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.


Friday, November 2, 2018

Who Would Have Thought: Darwin in the City

Mosquitoes are proving more adaptable than humans, at least in some quarters.
Note a piece by science writer David Quammen in the recent New York Review that the so-called London underground mosquito has evolved to a new form. What's more, the populations that have taken root below are genetically different according to the different tube line where they now live.
The world changes. Grows more urban by the minute. By mid-century,  six billion of the earth's nine billion people will live in cities with consequences too enormous to contemplate.
A few other species shifting their character as a result, Quammen points out in his book review,  are house crows of Singapore, coyotes of Chicago, ring-necked parakeets of Paris and a few others learning to tolerate new environments.
 What changes will the human make, apart from turning (conveniently or not) into a robot?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Washington Biography Group at 25



A club of sorts without members that welcomes anyone, even without credentials. An interest in biography is enough, The group begun casually by former National Portrait Gallery head Marc Pachter has flourished for 25 years, meeting monthly, except in summer, in a stately wood-panelled  room loaned for the evening by Washington International School, a private high school on Macomb St. NW.
This model could be duplicated in any community where book lovers congregate. All that is required is a firm conviction  that books matter and anyone writing or thinking about memoir, biography or associated genres will profit from friendly group discussion of themes related to such an effort.
A newsletter produced by the titular leader or organizer goes out to as many as 500 people monthly - those who sign on to learn about meetings, celebrations, advice, article links, etc.
The only dues are voluntary and minimal for a token payment annually to the school for its use of a room. Parking is free.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Public Transportation Protocol: Update Required!

Yes a bad title, and, sadly, an outdated one. Who can imagine such a thing -  'rules' relating to behavior aboard all forms of public conveyances? In public life in general. Of course, there are guidelines - rules - published and ignored by paying customers about handicapped and seniors and no-food-or-drink, so on and on. Usually ignored under pressure and seldom  punished - when only  authorities feel it necessary to make an example.
I'm talking etiquette.  Old fashioned stuff relating to encounters between strangers in a close space. City space -  where a person's civic sense is key to helping a community survive. (Note: uptick in murders this year in D.C. How many are caused or instigated by paranoia often found in crowded conditions, public and private. I.E. road rage, domestic spats, etc.)
Take a moment in that rush hour Metro to bond rather than bite....strike up conversation, maybe 'small talk' rather than sneak looks at the infernal phone.
This sounds like something out of David Brooks' columns. He seems on the bandwagon of civility lately. It's not just the business of being stuck underground rump to rump with strangers during rush hour but behavior in all quarters of public life.
Civic sense a duty not a privilege....what hope otherwise in an increasingly dismaying world.
Some levity helps, too. In a recent Washington Post column by John Kelly he writes about people's favorite Washington experiences, a so-called bucket list.  Best of all is the woman in Virginia noting how she counts spending a free day at home while her house guests track frantically over the city trying to see every monument and museum in one day.
Kudos for common sense all around.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Walkable Or Not

One of the latest missions of the New York Times seems to be keeping readers - well, why not say the entire US population? - healthy by whatever means. To that end, it sponsors a web site called Walkscore.com listing 'most walkable' US cities as well as those to avoid if you are intent on footing it.
No surprise that New York City leads. Then San Francisco and Boston but fourth is - unusually tagged this way in my mind - Miami. Surely not the entire urban area of that spread out city?
Washington DC comes in at number 7, just ahead of Seattle.
 The criteria hangs on how easily a person can accomplish basic errands without access to wheels and a motor - bikes presumably are ok to use -  in American cities with a population of more than 300,000.

Too bad for Fort Worth, Raleigh, Nashville and Charlotte (which is at the bottom of the list), among  others dismissed as 'least walkable' and 'in need of a car.'

Sunday, September 30, 2018

City Notes: DC and elsewhere

Who knew?

***That baobab trees grow in the middle of Dakar, capital of Senegal, according to today's (9/30/18) New York Times. Tall mighty specimens standing up against the urbanizing tide, threatened by climate change - how will they hold out, these beloved symbols of national pride?  They are going fast - half of them gone in the past 50 years because of drought and development. There is a modest effort to protect them, but, according to the report, no major government program in place.

***That Washington's Metro system is so overwhelmed with 'lost and found' objects, mainly the inadvertently misplaced kind, that it is no longer possible to call to find out if a certain pair of black-rimmed prescription glasses has been turned in  by a conscientious citizen or an overnight cleaning crew. Just after getting off a train and discovering my favorite spectacles  missing, I called headquarters where a spokesperson told me I must come in person to their suburban Hyattsville, Md., offices and search through the mountain of possibilities. If I had lost a cell/smart phone, however, I might be able to reclaim it with some (digital?) identification.

***That mayors in many cities across the land are the new hope for  enlightened civic engagement. Regard the number of books being published with this view. The latest is from the mayor of Oklahoma City, and he is even making the rounds of bookstores like a celebrity hawking his wisdom.

*** New in Seoul, Korea, via the October's Atlantic magazine: "Rapidly expanding" stress cafes to ease the urban soul. Offerings there include oxygen generators, apparently since air quality in that nation's capital is so bad. Like having a home in the city, reports one client. And a side benefit: social encounters of a low-key variety especially prized in a nation with a marked competitive edge.

*** And from the Smithsonian this month, a gorgeously illustrated spread on the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, resurrecting the reputation of a formerly grand capital  for the Nabateans, a very cosmopolitan people. All brought to life with the help of modern technology. You don't have to pay much to get there, at least not as much as the team doing 3-D images for a virtual reality tour.

*** Never say the bard wasn't up to date, or that Washington's Folger Theatre doesn't know  how to connect with audiences. Coming on top of a splendidly energetic (i.e. visceral and voluble) production of 'King John,' one of Shakespeare's lesser known history plays, the landmark event space has commissioned an 'immersive' performance piece deliciously (invitingly) called 'Confection,' for a limited run in March 2019 from New York-based Third Rail Projects. Advance word says the short experiential work was inspired by the Folger Shakespeare Library's collection, plus the upcoming Restoration comedy Nell Gwynn. What's that again? Bits and bites, oral and sensual, on offer in the  semi-sacred Reading Rooms throughout a 45-minute show.  Staying Modern in Style, I'd say.
Does the banner phrase ( press release material) "A rollicking rumination on opulence"  entice you? It ought to also pierce you with thought as well about the role of sweets in everyday life.
Also  note that the work is being done in association with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research, convened by the Folger Institute.


Monday, September 24, 2018

'Magic' City (?)

What to make of a place that dubs itself in promotional literature a 'magic city'? Is such a boast hiding a worry that ordinary accolades don't measure up?


I read from local promotion material how Billings was named for Vermont native Frederick Billings, who made a fortune as an attorney and real estate developer during the California gold rush. Billings used some of that fortune to invest in the Northern Pacific Railroad, and acted as the company president for a few years. It was during that period that the railroad was stretched across Montana. A new town was created between the Yellowstone River and the rimrocks to the north. The town, which soon overtook nearby Coulson, was named Billings to honor the railroad president. Frederick Billings never lived in the town, though he donated large amounts of money to support it. His eldest son, Parmly Billings, was the only member of the family to live here.

So the man who gave his name to the city (or is it town - with only 110,000 people?) never lived there. The magic was his money. The way was paved with gold, and the good fortune of the historic river along which Lewis and Clark tree on their very meaningful way west.  There's a perverse admiration for the built-in respect for commerce as the boon to life. A major boulevard - to give the street the grandest possible distinctive name - called Grand is lined with casinos, or seems that way so numerous are the signs. The lure of the deal, the mirage of riches. Dark rooms and plenty of neon. 

Downtown: A fledgling independent cinema showing feature films; an outdated theater with touring shows and occasional performances by a local symphony. An excellent secondhand book store. A respectable art museum. A modern looking library.  But mostly  large scale truck and auto and horse or bull riding in a stadium arena east of town as well as the annual fair. In  the western end an extravagant sporting goods store featuring a Ferris wheel, an aquarium and a taxidermy exhibit of animals great and small, not to mention an extensive selection of firearms and ammunition for sale.(The miniature bowling alley especially popular with families on an outing when  snow moves in.) No happy-go-lucky electric scooters on downtown streets and sidewalks - not yet. No rental bikes. Intercity buses exist but have only limited schedules. A Frenchman married to a Billings native has started an authentic (i.e. he does all the work himself using starter dough he brought with him from Singapore, of all places ) bakery that produces  real baguettes on a daily basis.
 Proof at left of the kind of enterprising spirit that is alive in offbeat areas (i.e. neglected, or otherwise underutilized and abandoned): a former grocery on Minnesota Ave. 'south of the railroad tracks ' - yes, literally, with all that implies - where low income housing prevails.  The wall sign proclaims Kirks Grocery, now reconstituted as an art gallery space recently taken over by musician/artist Shane deLeon. The early 1900s red brick building operated by two brothers, one of them named Richard Kirk, between 1907 and 1936. In addition to offering contemporary art, the owner - a Billings' native who only recently returned home to promote art and music events in a brand new space.  DeLeon's faith and optimism is contagious. Think lower East Side New York or London's Shoreditch before developers moved in - and similar infusions of fresh energy in smaller cities elsewhere (I.e. Lancaster, Pa.,,arch conservative by reputation now touted as 'the new Brooklyn').  It's a quirky town, the kind that inspires ambivalent loyalty but seldom outright bragging and statement of magnificence that Missoula and Bozeman produce from  visitors and denizens alike. Why, then, did Outside magazine in 2016 call Billings a  "Best Town" ?  Doubtless two well established rival medical clinics (one with a connection to Mayo) helps in the counting but they weren't mentioned. The focus was on outdoor living and affordability, pointing out comparisons with "already discovered Montana adventure hubs like Missoula and Bozeman" - on the fact the town is, quoting one resident, is 'in a renaissance stage."  Yes, the river is impressive, and so is the town's natural setting nestled beneath a 300-foot high sandstone rim called the High Line (as far from the New York site of the same name as you can get) bordering in uneven formation across nearly the entire northern boundary.  Seen here from a car window...the looming barrier under the fabled big sky, like a wave about to topple onto the inhabitants below. 

 Contrasts are constant, both in views and weather. And conflicts are common in territory built in myth upon man's rights as opposed to those the government sometimes claims. Witness the sign posted this summer by a downtown coffee shop owner objecting to a published report of an altercation that had taken place on the premises.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Namesake

 It's both forbidding and fulfilling when a newborn grandchild is given your own first name- almost as though he/she were a clone without complications. My first name is one that friends never would know  I own, though it is  common enough. A name I had more or less renounced  through the years as cumbersome, having too many syllables,  too long for a byline.  Still, I admit it is attractive and can be  shortened into a simple sometimes-too-cute moniker.

 Katherine aka Katie, Kate, Kathy, Kat, Kay, etc.

Note that however one hopes to  hide or renounce the official name, no easy way exists to write it off a birth certificate, or a marriage license. Thinking back, I might have preferred to keep the first of my given names and renounce or ignore the dull middle 'Ann.'

The gesture made by my son and daughter-in-law, parents of six-week-old Katherine Grace,  is personally fulfilling in the  grandest sense: acknowledgment, one hopes, of filial respect and  affection. A honor of sorts. Daunting. There is the initial rush of flattery, the appreciation of continuity. On  reflection, however,  consider what this does to a  newborn bearing the name of a living relative (me, the grandmother, in this case)?

Grandmotherhood is becoming a science.. Esoteric articles on familial relationships have expanded to include the outliers - those in-and-out second tier parental ties, the varieties of which are immense now that elders are staying around longer. When, indeed, elders more often than not are energetic professionals with lives of their own rather than the stereotypical spry wry oldster pictured in a rocking chair - ideally on a porch. I have several rocking chairs and several porches, as it happens. Even a hammock in the yard. I hope one day to be able to take those little ones on a swing through parts of the world I have come to love.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The roots of urban...etc.

What does it mean to be urbane? To say of someone he or she has that quality, has a personality defined by a single word? On the surface, urbane implies a certain sophistication - a sense of having lived well in urban places, the quality of 'knowing.' But to know what? To be able to cope in the urban environment without succumbing to either a cynicism or hubris when exposed to daily 'slings and arrows' of congestion and confusion?  A cut above the fray?
Decipher the paragraph below. Are these people on their way to, or already a part of, what it means to be urbane?

The Global Village for Future Leaders of Business and Industry® is an applied leadership and cross cultural training program. Designed for young professionals and experienced students, the program attracts those who share the dream of building a leadership career in industry, who strive to make a positive change in life, and who want to form an active and thriving global network. Since its inception in 1997, more than 1400 leaders representing 121 countries and territories in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, North and South America, and Europe have attended. During the five week intensive program, the Global Village intern will learn and live amongst a diverse group of more than 100 peers, coming from more than 45 countries, representing a myriad of cultures, speaking multiple languages, and learning and offering unique perspectives based on varied cultural and educational backgrounds. http://global.lehigh.edu/iacocca/globalvillage

Certainly, what's implied is that diversity itself reaps rewards in improving civilization (however THAT is understood).  The program is ostensibly a university offering but it is backed by the U.S. State Department of cultural and educational services. And note, of course, the word village is a stand-in for any gathering, permanent or temporary, of people from various backgrounds sharing  a common goal of, well, sharing. What better defines the committed resident of any city block where close proximity requires (requests?) a civil outlook.

Civil: as in 'civic' as in civitas - variously defined as citizens constituting a state, especially a city-state, living under the rule of law. I like to keep this in mind whenever I set out walking. Immediately I am drawn into the life of others living around me.  Instantly I register what looks 'right' or 'wrong' about the scene. A piece of trash that needs picking up. The car parked in a 'no parking/handicapped' zone. A tree limb in the way that should be moved to the colorfully named tree box (whether or not a tree exists there). A flaneur - traditionally described as a solitary gentleman of the  boulevards in great cities - is a more romantic character. He/she (please consider  women  in this category) strolls for the sake of it, observing, or, as philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, "goes botanizing on the asphalt." Amazing what might turn up.

Locals please note: I recently 'took a turn' on an offbeat street in Washington's NE Union Market area, and found opposite a beauty products supply office-turned-gym the site of an as yet unopened pub-restaurant curiously named St. Anselm. What's to stop me from opening the heavy door? To know the story behind such a storied name. The owner, or business head of the firm, I am told, was called Anselm but the name already was taken so the saint honorific was added, however odd, it seemed, for an interior decorated by stuffed animals and the like. The real life St. Anselm,in fact, has a connection here. Just as odd, it seemed to me, the firm out of Philadelphia also owns the popular noisy upscale Diplomate bistro-restaurant on the now thoroughly gentrified 14th St. NW.  You never know what you can learn by wandering and wondering. A credit here to the thoughtful book by Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust."


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.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Trader Joe continued

Of course this fine retail establishment tries to be upright and careful about how it takes responsibility for products it sells. Nothing is made by them but nearly everything is labeled by them. Contracted out.
'Trader Joe's Chicken Tikka Masala'.  (gluten free, if you care to note).
A well documented box of Indian spiced chicken pieces (so few!) in a partition next to the "cumin-flavored basmati rice" ( I quote from the box).  Made for a single serving. Calories 360 of which half come from Fat, also plainly stated.) The sodium content is way up . List of ingredients are over the top, and few are visible on the plate.
Adjectives abound, the worst of which  is 'robust" - don't we see this everywhere today in political analyses. Here it goes with Robust Cream Sauce (though really not very far up on listing of ingredients).

My gripe is that a pretty package does not prepare one for a disappointing meal. Serving size is for a single but surely not anyone with an appetite. The rice has a few flecks of the promised cumin. I pick and swallow. I have a feeling of fulness if not of satisfaction. The box will go directly into the trash  -cardboard with plastic, and I'll be pleased to have had a bit of protein in my system, plus the exalted (tiny) bit of turmeric (way down on the list). I'll call it dinner, more or less.

Friday, March 2, 2018

"New City' - What It Might Be



 Always a good topic for discussion. Extremely current in light of  unending squabbles over gentrification, traffic congestion, restoration and preservation issues. A New York Times essay  on Sunday February 25 took it on anew under the headline -Tech Eyes the Ultimate Start-Up: An Entire City. Utopian city building as only the talented Silicon Valley upstarts can imagine it. Worthwhile in every way as exploration if not illumination, beginning with admissions that  such schemes in the past rarely have succeeded. Every solution is a contradiction.  So Uber and other ride-sharing operations might start to work as delivery services, hand in hand with Amazon Prime.  Does that mean fewer people using their cars as delivery vans and thus takes more vehicles off the streets?
Or will that simply expand the number that clog arteries everywhere?

Another somewhat related article to recommend. An essay commenting on two books about Istanbul, in Feb. 22nd issue of New York Review of Books. All about the many quirks and wonders of that most incredible city, crossroads of two continents (Asia and Europe) and religions (Christian and Muslim), between two civilizations as well if East and West can be summarized so neatly.  A troubled place under its current leader/self-style sultan Racep Tayyip Erdogan whose latest scheme is to build this year a new $10 billion canal across the Bosphorus - how such  a project is both far-reaching and backward looking.  He already has managed to dig for an underwater tunnel across the Bosphorus. And always the story of a great migration building up a city - Turks from the countryside.

Some gorgeous city views figure as backdrop to a recent  violence-soaked movie  - 'Red Sparrow,' notably a few splendid hotel interiors and street scenes in London, Moscow and Budapest. But none of the exteriors make up for what seems like gross and gratuitous murder and mayhem in the plot. The only, slimmest excuse is  to show women characters behaving both absurdly well and badly - usually at the behest of men.  

Monday, January 15, 2018

DC the 'new' dining metropolis, etc.; an update on trends

The greater Washington area of late has been heralded as a major theater destination - witness the growing number of companies offering live entertainment on stages large and small. This was said to mirror the town as a 'vibrant' arts center, though much of this reputation stems from the existence of such  institutions of merit as the Smithsonian, the Corcoran and the Philips. But wait - look at recent developments : Discovery's plans to relocate from Silver Spring, Md., to New York; the sale of National Geographic's downtown headquarters.  Arts in a broad sense, claiming a local presence, seems to be declining. The Corcoran, of course, shut down years ago and merged uneasily with George Washington University. Few people ever felt pride and even claimed much participation in National Geographic - nothing compared to the loyalty inspired by the Nationals baseball team.

Another trend, often remarked upon, could be the emergence of DC (especially inner city and close-in suburbs) as a dining destination. Chefs are the new celebrities, replacing even politicians in their ability to capture audiences 'voters' competing for places at increasingly upscale tables.  How else explain a January 18, 2018, event called 'Live in D.C. With the New York Times' advertised in a full-length page, focused on current stars of the edible firmament in discussion of  - what else? - 'The Future of Restaurants.'
 Jose Andres (Puerto Rico's helpmate), New York's Danny Meyer (of a soon-to-be Union Square Cafe location), and local-boy-made-good Aaron Silverman. (The latter's empire is growing and who knows where next he might expand - a TV show, a documentary, etc.,  offshore sites beyond three stellar Capitol Hill emporiums that started with fabled Rose's Luxury?)

Notably current, too, in line with this sold-out ninety-minute show is the Women's Voices Theater Festival happening in Washington that has Hollywood's own Allison Janney (she of the Golden Globes win) as honorary chair.  Three cheers for inspirational experiences such as Mosaic's one-woman "Queens Girl in Africa" starring Erika Rose and  Folger Shakespeare's update of the Way of the World.'  Writer-director Theresa Rebeck does a no-holds-barred revision to bring contemporary events into the classic Restoration comedy. (Drinks rather than food play a minor role, featuring celebrity cocktail lure of the moment.)  How curious to see an insert in Folger's program an auxiliary offering on three Friday nights of the Festival hosted by Chef Jamie Leeds after 10 p.m. at Hank's Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle. "Stimulating conversation, drink specials, and appetizers" -  and a chance to "mix and mingle' with Festival casts and crews.
Eat your heart out. That's the new way of Washington's old world.

Speaking out is certainly trendy, too, especially among women whose versatile multiple voices were heard across the ages during the festival. Doubtless, the youngest among them were the teenage  characters portrayed in Studio Theatre's sold-out production of "The Wolves."  The  ribald talk-a-thon was a captivating show of emotional split ends, the enduring angst of late adolescence. A hip-hop over-the-top representation of a team of high school indoor soccer players by playwright Sarah Delappe at just one of 25 theaters in the region taking part this year in the month-long festival. The cast not only had to learn fast-paced lines but learn to stay within artificial turf lines that separated them from the audience seated on either side of the 'field.' Only one member ever had played the game before so the University of Maryland women's team pitched in as coach.  Skills that acting school never taught you...dribbling a ball with your feet while your mouth is moving a mile a minute.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Eve: 2017 sliding into 2018

Of all the improbable encounters, I get into a taxi with a "Cash Preferred" sign strapped to the back of the front seat facing the passenger. A call to arms: independent minded driver here, one with a passion to play word games with strangers.
We have already established a sense of humor between us when, at the airport taxi stand, I hand him my heavy bag and say I will keep the smaller one - containing my laptop - with me.  I don't want to risk having the big one topple onto the smaller. No problem, he replies; your choice.
We move along quite friskily, a bit of small talk about weather conditions and his observation that business is down in spite of the crowded airplanes. Hardly anyone was in line waiting. But he must be bored with the usual chitchat. He drives mercilessly.
What is the meaning of spat? he  calls out suddenly in a heavy accent that may or may not be Italian.
I say that the word has two meanings and  ask which  does he prefer.
Aha, he gloats. You know! (I offer 'argument' and 'article of man's clothing in olden days'.)
He doesn't concede if he knows whether I am right of not. Maybe he is taking a casual vocabulary course, by way of entertaining himself.
What about dissident?
The word comes out sounding slightly dizzy - like indigent. But I guess that he has a personal interest here - that he may have been or even now be one.
Again, his voice lights up in approval.
Nobody knows these words, he says. Nobody ever seems to know them when I ask at random. He is pleased to meet a word fiend. He never has found anyone who has had the right answer.
How about: lucrative?
I tell him he is probably going to find me a lucrative ride since I may honor his request for cash.
He hits his hand on the steering wheel in surprise. I've won the contest. He wins the prize.