Tuesday, April 25, 1995


Georgia on My Mind Parts 1/2/3

LOOKING AHEAD by Wally Dobelis

Springtime in Georgia is more beautiful than in any other place. The magnolias explode with heavy blossoms, full of numbingly sweet perfume. The dogwood and visteria trees are painted white and pink with blooms, the bushes of azaleas look like piles of purple snow, and the beds of blue and yellow pansies surrounding the tulips just go on forever.

Cobb County, the home of Newt Gingrich, is a rich suburb North of Atlanta, encompassing the towns of Marietta and Smyrna.The natives are ambivalent towards the Speaker - small businessmen and hotel help dislike him for taking the glory of the 1996 Olympic Games away from Cobb. It seems that while all of Georgia in a 100 mile radius from Atlanta is sprucing up in preparation for the games, the Cobb County Commission passed a resolution critical of the gay life style, and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games punished the entire county by taking away their Olympic event, the volleyball competition. The 280,000 sq. ft. Cobb Galleria Convention Centre, which has a little pyramid on top, like the new Louvre structure in Paris, was the loser. But they are not groaning, with a 40% occupancy rate (surpassing a 25 % forecast), and golf and outdoors shows locked in. I saw the Holiday Inn show being taken down - people work like beavers, cheerfully, no connected cigar-smoking honchos in sight. In that context - when will the mob let us have our Javits Center back? New York no longer figures among the 25 major convention cities of the US, having been superseded by such competitors as Mobile, Kansas City and Tacoma. The way we are going, New York can really go down the toilet bowl. Maybe the mob planners should limit greed and think ahead beyond the next power hit job. They are supposed to be family-oriented. How are the kids gonna make a living when the city's sunk, eh?

Sinking New York is in the minds of some Cobb County people. The gay issue grates, above all. When you ask individuals how they feel about gay rights, the P.C. answer follows: "Everybody is entitled to earn a living." But you don't have to dig much further, to hear the undertones: "When I see these New York types on TV, during the Gay March on Washington, nude men and women kissing and acting out in public, my stomach turns. This is counter the morality, the religion and the lifestyle I want for my children." Some Georgians go further: "Let all 'these people' go to New York and then pull the plug, let them sink. Cut the federal funds, let New York go down the drain, it is not America." When questioned, you hear them admit: "Sure, we have gays in Atlanta, but they do not write school books to teach kids how right they are, and they do not go on TV all the time, speaking up for their lifestyle. And it was a New York judge who knocked down the President's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy, and New York Congresspeople got right on the bandwagon."

As for social benefits and welfare, the majority of Georgeans seem not to favor . cutting them, despite Gingrich's hard stance. Granted, this is based on a brief personal survey; however, I did ask for not only individual but also peer-group attitudes. In Atlanta and Columbus, where we visited, people are aware of how dependent they are on federal benefits. We have been friends, for 20 years, with a family of five generations living together in one house. The male members have been joining the military after highschool ever since the first Wright arrived from Scotland in 1859. They have participated in every war and military conflict including defending the US Embassy in Teheran against the mobs in 1979 and being burned in the Beirut Embassy and blown up in the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983. The women bear many children, and go back to work in cotton mills and coffee shops after childbirth, and end up going on disability only when worn out by the hard life. Both the Wrights and other ordinary people of the Deep South speak with compassion about needs of others: they resent slackers and visit their sick in hospitals every day. The South needs many hospitals, since poor people don't take care of themselves. And the poor don't protest against abortions.

But one does hear, in some parts we visited, strong anti-New York sentiments, that it is hopelessly corrupt with sex and drugs and crime; that it is sinful to give Social Security (SSI) benefits and food stamps to alcoholics, druggies and out-of-jail criminals; that too many immigrants come here to go on welfare, and that foreigners in business cheat on taxes and will cheat you, if you don't watch out. And spiteful ones - let New York spend all that money to keep up its social aid programs; then all of the hinterlands' welfare clients will also move there and free up the air in Georgia and elsewhere.

Armed with this perspective, upon my return I was much disturbed to find Mayor Giuliani embracing David Letterman's troublemaking slogan, purportedly to promote tourism: "We can kick your city's ass!" Christina Lategano must have been asleep at the switch. It is obviously an appeal to the Joe six-packs and Beavis fans. The slogan has already elicited a "Kiss my balanced budget!" from Mayor Katz of Portland, OR, and other ribaldry. The cities, as a whole will get their butts kicked soon enough by the Cobb County types from all over the US who constitute the freshman class in the Congress, and playing off each other's shortcomings, whether or not in fun, is divisive.

Looking from the point of view of outsiders, we New Yorkers really don't have much to kick other cities in the butt about. How are we going to attract tourists and conventions - send the Javits mobsters out to burn the Cobb convention center? We need a little less mouth in the city, and a lot less politics in Albany; more thought for the citizens and less thought of votes, so that we can have law and order and responsible cost cutting put in place. When politicians demean themselves on late night comedy shows, and the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker have spitball fights in the Capitol while the Budget is disregarded, it is no wonder that the public despises them.

Georgia on My Mind Part II

The problems of the Deep South are the same as ours.

Greater Atlanta consists of 10 counties, more or less. Atlanta proper is Fulton County, stretching in a long diagonal strip North to South. DeCalb, on the Southeast, and Cobb, to the Northwest, are the other main components. The city claims a population of 3 million. Inner city, south of the skyscraper hotel and office district, which is empty, except for turists, after dark, is mostly ruins, in need of rebuilding. This is being done, for the 1996 Olympic Games, with the new construction to serve as dorms and sports facilities for Georgia Tech and other schools. There are five black colleges alone in the Atlanta area, including Morehouse, the "Black Harvard." The crime rate is still high - our hosts who drowe us around the downtown area made sure that the car doors were locked from inside, for fear of car-napping. In fact, in the morning there was a graphic report fom a local gas station, where a young mother with three children had been thrown out from her car by a knife-yielding thief, who promptly wrecked the new Honda while pursued by the police.

The suburban types, from Cobb County, 500,000 people in Nothwest Atlanta, work in the new industrial centers on the oval I-285 circling Atlanta. They seldom come downtown. Typically, the Platinum Triangle in Cobb County, encompassing Cumberland-Galleria -xx-xx businessan shopping centers, is self-contained. In Cobb, there are seven 20-story office buildings, in a beautiful setting planned by Turner- before they went broke. The Center recovered, like a Phoenix , from the departure of RJR-Nabisco, and is well occupied including several buildings used by an atomic energy organization. Among the owners of the buildings are Dutch investors.

Cobb County gets a lot of help from the US govenment. With a median household annual income of $47K, 150 percent that of NYC, it receives $7.5K in federal funds per capita, 170 percent of that received by NYC. Meanwhile, Atlanta, mostly Black, with a Black Mayor and a Black woman police chief, is relatively poor.

But there are also pleasures, particularly those of food. Underground Atlanta, the entertainment center built within the skeleton of the huge XIX Cent railroad station complex, is quiet during the night. Tourists and conventioneers who come to the large downtown hotels, have been scared away by word-of mouth warnings of ripoffs, and eat downtown , or disperse to the well-known eateries, such as xxx. Aunt Fannie's Kitchen, the ancient famous chicken and Smithfield ham emporiun, from which one would usually exit with a doggy-bag containing a three day supply of fried chicken, is no more.

Columbus, 100 miles south of Atlanta, on the border of Alabama, just across the Chattahoochie River from Phenix City, the sin city of the South, is still my ideal place for Southern food. It was there that I learned to appreciate hushpuppies, a small biscuit ball, and to eat grits with butter and salt as a breakfast food. Shoney's Big Boy, a chain of diners spread throughout the South, is a good place for grits. Their breakfast bars have not only sausage, thick bacon and other artery -cloggers but also supply three kinds of melon and fresh strawberries for the vitamin-conscious. My favorite Shoney's is actually in Perry, the hotel town where the snowbirds of the Midwest stay overnight on their way to South Florida. Georgeans tend to stay in Panama City in North Florida, a 4-5 hr day trip.

Corn biscuits are not that big a thrill for me, except when it comes to sopping up the juice from barbecued beef. Country's on Broad in Columbus, occupying the 1950s art deco Greyhound station (later Trailways - what has the traveling South come to?), features, as decor, a dilapidated bus with all the proper ancient signage, permanently anchored at the loading platform, and Coke, Nehi and Royal Cola signs from the 1970s on the inside walls. An old Wurlitzer can still play the Platters (we heard them actually in Port St. Lucy, two years ago - alas, with 2nd generation substitutes) , and the shoeshine man, the unofficial host, is a 58-year old former millhand who lost a leg at work and serves as the preacher of a small ASME church. But most importantly, Country's has country-style food. They have Brunswick stew, and a Barbecue beef platter for $6.29 (all you can eat on Tuesdays), that will take your breath away. The two vegetable choices included black-eyed peas, butter beans and skillet apples. I chose a baked sweet potato, and it weighed 1 1/2 lbs. The doggie bag, including the leftovers of the three huge ribs, served as next day's lunch.

Columbus is also my ideal fish city. How can that be, 200 miles from the ocean? Well, it has catfish, fresh from the Chattahoochie - though recently, I understand, catfish farms supply the markets. But Rose Hill Fish Cabin, on Hamilton Road, offers fresh catfish platter, a mountain of about five fish, tail and all, fried in batter and peanut oil. After you carefully peel away the batter and the the bone (catfish is reportedly hard to debone, but I find it easy if you are not greedy), the flesh is sweet and the tail is crunchy. Most people stay away from the batter. Columbus is aware of cholesterol and fat problems. Around Cooper's Pond, on the edge of the Sears Woods development of a hundred upscale houses (that means about $150,000 through $250,000), ther are several walking and running trails used by the area people all through the day. The huge pond geese - a breed that looks more like a giant Leghorn chicken - sit on the pond fence or in the short grass and ignore the runners, who cheerully shout at each other in passing. Our host, who organized the first Black perpetual care cemetery in the South, long before the 1964 Brown vs the Board of Ed decision, was greeted with hoots by several and would respond with : "Take it easy, I don't want to see you too soon!" Alas, the Wildwood Drugstore on Wynton Road is no more. There Lieutenant, a chunky black chef who earned his rank through a field promotion in Korea, produced chili franks, sausage creations on a sundae dish (alas no mo either), surrounded with oyster crackers, for which people traveled from far away.

Columbus is also my favorite town of fruitcake, a sugar-laden candied strip in cellophane, given away at Christmas and despised by many because of its sneaky calories. I like it and eat it, about once every six years. The pecans of Georgia are another proposition. We love them, and have bought them on the farm, freshly picked from the ground. Pecan farming is a lazy person's occupation - one buys or preferably inherits a farm of huge decorative trees that take care of themselves, and rakes in the nuts, selling them in shell, by the pound. If one wants to work, he invites the local sheller - cracker is a dirty word - to crack the nuts, and then manually takes out the meats. I knew a rural route carrier who had equipped a small truck with a gasoline-driven shelling machine, where you feed the nuts into a funnel and they come out cracked. At 10c/lb for shelling, he was good for life, and had bought a beautiful pecan farm. But he was not lazy.

Pecan and walnut cracking is tricky - too much pressure, and your nut is dust. Smalltime buyers of nut use the Texas Nut Cracking machine, invented by Dr. Turner of Columbus, consisting of a rubber-band powered piston driven along a rod, slamming against an adjustable hollow in which you insert a pecan. It is set so that the pecan end protrudes about 1/8 of an inch. More space, and the pecan meat is broken, and the nut becomes a cracker, only suitable for pies. Taking out the meats from a nut is also a delicate operation, and perfect halves cost. Dr. Turner's machine can be bought in gunmetal or gold finish, for coffee-table decor. I haven't seen it in actual use in compny, as an ordinary nutcracker would be. It is a bit primitive, with shell bits flying hither and yon.

Pecan pie, a Georgia delicacy, is my wife's specialty, and friends from Columbus send us bags of nuts as holiday gifts. Dottie Christie's Mom's farm between Concord and Lebanon, halfway between Columbus and Atlanta, produced great pecans, and her Dad, who had gone blind, was a champion cracker, by hand. The family, Dottie, her sister the great interior decorator, and her brother, were all involved in restoring log cabins, and had bought two or three doomed ones, moving them to the farm. They were made of wide rough-hewn planks, with moss for insulation between the boards, and built in two sections, with a roofed passage - or dog-run - between them. One of the cabins was built in Ashevile, N.C., when Dottie's family moved there.

When log cabins became scarce, the Christies bought and rebuilt an old railroad station on the farm, to that all parts of the family would have their houses with Grandma. For some reason, the most remarkable inhabitants of the farm, for me, were the red woodpeckers (locally called peckerwoods) that hung around the former horse enclosure, en masse. We have woodpeckers in Upstate New York, but after appearing in the Spring, to take the gruel off the birdfeeder, they vanish, not to be seen till next year. The Georgia critters were much friendlier breed.

A great place for Georgia fruits and vegetables is Callaway Gardens, 20 miles N of Columbus, at Pine Mountain. A producer of jams and packaged foods, Callaway expanded into a botanical garden, recreational area of several thousand acres, and a hotel with a lakeside beach, attracting local as well as out-of-state visitors. Not far is the Little White House, in Warm Springs, where President Roosevelt sought a cure for his polio-crippled body. It is touching to see how simply they lived - Mr and Mrs Roosevelt had their bedrooms, a downstairs living room and bath, equipped for an invalid, with a room upstairs for Missy LeHand, his secretary. There was a space above the detached one-car garage for the driver. Any overnight visitor would share quarters with the chauffeur. The location had the advantage of a nearby Marine s base, to supply a guard at the entrance gate. Roosevelt became a local in 1924, and bought 10,000 acres of woods and fields, some for $10 an acre, for his Warm Springs Foundation therapy center with private pools for polio sufferers.

Georgia on My Mind Part III

Leaving the Southwest of Georgia we now nove East, to the Atlantic shore. Along the way we pass the Okeefenokee Natural Preserve, part Florida, the residence of Walt Kelly's Pogo ("We have seen the enemy, and it is us.") The swamp is still laden with alligators cros? and the guides will take you in a swamp boat through ypress-surrounded canals, to see the critters and the owls and other protected species.

Beyound the swamps lies Jekyll Island, with its wide sandy beaches and mild winters. It was recognized as an ideal seluded spot by New York's wealthiest, in the 1890s. The Morgans, Vanderbilts and Astors built cottages, much like Newport, and spent quiet summers and winters , isolated from the mobs, in a private enclave. it has now fallen into disuse, the cottages are inhabited by caretakers, and are being converted into museums and instit???

Nearby to the South, historic St. Simeon's Island has guns and battlefields, where in 1742 Gov. Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, beat tback the Spaniards of Florida, whowahted to move ou northwards eh and the Cloisters, a resort.

Friday, April 21, 1995


Norman Thomas and Other Ghosts

A charming letter from Norman Thomas surfaced the other day, dated 195x, in which he apologized for not answering one of mine. A friend of mine, whith whom he was in a public debate, had charged him, and he was now naking amends.
This was in the days when a lot of us worried about Communism taking over the world. I had a lot of respect for Thomas, and was bothered by some remarks. The friend who accosted him was a strong anti-Communist activist, who eventually ran the campaign of Barry Farber, for the Mayor of New York, in 196x.
These were the years of strife. Charlie belonged to AWARE, an organization run by Archibald Roosevelt, the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt, a Wall Street banker. I knew Archie, who was known as "Good-o," a patrician expression of approval, among us youngsters. All four sons of TR had volunteered for service in WWI and one died. Another, Theodore Jr, died in WWII, walking ahead of his troops in an attack against the German lines. These were the kind of American leaders we had. Whatever we think of their politics today, they put their lives on the line for their country.
At AWARE We met John T. Flynn, the arch-enemy of Franklyn D. Roosevelt, a deep-thinking critic who anticipated problems of social reform. There was much condemnation of Alger Hiss, who lived at 156 East 18th Street until 1994, when both Mr and Mrs Hiss , both in their 90s, had to move to a place where they could have a live-in attendant.
Anyway, Norman Thomas, owned the house at 206 East 18th Sreet from 1923 to 1939, and lived ther until their five children grew up, 1939. When the kids moved out, in 1941 they move dto 20 Gramercy Place South, until 1945, After the death of his wife Violet, NT moved to 39-a Gramercy Ppark North (1949-early 50s). Ran for President 6 times betwen 1928-48.

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