Sunday, July 19, 2020

There Are No Words for this Insanity

Over 144,000 dead in a growing pandemic.  A crumbling economy and millions unemployed.  A White House administration full of fascists and incompetents echoing racist slurs.  Immigrants and their children detained in concentration camps.  Federal storm troopers seizing peaceful protestors and holding them without due process.  Our global reputation in shambles and our citizens banned from traveling to other countries.  And a "president" who shills for a Hispanic-owned food company while he labels our Latino and Latina citizens and neighbors drug dealers, murderers, and rapist and is building a wall to keep them out.  Is this what a great America should look like?     

Saturday, July 18, 2020

We Are But One

Today would have been Madiba's 102nd birthday. Although he is no longer with us, his spirit urges all of us to work together for racial harmony and good will. Or as he would say in his native Xhosa. Ngaphantsi kolusu lwethu sibomntu omnye. Beneath out skin we are but one humanity.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Fourth of July - Hardly a Reason for Fireworks This Year - Part 2

My response to this year’s July 4th holiday was not originally intended to be a two-part posting, but then again this holiday has been unlike any we have experienced in this country’s 244 year history. Yesterday I addressed the event at Mount Rushmore on July 3rd, and today I am focusing on the July 4th "festivities" here in Washington yesterday. I was shocked, not awed.

As I mentioned yesterday, for many years my wife and I have celebrated this holiday in Maine or elsewhere and we were just as happy to be away from the hubbub of the Nation’s Capital. Not a fan of large crowds, I have only seen the huge fireworks on National Mall twice in the 44 years we have lived in the Washington, DC area. And I don’t feel the need to fight the crowds and the normally hot and humid weather to try again. Been there. Done that. Finding myself at home this year, I was happy enough to spend a quiet day; just me and the dog, a writing project, and a good book. And besides . . . I had been sheltering in place for 121 days, the temperature was ranging into the 90s, the humidity was thick enough to swim through, and there was not a breath of breeze stirring. No thanks.

As the day began few had any idea how it would all play out. The traditional parade along Independence Avenue had been cancelled by Mayor Muriel Bowser and the city hoped residents and visitors alike would heed the earnest request to stay at home, or if they did decide to come into the city, to respect the strict social distancing measures and crowd size limits in effect, and to wear protective face masks. The traditional fireworks display on the National Mall was still scheduled for the evening as it is administered by the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service which are not required to adhere to city restrictions. As at Mount Rushmore, the National Park Service announced that the wearing of protective face masks and the maintenance of proper social distancing would not be enforced. Insanity continued to prevail.

The National Park Service predicted upwards of 300,000 would attend the festivities and during the morning people began to show up to stake out prime viewing sites to enjoy the festivities, including a military flyover and the massive fireworks display billed by Trump as a "Salute to America." After his speech at Mount Rushmore the day before, I wondered whose America was he referring to? Groups of protesters also converged on the Mall and local streets were closed to traffic and the areas around the White House and the Lincoln Memorial were sealed off. There were a few motley demonstrations as well as sit-ins which had begun already the night before in front of the Supreme Court and at the recently renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza just north of the White House and Lafayette Park. This was the scene of last month’s clash between peaceful demonstrators and police and National Guard ordered there by Trump so that he might walk across the park to St John’s Church to hold up a Bible for a bizarre photo-op. I was sickened by a report that Washington Police were flanking a group of several dozen Trump supporters who marched past the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall, some of them using hand gestures known to symbolize white supremacy. Not surprisingly, few were wearing masks.

By early afternoon local WTOP radio reported that the crowds on and around the Mall were remarkably "sparse," reminiscent of the "crowds" that attended Trump’s January 2017 inauguration). About half the small crowd appeared to be wearing face masks according to WTOP. Trump must have been furious and I wonder whom he will blame for this? Serves him right, but think of all the wasted taxpayer money squandered to stroke his tender ego.

Firecrackers began to pop in my suburban neighborhood during the late afternoon. Otherwise it had been a normal, quiet Saturday afternoon here in Historic Mount Rainier, Maryland. The peace and quiet was suddenly shattered shortly after 7pm when the US Air Force Thunderbirds and the US Navy Blue Angels precision flight demonstration squadrons, part of the planned military flyover, passed very low directly over my house follow by a B-2 stealth bomber with a fighter escort, as well as a variety of other military vintage and modern aircraft. The windows rattled and the dogs began to howl. In all the years I have lived here I don’t ever recall seeing military aircraft fly over at such a low altitude other than the morning of September 11, 2001.

Local private firework displays (official fireworks shows in several regional towns and counties had been cancelled due to the pandemic) crackle, joining the growing cacophony shortly after sunset at 8:30pm, and just after 9pm I began to hear the steady crumping of the firework explosions over the National Mall. We live only three miles away as the crow flies, and less than a mile from here is a ridge line, one of the highest elevations in the District of Columbia, where one is offered a broad panoramic view of the city with its monuments, the Potomac River, and Virginia beyond. On an exceptionally clear day one can see the faint outline of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. It is a favorite spot to watch the fireworks. I remained at home as planned.

Only after the smoke from the 45-minute display slowly drifted away did I begin to read reports of Trump’s earlier address to a by-invitation-only audience on the South Lawn of the White House. I was quite certain it would essentially be a repetition of his ludicrous indictment of the many domestic enemies who do not share his astigmatic and fascist vision of an America in which people are divided rather than united in a common cause. This vision. Trump announced, would be achieved by "defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who in many instances have absolutely no clue what they are doing." The last reference seems to better describe Trump and his fanatical base. He promised to "safeguard our values," but are these really our values? "We will defend, protect and preserve the American way of life which began in 1492 when Columbus discovered America." May I remind the president that Columbus did not discover America. His three voyages to the New World brought him to the Antilles and the coasts of Central and South America; he never stepped foot on the North American continent presently occupied by the United States of America. The first European to do so was Leif Erikson centuries before Columbus was born. The America Trump was referring to did not exist until July 1776 when it declared its independence from Great Britain. He is the president. He should know that. After all, this is what we were celebrating yesterday! He seems to hold tight to the myth so many of us were taught in elementary school. What Columbus brought to this hemisphere was a cruel and at times genocidal colonial occupation, torture, and disease epidemics. I am not really surprised that Trump has a particular affinity for the likes of Columbus.

We don’t want to erase our history, but on the same token, we need not honor nor commemorate the darkest and most regrettable chapters of that history or traitors who for whatever reason took up arms against this country. These monuments in question need not be destroyed, but they should be removed from public lands and placed into museums where they can be presented in a proper context to better educate our citizenry. I am a historian by both inclination and profession and I have no desire to erase our history. It was the 20th century thinker George Santayana (1863-1952) who reminded us that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Trump is a perfect example of this caveat. We are not trying to indoctrinate our young, as Trump alleges; we only want to present them with evidence and arguments and encourage debate. What is wrong with that? Do we want informed citizens or lemmings headed for the abyss?

There is a different America out there than the one Trump envisions. There are no simple solutions and we must all be up to the challenge. The Great American Experiment remains a work in progress. We must continue to work together to create an America that works for all of us regardless of who we are, where we come from, what gods we worship, or what languages we speak.

The holiday is thankfully behind us. Now it is time to look to the future and the elections just four months away. We must speak truth to power . . . and ignorance . . . and work hard to sweep this national aberration into the dustbin of history and refocus our priorities and return to the values that made us united, strong and determined in the first place. We will have many challenges to confront. The job will be difficult, but the results will be worth the sweat and tears.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Fourth of July - Hardly a Reason for Fireworks This Year - Part 1


A MSN poll posted this morning indicates that 57% of Americans have no plans to celebrate this July 4th holiday. 50% stated they would not be displaying the American flag and only 11% of those celebrating today plan to attend a fireworks display this evening. And 93% have said they have no plans to travel anywhere today, more than likely due to the surging COVID-19 pandemic across the country which reported in excess of 50,000 new cases daily for the past three days. Clearly there is little room to celebrate July 4, 2020, an annus horriblis if there ever was one. And it’s only half over. 

Yesterday Trump paid a visit to the Mount Rushmore monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Billed as an official White House holiday celebration, the event under the watchful gaze of presidents who were far more important and effective than Trump, was nothing more than one of his partisan political rallies designed to fire us his base supporters as he faces an uphill reelection campaign. It was reported that less than 7,000 attended the event. This one was held on federal land at the expense of all American taxpayers. It had nothing to do with the celebration of the 244th anniversary of our country’s independence. Instead Trump used the event to present what The Times of London described as his "sermon by the mount," his alternative view of reality in his America, a country he says is under attack by a "new far-left fascism."

In his January 2019 inaugural address, he described an "American carnage" perpetrated by enemies from beyond our borders. Now the enemy is American, people of color and those of us who do not buy into his vision; who wish to live in a democratic America and not the fascist state he is transforming it into. He clearly does not realize that fascism is, by its very nature, a reactionary far right concept. Perhaps he should do a little more reading before he opens his mouth? He blames this so-called "mob" for destroying this country’s values and moving it toward totalitarianism. This sounds like the pot calling the kettle black. He shows no interest is seeking out what brings Americans together; only that which, in his perverse mind, advances a miasma of fear and division. "If you do not speak the language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished." Trump added "This is not going to happen to us." This is rhetoric straight out of the Third Reich.

Trump’s plans for a two day "celebration" of the July 4th holiday sparked controversy from the outset, much like his military parade in Washington, DC last year. The planners of the event at Mount Rushmore announced that social distancing and the wearing of protective face masks would not be mandatory even though the event was being held in a state that has experiences over 7000 cases of COVID-19 resulting in almost 100 deaths to date. South Dakota Governor Christ Noem, an ardent Trump ally, insisted that masks and social distancing were not required although her jurisdiction does not extend to a national monument administered by the federal government.

Furthermore, the event was perceived by many as an intentional slap in the face of this country’s Native America peoples who have also been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. The Lakota Nation considers the Black Hills sacred land promised to them by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. It was later stolen from them when gold was discovered in the Black Hills and they were forced off their land by army units under the command of General George Custer who got his comeuppance a dew years later at the Little Big Horn. Some of the land was later earmarked to honor white leaders who had, in the its opinion of the Lakota, oppressed their people. This year they also opposed the planned fireworks which Trump promised would be a display "never seen before in America" (yet another example of his best ever bombast). Such displays have long been banned at the monument for fear of sparking nearby brush fires and spreading potential pollution into local streams and rivers. Prior to the event Native American protestors, almost all of them wearing face masks, blocked roads leading to the monument until they were dispersed by National Guard troops armed with pepper spray. This is yet one more instance of the Trump administration perpetuating violence against a peaceful demonstration.
Agence France
Perhaps I should mention here, too, that Trump could not have picked a better spot couched in racism to deliver his message to his America. Mount Rushmore was designed and executed by Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941) who was, in addition to being an artist and sculptor, a Knight of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist who held strong racist and anti-immigrant views at the time he began work on the Mount Rushmore project in 1927. 

Today Trump brings his Nuremberg-style rallies back to Washington, DC where for a second straight year he will host what is billed as a "Salute to America" (but whose?) yet his evening address from the South Lawn of the White House will surely be a carbon copy of his indictment of the "culture war" for which he himself is largely responsible. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser has urged residents to stay home. Visitors who do attend the event are urged to wear protective face masks and practice social distancing. Strict social distancing measures and crowd size limits remain in effect for the city. The National Independence Day Parade along Constitution Avenue has been canceled, along with fireworks shows in several regional towns and counties. The traditional fireworks display on the National Mall is still scheduled as it is administered by the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service which are not required to adhere to city restrictions. Once again, as at Mount Rushmore, the wearing of protective face masks and the maintenance of proper social distancing will not be enforced.

Mayor Bowser contacted the Department of the Interior stating that the event runs contrary to the city’s wishes, as well as the advice of health officials at the Center for Disease Control, but to no avail. I consulted the National Park Service’s website this afternoon. It cautioned spectators visiting the National Mall to wear appropriate eye and ear protection and to protect themselves against heat related illnesses (the forecast called for temperatures in the mid-80s and high humidity at the time of the display beginning at 9:07pm. There is not one word concerning the wearing of protective face masks or the maintenance of safe social distancing. This strikes me as bordering on the criminal given the dangerous circumstances in which we find ourselves. According to many reports the Park Service expects hundreds of thousands of spectators on the Mall this evening and they were already beginning to gather early this morning to claim a prime viewing spot. Groups of protesters were also converging on the Mall and local streets were closed to traffic and the areas around the White House and the Lincoln Memorial sealed off

On Memorial Day, just 35 days ago, the number of victims of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States numbered 100,000. Today the CDC reports this number has climbed to 128,648. Despite claims by Trump and Pence that the US is flattening the curve and the virus is beginning to disappear, all evidence is to the contrary as the pandemic has surged in 30 states. Trumps seems to believe that by reducing the number of tests one can reduce the number of cases. This is like saying, if we just close our eyes Trump will go away. It does not work like that. Any sensible person understands this. The virus that causes COVID-19 also increased from last week and it appears that a second wave of infections and hospitalizations is on the rise. This one is wholly on the shoulders of the White House which seems little interested in stemming the tide of this horrible pandemic.

I read this morning that the US-Canadian border may remain closed for another year at least, and Americans are still banned from travel to and throughout the European Union countries which have begun reopening their borders to other travelers, including those from China where the virus began. We have become prisoners in our own country and I can’t help but wonder if this is not a perverse goal of the Trump White House.

I am trying very hard to feel patriotic today, but it is difficult when I look at what has happened to our country over the past three and half years. This year especially the holiday seems to be all about Trump and his perverted vision of America while the rest of us recognize the dangers, perhaps even existential dangers, it faces. Where is the celebration of the Declaration of Independence and our Founding Fathers? Trump claims that these so-called "mobs" are trying to destroy our heroes and our values yet his actions speak volumes that he himself has no interest in preserving them.

Over the past decade, as fellow citizens would gather at the History Barn in New Gloucester, Maine, where my wife and I spend our summers, I have participated in the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence on the morning of July 4th. I have long felt that every citizen should read and reread this founding document as a reminder of how the United States came into being and why. I looked forward to this event as a prelude to the tradition American celebration of the holiday with barbeques, flags and fireworks. But not this year. As a result of the pandemic and travel restrictions both at home in Maryland and in Maine, we are foregoing our annual hiatus at the lake cottage (more on this soon) and remaining at home. New Gloucester has cancelled the annual reading, and has joined towns and cities across the nation in scaling back, if not outright cancelling, other holiday festivities. It makes sense. It’s the prudent and cautious thing to do given the dangers we face. But Trump does not see it that way.

I hope all of you have a safe and healthy holiday. Here’s hoping our country will right its course in November and return to the values instilled in us by out Founding Founders.

Friday, June 19, 2020

It's Time for a New National Holiday

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Jubilee Day, is a holiday in parts of the United States. It commemorates June 19, 1865, the date on which Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 - "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious Confederate states "are, and henceforward shall be free" - was finally enforced in the State of Texas.

Slavery was not formally abolished in the United States until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction." It passed the Senate on April 8, 1864, and the House on January 31, 1865. On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of Congress submitting the proposed amendment to the state legislatures for ratification. This occurred on December 6, 1865. 

Juneteenth has come to recognize the end of slavery in the United States and to celebrate the culture and achievements of African Americans. It became a state holiday in Texas in 1980, joined by other states since then. This year Virginia and New York followed suit and today 47 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or an informal ceremonial day of observance. The three states that do not recognize Juneteenth are Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

For quite some time now activists and organizations such as the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation have been pressuring the US Congress to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday. I think the time has come to make it official, now more so than ever. Write to your Congressional representatives and show your support.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Remembering My Mentor - Max Dufner on the Centennial of His Birth

Max Dufner was born June 17, 1920, in Davos, Switzerland where his father, near death in a French POW camp, had been sent as part of a prisoner exchange.  His wife joined him there and before he had fully recuperated she became pregnant and so they chose to remain in Switzerland.  After Max was born they returned to the family home in the tiny village of Schönenbach near Furtwangen in the Black Forest of southern Germany.

He immigrated to the United States with his family as a young boy, settling in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He received his BA in German from the University of Missouri in 1942, and he served as an interpreter in the US Army during the war.  He eventually received his MA and PhD in German from the University of Illinois, in 1947 and 1951 respectively.  He taught at the University of Illinois and the University of Kentucky before ending up at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where he taught for several years.  He moved his young family to Tucson in 1969 where he was appointed chair of the German Department at the University of Arizona, a position he held until 1978.  He retired from teaching in 1987.

I knew absolutely no one when I first arrived in Tucson in January 1974 to begin my  graduate studies.  I had never been to the city or the campus before, having arranged my acceptance entirely by letter and telephone.  I also had my first face-to-face meeting with the chairperson of the Department of German, the individual who had accepted me into the graduate program and who would ultimately hold my destiny in his hands.  I knew him only by name and bona fides when I first walked into his small, book-lined  office on the third floor of the Modern Language Building . . . my home for the next two and a half years. 

He arose from behind his desk, everything on it neatly stacked and in its proper place, to shake my hand and invite me to be seated.  A rather short man with neatly cropped and graying hair, horned-rimmed glasses, and sporting a shirt and tie. He was quite proper and formal as he spoke with gravity about my course work over the coming semesters. Even so, his small, thin-lipped mouth evidenced an almost perpetual hint of a smile. I would come to know him as a man of towering intellect who over those early months left me intimidated more often than I might have admitted at the time. That said, I liked him from the very first moment I met him. I knew he would “ride me hard and put me up wet,” but I welcomed the challenge and the opportunities he offered me.

I took a number of courses under Professor Dufner - a rather grueling seminar in classical German literature during that first semester. This was followed by a two semester seminar during which my fellow graduate students and I attempted to dissect the intricacies of Goethe’s Faust (Parts I and II) line by line, word by word.  This remains one of my most rewarding academic experiences. Professor Dufner made literature come alive for me for the very first time.  When I made my oral defense at the completion of my master’s program, Professor Dufner asked me a number of probing questions about Goethe’s masterpiece, and upon the completion of my response he turned to the others on my examination committee, a wide smile this time, and said “Herr Rogers kann Goethe.” [Mr. Rogers knows Goethe.]  No higher praise in my book!

My Faust studies were perhaps eclipsed only by an independent study seminar on the writings of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) I shared with a fellow comrade-in-arms.  We would attend weekly meetings in Professor Dufner’s office where he would grill us on minutiae pertaining to this most enigmatic and challenging German poet.  At the end of this colloquium, we were invited to present the results of our independent research before the Palmenorden: Die Forschungsgemeinschaft des Germanistischen Instituts [The Order of the Palm: The Research Society of the Germanic Institute]. All the while Professor Dufner sat in the front row and gently nodded his head up and down, his tight-lipped smile telling us we had done our job well.  He was always confident that we would both make something of ourselves in the community of German scholarship. And we did.

As my time in Tucson came to an end I prepared to resume my graduate studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. Professor Dufner and I had come a long way together since that first meeting in his office two and half years earlier. I no longer thought of him only as a professor and mentor; we had become “Kollegen” [colleagues]. But more importantly, we had become friends. During our time together he always referred to me as Herr Rogers. That final evening in Tucson, he shook my hand and patted me on the shoulder and said “Good luck to you, Steve. You will do well.”

Max and I exchanged letters during the years after I left Tucson, and I saw him on occasion.  My work took me to Tucson a couple times and I was a dinner guest in his home. His eldest daughter, who was an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona when I was there, became a good friend and we frequently saw her and her husband after they moved east to Richmond, Virginia.  Max and his wife would visit them there and I had opportunities to resume our friendship in person.

The last time I would see Max was in Richmond around Christmas, in 1993.   It was a wonderful visit full of laughter and the recollection of fond memories.   Max passed away in Tucson on May 22, 1999, and after his death, his daughter shared with me several things her father had said and written about me over the years; one being the letter of recommendation he wrote on my behalf when I applied to the University of Maryland. She also gave me a number of prized books from her father’s library which now have an honored place in my own library.

I think of my old mentor and friend often, and always fondly. I would have never accomplished what I did had it not been for him.  I miss him and I will never forget him.

Monday, June 1, 2020

What Has Happened to America??

The pandemic in the Washington DC area continues. Cases and deaths rise daily. We remain under a stay at home lockdown. And now DC is under an 11pm to 6am curfew as police and National Guard troops patrol city streets. Fires are being set - the historic St. John's Church across from the White House was set ablaze. Rocks are being thrown. And our leader cowers in his bunker and sends disparaging and divisive Tweets and threatening more police violence. What has happened to America?

Sunday, May 31, 2020

I CAN'T BREATHE

Who of us can breathe in this America?  

This is what happens when the highest echelons of government ignore or circumvent the rule of law. The people follow. This is what happens when the president preaches violence will be met with more violence. He promised to make America great again. He has diminished it beyond recognition. 

It is time to wake up and resist . . . peacefully.   Do not give this president an excuse to ramp up his violence against the American people . . . the people who supposedly elected him to lead them.   He is only leading this country to his vision of an authoritarian oligarchy where the uber-wealthy get richer and the rights of the poor and disenfranchised fade and eventually disappear.  

Stay strong.   Stay united.   Stay peaceful.   Stand up for the America we all love.   Don't let this small man destroy a great country.  


Friday, May 29, 2020

They Shall Not Be Forgotten

Over 100,000 people in the USA who were alive on New Year’s Day are now dead, victims of the COVID-19 / coronavirus pandemic. Who was it said it was a hoax? Who was it said it would be gone by April? Well, it is not a hoax. It is late May and it’s not gone. Far from it.   Please stay safe and healthy!

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

I Will Listen to Him No More Forever

Yesterday I posted a rather strongly worded Memorial Day message in which I took the President of the United States to task for his dangerous words and actions, especially during this gruesome pandemic. Over the past twelve years of this blog, while occasionally commenting on social or cultural issues, I have attempted to stay clear of overtly political topics. I have long believed that everyone is entitled to their own political opinions, whether I agree with them or not, and I certainly do not want to foist my own on anyone else. There is a time and place for political debate. This platform, I believe, is not one of these. Yet I cannot help but address a matter that some might label as "political" yet I see it as a matter of simple human decency and a manner in which we can try to preserve it in these strange times in which we live. Common decency should not be the purview of any single individual, group, or political party. We share it or we all suffer as a result. So I apologize, if you are in some way offended by what I have to say here. I am not attacking any political party or philosophy, or any person who simply holds political views different from my own. What I am attacking is the lack of common decency exhibited by the current President of the United States, a person we normally look to as a moral compass, a person of strength and sound judgement. Nothing more. Nothing less. It is my opinion that the current inhabitant of the Oval Office exhibits none of these traits. 

Permit me to digress for a moment. It will become apparent why soon enough. While traveling through western Montana during the early spring of 2007 my wife and I came upon the site of a former Native American encampment and battlefield on the Big Hole River. It was there we learned the story of Hinmatóowyalahtq, popularly known today as Chief Joseph (1840-1904), the leader of a band of Wallowa Valley Nez Perce. Joseph had negotiated an agreement with the US government in 1873 to guarantee that his people could remain on their ancestral tribal lands in northeastern Oregon as specified in two land treaties signed in 1855 and 1863. Nevertheless the government forced them off their lands during the so-called Nez Perce War in late 1877. Joseph’s band and other tribal allies fled first into neighboring Idaho, and after clashing with white settlers there, finally into Montana in an attempt to seek asylum in Canada along with the Lakota after their defeat at the Battle of Little Big Horn, in 1876. Federal troops pursued and skirmished with Joseph and his band across Idaho, Wyoming, and again into Montana to the Bear Paw Mountains just shy of the Canadian border. It was there that Joseph and just over 400 surviving Nez Perce surrendered on October 5, 1877. Another 250 or so managed to escape into Canada.

Upon surrender Chief Joseph spoke through an interpreter and said that he was tired of fighting. The chiefs and tribal elders were mostly dead. Children had no food or blankets and were freezing to death with the onset of winter. It was time to put a stop to the violence and death. "Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever." What courage it must have taken to end a struggle for the better good.

I have always been struck by those memorable words. Was it really a surrender or simply a wise man refusing to allow the cruelty experienced by his band of Nez Perce to continue? A New York Times editorial published a short time after the surrender condemned the government’s actions. "On our part, the war was in its origin and motive nothing short of a gigantic blunder and a crime." For the past three years I have also been in a struggle to make sense out of what our government and its "leadership" has turned into. Failing in that effort, I began to call out the ignorance, the idiocy, the audacity, the lies, and the sheer criminality of the current White House administration. Even this has provided little self-satisfaction nor a salve for the injustice of it all.

More recently, the US media has continued to confront that man in the White House, taking him to task for his lies and disinformation only to be insulted and forced to listen to yet a new litany of lies fueled by his anger, his paranoia, and his pathological narcissism. I have questioned why the media continues to accede to this incessant bullying and less than adolescent behavior. Would they not be better off gathering and reporting the facts and the science directly from the experts without first filtering them through the bantam mind standing before them and dictating what they are permitted to reveal to the public? Now I have to ask myself. Why am I even listening to this man and trying to make sense out of something bordering on the incomprehensible?

Then I read Tom Nichols’ article, "With Each Briefing, Trump is Making Us Worse People," in the April 11, 2020 issue of The Atlantic. Nichols writes that the president "is draining the last decency from us at a time when we need it most." Nichols characterizes the 45th inhabitant of the White House as "spiritually impoverished" with an "utterly disordered personality." He is immoral, shameless, unstable, and a "malignant narcissist" incapable of reflection or remorse and unable to recognize in himself the slightest possibility that he might not know the answers to everything, nor the solution for every problem. He is devoid of any degree of contrition nor is he capable of "moments of reflection, even if only to adjust strategies for survival." He is a "spiritual black hole."

Having never run across the term "malignant narcissist" before I learned that the term was coined by Dr. John Gartner, a psychologist and psychotherapist at Johns Hopkins Medical School who specializes in the treatment of borderline personality disorders. In 2017, shortly after Trump took office, Gartner collected the signatures of over 40,000 mental health professionals on a petition stating that the president was not mentally fit to discharge the duties of his office and urged that he be removed pursuant to the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution. Gartner also contributed to The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (2017), a collection of essays by similar mental health professionals underscoring the clear and present danger represented by the president’s mental pathologies, including the perpetuation of chaos, personal harm, and suffering. Gartner believes that they "inexorably compel him to hurt and kill large numbers of people — including his own supporters." Gartner also believes that sadism and violence are central to Trump's malignant narcissism and his decision-making throughout the COVID-19 / coronavirus pandemic. Like other sadists, Gartner also believes the president exhibits a deeply dysfunctional relationship with other people, including those he was elected to protect and defend. Gartner concludes that the president is engaged in "democidal behavior," that the victims of the pandemic (almost 100,000 dead in less than three months) are not collateral damage from his policies, or lack thereof, but rather the obvious result of his inability to make educated and timely decisions on matters of life and death.

Nichols, addressing the more recent epic daily White House briefings to address the COVID-19 / coronavirus pandemic, describes how the president is a man who "lumbers to the podium and pulls us into his world: detached from reality . . . . " As we have listened to him prattle on, his "spiritual poverty increases our own, because for the duration of these performances, we are forced to live in the same agitated, immediate state that envelops him" until he concludes in "a fog of muttered slogans and paranoid sentence fragments." He "invites us to join a daily ritual, to hear lines from a scared and mean little boy’s heroic play-acting about how he bravely defeated the enemies and scapegoats who told him to do things that would hurt us. He insists that he has never been wrong and that he isn’t responsible for anything ever."

I am reminded of something Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address in 1864 when this country was still in the midst of an existential crisis. "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." And now Nichols reminds us that in this time of crisis unlike any we have faced in decades, we should be seeking out these same better angels, finding what is best in ourselves. I do not consider the situation in this country hopeless although sometimes it seems we are tipping along the precipice. We will have an opportunity come November to apply the necessary corrective in order that we might once again function as a caring and compassionate nation. I have to believe that.

That said, I also believe there is no longer any practical reason for me to submit to the jabberwocky ramblings of an individual who continues his vulgar attacks on the media, the Democrats, and anyone else who refuses to take his word as gospel. Nichols is quick to point out that by this submission "all of us, angry or pleased, become more vulgar like Trump, because just like the president, we end up thinking about only Trump, instead of our families, our fellow citizens, our health-care workers, or the future of our country. We are all forced to take sides every day, and those two sides are always ‘Trump’ and ‘everyone else.’"

We must learn to step back from this void of irrational thinking and from confrontation with an individual who has no interest in what we have to say and begin to think on our own. We cannot allow the spiritual poverty of this small and insignificant person to force us to listen to the lesser angels surrounding us. " We are all living with him in the moment," Nichols writes, "and neglecting the thing that makes us human beings instead of mindless fish swimming in circles. We must recover this in ourselves, and become more decent, more reflective, and more stoic—before Trump sends us into a hole from which we might never emerge."

So I have decided to distance myself from the abyss. When Chief Joseph was faced with the simple fact that nothing he could do or say could ameliorate the situation in which he and his people found themselves, he took what action he though necessary to protect his desperate people from further harm as best he could. He saw the futility in running and he promised "I will fight no more forever." So allow me to paraphrase this brave leader and protector of his people when I look at our sad excuse for a president. It is futile to try and contend with what Alexandra Petri describes as his "factless, futureless, contextless void," as if goldfish swimming around bowl bumping into the glass. I refuse to share his bowl. I will listen to him no more forever.

Monday, May 25, 2020

An Incalculable Loss, An Unnecessary Loss - Memorial Day 2020

As we gather with family and friends at a safe social distance or via social media to commemorate Memorial Day, it is a time not only to honor those men and women who bravely sacrificed their lives to make the United States the country it used to be. Let us also remember the nearly 100,000 people in this country who have lost their fight against COVID-19 / the coronarius over the past three months. If that number still does not register in your mind, then consider this. This is nearly twice the number of American troops who sacrificed their lives in the Vietnam conflict between 1959 and 1975 . . . a period of 16 years!! If you have experienced a sobering visit to the Vietnam Memorial here in Washington, DC, imagine a wall twice as long with twice as many names etched into its black marble.  

How would you feel to learn that the entire population of Berkeley, California had been wiped out in an epidemic? Or the entire population of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Or Norman, Oklahoma. Or Erie, Pennsylvania. Or Portsmouth, Virginia. Or Green Bay, Wisconsin. Or any number of other medium size cities across the breath of this country.  

As stated in the headlines of yesterday’s edition of The New York Times, this is an incalculable loss. And I venture to add that it has been an unnecessary loss. As people in this country continue to hunker down and self-quarantine themselves alienated from their families and their friends, the man responsible for this situation, the man who called it a hoax when the virus first appeared on our shores, a man who has suggested that people try cures that would put them at serious risk of death, a man who points his finger at everyone but himself to place blame for the pandemic, retreats to play golf at his private club in Virginia that most Americans would not be allowed to join or visit.

So how does this man choose to commemorate Memorial Day 2020? He will attend the traditional annual wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery as most presidents have done in the past. At present the cemetery is open only to families with relatives interred there and all visitors entering the cemetery are required to wear an appropriate face covering. But will the President of the United States? He has gone on record that they are unnecessary and has steadfastly refused to wear one at public events where they are required. He will lay a wreath and mumble of few platitudes he neither believes nor even comprehends, and that will be that.

He has also chosen to travel later in the day with the First lady to Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, "to honor the American heroes who have sacrificed their lives serving in the US Armed Forces." Had he not already done that at Arlington Cemetery? Baltimore’s Mayor Jack Young has requested that the President not come. "That President Trump is deciding to pursue non-essential travel sends the wrong message to our residents, many of whom have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 virus. I wish that the President, as our nation’s leader, would set a positive example and not travel during this holiday weekend," pointing out that young people have had to give up their proms and graduations. Families have had to postpone weddings and funerals. Why must he visit Fort McHenry? A leader should lead by example.

The president’s visit sends a dangerous message to local citizens in our state which is still one of the major hot spots of the coronarius pandemic, a state where there has been over 46,000 confirmed cases and almost 1,200 deaths as the numbers continue to climb (nearly a quarter of the cases and a third of the deaths are in my Maryland county alone).

Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan, who also in his capacity as the Chairman of the National Governors Association, has frequently been at odds with the President over the lack of suitable federal assistance to the states during the pandemic, as well as the premature call to open states while the virus continues to spread unchecked. Nevertheless, Governor Hogan has called it an honor for the State of Maryland that the President has decided to come to Baltimore to commemorate Memorial Day. "We are honored that the president and the first lady have chosen to spend Memorial Day at Fort McHenry. Although Marylanders are encouraged not to gather in large numbers this year - now more than ever - it's important to reflect on the American heroes who sacrificed their lives for our freedom." Hogan, interestingly enough, has chosen not to attend in order to spend the holiday with his family . . . something the President would be wise to do.

What is the sense of this ill-advised visit since the fort, a National Monument and Memorial Shrine, has been closed to the public since March 28 and until further notice? Add to this that, according to Mayor Young, the President would effectively violate the city’s stay at home law by coming to Fort McHenry. Add to this the fact that city police would be required to provide adequate security for the visit when they are desperately needed elsewhere. "Our City, Mayor Young added, "is still dealing with the loss of roughly $20 million in revenue per month." The City of Baltimore simply can’t afford to shoulder additional unnecessary expense just to mollify the President’s ego.

And what about the National Park Service employees who will need to be on hand for the visit? And what about the ceremonial military units participating in the ceremony? Why are they being put in possible harm’s way. I thought Memorial Day was to honor our military for their service, not to place them in unnecessary jeopardy.

I find it strange that the President thinks it necessary to travel to Baltimore given the fact that just last year he tweeted that the city is a "rodent infested mess" and "a dangerous & filthy place," adding "No human being would want to live there." If this is so, why is he going other than to satisfy his insatiable narcissism with a military parade? And will he wear a face mask? I bet the money in my pocket he won’t.

It has become plainly obvious to me, and to an ever growing number of Americans, that this man does not care about you or me, or the veterans both living and dead who served this country honorably, or the nearly 100,000 women, men and children who have succumbed to COVID-19 virus over the past three months during his watch. He is interested only in what serves his skewed vision of what America should be.

I am reminded of a cartoon that ran a few years ago. A young boy joins his father in a cemetery and asked his father why he came there to stand alone. His father responds that they are not alone. And he is correct. Those of us who are alive today owe our lives and the freedoms we are supposed to enjoy because of the sacrifices, in some instances that final measure of devotion, of those who have come before; our parents and grandparents and all those we never knew yet whom we can now never forget. They are not simply names on rows of tombstones, or on a black marble wall in Washington, DC, or even those names printed on the front page of The New York Times. The paper’s editors said it better than I can. "They were not simply names on a list. They were us." Let us never forget them even if our leaders have. They are us. They always have been They always will be.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Eating Vicariously V - Haad Thai Etc.

My "Eating Vicariously" series is a romp through some interesting local eating establishments in the Washington, DC area . . . places I would like to be eating at right now if that were possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. I certainly plan to visit these places and others once this crisis is over and we are able to return to some degree of normalcy . . . whatever that will look like. 

The Washington, DC metropolitan area is brimming with ethnic restaurants reflecting the profusion of immigrant communities who have made it their home. I am hard pressed to come up with a style of ethnic cooking that cannot be found within a hour’s drive from my home in the Maryland suburbs. And whereas most of these restaurants can be found embedded in District and suburban neighborhoods where these communities reside, there are a few more upscale locations in downtown Washington catering to the daytime lunch crowds, those staying at local hotels, and others who come into the city in the evening for the theatre or sporting events.  

I discovered Haad Thai, located at the corner of New York Avenue and 11th Street, NW, when it first opened in 1995 in a space formerly occupied by the downtown Greyhound Bus terminal (built in 1940). Besides being a major transit point for soldiers and sailors during World War II, this art deco terminal was also the departure point for the "Freedom Ride 1961" to New Orleans. Sponsored by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), the purpose of the trip was to protest the failure to enforce the Supreme Court decision that the segregation of public buses was unconstitutional.
I first visited the terminal in the summer of 1964 as part of a school group from Asheville, North Carolina visiting the New York World’s Fair and the sites of Washington, DC. We stopped there in the wee hours of the morning for a break before continuing to New York City. It seemed like a typical bus station full of travelers and others down on their luck and no place else to go.

By the 1970s, the terminal was one more piece of the decrepit puzzle that was downtown Washington beyond the government buildings surrounding the Mall. The Greyhound terminal moved closer to Union Station in the early 1980s and it appeared that the old terminal would become another victim of the wrecking ball as New York Avenue became the focus of an urban renovation project anchored by the old Washington Convention Center constructed next door, in 1980-1982 (replaced and demolished in 2004). Thankfully at least the art deco facade of the old bus terminal was designated a National Register Historic Site in 1987, and it was incorporated as the entrance and lobby of a new office and commercial complex completed in 1991 as part of the north end of the new Penn Quarter district neighborhood. 
Haad Thai opened its doors in this new complex in February 1995. At that time my office was located just two blocks down 11th Street and it quickly became a regular lunchtime hang-out. In my last posting I mentioned that Stoney’s, a former regular lunchtime venue a few blocks away, was a place where everyone knew my name, so too Haad Thai over time although most of the staff referred to me simply as "Mr. Thai Beer" because I always ordered a bottle or two of Singha to accompany my meal. In fact, one would arrive at my table before I had a chance to order it. And despite the lunchtime crowds of office workers and folks attending events across the street at the convention center, they managed to find a table for me. The service was always fast and friendly and I was able to return to work well fed and on time. Chatree "Charles" Kiatrungrit, the owner of Haad Thai, always made it a point to stop by my table to chat for a few moments. He, like his staff, made me feel like I was someone special. And it was not pro forma; he remembered details from past conversations. It was a perfect stress-free place to escape the office for an hour or so. Frequently I would stop in for a beer in the evening on my way to the Metro station, and on occasion I might even stay for a light dinner. Often while eating I tried to re-imagine this space decades earlier - weary travelers waiting for their buses home or to some unknown horizon. 

I continued to be a regular customer until my retirement in March 2010. I still make the effort to eat at Haad Thai on my less frequent forays into the city, but I have to say that I miss the pleasant ambiance, the solicitous service, the friendly faces, but most of all, the wonderful food. And then there is that lovely mural that surrounds the dining room that brings to mind soft sea breezes and the sibilate sound of the gentle waves brushing the shoreline at sunset. The scene reminds me of photos a good friend sent me from the beaches at Phuket. The ceiling is black and studded with tiny lights reminding one of the stars that arrive after sunset over the Andaman Sea. I often think of Haad Thai even before the time of COVID-19 made a return trip for the moment impossible. 
For years the dishes offered by Haad Thai have been the benchmark by which I measure the cuisine at other Thai establishments. Like anyone else, there are particular dishes I prefer over others. This is not to say that the others are not good; they are when I decide to try something new. I just
tend to eat what I enjoy best. In the case of Haad Thai, I always started out with a bowl of Tom Kha Gai, thin chicken breast medallions drowned in a rich coconut milk broth along with sliced mushrooms and spiced with fresh ginger, lime juice, basil leaves, and powdered red Thai chili. On occasion I would order the Tom Yum instead - a shrimp floating in a spicy lemon grass broth. Next came the appetizer which was normally an order of satay - wooden skewers of grilled chicken served with a spicy peanut sauce and small dish of sliced onion and cucumber with slivers of carrot in a subtle sweet sauce. Or larb, finely minced chicken and vegetables mixed with lime juice, mint and various herbs served with a lettuce wedge. Finally, the entree of choice. Frequently this
was what I consider Haad Thai’s signature dish - Ka Prow. Thin sliced chicken medallions with fresh basil leaves and slices of red bell pepper in an aromatic and tart green chili pepper and garlic sauce. Every once in awhile I would substitute roasted duck, or a seafood medley of shrimp, scallops and squid. Another standby was Ka Tiem, sliced marinated pork in a white pepper and garlic sauce. These dishes were always well spiced but never over the top. Additional heat is provided, if you request it. Each dish is served over rice with steamed yet crunchy broccoli or snow peas. Who ever had room for dessert of which Haad Thai offers several?


*****

Being a regular customer at Haad Thai during the latter half of the 1990s and into the first decade of the new century, I could not help but notice when a modest sushi restaurant - Sushi AOI - opened next door. Being a sushi afficionado I could not help but wander in one day so see what it had to offer. What struck me immediately was the ambiance I had discovered at the adjacent Haad Thai, and soon I recognized some of the same familiar and friendly faces. Much of what I liked about the ambiance of Haad Thai was in evidence here, too, and it soon became apparent why. Charles Kiatrungrit is also part owner of Sushi AOI although his partner, Sumiko Abe, was the delightful hostess who extended the same hospitality as her friendly next door neighbor. And what wonderful food and atmosphere squeezed into such a small space - a short sushi bar and just a smattering of tables. Sushi AOI quickly became my regular sushi stop, usually on my way home from work when I would enjoy the de rigeur miso soup and very reasonably priced sushi and sashimi offerings washed down with hot sake and/or a variety of Japanese beers.

A few years later Charles Kiatrungrit open the third of his establishments at the corner of New York Avenue and 11th Street, NW. Mazu was a Pan-Asian lounge, another intimate space with a long bar and a separate dining area, where I would frequently enjoy a half-priced beer or two during happy hour which also offered cheap yakitori, a Japanese version of satay, edamame, or a spicy tuna roll.

After my retirement in 2010 Charles Kiatrungrit closed Mazu in order to enlarge his adjacent Sushi AOI which had proven too small to handle diners seeking out reasonably priced sushi and sashimi in downtown Washington. The former Sushi AOI space has since been reborn as Noodles on 11, a Pan-Asian noodle house offering Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese noodle dishes. Sad to say I have not yet had an opportunity to dine here but I look forward to correcting this oversight as soon as possible. If it is good as its three predecessors at this downtown corner, I am certain I will not be disappointed.

And while I am at it, it is time to return to the more familiar Haad Thai and Sushi AOI. It has been far too long. I miss the ambiance and the friendly faces. And I can already smell and taste the Tom Kha Gai and the Kaprow.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Eating Vicariously IV - Stoney's: Where Everybody Knew My Name

My “Eating Vicariously” series is a romp through some interesting local eating establishments in the Washington, DC area . . . places I would like to be eating at right now if that were possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.  I certainly plan to visit these places and others once this crisis is over and we are able to return to some degree of normalcy . . . whatever that will look like. 

The popular television show “Cheers” (1982-1993) was set in a fictional neighborhood bar on Beacon Street in Boston . . . a place “where everybody knows your name” (Norm!).  Of course, most of the show was filmed on a sound stage in Hollywood, but the exterior location shots were of the Bull & Finch Pub, located across Beacon Street from the Boston Public Garden.  This pub quickly became a tourist mecca after it had been renamed “Cheers” to cash in on the show’s popularity (we walked pass it on a visit to Boston in 1988 and my wife and a friend had lunch there last summer). 

Beginning around the same time as the show, I discovered my own neighborhood bar where the staff and many of the regulars did know my name.  Stoney’s, originally located at 1307 L Street, NW in Washington, was just a hole-in-wall bar and grill when my office was located two blocks away, at 1395 K Street, from 1979 until 1984.  It had originally been Herman’s, a Jewish diner owned by Herman Susser (1900-1976) until he sold it in 1966 to a fellow named Tony Parzo.  He was a great cook but a lousy businessman, and two years later he sold it to Steve Papageorge and Tony Harris and the restaurant was transformed into Stoney’s.  Papageorge sold out in 1973 and moved to Florida, leaving Harris the sole proprietor at the L Street address for the next 32 years.

During the time I frequented the original Stoney’s and occasionally chatted with Tony Harris, who continued to work behind the bar, as well as others who had worked there for years.  I heard stories (often many times) of the early years when the place opened up at 7am and was permitted to serve booze at 8am.  Reporters and others working at the former Washington Daily News (1921-1972), whose offices were just a block away in the 1000 block of 13th Street, would often come in for a nip or two after their shifts were over.  And there were the firefighters from DCFD Engine Company 16 stationed at the historic firehouse in the same block who were still coming in during my time as did Metropolitan Police officers from the nearby district station.  Shoulder patches representing police departments and law enforcement agencies from across the country were pinned up over the bar. The headquarters of the US Secret Service Uniformed Division was also located across L Street until it moved in 2000 to a new and larger facility on 18th Street.  Off duty officers would come in for breakfast and lunch, or for a beer after work.

At the time I frequented Stoney’s in the late 1970s and into the 1980s the downtown neighborhood where my office was located was just five blocks from the White House yet it was the epicenter of Washington’s red light district with its nudie bars, bath houses, skin flick theaters, and shops selling “Doc Johnson’s Marital Aids.”  Prostitutes often gathered outside the old McDonald’s across 14th Street from my office building in the evening chanting “we do it all for you” as cars cruised past checking them out.  The police prohibited right turns into the block of L Street where Stoney’s was located, but it never seemed to slow down the nightly caravans.  At times some of the girls would come in for a drink or two despite the preponderance of in situ law enforcement types. 

This neighborhood also had an important connection with Washington’s history.  A block south of the original Stoney’s is Franklin Park.  An Union Army encampment during the Civil War, Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross at her home on 13th Street across from the park.  Adjacent to where her house once stood is the former Franklin School from which Alexander Graham Bell transmitted his first wireless message in June 1880 using a beam of light (a precursor to our modern fiber-optics) sent to a window in a building at 1325 L Street that served as his laboratory.  Almost a century later the area adjacent to the 14th Street corridor was devastated during the rioting in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on April, 4, 1968, just a month before Stoney’s opened.  The legend has it that the idea for the bar came about while Harris and Papageorge spent a night in jail having been arrested for a curfew violation during the unrest.  The neighborhood was also the scene of large anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in the early 1970s.

The original Stoney’s was looking rather worn down when I discovered it in late 1979; a narrow space with a long bar counter running the length of one wall and with a few small tables along the opposite wall.  Stairs in the back led upstairs to a small office and two extremely small and bare-bone restrooms.  I remember there was a condom vending machine over the urinal in the men’s room upon which someone had scratched “This is the worse gum I have ever tasted.” 

Stoney became  my go-to place for lunch when I was not tied to my desk.  It was well known for the “Super Grilled Cheese sandwich,” perhaps its signature dish, which included a generous portion of fresh tomatoes, sliced onions, and bacon.  The menu also included burgers and fries, roast beef BBQ sandwiches, pizza, chili with cornbread, salads, and an open-face hot turkey sandwich served with a generous helping of stuffing that was to die for.  My colleagues and I would also frequently gather on Friday evenings after work to share cheap pitchers of Budweiser while solving the problems of the world, even after our office moved a few blocks farther down 14th Street, in 1984.

My colleagues and I would still occasionally meet at Stoney’s on Friday evenings until the early 2000s.  The neighborhood had long ago cast off its more notorious reputation as the older buildings were being re-purposed or replaced by new office and residential structures.  The original Stoney’s held its ground for longer than many of us thought possible, but in 2005 the owner of the building sold it, and after 37 years Tony Harris was forced to close or relocate. 

Harris signed a lease in 2006 for a space at 1433 P Street, NW, the largely gentrified residential Logan Circle neighborhood; more specifically in the revitalized commercial western end of the neighborhood with its restaurants, bars, art galleries and live theater.  Harris brought the original outdoor sign and the collection of police patches, hoping to recapture the ambiance of the original place and bring his old customers - all those “good guys” and “good people” - with him.  My colleagues and I, who were by then based at the corner of 13th Street and New York Avenue, NW, had to look for a new watering hole “closer to home.”  

A few years passed before I had an opportunity to check out the “new Stoney’s” prior to theatrical productions at the nearby Studio Theatre, on 14th Street, and the Keegan Theatre, on Church Street, just a short walk away.  The new space is a two-floor restaurant and bar and the times I have been there the clientele was predominantly Millenial and Gen-Z types with a few hipsters thrown into the mix.  Yes, the familiar sign was out front and the collection of police department patches is now displayed under glass, but otherwise there is virtually nothing to remind those of us who remember the original Stoney’s where everyone knew your name.  Business must be thriving because Stoney’s opened a second establishment five years ago at  2101 L St, NW, in the West End neighborhood between the George Washington University campus and Dupont Circle.  So Stoney’s has found a way to return to L Street . . . at least in spirit.

There is little to distinguish the new spaces from the other the glass and chrome establishments popping up all over the city. But this is not to say, however, that there is nothing to commend them to their current customers, many of whom I am sure are regulars.  While they do little to resurrect the ambiance of the original establishment in the 1300 block of L Street long since lost to the wrecking ball, the food and drink are worth the effort regardless and I look forward to returning and enjoying the “new” Stoney’s for what they are.   Nothing wrong with that.  Stoney’s remains a Washington institution regardless of its locations today.  Long may it remain the “Boss of the Sauce.”

Monday, May 11, 2020

Eating Vicariously III - Shagga Ethiopian

My "Eating Vicariously" series is a romp through some interesting local eating establishments in the Washington, DC area . . . places I would like to be eating at right now if that were possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. I certainly plan to visit these places and others once this crisis is over and we are able to return to some degree of normalcy . . . whatever that will look like. 

One of my favorite local eating spots is Shagga Coffee and Ethiopian Restaurant located at 6040 Baltimore Avenue, in Hyattsville, Maryland. I remember back in the day when this space was occupied by a Dunkin’ Donut shop with full counter service; a place where locals could stop in the morning for a donut or two and a couple cups of coffee and to share the latest town gossip. It was sad to see it close, but I was equally excited to learn that an Ethiopian restaurant would move into the space. There is nothing fancy or ground breaking here, but how fortunate to have my favorite traditional Ethiopian dishes just five minutes from where I live. The good folks at Shagga follow recipes that have been handed down for generations. It is honest to goodness Ethiopian cuisine at its finest and I probably eat here more often than any other traditional restaurant in the area. And that is saying something right there. 

I am drawn mainly to the fact that Shagga is so close and it serves two distinct versions of yebeg tibs, one of my all-time favorite dishes. The regular version consists of lean cubes pf lamb sauteed in onions, green peppers and herbed niter kibbeh. The alternative version of is fueled with the addition of tomatoes and herbed pepper awaze chile sauce. Shagga also offers yebeg wat, a lamb stew simmered in berbere sauce along with onions, spices and niter kibbeh, and yebeg alicha which is lamb simmered in a mild herbed niter kibbeh sauce with onions, garlic and ginger. And I never pass on the three versions of kitfo – the orthodox version of extra lean beef, seasoned with hot chili powder and herbed butter served raw, medium or well-done – as well as adaptations including homemade spiced cheese or onion and jalapeños peppers. They are all excellent. To top it off, the folks who run Shagga are as friendly as they can be. What more does one need?
I have missed my frequent visits to Shagga since the onset of the COVID-19 and I feared that an extended closure might prove fatal. So you can imagine my joy when the owners recently announced that they are remaining open for delivery and take-away orders. Like other restaurants in our area and elsewhere, Shagga is also offering gifts cards which is a great way to support these establishments by providing them with the cash flow they need to stay open and viable, and which can be redeemed once the pandemic is over and the restaurants are back on a more solid footing. Or just consider them as good investments.

Luckily, in the case of Shagga, I will not be forced to eat vicariously. I plan to order a take-away meal this week, and will continue this weekly practice until the pandemic is just an ugly memory. I urge you to support your favorite culinary haunts offering take-away and delivery service. And tip the staffs copiously. They are working hard to bring us the foods we love. We want these places to still be around once we are able to again roam free.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Vesak 2020

Today is Vesak, the traditional birthday celebration of Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha. Born circa 563 BCE, Vesak also celebrates the Buddha's attainment of enlightenment - nirvana -, as well as his death, or parinirvana. May peace be with my dearest sisters and brothers in every place in the world.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Eating Vicariously II - Chez Dior and Home-Style Senegalese Fare

My "Eating Vicariously" series is a romp through some interesting local eating establishments in the Washington, DC area . . . places I would like to be eating at right now if that were possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. I certainly plan to visit these places and others once this crisis is over and we are able to return to some degree of normalcy . . . whatever that will look like.
 
I was first introduced to West African cuisine when sampling various take-away joints in the Hammersmith and Earl’s Court sections of London some forty years ago. Much of what I found there were dishes native to Nigeria and Ghana, two former British colonies. Since then my tastes for African food have migrated east to the cuisines of the Horn of Africa as Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somali dishes are readily available in the Washington, DC metropolitan area (see: http://lookingtowardportugal.blogspot.com/2019/04/a-moveable-feast-in-search-of-ultimate_22.html). Once again, however, I have begun to seek out the foods of West Africa since returning home from my first trip to Africa when my flight from Johannesburg to Washington made a refueling and crew change stop in Dakar, Senegal. I thought back to those wonderful West African dishes I had first tried in London and I made a promise to myself that I would seek them out again when I returned home. Surely they could be found in the immigrant stew that is modern Washington, DC.

For me Africa has always been a place of mystery and transition and my interest in the continent goes way back. I grew up with the story that one of my distant English ancestors was a confidant of David Livingstone, the Scottish medical missionary and explorer, and I read everything I could find by and about him and his exploration of East and Southern Africa, hoping without success that I might find some reference to my kinsman. On my first visit to London, in early 1972, I visited Livingstone’s final resting place at Westminster Abbey (sans heart which is buried in the heart of Africa). Something might turn up one of these days.

In high school in the late 1960s, as much of Africa was beginning to cast aside the yoke of its colonial past, I seriously considered a career in African history. I had teachers who encouraged me in that vein and gave me books to read. "There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa," Beryl Markham wrote in her 1942 memoir West With the Night. "And as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime." I discovered how correct she was. And more books were published every year. It would be a daunting task. Despite my early interest in African history and politics, I was late to the table as far as exploring its many regional cuisines.

Once home I began to do some research and was pleased to
discover Chez Dior, a small storefront restaurant serving home-style Senegalese fare located at 5124 Baltimore Avenue in Hyattsville, Maryland just over a mile from my home. Opened in 2014, I had been driving past it for years without noticing it. How was this possible? I read Tim Carman’s May 7, 2015 review in The Washington Post and decided to try it out at my next opportunity.

I was not disappointed. It is nothing fancy to the eyes; very reminiscent of small ethnic diners catering to immigrants longing for the tastes of home. A few tables and booths up front and a small kitchen in the rear with the ubiquitous television broadcasts from Dakar. The owners are very friendly and generate teranga, the generous hospitality of Senegal. They are anxious to answer any questions or issues one might have concerning their traditional offerings. They take great pride in welcoming their dining guests.

The only difficulty was trying to decide which of the traditional dishes I would like to try as my introduction to Senegalese cuisine. There was so much to choose from. Since much of the country’s population lives along the Atlantic coastline (Dakar is the western most point of the African continent), fish is very important in Senegalese cooking. Chicken, lamb, and beef are also mainstays although pork is not due to the predominantly Muslim population in an otherwise secular state. I love just about any kind of seafood imaginable and Chez Dior offers caldou, or fish yassa. It is a whole tilapia which has been marinated in a vinegary tomato and onion sauce and then char-grilled before it is returned to the marinade to simmer until serving. It looks quite appetizing, but I have to be honest that I do not think much of tilapia when there is so much quality seafood to be had. Yes, it’s relatively inexpensive and available just about anywhere. I just find it bland and uninteresting and too reminiscent of carp, another bottom feeder. Perhaps the preparation of caldou might improve its taste, but I was not going to gamble with my introduction to Senegalese cooking. Perhaps someday.

Peanuts, the primary crop, as well as plantains, sweet potatoes, various lentils and vegetables, are frequently incorporated into most Senegalese meat offerings which are marinated with herbs and spices and served whole or in stews over couscous or white rice. Once I had perused the menu a couple of times I decided to order the poulet yassa, or poulet au yassa [chicken yassa ]. Why? The answer is very simple.   
While our South African Airways jet was parked at the terminal of the Dakar airport in the wee hours of the morning, I happened to notice a food truck parked nearby advertising "Poulet Yassa. L'âme de l'Afrique de l'Ouest" [chicken yassa. The soul of West Africa]. What more did I need to make my selection? Poulet yassa originated in the Casamance region along the Gambia River in the south of Senegal (a region often at odds with the central government in Dakar). Today it is a popular "comfort food" throughout the former French West Africa as a result of symbiotic culinary influences of France, its former colonial master since the mid 17th century; a blending of the old and the new. Senegalese immigrants brought their cuisine to France and I wonder how I managed to miss out when I was traveling throughout that country in the early 1970s. 
 
Traditional yassa incorporates chicken (or fish) which has been marinated for at least eight hours in vinegar and lemon juice mixed with garlic, clove, allspice, salt and pepper. After the meat has been removed from the marinade it can be either char-grilled or pan-fried until it is browned evenly. While the meat is cooking, the onions are removed from the marinade and cooked separately until they are translucent. The meat is eventually returned to the pot of onions along with the marinade and the mixture is brought to a boil and then allowed to simmer with additional garlic and mustard for at least an hour. The sweet-tart chicken is then served over plain white rice. Fufu (a dough-like mixture of crushed cassava and plantains) and couscous are suitable alternatives to rice. The onions are served as a side dish. 


Chez Dior’s poulet yassa offers charcoal grilled marinated chicken legs with carmelized onions served on the side along with steamed white rice and an extremely piquant red pepper sauce. It would have been ideal to wash down this tasty offering with a bottle or two of Gazelle or Flag, the popular local Senegalese beer, but unfortunately alcohol consumption is not prevalent in Senegal as the population is 95% Muslim. Chez Dior is dry so I opted for bissap, a mixture of hibiscus-infused water and sugar and mint. 

Just so you know . . . I have returned the Chez Dior on a few occasions to sample other dishes and I finally tried the caldou. It is still not my favorite seafood offering, but I will admit that it was moist and rather tasty; the marinade definitely took an otherwise bland piece of fish up a notch or two. Will I try it again? Probably. But the poulet yassa has become my go to dish at Chez Dior. I can’t wait to try it again.