Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Urban Daze

A hazy summer marked by intemperate rain suddenly interrupted by two glorious days: omens of our time.  A person takes refuge however he can. The Lyft driver Augustine operates by strict schedule out of his office/home in Rockville where he 'deals in commodities,'  he tells me while patiently steering me homeward to Capitol Hill through early evening DC traffic. (Tourists clogging the crosswalks, often against the light.) That is, he charts and plays the charts with fossil fuels all over the world. Venezuela has heavy, Nigerian has light. Who wants what and why. A great game that leaves him hungry for company. So he starts his shift looking for some conversation - the human touch beyond the vagaries of a  hyper stock market. He is professorial, explaining its ups and downs.  He has no stated position on climate change and their detractors, saying only "People want their AC."
Just like driver William, owner-operator with his wife of a chain of daycare centers in suburban Maryland. He charts his course on the road between hours he needs to check on the centers, but generally prefers shifts of four hours each beginning at 4 a.m., then a break at noon until 4 p.m. He always is calculating the times and the traffic. "Yeah, I'm an entrepreneur."
Strangers traveling everywhere are hungry for  company. At the MSP airport - American crossroads east/west and north/south - a man approaches a woman sitting alone with her iPhone, obviously engaged while waiting for her flight. He asks if he can  'be of help.' He thinks he sees an oxygen tank in her carryon by her side, he explains, when the woman politely declines his offer. He thinks he has seen something plastic indicating a vulnerable soul. It's possible, too, that it is his gimmick for getting aboard the plane early, as her 'support'.  His next question is an odd one: "You ever been married?" He ignores her answer and launches into the saga of his own misfortune, or maybe his lucky break, that recently his live-in told him she wasn't staying round. He has been traveling for 15 hours, he says (there is some compensatory alcohol on his breath), and has tried getting 'into real conversation with someone' but has not been successful. He  even played the airport piano by way of connecting.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Some Tree Talk

Washington is known as the city of trees, though no official body seems to agree on the actual numbers in what is called our tree canopy and whether the city's urban forest is growing or declining. Coming home from a lecture about Thoreau and trees at the U.S. Botanic Garden (he liked trees more than he did people),  I was especially aware of the varied specimens bordering my walk uphill past the Capitol. I witnessed a veritable memory garden of botanical and political history. Like human fingerprints, none was alike in size or shape. Except that most of them carried unusual identity tags:  little brass plaques. 
These are  commemorative trees planted to honor past Congress folk or a cause such as the
 young linden tree dedicated to "the revolutionary spirit of New England."  Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has her name under an American elm dedicated to 'the Greening of the Capitol Initiative" in 2008 (whatever that was). Farther along, on grounds of the Library of Congress' stately Thomas Jefferson Building, former Librarian James Billington  contributed an acer, a Japanese maple, "in honor of the  Congressional Research Service's Centennial" in 1914. Even a former head of the library's Hebraic division has a tree in his name. 
On and on they went, until some sort of boundary was reached at Second Street SE. By focusing on such an aesthetic abundance around me, I was able for a short time to forget the inanities taking place inside the great building they surround. May the beauty created in this landscape have some calming effect on what transpires there.  One thing for sure: most of these trees will outlast the people inside.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Cheers

Easy enough to write about a  return to the olde homestead and feel good about what you find. But the daily grind of life these days doesn't often give us much to cheer about - at least in the political sphere. For diversion and delight, as well as stimulation and education, fortunately there are  pleasures aplenty to be found in the arts if you know where to look. Art in its many forms, unfortunately, doesn't often come to you.  It takes a certain amount of proactivity (a word?).  Just today (June 7/18) I stumbled upon a charming invention - a museum of sorts dedicated to the history of D.C. Alleys, backed by local government sources. It was a small storefront tucked away in a downtown alley (of course). What a lark, I thought - a tribute to human whimsy and inventiveness.
On a much larger scale consider a current show in Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art celebrating the work of an African-born artist with the intriguing name of Bodys Isek Kingelez. The title is 'City Dreams" - a startling original fantasy creation of some 50  colorful structures  mainly vertical in scale. Urban density of a kind that exists nowhere else on earth. Take time to look him up on the web before the exhibit moves on. "Visual joy...sustaining life force," notes New York Times' reviewer Roberta Smith (June 1/18). Here is just a taste, thanks to her report.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Going Home Again

You can't go home again goes the old saw, courtesy of writer Thomas Wolfe. Well it seems that you can if you can stand to hear the words 'new' and 'hot'.  I went back to Lancaster, Pa., one recent June day, forewarned about  changes - outwardly anyway -  to this traditionally hidebound conservative town now being called  in some quarters 'the new Brooklyn.' A friend had sent along a copy of a rave restaurant review from the New York Times in which the writer  cooed about a new Italian place created from a former warehouse for Amish and Mennonite general stores on a downtown street. The reviewer said he or she would liked to have licked the plate of all the wood fired artichokes and smoked paprika aioli....
If anybody knows Lancaster, and its county, by reputation they know this is home to generations of socially reticent  farmers garbed in 'quaint' costumes who practice the so-called simple life.
They are highly unlikely to be promoting foodie cult destinations.  Shrewd merchants that they are,  they aren't  likely investors in the famously fickle restaurant business that lately seems to have taken over a town I knew as a teenager. Back then I considered spaghetti and pizza to be fine dining and steak at the local stockyards a treat.
The cattle are gone, the acreage grassed over, but the Stockyards restaurant remains in new form. So do the ows.
My visit coincided with  a conservation-minded event called Lancaster Water Week, during which on this First Friday evening civic  hullaballoo, the Turkey Hill diary thought to celebrate by bringing in an outsized model bovine to the town square and handing out free popsicles opposite a flashy wine bar called Shot & Bottle in a location that previously was a bank. Not an ordinary wine bar. This one offers only wine made in Pennsylvania. Nearby, not far from fabled Central Market (yes, some real farmers inside) were at least four or five other 'hot spots' attracting crowds of drinkers and diners carrying on into the night. Among them a 'real' French restaurant named after its owner, with a 'Bakery Ouvert du.' The clerks were wearing protective gloves when handling the pastry. A bit of pretention with prices to match.
 I learned all about  Japanese whiskey available in Carr's, another owner-named restaurant. Admirably, too,  efforts of the  Marriott hotel  chain to preserve in its spotlit foundation depths open to viewers what is purported to be part of the pre-Civil War underground railroad that allowed Southern slaves to escape north. High overhead was a bar atop the sleek modern structure  awash in light and noise. Evening revelers surged through surrounding streets, past facades of immutable classic red brick and white trim..
 I remember when it was daring to stay downtown later than 10 p.m.
You can go home again. Bring money. Be hungry.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Watch Out!

Fanciful or not, dividing the world into people who like either balls or bats is convenient. A choice between large balls (football) or wooden sticks (baseball, maybe even squash and croquet). For the sake of this essay, I'll  say a divide also runs between those who choose jewelry and  those who covet watches. As decorative body ornaments go, time pieces are becoming irrelevant when iPhones and other digital devices can keep us up to date down to the second. How then to explain  the mighty masculine market for pricy metallic wrist wear that can cost as much as a car. The evidence is in  those magazines and newspapers still kept alive with adverts dedicated to these upscale items.  They are status markings, just like diamonds - fulfilling the role of 'best friends.'
 The  Apple watch that adorns as many  females as males is a status icon of a newer kind - one that marks the wearer as 'with it' in more subtle ways.
 A Nordstrom's clerk recently told me that the medium priced 'fashion watches' for women hit bottom because of it.  My own search for a replacement watch has led me down a fault line when the old trusty go-anywhere looking-good Skagen watch disappeared in a moment of negligence. I had simply failed to close the clasp properly. Panic ensued. I was conditioned to check my left wrist regularly as though it were ballast to keep my body upright. Now I saw only bare skin, and no sense of the time of day. No sense of where I was or belonged.
Jewelry never was my thing. Unlike most women I know, I never had pierced ears. God didn't make holes in them so why should I? I lived with and lost clip-ons as well as an occasional pin or bracelet (nothing clunky), even a pure string of pearls for dressup. I never minded the lack of sparklers. But I was lost without my classy watch - reliable and self-effacing.
A compromise ensued. I seized on an inexpensive black plastic China-made creation, very workmanlike with plain white numbers on its face. Curiously, in spite of its plainness, the item came in a little black and gray box with the letters 'Tempus Fugit" on the top and, even more quirky, the words "The Unemployed Philosophers Guild" on the side. The box probably cost more than the watch.
 Swatch models I found too lightweight and temporary-looking, though fun to behold for their colorful range. But I hankered after some elegance, something that spoke to my personal taste in design. Skagen offered some online models  but who dares buy without a try when your wrist is unusually thin. Still, that Denmark brand was in my brain. I didn't want shiny - no Swaworski crystals instead of numbers for me; I wanted friendly.
 By chance, I came upon a small boutique shop - old-fashioned to behold, a jewelry with plenty of watches for sale. The clerk smiled a welcome and said the one  Danish-made 'fashion' watch' that caught my eye just happened to be on sale, because - what better or more unlikely reason - she was retiring. I would get a whopping reduction. Alas, the metal mesh band was too large. But it was Danish-made by Bering. Did the company perhaps carry a junior size? No such luck. I took it anyway, this solar activated modest mechanism.  And the box this time was a round opaque glass 'useful for flowers or keys and things," the retiring clerk said. No amount of in-store engineering could change the size of the watch band but, entranced by the package, I bought the thing anyway.
 I detect a trend. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Lyfting on 4/7/18

Among the more rewarding happenstance encounters in Washington are conversations with Lyft/Uber drivers who appear like magic on the digital grid at one's bidding (most of the time). The names on your screen are a hint of sorts of their origin, but often the names are too inscrutable to be real clues.  The young father of two who responded to my call on early Saturday evening turned out to be from Afghanistan - a place I had lived for several months in 2009. Beyond that tiny fact, we had little in common but sympathy for a country under perpetual siege. He had been an interpreter for the U.S. Marines for 7 years, both in the field and in office jobs, before obtaining a visa to settle in this country in a small town an hour outside Washington, with his Afghan wife. (I can't give his name since I did not ask his permission.)  His day job was with Coca Cola  - up from driving trucks to working in an office -  but he had done the gamut of 'recent refugee' jobs, mostly menial ones, such as helping care for developmentally disabled children aboard school buses. Strapping them in, being sure they are safe, etc. That was only one of a list he rattled off before he told of his time alongside the Marines living in some of the most critically engaged provinces, fighting the Taliban and Isis. He was Hazara, the 'despised minority' in the eyes of the dominant Pashto tribe. He had only three years of formal schooling but somehow managed to learn English, Urdu, and Pashto along the way. His wife had taken odd jobs that required little English speaking ability before their second child was born, a daughter. He drove for Lyft and Uber on Saturday, spending Sunday with his family.  They speak Dari at home while his three year old son is learning English from cartoons on TV. His small Toyota was new. A practicing Muslim, he had no complaints about how his religion was viewed in this country but he deplored attitudes he sees on television. His time with the Marines showed him how little religion really mattered when he came to getting along. "Jews, Christians, it wasn't important.  We looked out for one another."






Thursday, March 22, 2018

Washington ladies lunching well

   On an obnoxiously weary first day of spring, several dozen women and a few men gathered for a reception, program and lunch at what is believed to be the largest private estate in Washington, DC. proper. Which is, surprise, the Peruvian Embassy - some 24 hilly acres in the District's Northwest, with an open gate and driveway leading slowly to a handsome mansion containing splendid examples of that country's art. forms: painting, pottery, textiles.  Why surprise? Because in the hurly-burly of social-diplomatic Washington, with nearly 200 such entities competing for attention, whoever thinks about Peru? Shamefully enough, whoever spends much time at all pondering South America, our  prominent Southern neighbor and how one of its countries owns so much handsome property?The event was a goodwill assembly: the PEN/Faulkner Founding Friends, a Folger institution-based nonprofit that, among other  projects, supports writer visits to DC public schools. Peruvian-born author/ critic/editor Marie Arana was featured - discoursing  Q&A fashion on her life and work at the behest of the Ambassador's wife Consuelo Salinas Pareja. Toughest question: explain differences and likenesses between so-called Latin and Western temperament and character. Marie Arana hedged, fudging a bit, saying the answer could best be found in her latest book, 'Bolivar,' about the complicated, controversial South American 'liberator.' Latin America "has brought so much to the world," she pleaded in an elegantly polite manner.No one present  offered a challenge.
"Is anyone here a writer?" asked a supremely well-groomed woman seated at one of the round tables set up in the glass-enclosed patio for  a buffet lunch.  (meat, corn, potatoes basically) A tall modest man in the group did somewhat reluctantly manage to confess he wrote in the line of duty: he had been a negotiator under several presidents dealing with such foreign governments as North Korea. Thus does politics in many guises inform and energize - ah, even dominate - the social side of Washington.A city often dedicated to navel-gazing. At that moment, an upheaval  of sorts was taking place in Peruvian government politics taking place: the likely impeachment of the country's president and what that would mean for its citizens. It never figured in the conversation.