Habla usted Inglés?

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

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

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

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

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

And hundreds took to the Twitter barricades to protest.

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

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

Border-agents-Maine

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

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

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

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

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

Ruby Road

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

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

Nogales - Turnstiles

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

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

Nogales - Me

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

We nodded – and walked into the United States.

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

San Diego CBP Patrols California -Mexico Border

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

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

I went.

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

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

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When I was a king in Queens

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

Diploma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King&Queen1

 

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

 

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

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

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

Father’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Anthony Bourdain on blasting bunnies and chowing down on reptiles

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

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

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

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

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

cook's tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes from the cave

paul simon

I was reminded the other day that Paul Simon is on his farewell – “Homeward Bound” – tour.

Got me thinking that so many of Simon’s songs begin like the opening lines of every great story – you want to know what happens next.

The Mississippi Delta

Was shining like a National guitar.

I’m following the river,

Down the highway,

Through the cradle of the Civil War.

Graceland

One and one-half wandering Jews.

Free to wander wherever they choose.

– Hearts and Bones

Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.

I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.

So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies.*

And walked off to look for America.

– America

From the next line –  “Kathy,” I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh – I tripped into Kathy’s Song and wondered: Who’s Kathy?

Turns out she was a 16-year-old girl Simon met – he was 22 – when he was living in England and playing folk clubs in the early 1960s. A photo of the young lovers illustrates the cover of The Paul Simon Songbook (1965).

Paul & Kathy

 

* Mrs. Wagner’s single-portion pies were sold across the East and Midwest states until the bakery went out of business in 1968.

Mrs. Wagner's Pies

* * *

I could stomach only the first fifteen minutes or so of the Showtime documentary called The Fourth Estate, chronicling the New York Times’s coverage of the Trump presidency so far.

Such bullshit – editors and reporters obviously performing for the cameras. Then again, even if all these super-serious men and women are on the level – How can you not laugh, gag or rage at Trump? – it’s not like any newsroom I’d want to be in.

Guess not much has changed since I was a copyboy at the Times in the mid-1960s. As I recall in my memoir: The Times was insufferably full of itself and its perceived place in the world.

* * *

Recent headline:

Headline

If the Schnorrer in Chief has a guiding doctrine, this is it – the presidency for fun and profit.

* * *

Watched the first two Godfather movies after reading the passages in Jim Comey’s book comparing Trump to a Mafia don. Biggest difference: the Trumps are a family of Fredos.

* * *

Bill Maher, on his HBO show, does a bit called: “I don’t know it for a fact, I just know it’s true.”

I’ll play:

  • For every dollar Michael Cohen got to influence the don, the don got the don’s share.
  • The don trashed the Iran nuclear deal to raise the price of oil for his pal Putin and the rest of the Rooskies who have the U.S. president in their pocket.
  • The don initially had second thoughts on his summit with Kim Jong Un when he realized schlepping to Singapore would cut into his time on the golf course promoting Trump properties.

* * *

Watched The Hot Rock, with Redford, George Segal and the incomparable Zero Mostel. It’s set in my New York of the early ’70s, the last time I lived in Gotham – shots of the Twin Towers under construction and the Pan Am Building when it was still called the Pan Am Building.

Redford in Hot Rock

I went to the premiere at Radio City in 1972, a fundraiser for ex-GOP mayor John Lindsay’s lame bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

* * *

Sarah Huckleberry dropped four interesting words during one of her bull sessions in the White House briefing room last month.

In dodging a question, she said her boss is “working hard to make this country better, whether it’s through building our economy, creating jobs, defeating ISIS, fixing our judiciary system …”

Fixing the judiciary system?

That’s supposedly the linchpin of the devotion to Trump for a big chunk of his supporters, especially evangelicals – appointing ideology-first judges who will blindly rule against abortion, gay rights and most other progressive advances of the past half-century.

Add the fixed judiciary to the current GOP control of the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government and you have a right-winger’s wet dream – the promise of a white Christian version of Sharia Law made in the USA.

* * *

While the wannabe dictator wields his power in Washington, an exhibit of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms is on display this summer at the New-York Historical Society museum on the West Side of Manhattan.

four-freedoms-by-norman-rockwell

The paintings – Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want – were inspired by president Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union speech in January 1941.

FDR argued against American isolationism promoted by powerful America First war profiteers and Hitler sympathizers. He warned that freedom could be lost – as it had been in much of Nazi-occupied Europe – if the U.S. did not step up its aid of Britain and join the war against Germany.

I saw the paintings when they were at the Guggenheim Museum in New York after 9/11.

Once again, the message is clear:

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

Till it’s gone …

– Joni Mitchell

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