My kids are studying 9/11 in school. Yesterday my son was talking about it and described a video they watched featuring victims, family members of victims, and witnesses as "old people talking about 9/11." He spoke of it in the same terms as we might've talked about History Channel shows featuring World War II veterans.
My son is a 14-year-old freshman. September 11 happened almost four years before he was born. On my timeline, the moon landing and Woodstock are equivalently remote historical events. Which is a reminder that while, for many of us, 9/11 seems like it happened quite recently, it's not viewed by younger people in the same way. This should be an obvious sort of observation. "Time marches on" and all of that, but I feel like we're not letting time march on naturally with 9/11.
Unlike so many historical events, 9/11 continues to dominate the zeitgeist in a host of ways, many of them unhealthy. Most obviously, we're still fighting wars, either in response to it or for which it served as a pretext. But it likewise continues to inform our country's policies, business practices, political rhetoric, and mood. Post 9/11 life is so thoroughly shaped by it that I think we often forget just how different things are now than they were 18 years ago today.
There's a balance to be struck between "never forgetting" and "respectfully moving on." I'm not sure anyone has a great grip on exactly how to do that, but it's probably tied up in the difference between simply, "remembering" and having historical events serve as the fulcrum around which most current events continue to turn.
It seems we should still be able to remember the history of 9/11 without it serving as a conversation-ender or political third rail. It seems that we, as adults, should begin to think of 9/11 more like my son and his classmates are thinking about it today. As an important historical event and tragedy. As something which should be remembered and something from which we should learn. But as something that is, in fact, in the past and something which should not so thoroughly dominate the culture that it keeps us from moving forward into the future.
School starts for my two high schoolers in a week. Today was pick-up-the-schedule day, and I was required to be there with them for various little administrative tasks. It all went well except for one thing: "E + R = O."
"E + R = O" is a motivational concept developed by Jack Canfield, the guy who came up with the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books. The kids' school introduced it as some guiding concept of their own a year ago and, from the looks of things, it'll be back for the 2019-20 school year.
Why is a public high school in Ohio running with some motivational speaker's schtick? Probably because it was very prominently adopted by former Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer, who made it part of his motivational schtick several years ago.
Meyer put it in his leadership book and won a ton of football games and a national championship while giving voice to the concept. If you're from central Ohio and understand just how insane people here are about Buckeye football, it's not hard to imagine how such a thing might be picked up by school administrators who want to associate themselves with success. I mean, there may be a lot of smart educational ideas floating around out there, but how many of them were used to go 7-0 against Michigan? Yeah, I thought so.
So what is E + R = O?
The letters stand for "Events + Response = Outcomes." Here's a short version of the idea, as put by Canfield:
If unlimited success is your goal, looking outside of yourself is a strategic error. The most important lesson you must understand that you are 100 percent responsible for your life – the good and the bad . . . The basic idea is that every outcome you experience in life (whether it’s success or failure, wealth or poverty, wellness or illness, intimacy or estrangement, joy or frustration) is the result of how you have responded to an earlier event in your life. Likewise, if you want to change the results you get in the future, you must change how you respond to events in your life … starting today.
Meyer has his own spin on it, but it's basically the same thing:
You can’t control the Es of life—the Events you encounter. And you don’t have direct control over the Os—the Outcomes. The only thing you do have total control over is the Rs—your Responses to the Events you encounter.
Meyer's version goes on to set forth six mental techniques to make sure your Responses to Events help you achieve optimal Outcomes. Things like "press pause" to give yourself time to think about how you react and "get your mind right" to focus on positive things rather than negative things. Taken together, these techniques are called "The R Factor." The idea is to use "The R Factor" to "Own your R," or your Response, and thereby achieve good Outcomes when confronted by life's Events.
My kids' school's version of this is basically identical to Meyer's. There's lots of talk about the R-Factor and "Owning your R." They had a months-long program about it last year, complete with video seminars and rallies and stuff. They hand out the wristbands shown above to kids who want 'em. They even had a damn logo.
Given the misuse of the word "everyday" on it, it's pretty clear that this is 100% a function of school administrators and that the English teachers were not consulted. Maybe more than just the English teachers should've been consulted, actually, because if they were, maybe someone would've pointed out how fucked up all of this really is.
It's fucked up because E + R = O is not just a means of supplying kids with problem-solving tools. As is made plain by Canfield and Meyer, with it comes an inherent promise -- you will be successful if you do this -- that cannot possibly be kept, it completely discounts the nature of the "Events" people face in the real world, and it demands that we ignore the advantages and disadvantages some people have to begin with, which changes the nature of the Events they face. Some people will fail in life, at least temporarily, no matter how much they "Own Their R." Others will succeed, no matter what, even if they do very little.
That's because not all "Events" are created equally. Nor, despite what we are so often told to believe, are all people. At least in terms of means and privilege.
In the real world, some kids wake up in the morning with no food to eat or go to bed at night having suffered abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to care for them. In the real world the deck is stacked in favor of the wealthy, white people, straight people and men while it is stacked against the poor, people of color, LGBTQ+ people and women. In the real world people get sick or suffer from chronic diseases. In the real world people suffer from mental illness. There's a lot of bad shit out there wrapped up in that "E."
People like Canfield and Meyer, however, would have us discount all of that. "You are 100% responsible for your life," says Canfield. "Unsuccessful people focus too much on the E part," says Meyer. I'm struggling to think of how anyone other than someone who has not had to deal with much in the way of adversity -- or someone who has far more non-self-motivational tools at their disposal to deal with it such as money, power or privilege -- could discount the potential power and magnitude of adversity so cavalierly.
Which, in some ways, makes it understandable why my kids' school so readily took up the E + R = O concept.
New Albany is a wealthy community. While not everyone here is rich, there is much more money here than in almost any town or any school district in the state. Yes, everyone is fighting a battle outsiders know nothing about, but it's also the case that most people in New Albany have much greater resources to fight those battles. Poverty or economic insecurity is not a concern for the vast majority of kids here. Neither is crime. It's an overwhelmingly white place too, so most of the kids at my kids' school have never and will never have to deal with discrimination or bigotry the way many kids do.
In light of all of that it's probably true that, in a great many cases here, some simple positive thinking and R-owning will result in a great many positive Outcomes. But that's because almost any techniques -- be it "getting one's mind right" or "calling Daddy for help" -- is going to result in a great many positive Outcomes for kids in New Albany. The deck is stacked in favor of most of them and most of them are going to be dealt a better hand regardless.
That state of affairs underscores just how pernicious E + R = O is as a philosophy. It demands that people forget external inputs such as basic inequality and biased institutions and credit themselves with all outcomes. When the idea is applied to a group of people who are inherently privileged, it serves primarily to reinforce that privilege by having its practitioners believe that they, and nothing else, are responsible for their success. It demands that they forget that they were born on third base while giving them permission to celebrate hitting a triple. Meanwhile, it demands that they look at those who are not so privileged -- those who may be crushed by a wave of Events far bigger than most New Albany kids will ever know -- and blame them for their failure to achieve good Outcomes. Studies have also shown that constantly telling disadvantaged kids that society is inherently fair can be harmful.
No, I don't think that's what New Albany school administrators had in mind when they adopted E + R = O. I don't think they rolled it out as an explicit means of reinforcing the plutocracy or whatever. To the contrary, I suspect that aspect of it wasn't dwelled on much if at all and, instead, the idea's proponents focused on the "R Factor" stuff which, boiled down to its essence, is some pretty straightforward power of positive thinking stuff.
And I'm sympathetic to that.
There are better and worse ways to respond to life's challenges. It's true that it's better to be positive rather than negative if possible. It's true that it's best to find constructive ways to address adversity if we can. I want my kids to be good problem-solvers and I want them to face adversity with as much rationality, determination and positivity as they can muster. I've spent their whole lives trying as best I can to instill those ideas in them and if the school wants to help me with that, I'm happy for them to do it.
But it's possible to do that without going all-in with a toxic, prepackaged and celebrity-endorsed philosophy like E + R = O. A philosophy that casts anyone who falls short of their goals as a failure and blames them for that failure when, often, they are not to blame, and credits anyone who has achieved success as responsible for and worthy of that success even when, often, they did nothing but be born to achieve it.
And I'd say that even if Urban Meyer wasn't suspended and then forced into an early retirement because he refused to Own his R in the face of a big E that happened with one of his employees about a year ago. God, screw that guy.
Sammy Sofferin started selling cigars on Detroit street corners when he was a teenager. He was the youngest of five children and was still living at home with his widowed mother. By 1920 the then-21-year-old had parlayed his cigar money into owning, and living in, a flophouse on Henry Street with a couple dozen tenants.
By the mid-20s Sammy was the proprietor of the Powhatan Club, one of the most famous -- and notorious -- speakeasies and gambling joints in town. Around this time he bought a house in Dexter-Linwood, the upper-middle class Jewish neighborhood on Detroit's northwest side. Sammy was moving up in the world.
By the mid-30s Sammy and his growing family lived in a large mock Tudor on Wildmere Street, two blocks from the exclusive Detroit Golf Club which, then as now, was a center of power in the city. It was an interesting choice, as Sammy would almost certainly have been denied membership because he was Jewish -- Sammy was a member of Knollwood, a Jewish country club in West Bloomfield -- but it spoke to his ambition.
His true arrival came in 1940. That was the year he opened "Sammy Sofferin's Wonder Bar and Indian Room" on the ground floor of the Book Tower on tony Washington Blvd. It was an immediate hit. It, and Sammy, quickly became Detroit institutions.
A typical evening out at the Wonder Bar would start with strong cocktails followed by brandy-spiked turtle soup or "shrimp a la Powhatan," which was bread shaped like a pyramid onto which fried shrimp, chicken livers, anchovies and scallops were attached with frog legs arranged around the base. Beef was always the centerpiece of dinner, with reviews of the 1940s focusing on "roast beef so tender and juicy it melts on the tongue," prepared "so pinkly rare, sliced nearly half an inch thick, swimming in its own rich brown juice." Later steaks moved to the fore, with the Wonder Bar credited as the first restaurant to introduce New York strips to Detroit.
Entertainment was also on the menu. One night you might be treated to the jazz stylings of Lee Walters. On another it might be Pedro DeLeon's samba quartet or "Spanish blues singer" Linda Garcia. Or maybe you'd be lucky enough to visit the Wonder Bar on a night "Latin troupe extraordinaire," the La Playa Dancers, led by "the exotically beautiful Grace Conrad" were on hand. On more tame nights you might get something a bit more standard from Charles Costello and his orchestra. Still, you could dance to it.
Sammy's track record with the Powhatan Club and his connections with lawyers, judges and business leaders around town ensured success for the Wonder Bar, but its location across the street from the Book-Cadillac Hotel gave it an added boost. Visiting entertainers and athletes were regular fixtures. So too were criminals. Prominent members of the Jewish underworld patronized the Wonder Bar for both business and pleasure. The mobster Moe Dalitz took meetings in the exclusive Indian Room. He met his second wife in the cocktail lounge where he was a regular.
Between Sammy's history with gambling and speakeasies, the nature of his business, the nature of his clientele, and the fact that he was, quite clearly, a lifelong hustler, it's hard to imagine that Sammy wasn't, at the very least, on extremely friendly terms with organized crime. Indeed, it'd be hard to imagine how he'd be allowed to run the Powhatan Club in an era when the Purple Gang controlled the liquor and gambling trade in Detroit without being on very good terms with them.
When Sammy died in 1969, two years after retiring and selling the Wonder Bar, the Detroit Free Press' obituary nodded at all of that but didn't quite make it explicit. Probably because they didn't have to.
So that's my uncle Sammy. Who, for as much fun as that all was to write, may as well be a total stranger to me.
As I mentioned when I wrote about my murderous great-great grandmother a couple of years ago, my extended family is a total black hole to me. I didn't know any of that stuff about her when I did that research and I didn't know anything about Sammy Sofferin this time last week. All of the information included in this piece came from looking at census records, telephone listings, real estate records, some newspaper clippings, restaurant reviews and other assorted documents I dug into after impulsively signing up for a trial account on Ancestry.com last Sunday afternoon. It certainly wasn't well-known family folklore of any kind. At least among anyone who is still alive.
I'm not sure why I signed up for the Ancestry account as I'm actually not all that interested in genealogy for its own sake. Oh, sure, I've found out a lot of stuff about what ship my sixth-great grandpa McIntyre came over on from Scotland in 1739 and what castle my 10th great-grandpa Kniveton lost in Derbyshire after he chose the wrong side in the English Civil War, but that's not super important to anything that matters in my life or the world. We are what we do and what we experience, not what someone who shared genetic material with us 300 or 400 years ago did. Even if it was, my mom, dad and my brother were all raised by at least one adoptive parent, so I'm a very strong proponent of family being about relationships over blood and nurture trumping nature.
Still, it's amazing how much information is out there if you simply look for it. Or, rather, if you take Daryl Zero's advice at the top of this article and don't look for any specific thing and just see what appears before you. Indeed, in some ways I like finding out about my family's history this way. If I had grown up around these people -- or around the people who knew them -- it probably wouldn't be so fascinating to me.
Family stories have a way of insisting upon themselves and their own narratives in ways that make it difficult to question what you hear. If you've been told your grandma was 1/8 Cherokee for your entire life you're probably not very likely to easily accept the fact that, nah, actually she's not. It's too much a part of your family's folklore. The same might happen if I had heard stories about my great-great uncle Sammy from some grandparent or second cousin. I'd have some opinions about it all based on their opinions about it and all of it would be filtered through some storytelling and unreliable narration.
As it is now, though, I can kind of take this all in with fresh eyes and no expectations. I can think of Sammy as just some person who seems to have led a pretty damn fun and interesting life and not some family member from whom I feel obliged to glean some meaning or significance. Or, as I suspect happens more often with people who are super into genealogy, I won't feel obliged to project favorable or admirable things onto him and hope it reflects well on me.
Families are just people. Some of them are murderers. Some of them are gangsters or, at the very least, friends of gangsters. It's a lot more fun to find that kind of thing out yourself than it is to hear some sanitized or exaggerated stories about them that colors your impressions.
Not that it's all facts and data to me. I mean, now that I know all this stuff, I'm probably gonna fantasize a good deal about going back in time -- let's say 1949? -- to order some strong cocktails and eat some Shrimp-a-la-Powhatan at the Wonder Bar. And yes, in my fantasy, I get a table up close to the exotically beautiful Grace Conrad and I get it all on the family discount.
The website I write for a living -- HardballTalk at NBC Sports -- is ten years old today.
The longest I ever held any other job was five and a half years. I only practiced law, in total, for eleven years.
Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.
An article appeared in the Washington Post yesterday about a lynching in Wytheville, Virginia in 1926. A man named Raymond Byrd was arrested after being accused of raping a white woman. He was killed in his jail cell by a mob, his body was dragged through town behind a car and he was hung from a tree. Only one person was ever charged with a crime after it occurred and he was quickly acquitted by an all-white jury. That was the end of that.
The Post’s story is less about the lynching itself, though, than it is about a man named John Johnson. Johnson is in his 80s and he has spent the past several decades researching Byrd’s killing. He has complied newspaper articles, documents and artifacts. Most importantly, he has complied a list of names of many of the people who likely took part in Byrd’s lynching. Johnson has been trying to figure out what to do with his information and how — or even whether — to publish it or otherwise make it public.
Part of the problem is that Johnson is a black man and fears both for his own safety and the safety of other blacks in Wytheville who have helped him in his research. It may seem odd for someone to worry about such a thing in 2019, especially over an event that occurred in 1926, but as Johnson’s story makes plain, racial animus and the desire to shield those responsible for racist acts has followed him his whole life and remains strong to this day, even nearly a century later.
But this is not just a matter of open and obvious racists standing in the way of enlightenment. It is the case even among those who are otherwise sympathetic with Johnson’s cause.
In the story we meet a fellow researcher — a white woman — who has information about the lynching and a list of several names Johnson does not, yet she is unwilling to share it with him. Why?
I’ve got relatives all over the county, and I don’t want to hurt them. We’re not up to making people feel bad about their ancestors . . . Being eight generations, I feel very connected to them and wouldn’t want [people] to be negative toward me,” she continued, not elaborating, as she would later, that she’d “resent it” if anyone asked her to bear responsibility for what a relative had done because “I’m not guilty of any of that,” and “nobody today is guilty of that,” and that while she was in favor of museums and Civil War memorials, she did not think the lynching needed a memorial, or a place in a museum, or a public reckoning involving names because “people would be very angry about it — I can feel it.
This despite the fact that no one here is seeking anything from anyone. Everyone who could be held legally or financially accountable for the lynching is long dead and all relevant statues of limitation have run. No one is suggesting actual consequences for anyone because such a thing would be impossible. All Johnson is looking for is a basic acknowledgment of history and even that is too much for some. It's ironic that, in an age when a certain sort of person finds it fashionable to profanely and giddily tell others than their actual, current feelings matter less than facts, some people’s feelings about their relatives’ complicity in a 93-old murder are so precious and fragile that they are effectively foreclosing any examination of a literal criminal atrocity.
We’re supposed to care about the feelings of the descendants of murderers, but imagine how this must make the black citizens of Wytheville feel. Imagine how the relatives of people who were murdered or who were put in fear of racial violence on a daily basis for decades and centuries on end feel to hear that it may make someone uncomfortable to be told that their great-grandfather was a murderer. As a white man who hasn’t known much in the way of adversity in life I can’t put myself in their shoes of course, but as someone who is both descended from a long-dead murderer and whose family was upended and, in many important ways, still suffers from the consequences of that violence, I can tell you that (a) the skeletons in your family's closet can't really hurt you; and (b) knowledge and understanding of a dark history can be beneficial to healing and improvement. In my family’s case that violence was an isolated and random act no one had to worry too much about after the fact. I can’t even begin to imagine how it would feel to be the target of centuries of systematic, state-sanctioned violence and be told “sorry, it would hurt some people’s feelings to talk about it.”
Not that such denial to confront past racism is limited to over-the-top violent acts like the lynching of Raymond Byrd.
Unapologetic racists, the sorts of which who may have, at an earlier time, lynched a black man, exist and will always exist, but those sorts are pretty easy to spot and pretty easy to deal with in modern times. The problem is that they are held up as the only example of actual racists in this country and everyone who falls short of the standard set by hood-wearing, cross-burning klansmen are implicitly absolved. The people in Wytheville are turning away from a shocking, violent act, but a bigger practical problem are the millions of people who simply do not understand the consequences of our far more common and run-of-the-mill racist past and/or refuse to reckon with them in any meaningful way. They likewise refuse to understand how much they themselves benefitted from it either directly or, because they are white, benefitted from it in comparison to people of color.
We refuse to appreciate that our family may have acquired some degree of current wealth because our parents and grandparents owned homes or property in which equity was built while people of color were prohibited from owning property for centuries (because they were property) and have been subjected to housing discrimination for the past 150 years, thereby impacting their financial prospects to this very day.
We laud the example and legacy of our fathers or grandfathers who may have moved around to take advantage of educational or professional opportunities that helped them, and thus us, move up in the world but refuse to acknowledge that such opportunities were almost totally foreclosed to people of color until very, very recently and that even now such opportunities are not offered equally.
We live in an era in which the consequence-free extrajudicial killing of black people occurs with disturbing regularity. Part of the reason such a state of affairs persists is because we simply refuse to see it as the logical and inevitable extension of such killings which took place in the past, which went unpunished then and go unexamined to this very day.
George Santayana famously said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I would offer that those who refuse to remember the past are complicit when it does so.
. . . it points to something much more frightening — that love itself exists outside the framework of justice. There is no court at which to plead your case, no authority who can grant you recompense.
A couple of years ago I wrote about my seven favorite movies in this space. Number one on that list was "The Conversation." It's still number one. I'm having a hard time imagining it will ever not be number one.
It's not a movie that, when you finish it, you say "ah, that was fun." It's not at all uplifting and there's very little action in it. Many people find it boring. I understand that. I don't blame those who don't like it for "not getting it" or whatever. Slow burns and character sketches are not for everyone. Most people watch movies to enjoy themselves and be entertained. They should, too. That's kind of the point of a movie, even if I like to torture myself with bleak, contemplative stuff like this on occasion.
Its lack of action and lack of feel-good appeal notwithstanding, aesthetically it's just a beautifully-shot and perfectly-acted movie. There isn't an ounce of fat on it. Gene Hackman is, if not my favorite actor of all time, in my top three, and this is his greatest role. And, as you can tell by our shared taste in eyewear, I like Harry Caul's personal style.
More deeply, I identify with its themes.
I've spent a lot of time in my life trying to find the right balance between observing the world with objective detachment and actively participating in it. When I was a lawyer I'd often find myself keeping myself too far removed from my clients when I found them or their interests objectionable or getting too close to them, sometimes losing my objectivity, when I did not. Since I've become a writer -- working at home, not interacting with many people in person on a daily basis -- I've felt like more of a voyeur than a participant in the world on occasion, with a tendency to disengage. This tendency is far more pronounced when I'm under stress or when I'm unhappy. It's not a good quality, and it's something I've worked hard to notice and head off when I slip into it, but I'll likely always have to work on it. To not become a low-tech version of Harry Caul, letting life simply happen to him. Either not caring to participate in the business of living beyond watching others do it or not knowing how to participate in it until it's too late.
I write all of this today because a friend of mine just pointed out a great interview of Francis Ford Coppola -- conducted by Brian DePalma of all people -- about the making of "The Conversation." It's from 1974, just as the movie was being released in theaters, so there is none of that reverent, "talk about your classic movie" stuff. You can tell Coppola knew he had a good movie on his hands -- it was nominated for Best Picture several months later, in a year that was stacked with amazing films -- but he freely talks about its flaws too, in a way I bet he wouldn't now if you asked him. It's also interesting because (a) there's an exchange in there in which I suspect DePalma got the seed for making the excellent "Blow Out" seven years later; and (b) based on stuff he says about his movie making style, you can see the hell Coppola would go through making "Apocalypse Now" a few years later coming straight down Market Street.
There are a lot of great technical details in the interview too. How Coppola went about filming the opening segment in the park, the choice of lenses to give it that voyeuristic feel and all of that. I've read a lot about that stuff before, but there's a new bit in there I hadn't read about the sound editing which kind of blew my mind. There are a lot of jarring transitions from loud to quiet in the movie and I used to think it was just because it was poorly mixed like a lot of 1970s movies are, but Coppola talks about how that was intentional and explains, quite satisfyingly, why that is so. It's one of those things that makes perfect sense and which I'm somewhat embarrassed I didn't think about while watching it, oh, 10 times.
It's been a year or two since I last watched it. After reading this interview, I'm going to have to make it 11 soon.
Last year I wrote a long true crime story that hit close to home. Like, really close to home: my great-great grandmother killed my great-great grandfather with an axe one snowy December morning in Detroit back in 1910. You'll be happy to know that she did this after my great-grandfather was born, thus allowing me to exist. Thanks for holding off on that, Nellie. I owe you one.
I had published all of this as a short ebook on Amazon and many of you bought it. Thanks for that! It's been out a while now, so I figured it was worth publishing the whole thing for free here, so here it is, in all of its dysfunctional family glory. Feel free to share it with family members who annoy you. It will really creep them out and, I suspect, treat you more kindly in the future.
If you paid $2.99 for the ebook and feel ripped off now that it's free, well, sorry. I'll make you a deal though: if someone important and powerful reads it and decides to option it for a Netflix movie or something fun like that, I'll invite you to the screening and/or buy you a beer at some point.
Two weeks ago I wrote a story about the history of the namesake for the University of North Carolina's football stadium. The upshot: in 1898, William Rand Kenan Sr. -- for whom Kenan Memorial Stadium is named -- led a white supremacist paramilitary force which rode through Wilmington, North Carolina on a horse-drawn wagon, massacring dozens and possibly hundreds of black citizens with a machine gun. The aim: to commit a coup d’etat overthrowing the local government, led by blacks and their white Republican allies.
My aim in writing that story was to bring to light a dark chapter of American history the specifics of which had been long-buried, but the reverberations of which have lived on for 120 years. History has whitewashed the Wilmington Massacre itself, but a direct result of the massacre was full and thorough ushering in of the Jim Crow era, the effects of which are still felt socially and economically to this day. What's more, many of those responsible for Wilmington -- while having their crimes either excused or forgotten -- went on to fame, fortune, greatness and, in the case of Kenan, were immortalized in monuments to their memory.
When I wrote that story, I hoped that it would start a conversation that might lead to a greater awareness of just how much of modern American society rests on a foundation created by slaveowners and white supremacists. I hoped that, eventually, someone might ask whether or not a giant college football stadium, for example, should stand as a memorial to a guy like William Rand Kenan Sr.
I didn't think, however, that the conversation would last only two weeks:
UNC-Chapel Hill will change the name on a plaque at Kenan Memorial Stadium to distance the university from William Rand Kenan Sr., who was involved in the Wilmington racial violence of 1898. The plaque on the stadium will be altered to honor William Rand Kenan Jr., Kenan Sr.’s son . . .
While it's being couched as merely changing the plaque, the fact is that the place is "Memorial" stadium, with said memorial being the plaque. If you change who is being memorialized I think it's fair to say that, technically speaking, you are changing the name of the stadium. Or certainly the purpose of its name.
I likewise think that while changing the memorial to Kenan's son is something of a cute move by the university -- no new signs or letterhead or anything else needs to be ordered -- it is, in this case, significant enough.
As the university's chancellor noted in her official statement on the matter, the son -- William Rand Kenan Jr. -- is a far more important figure for the university. His multi-million dollar bequest to the university in the 1960s led to a $300 million+ foundation that continues to benefit the university in countless ways. While some of his money was, in fact, family money inherited from the Kenan's slave owning past, it was only a small fraction of it, earned at least a couple of generations before him. He built the vast majority of it through his work as an industrialist and inherited a great deal more through his sister who had married the oil man Henry Flagler who predeceased her.
To be sure, the slave holding past of the Kenans is significant and should be noted by the university (efforts are being made to do this) and, as I wrote in my story, Kenan Jr., like so many men of his time, chose to overlook and minimize what happened in Wilmington specifically and in America at large. They should not be absolved of that. It's the case, however, that Kenan Jr. was born after the Civil War, was not involved in Wilmington and does not have any documented history of active participation in white supremacist organizations, white supremacist history or white supremacist acts. Yeah, I realize that's a pretty low bar when it comes to memorializing someone, but in light of that and in light of his undeniable impact on the university during his lifetime and in the decades since his death, it does not strike me as inappropriate to memorialize him if UNC thinks it appropriate. Especially given that the alternative would be either keeping the current monument to a murderer or mounting a long and 100% certain-to-fail challenge to get any reference to the Kenans removed from the stadium.
Being satisfied with the move from Kenan Sr. to Kenan Jr. is not just a matter of pragmatism, however. I think there's a benefit to be had in doing it this way.
As a result of the removal of the current monument and the stadium's re-dedication, the university is committing to working with UNC's "history task force," which is charged with contextualizing the university's past. If they were to simply change the name of the place to "Tar Heel Stadium" it'd be pretty easy to paper over the Kenans and their history and pretend it never happened. By changing it to William Rand Kenan Jr., one holds out hope that there will be a bit more room, in the new memorial, to explain both his history and the history of the stadium's name change. That's what "contextualization" is, after all. William Rand Kenan Sr.'s actions in Wilmington were completely and utterly unknown by almost everyone before now. By keeping it Kenan, it'll be a lot harder to bury that uncomfortable history.
And that should make everyone happy, right? So many people who dislike the revisiting of our country's slave-owning and white supremacist past decry that to do so is to "erase" history. They should be pleased then, because this does the exact opposite. It brings history that had been intentionally obscured by darkness back into the light.
Good job, UNC. You have a long way to go to fully contend with your past, but at least in this instance you got it right.
On Saturday the University of North Carolina football team will host the Pitt Panthers in their home opener, kicking off the Tar Heels’ 92nd season in Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill. Almost none of the 40,000+ fans who will show up have any idea who the stadium is named after, and even those who think they do probably have it wrong.
They've likely heard the name Kenan, as it is an extraordinarily prominent name in and around UNC. One of the university’s founders was a Kenan. The business school is named after a Kenan as is a charitable trust that endows dozens of professorships and distributes numerous grants benefitting literacy, the arts, science, technology, and secondary school education. A Kenan is currently on the Board of Trustees for the UNC School of the Arts.
Almost all things Kenan at UNC are named after chemist, industrialist and developer William Rand Kenan Jr., an 1894 UNC graduate who, after teaming up with his brother-in-law, the oil man Henry Flagler, built railroads and made a fortune developing Miami and the Florida coast. When he died in 1965 he bequeathed most of his $95 million fortune to his alma mater. Today the trust that bears his name is worth over $300 million.
The football stadium is not named after William Rand Kenan Jr., however. Rather, at his request, and following a generous donation, it was named after his parents, William Rand Kenan Sr. and Mary Hargrave Kenan. It is they, according to a plaque affixed to a freestanding monument inside the stadium, who Kenan Memorial Stadium is intended to memorialize and continues to memorialize to this day.
Most fans entering Kenan Stadium probably don’t pay much attention to the plaque and, as a result, don’t know the first thing about William Rand Kenan Sr. Even if they did read it, though, they would not learn the most notable thing about him.
William Rand Kenan Sr. was the commander of a white supremacist paramilitary force which massacred scores of black residents of Wilmington, North Carolina on a single, bloody day in 1898.
For nearly a century the events which took place in Wilmington on November 10, 1898 were known as “The Wilmington Race Riot.” That very name, however, was a lie intended to obscure what really happened.
Long portrayed as a violent uprising of black instigators put down by heroic and noble white citizens fighting for law and order, it was, in fact, a massacre. It was simultaneously a coup d’etat in which a white militia, led by a former Confederate officer and a white supremacist named Alfred Moore Waddell, killed black residents in the streets and in their homes, chased even more out of town, burned black-owned businesses to the ground and overthrew the local government, led by blacks and their white Republican allies in a coalition born of the briefly-ascendent Fusion Movement, which had just been legitimately elected.
History has tended to portray the massacre as spontaneous. It was anything but. It was preceded by months of racial and political tensions, stoked by red shirt-wearing white supremacist Democrats who were aggrieved that in Wilmington, then North Carolina’s largest city, a Fusion government sought to protect the gains freed blacks had earned during Reconstruction. On election day in 1898 the red shirts attempted to steal ballots and drive black voters away from polling places. Those efforts failed and the black-Republican coalition held power.
That night a group of over 450 white men met at the courthouse and signed a so-called “White Declaration of Independence” which specifically called for the repeal of black voting rights and the banishment of black political and business leaders from the town. The following morning signatories to the Declaration burned the offices of the Wilmington Daily Record, — the town’s black-owned newspaper — to the ground and threatened its publisher with lynching. The massacre, planned out in advance and undertaken with deliberation, had begun.
History has likewise portrayed the violence in Wilmington that day as being carried out by an unruly mob. This is also a lie. The massacre was an organized paramilitary action in which the Wilmington Light Infantry, a state militia unit which had just returned from duty in the Spanish–American War, spread out over the city, taking it over street by street, killing black citizens in the process.
The most intimidating — and the most deadly — component of the Wilmington Light Infantry was was its machine gun squad, which commanded a rapid-firing Colt gun mounted on a horse-drawn wagon. The gun, capable of firing 420 .23 caliber rounds a minute, was not property of the United States Army or the state militia. Rather, it was purchased by local businessmen who, according to contemporary accounts, believed that the gun would “intimidate into quietude” those who saw the weapon and “overawe Negroes.” The machine gun squad was likewise itself not a military force. It was led by a Civil War veteran and local businessmen named William Rand Kenan Sr., with other local business owners under his command.
The bloodshed began when foot soldiers shot and killed blacks who had gathered on the street following the burning of the Daily Record’s offices. The massacre grew much deadlier when Kenan’s machine gun wagon crossed the Fourth Street Bridge into the predominantly black part of Wilmington known as Brooklyn. Its first fusillade came in response to what witnesses claimed to be sniper fire, though no sniper was ever found. According to eye-witnesses, the gun’s volley killed 25 blacks in a matter of seconds. Later, as Kenan’s machine gun squad proceeded past an area known as Manhattan Park, it was witnessed firing into a house where three black residents were killed. The gun was later used to threaten black churches into opening their doors to be searched for weapons whites believed blacks to be stockpiling and individuals white leaders deemed to be dangerous or subversive. No weapons were found but many black residents were marched out of hiding. Some were thrown in jail. Some were never seen again.
As the morning wore on, Kenan’s forces and other units of the Wilmington Light Infantry conducted house-to-house searches, intimidating residences into compliance, arresting blacks by the dozens and shooting those who gave even the slightest hint that they might resist. Some blacks who were specifically identified as influential in the community were hunted down and killed. As shots rang out, hundreds of black men, women and children fled town, some permanently, some to take shelter in nearby cemeteries and swamps until the violence subsided. By sundown, buildings in Wilmington’s black neighborhoods were pockmarked with bullet holes and anywhere from 60 to as many as 300 blacks had been killed. The exact number is lost to history due to white leaders’ hasty burial of bodies in mass graves and due to black witnesses either having fled town or having been intimidated into silence.
The next morning white leaders, with the backing of the Wilmington Light Infantry, forced the Republican Mayor, the board of aldermen, and the police chief to resign at gunpoint after which they and black leaders which had not been killed or who had not fled were marched to the train station and forced to leave the state under armed guard. That same day Alfred Moore Waddell — the white supremacist leader who orchestrated the events which led to the massacre — was named mayor, an office he would hold until 1905. The coup d’etat completed.
Within a year of the massacre the North Carolina legislature — determined to prevent blacks from holding political power like they did for a time in Wilmington — passed a new constitution which made it close to impossible for blacks to register to vote and imposed poll taxes and literacy tests that effectively disfranchised black voters completely. Nearly every other southern state would model laws on these North Carolina statutes. The “Solid South” of the Jim Crow era was secured and would remain in place, officially, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Unofficially, efforts to discourage blacks from voting continue to this day.
William Rand Kenan Sr. was hailed as a hero for his role in the massacre. The white-owned Wilmington Messenger newspaper lauded the Wilmington Light Infantry and Kenan personally, writing “[i]n the Revolutionary War, in the Civil War and in this race war, a Kenan was the bravest of the brave.” A few weeks after the massacre it was reported that Kenan held a massive barbecue for all of those who participated, after which the assembled men gave Kenan a vote of thanks for his service in the massacre. In February 1903 Kenan was named to the University of North Carolina's Board of Trustees. He died two months later.
For the next several decades the Wilmington Massacre was invariably branded a "riot," "insurrection," "rebellion," "revolution," or "conflict," necessitated by an unlawful uprising of black aggressors, with the violence of it all dramatically downplayed, distorted or cast as unavoidable. A typical example of this can be seen in Incidents by the Way, the 1958 memoir of William Rand Kenan Jr., the UNC benefactor, who wrote of his father’s actions thusly:
“As a small boy I was much impressed with the following: There was a riot of colored men in Wilmington and my father organized a company of men with all kinds of rifles together with a riot gun on a wagon and they cleaned up the riot very quickly, although they were compelled to kill several persons. My father rode the wagon and directed the operation.”
William Rand Kenan Jr. was, in fact, 26 years-old at the time and was working as a chemist for Union Carbide. He was almost certainly well-aware of the circumstances of the massacre and likely distorted the timeline of it, casting himself, erroneously, as a “small boy,” in order to distance himself and his family from its horrors as time passed.
It is highly unlikely that any of the thousands of football fans who come to Kenan Stadium each fall or any of the dozens of young men who play for the Tar Heels — a great many of whom are black — are aware of the infamy of the stadium’s namesake. Indeed, even those most familiar with the university and its connection to the Kenans know little if anything about it.
“The Kenans are an enormously generous family of benefactors to the University of North Carolina. Everybody knows that,” UNC history professor Harry Watson told me when I interviewed him recently. “The average undergraduate would say ‘oh, yeah, the Kenans, they’re a pretty important family who have given us a lot of money’ but the biographical details are not likely well known as even that,” Watson said. “Kenan Sr.’s role in the violence of 1898 is not widely known at all.”
“There are probably a couple of people on campus who know,” said UNC history Professor William Sturkey, who specializes in the history of Jim Crow and the New South. “I think a lot of people would be quite shocked. It’s just something that’s been buried and forgotten.”
It’s not the first thing that has been buried and forgotten about the history of the Kenans.
A plaque on Kenan Memorial Stadium refers to the Kenan family's wealth as coming from “chemicals, power, railroads and hotels.” That is true so far as William Rand Kenan Jr.’s adult fortune was concerned, but the Kenans were already wealthy thanks to plantation slavery. Indeed, according to an 1850 slave census, the Kenan family owned 49 people, including 23 people aged 10 or under. This would be the household in which William Rand Kenan Sr., who manned the gun in Wilmington and for whom the stadium was named, was raised.
Last February Sturkey, a member of the school’s Faculty Athletics Committee, introduced a motion recommending that the athletic department take steps to place a new plaque on the stadium to note the family’s slaveholding past. His intention was not to cast the Kenans in a bad light — he did not know about Kenan Sr.’s role in Wilmington at the time — nor was it his intention, as so many people are accused of doing when such matters arise, to “erase history.” To the contrary, Sturkey said, it was the history of the slaves owned by the Kenans that was erased. As a historian, Sturkey said, he just wanted the full story to be told.
“[Slaves’] presence and their lives were omitted. And not just omitted, but intentionally omitted.” Sturkey said. He said that, via his motion, he was suggesting that the Faculty Athletics Committee ask the athletic department to “take steps to recognize the existence of these people whose lives were so crucial to compiling the wealth which built the university . . . it was about simply telling the truth and not misleading people.”
Sturkey’s motion was unanimously passed but it has not been acted upon and the athletic department has given no reason why it has not done so. Not that the athletic department would be the first department which has chosen to ignore the slaveholding history of the Kenans. Over at the Kenan-Flagler Business school website there there appears a timeline of the Kenan family's history. It conspicuously jumps from 1793 to the 1880s, with no mention whatsoever of what the Kenan family was doing, and how it was making its money, during the intervening years.
“Kenan is a name that’s all over our campus, but in terms of how we’ve approached history, we’ve let the greatest benefactors tell their own history,” Sturkey said. “But by doing that, of course, we’ve allowed them to have the complete say in what that history is.”
Based on recent events at UNC, it would appear that, if the Kenans and the university continue to insist upon complete say in how history is told, they will do so at their peril.
Like so many other places in the south, North Carolina is no stranger to the ongoing controversy surrounding memorials and monuments of the Confederate and Jim Crow eras. It is unique, however, in not only its opposition to doing much if anything about them, but in its affirmative protection of such monuments.
For 105 years, a statue called “Silent Sam” sat on a prominent quad on UNC’s campus, facing the main street which passes the university. While ostensibly intended to commemorate the Civil War and its fallen soldiers, Silent Sam, like so many other Confederate monuments erected in the late 19th and early 20th century, was in fact a monument to the Jim Crow Era. If there was any doubt of this, one need only read the speech given by industrialist, philanthropist, and white supremacist Julian Carr at Silent Sam’s dedication ceremony in 1913.
Carr, who advocated for taking voting rights away from blacks and who referred to the Wilmington Massacre as “a grand and glorious event” after it occurred, did not mince words on the afternoon Silent Sam was dedicated. He talked openly, and with no small amount of pride, about how Confederate soldiers saved “the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” adding, “to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States — Praise God.” He added that, in the days after the end of the Civil War he had, on the very spot where the statue now stood, “horse-whipped” a “negro wench” for speaking disrespectfully to a white woman. Given how it was spoken of at its very dedication, there is no question that the statue was not intended to memorialize fallen soldiers but, instead, to stand as a monument to white supremacy.
Silent Sam had been a source of controversy for years, but in the wake of 2017’s Unite the Right march in Charlottesville which, among other things, cast more light on Confederate and Jim Crow-era monuments, protests had increased significantly. The university listened to protesters’ arguments but claimed it could do nothing about Silent Sam because its hands were legally tied.
And, to a very large degree, they were. By both a university bylaw adopted in 2015 and by a state law passed in 2015 which prohibit the renaming or buildings and removal or relocation of monuments under all but the most narrow of circumstances. Given the timing of the passage of these laws and the events which inspired their adoption, they were, without question, aimed at heading off protests of monuments to the Confederacy and Jim Crow before they began. Absent those laws, the sign makers would be pretty busy: UNC has no fewer than 30 buildings named after figures tied to white supremacy.
Not that those laws are the only thing motivating UNC officials and donors. Some seem quite eager to protect monuments to the Confederacy and Jim Crow on their own terms.
Last month a series of emails were leaked and published in which one member of the UNC Board of Trustees called for cameras with night vision to be installed around Silent Sam in order to protect it and called protesters “criminals” and “entitled wimps” who should be arrested as a deterrence measure. In another email the university’s Vice Chancellor referred to university leadership’s interest in “preserving a piece of our history,” and defending the statue from “outside parties” who may protest it. Wealthy donors threatened to withhold six-figure contributions to UNC if Silent Sam was removed, with one calling protestors “spoiled intellectuals.” Whether it was because of that direct pressure and the interests of UNC officials in protecting the statue, or whether it was because university bylaws and the state law prevented them from taking action, in early August the UNC Board of Governors announced it had no plans to remove Silent Sam.
If UNC officials thought that would be the end of the matter, they were sorely mistaken. In the wake of the decision to take no action, protests intensified. On the evening of August 20 — the night before the fall semester began — hundreds of protesters gathered around the statue, threw ropes around it and, in less than ten seconds, brought Silent Sam crashing to the ground. What was left of Silent Sam was taken to a university warehouse in the back of a dump truck. His fate is as of yet unknown, but at the moment the University seems intent on re-erecting the Jim Crow relic.
While a statue can be toppled, a 60,000-seat football stadium cannot be razed by a few hundred protesters. Unlike what has happened with troublesomely-named buildings and monuments at Duke University, the University of California at Berkeley and what will soon happen at Stanford University, it cannot be removed or renamed, at least without the sort of political and legal action which no one in a position to do so seems at all willing to undertake. Which leaves UNC -- which did not return a call or email seeking comment -- in a precarious position. Indeed, the university would seem to have only two choices.
The first choice would be to acknowledge the role of William Rand Kenan Sr. in the Wilmington Massacre and to find a way, via additional plaques or interpretive materials, to tell the full history of that dark chapter of the Kenan family. In so doing it might, as Professor Sturkey suggested, begin to recognize the totality of the history upon which UNC was built and begin to remember those who have been intentionally erased from that history. Given the Silent Sam pushback and based on how even a modest motion to amend the misleading historical plaque about the Kenan family at the stadium was already ignored, it seems unlikely that the university would do such a thing.
Which would leave the only alternative: to do nothing. To continue to bury the history of its stadium’s namesake and his role in one of the darkest atrocities of the Jim Crow era, thereby allowing the largest and most prominent building on campus to memorialize a man who should, by all rights, stand in infamy.
Will the university do nothing? Better yet, will the people who toppled Silent Sam and those who supported them stand idly by if it does?
Special thanks to LeRae Umfleet, author of A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot (2009), published by the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, which served as an important source for this article
This story was originally written for Bloomberg BusinessWeek over the summer. Instead of running it they turned it into a highly-truncated cartoon thing that, being honest, was pretty darn clever and probably more appropriate for the subject matter than a 3,000-word story.
Still, I'd like to have the words I wrote for it all preserved someplace, so here they are.
On March 11, 2015, an anonymous tip was texted to the Franklin County Kentucky Sheriff’s Department that Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger, a longtime employee of the Buffalo Trace distillery had some stolen barrels of bourbon on his property. A search warrant was executed and deputies drove out to Curtsinger’s house on a winding country road west of Frankfort. Stolen bourbon is not unusual in bourbon country, but Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton believed that this tip was about something more than your typical bootlegger. He believed that it might be leading him to the Pappy Van Winkle Bandit.
If you’re even a casual consumer of bourbon, chances are you’ve heard of Pappy Van Winkle. It’s the rarest of the many varieties of bourbon made by the Buffalo Trace Distillery and, indeed, the rarest bourbon variety of them all. Pappy, as it is known colloquially, is extraordinarily hard to find. Just 8,000 barrels are produced each year, compared to the millions of barrels of mass market brands like Jim Beam or its Tennessee cousin, Jack Daniel’s. Bar patrons pay upwards of $100 for a single pour. Aficionados who are lucky enough to win lotteries for the privilege of buying it at retail snap up bottles for as much as $300. Those not so fortunate, but who still want the stuff, routinely pay thousands for a bottle on the black market.
On October 15, 2013 Buffalo Trace reported that a little over 200 bottles of Pappy, with a market value of around $26,000, had gone missing. Sheriff Melton characterized it as a “heist,” and characterized the stolen product as “The Mac Daddy” of bourbon. The theft made international headlines, with bourbon enthusiasts inside and outside of the industry speculating about who did it, marveling at the audaciousness of it all and, perhaps, wondering if the theft made it more or less likely that they themselves could get their hands on a bottle. When that tip came in, pointing a finger at a man who had inside access to the place where Pappy was born, Sheriff Melton believed he was about to crack the bourbon crime of the century.
My daughter texted me from school today. She was in her freshman humanities class which is basically an English/social studies mashup. Anna texts me from school a lot. When she does so it's usually the best part of my day. Today, like most days, it was because she wanted to share something funny with me.
Today, however, my credentials and I were the butt of the joke:
Anna later explained that her teacher was not talking about me, my political science degree and my sports writing career specifically. Rather, she was just making a point about how, when you read something, you should be critical of the writer, who he or she is and what his or her background is. Today they happened to be discussing an article about the value of a liberal arts education and the teacher approvingly noted that its author had a history degree so, obviously, he knew what he was talking about. The crack about the political science degree-possessing sports writer was an imaginary horrible meant to portray a true ignoramus.
I won't lie: I was less than pleased about all of this. Not because I thought of it as some sort of personal attack, as I have never met her teacher and she doesn't know a thing about me or my career. And not because of the underlying lesson, as I agree it is vitally important to assess and be critical of one's information sources. Rather, I was pissed about how superficial a notion it is to look at a person's formal education to assess a person's credibility.
I've gone at length about my unconventional career path, but I'm not the only person doing something radically different than their college transcript might suggest they'd one day do. My father grew up working on cars at his father's taxi cab company and wanted to work on jet engines one day but, due to a typographical error by the United States Navy, wound up in meteorology school and spent the next 40 years as a weather man. Anna's mother has a degree in French but has spent the past 23 years working in the office furniture business. My best friend from college has an M.A. in history but has nonetheless spent most of the past 20 years working at technology companies in Silicon Valley. I'm sure all of us know many people who have careers that are completely unrelated to whatever it was they studied in college and who can speak as authorities on those topics regardless of what they happened to major in back in the day.
My displeasure with what I heard today was not, however, simply about a teacher who does not seem to appreciate that career paths are often crooked. It's about her seeming not to appreciate the value of a crooked career path in and of itself.
I am not exactly a typical or a popular figure in the baseball writing world. When I began this job a decade ago it was pretty unusual for a large media company like NBC to give someone with no journalism experience the kind of platform I have. One used to pay their dues for years, serving time as an agate guy, a high school football stringer, a backup beat writer and then, maybe, if everything broke right, they could be a columnist, which is roughly equivalent to what I do. I jumped the line. I had never been part of the baseball writing fraternity. What's more, my writing tends to skew pretty sharp and critical and includes a lot of media criticism as well so, while I have made many friends in the business over the years, I'm still not welcome in the club. If my credentials had been in order -- if I had gone to journalism school and if I had written game stories for the Des Moines Register or the Sacramento Bee -- I'd likely be invited to more meetings and parties.
But I'd probably also not have this job.
NBC was late to the online sports game and, when they launched my website, they wanted to make up for lost time. They did so not by aping what everyone else had done ten years earlier, but by making some noise. They hired a lawyer to be their football writer and, with that precedent set, hired one to be their baseball writer too. Our lack of a journalism background and our willingness to say and do whatever the hell we wanted to was a feature, not a bug, and nearly a decade later it's still working pretty well. It's working well, I'd argue, precisely because neither Mike Florio nor I approach our job like someone who went to J-school would and because, as such, we give readers something they can't get anywhere else. Our lack of traditional qualifications for our job were strengths, not weaknesses. NBC's hiring people with unconventional resumes helped them solve a problem they likely could not have solved (i.e. catching up with their competitors quickly) if they had done the conventional thing.
A couple of lawyers with liberal arts backgrounds are not alone in that, of course. There are a lot of people who contribute to society in ways far more important than writing about sports despite the fact that they are not doing what they had set out to do back in college. There are companies being run by people without business degrees, artists who never went to art school, musicians who never had lessons, and tons and tons of people making a difference in the world despite the fact that they simply fell into jobs adjacent to -- or often not adjacent to -- the disciplines they initially set out to pursue.
That's true even of the guy who wrote the article about the value of a liberal arts education they were discussing in my daughter's class today. The guy who was deemed OK by Anna's teacher because he had a history degree. His name is David Brooks. He's a columnist for the New York Times who didn't spend a day in journalism school and who hasn't spent a minute pursuing the academic study of history since he graduated from the University of Chicago 35 years ago.
There's probably a lesson in there someplace. If Anna doesn't learn it at school, I'll make a point to talk to her about it separately. I think I can do it too, despite the fact that I didn't study education.
Do you like bourbon? Then I have a story for you.
Some of you may remember The Great Pappy Van Winkle Heist from back in 2013. Hundreds of bottles of the most expensive, most highly sought-after bourbon known to man, Pappy Van Winkle was reported stolen. Coming as it did amidst an unprecedented boom in the popularity of bourbon, it made national news. International news even.
In 2015, Franklin County, Kentucky Sheriff Pat Melton claimed to crack the case. A criminal syndicate was behind it, he said. Racketeering! Guns! Drugs! Serious, serious business. Over a half dozen arrested. A man named Toby Curtsinger the alleged kingpin. The assailants faced decades in prison under state RICO laws. It was a major, major deal and, once again, made news around the globe.
And then, three years later, it was no longer big news at all. It wasn't even all that big of a crime.
One person had charges dropped against them. Everyone else pleaded guilty, with all but one serving no jail time whatsoever. The alleged kingpin, Toby Curtsinger, was sentenced to 15 years. He served 30 days and was released on shock probation just this past weekend.
What made the case turn into almost nothing, with almost no jail time? The fact that there really was no Pappy Van Winkle Heist at all. At least not as it was portrayed.
I am the first and so far the only person I know of to speak to Toby Curtsinger about the case on the record. He invited me to Frankfort to interview him back in January. He told me everything. The reality is far more interesting than the coverage, even if it's nowhere close to being as sexy. I did a short writeup of it for it for Bloomberg-Business Week, which they illustrated into a fun little cartoony bit.
The short version: people in distilleries have been stealing bourbon forever. People have been stealing Pappy for years too. No one really paid it much mind. The alleged Heist was mostly a function of an overzealous employee noticing the inventory being off by 200 bottles and calling the police because he was worried he'd get in trouble. Note: the inventory was always off, usually by more than 200 bottles, and there is almost no chance anyone would've gotten in trouble for it, let alone noticed it. Buffalo Trace would almost certainly have done what they always did in such instances: written the missing bottles off as "breakage." Once the police were called, however, it was a big deal and it all spiraled from there.
In reality, the "Heist" was a snapshot in time, made possible by antiquated security and quality control at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, not uncommon at most distilleries until relatively recently. If not for a local sheriff (since voted out of office) trying to make himself look good and the Buffalo Trace Distillery realizing, after the fact, that it was the best free advertising Pappy Van Winkle ever got, none of this would've made even local news. In the end, of course, this was also all made possible by a crazy cocktail culture-fueled bourbon bubble characterized by marks paying thousands for a bottle of wheated bourbon that, 20 years ago, was being sold in novelty, collectable crocks with cartoon hillbillies on it. That sort of dynamic tends to incentivize a black market and tends to help pedestrian stories make the headlines.
Oh, and despite being portrayed as the "Pappy Van Winkle Bandit" none of the charges against Toby Curtsinger actually involved Pappy Van Winkle. He was popped for possessing five barrels of stolen Wild Turkey. It truly was the Pappy Van Winkle Heist that wasn't.
Finally: I actually did a much, much longer and in-depth writeup of all of this that, for various reasons, didn't work for Bloomberg, but I'm happy they ran with this at least. I may be writing up the longer version someplace, even if I only end up putting it on this blog.
I am just as intrigued by autonomous vehicles as the next guy. Everything I've read about them suggests that they'll relieve congestion and improve safety, and I both hope and believe that to be true. Our roads are clogged and anything to unclog them -- and to improve efficiency, confer environmental benefits and cost savings compared to the current shape of our car-obsessed culture -- would be a good thing.
But while it's one thing to view autonomous vehicles as replacements for non-autonomous vehicles on existing roadways, it's another thing altogether to say that we should literally rip up existing mass transit tracks and fill the tunnels with them.
Oh yes, someone is saying that. Peter Wayner in The Atlantic, writing about how, rather than fix New York's aging, overtaxed and increasingly unreliable subway system, we replace it with autonomous vehicles:
The New York City subway is a miracle, especially at 3 a.m. on a Friday night. But the system is also falling apart, and it’s going to cost billions to keep the old trains running: $19 billion, at least according to one estimate from city planners. The time has come to give up on the 19th-century idea of public transportation, and leap for the autonomous future . . .
I'm less interested in the specific pros and cons of such a plan -- hey, we put a man on the moon, so why not a driverless Uber underneath Sixth Avenue? -- than I am in the assumptions and preferences which underlie it.
The premise of this idea -- one which has been astoundingly popular across the political spectrum over the past several decades -- is that it's simply unreasonable to expect our society to build and maintain great public works. That taxes are inherently bad and that raising them to provide goods and services for the well being of people is simply out of the question. It assumes, more specifically, that we simply cannot or should not fix New York's subway system because it's too hard. Too expensive. Not sexy. "Yes, the subway has been one of the marvels of the industrialized world for over a century," the article basically argues, "but it'll cost money and require work to maintain it so let's go with Project: Jetsons."
It's so very sad to see such a mindset. One which doesn't even attempt to push back, not even a little, against the mindless "government bad, taxes bad, private sector good" dogma which has permeated public discourse since the 1980s. One that completely ignores not just the immediate and obvious benefits of public transit, but which doesn't even begin to comprehend the second, third and fourth-order impacts public transit has had, particularly in New York. The city, as we know it, would not exist without the subway system. One would think that grappling with that fact would be required before one talks about replacing it with a bunch of Teslas in a tube.
It's also worth noting that this cars-on-the-7-line idea is intended to be operated by private companies on a for-profit basis. The article talks about how such an idea would take New York back to its roots, noting that the subway system was once a patchwork of private companies (the IRT and BMT, etc.) and public entities (the city-run IND) running competing lines. It might be useful for the author to note, however, that that system ended in the 1940s, with the city taking over and eventually creating a public transit authority to run it all, because the private companies had little interest in cooperating or serving the public effectively. Put simply: private ownership of public transit simply didn't work.
Any transit idea, however fun and futuristic it sounds, that does not appreciate the shortcomings private sector solutions have historically had when attempting to confront large scale public needs is fatally flawed. Any plan which does not appreciate the negative social, economic and even democratic impacts of a private, profit-driven system organized around individually-tailored and custom-priced trips, as opposed to moving masses of people along common corridors, is either hopelessly naive or intentionally tailored to sew inequality.
Most countries treat mass transit systems as national assets. They openly acknowledge the fact that public works require public investment in the form of tax dollars in order to deliver goods people want and need. They do not apologize for it, fetishize private investment or bend over backwards to invent crazy new systems from whole cloth when a near-perfect model -- time-tested and, however worse for wear these days, historically reliable -- is already in place. They do not act like it is a bad thing for people, through governmental authority, to build things via collective action. They recognize that public works are not, first and foremost, aimed at profit-generation, and for that reason they cannot, by definition, be the responsibility of those in the business, first and foremost, of profit-creation. For that reason, their transit systems tend to be far more useful and far better run than ours do.
We should fix the existing subways and build new ones where they are needed. We should build on what has worked in the past and fix that which is not working now. We must dispense with the idea that we can somehow disrupt our way out of having to pay for, build and maintain the sorts of large-scale public works which benefit society via public means.
We must, above all else, acknowledge that when it comes to building a civilization, there are no shortcuts.
Anthony Bourdain died today.
Unlike so many self-styled literary and entertainment industry badasses, there was simple skill, craft and humanity underlying the attitude, which he would freely allow to show. The former without the latter -- and without self-awareness-- is empty. Whatever he was doing to project that bad boy persona was immediately set aside when he got down to work writing about or chronicling a place, a people, a cuisine or whatever it was he was interested in at the moment.
In losing Anthony Bourdain, we didn't lose a "celebrity chef" or a "travel show host." We lost an insightful, empathetic and humane chronicler of the human condition. A man who could have so easily been a complacent, thrill-seeking, luxury-living, globetrotting celebrity but chose to be something more. He was an anthropologist who discarded dispassionate observation in order to advocate for the best in humanity, paying special attention to the vulnerable, the exploited and the overlooked.
Last year Bourdain went to West Virginia for an episode of his show, "Parts Unknown." In the space of one hour he did a better job of capturing my home state than a thousand poverty porn tourist journalists with pre-written stories parachuting in from coastal publications have ever done. It was typical of his work. He never went with the easy or expected narratives, even if doing so would've saved him a lot of work. Probably because he knew that those easy narratives obscured truths, perpetuated lies and, unwittingly or otherwise, served to work injustices, both large and small.
I embedded that episode below. You should watch it. If he ever went someplace special or interesting or unknown to you, you should watch that too.
My wife and I just got back from nine days in England. It was our honeymoon, delayed a year for various reasons, but coinciding with our first anniversary. I was going to write up a proper travelogue, but I'm too lazy to craft narratives, transitions and connections into something approaching passable prose, so I'm just going to barf out a list of stuff that happened and stuff I observed. Of course, it's gonna end up being longer than a travelogue would've been, but sometimes when you start barfing, you just can't stop.
Click through via that "Read More" button to the lower right if you're into that sort of thing.
My daughter participated in the student walkouts yesterday. I didn't prompt her to. In fact, we hardly talked about her doing so beforehand. I simply told her that, if there was a walkout, and if she chose to participate in it, that I would support her.
It was clear that the school didn't want her and her fellow eighth graders walking out. In the runup to it, parents received emails in which the principal talked about an assembly the school was holding and how kids were being encouraged to "walk up, not out." Meaning: "walk up to kids you may not know or who are loners or who are marginalized in the interests of forming some sort of connection that, I suppose, would prevent them from becoming murderous psychopaths one day rather than protest gun violence."
That idea pissed me off. Its message, like so many establishment political messages these days, is aimed at blunting genuinely sharp political statements, not supporting them. It's akin to "Black Lives Matter" becoming "All Lives Matter." Something that, superficially, sounds pleasant but which actually negates the original idea, by design.
This morning I wrote a letter to the school superintendent and the school board about it. It was an open letter which I shared on Facebook and Twitter:
An open letter to New Albany-Plain Local Schools.
I'm not sure if I'll get a response. I'm pretty sure that, either way, I'll have my name placed in the "pain in the ass" file for future reference. Kinda don't care.
I really enjoyed "Jessica Jones" season 1. Season 2 came out on Thursday and I continue to enjoy it. Beyond the characters and the plots, though, I am fascinated by Jessica's bourbon and whiskey choices.
If you don't know the show, Jessica is a private eye with a lot of past trauma and she drinks . . . a lot. Like, to crazy excess, usually to forget stuff or deal with stress. She often has hangovers but rarely seems drunk, even after drinking an entire bottle in an evening. They don't mention it, but I suspect that since she has super powers she has super tolerance too. Either way, getting the headache but not the buzz seems like a pretty shitty deal for her.
Her brands are what interest me most. Jessica is a brown liquor woman, but she was all over the map with her whiskey choices and I can't watch an episode without noticing what she's drinking and wondering why she, or, rather, the producers, chose it.
In season one she had a different brand every episode. Sometimes multiple brands an episode. Sometimes it was scotch, sometimes bourbon, sometimes Canadian. She occasionally drank some fictitious brands from the prop department. The real products came from multiple distillers. In light of all of that I don't suspect that any of those bottles were there by virtue of product placement.
If it was product placement it was pretty crappy product placement for the distilleries involved. For example, in one episode she asks a convenience store clerk for "the cheapest you got." He sells her Wild Turkey 101, which is not the cheapest he or anyone else has. I doubt Wild Turkey would like to have 101 portrayed as rotgut if it was paying to have its bottle featured. In the next episode she's drinking Old Grandad and earlier drank Beam, Teacher's and freakin' Cutty, so she obviously does know where to get cheaper stuff. She's a detective!
For the first two episodes of season two, she drinks only Tin Cup. Because the exclusivity and because the bottle and its label are shown so prominently, I suspected that Tin Cup had paid for exclusive rights for the much more anticipated Season 2. But . . . nah. In episode three she's back to Four Roses yellow label. Again, though, if Tin Cup did pay for that placement, they may not care for how it was used. Jessica drinks it like water -- at one point she literally fills a 10 ounce water class with the stuff, straight up and chugs -- and at another point she has a nightmare where she's hooked up to a Tin Cup IV, the bourbon flowing straight into her veins. There's no such thing as bad publicity I guess, but I feel like a distiller wouldn't want to have its brand being used explicitly to show how much of a problem drinker a character is. "Drink Tin Cup: the preferred brand for functioning alcoholics everywhere!"
If it isn't product placement, I don't understand all of the switching. Sure, a whiskey enthusiast may get a different bottle every time, but Jessica isn't someone you'd call a whiskey enthusiast. She's a drunk. Or at least a wannabe drunk. I've known some drunks in my time. If they're like Jessica and they are (a) functional; and (b) at least make a passable living, so that they don't have to take whatever they can get, they tend to have brand loyalty. Or at least price point loyalty. Even if they do change up brands, they don't bounce from bourbon to scotch to rye the way she does.
Last season some sites like Buzzfeed kept track of what she was drinking. I am only three episodes into season 2 -- it's a treadmill show for me, so it's a one a day thing, not something I, uh, binge -- but I'm gonna continue to keep track myself. I'm more fascinated in this than I am in the shady forces Jessica Jones is fighting. She'll beat them in the end. I have no idea what's gonna happen with the next bottle.
I spend a lot of time browsing real estate websites. I'm not in the market to move. I'm not coveting a big fancy house or anything. I just find it fascinating to see how much house is available for how much in whatever place I happen to be thinking about or whatever place I have just passed through. It's a time-killer more than anything.
This morning I found myself looking at San Francisco real estate. Given how stupidly expensive it is there, I limited my search to apartments and condos under 1,500 square feet in a neighborhood I'm somewhat familiar with, Alamo Square/Divisadero. I stayed there on a trip a couple of years ago and it just sprang to mind.
I found a place that caught my eye. The sort of place I often think about moving into once my kids go away to college: an old apartment building with character in a walkable neighborhood. Multiple places, actually, as the building, which has recently been renovated, had several 1-2 bedroom units for sale, all of which retained just enough historic elements to bring one joy but sufficient modern conveniences to make life pleasant. This is it:
That's about as San Francisco as you can get, right?
It's San Francisco in price too, obviously, as the cheapest place -- an 800 square foot one bedroom -- is over $800K and the larger ones range from $1 million to nearly $2 million. That's pretty silly in most of the rest of the country, but if you're familiar with the San Francisco real estate market you realize it's par for the course. Heck, within that world these places are probably something of a bargain if you can believe it. In related news, my desire to move to San Francisco, once quite strong, disappeared about 10 years ago.
Normally at this point I'd click out of Zillow and move on to more productive things. Something about that building was sticking with me, though, so I decided to do some searching to see what else I could find out about it. The first non-real estate listing I found was this story at Hoodline.com from early 2015. In relevant part:
1500 McAllister St., one of the buildings damaged in the fire which raged near Alamo Square last month, has been purchased by SF real estate mogul Russell Flynn. The fire affected approximately 17 units and displacing 25 residents, including two families with small children, and the future remains uncertain for the displaced residents . . . Flynn may be known to Hoodline readers as the owner of 493 Haight Street, located on the corner on Haight and Fillmore. That same building burned down in a fiery blaze in 2011, and took two years to rebuild.
I don't know if this Flynn character, who at the time owned thousands of rental units in San Francisco, still owns the building or if he flipped it to the people now selling the expensive condos. I have no comment whatsoever about that last paragraph, in which I detect an insinuation which some of the commenters to the article took up afterward. Safer to leave that sort of thing alone.
I do know, though, that those residents with the rent-controlled apartments from early 2015 all appear to be long gone. I also know that the owner now stands to make several million dollars on the sales of these nice units, each of which carry with them HOA fees that are probably around what the rents used to be on the apartments. Talk about a windfall, right?
I do know one other thing, and I know it for certain: You cannot have a functioning civil society in cities in which only the rich can afford to live.
If the only people who can buy or rent in your city are executives, professionals and single twenty somethings either living five to a house or working 80 hours a week down in Silicon Valley, your city is not whole. For a city to be whole it has to include construction workers and cashiers and firemen and librarians and store clerks and teachers and bartenders and cab drivers. It has to include people with families. It has to have room for both the rich and the poor, the white collar and the blue collar. It cannot rely on a refugee work force trekking into the city from an hour or two away each day and leaving it each night.
After thinking through all of this, I clicked back on the listings for 1500 McAllister Street. I looked at the lovely bay windows, high ceilings and wood floors. I admired the classic exterior. Then I took a virtual walk through the neighborhood via Google Street View, and passed by the nice bars, shops and cafes I went to when I visited there a couple of years ago. I imagined my stuff in one of those apartments and I imagined sitting in one of those cafes, maybe with my laptop, procrastinating on an article I was being paid to write by sending an email off to one of my kids, away at college. I then left the cafe and headed back toward "home," but not before ending up at Alamo Square, a block away, looking out over the Painted Ladies at the San Francisco skyline.
And I wondered how such a beautiful city got so broken.
The drive between New Albany and Granville, Ohio used to take you down a two-lane country road, but traffic eventually got heavy enough to where they needed to make it a freeway. They did that about six or seven years ago. As far as freeways go it's fine. It cuts through the country and, though it'll likely change the area sometime in the near future, there hasn't been too much in the way of development along the route just yet. It's still a nice country drive. The barn where my wife keeps her horse is out that way so we're on that freeway a lot.
There is one thing on the road that sticks out, though:
This house sits just east of the exit for Route 310, right up against the freeway. It's looked like that since about the time the freeway went through. "O.D.O.T.," stands for Ohio Department of Transportation.
I've always assumed it had to do with some dispute arising out of the condemnation of property to build the freeway, but I've wondered what the specific story was for years. Today I did a little searching and found this, written by a man who says that he spoke to the owner a few years back:
The owner's side of the story was that ODOT used eminent domain compelling him to sell the portion of the property they needed for the freeway, but that they refused to purchase the entire property, including the part on which the house sat. His problem, though, wasn't that he was stuck with a house right next to a freeway. That would be bad enough, but at least understandable. Rather his problem was that the portion of the property they compelled him to sell included the leach field for the house's septic system and the remaining parcel that the house sat on was too small to install a new leach field that would meet local code. So he wasn't just left with a house next to a freeway, he was left with an uninhabitable house next to a freeway.
It's been a while since I practiced law, but the foggy parts of my memory related to these kinds of cases suggest that there is likely a bit more to this story. Local juries determine land value when there is dispute, and they almost always tend to overpay landowners who challenge state valuation in condemnation cases. In light of that, the state usually comes in with high offers to begin with. Maybe he was screwed on the parcel with the house, but I suspect he came out fine overall after they bought the parcel they needed for the freeway. There's plenty of injustice in this country, but rural landowners tend to do OK financially speaking when the bulldozers come to plow places like Licking County into the 21st century, even if they are inconvenienced or displaced.
Regardless of the specifics, I've always been struck by the "O.D.O.T. Sucks" house. While I suppose most people who see it think of it as nothing but an eyesore, I'm amused by it. Both at its existence and by the fact that it's lasted in the state it's in for so long.
Some quick searching shows that the deed was redone in 2007, with the current owner conveying the house to himself, likely in connection with whatever it was ODOT did with respect to their other land. For tax purposes, the house is only worth $800, with annual taxes on it running around $13, which the owner has faithfully paid. While the house is uninhabited, a quick search of property records shows that the owner of the house lives in similar but slightly larger home two miles away. It's neat, tidy and inviting. It's also close enough to the old house that it's no inconvenience at all for him to go put a fresh coat of paint on his "O.D.O.T. Sucks" sign whenever necessary. Which he clearly has, by the way. The house faces south and the sun would've bleached those orange letters pretty badly by now if he had let it be. Today, however, they're as vibrant as the day they first went up. My wife took that photo when we drove past yesterday afternoon.
I wonder who will blink first. The owner could, if he wanted to, simply abandon the basically worthless property. If O.D.O.T. grows weary of the sign, it could restart negotiations with the owner to see how much it would take to get him to either give up the land or, at the very least, bulldoze the house or cover the sign. The county could maybe get involved too, perhaps creatively reassessing the value of the property -- it's right next to an exit, so might it be rezoned for a gas station? -- raising the owner's tax rates to the point where he's no longer able to cheaply maintain his sign. Given that an influential new neighbor is moving in just a couple of miles up the freeway soon, maybe someone else will come to the table too.
In the meantime, I'll continue to drive by the "O.D.O.T. Sucks" house a few times a week, acknowledging that, yes, it's an eyesore, but smiling that it's still there. Not because I take the landowner's side, necessarily. I don't know him and I don't know the specifics of his beef. No, I smile because we live in a world where powerful forces always seem to win, conformity always seems to reign and anything old, small, unique or just plain weird seems to get plowed over, literally or figuratively.
The fact that someone on the wrong end of the plow's blade has basically held his middle finger up like this for close to a decade gives me hope that the powerful forces' victory, even if inevitable, won't always be easy.
August 15, 2019 UPDATE: Someone has bought the house from the owner and is renovating the property. The kicker: he may keep the sign!