Blowhard, Esq. writes:
Blowhard, Esq. writes:
Say this about the virus: it has had some positive effects. Of course, opinions differ. In many instances whether an effect is positive or not will be in the eye of the beholder. Some, but not all, might savor the possibility that higher education will be in for a pretty serious comeuppance by the time things settle down.
But some effects of the virus are inarguably positive, and this includes the many ways that it has brought people together. Families are at home sharing meals. People are more prone to take walks with one another, observing simple pleasures together. When strangers pass one another on trailside walks while the appropriate distances are observed one notices more conversation in passing than in the past, in the manner of how community is more readily formed by expats finding themselves alone in a different country.
In my case the positive effects also involve the use of digital means to connect with extended family, including relatives that do not regularly assemble in person. My wife’s side of the family recently met by Zoom in a way that came close to the kind of in-person get togethers we have on Thanksgivings and over summer vacations. And my own side of the family, separated by years and distances and without much recent history of large get-togethers, have been conversing via long and tangled email exchanges that touch on everything from what the kids are doing to Swedish family history.
While the “kids” in the group are younger, relatively speaking, the older cousins running the show are mostly Boomers. And so it was perhaps inevitable that one of the tangled threads in the email discussion would be on the Beatles.
Back in 2012 I had a side blog dealing with higher education. I include a post from it below, preceded by background and, of course, a digression.
Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
“Curtiz” is a moderately successful Hungarian production that uses the filming of “Casablanca” to examine conflicted reactions to the Second World War. As prolific filmmaker Michael Curtiz, Ferenc Lengyel gives a cagey, intelligent performance. Like Rick Blaine, the hero of “Casablanca,” Lengyel’s Curtiz is an expat who’s found peace in a foreign land. He knows he has it good in Hollywood (an especially commodious hideout), and he doesn’t want entanglements, war and family trouble in particular. His hardened exterior gives him an edge: not only does it allow him to intimidate underlings, it immunizes him against sentimentality and weakness.
“Curtiz” is stylistically arch and filtered through its own sensibility. At first I was put off by the high-contrast black-and-white photography, because to me it suggests arty perfume commercials rather than 1940s Hollywood; but the picture’s artifice gradually won me over. If it were more naturalistic, its strategies, which are also highly artificial, might seem discordant.
Director Tamás Yvan Topolánszky (he also co-wrote the screenplay) encourages us to draw comparisons between Curtiz and Rick, and to acknowledge in the director’s relationship with his estranged daughter an echo of the relationship between Rick and Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa. It’s a cornball idea, and only partially successful, but the movie’s Curtiz keeps us happily off balance: his complexity denies easy judgements. If he isn’t heroized, as Rick is in “Casablanca,” it’s because Topolánszky doesn’t want us to see his subject as noble. This is part of larger commentary on the glibness of Hollywood mythmaking, presented here as an adjunct of propaganda. Rick is the fantasy, Curtiz the rude stuff that the fantasy papers over.
“Curtiz” reminded me that I’ve always been bothered by the way in which “Casablanca” invites us to see ourselves in Rick, and to pat ourselves on the back for it. (What guy involved in a breakup doesn’t imagine that he’s making a hard sacrifice rather than being dumped?) Topolánszky seems to share my discomfort; what’s more, he homes in on it and gives it an ideological thrust. Rick becomes the side of the war that Americans won’t (or can’t) acknowledge. Indeed, I suspect American audiences will have a hard time making ideological sense of “Curtiz”: it’s one of the few counter-narrative WWII films I can think of. At times it expresses real anger at America, this country that won the war without really suffering.
As the virus makes its way through the Sceptered Isle across the pond the activities of the English constabulary are put once again into high relief. Drones flying above the moors in search of walkers too far from home undertaking non-essential activities. Police rummaging through shopping bags to make sure shoppers did not purchase non-essential items when at the store. The Keystone Cops meet the Gestapo.
In the midst of this awful crisis it is wise to remember that bad behavior by English authorities did not begin with the virus. There is of course the long-running matter of the “Asian” grooming gangs, ignored by the cops, courts and press. But here are some other incidents from the last few years.
Impounding scissors and tools as a part of a weapons sweep.
The UK army’s plan for martial law in case of a no-deal Brexit.
University alerts students to danger of reading an essay.
Surveillance camera outside Orwell’s home.
Application to the Chief Censor (!) for special permission to read the manifesto of the Christchurch shooter.
Woman arrested for calling a transgendered woman a man on Twitter.
13 year old with Asperger’s quotes rap lyrics containing the n-word online. Arrested.
England apparently envious of China’s social credit program.
Facebook private groups: spreading hate!
Whisks to be sold to 18+ only! The weapon of choice of roving gangs of teenage Nazis.
Count Dankula’s arrest and conviction.
Friendly reminder on the train.
Ads with sexist tropes banned.
Secure beneath the watchful eyes.
Blowhard, Esq. writes:
This is the seventh and final installment of my series about driving cross-country during the coronavirus crisis. Click here for first post, here for the second post, here for the third post, here for the fourth post, here for the fifth post, and here for the sixth post.
Which is the more annoying pair: Cuomo and DeBlasio or Newsom and Garcetti?
Our first breakfast on the road was at Whole Foods and so was our last. Those tape marks on the floor have become de rigueur at nearly every grocery store. I just shopped at a Trader Joe’s where they recommended that people travel down the aisles one way.
We hit at least one truck stop per day to refuel and for bathroom breaks. Love’s, TA, Pilot, Flying J. The culture of long-distance truck driving seems worthy of its own series. One thing I noticed is that truckers love Westerns, particularly Louis L’Amour. Audiobooks, too. Does Audible market to them?
Just over the Arizona-California border is the tiny desert town of Needles, during the summer one of the hottest places in the United States. The most expensive gas we saw on the trip was here, $3.99 a gallon. I started my trip in Inwood, Manhattan. After Harry died, Bess Houdini moved to Inwood and later died in Needles. Needles isn’t much of a town, but I liked it a lot. Good to be back in the California desert.
A friend recommended we eat at Munchy’s. Even though it’s not a Mexican food town, there are good tacos in NYC. But not like this. The frou-frou tacos you get there are fussy and expensive. Reliable, solid, taco joints like this, which are all over southern California, don’t exist there. (Which is fine, of course.)
And that’s it. That’s basically the end of my trip. Barstow is only a couple hours from Needles and L.A. is only a few hours from Barstow. I’ve driven from L.A. to Barstow many times, on the way to Vegas, so no need to take any more pictures.
What did I learn about this great land of ours as I drove 3,305 from the our most populous city to our second most populous city? I mostly learned that nobody uses their fuckin’ blinker. And no, turning it on for one click after you start changing lanes doesn’t count.
Blowhard, Esq. writes:
This is the sixth installment of my series about driving cross-country during the coronavirus crisis. Click here for first post, here for the second post, here for the third post, here for the fourth post, and here for the fifth post.
Driving through the desert is one of my favorite things.
In Santa Fe, while I was chatting with the front desk guy — I forget how the topic came up — he informed me that northern New Mexico is the black tar heroin capital of the United States. I wonder if that was a factor in Vince Gilligan’s decision to relocate BREAKING BAD from Riverside, California to Albuquerque. Aside from the sweet tax breaks, of course.
I’ve been to the Petrified Forest before, but not in decades. Considering the gates were closed, I guess I still haven’t been there in decades.
Finally, some shots of the open road.
Flagstaff was cold and windy, conditions that are typical according to the guy at the hotel. There was snow on the ground here and there, those stubborn piles that don’t melt for a week because they’re in dark corners that don’t get much sun. Also, I didn’t realize that its elevation is 6,900 feet while Santa Fe’s is 7,200, both significantly higher than Denver. My brother could immediately feel the difference when breathing, but neither city affected me at all and I’m someone who regards aerobic activities like running to be pure torture.
Flagstaff felt similar to Santa Fe — roughly the same population, roughly the same type of people. (At least as far as I could tell. I admittedly spent a pretty short time in both and Yet despite their similarities the landscape and architecture are distinctive. Flagstaff, in the middle of a forest, feels more like a mountain town and its buildings reflect that. For whatever reason, there were a lot more cars driving through downtown compared to places like Santa Fe and OKC.
In the next and last installment, we make the final push into California, where I’m finally reunited with a decent taco after five years in exile.
Blowhard, Esq. writes:
This is the fifth installment of my series about driving cross-country during the coronavirus crisis. Click here for first post, here for the second post, here for the third post, and here for the fourth post.
That morning we went to the Oklahoma National Stockyards, located in the Stockyards City neighborhood. (Or, rather, the Stockyards City neighborhood grew up around the ONSY, but whatever, let’s not get hung up on technicalities.) You knew just by looking at it that Cattleman’s Cafe was a great place and, sure enough, Southern Living called it the “best damned steakhouse in the country. Period.” I guess we could’ve ordered our meals to go, but it wouldn’t have been the same.
Market days are Monday and Tuesday. There should’ve been an auction when we were there, but there was nothing. One trucker didn’t get the memo, though, so he had unloaded his cattle trailer. I was able to get pretty close to them. Click on the images to enlarge.
The statue near the gates of the stockyards exchange. America, fuck yeah!
We went south of the Stockyards in search of a grocery store to get our breakfast. Yup, we were in vaquero territory alright.
We were in cow country so I was determined to get a good steak. We figured Amarillo should have some places that were as good as OKC. When we saw the signs along the freeway for the Big Texan Steak Ranch, the decision was easy to make. They had a curbside tent and outdoor tables open. We each ordered the 8oz center cut top sirloin with two sides. He got his rare, I got mine medium rare.
Verdict? Not great. First, while my steak was cooked correctly, his was medium, not rare. Big mistake. Second, the steaks were not well seasoned. They might not have been seasoned at all, there was so little flavor. Third, let’s give the folks at the Big Texan a break. We’re all adjusting to this new normal, maybe they had their B- or C-team working that day. Maybe the guy cooking the steaks was so rigorous in his social distancing he was six feet away from the grill. Who knows? Fourth, hard to enjoy a steak when you’re cutting it with a plastic fork. Just doesn’t seem right. On the plus side, the side of beans was delicious, a good balance of smoky and sweet.
Back on the 40, on to New Mexico, to the desert southwest. The 285 north to Santa Fe. While it was warm in Amarillo, it was getting colder as we gradually climbed in elevation. We arrived in Santa Fe in the late afternoon. There seemed to be slightly more people out compared to other places. Hippies really love their recumbent bikes.
I loved the courthouse, the scale and location being very similar to the one in Oxford.
Oxford and Santa Fe were my two favorite cities. Human scaled, distinctive architecture indigenous to the region (i.e. not interchangeable, you couldn’t mistake one place for the other), streets and parking lots to accommodate cars but that don’t privilege them over pedestrians.
The monument in the middle of Santa Fe Plaza.
I love the Pueblo Revival style. Maybe it’s corny? No doubt some will recoil. But is it really that much worse than the sci-fi steel gray jumbled geometry of the Clinton Presidential Center? Which will age better? Which has aged better? Which does the public who lives and works around each (not the architectural establishment, but the people who actually use the buildings every day) actually prefer?
Back at the hotel, I asked the front desk agent where we should eat. He recommended Tomasita’s. Good choice. My brother got the tamales with green chile, I got the beef grande burrito with red and green chile, Christmas style. Despite the restaurant’s dire warnings, I didn’t find the chiles hot. I thought the red had better flavor than the green. The sopaipillas were delicious too.
In the next installment we drive from Santa Fe to Flagstaff with a quick stop in Albuquerque for some blue meth.
Blowhard, Esq. writes:
On day four we left the south (*sniff*) for the dusty cow towns of the midwest.
The Clinton Presidential Center was a few blocks from our hotel so we had to drop by before shoving off. Too bad it was closed. I was hoping to ask the head librarian for all their information on Mena, Vince Foster, and the finer points of email server maintenance.
Why must these new prestige buildings always be modernist? The thing looks like a loading dock for the Death Star. The aesthetic choices made even less sense when you realize it’s located right next door to the far more charming Clinton School of Public Service.
Tired of cold supermarket food, we decided to get breakfast at Waffle House. We pulled into the parking lot and, as my brother spoke to the waitress on the phone, I watched her through the window as she took our order. We stood in the parking lot as our food was prepared but they let us in to pay.
Although I’m from California, I hate eating food in the car. But, given the circumstances, guess I shouldn’t complain.
We were only a couple of hours from Fort Smith, the location of one of my favorite novels, Charles Portis’s TRUE GRIT. Below is the courthouse where Mattie Ross would’ve hired Rooster Cogburn. It was closed, so we couldn’t see Judge Parker’s courtroom, but the Coens reproduced it pretty faithfully in their movie.
A few more shots from the Fort Smith National Historic Site, including the old commissary and train station.
On to Oklahoma City. We got back on the 40 and continued west. We passed Checotah, birthplace of one of the great country artists of our time. About 90 minutes outside OKC we saw a gas station that had regular at $1.23 a gallon, the cheapest we saw anywhere on the trip.
We got a hotel in the Bricktown neighborhood of OKC, an entertainment district that abuts downtwon. The Dodgers Triple-A team plays in the stadium next door. This shot was taken from the window by the elevator on our floor.
We took a walk around Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark. There are statues of Jim Thorpe, Mickey Mantle, and Johnny Bench, all Oklahoma natives. I find it deeply offensive that there’s a statue of a Yankee at a Dodgers ballpark but it’s a crazy world, what can you do, people are insane. I bet Bob Costas visits the Mantle statue once a year to have a good cry. Click on the images to enlarge.
I bet Bricktown is a fun place when it isn’t completely abandoned.
The OKC Streetcar was running, so we decided to go for a ride downtown. See that sign kindly asking that riders use headphones? (The NYC subway could use a lot of those signs, not that anyone would pay attention.) We rode the streetcar twice, to downtown and back to Bricktown, but only saw one other rider.
Another downtown, another ghost town. It really was like being on a film set. A film set is only meant to give an impression of being real, the mere suggestion that life exists beyond the facade. What was doubly strange is that people were so assiduously following the rules, that you didn’t see the barest spark of life. No voices carrying, no TVs glowing through windows, no people in their yards, no nothing. Another funny thing was that, when we did observe people on the streets, they were always from one of three demographics: 1) runners, 2) people walking their dogs, 3) homeless. Richmond, Nashville, Little Rock, OKC, Santa Fe, Flagstaff — the same eerie stillness, the same demographics trickling around.
My hard-hearted architectural analysis started to make me hungry, so when we spotted a security guard at the memorial we asked him if he knew of any good restaurants that were open. He recommended Hideway Pizza, a few streets over in the Automobile Alley neighborhood. When I mentioned I was coming from New York he quickly tried to manage my expectations, “Well, I like it, but I don’t know how it’ll compare to New York pizza.” It’s OK, dude, calm down, we’re not pizza snobs. LOL, j/k, we’re absolutely pizza snobs. Anyway, the pizza was totally adequate and OK, I guess! (Stick to beef, OKC.)
In the next installment we drive from Oklahoma to Santa Fe with a stop in Amarillo for a disappointing steak at a famous restaurant. They probably didn’t use propane so we tasted the heat, not the meat.
Blowhard, Esq. writes:
On day three we pulled off the 40 and detoured through the back roads of Mississippi and Arkansas. Particularly in Arkansas there was one lane in each direction, semis hauling ass towards you. Hmmm, what would happen if the van broke down out in the middle of nowhere? Probably best not to think about it.
We began the day at Publix in Nashville. Click on the images to enlarge.
As an Altman fan, I had to see the Parthenon before we left.
That was it for Nashville, we got back on the 40. About an hour outside of Nashville, the city of Jackson, we saw this roadside BBQ stand and had to stop. The ladies running it saw me taking a picture and mugged for the camera.
Even though I had just eaten breakfast, I am not one to turn away BBQ. It was pretty darned good. Hey, check it out, its owner was profiled last year in Men’s Journal.
Johnny and June Carter Cash wrote a song about Jackson.
Speaking of music, a quick tangent. We mostly listened to the radio during the drive, taking a break only once or twice for a podcast we had downloaded. I had intended on listening to audiobooks, but I thought the radio would be more evocative. My naive idea was that we’d discover all these quirky country and roots music radio stations to provide the soundtrack. Nope! No matter where we were — east, south, midwest, west — the radio was the same. Same formats, same songs. We heard “In the Air Tonight,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and “Raspberry Beret” more than a few times. The only time we heard blues music over the radio was in Maryland, on I what I assume was a college station. I remember because we were driving by the NSA. (The station was probably fake and they were just screwing with me.)
Instead of stopping in Memphis, we diverted off the 40 and headed to Oxford, Mississippi before going to Clarksdale. If I was going to be this close to the Delta, I had to see it. First was Oxford, which we got to around lunch time but, given that nothing was open and I had filled up on BBQ, we settled for wandering around the town square. I wanted to buy an Ole Miss t-shirt at the team store but the girl at the shop wouldn’t open the door. She referred me to their website.
Do people read Faulkner anymore? He seems like one of those midcentury titans, like Fellini, who has fallen off the map. I bet Ole Miss English students get a healthy dose of him, at least.
No stores open, no people about, a couple of restaurants with skeleton crews providing curbside service. Just like everywhere else. We left Oxford and headed for Clarksdale. As we approached we saw acres of fallow cotton fields dotted with modern industrial cotton gin factories. It was pretty cool but I have no pictures, sorry.
We pulled into Clarksdale on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., which used to be Highway 61. Downtown was empty.
Some cool signs and graphics.
While we were standing in front of Cat Head, a car pulled up. A guy got out and said, “Hey, you guys wanna come inside the store?” Why, yes sir, we do. He introduced himself as Roger, the owner. He unlocked the door and flipped on the lights. A Ohio native, he moved to Clarksdale 18 years ago to promote the blues and Clarksdale. He’s been on PBS, quoted in the New York Times and The Economist, produced documentaries and records. His store, called one of the 17 coolest records stores in America, was full of great books, music, and swag. My brother and I browsed while we all gabbed about the city and the current corona craziness.
My brother asked, “Where’s a good place to get something to eat or drink around here?” Roger said, “Well, pretty much the only places that’ll be open are those that are, uh, a little lax about health regulations. Try Messenger’s around the corner.” We bought a couple t-shirts, thanked Roger for his hospitality, and headed to the bar. Damn, it was closed. You know things are serious when the local cool dive has shut its doors.
We wandered around a little more.
Then we headed over to the Crossroads, the intersection of Routes 61 and 49 where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his music skills. The monument is located in the center of a large intersection so we had to bargain with Satan from across the street.
We left Clarksdale via Highway 61.
Over the Mississippi and then only a couple hours to Little Rock. We arrived in the early evening, around dusk. The hotels had such low occupancy that we got a suite for the price of a regular room. We dropped off our bags and headed out to the River Market District looking for food.
We saw a few people out on the river front and walking across Junction Bridge. Everyone warily maintaining six feet of distance.
What’s this? Gus’s Famous Fried Chicken? And it’s open? Sometimes the gods bless us. They were 15 minutes from closing but the guy graciously allowed us to order even though making our food would take about a half hour.
It was the best fried chicken and collard greens I’ve ever had.
While researching this I was shocked to discover that THERE ARE FOUR LOCATIONS IN LOS ANGELES WTF? I was simultaneously elated and disappointed. Elated because that meant I could get this delicious ambrosia whenever I wanted yet disappointed because I planned on obnoxiously bragging about this place I had been to that no one else had. “Oh, you think that’s good fried chicken? That’s cute. This one time when I was Little Rock…” C’est la vie. God gives with one hand and takes with the other.
In the next installment we drive from Little Rock to Oklahoma City with a side trip to Fort Smith to hire a U.S. marshal to avenge our father’s death.