Thanksgiving cold turkey

I’ve kicked my addiction to cable news. Maybe it wasn’t an addiction after all. Just a bad habit.

It’s like when I quit drinking four years ago. One day I woke up and found the taste of alcohol repulsive. (More on that later.) Same with cable news.

For more than a year, up until 10 days ago, I must have spent five or six hours a day switching between MSNBC and CNN. It’s always the same – the latest clip or tweet from the grotesque creature in the White House, followed by endless too-polite chatter confirming he’s an ignorant fool, corrupt to the core, and his party is evil.

It’s not as if they do anything.

I finally decided: No mas.

Maybe it was because I’d spent a pleasant three days going cold turkey with family over the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend.

Or maybe because when the last of our visitors were gone, I turned on CNN and saw wind-whipped, rain-soaked reporters hyperventilating about the weather in Florida.

Or, maybe it was the denouement of the Kavanaugh farce.

Whatever the reason, it seemed hazardous to my health. I didn’t have the shakes. No withdrawal symptoms. I just starting filling my TV time with movies – watched Molly’s Game for the second time, bathed in Sorkin’s words – and baseball.

It was reminiscent of my break from booze, coming up on four years now, as I recount in my memoir, The Expat Files:

Just after my sixty-eighth birthday, in late November 2014, I gave up drinking. I hadn’t planned on it. Hadn’t taken the pledge. It just happened.

I was sick in bed for about a week. Not sure what was wrong. Linda checked my symptoms on the internet. I either had an intestinal flu, kidney failure, or cholera. Didn’t go to a doctor. Didn’t get a diagnosis.

When I came out of it, I felt okay. That evening, as was my habit, I poured a glass of red wine. Tasted awful. That was it. Not a drop since.

Same with cable news. I can’t imagine I’ll miss Anderson Cooper or Don Lemon, Nicolle Wallace or Rachel Maddow.

I know I’m not any less informed. I still check the headlines. Dig deeper when I feel the need.

Feel confident that when I send my absentee ballot to Maine – the last state where I lived in the U.S. – I know who I’m voting for and why: Angus King is a smart guy and deserves a return ticket to the Senate, and I hope to help get rid of the only red stain in the House from New England.

I’ll tune in on election night and watch the results. And, if the Dems win the House and/or the Senate,  I’ll raise a glass – of Pellegrino – wishing them good luck in toppling the Orange One.

After that? Who knows.  I know I’ve visited this territory before.

Right after the results of the 2016 election were in, I stopped watching the news on television and canceled my digital subscriptions to the Washington Post and New York Times.

I’ve appreciated their reporting since the election, absorbed the key elements of their scoops. But I haven’t missed the Times or the Post, since there was so little worth reading.

And my declaration of No Mas in 2017 was not an April Fool’s joke.

For me, it seems, American politics is a tougher habit to break than booze. I was thirteen when I was hooked on JFK in 1960 – a couple of years before I had my first drink.

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

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Beto hit with Dems’ dilemma

There was a story this week that highlighted how Republicans and Democrats play politics by a different set of rules.

While the Letch in Chief and his court of eunuchs unashamedly promoted a suspected sexual predator for the Supreme Court, a rising Democratic star apologized for a theater review he wrote as a college kid.

Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke, hailed by some as the second-coming of Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy, is a long tall Texan who has brimmed with youthful vigor and no-bullshit eloquence in his Senate race against the odious Ted Cruz.

O’Rourke’s August speech standing up for NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem showed more guts than anything I’d heard from a politician in a long time. And watching Willie Nelson introduce a new song – Vote ’Em Out– at a Beto rally last weekend hit a soft spot.

But then, a couple of days later, O’Rourke faced the modern-day Dems’ dilemma when confronted with a piece of his past that might offend the zero-tolerance wing of his party.

Back in 1991, when he was a freshman at Columbia, Beto wrote a sophomoric review of a Broadway musical called The Will Rogers Follies for the student newspaper. It included this line:

Keith Carradine in the lead role is surrounded by perma-smile actresses whose only qualifications seem to be their phenomenally large breasts and tight buttocks.

An O’Rourke detractor, presumably an agent of the Cruz campaign, forwarded the review to Politico right in the middle of the shitstorm over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.

Politico sought comment from the candidate. A savvy campaign manager might have rolled the dice, told Politico to stuff it, that the story obviously had no news value.

But Beto took the bait. “I am ashamed of what I wrote and I apologize,” he told Politico. “There is no excuse for making disrespectful and demeaning comments about women.”

The quote made it a story. It fed a morsel to the beast of cable news and made for headlines in all the wrong places.

Beto - Fox

In the dingbat logic of 2018 politics, some drew a parallel between O’Rourke’s theater review and the allegation a shitfaced Kavanaugh committed sexual assault. After all, both happened a long time ago when they were teenagers.

The response from each man followed his party’s playbook: Kavanaugh denied everything and O’Rourke cried mea cupla.

Jeez, Beto, you were a 19-year-old Ivy League smarty-pants. It’s not as if you got stinking drunk, crashed a showgirl’s dressing room, and tried to rape her.

Besides, your appraisal of the actresses was endorsed at the time by New York’s most eligible adulterer whose girlfriend, Marla Maples, exhibited her qualifications when she landed a part in Follies en route to becoming the second Mrs. Trump.

Marla Maples
Vanity Fair spread in 1990

Today, with the Republicans led by a confessed pussy-grabber who screwed a porn star without a condom, Democrats need to figure out how do the right thing without running scared.

It’s not the ’60s when JFK got away with comforting Marilyn between the sheets because the press didn’t look beyond the Do Not Disturb sign on the bedroom door.

It’s not the ’70s when the pious Jimmy Carter saw his campaign in a tailspin after he confessed: “Christ said, ‘I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery.’ I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

It’s not the ’80s when one photo of Gary Hart with Donna Rice blew up his run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Gary Hart

By the ’90s, Bill Clinton could have saved himself, his party and his country a lot of grief if he said, Yeah, I got a blowjob. Next question.

Voters didn’t seem to care. His poll numbers kept climbing anyway.

But Bubba has turned into a political pariah in the era of MeToo.

Maybe that’s what Beto O’Rourke was thinking about when faced with phenomenally large breasts and tight buttocks earlier this week. That the political climate can get stormy in a flash for Democrats – just ask Hillary about the fealty of the left – while Republicans unflinchingly weather Stormy.

I’m just glad I’m not a politician and don’t give a damn what anybody thinks when they read a line in my memoir referring to “Jane Fonda’s pointy tits in Barbarella.”

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

Déjà vu all over again?

While this year’s Boston Red Sox have been a joy to watch, I’ve got that old feeling that failure is inevitable in October.

I have zero confidence in their pitching, which reminds me of all those seasons when the best of times became the worst of times.

Or were the worst of times really the best of times? Was I a sucker for the angst – THE CURSE – before  2004?

Must be – since I took little pleasure when the Sox won two more World Series within a few years.

My favorite team was the 1978 edition, perhaps because I saw so much of Yaz & Co during my one year as a baseball writer, for the Toronto Sun.

Forty years ago today, I was in the press box at Fenway Park watching Fucking Bucky Dent – or, as some prefer, Bucky Fucking Dent – and the Yanks beat the home side in a one-game playoff for the American League East title.

As I recall in this excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files, it was the final gut-punch in a season that began with great expectations in spring training:

Bosox - Yaz
Yaz 

I took a drive to Winter Haven, the Florida home of the Boston Red Sox. I had a rooting interest in the Sox since a visit to Boston in the fall of 1967, when they won the pennant on the final day of the season.

I fell in love with their star, Carl Yastrzemski, who seemed to come to bat in every crucial situation and come through with a home run or a game-winning double off the wall. I was disappointed when the Sox lost that 1967 World Series but also elated that I was engaged in baseball for the first time since the Dodgers left Brooklyn.

In Winter Haven, I watched Yaz in the batting cage, working up a sweat in the gloom of a foggy morning, under the watchful eye of the great Ted Williams. “This is probably the best hitting team I’ve ever seen,” Teddy Ballgame told me.

I received the same appraisal from the Sox manager, Don Zimmer, when I joined the Boston writers in his office that morning. Zimmer, a little Popeye look-alike, was derisively nicknamed “the gerbil” by his hippie-dippy pitcher, Bill “Spaceman” Lee …

On this day, the Sox manager was spitting confidence his powerful lineup would win the pennant after losing it to the damn Yankees the past two seasons.

I reckoned he was right. But, being a Sox fan, I assumed they’d find a way to blow it …

1978 - Williams and Zim
Ted Williams and Don Zimmer in the final days of the 1978 season

… Boston had collapsed over the summer, their fourteen-game lead over the Yanks evaporating in the heat of August and early September.

Since the Jays played their last twelve games of the season against the Yanks and Sox, I had a press box seat for the closing act.

Boston had regained its form to close within one game of the Yanks entering the final game on the schedule. When the Indians beat the Yankees and the Sox beat the Jays, Boston and New York were tied for first place. The division title would be decided in a one-game playoff the next day at Fenway …

The next morning, I caught a cab outside the hotel and asked the driver to take me to Fenway.

“Going to the game?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s my job,” I said. “I’m a writer.”

“Which paper?”

“One in Toronto,” I said.

“Tough season for Toronto,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Last place. Another hundred losses.”

“What do you think of the Sox chances?” he said.

“I’m a Sox fan,” I confided, “so I guess I expect the worst and hope for the best.” He laughed in recognition.

We pulled up to the press entrance to Fenway. I checked the meter and reached for my wallet.

“Forget it,” said the cabbie. “I like you guys from Toronto. It was nice talking to you.”

It was a perfect New England day, blue sky, bright sun, a hint of fall in the air.

I found my assigned spot in the press box, dumped my typewriter and scorebook on the table, and went to the dining room. There was a choice of baked cod or roasted veal. I had the veal, with roasted potatoes and a salad.

The New York writers were there, of course, so the volume in the room was turned up a notch or three. By this time, after five years in Canada, I thought I’d lost my New York accent, a mission I’d been on since I left home in 1968. Somehow, I found it more seemly to be a know-it-all New Yorker without saying caw-fee.

I certainly didn’t want to be associated with loudmouthed New York sports fans, especially after seeing big-haired women at Yankee stadium coated with makeup, wearing painted on designer jeans and tight T-shirts that read Boston Sucksor Yaz Has VD.

Fenway was full early for the Monday afternoon playoff game, 32,925 crammed into the little ballpark. Yaz, ever heroic, hit a home run in the second inning and Jim Rice knocked in another in the sixth to give Boston a 2-0 lead.

But in the top of the seventh, the Yanks had a couple of runners on with two out when their most anemic hitter, Bucky Dent, came to the plate. He hit a fly ball toward the thirty-seven-foot-high Green Monster in left. Yaz, playing left field, seemed prepared to make the catch and end the inning. But the baseball gods, ever Yankee fans, lifted the ball over the wall.

1978 - BUCKY DENT
Dent greeted at home by teammates

That put the Yanks ahead and every Boston fan from Fenway to Fiji knew the game – and the season – was over. Sure, the Sox rallied a bit. But Yaz popped out, with the winning runs on the bases, to end the game and any suspense.

I watched that last half-inning from the stands, behind the seats along the third base line, sharing the inevitable pain with the Fenway faithful. Littered copies of an extra edition of the Boston Globe, distributed earlier in the ballpark, were illustrated with a six-inning linescore under the front-page headline: SOX AHEAD.

I made my rounds of the two clubhouses, the champagne and euphoria in the winners’ room, the beer and gloom of the losers. My story in the next day’s Toronto Sun was a Sox fan’s lament.

BOSTON – It wasn’t supposed to end that way. It wasn’t right to break the hearts of the people of New England, just when their spirits were starting to rise, just when their expectations were at their highest.

October in New England offers the promise of two things: The leaves changing colors and the Red Sox playing for the world championship of baseball. Now, one is dead.

I whined on from there and closed the story with a quote from Yaz. “The last three weeks, with our backs to the wall, we played like champions. But now, there’s just tremendous disappointment.”

1978 - Yaz after game
A disconsolate Yaz after the game in this shot captured by Michael Maher of the Lowell (Mass.) Sun 

The next day, I flew home to Toronto, called (the Sun), quit my job and packed the car. Linda and I drove to the coast of Maine to look at the damn leaves.

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

 

One Flake not a blizzard of righteousness

No matter what happens to the raving lunatic the Republicans are trying to put on the Supreme Court, it’s going to take a lot more than a flash of conscience from Jeff Flake and a blue wave in November to cleanse Washington of the rancid stench of the GOP.

Even if Brett Kavanaugh is sent packing – goes home, gets drunk, gropes the babysitter, blacks out, and wakes up at the Yale Club in Elba – there is still a long list of right-wing political hacks in black robes ready to step up.

They know the job description: Do the bidding of powerful bloodsucking billionaires at the expense of everybody else while conning the zealots and rubes – Jesus freaks, gun nuts, coal miners, Trump University alumni – by stripping rights from minorities and women.

(Most Republicans politicians don’t give a shit about fetuses. They just want the power to tell some teenage girl: You have to have that baby and when you can’t afford to house and feed the kid, you’re on your own.)

The GOP mantra was emblazoned on the jacket of The Third Wife last June when she went to check out children kidnapped at the border.

Melania

 

The message – I really don’t care. Do you? – could serve as a thought bubble in every cartoon of a Republican politician answering questions:

Have you ever considered right versus wrong? Don’t care.

Truth versus lies? Don’t care.

Facts versus bullshit? Don’t care.

Poisoned water in Flint? Don’t care.

Babies in cages? Don’t care.

Russians in the woodwork? Don’t care.

Even if the Democrats take the House – and the Senate – in the midterms, Putin’s Agent Orange will still be in the Oval Office.

Even if Robert Mueller brands the president, his family and campaign a criminal enterprise and subsidiary of the Kremlin, Dumbass Donnie won’t walk away without doing something batshit crazy – riling up hordes of ignorant, racist, paranoid, hair-trigger white folks.

Remember when he said “Second Amendment people” might take care of Hillary if he lost?

When Nixon finally quit, he said: “As president, I must put America first.”

When Gerry Ford was sworn in the next day, he declared: “Our long national nightmare is over.”

I remember Watergate well. At the time, the coverup seemed to take forever to unravel:

  • May 17, 1973 – Senate Watergate hearings begin; special prosecutor appointed the next day.
  • Oct. 20, 1973 – Saturday night massacre.
  • May 9, 1974 – Impeachment hearings begin.
  • July 24, 1974 – Supreme Court rules Nixon must surrender the tapes.
  • Aug. 9, 1974 – Adios Tricky Dick.

When the corruption and criminality became clear, it was Republicans who took the sharpest knife to Nixon. On the Senate Watergate committee, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut was perhaps the smartest and toughest questioner of all the president’s men in the witness chair.

Lowell Weicker

The latest national nightmare has already lasted months longer – nonstop screaming meemies since November 9, 2016 – with no end in sight.

Forget the Republicans coming to the rescue this time.

The GOP side of the Senate committee running the Kavanaugh hearing, before the nothing-to-lose-lame-duck Flake engineered an investigation of the creepy judge, was unanimous in its indifference:

Alleged sexual predator? Don’t care.

Serial liar? Don’t care.

Crazed conspiracy theorist? Don’t care.

Rageaholic? Don’t care.

Even if Kavanaugh is replaced by a less vulnerable Republican reactionary, the court will still have a majority hell-bent on taking the country back to the Gilded Age, a shithole of corruption in a gold-plated outhouse.

Even if Trump is hauled off in handcuffs or a straightjacket, Pastor Pence – a more stable, dependable Republican stooge – will still be next in line.

Whatever happens, don’t hold your breath waiting for any leaders of the red team to turn blue. And that includes the onetime never-Trumpers.

Mitt Romney solicited – and received – the president’s endorsement in his current campaign in Utah for the U.S. Senate.

George Bush is campaigning for GOP candidates and calling senators to vote for his old pal Brett Kavanaugh.

Republicans First! America second.

Russian T-shirts
Supporters wearing “I’d rather be Russian than Democrat” T-shirts at a Trump rally in Ohio in August

Talk about a Red Scare. This is what you get from 50 years of fear-mongering – from Nixon to Reagan, Bush to Bush, the Tea Party to the Freedom Caucus. GOP uber alles.

One spark of integrity from one Flake won’t catch fire in Trumpistan, where Der Leader has warned of violence if the Democrats win the midterms.

Sounds like another call to those “Second Amendment people.”

P.S. – I have my absentee ballot and I’m going to vote anyway.

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

The UN speech he wanted to give

Despite Dumbass Donnie’s unintended laugh line at the top of his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, the rest provoked high anxiety. There is no telling the reaction if he had delivered this speech he dictated personally to his caddie, Rudy Giuliani, during a round of golf last weekend at his New Jersey resort:

I look out across this room and see many people from many places – some nice, some not so nice.

All of you people are lucky to be in the United States of America, the greatest and richest country in the world.

Those of you who are visiting are welcome to enjoy this great city that is home to a dozen fabulous Trump properties as long as you have all your papers in order – because they will be checked at the door on the way out.

Those of you who are lucky enough to be living in New York don’t have to be told you are just a few steps from the magnificent Trump World Tower.

If you’re not already in residence or on the waiting list, my sons Don Jr. and Eric are out in the hall to help you find out if you qualify. It’s very exclusive. We don’t let anybody in, you know.

My lovely daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared are here as well.  As you know, Ivanka is my very special assistant and Jared is in charge of the Middle East.

Just ask my friend Bibi Netanyahu what a great job Jared is doing. I wouldn’t be surprised that by the time I leave office – in six or seven or more years from now – there will be luxury condominiums from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf.

Which brings me to Iran and its leader, who I call Graybeard the Pirate.

Obama gave them billions and billions of dollars to play nice. But they just went ahead and laughed in our faces. Well, the party’s over.

By the time I get through with Iran the terrorist regime will be drowning in its own oil.

And it will be the same with Venezuela and its leader, who I call the Frito Bandito.

Venezuela is really, you know, a puppet of Cuba, with both trying to spread socialism to all the most beautiful beachfront locations on the Caribbean Sea. What a waste!

Speaking of oil, one of the great tragedies of our time is that some of the world’s most precious natural resources are being used for evil, not good.

By the time I leave office – in six or seven or more years from now – tens of thousands of American miners will be back on the job, power plants will again be burning American coal, and American oil will be gushing from the ocean floor, from California to Alaska.

We won’t be paying for pipelines to bring oil from other countries – like Germany is from Russia. NO COLLUSION.

The way things are going, Germany’s leader – I call her Brunhilda – will be a puppet of Russia. NO COLLUSION.

You can’t blame President Putin for being a good businessman and a strong leader. NO COLLUSION.

Another great leader is my friend Kim Jong Un. Did you know that his last name spells U-N?

Since Chairman Kim and I met in Singapore last June, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – I call him Big Mike – has been to North Korea many times and delivered our plans for the beachfront condominiums and golf resort I promised in exchange for North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

I am here to report that we are close to a deal and the world has never been a safer and more prosperous place – never in history – than under my presidency.

The American people understand this and it’s time all of you did too. Without the United States, the world would be in mortal danger and total chaos.

And it’s time you – all of you – started paying your fair share for the security and prosperity the United States provides.

That’s what’s happening under my trade policies, which I call the Trump Doctrine.

I learned a long time ago, from my Jewish friends here in New York, that the best way to live, the best way to do business, is to buy wholesale and sell retail.

So, from now on, all of you – and that includes you, China – will sell your products to the United States at wholesale prices and buy our products retail – even if I have to go to a 1,000-percent tariff on every Made in China T-shirt to make that happen.

And for those of you who produce nothing worth buying, I have news for you too.

This place, this building taking up prime real estate on the East River, is being privatized and rebranded as a Trump property.

A payment schedule for office space is being delivered to your  missions here in Manhattan, and those who don’t comply can pack up and go back to your shithole countries.

It’s time to make America profitable again.

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

Hell on wheels

Thirty-six years ago today, this American became what was called a “landed” immigrant in Canada. (It’s now called a permanent resident.)

My expatriation came after my wife Linda and I had a brief sojourn in Maine, where I worked on the Waterville Morning Sentinel; after our son Sean was born there and died two days later; after we found a house in Toronto.

All I had to do was go to Maine, pick up our stuff, and drive back. But, as I recount in this excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files, the journey proved painful.

I rented a big mother truck, not as big as an Allied Van Line but not exactly a U-Haul either. Drove the Trans-Canada Highway to Montreal, followed the freeway to Sherbrooke, crossed the border at Woburn, Quebec-Coburn Gore, Maine, and followed a familiar route through mountains, past lakes, down to Waterville. The ten-hour drive took more than twelve hours in the big mother truck.

That night, I slept in the truck, in the driveway of the three-bedroom house of a former Sentinel colleague and his wife. “Thanks for the hospitality,” I said before turning in …

When I awoke with the sun in the cab of the truck, I could hardly breathe. Or, more accurately, I could breathe just fine but every breath hurt like hell. Can you break a rib sleeping?

The host of the driveway was kind enough to let me use the phone. I’d never been to a doctor in the area. The only ones I knew were Linda’s obstetrician and Sean’s pediatrician for the day and a half he was alive in Waterville.

I called the pediatrician, Dorothy Eisengart. We had corresponded after Sean’s death and she knew I was going to be in town. She had asked that I stop by. When I phoned her office that morning I was told to come right over.

Dr. Eisengart was still awaiting the final post-mortem report on Sean. But she diagnosed my ailment in a few minutes – pleurisy, an inflammation of the lung tissue. She gave me a prescription, and enough antibiotics and painkillers to get me home.

Properly doped up, a couple of kids helped me load the truck at the house in the woods in Clinton. I was okay to lift and carry, as long as breathing wasn’t involved. I hauled pillows and blankets and the like. They did the rest.

I was on the road in early afternoon. Followed the same route back through the Maine woods, about three hours to the Quebec border at Woburn, a shack and two customs’ guys.

I had all my papers ready, an inventory of our belongings and my immigration documents … All I had to do was drive the big mother truck a few more feet and I was landed.

“You cannot cross here,” said the border guard, a young skinny guy with a moustache and a French accent.

“Whattaya mean?”

“We cannot process your papers here.”

“Why not?”

“There are only so many ports of entry for immigration.”

“Why the fuck didn’t somebody tell me that before I drove all the way up here?” I was steamed. My chest hurt. I wanted a cigarette, but knew inhaling would make it hurt more. I climbed down from the cab of the truck and leaned back against the door.

The French-Canadian’s customs’ sidekick had wandered over to watch the show. I’d caught him smirking from the door of the border shack.

“Is there a problem here?” he asked. No two solitudes at this remote corner of Quebec. English and French working in concert.

“I’m just explaining to this gentleman that he cannot immigrate here,” said Officer French.

“Then what’s the problem?” said Officer English.

They appeared entertained. I was in pain and dreading my next question. “Where do I have to go?”

“The closest port of entry for immigration is Saint Stephen,” said Officer English.

“Why the hell would I want to go to New Brunswick?” Saint Stephen is where we entered Canada from Calais, Maine, on our trip earlier that summer.

“Where is it that you are going?” asked Officer French.

“Toronto.”

“Ah,” he said, “then the nearest port of entry would be Rock Island.”

“Where the hell is that?”

“Vermont,” Officer English said. He was smirking again.

“Vermont!” I walked off, a few paces, back in the direction of the United States. I was breathing heavily and hurting badly. The concept of taking deep breaths to calm down didn’t work with pleurisy. I tried to clear my head, not think about how far I was from home, how many more hours I’d be at the wheel of the big mother truck.

I didn’t want to talk to these guys anymore. I climbed back into the cab and started to roll. It took four tries, forward and back, to complete a U-turn. I worked my way through the gears, got up some speed and stopped at the first gas station. Bought a map. Plotted a route that would take me to the border at Derby Line, Vermont-Rock Island, Quebec.

It turned out to be a six-hour detour across northern New England, mostly on two-lane roads, in the dark, washing down painkillers with Coke, to the border crossing. I arrived just before 10 p.m.

Unlike the narrow goat track where I met Officer French and Officer English, here were several lanes feeding into booths staffed by border agents.

I got in a lane reserved for big mother trucks, waited my turn, and presented my documents to a young woman in a crisp uniform with a starchy demeanor. “Pull over there,” she ordered, pointing to a long, one-story building, “and give your papers to the immigration officer inside.”

Déjà vu. Surrey, B.C., 1973 (when I first came to Canada). But this time I was prepared. Or so I thought.

The immigration officer stamped my passport. Did the same with the appropriate form to seal my landing. “Are you bringing any goods into Canada?”

I laughed. It hurt. I told him I had a truck filled with stuff. He summoned a customs’ officer. I met the guy outside. We walked over to the truck.

“Take everything out for inspection,” he instructed.

“You’re fucking kidding me.”

He glared at me. Tough guy. I glared back. Mexican standoff. Wrong border. Canadian standoff.

I opened the back double-doors of the truck. Extended my arm toward the jumble of furniture and boxes inside. “Be my guest, but there’s no fucking way I’m taking anything out.”

I stood my ground. He blinked first, turned on a flashlight and climbed into the truck.

I succumbed to a cigarette. Coughed. Cringed. Coughed. Cringed. I stamped out the smoke and sat on a curb. The bastard took his time.

It was nearly midnight when I was on the road again. More than seven hours later, after dawn, more than twenty-four hours after I awakened in Waterville, I arrived in Toronto.

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

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.

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.