Category Archives: Reminiscence

☕️ ☕️☕️☕️ The Decline of Coffee and Other Observations in the Time of the Great Recession (Part 4 – USA)

A round-about return to (The Great France Art Tour of 2017)

Times were hard. We were about a year into settling back at the office in New Jersey, 2008 – 2009, just in time to see the world economies stumble, waver, and in parts, collapse into the Great Recession.

It started of course, in the USA, where the greed-crazed finance sector was addicted to mortgage-backed-securities. The “sucker was going down” to paraphrase our now-much-more-appreciated President Bush.

Keep in mind, “boom and bust” cycles were all too familiar in the ever-changing-if-not-improving IT world. One year the whole sales force has to have Blackberries. Train. Staff up. A few years later the Executives want everyone to switch to iPhones. Then there’s a merger. Layoffs. Every few years we had to shrink, eliminate waste, clean house, prove our value to the rest of the company. One President wants to make his mark by putting the whole business on SAP, sells the company, and the next CEO pushes to change the entire mail system. Next merger, or spin-off, the cycle would repeat, and before everyone is laid off again and the dust has settled, we have to migrate to the new parent company’s different Quality system, or mail system, or operating platform. It didn’t matter how many millions of dollars were spent so long as the current Man in Charge could lay claim to a big change before moving on to his next takeover.

But the Great Recession was worse than the typical boom and bust. Without dwelling on it too much, there were many layoffs. At the amazing, incredible shrinking New Jersey office we even lost a few people from our relatively small and mostly essential basement IT team.

These losses were called “synergies”—insensitive, euphemistic business jargon used to create a positive spin on FIRED—where people are told they no longer have a job because the company has to cut costs somewhere and YOU are one of the places we are cutting.

“At least you still have a job!” Was a common refrain. If you did. And in the hallways and lunchroom and restrooms, people speculated when is the “next wave” of layoffs? And who would still be there in a month or two?

Those who remained were expected to be grateful, and not complain if they were supposed to now work harder, take on more responsibility, perform “lower level” tasks, and so on. Which in some bizarro fashion, was really no different than what was expected of the worker bee class (in IT, at least) during “normal” times! If you already worked late, if you already worked on weekends, if you already took late night support calls to assist some executive who forgot his password, or dropped his laptop in a Palm Springs swimming pool, what more could you do? Well, as we shall see, for starters, you could be grateful that you were still able to do all that fun stuff, and maybe? Take out your own trash and use less toilet paper?

Still, after our successful installation journeys to Japan and Taiwan, word got out about those lucky colleagues in the Pacific Rim with their magnificent coffee machines, and for those managers who remained in New Jersey, and as a distraction from the growing crisis, a certain amount of nationalist rivalry ensued. Which brings us finally to what might be re-named, the Decline of Coffee and Toilets in the USA in the Time of the Great Recession.

Not to be outdone by international rivals, our New Jersey Manager of Office Operations, “Nick”, looked for a solution to provide an equivalent coffee service, a way to let the surviving employees know they were appreciated, and that if they needed access to stimulants to stay motivated and carry on with their additional responsibilities, then the COMPANY was behind them.

Before this time, in the U.S. office anyway, there had been no coffee. Strange as that seems. Many years before, we had an old-fashioned “Mister Coffee” in our roomy cafeteria, which was okay, but that had been gone for years. It disappeared about the same time that the large cafeteria was converted into office cubes, and the small locker room was converted into a smaller cafeteria. (Nick was the mastermind of that conversion.)

Some managers discouraged people from leaving the bland, monotonous, grey walled, industrial building with its chemical smells and noise during work hours, but they also considered it “excessive” to provide coffee just to entice employees to stick around. As a result, whole teams, small groups, and individuals frequently escaped on breaks and lunch to get both fresh air and coffee at the local Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks.

Nick was respected by upper management for his cost-cutting. Shortly after the first painful reduction (this is another euphemism, it means job elimination, lay off, mass firing) of one third of the workforce at our location, Nick famously introduced a number of innovations.

• First he canceled the subscription to a bottled spring water service, replacing the bottle-topped coolers with headless “water stations” that filtered the chlorine, and killed the bacteria with UV light. If the employees wanted Spring water, they could find their own spring, but at the office there was tap water that was free of bacteria! No big bottles, no expensive deliveries, no monthly fees for the corporation!

• Nick cut the custodial staff in half, which meant there were two custodians left, who, due to that reduction, discontinued vacuuming floors—except for the offices in the “Executive Suite”—four of which were now conveniently unoccupied from the layoffs. Nick’s improvement also eliminated the daily emptying of trash and recycling receptacles in offices, (except for the Executive Suite). The Director of Operations posted happy little signs around the building reminding the demoralized employees, “It’s your trash, you take it out! 😃” Executives approved.

• Next Nick went after the paper towels in the restrooms, replacing them with a much lighter, thinner, flimsier, and cheaper paper towel. Unfortunately, since the new towels tended to disintegrate on contact with water, two or three times as many towels were required to dry hands, and shredded towel remnants littered the floor. But no worries, the “custodial staff” – she could clean those up.

“Cheaper towels” was praised by Country President, Jureet Wariri, at an all-staff meeting which could now take place (with room to spare) in the small cafeteria, as a brilliant, “outside the box” solution! Wariri challenged the surviving employees to come up with their own ideas and submit them to Nick.

One employee dropped into Nick’s office and suggested that a modified toilet with bidet attachment, or a “Bidet toilet” was not only technically innovative (setting a good example for a high tech company), but also required fewer flushes, much less toilet paper and could save money. The conversation included explanations of the public toilets at the Tokyo office, and the Superlet and similar toilets at the hotels in Taiwan. This unsung employee even pointed out that although the bidet was invented by the French, in fact the “bidet toilet” was invented by an Americanand Americans being a fussy, uptight Protestant bunch—it never sold in America, so it had been licensed to a Japanese company! Wouldn’t it be great to bring this American invention back to America?

“Toilet paper? Toilet paper?” Nick thought.

Pointing out why this “bidet thing” would not work—too much investment, too much work, too much change to be asked of any American—Nick dismissed the employee but lingered on one small scrap of the idea. “Toilet paper??” Nick zeroed in on the toilet paper. Riffing off his other paper-themed successes, he hit on the least popular cost-saving effort yet with the workers, and another “ball out of the park” with management: the switch to a low grade toilet paper. A toilet paper that was coarse, rough, abrasive to the touch, so stiff that it resisted crumpling. It was so cheap and so uncomfortable that spoiled employees would rather wait than use it!!

Once again, this “improvement” was implemented everywhere (but not in the Executive washrooms). The executives continued to use softer toilet paper until their private supply was exhausted, coincidentally, just about the time the financial crisis eased. Among the remaining employees, there was much grumbling about the change, but the abrasive policy persisted. Employees found their own workarounds. Years later it was not uncommon to discover a smuggled roll of soft and durable high quality toilet paper in the back of a filing cabinet or stashed in a bottom desk drawer.

The international challenge was declined in the restroom, but in the lunchroom? Into this newly lean, newly empty lunchroom, Nick introduced not a Keurig, not a Nespresso, and definitely not a “Mr. Coffee”, but in fact a mechanical coffeemaker, similar to the French hotel version, that looked and operated much like the jukebox you might find in the Greek Diner up the road on Route 22. For the first month, employees were offered this stale, bland, watery coffee for FREE. After the trial period, the employee was required to insert coins and pay $.85 to $1.15 (depending on choices made and buttons pushed) for the brown dishwater-like concoction.

On the first potentially fee-producing day, Nick proudly walked into the cafeteria at lunch time for a promotional chat with the staff. Before anyone mentioned the coffee machine, Nick (not a coffee drinker by the way) enthusiastically asked, “Have you tried it? Cappuccino for $1.15! It’s great for our employees! Go ahead, try it!! There is NO REASON to go to Starbucks!!”

Nobody said anything. They wouldn’t want to be ungrateful. People stared at the ground, nodding insincerely. Nick returned to his office to sit in his big chair and look at his bulletin board. He had printed and posted the latest “Email of Praise” from President Wariri, proclaiming Nick a “Thought Leader and True Champion of Company Cost-Cutting, determined to save the company and lead it successfully into the next decade.” This was Nick’s legacy, and he was proud.

Once Nick had left the cafeteria, the employees shuffled out the back door as they always had, piled into their SUVs and drove to the local Starbucks, about two blocks away, to speak freely and have a decent cup of coffee. Neither the Starbucks nor the Dunkin’ Donuts seemed to suffer in the least from the Corporate Coffee Jukebox. If anything, the stores gained some new and regular customers.

And you know the rest. Business gradually returned to the normal boom-and-bust-and-takeover-and-migrate cycle. Some new people were hired, some old employees returned, others were retired. It was pretty much the same. Until Covid. But we’re not going there.

We’ll get back to the Great France Art Tour of 2017 , maybe next time! 🙏🏻

Until then, enjoy your coffee!

—Christo

☕️ ☕️☕️ The Decline of Coffee and Other Observations in the Time of the Great Recession (Part 3 – France)

A round-about return to (The Great France Art Tour of 2017)

On that first Japan visit, I stayed at the Tokyo Hilton in Shinjuku district. The commute to the office was by shared cab. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, the four of us, shepherded by our new manager from Singapore, piled into a cab procured by the hotel’s taxi valet, a tall, eager young woman in a long grey coat and cap, and zoomed off to the office. Where cartridge coffee was available.

Four in a cab, with little time for the privacy this introvert craves to stay sane. And coffee that was just not so good. Early the next morning, I managed to evade my workmates and happily discovered the reliability and solitude of a Starbucks within walking distance of the hotel. What a relief!

Yes, there are Starbucks in France. Although, not many. I looked for one so I could buy a souvenir mug. Seriously. I’m not big on souvenirs, but having a Starbucks mug from Tokyo, or Paris, or Taipei, I confess, it’s a thing. Anyway, I did get a Paris mug, not far from Notre-Dame, but I never drank Starbucks coffee in France. Still, I don’t have a problem with coffee at Starbucks.

Say what you like, many scorn Starbucks as an American plague like McDonald’s. Whatever. I never drink a “Grandé One Pump Half-caf Soy Pumpkin Latte”. (Though even in the USA I sometimes have to accept a substituted “Café Americano” to get decaf.) I can say that at most Starbucks around the world I order my favorite “Half-caf Iced Coffee” confident that this will be a drink of the same quality and flavor regardless of location, whether the barista is Japanese, Korean, German, or French.

That’s the coffee. Be careful, or you may painfully discover, as I have at least once, the milk, cream, or whatever else you might put in your coffee, is a completely different matter, with special risks.

As I said, I never tasted Starbuck’s coffee in France. Because when I visited Rennes in 2011 and Paris in 2012 a request for a café crème at just about any brasserie or café resulted in a rich, flavorful cup of coffee served with steamed milk or cream, sometimes brewed in an espresso machine, but sometimes in some other mysterious fashion. But always good. I thought. Did I believe this just because I was in France? I’m not sure.

Flash forward to The Great France Art Tour of 2017—one of the Rick Steve’s podcasts about France included an interview with writer and Paris resident David Sedaris, who remarked in a masterful sardonic aside,

“Well, you know… coffee in Paris is really not very good.”

Really?! I thought, how can you say that? Okay, maybe not the coffee served in a paper cup at the De Gaulle airport, but otherwise I’ve always been pleased with my café creams!

Alas, the decline of coffee and the rise of the machines in France is evident and largely attributable to the ubiquitous prevalence of Keurig-like coffee machines in restaurants and hotels. Especially in hotels.

If they don’t use Keurig-type cartridges in their breakfast buffets, they establish these horrible self-serve, push-button grinding machines. The machines contain a plastic bin of probably stale, low-grade beans, ground on demand, dumped onto a rolling paper filter (reminiscent of the cloth roller towels once prevalent in public restrooms). Tap water pours over the grounds and depending on the buttons pushed, various powdered or liquid additives are mechanically injected into the waiting brew to convert it into a mockery of espresso, cappuccino, or làtte. This unfortunate situation was true of our 2017 stay at hotels in Paris, in Arles, Avignon, and Nice.

We are not fooled.

Though I normally prefer a simple brewed cup, it seemed the only way to get “real coffee” was to explicitly order espresso or cappuccino.

You would think, one might saunter into a café and feel some relief to see a “classic” espresso machine behind the bar. A beautiful work of craftmanship in brass and copper, a small golden eagle perched on top, its wings outstretched. Maybe you’re looking at a Vesubio, a Gaggia, or a La Pavoni.  Surely the sight would give you the confidence to order that cappuccino? Beware. Proceed with your order, ONLY if you may observe its actual production. Because to my horror, in a little ocean front café in Nice, in exactly that situation, I did that, ordered, and watched the waiter walk into the kitchen, punch a few buttons, and produce a so-called “cappuccino” from one of those infernal cartridge-loaded, machines while the Gaggia sat idle, cold, unused.

Keeping that in mind, we might even have created a small redemption for buying your coffee at Starbucks, in France. Because at least, it will be real, not cartridge, coffee, and if it’s expresso, you can watch them make it. That’s just about it for coffee in France.

All that’s left now is the question, “Quel genre de toilettes ont-ils en France?” a topic that seems to have attached itself to this long essay like a remora on a Blue Shark. I’ve previously mentioned the ancient urinals that have vanished from the Champs-Élysées. I won’t comment on the weird, uritrottoirs street side, red urinals placed around Paris in 2018 (as far is this memoir is concerned, that’s in the unknown future). Oh sure, in your desperation, you might happen upon a café toilette just off the Rue Mouffetard on your way to the Jardin Des Plantes with nothing but a hole in the floor in a tiny tiled closet, I did, but that’s uncommon. France gave the world the bidet, the precursor to the Superlet and other Asian innovations, and most hotels and many apartments and residences sport bidets, really as something to be taken for granted, not remarked upon.

That wraps it. Except for the Decline of Coffee in the USA during the time of the Great Recession. Which is coming right up, next time! 🙏🏻

—Christo

☕️ ☕️ The Decline of Coffee and Other Observations in the Time of the Great Recession (Part 2 – Taiwan)

A round-about return to (The Great France Art Tour of 2017)

Busy Street in Taipei

We flew to Taipei in the morning, and took a cab direct from the airport to the office. Taipei was hotter, more humid, busier, more crowded on the streets and sidewalks, older, less westernized, and appropriately somehow more relaxed than Tokyo. It’s hard to see a country when you spend most of your visit in a corporate office, but those were my first impressions anyway.

My Taiwanese IT counterpart, “Roger”, closer to my age than Tashiki, in glasses, and dressed comfortably for the steamy Taiwan summer weather in an open-collared, short-sleeved yellow plaid shirt and jeans, walked us from the small elevator to the office lobby, where we paused at an empty reception desk. On the wall behind the desk a giant red plexiglass logo reassured us of our unity as citizens of the one same corporation. Roger officially greeted everyone and introduced those who had not yet met. Then looking serious,  told us the first important thing.

Explaining as best he could in English, and with the unending patience of someone who has repeated it for the millionth time, that it may seem strange to us and how we do things in America, but if we insist on using toilet paper, it is essential to place the soiled paper in the little trash can, next to the toilet, and not flush it down the toilet. This practice is important because Taipei is a large island city with an old sewage system never designed to handle toilet paper, which should be disposed of in the same manner as regular office paper waste.

Staring at our feet in the lobby, holding suitcases and clunky Dell laptops, and feeling a bit displaced, our team made note of this explanation with a few smirks, and for my part, naïve disbelief. After all, Roger and I had shared several international calls and previous team meetings in New Jersey, and I knew he had a dry sense of humor. I hadn’t traveled much, hadn’t yet taken my first surfing trip to Costa Rica—with its similar infrastructure—and had never traveled anywhere where this requirement was verbalized so clearly. Was he kidding us? I just didn’t know.

Having quickly covered this necessity, Roger was joined by our second local IT host, Mary, with shoulder length dark hair, trim in a blue button down shirt and cotton vest, sleeves folded back, jeans, and deck shoes, she seemed genuinely pleased to see us. After more greetings and introductions (absent the greeting card ritual), she ushered us past the logo and into the main office, a smaller and more informal operation than the one in Tokyo, with a conspicuous number of empty desks—then she respectfully presented the second important announcement.

Clearly, tea preparation was a simple matter, she explained, mastered over several thousand years by this mature culture, but coffee? This was a mystery that required a modern solution. For their staff, and honored coffee-consuming-Western guests, the office had acquired a Chinese—not Japanese—solution to that daunting problem faced by so many non-Americans, that is, how to make a decent cup of coffee. Offering this introduction as she led us to the little kitchen lounge, Mary proudly unveiled a stainless steel mechanical coffee maker next to a steel rack of little gold and red cartridges, which we could access any time that we required or desired our chosen American beverage. Mary demonstrated how the machine worked, telling us with a smile, “Whenever you need coffee, it’s here! You just come and make it!”

Without discussion, our team agreed that this was a clever invention. We pretended to have never seen such an innovation, and expressed our astonishment at the freshly produced cup!

While Mary prepared a second cup, my thoughts drifted. As the IT expert required to manage and edit our email “directory”, I was familiar with every name of every one of the one thousand or so employees globally. Americans, Brits, French, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese. I could usually identify the user’s nationality by their name, but with the Chinese and Taiwanese colleagues it was different.

In Japan, I didn’t think too much about Tashiki’s name. At least, I was pretty confident that was his name. An American in Asia should know that the Japanese introduce themselves, in proper Japanese, first stating their “Family Name” (what Americans call “Last Name”). Except sometimes, in polite deference to English speakers, the Japanese might reverse the normal Japanese order, and present themselves first by “Given” (what Americans call “First Name”) and then “Family” name. In that case—an American, believing he understands the proper and polite Japanese ordering of names, might then refer to his colleague in the opposite fashion, by “Family” name, when trying to refer to him by his “Given” name.

Without making this more confusing than it already is, let me just say that for a year or more I referred to Tashiki as Wakamatsu, until with his usual kindness, he explained that I should probably call him “Tashiki”.

Our Taiwanese colleagues also have formal names, which sometimes appear on their business cards but which were rarely used with English speakers. As a student of T’ai Chi Chuan, I had some understanding that their presentations of names was similar to the Japanese, that is, “Family” name first. Thus T’ai Chi Chuan Master “Jou, Tsung Hua” is respectfully referred to as “Master Jou”. Which may sound like the informal western “Joe”, but is not the same. So, how, I wondered, do our Taiwanese (and Chinese colleagues) acquire first names like “Mary” or “Roger”? Are these their real names?

That evening, our hosts took us to a local seafood restaurant. Seated almost comfortably on a porch, an ocean breeze fanning the palm fronds; my mind stuck in a distant time zone, lulled by twinkling lights and cold beer, I chatted with the colleagues. Placed in front of each guest, a pot of black volcanic rock roiled with boiling water. The wait staff delivered trays layered with a colorful array of fresh, cleaned and prepared—but uncooked—local sea life, vegetables, and herbs. Using metal tongs we selected and dropped the shrimp, fish, octopus, or some other ocean denizen into the pot.

The slow cooking process encouraged conversation and served as a friendly icebreaker after our first day in the office. When cooked to satisfaction, we removed the food, placed it on the plate, added condiments or sauce, and ate—myself creating a minor stir with my unexpected dexterity with chopsticks. (I’m just full of surprises.)

After some back and forth, I decided to query Mary politely, “If it is not rude for me to ask, was “Mary” her “given” name?” (She smiled at this.) “Or, how did she come by it?”

She explained, these names are an accommodation because most Westerners have difficulty (by which she meant, make such a mess of) trying to speak Chinese. At some point late in their professional education or early in their international careers (if they are to work with English-speaking-Westerners) she and her colleagues acquire what they call their “American names”. They are usually ‘christened’ with their “American” name by a “coach” or employment counselor who is engaged in recruiting countrymen for work with foreign companies.

Most of my American colleagues accepted those “American” names without much thought or sensitivity, but to me it always seemed a bit weird, or awkward, like a “stage name”. As if you worked with and were maybe even friends with Reg Dwight, but only ever called him “Elton”. Or when, did you call him “Reg?”

Dinner concluded, our American and British team traversed humid downtown Taipei, now dark, the streets still rushing with the noise of car and scooter traffic. Checking at last into our nearby hotel, exhausted, I noted that although the office loo had what might be called a “plain vanilla” toilet, nevertheless my hotel bathroom sported a very sophisticated model (was it the Superlet?) with at least as many integrated functions as the “add-on” ones in the Tokyo offices.

There was also, of course, a small, classy brass-lidded container for soiled toilet paper, a reminder of the information provided, but as yet unused, much, much earlier in that very long day.

Although to this point I had only a bit of a “sensitive stomach”, I discovered the next morning after arriving at the office, that clearly, I was unaccustomed to something—seafood, radishes, or some unknown spice. Possibly even the cream I used to temper the Iced Coffee from a Starbucks we had discovered nearby.

With two days’ work left in the office, my digestive system initiated a full revolt.

 Excusing myself abruptly from numerous meetings, I spent an embarrassingly long amount of time contemplating that first important announcement, “the use and disposal of toilet paper”. From my long, seated meditations, I was grateful for the breeze that continuously blew fresh air into the open window of my seventh floor private office. Now and again a colleague might make his way to the men’s room to ask a technical question about migration of a mail file, or query me on the wording of a memo. Several times I tried to rejoin my colleagues only to excuse myself again and again for another visit to the lavatory. Eventually, I just remained in the stall.

After a long interval, someone brought me an Immodium, which I took, re-appearing briefly to obtain a cup of water, and then trying not to run, I returned to my Fortress of Solitude awaiting relief.

In my stall, things were not so busy. It was peaceful. I became overly familiar with the chiming tower clock at the church behind the office, the cooing of pigeons that landed in the shade of the window ledge, and the playful laughter of the students at recess in the yard of the Catholic school next door, which as far as I could discern from my porcelain throne, could have been the laughter of children anywhere in the world.

Relief came eventually, and I was able to move about, slowly. The next day, I didn’t drink the coffee, tried to stay out of the toilet, and yes, finished installing the new email system.

This time with me working “remotely”, or at least intermittently, we completed our IT Magic. Our migration team returned to the USA, where the economy was teetering, and the local New Jersey Executives grew disturbed with tales of great advances in the creation of coffee in Asia – something that was sorely lacking in our office in New Jersey.

But before we go there, let’s first take a look at Coffee in France...

—Christo

☕️ The Decline of Coffee and Other Observations in the Time of the Great Recession (Part 1 – Japan)

A round-about return to (The Great France Art Tour of 2017)

Tashiki, with the onion-framed wire rims, Beatle mop-top, sincere smile and winning sense of humor, gave the impression he had somehow slipped away from working as John Lennon’s stunt double in the “Magical Mystery Tourmovie and stepped into a magical real world that was always of great interest to him.

After spending some time in his youth as a Japanese ex-patriot attending school in Southern California, Tashiki managed to escape the interest of the Big Dumb Corporations of the USA and returned to find a job in Japan. Years later we’d both ended up working for the same multi-national corporation. I’d met him when he visited our site in New Jersey. Now in Tokyo, it was a relief to see a friendly, familiar face. And I might add, a colleague who I knew could communicate with me much better in English, than I was capable of speaking (with my two or three phrases) in Japanese.

This was my first trip to Asia, 2006, not long before the world economies took a nose dive, and our Japanese colleagues on the 23rd floor, in the large open office of low-walled cubicles in the old Kakegawa section of Tokyo, welcomed us with the traditional cross-cultural bowing, exchange of business cards, and handshaking that celebrated our trans-oceanic office arrival. We appraised and complimented each other on our cards, especially the double-sided cards with name and titles in Japanese on one side and English on the other! The ritual complete, the colleagues informed us of “two important things”: the location of the rest rooms (outside and just off the central elevator), and a surprise for us, coffee!

Jet-lagged from the eighteen hour journey, and not yet accustomed to requisite long days of an important Western IT specialist—bringing a new email system to be followed by a hardware “refresh” of new laptops—I was relieved with the unexpected promise of coffee.

We strolled to a little corner of the office which served as a kitchen and lounge. Our colleagues had recently installed a small appliance somewhat larger than a toaster oven. Nearby, between a small frig and a microwave, a shiny, silver table-top carousel held twenty or thirty red and gold, thimble-shaped aluminum containers, but larger—if thimbles, then, those used by a very large seamstress.

An eager and worthy host, Tashiki demonstrated how to pop the coffee “thimble” into the toaster-like coffee maker. He pressed a button or two, and after some grumbling and hissing from the machine, a brown liquid appeared and half-filled a paper cup we had placed beneath it.

The colleagues were excited to share details of this new innovation, and I agreed, making coffee with such convenience was an impressive feat! And, since my stomach doesn’t tolerate black coffee, and already a bit queasy from travel, I politely asked if there were milk or cream so that I might sample the brew in my accustomed manner? We located the cream, or “creamer”, which came in single serve, single use, four-inch-long, drinking straw-width paper or plastic tubes, accompanied by sugar, packaged in a similar fashion, both of which I applied to the brew.

While we took our turns at the coffee machine, Tashiki carefully and passionately explained the adjacent color-coded recycling bins—of which there were at least three. Which bin to use for which items, plastic, paper, other waste. Emphasizing that, as you know, Japanese are a very organized, tidy, and especially clean culture, and as they have an ancient and intimate relationship with the ocean, recycling was “very important to Japanese People”. I could relate to this passion for sustainability, and was a bit disappointed, (but not surprised) by the patronizing amusement expressed in winks and smiles by several of my American colleagues.

It had been a very long flight. Over the arctic ice cap, frozen Russia, and raging seas. My first ever of what would become a number of flights of that distance and duration. I was tired, my eyes scratchy from being open for too long. I located a small, empty conference room, and slumped into a chair under the glaring white fluorescents to drink the coffee. The first wave of jet lag nausea clobbered me unexpectedly, as I sipped. Maybe something was wrong with the paper cup or the creamer. It was that first taste, and politeness aside, the coffee was not so good. It had the stale, manufactured flavor of “instant” coffee, this time worsened by anticipation, by the expectation that there was something special about its production and brewing.

These days, now, many years later, people are familiar with these coffee cartridges, whether known by the name “Keurig” or “Nespresso” or some other marketing moniker. Are they better now? I don’t recall the name of the Japanese innovation at the time, but it was some very similar predecessor to today’s version that, like so many things in the twenty-first century, prioritized convenience over quality.

Not long after that first sample, I made my way to the Men’s Room, pretty typical of any corporate high rise restroom, anywhere—until I opened a stall door. I took a quick look, and figuring that I had stumbled into a “special needs” stall, opened an adjacent unlocked door…same thing: The toilet was clearly retrofitted with additional plumbing and equipment tucked beneath the tank and bowl. Next to the seat, a little “control panel” was attached with buttons marked with icons of lower body parts and water spraying, air blowing, and heat…emanating.

This was one of those novel advanced Japanese toilet seats, nearly unheard of in the USA, except maybe in a James Fallows NPR commentary. But I’d never seen, much less experienced one. So, of course, when the need arose, I sampled the luxury features, though in a public rest room this is a bit, embarrassing, due to the noise of electric pumps and splashing water. One button initiates the bidet (water rinsing) feature, and another an air dryer with several heat settings, and the seat itself was internally heated. This toilet technology was at least as impressive as the coffee maker, and in my opinion executed with a more satisfactory result. Though I was to later find that enhanced toilets were all the rage in Asia, I didn’t see them, not in my room at the Hilton, and not anywhere else in Japan—not that I was looking for them. In other visits to the office Men’s Room, I observed the frequent and long-lasting full occupancy of the stalls, which our matter-of-fact colleagues accepted as a scatological workplace “perk.”

I drank the coffee, I used the toilet, and I installed the new email system.

We completed our mission a few days later, having performed our impressive Corporate IT Magic in Japan, and flew to Taiwan for the next performance—a similar upgrade and installation in Taipei for the slightly less impressionable Taiwanese colleagues. And, welcomed upon arriving at their office, we, as newcomers, were presented with two important bits of information. Which I will review in the next installment…

…to be continued!!

—Christo

Hitching a Ride with “the Freeway Killer”

No Nukes demonstration, San Onofre, CA, August 6, 1977

If Bonin was in jail until October of 1978 … then who picked me up?

August 6, 1977 — It wasn’t looking good. A late start, leaving the “No Nukes” demonstration on the coast at San Onofre in the afternoon, a couple short hops through most of Orange County, but now I’d been standing with my big, orange backpack at my side, alone for over two hours, on a quiet on-ramp on the eastern end of San Bernardino, California, the last outpost of civilization before the freeway ascends through the colored layers of smog to Cajon Pass, and from there, into the Mojave Desert. I was hoping for a full ride, the four or so hours to Vegas in one trip, but it was dark, there was no traffic on this ramp, and I wasn’t getting anywhere.

As I turned my head to avoid the hot sand blowing at my face, a big, dark, slightly dented, Econoline van drove by slowly. The driver checked me out and kept going. About ten minutes later, I was pretty sure, the same guy drove by again. That was weird. Most people don’t go back to pick up a hitchhiker. But it wasn’t unheard of. Somebody looking for company on a long drive might do just that. This time he slowed, rolled over the curb, and lowered his passenger-side window. He was roughly my age, a bit geeky, dressed almost formally, as if he were a waiter, or had been in some kind of performance, but frumpy in a wrinkled white shirt and black pants, with greasy dark hair. He offered to drop me up the freeway at the far end of town. Considering my current location, I hesitated. I wasn’t fond of the spot, but I knew it was near the train station, downtown, and if I got desperate I could make my way there, maybe catch a train, at least be around more people. Before I could reply, he suggested, “Tell you what, it you don’t like it, I’ll drive you back here.”

“Deal,” I said, and hopped into the passenger seat, holding my packpack between my knees.

The usual obligatory conversation ensued—he was a piano tuner—I nodded, without making any comments or asking questions that might come to mind—me, a student going to visit family in Las Vegas. I didn’t like sharing too much information, and I was already a little suspicious. In hitchhiking, it’s always a balancing act – you want a ride, you’re relying on the generosity of strangers, you want to give people the “benefit of the doubt” without being foolish, and you always should be a little suspicious. Up to that point my only misadventures had been with sloppy drivers who were drunk, or stoned, and once, the awkwardness of politely turning down an older woman who came onto me verbally.

The van was empty, the inside walls painted; I didn’t see anything unusual. I was watching the street, making sure we were staying near the freeway. I didn’t want to end up in some unfamiliar downtown, in the dark, late at night. In hitchhiking, you cling to the big busy roads like a lifeline.

We were clearly on the outskirts of town when he pulled over at a deserted on-ramp, and said, “Here it is!” I couldn’t believe there could be an on-ramp darker, or more isolated than the one I had come from, but here it was.

I made no move to get out of the van. I told him, “Ok, I’m going to take you up on your offer. Drive me back.” Maybe slightly surprised, he did.

Very shortly after that (too soon, it seemed, as if this second guy had gotten a phone call just as quick as the piano tuner could get to a phone booth at a Seven Eleven to tell him that I was there at the downtown on-ramp), a guy in a Subaru Hatchback pulled over, told me he was going to Victorville. Not all that far, but out of the urban desolation, in the desert, and with a couple of large truck stops. After the piano tuner, I was relieved that this guy wore blue jeans and a plaid shirt, like almost every other guy in Southern California, was maybe a few years older than me, but not much; he appeared to be pretty normal. I’d been stuck too long; any ride was worthwhile, and hitch-hiking into the night was okay. As long as I was moving. It was the being stuck that was awful. Waiting under some streetlight near an on-ramp with no traffic whatsoever, in a strange town. That’s the worst.

I threw my backpack in the back of the car. As I climbed in I noticed that compared to the skinny piano tuner, this guy was short and stocky. He made some comment about my build, that I was a “big healthy guy” or something like that, and asked if I studied any martial arts, which immediately raised my suspicion another notch, although I said, “No,” and I climbed in. He told me he had to make a phone call then we would be on our way. This was before cell phones. He drove a few deserted blocks into San Bernardino and parked within sight of a pay phone. He walked to the phone booth, and was there for a what seemed a very long time. Thirty minutes? He seemed to be arguing with someone. He made a lot of hand motions and kept glancing back at the car.

So many years later, I have no idea what I was doing at the time. I think I was super-focused on getting the hell out of San Bernardino, and on the road, moving, making progress toward a destination, and it seemed that this was my best chance.  Now, I imagine this guy was talking to his partner, discussing if I was a candidate for murder, what he or they would do with me. Was he trying to ascertain if I was scared? Would I hop out and try to get away? How best to subdue me? I remember thinking I had my hunting knife in my pack, if this turned out to be a really bad situation, and obviously if I was thinking about that, I probably shouldn’t have stayed there. I sat in the car, waiting, and I passed the test for gullibility.

He finally came back, and we headed onto I-15 toward Vegas. At first I was relieved to be getting underway. It was after midnight. We drove out onto the highway and into the dark empty desert night in relative silence for 30 minutes or more, passing uneventfully through progressively more deserted tracts of rising foothills.

Was he touching my thigh? Almost everyone who has a “bad” hitchhiking story will tell you about some driver putting his hand on their leg. I’d heard a few. He touched my thigh. I wasn’t sure at first that was what he was doing, and tried to ignore it. Thinking how bad I needed the ride, I was getting scared, but angry too. Jeez. I brushed his hand away, as if he did it accidentally. I looked at him, his eyes were glued to the road. Within a minute his hand was back. I told him, “Stop it.”

“Stop What?” He asked, not quite innocently.

“I am not gay, and I have no intention of becoming gay tonight,” I said firmly.

“What are you talking about?” He asked indignantly.

“Look,” I said, “It was your hand on my leg. Keep it off.”

He gave a little snort, then got very quiet, but kept driving, his eyes on the road. I was trying hard to remain calm and not panic, but I was considering how I could get out. Would I have to abandon my pack with my sleeping bag, knife, and other means of survival? Maybe I could pull the keys from the ignition and throw them out the window into the sand and tumbleweeds?

We were not yet to Victorville, I had no idea where we were, because those minutes felt like hours, maybe they were hours, I was just praying we would see a truck stop where I could get out and be visible under some light.

A cross road appeared with an off-ramp, and with a finger, he flicked his turn signal.

“I’m not going any farther. I’m going to turn around here.” He said.

I looked out the window. A narrow road snaked off into the desert at a right angle to the freeway. Way off in the darkness lights twinkled at a big house or ranch. He pulled over. I don’t think it even occurred to me at the time that he might have a pistol.

“Here?” I asked. “Where am I going to get a ride here!?”

“Maybe you can walk up there and get a ride,” He pointed at the lights in the distance.

“Ok,” I said, opening the door, and trying to climb out while grabbing my pack from the back seat at the same time so he couldn’t pull away with it still inside. But he didn’t. He was done with me at that point. He stayed in the car. I got quickly to the side of the road, watched while he turned the car around and headed back toward the freeway, and then, figuring he was still watching me, I began to walk on the asphalt toward the lights in the distance, terrified that he would come zooming back, thinking that I could jump off to the side, and into the desert, where, having grown up in the Southwest, I might have some advantage. But his tail lights kept getting dimmer, and smaller, fading into the distance.

I could hear music and voices from the lights at the house across the desert. Maybe there was a party going on or something. I considered walking all the way there. But since I had already given him the impression that was where I was going, I waited until his red tail lights were completely out of sight, and then I turned around and reversed direction.

I walked back to the big circle of asphalt where the off-ramp swung around the freeway to meet that desert road. I walked into the middle of that circle, where I was sure I could hear or see a car or even a pedestrian coming from any direction. I found a low spot, hidden by creosote and big tumbleweed, and settled there. I got out my hunting knife and slipped it into my pocket, laid out my sleeping bag. I was exhausted. I had this idea that he would come back looking for me. I probably didn’t sleep at all. Once or twice I got up when a big semi rushed past on the freeway, but there was no traffic on the side road for the rest of the night. I didn’t sleep.

The next morning I walked back to the freeway as the cool air grew warm, and probably walked another mile or two to a big hillside truck stop. A line of hitchhikers with signs stood or sat at the turn off. Standard “protocol” for hitching – you get in line and take turns getting rides. “First come, first served”. And of course the driver always had veto power. “I’ll take you, but not you.” According to protocol I would have to wait until the six or eight hikers who got there before me got their rides before I could get mine. Suddenly I remembered that my folks were expecting me. If everything had gone well, and I had not been stranded in San Bernardino, I should have been to Vegas late last night. I walked past all the other hitchers to the gas station, to check it out, and use the bathroom. When I was done, I walked out to the pumps, two cars gettting gas. Fuck it. I had had enough of this shit. I walked over to a middle-aged man with a crewcut standing next to a dusty blue 4-door Maverick. “Hi, are you going to Vegas?”

He quickly sized me up, replied, “I am.”

“Would you be able to give me a ride? I’d sure appreciate it.”

“You going there to gamble?”

“No sir, I grew up there. I’m going to visit my folks.”

“Okay,” he said affably, “I just gotta finish filling my tank, and we can go.”

“Thank you, I don’t have much money, but I can give you ten dollars for the gas.” I offered, adding, “It’s been a long night.”

He shook his head no, and motioned me to get into the passenger seat.

He smoked Camel plain ends the whole way, with his window down. The smoke bothered me some, but I was so relieved that he seemed normal, chatted in a friendly way, and kept his hands to himself. I don’t remember much about him except that he was an ex-marine and had done some hitching himself.  This is true of most “rides”. They have compassion, they pick you up because they’ve done it. The rest of the trip went by very fast. I did not sleep. He dropped me off at the Sahara Blvd. exit, only a mile or so from my folk’s house, and I thanked him.

I started walking up the hill where the Wonder World store used to be, where I bought my first LPs, and I’d hardly walked ten yards, hadn’t put my thumb out, when a yellow Datsun pickup pulled over. Wow. Another ride. I was kind of thinking maybe I’d be better off walking, when I realized it was my brother Rob, hopping out of the cab. He threw my pack in the pickup bed.

I was home. After explaining why I was so much later than expected, my parents offered to pay my Amtrak fare back to LA and I gratefully accepted. And that was my last solo hitchhiking trip.


*** For years I was sure that mine was a lucky encounter with William Bonin, one of three “Freeway Killers” active in Southern California around that time. (And not to be confused with the “Freeway Strangler”, who specialized in female victims). And at the time I was hitching, I was aware of there being “freeway murders” of hitchhikers . I was twenty-one, had hitchhiked with friends and alone up and down the coast, and to Tucson, Phoenix, and Palm Springs. I was young.

Bonin was known to have several accomplices who helped him procure victims, and who accompanied him on his murderous forays in his Ford Econoline van. I figure that the first “victim pickup attempt” failed—because I didn’t like the second ramp—and after the weird piano tuner returned me to that first on-ramp, he immediately called his partner to come and get me  in the hatchback.

Other than telling this story to friends and family, I never thought much more about it. Years (actually decades) later, I was exchanging emails with the late writer and friend Anthony Bruno about his biography of “the Iceman” mob killer, commenting that professional hit men are actually serial killers who have found an accepting home. Recalling my experience brought up a wave of angst that wouldn’t go away, and feeling that the Internet gave me access to information I never had before, I began reading about Bonin and the other “Freeway Killers”. I confirmed that the timeline didn’t seem right, even though the one or two photos I could find of Bonin looked to me like the guy who dumped me out in the desert. But it was a long time ago.

I left LA after an anti-nuke rally at San Onofre, August 6, 1977. (If the Wikipedia records are correct,https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-nuclear_protests_in_the_United_States “…about a thousand anti-nuclear protesters marched outside the San Onofre nuclear generation station, while units 2 & 3 were under construction.“)

If Bonin was in jail until October of 1978 and didn’t meet his two main accomplices, Vernon Butts (whose description fits my memory of “the piano tuner”) and Gregory Miley, until after he was released from his incarceration in 1978, then who picked me up?

If it wasn’t Bonin, who was it? Or, who were they? There are a number of similar unsolved murders from the same time. The geography, Econoline van, and apparent Modus Operandi, appear to match that of Bonin, not of Kearney or Kraft, the other “Freeway Killers”. Essentially, in my case, no crime was committed, just a lot of weird, scary, and intimidating shit. Maybe the two San Bernardino “pick ups” were completely unrelated. But they sure seemed oddly related to me at the time. Even the couple of documented “failed” Bonin attempts sound eerily like my night on the road to Victorville. For all I know, if I hadn’t spoken up, if I hadn’t stood up for myself and spoken out and drawn the boundaries, I might have been one more mutilated corpse discarded by the side of an LA freeway.

I include links and notes here if you want to read more, but I must warn you that these crimes were not just “simple” murders. They consist of absolutely horrifying torture and mutilation of victims. Read at your own risk.

Patrick Kearney (also known as the “Trash Bag Murderer”), killings 1965-March 1977, shoot victims in the ear with a .22 in his VW Beetle, or truck, apprehended July 1, 1977, serving 21 life sentences in Mule Creek State Prison, CA https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Kearney

Randy Kraft (also known as “The Scorecard Killer”), killings Sept. 71 to May 1983. Drugged his victims. Apprehended 1983, on death row at San Quentin, CA https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randy_Steven_Kraft

William Bonin, “the Freeway Killer” in 1975 picks up hitchhiker David McVicker (who survives), Murders May 79 – June 80, imprisoned Dec. 75 to Oct. 11, 1978. Drives an olive-green Ford Econoline when committing abductions. William Pugh 17, picked up in 1980, survives, because he was seen leaving with Bonin. Bonin executed Feb. 1996, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Bonin

Vernon Butts, part-time magician and occultist, meets Bonin in ’78, Bonin accomplice (one of 4) – Committed suicide (hanging) January 1981

Gregory Miley, meets Bonin in ’78, IQ of 56, accomplice of Bonin, dies in prison.

James Munro, at Mule Creek State Prison, Parole hearing postponed in 2014 because of threats to McVicker. Up for parole in 2029. http://www.ocregister.com/2014/01/23/aliso-viejo-man-worries-about-possible-parole-of-freeway-killer-accomplice/

William Ray Pugh – on murder of Harry Todd Turner, serves less than 4 years for manslaughter, and is released in late 1985.

— Christo

The Lambertville Swallow Sign Decline

2017/4/23-Swallow Sign Decline-02

Whatever happened to the Cliff Swallow colony that lived under the Lambertville-New Hope Bridge??

Friday, April 19, 2019— This Spring I saw Cliff Swallows at Center Bridge (at Stockton) and Bulls Island, but are there any Cliff Swallows nesting on the Lambertville-New Hope Bridge any more?

In short, yes. At around 10:00 am today, I counted 10 Cliff Swallows plunging from the underside of the Lambertville New Hope Bridge, flying erratically and quickly out, and up, and away, as they do, before you can snap a photo. That’s good.

But as recently as 2013 there were 75-100 Cliff Swallows nesting under the bridge and following those crazy flight patterns to catch insects and return them to waiting chicks. I’ve checked a couple more times, at different times of the day, but the news is no different. There is a small colony beneath the bridge. I will, check again later in the Spring. Meanwhile check out the slide show.

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Here’s what happened in the six photos above:

  1. The Frame started to come off the sign.
  2. Someone pushed the frame back on, and stuck a brick under it to hold it in place.
  3. The frame came off completely
  4. Something happened to the sign, it was removed, and the supporting panel remained.
  5. The metal panel attracted stickers and graffitti
  6. The graffitti-ed metal panel was removed, leaving just the sign post.

May 1, 2019 — I promised an update. In March I wrote a query on the Contact form at the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission web site.

DRJTBC Contact Form – Christopher Plummer Submitted Web Contact Form

Submitted 2019/03/05 9:13 PM on:

Regarding the New Hope – Lambertville Bridge: Around 1981 the DRJTBC placed an informational sign for pedestrians on the Lambertville side of the bridge that commemorated the bridge as a home for the Cliff Swallows (birds) that have maintained a colony under the bridge, returning every Spring. (The Center Bridge- Stockton Bridge also has a similar sign.) The sign in Lambertville has fallen into disrepair in the past few years and has now disintegrated into a shiny steel rectangle plastered with stickers and graffiti. There is a DRJTBC number and barcode on the back of the sign by which it can be identified.

As a long time resident of Lambertville, I would very much like to see the sign restored with the art and information about the swallows that it once had. (I have photographs I’d be happy to share.)

Is it possible that DRJTBC could find a way to repair this sign?

Thank you.
Christopher Plummer

 

And then on April 1 (I’m not laughing), I got this response:

From: Joseph F. Donnelly jdonnelly@drjtbc.org
Subject: Response to your inquiry to the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge CommissionDate: 04/01/2019 at5:53PM

Christopher Plummer:
Thank you for visiting the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission’s website and using the “contact us” portal.
Please be advised that the New Hope-Lambertville Toll-Supported Bridge sign you referenced in your message no longer exists and was not produced by the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission (DRJTBC).
As I recall, the sign promoted how proceeds from the New Jersey Wildlife Income Tax Check Off were utilized to place artificial nests at the New Hope-Lambertville Tax- Supported Bridge after the bridge’s concrete walkway was replaced by a laminated timber deck walkway in 1982 (subsequently replaced with the current walkway in 2004). (Note: The formal name of the bridge in 1982 was the New Hope-Lambertville Tax-Supported Bridge since it was jointly owned by the two states until July 1987, when its ownership was transferred outright to the DRJTBC.) The Commission, which controlled the bridge at that time on behalf of the two states, cooperated in the post-project remediation efforts regarding the migratory swallows.
Please understand that there is nothing in the Commission’s meeting minutes or in our engineering department’s records that support your assertion that the sign was placed at the location by the DRJTBC. I found nothing in the official record that shows the Commission requisitioning, procuring, or paying for the sign. Regrettably, it’s unclear who exactly produced the sign.
What I can tell you is the following:

In conducting research for an historical account that I compiled on the bridge crossing’s200th anniversary in 2014, I noted that the sign had the headline “Cliff Swallows Benefit from NJ Wildlife Income Tax Check Off” and its content explained a swallow-nest remediation effort that took place at the bridge back in the 1980s (over 30 years ago). For your edification, the sign’s credit line said the illustration and design were by Doreen Curtin with a copyright of 1984, suggesting the sign was placed at some point during or after that year. It also said “Screen Printing by Aztec Graphics.” But the sign did not cite what agency or group produced it.

That said, the Commission is not in a position to repair the sign for the following reasons: 1. It had fallen into disrepair and had outlived its purpose in promoting a project that took place more than three decades ago. 2. The Commission did not produce the sign. 3. Whatever entity did produce the sign never maintained it after its installation.

While I can’t speak unilaterally for this agency on a matter such as this, it’s certainly conceivable the Commission would be open to considering installation of acceptable signage referencing the bridge’s swallows and/or swallow nests if some organization or entity were to again shoulder the time, effort, and costs of design and production.

– Joe Donnelly
Deputy Executive Director of Communications DRJTBC
New Hope, PA.

 

So…we have more information. I had forgotten the initial connection of the sign to the appreciation of the nests disturbed beneath the bridge and the careful restoration of ceramic nests in the hopes of maintainting the colony. I am quite sure that subsequent “upgrades” to the footpath over the bridge—which is now some kind of plastic-paint-covered metal—were not so attentive to the colony.
The sign disappeared mysteriously shortly after I sent my query. I don’t believe in coincidences.
Maybe we can get someone to step up and restore the sign as suggested by Mr. Donnelly? But first, I think it’s more important to restore the appreciation for the birds themselves, the Cliff Swallows of Lambertville, which appear to be in decline to the point of non-existence.
Peace Out,
— Christo

 

After Montmartre

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

France 2017-0037 – Version 2

There are times when I feel I have a pretty good handle on where I am in Paris and others when I admit that I have no clue. It’s the places in-between that prove the most difficult. Where I am neither confident that I know, but believe I have some vague idea that can’t be too far off, but which may ultimately prove to be delusional. The afternoon of our longest day was like that.

The afternoon was waning when we found a Metro stop at the bottom of the mont. We popped out as intended on the Left Bank at St. Germain Des Pres. Here Boulevard St. Germain skirts along a few blocks from the Seine. We walked North in search of a café or bistro where we could catch a late lunch.

I had on a previous trip explored the Boulevard St. Germain for a few blocks behind Musée D’Orsay, and found the area a delight—full of small cheese shops, patisseries, and such. I also harbored the vague notion that many of the famous cafés were either nearby or situated on Boulevard St. Germain. Early that same morning, while still on our coach, we had zoomed past one of these “famous” cafes, the ones mentioned too frequently in Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”. Was it the La Closerie d’Lilas? Or Les Deux Magots? Or some other? Who knows? Honestly, I don’t. (By the way, the Magots? What a name. What does it mean? It means, “The two stocky figures from the Far East“. I know. Weird. It’s about these two statues that are still inside. You read about it.) I read about them, I flash by in a bus, and of course I think, “Cool! Wouldn’t it be great to sit there where Hemingway did, watching while some minor literary acquaintance blithely and foolishly cuts Aleister Crowley, ‘the most evil diabolist in all of Paris’.” Well, maybe. But the guidebooks say these places are overpriced due to their fascinating histories, not for the quality of their fare. And in the end, it’s never the right time or convenient situation to sit “there”, and so I settle for something or somewhere else.

My memories of Paris when I first visited as a teen are so dim. I wish I had written a journal of that trip! Blogs didn’t exist then. Nor did personal computers or cell phones. It would have been a paper journal. Nevertheless, some images remain—old ladies sweeping the sidewalks of the Champs’d’Elyses with wooden brooms the brush ends of which consisted of tightly bound twigs. Men stood, unself-consciously relieving themselves at open public urinals built into the street-facing sides of buildings. Luxembourg Garden, which in my memory, that July, did not have any flowers to make it seem like a “garden”. At that tender age, in my mind, this was clearly more a “park” than a garden, and should have been called “Luxembourg Park”. Or maybe it was? In memory the street names remain—two especially, Boulevard St. Michel and Boulevard St. Germain, both of which must have been quite close to the hostel where we lodged for those final nights at the end of our Grand Scandinavian Tour. (Yes, I know, France is not part of Scandinavia. The tour started in England. We traveled by ship from Newcastle to Bergen, Norway, and a month later ended up in Paris.)

Looking at the Paris map now I wonder—did we stay at some residence in or near the Sorbonne? If nothing else I must have walked past it, the grand traditional Paris Art school, home of the Academy, that so many times rejected the brilliant innovations of Paul Cezanne. Unlike Van Gogh, he lived long enough to see some success and recognition from the traditional arts community. But without the sponsorship of his friend, the writer, Emile Zola, he might have never survived. Certainly not as an artist.

In any case, you may observe that I was wandering down Blvd. St. Germaine with Deb, guided roughly West and North as if in a dream, one touched slightly by pain, one consisting of Paris memories separated as they were by years and decades and all the life in between, with the purpose of finding some decent and possibly memorable place to sit, relax, and consume a meal. Boulevard St. Germaine ended and we moved unexpectedly onto the Quai d’Orsay, next to the Seine again. We intended to walk over to the other bank afterwards, where we would take the sunset boat tour, highly recommended by our French guide Christine, who had armed us that morning with the necessary passes. But before that we still needed to find a place to eat. It was a long march.

Map location Le Recrutement

Walking away from the Seine, we turned onto boulevard la Tour Maubourg and settled at last at “Le Recrutement”, a pleasant, if not historical, café at the intersection of Rue Saint-Dominique. We recovered there with a couple of beers and the perhaps cliché, but definitely fortifying tourist fare of French Onion Soup for Deb and Croque Monsieur for me. We sat facing the street in the black and tan weaved pseudo-wicker plastic chairs apparently required by law, or tradition, or both, at every small Paris eatery.

The travel and sleep deprivation headache dissolved as we chatted, my eyes slightly glazed by alcohol and jet lag, reviewing our amazing long Paris day and the plans we had for the rest of it. The street grew dark and groups of women, young, and French issued forth from offices and apartments, sometimes alone, sometimes followed by young men, presumably on their way to evening social activities of some French nature that I could not discern. It occurred to me that these were three powerful image-conjuring words, worthy of a story, novel, or film, “Women, Young, French”. But it wouldn’t be my story, novel, or film. Not that evening anyway.

We finished our drinks and made the long walk across the Seine, and then along the Quai in search of the loading ramp for our particular tour. Which we located, and where we discovered that although several large and noisy tour groups were queued at certain points, for us, there was no wait.

Yes, still to come, more of that one day.

—Christo

Summer and Fall of 1979

🍎 When we were very young

…and now for a brief diversion from The Great France Art Tour of 2017

RailroadTracksI didn’t know when to expect Richard.

He was supposed to be riding the rails across the country, to show up in Boston sometime at the end of the summer. In the letter, he described how this journey was not to be.  Just a mile or so from Davis, California, he and his friend Jamie jumped from a moving freight. Richard wrote: “This was a mistake, I thought, as I plunged headfirst into the gravel… Jamie suffered a broken collarbone.

The tentative word was that he would arrive around the middle of August on the “Gray Rabbit”, an alternative bus company vehicle.

August 18

He showed up with his Chaldean friend Ed. Ed had thick, dark, wavy hair, a thick mustache and a middle-eastern complexion.  Ed was originally from Detroit, a Psych major looking into graduate and law schools. He and Rich appeared around the 18thand spent almost a week with Pal and I, sharing the apartment. They were both looking for work and seeing sights–I showed them around a bit, but we were all together so much and I tried to be alone with Pal on my days off.

Richard got a job in no time, hired at a food processing plant across the harbor, spouting Marxist doctrine about “experiencing the lot of the proletariat”,  he became an onion man on an assembly line.

“Well, how’d it go?” I asked him, noticing the strong odor of onions that filled the living room.

“I quit.”

“Really?!”

“Yep.”

“Well, what happened?”

“I wore a hair net. The foreman told me to space onions about six inches apart on the conveyor belt. So that’s how I spaced them, until two guys down the line started throwing onions at me; telling me to slow down. A big black guy came over and told me to space them twelve to eighteen inches apart so the guys down the line would have time to do their work. So I’d space ‘em that way until the supervisor would come over and tell me to put ‘em four inches apart, and I’d do that until he was out of sight.”

“Jeez. So what happened?”

“At the end of the day I quit.”

“What did you say?”

“’I quit.’”

“Yea, but what did they say?”

“The foreman said, ‘Too tough for ya, huh?’’’

“And?”

“And I told him, ‘No, but I’d go crazy by the end of the week if I had to do it every day.’”

Richard looked around some more for work, talking with Ed now and then about going to New Hampshire to pick apples.

August 25

 It seemed like they were always hungry. Pal doesn’t eat meat and I rarely do—we’d prepare a big meal, give them seconds, have no food left, and they’d still be hungry. Mind you, they did buy groceries and chip in; I was just astounded by their appetites. I imagined they wanted huge bloody chunks of meat and we were feeding them rice, beans, and tortillas. After about six days—I don’t know, call it my own uptightness or whatever, but their stay began to wear thin. Personally, I was simply bothered by my own ignorance of Ed. Ed didn’t say much. He’d sit and listen and stare with those dark eyes, nodding his head. When he did talk, he mostly talked about going back to Detroit, where people were friendly.

“In Detroit?” I thought.

******

I just wanted to be alone with Pal. Brad offered to put up our two visitors at his apartment. We finally got them to take him up on the offer the same day that they found a place on Marlborough Street in Back Bay. They could have the place through August for practically nothing, so they took it. In no time, Richard found a baking job at the Somerville Bel Canto and Ed began work as a bar boy at the Salty Dog down in Faneuil Hall.

We didn’t see much of them for awhile. Then we saw Richard somewhat regularly—he and Ed didn’t seem to be doing much together. Ed was lonely and didn’t think people were friendly in Boston. He was going back to Detroit. In one week his departure time shrank from “a month”, to “a few weeks”, to “a week”, to “Friday”, and he was gone to Detroit without our ever being able to bid him farewell.

Seeing Richard then was no problem at all.

September 1

Richard left to pick apples in New Hampshire. He had managed to get a passport in the time he was with us. He spoke of leaving for France after a short, profitable term as an apple picker.

We spent one long evening at the Café Pamplona, Brad, Richard, Pal, and I. We had fun; we were all pretty wound up. We didn’t speak softly as we often do at Pamplona; we laughed openly at the pieces of pretentious Harvard Square conversation that came our way. We all wished Richard luck. We made him aware of the possibilities: stiff neck and shoulders, apple chowder, apple pancakes, turnovers, pies, and apple sauce in the mess, and who knows what in the co-ed bunk house. And the next day Richard was gone.

We didn’t hear from him for about a week. The letter he wrote made it sound pretty dismal. Long days, hard work, not many apples. Then a week after that we got another letter.

September 12

Yesterday and especially today, it became everything I could have hoped it to be. It was exquisite today. Two reasons. First, in a scene out of a Russian novel, I and two others make our way down our respective rows of trees shouting, singing, laughing back and forth, calling to one another from the tops of our 15 foot ladders, hands flying among the branches, picking apples as fast as we could—all the time Great Topics hovering over everything. Religion, Literature, Philosophy, History – these and more tossed back and forth. “What does it mean to seek after God?” “Is Marxism a conservative doctrine?” “How does Nietzsche figure as a character in Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus?” – some of the questions.

Bedo, a Whitmanesque figure, with a great beard and a great belly and a trunk of popular songs from the gay nineties and Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, stoutly defended his adherence to an obscure religious movement founded by an American mystic.

Jean, an ex-school teacher, marathon runner, sang fifties rock standards and spoke knowledgeably of his current passion, neuro-biology.

I played the part of the brash young man who thinks he knows it all, pestering each with question after question about their beliefs.

“You have a Socratic mind,” Jean told me, and I was very flattered.

Secondly, today was an all-out bust-ass competition. Bedo is an old hand, been picking for years. Jean and I killed ourselves trying to keep up. We did until 3:30 or so, and then Bedo pulled away. “SEVEN bins!” He called out. Jean and I were at about six and two-thirds. Hour or so later, “EIGHT bins!” Jean and I at less than seven and a half. We struggled in over an hour behind him; eight bins a personal triumph for both of us.

The next month or so should be very nice, very fun.

Take Care,

Rich
Brookdale Fruit Farm
Hollis, New Hampshire

******

September 16

“Chris?”

“Rich?”

“Chris! It’s Rich.”

“Hey Rich. So what’s up?”

“It seems the Peace Corps wants me after all. My parents got ahold of me at the fruit farm. I have to catch a plane.”

“Really!? So where are you now?”

“I’m downtown. I was wondering if I could impose…”

“Hell Rich! C’mon over! We’ll be glad to have you.”

So Richard showed up a couple days after his second letter arrived. Ready for yet another adventure. The Feds would fly him down to Pennsylvania for seven days for a final intensive screening, before deciding if he and the six other candidates are prepared to spend two years in Botswana, teaching natives how to run and repair diesel powered well-pumps.

That’s where he is now. He gets back to Boston Sunday. If they liked him, he’ll be around for about a month more before he leaves.

September 23

First day of Fall, Rich gets back, ice cream with Brad at Steve’s in Somerville. I had honey vanilla with Reese’s mix-ins. Brad had coffee with mix-ins, but I forget what kind.

October 8, Columbus Day

Leaf_Yellow
Pal is changing. I’m here in the living room. We just walked Ally, and realized we’ll need more than the clothes we have on when we leave. Today we are borrowing Brad’s MG Midget and heading out of Boston on a leafing adventure.

It was too cold to put the top down on Brad’s car, but we took Ally anyway. We drove to Concord, Mass. And then headed west and north, for New Hampshire. We chose our route with only two criteria in mind: That the road be in a wooded area, and that it be somewhat untraveled. When we came to intersections, we always took the road where the most traffic did not go.

Of course, it was beautiful. There weren’t many places where the leaves had “peaked” already, but everywhere we went the foliage was turning bright orange, yellow, rust, some leaves golden, and that deep, deep red against the still present greens.

“Ally, please lie down,” was the constant comment as we toured the countryside, our large, fluffy, white Samoyed, excited by the cool air, dancing on the rumble seat of the tiny MG Midget. “I can’t see behind us! Ally!”

We stopped in Wilton, a speck of a town just on the Massachusetts side of the border. There we bought cider, some delicious Vermont cheddar, and a dog biscuit for Ally. We walked her in the cold wind, then continued. We only went as far as Hollis, New Hampshire. That of course, is the big apple town where Richard found employ. We didn’t see the Brookdale Fruit Farm, but as we sat in a diner called The Corner Cupboard, munching our western’s and sipping corn chowder and coffee, we saw an old guy hitching up the road. For the absence of a beard, he could have been Richard’s “Bedo”. Plaid shirt, heavy coat bulging with a big belly, jeans, and rubber shin-high picking boots, just like those Rich came home with.

October 23?

Richard was leaving Saturday afternoon. Friday night Brad had Rich and Mary over for dinner. Pal and I just couldn’t make it. I was tired and Pal was trying to get the house cleaned up for the arrival of her friend Tom Smith.

Mary brought her Lebanese boyfriend, who has some shady past connections with Christian terrorists. He told them some interesting stories, I guess, they seemed most impressed by his belief that Henry Kissinger would be murdered “on general principles”.

Pal and I argued and fought and yelled violently at home before Tom came. There were reasons I suppose…but mainly because we were both exhausted. We left to meet Tom’s train at the Back Bay Station. It was late, so we went to the Half Shell, a small waterfront bar on Boylston Street, for a beer.

In the morning Tom and Richard accompanied Pal and I to Cardell’s. Cardell’s is a cafeteria-style restaurant. Tables are shared with Buddy’s Sirloin Pit (est. 1964), which luckily doesn’t open that early. Bran muffins, OJ, and coffee can be had for the best prices. The place is really a dive, but the sawdust on the floor and good prices, and certainly the unhurried atmosphere make it worthwhile.

“Well, this is it.” I kept telling Richard. Trying to get us both to realize that he was about to leave for two years.

***

Ally and I are in the backyard at Bigelow while I write. She is tromping around in the leaves, exploring, tied to a chain which is connected by a pulley to an overhead cable that spans half the length of  the yard. A good arrangement, I’m not sure that it was originally intended for a Samoyed, but more likely – to dry clothes. Vito’s marigolds are still blooming by the side of the house, yellow orange and orange tinged with red. The way things are going they’ll soon be covered by leaves.

Today is the day that the leaves fall from the trees. They’ve been sitting there looking beautiful in the cold crisp, bright and alive in their death throes for over a month. The warm Indian Summer came and seemed to put them out of place. They’re falling now like lasting snowflakes in the warmth, like teardrops on the wind, they flutter downward, covering the earth with rough golden rust.

Yesterday I got a letter from Rich. I guess it was the last thing he wrote from Las Vegas, saying he was on his way and he’d write when he got to Africa.

LeafRedThe afternoon has grown quiet as the sun stepped behind the buildings. Fluffy white clouds are passing rapidly overhead, moving against a grey, blue. Ally is lying on my leg now, beneath the picnic table. She stirs, and the deep dusty smell of leaves fills my head.

— Christo

Why Montmartre?

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Why Montmartre? This neighborhood is on most “must see” lists for Paris—often with little explanation. Even on my first trip to Paris, at age sixteen, I remember our Foreign Service League guide suggesting an optional trip to Montmartre on one of our “free” days, explaining that it was a funky, “artsy” area of narrow streets and open shops and stands. I imagined bearded men in berets, sitting on wooden stools, with their charcoal and drawing pads, easels, and thumb-tacked examples of reasonably accurate portraits and funny caricatures. (Actually, you will find those, even today in Montmartre and along the Seine.) I assume, more than I remember, that as a young man I was that day distracted by a young woman named Maritchu, who had her own plans, and she was not on her way to that part of Paris. I didn’t enlist for that side trip. I didn’t go to see Jim Morrison’s grave either. As I’ve mentioned, as is the case with any grand and ancient city, you can’t see it ALL!

And even on the Great Art Tour, I didn’t know much about the Impressionist connection. In my mind, I was thinking that the steps where Gil (Owen Wilson) is first picked up by T.S. Eliot in a Peugeot in “Midnight in Paris” had to be somewhere in Montmartre. I kept looking for those steps, but I never found them. (Probably because that first trip into the past occurs on the steps of the cathedral of Église Saint-Étienne du Mont on the Left Bank, definitely on the other side of Paris far from Montmartre.)

Bal du moulin de la Galette

“Bal du moulin de la Galette” by August Renoir

Nevertheless, the Moulin Rouge and Moulin de la Galette, are (or were, in their glory) located in Montmartre. If  someone mentions those names, somewhere in the back of my mind I conjure the memory of slides on a screen with vague colorful absinthe-blurred bar and club scenes by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Edgar Degas.  These are fairly accurate recollections. Renoir painted the festive, “Bal du moulin de la Galette” here. (Remember the men in their straw hats and the woman in the foreground in the blue and white striped dress?) And Degas painted “L’Absinthe” at café Nouvelle Athènes in the Place Pigalle at the foot of Montmartre in 1876. In the same year Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, brought him to Paris. Here he was neighbors with Georges Seurat and met Paul Gauguin, Lautrec, and others, and through their influence, and the influence of Paris scenes, his style became much more impressionistic.

"Windmills on Montmartre", 1886, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Windmills on Montmartre”, 1886, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Van Gogh painted many images of Montmartre, Paris, and the windmill and surroundings of the Moulin de la Galette, (the tall windmill, you can still see, although you can’t get very close). Without his paintings, it’s hard to imagine the hills of that district with a quarry, open fields and gardens. From the clock window of the Musée D’Orsay you can make out Montmartre, and Sacre Couer at the top, and the hill appears, like much of Paris, to be covered with buildings. Which it essentially is.

🚇A brief aside: Usually at the Metro station there is someone of some official capacity in attendance, usually in some kind of a booth, and usually that FRENCH person is there to provide assistance to travelers. Despite the reputation that Parisians are by nature hostile to Americans, I found this to be largely untrue. Although the difference in languages can be an obstacle, usually by pointing at maps, images, and familiar geographic names, and the patience of these attendants, you will get to the information needed to board the right train. I was most impressed one morning when we were leaving Bercy and I was asking the attendant for help, as I pointed on the map to the tiny image of the Musée Marmottan Monet. At least, that’s what I thought I was pointing at, and thought I was saying in my feeble French. We slid the map back and forth across the counter a few times, and as he was tapping on a blur that I think was the Metro Station that he thought should be our destination, I said, “Excuse me”, unfolded my glasses and put them on. At the same time, he pushed my map back at me, with neither a word nor a grumble, pulled another from a rack, unfolded it, and flattened it out in front of us. I smiled. The scale of his map was about four times larger than mine, and soooo much easier to read. He quickly marked it, and confident then that I knew where to go, I said, “Merci!”

Still more to come…

— Christo

Montmartre: Yellow 9 to Green 12

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Basilica_Sacre_CoeurWe left the Musée Marmottan Monet fully sated and strolled with satisfaction along our previous route. It rained of course, but it was not an ugly downpour and that longest of Paris days was still young. The Muette Metro station was all tangled up with construction and pedestrian detours. Deb wanted to see Montmartre, and that was clearly our next destination. By Metro it was fairly straightforward, really, take Number 9 (yellow Metro) to some giant underground knot beneath Paris where many of the routes collided. Somewhere there we would switch to the Number 12 (dark green Metro) with the endpoint of Aubervilliers Front Populaire, whatever that is, (for us, meaning roughly “North”).

Subway travelers know the importance of these endpoints–they indicate which direction the train is going –and, just as may occur when you are flying down the freeway and take the wrong exit and end up somewhere else, somewhere you had no intention of being, a similar error in the subway will put you on the wrong platform taking the wrong train in the wrong direction. In which case, I say, “Remain calm,” and let that train go if you are not sure that it is the right one, another one should come along soon, unless it is late at night, and, you can always wait patiently, unless you have had a couple of beers and you have a full bladder, pressing, pressing you with the urgent need to empty it, on a quiet platform, well-lit, with no toilet, no obscuring panels, only a few straggling waiting families and a booth with a tired guard dutifully observing all the closed-circuit television monitors as he fiddles with a pistol in his holster, and all you can think about is the long countdown of 20 minutes until the next train arrives, 20 minutes to hold yourself, 20 minutes that never seems to be less than 20 minutes, and if you’re not thinking about the longest 20 minutes you have ever lived, then you think about how could you have chosen the wrong train and ended up way farther away from your hotel than you intended, and you have done so well on the Metro until now, why now, late at night, getting later, but still the same 20 minutes left!! How could this happen? Do the French names of the metro endpoints really all sound the same in the end?

But never mind that, we got off the dark green Number 12 on one of the several Montmartre stops.

A moment monsieur!” Let’s look at the word “Montmartre”. I don’t comprehend it all, but half of that name suggests a hill, a steep hill, a mont. So upon exiting the metro and following the signs in the narrow, tile arched tunnels we are warned several times in Anglais, no less, that to exit here, we had better be able to climb up the 67 steps. Or was it 167? Or 617? Whatever, it was a matter of climbing many upward steps to the exit. Eventually we popped out in the gentle rain onto the winding narrow cobble streets of Montmartre.

Can any “touristy” part of Paris be more touristy than Montmartre? I don’t know. Which is not to say it’s bad. It is old, it is windy, it is higher than the rest of the city. Every little street goes either higher or lower. If it travels on level ground for a time, don’t grow complacent, and don’t be surprised, that little road will soon go either up or down. And by the way, just because the roads are narrow, don’t expect them to be for pedestrians only. There is not a great amount of traffic, but watch for the trucks and vans and motorcycles! Now, continue up and eventually, above the faded red terra cotta rooflines, you catch a glimpse of the cathedral domes of Sacré Coeur, which is about as high as you can go. We arrived at the base of the main entrance, below a pair of wide steps. At the top of these vast staircases, a road circumnavigates the temple, bordered by a few wide sidewalks covered with throngs of tourists enjoying the expansive views of Paris offered from that height.

We were delighted to discover that our Metro passes enabled us to skip another climb and ride the funicular up the hillside. While we waited, I spent a few minutes trying to assist a Japanese gentleman who did not seem to comprehend that the funicular was not free, it required tickets and payment. With English, a word or two in French, and wishing I knew more Japanese, I said, “Hi!” (Yes!), and finally got him to go to the ticket booth to ask for assistance.

I guess Deb has seen enough of the gaudy gold glitz and bleeding Jesus interiors of churches that she did not want to see this one. Which was fine by me. At the top, after taking in the panorama, we circled around and down, reviewing the restaurants and brasseries, many of which were not yet open. I stopped for a selfie at Chez Plumeau, for obvious reasons, and then found an open window crêperie where I ordered a breakfast crepe to go.

BreakfastAnd so we wound our way down, tripping down the cobblestone, stopping now and then to peek in little shops and absorb the changing views. To Deb, I mentioned that the Moulin Rouge was in the vicinity, and which from my last visit seemed almost like a wax museum–unless you took in the live burlesque I guess. No need to see that. We tried not to look at any maps, hoping that we would sooner or later come upon a metro stop. And it was later, later and many steps down before we, that is, I, resorted to Google maps to be sure I was taking us in the right direction.

I didn’t know it then, but our little expedition to the heights and long journey downward foreshadowed similar adventures in Eze, and Vence, and finally in Nice, where we wandered down the back of the mountain into the old city, where the houses and restaurants were all pushed tightly together, and shaded and cooled in the hot afternoon by their own height and shadow and the shadow of the mountain.

More fun to come…

— Christo