Thursday, November 30, 2006


Out driving around today both before and after dark. This week has seen the first main wave of Christmas lights and other decorations go up, though there were a few early decorators last week (at houses, not stores, which would decorate in July if they could).

The incidence of holiday inflatables seems no more or less than last year, down from a peak of a few years ago, in my opinion, which is based only on simple observation. If I wanted some hard data, I might ask the Seasonal Inflatable Manufacturers Association or some such (, maybe) about sales trends.

In the morning, these inflatable Santas and snowmen and the like have a tendency to be lying flat on people’s lawns, which might account for a decline in popularity. Even if I didn’t think they were ridiculous, I wouldn’t want something I had to reinflate every day.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Speedway on Influenza

Gassed up the Sienna today, and inside the station, at the counter, I noticed a small rack of glossy, four-color public-service leaflets published by Speedway, “Preparing for an Influenza Pandemic.” Whoa. Speedway, the gas station, feels the need to warn its customers about the possibility – probability? – of mass death at the hands (so to speak) some malevolent variation of the H5N1 virus rising from the poultry swamps of south China?

Yes indeed. Right under the title on the first leaf are a healthy, multi-racial group of people wearing company t-shirts, as if they were advertising the company’s loyalty program or 99¢ coffee instead of warning us about pestilence. Inside, however, things are a little different. There’s Woody from Toy Story under the words, “It’s 1918 Again. Now’s the Perfect Time to Panic!”

No, I made that up. (“Now’s a perfect time to panic!” is a real Woody line, however.) In fact, the information offered in the pamphlet, while a moderately informative and maybe even enlightening if you’ve paid no attention to the world you live in, is curiously ahistorical, with no mention of 1918 or even the lesser pandemics of the last century, 1957 or 1968. You'd think at least a passing mention would be called for – after all, the thing to emphasize is that this is a real threat of a repeat of something that has really happened before, not some weird bogeyman from outta nowhere.

Still, I won’t mock Speedway. The company’s doing its little part, I suppose, probably at the behest of public health authorities, though why it selected the threat of influenza pandemic, I couldn’t say. Maybe all the other big threats were taken by BP and Circle K and the like.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Mighty Stonehenge

Dankness and rain to wrap up November, and authorities at Weather Central claim that metro Chicago might be thumped with a snowstorm around the first of December. Something fitting about that, I guess, but I can’t claim to be happy about it.

I seem to have an actual occasional reader outside of my family and a few friends, a fellow named Keith Demko in Macon, Georgia. Impossible to say how he came across BTST2, or why he bothered to read any of it in the first place, but he’s commented twice now when I’ve mentioned a movie (in the case of Borat, one I haven’t seen even yet). Nice to get the feedback, Keith.

He keeps his own web log, Reel Fanatic, about the movies he’s seen, and he sees a lot of them. And writes well about them, too, more thoughtfully than some people who are paid to write about movies. According to “About Me” at the bottom of his page, he says, “When I was very young, my father brought home a little movie called This is Spinal Tap, and I have never been the same since.”

Which tells me that he must be a fairly young man. When I was very young, or even not so young, it was impossible to “bring home” a movie. Also, I was fully grown when This is Spinal Tap came out, though I still smile at the thought of seeing it for the first time at Vanderbilt’s movie theater, probably about a year after it was released. It has many, many funny things in it, of course, but I don’t think I’ve laughed harder at any scene in any movie than I did as “Mighty Stonehenge” was being lowered on the stage, accompanied by a couple of dancing dwarves.

I haven’t done it recently, but some years ago when Lilly played with clay more than she does now, I would create a tiny trilithon structure out of clay and tell her it was “Mighty Stonehenge.” She would just tell me I was weird.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Vesper Was Agent 3030

The Sunday before last, I went with my brother Jay and nephew Robert to the see Casino Royale. We also took Lilly to the theater, but not to see that movie, which we were fully aware would not be for kids (Robert is 17). She went down the multiplex hall to see Happy Feet, an animated animal movie (yet another) that I’m happy to know little about.

Shortly afterward, I got an e-mail from cousin Jay about Casino Royale. He’d seen it too: “The only drawback is that the actor who plays 007 is blonde, but if you can work through that, he fits the bill quite nicely,” he wrote. “It is a bit of a darker movie with none of the techno-gadgets that ruined (for me) the latter 20 or so of the previous James Bond movies.

“The movie contains lots of rough violence, much hand-to-hand action, suitably glamorous casino gambling scenes, and several pretty girls. This includes a nice, bad blonde in a minimal dress and the lovely Vesper Lynn who is Bond's ally. [And, I have to add, the fetching Caterina Murino, whose character dallies early with Bond, and then is offed Goldfinger-style.]

“It is suitably faithful to the book, but not slavishly so. The ending is a bit different but quite acceptable. Ms. Lynn turns out similarly to the book. This is a grownup movie, not for children in any way. I recommend it.”

I’ll go along with cousin Jay on most of that. One reason I wanted to go was that I’ve actually read Casino Royale (and posted about it, though I’ve forgotten exactly when), which was an entertaining, if dated, read. The latest movie version is entertaining, and that’s all I ask of Bond. Like any other fictional icon, he inspires reams of speculation about What It Means, but since I try to keep the nonsense content of this web site low, I won't add to the speculation.

But I do wonder why Bond’s hair color is such a big deal. It’s not as if Daniel Craig, with his prizefighter’s mug and light hair, looks like Howdy-Doody.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Suspicious Puffs

When in doubt, blame the cream puffs. Instead of the more popular pumpkin or pecan pie choices for Thanksgiving dessert, we opted for cream puffs with our lunch/dinner, which started at about 3 pm. They were mighty good, these puffs, and didn't smell or taste the least bit spoiled. Thursday night, however, a virus started winding its way through the family, mostly causing episodes of throwing up.

Coincidence or causation? The only trouble with blaming the cream puffs is that Lilly didn’t have one Thursday, eating ice cream instead, but still was the first to fall ill. Today, Ann and I both had that pleasure. But it must be a low-grade virus, since expelling it was pretty much the cure. A 12-hour stomach flu, you could call it.

Otherwise the last week was a good one, from the loud intensity of a nine-year-old’s birthday- and slumber party to the quiet leftovers of the holiday feast. In between it wasn’t especially cold, one brother (or brother-in-law or uncle, depending on who you are in this house) and two nephews (or cousins) visited, and we entertained ourselves with movies, parts of movies, ’50s novelty songs -- some real oddities there -- a visit to a wildlife sanctuary run by DuPage County, and in my case, a book about the Lusitania. Maybe that doesn’t count as entertainment, but it was interesting. (“It’s interesting when people die.”)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Daniel D. Thompkins, RIP

The inclination to post is ebbing with the approach of Thanksgiving, and so is the time available. Not that preparing for the holiday is that taxing. But it can be hard to do enough work ahead of time so that you don’t have to do much work later.

I’ll pick up again after Lilly’s birthday and Thanksgiving, because those days are dead head on the calendar in rapid succession. Till then, a few stray comments:

Ann came up to me the other day, and said, “I want a zip code.” Count on a three-year-old to make Zippy-esque statements, and be a little sorry to see that fade away as the child gets older.

For all I know, Pixel Chix are also advertised on TV. But I believe Lilly learned about them on the Internet, which has to be characteristic of our time. “I’m a 2D girl in a 3D world” is the tag line, and for once such a thing is highly accurate. The device is made up of a very small dollhouse (the 3D part) “occupied” by a video-game-like figure (the 2D creature) on a transparent scene in front of the dollhouse, so that it looks like she lives there. You interact with it via buttons on the front of the house. Lilly got one a few days early for her 9th birthday, so giddy about the prospect I thought she was going to pop.

I noticed in small news reports that over the weekend that Gerald Ford, 93, became the oldest US president, besting Ronald Reagan, who a few years ago outlasted long-time presidential longevity record-holder John Adams, who famously died at age 90 on the same day as Thomas Jefferson (who was 83). My brother Jay e-mailed me this week: “I understand that Gerald Ford passed Ronald Reagan on the 12th of November to become the longest-lived President, but he's still got several years to go to pass Levi P. Morton and John Nance Garner. I don't have time to look just now; are there any other Vice Presidents who lasted longer than Ford?”

A question worthy of someone who owns the somewhat dated but still amazing Presidential Fact Book. I answered: “Ford is indeed now #3 among vice presidents, with Levi P. Morton surviving to 96 and John Nance Garner to a few days short of 99. John Adams is now #4 at 90. No other VPs have lived to be 90 or more. Harry Truman nearly made it to 89, coming in at #5. The shortest-lived VP seems to be Daniel D. Thompkins, who died at 50.” Poor old Daniel D., who was James Monroe’s veep. Left office in 1825 and almost immediately kicked the bucket.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Dive! Dive! Dive!

Rec’d Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the other day on DVD, the first few episodes of the TV series, not the movie. Actually, I hadn’t meant to let that one creep up to the top of the queue quite so soon, since I don’t have a lot of time for it. Just about anything by Irwin Allen is a good way to waste time.

Still, I’ve managed to see about half of the first episode, which involves the Seaview thwarting both a bad-ass tsunami and the murderous operatives of an unspecified Them organization. In the first 30 minutes or so, there’s machine-gun play, a man falling to his death from a helicopter, an international doom scenario to put Al Gore to shame, depth-charge explosions, divers fighting a giant squid, and a submarine chase scene ending with the bad-guy submarine exploding (?) when it dove too deeply and was crushed by extreme water pressure. Allen knew how to keep the story moving along, at least.

I don’t remember the show that well as a kid, since it ended when I was 7. But I do have fond memories of a toy Seaview we had around the house. That was one cool submarine: bright yellow with special curling fins up front that only the Seaview seemed to have. It might have had rubber-band propulsion for bathtub use, but I don’t ever remember using it that way. Mostly its play purpose was to torpedo ships on imaginary seas, Lusitania-style.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A New Atlas

November has been true to November lately, with days of cold drizzle and long nights we’re not quite used to. With one or two exceptions, the trees are bare and the grass its part-brown. We did have a warmish day last week, however, so warm that a ladybug flew in and landed on my computer.

I was playing with a radio dial about a week ago – sometimes I enjoy catching a few seconds of stations I wouldn’t ordinarily listen to for long – and it seemed that the local lite rock station had already converted to all Christmas music. This is insane. It wasn’t even Veterans Day, and the pumpkins were still lingering from Halloween. I do not want to hear Christmas music in early November, or late November for that matter. Or at all on that station, which takes a heavy-rotation approach to all its music.

Retailers are ready for the holidays, of course. I was in a Target not long ago, which had tarted itself up, but I wasn’t there for Christmas goods. One of the items I did buy is a 2007 edition Rand-McNally Road Atlas (actually called, on the cover, the road atlas ’07, no caps). I get a new one every year, and lately at Target because they knock a few dollars off the publisher’s recommended price, selling it for $5.99. That’s an astonishing about of information for not much money.

It’s fairly good for navigation during drives, as it should be, and near the checkout counter I noticed an assortment of GPS devices for cars that also purport to be for navigation during driving. These items cost about 100 times more than the road atlas ’07 and I wondered if, in fact, they were 100 times more useful than a book of paper maps. Besides a map function, it also claims up-to-date information about roadside necessities (gas stations, restaurants, etc.) and attractions (Rock City, Snake Farm, etc.).

Up-to-date? A likely story. Their databases probably started out with a lot of errors, only to get worse as places in the real world change. For now, I’ll take my chances with paper maps, and some assistance from address-locating web sites like Yahoo Maps.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Pommes Frites, Wow

One more posting about New York as I found it in late October 2006. My friend Geof Huth, who knows many good places to eat in the city, gave me some good recommendations this time around. I was able to visit a couple of them, and also found a couple of other places that I can recommend to him and everyone else.

Geof’s Recommendations. Zerza, a Moroccan restaurant on East 6th St. near New York University, gives away free postcards that promise “Belly Dance, Hookah, Exotic Drinks” but all I got on a Sunday night was fine fava bean soup and a tasty chicken bastilla (a kind of pot pie) served by a fetching but fully clothed waitress. Probably the belly dancing is on special occasions, the hookah might be unlawful in public places in New York by now, and I didn't want to spend money on any exotic drinks, though I did order a Casablanca, a Moroccan beer.

I visited, but didn’t eat at, another recommendation: Molyvos, a well-appointed Greek restaurant on Seventh Ave. near Central Park. It so happened that the office of an editor I was visiting was around the corner from it, and he suggested, independently of Geof’s suggestion, that we go there. It was too early to eat, but not too early for a glass of Greek wine, a red whose name I didn’t write down, at the brilliant copper-colored bar (just the top, the rest was dark wood).

My recommendations. Gene’s Coffee Shop on East 60th St., where I had a hearty breakfast. A narrow deli-restaurant with all the right details, including a Greek proprietor in black pants, a white shirt and a redish tie.

Dervish, a Turkish restaurant on West 47th St. in a space that had probably been a saloon at one time, with a large bar and tiled floors. I had a lunch meeting with some other editors there and enjoyed the lamb and okra (etli bamya) lunch special.

En route to Zerza, I went down St. Mark’s Place (a block of East 8th St.) and headed down Second Ave. There are all sorts of places along that stretch, including the off-putting Hip Hop Grub – no one was in there – and a few doors down, a hole in the wall that sold Belgian-style French fries in paper cones. It was called, aptly, Pommes Frites.

I didn’t stop there that night, but remembered it a few nights later when we decided to eat something as the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade wound down. We walked a number of blocks to get there, the streets swarming with more people than usual, many in costume, including one fellow dressed as Space Ghost who walked behind us for a few seconds, loudly proclaiming that some other Space Ghost he’d seen wasn’t the real Space Ghost, he was.

When we got to Pommes Frites there was a line out the door, but it moved quickly. For $4, you get a “regular” cone of fries – which is pretty large – and for a little more, one from among a selection of many sauces. Just like in Belgium. We ate them on the sidewalk just outside the place. I had Vietnamese pineapple sauce, which doesn’t sound like it would go with fried potatoes, but it does, because these were no ordinary spuds. Cyrus, member of the Alexander who was with nephew Dees and me, said they were the best fries he’d ever eaten, and I would have agreed, except that none could beat the memory of the cone I had in Belgium years ago. But these were very close.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Eighty-Eight Years Ago

From “Armistice - The End of World War I, 1918," (2004).

Colonel Thomas Gowenlock served as an intelligence officer in the American 1st Division. He was on the front line that November morning and wrote of his experience a few years later:

"On the morning of November 11 I sat in my dugout in Le Gros Faux, which was again our division headquarters, talking to our Chief of Staff, Colonel John Greely, and Lieutenant Colonel Paul Peabody, our G-1. A signal corps officer entered and handed us the following message:

Official Radio from Paris - 6:01 A.M., Nov. 11, 1918. Marshal Foch to the Commander-in-Chief.

1. Hostilities will be stopped on the entire front beginning at 11 o'clock, November 11th (French hour).
2. The Allied troops will not go beyond the line reached at that hour on that date until further orders.

5:45 A.M.

'Well - fini la guerre!' said Colonel Greely.

'It sure looks like it,' I agreed.

'Do you know what I want to do now?' he said. 'I'd like to get on one of those little horse-drawn canal boats in southern France and lie in the sun the rest of my life.'

My watch said nine o'clock. With only two hours to go, I drove over to the bank of the Meuse River to see the finish. The shelling was heavy and, as I walked down the road, it grew steadily worse. It seemed to me that every battery in the world was trying to burn up its guns. At last eleven o'clock came - but the firing continued. The men on both sides had decided to give each other all they had-their farewell to arms. It was a very natural impulse after their years of war, but unfortunately many fell after eleven o'clock that day.”


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Borat & KISS Come to Town

I went to New York to find out about Borat. Not really, but find out I did, unless you count the vague notion I had of him previously, based on reading something or other at sometime or other. My nephew and I happened to see David Letterman’s broadcast on October 30, and Sacha Baron Cohen in character happened to be a guest, talking up his movie.

He was funny. The movie clip was funny. I understand that those who would impose a never-offend/kindergarten-class standard on humor, and even Kazakhstani officials, have taken umbrage at his antics. Lighten up, I say, especially to the Kazakhstanis. We here in the USA are often misrepresented in the movies, very often in the ones we make ourselves, and we live with it.

Borat succeeded in making me aware of Borat and the movie, which was the purpose of him being on TV. But I’m not an impulsive teenager, so I didn’t rush out to see the movie on opening weekend, and odds are that I’ll consider seeing it in the theater but not actually do so – or not at full price if I do. Instead, I'll rent the DVD someday, where I get around to it. This is why many movies aren’t made for grownups.

Borat also had a “float” in the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. I know because I went with my nephew Dees and fellow Alexander band member Cyrus to see the parade from a spot on Sixth Ave. near 14th St. Good spectacle, once it got under way: mostly marchers in a wide array of costumes, but also bands and decorated vehicles, and best of all, enormous puppets on tall rods, carried along the parade route by a number of puppeteers each. My favorites were the dancing-skeleton puppets and the big pumpkins, lit somehow from the inside. A more comprehensive description of the parade is here, more than a single onlooker could possibly see – its photo selection is a “best of” selection of the many thousands of costumes on view over the years, I think.

A handful of Borats were riding in a Borat-themed truck; for all I know, Sacha Baron Cohen was among them. Elsewhere – and a lot of people in the audience were in costume – we saw a couple of other Borats. The truck, at least, counted as an advertisement, and there were other ad-vehicles in the parade as well. Most conspicuous was the KISS float. As it passed, I wondered whether actual KISS band members were involved, or if it were merely some kind of tribute. How would you know just looking at them? I looked it up later, and sure enough, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley were riding on the vehicle, in town promoting a new box set. According to the AP, they were “grand marshals” of the parade. That might be fitting, but it didn’t seem like the kind of parade that needed that concept.

KISS is still around? I was never a fan, but of course I knew about them in their ’70s heyday. I would have thought by now that the forces of the KISS Army would have been defeated by the forces of Time, which defeats everyone eventually. But not yet, I guess. At least they have the advantage of not visibly aging in place, unlike, say, the Rolling Stones.

There wasn’t as much political content in the parade as I thought there would be, coming as it did a week before the election. But there was a large George W. Bush head on a pole, with a spool of paper coming out of his mouth that said, LIES HATE FEAR. Later, a fellow dressed like a peach but wearing a Bush mask came by, holding a sign that said, “I’m Peach Bush.” Must have seemed clever when he thought of it. More bizarrely still, a man carried a sign (his costume was forgettable, and I have forgotten it) that berated Madonna as a “cultural imperialist” for her recent foray in transnational adoption. The mind boggles. He might also be worried that the KISS Army is about to invade Africa, too.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Perfectly Preserved, Yet Gone

Trips, at least mine, have their major and minor goals. More than 23 years ago, a native New Yorker I knew suggested I visit the Cloisters, a re-created Old World monastery that also houses part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection. I thought that sounded like a good idea. It’s remote by Manhattan standards, up on the northwest corner of the island at a place called Fort Tryon Park. If you visit the Met, it’s no extra charge to see the Cloisters during the same day.

In the years since, I’d never made there. I seriously considered going this time, even planned to. But after wandering around the Met for about three hours, I decided I needed to go into the open air of Flushing Meadows Park instead of the Cloisters, so I still haven’t acted on my friend’s suggestion. So much for that minor goal.

Another minor goal of this trip, seeing the Starlight Roof, was considerably easier, since it was part of my conference hotel. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Starlight Roof was one of Manhattan’s top nightclubs, perched on one of the roofs of the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Ave. I discovered where it was last year, too late to seek out the room, which had been restored to its art deco glory not too many years before. This year I found the right elevator in the hotel and rode up to see it.

From a review of a 1951 Xavier Cugot show at the Starlight Roof, republished in “In many ways, the Starlight Roof is the Waldorf's most glamorous public room, with its tremendous grill-like ceiling with large sky-blue stars and myriad small ones blinking a constant welcome.”

Oh, man. The reviewer also heard the clank of glasses, smelled thick tobacco smoke, and saw Cugot and his band at close quarters. The place must have been alive. Compared to that moment, the Starlight Roof I saw was as animated as a stuffed moosehead. It’s a pretty room, certainly, and the grill-like ceiling has been restored to its original self after being Eisenhowered sometime after the Cugot show. I saw no sky-blue stars, but maybe they still come out when the room is dark.

This pretty much captures the Starlight Roof as it is in the 2000s, from the hotel’s web site: “Providing a dramatic backdrop for award presentations, stockholders' meetings and annual conferences, the Starlight Roof is synonymous with success. An unmatched array of technological accoutrements and world-class meeting professionals assure that every event is as triumphant as the impression it conveys.”

Ho-hum. As far as I could see, there was nothing – no artfully hung photos of big names at the Starlight, no tasteful plaques, nothing – to acknowledge that the room was once a high-class jazz joint. Now it’s just a posh place to put people to sleep, rather than to keep them awake.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Capital day for the National Democracy, eh? But I won’t be sidetracked by electoral politics except to say that I wish that the Democratic Party were still informally called the National Democracy or merely the Democracy. They’ve got that robust, Jacksonian ring to them.

A few more park details. Flushing Meadow Park has a couple of rockets. Rather, the New York Hall of Science, a museum at the edge of the park, has a Redstone and an Atlas rocket standing next to each other within its grounds, behind a fence but almost fully visible from the parking lot. They’re topped off with the appropriate capsules, a Mercury for the Redstone and a Gemini for the Atlas. I always enjoy a chance to see rockets.

All together the park was pleasant enough, green space with sidewalks here and there among trees, but hasn’t got the feeling of a great Olmstead-planned space like Central Park or Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, which I visited in ’02 and found to be a jewel seemingly disregarded by Manhattanites, but clearly enjoyed by Brooklynites.

I did visit Central Park this time around as well. The park is so large that it’s possible to make many visits, as I have, and still see new things each time. I have to like a place like that. This time I made it as far as the Great Lawn – which looked very familiar as the site of moviemaking, I think – and Turtle Pond, which, with its birds and cattails and such, is unremarkable except for the fact that it’s surrounded by millions of people.

Early in my amble through the Central Park I happened upon the bronze statue of Balto the Wonder Dog, which is perched on a bolder and gazes nobly into the distance. He’s also been rubbed shiny in spots. Dog and Kennel magazine has this to say about Balto:

“Fans of the Tonight Show may recall host Johnny Carson occasionally referring to Balto the Wonder Dog in his monologues. The real Balto, however, was no joke. In 1925, Nome, Alaska, was ravaged by a diphtheria epidemic. Curtis Welch, the only physician in Nome, radioed an appeal for lifesaving anti-toxin serum. By the time he did, several children had died and others were ill with the highly contagious disease.

“The hospital at Anchorage had fresh serum to spare, but the only dependable way of getting it to Nome in the heart of winter was by a dog-sled relay. The anchor leg of the relay was run by Gunnar Kaasen, who had a team of seven Siberian huskies led by a magnificent malamute named Balto. After taking the serum from the dog-sled team, Kaasen traveled the final 100 miles to Nome, blinded by snow with nothing but his dogs' sure-footed instincts and courage to guide him. The serum arrived in time to halt the epidemic.

“Two years later Balto and the rest of Kaasen's team were sold to the Cleveland Zoo. After Balto had died in 1933, he was stuffed, mounted and put on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He was also memorialized by a statue that stands in New York City's Central Park.”

Don’t know how I missed Balto all these years. But there he stands, in bronze, more than 80 years after his immortal deeds, though the plaque in Central Park doesn’t use his name, only referring to “the indomitable spirit of the Sled Dogs.” Still, it’s sobering to realize that the memory of a sled dog now bronzed in New York and stuffed in Cleveland will probably outlast you.


Monday, November 06, 2006

Big & Round

Famously, at the end of Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston discovers the ruins of the Statue of Liberty and yells, “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

The scene wouldn’t have had quite the same power if he’d stumbled across a half-buried Unisphere. The Unisphere, a stainless steel globe 12 stories high in the middle of Flushing Meadow Park in Queens, created by U.S. Steel for the ’64 World’s Fair, might have what you’d call sub-iconic status. An also-ran in the world of monumental sculptures, something that dwells on the fringe of the familiar. You’d recognize it if you saw it, but maybe not where it was or what it was called.

Too bad. In person, it’s quite a sight up close. It loomed over me. At the same time, it seemed a little forlorn. The clouds blew over it, the wind went through it, and almost no one is there to see it. Maybe it gets more attention in the summer, when it’s the centerpiece of a fountain, and probably a pretty nice one too. By last week, the fountain was dry, and I was free to walk right up to the base of the structure, an inverted tripod. It looked like the entire 350-ton globe was held down by three extremely large bolts. I wondered what kind of force it would take to get the thing rolling, at least for a short time. Something on the order of Godzilla, no doubt.

It’s a hollow globe, and see-through as well, since it’s built of ribbons of steel that represent (more or less) latitude and longitude lines. Plates of steel, in the shapes of continents and islands, are fixed to these ribbons, and additional plates on top of the landmasses simulate, roughly, mountain ranges. The Unisphere is tilted on its axis, as the Earth is. I’ve read that it used to sport light bulbs representing national capitals, but those are long gone. Three additional stainless steel ribbons form orbits around the globe, which I understand represent the flights of Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn and Telstar, which had already gone out of service by the time the Unisphere was built.

I was three when it was new, and star of the fair. I wonder what, if anything, under construction now will give little Ann something to wonder about in her middle years.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

In the Year 6939, If Man is Still Alive

Last Sunday a vigorous wind whipped through New York City, but luckily it wasn’t too cold. The day before, a large rainstorm had come through town, but also luckily (for me), it had passed by the time my flight touched down Saturday evening.

On Saturday, there were various NY TV news reports involving downed trees and the like, plus one story about how – I don’t remember the details, and I can’t quite work them out retroactively – excess storm runoff had caused a number of manhole covers in the city to pop like campaign corks. Sudden buildup of trapped air pressure, or something.

There were witnesses, but no casualties. I remember years ago seeing the Jack Lemmon vehicle The Out-of-Towners, a story of Midwesterners visiting New York on a one-damn-thing-after-another odyssey, and at one point a manhole cover or two popped near Lemmon, alarming him and his wife (Sandy Dennis). I didn’t know things like that actually happened.

Toward mid-afternoon on Sunday, I got off the MTA 7 train at Shea Stadium station. The doors toward Shea Stadium, above which a sign said BASEBALL, were chained shut. The subway series hadn’t worked out, after all. On the other side of the station, the doors toward Arthur Ashe Stadium, above which a sign said TENNIS, were chained shut as well. Tennis season is over. But I was surprised by how large the facility is; it looks like a small football or baseball stadium. Later I read that it’s the world’s largest stadium just for tennis – 22,500-plus seats and skyboxes, too, of course.

From the Shea Stadium station south into Flushing Meadow Park is a wide boardwalk, obviously built to handle the crowds of a world’s fair. Last Sunday it was handling a trickle of people, though the further I went into the park, the more crowded it became. Off in the distance were a lot of people, enjoying what I guessed was a soccer game. Sounded like it. Sometimes commentators blab about how Americans don’t like soccer, as if it were a character defect. It’s nonsense, anyway. Americans don’t like professional soccer.

Then again, Flushing Meadow Park is in Queens, and very like most of the audience for the game were Spanish-speaking, many from countries that do like pro football. In any case, I soon came to brick structures that marked the Gotham Plaza entrance for either the ’39 and ’64 Worlds Fairs or both, and various inscriptions in the plaza, including lists of the contents of the fairs' time capsules, one interred in 1938 and the other in 1965, both intended to be opened in the year 6939. That made my day. What could be cooler than time capsules with such long-range ambitions?

I’d heard of them before. A good many years ago, I saw a documentary that covered the 1939 World’s Fair, and it showed the lowering of the Westinghouse capsule – looking more like a torpedo to me – into the ground. But I have a more personal interest in time capsules, having buried some myself, following the lead of my older brothers, who used to bury old pill bottles with notes inside and sometimes dug them up later. In the summer of 1974, I buried two or three glass jars wrapped in aluminium foil in the back yard in San Antonio, with the intention of digging them up in the summer of 1979, after I’d graduated from high school. And dig I did that late ’70s summer, but in vain, because everything (I assume) had disintegrated by then.

I did not, ultimately, see the big concrete marker that rests on top of the ’39 and ’65 capsules themselves. If I’d had a little more daylight, I probably would have found them, but my main goal that day was seeing the Unisphere. That can’t be missed if you’re in the area. More about it tomorrow.

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Wedge of Queens

My nephew, who is also Dees Stribling though with a different rack of middle names, moved to Queens late this summer with the other members of his band, The Alexander. To be more exact – because Queens covers about 113 square miles – they live in on 48th St. in Woodside, a couple of blocks away from the intersection of 48th St. and 48th Ave. If I learned nothing else during this trip about the geography of Queens, I learned that the borough could use some streets names, as opposed to numbers.

My taxi driver from LaGuardia only had a vague idea of Queens geography too, asking me a couple of times en route, where is it [meaning the address, not Queens itself]? He was also holding another conversation in his native language, a Middle Eastern tongue, while working on the problem of where to take this odd fare who hadn’t asked for anything normal like a Midtown hotel. I made another call to the world headquarters of The Alexander (that is, my nephew’s apartment) to ask about cross streets, and before too long we got where I was going. The ride cost $15, which at least was cheaper than going to a usual-suspect Midtown hotel.

The Alexander occupy a three-bedroom flat that takes up all of the second story of one of a long row of two-story brick buildings up and down that block of 48th St. The buildings are jammed as tightly together as possible, forming a continuous façade along the block, with enough trees here and there to make crunching piles of leaves on the sidewalks this time of year. Occasional graffiti marks the walls, but not nearly as much as other places. It isn’t an ugly block, but it’s not made of the aesthetic brownstones of New York lore either.

The block is peculiar because it's within a triangle formed by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Long Island Expressway, which meet just to the east, with the base of the triangle being the enormous New Cavalry Cemetery to the west. The view from the back window of the apartment is tombstones stretching way far away; the sound of cars and trucks zooming along is never absent all along the block.

About a half a mile away is a shopping district focused around the MTA station called 46th-Bliss St., and of all the possible parts of Queens I could have visited, I spent the most time passing to and from this area. When the B24 bus comes in a timely way near The Alexander’s apartment, it’s short ride to the train station, which is an elevated at that point, not a subway. Otherwise, it’s a 15-minute walk to the station, not bad in warm weather. All along the way it’s a small-building neighborhood, a dense mix of apartments, shops and businesses. The sort of neighborhood in which a car isn’t remotely necessary.

The neighborhood is heavily, but not completely, Hispanic, many Central Americans I understand, but I didn’t have time to investigate the demographics too closely (and especially the restaurants inspired by distant homelands). I’m sure my nephew and his friends will come to know the area in detail before they move on. How fortunate they are, to be new to such an intense urban environment.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

New York City ’06

Walking is healthful. The professional health nags remind us of that, and I believe it, but that isn’t why I walk. I walk because of what unfolds in front of me.

I just returned from three and a half days in New York City. Part of the visit involved attending a conference, and that didn’t involve walking – with one exception, more about which later. At other times I met editors I know, and that didn’t involved walking either, but it usually did mean good food and one time, wine. I spent the rest of the trip on foot as much as possible, because there are few places in the world so great for pedestrians as New York. My feet ached a little every night before bed, and I got blisters and re-enforced some calluses.

A small price to pay. I enjoyed the contours of Central Park on a Sunday morning even as strong winds knocked branches down nearby. A lot of other people were out and about, but the park could hold them all as they took pictures of each other next to bronzes of heroes and fictional characters, walked their dogs, and consulted maps. I wandered the labyrinthine Met until I could absorb no more intricate paintings, appreciate amazing sculptures or even admire (discreetly) the steady stream of well-dressed female museum-goers.

After yet more walking, I reached a point in Flushing Meadow Park at which you can touch the base of a 12-story steel globe, once the marvel of millions, now lording over a trickle of curiosity-seekers and skateboarders. I heard the wind whip more, plus the excitement of a crowd at a soccer game in the distance. I saw two tall rockets and walked past them, close enough to have been killed if they had been loaded with fuel and suddenly launched. Later, I beat a familiar path to a famed retailer, then a masterpiece of a church, then the vicinity of a major university and a street of businesses that depend on the whims of youth. Even then I wasn’t quite done, since I had to walk down a dark street of an unfamiliar neighborhood a world away from my experience. Luckily, I had a good guide at that point, my nephew.

That was just the first day.