Saturday, April 25, 2009


We recently discovered that Merry's much beloved Subaru station wagon, the workhorse of our fleet, had a fatal leak in the head gasket. Repair cost would exceed the residual value of the car. Since moving to St. Louis we have rarely used both cars at the same time because I regularly take public transportation to work. We decided we would reduce the fleet to one and donate the Subaru to the local NPR station. They picked it up last Thursday.

Last Saturday Merry departed for her river trip down the mighty Colorado through the Grand Canyon. Logistics required she drive out. Merry's trip will take about three weeks. This left me without a car for the first extended period in my adult life. The situation has forced me to reflect on just how dependent I am on having a car at my disposal at all times.

In preparation I stocked up at the grocery store. I knew I could get to a near by supermarket by bus, but I wanted to avoid hauling heavy groceries on the bus if possible. Therefore I laid in a three week supply of dog food, canned goods, juice, spaghetti sauce and so on. I have adequate supplies to cook supper every night for myself and Merry also filled the freezer with several goodies – her famous macs & cheese, salmon loaf, chili. I have the choice of several good restaurants I can walk to if I want something fancier. I am set.

But what if we didn't have a car at all, could we get along? The answer to that question depends entirely on whether there is good, reliable public transportation.

At the beginning of this month St. Louis drastically reduced its public transportation system. Back in November there was a ballot item in St. Louis county encompassing the city's suburban area in Missouri that would have raised the county transit subsidy by a few cents per person. The timing was bad. Voters rejected the item, refusing to pay even a small amount in new taxes during a recession. The management of the transit system clearly believed that a small tax increase would pass without a problem so they did virtually nothing to sell the idea or plan for what would happen if the tax increase failed.

The regional transit system here consists of four parts: city buses, express buses from the suburbs, call-a-ride for disabled and the “MetroLink” light rail. MetroLink is a single long line stretching from Scott Air Force Base far out in Illinois on the eastern end through downtown to Lambert Airport well west of the city with a spur line to the near southwest suburbs. It runs pretty frequently and is on time almost all the time. It's dependable and quite easy to use, once you get to a station. The express buses connect further out communities to MetroLink stations and also directly to downtown. Metro has a contract with the Illinois county adjoining the city to provide express bus service, but no similar contract with St. Louis county in Missouri, the transit tax is supposed to cover that.

After the voters in St. Louis county rejected the transit tax increase, the whole thing unraveled. Metro officials announced that they would suspend all express bus service to St. Louis county, forcing thousands of those folks to drive to work. They also reduced the frequency of all city buses by one half. Every other bus driver was laid off as well as all express bus drivers, more that 500 in all. All bus routes within the central city were completely discontinued, meaning all downtown commuters like me would have to transfer to the MetroLink somewhere on the journey. Call-a-ride service was also reduced. The only services left intact are MetroLink light rail and the contract express buses from Illinois. For me the change adds ten minutes to my daily commute in both directions. For many others it's made commuting by public transit simply impossible or so onerous that they chose to drive instead.

Merry & I contacted numerous public officials quite awhile back to voice our concern over this turn of events. We received exactly two responses. One was from Russ Carnahan, our Democratic Congressman, who assured us he shared our concern and was doing all he could to help. The other was from W. Todd Akins, a Republican Congressman from a wealthy part of St. Louis county, who suggested that private enterprise would be the best way to solve the problem. Huh? I very much doubt Akins has ever felt the need to use public transportation. Since the meltdown the Missouri state legislature considered a supplemental appropriation but now has taken it off the table. No one appears to know what to do or where to get the money.

People simply won't think about a life without cars until they don't have one. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary we all assume we will always use personal automobiles. We assume we will always have the gas to run our cars. We assume gas will always be available and affordable. We neglect thinking about alternatives until it's late in the game. There's never any problem getting massive public money for highways, but public transit is always viewed as a mostly unnecessary frill. The reality is that we need to be dramatically expanding public transportation now. Instead, we go on blindly letting it shrink.

Human beings generally do a lousy job of planning for the future.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


I never seriously considered dwarfs until I heard a case this week involving a 25-year-old African-American homeless man who is 4 feet 2 inches tall. In childhood he had operations on both legs to straighten them. The operations made it easier for him to walk, but left him with chronic leg pain and swelling. He has a high school diploma with an IQ of about 75. My job was to decide if he is employable.

The medical definition of dwarfism is a person of short stature with an adult height of less than 4 feet 10 inches (147 cm). Dwarfism is fairly rare occurring in about 1 in 10,000 births. While there are many causes of dwarfism, about 70% are the result of a genetic disorder called achondroplasia which results in limbs that are disproportionally short compared to the trunk. These people often also have a larger head with a large prominent forehead.

Like most people I first encountered dwarfism in literature. The use of the term "dwarf" was popularized by the Brothers Grimm in their fairy tale Little Snow White (1812), but had been used much earlier by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels (1726). I remember reading these and many later literary examples where dwarfs play a leading role including The Tin-Drum and A Prayer for Owen Meany. The term “midget” came into use after Harriet Beecher Stowe used it in her novels in the mid-1800, but the term is now generally considered offensive because of it's link to use of dwarfs in freak shows. Midget is still sometimes used by some to refer to a person of very short stature whose body parts are proportional.

The accepted plural of "dwarf" is "dwarfs", while "dwarves" is usually reserved for mythical creatures. Although the term “dwarf” is widely used and generally accepted, some advocates object to the term because of its mythical and fairy tale origins and argue that “little person” or “person of short stature” is more appropriate. The largest national advocacy group is called “Little People of America, Inc.”

Most of the dwarfs I've ever seen have been in movies: The Wizard of Oz, of course, but also Time Bandits, Willie Wonka, and ET where a dwarf in costume played the title role. Warwick Davis, a popular actor with dwarfism, plays Prof. Flitwick in the Harry Potter films. I've used photos of him to illustrate this story.

How was I to decide whether the little person scheduled to appear in my court was employable? First, I looked at the law. I found the Social Security Law and Regulations contain no specific reference to dwarfism except for a rule that told me I was prohibited from considering “body habitus” in reaching a decision. I initially concluded, therefore, that I had to assume body size is irrelevant and I needed to ignore it as much as possible. Accordingly, I arranged for a vocational expert to be present at the hearing as I would with anyone under the age of 50. My plan was to get a list of functional limits, then ask the vocational expert if such a person is employable and see what would happen.

As chance would have it, just after I prepared for this case Merry & I took a jaunt across the river to southern Illinois to see spring wild flowers on the Trillium Trail at Giant City State Park just south of Carbondale. The day was perfect and our timing was impeccable. We saw dozens of varieties of blooming wild flowers, many of them new to us. The setting in and among towering sandstone cliffs was worth the trip in itself. To find the trail we first stopped at the park visitor's center. I went to get a map while Merry headed to the restroom. The information clerk turned out to be a surly dwarf; a dwarf with a regular job. I was struck hard by the irony of a dwarf giving out information about Giant City.

I heard the case on Monday. The claimant was sharply dressed in a black tee shirt, black jeans, white shoes and a black ball cap with wrap-around shades pushed onto the brim. He was smaller than I expected with extremely shortened arms that did not reach above his head. He had not done too badly in high school but had to drop out of technical college because he couldn't master the necessary math. He tried to work as a bookstore clerk but the walking was too much for him. As we talked I started to get a detailed impression of all the accommodations necessary not only for work but just for everyday life. He was even unable to sit in the witness chair because it was too large, so he had to stand. He said he couldn't reach to stop cord on the bus, so he always needed to sit near the driver. All his clothing and especially his shoes had to be custom made or altered.

In the end I asked the vocational expert whether he was employable. The VE noted that were it not for the multiple accommodations needed, he was. I asked him to tell me realistically whether this person could be successfully placed in a job and he said it would be a challenge. The only hope would be if the person acquired a specialized skill or talent. I actually asked the vocational expert about a park information clerk job, but he said that job generally requires a college education.

I decided a person of abnormally small stature who requires multiple accommodations and special equipment with a high school education and with legs that did not allow standing or walking for more than a hour at a time is disabled.

As I reflect on this experience I have a new appreciation of all the dwarfs in show business who have turned their size into an asset. People are fascinated by difference. We stare and point. We laugh. I still can't stop smiling at the irony of the dwarf clerk at Giant City. In my opinion this cruel fascination can't be avoided. Like other prejudices, it can be blunted by coming to realize just what people need to do to live their everyday lives.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Everest Cafe

Wednesday evening we wandered up and down Manchester Ave. in an area of St. Louis known as “The Grove” seeking the Everest Cafe and Bar. The sun was in our eyes westbound so it was hard to read the signs on storefronts. This five block long area is in the midst of redevelopment. Most storefronts are still vacant but here and there a business, office, nice restaurant or bar has sprung up. I had foolishly neglected to write down the address.

I was attracted by the claim the Everest Cafe serves “quality authentic Nepalese, Indian & Koren cuisine.” More curious is the following teaser from the restaurant web site,

Now open Sundays! Come and enjoy our fresh heart healthy nutritious lunch buffet and receive free screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels conducted by our Executive Chef/Owner, Dr. Devi States, MSW, MPH, DHSc.”

I found it difficult to believe that the owner would actually conduct health screenings during the Sunday lunch buffet, but who knows? It was equally difficult to believe the chef/owner would hold a doctorate in public health and two other advanced degrees. Their web site offers this thumbnail history:

Our Chef/Owner, Devi Gurung States grew up in an economically depressed and deprived area of Nepal (Manang, Tilche Village). After both his parents became deceased, he moved to Kathmandu for a dream of better life. In Kathmandu, Devi became homeless, because he was too young and could not find a job. After spending several months in the street of Kathmandu, he finally found a job at the KC restaurant.

Devi’s dream of owning a restaurant started at the age of sixteen while working at the KC restaurant as a dishwasher and bus boy. He met his dear father, Dr. James H. States, M.D., at the KC restaurant, who brought him to the United States following his successful ascent of Mt. Everest in 1983.”

Now that really got my attention.

We turned the car around having completed a traverse of the relevant area of Manchester Ave. without success. Heading east now, the setting sun at our backs, we were about to abandon the search when we spotted the discrete sign and fluttering prayer flags on a building right across the street from the Atomic Cowboy Bar. Bingo.

We were warmly welcomed by a smiling asian woman I correctly assumed to be Connie States, wife of the chef/owner. The restaurant consists of two rooms, a bar in the front room. Prayer flags hang around the door and surround all walls. Tanka paintings, photos of the Dali Lama and various Buddhas are everywhere. The windows even have beaded curtains with the image of the Buddha. Near where we sat in the second room was a small buddhist alter topped with a drawing of the Dali Lama over an image of Llasa backed by a rainbow.

The restaurant was modestly busy for a week night. One table seemed to be young Indian men. Another near us had an older professional caucasian couple with a young man who looked Tibetan. After a few minutes Dr. Devi himself took our order. He suggested we try two Nepalese dishes. I ordered a complete meal of chicken cooked in authentic Nepal-style sauce called Tarkari Ra Saag, lentil soup, vegetables and very spicy pickled vegetables with lotus root called mango achars. Merry ordered Everest Sizzling Shrimp Tarkari.

The food took a while to arrive. I assume this was because each dish was being prepared individually. The atmosphere was so peaceful we really didn't mind the wait. I noticed white silk scarfs draped over the alter and a Tanka. I asked Connie States whether these were the traditional scarves received from the Dali Lama and she said they were. Seventeen years ago her husband served as guide and driver for the Dali Lama when he visited Tibetan refugees in St. Louis. She thought he got them then.

The food arrived. Mine was a single large round silver dish with small vegetable items including soup, pickles, chick peas, spiced spinach and the chicken around a central mound of basmanti rice. Merry's dish turned out to be quite a few spiced shrimp grilled with onions, bell peppers, lemons and tomatoes served on sizzling hot plate with a side of daal (lentil) soup. Every bite was delicious. The spices are similar to northern Indian food, but subtly different.

Everything is reasonably priced. Our two full dinners with drinks totaled a little over $30; quite a bargain.

We exchanged a traditional Himalayan bow with Dr. Devi States as we left. He showed us a picture of himself getting a white scarf from the Dali Lama. We told him a little about our hearing the Dali Lama speak in Ithaca, NY last year. We promised to come back.

In an attempt to learn a bit more about Devi States I did a internet search for James States, his adoptive father, physician and world-class mountain climber. It appears he still has a practice in adolescent medicine in Washington state. I also found he was a star swimmer for Bucknell University, graduating three years before me. I didn't meet him there. Small world, though.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


We've just spent the last three days in Hannibal, MO. Hannibal is about 100 miles northwest of St. Louis along the Mississippi River. To get there in the most expeditious manner you actually take Interstate 70 due west about 40 miles through the sprawling suburbs and strip malls that surround St. Louis, then turn north on Route 61 toward Iowa. The country is open rolling plains, nearly empty save for a few small towns. The Mississippi is out of sight to the east, but since it tends west as you go north when you approach Hannibal you drop off the prairie through a series of rocky outcrops into the river valley.

Hannibal is the county seat of Marion county with a population of about 17,000. Route 61 slows as it enters the ubiquitous strip mall zone. Turn toward downtown on Broadway and you pass through modest neighborhoods. The houses are small and run down, more than a few vacant. The town is quite hilly. Some of the hills have fine older homes, but they too seem in need of more attention than their owners can afford. Here and there you can see a fully restored Victorian or even civil war vintage home, but they are the exception. As Broadway approaches the river a row of brick storefronts line both sides of the street. The classical Country Court House is here as well as a nondescript brick federal office building that houses the post office, courtrooms for the federal court, the Social Security district office, and my destination, the ODAR hearing point.

If you continue on Broadway you can see the Mississippi River at the far end of the street. The heart of downtown consists of Broadway and two cross streets, Third and Main. Both have storefronts for about four blocks to the north, none to the south, where a small stream enters the river. All east bound streets end at a tall levee except Broadway, which dead-ends into the river at a small, nearly empty marina. The storefronts in this area are mostly occupied. There are a few small restaurants, some antique stores, two good coffee joints, and of course a booming trade in Mark Twain. See for yourself:

Now, I'm not a big fan of Mark Twain, but I've read most of his books over the years. A few years back our book club read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and enjoyed the heck out of it. Sam Clemens was not born in Hannibal, that honor goes to Florida, MO about 15 miles west, but he did grow up here and he based Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn on his memories of Hannibal. So it has come to pass that Hannibal's main industry is Mark Twain tourism. The river boat “Mark Twain” is tied up at the end of Center Street. The Mark Twain Hotel and Mark Twain Dinette are downtown along with the Mark Twain Museum. Tour buses head directly for the Mark Twain boyhood home, and you can eat at the Becky Thacher Restaurant right down the street. The Mark Twain Cave is two miles south. About every third business in town uses “Mark Twain” as part of its name. We had lunch Friday at a very good coffeehouse called Mark Twain Ice n' Coal.

I don't object at all to towns using tourism as a means of survival. I'm a pretty discriminating tourist myself. We checked out the museum and found much to admire there. It's a curious mix of the real and the imagined. The first floor is devoted to dioramas from the most popular novels and the upper floors concern Clemens' life, especially his time as a steamboat pilot. Much of the top floor is devoted to display of the original Norman Rockwell paintings used as illustrations for Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

The problem with using tourism as a town's economic base is that it doesn't produce nearly as much capital for the town as one might imagine. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Hannibal every year, look around for a short time then leave. The service jobs are seasonal and often part-time. Some small businesses prosper on tourist dollars, but not to the extent that the whole town prospers. Thus the overwhelming image I'm left with of Hannibal is of a struggle to survive, with many inhabitants just barely getting by.

On Thursday I heard six cases, all of whom were represented by the same lawyer, Terrell Dempsey. He and his wife, Vicki, have done a lot over the years to make Hannibal a better place to live. They helped found the free health clinic, the woman's shelter and to restore the Molly Brown (as in Unsinkable) home. I was surprised when he asked one of his African-American clients during testimony whether she liked a particular place because it was owned and operated by black folk. After the hearing he told me that he meant no offense but it's just that the entire area is still called “Little Dixie” and that segregation is far from over. He referred me to his book, Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens' World, if I wanted deeper understanding of Hannibal's history. Take a look at this interview with Dempsey for a different view of Mark Twain's background:

In all I enjoyed my introduction to Hannibal. I'll be back for a week in July when the tourist season is in full swing. You can expect a another dispatch from Little Dixie then.