Monday, November 30, 2009

Palooka from Paducah

Notes from Lynn:

In 1935, the title on the marquee of the downtown Columbia Theatre was "Palooka from Paducah," a comedy. Starring Buster Keaton, it drew unwanted attention to a place with a silly name, like Podunk, that evokes laughter from people slightly higher on the tree of sophistication. Paducah, unlike the mythical Podunk, was then a prosperous city with an abundance of brick buildings, a thriving downtown and a river-and-railroad hub that generated blue-collar jobs.

In 2009, we saw "Tale of Two Cities," a civic tragedy. It wasn't a movie.

That's my impression after an all-too-brief visit to this town of about 25,000 population in the far-west corner of Kentucky, an appendage known as the Jackson Purchase (don't ask). We liked the National Quilt Museum (see Notes from Margo, below). We took note of a brave attempt to establish an art colony in LowerTown. But we don't need a six-month study by a panel of urbanologists to see what is happening to Paducah and too many of the communities we've seen in our two months of our travel across America.

The old Paducah, a 194-year-old city at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, has a unique heritage of history, architecture, disaster, war, patriotism, business and, we are told, a sense that the inhabitants cherish their differences from the rest of western Kentucky. But the downtown district suffers from semi-terminal anemia. The Irwin S. Cobb Hotel, the city's only high-rise building, is now an apartment house. We saw boarded-up businesses, vacant parking lots and empty streets.

The new Paducah is identified by exits on Interstate Highway 24. We drove about four miles inland from the old town without seeing a single pedestrian. We found hodgepodges bunched around Exit 3 and Exit 4, a grotesque mishmash of unplanned development. It's a jungle of bright lights and traffic confusion. Auto emporiums and hardware depots. Twenty-two hotels and motels (clerks speak Hindi and Farsi.) Sixty-foot sign poles and billboards galore. Vast auto emporiums. Scores of fast-food stores and restaurants in chains.

It could be anywhere.

From Medford to Missoula, from Boone to Poughkeepsie, from just about any medium-sized city on our path, we found the same thing: A city's unique personality disappears in the franchise-o-rama of quick-buck investments by out-of-town corporations who wouldn't know the difference between Paducah and Madisonville -- and don't care. In the end, cities will be as depersonalized as the McDonald's service centers on the toll roads of the Midwest.

Margo recalls that 30 years ago, the citizens of Oroville, California, held a celebration when McDonald's opened a hamburger outlet; today the town is engulfed in chains. You would think that people would have learned, but in Astoria a woman exclaimed with pride that Wal-Mart is coming to town. Won't that hurt the local businesses? Not at all, she said. Happily.

Don't look for a rerun of "Palooka from Paducah" at the Columbia Theatre. The downtown movie house is boarded up.

In other notable municipal news:

As San Franciscans with a devout interest in earthquakes, we stopped in New Madrid in Missouri's southeast corner, or Boot-Heel, at the epicenter of the most powerful quake this side of Alaska. The three New Madrid earthquakes, in 1811 and 1812, are estimated at 8.3 on the Richter Scale. That's just a number. Try this: Church bells rang in Boston. Citizens in Charleston felt the earth move. And the little settlement on the Mississippi River was destroyed. Almost 200 years later, we arrived in New Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid) and found the town's little museum was closed for the season.

On the road into Madisonville, Kentucky, a sign on the railroad bridge says, "It's the best town on earth." Our goal was dinner at The Dinky Diner, a restaurant recommended by a native son, Lucien Ruby, now a venture capitalist in San Francisco. More importantly, he and his lovely spouse, Caryl Welborn, are parents of Kenny's onetime basketball teammate, Cameron Ruby, now a senior guard at University High School.

Lucien told us about the etymology of Pennyrile, local name for this region of west Kentucky, as coming from a flower known elsewhere as Pennyroyal.

He didn't tell us that the Chevrolet dealership is kaput, that a consignment store is called Giggles and Grins, that a beauty shop is called Innovative Hair Design and that Wal-Mart has drained most of the businesses from downtown (see above). He didn't tell us that The Dinky Diner would be closed on Thanksgiving, but we got out our tape anyway and measured the restaurant's frontage at a truly dinky 10 feet.

Before leaving Madisonville, we stopped in front of the county courthouse to look at a monument extolling the men of the town who died in the fight for the Confederacy. We took a photo of the statue of a Confederate officer. He is mounted on a column above the poetry chiseled in the marble base. His hands are missing.

Lucien explained that the statue had been damaged by high school pranksters in the greatest town on earth. I took the rebel's handlessness as a meaningful symbol of something, but what?

Notes from Margo: Giving Thanks for Quilts

Moving worshipfully from one work of art to the next in the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, I was feeling admiration, awe, excitement. But mostly I was feeling inadequate. Profoundly inadequate. Needlework-inadequate. I've been quilting most of my life, in my amateurish way. And I generally like the quilts I make, and the people around me act like they think the quilts are lovely. But shoot! The quilts in Paducah are made by people who actually know what they're doing.

One quilt's stitching is so fine and its pattern so intricate, it looks like an ornate Persian Rug (below). Most quilts have stitching so small and so closely sewn, it was hard to see individual stitches. I kept taking off my glasses to get really close to see the needlework, and then putting the specs back on, and backing away to see the whole designs: An elk at attention; floral arrangements; a bedroom with the curtains caught in a summer breeze; modern adaptations of traditional American block patterns in beige and white; or alternately, in brilliant primary colors. It was awe-inspiring, like finally seeing the Platonic ideals of quilts after having been around the real-world shadows of quilts my whole life. I don't know if I'll ever feel adequate to sew on a button again.

My favorites are the old-fashioned traditional-looking quilts, in gentle pastels and beige-like colors. One was patterned after stamped metal ceiling patterns from Victorian-era homes. Lynn was captivated by the more brightly colored works with imaginative, modernistic designs. One was called "Submersible," and it evoked the feel of looking up at the sun-dappled surface of water from below.

The day before, on Thanksgiving, we drove from Nashville to Paducah. It was a bit weird. We hadn't worried about Thanksgiving much, thinking that it's just one year that we won't be home cooking and welcoming family and friends to our table. But on Thanksgiving itself, it felt profoundly wrong to not be at home cooking, following the routine that we've had for more than 20 years – the bird in the oven all day while we make stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, fresh bread. And then there's cleaning the house, wrestling the extra table into the dining room, getting out the holiday plates and setting the table. It's a lot of work, and I didn't think I'd miss it.

But I did. I missed the warmth in the house from the cooking, and the rich smells. I missed Amy and Roy and their kids. I missed Kenny. I missed Wellyn and Rose, and wondering how late their surf session would make them this year. I missed wondering whether Aviv would make the drive from Los Angeles. I missed Paula and Stephanie and Jerry.

Lynn didn't complain. But I did.

When we got to the hotel in Paducah, I asked the clerk to suggest a place to eat. She said, in a pronounced Southern accent: "Go on up to the next exit on the freeway, and they have EVERYTHING you could EVER want: Burger King, McDonald's, Outback Steakhouse, Applebee's..." Her voice trailed off in admiration.

We decided to head the other direction, and try downtown. We figured in a sophisticated town with the National Quilt Museum, there should be a local restaurant open. We scoured the town, and didn't find anything open except the hospital. We headed back to the freeway, and had dinner at Applebee's. Strange.

Lesson learned. Next year, we'll be at home, and I'll be conscious of how lucky we are to be there.

We talked to Amy later. They had had a lovely Thanksgiving, but they also missed being together at our house. So next year, we'll set it right.

Mileage from Nashville, Tennessee to Paducah, Kentucky: 136

From Paducah to Rogers, Arkansas: 414

Mileage so far: 8,768

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Nashville Dreams

Notes from Margo:

We looked in the barroom door at one guy's dream: A young man played guitar and sang country music in a Broadway honky-tonk in Nashville. But the music had the hard edge of sound waves bouncing off bare wood and brick walls, not being softened and absorbed by the gentle contours of an appreciative crowd. Maybe six people were listening, scattered widely among dozens of empty hardwood tables. It was weird. He's living his dream; he's on stage in Nashville. But it probably didn't look quite like that in his dream. I think I see the material for a country song.

When we arrived in Nashville, we went directly to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where we saw Bill Monroe's mandolin (with Lynn, at right), Willie Nelson's bandanna, and Jimmie Rodgers' guitar (below). My favorite was film clips of old-time country stars, like Patsy Montana singing "I Want To Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" and the white Jordanaires harmonizing on a black gospel song, "Working on a Building." Lynn loved the little newsnotes – Baldemar Huerta took the name Freddy Fender, maybe to sound more Anglo; and Harold Lloyd Jenkins changed his name to Conway Twitty, maybe to sound more ... what? Ridiculous? Authentic? Backwoods?

Then we headed to downtown Nashville to see the real hard-scratch musicians of today. The clubs were mostly blaring really loud music. We poked our heads into the one club with the gentle beckoning sound of a single voice accompanied by a solo guitar. That's where we had that terrible feeling of someone living the dream that wasn't quite what he had dreamed.

We talked to a busker, Mike Slusser, who sang us a Jimmie Rodgers song, "It's Peach-Picking Time in Georgia," and accompanied himself on the mandolin (the world's sexiest instrument). His Gibson top was terribly scratched up. It was worn right through, he explained, from hard use – 17,000 hours of busking on the streets of Nashville and elsewhere. We put a few bucks in his case, and he insisted that we take a CD of his music.

Broadway and Second Avenue are crowded with bars and honky-tonks, but they are outnumbered by shops selling cowboy boots and hats. The music venues aren't the only places where sound waves bounce off the walls without hitting paying customers. Every store had signs out: "50% Off" or "Buy one pair, get a second pair free." One store is offering TWO free pairs. Too bad I didn't want a $1,900 pair of pointy American-made, embroidered, snakeskin boots. There were deals to be had.

The hotels must also be hurting. I went into a Comfort Inn to find how much it would cost. While Lynn and I mulled our options in the car, the desk guy actually came out to the car and flipped through a coupon book for us that would take $10 off the already discounted price he had quoted me. The bill: $59 plus $11 tax. He extolled the virtues of his hotel – the free breakfast, free internet, much nicer rooms than the competitors, safer neighborhood, free parking. OK. OK. We stayed there, and a good choice it was. I'm going to guess that's the only jacuzzi we'll see this trip.

Mileage from Verona, Virginia, to Nashville, Tennessee: 516

Mileage so far: 8,218

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Heading home

Notes from Margo:

Beneath the dripstone icicles of Titania's Veil, as Lynn put it, we heard eerie bassoon notes resounding through a limestone cave about 200 feet below the surface of an Appalachian hill.

For the first major leg of our return trip, we had decided on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic route angling southwest through western Virginia and North Carolina. So, about two hours west of Washington, D.C., the Guppy was shrouded in impenetrable fog at the entrance to the "Skyway," the northernmost section of the Parkway. A cheerful ranger greeted us: It's socked in like this the whole way. Visibility almost nil. Expect no views. And by the way, it's actually a bit dangerous because you won't see the deer until they're crashing through your windshield. So be careful out there!!

Hmmm. We turned around and drove down the hill to the Luray Caverns, the roadside attraction with the biggest, yellowest, brightest billboards. For one adult and one senior, $40. And, of course, it was amazing. It was a bit like snorkeling, because we walked slowly through these huge, dimly lighted, underground caverns with incredible shapes, canyons, stalagtites, stalagmites, columns, drapery in stone. They resemble underwater coral formations. Something about the different tenor of the light also suggested the dreamlike state of snorkeling. On the other hand, the caverns featured the Great Stalacpipe Organ (said to be the world's largest musical instrument!!) Rubber-tipped mallets tap stalagtites for the notes. Nothing like that off-shore in Hawaii. We are suckers for that stuff. And it made up for not getting to see the northern end of the Parkway.

We ended up on the Interstate for a while, and then went back up to the Parkway the next day, when the fog cleared up. We had a lovely day of driving on the ridgetop road. The Parkway was a WPA project, and it shows: rock arches for the roads, fences of hewn logs, picnic areas from the '30s. Taking in the scenery was a bit like flying. On both sides of the road, you look down on tiny little houses, fields and roads in the valleys and hollows.

We both thought the Blue Ridge Parkway was just fine for a day's drive, but we decided to skip the second and third days. So we're back on the Interstate, heading for Nashville. I think we're both feeling the draw of home, although it's still at least 2,600 miles away. We're not avoiding the Interstates. Florida's off our list, and we are heading more west than south. And we're thinking of not going to the Gulf Coast at all. We're wavering now, trying to make decisions about what we want to see, and whom we can visit along the way.

It was hard saying goodbye to Alex Neill and Tibby Speer, our dear friends and Lynn's former students in Washington, D.C. But if we had stayed any longer, they were going to have to adopt us – and commit to taking us on-leash twice a day for walks, with their dogs Scout and Candy.

We had arrived in Washington with the expectation of staying for three or four days, visiting Alex and Tibby (that's them below, at home in Georgetown) and seeing the sights while they went to work. Tibby is in charge of the merchandise at the gift shop in the Capitol Visitors' Center; Alex is a senior editor with Gannett's chain of military newspapers.

We stayed for eight days.

In addition to standard-issue sight-seeing, we played tourist at the District of Columbia’s Kaiser system. Lynn was tentatively diagnosed with pneumonia, which called for a powerful, non-generic antibiotic (co-pay was $130, and well worth the price). His former-smoker’s cough, which he’s had for at least 30 years, had gotten progressively worse over a few days, and he had an off-and-on-again low-grade fever. His energy level was also very low.

So Lynn rested as I went out on a dream-come-true sweep of the Smithsonian's collections – the National Museum of American Art, the Portrait Gallery, the Hirshhorn, the African Art Museum, the Freer Gallery. We couldn't have been luckier. He was warm and comfortable with a nice big cable TV in the basement rooms that Tibby and Alex have set up as guest quarters in their 1810-era brick townhouse in Georgetown.

When it became clear that rest wasn't enough, we went to the North Capitol Kaiser Permanente clinic. It was a bit odd for white tourists like us, because almost everyone was black – from most of the clientele to the parking garage attendants to the pharmacists and x-ray technicians. But no one seemed to mind the white tourists who seemed to have lost their way – they acted like it was an everyday thing. And maybe it is. Dr. Cesar Torres listened to Lynn's chest and decided on pneumonia. He called back later, having seen the chest x-ray, and sounded less certain. But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. And the mucous pudding in Lynn's lungs cleared up within a day or two with the antibiotic.

We took a trip to Mount Vernon as a test outing to see if Lynn was up to traveling again. And what a beautiful place that is, with a view out over the Potomac River. It's been restored to its conditon in 1799, when George Washington died. It was a big-production farm in its day, with about 400 workers raising wheat, corn and other crops. About 300 of the workers were slaves.

Aside from field labor, workers seem to have been assigned to little outbuildings: smoke house, laundry house, kitchen (separate from the main house), spinning cabin, weaving cabin, stables, carriage houses, a composting structure, salting room, greenhouse, and so forth. The restoration is so complete that even the "necessaries" (outhouses) are on display. (That's one at right, with Lynn.) A gazillion schoolkids come through every day. If I were marketing bumper stickers, I'd print up a batch: "George Washington pooped here."

Mileage from Washington, D.C. to Verona, Virgina: 152

Mileage so far: 7,702

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Going to the Mall

Notes from Lynn:

Since moving to our nation’s capital five years ago, Bud Liebes spends so much time in its museums that he knows the guards by name. For the emeritus professor of journalism, exploration of museums is a full-time job. Tourists come and go in a town that welcomes every year about 6 million visitors, each with but a day or two to devote to serious gawkery. It takes a relentless retiree to return again and again to the ever-changing shows in the marble palaces of Washington. (The D.C. stands for Displays and Collections. Thanks for asking.)

Now in his mid-80s, the vigorous B.H. Liebes devours the Washington Post and the New York Times. He joins other geezers every day for coffee near his condo in Bethesda, Maryland. He no longer owns a car, so he takes the Metro to the National Mall. He soaks up history, arts, science, technology and lots of lore from the Smithsonian Institution’s scattered exhibition halls: Air and Space, American Art, the Freer and Hirshhorn galleries, African Art, American Indian Art, American History, the National Portrait Gallery. These are free, but for a few bucks the ardent fan can pore through at least a dozen private or nonprofit museums devoted to journalism (the Newseum), women in art, natural history, architecture, crime/punishment, the booming technology of international spies, and many more.

When he bought us lunch in an upscale restaurant near his condo, Bud kept the conversation in a positive direction. He had just returned from Colorado Springs, where he visited his granddaughter, a captain in the Air Force, and his new great-granddaughter. He expressed happiness in sharing his condo with Rachel, his younger granddaughter, who plans to resume her med school studies next year. She took a leave of absence to help care for Bud’s beloved daughter, Michelle, who died of cancer earlier this year. She was only 49. (After retiring more than 20 years ago from San Francisco State, Bud moved to Seattle's Mercer Island with his wife, Georgette, to be with Michelle and his granddaughters. After Georgette's death, he accompanied Michelle when she landed a new job in Washington, D.C.)

And soon he began to collect museums.

Bud is a donor to the Holocaust Museum, but for some reason he hadn’t heard about the little museum that Margo visited, the National Museum of American Jewish Military History. That was surprising – Bud had been a waist gunner in bombing runs over the Third Reich in World War II, but he seldom mentions it. And Bud said nary a word about his years as professor and journalism department chairman at San Francisco State. At lunch, the conversation veered instead to his genuine pleasure in absorbing as much as he can from the plethora of museums in his adopted home town. His future, as it were, is in the past.

Notable: The National Portrait Gallery's exhibition of paintings of the nation's presidents could have been entitled "Men in Black," at least until Dwight D. Eisenhower appears in his Ike jacket and John F. Kennedy is portrayed in swirls of color. George W. Bush's official portrait, painted by a fellow Yale buddy, shows him in shirtsleeves, just a regular guy with his regular-guy smirk.

Un-notable: With its 3 million collectibles in storage and a recently renovated exhibition hall, the Smithsonian's Museum of American History calls itself the nation's attic. Instead, it's a hoarder's nightmare, a hodgepodge of miscellany, with no apparent attempt to sort out the good stuff (an 1840 puffer billy locomotive) from the silly icons of pop culture (Dumbo as a car in a children's merry-go-round from Disneyland).

Quotable: The dictionary defines "socialite," a term coined by the newspapers, as an active member of fashionable society. We were intrigued by the National Portrait Gallery's description accompanying a daguerrotype (at right) of Lola Montez (1818-1861), the free-spirited divorcee who became the mistress of the Mad King of Bavaria and further scandalized the Victorians with her erotic Spider Dance. The museum people cited "her notorious reputation as a courtesan and a cavorting socialite." It brings to mind the deck on an Examiner's front-page headline in the mid-1960s. It referred to Sally Stanford, the victim of burglars who stole her jewelry and a fur coat, as a "socialite." When reminded that she was San Francisco's most famous brothel keeper, copy editor Jack James growled and defended his headline. "If she's got a fucking fur coat," he said, "she's a fucking socialite."

Notes from Margo:

From a distance, it looked like a Native American or Mexican mask, but maybe from a culture I'm not familiar with. As I got closer, it became clear that it was a mask made from very large basketball shoes. I'm sold!! Three of my favorite things: Indigenous masks, basketball, and creating art from everyday objects.

In the National Museum of the American Indian, I suppose I expected baskets, pottery, arrowheads, rugs, etc. And plenty of those were displayed. But upstairs, in the traveling exhibits, was Brian Jungen's work. I turned the corner and was just floored by the beauty, the originality, the skill, the vision. I had never heard of Jungen, who is part Canadian, part American Indian. He makes sculptures of everyday objects – basketball shoes, baseball gloves, golf bags, garbage cans for recycling, beach chairs. (At right are totem poles made of golf bags.) 'Nuff said. You gotta see this stuff.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Hick in Washington

Notes from Margo:

I’m a San Franciscan. So that makes me a bona fide city sophisticate by California standards. But man!! A few days of walking around Washington makes me feel like a hick.

You expect to be awed by the White House. And I was. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is, as the tourist information sign said, “the most famous address in the United States.”

What I didn’t expect are waves of amazement as I walked the streets. That’s Blair House, across from the White House, which you read about every time a foreign dignitary pays a visit to our president. The Justice Department! The EPA! The Supreme Court! The Internal Revenue Service! These icons of the nation – we usually think of them as acronyms or relatively abstract entities. They actually exist; they have street addresses; the addresses are in Washington. (The Library of Congress, inside the actual building, not the number assigned to the book you're reading, is at right.)

Not only that. I walked down the street with our friend Alex Neill. That’s Ben Bradlee’s house, he said. And that’s where Jackie O lived after the assassination. And on the way from the bus stop to the Smithsonian Institution museums, there was Ford Theater, where Lincoln was shot. And there’s the alley where John Wilkes Booth, his assassin, limped out the back and fled on a horse that an accomplice held for him.

And our friend Tibby works in retail. Except that her job is in the Capitol Visitors' Center. What's their best-selling item, by dollar value, Lynn asked, thinking postcards, paperweights, or copies of the Constitution. No, that would be the Congressional Cookbook, she said. (That's her, at left, on the steps outside her place of employment.)

After a while, I just felt like a big hick – gawking at every historical plaque, every monument, feeling like I’ve never seen a place so dense with history. Lynn and I stopped in our tracks as we left the American history museum. The floodlit Washington monument (at 5 p.m., darkness had already fallen) was a brilliant white obelisk against the night sky. The last little bit of the sunset at its foot silhouetted the flagpoles circling its base. Man! We are in the Nation's Capital! For real!

I walked by the White House three times in one day, going back and forth from museums in a disorganized half-lost way. Each time, I passed protesters – an antinuclear vigil that's been in place for 25 years, a group of Tamils with a big banner publicizing their plight in Sri Lanka, and boisterous protesters who object to the bank bailouts. What struck me is that the various cops – the Secret Service, the Park Police – are so accustomed to dissent that their expressions don't change. In one way it was disappointing. You bring your cause to the White House, and not only do the spectators not share your outrage, they are visibly bored. No reporters. No TV cameras. Even the cops are suppressing yawns. On the other hand, I said to myself, I bet there are folks in Burma and Tibet who wish that dissent were so commonplace that the cops aren't interested.

I had a number of weird little harmonic convergences as I cruised from one museum to another. I've been reading Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which is about, among other things, the early days of superhero comic books. So, in the Renwick Gallery of American Crafts, I ran across an exhibit by Mark Newport. He does some odd superhero-based artwork. He knits these huge, sagging, lumpy beige outfits that look like what Batman would wear if his grandmother knitted his bat-suit with heavy-gauge woolen yarn.

Also, I went over to the Dumbarton Oaks gallery, and almost tripped over a docent-led tour about bird imagery in pre-Columbian art. It fit right in with my amateur birding-across-the-country.

Notable: Starlings are doing some odd-ball flocking. I noticed it two days running, and then saw a little squib in the Washington Post. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of starlings flock together around sundown, and make boisterous swirling descents onto some selected trees. When we arrived at Alex and Tibby's house, we parked across the street. As we got out of the Guppy, the whistling song of hundreds of starlings surrounded us. A starling party! And then the next day, when I was waiting for the bus around sundown, hundreds of chattering and whistling starlings swirled into the trees next to the bus stop. As a superhero might comment: Shazzam! Then I saw a little write-up in the Post about huge flocks of starlings and a concurrent rush on the google search engine of "starlings" and "Washington." Sign me, just another googler.

Notable: The tourist information sign, referenced above, outside the White House, which said 1600 Pennsylvania is "the most famous address in the United States," got me thinking about its writer. In my years as a copy editor – writing photo captions and figuring out if descriptions in news stories were accurate – one task was to place brackets around claims. The biggest rodeo in the West; the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states; the oldest continually operational synagogue in California. But what a pleasure that must have been to write: the most famous address in the United States. And that's unquestionably true. But the immediate next question: Is it the most famous address on Earth?

Mileage: None for the past week. We've stayed in Washington with Alex and Tibby, as Lynn recovers from a bout of respiratory distress. Details to come.

Mileage so far: still 7,550

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Not-a-New-Yorker Muses on The Big Apple

Notes from Margo:

They are built like sacred spaces, soaring structures intended to awe us -- the acres of marble, the grander-than-human scale, the arches echoing the architecture of Rome or medieval Europe. While we were in New York, I visited, briefly or not-so-briefly, the Main Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Grand Central Station. All are massive public spaces – monuments to monumentality.

In Grand Central Station, tourists like me took photos of the refurbished zodiac formations on the enormous vaulted ceiling. At the Met, some people soaked up the art, and others just gawked at the grand stairway, the huge lobby and the gigantic balconies and archways leading to the galleries. At the library, the famous lions guard the way to the lobby (at left) that makes you feel worshipful as you enter the House of Books, even though it doesn't really house books anymore. (I was entranced by an exhibit of maps of New York, ranging from Henry Hudson's map of the river in 1609 to this year's google maps.)

Aside from the people like me being awed by their monumentality, all those places were crowded in their everyday usage by hundreds, if not thousands, of people. It made me think how lucky all those urbanites are who rush through the station every day, not through some ugly, dirty, gray, utilitarian warehouse of train tracks and platforms, but through a massive work of art. They probably don't stop every day to wonder at it, but in some recess of their subconscious, they know that they are part-owners of a cathedral of commuters or a landmark of bookishness.

It seems clear that the cultural landscape of New York allows for maintaining those awesome public spaces. It seems a bit against the grain of where we keep reading our culture is headed – each person caring only for him- or herself or his or her own family/crew/tribe, people creating and living in their own private landscape, writing their own blogs (like us!), without much interest in common spaces or the common good. New York may be evidence to the contrary. We noticed also that the less monumental public arena – the streets, the sidewalks, the subways – seemed cleaner and more civilized than we remember them from 10 or 15 years ago. No graffiti, very little litter, and – my favorite development – the subway stations, their staircases and walking tunnels no longer reek of urine. The buses and subway cars are clean. Times Square is now devoid of porn shops, adult video stores and hookers. Parks seem safe and well-maintained. Lynn is pretty sure even the level of horn-honking is down, too.

That said, the noise level is still deafening. I think people who live there just stop noticing it. But for someone like me who just shows up once in a while, the noise is like a big dark pervasive cloud. Lynn has difficulty hearing over background noise, which is commonplace among older people. So his cell phone was useless on the street. He couldn't hear the ring, and he couldn't hear anything through the earpiece. When we resurfaced in Jersey City, after the subway ride on the PATH train, the first reaction is: "Wow! It sure is quiet here!" And that's just across the river. I'm not sure what the deal is. I'm wondering if it's that perfectly normal traffic noises get amplified by the hard surfaces of the canyons of high-rises. Maybe sound waves bounce back and forth indefinitely, instead of dissipating into the distance.

Anyway, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in New York, visiting with friends and seeing the sights. We then took a day in Dover, Delaware, where Lynn did some research in the state archives for his book on a double murder there in 1898. (At right is the house where the victims lived and died. It has been remodeled into offices for a state agency.)

While there, we joined a walking tour of "The Green" in historic downtown Dover. Our leader was Abby Wilson, a young woman (probably in her early 20s), in colonial garb – a white cotton covering on her hair and a thick green wool cape. She was so animated and excited by colonial Dover that we got caught up in her stories. She was interested in everything about historical Dover, historical Delaware, taverns in colonial life, women in colonial society, the suffrage movement, the abolitionists. The tour included a few comments on the "Poison Candy Murders," which is the Delaware end of Lynn's research subject. As she pointed out, it was the first interstate murder case to be prosecuted. One issue was whether it should be prosecuted in Dover, where the poisoned candies were eaten and the victims died, or in San Francisco, where the perpetrator mailed the chocolates. As it turned out, the trial took place in San Francisco. Anyway, it was lovely to see someone so young to be so caught up in old stories.

We're now in Washington, D.C., where our friends Alex Neill and Tibby Speer seem to have remodeled their basement into a guest apartment in preparation for our arrival. To show appreciation for the comfort here, Lynn has developed a little fever and a cough, and is taking a few days to rest up while I see the sights.

Mileage from Pleasant Valley, New York, to Dover, Delaware, and D.C.: 343

Mileage so far: 7550

Friday, November 13, 2009

Escape From New York

Notes from Lynn: Towering Anthills

When Tara Levy and Dan North decided to buy a home in 1992, they found a condo ground-floor flat in one of the hundreds of Italianate rowhouses that line the streets of Jersey City. Built in 1870 in the Paulus Hook neighborhood, the four-story brick building had been falling apart through landlord neglect and the poverty of tenants in a shrinking blue-collar city with a reputation for crime and corruption.

“Gentrification” and “developer” share equal space in the vocabulary of urban distaste, but “renaissance” might be more apt for the scene on Sussex Street. One by one, dilapidated tenements are renovated into townhouse condos and apartments for refugees from Manhattan’s towering anthills. As Dan (at right) pointed out not many years ago, he could gaze at the spectacular skyline of New York from the rail of the Liberty Harbor Ferry ($5), while the investment bankers in their costly Manhattan offices could look across the Hudson and see the Colgate sign. It's still there, although the Colgate-Palmolive plants are long gone. Instead, the old industrial waterfront is the new home for Jersey City ’s mini version of Wall Street – the 42-story Goldman-Sachs Building and a growing crop of high-rise offices and apartment towers. It came as something of a surprise to Dan, who assumed he was settling down in a funky old neighborhood. It was a reminder of his old haunts in Brooklyn and Manhattan, where everybody considered New Jersey in general and Jersey City in particular to be a foreign country inhabited by demented people who spoke a different language. (Nobody says "Joisey," we are told by an internet expert. To be helpful, he offers authentic gibberish: Joey: Hey Vinny, yew dewsh-bag. What-sup-witch-yew? Where-yew-go last night? Yew hang in Jerzee? Vinny: Nah, I hung out in duh-siddy wid-dat chick Merry wit da Brooklyn ax-cent.)

The new Jerzeeites also hang out in duh-siddy. Dan, a deft rewriteman when I met him in the early 1960s at the old San Francisco Examiner, is retired from his longtime post as news editor for Local 1199 of the Hospital and Health Employees Union. But he still boards the PATH subway under the river to teach journalism and media studies at City College of New York. Tara (at left), an attorney with the National Labor Relations Board, works in an office in Newark but commutes regularly to concerts, plays, meetings and the other attractions of Manhattan.

When they return, it’s to a comfortable home with foot-thick walls that rise 11 feet from polished wooden floors. They have a big backyard garden, a fireplace, thousands of books and two bathrooms. One bedroom is an office/den; the other is upstairs, accessible by a wrought-iron spiral staircase. These comforts and amenities are worth mentioning whenever I hear the sneers of New Yorkers.

Notable: Roadside attractions on the Victory Lap included tours of the newsrooms at the New York Daily News and the New York Times. Both have been transplanted into new and expensive quarters that test one of the pet theories of the late C. Northcote Parkinson, to wit: Perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions at the point of collapse.

Desks and cubicles at the upmarket Times are generally pretty tidy, as you might expect in offices evidently designed to look like display windows. However, desks and cubicles at the proudly plebian News are piled with old newspapers, discarded notebooks, forgotten handouts and misplaced printouts -- evidence that this valuable old-time newspaper tradition hasn’t been suppressed by fancy offices.

In any event, we noted that rewriteman and reporter Bill Hutchinson, an SF State journalism alumnus, is called “Hutch” by his colleagues at the News. We dined on giant heart-attack pastrami sandwiches at the 2nd Avenue Deli (which isn't on 2nd Avenue) with Hutch/Bill and his wife, our treasured friend, Lisa Amand (above). She is recovering in their Brooklyn home from hip surgery and awaits with trepidation another operation on her other hip. In the newsroom, we met a legend: Bill Gallo (at right with Bill), the sports cartoonist, whose career began in 1941.

At the Times, we were shown around by Mia Navarro, the super-talented ex-Examiner writer. She covers environmental issues. We were reunited with friendly Marlene Bagley, another Examiner alumna. She is a copy editor at the Times. Like Dan North, she now lives in Jersey City. Mia then took us to dinner at a ribs palace, Virgil's, with her husband, Jim Sterngold, who has moved to New York with a job at Bloomberg News as an investigative reporter. And they, too, are moving to New Jersey.

Add Margo's sister, lulu, to the list of those who have abandoned the cramped quarters and intense noise of Manhattan for the relative calm and spaciousness of Jersey City. Lulu and her partner Joseph Illidge (at right) met us for a Thai dinner at one of their favorite Jersey City haunts. Their new apartment is at least five times the size of the Hell's Kitchen apartment that lulu lived in for about 10 years. The old place was so small that when the dog, Nana, paced the apartment, she went forward into the bedroom, and then backed out -- because she couldn't turn around in there -- and then walked into the kitchen and backed out. Nana, who doesn't have to throw it into reverse anymore, is clearly in heaven. Just like lulu and Joseph.

Notes from Margo: The Allure of the Bird

Hundreds of brants gathered, chattering, on the grass, pecking for food. The collective term for geese, according to my iPhone’s bird-book, is "blizzard," "chevron," "knot" or "string." Through my binoculars, I could see blizzards, chevrons, knots and strings of the small black-headed geese. We had driven to Liberty Park with Dan North, Lynn’s dear friend from the old Examiner days who now lives in Jersey City, for a little urban bird-watching. In the background, instead of quiet marshes or towering hills, were the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. We got nothing particularly exotic – a great blue heron, a few American coots, some widgeons, mallards, mute swans, and a gazillion brants – but the really remarkable thing, as Lynn noted, is that we were within 10 miles of 10 million people (wild guess). And we are soaking up this abundance of nature anyway.

One of the reasons that bird-watching is so alluring, I think, is that no matter where you are, birds can give you a little feeling of being in nature. The starlings and Brewer’s blackbirds in every parking lot in every strip mall in the country are singing and whistling every time you finish your grocery shopping and head for the car with the plastic bags hanging from your hands. You just have to listen and you’re in nature. Just a little, of course. The asphalt is still there. But maybe it’s enough.

I don’t usually think of the urban centers of the East Coast as nature preserves. But that’s been a big part of our experience here on the outskirts of New York. In three days with Kathy Podmaniczky in the Hudson Valley north of New York, we went hiking one day, bird-watching one day and biking one day. All three days brought the kind of immersion in nature that I think of as less urban and Eastern and more rural and Western than the “current location” on my navigator would have caused me to expect.

We decided not to push our luck, and left the car with Kathy in Pleasant Valley, and rode the train down the Hudson River into Manhattan, and landed with Dan in Jersey City. Lynn had taken the 90-minute scenic train ride a few days before me, allowing me a few more days with Kathy. (Kathy and I went bird-watching with a friend of hers, and started the day thrilling to a bald eagle circling overhead. The rest of the walk was lovely, with titmice, bitterns, northern flickers, and many other fine birds, but sheesh!! being welcomed to the riverside by a bald eagle! No way to beat that.) I followed Lynn a few days later on the train, made my way through a relatively bird-free Midtown Manhattan, and found Dan and Tara's place in Jersey City. Being the perfect host, Dan offered a spot of bird-watching first thing, hence the Statue of Liberty and the blizzard of brants.

In other news: The laptop's hard drive died, and needed to be replaced. We found a spot in New York for the work. Most of our stuff was backed up on our little flashdrives, so very little harm was done, and we're back in business now.

Mileage from Pleasant Valley to Manhattan (on the train) 91 miles

From Manhattan to Jersey City (by subway, approximately): 5 miles

Total mileage so far (on The Guppy): still 7,207

Friday, November 6, 2009

First Lady of the World

Notes from Lynn:

She answered the door herself, a tall woman with a grandmotherly smile familiar to everybody who came of age in the Depression and World War II. Editorial cartoonists had prepared me for the receding chin and prominent teeth of Eleanor Roosevelt, but I was struck instead by the welcoming warmth of the First Lady of the World.

I was 26, a newspaperman for four years, but this wasn’t just another interview. Nobody else in the first half of the 20th century came close to her greatness in regard to human rights,
women's liberation, racial equality and support for peace, and I was lucky enough to get the assignment. We shook hands. She brought me a cup of coffee, sat down on the sofa and said, brightly, “I know you’ve got a lot of questions for me.”

She waited.

I froze.

Questions? If asked, I couldn’t have told her my name, the year (1960), my newspaper (the Champaign-Urbana Courier), her hotel (the Urbana Lincoln) or why she had come to my beat, the University of Illinois (to lecture and support the presidential campaign of Senator John F. Kennedy).

I was speechless.

That (rare) moment of silence came to mind this week as we walked up to the imposing portico of Springwood, the 35-room Dutch Colonial mansion administered by the National Park Service in Hyde Park, N.Y. Kathy Podmaniczky, Margo’s dear friend and basketball teammate 30 years ago at Oberlin College, drove us from her home in Pleasant Valley to the Hudson Valley home of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (admission $14). In our tour group of 28, I counted 14 gray-haired oldsters who looked to have grown up during FDR’s four terms in the White House. For me, born in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt was the first lady for the first 12 years of my life and powerful advocate thereafter for the disadvantaged, the poor, the oppressed, the United Nations and causes we now take for granted.

The museum’s exhibits cover everything that one might expect in Roosevelt’s life from his privileged youth to his political successes to his polio to his leadership in peace and war, but afterward we talked instead about the little things. We saw the presidential wheelchair
fashioned from a kitchen chair with an ash tray on one arm … the 1936 Ford Phaeton convertible that FDR drove himself with the clutch on a lever … at least 40 paintings of ships-of-war, mostly of the War of 1812, that the onetime assistant secretary of the Navy had collected and hung on the walls … a green quilted presidential bathrobe on a chaise lounge … a handsome cigarette case that must have been shoved into a desk drawer on Dec. 7, 1941, because it came from Japan.

Well, you can see for yourself the museum and the wing devoted to Eleanor Roosevelt, but you won’t find any mention of Lucy Mercer (Rutherfurd), Eleanor’s social secretary from 1913 until the day in 1918 when she found the love letters from her husband. We didn’t hear about that (or other reputed romances of FDR and Eleanor) until well after both were buried in the Rose Garden near the Coach House.

After the president’s death in 1945, his widow gave the mansion to the government but continued living at Val-Kill, a relatively modest house of fieldstone about two miles east of Springwood. There she wrote her daily newspaper column, “My Day.” There she wrote articles and books when she wasn’t in her New York apartment, traveling around the nation for an average of 150 lectures a year and giving hundreds of interviews for newspapers, magazines and radio shows. She had been a frequent visitor to Urbana and the university.

Over the years, many a journalist has noted that not every public proponent of justice and goodness is considerate in private to underlings, including starstruck reporters. When I sat mute in an armchair in her hotel room, a tongue-tied worshipper with a blank notebook, the Great Lady took charge.

“Well, young man,” she said after a moment’s pause, “I just know what you’re going to ask me about.”

She launched into the answer of an unasked question. I took notes furiously, gratefully, and got my tongue untied.

Notes from Margo:

Kathy and I were on the Walkway Across the Hudson, an old railroad bridge that’s been remade into a pedestrian way across the Hudson River. We were high above the river, in an icy wind --walking, talking, laughing. An older gentleman caught our attention with a wave, and a silent come hither gesture with his hands. Then he put his index finger to his lips in the universal sign for “sush!” And then more beckoning gestures. We both went into the urban “Is he a wingnut?” mode and made ready to ignore or hurry past. Then he said, softly, “Can you see the falcon?”

Oh. That changes everything. A peregrine falcon perched on a rusted I-beam about 2 feet outside the railing of the walkway. He was protected from us, and seemed completely comfortable showing off his handsome yellow bill, black and yellow eyes, his white and brown flecked chest and his frighteningly long talons. We admired him openly, with cameras, with binoculars, with joy. People stopped to gawk -- birdwatchers, bicyclists, old people on fitness walks, children on scooters. What a bonus!

We’re staying with Kathy here in Pleasant Valley for a few days, visiting with her, seeing the sights of the Hudson Valley, getting an oil change for The Guppy, and readying ourselves for the dive into New York.

In other news: Our laptop computer seems to be dying, and we are posting today from Kathy’s computer. It may take a while to repair or replace our laptop, so be patient and stay tuned.

Mileage from Boston to Pleasant Valley: 197
Mileage so far: 7,207 (yikes!!)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Big Stone House

Notes from Lynn:

Dale and Ann Tussing, fairly sane back then, enjoyed driving past the big old stone house on East Seneca Turnpike. They traded conjectures about its history, stories, secrets. It’s not as if they didn’t have other ways to spend their leisure time in 1969. Dale confronted the challenges and pressures facing an assistant professor. Ann blended the needs of her growing family with a plethora of serious quests and enthusiasms. They lived then in a nice house in Syracuse, but upstate New York is a very long way from their roots in Berkeley and San Francisco. Perhaps they imagined they would someday go back to California.
One day they learned that the stone house was for sale. They couldn’t afford it, Dale told Ann. She thought otherwise.

* * *
Forty years later, Dale tapped on his laptop in the double parlor of a house built when James Madison was president. Ann brightened as she answered my questions. The house is usually classified as Federal (or Georgian) as influenced by Dutch and English colonial styles. Built in about 1810 by a tanner named John Gridley, the stone house has been listed since 1971 with the National Register of Historic Places. Ten rooms plus attic and basement. Seven fireplaces. Interior walls of nearly 12 feet, barely high enough for an 11-foot gold-framed mirror for the bustles and bows of the Gilded Age. Nonetheless, the house has the comfortable look of a home where Dale and Ann’s five children grew up, sang songs around the piano and scattered from Buffalo to Australia, each with graduate degrees and one with a doctorate. They appear on the walls as an ongoing gallery of framed snapshots amid scores of paintings, drawings and old photographs that Ann has collected over the years. Her kitchen includes an old-time Kalamazoo wood range and a foot-thick butcher’s block turned into a work table, its surface so beaten by cleavers that it looks like a slightly rumpled newspaper page.

* * *
Who knew? I worked with Dale in 1952-53 when I was editor and he was managing editor of the Golden Gater weekly at San Francisco State’s old campus on upper Market Street. I was 18; he was 17. We were better at beating each other in one-on-one basketball than as rookie editors. Within a year, I was a draftee at Fort Ord, and Dale had married pretty, vivacious and brainy Ann Underhill. (Her mother, Katherine Gibbs Underhill, had been an acclaimed architect of homes in Berkeley before dying at 49 – and leaving Ann with an abiding interest in architecture.) Dale dropped out of journalism to study what he never considered to be the dismal science. He would earn his Ph.D in economics at Syracuse University. After two years at Washington State, returned to Syracuse to become a full professor of economics, author of books on the health and educational systems in Ireland and, as of this year, a retiree in a big old stone house that he and Ann regard with undiminished pleasure and satisfaction. They won’t be returning to the Bay Area.

Notes from Margo:

We meandered along a Massachusetts byway, looking for the route from Concord to Lexington, enjoying the bright yellows in the understory of the fall foliage. Lynn pulled over, as he often does, to let cars pass. A lovely pond was across the road, with the foliage perfectly reflected in its glassy early-morning surface. I said something like: I know that can’t be Walden Pond, but that looks a lot like where my grandfather used to take us. And we looked up at the sign: Walden Pond. A sharp turn into the parking lot and we began a walk around the pond, on the trail my grandfather used to walk.

Let’s call that a metaphor for our whole trip. We couldn’t have planned a gorgeous fall outing to Walden Pond, walking with the ghost of my grandfather. But by taking it slow, and allowing doors to open, we’ve had some magical times. My grandfather, Dirk Struik, the Dutch immigrant, loved Walden Pond so much that he led Appalachian Club hikes there till he was in his 90s. We could see what sparked his love. Through clear water we glimpsed schools of tiny fish and bigger fish hunting the smaller fish, frogs trying to look like tree roots, and pebbles and leaves resting on the bottom. The mirror-like surface reflected a single rowboat in the distance as well as the trees and their foliage. (At right: I called my mom to tell her I was walking her father’s path.)

Erie Canal: Since our stop at Niagara Falls, we’ve had a few high-mileage days, and we rested a few days with our friends Dale and Ann Tussing, in Syracuse. We made a hobby for a while out of following the Erie Canal, mostly because we’ve sung that folk song all our lives: “Oh the Ear-eye-ee was a-rising, and the gin was a-running low…” At Lockport, we saw the “Flight-of-Five” locks that lifted barges and boats 49 feet over the Niagara escarpment. Opened in 1825, they allowed the boats, as their skippers would say, to sail uphill. I’m thinking that might be why the Ear-eye-ee was a-rising. (Lynn’s insert: The canal, mostly dug by hand with a horde of about 2,000 men from 1817 to 1825, was enlarged from 1835 to 1862 and again from 1905 to 1917. Upstaged by the coming of railroads, the greatest engineering feat of the early 19th century is mostly forgotten – except in folklore. Nancy Schimmel sent us a message: “I hope you sang a song,” and we beat her to the punch with another favorite: “I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal, fifteen miles on the Erie Canal”…) We crossed and recrossed the 363-mile canal on the backroads as we drove across upper New York. Near Syracuse, we walked with Dale and Ann along the “Long Level” no-lock stretch of the 50-foot-wide canal. No boats, no barges. On the towpath: Joggers, dog walkers, bird watchers.

The Semitic Museum: We’re in Boston now. It would, of course, be impossible to do the town justice in sightseeing, so we just pulled one museum out of the the AAA Tour Guide: the Semitic Museum at Harvard. A small but truly wonderful museum. My favorite bit was cuneiform tablets, excavated from Nuzi, a town from a Middle Eastern empire previously unknown to me: the Hurrians. Some tablets are the ancient equivalent of legal transcripts, showing that nothing is new. In about 1500 B.C., a Hurrian official testifies (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “It is all lies. I did not have sex with that woman.”

Other tablets are thought to be student practice work – columns of the same words written over and over again. It is evidence, the caption said, of how hard it was to learn cuneiform. (The tablets look like cuneiform versions of my Hebrew study papers.) The Hurrian trove includes what is believed to be the oldest extant map (at left) – an appropriate artifact for our current study of highway maps. Another exhibit shows a typical Israelite home from days of King David. Lynn and I thought we had stumbled into a house from the Mesa Verde cliff dwellers of the American Southwest: Rectilinear structures with rows of small rooms – terra cotta-colored plaster on walls of mud bricks, wooden ladders from one story to the next, ceramic jugs for storing food, wool being spun and woven, cisterns for rain water. It makes sense, really. The two cultures developed in similar desert-like climates. Our image of the Israelites is wedded to the stories about traveling in tents for 40 years through the desert. It’s hard to envision the centuries after the Israelites settled the Holy Land.

Aunt Anne: We visited in the Boston suburb of Arlington with my mother’s younger sister, Anne Macchi (at right), whom I haven’t seen in years. She’s retired from teaching school and volunteers at the library two mornings a week. We sat in her cozy kitchen for several hours and had a comfortable, lively conversation that ranged far and wide: Rush Limbaugh, favorite writers of mystery books, travels in Holland, and the grandnieces and grandnephews in New Zealand.

Kenny’s Far-flung Pals: In the evening, we met up in Cambridge with our young friends Maya Sussman (below, left) and Zoe Marmer (below, right). Kenny’s schoolmates from San Francisco, they just started their studies at Tufts University. They directed us to a Sushi restaurant near campus, and we got to hear from two more budding college students (like Kenny and her friends at Oberlin) who love their roommates, love their classes, love their teachers, and are just generally happy with the way things are going. As in Oberlin, if Lynn is looking for whiners, he isn’t finding them.

Notable: The George Eastman House and Photography Museum in Rochester, New York. The multi-millionaire father of American photography built himself a huge mansion, even though he never married and had no children. (His mother lived there with him for a few years before she died.) He gave piles of money to many educational institutions, including the University of Rochester and Tuskegee University. He was obsessed with creating a more logical calendar, with 13 months of 28 days, and spent millions to promote it. The only place he was able to impose it, though, was the place he had absolute power, the Kodak company.

Mileage from Lockport, New York to Syracuse (by way of Rochester): 147

Syracuse to Boston, Massachusetts: 311

Total mileage so far: 7,010