I do go on

Reading Time: 2 minutes

In my last post to this blog, the one from November 16, in which I was actually responding to an editorial (or so it called itself) in a new local free newspaper here in Cambridge, I went on forever, well at least to the length of 3500 words. The editorial itself was much shorter, barely 550 words. It hardly warranted so much of my attention—not because I am any more important than anyone else, except to me of course. Rather, the editorial was written, or at least it read, like it was wrung out by a freshman science major, with a penchant for stating the obvious as if it were an argument.

But my problem was not even with that—why get started? My problem is that the simple observation that the MBTA should have planned a green line route to carry the as yet non-existent residents of North Point to Harvard Square (and simply because without such a green line, they will make a bee line to the boutiques of Back Bay, while whining about how hard it is to get to Harvard Square) was a single point, an asymptote, on a larger sphere of problems.

Addressing the single point would be as effectual in coping with that world of problems, as relieving a hungry village in Nepal with a single bag of rice.

So, what is my defect? Being set off by a single point to attempt to address a galaxy of of points. And I always seem to try to address the entire sphere at once.

As George Bernard Shaw observed, "The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and about all time." In short, there’s a universality to things, to all things, and any one thing, if one only seeks it.

I write at length because there are so many things that make up the universe that we experience, each in his or her own way, in the shorthand we call "life."

The world says, get to the point, or can’t you be brief? Marc Levy, the editor of Cambridge Day, responded to me by email, when I sent him a link to my blog entry, by saying, "I’m not sure how many people read your blog; if you wanted to share your thoughts with others, you could shorten it and have it run as a letter on the commentary page."

Don’t bother with War and Peace, man… Cliff Notes!

Even if no one reads, I will write. The few who get it will, eventually, read it. Those who don’t, like Mr. Levy, will make newspapers to boost the local economy. That will get people to Harvard Square for sure…

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
rssrssby feather

It Takes an Idiot to Make a Village

Reading Time: 13 minutes

The history of Cambridge, Massachusetts, nowadays still smirkingly referred to as "the People’s Republic" (though the reason for the smirk is a function of the politics of the smirker), dates to the beginnings of the Massachusetts Bay colony (it was established in 1630 as a village with the name of Newtowne; for perspective, let me just say that Plymouth Rock was a discovery in 1620, and Boston shares 1630 as the year of its establishment). So promising was Newtowne, for any number of strategic geographic and political reasons, it was long considered as the likely site of the chief city, or capital, of the newly founded colony—especially once it had gotten its feet on the ground. That is, once it was clear that no external threat, or internal scourge, such as disease or dissension, would annihilate the stalwart inhabitants.

A fellow named John Harvard helped establish what I will whimsically call a bible college (preparatory to the training of ministers of the faith, who would be needed in greater numbers as the population of the colony swelled). He died young, alas, but left a bequest of profound worth to the fledgling school—his personal library. Books being worth, possibly as much as, if not more than, their weight in gold, this was an estimable legacy. Apparently, considered in concert with the character, if not the piety, of the newly deceased benefactor and his generous gift, it was decided to name the college after him. Further, as if this signal honor were not sufficient (the full significance of which may not have been realized until several hundred years hence—after all Harvard did not become Harvard with the the mere signal honor of the name bestowal—"Tobias, we must rename the college Harvard. Instant prestige, my good sir! The endowment coffers will swell. At the moment we have but books, and three Holstein cows. And when Yale College is founded 65 years hence, we will be well ahead of them in applicants…."), the gratitude of the city fathers extended so far as to conclude that the only full measure of their gratitude could be taken in the re-naming of Newtowne as Cambridge. Cambridge was, of course, the seat and eponymous namesake of the very much older, and already famous, University of which the young John Harvard was so proudly an alumnus.

Not that the two facts were associated (at least I don’t think so), but it was at about the time of the renaming of the community, or town, or village (which is all it truly was at the time—Harvard Yard famously being the cow pasture formerly grazed by the kine of any townsman who cared to lead them to it) that any idea of making it the capital of the colony went out the window (the year Cambridge was renamed was 1638; Harvard College was officially founded two years earlier). Boston went on to glory in this role of primacy among incorporated towns within the Commonwealth. Cambridge was left to seek its own glory in its own inimitable way.

The only other salient fact to bear in mind is that Cambridge remained a village for quite some time. It was in 1846 the town incorporated itself as a city, though it was in signal recognition of its having exceeded being the mere home of a very old college. Harvard was, and the laws of physics being what they are still is, the oldest in the nation. In 1846, however, Harvard made only a plodding and obstinate claim to academic merit, based on its sheer venerability, if nothing else. And many academic historians say there wasn’t very much else to speak for the claim of any distinction, but the vocal and loyal and already very rich members of the rolls of alumni.

Cambridge had become as well a center of commerce and light industry, including tannning and candy manufacture among its main occupations. A village no longer, Cambridge has struggled with its role as a city, and whatever that may mean. In the present day this seems to remain as obscure a fact (seem like simple questions: "what is a city? are we a city?") to the current residents, but especially those most and best endowed with educational attainment, social standing, and financial success. It is as if none of them have ever heard of Ms. Jane Jacobs and her seminal theory—generally, though not universally, accepted as definitive—about what makes a city and, concomitantly, what unmakes it: The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Cambridge, incidentally, originally incorporated as a city as the result of the merger of three smaller villages: Old Cambridge (which centered around what is now called Harvard Square), East Cambridge (then and now the nearest point in Cambridge to the center of Boston being separated by an inlet to the Charles River) and Cambridgeport (which, to the extent it constituted a port, was a port on the Charles River). The three original villages have quite distinct personalities, if not a sense of unique community within each, even today, and even as the city has grown to include several other distinct quarters of readily differentiated traits. But that’s the point of this opinion piece about this small city.

I am biased, as Cambridge is, and has been for 20 years, my home town, but I think, small as it is, it is not a village, but a great American city. I’m not so sure it was great then (150 years or so ago). In fact, it seemed to have exhibited some of the same dubious conduct on the part of the citizenry that remains intractable, if not ineradicable. The official history of the City on the City Web site suggests the three villages that merged as a city had, to that point, engaged in a kind of rivalry. Unfortunately it is not clear of what sort the rivalry might be classified. Given the vagaries of human behavior and the persistence of idiocy as a human trait I am content to suppose that it must have been akin to the benign rivalries that exist today.The ones that become news every Thanksgiving when this "traditional" rivalry or that pits the football team of one town’s high school against that of another. Of such are cherished human memories made.

There’s a new newspaper in this city, my hometown, Cambridge MA. It’s called Cambridge Day, and it seems innocuous enough. It’s been out there, distributed free in the quantity of 15,000 per day each weekday at various points throughout the city. My very casual observation indicates that these are usually retail outlets or the door-stoops to same. The Editor (and apparent publisher; there is no masthead as it is commonly expected to appear in a periodical publication) is one Marc Levy, who offers his paper’s mission, in very personal terms here: About Cambridge Day.

Ads have begun to appear in Cambridge Day, in less than the three weeks or so that the paper seems to have been in circulation. It seems that Levy expects ultimately that the thing will be self-sustaining, or so I infer. Reporting and editing, I can only further infer, seem to be largely on a voluntary basis. But, as there is no shortage of opinion (ranging from the sage to the hortatory, if not bloviatory)  in town, and no shortage of folks who believe they have the makings of vigilant, highly observant investigators, and, likely, no shortage of successful graduates of the Harvard College compulsory course in Expository Writing still in residence within the city limits, and absolutely no shortage of self-appointed experts or chutzpah of other varieties, Levy should never suffer from lack of material or contributors.

There have been a number of editorials, and one of the latest (from the November 14 edition) is the text, or at least the leaping off place for this opinionated, bloviating, vigilant and observant reporter (alas, I have had to gain what few expository writing skills I may have entirely on my own, with some minor tutelage in my Advanced Placement English courses in the 11th grade).

The theme is the observation that "for Cambridge as a community, the T’s green line makes no sense whatsoever" [the green line, as opposed to the red, orange and blue, and the new silver lines, is a light rail trolley and underground system run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority throughout Boston and several of its suburbs, including Cambridge, in a quite abbreviated spur line to the Lechmere section—in fact it consists of a single stop, the terminus, within the city limits]. I believe the editorialist means that to get from any one point in Cambridge to another, the green line is inherently inefficient (the logic is irrefutable: the green line makes only one stop in Cambridge, and it’s the end of that particular route).

Why make this obvious point? Because the underlying subject of the piece concerns the imminent start of development of a very large tract of previously industrial zoned land in the northeast corner of Cambridge, and which has lain fallow since the days of the great retreat of Cambridge residents to the suburbs, which occurred, as it did all over the nation in the days immediately followig the end of World War II. These 45 acres have been designated "North Point" by the planners, and big ideas are afoot with a grand vision of creating a new "community."

I put that in inverted quotes, because reference to "community" appears several times in this editorial, and it would seem to have a slippery meaning, at least with regard to the locus of application. Variously, Cambridge is a "community" (as quoted above, one for which the green line is "no sense at all"). A sentence or two away, we see that North Point, an as yet unrealized venue, is an "entire community" (Platonic as it may be, or shall we say, a conceptual community?) that, because of the absence of a green line, will find it "easier to go to Boston or Somerville than anywhere in Cambridge."

Now, Cambridge is a seat of great learning, the home of life-changing discoveries and earth-shattering intellectual attainments. It is not the custom of Cantabrigians to preoccupy their better-than-average intellects with the obvious.

That we leave to editorial writers whose self-appointed mandate is local boosterism.

Looking at a map (not the one appended to the editorial in Cambridge Day — it’s a subway system map, distorted and out-of-scale, and the stuff of the nightmares of Edward Tufte) points one immediately to the irrefutable truth of the foregoing editorial assertion. Even with no vehicular transportation whatsoever, of any hue (green or otherwise), it’s easier to get to Boston or Somerville from North Point than to almost anywhere else in Cambridge, except what is immediately contiguous, that is, the neighborhood of East Cambridge. That’s because North Point borders on Somerville to the west and north, and is immediately proximate to the bridge that takes one out of Cambridge and into the now defunct West End of Boston (a lovely walk, may I say, but perhaps not in the winter). Indeed, it will always be easier.

Maybe we should start stating some truths here: if you are anywhere on the planet, you have to be next to something. Northpoint happens to be next to Boston and Somerville. It’s not next to Harvard Square.

The writer further asserts, having established the brutish and hostile neglectful treatment of future North Pointers at the hands of the MBTA and, by implication, those of the city planners, that there’s "not much impetus to go to Central or Harvard squares, though, when the green line [there it is again, the nasty green line, its tracks implacably and relentlessly taking all of its riders away from places they should want to go, presumably, as members of the greater Cambridge "community"] can carry you to Copley Square or Newbury Street [ed. note: this would be the same stop] as fast as you can walk to Kendall."

Obviously the writer has not sat in a green line car in the Government Center station, or in the tunnel just outside of the Boylston Street stop, interminably and always for reasons it would not deign the conductors of the vehicles to inform their passengers; that, or the author walks really really slowly.

But enough of this, as much fun as it is. The point is not one concerning the inadequate rhetorical skills of the editorial writer. Rather it is one that concerns a larger issue, not only for Cantabrigians, but for all of us faced with the issues life in America forces us to confront.

The editorial quotes Terrence Smith, Director of Government Affairs for the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce [full disclosure here: I am a member of the board of directors of the Cambridge Chamber, as I have been for 14 years; in effect, Terrence works for the President of the Chamber, and she presides at the pleasure of, well, me and the rest of the lively gang of business and institutional leaders that comprise the Board]. The theme of the obvious must have been implicit somewhere in the question that elicited this statement from Terrence:

"Historically, East Cambridge has been sort of its own neighborhood with a unique personality compared with the rest of Cambridge. Look at a map of Cambridge—it looked like different communities. If you’re going to buy or rent in East Cambridge, you’ve already figured out that East Cambridge is harder to get to than Riverside, mid-Cambridge or North Cambridge."

Let’s sort this out, as the editor has done Terrence the disservice of removing any point of reference, and perhaps, methinks, the greater disservice of some brutal editing and lifting out of context. Terrence seems to mean that East Cambridge is further away from some unnamed point of departure than other neighborhoods and distinct communities in the City. In fact, in the second to the last paragraph of the editorial, the writer makes the questionable assertion that "Harvard Square is the geographic heart of Cambridge…" and one may suppose that this is the reference point that is required to make any sense of Terrence’s statement.

I don’t want to put words in Terrence’s mouth, but the reference and informational materials themselves that the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce publishes (and produced at great trouble and expense, I might add, on a yearly basis) does just that. I’ll consult with Terrence about any possible conflict he may feel with regard to the descriptions about the appeal of Cambridge as a whole that are posted on the Chamber Web site, and in its literature.

If there is anything to be celebrated in even as small a city as Cambridge is (and this is one reason I feel it is a great city—it manages to manifest a diverse character in as small an area as 7+ square miles and with a population of barely 100,000, and to serve some of the most arcane needs that exist on the planet), it is the diversity of its population, the unique neighborhoods it embodies, and the profound differences in feeling, not to mention the experience in the quality of life, reported by so many when comparing Inman Square to East Cambridge, or Central Square to North Cambridge, not to mention the invidious comparisons of all of these to Harvard Square, the putative heart of the City.

May I just say, if Harvard Square is the heart of the City, Cambridge is doomed to some serious cardiac intensive care.

The beef in this editorial is that short shrift, if any shrift at all, has been given to the transportation needs of Cambridge—a city apparently in desperate need of better means for citizens within the city itself to get from one part of the city to another. Indeed, it is practically made the responsibiilty of the MBTA to ensure that such means are planned and developed. The implication is that the absence of such means is worse than somehow ensuring that there is enough of a lure in any one neighborhood to entice inhabitants of another neighborhood to come on by for a visit. Not to mention the possibility of attracting entrepreneurs and shop owners who have truly unique things to sell, not only to North Pointers, not only to Cantabrigians, but to the world.

Implicit in all this is a state of mind that most benignly and efficiently can be called provincial. It’s not uncommon in Cambridge, this most famous of cities on the world stage (but famous for what happens in the minds of its residents and inhabitants, not for what happens in its streets) to experience the daily manifestation of provincial thinking.

The great lesson of Jane Jacobs, if there is merely one lesson to be learned from this wise and thoughtful woman, it’s that one thing and one thing only characterizes cities. A city changes. It’s dynamic. This is how it stays alive.

Further, of course, she makes clear that our sense of cities, the sense that Americans hold as a cherished ideal (and it may, indeed, be an outmoded ideal, if not already archaic, sadly; dare I say, it might itself be provincial to think of cities in this way). It’s an idea that nevertheless still holds, in practical and day-to-day terms and mainly for perfectly ordinary people who must live in cities.

I’ve never heard anyone argue convincingly otherwise than that a city neighborhood—perhaps one of many neighborhoods, if not hundreds, depending on the scope of the city—is a living thing, and its chief constituent is people, people who are there for many purposes: living, yes, but working as well, and providing services to those doing the living and the working, and finally those transporting people and goods into and out of the neighborhood. People constantly entering and leaving it; people seldom leaving it because it is their home.

Now, I ask you (and the writer of this idiotic scolding of the MBTA), should people want to go to Harvard Square because the green line has conveniently placed a stop there, as well as on the corner nearest your condo in North Point? Or should they want to go because there are stores like Clothware and Setebello and Harnett’s and Burdick’s, and the Brattle theater, and the restaurants Casablanca and Algiers—and because places like that just don’t exist anywhere else?

Is it unfair to have city planners consider that there might be other modes of transportation, less disruptive of street traffic and the building of which would be less disruptive of residential and commercial life for the years it would take to build it than a light rail line (which, let’s face it, is designed for commuters, and other travelers who must traverse great distances in cities of far greater breadth than Cambridge—here’s a point of reference: New York City is 800 square miles; Boston, not a very large city itself, is nevertheless over 48 square miles within the city limits)? Is it fair to think that Cantabrigians, indeed, above all because they are Cantabrigians, cannot consider walking from one neighborhood to another? Or riding a bicycle? Or renting a Zip Car for two hours (less than the cost of a cab ride from one end of Cambridge to the other, never mind into Boston, never mind onto Newbury Street at mid-day).

There are repeated testimonials, not to mention exhortations, in Cambridge Day as to the virtues of shopping locally, "Shop Local First." I’m all for it, but I may be missing something if I fail to see the connection between the absence of a green line strategy for joining North Point with Harvard Square, and shopping locally "first." If there is a failure of the local citizenry to shop locally, it just might be either because the local shops aren’t worth the patronage, or because local shops would rather blame the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which services 175 cities and towns covering over one thousand square miles, and over two million people, than assume responsibility for more effective marketing, offering more interesting, better differentiated products and services, and inviting folks from every neighborhood into their own.

The absence of green line access across Cambridge neighborhoods may not be an incentive to greater communal solidarity (it wouldn’t be in any event if there was nothing in any other neighborhood to go and get), but it is certainly no impediment.

The lament seems instead to be that this big change, called North Point, is coming. Something new will appear among us, and it will be called North Point. What I wonder is, what will there be in North Point that I might want to go there to get? But there is no mention made of that. Rather, there seems to be an undercurrent of fear. There will be a new "other" at the outskirts of our village, and they may shun us.

Well, we are no village, and if we are shunned, it may be because we should be.

Cambridge is a city and it must change if it is to remain vital. Just as the Necco building is now Novartis world headquarters for their chief research facilty, and just as the continuing development of University Park continues to exert changes on the rhythm and make-up of the neighborhoods surrounding it.

We’re good at pushing back here in Cambridge, and that’s a good thing, even if the energy comes from some provincial impulse to keep the intruder out, or at least keep the intruder from changing my daily routine.

At worst, we will not even notice that some time in the not too distant future (and here’s hoping I live that long) there is an enclave of thousands of people in a place someone arbitrarily (and unimaginatively if you ask me—the name is stupefyingly dull) called North Point that never gets a foot closer to where I hang—Harvard Square, Porter Square, Inman Square, and East Cambridge.

If they’re spending all their time on Newbury Street, it just means it won’t get harder to get a seat at the bar at Casablanca for a glass of Booker’s small batch bourbon, neat, with a soda on the side. And if I’m feeling hungry, maybe a plate of Ana’s Short Rib. That’s a combination I know I won’t find anywhere else: on either the green, red, blue, orange, or silver line.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
rssrssby feather

Let Us Now Praise Famous Appliances

Reading Time: 8 minutes

2005 has been a year to replace some commonplace, but indispensable, household items.
Until now I have been blessed in two ways with regard to consumer behavior, my own that is.

First off, I was somehow imbued with a high regard for quality of workmanship. Aspects of this point of view derive no doubt from my father. He was, if nothing else, an admirer of fine things. An admirer mainly, as he was not naturally disposed to easy acquisition of such things—translation: he was a Russian immigrant, a Jew to boot, and he wasn’t rich. Nor was anyone else in the family, at least not once they stepped off the boat at Ellis Island in 1923, fresh from a sea cruise from the port of Buenos Aires.

This sterling object, actually it’s chrome, was acquired new by my father sometime in the mid-50s at a medical convention. He was sales manager of an over-the-counter pharmaceutical products company and often on the road, helping man the company booth while pitching the virtues of the company’s products and doling out samples in tiny tubes with crimped ends and screw-on tops—these being the days before, I have only one word to say to you, "plastics." Then, as now, members of the medical profession had acquisitive instincts, high incomes (to indulge those instincts) and, among the males, a taste for gadgetry. In the grand tradition of Great American Salesmanship, many companies, at some several removes from the strict salutary precincts of the ward and the laboratory, nevertheless availed themselves of exhibition space at the going rate, and hawked their wares as well. It is true that the products of the Waring company, makers of very fine, very sturdy, high powered blenders and mixing machines could be found in the laboratories of hospitals and schools of medicine, if not, as well, in the compounding chambers of the local apothecary—being ideal to pulverize, puree, and blend whatever nostrum, or biological sample, as the case may be. The ne plus ultra of their machines was the specimen you see here: same powerful motor, same dependable two-speed switch, same sturdy glass cloverleaf carafe, with integral steel cutter, but with a handsome fully chromed base, for all the luxury of which one was required to part with 50 dollars—a princely sum, even for doctors and sales managers in the mid-1950s, yet always offered (demonstrating the wisdom of Waring marketing strategy) at a substantially discounted "show" price. I remember my father bringing this home and proudly unpacking it in our kitchen, where it had pride of place.

It was mainly used for years, as I recall, on the rare occasions that my father, a licenced pharmacist, was called upon to concoct some old formula, the compounding of which younger druggists in the local apothecary had never been taught. In the fullness of time, and as the chrome pitted microscopically, and the cloverleaf (it’s trademarked by Waring, incidentally; a fact that is still touted) carafe developed a crack, I inherited the device, which I had coveted for utterly inchoate reasons (such a display of negative capability should have made plain to one and all that I was doomed to an artistic temperament). I thought once it might have had something to do with validating my incredibly short-lived ambitions to become a doctor—my father’s heart swelled, not unhealthily—and that perhaps through some misbegotten association between expensive chromed kitchen gadgets and the arcane impedimenta of the medical arts.

Miraculously, I found a replacement for the carafe, and have used this wonderful monster through the course of three marriages in 34 years, and hundreds of pureed concoctions, ranging from frozen daiquiris to the smoothies my wife craved through her cancer treatment, to the roasted parsnip and apple soup recipe I re-engineered from the dish served at Casblanca in Harvard Square. It was the preparation of the latter, which required extended periods of pulverization at the high speed setting, that convinced me, sadly, that this too was due for retirement.

The second way in which I have been blessed is with the sense that if it hasn’t worn out, and if it does a good job, there’s no reason to replace it. This is a rule that works better with appliances, and perhaps other less interactive furniture, at least furniture that neither plugs in to an electrical outlet, or requires the regular replacement of consumable parts and components. This gift, if such it is, brings with it an obligation: the obligation to choose one’s possessions wisely and, if they are to be put into regular service (with an emphasis of all the words that derive from or at least are cognative of "regular," like regularity, regulate, or, for those with an etymological bent: "plays by the rules—you know? regulations" and "canonical," as in, endorsed by the Pope who, as we all know, is infallible.
In short, it has been my penchant when I can afford to do so, to buy something that will work well, last a long time, do its job, and serve useful life.

This is the least we should, and the most we can, expect of our appliances, we of this nation of appliances. Plug it in, turn it on, use it, shut it off. No more instruction than that.

Hence, a 50 year-old blender is on the verge of biting the dust. it’s still sold, as the heritage model, or some such, but the base is different, if still chromed, and it has lost its art-deco-in-its-death-throes stylistic charm—also the cloverleaf carafe, in a capitulation to more recent versions of convenience and the appearance of greater control, now sports a molded handle; thereby obviating—obliterating actually—the unassailable utilitarian elegance of the cloverlead design in the first place: four different handles built-in so it can be grabbed from any angle, and the gentle curve was designed to fit the hand, while at the same time affording a grip on the carafe itself, rather than an appended graceless loop of thin, and therefore delicate, glass.

The trick now is, as well as finding a worthy substitute, somehow to keep in mind by other means the thoughts and recollections, the memories and reminiscent emotional states, as opposed to direct recall of specific incidents, elicited every time I hauled this ungainly object from the small appliance cupboard—thoughts of my father and his partricular apothecary’s preciseness and fastidiousness (I have forced myself to follow my own prescriptions, my recipes, barely ever measuring a thing), and the ceremonial way he seemed to approach the use of any such device, as if it contained powers conferred by the gods and, through whose agency, which he was privileged to harness. My father was born in 1905 in rural Russia and electricity may have been an iffy proposition, if it was any proposition whatsoever, during his childhood.

I get my taste for fine things (not just caviar and champagne, but fine workmanship on products that last, and which are beautiful to look at when not in use, or even when in use, though watching the blender in action was a rare indulgence) from my father. But I am left to wonder, where did he learn it? My uncle, his younger brother, had it also, which suggests a genetic root. I suspect though it was a recessive trait.

Whatever the source, it has served me well, certainly at least until this banner year, when we have replaced, in succession: a toaster: the first of the single slot models, and hence very modern, and also very 70s, with its pristine white plastic housing adorned only by a highly graphic stylized logotype, typographic at that, in a brilliant carmine red. It made great toast for 30 years, took fat slices and thin, and was easy to clean. That one-slot design meant a small footprint on the dengerously small countertop spaces in my last three kitchens. It finally stopped toasting. We’ve replaced it with a Braun single slot toaster, no longer modernistic, but with a slight frisson of post-modern Buck Rogerish swoopiness, all in matte stainless steel, but with glowing multi-colored lights, slab shaped that signal the most basic of status conditions. As few moving parts as its predecessor, and with the singular improvement of the addition of a levered lowering bar, which also allows cantilevering smaller toasted objects above the level of the yawning mouth. It’s bigger, but not by much, so there’s a net retention of counter space, and little disruption of now imprinted motor skills. 30 years though, for a toaster, that will be hard to beat.

We finally gave in and replaced our refrigerator, which was a classic generic branded ice box, with the minimal modicum of features that made it competitive. A GE, of course (it was either that or Fridgidaire it always seems), and it was already used when I bought the condo 20 years ago.

I always hear about rules concerning what you take with you and what you leave in the way of appliances (I guess there are, in fact, statutes to this effect), but if memory serves, you leave the stove, which usually has a gas pipe plumbed into it, and remove the refrigerator. Well, I needed a refrigerator, and it seemed like a dumb custom, and it was only five, well maybe six or seven, years old at the time.

By the time we gave in, it was expelling puddles from deep within itself, onto the tiled floor of our kitchen and seemingly infinitely replenished from reservoirs of water, always with some beige growth on it that collected between cleanings, that collected in pools beneath the produce bins. No adjustments of the temperature and humidity controls altered the cooling and keeping capabilities. Sometimes liquids and semi-solids froze within the refrigerator compartment, but only in the summer, and this seemed to signify sufficient cold was still possible.

It had a frost-free freezer, which remained so to the end. Taken for granted by most users I’m sure, it was always a source of wonder and pride (and gratitude) to this writer. I still have memories quite fresh of the ordeal required of Peggy, our "cleaning woman" in the tenement apartment we occupied, whenever the cubic foot-and-a-half sized freezer compartment frosted over, encasing the perishables in an adamantine grayish casket of ice.

My guess is the former owner bought it at Sears, on sale, for several hundred dollars. I don’t know how long he expected it to last him (he and his wife moved from here to a 3,000 square foot house in Winchester, one of one of the derivative benefits of making partner at Ropes & Gray, the white show law firm downtown).

That old GE didn’t disgrace him. It lasted him what it lasted him, let’s say six years, and it lasted us 20, including the exciting last few when we spoke often of its replacement, took several "serious" shopping trips, slammed shut a few doors, and kicked a few kick panels and dent proof stainless doors, and wondered if we would, in fact, be forced to make an emergency purpose before getting off our asses and giving in to the inevitable.
2005, the year of the inevitable.

It took six hours to empty the old refrigerator, including the time to pack perishables into insulated freezer bags and coolers, and to dispose of and clean out the containers for a variety of foods we had collected, and which filled two 33 gallon plastic trash bags. It took 20 minutes to place everything that was left in the new box. Also simple. No ice maker (this would be too much for this Bronx boy to accept as suitable to his worth, not as a bank customer, but as a humble human being). Only a single temperature control—electronic it’s true, but simple to the point of possibly being useful aboard major U.S. weaponry. No more moving parts than necessary. The doors move, open and closed, and the freezer drawers siide, on simple runners. A single light in the refirgerator compartment.

We had two veterans of the coffee wars see either retirement this, the first year of George W. Bush’s second term, retirement or, well, a premature demise.

We’ve replaced a Krups automatic drip coffee maker for the second time in this marriage alone. We’re trying a new brand, one which seems to take itself very seriously in the design and reputation of its products, called Capresso. So far, so good. It makes very good coffee, and it does it very much faster than the previous models (the latest of which died after only ten years of service—what is happening to quality?)

We trusted the Capresso brand to replace as well another estimable war horse from our stable of domestic beasts of all work. We retired a Braun burr-grind coffee grinder, originally a wedding present for one of my more youthful unions, and which ground many a pot-full of beans, morning after morning, for a total, I’m embarrassed to say, of about ten thousand mornings. Like faithful Dobbin, we let that brave little Braun (with its spare design, deservedly the winner, with the entire line of appliances it came from, from the days that Dieter Rams, one of the gods of modernist industrial design, we head of design at Braun, and they just kept turning out a succession of very very dandy small appliances, clocks, and eventually hand calculators and other gadgets that presaged the current Golden Age of gizmos for technology gluttons) go to pasture with dignity, rather than the ignominy of stopping mid-bean, never to revive, and three measures short of a pot.

A new grinder, with the same specification: simplicity, minimal moving parts, an on-off switch, and heavy-duty burr wheels, now sits, squat and rounded, but so black as to brood in moody elegance—sort of a cross between R2-D2 and Darth Vader. But Imperial centurion or rebel, it does the job. So far.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
rssrssby feather

The Riots of France: Plus ca change

Reading Time: 9 minutes

A number of friends, knowing we are Francophiles and, more importantly, knowing that we own a medieval maison de village in the south of France, wish to have our point of view on the still current and recently extended unpleasant youth uprisings in the outskirts of a number of French cities. We do have a vested interest in seeing that the French preserve the integrity of the social fabric over there. We also intend, and certainly wish, to spend extended periods of time in our little fantasy realised chez nous.

However, my point of view, at least, is informed better than the average American only because I take a greater interest and read a bit further, and listen a little harder, and pay a great deal more attention to the news in France than we in the U.S. are otherwise wont to do. There are no mysteries to what is happening in France, and there is nothing hidden about it.

The briefest observation I can give, delivered with the slight bemusement, but fundamental sang froid, with which my late uncle used to say it: “So?” In short, it’s not a surprise.

I made an allusion to the prevailing conditions in the banlieux, the status quo, in a story to be published in bertha, the magazine I am developing for introduction very soon, if not imminently. This story, a sample, is available (see below) and has been since I wrote it 16 months ago. I was being neither prescient nor insightful. I was merely informing my English speaking readers of what every Frenchman has known for years.

Let me not suggest, however, that it is discussed with any regularity. Certainly not here. But rarely in France. And I’m alluding to discussion, not the ejaculation of peremptory derisive epithets in demotic French.

Nor was I in any way an early reporter. It was hardly reporting. I merely was able to make reference to the facts as discovered by earlier investigators.

One of the best of them, and one of my favorites, is an old newspaperman (I believe, actually, he is younger than I am). That would be Mort Rosenblum, among whose many accomplishments (and a fact not mentioned in the following biographical blurb I lifted from one of his books) is that for 30 years he was among the great war correspondents for American journalism. He now writes chiefly about food-related subjects. And, amazingly, and wholly serendipitously, he lives on a Provençal olive farm he immortalized in a best-seller (also mentioned below) and which is located perhaps 20 minutes from where we elected to buy a modest little stone house.

In his book, A Goose in Toulouse, Rosenblum made of what seems to be his naturally peripatetic nature an excuse to explore France with a largely culinary eye. The excerpt I have included—to help explain what’s going on now with the riots, and the torching of cars, and the terrorization of the bourgeoisie, and the response (such as it has been) of the French government—demonstrates however that Rosenblum always has another eye open. His political eye gives us views on even the most innocuous subjects (or, shall I say, compelling, for what is more compelling, if wholly benign and innocent, than the subject of great food) so as to make them real. As he does in the case of this crisis of the French culture (a culture of great food, if it must be reduced to a singular abstraction). That culture is threatened by the some of the same forces that have formed the hideous banlieux, which, in the perverse justice of the streets, are being consumed in flames.

First, a note on Mr. Mort Rosenblum, from the endpapers of A Goose in Toulouse:

Mort Rosenblum is a special correspondent for the Associated Press, based in France, and former editor-in-chief of the International Herald Tribune. Equally at home in the worlds of international politics and haute cuisine, his acclaimed books include the James Beard Award-winning Olives. He lives in Paris and Provence. [HD note: his latest book is Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light / Amazon.com link to this newest book: Chocolate book].

[About this excerpt: Goose is the regional bird of the Southwestern corner of France in which Toulouse is located, and hence part of the foundation of the cuisine of that terroir. The cooking fat is goose fat, and the quintessential dish is the heavenly stew (requiring three days preparation and cooking if it’s done right and from scratch), called cassoulet, and among whose components are goose confit, and a sausage indigenous to Toulouse. The distinctive taste of cooking in the fat of a goose (or duck, for that matter) in some ways helps characterize the precise distinctions of Toulousean life in the broad range of experiences collectively known as la vie Francaise. Rosenblum has been talking about Southwestern food and other reasons for being there… This book was published in 2000. He was reporting on events that took place in 1998 and 1999. Bill Clinton was still President. September 11, 2001 was two years hence. The dot.com bubble was still expanding. Afghanistan was run by the Taliban, and Iraq was ruled, of course, by Saddam Hussein; as a consequence, neither of these sovereignties suffered a riot, not even a Molotov cocktail.]

Goose grease or not, I returned often to Toulouse because I like it there. The city calls itself a model for the third millennium. It might be. If anyplace now represents France and its extremes, it is Toulouse.

Polls repeatedly rank Toulouse the most liveable city in France. It is comfortably sized, rooted in its past but open to anything new. Its hypermodern hospital in stately old buildings is among the best in Europe. For any number of reasons, it is where most Frenchmen say they would like to move.

For starters, la ville rose is lively and beautiful. When sunlight sets fire to the salmon-hued bricks, it is even stunning. People gather on the grass by the arched Pont Neuf, as in Paris much older than its name suggests. The Place du Capitole, a tile-and-cobblestone esplanade, throbs with music, markets, and meandering in any weather. Cafes and cabarets jam solid with university students.

The tourism office is a tower keep by leaf~shaded fountains and elegant shops off the adjacent Place Wilson. Inside, friendly people can tell you that Toulouse has 150 parks and plazas, 4,000 public benches, 160,000 trees, and 400,000 flowers.

The old center radiates from red-bricked quais on the Garonne, built in the eighteenth century by trade-minded city fathers who meant to show the world some grandeur. From the port, the Canal du Midi begins its long meander across the
bottom of France toward Montpellier and the Rhône. Back from the river, the Rue de la Dalbade is lined with gorgeous old homes built by the local nobility between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.

Toulouse is also technology heaven. Ariane rockets are made there. The supersonic Concorde was born in Toulouse, still ahead of its time a half century later. It is Europe’s Seattle, headquarters of a French-dominated Airbus consortium that builds wide-bodied planes that compete with Boeing.

Aerospatiale in Toulouse builds those heat-seeking Exocet missiles so beloved by military dictators. During the Falklands War, assembly line workers cheered with pride when Argentines used their handiwork to smoke a British warship. But in a French spirit of fair play, diplomats passed secret aim-spoiling codes on to London so that did not happen too often.
Industrial suburbs stretch away from Blagnac airfield and Aerospatiale’s soo-yard-long main hangar. The city’s four universities, four engineering schools, sixteen institutes, and thirty-four other schools of advanced studies are sprinkled just about everywhere.

Clearly, town planners put in some thought. You can even follow the road markings and find a place to park in the
medieval part of town. For the rest, urban architects designed outskirts that were to live on in greater glory, pilot planning
for the third millennium.

Le Mirail, for instance, an expanse of high-rise apartments and suburban businesses around a university campus, was supposed to house a dynamic, youthful, and convivial mix of young workaday families. As it turned out, Le Mirail offered France a chilling example of what happens in a well-fed society when too many people find no place at the table.

Le Mirail evolved into what other sizeable towns call la banlieu. The word means suburbs, but the connotation is neither Grosse Pointe nor Scarsdale. It is now code for the more specific term, "quartier sensible." That means, essentially: a ghetto populated by immigrants, darker-hued French citizens, and white working-class French families who are not able to move elsewhere. They are no-man’s-land expanses around Paris and Lyon. But Toulouse?

So I was surprised late in 1998, after a visit to France’s lovely model city, to see a headline reading, "Day of Riots in Toulouse After Death of Habib, 17."

Nothing was really clear about the spark that set things off. From most accounts, a police patrol had come upon some kids breaking into a car at 3:30 A.M. on a Sunday. Officers fired but did not chase the fleeing kids. At dawn, someone walking his dog found Habib Ould dead with a 7.65 caliber police bullet in him. He had run a hundred yards from the scene and collapsed. By noon, when the news circulated, crowds gathered in the tough La Reynerie section from all over Le Mirail.

By nightfall, cars were aflame. Rocks rained down on the besieged police. Outnumbered, faced with something new, the riot troops fired plumes of tear gas. Molotov cocktails flew back in riposte. At least six officers were injured in the first clash, and sporadic pitched battles went on for most of a week. Meanwhile, thousands marched through Toulouse holding aloft photos of a smiling Habib and banners in French and Arabic that read, "They murdered Pipo."

The story had the familiar buzz words evoking an underlying malaise that was troubling all of France: "integration" and "assimilation." What they meant was that after centuries of absorbing new immigrant groups, Frenchmen of the old sort saw themselves faced with a people who prefer a different sort of Sunday lunch, which they would rather eat on Friday.

For years, occasional flare-ups drew attention to the "sensitive neighborhoods," usually around Paris or Lyon. The film La Haine, "Hate," traced the patterns of frustrated, youthful exuberance to final gunplay. But the Toulouse spark ignited hot spots smouldering all across France. Habib was shot in mid-December. Over the Christmas holidays, shops and cars burned in Lyon, Saint~Etienne, Lille, Paris, Longwy. Tranquil Strasbourg saw the worst. In a single weekend, twenty cars were torched and city buses were stoned.

Vehicule flambé
was a favorite dish. In Grenoble, for instance, kids stopped a bus and flung a firebomb under the seats. The driver crashed into a tree and escaped, with his passengers, before the bus exploded.

Across France as a whole, no one kept careful count.

In less likely places than Toulouse, frustrated ghetto youngsters tried their hand at the violence they watched nightly on television. Arles caught the fever, among other tranquil southern cities. And often the police, overwhelmed or fearful of criticism if they overreacted, simply stood back and watched.

By the time 1999 got started, French society had a new classification: les sauvageons were disaffected youths capable of violence just for the hell of it. Magazines scoured their Rolodexes for sociologists, who came up with conflicting analyses and forecasts. Clearly, this was something to watch between meals.

In a thorough post-mortem, Le Monde wrote, "Riots in parts of Le Mirail were no worse than elsewhere, but because they happened in the ‘the city where Frenchmen most prefer to live,’ according to all the polls, they showed the depth of the social crisis in France."

Sociologists had explanations. Sophie Body-Gendrot, a friend who loves dark chocolate, drafted a study for the prime minister’s office. In short, she said, an excluded class of kids do not feel connected to the same institutions and values of those around them. Repression, the usual answer, only makes it worse. And neither tolerance nor understanding can be enforced. Certainly not at any individual level.

"It is easy to single out suburban kids, or National Front voters, but it’s much more widespread than that," Sophie had explained in Paris. "Whole segments of society are rejecting authority, not paying rent, refusing the old norms of civility. It’s getting worse, and I don’t see solutions."

The predominant reaction in the government, she said, was to tighten the screws, putting out more police and imposing more severe sentences in courts. That would likely make things worse. "We need much more dialogue," she concluded, "but the French don’t know how to engage in dialogue. " When I returned to Toulouse a few months after the riots, I walked around the old center to sniff out sentiments. Near the Garonne quai, I stopped at a small news and stationery shop owned by a slim woman of a certain age, with severely angled clear-framed glasses and a fussy but not unfriendly manner. She was straight out of the manual: shopkeeper, mother, petit bourgeoise, who ruled her small domain.

Yes, she explained, the problem was down in the banlieue. Police killed an Algerian, or something. But a lot of them marched into town to demonstrate.

"That makes you afraid, you know," she said, with a little shudder. "Mind you, it’s not that I have anything against ‘les Arabes,’ but they come here and don’t fit in with our way and yet expect everything for free from us."

"Les Arabes," in this context, has nothing to do with the Middle East. It is a semi-polite term—there are much worse—for North Africans from Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco, three former French territories. Many of these "immigrants" are second or third generation descendants of French citizens who as soldiers died defending France. Others include Zinedine Zidane, the French-born son of an Algerian night watchman from Marseille, who did the most to help France win the 1998 World Cup.

The stationery store lady warmed to her theme. She was no racist, she assured me, as I paid for my papers and turned to
leave. "You just have to understand," she concluded, "ces gens-là. . ." That translated to: those people. Everyone knows roughly who is included in that collective reference, but the connotations vary slightly as you move around France. In Toulouse, it means olive-hued, Allah-fearing people who would rather eat lamb on a spit than duck or goose.

Mort Rosenblum, A Goose in Toulouse, pp.131-135
©2000 Mort Rosenblum, Hyperion Books, New York
[Amazon.com link to this book: http://tinyurl.com/bmzcq ]

This is the link to the story I wrote, “The Homeless of Provence,” which I alluded to above. It touches most obliquely on the same philosophical issues raised by the plight of the downtrodden, and their reactions against it:

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
rssrssby feather