Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Monastic reunion in memory of Arturo Gatti, R.I.P.

We have here the entrepreneur and man about town Steve Fitzpatrick Smith, taking in Gatti vs. Ward #1 almost exactly one year ago at the inaugural Monastic Retreat.

Last summer - one year and one day before last night - the behavioral health executive and patron of the arts John Eiler and I organized The Monastic Retreat along the lines of an academic conference, with breakout sessions and panels presided over by local amateur experts.

For the Bloody Maries and Boxing Panel, we invited Steve Fitz Steve, the poet K. Curtis Lyle and the boxing writer and fighter trainer Glenn McBrady to present. For his contribution, Glenn read one of his Fighting Words columns from The St. Louis American and he screened the first fight (May 2002) between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward.

The panelists and cohosts were joined by fight fan and former fire chief Sherman George. It was a memorable morning. In a Monastic Retreat that also included a Michael Lynch art opening, a guitar circle, a poetry reading and a prayer breakfast, the boxing panel stood apart as possibly the most profound of our shared experiences.

When Gatti was killed recently, apparently stranged by his girlfriend while passed out drunk in Brazil, I thought back on our boxing panel and the amazement with which we all watched this epic struggle between these two fleet, indomitable boxers. I wanted to see the fight again, and the two other Gatti/Ward battles, in memory of the fallen fighter, and in the company of my fellow monks.

Which I mentioned to Steve Fitz Steve that he screen the trilogy at his place, The Royale, the thought had already occurred to him and the plan was in the works. It came to fruition last night. Remarkably, I was able to reconvene the entire boxing panel and audience from the Monastic Retreat: Steve, who was running the place; Glenn, who brought the fights; Curtis; Sherman; John; and myself.

It was another magical night, quiet magic, everyday magic, the stuff that keeps you going.

John brought some big bold Stone beers home from San Diego, and Steve let him pour tastes for the monks and others. We watched the relentless struggle between the two men, one who retired immediately after the third of their three battles, his vision blurred and one eardrum burst - that was Ward; the other, the pretty boy, who won two of the three, Gatti, who stayed in the game until, apparently, a girl sent him home to his final corner.

"Did you know that was one year and one day from tonight?" Glenn asked, when I pointed out to him that everyone from the Monastic retreat boxing panel had made it to see the trilogy.

One year and one day. A magical number.

A year and a day: I bet Arturo Gatti wished he could have had just one more year and a day.

It was weird to think of Micky Ward living on without him. Glenn said Ward works in road construction now, in his home state of Massachusetts. "He drives a steamroller." Arturo Gatti is in the ground, buried in Montreal - oddly, I was in Montreal when I heard the news of his death - and Micky Ward is driving a steamroller in Massachusetts.

Ring the bell.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Moving on up, out and over

This is a clever way for a van line to get press: Through a PR provider, United Van Lines has released state-by-state data for incoming and outgoing rentals, which provides a telling mid-year snapshot of moving trends in 2009.

I have uploaded the data to my Box account, so come and get it - this link opens an Excel spread sheet with the state-by-state data.

Michigan is bleeding people, while Washington, D.C. is raking them in. Missouri is just about breaking even.

Here is the press release:

For those on the move in 2009, the Western region has maintained its position as a popular destination, while many states in the Great Lakes region continue outbound moving trends. The findings are among the results of the United Van Lines 2009 mid-year migration study, which tracks where its customers moved from and their most popular destinations.

United has tracked shipment patterns annually on a state-by-state basis since 1977. The findings are based on 60,520 interstate household moves handled by United among the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C., from January through June 2009. United classifies the states as “high inbound” (55% or more of moves going into a state), “high outbound” (55% or more of moves going out of a state) or “balanced.”

Three out of the top five high-outbound states were located in the Great Lakes region. Michigan (70.0%) maintained its status as the top outbound state, up more than 2.0 percentage points since January 2009. Illinois(58.3%) came in third and maintained its position as an outbound state since 1977, while Indiana (57.2%) ranked fourth and continued its 15-year trend.

The District of Columbia (63.8%) maintained its position as the most popular inbound destination, up 1.5 percentage points in the past six months, and a clear winner ahead of Oregon (59.3%), which has experienced high-inbound migration for 21 consecutive years. Other high-inbound Western states included Nevada (57.7%) capturing fourth place and Wyoming (57.5%) coming in as the fifth highest inbound state.


Pic from ebook strategies.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Welcome voices from The New York Mets pressbox

I don't miss living in New York - five years was enough for me, and unfortunately I lived there for six - but I do find I can't quite relinquish my subscription to The New York Observer, a weekly newspaper with a voice that sounds like the smart, informed, cynical people I knew in that city.

The latest issue delivered to me here in St. Louis has a long, wonderful discursive feature on the smart, informed, cynical people that call The New York Mets' games for the team: Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez.

Written by John Koblin, it quotes generously from transcripts of the trio's broadcasts. These passages have the rhetorical power of a great novel in conveying how people really speak to one another - in this case, how incident leads to anecdote and back to play-by-play over the lazy course of an uneventful ballgame.

Gary and Ron talked about how deflating it is for a pitcher when he’s working on a no-hitter and loses it. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the time the Mets—who have, amazingly, never had a no-hitter—came their closest to one: a game in July 1969, when Tom Seaver was two outs away only to surrender a left-center hit to the Cubs’ reserve man, Jimmy Qualls.

“Seaver looked like he wanted to go and strangle Jimmy Qualls,” said Ron. “That’s the look he gave.”


Keith: “He’s a winemaker now—Thomas.”

Ron: “Don’t forget Nancy Chardonnay.”

It was a reference to the wine Seaver named after his wife.

Keith: “It’s Nancy Fancy—it’s a red.”

Ron: “Oh, it is? I thought it was a char.”

Keith: “It’s like a petite sirah, almost.”

Gary: “Are you oenophiles done?”

Ron: “It’s a blend, right?”

They all laughed.

Keith: “Sorry, Gar.”

Gary: “It all tastes the same to me.”

More silence.

Keith: “I had a splendid Joseph Phelps the other night!”

Gary: “Reyes down swinging, and that’s seven strikeouts for Burnett.”
The abrupt return of the real - a fresh report on the actual baseball game they are being paid to report - is hilarious in this fragment Koblin has preserved for us.

I hope I'm not taken as a "thought of it first!" bore, but when I lived in New York, I spent many evenings sitting under a tree in my backyard, listening to Cohen call The Mets on the radio (he now works TV with Darling and Hernandez), and as a journalist who makes a living turning what people say into stories on pages, I often would imagine what Gary Cohen's publishable spoken prose would look like in print.

I was living in New York on 9/11. When the games were suspended, I was amazed to hear Mike and the Mad Dog (who worked for The Yankees' channel) interview security experts and elected officials with all the fearless grit and sarcasm they brought to the late-inning decisions of opposing managers.

When the games resumed, I was back in my backyard, one of millions of shattered New Yorkers - a nervous wreck, listening to Gary Cohen do his best to talk about baseball when none of us felt it mattered anymore.

I don't have a transcription of the broadcast in front of me - Koblin's story makes me want to go find one - but I remember at one point Cohen botched the score and had to go back and correct himself. "If we're going to play these games," he sighed, "we might as well keep track of the score."

That was exactly what I needed to hear right then, and said in the way I needed to hear it.


The sketch is mine from the press box at Shea Stadium (R.I.P.), where I met Cohen a few times when reporting features for various local publications.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The painful phenomenon of the vacant venue

Eric Hall - one of my favorite musicians anywhere - sent the following message out to friends this week:

Dottie and I just did a killer set at The Schlafly Tap Room to an audience of three friends, two employees, the other two bands' members, and one guy who came in off the street half-way through to try to loudly sell those people pornos from a plastic bag.
To share his performance with a larger audience than that, he included a link to a recording of it, which I have posted below, with his blessing. I'd also like to take this opportunity, as a former gigging musician, to riff on the painful phenomenon of the vacant venue.

I have two vivid memories of the phenomenon before I began to suffer from it myself.

One was a performance by The Violent Femmes in St. Louis. The concert was very poorly attended, and the band didn't take it very well. Frontman Gordon Gano spent most of his time between songs complaining about the situation, and I recall getting irritated that he was abusing the few people who did show up for the behavior of the very large number of people who didn't!

Then in college I roadied for one of my favorite local bands, Judge Nothing, who were pioneers in St. Louis indie rock. They really started the Cicero's Basement Bar scene, where Uncle Tupelo germinated, and were booking their own tours in their own van before any of us. They did better out of town than they ever did in St. Louis - a familiar pattern - but on this particular night, nothing much was doing.

I remember drummer and de facto band manager Andy Dykeman looking around the empty bar and saying to me, "Welcome to gigdom!"

Indeed, indeed, indeed, welcome to gigdom. Here is how Eric Hall describes the ordeal:

Not to get all "sour grapes", but it's awkward to play the final set of a struggling bill.
Those are the awkward times, the dark nights of the soul, when you ask yourself why you are lugging your equipment around the world and pouring out your heart and soul for nobody. I toughed my way through nights like that in more towns than I would like to recall.

I was the frontman (in the bands Enormous Richard, Eleanor Roosevelt and Three Fried Men), and on slow nights the other guys in the band would all but beg me to keep up my energy level, don't get down, because the front man drags everybody else in the room down with him. And no matter how few people are in the room, you want them to go home talking it up so, the next time you come to town, they come back and bring friends.

Everyone ends up with a bag of tricks to get through nights like that. I would either play to the other band members, just try to enjoy making music with them, or I would unspool the mic cord and walk out into the sparse crowd and sit on laps and pull other goofy stunts.

One last memory. In Boston we befriended a local band called The Velcro Peasants - still friends with those guys, twenty years later! - who got us into local joints that paid better than the "exposure" gigs that Uncle Tupelo had turned us onto.

One was a club called Zoots, located in the theater disctrict, which also was The Combat Zone, the whore stroll. On a slow night, the crowd consisted of a few exhausted sex workers taking a break, snagging a drink and smoke between tricks.

This was a slow night. I was amusing myself by wandering around the bar and sitting on laps and singing directly into the faces of the few people in the bar, all of them whores. One working girl got up and danced with me. We were playing "Espoontoon," a song with lyrics by Meriwether Lewis. I remember this hooker locking arms with me and flipping me over her back and suspending me in air.

Yeah, there I was, up in the air on the back of a whore in Boston, in an empty bar, singing lyrics from The Journals of Lewis & Clark, wondering what I was doing with my life.

Free music

.e(r!c hall) live at Schlafly Tap Room July 16, 2009

Ericn otes: "Uneasy yet undeterred, we knocked out a pretty stellar little hunk of improv using guitar, stylophone, drum-machine, effects, and toys (Dottie); and QChord, MPC, loopers, and effects (Eric)."

Eric plays tonight (Sunday, July 19th) at The Lemp Neighborhood Art Center (3301 Lemp Ave, at Utah) with Megafaun ("transcendental bluegrass/psych/folk/avant gem") and others. $5 all ages.


Photo from somebodys Flickr.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

New evidence that James Joyce invented Twitter

Despite the hype - which is always a nuisance - I am finding Twitter to be a useful addition to my experience of media, social and otherwise - especially otherwise.

As a journalist who is picky about what journalism I experience, I find Twitter a painless way to browse headlines, looking for the stories likely to inform me without making my blood boil.

I'm touchy like that. I'm sure many butchers wince to see how most other butchers cut meat - yet are always on the lookout for someone who knows how to do it just right.

I read James Joyce's Ulysses all the way through to the end, for the first time, in the months when I was first experimenting with this new medium, so I was interested to notice that Joyce uses the word "Twittering" in his great, aggravating novel.

As if the Irish savant needed yet another reason to look far smarter than the rest of us, he employs the word "Twittering" in a passage following a reference to the "old media": just after a newsboy's cry.

By screens of lighted windows, by equal gardens a shrill voice went crying, wailing: Evening Telegraph, stop press edition ! Result of the Gold Cup race ! and from the door of Dignam's house a boy ran out and called. Twittering the bat flew here, flew there. Far out over the sands the coming surf crept, grey.
I think that is pretty cool.

I also thought that some of Joyce's experiments with fragmented dialogue resemble the way a string of Twitter posts appears to the browsing Twitterer.

JOE HYNES: Why aren't you in uniform?

BLOOM: When my progenitor of sainted memory wore the uniform of the Austrian despot in a dank prison where was yours?


BLOOM: Embellish (beautify) suburban gardens.

BEN DOLLARD: When twins arrive?

BLOOM: Father (pater, dad) starts thinking.

LARRY O'ROURKE: An eightday licence for my new premises. You remember me, sir Leo, when you were in number seven. I'm sending around a dozen of stout for the missus.

Much like how a Twitter feed reveals a number of unrelated conversations, all intercut with one another and with news of the wherever and whatever.


Image from a blog that is all junked up with ads.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

James Joyce as fireworks porn pioneer

I finally finished reading James Joyce's novel Ulysses today. By the evidence of my own blog, I started this thing on May 30, which means I knocked out the giant in a month in a half. Not bad.

I can't say I understood all of it, and I certainly didn't enjoy all of it, but I can now say I have read all of what is often described as the greatest novel in the English language.

On the Poetry Scores blog, I have been jotting down passages of the novel that will work nicely as song lyrics. I will continue to do so and one day, I hope, make a record of these songs. It is fabulously rich stuff. Had Joyce wanted to make the most beautiful novel in the language, as opposed to the most frustrating and innovative one, he could have done that instead.

I plan to use this space to puzzle out some of my own complex, contradictory responses to a novel that I have thrown so hard against a wall that it had to be repaired with duct tape in order to make it to the finish line in one piece. Today I'll record some oddities and perversities that I jotted on the flyleaf, along the way. Plenty more where this came from ...

Banker hating. As I was reading this novel, the free world was convulsed in a welcome fit of suspicion and resentment of the masters of high finance. Joyce presaged this sentiment by including the following italicized phrase in one of his phantasmagoric parades of monstrous beings: "the chapter of saints of finance in their plutocratic order of precedence".

Pornographic fireworks. I'm not aware that Joyce has received his just due as the pioneer of firworks porn, yet we find this italicized sentence in the novel: "Mirus bazaar fireworks go up from all sides with symbolic phallopyrotechnic designs."

Suicide by stout: In a catalogue of suicidal options for women, Joyce includes (again, italicized): "casting themselves under steamrollers, from the top of Nelso's pillar, into the great vat of Guiness's brewery".


Phallic fireworks image from someone's MySpace page. You know I looked for a picture of someone drowning in Guinness ...

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Why? Why? Human nature. Why? Why?

A good friend of mine in Nashville asked me the other day over the phone what I made of all this social networking stuff. "Isn't it kind of what you have always been doing?"

It's true - I'm not very good at very many things, but social media does make it much easier to do things I was pretty good at when they were much harder to do, like connect with people in distant places and stay connected over distances and share stories and songs with people I seldom get to see.

Hey, I'm the kid who won a national letter writing contest when I was 13. My regional post office was in East St. Louis, an all-black hamlet, where I went to accept my award - right after I was almost killed in a motorcycle accident, and so was highly susceptible to life.

I was growing up, at the time, in Granite City, Illinois, an all-white steel town. Watching that black mayor and that black postal master riff verbally, back and forth, was an ear opener, for me, on the possibities of language and the intelligence of African American men. It changed me forever for the better in ways I am still discovering, as the white guy who now works at the black newspaper.

I worked all day, today, in a black newspaper's newsroom, as the Michael Jackson funeral ceremony poured into the room from our tiny television. Like millions of people, I will continue thinking about the event and the music and life of Michael Jackson for a long time to come.

We never gave up our front page to his passing - just a headshot teaser to the arts page, which he dominated last week, as he will dominate our national celebrity column this week - but almost everyone in our newsroom was knocked out by this unexpected death and the way it forced us to revisit the incredible and disturbing life that has now ended.

And the music! Everybody wanting to testify as to what was their jam.

After some thought, and research to remind myself what I might have overlooked, I decided (another surprise) that "Can't Stop til You Get Enough" is my jam, the one song of Michael's I'd keep with me if I could have only one.

A surprise, because for most of my life the Michael Jackson song I have kept closest to me is "Human Nature," from Thriller, an album I experienced from the day of its release and cherished at the initial height of its towering popularity.

This is all bringing me back to being a creature of the internet before the internet was created. For I remember very well being a teenager in Granite City, Illinois, perched on a cheap bunk bed in a small, poorly made apartment building that would be classified Section 8 not long after we left it.

I would lay in bed with the stereo playing but a tiny black & white TV in bed with me, playing soundlessly. I would spin records and flip channels and mix my own music videos in my mind while also reading a book - perhaps The Stand by Stephen King, published in 1978, just four years before Thriller was released in 1982. Though four years were a lifetime to a boy my age.
Kinda like now, all of us, reading email, listening to music, reading stories online, watching videos, all staring at a laptop like the little boy on his bunkbed.

"Why? Why? Tell them that it's human nature. Why? Why?" I actually remember lying on that bunkbed and applying this rather expulcatory reasoning to my own early romantic indiscretions, as if it were inevitable to screw around.

Michael, as I read from the record label, was only the messenger. This infidelity song was written by Steve Porcaro, formerly of Toto, and John Bettis, a former band member of Richard and Karen Carpenter's who penned the lyrics to many of their hits, as well as "Crazy For You" (Madonna) and "Slow Hand" (The Pointer Sisters), all songs I love.

Now that last bit was cheating on my part. That's one thing the internet is great at but at which I have always sucked - remembering names, dates and details.

I indulged in these memories, really, as an excuse to share a new cover of "Human Nature" by Uni & her Ukelele featuring Griffin Point. That's a picture of her up there from her MySpace page. Looks like she would have fit right in over at Neverland Ranch ...


"Human Nature"
(Porcaro, Bettis)
Uni & her Ukelele

From the free-download MOONLIGHT, GOOD TIMES & BOOGIE A Cheese on Toast tribute to Michael Jackson.


None of this matters much alongside K. Curtis Lyle's poem about Michael Jackson and his death, "The Coming of Man," which I take to be definitive.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

On pupusas and counter-revolution

I appreciated the irony that my family's meal on the 4th of July, the American Independence Day, was Salvadorean food. I spent a year as a Navy ROTC cadet, 1984-1985, when Salvador was hot and the U.S. military was involved, though covertly.

Our violent involvement in El Salvador was an open secret in the ROTC program, even among freshman squids like myself who had not yet signed an agreement to repay our free education with military service.

I recall a memorable lecture on propaganda, when were taught that good guys are "freedom fighters" and bad guys are "terrorists," and that we would be told who were the "good guys" and who were the "bad guys". The context of the lecture was Central America.

The problem down there was the bad guys, the "terrorists," were landless farmers fighting for their land, and we were leading a military of our own landless farmers. Propaganda had to be kept tight when the "good guys" were mercenaries defending the interests of coffee barons, and the "bad guys" were landless farmers fighting for the land.

I'll never forget that lecture. I retell this story a lot, because it was a very rare peek inside how the U.S. military - this was Ronald Reagan's military - resolves its own contradictions, which are many.

I told it once to a guy who married one of my cousins. His father was a retired U.S. Army general. I had met the old man. Judging by his age, I figured he had earned one or more of his bars leading fights in wars in which we, officially, had not fought.

I asked my cousin's husband to ask his old man if he had led men in Salvador and Nicaragua, and if so, to tell him some war stories. The guy came back to me shaking his head.

"My old man said he didn't want to talk about it," I was told. "He said, 'Son, more people were killed down there then you will see in all of your life, and it won't do anybody any good to talk about it now.'"
I later did some translations of a Salvadorean poet, Roque Dalton, working with a Salvadorean scholar who had lived through parts of the dirty wars. She was much more willing to talk about it than the general had been. I published several poems I wrote about our conversations; here is one.

Why I loved to watch baseball with her

When she saw the yellow foul
pole striping the jungle
green of the right field
wall, echo of Oakland
A's mustard and spinach
when sky blue Cubs were home,
she remembered her travels
during the war, how a sock
or blandly knotted tie
could encode solidarity.
Red and yellow said -
tiny, quiet, sly,
not the bleacher drunk,
heckling Bobby Bonilla -
red and yellow spoke, in whisper:
guerilla, guerilla, guerilla,
guerilla, guerilla, guerilla,

That last, repetitive bit riffs on a Roque Dalton poem from his essential volume Clandestine Poems (Curbstone Press).


Image of the Salvadorean delicacy pupusas from Wikimedia. The best pupusas in the St. Louis area are at Tres Banderas, Clarkson at Manchester in West County, 636/527-1990.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

"Merciless Indian savages" and the "Town Destroyer"

I was up past midnight last night and celebrated Indepedence Day ticking onto the clock by looking on for some primary document relating to The Declaration of Independence. I found a recording of John F. Kennedy reading Thomas Jefferson's glorious prose. I listened to it while I puttered around on Twitter, and I was struck by some unexpected, ugly language about "merciless Indian savages".

Of course, I know that Europeans targeted the native peoples of this continent and that the United States, like all countries, exists on land that was largely stolen or taken through force. But I went to bed unsettled, perhaps irrationally, to find these fighting words against American Indians framed in this founding document of America.

I woke up and read the text. This aggressive phrase appears in the litany of grievances against "the present King of Great Britain" for his "history of repeated injuries and usurpations". In this long rant we find the following complaint against the king:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
I knew better than to take this statement at face value. Among many other things, Jefferson was a lawyer, and in the Declaration he was framing a one-sided legal document, advocating for one side with no intent to be fair to the opposition. He was piling on every grievance against the king he could come up with.

England certainly had turned Indians against the American rebels, but the context was frontier warfare, where everyone more or less constantly played everybody against everybody else, in an ever-shifting scrum of allegiances and aggressions. This document of legal advocacy on behalf of the American revolution was not the place to be fair to the king - or to the Indian people caught in the crossfire. And, if you are trying to make the king look bad for turning the Indians against you, then the worse the Indians look, the worse the king looks for turning them against you.

I was left thinking about the Indian's side of the story. I wrote a book in the early '90s that features a Mohawk Indian ironworker I met in Cheyenne, Wyoming. To flesh out what little I learned about this man in our brief time together, I did bookwork on the Mohawk. That was when I encountered the tradition among the Iroquois, a confederacy that included the Mohawk, describing George Washington as the "Town Destroyer".

Washington didn't write The Declaration of Independence, of course. He didn't even sign it, though he had it read to his troups in New York on July 9, 1776 to rile up the men and recruit more militants. It's safe to say Washington concurred with this brutal depiction of Indians, accepting it either as true or as effective rhetoric, given the revolutionary situation at hand - it was time to make people mad enough to pick up the gun and go.

Did Washington deserve the moniker of "Town Destroyer," any more than the Native peoples deserved Jefferson's characterization of them as "merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction"?

Actually, what we have here is a description of frontier guerilla warfare, according to a history book I pulled from my library shelf this morning, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca by Anthony F.C. Wallace. According to Wallace, everyone on the frontier knew the brutal rules of this scorched-earth game and was capable of playing by those rules when it suited the military objective at hand (or the degree of abject anger and desperation).

Washington earned his reputation as "Town Destroyer" largely by proxy, in the depradations in Indian country wrought by General John Sullivan and his troups in their expedition against the Tories and Iroquois. But Sullivan and his men were only acting under orders - orders issues unmistakably by Washington on May 31, 1779:

The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.

I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.

But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them

The language all but quotes Jefferson's description of "merciless savages" in The Declaration, but in this case Washington is directing American rebel troups to conduct themselves in this way.

It is particularly important to note that final strategic direction regarding "the terror" such a brutal campaign would strike in the hearts of the adversaries. The United States of 2009 is rational to safeguard and target terrorist tactics directed against the nation state, but the revolutionaries of 1779 created the United States itself through desperate acts of terrorism.


Charles Willson Peale's portrait of Washington in the field ca. 1779 from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Mermaids, metempsychosis and "Ulysses"

For many years now I have had a relationship with James Joyce's novel Ulysses that is best described as mystical. Why this is so would be better communicated over a bartop or on the open road during a long drive, but suffice it to say whenever I am reading the book I am alert for unusual happenings.

Just this afternoon I was puzzling over one of the novel's many riffs on metempsychosis - the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, which permeates my own religion, which I picked up in Lakota country - when my daughter announced, "I am a mermaid".

She was swimming with a friend. I was reading Ulysses poolside.

"I'm a mermaid," she repeated to her friend. "My mom is a mermaid. Her dad is a mermaid."

This speech soon gave way to two children playing mermaid in a swimming pool, a phenomenon that does not require mysticism to understand. After all, both girls grew up with a mermaid movie that has been thoroughly merchanidised and crosspromoted in every medium, including the all-important Happy Meals toy.

But if you know our family story, you would have heard a deep undertone to what the little girl was saying. She was saying her mother is a mermaid, when her mother doesn't even swim. And what is up with her grandfather - a man - being included in the list of mermaids?

Leyla was remembering something her mother onve told her about the vestiges of native religion in her family. My wife Karley grew up in a coastal people whose traditonal areas span the border between what is now Ghana and Togo. Traditional religion has deep roots in the family, with many called to honor the traditional mermaid spirit, now known in rotten English as Mammy Watta.

The family always insisted Karley was called to honor the spirits, but she chose not to answer the call. She wanted to pursue higher education and always felt she belonged in "a white man's country".

Leyla was remembering that she has mermaid spirits in her family that descend from the lineage of her African mother's African father. Not bad for a six year old growing up in the suburbs of the American Midwest.

"Is there a sea in New York, where I was born?" Leyla next asked, jarring me, again, out of meditations on Ulysses and metempsychosis.

I explained yes, she was born in New York City, which borders on the sea.

"I was born of the sea of New York City," Leyla said.

She has no idea just how right she is - but that is another story (in a way, the same story as the mystical Ulysses story) best told over a bartop, or on the open road.


Mermaid drawings by Leyla.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Sleepless in Potosi: Reginald Clemons gets the good news

By Chris King
Of The St. Louis American

Missouri death row inmate Reginald Clemons said he could “only half sleep” last night after hearing from his lawyers that there would be an opportunity to present new evidence in his case.
In a shocking turn of events, on Tuesday the Missouri Supreme Court appointed Jackson County Circuit Judge Michael W. Manners to serve as a special master – a kind of independent adjunct judge – in the case.

Manners was appointed “with full power and authority to issue subpoenas” and to “compel production of books, papers and documents and the attendance of witnesses” – which opens the way for the presentation of new evidence.

Clemons greeted the news by thanking the community for pressuring authorities and The St. Louis American for reporting on the documentary evidence of his trial to inform the community of the facts.

Since he is currently placed on “administration segregation confinement” – commonly known as “the hole” – at Potosi Correctional Center, Clemons has not yet spoken to his family about the unexpected good news.

When told that his mother, Vera Thomas, was so happy when she heard the news that she wanted to “run around the park,” Clemons laughed.

Ultimately, he placed credit for this amazing new opportunity with a higher authority.

“God makes the difference,” Clemons said.

“When God makes the difference, you see nothing logical, nothing expected – everything is unexpected. The appointment of this special master – that is unexpected. Especially coming from the Missouri Supreme Court, which established my execution date in the first place.”

Clemons was sentenced to die on June 17 when a federal stay of execution gave the state’s high court time to make this apparent reversal of thinking on his case.

Clemons sees critical significance in the fact that the judge appointed to gather new evidence is not from St. Louis, where his case was investigated and prosecuted.

"I think it’s important that they appointed a judge from Kansas City,” Clemons said.

“I think it shows the Supreme Court realizes there might be bias in the St. Louis political arena regarding this case.”

Given the religious connotations of the technical term for the appointed judge in this case, it sounded highly ironic when Clemons said, “I thank God for the appointment of this special master.”

Clemons has never confessed to the 1991 murders of Robin Kerry and Julie Kerry. He was prosecuted for their murders with no physical evidence, on the basis of testimony by one witness who entered into a plea bargain and another who initially had confessed to a role in the girls’ deaths – and who received an $150,000 settlement for a police brutality claim he filed on the day Clemons was sentenced to death.

After Clemons’ initial interrogation by St. Louis Metropolitan Police detectives, Judge Michael David ordered him taken to an emergency room because he was visibly injured. When released from the hospital, Clemons filed his own claim of police brutality. He claimed that detectives Chris Pappas and Thomas Brauer denied him counsel and beat him into giving a rehearsed confession of rape.Clemons never has been prosecuted for rape, though he has formally asked to be, and he never confessed to murder.

“I think God is using me in this situation to bring about divine justice,” Clemons said.

“Divine justice is something beyond my understanding, so I have to have faith.”

Judge Manners, the special master in the Clemons case, was selected as best district judge in Missouri in 2008 and 2007. His assistant told The American this morning that Manners is on vacation and nowhere near prepared to comment on his appointment or the case.


Image of the Potosi Correctional Center from its webpage.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Towing scam investigation snares Greg Shepard

Former City cop indicted on fraud

By St. Louis American staff

Ending months of speculation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in St. Louis indicted a former City police officer last week for allegedly scamming individuals whose cars had been towed by City police and bribing a policeman to go along with the scam.

Gregory P. Shepard was indicted on multiple charges including mail fraud, wire fraud and bribery, all involving his operation of S&H Parking Systems, Acting United States Attorney Michael W. Reap announced.

According to the indictment, Shepard served as manager for S&H Parking Systems and its affiliated businesses, located at 1325 N. 10th St. S&H is affiliated with St. Louis Metropolitan Towing, which has a contract with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Parks Auto Sales titles and sells a large number of vehicles towed by St. Louis Metropolitan Towing.

The indictment alleges that between approximately October 2004 and August 2008, Shepard devised a scheme to defraud vehicle owners, lien holders and purchasers of vehicles towed by St. Louis Metropolitan Towing and affiliated businesses by contract with the City police.
Regulations require that titled owners and lien holders be given 30 days to retrieve their vehicles after receiving notice before their vehicles can be sold on police auction. If vehicles are not retrieved within 30 days of notification, S&H Parking Systems or one of its affiliated companies can purchase the vehicles and obtain original titles for the vehicles by submitting various forms to the Missouri Department of Revenue.
Despite reports to the Missouri Department of Revenue, Shepard gave no notice, or delayed notice, to vehicle owners and/or lien holders of vehicles towed by St. Louis Metropolitan Towing, according to the indictment.

On other occasions, according to the indictment, Shepard falsely told vehicle owners or lien holders that their cars were no longer held by these affiliated companies when in fact they were. On many occasions, Shepard allegedly made false statements to titled owners of towed vehicles which resulted in artificially inflated storage fees.
‘And others’

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Shepard “and others” were guilty of these acts of deceit, though only Shepard had been indicted as of press time.

For the entire span covered by the indictment, Joe Mokwa was chief of police. Mokwa testified in the police board trial of Officer Scott Tillis that he had known Shepard for 30 years. Mokwa also testified that he and members of his senior command visited with Shepard at the tow lot on a regular basis for “coffee.” Mokwa also testified that as police chief he at times called Shepard personally regarding towed vehicles.

Tillis testified that he was suspended without pay on a bogus charge after he initiated an investigation into activities at the tow yard after a large number of his neighbors’ vehicles were towed the same night under suspicious circumstances.

Tillis testified that Shepard denied him entrance to the tow yard, saying, “I’m with Joe,” meaning Mokwa. Tillis testified that Internal Affairs and his own command were reluctant to investigate Shepard or the tow yard.

Tillis remains suspended without pay 15 months later.

Mokwa also testified that he is not a subject of the federal investigation and that his retirement from the police force – with taxpayers on the hook for all of his legal fees – was not forced.

According to the indictment, an employee from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department passed vehicles for inspection despite obvious flaws. Shepard made many cash payments to this individual for conducting these faulty inspections, according to the indictment.

The indictment also charges that Shepard, a board member of the St. Louis Policemen's Credit Union, notarized a Bill of Sale showing that a vehicle repossessed earlier from a City police officer was being purchased from the credit union by an independent third party known as Grant Auto Sales.
The vehicle was actually purchased by Parks Auto Sales for $1,400, resold by Parks Auto Sales for $3,100, and the profit of $1,700 was never returned to the credit union.

Shepard, 52, was indicted by a federal grand jury on seven felony counts of mail fraud, two felony counts of bribery involving federal programs, one felony count of wire fraud, and one felony count of making false entries.

If convicted, mail fraud carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and/or fines up to $250,000; bribery carries a maximum penalty of ten years prison and/or fines up to $250,000; wire fraud carries a maximum of 20 years prison and/or fines up to $250,000; and false entries carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and/or fines up to $1,000,000.

The charges set forth in an indictment are merely accusations. Shepard is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty. Shepard’s defense attorney David W. Harlan claims his client is innocent.
Assistant United States Attorney’s Jeffrey Jensen and Hal Goldsmith are handling the case for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The St. Louis police are governed by a board appointed by the governor of Missouri. It includes as ex officio member the mayor of St. Louis. Mayor Francis G. Slay served on the police board for the entire span covered by the indictment.

Wiley Price photo of Chet Pleban interrogating Joe Mokwa.