Friday, November 22, 2013

Back Then

Monday, November 18, 2013
I’ve been yearning to go back to Paris for the 3 ½ years since we last visited.  So, I picked myself up and went to Paris Sandwich (a/k/a Paris Authentic Vietnamese Restaurant), 113 Mott Street, purveyor of Vietnamese banh mi and other dishes, a particularly neat and clean place with waiter service as well as a stand-up counter if you choose to have only a sandwich.  I ordered Spring Roll Vermicelli Noodle ($6.75), a generous bowl of vermicelli (angel hair rice noodles) topped with carrots, scallions, bean sprouts, cilantro, lettuce, chopped peanuts, and 1" pieces of spring roll, with a nice portion of lime chili dressing to pour over it all.  Very tasty and very filling.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Last night, Sonia Sotomayor spoke to a large crowd at City College, informally responding to questions about her background, education and values.  Not every judge delivers her ideas coherently without obvious reliance on catchphrases or clichés, but Justice Sotomayor not only spoke with easy grace, she showed a very human side.  Her career path may well serve as a model for many of the students present, foreign-born and/or from minority populations.  The opponents of affirmative action will dwell on the open door to Princeton she was given as a poor girl from the Hispanic community of the South Bronx.  Of course, few of them would have traded their childhood for hers, and, more arrogantly, they ignore her accomplishments at Princeton (summa cum laude), at Yale Law School (law review) and beyond.  Underlying their supposed principled opposition to the policies that helped her advance, I think they simply resent that she did not stay in her place, hemmed in by the limited role that ethnicity, class, economics and geography seemed to promise her.

Before Justice Sotomayor went on to speak, I did offer her a few encouraging words.

Eating Peking duck is inevitably messy.  Whether using a pancake or a bun to hold the duck (sometimes meat and skin separately), scallions, cucumber and hoisin sauce, your hands will get moist and slick.  A way to achieve some of the culinary satisfaction without the mess and at a much lower price is ordering duck chow fun ($6.75) at Wo Hop, 17 Mott Street.  The portion, as with seemingly all their dishes, is large, the ratio of fat to meat is no worse than average for other duck dishes, the price is right and, unless your use of chopsticks is dangerously ineffective, your hands will not require an immediate scrubbing.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013
The reporters were gathering at the foot of the courthouse steps as I arrived this morning.  It seems Rupert Murdoch is coming to town to defend his wealth and pelf in his divorce action from his third wife.  Two matrimonial judges have their courtrooms on the same corridor as my office, so there’s a good chance Rupe and I might meet soon.  Actually, my chances of bonding are probably stronger with his ex-wife-to-be, Wendy Deng, born in China.  After all, considering the emotional turmoil she must be experiencing at the breakup of her 14-year marriage, she could probably use a good meal.

In fact, Stony Brook Steve was around to give Wendy additional support, but she did not avail herself of the opportunity to eat lunch with us, even though we two ordered enough food for three at Shanghai Gourmet, 23 Pell Street, scallion pancake, hot and sour soup, orange flavor chicken, shredded pork in Peking sauce and beef with scallions.  Had Wendy been along and split the bill with us, it would have cost a little over $8 each including tip.  No matter how parsimonious Rupert may prove to be in the divorce settlement, Wendy should be able to handle eight bucks.

Thursday, November 21, 2013
Another day in the dentist’s chair, pushing and pulling, putting and taking, in an effort to thwart nature’s plan for my mouth.  Staying away from work and the long subway ride to and fro the clinic gave me plenty of time to read the paper and learn that Thursday, October 24, 2013, just 4 weeks ago, set an all-time record for subway rides, 5,985,311.  Significantly, nothing special was going on that day; no Subway Series baseball game, no Thanksgiving Day/St. Patrick’s Day/Salute to Israel/Puerto Rican Day/Giants Super Bowl Victory parade, no Black Friday sales, no Simon & Garfunkel concert in Central Park.  It was just an ordinary workday with school in session, no religious holiday, and mild weather, a 54° high.  This has to be the subject of barroom bets in the future.

Friday, November 22, 2013
November 22, 1963 was also a Friday, and I vividly recall it today, although I can’t remember anything about November 21, 1963 or November 22, 2012, for that matter.  I was a teaching assistant in the Government Department at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  I had a 2 o’clock section in Goldwin Smith Hall, a low, wide academic building on the eastern edge of the Arts Quad.  I entered the classroom on time.  Most of my freshmen students were already in the room, but few were seated.  Rather, they were standing by the window, gathered around a student holding a transistor radio.  That student, by the way, was Mark Green, later to run unsuccessfully for a New York congressional seat, the US Senate against Al D’Amato, and the mayoralty against Michael Bloomberg.  In between, he twice won election as New York City’s public advocate, a position that I think he handled very well, although no one is quite sure what its purpose is, and, incidently, the job Bill de Blasio held before his successful run for mayor.  I won’t pretend to remember the exact words uttered in that classroom, but someone said that the president was shot.  Dallas time is one hour earlier than anywhere in New York state.  It was just after 1 PM there.

I didn’t believe what I heard; five minutes before I had been in the Government Department’s office in a nearby building.  I left the classroom quickly and went down the hall to the offices of the English Department, where I picked up a telephone (I think I asked first) and called the Government Department, I guess I thought it more reliable under these circumstances than the English Department.  It was true.  Kennedy was shot dead.  Back to my classroom where the kids sat stonily silent.  At first, I urged them to get lost.  What could I say to this group of bright, predominantly middle class kids in their first college semester?  When they didn’t move, I blustered that, while I had not been drawn to revolutionary causes before this, in spite of my years at CCNY, I was prepared to do battle, real battle, with the reactionary forces that I assumed, with some hedging, were responsible for Kennedy’s assassination.

We left the classroom and I walked over to the Straight, the student union, where I encountered Bonnie Cohen, an undergraduate from Detroit, whom I pined for unavailingly, and Richard   Denenberg, then editor-in-chief of the Cornell Daily Sun.  We chatted and even laughed about some things, which drew some stares.  Eventually, I went back to my basement apartment on Harvard Place in Collegetown, where I lived at that time in a state of hostile co-existence with John Langley Stanley, later proven to be one of the dearest people that I have ever known.

I barely moved out of the apartment the entire weekend, although I went to a non-denominationalish service conducted by the Newman Club, the campus Catholic organization, early Friday evening I seem to recall.  John and I had no television set, so, while I would typically head to the Straight to watch football games on most Sunday afternoons, I could not muster the will to get dressed and go out for days.  In retrospect, I admit that it was quite remarkable, even foolish, that I did not see one minute of the weekend’s events, the shooting of Oswald, the Kennedy funeral procession, none of it.  I don’t think that I was in denial, so much as deflated.

Cornell Government Department graduate students typically had an easy load in those days, one or two seminars, and 3 teaching sessions in either introduction to American government or comparative government (then Britain, France, West Germany and the USSR).  In the week immediately following the assassination, I had to prepare a writing for Professor Andrew Hacker’s seminar in American political behavior.  The seminar was held at 8 A.M. on Tuesday mornings, where Hacker sat, framed by the open door to his office, at the head of several flights of stairs, puffing his Meerschaum pipe heartily, as John and I trudged up the stairs after walking about a mile on a cold Ithaca morning, with no possibility of campus parking even if we were to own a car, which we later did, but that’s another story.  Hacker, who cherished then, and probably still does, his reputation for blunt irascibility, was unmoved by the diversion caused by the assassination of an American president, and his view of my devotion to scholarship never progressed beyond that point when I failed to deliver.

Campus life eventually returned to normal, more or less, except for one of my fellow graduate students.  The Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination was released in late September 1964, and two months later 26 volumes of supporting documents were published.  Edward Jay Epstein took a complete blue-leather bound set (I don’t know how many the library might have had) to his library carrel, a desk with shelving in the stacks that I never bothered with, choosing instead the Government Department graduate student reading room, where reading was entirely replaced by conversation.  Epstein and I had become friendly, probably because he seemed to suffer from the same arrested social development as I did, although he was about half a dozen years older.  As a result, he frequently sought me out, blue volume in hand, to point out some discrepancy or illogic in the text.  I usually shooed him away, partly from lack of interest and partly from my attempt to concentrate on my upcoming comprehensive examinations.  My dismissive attitude didn’t seem to matter to Epstein, who became more and more immersed in those thousands of pages dealing with the fatal intersection of Kennedy, Oswald and Ruby.  As you probably know, Epstein produced the first credible critique of the Warren Commission, Inquest, and later many more works of important investigative reporting.  But, before that happened, one night at dinner in downtown Ithaca in the summer of 1965, my combined annoyance at Epstein’s hocking about the Warren Commission and his ineffective attempt at seducing the young woman at our table caused me to snarl, “Shut up, Epstein.  Don’t talk to me.”  And he never did again.

My formal studies of political science ended weeks later when I failed my comprehensive examinations for the second time.  Since then, I’ve remained interested in our government and politics as I passed through periods as an employee, a business owner, unemployment and a lawyer.  Adding those perspectives to what little I retained as a student of government, I believe that attempts to analyze or appraise Kennedy and his presidency in terms of his accomplishments are beside the point.  During those few years, many Americans felt different, an air of vigor (a popular New Frontier word) and optimism emanating from Washington in contrast to the seeming sobriety and paternalism of the Eisenhower years.  Having those feelings end so suddenly, in such an unlikely manner, has colored public perception of Kennedy ever since, and, for many people, substituted frustration and disenchantment for a concern for the common good.  

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