Monday, June 16, 2014

Celebrating Fathers' Day with my Sister and the Ghost of Our Father

This weekend, I finally met my sister. Not my sister-in-law, or my stepsister or even stepsister-in-law, but my actual, honest-to-God sister. (Well, technically half-sister, since nothing dealing with my family can ever be that easy.)


In any event, Kelly Frost and her husband Paul and her sons Doug and Tyler are part of the bizarre patchwork of marriages, divorces, remarriages and legal actions that make up the branches of the family. I swear, my roots must look like a Banyan Tree in the middle of Bali by now. I'd love to see Alex Haley dive into this one.

Some of you met me as Raymond Werfel, my mother's maiden name and the name hoisted upon me when she and my father divorced scant months after my birth. The Werfel name, besides belonging to a famous German/Austrian writer Franz, was the family name belonging to my maternal grandfather, Richard Werfel, by all accounts a very angry, bitter man, prone to violent rages so bloody, the state of Pennsylvania granted my grandmother a divorce in a time when such things were so rare as to be impossible. Why that name was kept 30 years after that ground-breaking divorce and passed down to me, I'll never know.

Some of you met me as Raymond Jones, when my mother's second marriage in 1984 to Edward F. Jones, Sr., a.k.a. Butch or Pop, put me into an instant family with Rob Jones, Edward Jones, his wife Maryann, followed up with Rob's children Kari, Catherine Airington and Donnie. Sadly, my mom and Butch divorced before I could ever really get to know Ed and M.A.s son Trey, and their daughter Katie was born years after the papers were signed and the family split. I still keep in contact with them from time-to-time, but it's been 20 years since the divorce and almost half that since Butch passed. Time does let things fade though I loved having stepbrothers who loved me and teased me as though the "step" never existed. .

Most of you know me as Raymond Bradley, since, by all rights, it's been my name since 1973. Thanks to my mother's flawed belief that you can just change your son's last name without a court order, while I went to school as either a Werfel or a Jones, I was always in the eyes of the law a Bradley. Raymond Werfel and Raymond Jones should never have existed, and, in 1992, the State of Maryland told me so in as many words, and thus the arrival of the name that should never departed. However, you can't blame my mom - my father, Larry Edward Bradley, signed away all parental responsibility as part of the divorce settlement. Why *should* I have the Bradley name when he didn't want to be my father? There's logic in her thought process.
So, after 1992, either you heard it on the radio before a traffic report or on a random mid-market morning show, or you met me at Towson State University, or in my short-lived career as a stand-up comic, or in my real grown-up adult life as a hard-working Government video engineering contractor or Senior Sales Engineer. Or, perhaps you have me confused with the MIT scientist of the same name; if so, I apologize, but trust me, I am SO much funnier than that guy. Dude can not do a Family Guy impersonation to save his life, let alone anybody from the Simpsons. And he smells.

No matter when or how you met me, no matter the name, there was always something I was missing - the connection to the Bradley side of me. I found it ironic that Maryland insisted I use the name of a man who left me with my mom, never to be contacted again. Butch and I had our issues, no doubt, but at least he stuck around for a few years and taught me how to ride a bike and throw a curveball. That's 100% more than I got from my own father, and frankly, I liked the last name of Jones. It seemed less Wehrmacht-y than Werfel, and the Jones family was around and present. Uncle Artie, Aunt Henrietta, Grandma Ruth, Ed's in-laws on Kent Island, Rob's kids, even Spooky and Sam the cats and Bud the Chow Chow. I had *connections* to those people. Why should I be something I wasn't *ever,* rather than something I just wasn't *anymore?*

As for my dad, I know almost met him once. I was about 6 or 7, and as was after-church custom, we'd go pick up a bucket of fried chicken from English's in Annapolis, where the Pier 1 is on West Street. I always loved fried chicken, and English's was GOOD crispy Maryland fried chicken. I was craving a leg as we walked in the door, but my grandma put me in a death grip I couldn't believe. She was practically breaking my shoulder yanking me back to the parking lot, and I was asking her "what was wrong? Was the place on fire? Where's Mom? Are they being robbed?" Grandma said something like "hush" but I can't clearly recall. Mom got back in the car a couple of seconds later, and she drove us off in a huff. "Why aren't we getting fried chicken?" I asked. She said "that was your father in there." I remember leaping to the back window straining to see him, crying out "DAD!! DAD!!!! DADDY!!!" hoping he'd hear me, and come running after me. I couldn't open the door, but oh I tried, in my mind pulling off a sweet shoulder roll down Riva Road and running over to be reunited with my dad, but the damned automatic locks kept me in the car...and probably keeping me from breaking my shoulder because when I was 7, I was many things, but "athletic" was not one of them. I saw a shadow in the door of English's, and that was it. I don't know if it was him or a random customer. I remember grandma reaching for me to drag me back down into the seat, but after that, it's a blur lost to time.

That was as close as I ever got to meeting him. My only memory of him was me clawing at the back windshield of some gas-guzzler like some sort of pet being sent to a farm to live out in the country.

I'd met my aunt on my dad's side once. She saw me playing in the backyard of the old W-5 grocery store, and introduced herself to me. She was my father's twin sister, and though I might have been 6 or 7 years old at the time, I recall the conversation as being very one-sided. She told me fantastic stories about the great things my dad did, and was doing. She was making most of them up, but to a frankly extremely naive child, they seemed plausible. In fact, in the years that followed, that's the only way I learned anything my dad - made-up stories by people coming into the store who either knew him, or claimed to do so. "He played soccer in England before wrecking his knee. You're named after one of his buddies there, you know." "He lived in Australia for a while." "I heard he's in South Africa." "Last I heard, he owned a bar in Florida.""He's got three kids living in Alabama." - these stories would come in every few years from random customers, and they were like trail mix to a starving man - not what I needed, but better than no food at all. I always asked the people with these stories "did he ask about me? Did he say anything? Does he miss me?!" Amazing that none of these drunken tales about my father's exploits involved any concern about me.

It was a bizarre day in 2002 when I got a phone call I'd never expected. I was in a condo in Henderson, Nevada, working for technical education sales company, about to perform a show at this technical conference, and then maybe meet up with some of my comic buddies in Vegas and see how many dirty jokes we could write and tell, and possibly even get paid for it. It was my second time in Las Vegas but the first time with more than 36 bucks in my pocket, and I couldn't wait to hit the casinos and see the sights. I've never been much of a gambler, but I know sports, and I knew I could make some money at the sports' books. But the call stopped all that. It was my mom, saying in a very stunned voice "Your father died." The first emotion was one of acceptance - he'd essentially been dead to me for all 29 of my years at that point. The second was one of profound loss of opportunity - why did he never contact me? He knew where we lived, he knew the grocery store, he knew how to find my mom. By that point, I'd been on a bunch of different radio stations and had performed at dozens of clubs, and had the raybradley.com domain - was he waiting for me to become famous? He never bothered to look me up after 3 decades, but now I'm in Vegas, where I know my next step is L.A., now he dies before he can hit me up for money??? Larry Edward Bradley, dead before 50 and leach off his soon-to-be-famous son he ignored for nearly 30 years.

 The rest of the Vegas stay was horrific. One person from the company I was working for asked me if my dad was Catholic, and, if so, did we put money in his coffin. This is maybe 3 hours after the call, and I asked "I don't know. Why?" He said "Because you Catholics have to buy your way into Heaven." I vaguely remember spitting in his coffee when he wasn't looking, but that might have been my own Starbucks. Either way, I was so furious at the guy that later that night at the club, I punched a guy. Hard. He shouldn't have mouthed off to me and the other comics, and after the jackhole at the conference, I was officially surly and looking for a fight. I was 29, I was working out, and I just lost my father. I wanted a bigger fight, to just kick his ass, but I was ushered out the door and was on a flight back east before I could even pack my clothes at the condo. That was my fantastic, career defining moment in Vegas - punching a Neo-Nazi heckler, and also why my comedy career came to a complete halt. Thanks Dad. Couldn't wait to die until AFTER I got on a Fox sitcom starring Tom Arnold first???

Safely back east, I awaited some word from the Bradley family about my father's will or estate. Surely the man would have left me a note or a letter, justifying his actions in 1974. Maybe a trinket, a pocket watch or something from England like a soccer ball or from Australia like an upside-down soccer ball, or any other Commonwealth nation he was rumored to be residing in. That call never came; that trinket or patch or even a card didn't exist.

Two years later in 2004, as a good upstanding citizen who, thanks to the timely flight from McCarran International, has no criminal record, I went to vote at my local polling location in my hometown of Edgewater. I walked up to the election day volunteer, a man old enough to have voted for one Roosevelt and against the other, and gave my name. He looked over the list of registered voters and said "Larry Edward Bradley?" Surprised, I said "Um, no... wow... uh... that's my father. He passed a couple of years ago." The man pointed to Larry Edward Bradley on his list asking "That ain't you?" and that's when I saw the address. My father lived, quite literally, 30 feet from me for at least five years. For a while, our YARDS touched at the corners. And I never met the man.

Was he the one watching me mow the lawn a few years earlier? Was the man I said "hello!" to while running our broke-down Toro around our postage-stamp sized yard... was THAT my dad? Did my mom know? Did HE know? He had to have known, right? My mom hadn't aged much between `74 and `91; she still looked like herself. I'd grown at least 5 feet and gained at least 100 pounds.

With the backstory complete, you can see why it took my marriage to Siobhan for me to even begin to care about the Bradley side of my life again. Once we decided to get married, and we talked about the whole last name thing, I offered to take her name if it would be easier for her law license. I had no connection to the Bradley surname. He was essentially a sperm donor, and I've already been a Jones; why not a Smith?! Ray Smith! Sounds like a dude who fixes cars in Nebraska! I could do that! Ray Smith Motors! I could sell dependable vehicles to hardworking Midwestern families! Besides, the Smith Family instantly welcomed me into their group with open arms, and the rest of their wonderful family through the Smith Brothers and the Bastanzios and the Bellottis - it's like I gained three new families when I couldn't imagine having ONE!

As we would like to have kids of our own, it was important to find out as much as we could about my father's health, illnesses, genetic traits, medical history - typical things like that I simply did not know. The Bradleys are a mystery in this modern age - they simply do not seem to exist in a digital format. Thanks to a death notice, I learned my grandmother's name was Jeanette, that my dad had an older brother named Robert, an older sister and a twin sister. No forwarding address, no contact info, no emails. No nothing. It takes five seconds on a dial-up connection to look me up on Facebook or with a Google machine, and then filter the results to subtract the MIT guy. It took MONTHS on DSL and FiOS to find any sniff of people who share 50% of my DNA, and even when I caught a scent, it'd go cold. Certifications, colleges, Myspace, Flickr, LinkedIn, FarmersOnly.com ...it's like the Bradley kin didn't exist.

Until Donna Smith came along with her Ancestry.com information, that is. It took that website a couple hours to find a death notice for my father that I'd never seen via Google or Yahoo. This notice was different - it listed his immediate family's names, and - shockingly - his children's names! His TWO children...neither of one was me. Sure enough, both of them had Facebook accounts, and with a shot of bourbon-fueled courage in 2013, I emailed them both with a letter stating "I think I'm your brother...half-brother, to be accurate."

Sure enough, I am. Far too old to pull any fraternal pranks on my big half-sister; way too late to babysit my baby half-brother. My older sister did indeed remember me, her being in elementary school when I was born. She too grew up in Edgewater, and would come in to the W-5 when I was just a toddler. She was watching over me, no doubt curious as a young girl would be about a baby brother, half-brother or not. However, the scars of the divorce with our father were still raw, and my mom and grandma didn't want her coming into our grocery store anymore.

I am fairly certain that my younger half-brother did not know or didn't remember that I existed when I emailed him. Maybe Kelly told him, maybe his mother told him years later when she was married to our dad. Either way, it's weird knowing that all three of us have things in common, like sports and the water and the Navy and, according to Facebook, some friends in common before I ever sent out those emails. The world is small, and I've probably drank next to Kelly at Hammerjacks and Shawn at the Turtle.

This weekend was Father's Day weekend, and I finally met Kelly in person. It wasn't planned this way, but this past Saturday was the first time I got to meet an actual link to my father - OUR father - when I met her at her condo in Ocean City, Maryland. There, Siobhan and I met Paul and Tyler, his girlfriend Gina and her parents. Kelly and I do have a family resemblance, mostly in the eyes. We're not dead-ringers, but we do look somewhat related, somewhat like a brother and sister, which is something I'd never thought I'd ever get a chance to say.

Kelly's been great in filling in the gaps between my dad's real life and the drunken tales told in Edgewater in my youth. Basically...my dad was a barfly. He DID run a bar in Daytona for a while; he used to manage a Hot Shoppes! in DC down Connecticut Avenue, a former local chain of coffee and pie places that took him through Chevy Chase, right where Bradley Lane almost intersects with Raymond Street. He did not play soccer in England; he never lived in Australia, South Africa or probably anywhere other than Maryland or Florida. To anybody who heard the "my dad played soccer in England" story - I didn't know! Sorry!! I was a trusting little kid!!! We didn't have the Google back then! (not like I'd be able to find him on it anyway...).

In a bizarre twist of fate, my father was a regular at Pat O'Briens in Downtown Annapolis, and was a manager at A.L. Goodies on Main Street. Where did I go nearly every day after high school in Annapolis? A.L. Goodies. What was the first bar in Annapolis I went to after I moved to Iowa? Pat O'Briens. I remember running into a girl I went to school with, Margaret Rose, that night at O'Briens. We talked about college and how long it had been since we'd seen each other. There was an older man in the background of my memory of that night, looking from the bar at us. Now, at the time, I assumed any man with a pulse would have been looking at Margaret because she was much prettier than I was, but now, I've got to wonder. That man in the background at A.L. Goodies, the man behind the counter I must have walked past a hundred times while Paul Gordon and I went upstairs to play video games in the arcade or sneak peeks at the adult magazines... was that? COULD that? Maybe? Possibly? Was he letting me get away with that, as a penance for his own absence? Between O'Briens and A.L. Goodies and the lawn...was he STALKING me?  Protecting me? Wondering if I was the son he once had? Did he even recognize me? Did he even remember me?

I'll never know.

I'll never know why he signed away his parental rights to me. No visits, no child support, no nothing. I'll never know if he was truly a bad guy or if my mom overreacted to the divorce or where exactly on the sliding scale the truth rests. I don't know why any of the Bradley proper family never bothered to contact me. For years, I assumed it was because he was doing something awesome, like playing for Manchester City in England - because that would be, by any definition, awesome - but I then wondered after 5, 10, 15 years had past, maybe he just didn't like me. Was he so mad at my mom that he lumped me in with her? I deduced that he didn't care about me, and I wasn't good enough. It made me an easy target for kids at school - I was "the boy with the weird last name because his father didn't love him, so let's beat him up." It was easy to believe horror stories about the man from my mom, aunts or grandmother because I never had any proof to the contrary. Even my uncles had beef with him, though my Uncle Jim once did admit the man was a hard worker, which, in his value system, is high praise.

Most likely, he was never more than 15 minutes away, trying to keep a bar stool from floating away in the breeze off the Bay.

So, while I'll most likely never get any answers as to why my father was the way he was, or will ever get an explanation as to why he just walked away, or even if he ever thought about me, the one thing I have learned is that family is what you make of it. I'm proud to call Kelly my sister, Paul my brother-in-law, Tyler my nephew, and I can't wait to meet Doug. They're fun people; ready to have a good time, ride a motorcycle or watch a game, eat some crabs. I can handle that. I'll probably never get to dip her pigtails in an inkwell or shoot up her Barbie Dolls with my G.I. Joes, but at least we can yell at the TV to make sure the dude in orange-and-black knows he needs to hit a home run. And woe to any bar that switches the TV over to a Steeler game during Ravens' season!

I'm going to like getting to know my newest, oldest sibling.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Sad State of DC Professional Sports

Who is going to win more games this year, the Redskins or the Wizards? Redskins won 5 of 16, Wiz on pace for 5.5...out of 66.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Friday, October 07, 2011

Dear MoveOn.org, please, MoveOn

Now, as I've entered my late 30s, I have openly and definitely become more liberal than I was in my 20s. Note that I said "more liberal" and not "become a liberal," because the difference is key. Frankly, there are some liberal causes that I simply can not understand, such as the Occupy Wall Street shenaningans and the latest - forgiving student loan debt.

So...you drop $40k a year in tuition, room and board at a fancy private college, starting adult life with $200k in debt, or, you couldn't go to the perfectly-acceptable state college down the street - you HAD to go to an out-of-state public college and pay out-of-state rates, plus the extra bills associated with going to school 1000 miles away rather than 10 miles, and now you want the Government to forgive your student loans because you won't take a job that "only" pays 35k a year and work your way up? Oh HELL NO moveon.org - try something else.

Recent grads should have gotten a god-damned clue and gone to cheaper schools. Every state offers discounts to in-state students. Frostburg is 5k a year in tuition to Maryland residents, and 15k to out-of-state residents. I'd rather be 20k ...in debt than 60k. Not my damned fault that Brandon and Kelsey in Bridgeport, CN, wanted to go to UNC to be with their friends from Screwyou High School only to watch them all bail out, change majors, or develop severe liver problems from binge drinking and banging slampigs at college bars in Chapel Hill.

Look, I will tie this in to Simon Cowell. Stand in awe of my brilliance.

Simon Cowell was the first person to get on American TV in decades and say "you...you are not good enough to be a professional singer." How many people deluded themselves into thinking they were great singers, and that American Idol would propel them into stardom? And Randy was all about doing yo thing, dawg, and coked-out Paula was all about loving your vibe and your heart and being so proud of you and then Simon would say "You have no talent."

Simon Cowell would say ‎"Oh, you're working as a waitress at a chain restaurant and you happen to sing 'Constant Craving' at the karaoke night better than anybody else? Big deal. You can't sing better than these other people, so you may want to try picking up some extra shifts for the dinner rush."

We have raised too many people who think they deserve a well-paying job and an easy life because they happen to be themselves.

Fuck Steve Jobs and his bullshit graduation address to Stanford grads a few years ago, telling them to follow their dreams. Please. If I followed my dreams, I'd be the worst centerfielder the Baltimore Orioles have ever had, and easily the worst date Elle Macpherson had ever been on. What he should have said was "WORK FOR ONCE IN YOUR GAWD-DAMNED LIVES"

We need more Simon Cowells in life.

We needed a Simon Cowell to say "look, you make 50k a year and you have no chance for a raise, so why are you trying to buy a half-million dollar home?"

We need Simon to say "You're working at a FedEx Kinkos and your fiancee' works at JiffyLube - you do not need a $100,000 wedding, especially because he's banging a chain restaurant hostess after karaoke nights and you'll be divorced in 10 months anyway."

We really need a Simon to say "You failed high school geometry; you thought Kaiser Wilhelm was the bad guy in 'The Usual Suspects' and you need a spotter to help you spell "Checkbook" so why in the hell do you think you should go to a a 4 year school?"

We need somebody brave enough to say "Your child is a god-damned idiot who would be lucky to be a shift supervisor at a 24-hour truck stop." Your child is not some misunderstood secret genius; your child is a barely-functioning retard.

We need a Simon Cowell to say "If you can't decide on a major between Political Science, Business Administration, International Studies or Theater, you might want to look at Community College, slick. Save some bucks."

So, we need Simon Cowell to start doing The Dumb Factor or American Ridicule or something to get kids and parents to get their heads out their asses.

NOW HAVING SAID THAT...

We also need for colleges and universities to remember somethings. Such as... where in the hell do you guys get off thinking every last one of you should cost more than Harvard?

Towson State when I went there was about 2,400 a year for in-state tuition. It's now about 2,700 per sememster - I did not know Towson became more than twice as good as it was when I went there 15 years ago. Virginia Wesleyan is 30,000 a year in tuition, and another 8k a year in room-and-board. Um, when I was there for a year and a half, it was about 12k in tuition and 4k in room and board. Did the food suddenly become twice as good? Did the education become nearly 3 times more amazing?

Schools need to stop thinking they're all little Harvards and shit. Frickin' YALE is only 32k in tuition!!! YALE!! Virginia Wesleyan was a nice enough school, and I made some good friends there, but it's NOT nor would it EVER be on a level like Yale. Virginia Wesleyan makes pastors and bank managers. Yale makes Presidents.

I think anybody DUMB ENOUGH to pay the ridiculous rates most of these crappy little colleges charge nowadays is probably too stupid to go to college in the first place.
22 minutes ago ·

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Notes On Our Visit to Detroit

I spent this Memorial Day weekend in Detroit, Michigan, with the FutureWife, Siobhan, and our three dogs. We drove out to the Motor City on Thursday after work here in DC, and got there sleep-deprived Friday morning. After a much-needed nap, we ventured out into the city.

Now, many readers would question the choice of Detroit as a locale in which a young couple would celebrate Memorial Day weekend. There are several reasons, ranging from "we've never been there" to "Siobhan's agency could transfer her there one day" to "it's not DC or Dewey Beach." It was that second listed reason that got us searching on real estate websites, looking to see what the housing market looks like in Detroit. If pictures are worth a thousand words, surely the photos of Detroit's housing supply staring back at us through the web browser were on a heavy discount. We saw Tudors, Colonials, Contemporaries, waterfront mansions - all for less than the price of a Maryland boxy townhome in the ex-urbs. As the FutureWife and I both love big old houses, Detroit looked through Zillow, Trulia and HUD.gov as our paradise.

As for that second point, I can tell you this - their housing market looks like somebody forgot to add extra numbers. Houses should be 200 thousand dollars, not, 200.

My FutureWife and I were there Memorial Day weekend, attracted to the dirt-low housing prices and amazing deals. 6 bed, 5 bath Tudors, 5000 square feet - 200k. 7 bed, 4 bath, home theater, indoor pool, 3 car garage, 120k. It was, from the safety of my suburban Maryland home through the lens of Zillow.com, a haven. My smallish house in Rockvillle, 3 beds, 1.5 bath, 2 miles from the Metro, is, even after the housing crisis, 400k. 400k in Detroit buys you TWO mansions! And, as my FutureWife's employer could transfer her to Detroit, we had to check it out in person. If she would be transferred there in 2012, we wanted to see what it looked like. There's only so much that Time Magazine pictorials and Urbanist.com photo spreads and words of warning from ex-pat Michigan folks could do - we needed to see if there was something worth buying if we moved to Detroit.

there is a weird sense of beauty in urban blight and decay when viewed through the work of a skilled photographer or film maker, true. It is a God-damned horrible thing to see in person, simply block after block of abandonment. Waste. Decline. To see people living in half a duplex where the other half has no windows due to fire damage from 1992. To see schools left to rot in the Midwestern winters because there's not enough kids in the surrounding neighborhoods to keep them running. To see churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, massive evangelical christian mega-churches to sit abandoned, falling down. Torn. Like even God, Allah, Yahweh, Buddha and Confucius all got together and decided to leave town. When faith leaves, despair enters.

Detroit doesn't need a bulldozer; it needs a fleet of them. The sheer mass of decaying structures is absolutely unfathomable to anybody who has not seen it. I lived in Baltimore when Baltimore was at its slummiest, druggiest squalor, a city that once held 1.2 million people having maybe 700k. I grew up near DC when you could buy the abandoned warehouses that lined 9th st NW for $20, just to get it off the city's ledger sheet. Baltimore had Dollar House Days - buy an abandoned house for a BUCK and it's yours! Neither DC at its 400 murder a year peak in the 80s or Baltimore at its "The Wire''-esque 90s was EVER as bad as Detroit is now. The sheer square miles of ..... rot.... it needs to go. Period. It needs a Blitzkrieg of Caterpillars and a Luftwaffe of John Deeres. I am a native of Annapolis, Maryland, and the preservation of historical structures is important to that town. It makes it unique, gives it a character. Detroit, to be fair, has hundreds of impressive structures - the Michigan Rail Depot, the gorgeous Art-Deco-era skyscrapers, theaters, the memories of better days. The neighborhoods of Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forest, Indian Village - those homes, built between 1910 and 1950, were made for captains of industry and their growing families. In fact, when Mitt Romney's dad was governor of Michigan, they lived in a beautiful home in Palmer Woods, and young Mitt grew up there. Palmer Woods has about 277 houses in it's neighborhood of English-countryside inspired Tudors, Colonials and historically-vital Contemporary homes. There's a Frank Lloyd Wright. Albert Khan. Minoru Yamasaki, the designer of the World Trade Center in New York, has a home in this enclave. It looks like Chevy Chase, Maryland, or Bridgeport, Connecticut. It is a stunning neighborhood, and would be a boon to any city. However, at least 15 houses in Palmer Woods are for sale, and at least that many are abandoned, and only the neighbors get together to mow the lawns and tend to the shrubs, just to give the appearance of vitality. One home, a 4000 square foot Tudor, was listed on Zillow.com as being 140k, while other similar homes in the neighborhood go for 200 to 400. I remembered how charming the house looked like from the web site's pictures - it was a home you could be proud of, to raise a good strong family in - and when I walked up to the slightly-creaky back gate, I saw a series of smashed-in windows and a solarium filled with old empty bags of cat and dog food. The old oak floors were beautiful, but had torn women's' clothing on it, and were lined with excrement, both human and animal. The majestic fireplace still stands, the stained and leaded glass windows remain, the absolutely stunning ceiling with exposed timbers giving an Alpine echo remain, but the kitchen had been stripped of all appliances and plumbing, sold on the streets for a quick buck. I was hit with the most profound sense of sadness I have ever felt - I was inconsolable, frankly, for nearly 15 minutes. I don't know if I was contacted by a spirit of a former resident or the house itself, but I went from "Hmmm...a coat of paint and new windows and some bleach and you got yourself a deal!" to "I.....am....hurting....everywhere" in seconds.

The finishing detail - a sticker from the Palmer Woods Homeowners' Association was placed on a back window. It said, in brief, that this property had appeared to be abandoned, and that steps would be taken with the city to secure new ownership as possible. The sticker had a date on it. It said 2006.

The human excrement was not that old.

Once you leave the tree-lined streets of Palmer Woods, you re-enter Detroit as it stands today. A rotting hulk of a church project stands across the street from Palmer Woods, sharing a parking lot with a McDonalds that had friendly employees and a not-terribly subtle hooker and her pimp looking for potential customers. At 2:00pm. On a Saturday. In what would have been a church parking lot.

What is incomprehensible, still, after a week and a half of, quite frankly, my brain OBSESSING about Detroit, is the sheer vastness of the city's decay mixed with its rather impressive wealth. The downtown core, featuring the GM headquarters' building designed to look like a cam shaft from above, is rebuilding quite nicely. The Tigers' stadium is quite lovely. The Lions' new field, sponsored by Ford, is impressive, and somehow keeps a hint of Detroit's art deco past in a modern facade. The skyscrapers that were abandoned in 2006 are being gutted and restored. For a big city based around the car, the downtown core is rather walkable. Greektown is pretty cool, and the massive casinos show there's a bit of glamor left in Motown. The Hockeytown bar, next to Chris Chelios' sportsbar, next to the legendary Fox Theater, mere steps to the sports' stadia...these are all things that every US city *should* have, but doesn't. So, don't let all the Abandonment Porn photos from 2007 scare you - downtown Detroit is a rather vibrant place nowadays, and should get better.

What is ridiculous is that a mere block or two from this fun core are houses that haven't been lived in for *decades.* Detroit is, as Susan mentioned above, a city in need of a culture change. Part of that culture is that this is a place that went, within the span of 5 years, from almost 2 million in the city and growing like a weed to 1.6 million and not ever getting closer to that number again. I personally was very touched by how friendly the average Detroit person was - folks at the restaurants, the ballpark, walking around, looking at homes - but the Detroit of the Roaring 20s was a very racially violent and segregated area, and it wasn't much better through the 1950s. When the race riots started during the turbulent `60s, that spelled the end of a growing Detroit. People and businesses left the city for the more stable (and, frankly, more segregated suburbs). Combine the racial problems with the decline of the Big Three automakers with the rise of better made products from Japan and Germany, and the gas crisis on the early 1970s... that's a bad combination to mix in a city that is still dependent on the auto industry. Every major highway or public structure is named after a city benefactor - Dodge. Ford. Chrysler. Cadillac. The city is far-too connected to the automotive industry, and the unions that for YEARS convinced their members that better days were right ahead. The city prospered under the rise of the Big Three, and essentially let them do whatever they wanted as long as it brought in more taxes and prestige. The once-thriving Poletown - the not-exactly politically correct name for the Polish community - had the entire north end wiped off the map to put in a giant GM plant. The Boston-Edison Neighborhood, once one of the first Black American upper-income neighborhoods, was torn in two so a highway could be built to get wealthy GM and Ford execs out of downtown and up to their weekend retreats in the northwest that much faster. This is a script that is written and repeated in dozens of neighborhoods all over town - stores and shops and churches and schools removed to make room for new factories and roads. Ultimately, what built Detroit contributed to its demise.

However, it's important to note - it isn't just a handful of buildings decaying in an otherwise vibrant city. It's not just 30 or 40 historically-significant structures failing and in need of restoration. It's thousands upon thousands upon thousands in a city with a few thousand after that that need to be knocked down. And I do mean that - knocked. down. Torn down. Destroyed. Removed. Because the only thing worse than seeing a once-beautiful home in need of repair is seeing the three dozen on that same block that are worse, and knowing that it is too late for two dozen of them. The foundations are cracked; the floors have rotted; the wind, rain and snow have weakened every joint and joist. The damage from fires - either set by junkies or the homeless to keep warm, or by desperate homeowners who watched the value of their homes drop by 70% over a decade and just needed the insurance money - is so great that you actually get surprised when you see a block - ANY BLOCK - without a fire-damaged home.

There is no block, not even in the once Beverly Hills / Potomac / Bridgeport-esque Grosse Pointe, that does not have an abandoned home. $2 million dollars once bought you a home in Grosse Point. It can now buy you 10 if you don't need to be directly on the lake, and possibly 15 if you are a shrewd buyer....or, have good credit.

My fiancee' made a great point about Detroit -there's no middle. No buffer. No... warnings. You enter the city limits, and it's like "DAMN" - there's less traffic in the city. There are very few busses. Pedestrians just cross any ole' time at any ole' place because there's not that many cars to deal with. There are very few grocery stores in the city limits, and they're not exactly Wegman's quality either, that's for sure. The Indian Village neighborhood had about 15 houses we wanted to check out - in fact, I showed Jan Louis one home via Zillow.com that had just incredible detailed woodwork and ceilings, and he was impressed at the caliber of the work. The surrounding homes looked equally impressive. Except, in person...they were empty, too, and had been for a while. And the home with this just awesome ceiling and indoor firepit was also home to a dry-rotten patio and deck that hadn't been maintained since... well, I was a lot younger and skinnier back then, let's put it that way. But the next street over, not even 200 feet, was the Decay. The Abandonment. Homes that had caught on fire in 1980 and nobody bothered to knock over the rotted remains. There was no buffer between the once-great neighborhood and the now-bad neighborhood. No middle, only a common thread of empty.

What it took Detroit - and I wish I was joking - nearly 50 years to realize is that it has become a gigantic eyesore. The city was hesitant to knock anything down because - again, I wish I was joking - they honestly thought they might need it again one day. Some mythical, magical day when people stopped buying Hondas, Toyotas and Volkswagons and bought Fords and Chryslers. Let's put it this way - how many of you have heard of Packards? A few? Yeah, Packard stopped making cars back when my mom was a kid, and my mom is in her 60s. The factory that used to make Packards *still exists* though there hasn't been a car made there since the days when I Love Lucy was still on the air - original broadcasts! It's not a tourist site, or a museum, just a massive rotting husk of America's once-impressive manufacturing core. But, Detroit honestly thought that one day, America might enter another great war and would need those old assembly lines to make tanks and jeeps. It is this mindset that kept them from knocking down decaying and empty houses during the population drain because, again, they honestly thought better days were JUST around the corner, and buyers would quickly jump at the chance to live in Detroit.

Detroit has not exactly had the best civic leadership over the past half-century, and recent mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is no exception. Google his name, and you'll quickly learn about his exploits and corruption. He did have a very good, salient point as an African-American Democrat in union-dominated Detroit: that Italian-American Republican Rudy Guiliani in formerly union-dominated New York City had the right idea in turning NYC around. Start paying attention to smaller crimes and code violations and you'll avoid bigger crimes and bigger code violations down the line. The Broken Window Theory that Guiliani fought in NYC was simple - that if you ignore a fine for a broken window, then more broken windows will follow. Fix that broken window early and punish the person who either broke it, or who allowed it to stay broke, and it will get fixed. Kilpatrick wanted to knock down hundreds of abandoned homes each year just go give people in the city a sense of order again. Of course...he also wanted to make sure everybody in his administration got PAID and got busted for it and will now watch Detroit try to rebuild from the comfort of a jail cell. But his successor, former Detroit Piston star Dave Bing, has followed on Kilpatrick's better quality of trying to remove the eyesores and decay. Better to have open space and nature reclaim the fields than to let a modern-day ghost town continue on. His goal - 3000 abandoned, decaying homes to be knocked down this year, with another 3000 next year, and the next two years of his term as well. 12,000 homes. Gone. Sadly, in Detroit, that's not just progress, but also a mere drop in the bucket. However, in a city that basically fiddled while the town quite literally burned, this is a good start. Bing is a good man. Doesn't take a salary. Is open-minded. Wants to save his adopted city. I feel bad for him, because he may have - even more so than President Obama - the most difficult job in the world. Fixing a broken, battered city with next to no tax base. As bad as the Federal Government's problems look, it's important to note that while our 14 trillion dollar deficit is staggering, it's also still less than 100% of our annual GDP. We've been through worse financial stressors - World War II and the Manhattan Project came A LOT closer to bankrupting our country than most people will ever realize - and the Feds have the ability to cut spending on a few Defense and Medicare projects, raise taxes a point or so, and balance the budget sheet. Detroit has no such flexibility - the city has already said that 20% of the roads will no longer be maintained, and that police, trash and fire services will not cover that 20% as well.

what, in the grand scheme of things, is 1 billion dollars? Well, to Detroit, it would allow them to remove nearly 7000 abandoned homes, storefronts, warehouses and factories a year for a good dozen or so years. One billion is also 40% of the cost of ONE B-2 Stealth Bomber, the development, construction and maintenance , a weapon that basically has next-to-no mission anymore. We have 21 of them. A first-strike weapon designed to take out hardened Soviet facilities. How about $9 billion to build the USS Gerald Ford, an aircraft carrier that would be the first Ford-class vessel to replace the still-quite functional Nimitz-class carriers? That's just the build-out. Doesn't include maintaining the ship, putting jets and sailors on the ship. Doesn't even include a complementary continental breakfast or HBO.

So, while yes - Detroit needs a culture change away from the union mindset and that the Big Three will save them, and that the city needs to help itself - let's not forget something. Detroit's factories and workers built the tanks, the jeeps and the personnel carriers that essentially won us two World Wars. That city made the automobile cheap enough and standardized enough that nearly any citizen, regardless of education or class, could afford and learn how to drive one. That city gave us a distinctive musical heritage - the Motown sound - that is uniquely American, much like another city, New Orleans; it too a victim of a man-made disaster, gave us Jazz. Yet, New Orleans, a city that I will kindly point out - is BELOW FRICKIN' SEA LEVEL - had to be rebuilt after Katrina struck and the levees fell. It is a fact that New Orleans is sinking, and will, in the next thirty years, will require the greatest civil engineering feat in American history to even *begin* to not sink, let alone rise up a foot or two. I'm sorry, but it's true - there's a good chance that New Orleans won't make it to 2050, 2060. Or sooner.

You want to take the same chance with Detroit?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Fixing the Super Boring Halftime Show

It's been a couple of days since the valiant Green Bay Packers defeated the evil women-hatin' Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. We've had countless diagrams and breakdowns of the key plays on the sports' channels and websites, but the pop culture and news sites are stuck on Christina Aguilera's inability to sing the National Anthem correctly, and the annual debate about which commercials scored more than Mark Sanchez at a high school prom.




Also in the post-game debate has been the halftime show, this year featuring everybody's favorite dancing legume, the Black Eyed Peas. They used a lot of lights and dancers and Usher and the microphones/lip syncing was off and their stage didn't light up the whole way, but really, what do we really recall about their performance?

Fergie yelled at the viewing audience, and really didn't sing very well.

I've always thought she was attractive, but after this show, I'm beginning to think it might just be her hair extentions that I like. She has a nice figure, but she's got some strong facial features, and when she yells...it's not terribly sexy. It's like I'm being yelled at by a hippie Marine.

So, it seems that a lot of folks felt the halftime show felt kind of flat, or, just out-right sucked. Well, I will say this - that's what happens when you use a band that makes their magic in a studio on a computer. It'd be like complaining about T.Pain's real signing voice - well, DUH - his speciality is AutoTune, not "singing live on worldwide TV in front of 100,000 people."

Apparently, it's not Xtina's speciality, either.

Think back over the past 20 years, when the Super Bowl became a cultural juggernault. What shows do you clearly remember as being incredible?

2) Prince simulating masturbation using a shadow on stage and playing his guitar better than anybody else has on such a stage.
1) U2. Bono on a heart-shaped stage. Edge just rocking. Adam Clayton laying down a great bass riff. Post 9/11. The names of the victims scrolling behind the band.

I just gave myself a chill writing that. Remembering it. Finding it online and only making it halfway through because the emotions came back. You ever wonder why old veterans cry during parades? I don't question it anymore. They were young once, too.

Everything else though has ranged from "pretty good" - Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones - to "ok" - The Who did kinda rock - to "not bad" - Tom Petty - to "not good" - Michael Jackson popping up all over the Rose Bowl. Then dancing with kids? WHAT?!?!? - to "bad bad bad" - Diana Ross in a helicopter. Anything with Kid Rock. The Phil Collins/Christina Aguilera bizarre mix and the Nelly/Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake thing. We all remember Janet's deflated passenger-side airbag, but nobody remembers that whole entertainment portion was crap.

I still maintain the worst even was 1992. Gloria Estefan and Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill. Two ice skaters and a woman who never rocked once the Miami Sound Machine got busted in a cocaine smuggling ring.

Go watch the video. Paul Tagliabue should have been fired for this.

Basically, the NFL is 2 for 20 or so. That's "minor league shortstop" at best.

What the NFL has done - besides given a last paycheck to clearly-past-their-prime acts - has been the glorification of the mediocre and the popular, while not exactly reflecting the strengths of the sport, the location of the venue, or the popularity of certain genres at a time. The halftime show is about 5 years behind at best, and 25 at worst.

My advice on fixing the Super Bowl Halftime Show would be to try to reflect the actual time and location of the event. Now, the U2 show in New Orleans in 2002 was amazing, but, if there was ever a show that demanded some Bo Diddly or some other old blues/rockabilly guys... something to reflect New Orleans. Granted, the Big Easy is one of the more preferred locations for the event, and will host it again in 2013, so they'll get another crack at making the show more relevent, but what about a place like... Dallas? Dallas is not exactly snonymous with "studio-based, over-produced mindless dance music" like the Black Eyed Peas. I'd have gone with a country-based show, especially since it's been a few years since a legit country artist was featured. Something featuring Dallas' history in the West, the stockyards in Ft. Worth, maybe?

Since next year's event is scheduled for Indianapolis, I'm going to give the NFL free advice right now. All Indy has going for it is auto racing and cheap pharmaceuticals. So, tie-in an auto racing theme with the biggest, best band from the general area - Dayton Ohio's The Black Keys. They have the chops, playing in front of a mostly hometown crowd, they're hip and on the rise.

My guess is that John Cougar Mellancamp will be performing. Probably that gawd-awful "this is MY COUNTRY!!!" song, too.

After that, it'll be back in the aforementioned New Orleans, and then it goes to the new Meadowlands... and Mark Sanchez's girlfriend STILL won't be allowed to drink legally. But a New York/New Jersey Super Bowl - you know the NFL won't be able to pass up potential-team owner Jon Bon Jovi - could feature some incredible acts with the songs and the power to play on America's biggest stage. Jay-Z. Run DMC. Wu-Tang. Those are all viable options showcasing New York's rich hip-hop heritage. In fact, tell me you couldn't imagine "Empire State of Mind" blaring through there right now?

They could go towards New York's rock history - Lou Reed, Blondie or what's left of The Ramones would be possible acts, if the NFL had their way. But what about up-and-coming bands that could rock the audience? Interpol. MGMT. The Bravery. The National. Or... how about one act who could combine both hip hop and hip rock?

Ratatat.

Never heard of them? Check out this or this. The language is NSFW, but the riffs are NSF anybody.

OK, so maybe they're a little too on the edge. But there's still somebody that could save us from a Katy Perry/Justin Bieber halftime show.

Muse.

They have the the requisite spectacle, and can flat-out jam. The kids love them, and their parents think they remind them of the glam rock-era Bowie mixed with Queen with a heaping teaspoon of Motley Crue. Ask anybody who saw them tour with U2 in 2010 - Muse can dominate a stadium. In fact, make the New York Super Bowl the Old York Super Bowl - get them and the Infadels to jam and see if Kasabian wants to sit in. A tribute to England, a potential expansion site, and something that would blow the doors off the joint.

And, if Bill Simmons' idea of a Las Vegas domed stadium ever comes to fruition, bring in some dancing Elvis impersonators, Michael Buble' and The Killers. DONE. Do NOT over think this.

Let the Super Bowl rock. Instead of having countless pundits and writers yawn about yet-another boring halftime show, or something that's rather dull, give them something you've never done before, NFL - don't follow, but LEAD! Show that you have an idea of what is popular, and do it without recruiting MTV or Facebook or The Wiggles or whatnot to "find out what the kids are listening to these days."

Now, I'm sure they're in the planning stages of these up-coming shows, and thinking "Hey, let's do a tribute to disco!" or "There's a band my trophy wife likes... Marooned Live or Marude Fide or something like that." NO! Stop. Step away from the decision-making process. In fact, go jump off a building. Preferably a tall one with little-to-no awnings to break your fall.

Or, barring all that...bring back Brian Boitano. He seemed like a nice guy.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Why I Hate the South...and the North

Your states started a war to keep people enslaved.



Your people enjoy and take pride in being undereducated, overweight and isolationist.



You belabor under the belief that houses require wheels.



Even when he is obviously wrong, undeniably factually in error, or making a logical jump so great as to be defined by professionals as borderline insane, as in "there's no way any sane person can think he's not making this crap up," you still think Rush is Right.



You soak sour pork in vinegar and dare call it barbecue - an affront to all things holy.



Your idea of birth control is doing jumping jacks and using Cheerwine in an unauthorized manner. Your mothers take their entire litter of whining little deep-fried future felons to Walmart as a bizarre combination playdate/educational experience/day care/chance to meet their real dad operating the fork lift as opposed to 'Marty' the guy who randomly sleeps in Mommy's bed.



You should have convinced Britney Spears to go topless when she was still young and firm. You had her during her formative years, and, quite frankly, I expected better from you.



You still have Stuckeys. You're hoarding all the Steak`n' Shakes along with your partners-in-arms, the Midwesterners.



You won't spend 60 minutes with your kids watching Sesame Street, but you'll drag them to some place called "Talladega" and make them watch cars go around in a circle for 4 hours.



You somehow think "sweet tea" is vastly superior to, and will refuse to drink, regular old "tea with sugar." You can not taste the difference, but your Type 2 Diabetes spawning in your leg can.



SOMEBODY is giving donations to Sarah Palin, and, last I checked, it wasn't us.



Your accent grates like a delicate Roquefort on an antique Mouli grater.



You do not know what that last sentence means.



You are convinced that wrestling is real. life. drama.



Your insects are the size of a Hollywood starlet's dogs. Even a small dog is a big bug.



Truck Nutz.



The Dukes of Hazzard, despite your most earnest thoughts and wishes, is not a documentary.



One of your people invented a thing called a cotton gin that contains no gin. Bad form.



You took all the hockey teams from nice, hard-working Canadian towns, changed their names and then got distracted by something shiny resembling the Virgin Mary in a Ford F-350's headlight outside of Plant Runoff Creek, Kentucky, and forgot you had them.


Seersucker. You have a lot to pay for that.



According to Jim lasted twice as long as Arrested Development. Not really your fault, but you're getting the blame anyway.



Every once in a while, you develop an amazing talent, like Terry Southern, and promptly ignore him cos' there's a water-skiin' squirrel on channel 49.



You openly dislike the Federal Government and then get mad when the Federal Government doesn't give you enough money.

-----------------





Why I Hate the North





IT IS GOT-DAYUMED COLD UP HERE, Y'ALL!!!!