February 1st Miscellanea

February, bah. A really cold week lies ahead, with some snow. The only good thing is that January is over.

We got a call one recent day at 7:41 a.m., not the best time, but I guess it couldn’t wait. Our machine recorded it, so I can transcribe it here, with a few details changed.

“Please stand by for an informational message from your community. There may be a short delay before the message begins.


“This is an important message from the Schleswig-Holstein Police Department. Please be on the lookout for a missing juvenile named W—-. Male, white, five feet tall, approximately 90 pounds, brown hair, brown eyes. Last seen wearing a purple Washington Huskies sweatshirt, gray sweatpants, and black, white and red Nike Air Jordan sneakers. Please call the Schleswig-Holstein Police Department or 911 if you have any information. Thank you.”

At 8:44 a.m., there was another call.

“Please stand by for an informational message from your community. There may be a short delay before the message begins.


“This is an important message from the Schleswig-Holstein Police Department. The missing juvenile referenced in the previous message has been located safely. Thank you for your assistance.”

That was a first. Maybe W—- wandered off without telling anyone. It was a relatively warm morning.

Something I happened across in my online wanderings, an incident in New Jersey: “A 16-year-old from Willingboro was arrested by West Windsor Police on Dec. 4 after attempting to steal a car. The theft was thwarted because the car had a stick shift, and the would-be thief only knew how to drive cars with an automatic transmission.”

You’d think the JD — there’s a term to bring back — would have backed away when he saw that the car had a stick, and before police got involved. Then again, JDs aren’t known for their brains.

This falls under the My, How Things Have Change File: Recently I got an email from a grocery store that has my address. The subject line said: ORDER YOUR SUPER BOWL SUSHI PLATTER FOR $29.99.

I’m not holding a Super Bowl party, or going to one, or watching the damn thing at all, but somehow I don’t associate it with sushi. Just me being old. I vaguely remember, about 30 years ago, Mike Royko (maybe) mocking in print the fact that sushi was being sold at some baseball game, probably in California. That seemed strange, I suppose.

Since then, though still associated with Japan, sushi has been fully assimilated into American eating habits. Probably not too many people younger than me would give sushi at a Super Bowl party a second thought.

Frida, No. Leon, Si.

“This is for the birds,” I said.

There was context for it, but first the setting: we were on the sidewalk on Calle Londres in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City early in the afternoon of December 29, just outside the Museo Frida Kahlo.

Curiously, besides a street named after London in the area, there were also calles Bruselas, Madrid, Viena, Berlin, and Paris: European capitals. Unlike the part of the Zona Rosa where our hotel was, which had streets named after European cities, capitals and non-capitals: Londres and Berlin (again), but also Roma, Liverpool, Marsella, Hamburgo, Napoles, Oslo.

Coyoacan is a pleasant walking neighborhood, sporting mature trees, sidewalks in reasonably good shape — with not as much pedestrian traffic as in other parts of town we frequented — and large, colorful houses. After a while you do notice that some of the larger houses are essentially walled compounds with iron-bar accents and hard-to-see entrances. Ah well, así es la vida in the big city, if you’re well-to-do.

The most famous compound is the Casa Azul at Londres 247, and blue it is. A deep blue. Like a lot of people, we wanted to visit Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s house. A whole lot of other people, as it turned out. After we got there, we waited a few minutes in one line, only to discover that was the line for people who already had tickets. So we then joined the equally long line to buy tickets.

We’d been advised to buy tickets ahead of time. We ignored that advice. After a few minutes standing in the non-moving ticket-buying line, and with the knowledge that we’d have to stand in another such line eventually, I said waiting was for the birds. Everyone else agreed. No go on Museo Frida Kahlo.

I’m sure the Casa Azul is an excellent museum, but I suspect the real reason for the overcrowding is the movie Frida, which came out in 2002. Her artistic reputation had already been rising, such that Diego Rivera is now her husband, rather than Frida Kahlo being his wife, but I believe the movie kicked it into high gear, the way Nashville has overcrowded the Bluebird Cafe.

Luckily, we had another nearby destination in mind anyway: the Casa de Leon Trotsky. Who could resist that? Not only were Frida and Diego part of the story, it’s got international intrigue, murderous foreign operatives, adultery, a gun battle led by another famous artist, genuine communists and communist plots, and — the crowning event, you might say, an axe murder!

Clearly, Trotsky needs the Hollywood treatment (besides this) if the museum wants to get people in the door, you know, the sort of people who never really heard of that guy Trotsky until they saw that movie about him. Then again, crowds would have drained the fun out of the experience. The Trotsky House wasn’t deserted by any means. A fair number of people were there. But we didn’t have to wait for tickets and crowds didn’t get in the way of free movement around the place, with one exception.

Casa de Leon Trotsky, I’m delighted to report, is quite red on the outside. The present-day complex includes what must have been the building next door at one time, which you enter through and which now has exhibits devoted to the Bolshevik leader. From there, visitors go to a small but very pleasant courtyard with an assortment of plants, walking paths and a few benches.

I don’t know how well tended the garden was in Trotsky’s time, though he did raise chickens and rabbits there. But I do know there was one feature Trotsky never saw himself.
Namely, Trotsky’s grave, where his and Natalia Sedova’s ashes are interred (she died in 1962). Naturally, I couldn’t resist the joke: it’s commie plot. I think I heard that one as long ago as high school, only it was about Stalin’s grave (Lenin and Mao and Ho, strictly speaking, have no graves).

Behind the grave site is the house itself and an attached guard house, for all the good it did Trotsky. The first floor of the guardhouse has a few more exhibits, including photos of Trotsky at various ages and other family members, as well as a family tree. For all of Stalin’s efforts to murder Trotsky’s offspring too, the revolutionary has quite a few living descendants, including in Mexico, the United States and Russia.

The axe wasn’t on display anywhere. That’s because it isn’t even in Mexico.

The house is fairly modest and solidly built, with thick walls and bullet holes on the outside of one of the walls, purportedly left by the unsuccessful May 1940 attempt on Trotsky’s life led by David Alfaro Siqueiros. We saw some of Siqueiros’ murals later, as one does in Mexico City. That Stalinist episode of attempted murder hasn’t seemed to have harmed his reputation as an artist.

Trotsky had reason to be security-conscious, and the compound reflects it. Besides the guardhouse, which includes a guard tower, the entire residence is surrounded by thick walls. Its doors are heavy and, at least going into Trotsky’s study, re-enforced with iron. I didn’t see any steel window shutters or barbed wire, but I read these were part of the security too. None of that stopped a determined NKVD agent with an ice axe.

The study itself is supposedly the way Trotsky left it: a large desk, a lamp, chairs, papers and books, a Dictaphone, a small bed on which to rest (see the picture here). The floor, I noticed, is painted red. It was here that moving around was a little constrained, since you can only stand in a small part of the room, like in most house museums, and visitors want to see the study most of all. I know I did.

The current setup at Trotsky’s House includes a small cafe next to the guardhouse. We had a light lunch al fresco there, cheese crepes for me, and some of the best orange juice I’ve had in a long time. All in all, a bourgeois sort of meal. I expect the waiter was paid for his efforts and presumably the museum made a modest amount, which it probably needs to keep the lights on.

The museum also features a small gift shop at the entrance, heavy on socialist books and portraits of Trotsky for sale and light on tourist gimcracks, though I bought some postcards there. I doubt that the organization is using any of its budget to foment worldwide socialist revolution.

Eastern State Penitentiary

What to do after you’ve visited a major cemetery in Philadelphia? Visit a former prison, now a museum. You could, anyway, since they aren’t that far apart, though not comfortable walking distance.

Specifically, you find yourself outside the massive walls of Eastern State Penitentiary, built in the late 1820s as one of the first modern prisons in the United States, and the first of its kind. In its early days, the prison enforced solitary confinement all the time for all the prisoners.
Eastern State PenetentiaryEastern State PenetentiaryThe museum’s web site tells the tale of its development very well: “In 1787, a group of well-known and powerful Philadelphians convened in the home of Benjamin Franklin. The members of The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons expressed growing concern with the conditions in American and European prisons… It took the Society more than thirty years to convince the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to build the kind of prison it suggested: a revolutionary new building on farmland outside Philadelphia.

“Eastern State Penitentiary broke sharply with the prisons of its day, abandoning corporal punishment and ill treatment. This massive new structure, opened in 1829, became one of the most expensive American buildings of its day and soon the most famous prison in the world. The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, with labor…. proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.”

Eventually — though it took a long time to abandon the system, as usual with institutional change — the practice of all solitary was abandoned when it became clear that solitary confinement all the time drove a lot of prisoners nuts. Guess that counts as an example of good intentions paving the road to Hell.

Eastern State’s massive walls form a square, the idea of which was to look as scary as possible from the outside, to deter criminal urges among those still outside (I doubt that that worked, either). Inside, the British-born architect John Haviland’s design included “seven cellblocks [that] radiate from a central surveillance rotunda,” explains the museum web site.

In our time, a number of the cellblocks have been partly restored to an earlier look.
Eastern State Penetentiary interior cellblockNot quite the original look, since at first the hallways’ only connection to the cells were through slots through which food was passed. “Haviland’s ambitious mechanical innovations placed each prisoner had his or her own private cell, centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet, and a skylight. Adjacent to the cell was a private outdoor exercise yard contained by a ten-foot wall,” the prison says.

That wall had the only door, which of course was locked all the time. “In the vaulted, skylit cell, the prisoner had only the light from heaven, the word of God (the Bible) and honest work (shoemaking, weaving, and the like) to lead to penitence,” continues the web site. “In striking contrast to the Gothic exterior, Haviland used the grand architectural vocabulary of churches on the interior. He employed 30-foot, barrel vaulted hallways, tall arched windows, and skylights throughout. He wrote of the Penitentiary as a forced monastery, a machine for reform. ”

Later, Eastern State became more of a standard 20th-century prison, closer to the New York system, rather than the Pennsylvania system pioneered at Eastern State, finally closing in 1970. Hallway doors were added.

Eastern State Penetentiary

New cellblocks were also added, including a few two-story ones.

Eastern State Penitential

Some cells are open. Many of the cells are unrestored, containing debris of various kinds.
Eastern State Penetentiary

A few are more-or-less restored. The urge to take selfies doesn’t seem to go away just because the setting is a prison ruin.

Eastern State PenetentiaryNote that the fellow in the picture is wearing earphones. Part of the price of admission — not an extra — was the loan of an mp3 player and some earphones. Wearing them, you went to various stations and listened to narration about the prison by actor Steve Buscemi. He had a good voice for the text, which was well-written and informative. Adding an extra layer of interest: some of the segments also included interviews (perhaps done some years ago) of both inmates and guards at the prison in the 20th century.

The museum featured a number of other restorations, such as a barber shop, the exercise yard, hospital, and (surprisingly) a synagogue. The museum couldn’t resist re-creating Al Capone’s cell, and I couldn’t resist taking a picture of it.
Eastern State Penetentiary - Al Capone's cellThere are about a dozen artists’ installations in the museum, most of which occupy single cells in various parts of the prison. I found this one, “Other Absences,” the most compelling.
Eastern State PenitentiaryArtist Cindy Stockton Moore’s web site says she created “fifty portraits of murder victims. The paintings, created with loose ink washes on translucent mylar, depict men, women and children whose deaths were attributed to those incarcerated at Eastern State Penitentiary.” That’s good. The prisoners shouldn’t get all of the attention.

The National Civil Rights Museum

The plan was to spend a few hours in Memphis on June 25 on the way to Little Rock, where we’d overnight. The question then became, was Graceland worth visiting? The least expensive adult ticket, just for getting into the house and grounds to look around, is $42.50. For $80, you can also see a whole lot of stuff that isn’t the house and grounds, such as Elvis airplanes and cars and whatnot (“Experience Graceland like you are a VIP plus see Elvis’ custom jets!”)

Two strikes. I understand how it works. The prices are whatever the market bears. I don’t care, I still think they’re insane. Maybe temporary insanity, fading as the generation that originally adored Elvis passes from the Earth. Who knows?

The third strike was Graceland’s distance south of I-40, the road from Nashville to Little Rock. Elvis very nearly lived in Mississippi.

So I turned my attention to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is practically in downtown Memphis, not far at all from the highway. Adult admission, $15. After lunch that day, we repaired to the museum, which is behind the facade of the former Lorraine Motel, site of MLK’s assassination. Under Jim Crow, the Lorraine was a place where black people could stay.

The motel sign is still in place, though the marque message isn’t original. Wonder what it said in 1968.

National Civil Rights Museum, MemphispA wreath hangs at the site of Dr. King’s death. I’ve seen photos of the place for years, so it was quite a thing to see it in person.

National Civil Rights Museum, MemphisThe plaque says:
Jan 15, 1929 – Apr 4, 1968
Founding President
Southern Christian Leadership Conference
“They said one to another
Behold here, cometh the dreamer.
Let us slay him
And we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
Genesis 37:19-20
Ralph David Abernathy, President

The museum, which opened in 1991, isn’t strictly devoted to MLK, however. It’s considerably broader than that, with the two-story building behind the Lorraine facade focusing on the years of the civil rights struggle between 1954 to 1968, though there are exhibits that the set the stage, so to speak — about slavery and then Jim Crow — and exhibits covering more recent years. The exhibits are organized chronologically through those years.

Like any good history museum, the displays are a mix of images, reading materials, interactive features, and artifacts, some quite large. As the NYT described it in 2003 (before a 2014 renovation, which apparently added more interactive features): “Rather than simply displaying photos and documents about the Montgomery bus boycott, for example, there is an actual bus like those that were used in Montgomery in the 1950s. Visitors may climb aboard, and after they sit down, a recorded voice begins by asking them politely to move to the back and then, if they refuse, rises to angry commands.”

Here’s the bus.

National Civil Rights Museum Montgomerty Bus BoycottInside is a statue of Rosa Parks.
National Civil Rights Museum Montgomerty Bus Boycott - Rosa ParksI was glad to see that the museum explained Parks’ action was carefully planned to achieve certain goals, with Parks fully part of that plan, and not some spontaneous act by a tired woman, which is the impression you sometimes get hearing about the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

“Nearby is a reconstruction of a lunch counter like the ones where protesters sat as they tried to break the color barrier that was an almost unquestioned part of Southern life until 50 years ago,” the NYT continues. “Life-size figures sit at the counter, and a video shows how the protesters prepared for the ordeal of insults, condiments poured on their heads and other humiliations.”
National Civil Rights Museum - lunch counter sit inPlenty of other ground is covered, including the March on Washington — Dr. King’s entire speech is played, not just the usual highlights — Freedom Summer, Freedom Rides, Birmingham, Selma, Albany, Ga., the murders in Philadelphia, Miss., the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and more. I grew up hearing about the tail end of this period, and learning about it later, but even so, some of the detail was new to me. I expect most of it was new to Ann.

Here’s another bus, a replica of a torched Freedom Riders bus.

National Civil Rights Museum - Freedom RidersEventually you reach reach the two preserved motel rooms (306 and 307), the one MLK stayed in and the one next to it, that are designed to look like they did the day he died. Visitors are able to peer into them but not go in.

Across Mulberry St. are the Young & Morrow Building and the Main Street Boarding House, now forming an annex to the museum. The annex is more closely focused on the assassination of Dr. King, and includes a reconstruction of the room from which James Earl Ray squeezed off the fatal shot, including artifacts — evidence — of the crime. It reminded me of the Sixth Floor in that way. And while there’s a also display called “Lingering Questions,” I don’t doubt that Ray, like Oswald before him, was guilty as hell, as my Uncle Ken would have put it.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jacqueline Smith. For some years after MLK’s death, the Lorraine operated as an SRO, and she was a resident — the last one kicked out to make way for the museum. Since then, she’s parked herself across the street in protest (though perhaps she finds substitutes sometimes).

National Civil Rights Museum, Jacqueline SmithSomeone was there, barely visible under an umbrella and behind the signs. Twenty-eight years and 150 days of protest as of June 25, according to one of the signs. Whatever else you can say about her, she’s stuck to her cause.

White Rock Lake, Dallas

The State Fair of Texas was interesting, but before long you get tired of crowds. Such as in the main indoor food court of the fair.

State Fair place to feed your faceOn October 19, a very warm afternoon, I sought out someplace a little less crowded: White Rock Lake.

White Rock LakeLess crowded with humans, that is. There were plenty of birds and some insects, too. The manmade White Rock Lake in northeastern Dallas, created by damming White Rock Creek in the early 1910s to supply water to the city, covers 1,015 acres. These days it’s for recreation. All around the lake is a city park, White Rock Lake Park, which includes a nine-plus mile track around the water, boating ramps, a dog park, picnic areas, and the Bath House Cultural Center.

Bath House Cultural CenterThis is the back of the Bath House, facing the lake. As the name implies, it used to be a bath house that served a beach on White Rock Lake, but swimming has been prohibited on the lake for decades. The building, originally built in 1930, was renovated in 1980 and now offers exhibits by artists and holds various concerts, workshops, lectures and other events. Since I visited on a Monday, it was closed.

White Rock Lake has a long and varied history. For instance, I’ve heard that the lake, and the White Rock Lake Pumphouse, were featured in the low-budget Mars Needs Women (1967), which was shot in Dallas. I’m not sure I’ll ever be in the right frame of mind to watch that movie, but who knows.

I’ve seen the pumphouse before, but I wasn’t close by this time. Mainly I walked on the walking-jogging-cycling path near the edge of the water.

White Rock LakeOn October 12, somewhere along the path around White Rock Lake, a jogger named Dave Stevens was murdered, apparently at random, by a lunatic armed with a machete. Seems that the perpetrator was known to be mentally ill, but not violent. While walking on the same path a week later, you try to puzzle that one out, but of course it can’t be puzzled out. Death just shows up. The crime had a sad coda a few days ago: the victim’s wife seems to have committed suicide.

White Rock LakeTo avoid ending with a sad story, I turn to Sol Dreyfuss Memorial Point, a small rise near the lake. At the foot of the rise is a short wall, and on the wall is a plaque. That was my cue to stop and read it, take a picture, and later find out about it.

Sol DreyfussAccording to the Texas State Historical Association: “Sol Dreyfuss, merchant, was born on August 12, 1885, in Dallas, the son of Gerard and Julia (Hurst) Dreyfuss. His father, a native of France, owned several chains of stores before Sol’s birth, including one with his wife’s father founded in 1879 and called Hurst and Dreyfuss… On August 11, 1910, the doors opened to the first Dreyfuss and Son clothing store, a one-story building on Main Street. By 1950, at the time of Dreyfuss’s death, the store was a six-story building at Main and Ervay streets.”

Besides being a merchant, “Dreyfuss owned the Dallas Baseball Club from 1928 to 1938, when the team was known as the Steers. He was a director of Hope Cottage. He was active in the Community Chest and Red Cross and was a member of the Salesmanship Club, the Citizens Charter Association, the Lakewood Country Club, the Columbian Club, and B’nai B’rith. He was also on the board of directors of both the Republic National Bank and the Pollock Paper Company.” No wonder he had a lot of friends.

The UT Tower

Damned if it isn’t January out there now, but at least it’s expected to return to a more normal November – a little above freezing – by the end of the week.

My recent visit to Texas started out warm, but cooled down with most of the rest of the country. It was still warm when we went to the UT Tower on November 8. Good thing, since the outdoor vista is the thing to do. In full, it’s the University of Texas Tower, a part of the school’s Main Building, built in 1937 and towering 307 feet over campus. One Charles Whitman used his marksman skills to murder people at random from atop the observation deck in 1966, so nearly 50 years later visitors need to go through a metal detector manned by a cop to get in. But at least you can get in. For a good long time, the tower was closed.

Officially, you take a “tour” of the observation deck, and there’s some commentary by guides – in our case, three perky UT students – but mostly you have access to the view in all directions. Because of a sad history of suicides, you have to look through bars.

UT Tower Nov 8, 2014South: Downtown Austin, including the Capitol of Texas. At the time the tower was built, it couldn’t be taller than the capitol, which is 308 feet. Now structures can be taller, but not positioned in way to block the view of the capitol from 30 specific locations (one of which must certainly be the UT Tower).

Austin, Nov 8, 2014East: UT Stadium. Officially, Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium, with a seating capacity of 100,119, making it the 13th largest stadium in the world, according to Wiki. Note that it wasn’t at capacity that day. UT was playing West Virginia, and they weren’t expected to win. But they did.

UT Stadium during UT-WVa game Nov 8, 2014From our vantage, we heard the crowd roar from time to time.

“That sounds like a first down,” Tom said about one roar. “What does it say about me, that I know that?”

“That you’ve been to too many UT games?” I suggested.

Northwest. The large house is Littlefield House.

Littlefield House, Nov 8, 2014West: The Drag and the Balcones Escarpment.

Austin, Nov 8, 2014 Guadalupe St., better known as the Drag, is in the mid-ground. Spent a fair amount of time there in ’81. The sign of the University Co-op, a major UT retailer, is just visible (CO-OP). Off in the background rises the Balcones Escarpment, a geological feature I’ve heard about for a long time, but never had seen so clearly displayed.