Does anyone remember John and Peter’s bar and the great Johnny’s Dance Band?

24 Mar

The Trump-man Show puts an end to the Sounds of Silence

5 Feb

Some condemn immigrants; many benefit from them

28 Nov

dim-sum-garden2

As a twist to what is current, I’m writing positively about immigrants.

 

Whether we acknowledge it or not, newcomers have always played a role in improving American’s special brand of capitalism. A recent innovation I stumbled upon involved food, a truck and a series of parking lots around the Philadelphia suburbs.

 

The participating entrepreneurs are Chinese and the heart of the operation is

a Chinese app called We Chat. This single app, available in English and Chinese, is something like Facebook but has been built out so it is many apps in one. It is used by millions of Chinese people around the world to do things for which Americans use multiple apps. Now it is being used to find and organizing markets for products.

 

Business people from Philadelphia’s Chinatown section use it to sell food products to people in the suburbs who might not want to drive into Chinatown. There are a number of groups doing this.  I’m not sure how many, but I know one sells just mushrooms, one vegetables, and one food from Xian province.

 

The seller I did business with was selling frozen dim sum products. They buy from wholesalers and sell in bulk, mostly on the weekends.

 

As the weekend approaches, We Chat is used to tell buyers what products are available in the upcoming delivery. Most important, they are informed of the the times the food truck will arrive and depart from each parking lot on the delivery circuit.

 

The customer orders using a phone and is given an order number.

 

The closest stop to my house is about 20 minutes away, and the truck would be there Sunday from 10:20 a.m. to 10:50 a.m. It’s a small window because the truck has to move on to the next lot and new customers, like a bus on a schedule. I arrived around 10:15, and saw an unmarked truck at the far end of the lot, away from a large shopping center. That was it.

 

The back of the truck was open and loaded with boxes labeled with numbers. There was a man inside.

 

On the ground was a woman with a clipboard.

 

“I’m number 56,” I told her.

 

shanghai-house-xiao-long-bao

I had ordered two 5-pound bags of something called Shanghai Xioa Rong Boa. In English they are called soup dumplings. These dumpling have become a big hit in several newer restaurants in Chinatown.

 

Not long ago, Chinatown in Philadelphia was a tired, weary, unexciting place. The restaurants were dirty and the menus hadn’t changed in years. Most, I believe, were owned by long-established Cantonese. Now, after a whole different wave of Chinese immigration, there is a new breed of entrepreneurs in Chinatown. They have opened stylish eateries with fresh, fun, unusual offerings. Some are inexpensive and have attracted large numbers of urban hipsters.

 

As a result of this renaissance, soup dumplings are found all over Chinatown. They come in several varieties. To properly enjoy them, you have to master the technique of eating them.

 

The soup dumpling exterior skin is made from dough. Inside is the filling, usually meat and soup. If you eat them wrong, you risk scolding your tongue on the hot soup, or exploding the dumpling and having soup cascade onto the table and your clothes.

 

One way to eat them is to use a Chinse soup spoon. Put the dumpling on the spoon and take a small, gentle bite of the skin. Let some of the hot soup leak out onto the spoon, where it can cool. In addition to cooling, this releases the pressure and prevents an explosion. Sip the cooled soup then, after a moment, bite fully into the dumpling or put the whole thing in your mouth.

 

At Dim Sum Garden on Race Street you can get an order of eight pork soup dumplings for $6.25. These are fresh, not frozen. You can even watch them being made. At the truck, a bag of 100 frozen dumplings is $20.

 

“Only two bags?” the woman outside the truck asked.

 

“Yes, just two.”

 

The man inside put my order in a plastic bag. From the looks of things, all the other orders were in larger boxes.

 

“And, I heard you get a free drink,” I said.

 

The man in the truck put a can of Sacred Lotus Leaf Herbal Tea in my bag. As required, I paid in cash.

 

The tea was from Fujian province in China but the frozen dumplings came from a factory in the Maspeth section of Queens, right near Brooklyn. The commercial neighborhood was established in the 17th century by Dutch and English settlers. I guess immigrants continue to operate strongly there. In fact, Queens – the home of President-elect Donald Trump – may be the most diverse town in all of America, maybe the planet.

queens

“There are 1 million immigrants and a mix that is perhaps unprecedented in this borough’s history,” said Joseph Salvo,  a demographer with the city Planning Department.

 

He said the population is almost equally divided among Asian and Hispanic groups from countries such as China, Guyana, Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, India and Korea.

 

Either way, someone there in Maspeth was working a job that helped bring soup dumplings to my table, and people closer to my home have come up with a great and inventive alternative to food shopping in the city.

 

The whole thing seems pretty good, and my thanks go out to the immigrants – or sons and daughters of immigrants – whose hard work and clever approach made it happen. They were attracted to the U.S. because of our system. They learned it, and grew it, and allowed many to benefit from it.

 

Bon appetit! Or maybe I should say, hen hao chi!

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

 

 

 

 

Police shootings: Finding answers among Seven Spanish Angels

15 Oct

seven-spanish-angels-2

There’s a song called “Seven Spanish Angels” that makes you feel sorry for the protagonist, who probably is a killer.

 

When you hear the song you don’t think of him as evil or bad. Instead, you sympathize with him.

 

The subject of the song is a Mexican outlaw. Alone with his woman, he is trying to make a stand against a posse and vows that this time he will not be taken back to Texas alive. As he battles on, Seven Spanish Angels at the Altar of the Sun wait to receive him once he is killed in the Valley of the Gun.  And he is killed, along with his woman, who points an empty pistol at the posse so they are sure to kill her, too

 

It’s tragic.

 

The love of the man for the woman, along with her devotion to him, and his weariness and his struggle, and the sympathy of the Spanish Angels, makes you believe that maybe he is innocent.

 

Perhaps you even think he is you.

 

willie-nelson-ray-charles

Willie Nelson recorded the song with Ray Charles and you can hear it here.  It’s a great tune, but it is not life. In life, we more often think the worst of people rather than the best. This is especially true if the people are not like us. Even in the song, it requires Spanish angels to look after a Hispanic, suggesting that Anglo angels don’t much care.

 

True understanding takes a rare kind of wisdom born of diverse experience.

 

A character in a French film, the name of which I’ve forgotten, has that kind of wisdom. He is a retired judge who befriends a young woman. In a melancholy moment, he tells her, “Many people have come before me in court, and many I’ve sent to prison. Yet in every case, had I been in their situation, I would have done the same as they did.”

 

Makes me wonder what I would do if I were among those who worry every time a police officer approaches, even if I’m just sitting on my front porch. If my life could be taken at any time by an officer of the law, and for no good reason, could I be silent and passive while waiting for change?

 

I tend to think I could not. My reaction would edge toward protest and revolt. I know there are people like me who would take up arms rather than submit to this kind of treatment.

 

But not actually being subject to it, and believing it can never happen to them, those who would arm themselves can’t comprehend how the real victims could possibly do the same.

 

When someone is not like us, we can’t see their humanness. Beyond that, we ascribe all sorts of sub-human qualities to them.

 

Not long ago, I met a former NFL assistant coach, a big, powerful man who came close to tears telling a story of someone who once didn’t think much of him.

 

In the story, the future coach is attending a small college where the typical student came from a small town or farming community. The coach was not typical. Relevant to the story are these facts: He is black, good at math and a frequent hand washer.

 

One semester he tutored math to a white student who fit the school’s rural profile. At their final session, the white student expressed sincere appreciation and said he had learned more than just math. He said he discovered that something taught to him all his life – that black people lack intelligence and are dirty – was just not true.

 

The coach, in telling the story, said that if people just got together more the walls of division and hate would crumple.

 

He makes a good point. But even with more mixing, there sometimes can be an element of protective posturing that confounds true understanding. We’ve got to break through that as well.

 

Which brings me to another song, a 1961 hit called “The Bristol Stomp.”

 

There really is a place called Bristol and the Stomp (a dance) was first done there. The song says, “The kids in Bristol are sharp as a pistol when they do the Bristol Stomp.” I grew up not too far from Bristol and I can tell you that in the early ‘60s the kids in Bristol weren’t just sharp, they were required by some unwritten code to be utterly and fantastically cool.

 

Even the older men – all the Italians and about half the Irish – thought they were Sinatra.

 

There was a walk and a talk; a way of standing and a way of dressing. Outer toughness was always present. My neighborhood was nothing like this.  Bristol was a kind of threat to us. If there was going to be a fight at a high school basketball game, we’d prefer it not be with Bristol. For lack of coolness, we would never think of dating their girls (although I once did and it was great).

 

They acted superior and we bought it.

 

Yet they were destined to end up working in the local steel mill and we were destined for college. Their defense mechanisms could only get them so far.

 

What surprised me was when, through a part-time job, I actually got to know a couple of kids from Bristol. Their veneer suddenly became transparent.  They weren’t much different from me. Fears, worries, hopes, dreams – all about the same. Some weren’t even tough – or cool.

I came to understand them, rather than fear them.

 

The Seven Spanish Angels looked after and rooted for their Mexican brother because they had something in common with him. They recognized the difficulty of his life and sympathized with him. But outside of songs, there are no Spanish angels. Angels have no nationality or culture. At the Altar of the Sun, there is only universal compassion. It is for everyone because everyone in the human brotherhood is deserving of it.

 

Down here in the Valley of the Gun, it is most important to learn the sameness of our species rather than the unimportant differences. It is much harder to aim a deadly weapon at someone when you can see yourself on the other side of the barrel.

 

And so I add a few words to the conversation, one that will take a great deal more than words to resolve.

Lanny Morgnanesi

 

How an auto product brought joy and happiness to young men

7 Sep

hust-about-us-image-01

There used to be a company called Hurst-Campbell. It manufactured a magical product that made you cool, earned you respect and got you girls.

 

There are few products like that today.

 

Today, I never hear anyone talk about this product – the Hurst Shifter. In the days when most drivers manually shifted gears – three of them – with a clunky arm mounted on the steering column, Hurst produced a sexually charged device that stuck up out of the floor and linked to a four-speed transmission.

 

The shift pattern was an “H,” very much like the Hurst-Campbell logo. The setup was known as “four on the floor.”

 

“If you didn’t have a Hurst shifter in your supercar, you were a mild-mannered loser.”

 

That’s a quote from a 1997 book by Mike Mueller called, “Motor City Muscle: High-Powered History of the American Muscle Car.”  But you didn’t need a supercar to have a Hurst shifter, although cars that had them were usually fast and pretty hot.

 

I never had a hot car or a Hurst shifter. Still, in my high school and in my hometown the Hurst mystic was always present.

 

Two things, and only two things, made my hometown noteworthy. One was a naval base where the original Mercury astronauts trained. The other was the headquarters of Hurst-Campbell.

 

george-hurst

George Hurst

Hurst-Campbell was founded in 1958 by George Hurst, a drag racing auto mechanic with an eighth-grade education. The shifter developed by him and his partners resulted in an alliance with General Motors and arguably became the largest selling after-market product in automotive history. After the success of the shifter and other products, and with an unparalleled reputation in racing circles, Hurst-Campbell wa

s acquired in 1970 by a company that made toasters.  That company, Sunbeam Products, promised George Hurst an executive position and a seat on the board of directors. He never got them.

 

Hurst died despondent in 1986 at the age of 59.

 

Last month I was in my hometown and drove by the old Hurst building. What once seemed majestic now looked shockingly ordinary.

 

But it brought back memories.

 

The memory of Joyce came first; then Danny, then John.

 

200px-hurst_shifterJoyce was an attractive young girl who became more attractive when everyone learned her father was an executive at Hurst-Campbell. For guys at least, it gave her a special aura. It almost made her off limits. Danny, however, was cocky enough to ask her out and they actually started dating.

 

Friends of Danny could not believe this had happened. It was like those Mafia movies where you feel empowered because your friend becomes a made man.

 

There was wild talk that Danny could get free shifters, or at least get them at a discount. My vague recollection is that he and Joyce broke up before any of that happened.

 

Then there was John. I was much more envious of John than Danny, and here is why:

John had saved his money from an after-school job and bought a customized Chevy from his brother’s friend. I think it was a ’59. Those old cars didn’t have bucketseats in the front. They had bench seats, which could fit three – four if you really pushed
it.

 

The car had a Hurst shifter with a knob on top that resembled a cue ball. It popped up and, when in fourth gear, arched over the seat.

 

hurst-benchseat John’s girlfriend at the time always sat close to him on the bench, consciously and deliberately straddling the shifter knob. What this meant was that as John went from first, to second, to third, to fourth, he would be moving his hands between his girlfriend’s legs. He would have to go through all the gears after every stop light and stop sign and during every slowdown and speed up.

 

From the backseat, where I often sat, this was an unbearable frustration to watch.

 

There is a cruelty to being young; a harsh chemistry that preoccupied the mind while – too often – going unserved. So all this shifting was like a sublime punishment.

 

I would have given almost anything to have had a car and a girl like John’s.

 

In time, John moved on to an even better car and – some might say — an even better girl.

 

As I looked at the old Hurst building in my old hometown, I thought of these things and more. I thought about desire and fulfillment and the things that add pleasure and prestige to life. I thought about how most of these things pass and how we struggle to replace them with other things, and how as we get older it is harder and harder to find adequate replacements.

 

At Hurst-Campbell, there was more than the shifter. George Hurst, in fact, oversaw the invention and development of the “Jaws of Life” – the device that today allows rescue workers to remove people from crumpled cars. Realizing its enormous potential, he gave away the patent and the fortune that would have gone with it.

 

So here’s to George Hurst, who became great and good and helped very young men walk tall and proud and ride with grace and dignity. I would call that a life in full; an achievement rare and wonderful. Because of George Hurst, when I drive by a once-special, now forgotten industrial building, I get a smile, a chill and an opiate-like thrill.

 

Thanks, George, even if I never did buy one of your shifters. Who would have thought I could make it through life without one?

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

Thoughts about the “First People”

19 Aug
First People-hurdlers

This blog has been inactive for quite some time. I’m going to try and bring it back.

 

Here goes:

 

With high sensitivity all around us, I worry about something I hope to do soon – or rather say.

 

I plan to use the term “First People” in conversation. As far as I know, almost no one makes reference to the “First People.” They generally don’t get acknowledged as such, and in the rare case they do, there is almost no acclaim, credit, respect, distinction or awe given to them for being first.

 

The “First People,” of course, are those of African descent.  Human beings, according to a widely held theory, originated in African, migrated out and gradually but surely populated the entire globe. They are said to have gone east first, through what is now the Middle East, then into Asia, then they turned back west and went into Europe, displacing and eliminating the Neanderthals, who were human-like but were not homo sapiens.

 

This is the Out of Africa theory, and the average person doesn’t hear much of it or talk much about it. Worse, perhaps, I’ve never heard an African-American boast about it.

 

I got the idea for using the term “First People” from watching the TV show “Game of Thrones.” In that show the original inhabitants of the north are called the “First Men.” They are spoken of with great reverence. While the ancestors of the First Men seem to be gone from the “Game of Thrones,” the ancestors of our First People remain with us, but they are un-honored.

 

I thought about them during the Olympics, where they dominated over later-coming peoples in nearly all the running events. Could having the blood of the “First People” provide some advantage over other races, or do they just try harder? If it’s the latter, why is that? Is it a holdover quality from the “First People,” who had to try damn hard to do what they ended up doing?

 

In America, with race being such an inflammatory issue and with the ancestors of the “First People” historically being treated as if they were not even people, it would seem impossible for the majority to outwardly recognize a superior strain of any kind in them. That’s sad.

 

Would the majority even be willing to call them the “First People?” Probably not. But I hope the “First People” somehow start calling themselves that. It’s a distinction much worthy of note.

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

What do these two photos have in common? My closet!

27 Jun

Lysistrata-LannyVietnam execution

On a Sunday when the grass had been cut and there were no great demands on my time, I organized the treasures and junk in my archive closet. There were depths to plunge, but I mostly skimmed. Still, the experience was like reliving an almost forgotten life.

There I was, in costume, in an old college photo. It was taken back stage after a performance of the bawdy Greek comedy “Lysistrata.” The play by Aristophanes is set during the Peloponnesian war. It has the women of all the city-states withholding sex from all the men until they make peace. In the photo I wore a tunic. My skin was bronzed with theatrical makeup called Texas Mud.

I had only a small part but on the last night of the run I got the biggest laugh of my life. Without meaning to or even knowing it, I had successfully improvised. And it worked.

In the scene, a group of horny Greek solders (me included) were on the ground as teasing women danced around them. As per our director’s order, we were to cover the lower portions of our body with our shields. In the center of those shields, facing outward, were tubular objects that resembled what was under the shield and under the tunic.

When one of the actresses danced over me, my recumbent body began to vibrate feverishly. I wasn’t aware of what was going on but when the auditorium erupted in laughter I knew I had done something very convincing and very funny.

Later, someone in the audience said it looked as if I had experienced an orgasm.

On this high note, I ended my show business career and never played again.

Back in the archive closet, in one of many boxes, was an orange folder containing yellow pages of text that had come from a dot matrix printer. It was a novel I started years ago and recently took up again (after devising what I hope is a slightly better plot.)

I began reading and realized the opening of the old version was much better than the opening of the new version. How disappointing! I thought time had made me better. I won’t share the new opening but just for fun here is the old:

“The hall was dirty, as was her dress. And it was dim, like her future.”

The problem is that after that, there wasn’t much worth reading.

So I went to another box.

My attention went to a curling letter from the Detroit News dated Nov. 10, 1989. It appeared to be an answer to an inquiry I had made about a women named Jeanne, a journalist from Detroit whom I met when we both worked in China. That was during the mid-80s, and Jeanne had returned later during the Tiananmen Massacre. At the time of the letter, she was sort of missing.

The letter reminded me how exciting things could be in my former profession, and how we never quite recognized danger. Danger was for the people we covered, not for us.

The letter said:

“Pat talked to Jeanne and her husband (a Chinese national) the other day. The good news is that neither of them has been arrested, although Jeanne was in some trouble for the stories she filed for the Free Press and her husband, as I told you, was in trouble for helping ABC’s news crew. The bad news is that officials won’t let them leave China. Her husband, who got a master’s at Harvard, has been accepted into a doctoral program there with a full scholarship. Someone said officials won’t make a decision because they fear that whatever they do will be perceived to be the wrong thing by the higher ups.”

Jeanne was one of the most interesting people I have ever known. She was, and I’m sure still is, a great storyteller. Her life, on its own, was a great story. It even started out interesting.

Her father was a diplomat and she was raised in Vietnam during the early stages of the war. Her family was especially good friends with Ngo Dinh Diem, then the president of South Vietnam. Jeanne’s family often had him over for dinner.

Naturally, she was shocked and horrified when Deim, on the order of President Kennedy, was assassinated. Can you image how a little girl, unschooled in politics, might feel knowing the leader of her own country had killed a family friend?

The date was Nov. 2, 1963.

Three weeks later, when JFK himself was assassinated, young Jeanne felt justice had been served and a fair punishment issued.

That’s one of her best stories. But it doesn’t top her account of the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. She was on the front lines with the protesting students when soldiers started firing. The only thing that protected her from the bullets were the dead bodies that had fallen on top of her.

When I finally got in touch with her and she told me this, I should have felt sympathy, sorrow and concern. Instead, I was jealous. Jeanne, damn her, would have yet another good story to tell.

How great to be part of history. I’m thankful that at least a small part of it is in my closet.

There is even more history in that closet. When I took an editor’s job at the Florida Times Union in 1986, I opened the draw of my desk and found an assortment of Associated Press Photos – actual photos, not newspaper clips – from a number of world events.

Columbia take over

And there they were now in my closet:

  • A captured member of the Viet Cong being executed with a bullet to the head.
  • Heavily armed black students proudly leaving the president’s office at Columbia University.
  • Reporters standing around watching men on the ground being run through with bayonets. (This might have been Indonesia)
  • President Kennedy walking idyllically at Camp David with former President Eisenhower.

. . . and more

Bayonet killingsAll of it in my closet.

There were some newer things in there as well, like the canvas bag filled with personal files dating to 2008.

They were from my last newspaper job as an executive editor, which I lost during the Great Recession when that paper combined with two others. I had left the files behind but a colleague brought them to me.

For almost seven years, there was no need or inclination to look inside the bag.

Now, I dumped out the contents to inspect them. Nothing too interesting. A few memories. Certificates of completion from a score of ridiculous management seminars. A letter from a reader who complained, “There is no excuse for bad English in a newspaper,” citing an article with the headline, “Imagine there’s no secrets.” It was about John Lennon and his battle with the FBI. The writer noted that it should have been “there are” no secrets.

Shuffling through the files, I noticed an unopened greeting card in a bright yellow envelope. I opened it. It was from the colleague who had brought me the files. There was a cute card with Snoopy on it wishing me good luck and happiness. There also was a letter. Seeing it, and being touched by it without having even read it, I felt great regret at never having acknowledged it. Once I read it, I felt that perhaps my years as an editor may have been worth something.

A person who leads never really knows if he’s a bastard, a prick, a woefully unfair tyrant, an anti-visionary who lacks talent and relevance. One can only hope he or she is respected and followed and right for the time. People can let you believe the latter even when it is not true.

Without going into detail, I will say that from the single perspective of the letter writer, I received confirmation that I had performed my job properly.

I will continue to keep and treasure this letter.

But there was something else about this letter that woke me to a situation I may have naively overlooked: discrimination against women in journalism.

Nothing in the letter directly spoke to this. It was the tone and sincerity of the “thanks” that suggested it.

While in newspapers, I always focused on the job of producing good stories. And it was always my belief that men and women were equally capable of doing this. In some cases, a woman would be better than a man. In others, a man might be better than a woman. The essence of it was that good was good and it could come from anywhere. The only thing I looked for was good.

The letter writer, a woman, had moved up through the ranks during my tenure. She began as a temp reporter and ended up being metro editor. There was one point where our managing editor – a woman – retired and I made this person acting managing editor while I searched for a replacement.

I had forgotten this; had forgotten why I did it. But in the letter it was explained back to me:

“Thank you for giving me a chance to be an acting managing editor. I wasn’t ready to be managing editor, but I put my name forth anyway. What a classy, clever suggestion that I be acting managing editor to help bridge the gap. Thank you for the experience.”

In the letter, she thanked me for every promotion.

“No Dale Carnegie course could have ever shown me better how important it is for managers to set a tone of inclusiveness and optimism,” she wrote.

It dawned on me then that the more natural course could have been a slower ascent (or no ascent) because she is a woman. It had never crossed my mind before, but knowing it now carries value.

In just a short time, I learned a lot from that overstuffed closet, with all it frozen chunks of life. I’ll have to go back again later and learn more.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

%d bloggers like this: