Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 3


All of India was not like that city of misery between the airport and Mumbai. In fact, few places in India are worse that what we had seen that first day. In the weeks to come, we would experience a land so complex and diverse and so very different than anything else we had known.

I had been in Russia the previous winter, and if a place can be the sensual opposite of that cold, gray and dimly-lit land, it is south India, a riot of aromas and sounds, a kaleidoscope of colors under a relentless, burning sun.

Exactly 100 years before our visit, in January 1985, Mark Twain had come to Bombay on his around-the-world trip. He wrote about his experience in "Following the Equator": "It is winter here, yet the weather is the divine weather of June, and the foliage is the fresh and heavenly foliage of June."
Twain's observations seem fresh and relevant, even today:
"This is indeed India! The land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the moldering antiquities of the rest of the nations – the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined."

In our first few days, we could barely catch that glimpse because of all the people blocking our view. The Indian city teems with humans, overflowing from buildings constantly moving at all times of day in all places, piled upon one another on buses, coursing in tight masses thorough streets, their bare arms and silk saris bumping and brushing us. And in Bombay, everywhere we went, we were followed by an entourage of small, dark, tattered people, reaching out to us with thin, black hands opening and closing, their gray fingertips touching their dry lips.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 2


Exhausted and agitated, we climbed – remarkably free of luggage – aboard a shuttle bus that would take us to a hotel a few miles away. The orange rays of the setting sun penetrated the dusty windows, through which we had our first sight of India.

Bombay is called Mumbai now, and it has prospered much since my visit. But still, 7 million of its 12 million people live in slums, and hundreds of thousands are homeless, many of them squatting in an area between the airport and the city. In 1995, more than a million existed in that area under bits of cloth stretched between sticks, under plastic and in cardboard boxes or with no shelter at all.

In the yellow dust of the road and the diminishing light of day, they crouched around the glowing ash of dung fires or lay sprawled and asleep. Their numbers mounted as we sped by; scores, then hundreds of tattered souls with dirt-caked faces the color of old shoes, and matted hair, and wild, stunned expressions, then a thousand or more. Skeleton dogs skittered across the road that rumbled with frantic traffic. Men lazily pissed along the berm. The air was heavy with diesel fumes and the stench of human shit. Above the incessant blaring of horns rose an ungodly wailing of a madwoman.

A little while later, I was sitting at a hotel bar with one of my traveling companions, Jim, drinking Kingfisher beer, both of us silently staring at tears running down the cold bottles and forming puddles of condensation. Behind us, in a corner of the dining room, a combo with a female singer was plowing through a melancholy medley of Carpenters tunes.
"Unbelievable," Jim said. "Can all of India be like this?"
"All of India is probably not just like Bombay," I offered.
"You mean, it's worse out there?" he asked, in all seriousness. "I have no desire to leave this hotel," he said after a long pause.

I had arrived in India in a snit, acting as if I had undergone some real hardship. But I had money in my pocket and a soft bed in which to sleep, and I had reached middle age without ever having experienced hunger, or having to worry about where I might spend the night. Over the next five weeks I would learn something about people who must contemplate daily their own survival, and I would learn much more about myself.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Today's gripe

There are some teenagers who suffer from a syndrome and deliberately cut themselves. And there are some adults who get an odd pleasure from the eye-watering pain of plucking nose hairs. For the rest of us, there are the political conventions.

Why do we endure hours of this torture for four nights straight? We sit lump-like on sofas and witness a parade of speakers recite an encyclopedia of hackneyed political clich├ęs as we wait for something unexpected to happen, which never does.

Wait, wait! If this is not quite enough masochistic pleasure for you, I have a suggestion: Watch the convention on PBS - completely free of commercial interruption!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 1

A scuffed and battered suitcase circled the clattering carousel a dozen times before someone turned off the switch, and suddenly Bombay's vast and shabby international terminal was as quiet as a cathedral.
We marched without speaking toward a large sign reading "LOST LUGGAGE," beneath which had formed a long line of confused an irritated travelers. Hundreds of bags were piled on luggage carts at the end of the terminal, none of them ours, none worth claiming; broken, splitting suitcases tied fast with baling twine; cardboard boxes wound with duct tape; grimy lingerie bursting from cheap, plastic valises; bashed-in boxes on which had been plastered red and white labels screaming "FRAGILE!"

Mosquitoes floated in the air in front of our faces. I slapped one on the back of my hand. I had Larium pills to prevent malaria, but they were in my suitcase, which was somewhere else on the planet.

We joined the line. The line creeped, the sun crossed the sky. Eventually, one by one, we reached the counter. There was no sign of a computer, not even a typewriter. This was a place of pencils and paperwork, carbon paper, rubber stamps and ink blotters. I was the last of our group to reach the clerk, a boy of about 20 with a wispy mustache who labored over every letter in my name with sloth-like speed.

"Country of origin?" he asked me.
"U.S. Just like the other four people," I snapped impatiently. "We are traveling together. All the information is the same, except for our names."
A little while later the clerk completed the "U" and began his meticulous work on the "S." When he finished his calligraphy, he put his pencil down and looked sleepily at me. "And on which flight did you arrive in Bombay?" he asked.

We had arrived on the only flight that afternoon, but it was senseless to fight this sort of bureaucracy or to try to quicken it. We would learn later that it wasn't just the LOST LUGGAGE counter that was so sluggish and obsessed with triplicate forms and red tape – it was the whole country.

We would need to learn to be patient, either that or go insane. It had taken us 36 hours to reach Bombay from Pittsburgh. We knew that we would eventually be reunited with our luggage. But we didn't know that it would take another seven days.

The Indians have a remedy for this maddening frustration. It is called Yoga.
First lesson: Patience. Breathe.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A new story

"Why would you ever want to go to India?" friends asked me. This was 14 years ago. At that time, India was not quite the up-and-coming, entrepreneurial outsource it is today. "All that poverty, all that misery," my friends warned.

But why wouldn't I want to experience a country so different from my own? In the previous five years, I had been to Egypt, China and Russia and yearned for more. And here was an opportunity to travel essentially for free, as a member of a Rotary Group Study Exchange team, and my employer had graciously allowed me six weeks off to do it.

The journey I embarked upon in January 1995 with four companions was, physically, a grueling road trip through dusty little towns where no tourist would ever venture. But it was, for me, also a spiritual sojourn to the center of the universe.

I'll share some of that journey with you over the next couple of weeks, beginning Monday.

We'll call this one "Dancing with Shiva."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Followup on Enos


"Life of Enos," which appeared in this blog some time ago, was repeated as a weekly serial in the Observer-Reporter, concluding Aug. 10. It reached a much wider local audience than did the blog, and I received a good deal of oral comment on it from readers, despite the fact that the style and length of chapters were much more suitable for the Internet than the newspaper.

Charlie Begley, a contractor and member of the Washington Rotary Club, was surprised to read about Enos Christman, the ancestor of a family here in town for which he had done much work. So, on Tuesday he invited Enos' great-great granddaughter, Jackie Christman Anderson, to the weekly Rotary luncheon to meet me.

Jackie's uncle, Ron Christman, was a photographer for this newspaper until he was killed in a helicopter crash in 1973 while taking aerial photographs for our annual Progress Edition. She said that her sister lives two doors down from the home on East Prospect Avenue where Enos lived the last three decades of his life.

Jackie related one story that I'll pass along. In his home on Prospect, there was a little shelf at the foot of the stairs on which always sat a whiskey bottle and a shot glass. In the later years of his life, Enos was said to take a shot every time he ascended the stairs, and another every time he came back down.

A newspaper man, of the old school.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

A guy left a message on my phone Monday, complaining that he didn't see the results of the weekly livestock auction in Greene County this week in the newspaper. He said he realized we might have been busy slapping ourselves on the back for being around for 200 years, but what he really needed to know was the prices at the auction, and not a bunch of self-serving history.

It's true that the livestock auction results were not in the paper this week. They weren't in last week, either, or for that matter, in any paper for the past 234 weeks, because we stopped running the results three and a half years ago.

Truth is, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture does a pretty good job of posting livestock auction prices from around the state online, and probably most people in the farming industry rely on the PDA site for their information. For some reason, the Greene auction results aren't listed there; nevertheless, the demand for this information from our readers is very low.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Sorry, wrong choice

With all the saber-rattling going on and talk of the Russians being our enemies again, I heard this morning from a Russian friend, Yuri. He is an academic, completely oblivious to world politics. His concern now is his dissertation, in the works now for probably 20 years. He's researching the individual's moral equivalent of the Holy Grail, or something like that.

Anyway, I had written to Yuri a few days ago, asking him to do me a favor. I asked him to walk down Kirova street in the evening for me. Kirova is the main drag in his city of Novokuznetsk. At this time of year, it doesn't get dark until about 11 p.m., and all evening the city's residents stroll up and down the boulevard; it is like a festival. I asked him to stop into one of the beer tents and drink a half-liter of Baltica beer for me. Baltica is the most prevalent brand of beer in Russia.

Apparently, Baltica is not exactly Yuri's favorite. "And sure I will have a Baltica, tasting of the Baltic Sea water when stagnate in pools after storm on the beaches of St. Pete," he wrote. But, at just 50 cents for a killer can, he will suffer through it, he told me. After all, what are friends for?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

C: My friends and family dislike very much having so much paper space anywhere written in Spanish. Takes twice the space that's written in English - My grandparents learned to spell, talk, and read and write in American after coming here from Budapest Hungary. Nothing was written in Hungarian (Just English/American) for them anywhere - for any reason. Who's idea was it?" To start this Spanish stuff? Hope the O-R doesn't devote half the paper to the Spanish printing. - P.R.

A: Retail giants like Lowe's print signs in Spanish and English because they choose to accommodate their customers. Lowe's has stores all over this country, and in some of the places it has its stores, Spanish is spoken by the majority of customers. Latinos now comprise the largest minority in the country.

The reason why there were no signs in Hungarian when your grandparents came here was because there were not 54 MILLION of them. And chance are, they did not learn "American" instantly. Most European immigrants at the time - like my mother's people who came from Poland - settled in ethnic neighborhoods where native languages persisted. Young people caught on quickly to the new language, but older people took longer or did not. My great-grandmother lived in this country for 50 years and never learned to speak English.

The number of Spanish speakers in this area is very small, and there is no market for a Spanish-language newspaper. That could change. Across the state, in Reading, the Eagle is now printing a Spanish edition, and for good reason. More than half the students in the Reading public schools now come from Spanish-speaking homes. Printing a product that people will buy is just good business.

A shift in the winds of history could have easily made us French or Spanish speakers here in the U.S., but instead Britain won out in the age of exploration, and English will always be our language. But consider that we are the United States of America - "America" being that land that stretches between the Arctic and Antarctica, where the majority of people speak... Spanish.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Today's gripe

It's been four years since the last Summer Olympics, so naturally, I'd forgotten how annoying it can be watching the events on television. For the past two nights, between about 8 and 9:30 p.m., what I saw was about 70 minutes of commercial messages broken up by 20 minutes of... beach volleyball (?!) and a little synchronized high diving (?!).

I couldn't take it anymore. Couldn't handle that insipid Oreos commercial with those too-cute little moppets anymore. I went to bed and curled up with a grim Dickens novel of poverty and desperation in the smoke-darkened streets of London.

Pure misery, with no commercial interruption.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Epilogue

The Internet has made the world a much smaller and highly connected place. Already, I have heard from two people who grew up with me in the old Bronxville neighborhood. They must have Googled "Bronxville," and the series popped up.

I heard first from MaryAnne Denniston. She and her two brothers, Buddy and Tommy, lived on Meadow Avenue, close to the spiked bridge across the creek. Then I heard from Joanie Gagan, who was our nextdoor neighbor. They filled me in on the other kids and where they are now, some of them still living close by.

Was it really a half century ago that we played Hide and Seek in our back yard? They mention names and places in their e-mails, and long-forgotten things crawl out of their hiding places, and it seems like just yesterday.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Bronxville Dats, Part 12


I go back to Millard Avenue almost every day. Not physically, of course, because it is 400 miles away. I go back there in my imagination because it is the street of my youth.

All of my big ideas - the good ones and the silly ones - seem to start on the pavement of that wide and shady boulevard and to sprint down the middle of it before sprouting wings and taking flight.

My family lived on Millard Avenue from 1958 to 1962, just enough time for a youngster to collect enough vivid images to last him a lifetime. Ours was the house where 500 tulips and two huge dogwoods bloomed in the spring, the house covered with roses in summer. Ours was the yard in which kids played Red Light, Green Light past dusk.
On Millard Avenue, right in front of our house, was home plate: a manhole cover with iron lettering in a semi-circle that read, "CITY OF YONKERS." The next manhole cover up the street was second base. We marked first and third on the curbstones with chalk, and that was our stick ball field.
"Car coming!" someone would tell, and we would stop the game and move out of the way.

I can see so clearly in my memory even the flotsam along the curbs and at the storm grates: acorns, Good Humor wrappers and sticks, bits and pieces of exploded firecrackers, the seed pods of maple trees.

Sometime after the incident at the abandoned villa, I sat on the curb on Millard Avenue one summer afternoon, contemplating the debris between my sneakers. Here was a mortified and miserable 11-year-old boy who had just pieced together the mysteries of life. Now that I knew how babies were made, finally, how could I ever face my parents again? How could I ever look into their faces without thinking of their disgusting and shameful behavior?

I walked up and down the street, cut across the field, crossed the spiked bridge over the creek and into the meadow, alone. Somehow, in the heat of that awful day, I found the strength to face the facts of life, and a life made more complicated by them.

I am grown up now, to say the least, and face the miserable realities of life almost every day. I find the strength to deal with them by going back in my mind and taking that walk again.
This was my Bronxville neighborhood, and this was my street.
The street of my youth.
The thread of my life.

THE END

Friday, August 8, 2008

Bronxville Days, Part 11

Kids who grow up on farms know what the score is early on. They see horses acting up in the field, know how little horses are made, and figure out at a young age that people reproduce in roughly the same way.
Kids who grow up in the city, or in suburban towns like Bronxville, don't have that insight. And a kid like me, who was pretty dense to begin with, and spent much of his time and mental activity in his own dream world, was pretty much clueless about sex.

At 11, I honestly thought that women became pregnant automatically when they reached a certain age or situation in life. I was vaguely aware of sex but thought it was just unnatural, filthy shenanigans engaged in by criminally-minded teenagers.

I liked girls and had liked them from earliest memory. By age 11, we were going to boy-girl birthday parties and playing kissing games, but I don't think it ever occurred to me then that there could be things more pleasurable to do with girls than kissing.

Then one Saturday afternoon, one of my classmates and I rode our bikes north of town to the abandoned villa. Up a steep hill overgrown with wild rose and sumac was a house long ago given up to the elements. It had been a sprawling, two-story house with white stucco walls and a red tile roof. All the windows had been broken; saplings grew from the gutters, the floors were covered with broken glass and leaves and gravel that had once been mosaic tiles. We loved to walk through these ruins and imagine what life had been like there so many years earlier.

We were not alone that day. When we came up through the jungle, we saw a couple of girls, sitting on the concrete railing on the portico, sharing a cigarette. We tried to ignore them, but one of them yelled, "Hey, you, c'mer!" We did not recognize them. They were not from our school and looked a little older. They must have been from Tuckahoe.
We traded the usual insults and my friend and I turned away from them to do our exploring. But they followed us. We split up, and they split and followed us still. I was not comfortable. Had these been boys, they would have been picking a fight. The girl following me was acting tough, but she was not looking to fight. She was teasing me, telling me what goofy-looking hair I had, what ugly sneakers. And then she said, "I bet you'd like to feel me up."
I screwed up my face as if I'd just smelled a dead animal. "No!" I said. "Who'd want to touch you?"
"Well, I wouldn't let you anyway," she said.

A little later, the other girl said she had to get home and they left, and my friend and I walked around the back of the house, not saying much. Those girls were gone, but something heavy, like dread, still hung in the air. I didn't understand what had happened that day, why I had felt anxious and afraid and angry and excited. Only later would I realize that my dream world had started to crumble.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

C: I've been meaning to write concerning the "comic" section of the paper for some time. Today 8/6/08 I finally got to it.
Peanuts—enjoyable but a bit dated
Mother Goose and Grimm—sometimes hilarious
Zits—a realistic look at a family raising a teenager
Hagar the Horrible—good harmless chuckles
Dilbert—a great and too realistic view of office life
Ollie and Quentin—Dumb
Mutts—not quite as dumb as Ollie and Quentin
Baby Blues—good humored look at family life
Rose is Rose—sweet without the treacle, joyful and upliftingFrazz—humorus insights into what the young are up to
Sally Forth—whimsical view of a working mom
The Family Circus—kids can be funny
Bizzaro—great insights by a warped mind. Probably too hip for the room.
And now downhill from here, maybe on another page.
The Phantom—OK, it's the Phantom
Mark Trail—belongs on the outdoor page
Rex Morgan M.D.—It's a soap. Put it on a soapier or sappier page.
And what finally prompted me to write:
For Better or Worse—It doesn't get much worse than this. Why is this thing on a "comics" page—or using the geezer term—the funny papers. As Molly said to Magee, "Tain't funny." Most of the time Lynn Johnston opts for the depressing. A stroke victim, caring for an aging parent—the sticky sweet glurge, bitter sweet. In today's edition she ran up the banner for gay marriage—In MY comics, MY Funny Papers.
Tain't funny guys. Move it on over to the op-ed pages.
I begin the paper with an entree, the comics, or sometimes save the Funnies for dessert. Today it tasted and smelled like—how can I put this gently? Excrement. - D.M.

A: I hope you enjoy your meal.
We hardly expect that all 90,000 of our readers each day will love all of the comics. People have different tastes, interests and senses of humor. We could tailor our comics page to your personal preferences if all of our readers were just like you, but then what a boring and intolerant world that would be, wouldn't it?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Bronxville Days, Part 10

My long newspaper career had its start back in 1960, when I signed on as a carrier for the Herald-Statesman, Yonkers' daily afternoon paper. I'd pedal over to Ellison Avenue after school, pick up my bundle, fold my papers into "tomahawks," and load them in the twin baskets straddling my rear wheel. Then I'd fly down the sidewalk, flinging the folded papers at the front doors of my customers. A perfectly thrown tomahawk would smack against the door waist-high, then fall open, front-page up, on the doormat.

The money was good, for 1960. With tips, my profit was usually $7 a week. Combined with my 50-cent-a-week allowance, I had all the money a boy could need for Mad Magazines, baseball cards, punk, ammo for my pea shooter, caps, rubber spiders, Top Cat figurines, comic books, decals, Hostess cupcakes, bottles of 7-Up, yo-yos, handlebar streamers, spaldeens (those pink balls we used for stickball), balsawood gliders, candy bars, model cars and glue.

The job also made it possible to indulge in some of the luxuries available in Bronxville Proper: banana splits at the ice cream parlor, bowling, orange rickies at the drugstore soda counter, and the movies. For 50 cents, we could spend all of Saturday afternoon in the theater, watching cartoons, a newsreel, Three Stooges episodes and the main feature.

Life was so uncomplicated for a boy of 11, soaring free on his bicycle, when he wasn't being dragged off by his mom to dancing classes and piano lessons. But it would all get complicated soon enough.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Complaints and comments

C: The sensational front page photo of the grieving sister of the drowned boy was in poor taste. What possible reason could you possibly have to display such a picture other than pure meanness. How about showing some class and sensitivity for a change? This rag of yours is truly in a downward spiral. What is next, pictures of open coffins? -M.L.

A: This rag has been sending out photographers to cover news events - many of them gruesome and tragic - since we first put photographers on staff in the early 1940s. In this case, we did not send our photojournalist out to this news event so that he could get a little exercise; we sent him there to report what was happening.

A boy drowned in the river. It so happened that family members were on the scene, and as a result, their terror and grief and emotion were critical to what was happening.

Certainly, we could have simply thrown our staffer's photo away and reported the drowning without it. We could have treated this boy's death as if it were just another anonymous statistic. But of course, we would have been doing a disservice to our readers. Our job is to tell the story, to report the news as we see it. Sometimes, as in this case, it's a terrible thing to have to do.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bronxville Days, Part 9

The main building of Public School No. 8 was built in 1896, a fortress of steel and stone and brick. The long halls, smelling of milk, floor wax, vomit and sweeping compound, were lined with tall, windowless doors and transoms. I remember most the gymnasium/cafeteria.

When the weather was nice, we had our gym class on the playground or ran wind sprints on the street at the rear entrance to the school. But in winter and on rainy days we were in the gym, performing exercises that no school district would ever allow now. I imagine that after so many ruptured spleens and broken arms, someone probably decided that forcing grade-school children to perform on the pommel horse and parallel bars was maybe not such a good idea. Ditto for climbing the rope to the top of the gym and slapping the girder to which it was attached. I get a knot in my groin just thinking about that now.

The girls dreaded gym class the most, and it's no wonder. They were required to wear gym suits: clownish white costumes that billowed at the hips; that, and also to be humiliated in relay races and dodge ball.

Every so often, there would be a dance in the gym – a sock hop, our parents called it, even though they didn't make us take off our street shoes to protect the gym floor. Girls had to wear party dresses, and boys were required to wear sport coats and ties. I was peculiarly fashion-conscious for an 11-year-old, and my idea of looking cool was white athletic socks. My parents refused to allow me to leave the house dressed up as I was in anything but black socks, so I had to hide my while socks in my pockets and change into them on my way to the dance.

Dancing with girls was exciting, although I was a little too young and a little to dense to understand why. My mother had forced me to take dancing lessons at Mr. Barclay's School of Dance, so I could do a mean fox trot and cha-cha. But I preferred the slow box step, to the sound of the Fleetwoods singing "Mr. Blue," when I could touch the crinkly material around a girl's waist and feel her soft, damp hand within mine, and smell her shampooed hair and wonder why all of that seemed suddenly so interesting.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Bronxville Days, Part 8

Student self-esteem must have been a concern to educators even back in the 1950s, because all of a sudden "F" disappeared as an option for teachers marking up report cards at Public School No. 8. A's, B's, C's and D's were left untouched, but F's, which stood for "Failure" (or maybe "Flunky") had to go. F's were replaced with I's, which stood for "Improvement needed."

The year with Mrs. Macarber and Miss Goldstein was my second attempt at sixth grade. My first time through was with Miss Cynthia Heinitz. She handed us our report cards on the last day of school, I was expecting my grades to be poor. But I never thought my report card would have more I's on it than "Mississippi." I couldn't get up the courage to give the report card to my mother, so I tossed it behind a pile of lumber in our garage.
That evening, when asked to produce it, I tried several approaches: "We didn't get report cards this period"; "Oh, yeah, we got them, but I must have dropped it on my way home from school"; "It must have fallen out of my pocket when I was sitting on the lumber pile"; and finally, after retrieving it from the garage, "That doesn't mean I failed, it just means I need improvement."

Mrs. Reilly, the principal, summoned my parents to the school, and then they sat me down and told me what I dreaded to hear more than anything: "You have to repeat the sixth grade."

Left back. Left back! How could I ever look any of my friends in the face again? They tried to comfort me. "You've always been the youngest and smallest in your class, and now you'll be with kids more your own age," my father said. "You'll make new friends," my mother added. "You'll have already done the work, so it will be easier the second time around."

That night, my mother came into my room and sat on the edge of my bed, brushed the hair from my forehead, damp from a tear-soaked pillow. "You'll get over it," she said.

And I did.