Life & Island Times: Drinking with a Duval Street Satan

Author’s note: This year’s edition of Key West’s infamous Fantasy Fest, a 10 day long party, passed while W and I were on the left coast. These are the sole coherent phrases that recall a distant foggy memory of one such Fantasy Fest night.

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I was at the Green Parrot late one October Saturday night, you’ll never guess who walked in
A tourist, perhaps, dressed in red satin like the Devil, acting like the master of sin
He blared at me, “I’ll drink you off your stool”
I said, “Thinking about out-drinking a local will make you the fool”

Thus I became drunker than a Duval Street Satan in satin
He was much worse off, despite all his braggin’
Later I found this prince of darkness prone on the sidewalk
Puking in the gutter and unable to talk
And he wasn’t even through shot 13
Cause on his fourth glass of house tequilla
He started spewing and evacuating condemned souls
And that was before the bartender opened up the Jim Beam

Maybe this satin Satan thought he’d get my soul, if he were to win
So a bit after midnight I asked, “What do I get, when you’re forced to give in?”
He weakly said to me, “If you out-drink me, I’ll be surprised,
but if you do, you can name your own prize.”

It wasn’t quite one, when I again found this ersatz prince of doom
Passed out on the floor of the Parrot’s mens room
I told him, “It might be hard to get me my prize with your head so unclear,
The night is young, I know what I want — GET ME SOME DRAFT BEER!”

Good times were rolling, outdrinking a red satin Satan
At the Parrot’s back bar singing the blues with the band again
The whiskey kept flowing, the smiles did too
I felt pretty good, until I drank them last few

Oh, Lord, God in Heaven, I felt rather tipsy
I shouldn’t have drunk so damn much whiskey
Nor chugged so much beer, nor slammed so much gin
Is this what the priest meant by the “wages of sin”

Oh, Lord, God in Heaven, I felt rather tipsy
I shouldn’t have drunk so damn much whiskey
Nor chugged so much beer, nor slammed so much gin
Is this what the priest meant by the “wages of sin”

Copyright © 2017 From My Isle Seat/H. Jenkins
www.vicsocotra.com

Life & Island Times: Red Poppy Day

Editor’s Note: It is almost the 99th anniversary of the 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month , when the guns fell silent. For a while, anyway. We no longer celebrate Armistice Day, but instead, recognize those who have served as Veterans. But Marlow is right. Time to go by the American Legion and get a poppy.

– Vic

Twenty eight years ago when I had occasion to do US Navy business in London England, I was reminded of the losses humanity endured in the War to End All Wars. This reminder came under the guise of the red poppy with most people in the streets, hotels, restaurants and government buildings wearing these little flowers

Fifteen years later this photo arrived in my email inbox:

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2014 Tower of London poppy display during WW I centennial. Each ceramic poppy set into the moat represents one of the British or colonial soldiers killed in WW I.

These pretty red flowers are poignant, silent clock peals in memory of the unimaginable horror that young Allied boys and men faced in those cold sloppy trenches of Western Europe. Unrelenting artillery shelling. Poisonous gas attacks. Slippery trench walls, barbed wire and withering machine gun fire.

Several years later a former neighbor’s grandchild learned of this war’s toll. This fourth grader sat through a classmate’s presentation on WW1 where the devastatingly high casualty rates for some elite British public school classes were driven home. The presenter passed out a wad of American Legion poppies to the students. There were not enough, so naturally some grumbling ensued from the few who didn’t get a poppy. Silence reigned when the flowerless ones were told that they represented the only ones in certain high school classes of 1914 who survived the Great War.

Go to an American Legion post today. Get and wear a poppy. Make a contribution. Proceeds go toward the assistance of disabled and hospitalized veterans in our communities.

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Copyright © 2017 From My Isle Seat
www.vicsocotra.com

Life & Island Times: Twitter, Graffiti and Draft Rules for Modern Media Political Discourse

Editor’s Note: as part of a related research project, a colleague and I are looking at how the Millennial generation exchanges information and knowledge, and what their views are regarding things like security. The devices and social media appear to be actually changing our brains. Happy Veteran’s Day, the one the Government takes off from work while the Vets in the civilian sector report to the office.

Author’s note: I wrote this late last month before visiting family on the west coast. The trip was excellent. More on that later.

Modern media argue that we learn a lot about how people actually think from what they post on social media. Of that I am not so sure. Yet, one presidential candidate discovered and used the power of social media to becone the most powerful person on earth last fall. More importantly, I’d contend that bathroom graffiti has been replaced by Twitter and that the media is now focussed on the leavings of those who used to do their writing on bathroom stall walls.

If you use or follow Twitter, you probably suspect what I do: people tweet the most when they are sitting on the throne. Tweeters are not going anywhere for a while, they have their phones but no other means of entertaining themselves, and they’re on the throne, which is one of the the most philosophical places of human existence.

Twitter has changed the world’s political landscape. Now, instead of taking out a Sharpie and writing one’s thoughts on a stall wall, they taking out their iPhone and writing them on their feed. I have several issues with this:

  • Tweets are text-only for the most part. Drawings, especially of certain anatomical parts, were a big part of bathroom graffiti. Our earth withour art is just eh.
  • Lack of permanence. Sure, tweets are technically there forever, but once they fall on the feed, they’re essentially dead.
  • Exclusivity. You decide whom to follow on Twitter. Bathroom wall wisdom is forced upon you. Is it any wonder why today’s snowflakes are so surprised to confront something that is counter to their self selected twittersphere.
  • Price. Even if you don’t have a smartphone, you can still write on the walls.
  • Handwriting/color/size. You can’t personalize a tweet the way you can bathroom graffiti.
  • Anonymity. Twitter accounts at least have a handle name. Nobody knows who wrote what in the stall. That makes it timeless. Mark Twain could have written that haiku on the stall wall. You’ll never know.

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I’m not saying that the media should abandon breathtlessly coveringTwitter. Just maybe next time someone types something odd, they could remember that they’re are affixing the phrase BREAKING NEWS to what used to be found on bathroom stall walls, while the author was likely breaking wind.

And now for some random draft rules governing current media political discourse . . . .

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All of my side’s references and statements are to be taken in the coolest, hip-ironic, culturally aware, benign-metaphorical way possible that grants my side the full benefit of any conflicting interpretations.

All of your side’s references and statements are to be taken in the most mindlessly literal, threatening way possible.

Any charge against my side requires exquisite legally admissible proof of its accuracy.

Any charge against your side must be true if it was asserted by anyone, anywhere.

People on my side are responsible only for what they said personally, in full-quotation context.

People on your side are responsible for the inferred implications of anything said by anyone who ever held any idea vaguely similar to what your people think.

Sounds about right, no?

Copyright © 2017 From My Isle Seat
www.vicsocotra.com

Life & Island Times: Peace Train ’17

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Jimmah Carter — 93 years old, tanned, rested, bags packed, new passport in hand and ready
to head to Pyongyang. By the way, Rosalin thinks the Russians stole the election from Hillary,
while Jimmah does not. (Image courtesy of Dustin Chambers of the NYT)

Endless third-rate presidential political campaigning, growing need for better access to medical care, insane price inflation of our southernmost home after just three short years of occupancy, and fatigued after so many low-rent island rendezvouses with hurricanes during the previous fifteen years led to us deciding to cut and run north to live in the South along the wetlands of the Coastal Empire with its eastside gangs, while enjoying tales of NORKs, Russians, and assorted hackers with the assistance of bottles of Makers Mark 46.

My life on Key West: ninety miles north of Havana and fifteen hundred years on never ending happy hour blues music trails . . . farewell to my wine and liquor nights on Duval Street; or, Key West, I hardly knew ye . . . I was just a bit character in a rude and witless tale of the disappearing American Dream, with notes, nightmares and other partial memories from Washington DC, Honolulu, Monterey, South Bend and Albany, Georgia . . . and 35 years inside the security state as a veteran of three wars — one cold and long, one hot and short, one hot and endless — with liberty and justice for all, world without end (all others pay cash), unless or until crazy people get atomic tipped ICBMs.

Some folks will tell you that as we age, we sometimes get spooked like horses because oldsters become naturally more nervous and jittery about their aches and pains, but that’s not right. Horses come to that way naturally because their eyeballs make things appear larger. With us humans, we finally stop listening to our internal BS and get in tune with the fading echoes around us of truth, decay and dissolution.

This news flash doesn’t come over the radio, TV or internet, followed by a song about “faster bikes, smoother roads, older whiskey and more money . . . ” but then a real update did come on my car radio in early ’16 about how bad the coming summer hurricane season was going to be, because our official government computer models that were wrong the past eleven years told us so. Again.

We were living in very strange times in ’16, and they were likely to get a lot stranger before we bottomed out. Which could have happened a lot sooner than even NYT thinks today 18 months later or too late as the case may be . . . because ’17 is, after all, another election year, well some of us think it’s just one continuous election year when the NYT’s and WAPO’s favored candidates don’t win, and more than a few folks I talk to or hear from seem to feel we are in for strangeness, weird badness of one shape or form. More than a few people say we are already deep in the midst of it.

Which recently seems to be truer by the day. The evidence points both ways, depending on the day’s tweets and media’s over and under reactions . . . But from my perch in the Hostess City out on the eastern edge of the Coastal Empire of Georgia, the storm barometer mercury seems to be falling, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. So without a real bad storm hitting us, maybe it no longer matters. I’ve given up paying attention to the shrill voicings of filthy news about this or that person’s falling numbers in the latest Gallup/WSJ/FACEBOOK insta poll. Who cares what today’s trending digital gaffiti crapola indicates about who will be our next president. Or, who is fouling the national airwaves for the next day/week/month’s news cycles. Paying attention to that will drive us all straight into opiod abuse with its poisonous gibberish.

Well, we up and left Florida last year and headed for Savannah in early August. Not more than two months after we unloaded our stuff, we were whacked by Hurricane Matthew and then election night 2016. The next year Hurricane Irma overran our old digs in Key West and then clipped us up here. So much for seeking safety on the mainland 666 miles north of that coral island speck by interstate.

Last weekend, on a local radio station, I heard that a fellow Georgian, 93 year old Jimmah Carter, was waxing kindly to a NYT’s writer about our current president to see if Carter might be of some assistance in dealing with the NORKs.

The last time he did so almot a quarter of a century ago, I seemed to recall that Carter showed up in NORKland not just uninvited but unathorized by the current US administraton to negotiate a deal about nukes with the rocket man’s grand dad. Four years after that good deal, the NORKs reneged.

I wonder if that was why the local radio station news reader sounded angry and agitated . . . the radio’s reception got a bit scratchy but I heard phrases like “mongrel dog . . . bloodthirsty psychotics . . . (rocket man’s) haircut looked like his granddad’s . . . ”

The voice on the radio then paused for a long moment, then dipped a few octaves and went on to announce a commercial break. I lost interest.

For Christ’s sake! If I could handle working under the erstwhile Manchurian Candidate president 40 years ago, I’m sure I could deal with this kind of news, should Jimmah catch the next flight to Pyongyang.

I probably should stock up on stomach pills and booze. It would be extremely difficult to concentrate on the cheap realities of Carter’s Peace Train ’17 under dry and unmedicated conditions. The idea of following even the early stages of such a cynical, self serving and increasingly retrograde campaign would or should plunge anyone into a condition bordering on terminal despair. Perhaps Carter is played out as a peanut farmer, house renovator to the poor and down trodden, and has been unsuccessful in securing work as a professional alligator poacher in the swamps of Southwest Georgia.

So for the moment I will try to suspend both the despair and final judgment. Both will be massively justified in the next few months, I think — and until then I can fall back on the firmly-held (but rarely quoted) conviction of the late Adlai Stevenson, who once tied all of this country’s political craziness together in one small and perfect capsule when he said ” . . . in a democracy, people usually get the kind of government they deserve.”

Here’s to Peace Train ’17. Dilly dilly.

Copyright © 2017 From My Isle Seat
www.vicsocotra.com

Life & Island Times: White House Restaurant – aka Gag-n-Heave & Fat Shirley’s

Editor’s Note: Marlow will be traveling with his lovely bride W for the next few weeks, and he mentioned he was not taking the battered Smith-Corona typewriter with him. I have another couple of his ruminations on older and changing times in the Great Midwest. As you know, that has always been a topic of interest to the many exiles from Eden. Then I may have to go back to working for a living. Another milestone on a thoroughly unconventional biography of a Great American: RADM Donald “Mac” Showers. It is exciting getting to the final first draft manuscript!

– Vic

I first visited this place on a cold day of winter of 1970 after a 9 hour night crew shift to eat breakfast before going home to shower, pick up my books and go to my morning classes.

From the outside it was hard to tell one was at the White House Restaurant unless one knew what they were looking for. It was catty-corner from Adams High School, from which my grandchildren would graduate more than forty years later. The White House’s sign read nothing more than “24 HRS COFFEE SHOP 24 HRS.” The all cap letters were cut out of plywood and laced with a core of neon light. The building’s face was constructed from a hodgepodge of brick, limestone, wood paneling, and metal siding. Half of the restaurant’s interior was a worn-looking kitchen, part behind-the scenes, part within clear view of the long formica topped counter. It was 100% function, zero form.

Upon entry, the smell of grease and cigarettes hovered below the low, yellowed ceiling like a fog. The galley counter was cramped, and patrons straddled spinning vinyl stools waiting for food or to order. Greasy stainless steel flashed the areas behind the counter, a few corners of which were covered with gunk that looked like the build up had been there for at least twenty years. No one seemed to care, since the coffee was plentiful and 50 weight strong. Drunk chatter filled the air, interrupted by the sizzle of grilled fatty strips of bacon and sausage patties popping away. Students slurred clumsily about the war, turning green as they struggled to finish their late night hangover cure meals. Others, perhaps old timer locals, huddled over black coffees, jabbering on about local gossip, or such and such “dumb son of a bitch.”

Over the decades according to my daughters, the plastic panel walls would come to bear messages, many directly applied with Sharpie markers: “Smoking establishment, must be 18 to enter”, “Please pay when served NOW, Thank You”, and “Coffee ½ price with breakfast”. Other black markers had updated the 25 cent rises in the price of coffee over the years.

As the sign said, you paid first and then watched the server ring your order up on the grease-coated register keypad then break open your eggs. I never got sick after eating there. I heard that neither the owner or the women who operated the place during the grave shift ever had the money, time or foresight to get the place looking good. What finally cleaned it up was a fire in 2012 that destroyed the inside several years after the owner-operator had retired.

As I remember it, Gag-n-Heave’s counter was in front of a big griddle. Not much of anything adorned the off white walls that were stained with decades of grill grease and cigarette smoke. It wasn’t a greasy spoon that cut corners to save costs. Servings were large and ingredients fresh not frozen nor from a can.

If the inebriated got sick, the unlined parking lot full of haphazardly parked cars of the regulars awaited them. Should you throw up in the bathroom, you were banned for life. Meanwhile as chunks blew outside, conversations about politicians playing dirty, how much chid support they owed to a first wife as compared to their second, and what plates should be ordered went on as nothing else else mattered in the world.

During my time, the menu was diner standard with several tips of the hat to local ethnic tastes from eastern Europe (kielbasas, latkes, etc) to a Mexican omelet in honor of the migratory Hispanic pickers who tooled through town every summer to harvest local farm produce. What made G-n-H memorable were two things – it was opened 24/7 (long before 24/7 went country wide outside of the big cities) and it catered to everyone.

Chicken-fried steak? Yup, hand-breaded and piping hot, smothered in perfect cream gravy. Omelets? Their flagship dish — the largest, richest one ever — consisted of countless buttered eggs, bacon, ham, green peppers, hash browns and onions and topped with thick brown sausage gravy. Toast? Sweet American white, wheat and rye breads delivered fresh daily from a local bakery. The strawberry jam? Homemade.

Old timer locals called it the Gag and Heave. Some said it was in tribute to the last names of the original owners which began with a G and an H. I can tell you that the G owner was daily seen in and around the kitchen with his cigar in hand supervising, training new employees and cooking. Even into his late 70s. he would come in early to make the day’s donuts.

Factory workers loved the place so much they brought their familes there, their teenaged kids would bring their dates there, and birthdays and anniversaries were celerbrated there. It was just what folks did back then. When the town hit hard times with the loss of industrial jobs, the Gag-n-Heave’s clientele shifted. It began to attract a younger crowd of college students. They nicknamed it in the mid 70s after one of their more favorite but stern griddle chef/waitresses – Fat Shirley’s.

My daughters frequented the place during their time in college two decades after my first visit and reported that Shirley and her successors took no crap from anyone. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, family man, old, young, black, white or brown were treated the same and were expected to behave. No swearing, yelling or stinking. The authority these middle aged women working the graveyard shift waving greasy mason’s trowels had was absolute.

It was a true safe zone with good food, cheap, fast and round the clock.

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Late night parking and dining adventure always available

I loved Gag and Heave ladies in their hairnets, they were beautiful to me
I loved Gag and Heave ladies in their hairnets, they were beautiful to me
I loved Gag and Heave ladies in their hairnets, serving dinner to me
Yodalady hooo, apple pie, me-oh-my-oh . . . .

I loved their burgers, fish-n-chips, fried taters-n-eggs, but, please, no peas
I loved their burgers, fish-n-chips, fried taters-n-eggs, but, please, no peas
Oh, what the hell, gimme a side of fruit cocktail, and a cookie if you please.
Yodalady hoo, apple pie, me-oh-my-oh . . . .

I shoulds bought my wife a Gag-n-Heave hairnet, it’d made her look so cute
I shoulda bought my wife a Gag-n-Heave hairnet, it’d made her look so cute
She coulda worn it with her birthday suit
Yodalady hoo, apple pie, me-oh-my-oh . . . .

I loved my Gag and Heave ladies in their hairnets, they were always good to me
I loved my Gag and Heave ladies in their hairnets, they were alwasys good to me
I loved my Gag and Heave ladies in their hairnets, serving good food to me
Yodalady hoo, apple pie, me-oh-my-oh . . . .

Copyright © 2017 From My Isle Seat
www.vicsocotra.com

Life & Island Times: Westsiders

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I had not yet found a new job by the next Saturday night, when the A&P’s office phone rang. Gene picked it, listened and asked only one question before hanging up. He called out to me at the registers, “Marlow, clock out and go home. NOW! There’s trouble at your place. Ride your motorcyle out the front door.”

Having never power ridden my bike out the front door, I didn’t need any further info. The lizard section of my brain suspected something like this might happen someday. Running back through the produce section I grabbed a machete, slid it under my belt, started the bike and raced it through the store. I side-skidded it hard right and then through the front door that Gene was holding open.

Less than a minute later I was roaring down Cleveland Avenue with my high beams on looking for the creeps who were trying to break into my upstairs apartment front door. It was all that stood between them and my family.

Seeing dark forms on the porch was all I needed to go full apeshit mode. A rush of hot blood rage engulfed and amped me. Downshifting and yanking the handlebars back, I wheelied the bike up onto the porch barely missing them.

They scrambled away and headed to what they thought would be safety inside the fenced cemetery at the end of the street. It would take them a bit, since the iron spiked fence was eight feet tall. So, I wheeled the bike onto the sidewalk attempting to slash them with the machete. Luckily for them the blade clanged harmlessly on the fence.

A couple of them struggled to clamble over when they got caught on the spikes. So I wheeled the bike around the corner to enter the death zone’s main gate. I made for them directly across the grassy areas between the stones. With the grounds quite sodden with snow melt, now and them I bumped a stone or two. As I came upon my quarry, I heard them curse that I was one crazy f*cker. That made me smile and shout something unintelligible and that I was coming to get them. My crazy-assed chase bore no fruit that night other than for them to drop some of their weapons as I shouted death curses at them.

I stopped and left after five minutes of mouth foaming chasing all over the place as they split up, hid and made my night hunt impossible. That and I knew the cops would soon be there. After collecting their stuff that I found, I putted my motorbike back home and slept the sound sleep of the dead after several large belts of cheap bourbon.

The next day, I walked the cemetery to find that I had rutted up the grassy areas pretty bad. Upon returning home, some of my older male neighbors spoke to me about what had happened. I explained and said I knew who they were and I would find them and take care of it.

They counseled othewise. They asked what I planned to do next. I told them that I planned to fix the damage I had done to the graves. Their offers to help were accepted and during the next few hours of landscape repairs, they offered me an alternative solution and job finding assistance.

In exchange for the names or descriptions of those I chased, they would talk to their friends on the police force as well as grocery store managers in South Bend’s sister city of Mishwaka about three mikes East. After several shots of slivovitz I had thought through their offers and agreed.

After talking to a SBPD detective on Monday, I found a job less than three days later for more pay and hours. I never saw those westsider bastards again anywhere on the streets again.

I was tired of fighten’ em all
Even street gang armies couldn’t hold me back
I was gonna kill them off
Took my time chasin’ em thru the graveyard out back

And I was talking to myself in dreams at night
Because I couldn’t forget
Back and forth through my mind
Behind French cigarettes
A message formed in front of my eyes
Said leave them alone

Didn’t want to hear their crap ’bout it
Every single one had a story to tell
Everyone knew about it
From the town mayor to parking lot booze hounds from hell

And if I had caught them on my way
I was gonna kill em all, I’m telling you
But that ain’t what you wanted to hear
But that’s what I planned to do
And the raging feelings coming from my bones
Said kill ’em all before they got into my home

I’m going to Mishawaka
Far from this A&P opera for evermore
I’m gonna work night crew
No more flop sweat dripping out of every pore
No more dreaming and dreaming ’bout bleeding
Right out onto the store floor
All the fear had to leave me
I couldn’t take that fear anymore
And more anger rising in my blood
Told me I couldn’t go back again

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West sides hand sign

Copyright © 2017 From My Isle Seat
www.vicsocotra.com

Life & Island Times: Battle Hymn

Author’s Note: Yesterday’s decalarations by two Senators in the halls of Congress and the well of the Senate certainly looked like the opening salvos of a civil war. If so, the country needs a battle hymn. Or a crazy train.

– Marlow

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Trump’s words reveal the crazy of the theories of Freud
He rails about Fake News that one and all must avoid
Incapable of repressing impulses of his personality paranoid
As his nuke tipped id goes marching on

Glory glory, psychiatry, glory glory, political venality
Glory glory, let’s bomb the NORKs as his nuke tipped id goes marching on

He’s a man who thinks his staff to him are all inferior
This complex makes our life drearier and drearier
Political guru assures him his tweets are not curiouser and curiouser
As his nuke tipped id goes marching on

Glory glory, psychiatry, glory glory, political venality
Glory glory, let’s bomb the NORKs as his nuke tipped id goes marching on

Should we drown ourselves in floods of pills, beer, wine and grain alcohol
And go running around, waving our arms, until we’re about to fall
Some may think we’re having fun but we’re not having fun at all
As his nuke tipped id goes marching on

Glory glory, psychiatry, glory glory, political venality
Glory glory, let’s bomb the NORKs as his nuke tipped id goes marching on

Oh, how sad is our Twitter masochist, the vagaries of his texts
Have turned half world’s population into total babbling wrecks
But our talking heads will save us, long as upon their links we click
As his nuke tipped id goes marching on

Glory glory, psychiatry, glory glory, political venality
Glory glory, let’s nuke the NORKs as his nuclear equipped id goes marching on

America’s plagued by nightmares that we no longer understand
Social media fake ads, FBI investigations, hacked financial scams
Compound fractured politics, free speechless zones, look at our trembling hands
There’s a secret to our trouble: we scared of this crazy old man
As his nuke tipped id goes marching on

Glory glory, psychiatry, glory glory, political venality
Glory glory, let’s bomb the NORKs as his nuke tipped Id goes marching on

Copyright 2017 My Isle Seat
www.vicsocora.com

Life & Island Times: Bread

It was a typical bitterly cold, slate gray skied, late December 1969 afternoon in South Bend, Indiana. I was working at the downtown A&P store stocking shelves and running a cash register, when I came upon something that affected me profoundly.

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A small unkempt child had torn and bitten open a plastic wrapped loaf of store brand sandwich bread and was stuffing it in her mouth. She was sitting on an empty bottom shelf between large format cans of sweet potatoes and tomatoes in the vegetable aisle, trying to hide from those who might take away her loaf.

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1938 (l) and 1950s (r) ads for A&P bread

Previously when stocking the shelves, I had occasionaly discovered the aftermath of similar eating forays, but had never seen what I was seeing in front of me. None of the shoppers who passed us by seemed to notice or care. For them it was nothing special or out of the ordinary. The child was dressed in worn winter clothes, mismatchced socks poked out of her hand-me-down shoes, and her upper lip was caked with the dried leavings of a runny nose.

Gathering myself, I slowly concluded that what I was seeing was more than just a hungry child. She was the embodiment of poverty and misery. That long ago wretched scene caused me to take her by the hand along with her loaf to the front door and tell her to go home with her bread. Store policy was to confiscate the pilfered goods. I could not. My assistant manager said nothing despite shaking his head.

The store threw out or returned to the central A&P baked goods supplier expired bread twice a week. The loaves numbered in the many dozens weekly, not counting all the other expired bread products. The waste of fresh vegetables and fruit was monumental by comparison.

Hard winter stayed with us for three or four months every year, but this scene was likely a year-round occurrence at this little market I concluded as I rode my motorcycle back home that night. For whatever reasons — unemployment, substance abuse, broken families — folks had no money, kitchen pantries became empty and children went hungry. No work. No money, No bread. No bread literally. American children?!?

This was not the last time . . . I came across the theft of bread many more times as the weeks went by . . . to the point that it became, at least to me, a disaster . . . statistics would much later document that many petty thefts by inner city juveniles had hunger as the proximate cause.

The idea that the America that had won two world wars and grew more food than the country could eat had paupers who were starving was mind numbing.

I proposed that our store donate to local soup kitchens or give away directly to kids our stale bread but was disabused of that notion by management. Torn open bread loaf bags became a symbol of an unexpected bitter harvest of hungry children. I wondered if the then “guns and butter” American economy was an oxymoron. I still wonder why local grocery stores were not ransacked and cleaned out by starving mobs of kids. Instead, they came in ones and twos and fed themselves when employees were otherwise occupied. I never seized a child’s bread. I just gently escorted them and their bread to the front door. Management started to look the other way.

Bread eating hungry children thus became a sharp marker of stark but hidden economic conditions that were present during the boom times of the late 1960s.

After a while it was apparent that the country was divided into people who could afford to eat three squares a day including soft white bread and the poor whose children roamed grocery store aisles eating anything they could tear open and wolf down. Rarely did we find them eating candy, cookies, chips or fruit. It was almost always bread.

They were truly starving wolves eating store brand bread slice by slice. Empty bread loaf bags became a barometer of neighborhood child hunger. Their numbers always increased as the month came to a close and family budgets dwindled. This was an unplumbed world of heartbreak and sadness that seemed unending and expanding despite more freely flowing federal food program aid dollars.

Why? I dunno. Because . . . because the poor we will always have with us?

Despite working in community food programs during the past two plus decades, I remain haunted by the trail of crumbs from that loaf of bread the little girl was eating long ago.

Some flour, oil, salt and water — days later
coagulated and hardened into day old cement loaves
They’d settle for that

Little empty stomachs creeping through the aisles
Biting open bags, leaving them in shreds
Secretly and quickly devour it
No matter how tiny, the crumbs of bread

. . . and farther beyond those shelves,
rags and hunger, a world exists
But we, checkmated
by management
rules — know it not — are
like machine guns guarding a prison yard
and children condemned to starvation

Copyright © 2017 From My Isle Seat
www.vicsocotra.com

Life & Island Times: Cleveland Avenue Tenacity

Author’s note: With the recent respite from the Asian war drum rolls, I waded through my faded memories, mementos and few surviving photographs of the streets of South Bend, Indiana, dating from 1969 through 1971. They opened a window for me to revisit the America of my past and present. The next few pieces are the result.

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Elephants and other circus animals from the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus were paraded
while the circus was in South Bend during September 1970. School classes were dismissed early to
allow students to watch the parade. (Courtesy from an old front page clipping of the South Bend Tribune)

On an off chance, I pulled out the contents from two faded manilla envelopes from a long sealed plastic storage container in the front room closet. It was an amalgam of stuff — unlabeled Kodak photo prints, yellowed Polaroid snaps, postcards, napkins, brochures, newspaper clippings, and cryptic notes. The resulting mental images from this long ago collection I confronted were faint echoes of American voices that are for the most part no longer heard.

I set them aside because I couldn’t process my reactions to them, Two days later I went throught the pile again. This time, much more slowly. Clarity came in bits. Voices. Feelings. Scents. Thoughts.

Again I delayed, I needed more time. Lots more time.

Finally I became clearer on what I was seeing. Feeling, Thinking.

——-

More than a few of the South Bend’s current residents have now come to represent the “underclass” in America that remains little to poorly understood and easily forgotten. The American Dream left neighborhoods like this and their people behind.

When I lived in a South Bend apartment from 1969 through 1971, it was a time of war, the war in Vietnam, a war America came to regret. Many men of South Bend fought there. More than a few died there. Those who survived, came home, found jobs, married, and had children who have now grown into the adults who, with their children, face yet another interminable war.

With its now rundown sidewalks and shabby houses, my street — Cleveland Avenue — was once America the Beautiful. Full of American industrial, golden-age families, their children, tidy yards and houses. Today its residents are not working class, let alone stylish; more than few go barefoot. It was a friendly neighborhood back in the day, with residents enjoying life’s daily joys, sharing sadness, good weather and bad.

Though my old street and neighborhood are now blighted places, its spirit, and the spirit of those times, live on in my heart. I prefer to keep alive the memories of late summer circus parades down the town’s main drag just blocks from my apartment, the city’s streetcars, its pre-mall downtown department and specialty stores, and the regional commuter railroad service to Chicago and northwestern Indiana steel mills and factories.

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South Shore regional commuter rail car on South Bend’s Michigan Avenue

My Cleveland Avenue was a short street of several blocks that traversed the western outer edge of the downtown area of one of America’s heartland industrial cities and key manufacturing centers of WW II ‘s Arsenal of Democracy. It is far away from where I sit as I type this in Georgia’s Coastal Empire, and a huge distance from a world almost five decades later that now includes instantaneous text, image and email exchanges, 24/7 television, and a pervasive globalism that has made many things begin to look, taste and feel the same almost everywhere one goes.

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Three early 1970 South Bend greasy spoons less than a mile from my Cleveland
Avenue: Silver Tower (l), Sally Swiss (c) and 24 Hrs Coffee Shop (r). They are all gone now.

This neighborhood street scene seems even further because it no longer exists as a treelined street flanked by post WW I era homes as it was then. Today, the trees and homes along those blocks have been mostly cut down and demolished and in their place are weed infested vacant lots. Like many other northern Indiana rust belt towns, it has fallen on hard, hard times — much like Detroit.

1969 was a time, as anyone then alive would remember, of monumental change accompanied by great tumult in American life. Vietnam war. Civil rights movement. Boomer counter culture. Street riots and protests. Cities burning. Yet, it was also a time, especially in the heartland of America, when asking questions about the foundations of American society was more or less considered unpatriotic by young people and their parents, save for those folks living on local college campuses. I remember it as a time of tension, but of a tension that seemed to be ultimately a medium for much creativity.

Life on Cleveland Avenue was a time of much light and hope. The terribly somber and despairing issues of the war in Southeast Asia, the Watts and Detroit riots, generational conflict, assassinations of leaders — the Kennedys, Dr. King, and Malcolm X — were still distant things. Within the two years of my residence, Cleveland Avenue had been touched by all of the effects of those distant lightning storms. During the ten years that followed my departure, globalization, the rust belt, and America’s drug culture would serve to gut my neighborhood.

I have fond memories of the special sense of community that pervaded this hard-working-class street where every house had a front porch and people yelled back and forth. Adults and children played games together on the sidewalk and in the middle of the street. People lived, laughed, and argued out loud in heavily accented voices, amongst each other.

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GoogleEarth views of Cleveland Avenue

The street itself was not particularly different from other streets that surrounded it in the area. Residents were largely working-class and blue-collar, though of many different backgrounds and origins. Caucasian, some Appalachian, more than a few African Americans and Latinos, and lots and lots of eastern European ethnics (at one time I could order a short beer at local taverns in four different Slavic tongues). We occupied two-story homes, which were often split into many rental units. From the beginning, I lived in an upstairs apartment at 511 Cleveland just three houses down from the leafy, shady green spaces of the City Cemetery.

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509 Cleveland Avenue (511 was demolished years ago)

While all of us had been taught that all men were created equal, South Bend’s neighborhoods were mostly racially and economically divided, with the middle and professional classes occupying the suburbs, working-class living mostly in the near-city neighborhoods, and the poor, mostly brown and black classes living in crumbling slums near the industrial factory areas in the city’s southwest.

Regardless, I really liked South Bend and felt lucky to be around the people of Cleveland Avenue, who offered me kinship and conversation. Their zest and spirit, in the face of their daily struggles, opened my eyes. Their nobility and trust in a brighter future captured my heart and unknowingly offered me inspiration and a sense of direction and a roadmap for the approaching life I would face upon graduating college in 1971.

During the past five decades, I traveled worldwide, searching for and gathering impressions of our “One Human Family” (an expression that is the official motto of Key West, Florida). With time and experience, I have learned more about some of the harsh and complex realities of the world, its politics, and the interplay of power and common everyday humanity. I’ve grown to appreciate more than ever the importance and meaning of my Cleveland Avenue sojourn.

Nowadays, my old street’s few blocks south of US 20’s Lincoln Way West are beset with 911 calls, cop cars and shootings. Police reports tell of someone driving up in a car and opening fire on a house, hitting one person in the leg and the other in the abdomen, while they were sitting on the front porch.

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I worked at a downtown A&P store on Lincoln Way West from 1969 to 1970.
It was less than a half mile southeast from my apartment. The surrounding
neighborhood suddenly became so dangerous that I was told to park my 80cc
motorcycle in the store’s stockroom. I had more than a few knives and guns
pulled on me while I was working there. Fortunately, no injuries resulted.

With the luxury gift of time, I have been able to recall more of the details of the times during those two years — closed casket funeral masses for returning war dead sons, small daily flare ups of rising racial tensions, increasing crime, open drug dealing on the street, growing long term unemployment, factory relocations or shutterings, national wage freeze, manufacturer bankruptcies, and the beginning of the hollowing out of the neighborhood as the older retirees started to move out or die off, leaving their homes to quickly fall into disrepair as rental properties.

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Main Studebaker complex in Southe Bend at its peak. This photo, looking southwest, shows the massive
complex that Studebaker had during WW II. Two of the buildings still exist, which are located to the far
right, or north, and are right up against the railroad tracks. (Courtesy Studebaker National Archives)

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Interior image of one of the many Studebaker plants in South Bend. The mid 60s shuttering of these
plants, whose work force was nearly a quarter African-American, hit the community especially hard.

I miss the amazing spirit and rich, honest expression of life that these people offered me while asking for nothing in return. This period of my life and the people on my avenue silently stayed with me.

My Cleveland Avenue period began during a formative time of my life when I was barely 20 years old. I saw the birth of my first child there.

Tenacity was the singular quality that I saw along that street every day. It was manifested by men and women waking up early each weekday, showering, dressing and heading off in the darkness to jobs at nearby automotive plants and at far away Gary, Indiana, steel mills. They made quality stuff and were paid good wages. Their kids were good citizens, athletes, nerds, and bobby soxers who dreamed of being the first in their family to go off to college one day. Like most things during that time, younger siblings often followed their older siblings’ paths. Off to war, to college, to work, to marriage and so on. It was a comfortable cycle where one’s initial struggles would not last forever. Tenacity would overcome obstacles. I learned to be tenacious from them.

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Bobby Kennedy visited South Bend twice during the 1968 presidential
campaign in April and May – the last time was five weeks before he was assassinated.

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Downtown South Bend, Christmas 1969

Today, my South Bend born daughter, son in law and three adult grandchildren live less than a mile and a half away from that Cleveland Avenue block. They moved there from Tennessee almost twenty tears ago to a downtown Victorian era neighorhood that was struggling to return back to life. It has year by year recovered with the surrounding blighted neighborhoods now slowly following suit.

In South Bend, tenaciousness abides.

Copyright © 2017 From My Isle Seat
www.vicsocotra.com

Life & Island Times: Competing Uncle Sam-I-Ams

Editor’s Note: We just wrapped up the ‘Red Death’ saga on Friday. To avoid confusion on the part of our alert readership, we deferred this one from The Coastal Empire until today. I am posting late, due to an unexpected chance to have bunch with a retired 92-year-old Lieutenant General at the fabulous Mylos Grill in McClean. More about that anon.

-Vic

Authors’ note: Doctor Seuss paid me a visit last night. This is what he had to say:
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Democrats do not like national conversation
ruled by corporate dispensation
They do not like the wealthy’s sass
that sticks it to the middle class

Republicans do not like unfair taxes
that break poor old middle class backs
They do not like thievin’ crooks
who pay for stuff from the “rich” man’s books

We voters don’t like their decades worth of crap
laying off blame on the other guy’s lap
We do not like their wingnut rants
that only say “No, We Can’t!”

We don’t like their partisan disjunction
DC beltway’s severe dysfunction
We’d love some true cooperation
for only that might save the nation

We do not like these competing Uncle Sam-I-Ams
We do not like their contrary health care scams
We do not like these dirty crooks
or how they lie and cook the books

Does anyone like how DC steals
us blind with secret deals?
We can’t stand it when they speak
talking about their position’s winning streak

Speakers Pelosi and Ryan, good God, man
Never saying “Why, yes, we can!!”
Oh look, they’re promising us another big debt spending spree
Why is it only us who know that nothing in life comes free?

They assume we accept as truth their smug replies
We oughta shout in response Lies! Lies! Lies!
Does anyone else like this falsely promised hope?
Let us respond Nope! Nope! Nope!

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We do not like their BS in any style
It’s the same from both sides of the aisle
We’ll not take it fried or boiled

We’ll not take it poached or broiled

We’ll not take it soft or scrambled
Their BS arguments have always rambled
Destroy their BS! Today! Today!
Today we say! Without delay!”

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Copyright © 2017 From My Isle Seat
www.vicsocotra.com