Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gus' Pretzels

It's started to get cold here at last after a long fall. We had our first day where the temperature did not break freezing on Friday. Yesterday we paid a visit to the Soulard Market for the first time. Soulard is an older neighborhood between McKinnley Heights where we live and the Mississippi River. The river bank there is covered by the giant Anheuser Busch brewery. The market is in a large old brick building shaped like the letter “H” with the ends being long open sheds and the smaller center enclosed (and heated). The most of the vendors have permanent locations with signs and tables. Some have elaborate small stores that appear to have been there a very long time. A butcher shop, a pastry shop and, surprisingly, a pet store all appeared to be permanent. At this time of year fresh local produce was scarce – we did see one organic farmer with some nice root vegetables and a wild mushroom vendor with an amazing array of oyster mushrooms and chantrelles. There were several poultry vendors doing a brisk business, even live geese were on offer. We shared a warm flaky croissant and moved on.

St. Louis is rich in coffee shops, many of which roast their own beans. We had tried two nearby, Park Avenue Coffee and Mississippi Mud, the latter our favorite. Yesterday we tried the Benton Park Cafe for breakfast. It's a bit more polished and therefore a bit more sterile, but the coffee and food are very good. Where we sat looking out on Lemp Street, we had a good view of Gus' Pretzels directly opposite.

Now, I personally never have been a big fan of soft pretzels. I worked for two days in a pretzel factory in my home town back in the early 70s and have had an aversion to twisted dough ever since. As we watched, car after car pulled up to Gus'. A steady stream of customers emerged with small brown bags and sometimes a soda. Remember, this is 9:30 on a Saturday morning. Who were these pretzel fanatics? What is it about Gus'?

We had to find out. We finished breakfast and crossed the street.

Gus' is a plain brick rectangle on the corner of Lemp and Arsenal Streets with a black and white pretzel flag flying out front just below old glory. It's about 2 long blocks from the Budweiser plant. Inside there is a line at a counter with a menu board. $1.50 for three “twists or sticks.” Beside the line there are long windows into the pretzel making room. At one end a machine spits out little clumps of dough that are caught by rollers and emerge as raw pretzel sticks. A steaming water bath is bobbing with raw pretzels. There's a guy throwing salt onto trays of wet pretzels before they go into the oven. A giant mixer churns up a new batch of dough. About half a dozen workers tend this process. One guy is even hand rolling a really big speciality pretzel in the form of some letters. Another guy was making “pretzel sandwiches” which turns out to be a hot dog or bratwurst completely encased in pretzel dough.

There are old photographs, too. The original Gus holding a kid in front of the oven with a big pile of pretzels in the foreground is my favorite. Now, if you are a pretzel fan, or if you are of German heritage, do yourself a favor and check out Gus' website at

If, like me, you don't really like pretzels, just look at the pictures attached.

Wednesday we are heading back to CNY for Thanksgiving. We hope to see quite a few of our good friends then.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Rocket docket

Hello friends. This week I've written a sketch of recent courtroom activities for those of you that are interested in that sort of thing. If the minute details of social security procedure don't rivet you, just skip to the end where you will find a fun picture of the birthday cake made for me as a surprise by my court room hearing monitor (whose other business is cake baking). Otherwise, read on. You have been warned.

Yesterday five of the ten St. Louis Social Security judges conducted what we term a “rocket docket.” The idea was to schedule as many preliminary hearings for unrepresented claimants as possible on one Saturday morning. We would bring them in, advise them of their right to counsel, review their medical evidence briefly and order consultative examinations for those who needed them. Their cases would then be rescheduled in two or three months.

Gary Jewell, our Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge (HOCALJ) is the brains behind our rocket docket. He realized that a significant part of the backlog of cases is created by unrepresented claimants who show up at their first hearing only to announce they now want to hire counsel. By law we must adjourn their case to give them time to find a lawyer. This means we set aside an hour for their hearing, but the hearing only lasts ten minutes. They later get another hour hearing. This may not seem like a big waste of time, but the true waste is behind the scenes. Each ALJ spends at least an hour reviewing medical evidence in preparation for each hearing. When hearings are adjourned or cancelled not only has the judge spent time needlessly preparing but the staff spent hours and hours obtaining medical evidence, preparing the files and sending notices for hearings that never happen.

About 30% of our claimants are unrepresented. An astounding 50% or more of unrepresented claimants simply never show up at their hearings. Of course, we don't know they are not coming, so we soldier on, spending hours preparing for hearings that never happen. The result is that court rooms often sit empty. Courtroom staff sit twiddling their thumbs. We prepare and wait for those who never come. Other claimants who need hearings are delayed while we process claims that never go anywhere. Enter the rocket docket.

Yesterday each of the five rocketeer judges had 20 – 25 unrepresented claimant cases scheduled for the morning from 8:00 – 11:30 at 10 minute intervals. In all 110 cases were scheduled. Since our office completes about 285 cases a month this is a pretty significant docket. Between the time notices went out and yesterday's hearings about 30 of these claimants hired counsel, so we adjourned their cases for a future hearing leaving 80 cases to hear. Of these, only 35 actually showed up so we only averaged 7 hearings apiece. We dismissed the other 45 cases. Of the 7 cases I heard only 1 decided not to hire a lawyer. We gave everybody a handout about how to contact lawyers. We scheduled independent consultative exams for about half of the people we saw. In all a very productive morning, 65 cases moved forward efficiently, 45 dismissed without a lot of wasted effort.

Going in I expected this process to be pretty easy. I imagined I would give a short talk on the right to counsel, glance over the medical records to see who could benefit from an exam, and done. My first case actually followed this pattern. But, as you all know, life has a tendency to be a little more complicated than that. My second hearing involved a claimant who only spoke Arabic. We had no access to a translation service on a Saturday. Fortunately he brought a friend who spoke English to translate. We began. I said a sentence. The friend turned to the claimant and whispered into his ear. “No, say it out loud, so I can hear,” I admonished. Things went pretty well after that until I asked the key question, “So, do you think you want to hire a lawyer?” This provoked an extended conversation in Arabic between the two friends. I stopped them and explained that the conversation had to be between me and the claimant. Many apologies later the claimant decided it would be best to hire a lawyer. Whew.

All the remaining cases were also fairly complicated. I struggled to help these folks understand their rights in Social Security's byzantine system, including a 23 year old woman with developmental disabilities and irritable bowel syndrome and a man with psychosis accompanied by his only somewhat less psychotic brother and sister.

The last case of the day for me involved a 35 year old man. Small and mild mannered he explained that he had hired a lawyer, but that they recently refused to keep representing him. I checked the file and sure enough found a withdrawal from representation. What happened? He didn't know; they didn't tell him. I looked at his records: blind in one eye, deep vein thrombosis in the left leg with chronic pain and anti-coagulant therapy, and HIV+. From the point of view of a claimant's lawyer a pretty good case on the face of it. So why had his lawyers fired him? After a few more questions I discovered that he had returned to work for a few months. Now he was out again. Work had proved too strenuous for him. His only work was as a day care provider. His employer does not know of his diagnosis, and he doesn't want to tell them. In fact, other than his doctor and the Social Security world no one knows of his diagnosis.

I explained his rights. He plans to get a new lawyer. I suggested he get some counseling to help him deal with his situation and directed him to some local HIV/AIDS resources. He thanked me and left.

As I stepped outside into a suddenly blustery day, I could not help but wonder about our so-called social safety net for citizens with disabilities of our county. Are we serving them well? Do we dare call ourselves a civilized country? Just a block down Broadway on the steps of the Old Courthouse where Dred Scott was tried about 300 gay rights activists were demonstrating in the cold.

We're a young and foolish country still, I mused, but the idea of civil rights for all is still warm, deep in our national consciousness. We will grow up some day and grant those rights freely to all. I turned my coat collar up and carried my surprise birthday cake back to my car.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wild hickory nuts

Today is my sixtieth birthday. This momentous event has put me in mind of the many unique and interesting people with whom I have had the good fortune to have shared some time. Here's a short remembrance sparked by a recent event.

Merry and I made our first expedition into the Ozarks two weekends ago. We spent two sunny warm autumn days exploring and stayed overnight at Rock Eddy Bluff Farm near Dixon, Missouri. Our accommodation was an old-fashioned log cabin complete with luxury outhouse, gravity feed sink, gas stove and solar powered LED lights. The broad porch overlooks a deep hollow leading down to the Gasconade River. Sitting on the porch in the late afternoon sun we were surrounded by a forest of tan leaves of many hues from the various oak trees with a few hickories mixed in.

On our walk to the river I discovered a spot where freshly fallen hickory nuts covered the ground. Merry gathered some to take home. This put me in a mind of how I came to meet Euell Gibbons.

Back in the fall of 1967 I was attending Bucknell University as a sophomore history major. My roommate for that semester was Eric Jones. Where I grew up (Hanover, PA) there was no one like Eric. Eric was a full-fledged Quaker from Philadelphia. He had shaggy hair and wore handmade sandals with socks, all the time, everywhere, in all weather. He talked about the Philadelphia Folk Festival and coffee houses. He introduced me to what he termed “real folk music," in other words, something besides the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. He had attended private Quaker schools in Philadelphia and invited me to the local Friends Meeting. I was not particularly interested.

Not interested until he casually mentioned that about once a month after Friends Meeting Euell Gibbons led a hike to gather wild foods followed by a “wild dinner.”

I knew about Euell Gibbons from my Boy Scout days. I had read and re-read his classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. I loved his folksy style and the way he expressed his clear affection for the outdoors. I did not know he lived in Central Pennsylvania. I jumped at the chance to meet him.

A few weeks later I went to a Quaker meeting for the first time with Eric. It was not what I expected. After a few minutes sitting quietly one person after the other stood to talk about their favorite Bible verse or their interpretation of their faith. I had thought Quakers just meditated until the spirit moved them These Quakers were downright talky.

I looked around the room but didn't see anyone that looked remotely like what I imagined Euell Gibbons to look like. After the service a tall, gaunt man stood and invited anyone who wanted to go along for a walk to meet him outside. It was a cool sunny late fall day. I remember we walked along a railroad track outside of town. Euell seemed to know the name of every plant. Every few feet he would stop, pick up a plant, explain what it was and how it could be eaten. We gathered what edible plants we could find and put them in buckets. At the end of the walk the buckets were taken back to Euell's farm where we all pitched in to make a big salad, soup and some roasted root vegetables.

I went on several of these walks during that year. I got to know Euell fairly well. It surprised me that he smoked cigarettes and that pizza was his favorite food. At that time he had just recently become a minor celebrity. Until his “Stalking” books became a success he led a pretty hard life. His wild food hobby had started as a real necessity during the dust bowl when his family lived in New Mexico. He claimed to have bummed around the country after leaving home as a hobo for years. He was a long time lefty in the Woody Guthrie vein. He and his wife were steadfast members of the Quakers and of the local peace movement. I remember him as a pretty humble man who never did much to make himself stand out.

A few years after I graduated I was pleasantly surprised to see that Euell had been invited to write a couple of articles for the National Geographic and that he appeared on television on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and on Sonny and Cher. I was a bit surprised to find him pitching Grape Nuts in a TV commercial in 1974 during which he uttered a phrase I never forgot. When describing the taste of Grape Nuts he said in his Will Rogers voice, “Reminds me of wild hickory nuts.” My friends and I laughed. Some moaned that Euell had “sold out.” Personally I knew he had lived a hard and principled life. I was happy he had achieved some small measure of fame and economic success.

Euell died in 1975 from an aneurysm secondary to his Marfan’s syndrome. Although it's been more than 40 years since I met him, I still hear his voice and feel his influence every time I take a walk in the woods.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Wise Ass Historian

This last Wednesday Merry and I attended a reading and book signing by Sarah Vowell at the Mad Art Gallery in St. Louis. To be honest I was only vaguely aware of Sarah Vowell and had never read anything she wrote, but Mer had seen her on John Stewart, and assured me I would enjoy the occasion.

What an evening of discovery. The Mad Art Gallery is located in the Soulard neighborhood, one of the oldest intact areas of the city next to the big Anheuser-Busch brewery, near the Mississippi. The Gallery was created out of a very classy 1930's art deco police station. As you walk in you see that the giant Sergent's desk, surrounded by tons of polished brass grillwork, has been transformed into a bar. The original terrazzo floors are in good shape as is the original lock-up, open for inspection. The main room held about 200 folding chairs and a “paint-by-numbers” exhibit of familiar masterpieces (Mona Lisa, Warhol's Marilyn, etc.). It filled up fast. Looking around we felt we must have a good deal in common with many of the people in the room.

The event started pretty much on time, apparently a mid-western trait. The nervous, fast talking owner of the gallery welcomed everybody. Then the “events coordinator” of Left Bank Books, a local independent book store and organizer of the Great River Writers events, took the stage to vent some of her incredible, bubbly energy. Finally, the director of the Honor's College of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, took the podium to introduce the writer. After patting himself on the back for five minutes, droning on and on about his program [Why doesn't someone tell too-full-of-themselves college professors that normal people are just not that interested in them? UMSTL, I mused, how do they pronounce that? I later learned the correct pronunciation is “ums-stil”] he finally yielded the stage to the honored guest.

Sarah Vowell is a short, pale woman with dark hair cut short and blunt. There is something of a goth look to her. She has a slight vocal tic and speaks in bursts. She read from her latest book, Wordy Shipmates. She is terrific from the first sentence. Now mind you, Wordy Shipmates is a retelling of the earliest history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Ms. Vowell not only likes and deeply understands these quintessential religious fanatics, she makes their story interesting, and at times funny.

During the question and answer section, I realized why I like her so much. She has taken the time to truly understand who these people were, how they lived, why they thought the way they did, then she successfully tells us why we should care about any of that. The message of this book, it seems (I have not read it, yet), is simple – we have inherited our deepest assumptions about democracy from those crazy Pilgrims. We owe it to ourselves to know something about how and why they managed to survive.

What sets Sarah Vowell apart from other historians and other writers in general is her desire to understand exactly how other people live, then to explain why she cares about what she has discovered. She does this in an easy going, irreverent way. To get a sense of what I'm trying to say here I recommend you take a look at this clip of John Stewart interviewing here recently about this book:

Near the end of the program a high school social studies teacher asked Ms. Vowell how to make teaching about early America interesting to 11th graders. In reply, she allowed that this may be a nearly impossible task, but suggested keeping the focus on the people, their oddities, their foibles, and their unique perspective. This perfect answer reminded me fondly of our friend, Kathy Sabino, who labors mightily in this field at Hamilton High. It is, in the end, the task of us all to understand why and how others have come to different conclusions about important human issues. To the extent each of us personally succeeds in such understanding, we make a civilization out of the ant heap. This wise ass historian is doing what she can to help.