Thursday, November 15, 2018

Remembering RKO


In its heyday RKO (for Radio-Keith-Orpheum) was known as one of the Big Five movie studios of Hollywood's Golden Age. It was also known for its ability to produce well-crafted, sometimes artsy or offbeat features using a smaller budget than the other so-called major studios. Nonetheless, it was almost always in trouble, financially. 

Thus, RKO stopped producing feature films in 1953. In 1955 RKO became the first major studio to cave and sell off the exhibition rights of its library of titles to television. So, like plenty of baby boomers, I grew up watching many of those well-crafted black and white films on TV. It was then I first became a fan of legendary producer Val Lewton's scary films, although I doubt I knew his name then.

Eventually, I also became a devotee of RKO's stylish film noirs with their lean stories and moody chiaroscuro lighting. To this day, I still get a kick out of discovering a good one online that I've never seen. For me, watching one of those precious old films serves as something akin to time travel back to my salad days. Comfort movies. 

In the summer of 1982 I put together a six-week festival offering 12 RKO double features. The Biograph Theatre's Program No. 60 played out in Theatre No. 1, the larger of the two auditoriums. It was an unusual program in that all 24 of the feature films were from one company, RKO, which still operated as a distributor.

The 12 double features in this festival were: Top Hat (1935) and Damsel in Distress (1936); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Informer (1935); King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949); Suspicion (1941) and The Live By Night (1948); Sylvia Scarlett (1936) and Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948); Murder My Sweet (1945) and Macao (1952); The Mexican Spitfire (1939) and Room Service (1938); Journey Into Fear (1942) and This Land Is Mine (1943); The Thing (1951) and Cat People (1942); The Boy With Green Hair (1948) and Woman on the Beach (1947); Citizen Kane (1941) and Fort Apache (1948); The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945).

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Peanut Shells, Fish Bones and Politicos

In 2001 I covered the Shad Planking for That was my only visit to the annual event, which gradually lost its power to attract a big crowd. It seems to be mostly a thing of the past now. Here's what I wrote about the scene 17 years ago, when it was a bipartisan event that was still going strong. 


According to a 53-year-old tradition the Shad Planking, sponsored by the Wakefield Ruritan Club, is held on the third Wednesday of April. The event's roots go back to the early '30s, when only a certain breed of cat was invited. Today it's an open-to-the-public outdoor throwdown featuring ample libation and regional taste treats aplenty. But it is politics, undiluted statewide politics, that draws the crowd each year to the Loblolly pines of Wakefield, Va., the self-proclaimed peanut capital of the world.

Although the scheduled speechmakers are always politicians, 2001 marked a Shad Planking first, in that active gubernatorial candidates were at the top of the speaker's card at the Wakefield Sportsman Club.

Thus, when they weren't perched on the flatbed dais provided for honored guests and speakers between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., Democrat nominee-in-waiting Mark Warner and his two Republican rivals, Lt. Gov. John Hager and Attorney Gen. Mark Earley, worked the rustic soiree with their campaign-sign-holding entourages at their backs every step of the way. Wherever the trio of hopefuls wandered among the many booths and displays, the same strategy was evident: Every potential photographic vignette had to be filled to the edge of the frame with the team colors.
An invisible yet pervasive aspect of the occasion was the unprecedented backdrop of the much-reported budget stalemate that has Gov. Jim Gilmore at odds with legislators of his own party, most notably Sen. John Chichester of Stafford. News of the twists and turnings of the day at the General Assembly session rippled through the crowd of 3,000-plus during the seasonally cool, partially cloudy afternoon.

Sustenance and Sauce

With the price of admission, $14 in advance or $16 at the gate, one could eat and drink to his heart's content. Peanuts in bushel baskets, flavored this way and that, were easy to find. Crab cakes were available at one booth; cups of Jack Daniels were poured from a tailgate setup. Dressed with a squirt of Dr. Nettles' Secret Shad Plank Sauce, the same peppery slather that's brushed onto to the Shad as it's smoked on oak planks, deep-fried shad roe whetted the tongue perfectly for a taste of cold beer.
Open taps on beer trucks were provided by the campaigns of several candidates. For what it's worth, Forbes offered the Coors line, Kilgore made his statement with Miller brands, and Hager, Warner and Diamondstein chose Bud. In a contrast of styles, the Earley booth offered hot coffee.

Candidate Warner, the Northern Virginia venture capitalist, also provided the party with a portion of its musical fare: the Blue Grass Brothers, featuring on vocals former congressman Ben Jones, who may be best known for his television work as Cooter on "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Between tunes, one of which was a semi-rousing campaign song for Warner, Jones japed that he was an "independent Democrat." Then, with the timing of a seasoned pro, the country crooner claimed former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, of Georgia, liked to say "I was as independent as a hog on ice."

About 2:45 p.m., the event's staff, more than 200 volunteers participated in some way, began to dole out plates of smoked shad, fried trout, coleslaw and corn muffins to the long lines of party-goers.

Politics in the Air

As he autographed a souvenir Shad Planking baseball cap for an admirer, John Hager mentioned he'd missed only two Shad Plankings in the last 22 years. From my vantage point, of the three men seeking to occupy the Governor's Mansion, Hager seemed the most at ease with the opportunity to chat off-the-cuff in a social setting.

Asked for his opinion on the imbroglio over tax-cut percentage points, Mark Warner was eager to offer some advice, "You don't negotiate with press releases. Everybody's got these intractable positions, and nobody can budge."

On the now-familiar 55 percent vs. 70 percent topic, Mark Earley said, "I think a lot of them [Democrats] don't want a budget because they want an issue for this fall."

However, it was U.S. Sen. George Allen who had the most interesting comment on the subject. As he dealt with my question, "How can the eventual GOP gubernatorial candidate turn the negatives of the car tax phase-out problem into a plus for him in the fall campaign?" Allen seemed to open the door to the notion that the time is nigh for Gilmore to find a way to cut a deal.

"I'm not the one negotiating and drawing lines in the sand, and all of that," Allen said, boot-scooting through the minefield carefully.

"In your mind, could there be a number other than 70 percent?" I pressed.

"There are ways it can be finessed, if people will negotiate in good faith with one another," he replied good-naturedly.

As the Shadows Lengthened

By 6 p.m., more than half of the attendees had had their fill and made their way to the parking area. Since I bailed out about that time, I can't say when the last of the diehards left the party.

However, it's not every day that one can have one-on-one conversations with so many active candidates, office-holders and operatives of both major parties. Also at the gathering were U.S. Sen. John Warner, former-Gov. Gerald Baliles, former-U.S. Sen. Paul Trible, Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine, and many other current and former elected officials.

I can't help but think it would be a better world if there were more happenings like the Shad Planking, where politicians of all stripes are so accessible. 

Bottom Line: In spite of the considerable difficulty of negotiating one's way around the countless tiny bones in a shad, I have to give the affair itself an enthusiastic two thumbs up. George Allen will be the speaker for the 54th Shad Planking.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

A Veterans Day Remembrance

In 1916 the fit young volunteers who were members of the Richmond Light Infantry Blues were dispatched to Brownsville, Texas, to watch over the border and chase Mexican bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa, who had crossed the border to stage a few raids on American soil ... or, so people said.

To do the job the Richmonders were quickly converted into a cavalry unit. My grandfather, Frank W. Owen (1893-1968), seen at the age of 23 in the 1916 photo above, was one of those local boys in that Richmond Blues outfit.

Following that campaign, in 1917 the Blues were sent to Fort McClellan, located in the Alabama foothills, near the town of Anniston, for additional training. Then it was across the pond to France to finish off the Great War -- the war to end all wars.

Frank Owen grew up in South Richmond in what was then called Manchester. Before his active duty he had mostly made his living as a vocalist. The stories I remember him telling from his years as a soldier were all about his singing gigs, playing football and poker, and various other adventures.

Owen is on the right in the photo above. Like other men of his generation, who saw war firsthand, he apparently saw no benefit in talking about the actual horrors he'd seen. At least I never heard such stories. However, he was always quick to point with pride at having been in the Richmond Blues, then seen by many in Richmond as an elite corps.

F. W. Owen depended completely on his own view of life. He passed what he could of that self-reliance on to me. My grandson's middle name is Owen. It's a name he should always wear proudly. A long way from home, almost a century ago, his great-great-grandfather certainly did.

The story below is about my grandfather. A previous version of it was published in SLANT in 1990. This version was published in Style Weekly in 2000.

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. 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 09, 2018

The Sound

A scan of the campaign handbill
mentioned in this story.

Ed. Note: A longer version of this story was published in 1987 in SLANT. Then, in 2000, it was cut down to this version, which ran in STYLE Weekly as a Back Page.


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, taken at Grace Place, shows my reaction to
the news that with half the votes counted I no longer
had any chance to 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 --

Friday, November 02, 2018

GRFGA baseball caps

For the first time in 20 years the 42-year-old Greater Richmond Frisbee-Golf Association will have a new baseball cap for its members and their friends to wear when such apparel is practical.

The GRFGA logo depicted below will be stitched on the front. For the sake of having a choice two different color hats are available. Both have a stone-washed look. Maybe khaki for daytime and blue-gray for after six.

See the photo of the two hats below and here are more details about them: 

• 100% cotton twill

• Six-panel

• Low-profile

• The hats are top quality.

 • Fabric hideaway closure
with brass buckle and grommet

• Pigment-dyed fabric,
color matched sweatband

• Pre-curved bill, four rows of stitching.

They will cost you $22 each. Get in touch if you want one, two, or a bag full of them.

The deadline (last day to order hats) is Sun., Nov. 18.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

The Strange Case of Gus the Cat

Note: In an effort to be funny in an off-beat way, I wrote this piece in 2000. The people quoted were told the scenario and given the freedom to write their own lines, in character. It was first published by  


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

Stacy Warner for

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Note: On June 19, 2001 a cat alleged to have been the authentic Gus the Cat was found dead in Carytown Books; he was estimated by the bookstore's spokesperson to have been about 18 years old.

Monday, October 29, 2018

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 my most 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 Big Stretch was mind-boggling range had been demonstrated on the schoolyard, boys were soon shoving one another aside just to act as the holder. With this new version, most of the time I did the shooting.

Occasionally, one of the guys from my inner circle was permitted to be the shooter. As the wonder whizzed by it made such a splendid noise that just standing close by the holder was a thrill, too. On the asphalt playground adjacent to the yellow brick school building an enthusiastic throng cheered each flight.

The Big Stretch went on to make an appearance at an afternoon football game, where its operators established to the delight of the audience that cheerleaders on the sideline could be zapped on their bouncing butts from 25 yards away with impunity. After a couple of days of demonstrations around the neighborhood and at Willow Lawn shopping center, again, I significantly lengthened the chain of rubber bands. But the new version, about 100 rubber bands long, proved too heavy for its own good. It was not as accurate or powerful as the previous model. 

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. The they demanded a second turn. I said, "No." Surrounded by seventh-grade devotees of the Big Stretch, I stood my ground. But my fair-weather entourage was 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. They 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 my dignity and shrugged off the whole affair, as best I could. For whatever reasons, I chose not to make another version of the Big Stretch. 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 was over.

At that same time the slang meaning of “cool” had an underground cachet that has been stretched all out of it shape in 1961. We’re told the concept of cool, and the term itself, 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.

Wasn’t that Round Table scene at the Algonquin Hotel, back in the ‘20s, something akin to cool? Hey, if Dorothy Parker's writing 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, constructivism, and so forth -- was laying down some of the rules for what became known as cool.

Cool’s zenith 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 were more or less incompatible. 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.

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 buzz and gave up. By the mid-'80s nihilism masqueraded 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 usually stretch slang expressions thin as they are assimilated. "Cool" probably had a longer run that most such pop slang. 

The process of becoming cool, then popular, surely pulled the Big Stretch to pieces at Hill School. Once the experimental aspect of it was over it got old, like any worn out joke. Once it began to play as just another showoff gimmick that was something less than cool, even to goofy seventh-graders a long time ago.

Hey, if Dorothy Parker's writing 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. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

Truth and Context

On May 29, 1890, the unveiling of the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee began Monument Avenue's telling of a story. According to published reports, the ceremony drew over 100,000 spectators.

Over the next 39 years four additional memorials honoring heroes of the Confederate States of America were added along Richmond's most celebrated thoroughfare. Since those five monuments were installed their shadows have slyly promoted what has come to be known as the Lost Cause version of history. In our time they also serve the cause of white supremacists.

On June 22, 2017, Richmond's mayor, Levar Stoney, called a press conference to announce the establishment of a new commission to study Monument Avenue's history and make constructive recommendations to deal with the longstanding problems its Confederate memorials have posed and the relatively new ones they invite.

At that presser Stoney stopped short of calling for the consideration of monument-removal. But 51 days later came the shocking riot in Charlottesville, which prompted Stoney to instruct the Monument Avenue Commission to include examining the possibility removing statues. Obviously, after that riot the worries for City Hall had escalated beyond just removing graffiti and coping with occasional noisy but peaceful demonstrations.

Following roughly a year of work, on July, 2, 2018, the MAC issued its 117-page report. Highlights of the report's recommendations included adding contextual signage adjacent to the statues' pedestals. Such displays would offer a viewer an accurate picture of who those men were and how they came to be memorialized. However, the MAC's most attention-getting recommendation called for removing the Jefferson Davis Monument.
Naturally, that suggestion made the headlines. Yet, it must be noted that until some legal hurdles are cleared, actually removing the Davis Monument from its current site remains unlikely, because laws passed by the General Assembly to protect war memorials, statewide, forbid it.

It should also be noted that of the 168 war memorials in Virginia, 136 of them are associated with the Confederacy. So, it's not hard to see what's being protected today by the Republican majority in the General Assembly – a majority that may soon, itself, be history.

Meanwhile, given the news-making recommendations in the MAC report, together with the legal barriers in place, what can we look forward to in the next chapter of the Monument Avenue story?

Here's Mayor Stoney's response to that question: “We know that the Confederate monuments are more than physically symbolic; they represent the manifestation of racism and Jim Crow within almost every aspect of our society. They do not reflect the values of diversity, inclusion, and equity that we are diligently working toward in today’s Richmond. The immediate goal is progress toward an accurate and holistic reinterpretation of the existing monuments. We must continue to move forward, and we will.”

The MAC formally presented its report to City Council on October 1, 2018. Although the Planning Commission still needs to weigh in, it appears contextual signage is probably on the way, unless, of course, politicians would find it safer to just do nothing. Therefore, it's important that Stoney shows the political will to keep the process moving.

Meanwhile, Stoney's mention of "reinterpretation" will surely not please two camps. On one side will be those who will go on insisting that all five of the monuments must be pulled down tomorrow. On the other side will be those who will go on proclaiming that any changes whatsoever to do with Monument Avenue will amount to trampling on sacred turf.

Moreover, those predictable reactions will be consistent with politics, in general, these days. Today so much of the political energy is concentrated in the extremes that instead of the consensus-building politics of the melting pot we have politics of the centrifuge. Ironically, the current political landscape bears some resemblance to the atmosphere leading up to the Civil War, when moderation and compromise were seen as passionless and useless.

By the way, the MAC's information gathering process found that among its participants who responded to poll questions, most want change in some form. Now it will be up to Richmond's elected lawmakers to decide how to answer that call.

Yes, adding the contextual signage recommended by the MAC will be called “incrementalism,” or worse, by some folks clinging to an all-or-nothing approach. Nonetheless, at this desk it's hoped that most Richmonders will see that adding historically accurate contextual signage will be a sensible first step toward real progress.

Maybe best of all, it will be a step out of the shadows cast by untruths. It will be a step toward recognizing that context is integral to the appreciation of the difference between the truth of the whole story and stale propaganda.

– 30 –

Monday, September 10, 2018

Will Trump Quit to Launch MTVG

Maybe Trump will quit. After all, wouldn't he be happier making his own schedule, again? Just doing what pleases him all day? No cabinet meetings with little pissants like that traitor, Sessions?

Or was it Kellyanne?

Instead, what if he could host a couple of daily, live talk-shows? Isn't that what he was really born to do? Wasn't Johnny Carson more important than most presidents?

Rather than having to do the president's dreary job, how about if could dole out a morning show and an evening show -- for his fans to lap up -- every day? Or at least every damn day he feels like it. Some days he'd have guests, other days not.  Basically, the format would be totally elastic.

Of course, Trump would have a sidekick/stooge, like Ed McMahon, who'd laugh on command and smoothly shrug off all manner of humiliation from the host. There would also be three or four scantily-clad, young and large-breasted women on hand, serving as decorative go-go dancers who also laugh on command, etc. The stooge and the go-gos would do the show on days Trump chooses to play golf, or whatever.

Every so often, Trump would fire and replace the sidekick or a go-go, to freshen up the picture. Rather than pay his guests, Trump will charge them handsome fees to appear, because the massive exposure -- never anything like it, before! -- will help them to no end, to promote their schemes.

To liven things up, sometimes the host will have the go-gos roughly escort a disrespectful guest off the set. If necessary, Trump's personal body guards will help out. 

Home base would be at Trump Tower and he would broadcast the show from that Manhattan set frequently, or when he so chooses. But a full-blown portable set could have him traveling to other Trump properties, to broadcast on location. Plus, Trump would also take the program on the road to anybody's location for a broadcast, as long as they pay him royally.

The Trump talk shows would run on the Make TV Great cable television network – MTVG – owned by Trump and his well-heeled partners. No names.

When Trump's not on the air with his signature program the network could fill up the rest of the time by running straight-to-video action movies, classic professional wrestling videos from yesteryear, and Christian programming.

And here's what may turn out to be the best part -- at the drop of a hat, Trump could always scoop up the whole talk show shebang and fly it off to a friendly country, meaning one that won't extradite him back to the USA.

Dear reader, if the Republicans lose both houses of Congress in the nationwide elections coming up in November, maybe Trump will think a lot about quitting, so he can get to work building a new unregulated empire. Just think of how many MTVG baseball caps and golf balls he can sell. Then there could be MTVG wine and maybe MTVG steaks...

Will Trump quit the White House to launch MTVG? 

As our squatting president likes to say, "We'll see." 

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Anonymity and Amorality

Well, here we are, going too fast down the road to hell, hoping desperately we haven't passed the last off-ramp. It's still hard to tell what effect the publication of the much-discussed New York Times OpEd, with Anonymous on the byline, is going to have on our trip.
It's noteworthy that its release prompted instant reactions, from both the left and the right, calling the writer a “coward.” Yet, the more I hear people branding the author of the OpEd as a coward the more I wonder what else is still hidden. Righteous indignation aside, was the OpEd a one-off? What's the next move in the game for Anonymous? 

Meanwhile, this new twist is reminding me of a big difference between two of the most important whistle-blowers of the early-'70s:

1. Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame. 2. Mark Felt, who, as a whistle-blower was known publicly for many years as “Deep Throat” -- was the man who secretly coached Bob Woodward about Watergate skulduggery.

Ellsberg stood behind his revelations; he bravely faced the music. That, while Felt seems to have been a man who was acting on a grudge; he stayed in the shadows. His identity was revealed decades after his dropped dimes. Still, regardless of Felt's motives, by facilitating the downfall of Richard Nixon, he surely did the nation a service.

Then, to be fair, Felt was surely more than a coward. Nonetheless, those observations about whistle-blowers are being made with plenty of retrospect.

So, I'm going to wait to label this new whistle-blower. While I can certainly understand why many people would like to have seen the OpEd writer(s) put his/her/their name(s) on the byline, I'm not going to jump to the conclusion that today I know all the reasons why that choice was made.

For one thing, I'm pretty sure the OpEd has gotten much more attention from the get-go, because of the mystery and the speculation about who wrote it. What all it will prompt Trump or others in the White House to do isn't known, yet. And, when the identity of the writer(s) becomes known, what else might that trigger? The other shoe may turn out to be a lollapalooza.

After all, this OpEd was probably planned for several days, if not weeks, or even months. Here's a brief excerpt of what the anonymous author left us to think about:
The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.

Maybe this OpEd bombshell was penned by a coward (as Charlie Pierce writes in Esquire), but let's not rush to judgment. Why leap to shout "coward," before we look?

Anyway, "amorality" is a apt word that should have been associated with the self-absorbed squatting president, all along. I'm glad to see it happening now.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Hank's Cadillac

Constructed of Indiana limestone, New Union Station opened for 
operation in 1919. It was later renamed Broad Street Station. 
The building now serves as the Science Museum of 
Virginia. The image is from the VCU Library’s 
Rarely Seen Richmond postcard collection.

The first train is said to have pulled out of the station at 1:07 p.m. on January 6, 1919. Designed by John Russell Pope, what was originally known as New Union Station was constructed on the site of what had been the Hermitage Country Club. A partnership of two railroad companies, the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad and the Atlantic Coast Line, built the station to satisfy the growing city’s needs. Later the station was renamed Broad Street Station and the Norfolk & Western line also came to use it.

Directly across the street, at 2501 West Broad Street, the William Byrd Hotel opened in 1925. The 12-story hotel catered to travelers heading north and south. At the other end of the block the Capitol Theater opened for business a couple of years later. It was the first movie theater in Richmond to be equipped for sound, to screen the new fad -- talkies.

Boasting a first class train station and the new businesses that popped up close by, the area became a cosmopolitan neighborhood. After all, in those days residents of the Fan District lived within easy walking distance of direct access to the entire East Coast.

The William Byrd’s barber shop opened in 1927. Legendary barber Willie Carlton (1926-2013) began looking out of the barber shop’s windows at Davis Avenue in 1948.

Carlton bought the business in the 1950s. Recalling that for many years automobiles parked on the 800 block of Davis at a 45-degree angle facing the barber shop, Carlton chuckled as he described a visit by singer/songwriter Hank Williams (1923-53), who was asleep in a convertible when it was time to open the barber shop.

“Well, he was taking a little nap, out there in his Cadillac,” Carlton the storyteller recalled in a warm tone that seemed to signal that he could still see the picture he was describing.

Apparently, after the hard-living country music great finished sleeping off his road weariness, he got out of his snazzy ride and came inside for his haircut. Carlton says the price of a haircut in those days was 60 cents. Lunch in the hotel’s busy dining room cost about the same.

Although he sold the business in the mid-1990s, until May of 2013 Carlton continued to work at his same barber chair ... when he wasn't playing golf. He died two months later at the age of 87. 

During the station’s peak use, the years of World War II, an average of 57 trains passed through Broad Street Station on a daily basis. During the ensuing decades, rapid outward growth of the city combined with the withering of America’s passenger rail system to gradually change the character of the neighborhood.

In 1975 Broad Street Station was no longer the hub of metropolitan life it had been; the last passenger train left the station at 4:58 a.m., on November 15 of that year.

In 1977 the distinctive building’s second life as the Science Museum of Virginia began.

The photo of the clock on the face of the building is mine 
(circa 2004).

Thursday, August 09, 2018

The Coldest Warrior

Note: Below this note is a piece I wrote for 19 years ago; did the illustration back then, too. So the anniversaries mentioned in the first graf date from 1999.


August 9, 1999: August is usually a slow month for news, so we are spoon-fed anniversaries to contemplate: Hiroshima’s 54th; Woodstock’s 30th; it was 25 years ago that Pres. Richard M. Nixon took the fall. The entire culture shifted gears the day Nixon threw in the towel.

The brilliant strategist, the awkward sleuth, the proud father, and the coldest of warriors had left the building. August 9, 1974 was a day to hoist one for his enemies, many of whom must have enjoyed his twisting in the wind of Watergate’s storm. It was the saddest of days for his staunch supporters, whose numbers were still legion.

Either way, Richard Nixon’s departure from D.C. left a peculiar void that no personality has since filled in anything close to the same way. For the first time since his earliest commie-baiting days, in the late-‘40s, Dick Nixon suddenly had no clout. 

Upon Nixon's departure, concern for social causes went out of style for a lot of young Americans. It was time to party. Soon what remained of the causes and accouterments of the ‘60s was packed into cardboard boxes to be tossed out, or stored in basements.

Watergate revelations killed off the Nixon administration’s chance of instituting national health insurance. On top of that, many people have forgotten that he was also rather liberal on environmental matters, at least compared to the science-doubting Republicans who have followed. Although he was a hawk, Nixon was moderate on some of the social issues.

Nixon's opening to China and efforts toward d├ętente with the Soviets are often cited as evidence of his ability to maneuver deftly in the realm of foreign affairs. No doubt, that was his main focus. Still, at the bottom line, Nixon is remembered chiefly as the president who was driven from office. And for good reason.

Nixon’s nefarious strategy for securing power divided this country like nothing since the Civil War. Due to his fear of hippies and left-wing campus movements, Nixon looked at ex-Beatle John Lennon and instead of a sarcastic musician, in his view Nixon saw a raw power to galvanize a generation’s anti-establishment sentiments. Fearful of that imagined potential, the sneaky Nixon administration did everything it could to hound Lennon out of the country.

Nixon deliberately drove a wedge between fathers and sons. To rally support for his prosecution of the Vietnam War, he sought to expand the division between World War II era parents and their baby boomer offspring. The families that never recovered from that time's bitterness were just more collateral damage.

However, Nixon’s true legacy is that since his paranoia-driven scandal, the best young people have no longer felt drawn into public service. Since Watergate the citizens who’ve gravitated toward politics for a career have not had the intellect, the sense of purpose, or the strength of character of their predecessors. We can thank Tricky Dick for all that and more.

So weep not for the sad, crazy Nixon of August, 1974. He did far more harm to America than whatever good he intended.

Some commentators have suggested that he changed over that period, even mellowed. Don't buy it. The rest of us changed a lot more than he did. On top of that, Nixon had 20 years to come clean and clear the air. But he didn’t do it. He didn't even come close. In the two decades of his so-called “rehabilitation,” before his death in 1994, Nixon just kept on being Nixon.

So, spare me the soft-focus view of the Nixon White House years. Tricky Dick's humiliating downfall should be a lesson to us all -- he surely got what he deserved.

*   *   *