Monday, October 31, 2005

Macabre TV

Saw most of a bio of Rod Serling on TV over the weekend that included many things I never knew, which is sometimes the mark of a good production, but more likely means that I never bothered to learn much about the subject. (Both, in this case.) It was filmed in black and white, a wise choice, since it would have been jarring to go back and forth from b&w to color, considering that the many Twilight Zone clips were in b&w.

There were a few omissions. No mention was made of one critical element of that show’s presence — good episodes or bad, the Twilight Zone had a presence — namely Serling’s voice. A sonorous voice with a slightly sinister edge. If you doubt its importance in the scheme of the drama, imagine if he’d introduced the episodes with a voice like Wally Cox’s.

A more important omission was the bio’s gliding over Night Gallery, which Serling hosted in the early 1970s. He also wrote about a third of the episodes. I haven’t seen any of them since they were new, and I’m not sure I really need to, but it included some of the most frightening television I’ve ever seen. Of course I was nine or ten at the time, but still the effect was there, and probably not only because I was a kid. There must have been macabre merit to some of them.

There was one Night Gallery episode so unnerving that I’m certain I would never want to see it again (like the movie Eraserhead), namely “The Caterpillar,” though I’m grown now and sure — well, reasonably sure — that the entomology of the story is bogus. Internet sources tell me it originally aired on March 1, 1972, and I might have seen it then or during a rerun.

It involved explorers or colonists in some tropical location, one of whom wanted to murder a rival. His weapon of choice: a flesh-eating caterpillar deposited at night in the rival’s ear by a native accomplice. The native goes into the wrong room and the creature is put in the would-be murderer’s ear. After inflicting terrible agony, the worm emerges from his other ear, and then there was the kicker: “… it was a female. Females lay eggs…”


Sunday, October 30, 2005

Thit Nuong in the Park

It’s been a few years since we’ve been to the Lincoln Park Zoo, because it’s in the city and the logistics of getting there are hard. In many ways, though, that zoo is the more likeable of Chicago’s two major zoos. It's a manageable size, surrounded by the pleasant spots of Lincoln Park, and free. It doesn’t have animals in quantity like the Brookfield Zoo, but the zoological quality is just as good.

It was the first zoo we ever took Lilly to. We lived in the city in the months after her birth, so it was just a matter of hanging on to her as we took the #36 Broadway bus south a couple of miles. It was on an unusually warm day just before Christmas. It wasn’t really for her. It was for us, to get out of the house.

On Saturday, nearly eight years later, we were back. This time it was for Lilly and her sister, but it still involved the #36 bus because we parked near Argyle Street, bought sandwiches at the Ba Le Sandwich Shop, and caught a bus right outside the shop for the ride to the zoo, south a couple of miles. Parking near the zoo is inconvenient and costly at best, impossible at worst, while parking is free and available on the formerly familiar streets of Uptown-Edgewater.

True, herding children and their gear onto a city bus is trouble enough, but our little picnic on the lawn in front of the Lincoln Park Conservatory (near the zoo’s entrance) in the warmish October sun was compensation enough. Especially since we’d bought sandwiches called thit nuong at the French-Vietnamese Ba Le, which contain pork, vegetables and delicious Vietnamese spices on a fresh baguette, $2.95 each. We also had two banh u, or sticky rice pyramids with chicken at the heart, wrapped in palm (?) leaves. Wrapped up in dark green sturdy leaves, anyway. $1.50 each.

At Ba Le, baguettes are sold individually from an enormous pile of them in a clear plastic box. Ann knew what she wanted, and it was in that box, and she let us know. So we got her one, 35¢. She didn’t bother with waiting for a picnic setting of grass, but got to work on it right away, on the bus, in violation of CTA rules. But cute toddlers get a pass on such things.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Ticker Tape

Much is being made of the fact that the last time the White Sox won the World Series was 1917. That kind of information makes me wonder if there’s still anyone alive who remembers going to a World Series game that year. Eighty-eight years ago, so someone over 95, say. Someone has to still be around. Finding that someone and interviewing her is a job for the Tribune or the Sun-Times, but as far as I can tell, they’re not doing anything with that angle.

The event downtown for the Sox has been described as a “ticker-tape parade,” but that too makes me wonder: ticker tape? A linguistic fossil, surely, since no one uses ticker tape itself anymore. A deejay on the radio today commented on this as well, noting that in fact the city dumped shredded newspaper on the Sox. Which would make for black-and-white “ticker tape,” more or less, so that seems right.

Earlier this year for unclear reasons, Lilly declared herself a White Sox fan, though that hasn’t actually meant watching very many of the games on TV or going to one in person or buying anything. That’s my kind of fandom. It was much easier to go to a minor-league Schaumburg Fliers game this summer, and a whole lot cheaper too, which are concerns of mine if not hers.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Sox, Szechwan and Stainless Steel

Downtown today I saw several White Sox World Series championship banners already hanging from buildings, though the banners outside City Hall still referred to the team as American League champions. Also, I noticed that the Chicago Picasso is wearing what looks like a plywood Sox cap.

Noticed a few other changes walking through the city, such as retailers than have vanished in the last few months, or shops that have opened, plus a building or two that have vanished. On East Water Street, I noticed that the former site of Asian Express has become, when combined with the space next door (which at one time did passport and green card photos), became a steakhouse. It’s a name-brand steakhouse, but I’ll bet it doesn’t have a Szechwan chicken like Asian Express. There was a time when I ate that dish two or three times a month.

Just west of the Cultural Center on Michigan Ave. is a recently completely condo tower, and on the sidewalk nearby on Randolph is a new piece of public sculpture, “We Will” by Richard Hunt. It’s stainless steel, branching up like a fire, or seaweed, or a metal tree with peculiar branches. I had to look Hunt up, since my knowledge of sculptors is vanishingly small. Turns out he has something similar on LaSalle (“Freeform V”) that I’ve seen many times, but it’s over a building entrance and not at street level like “We Will.”

I had to wonder about that title, and how it would be worlds different with just a little punctuation. We Will! isn’t much like We Will? or even We Will…

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Pink Erasers for Basra

This evening Lilly told me that Iraq needs school supplies. Something she’d heard in school, it turns out, and I suspect some kind of collection is in the offing sometime soon. But I agreed with her that yes, indeed, the schools of Iraq were probably short of supplies, though we didn’t delve into the matter much.

Almost at once I thought of Fondue Sets for Namibia, but I didn’t bother Lilly with that recollection.

I also thought of the creep of current events into elementary school. I can’t remember when it was exactly, third or fourth grade, but the subject was Vietnam in those days, and someone asked the teacher why we couldn’t just go ahead and use all these atomic weapons we had on the North Vietnamese. She probably was a little shocked at this suggestion, but managed to tell us -- not in these words -- that the collateral damage from such a strike would be too horrible.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Meacham Grove

The sugar maples are at their hot-color height just now, yellow and orange mostly, but with a dash of red. There aren't that many in my neighborhood, but we walked through a small forest of them on Saturday at the Meacham Grove Forest Preserve. I wanted to see some leaf colors over the weekend, but didn’t want to drive very far. Only about three miles from the house, the Meacham woods fit the bill, with the bonus of novelty, since we’d never managed to go there before.

It was cool and overcast, but no rain came until later in the day. According to the pamphlet I picked up on site, the woods total more than 250 acres, and are named for the Meacham brothers, who owned the land (and more) as early as it could be owned after the Potawatomi were kicked out in 1830. Their name also endures as a major north-south street in eastern Schaumburg, so maybe their holding extended up that way too.

We’d only seen the woods from Bloomingdale Road, but there’s no obvious place to park a car along that road, despite what the usually reliable Hiking & Biking in DuPage County, Illinois says. After some looking, we found the parking lot and headed out for a walk around Maple Lake, a small body of water surrounded by a path and trees. It reminded me a little of Walden Pond, though it’s smaller and I don’t think anyone’s ever written about living deliberately on the banks of Maple Lake.

Another path wanders a mile or so through a forest of mostly maples. We followed this, despite Lilly’s protests that it was a walk too far. Admiring fall leaves is an acquired taste, maybe, since Lilly didn’t start enjoying the walk until she picked up a branch and started drawing on the path. Ann copied this immediately.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Happy Birthday, Mama!

Jo Ann Curnutte Stribling

Native of Texas; dietitian; longstanding member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, San Antonio; daughter of James and Edna Jo; sister of Sue; wife of Sam; mother of Jay, Jim and Dees; grandmother of Sam, Dees, Robert, Lilly and Ann.

Now officially an octogenarian.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Item from the Past: The Pumpkin Drop

Background: I co-hosted a “harvest dinner party” at my apartment on October 22, 1988, a mix of my friends and friends of my friend Becky, the other host (she didn’t live with me, my apartment was merely convenient).

The first thing Nate said to me when he came in was that he had a surprise waiting for me in his car. “Bigger than a breadbasket?” I asked, the stock question coming from me effortlessly. He thought a moment and said, “If you put them all together, yes.”

About 30 minutes later, long after I’d forgotten, in the rush of things, that a surprise was coming, I heard Nate and Kevin and Lee huffing in, two big burlap sacks in tow, which they took to the room at the south end of my apartment. Nate upended one of the sacks. A dozen garden pumpkins tumbled out. Pumpkins make a curious thump as they hit a hardwood floor, a sound I expect my downstairs neighbors couldn’t fathom.

These were the pumpkins Nate and I had planted in his garden in Warrenville in April, the last of the vegetable crop for this year. Some of the guests took one or two home, but the kids at the party put them to more immediate use. Jonathan was rolling ’em around and Ella hoisted one overhead and carried it around like a water jug.

Once, I picked up one of the pumpkins by its stem. The stem broke. The pumpkin landed on its side and rolled toward Lee, who was in the room. He stepped aside, but the pumpkin turned and followed him. He moved again, but it still followed him, till it lightly tapped his foot. Giddy with beer and wine, everyone else thought this was a lot of laughs. Actually, so did Lee.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Felix the Surreal

As far as I can remember, Trafalgar never came up in junior high or high school—its 200th anniversary is today -- and neither did the Gunpowder Plot -- its 400th anniversary is in a couple of weeks. They were probably considered strictly British affairs by US textbook writers, and besides, the Kings & Battles pattern of teaching history was already on its way out by the 1970s. I heard of both of these events on my own, but never really looked into Trafalgar in any detail until I visited Trafalgar Square and wondered why it was important enough to have its own large plaza in crowded London.

But there’s no excuse for the omission of the Battle of Trafalgar in The Timetables of History, a reference I’ve had on my shelf for years now. It has Austerlitz and Pressburg for 1805, but not Trafalgar. Go figure.

The other day I visited a certain enormous chain store, and on impulse I bought a few $1 DVDs, that is, public domain specials. One was a Bugs Bunny collection, mostly WWII vintage, at least one of which would never be shown on TV because of racial stereotypes.

Another disc is called Felix the Cat Woos Whoopee. I looked up some of the titles on the disc -- there’s nothing on the DVD box beyond the titles -- and found out that it contains cartoons made mostly in 1929 and ’30. By then Felix had been eclipsed by Mickey Mouse, and so in “Woos Whoopee” he’s taken to drink, whooping it up at the Whoopee Club with his other black & white, pre-talkie animal cronies. Staggering home (to a cat-wife waiting with a rolling pin), Felix hallucinates. A lamppost comes alive. Vicious animals emerge from nowhere. He’s speeding along in a racecar, then falling from a tall building.

By later standards, it’s primitive cartooning. Still, Felix seems alive, the surroundings surreal, and the entire package was so different than the cartoons I’m used to seeing that I couldn’t quit watching, at least for the span of one cartoon. Into the next cartoon, my attention began to wander. That’s about right, though, since they were meant to be seen one at a time, ahead of whatever flicker was showing that week.

Also, I wasn’t expecting that much. I have dim memories of the late 1950s Felix series repeated in the ’70s when I was a kid, and it never did much for me even then. I didn’t know about deus ex machina, but I knew that a bag of tricks was cheating. Before this week, I’d never seen any of these earlier versions of Felix, They must have been considered too old even for after-school or Saturday TV, or maybe the copyright hadn’t expired then and they were still locked away. Anyway, the older Felix had no bag of tricks in those days, just a dollop of the surreal.

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Thursday, October 20, 2005


Almost cold nights, not-quite-warm days, when the sun heats up the house enough to keep the interior above 65 F (our night setting in winter) for most of the night. Now if this could only last until April.

I did some looking around, and noticed that this article of mine is up on the web, though I haven’t received a paper copy of the magazine just yet, which is published by the International Council of Shopping Centers. The article’s of interest if you’re interested in the fate of mid-market department stores, which is dim.

Went to Maggiano’s in Oak Brook for a luncheon today, to eat and listen to a panel, make notes and write it up for filing tomorrow. The subject was office condos, which seem to appeal to doctors and other practice-intensive professionals. One speaker developed a group of office condos built according to the principles of vastu shastra, the Indian equivalent of feng shui, since his clientele included a fair number of doctors from the Indian subcontinent.

It was my introduction to the concept. You never know when you’re going to find out something new. If office condos are going to be developed along vastu lines, it can’t be long before there will be vastu how-to books, calendars and community-college night classes. America is an expansive place; it has room for more Wisdom from the East, surely.

The Asian concept I want to graft on North American soil isn’t either of these, though. I’d like to see people build spirit houses, an idea I encountered in Thailand. I’m sure there are details to spirit houses that I don’t appreciate, but the idea seems a lot simpler than aligning your house so it isn’t downwind of the wrong flavor of chi. You have a house, so the resident spirits need one too, but much smaller, maybe birdhouse sized. To give it an American twist, someone needs to sell spirit-house kits, available in a number of styles.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Frog Bridge

Robert Byron (see yesterday) got to see the Dome of the Rock, the Friday Mosque at Veramin, the Mausoleum of Uljaitu, the Dome of Sheikh Lutfullah and the Shrine of Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa, among other marvels. Odds are slim that I will see any of them, except maybe the Dome of the Rock.

It’s more likely that someday I’ll be able to see the Frog Bridge. I learned about it by a chance mention, the second-best way to learn about something like that. The best way is to chance across it in person, like my correspondent in Connecticut, MT, who brought the Frog Bridge to my attention in the following e-mail exchange.

I sent her this message:

In a tangential way - the Internet was made for tangents - I ran across a picture of a statue in Cheshire, Conn., associated with the House of Doors. I figured you might know if it was still there. I hope so. See this link for more on this giant plus others around the country:

She answered:

YES! it is still there. I not only go by there occasionally by car and bike, but I also buy doors there. (A giant selection.) I do have an interest in figures like him, so I enjoy seeing them depicted regularly in the Zippy comic strip. Do you read it? The creator, Bill Griffith, is a Conn. resident (transplanted from San Francisco), but most of the Yankee folks around here have no idea what he is getting at in Zippy. The public is always trying to get the Hartford Courant to drop him. He has featured the House of Doors guy, as well as other local sites such as the Frog Bridge in Willimantic, Conn.

One fall day about five years ago, I was lost going to a deposition in Willimantic, and I came upon the Frog Bridge (decorated with four giant frogs atop giant spools of thread -- these are emblems of local history). I was delighted to see it, as I had seen it in Zippy, but had never seen it reported on in any other news medium.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


It’s time for British travel writing of the first half of the 20th century, when the going was good, to borrow a phrase from a title of such a work, though not one I’m reading now (I read it just out of college). Not long ago, I picked up The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, published in 1937, based on a trip he took a few years earlier.

A travel book after my own heart: Byron heads out, overland toward Afghanistan via Cyprus, Palestine, Iraq and Iran, and focuses on what he sees, which he describes in thoughtful but not pedantic detail. Not as easy as it sounds. He also recreates conversations with some of the people he meets along with way, truthfully I believe, since they have that flavor of the sort of half-conversations between people who only partly understand each other.

At one camp [in Afghanistan] two men stopped us. “Where is your kibitka?” they asked.

“My what?”

“Your kibitka?”

“I don’t understand.”

With expressions of contempt and irritation, they pointed to their own felt-and-wattle huts: “Your kibitka—you must have a kibitka. Where is it?”

“In Inglistan.”

“Where is that?”

“In Hindostan.”

“Is that in Russia?”


Monday, October 17, 2005


Someday, Lilly might read this (she doesn’t yet, though she reads a lot of other things now), and she’ll realize that I’ve inflicted Gilligan’s Island on her as a conscious decision. For months now, I’ve been ordered various old TV shows from Netflix, and season 1, disc 1 of that notoriously juvenile show came late last week.

Like everyone else my age, I watched the show on afternoons after school. I picked it up willy-nilly, not by updating my queue via Internet connection, getting a small disc in the mail, and popping it into a machine connected to the TV. I haven’t seen any of the shows in about 30 years, but they linger in memory as certain TV does. Lilly may or may remember this or anything else I’ve shown to her recently, but I’m going to offer her the opportunity, if that’s the word. Besides, the show is for kids, and sure enough it made her laugh.

What I really wanted to see on the disc, though, was the “lost pilot.” This was Gilligan’s equivalent of Star Trek’s “The Cage,” that is, a pilot that never made it on the air because the concept was retooled too much by a second pilot. In fact, Gilligan’s “lost pilot” was better than the actual first episode for a number of reasons, though the premise was pretty much the same, and no less silly. Among other things, the story had slightly more cohesion, the single girls (not Dawn Wells and Tina Louise) wore more fetching swimwear, and there was a scene in which Gilligan managed to dump a box of ammunition in a campfire, with the shells streaking off in all directions as he and the Skipper ducked for cover. A nice bit of special effects for TV in 1964.

Also, the theme song, which was as memorable as anything else in the series, wasn’t the same in the “lost pilot,” but a sort of calypso number sung by a soloist that tells more or less the same story but using almost completely different words and tempo. For instance: “Tourist come, tourists go/Tourists touring to and fro/Five nice tourists/They take this trip/Relaxing on deck of this little ship.”

Turns out that one Johnny Williams did the music for Gilligan's Island. He did a lot of TV work, it seems, before he hit the big time as John Williams.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Item from the Past: Takayama, Mid-October 1991

Steve and I went to a town called Hida-Takayama for the weekend, northeast of here on Honshu, but quite a ways. “Takayama” means “high mountain” literally, but the town’s actually in a valley ringed by rounded, moderate-sized peaks, colorful for fall part way up. The higher mountains are the Japanese Alps—that’s what they call them—a little further north. On the clear Saturday we were in Takayama, we could see them too.

The town was apparently too small and remote to receive attention from bombers during the war, so some older streets survive, mostly as shops, restaurants and other tourist attractions. But picturesque ones, with forms and a feeling you don’t find much in Japan any more, even the smaller towns. Very pleasant strolling.

A high point of the visit, besides the satisfactions of the meals, bath and tatami of the minshuku, was our visit to the Hida Folk Village, an outdoor museum featuring two dozen or so old Japanese structures, the musty kind, many with steep thatched roofs, the kind that would catch fire at a moments’ notice, so part of the amazement is they’ve lasted as long as they have.

Inside a few of the huts were antediluvian craftsmen and women making things. We saw a man and a woman fashioning hemp sandals from stacks of cord. Both looked permanently crouched, their bodies bent like shrimp. They worked the hemp with their hands, with the cords wound around their feet like a cat’s cradle. I’m sure they live in modern ways on their time off, and draw paychecks from the museum, but the illusion was powerful anyway.

Friday, October 14, 2005

October Flowers

The full flush of fall isn’t quite so full this year, reportedly because of the summertime drought. There seems to be a lot of sickly brown and green mixed in with the more pleasant golds and rare reds. Still, leaves are falling, mostly on to my yard, where the grass is an unnatural green because of heavy rains in the last few weeks.

No hard freezes yet, which was obvious when we visited the Friendship Park Conservatory today. Last week, I drove into Chicago for a lunch meeting, and instead of taking Golf Road as I intended, I went down Algonquin Road. I realized my mistake in fairly short order, but decided to stick with the road. Never mind the details of that drive. The important thing was that I drove past Friendship Park in Des Plaines, and saw out of the corner of my driving eye that it had a conservatory. Serendipity.

I like conservatories. The Chicago area has a number of major ones, such as the ones in Lincoln and Garfield parks, and in Oak Park. But there are also pleasant minor ones, such as one we ran across in Elmhurst a few years ago. I didn’t know there was one in Des Plaines.

The afternoon was warm and clear, and we were going that direction more or less anyway, so we went to Friendship Park. It’s a large suburban park with a ball field, playground and some open space: no different from many others, except for the conservatory. The gardens around the building are still lush with all sorts of colorful flowers, especially varieties of roses. At 4 pm on a weekday, however, the building was unaccountably empty and locked up.

Ah, well. Good flowers outside, anyway. Lilly wandered around and eagerly took pictures of the blooms with our digital camera, at no risk of wasting film. Ann pointed and said, "Flowa! Flowa!" sometimes. Some other time, maybe in winter, when the contrast between inside and outside is greater.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Names in Stone

It’s going to take me a while to track down all of these names, but here’s a complete list, in order from south to north: Pulitzer, Bowles, Medill, Franklin, Lawson, Greeley, Bennett and Gadana, or maybe Cadana, it was hard to tell.

“Nothing’s written in stone,” is the turn of phrase, but in fact these names are written, two at a time, in stone on the side of Two North Riverside, a building in downtown Chicago that I walked past today. I had business downtown, and my route passed that way – near where I used to work, so I know Two North Riverside fairly well. Or thought I did. In all the years I walked past that building, on the plaza next to the Chicago River, I never noticed these names.

It’s an office building now, but when new in 1928 it was the Daily News building, home of a paper that succumbed to popular aliteracy about 50 years later. I recognize a number of the names, of course: Pulitzer, Medill, Greeley and Frankin, if it's Benjamin. Newspapermen all, and it would seem reasonable that the others are too, though not quite as well remembered.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

By Its Cover

I stopped at the gas station down the road to pump some fluid gold into the tank today, and when I went inside to pay I passed by a skinny blondish woman, possibly in her 30s but with a sun- and careworn face, wearing a shirt that read “Phillip Morris.” That seemed a little odd, but I didn’t dwell on it. She looked at me for a brief moment and said nothing.

I paid, and as I was getting ready to leave, a man in work overalls, the kind with his first name on a patch, came in. He was youngish, had a full black beard and his hair in a ponytail, and sported a couple of large tattoos on his arms.

“You smoke?” the woman said to him.

“Yeah, I smoke,” he said. She was giving away cigarette samples, some new thing by Phillp Morris, and had decided at a glance that I didn’t have that look of nicotine. It wasn’t a judgment based on clothes, necessarily, since with cords and a flannel shirt, I wasn’t any better dressed that the workman. I also had about two days’ worth of stubble, a mark of self-employment.

I could object to this on some abstract level, but I’m not going to. After all, she was right.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A Popcorn Moment

Busy day, things to write, things to read, people to talk to over the phone. Whole cottage industries to learn about. Then there was the popcorn incident. Take one mostly empty bag of popcorn, but well stocked with bits and old-maid kernels, allow a child of under three control over it, and guess what happens. Yes, serious vacuuming was also part of my day, down in the multimedia room (that is, where we keep books and the TV-VCR-DVD complex).

Monday, October 10, 2005


Last week started like summer, but by Thursday had dropped into fall weather as steeply as the drop off from the edge of a continental shelf. Last Friday and Saturday were distinctly chilly and completely cloudy. On Sunday, things warmed up a bit.

So we went to the Cosley Zoo. I took Ann there late in the spring this year, when Lilly was still in school, and noticed that she actually seemed interested in the animals, or at least the big ones that moved. Cosley is a unit of the Wheaton Park District, and a relative unknown compared with the enormous suburban Brookfield Zoo and the famed Lincoln Park Zoo in the city.

It’s a fine little vest-pocket zoo. It has the advantage of being free, and it doesn’t wear down the feet, since you can see everything in under an hour. The large duck pond fascinates one’s own small fry, and the rest of the animals—mostly of the barnyard sort, or birds, have their charms. And there’s an old caboose, just there, for no special zoological reason.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Item from the Past: Columbus Day, 2000

A note from when Lilly was about the same age as Ann is now.

Today, actual Columbus Day, I went at work, though I had Monday off. That happened to be federal Columbus Day, as well as Yom Kippur, and “Canadian Thanksgiving.” That’s what the calendar says, anyway. Perhaps the very first Jewish-Italian-Canadian holiday. I’m for any holiday that lets me sleep late.

Speaking of Canada, the Sun-Times, which features an amusing column called Quick Takes (a sort of mild News of the Weird) ran this about the recent death of PM Trudeau: “News Item: ‘MONTREAL — Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a flamboyant and charismatic giant who led the country through some of its most tumultuous events…’ Name one.”

On Sunday we repaired to the Illinois Railroad Museum in Union, Illinois, just far enough northwest of the Chicago conurbation to maintain cornfields. We had been to the IRR Museum before, in 1997, in the summer before Lilly was born. We decided then that by a certain age, the child would probably enjoy an outing to this place, which sports many old railroad cars of all descriptions and conditions.

Recently, it occurred to us that Lilly was ready for it. “Choo-choo train” was an early word of hers, and she’s fond of watching them go by. Since the museum closes for the season at the end of October, and since I didn’t have to work on Monday, we decided that last weekend was the weekend for it. On Sundays, also, the museum runs some of the engines plus passenger cars on the few miles of track that it owns, one of which snakes out between farms and next to nameless tiny tributaries of the Mississippi. It was a good visit, though cold and windy that day — about 40-45° F, the coldest it has been during the day in many months (yesterday it was in the 60s and maybe even 70, and it’s still pleasant today). We rode two of the trains and when into several train sheds and looked at the rows of engines and other cars, climbing into some. We were correct, the time had come for Lilly to enjoy it; she did, in her toddler way.

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Friday, October 07, 2005

New York Wrap

This week I’ve focused on details in New York, but I did take a little time to see big things. Such as Grand Central Station, which all official signs tell you is really Grand Central Terminal, since trains terminate there. But years of custom, so widespread that a Texan in Illinois thinks of it that way, make it a station.

Terminology aside, it’s one of the great buildings of the city. I walked through twice this time, once upon arriving, once just before I left. The ceiling alone, arrayed with part of the zodiac, is worth going out of your way for.

I noticed a plaque in that station/terminal I’d hadn’t noticed before, dedicated to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I don’t have particular strong feelings one way or the other about her, but the plaque revised my opinion of her some, in a positive direction. It seems that she was an important advocate of saving the building from destruction, back when such a thing was imaginable, even likely, and the plaque thanks her for this posthumously.

I also wandered into St. Bartholomew’s on Park Ave., a large, domed Episcopal church finished in 1918. I took a peek inside a few years ago, but most of the lights were off at that time, and it seemed more like a cavern than a church. This time, it was better lighted, the better to show off the church’s superb Byzantine-style mosaics. I sat for a short time and listened an organist play scales slowly. Better than some concerts I’ve paid money to hear.

And I made to Rockefeller Center for a few minutes. Posters in the area advertised the opening of an observation deck at the top of the tallest building—the Top of the Rock, they call it. I would have paid (some) money to see the city from that vantage, but unfortunately it’s not opening until November 1. Still, that’s a good thing. The Empire State Building needs some competition among vistas, now that the World Trade Center observation deck is no more.

Nearby, in fact in the sunken space that’s an ice rink in winter, Habitat for Humanity was building some houses, which I assumed were for demonstration, and would be removed later. The hammering and banging of house construction were an unusual addition to ambient noise, but not a bad one. It was warm, with the wind above the city blowing clouds over the buildings, so I was content to sit on a bench and watch that and listen to the bang-bang-bang. Note to public space designers: benches need backs. Rockefeller Center’s benches have them, and so invite people to sit down, watch the clouds and listen to the hammers.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Khyber Pass

Usually I don’t link with other web sites except to illustrate a point, but in the case of Flying Spaghetti Monsterism I think I’ll make an exception. Good for a few grins.

Around this time last year, I visited a Tibetan restaurant called Tsampa in the East Village on the recommendation of my friend Geof Huth, who visits New York City more often than I do (see Oct. 7 & 8, 2004). This year, I didn’t have any special recommendation in mind for lunch on Friday, but I thought I’d go to roughly the same neighborhood as I did then, walk around, and find something that looked interesting.

That kind of strategy doesn’t always work. But luck was with me. I rounded the corner from 2nd Avenue onto St. Mark’s Place, which is really a continuation of East 8th Street, and jammed restaurants, bars, shops and small businesses with offbeat appeal, mainly but not only for youth. I’ve read that the street was once a good deal seedier, and that people complain of its gentrification, as if an urban area can’t be interesting and relatively safe at the same time.

Almost immediately I saw Khyber Pass, an Afghan restaurant at 34 St. Mark’s, small old building sporting a few caryatids. A brief look at the menu, and that decided it. Inside it seemed dark at first, but that was only my reaction to going from sunshine to dark wood floors, red walls and dim lights. All sorts of things hung on those walls, including rugs, plates, musical instruments I took for Afghan, tassels and a large print of the famous National Geographic cover photo of the Afghan girl with the haunting eyes. There was also, oddly, a cuckoo clock on a far wall, with a big brass samovar (idle-looking) nearby to keep it company.

I can remember visiting an Afghan restaurant only once before, about 20 years ago, a place on the North Side of Chicago near Belmont Blvd., long gone now. Much later I learned that it was owned by relatives of Mohammed Karzai. I vaguely remember it being exotically good.

For an appetizer, I ordered mantoo, a steamed dumpling filled with beef, onions and various spices, topped with a yogurt sauce, which went very well with the mint tea I was drinking. It was shaped something like ravioli. Afghanioli, maybe.

The menu described shireen palow as “an exotic rice dish cooked with orange peels, saffron, almonds and pistachios, served with charcoal-grilled Cornish game hen.” The meat was plenty tasty, but the saffron rice with a strong orange favor outdid it by a culinary mile. Worth going to the Khyber Pass to eat.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Waldorf Gallery

My conference hotel was across the street from the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Ave. I’d been to the Waldorf before, to attend a different conference about three years ago, but last week I had occasion to venture into it again. It’s sophisticated or pretentious; luxurious or decadent; opulent or extravagant; or some Waldorf salad of all of those things. Take your pick.

It’s possible to bypass the lobby of the Waldorf by entering at the garage door on 52nd Street, walking by busy attendants in hotel uniforms and clusters of guests loading or unloading from a steam of cars, taxis and long limos. No one stopped me when I entered a small waiting room featuring a window at which you can check your bags, no questions asked.

I’d read about this tucked-away little service on the Internet, and decided to try it. On Friday after checkout at the Pickwick Arms, I had an appointment at 660 Broadway, and didn’t feel like carting my bags around or trusting them to the Pickwick. Sure enough, the Waldorf staff at the window took my bags and gave me a claim check, no questions asked, not even a sideways glance. Maybe it helped that I was wearing a suit.

When I returned later for the bags, I braced myself for a stiff fee, but there was none. I got this very convenient service for the price of a tip.

Instead of leaving by way of the garage, I headed for the Lexington Ave. entrance down a corridor that also connects to some employee spaces, along with the Bull & Bear steakhouse, where I’d enjoyed an expense account dinner a few years ago.

Heading down the corridor, I noticed a series of large black-and-white photos, framed and hanging on the walls as if this were a gallery. I suppose it was a gallery, one of the more obscure ones in a city of galleries. All of the photos sported famous people who’ve stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria, sometimes shown at ballroom functions, and other times in the act of arriving at the hotel. Each photo had a label.

My favorite was “Chairman Nikita Khrushchev” in an undated image, but presumably it was September 1959, his only visit to the States that I know of (“Khrushchev’s due at Idlewild”). Except that the famously bald pate of that red tsar wasn’t visible. Instead, you see the car that took him into the Waldorf, an enormous black thing with huge fins and twin US and Soviet flags caught in mid-flap. I looked as hard as I could to see what kind of car it was, but couldn’t tell. Its New York license plate was very easy to read, however: 9N 3389.

The Waldorf also sees fit to display photos of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, together as candidates in 1960 (probably at the time of the fourth debate on October 21, which was in New York); President Johnson; the King of Thailand; the last Shah of Iran; Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly at their engagement party; and Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie performing at the Starlight Roof.

The Starlight Roof is still around, according to the Waldorf’s web site, but it’s described as a mere meeting room. “Providing a dramatic backdrop for award presentations, stockholders' meetings and annual conferences, The Starlight Roof is synonymous with success,” it says. Uh-huh. Somehow a PowerPoint presentation don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Poetry in the Zoo

After an early afternoon lunch with my editor last Wednesday, I had a few hours to kick around, combined with the ambition to walkabout in Manhattan. What I didn’t have was energy. I’d gotten up very early to catch my flight, without the luxury of going to bed early the night before.

So from West 56th Street between 5th and 6th avenues, I made it as far as the Midtown-facing side of Central Park. At least the weather was good. In fact, it was flawlessly dry and warm. Somehow, in the dozen times I’ve visited New York, I’ve almost always had good walking weather, even in August or November. Then again, I’ve never been in January or February.

Last week the park was still very green, with just a dash of fall. Just inside the park, next to Central Park South, is an imaginatively named body of water, the Pond, which has a bright green surface these days. Pond scum, I thought. Not pond scum, all passersby are told by signs, but eco-friendly duckweed. Probably the Central Park Conservancy, which manages the park on behalf of the city, got tired of people complaining about the pond scum.

Near the Pond is the Central Park Zoo. It was just the thing: not far away, not too large, and new to me. I like zoos anyway, sometimes even better when there are no children to shepherd around. The Central Park Zoo is exceeding handsome, completely rebuilt according to a Kevin Roche design in the 1980s, with a lot of brickwork and plantings. It’s divided as the Earth is, into temperate, arctic, and tropical zones—the latter two formed (mostly) by indoor exhibits, while the temperate exhibits were outdoors, taking advantage of New York’s temperate location.

Wandering around, I saw penguins, puffins and polar bears in the arctic chambers; otters, red panda, marsh turtles and snow monkeys in the temperate zone; and a selection of colorful birds, including the remarkable white-fronted amazon in the tropics. Believe me, those Google images do it no justice.

Before long, I started to notice the poetry posted near the animal habitats. Besides the usual zoological information provided on signs, the zoo has also erected permanent signs offering verse to visitors. Generally, the lines had something to do with animals, though sometimes only tangentially.

Famous poets were represented: Sappho, Auden, Frank O’Hara, among others. There was a cross-section of poems translated from other languages as well: Spanish, an Inuit tongue, haiku by Issa, and more. Reading about these signs when I got home, I discovered that they were installed only this year. I’ve never seen anything like them at a zoo.

In the temperate zone, I spotted a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye called “Famous”—white letters on green Plexiglas, very aesthetically done. By golly, seeing that did me good. She’s a San Antonio poet who visited my high school English class one day in 1978 to read some poems. I think, but do not remember for certain, that she actually attended my high school before my time there (she would have been a new college grad in ’78). I didn’t write “Famous” down, but I did read it all, with considerable enjoyment.

I fed “river fish famous Nye” into Google this evening, and sure enough there it was:


By Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and is not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

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Monday, October 03, 2005

Pickwick Arms

One reason I chose to stay at the Pickwick Arms Hotel in New York City was the name. I don’t think I’ve ever stayed anyplace called an arms, a usage that it isn’t described in any of the three American, one British or one Australian dictionaries on my shelf that I consulted. But the Word Detective ( has this to say, for what it’s worth: “The practice of dubbing hotels or other buildings The Whatever Arms dates back to old English inns, which were frequently named after the local Duke or Earl and often displayed the nobleman's heraldic insignia, or coat of arms, above their door.”

Mostly, though, I picked the hotel for location and price, as with all real estate transactions. On 51st between 2nd and 3rd avenues, it was mere blocks from the conference hotel, the much more expensive InterContinental. Though it was of no use to me, the location is also fairly near the United Nations. I spied a couple of diplomatic plates on cars parked on the street, and a few doors west of the Pickwick is the Ukraine’s permanent mission to the UN. Almost directly across the street from the hotel is the Sutton Place Synagogue, which is also the “Jewish Center for the United Nations,” according to a sign under the name. Sadly, this synagogue was the only building on the block protected by concrete barricades, the sort you also see in front of federal properties.

The Pickwick has a nicely appointed lobby, with the look of fairly recent renovation. Some nice seating areas, a bit of fresh paint, a few items of decoration. The elevator, halls and other common areas don’t quite have the same sheen, but are presentable. By the time you get to your room, however, the polish is long gone. No décor in the rooms, not even the nondescript kind you get at a Red Roof Inn or its ilk. The wallpaper had peeled just enough in places to be noticeable.

My room was clean enough, but otherwise spartan. Bed, sink, desk, table, chair, lamp, phone, heater/AC, television, all positioned so there was just enough room to move around, but no more.

I stashed my bags on the top level of the bed, because it was a bunk bed. This kind of bed made two-person accommodation possible in this little room. I can’t say how long it’s been since I slept in a bunk bed, but it might have been when I was in Central Europe in the mid-90s. Still, this cast-iron bunk bed was amazing sturdy. Nothing like stubbing your toe on such a bed to appreciate its mass.

My favorite item in the room, though, was the Zenith TV. Perched on a cockeyed stand, listing slightly one way, ugly faux brown wood-paneled, well-worn control buttons, blurry color reception, probably vintage 1980 at the latest. But a working Zenith: “The quality goes in before the name succumbs to global competition.”

It’s an international hotel, the Pickwick Arms. Languages other than English were common on the elevator. And I found a Turkish newspaper in the closet: Dünden bugüne Tercüman, if I’m reading that right, or maybe just Tercüman, dated 2 Eylül 2005. The headline of the day (exactly as written): “Meslek liseliye ADiL FORMÜL.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Grandma’s Legal Troubles

Overheard on the streets of Manhattan last week, when one young man said to another near the entrance of the Pickwick Arms Hotel on 51st: “… his grandma was indicted. Yeah, she had power of attorney over everything…”

Does this reflect on the character of New York’s elderly population? I doubt it. But there’s a story of family problems out there somewhere that I’m glad I have nothing to do with.

Last week I found myself on 51st Street, and various other streets on that famous island, and for a good reason, namely that I was being paid to be there. I suggested to an editor I know a while ago that I cover a real estate conference at the InterContinental Hotel in Midtown for his web site. He said yes, so early on Wednesday last week—very early, before dawn—I boarded a Metra train here in Schaumburg, then caught the CTA line downtown to Midway, where I caught a somewhat late ATA flight to LaGuardia. After that, it’s an airport limo (that is, a bus) to Midtown.

An everyday marvel, waking up near one city and bedding down the same day in another. But the real marvel was the cost of transport, Chicago to New York. Metra: $3.50. CTA: $1.75. ATA, one way, taxes etc. included: $72.50. Airport limo, LaGuardia to Grand Central: $12. So slightly under $90 each way. One night in my shoebox hotel room cost more than half again as much, but I can understand the economics of high hotel prices in Manhattan, which is short on space. What mystifies me is how ATA can afford to haul me through the sky for about 12.3¢ per air mile (800 divided by the base price of $65). But I don’t need to understand it.

Over three days and two nights, I met editors and I went to the conference. I took notes and I wrote a couple of articles on a borrowed laptop. But of course that’s not what I’m going to write about here. I managed to squeeze a couple of good walks out of the deal, and see a few new things. This is very easy to do in New York, city of limitless detail.