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The Hoi Polloi Camp Out on Route 66 January 9, 2012

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When I was growing up near the end of the Rose Parade route, my family regularly went down the afternoon before to place benches and chairs along the curb. Spectators can reserve spots along the route beginning at noon of the previous day, and they do so all along Colorado Blvd., the old Route 66, and Sierra Madre Blvd. I myself only gave one year to spending the night along the banks of the Sierra Madre. It was cold, and I’ve never liked staying up all night. But we always found other kids who thought it was a great adventure and were happy to guard our spots for a modest fee.

I’d never walked along the route in downtown Pasadena the night before the parade, but I did so this year, and it was quite the spectacle. Folks young and old, families, gatherings of friends, social clubs … all were sitting in chairs, chaises longes, grouped around tables, or on cushions, nesting in sleeping bags, and, most amazingly, cooking over open fires!

hobo candles

The sidewalks teemed with urban campers. No tents were allowed, but everything else seemed to be. And I saw people playing Monopoly, dominoes, listening to music, arguing with proselytizing evangelicals, checking out the souvenirs being peddled by itinerant vendors. And all the while traffic rolled down Colorado Ave.; many of the shops and all of the restaurants in Old Town were open for business. What was immediately apparent was how family friendly the scene was. No drunkenness or rowdiness on display; the teenagers seemed well-mannered; and kids were in evidence everywhere. The area was well policed, which ensured that unsavory elements would be quickly eliminated, and the general atmosphere was one of a low-keyed party.

In spite of the benign ambiance, the corporate store franchises – Juicy Couture, the Gap, Barnes and Noble—had their windows boarded up.

Corporate pigs board their windows

Crate and Barrel not only had boards on its plate glass windows but was open for business on New Year’s Day. There has never been any violence associated with the Rose Parade, but corporate pigs are a paranoid lot, probably because they measure the world by their own diseased yardstick.


Roses and Circuses January 9, 2012

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Bread and circuses, as the Roman satirist Juvenal famously remarked, were the favorite ways in which the plutocracy kept the people’s minds off the misbehavior of the ruling classes. The Pasadena Rose Parade, now in its 123rd year, certainly fits into that tradition. I grew up in Pasadena, and I have seen many Rose Parades. The form is unvarying: magnificent floats interspersed with fabulously costumed equestrian teams and marching bands. The floats themselves rank amongst the greatest floral creations on the planet, and they provide a fine metaphor of consumer capitalism: processed nature completely subordinated to human design, eye-popping color, mechanical gimcrackery, and rapid obsolescence. Once done with the parade, the floats are on display for only two days. But seen close up, they are wonders of color and design.

float close-up

I love the Rose Parade. It is pure Americana —sunny, gorgeous, sprinkled with athletes and beauty queens, marching bands and floral representations of the American dream and the exotic beauty of the foreign cultures to which our manufacturing jobs have been shipped. All of this costs money, of course, but local municipalities have a tradition of entering floats based on much volunteer efforts, and, in a twist of late capitalism, corporations, such as Wells Fargo and Discover have discovered the happiness of participating with prominently displayed logos. It *really* is a small world, after all. This year’s “theme” was “Just Imagine . . .” and yet there was no mention of the John Lennon classic.

Still, for those who might unfairly tax me with a jaundiced view, I do admit to being dazzled by the artistry of the floats. The Animal Balance float featured surfing dogs propelled on boards powered by a wave machine.

Surfing dogs

Now really, that’s impressive. Though I didn’t see the floats in action this year, I did view them the day after the parade. Many of them were parked alongside Pasadena High School where I went to school, adding an extra layer of nostalgia. Not that I’d ever want to be in high school again. But . . . go Bulldogs!

Auditorium of Pasadena High School

Hot Springs, Arkansas November 24, 2011

Posted by homolog88 in film festivals, Hot Springs Documentary FF, Travel Dispatches.
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Hot Springs postcard


What was the first land reserved by the federal government for the protection of a natural resource? If you answered Yosemite (1862) or Yellowstone (1872), you’d be wrong. In 1832 the federal government set aside undefined parcels of land to protect a hot springs in the Ozark Mountains that puts out over 700,000 of odorless water a day.

I’m going to date myself here, but those of a certain generation will remember a really stupid TV show from the 1960s called The Beverly Hillbillies.

Come and listen to a story of a man named Jed.

A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed

Then one day he was shootin’ at some food

When up from the ground came a bubblin’ crude.

Oil, that is . . . black gold . . . Texas tea.

And so the stereotype of the American rube, the Ozark Arkie, became forever enshrined in American popular culture. I’ve never visited the Ozarks, so I don’t know how distorted the popular conception is, but I can tell you from the four days I spent in Hot Springs for their annual documentary film festival that this town doesn’t adhere to my preconceptions of fundamentalist fear and prognathous facial features. But, because of its history as a spa town, Hot Springs, I suspect, has always been a slightly bluer enclave in a deeply red portion of the country.

Bath House Row

Much of the downtown area is a national park. After the original inhabitants, the Quapaw Indians, generously ceded the land to the United States (no doubt preferring some inhospitable Western reservation in return), the hot springs area was taken over by the federal government in 1832. Up until the late 20th century, federal oversight was lax, and the remarkable springs were commercially exploited in the chaotic and colorful ways of 19th and early 20th century capitalism. The town of Hot Springs grew from a raw frontier outpost, to “sophisticated” European spa wannabee, to Ozark Babylon and gambling haven (a gangster museum celebrates that piece of its heritage), to its current incarnation as a local arts center, camping Mecca, and tacky tourist destination. Although the wonderful 20th century buildings of Bathhouse Row have been preserved, taking the waters is but a minor activity.

The vulgar tourist dimension was visible enough, but since I was there as a guest of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, I had a chance to see the town’s artsy side. And the physical setting is beautiful: tree-covered hills turning into the reds and golds of fall. The National Park service makes sure that the historic bath houses are properly maintained and has turned one of them into a museum of 19thcentury bathing practices, a confounding combination of upper-class fantasy, quackery, and medical practice.

Bathhouse skylight


Oddly enough, I have a family connection to this resort town in the Ozarks: a hospital is named after my paternal great great uncle, Leo N. Levi. (Nobody current knew what the “N” stood for.) Old World Jews were familiar with the idea of spas as places of healing, and both the wealthy and the poor came to Hot Springs in the early 1900s for extended stays. The local Jewish community (now much diminished) was overcome with requests for housing and transportation, so the B’nai B’rith stepped in, authorizing the construction of a hospital facility in 1910. Its illustrious president, Leo N. Levi, had died of a heart attack six years earlier, and the hospital that finally opened its doors in 1914 bore his name.

Hot Springs is a large town, but it’s still a town, and the vaunted six degrees of separation are reduced to two, or at most, three. When I told the film festival volunteer who picked me up at the airport of my family connection, she had her friend, Donna Casparian, who works there, contact me at a reception the evening of that same day. The next morning, I was given the grand tour of Levi Hospital by its CEO, Patrick McCabe.

As you might guess from the CEO’s name, Levi Hospital has drifted away from its Jewish roots. Although there are still Jewish memorabilia in various spots (mezeuzot, a menorah in the window of the old front entrance), I had to explain to this Scotch Irish descendent that the year 5763 inscribed as the erection date referred to the Jewish calendar. With typical Southern hospitality, Patrick, on short notice, took almost two hours out of his schedule to show me around, treated me to lunch at the modest hospital cafeteria, provided me with documents relating to the hospital’s history, and gave me a thin hardback book on the topic as well as a paper weight.

Busted with my great great uncle, Leo N. Levi

As for the family connection, you will see a picture of me with the bust of my great great uncle. [Leo and me.] Also the same multi-generational family portrait of the Levi patriarch, Abrahahm (Victoria, TX), which I had framed for my stairwell also hangs in the hospital meeting room. Other than that, not much.

In 2003, motivated by curiosity about the Texas branch of my family (my father never talked about our Texas relatives), I took a trip to San Antonio, Victoria, Galveston, and Houston to do some research in the local libraries. On the Levi side of things, Uncle Leo is far and away the most prominent of my ancestors.  Though his father was a typical Jewish-merchant-turned-banker, Leo was sent to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to be turned into an American gentleman. It worked. Even though he remained Jewish, Uncle Leo hewed closely to the model of American cultural and business success. (His classmate, writer Thomas Nelson Page, based the character of the noble Jew, Wolfert, on Levi.) He settled in Galveston as a prominent lawyer when that town was the biggest and most important in Texas. Elected national president of B’nai Brith in 1900, Levi moved to New York in that year, thereby missing the hurricane that still counts as the deadliest natural disaster ever to hit the U.S. (some 2500 dead).

Part of Uncle Leo’s fame stemmed from his windy gifts as a Victorian orator. In a time when public speaking was considered a form of entertainment, Levi’s prose was particularly orotund. I have in my possession an 1879 letter that Leo wrote to his sister, Rosa, upon learning that she was betrothed to the San Antonio merchant, my great grandfather, Moses Haas. And I quote: “… it is natural that I should rejoice when one so near to me as you are has entered the radiant avenue that leads to the temple of Hymen; and I am the more disposed to rejoice at the step you have taken, when I reflect that your chosen spouse is one so eminently fitted to make your life a long succession of happy days.”

Top that, Kanye West!


Such was one of the slogans used to promote the city. But Uncle Sam was a racist. African Americans had to open up their own baths in 1905 because they had no access to the waters otherwise. However, they were extensively used in their familiar menial capacity. And, for those yearning for the pleasures of Jim Crow service, you can still have that experience at the Buckstaff Baths. (Pun intended?) This was an aspect of Southern tourism I couldn’t pass up.

Bathing has sadly fallen out of fashion in Hot Springs. Only two bath houses are currently in operation, one modern one (been there, done that) and the Buckstaff, which has been in continuous operation since 1912 – hasn’t been upgraded since then either.

The Buckstaff opens at 7:00 a.m. and closes at 3:00 p.m. Strange hours, but if you want to avoid the crowd, you have the option of going really early. I arrived around 8:30 on a Monday morning and had the place to myself. And it was an odd experience. After dropping off my valuables at the front reception, I was led to an area of small dressing rooms, also with lockers. The Black dressing room attendant then took me back to the bath area where I placed under the care of Jim (!), an older Black man who shepherded me through the various stages of the Traditional Bathing Package ($68) without ever meeting my eyes. I was given towels with which to drape myself, but since the bathing areas are sex segregated, nudity was clearly the norm. The bathing area itself was out of another era: white small-tiled floor, stalls with marble dividers but no doors, iron tables, everything rusty and careworn but spotlessly clean. Everything white white white except for the attendants.

I began with a whirlpool soak in a clawfoot bathtub, made to drink a few cups of the water to demonstrate its lack of mineral taste. At the end of 20 minutes, Jim came with my purchased loofah and scrubbed me down: arms, back, legs. I knew better than to attempt conversation. I was then led to the stall where I enjoyed my sitzbath and an unimpeded view (no doors, as I said) of the bathing area. On to the needle shower, a Jules Verne-looking set of pipes that peppered my body with thin sprays. More drying off, then Jim wrapped me in hot towels as I lay supine on a table. By this time I was ready to give up on the cultural anthropology and just submit to the hedonism of the experience.

After the towel wrap, Jim led me to another part of the building where the massage rooms were located. My masseur was an interesting and voluble émigré from Roumania. I turned a 20-minute massage into a 30-minute one by simply getting him to talk about his life story. I had now left the traditional South and was back in familiar multi-culti territory.

Glorious Excess in Montreal November 12, 2011

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Catholicism has always had a penchant for excess—in its architecture, in its vestments, in its ritual, in its global ambitions. The Quebec version of Catholic excess surfaces most often in the painted interiors of its churches. Small churches, such as the Old Port’s Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, surprised me with the profusion and fine detail of their painted walls – not a square centimeter left uncovered.

Basilique Notre-Dame

The most astonishing of these interiors is the 19th-century Basilique Notre-Dame, a star-studded vault of blue and gold and neo-Gothic trappings that either borders on the garish or topples complete into it. I missed the nightly son-et-lumière show that would have surely established its kitsch credentials.

There are other manifestations of Catholic hubris. Montreal’s cathedral is a one-quarter-sized replica of St. Peter’s in Rome—strangely unpainted in its interior but, with its reproduction of Bernini’s baroque Baldacchino as its altar canopy, still going for baroque. But the Montreal award for religious excess goes without question to St. Joseph’s Oratory, the world’s largest shrine to the father of Jesus.

St. Joseph's Oratorio

Everything about St. Joseph’s is outsized: its basilica can seat 3000 worshippers; its dome is one of the largest in the world; it receives 3 million pilgrims a year, many of them asking for cures to physical, psychological, and spiritual ailments. The “Illuminated Chapel” houses ranks of votive candles ($5 a piece) burning at multiple stations marking various aspects of St. Joseph’s character and responding to the hopes of the worshippers: Hope of the Sick, Patron of the Dying, Terror of Demons. [Illuminated Chapel] Oil placed in a basin beneath the central statue of St. Joseph can also be purchased at the gift shop.

Illuminated Chapel

Montreal: Francais Without the French November 9, 2011

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As a rabid Francophile, I was prepared to love Montreal, the largest French-speaking city in the Western hemisphere. And, indeed, I did love Montreal. I loved the French signs, the French food, the French fries, and the language with its weird Quebecois twang. But I was also bemused by the Quebecois’ insistence on thrumming the same old historical complaints. I was in Montreal for a film festival, not paying a lot of attention to the news, but during my five days there, I read an opinion piece in a free francophone daily about how the sovereignty movement needs to be rallied out of its dangerous torpor. Local French television news featured a segment about how certain shopkeepers were being fined because the French lettering of their bilingual signs were not twice the size of their English counterparts. I tuned idly into a TV roundtable discussion under the rubric “La France a-t-elle nous abandonné?” (“Has France abandoned us?”) wherein the francophone participants made bitter reference to “the conquest”—that is, the 1763 acquisition by England of New France under the Treaty of Paris. (The treaty brought to an end the first global conflict now known by historians as the Seven Years War. Our section of it was the French and Indian War.)

Nationalist graffiti

Has France abandoned us? Well, yes . . . two and a half centuries ago. In spite of de Gaulle’s incendiary battle cry, “Vive le Québec libre!,” the Quebecois are Canadians and do pretty well by it. The French language predominates and is not going anywhere. Although a pleasant fiction in the English-speaking provinces, the Official Languages Act declared Canada to be a bilingual nation and required the use of both languages in all federal operations. One well-known bon mot on the subject says that the Quebecois want an independent Quebec within a strong Canada. Montreal itself is wealthy, well-ordered and the most genuinely bilingual city I’ve encountered. Everyone there speaks both languages to some degree. Still many of the Quebecois nurse their linguistic and historical grudge. One could make comparisons to the ideology of the post-Civil War South with its delusional attachment to The Noble Lost Cause (like slavery was so great), except that the South finally moved on.

Montreal skyline

Also, language and cuisine aside, Montreal isn’t that different from Toronto and Vancouver. The downtown streets are just as rectilinear; the skyscrapers look the same; the social services and public transportation systems are just as efficient. Montreal possesses some historical anomalies, such well-known tourist attractions as the Old City (not so rectilinear) and the myriad of Catholic churches that were lavishly decorated in part to one-up the more austere Protestant houses of worship frequented by the Anglophones.

Andrew Carnegie’s Palace of Culture October 30, 2011

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At the peak of his earning power, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was deemed the second richest man in America, coming in after J. P. Morgan. Unlike Morgan, Carnegie made philanthropy one of his life goals. According to his famous dictum, a man should spent the first third of his life preparing for the acquisition of wealth, the second third obtaining that wealth, and the final third giving it away. “A man who dies rich dies disgraced,” he pronounced, although he didn’t take his own advice. Carnegie, who had grown up in Scottish poverty before he made his fortune in railroad and steel, was a devotee of education and culture. We have all heard about Carnegie Hall in New York, and many of us also know about the Carnegie libraries that were donated to cities around the country. (Oakland received five of these buildings in 1899, including the downtown building that houses the African American Library.)


In the manner of Victorian grandees, Carnegie wanted to create institutions that would promote High Culture: music, natural science, painting and sculpture … the usual list. The Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History present an unusually pure lineage of descent from its Victorian beginnings. Built in 1895, Carnegie’s original “Palace of Culture” always housed both exhibits on natural history and fine art, and such is still the case. One ticket admits the visitor to both sets of collections, now housed in different wings. But back in the day, what were the “must-have’s” of every museum with aspirations to major standing? – classical statues (check), fine art (check), Egyptian antiquities (check), and DINOSAUR BONES! Remember that the end of the 19th century witnessed a dinosaur craze. Bustled ladies and hatted gentlemen milled in wonder around terrifying skeletons of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in unlikely battle against a ceratosaur.


Carnegie wanted dinosaur bones for his Palace of Culture, and he got them. He financed a whole institute, and in 1899, his paleontologists scored their first big find, an 84-foot sauropod (affectionately dubbed “Dippy”) christened Diplodocus carnegii in honor of its adoptive dad. Dippy was only the first of Pittsburgh’s big dinosaurs. Between 1909 and 1922, 350 tons of dinosaur fossils (mostly discovered in New Mexico) were shipped to the Carnegie Museum. Consequently, Pittsburgh is one of the best places on earth to see dinosaur bones. The Dinosaurs in Their Timeexhibit is highly informative, beautifully mounted, and will take even a jaded adult back to childhood wonder.  Set up with theatrical flair, the dinosaur exhibit places its classic skeletons in painted recreations of the Jurassic world in which they lived.

Jurassic scene

Remember those hokey dioramas of African wildlife in the natural science museums of your youth? They’ve fallen out of fashion, but the Carnegie Museum has maintained them in their pristine glory. I’ve been to Africa many times, and I still got a kick out of checking these out. Behold the Arab Courier Attacked by Lions.

Arab courier attacked by lions

Postmodern theorists would have a field day with such simulacra, but I will spare you the theoretical implications. Except to say that I found it interesting that Hall of Ancient Egypt and the Hall of American Indians were also part of the Museum of Natural History.


Carnegie paid for the Fine Art side of things too. In 1896, Pittsburgh hosted the first of the Carnegie Internationals, the oldest ongoing exhibition of contemporary art in the New World. Consequently, the museum possesses examples of many important artists of the 20th century, including one of Monet’s Water Lilies. Of course the collection can’t compete with major art powerhouses in Paris, Washington, London, and the like, but for a mid-sized city in the Midwest . . . pretty damn good.


There are some fun hangovers from the Victorian legacy. The Grand Staircase houses a turn-of-the-century mural that is touching in its innocent celebration of work and industrial power.

Carnegie Museum Grand Stairway

The Hall of Architecture houses the largest plaster cast collection of Greek and Roman buildings in North America. In our age of mass international travel, the necessity of recreating Classical masterworks of sculpture and architecture for home-bound artists and consumers of culture has gone the way of dodo bird. There’s a stuffed one on display in the Hall of Birds. (I only hope I live long enough to see the day when Tea Partiers will be considered candidates for taxidermy.)

Pittsburgh: The Pleasures of a Third Tier Town October 19, 2011

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Pittsburgh in oil

Who travels to Pittsburgh for tourism alone? Although there is plenty to do here, few people would purposely fly any great distance to visit the Andy Warhol Museum or ride the wonderfully restored Mt. Washington incline railways. Everyone knows of Pittsburgh. Who hasn’t heard of the Steelers? Andrew Carnegie?U.S.Steel? All of these people and institutions have left their stamp upon this small city, yet it remains just that . . . a small city.San Francisco  too is small city, though a Second Tier one. And Savannah,Georgiais even smaller. Yet Savannah is a tourist destination in a way that Pittsburgh is not.

Of course Pittsburgh is a regional hub, Pennsylvania’s second city and the largest city of the Appalachian Mountains. People come here for other reasons. I myself am here for a film festival (another LGBT one) and to visit my young cousin Jeremy, who is a senior at Carnegie Mellon University. However, I also have a bit of past with Pittsburgh. When I was a young man, working as a mid-level bureaucrat for Peace Corps/Washington, I spent my Christmases in  Pittsburgh, with the family of friends from Peace Corps days who had settled there. This was in the 1980s. And through five or six successive Decembers, I got to know this charming city somewhat well.

Pittsburgh across the Monangahela River

Pittsburgh deserves consideration as a travel destination. Its physical setting is quite beautiful, bordered by great rivers and spanned by picturesque bridges.

Reflected buildings in the Golden Triangle







The downtown area, known as the Golden Triangle, is cute and compact, a walkable mixture of 19th century and contemporary architecture. Major money from the steel industry heyday created buildings with magnificent interiors, and Pittsburgh, for whatever reason, not only survived the demise of its industrial base but successfully replaced it with a mix of service sector businesses (finance and health care).

What’s interesting about Pittsburghas a case study in tourism is that it boasts all of the generic attractions of a city of any importance. It possesses big cultural institutions (the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra), major sports teams (the Pirates), important museums (the Carnegie Museums), the above-mentioned downtown area, gorgeous parks (Schenley – really pretty now due to fall foliage). You can find the same in Cleveland, Providence, and Richmond—other cities that are not really tourist destinations in themselves. Ditto the neighborhoods, wide array of restaurants, and Famous Names. (Did you know that Stephen Foster was born and raised in Pittsburgh? I didn’t.)

The Cathedral of Learning from my hotel balcony

Yet Pittsburgh has its quirky sights, things that are unique to this endearing town that doesn’t puff itself up. The Universityof Pittsburgh’s kitschy Cathedral of Learning  houses 24 classrooms reflecting the culture and history of the various ethnic groups that make up the city’s population. The Mt.Washington incline railways are a wonderful time capsule into the 19th century as well as a magic carpet rise to spectacular views of the city and its rivers. And, for history buffs (I’m one), the Ft. Pitt Museum housed in a rebuilt rampart of the original structure, provides an entertaining and scholarly overview of how nakedly and shamefully the French, British, Americans, and Indians strove for power and dominion. (The 1763 Indian uprising, Pontiac’s War, was a revelation to me. Now, of course, the Ottowa Indian chief brings to mind only the brand name of a vintage automobile. Sic transit Gloria mundi.)

Calling the Kettle “White”: My Interview with JD Dragan October 8, 2011

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Photographer JD Dragan

JD Dragan is a gay white photographer who has made a career of photographing Black male nudes—a perfect subject for my current film project on gay interracial desire. JD lives in Philadelphia, a town he doesn’t particularly care for, and had a one-man show early in the summer entitled, “The Modern Slave.” As opposed to pictures he had taken where lighting, symmetry, and the body beautiful were paramount (he is technically superb), the pictures in this show featured specifically political content: these same models with symbols associated with slavery and oppression such as a noose, cuffs, an American flag.

Article 1

All of JD’s models are physically stunning, many of them body builders, so the presentation of Black gays in such a context by a white photographer generated the expected controversy. In fact, when I first read an extended review of the show in The Philadelphia Weekly , I myself was sure that here was another chocolate queen blowing his obsession up into Art. (A slight case of projection, perhaps?)

Then I interviewed the guy, and I had to change my mind.

Certainly JD is a chocolate queen. And, like most gay men, he is obsessed with physical beauty. Yet his idealized portrayal of Black men springs from a genuine love of the species, a profound belief that reducing them to walking genitalia is profoundly racist. Of course their bodies are beautiful, but so are their faces, their spirit, and their intelligence. There are white men who desire Black men to reinforce their superiority in the Western racial hierarchy, but there are also those who desire Black men out of Afrophilia, if I may coin that term. (A slight case of projection, perhaps?)

So I ended up liking JD quite a lot. Of course I find his images beautiful and erotic. Amusingly, he says the top three categories of his collectors are 1) white gay men, 2) Black gay men, and 3) straight Jewish couples. Now I doubt that the gay white men buying JD’s pictures do so out of desire to restore full humanity to portrayals of Black men. (I can’t tell you how many reproductions of Michaelangelo’s David I’ve seen in queer living rooms.) I get JD’s point, and I find it admirable. However, the eroticism of the image trumps any liberating agenda—at least for me.

Man in Polyester Suit

In response to the criticism JD frequently encounters that he is a Mapplethorpe knock-off, JD responds that, unlike Mapplethorpe, he loves and respects his models. JD feels that Mapplethorpe, though rigorously aesthetic, reduces his Black men to sculptural objects, that as a photographer he is cold and classist. JD is appalled at the famous Mapplethorpe image, “Man in a Polyester Suit;” would NEVER reduce a Black man to a penis. I’m not sure, however, that I can tell the difference between a Dragan image of a perfect Black nude and one by Mapplethorpe.

And other questions come up for me: what about Black women? Are their images not also reduced by racial stereotyping? What about Black men who don’t have perfect bodies? JD might justly respond that he works his corner of the field and that others are free to work theirs. But then one is drawn to the question, how effectively can a white man liberate the image of a Black man? (A slight case of projection, perhaps?)

Dreams of Empire: The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal October 2, 2011

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I have just returned from a week long bike ride that took me from Washington, DC to just outside Pittsburgh, PA. The first 184 mile of this ride was mostly along the C&O Canal towpath, a lunatic idea that actually bore some fruit, supported by American hubris and 19th century technology.

The idea of a commercial route linking the fertile Ohio River Valley with the Eastern Seaboard was the dream of many an early entrepreneur, but the canal version received a particularly powerful boost from none other than George Washington Himself. As a young man (19), Washington had crossed the Appalachian Mountains in early skirmishes of the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763), had seen the possibilities of the land there, and acquired more the 30,000 acres by 1772.

Young Washington strikes a heroic pose in Cumberland, MD

The Revolutionary War and the two terms as the nation’s first president diverted His attention somewhat, but Washington founded the Patowmack Company in 1785 in order to develop what He considered to be the most viable route to the west. There were some slight obstacles to using the river, namely cataracts and a mountain range, but wasn’t this the 18th century when all things were possible?  The reason that the nation’s capital was placed where it was on the Potomac was because 15 miles upstream flowed Great Falls, the first of these challenges.

A slight obstacle 15 miles upstream from Washington, DC

Given the technology of the times, the only way to bypass these was by building a series of locks and canals. Washington encouraged the use of the Potomac route by introducing a bill that established a federal armory upstream at Harper’s Ferry. (The Civil War battle of Antietem revealed just how disastrous this location would prove, but that catastrophe lay in the future.) Washington died in 1799, but the locks at Great Falls were opened in 1802, and the river was now navigable up to Seneca Falls.

So far so good. However, New York and Pennsylvania were proceeding with their plans to build canals to the lands beyond the mountains. (The Erie Canal opened in 1825.) Alarmed by the competition, influential leaders in the mid-Atlantic region convened a convention in 1823 and pushed the unfeasible idea of a canal running either from Baltimore or Georgetown (a “suburb” of DC) through the Cumberland Gap to the westward running rivers that would end up at the Ohio River. When Georgetown won out as the canal’s starting point, Baltimore, in a fit of pique, funded the equally speculative idea of a railroad line linking their city with the Ohio River Valley, the birth of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

As a matter of fact, both projects broke ground on exactly the same day: July 4, 1828.

When the U.S. Board of Engineers priced the C&O project at a staggering $22 million, the shocked canal lobbyists ordered a second survey which reduced the estimate by almost half. In a remarkable foreshadowing of defense contracting practices, this was . . . optimistic. The C&O Canal took 22 years to complete, included 11 hand-hewn stone aqueducts, 74 locks, each with its own lock keeper’s house, and almost 13,000 other structures (i.e., bridges, flumes, waste weirs). The most ambitious of these was the Paw Paw Tunnel a 3,118-foot boondoggle that took 12 years to build, bankrupted its subcontractor, and almost put the C&O Canal Company out of business. It’s pretty cool to walk through, however.  It had poured the night before (much of the weather sucked during our ride), which created spectacular waterfalls at the entrance.

Southern entrance to the Paw Paw Tunnel

When the Canal finally opened up to Cumberland in 1850, the railroad had beat it there by 8 years. However, railroad engines were still weak affairs, and trains couldn’t haul nearly as much as canal boats, so the C&O Canal Company had that advantage. They had the disadvantages of dry spells, floods, and winter freezes, however.

Nonetheless, after the Civil War, the Canal began to make money, peaking at 1/2 million in tolls in 1874, carrying mostly coal. Railroad technology continued to improve, however, and the Canal lost business to the B&O Railroad, which was able to carry goods to Baltimore’s deep water harbor. The C&O Canal Company slid toward bankruptcy and a devastating flood in 1899 would have halted operations permanently, but the B&O Railroad had purchased the canal in order to prevent another railroad from building on its right-of- way. The deal was, however, that the railroad (now “transportation”) company had to keep the canal open and running “at a profit.” This fiction was put to an end by another flood in 1924. The Canal went from artificial life support to suspended animation. And there is stayed until the federal government acquired it in exchange for collateral and debt forgiveness in 1938.

For the next two decades, the government tried to figure out what to do with this property. Of course a dam was proposed, then a parkway along the lines of the Blue Ridge highway. Justice William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court led a famous 1954 walk on the towpath to call for the canal’s conservation. Finally in 1971 the C&O was designated a National Historic Park in a bill signed by the Great Satan of the time, President Nixon.

It took our bike tour 4 days to follow the Canal towpath from Georgetown to Cumberland. The weather was often wet but not cold: green and lush landscapes, many beautiful water views of the canal and the Potomac. Not all of the canal had water in it, but there were many sections that carried the peacefulness of elongated pools. Some canoeing, some fishing, biking, historical structures galore, and the consistent crunch of the towpath. Because of the unseasonably wet weather, we biked through many puddles. My rental bike had no fenders, so staying clean was simply not an option.  Fun . . . dirty fun.

Mud tail