Dead Squirrels and the Inca Empire

My home is in my charming gulf coast city’s Museum District.  I love all the trees in my neighborhood.  I enjoy the squirrels who play and make their home in the trees.

I used to feed them, delighting in how this untamed wild animal would remember me.  Respond to my coaxing, run over to my yard to receive some nuts and treats.  Many times they would take their treat from my fingertips.

Then I began discovering their dead bodies on my street near my house.  I realized, even when I wasn’t home, they would remember to come to my yard to search for me, hoping for a free snack.  And in their happy anticipation they were being unintentionally hit and run over by cars driven by my neighbors.

Feeding them, my making this wild animal dependent upon me, I was killing them.

The Inca Empire was built upon the remnants of earlier tribes and smaller settlements that spanned across South America for centuries upon centuries.  They knew math.  They knew government.  They knew architecture and engineering.  They could perform surgery – even brain surgery.  But the Incas had no written language.  What we know about the Inca Empire is from the people who conquered them.  Los Conquistadors.

When it was suspected there was gold to be found half way across the world, Pizarro released from the local Spanish prisons real hardened criminals.  Rather than spend the rest of their miserable lives incarcerated they chose to serve as Pizarro’s sailors and soldiers on some crazy quest to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.  A body of water that had, until recently, been considered by many to be flat, with an edge, over which one fell and became devoured by monsters, from which there was no return.

By that time some Spanish has landed on the northern shores of South America.  After discovering Cuba, Florida, Mexico and Panama.  Landing on the shores of what would become Venezuela, they brought with them themselves, horses, and smallpox and measles and venereal diseases.

Hearing that strange men where arriving from the ocean and walking upon his land, the king of the Inca Empire took a reasonably large army up north to stop them.  He was killed.  His army decimated.  First by sword and cannon ball.  Then by disease.

It has been reported that more Native Americans across the entire American continent, both north and south, died from disease brought over from europe than from any battle.

When the Inca ruler died the Inca Empire was left in the hands of his two sons.  They despised each other.  Both wanted total control over all of South America.  Much like our presidential elections today,  nearly as vicious but a tad bit more violent, these two brothers decided to fight it out.

The Inca Empire, by this time, was truly vast and, in their part of the world, overwhelmingly powerful.  When they wished to take over a distant tribe the Incas would march a massive army to that village.  They would line their warriors up along the mountain ridges by the thousands.  One Inca representative would then walk down into the village where he would ask a single question: “Give up?”  Instead of doing battle against the entire Inca Empire this small outlying village would allow themselves to be divided into groups of 50, and each fifty people would then be sent off to distant parts of South America so that they might never re-group again.  They would become absorbed into the Inca civilization and turned into productive working citizens.

The Incas were one of the very first, and certainly one of the most true, forms of Socialist government.  Each family had a garden that was the same in both size and purpose.  When crops were harvested what wasn’t immediately consumed was stored in large buildings, saved for a day when the people might need it.  Except for the ruler and his family and a few counsel, all of the people who lived and served the Inca Empire were equal.  Equal in stature.  Equal in what they possessed.  Equal in what they did.  The entire Inca Empire was a vast expanse of people who all did the same.  Who did not improve or change.  They were not permitted to.

The entire Inca Empire had become completely dependent upon the Inca government for all sustenance.  They had become completely dependent upon the Inca rulers to make every decision for them.

The rulers saw no reason to change.  Everything was working just fine for them.

This situation would have a lot to do with why, when 86 men stepped off a boat on the shores of what would someday become Peru, nearly the entire massive Inca Empire would not know what to do about it.

One day, possibly a Tuesday, Pizarro and 85 of his men, stepped off the boat they had anchored in a muddy natural harbor inlet on the Pacific coast that would later become Lima, the capital of Peru.  The Incas ignored them.  They had little interest in the ocean or what might come from it.  Their terrain of interest were their mountains and jungles.

These 86 men from half way around the world, using a different form of fighting, speaking a different language, wearing a different type of clothing and military gear, made their way into the South American continent.  There they encountered the son of the now deceased Inca Emperor.  This son had only just recently beaten his brother and was now in control over all of South America.

This new Inca ruler arrived to deal with these outsiders.  He brought with him thousands of his Inca warriors.  The spanish were hiding in a small building.  Seeing thousands upon thousands of warriors approach they were literally peeing in their pants.

A priest stepped outside the building and approached the Inca ruler.  He wished to convince this king to accept the word of the bible.

Not understanding what a book was, the Inca ruler threw the bible on the ground.  The priest screamed that these people were infidels and intolerant of the true religion.  He ran back to the building where his felow conquistadors were hiding.  Inspired by the outrage of their religious leader, the spanish stormed out of the building, brandishing swords, riding horses, wearing armor, and, within only a few hours, slaughtered thousands upon thousands upon thousands of Inca people.

The military might of the Inca empire was primitive  in comparison to the weapons used by the spanish.  Thousands of trained Inca warriors had nothing – no armor, no weapons – to defend themselves against 86 men with metal swords. They were not prepared.  The people who actually had the right to live on this land lost.

The spanish captured the new ruler, the surviving son of the original ruler that had died from their disease.  They tied him up in a room.  His citizens were instructed to bring to this room gold sufficient to fill this room.  If the room could be filled with gold the spanish promised his people that they would release their ruler.  The Inca people did bring gold, enough to fill the room to the ceiling.  The spanish, once they had this gold, instead of keeping their promise, killed their ruler.

The spanish now understood that where they had arrived had vast quantities of gold, and a population that could not stop them.  They made their way deeper into the mountains that lead to the Inca capital.

At one point these conquistadors were making their way along a thin treacherous mountain trail.  A number of Inca tribes people were looking down upon them from the mountain slope above.  These Incas, at that moment, had the means and the opportunity to push some stones that would have easily caused a slide that would have killed every conquistador trying carefully to make their way along that path.

But they didn’t.  They didn’t think to do it.  Instead, they just watched as 86 conquistadors continued their journey, all the way to Cuzco.

If they had killed all the spanish that day, there would have been no spanish that would have returned from this trip back to Spain.  No gold would have been taken back to Spain.  The Inca Empire may very well have survived that period, and grown over the next several centuries to become a unique civilization in our modern world that might have rivaled today’s China or India.

But they didn’t.  When opportunity presented itself, for lack of vision or understanding of the danger these foreign invaders presented,  because there were no rulers or government left to tell them what to do, these Incas let these Spanish live.  They let them walk on by.  They tolerated them.  From all the experience of their lives these Incas did not see these few odd looking spanish people as dangerous.  Conquistadors that would soon destroy their entire civilization.  The Incas had, over the years, become a mass of people who did not, could not, think for themselves.

Within a few short years the entire Inca Empire would be gone.  It’s temples would be raided.  It’s monuments destroyed and built over.  Most of it’s people dead.  It’s women raped and turned into slaves.  It’s last surviving ruler would soon be chased deep into the woods.  There he would be assassinated by a betrayer he had trusted.

I had tamed my wild neighborhood squirrels to depend upon me.  By becoming tame, depending upon me for their food, this killed them.  I did not mean them harm.  But by making them come to me for their food I had ended their lives.  Taken away any chance for these squirrels to have children, or grandchildren.

The Inca Empire had become a nation that had become dependent upon a government to care for them, to make their decisions.  They had lost all perception as to how challenging or dangerous this world could be.  They did not perceive that in this world there just might be something stronger and more powerful than they were, than their government.  Like squirrels killed by a single car, the Inca civilization was wiped out by a mere handful of men they didn’t see coming.

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The Kissing Sailor and what really happened that day

In the early 1980′s I was enjoying a nice party in the Soho District of Manhattan.  The setting was someone’s loft design with an interior second floor overlooking a larger first floor.  There were many interesting and famous artists there.

Including Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photographer who caught on film a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day.

I joined his little group, where he was happily recounting the event.  I could tell it was a story he’d told many times before.

He was dressed well.  Almost as if his apparel were designer quality.  His hair was perfect.

As was the way he told his story.  He was standing in Times Square, looking for some moment to photograph that would capture the exuberance of the day.  World War II was over.  We’d won.  Our men and women who’d served were coming home.

From a distance he could see a sailor approaching.  This sailor, more than any other person in Times Square that day, was walking with a little kick to his step.  By his walk, and facial expression, Eisenstaedt could tell this sailor was a little drunk.  Because of the day, this sailor had every right to be.

Eisenstaedt also saw the nurse standing several feet in front of the direction this sailor was walking.  He could see that his sailor had noticed this nurse.  The nurse was completely oblivious of the sailor approaching.  She was looking in a totally other direction.  Presumably waiting for someone – perhaps her boyfriend, or husband?

Eisenstaedt, sensing a moment about to happen, raised his camera.  Expecting ‘something’, he began to click.  He took photo after photo, capturing the sailor approaching, reaching to hold this nurse, taking her in his arms, bending her over, and giving her a kiss.

“And that’s how I got that picture!” he happily concluded his memory to all of us standing around him that evening at that party in someone’s loft in New York’s Soho District.

I could tell he was proud.  That photo was a career changer for him.  A lucky break.

I’ve seen this image, as have so many others, many times during my life.  Yet, with me, it has always left a “yucky” feeling.  If I had been this nurse’s boyfriend or husband happily looking forward to seeing the one who filled my heart, I would not have wanted to hear about, much less see, another man planting a big kiss on her.  It would have spoiled her lips, for me.

I’ve also thought that this woman, who served taking care of our armed forces, did not willingly give up her lips that day to some drunken stranger.  If this had been any other setting, a street anywhere in the U.S., where a drunk came up, grabbed a young woman, held her tight and forced a kiss on her, charges would have been pressed.  Today, and even back then.

In the Florida city where I now live there is an oversized statue of this moment.  It is very popular as a setting for photographs.  Romantics and war veterans, among others, use it as a backdrop.  I also notice many people try to look up the skirt of this statue of the nurse.  Her image, still today, is being sexually taken advantage of.  In a manner, mocked.

It would be difficult, based on how strangers presently treat her image, to say that what that sailor did on that day back then was isolated and cannot be condemned by today’s standards, when people still today use this nurse for a moment’s sexual thrill, when she’s not looking.

Also at this party was the photographer Andreas Feininger, accompanied by his very sweet and charming wife.  I found him to be so fascinating, as he spent considerable time at this party speaking with just me.  He shared about his early beginnings.  How he had worked as a young architect for Le Corbusier in Paris – who was my personal idol when I studied architecture.  How he’d built his very first camera by hand, and so much more.  He and his wife, though infinitely more famous than most other artists there that evening, were also so humble, and delightful.

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Playing Piano in Sarasota

The recession that gripped the nation the year I graduated U of F was serious.  Businesses shut down.  Construction came to a halt.  Architects, my field of study, were firing their staff.

I made the rounds anyway.  Principals of design firms had plenty of time to sit and chat with me and review my portfolio.  They had nothing else to do.  As one employee shared with me, the biggest responsibility their bosses had each day was to make sure the soda machines were filled.

I had a second skill, one that I truly enjoyed.  After finishing my homework in college I would find places around campus to play the piano.  It was my pleasure when people listened to me.  I enjoyed an audience, loved taking requests, watching girls dance, making everyone happy with my music.  During college vacations I offered to play the piano at various local restaurants in Sarasota in exchange for just an evening meal.  The restaurants were glad to oblige so cheaply.

One of my favorite places was Raul’s, the pleasant Cuban café across the street from Sarasota’s city hall.  The couple that owned it were very nice.  I particularly loved their salads.  With all the garlic they put in the dressing the flavor had a real kick.  Each night I would play at Raul’s for hours.  I had my favorite tunes.  But when their Cuban customers heard me play “Guantanamera” that was the end of my extensive repertoire.  They requested that I repeat and repeat and repeat that song.  Each time the customers would all rise up from their seats to dance.  So cute.  I didn’t mind.  But I did miss playing my other faves, from current popular tunes to some real oldies.  At Raul’s each night an older woman would often dine alone at the table right in front of where I played.  She would order a drink during dinner and as I would play every evening tears would appear in her eyes.

After graduating, with no work available for which I’d been trained in college, I returned to my other skill of playing the piano.  I started at The Wildflower, a fun cafe that served health food out on Siesta Key.  The owner, a friend, had his mom’s piano set up next to the smoothie bar.  Each time a blender was started the sound was so loud I had to stop playing.  Then resume in the middle of s song when the smoothie was done.  The place was youthful.  It was fun being so close to the beach.  My pay was smoothies and the friendships I made.

A more refined restaurant, one that served a lot less smoothies, asked me to entertain their customers.  And they were willing to pay!  The Café Prague on Palm Avenue served crepes and wonderful desserts in a graceful atmosphere.   They had acquired the seating and decorations from an older and very much loved Sarasota restaurant, The Plaza.  The owners were two men who presented themselves as brothers, but were actually something quite different.  One had been a famous opera singer in Czechoslovakia.  After the restaurant closed one evening, over wine and candlelight, I wasn’t aware that the atmosphere was intentional, he entertained me with the story of their harrowing escape across the Czech border.  I learned that night of their life, and that part of the reason I’d been hired was not because of my piano playing.  The room I played in was elegant, the patrons very respectful.  I enjoyed my very brief stint there but the pressure from at least one of the owners was a bit more than I bargained for.  I moved on.

hans-playing-piano-at-india-house

A new place opened up in Sarasota, The India House restaurant.  It took up the entire main floor of the historic old John Ringling Hotel, a beautiful building many felt should have been preserved, that has since been replaced by the Ritz Carlton.  The restaurant’s owner, Mr. Sarna, was from India and was quite wealthy, having made a fortune importing small brass bells from his native land.  He decorated his eatery magnificently, including an extremely large scale model of the Taj Mahal all in white.  This he displayed in the center of the main dining area.  The restaurant was quite popular at first, I’m sure because it was so exotic.  One could even watch the men from India he’d brought over to cook in the kitchen through a large plate glass window Mr. Sarna had especially installed.  But what the patrons couldn’t see is that when these Indian chefs dropped food on the floor, by accident, which they did, often, the chefs would pick the food right back up and place it on the plates just as they were being taken out to the hungry diners.  I especially loved the tasty appetizers, a crispy spinach mixture, but soon had terrible diarrhea.  One evening some friends came mainly to hear me.  I ran by their table every couple of minutes making a quick dash to the bathroom, to their increasing bemusement.

hans-at-india-house-playing-piano

The main floor of the old John Ringling Hotel had been a restaurant when John Ringling was alive.  The ceiling was a mixture of aged wood beams and hand painted motifs.  There was beautiful imported Italian tile everywhere.  It was a lovely place to play.  The elevated stage on which the large grand piano was located could be operated as a lift during Ringling’s time.  On it he used it to bring his circus animals up from the basement.  They would perform tricks around the diners as they ate.  There were large rings in the ceiling where Ringling’s trapeze artists would perform over the diner’s heads.  I was even told confidentially that during very private dinner parties his trapeze artists would perform in the nude.  Mr Ringling, apparently, had a sexy streak.

Two local cuisine critics in one weekend panned the India House.  They had nothing nice to say about its’ food or service.  The piano player, however, was highly complimented.  I was the only positive review.  A good friend who read the reviews urged that I ask for a raise.  I did stop by the restaurant that afternoon, but the manager summarily fired me instead.  I guess he took what was written about him out on me.  I was shocked, as I loved playing in front of people and was beginning to wonder by that time if entertaining on the piano might not become my career.

There were many who seemed to truly like my playing.  One night, while still playing there, Dicky Betts, a famous rock star and member of the Allman Brothers band, showed up with a bevy of beautiful girls.  He took a large table, surrounded by his very pretty company.  When their meal was over he walked across the restaurant to where I was playing, shook my hand, and said, “You’re a damn great piano player!”  I thanked him, and appreciated it.  Another evening the famous local celebrity artist Syd Solomon dined there, accompanied by several, including his wife, Annie, who famously brushed her hair from one side to the other.  During dinner he made his way across the entire restaurant just to introduce himself, shake my hand and compliment my piano playing.  I was touched, as few abstract or any other artist had brought such international recognition to Sarasota as this local lover of live music.  In addition to the favorable comments of celebrities, every night I would take my cue as to how I was playing if the waitresses would smile whenever I played their favorite melodies.

But despite the great reviews and positive feedback, I was out the door.  After I was fired they tried replacing me with a sexy belly dancer.  I’m not sure why a middle-eastern belly dancer had anything to do with Indian food.  Perhaps it had more to do with the restaurant’s manager wanting to look at a half naked girl every evening.  She didn’t save the place.  Two months later the India House closed down.  People had stopped coming.

The India House may have disappeared, but I continued to perform.  I moved onto other clubs.  I joined two very talented girls who loved the musical, “Chicago”.  I played while they sang and danced.  We were a local hit.  During my musical career there were so many fun filled moments both big and small.  The friends who come and see you, the laughs you share, those spontaneous comic moments.  Those, and the free food, more than made up for the mini salaries Sarasota’s local eateries and clubs were willing to dish out.

As this aspect of my life took off I wondered if playing the piano and entertaining was meant to be my life.  My mom was certain I could become the next Bobby Short.  The only problem:  Performing paid a fortune in fun and free eats, but not much when it came to money.  But that early period when I was fresh out of college, while the U.S. economy was in the dumpster, helped me to eat well and have a lot of fun.  While still performing I started my own design and media business, which eventually became quite a success as the U.S. economy recovered.  I closed the cover over the black and white keys of a warm sounding piano one night.  It was to be my final performance.  I never looked back.  It had all been a perfect moment.

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University of Florida Riots

When I began my studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville Florida the war in Vietnam was still taking place, and still dividing the nation.  During my freshman year President Nixon ordered mines to be placed in the Haiphong Harbor.  Students in colleges across the country erupted in protests that night.  Caught up in my studies I was completely unaware.

I’d been given an assignment in my civics class to write a paper about observing some example of human social interaction.  To my surprise, when I stepped outside my dorm there was no one to be found.  All the stores, even the popular student hangouts with their ever clanging pinball machines, were locked up.  I looked around for any kind of activity.  Gazing a few blocks down University Avenue I saw a gathering of students standing in the middle of the street.  Like photos I’d seen of students in California, they were protesting.  But here?  In Gainesville?  I didn’t know they had it in them.  As I moved closer in order to observe this modest gathering the atmosphere felt more like a mini football rally.  The students were chanting ‘Go Gators!’ while everyone cheered and some guy who was probably a band major played rally songs on his trumpet.  And I really do believe that if the protest had been allowed to run its’ course that evening, this mini student rally would have been over in a half an hour and everybody would have gone to bed that night happy.

But the police weren’t cheering.  As I was watching the police gathered in a large force and formed a multiple line across University Avenue that was several men deep.  Wearing masks, carrying clubs, they made the first move that night by shooting a volley of teargas canisters up through the air right towards us.  I’m not sure why, the students were more playful than threatening.  They probably would have disbanded in an hour or less if left alone.  We all had homework to do and early classes the next morning.  Recalling my own homework assignment, to observe some sort of human social interaction that evening, I stepped back and watched, not really comprehending what I was about to witness.  The misty objects flying high up in the air, and then down toward this gathering of seemingly innocent college kids, appeared so benign.  Like wisps of smoky starlight as what was shot rose and then softly descended.  Almost like shooting stars one could touch.

But then, as they landed, gas exploded.  And we all started choking.  Students started running.  The police, dressed in padded gear, clubs in hand, anticipating this moment, chased the students down.  I climbed up a bush onto the rooftop of a hamburger chain and watched while experiencing increasing personal horror as student after student on the avenue beneath me was violently clubbed to the ground.

The rioting lasted three whole days.  My campus, the University of Florida, was covered in an ever-present, always choking mist of teargas.  Police patrolled the campus like it was under siege.  During the days many students tried to attend class or go to the library.  But the nights were like the devil came out.

As the nights passed, the police apparently didn’t believe the rioting the students had initiated was sufficient.  In their estimation perhaps they were not being provided with enough students to club.  I personally watched as they began to create their own situations that permitted them to attack.  I personally witnessed several instances.  I saw men wearing all black, the age, size and look of uniformed police, climbing up onto the roof of a large nice apartment building near the corner of University and Thirteenth Street.  Up on the roof they dropped teargas canisters into the buildings’ air conditioning vents.  I could see through the apartment windows, floor after floor, as teargas descended through the inside of the building.  I could see the students in each apartment, floor after floor descending downward, start to choke.  They panicked, as they dropped their school books, food and drink, and bolted toward their apartment doors, then the stairs or elevators, and then ran outside the building’s front doors.  Scrambling outside, blinded by the teargas smoke that had entered their rooms and hallways, these students, whose only crime had been that they were quietly studying inside, were greeted by the police.  The police were waiting right outside the building’s main entrance and began clubbing each of the blinded, choking students to the ground.  I not only witnessed this, I could hear the students scream.  Again and again.  And again.

As I wandered through the streets, observing all that was going on, I personally witnessed even more that was suspicious or even wrong.  Without warrants, or cause, police were breaking into small student apartment buildings, running up stairs to their second stories, blocks away from campus, where they would drag innocent students outside to where their fellow officers would hit them with clubs and black leather pouches filled with tiny metal balls.

Observing all of this it was my impression that the number of officers on the streets far exceeded those that were normally on the city payroll of such a small town.  It looked like an army had invaded this campus.  This made me suspicious.  I wondered if perhaps cops from outlying towns had perhaps decided that this might be an excellent opportunity to avenge their pent up hostility toward all of us college kids, whose only crime was that we wanted a college education, and they were the descendants of local farmers who maybe never went to college.  Perhaps the violent hostility they were releasing stemmed from their belief that we students looked down on them and they were using this incident to put us in our place.  Violently.  Perhaps it was the Vietnam War and the divisive politics of the times and what was being shown nightly on TV news that was dividing our country.  Where some, including myself, had witnessed the Democratic Convention in Chicago with horror, feeling for the brutality conveyed upon the students that protested there.  Perhaps those in the police force nationwide were sympathetic toward the other side, those that were beating up the students in Chicago, and wished to demonstrate their allegiance to them by bearing up students that were closer to home.  Whatever the underlying reason, clearly what was going on was an environment where nearby law enforcement from both the college town and presumably outlying smaller towns were using this opportune moment in which they controlled the law and were free to vent, violently, on what were for the most part very innocent students who were being used as defenseless targets for their anger.

What was so strange to me was to reflect that we were all Americans.  And yet here we were attacking each other.  We are all of the same blood, the same birth, the same nation.  We each have a common goal.  And yet, we were divided, beating up the other, violently.  In many ways we still are.  A nation of one side beating up the other side.  What could go wrong with that scenario.

The end of the Inca Empire occurred when the King died.  His empire was then ruled by his two sons.  Each son hated the other.  One ruled the south, the other the north.  They turned their entire nation against itself and fought a bloody civil war.  While they were fighting amongst themselves, a small band of eighty-six men, with a few horses, swords and guns, landed on their shore.  Within a few years, because the Inca Empire was so distracted with hate, brother against brother, this small group of men conquered this land and turned the entire race into slaves and stole all of their wealth.  Is there something about the American soil that causes us to fight against ourselves?

At one point my eyes began burning from all the teargas drifting through the air. My t-shirt, which I was constantly using to wipe the floating powder off my face, needed to be soaked in fresh clean water.  I made my way back to my dorm room where I found my fellow dorm mates all huddled in panic in the darkened hallways.  I wet my t-shirt and was about to leave when they admonished me with real fear and concern that I should stay inside with them.  They were very afraid as they warned me that it was far too dangerous for me to go back out into the streets.  I replied that I felt safer using my wits and senses out there on my own.  I am sure this stemmed from my many previous experiences of feeling free out on the streets, first learned in Mexico, later refined in Toledo, and then New York and Boston.  But there was also just too much to see, and I didn’t want to miss it.  I left them, huddled in the dark in the halls.

Just as I left I saw something that made me duck behind the low hedge in front of the dorm’s Commons building.  A tank, a full size tank, was rolling down University Avenue.  I watched in amazement as it parked itself directly in front of my dorm room and turned its’ cannon barrel directly toward my own dorm room window, a double-hung I always left open to let in the fresh air.  The tank shook as it fired.  I saw the smoke emanate from the barrel and heard the large boom.  A big smoking shell shot in through my open window.  Inside my dorm room exploded into gas.  The gas filled my room first.  Then my entire floor.  Then every succeeding floor above as blossoming teargas burst like billowing white clouds out each succeeding window above.  It was like watching a demolition in reverse.

Why was there a tank in Gainesville that evening.  I had always thought that it was illegal to use military force on our own population.  But even more, this tank, from its’ direction, was just entering into the campus from the west, from out of town.  It must have taken hours to reach this location and then stop right in front of my dorm room.  Then there was my dorm building.  It was completely dark and gave the appearance that there was no activity inside.  I knew that there several students huddled in the hallways, scared out of their wits.  But they were not in the windows.  They were not taunting.  They were not threatening the uniformed men who were parading alongside this tank.  Why did the tank stop right in front of my building.  I may have been inadvertently to blame for this.  I had left my ground floor window open.  It must have seemed like some perfect target for shooting off a missile.  These uniformed men probably thought the building was empty, it looked dark and vacant.  And there was an open window.  Too tempting.  I cannot know what was on their minds as they stopped the tank and made the barrel swing around and point toward my dorm room.  I’m not sure what was going through their minds as they gave the command to fire a missile into the dorm room of an American college student.  I will never know how they felt as they watched the smoke consume the building, or became aware that students had been inside, hiding in the dark, now screaming and choking, because of them.

I heard all my friends inside, friends I had just left behind, friends who were intentionally not getting involved with any of the rioting.  They were trapped.  I heard them all choking and gagging from the gas that filled their rooms, the hallways, and their lungs.  They were so innocent, in so many ways.  These students were not troublemakers.  The police had chosen to bomb them because it was easy, not because it was right, not because it made any kind of tactical military sense.  They had a tank.  They wanted to fire it.  I had left my window open.  There apparently was no other reason.

The next day my friends showed me the empty shell canister they found inside my room.  The shell was as thick as my arm.  If I’d been sitting at my desk, which was in front of my window, I would have died that night.  And if I had died, would anyone have paid for my demise?  Or would it merely have resulted in a written letter of apology to my parents from the desk of the university president, and a small obituary in the campus newspaper.  And then everyone would have gone on the next day as if nothing of significance had happened.  But I didn’t die that night.  I wasn’t in Bradenton.  The small Florida town where I was born, but where most people move just to grow old and die.

In all the written reports I would later read of this rioting, I’ve never come across any that mentioned this tank.  A tank I personally watched attack my dorm room. I have, instead, read quotes from the police in charge who expressed their certainty that their men had behaved appropriately and within the law.  Their memory defies what I witnessed.  I do not believe any law enforcement officers were ever admonished, tried or paid for their behavior over those three days and nights in Gainesville.

Just as in other situations, no matter how dark, there can be the occasional humorous moment.  In the midst of all the fighting and teargas, a pizza delivery would be made.  Pizza and marijuana.  Forever an essential to college  student’s needs, no matter the circumstances.

Out of frustration one bright sunny afternoon a student in my dorm threw an empty coke can out the third floor window at the officers milling about below.  By then the police had everyone trapped inside our dorms as they wandered freely through the streets in complete control.  The police immediately rushed the building to retaliate against the threat this empty coke can had created.  Although the can came from a third floor window, they saw another student on the first floor panic and dash into his dorm room.  I knew this student as a really easy-going guy.  He only ran into his room to become safe and avoid this situation.  All of the police running into the dorm, seeing him dash into his room, followed him and threw my friend face down onto his bed.  It was a waterbed.  As they attempted to handcuff him they kept yelling, “Hold still!”  “I am holding still!” he would cry.  However, because it was a waterbed, he kept rolling and tossing and churning.  “Hold still!” the police kept screaming as they began to club him.  “I am holding still…” were his increasingly weaker cries, as the many police sitting all over him increasingly clubbed him.

Then there was this odd little moment that involved me.  An odd intervention that caused me to detach from my surroundings.  Right in the middle of all the rioting, while standing one afternoon on the sidewalk near the school library, a police car skidded up to me and came to a quick stop.  “If I were you I’d move away from here.” came a warning from the officer in the passenger seat, a warning only I could hear.  I stepped away from the street and over to the library entrance.  Seconds later, a large number of padded police officers descended onto the area where they began clubbing and beating every student in sight – except me.  By being advised to move away I’d been protected from this event.  I didn’t really understand why.

Then there was the afternoon I had to use my wits.  The police, en masse, came around University Avenue, clubbing everyone that was in their way.  I, and one other male student, ducked into the lobby of the hotel on the corner.  This other student was clearly panicked.  The hotel staff asked him if he had a reason to be there.  He replied that he hadn’t.  They demanded that he leave, forcing him to step back outside – where he was immediately clubbed to the ground by an officer who ran up to him.  The hotel staff that had just sent him outside saw this but expressed no remorse.  I saw a bank of telephones on a wall nearby.  Walking over to them I picked up a receiver and pretended to be speaking to someone on the phone.  I didn’t even have a dime in my pocket to make a call.  The hotel staff observed me, but seeing me speaking over the phone, to no one, they left me alone.  I waited until all the police had passed by, and then I hung up the phone and left.

Suddenly, after a few short days, the rioting was over.  The police were gone.  The air was clean again.  We were all back in class, and no one spoke about it.  As if nothing had really happened.  I wrote my paper for my social studies class and received a fair grade.  Soon we had finals to think about, homework to do, pizza to eat and pinball to play.

But I could never forget.  Perhaps it was from living with my very political older brother up in Brooklyn.  Right in the middle of the rioting, the teargas, the craziness, while trapped inside my darkened dorm room, the police everywhere outside, eye swelling powder drenching the air, I reached up from the floor where I was hiding and lifted my telephone receiver.  I carefully, quietly, dialed my brother.  He woke up, groggy.  It was about 2AM.  I described the situation to him.  How I was huddled on my floor, the lights out, trying to avoid attack.  He laughed, that warm wonderful laugh of his.  “Keep it up.” was all he said, and then he hung up.

I understood what he meant.  Resist what was happening, clean the system, make things honest, get rid of the indecent.  It may look bad tonight.  But there would be a tomorrow to continue the struggle, to make things better.  But how.  Surrounded by a massive force just outside my door, which clearly was writing their own laws while on duty, with no one overseeing them or roping them in, a circumstance that seemed from the news on TV to be pervading the entire country, how does one clean up such a mess.  Nixon was in charge, the landscape looked hopeless, all because of an odd little war our country was fighting a half a world away.  An odd little war that was tearing our own country in two.  How could I bring our country together again.

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Manatee High and the Race Riots

I returned home to Bradenton after a summer in Europe.  I found a nightmare.

The nationwide protests against the Vietnam War were increasing and were affecting everyone – even the most obscure small riverfront town high school in Florida.  Forced school integration along with forced bussing was putting a strain on everyone.

Personally not prejudiced, I was raised in a home where we did not think of anyone by their color, their race or their religion.  At my school in my southern hometown I was in the minority.  When the black students began arriving by bus I immediately started up several friendships.  However, too soon, rioting broke out.  Massive fighting erupted across my campus that lasted weeks.  Even adults came on campus carrying weapons for fighting, even guns.  I saw friends on both sides getting severely hurt.

One of my personal memories from this period, one that I cherish, took place one afternoon in the boy’s high school bathroom.  I was there combing my long hair.  I had hair length that I had to hide from the ever-vigilant Dean of Boys and I was constantly wetting it down in an effort to hide it.

The deans and principal at Manatee High were all ex-coaches from the phys-ed department.  You start out as a coach you wind up running the school.  I’d only had one previous personal experience with a coach at Manatee.  It took place one time when I was alone in the locker room changing my shoes, and the coach placed his hand on my shoulder and then let his fingers drift down to my right nipple, where he began to tickle me while breathing heavy.

Combing my hair in the boy’s bathroom that day, listening to the rioting taking place just outside, rioting that was breaking out everywhere around the school, a friend of mine who was a white student entered.  “Hans,” he exclaimed excitedly, “you gotta come out and fight with us!  We’re really beating up those blacks out there.”  I looked at him.  He was talking about my friends.  “No,” I replied, “I gotta comb my hair.”  He understood my excuse.  Getting away with long hair was a statement.  A cool thing.  “Oh, ok.” he responded, and disappeared out the back door and back into the fighting.

The next moment another friend entered, a black friend.  “Hans, you gotta come out and fight with us!  We’re really tearing up those white guys out there.”  I just looked at him.  He was sincere.  He did not see me as white but instead saw me as a close friend.  That really touched me.  But I knew if I did go out and fight alongside him against ‘those white guys’ I might as well kiss my own little white behind goodbye.  “No,” I replied, “I gotta comb my hair.”  “Oh, ok.” he said, also understanding what long hair meant, and why I had to hide it.  And he, too, shot out the back door and back into the fighting.  I will always treasure that moment, when the color of my skin made no difference to my friends, during a time of great racial divide.

One of my worst memories is seeing the police arrive one day and round up all the new black students at my school.  A white student standing nearby whispered so only I could hear, “I sure wish I had me a knife right now.”  After corralling all the blacks, the police then herded all of them in one large mass down the street.  The Bradenton police herded these high school students like cattle.  They used clubs to keep them moving away from the campus, for miles, all the way back to ‘their neighborhood’.  A neighborhood that was literally on the other side of the railroad tracks on the other side of Bradenton.  Many of those being herded that day were my friends.

The racial tension and violence in my high school continued eventually becoming so extreme it was making nightly national headlines on the evening news.  The Governor of Florida, Claude Kirk, decided to personally step in and do something about it.

Governor Kirk graduated from the same school in Chicago the very same year as one of my mother’s cousins.   This cousin knew him well and shared with us that Kirk had left his well to do Chicago relatives, he was kind of forced to, because he was considered the black sheep of his family.  Somehow he eventually landed the job of governor in Florida.  I often smiled at that.  That being the governor of Florida was considered a step down.  Kirk certainly drank a lot.  Reporters, while the TV cameras where rolling, would themselves literally roll in the aisles with laughter as he incoherently mumbled and stumbled and slurred his way through televised news conferences.  He often imitated a kind of juggling clown as he tossed oranges up and down in front of a camera to promote Florida to the nation.

Governor Kirk arrived in Bradenton to ‘do something’ about the rioting.  Under much fanfare he entered the county school administration building where he locked himself in the administrator’s private office.  Once alone in there, he unlocked the dry bar and drank himself into a stupor.  While riots in the local schools continued, teetering into a dark abyss, the six o’clock news that night showed local reporters standing on each other’s shoulders pointing their film cameras in through a small transom window above the door.  Inside we all saw our Governor teetering as well.  It wasn’t even noon, and yet there he was, our state governor, passing out, slumping over on a couch, his eyes half open, red and blood shot, a drink spilling out of his hand, and empty booze bottles lying on the floor all around his feet.  Needless to say, his personal involvement in the local situation did little to reduce the serious racial discord growing worse and worse outside on the streets.  I feel certain that Governor Claude Kirk must have displayed this same behavior on a daily basis while serving up in Tallahassee.  Which begs the question, during his tenure, who was really running the great state of Florida?

In school, one quiet day, I began to notice a very pretty black girl in my speech class.  As I would pass her to give my speeches in front of the class, I would try to gain her eye.

One day I got up the nerve to ask her out.  This just wasn’t done.  To my surprise, and great pleasure, she said yes.  That Saturday night I borrowed my mom’s Mercedes and drove over to her side of town.   I walked up some creaky old steps to a second level very rustic apartment and entered into her world.  Inside their small wood frame home her uncle was eating at a simple table while his wife was serving him some dinner.  On a small coffee table was a suitcase record player.  Motown 45 singles were spilled all over.  She was ready when I arrived, and looked beautiful.  I escorted her down the stairs and into my car.

First I had to pick up something at a party I knew was taking place.  I only stopped there briefly, but long enough to observe the look on some of my white friends’ faces when they saw a black girl sitting in my front passenger seat.

I then drove us out to Longboat Key to The Buccaneer, a very expensive restaurant my parents had taken me to many times as a child.  I particularly liked the old black man who parked the cars.  He always directed me to a fake treasure chest, filled with little plastic toys.  Under his smiling eyes I could choose one.

As I pulled up he opened the passenger door.  “Hello there!” he exclaimed, observing the beautiful and well dressed young black girl waiting to step out.  But when he came over to my side, seeing me, a white guy, he slammed the door shut after he got in, and floored my mom’s Mercedes to its’ parking spot.  Didn’t he remember me?  And all the great times we’d had directing me to that toy treasure chest?

She and I entered the restaurant.  It wasn’t full, but we were escorted to the worst table in the place.  Overhead, almost hitting our heads, was a bare fluorescent bulb.  Menus were handed to us.  “Have anything you’d like.” I offered.  “I am very hungry.” she replied, and proceeded to order the most expensive item on the menu.  She barely touched her meal.

At the next table were old people.  Old people from Bradenton.  As they turned around, again and again and again, to stare at us, the condemnation they were feeling clearly expressed in their eyes, the bare fluorescent bulb hanging over our table made the large liver spots and red patches on their pale white skin made their faces look grotesque.  They looked like monsters, which they were.  They’re all dead condemning monsters now.

“Tell me about yourself.” I inquired.  After describing how she was born in New York, and was only staying temporarily with her uncle here in Bradenton, she confided, “Growing up, I hated everything that was white.  I hated white people.  I hated white paper.  I even hated white bread.”  I was a bit stunned.  But I also comprehended, and felt so sad for her.  She was so beautiful, so elegant.  She was obviously extremely intelligent.  And yet, she was also, very, black.  And in my world at that time, in the small southern town I was born and raised in, attended high school in, our skin colors would prove too challenging.

As I escorted her back to the parking lot, the attendant kindly and graciously helped her be seated in the passenger seat.  I was expecting to tip him, but he slammed the driver door in my face and stormed away.  Obviously, those lighter moments he and I had shared in my childhood were a thing of the distant past.

I drove her home, and for some reason we never spoke again.  Which made me so sad.

Things came to a head in my own little world when I decided to do something political about the racial problems at school.  I was sickened by all of the divisiveness and hate.  I decided that I would run for Senior Class President.  Fairly popular, my campaign would be noticed.  This would certainly be so when I let it be known that my entire selection of running mates would all be black.  Vote for me, receive in return an almost entirely black student council.  I knew I wouldn’t win.  I just wanted to shove this racial prejudice back in everyone’s faces.

As the end of my junior year approached my final exam in Spanish class was interrupted by a young girl from the dean’s office saying that Dean Choate wanted to see me.  I put down my pencil and followed her to the administration office.  The ex-coach facing me across the dean’s desk spoke in a thick, slurry southern drawl.  “Son,” he began, “you need a haircut.”  And off he sent me.  I was told not to return to campus until my locks were shorn, and accompanied by my parents.

I made my way over to the local junior college where I joined some older friends of mine I met through the concert scene.  They were relaxing in the cafeteria.  These longhair college aged students were in a local jug band that played out at ‘The End Of The Pier’, now the setting for an upscale restaurant in downtown Bradenton.  Their light songs poked fun at our town, even joking about the local sheriff, as they played very original music solos such as rhythmically breaking empty Ripple bottles in a large bucket.

They made light of my situation, which made me feel better.  One suggested a short hair wig.  I couldn’t imagine a more clever way to trump that Dean’s orders.  All of us got into one of their cars as we drove over to a wig shop out on St Armand’s Circle, where a sympathetic and slightly bemused sales lady helped select one that matched my hair color.  She trimmed a few loose strands, and before I knew it I looked like I was sporting a short tress.  Returning to school, faces were stunned as my fellow students saw me enter the building.  They couldn’t believe my new look.  They couldn’t believe it was me with such short hair.  I guess it looked believable.  Even so, I was still very nervous as I reentered the Dean’s office and stood in front of his desk.  “Turn around!” he barked in his thick twang.  I did a full 360.  Sweating that maybe some stray strand might be sticking out behind my ear.  After I came full circle and faced him again, he slurred, “Son, that’s the first decent haircut I’ve ever seen you in.”  Ah, maybe it will all be over now and I can go back to class.  “Now go home and come back here with your parents.”  Nope, not over yet.

I walked home to a surprised mom and step-dad who were relaxing over lunch out on the porch overlooking the Manatee River.  I explained the situation.  My step-dad was very conservative and believed in Nixon.  He also believed that I had to be the one who was in the wrong, and that the ex-coach now dean had to be right.  We stepped into my step-dad’s Mercedes and drove back to my campus and entered inside the Dean’s office.  In his thick syrupy drawl he described me as a troublemaker, a nuisance, someone the school had little use for, etc, etc, etc.  He made it very clear I would not be welcome back my final year.  I would not be finishing my senior year there.  There were few other school choices.  I was going to have to leave Bradenton.

I would be forced to leave a town that most people move to in order to die.  Thanks to Dean Choate I would not be dying in Bradenton.  I held it inside, but I couldn’t have been happier.  I didn’t know where I was going, but I was as pleased as punch that I didn’t have to stay.  Even my step-father, who liked to believe in authority, thought this man a fool.  Even in his eyes, ex-coaches were running the asylum.

With just a few short days left in my junior year I completed my final exams.  I then threw possibly the biggest and best high school party Bradenton had ever seen.  The large property of my parent’s river front house was packed with people, and it was wild!  Filled with homemade sangria, naked girls sliding head first, chest up, down our pool slide, live bands playing in-doors and out.  A great blow out party where everyone is having fun is a wonderful way to sever ties and say goodbye.

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Death & the Pussycat

It happened right in the middle of a game of baseball.

Neil, my best friend and next-door neighbor, was up to bat.  His older brother, Mark, had just pitched him a soft one that flew a bit too high.  Neil complained, as only a brother can to his brother.  Their sister, Camille, the youngest of us all, who I suspect was mildly infatuated with her older brother’s best friend and next door neighbor, was standing in the outfield looking bored.  I was trying to cover all the bases on a field that was their front yard and driveway.  And that was the size of our entire roster of players.  The kids who lived next door, and me.  We were all so young.

We were also always together.  When we weren’t playing baseball we were pretending to be the Three Stooges or hanging onto a thick rope that swung us way out over the Manatee River.  Dogs were often playing around us, chasing ducks in the river or running alongside us as we rolled and tumbled, laughing, down the hill behind our homes to the water.  Life was tranquil, light and fun.

But that afternoon there was a mounting bit of tension.  Neil was at two strikes.  Camille was losing interest, and I was feeling uncertain whether I could simultaneously cover the tree, the lawnmower and the sprinkler, all the places that stood in for bases, should my best buddy Neil connect with a good solid hit.

Suddenly from outside the tall front garden wall we were caught by surprise when a car screeched on its’ brakes.  We heard an awful sounding thud, and then the sound of that invisible car racing away.  Neil looked at Mark.  Mark looked lost.  Camille looked ashen.  And we all dropped our gloves, bat and ball and ran out onto the street.

There, lying limp along the edge of Riverview Blvd, was Mark, Neil and Camille’s golden colored cat.  It was dead.  Mark immediately called, “Mom!” and their mother, who could be heard keeping busy inside their kitchen, stepped out to see what was the trouble.  As all of us stared at the beautiful dead feline we each became lifeless ourselves.

Anne, their mother, called for Chris, the oldest brother, who at fifteen was far too old and mature to ever play with any of us, to come out and retrieve their cat.  A hole was soon dug in the front yard next to their driveway.  Their sweet pet, one that I was so used to seeing running around, chasing a lizard, licking its’ paws, but was now so cold, so stiff, was placed deep into the depths of this dark grave.  Chris and Mark used shovels to shower dirt back into the hole.  And with each toss of the shovel the beautiful fur of this golden colored cat slowly, irrevocably disappeared, until it could be seen no more.  It’s life, it’s presence here on earth, in our lives, was gone.  Disappeared, as if it had never been.  And all we saw was dirt being shoveled onto dirt until the hole was level with the area around it.  Soon, within a week or so, grass would cover this spot, causing it to blend with the rest of the yard where we always played together.  We each stood around this place where the cat had just been hidden, buried, lost in a few silent moments.

I think, that for each of us that day, this was our very first encounter with death, and all of its’ ramifications.

The innocence of everything I knew gone, my young emotions just couldn’t take it any longer.  I ran around the fence that separated our two homes and burst through my kitchen and into my living room. I found my mother sitting there where I fell upon her lap and started crying inconsolably.  I bawled until I nearly couldn’t breathe.  My mother, understandably surprised, her hand running through my hair, kept inquiring, “What happened?  Why are you crying so hard?”  But I was so distraught I couldn’t answer.  Finally I blurted out, “The cat next door died.”  This caused my mom to laugh slightly, presumably out of stress release.  The worries her mind must have imagined surely conceived a million horrific circumstances that would have made her youngest son so distraught.

She tried to console me, but couldn’t.  How could she?  This moment was bigger than her.  I felt some comfort in her lap, but the depth and significance of what had just happened was really beyond what even a mommy could comfort.  Finally, after many long minutes and many tears, I stopped crying.  Soon I was running back over to Neil’s house.  Of everyone who lived close by he was nearest to my age and we were always playing together.  And although I found them all still a bit subdued, soon Neil and I were outside, playing, as if nothing very major had happened that day.

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Hitchhiking to Boston

Just about everyone in my family agrees that my oldest half-brother, Bud, was the most intelligent of us all.  Considering what a family of brilliant over-achievers I hail from that is quite a statement.  He certainly had an amazingly quick mind, surpassed only by his wit.  This was underscored by the warmest heartiest laugh I have ever heard anywhere.  When I was very young, to hear his laughter fill the house when he came home from college always warmed me deeply.

Yet, despite his exceedingly positive gifts, he shared his father’s demons.  Mom once asked him directly, “How can a person who is so intelligent be ruled by such addictions?”  To which he would reply quite frankly, “Intelligence has nothing to do with it.”

Bud drank.  I would often see him early in the mornings taking big slugs straight from bottles of hard liquor.  He also took an excessive amount and wide variety of drugs.  My stay with him can hardly be recalled.  I would be offered whatever drink was being served, and not remember how I got to where I woke up in the morning.

It was awful in retrospect, this complete loss of myself to both time and my surroundings.  But it was fascinating, as well.  Because being in Bud’s amazing presence compensated for so much.  It was like losing oneself in overwhelming illusions, while being in the warm safe presence of a visionary shaman.  Somehow one always felt safe with him.  I am guessing because of his innate warmth.  There was not an ounce in him that was aggressive, vengeful, dark or of ill will.

Conversations with my brother were enlightening, often centering on politics.  My brother firmly believed, for one, that Kennedy’s assassination was the result of a much larger effort than one lone gunman.  He was sure of this almost from the day the event took place, which was just a few short years before.  He had countless books, recordings and other works, ones he’d collected through the years, some from really obscure sources, that convinced him, and soon convinced me, that this was the case.  We talked about this incessantly.

My brother was actually well known and respected in this type of borderless map-less community.  He often corresponded and spoke with those everywhere who shared these points of view, even famous actors such as Peter Coyote.

His personal politics were beyond liberal.  He shared one evening that it was while reading Trotsky’s diaries in college that his life changed.  He never stopped reading.  One day he built some crude bookshelves inside his Brooklyn apartment.  He wasn’t much of a handyman, and I smiled as I observed how all of his books literally leaned toward the left.  His career was to read all the books that came into the New York Public Library where he worked, an activity that truly suited him.  He loved to read, and the city of New York paid him to read as much as he wanted, anything he wanted.  In conversations he could share minute trivia about practically anything, some of which I still pass on to people today.  And in-between every other sentence would surge his humor, capped off again and again with that wonderful fill-the-entire-room laugh.

In my brother’s New York apartment I was becoming more and more lost in booze.  Yet from some groggy depth I also began struggling to revive my consciousness.  I knew that by staying within his environment it would be difficult not to succumb.  Not because I was addicted to a liquid.  It would simply be because Bud was so filled with love and joy.  That was a much more powerful and compelling combination to extricate myself from.

At first I made my escapes by taking the subway into Manhattan.  There I would go to concerts at the Fillmore East, or just cruise the streets and clubs.  I also took part, thanks to having a single mom that I loved, in women’s marches down Fifth Avenue.  A lot of famous women of that day were there, marching and giving speeches.  There was much hope back then for women and their future.  But I also reflected upon my recent memories of the Reperbahn in Hamburg Germany.  Recalling all of the naked or wildly costumed girls I would see for sale behind the large plates of glass coaxing the buyers on the streets there I realized women had a long way to go.  Even today, viewing intelligent female newscasters on TV, and then turning the dial and seeing young girls freely stripping for the cameras, women still have a long way to go.

Manhattan wasn’t saving me from returning each night to my brother’s pad in Brooklyn.  I remembered Linda, a sweet girl I’d met at a friend’s party in Ohio.  She had been visiting from Boston and I liked her.  Impetuously I decided to hitchhike up to Boston to visit her.  Partly it was to see her.  I also wanted to get out of this Brooklyn mental alcoholic swamp.

One day I took a subway up to its’ most northern stop in Queens and, stepping out onto the highway, stuck out my thumb.  Hitchhiking was so second nature to me.  I felt so free with just me, my thumb, and a small shoulder bag carrying all of my worldly possessions.  Soon a stripped down mail truck pulled over and offered me a ride.  Along the way they offered rides to every hippy hitchhiking north.  After a rollicking friendly journey they dropped me off at the southern tip of Boston.  Linda lived with her family in Peabody.  She wasn’t expecting me.  I still had a few minor obstacles to surmount.

I stuck out my thumb again.  What luck!  A very pretty, college girl picked me up who didn’t mind driving me all the way into Peabody.  We started chatting.  However when I said it must be fun living in Boston, she grew sad, replying, “Except for all the drugs.”

She let me off in front of a Woolworths, where I stepped inside and took advantage of their lunch counter by purchasing a warm soup and a cold coke.  As I ate I borrowed a paperback off a nearby shelf to distract me.  It was ‘Don’t Fall Off the Mountain’ by Shirley MacLaine.  I was particularly struck by the actress’ experience in the Himalayas, where this meditative master revealed he had been pre-aware of their visit to his hard to reach retreat, even to the point of setting places for them at his table.  If only that stuff were true.

Linda didn’t know I was arriving, I certainly wasn’t expecting her to be pre-aware of me being so close, so I tried to telephone her.  No answer.  I went outside and stuck out my thumb.  I was still a little ways from her neighborhood.

My next ride was a guy in his late twenties who was conservative looking, but very friendly.  When I answered him as to why I was there, he offered, “Hang out with me while I drive around.  You can keep trying to call your girlfriend, and I’ll drive you over to her home when she answers.”  I agreed.  My driver was amiable, and served as possibly Boston’s best unknown tourist guide.  Taking me past historic sites where ‘witches’ lived, were burned, and more.  He’d drop me off now and then at a phone booth, but still no answer at Linda’s.  He told me, “I need to pick up a friend.”  I tagged along.

Where my driver was clean cut and wore a toned down business suit, his friend was a disheveled male with matted blond hair wearing near rags who only seemed able to mumble.  How strange the contrast, I reflected.

Telling me that they needed to pick up something, I passengered with them into a ghetto setting filled with black people sitting out on the streets in front of badly ignored buildings.  We pulled in front of a vacant lot that housed an abandoned oil truck.  The blond guy got out and interrupted a friendly sidewalk poker game played out over some cardboard boxes and old newspapers.  A near fistfight broke out, a kind of ‘who’s stronger’ male-to-male challenge type of thing.  One of the blacks then guided the blond over to the abandoned truck, where he pulled a plastic bag out of its’ empty gas tank.  They spoke, split the package, and money was exchanged.  The blond got back in the car and we drove away.  My tour of Boston was proving to be quite surprisingly diverse.

Seated in the back the blond began pouring white powder from the bag into a spoon and proceeded to warm it up over a lighter.  My driver pulled down a long empty dirt road near a factory setting.  Suffering sometimes from only having half a brain, it was slowly dawning on me what I’d gotten myself into.  What was I to do?  This was way beyond anything I wanted to experience, but if I jumped out the door, where would I go, what would they do?  I studied my companions.  They seemed non-aggressive.  And my stupidly youthful curiosity in observing what they were doing soon subdued any fear.

Just as the white powder was beginning to boil, a police car appeared at the opposite end of the dirt road and drove straight toward us.  Talk about paranoia.  My driver freaked.  I was also quite aware what would happen to me if I got caught with them.  Calmly I suggested, “Why don’t you pop open the hood, step outside and look at your motor as if you’ve got engine trouble.”  He thought that was a brilliant idea.  And just as I anticipated, the cops were too lazy to help.  They drove on by.  This made me momentarily happy, but it also caused me to increasingly question the perception of police.

My driver sat back inside and started wrapping a plastic cord tightly around one arm.  Because he was having a lot of trouble I offered to help.  I twisted it tighter until he was satisfied one of his veins was sufficiently exposed.  His blond friend handed him a filled syringe.  My driver friend shot up.

As he told me to release the plastic cord, I asked, “What are you feeling?”  “It’s like I can taste it.” he replied.  “Taste it?”  “Yes, I can taste it in my arm.”

That didn’t seem to me enough reason to shoot up.  Kindly, they didn’t try to force me to.  As the blond in the backseat finished injecting himself, my driver started the motor and drove his friend to an urban gas station so that the still unintelligible blond guy could meet up with his girlfriend.  What a shock!  I recognized her car first.  Then the college girl who was sitting inside the car waiting for him.  It was my first ride, the really nice pretty college age girl whose ‘too much drugs’ sad sigh of complaint about life here in Boston was proving far too true with a first hand incredible irony.  I watched in sympathy as she got out of her car, walked over, and affectionately embraced her blond boyfriend, who was high on heroin.  Why do women attach themselves to bad boyfriends.  My driver then drove off, as I continued watching through the rear window at these two as they hugged and kissed and strolled arm in arm back to her car.

“Listen, I have to see my mother right now.  Care to come with me?  I’m sure she’ll like you.  You can try calling your girlfriend from there.”  I accepted.

We drove into a trailer park.  “Mobile home.” he corrected, and further observed, “The man she’s dating is there.  By the way, he’s a two-star general who currently works inside the Pentagon.”  Hmmm.  An active user of the most powerful illegal drug is about to introduce me to a powerful military man.

I stepped into a really warm setting.  His mother immediately offered me a warm grilled cheese sandwich and a cold beer.  I gladly accepted.  As I ate at her large round wooden table, the talk somehow turned to President Kennedy’s assassination.  A bit affected by the beer, and inspired by my recent marathon discussions with my brother, I blurted out, “Well, I don’t believe Oswald shot Kennedy.”

There was a moment’s silence.  Then, this two-star active general did something I will never forget.  He leaned across the table towards me and, tapping the center of the table to emphasize his words, looking me straight in the eye, he said slow and succinctly so that I’d get the point, “I know Oswald didn’t shoot Kennedy.”

That shut me up.  I was seventeen years old, and way out of my league.

At this point in time the Beatles had disbanded and Paul McCartney had gone solo with very mixed reviews. Bob Dylan had gone country and both Hendrix and Joplin were dead.  Altamont had usurped Woodstock as the final symbol for the sixties, and creative artists everywhere that had once been visionary would plummet at an increasingly accelerated rate into a world of commercialism just to survive, if they had not already died from either bullets, overdose or despair.  By this time as well not only was John Kennedy dead but Robert Kennedy was dead, Martin Luther King was dead, and many others who held a vision for a more humane America were dead.  Nixon had won the presidency, primarily due to a divisive war, in a landslide.  This was before Watergate, before Area 51 was part of the popular culture, before home computers and the internet, and John Lennon was still very much among the living, though not doing so well personally.  With all that life could throw at one, on such a personal as well as vast cultural level, how was one to assimilate the concept that it had just been verified by two knowledgeable separate sources that a U.S. president had been shot, not be a lone gunman, but by some alternate and apparently quite suspicious means.  Like a car that hits something just out of sight and then speeds away, and changes your whole world.  With the suspicious final moments of President Kennedy something very valuable had been taken away, from me, from all of us, forever.  Something of great value had died.

However, just like most young kids my age at the time, I was oblivious.

Finishing my sandwich I noticed how everyone just got along so easily.  There was real warmth here.  The only thing out of place, and it was a secret only I knew, the son, relaxing in his mother’s kitchen, was high on heroin.

He said, “Let’s go.”  And we got back in his car.  “Hey, why don’t you come to my house.  It’s getting’ late.  You can sleep on the couch and try calling your girlfriend in the morning.  You can also meet my wife and kids.”  I was getting sleepy and gladly accepted.

He lived on the left side of a duplex in a neighborhood filled with them.  His was small and crowded with ‘stuff,’ but friendly.  We chatted a bit.  He played me a song from his favorite artist, Gary Puckett.  He told me his wife would be up in the morning, and headed up the stairs for bed.  Just before he parted, he turned, “Oh, my brother-in-law might be coming home later.  He’s really a heroin addict.”  And flicking off the light switch, leaving me alone in the dark, he left.

In the darkness I lay down on the living room couch and closed my eyes.  A car pulled up outside.  It sounded like it hit something.  There was shuffling, then some other noise, a clinking of keys, and the door to the unit next door opened.  “No, you got the wrong door again.  You live next door.” offered the tired voices of the next-door neighbors.  “Oh, ok.” responded a groggy voice.  Suddenly all this noise began occurring right outside my door, which opened, revealing a dark haired bearded young guy, who greatly resembled the physical appearance, and bloodshot eyes, of Dr John from the inside photo of his ‘Gumbo’ album.

He walked in, sat down, and not blinking an eye at my being there, shared, “I took some amazing shit tonight.”  Then he went into the kitchen and made himself a meal, while I remained on the couch.  After which he went to bed, down in the basement.  Was the basement the universal bedroom for displaced younger brothers?  I went into the kitchen to be assured nothing was going to blow up or catch on fire during the night.  Except for some raw broken eggs splattered on the floor, some spilled milk on the counter, and a mess in general, nothing looked dangerous.  I laid down and fell asleep.

The next morning I awoke to the sound of children playing outside and the smell of a delicious breakfast cooking in the kitchen.  A really cheerful female voice asked me, “Are you hungry?” and I looked up into the warm face of a very pretty housewife with the nicest eyes smiling down at me.  “Yes, starved.” I replied.  Everything seemed so different.  Had I been transported during the night to another location?  Nope, same couch, same living room filled with ‘stuff’.  I joined her in the kitchen, where she served a delicious plate of morning food.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with my husband and brother.  Neither of them want to wake up.”  I let that one go.  Why disturb this really pretty warm hearted lady with some cold news.

She and I chatted, and chatted, over her homemade breakfast, a continuing cup of coffee, seated at her small kitchen table.  Interrupted only occasionally by one of her small children entering in from playing out back to ask the questions only little ones find of immediate concern.

I will never forget this breakfast.  It’s rare that I’ve ever been with anyone so sweet.  I wished at that moment I could have transferred myself into that life.  Could have wished right then and there to become her husband.  I would have taken care of her, loved her, been so happy with her.  But it was not to be, and upstairs, and downstairs, and maybe someday in her own children, were nightmares that would only be increasing in her world.  It was all so sad.

I telephoned Linda, who answered.  She was very surprised, but said, “Yes, come over!”  This wife put her kids in the backseat of her station wagon and drove me over to Linda’s.  We said our goodbyes.  Though I was glad to see Linda waiting for me in her driveway, I was sad to leave this sweet woman behind.  As I opened the car door she held out her clutched hand.  Inside was a twenty-dollar bill.  “I can’t accept this!” I flustered.  “Yes, you can.” she insisted.  I took the bill from her hand, smiled at her, and never forgot her.  As she backed her family station wagon filled with kids out Linda’s driveway, I reflected how easy it was to step into various worlds and travel between them.  Just ‘touching down.’  But leaving each one a little bit wiser, a little bit warmer, a little bit sadder, and always a bit more human inside.  I’ve also thought that the twenty she gave me was her deep wish to let me know how much she appreciated my being there with her that morning.  Two total strangers, each offering the other warmth and affirmation.

I walked over to Linda, exclaiming, “You’ll never believe what just happened to me!”  But she didn’t seem to ‘get it’, so I let it go and went inside to meet Linda’s parents.

My several day stay with Linda was a pleasure.  Hangin’ with all her friends, sleeping on her parents’ couch.  I remember one very flattering moment one morning when I awakened.  Her older sister exclaiming over me, “You’re even beautiful when you wake up!”  It was nice to be in an atmosphere where I was loved and flattered on so many levels.

Too soon, way too soon, I was hitch-hiking back to Brooklyn, catching a flight to Florida, and starting college down, way down, in Gainesville Florida.

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Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers, a movie starring Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens among others, was filmed at a Sarasota Florida art college just a couple of blocks from my home.  I’ve worked in films, on TV and in theater.  I was curious to see how this major motion picture would be made.

The day filming started I drove over to the art school expecting to see large trucks rolling up unloading dollies filled with equipment, large scaffolding being set up covered with lights, rails being laid for the cameras.  To my shock, I didn’t see any of that.  There was nothing that looked like a serious or major motion picture was being made.  I saw very little equipment.  I saw very few ‘go-fers’ or any real looking crew.

There was a small table upon which was placed a modest computer arrangement.  Outside one classroom was a pole with a few cheap lights attached.  In a wooded area adjacent to the campus was parked a couple of small trucks and trailers and a generator.  Nothing amazing.  Everything seemed more appropriate for a cheap video shoot.  I’d read somewhere that the film’s director, Harmony Korine, was given five million dollars to make Spring Breakers.  As I looked around at ‘low budget’ everywhere I wondered, “What did the director do with all the money?”

Their first day our local paper printed a headline about how a thousand fans had gathered to see Selena Gomez.  The paper attached a photo to it’s headline showing less than ten people.

I would frequently drive by or visit the set.  About five of the people in the photograph I would recognize as film crew who posed as if they were fans.

The remaining four, a mom and her three young teen daughters, were more interesting.  Over the next four days, for at least 16 to 18 hours each day, I would see this mom pushing and pulling her daughters all over the edges of the campus in the hopes of their catching a glimpse of Selena.

Because I live close by I would frequently drive by to buy groceries or do some errands.  Sometimes I would walk over on foot just to watch.  Whenever I was there, which was often, other than myself, the only other ones there were this mom and her three young teen daughters.  That was it.  There were no other fans that I ever saw.

I did see about five paparrazzi.  I would chat with them.  I found them pleasant and, considering the obstacles that were placed in front of them to get their shots, quite talented.  That made at least one more paparrazzi standing around than actual fans or interested parties.

Within a short radius are at least a dozen high schools and middle schools filled with thousands of teens.  This event was well publicized by the local media.  Despite having Selena, Vanessa and a couple of other teen stars in town, no one, other than this mom pulling her three young teen daughters around, I saw no one else showing up during the entire time this filming took place.

Maybe, when I wasn’t there, another mom along with her teen daughter may have briefly stopped by.  But to suggest there were a ‘thousand’ defies logic and logistics.  Where would a thousand screaming young fans have parked all their cars?  And, if they had slipped in and then gotten away during an hour when I wasn’t there, the sheer practicality of such incredible mobility is incredulous.  But then I guess I’m saying that our local paper lied to its’ readers.  That won’t be the only lie that would be generally spread about this film.

On the fourth evening this mom and her three young teenage daughter’s long and, I felt, exhausting wait paid off.  A bit after 10PM Selena stepped out from behind a school gate toward a waiting van.  The mom pushed her three excited daughters toward Selena, who did pose with them – for one very brief ‘group shot’.  Selena noticed a young female adult standing close by and said, “I want to pose with her.” and very quickly slipped away from the three young teens.

The young adult female Selena clearly preferred to pose with was normal in height.  I noticed how she had to bend her knees in order for the top of Selena’s head to be at least up to her nose.

From inside the van I could hear Ashely Benson, a co-star, sounding frustrated and tired, say to Selena, “Hurry up!”  And Selena, as if Ashley was her boss, hurried into the van, which drove the two of them over to where their trailers were parked.  This mom, pushing her three young teen daughters, ran over to the trailers, clearly hoping for another chance for one more photo with Selena.  When I drove by a little later I saw this mother and three young teen daughters still there, looking longingly over at the trailers, hoping Selena might step outside one more time.  She didn’t.  It was at least past midnight by then.

One of the three young teens would later create a website in which she describes that moment as the most amazing experience of her life.

During an interview well after filming was completed Selena spoke about the thousands of fans who daily came to see her while she filmed Spring Breakers.

One afternoon while walking by the campus all four main actresses in Spring Breakers walked right by me.

I’m a tad over six feet tall.  The four actresses were amazingly short.  Each seemed to be wearing an oversized extreme blonde or reddish wig.

I was reminded, seeing all of them, of the movie, E.T., when the tiny little alien wore a floppish blond wig to leave the house on Halloween.  Or maybe of Munchkins dressed in drag.

When I was fresh out of college I actually taught at this Art College for about two years.  Later I would teach for several years at Parsons School of Design.  I’ve also guest lectured across the country.  Never during my entire teaching career have I ever seen a single student who looked like these four tiny girls.  The wigs they wore or the make-up they bore that night.  They, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine,  looked fake.

As I stood there, these four teeny tiny little bodies with oversized wigs having just walked by me, a guy pushing a cart covered in dry snacks and warm bottles of water approached, asking, “Did you see where they went?  I’m their caterer.”  On his tray were the cheap snacks one can buy at a local 7/11.  He continued, “Do you even know who’s in this film?  Because I don’t recognize anybody.”  And I reflected, as he pushed his flimsy metal cart away, that his name would be on the film’s credits for everyone around the world to read.

There was one more local shoot in Sarasota.  A church scene.  I would learn that Selena, grateful to the leaders of the church for allowing them to film there, donated some of her used clothes.

One day a local article with photograph appeared about Selena visiting a nearby Walgreens.  Inside a young guy was searching for medicine for his girlfriend, who was home ill in bed.  Selena saw this guy and began touching him, hugging him, saying how cute he was.  While Selena was openly flirting at a local Walgreens her celebrity boyfriend, Justin Bieber, had, that very same day, just announced he’d purchased a very large and very expensive house in California for him and Selena to share.

The film crew then relocated up to St Petersburg, about an hour north of Sarasota.  St Petersburg is famous for retired old people.  Not much else happens up there.  It’s a very quiet town.  It has definitely never been a destination for college kids to experience a ‘spring break’.

A very run down section along St Pete beach was chosen as the site to create the ‘spring break’ party scene.  The hotel that was used was an abandoned dump.  Normally this area – all year round – only sees a few elderly and homeless people.

A ‘cattle call’ was announced on the web.  Teens and young adults were invited to show up in their bathing suits to be in the film’s party shoot.  No one would be paid.  The reward would be the glory of being in the film.  Plus some cheap food and a free sunburn.

Attached to the film’s general cattle call was a solicitation for girls who would be willing to appear topless.  $250 was offered to any girl who would show her boobs for a day.  I reflected how the Tampa Bay area, which includes St Pete, is filled with strip bars that are filled with girls who do a lot more than that, for a lot more money than that, which they can earn in a lot less time.  When photos were leaked to the internet I saw the few girls who were photographed on-set with their tops off.  I could see they were not professionals and suspected that $250 plus a brief moment of fame being given their boobs was just too irresistible.

Photos of the party shoot up in St Pete leaked on the internet looked like well over a thousand showed up in their bikines and swim trunks.  I studied the photos for anything that elevated this large people shoot to the level of a serious motion picture being made.  Other than a single hand-operated cam that allowed a single camera to drift over the crowd of people, this film still looked strictly “low budget”.  I wondered, yet again, where did all the money given to make this film go?

When Selena would later comment how thousands of her fans showed up each day to see her film Spring Breakers I recalled the mom in Sarasota who pushed her three young teen daughters around for four days.  And in St Pete, the only ones surrounding Selena were the unpaid ‘extras’ that answered a ‘cattle call’.  Otherwise her film shoot was completely cut off and isolated from the general public.  No ‘fans’ were allowed.

Is Selena unable to tell the difference between thousands and three?  Or the difference between fans and actors?

I’ve since read some reviews and comments about this film, and have a few observations of my own:

The director as well as most, or maybe even all, of the leads have all shared that none of them have ever in their entire lives been to a ‘spring break’.  The director even poignantly shared that while he was a student in college he would see his fellow school mates go off on spring break, but he would remain on campus by himself.  That seemed sad to me.  I can remember how empty my Florida campus was during spring break.  He must have felt awfully alone.

Considering the movie he has made, a truly dark vision of healthy looking young teens going to the beach to have fun, could this be his belated outlet for the loneliness, bitterness and frustration he felt back in college?

The director used as his main actresses four very teeny tiny girls.  I’ve observed, when he stands next to them, that he is still physically shorter than at least three of them.  Maybe those three girls are wearing high heels.

Did he hire such diminutive bodies because they are on his eye level?  If he is making a movie about college girls, in bikinis no less, why didn’t he choose young actresses who were more developed?  More ‘womanly’?  More representative of the types of ‘babes’ one actually sees at a spring break?

If he really needed ex-Disney girls gone-bad, such young stars as Lindsay Lohan, or possibly Hillary Duff (who did a three-some on Gossip Girl) come to mind.  A third bad-girl could have been Megan Fox.  The three I am suggesting not only boast attractive female bodies, they can also act.

Selena has repeatedly stated that she has used this film to break away from her Barney / Disney image.  That she has done this film ‘for herself’.  Did she hate that pink dragon and cartoon mouse that much?  It’s a shame that every review I’ve read says that as soon as she has left the film she is instantly forgotten.  Not quite the review any actor wants to read.

The director has shared that Michael Mann’s ‘movie’ Miami Vice was his main inspiration.  A re-make movie that was pretty much a flop.  But I do see the colorful tone and ambiance of Spring Breakers faintly resembling the dark neon Miami scenes from Mr Mann’s famous hit TV show from the 1980′s.  But that show is now thirty years old!  From the few clips I’ve seen this movie looks like a ‘day in the life’ of some of the run down bad guys and cheap prostitutes Crocket and Tubbs would put away by the end of the show.  But that look and film style is dated.  Not new.

The director shared that he intentionally shot the dialogue using different backgrounds to create a sort of surreal effect.  He expressed pride in ‘his’ concept.  Tyra Banks used the exact same effect months earlier promoting her most recent America’s Next Top Model.

Some articles have said that the director hired an exceedingly talented and professional cinematographer.  Before seeing any of the video clips that are now being released I wondered if that was where all the money went.  But now I’ve seen some clips.  The grainy-ness and weak composing and even the faded neon essence look, at least to me, like the low budget efforts of a first year community college student.

Every effort was made to keep any and all fans away from the set in order to protect Selena (despite Selena’s memories to the contrary).  Yet this director hired, as his male lead’s adversary, a real life rapper with a real criminal history.  He even solicited this rapper to be in his film while this rapper was in prison!  And even included this rapper’s criminal buddies on the set and in the film!

Fans can’t get close to Selena – but real criminals can?

I’ve reflected on how Selena thought there were thousands on the set each day adoring her.  And about the mom and her three young teens hoping to have a special moment with Selena.  I’ve wondered if there wasn’t some cosmic connection between these two.  Perhaps this surreal imagining, a kind of prism coated vision on both of their parts can be a subject for a film in itself.

The male lead talks in the film with a ‘southern accent’.  I’m from the south.  What can I say –  His accent sounds just like those who are not from the south think southerners sound.  A bad fake accent does not make good acting.

The director admits he wrote the entire script in nine days while experiencing, from inside his hotel room, a spring break taking place outside in the hallway.  Critics have commented on the repetition in dialogue and lack of depth to an overall story that eventually bores them.  A weak script.

My comment is on the names he gives his leads: “Faith” for a christian girl?  ”Brit” for the blond, when he admits that Britney Spears was another inspiration?  ”Alien” for the guy who seems out of place?  ”Arch” for his arch rival?

When one writes a script one can use descriptive names for characters as a writer’s tool to remember the type of person one is writing about.  Eventually a ‘good’ writer will replace those convenient names with names that are more clever.

This director wears a devil’s trident tattooed on his forearm.  He has made a very dark film.  From all that I am reading his movie is not doing well at the indie showcases in either Venice or Toronto.  The critics at these indie events are the most tolerant toward extreme and original efforts.  Should this film ever attempt a broad theater release I am personally very doubtful that People Magazine or most of the reviewers quoted in Rotten Tomatoes will be as open minded.

In his film he pokes fun at a certain religious group.  A group that is the antithesis of the trident tattooed on his arm.  His film is flailing.  Perhaps there’s a connection?

I”m saying this last bit just to drive him, perhaps, a little more crazy than he may already be.

All my best,

Big Belly

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Health Care: my personal story

During the 1980′s, while working in NYC for the largest design firms in the world, I met my future wife.

On the night I proposed (very nervously on my knees) my future wife went to bed.  When she woke up the next morning she discovered that she had hemmoraged through the entire night.  The mattress she’d slept on was soaked in blood.

Over the next year I accompanied my new wife to a half dozen different OBGYN’s across Manhattan.  Each one immediately wrote out a prescription for birth control pills without pursuing anything further – despite my wife having full health insurance coverage from the firm she worked for.

A year later we moved to Florida, where I originally was from.  Her bleeding was still profound.  Immediately we began visiting local OBGYN’s – before we obtained health coverage.  The second one performed a DNC .  And discovered that my young wife had an open bleeding tumor in her uterus comprised of “two particularly virulent forms of cancer.”

Over the next several years, despite numerous surgeries plus other procedures, the cancer would return again and again, each time stronger than before.

The State of Florida, at that time, offered a state supported health insurance for those who could not obtain private health insurance due to, among other reasons, preexisting conditions.  We paid a monthly premium directly to the government, and, for a few years, the State of Florida paid our medical bills.  Until the State of Florida ran out of money.  Due to lack of money, Florida canceled my wife’s government covered health insurance.  My state could no longer afford to provide government supported health care.

Inside the entrance to every Florida hospital there is a sign which reads: “No One Shall Be Denied Medical Treatment” – if the person cannot afford medical care or does not have health insurance.  Taking those posted signs at their word I continued checking my wife into hospitals.  As far as I could discern she received full medical treatment for each of her conditions.  A lot of how a doctor responds to a patient is the result of how involved a family member is in the patient’s care.  I was very involved.

Until my still very young wife passed away, in a hospital.

After my wife died I received an invoice for well over $100,000.00.  I did not have the money.  A highly regarded local attorney offered to represent me for free and accompanied me to a local federal government office.  He explained my situation to a very nice federal female employee.  It took less than 20 minutes of his time.

Ten days later this female telephoned, informing me that the U.S. government would cover all of my wife’s medical invoices.  I did not owe a cent.

At that time First Lady Hillary Clinton was developing a health care plan.  Despite her best efforts it failed to pass.

I paid attention, but wondered, “If the system ain’t broke, why fix it?”

I am openly sharing my very private story because this means so much to me.

All my best,

Big Belly

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Morning Joe

mika-joe-big-belly

At 3AM my wife woke me, asking, “Hey, Big Belly, are you ready to drive up to Tampa?”

She knew how much I enjoyed the MSNBC show, “Morning Joe”.  Today, Friday, August 31 2012, would be Morning Joe’s final morning recording in Tampa Fl, following the final night of the 2012 Republican Convention.

I’m a big fan.  Morning Joe first started about the same time my wife and I married.  I’m embarrassed to say, I would sneak out of our honeymoon bed and, making myself a cup of coffee, watch Morning Joe while my beautiful new wife still slept.  Even today, whenever I don’t have a TV, I will make myself a cup of coffee and sneak out to my SUV and listen to Morning Joe on my Sirius radio – until my wife comes out to save me.

When the last political conventions took place four years ago I enjoyed watching Morning Joe’s early morning broadcasts, set in a fun looking coffee bar near the convention halls.  There was an enthusiastic audience, the guests were informative, the show dynamic, and Joe was the ever courteous host who could rope in that guest who might be taking their comments a bit too far to the extreme.  I felt, while watching their shows live on TV, broadcasting from another state across the country, that I could almost smell the delicious coffee being served.  I really wished I could have been there.

Now Morning Joe was broadcasting from Tampa.  An hour north from where I lived.  All I needed to do was get up early enough and make the drive.  Oh, and convince my wife she might enjoy the experience as well.

I briefly let our dogs run in the yard as both of us dressed.  Soon we were on I-75 heading north, making our way thru the maze of downtown Tampa to the parking garage near to where they were filming the show.  There was already a line, even before 5AM.  A line of fellow die-hard fans.  The fellow in front of me and I immediately began to chat, sharing our observations, mimicking the sighs hostess Mika often exaggerates when she feels overwhelmed by the men surrounding her on-set.  A guy in a black t-shirt asked if we wanted to pay $10 each for their breakfast buffet.  I quipped if Joe would be the one receiving our money.  Several in the line laughed, replying, “Not with the millions he’s making.”

My wife and I found two seats at a small table right behind where Joe & Mika would be seated.  I knew the cameras would be on us, at least a good part of the show.  My wife cell-phoned her family, waking them up, urging them to record the show.  They sounded sleepy.  We could only hope they pressed the record button.

The interior of the club used as the setting for the show was a bit messy.  One could tell they’d had a party there the night before.  A mock-stage had been set up upon which some fairly flimsy looking fold-out director’s chairs had been placed.  Facing us were a myriad of cameras, lights, tele-prompters and more.  Crew were checking, chatting, running around.  Morning Joe’s very pleasant female director encouraged us fans to applaud, laugh, interact.  I was excited at the prospect that I was about to experience the fun I’d seen on TV four years before.

“Way Too Early” began, with Time Magazine’s Mark Halperin the only one seated in the room with us, as Willy Geist hosted from his studio in New York.  There was a phone connection failure while Mr Halperin was in the middle of a joke.  Oops.  The joke was Mr Halperin referring to Clint Eastwood’s somewhat bungled attempt to be clever and funny the evening before, talking to an empty chair.  When the phone cut off I wanted to quip that maybe Mr Halperin’s invisible guest got offended and tripped over the telephone wire while exiting the stage.  But I noted that Mr Halperin was not in the mood to acknowledge us.  The fans of the show he was on.

Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski strolled into the club and up onto the stage.  Mika took her seat, using a few pillows that were frequently fluffed up during commercial breaks in order for her to be seated high enough to maintain equal eye level with her male guests, and, of course, the seated but otherwise fairly tall 6′-1″ Joe Scarborough.  Before sitting himself, Joe turned to us, his fans, and gave all of us an exceedingly brief and kind of weirdly friendly hello and welcome to the show.  Once seated, as the show progressed through the morning, not one person from the show ever acknowledged any of us again.

And this I thought was a bit odd.

The comments throughout the show, when they didn’t poke a bit of ribbing, that seemed to create a pre-arranged triggered laugh response, about Clint Eastwood’s slightly off foray into live political impromptu comedy the evening before, were otherwise all concerned if Mitt Romney could connect with the voters.  Did Mitt Romney seem ‘friendly’.  Was Mitt Romney warm, genuine, believable?

Because I can say, as someone attending this early morning taping, as someone who is a big big fan, seated immediately and directly behind both Joe and Mika, that there was not one single person on this show, or, for that matter (with the exception of the female director), working for the show, who was friendly, warm, or in any way connecting with any of us – the fans.

I overheard others chatting from their seats nearby about how early they had each awakened to drive there this morning.  Right behind me some parents had brought their young daughter, a very polite sweet and very young girl, who was very hopeful in looking forward to meeting the cast.

We were their fans.  From older to quite young.  And yet, with the exception of Joe Scarborough giving us the briefest of hellos, and then concluding with the strangest of brief goodbyes, there was never a single moment when anyone – anyone – on the entire show connected in any way with any of us.  Not even for the briefest of moments.  Not even a mili-second of eye contact.   The hosts and guests on Morning Joe were not warm.  They were not friendly.  We, their fans, might as well have been mannequins.  I’m not certain I can say I truly comprehend the real meaning of “irony” – but wouldn’t this be an example of one?  Their spending hours of time on their show criticizing Mitt Romney about how distant, aloof, non-connecting he is, when everyone on the Morning Joe show, from Joe on down, matched exactly the criticisms they were lambasting against Mitt?

When Joe and the others, which included Tom Brokaw (who once interviewed my older brother on the Today Show), wondered how Americans might be feeling this morning about Mitt Romney, I kept wondering, why don’t they just simply turn around, have someone on their staff available with a portable mic, and ask us?  We are America.  We are, by virtue of being fans of his show, having all risen that morning at about 3AM just to be there on this show, into politics.  I’m certain more than one of us would have been happy to have shared a brief opinion.  But no, not even when everyone on the show’s panel was wondering what people were thinking did any one in the show think that we might be a ‘people’ that might have an honest and insightful thought for them.  It was almost as if we weren’t there.

Instead, at times it felt like there was a wall of ice, created by the hosts and guests on the show, between us and the stage.  This feeling was further amplified when, during every brief break, muscular body guards stood around the stage, no doubt protecting the cast from our potential wild and crazy behavior.  I even quipped to the powerful looking body guard standing near our table during one break, “Are you protecting us from them?  So that they don’t come out here and mess with us?”  He laughed, to which I added, “It does look like you have all of them caged in up there on stage.”  He laughed again.  I received more human interaction from a body guard.

It’s not like the hosts and repeat guests on the show are amateurs, nervous, or non-human.  It’s not like we, at six in the morning, were a large, overwhelming, out of control crowd.  Even during brief commercial breaks, would it have hurt Mika to just simply look over her shoulder and give us a brief thank you for coming?  Would it have hurt some of the guests to exit out through us, perhaps shaking our hands, themselves saying a brief ‘howdy, glad you could come’?  Instead, all of the guests made a point of walking a circuitous route that took them around the back, behind all of us audience, just to avoid us -

- with one exception: Woody Johnson – the owner of the Jets, who is a big fan, friend and major fund raiser for Mitt Romney.  In stark contrast he slowly walked up to the stage through our seats, stopping to chat with the family who’d brought their young daughter.  I shook his hand, sharing my small claim to fame in the sports world, that I’m related to George Halas, which he was pleased to chat with me about for more than a few minutes.  While on stage during his portion of the show, it struck me, personally, that he came across as the only real person being interviewed that day.

There was one other guest early that day that left a lasting impression on me.  David Gregory, the host of Meet The Press.  I personally observed him to be laser sharp and exceedingly focused.  He seemed so intelligent it was almost scary.  Joe, as he has in the past, was still quick with a comment or a quip.  He was also, I was pleased to note, the perfect host to all his scheduled guests.  Standing and shaking their hand each time one joined or when one rose to leave.  Good manners are never improper.

I did note, as has been reported by others, that Joe and Mika do have a warm supportive relationship.  This is really revealed during breaks in the show.  Their “Sonny & Cher” on-air behavior of sarcastically teasing and poking at each other I could truly see was an act.  From directly behind them I could discern their body language all through the show.  Their bodies completely lean into each other.  They truly support each other.  Mika often rubs Joe’s shoulders in a supportive way.  That is, when she’s not holding up her hand mirror and double checking her make-up.  I might add that most of the men looked like they were dressed in cheap suits.  But Joe’s clothes especially, the least “lawyer looking”, was fraying all over with hanging loose threads.

I noted one other effect that Mika handles beautifully.  So much, to my true surprise, is already written for them on their tele-prompters.  Mika, a professional, never gets the wording wrong – except when it is about sports.  She so fumbled the sports intro that I was shocked, and personally re-read her teleprompter, which was facing me, as well.  Flubbing her intro regarding the Jets owner, laughing at her own lack of sports knowledge, Joe and the other men leaned into her and kindly corrected her, over their own patient soft laughter at this ‘poor little lady who just doesn’t get sports’.  Yet even that was an act.  Having read every other teleprompter with exacting accuracy, Mika flubbing the subject pertaining to sports was a clear intentional misstep.  A good act.

As mentioned, I am related to the founder of professional football.  I’ve a 99-year old close family member who attended all the first games.  A huge fan, she is also a woman.  Is this show so intentionally macho that their one female host must really and truly look dumb when it comes to a “men’s” subject?

Suddenly it was time for the show’s closing.  Joe, Mika and a couple of others were ushered over behind the bar, where they shared their thoughts on “What Did We Learn Today?”  Many of us were hoping to have a brief ‘meet and greet’ right afterward, including the young daughter seated behind us.  Instead, almost like a special effect, as soon the cameras were off, Joe and Mika sprang out a side door that was opened for them.  They then ran out into the street and into a waiting SUV and drove away.  It almost seemed like they had created a wake of wind and flying papers behind them as a result of the speed of their hasty exit.  Faster than a speeding bullet.

This was disappointing.  I overheard the young girl who had been seated near us, clutching in her small hand a pen and paper for their autographs, say,  ”Are they really leaving Daddy?  Am I not going to get a chance to talk to them?  Can we chase after them?”  To which her Dad replied, “I don’t think so.  They have too many surrounding them to keep us away.”

TV political hosts acting like they all believe we all think they are all rock stars.

During that last segment, some of the fans were quietly chatting with each other.  The camera man yelled out at us, during the middle of taping, “SHUT UP!!!”  That was nice.  I’ve had a bit of film set experience before.  But I believe I can safely presume that most of the fans there that morning were TV virgins.  That being there, attending this show, was a really big deal for them.  Couldn’t the camera guy, if the mild chatting was a problem, have simply said, “Hey everyone, could we please keep it down?” in a much more polite tone?  I noted that Mika, during the show, while judging those the panel would talk about, often set herself up as the high moral standard on human behavior.  Yet the crew on her own set, and maybe even they themselves, weren’t really all that nice.

The Morning Joe people only step outside of their New York studio for two weeks every four years – every time there’s a presidential election – in order to cover the conventions.  Their insights, observations, thoughts and humor of a political bent about our politicians is a lot of what makes them fun to watch.  I do note they all seem to comment more on style than dig deep in any real way regarding all of the politicians they cover on their show.  But I don’t care.  Their on-TV humor and dialogue, though not all that deep, is what I tune in for.  It’s a fun show.

But now that I’ve been ‘behind the scenes” I have a very different feeling about the show.  For one, they can comment and criticize all they want, but I now know that they are each and everyone of them residing in glass houses, driving glass cars and wearing glass fiber clothing.

I very likely would never have written this blog if it hadn’t been for the content and tone of the Morning Joe show this particular morning.  The endless questioning and persecution of Mitt Romney as to whether he is warm, human and friendly, while everyone on and related to the Morning Joe show was as bad, if not worse, than every one of their complaints.

Even after the show was over, would it have been too hard for them to have posed for a quick group shot, and then post that group shot photo on their website later that day, saying, “Thank you Tampa for being great guests!”

And, about the breakfast we were served, and the coffee – which is what the show is partially or at least figuratively named after, couldn’t MSNBC have sprung for the costs of a buffet, and had some really nice breakfast food there for us?  We weren’t a very large crowd.  We wouldn’t have broken MSNBC’s petty cash account.  It’s only ten days every four years MSNBC would have to do this.  There weren’t that many of us.  And, where was the Starbuck’s?  The watered down insipid brew we were served was not what I saw the hosts and guests on the show bringing in for themselves to drink, with the familiar Starbucks logo on the sides of their cups.  Starbucks is, I believe, this show’s primary sponsor.  They got Starbucks.  Couldn’t we, the fans, also have been served an array of excellent coffee that morning, during a show that is named, ‘Morning Joe’?

During breaks a crew member ran around to each table, each time giving all of us fans a gift.  A black canvas bag with the MSNBC logo on the side, a Morning Joe coffee mug – “enameled” he was quick to point out, and more.  I noted the labels on these items, that hadn’t been removed, all said, “Made In China”.  And then I wondered if that might be why MSNBC is so behind President Obama:  Because of a trade deal on cheap tourist products in order to help pay off the U.S. debt to China President Obama has so significantly increased during his term.  (insert smiley face here)

My wife and I walked back to our vehicle, drove I-75 back home, and passed out in our kingsize bed.  The dogs all sleeping on the floor nearby.

It may be quite awhile, quite some passing of time, before I leave my wife’s side just to get up early in order to watch a TV show.

All my best,

Big Belly

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