About Me

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Always fascinated by the paradox presented in Hesse's Magister Ludi between the worlds of the spirt and of the flesh, I left academia after completing the coursework for a Ph.D. in English Literature for a career in Information Technology consulting, foresaking Shakespeare, Byron, and Fitzgerald for Turing, Iverson, and Date. Soon thereafter, I, like Tom and Laura's father, the telephone lineman, fell in love with long distance. In the years that followed, I plied my craft in places strange and far, including Riyadh, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sarajevo, and (most pleasantly) Nice. Returning to my native America after many years abroad, I have found it dramatically changed, not necessarily for the better. Now I practice my trade more sedately, traveling to such exotic places as St. Louis, Atlanta, and Hartford. But, as Mr. Buffett reminds us, "there's still so much to be done." So hearkening back to Tom's absent father... if the phone doesn't ring, it's me.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Pub Parables: Liberal Wisdom Meets European Reality

One of the advantages of living in a big city like New York is the availability of good pubs and restaurants. For many like me, pubs become dark, cool oases of familiarity in the crowded, paved desert of the large city. In the UK, such pubs are referred to as one's "local," a place to retreat from the larger society and be amongst friends -- and the best kind of friends, those you don't have to see otherwise. During my London years, The Grapes in Mayfair provided such sanctuary.

My New York local is an Irish pub, close to Columbus Circle, and named for an American president. It's a typical upscale NY pub, long and narrow, actually extending through the back door onto the adjoining cross street, and providing dining, complete with a fireplace, in the back room. Its dark wood walls are adorned with pictures of the owners and various celebrities – Al Pacino, Abe Vigoda, and others. Its high green ceilings lend a moneyed atmosphere to the ambiance and, indeed, many of the regular patrons are well off, living as they do in the Columbus Circle area of New York. The bartenders are all Irish, most from the northern county of Donegal, and are dressed in white shirts and black ties, providing a hint of formality. Like many of their compatriots in Ireland and the UK, they pour an honest, albeit expensive, drink and the bar is well stocked with Irish whiskies, good lagers, ales, and stouts, and a decent, but not great, selection of single malts.

The regulars reflect the socio-economic, if not the racial, diversity of the city, what with them being white males, and all. Jim, at 70+ a retired “backstage assistant” on Broadway and native of Manhattan, now priced out to the hinterlands in a Brooklyn walk-up, makes the pilgrimage daily, without fail, to midtown. Kevin, the successful international lawyer, who is always traveling, always good for stories of women from Bucharest or Prague, and always concerned about his diet following his minor heart attack 5 years ago, while simultaneously devouring the bar’s renowned burger, fries, and pint combo. Bennie, eighty years old, slovenly but well-to-do, incessantly repeating tales from his youth, forgetting that he’s told the same stories to the same audience many times over. Tim, the openly gay CPA, now semi-retired in mid-life and obsessed with the online gambling phenomenon, who told me once that his favorite actor is Leonardo DiCaprio because he’s “sooo cute.” Ronnie, now departed (to Florida), nattily dressed with his black French beret, ran away in his youth, ala his hero Kerouac, to Ibiza to become a writer, despite his mother’s urgings that he enter NYU dental school. And finally Leonard, with his well-trimmed black and gray beard, is the only regular with his picture on the wall, reflecting his minor celebrity status as a liberal, nationally syndicated talk show host. Leonard, a great believer in Conspiracy Theories, most centering on 9/11 and the BFEE, suffers from a number of “liberal ailments,” most notably BDS (Bush Derangement Syndrome), an obsessive, almost pathological hatred of George W. Bush.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, an English couple entered the bar and sat between me, on the long side of the bar, and Jim and Leonard in the Regular’s Corner. From their accents, I could tell they weren’t from London or the South, placing them as from the Manchester area. We began chatting and commiserating about the day’s soccer results as their team, Blackburn (my guess of Manchester was close), was pounded by Portsmouth 3-0, while my Gunners drew with Aston Villa in their first regular season game at the new Emirates Stadium. We continued talking and it turned out this was their first day of a four-day visit to New York and they were planning their itinerary.

Jim and Leonard, listening intently to the conversation, decided to act as tour guides for the unfortunate couple. To set the scene properly, I should describe Jim and Leonard in a bit more detail. Jim, as noted above, is 70+, rotund (probably 5’9” and 260), with Archie Bunker-like sparse white hair, and always wears a white shirt, with the tail out, and dress slacks. While Jim may play the Costello of the pair, Leonard is a much shorter Abbot, probably 5’8”, mid-40s, with distinctive black/gray hair flowing into his 1960s-tribute beard and mustache. Jim and Leonard are both wonderful people in their own right, with Jim being an amateur cartoonist in the school of the great Jack Kirby and an admirer of Frank Frazetta and Will Eisner. Leonard, when he’s not obsessed about the evil Bush Empire catapulting the world into Gotterdammerung by destroying the WTC, is certainly a nice enough guy. However, Jim has left North America only once, traveling to Italy in his youth, while Leonard, for all his “knowledge” of the world and its opinions, knowledge flouted on his radio show every evening as he informs his viewers what the world thinks and does, has never left North America.*

Back to the present, Jim proceeded to suggest a series of “traditional” New York sights and entertainments that Leonard, in his worldly wisdom, pooh-poohed. Among these were the sightseeing boat trips around Manhattan, a pleasant afternoon which gives you the perspective of the city from the Hudson and East Rivers, derided by Leonard as “a view of a bunch of tall buildings.” Jim next suggested dinner at The Flame, a local midtown West diner, with a certain Hell’s Kitchen ambience. Again, Leonard ridiculed this suggestion, positing instead the Carnegie Deli, similar in cuisine, but much more of a known (read “tourist”) landmark. And so it went, as the somewhat confused, somewhat amused, English couple listened politely.

As things progressed, Leonard, as he normally does, brought the conversation around to politics, putting the question to the Blackburn couple, “Who’s your favorite politician?” I suspect, based upon my knowledge of Leonard and of his reaction to the answer, that he anticipated the couple, given that they were “Europeans” would be appropriately progressive and socialist and respond, if not with a Liberal Democrat, then at least with a Labor Party member, excluding the evil Tony Blair, of course. The couple’s response was immediate and definite – “Maggie Thatcher!!”

The British have an expression – gobsmacked -- which describes perfectly Leonard’s reaction to this blasphemy against progressivism. Here was a pair of true Europeans expressing admiration one of the Left’s iconic demons, the Iron Lady and Reagan’s partner in crime! Where were those bedrock socialist European principles, as continually explicated to the illiterate masses by the Polly Toynbees of The Guardian and The Observer? Where was the commitment to 90% tax brackets, nationalized health care, the good of the community? The ghosts of Marx and Engle, as well as the spirits of Fidel (soon to be ghost), Hugo, and Hillary, seemed to assault the portals of bar, possibly deterred only by the dollar green walls.

Not so easily deterred, Leonard became intent on understanding (and making sure they understood) the nuances of the situation. After all, everyone knows the sinister Maggie, sitting as she does on the left hand of God, halted the march of European collectivism through what must have been highly illegal maneuvers. Following his initial shock, he asked, “Well, why is that? Surely Thatcher did more harm than good for Britain.” Their answer was simple, direct, and to the point, reflecting their simplistic, conservative, non-nuanced view of the world – “She lowered our taxes!” There it was, for all the world to see. The ultimate individualist argument against socialism, communism, and their discredited offspring – It’s my money. I worked for it and I , not the government, should decide how best to spend it!

As is common with radio talk show hosts (both liberal and conservative, btw), that was it (fini, completo) for Leonard. Placed in a situation wherein he didn’t have control of the talk/no talk button, faced with a situation that defied his liberal stereotypes of the world, and staring across the bar at a liberal’s worst nightmare, this couple who felt they should decide how to spend the money the worked for, Leonard fell silent, dismissing them from his thoughts as mere aberrations from the socialist European norm. Surely, with a bit of re-education, ala Rubashov, these recidivists would see the benefits of collectivism.

The general conversation done, I bought the couple a Smithwick’s each and wished their Rovers well, unless, of course, they were playing my Gunners. That night, I ordered dinner from The Flame, chicken orzo soup and an open-faced steak sandwich.

*Since this was originally written, Leonard has now experienced his first international adventure, traveling to Isreal as part of a Isreali-government sponsored program to improve their image in the US


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