Shantyboat life

After the devastating Panic of 1893, thousands of abruptly unemployed and now homeless industrial workers, in river towns from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, found that they could cobble together a livable house on top of an abandoned commercial barge down on the waterfront, or build a shantyboat from scratch from the broad selection of cast-off timbers and driftwood lining virtually every mile of riverbank. Each year, hundreds of shanytboat families imply cast off from Memphis or Cincinnati and spent the warm months drifting down river, camping on remote islands, planting gardens or harvesting wild berries… During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration estimated that as many as fifty thousand Americans lived on shantyboats.

A version of this lifestyle on the river in Knoxville described in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree.

Rinker Buck manages to get his shantyboat from Elizabeth, Pennsylvania on the Ohio River all the way to New Orleans. He’s warned that he’s going to die, but in fact he has a mostly peaceful cruise. One problem he notes is that long stretches of the Mississippi are fuel deserts: there are no marinas or places to gas up your boat. He attributes this to a combination of factors, including a decline in recreational boating post the 2008 recession, and the record flooding of 2011.

He’s warned that the Coast Guard will remove his boat if he gets caught on a sandbar and has to leave it for awhile, but after some experience he scoffs at that. No one is bothering to clean up the river or remove obstacles to navigation, gas cans float by, it’s full of trash, old refrigerators, sunken cars, etc.

The Ohio and the Mississippi are nothing but Superfund sites with water running through them.

Really good chapter about Natchez, MS and the new national park project there to commemorate the Forks In the Road slave market. Bleak!

I’m giving this book away if anyone wants it!


Existential problem

On Meet The Press this week, Chuck and the gang were talking about the Ron DeSantis stunt of sending Venezuelan refugees to Martha’s Vineyard. Chuck pointed out that they were in kind of a bind. This was an obvious stunt, and the point of it was to get people like Chuck Todd to talk about it, instead of say Lindsay Graham’s very unpopular plan for a federal abortion ban. And yet, Chuck said, here we are talking about it. It was as if there were no option: Chuck knew it was a distraction, said it was a distraction, and yet there he was talking about it, lamenting that it was a distraction.

How do we escape this trap? Most people seem to have no problem: they are just not distracted by distractions. They don’t expend energy on this stuff. But that does not appear to be an option for Chuck Todd. One move might be for him (CT) to be a serious enough and strong enough figure to just say (or not say, but show) we’re not paying attention to this. But maybe such a figure could not host Meet The Press. And I shouldn’t be too hard on CT, that’s tough to do. I wouldn’t watch MTP if I didn’t have some affection for Chuck Todd.

Maybe I should just stop watching Meet The Press. But I do find it compelling television: even this absurd dilemma proved thought-provoking. I could conclude that the harm I do by feeding the MtP machine with my attention is worse than the gain from pleasurable feelings of studying its drama and contortions. I’m not there yet. As for the distraction, here I am talking about it.


Love of The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“There’s a writer for you,” he said. “Knows everything at and at the same time he knows nothing.”

This is a strange book. It opens in “flyover country”: literally. We’re on a transcontinental airplane trip. Very different from current day air travel: there are sleeping compartments, the passengers all chat, the stewardess offers them pharmaceuticals. (Are we on a Douglas Sleeper Transport?).

A theme of this book is the ability to see the whole picture, as if from on high, so maybe the plane flight makes sense as a metaphor. Hollywood producer Monroe Stahr, the tycoon of the title, is up with the pilots:

Obviously Stahr had put the pilots right up on the throne with him and let them rule with him for a while. Years later I travelled with one of those same pilots and he told me one thing Stahr had sad.

He was looking down at the mountains.

“Suppose you were a railroad man,” he said. “You have to send a train through there somewhere. Well, you get your surveyors’ reports, and you find there’s three or four or half a dozen gaps, and not one is better than the other. You’ve got to decide – on what basis? You can’t test the best way – except by doing it. So you do it.”

The pilot thought he had missed something.

“How do you mean?”

“You choose some way for no reason at all – because that mountain’s pink or the blueprint is a better blue. You see?”

Fitzgerald based Stahr on Irving Thalberg, a boy wonder who ran production at MGM. In Genius of the System, there are some quotes from transcripts of story meetings with Thalberg, and he really does sound like this.

The plane we open on is forced to land in Tennessee. Our narrator, Cecila Brady, is taken to see Andrew Jackson’s house, The Hermitage. What of this? Or just a detail that felt real? Is Fitzgerald suggesting something of the movie obsession with American myth? Did he have in mind how the mansion on the Culver studios lot was modeled on Mount Vernon?

It’s said Jack Warner’s second wife redesigned the house to look more like Monticello.

Fitzgerald never finished this book. He died while writing it, after eating a Hershey bar. The day before he’d been wrestling with the scene where Stahr and the Communist get in a fistfight. Sheilah Graham says he told her:

Baby, this book will be good. It might even make enough money for us both to leave Hollywood.

He left Hollywood the next day.

Like John Fante’s Ask The Dust, Love of the Last Tycoon involves the Long Beach earthquake of 1933.

When he heard about the thousands dead at Long Beach he was still haunted by the abortive suicide at dawn

Wikipedia tells us only about 128 people actually died in the quake. Maybe a misperception at the time is accurate. Or who knows?

An evocation of a studio backlot:

Under the moon the back lot was thirty acres of fairyland – not because the locations really looked like African jungles and French châteaux and schooners at anchor and Broadway by night, but because they looked like the torn picture books of childhood, like fragments of stories dancing in an open fire.

Stahr makes a decision:

The oracle had spoken. There was nothing to question or argue. Stahr must be right always, not most of the time, but always – or the structure would melt down like gradual butter.

Here’s Malibu, 1933:

Past Malibu with its gaudy shacks and fishing barges they came into the range of human kind again, the cars stacked and piled along the road, the beaches like ant hills without a pattern, save for the dark drowned heads that sprinkled in the sea.

Would there were still fishing barges there.

The perspective of Love of the Last Tycoon is kind of odd, it’s narrated by Cecilia Brady, but she’s often describing, maybe imagining, scenes she was not present for.

This is Cecilia taking up the story. I think it would be most interesting to follow my own movements at this point, as this is a time in my life that I am ashamed of. What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.

(does it?)

In Gatsby too there’s a sort of observer/narrator.

The English novelist Boxley doesn’t get it with writing for the movies. Stahr tries to help him:

“If you were in a chemist’s,” conceded Stahr, and you were getting a prescription for some member of your family who was very sick -“

“- Very ill?” queried Boxley.

“Very ill. Then whatever caught your attention through the window, whatever distracted you and held you would probably be material for pictures.”

“A murder outside the window, you mean.”

“There you go,” said Stahr smiling. “It might be a spider working on the pane.”

“Of course – I see.”

“I’m afraid you don’t, Mr. Boxley. You see it for your medium but not for ours. You keep the spiders for yourself and you try to pin the murders on us.”

Stahr tries to press the point:

Our condition is that we have to take people’s own favorite folklore and dress it up and give back to them. Anything beyond that is sugar. So won’t you give us some sugar, Mr. Boxley?

More geography, LA 1933:

They rode through Griffith Park and out past the dark studios of Burbank, past the airports and along the way to Pasadena past the neon signs of roadside caberets… they passed over the suicide bridge with the high new wire.

Stahr on writers:

“I never thought,” he said, ” – that I had more brains than a writer has. But I always thought his brains belonged to me – because I knew how to use them. Like the Romans – I’ve heard that they never invented things but they knew what do with them. Do you see? I don’t say it’s right. But it’s the way I’ve always felt – since I was a boy.”


Cheers for TV

Kurt Vonnegut and Nicholson Baker embraced good television. Vonnegut said he’d rather have written “Cheers” than any of his books. In Baker’s novel “The Anthologist” (2009), the poet-narrator comments, tongue only partially in cheek, that “any random episode of ‘Friends’ is probably better, more uplifting for the human spirit, than 99 percent of the poetry or drama or fiction or history ever published.”

from Dwight Garner’s review of David Milch’s book in the NYT. Also enjoyed this part:

Entertainingly, Milch spends money the way you think you might like to spend money, if you had it: He impulsively pays people’s hospital bills, college tuitions and funeral expenses; he’s an absurd tipper; if he likes a pair of Prada loafers he’ll get wardrobe to find out the shoe size of everyone in his crew and buy them a pair, too. He’ll spring for a hundred Egg McMuffins, because they’re delicious, and hand them out.

OK well one of those things costs thousands of dollars and one costs exactly $279.


Ashurbanipal

In this relief, created around 645 BCE or so, excavated two thousand four hundredsome years later in 1853 or so in what’s now Iraq, brought to The British Museum, we see the ruler Ashurbanipal lounging and listening to tunes while to the left the decapitated head of Teumman, king of Elam, hangs from a tree.

Ashurbanipal was a rough guy. Also at The British Museum you can find this relief of his dudes flaying and torturing captured Elamites:

And at the Vatican Museum they’ve got one of bodies floating in the river flowing his arrival somewhere:

But Ashurbanipal did create a magnificent library, which (of course) they’ve hauled off to The British Museum as well.

In the library was a tablet that told some of the story of Gilgamesh, including an account of a great flood. It’s said that when George Smith was translated this tablet, and realized what he’d found, he started shouting and taking his clothes off.


History explained

in James L. Haley’s Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas.


Coca-Cola

Even the Coca-Cola Company regards as out of the ordinary—though it is rather fond of the old girl—a wrinkled Indian woman in a remote Mexican province who told an inquiring explorer in 1954 that she had never heard of the United States but had heard of Coke. (There are fifty-one plants in Mexico that bottle it.) Two years after that, a Coca-Cola man pushed a hundred and fifty miles into the jungles outside Lima, Peru, in search of a really primitive Indian to whom, for publicity purposes, he could introduce Coca-Cola. Deep in the bush, he flushed a likely-looking woman, and, through an interpreter, explained his errand, whereupon the woman reached into a sack she was carrying, plucked forth a bottle of Coke, and offered him a swig.

There can be exceedingly few North Americans who are unacquainted with Coca-Cola, which a Swedish sociologist has said bears the same nourishing relationship to the body of Homo americanus that television does to his soul. One such ignoramus came to light ten years ago, when the Army quizzed six hundred and fifty recruits stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Two hundred and twenty-nine of them had never heard of Louisville, twenty miles away; eighty-five had never been to the dentist; and twenty-one had never tasted cow’s milk. A single soldier had never drunk a Coke. All in all it was a set of findings far more encouraging to the Coca-Cola Company than to the Department of Defense.

In contrast to that innocent rookie, some of his fellow-citizens drink Coca-Cola at a staggering clip. “You can drink Coke every day all day long and you don’t get tired of it,” a member of the company’s indefatigable market-research staff has said. “Fifteen minutes after you’ve finished a Coke, you’re a new customer again, and that’s where we’ve got you.” One of the most faithful customers on record is an Alabama woman who on her ninety-seventh birthday attributed her durability to her habit of consuming a Coca-Cola at exactly ten o’clock every morning since the stuff first came on the market, in 1886. Possibly the outstanding Coke drinker of all time is a used-car salesman in Memphis who revealed in 1954, when he was sixty-five, that for fifty years he had been averaging twenty-five bottles daily, and that on some days he had hit fifty. He added, inevitably, that he had attended the funerals of half a dozen doctors who had called his pace killing.

from a 1959 New Yorker article, “The Universal Drink,” by E. J. Kahn Jr., bolds mine. (I was looking up every New Yorker article that mentions Memphis – not many!)

Recently scoured up a Reddit thread on the topic of how much cocaine you’d need to add to modern day Coca-Cola to recreate the original. The conclusion was you’d need to add tons, and it wouldn’t have much effect anyway: a modern caffeinated Coke gets you way more amped than the old coca version.


Austin and Houston (conclusion)

Stephen Austin painted by William Howard

It’s a fool who wanders into Texas history unarmed

as I once saw scribbled on a bathroom stall in Terlingua. But wander I did, with my posts on Stephen Austin and Sam Houston. The goal: to recount the compelling tale of two frenemies with differing personalities who each ended up with a dynamic and glorious American city named after themselves. My stories were based on reading James L. Haley’s Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas. But soon I was lost in the mesquite thicket of Texas history. I ended up having to read a few more books to resolve questions like did Austin meet Santa Anna personally when he was in Mexico City? (Yes). Now I will attempt to conclude the story of Austin and Houston:

When we last left Stephen Austin, he’d gone down to Mexico City to appeal for relief of some grievances experienced by the mostly American-born settlers of Texas. One goal was to have Texas become its own Mexican state, instead of part of Coahuila. Austin still felt the best bet for Texas was to remain a loyal part of Mexico.

After the messes of 1832, the man left standing in power in Mexico City was a military man. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. When Stephen Austin made his pitch, Santa Anna was cool with some of the ideas, but not with Texas becoming his own state: it wasn’t big enough yet. Still, Austin felt like he’d made some progress.

On his way back to Texas in January, 1834, Austin was surprised to be arrested. Though most Mexican officials liked him, he’d apparently pissed off the vice-president, Gómez Faría. Or maybe Santa Anna had turned on him and decided he was too dangerous. Austin was taken to a prison in Mexico City: he could order wine and cheese brought in from outside, but he was horribly bored because he wasn’t allowed any reading materials. He tamed a prison mouse as his friend. Eventually he got a French language history of Spain’s Philip II to read. Perhaps he read it aloud to his mouse.

Finally, on Christmas Eve, 1834, Austin was let out of prison. Imagine our hero, walking the streets of Mexico City, a free man, pondering the future.

Santa Anna ended up as more or less dictator of Mexico and he led a brutal campaign suppressing a rebellion in Zacatecas: maybe two thousand civilians were killed. Austin probably heard about this in New Orleans, where he’d gone on a visit, and where the future of Texas was a hot top. Sailing from New Orleans to Brazoria, Texas, Austin witnessed a Mexican ship exchanging shots with an American ship and a Texas steamboat (the Laura). Put ashore at Velasco, Austin stayed at the house of friend, and took a long walk on the beach that night. At a welcome dinner for him back in Brazoria, Austin proposed a toast:

The constitutional rights and the security of peace of Texas – they ought to be maintained, and jeopardized as they now are, they demand a general consultation of the people.

Doesn’t really seem that rousing: Austin did tend toward caution. But soon he threw in with the War Party in Texas. A Mexican army was coming, reconciliation no longer seemed possible. In the town of Gonzales, the American settlers had a cannon. When a Mexican army colonel came down from San Antonio, the locals put up their “COME AND TAKE IT” flag.

Volunteers came down to Gonzales. Austin arrived on the scene and was elected commander in chief of the “Army of the People.”

All sorts of goons and roughnecks turned up to join the fight. Jim Bowie, already famous for his special knife and for killing a guy during the Sandbar Fight over in Louisiana, and Deaf Smith, and quite a few Tejanos, like Juan Seguin. And finally, Sam Houston.

This small Texan army moved towards San Antonio. Austin’s biggest problem was that everyone was drunk all the time.

In the name of Almighty God send no more ardent spirits to this camp – if any is on the road turn it back

Austin led the volunteers by democracy, which was not an effective method, but may have been the only one anyone would accept. Austin wanted to attack the Mexican troops at San Antonio while they had a good chance. But when he tried to order it, the volunteers basically responded with “nah.” That was the end of Austin as commander. The Texas Consultation that was providing a loose organization instead gave him the job of commissioner to the US. He’d go to give speeches, raise money and support for Texas. This was a much better fit for his talents. The head of the army job went to Sam Houston.

The state of affairs in Texas at this point was a mess. The Texas Consultation at this point still hadn’t declared independence. All sorts of violent and random maniacs were arriving, some of them getting themselves killed in ill-conceived attacks on Mexican outposts. Houston sent a few of these guys, including Bowie and William Travis, to San Antonio with the suggestion that they blow up the Alamo mission building and then retreat. Instead, as Haley puts it:

the nonmilitary yahoos, still enjoying the freedom of the city, preferred to spend their time in the cantinas listening to the legendary Bowie tell his stories.

Haley notes about Bowie:

weakened by long and superhuman alcohol consumption, he fell into a lethal delirium of pneumonia and probably diphtheria and was not a factor thereafter

(I really recommend Haley’s chapter on the Alamo, “Brilliant. Pointless. Pyhrric.”)

Travis did his best to get a defense organized, but Santa Anna and some six thousand troops and twenty cannons quickly got the place surrounded and killed everybody. Another branch of Houston’s army, four hundred or so guys under James Fannin, were surrounded at Goliad. Again the Mexicans killed everybody.

Houston, sensibly enough, decided to retreat. This retreat, the Runaway Scrape, was not easy or happy or well-organized. Houston struggled to keep things organized, he’d be fighting with guys who wouldn’t move until they’d had breakfast, stuff like that. The Texas Convention nearly took away Houston’s command. But Houston did manage to hold about a thousand guys together, retreating, retreating, retreating. Until suddenly they turned around and attacked.

Some of the Texian army had captured a Mexican soldier who revealed that Santa Anna’s force was not as large as they’d thought. Houston gave everybody a “remember the Alamo!” speech and they went for it, and won.

Whether Santa Anna was surprised at San Jacinto because he was busy at the time with Emily West/Emily Morgan, “the Yellow Rose of Texas,” born a free woman of color in Connecticut, recently kidnapped by Mexican soldiers, is beyond the scope of this post. Houston apparently did tell someone years later that Santa Anna was with a woman at the time of the attack. One way or another, Houston’s army caught the Mexicans literally napping. Most importantly, they captured Santa Anna personally.

Around the one hundredth anniversary, on the site of the battlefield, Texas built an insanely tall, almost Stalinist style monument.

While crazy, the scale and grandeur is kind of appropriate to how decisive the San Jacinto battle was. Imagine if Robert E. Lee had been captured at Gettysburg (or, more like, if Lee and Jefferson Davis were one guy, who then got captured at Gettysburg). If history followed the pattern of the previous year, it seems much more likely the Texian army would eventually be captured by the Mexicans, everybody massacred once again. Maybe the US would’ve gotten involved, but it’s possible Santa Anna would’ve pacified Texas and retaken it forever.

Instead, in a short engagement the war for Texas independence was won, though the participants didn’t realize it yet. It’s kind of surprising that the Texans didn’t execute Santa Anna, as many wanted to. Instead Houston used Santa Anna to order his army away. Eventually the Mexican dictator was sent back to Mexico by way of Washington.

Austin heard the news of San Jacinto in New Orleans. He quickly bought a bunch of food, which he knew the Texans would need, having abandoned their farms and ranches in the Runaway Scrape. Austin hurried home to expected glory.

I have been nominated by many persons whose opinions I am bound to respect, as a candidate for the office of President of Texas

Austin said in a statement, concluding that he would serve if he won. An election was held. When the votes came in Sam Houston got 5,119, and Austin got 586.

This really hurt Austin’s feelings. He hadn’t even come in second. Apparently Austin believed Houston had once promised him he’d never run for president of Texas, so he felt betrayed, in addition to being disappointed that his countrymen hadn’t recognized all he’d done for them.

A successful military chieftain is hailed with admiration and applause, but the bloodless pioneer of the wilderness, like the corn and cotton he causes to spring where it never grew before, attracts no notice…

Austin wrote in a self-pitying letter to his cousin.

Houston appointed Stephen Austin as secretary of state of the Texas Republic. Living in a back room in Columbia, Texas, the new capital, Austin caught a cold in December, 1836. It turned into pneumonia. on December 27th, he woke up, and declared “The independence of Texas is recognized! Don’t you see it in the papers? Doctor Archer told me so!” Then he fell back asleep, and thirty minutes later he died. He was forty-three.

When Sam Houston heard the news, he issued a proclamation:

The Father of Texas is no more! The first pioneer of the wilderness has departed.

They were both pretty dramatic guys.

Houston would live on for a long time. Once Texas became a state, he served as a US senator. He was serving as governor of Texas in 1861 when the state voted to join the Confederacy. Houston thought this was a bad idea, and refused to swear an oath to the Confederacy, so the legislature declared him no longer governor. He warned the Texas about the north:

They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.

Houston moved to this odd looking house, and died in 1863.

Around 1835, two real estate speculators, the Allen brothers, laid out an idea for a city not far from San Jacinto. They named it after the first president of the Republic of Texas. In 1837, Houston was incorporated. Houston was briefly the capital of Texas, but a few years later, a site for a new capital was selected. First called “Waterloo,” it was soon renamed in honor of Stephen Austin.

In his essay “A Handful Of Roses,” collected in In A Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas, Larry McMurty depicts Houston (this is 1966) as a city of beer bars and shootings, “lively, open and violent,” and Austin as a city whose most characteristic activity is “the attempt to acquire power through knowledge.” He says Austin is the one town in Texas where there’s “a real tolerance of the intellectual.” In some ways the two cities do seem to bear some of the color of their namesakes, but maybe that’s just coincidence, or the human desire to see connections everywhere.

Next time I’m in Brazoria County I’d like to see this statue of Austin:

Thus concludes the story of two guys.

(My sources for this, beyond Haley’s Passionate Nation, include T. H. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star: A History of Texas and The Texans, and Stephen F. Austin: Empresario of Texas by Gregg Cantrell)


On Operations by B. A. Friedman

During the American Civil War, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign is frequently pointed to as an example of expert maneuver. In fact, Jackson’s success was due more to excellent information. His small Confederate army was weak in everything except information. Jackson had lived in the Shenandoah Valley before the war and knew the ground. He also employed on his staff a local civilian mapmaker, Jedediah Hotchkiss. Finally, he had an excellent, if undisciplined cavalry commander who understood reconnaissance. Jackson’s ability to rapidly outmaneuver Union forces was grounded in his more accurate understanding of his opponent and the environment.

B. A. Friedman’s book On Operations is sort of sequel to his book On Tactics, which we reviewed here (a surprisingly popular post, actually). The subject is operations: planning, preparing, conducting and sustaining campaigns to accomplish strategic objectives. This lies somewhere in between tactics and strategy. Friedman’s book comes out of Clausewitz’s On War. For Clausewitz,

the logic of tactics is to gain battlefield victory; the logic of strategy is to use those victories for the purpose of the war.

Operations then lies somewhere in between:

operational art comprises the disciplines requires to place military forces in an advantageous position to employ tactics to achieve strategic effect

Some excerpts from the table of contents provide some sub-topics: Administration, Information, Operations, Fire Support, Logistics, Command and Control. Within a pretty technical discussion of these topics are interesting insights. Friedman says that the study of

operational art became the safe space in which Soviet officers could discuss their trade.

You couldn’t talk “strategy,” that was Stalin’s job. However, even operations turned out not to be quite safe:

By the 1930s, Svechin and Tukhachevsky were rivals. Tukhachevsky’s ideas won out in part because he denounced Svechin as a traitor to the Marxist-Leninist cause, whereupon Svechin was arrested. As adept as he was at playing Stalin’s games, Tukhachevsky was not adept enough. Neither he nor Svechin would live to see either the outbreak of the war they were preparing for the Red Army’s eventual victory, as Stalin had both men executed.

Friedman goes through some history of military administration, noting that the Prussian army had a system where a commander would have an Ia, whose job was running the general’s staff, handling communications, and serving as a principal advisor. Sometimes the Ia and the commander would rise in the ranks as a team. There’s some discussion of Boyd’s OODA loop idea. Throughout the book there are some case studies of operational success and failure, and a section of five detailed case studies as a sort of appendix. These were all pretty interesting, but into that stuff. I liked learning, for instance, that Carlson organized his Raiders using ideas he learned as an observer with Chinese Communist guerrillas.

This quote jumped out at me:

British general Nick Carter, who has had extensive experience in command in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan has observed, “As a commander you now live in a fish bowl; war is a theater and you are a producer of a spectacle that must appeal to a range of audiences. For success is invariably defined by the triumph of the narrative.

Anyone aspiring to manage complex operations or human organizations could probably benefit from examples in this book. And in the US, where we have civilian control of the military, good for all of us to think about some of these topics.

Too often, the US officer corps uses the operational level as a shield behind which it deploys “best military advice. But no military advice can be beneficial if stripped of its inherent political nature.

If I can get in touch with B. A. Friedman I’m gonna see if he’ll endure an interview with Helytimes on how deep military thinking can be applied in civilian life. It’s a pleasure to take advantage of the work of someone who’s studied deeply on such a topic.

Here’s a Hotchkiss map:


Ten Commandments for Studio Readers, from Thalberg

from The Genius of the System, Thomas Schatz.


Around the town

The Del Mar sandwiches aren’t at the Santa Anita level, but not bad

Professor McHugh is off to Berlin to deliver a talk. In ancient India, they conceived of thought, the mind, and the soul as being located in the heart. So what did they think the brain was for? That’s the theme, wish we could attend. Haven’t been to Berlin since Jones was working on a movie there (Speed Racer?). Mat W is just back from Pittsburgh, where he toured an old iron factory…

Beyers says he plans to come down for Thanksgiving, should be rowdy as always.  He’s been watching Hip Hop Evolution on Netflix, hosted by Shad. A fun introduction to various hiphop scenes, organized semi-geographically.  We watched the one about Memphis and Three Six Mafia, the one about New Orleans bounce and Cash Money records, the one about Houston and chopped and screwed (DJ Screw was making thousands of dollars selling tapes out of his house), and the one about Atlanta crunk and Lil Jon: very fun.  Lil Jon in particular seems to have bloomed into something like a civic booster and public face of Atlanta.  

Hip Hop Evolution led to watching The Carter documentary about Lil Wayne.  The most dramatic moment of the film occurs around 56:00 when Wayne has had it with a European reporter who’s trying to get him to place himself in a New Orleans musical tradition.  Lil Wayne’s not having it.  

We played a game called Ranker (or is it Rancor?) over at Vali’s.  Someone leaves the room, and the group then comes up with a number from one to ten.  Eight say.  The guesser then returns and takes turns asking people questions like “US cities” or “movies from the 70s.”  You try and give an answer that will steer them towards the correct number.  It’s fun, try it, Jen Crittenden is credited with introducing it to us.

Dave and Esther are back from Italy.  Esther’s been doing great work on TikTok on the categories “Hot Girls” vs “Pretty Girls” (no offense is intended, take it in spirit its intended).  Dave’s excited to see Pavement at the Orpheum this week, we’ll be joining. 

Boy, how about Flightline? We trained down to Del Mar on Amtrak’s Surfliner for the Pacific Classic, and we weren’t disappointed. Standing right by the rail I was convinced I’d just seen the fastest horse to ever run, but in fact Flightline was seventeen one hundredths short of breaking the track record (set by Candy Ride, 2003). Two seconds shy of the 1 1/4 mile world record. Maybe it was the heat. Still, nice to see excellence of any kind. After the race you can bet Red Tracton’s was lively.

If you’re going down to Del Mar, bring an old racing book you don’t need anymore, and you can trade it for another at the Helen Watts’ Memorial Library, at the southeast corner of 17 Hands. You wouldn’t think a bar would be a likely place for a trading library, but there it is!

Everyone’s excited for the release of W. David Marx’s book on status and culture. The galley was hard to get, an instant “status galley” – cunning marketing on Dave’s part? Sounds like we might get to hear him on How Long Gone soon… Greaney’s on his way to Mexico to see his buddy Alma, who built himself a house out of volcanic rocks. We lunched at, you guessed it, Terroni… Congrats to Tim Robinson on winning an Emmy, he earned that one!… Our correspondents from overseas had reports for us: Chileans rejected their draft constitution. A boy in New Zealand discovered a giant worm (click that link at your peril if you have Scoleciphobia)… We’re under the heat dome here in Los Angeles but we’ll make it, we always do. The Giants are coming to Dodger Stadium this week, if you’re going over there make sure you’ve studied the shade map.


California agriculture statistics to delight, amaze, and amuse

California leads the nation in production of: apricots, asparagus, avocados, lima beans, broccoli, brussel spouts, carrots, cauliflower, dates, eggplant, sweet corn, figs, cut flowers, grapes, alfalfa hay, herbs of all kinds, jojoba of course, kale, kumquats, lemons, lettuce, limes, cantaloupes, onions, parsley, chili peppers, bell peppers, persimmons, pomegranates, raspberries, tangerines, tomatoes, spinach, strawberries, and watercress.

And those are just the competitive categories. 

When it comes to almonds, artichokes, celery, figs, garlic, kiwis, honeydew, nectarines, olives, pistachios, plums, and walnuts, forget it, we’re so far ahead it’s barely worth counting other states: California produces 99% or more of the US total for each. 

On top of that, we’re number two in rice, sweet potatoes, oranges, blueberries, grapefruits, and mushrooms. Arkansas, North Carolina, Florida, Washington, Florida, and Pennsylvania better watch their respective backs. 

Vermont and Wisconsin pride themselves on their dairies, but in production of milk and cream, California is unrivaled: we produce forty one billion pounds of milk and cream a year. (Wisconsin is second, thirty one billion, and third is actually Idaho).

The agricultural statistics are so staggering they please the brain to contemplate: California produces in a single year, for example, a billion pounds of strawberries, three billion pounds of lettuce, five billion pounds of grapes, and eleven billion pounds of tomatoes. We grew ninety two million daisies and seventy five million lilies. Thirty six thousand acres of California are devoted simply to cauliflower. There are in total one thousand, three hundred square miles of California covered in grape vines, and close to two thousand square miles of almond trees, equivalent to an entire Delaware.

Almonds are truly where we dominate: California produces eighty-two percent of all the almonds on planet Earth.  That’s insane for a lot of reasons, one of them being that it takes about a gallon of water to grow a single almond.  Now, some places in California have lots of water: water roars down the Trinity River through the redwoods of far northern California, and over the waterfalls of Yosemite. But some places in California have very little water at all: Death Valley gets about two inches of rain in an entire year. 

Most of the almonds are grown somewhere in between.  The biggest almond growing county is Fresno, which gets about fifteen inches of rain a year on average.  That’s less than half of the US average. The water for all those thirsty almonds is coming from the thin rivers, by aqueduct or it’s pumped out of the ground.  California exports water in the form of delicious almonds and other crops.  That doesn’t really make a lot of sense, condensing our precious water into nuts and shipping it away. But almonds are $5.6 billion business, so that’s what happens.  

(Here’s my source)


Antonio Ygnacio Avila

Taken with this dour fellow, who once owned 22,000+ acres of what’s now Playa Del Rey, El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Lawndale, Hermosa Beach, Inglewood, Hawthorne, and Redondo Beach. Cheer up pal, you live on the beach!


David McCullough

The two most popular movies of all time, while not historically accurate, are about core historic events: Gone With The Wind and Titanic.  [And now Avatar, which draws heavily from the historical story of Pocahontas.]  There is a human longing to go back to other times.  We all know how when we were children we asked out parents, ‘What was it like when you were a kid?”  I think it probably has something to do with our survival as a species.  For nine-tenths of the time that human beings have been on earth, knowledge that was essential to survival was transmitted from one generation to the next by the vehicle of story.

from an interview for the National Endowment of Humanities.


Warhol/Rothko

from a profile of Dana White of UFC in the Financial Times. Pretty interesting article, actually: White claims he left Boston for Nevada after Whitey Bulger goons demanded $2,500 in shakedown money. And:

He says there are three main types of people in the world: nerds, jocks and stoners, none of whom truly understand the others. There’s also a small fourth group: fighters. They’re outsiders who lack social skills and operate on a base level. As a kid, he thought he might be one.

(I disagree, I think most people are a blend, but fun system.)


Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

Here are some notes from the sequel to Last Train To Memphis.

Elvis seems like he was basically a twelve year old all his life. He was really into fireworks, guns, karate (a LOT of this book is about karate), slot cars, policemen, cowboys, horses. He was constantly buying cars for people. One day he bought fourteen cars for people, including one for a random woman he met on the car lot. When he got a camera, he “quickly figured out the possibilities. Sometimes he used Priscilla alone, sometimes in Priscilla’s absence he got girls to wrestle for him wearing only white bras and panties, and occasionally he included Priscilla, too, in an expanded scenario.” He had no idea what anything cost and spent wild sums on weird jewelry he designed.

He had to be surrounded by people constantly. Assorted people he met around Memphis came onto his payroll and spent years as his professional pals. At one point one of them drew up a list of duties for everyone:

it was up to Marty to “call Mrs. Pepper for Movie Times (As Early As Possible); Transact Business and Correspondence with the Colonel’s office for Elvis,” and maintain a purchase order system for all charges in Elvis’ name. Alan Fortas got the assignment to, “along with Marty, be responsible for Organization both in good and bad situations,” maintain Elvis’ scrapbook, and “be in den with Elvis as much as possible.”

The scene at Graceland was pretty nuts:

In the short time that the Lackers had been living at Graceland, Elvis’ uncle Johnny Smith had threatened Marty’s wife and come at Marty himself with a knife, while Clettes Presley (Vester’s wife, and Johnny and Gladys’ sister), who drank as heavily as her brother, had made it clear that she had little use for him, too. Marty didn’t think much of Elvis’ retarded uncle, Tracy, who went around saying, “I got my nerves in the dirt” and made noises “like he was getting ready to explode”

At the end of the last book Elvis was 23 and his mother had died, just after he went into the Army. He was already about as famous as anybody, but he was considered kind of a joke by New York critics.

After the funeral he was sent to Germany, where he lived off-base in a weird household with his dad and a German secretary and some friends. His dad took up with the still-married wife of a fellow soldier of Elvis’ – the fellow soldier was drunk all the time and didn’t seem to notice. This twisted situation made Elvis angry, he had loved his mother dearly and this seemed too soon. If there’s a turning point in this book that set Elvis on the desperate and sad path that would pretty much be the rest of his life, I guess it’s this.

Elvis met Priscilla when her military dad was sent to Germany. She was 14, but for some reason her parents let them date. Elvis had strange ideas about feminine purity – he would sleep with other girls but wouldn’t want to sleep with ones he was seriously dating.

Once Elvis gets back to America his story and this book turns pretty repetitive and tragic. He was contracted to make a bunch of movies, and he seems to have been aware that these were terrible. He was ashamed of a lot of his recordings. After a few years of nutty partying, constantly on speed, he had a kind of breakdown. A new hairdresser, Larry Geller, showed up. Elvis started asking him probing spiritual questions. “There has to be a purpose… there’s got to be a reason… why I was chosen to be Elvis Presley.” Larry started bringing Elvis spiritual books, and Elvis started going to the Self-Realization Fellowship in Pacific Palisades.

But mostly he just kept doing crazy amounts of speed and massively powerful prescription painkillers given to him by “Dr. Nick.” There was a brief period in ’68 where he kinda pulled it together and had a huge TV special, and he played to huge crowds in Vegas, but he’s kind of a mess throughout this book.

Elvis had a weird thing about not liking ladies who’d had babies. He sort of turned on Priscilla after she had a baby (although he was cheating on her pretty thoroughly before, too). There’s a sad story of a woman who got pregnant by Elvis, tried to tell him, and then heard him say something about how once someone was a mother they were sacred and shouldn’t be interested in sex. She went and got an abortion alone.

The absolute low point might have been the day he flew to Washington, more or less on a whim, had a crazy letter he’d written on the plane delivered to the White House, where he brought a gun to his impromptu meeting with Nixon. In their meeting Elvis talked about how he felt the Beatles were really behind a lot of anti-American feeling. Then he gave Nixon a hug and took off.

Three years later some beauty pageant winner was sleeping in his bed when he died while sitting on the toilet. That day he’d thrown a raquetball racket at somebody, played Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on the piano, and been delivered a packet of “Seconal, Placidyl, Valmid, Tuinal, Demerol, and an assortment of other depressants and placebos which generally allowed Elvis to get several hours of sleep at a time.” Also he’d taken a bunch of codeine to which he was mildly allergic.

Anyway, this is a really sad book. I pretty much skimmed it. It seemed like a lot of the tragedies of Elvis’ life were a lot like those in Michael Jackson’s life. I guess it’s pretty near impossible to get super-famous when you’re a teenager and not implode. Elvis seemed to have a vague sense inside himself that he’d missed his potential, somehow. One of the band guys he played with in the first book said that he felt that Elvis was a kind of idiot savant – he knew hundreds of songs, but was strange and sensitive and had no idea how to handle being as famous as he was. Maybe nobody does!

He’s really likable all through Last Train to Memphis, I’ll prefer to remember him that way!


Last Train To Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

A few years ago I read this book and took a few notes on it, which we present here in case they can be of benefit to the Helytimes reader:

Elvis’ parents were real country folk. His father had done time in Mississippi’s dreaded Parchman Farm prison for writing a bad check. It all seems pretty Dickensian: his boss was “making an example of him.” Elvis’ twin brother was born dead, and Elvis’ mom told him he’d acquired the power of the dead twin.

Then the Presleys moved to Memphis and lived in public housing until they made too much money to qualify (still not much money). Even in Memphis they were seen as kinda bumpkins. Elvis was completely devoted to his mother.

In Memphis Sam Phillips was running Sun Records, trying to record “real Negro music,” and the unrelated Dewey Phillips had a radio show that broadcast to a mostly black audience. Elvis listened mostly to gospel music and sometimes sang at an Assembly of God church.

As a boy Elvis used to turn on lights on Saturdays for his Orthodox Jewish neighbors.

Elvis was driving a truck for an electrical company and trying to be an electrician, even though he felt he was too easily distracted to be good at wiring – he was a little afraid of blowing himself up. He was dating a girl named Dixie who was really in love with him. They were committed to remaining “pure” until marriage.

Elvis used to hang around Sun Records, and he recorded a demo of himself. Sam Phillips had him on a list of maybe promising singers. Months later he found what he thought was a good song for him. It turned out to not sound so good, but Elvis and the musicians Sam had recruited kept screwing around for hours until Elvis started singing an old blues song.

When Elvis’ record of That’s Alright Mama first got huge on Dewey Phillips’ radio show. The first time it was played on the radio Elvis was too nervous to listen and went to the movies. Dewey Phillips kept calling his parents and demanded Elvis come down to the station. When he got out of the movies he went down there. Dewey tricked Elvis into being interviewed on air. He asked Elvis where he went to high school so everyone would know Elvis was white.

Elvis wore “crazy” clothes, like a pink shirt. But he was also incredibly sensitive. He was always afraid people were laughing at him. Sam Phillips wouldn’t let him play at a bunch of rougher bars because he thought Elvis would get beaten up.

[Roy] Orbison later said of his first encounter with Elvis: “his energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing… Actually it affected me exactly the same way as when I first saw that David Lynch film [Blue Velvet]. I just didn’t know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it.'”

One thing I took from this book was that musicians in those days died on the road like all the time. Cars caught on fire. And of course we all know the fate of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. At some point Elvis’ mother made him promise not to fly anymore, so he would take the train to Hollywood and New York.

(says a bandmate of an early tour): “he would run the women, he’d run two or three of them in one night – whether or not he was actually making love to all three, I don’t know, because he was kind of private in that sense and if I thought he was going to run some women in the room with him, I didn’t stay. But I just think he wanted them around, it was a sense of insecurity, I guess, because I don’t think he was a user. He just loved women, and I think they knew that.”

By 1955 when Elvis was 20 girls would tear his clothes to pieces. “Of course the police started getting them out, and I will never forget Faron Young – this one little girl had kind of a little hump at the back, and he kicked at her, and these little boots fell out.” (???) Sometime after this Elvis took Dixie to her junior prom.

Manufacturing a hit record back then could actually put a small record company out of business, because there were high upfront costs of making the record, so Sam Phillips sold Elvis’ contract, seemingly without rancor.

“Popular music has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley,” wrote the Daily News. OH REALLY!

In between having his clothes ripped off Elvis seemed to “date” relatively pure-heartedly. There’s a weird account on p. 315 of Elvis and his girlfriend sort of dry-humping and tickling each other and almost doing it but then not doing it: “‘we almost did it, didn’t we baby?’ And I said, ‘We almost did.’ He said, ‘That was close, wasn’t it?'”

Later, in Hollywood, “more experienced girls” were surprised to find that “what he liked to do was to lie in bed and watch television and eat and talk all night – the companionship seemed as important for him as the sex – and then in the early-morning hours they would make love.”

This book had a good amount about what food everybody ate. Elvis liked eggs cooked rock hard and burnt bacon. At age 23 he’s conducting an interview “while lunching alone in his dressing room on a bowl of gravy, a bowl of mashed potatoes, nine slices of well-done bacon, two pints of milk, a large glass of tomato juice, lettuce salad, six slices of bread, and four pats of butter.”

In Hollywood he seems to have fallen in with some real lame characters and professional best friends. He stayed at the Knickerbocker Hotel until that got too nuts and he stayed at the Beverly Wilshire. His movies were shot on the Paramount lot. Sometimes he would call his mother and talk to her all day.

This book ends with Elvis getting drafted into the Army. He agreed with his weird hypnotizing carnival-guy manager Colonel Tom Parker that he should turn down all special offers and just be a regular soldier. He joined the Army and then his mother died. He was totally shattered.

After his mother died, he invited his dentist over and showed him around the recently purchased Graceland.

He said, ‘the newspapers have made my house so laughable’ – that was the word. He said, ‘They have made it sound so laughable, I would love to have your opinion of my home.’ He took us all through the house, my taste is not so marvelous, but it was very attractive, it all fit – there was a modern sculpture on the chimney over the fireplace, and I had the same sculpture in my office, it was called ‘Rhythm.’ Anyway, when we got back to the living room, he said, ‘What do you think? and Sterling said, ‘If you give me the key, I’ll swap you.”


That’s where the juice comes from

Traditional sportsbooks are market makers. They set a betting line—the Cubs will win by two runs or more, for example—to attract a roughly equal number of wagers on each side while keeping a small amount for themselves. DraftKings and competitors start with the same approach, but other techniques they use are controversial and likely to attract regulatory scrutiny if the apps draw tens of millions of new customers, as many analysts expect.

The companies harvest user data to ensure that losing bets outnumber winning ones. This process starts with the companies’ ability, so far permitted by state regulators, to profile customers based on betting histories and limit the size of wagers from those expected to win, much like traditional casinos kicking out sharps from the blackjack table. The apps use internal ratings to target the biggest losers, marshaling online tracking technology in a way that casinos—which once handed out rolls of quarters to entice repeat business—could only have dreamed of. DraftKings and FanDuel hire spokespeople, often retired athletes, to pitch risky multi-leg bets that aren’t likely to pay out. In states where it’s allowed, the ultimate prize is cross-selling sportsbook customers into online casino games. “That’s where the juice comes from,” Adam Kaplan, FanDuel’s general manager and vice president for content until last year, said at an industry conference in New York in April.

from this Bloomberg piece about the DraftKings bar coming to Wrigley Field.


Montecito: the little wood

The site of Montecito was originally part of the Santa Barbara pueblo lands of which allotments were given to soldiers when their enlistments at the presidio expired. From earliest times it was a region of exceptional beauty, with its leafy canyons and its forested valley, and the Spanish called it El Montecito, the little wood. Even today it is not infrequently referred to as “the Montecito.” Quail, deer, bear, and strayed cattle still roamed the valley in 1847, by which time a small settlement had developed, consisting of a few little ranches with the houses not more than a quarter mile apart…

In the late 1860s the first of the Montecito estate builders had erected a fine old-fashioned Southern home on Hot Springs Road and made the first landscaped garden in the valley. This was Colonel W. A. Haynes. With others soon to follow Haynes’ lead, bears were still so common in the region that a $50 bounty was set on every one taken within the limits of the settlement, and horse thieves and highwaymen were using Montecito as a hideout.

…In the 1870s the bears gradually retreated into the Santa Ynez Mountains and the freebooters all met one form of justice or other, leaving the future of Montecito tottering for awhile between those who wish to keep its natural beauty for homes and estates, and a few hustling Americans who wanted to make it a health center by exploiting the hot springs which had been discovered there in 1801 by an Indian wandering in the foothills.

later:

Montecito embarked on an ambitious landscaping project, to emerge from its chrysalis a gay and exclusive suburb with luxurious estates.

California is full of strange microclimates, and Montecito has one: it’s foresty and cool in there. Eucalyptus trees abound. These are not native, but Australians introduced them during the gold rush, and many were planted in the following years. Jack London planted at least 16,000 eucalyptus trees up on his northern California lands during a speculative craze around 1900. Eucalyptus trees can grow thick and tall and are pleasant to see, but the planting of trees with the potential to explode during wildfires has been a mixed blessing for the state.

Whenever we’re in Montecito we think about Prince Harry and Meghan in exile up there. Something tragic about it, like Wallis and the Duke of Windsor lounging around in the Bahamas with nothing to do. You’re in Heaven but it’s a tiny heaven, there’s not much to do, and you’re sort of trapped. Maybe Harry finds satisfaction in his polo, and Meghan in her podcast.

In 2018 mudslides killed twenty three people in Montecito. The mudflow reached Oprah’s backyard, yet her house was spared.


John Steinbeck on San Francisco

Thomas Wolf took that one for Wikipedia.

Can you remember anywhere in John Steinbeck’s fiction where he discusses San Francisco?  Whole books about Monterey, but does he even mention the place?  I couldn’t remember.  A friend’s been working on Steinbeck’s letters, he couldn’t think of any mention either.  

Turns out Steinbeck does talk about San Francisco in Travels with Charley in Search of America.  The chapter begins:

I find it difficult to write about my native place, northern California.  It should be easiest, because I knew that strip angled against the Pacific better than any place in the world.  But I find it not one thing but many – one printed over another until the whole thing blurs. 

He mentions growth:

I remember Salinas, the town of my birth, when it proudly announced four thousand citizens.  Now it is eighty thousand and leaping pell mell on in mathematical progression – a hundred thousand in three years and perhaps two hundred thousand in ten, with no end in sight.

(The population of Salinas is, in 2022, 156,77.)

Then he writes some about mobile home parks, and property taxes, concluding:

We have in the past been forced into reluctant change by weather, calamity, and plague.  Now the pressure comes from our biologic success as a species.  

Then he gets going on San Francisco:

Once I knew the City very well, spent my attic days there, while others were being a lost generation in Paris.  I fledged in San Francisco, climbed its hills, splet in its parks, worked on its docks, marched and shouted in its revolts.  In a way I felt I owned the City as much as it owned me.  

A city on hills has it over flat-land places.  New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which can never have existed.  

Steinbeck can’t stay though. He has to hurry on to Monterey to cast his absentee ballot (it’s 1960; he’s voting for John F. Kennedy).