Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Decade That Was

With our opinions clashing thunderously, we, the beleaguered people, have survived the 2010s. Facilitated by social media, it seems to me that now we're ruled by our stubborn opinions even more than we were on Dec. 31, 2009.

These days, wags like to say we're becoming more "tribal." Along with that, pundits regularly decry the lack of "civility" in the tone of how we're currently interacting with one another. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the realm of politics.

However, on this New Year's Eve, I choose not to hurl any new political opinions at you, dear reader. Besides, this late in the year I'm not sure I have any more 2019 opinions.

Instead, here are links to a selected group of opinionated columns and reports I penned during the decade ending tonight. Souvenirs, if you will, of the times. Maybe the 2010s will turn out to be the last decade in which being published in ink on newsprint will matter.

"How Free Are We to Express Hate?" June 21, 2010, RT-D

"Anywhere but Byrd Park" Nov. 30, 2010, RT-D

"Picasso's Richmond Period" Feb. 18, 2011 RT-D

"Richmond's Show-Biz Stifling Tax" June 19, 2011, RT-D

"Tongue Tied" Oct. 22, 2013, Style

"Billy Ray Hatley Tribute" Dec. 10, 2013, Style

"The Gold Standard: Remembering High on the Hog" (1977-2006) Feb. 25, 2014, Style

"Full Circle" July 31, 2014, Style

"The Grace Era" Oct. 21, 2014, Style

"Cream Pies for Bullies: The Importance of Satire" Jan. 24, 2015 RT-D

"The Bluster Meister" July 21, 2015, Style

"Maybe We Should Wrap Those Monuments" June 27, 2015, RT-D

"Serving the Greater Good" Feb. 12. 2016, RT-D

"Robbin Thompson's Real Fine Day" Feb. 29, 2016, Style

"The Turning Point for Richmond's Confederate Monuments?" Mar. 15, 2016, Style

"Shredding Magazines, Dying Comets and John Lennon" Jan. 8, 2017, RT-D

"Shaka Brings Sizzle to Siegel Center" Dec. 6, 2017, Style

"High Hopes for VCU Hoops" and "Home Court Advantage" Oct./Nov. 2019, Richmond Magazine

Why more nostalgia? Who cares about what's in the rear view mirror? Well, to take the next step forward, sometimes it helps to understand how you got here. Happy 2020.

-- 30 --

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Tenth Commandment

Note: This piece was originally published by STYLE Weekly in 1999.

According to the Old Testament, Moses heard directly from God about establishing standards of civilized conduct. A portion of the instructions Moses is purported to gotten from God, Himself – known as the Ten Commandments – is still a news-maker as the millennium winds down.

The Bible tells us there were several other rules offered by God atop Mount Sinai; rules we hear less about. If you try reading the book of Exodus, it won’t take long for you to see why. Some of those other rules are rather Old World – such as the proper regulation of slavery and burnt offerings.
For the most part the Ten Commandments are to-the-point laws about behavior, covering basic stuff: Be willing to make sacrifices for what matters most to you. Along the way don’t kill, lie, or steal. Don’t cheat on your spouse, or perhaps spouses – uh-oh, there's that Old World thing again. In the last of the Ten Commandments, Moses said that we ought not to “covet” our neighbors’ goods.

Isn't is curious that after a rather easily understood list of rules, put in the form of “shalt-nots,” the last rule is against even thinking too much about a shalt-not? Like, don't allow yourself to dwell on wanting what's not properly yours.

Covet? Come on Moses, what’s the problem with a little mild coveting? Why not stick to nine rules about actual behavior?

Hopefully, the reader will permit me the postmodern license to move directly from the Bible to a Hollywood thriller, in order to help out Moses'ghost with his answer: In “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) the brilliant but evil psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, instructs the movie’s detective heroine, Clarice Starling – who is in search of a serial killer – that people only covet what they see, probably what they see all the time.

Bulls-eye! Of course the ravenous doctor was right about what fuels obsessive cravings. If one hasn’t seen it, how can one lust for it? Coveting is a festering of the mind; it's a craving for that which one should not have. 

Today, because of the reach of television and the Internet, just about everyone alive can see how wealthy/powerful people day-to-day. One sure thing movies, sitcoms, soaps, and the celebrity news all do – in addition to telling a story – is to show us how well off some people are. Then the advertisements chime in to tell us just how to buy the same pleasures and accouterments the stars in those stories possess.

If you’ve got the dough to buy the stuff, that’s one thing. If you don’t that’s another and it might spawn some coveting.

The lifestyle of a celebrity is constantly sold to consumers as the good life. Wanting that good life is a carrot on the stick that helps drive our consumer culture. Therefore, in some ways, it has been good to us. My thesis for today’s rant is that there is a dark side to this strategy. When powerless/poor people see that same good life promotions they want it, too.

Why not? However, if they are trapped in their circumstances and have no hope, they don’t believe the good life is available through legitimate channels. So, instead of feeling motivated to work overtime, to earn more money, the powerless are left to covet.

Eventually all that desire for the unobtainable can lead to trouble. I’m convinced that some part of the violence we have seen from teenagers, in recent times, stems from their exaggerated sense of powerlessness. In the worst cases, their impatience boils over while waiting for what they imagine to be an adult’s prerogatives and awesome powers.

The good news is that kids grow up. Most of our children won’t shoot up their schools because of frustration with having so little say-so over their schedule. The bad news is that for most of the world’s underdogs their sense of powerlessness is something that isn’t going to dissipate so easily.

In the so-called Third World, the longing for First World goods and options is festering as you read this. Meanwhile, the aforementioned powerless folks aren’t thinking about where to shop for knockoffs of what they see flaunted on screens. A hundred years ago, 50 years ago, the world's underclass wasn't wired into the rest of civilization. Now it is. It sees what we brag about the most. Today the underclass knows exactly how soft life is for the well-off.

History isn’t much help here because it tells us the unwashed masses have usually had to take what they wanted by force. How much longer we can rely on the gentle patience of the world’s hungriest millions is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, perhaps the other side of “thou shalt not covet” is “thou shalt not flaunt.”

Just think about how many American movies and TV shows are about rich people doing as the please. If the wisdom of the ages — the Ten Commandments — suggests it's smart to discourage destructive cravings in the shadows, perhaps it would also be smart to stop promoting such trouble with our brightest spotlights.

Bragging was never cool. Now American's braggarts, who flaunt their wealth, are asking for the sort of trouble that will eventually splash onto all of us.

– 30 –

-- Words and art by F.T. Rea

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

For What It Is

Fiction by F.T. Rea

Jan. 24, 1991: Bright sunlight lit up the thin coating of freezing rain that had painted the city the evening before. In the crisp air, Roscoe Swift, a slender middle-aged man, a freelance artist/writer, walked at a careful but purposeful pace on the tricky sidewalk.

The ice-clad trees along the street were dazzling, as seen through Swift's trusty Ray-Bans. The woolly winter jacket his girlfriend, Sally, had given him for Christmas felt good.

Since the freelancer couldn’t concentrate on his reading of the morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, he left half a mug of black coffee and a dozing cat on his desk to walk to the post office. He hoped the overdue check from a magazine publisher was waiting in his post office box.

Anxiously, Swift opened the box with his key. It was empty. He shrugged. An empty box had its upside, too -- there were no cut-off notices in it. With his last 20 bucks in his pocket, the freelancer hummed a favorite Fats Domino tune, “Ain’t That a Shame,” as he headed home.

Before the end of the workday Roscoe had to finish an 800-word OpEd piece and drop it all off on an editor’s desk in Scott's Addition. With the drum beat for war in the air he wanted to focus on the inevitable unintended consequences of any war. Yet, with the clock ticking on his deadline he was still at a loss for an angle.

The country was still mired in an economic recession. With the national debt climbing an invasion of Iraq was looming. War seemed all but inevitable. Pondering what demons might be spawned by an all-out war in Iraq he detoured a couple of blocks, to pick up a Washington Post and a fresh cup of coffee.

Approaching the 7-Eleven store Roscoe noticed a lone panhandler standing off to the left of the front doors. The tall man was thin and frail. He wore a lightweight denim jacket over a hooded sweatshirt. Snot was frozen in his mustache. The whites of his heavy-lidded eyes were an unhealthy shade of pink.

When Roscoe had run the Fan City Cinema, in the '70s, he had determined his policy should be to never in any way encourage panhandlers to hang around on the sidewalk in the neighborhood surrounding the theater. The rigid policy had lingered well after the comfortable job had faded into the mists.

On this cold day it wasn’t easy for Roscoe to avert his eye from the poor soul’s trembling outstretched hand. Not hearing the desperate man’s hoarse plea for food money was impossible. When there are always so many lives to be saved in our midst, Roscoe wondered, why do we have to go to the Middle East to save lives?

Inside the busy store Roscoe poured himself a large coffee. Black. Fretting profusely, he snapped the cup’s lid in place. It was one of those times when the little Roscoe with horns was standing on one of his shoulders, while his opposite, the one with the halo, was on the other; both were offering counsel.

Roscoe's longtime "policy" caved in seconds later. Still, he decided to give the freeloader food, rather than hand over cash to perhaps finance a bottle of sweet wine. It might change my luck, he thought as he smiled.

Trying to max out the bang-for-the-buck aspect of his gesture, Roscoe settled on a king-sized hot dog, with plenty of free stuff on it -- mustard, chopped onions, relish, jalapeno peppers, chili and some gooey cheese-like product. Not wanting to push it too far, he passed on the ketchup and mayonnaise.

Outside the store, Roscoe found the starving panhandler had vanished. Roscoe looked up and down Cary Street but saw no sign of the poor soul.

So, the crestfallen philanthropist took the meal-on-a-bun with him as he walked, softly singing a Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth.” With his strides matching the beat he kept to the sunny street, to avoid the sidewalk in the shade.
There’s somethin’ happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Tellin’ me I gotta beware.
I think it’s time we stop, children, what's that sound,
Everybody look, what's going down.
A line from that song’s last verse -- “paranoia strikes deep” -- suddenly snapped an idea for the OpEd into place, which launched an instant mini-mania. The freelancer picked up his pace and began whistling a jazzy version of “For What It’s Worth.”

Back in his office/studio, rather than waste money, he tore into the feast he had prepared for a beggar. It seemed the food scared, or perhaps offended, the cat, who fled. Between sloppy bites the freelancer wiped his hands off.

About an hour later the heartburn started. Eventually, it got brutal. Roscoe pressed on. He wrote about the way propaganda always works to sell war -- every war -- as glorious and essential to the everyday people, who risk their lives. That while the wealthy, who rarely take a genuine risk on anything, urge the patriots on and count their profits.

Thinking of the war in Vietnam that thinned his generation out, he wrote:
After the war the veterans were largely ignored, even scorned.
Roscoe lamented the popular culture having gone wrong, so there was no longer a place for anti-war protest songs. Feeling righteous, he asked:
Where are today’s non-conformists? Today's questioners of authority?
With time to spare, the freelancer finished the job and turned in his work at 4:20 p.m. He even managed to pick up the overdue check for $200 he was owed. An hour or so later his sour and noisy stomach began to calm down during his second beer at the Bamboo Cafe.

Sally showed up with a smile and joined the group gathered at the elbow of the marble bar. When Roscoe recounted the tale of breaking his rule and buying the stuffed frankfurter he got a laugh. He explained how the old Buffalo Springfield song gave him an idea for his OpEd piece.

Roscoe's small audience groaned on cue when he finished it off with, “Sometimes it's a thin line that separates heartburn and inspiration ... for what it’s worth.”

* * *

All rights reserved by the author.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

It's Time for Bones

Today VCU played hard on defense. The home team, Wichita State, played harder and smarter at both ends of the floor. One statistic speaks to that smarter observation -- the Shockers had 15 assists to the Rams six assists. Final score: WSU 73, VCU 63.

Overall, as a unit, the Rams aren't a good passing team. Most teams have weaknesses. Passing the ball is probably VCU's biggest.

Some observers would call the Rams' passing "sloppy," which is fair enough, because sometimes it is. Sloppy passes are mostly inaccurate and or ill-timed. But some passes that lead to turnovers should be blamed on the receiver of the pass, if he doesn’t step toward it, to fend off the opponents trying to steal it, or if he doesn‘t do enough to provide a timely target for the passer. 

Thus, the passer isn’t always the only culprit. However, since the passer is the decision-maker he logically gets most of the blame for turnovers. Now I’m going to show my age by reminding readers that passing was a bigger part of the game in bygone days. As basketball has evolved styles have changed.

Yes, I’m thinking that over the last quarter century kids on the playground and in high school have generally put less emphasis on learning and applying the subtleties of passing a basketball aggressively, yet precisely. Nonetheless, when you get to the elite college men’s basketball programs you still find the most successful teams usually do have a decent passing game. My guess is that has more to do with recruiting top talent than great coaching in practice sessions.

Anyway, these days, for many college teams only their point guard is an accomplished playmaking-style passer. VCU's problem is that while their starting point guard, Marcus Evans, is clearly one of the best five all-around basketball players on VCU‘s 2019-20 team, he's just not a confident passer.

Too often Evans seems to be battling his instinct to score first, pass second ... which leads to awkward moments of indecision and some of his ill-advised passes. Against Wichita St. he had zero assists and five turnovers. 

Coach Mike Rhoades‘ team surely needs Evans on the floor for 25-to-28 minutes a game, because he's an important leader. His defensive game is stellar. While he isn’t a great long-range threat, he is a pretty good scorer. His ability to draw fouls is almost uncanny at times and he has an excellent touch at the charity stripe. Yet, he's simply not a natural point guard and the good opposing coaches have noticed it.

Thus, in my view, it’s time to make a lineup move. The starting five needs to lose Mike’L Simms and Bones Hyland should become the starting point guard. I’ve seen enough to believe Bones is a gifted natural point guard. From here on, unless/until another adjustment must be made, I’m saying Rhoades' starting five should be: 1. Hyland, 2. Evans, 3. Jenkins, 4. Vann, 5. Santos-Silva. 

As a freshman Bones very much needs the additional playing time to develop into a better all-around college player. While that process plays out having a better passer at the point will immediately give VCU a better chance at winning games, especially against top shelf teams, such as No. 13 Dayton. The Rams have two games coming against the Flyers.

At 9-3 VCU now has 19 games left on its regular season schedule. The Rams probably need to win 14, maybe even 15, of those remaining games to be a likely invitee to the NCAA tournament. If the Rams continue to turn the ball over like they have so far this season, we may be looking at a NIT postseason, rather than NCAA.

Now I hope Coach Rhoades agrees with me about starting Bones.

-- 30 --

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Flashback: Wondering About Right and Wrong

Here's a piece I wrote for Style Weekly's Back Page in the summer of 1999. I don't remember what the title I suggested was. The editor of that page, Rozanne Epps, changed it to "Do Unto Others."
Do Unto Others
by F.T. Rea

The Ten Commandments have made an unexpected comeback this season. In the wake of recent teen violence, we have heard from pundits and legislators alike who say that posting this excerpt of the Bible on public school walls will help potentially dangerous students avoid running off the tracks.
OK, what’s the harm?
Well, when the guy across the street claims the Koran says it better, what do you say back to him? Next, the lady down the block says that the I Ching is more to the point. And so forth …
Ultimately, I’ve got to believe that the Supreme Court is going to have a serious quarrel with the notion of displaying selected portions of the Old Testament in public schools.
So regardless of the good intentions of those who would put the law according to Moses in the classroom, the First Amendment and a mile of legal precedent tells us: The state can’t establish one particular religion.
Yet I do sympathize with those who want to introduce children to the concept of absolutes. And, I wholeheartedly agree with those who observe that morality seems to be evaporating out of modern life.
The essential line between a healthy desire to improve one’s lot in life and in being so greedy that you’re a menace to society is getting more blurred all the time. Without morality, I’m not sure it is discernible.
Without morality perhaps the only perceived downside to theft, or any other crime, is getting caught.
If it’s ethical guidelines that are scarce, why not look to history?
Right beside the Ten Commandments, put up a copy of Hammurabi’s Code. After that, maybe we toss in some Aristotle. In short, let’s bring the basic rules of all major religions and philosophies into the classroom. Some of us may be surprised to see how similar the ethical precepts are.
In the name of “citizenship studies,” let’s put the history of ethics and laws in the classroom as a course of study.
I’m sure it would be possible to design a streamlined course that would offer second or third graders a basic overview of the subject matter. A subsequent look at the same kind of material might be offered in high school, with greater detail and more opportunity for discussion.
As long as we don’t tell students in public schools to pray, or we seek to raise one faith over the other, religion itself can’t be taboo. As we all know, much of the history of art and literature can’t be told without picking through religious relics.
Now, I’m proposing that the actual tenets of the body of thought be examined as well as the artifacts.
The approach of the course would be to focus on the original purpose of particular precepts, together with the way religious canon has become custom and law through the ages.
If the reader is concerned that we must include every faith or philosophy, including such aberrations as devil worship, never fear. When we study art history we don’t cover every artist, or art movement, in a survey course.
Therefore only the religions and philosophies that have had the most impact on the tides of history would need to be covered.
As the 20th century winds down, this scribbler is not at all confident that most children in the United States have much of a grasp of the classic concepts of right and wrong — much less why. And let’s face it, some kids draw a bad hand when it comes to parents.
Good parents or not, for many children the buzz of popular culture is so loud and prevalent that it overwhelms all other information.
Please don’t confuse me with those aboard the “Hollywood is evil” bandwagon. Nonetheless, I am comfortable saying that TV, pop music and the mass media in general aren’t good either. While they aren’t intrinsically good or evil, as they compete to make a buck they will jam pack a child’s head with sights and sounds.
If we expect all the busy parents in the real world to teach their offspring to see the vital connection between their acts and the inevitable consequences, we are indulging in wishful thinking.
Furthermore, if we expect children to pick up a clear sense of morality from popular culture, we are simply fools.

There is no set of instructions as to how to go about injecting morality into a secular society. In the past, like it or not, much of that sort of thinking came from the dominant religion in a region seeping into every fabric of the culture. So the parents were never expected to do the job alone.
Can there be any doubt that a society hoping to prosper has to find an effective way to instill in its young citizens an awareness of, and hopefully a respect for, its collective sense of right and wrong?

Finally, if it isn’t done in the schools, then where and when?

-- 30 --

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Death Calls for Piggy

Note: Carl W. Hutchins (1924-2006) was a professional boxer in his youth. He claimed to have been a contender in his day. Most people called him “Piggy.” This piece that follows was written shortly after his 2006 death (references to dates have been updated).

Piggy Hutchins was known by three generations of Richmonders. They were mostly locals of a certain stride -- folks who ate, drank and shared their lives in his restaurants. Piggy’s most loyal patrons tended to use his dives/eateries as a clubhouse … except when a feud kept one of them away for a while.

A corner restaurant called “Piggy’s,” located at Mulberry and Cary (where the Cary St. Cafe is now), began the series of places he would own. The Attaché, at 5816 W. Broad St., was the last of them; it closed down in 2002.

Twenty-four years ago for a short stint I was associated with the legendary Attaché (although for some scammy reason Piggy was calling it William Henry’s that year). Needing money finally pushed me across the Henrico County line, inquiring after a bartender position that had been listed in the newspaper's want ads. That afternoon I met the one and only Piggy Hutchins. Prior to that I had known him only by reputation.

After a pleasant chat with Piggy, his older brother, Pete and a nephew, Bill, gave me a tour of the decidedly suburban split-level facility. That entailed the restaurant itself, the after-hours club on the upper story and the basement tavern. Along the way they explained that Piggy was really looking for an idea more than someone else to put on the payroll. He had advertised the job to attract someone who'd give him a new scheme.

Well, I needed money enough to jump-start my creative juices. That soon spawned a concept of how to use the basement space. Live music and comedy. So we went back upstairs.

Like characters in a Damon Runyon story, we sat at the main table to cut a deal over draft beer and coffee. Right away, Piggy liked it that I volunteered to take on the promotional costs and booking duties. He liked it even better that I wanted only a cut -- 20 percent -- of the bar receipts. No guarantees. Plus, of course, I would get tips as the bartender on duty.

Meanwhile, as I went on with my plan I could tell Piggy liked telling his colorful war stories to a writer. Piggy's other brother, Sonny, a former stock car racer, stopped by and joined us. As it happened, I left the place that afternoon nurturing an absurd notion that became the Underdog Room. For three nights a week, I presented stand-up comics and live music in the basement, which had a boxer's heavy bag hanging in it, leftover from when Piggy still worked out and trained young boxers in that space.

To kick off the Underdog Room era, I booked the Vibra-Turks. Some of them were usually known as the Bop Cats. Other had been in Li'l Ronnie and the Bluebeats. Anyway, the Vibra-Turks were: Mike Moore (bass); Gary Fralin (keyboard); Lindy Fralin (guitar); Stuart Grimes (drums); Jim Wark (guitar). In one way of looking at it, we had a band with a fake name playing in a room with a fake name.

Nonetheless, a bunch of handbills on poles and good break, publicity-wise -- the RT-D featured a story about it -- helped to flush out enough barflies and aging scenesters to make for a good-sized opening weekend audience. When Piggy came downstairs to take check it out he liked the look of the crowd. He even seemed pleased with the Vibra-turks, but some members of his staff members remained skeptical about the direction of things.

On Thursdays it was comedy night. Usually seven or eight comics would show up. My old friend, John Porter, served as the emcee/recruiter. The performers split the cash from a cheap cover charge and drank beer for free. Hoping to establish to new venue, several of the the area's comedians stopped by to do a few minutes on most Thursdays.

On Friday and Saturday nights a band played, usually the same band on both nights. The bands would take what came in at the door, but as the weeks wore on, getting my Fan District nightlife friends to venture into Henrico County grew more difficult. As the take at the door shriveled, from one week to the next, I gradually ran through the established acts I could easily persuade to give the Underdog Room a try.     

The Scariens, a local performance-art/rock 'n' roll act, stretched the culture clash aspect of my shaky gig to pieces. Piggy and his Attaché crowd of regulars were utterly baffled by the Scariens, who sometimes seemed to baffle themselves, too. They were led by another old friend, Ronnie Soffee.

To make matters more fractious, some of the comedians seemed to rub Piggy's confidants who ventured downstairs the wrong way; to say they didn't get the jokes is an understatement. After almost four months of it, I came to my senses and bailed out.

Leaving Palookaville on good terms, I limped back to the Fan. It had been fun working with the comedians and musicians in such an off-the-wall situation. And, getting to know Piggy, to the extent that I did, was like living in a low-budget film noir picture from the late-1940s. 

Friday, November 22, 2019

Single Bullet Theory?

Camelot at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave lasted 1,036 days. In particular, for the children in school on Nov. 22, 1963, the murder of President John F. Kennedy was stunning in a way nothing has been since.

On Nov. 24, 1963 a live national television audience witnessed the murder of the assassination’s prime suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald. There was no doubt that Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub operator, was the trigger-man. What made him do it is still being questioned.

Shortly after JFK’s death, columnist Mary McGrory expressed her dark feelings to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “We’ll never laugh again.”

Moynihan, who was an Assistant Secretary of Labor then, famously replied, “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

The cynicism spawned by the cloaked-in-secrecy aftermath of the JFK assassination has tinted everything the aforementioned school children have seen since those dark days. Everything.

However, I’m not at all convinced there had to have been a complicated conspiracy to kill the president and cover up the tracks. Furthermore, after he was dead, just because some people deliberately obscured related information, we don't necessarily know why they did it.

In some cases it was probably people trying to cover asses, hither and yon, for a myriad of reasons. Please don't get me wrong, though, I’m not trying to say I doubt there was such a murder conspiracy.

So, for now, let's skip past the argument over whether, or not, Oswald acted alone. For the moment, let's not speculate about whether Oswald was a dupe, or one of the greatest marksmen who ever lived. The point of this remembrance is to recognize that the secrecy that rushed in that obscured the truth about what happened in November of 1963 poisoned the American culture in a way that is still being felt. 

The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known as the Warren Commission, published its report on Sept. 24, 1964: Essentially, Oswald was found to have been a lone wolf assassin. Which immediately unleashed the questioning of the Commission’s findings.

Perhaps its famous “single bullet theory,” which had one projectile traveling circuitously through two victims was great sleuthing. Or maybe it was just an unbelievable reach.


In 1965 gunmen murdered Malcolm X in an auditorium in Manhattan. Three years later Rev. Martin Luther King was killed on a motel balcony in Memphis by a sniper. Only two months later, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's presidential run shockingly ended, he was shot to death in a Los Angeles hotel. It was a shock, but in 1968 it was not a surprise.

Unfortunately, the official stories on those three shootings were widely doubted, even disbelieved. In the ‘60s more public scrutiny of how those assassination probes were conducted might have led to different conclusions. More importantly, even if more sunlight into those investigations failed to produce different outcomes, at least Americans might have felt better about the good faith of the processes.

Instead, it seemed then the authorities generally believed the citizenry didn't really have a right to see the whole truth and nothing-but. Too often it seems to have been decided on high that the public was better off not knowing some things, as if we were all children.

Of course, such secrecy can hide everyday malfeasance, as well. Shielding the citizenry from such information is the sort of thinking that went with world wars, with spies lucking about. In the 1960s, perhaps as part of the Cold War, the public more or less expected its government to routinely withhold all sorts of secrets.

That, whether the public like it, or not. Eventually, it took the rudest of revelations to snap many Americans out of blithely tolerating an over-abundance of secrecy:
  • The My Lai Massacre horrors.
  • The publishing of the Pentagon Papers.
  • The Watergate Scandal hearings.
  • The Iran-Contra Scandal hearings.
  • The bogus justification for invading Iraq. 
As those events paraded by, America steadily morphed into a nation of cynics. Now, those of us who recognize the damage that's been done by official lies know better. We were wrong to ever have accepted such skullduggery in the name of keeping America safe.


In 1997 Sen. Moynihan’s book, “Secrecy: The American Experience,” was published. In the opening chapter he wrote:
In the United States, secrecy is an institution of the administrative state that developed during the great conflicts of the twentieth century. It is distinctive primarily in that it is all but unexamined. There is a formidable literature on regulation of the public mode, virtually none on secrecy. Rather, there is a considerable literature, but it is mostly secret. Indeed, the modes of secrecy remain for the most part -- well, secret.
On inquiry there are regularities: patterns that fit well enough with what we have learned about other forms of regulation. But there has been so little inquiry that the actors involved seem hardly to know the set roles they play. Most important, they seem never to know the damage they can do. This is something more than inconveniencing to the citizen. At times, in the name of national security, secrecy has put that very security in harm's way.
Fifty-six years after the murder of JFK, it’s high time to stop tolerating unnecessary secrecy in government at all levels. After all, secrets that invite speculation and provoke conspiracy theories serve a nefarious agenda just as well as a lie. 

Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote: 
"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."
Today, to trust official conclusions, we need plenty of Brandeis' sunlight. We not only need investigations, we need to be able to see into the investigations. So expert testimony at Congressional hearings is a good thing.

Just the process of an honest search for truth can be beneficial. The ongoing impeachment hearings in the House Intelligence Committee have been good for the USA, regardless of how the whole process pans out. Here's why: Millions of young Americans got to see several heroic federal government workers at their best, righteously concerned with the commonweal. Because they have been exposed to the truth, now it will be harder for those young viewers to ever buy the conservative boilerplate propaganda that casts diplomats and other government experts as fuzzy-thinking eggheads and incompetent goldbricks.

Lastly, for democracy to have a chance of working properly and delivering good government, we the voters need to know whose money is behind every politician's ploy. Knowing who paid for what always helps. Brandeis was spot on about the power of sunlight. 

Taking it home: Single bullet theory, you say?

Great name for a punk era band.

-- 30 --

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Remembering No. 32

Photo by Dan Dunivan
At the Siegel Center just before noon today a former basketball player who recently died was honored before the game. The player was Edward H. Peeples, Jr. (1935-2019), a longtime Virginia Commonwealth University professor, who actually played his basketball for RPI (Richmond Professional Institute), the forerunner to VCU. The public address announcer spoke briefly about Dr. Peeples' long distinguished career, mentioned that members of his family were on hand and called for a moment of silence.

The record shows Ed Peeples was co-captain of the first RPI men's basketball team to finish the season with a winning record; it was the 1956-57 team. And, I'll get back to Peeples, but first I have to report that the Rams ran the visiting Jacksonville State University Gamecocks out of the gym.

Six of VCU's players scored in double figures to pave the way to a crushing victory: VCU 93, JSU 65. The game really wasn't as close as the score might suggest.

In the tilt's first five minutes the revved-up Rams forced five turnovers, facilitating a 16-0 run. In all, they made 58 percent of their shots from the field, which of course, always helps. Meanwhile, their aggressive defense forced 21 turnovers, blocked 13 shots and held the befuddled Gamecocks to a 38 percent shooting percentage. On offense VCU had 23 assists on 38 total baskets. After the game VCU's head coach, Mike Rhoades, was happy about the 23 assists.

Eleven Rams were on the floor for over 10 minutes. This was such a team effort there's no place here for any individual statistics. It was what some observers like to call a "complete game." Moreover, for Rhoades' VCU team to look this polished on offense and relentless on defense in mid-November is quite noteworthy.

Here's more about Ed Peeples from a webpage about his book, "Skalawag." To see the whole page go here. 
Dr. Edward H. Peeples, Jr. [was] Emeritus Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at Virginia Commonwealth University where he taught for more than 30  years. Peeples made most of his academic contributions in the fields of medical behavioral science, public health, epidemiology and sociology. But much of his research and writing dealt with contemporary issues of social justice and he spent most of his adult life as a civil rights advocate involved in a variety of human rights reforms in Virginia and other places across the south.
Now I wonder if that brief pre-game tribute to Peeples helped set the tone. Which spawned an idea: Would dedicating the rest of the season to Peeples be a good move to make? It doesn't take much to say that's what you're doing.

And, not that I'm superstitious, but I wonder if a circular black and gold patch, maybe about two inches wide, with a 32 on it (for Peeples) worn on the Rams uniforms, from here on, would help inspire more complete games.

Some players like good luck charms. Coaches, too.

Maybe it would be good fortune of a sort to occasionally boost basketball game announcers on television into explaining to their viewers what the No. 32 is about. Who Peeples was, etc.

Hey, wouldn't that story put VCU, as a whole, in a rather flattering light? It might even be fun to hear it told at the NCAA tournament.

Just a thought.

-- 30 --

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Save Byrd Park Effort Was Worth It

Nine years ago I was part of an ad hoc group devoted to saving Byrd Park from an intrusion that would have changed the nature of the park in a radical way that we couldn't abide. 

We were a small group of Byrd Park's neighbors and a few park enthusiasts who found one another out at the park. We became activists, of a sort. We did our research. Even had a Save Byrd Park Facebook page we used to communicate.   

Our mission was to prevent a commercial, theme park-like development from invading the last few acres of the original park that still remained unpaved, untended and natural. 

Below are links to two articles I wrote about the situation described above; 

By the way, we won.  


Friday, October 25, 2019

The Mad Don Zone

After all of the investigating, it's ironic that new and solid evidence of President Donald Trump's impeachable acts suddenly parachuted into the picture. More may be on the way.

Still, while impeachment in the House appears to be likely, because of the politics baked into this situation it's widely believed that no amount of such evidence will ever get a conviction in the Senate. That's because mere proof of his malfeasance seems unlikely to move many Republican senators to do the right thing ... simply because it's right. By now we all know it will take way more than that.

However, just as fear has compelled them to cling to Trump, a larger fear could make them drop him like a burning bagful of batshit. The “fear” I mean is fear of Trump's unbridled impulsiveness. 

Yes, I'm talking about fear of what his willful ignorance could spawn. Fear of his need to lash out and act alone. Fear of his unchecked power to direct the departments of State, Defense and Justice as his reckless whims dictate. Fear of his insatiable lust for more power. Fear of his disgusting cruelty. In other words, fear of Trump's craziness.

The unfolding nightmare in Syria underlines the danger of waiting until January 20, 2021, to be rid of Trump. The possibility that a coast-to-coast, snowballing fear of what the hell he might do, if he's pushed too hard, may have the potential to change enough minds. Enough to spare the USA from another year of life in the Mad Don Zone. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

It Paid to Advertise

The distinctive front windows of the Bearded Bros.,
black lights and Dayglo-painted panels (1969).

As the doorway into show business opened for me, 50 years ago, I entered gladly. At the time I had a sales job I was itching to quit. What I wanted was to be a cartoonist/writer and eventually a filmmaker. So serving sandwiches and beer in a Fan District dive then seemed like a step in that direction. At least more so than continuing to sell janitorial supplies.

Thus, when a friend, Fred Awad, offered me work at the restaurant he was operating my coat-and-tie job was history. Actually, my coming aboard as a bartender/manager was part of a larger plan we had cooked up to convert what was then a typical blue collar neighborhood beer joint/eatery into the Fan Distict's most happening night club.

The restaurant belonged to Fred's parents, who wanted to retire. Toward that goal, they had turned it over to their sons, Fred and Howard. The brothers changed the name of the place from Marconi's to the Bearded Brothers. It was located on the southeast corner of Allison St. and West Broad St.

Growing beards was easy, but as it happened the Awad boys couldn’t agree on how to run the business, so the younger brother, Howard, left to pursue the quest of opening a place of his own.

In a series of conversations Fred and I had talked ourselves into believing the fun-loving baby boomers in the Fan District needed a place to enjoy cold beer, hot food, live music and a psychedelic light show. That, together with the edgy spectacle of go-go girls on stage -- dancing topless. At this time, in 1969, such "dancing" was going on in Roanoke. But it had yet to make its way to Richmond.

And, speaking of booming babies, at this time my wife, Valerie, was six months pregnant. Fred’s wife, Mary Ann, was seven months along. So while Fred and I were brimming over with youthful confidence that the new scheme for the restaurant would pay off, in truth, it was under pressure to do so right away.

It took us a couple of weeks to paint the walls of the interior flat black and build the stage for the dancers and light show apparatus. We also painted the front window panes that faced Broad Street in Dayglo colors illuminated by black lights. While I did most of the window painting, a handful of volunteers also painted a few of the panes. 

Fred booked a couple of local rock ‘n’ roll bands. They performed maybe three or four nights a week, and that went over well as the '60s wound to its conclusion. As we had planned, the live music immediately brought in a fresh nighttime crowd. A four-man group calling itself Natural Wildlife became a regular attraction.Then it came time to hire the go-go dancers. So a help-wanted sign went up in the restaurant.

A few young women came in asking about the dancing job. Eventually, we settled on two. One of them had some go-go girl experience, the other didn’t. But only the dancer new to the exhibitionism trade could be there for the first night, which we advertised in the local newspaper. The ad art was my work; it featured a pen-and-ink rendered silhouette of a female dancer and a new Bearded Bros. logo I had designed.

By 8 p.m. the place was packed, wall-to-wall. We were selling beer like never before. The only problem was that our featured dancer with her new sequinned costume, which included tasseled pasties to cover her nipples (Alcohol Beverage Control Board regulation), was scary late. She hadn’t called, either.

With the crowd clamoring for the promoted dancing aspect of the show to get underway, a woman with a sculpted hairdo, wearing shades (at night), waved to get my attention. As the joint was noisy, I motioned to her to come around to the end of the bar I was behind. In a what was maybe a Queens accent, she asked something like, “Do you need another dancer?”

Trying to hide my pure glee, I called Fred over. She told us she had noticed the Bearded Bros. ad in a discarded newspaper on the counter of the Greyhound bus station’s coffee shop. She claimed she had been dancing in a club in Baltimore. She was chewing gum. Fred promptly offered her $50 to alternate sets with the other dancer.  

That night’s experience gave me new faith in the power of advertising. The Greyhound Girl even had her costume with her in her suitcase. Fred paid her in advance and suggested that since the other woman was running late, she could go on right away.

It all went over like gangbusters. Up on stage, with the lights and music, she danced like the pro she actually was. Natural Wildlife was cooking and the beer taps stayed open.

After the dancer’s first set was over, she put on a robe and found Fred and me behind the bar. She laughed, “There ain’t no other girl, is there?”

Either Fred or I probably said, “Hey, we don’t know where she is.”

“I’ll need another fifty bucks to go back up there,” is about what she said ... firmly.

The money was put in her hand without hesitation. She agreed to do two more 20-minute sets. Yes, a hundred bucks was a lot of money for about an hour's worth of work, then, but there was no use in quibbling.

After that night we never saw her again. Other women were hired, pronto. The show went on. 

It became my duty to paint the dancers with Dayglo paint. I painted vines curling around their arms and legs, stars and stripes on their torsos, etc. Yet, after a few weeks of that, it seemed the most vocal of the customers didn't care much about the artsy aspects of topless dancing, such as they were. They preferred bare skin. So, the Laugh-In-style body decorating stopped.

Although painting the dancers was a pleasant enough task, hanging out after work was the best perk of the Bearded Bros. job (which wasn't always paying me as much as I needed to make each week). Frequently friends, some of them musicians, stayed around late, jamming, smoking pot and playing pinball games. The most notable of the musicians who passed through was Bruce Springsteen, whose band occasionally played in Richmond then. He was a skinny, quiet guy who didn’t stand out as much then as he would later.

When my daughter was born in January the Bearded Bros. scene was lively. Then, as the weather warmed up, the crowds began to thin out. Other clubs opened up offering live music, some of which were closer to VCU. Gradually, the restaurant began to drift back toward being what it had been before it had been painted black.

The restaurant's daytime crowd of regulars from the neighborhood didn't always mix well with the hippies coming in at night for the music. Then the topless angle turned out to be mostly a fad that sort of clashed with both crowds. So it was discontinued.

In the spring I had to look for a real job again. After short runs at a couple of forgettable jobs, I landed a sales position at WRNL AM/FM. Richmond Newspapers still owned the two radio stations then. Once again, I learned it paid to advertise. And, on that job I did my first professional writing, when I began penning commercials and dreaming up promotions for my advertising clients.

Eventually, Fred's mother took the restaurant back over. About a year later Howard Awad opened up Hababas on the 900 block of W. Grace St., where he had a lot of fun making large money (1971-84) serving cold beer and playing canned music on his popular bar’s monster sized stereo.

In the years to come topless dancing morphed into a creepy form of entertainment aimed at an entirely different audience. Truth be told, since the time of the Bearded Brothers I've never had any interest in the places that feature that form of entertainment.

Although I saved copies of the aforementioned newspaper ad, the logo I did for Natural Wildlife cards and handbills, etc., I haven't seen any of that stuff in a long time. The only remaining souvenirs from my initial stumble into show biz are a few black and white photographs, like the shot above of the Bearded Bros. distinctly 1969 front windows,.

All rights reserved.  

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Handbill War of 1982

This clipping is from Throttle's July 1982 issue.

In 1982 the City of Richmond tweaked its City Code to crack down on the posting of unauthorized notices on fixtures in the public way. With a focus on the Fan District, policemen pulled handbills from utility poles and charged whoever they held responsible for posting the flier with violating the new statutes.

On June 28 of that same year, David Stover, a photographer and part-time usher at the Biograph Theatre, was ordered by a General District Court judge, R.W. Duling, to pay a $25 fine. Stover’s misdemeanor conviction stemmed from promoting a gig for his band, The Prevaricators. He admitted to the crime.

In the weeks before Stover’s court date others in local bands had been fined for committing the same crime. In the early-'80s Richmond’s live music scene may have been the strongest it had been in decades. The crackdown suddenly had most clubs and bands afraid to rely on handbill campaigns to promote their shows. As fliers were the main promotional tool for most of the rock 'n' roll shows the crackdown threatened to stifle that scene.

As the manager of the Biograph, I had been using the same sort of handbills on a regular basis for 10 years to promote that repertory cinema’s fare, in particular the midnight shows. In the last couple of years xerography had made the cost of a short run of little posters much more affordable. So, I wasn’t about to accept a ban on that integral method of promotion without a fight.

On top of that, it felt to me like the City of Richmond was not only trampling on my freedom of speech rights, but it was trying to undermine the Fan District's nightlife scene. Given those thoughts, 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, toting a flier for “The Atomic Café,” the movie we were playing at that time. He told me he had removed it from a pole in the neighborhood. I promptly admitted to putting it up. He issued me 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.

In part, the crackdown was spawned by the resentment some property owners in the Fan felt toward VCU’s growing presence. In that time the look associated with punk rock -- how the anti-establishment kids dressed, as well as their art -- was just as off-putting to some cultural conservatives as was the amplified sound of the music, itself. In a larger sense, it was all part of a familiar culture clash, warmed over from the late-'60s.

Consequently, the leaders of the Fan District Association of that era were dead set against the handbills that promoted edgy happenings in the Fan. Prompted, in some part by that civic association’s pressure, the City of Richmond proclaimed outlawing handbills would help with the litter problem.

All of which prompted me to start reading about similar situations in other places. In particular, cases that involved using fixtures in the public way, such as utility poles, as kiosks. I found some useful precedents that backed up my thinking. Plus, I began to study political art and outlaw art, down through history, with a fresh passion. 

Scheming about how to present my argument in court filled my head for the next four months. First, I wanted the court to see an essential context -- our society tolerates all sorts of signage on utility poles, because the messages are considered useful and the practice works.

Then, I wanted to convince a judge that once you considered all the handbills in the neighborhood around VCU, as a whole, it could be seen as an information system. It was a system that some young people were relying on for information, just the same as others might rely on newspapers obtained from a box sitting on public sidewalk. After all, what right did the newspaper company have to block any part of the public sidewalk with its box full of information, including a lot of advertising? What allowed for that?

One person might read the entertainment section in a local newspaper. Another person might look to the utility poles in their neighborhood, to read the posters touting live music shows or poetry readings. Some would trust the information found in a newspaper. Others might put more faith in the handbills posted on certain poles they walk past regularly. 

The only reason privately owned utility poles had ever been allowed to impose on public property, in the first place, was that electricity and telephone lines had been seen as serving the commonweal. So, why not use the bottom of the same poles as kiosks?   

Somewhere along the line, I told my bosses it would cost them nothing in legal fees. A couple of my friends who were on the theater's softball team, who were also pretty good lawyers, would handle the defense.

To gather plenty of good examples of handbills to use as evidence, we had an art show at the Biograph (see flier above). On October 5, some 450 fliers, posted on black foam core panels, were hung in the theater’s lobby. In all, there were probably 40 or 45 artists represented. A group of friends acted as impromptu art expert judges to select the best five of the show.

Naturally, there was a keg of beer on hand to grease the wheels of progress.

Two of the handbill art show judges from that night also served as expert witnesses at the trial. They were: Gerald Donato and David Manning White. Donato was an art professor at VCU; White was the retired head of the mass communications department at VCU. The best 100 of the handbills from the show were later taken to court as evidence.

One of Phil Trumbo’s Orthotones (later Orthotonics) handbills was named Best in Show. Most people who knew much about the handbill artists in the Fan would have said Trumbo was top dog, so it was a popular decision by the judges.


Thus, on November 5, 1982, I witnessed a fascinating scene in which an age-old question — what is art? — was hashed out in front of a patient judge, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the parade of exhibits and witnesses the defense attorneys put before him. The room was packed with observers, which included plenty of gypsy musicians, film buffs and art students wearing paint-speckled dungarees.

Trumbo testified at the trial as a handbill expert, to explain how to make a handbill and why they were used by promoters of entertainment. He also described how the music and art associated with the bands and clubs were all part of the same scene that flowed out of the neighborhood's university.

My defense attorneys attacked the wording of the city's statute I was charged with violating as “overreaching.” They asserted on my behalf that it was my right to post the handbill, plus the public had a right to see it. The prosecution stuck to its guns and called the handbill, “litter.”

The judge was reminded that history-wise, posters predate newspapers. Furthermore, we asserted that some of the cheaply printed posters, a natural byproduct of having a university with a burgeoning art school in the neighborhood, were worthwhile art.

At a crucial moment, Donato was being grilled by the prosecutor. The Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney, William B. Bray, asked the witness if the humble piece of paper in his hand, the offending handbill, could actually be “art.”

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

The stubborn prosecutor grumbled, reasserting that it was no better than trash in the gutter. Having grown weary of the artsy, high-brow vernacular being slung around by the witnesses, the prosecutor tried one last time to make Donato look foolish.

As Warhol’s soup cans had just been mentioned by the art expert, the prosecutor asked something like, “If you were in an alley and happened upon a pile of debris spilled out from a tipped-over trashcan, could that display be art, too?”

“Well,” said the artist, pausing momentarily for effect, “that would depend on who tipped the can over.”

Donato’s punch line was perfectly delivered. The courtroom erupted into laughter. Even the judge had to fight off a smile.

The crestfallen prosecutor gave up; he had lost the case. Although I got a kick out of the crack, too, I’ve always thought the City’s mouthpiece missed an opportunity to hit the ball back across the net.

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

A smarter lawyer could well have exploited that angle.

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

Perhaps the question should not have been — how can you tell fake art from real art? Any town is full of bad art, mediocre art and good art. Name your poison. The better question to ask would be about whether the art is pleasing to the eye, thought-provoking or useful.

Then any viewer can be the expert witness. However, when it comes to great art, maybe it still depends on who tips the can over.


The next day the story about winning the handbill case was draped stylishly across the top of the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
‘Atomic Café’ handbill case is still clouded
By Frank Green
Sat., Nov. 6, 1982

Though the case has ended, the fallout from “The Atomic Café” may not be over.

Richmond District Court Judge Jose R. Davila Jr. dismissed a charge yesterday against Terry Rea, the manager of the Biograph Theater, who allegedly posted handbills advertising the movie “The Atomic Café” on some utility poles in the Fan in June…

…The case concerned the seemingly simple issue of the allegedly illegal posting of a handbill. But before it was over, the proceedings touched on topics that included free speech, soup cans, and nuclear energy, and invoked the names of such diverse personalities as Andy Warhol and the city‘s public safety director.

Rea’s attorneys, John G. Colan and Stuart R. Kaplan, argued the city’s ordinance was unconstitutional because it violated Rea’s right of freedom of speech…

…“The city, GRTC, VCU, churches, the Boys Club and all the candidates use the public’s utility poles to post their signs. They know as well as the general public that there is nothing pretty about a naked pole. Handbills pose no danger to anyone. Is free speech only for some?” Rea asked in a handbill he had printed up before yesterday’s trial.   
Later that Saturday Richmond’s afternoon daily, the Richmond News Leader, carried this story:
Art or litter? Judge rules handbills not in ‘public way’
by Frank Donnelly
Nov. 6, 1982

One man’s art may be another man’s litter, but the real question was whether it blocks the “public way.”

Terry Rea, manager of the Biograph Theatre in Richmond, was charged in June with obstructing a city sidewalk when he posted handbills on utility poles in the Fan District.

Rea’s attorneys, eliciting testimony on mass media and art from several professors at Virginia Commonwealth University, argued yesterday that the city law limited their client’s freedom of speech.

However, Richmond General District Judge Jose R. Davila, Jr., said the issue came down to whether the posters obstructed the public way, and he ruled that the commonwealth’s attorney’s office failed to prove they did.

Davila dismissed the charge against the manager of the theater but stopped short of finding the city law unconstitutional, which also had been requested by Rea’s attorney’s.

The city now must decide whether to find a better legal argument to defend the city law or to revise it, officials said. The law is used by the police to combat excessive advertising in the public way, which is defined as any place open to the public, such as a street or sidewalk.

“The poles were perfectly clean this morning,” Capt. Robert T. Millikin, Jr., said about the possible impact of the decision. “Between you and me, I don’t know what they’ll [sic] going to look like between now and tonight.”

For the last year, Fan District residents have complained to police about the unsightliness caused by posters on trees and utility poles, Millikin said. The police asked businesses in June to stop posting the handbills and most businesses did so, he said.

Rea said he always has relied on handbills as an inexpensive but effective way to advertise movies at the theater, which specializes in the showing of avant-garde movies. Two weeks later, he was charged with a misdemeanor after posting advertisements for the anti-nuclear power movie, “The Atomic Cafe.”

The manager was charged under a law that states: “It shall be unlawful for any persons to obstruct or use a public way for advertising, promotional or solicitation purposes or for any purpose connected therewith ... by placing attacking [sic] or maintaining a sign on or to a fixture (such as a utility pole) ...”

...David M. White, a former VCU professor of mass communication and author of 20 books on the media, said handbills are a unique form of communication. The theater could advertise in newspapers but the cost was prohibitive, he said.

Jerry Donato, an associate VCU professor of fine arts, said that posters in the Fan District contained both art and messages. “The Atomic Cafe” posters, which contained the slogan, “A hot spot in a Cold War,” criticized the use of nuclear power, he said.

Asked by assistant commonwealth’s attorney William B. Bray whether a bunch of soup cans on the ground is art, Donato replied, “It depends on who arranged them.”

The courtroom, which held about 30 artists and supporters of the theater, erupted into laughter.

Bray said purpose of the statute was to prevent littering but agreed that another reason was to prevent obstruction of the public way. The posting of handbills could block the public way by falling off of a utility pole and causing pedestrians to slip, he said. The posting of the advertisements caused a hardship for the police, which sometimes had to take down the posters, Millikin said...

...Before the trial, Rea had argued, “The handbill posted in the public way is a unique and vital form of communication. Production and distribution is direct, swift and cheap.”

That message was printed on a handbill.

In 1985, Richmond once again passed new laws forbidding unauthorized fliers on utility poles. Another crackdown ensued.

This time it spawned a reaction from several of the Fan District’s handbill artists, musicians and promoters -- activists who called themselves the Fan Handbill Association.

Eventually, this issue prompted me to design a two-page, twice-a-week magazine, SLANT, made to be stapled to utility poles. There were cartoons, stories and ads. But that’s another story for another day.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Evil's Second Coming

Herblock cartoon from 1949
Note: This reaction to 9/11 piece I penned was originally published by STYLE Weekly on May 15, 2002. Looking back on it, I have to thank Rozanne Epps at STYLE for deciding to run this one on the Back Page, because the climate at the time was against running opinion pieces that questioned the Bush administration's post-9/11 tactics in any way. Many publishers had become too afraid of losing advertising. I added the famous Herblock 'toon to this post. It didn't run with the original piece.


Evil's Second Coming
by F.T. Rea

Washing in on what poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) might have called a “blood-dimmed tide,” the specter of evil suddenly emerged from the periphery of modern life eight months ago. In the blue skies of the time before 9/11’s sucker punch, the notion of pure evil had an Old World air about it. Absolutes, such as good and evil, had no seat at the table of postmodern thinking.

After 9/11, a generation of Americans suddenly learned a bitter lesson: Evil never went away. Living in a land of plenty, it had gotten to be a pleasant habit to avert our eyes from evil-doings in lands of want. Evil had gone out of style, as a concept, only because times were so easy.

The last American president to get much mileage out of the word "evil" was probably Ronald Reagan, with his “evil empire” characterization of the USSR and its sphere of influence. Now, 20 years later, we have a president who sees “an axis of evil” — an alleged phenomenon that puzzles most of the world’s leaders, or so they say.

George W. Bush apparently has little use for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stalwart advice to a nation in need of a boost in confidence — “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Rather than urge his people to rise above it, Bush chooses to color-code fear. The propagandists of the Bush administration have been successful in cultivating the public’s anxiety since September. Whether that’s been done for our own good remains to be seen. Perhaps it has, but this much is clear now — all the official danger alerts about nuclear power plants, bridges and crop-dusters have been effective in keeping most of the natural questioning of the administration’s moves at bay.

To hear Attorney General John Ashcroft tell it, the architects of 9/11 are the personification of the most virulent form of evil ever known. Although much of the evidence that would establish his absolute guilt in connection with 9/11 remains a state secret, Osama bin Laden is said to have shot to the top of the chart.

Forget about Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin and Pol Pot. They were amateurs.Then again, evil, like beauty, has always been in the eye of the beholder.

Wasn’t it evil to deliberately dump tons of potent pesticide into the James River during the ’70s to make a greedy buck? Once it was in Virginia’s water, Kepone wasn’t so different from a bio-terror agent in the same water.

With the news seeping out of the cloisters about child-molesting priests and the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-ups, whose betrayal was more evil, the molester or the higher-ups who hid and facilitated his crimes?

Whether evil exists in some pure form, off in another dimension, is not my department. What’s known here is that in the real world evil is contagious. Lurking in well-appointed rooms or hiding in caves, evil remains as it ever was — ready to spread.

None of this is to suggest that al Qaida shouldn’t be put out of business. It isn’t to say that knocking the Taliban off was a bad idea. There’s no question here about whether the United States should protect itself from the networks of organized terror that are hell-bent on destroying the modern world.

Still, today’s evil is the same evil our forefathers faced in their wars. Evil hasn’t changed; technology has. With modern weapons in their hands, the fanatics of the world have the potential to wreak havoc like never before.

What has changed is the extent to which the hate festering in the souls of the world’s would-be poobahs and their psychopathic followers can be weaponized. It’s worth noting that the weapons of mass destruction that are scaring us the most were developed during the arms-race days of the Cold War by the game’s principal players.

So another question arises, who is more dangerous to civilization, the guys who spent their treasure to weaponize germs, or the guys who want to steal the stuff and use it on somebody?

Decades ago this was a concern expressed by some in the disarmament movement. Its scary what-if scenarios always included the likelihood that the Super Powers would eventually lose track of some of their exotic weapons. Looking back on it now, it seems obvious there was no way any government could keep all that material locked away from the greed and hate of determined free-lancers.

A man with a briefcase-style nuclear device may be no more evil than a man armed with a knife. Either danger could kill you just as dead. Those of us who feel connected to others, those who care about humanity's future know which one we should fear the most. The “rough beast” of dreadful evil “slouching towards” us is traveling on the back of technology of our own making.

While we watch out for organized terrorists in the short run, with a handy color code to guide us, it’s time to think more seriously about how to get rid of a lot of very dangerous weapons in the long run.

-- 30 --

Monday, September 02, 2019

Remembering Hurricane Hazel

As a kid and throughout my young adulthood I liked intense storms. Even liked being outside in them. Seeing a tornado, too close for comfort, in 1968, didn't change that. But growing older gradually did change my feeling about extreme weather. Hurricane Isabel's impact on Richmond in 2003 finished the job of turning me into a total scaredy-cat, when it comes to hurricanes. Now I want nothing to do with them.

This first hurricane I remember was Hazel in 1954. The smell of the storm and the sound of the wind-driven water were exciting. As a six-year-old, looking out of the bay windows of the dining room, Hazel's power made a big impression on me.

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

In a flash of its gray wrath Hazel had killed what was my favorite tree to climb. Never again would it provide shade for the white lawn furniture that rested in the part of the yard we called, The Dell. Hazel left a mark on Virginia that few storms have. Its unusual path brought it up from North Carolina, on its way to Toronto. From the Caribbean to Canada the death total was over 600.

Here’s AccuWeather.com on Hazel:
The strongest storm of 1954 was the legendary Hurricane Hazel, a powerful Category 4 storm that brought estimated winds of 150 mph when it made landfall in the Carolinas on Oct. 15. The storm retained strength fairly far inland, causing 100 mph winds as far north as Pennsylvania and New York.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Big Stretch

Note: A version of this piece first appeared in STYLE Weekly as a Back Page in 2002.

The prototype was assembled during a lull in seventh grade shop class. After tying some 15 rubber bands together to make a chain, a collaborator held one end of the silly looking contraption as I stepped back to stretch it out for a test. Aiming as best I could, looking along the taut line of connected rubber bands, I let go.

The whole thing gathered itself and shot past the holder. The released tip struck a target, or maybe it was near it, several feet beyond the holder. It worked! While the satisfaction I felt was a rush, the encouragement from the boys who witnessed that launching was glorious.

Through a pleasant sequence of trial-and-error experiments, it wasn't long before I figured out how to best maximize distance and accuracy. Once guys across the schoolroom were getting popped with the bitter end of my brainchild, dubbed the Stretch, the spitballs that routinely flew around such rooms in 1961 at Albert H. Hill Junior High were strictly old news. The next two days of playing with the new sensation of the seventh grade had the effect of transforming me into the leader of a crew, of a sort.

A couple of days later, uncharacteristically, I appeared on the schoolyard an hour before the first bell. Inside a brown paper bag I had was an updated version of my invention. This one was some 60 links long. Of course, it's name was the Big Stretch.

Only trusted henchmen had seen it in its test runs. No one else at school had seen it and naturally, I was only too happy to change that. Once the mind-boggling range of the Big Stretch was demonstrated on the schoolyard, boys were shoving one another, trying to be next in line to act as the holder.

With this new version, early on, most of the time I did the shooting. As the rubber-band wonder whizzed by the holder, it made such a splendid noise that just standing close by was something to talk about. On the asphalt playground, adjacent to the yellow brick school building, each flight was a crowd-pleaser.

The Big Stretch went on to make an appearance at an afternoon football game, where its experienced operators established to the delight of the crowd that cheerleaders doing their routines on the sideline could be zapped on their bouncing butts from 25 yards away with impunity. In my junior high school in 1961 not much could have been cooler than that.

After a couple of days of demonstrations around the neighborhood and at Willow Lawn shopping center, I decided to significantly lengthen the chain of rubber bands. However, the new version, about 100 rubber bands long, was neither as accurate or powerful as the previous model had been. My theory was that it was just too damn heavy for its own good.

A day or so later came the morning a couple of beefy ninth-grade football players insisted on taking a single turn as shooter and holder of the new Big Stretch. OK. Then they demanded a second turn. I said, "No."

Surrounded by seventh-grade devotees of the Big Stretch, I stood my ground, "No!"

But my fair-weather entourage proved to be useless in a pinch. Faced with no good options, I fled with my claim-to-fame in hand. In short order I was cornered and pounded until the determined thieves got the loot they wanted.

The bullies fooled around for a while trying to hit their buddies with it. Eventually, several rubber bands broke and the Big Stretch was literally pulled to pieces and scattered. By then my nose had stopped bleeding, so I gathered what remained of my dignity and decided to shrug off the whole affair, as best I could.

For whatever reasons, I chose not to make another version of the Big Stretch. I don't remember thinking about it. A few days later a couple of other kids copied it, and showed it off, but nobody seemed to care. Just as abruptly as it had gotten underway, the connected-rubber-band craze simply ran out of gas at Hill School. It wasn't cool, anymore.

So, it was over. At that same time, 1961, the slang meaning of “cool” still had an underground cachet. I thought beatniks were cool. The same went for certain musicians and baseball players. Still, I would hardly have known how to convincingly say why.  

Since then I've come to understand that the concept of cool is said to have seeped out of the early bebop scene in Manhattan in the ‘40s. Well, that may be so, but to me the same delightful sense of spontaneity and understated defiance seems abundantly evident in forms of expression that predate the Dizzy Gillespie/Thelonious Monk era at Minton’s, on 118th Street.

Anyway, wasn’t that Round Table scene at the Algonquin Hotel, back in the ‘20s, something akin to cool? If Dorothy Parker's word-smithing wasn’t cool, what the hell was? And, in the decades that preceded the advent of bebop jazz, surely modern art -- with its cubism, surrealism, suprematism and so forth -- was laying down some of the rules for what became known as cool.

Cool’s zenith as a style had probably been passed by 1961, about the time I was becoming enamored with the Beats, via national magazines. Looking back on that time now I have to think that widespread exposure and cool didn't mix. Significantly, cool -- with its ability to be flippant and profound in the same gesture -- rose and fell without the encouragement of the ruling class.

Underdogs invented cool out of thin air. It was a style that was beyond what money could buy. The artful grasping of a moment’s unique truth was cool every time.

However, just as the one-time-only perfect notes blown in a jam session can’t be duplicated, authentic cool was difficult to harness; even more difficult to mass-produce. By the ‘70s, the mobs of hippies attuned to stadium rock ‘n’ roll shrugged nothing off. Cool was probably too subtle for them to appreciate. The expression subsequently lost its moorings and dissolved into the soup of mainstream vernacular.

Eventually, in targeting self-absorbed baby boomers as a market, Madison Avenue promoted everything under the sun -- including schmaltz, and worse -- as cool. The Disco craze ignored cool. Punk Rockers searched for it in all the wrong places, then caught a mean buzz and gave up. By the mid-'80s nihilism was masquerading as cool ... then it just stopped mattering. 

Since then, when people say, “ku-wul,” usually it's to express their ordinary approval of routine things. Which underlines the lesson that time tends to stretch slang expressions thin, as they are assimilated. 

At Hill School, the process of becoming cool, then popular, then routine, literally pulled the Big Stretch to pieces. Once the edgy, experimental aspect of it was over, it had become just another gimmick. Its coolness was kaput.

If Dorothy Parker's word-smithing wasn’t 
cool, what the hell was?

-- Photo of Albert H. Hill Middle School from RVA Schools 
My Dorothy Parker illustration was done in 2013.