Monday, April 1, 2019

Back and Forth



    To travel between big city and little city (a town?) within the short period of  a week,  invites comparisons that may be  shallow but  inevitable.
    City mouse, country mouse,  I go between Washington, D.C. (730,000 more or less) and Billings, (109,000 and growing) several times a year to see family. Each visit brings to the fore an ever sharper sense of contrast, large and small, between two worlds. The move requires wearing a mask in each place - the comic one, that shows both a happy and sad face.   Billings, the largest city in Montana, is composed mainly of casinos, banks and shopping malls, one of which is home to a "Christian Automotive" garage.
    Washington, by comparison,  at leasts the part I inhabit, is given over to monuments, offices, and - surprisingly  - trees.It's nickname is, in fact, City of Trees. Nary an obtruding neon sign.  Commerce is undercut by convention. And if excess curiosity and courtesy  among strangers is rare, it does happen sometimes on the subway (Metro) when the offer of a seat is made to an obviously old or pregnant woman. The New York subway exists to entertain. There is no shame in staring, no crime in making noise. Panhandlers alight at several stops, with or without instruments.
    In Billings I am given a friendly and totally unexpected "thanks for coming" from one of the attendants in the vast Goodwill store where I've gone to look for a used lamp. When my car overheats to a dangerous degree on a downtown street, a woman rushes out of a nearby restaurant to offer me a jug of water and finds on the spot - her husband, possibly - a mechanic to assess the situation. He is sure that I've sprung a leak in a hose that he can't quite find and urges me not to drive in case I harm the engine. The car is 20 years old with 120,000 or more miles on it but worth saving. The woman, who may be the owner of the Mexican restaurant I spy outside the film theater, tells me to keep the jug. When I attempt to pay the mechanic, he waves me off and walks away with a warning to watch the heating gauge. Delayed, I go inside to see a movie halfway through and the ticket taker tells me not to bother paying and suggests I stay after the intermission for the second half of the feature.
    A Billings' Lyft driver, whom I call,is a construction worker with a specialty in roof repair. "People here are mean," he says giving as an example the indifference of citizenry to others down on their luck. He mentions the sick man on a sidewalk whom he one time tried to help by hailing passing cars.  And what can explain the sight of casino parking lots full of cars every afternoon but an emptiness, a longing for company at whatever price. More suicides in Montana than almost anywhere else, I read.
   Washington offers a bustling street life as substitute for a social life every person needs.
 Then consider the metropolis - New York. Teeming masses in the millions yet somehow. possibly because of vast numbers, individuals often strive  to connect  on the spot.   Two minutes out of Pennsylvania Station recently, I was standing around noon near a bus stop leaning out into the street to see if my bus was coming. "You waiting for the M120," I heard a woman say to me. Maybe she just wished to confirm that she would have company on the bus. Maybe she wanted to help a stranger, as often happens there in public.  I felt instantly in tune with the rhythm of the street, overrun that time of day with hungry citizens. This would be no less the case inside the train station  when I was leaving. A man waiting for a track signal to come up on the board was observing the scene beside me - the ultimate diverse parade  that included an aggressive panhandler whose efforts soliciting were in vain. We stood together, watching the action and commenting back and forth on whether he would score. Then our track was announced and we hurried to get in line for our train.
     

Friday, March 22, 2019

Gung Ho to the Galapagos




        The New York Times' travel section on Sunday Feb. 10  mixed editorial opinion along with a single writer's impressions of the fragile semi-protected world of the Galapagos - those wildly diverse idyllic islands some 600 miles off Ecuador's western shore. The writer implies that a crisis is brewing there - dangers to the habitat brought on by careless tourists and overseers, though who really is at fault is difficult to determine without more thorough analysis.
        I visited for a week in mid-January with a small group of eight on a catamaran that carried a lively crew of six or more, in addition to an expertly trained guide who displayed our daily schedule on a bulletin board much like would happen at any well organized training facility. This was vacation but it was more pointedly education with side indulgences like swimming and kayaking. Weather seldom interrupted the plan. As an example of much-ballyhooed luxury ecotourism, the time spent could not have been better overall.
       We even have a chef talented and humorous enough to carve for each dinner buffet table the replica of a familiar icon (Mickey Mouse) or aquatic animal out of fruit and vegetables.
But when a friend inquired casually what were the strongest impressions I had of Ecuador - the group had on the previous week been transported by canoe to an indigenous-run resort located in the Amazon river basin - I had to confess most of the recurrent images in my memory were of that expedition. Maybe because signs were evident in Galapagos of the country's strong effort to preserve the islands character by limiting visitor numbers to some extent - charging $100 each - and restricting carefully the movements of boats (and ships) to anchorages.

 Momma and her baby sea lion on the beach. Offspring can nurse 10 years or more.

In each place we were incontrovertibly 'far away from civilization,' enjoying the comforts of home while exposed to the most 'exotic' of primitive sites. Somehow, traveling upstream in a motorized gondola on one of the Amazon''s largest tributaries, we also were exposed to the pernicious invasion of industry and made to see inroads of commerce - oil extraction basically - on the shoreline. The ever increasing danger that indigenous culture will be wiped out - those that don't 'conform' to civilization's greed.
Galapagos is symbol of a wilderness contained - so far. Our adventure inland was a reminder of the conflict ahead for a country - the smallest democracy in South America. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Close Encounters Of A Special Kind




Maybe it could only happen in Washington DC, that self-styled bastion of international cognizance.
Dutiful volunteers assisting a State Dept. funded program bringing young people from former Soviet Republic countries to live for a year in the US are listening to a feisty woman student from Romania say that one of her favorite memories of Albuquerque, New Mexico, had to do with rugby.

Of all things. Maybe the audience expected to hear about the glories of the sunset.

It had to do with her playing rugby on a high school team and what that taught her about teamwork. "It's not about being rough," she says emphatically. "You learn skills."

Maybe no one even imagined that rugby for women was being offered today in US high schools. In any event, it was easy to see that the sturdy well spoken  self-confident woman had taken full advantage of her time in the US.

She also learned a lot about this country, she said,  from taking a class in American feminism (how many knew it was a subject?) when asked what else inspired her to advocate for women's rights so publicly on returning home  to Romania? She ended up being nominated by the U.S. Embassy for a 'woman leader of the year' award.

Which she didn't dare tell her parents about, and almost didn't tell them at all about many of her other empowering activities on her return, even though she still lives at home. Maybe she will and maybe she won't.

"Well, you have to understand I come from a military family. Very conservative. They may not understand." Her family didn't even know until the last minute that she had won the scholarship to live with an American family of strangers in the West. She worried they might think it was dangerous since for them, there was a war on everywhere and probably that was happening in America too.

"When I tell them, they have to agree that it was a done thing."

She had first been  exposed to such @metoo ideas from the  galvanizing women's march of 2017 that brought women together all over the world to stand up for their rights. Back home she was attacked and vilified; the backlash against her efforts was strong and even extended to her family.

She stood firm, unruffled, and decided on  a pragmatic tack. "Well from the bad comes the good. I got a lot of publicity out of it and that helped what I was ultimately trying to do," she said.

Sometimes a person can learn more about his or her own country by listening to a foreigner living there.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Check out Folger Theatre in DC this month for a comedic escape

The latest work on this stage is an energetic reenactment of the life of 17th century heroine  Nell Gwynn, a new role model for our time.
 Move over, Nancy Pelosi.
"Heroine" from Webster: 'a woman admired and emulated for her achievements and qualities..." Also a "legendary woman ...having great strength or ability."
 Recall, if you will, that this woman was famously a prostitute and later an actor who became mistress to a king of England. She was also famously perhaps the first woman of her time to perform female roles on stage previously all done by men. Actors at the time were considered lesser folk all around. The talent and spunk - there can be no better word - of ingenue Nell provoked a revolution. Her antics were legendary indeed. She succeeded through her wits and wiles to be a decisive influence on England in that long ago century.
Playwright Jessica Swale and director Robert Richmond have turned her story into a comedic romp: the acting is uplifting in every sense. The performance provides a perfect escape from the dreary politics of our time and the performance of Alison Luff as Nell will lighten your heart.
True, Speaker Pelosi's rise to prominence came up through a far different route. She was an educated  woman,and some might say' indoctrinated' into politics by her mentor father.  Whereas Nell, if history books are to be believed, was a 'My Fair Lady' find - diamond in the rough discovered on the streets of London by a member of a leading acting troupe. Both women, I bet, knew early on how to get the best of men. As the Folger drama shows, gestures matter as does a subtle mind at work conniving for advantage. And sometimes broad vaudevillian antics play well, too.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

January 1-4/ 2019

Keep  habits alive, stay alert, sleep as  much as possible.
Such are the fulminations of a lazy time between the religious and the civil winter holidays.
Conversation and  interaction with people seem ever more important in a politically uncivil time.
Walking out with a new pair of leather shoes on my feet, testing their feel and adjusting them to my gait, is important, too, and even moreso when it could lead to any spontaneous chat I might originate. Say, talk to the 'shoe dogs' when I go back to the store to find out what ergonomic inserts I need in my stylish new pair that looked just fine but didn't quite yet offer the comfort I wanted.  A side glance at  some ornately packaged socks that turned out to be compression socks brings  a confession from one of the clerks how his job depended on wearing them. Keep chatting in a lighthearted way and I come away with two pair.  The toes were nicely padded so my nails would not break through - so annoying in today's consumer throwaway world. The wool promised breathability -  no smell. Handsome footwear has it all over a new hairdo in long-range satisfaction.

Focus on a stranger's most attractive feature and let the words flow.
Ms. Yvette at the local post office came to work this week with her long sharp nails done up in a strikingly colorful polish: sparklers almost, to match the generous collection of gold bracelets on her wrists that dangled in time to the large thin metal hoops hanging from her ear lobes that swayed with each  practiced motion she made attending to a customer's wishes. A small comment, maybe an ordinary one, but she said thank you, have a good one anyway. We had time to exchange a few sentences in spite of the long line waiting behind me. The price on the envelope was preordained I learned because a skilled clerk such as herself knows the ready price set for anything below a few ounces. Standard rule around the country. $3.50 and no more until the ounces turn into a pound plus and then cost is calculated according to a zip code.

At the bank, too, a Customer Service Representative seated up front had a moment to enlighten me with further valuable information - as if you never needed or wanted to know. How each U.S. Treasury bill has in very very fine print the date of its creation - by year. And how many clients insist on only having bills in their possession above year 2009  because, when traveling, many countries using  or handling U..S. currency will not accept them, consider them to be of less value either because they are old and withered or out of some insistent prejudice that the money is worthless.

So that leads onto another quest: why -  and what countries are they? Unfortunately, I forget to ask.
Walk anywhere on city streets and a wealth of impressions emerge. Such as the strangeness of seeing so many strangers with what appear to be cigarettes sticking out of their ears. Digital tricks to 'keep in touch.'  Is that a way of plugging into the world or escaping out of it? Who would dream of striking up conversation with someone who was already shielded himself (mostly men) from it.


Monday, December 24, 2018

23 December 2018



 This happened around holiday time when wallets and perhaps personalities are loosened, when  even conscientious retail workers might leave their jobs a little early. I'd gone in search of a vegetable - Belgian endive, in fact - using the need as an excuse for a walk in the fading afternoon.The  Harris Teeter outlet in Yards Park, SE DC, fit the bill - over and back with a few diversions comes to about three miles.  Enough to compensate for a leisurely morning spent reading in bed.
  Post-Solstice can do that to a person:  dark enough in the morning to allow for dawdling when others are up and about, off to jobs or shopping.
  The endive was one of a number of oddly mixed ingredients needed for a Christmas Day salad,  earning me dinner at a friends' house across the river ('and through [very sparse] woods') in Virginia.
   The fresh vegetables shelves were unattended - and many of the offerings looked tired. Still, if a store stocks a full regiment of greens, common and not, might not the endive lurk there somewhere? The greeter desk (or whatever was the spot just inside the door) was empty, too, so I went hustling after an official Customer Service person when I was waylaid by a uniformed Security Guard. He was a genial looking operative, smiling, and obviously on my tail.
'Do you mind if I ask you a question?" he said. I was still walking, intent on my vegetable quest. In normal times I might have stopped to ask what sort of question - when he continued:
'How old are you?'
Not the sort of query you get every day unless the airport TSA official wonders why you didn't take off your shoes.
 Needless to say, I was caught off guard. Not breaking my stride, I asked him in turn 'How old do you think I am?" Thereby giving up a golden opportunity to start a conversation out of the blue with a stranger on Facts of Life, Mortality or some other momentous subject.
 He might have been intending a compliment, but he felt compelled to relate to me how his mother, or maybe it was his grandmother, was 100 and 'still full of beans'
  'Ah, well, it's luck of the draw. Energy. Metabolism,' I muttered stupidly, still moving.
   What the real puzzle was, I thought later, not why I was being singled out but that the same question never is asked of a man. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

What's a Pittsburgher?

Nothing edible but plenty lovable this proud citizen of southwestern Pennsylvania's comeback city.
So proud that if  a visitor dares say jokingly he's 'in the pitts,' he might get hit with a rebar. Metaphorically, that is. Steel made the place, remember. NFL Steelers seem to own it, so plentiful and prolific the black and yellow brand. Yellow is the color of one of the more prominent bridges that pop up everywhere. Hundreds of them.Twelve so-called downtown bridges alone. Nothing to sneer at when coursing up down and across three rivers (Ohio, Allegheny, Monongahela) and  the innumerable hills and valleys that dominate the terrain
"People don't leave Pittsburgh." (I.e. We're loyal. We don't often move.)
"People here pretty much take care of themselves." (On why there is no public transportation to and from the city's 'international' airport an hour from downtown.)
A 60-hour visit reveals much to love in this quirky city full of colorful  local neighborhoods.  Pie For Breakfast  ( vinegar pie, custard based, a tribute to the Depression era when fancier versions weren't available) is a perfectly plausible name for an eatery as is the existence of a distillery (bourbon, gin, what have you) called Wigle. The riverfront area  known as the Strip has ethnic options  galore: Italian coffee and pastry; Polish sausages made on site.  The 'ultimate' P-burgh  food offering is a sandwich from Primanti Brothers -a layered  mix of meat, fries and coleslaw, just right for people on the go.
"Pittsburgh Is Everyone," a t-shirt boasts.
A  city of some 300,000 people - an amazingly low number relative to its offerings - seemingly lacks nothing.(Especially not rain.) First rate educational and cultural institutions.  Famous, often infamous,  citizens of renown.  Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andy Warhol, Billy Eckstine,  the Heinz family,  to name a few. Some left to live elsewhere but came back home to be buried.
 An advertisers pamphlet called the Urbanist bills itself as "Authentic Pittsburgh." Tough word to live up to. I'd point to  'Lincoln's P&G Diner' in Millvale - cash, no cards (no advert in the Urbanist either) - also known as 'Pamela's.' Featured photo displays of beloved neighbors, past and present.  Hot cakes  that are thin-like crepes so good the Obamas brought the owners to cook a meal for them in the White House.


All this from a grim history of industrial warfare and pollution before environmental controls came along: foul air, treacherous working conditions, labor strikes. A capitalist roller coaster writ large.
The borough of Braddock, a suburban backwater on the 'Mon,' is an example of ongoing change over time. Braddock's population of nearly 21,000 in 1920  is down to some 2,000 today - 900 of them employees of the U.S. Steel Corporation mill that  throbs day and night with a low-key hum, its giant electrical grid resembling a sonic fairyland on some faraway moon. Progress and dissolution and now, slowly, fresh hope. The plant's predecessor, built by Andrew Carnegie way back in 1873, was one of the first mills to use the Bessemer process that refined cost and quality of  steel production. Braddock was home to the first of Carnegie's public libraries; it included a tunnel entrance for millworkers that lead to a bathhouse in the basement. The site also had a swimming pool, billiards tables, indoor basketball court, and music hall. The building was rescued from near-death  in the late 1970s and remains in operation (without the recreational facilities).
 Braddock's  burly mayor, John Fetterman, became something of a national TV star based on his good works and ambition. He was recently elected  the state's  Lt. Governor after a long career in the nonprofit sector spent helping the local community. He keeps house across from the plant and next door to the trendy Superior Motors restaurant that he created out of the premises of a  former Chevrolet dealership.
 He's a Pittsburgher, what else.