm. For me, as a Virginian, today is for smiling. Can't say for sure, but percentage-wise, I don't think I've ever voted for so many winners before.

And, to bring it home, I’m offering my congratulations to all the winners in Richmond. Among them, I’m particularly happy to see that Jon Baliles (1st District) and Parker Agelasto (5th District) won and will be new members of City Council.

Likewise, I’m glad to see Kim Grey (2nd District) returning to her position at the school board’s table.

As far as yesterday’s losers go, I have some understanding of the sudden fall from being a candidate in the middle of all the energy that surrounds a campaign on Election Day, going from one precinct to another to see and feel the turnout, joking around with the reporters, etc., to being an also-ran at your own victory party -- a loser.

Here’s a story (first published in STYLE Weekly in 2000) about my lone foray into the opportunity to have such a severely bipolar day. It was in 1984 that I fooled myself into running for political office. My victory party, such as it was, unfolded at Grace Place, one of my all-time favorite restaurants.

The Sound by F.T. Rea 
The handbill in this story
In the spring of 1984, I ran for public office. In case the Rea for City Council campaign doesn’t ring a bell, it was a spontaneous and totally independent undertaking. No doubt, it showed. Predictably, I lost, but I’ve never regretted the snap decision to run, because the education was well worth the price. 
In truth, I had been mired in a blue funk for some time prior to my letting a couple of friends, Bill Kitchen and Rocko Yates, talk me into running, as we played a foozball game in Rockitz, Kitchen's nightclub. Although I knew winning such an election was out of my reach, I relished the opportunity to have some fun mocking the system. Besides, at the time, I needed an adventure. 
So it began. Walking door to door through Richmond’s 5th District, collecting signatures to qualify to be on the ballot, I talked with hundreds of people. During that process my attitude about the endeavor began to expand. People were patting me on the back and saying they admired my pluck. Of course, what I was not considering was how many people will encourage a fool to do almost anything that breaks the monotony. 
By the time I announced my candidacy at a press conference on the steps of the city library, I was thoroughly enjoying my new role. My confidence and enthusiasm were compounding daily.
On a warm April afternoon I was in Gilpin Court stapling handbills, featuring my smiling face, onto utility poles. Prior to the campaign, I had never been in Gilpin Court. I had known it only as “the projects.” 
Several small children took to tagging along. Perhaps it was their first view of a semi-manic white guy — working their turf alone — wearing a loosened tie, rolled-up shirtsleeves, and khaki pants. 
After their giggling was done, a few of them offered to help out. So, I gave them fliers and they ran off to dish out my propaganda with a spirit only children have. 
Later I stopped to watch some older boys playing basketball at the playground. As I was then an unapologetic hoops junkie, it wasn’t long before I felt the urge to join them. I played for about 10 minutes, and amazingly, I held my own. 
After hitting four or five jumpers, I banked in a left-handed runner. It was bliss, I was in the zone. But I knew enough to quit fast, before the odds evened out. 
Picking up my staple gun and campaign literature, I felt like a Kennedyesque messiah, out in the mean streets with the poor kids. Running for office was a gas; hit a string of jump shots and the world’s bloody grudges and bad luck will simply melt into the hot asphalt. 
A half-hour later the glamour of politics had worn thin for my troop of volunteers. Finally, it was down to one boy of about 12 who told me he carried the newspaper on that street. As he passed the fliers out, I continued attaching them to poles. 
The two of us went on like that for a good while. As we worked from block to block he had very little to say. It wasn’t that he was sullen; he was purposeful and stoic. As we finished the last section to cover, I asked him a question that had gone over well with children in other parts of town. 
“What’s the best thing and the worst thing about your neighborhood?” I said with faux curiosity.
He stopped. He stared right through me. Although I felt uncomfortable about it, I repeated the question. 
When he replied, his tone revealed absolutely no emotion. “Ain’t no best thing … the worst thing is the sound.” 
“What do you mean?” I asked, already feeling a chill starting between my shoulder blades. 
“The sound at night, outside my window. The fights, the gunshots, the screams. I hate it. I try not to listen,” he said, putting his hands over his ears to show me what he meant. 
Stunned, I looked away to gather my ricocheting thoughts. Hoping for a clue that would steady me, I asked, “Why are you helping me today?” 
He pointed up at one of my handbills on a pole and replied in his monotone. “I never met anybody important before. Maybe if you win, you could change it.” 
Words failed me. Yet I was desperate to say anything that might validate his hope. Instead, we both stared silently into the afternoon’s long shadows. Finally, I thanked him for his help. He took extra handbills and rode off on his bike. 
As I drove across the bridge over the highway that sequesters his stark neighborhood from through traffic, my eyes burned and my chin quivered like my grandfather’s used to when he watched a sad movie. 
Remembering being 12 years old and trying to hide my fear behind a hard-rock expression, I wanted to go back and tell the kid, “Hey, don’t believe in guys passing out handbills. Don’t fall for anybody’s slogans. Watch your back and get out of the ghetto as fast as you can.” 
But then I wanted to say, “You’re right! Work hard, be tough, you can change your neighborhood. You can change the world. Never give up!” During the ride home to the Fan District, I swore to myself to do my absolute best to win the election. 
A few weeks later, at what was billed as my victory party, I, too, tried to be stoic as the telling election results tumbled in. The incumbent carried six of the district’s seven precincts. I carried one. The total vote wasn’t even close. Although I felt like I’d been in a car wreck, I did my best to act nonchalant. 

This shot in Grace Place was snapped just after I saw the first news report on the election results. At that moment I knew I couldn't win.  
In the course of my travels these days, I sometimes hear Happy Hour wags laughing off Richmond’s routine murder statistics. They scoff when I suggest that maybe there are just too many guns about; I’m told that as long as “we” stay out of “their” neighborhood, there is little to fear.
But remembering that brave Gilpin Court newspaper boy, I know that to him the sound of a drug dealer dying in the street was just as terrifying as the sound of any other human being giving up the ghost. 
If he's still alive, that same boy would be older than I was when I met him. The ordeal he endured in his childhood was not unlike what children growing up in any number of the world’s bloody war zones are going through today. Plenty of them must cover their ears at night, too.
For the reader who can’t figure out how this story could eventually come to bear on their own life, then just wait … keep listening. 
-- 30 --

Monday, November 05, 2012

Think about the most telling difference

Without dwelling on history and clich├ęs, in 2012, what is the most important difference between the USA's two major political parties?

In this case, when I say “parties,” I mean the elected and appointed politicians, plus their staffs and the volunteer organizations that orbit around those people in the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.

Of course, Libertarians, Greens, some Independents and a few thoughtful Apoliticals might say both parties suck up to Wall Street and cater to lobbyists, so there isn’t enough damn difference between Team Elephant and Team Donkey to matter. But someone else can write a piece to support that contention.

The typical Republican Party member now seems to believe it’s fine to suppress the vote, if that‘s what it takes to win. Laws and procedures have been changed by Republican controlled state houses and legislatures that have done just that, coast-to-coast.

Hey, a yellow dog Democrat might not give a staunch Republican a ride to the polling place, they might call the Republican a damn fool, but they would not favor using the power of government to discourage the Republican from voting. I say that because there's no evidence suggesting that both parties have been doing this.

To most Democrats it would simply be Un-American.

For just a minute, forget about all the arguing about other issues between liberals and conservatives. Just think about how dead wrong it is to lie about your motives, which the GOP has done this year, and then deliberately suppress the vote in a way designed to hurt the other party’s turnout.

The Republican Party’s leaders believe it’s so important for them to win this time that cheating in this way is OK in 2012. They obviously think of the Democrats as enemies that must be defeated by any means necessary. They seem to be imagining they are in a Holy War, with Heaven's permission to cheat their evil liberal adversaries.

Young or old, rich or poor, as you stand in line to vote, think about how dangerous such twisted, self-serving thinking could be to the future of our democracy.

It's not about ideology. It's about trust. 

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Extra Maudlin Sauce on that BBQ, please


The laughable Obama killed Bill’s BBQ ad (above) put out by the Romney camp, blaming the president’s policies for the failure of that out-of-date restaurant chain, is a perfect symbol of what Romney has served up to voters this year: Denial of reality heaped upon denial, slathered with a maudlin longing for another time’s lost amenities. A simpler time in which time-clock punchers blithely swallowed whatever guff they were told to eat.

Click here to read more about this Mitt Romney campaign ad at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, with lots of funny comments under the article.

Put simply, that political commercial reeks of the same galling phoniness Romney's campaign has been selling this entire year. It smells like Romney's reasons for not releasing his tax return information. It's reminiscent of the GOP's phony slogan for its convention -- We Built It!

Come to think of it, though, since Hurricane Sandy passed through, I haven't heard any Republicans bashing Obama with that We Built It! slogan.

Some would probably say it's too bad Romney’s staff didn't do a little research, before it crafted that absurd ad. With a few phone calls anyone in his camp could have discovered that most Richmonders of any political stripe gave up on Bill’s many years before Obama took office. Before closing up for good, Bill’s had been making lame barbecue sandwiches for a long time.

Then again, maybe the cynical political ad-makers knew all that, but they just didn't care. After all, they had a weepy lady who wanted to blame Obama. That was enough.

My guess is, this particular commercial will be remembered by some who chronicle the history of political campaign propaganda as a humorous and noteworthy low point for 2012.  

Anybody need more sauce?

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Obama killed Bill's?


Background for a Romney ad that claims Obama killed the Bill's BBQ chain is here. The rest of the stuff is satire (I made it up to poke fun at Mitt).