The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Although the temperature has nominally risen above freezing, it’s still far from tropical here in the Monumental City. Water mains have broken all over the place, lending a nice Alaskan aspect to the streetscape — when the water gushes out of the broken main, it freezes and little baby glaciers form, sometimes enveloping an unwitting Olds here and there. It must be annoying to the nth degree to wake up on a frigid morning only to discover that your vehicle has been preserved for posterity under a two-inch-thick coat of ice.

Having just come off a bout of the Throw-Up Disease (and, apparently, having passed it on to Brian, my trusty sidekick), I’m surely not in the mood for the more exuberant Winter methods of killing time. I think if I tried to go skating right now, I’d drop dead before I made one turn. Pity that some of the Highlandtown bars don’t set up temporary shop near the Patterson Park rink; they’d do well and it would make the whole skating experience considerably more fulfilling.

I put a couple of loaves of bread in the oven tonight, hoping that the smell of baking would warm my extremities in a way that my faithful, ninety-year-old furnace had thus far failed. It worked to a certain extent, but let’s face it — when it’s this cold outside, even a potent hot toddy isn’t going to help too much. The baking bread only made me (and my hapless neighbors to the south, who can smell every pot of coffee I make through some perversity of rowhouse architecture) violently hungry.

No, far better to warm the heart and other, more easily frozen naughty bits by planning for the summer. I shot an email off to everyone I can think of, reminding them of the beauties of Delaware’s Silver Strand in August. That done, I sat down with graph paper and started to plan my garden.

There are two distinct issues when planning a Baltimorean garden. First and foremost: Roses are sacrosanct. Next: You have a very small space to work with. Not as minuscule as a New York garden; the poorest drudge of a Baltimore dockworker has a garden plot equal to the most overbuilt atrocities of Fifth Avenue. Nevertheless, you don’t have the broad acres of Westover, here. Every iota of space must count. And, thus, the fun in planning.

For years, my main interest in the garden has been to provide flowers for the house, and to obsess over my favorite roses. Therefore, I’ve planted the roses somewhat at random. Ironically, the ones that have served me best have been the bargain plants and those from the City’s arboretum castoffs.

This year, I finally plan to enclose the garden behind a wooden fence. This is a distinct departure from tradition. I’ve always loved my old-fashioned wire fence, because it doesn’t feel so closed-in, but as the other gardens that adjoin mine are all paved over now for parking space, the idea of being closed in doesn’t seem so bad. What a tragic day it was for Baltimore, when parking space became more valuable than a garden behind the house…

I’ll have to ditch a couple of the roses, too, which haven’t proved as bountiful or as pretty as I’d imagined. I’ll keep “Königin Elisabeth,” of course; and the weird bargain rose “Grand Event.” That I’ll keep my climbing “Baltimore Belle” goes without saying. Some of the rest, though — well, a few of you might discover a rosebush on your doorstep.

I’m sure that it occurs to many as rather odd, to fuss over old roses and plan a May garden in January. Reflect though, if you will, on your own favorite gardens. Think of dew on red rosebuds early in the morning, of a blast of daisies at midday and forget-me-nots in the evening. Remember the smell of a lemon pie wafting out the kitchen window while you sit with a “Gin-and-It” in the garden…

Takes the edge off the cold, doesn’t it?

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Sorry for the lack of post yesterday, but I was sick as the proverbial dog, and stayed home reading about the glory days of grand resorts and alternately making very hurried trips to the bathroom.

This is the first time in years we’ve had a “real” winter, complete with multiple snowfalls and weeks on end with no temperatures above freezing. In the dark ages of the 1970s, when I had to walk uphill barefoot through six-foot snowdrifts to school, this sort of weather wasn’t uncommon. Mind you, I was a child at the time, and children don’t notice such things as much. Also, I was probably rendered insulated and immobile by six layers of clothing, those godawful snow pants that were stiffer than concrete, and Wonder Bread wrappers between shoes and snow boots (they made the boots easier to take off).

In childhood both cold and its resulting illnesses were a little easier to take. Cold was fun, especially when it involved snow. Now snow is something that makes you think, “Ooh, pretty,” for about ten seconds and, “Oh Jesus, how am I ever going to get to work?” for the next two hours. Being sick as a kid wasn’t too bad either; other than the painful part. Mom doted on you; you got to stay home from school and watch TV and read comic books, and as long as you didn’t have the Throw-Up Disease you probably got to eat ice cream and Jell-O.

Yesterday I had the Throw-Up Disease. This is the nameless virus that infected you once every winter as a child and now only occasionally manifests itself. Somehow even nausea was easier to bear as a child. You’d think that after years of boozy parties and painful mornings after that I’d be used to the whole thing, but I’m not. After the onset of the Throw-Up Disease I turn into a damp, prickly ball of irritated goo. Jell-O doesn’t help and ice cream won’t stay down. You can’t even concentrate on reading comic books, because your mouth feels like cat hairballs and your stomach is bent on reliving last summer’s roller coaster rides. Daytime TV is even worse than it was in the ’70s. And you can’t even enjoy the fact that you get the day off; if you have a real job you worry that it’s not getting done. If you have a fake job (i.e., temping) you worry that you’re not getting paid for this torturous day off.

If there’s any consolation, it’s that the malady doesn’t seem to last as long as it used to. By four in the afternoon, I was perky and back to normal levels of Jell-O consumption.

By seven-thirty, I was ready for a Manhattan.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

This afternoon I took a bone-chilling walk through the Hopkins campus up to University Parkway and down Charles Street Avenue Boulevard. Baltimore is fortunate to have reasonably good air quality anyway, but the frigid temperatures of late make everything seem crisp and clean, almost as though the air has been through a bleach and rinse cycle.

I took notice of three monuments along my route. They’ve both been there for years, but given the political climate of late, I have a nasty feeling that they won’t be around much longer.

At Charles and University is a red-granite monument to the Women of the Confederacy. A block south is a beautiful, bas-relief Hans Schueler bronze honoring Sidney Lanier, the poet of the Confederacy. Along Wyman Park is a pair of equestrian statues, honoring Lee and Jackson.

It is common belief in the rest of the world that Baltimore is a northern city. It is not. Washington, its neighbor to the south, was in fact a rather Southern city in temperament until the ballooning post-WW2 government turned it into polyglot sprawl. Baltimore lies below the Mason-Dixon line, and its merchant class and aristocracy had distinctly Confederate sympathies. Thus, for these four Confederate monuments — and one other on Mount Royal Avenue — Yankee monuments weigh in at exactly one (annoyingly enough, right on my way to work every day).

Even though the city was never able to secede — the Union government wisely did not want to lose a major industrial port, nor did it want its capital surrounded — the sentiment of the people in that day was Confederate, and so after the War ended, the monuments that went up were mostly Confederate.

When a monument is erected, it is generally reflective of the spirit and history of the people who erect it. It commemorates the people of its locale. Cities build monuments to local heroes or national figures who play prominently in their own history and interests.

Hence, the current flap over the erection of a statue to Lincoln in the city of Richmond. Why on earth does Richmond, the Confederate capital, need a statue of Lincoln? The argument from the politically correct side is that, given the supposed monstrosity of the Confederate memorials that fill the city, a statue of Lincoln would “even sides.” How ridiculous! The “sides” were decided, for better or worse, in 1865. Why should Richmond erect a statue to someone who not only had no personal connection to Richmond, but in fact was instrumental in the city’s defeat? If sides need to be called back into play and must be made even, then I will expect to see a monument to Jefferson Davis located somewhere in the city of Washington.

The true problem is that monuments are now being used as granite markers of one-upsmanship, rather than actual memorials of people and events. Richmond’s struggle with monumental tongue-sticking started with the erection of the Arthur Ashe memorial. The issue was not that he was a native son (who, incidentally, hated Richmond and couldn’t wait to leave) or that he had been a tennis star, but that the statue must be placed on Monument Avenue. Erecting a statue to a tennis star (which seems a bit ostentatious, anyway) was not the goal; the goal was to put a statue of a black man alongside the Confederate heroes. And now, the Great Emancipator must live on symbolically in the Confederate capital. This is no longer a question of civil rights or equality; it’s become an expensive and bitter war of point-making.

Why not, instead, build a monument to Maggie Walker? She was the driving force behind Richmond’s black community in the late 19th century, establishing schools and a free bank for black citizens. Or, preserve the Woolworth’s on Broad Street — about to be razed — where Richmond had a lunch-counter sit-in, never as publicized as a similar event in Greensboro.

Richmond would stand well to commemorate the struggle for civil rights. However, the gesture should be one of honesty and historical accuracy rather than childish saber-rattling.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

I have a problem.

After I read other people’s blogs and articles, I feel compelled to offer my own take on the same or similar subjects.

That said — and thanks, Bill, for the inspiration — if I get one more email about pop tops and/or Jessica Mydek, I am going to go postal.

I like email — really, I do. It allows me to still communicate via the written word, in a day when no one remembers how to write letters. The telephone is far too insistent; if I don’t feel like answering an email right away, I don’t. The telephone sits there and fusses at you until you answer it.

The downside of email is that it is not all interesting or informative. I finally had to kill my old email address because I was getting upwards of fifty spam messages a day. I’m quite fond of the processed-oog food product, SPAM, but the email variety drives me to distraction. Viagra? No thanks, I’m only 33 and haven’t had too much trouble in that area lately. Bigger penis? Well, of course I want a bigger penis. Very few male type people wouldn’t want a bigger one. However, I’m perceptive enough to figure out that no mass-email list on the face of the earth is going to turn anyone into John Holmes. Bigger breasts? Um, no thanks. I’ve got hairy legs and fairly wide shoulders. I’d look pretty silly with any kind of rack whatsoever.

I can cope with spam, though if it could be annihilated I’d be pleased. I cannot cope with glurge. “Glurge,” unfortunately, comes from friends and family. It’s the saccharine goo of the online world. No — not just goo. It’s that hideous medicine that we were force-fed as children that had been dyed red and altered with sugar syrup that still tasted like rat pee, even though Mom and the doctor insisted that it tasted like a strawberry milkshake.

Glurge is the endless parade of bad jokes and paranoid warnings and “I love you, pass this to everyone on your email list” garbage. As such, it’s become its own subset of the urban legend. (, by the way, has an excellent collection of common glurge.) It’s the email begging to send postcards to Craig, forward email in Jenny’s memory to stop drunk driving, and to save your pop-tops to buy little Jessica a new heart/liver/spleen/garlic press.

Please be advised: This garbage is not real. Think about it — even as hopelessly screwy as our health care system might be, if a five-year old needed a new liver and one were available, it’s pretty certain the kid would get it. No one is going to let said kid die because of lack of funds. True, the family will probably be saddled with bills for the next seventy-three years, but the kid isn’t going to get kicked to the curb. Besides, since the Jessica email has been circulating for seven years that I can recall, little Jessica would be (a) dead or (b) in high school and zooming around in clompy shoes trying to get her new bare-midriff outfit to cover her transplant scar.

Like all urban legends, people do not want to be enlightened about glurge. Everyone wants to believe it. I met someone a while back who — having read pretty obvious proof that saving pop tops wasn’t going to do anything for anyone — stated calmly, “I’m going to do it anyway, because I think it’s a nice idea.” Umm... okay, you’re going to waste your time and energy collecting these things for no apparent reason? Go right ahead. There’s a room for you in the Howard Hughes wing. How about saving the two dollars a day spent on Diet Coke and sending the savings to the Kidney Foundation, or something?

The reason people like glurge is that it’s easy. Most of these things don’t actually ask for money; if they did they’d be as dead as the dodo. Americans like to feel as though they’re helping, but they’re not going to shell out cash to do so. All glurge wants you to do is forward it, and voila! Instant gratification. You’ve saved a life, bought a kidney, stopped drug abuse, and made a dying boy’s wish come true, and all because you hit “Forward to All.” Makes you feel good, huh? No one can say you’re not a caring person! Hey, you forwarded the poem about the girl who died in the booze-fueled wreck, right?

Glurge appeals to our best and worst instincts simultaneously. We want to feel like loving and caring people; we want so badly to make the dying boy’s wish come true. However, we don’t want to spend an afternoon or a dollar to do it. Glurge allows us to think we’re really doing something nice, but it allows us (in theory at least) to do it painlessly.

Forget this garbage, people. If you want to do something nice, go out and do it. If you’re really too busy, write a check.

Or, you can follow in my footsteps. Admit you’re heartless, don’t do anything, don’t give up your filthy lucre, and send little Jessica right to the Recycle folder.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Given the fickle nature of the buying public and the unreliability of fashions, advertising as a practice must be somewhere up there with three-card-monte on the reliability scale. The tastes of the public can be tipped with a clever campaign into mass consumption of something completely idiotic — reference, if you will, the Pet Rock — or despite the best efforts of legions of advertising men, they refuse to buy a perfectly good product — reference the Edsel, which actually was a pretty good car.

Car advertising has always been a pretty odd game. Arguably, the best slogan of all time was Packard’s eternal “Ask The Man Who Owns One.” In other words, there’s no reason for us to waste your time and ours babbling about the virtues of a Packard, because they’re already obvious. Want to know how good it is? Ask Mr. Loaded over there in his shiny 6=40 runabout with golf-club storage compartment. Buick came in close with its alliterative, imperative “Better Buy Buick!” There’s some question about that one, though — does it mean “Buick is a better value for your money” or “You’d better buy a Buick or we send the guys with brass knuckles”? Bringing up the rear of car slogans would invariably fall to Toyota, which has shamelessly adopted “Everyday” as its motto. They’re obviously trying to project the image of reliability — your Toyota will be there, ready and waiting, every day. Unfortunately, that connotation requires the use of two separate words: every and day. The single word “everyday” refers to — well, solid, boring mediocrity. Which is in fact exactly what Toyotas are, but it’s not exactly the way I’d want to market a car, and it’s certainly not the way I’d like to go about buying a car. Gee, I’m a solid, boring and mediocre person — I need a car that fits my complete lack of verve and personality!

In the last century a good bit of advertising has been just plain nonsense. For years, Grape Nuts used the slogan “There’s A Reason”. I’m sure there was a reason. There have been many reasons for many things. Grape Nuts, sadly, never quite made it clear what the reason was or why you’d have been searching for it in the first place. Maybe it was supposed to mean that there was a reason for eating Grape Nuts, which is good because most people think that Grape Nuts are prepackaged gravel useful only for paving your breakfast table.

Browsing through samples of Victorian posters and handbills, I’ve noticed that the ostensibly prudish Victorians knew a lot about selling things. They sold with sex. Every item you can imagine was sold with ads featuring pretty women. Perfumes and soaps — sure, that makes sense, use Vinolia Toilet Soap and you’ll look like here. Baking powder? Well, okay, healthy and attractive women feed their healthy attractive families with healthy attractive bread made with Calumet. But tractors? What do hot babes have to do with tractors? Absolutely nothing, but people want to look at hot babes and frankly there isn’t anything too sexy about tractors (if anyone thinks there is, I do not want to know about it). Put a babe on the tractor poster and people will look at it. Put a tractor on the tractor poster, people will see it and think, “Oh, tractor. Whatever,” and keep walking. Old Gold cigarettes really had it right with those dancing packs of smokes — wouldn’t you rather smoke the brand that has a knockout set of legs?

It’s time that Madison Avenue (if that is indeed still the epicenter of the ad universe) shook the moral foundation a little bit and started using sex to sell things again. I know perfectly well that naked people have nothing to do with Oldsmobiles, but they’re a hell of a lot more interesting than transmissions and fuel economy. If people had started equating Oldsmobiles with naked people ten years ago, that venerable marque wouldn’t be tottering into the big garage in the sky.

Scantily clad Venuses and Adonises on the hood of a car is, emphatically, not everyday.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Leave it to me to stir up a tempest in a teapot — er, cocktail shaker. While I think about it, I must make some points on cocktail shakers. Those Chrome jobs from the ’30s (not the ’20s! Drinking was illegal in the ’20s and so it consequently never, ever happened!!!) are the most amazingly beautiful barware ever created. Sadly, they don’t make the most user-friendly (note my adept usage of modern terminology) drink-enhancers. Sure, the shakers are beautiful. You can’t go wrong with those elegant chrome lines, those gorgeous bakelite handles. You can, however, go distinctly wrong with the “glasses” made of chrome, which feel just plain weird when hefted to the lips.

Many of the cocktail glasses in this new age are ridiculously oversized. This is what happens when McDonald’s dominates a culture for a couple of decades. Super-sizing your fries makes you fat, but super-sizing your Martini just makes you drunk before you have a chance to say hello to half the people at the party, and you’ll go home marked as a drunken fool. Icky-feeling chrome or genteel Fostoria crystal, the cocktail sets of the ’30s are the way to go. The glasses are smaller, and invite you to taste the drink — to sip and glow with Bacchus’ bounty — rather than forcing a Saturnalian excess decorated with Maraschino cherries and tinned Spanish olives.

Digression aside, yesterday’s blather has raised the ire of my esteemed Big Brother, who (not surprisingly, given his ethnic background) champions that fine drink of Scotch.

I still say it tastes like dirt.

My father, who was raised in Baltimore and believes that God lives either on Charles Street or in Union Square, always told me that “nice” men drink rye, “dandies” drink bourbon, and “no one” drinks Scotch. I’ve never claimed to be nice, but I live on rye; I am also a dandy and therefore drink bourbon, and I fully ascribe to the idea that “no one” drinks Scotch. (This, despite the clear fact that at least five of my closest friends think it’s something doing.) Let’s keep in mind too that my father believes that “no honest man is a gin drinker.” Well — he may have something there; when I’m not drinking one of the two palatable, non-Scotch forms of whiskey, I tend towards the essence of juniper, so that will tell you something about the character of gin-drinkers. Note to bystanders: Nothing, but nothing, takes the edge off of a 98-degree July evening along the Chesapeake shore like a stiff gin rickey. Two slices of lime, extra ice, if you please.

There are several forms of Scotch. They do not all taste like dirt. Some of them — Laphroaig, to be specific — taste like dirt into which a full ashtray has been emptied.

I know this because one time at the Green Leafe Café in Williamsburg I managed to extinguish my cigarette in my own drink. (I was engaged, I am certain, in a vigorous discussion on Pagan symbolism in Ben Jonson’s work, or something equally stimulating.) In any case, I failed to notice the dampened Chesterfield until I took a good draught. When a few months later I had my first taste of Laphroaig, I was able to immediately recognize the taste of cheap bourbon with an infusion of half-smoked Chesterfield.

I mean no ill will towards the good folk of Scotland. I do not agree with them on religious grounds, but they are a devout and thrifty race. (Thrift scores very highly on my personal scale.) They are among the wittiest, cleverest and most literary of all the civilized world. Scotland’s gifts to literature equal those of England, France and greater Germany, and almost eclipse Austria and Spain.

Unfortunately, their contributions to the gourmand are not even negligible. The dish for which the nation is most famous — haggis — involves organ meats ground and “cured” to be as pungently indigestible as possible. The vaunted scones are pleasant, to be sure, but their presence is more of an affectation of Americans desperately trying to assume Old Country fashion.

Sadly, their potent native beverage still tastes like dirt. I am aware that dirt is a valuable entity, but it’s not a tasty one. I’ve heard exhortations of the qualities of various marques of Scotch, and I salute those who are willing to drink and appreciate the stuff. Hell, the cheapest gin in the cheapest bar in the Bronx can give you a pretty good mood, if you’re looking for it.

I stand on the logic of Charles Dickens, who referred to Baltimore as the “gastronomic metropolis of the world.” While visiting the Monumental City, he referred to an “enchanted julep” shared with Washington Irving. That was at Barnum’s City Hotel, a gorgeously hideous Victorian pile torn down for the current City Courthouse.

I can guarantee that the julep which so entranced Mr. Dickens was not made with Scotch whiskey.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Sorry for the delay, folk. It’s been a long, not very eventful, but reasonably boozy weekend, and I’ve been busy effecting some probably ill-advised... ummm, “renovations” to the fireplaces in my house, so I’ve not had time to update the Daily Belch, here.

My friend (online anyway, I’ve never met the man in person except unwittingly as he drove me downtown) and faithful car operator, Adam Paul, maintains a great website of “Baltimore Ghosts” — not the things that go bump in the night, but the things that go bump in midday. Wonderful remnants of what the city used to be that peep out when you’re not looking for them. Bits of wooden-block paving (!), carved marble street signs, painted ads for ten-cent matinee shows and the like. (If, by the way, you don’t know what a “car operator” is, park your damned SUV and “ride the cars” with the rest of us — you’ll have a nice and informative ride and you’ll save a lot of gas money.)

I’d had the “Ghost” disease long before I encountered Adam’s website. I’ve long prided myself on my knowledge of Baltimorea Obscura and Richmondia Anachronia. However, the validation of your own obsession in someone else’s website is too much to resist, and after I discovered his site I’ve become ever more possessed by the idea of finding that one sign in a ruined and forgotten neighborhood that no one has paid any mind for the last forty years.

Imagine my glee when I remembered that right in my own neighborhood (well, almost, it’s around 26th and Greenmount) there’s a giant painted advertisement for Pikesville Rye Whiskey.

Which, for the record, I am consuming at this very moment.

I take the decline of rye comsumption personally.

When you grow up in Maryland — at least, pre-WW2 Maryland, which held on for all intents and purposes until 1982 — “whiskey” meant rye whiskey. Virginians and Kentuckians drink bourbon whiskey, which is delightful and without which I do not open my doors to guests. Yankees drink Scotch whiskey, which is unpalatable, tastes like dirt and should tell anyone about the lack of taste suffered by the populace of the British Isles. Remember, those people think the ultimate form of cuisine is to boil meat until it turns white; why should they be trusted with perfectly good alcohol?

The delights of Bourbon whiskey aside, rye is a similar, but different breed entirely. Most obvious is its source — Bourbon is composed of a sour corn mash; Rye comes from its eponymous grain. It was a big deal in Maryland primarily because in decades — centuries — past, a lot of rye was grown in Maryland.

And what’s so special about the stuff, you ask? Well — not much, really. It has just the same intoxicating effect as Bourbon — maybe a little stronger, but not much. It’s a bit sweeter but also a bit more biting.

The mystery, to me, is why Rye went away. As recently as the ’50s everyone in the States could identify Rye Whiskey with Old Maryland gentility, horse races and high-stakes card games on the Old Bay line. Somehow, after the vodka-and-wine-cooler nightmare of the ’80s, the new cocktail era emerged innocent of rye.

What a pity. No rye is made at all (well, at least not that Uncle Sam knows about) in the Maryland Free State (here we declare our kinship to the Bayrische Freistadt). The only ones left, Old Overholt and Pikesville, formerly made within sniffing distance of this house, are now made in Kentucky’s capable but sterile hands. Gone forever are Evergreen, Mount Vernon, Lord Baltimore, Maryland Club and — God save us all, Drumquhazel.

It was not uncommon in the halcyon days of the last century... er, century before last, for Gentlemen of Business And Means to take a snort of rye after breakfast before continuing downtown to their offices in the mornings. I think this had much to do with Baltimore’s great business prowess in those days.

Then again, conventional wisdom held that nothing would kill a man more quickly than the consumption of a dozen Bay oysters followed by a jigger of good rye. It was long the boast of the tough boys along the waterfront that they’d sent a hinterland salesman to his grave with just that pairing of local delicacies. Since I’ve always been intent on proving my cast-iron stomach, I decided to do just that at a party not long ago. Twelve, big fat oysters right down the hatch, and a double jigger of rye to follow. (Never mind, of course, I’d had three Manhattans before anyway.) No ill effects whatsoever, though the libido was indeed sparked; no blond was safe for miles around for three days after. (No help either that the host of the party had also elected to serve asparagus — all good Germans know what that does to you, and the oysters...)

When my father heard what I’d done, he blew his top. To his mind the conventional wisdom holds, and he now seems to think that his apparently milquetoast son is a real boilermaker after all. (Hell, I could always hold my whiskey better than he could! — but oysters and rye!)

Rye makes a delightful julep but I say the best way to drink it is either straight (it will surely help you catch your breath) or with plain seltzer-water. That’ll help you find a use for that nifty seltzer bottle you got because it was so delightfully retro, but for which you’ve not yet found purpose. Really, though, rye is sweet enough on its own that you won’t need to pollute it with too much other stuff.

And, y’know it’s not as bad after some oysters as we all thought. Only problem is... well, if I’m going to go after the stuff, brunette ladies, blond gentlemen and all redheads should probably flee town immediately.

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

One follow-up to the earlier posting. The Post’s TV critic gave an excellent slam to this show, which I can tell is stupid without having watched it. However, he slights their use of Strauss waltzes in a supposed “ball” scene. “Even the super-rich,” apparently, “don’t put up with Strauss anymore.”

If there is anything more depressing than dancing to recorded versions of the Official Happy Music of an era gone this last century and a half, it is this: Imagine yourself in the moldering but still-elegant ballroom of a grand hotel or European villa. The walls are gorgeous white-and-gold-ormolu; the high arched windows look down on the city below from behind damask draperies that must weigh fifty pounds per foot. Three giant chandeliers hang overhead. But what is this? They’re not lit. The only light emanates from a light-and-fog machine onstage. Seventy percent of the ballroom’s gigantic cork-padded maple floor has been carpeted (and parts appear to be duct-taped together, at that). What remains has been covered in thin parquet. The music? A DJ. Playing bad eighties music, because everyone in the room was in high school in 1985. Or — possibly worse — a lousy local band playing cover versions of bad eighties music.

Herr Kapellmeister? Bitte, “An der Schoenen Blau’n Donau.”

When, oh when, will the reality shows go away? Not being much of a TV fan — outside The Simpsons, if it’s not on the Silver Screen I don’t want to see it — I wasn’t aware of the latest entry, Joe Millionaire, until someone asked me what I thought of it.

So, unwilling to appear ignorant, I read an article about it in the Sun. Seems this guy’s really some random construction worker who makes less than twenty grand a year… in LA? Come on, construction work pays more than that in Hagerstown. You can’t tell me that an LA construction worker makes less than twenty per. Anyway, he’s being passed off as a millionaire, so these twenty chicks can fawn over him and try to get the hunk and the cash. (For what it’s worth, as long as he remembers to bathe, he’s damned nice looking.)

The initial impulse is to criticize the culture of greed that spawned such a thing. These women are, essentially, prostituting themselves — thinking they’re getting a load of cash out of this admittedly-hot dude. But that’s human nature, isn’t it? It’s not just the U.S. in 2003. The same impulses of greed have driven people for centuries. The first rude hut was probably built so that one family could lord it over the families who still lived in those tacky old caves, and then it couldn’t have been long before one of the cave dwellers beat the hut-dweller over the head and took the hut.

The greater question here is why in the bloody hell people continue to watch this garbage. Given Joe Millionaire’s amazing viewer count, the reality show blather isn’t going to stop anytime soon. When Survivor first showed up, it was a novelty. Now it’s been worn threadbare with unimaginative variations and it’s been followed by unending silliness in the form of bachelorettes, big brothers, fantasex-islands, and impoverished construction doofs. The initial appeal of this type of show was understandable, but how many lame-brained Xerox versions can the viewing public take? (Don’t answer that, please.) How did these things get labeled “reality” shows, anyway? Eating worms and rats is not reality. Twenty babes chasing a rich cute guy is reality, but not with a script and camera.

The one vaguely-reality show I can tolerate is COPS. It makes me feel much better about supposedly crime-ridden Baltimore, because the show proves that all miscreants live in California, Texas, Florida and Atlanta. Also, everyone that watches COPS gets to feel better than someone. Your lot in life may not be great, but at least you’re not being hauled away from your trailer, dogs, gun rack and drunken paramour on camera.

Reality shows prove that the viewing public is still, emotionally, in the seventh grade. These things are exponential versions of sleepover conversation: “What would you do for a million dollars?” “What’s more gross, being in a giant’s shower drain or eating a cricket?” and of course, “What would you do if you had a million dollars?”

Maybe these things aren’t so bad. They’re a modern and tacky version of escapism. No Busby Berkeley spectaculars these, but at least we can forget the crappy economy and the threat of war and settle happily into mindless fun. Joe Millionaire is the mental version of a S’more. All we need are those little paper fortune-teller things that kids make…

If I had a million dollars, I wouldn’t change too much in my life really, but I’d have a very good time seeing how many people wanted to marry me for it… or put me on TV.

Monday, January 06, 2003

Those who live in Richmond have probably heard the issue of Sixth Street Marketplace beaten to death already, so they may want to skip today’s rant. On the other hand, the saga of that piece of forlorn frippery is sadly emblematic of the chaos that has faced downtown Everycity, U.S., for the past thirty-odd years.

For those who do not live in Richmond: The epicenter of Richmond’s old shopping district was the 200 block of north 6th Street. Nothing was really on 6th, but it connected the two main shopping streets — Broad and Grace — right between the two mammoth department stores, Miller & Rhoads and Thalheimers. When downtown started to get a bit tatty in the ’80s, the city sought something new that would breathe some life into downtown and, seeing the spectacular success Baltimore had experienced with its Harborplace, obliterated 6th Street’s right of way for three blocks, including a pedestrian bridge over Broad.

The noise the 6th Street Marketplace made while flopping could be heard in Akron. It was a desperate idea that was poorly planned and never really had the factors to succeed. The “anchors” were the big department stores — but both were located at the southern end of the project, so there was no earthly reason to walk through to the other end. The design of the place is the patently awful, pseudo-Victorian frilly style endemic to all such Festival Marketplace efforts — all of the over-done-ness with none of the sense of balance and aesthetic of an actual Victorian structure. It had a food court at one end, rendered irrelevant by the excellent restaurants in both of the department stores.

When the department stores closed — Miller & Rhoads in 1990, Thalhimer’s in 1992 (that crash would ultimately send your faithful correspondent unwillingly back to Maryland) — the last nail was hammered into Sixth Street Marketplace’s coffin. Unfortunately, it’s taken another ten years for the city to get around to burying the benighted thing.

Almost every city, except those few that still have healthy downtowns, has tried a similar desperate ploy to get people back to the old retailing area. Baltimore and Norfolk both tried making pedestrian malls out of one street — Norfolk even went so far as to try the trick with its main drag — and it didn’t work. The success of Harborplace, which Richmond was trying to emulate on 6th street, was actually a different animal. Baltimore’s waterfront was never the retail area; the project was designed to rehabilitate a no-longer-useful industrial and shipping zone. Countless solid city buildings across the nation were replaced with barren, windswept plazas that ostensibly would draw hundreds of shoppers back downtown, only to end up populated solely by pigeons.

The common misconception is what exactly shoppers seek. What do the suburbs have that downtown doesn’t? In too many cases, the cities seek to reproduce the look and feel of the suburbs. It’s not the look that matters; in fact, most people would probably prefer the corniced and corbelled majesty of Miller & Rhoads to the concrete nonarchitecture of Regency Mall. What the suburbs have that downtown doesn’t is the perception of safety and convenience. Even above safety, the first thing out of any Richmonder’s mouth when queried about downtown is, “But there’s no place to park.” (Actually, with everything closed, there’s plenty of parking now but nothing left to park for.)

After ten years of complaining about it, many Richmonders are now waxing nostalgic over Sixth Street Marketplace. Not I. I will jump for joy when that ill-begotten monstrosity tumbles down and people can actually walk down 6th Street again without having to go through a dead and ugly mall. The argument seems to be that the Marketplace could work if given another chance. I don’t think so. It didn’t work when downtown still had a lot going for it; now that almost all retail is gone it certainly won’t work. Sixth Street Marketplace is yet another entry in the list of desperate, poorly-thought-out urban renewal efforts.

At this point there is no “saving” downtown Richmond, because there’s virtually no retail left to save. What should be saved are the buildings, which are equal or superior to the architecture in much larger cities. Downtown cannot be saved, but it can be restored, and its remaining amenities could be made attractive to new tenants. Why not a Target store in the Miller and Rhoads building? Barnes and Noble in the Thalhimer’s building? Touring Broadway shows at the National and the Loew’s returned to first-run movies (which God knows is the only thing it’s really good for)? There’s no reason this can’t happen, but if people are going to come downtown, the city has got to stop blowing millions on half-baked renewal schemes and provide the only things people really want in a shopping area: parking and security.

Maybe then my friends won’t all have aneurysms when I try to get them to go for an Apollo pizza.

Friday, January 03, 2003

I know I’ve sworn to avoid political commentary, and here for the second time in as many weeks I find myself going off on a politically-charged (and shockingly incorrect) tangent. The inspiration for it, though, was something that really frosted my Eier and so I feel justified.

While paging through my unfavorite paper, The Washington Post, I happened upon the movie reviews.

For the edification of those who do not read The Washington Post and/or do not know me personally, I find it an annoying and self-righteous paper. Most of its columnists and reporters could work some holier-than-thou-and-thy-entire-species bit of huggybear philosophy into a traffic report. Run a red light, and you get written up as a racist oppressor of signal rights.

So I was appalled, in Stephen Hunter’s review of The Pianist (which actually does promise to be a pretty good movie), to find this little dollop of whipped cream:

“He is a man of affairs, good in restaurants, witty and lively in conversation, so refined you would think he’d be easy pickings for thugs with guns and clubs who envision a world scrubbed clean of his annoying superiority so that they can eat sauerkraut and belch without having to feel bad about themselves.”

Would the same publication tolerate the phrase “so that they can eat Matzoh balls and fart”? I doubt it, or at least I really hope they wouldn’t.

In 2003, it’s still okay — and condoned — to hate Germans. We can’t hate anyone else, even our other WWII opponents. Somehow, even the Empire of Japan has been redecorated as victim instead of enemy. We’re still not supposed to trust Berlin, though. Muenchen is full of poison beer and Dresden has armed thugs masquerading as six-inch porcelain shepherdesses.

I am not condoning “The Final Solution.” I am simply pointing out that other nations committed atrocities as well. The United States was not blameless itself. War is hell, and rarely do nice things happen in its course.

One thing that we all should have learned from the hideous lessons of World War II is that it’s not really okay to hate people simply because of their ethnic makeup. Mr. Hunter, unfortunately, flouts that very lesson while ostensibly upholding it.

I am going to eat kraut and wurstl and Himbeertorte tonight, and I promise not to belch or kill pianists.

Thursday, January 02, 2003

This morning, on our respective ways to work, a friend and I each had one of those Urban Experiences that scare suburbanites. My friend’s first (we’ll call him Brian, since that’s his name and he probably won’t mind, or at least I hope he won’t because I have no idea how to edit this stupid thing after I’ve posted it): Brian was walking to the railroad station behind two elderly Korean ladies. This neighborhood has lots of Korean folks, which is not a bad thing at all. Their presence means that the old storefronts are filled — sometimes with very interesting things — and there are some good and cheap restaurants. Anyway, one of the little old ladies unwraps her morning Sunpaper (or Seoul Register-Press, or whatever) and promptly drops the plastic wrapper on the sidewalk. Criminy! It’s bad enough when teenagers do this. Little old ladies are litterbugs now? I used to feel bad for the older members of the population, that they had to see their once-beautiful cities crumbling and grimy. Well, now we know why the cities are crumbling and grimy. Our grandmother’s generation had just as little concern for public cleanliness as ours.

And on my way to work, I was approached by a woman in a nylon running suit who claimed that her car had broken down and that she needed fifty cents for a phone call.

Note to panhandlers: If you’re going to make up some cockamamie story about why you want money, do a little market research. Phone calls cost thirty-five cents, not fifty. A guy three weeks ago told me he needed two dollars for the bus. The bus costs $1.35.

I informed the woman that I did not have enough money to fix my own car. She put on a little exasperated act and said, “I only need fifty cents for a phone call.” Apparently, she couldn’t make the simple deduction that if I couldn’t afford to fix my own car I sure as hell wasn’t going to give her fifty cents, so I looked her dead in the eye and said, “I do not have fifty cents.” As she was giving me the official Arrogant Jerk look, I pointed out that she might want to refine her story since phone calls are only thirty-five cents. That must have blown her circuits, because she looked confused and wandered off.

Panhandling is a problem that afflicts all of our major cities. Even otherwise charming Richmond has panhandlers wandering about. The only thing that is going to get these folks off the street is to not give them anything. They do not need the money. How do I know? Because there are, at least here and in DC and Philly, a lot of public and privately-funded programs that make sure the homeless can get food and a bed when they need it. See those guys with the signs that say, “Hungry, please help?” Try asking if they want peanut butter and jelly. I can almost guarantee you they don’t, because I’ve tried and they want cash, buddy. Cold, spendable cash, and they don’t want it for PB&J. In many cases, the people in question are mentally ill, but a quarter from me isn’t the therapy they need. That’s a more complex issue — how to get them therapy; chances are they’ve been deinstitutionalized and have already been turned down by the state. Still, handouts only encourage a behavior that will not ultimately benefit the panhandler, and in the short term lends a rough edge to our streets.

There is one panhandler to whom I’d give money, if I didn’t need every lousy nickel I’ve got. He sits down on Broadway or Thames street and holds up a sign that says, “Why lie? I want a beer.” I appreciate the honesty, and I usually want a beer, too.