Archive for February, 2022

Sheep on the stairway

It wasn’t that late, maybe 10 pm. Heading for the Penn campus sidewalk, we stepped over a chain strung between two buildings. On our right… probably one of the condemned rowhouses; on our left, the Franklin Society Building, home of the Daily Pennsylvanian student newspaper (affectionately, the “DP”). 

Bob held a wine glass. No memory where it came from. Warren was being loud and brash – Warren was always loud and brash. We were tipsy but not, for college students, drunk, just what-the-hell enjoying ourselves. 

We were stopped by a Campus Cop for… not being what we should? In a public place?

The campus police then were not what they (for good or bad) later became – ex-city cops and reasonably savvy criminal-law types. These were low-paid dimwits. They hustled us over to their office in the dorms, where impulsive, whiplash Warren called the city police to come and rescue us from their campus counterparts. A boneheaded move, to say the least, with exactly the result you’d expect. The city cops packed us off to the hoosegow.

Before I entered Penn, the DP had been the longtime captive of one particular campus fraternity – like a literary plumbers’ guild. But during my freshman year (1957) the paper was opened up to all sorts of misanthropes like… me. However, it remained a male-only refuge; the “girls” put out their own insipid weekly. (Full gender parity, gained a few years later, required a change to the DP’s written constitution.)

Our staff was divided into editorial enclaves, only one of which – News – could elevate its members to the top editorships. But I chose Features, an encapsulated mini-mob whose influence was, in theory, confined to Page 2.

But oh, did we make the most of it. By my junior year, Bob and Warren, as co-Features editors, had turned that page into a fire-breathing dragon of possibility. We wrote about centrifugal bumble puppy (try it some time), sneered at fraternities and ran ideationally rampant across the social wasteland at the beginning of the ’60s.

Bob and Warren had little in common, other than being Jewish. Bob (full name Robert Owen Marritz – how did he come to be named after an Irish patriot?) leaned forward and mumbled behind his hand when he spoke. Smart-aleck Warren, whose brother had some executive position in Hollywood, delivered brash pronouncements accompanied by a mental clipboard. Bob retired from a utility in Oregon a few years back, but Warren seems to have vanished from the earth. I liked Bob a lot.

A younger member of the Features staff, Charles, spiffily dressed and snapping rat-a-tat quips, later took a job in the Reagan administration and started drawling like William Buckley.

I became Features editor the following year and wrote a daily column, “Etc.,” which mixed stupid humor, snide commentary, uninformed snorts about architecture, and bizarre short stories. In other words, it was much like all my later newspaper columns – each of which, for no good reason, started with the letter “E” (“The Entertainer,” “Ex Cathedra,” “Epilogue”).

We stitched the DP together on solid little manual typewriters on the third floor of the Franklin Society Building, a long, narrow structure of industrial concrete beams, fronted by a later stack of yellow-brick rooms pasted onto the street side. (Downstairs, massive machinery churned away doing … something.)

The Features office was a small room dominated at the window end by an immense, defunct air conditioner that we came to worship as the god Mah-Sheene. Knowing that the building was scheduled for demolition to make way for the new university library, we began writing on the walls with magic marker. And on the ceiling. And on the floor.

A few friends who, like us, found student politics ripsnortingly ridiculous, established the United Christian Front. A few of their friends formed the Student Anarchist League. The two soon merged as UCF-SAL (pronounced “You-cef-sal”), ran a slate in the annual student election, and got enough votes to wangle the vice-presidency for the above-mentioned Charles.

Something called the Franklin Society, undoubtedly prestigious, had died when whichever fraternity lost its grip on the paper. The Franklin Society Room, in the third-floor front addition, formerly off-limits to mere mortals, had a balcony and a massive leather couch, the most comfortable napping apparatus ever left to wither. At any hour you could find one of our number snug in its exuberant folds and sags, for the DP was an all-encompassing endeavor. At a guess, I spent 50 hours a week at the paper – almost every minute not given to classes or school work. 

Each weekday evening a few of us, on rotation, made our way to the Legal Intelligencer, the ancient and still official publication of court-related doings in Philadelphia. Their night shift printed the DP. The Legal was then a hot-type operation; every line of proto-print was individually set as a lead ingot. Every word of the DP’s immortal copy was proofread by a rock-solid bald-headed guy who never missed a comma and routinely corrected our poorly aimed college-boy grammar. (Would that such wondrous beings still existed in the publishing world.)

But my most enduring memory of the DP is an odor. I always tore up the Franklin Society stairs two or three at a time, stopping only to talk to any fellow staffer cascading down. If it had been raining when I entered, following that momentary encounter I’d move upward though the aromal effusion of my hair. It smelled like a wet sheep.

I was the only journalism major at Penn who was also on the staff of The Daily Pennsylvanian – because I actually wanted to write. Among other effluvia, I wrote movie and theater reviews. This was back when Philly was a major stop for Broadway tryout companies. I reviewed the tryout casts of West Side Story, Gypsy (with Ethel Merman) and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which featured an inspired lead by an understudy that night. I’ve lost her name; she probably went on to great things.

Still girl-shy and undating in college, I took my mother to the live performances. She’d always had an interest in theater and showed better taste than I did.

It’s odd that I mostly recall reviewing the Broadway musicals. I’m not a musical fan. I find ludicrous the idea of people hurled into goofy or dangerous situations suddenly breaking into song and dance. Weep, call the cops or shoot somebody, for crap’s sake! But West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim’s first, with music by still-emerging Leonard Bernstein, signaled a full-scale break with Broadway tradition. It hit hard.

I don’t recall which movies I reviewed. I guess I could check what was produced during my college years, but I’d rather leave it alone. The DP wasn’t invited to most press screenings (except those for United Artists, held by a local rep with the superb name of Moe Wax); we’d have to buy tickets and get reimbursed. 

Father Divine, who claimed to be God (from his Wikipedia entry: “Federal Bureau of Investigation files record his name as George Baker alias ‘God'”), was a black fundamentalist who established the International Peace Mission Movement in Harlem that advocated integration, celibacy and strict separation of the sexes.

He fled Harlem to avoid a court case in 1942 and lived the remainder of his career in Philadelphia. I’m not sure how many buildings he owned, but the most notable in the city were the Divine Lorraine on north Broad St. (now condos), along with a smaller hotel near the Penn campus. He lived most of the time at his headquarters in a donated mansion in suburban Gladwynne, with secondary headquarters in South Philly. 

At his height, in Harlem, he had followers around the world. By the late ’50s, early ’60s in Philly, he was more legend than substance. No one knew exactly when or where he was born, or (despite the “George Baker” reference) his given name. He might as well have been God. 

I don’t recall if we, as student journalists, were invited to one of his “banquets” in South Philly, but I assume so, though that seems odd. We sat at an immense rectangular table in a huge room. The “hotel’s” inhabitants – men and women lived on separate floors – filled the table and lined the walls to listen to Father Divine’s taped sermon. 

I was impressed to see these people, so many looking physically or emotionally damaged, who had been saved from the streets, given a room, meals and some meaning to their lives. Throughout his career, Father D. provided for the poor and the marginal, regardless of race. Though inflated stories shrieked of orgies and fraud – such shrieks always to be expected – he seems to have done a great deal of good. 

That evening, the taped sermon, along with exhortations from a lieutenant or two, whipped his followers into a near ecstasy of anticipation for his appearance at the table: At least two women leaning against the wall went into orgasm. But then, alas… Father would not make it down tonight.

In point of fact, he had not been seen in public for some years, though his place at the head of the table was always set. Some rumors claimed he was dead, his body kept in secret, others that he was 105 and decrepit. Officially, he died in 1965, probably in his late 80s.

Though Father could not attend the dinner physically, Mother Divine sat by his invisible side. With shouts of glory from the room, goddam! there she was – a honey blonde in her 30s from Toronto, drop-dead gorgeous. Yes – God gets the goodies. Not only beautiful, she exuded a calming charm that quieted the ecstasy and smoothed us into a fine meal.

At the hotel near Penn, perhaps 15 years later, a cafeteria off the lobby served remarkably cheap meals to anyone who entered and showed proper behavior. A photo of Mother Divine, her picture-flesh now sepia tinted, hung across from the serving counter.

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Things that don’t work

A lot of them, right?

But here I’m concentrating on how, in multiple areas, we suffer from unnecessary and almost inexplicable “design failures.”

Some minor examples:

1) Linda bought a clutch of “flexible scrapers” to remove duck fat and other delights from the bowls and containers to which they adhere. The damned things are so flexible it’s like trying to use a fly-swatter to reshape the universe.

2) Scrubber sponges. Those things you buy in 2 or 4 packs, more often than not Scotch-Brite brand. When I was growing up, anything made by 3M – Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing – was a guarantee of quality. Scotch was their most solid public brand: think Scotch Tape, etc. Now, Scotch-Brite, their leading brand of sponge, is a surefire pointer to a total piece of shit. The silly scrubber, minimally adhering to the sponge, peels away within a week, at which point the sponge begins to disintegrate like a badly spiced mummy. How the great have fallen.

Larger examples:

3) Highway intersections. Maybe this is something specific to Pennsylvania, though I find that hard to believe. About 10 years back, several perfectly adequate and simply arranged intersections, where one two-way road either dead-ended into another or separated to accommodate right and left turns, were suddenly redesigned with arcane extra lanes and lines of upright narrow posts that face entering traffic like the teeth of a prehistoric beast.

Previously, coming out of Towanda (about 20 miles north us), where the exit road ends at US 220, you simply stopped and waited for the 90-degree opposing traffic to… cease opposing, then you turned left or right. Now you’re presented with an undefined mishmash of tangled absurdity and no directions about how or why you should proceed.

4) Mall layout and parking. Despite the fact that almost all malls have the same agglomeration of nationally recognized companies, interspersed with smaller local outfits that just hope for the best, there is no common design for how traffic moves, how parking is arranged, or any obvious way to exit the miasma of adversarial auto sprawls. After decades of regimented consumerism, how is there not even an accepted range of designs for how you lay out a fucking mall?

5) Phone answering systems. Do I even have to go into this? I called our doctor’s office to cancel an appointment because the roads looked impassible. I went through two levels of “push button #1,” which led me to hold, during which, within under two minutes, I got three different inane, mendacious messages telling me how important my call was. At which point I hung up. 

An hour later, the same doc’s office called to tell me the doc couldn’t make it in either. I told her the voicemail was the worst I’d ever run across. She told me that the parent healthcare outfit, 40 miles up the road, had changed everything to central appointment scheduling – which, as I assume we all know, is always a disaster. 

So. With at least 2/3 of the world dependent on all these material and system designs, some intertwined, many apparently independent, why do none of them work even semi-competently?

Some suggestions:

1) Poor design-course design: Whoever is tutoring the current generation of designers – whether they be digital or physical designers – are flubbing The principles of use and usefulness have gotten lost behind overweening assumptions of how such things should be done in an ideal, isolated universe. Or simply to make immediate profit at the expense of utility.

2) Perhaps a subset of the above: Products, processes and overviews are being designed for designers, not users. Design has become a closed system that only talks to itself, concerned with only how the article is put together, not what it’s good for.

3) Similarly, what’s happened to beta-testing: Once – especially with digital design – you assembled a group of users to test your product while still in design phase; they gave you feedback that improved it from the user standpoint. Today, untested phone systems, websites and entire information tableaux are tossed on the market as finished products; their failures and inadequacies are left to be uncovered by the poor slobs saddled with a malbirthed child.

4) A more specific example: I can’t prove this, but it’s visually obvious that the new traffic intersections are designed from above. In other words, the designers are using a CAD program that presents a 2-D representation of a ground plan, so you’re looking down on the intersection. Theoretically, you can thus observe how traffic merges and meshes so that you can plan the most direct and obvious way for it to come together for everyone’s benefit.

But as a driver moving into an intersection, you aren’t experiencing a detached helicopter perspective, you’re moving into a 3-D tangle of helter-skelter elements that aid or (more often) impede your progress. 

5) The political/economic reality: What grants are available to do what? What benefits will they bring into your area? This is a determining aspect (perhaps the determining aspect) of modern public design: Who will pay for what we might want to accomplish, what will they demand, how will this affect jobs, what are the constraints, what will we not be allowed to do?

We are captives of the moment. As humans, as mammals, as living beings, we are and have always been captives of the moment. But the current moment has become increasingly, confusingly complex. Well – that’s progress! But progress increasingly divorced from lived reality.

I have no answer for this or any of the other miasmic problems of our teeming human society. But we should all do our damnedest to at least uncover what the range of possible answers might look like. 

We are not the victims of life, neither are we enlightened viewers of the universal. We are limited yet entwined viewers of “what’s out there.” We each make our own assumptions of what that might, at core, possibly be. But we should never curtail our inquisitiveness, or lower our guard against insubstantial assumptions. 

These comments may well seem to fall outside the stream of what I was supposedly talking about above. But I don’t think so.

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Syracuse and points north (in search of Archimedes)

Near Labor Day weekend of 1986, it was time to take Erin up to Syracuse to start her college year. Linda, Caitlin and I decided to make the best of it by dashing off afterwards for a week’s camping in the Adirondacks. 

Erin had been ecstatic for three months since getting her first choice of colleges, and also her first choice in dorms – a high-rise set on a massive, bare concrete platform, like a square rocket ready for takeoff. Her room, a “split double,” gave her privacy and a roommate, a remarkable combination.

The roomie, however, was obviously not on Erin’s wavelength. A mid-Jersey nouveau, she was nice enough, but her designer plastic shelving, her cutesy-naughty posters of dressed-up animals doing drugs, and her welter of amenities all shouted “culture-clash.”

She had every known form of music-reproduction mechanism of the time – including compact disc! – color TV, an iron, a scale, a telephone and an answering machine. Interesting to compare the apples and oranges of wealth, though: Her near Armageddon of musical technology was given maybe 15 pieces of music to play. By contrast, Erin’s bottom-of-the-line Panasonic could ingest 64 albums. Who was the rich one?

The roomie made friends with a more congenial sort and a trade followed, leaving Erin with a new, lower-key roomie. Looked good. Then we were off to the woods.

We had a mildly pleasant first night by a lake, but the sites were small and stuffy, so we decided to coast around during the second day looking for the ideal spot. This was Labor Day, and we reasoned that the majority of the summer crowd would be powering up their RV’s and moving on, which turned out to be the case.

But we hit a snag at the first campground we tried, Lake Durant. We couldn’t just go in and look around without paying a day fee, and the state campground offered only assigned sites. I like to choose my own, based on whim and the way the trees lean. The lady in the little log hut announced the pluses and minuses of every available site, then suggested No. 46 – though she said we were free to change if we found something more mystically attuned. 

No. 46 was nice enough, but, ah, No. 49! – a large, roundish site pinched in by trees near the lake, with two tiny trails, on either side of a gnarled pine, that led to a teeny-weeny beach, exactly right for our budding two-year-old (Cait’s birthday was coming up the day we returned home). 

And there we stayed for the next four days, as the place turned slowly more primitive, the guard box no longer manned, the flush toilets closed down, replaced by unisex one-holers, and the running water shut off. When I wanted a cup of tea, I bounded down to the lake and dipped up a pot of its tannish liquid. 

When Erin and Morgan had been young, every campground from here to the Great Smokeys was filled with macho fathers bellowing at their teenage sons, blaring radio, and that primal offense to the forest, the Coleman lamp: 300 watts of eye-searing brilliance that shines through any known tent fabric and disorients you on the way to the john.

A decade later, the Coleman lamps seemed to have become victims of a mercy killing. Those who wanted to lead the life primitive with all the accoutrements of civilization now stayed inside their RVs in their bathrobes, and the tenters dispensed with artificial illumination altogether, turning in when the chipmunks got tired of begging, rising with the birds. The only loud sound we heard was the splitting of firewood. 

Caitlin was a true nature child, entranced by the red squirrels and the pinecones. Ten times a day she pounded down to her mini-shore and asked me to ferry her out to the big Lookout Rock, where we watched for boats and leaned down to diddle the lily pads. In less than a week, her vocabulary and precision in the use of language doubled, her independence and certainty in dealing with the world quadrupled.

The second day, we visited the Adirondack Museum, a fascinating complex run privately on a scale I’ve never seen in a Pennsylvania local-history museum. Some 13 buildings – ranging from two-room cabins to massive ’50s exhibit halls of Permastone – recorded more than anyone could ever absorb about an isolated, dirt-poor community that exported nearly all its wealth in the form of minerals.

One of the largest halls exhibited over 50 boats. Boats in the mountains? Lake and river travel, we learned, was the major means of transportation until about 1920, and a “guideboat” was developed locally with numerous variants, many of them achingly beautiful. A guideboat is something like a canoe, but of much stouter construction, which can be carried overland by the guide using a neck yoke. It was the favored way for ladies to get to church on Sunday, riding on little caned seats. 

By way of contrast, a topographical map showed how the rich were hauled up to the isolated resorts near Blue Mountain, where the museum is located. The Vanderbilts and other public-be-damned magnates trundled their portly bodies into rosewood-paneled private railroad cars that deposited them for their first feed at a terminus on Raquette Lake.

From there they could take a gourmandizing tour of lakefront eateries or hop a steamer that powered up a narrow inlet and dumped them onto the world’s shortest railway, a 3/4-mile open-carriage run past an unnavigable water stretch (with a trainman walking behind to trample sparks before they could fry the forest). Finally, another steamer scooted them across Blue Mountain Lake. (The exhibit was run by magnets that dragged miniature trains and boats hither and yon for illustration. Delightfully silly.)

We left camp a day early, because the weather had turned dank, then bounced off to the Shaker Museum located in a nest of Chathams – Chatham, Old Chatham, Chatham Center, East Chatham and North Chatham. (Apparently the settlers thereabouts were nomenclaturally limited.) 

I had always pictured Shakers as monklike figures sitting in silent contemplation, sanding dowels. The museum was an eye-opener. There was plenty of that simple, perfected furniture, but also a love of machinery that was pure Industrial Revolution: a Rube Goldberg apple peeler, and the first commercially successful washing machine – a sarcophagus-sized wooden tub with huge movable baffles. 

An interesting note on the furniture: Nearly all the chairs had vertical members that lean backwards, as though the seating was an unconscious reflection of the sitter’s world view, tipped away from table, sexuality, and society. 

Our last taste of rural New York was a German restaurant in the Catskills. Eating such food must bring on instant Weltschmerz. The salad bar featured heaps of vegetables, all pickled, marinated or tortured in some fashion – piles of grayish matter with gelatinous seeds, not bad but odd and aggressive, forcing you to suck in your cheeks. 

As a main dish I ordered Bavarian beef rouladen, twin cylinders of dried-out meat wrapped around onions and green pepper, with the aspect of a bowel movement and the taste of vinegar-impregnated roofing paper. The gravy, humus-brown, was pretty good, and the home-made noodles – knotty as the intestines of small mammals – quite wonderful.

One of my favorite trips of all time – though we never did find Archimedes.

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