July 21, 2017

SOUTH VS NORTH

I spent the month of April in NYC looking after Kyle while his mother was in Brazil. Usually I fly up but I hadn’t driven the route since leaving NYC in 2009 so I decided spring might be a great time to hit the road stopping along the way to see the sights.

April 12th was the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War with the Confederate shelling of Ft. Sumter and after reading an intriguing article in the NY Times about how Southern museums depict the war years. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/arts/design/in-the-south-civil-war-has-not-been-forgotten.html) I made my first stop Charleston, South Carolina. Ft. Sumter lies in Charleston harbor, the city has a Confederate Museum and I booked a morning Civil War Tour that had been lauded on several websites.

Early that morning I was exhilarated. The City of Charleston is singularly beautiful with many antebellum homes intact or magnificently restored.Flowers and trees were blooming everywhere. The sun glistened on the waters along Battery Street across from mansions that had stood since the war. It was a Saturday morning, not much traffic a few locals and tourists on foot enjoying that same exhilaration on what felt like the first day of spring.

How could a day that began so promising leave me with such a bad taste, placing me under an onerous cloud by sunset?

The tour began at 9am in the lobby of the historic Mills House Hotel. Although renovated since, (and now under Holiday Inn ownership!) it was built in 1853. Robert E. Lee slept here during the Democratic Convention of 1860. (http://www.millshouse.com/amenities/history.html)

Our guide was what tourists often refer to as ‘a real character’. A man in his seventies with an animated face under a straw boater, he had directed this tour for over a decade, yet never once sank into rote delivery, always sparked with spontaneity as if telling the stories for the very first time and the war had occurred decades ago rather than a century and a half. He had compiled a picture book about Charleston (which we bought at the end of the tour) and was knowledgeable in every answer to questions. He had even memorized letters from Confederates in Charleston during Union bombardment and frequently stopped to recite their words.

There were two other customers for the tour, men about my age, both from North Carolina and descendents of Confederate veterans (one was the great-grandson of the designer of the first Confederate stamp!)

So far so good.

But strangely, before we began our guide asked if we wanted the tour ‘with slavery or without’, as if we were in a Chinese restaurant picking from column A or column B.

I was flabbergasted. “How can you have a Civil War Tour without slavery?”

“Well, some folks just get too sensitive about it. They can’t enjoy the tour. You have to understand the people who lived here at the time. Ya’ll can’t judge them by our present day standards. I try to get you to appreciate the world they were living in so you really can understand what happened here.”

That didn’t sound unreasonable. Taking national pride in the laudable, revolutionary achievements of the Founding Fathers, many of whom were slaveholders, has always been an American balancing act. But on the other hand, ‘many of the people who lived here at the time’ were enslaved. They lived in that world too.

We all agreed. We chose Column A: the tour WITH slavery.

The very first stop on the tour was a small, white house near the hotel.

This was the home of a free woman of color. We were told that Charleston had over 3,000 free blacks before the Civil War. (Later, doing my own research, I found that these were mostly mixed-race ‘mulattoes’, that their wages were regulated by law, that they were women by a ratio of 2-1 and that they had to wear little badges depicting a liberty cap when they were out in public like Jews in a ghetto. Our guide didn’t mention these historical facts). He pointed out curled spikes on a fence around the house. They looked like the anti-burglar fences you find in NYC but he cited them as protection against slave revolts. Yes, even black Charlestonians feared the slaves! And we were regaled with the animal viciousness of the slave revolt sparked by Denmark Vessey. Vessey and his followers planned to kill all the whites, women and children included, take over the city and then sail to freedom in Haiti. (Of course, there had actually been no revolt. Two slaves opposed to the revolt informed authorities. Vessey and 34 others were hanged.) Our guide pointed to a park with similar spikes above the fence, pointing out that this is where embattled whites would find a last redoubt against murderous blacks. The citizens could fire outward through the spaces in the iron fence and the curled spikes atop it would prevent slaves from climbing over.

So now we were seeing Charleston from the perspective of ‘the people who lived here at the time’. At least the white ones. They lived in constant fear of dangerous blacks.

The next stop was the Slave Market, (now a small Slavery Museum, more on this later).

“Now, what kind of darkie do you want to buy here today?” asked the guide helping us to ‘appreciate the world they were living in’.

“What?” I asked.

“What kind of darkie do you want to buy?” he repeated. “You know, you don’t just buy a darkie. You buy a carpenter, a wheelwright, a blacksmith or a field hand. Now the field hand is the cheapest. Maybe $500. But some of those others could run you into real money. Maybe a thousand dollars. Now what kind of darkie do you want to buy today?”

I demurred, explaining that I would do my own work and was remonstrated that if I insisted on not buying a ‘darkie’ I would face lifetime penury. My tour partners were more amenable to playing slave-master. One said he would buy a carpenter for $800, the other a field hand for $500.

When we got to the site of the ante-bellum insurance company I again refused to play the game and insure my ‘darkie’. By now, I must have roused suspicions that I was not a fellow-traveler and my companions on the tour began to ask questions; what I did for a living, where I was from etc. They were excited when I told them my TV show was cancelled the day after Bill Clinton’s mistress made an appearance and more so when I told them I was a political radio broadcaster in New York. ‘Did I know Sean Hannity?’ ‘Yes. I worked in the same studio as he did and used to follow him on the air.’ ‘What was he like in real life?’ ‘Well, one to one he was a likeable enough, if shallow fellow but considering the requirements of the job he wasn’t all that bright.’ I quickly added that Mark Levin, on the other hand, was an extremely bright, well educated individual who surely must know better about the things he tells his audience.

I wasn’t making any friends here.

‘And what do you do now?” one of them asked.

“I do a lot of fill in on Sirius Satellite Radio, but I’m on Sirius Left. You probably don’t listen to that channel…”

“You’re right. I would NEVER ever listen to that…” he assured me. He smirked: “So I guess you’re happy with YOUR president?”

“Not with everything,” I answered truthfully. “But you mean OUR president. He’s the American president. Just like George Bush. Bush was MY president even though I didn’t vote for him.”

“Obama’s not MY president!” he insisted and the others nodded in agreement.

Fortunately we were only halfway through the tour and as we moved on to General Beauregard’s house, the breathtaking homes on Bay Street, the Hunley Confederate Submarine monument, listening to our guide recite contemporaneous letters and compare scrap-book pictures of post-war destruction with modern renovation. There were only a few jibes about modern politics. I was told the slaves did not receive Obamacare and the plantation owners looked after their medical needs. That the mayor of Charleston was a lib supporter of Obama just like me. I held my tongue.

The end of the tour came to a big finale and our guide became agitated over the election of Lincoln and the war. “And all this destruction and death could have been avoided,” he railed. “South Carolina didn’t vote for Lincoln. He wasn’t our president, that damn abolitionist. If he had reached out to the South, if he had assured us about the continuation of slavery all this wouldn’t have happened and we’d all be a lot better off…”

I cut him off. I’d had enough.

“Wait a minute. First of all Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He wasn’t going to take slavery away from the South. The problem was over new territories and whether they would become free states or slave states. Second, South Carolina seceded in December, before Lincoln was even president! And what do you mean we’d be better off if slavery had continued in the South?!? For how long? How many generations of human beings would continue to live their lives as slaves? You had state sponsored segregation in the South until the seventies. Would we be better off having slaves through the 20th century?”

“Segregation is different. It’s not the same thing…” he insisted, waving his hands at me.

“So how many more decades would slavery have existed without the Civil War? And over all those years these slaves would be better off?” I continued.

“All I’m saying is that the country could have avoided the war and we would be better off…”

“What do you mean ‘we’? Yeah, Churchill could have avoided World War II too! England might have kept its Empire…good deal for England. Bad deal if you’re a Jew.”

We calmed as we returned to Mills House, our starting point and I bought his book which seemed a conciliatory gesture. I had one last question for our guide.

“Do you ever get any black people taking your tour?”

“Not many,” he replied with what seemed sincere regret. “I wish more would sign up. But not many do…”

Now, from MY point of view while based upon historical fact the tour began by downplaying slavery (there were over 3000 free Blacks in Charleston before the war), then demonized the enslaved (the whites were terrorized by the prospect of imagined bloody slave revolts), then we were prompted to enjoy the imaginary thrill of buying human beings and finally the Civil War was portrayed as Lincoln’s fault although the offensive actions of secession and military attack were initiated by the South.

Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and enjoyed his work. I did not want to destroy the experience for him or the others and until the end of the tour often restrained myself from commenting on presentations I found offensive.

Was I too sensitive about slavery (as I had been warned at the start)?

What would you have done?

(Still to come: The Confederate Museum, The Slavery Museum and Fort Sumter)

NYC DIARY

Just got back from 10 days in NYC where one day had weather like Florida…I filled in three nights for Mark Thompson on Sirius Left. As always the Sirius callers were the best informed, most articulate of any callers I’ve ever worked with in any medium—talk about military procurement and an ex-Navy man calls with expert info on the F-35 or the Ford super carriers, talk about the Wisconsin debacle and a Wisconsin teacher calls in, talk about Teabaggers and they dial in to complain about taxes stolen at the barrel of a gun. Its always a joy to work there…I took Kyle to the Pompeii exhibit at the Discovery Museum on 44th street, a spectacular show, movingly, dramatically presented. Kyle was excited by the remarkably preserved gladiator’s helmet and shin guards and (eye roll) the recreation of a Roman brothel room. When he read the plaque that rooms like this were a hotbed of sexual diseases he was too scared to go inside. “Am I going to get AIDS if I go in there?” he asked. Midway through the exhibit there is a breathtaking moment when a SURROUNDSOUND CGI film of the city rattles the walls while recreating the hourly progression of destruction over the course of the day. As you stand shaken, with billowing black smoke roaring to engulf you, smothering all in its way, doors slide open and you enter the room with the plaster casts of actual Romans contorted and frozen in time, clutching their loved ones, their heads, their mouths in the final moments of life. The complete frescoes, the gold jewelry work, the pottery and sculpture—it’s all well worth the $25 entrance fee…I really enjoyed two Broadway plays: WAR HORSE at Lincoln Center and THE BOOK OF MORMON created by the team from South Park. Both plays received standing ovations. The ovation for WAR HORSE was perfunctory and dutiful. The one for BOOK OF MORMON was enthusiastic and irrisistable…. WARHORSE, about the cavalry horses of World War I has life size horse puppets that are so intricate they make THE LION KING figurines look like sock puppets. It’s a production that is awe inspiring in its theatricality and imagination. Unfortunately, the production is a bit precious and displays an awareness of its own magnificence. This self-conscious grandiosity saps intimacy from the central story and as impressed as I was by the stagecraft, it was the simple straightforward performance of one little girl, an orphan of war, that was most moving. That, and the PLAYBILL notes informing that out of 1 million horses shipped from Britain to the battlefields of France only 68,000 returned…. THE BOOK OF MORMON, on the other hand is as raunchy, as offensive and as hilarious as you would expect considering its source. It’s the story of two Mormon missionaries assigned to Uganda where life is so hopeless and miserable the natives curse G-d for their existence. One number is so outrageously sacrilegious (and funny!) that I expected a New Testament thunderbolt might strike the theater. I’m a guy who, out of habit, still hyphenates the word G-d, the way I was taught in Hebrew School (don’t use His name in vain), but when the woman next to me sneezed during intermission it felt inappropriate to say ‘G-d bless you” amidst such blasphemy! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a play where the audience so enthusiastically and uproariously supported the show from beginning to end, engaging with every comic twist and nuance (yeah, there are a few!). This is powerful, relentlessly funny stuff. The theater was sold out FOR THE PREVIEW and Joan Rivers, Penn and Teller and Mike Meyers were sitting all around me. Try to get a ticket now before it opens, if you can. (I waited for cancellations at the theater a half hour before curtain and got a fifth row orchestra seat on the aisle.)…Just as sacrilegious, just as outrageous, but far less entertaining and more than slightly pathetic was the ugly mess known as St. Patrick’s day; drunken rowdy teenagers, burly tattooed girls bulging from skin tight t-shirts and shorts, red-faced gray-haired men in uniforms stumbling across the sidewalks. Worst of all there was no cross town transportation. Getting from the East Side to the West involved a hike uptown to 86th street. They wouldn’t even allow MTA busses cross the park on 68th, 72nd or 79th Is that necessary?!?!…Had lunch with Dr. Judy (Kuriansky) from the Richard Bey Show at the Friar’s Club. It was great to see her again and she hasn’t aged a day!…Frank Morano and Curtis Sliwa invited me to join them on air at 970THE APPLE for two hours on Saturday . We called my brother Jeff in Japan for an update and he stole the show!…One night Kyle and I walked by Milos Estiatorio on 55th and he began pointing and shouting: ‘Hey, that’s the girl from ‘Full House!’ I looked over to see a mass of hair puffing nervously on a cigarette attached to two skinny ostrich legs extending from a big ball of fur. Thinking he meant it was one of the older girls from the show I said ‘No, Kyle that’s not her’ and apologized to the girl for the scene. She turned fully towards us and said ‘Oh, that’s okay. It’s not a problem’ and, of course it WAS Mary Kate (or Ashley Olson)!… In other places you do one or two things a day and feel content that you’ve accomplished something. In NYC you do fifteen things a day and kick yourself because you didn’t get more done…Had fondue, great Indian food and for the first time tried a (not so) GOODBURGER. Nothing beats Shake Shack… Saw the movie LIMITLESS with Kyle. I always repeat to him: “Cursing is a limited mind trying to express itself.” So when he asked why Bradley Cooper continued cursing even when his brain capacity was ‘limitless’, what could I say?…Also took him to MARS NEEDS MOMS in IMAX 3D, although it contained satires of ‘60’s and 80’s mindsets and a Martian topography, that needed a lot less explaining. Despite its hydrogen bomb at the B.O. and the steep IMAX 3D ($16.50 for a child!) ticket prices, I enjoyed it!… One evening I ate with an old actor friend at an outdoor restaurant (on that 75 degree day) and as often happens in NYC we began talking with the couple at the next table. He was a law professor, an expert on the post war prosecution of Nazis and an assistant Watergate prosecutor. She was a legal specialist on consumer protection. Serendipity leads to the most interesting people and the most engaging conservations when you eat out in NYC. If you can afford to eat out!…And, yes, all of that and more in just 10 days. The days are actually longer in NYC!

OUT OF MY MIND

The TSA outrage is a scandal place filler until we get to ‘They’re Stealing Christmas Again” after Thanksgiving… I took Kyle to see The Beatles recreation ‘Rain’ on Broadway. Guess which Beatles song they never played? The musicianship was good, the impersonations kind of creepy and weird. These were THE BEATLES if they had been the session band on Sesame Street. John and Paul were best buds complimenting each other on how great they were, happy and smiling the whole night. They even charmed the audience, telling us how much they loved us and how great we were. We were a bunch of old geezers with our kids! It was fun but I suspect if John had lived he would have set fire to the theater (or more likely, brought a bed into the lobby and slept in as a protest)… If Reagan taught us one thing its that deficits of attention don’t matter…When the weathermen all scream that a CAT 5 hurricane is heading your way you brace for it. If it turns out to be a CAT 3 (or a tropical storm) instead it’s almost a relief. That’s the way I felt after last week’s election. For me the loss most dearly felt was Sen. Russ Feingold in Wisconsin. I always regarded him as MY senator. … Why don’t they revive the ‘Big Brother’ franchise with Carl Pallodino, Christine O’Donnell, Alvin Greene and Sharon Angle. Allow baseball bats and guns into the house. And thorazine. I’m telling you, impressed with ratings for ‘Palin’s Alaska’?—this is a bigger hit!…The toxology reports came back for Charlie Sheen but the police couldn’t charge him. He only had enough drugs in his system for 2 and a half men… I had a great time filling in at Sirius. I ran into Howard Stern the first day. He was genuinely friendly and nice. I saw Denise Richards who was absolutely stunning but almost unrecognizably thin in real life. I watched the great actor, Ian McKellen through the glass separating our studios, his Magneto powers obviously in the off position. The callers on Sirius are also impressive, far more knowledgeable and coherent than those on terrestrial radio… Did you know that: 1. Rep.John Boehner, the new Majority Leader in the House used to be a salesman for and then president of a plastic company? That he was a Democrat until Reagan ran for president? That he claims to have never been inside a sunbed? I didn’t. Now we both know…I saw the Houdini exhibit at the Jewish Museum in NYC. Now I also know how Houdini escaped when bound tightly by ropes. You will too if you go…I just bought my next book after I finish Jonathon Franzen’s FREEDOM. Its SCORPIONS: FDR’S GREAT SUPREME COURT JUSTICES by Noah Feldman. The title was inspired by an observation that the justices acted like scorpions sealed together inside a bottle. Evidently they didn’t get along as well as our court. Antonin Scalia : My best friend on the Court is and has been for many years, Ruth Ginsburg. Her basic approach is not mine, but she’s a lovely person and a good loyal friend.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg : “Despite our sometimes strong differences, we remain good friends and people who respect each other and genuinely enjoy each others’ company.” Perhaps there is more our nation could learn from the court beyond its legal pronouncements! (Actually, another good idea for a TV show!)… If you really want to be sure about getting smaller government next election write in Verne Troyer for Congress…and why do the days in Florida seem so short? Go and read this detailed bb gun reviews by SA on their official website.