Archive for August, 2008

Harvest of Ignoring Shame
August 31, 2008

BELLE GLADE, FL — Today we went out to Pahokee, where we used to have a boat until Frances sunk it and Jeanne swept it away, as it did everything in the marina there that was one of the hopes of this forsaken community.

I wanted to see what was left, and the answer was very little. Magically, in the years since hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, which came at the midway point in the Bush residency, and prior to Gov. Crist’s deal that will evacuate employers from the area, a few small businesses have survived. Most of the storefronts that we remembered when our boat still bobbed in the Everglades Adventures marina are shuttered.

We went on to Belle Glade, because the main squeeze had never been to the “loading ramp” there, although we had both recently seen it when we watched “Harvest of Shame,” an Edward R. Murrow documentary filmed in 1960.

The loading ramp is where workers, when there was work, lined up to get aboard a truck that would carry them to fields to do stoop labor for a wage that didn’t quite cover the costs of staying alive. As a result, the people who lined up there to harvest the crops of the world’s best fed nation were not in on the American dream; without access to health care, adequate nutritiion, education, they could not hope that their children’s lives would be better than theirs.

That was before Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dream, before the Great Society, before the social justice movements of the decade’s waning years. That was before an outbreak of tuberculosis in 1980 could not be explained, before the AIDS epidemic and before researchers from the federal government spent 10 years there to try and figure out why more people per capita had come down with the deadly contagious disease in Belle Glade than in any other place in America.

It hadn’t changed yet when I first saw it in 2004. I was warned then I would not believe I was in my own wealthy country, in fact, that it was worse than people who had travelled the world had seen anywhere. I was worried, as I had been before visiting the Grand Canyon, that descriptions would diminish reality. That wasn’t the case with the Grand Canyon, an illustration of nature’s grandiosity, and it isn’t the case in Belle Glade, an illustration of humanity’s limitations.

And it hadn’t changed today. Buildings that should have been leveled after Edward R. Murrow’s visit stand there still, serving as barracks, sheets flapping in broken doorways.
People in rags sit listlessly outside. It is miles of sugar cane fields away from work, charity, decent housing for people who don’t make enough money to plan for the next day. As a result, people don’t. Open air drug dealing appears to be the most thriving business in town. But perhaps not the most blatantly illegal, as these buildings, for which absentee landlords charge rent, don’t meet any code on any books, anywhere.

We saw a “Weed and Seed” sign in the midst of this — tax money at work, without leaving a trace. We saw other signs of fleeting philanthropy. But mainly, before we peeled out and left town, we saw people ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill, on the western edges of one of the wealthiest towns in America.

And it occurred to us, some 80 years after the hurricane that warned the nation what Katrina would do, nearly half a century after Murrow’s visit, and nearly a quarter century after this was first called “the AIDS capital of America,” and well into a century that has seen this nation offer less healthcare and higher rates of infectious disease than any other industrialized nation, that we have, in fact, reaped what we have sown.


Whose beach is it anyway?
August 29, 2008

PALM BEACH — Sometimes I wonder if this town was founded just  to prove that money don’t care who owns it. Now that island officials spent a good portion of the $2 million it set aside to defend its plan to put dirt on its beach, I would like to tell you about my recent stroll along the town’s shore.

To clarify the issue, divers, anglers and surfers are against the idea of dredging offshore silt to bolster the beach because they say it kills the very things they like about the beach. The town is for it, because it adds a little more buffer between the next hurricane and their very expensive property. Neighboring Lake Worth is against it because it has a public beach that people actually use.

Palm Beachers, not so much it seems. In fact, on hearing a stretch of beach was unsafe for swimmers recently, a town council member suggested the solution of raising the parking rate to $40 at Phipps Ocean Park’s lot — one of the few places from which Palm Beach sands are accessible to anyone but property owners. As it is, it is $2 an hour, a fee that discourages non-islanders from bringing the grills and the radios and making themselves at home for the day.

I figured I could afford a walk there, and at that price decided to treat myself to a stroll north, on the part that has been augmented with the same stuff the town is fighting for the right to put on the stretch south.

It is a pleasant stretch, in that no one is there, almost no one ever goes there, so there isn’t much litter strewing the sand. Then again there isn’t much sand, either, the last lot they put there having washed away in a storm a short time later.

There is rock — town officials prefer we not call it hard-bottom, because that sounds too much like something that should be protected from having dirt dumped on it, but whatever it is, one has to walk carefully.

I tried, but if I wanted to stare at my own feet I could stay at home and lie in the hammock.

In any case I didn’t notice a spike sticking out of the sand, so I impaled my foot on it.

I then limped back about a mile through seawater, leaving a red trail behind my right foot.

And for the next mile I passed stairs leading to the road above, which had signs on them saying “no trespassing,” and had padlocked gates at the top.

Which leads me to wonder — whose beach is it anyway?

Post Traumatic Voting Syndrome
August 26, 2008

LANTANA, FL — Recently, as I was speaking with other enlightened people, I mentioned my fear that Sen. John McCain would end up being declared victor of the upcoming election.

Really? One friend asked, You don’t think Obama can pull it off?

First, let me mention that this is a nonpartisan blog. My concerns about Sen. McCain are strictly because he’s a crazy, unprincipled war-monger who calls his wife a a see-you-next-Tuesday in public, and then hugs on current White House resident George Bush in public.

And second let me clarify my concern about the election has less to do with whether Sen. Obama can pull it off, as it has with whether Palm Beach County can.

I went to vote today, something I haven’t been able to do since 2000 without a sickening sense of trepidation revisiting me.

I remember the unsettled feeling I had that something wasn’t right when I looked at the ballot that day. I remember the odd feeling that I had gotten it wrong somehow as I left the polling place. I remember what happened that night, and over the next 37 days, but I’ve lost track of the carnage that followed — the more than 4,000 American men and women sent to their deaths in Iraq, the how many others whose country it was, the maimed, the death tolls from other needless disasters that were this country’s price for having the most ignorant guy at the corner bar named president.

I remember, though, a part of that day nearly eight years ago that was simply poignant, and it concerned my dear friend, for whom this blog is named, who had just become a citizen and ran off that day first thing, eager to cast her first American ballot.

“It was a little confusing,” she said plaintively, later. Well, yes. It was very confusing, as the mostly Jewish retirees of Whisper Walk in suburban Delray Beach who inexplicably cast their votes for neo-antisemite Pat Buchanan that day could certainly tell you. But my friend Helen was a master proofreader, whose focused stare never missed a misplaced comma. If she was confused, everyone else was bamboozled. Sadly, she has since become a citizen of a higher plane, having left us here to deal with our earthly errors last May, when she lost her fight with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

But I wondered what she’d think of this, today, which yes, a poll worker had to explain:

And for that matter, I wondered what she’d think of this:

The puzzle there, if you look at it closely, being is the nickname “The Real” on the right the same kind of nickname as “Chris” in the ballot on the left, or did someone sneak a bit of electioneering into the polling place, where they handed this out?

I guess they think if you make it this far, you can figure the rest of it out.

All the News
August 25, 2008

LAKE WORTH, FL — Some of the people who brought us proof that Elvis had in fact left the building are claiming he’s back, or at least on the way.

They claim he’s invited — and will show up — at their 3 p.m. Sunday Aug. 31 reunion in Lake Worth’s Brogues pub.

Who knows if they’re right? That seance, where JFK made his thoughts on Ari Onassis known? All right, the tabloids didn’t actually send a reporter. But then, neither did most major news organizations when White House Resident George Bush said Iraq had “nukular” weapons makins.

And, unlike The New YorkTimes, the Washington Post, the networks or anyone else, they did turn out to be right about:

  1. Gary Hart’s “monkey business”
  2. O.J. Simpson’s “ugly ass” Bruno Maglis
  3. Rush Limbaugh’s drug habit
  4. John Edward’s cheating ways
So, though God knows what nearly 30 years of peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwiches have done, and keeping in mind that past 70, he’s now an age that men of healthier ways have earned their obituaries, it’s worth checking.

Stranger things have happened in Palm Beach County.


Code Vs. Truth in Advertising
August 23, 2008

LANTANA, FL — This is the story of the psychic who set up shop in this last vestige of old Florida, just when the town was closing in on its goal of joining new Florida.

The pschic’s saga began apparently, shortly after she opened her first storefront on Dixie Highway, on a stretch where a woman seen walking is assumed to be available in 15 minute increments, and on a corner where no business in the last decade has survived for more than a few months. Due apparently to fears that her true venture, most truthfully described as palm-reading and fortune-telling would not be welcome there, the window bore this mysterious sign:

Anyone who could figure out what that meant probably didn’t need her services. She pointed that out as she appeared before the Lantana Town Council, to ask for a more explicit sign for her new place on the town’s main drag.

She says she never foresaw resistance to the request, in spite of reservations that had prompted her earlier sign, in spite of the town’s aspirations to becoming home to a “world class” complex of health and science endeavors on the campus of the 50-year-old tuberculosis sanitarium that stands across the street from the planned palm-reading shop.

Still, after one council member pointed out that no good neighborhood boasts a storefront decorated with a palm and offering psychic readings, she said she would settle for another “New Age Center” with “readings available” in much smaller letters. She could have predicted that with the question of “much smaller than what” left unanswered, the council would be seeing her again, but if she saw this in the stars she didn’t mention it.

But she did come back to the council this month, and the stars lined up in her favor.

The result was this:

Which is closer to truth in advertising, however shaky her powers may be.

And that is a good thing. We have enough trouble understanding each other and making our way through the double talk and fallacies of advertising, that it seems the council was dictating a dangerous path, that could have strewn the street with misleading signs, calling this, just a few stores down:

“Financial Advisor.”

Life as an Adventure
August 21, 2008

Margot Roberts Kahn, formerly known as Mayor Margot Roberts of the tall but tiny town of South Palm Beach, died earlier this month at 74.

I hadn’t seen her in ten years and was surprised, because that was too young. She was a person of great vitality which seemed to merit great longevity.

The first line of her obituary in the local community paper gives you the idea:

“Margot Roberts Kahn, former mayor of South Palm Beach, died August 10, in Corfu, Greece, while sailing the Mediterranean . . .”

Either of the salient facts mentioned there would be enough to aspire to in the first line of one’s obituary; both add up to an energetic approach that is probably what made Ms. Kahn a compelling character in a town that seems to draw driven people.

She cared about that town, South Palm Beach, which she pointed out once is an exceptionally vertical town, made up almost entirely of condominium buildings — most over five stories. She knew its liabilities — including that it is built just about up to the ocean’s edge, and its strengths — a populace as engaged as one could hope to find in a town made up of houses, churches, schools and a square to gather.

South Palm Beach has none of those — actually I think it has two houses, total, and a bar that substitutes for the square or church. But it has lifetimes of experience settled in the people who retire there.

People who care about what they do usually think what they do is right, and she was no exception. At times as a South Palm Beach town meeting began, another Margo came to mind, or at least the words “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” She made enemies, but she had the gift of great charm as well as conviction, and also made friends of enemies.

The town was better off for having had her in their midst, and although I was sad to hear she is gone, I am happy for the first line in her obituary.

Outside the doctor’s office
August 20, 2008

BOYNTON BEACH, FL — I had just stepped out of the doctor’s office and was phoning a loved one with the good news that I’m healthy, which is especially important as I am about to lose my health insurance, when a woman interrupted and said, “Will you do me a favor and watch them for a second?”

The rain announcing Tropical Storm Fay was coming down again, and she wanted to dash to her car without soaking her two little boys, who were sitting in the stroller that she thrust in front of me.

As I held the stroller, and continued into the phone about my good fortune, a great relief since  I had put off having tests for fear of coming down with a “pre-existing condition” (which I think means “unworthy of care”), the back boy, who was older, maybe around two, got restless and decided to get out. We went through several rounds of mild argument about his need to stay in the stroller, which I told his mother about when she pulled up in the family sedan, so she’d understand why I was now arm wrestling with her son.

She apologized to me and slapped his hand, at which he slapped hers back, at which she slapped his harder, at which I asked where she was from.

“Haiti,” she said, and seemed to brace herself.

I told her I had been there just this last year, love it, think it’s a beautiful place, one of my favorite.

It was all true, though I may have gone on longer than I needed to in hopes of interrupting the escalating cycle of hand-slapping.

“Really?” she smiled, looking pleased. “You don’t hear that very often, you know.”

I do know, having taken as long as I had to get there, but now that I have been, it seems odd that that’s the case. It’s a very poor country that has been kicked around a lot by richer countries, virtually on all sides, and that’s created misery and anger, but it’s also a place of strong will, creative spirit, spontaneity and humor. It is colorful, dramatic, exotic and our neighbor.

And it seems odd what low regard we seem to hold for our neighbor, we, who are represented on the international stage by the world’s most famously ignorant person, who, although we are not struggling for food and shelter still can’t seem to stop shooting each other,  who squander our resources on symbols of success and  who, in the most powerful country on earth, are all one layoff away from losing the ability to care for our health.

The enemy, once again, is not us
August 19, 2008

LANTANA, FL — Bobby Stevens was a notably nice man, who got along with everyone at the tabloids where he worked, and where people who indulged in gossip and backbiting never found a mean or suspicious word to say about him.

Though always in search of the perfect Guiness, he always returned home when he said he would. When he died of anthrax poisoning, people remembered his signature wit, which relied on puns and never on malice. In the company washroom, he wiped the counter dry with a paper towel after he washed his hands. He always carried fishing tackle in the trunk of his car, in case the opportunity arose to indulge in his favorite past time. He loved his wife and likely would have enjoyed a happy old age, fishing and continuing to search for the perfect Guiness had he not opened an envelope filled with powder that killed him. 


The sense of omnipresent, omnipotent threatening evil that hung over his hometown after he died would be hard to overstate, particularly as people still shuddered from the news that 17 of the 19 terrorists who had flown the planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania had mingled in our midst as they trained to commit mass murder.

For their actions, ignored by government agencies in the months leading up to the attacks, we now take off our shoes in airports.

And when investigators asked to look at records from the local libraries, to see what they could find, we could pretty much hear a pin drop in the ensuing outcry. And in the years since, more acquiesence than outrage has accompanied the whittling away of our constitution and our dignity, in the name of security.

Now investigators concede they may never know who sent the letters that killed Bobby Stevens and four others. But they think it was a man who, though cleared to work for the military handling deadly substances is remembered by colleagues as disturbingly unstable.

Whether the murder of Bobby Stevens is ever solved, this outcome suggests that authorities search their methods rather than our library records.

Whatever and Otherwise
August 19, 2008

BOCA RATON, FL — “The war was my fault; 9-11 was my fault,” insufficiently repentant “butterfly ballot” designer Theresa LePore is reported to have whined to a luncheon audience on Friday. “Any time something bad happens, a new death toll in the war or whatever, my e-mails start getting filled up.”

Add to “whatever” the recent events in Georgia, generally agreed to have been fueled by the deep diplomatic ignorance of White House Resident George Bush.

“I take a man at his word,” he bleated, of Russian president Putin. “That’s what you have to do. Until otherwise.”

Is it too much to ask that one take the consequences of a job shoddily done more seriously than that?

It seems a good time to ask with another presidential election on the way, another brain-teaser ballot, and, to monitor those, a sharply diminishing number of experienced working journalists.

Incidentally, I would like to add my voice to those who have noted the callousness of Elizabeth Edward’s laissez-faire attitude toward the outcome of the next election when, aware of the liability of her husband’s candidacy to his party, and thus to his country, she continued to campaign for him.

The good life
August 18, 2008

MANALAPAN, FL — The good life is on display here for anyone who wants to take a stroll on the beach at dawn. This is a beach settled by captains of industry, leaders of commerce.

And sea turtles who nest up against rusting seawalls.

They are greeted in style, here in Manalapan, home of boxing promoter Don King, whose motto “Only in America,” celebrates his right to decorate his backyard however he sees fit.

The America Dream has an even trashier side, reminiscent of the advice given young Ben in The Graduate, by one of his parents’ friends: the future is plastic, particularly here where, tossed from cruise ships, abandoned by beachgoers a bag for a week’s worth of groceries doesn’t hold a tenth of what litters a half mile of shoreline in this prosperous town.


Which might explain, for all the trouble sea turtles’ mothers came to nest here, the young leave home as soon as they can.