Detroit: A City Trying to Rise Again

Posted November 7th, 2011 at 4:47 pm (UTC-4)

We drove into Detroit, Michigan at around midnight. In some U.S. cities, there are areas that still have some life at that hour – late-night restaurants closing up, bars open, people milling around; there’s a lovely hum.

But that’s not we saw when we first arrived in Detroit. The streets we drove on were pitch dark and deserted. We wanted to get a bite to eat, but when we finally found a place, there was a group of men standing on the corner outside hurling rocks into the street. We decided not to get in their way.

We went to pick up a friend, a Detroit-based rapper who was putting us up for the night. He swung into the car and directed us to drive through red lights: it wasn’t safe to stop for them. We took his advice.

A rundown area of Detroit

Motor City

As home base for the three major U.S. auto companies, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, Detroit has been nicknamed “Motor City,” or “Motown.” Motown Records, based in Detroit, made the name synonymous with American rhythm and blues music, turning musicians such as Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson into superstars.

During the day we saw remnants of the city’s former wealth: huge, beautiful old homes; skyscraper office buildings downtown; and wide-open streets designed for a parade of great sparkling automobiles.

But those high-rolling days are gone.

Over the past few decades, tough competition from overseas manufacturers has forced America’s car industry to massively downsize its workforce.  At present, Detroit’s unemployment rate stands at 11.7 percent — more than two percent higher than the national average.

Race Riots, Ghost Towns

Detroit’s troubles have not been just economic. Racial tensions sparked a major riot in 1967, when an early-morning police raid on an after-hours club resulted in five days of violence and looting. Forty-three people died in the clashes.

Those events led to the exodus of many white residents to the suburbs, a phenomenon nicknamed “white flight.”

Now, amid crumbling infrastructure, much of the middle-class African American  community has moved out as well. U.S. Census figures show the city’s population has plummeted 25 percent  in the past decade.

Detroit, once a city of 2 million people, is now home to 700,000.

In some parts of the city, we saw dilapidated buildings stand empty, covered in graffiti. Homes with smashed windows and broken-down doors have been left to rot. Shops are crumbling, deserted.


Detroit skyscrapers

As an outsider on a brief visit, I found something oppressive about Detroit and also something raw. In a tantalizing way, I felt like I could never be sure what to expect. It felt like a city on the verge of something.

Residents say the city is beginning to recover. With help from the 2008 government bailout, auto companies are beginning to hire again. Young people are starting new, socially-conscious businesses and buying properties. The guys who we stayed with are making innovative music and videos and selling t-shirts at their shop Division Street Boutique. Elsewhere, organizations like Hantz Farms are encouraging urban agriculture in a city where vacant land is cheap and plentiful.

These Detroit residents, struggling to revitalize their city,  remind me of stories of pioneers a century and a half ago, trying to make it in America’s vast western wilderness.



Occupy Movement

Posted November 1st, 2011 at 2:53 pm (UTC-4)

When I was in New York, I headed over to Wall Street to see the anti-corporate greed protest that’s been going on for a while there now. There were colorful banners denouncing everything from racism to sexism and hundreds of people with their faces painted white with grey blotched eyes and red trickling down their mouth, stumbling around as if unconscious. They were supposed to look like the “corporate zombies” many protesters think are destroying the United States.

During the day, people were eating, hanging out, some were snoozing in sleeping bags. There were lectures, like one on how to avoid getting arrested by the police. Organizers were handing out free pizza and sandwiches, donated by the public. At night, the atmosphere felt a bit more electric with a lot of young people talking politics and hollering out their frustrations and hopes for the future.

The protests have also hit the punk rock music scene. I went to a Patti Smith concert where she dedicated a song of hers called “People Have the Power” to the “Occupy” movement. The whole audience stood up and started pumping their fists in the air singing, “The people rule! The people rule!” I’m sorry to say photography wasn’t allowed inside.

But I’ve also heard a lot of dismissive or outright angry comments about the protests, comments like “Get a job!” I spoke to one IT consultant called Eric who said he would like to support the movement but “big corporations” pay him for his work and he would be worried about supporting a movement that seems to denounce them.

Occupy Boston protesters have set up a tent village

Since New York, I’ve also stopped by the “Occupy” protests in Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, and Chicago. Unlike in New York, a lot of other protests have been allowed to set up tents. Occupy Boston had a health center, library, a relaxation tent, and they’re growing organic vegetables. They seemed intent on staying for the long haul.

Eating on the Road

Posted October 27th, 2011 at 1:03 pm (UTC-4)

Tom's Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York (by Selah Hennessy)

On my first morning in New York I went to this diner where I was fed pretty much a full meal before I’d even sat down — a cup of coffee, bacon, sausage and, oddly, a slice of orange. It was a weird and kind of wonderful American way to keep a line of hungry customers happy (a line that ran all the way around the block) but I was seriously full by the time I sat down. The place was Tom’s Restaurant in Brooklyn. It’s been there since 1936, is still run by the same Greek family and is covered top to bottom with framed photos from American celebrity history, even an old black and white photo of Marilyn Monroe, signed by the lady herself. They serve what may be the best pancakes in New York City. Mountainous plates of fluffy pancakes with great dollops of butter and maple syrup complete with bacon, eggs, the works — it’s like a total heart attack. I must say I rolled out feeling pretty happy.

Diners are a classic part of American eating and somehow, they sound to me kind of wholesome. But I don’t know, after just three weeks on the road, I might have already had my fill. Eating healthily on the road in the USA can sometimes feel like a Herculean challenge. I ordered oatmeal the other day and it arrived swimming in full-fat cream. I ordered a salad and it turned out to be deep fried chicken with a tomato and a slice of cucumber. An ice-cream sundae I ordered at a drive-thru in Philadelphia was a brownie with fudge sauce, cream, coffee ice cream, and a cherry on top. It was totally delicious but seriously it was about a foot long and I thought I might pass out before it was done. Yes, I did finish it.

In Detroit, Michigan, I went to an “urban farm” – literally a 4-acre organic farm in the middle of the city, where they grow 35 different fruit and vegetables. It was started up by the local African American community to combat what they said was a gap in the food chain. Jackie, an older woman from Detroit who’s lived here all her life, was down on her hands and knees all morning planting beautiful big garlic cloves. She took some time out and told me how she had started working on the farm because fresh  fruit and vegetables were hard to get as there are only one or two grocery stores nearby. She said moms struggle to feed their kids a healthy diet and instead just gives them a few dollars to head down to the local corner shop to buy a hotdog.

Back on the road, I’m kind of wishing I could plant a little organic farm in my car, a few tomatoes, maybe some spinach and a couple of eggplants. Then I could order some pancakes for the side for a nice balanced meal.

Freedom, Expressed

Posted October 24th, 2011 at 12:58 pm (UTC-4)
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Before I begin, a quick note:  Carol and I will be off on another of our madcap excursions across the country — or part of it — for two weeks or so.  One the places we hope to visit is New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  I believe it has come back, maybe not all the way, but impressively.  And I hope to tell you about it when I return.

Meanwhile, read on here about “Freedom, Expressed.”  And later if you like, feel free to fish in the archives in the column to the right and learn about some of my, and Carol’s, other adventures.

This is about freedom and a wall.  And it’s not the Berlin Wall.

What are these visitors doing?  Read on!  (Barbara Drinkwater, Friendship Force/Charlottesville)

What are these visitors doing? Read on! (Barbara Drinkwater, Friendship Force/Charlottesville)

To the right, you see two women writing on this wall.  They’re Egyptians, and they’re a long way from home.  The women visited the United States a couple of weeks ago as part of an adult exchange program called “Friendship Force,” in which travelers — or “ambassadors” as the nonpolitical, nonsectarian organization calls them — stay with hosts in any of 60 countries.

According to its Web site, Friendship Force International “serves those who love to explore the world, meet diverse people, and be with them to learn and understand more about their lives and share their own.”

The Egyptian women were visiting with chapter members in Charlottesville, Virginia.  And that’s where freedom and the wall come in.

Charlottesville is the hometown of Thomas Jefferson, the author of America’s Declaration of Independence.  His friend James Madison, who wrote the first constitutional amendments called the “Bill of Rights,” also lived nearby.

The First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech, is the only permanent inscription on the wall in question.

There's a little bit of everything drawn on this wall.  (Carol Costanzo,

There's a little bit of everything drawn on this wall. (Carol Costanzo,

It’s a giant, two-sided slate chalkboard — reminiscent of a classroom blackboard but much, much larger — called the “Freedom of Expression Monument,” 2 meters high by 18 meters wide, that stands in a little triangular park at one end of Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall.

A steel podium, like the public soap box at London’s Hyde Park, is built into the monument.  The monument directly faces City Hall and sculptures of three American founding fathers from the area: Madison, James Monroe (another “founding father” and president), and Jefferson, whose words are said to have inspired the erection of the wall:

The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object.

The idea for what some call the “freedom wall” and others, the “community chalkboard,” originated with the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. It’s a 21-year-old nonprofit organization based in Charlottesville that sees itself as a watchdog of free speech and press.

Robert O’Neill, a former president of the University of Virginia, was the center’s director at the time the wall was being planned. He said, “To capture a quintessentially Jeffersonian concept, truth should be left free to be pursued, so long as there is the opportunity for refutation, rebuttal, and counter-speech.  And that exists in abundance on this physical open forum.”

Everybody's thoughts are welcome.  (Carol Costanzo,

Everybody's thoughts are welcome. (Carol Costanzo,

Seeking an innovative concept for a monument to free expression, the Jefferson Center sponsored a contest. The winner was the community chalkboard design by two Charlottesville architects, Robert Winstead and Peter O’Shea.  Winstead has said he and his friend had in mind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, where people take rubbings of the names of loved ones and leave mementos.

In other words, he told me, they wanted more than something to look at and admire.

We have lots of monuments to heroic figures and to great events in our history.  But almost all of them are kind of object monuments meant to be viewed from afar and not really interacted with.

The wall’s creators were unapologetic about the possibility that not just noble speech and civic discourse — but also obscenity and venomous thought might be written for all to see.  They’d rather have racism, other hatreds, and outrages — real or imagined — discussed in a public forum, “than have them kind of festering in back yards and back rooms where they can become dangerous,” Winstead told me.

In March of 2001, Blake Caravati, a local builder who was Charlottesville’s part-time mayor and also one of five city council members, voted to approve construction of the freedom wall.  So did two other members.  One chose not to vote, and the fifth opposed the idea.

Yup. Speech of all types  (Jefferson Center for the Protection of Freedom of Expression)

Yup. Speech of all types (Jefferson Center for the Protection of Freedom of Expression)

“It is a rather courageous thing for a government to get behind — particularly politicians — because this is going to be directly in front of our City Hall,” Mayor Caravati said at the time.  “What it’s inviting is speech of all type.”

At public hearings, only two citizens stepped to the microphone to oppose the community chalkboard.  They grumbled that plenty of others thought it was a bad idea but didn’t feel they could speak out against free expression in a generally liberal university town such as Charlottesville.

David Toscano, a lawyer and former Charlottesville mayor, was the lone council member to vote against the chalkboard proposal. He said he was not thrilled with the monument’s proposed style and scale.  “It’s too big and too modern” for a city that has carefully preserved a colonial look, he said at the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Remembering 1942, Sort Of

Posted October 19th, 2011 at 2:43 pm (UTC-4)

Last month I got a modest but much-appreciated birthday gift — appreciated because the giver knows I love brief historical adventures.  The gift was a booklet, entitled Remember When . . . 1942.

That’s my birth year, back in the Pleistocene Epoch.

The publisher, Seek Publishing, makes editions for every year from 1920 through 2001.  Each is a collection of photos, magazine ads and factoids that evoke memories of that year. I’m not sure 10-year-olds would get as much of a kick out of “Remember When . . . 2001” as I did out of my birth-year “KardLet,” as the company calls them, but there may well be some really inquisitive pre-teens out there.

That is I, or some of me, with my nose in the birth-year booklet.  (Steve Baragona)

That is I, or some of me, with my nose in the birth-year booklet. (Steve Baragona)

The booklets are a bit of a misnomer, since I obviously don’t remember a lick from 1942.  My first memories are of a cross-country train trip with my mother and my dog at age 4.  But the gift-giver wouldn’t have known that.


Remember When . . . 1942 opens with a saying: “The richness of life lies in the memories we have forgotten.”  Something forgotten is a memory? That’s a puzzler.  It becomes one, I guess, once it comes back to mind.

(I was a literalist, even as a tot.)

Nostalgic journeys  are sure to highlight the ridiculously low cost of living “back when.”  Indeed, the typical American house in 1942 cost $3,775, a new car $920, and a movie ticket 30 cents.

My parents licked a lot of these in their day.  (U.S. Postal Service)

My parents licked a lot of these in their day. (U.S. Postal Service)

A postage stamp set you back 3 cents, your loaf of bread ran you 9 cents, and — if your kid was smart enough — you could get him into Harvard University for $420 in tuition per year.  (I say “him,” because the school wouldn’t admit girls as undergraduates until 1973.)

Of course, the average American’s yearly income in 1942 was $1,885, so $420 was a big chunk of change in those days.

What jumps out at you in the ’42 KardLet is the rosy-cheeked wholesomeness of the illustrations: smiling kids, smiling parents, even smiling soldiers.  There was, after all, quite a world war going on.  Uncle Sam, rolling up his sleeve for a fight, isn’t smiling, but he has a determined look on his face.

These sunny illustrations were standard fare in that era, but looking at them now, I’m struck by the total absence of people of color in the photo collages and vintage advertisements.  It pains me to say it now, but — growing up in an almost-all white suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1940s and ’50s, I didn’t think there was anything out of the ordinary about this.  Maybe even some in the “Negro” part of town back then didn’t either.  It was the way it was.

Inside the booklet’s covers, you see some images of the period that would likely baffle, or at least astonish, today’s generation.

A clunky movie projector, loaded with celluloid film.

A ready-to-heat Swanson TV dinner, with separate compartments for braised beef, peas, and corn.

The whole free world liked Ike in 1942.  (Wikipedia Commons)

The whole free world liked Ike in 1942. (Wikipedia Commons)

A woman, smiling as always, wearing an “I Like Ike” button.  I’m pretty sure this one’s out of whack, historically.  Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom his friends called “Ike,” was commander-in-chief of Allied forces fighting the Nazis and Japanese, but I don’t think the buttons showed up until a decade later, in 1951, when a citizen groundswell helped convince Eisenhower to run for president.

Oh well, I said the booklet was interesting, not always historically accurate.

Eisenhower won in a landslide, and most Americans continued to like Ike through two four-year terms as chief executive.

Also shown is a soda fountain, labeled “Old Fashioned Phosphates — Ice Cold.”  This may take some ’spainling:

The sodas weren’t soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Sun Crest Orange pop.  (I threw the latter in as relic of my childhood, when soda was “pop” in the Midwest.)

The term "soda jerk" derived from the counterman's tug on the valve that dispensed carbonated water.  (Library of Congress)

These sodas, concocted before your eyes by “soda jerks” — who usually weren’t jerks at all — consisted of vanilla ice cream, flavored syrup, and fizzy carbonated water, squirted from a pressurized dispenser right in front of you.  With a long spoon, you scooped out the ice cream, which had absorbed a good deal of the syrup’s flavor.  And with a straw, you sipped the frothy-sweet liquid, down to the last drop.

Sometimes a soft drink substituted for both the syrup and the carbonated water to make, in the case of root beer, a “root beer float.”  If this makes you thirsty, I refer you to a detailed, and quite fascinating, story about all things root beer by my VOA colleague, Chris Cruise.

I haven’t forgotten to tell you about phosphates.  These weren’t packets of salty, acidic chemicals.  But phosphoric acid was part of the recipe. Phosphates, which had no ice cream, were sort of soft drinks with a kick.  (I speak of them in the past tense, since I haven’t seen, let alone tasted, one in 40 years.  I read somewhere that high phosphate levels in the blood pull calcium from bones, so maybe some agency banned the drinks.)

There was a lot going on, chemically, when a phosphate drink was created.  This was one of the ingredients.  (

There was a lot going on, chemically, when a phosphate drink was created. This was one of the ingredients. (

Phosphates were made from carbonated water, flavored syrup, and a couple of dashes of the phosphoric acid, sprinkled from a shaker.  The maker then added ice and stirred the concoction briskly.

Back on the wholesome front, the KardLet includes ads that you’d call corny today:

For Campbell’s Soup, showing a smiling housewife and one of the rosy-cheeked “Campbell Kids” tugging on a manual rowing machine.  Next to him (her?) is a little ditty:

I think it’s wise to exercise.

I do it every day.

I work up quite an appetite,

And that’s when soup’s okay!

For Columbia Records:  A photo of Arthur Rodzinski, “brilliant conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra,” with his testimonial and those of other famous conductors about the fidelity of the company’s vinyl phonograph records.  “New Lamination Process brings you an amazingly lifelike new brilliance of tone; 55.3% Less Surface Noise,” the ad reads.  Wonder how they calculated that?

For the Corn Products Refining Company: An ad showing mounds of fruit, spilling cornucopia-like from Uncle Sam’s hat, extolling the merits of dextrose sugar.  “Dextrose is an ALL-American sugar,” the ad states, proudly.  “The sun is the source of energy . . . the energy of sunshine is crystallized in Dextrose sugar.”  I’d have to check with our science editor, but I suspect a step or two was missed there. Read the rest of this entry »

The National Road

Posted October 14th, 2011 at 11:29 am (UTC-4)
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Recently I told you about one of our meandering old national highways — U.S. Route 11, which winds from just below Montreal in Canada all the way down to New Orleans, near the Gulf of Mexico.

And it got me thinking about THE National Road.  The original one.

It was our first interstate highway of sorts, begun in 1811, about 140 years before land was cleared for today’s high-speed Interstate Highway System.

Travel on America’s early roads was, as the innkeeper Thenardier said in Les Misérables, “a curse.” (National Road/Zane Grey Museum)

Travel on America’s early roads was, as the innkeeper Thenardier said in Les Misérables, “a curse.” (National Road/Zane Grey Museum)

George Washington, the nation’s first president and a surveyor by trade, had fought French and Indian forces in western Pennsylvania, where the woods are as thick as bulrushes.  Firsthand, he saw the difficulty of moving armies into the frontier, and he pressed for better roads than the old animal and Indian trails that posed a real challenge to travelers.

The first efforts in that direction were short, earthen toll roads, or turnpikes, which were often mired in mud each winter and spring and choked with dust much of the rest of the year.  Several turnpikes were cut between the port city of Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay and Cumberland, Maryland, in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.

But far beyond those dense mountains beckoned the new “Northwest Territory” that began in Ohio.  So in 1806, Congress authorized construction of what it foresaw as a sort of portage road between the Potomac River near Cumberland in the east and the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), far to the west.

Westward, Ho!

George Washington commanded troops, if not slept, here, and this cabin in Cumberland is ground zero of The National Road. (Allegany County, Md., Tourism)

George Washington commanded troops, if not slept, here, and this cabin in Cumberland is ground zero of The National Road. (Allegany County, Md., Tourism)

Beginning in a triangular park in downtown Cumberland, at a little log cabin that had once been Washington’s headquarters, workers blazed westward along the old Nemacolin or Braddock Trail.  Nemacolin was a Delaware Indian chief; Edward Braddock, a British general who had tramped that way, hoping to capture French forts.

But the “National Road,” as everyone soon called this remarkable pathway west, kept right on going past Wheeling onto Zane’s Trace, a barely improved wilderness footpath to Zanesville in eastern Ohio.  The target terminus was the distant Mississippi River.

The National Road almost made it, stretching about 1,000 kilometers to Vandalia in central Illinois in the 1840s before funding ran out and enthusiasm waned.  By that time, speedy new railroads had stolen the road’s thunder as well as most of its passengers and freight.

Here’s Doug, ready with a story about rudimentary early travel on The National Road. (Ted Landphair)

Here’s Doug, ready with a story about rudimentary early travel on The National Road. (Ted Landphair)

Carol and I learned a lot of this from Doug Smith, our enthusiastic guide and traveling companion on an exploration of remnants of the National Road in Ohio.  Doug, who’s a real-estate broker, Licking County commissioner, and auctioneer — you should hear him speed-talk! — just loves old roads.

Until he and Glenn Harper, a founding member of the Ohio National Road Association, came along, most of the romantic stories of America’s historic byways had been lavished upon U.S. Route 66, which was created in the “roaring” 1920s from a string of state roads out west.

People call 66 the “Mother Road.”  So you could say the National Road, begun 110 years earlier, was wiry old Great Grandma.

The National Road doesn’t yet have as many trinkets, slogans, or fan clubs as U.S. 66 out West.  But folks in Ohio are working on it. (Carol M. Highsmith)

The National Road doesn’t yet have as many trinkets, slogans, or fan clubs as U.S. 66 out West. But folks in Ohio are working on it. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Doug Smith and Glenn Harper aren’t John Steinbeck, whose Great Depression novel The Grapes of Wrath made Route 66 famous.  But they have produced a little treasure trove of stories, vintage photos, and maps that help visitors locate, then enjoy, the many, often hidden, delights to be found on the National Road in Ohio.  Carol and I wore out our copies, even as Doug told us stories and pointed out spots that we never would have found on our own.

All Aboard for Time Travel

I hope you like history as much as I do — and the wind in your hair as you drive with the top down!  We’re gassed up and ready for a trip along the National Road.  A smidgen of it, at least.

As I mentioned, the National Road winds from the ancient mountains of western Maryland to the pancake-flat plains of Illinois.  Doug Smith’s neck of the woods in eastern Ohio is just a microcosm of an old road that teems with stories dating to the opening of the American frontier.

Signs old and new adjoin each other along the old road in eastern Ohio. (Ted Landphair)

Signs old and new adjoin each other along the old road in eastern Ohio. (Ted Landphair)

Much of the way as you whiz past red, white, and blue signs for the National Road, you’re driving U.S. 40, a mostly two-lane federal highway that was given its number during the same era that routes 11 and 66 got theirs.

But these colorful signs reflect fiction as well as fact.  U.S. 40 does follow the general path of the old National Road, but many of the most compelling remnants of the real, historic highway are little more than offshoots — driveway-size, even — running off that road into the woods or right up to somebody’s farm.  If you didn’t have Doug Smith in the car with you, you wouldn’t know the real National Road was there.

The original, narrow road twisted and turned, climbed straight up gentle hills, and curled around steep ones.  But the highway engineers of the 1920s were determined that U.S. 40 would proceed west from Cumberland as straight as possible, and they widened, cut, filled, and paved over the old road to do it — chewing up, covering over, and discarding much of the National Road as they went. Read the rest of this entry »

English Talk — and Other Stuff

Posted October 11th, 2011 at 6:41 pm (UTC-4)

Last year, Ozzie Guillen — who’s of Venezuelan extraction and was then the manager of baseball’s Chicago White Sox — ignited a controversy when he asked why many, if not all, Asian ballplayers in America are provided translators, while Spanish-speaking players must fend for themselves as they learn a new culture and language.

Even Ozzie Guillen, who's now the new manager of the Florida Marlins team in Miami, admits he sometimes has a "big mouth." (AP Photo/Pat Carter)

“Latin players are told, ‘You choose to come to this country, and you better speak English.’” he said.

The brash Chicago manager soon backed off his inflammatory comments, after others pointed out a couple of things:

• Dozens of major-league coaches and older players who speak Spanish are around to help Latin newcomers, the United States has more Spanish-speakers than any other nation on earth (save for Mexico), and most if not all teams provide their Spanish-speaking players extensive English lessons in the minor leagues.

• English is a wholly new tongue to many other foreign-born players, with nary another countryman around to help with their assimilation in many cases.  You don’t bump into Russian speakers very often in, say, Phoenix, Arizona, or Miami, Florida.  Learning to comprehend a new language is one thing.  Being comfortable speaking that language, with nuances, especially in front of microphones and cameras, is quite another.

Reporters and fans are always pushing athletes to learn English and speak for themselves, of course, since they know interpreters aren’t giving them word-for-word renditions of what the player actually said.  They are quite literally “missing something in the translation.”

One of the more interesting language-adjustment examples has been unfolding here in Washington, where our National Hockey League team, the Washington Capitals, has brought in a number of Russian and former Soviet-bloc players over the years.  Most notable among them, as every hockey fan knows, is Alex Ovechkin, one of the top hockey players in the world.

The gregarious Ovechkin, who’s now the Capitals’ captain, has understood English and spoken the language — quite playfully at times — from the moment he joined the team in 2005.  And he and other Russian-born players have served as the go-between for another gifted scorer, Alexander Semin.

Alexander Semin keeps to himself a lot.  (AP Photo/Haraz. N. Ghanbari)

Alexander Semin keeps to himself a lot. (AP Photo/Haraz. N. Ghanbari)

Whereas Ovechkin adores interaction with fans and the media, Semin, by all accounts, is reclusive and shy.  His understanding of English has increased each season, yet “Sasha” has rarely spoken to fans in any language and addressed the media only through Russian-speaking teammates.

Those around the team suspected that Semin knew more English than he let on.  As far back as 2007, the Washington Post’s hockey beat writer, Tarik El-Bashir, described an encounter with the talented forward, who was walking past alongside a Canadian-born teammate:

My eyes nearly bugged out of my head as Semin turned to [the teammate] and asked, with a heavy Russian accent, “What time is practice?”

Suddenly, I was having one of those did-I-just-hear-what-I-thought-I  -heard moments.

So I said to Semin, “Alexander! Now I know you speak English! Ha!”

But he just winked at me, turned and walked — very quickly — down the hallway and through an area that’s off limits to media.

So I guess [the Caps’ coach at the time] was right. Being able to speak English, and wanting to, are apparently two different things.

Semin’s cat-and-mouse game continued until just a few weeks ago, when he showed up for this season’s training camp.  It was clear that Semin now understood almost everything spoken to him in English, but remained self-conscious about replying for fear of misspeaking and looking foolish.

But at the urging of the team’s general manager, George McPhee, and others, Semin agreed to speak to reporters and fans in English.

“We felt that Semin is at the point where he’s progressed enough that he could handle it,” McPhee said, “and people would like to hear from him. He’s a good kid with a good sense of humor, and we’d like to get people to know who he is.”  This, after most of eight years with the team.

Out on the field, nobody's close by to translate for you.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Out on the field, nobody's close by to translate for you. (Carol M. Highsmith)

One question has never been answered to my satisfaction in reports about foreign athletes playing sports in America:

Since you can’t post a translator next to you on the field, and teammates who might speak your language have their own assignments to think about on every play, how does a non-English speaker understand, say, a football quarterback’s call, barked quickly: “red, 24 right, 686 pump F, hut”?

I can’t make heads or tails out of this, and I’ve spoken English since I first said “Mama.”

I don’t think English-speaking Americans, many of whom make minimal effort to learn other languages, are in any place to judge the struggles of young, often modestly educated, newcomers.  Ask the lifelong Americans who accept contracts to play baseball in Japan how exposed and inadequate you feel when everyone around you is speaking an unfamiliar language. Read the rest of this entry »

The (Concrete) French Connection

Posted October 7th, 2011 at 9:49 am (UTC-4)

About 20 years ago during a short stint in management here at the Voice of America, I sent a superb reporter named Bill Torrey on a journey that I longed to make myself.  As it turns out, my photographer-wife Carol M. Highsmith and I would later retrace a good deal of his route, to our considerable delight.

Accompanied by two young geographers, Bill traveled the length of one of America’s great old U.S. highways.   These are not the high-speed, multi-lane, numbingly monotonous Interstate superhighways on which we scoot across the country today.  The U.S. highways are aging, mostly two-lane national roads that tied the country together soon after Americans got the itch to go exploring in our horseless driving machines.

A New Beaten Path

One of the early "named" highways, begun in 1932, was the "Going-to-the-Sun Road" (later part of U.S. 2), which cut through spectacular Glacier National Park in Montana. (Library of Congress)

At the beginning of the last century, a web of “auto trails” criss-crossed the nation. They had names such as “Dixie Highway” and “Mohawk Trail,” chosen by civic boosters and driving enthusiasts.  The Old Oregon Trail auto route, for instance, ran from Independence, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon, roughly following the original Oregon Trail on which pioneers had walked and driven oxen teams westward almost a century before.

But sticking to these auto trails was no easy task for motorists.  Crude signs and colored bands on telephone poles that were supposed to show the way were there one day, stolen or knocked over the next.   If they weren’t careful, travelers would find themselves 50 kilometers down the wrong road.

So in 1925, the nation began the switch to numbered routes that were better marked and crossed state lines.  The U.S. Government helped build them, tacked up thousands of shield-shaped signs with the highways’ numbers, and instituted modest standards of safety.

At last you wouldn’t need 20 different maps to get from Ocean City, Maryland, to Sacramento, California.   Maybe just one newfangled “road map” put out by Pure or Esso or Gulf Oil.  Or no map at all: you just got onto U.S. Route 50 and headed west.

Even-numbered national highways ran east-west – and of course, west to east as well!  Odd-numbered ones cut north and south, just as Interstate highway numbers work today.

The ‘Highway That’s the Best’

It's a dark day, in more ways thanone, at the Siesta Motel on U.S. Rout 66 in Kingman, Arizona.  America's most famous national highway still has passionate devotees, however.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

It's a dark day, in more ways than one, at the Siesta Motel on U.S. Rout 66 in Kingman, Arizona. America's most famous national highway still has passionate devotees, however. (Carol M. Highsmith)

You may have heard of, or even driven, our most-acclaimed national road: historic U.S. Route 66, which started in Chicago, zigged and zagged southwestward to Oklahoma, then slithered across the dusty West before ending abruptly at the Santa Monica, California, pier on the Pacific Ocean.  Crusty tales, evocative photographs, and snappy songs such as “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” still celebrate Route 66, which its devotees call “The Mother Road.”

Backers of famous named roads such as the Lincoln Highway, which wended from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Astoria, Oregon, 4,900 kilometers away, grudgingly gave in to the numbering system.  You still see commemorative Lincoln Highway signs in Pennsylvania, especially, but the road officially became and remains “U.S. 30” on maps and markers.

Border to Border (Almost)

Bill Torrey and his companions did not follow any of the roads I have mentioned.  They ventured north to south, down a more obscure and meandering national road.

One of the benefits of the national highway system was the establishment of uniform signage from coast to coast.  Or in the case of U.S. 11, from northern to southern borders.  (U.S. Department of Transportation)

One of the benefits of the national highway system was the establishment of uniform signage from coast to coast. Or in the case of U.S. 11, from northern to southern borders. (U.S. Department of Transportation)

It’s U.S. 11, which begins in upper New York State at the edge of Lake Champlain, just below Montreal, Canada, wiggles southward 1,700 kilometers down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, and cuts through Deep South bottomlands to an ignominious end just outside New Orleans, Louisiana.

Why ignominious?  You’d expect a haughty national highway to extend all the way into New Orleans and conclude triumphantly in or near that city’s fabulous French Quarter.  Instead, Old 11 dead ends at a merge point with another national road, way across a lake, in the eastern part of the city.

Metaphorically, though, Route 11 does connect French Canada with French Louisiana, even though not much of New Orleans except its rich, saucy cooking is French any more.  The architecture in the French Quarter is Spanish.

Still, I call U.S. 11, “The French Connection,” borrowing the name from a famous Gene Hackman movie.

Swell for Scenery, Not Speed

Still on U.S. 11, you see a few vestiges of the kind of roadside stands that once beckoned to weary travelers.  And who wouldn't want to see the world's largest snake?  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Still on U.S. 11, you see a few vestiges of the kind of roadside stands that once beckoned to weary travelers. And who wouldn't want to see the world's largest snake? (Carol M. Highsmith)

The old national highways were narrow, winding, and often punctuated by treacherous cross traffic from lesser roads.  All the national roads led drivers right through cities and towns, past radar “speed traps” in which sneaky constables hid on their motorcycles behind billboards, waiting to chase down and ticket drivers who didn’t slow to a crawl as they drove through town.

Business leaders wouldn’t hear of diverting traffic around town on bypasses.   Little motor courts, “greasy spoon” restaurants, souvenir stands, and independent repair shops beckoned in every little town.  So did elaborate neon-gas advertising signs, which had been introduced in the United States at a Packard automobile dealership in Los Angeles in 1923.

And out in the country, roadside attractions – many of them “tourist traps” such as snake farms, pseudo-scientific fossil collections, and spooky caverns – lured tourists off the national roads. Read the rest of this entry »

East is East, but Where’s the West?

Posted October 5th, 2011 at 10:55 am (UTC-4)

In “The Ballad of East and West,” British author Rudyard Kipling wrote what may be his most quoted line: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  Part of the line was borrowed by lyricist Ray Evans in an American song made popular by Dinah Shore in 1947.  “East is East and West is West,” she sang, “and the wrong one I have chose.”

She preferred frilly eastern things like buttons and bows to western buckboards and buckskin.

A family heads west in their Conestoga wagon that has all the conveniences!  Note the chimney.  (Library of Congress)

A family heads west in their Conestoga wagon that has all the conveniences! Note the chimney. (Library of Congress)

The East is East/West is West line fits the American experience.  Whole families — not just young males — had responded eagerly to Indiana editor John B. L. Soule’s admonition of 1856 — later more famously used by New York publisher Horace Greeley: “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.”

The Wild, Wild West

In internationally popular novels that would later be made into a genre of “western” movies, author Zane Grey depicted the American West as a rip-roaring, largely lawless world of sheriffs and outlaws, cowboys and “Injuns.”

A family poses before their Custer County, Nebraska, sod house in 1886.  A “soddie” was one of the few options on the plains, where trees were scarce.  (Library of Congress)

A family poses before their Custer County, Nebraska, sod house in 1886. A “soddie” was one of the few options on the plains, where trees were scarce. (Library of Congress)

“Back East” had been thoroughly explored, so waves of settlers moved west, built rough towns and sod houses “under starry skies above” on the western prairie.

So if you wanted to visit “the West” today, would you start at one of those “soddies”?  Where does the West begin?

The Mississippi River, which snakes southward nearly all of the way from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, once filled the bill… even though it’s only one-third of the way across America.  Cross it, and you were mostly on your own.  In 1803, outside St. Louis, Missouri, just across the wide Mississippi from the farms of southern Illinois, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark pitched the staging area of their epic exploration of the uncharted American Northwest.

Arc de St. Louis

In downtown St. Louis, today, the 17,000-ton, stainless-steel Gateway Arch stands as the symbolic “Gateway to the West.”  The structure, designed by modernist architect Eero Saarinen in the 1960s, carries a clunky U.S. Park Service name — the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial — as a nod to the third president, Thomas Jefferson, who dispatched Lewis and Clark.  And to the nation’s pell-mell westward expansion that ran right through St. Louis.

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is not only the symbolic entryway to the West.  It’s also a remarkable engineering wonder.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is not only the symbolic entryway to the West. It’s also a remarkable engineering wonder. (Carol M. Highsmith)

If you take the claustrophobic tram to the top of the Gateway Arch, 192 meters above the river, and peer westward through the window slits on a clear day, you can see 50 kilometers across Missouri.

But it sure doesn’t look like the West we’ve read about or seen in cowboy films.  It looks like downtown St. Louis, and its suburbia.   My friends in St. Louis agree that you’re seeing not the West but the Midwest out that window — a place that, most folks also agree, begins back east where the land flattens in Ohio.

America’s Breadbasket

“Middle America” rolls past St. Louis, right through all of Missouri and over the Missouri River into Kansas and Nebraska. There, somewhere, Midwest meets West. But where?  Not in bustling Kansas City — the two Kansas Cities, actually: one in Missouri and one across the river in Kansas.  They are no more “western” in look and feel than Chicago or Atlanta.

This is Kansas, and this is wheat.  But is it the West?  (C. K. Hartman, Flickr Creative Commons)

This is Kansas, and this is wheat. But is it the West? (C. K. Hartman, Flickr Creative Commons)

And even once you’re well into it, can Kansas be “western” if it’s full of corn in August, as reported in the song “A Wonderful Guy” from the “South Pacific” musical? A tornado in Dorothy’s dream swept her and her dog Toto from a dull Midwest-style Kansas farm to the fanciful land of the Wizard of Oz.  As far as western Kansas, spurs and saddles aren’t in order when you’re standing in the middle of a forever-flat wheat field.

Yet Dodge City, the quintessential, rip-snorting Old West Town — home to legendary gunfighters Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp — is a Kansas town.

Is that where the West begins?

Or is it up in the sweeping sandhills of western Nebraska, the narrow and oil-rich “panhandle” of western Oklahoma? Read the rest of this entry »

Mostly Cloudy About the Cloud

Posted October 3rd, 2011 at 12:43 pm (UTC-4)

If cloud computing is the "inevitable future," we'd better find out about it.  (Miran Rijavec, Flickr Creative Commons)

Everyone who railed at me for writing about something I know little about when I spouted off about Algebra II courses in school, sharpen the computer equivalent of your pencils.

Every weekday morning when I fight with the alarm clock, I awaken to our local all-news station as well as a little sports talk, seeking an excuse to linger in bed.

Since I live on the doorstep of Washington, D.C., the golden goose for government contractors, I hear a lot of commercials that they run in hopes of impressing members of Congress and their staffs.  These often tout the companies’ computer expertise, tossing out jargon such as “scalable” and “network architecture.”

That’s heavy stuff at 6:30 in the morning.  Way over my head.  Up in The Cloud.

Not the clouds.  The Cloud — computing’s magic carpet these days.

Why is Cloud 9 so amazing? What is wrong with Cloud 8?—Mitch Hedberg

Just this morning, two different companies assured us they were all aboard The Cloud.  I hung with them until they reverted to talking about “service paradigms” and the like.

I say I was with them, but not exactly.  Simple though a Cloud sounds, I couldn’t quite grasp the concept.  [Of course not, you’re saying.  It’s a cloud!]

So when I got in to work, I asked a smarty-pants friend about it.

“Yes, the Cloud,” she said to me, indulgently.  “Your work doesn’t live in the computer box under your desk or the computer room down the hall.  It lives in the air, and things bounce off satellites and end up in a remote server somewhere.  Could be Kyrgyzstan.”

She got points for the Kyrgyzstan reference, but I sensed she was fudging the rest.

The Cloud is a real puzzle.  (Kurisu, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Cloud is a real puzzle. (Kurisu, Flickr Creative Commons)

So I asked another VOA colleague.  “Yeah, The Cloud,” he said.  “Bits and bytes are up there somewhere.  [He pointed to the ceiling.  For the sake of the VOA engineer who sits up there, I hope he didn’t mean the fourth-floor office above me.]  But you can go get the information any time you need it and pull it down.”

That didn’t help much.

“Sure, The Cloud,” a third person began, in a snooty tone, as if any fool knows what The Cloud is. “It’s virtualization,” he snorted — losing me early — “involving hosted services over the Internet, rather than traditional hosting.”  Or words to that effect.

Even putting all those explanations together, I wasn’t getting very far, Cloud-wise.  To me The Cloud was still a mysterious zephyr in cyberspace.

I think the world really boils down to two types of people — those who see shapes in cloud formations, and those who just see clouds.—Terri Guillemets

Could the Cloud imagery be too simple?  After all, computer geeks don’t call XenServers “rocks.”  Or ESXi consoles “kittens.”  It was if they’d ceded this particular computer nomenclature to a dreamer. Today’s Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I hadn't yet seen the light in The Cloud.  (daviddehetre, Flickr Creative Commons)

I hadn't yet seen the light in The Cloud. (daviddehetre, Flickr Creative Commons)

So I turned to the Web for Cloud clarity.  (Where do you think I came up with “XenServers”?)  There, I can tell you, neither an Emerson nor a Walt Whitman wrote the complex Google entries on The Cloud.

Luckily, Deborah Block, a colleague who works on VOA’s TV side, had done a story on the subject with a refreshingly simple title: “Cloud Computing”!

“Many people assume their emails, documents, photos and other information on the Internet are private,” she wrote.  “But that may not be true if they are stored on servers belonging to Internet companies.  Known as ‘cloud computing,’ the system gives people access to their files from anywhere in the world.”

We’re getting somewhere!  Things are only partly cloudy. (Sorry)

You must not blame me if I do talk to the clouds.—Henry David Thoreau

So I walked down the hall to an office belonging to a young man who has helped me through many technical blogging issues.  Things like “Where’s the SEND button?  He’s a master at demystifying computerese.

I won’t identify him, because I don’t want you blaming him if I blow the interpretation of The Cloud to follow.

Here’s what it’s about, as best as I understood what he told me:

Metal suitcase-like computer towers sit under our desks where our legroom ought to be.  These are computing’s foot soldiers, its pawns, the mighty mites of the computer world.  They process and store stuff — a technical term — that we create, send out, and bring in: documents, e-mails, photos, spreadsheets.

The Cloud is a silent revolution no longer.  A lot of noise is being made about it.  (Carlos de Miguel, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Cloud is a silent revolution no longer. A lot of noise is being made about it. (Carlos de Miguel, Flickr Creative Commons)

But big companies, and government agencies such as ours, need a whole lot more computing power than the sum total of these boxes.  After all, we’re doing stuff — that technoterm again — including heavy-duty engineering functions and radio and TV editing, all over the building that requires real computing oomph.

So down the hall, there is indeed a chilled room packed with something that looks like bakery racks, unfortunately stacked not with pastries but with heavy-duty computers called servers, humming away. Read the rest of this entry »

Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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