The view from a small-town bar stool

barstool-image

The restaurant’s open sign was dark, but the thick, beveled windows revealed that a back table had four men sipping coffee. Behind them on the wall was a big-screen TV showing Saturday cartoons. I tried the brass door handle. Locked.

A temporary sign to one side listed seasonal business hours. I was 20 minutes early.

So, I left, but as I passed the adjoining hotel’s entrance, a white-haired man in bulging half-zip sweater stepped out. His sleeves were pushed up. A stained white towel hung over one shoulder.

“Care to come in for some coffee, sir?” he asked.

I stopped. “Oh, that’s fine, but I’m looking for a place to eat, too, and I see you’re not open yet.”

“That’s OK, sir. I’d be happy to serve you coffee until we do. You come in for some coffee?”

I nodded and said thanks as the man backed aside and motioned me in. The door was heavy and dark like the one for the restaurant, and it opened into a small lobby. Past the empty front desk, which had a slotted wall behind it and a numbered room key dangling from each slot, was a passage to the restaurant.

“Please sit anywhere, and I will bring coffee over to you right away,” the man said as he followed me through.

The restaurant’s décor was as dark and heavy as the door, assuring a gloomy ambiance even on the sunniest days. All the tables and the thinly padded chairs were against the far wall or close to the picture windows facing the street. A long, carved wood bar curved from beside the passageway toward the back near the big-screen TV, which had its volume set at just above a hum.

I slid onto one of the square-backed bar stools. They were aligned at 45 degrees toward the picture windows, through which one saw the gas station across the street starting to receive a flurry of business. The man set a ceramic diner mug in front of me and a one-page menu. He introduced himself as Mo, owner of both the restaurant and hotel. His accented English put his heritage closer to Europe than to the southern Illinois riverbank town where the restaurant sat.

“We’re not open for lunch until 11,” he said as he poured. “But here, you can see what we have, and I will make sure they get it going for you when we do.”

I said thanks. Mo pushed over a carousel of coffee creamer, sugar, and stir sticks, then went over to the back table and sat with the other people who I saw through the window. Though the room was warm, the three around Mo had on light winter jackets that bulged tight around their ample mid-sections the way Mo’s sweater did.

On my second sip of coffee, one of the men chuffed quietly.

“Sir? You called him Sir? When did you start doing that?”

“Shh,” Mo murmured.

“Looks to me like he should be the one calling you Sir.”

Two other voices chuckled. Mo ignored this.

“So, you sold your car?”

“Yep,” said the first voice. “$500.”

“Then let’s go out and get drunk,” the second voice said. More chuckling around the table.

“A 2007,” the first voice continued. “Needed $3,000 for the transmission. Not worth putting that much into it. Found someone in Jerseyville to look at it. Couldn’t get anyone in St. Louis to look at it for me.”

“Not much use going up there for anything,” said a third voice.

“How old’s your car?” Mo asked.

“Mine? Less than a year,” Voice No. 3 responded. “Didn’t want to deal with all that hassle.”

“Well, I would have fixed it up,” said a fourth voice.

“You? Whadda mean?” Mo replied. “You’ve got that big truck of yours. It’s not a month old.”

“That’s what matters,” Voice No. 3 said. “One of those big trucks. Or an SUV, the ones that sit up high off the ground so you can load stuff into it. If you’re going to buy something, buy something like that.”

“Yeah, don’t get one of those small trucks,” Voice No. 4 said. “They aren’t worth it.”

An outer door near the TV opened, and a young woman in a green Southern Illinois University pullover entered. Morning sunshine poured through just long enough to highlight the thick lacquer over the bar and the age of the men around the back table.

“Hello,” she said to Mo. The door thumped closed like a bank vault.

“Hello. I’ve already given the gentleman a menu. What’re you doing here so early?”

Voice No. 3 interrupted. “Change the channel while you’re at it. Something like the news. We should listen to what that new president is saying. Makes more sense than watching cartoons …”

“… More entertaining, anyway,” said Voice No. 4.

Chuckling went around the table again. Then all four took sips of coffee before the man with Voice No. 4 cleared his throat and rose.

“Yeah, well we’ll see how entertaining,” he said. “I want to see him actually do something.”

“About Obamacare?” said Voice No. 3.

“About that, immigration, anything,” he replied. Unlike Mo’s accent, his and the others’ fit the region. I wondered what they thought of Mo the first time they met him?

The others also rose and replaced the chairs under the table. One by one, they carried their mugs to the end of the bar and turned to leave in single file.

“See you later,” Voice No. 2 called over his shoulder. “Thanks, Mo.”

“You’re welcome, boys.”

Mo put the mugs on a tray disappeared through a door behind the bar. The woman was already busy wiping up the rest of the bar as the table emptied. On the TV, the channel remained unchanged. A “South Park” rerun was starting.

“So, I think Mo let me in because he saw me at the door,” I said to the woman. “But did I interrupt something?”

“Nah. Just their usual weekend gathering,” she answered as she brought over the coffee pot to refill my mug. She introduced herself as Jessica, a senior at the university represented on her shirt who after three years was working her last weekend for Mo before starting an internship. “Every Saturday, they’re here. You must have come up close to when they were breaking up anyway.”

“You open at 11. How early do they come in?”

“Oh, it can be early. Sunup sometimes.” She held up the half-filled pot. “This might be their third or fourth.”

As she replenished my mug, Mo reemerged and headed toward the lobby. It was still too soon to unlock the restaurant’s main entrance.

“Jess, I’m going home now for a little bit. Call me if you need anything.”

“OK.”

The lobby door thumped closed right as another woman emerged from the door behind the bar. Her gray-blonde was hair tied up above her neck, and her chef’s coat was clean but fraying around the collar and sleeve cuffs.

“So, where’s he going?”

“He’ll be back,” Jessica said as she replaced the coffee pot on its warmer.

“Well, text him to come back with ice. The ice maker’s out again.”

“Hmm.”

“And are we changing the channel?”

“They’re gone. Whatever.” Jessica turned back to me. “Do you have a preference?”

I said no.

She reached beside the coffee maker to pick up the TV remote, a black bar of plastic almost as long as her forearm. Jessica held it over her head with both hands. The channel change ended on Fox News and aerial video of women’s marches taking place that morning around the country. She set the remote back down and returned to work. The sound remained on the edge of audible.

The woman in the chef’s coat clicked her tongue at the images on the 60-inch screen.

“Yuh huh. I heard some sort of marches were happening everywhere today. Think there’s one in St. Louis, too, right?  I don’t have time for any of that.”

“Me either,” Jessica said without looking back up. She wrung her hands. “I just don’t understand what all the fuss … I mean, I’ve got too much else going on in my life right now to worry about anything like that.”

Jessica’s college major is criminal justice. In a week, she begins interning with the county probation office pushing paperwork she hopes will push people out of the legal system and into assistance. She knows that about 90 percent of the cases involve drugs – heroin and methamphetamine foremost among them.

She knows about 90 percent of the people, too. She grew up here; she understands their pain and the frustration causing it. Those people, not the marchers, are her inspiration, which is why her fingers are crossed that the internship turns into full-time work.

She is not optimistic, however – about the job or the people.

“If they get out, there’s nowhere for them to go,” Jessica explained after the woman in the chef’s coat left the room. “State doesn’t have any money – they get out and go right back to what they were doing: nothing. No jobs. I’m not saying jobs will keep them off drugs. But if there’s something out there they can look forward to, they might not go back to drugs once you get them off.”

Jessica glanced back at the TV screen, then at the floor.

“I mean, I know these marches matter. But Trump says he’s going to get us jobs. Right now, to me, that matters more.”

Journalist’s job change reminds me of old T-shirt

 

balance

During my time in high school and college, cheap cotton shirts sporting witty or funny phrases defined my fashion. They were must-haves more than the jeans or running shoes paired with them. I loved seeing people pass and smile, or laugh, or look at me quizzically if they missed the joke. They also were great icebreakers for someone often too shy to just say hi.

A few shirts ensured an opening. The one with “I’m the one your mother warned you about” made girls giggle, which eased me past “Hi” within that group. Another that said, “Detroit: Where the weak are killed and eaten” so tickled a Motor City native at a buffet in Florida that food shot out his nose.

But my favorite shirt, because my understanding friends liked it so much, said in white Courier lettering, “I’m in journalism for the money.”

The shirt is long gone, but a recent question-and-answer article in the trade publication Columbia Journalism Review recalled it. In the article, business news reporter John Carney discussed his rationale for moving from The Wall Street Journal, a publication that steers from a defined political agenda, to Breitbart.com, which drives headlong into one.

Breitbart’s tilt is so pronounced if it were the Leaning Tower of Pisa it would have toppled by now. Founder Andrew Breitbart built the site around his libertarian views then pushed a more populist message in the years before his death. Today, Breitbart.com is better known as an alt-right megaphone that spent the 2016 presidential campaign delivering a high-volume screech for Donald Trump.

Carney said he embraced Breitbart.com because it lacked a business news division and he was asked to help create one, and because the site appears well-positioned poised to cultivate Trump’s economic message.

“Very few people really got the rise of Trump as right as (Breitbart) did and I think they deserve a lot of credit for being ahead of the curve on that,” Carney told CJR. “We’re going to use that as our model. Perhaps a lot of the reason some of us in mainstream media have been behind the curve is because we bought into too many of the orthodoxies.”

Which is what reminded me of the old journalism shirt. By orthodoxies, Carney means balance: the attempt by news media to hold government and institutions accountable and present facts without political tarnish – a historically hard job given that journalists must also exert personal accountability to do it well.

The problem is that accountability is not naturally sexy, even back when I was wearing that shirt. My friends and colleagues in journalism school and later through a 30-year newspaper career were called to accountability, not doomed to it. They enjoyed the endorphin rush from pursuing truth for the sake of public service and civic justice. They laughed at my shirt because low pay seemed to be a canon in the journalist’s professional code. Those who balked at small salaries lacked commitment, college debts be damned.

For example: In my senior year, the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid sent recruitment letters to prospective graduates working at the campus newspaper. The two-paragraph statement hinted at a starting salary of $50,000, more than twice what was typical at the time. Given the Enquirer’s reputation, my friends laughed at that harder than at my shirt. But two in our crew who quietly inquired and were rejected distanced themselves from us without our prejudice. They appreciated the code but preferred not to buy into it. Soon after they distanced themselves from journalism as well.

Today, the media marketplace spans the width and breadth of the Internet and has no admission requirement or ethical constraints. Journalism degrees no longer announce a commitment to the craft but the ability to write complete sentences. Average salaries are lower now because many news and alt-news outlets believe compensation is measured in clicks and likes and retweets and shares – much more valuable to anyone who prefers brand-building to public service. Breitbart.com saw its readership soar after hitching to Trump’s bandwagon and now draws more unique readers than even Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and Fox News.

Another boon to the media marketplace for people like Carney: the rise of relative truth. Once upon a time, truth was buttressed by supporting facts and diametric to falsity. Now, we are encouraged to believe that truth comes in multiple flavors like ice cream, and we are allowed to choose the one that suits our tastes.

Breitbart.com has “a very single-minded dedication to not being respectable, but as I look at it, to just tell the truth as they see it. And that’s what I want to do,” Carney said. “I find that spirit of willingness to be the dissenting truth-tellers very attractive.”

The truth as they see it. We already have a word for that in the dictionary: opinion.

Truth is never easy to obtain because it is like gold; you have to mine for it. Those who fit the unexpurgated definition of a journalist still feel the same call to service I did when I was in the profession and possess an innate duty to hold others accountable for the sake of our republic. Indeed, theirs is a vastly different playing field dotted with obstacles unimagined when I was in the game, but they suit up daily with eagerness and vigor.

When I tell them about the shirt, they laugh, they get the joke. They wish they had one. If I made a new one substituting the word “clicks” for “money,” they would laugh at that, too.

Carney? Probably all I would get from him is a quizzical look – if not his middle finger.

What’s wrong with CNN? Ask these women

cnn-logoThe two women sat at the end of a long hallway complaining about sitting at the end of a long hallway.

“I can’t hear them when they call us,” the one in a cable-knit sweater said to the other. “I don’t know why the waiting room has to be so long, anyway.”

“And, good lord, do they ever keep the AC turned up way too high!” said the woman with a slate-colored shawl draped over her bare shoulders. “You want to sit there in the draft under the vents, fine by me. I’m staying here.”

“No,” the first woman muttered. “This is better, I agree.”

To their left stretched rows of sling chairs, arm to arm like soldiers awaiting inspection. Down the white, sun-drenched hall, five other people waited with their faces tilted toward their smartphones. Six or seven chairs between each silent visitor assured privacy. The guests stirred only when a nurse in periwinkle medical scrubs and carrying a clipboard emerged from the far end of the hall to announce a name three times. Two people looked up. She left before anyone responded.

The second woman kept adjusting her shawl. While doing this, she discovered a second complaint.

“But whoever heard of a waiting room without a TV?” she said toward a point on the wall where she presumed one should be. “This one could have two or three.”

“Mmm,” her friend replied. “CNN or something.”

“Uh, gawd, no.” The woman in the shawl crimped her nose as if she had tasted sour milk. “I’ve tried, but I can’t watch CNN anymore.”

“Why? What is it?”

“Oh, you know, I’ll watch for like five, ten minutes, but it’s just so darn depressing.”

“… Mmm, yes, I know what you mean.”

The sweater woman picked at her sweater. The shawl woman removed and replaced her shawl.

“Price Is Right!” the sweater woman announced.

“Or Today. Or Kelly. Or whatever, yes. Just something not so, oh you know, not so depressing …”

“… But with Bob Barker instead, you know, ‘cause he was much better, much better. ‘Price’ was better then, I think.”

“Yes, it was. Or Ellen. I really like Ellen.”

“Yes, yes …”

“… But if CNN’s on somewhere, you know, I’ll watch that. I’ll watch the crawl, anyway. For a little while …”

“… If it’s on, it’s on.”

“Yes.”

The clipboard woman re-emerged and announced another name, half of which disappeared beneath a whoosh of air as the cooling system restarted. She left without looking up from the board.

“Did you hear that?” the sweater woman asked.

“Nope. Wasn’t us. They’ll come down here and get us if they really want us.”

More picking at the sweater. More sliding and adjusting of the shawl.

“Now, if I’m at the airport, I’ll watch the CNN they have on the TVs there.”

“Yes, me too. But that’s all they have on there.”

“That or The Weather Channel …”

“… Uh huh …”

“… But it’s all travel stories on CNN, places you should go or see. I saw one on France and the places you should go for good wine. Now, that was a good story.”

“Yes. I like those.”

“The rest is all so depressing. Bad news after bad news.”

“It’s all bad news.”

“I’m telling you.”

A second nurse in identical scrubs came around a corner by the women. She whispered to them, they acknowledged the same way in the affirmative, then they resumed staring at the spot where they believed a TV should be on the wall.

“But, you know, news is news. It’s all bad anyway. They wouldn’t say anything if it wasn’t.”

“News is news. Maybe. I’m not sure if it’s all news …”

“… Mmm …”

“… I mean, how can all those things be going on at the same time, all those awful things? I just get sick and tired of it.”

“Well, it’s CNN. They’ve been around forever. It’s what they do, they find the news. You remember the way CNN was? Everybody watched it. You just kind of had it on at home.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Remember John Lennon? That’s where I heard about John Lennon. And Princess Di?”

“Yeah, Princess Di. I do remember that. So sad, so sad. But now you hear stuff like that everywhere all the time – Marnie telling me things she sees on Facebook before you ever see them on TV, on CNN …”

“… Yes, yes. Everywhere. Everywhere …”

“… And I can’t keep up, you know. It’s just too much.”

“Uh huh. Un huh.”

“But, you know, if it’s on I’ll watch. If there’s, like, nothing else.”

“Yes, mmm. Yes. Me, too.”

The second nurse returned to bend and whisper to the women who rose and reached to collect their handbags. The shawl slipped off the second woman’s shoulders and into the open mouth of her bag, then the women followed the nurse around the corner.

As the sweater woman went out of view, I heard her ask:

“Excuse me, but is there a reason you don’t have a TV in this place?”

Taco Bell’s certified-vegetarian menu could win me back

Taco Bell logoSurely, you’ve heard the jokes – or made up your own.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: Because there was a Taco Bell on the other side.

Q: What do you do after placing an order at Taco Bell?
A: Look the cashier in the eyes and say, “We never had this conversation.”

Or maybe when you heard Taco Bell’s former slogan “Run for the border,” you snickered and said “Run for the bathroom.”

Now, the company once famous for its talking Chihuahua mascot has taken a decidedly serious move. On Thursday, it announced a certified vegetarian menu, thus laying a claim as the first quick-serve restaurant to do so.

Among Taco Bell’s announced veggie items are the Cantina Power Veggie Bowl and the 7-Layer Burrito. The 35 ingredients that constitute the 13 all-veggie items also are certified by the American Vegetarian Association, and some of those ingredients can be swapped out to make the meals vegan.

All items are available now at each of Taco Bell’s 6,000 restaurants nationwide.

This matters to me because Taco Bell once was my fast-food place of choice. Their bean burritos and tostadas were better than typical fast fare, were less expensive, and they fit nicely into my family’s veggie-only lifestyle.

“We get it – being a vegetarian can be tough when you go out to eat,” Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol said in Thursday’s news release.

But not long after the chain trotted out Gidget, the Chihuahua star of its “Yo quiero Taco Bell” promotion in the late 1990s, Taco Bell’s image went to the dogs.

In 2000, Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum! Brands Inc., was swept up in a Kraft Foods recall of taco shells made from genetically altered corn. In 2006 and 2007, it was accused of having unsafe sanitation practices after customers were sickened by E.coli contamination traced to lettuce and spinach in some meals.

And in 2011, the chain battled accusations that its seasoned beef was less than 40 percent real beef. (Not that I had a beef with their beef, but the controversy planted doubts in many consumers’ minds about the authenticity of other ingredients.)

By catering to a veggie crowd – and with an AVA-certified menu at that – Taco Bell may be taking additional steps toward putting all that bad news behind it, and maybe win me back as well.

If the Chihuahua trots back out, however, watch me trot away and never return.

Remember Mike Brown – and William and Angela

Melted wax still stains the street and sidewalk on Park Avenue at 11th Street in south St. Louis where two people were killed in a drive-by shooting in March. The stains appeared during a candlelight vigil for the victims two days after the shooting.

Melted wax still stains the street and sidewalk on Park Avenue at 11th Street in south St. Louis where two people were killed in a drive-by shooting in March. The stains appeared during a candlelight vigil for the victims two days after the shooting. (Photo by David Sheets)

In Ferguson, Mo., at least three permanent monuments recall Mike Brown.

In south St. Louis, there are only stains on the street where William Crume and Angela Wysinger perished.

In Ferguson, a brass plaque bearing Brown’s likeness and another plate shaped like a dove flank where he was shot dead in the street at Canfield Green apartments a year ago. On the spot where the teenager’s body lay in the summer sun for four hours is a rectangle of new asphalt; Brown’s family had the old asphalt scooped up as a keepsake.

In south St. Louis, dark, greasy stains from candle wax remain on the pavement and sidewalk at 11th Street and Park Avenue in the LaSalle Park neighborhood. There, near a concrete light pole, is where Crume and Wysinger died in March, killed in their car during a drive-by shooting. Two days afterward, about 70 people lit candles and stood in silence around a 17-foot wrap of balloons, ribbons and stuffed animals tied to the pole as a memorial to the couple.

Brown died in a confrontation with police officer Darrin Wilson. Brown was said to be unarmed. Wilson shot six times at Brown for reasons that protracted scrutiny has not made entirely clear.

Crume, 23, and Wysinger, 26, were killed as shooters from at least one passing vehicle fired multiple times into their car as it rolled east on Park Avenue. The shots also injured one of Wysinger’s three children – ages 2, 7 and 9 – riding in the back seat. Police say Crume and Wysinger were unarmed and probably knew their assailants.

Brown’s death triggered weeks of unrest in Ferguson and turned a magnifying glass on the way some municipal governments and police perform their duties. In many communities around the country, officers now wear cameras on their uniforms to account for their actions.

Little has happened in the wake of Crume’s and Wysinger’s deaths. The authorities presume the shooting was an act of retribution but still do not know who is responsible.

This week, millions of people worldwide remembered the events in Ferguson on the first anniversary of Brown’s death.

This week, hardly anyone will remember Crume and Wysinger.

But the young couple also deserve our attention, our remembrance, as much as Brown. His death, though tragic, raised awareness of pervasive social and legal imbalances in our government and the courts, and hammers home the need for changes in how the public and police deal with each other.

Crume and Whysinger died in an act of rage that hammers home the stark reminder of our obligation to be just and civil to one another. Lacking that, we risk leaving a legacy that amounts to little more than wax stains on sidewalks.

“You see a family shot up like this needlessly – the car was riddled with bullets. Just senseless,” Metropolitan Police Capt. Michael Sack told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in March. “It’s frustrating to have to deal with and try to find those responsible for it.”

‘It’s up to us to stop this’ : The shooting behind my backyard gate

Park Avenue Shooting Memorial

The memorial for two fatal shooting victims that grew to embrace a light pole on Park Avenue near downtown St. Louis started with a couple of teddy bears and a few flowers. (Photo courtesy of Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Bright, multicolored balloons twist and bob around a concrete light pole about 20 yards from my backyard gate. People of all ages took photos of the balloons even as children tied more onto the pole.

In the adjoining community park, a couple hundred people talked, laughed, cried and held each other during a memorial vigil Tuesday as they recalled what happened a few feet from that light pole 24 hours earlier.

A bullet-riddled Nissan carrying two adults and a 9-year-old girl had rolled to a halt with one of the adults already dead and another dying. The girl was wounded but would survive. Their ride ended after a 12-block shootout with the occupants of another car who authorities say were targeting the couple.

I had heard the yelling from bystanders outside my second-floor window before realizing what was wrong. I saw the car go by, followed briefly by four people sprinting after it on foot. By the time I made it downstairs and out the door to investigate, a handful of wailing, distraught people were already reaching into the car to pull out the victims.

Police arrived mere seconds later. A detective at the scene told me they were receiving 911 calls about the shooting before the car had reached a full stop. Once they turned the corner, they only had to follow the sounds of the wailing.

More people rushed to the scene on foot at almost the same rate as the police, who drove in aboard 17 patrol cars and immediately closed the street in both directions. Officers cordoned off a wide area that extended all the way to my gate hinges.

The police anticipated trouble. When large numbers of African Americans are involved, they assume as much and show up en masse. Ferguson – 12 miles northwest of here – is to blame for that. The victims in the car were African American. The detective said the suspects likely were African American, and the growing crowd was upset and almost exclusively African American.

But the tension that was anticipated never materialized, because there was no rage, only outrage and frustration. The police were there like the rest of the crowd, trying to understand what brought two young lives to such a violent end on a tree-lined residential street, probably at the hands of someone equally as young.

One officer bent down on one knee just outside the loop of yellow police tape to talk with a group of boys, none of whom appeared older than seven. All of them, including the officer, had the same stunned looks on their faces, because at what age does one truly understand how anything like this can happen?

To the other side of me, a woman walked past holding her head in her hands and saying to nobody in particular, “I’m never letting my girl out of the house now.”

Then screams pealed out from several of the 70 or so people watching across the street in the park. They just learned the other adult in the car had died at the hospital.

At that, the crowd started to dissipate, with the strong and resolute assisting the inconsolable. The armada of patrol cars dwindled to 12, to eight, to two. The car that held the victims was the last to go, on the back of a flatbed tow truck, beneath the pale glow of that now-landmark street light, the only odd thing at that point being the sight of a single officer standing in the road watching the cargo being loaded.

For me, the hardest part was seeing the pain in the faces of those who either knew the victims or knew that this kind of internecine violence was not about to end. They were worried for their children and their friends and family, and said as much out loud, over and over. The police would be no help; the solution had to come from within.

And so the vigil formed around 5 p.m. Tuesday and lasted well after sundown. About 200 people showed up. They brought flowers and balloons, and a couple brought barbecue kettles. Posters of the dead were pasted to the light pole. The wrap of balloons reached 12 feet in height. And yet, police passed by only infrequently because for this second gathering the people themselves were doing the policing – directing traffic and trying to keep order. I spoke briefly to a few of the people trickling in and out; they replied in broken voices about taking back their lives.

“It’s up to us to stop this. It’s up to us to stop this,” one woman muttered.

Another woman who looked as if dressed for church touched my arm gently and said, “Please, be careful.”

We should all follow that advice.