Culture

Notes from Around

John Paul Jones memorial on the National Mall (Flickr)

New York: I lived here during the Golden Age of Rudy and Bloomy (the mayorships of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg). I don’t remember any begging in Penn Station at all. But it happens all the time now.

So, I’m having a piece of pizza at a Sbarro (or something). A panhandler asks for money. Without looking up, I say, a little gruffly, “I don’t give in the station. Only on the street.” After a moment, the man says, with a touch of surprise and clear sincerity, “Thank you.”

Milwaukee: A line has formed in the jetway, as people wait for their luggage. We have arrived at the airport from New York.

Workers question a young man near the front of the line. “You’re famous, right? You’re in a band, right?” The man doesn’t give them much. They ask him to take off his sunglasses. He demurs.

They know he’s in a band, though, or was. He says, “Guess which one.” He finally tells them: NSYNC. And they say, “Lance Bass!” Which is true.

He is very gracious, with people’s goofy questions. I’m impressed.

Aboard a Lufthansa flight: The pilot, probably a German, says “conversate,” when he surely means “converse.” I smile — because that very word comes from the ’hood.

Sounds fine to me!

Providence, R.I.: The sign at the First Baptist Church says, “Jesus will love the hell out of you.”

‐Is there anything better than maple crème brûlée — at a good New England restaurant in the fall? Probably not. Wow.

Albuquerque: A sign at the airport says, “Not on My Watch.” I believe this is an admonition to, and a statement from, the TSA. Nothing untoward or dangerous will slip through while I’m on duty.

‐An old man is on his hands and knees, helping a younger man — though a middle-aged one — take off his shoes. To go through screening. The shoes aren’t just any shoes: They’re more like heavy, awkward boots. The younger man, the middle-aged man, is handicapped. The older man must be his father or caretaker or friend. It’s a hell of a struggle, to get off those boots.

I can’t help thinking of Jesus’ admonition to wash feet.

Dallas: I’m walking on the sidewalk, and I want to cross the street. I don’t, though — because there’s a black man coming toward me, and I don’t want him to think I’m crossing the street because of him. If it were a white man — or any non-black person — I’d cross without hesitation.

This is life in America, at least as I have experienced it. This is how race has stamped me, from earliest days.

Atlanta: I’m in the airport and want lunch. The lines are too long at the places I’d normally go to. I go to a health place. I get a sandwich and a drink. The young man behind the counter says, “Would you like chips or a cookie?” I say, “I rarely pass up a cookie.” The young man says, “They’re gluten-free, like everything else here.” I say — I swear — “Dear one, I don’t even know what gluten is.”

Another worker absolutely cracks up — and says, “I like real cookies myself.” I’m afraid he says this within earshot of other customers …

North Redington Beach, Fla.: The sun is setting over the Gulf of Mexico. There is a shaft of light left — like a lane. I swim in it. Kind of nice.

Washington, D.C.: It’s interesting to see Bartholdi Park, hard by Capitol Hill. I think, “It’s spelled wrong.” The reason I think that is that the composer was Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Bartholdi turns out to be Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a sculptor who sculpted the fountain in the center of the park.

He also sculpted something in New York Harbor — something about a woman and freedom. Anyway …

‐A visit to the Voice of America is refreshing. VOA is filled with people who come from elsewhere — from all over the world — who are now involved in trying to get straight, honest news back to their native countries. Each person has a story — a remarkable American story and human story.

It’s moving to be among them.

Aboard Amtrak: I see someone who looks familiar. A celebrity. Takes me a while, but I realize that it’s David Kendall — the Clintons’ lawyer. Well, at least they have kept him busy over the decades …

I see someone else who looks familiar. Who? Ah, yes: Larry Pressler, the late (meaning former) senator from South Dakota. Impressive wavy hair, even now.

New York: A group of workmen is putting out orange cones, to direct people around a construction site. One of them says, “Why don’t you put the retard cone out there first?”

I try to think what the retard cone is — probably the one that is least needed, but that they have to put out for the most clueless, to protect against lawsuits, maybe.

Something like that?

‐On a subway train, there’s an ad for a law firm. Interested parties are to call 1-800-INNOCENT.

First, aren’t those letters too many digits? Second: Yeah, right.

‐I’m walking west and a young woman is walking east. She’s annoyed. Ticked. She turns around and says to some workmen, “What are you, 17?” They say, as I walk by them, “Well, why do you dress that way?”

Obviously, they have wolf-whistled and cat-called her. She’s in the right, of course. She is right to chew them out. But the workmen? They’re crude, and they’re “blaming the woman” — who, by her dress, has “provoked” them — but they have half a point.

Sorry to say it, but they do. Non-hookers dress like hookers. The hookers should sue or something.

‐I’m in a hip place in Brooklyn (because an opera is being staged here, by an “alternative” company, and I’m reviewing it). There’s a sign by the door: “Keep Taiwan Free.” Shocking. Not “Hands Off Cuba” or something, but “Keep Taiwan Free.”

Blow me down.

Aboard a plane: We’ve just taken off from Liberty International Airport, Newark. The pilot says, “And over there is Lakehurst, where the Hindenburg crashed.” Like he was pointing out the Statue of Liberty or something.

Did a pilot really just say that?! (And he points out no other sites or landmarks!)

Beverly Hills: I’m not a proponent of nostalgia, and I’m not an opponent of growth. But I can’t help envisioning Beverly Hills as it was, once upon a time: a gentle, beautiful village.

I know a man who lived here, when he was a boy in the 1930s. He would encounter movie stars on the sidewalk. He kept an autograph book.

Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, Stravinsky — they all lived here, or nearby.

Anyway, it’s still wonderful, but, damn, is it crowded.

‐Not many people know the verse of “White Christmas.” It goes,

The sun is shining, the grass is green,

The orange and palm trees sway.

There’s never been such a day

In Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it’s December the 24th,

And I’m longing to be up North …

‐On the windows of a coffee shop, there are Christmas decorations, I guess. There are snowflakes, stars, and holly sprigs. There are words such as “Joy to all” and “Dream a little dream.”

I’m sorry, but I can’t help wondering: Was it like this in the Soviet Union? Or would even those words have been too “religious”?

‐There is a George Burns street. And a Gracie Allen street. Very nice. (“Say goodnight, Gracie.” “Goodnight, Gracie.”)

‐There is also a Curson street — a Curson Avenue. A street on which you can swear at will!

‐A store, related to babies, is called “Bel Bambini.” Oy. It should be “Bei Bambini” or “Bel Bambino.” But don’t no one care …

‐In an elevator, there is a button marked “EARTHQUAKE.” What the …?

New Market, Va.: You think of Hispanics as crowding L.A., Miami, East Harlem, and other such places. Here in this little town in the Shenandoah Valley, I see “Hispanic Grocery II.” (I don’t see No. 1.) “La Nopalera. Productos Latinos.” Interesting, this reach.

‐I also see an Eagles lodge. Elks, I know, and also Moose and Lions. Eagles, no. New on me.

‐A sign says, “Do Not Cross Bridge When Covered with Water.” Is that wrong? Does that imply, comically, that you, the would-be crosser, are covered with water? Not necessarily. People would snort, but not necessarily. The “It Is” (after “When”) can be as implied as “You Are.”

‐I’ve taken some nice walks in my time — I think of the southern coast of Crete, along the Libyan Sea. But a walk at twilight in the Shenandoah Valley, amid farms, streams, and woods, with the temperature just under 70 — extraordinary.

Washington, D.C.: I’ve been to the Lincoln Memorial a million times, and always like it. There are families here, as usual. Some older people speak in broken English, while their children and grandchildren speak native English. All are excited to be here. Immigration is in bad odor now — certainly on the right — but it’s still a wonder. A willingness to embrace the country, and to respect the rule of law, is key.

‐Walking toward the Capitol from the Lincoln Memorial, I see the Washington Monument, tall, proud, and unscaffolded, and the Capitol Dome shrouded in scaffolding. For ages, it seemed, the Monument was wrapped up in scaffolding.

How nice it will be, at last, when both the Monument and the Dome are scaffolding-free!

‐I’ve always liked the John Paul Jones monument, here on the Mall (or is it the Ellipse? I always get the two jumbled up). It seems to me to be overlooked. It’s kind of out of the way.

After giving his name and dates, it says, “First to Compel Foreign Man-of-War to Strike to the Stars and Stripes.”

Stirring.

‐I see a fruit vendor, with his scale. It reminds me of the Tunisian who started the Arab Spring. He self-immolated after enduring one last humiliation by the Man — in this case, a woman, who confiscated his scale.

Hernando de Soto, the great Peruvian economist, knows this issue well. He made an eye-opening film on the subject.

The rule of law: what a rare and precious thing. Dismayingly rare, though. Therefore, very precious indeed.

Aboard a plane: A man tries to place his bag underneath the seat in front of him — but the space is unusually, unnaturally small. He says to a stewardess, “I can’t get this into this skinny spot.” She says, “Do what?”

Central Park, N.Y.: A pretty girl is jogging toward me. Lissome, lovely. A college student, certainly. When she’s about 20 yards away, she lets loose with a vicious farmer’s snot.

It’s the most incongruous thing — is that the word? — I’ve ever seen.

Later.

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