Between the tyrannies of Twitter, Facebook and texting and the reduction of roughly half American discourse to like buttons, emoticons, acronyms and “diggs,” whatever those are, the reign of the short attention span is culture’s new Caesar. On the other hand the book of hours was basically a medieval blog, and the walls of Lascaux were pre-literate notebooks, better written than most of what’s been done since. So here’s where I surrender to vagrant scratches and notes on issues of the day, fugitive quotes, hit-and-run readings and reflections picked up from the cutting-room floor.
We made the mistake of watching the Macy’s Day Parade from (since we couldn’t be in) Manhattan this morning, which none of us in my house had attempted since becoming old enough to know better. I’m sure the parade itself was irresistible: colossal balloons ambling down Sixth Avenue’s glass and steel canyons, floats the size of small Great Plains towns, clowns the size of childhood frights, marching bands performing in the only place in the world where marching bands actually sound good, even a few fractional Indians (from Upstate’s Oneida Indian Nation), whose claim on this day–as on this land–was once at least half theirs.
But that’s not what we were allowed to see. The mistake was CBS’s coverage, an intolerable format that reduced the actual parade to a footnote. Even by banking up time on the DVR to skip through epic commercial breaks, promos, teasers and catastrophic puns, what we saw the majority of the time were two imbecilic hosts: a pasty-faced white woman in red gloves and Alfred E. Neuman dentures and a generically dapper black guy who sounded more bleached than the pasty-faced woman. It was one of the few bits of magic that CBS managed to make those two look, sound and taste as identical as two Splenda-laced Pillsbury dough puffs, both of whose names I thankfully don’t know since I’m allergic to television news in any format.
The twins proceeded to hemorrhage over the screen with verbal Prozac at the expense of street-level scenes in one of the most remarkable displays of narcissism since Donald Trump began cluttering neighboring avenues with his phallic high-rises. We could tell that parade creations were passing by from real or imagined glimpses of color in the background, but the biggest balloons we kept seeing were the mugs of those twins, their lips flapping no less mechanically than if they’d been strung up by handlers below. When they weren’t talking over each other, the twins were interviewing one CBS TV actor after another, plugging their shows and indulging in the kind of third-rate talk-show chatter that makes sports radio sound like NPR. And when they weren’t all plugs and lithium, the twins cut to the Ed Sullivan Theater, sans Letterman, for equally discrepant performances by a properly jean-torn rock band or to a studio for culinary tips or to a Broadway stage for more corks up the publicity ass of one show or another. Janis Joplin must’ve barfed up Nixon-era heroin in her grave when her Bobby McGee was so shamelessly adulterated. Playing Janis Joplin sober and before noon is like reading St. Paul’s epistles at Lilith Fair. You just don’t do it.
And on it went while somewhere not far the rumor of a parade furled on.
The three miles of the parade route are glitter enough if we’d been allowed to see them: starting at 77th Street along Central Park West, five blocks north of the Dakota apartments (on whose sidewalk John Lennon was assassinated in 1980), then down 6th Avenue (in whose corporate towers “Imagine” is assassinated every day), all the way to 34th Street, within awing distance of the Empire State Building (the true king of Manhattan skyscrapers, now that the so-called Freedom Tower at Ground Zero has proved to be such runt of a replacement for the Twin Towers), hanging a left to Herald Square, in front of the old Macy’s. Manhattan holds more beauty and energy and meaningful history, so much of it current, in the space of a few blocks than all of Paris and Prague put together, if you care to see, if you let it speak to you. But those two drones on CBS wouldn’t allow it.
I was dreaming of a C-Span sort of parade coverage: three or four cameras, just the route, just the acts, no goddamn commentators, no commercial interruptions. Let New York be New York. By the third hour we figured out the next best thing. NBC had by far the better vantage point and the better approach. Matt Lauer’s pretentious scruff and Al Roker’s skeletal showiness aside, the hosts inflicted their mugs on us only at rare intervals and the cameras remained trained on the parade grounds’ final stop in front of Macy’s. The DVR came in handy, passing through the commercials and the odd Lauer whisker. There was little else to skip, if it’s the parade we wanted to watch. No shameless plugs, no idiotic cut-aways to plastic studios. The sun rose for the second time today.
By then too I was smelling aromas of sweet potato soup gurgling from downstairs, with hints of bacon, Cheryl’s prelude to our own Thanksgiving Day parade of good eats. Third sunrise, with more to come before dusk. For the first time in–what, ever?–we vetoed devouring a turkey for the occasion. We were in the habit of spending our Thanksgiving in Ormond Beach, at the home of good friends whose Jewish nebulas, mixed with my Arab ones, made for a perfect reenactment of the first Thanksgiving (if Woody Allen had directed it), or the pre-enactment of a Thanksgiving yet to come in that bedraggled Holy Land of ours, assuming our ancestral idiots–Arabs and Jews both—finally figure out that all the spilled blood from here to Masada and back isn’t worth a matza spread of cranberry jam.
But our friends left. They decided to reenact Mose’s years in the wilderness by mistaking Pennsylvania for a latter-day Promised Land. No Java Joint. No ocean. No Arab interludes. Just Tom Corbett. Since they’re still in their Sinai and we’re not yet over the sorrow of losing our own Promised Mom a few days ago–or the temporary loss of a daughter who self-abducted to a weird breed of Midwestern aliens for an indeterminate spell–we figured we’d skip incinerating a turkey and have Chinese and Beaujolais Nouveau instead. It’ll take us at least a couple of bottles to recover from this morning’s waterboarding at the hands of the CBS twins. Besides, we’re in the habit of reenacting Thanksgiving in one way or another on most of the remaining 364 days of the year.
A few days after the New York Times sold the Boston Globe for a pittance–it had bought it for $1.1 billion, sold it for $71 million–Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for another pittance, $250 million. He bought it personally, not as Amazon, though it’s impossible to imagine a separation of the two in the long run. After a brief grace period he’ll get rid of the publisher and will begin getting rid of key executives. The Post will be his experiment of remaking print journalism in Kindle’s image. He “promises not just an ownership change for the 135-year-old institution,” the Post writes today, “but a potential transformation of the fusty mechanics of the newspaper business.
Bezos is a libertarian and a man of words, in the sense that his business is largely made of words: books, magazines, print. He’s branched out to diapers and dish detergent, but on the shrink’s couch the first think we say when we hear Amazon is books, not shoes. Unlike, say, the sort of vulgar ad men who’ve taken over most newspapers since the 1990s (precipitating their decline in value and respect), slicking up newsprint with more hair gel than ink, Bezos knows the value of a sentence. He’s shown healthy contempt for the forces of the market, which are equal parts poison and speed to innovation.
He likes the long view. Amazon took nine years to turn a profit, but it’s revolutionized the way we shop. He’s taking the newspaper private, shielding it from the tyrannies of shareholders, which should give him more comfortable room to experiment. To re-kindle what’s become a moribund, hellishly boring industry: most newspapers these days are like reruns of 1970s sitcoms. They’re chained to formulas, set pieces, journalism-seminar style. (The St. Petersburg Times ran a pretty interesting magazine-type piece over the weekend about a Methodist church–the only Christian churches doing anything worth talking about anymore, incidentally–taking in sex offenders. But it was written in that affected trick of alternating narratives editors should have put to bed years ago.)
It’d be nice if Bezos took the Post’s editorial page off the reactionary column, too. Since the early 2000s the Post has tended to be as jingoistic as John McCain on his crabbiest days. The same day the Bezos buy was announced, the Post ran an editorial pining for the old days of the “war on terror.” “Mr. Obama,” the paper writes, “is right to worry about the corrosive effect, for example on civil liberties, of perpetual war. But like all wars, this one will end only if one party is defeated or both agree to lay down their weapons.” The editorial goes as far as comparing Obama’s approach to Clinton’s in the 1990s. That’s to say: the Bush years were better. There you go. Intellect in the service of barbaric amnesia. It’s as if the Bush years’ cataclysms–which the Post’s editorial page did so much to fuel–never happened.
Bezos has work to do. Maybe we can convince him to take over the News-Journal next. Every empire-builder needs a vacation paper.
Here’s a good summation of the deal’s meaning from the Economist:
After watching George Zimmerman’s murder trial in Sanford, Kathleen Parker—the former Orlando Sentinel writer and current Washington Post columnist—thinks it’s time to take the television cameras out of the courtroom again. Not print or other types of reporters like her. Just television cameras. “The excessive coverage and commentary we’ve watched in recent years may be good theater but bad for justice,” she writes, with virtually no evidence.
Cameras, she argues, change the way people behave in the courtroom—witnesses, prosecutors, the defense, even the jury, all of whom are susceptible to the way coverage permeates the media landscape and makes its way back to the courtroom one way or the other, influencing the outcome of the trial.
“There may be no way to quantitatively prove that cameras influence courtroom behavior and, possibly, a trial’s outcome. But anyone who has ever sat in front of a camera knows that it is so,” Parker writes. But there’s also no way to prove that the absence of cameras may also influence behavior, not necessarily for the better: a judge may feel less restrained to be imperious, errors or abuse of judicial conduct could be more rife, prejudice may be given freer rein. In other words, the distortions of cameras on justice are not nearly as dangerous as the distortions of masked justice. It cuts both ways. Trials are theater. They’re meant to be. Public trials are a fundamental feature of civil society.
That some trials may be more public than others doesn’t diminish the public’s right to know, which Parker nevertheless belittles: “If our concern were truly to better understand the machinations of the judicial system, as some have argued, we would record and broadcast all trial proceedings rather than only the ones that involve key elements of modern tabloid storytelling, namely sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — and race.”
There are two tangled red herrings here. The first is that “the public’s right to know” and concern to “better understand the machinations of the judicial system” are not the same. Whether people are watching the trial to better understand judicial machinations or not is irrelevant. They’re watching because they want to, for whatever reason, including judicial voyeurism: it’s not up to the court, or to alleged guardians of the court, to be gatekeepers of public proceedings. The aim is to be as open, transparent and accessible as possible. If three dozen people are allowed to attend the trial in person, by lottery, why not 3 million or 30 million by cable?
Parker’s second clause is more pointed, but not in the direction she’s aiming for. The question should be: why aren’t all trials, all court proceedings, publicly broadcast? They can be. Modern courtrooms are equipped with cameras and sound systems. Proceedings don’t have to be on CNN. They can all be webcast, through live feeds, cheaply and without intrusion. It’s likely a matter of time when they will be, but too distant a time when Parker Praetorians pretend to be protecting the justice system while seeking to hide it.
“We can debate the point until we’re all blue, but meanwhile, we can be fairly certain that the trial would not have attracted a single camera if not for the race element,” she writes. Again: so what? The race element happens to be a running fault line through American history and society. It is riveting, it is relevant. Viewers should not be condemned for being more interested in that than in the protests in Egypt, as Parker wryly condemns them. The Paul Miller murder trial—going back to his murder of Dana Mulhall in Flagler Beach last year—did not attract television cameras. The trial didn’t lack for tension as a result, or the great deal of theatricality that the prosecution put on for the jury. What difference cameras would have made seems irrelevant.
Parker is clearly annoyed at the incessant yammering of television talking heads trial day after trial day, and she has good reason to be. But the yammering of sports announcers can be just as infuriating. That’s no reason to stop coverage of sports events. Just don’t listen to the yammering. No one is forcing Parker to keep the volume up during recesses.
Her only supporting evidence for camera bans goes back to Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki’s ban of cameras during O.J. Simpson’s civil trial. That was in 1996, almost 20 years ago, when cameras were barely beginning to make their way into courtrooms, and when judges could still get away with penumbric pronouncements about creating a “neutral and detached environment,” a meaningless phrase that would not sustain the barest analysis: Platonic bubbles don’t exist, not even when judges try to control their courtrooms by excluding some media while including others. The distortions are all theirs more than the media’s. They’re presumptuous of their own power and contemptuous of public and evidence. Like Parker’s argument.
The cruelties of the self-loathing, self-pitying Clarence Thomas were on display again this week when he provided the deciding vote that had the Supreme Court managing to turn the right to remain silent against the accused, and using that silence as evidence of incrimination.
Thomas will never miss a chance to stick it to defendants. This is the justice who has no problem executing the mentally ill: he was among the three dissenters voting for such executions in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002.
This is the justice who decided that prison guards at Louisiana’s Angola state prison—America’s version of the 19th century Congo under Belgian rule—kicking an inmate while he’s handcuffed and shackled, punching him in the mouth, eyes, chest and stomach while another guard held him in place, bruising his face, swelling his mouth and cracking his dental plate, all while a supervisor watched the beating and told the guards “not to have too much fun,” did not amount to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. He was in a 7-2 minority on that one, joined only by Antonin Scalia, whose jurisprudence never travels far from Inquisition-vintage punishments. When the case was argued, even President George H.W. Bush and his deputy solicitor general at the time, John Roberts, now the chief justice, were on the inmate’s side. Not Thomas. Never Thomas. (Hudson v. McMillan, 1992.)
This is the justice who sounded virtually nostalgic when he joined a 7-2 majority that declared the three-drug lethal injection procedure typically used in executions neither cruel nor unusual. “The unanimous court,” he wrote, referring to an 1879 case, “had no difficulty concluding that death by firing squad did not” fall in the cruel and unusual category. So why should lethal injection? Never mind that the 1879 case involved Wallace Wilkerson, who bled for 27 minutes after the firing squad missed his heart, as witnesses and a doctor stood by in a Utah yard. Not cruel and unusual at all, at least not for fans of torture. (Baze v. Rees, 2008.)
This is the justice who had no problem providing the deciding vote—and the majority opinion, in a 5-4 case—in throwing out a $15 million award for civil rights violations in the false conviction of John Thompson, who spent 18 years on death row before his exoneration. The prosecution had intentionally failed to turn over evidence that would have exonerated him. Thomas excused the prosecution. Thompson lost his compensation (Conick v. Thompson, 2011).
So came Monday’s 5-4 vote in Salinas v. Texas.
Noah Feldman sums up Thomas’s devolution back to 1789: “Thomas’s opinion on what facts must be submitted to the jury derives from a series of opinions he has written over the past 15 years, all of which amount to a concerted historical attack on the way modern legislatures and judges handle criminal punishment. In the good old days, the English common law defined a limited set of felonies, and they all had the same punishment: death. Like the Islamic Shariah, the Jewish Halakha and many other early legal systems, the common law wasn’t so much bloodthirsty as designed to operate in an environment with little formal police enforcement. Capital punishment was counterbalanced by a low likelihood of detection — kind of like harsh sentences for insider trading.”
He concludes, along with some admiring words with Thomas’s fanatical adherence to his principles: “If criminal justice, or the rest of our constitutional system, were actually turned back 225 years or so, the results would be so unfamiliar as to seem bizarrely un-American. Originalism is valuable because it reminds us that there are certain core values that we as a people have preserved throughout our history — not because we should stop using zippers and go back to a world of buttons.”
The court has had its share of radioactive justices from Roger Taney to James McReynolds to the insufferable Felix Frankfurter. Thomas fits the tradition. He used to be the court’s most extremist justice. No longer. Samuel Alito now holds that title, though Alito uses it more cleverly, being less of a stickler for principle and more interested in positioning himself in ways that could influence the outcome of decisions. Imagine that. Thomas, looking more moderate than a colleague. Even ironies can be cruel and unusual.
This beheading takes a little scene-setting.
I was sitting outside a little while ago, enjoying this deliciously mild April afternoon with a an obscene amount of whiskey, an even more obscenely endowed cigar and a fat French novel on the endless depradations of journalism when, between the yonder sounds of an ice cream truck’s Joplin-inspired call to sprinkly cones and the nearer jabbering of degenerate mockingbirds I heard Cheryl’s voice from the upstairs bedroom window throw me a siren’s greeting. From where I was sitting I couldn’t see her, so I walked a few steps into the yard to better fill her in on my vices and talk strategy about the next few hours: we have plans a few hours from now to perhaps drop in on the Ribfest in Town Center, where we both have intentions of Christening Palm Coast’s version of boozing us citizens for the greater benefit of the city then hop over to the galleries to check out Hollingsworth’s novel art and the Art League’s spring show.
Then it happened: the death rattle. You’ve heard it. We’ve all heard it if we live south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
It’s that rapid-fire rattle of the air-conditioner’s compressor blades committing hari-kari with the sound of an invisible AK-47. It immediately sends chills down your spine at the coming hassles—the heat rising in the house, the night’s mottled skin, the hunt for an air-conditioning repairman who doesn’t relish the weekend call as an excuse to gouge, the wait, the goddamn bill. Cheryl disappeared from the widow. Spousal flirt over.
I walked over to the unit. We have two of them. It’s a two-level house. At least one of them was still humming, suggesting that all was not lost. I got nearer. Both of them were still humming. Both blades still spinning happily, unalarmed. No smoke. No strange smells, no more strange sounds. A few palm fronds surround the units. At first I thought one of them was caught in the blades and got its last rites. But they don’t hover that closely. That wasn’t it. I got nearer.
The arthritically crumpled hind leg of a miniature horror from the Jurassic was sticking out of the grille—a lizard, a frog, an iguana or who knows what. My ignorance, too, was showing its legs. The victim’s last sight and testament was attached to a body sinking inside the compressor’s sarcophagus, and disappearing in a frozen curve down the round side of the thing like a memory from a medieval dungeon. I know next to nothing about Floridian reptiles, so my next thought was itself testament not to the life just lost so much as to my ignorance, which assumed it was a lizard that, from the looks of it, had been cleanly decapitated, the death rattle having been nothing more (or nothing less, if you’re a relative of the poor creature) than the bony head of the bonehead making a tocsin of its murderer. From where I stood it looked like a clean beheading. No blood, not even time for the lizard to have a last slither. It was congealed in its last crawl on earth, mostly inside the compressor, that small bit of itself sticking out of the grille like a grave marker.
I can’t describe my relief and joy. There would be no air-conditioning emergency today. Only a requiem.
I announced the good-and-bad news to Cheryl, who had disappeared from the window faster than it takes to dial the local Palm Coast Heating & Air rep (they’ve been advertisers with us since the Cambrian era, might as well give them a plug). But it wasn’t over. There was still the matter of playing undertaker.
I grabbed a few dozen yards of paper towels in preparation for the retrieval operation. Then I remembered what any homicide investigator worth his FHP would do: I asked my son to bring me the camera. I took a few shots, for the record, for the memory, for the potential litigation. You never know with lizards, who have an entire profession named after them. Cheryl wanted to have a look, and say a few words. The Bible, however, stayed upstairs. This would be a secular sanitation job. Then I set to work.
And lo and behold, there is a god. Or at least a frog angel.
For it wasn’t a lizard at all. (See above, under ignorance). As I grabbed the deceased from its leg and pulled it back into the world of the unbladed, the body, which may have been shuddering more than I was, was no lizard but, as Cheryl was quicker to notice, a frog. And it was not decapitated. It was all there. Head, torso, arthritic limbs, eyes as wide open as a scene from a Stanley Kubrick movie, though its snout bore a mark as clearly red as if it had just been consecrated with a bindi. Good thing the Bible was left upstairs: we were in Hindu-chakra territory.
The frog had merely had the experience of going mano-a-mano with Mike Tyson reincarnated as a set of blades. The sound we’d heard was nothing Howard Cosell hadn’t described in a thousand metaphors from Manilla to Kinshasa, and now, from beyond the grave, from Palm Coast. The sun was shining on this frog-prince, and shaming my earlier assumptions of a beheading, though they’re not without an absolving explanation my shrink and PTSD medicine would understand: this is April 13 after all, a date that lives in every Lebanese-born descendant of that infamous memory. It was 38 years ago today (on a radiant Sunday) that the Lebanese Civil War began its 15-year folly of sectarian bloodletting, much of it by way of memory-rattling and un-neighborly beheadings. Every year on this date I either choose to neutralize the memory by writing about it or, as I had chosen to do today, inducing myself into a mildly oblivious coma with enough drink and smoke to make an Islamist’s beard turn white. It had been working. Until the death rattle. Oh well.
I walked the stunned frog across the road, the frog’s eyes and mine locked in an embrace half grateful half resentful, and gently put the creature down by the woods of the empty lot. It would either be its almost-final resting place on the way to a fellow-creature’s feast, or its convalescent swale. Assuming, of course, that a Flagler County sheriff’s deputy with an itchy finger and a Glock didn’t drive by.
Last Updated: 9:39 p.m.
I’m inviting you to join me at an execution this evening, Florida’s fourth this year. Larry Eugene Mann, 59, is scheduled to be killed at 6 p.m. by lethal injection in the state’s death chamber at Starke prison, 75 miles northwest of Palm Coast. I’ve never been to an execution. And by going to one, I don’t mean that I’ll be a witness to it. I would refuse even if offered the dishonor, as reporters frequently are. I’ll be witnessing the vigils, the protests and the counter-protests outside the prison grounds, which take place every time there is an execution. It’s become part of the ritual of executions across the country, though neither executions nor protests (and supportive demonstrations, because those happen, too) get more than a few paragraphs’ coverage here and there, and virtually no more than a passing mention on the evening news, ahead of the weather.
After covering a recent workshop on the death penalty in Florida, I decided to join Father Phil Egitto, the pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes, the Catholic church in Daytona Beach, and the bus-load of people he has taken to every single execution at Starke for years, to stand vigil. The bus made a stop at the Winn-Dixie shopping center near Woody’s Barbecue on State Road 100 at 3 p.m. this afternoon. I boarded it, along with Jackie Morelewicz, who organized the March workshop, and who usually stands vigil, in protest of executions, outside the Flagler County Courthouse, whenever needles ready to end a life in Starke. We’re not likely to be back in town until 9 or 10 p.m. I have no idea how the afternoon and evening will go. I will do my best to chronicle it here as it unfolds. the account will be written in reverse order: the fresher entries will appear at the top.
We were told to bring food or a snack and some drinks, because of the length of the trip. I brought a ham-and-cheese sandwich (American cheese, incidentally: the Swiss don’t execute) and a container of water. I mention these details because to me they’re no less absurd than talk of the walking dead man’s last meal: we’re going to an execution, but we’ll still get hungry and thirsty, which seems to me natural and obscene at the same time, as matter-of-factly obscene, actually, as the entirety of the rituals surrounding an execution, inside and outside the prison walls.
9:39 p.m. Time to call it a night. We’re approaching Palm Coast on I-95. We’ll be dropped off at the Winn-Dixie shopping center. We’ll reclaim our cars, drive home, have a beer, watch what degenerate TV may be worth watching with spouse and son–skipping the 11 o’clock news, as always–and eventually go to sleep like any other night. In some ways we might as well have gone to a minor league baseball game. We might as well have gone to the Lake County fair. Or to a beheading. There’s an inevitable blending of absurdities when horror and banality so easily mingle, or maybe collude–what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil in a somewhat different context that happens to apply just as well here: she argued that the Holocaust wasn’t the work of nut jobs, but of men who thought what they were doing was as normal as it was necessary. The very same principle that underlies our own machinery of death, and why Father Egitto so easily–and with so much conviction–calls it “evil.” Some people like to think they touch the face of god once in a while. We grazed the face of evil today, from quite a distance, but distances in that context are irrelevant.9:14 p.m.: On the way to Starke I had a conversation with Father Phil Egitto, the pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in Daytona Beach and the sort of priest who (are you listening Colleen Conklin?) makes me think twice about having revoked my one-time citizenship-in-fanatical-standing in the Catholic church. He reminds me of our own Beth Gardner (the pastor at Bunnell’s First United Methodist Church) for being more grounded in the here and now than seduced by the sort of gauzy Christian platitudes that are indistinguishable from Hallmark cards, but with saccarine halos all over them. No holier-than-thou bullshit from this Brooklyn-born, Gator-bred priest. (“I knew I wasn’t meant to be a monk,” he said at one point, explaining his spiritual evolution before the self-evident punch-line: “I’m from Brooklyn.”)
The barbarism of state-sponsored executions is his here and now. He’s been going to those vigils for seven years. It hasn’t always been in a bus as big as the one we’re riding now (at a rental cost of about $800 to a parish that is nowhere near rich: “We’re living paycheck to paycheck,” Egitto says.) But the groups have been sizable. That’s a lot of executions. Today’s was the 15th since the beginning of 2006.
“We do this because the state kills in our name,” Egitto says. “If we don’t do this then we’re complicit with evil. So we do this because we want to say to the governor, to the state, that you’re not killing in my name.” As Egitto saw it, he had two choices: he could leave Florida, or he could stay and protest. He stayed. He doesn’t call it capital punishment. He doesn’t even call it killing. “I consider it murder,” he says. And murder worse than most murders committed by the sort of people who end up on death row–more premeditated, more sober, less excusable by mental imbalance or psychosis or drugs or alcohol or misjudgment or youth or whatever else death row defendants throw at the justice system when they’re trying to get out of their sentence. When the state kills–when it murders–it is doing so with ultimate premeditation. “We are knowingly, premeditatively, planningly, willingly killing somebody,” Egitto says. And, he adds, we’re “teaching the culture that it’s all right to kill.”
A little after 9 p.m., Egitto took to the bus’ microphone and spoke of the afternoon and evening, and asked various members of the group to describe how they felt. One man spoke of anxiety ion the approach of 6 p.m., then relief after the ringing of the bell. A woman called Ellen said: “It was her first time, she didn’t know what to expect, she liked the prayer service and the ringing of the bell, and described the whole experience as “very sobering and touching, particularly the attorney.” She was referring to the inmate’s attorney, who came out to speak with the group after the execution. (See below.)
“On behalf of the people from Flagler County we want to thank you,” Jim Morelewicz said, representing the congregation from Flagler Beach. “It has been a very warm and gracious group. We are very thankful.”
I also spoke with Sean O’Dell, principal at Lourdes Academy. He’s been making the trips to Starke for seven years as well, at times with students. He described his first time, different from all other times since, because you “can’t really believe you’re really there as someone is being killed across the way.” This time, he said, he was surprised by the number of “proponents” of the death penalty, though they did not do what they had once done at a previous execution, when O’Dell had brought several students with him: the proponents cheered the moment the protesters rang the bell to signal the moment of death.
8:37 p.m.: As we ride the bus back to Flagler in the dark, we pass by a burst of lights in the myriads scintillating against the black sky like a flying-carpet casino. Someone in the bus yells out, “Hey, it’s the Lake County Fair!” There’s a faint cheer, maybe more sardonic than wistful. If not, it ought to be sardonic. None of us is quite in a fair mood. The bus–one of those gigantic things you see shuttling people to airports or around the Eiffel Tower–never slowed.8 p.m. Larry Eugene Mann was pronounced dead at 7:19 p.m. No explanation about the delay. Elisa Nelson’s family had witnesses to the execution. Mann had a choice of only two: his spiritual adviser and his attorney. He chose his attorney. He was not allowed to have family present as witnesses. Sometimes the family of the person being executed joins the protesters, to be in company of the closest thing to a supportive group they may have. In this case, there was no one, except Marie-Louise Samuels-Parker, who joined the church group shortly after Mann was pronounced dead, and after the passing of the hearse. “It was not botched,” Samuels-Parker said of the execution. And Mann had no final words. The attorney works frequently with men and women on death row (there are four women among the 406 Floridians on death row). She said she tells them of the people–like this very church group–who are working on their behalf to end the death penalty. It was a brief encounter between the attorney and the group, but also a sort of catharsis in reverse, a chance for a few people to hug the attorney and get at least a sense that the senselessness is not unanimous. 7:34 p.m.: The vans have come out, bearing the execution’s witnesses. Not yet clear if the hearse has followed. (It actually did, a white hearse, but it went in an opposite direction, toward the funeral; home.) The sun is setting immediately behind the prison. it’s what you’d call a spectacular sunset, if it weren’t for the guard tower in the way. What’s supposed to follow is a news conference, so called, though that too is part of the ironies of the day, a staged segment of the Department of Corrections’ ritual that works more to legitimize the killing that just took place than to explain it. There would be nothing to explain, at any rate. But the news conference also at times allows members of the murdered victim’s family to speak their hearts, much as they might in a sentencing hearing. This family has been waiting 32 years.
7 p.m.: There’s a white tent set up with a modest dais a couple of football fields’ length from the pro and con gatherings, where the witnesses to the execution are supposed to be taken, along with members of the victim’s (the murdered victim, not the murderer’s) family. But so far, no sign of life anywhere. We only hear the mooing of cows in the distance (there are innumerable cows lounging in packs along the fence that separates their pasture from the state prison’s grounds). Next to the white tent, just two television trucks. Sometimes there are many more, Mark Elliott, who heads Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, was telling me moments ago, after remembering the time 32 years ago when the murder took place, not far from his neighborhood: he’s from Tampa. He comes to these executions every time. Has been making the three-hour trip for about 10 years or so.
“To have executions and not have anyone here,” Elliott says, “anyone bear witness, anyone protest, that’s what I would worry about the most.” But he’s not been having to worry about it. The crowds are growing, not diminishing, just as the movement to abolish the death penalty is gaining momentum, if not quite as much in Florida. “It’s our elected leaders who haven’t evolved as much as their constituents. But they will.”
6:05 p.m. After a long silence, the church group began ringing the loud, cylindrical bell, at 6 p.m., signaling the death of the inmate.
Several members of the church group rang the bell, yelling out “Not in my name” and “not in God’s name,” among other words. Then silence. Murmurs. Low chatter. The odd laughter–unrelated to any of this–from a small group of Florida Highway Patrol troopers, who have simply been assigned to these grounds and have no official interest one way or the other in the proceedings.
Then the wait: first for the van that carries out the witnesses the execution. Then for the hearse–or the coach, as they call it here–that brings out the body of the dead man.
I’m not going to say that any of this is surreal, because it’s not. There’s too much traffic–traffic of every kind: passing cars, people, voices, birds, bugs–to lend the scene anything surreal. This is common. It happens every few months here, every few days somewhere in the country. That’s what it’s been reduced to (not that it had ever been elevated into something else): a vague event a few people will pay attention to, a cause for small (very small) protests and counter-protests, for a few hours anyway, and then onto the next execution. The irony is how cheap death can be made to seem, in a system that costs the state $50 million a year.5:45 p.m. It’s a quiet scene: the opponents of capital punishments roped off in their own square of grass, the proponents squared off across the field, with a row of Florida Highway Patrol cruisers lined up between the two camps. The cruisers look superfluous. There are no intentions on either side to engage. The state prison is across the road some 300 yards away, to the west. The opponents held a brief prayer service, sang a few songs. The proponents were gathered in a circle of lawn and beach chairs, speaking with each other, wondering if there’d be any stay of execution. There wasn’t. The centerpiece of the proponents’ display is a long table covered with framed pictures of Elisa Nelson, the 10year-old girl murdered in 1980. And a vase filled with white flowers.
5:24 p.m. We arrive on the prison grounds. There’s a little excitement in the bus when the passengers eye another bus already here. Not of the same thinking: it’s a bus-full of proponents of the death penalty, bringing people from the Tampa Bay Area, where the victim of this latest murderer to be put to death was killed in 1980.
5 p.m.–We arrive in Starke, a town like any other, as unremarkable as its Kangaroo, where we stop for the first time since Palm Coast to give the two dozen people aboard the bus a chance to stretch out, buy a few snacks. I’m nagged by this memory, or odd connection: how the Poles and Germans who lived in the towns neighboring Nazi death camps would go about living their lives, watching the trains come in with their loads of human cargo, go back empty. There’s no serious comparison, except in the particular of one method: it was in Nazi death camps that lethal injection was first developed.
4 p.m.–There is virtually nothing redeeming about Larry Eugene Mann, the 59-year-old scheduled to be killed by the state of Florida, by lethal injection, at 6 this evening. Thirty-two and a half years ago–the morning of Nov. 4, 1980–Mann murdered 10-year-old Elisa Vera Nelson as she was biking to Palm Harbor Middle School, a bit late, with a note from her mother to her fifth-grade teacher to explained she’d been to the dentist that morning. She lived in a Tampa suburb.Mann, a convicted sex offender who’d raped a woman in Pascagoula, Miss., in 1973, intercepted her. He thought of raping her. That had been the reason he’d grabbed her. But he didn’t. He cut her throat. He fractured her skull with a cement-encased steel pipe that was found next to Elisa’s body. After the murder Mann went home and slashed both his wrists. The attempted suicide failed. He told police at his home that he had “done something stupid and needed help.” At the time, police presumed he was talking about the attempt on his life. It wasn’t. Four days after the suicide attempt, Mann asked his wife to get his glasses from his pick-up truck. There, his wife found the blood-soaked note Elisa’s mother had written to her teacher. Mann was arrested on Nov. 10.
He was sentenced to death three times, beginning in March 1981. The first sentence was vacated by the Florida Supreme Court, the second by a federal court. The third, in 1990, stuck. Mann’s attorney, Marie-Louise Samuels-Parker Friday sought a stay of execution from the Florida Supreme Court.
Elisa would have been 42 this year.
Imagine your child’s teacher assigning George Orwell’s 1984. The assignment is by way of an electronic book, so your child can read her copy on one of those iPads spreading through school districts like shades of gray. But there’s a catch. The teacher will know exactly how much time your child will spend with the book, whether the pages are turned, whether there’s any underlining, whether your child is actually engaging with the book. And the teacher will be able to give that study time an “engagement index” score that could be part of any assignment’s overall grade.
This isn’t an imaginary scheme from the future. It’s a technology already available on college textbooks, from a California start-up called CourseSmart, and it’s being used in nine colleges, with professors literally spying on their students’ study habits, and tallying up scores according to those habits. “It’s big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” Tracy Hurly, dean of the school of business at Texas A&M, tells the Times in an article on that new form of e-spying today. But does the good intent override the disturbing implications of this latest intrusion in private lives?
On Sunday I wrote about the blurring of lines between home and the workplace, which enables companies to creepily assume that their employees’ speech and behavior even away from work is the employer’s to police. Individual privacy is eroding at East German speeds. Spying through e-books is another example.
Reading is one of the few truly private activities left us, depending entirely on the isolation created between book and reader, and the way the reader chooses to engage with that book: reading a page over five times, skipping five pages, underlining five lines, cursing at five others. It’s all between the reader and the book, an act that shares some of the intimacies of sex (and passion) down to its exhilarations and disappointments (a bad writer having a lot in common with a lousy lover). Reading a textbook may not rate in the same category. But it’s no less intimate. The act of reading a textbook still belongs exclusively to the reader. How you read a textbook is irrelevant. If you’re performing well in class, that’s all that should matter.
For those teachers spying on their students’ study habits, it isn’t: they’re intruding on those manners of study, and making judgments about them whatever the results. One student did very well on a test, but the teacher discovered that the book had barely been cracked. That was a problem. Why? Are teachers now going to start down-grading their students because the work they produce isn’t in line with the expectations of studying in a particular way? There are innumerable ways to read, to study, to meditate on a subject (or not). A teacher’s idea of studying has no place imposing itself on a student’s.
Worse: “Students do not see their engagement indexes unless a professor shows them, but they know the books are watching them.” How could any data-gathering system be justified when the person being spied on is not privy to the data? The motive behind the new system explains plenty. It’s not about improving habits or good intentions. It’s about market share: “CourseSmart is owned by Pearson, McGraw-Hill and other major publishers, which see an opportunity to cement their dominance in digital textbooks by offering administrators and faculty a constant stream of data about how students are doing,” the Times reports.
Publishers also want to use the information to craft new editions, thus further diluting the editorial integrity of a work at the expense of marketing or popular corruptions. Meanwhile teachers can further dilute their own responsibility to judge their course’s effectiveness on their own by relying on yet more stashes of outside “data,” further reducing the need to do teaching’s heavy lifting. When is the last time your child had to write a paper?
It’s policing by data—a data-driven fetish that substitutes short-cutting technology (and let’s be blunt about it: spying) for critical judgment, while hiding behind presumptions of efficiency. I wouldn’t entirely discount some advantages to the technology. Readers’ habits could better direct a teacher to hone a course’s effectiveness, make it more interesting, less easy. But good teachers can do that now, unaided. Spying on readers’ study habits is deceptive gimmickry that gives the illusion of empowering teachers (or students) while wrecking the creative isolation the reading experience depends on most to be effective.
E-readers are familiar with the spying already. They participate in it. An electronic book tracks the highlighted passages of its readers across the country, across the world, so that my electronic copy of Richard Ford’s Canada, for instance, came already polluted by the collective underlines of who knows how many readers. Not just underlines, but notes, comments, shares, too. Mine would be added to the bunch, if I let it. I don’t. At least Kindle gives you the option of turning off those intrusions, and preventing your own from going into the universe. There are few more distasteful perversions of the reading experience than to be bombarded by the impersonal underlines and reactions of a collective blurb (just as there are few more tasty pleasures in the reading experience than to share a book or a passage with someone). Just don’t butt in uninvited.
But schemes like CourseSmart are all about butting in. “There is also correlation, the students are learning, between perception and success,” the Times goes on, with perverse results: “Hillary Torres, a senior, is a good student with a low engagement index, probably because she is taking notes into a computer file not being tracked. This could be a problem; she is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, whose local chapter is advised by Mr. Guardia [a Texas A&M teacher tracking 70 students]. “If he looks and sees, ‘Hillary is not really reading as much as I thought,’ does that give him a negative image of me?” she wondered. “His opinion really matters. Maybe I need to change my study habits.”
Catholics have a new pope, and it’s 76-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires–the first-ever South American pope, the first non-European pope (since Columbus, anyway, as Jim Flahrety corrected), and the first-ever pope to name himself Francis (Francis I), after St. Francis, patron saint of the poor. He is the 266th pope, and far from the first-ever to have been born closer to the 19th century than the 21st.
Finally, nevertheless, a pope we can (somewhat) believe in, though he has a very long road ahead to restore much of the church’s respectability in light of the pedophile scandal (Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, astoundingly, was among those casting votes for the new pope despite his scabrous role in protecting child-raping priests), in light of its still-enduring and discordant wealth, in light of its still-enduring and ridiculous discriminations against women, and in light of its lacking embrace of the Americas’ Catholics, north or south. All this to do in what may prove to be another abbreviated reign. The church appears incapable of getting over its fetish for doddering eminences who should be making room for leaders half their age.
This unsmiling pope has an oversize reputation for humility and popularity. He’s the sort of man who took mass transit to go to work (and held audiences with commuters on their way to work). He’s the sort of man who dispensed with the trappings of cardinals (big residences, ostentatious offices). He’s the sort of man who, after all, picks Francis for a name, the Francis of Assisi who felt more comfortable chattering with animals than human beings. The Francis of Assisi who, to the dismay of oil companies everywhere now that he’s breathing pontifical breadth (if not breath), is the patron saint of the environment. A few Greenpeace activist must right now be converting back to Catholicism. (Let’s see how long it’ll take Marco Rubio, patron saint of opportunists, to jump on the Bergoglio bandwagon and milk its Hispanic expediencies).
The announcement was still made in Latin, as it always has been, when it could more interestingly and daringly have been made in Spanish in recognition of the church’s majority language. Maybe it’s asking too much too soon. But nothing short of doing too much and quite soon can reverse the church’s decline (not just its priest shortage, but its credibility shortage). Catholicism is neither hip nor relevant, the John Paul-Benedict versions of Catholicism especially. Those versions were distinctly reactionary and hurtful to masses of people who, looking for guidance from their spiritual leaders, got idiotic lessons instead, most notably in Africa, where the John Paul-Benedict years have as much to account for over the Aids holocaust, which they did nothing to combat, as did Pius XII during the Shoah. And let’s not get into matters of contraception, homosexuality, transparency. The Vatican bank operates as if it was still 1226.
In Latin America meanwhile, the Church knows that its greatest challenge isn’t money or faith. It’s competition. Evangelicals have been piling up converts by the drove, not least because the Vatican has seemed as removed geographically as it’s been politically and spiritually. The Vatican’s inane rejection of liberation theology in the 1980s did it no favors. Rather, the rejection highlighted the desiccated institution it had become, more comfortable accommodating and exercising power, or apologizing for it, than tending to power’s victims.
Latin America has had its share. Argentina had its disproportionate share, and this pope will have to answer for some of his past, given his possibly too silent relationship with the junta of the 1970s that repressed, massacred and disappeared Argentines by the drove. The choice of Francis becomes more and more revealing, if not more potent. On the other hand, every time Brazil will boast about hosting the next World Cup, Argentina will say it has its own pope. (Argentina won the World Cup in 1978, the only time it hosted it, under the murderous gaze of junta members. It’s doubtful that the officiating was more democratic than the latest conclave in Rome.)
As for St. Francis (to whom we owe not only the talking fish, but, if Wikipedia is to be believed, the first Christmas manger scene), Valerie Martin wrote a wonderful portrait for the Atlantic in August 2000. The full version is available here.
When buses in Montgomery, Ala., were segregated, owners of the National City Lines could not understand what upset blacks so much. They were allowed to ride the bus, after all. They were provided a service, if not a favor. They could sit from back of the bus to the front, so long as whites, who had the privilege of sitting from front to back, did not crowd them out. Nothing wrong with that, National City Lines operators thought, until Rosa Parks decided to differ, and to refuse to give up the seat she’d taken, when a white person boarded and demanded it. Jackie Robinson had done the same thing in 1944, when he was still a soldier, when blacks were sent to Europe and Japan to fight for freedoms most of them were denied. He was court-martialed. That he was acquitted is beside the point: the offense was in the laws that deemed him guilty of inferiority to start with. And still, whites wondered what the fuss was about: “They’re allowed to ride the bus, aren’t they? What more do they want?” What more do they want: the oppressor’s patronizing motto in full bloom, blind to its own delusion of benevolence.
Israel’s transportation ministry is reviving the line and applying it to Palestinians, who board buses in the West Bank and commute to Israel to work. Israel’s West Bank colonists, planted there illegally and euphemistically referred to as “settlers,” have been bitching up a storm about having to ride with Palestinians. They of course consider every Palestinian a terrorist, though the terrorism best documented in the Occupied Territories in the last several years has been rather one-sided: colonists have been terrorizing, murdering, maiming and pillaging Palestinians with impunity reminiscent of white supremacy’s heyday in the American South. The colonists have been applying pressure on the transportation ministry to end the practice. Monday, the ministry revived its own homage to Plessy v. Ferguson: it gave in to the settlers, and started two segregated bus lines for Palestinians, as racist a practice as the old National City Lines’. Israeli rights groups immediately and correctly tagged them “apartheid lines.”
“Creating separate bus lines for Israeli Jews and Palestinians is a revolting plan,” Jessica Montell, director of B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, said on Israel’s Army Radio. “This is simply racism. Such a plan cannot be justified with claims of security needs or overcrowding.”
It’s nothing new. In Hebron, Jews and Arabs are officially have been officially separated since Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli terrorist and colonist, massacred 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded 125 at a mosque in one of Israel’s worst mass killings. In Hebron now, B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization writes, “the policy is implemented primarily through severe restrictions on Palestinian travel and movement in downtown Hebron, where most Israeli settlement outposts are located. Some of the main roads in the area are completely off limits to Palestinians, and many roads bar any and all Palestinian vehicles. Israel’s strict restrictions have made the lives of Palestinians in downtown Hebron intolerable, forcing many to leave their homes and jobs.” Last September, Israeli authorities split a key road in half: the wide, paved side is for Israelis, the narrow, dirt passageway is for Palestinians. Still, they don’t call it apartheid. They call it accommodation. They even—correctly—point to Israeli pirate-drivers who extort 15 shekels ($4) from Palestinian workers to drive them in, and say the bus lines are cheaper (8 shekels, or a little over $2). What more do they want?
As always in the United States, what would have triggered demonstrations on campuses and howls in Congress had the offender been, say, South Africa (as was the case in the 1980s) barely warrants mention in the press. The Times noted the new apartheid bus lines in an online posting on March 4, but hasn’t mentioned it in print. The development is drawing more attention in Europe, where human rights issues now resonate more deeply with people than in our routinely reactionary United States. Maybe the surprise, as Yousef Munayyer, the director of the Palestine Center in Washington, tells the Times, is that the bus segregation issue is attracting any attention at all, since apartheid is a fact of life for Palestinians living under martial law since 1967.
LONDON–If you’re reading this, it’s no longer a secret: a little after 6 p.m. today (or eighteen hundred hours, as they more logically call it here in the land of the original meridian), my brother Robert walked into Maroush, a Lebanese restaurant near the center of London, and heard—and saw—us all degenerate drunkards-to-be wish him a happy 50th, that half-century mark we’re all condemned to cross, assuming life doesn’t double-cross us first.
He beamed and so did we, all of us incredulous at what had just been pulled off for a man on whose far-flung friends and relatives the sun never sets: seven or eight months ago his wife hashed out a plan to summon us all, from roughly four continents and enough countries to cook up a World Cup of our own, for a globalist surprise party in the city that birthed globalism. Robert and his family had been living there for the last few years. By January a good 80 to 90 percent of the uncivilized world knew of the plan, except, apparently, my brother. Keeping that kind of secret is not easy in an age when Facebook knows more about us than the combined colonoscopies of the FBI and the National Security Agency ever could, and when Facebook reveals and tags and pokes and reminds and suggests and tattles all it knows, with its users—us complicit snitches—as its most effective collaborators. A few days ago an uncle from New Jersey, his inner ear for sense apparently still disoriented by Sandy, left a blaringly public message on my wife Cheryl’s Facebook page: “Will we see you in London?” She had to kindly tell him to zip it for at least a few more days. I have no idea how Susan (Robert’s wife) and his two children, at least one of whom is a Facebook collaborator, managed to keep the secret. Richard Nixon would have been envious.
I mention all this because I was just as surprised to have traveled 5,000 miles for an evening’s birthday wish (actually, there’s brunch too, Sunday). For Cheryl and me a trip across the ocean seemed as ridiculous as any notion of a vacation. We haven’t had one since launching FlaglerLive, our own little gulag in the sun, three years ago. I’m not complaining. It’d be criminal to complain when I’m able to make a living in a profession with Depression-sized unemployment and a graveyard next to every newspaper. There but for the grace of getting fired went I. But for all its cutting edge gimmickry web journalism is an ironic throwback to grub street, which signs our paychecks. It’s not the sort of living that affords excursions further than Epcot’s version of England and Paris, the absolute outer edge of our family’s solar system for the past three years.
Still, one of the many empty promises I made Cheryl when I convinced her to marry me in the late Clinton years was that I’d take her to the original Paris some day, the one with the authentic Eiffel Tower and equally authentic dog shit on sidewalks. The best I did was Nebraska, Vegas and a wind-whipped place called Hell’s Creek somewhere in Montana, a few days before our actual marriage (with the gay owner of a bed and breakfast in Virginia City as the best best man we could scrounge up for her.) Whenever she’s reminded me of the Paris promise I’ve responded with the best defense since Casablanca: “We’ll always have Orlando.”
Until now. And we didn’t have to rob a bank to do it. Just a bank account.
About the same time Susan was sending secret summonses I got word from the New York Times Co., for one of whose late regional papers I once worked, that we had a one-time offer to do with our retirement pension as we please: cash it out, roll it over to one of those 401-k scams, leave it alone and fantasize that it’ll be there in 20 years, or use it to buy plane tickets to Europe. I doubt the New York Times Co. is going to be around in 20 years. I doubt even more that I’m going to be around that long (there’s a heart attack with my name on it even now chiseling its arterial song on a discount tombstone at Craig Flagler Palms Funeral Home). I cashed out, and not only booked us on that flight to London, but tacked on a Chunnel-linked chunk of time for France, and Paris: promise, finally, kept.
I am back in England after a 34-year absence, in other words, at the expense of my doddering future, though bank theft has never felt so good. But I won’t be here long. The English segment of our Bonnie-and-Clyde act is only four days long.
Because the thing about England is this: I hate it. Beside English football, Antony Burgess and The Economist, I can do without it. It goes back to a traumatic year when I was condemned to an English boarding school when I was 14. The war in Lebanon had been a joy to live through compared to the snot-nosed pasty faced pimply kneed little adolescent upper cruddy-classed terrorists I was suddenly surrounded with. Not to mention the eternal grayish soot that passes for Britain’s sky, the same soot we spied from the plane’s windows as we descended on London in its wee-est hours Friday morning, the same soot I remember depressing me as the 707 of the time, that miserable September morning in 1978, left blue behind and descended into what would prove to be the grayest year of my life.
So the English portion of this journey is not just to celebrate my brother’s 50 years—a brother without whom I doubt I would have survived that plague year in England—but to make my peace with that little segment of my own Canterbury tales. Yes, the awful year was spent in Canterbury, she of the august cathedral and Thomas Beckett’s murder. But of those tales, another day.
Right now we were descending past the soot into a London as unrecognizable to me as it would have been to someone who’d seen its rubble in 1945 (at the end of World War II for you products of our historically illiterate schools), and was seeing it again for the first time since, say, 1978. For this is what struck me as I rode the Underground from Heathrow to Kings Cross station in the thick of rush hour Friday morning, and thinking—as my mind compulsively does when idle or punch drunk for lack of sleep—of those days when these very tubes were the bomb shelters and last prayers of democracy’s last stand against fascism: It has been 34 years since I last set foot in England. And it had been exactly 34 years since the end of World War II when I had first set foot in England. It was a startling, almost frightening realization.
Frightening, because time, that other fascist, is merciless. Those 34 years, like Robert’s 50, passed as if on a high-speed train to Last Rites Station. And startling, because the England of 1978 might as well have been centuries removed from its Blitz days, after only 34 years. Grimy and exhausted though it was in the late 1970s (after the be-Laboured years of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan), as all western democracies were after those decades of economic and social revolutions, England was a country as new as the old empire could possibly be, even then. And that was before Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair remade it anew, again, for good and ill, into an Americanized annex. But with cheap and universal health care, and public transportation of no lesser quality than France’s or Germany’s (which wasn’t the case in 1978). Big headline in the Independent’s Saturday centerfold: “Brash, crude, offensive—and a massive hit: The Book of Mormon, a musical by the creators of South Park, has taken the US by storm and now it’s coming to Britain.” We hadn’t landed in a different country, quite. Just a somewhat socially more responsible, better organized, more crowded, obscenely more expensive one. You get what you pay for.
And a touch more poetic, too. They’ve got a little thing going called “Poems on the Underground” (or was it in?), with poems scattered in advertising emplacements along the curved insides of rail cars just above commuters’ eye level, presumably to give the minuscule minority of people riding the train without an iPhone, a Kindle, or a medieval newsprint tabloid, and the even more minuscule minority of people who still read poetry, something to do. We were dazed from almost 24 hours without sleep since leaving Palm Coast. We had six pieces of luggage handcuffing us. Our eyes wandered, and fell on Jo Shapcott’s “Gherkin Music,” which went something like this:
Walk the spiral
Up out of the pavement
into your own reflection, into
transparency, into the space
when flat planes are curves
an you are transposed
as you go higher into a thought
of flying, joining the game
of brilliance and scattering
when fragments of poems,
words, names fall like glory
into the lightwells until
St. Mary Axe is brimming.
All I can say is that we’d had enough of flying for a day and a night, all transpositions into higher thoughts and falling glories aside. Our arrival had coincided with rush hour on the Picadilly Line, so we were surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of rush hour on any subway line anywhere in the world—those morning aromas of fresh showers and innumerable perfumes wrestling it out greco-roman style in our nostrils, the sudden orgiastic intimacy with too many touching bodies to count but for the saving grace of winter’s thick clothing, the cradle-like rhythms of the train’s stops and starts, murder on anyone trying to stay awake against the Atlantic tide of jetlag, and that sound, that cockroachy sound of a half dozen earphones wrestling it out with the voice of that woman, the same woman, the same voice, used by British Rail and the Underground to announce in an accent as swarthy as Dame Judy Dench’s and with intonations more lyrical than any errant poem the list of coming stations on whatever seductive stretch of line we happened to be gliding to end, in our case, at the no less orgasmic terminus called cockfosters.
It was a nice contrast with the labor of rush-hour transit, and the half-hour line to have our passport stamped and the purpose of our stay’s interrogated before our welcomed entry into Her Majesty’s British Empire. They didn’t even check our bags at customs. The Arab look on me must be fading. Or I must be getting very, very old, though my son Luka and his Teddy bear walking next to me was a good decoy. The pastier Britisher behind me, much younger and walking alone, was fingered by a tight-lipped customs lass with her “could you come over here sir, you, yes,” as we walked on into the sooty-gray air of suburban London.
We weren’t done traveling for the day. Our plane had landed at 7 am. Local time. Robert’s party wasn’t until Saturday evening. We had 36 hours. I wasn’t about to waste them resting up, or “preparing” for the party. We had an appointment to our own Samarra at St. Pancras Station—a high-speed train to Canterbury, where we’d spend the day and night, and get that reckoning over with. London would have to wait.