Sunday, October 31, 2004

Late flight blog.

Call it the curse of the Minneapolis return flight. It’s an hour from Minneapolis to Chicago, once the airplane gets in the air. Unless, of course, it takes longer.

Last Thursday, my 6:45 pm flight to Chicago eventually got me to Midway at about 1 am. It reminded me all too much of what happened last year, in early November 2003, when I flew the same flight on the same airline – ATA, lately bankrupt. That time, storms over northeastern Illinois were so intense that we couldn’t land at Midway. For a while, the plane circled around southern Wisconsin. Then the pilot informed us that we had to land for fuel at the Rockford airport – a second or third choice, since he also said that other flights were putting into Madison and Milwaukee.

Rockford, Illinois, as you might know, is a city northwest of metro Chicago, and under normal circumstances its airport handles only cargo flights. So once we landed there, as one of about three or four passenger jets diverted there, we had to stay in the planes for a couple of hours, since the airport had no amenities for passengers. It was a full flight and contrary to what you might expect, mildly festive there on the tarmac in Rockford. At least, no one was raging at outrageous airline fortune, though maybe we should have: it was getting stuffy in that plane. Outside, it was raining, and the other waiting planes were lined up, lights blinking against the dark, but otherwise indistinct.

At about 10:30 or so, after two hours or so on the ground, we were able to leave Rockford for the 20-minute hop into Midway. Getting in around 11 wouldn’t have been too bad, except that I missed my connection that evening on Southwest to Detroit, where I had to go the next day for another conference. Southwest booked me on an early flight the next morning, so I got to go home to sleep for about five hours or so. At least Lilly was asleep the whole time, so I avoided the hullabaloo of coming home unexpectedly (I’d told Yuriko, however, so she wouldn’t think I was a burglar – told here by cell phone from the ground in Rockford. Almost everyone on the plane had a phone.)

It wasn’t quite like that this year. But it took a long time to get home, all the same. More on that tomorrow.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Wednesday in Bloomington blog.

Minnesota has a surprising amount of foliage color in late October. I was expecting only the last dangling dregs of the leaf world to be on the trees, with the bareness of winter clearly visible. Not so; a lot of species are still hanging on, and even along some of the Interstate routes, which seem remarkably uncluttered with manmade works, compared to what I’m used to on the roads around Chicago.

My company held a conference at a hotel along the Interstate in Bloomington, Minn., a town more famous for the Mall of America, which I’ve written about before, almost a year ago (see November 7 & 8, 2003). I had a lot to do. I moderated the main panel in the morning, introduced a couple of other speakers, and wrote a couple of articles about the conference for our on-line publications. If it hadn’t all made me tired, I could have marveled at seeing a panel discussion, carrying my computer to the hotel’s business center, writing up a description of the event based on my notes, plugging the computer into the wall, and wiring it to the head office in New York. By this morning, they saw to it that anyone in the world with a computer and a knowledge of written English was able to read what I’d written. Many more people will read it, in fact, than read anything here.

I had few free hours in Bloomington, but on Thursday night I was confined to the vicinity of my hotel when it came to finding dinner. Hotel restaurant? Nah, usually they’re overpriced and undertasty. Nearby was Burger King. No. Dairy Queen, which refused to display its name on the outside of the building, merely calling itself DQ. No.

Which left Friday’s, formerly known as T.G.I. Friday’s. One of the original fern bars. I don’t remember how long it has been since I’ve been to one, but it was probably in the early ’80s in Nashville. There was one on Elliston Ave. not far from campus, but it really wasn’t my idea of fine vittles. Instead I’d go to the Elliston Place Soda Shop, which had not changed since 1940 and made a terrific shake, or Mack’s, which served meat-and-threes at popular prices, though I remember one fellow student who derided it as the “Ptomaine Domain.”

The verdict on Friday’s in Minnesota in the mid-2000s? A shrug of the shoulders. I had chicken and shrimp with a side sauce that the chain calls “Jack Daniel’s,” though it isn’t clear from reading the menu whether there’s any of the whisky included. Not bad, and the mashed potatoes were excellent, but I know the secret to that – add a lot of butter. In the end, I got everything I needed from the restaurant: sustenance in a reasonably pleasant atmosphere.

Tomorrow (or Sunday): Adventures on Always Tardy Airways.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

West Texas blog.

NO BLOGGING until Friday or Saturday. There are things to see and do in the meantime.

Jay writes, following a recent sojourn in West Texas: “I returned this afternoon from several days in camp in the Davis Mountains. The McDonald Observatory was one of the high points of the trip. The Davis Mountains are attractive in themselves, green and timbered in evergreens in their highest reaches. It's especially striking after driving through the surrounding scruffiness of the Chihuahuan desert.

“We were there Friday morning. It was cold and raining and the strong winds blew shreds of cloud around the peaks. Other people complained, but, while it wasn't pleasant, exactly, to walk through, I thought it added an early 19th century air of Romantic wildness to the scene. It's the sort of scenery that was appreciated when scenery first became something more than an obstacle to transportation.

“We returned to the observatory Saturday for a star party -- a presentation on the local night sky in an amphitheatre after which you can line up to look through several relatively small telescopes trained on assorted nebulae and star clusters until the cold forces you indoors. It had quit raining, but the moon was waxing, something more than half full. This wasn't helpful, but there were still things to see in the unaffected portions of the sky.”

Monday, October 25, 2004

Avogadro’s blog.

Warmish weekend, following heavy rains on Friday night. On Saturday Lilly went to a birthday party factory in the guise of a bowling alley, for a friend’s seventh birthday. Actually, it probably is a bowling alley, most of the time. But on a Saturday afternoon, there were a lot of kids’ parties. And a lot of the gutters had rails (which I think were retractable) so that children wouldn’t have the self-esteem-crushing experience of a gutter ball. Sheesh.

Why in my day, a gutter ball was a gutter ball…

The Bowling Factory didn’t sell games, but time, so Lilly and her co-bowlers only got through about seven frames before they had to go to the party room for pizza and cake. I don’t think Lilly cared, but that approach bothered me. Chalk up another sheesh for the Bowling Factory. Still, Lilly got what she wanted from the party, first-grade entertainment, and I suppose the birthday girl did too, so can I complain? Of course I can, but not to Lilly.

Part of this evening’s dinner included "Avocado’s Number Guacamole," which we picked up at Trader Joe’s recently. An intellectual gag on every aisle at Trader Joe’s, but I think they do know their demographic. “Admittedly,” the box says, “there aren’t 6.0221367 x 10 (to the 23rd) avocados in here, but 5 plus avo’s [sic] isn’t bad!” No, not bad at all. In fact really good guacamole. Next to the mole of molé, probably.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Riga blog.

Back a decade for this one, to Riga, the most Russian and perhaps not accidentally the least picturesque of the Baltic capitals.

October 12, 1994.

Checked out of the Victorija Hotel, Riga, around noon. The clerk said (in English), “Going home?” “Yes,” I answered, skipping the detailed explanation. We’d only been one night at the Victorija, a dowdy old hotel. Last night we dined in the room, including the can of reindeer pate we bought on the boat from Helsinki to Tallinn, which was tasty on crackers. As in many dowdy hotels of old Europe, the bathroom was down the hall. The first time I went to find it, I came across a room marked WC + the universal pictograph for man, behind which I could hear a shower running. Naturally I assumed I could walk in and use the head even while someone was showering, but my assumption was based on years of experience with bathrooms in capitalist states. As soon as I opened the door I noticed a man taking a shower, unenclosed by a wall. He yelled at me and I closed the door again.

We had the day to kill before taking a train to Vilnius. First we had lunch at the Rama Café, run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in a walk-down space under a nondescript building. Cost the equivalent of $2.50 for both of us: decent vegetarian fare, rice, beans, greens, that sort of thing. And fine samosas. The place was packed, which must speak about the limited inexpensive dining options in this town. Most of the crowd didn’t look poor, but more ragged people were lined up at a side door, receiving food for free, probably.

Later we went to the State Art Museum, which had a good collection of 18th- and 19th-century Russian art, plus an assortment of Latvian works. What did we have for dinner? Can’t recall, but in the early evening we did go on a walk again through the old town, and I went into a department store to pee. Also had some passable pastries there. We caught the train to Vilnius at a decent hour (9:30 pm), and had the good fortune to share the compartment with a quiet middle-aged man.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Roger-san blog.

Halloween dance at Lilly’s elementary school this evening. The theme was “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and a good many children and some adults wore pirate costumes, but no one looked much like Jack Sparrow, or even the mute pirate with the parrot. The winner of the adult costume contest was pirate of a sort, but more noticeable was his blue ZZ Top beard. Maybe he was Blackbeard.

Not everyone was in pirate garb, however. Lilly, for instance, tested out her Blue Fairy dress with peaked hat, which she’s already picked out for Halloween. This outfit had some advantages, especially that I could pick her out in the crowd. We put Ann in a dress that Lilly used to wear –- a “Cinderella dress,” though the tiara had gone missing. Guess that would be Cinderella after her extreme supernatural makeover, but instead of glass slippers, a frightening thought all by itself, Ann wore shiny black shoes.

Child development notes. Lilly has reaching a tipping point in reading. It’s been some time in coming, of course, but now she’s really reading and understanding a lot, and coming to me often to puzzle out words she doesn’t, which she then assimilates. Moreover, she wants to read. I think of all the places I’ve gone on the wings of print, paper and electronic, and marvel for her. Also, she’s writing stories, five- or six-sentence jobs, sometimes coming to me for spelling advice. Time to invest in a child’s dictionary, I think.

Ann now associates videotapes with something she wants to see on TV. Just a matter of observation, I suppose, and even though Lilly must have come to a similar conclusion at about the same age (I don’t remember exactly when), I was mildly surprised when Ann (nearly 21 mos.) opened one of the cabinets under the TV, took out a tape, and gave it to me with some grunts of urgency. Sometimes I think I hear “I want.” Anyway, she’s enamored with an NHK toddler show, a sing-and-dance production. We have several of these tapes, plus a double CD set of some of the songs for the car.

Yuriko told me about the young man on this show –- NHK is Japan’s national broadcaster, something in design like the BBC –- who’s a wholesome-looking chap with a big smile and a nice voice. Once, when NHK decided not to renew his contact with this show, the broadcaster was flooded with letters from mothers of young children, demanding, probably in that oblique way Japanese demand things, that he stay. I can see why. Ann will sit and watch him. Anything that gets your toddler to sit still for a few minutes is something you don’t want to lose. NHK renewed his contract, and I think he’s still doing it: the Mr. Rogers of Japan.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Rookery blog.

From the world of dysfunctional phone systems, the following. I called a company in California today, at about 9:30 a.m. Pacific Time, and heard this automated message (verbatim, name of company changed):

“Thank you for calling Three Initial Corporation. Our switchboard hours are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you would like to use our dial-by-name directory, please press one. If you would like to leave a message in our general mailbox, please—”

I pressed one, since general mailboxes may be listened to by no one or at best a person who may or may not even know the person you want, and whose job may or may not include passing the message along.

Different voice: “One is not a valid option.”

I pressed one again.

“One is not a valid option.”

The next sound was click. Me hanging up, that is. Later, I spoke with the person I wanted to speak to, and she told me they’d just moved offices, and were having a few phone problems. I told her about my encounter with the dead-end voice mail system, and she thanked me for pointing it out. Hope she was able to fix it.

A little later, I called someone in greater Boston, and heard this message: “This is so-and-so, and I will be out of the office today, but checking my messages. Please leave a message at the tone. Go Red Sox!”

After the workday was done, I walked over to the Rookery for Concierge Unlimited’s 14th Annual Client Appreciate Halloween Open House. I’m not a client, actually, but I am invited every year for reasons I won’t bore anyone with, and I go for reasons I will bore you with: the spread is always good, and the setting is even better—the lobby of the Rookery Building, one of Chicago’s jewels. To clarify: both the lobby and the building are jewels. Glories of built space.

From the National Register of Historic Places web site: “Built in 1888, the Rookery Building was named in honor of the former temporary City Hall where many of the city's birds made their nests. The 11-story office building, designed by the architectural firm of Burnham and Root, features cast-iron columns joined by wrought-iron spandrel beams, an elaborate oriel staircase and Italian marble floors and wainscoting.

“The central court, integrating office spaces with shops in the interior, extends all the way to the roof, thus allowing light into the interior. This National Historic Landmark includes some structural innovations, including the double iron staircase that is supported by cantilevers, as well as the cast iron and stone structural elements that allow for the use of ribbon windows. The court is adorned with glazed white terra cotta and covered by an iron and glass roof spanning the second floor level. Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright remodeled the ground floor lobby in 1905 by designing stair rails, light fixtures and urns.

“In the 1940s, the building managers covered up the light court with tar paper and paint, leaving the lobby dark for nearly 50 years. Continental Bank bought the Rookery in the 1980s but did not carry out their proposed restoration plans. Thomas Balwin III, a bond futures trader, bought the building in 1988 and executed a restoration project that returned the Rookery to its near original appearance.”

The sort of rehab job that covers over earlier features of great beauty is called Eisenhowering a building, and the Rookery’s a good example, even though it happened in the ’40s. My old friend Tom Jones introduced me that term this summer when I told him what happened to the ceiling of Grand Central Station, restored a few years ago. “It was Eisenhowered!” he said.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Sun-Times blog.

Got a press release came today: Donald J. Trump to kick off demolition of Chicago Sun-Times Building.

“On Thursday, Oct. 28, 2004, Donald J. Trump will host a press conference to announce the start of demolition for the Chicago Sun-Times Building. The Sun-Times site is the future home of Trump International Hotel & Tower, a luxurious 90-story building with more than 600 residential and hotel condominiums.

“Afterwards, Mr. Trump will signal a demolition vehicle to raze a portion of the exterior…”

I wonder if any astrologers or auguries have been consulted to determine the most auspicious time for this work to begin, and what sort of animal sacrifice is called for. Still, it’s about time someone got rid of that eyesore on the Chicago River. About two weeks ago, the staff of the newspaper decamped to offices in a nearby building, so now an empty modernist box awaits its doom at the signal of the number-one publicity hound in the real estate industry. Trump has found enough rich suckers -- I mean, upscale buyers who demand only the best -– to procure a construction loan. No mean feat, that, so I’ll give the Donald his due.

The AIA Guide to Chicago devotes only five lines to the old structure: “1957, Naess & Murphy. An undistinguished building has elevations enlivened by views of the pressroom in action and by one of the city’s earliest riverfront plazas.”

Indeed, besides that small plaza, the only redeeming feature of the Sun-Times building was the long hallway on the first floor that passed by a row of large windows, from which you could see the newspaper’s printing presses in operation in the basement. Big iron giants connected by rushing streams of papers on conveyor belts, just like you might see in a noir movie as the backdrop of a succession of screaming headlines: PHANTOM KILLER STRIKES AGAIN! MAYOR WARNS AGAINST PANIC!

Those presses shut down around 2000, I think, replaced by more modern machines elsewhere. In the late ’90s, my office was closer to the Sun-Times building than it is now, and occasionally I would walk through and take a look at the presses in motion. You could just walk in. Through the front door, take a left at the front desk, enter the hall, walk its length, exit at the other end of the building. Or vice versa. I think that after September 11, 2001, it was no longer possible even to walk down the hall and see the idle presses. I’m glad I caught the tail end of it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Ephemera blog.

It should be obvious by now that I’m fond of ephemera, at least the kind that I don’t quite understand, or which takes me a moment to puzzle out. Last week, I bought a couple of apple pies at McDonald’s for Lilly and myself. On the end of the boxes were labels:

3:53 PM 10/11/04

For a moment, I thought I was being warned to use the pies by that exact moment in time, only about three hours after I bought them. After that, they degenerate into teeming e. coli boli. But no. The McDonald’s staff is being told not to sell the pies after then, I suspect.

I spend a lot of time at my keyboard, so I’ve seen all kinds of typos. I had to wonder about this one:

“We would like to remind you that the Judith Leiber Editor's Breakfast is vastly approaching. The event will be held on Thursday, October 21…”

Got that by e-mail late last week. Vastly instead of fastly? Of course, that would be fast approaching in standard idiomatic English, so maybe they’re pushing the envelope in using vastly, and I have to say that it does evoke a feeling of horsemen on the horizon: The vastly approaching Golden Horde. Still, the sense of enormity attached to vast just doesn’t apply to an editor’s breakfast, unless every editor in the country is attending, and packing heat.

Related note: Too bad the form vasty is archaic. I’ve always liked it, after picking it up from the prologue of Henry V: “Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?” An Elizabethan would surely be impressed by the size of France, but not so much a North American who grew up in Texas (286,581 sq. mi. vs. 210,700 sq. mi. for France).

Monday, October 18, 2004

Gunshots and lily pads blog.

Kevin must have been a popular name for boys in the early 1960s, since I’ve known several about my age, including Kevin D., PR man and film music aficionado; Kevin M., graphic designer; and Kevin N., an attorney in Ft. Worth. Recently Kevin N., my high school debate partner in ’77 and ’78, sent me an e-mail, after reading about my Tibetan meal in NYC (see last week’s postings).

He wrote: “Since you went all the way to Manhattan to eat Tibetan food, I thought I'd mention I've traveled in Nepal and India twice, once in '82 and again in '84, for three and six weeks, respectively -- great experiences. I visited the city where the Dalai Lama lives in exile, in the Himalayas, near Kashmir and Punjab. I believe it was called Dharmsala, about 200 or so miles north of Delhi. Shaved-head Buddhist monks walking the streets in saffron robes, incense burning on every street, constant sound of bells and prayer wheels and chanting, monasteries everywhere, a little ‘Shang-ri-la’ in the middle of the north Indian mountains.

“After that my good friend (a wholesale importer of Indian and Nepalese art, jewelry and garments, and my guide) and I went to Kashmir and stayed on a houseboat on a lake with wild water lilies growing all around. I remember reading The Other Side of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon cover-to-cover there, and found how wonderfully entertaining trashy novels can be in a setting far removed from America. We heard shots at night, but our hoteliers assured us it was just ‘college students having fun.’ Now of course we all know of the re-ignited, but longstanding, de facto civil war in Kashmir, and Pakistan's fight to reclaim it.”

Kevin’s right about trash novels being improved by distance from their source culture. I read something by Sidney Sheldon in my very early days in Japan, since it was an English-language book I could find. I can’t remember which one of his it was, or even what it was about, however. On the other hand, I do remember reading a lot of Misery in Singapore, during those long tropical afternoons when escapist literature also meant escaping the heat. Not a bad book, really, but I’ve never wanted to read anything else of Stephen King’s since then, though recently I did read an essay of his describing how he almost died by being hit by a car. That was probably a scarier read than anything else of his.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Keds blog.

No vintage material this weekend, since I haven’t had the energy to find anything. My papers, while not complete chaos, are less than organized, so sifting through takes some effort.

Cool days, nearly freezing nights. Saturday was gray and very cool, more like mid-November than mid-October. In the afternoon, we drove out to Elgin and St. Charles and their connecting road, Illinois 31, which follows the west bank of the Fox River –- not very far away, really, but away from my immediate neighborhood. Like many people, I have a fondness for fall foliage, and we’re about at peak. Fine fall places like New England, East Tennessee, Hokkaido, Mongolia are out of the question this year. Illinois 31, a semi-suburban road, stands in nicely.

Before our drive, Yuriko persuaded me to go to a church rummage sale in Hoffman Estates. I was reluctant, but ended up buying more than anyone else –- a copy of Listening In, a history of radio in the United States (by Susan J. Douglas, 1999, hardback, 50¢), Best of the Best of Chuck Berry, (prerecorded tape probably dating from the ’80s, 25¢), two heavy flannel shirts, my size, in case I go ice fishing, $1.50 each. I noticed that one of them was made in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has a textile industry? Why?

Lilly’s new shoes are made in China, no novelty value in that. Shoes for her weren’t forthcoming at Saturday’s rummage sale, or any other recent one, so today we visited a handful of stores within the gravitational pull of mighty Woodfield Mall, but not actually within the mall. Eventually she found a pair of Keds that she liked, and that fit her, and which weren’t insanely priced.

Keds, I thought, a durable brand, not an imperial imprint like Nike or Adidas and their ilk, but a sturdy workaday brand for people who aren't impressed by athletic fantasy, and a brand that’s been around long enough for me to have worn them sometimes as a kid. Naturally I couldn’t leave it at that, so I consulted the library on my desk when I got home, that is, the Internet. Lots of suspicious information out there, but I have no reason to doubt the following, from “A Brief History of Sneakers,” by Stephen M. Pribut, DPM and Douglas H. Richie, DPM. (Doctor of Pain Management? Dreaded Purple Monster? I didn’t consult the library on that point.)

“Before the late 1970s, running shoes were not high-tech items. With rare exceptions, until the middle of the 19th century, shoes were made on a single straight last and there was no differentiation between left and right shoes. During those years, not many international competitions were held, and the modern Olympics did not appear until 1896.

“Keds began as a product produced by US Rubber in 1917. Keds was chosen as a name because the desired name, ‘Peds,’ was already trademarked by another company. Keds were the first sneakers, so-called because of the stealth and quiet manner in which you could creep up on someone when you wore them. Keds, and later Converse, captured much of the US sneaker market. Keds was purchased by the Stride Rite Corporation in 1979.”

So we’re participating in a product that not only shod me in my youth, but one that has outlasted the Soviet Union, which was of the same vintage. Keds also probably represent better shoes than anything ever produced by the Evil Empire, which had a notorious reputation for footware.

Friday, October 15, 2004

I was only eight blog.

I was going to forward a peculiar e-mail message I got at the office today to my home for discussion here this evening, but I forgot. So I’ll have to take up Scooby-Doo as a subject. Briefly.

Inspired by a box of crackers, which had the cartoon mutt on the front and the promise of sweepstakes prizes on the back, I went to the Internet Movie Database this evening to confirm that the cartoon began its run in 1969, under the full name, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? I was right, 1969, and it has been plaguing the world ever since. I watched it regularly in its first years, but I have a good excuse. I was only eight when it started, a susceptible age for awful TV.

Only a few years later I adopted a healthy disdain for it. Sometimes, as a fully grown adult, you learn to re-appreciate those things you disdained as an adolescent, but in this case my adolescent attitude is the one worth keeping. Every time I see that idiot dog and am reminded of that idiot cartoon, I think, why hasn’t it gone away? Why does it endure? Am I missing something?


The grand prize in the sweepstakes, by the way, is a Mazda Minivan “customized like the Mystery Machine!” And, to make a joke that’s as original as any of the cartoon’s stories, the second prize is two Mystery Machines.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Balcony blog.

Pure fall day, gray and drizzly in the afternoon. I shuttled either in cabs or on foot between the Chicago Hilton and Towers, a.k.a. the Conrad Hilton, site of a convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers (retail guys), my office, and other places.

This kind of thing can be tiring, but there are compensations. Such as: two free meals, one mediocre, one very fine today – that fine one in the evening at Gibson’s on Rush Street, at a function held by a large retail developer, the most active in the nation, I think. Gibson’s is an old-line steak house, exceedingly popular, its walls floor-to-ceiling with photos of notables with the proprietor. Everyone’s been there, except perhaps for famed vegetarians.

At the Hilton Grand Ballroom, as ornate as any palace of old Europe, the ICSC held a cocktail party starting at 5 pm. Hundreds, if not a thousand people, filled this enormous room. I noticed unblocked stairs to the balcony, which runs all the way around the ballroom between the floor and the ceiling. I’d been in the Grand Ballroom a number of times, but never noticed the stairs open. So of course I went up. I was the only one on the balcony. Me on a balcony, a thousand people below; it could have been a Mussolini moment, but no. I didn't speechify, and I was ignored. From that vantage, the sound of a thousand people talking has a certain quality you don’t quite get when you’re among them.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Mall juju blog.

Colorful leaves, silly Halloween lawn decorations: the stuff of suburban October. One house along my walk has a platoon of illuminated bed-sheet ghosts, goofball pumpkins, glowing skulls (those are cool) and a round-eyed, bald-headed space alien from central casting. That last one’s a Halloween novelty, at least for now.

I did some research this week about the Randall Park Mall in suburban Cleveland, which recently traded hands. In the course of that research, I came across an article by a writer (curiously) named Andrew Putz, who wrote about the mall in the Cleveland Scene in December 1999, when Magic Johnson showed up for the opening of a cinema that bears his name. The piece included a little mall history:

“Randall has also been plagued by some curious bad luck over the years. The Club, for instance, the ubiquitous anti-car-theft device, was invented by Aurora (Ohio)'s Charles Johnson after his father-in-law's car was stolen -- at Randall Park Mall.

“Then there's the mall's strange history with holiday icons. In 1991, North Randall police were called to investigate an altercation involving the Easter Bunny and one of his helpers. The rabbit, apparently unhappy with the pace of a picture-taking episode, approached his helper and ‘bumped her with his head and hit [her] with his ears.’ The helper, in turn, shoved the bunny, who was also accosted by the helper's boyfriend.

“A year later, Randall Park's freaky holiday juju reared its ugly head once again when a local woman sued Holiday Mall Productions, which ran the Santa operation at the mall, claiming that one of St. Nick's helpers attacked her after a heated exchange over her child's picture.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

NY wrap blog.

It’s late, I’ve been frenetically occupied with one thing or another all day and into the evening, but I will ward off sleep a few more minutes. Enough time for one more short about New York City. There’s not much more to tell, anyway, except for that feeling I got that I was a good deal further away than the 1,000 miles from Chicago to New York. That feeling was a fleeting moment, so fleeting that only on recollection does it have any shape.

I headed south from Cooper Union and Cooper Square, toward a spot on my map called Old St. Patrick’s Church. I knew it would be closed, but I wanted to walk past anyway, making it the furthest point away from my hotel, after which I’d loop back via Broadway back to Midtown. I walked down Bowery, a street with its own weight of lore, and crossed East Houston. The blocks at that point become considerable shorter. I took a right on Prince St., entering a district of narrow streets and storefronts, mostly closed and dim.

But at the narrow corner of Prince and Elizabeth stands the Café Habana, a small but well-appointed restaurant busting out with people that Monday night. Its lights splashed out into the corner, and its sounds did too. There was nothing unusual about the crowd, mostly youngish people out for Cuban fare. At that corner I also had a view of the church I’d come to walk by, Old St. Patrick’s, which was behind a tall brick wall, at least 10 feet of orange brick I think, forming a wall that must have been standing since the days of Tammany Hall. The church itself was overlaid by shadows and hard to see, but the wall caught the low ambient light well enough.

This scene struck an odd chord. I can’t say I felt like I was in Europe, or Asia, or anywhere that specific – just far away. Further than the map indicated.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Cooper blog.

Lilly came with me to the office today, since school had adjourned in honor of Cristobal Colon. She entertains herself pretty well at the office, and generally doesn’t bother me at work. She’s also easy to feed lunch, since what she wants is McDonald’s. So from today’s Happy Meal bag, I learned that the concept rolled out 25 years ago. 1979: Year of the Happy Meal. Since that was the year I graduated from high school, the concept missed me, like more and more youth-oriented marketing schemes. But my children are right in its crosshairs.

This particular McDonald’s, in the food court at Northwestern Station, probably doesn’t have too many children for customers. I suspect this because the Happy Meal toy was some action figure from Treasure Planet, not merely a bomb, but last year’s bomb.

When I was on walkabout in New York last week, I didn’t manage to see any sites of historic or cultural import, at least on the inside. But after I finished my meal, I noted on my PopOut map that I was near Cooper Union and Cooper Square, so I headed that way, stopping first at St. Mark’s Bookstore, an independent of the sort every city ought to have. Besides many interesting books, such stores have shelves and shelves of titles I would seldom read, let alone buy, such as just about any kind of litcrit. But I’m glad those books are there, all the same.

The neighborhood was alive with college kids, mostly NYU students I expect, but also probably handfuls of Cooper Unionists. The outside of the CU building — the big 19th-century main one — was dimly lit and foreboding in the evening, in that way that Victorian structures often are, a cast of light and shadows befitting the full name of the institution: The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

I’m only mildly acquainted with it as an institute of higher learning. Mostly, I’d heard about the Great Hall, site of a number of famous speeches but none more so than one by Lincoln in early 1860 that put him on the national political map. The CU’s web site has this to say: “When the [Great Hall] opened in 1858, more than a year in advance of the completion of the institution, it quickly became a mecca for all interested in serious discussion and debate of the vital issues of the day.

“The Great Hall was the platform for some of the earliest workers' rights campaigns and for the birth of the NAACP, the women's suffrage movement and the American Red Cross. To the Great Hall's podium has come a pageant of famous Americans – rebels and reformers, poets and presidents. Before they were elected, Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, Taft and Theodore Roosevelt all spoke there. Besides Woodrow Wilson, only one incumbent president has spoken in the Great Hall: William Jefferson Clinton…”

Hoping for good luck, I suppose, I read that Sen. Kerry spoke there this summer. When I walked by last Monday, the serious discussion and debate of the vital issues of the day seemed a bit muted, since no one was around but the guard at the front desk. I didn’t think the hall would be open, so I walked on.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Cranberry blog.

It was a cool sunny today, and we went to a “farm” in South Barrington, Ill. – a nursery, really – to buy some pumpkins. The place was insanely crowded, and all sorts of ancillary businesses were up and running, including a snack shop, haunted house, petting zoo, and even camel rides, all overpriced. The pumpkins were fairly reasonable, however, and we even bought some Indian corn. Ann became inordinately fond of it, meaning that it was in serious danger of being destroyed by the forces of toddlerhood, and she wailed something fierce when we took it away for hanging.

My brother Jay writes, regarding last week’s Tibetan food: “In your account of dinner at Tsampa, I noticed that at least two of the items on the menu -- potatoes and cranberries -- are New World plants. Potatoes, of course, are fairly widespread. I hadn't heard that cranberries had made much culinary headway outside of North America, however, especially in such an isolated place as Tibet. Of course, it might be the case of a locally available ingredient replacing some Asian berry either not available at all or too expensive for regular use.

“With that thought in mind, I consulted Mr. Google. ‘Cranberry’ and ‘Tibet,’ I said to him. He suggested that the cranberries might have been standing in for goji berries, described as follows by this web page

‘The taste is difficult to describe... some say between a cranberry and a cherry... others say they taste of licorice... you will have to decide for yourself!’

“This page is from a internet supplier of organic delicacies based in McComb, Ill. Goji berries are available, then, but -- at 18 oz. for $28 American -- they're not cheap. Cranberries are cheaper and might be close enough to achieve the desired effect. Of course, it may simply be that the chef de cuisine at the Tsampa likes cranberries and has assimilated them into his repertoire of Tibetan dishes.

“Or maybe some American missionary to the hill tribes of Assam introduced cranberries to the district in the 19th century, and they're now as Tibetan as Po Cha and Tsampa. With that, I think I'll stop speculating before the matter gets out of hand. A short monograph The Influence of New England Congregationalism on Society and Buddhist Devotional Practices in Thibet and Kham -- was beginning to take shape, more or less unbidden. As well as cranberries, for instance, New Englanders introduced the steam-powered prayer wheel to Tibet.”

I knew a gaijin in Japan who talked of importing cranberry juice into Japan, to sell to high-priced bars as a novelty mixer, but as far as I know, nothing ever came of that scheme. I did read somewhere or other that there’s now a substantial crop of cranberries in Poland (and maybe the Baltics), where the climate and soil are right, and that Europeans were beginning to develop a taste for it. Maybe someday there will be cranberry trade wars between the US and the EU.

As for prayer wheels, I remember some large ones installed at the main temple (whose name I’d have to look up) in Ulaanbataar, Mongolia – a row of a dozen or so of them, available for spinning. People walked down the row and spun them all. But the long lines that day were for spoonfuls of soil that the Dali Lama himself had blessed only days before. Decades of communism hadn’t taken the luster off the Yellow Hat, it seems.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Prayer wheel blog.

Yesterday I forgot to mention how Tsampa, the Tibetan restaurant in Manhattan, came to my attention. Sometime last year, my old college friend Geof Huth, who is one of my better correspondents these days and a reader of this web log, mentioned that he had visited his “favorite Tibetan restaurant,” in the vicinity of New York University, where his daughter goes to school.

The choice of the word “favorite” made me wonder just how many Tibetan joints there could be, even in New York, but a web site I consulted not long ago that categorizes restaurants by type in various cities turned up three or four in New York. None at all, alas, in Chicago.

I found the idea of a Tibetan restaurant so intriguing that I knew I had to go, next time I was in town. I wanted it to look like the bar in Raiders of the Lost Ark -- that was supposedly in Nepal, but close enough -- in which Indiana Jones has his first shootout with Nazis, and which ultimately burns down. You know, a dingy candle-lit kind of place, smelling of yak butter and yak herders who bathe twice a year. The kind of where you can drink a nine-tooth Tibetan under the table, if you’re woman enough.

Tsmapa was nothing like that, of course. Low lights, but not dingy, a narrow space lined by brick walls decorated by a handful of artworks, none of which I got a close look at, though the big picture of the Dali Lama had a prominent place. A few plants. Brass ornaments, hanging from the deep blue ceiling, and over the bar -- maybe bells.

I sat at a small table next to the low wall that separated the main dining floor from a staircase that led down to the kitchen. Resting on the flat top of the wall, at about shoulder level with me as I sat, was a brass device, a very nice piece of ornamented work about six inches tall, not counting the stick emerging from the top, with which you could spin the wheel inside, which you could see through rectangular holes in the sides. I asked the proprietor if it was in fact a prayer wheel, and he referred me to one of the waitresses (his daughter, I believe), who confirmed my suspicions. I spent a while spinning it.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Roof of the World blog.

Who: Me.

What: Tsampa, a Tibetan restaurant.

When: Monday night.

Where: 9th St., Manhattan (East Village).

Why: Because it’s there.

What do you eat at a Tibetan restaurant? Tibetan food, of course, along with an Asian beer. I would have ordered Tibetan beer to keep in the spirit of things, but maybe there are no breweries in Tibet, or none that the Chinese government doesn’t control. Sapporo and Singha were the choices.

I started with dokpa momo. Momo is the Tibetan variation of steamed dumplings, in this case “nomad momo with baby potatoes and scallions,” sitting on a big green leaf in a bamboo basket. Moving on to the main dish, the Tibetan curry (chicken) was spicy good but not that different from the Indian curries I’ve had. Tibet’s version of the lasi is the thara a yogurt shake with “fruit in season.” I asked what that was, and the waitress said pineapple. Not quite in the same league as a good lasi, but satisfying. I ran out of it before I ran out of curry, and so ordered a bottle of Sapporo.

I asked to keep the menu, so I could make notes. I enjoyed the names of some of the dishes as much as anything else about the place: Lhasa Momo, Dholuma (eggplant sauté), Tse Gyathuk Ngopa (noodle and vegetables, but just Gyathuk Ngopa includes chicken as well).

Dessert: “Tsampa Desert [sic], a traditional Tibetan roasted ground barley, fluffed with yogurt and honey and accented with dried cranberries.” It was honey-sweet, with a consistency somewhere between soft pudding and melted ice cream, eaten with a airliner-sized spoon. As the only chewy thing in the little bowl, the cranberries were just the right thing for gustatory contrast.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Back to Gotham blog.

Another year, another technical marvel has entered my day-to-day existence, both as a tool and as an impediment. This time it’s a laptop. To make some of my new duties easier – possible, considering other technical issues that I won’t detail – my company has bought one for me to use. No brand-name advertising here, but I will say that it’s a spiffy black machine that, considering that it runs on Windows, operates pretty smoothly. The folks in Redmond have come a long way in the last few years in making their programs, at least the ones I care about, nearly as good as a Mac OS.

I was in New York yesterday for training in the ways of GlobeSt/Retail, a new web site by my company, of which I am the managing editor, the number-two man, so I need to know some of those ways. Had I been based in the New York office, I would have been the number-one editor; I’m not sure if missing that position represents lucking out or not. Anyway, I had about 26 hours in NYC, with only a few free. Which you will read about at some length, if you stick with me.

Turns out I was on the wrong side of the plane this trip for the classic arrival view of Manhattan – the left side gets that. I’ve had that side before, and it is a grand sweep, taking in all sorts of familiar landmarks from the air. I even had a view, from on high, of the World Trade Center in the last year of its existence, but of course could not appreciate it as such.

This time, on the left, I saw Rockaway Point, a peninsula that juts out south of Brooklyn, and JKF a little further off, and what I was certain was Coney Island. Then we passed over Brooklyn and Queens, looping around for that almost-landing-in-the-water at LaGuardia. I might not have caught Manhattan this time, but I marveled at the vastness of Brooklyn and Queens. A sea of rooftops in a net of streets, interrupted by a handful of enormous greenbelts such as Forest Park and Flushing Meadow Corona Park, and some equally vast cemeteries. From that height, the headstones look like the rice scattered on the floor.

Memo to Mr. Bloomberg: Interested in improving New York in a way that your predecessor never did? Renovate LaGuardia, and finish construction on the roads nearby. I’ve been to a lot of airports, and LGA does no credit to one of the great cities of the Earth. Inside, the terminals are pleasant enough, but every part of the exterior and the grounds and the connecting roads look seedy to me. Mr. Daley effected a fine rehab of Midway, so it can be done. On the other hand, LGA is the bailiwick of the Port Authority of NY/NJ, something of a realm unto itself, so it might not be that easy.

I got to my hotel at about 7 pm. It was a Monday, so the theater wasn’t much of an option, and I didn’t feel like any music, so I decided that after dinner, I would take a long walk. That’s usually entertainment enough in Manhattan. But first I had to eat. My choice: A Tibetan restaurant. More about which tomorrow.