Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas eve

Happy holidays from New Orleans. As I write this I'm sitting in the courtyard of Creole Gardens Guesthouse on Prytania Street in the lower (less fancy) Garden District. It's a funky, colorful and relaxed place that is dog friendly. For me this get away is all about relaxing, exploring and food. Here's a little snap shot of all three.

On Christmas eve day around noon we caught the St. Charles street car to the French Quarter. New Orleans street cars are dark green ornate restored electric cars that can be driven from either end with polished wooden seats that reverse so passengers are always looking forward. The day was warm. All the windows were open wide as we rumbled down the street. At one corner a well dressed older woman hailed the driver between stops. He let her on. A block further he stopped again, she kissed him on the cheek and got off. “My next door neighbor,” he explained.

We absorbed French Quarter atmosphere by walking down Royal St. past tee shirt, fake voodoo and antique shops. Just past the imposing old Supreme Court building the street is blocked off so street performers can take the stage, one group per block. In front of us was a human statue: a very tall black guy in immaculate red & white striped trousers, brand new sneakers, white shirt and American flag tie, frozen in a six foot stride. He had a tiny toy dog smoking a cigar on the end of a stiff leash that appeared to be towing his giant owner. I noticed we were standing in front of the entrance to The Court of Two Sisters restaurant. Jazz Brunch $28. We went in.

There is no storefront or imposing sign, just a French style iron gate covering a carriage way through the main building to a large courtyard with pergola and ancient wisteria. A jazz trio played a mix of dixieland and jazz carols from the corner. Our waiter described the food in mouthwatering detail. We feasted on an astounding buffet of every New Orleans signature food, hot and cold, all fresh and very well prepared. We sampled shrimp in spicy etouffee, crawfish Louise, creole jambalaya, cajun pasta, glazed sweet potato with andouille sausage, crawfish and spinach pasta and for dessert bread pudding with whiskey sauce and two helpings of heavenly bananas Foster with homemade french vanilla ice cream.

We stumbled into the street bloated and dizzy, and very satisfied.

Not much was open that evening, it being Christmas eve. The host at our B&B called around for us. She hesitantly suggested a neighborhood joint, open 24/7 everyday, the St. Charles Tavern, only two blocks away. “It's sort of a dive,” she warned, “but the food is good.”

We were not that hungry after the feast at lunch. The St. Charles Tavern sure looks like any neighborhood watering hole you've ever seen, except for the “Zagat Rated” sticker on the door. Only a few folks were eating and a few more were at the bar watching Notre Dame crush Hawaii. The bartender was also the waitress. Merry ordered a coke. “RC alright?”

The waitress put her hand on my shoulder, “What you havin' babe?”

I ordered the cajun sampler – gumbo, jambalaya and crawfish etouffee. The food came quickly and was very good. The gumbo had half a small crab floating among the spicy savory broth. A few minutes later the neighborhood cop came in and sat next to us to have a coffee and a snack. He told stories of how his squad policed the French Quarter for three weeks without a break after Katrina. Merry asked him about policing during Mardi Gras. “The drunks are no problem, really, it's just they are easy targets for the bad guys.” His partner came in to buy his lottery tickets and have an iced tea. They all wished us a Merry Christmas as we walked out the door into the humid foggy night.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Story tellers

Hello everyone. Merry and Joli left yesterday to drive to New Orleans where I will join them on Tuesday for Christmas in the Big Easy. For some time we have both wanted to get a look at New Orleans post-Katrina. We plan to explore the city and participate in at least one Revellon dinner, a unique New Orleans holiday tradition. I plan to write about that when we return.

Without fully realizing what I was doing I read two books during the past few weeks that struck me with such force I decided to break with my normal weekly travelogue and spend a little time describing their effect on me. Feel free to skip the convoluted book reviews that follow. You have been warned.

When we moved we decided as a general principle not to bring our library with us. There were some exceptions to this rule. I wanted to bring a few books to inspire me to write. After reflection I decided to bring all the books I own by Italo Calvino (13 thin volumes) as well as by Humberto Costantini (2) and Michael Ondaatje (2). I selected these books because I admire the skill displayed in the story telling by these three otherwise very different authors.

Costantini, a Buenos Aries veterinarian (1924 – 1987), deserves to be better known. I think only two of his novels have been translated into English and both seem to be out of print. If you can find it, I highly recommend his poetic and highly imaginative The Gods, the Little Guys and the Police.

The Sri Lankan - Canadian poet Michael Ondaatje is well known and in my humble opinion is perhaps the most talented living writer. His descriptive power is unmatched. I sometimes wake from a deep sleep thinking about the desert passages from The English Patient or the incredible “painting the Buddha's eyes” scene from Anil's Ghost.

Most of the books I brought for inspiration, however, are by Italo Calvino. Calvino (1923 – 1985) was born in Cuba but lived most of his life in San Remo, Italy.

At the very end of his life Calvino was preparing to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures on literature at Harvard. He planned six lectures but only finished five – published in English as Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Each lecture focuses on one element of Calvino's writing process. The first lecture on “Lightness” is the key to what makes his writing so unique. He tells us “my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight.” He wants his writing to escape the heaviness with which descriptions of things is freighted. To achieve this he uses only the most distilled language. The other four lectures “Quickness,” “Exactitude,”Visibility,” and “Multiplicity” contain further details and helpful examples of the struggle to escape language gravity. To my way of thinking Calvino truly achieves his goal in the stories that make up Invisible Cities in which Marco Polo describes unseen the wonders of the world to Kublai Khan, but it's there in all the books. As a consequence of this focus on lightness Calvino's story telling most resembles highly intellectual fantastic fairy tales.

As I was reading the Six Memos, Merry took a trip to the bookstore and brought me Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing. I took it to work to read on my lunch hour. Fortunately it's a quick read. Bradbury is for the most part a terrible, clumsy writer when compared to Calvino. He is full of himself, unquestioning in his praise for his own work and very impressed with the arc of his own life. In short, he's an American. Bradbury was born in 1920 in Waukegan, Il and still lives in LA.

Why did I read his self congratulatory book about how he became the best writer of his generation? Because of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. These were the best books I had ever read when I was 16. Even now I think of them as some of the most evocative stories I have ever read. I tried to re-read Fahrenheit 451 recently. In literary terms, the writing is pretty clunky, but the story is terrific. How did he do it?

He did it by writing every day for years and years. Pounding a typewriter and churning out what he admits was largely junk at the clip of 1000 to 2000 words a day. He sums up the “Zen” of his work in three words: WORK, RELAXATION and DON'T THINK (yes, he uses capital letters a lot). His point is that skill in story telling is achieved by finding a way to let your subconscious move the writing. To do this you have to be relaxed and not allow your intellect to get in the way of telling the tale. He says the only way to do this is to write and write every day until you can write while totally relaxed and without thinking. Surprisingly, this actually seems to capture one of the key insights of Zen practice.

So...lightness and Zen. What I take from these two books on writing stories is simple. The stories are already there in my subconscious. My job is to relax enough to find them, polish them and help them escape the gravity of everyday things. We'll see.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


When you come to visit us in St. Louis you will probably ask us to take you on a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, home of the “King of Beers,” Budweiser. So as not to be caught unprepared we toured the place ourselves last Sunday. To my mind there are three things that make the A-B tour stand head and shoulders above all other brewery tours: (1) the eye-popping historic buildings, three of which are national historic landmarks, (2) the Clydesdales in residence, and (3) the mystery of Bevo.

The tour begins with the Clydesdales stables and wanders downhill through the massive factory complex to conclude at the Bevo Bottling Works where the A-B products made in St. Louis are packaged. As you approach this six story brick factory building that fills a city block the most remarkable thing you see is a large gargoyle perched midway up each corner. I initially thought it was a rat dressed in coat and boots playing a flute. Closer inspection revealed “Bevo, the Fox.” The lobby of the building is also beautifully decorated with handmade tiles featuring the same crafty fox.

We were told that the bottling works was built during Prohibition and named for the A-B's then new non-alcoholic “cereal beverage.” Anheuser-Busch started brewing Bevo in 1916 when the US armed forces prohibited use of all alcoholic beverages. That crafty fox Augustus Busch, Sr. knew the tide was running against him and that it would only get worse in the near future. He had backed anti-prohibition candidate Taft in the 1914 election but lost. Then the US went to war with his fatherland, and robber barons like him with close German ties were highly suspect. He worked tirelessly to try to prevent the coming of Prohibition even closing down scores of highly profitable but disreputable A-B owned saloons across the country. By 1916 he must have known his efforts were failing.

He decided to diversify. Not only did A-B start to brew Bevo well before national Prohibition took effect, he also developed a number of products for home brewers like brewers' yeast and malt syrup. He appears to have known Prohibition would not last forever, but he was determined to make the best of it. Production of Bevo rose greatly when Prohibition finally took effect in 1919, and Bevo was by far the most popular of the many "near beers" of the time. At the peak of its popularity in the early 1920s, more than five million cases of Bevo were sold annually. However by the late 1920s bootleg beer and liquor as well as home brew had cut Bevo's market share. With sales flattening to 100,000 cases by 1929, Anheuser-Busch stopped production.

But why did they call it “Bevo?” The only explanation I can find is that the name "Bevo" was coined from the English word "beverage" and the Slavic or Czech word for beer "pivo.” It would seem Busch wanted the name to subliminally suggest that beer was not long gone. The use of the Renard the Fox character to symbolize Bevo also suggest A-B is winking an eye at Prohibition saying, “Here, drink this. I promise that real beer will be back before too long.”

But there are more curious twists. Augustus did not like living at the family mansion on the brewery grounds so he moved out to the suburbs. In 1913 he purchased “Grant's Farm” from the heirs of the former President and civil war general and built a new home, “Baurenhof,” there on the banks of Gravois Creek. It was, however, a long trip home from the brewery. To break up the journey Augustus built himself a private dining room along the Gravois road exactly halfway home. For some reason he commanded that this building be an authentic replica of a Flemish windmill. Of course, he called the place the “Bevo Mill.”

In 1917 the Bevo Mill started serving meals to the general public. It still does. The neighborhood that grew up around the Mill came to be called “Bevo” and still is.

Augustus also loved parades. During the 1920s he started the tradition of putting A-B promotional vehicles into parades all over the country by designing and building “Bevo Boats.” Apparently he build as many as eight of these extravagant precursors to the Clydesdales and Rose Parade floats. The one surviving example of a Bevo Boat was built in 1930 after Bevo had ceased production, and thus was probably called a Budweiser Boat. Mounted on a 1930 Cadillac frame with a boat body finished in red with white stripes, it has a red leather interior. Some of its most unusual features include two large chrome anchors mounted to the bow, a propeller on the transom, Wig-Wag taillights with lanterns that swing from their mount, an Anheuser Busch eagle mounted on the front deck as well as two functional Winchester Arms 10 gauge cannons mounted on the rear fenders.

Augustus Busch did everything he could to assure the word Bevo became part of the popular culture of the time. His efforts paid off in ways he could not control. Irving Berlin included a song "You Can't Stay Up on Bevo", in his 1917 army revue, Yip Yip Yaphank. The popular references were not very complementary. The suggestion is that Bevo is not the real thing. Here's how Irving Berlin put it: “I used to own a vicious looking dog who wouldn't bite, I used to know a dangerous looking man who couldn't fight, My brother trained wild animals but they were really tame, And now I've tasted of a drink that strikes me just the same – [Refrain:] Bevo, oh, oh, oh, Bevo, You're the grandest imitation that we know, You're the only drink that a soldier can pick, You taste like lager but you haven't got the kick, oh!” Thereafter at least for a time “Bevo” became army slang for a young and inexperienced officer.

Decades later, Bevo is mentioned in a list of popular culture items that can corrupt children's morals in the song "Trouble" in The Music Man.

During the same time span the University of Texas football team acquired its mascot, a long-horn steer named “Bevo.” According to the official web site of UT Football, its mascot Is not named for the A-B near beer.

All of this is my way of explaining the thoughts running through my mind as I stared up at Bevo the Fox last Sunday. How does a made up name for a product that no longer exists and almost nobody remembers come to designate a large industrial building and a St. Louis neighborhood?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Riding the bus

Last week we were in Syracuse for Thanksgiving and a belated three way birthday party with my dear friends Harmon Hoff and EveAnn Shwartz at their home, Maple Avenue Farm near Earlville. There was no blog entry last week but here's another glimpse of everyday life in St. Louis for your enjoyment.

During my first week on the job I learned that Social Security buys a bus pass on request for all employees. To my pleasant surprise your government is actually doing something concrete to slow global warming. Any US government employee can ride the bus or light rail for free, but there is no subsidy for those who drive. All the other judges drive to work and park in the building garage at the cost of $130 per month. I live only 2.5 miles from the office, on a bus line. I decided on the bus.

As in most big cities, learning the St. Louis bus routes and schedules was a real challenge at first. Eventually I settled into a fairly efficient pattern: leave the house no later than 6:15 am, walk two blocks to the #10 bus stop on Gravois, wait from 0 – 5 minutes, ride about 15 minutes, walk a block to the office and arrive at 6:35, give or take a few minutes. The homeward trip is about the same but takes about 25 minutes due to more frequent stops to pick up and discharge passengers.

Every day I anticipate the moment when the #10 bus rounds the corner onto Market St., the main drag downtown. Framed in the windshield is the Gateway Arch, the sunrise and the Old Courthouse centered between the gleaming stainless steel legs of the Arch. It's become my weathervane and inspiration.

The bus talks. As the doors open to admit passengers the bus says, in a pleasant female voice, “Good morning, #10 Gravois to downtown.” Every time someone pulls the cord she says, “Stop requested.” At key stops she announces the stop and lists the connecting buses. There is a certain squeaky sweetness in her voice as she chirps, “Market and Tenth Street.”

On winter mornings the passengers huddle wrapped in heavy coats and scarves, hoods up, listening to iPods. In the afternoon they talk. It's quite common for passengers to greet the driver and sincerely thank him or her on exiting the bus, a habit I've adopted. Many of the afternoon bus drivers are big talkers, razzing passers-by and riders. One of the first cool days a short heavy-set black woman climbed on wearing a brand new puffy pure white down coat. She looked like a marshmallow with legs. The driver kidded her, “Hey, woman, you looking way too warm.” She sat near the driver who kept asking her if she were warm enough. She refused to unzip the coat. Everyone else on the bus was in shirtsleeves or a light jacket. Finally he asked her why she didn't buy a matching down hat. “Can't eat no hat,” she shot back.

One warm fall day a guy in coveralls hooked his bike to the front of the bus and got on carrying a clear plastic bag full of clothes. “Man, you sure smell like fish,” the driver commented. “Yea, well, see I work at the fish meal factory on 4th and can't figure how to get the smell off. I put my work clothes in this here bag, but I still stink like fish guts.” His concern for the noses of his fellow riders sparked a bus wide discussion on how to defeat fish oil with bleach, lemon juice, baking soda, pine soap and more that lasted until he got off and wheeled away into the twilight.

Merry decided to ride the #10 one day but before paying her fare asked the driver if the bus went up GraVOIS with the accent on the second syllable. We did know the “ois” was pronounced “oy”. “What?” She said it again. “Where?” “Where are you going?” Merry was getting exasperated. “Up GRAVois, GRAVois” in a very gravely voice. For the rest of the short ride he occasionally growled, not quite under his breath, “GRAVois.” Merry laughed for days.

I've come to genuinely like the bus commute. Perhaps the best thing about riding the bus is the chance it gives me to observe the working people of St. Louis. They are janitors, factory workers, chambermaids, waitresses, office clerks, high school kids, homeless people and one ALJ. The bus riders are from all races. The vast majority on the #10 are black, but there is a wide variety of other races including hispanic, asian, near eastern and white. We ride together. I know that most commuters are still stuck in their cars, but it does me good to feel a part of the minority who rides the bus.