China: Where everything hot is cool

On the day the Russian bear and his American pussycat were performing an act of bestiality in Finland, the home page of the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party featured a large photo (above) of a chimp eating frozen watermelon at a zoo in Chongqing.

It was one of 11 pictures the English edition of the People’s Daily assembled for a slide show under the headline Animals relieve from summer heat, including this shot of a VIP snoozing in its air-conditioned residence.

Panda snoozing

As expected from state media, every aspect of the country’s government and society are presented with Trumpian superlatives.

And that includes the travel section – the source of all that follows – where everything hot is cool.

Thermometer - China
ACTUAL CAPTION: A huge thermometer shows ground surface temperature at 83 C in a scenic area in Turpan, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, June 25, 2018.

The two-paragraph story:

More than 2,500 tourists flocked to Northwest China’s Turpan to enjoy the extreme heat as temperature rose to 83 C at 16:00 on Monday, Xinjiang Morning Post reported on Tuesday.

It was the highest ground surface temperature recorded this year, the newspaper citing an official in Turpan said.

Turpan - Map

The World Meteorological Organization says the highest temperature ever recorded anywhere was 56.7 Celsius (134 Fahrenheit) at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley, California, on July 10, 1913.

I don’t know the temperature in hell – I’m waiting for theologians and meteorologists to come to a consensus – but 83 degrees Celsius (181.4 Fahrenheit) seems as good a guess as any.

I’ve been checking the People’s Daily daily for a followup, maybe streeters from some of those 2,500-plus “tourists,” or quotes from their next-of-kin … Nothing yet.

Meanwhile …

China beach
ACTUAL CAPTION: People play in a seaside resort in Qingdao, east China’s Shandong Province, July 1, 2018. Six seaside resorts in the coastal city opened to the public Sunday after safety inspection.

There was no mention of what the safety inspectors were inspecting. Or, if “play” is a rough translation of:  Mostly stand around under umbrellas.

Qingdao, about 400 miles southeast of Beijing on the Yellow Sea, is another of those Chinese cities I’ve never heard of with a population in the millions – either four million or nine million, depending on the source.

(Remember Chongqing, the place where the chimp lives? It used to be called Chungking – named for a once-popular brand of canned chow mein – and has a population of either 8.2 million or 30 million, depending on who’s counting.)

Headline: It’s not a joke! Chinese tourists are heading to Africa to avoid the summer heat

This was followed by a great example of modern journalism, Chinese-style.

The lead: Africa is fast becoming one of China’s hottest tourist destinations, as the scorching summer heat burns up cities across the country.

Skip down to the two sources:

A man from Changsha in central China’s Hunan province, who has to keep his AC on for almost 24 hours a day, is planning to go to Africa with his child to avoid the heat.

Another Chinese tourist, Yang Fan, recently went to Africa to avoid the summer heat. He explained, “Many people think Africa is very hot at this time, but we were amazed by its coolness when we arrived in Kenya.”

The story was accompanied by a photo, without a caption or credit, which appears to have been taken in the shade of a gazebo somewhere.


Since the Chinese and their media are obviously obsessed with the weather – News flash: It’s hot in the summer – it’s not surprising that their TV forecasters are stars.

Headline: Chinese weather girl stuns internet with her incredibly youthful looks after hosting the show for 22 YEARS

Chinese weather girl

The story of the ‘ageless goddess’:

A Chinese TV presenter has become an internet sensation as she hasn’t seemed to age a day despite having been on screen for more than two decades.

Yang Dan, a weather girl from China’s state broadcaster, looks no different today than her 22-year-old self in her first show in 1996.

Incredibly youthful Ms Yang, who is now 44 years old, has been hailed as an ‘ageless goddess’ after a compilation video of her was shared online by the China Central Television Station.

I’ve never been to China, but many of my travel adventures are recounted in The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available in print and Kindle editions from and Amazon Canada.


The other ‘N-word’

Before I went to St. John’s several years ago, I picked up a copy of a weighty book called the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, a scholarly work that runs 770 pages and was first published in 1982.

I’d been to the island province before, to the west coast, and often had a hard time understanding the local lingo.

So, as a part-time freelance travel writer always looking for an offbeat angle, I pitched a story I described as “talking Newfie” and got the assignment from the National Post.

After a flight from Toronto, leafing through the dictionary in my hotel room on my first night in St. John’s, I looked up the word Newfie.

I’d been in Canada long enough to know that people told Newfie jokes, the same way Americans told Polish jokes and, I’d discovered from my daughter who grew up in Bern, the Swiss told Fribourger jokes.

(I’ve been to the canton of Fribourg and didn’t find the Fribourgers particularly joke-worthy. Of course, I don’t speak French, or German, or Schweizerdeutsch.)

In any case, when I read the Newfoundland dictionary definition of Newfie, I was surprised to discover it was not a slur or slang, but simply: “A native born inhabitant of Newfoundland.”

There was a second entry that remains puzzling: “Sometimes used locally in imitation of Americans and mainland Canadians.”

Did that mean Newfoundlanders would hear my American-Ontario accent and call me a Newfie?

I got my answer a couple of nights later at O’Reilly’s Pub on George Street, the booziest block in Canada.

O'Reilly's Pub

“I’m doing a story about ‘talking Newfie,’” I told the pub’s proprietors, Brenda O’Reilly and Craig Flynn. This was greeted by silence before Craig admonished, “We don’t use the N-word.”

They told me it’s okay for Newfoundlanders to use the word but not acceptable for folks from “away.”

That settled – I did not bring up the dictionary definition – Craig got down to the business of Screeching me into Newfoundland society.

He put on a floppy fisherman’s hat and administered the initiation oath. It took me several tries before I got the script straight.

“Is you a Newfoundlander Screecher?” he asked.

“Indeed I is, me ol’ cock,” I recited. “Long may your big jib draw.”

Then, as required, I ate a small hunk of baloney, tossed back a shot of Screech and, to seal the deal, kissed a cod – it was frozen, obviously preserved for such occasions.

“Now you are an honorary Newfoundlander,” Craig proclaimed.

Back in reporter mode, I asked: “Does everybody kiss the same cod?”

“Yeah,” Craig said, “but we wash it occasionally.”

Later, he informed me of a Screech-in he would be performing soon with another visitor from away, Ron Jeremy.

I was grateful I preceded the porn star in kissing the fish.

For other stories of my travels – and the rest of my story – pick up The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available in paperback and Kindle editions from and Amazon Canada.


Understand Newfoundland

Thirty-six years ago today, my wife Linda and I, our standard poodle, Yaz, and my daughter Kate, visiting from Switzerland, set sail for a place we’d never been before.

We’d been traveling in Atlantic Canada for a while, camping in our little motorhome, seeking some distance from the tragedy of our son Sean’s death in Maine.

Here, we pick up the story in an excerpt from The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism:

On Bastille Day, we took the 11:45 a.m. ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. Seven hours on the high seas. Sat on deck as the sunshine turned to fog and back again.

Breaching pilot whales welcomed us to The Rock. As did a fisherman in a fast skiff, showing off his catch, hoisting a large cod with a smile – the smile was on the fisherman, not the cod.

Fisherman w:cod
I shot this with Kodachrome and converted the slide to digital with a little gizmo that produces less than satisfactory images.  

The next day, driving up the west coast of the island province, we passed the town of Stephenville and its abandoned U.S. air base, opened during the Second World War, when Newfoundland was still a British colony. It did not become Canada’s youngest province until 1949.

Outside of Corner Brook, we stopped at a visitor center where I added a lasting lesson in my continuing Canadian education. “How do you pronounce the name of your province?” I asked the nice lady behind the counter.

She smiled. This was obviously not the first time the question was asked. “It rhymes with understand,” she said. “So the trick is – understand, Newfoundland.”

I understood. And never forgot it.

I also quickly understood that this was like no place I’d ever been in Canada, or anywhere else. It was rocky and mountainous, bleak and barren. There were peaceful fjords in one direction, wild ocean in the other. Little pastel-colored houses perched on hillsides.

Some of the people were as alien as the place, spoke with an accent difficult to understand. Understand, NewfoundlandSure. Understand Newfoundlanders? Not so much.

And, it seemed, they found us odd as well – the Canadian-American couple with the Swiss-American girl, the giant black poodle and the little motorhome with New York plates.

This is not our camper, which we called Fenway, but the same year and model.

One day, we stopped at a picnic ground in a village off the highway to have lunch. Dozens of children, from tots to teens, came out of their houses to watch us eat ham and cheese sandwiches. When I tried talking to them, asked if they wanted to pet Yaz, their faces went blank. Maybe they didn’t understand New Yorkese.

We made our way up the coast to Gros Morne National Park, with its mountains rising out of the sea and picture-postcard fjords.

Gros Morne
Another one of my Kodachrome slides washed through the gizmo. 

Our neighbors in the Shallow Bay campground were a couple from California, roughing it in a motorhome the size of a Greyhound bus.

On Saturday night, we all went into the nearby metropolis of Cow Head for a drink at the only tavern in town. When a rock band started to play, and the noise became unbearable, we moved into an adjoining restaurant, which was closed. The manager, however, assigned a waiter to our beck and call after the Californian flashed a wad of Yankee greenbacks. Eventually, a bottle of scotch was left on the table.

On July 23, two months after Sean was born, we took the overnight ferry, sailing from Port aux Basques back to North Sydney. We gained back the half-hour we lost on the first crossing, since Newfoundland has its own, weird time zone.

For the rest of road trip – and the rest of my story – pick up The Expat Files, available in paperback and Kindle editions from and Amazon Canada.

The hitmen, the Chicken, the cad and the underwear model

Forty years ago today, I covered the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in San Diego. I know I was there. It’s right here in my scorebook.


But I don’t remember a thing about the game. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember much about any of the games I covered – except the last one, the Sox-Yanks playoff – during my one year as a newspaper baseball writer.

Still, there are thousands of words in my memoir about baseball and baseball players.

I recount in great detail covering Jackie Robinson’s funeral in New York in 1972 and an awkward interview with another of my boyhood Brooklyn Dodger heroes, Duke Snider, in Montreal in 1975.

I write a lot about life on the baseball beat and relationships with those who resided within that world. About drinking and talking with Billy Martin and Joe Torre, Tony Kubek and Early Wynn; about friendships and clashes with the 1978 Blue Jays I saw nearly every day from spring to fall as a reporter for the Toronto Sun.

I was thirty-one years old that season. By then, as a journalist, I’d already gone through the holy-shit-I’m-standing-next-to-Willie-Mays phase – at Jackie Robinson’s funeral.

And, as a fan and a man, I’d survived the awakening that I was older than many of my favorite players, like Fisk and Lynn and Rice on the Red Sox, who had replaced the carpetbagger Dodgers as my team.

So, when I showed up at that all-star game in San Diego, it was just another day at the office.

Yet, through the lens of history, it looks a lot more interesting than it was at the time. From the distance of decades, I have a greater appreciation of some of the players on the field that day.

The best of the best were the hitmen: Rod Carew, perhaps the most talented batsman I ever saw; George Brett, who evoked memories of Ted Williams at the plate; Pete Rose, brimming with menace and fury.

The starting pitcher for the American League was Jim Palmer, the brilliant right-hander and budding underwear model.

Jim Palmer

Palmer, Carew and Brett were among seventeen future Hall of Famers on the rosters. (We’ll leave the question of Rose’s absence from Cooperstown for another time.)

The featured attraction, if you watched the game on ABC with Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell and Don Drysdale in the broadcast booth, was Ted Giannoulas, the pride of London, Ontario, making his U.S. national television debut as the San Diego Chicken.


But, like I said, I don’t remember much about that day.

Not Captain & Tennille singing The Star Spangled Banner. (Or if anyone performed O Canada in recognition of the teams from north of the border, the Blue Jays and Expos.)

Not Ray Kroc, the hamburger man who owned the hometown Padres, throwing out the first pitch.

Not Dave Winfield, the young Padres outfielder, getting the loudest ovation when the players were introduced.


Not Carew’s two triples. Not Steve Garvey’s leadoff triple – three triples in one game! – in the bottom of the eighth. Or Garvey’s dash home on a wild pitch by Goose Gossage to score the go-ahead run.

What I now most recall about Garvey, of the Dodgers, is that he was nicknamed Mr. Clean and had a Hollywood marriage with TV personality Cyndy Garvey …


… until he was caught as a big league philanderer.

Meanwhile, the National League won, 7-3, its seventh all-star game victory in a row. It would win four more to run the streak to 11. (From 1959 to 1982, the American League won only twice.)

The game was played in two hours and thirty-two minutes – the modern equivalent of about four innings of a Yanks-Sox game at Fenway Park.

Ten runs were scored and no home runs were hit – the modern equivalent of a total eclipse of the sun.

I’m getting all this – the stats, not the equivalencies – from my scorebook and online sources.

I don’t have a copy of my story from the next day’s Sun, but I bet it included a line on the only Blue Jay in the game, Roy Howell, batting against Steve Rogers of the Expos, grounding out to first.

Canadian content.

Now that I think of it, I do remember the hotel bar, outside, on a marina, and having lunch on an aircraft carrier the day before the game.

Thirteen years later, I covered another all-star game, at the SkyDome in Toronto in 1991, as a feature writer for Canadian Press.

I don’t remember a thing about it.

My book, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, is available in paperback and Kindle editions from and Amazon Canada.

Not a banner year

On this Fourth of July I’m having second thoughts about putting the American flag on the cover of my book, The Expat Files, in the time of Trump.

It seemed like a good idea when I conceived the design, the Stars and Stripes commingling with the Maple Leaf above a photo of me as a young American in Canada.

Book Cover

This was the cover when the book was published about six months ago. But then a well-meaning friend spotted a distortion in the reproduction of the photo and volunteered to fix it.

He succeeded in sharpening my visage but futzed with the flags, the U.S. banner all but obscuring the Maple Leaf.

U.S. flag cover

During the time the publisher was changing the cover, the book was not for sale. And, I was told, changing it again would make the book unavailable for up to another three weeks.

So, I decided to live with the new cover, while thinking it might as well be an image of a bald eagle devouring a beaver.

One consistency on my Amazon page since the book appeared is this ad: Customers who bought this item also bought … Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff … #1 New York Times Bestseller.

Which has had me thinking that although I mention Trump only a couple of times in the last chapter, I should have titled my book The Origin of the Species and put that priceless combo the Orange One and an orangutan on the cover.


My conundrum with the cover and disgust with the current occupant of the White House does not mean I am ashamed of being an American. It’s who I am and will always be.

I’m happy I was born in the United States – not Bangladesh or Bulgaria or Britain.

I love New York, my hometown, and San Francisco and Boston, the coast of Maine and the Everglades, the canyons of Utah and the high country of Montana, the Sonoran Desert and the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.

But, at times, I’ve despised my government’s policies – on race, the Vietnam and Iraq wars, its token commitment to heath care and education while providing welfare for the wealthy at the expense of the needy.

And I’ve despised some of its leaders – Nixon and Kissinger, Nancy Reagan, Dick Cheney.

But I’ve never before feared the death of American democracy, my country in mortal peril.

I knew when Trump was elected that he was stupid, nuts, a liar, narcissistic, bigoted, boorish, sexist, immoral, unethical, childish, petty, mostly incoherent, barely literate, probably a criminal …

And I knew that most of the Republicans in Congress shared his ignorance, malevolence and soullessness.

But the speed with which their governance, their tyranny, is taking the USA back to its darkest ages is disorienting and frightening.

James Comey was not far off when he likened the president to a crime boss. But he failed to note how many Republicans in government serve as Trump’s lieutenants, soldiers and button men.

These are the Goodfellas cheering as the Scofflaw in Chief aligns with murderous dictators, allows the kidnapping of children at the border, and prepares to plant another right-wing cultist on the Supreme Court.

And they all follow the timeworn Republican playbook of wrapping themselves in the flag.

“Sinclair Lewis said, ‘When fascism arrives in America it will come wrapped in a flag, carrying a cross,’” actor Bradley Whitford, forever playing Josh from The West Wing, said on the Bill Maher show last week.

“Trump literally hugs the flag,” added Maher.

“Yeah,” said Whitford, “he’s humping it, he’s assaulting it.”

Me too, said the flag.

When I was in elementary school in New York City, we started the day saying, “I pledge allegiance to the flag …”

We sang the national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, a song about a flag.

But I would learn that it’s the same flag American Nazis carried alongside a swastika when the first America First crusade gave allegiance to Hitler in the 1930s.


That the KKK has waved throughout its homicidal history in the name of racism.

KKK - American Flag

That the John Birch Society displayed during its campaign to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren, a Republican, because his Supreme Court mandated school integration in the 1950s.

Impeach Earl Warren - B&W

That hard-hatted Nixon supporters weaponized when they attacked kids rallying for peace in New York after the Kent State massacre in 1970.

Hardhat riot

That white supremacists paraded with in Charlottesville last summer.

Charlottesville - Flags

If a flag is only a symbol, too many times its been attached to dangerous politics and deranged leaders.

Trump&Kim - flags

Maybe the cover of my book should be illustrated with the Empire State Building beside the CN Tower, or a saguaro cactus in a snowbank, or a pastrami on rye smothered in poutine.

The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism is available in print and Kindle editions from and Amazon Canada.

Nightmare on Bouverie Street

Forty-nine years ago today, I flew across the Atlantic at my own expense to begin a job that didn’t exist.

Other players in this episode were: Franz Cyrus, the bureau chief for United Press International in Zurich; Danny Gilmore, UPI’s European news manager; my Swiss-born first wife, Anita, and our daughter.

Here’s what happened during two memorable days in 1969, as recounted in an excerpt from The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism:


On July 1, Anita and I and baby Kate, now nearly seven months old, took off from Kennedy Airport – and came down for refueling in Bangor, Maine, in a thunderstorm. As the plane wobbled and bounced through the clouds, I screamed and puked. Once on the ground, I told Anita we were getting off.

“We can’t get off here,” she said.

“Why not? We’ll take a boat or something. There’s no way I’m going up again in this plane.”

“I didn’t know you were afraid to fly,” she said.

“I wasn’t – until about twenty minutes ago.”

She went off to talk to a stewardess. I stayed with Kate and began gathering our carry-on.

Anita returned with a cup filled with scotch. “Drink this,” she said. “You’ll calm down.”

I gulped some scotch and looked around the cabin. A few passengers were staring at me. Some had been screaming and puking too, as the plane rocked and rolled. But they didn’t seem ready to get off.  I felt embarrassed enough to settle back into my seat with my family and my scotch.

We landed at Gatwick airport just before midnight. The tourist bureau in the terminal sent us to the nearby Russ Hill Hotel, in Surrey.

Russ Hill Hotel
Found this postcard from 1969.

The night clerk opened the bar for us, illegally poured us a couple of beers – I never did figure out England’s drinking hours – and fixed some thick-cut ham sandwiches on pumpernickel. I was starving after having my appetite arrested by fear.

The next morning, we took a taxi to Heathrow where Anita and Kate caught a flight to Zurich. Her father would pick them up and drive them to her parents’ home in Bern.

I went into London, after the tourism bureau at the airport got me a reservation at the Cadogan Hotel, near Sloane Square.

Cadogan Hotel


I checked in, left my bag with the porter, had the doorman hail a cab and rode to Bouverie Street, off Fleet.

I took a rickety lift to the UPI office and asked for Mr. Gilmore. He invited me to his office and asked, “Who are you again?”

“Ken Becker. From New York. Franz Cyrus told me to see you on my way to Zurich. He offered me a job there.”

“I know nothing about this,” Gilmore said.

He asked me to wait in the newsroom while he phoned Cyrus. I stood alone, amid the clatter of the teletype machines. Men in white shirts and ties, their sleeves rolled up, pounded on typewriters, cigarettes dangling from their lips. A London fog of smoke rose and settled near the high ceiling. I loved it. I couldn’t wait to start working here, to be back in the news biz.

Gilmore came out and led me into his office. “I’m afraid there is some misunderstanding. There is no job for you with UPI in Zurich. All we have in Zurich is an inner-Swiss service – in German, for Swiss papers. There is no UPI correspondent there. And there can’t be one there unless I hire one.” He paused.

“And, if I wanted a correspondent in Zurich – which I don’t – I wouldn’t hire you because such a plum position – if there was one – would be for a seasoned reporter transferred from another bureau.”

“But,” I pleaded, “Mr. Cyrus told me to stop and see you, that I would get some training here and then start working in Zurich.”

“That’s not what he says. He says he has been in touch with you but never offered you a job.”

“But I packed up my wife and baby in New York and we came here – she’s on her way to Switzerland now. What do you suggest I do?”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

I found a cab on Fleet Street and told the driver to take me back to the Cadogan.

That was far from the end of my story with UPI, or my adventure in Europe. Pick up a copy of The Expat Files, available in print and Kindle editions from and Amazon Canada.

Habla usted Inglés?

People were freaking out recently when they learned the U.S. border patrol set up a roadblock on Interstate-95 in Maine to check the citizenship of drivers and their passengers.

One of those expressing bafflement bordering on outrage was Senator Angus King of Maine, on NBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday: “Do we stop American citizens in the middle of a highway and ask for their papers?”

Yes, senator. Been going on for a very long time. Legal within 100 miles of the border.

I’ve run into one of those checkpoints in Arizona – I’ll tell you about it later – where it’s commonplace and seems acceptable to use any means to snare people who don’t habla Inglés.

But the practice inside the northern border was alien to many who reasonably assumed it was an extension of the Provocateur in Chief’s anti-immigrant hysteria.

And hundreds took to the Twitter barricades to protest.

“This is outrageous,” began one of the more cogent tweets. “Essentially this out of control agency is harassing US citizens with a demand of ‘Papers please!’”

The checkpoint in Maine was up for about eleven hours last week in the southbound lanes of I-95 near the town of Lincoln, about 90 miles from the Canadian border.


“We need to know what … country you’re a citizen of,” a border patrol agent told a reporter for the Bangor Daily News who was questioned.

I’ve had my share of hassles at the U.S.-Canada border. But in my forty-plus years of living in Canada and crossing over – from coast to coast – I’ve never encountered the border patrol, much less been stopped at a checkpoint.

Yet, all the times I’ve visited my daughter Kate in southern Arizona since she moved to Tucson in 2002, I’ve found border patrol vehicles as ubiquitous as cop cars in downtown Toronto.

The only time we ventured to Mexico, I ran into the border patrol going down and coming back.

We took the long way south, pausing in the tiny hamlet of Arivaca before entering Ruby Road, 35 miles of dirt and rock through the Coronado National Forest.

Ruby Road

The road rose and fell and twisted around tall craggy mountains. Driving at about 15 mph, I nearly collided with a speeding border patrol vehicle coming at me on a hairpin turn.

When we finally arrived in Nogales, Arizona, we left my rental car in a parking lot and walked two blocks, through unattended turnstiles, into Nogales, Mexico.

Nogales - Turnstiles

No federales in sight. The only Mexican to note my entrance was a teenager hawking pharmaceuticals. “You need Viagra, mister?”

We did some shopping, haggling in the local languages of commerce – English and U.S. dollars.

Nogales - Me

After dinner, we walked out of Mexico, stopping momentarily at a desk where a U.S. Customs’ agent was chatting with a friend.  “U.S.A.?” she asked, barely looking up.

We nodded – and walked into the United States.

Heading back to Tucson on I-19 after dark, about 20 miles from the border, we ran into a roadblock – the northbound freeway closed off, vehicles forced onto an exit ramp.

San Diego CBP Patrols California -Mexico Border

At the top of the ramp were border patrol agents with guns and dogs. They’d planted a U.S. flag, an eerie Iwo Jima tableau in the Arizona desert.

The agent took one look at me, a middle-aged white guy in a baseball cap, and waved me through with a shout: “Colorado, go!”

I went.

It took me a while to figure out what he meant, recall that my car had Colorado plates.

There’s more on my visit to Nogales – “I give you two blankets and a bottle of tequila for your daughter” – and many other adventures in my memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available in print and Kindle editions from and Amazon Canada.

When I was a king in Queens

Sixty years ago today, I graduated from elementary school, sixth grade – Grade 6 in Canadian.


I recall more about my time at P.S. 184 in Queens than all the years at all the schools that followed.

I can picture the gym, where we started the day saying the Pledge of Allegiance, which added the words “under God” when I was in third grade in 1954, and where we were among the first to get the new polio vaccine the next year.

I can see the auditorium – the framed reproduction of Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy on one side and a Goya portrait of a child in red on the other.

And the assemblies there, presided over by the principal, Mrs. Lloyd, a fiery redhead who’s favored admonition was “woe betide,” as in, Woe betide the student who misbehaves in my school.  

Some famous people addressed us in the auditorium. One, actor Jimmy Stewart, wearing his uniform as a colonel in the air force, took the stage and talked about the importance of service to the country.

I remember having a crush on my fourth grade teacher, Miss Gratz, who got married during the school year and became Mrs. Rosenthal.

And my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Beamish, who adored President Eisenhower – had his framed photo in our classroom – and imparted a passion for civics, history and geography.

5th Grade
That’s me, with the pompadour , in the second row, on the far right. 

Sixth grade was the best. We were the oldest. Masters of our universe. Titans of the schoolyard.

In the classroom, our teacher, Mrs. Schenker, instilled an appreciation for English, for writing well and speaking grammatically.

6th Grade
This time I’m in the top row, the short kid in the middle.

Like all students in New York City public schools, we took IQ tests to determine who qualified for SP – Special Progress – and go on to skip a year of junior high. I, and all my best pals, made the grade.

In the following excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, I look back on my school days, starting in 1951, after my family left the Bronx, where I was born:

We moved to Clearview Gardens, a large labyrinth of two-story redbrick apartments, one family of post-war up-and-comers atop another, in Bayside, Queens.Clearview

The greatest academic and social achievements of my youth were earned in elementary school, at P.S. 184. In class, I gained a grasp of all I thought I would ever need to know – basic arithmetic, how to read and write, all the important dates in American history: 1492, July 4, 1776, December 7, 1941. I could find every state and most countries on a map.

My report cards were uniformly outstanding and, in sixth grade, I was elected school president and “king” of the school – my picture in the Long Island Press, alongside the queen, Roberta Kirsch, wearing our capes and crowns.



But then I went to junior high, skipped a grade, moved to Plainview, a sterile suburb for the aspiring nouveau riche on Long Island, and sleepwalked through high school …  

In the fall of 1963, I went off to college at the University of Toledo, in Ohio. I never attended classes, woke up around noon, went to Franklin’s, a nearby coffee shop. This is where I was having a breakfast BLT when a girl came in shrieking, “President Kennedy’s been shot.”

I passed most days either drinking beer bought with a counterfeit ID – I was only sixteen – or alone in my dorm room, listening to a tape of Carl Reiner interviewing Mel Brooks, the 2,000 Year Old Man.

I did come to the attention of the university’s administration a couple of times. Once, when I was placed on academic probation for scoring across-the-board incompletes the first term. And a second time when two FBI agents questioned me in the dean’s office about a purloined calling-card number I used to phone my girlfriend, the voluptuous Laura, in Brooklyn. The G-men were not impressed with my you-can’t-pin-that-rap-on-me-copper routine. I fessed up and paid the tab.

Anyway, I flunked out, or dropped out – How do you grade a student who never goes to class? – and went home to Plainview.

* * *


My adult education commenced a few years later when I began reading everything I could get my hands on, as well as on the job as a reporter.

And, throughout my forty-plus years in journalism, I was guided by a lesson I learned at P.S. 184, from the librarian who told us: “We never guess, we look it up.”

The Expat Files is available in print and Kindle editions from and Amazon Canada.

Father’s Day

My dad, Hy Becker, would have been 99 years old today. I don’t know how he would have felt about my portrayal of him in my memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism. But I know he was pleased with a long story I wrote about him a long time ago, as I recall in this excerpt from my book:

One night, in the bathtub, I was reading Russell Baker’s memoir of his childhood, Growing Up. It was sweet and funny and evocative of his formative years in Virginia during the Depression.

In the steamy bathroom, soaking in the tub, I had an inspiration. I would call my dad and interview him about growing up in New York in the 1920s and ’30s, before I came along. I didn’t know much. I wanted to know more.

My dad and I did not always get along. When he managed our little league baseball team, he was hardest on his son. Through my teenage years, he became more and more competitive, asserting his status as the alpha male in the house.

My parents were very different people. My mother read books and was a devotee of the Broadway musical theater. Her son would be weaned on show tunes. My first of many Broadway shows was Bells Are Ringing, with Judy Holliday. For my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me tickets – to take my sister – to see West Side Storyat the Winter Garden Theatre.

Dad was a working stiff who liked to play softball during the summer months and poker with his cronies year-round.

After I left home, I tried to improve our relationship. I invited him to Montreal, when I was working there, for a father and son weekend. Took him to an Expos game. Took him out to dinner at a Spanish restaurant down the street from my apartment, where I was a regular and got the VIP treatment. Took him to the press club in the Mount Royal and introduced him to my colleagues. He didn’t drink much. Jews aren’t boozers. But he seemed to accept his son as the exception.

He seemed especially proud of me when I was on the baseball beat. It would have been his dream job – other than pitching in the majors – when he was a young man. I got him tickets to Yankee games when I was in New York covering the Blue Jays.

Baseball was the strongest bond between us. That’s where I took the story after I interviewed him on the phone a couple of times in early 1983.

The piece ran about five-thousand words. I called it Red and Me since I flashed back and forth between his baseball career and our baseball relationship. I particularly loved his tales of playing ball in the sandlots of the Bronx, the pictures painted of the borough of my birth in the years before the war.

Tall apartment buildings surrounded the field. Middle-aged men and women, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, sat and watched the games from rickety fire escapes. Boys in short pants pressed their faces against the chain-link fence. Girls in Sunday dresses perched on wooden benches. A ballgame was an entertainment for the neighborhood and the neighborhood turned out.

During our interviews, dad was Red again. He may have been in his sixties, yet he was back in the spotlight, on the pitcher’s mound. He seemed happy. Then, never one to hide his emotions, sad when he told me about the day his dream died during a mass tryout for the Giants at the Polo Grounds in the summer of ’41.

The young men were arbitrarily divided into groups of ten or fifteen and assembled at the right field foul pole. Each group was directed to dash to the left field foul pole. When they arrived, most – Red included – were told to go home. “They never even saw me pitch,” he’d tell me, more than forty years later. “I was fast, I felt sharp, and they never even saw me pitch.”

I would give the story to my dad for his birthday later that year.

* * *

That was 35 years ago today. Hy Becker died twelve years later, on March 15, 1995, at the age of 75. I read an excerpt of Red and Me at his funeral in Florida.

The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism is available from and Amazon Canada.

Anthony Bourdain on blasting bunnies and chowing down on reptiles

Anthony Bourdain, who was found dead in France today of an apparent suicide, was a gifted gonzo writer as well as a bad-boy TV star. My first taste of Bourdain was a 1997 novel called Gone Bamboo, a whacky tale of a CIA-trained assassin and rival Mafia hit-men on a Caribbean island. In 2001, I wrote this travel column for Canadian Press on another Bourdain book:

Anthony Bourdain is a famous New York chef, best-selling author, and chauvinistic carnivore.

But, he writes in his new book, “for my entire professional career, I’ve been like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II, ordering up death with a nod or a glance. When I want meat, I make a call …

“Every time I have picked up the phone or ticked off an item on my order sheet, I have basically caused a living thing to die. What arrives in my kitchen, however, is not the bleeding, still-warm body of my victim, eyes open, giving me an accusatory look that says, ‘Why me, Tony? Why me?’ I don’t have to see that part.”

At least not before he took his act on the road, traveling the world to write A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal.

cook's tour

Bourdain has now been up to his elbows in the butchery of a pig in Portugal, chowed down on a Mexican resort’s pet iguana, blasted bunnies in Scotland, and slurped down the still-beating heart of a cobra in Vietnam.

This is extreme sport for the wine-and-food-tour set. Bourdain approaches his itinerary with a heart-of-darkness hunger honed on Joseph Conrad novels and Francis Ford Coppola movies.

“I wanted adventures,” writes the executive chef at Les Halles in Manhattan and author of Kitchen Confidential. “I wanted to see the world – and I wanted the world to be just like the movies.”

He trips from Portugal to Spain, France to Britain, Russia to Japan, Cambodia to Vietnam, and across North America, gorging on cuisine and culture, drinking too much wine and vodka, awaking ill or hung over before spilling his guts into the story.

His arrival in a Portuguese village is greeted with the slaughter of a pig. Bourdain first stands dumbstruck, a bit queasy, as the critter’s throat is slit. But he soon joins the festivity.

“God help me, I assisted, stepping right in and putting my hands inside the warm cavity, pulling away heart, lungs, tripe, intestines, liver and kidneys,” he writes. “I felt bad for that pig, imagining his panic, pain and fear. But he tasted delicious.”

In Mexico, Bourdain is treated to a corn-husk-wrapped treat, after his host sacrifices the hotel’s iguana mascot. “When I unwrapped my tamale, I found I had been honored with the head and forearm  – still on the bone. The texture was like chewing on G.I. Joe.”

He goes hunting for rabbits in Scotland, and finds himself surprisingly skillful with a shotgun. “To my shock and no small amount of dismay, I’d blown the spine out of something that had once looked very much like Bugs.”

The piece de resistance is served in Vietnam, where a snake handler cuts out the heart of a live cobra and presents it to Bourdain.

“I bring it to my lips, lift my head back and swallow. … The heart still beats … and beats … and beats. All the way down.”

Ken Becker is the author of The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available from and Amazon Canada.