A 9/11 pilgrimage

Seventeen years ago, when the planes hit and the towers fell, I was on a day off from all three of my part-time jobs.

One of them was as a freelance travel writer. But, after 9/11, no one wanted – and I had no desire to write – stories about fabulous destinations, fine dining, great bars and spas.

So, over the next year, besides reporting on high anxiety and heightened security, I made pilgrimages to the sites of the attacks.

Here is an edited version of one of those stories, published in the Toronto Star in the early spring of 2002.

I’ve always liked western Pennsylvania. Rugged hills. DeNiro in The Deer Hunter. Birthplace of all those NFL quarterbacks: Unitis, Namath, Montana, Marino.

But now the word Pennsylvania evoked something else: September 11th, United Airlines Flight 93, “Let’s roll.” The plane that didn’t make it to its target – unless its target was a field outside Shanksville (pop. 245).

I studied the road atlas. Shanksville was near Johnstown, a city synonymous with a killer flood. From there I could drive to Gettysburg, scene of the bloodiest battle of the U.S. Civil War.

(A theme was developing, what the Star headlined as A Tragical History Tour.)

* * *

I left my home in Mississauga at first light, barreling west on the QEW. The day broke cool and clear, until I crossed the border at Buffalo – and ran into a blizzard.

Buffalo reminds me of that Li’l Abner character, Joe Btfsplk, the one who always has a dark cloud over his head. As soon as I passed the city’s western suburbs, the sun came out.

I followed the Interstates toward Pittsburgh, veered east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, exiting at Somerset, and stopped at the Somerset Discount Store.

Inside, a table was stacked with 9/11 merchandise. I briefly considered a Flight 93 sweatshirt ($19.99). Got directions to Shanksville instead.

I had burned a CD for the trip. On the back roads to Shanksville, I cranked up Leaving on a Jet Plane, followed by Neil Young’s Let’s Roll, and Dylan crooning Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

My first stop was the ramshackle headquarters of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Company, where I met assistant chief Rick King.

“I can still hear the plane,” said King, one of the first people at the crash scene on September 11th. “I can still feel the ground shake.”

We drove to the site, and turned into a small parking lot. A makeshift memorial was covered with hand-written messages, flowers, and flags.

Shanksville memorial

A tombstone-sized hunk of granite listed most of the 37 passengers and seven crew who took off that morning from Newark bound for San Francisco. Not included were Saeed Alghamdi, Ahmed Ibrahim Al Haznawi, Ahmed Alnami, and Ziad Samir Jarrah.

Etched in bronze were the “Let’s Roll” guy, Todd Beamer; Mark Bingham, who phoned his mom in California from the plane to say goodbye, and flight attendant CeeCee Lyles, who called her husband in Florida to say she loved him and their kids.

“I know all the names now,” said King. “It’s like I’ve known them forever.”

The crash site was about 500 yards away, near a line of trees, across a rocky field. “When I got here, just a few minutes after the crash, there was a huge crater, but you couldn’t even tell it was a plane. There was nothing left.”

Flight_93_Crater

We walked a few steps, toward a sign that read: Restricted Area, No Trespassing.

“You’re not allowed to go out there – that’s hallowed ground,” said King. “And there’s a sheriff’s deputy on duty 24-7.”

* * *

On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam broke, unleashing a tidal wave that roared down the Conemaugh River Valley toward Johnstown.

It swept up trees, houses, railway freight cars, and factories. It took 45 minutes for the wall of water and debris to reach the steel-making city of Johnstown.

When day was done, most of Johnstown was wrecked and more than 2,200 people were dead.

Johnstown Flood

I arrived at dusk, after the short drive from Shanksville. The next morning, I drove to the South Fork Dam site.

There’s not much to see, but there’s a lot to think about, looking over the valley that was once covered by a man-made lake, imagining that lake emptying in one enormous rush – 20 million tons of water, a wave 30-feet high cascading down the narrow valley at 40 mph, crashing into the city of 30,000 in the middle of the afternoon.

I drove through the tiny town of St. Michael. It didn’t exist in 1889. If it had, it would have been named Atlantis, since it would have been under the lake.

A sign advertised: Pancake Breakfast on Sunday. One annual celebration features “That Dam Duck Race” – little blue, pink and yellow plastic ducks floating down the same river that was once dammed to create the lake that disappeared.

* * *

I checked into the Gettysburg Hotel, opened in 1796, now a Best Western with king-sized beds and cable TV. Lincoln bunked in a house across the street when he came to deliver his famous address.

The Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863. Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee were winning the war. Two days later, they were in retreat, more than 50,000 men on both sides were dead or wounded, and the republic was saved.

I arrived with a sketchy knowledge, familiar with such terms as Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top and Pickett’s Charge.

Sue Boardman, my guide for a two-hour tour along the auto route through the vast National Military Park, filled in the details as we explored the fields, hills, forests and boulders where the events unfolded – and the hundreds of monuments, memorials, and statues that populate the battlefield.

But like many things these days, there is a new context. “A lot of people stop here,” Boardman said as we looked up at the monument to the Second Fire Zouaves, a regiment recruited from New York City firefighters.

Gettysburg - Monument1

Half the regiment, more than 150 men, died in the Peach Orchard on the second day of the battle. (More than 300 NYC firefighters died on 9/11.)

We moved on to another site with an agricultural name and another grim comparison to more recent history.

“There were 6,000 casualties on the 22 acres of the Wheatfield in two and a half hours – many more than on September 11th,” said Boardman, as we surveyed the fallow ground on a perfect spring afternoon.

“That night, after the battle, you could hear the cries of the dying, as wild pigs foraged on the dead.”

My post-9/11 pilgrimages to New York and Washington are recounted in my book, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

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Gonzo redux

Something weird and wondrous has happened since I posted the last piece in this space, yearning for the merciless words of Hunter S. Thompson in the time of Trump.

Over the past few days, I’ve been rocked by the large number of readers drawn to a howl in the journalism wilderness lamenting the Good Doktor’s .45-caliber exit 13 years ago.

Most of the attention has come from my native land, the USA. But there’s been strong interest in Britain, followed by Canada – where I now live – plus Germany, Mexico, Ireland, France, Israel, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia, Poland, Romania, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates.

A lot of people in a lot of places craving a little HST. Too bad he couldn’t plug the mojo wire into the internet when he was fearing and loathing in his prime.

I wrote that last piece after watching a recap of the day’s Senate hearing for Dumbass Donnie’s Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh, who came off like a Catholic priest on the make in a room full of choirboys.

A few minutes later, while walking the dog, the line “the scum also rises” popped into my head. I knew it was a headline from some HST opus when he was stomping on Nixon.

I found it in Rolling Stone online. But, when I was blocked from reading very much without surrendering the numbers on my VISA, I turned to the Thompson folder in my file cabinet.

Bam! All eleven pages, jammed with thousands and thousands of words of manic prose, with four Ralph Steadman sketches, including the one above and this masterful depiction of a wretched and wrecked Tricky Dicknose.

Steadman - Nixon

In that thick file of clippings, I also came across a rather quaint article he penned for the May 14, 1967 New York Times Magazine, headlined, The ‘Hashbury’ Is the Capital of the Hippies. It includes:

The hot center of revolutionary action on the Coast began moving across the bay (from Berkeley) to San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury district, a run down Victorian neighborhood of about 40 square blocks between the Negro/Fillmore district and Golden Gate Park.

The “Hashbury” is the new capital of what is rapidly becoming a drug culture. Its denizens are not called radicals or beatniks, but hippies.

Several months after that piece was published, I moved from New York to San Francisco – looking for a newspaper job, not flower power.

There, I met my bride-to-be, who gave me another taste of Thompson, a copy of Hell’s Angels. (She would reclaim it in the divorce.)

I didn’t catch up with HST for a couple more years, when I was Vancouver correspondent for UPI, and I and all my journalism cronies became addicted to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, constantly adapting the best lines to meet our aspirations.

As your attorney, I advise you to get shitfaced.

In one of my early trips in the first person, I wrote about being a bear-scared New Yorker on a camping trip in the wilds of British Columbia.

As I recount in my memoir, The Expat Files, “I flexed my best gonzo muscles” in the story:

The only defense against bears, my mountain-man-of-a-companion decided, was to split a bottle of 151-proof rum – between us, not with the bears. But the fear of savage, hairy beasts breaking the tranquility of the night fought my rum-soaked mind – and won.

That same year, as I recall in the book, I went gonzo-berserk at the bar in the Hotel Vancouver, to the amusement of the rest of the press corps covering Pierre Trudeau, as we watched Nixon’s resignation speech on TV.

“Good fucking riddance, you slimy piece of shit,” I screamed at the screen. “I hope you wind up in Attica, you crypto-Nazi scumsucker – see how you like it taking it up the ass from some crazed three-hundred-pound junkie biker flying on smack.”

Then there were the times I brazenly presented myself at the front desk of a ritzy hotel – once  at the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City and again at The Plaza in New York – insisted my attorney and I had a reservation, and demanded the best room in the house.

In Quebec, with pal Arden, we wound up in a basement broom closet.

At The Plaza, colleague Kevin and I arrived in a T-Bird convertible – Hertz didn’t have a “Great Red Shark” Cadillac – got a room with a view of an air shaft, and covered the capture of Son of Sam.

My half-assed HST takeoffs and enthusiasm for his adventures cooled as we aged, he at the Owl Farm in Woody Creek, me in the suburbs of Toronto.

There was one grand spark in 1994, reading his last great kick in the scrotum of the last great evil-doer in the White House (before the current slum lord). It begins:

Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing – a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family …

Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity.

Since the good Doktor did not live to see the monster mutated, it’s up to others to join the latest fraternity of honorable compatriots.

* * *

I leave you with another unearthed artifact, this caricature of me – with a boozer’s nose – dashed off by the artist/author in my copy of Still Life with Bottle: Whisky According to Ralph Steadman.

Steadman - Me

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

Paging Doctor Gonzo

Boy, do we need Hunter S. Thompson now. Fight crazy stupid with crazy genius.

HST, who savaged Nixon in dispatches to Rolling Stone via the mojo wire in the early ’70s, took himself out with a .45 in 2005.

Yet his writing still cuts through the toxic red tide of the GOP, all the way from Tricky Dick to Donnie Dumbass.

Check out this headline on his piece in the October 10, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone, which plays perfectly 2018:

HST headline

And so does the second paragraph, reacting to news that Gerry Ford had pardoned Nixon:

If I followed my better instincts right now, I would put this typewriter in the Volvo and drive to the home of the nearest politician — any politician — and hurl the goddamn machine through his front window … flush the bugger out with an act of lunatic violence then soak him down with mace and run him naked down Main Street in Aspen with a bell around his neck and black lumps all over his body from the jolts of a high-powered “Bull Buster” cattle prod.

And these lines that also sting today:

  • A gang of fascist thugs treating the White House and whole machinery of the federal government like a conquered empire to be used like the spoils of war for any purpose that served the needs or whims of the victors.
  • “Who votes for these treacherous scumbags!”

Thompson starts the piece with a quote from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the tale of a deranged demigod named Kurtz, who turns up again as Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.

Some pointy-headed essayists have likened Trump to Kurtz.  But, to me, he’s more like Ootah, the lily-livered, strutting tribal chieftain/village idiot in the movie of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.

Ootah1

The man who would be king, Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery), eventually slaps Ootah around and sends him packing – as Thompson would thrash Trump as a low-rent crypto-Nazi coward.

And, while he was at it, HST would metaphorically wash Sarah Huckleberry’s mouth out with Lava, vanquish the vampires – Ivanka, Jared, Kellyanne, Stephen Miller, Mike Pence – spike the West Wing water coolers with acid and unleash a plague of rabid ferrets in the Rose Garden.

Then he’d launch a literary Nuremberg trial of the co-conspirators in Congress – Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan and the rest the Republican residents of Jonestown on the Potomac.

This is no time for journalism pipsqueaks.

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

– HST

Alas  …

Steadman signs

This is my copy of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, with Thompson’s artist sidekick, Ralph Steadman, recreating HST’s signature “on behalf of the Good Doktor.”

I met Steadman, an affable Brit, in the spring of 1995 in the Random House offices in Toronto. I was writing features for Canadian Press and he was promoting a couple of books: one on whisky, the other on wine.

But, much to the displeasure of his publicist and his wife, both in the conference room during my interview, Steadman and I talked nearly non-stop about Thompson and their adventures. We laughed a lot.

Since HST’s suicide, Steadman has tried to keep the gonzo going.

His remembrances of Thompson are in a 2006 memoir titled The Joke’s Over and a 2012 documentary, with the Hunterphile  Johnny Depp, called For No Good Reason.

A retrospective of his work was on display in Washington this summer, and moves to Kentucky and Oregon next year.

At 82, his contribution to the current state of American politics is this representation of Trump as a grotesque piglet soiling his American-flag diaper.

Steadman-45

Regrettably, there aren’t thousands of words from his former wheelman to take the caricature on a mind-blowing road trip.

My flights of gonzo journalism are in my memoir, The Expat Files, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Dog Day Afternoon

Forty-six years ago today, I covered the climax of one of the great crime stories in a New York that was very different from the safe, gentrified city it is today.

When I was a reporter in my hometown, much of Gotham was grimy, sleazy and dangerous.

It was the New York of Mean Streets and Midnight Cowboy, Serpico and The French Connection.

My last year in city – 1972 – working for UPI, I covered a cop killing and near-riot at a Black Muslim mosque in Harlem, the murder trial of a dirty detective,and the final act of a wild bank robbery in Brooklyn that became the movie Dog Day Afternoon (1975).

The robbers were memorably portrayed by Al Pacino and John Cazale, right after they had been seen on screen as Michael and Fredo Corleone in the first two Godfather films.

Sonny and Sal

John Wojtowicz – played by Pacino, his character called Sonny – and Sal Naturale (Cazale) entered the bank, filled a bag with cash, and emerged to find their getaway car gone and the street filled with cops.

Over many hours, they held bank employees hostage, taunted the police, drew huge crowds of onlookers – many cheering support – and had pizza delivered.

Finally, the robbers and their hostages piled into a van for the 45-minute ride to JFK airport and the promise of making their escape in a jet.

In this except from my memoir, The Expat Files, I recount my day:

On August 22, 1972, I was at City Hall, where I sometimes helped out the reporter assigned there full time. I was checking in with the desk, when I was told, “Can’t talk now. There’s a bank robbery in Brooklyn, and it looks like they’ve got hostages.”

“What bank?” I asked.

“Chase Manhattan, on Avenue P, at Third Street.”

The desk editor hung up. I flipped through a Brooklyn phonebook, found the number for the bank and called it.

“Hello,” a man answered.

“Hi,” I said. “Who’s this?”

“This is the bank robber.”

“What’s your name?”

“Sorry, I can’t talk no more,” he said, and hung up.

I called back – the line was busy – phoned the desk and reported my brief conversation with the robber.

“You want me to go to Brooklyn?” I asked.

“We’ve got it covered,” I was told. “Just hang in there for now.”

I followed the news reports on the radio until the desk called.

“You got your car?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, it looks like they might be leaving the bank soon, going to the airport. Get out there and see if you can follow along.”

It didn’t prove difficult. As night fell, it seemed like everybody in Brooklyn had piled into their cars and joined the convoy heading for JFK – led by the bank robbers and the FBI. Kids in convertibles were blasting music – School’s out for summer!– honking their horns. It was like a pep rally for the robbers.

I knew my way around JFK and went straight to the press room in the main terminal. Some reporters were already there, and this was where we learned thatone of therobbers had been shot dead and the other captured – fourteen hours after they entered the bank.

Sal Naturale, 18, was shot and killed by an FBI agent when the van stopped on the tarmac and a plane was rolling up.

Salvatore Naturale

John Wojtowicz, 27, surrendered.

John Wojtowicz

He served five years of a 20-year sentence in prison and died in 2006 at the age of 60.

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

Ballplayer uncensored and unzipped

Forty years ago today, while in Milwaukee covering the Blue Jays for the Toronto Sun, I witnessed an incident that would get Toronto outfielder Rick Bosetti fined. My story in the next day’s paper would be a turning point in my relationship with the players.  

Here, in an excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files, is what happened:

Earlier in the season, I could have been mistaken for Bosetti’s press agent. In my setup story for opening day in Toronto I wrote: Bosetti is a truly free and refreshing spirit. A flamboyant dresser – the other day he was wearing a rabbit-skin fur coat and shiny knee-length boots – Bosetti seems to cheer up a room with his chatter.

But, as the season went on, I couldn’t help noticing Bosetti was a serial sleaze. We all know ballplayers play with themselves on the field, in front of thirty-thousand spectators and TV cameras. But at least most keep their privates in their pants.

Bosetti bragged that he regularly unzipped during a game, that his quest was to piss in every outfield in the American League. I was also told by a flight attendant on a Jays’ charter that Bosetti – she pointed him out – was fondling himself on the darkened DC-9 as she passed him in the aisle.

I didn’t write these stories, since I didn’t know them to be true and believed a player’s conduct out of uniform, unless criminal, was probably his own business. But that summer at County Stadium, I witnessed something shameful and wrote about it.

MILWAUKEE – Rick Bosetti proved yesterday that he can be just as rude and vulgar on the road as he can be at home.

Bosetti, who earlier this year at Exhibition Stadium cursed and made an obscene gesture at an adult, yesterday made an equally disgusting remark to a group of kids seeking autographs.

Seated in the visitors’ dugout before the Blue Jays-Milwaukee game, Bosetti was asked: “Sir, could I have your autograph please.”

Apparently unaccustomed to a polite request, Bosetti responded in his usual manner: “There ain’t no fucking sirs in here, kid.”

After word of my story got back to the team the next morning, (manager Roy) Hartsfield phoned my hotel room and said he wanted to talk to me when we got to the ballpark. I didn’t have to ask what it was about.

We had moved on to Minneapolis, billeted at the rundown Leamington hotel, which I recognized from some night shots on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

I was to meet Hartsfield in the visitors’ clubhouse at ugly old Metropolitan Stadium. But I first ran into some angry players. When I entered the locker room, and Bosetti saw me, he let loose with a stream of expletives and charged toward me. He was tackled and held back by a couple of other players, notably Roy Howell, the red-headed third baseman.

When things calmed down, Howell cornered me. “You showed some guts walking in here,” he said. “But nobody in here trusts you any more.”

The code of the clubhouse says that a writer who criticizes a player in the paper is required to stand up to that player and his teammates before the next game. I really didn’t care what Bosetti thought, but I hadn’t expected his teammates to condone his behavior. I was wrong. “You can’t take money out of a player’s pocket,” Howell went on. “You’re messing with people’s careers – their lives – when you write stuff like that.”

Hartsfield and I huddled in the tunnel between the clubhouse and the dugout. “Are you sure you got it right?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I wrote exactly what he said.”

“Okay,” Hartsfield said.

“Did he get fined?” I asked.

“Yup – two-fifty,” Hartsfield said.

In 1978, the minimum salary for players was $21,000. While the Reggie Jacksons were raking in about a half-million a season, players like Bosetti were making about the same salary as a newspaper reporter.

* * *

Postscript: Bosetti, who turned 25 that August, was never much of a ballplayer. Within four years, he was out of baseball. He returned to his hometown of Redding, California, where he became a Republican politician and mayor of the small city about 200 miles north of San Francisco.  

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

Rogue cop

Forty-six years ago today, as a young reporter for UPI, I was in a courtroom in New York covering the final act of a sensational murder trial. (The defendant is pictured above, under arrest.)

From the beginning, as I recount in this excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files, the show’s stars lived up to their billing:

Bill Phillips, a New York City police detective, was charged with killing a pimp and a prostitute, and wounding her john, in a posh East Side apartment on Christmas Eve 1968.

A cop charged with such a crime would have been big news under any circumstances. But Phillips was also a celebrity of sorts, having been the star witness at the Knapp Commission hearings into corruption in the NYPD.

Phillips - Knapp

For days during the fall of 1971, Phillips testified, live on television, about his fourteen years on the force pursuing payoffs and perks to support his playboy lifestyle. He bragged of owning five airplanes, driving a fancy foreign sportscar, frequenting the hot nightspots and fine dining establishments on Manhattan’s East Side, jetting off with stewardess girlfriends to ski weekends in Colorado and golf vacations in Palm Springs – all either on the house or on the proceeds of the graft he took from mobsters and other criminals – while his clueless wife in Queens thought he was out making cases as a police detective.

Happy Hooker

He admitted he would have still been shoveling in the cash if he hadn’t been caught on tape trying to take protection money from an East Side madam – Xaviera Hollander, The Happy Hooker – and turned into an informant for the commission in exchange for immunity from prosecution and round-the-clock protection by U.S. Marshals.

Phillips said being charged with an old unsolved murder was a frame-up to get back at him for informing on other cops and to discredit testimony he was scheduled to give against them. He hired F. Lee Bailey, probably the best known and most flamboyant lawyer in the country, to defend him.

Considering the players and the case – rogue cop, celebrity lawyer, pimp and hooker shot in the head, on Christmas Eve, no less – it was a dream for my first murder trial.

It began in late June 1972 in a large, stately courtroom on the thirteenth-floor of the Criminal Courts Building at 100 Centre Street in downtown Manhattan. Behind the bench was State Supreme Court Justice John Murtagh, silver-haired and square-jawed, right out of Central Casting.

For the prosecution was Assistant District Attorney John Kennan, wiry, combative, in an off-the-rack suit, looking every bit the honest and overworked civil servant.

Bailey, appearing older than his thirty-nine years, led the defense team, his ruddy complexion well scrubbed after a night of scotches and manly bravado, his chunky build packed into a well-tailored three-piece suit.

F. Lee Bailey

And then there was the defendant, forty-two-year-old William R. Phillips, every hair in place, fashionably long sideburns, conservative suit, Windsor knot in his silk tie, fresh shine on his Gucci loafers …

The prosecution’s case was based primarily on eyewitness testimony. Four prostitutes, who the courthouse wags christened “Hogan’s Hookers” – Frank Hogan was the longtime Manhattan district attorney – each testified that Phillips had been a frequent visitor to the apartment of their pimp, Jimmy Smith, also known as James Goldberg. (Only in New York would someone named Smith use Goldberg as an alias.)

They didn’t say they saw Phillips on the night of the murders but that he’d come by occasionally – not for sex – that they knew he was a cop, and they assumed Jimmy was paying him protection money.

The doorman and another employee identified Phillips as the man who entered the building at 157 East 57thStreet and went to Smith’s apartment, 11-F.

Then Charles Gonzales took the stand. He was the forty-year-old john who had just finished having sex with nineteen-year-old Sharon Stango when the killer arrived.

Gonzales said he was sitting on a living room couch with Smith and Stango when the visitor pulled a .38 from his coat pocket, shot Smith once and Stango twice – both in the head – and fired a bullet through Gonzales’s arm, into his gut, before walking out of the apartment.

Gonzales was a pathetic excuse for a man, a father of four who had spent Christmas Eve drinking with his buddies before going to have sex with a teenager. But, though Bailey at times seemed to shake the sweaty witness, Gonzales insisted that Phillips was the shooter.

The prosecution alleged Phillips killed Smith because the pimp was holding out on a $1,000 payoff. Why did it take three years to identify Phillips as the shooter? The prosecution said it was a lucky break, that the homicide detective on the case was watching Phillips on TV, testifying before the Knapp Commission, when he realized Phillips fit the description of the suspect in the Smith-Stango murders.

The defense countered that the detective was angry at Phillips for portraying the NYPD as institutionally corrupt, and fit Phillips for the frame. Bailey relied mainly on alibi witnesses – Phillips’s wife and other family members – who said he spent Christmas Eve with them.

The main event came when Keenan cross-examined the defendant. Phillips freely admitted he’d been a crook with a badge, that he’d lied and cheated and abused his authority at every turn to feed his greed. But he never flinched when it came to the murders.

Didn’t do it. Wasn’t there.

It was an impressive performance by a truly repulsive man. I believed him.

But, in the end, on August 9, 1972, after 22 hours of deliberations over two days, the jury announced it could not reach a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial.

I interviewed Phillips the next day in his motel room, guarded by U.S. Marshals, and again seven years later, in Attica, after he was convicted at a second trial. He served 32 years in prison before being paroled in 2007 at the age of 77.

I recently corresponded with a filmmaker who made a documentary on the case called Patrolman P. and remains in touch with Phillips.

There is much more on the trial and my experiences with the main characters – including a sexy blonde who was my seatmate at the press table – as well as other cops and crooks, in The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Bringing up Brady

My dog Brady is supposedly eight years old this month. I say supposedly because I’m not sure of his birthday. I’ll explain later.

He’s our third dog, probably our third standard poodle – “probably” will be explained as well – after Yaz (1978-1991) and Jasper (1991-2004).

Yaz was named for Carl Yastrzemski, who helped me get over the loss of the Dodgers from New York and turned me into a Red Sox fan. Jasper was named for my favorite Canadian national park.

Brady was named for Brady Coyne – not Tom Brady – the  fictional Boston lawyer in William Tapply’s fine series of mystery novels.

Brady, the dog, was born the year after Tapply died at the age of sixty-nine. I sent his widow an email, told her how much I’d enjoyed Tapply’s books and that I’d named my dog after Brady Coyne. She said that pleased her and would have pleased her husband.

But, as I wrote in The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, bringing up Brady has been a trial.

Brady2

Brady was a surprise Christmas gift from the kids in 2010. He’s a standard poodle, we think. He’s nothing like Yaz or Jasper. For one thing, he’s white. For another, he’s nuts.

I still have the pedigree papers for Yaz and Jasper. Know who their parents were. With Brady, I’m just guessing. Son of Rain Man and Sybil?

He arrived at about four months old – again, just guessing, no papers. He was scared of everything. Flinched when I raised my hand to pet him. Obviously abused. Probably the inbred spawn of an outlaw puppy mill or the House of Windsor.

A crack of thunder still leaves him shaking with fear. He also is spooked by bicycles, kids on skateboards, most men, and people with Eastern European accents.

While Linda goes to her real estate office or elsewhere, Brady follows me from room to room. Never out of sight. I talk to him constantly. He never argues or contradicts.

Brady:Book1

Brady concedes the Rain Man reference. He’s a big fan of Dustin Hoffman, especially in Wag the Dog.

He’s less keen on the suggestion he’s the son of Sybil, with her sixteen personalities. Brady is loath to recognize his multiple personalities. He figures it’s up to the rest of us to adapt and accept.

In the year since I wrote about Brady in the last chapter of my book – and since I briefed him on the content – he has worked to overcome some his phobias.

While thunder still leaves him trembling uncontrollably, he is less afraid of bicycles and skateboards. He no longer growls at the chattering of the Eastern Europeans down the street.

On the flip side, his outbursts of barking and growling have increased along with his list of canine enemies.

From his second-story lookout at the sliding glass door in our kitchen, he has always barked hysterically at the sight of a neighborhood husky and others his own size.

But, lately, he also goes berserk when certain little dust-mop-looking dogs come into view. When I tell him to cut it out, he runs into the living room to wind down. But it takes him a while to switch off his barking engine.

When Yaz or Jasper misbehaved, which wasn’t often, I’d command: “Give yourself a shake and change your disposition.”

It usually worked.

I’ve tried it with Brady, who responds to “give yourself a shake” but pretends not to hear or know what “disposition” means.

It’s the same when I tell him to “stop obsessing” – which he does often when catching a scent on a walk or staring at a closet where he suspects a tennis ball is hiding.

I just checked OCD on PET MD.

Whew! No clear internet diagnosis.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Brady.

In his quiet time, after I take him for a nightly walk, he is a wonderful companion.

As I type this, he is under the desk, resting his head on my right foot. Later, when I move to the couch, he’ll snuggle at my side.

When I go upstairs to bed, he’ll follow, and assume his place, his head beside my pillow.

If I’m lucky, after Linda feeds him an early breakfast in the kitchen, Brady won’t get a whiff of one of his enemies and wake me up.

I write a lot more about my dogs in The Expat Files, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

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.

Africa

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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com 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.

Mini-Cruiser
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 Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.