OF BRIEF ENCOUNTERS…

I told you about the Prince and our brief encounter (which I will continue, perhaps tendentiously, to refer to the Charles’s only on-the-record “interview”) during a brief state visit to Boston.

A disgraced prince of the entertainment kingdom came within earshot of me once as well. I speak of Bill Cosby, comedian, actor, author — now serving prison time for aggravated indecent assault. He seemed — and still seems — a tragically unlikely person to have so deliberately committed the outrages of which he was convicted. But the evidence, being the testimony of several women, seemed irrefutable and damnable, not to mention shocking and disappointing.

But, during a very different period in his formerly brilliant show business career, he paid a visit to Boston — specifically East Boston — on a good will mission the nature or purpose of which I frankly don’t recall at the moment. But I do know I was assigned to cover the appearance. I’d estimate it was around 1997. I believe I was freelancing for WBZ-TV at the time.

It was another rainy day. Dignitaries including the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who in some fashion was also involved in the event and cause being advanced, were on hand to greet Cosby and share the stage with him. It all had something to do with the promotion of education, because the venue was a school. Cosby was known to support numerous philanthropic and educational causes, among them Keep a Child Alive, Jumpstart, Boys&Girls Clubs of American,etc.

And so, there I was with other reporters waiting in the rather dark hallway of an East Boston public school as Cosby, surrounded by his hosts, came toward us. I said, once he was in earshot, “Mr. Cosby, what are you doing in here today?”

“It’s raining,” he said, and kept walking amid great laughter. That was all he’d have to say to reporters that day, if memory serves me.

No serious criminal charges had been lodged against him at that point — for drugging and assaulting a number of women over a number of years. But there had been a woman somewhere in the country, not long before this event, who had publicly accused him of fathering her child. A legal battle had ensued.

That was the context for a lighthearted moment during the formal program in the school’s auditorium ( for presentation of a check or award or something). A woman in about the second rose to compliment Cosby for his work and also, for some reason ( I forget what reason) called attention to the fact that she had her small child with her that day. Cosby rose from his seat, walked to the edge of the stage, peered out at the child, barely visible above the tops of the seats, and quipped, “nope, not mine.”

Laughter rang out again, Ted Kennedy’s among the loudest.

It is so sad, thinking of that moment, that so funny and once so beloved and charitable a figure — a man who, for over a generation, shed so much light in the world — should have turned out to have such a dark side.

But, along with Prince Charles, I once occupied his consciousness for a fragment of a second. I pray for his victims, and for his soul.

And I’ll always remember the famous stand-up routine of a very young, new-to-the-scene Bill Cosby in which he pretends to be Noah in his arc during The Flood, cooped up with all those animals, bitterly complaining to God, “have you seen the bottom of that arc? Who’s going to clean up that mess?”

THE PRINCE AND ME

Once upon a time — on a “a dark and stormy night” — listen, call it a cliche’, the classic embodiment of “bad writing,” but I kind of like that old chestnut. It’s so — evocative.

Nonetheless, I’ll amend it to say that it was just a “dark night,” (and, of course what night isn’t dark unless you happen to be in the Antarctic?)

But I digress….though this will be, ultimately, about the weather.

So, once again, it was a dark – and rainy – night in Boston. Prince Charles was visiting the city. Yes, that Prince Charles! A big deal.

This was before Diana, or maybe after the marriage but before the car wreck and subsequent royal train wreck. Before Camilla -and all that rot. It was way before William and Catherine, and way before Harry and Meaghan, much less Louis and Archie. Charles was still a mighty august figure, pure, young, and generally grandly admired. That gray pall of scandal and decadence had yet to descend upon the empire.

I was working the night shift for Boston’s Channel 7, standing out of the rain in a gaggle of reporters and photographers corralled alongside the bright, red carpeted, canopied walkway leading in and out the Copley Plaza Hotel, waiting for the prince to emerge. He was in that elegant old hostelry for some kind of meeting with some kind of notable, just who — well, I forget.

Anyway, as we reporters waited, Channel 4’s Dan Rea, standing beside me with his photographer, suggested we put our heads together, figuratively speaking, and come up with something we could ask the heir to the British throne — on this dark and rainy night. Alas, we’d been told already that the prince would be giving NO public interviews. Of course that never stifled any reporter worth his or her salt from throwing something at the wall.

At long last, Charles, that boney, universally familiar escutcheon of the Anglosphere, strode out in all his magical royal splendor. Cameras flashed. TV cameras rolled. In seconds, in suit and tie and without raincoat, he was out in the darkness and a light drizzle, opening — or having opened for him — the door of his limousine. An obedient, unwonted, perhaps despairing silence reigned among us news people, seeing absolutely no chance to ask anything, however trivial, in hope of a royal reaction. Besides, we barely had time.

Yet I, a notorious shrinking violet when it came to breaching protocol, decided to seize the slippery moment and at least pass the time of day.

“Your Highness,” I yelled, “what do you think of the Boston weather? ” Charles, at that point — as noted — poised to climb into his limo, surprised me by looking my way quizzically and indulgently, apparently willing, on the humble behalf of a representative of all commoners everywhere, to breach the iron ground rules against public comments. He tilted one of his famously huge ears my way, indicating he wished me to repeat the question. Which I did, deliberately, pounding each banal word.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE BOSTON WEATHER?”

“Not much,” was the reply from Bonnie Prince Charlie, not without a touch of British drollery, after which he ducked into the limo and was gone.

But I’d gotten what I wanted — to my knowledge, the prince’s ONLY on-the-record interview during that long-ago state visit. It was slightly less substantive than my pre-performance press availability with Tony Bennett in a Symphony Hall back stairwell.

“Tony,” I asked, “have you ever left your heart in Boston?”

“No,” he said. “I still haven’t found it in San Francisco.”

The prince, by contrast, left two words. For me.

And, after all, what do Bostonians talk about when they want to break the ice with a stranger? Why, the weather, of course. Remind me to try it on Tony Bennett the next time I see him.

RIOTS

I gather Minneapolis is braced for a repeat of riotous devastation and flames if the mob doesn’t like the verdict handed down for the offending police officer. What juror cannot be aware of what might await them if they should fail, not just to convict, but to deliver the harshest of possible verdicts, even if the evidence doesn’t support it. Of course, it may or may not support it. I’m not there to judge. I just see a dynamic playing out that is poisonous to the American rule of law and the imperative of a fair trial and equality before the law. I see the incipient reign of intimidation and mob rule threatening our democracy. I am not alone, I’m sure.

I understand Minneapolis used to be a great place and that everyone of every race and creed pretty much got along.

In 1968, following the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, there were major episodes of political violence in Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, Louisville, New York City, Pittsburgh, Trenton, Washington and Wilmington. These came on the heels of the long, hot summer that was the summer of 1967 in which 43 people died and more than 1000 were injured in Detroit riots. There were 26 killed in Newark. Atlanta, Birmingham, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cininnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York City. Rochester and Toledo also erupted. There were a total of 159 riots that summer. It is my sense that Dr. King’s gospel of non-violence and peaceful resistance, so seeming effective to that point, was rapidly losing g round to the radical voices in the minority community — and to violence.

(I was working for the National Parks in California that summer of 1967 between my junior and senior years in college in Boston. The closest I came to the riots was to see black and white newsreel footage of burning Detroit up on the screen of a Fresno drive-in theatre. In San Francisco that summer, it was the Summer of Love. It is so unfortunate that the Love didn’t get spread around. However, the previous summer in Hunter Point, San Francisco, there was a neighborhood insurrection after police shot a youth fleeing the scene of a stolen car.)

What do riots and racial unrest and civic destruction of fear do for a city? Well, Detroit has yet to recover. The median family income of black households in Detroit sank to the ground in the 1970s, and my reading suggests to me that that was not because of a normal dip or rise in the local economy and a consequent uptick in unemployment. Rather, it was because much of the black middle class left the city in the wake of the riots.

The story repeated itself in other American cities: the flight of a black middle class combined with rampant white flight leading to a sharp change in the racial composition of urban cores, low black employment and wages, high rates of black incarceration and, generally, worsening unemployment. And, of course, crime, violence and gangs.

Are the riots about poverty and police procedures? They can’t be entirely ruled out as factors. So, too, a sense of powerlessness among blacks. This, I submit, can’t be cured by legislation, more generous health insurance subsidies or by a duplicitous, Marxist movement with an agenda that would dismantle the nuclear family, and foist modern gender-related issues on us, regarding them equal to a call for an end to police violence against blacks. Matters might be marginally improved by more community-oriented policing and cop-community interpersonal relations ( the sorrowful recordings of a weeping, erratic, likely drug-addled George Floyd begging for understanding makes me wish some one of those cops had stopped the whole procedure and talked with the man, reassured him he was not a bad man — even if he was not, as we know, a man free of a criminal history. His story, and so much of the story of the inner city, is a story of drug addiction. Why else would a guy bother to pass a paltry fake $20 bill other than to feed his drug habit. What happened to him was unjust and damnable. I would love to see a remorseful cop on the stand, but whatever his attitude, he deserves a fair trial every bit as much as George Floyd deserved to live.)

Something I think, based on clear evidence, that would help: the shoring up of families, black and white, and the involvement of churches. The Civil Right Movement led by ML King was a religious movement. But Matthews gospel comes to mind –“since the time of John the Baptist, the Kingdom of God has been subject to violence, and the violent bear it away ( meaning, evil does triumph) — but not for ever. Not for the long haul.

So, will we see riots? Would they serve any purpose? Of course they would. A very bleak, evil and destructive purpose — which is the purpose of all anarchy — as our national divide gradually widens to becomes a Grand Canyon.

STONE SOUP

(Note: to readers of this blog. I plan — and fervidly hope — to update it every Monday without fail. By update, I mean, add a new entry. I am adding this one on a Thursday, but it will, for better or worse, live the life of a gypsy moth, (or, borrowing from the subject covered below, a Gloucester lobster), for it will be gone next Monday. So, read up! Sorry for the ramble. We’ll call it a — meditation.)

In October of 2020, Rolling Stone magazine interviewed the Dalai Lama. It’s a single page, seven questions and answers alongside a picture of His Holiness, displaying a smile I characterize as somewhere between serenely abashed and gently sardonic. It was as if he looked out and saw the manner of person who’d be seeing that picture, i.e., readers of Rolling Stone. Yes, quite a bunch, your Holiness. And not what you’d call a religious crowd. But some form of Buddhism seems regnant among them, in my experience.

Allow me, briefly, to digress — or go on digressing:

I once visited a Tibetan Buddhist manastery in Medford, Mass as part of a memorable story I’d done as a TV reporter about a grand gesture of animal compassion carried out by the monks of this Medford address, (actually a large Victorian in a quiet neighborhood.) They had traveled north to the port of Gloucester, laid out some $1000 and purchased dozens of Gloucester lobsters, removed the pegs that keep them from pinching their market handlers and released them in waters off the city to live another day or more.

The captain and jolly crew of a Gloucester lobster boat got word of this, found it very amusing and the next day, as they set out to sea, recorded themselves jokingly announcing their day’s agenda to be the “catching of Buddhist lobsters.” The crew member/ photographer, in a fateful misjudgement, decided the video was worth of posting on Youtube — where it went viral, enflaming the sensitivities of Buddhist adherents of varying degrees of orthodoxy or those who just thought these nautical wags were mocking someone’s religion.

Once embarked on the story over the ensuing furor, we found the poor boat captain sitting on a folding chair in his blacktop driveway in Nahant, Mass, farther down the coast. We were to be about his fourth TV interview. He was smiling and looking (here’s that word again) abashed, if exhausted — and I’ll add, grandly chastened — and full of multiple apologies. He seemed himself a gentle, inoffensive family man and product of hard-working fisherman stock who invited us to come back anytime for free lobsters and, of the Buddhist lobster hunt, said repeatedly, “we were just kidding around … we didn’t mean any harm. We love everybody — and those Buddhist love everybody, too. And we love them.”

And, of course, he knew but did not say what anybody with common sense knew — that those Buddhist-liberated lobsters were hardly distinguishable from the thousands upon thousands of their crustacian cousins on the sea floor and were merrily on their way far off the coast.

I guess what offended some pockets of the mass public was just the idea that the Buddhist’s tradition and universal practice of “life release” was being mocked, this being the prayerful ritual of saving the lives of animals that are destined for slaughter. How wonderful!h For my money, it seemed, though merely symbolic, far more venerable and worthy of respect than the antic annual ritual of pardoning a turkey on the White House lawn.

Prior to talking to the lobsterman, I first went to the Buddhist monastery where a few young monks relaxing on the wide front porch agreed to fetch the geshe, or chief monk, for me. How deeply — that word again — abashed (and sardonically amused) I was when this cheerful, bare-shouldered, orange saffron-clad man took one look at me and exclaimed, “ah, Greg Wayland.” Oh, how deeply gratifying it was to be recognized by a Buddhist geshe — and to know that they watch TV news in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. (Sure enough, I soon spotted their big old Sony Trinitron TV.)

I sat down with the geshe and his American, non-Tibetan assistant and they said they held no animosity toward the Gloucester fishermen, but only hoped they might come to understand — perhaps even embrace — this practice of letting living things, in this case destined to go into the broiler or head first into boiling water — live a little while longer, or perhaps forever. That, at least, is my recollection of our conversation in a serene downstairs room. (I suppose those fisherman could move inland and raise vegetables.)

Upshot: I love Buddhist, and Gloucester fishermen. (I never did go back for those free lobsters. That would have been — unethical. And, frankly, eating lobster, from my point of view (blue crabs are even worse) amounts to cutting your finger on sharp shards of lobster shell, squeezing a lemon on the wound in the process of squeezing it on the lobster, and, of course dipping the lobster flesh–extracted with great difficulty with assorted culinary tools — in melted butter in order to give it taste otherwise lacks.

Alright, maybe it’s not all that bad. Maybe upon occasions I have enjoyed lobster — but I’m still staring at that bug-eyed creature as I eat, knowing that only minutes before he had been crawling about in a tank with its buddies. ( Was it Whole Food that said they would not sell lobster anymore, because life crowded together in a tank was too streesful for them?) Now, I don’t here intend to anthropormorphicize (sp?) a crustacean that we mortals have been eating and enjoying for centuries. Perhaps I might, for the fun of it, like to read David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster” to get that sensitive soul’s take on the practice of eating what is essentially a big bug but, perhaps, no less worthy of our consideration and respect– or at least as much as the human fetus, though we have not yet taken to eating those. (It was long ago brought to my attention that the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was very fond of the Greek delicacy breast of fetal lamb. I guess if I can’t stand the heat of our civilizational demise I should stay out of the kitchen.)

Now, back to His Holiness’s cameo in the pages of Rolling Stone. This was just prior to the November U.S. election. The last question put to him by Rolling Stone writer Alex Morris was, “if you were to meet Donald Trump, is there something you’d like to say?” (All journalistic roads, then and now, seem inevitably to lead back to Donald Trump.)

“Today,” answered the Dalai Lama, “my number-one commitment is, try to promote a sense of oneness of 7 billion human beings…(W)hen he became president, he mentioned ‘America First’ — with that I have some reservation.”

Well, so be it. So doesn’t the rest of the world, many thousands of whom seem intent on crossing borders and joining us here in our oneness.

Then, after talk of children playing together and having no sense of “their nation” or “my religion,” he again calls for oneness — and “warmheartedness.”

Who can’t like that? But, did you ever see warmhearted children fighting over toys, your Holiness? Or lobsters fighting with one another? (Did those furloughed Gloucester lobsters fold up their claws and thereafter abstain from all conflict in their eat–or-be- eaten ocean universe?)

Let me just end with this: Protecting innocent life, especially innocent human life at all stages — I wish we could all agree on that. Then, your Holiness, we can work on being vegetarian and strive to leave the lobsters at peace in their watery homes. Amen.

MAN IN THE DOORWAY

I’m remembering a poem I wrote in college, in which I reflected on a photograph by a fellow student and aspiring photographer. It appeared in the first issue of the literary magazine I founded and edited at Suffolk University; a magazine that survives to this day. Its subject is a man, seemingly an old man — though probably younger than I am now — standing in the sallow overhead illumination of the marquee above the doorway of the pensioner’s hotel called The Beacon Chambers at the heart of Beacon Hill in Boston. (The brick building on Myrtle Street that was The Chambers is still there — but probably a boutique hotel now, or expensive condominiums. Ghosts, old-man ghosts, must flock all around it. )

Time of the poem: It is the mid-to-late 60s. The man is glancing sullenly toward the camera, aware he is being photographed, though I’m certain the photographer, a fellow named Phil Bailey, hoped he was a good distance off in the shadows near the corner of Joy Street.

And I wrote of this man: Wind made him from careless ashes/ Leaning him where history wriggles vermin-like behind the honored stones/ And evening laughter, falling out of orange windows/ Blows along the bending streets/ And brushes, dead, against his feet.

Kind of a leaden echo where one hopes for a silver or golden echo in the words of a poem.

Is it any good? Not really. My favorite English professor didn’t think so, either. But — 50 years later, how about a little analysis of what was swarming about in 21-year-old Greg Wayland’s “poetic” brain.

The man, probably smoking though you do not see a cigarette, looked like a column of ashes to me; careless because I imagined all the burned-out ashes of every gutter in the city swept up into this burned-out human form. After all, we’ve just marked Ash Wednesday when we hear the words, “dust (or ashes) thou art and to dust thou shalt return…” T.S. Eliot’s iconic poem “Ash Wednesday” ultimately lets a sea of burned and blackened images collapse upon the prayerful, liturgical appeal, “And let my cry come unto Thee.” I now much prefer this recourse to the divine to the sentimental nihilism of my 21-year-old self.

As for “where history wriggles vermin-like…” Just a surly undergraduate’s pseudo-cynicism, his aspiration being to denigrate Boston’s and Beacon Hill’s much ballyhooed urban corpus, it’s “honored stones,” where, in fact, as every college renter might have attested in those days of the 1960s, cockroaches abounded. So history is just so many bugs infesting very old, possibly “historic” buildings. So I chose to see it, through a glass darkly, at that moment.

“….evening laughter, falling out of orange windows…” As I walked up, down and across Beacon Hill during those young, sometimes overly-idle years, I would hear voices, laughter coming out of lighted (“orange”) windows — or did I? Did I just imagine such voices, such laughter? Surely, there were people within those buildings; surely from time to time, I was among them, visiting here or there. Doesn’t every old city of the world have these old, crowded brick or brownstone sectors and can’t you hear the voices, the laughter? So that image, that imagining, went into my little “poem.” And the laughter could have “drifted” out, but I, clumsily, imagined it a physical thing “falling” out of those windows like strands of ribbon, and landing on Beacon Hill’s narrow “bending” streets; being blown thereafter along those streets by the same imagined gusts that blew the ashes into the form of a man in the Beacon Chambers doorway; a man whom I, sadly, deprived of his humanity by imagining him merely a pillar of ashes.

And I imagined these strands of laughter, after traveling like blown debris across Beacon Hill, ending up “brushing, dead, against his (the man in the doorway’s) feet.”

So there you have it. And, because I do not have the poem before me, I cannot show you how I broke up the brief stanzas, some of the words floating out there –“blown” out there — by themselves. The poem, by the way, had no title. It ran alongside the grainy picture of the man.

I feel some resentment now for that English professor, a favorite as noted, who should have given me a little encouragement. Writers, especially young writers, need praise, or, at least, encouragement. Surely this effort was not entirely without merit. He might have told me — he did not — exactly what was “wrong” with hit, or how I might have “improved” it, or told me how it did or did not compare with poems that had earned the name of poems. I, these years later, see the awkwardness, the (again) clumsy, leaden use of words. And a poem is all about the words. But the images — might this have been akin to the Imagists? Where might I have learned what little there might have been of merit in this poem? Whom was I imitating?

In truth, I do not always entirely understand poetry, especially modern, less accessible poetry. But I know I love it nonetheless, and that this means of talking, soul to soul rather than just ear to ear or eye to eye, is worth my time, like music that does not always reward my first listening. All the more reason to read it, listen to it, divine what, as one poet said of another poet’s poems, “how this contraption works.” Like paintings, abstract or representational, we, the viewer must make up our minds about the worth of the art object.

Whole epics from ancient times are often viewed through their literature, including, perhaps especially, their poems. One thinks of that ever-so-brief and yet so passionate and anonymous poem that has survived from the obscure Middle Ages, being, apparently, the longing of some lonely traveler or warrior — Western wind when wilt thou blow/ The small rain down can rain/ Christ that my love were in my arms/ And I in my bed again.

It is a prayer, really. With weather.

But that lonely poem of mine is– to date, the only one I’ve written: I just might, someday revise it, as a more supportive professor might have encouraged me to do. Its subject can now become a source of abstract poetic speculation — about his humanity and his ultimate fate. His certain, long-ago death. Who stayed at the Beacon Chambers but lonely, nearly impoverished, often alcohol, even sick or dying men? It seemed to be a place only for men — and such men as this.

And what shall I call this poem?

I suppose it should be called, “Man in the Doorway.”

LET’S BE CLEAR…

Baffled but overawed, we might now and then browse the work of some renowned contemporary philosopher or social theorist (plug in a name here) and, while finding their paragraphs impenetrable, nonetheless feel obliged to assume a great mind is spawning truly original ideas way over our humble, ill-educated heads. But we might also look down at those words and wonder….does this guy, this woman, this “great mind” really need to be so obscure? Can’t obfuscation hide pretention? I maintain that the superficial — and what I call “super feces” — often lie among the thickest patch of verbal weeds.

In other words, it could be that you’re reading a big load of crap.

In The Elements of Style, Shrunk and White’s slim, well-thumbed and endlessly famous handbook on verbal clarity, there is a chapter on The Elementary Principle of Composition. George Orwell is summoned to provide an example of strong writing being “deprived of its vigor.” Orwell took a passage from the Bible, where you find plenty of strong writing, and, in Strunk and White’s words, “drained it of its blood.”

So here’s the bloodless example:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.

What is missing, besides blood, is any concrete language. And now, from the King James Version of Ecclesiastes, courtesy of George Orwell, comes the Biblical verse that untangles that coil of verbiage and renders it into comprehensible, rhapsodic, very concrete verse for the ages.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Clear? Yes, in a biblical way. Concrete? Solid!

You understand this, though it is essentially poetry, in a way you could never understand the other. The repetition seems to dance the words into your head. (Hey! Greg! Be “concrete” if you must, but must you keep messing with metaphors? Before you know it, you’ll be mixing metaphors like someone mixing a batch of concrete. There! Another metaphor! This, too, can be the enemy of clarity.)

Anyway, class, avoid the verbal “super feces” that lay hidden among the verbal weeds like cow plop. Yuk! (Does that make any sense? Metaphorical or other?)

Right about now, George Orwell can be heard groaning.

To be clear, the best writing is clear writing. Clear? Class dismissed.

SILENT AND (WHO KNOW?) MAYBE A MAJORITY

The Cato Institute, venerable libertarian think tank, has published a national survey showing that self-censorship is on the rise. The Institute’s survey might also be filed under the heading of the Cancel Culture. Partisans, most of them liberal, are the new blue stockings wielding a big blue pencil in the newsroom and elsewhere.

Reportedly, some 62 percent of those consultant say the climate in their workplaces has become very polarized. They’ve learned to bite their tongues lest they cause offense or find themselves in a row. Hence, they are not stating things that they feel to be true. They don’t want to cause offense.

In 2017, Cato put the number of the self-censorious at 58 percent. Then things in this survey get very unsettling — at least to lovers of truth and open dialogue: 50 percent say they support firing donors to President Trump’s Presidential campaign. However, 36 percent say they support firing Biden donors. We have equal opportunity Cancel-culling here.

Among Republicans with a post-graduate degree, 60 percent fear they could lose their jobs if they expressed an unpopular political view.

So — sounds like there’s a cancelled world of silent folk out there. Around election day, we may begin to learn if they are a majority.

HONOR ON TAP: A FABLE

This was during a stop at The Last Mile. Same place, if you were reading deep into this blog, where you’d find those drinking buddies and regulars known as “Sticky,” the retired carpenter and house painter and “Jackie the Crow”, the bricklayer. Sticky and Crow weren’t there that night. Every so often they stay at their boarding house and conduct a book club. (Yeah, believe it or not. Some night I’ve got to stop by and see what the book de jure is.) Anyway, I was having my drink of choice, a ginger ale.

Let me tell you, first, about ginger ale and me. An old editor of mine recalled the day his wife found in the pocket of pants he’d left for the laundry some of those beads they throw off floats during Madi Gras. Now she knew where he’d been when he said he was doing some lat night editing FOR THREE STRAIGHT DAYS. He’d used some frequent flyer miles on the old red eye to The Big Easy. His wife suggested he switch to ginger ale after that. I thought it a good rule of life to follow suit.

Anyway — this guy comes into The Last Mile. We’d never seen him before. For purposes of this story, we’ll call him Guy #1. He was apparently on a lay-over at the airport. The Mile, as we like to call it, is not all that far from the airport and in some way known only to God, strangers of every stripe find their way there instead of to the multitude of bars in the airport. They must be looking for that Golden Watering Hole where a golden destiny awaits them. Go figure.

Anyway, Guy#1 takes a stool at the end of the bar and Deano, the bartender, sets him up with a Micholob draft and a shot of rye. And he tells Deano within my hearing that he’s from Florida and starts talking about the night he drove by the house of this woman he’d suddenly decided he really liked who lived around Fort Myers. As it happened, he was on his way out of town that night to see ANOTHER woman outside Orlando — a woman he used to really like and, keeping all options opened, wanted to see if she might still like him — “like” being a very broadly defined term here. It was before dawn. There was a car in the driveway of the woman whom we’ll call WOMAN #1 in For Myers– belonging to a guy he knew; a good friend of his. This told him WOMAN #1 was actually kind of a speed, a rounder, a two-timer. In great sorrow and disillusionment he got back on the flat pre-dawn Florida roads headed toward WOMAN #2 place outside Orlando. By the time he got there, he’d decided he might want to re-ignite things with WOMAN #2 as a way of softening his disappointment over WOMAN #1. But WOMAN #2, after they’d shared dinner and as night came on, seemed a little tentative about that “proposition” and asked if it wasn’t a little too late for all that and didn’t he want a little more privacy during his visit which, she suggested, could be achieved by checking — alone — into a nearby motel and, by the way, she was busy the next day, but he should feel free to use this free pass she had to DisneyWorld issued by this real estate office where she worked. Perplexed as well as disappointed ( for a second time) but persistent, he informed her that he really wanted to stay at HER place and that they really could make beautiful music together — once again. I mean, didn’t she still like him, after all? I mean hadn’t she actually told him once that she LOVED him? At right about that moment, WOMAN #2’S cell phone rang and she went into her bedroom to answer it. Guy #1 took that moment to go out to his car for his overnight bag. That’s when he noticed a guy we’ll call GUY #3 sitting in a Volvo across the street from WOMAN #2’S house. He was on his cell phone. (Any guesses who he was talking to?)

At about this point in the telling of the story, bartender Deano, a fellow impatient with illusions to the point where we call him The Iceman, popped the obvious question about whether GUY #1’S intentions with either of these women was — honorable. Guy #1, working by now on Mic and rye #2 and having informed Deano that he minored in philosophy in college, asked Deano to define his terms. Deano the Iceman, dishrag in hand, who has never, so far as any of us knows, taken any philosophy classes, replied that honor was something like that plaque over the bar. He pointed to it now — a dusty, dimmed hunk of wood and brass, badly in need of buffing and awarded to The Last Mile’s golf team a generation ago for coming in first place in some long forgotten North Shore charity tournament. Deano the Iceman, I’m told, a fair golfer and a stand-up guy, adheres to an icy variety of honor since, if anybody gets to fool around it’s bartenders, provided, like Deano, they’re reasonably good-looking. Deano is actually much admired by female patrons, all of whom, when they turn amorous, he keeps at a minimum length of ten yards, regularly shuts off and cajoles into concentrating on Keno while he pours them a complimentary bitters and soda for a remedy before calling them a cab, an uber or their husband to come get them.

Anyway, here’s Deano asking GUY#1 a question he’d probably never been asked before — even in philosophy class. I mean GUY #1 didn’t like the fact that the woman he liked was apparently fooling around, unless the guy — we’ll call him GUY #2 — whose car was in Guy #1’s new heartthrobe’s driveway — just happened to have come over for a game of penochle and was sleeping on her couch. ( Of course, most card parties consist of more than two players. So maybe they’d just watched a movie and was too tired to drive home. Maybe his car didn’t start. Maybe neither of their cars started. Huh!! I’m sitting there on my bar stood, smiling, still eaves dropping, running through this list of lame excuses GUY #2 might have told his wife — because apparently Guy #2 (who’s car — in case your confused — was in WOMAN #1’s driveway) was, according to GUY#1, married.

So Deano told Guy #1, who’d just about drained Mic and shot #3, that honor was just one of those things you know when you see it, sort of like pornography. Sort of like that golf plaque on the barroom wall. About that time, GUY #1 had been advised by Deano to abstain from Mic and shot #4, and obligingly sat for a good long while over a bitters and soda, playing Keno, then settled up with Deano, stood ( not all that steadily) took out his cell, called for an uber and went out on the street to wait for that ride to the airport. We saw him get in the car and disappear, never to return, I’m sure. He’d had enough of The Iceman. I felt a little sad for him.

Deano did get out of him where he was headed.

“California, LA area,” Deano said, wiping up the bar, clearing away the guy’s empty pilsner and shot glass. “He met a woman out there he likes.”. Deano gave me a wink.

“He ever been married?”

“He didn’t say. I didn’t see a ring.”

“He’s looking for Mrs. Right. Someone more honorable than himself.”

“Let’s wish him luck, then.”

I finished off my ginger ale. At least once during my eaves-dropping session, I’d missed parts of GUY#1’s saga during a trip to the john.

“Deano,” I said,”did that guy ever say who was in the car — the one outside his lady’s place outside Orlando?” (Referring here to GUY#3 on the cell phone — obviously to WOMAN #2 in her bedroom, spotted when GUY#1 went outside for his bag — just in case you’ve lost track.)

Deano shrugged and moved down the bar. We both knew the answer. Deano, being honorable — and the Iceman — was done with the topic. We both knew GUY #3 was somebody like GUY#1, disappointed like him, since GUY #1 was spoiling his overnight plans with WOMAN #2. Or was he?

I drank two ginger ales that night. I admit, for a fraction of a second I thought about how nice it would be to pound down a couple of boilermakers and how it would send a golden glow over those three women farther down the bar who’d been flirting most of the night with Deano. But there was only one left now — and she was playing Keno. Her husband came in and Deano made them both his late night special — iced coffee. Just what you’d expect from The Iceman.

“I’ll have one of those, too,” I told Deano. When he served me, I just had to ask one more question. “That guy ever say where he slept that night?” (Referring here to GUY#1, then in WOMAN #2’s house in Orlando, now on his way to the airport.)

“Motel, ” said Deano. “Then he went to DisneyWorld. He had a free pass, after all.”

The Iceman chuckled.

“He meet any women there?” I asked.

“Snow White,” Deano said. “No joke. He even had a picture.”

ON THE ROAD TO DECADENCE

Ross Douthat is a writer, film critic and cultural observer I admire. He writes well on Catholic matters as well. Most recently he has written a book called, The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success.

He is writing on the allegedly stagnant state of affairs in what we’ll call “Western Liberalism”. Economic stagnation, institutional decay, cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.

The long shadow cast by many long narratives of  Rome’s decline and fall once again  falls over the pages of yet another volume. Douthat believes we must be aware that this is an insidiously gradual process. Rome lasted for centuries in a state of enervation and without any palpable hope of recovery. A slow death.

The indices Douthat cites might not seem obvious symptoms of decline. Productivity, he says, is slowing down and becoming less sustainable; richer people are having fewer kids leading to an older society. Space travel has been remarkable but is not likely to save us.  Decadence on the ground is still decadence in space. “Forever wars” have drained and demoralized us, the very divisive culture wars, and  pop culture amounts to endless recycling of material so seemingly bright and new but so very much the same old things.

And in a society seemingly so preoccupied with sex and its joys and agonies — according to Douthat, people aren’t having sex like they used to — if they ever used to as much as we’ve been led to believe. I’ve always had my doubts. As a character says somewhere in Graham Greene’s novel, The Burnt Out Case, there are only so many ways to drive a nail.

In fact, the Atlantic’s Kate Julian has identified what she calls a “sex recession.”  But the reasoning here is that proliferating “virtual vices” available via Playstation and pronography, Tik Toks and Twitter distract and divert us from the angst to a point where we don’t entirely register the fact that we are standing still, i.e., not advancing in some vital areas — pandemic or  no pandemic. There has  grown up too much simulated stimuli, though apparently this is one area where we’ve kept advancing technologically. (I did a story about an absurd device allegedly in development — but perhaps long since abandoned — in which one could kiss a pair of artificial lips, thereby causing corresponding fake lips across the world to vibrate against the lips of your beloved. Haven’t heard anymore about the long distance kiss “innovation”.)

Douthat claims, in another real downside, that networks for propaganda and disinformation (and fake news?) and “soft” censorship abound across the world. (What’s this have to do with decadence? Well, it’s hard to be creative and original with Big Brother looking over your shoulder.)

Does any of this sound familiar or plausible? My summary is far from complete or, perhaps, entirely coherent or even accurate, for I’ve not read more than excerpts from the book. Suffice it to say ( I hate that phrase!) there is much to ponder here. I guess pondering is a way of forestalling the onset of decadence.

Someone may have been fiddling, but was anyone pondering while Rome burned?

A CATHOLIC REFLECTION ON THE GOOD MAN MOST AMERICANS STILL REVERE

August wanes, statues and reputations lie in the dust, memory and reverence get lost beneath the wild scrawl of  black spray paint, the heat intensifies, at least here in Florida, and perhaps, too, in my native New England. The political climate is toxic. Violent history is being made by those who have no sense of — or respect for —  history or historic figures, even the most virtuous. For that matter, virtue, objectively defined and understood, is in eclipse.

Excuse a random political meditation, therefore, on one of those people who has suffered at the hands of vandals and historical Marxists in the current vile culture war — I speak of the the man many of us still call the Father of Our Country.

A probing into the life and legacy of George Washington reveals a man who, among all the Founders, was undeniably unique in stature. In his lifetime, he enjoyed the unequaled esteem of his countrymen. The veneration has continued into posterity — and rightly so. Ignore the testimonials of ignorant vandals.

It has become a part of the current rancorous narrative of the culture wars to point out that George Washington was a slave owner, freeing his slaves only very belatedly, though clearly, from the record and his own writings, tortured by the cultural realities from which he knew our nation — and he personally — must aspire be liberated, just as he helped liberate us from the British.

But let us speak about Washington’s well-documented magnanimity — ultimately toward those slaves but also toward the religious — especially the Catholics — of his day who regularly endured hostility in the Anglosphere out of which our nation emerged.

I have learned that when the Continental Army first mustered on Cambridge Common north of Harvard Square in 1775, some soldiers sought to re-enact the anti-Catholic English custom, so popular in the England AND New England of that day, of burning the Pope, the Vicar of Christ in effigy on Guy Fawkes Day.  This was in raucous observance of the foiling of the November 5, 1605 Gunpowder Plot, the failed attempt on the life of King James I, Guy Fawkes being one of the prime conspirators.

Washington issued a  General Order on November 5, 1775 that spoke of the “ridiculous and childish Custom” of keeping such a prejudicial observance and expressed surprise “that there should be Officers and Soldiers, in this army so void of common sense as not to see the impropriety  of such a step at this juncture at a time when we are  soliciting and have really obtain’d the friendship & alliance of the people of Canada” (which was overwhelming Catholic at the time). Washington went on, “to be insulting their religion is so monstrous as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are much indebted for every late happy success over the common enemy in Canada.”

It has been noted by C.J. Doyle, Executive Director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, that “Washington’s sympathy for the one percent of Americans who were then Catholic was unusual, profound, longstanding and without possible political advantage.”

Just thought I’d mention this amid the current iconoclastic, venomous and decidedly anti-Catholic atmosphere in which we find ourselves at this hot and ragged end of the summer of this year we shall not soon forget — and that, to borrow another President’s phrase, shall live in infamy — unless we can redeem ourselves before it draws to a close. And I count victory not as mere tolerance of one another, but of the triumph of the kind of magnanimity and virtue so obviously manifested by, yes, our national Patriarch.