Saturday, April 19, 2014

Flight 370

Imagine if you can, on this the sad first
Anniversary of the Boston Marathon  bombing,
That you were one of the passengers,
Numbering 227 according to Malaysia Airlines,
On the doomed Flight 370,
Flying in a sleek Boeing 777, with robin-egg blue wings
In the middle of the night, on  March 18, 2014,
Flying from the  capital Kuala Lumpur,
To Beijing, some 2700 hundred miles away.

Imagine you were young or old,
Male or female, mostly of Chinese
Or of Malaysian descent,
Or one of  the contingent of Indians
Or one of the couple of Ukrainians,
Or  the 51-year-old IBM executive
From the Dallas-Fort Worth area,
From which he’d just returned
After visiting his ex- and two sons,
And was  returning to  Beijing,
To take care of some unfinished business.
He’d spent the last two years in Beijing
Before being transferred to Kuala Lumpur,
The last career move he’d ever make,
Or that you are one of the teen-age couple,
She Asian and beautiful, he European
And doting hopelessly on her,
Who are returning to school in France
From  a vacation on a travel poster beach
Where their footprints in the sand lead
To a sanctuary  in the dunes where they lie on their backs
Looking up at the  blue sky and dissolving  vapor trail
Of a jet that is too high for itself to be seen,
As if it was  disappearing into eternity.

Or imagine you were one of the twenty
Younger Chinese and Malaysian employees
Of an Austin-based semi-conductor company
With an assembly and test-plant in Tianjin.
Or if semi-conductors are not your thing,
Imagine you are the Hollywood stunt man,
Chinese, of course, like Bruce Lee,
Flying to Beijing to see his two kids
Before he flies  back to Malaysia
To film the Netflix series “Marco Polo.”
Or you are the Siberian diving instructor,
Also the father of two kids, on his way home
From a trip to Bali, Indonesia, back to  Irkutsk, in Siberia,
Where he was a member of a  tight-knit Jewish community.
Or imagine you are the pregnant passenger,
Or the one recovering from a miscarriage,
Or that you are the four-year-old sister,
Or her two-year-old brother, the youngest on board.
They were born in America, but their last name was Chinese,
But their first names were  Nicole and Leo.
Or imagine you are the second-oldest passenger,
A 76-year-old Chinese man who has survived
A truck collision, political persecution, and three heart attacks.
He  was one of  the artistic contingent of twenty,
Who were returning from an art exhibit in Kuala Lumpur.
Among the twenty  was an unemployed factory worker
Who managed to save enough to learn calligraphy.

Or imagine you were one of the two younger men
Who were returning to China to visit dying fathers,
Or one of the two older couples who were expecting
Soon to become grandparents, or the young couple
Who had just celebrated their first wedding anniversary,
Or the Indian microbiologist who was flying for the first time
Along with her retired husband and youngest son
Who were on their way  to Beijing to attend the graduation
Of her oldest son, with a degree in engineering,
Or imagine you are  the 29-year-old Iranian
Who  was traveling to Germany illegally,
With a stolen passport, seeking asylum, hoping
To be reunited with his mother, already there.

Imagine that you were any of these passengers one hour
Into  the flight when the plane lost contact
With air traffic control  and disappeared from radar
For the next next seven hours,  or so
The authorities speculated, and flew toward
The South China Sea, or the Indian Ocean,
Or  god only knows where it went down
At sometime not long after dawn
When the plane finally ran out of gas,
Following what some will  believe was God’s will,
And others that a fanatic among the passengers
Or crew felt they were following God’s will
In prolonging the terror  as long as possible,
And mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers,
Young and the old, right-brained and left-brained
The artistically  talented and technically inclined,
The well-to-do and the barely making it,
The happy and the unhappy, the well and the ill,
Chinese, Malaysians, Indians, Indonesians,
And a quotient  of Caucasians,
Somebody’s  near and dear loved ones
Or distant and now dead relatives,
Reminding  us of the terrible things that can happen
To ordinary people, members of our species,
Enduring the  boredom or the frustration,
The divorces, deaths, and diseases
Of their quotidian existence
But suddenly lifted by technology
Along with the 450 ton aircraft  with robin-egg blue wings,
Astonishingly 36,000  feet up in the air,
Cruising at 570 miles an hour
And  held hostage  by an insane person or persons,
Drunk on god and religion, with messianic delusions,
Just as millions of brainwashed believers
Belonging to three crazy, competing teams
That are all in the same  crazy  league,
Playing with  weapons of mass destruction,
Holding humanity at large hostage
As  planet earth speeds around the sun
At  67,000  thousand miles  an hour.

Imagine if you can that technology is a pact
With the devil who is monitoring our smart phones
And running in-flight movies in our minds
While  annihilation approaches exponentially
Until  we are like the passengers on Flight 370,
Whom we never knew but  have already forgotten—
The old artist who survived three heart attacks,
Little Leo who has not yet learned to count,
The  passengers who are flying for the first time
The teenagers on their backs, looking up at the blue sky,
The unemployed worker who learned calligraphy,
And  the 42-year-old  woman whose birthday it was,
Who will never have to play the numbers game again.

                                                Robert Forrey,  April 2014

Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Hill View Flyer [reposted]

The budget-busting sentence from Sect. 87 of City Charter. The same
language is used in Sect. 89 covering the Fire Dept.

The article below was originally posted on May 5, 2011. Because our new city manager was not around three years ago to read it, I am reposting it so that our un-elected city manager can continue his on-the-job training. He recently complained about the difficulties of trying to balance the budget when the number of employees of both the Fire and Police departments are dictated by the city charter, as if no one had read the city charter before.  A city manager has even less authority than the mayor under the previous system of city government had of changing that onerous provision of the charter. We are stuck with that provision and the city manager form of government, and for that we have the officious First Ward councilman Kevin Johnson to thank. R.F.

The Hill View Flyer: “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics!”

 The flyer (shown above ) appeared in the mailboxes of residents at the Hill View Retirement Center not long before they voted on May 3, 2011,  on a proposed  city income tax increase. The  purpose of the flyer, in my reading of it, was not so much to inform the residents on the proposed income tax increase as it was to scare the bejesus out of them. If it did not do that with what Mark Twain called “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” then it did it with at least some very misleading “talking points.”
Talking Point #1: The Title

The scare tactics begin with the typography of the title of the flyer, “Talking Points for the Police and Fire Levy.” The  flyer’s title is  not only in larger type, it is  bolded, italicized, and underlined. Typographically, the title  looks alarming. If you did it justice, when you read it aloud you would make it sound like a three-alarm fire. The title is designed to get the attention of the seniors at Hill View by all typographical means. In addition, the title is semantically misleading. Instead of calling a spade a spade, it calls it a heart. Instead of calling the proposed city income tax increase a tax increase, it calls it a  “Police and Fire levy.” “Levy” sounds so much less onerous than  “tax,” and mentioning  the  “Police and Fire” in  the title introduces the issue of the  Hill View residents’ safety. The purpose of the title  may have been to alarm  the  residents of Hill View  about crime and fire. The purpose of the flyer itself may have been to get the residents to vote for the levy as a way of protecting themselves against fire.

 Talking Point #2

“2.8 Million Dollars will be raised yearly by the levy and directly fund the Police and Fire 5.5 year Levy.” Instead of being a damned lie, this  talking point  is a statistic, a misleading statistic.  How much will be raised yearly by the increased income tax depends upon the economy, both nationally and locally. The worse the economy, the fewer the jobs, and the lower the revenue from the Portsmouth city income tax will be. Even when the national economy was booming, prior to the current Great Recession, Portsmouth remained in the same economic doldrums that it had been in for at least a quarter century.  Will the economy be better in the future? Probably  not.  In keeping with the aims of the backers of the city income tax increase,  the projected  2.8 million figure is probably inflated, or “Trented,” to coin a word, assuming City Auditor Trent Williams  had anything to do with  the projection.  In the five and one-half year life span of the 2 percent tax, the annual amount will vary, at best, and for the next couple of  years at least is  likely to fall below the $2.8 million projection. And will the tax really end in five and a half years? And will Peter Rabbit stay out of Mr. McGregor's garden?

Talking Point #3

“6/10 percent increase, 1.4 percent now, brings us to 2.0%, New Boston is at 2.5” 
Talking Point #3, like Talking Point #2, shows it is possible to mislead, if not lie, with statistics. What this  cryptic talking point is saying  is, “The  0.6 percent proposed Portsmouth income tax increase is small, and even when it is added to the city’s current 1.4 percent rate it only takes us up to 2 percent, which is still a lot less than the  2.5 percent income tax rate of neighboring New Boston.”  What this talking point does not say is that the 2.5% income tax rate was one of the money-raising responses the  village of New Boston  made in response to the fiscal crisis it faced when the steel and coke plants closed. But New Boston not only raised its income tax, it seriously cut the costs of its government.  New Boston laid off  public  employees, including police and firefighters, but Portsmouth has not.  If comparisons of income tax rates between Portsmouth and  other Ohio cities are relevant, then it is misleading to compare Portsmouth (pop. 20,000) to  New Boston (pop. 2000) as it would be to compare Portsmouth  to Columbus (pop. 787, 000), the state’s  largest city. Yes, both New Boston and Columbus  have 2.5% income tax rates, but it makes more sense to compare Portsmouth not with villages and metropolises but with mid-sized and small Ohio cities, most of which have  income tax rates below  2%, such as  Jackson (0%); Ironton (1%);  Piketon (1%); Waverly (1%); South Bloomfield (1%); Findlay (1.25%); Ashland (1.5%); Circleville  (1.5%);  Lima (1.5%); Chillicothe (1.6%); Marion (1.75%); and Delaware (1.85%).  As for a neighboring city in a neighboring state, Ashland, Kentucky, has close to the same population (22,000) and close to the same income tax rate (1.5%) as Portsmouth (1.4%).

Talking Point #4

“If [the levy] passes funds will establish the re-opening of Company 3.” 
This talking point says that passage of the income tax increase will enable the fire department to reopen the Company 3 Hilltop station. If the levy passes the station probably will reopen. But what this talking point does not say is that it was the Fire Department itself, after discussing the matter with Mayor-unelect David Malone, who made the decision to close the Hilltop station. “That is the decision myself and the Mayor (David Malone) agreed on in trying to comply with Council’s demand we cut 20 percent out of the budget,” Portsmouth Fire Chief Bill Raison told the Portsmouth Daily Times (3/11/11). The City Council had directed the mayor to cut the Fire Department budget by 20%, but such a sizeable cut would have required financial concessions by the fire fighters that they were not willing to make. Instead of layoffs, furloughs and other concessions, the Fire Department closed the Hilltop Station. The Fire Department had a choice: make financial concessions to ease the budgetary crisis or jeopardize the safety of those who live in the Hilltop area by closing the Hilltop station. They chose to jeopardize the safety of those in the Hilltop area by closing the Hilltop station. Is it possible, furthermore,  that the Hilltop station was closed by the Fire Department because it could then be raised as a safety  issue by firefighters in the door-to-door campaign they waged prior to the May 3rd primary? The flyer itself, assuming the Fire Department had something to do with its creation, is evidence of the department's dishonorable intentions. 

Talking Point #5

“If it [the levy] passes funds will increase manpower (2 currently retired and not filled, 1 projected).” 
To try to meet the  20% budget reduction set by the council, the Fire Department agreed that three retiring members would not be replaced. But Talking Point #5  promises to restore those three eliminated positions if  the levy is passed. If the residents vote for the levy and the positions are restored, the residents would get increased protection from fires and they would be getting it free, because they would not be paying any city income tax. The people who have jobs in  Portsmouth will be the ones  paying for the additional fire protection for the residents at  Hill View, who will be paying nothing.  (See Talking Point #7, below.)

Talking Point #6

“$50,000.00 yearly income                   $25,000 yearly income
            $300.00 increase yearly                         $150.00 increase yearly
              $23.00 increase monthly                       $11.50 increase monthly
                                $00.83 increase daily                            $00.42 increase daily”  
Talking Point #6 uses statistics to suggest that the income tax increase will cost wage earners relatively little, but it does so by calculating only the increase, without saying what the total city income tax for an individual wage earner would be. For someone in Portsmouth earning $25,000 a year, the total city income tax would be $500, not $150, and for someone earning $50,000, it would be $1,000 a year, not $300, which is not small change, even to someone earning $50,000 a year. But how many people working in Portsmouth, outside of the city government, make $50,000 a year? The estimated median income in Portsmouth in 2009 was not $50,000, and it was not even $25,000: it was $20,909. If the city was the only entity  that wage earners had to pay taxes to, that would be one thing, but they also have to pay state and federal income taxes as well as  property taxes to the county (of which the city gets a cut) if they are home owners.

Talking Point #7

 “Fixed income residents will not be affected (Social Security, Retirements, Disabled).” 
As an indication of its importance, Talking Point #7, like the flyer’s title,  is bolded, italicized, and  underlined. Why? Because it is a reminder to Hill View residents that if they vote for the levy and it passes they will not have to pay for it.  This talking point reassures Hill View residents that, though  raising the city income tax will benefit them in terms of increased fire protection,  that increased protection  will cost them nothing. This talking point is factually accurate but morally questionable. Should Hill View residents get the benefits of increased fire protection without having to pay for it? Should someone who has a job in Portsmouth that pays $25,000  but who lives out of the city have to pay $500 a year to reopen the Hilltop station to provide  increased protection for the residents of Hill View, a high end retirement community that people live in by choice? And it is not just those earning $25,000 who would have to pay 2% of their pay to provide additional protection for the residents of Hill View. So would those working at McDonald’s earning not much more than half that. A cashier at McDonald’s makes about $16,000 a year and a crew member even less.
Talking Point #8

The statistics cited in Talking Point #8  may have been intended not just to inform but also to scare, as mentioned earlier in Talking Point #6.  Even if the statistics are  not misleading (and I would argue some of them are), they are tied to the closing of the Hilltop station, on 17th Street, which the Fire Department itself decided to do. If the firefighters had been willing to pay a higher percentage of their health benefits, pensions   and forgo cost of living increases, it probably would have been possible to the keep the Hilltop station open and the statistics shown above would not apply to Hill View residents. Am I being cynical in thinking the Fire Department may have closed the Hilltop station partly to provide statistics that  could be used to frighten  Hill View residents into voting for the city income tax increase?

Was the closing of the Hilltop Fire Station calculated to scare the hell out of Hill View residents? 

Talking Point #9

“Population: No Decrease since 1987. As per the 2009  Census, Portsmouth population was  20,354.” 
Talking Point #9 is not just misleading, it is dead wrong.  Census records show there has not been a decade since 1930 that the population of Portsmouth has increased or even held its own. Since 1930, Portsmouth has steadily lost more than half its population. The assertion that there has been no decline since 1987 is not true. Why does the Hill View flyer make a  false claim about Portsmouth’s population not decreasing?  The flyer is apparently  trying  dispel  the common sense notion that a city that has lost half its population in the last eighty years probably  needs less, not more, firefighters. It would be useful for purposes of comparison  to know how many firefighters there were in the Portsmouth Fire Department in 1930, when the population was  about 42,000,  or  how many there were in 1950, when the population was about  37,000.  Has  the Fire Department increased in number as the population has  decreased?  I don’t know, but I do know from census records that the population has shrunk drastically. As for the claim that there has been no decrease in population since 1987, census figures show there were 25,993 in 1980; 22,676 in 1990; 20,909 in 2000; and about 20,000 in 2010. That is a loss of about  6,000 people in the last four decades. 1987 was no exception to the rule that Portsmouth has been in a steady population decline for a long time. 

Insulation, Solicitation, Obfuscation

On May 4th, the day after the primary, I emailed John Prose, the CEO of Hill View, asking him about the flyers and about reports I heard  that two members of the Fire Department had spoken to Hill View residents on the eve of  the voting on the income tax increase. I suspected there might be some connection between the flyers and the appearance of the two firemen. Mr. Prose replied promptly to my email, but instead of  an explanation, he responded with an  obfuscation. To obfuscate is to be evasive, unclear, or intentionally confusing. Obfuscating  is something politicians routinely do in responding to questions they don’t want to answer. So it is still a mystery to me, and to some residents,  how the flyers got into  the Hill View mailboxes. Under U.S. Code for crimes and criminal procedure (Chapter 83, Title 18, Section 1725), it is unlawful for anything, including political flyers, to be put in mailboxes if it  lacks U.S. postage and has not gone through a U.S. post office. The law stipulates that nothing should be put in, on, taped, or tied to mailboxes. Fines may be as high as $5,000 for each violation for an individual and $10,000 for an organization.

I am told Hill View has a policy of not allowing  political solicitation or the circulation of petitions. But it appears that  policy is not being administered equitably. When he was councilman for Ward 3, Bob Mollette told me he more than once was denied permission to speak to Hill View residents, even though he was their elected representative. Why then would two members of the Fire Department be allowed to speak to Hill View residents on the eve of the primary in which the  so-called “Police and Fire Levy” was on the ballot? Prior to the recall election of Jane Murray, Mr. Prose distributed a letter to Hill View residents that seemed to me clearly political in nature. I wonder if those managing senior housing centers in Portsmouth have an obligation  to perform like those late nineteenth-century political ward heelers who influenced immigrants to vote for candidates approved by the party bosses. 

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” That’s what politics in America often boils down to, and nowhere more than in Portsmouth, as the Hill View flyer may illustrate.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The 1937 Portsmouth Flood: A Narrative of Redemption or of Racism?

Detail of the Portsmouth 1937 Flood mural, showing Bessie Tomlin (photo by the author)
Photo by Lisa Pasquinelli Rickey of Mural by Robert Dafford

In the video River Voices (2002), senior Portsmouth residents who had lived through the 1937 Flood shared their recollections and reflections of  what was up to that time  the country’s worst flood.   Portsmouth is located in the Bible Belt, a  geographical fact that is reflected in River Voices. Two major events in particular in the bible influenced River Voices, the first  of which  was the Great Flood and the second of which was  the coming  of Christ.  God’s main purpose in the Great Flood was to drown the  wicked descendants of Adam and Eve and start over again with the righteous Noah and his family. But that plan didn’t work out,  so God sent his son Jesus Christ who offered sinful humanity redemption by his sacrifice on the cross. Those who accepted Jesus as their savior were ipso fact saved.
In the narrative of redemption in River Voices, the savior of the 1937 Flood was not a male but a female, and not a white but a black female.   In “The Great Ohio River Flood” (2005), an informative scholarly paper that is available at the Shawnee State  library and online (click here). Lisa M. Pasquinelli (now Lisa P. Rickey) pointed out that  there was a white male, Everett Conley, who drowned in the ’37 Flood. He happened to be about the same age as Jesus, but  no one thought of him as a savior, probably  because  there was no place for him in  a  narrative of redemption, no place for him in River Voices, or anywhere else.  Conley had  not  been trying to rescue someone from drowning; he was rather trying to win a  bet that he could swim two hundred yards in the flood with his clothes on.  It is hard to imagine anyone making that  foolish bet sober. Sober or not, Conley was not  qualified to serve as the savior in   the narrative of redemption,  but Bessie Tomlin was.  She ended up in the water with her clothes on but not to win a bet. She was in the water because  the rowboat that was transferring her from the Washington School to the Lincoln School  had capsized. There  was no doubt about the location of  the capsizing—it was at the corner of  11th and Waller, but  there was doubt about why the boat capsized.  The explanation that came down to us is that Tomlin, after having been splashed by water from  a wave, had stood  up in a panic, causing the boat to tip over.

                                The Wave: Deus Ex Machina

About that wave. The weather during the flood  was not stormy and  the water was not surging. The weather had been unseasonably warm and rainy all winter. The weather remained calm throughout the flood. The many photos taken during the flood show water flowing everywhere but no turbulence, no waves. Before the river could surge over the  floodwall, wreaking havoc on life and property,  city engineers had opened the valves of  at least six sewers  so that river water would flow smoothly and gradually  into the city.  They were trying as much as possible to make it a controlled flood. It is possible that water  splashed on Tomlin, there was so much of it around, but it seems rather unlikely that it would have been from a wave. The wave may have been the deus ex machina of the narrative of redemption, the thing that explained the capsizing of the boat and the drowning of Tomlin. After the boat capsized, the fireman Walter Chick who was in charge  and who presumably had been doing the rowing,  either quickly righted the boat or was rescued by another boat. In either case, he would have been soaking wet. It was  7 PM, on  January 25th, so   it was already dark (this was before daylight saving time), making everything and everyone harder to see. This crucial episode in the narrative of redemption took  place figuratively as well as literally in the dark. In his depiction of Tomlin handing Alberta up to Chick (shown above),  Dafford, heightening the drama, depicted the water at the time of Tomlin’s drowning as tempestuous, but it was the artist, we might say, not nature, making waves. Dafford also depicts Chick as dry, as if he had not been in the water. In the central panel of the flood mural (shown below), painted from a photo, there are no waves. Flooded Portsmouth looks in the central panel as calm as a canal in Venice.

Flooded Portsmouth, looking in central panel  as calm as a canal in Venice
After handing Alberta up to Chick, Tomlin is reported to have cried,  “Save my baby! Save my baby!” Then she disappeared under the water. Because of her sacrifice, she was eventually transformed  into a Christ figure but not just because she had saved her daughter but also because she saved the  city, spiritually speaking. She set the example of self-sacrifice for  all the residents of the city. One of the voices in River Voices said the best thing about the flood was that it was “spiritual.” Another went so far as to say  the  flood was  the best thing that had ever happened to Portsmouth. As the chief victim of the spiritual flood, Tomlin has become arguably the most revered figure in the city’s history. 

                                        Real Time, Mythic Time

  In her paper,  Pasquinelli pointed out some facts related to the flood that I didn’t hear voiced in River Voices. Pasquinelli was not trying to confirm or refute the  narrative of redemption; she was simply trying to establish the truth.   As she wrote in the Acknowledgment, she was trying, in the words of one of her favorite authors,  “to absorb as much of the truth as I could, and to tell it, as best I knew how.” The most important episode of the redemption narrative, Tomlin’s death,   Pasquinelli acknowledged, was a problem. “It is unclear whether Chick was able to right his own boat or whether he had made his way to another boat,” she wrote. And what about Tomlin’s two other children and her mother-in-law, who had been in the boat and were presumably in the water? Like the flood water itself, at this  crucial point in  the narrative, things become murky. When there is  uncertainty about what actually happened in history, as there often is afterward,  and not just in a crisis, myth makers step in  to  reconcile inconsistencies, fill in the gaps with  might-have-beens to keep the narrative spinning,  turning what was  at best an ambiguous incident into a clearly defined one.  It was hard to understand  how  Chick could have taken  Alberta from  her mother in the darkness if the boat had just capsized. Had he righted the heavy sixteen-foot-long john boat, if that was the type of rowboat it was,  then he would have had to retrieve the oars in the dark and positioned the boat to rescue the mother and infant.  In real world there does not appear to have been enough time to do everything, and for everything to happen, but in the mythic time of art there is all the time in the world. 
John Lorentz suspects that the reason  Bessie Tomlin’s self-sacrifice  had been ignored in earlier  accounts  of the flood might have been because of racism. I've been told her original gravestone at the cemetery was quite small. (It has since been replaced by an imposing one.) But he does not voice that suspicion in River Voices because racism would cast a shadow over the narrative of redemption and reflect poorly on the people of Portsmouth, who were portrayed in River Voices as the salt of the earth. But there is another possible  reason why Tomlin’s sacrifice  had previously been ignored. When I was a member of the Scioto County Historical Society some years ago, I heard another account  of the Tomlin drowning from older white female members of the  society,  an account that I was told had originated in the Portsmouth black community. I  will not repeat that account here, since it might have been an unfounded,  possibly racist rumor that had originated in the white, not the black community. It is a very remote possibility, and I say it quite tentatively, but it is possible that Tomlin was a victim of de facto segregation because if she was not being transferred to  a de facto separate-but-equal refuge, she probably would not have drowned.

                                        De Facto Segregation

I gather from Pasquinelli’s paper that de facto segregation might have been  one of the factors that complicated flood relief efforts in Portsmouth. In the earliest stages of the flood, established patterns of behavior, distinctions of class and race in particular,  were tentatively suspended. The de facto segregation of pre-flood  Portsmouth was put on hold. Even Dreamland Pool, which normally was segregated, harbored people of color in the early stages of the flood. The residents of Hilltop were mostly white and a number  of them reportedly took in refugees  from the floodplain, but it is unlikely that  many  if any blacks were among those who were taken in at Hilltop homes.  At the beginning of the flood, before the schools in the floodplain were inundated,  both whites and blacks took refuge in them, but as the flood spread over the floodplain, Lincoln  School on the Hilltop became the school  to which  black refugees were transported.  Lincoln School was the destination the boat Tomlin was in until it capsized. There had been white refugees in the Lincoln School in the earliest stage of  the  flood, but the whites were moved out to make room for blacks because  Lincoln School  had become a sort of separate-but-equal facility for blacks during the flood. Not appreciating being crowded into the Lincoln School, the blacks there protested. “The protest,” Pasquinelli wrote, “was by several hundred African Americans who were being  housed at the still-crowded Lincoln School and who did not want to be removed from the city, fearing they would not be returned promptly after the flood was over.” On  Friday January 21, 1830, all the blacks of Portsmouth had been ordered out of the city. Whether or not they knew of  Black Friday, the blacks at the Lincoln School knew their presence in Portsmouth was not appreciated by some white residents who would just as soon they never returned, partly because they were reproducing so rapidly.  The twenty-two-year-old Tomlin had already given birth to three children and was very close at the time of the flood to giving birth to a fourth. “Overcrowding on the Hilltop,” Pasquinelli wrote, “became a significant problem.” Was part of the problem the protesting blacks in the Lincoln School? When the blacks at the Lincoln School  did finally agree under pressure to be evacuated to cities further north, the percentage of blacks  who were evacuated from the city was proportionally higher than the number of whites who were. When some of those blacks  arrived in Columbus they found themselves in segregated facilities.
In River Voices,  the Lorentzes were not just excellent videographers, they were also excellent myth makers. The enshrinement of Bessie Tomlin  helped  cover up, or at least mitigate,  Portsmouth’s racist past of which so-called  Black Friday was an infamous example. The author of A History of Scioto County (1903), Nelson W. Evans,  called Black Friday a “relic of barbarism,” but that day is no longer part of Portsmouth’s collective memory. Black Friday has been covered up, covered up beautifully it could be said,  both on the floodwall murals, where it was not depicted,  and in  River Voices, where it went unvoiced. 

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 Portsmouth Murals Cover Up

Welcome to River Vices The very first River Vices posting

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine for Our New City Manager

Hey sitty man’ger, pal o’ mine!
Won’t you be my valentine?
We never new which day was pickup.
It was unpredicable as a hickcup.
We never new, we never new, no way.
But now it’s definit: pickup is no day.
We never new when they’d be here.
Or off sumwears havin a beer.
But now with you we can rust ashured.
Our sitty trash probplums  sugar cured.
Because sitty gov'men's on the fritz
Our overflowin ’ trash jest sits and sits.

                                   Snuffy Smith 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Top Ten Posts: 2004-2014

“If I only had a brain.”

Below are the ten River Vices posts, in order of frequency,  that received the most hits in the last ten years. In the case of #1, my counter crashed when the number of hits for Mayor Kalb's redneck rhetoric approached 450,000 after it was picked up by the Huffington Post and Gawker as well as websites abroad. Instead of being embarrassed by the notoriety he brought to Portsmouth, Kalb is proud of the international recognition he received. “If I only had a brain,” the Scarecrow sang in The Wizard of Oz.  Two of the top ten, #2 and #5, relate to Mayor Murray. #5 illustrates the difficulty outsiders (in this case an English woman) find in adjusting to and being accepted in Appalachia. The slapdash #3 is the biggest puzzle to me because I don't understand why it had so many hits. One of my personal favorites, which just missed being in the top ten, was “Canning the Can-Can Man,” about the WSAZ reporter, Randy Yohe, which you can read by clicking here.

Top Ten Posts: 2004-2014
           (click on number for link)

1) Kalb: Burning the Midnight Oil 

2) Recall of Mayor Murray
3) Billboard from Hell

4) Jesse Stuart 

5) Jane Murray: The Lady’s Not for Burning 

6) Kiwanis Playground: The Hole Truth

7) Portsmouth’s Red Light District: Clayton Johnson 

8) Portsmouth Daily Times: Prostitution Culture                 
9) Frances Trollope 

10) Tom Bihl                                             

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Bird of Paradise

Professor Smith glanced out the window of his second floor study, staring at the bleak and icy landscape, where birds, usually  smaller starlings,    infrequently scrambled through the air like they were  desperately looking for a hole in time to escape from the cold.  In spite of global warming, the  winter had been very cold. He was used to the cold, because of the clunker of a furnace. But the  cold this winter was  record breaking. The curtainless window he looked out was a little frosted, and the outside storm window would not come all the way down. His landlord Charley had said he would fix it months ago but there it was,  still stuck six inches from closing, as if it had been  welded there by some malicious prankster. He  was wearing the same  old Mackinaw he had worn when he lived in New Hampshire, and he wore gloves too, with the tips of the fingers cut off to enable him to type. If he hadn’t finally stopped drinking ten years ago, he would have drunk a whiskey to warm him up.
He was sitting at his computer on Christmas Day typing up a lecture on the philosophical implications of  relativity that he would deliver on the first class of  his philosophy 302  course next semester. He wanted to help students come to terms with the grand illusions of time and space instead of falling between them and getting  ground down in despair. It would be  the first and last lecture he would ever give on the subject. Christmas was Professor Smith’s unfavorite holiday. He had spent the first eight years  of his life in a Catholic orphanage where he was teased about his dark complexion, especially after he was cast in a Christmas pageant as one of the Three Wise Men, Baltasar, who was supposed to be from Africa.
He was teaching at the bottom of the academic food chain in a black college in Tennessee. Many years before, he had started out teaching in an exclusive women’s college in New Hampshire, then moved on to a state university in  California. Next he went to a private university in Minnesota, and then spent  then several years in Florida, finally ending up in the  hard-scrabble black college in Appalachia. But  he had never gained tenure in any of them, in spite of having an Ivy League Ph.D. because he had made no effort to hide his atheism or refrain from lecturing and speaking  out on controversial issues like abortion, communism, climate warming, same sex marriage, and the “n” and “c” words, nigger and cunt, on which he had devoted a whole class in the woman’s college in New England to at the beginning of his checkered career because he wanted them to understand the provisional role of meaning in language and  that they didn’t have to be trapped in the hateful stigma that somebody else attached to a word.
He had explained to the well-bred young women that the word   nigger was derived from “niggra,” which was the way Southern whites pronounced Negro, and niggra  had morphed into the racist epithet “nigger.”  But  all  of these words were  derived ultimately and innocently from niger, the Latin word for the color black. The Latin niger was also the root for the names of the African countries Niger and Nigeria and for the river Niger,  and the word cunt was derived from another perfectly respectable Latin noun cuneus, meaning a wedge, or a wedge shaped stone, the kind of stone that was used as a writing instrument on the of clay tablet writing known as cuneiform, one of the earliest of written languages. “There’s nothing  embarrassing  about having an etymological link to one of the earliest written languages; in fact, there is  something ennobling about it,”  he had explained to the young women, trying to raise their consciousness  about language, “just as there is something majestic about the mighty Niger River, whose relatively clear water  flows 2600 miles through western Africa.”
But before he was through with his lecture,  the only  black girl in  the class, a bright inner city scholarship student,  picked up her books and said, “I’m not a nigger and I’m not a cunt,” and walked out of the class straight down to the office of the dean of students, who was herself a black female.That was at the beginning of his career and now he was approaching the end.  He  had moved on from etymology to physics, and was tackling relativity, and explaining the difference between the way Newton and Einstein understood space and time.
“The Newtonian world we live in,  the world of space and time, is  an illusion,”  he would explain to them, without getting into the math of it, which was Greek to him anyway. But imagination was more important than math in understanding relativity—that was what Einstein had said. Einstein  admitted he wasn’t the greatest genius with numbers but he had imagination.  Einstein was “out of it,”  both professionally and personally, a daydreamer, an also-ran, working at a dull job at the patent office, which turned out to be the best place for him, better than any Oxford or Cambridge.  Just as a whaling ship had been for Melville, the patent office was Einstein’s Harvard and Yale.  It was precisely because he was out of it, that he had a different perspective on  things, on  telescopes and clocks, on  the trains and schedules. The Swiss made the trains run on time, even if they didn’t know where they were going, relatively speaking. Without the blinders of conventional wisdom, out of the publish and perish rut of academic life, Einstein  was able to take out a patent on relativity, leaving reality to Newtonians.
Just as  Einstein had glanced out the window of the patent office in Switzerland, the professor sat at his computer in Tennessee, stopping for a  moment of reflection, taking a break from the curvature of the universe.  He thought of Africa and the mighty Niger rolling on  tropically and topically through the green jungle until it spilled into the Niger Delta, as massive as eternity, with its many millions of birds of every color and  description.  He had saved enough money to take a trip to Africa, which he had never been to before.
 Thinking of Africa reminded him of his African-American neighbors, a couple of older strange birds,  the odd black couple and their two dogs who lived in the drab shingled house down the road with the smoke curling out of their  old chimney, as if the record cold was not letting the smoke amount to anything more than  a wisp before it dissolved almost immediately into the freezing gray day, without a trace. It was quite a contrast to the summer,  when Buddy, the nosey one of the pair,  sat in the rocker on their  front porch with binoculars in his lap, as if he was waiting for something  strange and beautiful to appear in the distant Smokey Mountains.
Professor Smith got back to relativity and the challenge of living without absolutes, without god and the other consoling illusions, without words indissolubly fixed  to what they stood for, without the need of faith in anything but himself. He stared at what he had so far written.  His lecture  was getting so  abstract that he could see his students yawning and stealing glances at the clock on the wall over his head. In spite of  the incredible speed of light, there was always a gap. The time they would see on the clock was an infinitesimal fraction of a second after the fact,  just as the faintest star in the sky is millions of light years in the past, and might not be there now at all.   He imagined his black students wondering, “Is  that what they teach white students in the Ivy League?”
Suddenly, there was the sound of wings flapping furiously, startling him. He looked at the top of the window, where a starling was trapped between the regular window and the storm window.  It had entered through the six inch space at the bottom and didn’t know enough to just go  down and exit the same way it had entered. Being a bird its instinct was to go up not down, and a hundred and sixty millions years of  escaping  by flying upwards was not going to get reversed. To escape, it  was programmed to fly up.   He stood  up and approached the window, which panicked the pootr bird even more. How was he going to help it escape? What would Einstein do in a situation like this? Or Newton? An idea occurred to him. If he got above the bird  maybe he could frighten it downward. He took the chair he had been sitting in and dragged it to the window. Standing on it, he held his arms out as if he was huge predatory bird, and made faces like Frankenstein, producing  groaning sounds.  He frightened the bird so much that it crapped on the window, but instead of going down, it tried even  more frantically to go up. He began rapping on the window as if he was trying to hit it, but the bird would not go down. He got off the chair and tried raising the storm window, as he had tried many times before, but it wouldn’t  budge. If he was bigger and stronger, maybe he could have raised it, but he was short and slight, weighing only 140 pounds. He decided to stay still, because the bird might injure itself and be unable to fly. A flightless starling was like a horse with a broken life. Without being aware of it, he was completely identified with the trapped bird. He shared its predicament and its panic. He felt he would be haunted if the bird died. He had an impulse to smash the window but the bird might be fatally wounded  by flying glass while his study would be as cold as Alaska.  
The phone in his bedroom rang. He wondered who that  could be. Somebody calling to wish him merry Christmas? The few acquaintances  he had would know  better than that. He went in the bedroom answered the phone.
 “Professor Smith?”
“Uh-huh,” he replied, not recognizing the voice.
“This is Buddy.”
“Buddy Bailey.” Buddy was always sticking his nose in other people’s business, which is why he got the nickname “Butt-in Bailey.”
“Oh, hi. What can I do for you?” he asked, wondering why he of all people would be calling. He could  not recall him ever calling before.
“Are you all right?” Buddy asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I saw you in the window waving your arms, like you was maybe trying to attract someone’s attention. Or somethin’.”
“You could see me?”
“Of course. With my binoculars,” he said. 
“Oh, right,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to attract attention. There’s a bird trapped inside  my storm window and I was trying to get it out.”
“A bird trapped in your window?” There was a touch of skepticism in his voice.
“That’s right,” he said
“A bird you said?”
“A bird? You’re sure it’s a bird?
“What color is it?”
“Black?” he repeated.
“You’re sure it’s not a bat.”
“It’s not a bat. It’s a small bird. I think it’s a starling.”
 “Franklin,” he called. “The professor’s got a bird trapped in his window.” The professor heard Franklin answer,  but he couldn’t make out what he said.
“No, he’s sure it’s not a bat,” Buddy answered  Franklin, who was probably in another room.  “You see, professor,” Buddy  said, “we once had a bat in the house. Franklin opened the door to shoo him out, but before he shooed  he bit Franklin on the ear. He had to have a rabid shot.” He could not make out what Franklin was saying from the other room.
 “Franklin says he’ll come over, if you wants help.”
“OK,” the professor said. “I would appreciate it.”
“ Franklin says he’ll be over as soon as he gets some clothes on.”
While the professor waited for Franklin to ring the doorbell downstairs,  he tiptoed to the doorway of his study and leaned his head in. The bird, clinging somehow to the top of the storm window,  was motionless, except for its heaving  little breast.  Edging in further, the professor was surprised  to see another starling standing on the window ledge, looking up with a cocked head  at his trapped counterpart. They looked so much alike, they could have been twins. The professor wondered just how they  might be related to each other.
When  he opened the front door fifteen minutes later to let the burly, bundled up good Samaritan in, he was  carrying a small red metal toolbox. By way of a greeting, he asked the professor  with a wink, “Cold enough for you?”
They went upstairs, where Franklin  took a can of WD-40 out of his tool box and sprayed  the storm window where it needed  lubrication, sending the starling into another tizzy. “Let’s let that soak in for a couple of minutes,” he said, though he really meant for a couple seconds, just long enough for him to remark,  “This stuff works miracles.”  
 Then with his large hairy hands, he forcefully lifted up the lower storm window just high enough so that he could pull down the top storm window about six inches.
Within seconds, the starling was out the window and winging its way upwards with astonishing speed, considering the energy it must have already used up trying to escape.
“Like a bat out of hell,” Franklin said.
To the astonished professor, whose heart was beating fast, the starling seemed  more like a bird of paradise than a bat.
In a matter of seconds it was just a black dot disappearing into the gray sky. The professor was not sure there wasn’t another little dot just behind  the first one.
Snapping shut his little toolbox, Franklin asked “Where do you suppose it’s off to?”
“Maybe the  Niger Delta,” the professor  answered.
“Where’s that,” Franklin asked.
“It’s in my imagination,” he answered.
“I bet this  is a Christmas it’ll never forget,” Franklin said.
“And it’s one I won’t either,” the professor said, shaking Franklin’s extended  hand while glancing at the clock on the wall,  wondering how many minutes or maybe hours, or even longer, it would be before he would  be in the frame of mind to tackle relativity again. From the window,  not thinking about gaps in time or the curvature of space but about the good deed he, Franklin, and the WD-40 had accomplished, he watched the Good Samaritan trudge back through the snow to the old house with wisps of smoke coming out of the chimney.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The Beautiful Cover-up: Black Fridays and Dreamland

“Needless to say the Wade-Ins are not depicted on the Floodwall, which excludes unflattering events in the city’s history as strictly as the whites once excluded blacks from Dreamland.”

I have already made the point in a previous posting on River Vices (click here) that one of the unspoken purposes of the beautiful Floodwall Murals is to cover up the blots on the image of the city of Portsmouth, especially the blot of racism, including the infamous “Black Friday” of January 21, 1830, which took place in the middle of the winter, when “all the colored people in Portsmouth were forcibly deported from the town,” as Nelson W. Evans wrote in The History of Scioto County (1903). Evans called the expulsion of blacks from Portsmouth a “relic of barbarism” (p. 612), but very few people in Portsmouth now know about Black Friday, including my colleague and friend Professor John Lorentz, the distinguished historian who grew up in Portsmouth, went on to earn a Ph.D. from Princeton, and whose documentary about the Floodwall Murals, Beyond These Walls, has just been released. 

Since Black Friday happened almost two hundred years ago, in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is not surprising that such a blot might have faded from Portsmouth’s collective memory, but it is surprising that another racist blot, which occurred in the second half of the twentieth century, in 1964, within living memory of many seniors in the city, is unknown to most young people. Within another generation or two that blot may be as forgotten as Black Friday. I refer to racial discrimination at the pool Dreamland. Incorporated in 1929 as a private for-profit swim club, Dreamland was a kind of dream land, but only for white kids. It included three acres of surrounding landscaped grounds, but it was surrounded by a sturdy chain link fence to keep out undesirables, which included African-Americans. If Dreamland had allowed blacks in to swim, many whites would have chosen not to be members, which would have been bad for business. Not just swimming in the same pool but drinking from the same water fountain was something racist whites found repugnant. 

But there was something even worse for business than blacks in the pool which was the stock market in the red. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed, Dreamland fell on hard times, and the owner offered to sell the pool to the city for much less than what it had cost to build. But strong opposition arose against the city acquiring the pool. The Portsmouth Daily Times in its typical cover-up fashion did not say much about the opposition, but it probably had something to do with the fear of racist whites that blacks could not legally be excluded from a publicly owned pool. So Dreamland remained in private hands and the discrimination continued until the 1960s.

The discrimination at Dreamland led to the so-called “Wade-Ins” that some of Portsmouth’s black citizens took part in during the summer of 1964, when sit-ins and other peaceful demonstrations were taking place throughout the country. One of the nostalgic Floodwall Murals, in the form of photograph album, includes a snapshot of Dreamland (shown above). That mural may bring back fond memories for older white folks but not for older black folks, who can remember when they were excluded from the pool because of the color of their skin. Needless to say the Wade-Ins are not depicted on the Floodwall, which excludes unflattering events in the city’s history as strictly as the whites once excluded blacks from Dreamland. That the Dreamland discrimination is not even hinted at in Beyond These Walls is ironic because Professor Lorentz and his son Nathan, the creators of the documentary, have a close personal, family connection to Dreamland. 

What precipitated the Wade-Ins, as Blaine S. Bierley pointed out in “Swimming Pool Integration in Portsmouth” in his book Charles Street Tales was the Civil Rights Act of July, 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in places of public accommodation. (Bierley’s self-published book is in the Local History Room at the Portsmouth Public Library.) A graduate of Portsmouth High School (class of 1955), Bierley grew up in Portsmouth on Charles Street in the 1940s and 1950s, and fondly remembers swimming at the Terrace Club, as Dreamland was then called. He also remembers fondly two Portsmouth high school teachers who worked as lifeguards and directors at the pool. To white boys like Bierley, those lifeguards were like “bronze gods,” and one of them was Charles Lorentz, the father of John Lorentz. While no one who knew Charles Lorentz would ever have accused him of racism, he was nevertheless one of those otherwise decent whites of his generation who tolerated the policy of racial exclusion until demonstrating blacks pressured the Terrace Club with Wade-Ins to end its discrimination, which the club did the following summer of 1965, when it changed its name back to Dreamland. 

Today whites and blacks swim in the McKinley Pool on Findlay Street. The pool is named after a 14-year-old black boy Eugene McKinley who had drowned in June 1961 in the sand and gravel pit west of the Scioto River flood levee at 12th and Chillicothe Street, one of the few places black kids had to swim, since Dreamland was off bounds for them. But even if someone had written such a ballad it is unlikely his untimely death would have been depicted on the Floodwall mural because of his death’s racial overtones. 

Portsmouth’s Rick Ferrell has written a wonderful ballad “Dreamland Pool,” about the unforgettable experience it was for a white boy like himself swimming and socializing at the Dreamland pool. It is available on a YouTube video. (Click here.) If only someone had written a “Ballad for Eugene,” about a black boy drowning in a Portsmouth sand pit. The day of Eugene’s drowning was a Friday, another Black Friday, and Black Fridays are excluded from the Floodwall murals.

Posters in Portsmouth announcing runaway slaves,
 bore this familiar figure according to Evans