Monday, December 19, 2011

The Christmas Snail

There’s an old joke that seems appropriate about now. It goes like this.

A man is in his living room one night when there’s a knock at the door. He opens it and there, at his feet, stands a small snail.  The man grabs the snail and flings it as far as he can, across the street into a neighbor’s yard. He closes the door. One year later, the man is again in his living room when he hears a knock at the door. He opens it and the same snail is standing there. The snail looks up at the man and says, “So... what was that all about?”
I thought of that snail the other day when I went to The Mall. Doesn’t matter which mall, does it? It’s like asking, “Which Denny’s did you eat at?”
Long lines of traffic lined the highway and roads leading into the parking lots and garages,an annual pilgrimage. Like a Ridley Scott movie where an endless column of Roman soldiers, stretching to the horizon, march resolutely to lay siege to the castle. 
As I walked from the garage through some sliding doors into The Mall, I saw signs on the doors with two words. “Shop More.” It meant stores are open later, I think until midnight or 2 a.m. or dawn. The deeper meaning was obvious.
The mood inside The Mall was energetic, to say the least. People moved in all directions, Christmas music seeped through the very walls and ceiling. People on cell phones or hands-free mobile devices seemed to talk to themselves or passing strangers or to the air. People carried logo-decorated bags large and small. Their attitudes covered the range from fun and relaxed to frantic and stressed. 
I saw Macy’s at the end of The Mall. Its logo took on a new meaning. The Red Star. I used to equate the Red Star with the Red Army back in the good old days of World War 2. But now it became a religious beacon, calling out to shoppers, guiding the Three Wise Shoppers looking for 20% off, plus another 10% for using their Macy’s charge.
The swirling shoppers, the patient traffic, the determination and enthusiasm, the sales. Always the sales. It’s the same scene as last year, the year before, and every year before that, stretching back to the horizon.
On Christmas night, after the nation has unwrapped presents, admired choices and colors and considerations, hugged and kissed each other, thrown another log on the fire or poured another cup of coffee or glass of wine ... on that night I will drive by The Mall. I will scan the vacant lot and empty garage, the empty roads, the dark and silent buildings. And I will think about that snail.
And I will wonder, “What was that all about?”
I wish you a happy and peaceful holiday season, that you enjoy and appreciate your family and friends, that the season brings you all closer together and pushes problems further away. That your hugs last more than three seconds. The realization that some presents are transitory and can be returned on Monday. Just keep in mind, the time we have together is precious. Use it wisely.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Captain, The Witch and The Writer

The first time I saw her, she had a green face, a long, sharp nose that looked more like a weapon, and she told Dorothy, “I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too.” She was a witch and she scared me. I almost dropped my box of Jujubees. Fortunately she eventually melted into a puddle with only her pointed hat resting on top.

The next time I saw her she was sitting in a chair, sans green face and  hat, talking to Captain 11. That was in the studio of Channel 11, next door to the Chase Hotel. I worked there at some lowly  writing and producing job for $40 a week. Minimum wage. Twenty years had passed and I was meeting Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West. This was probably 1961.

I had forgotten all about this event until I came across a couple of old photos in an envelope recently, while attempting to “organize” my stuff. Hercules had an easier time with the stables. (My lone, pathetic reference to Greek mythology). Margaret was a charming, graciouis guest and still making movies, though I don't know what she was doing in St. Louis.

The Captain was Harry Fender, a former St. Louis detective and host of a late night radio show from the Steeplechase Lounge of the Chase Hotel. His claim to fame was that he had turned down an offer from Florenz Ziegfield to appear in the opening of a new musical on Broadway when he was just a boy. The show was “Showboat.” 

Now Harry wore a white wig, an ill-fitting sea-captain’s uniform, and did his best to entertain little kids on the daily TV show, which was “live” and showed old Dick and Larry cartoons, and Three Stooges shorts.

The program was “Captain 11 and JoJo,” and his partner was Joe Cuscanelli, a young man with a beautiful operatic voice who had taken the part of Captain 11’s foil just to pay his bills. He disliked children almost as much as Harry did.

Margaret, of course, held the children spellbound. As she did me and everyone else in the studio, including Harry and Joe. After all, this was one of the great villains of the day, maybe even of the century. I didn’t get her autograph; I didn’t have my picture taken with her. I just shook hands, said "hi," and stared at her, surprised at how young she was. 

Maybe I was still afraid of her awesome power, that she would turn the flying monkeys loose or strike me with a bolt of lightning. I think I would have preferred meeting the Cowardly Lion. Now he was a funny guy.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Case for Dooley Downs

We all know the economy is in grim shape. Revenues are down, expenses are up. What’s a fella to do? Well, in the case of Chuck Dooley, the answer is simple: cut your expenses. I learned that in Accounting 101. Which I got a D in, by the way. The other method is to increase income. I’ll get to that part. 

Dooley, in case you don’t live in The City by the Arch, is the County Executive for St. Louis County. 
Doctor Dooley intends to remedy the situation by closing several St. Louis County parks. We’ve heard lots of news coverage on that one. Angry letters to publishers and media and websites. Vocal opposition en masse. “Don’t close our parks,” they say. “We need our parks.” Well, maybe “yes,” maybe “no.”
It would be helpful to look at it from the other side. You know, walk a mile in my shoes, or something like that. So here I am walking in Dooley’s Cole Haan slip-ons, and I’m thinking, “Hmmm, close the parks. Maybe close a whole lot of parks. We’ve got too many anyway. Empty land just sitting there. Think of all the money that’ll save. And I seldom have time for a picnic.”
So I’ve come around to Professor Dooley’s point of view. He’s right. Close ‘em up. Lock the gates. But he doesn’t take the idea far enough. He needs a bold vision, a significant and non-retractable stroke to shape the future. Well, here it is -  my bold vision to address the lack of monetary balance in the County budget right now. First, we close ALL the parks. Lay off all those people who keep the parks clean, cleared, trimmed, patched, accessible and whatever else they do. But don’t fire the folks at the top. The ones who tend to the parks from their desks. Keep them on your administrative staff. Maybe even add some staff (More about that in a minute).
Let’s face it, who needs parks? They just use up a lot of space. Who needs to walk or sit or run or bike, have a picnic when the weather’s nice? Crazy stuff like meditate and write poems and feel closer to whatever is out there or up there. That’s lazy stuff, isn’t it? No productivity in that.  And what we need now, more than ever, is productivity. I’m sorry, but walking your dog on a beautiful spring day, looking at new leaves emerging from winter, hearing the twitter of little birds and the rustle of a slight breeze.... what kind of income do you think that actually produces? “Not a feeble farthing,” as Dickens said.
So, Mr. Dooley, here’s my vision, and you can have it. Free. Close all the parks. Cut down all the trees. Sell the lumber. (estimated income: $3.76 million). Rescind any charter or agreement that holds the parks sacred and protected, and sell the land to real estate developers. But with a codicil in the public interest: Only “green” construction. (estimated income: $568 million). Levy a tax on the construction there: condos, retirement centers, malls, sports arenas, casinos. (estimated annual income: TBD but huge).
There you have it, Mr. Dooley. More money than you ever knew what to do with. And what do you do with it? Why, that grand plan to build Dooley Towers in the heart of Clayton. A 45-story building to house your administrative staff. Even add a few people just to maintain a sense of self-respect and to reward some political allies. A building worthy of Dubai, with your name in neon at the very top. With plenty of money left over.
That leaves all those people... and, really, just how many are there? .... who want a place to walk or wander or sit around. Just like the song in West Side Story says, “there’s a place for them.” Use all that empty space that was once parking lots for abandoned Wal-Marts and Targets and Shop ‘n Save and Builder’s Square and Circuit City. Paint paths on them, add an occasional PortaPotty, stick a few folding chairs around for those that insist on sitting, and maybe hang some stuffed robins and blue jays from the parking lot lamp posts. 
Call them Dooley Downs. 
See how simple that was? Dooley Downs. Followed by Dooley Towers. It proves if you just apply that old American ingenuity, no problem is too big to overcome.