A Lesson in Democracy

I was wrong, and I’m thrilled about it.

As I explained earlier this week, I am always wrong about my political predictions.  I am as shocked at everyone else that Great Britain chose to leave the European Union and take back its nation.  And today I raise a cheer for democracy.

The word “democracy” hails from the Greek root demos, meaning “people.”  That is what’s so great about national referenda like the one that occurred in Britain on Thursday.  The people, not the politicos, get to decide.

Here in California, on every Election Day you can count on a series of referenda (known locally as “propositions”) will be on the ballot.  Everything from term limits to new taxes to environmental measures is put to the will of the people.  We rarely, if ever, see this on a national basis, however (due largely to the federalist compromises made by our Founding Fathers in the Constitution).  Instead, in the U.S. our government operates on a system of representative democracy.  We choose our members of Congress and our president and we place our trust in them to do our will.  That’s supposed to be the price of our votes.  Of course, it often doesn’t work out that way, if for no other reason than any legislator, even the one whom you most ardently support, will have a contrary view to your own on something.

That’s why referenda are so refreshing.  It is as if our representatives are saying “you tell us what you want to do about this and we will make it happen.”  Instead of the representative democracy to which we are so accustomed, this moves down the spectrum toward the New England town meeting, perhaps the ultimate form of direct democracy.  You count up the votes and majority rules.

The problem, of course, is that this is a tough gig for the losers, particularly when the vote is more or less split down the middle, as it was in Britain on Thursday.  It is a far cry from the consensus so prized by the Japanese.  But sometimes it makes sense to acknowledge that there simply is no consensus.  (The first issue this brings to mind is abortion in the United States.)  Opponents of direct democracy point out that there is little gained by alienating nearly half the electorate in such cases.  And yet, short of kindergarten-style sharing (we’ll do it my way today and your way tomorrow), it seems like the fairest way to run a society.

Of course, once the populace votes on an issue, you’re stuck with the outcome.  There are times when the decision made by the people is not so irretrievable that it’s possible to put it up for a vote again later to determine whether public opinion has changed (which it may if the decision fails to yield the desired results).  There are often opportunities for the people to rethink the situation, back up and change their minds.  Many times, however, you’re really stuck with your decision.  In some circumstances, there is no going back.  The Brexit appears to be one of these, and I put it to you that this is a good thing.  Britons must accept the consequences of their decision, which involves both good and bad.  I believe that the former far outweighs the latter.

By the way, the “fear” campaign waged by the Remain faction did not help matters.  Many Britons saw the scare tactics for what they were.

So now there’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on.  The “leave” camp won due to the voting power of the working class.  The vote to leave the E.U. was all about England, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland wanted no part of it.  Not enough young people, who treasure the ability to roam throughout Europe free of border controls, showed up at the polls.  It was a rainy day with flash floods so many potential voters stayed home.  There’s no end to the second guessing.

The bottom line, however, is that now the people of Great Britain can cut the apron strings to Mother Europe and forge their own destiny.  Their money is better spent at home rather than being forcibly sent out to 27 other member nations.  Britain is a proud nation that will once again be able to make its own rules.  Britain has declared its independence of Europe, much as the American colonies once declared their independence of Britain.  ‘Tis a wondrous day, indeed.

As for those who persist in gloom and doom, dwelling on the crash of the pound and the steep drop in stock markets worldwide, I say to you:  Get over it.  It takes a while for markets to correct and for people to get used to new realities.  I have no doubt that there will be sacrifices to be made, but they seem a small price for the sweet taste of self-rule.  I just hope it won’t be long until the will of the people is consummated by Britain’s invocation of Article 50 of the E.U. compact.  Now that the people have spoken, let’s do this thing.

Thank you, Great Britain, for going to the ballot boxes in droves to let your voices be heard.  Thank you, Great Britain, for standing up for what you believe in.  And most of all, thank you for giving the entire world a lesson in democracy.



A Brexit, You Say? Fat Chance!

I don’t usually make political predictions because I’m generally wrong (and who likes to be wrong?).  Today, however, I will go out on a limb and predict that Clinton will win the U.S. presidential election and that Britain will elect to remain in the European Union.  I am willing to take the chance of making such predictions not only because I believe them to be true, but also because, this time, I will raise a cheer if I’m wrong on either count.

The U.S. presidential election is still more than four months off, but the Brits vote on Thursday.  The “remain” and “leave” factions have each waged active campaigns, complete with rhetoric, bombast and hand-wringing that even went so far as to encompass the murder of a British politician.

While I do not believe that there is much in it for Britain to remain in the E.U., I am disappointed that the “leave” faction has descended to making the issue about immigration, perhaps the most hot button item for Britons these days.  With Britain as a member of the E.U., citizens of any sister nation can live and work in Britain legally.  This, of course, is also true for Brits who wish to try their fortunes on the Continent, say, in a bit less cold and rainy locale such as Portugal or Italy.  No one really knows whether a Brexit would mean that the expats in Britain would have to go home and the British retirees on the beaches of southern Europe would have to do the same.  It really is a matter of “details to be worked out later.”  The “leave” faction just wants to take back control of Britain’s immigration policies.  That would include saving the costs spent by the socialized health care system in caring for the medical needs of immigrants.  Oh, and the “be-leave-ers” want to take the billions that Britain is forced to send the European Union and instead use it for worthy causes at home.  Also, they want to send their own representatives to international commissions rather than having to settle for representation by Mother Hen E.U.

All of this makes perfect sense to me.  Everyone wants to be (or at least to think they are) in control of their own destiny rather than relying, childlike, on others to make their most important decisions.

Of course, the “remain” faction insists that all this is hogwash and poppycock.  Why should they leave the Union, they ask, when they have it so good?  After all, Britain has a special deal with the E.U. that exempts the Brits from many of the onerous rules and red tape imposed on the rest of the Union nations.  Heck, Britain isn’t even saddled with the euro; they got to keep their pound sterling, so what more do they want?

The “remaIN” people point to strength in numbers, the clout that Britain currently enjoys with the E.U. and the advantages of mutual protection.  Plus, they are caterwauling about the economic catastrophe that would come with leaving the Union.  The stock markets would crash!  Worldwide financial panic would ensue!  Not only that, but the “remain” faction buys into the E.U.’s saber-rattling, the Union’s noisemaking machine that insists that Britain will pay dearly for destroying what could one day have become the United States of Europe!

And as for Scotland?  England’s neighbor to the north claims that, should Britain leave the E.U., Scotland will vote for independence so that the newly free nation can turn right around and join the Union.  To which I say ha, ha, ha!  Very funny, indeed.  Remember, Scotland tried that just a few months ago and the people of the kilt and haggis voted to remain securely within Great Britain.  If anyone believes the Glaswegians are going to change their minds now because they’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore, well, I have a bridge to sell you over here in California, chap.

The fact is that the “stiff upper lip” Brits are just too conservative and too stuck in their own bog to do anything as dramatic as vote to leave the European Union.  For heaven’s sake, even Greece, whose people did vote to leave the Union last summer (remember all those OXI! signs?) ended up staying, thanks to spineless Tspiras and “motorcycle Mac” Varoufakis.  If tiny Greece couldn’t pull off a Grexit despite the will of the people, I don’t think a nation as populous as Britain has a marshmallow’s chance in hell.

No one is saying that the E.U. would let Britain off easy if they do decide to leave.  The Union will undoubtedly use the two-year unwinding process as an opportunity to stick it to Britain any way they can.  But as far as the gloom-and-doom “remain” faction, they can quit peddling their disaster scenarios now.

Not that it matters.  The “remain” faction has effectively already won.  Even the financial panic that was gaining some momentum last week has died down as the “leave” faction has lost its momentum quicker than Bernie Sanders.

It’s really too bad.  As some articles in the media have pointed out, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Great Britain to cut the apron strings and forge a future on its own terms.  But with the vote less than two days away, I can see that Britain has already blown its chance.  Choked in the ninth inning.  Pulled defeat from the jaws of victory.

All that’s left is to pull out the chocolate bars and make some S’mores on Thursday.  And pass the hankie, please.  For I shall shed a tear at the incontrovertible evidence that a Britain that once lived up to its name is truly no longer Great.


Not My Idea of Religion

Church Demonstration

The scene outside Victory Baptist in Sacramento last night

The Sacramento Kings basketball team has unveiled its new purple jerseys, featuring the logo “Sacramento Proud.”  Today, however, I am not proud to be a Sacramentan.

Right on our doorstep, the minister of a purportedly Christian church delivered a mean-spirited, hate-filled sermon on Sunday, in which he insisted that we should not be “sad or upset” about the mass murder at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  In his depraved mind, this horror was very much in line with Old and New Testament verses that prescribe the death penalty for homosexuals.  When the Sacramento Bee interviewed Verity Baptist Church Pastor Roger Jimenez at home, he confirmed his pulpit remarks stating “all I’m saying is that when people die who deserve to die, it’s not a tragedy.”  He cited passages in Leviticus and Romans to back up his claims.

I looked up the address of the church on our way home from work this evening so that we could drive by.  (I was horrified to discover that some miscreant who apparently believes that two eir wrongs make a right had changed the Google label to read “Verity Satan Church.”)  It was located in a boring, cookie-cutter industrial park, where we saw close to 100 protesters demonstrating in front of the church with rainbow and American flags.  News crews and sheriff’s deputies were on the scene.  While I do hope that the church’s service was not disrupted this evening, I was pleased to see that more than a few local residents took time out of their busy schedules to register their disapproval in a public manner.

While I remain incredulous that anyone characterizing himself as a man of God could suggest that we not mourn the loss of our fellow man, I am heartened by the fact that his warped dogma is a very minority view.  I simply cannot allow myself to believe that many others surreptitiously subscribe to this brand of hate.  I always thought that God = Love.  God approving of murder?  That’s certainly not my idea of religion.



Wild Animals Do Not Belong in Captivity

Over the past week, there has been a great deal of media coverage of the Cincinnati Zoo’s decision to kill a young resident of its Gorilla World exhibit, Harambe, after a four year old boy deliberately slipped past a fence and fell into a moat surrounding the great ape’s enclosure.  Many of the comments online are filled with emotion and invective (see Twitter hashtag #justiceforharambe if you don’t believe me), either supporting or castigating the zoo for its actions.  Some even lash out at the boy’s mother, criticizing her parenting abilities to the point of calling for social services to get involved.  Others go even further and would have the child’s parents prosecuted under the state’s criminal law (for what offense I have no idea).  The Cincinnati Police is supposedly investigating.  (I love this!  They can calm the fomenting rabble by agreeing to investigate while they know perfectly well that there is little they can do.)

I have no idea whether the zoo was right or wrong to kill Harambe.  After all, I wasn’t there.  Some of those who were on the scene describe Harambe dragging the child around and repeatedly banging his head on the concrete.  Others point out that the child was examined at a hospital and was found to have suffered no serious injuries.  So you can take your pick there.  All I know is that if a 420 pound gorilla were to drag me around and repeatedly bang my head on concrete, I wouldn’t be here to write these words.

Supporters of Harambe have suggested that the zoo should have used a tranquilizer dart or should have distracted the gorilla with treats such as pineapple.  Some say that the gorilla would have wreaked irreversible damage on the boy by the time a tranquilizer took effect, while others point out that the zoo allowed ten minutes to elapse before making its decision to use lethal force, time during which a tranquilizer could have been taking effect.

And, of course, there are those who insist that the zoo’s decision was a no-brainer, that “a human is always worth more than an animal.”  (Although not everyone agrees with this proposition.)

As you no doubt realize by this point, I am more than a bit amused by the forceful arguments in support of or in opposition to the Cincinnati Zoo’s action.  That’s the wonderful thing about a free press in the age of the internet:  Everyone gets to express his or her opinion, vastly enriching the marketplace of ideas.

We are all such good Monday morning quarterbacks, now aren’t we?  This is what my mother always referred to as “20/20 hindsight.”  Unfortunately, those faced with an emergency don’t have the luxury of time to allow the case to be argued in the court of public opinion.  We see this all too often when police make a split-second decision to use deadly force in order to protect themselves or others from being killed.  First walk a mile in that guy’s moccasins, then come talk to me.

As for the mother’s culpability, I cannot escape my legal training that has taught me to argue both sides of the question.

Legally, a non-human animal is considered chattel, mere property.  This has been the common law at least since Blackstone, Coke and the other great British legal commentators published their treatises centuries ago.  As a supporter of animal rights, I am not happy about this fact, but there it is.  Accordingly, if I were representing the Cincinnati Zoo in civil litigation against the mother, I would argue that her negligence resulted in the loss of valuable zoo property and would demand restitution forthwith.

Just think of the approbation and liability that the zoo would have suffered if it had allowed Harambe to kill the boy!  The lawyers would have descended, demanding millions of dollars in damages, far more than the property value of a gorilla.  One internet commenter pointed out that the value of a boy is so much more than that of a gorilla because the latter has such limited capabilities, while the former could be the discoverer of the next cure for a deadly disease.  That is certainly a possibility.  Typically, however, the courts greatly limit the value of a child’s life, as it cannot be known whether he would have been the next Einstein or a criminal in prison for life.  While a gorilla is unable to discover the cure for cancer, neither is it able to engage in genocide or embezzle the retirement funds of thousands.

Now, if I were representing the boy’s mother, I would argue that Harambe’s enclosure represented an attractive nuisance to a young child and that the zoo therefore has no one to blame for its losses but itself.  Think of it:  You’re four years old. Ooo!  A big gorilla to play with!  And water to splash in on the way!  Your mom is momentarily distracted with your brothers and sisters.  What would you do?  Uh-huh, thought so!

In its defense, zoo director Thane Maynard claims that its fences at Gorilla World are more than adequate, that they have been approved by the relevant governing bodies, and that they have never experienced a problem before in the nearly forty years that the exhibit has been open.  Kind of what I would call an “innocent until proven guilty” defense.  But Maynard also admits that “the trouble with barriers is that, whatever the barrier is, some people can get past it.”  Uh-huh.  Little people, for example.  Like, uh, maybe a four year old?  And just what audience do zoos cater to anyway?  Families!  Children!  School groups!  It’s fun for all ages, it’s educational, bring the kids for a day out at the zoo!

This, I believe, is the crux of the problem.  Rather than second guessing the zoo’s on-the-spot decision, we need to step back and take a bigger picture approach.  Let’s admit that safety considerations are just one of many reasons that animals should not be maintained in captivity.  Wild animals belong in the wild.  And as long as the courts refuse to extend the writ of habeas corpus to non-humans, we will continue to experience unfortunate incidents involving the death of captive animals or the humans who come into contact with them.

After all, boy and gorilla were each doing what comes naturally.  The fault is not theirs, but ours.


Cattle Country

Interstate 40 sign


Just west of the Oklahoma line, we pull off Interstate 40 to find a room for the evening in this middle-of-nowhere town on the old Route 66. We are exhausted and I just want to crawl under the covers and commune with the backs of my eyelids. I am glad that the clerk is so matter of fact, as I don’t feel like chatting. Thank you, Mr. Desk Guy, for not asking about our entire itinerary like the clerk in Quincy, Florida did. There, at another nondescript crossroads in another state’s panhandle, the motel clerk’s desk, behind a Plexiglas window, contained a model of the hotel’s shower setup. I was treated to a demonstration of how to turn on the water and how to switch the spigot from tub to showerhead. I must have registered a look of disbelief, as the cheerful clerk asked “Should I show you again?”

Here in Texas, I am grateful that all I need to do is mumble the magic words “we need a room,” upon which the clerk takes care of the rest without fanfare or foofaraw. Coffee, tea and hot chocolate in the lobby in the morning. I try not to roll my eyes. (I don’t know about you, but what I need in the morning is food. Most hotels have at least a free continental breakfast, a bagel and juice or something. Haven’t you heard, Mr. Desk Guy?). No, we don’t have any children or pets. I grab the key and go.

As conscious as I am of animal welfare issues, I am glad that I don’t have a pet in this place. As soon as I pull up to the door of the room, I notice a gray and white cat, probably feral, sniffing around. And when I begin to unload the bags, I am greeted by a pair of black cats who walk right up to me as if this is their standard routine. In the gathering dusk, I almost don’t notice them in their pitch black fur, but the shining yellow-green eyes give them away. I hope they don’t end up running into our motel room and under the bed while we are unloading. Let’s just say that my wife does not care for cats. At all.

This is cattle country. Perhaps the most prominent feature on the featureless landscape of north Texas is the herds of beef cattle and the enormous feedlots filled with thousands of cows just off the freeway. “This is where the steaks and hamburgers of America come from,” I announce to my wife, the disdain in my voice totally obvious. Indeed, as we traverse western Oklahoma and then approach Amarillo in Texas, the billboards become more frequent, announcing a free 72 oz. steak to anyone who can eat all of it with the accoutrements and fixin’s within one hour. The perfect combination of excess consumption, gluttony and the murder of innocents without a second thought.

The plains stretch out before us, and in the orange glow of the 9 pm sunset, we can see so far out to the horizon that I feel as if I can almost discern the curvature of the earth. Back in Maine, the husband of my wife’s friend was recounting tall tales of his military service in Montana. The terrain was so flat, he boasted, that a soldier going AWOL could still be seen for three days.

I now think I understand what he meant.

The Dead Place

Fort Lauderdale Cemetery


I seem to have lost my bearings, both as to space and time.  Funny how traveling can do that.  Once you’re out of your regular routine, it can be hard to remember what day it is or where you are.  For me, this effect has been compounded by the fact that I developed flulike symptoms somewhere around the Carolinas.  Upon our arrival in Florida, I more or less collapsed in our hotel room bed, sending my wife off to visit the friend she came to see.  I slept most of the day while they took a day trip down to Key West.  Only in the cool breeze of the evening did I venture outside to sit on one of the deck chairs overlooking the hotel pool.

Everything is so white here:  The furniture, the cars, the blinding midday sun.  It’s a Florida thing, I’m told, everything is white to reflect the intense sunlight.

For years, Florida’s Gold Coast has struck me as “the dead place.”  If you believe in hell, the climate here will give you a preview of coming attractions.  Not long ago, my father reminded me of a book he read years ago, Dying in the Sun, about retirees who leave the Northeast and Midwest to live their golden years in South Florida, endure illnesses, and be buried there.

Dad loves gallows humor.  He tells me that the only topics of conversation when you run into a fellow geezer in South Florida are:

  • Where you went to eat and did you go “early bird”
  • What the doctor said
  • “You hear who died?”

After an absence of a quarter of a century, I again find myself in the land of the dead.

South Florida. U.S. 1, known locally as Federal Highway. Late night Denny’s run.

“Got any fresh decaf?” I ask the server before I even sit down.

“I can make you a fresh pot, honey,” she replies before waddling off to the kitchen.

My wife and I peruse the menu and I spy our server sitting side saddle at a booth a few feet across the room. “You ready yet?” she calls out to us, not making a move in our direction. The poor woman weighs about as much as I do. The place is nearly empty, so she must be taking an opportunity for a moment’s rest. I can see how it would be tough for her to stand on her feet for an entire shift. Still, my wife is appalled at what passes for customer service in this place.

We attempt to put together our orders.

“Got any soup?”

“Nope, we throw it out at 10:00.”

“I’ll have oatmeal…”

“Nope, we only have it until 2:00.”



“Well then I’ll have a toasted bagel.”

“Nope. Only in the mornings. You can have an English muffin.”

It seems that the Grand Slam has become the Grand Strike Out.

We are used to good service at Denny’s all over the country, so we are unpleasantly surprised. We soon learn that this is not an anomaly. A few nights later, in Grants, New Mexico, I order potatoes and get rice. I order broccoli that arrives so cold, it is obvious that it is just out of the freezer, having seen insufficient time in the microwave. Getting a refill on my coffee is next to impossible. It is clear that customer service is not a priority. Disgusted, we give the remainder of our gift card to an elderly couple on our way out.  Denny’s had been crossed off our list.

But tonight, something else is on my mind.  It could be the combination of being sick and the weird feeling of being in a strange environment that was once familiar, decades ago.  After visiting the graves of one set of grandparents in New York City earlier during this trip, we have now stopped at the graves of my other set of grandparents, my Dad’s folks, near Fort Lauderdale. I had been to the cemetery in Queens many times as a kid with my parents, had a horribly emotional experience at my grandfather’s funeral when I was 21, and last set foot in the place at his unveiling, some 35 years ago. Aside from the stone bench being moved, a curb being installed and the cemetery having become even more crowded than it used to be, I found that not much had changed in the intervening decades. Back in the sixties and seventies, my parents would drag us out there a couple of times each year. I’d bring a siddur (prayer book) and read the Kaddish in the original Aramaic while my mother cleared the graves of loose greenery and then just sat there while my sisters, my father and myself grew increasingly restless and impatient. I was too young to appreciate Mom’s grief over her mother’s loss.

But here in Florida, this was different. For one thing, I did not attend either funeral and had never been to the graves before. For another, this was a mausoleum rather than a traditional six-feet-under burial site (although there were plenty of those on the grounds, too). I expected the graves to be indoors, in a building, but they were not. I knew the bodies had been cemented into a wall, but I did not expect the wall to be outdoors!

The elderly, chatty clerk at the desk in the tiny super air conditioned office of our hotel in Deerfield Beach insisted on drawing me a map of how to get to the cemetery.  It was not as if he was intimately familiar with the place; it’s just that he tried to map it on Google and couldn’t get his printer to cooperate when I informed him that I had to go because my wife was impatiently waiting for me in the car.  Not wanting to let me escape without assistance (a reflection of his kindness, as I could have mapped the route on my phone in a fraction of the time), he settled for a low-tech solution by consulting the map on his computer screen and hand drawing a facsimile therefrom.  His directions turned out to be perfect.

When my wife pulled up to the curb near an open door to the cemetery office, I stepped inside only to find that this was the location of a funeral.  I was sent around to the other side of the building.  There, we were told to pull into the rabbi’s space to wait for an employee who could assist us.  A woman emerged a few minutes later, spoke with us through the car window and then went back inside to retrieve a form.  I was to write down the names of the deceased.  The employee left and returned a few minutes later, stating that there were multiple people buried there with the same names.  She asked me for my grandparents’ dates of birth or death.  I wasn’t sure about my grandparents’ DOB, but I knew my grandfather had died in 1996.  When she next returned with a map of the property, the employee informed me that I had erred, that Grandpa had actually died in 1992.  This came as a surprise to me, as he and I had one of our best conversations in 1993, when my grandparents traveled to New York to be with my father during his surgery.  The depth of incompetence possible in customer service never ceases to amaze me.

Following the map, we drove as close as we could get to the block section where my grandparents’ remains are entombed.  I still had a little way to go on foot, negotiating the block numbers in the blazing South Florida midday heat, remaining in the shade as much as possible.  My grandparents’ marker was located on the top row of a mausoleum block stacked six high.  I found a nearby bench from which I could crane my head to read the writing high above me.  The marker (matzevah, as we call it in Hebrew) was unremarkable.  It contained my grandparents’ years of birth and death, not even full dates.  Not a word of Hebrew was in evidence, not even their Jewish names.  As disappointing as I found this, I suppose it reflects the reality of the situation:  Neither one had a religious bone in their bodies.  (And Grandpa, in fact, openly disdained and ridiculed religion of any type.)  There were two standard icons in the corners, a Star of David and a menorah, just like on hundreds of other nearby stones.  A cookie cutter memorial.  Except, I noted, for some brief descriptive information.  Grandpa was etched in stone as “a loyal friend” (Note to self:  Ask Dad about this.  This is a side of Grandpa with which I am totally unfamiliar.) and Grandma was “a beautiful, gracious lady.”  Gag.  As if this weren’t bad enough, the lower edge of the stone read “in love forever.”  While I initially found the sappiness intolerably saccharine, thinking about this for a few days left me with a sense of veritas.  My grandparents remained quite solicitous of each other into their elder years and, I had to admit, did indeed remain in love with each other all their lives.

And I am pleased to report that, cemetery office weirdos notwithstanding, the stone did indeed list the correct year of my grandfather’s death, 1996.  It’s hard to believe that twenty years have already elapsed since then.

Summer, 1996.  I am out of work (again) and living with my sister’s family in Boston.  I have developed a serious internet addiction that involves volunteering for AOL, staying online all night and sleeping during the day.  I am on a 14.4K dialup connection, due to which my family can’t get through to us late at night with the news of my grandfather’s death.  My brother-in-law in California IMs me to have my sister call our parents at once.  Mom and Dad offer to pay for a plane ticket for me to fly to Florida for the funeral, but I decline.  The thought of flying makes me incredibly anxious, exacerbating my panic disorder.  If I just stay here in Boston and don’t think about it, I’ll be alright, I tell myself.  I don’t feel emotionally stable enough to travel to a funeral 1,500 miles away.  I will crumple, I know, perhaps have one of my hyperventilation episodes like I did at my other grandfather’s funeral in 1980, and just make it worse for everyone.  I don’t think about how I might feel 20 years later.

I bid adieu to my grandparents’ graves, pick myself up off the bench and walk back to the air conditioned shelter of our car as quickly as I can.  I do not know how people manage to live in such a hellacious climate.  The sweat pours off my face and neck and I know I need a drink of cold water immediately.  As I open the car door, the blast of refrigerated air is as welcome relief as a man could ask for.

We’re done here.  Let’s go home to California.



Spin Cycle

Laundry Room


If you mention Mississippi to me, I am more likely to think of the river that flows by this town, rather than of the state to which the river lent its name.  The wide Mississippi, slavery, steamships, tugboats, Huck and Jim on a raft.

Derived from the Ojibway language’s term for “great river,” the name “Mississippi” is a traditional schoolroom bugbear.  Difficult to spell correctly due to its repeating letters (I can still hear my niece triumphantly singing “M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I!”), as kids we would appropriate the Magnolia State as a means of marking off time in seconds (“One, Mississippi, two, Mississippi, three, Mississippi, four, Mississippi…”).  Back in New York in the 1960s, this was an essential element of the neighborhood kids’ spirited games of hide ‘n seek and ringolevio (while I, disdaining anything physical, could be found indoors with a book).

But being in Mississippi “for real” is another story entirely.  In addition to being fried catfish capital of the world (bottom feeders, yuck!), Mississippi is now known for its gambling casinos.  The primary enclaves of slot machines and of dice tumbling upon felt tables are at Gulfport on the coast and here in the far northwest, in the exurbs of Memphis, Tennessee, in an area known as “Tunica Resorts.”

Everyone calls this place Tunica, although the casinos here are about ten miles away from the town of that name, in the unincorporated community of Robinsonville, on the Mississippi River.  Although the hotels are on the shore, apparently the casinos themselves must float in the Mississippi (à la riverboat gambling) to comply with state law.

The 90 degree temperature and the oppressive humidity of early summer are all but unbearable.  We made a reservation from the road, fully expecting everything to be sold out for the Memorial Day weekend.  While the hotel websites seemed to confirm this suspicion, we have found  that calling directly will often yield good news of a cancellation.  Our expectation proved correct, despite the fact that Clint Black is performing here this evening.

As we rolled into town, however, our primary concern was finding a place to do laundry.  Video poker would have to wait.  And I don’t mean maybe.

When you’re on the road for a month, you either have to bring A LOT of clothes or plan to do laundry regularly.  When wandering from one state (or country) to another, however, you never know exactly what you will or will not find.  Lesson learned:  Do not wait until the last possible moment to do laundry.  If you do, fate will laugh in your face and no washer/dryer combo with public access will be available anywhere near your location.

Somehow, we managed to violate this rule more than once during our travels across the USA, with the disgusting results you would pretty much expect.  I have been chastened.  I now understand that when my wife pronounces “we have to do laundry TODAY,” well, she ain’t kidding, amigo.

Our motto has been “have detergent pods and dryer sheets, will travel,” and we make every effort to keep our change purse fully stocked with quarters.  It is such a nice convenience when your hotel happens to have guest laundry facilities.  Unfortunately, many hotels don’t.  Then you get the pleasure of searching for a laundromat in an unfamiliar town.  This may take the form of Googling “laundromats near me,” asking for advice at the front desk or cruising the main drag to see what you can spy with your little eye.

As we had decided to pack only four days’ worth of clothes in light of our already jam-packed little car and our desire to avoid the necessity of removing suitcase after suitcase from the car when we stopped each night, we knew that our immediate future would be filled with many washers and dryers.  The scenario ended up playing out something like this:

Nashville – To pull a load of clothes out of the hotel’s washer after an hour, only to find them dripping, sopping wet, is far from encouraging. We had to rewash them in the only other machine and then endure the griping of crotchety employees who only grudgingly refunded our lost quarters.  Their attitude may have been a product of their inability to convince a tech come out and work on the broken washer.  Post an “out of order” sign?  Nah!

Alexandria, Virginia –  The hotel’s tiny laundry room on the top floor was locked.  We had to obtain a key from the front desk.  One washer, once dryer.  We tag teamed:  My wife would take the elevator up and put in a load, I’d set the timer on my phone, then head upstairs to switch the load.  Repeat.  Repeat.  The lint trap, which may not have been cleaned since the Vietnam War, looked like a breeding ground for mutant bacteria intent on taking over the earth.

Nanuet, New York – The typical situation:  Hotel contains no guest laundry facilities and our suitcases contain no clean clothes. After dinner, we drive around hunting for a laundromat that’s open late.  Google shows us the location of a fluff ‘n fold in downtown Pearl River by the railroad tracks.  Only the laundress with the heavy Spanish accent informs us that we won’t get our clothes back until tomorrow.  And how are we supposed to get dressed in the morning?  Black Hefty trash bags?  My wife ended up doing a load at another hotel in a blazingly hot laundry room without even a place to sit down.

Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod – Found a little laundromat out by the local supermarket.  Since there was no change machine, of course we ran out of quarters.  Bought a bunch of snacks at the Stop ‘n Shop to get change.

Florence, South Carolina – On the way to Florida, we are are running behind schedule, my wife needs a wifi connection so she can get some work done and, of course, we are out of clean clothes.  We pull into town eight o’clock at night and find an all-night laundromat with wifi.  After loading our clothes in two washers (one whites, one colors), we discover that no one on site has the wifi password.  My wife uses up data to connect to her personal hot spot and I sit out in the car to avoid the megadecibel blaring of the laundromat TV that is rattling my brains inside my head.

Which brings us here to Mississippi.  Dressing on our last morning in south Florida, I find that I have no clean socks.  I have to wear the same pair for a second day.  After a long day of driving, we end up in the panhandle, where we check into a hotel and collapse.  In the morning, I have no clean clothes at all.  Then we run into traffic and get into Jackson late.  My wife washes out some clothes in the hotel room sink and sprays everything with deodorant.  She lays them out on the air conditioner to dry, but I get cold in the night and turn off the A/C.  You guessed:  Damp clothes.  I don’t even want to think about what I must smell like.  Is this what it’s like for the homeless?

After registering at the front desk and confirming that the hotel has no guest laundry, we learn that one of the local RV parks has laundry facilities.  We head across the road to the Sam’s Town RV Park and find the little laundry room.  It is 90 degrees and incredibly humid.  We lug out all our clothes, load them into the washers and sit outside on a bench.  The combination of the heat and humidity makes me feel as if I am about to puke up my guts.  We take refuge in the car and crank the A/C to the max.  When the laundry is dry, we repair to our room on the third floor of the casino hotel, overlooking the slot machines floating on the Mississippi River.  We immediately fall asleep and don’t wake up until 5 am, when we take off out of town.  The property’s total take from our gambling revenue?  Zero.

Video poker will have to wait until another trip.  After all, we need our quarters for laundry.


The Hollywood Casino gambling floor, floating in the Mississippi River.

Crackheads of Jackson



Interstate 55 jets us straight north out of Jackson toward the gambling mecca of Tunica and the big city skyline of Memphis, just over the Tennessee line.  But here at the Pilot truck stop, a motorcycle club has just roared in for a pit stop, instantly monopolizing all the pumps.  There must be about 25 of them, all garbed in the same black leather jackets emblazoned with an iron cross and the logo “Hells Lovers, Louisiana.”  Some have added a skull for decoration. Hmm, is this anything like the Hell’s Angels?  Perhaps up from the Big Easy?

They are mostly African-American.  Big, beefy guys (and at least one woman), many bearded, some shiny-pated, polite and jovial.  Lots of banter as they escape the extreme humidity, piling into the air conditioning of the Taco Bell and settling down in pairs and fours to dig into chalupas, gorditas and Meximelts.  At the counter, a biker in a do-rag pays from a black leather change purse attached to his outfit by a thick steel chain.  Another hobbles across the fast food restaurant with the aid of an enormous whittled walking stick that appears to have been a tree limb in a former life.

We detoured to Jackson for my wife to visit an old friend whom she knew from church back when she was a teenager.  They have kept in touch via Facebook, text message and email for years.

I’d never been to Jackson, and the name evokes certain images in my ignorant mind.  Southern belles, magnolias, catfish and ham, Johnny Cash and June Carter duetting about the contempt bred by familiarity.  “We’ve been talking ’bout Jack-son, ever since the fire went out…”  Eudora Welty, Faulkner, John Grisham, Freedom Riders, The Help.

On the way in, around Mobile on Alabama’s Gulf coast, I got online to look for a place to stay the night.  Red Roof Inn, Econo-Lodge, Motel 6.  The usual suspects.  The reviews of the economy chains in Jackson were guarded at best on Kayak and were truly horrible on Yelp.  Filth, rudeness, noise, safety issues.  “Maybe we’ve gotten beyond this,” I suggested to my wife as I took the uncharacteristic step of reserving a $100 room at a Holiday Inn Express downtown.  The clerk on the phone provided impeccable customer service and we quickly and easily were set with exactly the room type we were looking for.  Let’s just say that when you have disabilities and particular requirements, getting what you need on the first try is nothing short of extraordinary.  “Southern hospitality,” I told my wife.  I was pleased as punch.

At dinner with my wife’s friend and her partner, my eyes were opened a bit.  They asked where we were staying in Jackson.  We told them.  “Ooo, better remove all valuables from your car,” we were warned.  Umm, that would be a tall order, as everything in our car is valuable to us — you know, our clothes, for example.  We began entertaining visions of having our car windows smashed, repair bills, insurance claims, premium hikes.  “Well, better take in anything that you can sell to buy crack,” our friend warned us.

And so, deflated, I procured a luggage cart and wrestled it out of the lobby as we proceeded to load every suitcase, tote bag and shopping sack out of our car.  The cart was so heavy that I was unable to maneuver it and had to get a staff member to handle this task.  We are keeping this cart in our room overnight, I thought.  No way are we unloading all this junk just to have to pile it right back up in the morning.  Crackheads of Jackson, you suck!

The Hell’s Lovers have finished their meals and begin filing out of the truck stop, ready to roar away and hit the road, as are we.  Safe travels, biker dudes.