Flying United

Many years ago, trying to get home from a business conference somewhere, I missed my United Airlines connecting flight in Denver because of inclement weather. (Snow in Denver – who’da guessed?) A nice United person helped me get re-booked. She also pointed to a nearby counter telling me I could go there and receive a voucher for some food because of the delay. I patiently waited in line. When my turn came, the United Airlines representative spoke to me as if I was a schoolboy disrupting class, telling me they had no control over the weather and were not required to give me anything. When I explained the person who re-booked my flight sent me over, she emphatically repeated they weren’t going to feed me and I should not have expected they would. That was my last flight on United Airlines; I have been able to avoid their friendly skies since that experience.

You may have seen United Airlines in the news recently when they dragged a passenger off a plane after he refused to give up his seat for an airline employee. (Read here why travel writer Joe Brancatelli consistently calls United the “Worst Airline Ever.”) Or the demise of a French Bulldog whose owners were ordered by a flight attendant to be put in an overhead bin. (But don’t get me started about animals on airplanes.)

The trade group Airlines for America and the Trump administration are now doing their best to roll back regulations that made air travel a little less unpleasant, such as:

  • Prohibiting airlines keeping passengers on the plane sitting for hours on the tarmac without food, water or access to rest rooms
  • Quoted fares must disclose additional fees and taxes
  • A refund without penalty if a reservation is canceled within 24 hours
  • et cetera

According to United, “Many of the regulations/initiatives adopted or issued at the end of the previous administration are extremely costly, will be unduly burdensome on the airline industry, and should be repealed or permanently terminated.”

Happy flying.

Living the High Life (Line)

High Line – then

The New York Central Railroad ran its last train, three cars filled with frozen turkeys, along the lower-Manhattan West Side Line in 1980. The elevated spur line opened in 1933. For eighty-plus years prior to that, the New York Central used tracks along 10th and 11th avenues to transport commodities it the heart of New York City. Heavy rail did not mix well with street traffic. A 1910 study estimated 548 fatalities and 1,574 other injuries along what came to be known as “Death Avenue.”

The Westside Improvement Project, begun in 1929 and spearheaded by the infamous Robert Moses, included an elevated railroad spur to replace the grade-level tracks. The new line ran through the middle of blocks instead of over the streets, enabling the unloading and loading of rail cars inside warehouse and factory buildings. In true Robert Moses fashion, construction necessitated the demolition of 640 existing buildings.

High Line – now

After the railroad had abandoned the line, property owners along the route agitated for its demolition. A citizens group formed to promote its re-purposing. Thus was born the Friends of the High Line. After years of debate and red tape and searching for funding, work began in April 2006 for the new High Line Park.

The pedestrian-only park has become popular with residents and tourists alike. Visitors stroll along its mile and a half length, in some parts alongside rusted tracks left as a reminder of its history. Since the elevated park’s opening, the storied and deteriorating Chelsea neighborhood has seen a revitalization. New residential construction has risen along the High Line’s route. Rents are higher than neighboring apartment buildings and new residents are now complaining about the tourists. The Whitney Museum’s new digs recently opened at the base of the park.

The Friends of the High Line is responsible for the park’s maintenance and has done major fund raising for its support. They also are adamant that the park is for everyone’s enjoyment, as evidenced by prominently-placed signs.


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Yuletide Love

Darlene Love came on stage to sing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on The David Letterman Show in 1986. She was dressed in jeans and backed by Paul Shaffer’s similarly-attired four-piece band.

A full orchestra with backup singers, all in formal dress, and a stage elaborately decorated for the season supported her final Letterman appearance in 2014. Decked out in a sparkling red gown, Ms. Love’s performance of the song had become an annual tradition on Letterman’s Christmas show.

Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” written by Brill Building songwriters Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, appeared on the 1963 album A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records. (Later issued as “from Phil Spector”) Phil Spector brought his “Wall of Sound” to the Christmas season. Darlene Love’s voice is also heard on the record in songs performed by The Crystals and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. The album is considered a classic and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” has been recorded by dozens of artists.

Phil Spector and Darlene Love

Phil Spector produced hit records by the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, the Crystals and others. The so-called British Invasion in the mid-sixties put his success into eclipse. The Beatles and other English groups took over the pop charts. Spector faded into the background and became a recluse, working only sporadically.

Darlene Love had been working since the 1950s, mostly with her group the Blossoms, doing background vocals on numerous recordings. She came into her own with music produced by Phil Spector. By the late sixties, her star, too, was fading. While Spector was ensconced in his Los Angeles mansion, wealthy with royalty income, Darlene Love was cleaning houses in Beverly Hills. (No royalties for her.) She had been working on a comeback, singing in small clubs in the L.A. area, when she caught the attention of Letterman.

Spector is currently in prison in California, serving a nine-years-to-life sentence for second-degree murder. Al Pacino played the part of Spector in a TV movie.

Little Steven and Darlene Love

Darlene Love, meanwhile, was featured in the movie about back-up singers, “20 Feet From Stardom.” released a new album, ironically titled “Introducing Darlene Love,” produced by E-Street Band guitarist and Sopranos strip-club operator, Steven Van Zandt. Long-time fans Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Joan Jett, Linda Perry and Jimmy Webb contributed songs.

A Holiday Reminiscence

My Mother’s personal Christmas frenzy began on Christmas Eve, after a house filled with a husband and six children calmed into relative tranquility. She settled herself at the kitchen table with her cigarettes and bottle of Pepsi-Cola and wrapped presents. I suspect she was secretly pleased when the children were grown, or at had at least attained a certain level of maturity, so she could wrap presents with pristine paper, not the wrinkled, leftover scraps. (And so she could decorate the tree to her taste.)

In addition to raising children – I was one of them – Yvonne “Mike” Rothert was a journalist. She became food editor at the Portland Oregonian and was a driving force in the transition from “Women’s” news to serious food writing. She later was assistant editor of the Northwest Sunday supplement, when the newspaper still published a Sunday feature magazine.

One of her published works was a reminiscence of Christmas growing up in depression-era Iowa.

Writer Remembers Rich Memories of Christmas During Depression Days

Yvonne Rothert

Can the plethora of modern toys offered to the gadget-minded children of today possibly be treasured with the love that was lavished long ago on the cloth-bodied “mama” doll dressed by a weary mother, or give as many hours of pleasure as the “jigsaw” puzzles homemade from calendar pictures glued to cardboard and cut with painstaking care by a hard-pressed father?

Christmas in a small Midwestern city in hungry depression days is remembered with tender nostalgia and a late-developing gratitude to parents who were somehow able to create a wealth of family tradition, riches beyond counting, from the least of material things.

It was a time of delightful anticipation, of making crooked potholders from long knobby strings of “spool-knitting” or nearly impregnable pin-cushions tightly stuffed with cotton batting.

There was the glorious trip to the ten-cent store with a carefully hoarded fund of pennies and nickels, to augment a child’s homemade gifts with truly remarkable treasures.

Toys, sparkling jewels, perfumes as exotic to a child’s untutored senses as the finest from Paris; more household gadgets than mother could ever figure out how to use; glassware and figurines that rivaled the loveliest in the jewelry store down the street – a veritable treasure house of beauty almost too much for one small shopper to encompass. Miraculously, a penny or two always remained to drop in the red kettle on the corner to the tune of the reminding bell. “Christmas dinner for the needy,” the sign said. Though age brought disillusionment, for a few years at least those last pennies put turkey on the table for the red-eyed, blue-nosed Santas who stamped their freezing feet at every street corner, faded costumes sagging on gaunt frames as their hand-bells tolled the constant plea.

What magic to join the crowds of Christmas shoppers hurrying homeward in the late afternoon, the street lights already glowing against the early winter darkness, each with a halo of its own light reflected on the snowflakes in the surrounding air.

Away from the busy stores, the snow-muted street and sidewalks were eerie white canyons between the head-high walls of shoveled snow.

Home to the warmth and sweet aromas of Mother’s traditional Scandinavian Christmas goodies, the julkaka, the fattigmand bakkelse and the spritz, to plead for “just one” before they were stored away, like the jewels that they were, until Christmas Eve.

Then the night of nights, when Mother was sure to recite:

“Hang up the baby’s stocking;

Be sure you don’t forget,

For the dear little dimpled darling

Has never seen Christmas yet”

And Father would read “Twas the night before Christmas,” with the children hanging on every familiar word and joining in the most-loved parts.

Stockings were hung as recommended, by the chimney with care, not specially decorated Christmas whimsies, but freshly laundered everyday ones, those tan ribbed affairs that were pulled up each morning over the lumps and bumps of hated long underwear.

“Visions of sugarplums” really danced for small dreamers snuggled under heaps of hand-tied comforters, while Jack Frost touched up his own crystalline window decorations.

The first sound to break the stillness of Christmas morning was metallic clanking through all the warm air pipes as Father “shook down” the furnace, carefully banked the night before. Somehow he always managed to be up before the earliest stocking-seeker, to shovel in some coal and let the house begin to creak through its morning battle against the deep cold of the night.

The established rite was for everyone to pile on Mother and Father’s bed to explore the stockings’ contents, exclaiming over what Santa left in an unspoken agreement not to disillusion still-believing parents.

Lumps and bumps filled the stockings again, more grotesque and infinitely more exciting than their everyday variety. The first big bulge was the apple, the long thin space in the center the banana, and the rounded heel held the orange. In the toe, always, was a handful of shiny, never-used-before pennies. In between were the hard candies that always stuck together, peppermints and fruits mingling in a special Christmas flavor, and assorted tiny treasures. Santa must have shopped the ten-cent store, too.

Then began the interminable wait as relatives gathered for the tree itself. Santa confined himself to stuffing stockings; all other gifts were under the tree, to be peeked at but not poked until everyone was present.

Breakfast oatmeal, choked down on other winter mornings, was impossible on Christmas, a fact which Mother never seemed to grasp fully as she tried to make it festive with raisins and brown sugar.

Uncle Max and Aunt Margaret were the first to arrive, merry and round, Mr. and Mrs. Claus in mufti. Childless themselves, they spent their love on us and any other available children. In traditional red, Uncle Max was yearly the jolliest of Santas for the American Legion’s children’s party.

Grandma and Grandpa were always a little late, because they stopped to pick up Great-Aunt Cora. Each year she had a new sauce to try for the plum pudding, one that could only be made on Christmas morning. As we waited we could imagine her presiding over the saucepot, stately and imperious. She dominated the family with a steely will which could be penetrated only by children, who found the chinks in the armor without trying.

For some years Great-Grandfather Hicks was there, he of the white goatee and New England ancestors. After the confusion of the great gift-opening, he would grudgingly join in the parlor games which were part of every family celebration. “Ridiculous,” he would mutter as a child approached with the old “Button, button, who’s got the button.” When it came to “Animal, Vegetable or Mineral,” though, he sat on the edge of his chair and outdid us all.

Who will be remembered by the next generation? Will our Christmas today be recalled with the same warm feelings? The answer lies in our hearts.

Dreaming of a White Christmas

drifters-white-christmasRCA Victor records released Elvis’ Christmas Album on October 15, 1957. (Way back then, records were released; today they’re dropped.) Time magazine called the album “a crime against Christmas . . . all of which should guarantee it’ll be on the top ten overnight.” Time was right; the album spent four weeks at number one on Billboard’s LP chart. It is the largest-selling Christmas album of all time. Al Priddy, disc jockey at Portland’s KEX radio was fired on December 7th of that year for playing “White Christmas” on the air.

holidayinnonesheetIrving Berlin composed “White Christmas” for the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn.” Bing Crosby’s crooning of the song was such a hit that a movie built around it was released for the 1954 Christmas season. The story goes that Berlin called Presley’s rendition of the song a “…profane parody of his cherished yuletide standard,” and put pressure on radio stations not to play it.

Elvis’ Christmas Album begins with the King’s version of elvisxmasLeiber & Stoller’s lascivious “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.” Side A, showcasing the secular side of Christmas, also included “Blue Christmas,” which has since become a standard. Side B featured sacred songs, such as “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Elvis copied The Drifters’ interpretation of “White Christmas,” which reached number three on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues chart three years earlier. Presley was a fan of The Drifters and their lead singer Clyde McPhatter, who later went on to a solo career. He covered several Drifters’ songs. The Drifters weren’t white, so their desecration of “White Christmas” was not perceived as a threat in the white world. Their version of the song came into the mainstream when it was featured in the 1990 film “Home Alone.”



Santa Rosa Update

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that it had removed household hazardous waste from 5,500 properties in Napa and Sonoma counties, three-quarters of those destroyed or damaged by fire.

Sonoma County has begun process of adjusting tax assessments. The Assessor’s office was not damaged, but was closed for several days because of mandatory evacuation. Fortunately, aerial views simplify assessing properties that have been reduced to ash. Others, in rural areas or suffering partial losses, require on-site inspections and will take longer. The fires occurred the same time tax bills were being prepared. Tax revenue will obviously be lower; the real hit may come next year. The city of Santa Rosa estimates it has lost a third of its tax base.

The California Insurance Commissioner estimated insured losses will exceed $3 billion. Rebuilding costs will be high. Property owners will need to decide to rebuild exactly as what was lost, with required code upgrades, or to make changes. Shortages of contractors, construction labor and basic building materials will drive up costs. Renters, in what was already an extremely tight market, face uncertainty about what their landlords will do. Many will leave the area to find employment and housing, likely to not return.

Who is coming to Santa Rosa? Lawyers, swarms of lawyers, from all around the country. Although the cause of the fire has yet to be determined, law firms, eager to sue Pacific Gas & Electric, are invading Santa Rosa. As a former resident of Santa Rosa once said to journalists sleuthing the Watergate story, “Follow the money.” The giant utility PG&E has deep pockets and of course, is widely disliked. Sparks from power lines downed by high winds are one possible cause of the fires. The attorneys aren’t waiting; they’re advertising on billboards and TV, and setting up town-hall style meeting for prospective clients. And if PG&E lawsuits don’t work out, there’ll be plenty of other generally loathed, big-money targets to sue: insurance companies.