Friday, July 27, 2012

19. Grandpa Al Lewis: actor, gadfly, personality, liar

Al Lewis (rear) and the Cast of the Munsters

It began at noon on Saturday with the same jazz musician playing solo.  Then, as he continued, you heard intermittent whoops and yells of approval in the background, informing you that Al Lewis, the vampiric Grandpa of Munster fame, was back as feisty and cantankerous as ever, charged with facts and bristling with opinions, ready to take on anyone or anything he disapproved of.  It was his weekly radio program on WBAI, "Al Lewis Live," and he crackled with life.

I never saw Al Lewis in the Munsters; I knew him as a radio personality, promoting a host of causes dear to his heart: racial equality, repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws, health care for all, and countless others.  His utterances were memorable.  If mention was made of some overly optimistic proposal or hope, he would puncture it by exclaiming, "And I'm going to win the lottery!"  To promote meaningful reform, he reiterated, "We've got to get the asses of the masses in the streets!"  If a listener phoned in to disagree with him, "Fool!" he would shout, "Fool!  Fool!  Fool!" and slam down the receiver.  Decidedly, enlightened dialogue was not his thing.  On those occasions I winced and said to myself, "Grandpa, your job isn't to rage, it's to educate."  But he won my approval when, explaining why he knew things that seemed to escape the attention of others, he would say emphatically, "I read!  I read!"  And he did.  If he lacked foreign languages, he read numerous newspapers and books in English, including the counterculture papers of the 1960s, and often cited the Manchester Guardian as well.

Footnote:  For me and WBAI, see post #16, "My Love/Hate Affair with WBAI."

When angry -- and he often was -- Al Lewis's speech was laced with expletives unmentionable to ears polite.  When radio show host Howard Stern was locked in a battle with the Federal Communications Commission over alleged indecencies voiced on his show, Grandpa Al came to an outdoor rally in Stern's support, took the mike, and announced, "We're here because we have a purpose.  And that purpose is to say fuck the FCC!  Fuck 'em!  Fuck 'em!  Fuck 'em!"  Stunned, Stern snatched the mike away from him and feared the worst, though in this instance the FCC declined to intervene.

While Grandpa Al was not quite so outspoken on WBAI, he took great delight in heaping scorn on elected officials, referring repeatedly to "Mayor Benito Giuliani" ("All he needs is a balcony"), and "Governor George Potato Head Pataki."  But his provocations ranged much further.  Attending a demonstration in support of the Black Panthers, he declared, "The black community should have armed militias!"  And in the wake of 9/11 he stated publicly on the radio and in interviews that the attack was inevitable, even predictable, the cause of it traceable to Washington and Tel Aviv.  Not sentiments to endear him to the establishment or to mainstream public opinion.  "I know I may offend some people," he often acknowledged, "but Mrs. Lewis's son don't care!  Don't care!"

If Grandpa Al brandished an arsenal of opinions, his mind was also a treasury of facts.  When he mentioned an article demonstrating how, no matter what their misdeeds, government agents are immune to prosecution, and offered to send a copy to anyone requesting it, I wrote him to obtain one.  In the mail I received a copy of an article by the publisher and editor of The Idaho Observer, citing no less than nine court cases establishing immunity for prosecutors who knowingly use false testimony and suppress evidence, who knowingly offer perjured testimony, who conspire with judges to determine the outcome of judicial proceedings, and the like.  Grandpa Al told on the radio how he mentioned these decisions at a public meeting and was immediately challenged by three incredulous law professors, whom he then invited to go check the references.  They did, and when two returned, dumbfounded, they announced that Al Lewis was right; the third was too chagrinned to come back.

Al Lewis also made frequent mention of Marine General Smedley D. Butler, the recipient of sixteen medals, including two Medals of Honor, and often quoted from Butler's book War Is a Racket (1935), which was published following his retirement after thirty-four years in the Corps, including service in the Caribbean,  Central and South America, and China.  In it Butler told how, as a muscle man for Big Business, he had made Mexico safe for American oil interests, Haiti and Cuba safe for the National City Bank, brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests, made Honduras right for American fruit companies, and smoothed the way for Standard Oil in China.
Al Capone had operated in only three districts, he observed, whereas he had operated on three continents.  When he died in 1940, he was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history.  All of which was news to me and gave his listeners food -- a hoard of it -- for thought.

My one meaningful contact with Grandpa came when he reported receiving a letter from a gay inmate in North Carolina doing twenty years for having had consensual sex with a sixteen-year-old; the inmate wanted Grandpa to help him find a pen pal.  Hearing this, I wrote Grandpa for the address, then wrote the inmate offering to correspond with him.  The result was -- and still is -- a prolonged correspondence that has now stretched over the years to more than four hundred letters.  (In
vignette #11 I relate how this friendship determined me never to serve on a criminal trial jury again.)  And when, sometime later, I wrote Grandpa Al to tell him the results of the contact he had provided, he read the letter on the radio and urged other listeners to likewise become pen pals of inmates.  He had in fact launched a program to connect listeners with inmates, initiating it after he had interviewed one inmate in a New York State prison who had never had a visit or received a single letter in his fifteen years of incarceration.  Grandpa Al could be cantankerous, but he was also profoundly compassionate.

Al Lewis got the name "Grandpa" and acquired a fan base as a result of the TV sitcom "The Munsters," which was vastly popular but ran for only two seasons (1964-66), being canceled because both sponsor and producer were fed up with the cast's complaints and bickering.  Lewis and fellow Munster Fred Gwynne resented Yvonne de Carlo's stellar pretensions and made no bones about it.  Lewis didn't mind the series coming to an end ("It was a corny family show"), but countless reruns kept it in the public's mind, assuring his continuance in the role of Grandpa, which he exploited vigorously ... and profitably.

It was Lewis's bombastic political pronouncements on WBAI that led the Green Party to enlist him as their candidate for governor of New York State in 1988.  He wanted to be listed on the ballet simply as "Grandpa," but the Board of Elections wouldn't hear of it.  A lively campaign followed in which
he harangued against the draconian Rockefeller drug laws and promised to relieve upstate unemployment by bringing factories there, while berating any reporter who asked a question he deemed irrelevant.  He got only 1% if the vote, but by surpassing the threshold of 50,000 votes assured the Green Party a place on the ballot for the next four years.

But who was the man who became Grandpa Al?  It's hard to know, since for his early years the chief source is Grandpa himself, and for Mrs. Lewis's son truth was malleable, facts could be juggled and reshaped.  On his radio program he claimed to be in his nineties.  That he could be so exuberantly alive and have so keen a mind at that age gave all us budding oldsters hope.  Alas, it seems that he was born in 1923, not 1910, which made him a mere octogenarian.  Eager to get the role of Grandpa and aware that Yvonne de Carlo, his daughter in the show, was in fact a year older than he was, he had added thirteen years to his age and clung to this fiction to the end.

Al Lewis was probably born under the name Albert (or Alexander?) Meister to a Jewish family in Brooklyn.  He rarely spoke of his father, but eulogized his mother as an immigrant from Eastern Europe who worked in the garment trade and from an early age gave him a dedication to labor union causes and the rights of workers.  After that it all gets vague.  He seems to have dropped out of school at sixteen and run off to work in a circus as roustabout, clown, and unicycle performer, but what he did during the Second World War is unclear; he may have served in the Merchant Marine.  After that he apparently became an actor and got bit parts in radio and later TV and film, until at last he was cast in significant roles and became better known.

Here follows a sampling of the claims with which he spiced his bio:

  • Back in his circus days he had his own medicine show, prepared the medicines in a bathtub and sold them.
  • He worked on the defense committee of indicted anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.  (A remarkable commitment, since he couldn't have been more than five years old.)
  • He and his mother came to the rescue of evicted people during the Depression, breaking the lock on their homes and putting the furniture back in again.
  • The National Maritime Union sent him to North Carolina to organize workers -- work that he did fearing for his life.
  • He joined the Merchant Marine prior to World War II and spent time in Italy.
  • He got a Ph.D. in child psychology from Columbia University in 1941.  (The university has no record of it.)
  • Years later in L.A. he met Charles Manson, the future mass murderer, who babysat his sons.  "He didn't chop no heads off.  He was very nice with me."
  • He was a talented basketball scout, discovered many future stars.  (Verifiably true.)
To which could be added running an Italian restaurant on Bleecker Street from 1987 to 1993, and several comedy clubs as well -- all likewise verifiably true.   Grandpa Al never lacked for energy or initiative.

Al Lewis's loyalties were not without contradictions.  During the Depression of the 1930s he viewed the police as the enemy, but when, as Officer Schnauser on the TV program "Car 54," he won a wide fan base among New York's Finest, he changed his attitude, made friends among them, and often accepted paid commissions to entertain at law enforcement events.  Yet he also befriended the flamboyant mob boss John Gotti, became a character witness for him at his trial in 1992, and attended his funeral when he died in prison ten years later.

A chronic cigar smoker, Grandpa Al would probably have had little patience with WBAI"s current emphasis on health and nutrition.  In 2003 he was hospitalized for an angioplasty, and complications from the resulting surgery led to an emergency bypass and amputation of his right leg below the knee and all the toes of his left foot.  His wife Karen, his cohost on the show, carried on, often playing recordings of his earlier broadcasts.  Once I heard him when he phoned in during the show, but his mind was in slow motion and the old spark was gone; he was only a glimmer of his former self.  He died in 2006 and was cremated, with his ashes buried in his favorite cigar box.  His wife continued the show as the self-styled keeper of the flame, but without Al Lewis it wasn't the same; in time, the program was terminated.

Whatever afterlife Grandpa Al now resides in, if he has an ounce of spunk left he'll be challenging the Powers That Be.  I tremble for them.

Thought for the day:  Wealth accumulation centers, foundations for the advancement of bliss, and towels that say LOVE are not the answer.
                                                                        © 2012  Clifford Browder

Monday, July 23, 2012


1.  The Midnight Cry
2.  Invitation to Eden
3.  Wild Raspberries


         The Midnight Cry

Out of the upstate wilderness
A prophet named Miller, a farmer
After years of Bible study
And complex computations
Came forth and preached the Word:
“The world is coming to an end
In A.D. 1843
At midnight on April 23.

“Christ will come in glory in the heavens
And the righteous, rising without wrinkle
Shall soar like angels through the air
And live forever
While earth and the wicked burn.

In Gotham this preaching
Caused a great stir.
While scholars argued,
Thousands scoffed but hundreds believed
Wept, watched and waited.
To the soon Coming
Tobacco and snuff boxes
Were immolated

And fine ladies
Eager to rise without wrinkle
Forsook their lace, abandoned their toilettes
Amid a great gathering in of believers
Especially debtors
Since preachers urged the canceling of debts.

Yet even the zealous debated:
Should one still buy and sell
Haul, plant, bake, sew buttons
Hammer nails or not?
And were the date and time so certain?
“At midnight or thereabouts,” said some;
“At midnight,” warned precisians, “on the dot.”

April 23, foggy and overcast
Came and went
The world unscorched
God’s wrath unspent.

From upstate
Prophet Miller conceded
The first date ill reckoned:
“Look ye now to 1844
And the true date, October 22!”

A blue comet trailing fire
Scorched the sky
Strange rays flashed about the sun
And crosses lit the heavens
Till even Broadway dandies
Bowery sports
Cynics, the lewd and the learned
Were at sixes and sevens.

On Delancey Street a devout man, Brother Stone
Having gathered unto himself a congregation
Held meetings in a hall
Preached and prayed, depicting
Glory and incineration

Till converts, assailed by prophecies
Sermons, tracts and meteoric showers,
Cast upon the floor and trampled there
Gold safety pins
False teeth and artificial flowers.

Shoemakers gave away their shoes
Milliners their bonnets
Vendors their cakes and ices;
In shop windows signs appeared:
“Closed until the Coming!”
“Muslin for Ascension robes
At reduced prices.”

Here and there
A crazed few, having donned
Long white flowing robes
Deemed fit for angels,
Climbed steeples and barn roofs, unable
The last months to endure,
And leaping to meet their Savior
Broke their necks or landed in manure.

These excesses
Brother Stone deplored:
“When the Day comes,
Going to a high place, prayerfully
Await the Lord.”

Yet even as he spoke to his flock
Flames leaped outside a window
And the sky burst.
“He comes!” they cried.
“We’re sainted!”
At once
A dozen ladies gasped,
“Receive me, Lord!” and fainted

While the panicky brethren
Surged out doors and windows, some
In gowns and sandals,
To the guffaws of onlookers,
Local rowdies having lit
A blaze of shavings
And set off Roman candles.

Hardly had this flurry died
When the Last Day was upon them:
In cemeteries, on hilltops
Or by the hearth or on the roof at home
The faithful waited
Robed, Bible in hand, prayer in heart
Of the True Midnight Cry
Looking to the East to see the Bridegroom
In a split sky.

Past midnight
With the Bridegroom lacking
And the wicked and the world intact,
Hope gone,
Again they sighed, murmured
Wept till dawn.

Take the jeers of infidels in stride
But this was cruel
To be mocked savagely by those
One thought God’s fuel.

“Brethren,” said Brother Stone
On the next Sabbath
To a shrunken congregation,
“We were misled by zeal sublime;
Ignore the world
Work, pray, presume not;
God comes in His own time.”

Heeding him
Some packed away their robes
Against the next True Coming;
Some cut them up for curtains;
Some burned them in chagrin
And flaunting
Gold teeth and safety pins and lace,
Lapsed in sin.

But for months and even years thereafter
At intervals a few
Scorning Babylon, their zeal unsated,
Toward midnight tiptoed out
Keen in love, rich in hope
Eyed the East, and waited.

© 2012  Clifford Browder


            Invitation to Eden

The citizens of Gotham, being vexed
By brick and plaster dust, their nerves
And eardrums frayed
By traffic screeches and the moil of multitudes
Blasts, hammerings, hewings
And the grind of trade

Cried out for air and greenery. 
Therefore the city fathers
Acquired vast tracts of land
Northward from the city: 
A shanty-blotched terrain
Of swamp and scrub with steeps
Of jutting rock
And rag gatherers and pig keepers hunched away
Among cinder piles, brickbats and rubbish heaps

Hideous to behold. 
To redeem this site
The City Council commissioned
Messrs. Olmsted & Vaux
Landscapers extraordinaire, apostles
Of art and artifice
To create
A people’s park and pleasure garden worthy
Of a great metropolis.

At their command
Squatters were expelled
Bone boilers driven out
Open sewers abated
Shanties knocked down
And Celtic piggeries

The spongy mire was drained
Marsh smells whiffled away
Swamp waters gathered into ponds.
“Let rude outcroppings,” said Mr. Olmsted,
“Be clothed with wisteria and periwinkle.”
“Let streams,” said Mr. Vaux,
“Scant down stony slopes
With a lyric tinkle.”

“Let there be,” said the one,
“Black-faced Southdown sheep
In a field free
Of thorn and nettle.”
“And a carriage drive,” said the other,
“Graveled and raked, then sprinkled
That the dust may settle.”

“But into these green precincts,” they enjoined,
“Shall come no hearse or wagon
Or commercial rig. 
The grass shall not be trodden
(Save where signs say COMMON)
Nor flower picked
Nor leaf nor fruit nor twig.

“From the urban Arcadia
Shall be banned all games of chance
Potations of intemperance
Dogs, jugglers, brawlers
Fast drivers
And hurdy-gurdy men. 
Nor shall the cry of the huckster
Rasp through glade or glen!”

So they decreed. 
Over months and years
The land was delved and daintied
Till in leafy bosques and dells
Thrushes fluted
Through a delicate gloom
While on sunlit plazas
Fountains effervesced
A skyward spume. 

Planted oaks grew sturdy,
Willows suppled and elms arched
Where paths abutted.
On soggy brooksides
The dog-toothed violet bloomed.
Swans glided, pea fowl strutted.

Rustic bridges they decreed
And nooks and walkways
For either gender
But for the softer sex
At discreet sites
Comfort cottages and a restaurant
With airy provender.

Proclaimed Messrs. Olmsted & Vaux: 
“Here reigns tranquility
And the sweet wilding brood of Nature. 
Let mothers and nursemaids flock
With their charge of little ones. 
Let the banker come from his counting house
And humble artisans

“And from sunless tenements, the poor
To find boon and balm
Uplifted in mind and body
By a twiggy calm.

“Here for all citizens
Is strife’s surcease. 
Here is Eden, here is peace.”

This paradise
Met swift acclaim. 
Shedding toil and worry
By foot, hoof, and wheel
Gotham came.

     © 2012  Clifford Browder


                                          Wild Raspberries

Under a scorching sun
Through the wet, sucking heat of July
Their tight red-hairy jackets
Grow slowly
Then split, revealing
Green fruit that mellowing
To deep red, plumps and glistens
And when touched, tumbles
Into my stained and sticky fingers
If unripe, a tartness, but if ripe
A burst of sweetness, joy.

One pays a price.
As I reach
Deep into the bramble, deeper
Lured by juicy clusters,
Their bristling, thorned stems
And spined leaves scratch my skin.
Scrambled over
By daddy-long-legs, spiders, ants
And buzzed by wasps,
I brush the ivy’s venom,
Risk a blistering itch.

Having plundered in and feasted
I yank, twist back out
Fighting their clinging branches
And hooked twigs,
My shirt torn,
My boots clumped with burrs.

Plucked, each one leaves
In the trampled briar
A red, orange-centered star.
Marveling at the white of their underleaves
I lick my looting fingers
And bleeding crosshatched arms;
Their seeds clog my teeth.
Lips smeared, I savor
Their sweet
Yet bitter blood-tinged juice.

© 2012  Clifford Browder


Friday, July 20, 2012

18. Upstate vs. Downstate: The Great Dichotomy

                                                                            Daniel Case

Rural tranquility vs. urban congestion -- how could there not be antipathy?  In New York State the dichotomy pitting the upstate communities and countryside against the downstate megalopolis goes back centuries, if not all the way to the founding of Nieuw Amsterdam.

"New York City is pie for the hayseeds," proclaimed George Washington Plunkitt, a self-styled Tammany philosopher who delivered talks on practical politics from a bootblack stand at the county courthouse in the early twentieth century.  So convinced was he that the hayseeds of Albany were plundering the great, imperial city of New York, that his fondest dream was that the city would secede from New York State and become an independent state on its own.  And to keep the hayseeds from moving into the new state and trying to take it over, he proposed that they be forbidden from coming below the Bronx without a passport, and that their stay in the city be strictly limited in time.

Of course upstaters have seen it differently.  In the 1870s they viewed things like this:


                                      THE  GREAT  DICHOTOMY
                      Upstaters                                                 Downstaters

            Lovers of calm and quiet                          Bustlers, makers of noise

            Believers, visionaries                                Skeptics, cynics, infidels

            Big houses with deep lawns                      Narrow houses with no lawns

            Virtuous hearthbound matrons                  Sidewalk Circes and Cyprians

            Rustic simplicity                                       Urban wiles

            Upright Republicans                                 Corrupt Democrats

All of which suggests Eden before the Fall vs. Babylon.

Today this scheme of things would need a bit of updating, but not too much.  One might replace "Narrow houses with no lawns" with "Soulless high-rises," and put "Pricey Call-Girl Rings" for  "Sidewalk Circes and Cyprians."  And some mention should be made of the desolate upstate economy, as contrasted with the thriving affairs of New York, and the city's reputation (now in fact declining) for crime.  And the political corruption in Albany, keen awareness of which downstaters share with the universe.  But the basic contrasts remain: calm vs. bustle and noise, believers vs. skeptics, virtue vs. vice, simplicity vs. wiles, Republicans vs. Democrats.  To which many more items could be added, stereotypes all, and all certainly subject to challenge.  But the dichotomy is fueled far more by opinion than fact.

This dichotomy is repeated in many other states, though always with differences.  In Illinois, Chicagoland is pitted against the more rural downstate counties.  In Maine, a friend informs me, coastal highway U.S. 1 divides the state; the coastal towns and offshore islands to the east are more liberal, while the great mass of the state to the west is more redneck and conservative.  In North Carolina, my inmate buddy Joe explains, the Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, together with the city of Charlotte, are liberal, but the rest of the state is -- or was -- Jesse Helmes country, nursing the anti-abortion and anti-gay sentiments of the right.  California, on the other hand, is (perhaps in many ways?) bipolar, with San Francisco and Los Angeles vying for power and influence.

A perhaps relevant quiz (especially directed to past and present New York State residents, though anyone is welcome to take it):  (1)  Which state was the first to repeal its sodomy laws by legislative action?  (2)  When did New York State do the same?  (Answers at the end of this post.)

The notion that New York City would be better off as an independent state dates back at least to January 1861 when, with the South seceding, Mayor Fernando Wood proposed that the city, to preserve its profitable business ties with the South, leave the Union.  Since then, though often dismissed as fanciful, the idea keeps rising from its ashes like the phoenix.  In 1969 Norman Mailer and columnist Jimmy Breslin ran in the Democratic primary on an independent ticket, vowing to make the city the fifty-first state.  (A colorful but quixotic campaign; they didn't even come close to winning.)  The city's near bankruptcy in 1975, provoking President Ford's refusal to bail the city out -- which in turn provoked the Daily News's famous headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD -- only intensified the antipathy on both sides.  The subsequent creation of the Financial Control Board, with the mayor and governor and other officials sitting on it together to monitor the city's finances, reinforced resentment of Albany's interference, though the city's finances had in fact been botched for years.  Since then those finances have much improved, and the Board's authority has been reduced, but the mayor still spends much time in Albany petitioning the governor and legislature, and as recently as 2003, and again in 2008, Councilman Peter Vallone of Queens introduced a bill in the city council calling for the city's secession, complaining that the state takes billions from the city in taxes and gives back only pennies -- a complaint that finds resonance with many.

Footnote:  Secession can be contagious.  In a 1993 referendum the borough of Staten Island, feeling sidelined and ignored, voted 2-to-1 in favor of secession from the city of New York.  Another recurring proposal, another wing-singed phoenix.

Personally, I have always felt that the city, given its commercial and cultural preeminence, shouldn't begrudge the rest of the state a modicum of business and attention.  If I mail my estimated state tax payments to an address in Binghamton, why shouldn't Binghamton get a little business?  The location of many state prisons far upstate does pose problems, since most inmates are from downstate and their families have trouble visiting them, but a prison is often the only thriving business those communities possess.  And when, even as the Twin Towers were rising majestically here in the city, many New Yorkers assailed Governor Nelson Rockefeller's construction of the Empire State Plaza as a two-billion-dollar boondoggle, I didn't think it inappropriate for the state capital to have such a grandiose project: a plaza of marble and steel buildings rising on a six-story marble foundation visible from miles away, with shade trees and gardens and reflecting pools, towering above the lively but hidden "underground city" of the Concourse.  I have seen the Plaza many times and marveled at it.  Up there in the provincial hinterland Governor Rockefeller managed to create a colossus of dazzling modernity.  And why not?  In the Empire State we do things BIG. 

                                                                                               Kurtman 12208

Still, our differences persist.  When friends from upstate visit me, they are fearful of riding the subway alone.  When an acquaintance of mine bought property upstate for an annual summer getaway, on arriving there after a long winter absence he often found some objects missing.  Neighbors assured him that the thieves must have come from the distant wicked city, but he and
the sheriff knew better.  Why would a New York thief go all the way up there to steal, when the city offers a myriad of targets close at hand and one can disappear into its crowds?

And if the city is allegedly a hotbed of vice and corruption, and its residents have always been obsessed with business, upstate New York, that realm of believers and visionaries, has produced some strange ideas over time.  There, in Seneca Falls in 1848, the first women's rights convention was held, promoting a cause that was truly revolutionary for its time.  There too, filibustering campaigns to conquer Canada were hatched in the 1830s, all of which proved ludicrously futile.  And there strange cults flourished.  Shaker communities appeared, and in the town of Palmyra Joseph Smith claimed to have discovered the Book of Mormon and so went on to found the Church of Latter Day Saints.  And a farmer named Miller, having studied the Bible closely, predicted the end of the world at midnight on April 23, 1843, causing believers to don ascension robes, go to high places, and await the Second Coming.  When the Great Event failed to materialize, Prophet Miller recalculated the date as October 22, 1844, prompting a second round of anticipation, disillusion, and dismay.  Small wonder that busy Gothamites took a few minutes off from their commerce-driven pursuits to scoff and mock the faithful.

For the hardy few:  I have told the story of the Millerites in a poem, "The Midnight Cry."  For anyone interested, you can find it as the first (and for the moment only) item in the new post "Poesy."  This  is only for the adventurous, since the poem, while based on fact, goes so far as to use the antiquated adornment of rhyme.  But who reads poetry today?  Other poets, who nurse the sneaky suspicion that their own work is better than the stuff they are reading.  Still, for the curious there it is.

Thought for the day:  Envy the creators: their navels hiss, their armpits sing.

Answers to quiz:   (1) Illinois, in 1961.  (As a native of Illinois, two of whose recent governors
now languish in state prison, I can at least be grateful to it for this repeal and Abraham Lincoln.)
(2) Though rendered invalid by a judicial decision in 1980, New York's sodomy laws are on the books to this day.  Repeated attempts by Democrats to repeal them were blocked in the state senate by upstate Republicans.  Ah, the dichotomy again!

Next week:  Grandpa Al Lewis, actor, gadfly, personality, liar.  The Grandpa of the Munsters, a  colorful and cantankerous guy, unique.

                                                                                     © 2012  Clifford Browder

Monday, July 16, 2012

17. The Union Square Greenmarket: Eating Green


OSTRICH EGGS proclaims one sign, offering round white cantaloupe-size eggs.  BISON MEAT says another, while a third announces RICK'S PICKS: Totally Pickled since 2004.  Next to free-range eggs is a sign bearing a jumble of words -- miel, miele, médus, MëA, Μελη, honig, bal, and others in exotic scripts, maybe Arabic or Asian -- all indicating ANDREW'S NYC HONEY, which was harvested, another sign insists, from flowers growing on rooftops and balconies and in community gardens in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, where beehives are now permitted once again.  One stand has horseradish jelly, fig jam, mint tea, and rhubarb jam; another, wheatgrass juice; another, maple syrup; another, five kinds of exotic potatoes; yet another, goat meat, goat milk, goat yogurt, and goat cheese.  People crowd around other stands selling mushrooms, duck, bread, beefsteak tomatoes, chutneys, and lavender, and side by side at a single stand, arugula and radishes and radiccio, nine different lettuces, zucchini, parsley, beets, potatoes, cilantro, dill, basil, chives, string beans, and three kinds of kale.  Such is the Union Square greenmarket in Manhattan, the granddaddy of most of the greenmarkets in the city and the country.

It all began in 1976, when a handful of farmers got together at another site in Manhattan to create the city's first greenmarket.  More markets followed at other sites as the idea caught on, until today there are sixty-six markets in the five boroughs.  But the Union Square market is the biggest and best known, appearing on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday throughout the year, even in the coldest winter months, when most of the others are closed for the season.  Featured in stories on TV and in the press, it has provided a model and inspiration for markets in other cities throughout
the country.  At a time when factory farms are flourishing and small family-owned farms are disappearing, the greenmarket movement has let small farms within commuting distance of a large city survive by selling fresh produce to city dwellers.  Vendors come to the Union Square market from upstate New York, New Jersey, and even eastern Pennsylvania; their refrigerated trucks are parked near their stands or in the streets nearby.

Everything sold in a greenmarket must be grown or produced or raised or caught or baked by the vendor, which is why olive oil and citrus fruit and coffee cannot be found in a New York City greenmarket.  But what is found there is locally made, including fresh seasonal produce harvested the day before or even before dawn on the day of the market.


A greenmarket is a kind of sacred space where no vehicles, even two-wheeled, are permitted.  Within its confines hurrying New Yorkers relax their frenzied pace and enjoy an atmosphere of good humor and calm.  There I have almost never heard a quarrel or dispute, and if signs sometimes warn of pickpockets, honesty is generally the rule.  People stroll from stand to stand, comparing prices and savoring the rich displays of wares.

Better still, at many stands one can talk to the farmers or bakers themselves, or to their helpers, as I have often done, asking such questions as, "How's the weather been up your way?  Is it affecting the crops?"  Or: "What's the difference between an heirloom tomato and a hybrid, and which is better?"  Or: "How long will the blueberries last?"  Or: "When will you have kale?"  My two favorite organic stands belong to Keith and Gorzynski.  When I ask Keith a question, he ponders a moment and then answers soberly in great detail.  When I ask Gorzynski, the self-styled "ornery farmer," a question, he too will answer at length and very knowingly, but often with a hearty laugh.  A great mixer, he often leaves the stand in charge of his wife and kids and goes roaming about, connecting with other organic farmers and, as his wife says with a smile, "gabbing."  I've also talked to others, including a cider producer, a winegrower, and a cheesemaker, enjoying the kind of personal contact no supermarket can provide.

But greenmarkets offer still more.  Schoolteachers bring their pupils there to acquaint them with what a greenmarket is and what it offers.  In election season candidates make a royal progress there, preceded by flunkies handing out leaflets and preparing the populace for the arrival of their august presence.  Activists urge passersby to sign petitions, local chefs offer cooking demonstrations, and information stands offer recipes for fava bean soup with mint, blueberry salsa, or braised rhubarb over greens with fresh herbs, most of whose ingredients are currently available in the market.  As for music, at Union Square on various occasions I have heard violinists from Julliard, a Frenchman grinding an organ and singing, a combo of Ecuadorean Indians playing exotic native instruments,
and jazz groups whose music ranges in quality from excellent to awful.  In more than one sense, a greenmarket is a feast.

Rarely, someone profanes this sacred space.  When a cyclist tried to pedal through the Union Square market, I and several others blocked his way and asked him, quite civilly, to dismount and walk his bike.  Immediately his ego flared up: no one was going to tell him what to do!  We argued and pleaded; he wouldn't give in.  With no policeman in sight to back us up, reluctantly we had to back off and let him pedal furiously on.  Fortunately, it was not a crowded day in the market.  But such infractions are rare, and the only violence I've ever seen at Union Square was when strong winds threatened to topple some of the stands' awnings, at which point buyers and sellers joined forces to prop them up or bring them gently down.  But even that mishap is rare.

To patronize the greenmarket throughout the year is to witness the cycle of seasons as one never can in a supermarket, where foods from all over the world are available every month of the year.  In early spring the produce stands start with the first harvested greens, rather skimpy bunches compared to what will come later in the year, though last year's apples are always available.  Gorzynski offers more foods than some, having produce from root pits and a root cellar and a greenhouse, plus greens like dandelion that appear early and grow wild on his farm, and crops that he has "wintered over," planting them in the fall so that they are half grown when winter comes, and ready to resume growth when spring thaws the ground.

More and more produce stands soon return, and by early summer there is a wealth of food available.  In June strawberries appear for one short month or two, followed by peaches and blueberries and cherries, and then by plums and apricots and grapes, and in late summer by watermelon and pears, as well as green and red and yellow peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, huge bins of corn, and the first new crop of apples.  Dozens of different kinds of apples crowd the stands in September and above all October, when -- for a month or so -- the freshly picked apples will have a delicious taste hard to describe.  To experience it is like suddenly seeing with perfect vision and realizing that up to then your vision had been slightly out of focus.  Alas, this taste soon fades and will not be matched again until the next season's apples arrive a whole year later.

Early autumn is probably the richest time in the market, since summer's leafy greens are still available as the autumn foods come in: root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, leeks, rutabaga, turnips, and parsnips; Indian corn and ornamental gourds; pumpkins ranging in size from tiny to gigantic (who would want gigantic or even be able to transport it?); and more kinds of winter squash than you can name: butternut, buttercup, kobocha, acorn, dumpling, delicata, spaghetti, Hubbard, and still others.  But by now there is a hint of chill in the air, shorts are fewer and sweaters more abundant, and winter lies ahead.

Many produce stands are gone by Thanksgiving, but Keith, who always offers a rich variety of herbs, never fails to promote the traditional Thanksgiving trio: sage, thyme, and rosemary, which I always make a point of buying.  By November only the hardiest greens are still in the market, such as kale and collards; weather permitting, they may persist even into December, when I have bought both of them from Gorzynski, and from Keith, kale that was laced with snow.  Christmas greens now dominate, and some stands offer Christmas trees that buyers can select carefully, after which, inserted in some strange device, they are marvelously encased in mesh wrapping and ready to be hauled away.  By the week before Christmas it is time for farewells, since after Christmas Keith and Gorzynski and many others will disappear for months to come.

January and February at Union Square constitute what I call the "minimal market."  Most produce is gone, except for hardy apples, pears, and smaller amounts of greens offered by a handful of stands selling produce from greenhouses.  But baked goods and milk and preserves and cheeses are still on hand, and buyers, albeit in smaller numbers, still flock.  On a raw, cold, windy day there is nothing so warming and sustaining as a cup of hot cider from an apple stand.  One Saturday, hearing that a blizzard had raged upstate, I didn't bother to go to the Square, since vendors would find the upstate roads impassible.  But the following week I heard that three stands had actually showed up, including one selling milk.  Then, by March, there are signs of spring's awakening, as stands start reappearing -- Gorzynski by April, but Keith only by late May or early June.  Minimal is over; the cycle recommences.

I support greenmarket farmers, especially the organic ones, because greenmarkets provide fresh locally grown food, preserve farmland and small family farms, and put city dwellers more in touch with the source of their food.  And because I like talking with Keith and Gorzynski, and get a kick out of the crazy flowery hats worn by the ladies of Beth's Farm Kitchen who sell jams and chutneys, and the sight of an outsized ostrich egg, and the young Latina at the Caradonna Farm fruit stand who used to wear a headdress of fruit, including bananas dangling by her ears, in true Carmen Miranda fashion.  Not to mention the sign that I saw at Union Square once, though only once (I invent not): LOCALLY  GROAN.  That alone, and a cup of hot cider on a cold winter day, endear me forever to the greenmarket at Union Square.

Thought for the day: Those who want to eat the peach, yet be the peach, are enablers and lubricants of joy.
                                                                                           © 2012 Clifford Browder

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

16. My Love/Hate Affair with WBAI


WBAI (99.5 FM) is a radio station that you can either love or hate, or maybe love and hate.  Soon after I returned to New York in 1963 I began listening to it and have been listening on and off – but mostly on – ever since.  Now situated on the tenth floor of 120 Wall Street – as they put it, “in the belly of the beast” -- it has a transmitter on top of the Empire State Building that lets it reach listeners within a radius of nearly seventy miles.  Affiliated with the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation, it has sister stations in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington D.C.

WBAI is unique.  Listener-supported, it has no commercials whatsoever, claims to give a voice to the voiceless.  I listen faithfully to the popular 6 p.m. newscast, with its distinctly progressive point of view, but the station also offers programs addressed specifically to blacks, Latinos, gays, Irish and Asian Americans, Muslims, Jews, atheists, indigenous peoples, feminists, labor activists, hackers, opera buffs, fans of old radio, health and nutrition advocates of an unorthodox stamp, and most recently, Wall Street Occupiers and their supporters.  Those who want coverage of sports, fashion, stocks, and the weather will have to go elsewhere, but whatever is wrong with the world --  every sin that capitalist society is capable of, and then some – you will hear discussed and denounced on this station.  Many of these issues you will find mentioned only briefly in other media, if at all.  If you think you are well informed, I invite you to identify the following list of items, all prominently discussed on WBAI.  Please, no cheating – you can look them all up later in Wikipedia.

1.  GMO
2.  Dennis Kucinich
3.  Glass-Steagall
4.  free-range chicken
5.  Codex Alimentarius    
6.  prison industrial complex  
7.  Gary Null
8.  fracking
9.  Koch brothers
 10.  Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

If you can identify half of these, you are fairly well informed.  If you can identify all of them, you are remarkably well informed.  If you know few or none, don’t feel embarrassed or annoyed, since it simply demonstrates the limitations of conventional media and the need for WBAI.

So why do I love thee, WBAI, let me count the ways:

1.  Your championing of imprisoned activists like attorney Lynne Stewart, black journalist Mumia Abu-jamal, and Army private Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking classified material to WikiLeaks.  I may or may not agree with them, but I want them to be kept in mind and discussed.

2.  Your unusual, even unique, cultural programming, as for instance, at various times in the past, a twenty-four-hour nonstop presentation of Wagner’s Ring; a four-and-a-half-day round-the-clock reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace; and a similar nonstop rendering of Joyce’s Ulysses.  What other radio station would have undertaken such epic projects as these?

3.  Your willingness to challenge arbitrary rules, as when, informed of a proposal to ban all drug-related music from the air, you presented every bit of music that could be considered drug-inspired, including the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon.”  And your broadcast of comedian George Carlin’s routine featuring seven “dirty” words banned on TV, provoking an FCC lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided in favor of the FCC.  (Some of those words have since been allowed, depending on the context.)

4.  Your unusual on-the-spot coverage of significant news stories, as for instance the 1968 SDS takeover at Columbia University, the Vietnam War, and most recently the Occupy Wall Street movement.

5.  Your courage (or is it chutzpah?) in speaking truth to power, as when President Bill Clinton phoned the station in 2000 and for a half hour faced a relentless barrage of questions by veteran WBAI journalist Amy Goodman.  Never had our Chief Executive been so grilled in public.  He referred to Amy as “combative” and “disrespectful,” but answered with amazing precision, using no notes or staff backup – an encounter that left me in awe of both participants.

I could go on and on, but you must get the idea by now.  So why do I at times hate thee, WBAI?

1.  Your relentless discussion of everything wrong with the world – environmental disasters, political corruption, police brutality, corporate misdeeds, etc., which in the end leaves me discouraged and depressed, not because I don’t believe you but because I do.  Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

2.  Your fervent embrace of every conspiracy theory ever conceived of, without a single exception that I’m aware of (the Kennedy assassinations, the Martin Luther King assassination, the World Trade Center collapse, etc.).

3.  The irresponsible pronouncements of some of your program hosts, as seen in the puerile name-calling that some of them indulge in – Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California is a “Nazi groper,” J. Edgar Hoover a despicable secret cross-dresser (since refuted by a biographer), etc.  And Radio Free Eireann’s justification of Lord Mountbatten’s 1979 assassination by the IRA, declaring that he was a soldier and died a soldier’s death – all of which ignores the death, on the same occasion, of three others, including his fourteen-year-old grandson and another youth.  If such “collateral damage” is justified, so is the death of some three thousand in the World Trade Center attack.  These pronouncements are the sins of individuals, but they cast a bad light on the station.

4.  Your necessary but dreary fund drives, asking, begging, pleading for money – so many of them, and so lengthy.

5.  Your internal strife, so baffling to outsiders, with allegations of verbal and physical abuse, lockouts of individuals, and even disruptions of programming.

As regards #4, yes, I do give money – not a lot, but regularly every year.  If only all the listeners would do so!  But I also flee to WNYC and its more mainstream coverage, including some fine programs and some silly ones, unless, of course, they too are in the midst of a fund drive.  They do have corporate donors, but they give them limited exposure.  The last alternative is to turn the radio off and read the shrinking and ever more expensive Times.

As regards #5, the New York Times has called it “an anarchist’s circus,” though I’m inclined to say creative chaos, or maybe chaotic creativity.  As evidenced by several WBAI-related websites, two factions are fighting fiercely for control of the station: the hard-liners vs. the compromisers.  The hard-liners want the station to adhere to what they take its mission to be, promoting a far-left political agenda, whereas the compromisers argue that the station, given its precarious financial situation, must broaden its listener base and not risk alienating potential supporters by too extreme a political stance.  More than one refugee has described the station’s atmosphere as “toxic.”  So exasperated was I at one point, that I stopped contributing money to the station – for a while.

That “for a while” says it all.  Whatever my annoyance, always I go back.  Because WBAI is challenging, irreverent, unique.  A love/hate relationship, all right, but for me the love outweighs the hate.

A comment on the times:  My bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, the biggest bank in the country, has just admitted losing $5.8 billion (billion, not million) so far this year.  When reports of these problems first surfaced last April, the CEO, Jamie Dimon, dismissed them as "a tempest in a teapot."  All right, maybe not a tempest, just a perfect storm.  I have already commented on this sad affair (vignette #14, 7/1/12), but am determined to view this noble institution in the best of light.  On the counter at my local branch there is a jar full of lollipops that are absolutely free.  When I asked an employee if people really took them, he assured me that they did -- so much so that they have to refill the jar twice a day.  "Kids or adults?" I asked.  "Both!" he declared with a grin.  So you see, my bank persists in spreading joy to the populace.  More power to them!

Thought for the day:  The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

Coming attractions:  The Union Square Greenmarket, and Upstate vs. Downstate.

                                                                               © 2012  Clifford Browder