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Archive for June, 2010

I had just spent four days and nights in the Grand Sierra resort hotel in Reno, interspersing gambling and eating with day trips to exciting outposts like Tahoe, Lovelock, Winnemucca, and Paradise Valley. I’d been away since Mother’s Day and now it was time to return home. I planned to leave Reno around 6:30 p.m., arrive in Oakland about 45 minutes later, spend the night at the Oakland Airport Holiday Inn, and get up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the final leg of my journey via Hawaiian Airlines. My plan was perfect. Its execution left much to be desired. The best laid plans of mice and men…

The first warning sign appeared on arrival at Oakland when I attempted to contact Holiday Inn via the terminal courtesy phones. I tried each of the three phones several times but received only busy signals. I finally decided to take a chance that the shuttle would eventually make its scheduled rounds and pick me up at the shuttle and taxi waiting areas outside of the terminal. Instead of catching a shuttle, I caught a case of the shivers. Others around me were wearing appropriate outerwear whereas, fresh from temperate Reno, I wore paper-thin pants and shirt. I stood in the cold until I could take it no longer before I decided to hop a cab. The driver was a nice guy, but he must have pegged me as a sucker. He rolled right by Holiday Inn Express, hardly slowing until I said in an authoritative voice, “There’s Holiday Inn,” to which the driver lied, “Sorry, I couldn’t change lanes in time.”

He circled around while the meter ticked merrily along, finally dropping me at the entryway where he preemptively lied through his teeth again, “I don’t have any change.”  I’ve encountered drivers like this in Washington, D.C. An ordinary passenger may well take a complete tour of the District before reaching his or her hotel a short distance from Reagan National. Apparently, these guys can distinguish a rube from a Senator by smell or something.  Equally apparent, taxi drivers must have a nationwide network because my Oakland guy was a carbon copy of my D.C. guy, polite but shifty. I finally tossed the guy a $$ bill and said something like, “Burn in hell, Ratso,” quickly hopping out of the cab and running toward the Inn’s doors with two bags in hand. I am uncertain about this, but I would swear a polite voice wafted after me, a voice roughly translatable as “Screw you, Jack.”

Inside the hotel, I announced my reservation to everyone in earshot only to be told that Holiday Inn had no record of said reservation. But, the clerk announced, “I can make one for you.” Panicky now, I agreed to the “best available rate,” which, needless to say, was higher than the rate quoted when I made my reservation on line several days ago. Later, I learned that there are two Holiday Inns at the Oakland Airport, Holiday Inn Express and Holiday Inn and Suites. The Oakland International Airport is no longer a sleepy little dirt runway across the bay, the one with customer-assisted rubber band windup airplanes. Today, it’s the Oakland International Airport, replete with nearby accommodations and fast taxis as well as a FedEx hub. At any rate, I finally reached my room, set my clock for a four a.m. wake-up, and hit the sheets.

The following morning, I woke, completed the obligatory civilized toilet and left the hotel on the shuttle at fifteen minutes before 5 a.m. The trip was short, a couple of minutes at most. And little ole Oakland International was already packed to the gills with crowds of people heading God knows where. I suddenly realized the significance of the herds. It was Get Away Friday. Threading my way through the lines of checker inners, I noted that the Hawaiian Airlines check-in counter wasn’t where I expected it to be, on the main floor with all of the other airlines. Instead, Hawaiian was, to quote a TSA guy walking by me, “Past all of the counters. Turn right. Go up a ramp. Hawaiian is at the top of the ramp.”

Well, he got it right for the most part. At the Oakland Airport, Hawaii apparently hasn’t yet achieved statehood. So much for Hawaii 50. Hawaiian Airlines was in the International Flights section, a turn to the left at the top of the ramp and a sort of slight angled curve to the left beside the security check point. I noticed a single agent and walked over to her. She reminded me of the taxi driver when she preemptively said, “We don’t open until 6 a.m.” Okay, so here I am at five minutes after five thinking I’ll be the first in line only to learn that, sure, I can be Number One if I want to stand in the same spot for 55 minutes. I opted for a seat nearby and bided my time reminiscing.

We had driven 2,000 miles from Port Arthur, Texas, to Reno, with overnight stops in Amarillo and Las Vegas. We also stopped along the way to stretch our legs and empty our bladders and put away some victuals. By far the best meal we had was in a casino restaurant in Indian Springs, Nevada. This is open range country where cows wander among the sagebrush until gathered, branded, and sent to feed lots. We didn’t see a single cow the entire length of Nevada, but several cowboys were having an early Sunday morning breakfast in Indian Springs. These cowboys weren’t the Wrangler-butted, slim-waisted, broad-shouldered stereotypes in romance novels. Cowboys like these may exist but the ones we spotted were rather paunchy and leathery looking. Despite their ordinariness, a couple of them had good looking girls hanging on to them. Go figure.

But in the Grand Sierra Resort Hotel where we stayed in Reno, we actually saw many cowboys suitable for the cover of romance novels. The Reno rodeo was underway when we arrived. This is one of the top rodeos in the nation, with cowboys from all over the country and many from Canada, Mexico, and South America. There were no paunches among these lanky examples of Western horsemanship. They were, without exception, tall, slim, and muscled. They were the bull riders, the bareback riders, the calf ropers, and the bulldoggers. And they walked through the casino and the hotel dining spots with beautiful women on their arms. And I don’t mean just good looking. These were beautiful women, tall and perfectly proportioned. Where did these hunks and hunkettes come from? Go figure.

We also took a couple of day trips. The first was a drive South through Carson City and Minden and up a sheer cliff called the Kingsbury Grade to Tahoe. From there, we drove U.S. 50 back to Carson City where we turned North on U.S. 395 to Reno. A couple of things impressed me on this trip. The scenery is spectacular. The snow-capped Sierras served as a backdrop to the Carson Valley, Western Nevada’s premier farming and ranching area. Minden, a beautiful town of about 3,000 people and the county seat of Douglas County, has become a preferred retirement location for Californians, sometimes derisively referred to as “Calis” among Nevadans because their numbers have driven up the price of real estate.

Tahoe was at one and the same time a beautiful location that evoked a mixture of awe and disappointment. The area has been over developed, bringing with its condos and homes and crappy looking malls, traffic woes second to no other scenic visiting spot. Oddly, or not as you choose to look at the situation, most of the license plates on cars speeding like bats out of hell when an opportunity presented itself were from California. My nephew, a one-time house electrician for one of the big casinos, once told me that he moved to Tahoe to get away from the traffic, pollution, and crime of the Bay Area only to find them almost as bad around Tahoe. Besides, he said, the temptations were great. There were enough ready, willing, and able good looking girls hanging around the casinos on any given night to tempt John the Baptist.

Our second daytrip was a straight run East across the Nevada desert to Lovelock and Winnemucca. From Winnemucca, we took a short drive North on U.S. 95 until we reached Nevada 290, which led us to Paradise Valley, a small ranching community often described as a “ghost town.” We had our reasons for visiting each of these. My mother lived in Lovelock when she was young and I just wanted to see the town. From what I could tell, it probably hadn’t changed much since she lived in it, with the exception of a gas station, a MacDonald’s, and a convenience store at the off ramp to I-40. Before we left for Winnemucca, we drove out of town on a dirt road where we saw about four cows and a lizard sunning itself on a fence post.

My curiosity satisfied, we headed for Winnemucca. I had two reasons for checking out this town. My mother often talked about it, probably because she frequently passed through on her way to and from the Bay Area and Salt Lake City, a garden spot she also lived in briefly. But closer to my heart, I once slept in the back seat of a car parked on a side street across from a casino and restaurant in Winnemucca. It happened this way. Three of us decided to drive from San Rafael to Boise, Idaho, for an Air Force Reserve summer camp. Our route took us through Tahoe and Reno. In Reno, we decided to try our luck at Harold’s Club. Mine was bad, and I soon dropped my whole bankroll at a blackjack table. By then, it was late and we decided to move on. Winnemucca was about four hours away but we eventually made it and decided to nap and have breakfast before continuing to Boise. U.S. 95 North would take us through Southeastern Oregon and into Idaho. As we drove into Winnemucca, I could tell that the town hadn’t changed much with the exception of a plethora of fast food outlets that didn’t exist when we first drove through.

As for Paradise Valley, I had no particular reason for visiting it except to say that I’d read about it, and at one time, it was on my short list of retirement spots. But I crossed it off because I wasn’t equipped for its distance from the accouterments of civilization, things like McDonald’s and such. Nevertheless, I impulsively decided to take a look at it. The drive was a short 20 miles off of U.S. 95 on Nevada 290 through a surprisingly green landscape. The town itself was a beautifully bucolic setting surrounded by ranches and fields of alfalfa that virtually touched the cottonwood shaded streets. In the short time we were in town, we spotted only a couple of people and several obviously aged abandoned buildings, leftovers from the town’s booming mining heyday. Our short sojourn off the beaten path was well worthwhile.

Segueing back to the present, the Hawaiian Air terminal finally opened for business. Checking in was quick and easy, and before I knew what was happening, I was winging across the Pacific under the watchful eyes of some of the most accommodating cabin crew members you could imagine. The flight to Honolulu was smooth, the skies were blue, and the in-flight movies were first class. Still, I missed traveling on the Mainland and before we landed, I had begun to plot out my next trip.

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The South Carolina Democratic Party is in the middle of a conniption fit. Alvin Greene, a man completely unknown to the Democratic establishment, won the recent Democratic primary against Vic Rawl, the party’s preferred candidate. Now, unless the Democrats can figure out how to remove Greene, he will be the party’s candidate against South Carolina’s incumbent Republican Senator Jim DeMint in the general election in November.

So far, the Dems have been unsuccessful in determining how Greene not only found his way onto the primary ticket but also won with 59% of the votes. That is a victory even well-known and popular politicians would call a landslide.

Led primarily by Representative Jim Clymer, the third raking House Democrat, the South Carolina Democratic establishment has waged a campaign to tarnish Greene and diminish his stunning upset. Among other accounts, Clymer has accused the Republican Party of “planting” Greene on the Democratic ticket, but that doesn’t explain Greene’s 59 percent unless the plant was followed by an organized turnout of Republicans voters in the Democratic primary. That’s possible. South Carolina has an open primary system, meaning “a registered voter can vote in any party primary regardless of his own party affiliation.” (Wikipedia)

Others have suggested irregularities in the voting machines used by the State of South Carolina, strongly intimating that the machines were defective or had been tampered with to skew election results. South Carolina’s Elections Commission staunchly denied the allegations and has stated that it will not impound the machines pending an investigation as requested by Vic Rawls, Greene’s losing opponent.

The Democratic establishment has also attacked Greene personally. Some Democrats question his mental capacity, arguing that he seems lethargic and uninformed. Others note that although Greene received an honorable discharge from the U.S. military, the discharge was “involuntary.”

Questions have also been raised about the source of a $10,400 filing fee Greene needed to have his name placed on the Democratic ballot. The implication of these questions is meant to imply an impropriety that would disqualify Greene and permit Rawl to become the candidate. Given the state of campaign funding today, the source of those funds will probably turn out to be irrelevant unless he acquired the money by robbery or some other patently felonious means.

Perhaps somewhat relevant, Greene was arrested in November and charged with showing obscene internet photos to a University of South Carolina co-ed, a felony.” However, he hasn’t been indicted yet and consequently he hasn’t entered a plea. Still, this speaks to moral and ethical character, an attribute largely absent without leave among both Democrats and Republicans recently.

One of more specious explanations for Greene’s win is the placement of his name on the ballot. Academics have long theorized that voters will arbitrarily check a name at the top of the list when they have no interest in an election yet wish to demonstrate their civic involvement for reasons only they know. Politicians often have a habit of co-opting academic theories and “paradigms” for expediency’s sake.

The most interesting aspect of Greene’s win isn’t the win itself but the reaction to it. Why are South Carolina’s Democrats going berserk? If we don’t know by now, we should. A win by an unknown is a threat to the established power system. If Greene’s win stands, he will be viewed as a danger to old power relationships as well as a model for others who may wish to challenge the old guard in other primaries. When power is challenged, it will strike quickly and viciously. The Greene incident and the Democratic reaction to it is a classic example of power dared at great risk.

Postscript

A highly unusual aspect to the hullabaloo is a series of polls showing that the Republican candidate, Jim DeMint, has an almost insurmountable lead over any Democratic candidate whose name appears on the general election ballot. The situation may change between now and November but that’s iffy. Even if Greene is eventually certified as the Democratic candidate and garners a few sympathy votes, DeMint is nonetheless expected to win the general election.

Given the virtual certainty that DeMint will become South Carolina’s next Senator, the wonder is that Rawl would wish to appear on the Democratic ticket. He might be putting up a fight against Greene merely to protect his credentials as a fighter worthy of future political bouts, or he may sincerely believe he can overtake DeMint’s lead and triumph on Election Day.

The latest development is a request by Rawls to the Democratic Party’s 92-member Executive Committee asking it to declare Greene’s win invalid. Whether or not the committee will rule in Rawl’s favor remains to be seen, but one factor that may influence a decision is precedent. There’s never been a new primary in the history of South Carolina politics.

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A few days ago, I wrote about Dining on Texas Time, in which I entertained the world with tales of Luby’s, a Texas dining institution since 1947. During our dinner in the Port Arthur cafeteria, I happened to meet the Mayor of Port Arthur, Bobby Prince, and we chatted about nonessentials for a half-minute or so because I didn’t know who she was until my dining companion mentioned that she was the Mayor just as she was leaving.

I was mortified for two reasons. I had been raised to stand in the presence of ladies since birth. In fact, I still vaguely remember my mother propping me up each time my grandmother entered the room. But suddenly, here I am busily shoveling a slice of custard pie in my mouth. All sense of propriety and any memory of my early training just desserted me. It’s Luby’s fault, of course, for making a pie so delicious my memory banks were temporarily out of order.

I also learned from an early age that a good American ought to stand in the presence of high elected officials. Over the years, though, I’ve modified my early beliefs. I no longer naively consider each and every elected politician to be a shining example of American democracy worthy of my respect. Hence, with age and wisdom, the number of politicians who absolutely disgust me has skyrocketed. I won’t name any of them here because the thought of them activates my gag reflex. They do not deserve my respect and I will not pretend otherwise by rising for the sake of politeness or to show “respect for the office.”

But the Mayor of Port Arthur is another kind of politician altogether. In fact, I’m not sure she’s a politician at all. Long before a friend introduced us at Luby’s, I had heard only praise about her, and in the couple of articles I’d read while researching her background, I found no hint of scandal or misconduct. I reasoned that anyone who won reelection by a margin of 63 percent of the votes cast must possess a lot of positive qualities, qualities career politicians lack. Either that or she sprinkled stardust over Port Arthur the morning of the election.

At any rate, to make a short story longer, I apologized (I think) to the Mayor for my lapse of comity. I said, “Holy smoke! You’re the Mayor? I should stand up but I’m too old. My legs aren’t working right now.”

And then I went back to my custard pie. When it comes to choices, I’ll take a custard pie over standing in the presence of an elected official any day of the week. I have my priorities.

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We had dinner at Luby’s in Port Arthur this evening. Luby’s has been a Texas institution since its founding in 1947 in San Antonio. Today, the Houston-based company has 103 cafeteria-style diners scattered across Texas, including one in Arkansas and two in Oklahoma.

Beyond Texas, Luby’s is largely unknown or unremembered. Luby’s achieved world-wide exposure in 1991 when George Hennard walked into a Luby’s in Killeen, Texas, and gunned down 24 people. The episode is referred to as Luby’s massacre in some sources. However, Luby’s rebounded and grew, although the site of the murders in Killeen was closed permanently in 2000.

Today’s menu of Luby’s family-oriented chain is classic Texas-Southern. After a diner selects a tray and eating utensils at the beginning of the line, he or she has a wide choice of salads, vegetables, entrees as varied as Cuban-style Tilapia, and desserts. The Tilapia surprised me because it’s a game fish native to Africa that is often regarded as an invasive species in locations such as Hawaii, where it gained a foothold in the lakes and streams on Oahu, largely pushing aside Bass and pan fish. I’ve eaten Tilapia but it wasn’t to my taste. However, to each his own.

At any rate, I wasn’t in the mood for a heavy meal, so I selected a vegetable platter of spicy pinto beans, corn, and fried okra. Along with my Spartan selection, I opted for a slice of custard pie and a glass of milk. If that doesn’t holler Texas Cajun, I don’t know what does.

The Port Arthur Luby’s is a relatively new diner but it has already become a gathering spot for local notables. My dinner companion seemed to know them all.  The moment we sat down, he bobbed up about five times in quick succession to greet someone. Of course, I had to stand also for introductions, and at one point I wondered if the moon would rise and set before we completed our meal.

But then the Mayor of Port Arthur, Deloris “Bobby” Prince, stopped by our table and chatted for a few minutes. She had recently won a bruising re-election battle and was in good spirits. She has a sterling reputation for honesty and is noted for her efforts on behalf of Port Arthur’s poor and disadvantaged.

The most common adjectives I heard applied to her were “honest” and “kind.”  I immediately thought that American politics could profit from a healthy dose of honesty and kindness among its Lying Class. It’s difficult to put aside thoughts of lying scoundrels, even in a nice, pleasant atmosphere.

After we finished our meal, my dinner companion piled me into a Toyota Tacoma and gave me a grand tour of the latest mall. The town of Port Arthur is growing by leaps and bounds, fueled by the refineries churning out their petroleum-based products twenty-four seven. An influx of workers and oil industry consultants has resulted in the new construction of malls, standalone stores, motels, and restaurants.  Yet, it seems most people head for Wal-Mart as a first stop.

Although the central part of Port Arthur is a severely decaying slum, life in other parts of the city is about like life in Little Rock, Sacramento, Portland, and Honolulu. The moon rises and sets over all of them. Folks work, shop, eat, and play. Only the wardrobes and accents differ.

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The pace of life here in Southeast Texas isn’t slow. In fact, put a Texan behind the wheel of a Ram Dualie Crewcab and the Brickyard guys will have nothing on him. Or her. Texas has a lot of good-looking women in tight Levis tooling around and looking for men with Wrangler butts. Actually, when I think about it, it’s the same in San Francisco. Men and women looking for love in all the wrong places. Only the clothes and the places of encounter differ.

But Texas has one up on the West Coasters when it comes to living the outdoor life. Texans spend every spare moment browsing a variety of stores catering to the sportsman’s life. Whereas a San Franciscan may head for Macy’s at sunrise, a Texan will head for Gander Mountain or a similar sporting goods department store.

Among other items, Gander offers apparel and footwear, and a full line of goods related to hunting, firearms, fishing, camping, boating, auto, and ATV. I took this list directly from the store’s website, and as I was typing this post while trying to remember what I had just read, I noted an omission. Gander also carries darned near a full line of Cajun seasonings and food items.

Naturally, Texans do more than just browse the merchandise and dream about that date certain when they’ll abandon their homes and head for the big Thicket, the Piney Woods, the Hill Country, and a host of other final resting places, where they’ll live happily ever. Texans also drink a lot of beer and sweet tea and eat a lot of chicken fried steak.

All, or most, of these thoughts occurred to me as we browsed Gander a couple of days ago. But one of my browsing companions outdid me. Offhandedly, she asked, “What if someone furnished an entire house with the stuff available right here in this store? No real chairs, no tables, no beds. Just the canvas variety. Throw in a Coleman lantern, pipe in the sound of chirping birds, crickets, and a coyote’s howl, and, heck, why drive a hundred miles for chigger bites all over your buns?”

Not to be outdone, I added to her thought. “Hey, that’s a great idea for a TV show. ‘The Campers.’ Ed and Nora Camper. Watch two ordinary Americans live their dream. Watch them raise their children, Maribel and Gavie. Complete with Happy, the Loyal Butler, who dons his camouflage rain gear each episode and ventures into the forests, foraging for organic venison as the Campers discuss the advantages and disadvantages of inviting Sarah Palin over for Sassafras tea cocktails.”

I’ll admit that my idea sounds screwy, and I haven’t the slightest doubt that I’ve insulted someone. But what the hell am I supposed to do in the Southeastern-most corner of Texas while I’m waiting for a string of thunderstorms to blow through.

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