Our quest to chase Aurora Borealis continued aboard the Viking Star, cruising northbound through Finnmark, the heart of Norwegian Lapland,
and on to Alta, our northern-most destination inside the Arctic Circle.
Leah and I were praying for clear skies plus a surge in solar activity–given Alta’s reputation as the Town of the Northern Lights and home to the world’s first Northern Lights Observatory (1899) for conducting scientific research.
To that end, we mounted a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of the Northern Lights to increase our chances of an anticipated sighting. However, on this temperate night, an unexpected veil of dew painted the town, offering up a cathedral bathed in shimmery titanium,
lunging 47 meters (154 ft) toward an elusive phenomenon.
To the townsfolk, this sanctuary is as much a tourist attraction as it is a church.
It represents “a landmark, which through its architecture symbolizes the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights,” according to John F. Lassen, partner of Schmidt Hammer Lassen–a Danish design firm that collaborated with Scandinavian firm Link Arkitektur to win the city council’s design competition in 2001.
And there is much to appreciate about the design–outside and in. The exterior’s circular body mimics a magic curtain of light once illustrated by Louis Bevalet in 1838.
And the interior lighting resembles the long shafts of light associated with the Aurora.
Religious overtones are emphasized through the metal mosaics representing Twelve Disciples…
and the 4.3 meter (14 ft) modernist bronze of Christ searching the blue-glazed heavens, imagined by Danish artist Peter Brandes. While some worshippers may claim that a hidden face lives in the outstretched neck of the subject,
the illusion is subject to personal interpretation.
Consecrated in 2013, the Cathedral of Northern Lights functions as Alta’s parish church of the Church of Norway, yet remains an open forum for assembly and performance.
One-year after the first benediction, the concrete walls had settled and the pipe organ was installed. The dynamic acoustics attracted notable talent and filled all 350 seats.
Leah and I attended an organ recital by Irina Girunyan,
While following a complex score for hands and feet,
Irina skipped and fluttered her way through an evocative program of classical and contemporary music.
The ethereal sound from 1800 pipes and 26 stops was heavenly,
Captain Terje Nilsen of the Viking Star personally delivered the unfortunate news over the ship’s PA system during breakfast.
“Because of high winds, we will be cruising past the port of Bodø, and continuing onto Tromsø. I apologize for the inconvenience, but the weather is just not safe for us to make a landing.”
Of course, we were disappointed.
Bodø is a charming alpine village north of the Arctic Circle and home to Saltstraumen, the world’s largest maelstrom. Additionally, Leah and I had booked an excursion to Kjerringøy, and would have enjoyed hiking through this preserved trading post dating back to the 1800s.
But Captain Nilsen wasn’t kidding. If the gusting winds and pounding seas were any indication of what was witnessed as the Hurtigruten ferry attempted docking in Bodø, then I couldn’t imagine the Viking Star following suit–certainly not with so many passengers unable to handle the rough crossing from Tilbury, England.
Nevertheless, passengers were invited to the pool deck following breakfast to celebrate a longtime maritime tradition of crossing the Arctic Circle.
While Paulo serenaded us with folk classics and Beatles covers of Here Comes the Sun, and I’ll Follow the Sun, (ironic, don’t you think),
the crew assembled to initiate each of us into the Order of the Blue Nose.
Our Cruise Director, Brensley Pope took the microphone to give some background:
Good afternoon Ladies & Gentlemen and welcome! We have entered through the Arctic Circle, and it is time to make our journey official by welcoming you to the Order of the Blue Nose! First, a little history.
The word “arctic” comes from the Greek word arktikos: “near the Bear, northern” The name refers to the constellation Ursa Major, the “Great Bear”, which is prominent in the northern sky.
The region north of the Circle, known as the “Arctic” covers roughly 4% of the Earth’s surface.
The position of the Arctic Circle coincides with the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for a full twenty-four hours; hence the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” This position depends on the tilt of the earth’s axis, and therefore is not a “fixed” latitude. The Arctic circle is moving north at a rate of 15 meters per year, and is currently located at 66 degrees 33 minutes North latitude.
Captain Terje Nilsen interupted, “I believe that’s enough history for now…”
The crowd responded with laughter. And then it became official with his declaration…
Hear ye… hear ye….
Whereas by official consension, our most honorable and well-beloved Guests have completed successful passage through the Arctic Domain. We do hereby declare to all in attendance and that those who possess the courage to take the Aquavit cleanse shall be marked accordingly, with the prestigious Order of the Blue Nose.
Captain Nilsen continued…
This is to certify that you all have been formally and officially initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Chilly Deep, and should wear your blue noses proudly! With the order of myself, the Captain, I command all subjects to Honor and Respect those onboard Viking Star as one of our Trusty Blue Nose family.
We officially welcome you to the Blue Nose Order! Skol!
I got my blue nose and drained my shot glass of chilled Aquavit. Was I now a proud member of a society of alcoholics and sun worshippers?
But I wasn’t alone.
Lines formed from both sides of the pool deck for distinguished crew members to efficiently annoint all worthy passangers with a blue-tinted dab of meringue.
What follows is a small sample of inductee’s portraits–some more enthusiastic than others…
United in singular purpose, we now shared a common bond.
To validate our accomplishment, each of us received a certificate of achievement validated by Captain Nilsen.
Soon after, while walking about the jogging track in whipping winds after a filling lunch, I caught a glimpse of what made this affair so special.
Leah and I could not leave London without visiting Tate Modern, a post-industrial power plant repurposed to house a wide collection of global artists, past and present, who conceptualize their vision through a variety of mediums.
These are only a sampling of my impressions of their work and installations…
With our table cleared, and the house lights dimmed, the performance was about to begin. We were reminded by the maitre d’ to take as many pictures as we wanted, provided no flash photography was used.
Drawing from Mexican folklore and fantasy, the storyline is set in an alchemist’s library/laboratory–complete with rigging and a trap door–where we are introduced to a loyal menagerie of characters,
beholden to a mischievous girl, and her scatterbrained, but well-meaning grandfather,
who for the next 80-minutes embark on a quixotic quest through space and time to rescue Grandpa’s Book of Life, and in the process gain an understanding and greater appreciation of the world’s wonders and secrets of life.
Throughout their journey (part bilingual theater, and part circus), the duo encounters: a skip rope team…
a Risley acrobatic duo,
a silk curtain dancer…
an audience participant…
pageant and puppetry…
and a trampoline wall before the finale…
The show, now in its 6th season was sassy, classy and fun.
As expected, the performers’ imaginative costumes were cut from the same creative cloth that distinguishes Cirque’s originality.
And the acrobats’ anthems appropriately delivered the romance and drama that supported their feats of daring-do.
With the last bow was taken, and the house lights turned up, our family agreed that this was an evening well spent,
Cirque du Soleil is seemingly ubiquitous–with a dozen touring companies scouring the continents, and 7 different resident shows selling out across the Las Vegas strip, making this entertainment company the most prolific circus producer on the planet.
But JOYÀ is different, and I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my family.
Staged in a custom-built, butterfly-inspired structure surrounded by a cenote within the Riviera Maya jungle,
the 600-seat theater features a thrust stage anchored by perimeter table service, and tiered seating beyond the waiters’ service stations.
For the epicure, this production offers a dinner component one-hour before showtime that relies on gastronomic smoke and mirrors to draw the guest deeper into the Mexican experience.
According to Mexican Top Chef Alexis Bostelmann, “Each element of this magnificent show served as my inspiration, where imaginative curiosity is met with unexpected discovery,” said Bostelmann.
The adventure began with an edible menu,
followed by a polished slab of wood featuring a salad of edible flowers and Iberian ham, served with a lobster taco, a sweet potato, and fresh ceviche seasoned with coconut, mint and passion fruit.
I said “yes” to the protein option to garnish my salad: locally-sourced chinicuiles–a salty worm that feeds off maguey roots, and is often found swimming at the bottom of a mezcal bottle. A true Mexican delicacy!
Our featured beverage, in addition to a chilled bottle of Mecier Brut Champagne was Dragon Breath–a signature tequila concoction that was smokin’ and refreshing!
We noshed on a basket of bread bark,
and broccoli boughs while we waited for the second course.
My entree arrived under a meteor shell. I opted for braised short ribs nestled beside a dugout dinosaur bone of grilled veggies, and accompanied by a geode-styled crock filled with ginger, coconut and sweet potato mash.
Leah received a treasure chest of jewels…
accented by a fillet of salmon resting on a poblano-mint puree, elevated by a tower of grilled vegetables, and an oyster-sized seaweed salad topped with a coconut milk pearl.
All the while, our remaining senses were treated to traditional Latin music performed with a jazzy twist.
After the second course was cleared, we were presented with a novel idea–
–a quartet of desserts plated within the pages of the Periodic Table of Pastries.
“My goal was to present a menu rooted in historical meaning that parallels the show’s beloved storyline so that once the performance begins, guests will connect all the details for a completely immersive theatrical experience,” Bostelmann added.
If dinner set the scene, then the show would bear more earthly delights. Noah, Nathan, Leah and I waited for the lights to dim…
and let Cirque du Soleil transport us to a magical place, where gravity is optional.
GPS was set to Zona Arqueológica de Tulum, but upon arrival, the crossover was still under construction. Following signs to the next Retorno, I backtracked to a bustling turnoff. This looked nothing like the Tulum I remembered from 5 years back. Heck, Tulum used to be all jungle 20 years ago!
But now, it resembled a spider web of agents in uniformed shirts carrying clipboards and shouting directions in Spanglish. Our rental car was stopped short of the road to the ruins, where we were met by Freddy, a representative for Santa Fe Beach Club, whose job it was to redirect us to his business.
According to Freddy, my choices were limited since cars could no longer advance. Either I could park nearby for $20 and walk 1 km to the ruins, or pay $40 a head, granting us: closer parking; National Park entrance passes; access to the Beach Club–including toilet and shower provisions, one drink (choice of water, soda, or cerveza), and a half-hour water tour, followed by reef snorkeling (all gear provided).
“No way!” everyone voiced emphatically.
All of us were content to walk to the ruins for a fraction of the cost. As I prepared to park in an already overcrowded lot, Freddy offered us a winning alternative: the same all-inclusive package reduced to $27 per person–a 33% discount–traditionally offered to Mexican residents. Score! and lesson learned. Always negogiate the price!
While the ruins piqued their interest, the prospect of snorkeling atop the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (largest reef system in the Western Hemisphere) sounded especially promising to Noah and Nate. After I revised our initial itinerary–which would have included a stop at Yal-ku in Akumal, with snorkeling in a brackish lagoon surrounded by sculptures–I sensed their enthusiasm to swim in the Caribbean.
I followed Freddy’s directions to Tulum’s Hotel Zone, and turned into a narrow seaside road, offering access to scores of Tulum’s boutique hotels and yoga retreats. Unfortunately, Tulum’s current popularity may prove unsustainable, as it’s recent explosion of tourism and new resort construction have overtaken the town’s current infrastructure capacity, turning it into a eco-nightmare.
Nevertheless, developers continue to exploit the bohemian chic of Tulum. Despite government crackdowns (knowingly rife with corrupt officials), illegal projects continue, laying waste to precious jungle habitats that were once home to endangered jaguars and sea turtles.
We drove to the término, reaching our destination…
and luckily found a coveted parking spot along the mangroves by the beach entrance.
We walked the remaining half mile to the National Park on a rutted lane shared by cyclists, and local vendors selling water and trinkets.
Ordinarily, the surroundings are packed with tour groups and spectators, but we arrived on a calm day, without the usual hubbub.
In fact, the landscape was relatively quiet, and devoid of humanity…
except when I wanted an isolated picture of family.
After meandering through 13th century wreckage for more than an hour, we turned our attention to the beach, where the turquoise water looked so inviting.
Ruins Beach is accessible from the cliffs above, but 500 meters south, lies Sante Fe Beach, one of Tulum’s original hangout spots before the tourism boom…
and that was our next destination.
Per Freddy’s instructions, we sought out Captain Harrison, and lounged on PVC beach chairs under a delapidated canopy, waiting for our excursion on Brenda or half a dozen skiffs just like her.
Leah stayed on land after realizing her bonine fix had worn off, but Noah, Nate and I eagerly climbed aboard.
Our captain motored out to open water,
and offered a summarized history of the Mayans, and importance of Tulum…in Spanish.
Soon, we headed for the reef, where others had formed a floatilla of snorkelers.
Noah and Nathan eagerly jumped overboard for an under-the-sea swim…
while I remained on the surface, shooting pelicans…
and keeping track of my sons.
Once ashore, it was time for a beer and a shower. Despite the primitive outdoor plumbing on the beach, we concluded that $27 a head was a better bargain than any of us could have ever imagined for a family vacation adventure.
It was reindeer season again in St. Petersburg, FL thanks to Enchant Christmas, a Vancouver-based lighting company that plants holiday fixtures in unlikely places. The illusion of winter shone brightly inside Tropicana Field (The Trop), with 2.5 million bulbs ablaze.
Normally, home to the American League Tampa Bay Rays during the regular season,
the domed stadium had been transformed into an ice skating trail that curled around the third base line and ran across the infield.
Also included was the “world’s largest light maze,” anchored by a towering golden tree behind second base,
and a Christmas market bolstered by fast-food dining options. This year’s Tampa Bay theme was The Great Search, highlighting the disappearance of Santa’s nine over-sized reindeer–
all of whom were hiding within a 90,000 square foot light maze–waiting to be discovered and tracked through a scratch card.
Leah and I visited The Trop with our family from Albuquerque, and apprehensively outfitted the grandkids with skates for the first time.
There were spills and chills and grip-worn guard rails, but thankfully, no casualties, unlike others who required more immediate medical attention.
After a photo op with Santa…
we were off to explore the maze, helping Santa relocate his missing reindeer,
and stopping along the way…
to admire the fancy shapes…
While the kids had fun finding Santa’s reindeer and scratching their cards, Enchant had lost its enchantment for me after the fourth reindeer.
The canned carols had imprinted on my senses and the warm glow had turned to glare. I had reached the summit of Mount Monotony. That’s when I wished I was home scouting the local reindeer.
It was September 1969, and I was in my senior year at Pittsburgh’s Peabody High School. To my mother’s dismay, my bell-bottom jeans were torn and faded, my hair was too long, and my music was too noisy. The British Invasion was casting Pittsburgh’s favorite sons Bobbie Vinton and Lou Christie aside, although Tommy James and the Shondells were pushing back hard with their psychedelic sound.
I was hooked on rock ‘n roll, and doubled down on my commitment as a record collector by retiring my GE record player and worn 45’s in favor of LPs. Fortunately, my summer job as a yardman at Steel City Lumber funded my new Pioneer SX-1000 receiver and Dual 1219 turntable, complemented by a pair of Advent Loudspeakers. All I needed now was a record that was worthy of blasting.
My weekly allowance was meant to cover my bus transportation and school lunches for the week, but if I scrimped hard enough, I could afford an album, and I knew exactly which one I wanted. The Beatles’ Abbey Road LP had just been released, and I couldn’t wait to listen to it in its entirety, uninterrupted.
However, a weekend trip to National Record Mart’s East Liberty location left me high and dry. Unfortunately, the Beatles’ much anticipated album was already out of stock. Rather than leave the store empty-handed, I took the store clerk’s advice and picked up a record from a display he was building by the store entrance.
Being unfamiliar with the group, I was reassured that this band was unlike any other I may have heard. He said these guys performed at Woodstock, and this was definitely a band to pay close attention to. My interest was piqued. On the surface, I was trading a color photo of the Fab Four stepping through a London crosswalk for a sepia-toned picture of five scruffy guys posing in the woods. The album in question was self-titled, The Band.
I couldn’t wait to get home. I slit the shrink wrap, and carefully placed the record on the turntable platter. From the first track, a romping Across the Great Divide, to the last track, a haunting King Harvest (Has Surely Come), I knew I was hooked. It was completely different from any music playing on the radio at the time. This was a melange of mountain music, blues, and rockabilly mixed with unusual signatures. The music was delightful! How ironic that four of the five players were Canadian, but their expression was pure Americana.
That was 50 years ago. Today, The Band’s iconic album still resonates. While The Band’s songbook is limited to seven studio albums of original material over a ten-year career, their legendary status as consumate musicians was cemented in their final Thanksgiving concert, The Last Waltz (1976)–captured for the big screen by Martin Scorsese–where a string of special guests joined the group on stage to make music history as one of the greatest concerts of all time.
The magic continues this November, as The Last Waltz Tour reprises The Band’s original setlist with fresh arrangements and a steller line-up of musicians. I had admired the film and listened to the original recording, but I had to catch this performance now that it was coming to my newly adopted home town.
It was a chilly evening at St. Augustine’s Amphitheater, but the capacity crowd was warmed up for the event, as a familiar whiff of marijuana wafted through the tiered venue before The Last Waltz Overture signaled the beginning of the show.
Three frontmen took the stage,
and for the next 3½ hours shared lead vocals and guitar riffs, and provided subtle harmonies for a trove of rock ‘n roll gems memorialized 43 years ago. The all-star ensemble also included jazz keyboardist, John Medeski of MedeskiMartin & Wood;
legendary producer and bassist Don Was, and funk-master drummer Terrance Higgins anchoring a solid rhythm section; and a New Orleans-flavored horn section powered by Mark Mullins and the Levee Horns, playing from Alain Toussaint’s original charts.
Guest stars included: Cyril Neville,
and septuagenarian guitarist Bob Margolin, who played with The Band and Muddy Waters at the original Last Waltz in 1976, and reminisced about performing at the concert and jamming at the after-party with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, and Paul Butterfield until 7am.
Such a night!
Theme From The Last Waltz
Up on Cripple Creek
The Shape I’m In
Georgia (On My Mind)
It Makes No Difference
The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show
Down South in New Orleans
Who Do You Love?
This Wheel’s on Fire
King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
The Genetic Method
Life Is a Carnival
Rag Mama Rag
Kind Hearted Woman Blues
Further On Up the Road
I Shall Be Released
Such a Night
Baby Don’t You Do It
The Band’s music endures after 50 years, and may it keep us Forever Young.
One hundred and sixty years ago, John Brown and his abolitionist brigade played a pivotal role in American history by raiding the South’s largest federal armory in Harpers Ferry with the intention of fueling a rebellion of slaves from Virginia and North Carolina, and envisioning a subsequent society where all people–regardless of color–would be free and equal.
The initial siege caught U.S. soldiers off guard and the armory and munitions plant were captured with little resistance. Brown’s marauders took sixty townsfolk hostage (including the great grandnephew of George Washington), and slashed the telegraph wires in an attempt to isolate the town from outside communication.
However, a B&O passenger train, originally detained at the bridge, was allowed to continue its journey to Baltimore, where employees sounded the alarm and troops were immediately dispatched to quell the insurrection.
In another of Brown’s miscalculations, the local militia pinned down Brown’s insurgents inside the engine house while awaiting reinforcements,
yet newly freed slaves never came to his rescue.
Ninety U.S. Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee’s command arrived by train the next evening and successfully stormed the stronghold the following day. When the dust had settled, ten of Brown’s raiders were killed (including two of his sons),
five had escaped, and seven were captured, including John Brown.
John Brown was quickly tried and convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Just before his hanging on December 2, 1859, Brown prophesied the coming of civil war: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
How right he was! To the North, Brown was a martyr; to the South, he was a traitor. To a fractured and fragile country, he was the first American to be sentenced and executed for treason.
John Brown’s raid and subsequent trial hardenened the separatism between the country’s abolitionist and pro-slavery factions,
…and advanced the disparate and insurmountable ideologies of the North and the South, until only the Civil War could satisfy the issue and begin healing the nation.
The term treason has been loosely bandied about of late and with tremendous fanfare, albeit little distinction. It’s become a familiar talking point for Donald Trump, whose insulting language and hyperbolic demagoguery continue to rouse his supporters as it diminishes the civility of our national conversation.
Bold and courageous public servants and patriots who are honor bound to defend democracy have been branded as traitors and accused of treasonous behavior because they dare to speak out against corruption and wrongdoing inside the White House.
And the implications are worrisome, for the stakes are high. In a country that values free speech, treason is not about displaced loyalties; it has nothing to do with political dissent; and it has no standing in speaking truth to power. Treason is about pledging allegiance to power and greed instead of American values, like diversity and unity.
As before, politics continues to polarize the nation,
while our Legislative Branch of government seeks a constitutional remedy against the Executive Branch through an impeachment process. And once again, ideological differences have fostered veiled threats of civil war.
If history is to be our guide, then John Brown must be our beacon. During his sentencing he lamented, “…had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends…and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”
Sounds remarkably familiar.
More than ever, we must steer through political currents, and find our way around deception, obfuscation and misdirection if our democracy is to stay afloat.
I met Andy Warhol once, although it was nothing glamorous. I can’t brag about meeting him on the set of one of his Factory films or dancing together at Studio 54 or sharing lines of coke in the ladies room of Max’s Kansas City. Nevertheless, I’ll settle for our chance encounter in the back seat of my taxi.
It was July 25, 1985 and I was waiting at the light on W. 65th St. and Amsterdam Avenue when I recognized Warhol exiting Lincoln Center. He stepped off the curb to hail a cab, and I held my breath that the light would change before another driver could snatch him from me.
When the light turned green, I gunned the feeble engine, and the taxi lurched across the intersection. I pulled up alongside of Warhol, and he scrambled into the back seat of my cab carrying a Commodore tote bag. He requested I drive him to his Upper Eastside townhouse after attending a Lincoln Center event with Debbie Harry to launch Commodore’s Amiga 1000, and promote its color graphic capabilities.
He wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and the trip–all of 15 minutes–was covered in relative silence, although he asked me turn up the volume when “Brown Sugar” played over the radio.
“I designed that album cover for the Stones, y’know,” he said softly.
These memories came flooding back to me as I explored the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, walking through seven floors of collections from the early years,
through his productive New York days,
until his demise in 1987.
The Andy Warhol Museum–managed by the Carnegie Museum of Art–holds the world’s most extensive collection of Warhol’s art, including:
…approximately 100 sculptures;
…nearly 2,000 works on paper;
…more than 1,000 published and unique prints;
…4,000 photographs; 60 feature films; 200 Screen Tests; and more than 4,000 videos.”
The collection also features Warhol wallpaper and books;
…and an archive of perhaps half a million objects collected by Warhol spanning a 40-year career, including his original Amiga 1000 computer and assorted discs filled with unseen digital art…until recently.
Nearing the end of the exhibition, I approached a Warhol painting detailing a series of female torsos, but found the photograph lackluster and flat. And I wondered, “What would Andy do in this situation to add contrast and depth?”
That’s when I framed a posthumous collaboration of Keith Haring’s painted elephant with Andy’s torsos.
Feeling inspired and somewhat creative, I decided to try my hand at screening a kerchief in the Underground Lab for $2.00.
While it’s not perfect, it’s nothing to sneeze at, so I’ll be using tissues instead, whenever necessary.
Randy Gilson grew up dirt poor in a small mill town just outside Pittsburgh’s city limits. As one of six children from a “broken” family, he remembers being teased by schoolmates, who called him “dumb, stupid, dadless, welfare boy, and white trash.” But his mother, a minister, advised him to ignore the noise, and instilled in him a commitment to do good for others. Her voice became Randy’s moral compass, and he’s walked the high road ever since.
He recalls a childhood Christmas when there was no money for presents, so he scavanged the neighborhood trashcans in search of discarded toys, and placed a wrapped gift for each of his siblings under the tree. It was a powerful lesson.
He learned that “making others happy made me happy.”
He also discovered that traditional learning was a waste of his time. He was wired differently from others, and blamed his failing school grades on an unofficial diagnosis of “ADHD and OCD, mixed with a little bit of autism,” because he was never formally tested. Rather than depend on his brain, he reminded himself that “my eyes are a tool to see, my ears are a tool to hear, my hands are a tool to work, and my heart is a tool to help.”
Randy’s first money came from mowing neighbors’ lawns, but in a roundabout way. At first, he furtively cut their overgrown grass as a goodwill gesture. The neighbors called Randy out for tresspassing, but eased their anger once they realized the benefit to their properties. Eventually, they hired Randy to tend their yards–where he honed his topiary skills on their hedges and trees.
Additionally, working on family farms over the summers taught him the value of nurturing seeds and the resultant harvest. In later years, Randy’s interest in horticulture blossomed into the Old Allegheny Garden Society, which resulted in planting hundreds of whiskey barrel gardens along the Mexican War Streets of Pittsburgh’s North Side during a risky time of transition and uncertainty.
“Living his life” gave Randy the confidence to gamble on his future. In 1978, he moved to Pittsburgh’s North Side, because it was the best he could do at the time. When long-time residents fled to the suburbs, the gangs moved into the area, and a drug culture took root and held the community hostage. “The neighbors used to shoot off guns in the middle of the night. For them, it was particularly useful in keeping the rents low,” claimed Randy.
But Randy stood his ground. Although planting gardens and painting murals raised eyebrows of derision and suspicion among grown-ups, the children of the streets gave Randy the benefit of the doubt. At first they were confused.
“Why would a stranger be doing all sorts of nice things on their streets?” Randy mused. “When I told them that I was doing it for them, then they wanted to help, too.”
The street became Randy’s parish, and he preached a gospel of stewardship and goodness. Soon after, his Pied Piper nature won over the rest of the community, and he was accepted as their resident eccentric (or eccentric resident).
An opportunity presented itself in 1995. An abandoned building on Arch Street, earmarked for the wrecking ball, was saved from demolition when Randy bought the property from the bank with a $10,000 credit card loan covered by the bank.
Immediately, he began collecting litter, planting gardens and painting wall murals.
That was the genesis of Randyland…
a candy-coated, pie-in-the-sky habitat of repurposed whimsy and soul,
People travel to Randyland from around the world, and prepare destination arrows to indicate their country of origin.
They stop by for the novelty…
for the vibe and the energy…
and to remember the child still trapped inside us all.
Randy doesn’t pretend to be an artist. In fact, he disagrees with the characterization. “I’m not an artist. I’m a gay hippie that smokes pot, and believes in sharing my vision.”
Randy’s charm is infectious; his energy is contagious;
and his message is inspirational. His mother would be proud of him.
What started out as a typical tour of a colorful outdoor habitat, turned into a surprisingly deep and endearing conversation with Randy, once Leah and I introduced ourselves.
Passerby cars with follow-up horn toots were a constant interruption, but Randy always had a quick response for them:
“Hey, pretty mama…”
“I love your weave…”
“Lookin’ good in the neighborhood.”
Randy is eager to tell his story and have his story told. He is also unabashed about his upbringing and background. Few people I know are so accepting of themselves. He easily shares the details of his life normally reserved for confidants or therapists. But then I realize that Randy’s candor is probably an ongoing part of his therapy…where he plays the therapist.
Randy placed a wad of business cards in my hand, and like a butterfly in search of its next flower nectar, he flew off to be photographed with his next best friends.
It’s easy spotting a rainbow, but following him to his pot of gold is a greater reward.
Originally, our itinerary would have taken us directly from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, but after phoning Airstream’s Factory Service Center, and learning of an available repair appointment, we redirected Jennifer (our GPS avatar) to plot a course for the western border of Ohio.
Although we were headed in the opposite direction, it was a small price to pay to fix the damage sutained to the right-side wheel well from a blown Goodyear Marathon tire in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario (see Blowout!).
Located between Ft. Wayne, IN and Columbus, OH at the intersection of State Routes 274 and 65 sits the village of Jackson Center with a population of nearly 1,500 people, whose largest employer is Airstream with 730 workers.
In 1952, founder Wally Byam, migrated to Jackson Center from Los Angeles with visions of expanding the output of his iconic brand.
Sixty-seven years later, Airstream continues its hand-built tradition of America’s longest tenured travel trailer, and now awaits completion of its state-of-the-art 750,000 sq-ft eco-friendly facility by year’s end, which should help correct the current 2,400 trailer shortfall.
When Leah and I arrived, we were overwhelmed by dozens of Airstreams–from its earliest incarnation,
to several vintage varities,
to newest production models–
all towed across America with a wide array of boo boos,
and lining the parking lot in need of attention and TLC.
After confirming my appointment with Amica Insurance Company–who contracted for an adjuster to appraise the damage upon our arrival on Friday morning–I checked in with Customer Service, and registered for the afternoon tour of Airstream’s currrent manufacturing facility.
We were joined by 50 additional visitors and Don Ambos, a 60-year veteran of Airstream who retired as a line worker, but currently curates the 2-hour tour–from components to assembly.
Currently, Airstream builds 72 travel trailers every week…
…and 13 Class B Motorhomes every week.
By the time the tour had ended, our trailer had already been towed to the on-site Terraport, where we stayed the next two nights with full hook-up at no extra charge ($10/day for visitors)!
The Airstream factory tour runs every day at 2pm from Monday through Friday, although on Friday, the production cycle only runs half a day, so goggles and eye protection are not required.
After traveling over 50,000 miles behind the wheel of my F-150, with my Flying Cloud 27-FB hitched behind me, I can’t image a better tandem for comfort, performance, and durability.
And having witnessed the assembly of both truck and trailer (in Dearborn, MI and Jackson Center, OH, respectively) I am reassured that Made in America matters.
The sole reason Leah and I traveled to Cleveland was to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, period…
and it didn’t disappoint.
Classic rock music filled the cavernous lobby…
and lighter-than-air concert props hung from cables…
It was a crusty carnival atmosphere on the outside, but we were there for the gooey goodness of the center.
Inside was like a multi-media circus. There was so much information and memorabilia organized on the walls, on the ceilings, and inside floating kiosks that whiplash seemed inevitable. And the Hall was buzzing: with so many tourists, campers, musicians, and music enthusiasts, that at times it felt like a mosh pit, as I moved from one area to another.
To be expected, there was a tribute to Woodstock…
and Dick Clark…
a salute to the 2019 inductees…
and the icons of rock: Elvis,
The Rolling Stones,
and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few.
There was plenty of concert apparel to gush about…
And there were interactivities to capture one’s creativity, like Garage Band.
Most importantly, when the last lyric was sung and the last chord was strummed, it was time to shop!
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison–the two men are inextricably linked in so many ways that it defies kismet. Both were iconic inventors and visionaries with a twist of genius; both were titans of industry; they were best friends; they were neighbors; they were presidents of each other’s mutual admiration society; and they were both anti-Semitic.
On October 21, 1929–two days before the stock market crash–invitees arrived at Greenfield Village to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the electric light, and Ford’s dedication of Greenfield Village to Edison.
The event was a who’s who of dignitaries and celebrities, with the likes of Will Rogers, Marie Curie, Charles Schwab, Adolph Ochs, Walter Chrysler, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., J.P. Morgan, George Eastman and Orville Wright, etc.
All gathered inside Edison’s reconstructed Menlo Park laboratory…
to witness the symbolic relighting of an incandescent lamp made famous a half century earlier, and credited with changing the world.
Later, Ford ordered the armchair where Edison sat during the ceremony to be nailed in place for all time, and never to be sat in again.
It remains in the exact same place, today.
Greenfield Village was dedicated to Edison that evening as the Edison Institute of Technology. Henry Ford had prepared all year for this public relations bonanza by bringing Menlo Park, NJ to Dearborn, MI.
Ford incorporated Edison’s machine shop…
and years later, he built a facsimile of Edison’s first power plant.
Although Ford was 16 years Edison’s junior, and Edison had been Ford’s employer for a time, they became bossom buddies by the time World War I erupted. Ford’s acceptance of a 1914 invitation to Edison’s winter retreat in Ft. Myers sealed the deal.
Two years later, Ford purchased The Mangoes beside Edison’s SeminoleLodge, and they became Floridian neighbors.
They took public vacations together, inviting John Burroughs and Harvey Firestone along for the ride–usually to the mountains or parts of rural America. The press corps were encouraged to follow their every move, dubbing them “The Vagabonds.”
While roaming the country, Ford was always eager to share his anti-Semitic views around the campfire, blaming the Shylock bankers in Germany as the root cause of the war, and Jews in America as the source of economic anxiety–all of which was propagandized in the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper published by Ford and used to expose his “truths” about the Jewish threat.
While Edison’s anti-Semitism was never as overt as Ford, it became clear that he harbored similar sentiments, and used his motion picture company to propagate Jewish myths and stereotypes. Cohen was a recurring dislikeable character in his early short films…
While Jean Farrell Edison, the granddaughter and heiress of Thomas Edison’s fortune was funding the Institute for Historical Review (an organization that promotes Holocaust denial), Henry Ford II had distanced himself from his grandfather’s vitriol by offering philanthropic support for Detroit’s Jewish community, as well as renouncing the Arab League’s boycott of Israel after Israel achieved statehood in 1948.
And how would Henry Ford react to Mark Fields’ appointment as Ford Motor Company’s CEO in 2014, or Bill Ford’s dedication of Ford’s first technology research center opening in Tel Aviv this year?
Likewise, Edison might pale upon discovering that the motion picture industry exploded in Hollywood with studios founded by: Carl Laemmle, Sam and Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, and Adolf Zukor.
Paradoxically, in 1997, the Israeli Postal Authority memorialized Edison with a stamp.
Yet, a bigger question remains… How is it that we live in a world that continues to embrace an ancient hatred that modern-day leaders are unwilling to disavow?
Typically, most people with a predilection for collecting turn to everyday items, such as stamps, figurines, sports memorabilia, books, shoes, or records to name just a few obsessions. But not Henry Ford. By virtue of Ford’s bottomless budget, and his insatiable curiosity, his path to collecting took him through time itself, because Henry Ford collected significant relics of history and personal sentiment, and planted them across 80 acres in Dearborn, Michigan.
He called it Greenfield Village, making it the largest museum of its kind in the world.
Greenfield Village originally operated as an experimental school known as Edison Institute in 1929 (as a nod to his dearest friend) before opening to the public as an outdoor museum in 1933.
Ford, mused, “I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used…. When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition…”
There are over 100 original or replicated buildings filled with hundreds of thousands of artifacts and Americana intended to preserve authenticity. Additionally, costumed spokespeople throughout the complex tell antecdotes of historical nature, fully re-enacting an experience that captures an earlier time in America.
If there was a homestead that had historical value or childhood sentiment to Henry Ford, and it stood in the way of progress, then Henry seized the moment and had the house razed and moved to Michigan for restoration.
As excerpted from Telling America’s Story–A History of the Henry Ford:
In 1919, a road improvement project in Ford’s hometown of Springwells Township, Michigan (now the city of Dearborn), meant his birthplace would need to be either moved 200 yards from its original location – or destroyed.
Ford decided to move the house and restore it to the way it looked at the time of his mother’s death in 1876, when he was 13 years old. Ford personally took charge of the birthplace restoration, meticulously recreating the details of the house down to the original or similar furnishings.
For example, Ford remembered sitting by a Starlight stove in the dining room as a child. After 18 months of searching, he discovered the exact make and model on a porch in Stockbridge, Michigan, which he purchased for $25 and loaded into his car for the journey back to Dearborn. And when he couldn’t find the precise pattern of dishes his mother had used, he had the original site of his birthplace excavated and had replicas made from the pottery shards found.
Ford dedicated the restoration of his childhood home to his mother’s memory and her teachings, particularly noting her love of family, her belief in the value of hard work, in learning “not from the school books but from life,” and her belief in trusting one’s intuition. His mother had encouraged his early tinkering and youthful inventions, and he felt sure she had set him on his unique path in life.
The rest is history…
And it’s all organized into seven historic districts: Working Farms;
Henry Ford’s Model T;
Porches & Parlors;
and Edison at Work, which is a future subject unto itself.
As one might expect, walking through history can be exhausting. Leah’s iPhone calculated that we hiked nearly 5 miles around the village in 3 hours, although there was still so much more to see and do. However, it was a hot and humid day, and apropos to Henry Ford, we simply ran out of gas and steam.
Or, to bastardize a famous Edison quote, we were inspired while we perspired!
Leah and I were looking forward to touring Hitsville, USA after determining that a visit to Detroit was an essential part of our Great Lakes adventure.
Once we arrived at Motown Studios, I sensed a different kind of energy around me. Almost immediately, I found parking for the F-150 just beyond the funeral parlor’s yellow lines, and saw it as an omen of sorts for something good.
The scene around the house pulsed with enthusiasm and excitement. The crowd was as mixed as a casting call for Felinni’s Amarcord, yet everyone shared a common connection to the music, which made for instant bonding.
A like-minded gentleman of similar age joined me as I read the commemorative plaque, and I turned to him.
“Do you realize that we are the generation of those spider things?” I joked.
“Tell me about it!” he shrugged. “I got memories fitting that thingagmajig into the record hole just so I could stack my 45’s on the record player.”
“Amen!” I replied.
We shook hand and moved on.
Fans from across the country and around the world made the pilgrimage to celebrate the soundtrack to America’s social, political, and cultural consciousness.
Leah took a trip to the box office, while I attempted a portrait of Hitsville Chapel, all the while dodging families posing for selfies on the steps.
Leah returned without tickets. To our disappointment, the 5pm tour was sold out…weeks ago. It never occurred to us to secure tickets beforehand.
“Let’s go inside,” I suggested. “We’ve come this far. Maybe there’s something to see, or something we can do to fix this fiasco.”
The front door opened to an overflowing gift shop doing brisk business, but we weren’t there to buy souvenirs (at least not right away). We were there to relive our childhoods.
I walked around the backside of the shop, where I found the exit to the exhibition.
So close, yet so far…to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 173 miles east of us…
to catch up on nifty artifacts.
“I think I can get us in,” Leah announced.
“Really!?” I mused. “And how are you gonnna manage that?”
“I think I can convince the guard to feel sorry for us, and he’ll let us in,” she boasted.
“Just like that!?” I laughed.
“You’ll see,” she insisted.
I think the security guard of 25 years has probably heard every sob story imaginable, except for Leah’s. To be expected, Leah’s story had little impact on his decision, but he must have been moved somewhat.
He withdrew a tattered writing pad from his shirt pocket. “Y’know, over the years, I collected the addresses of some Motown legends, and I don’t really show it aroun’, but I’m gonna make an exception in your case, ’cause you came all this way for nothin’.”
“And all these addresses are in Detroit?” I asked.
“Yup!” declared security.
Wanting clarification, “and they’re real?”
“Yup, but do me a favor and keep it on the QT, OK? I don’t want the neighbors hassled and all,” he advised.
Cool! While we had lost the grand prize, it seemed, at the very least, that we were leaving with parting gifts. With addresses in hand, Leah and I decided to regroup and return the following day to play “private investigator.”
When plotting addresses on GPS, it became clear to us that many of the homes were within a ten-mile range of each other, so off we went on our real estate scavanger hunt of once-lived-in homes of America’s greatest rhythm and blues, and soul singers.
We started our tour at Florence Ballard’s home in Detroit’s largest historic district, Russell Woods. Florence was a founding member of the Supremes, who passed in 1976.
In her early years, Diana Ross lived with her family on the top floor of this duplex, just north of Arden Park.
It turns out, it was only five miles away from Berry Gordy, Jr.’s home, until he sold it to Mavin Gaye in the ’70’s…
and moved to a 10,500 sq ft Italianate mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison historic district with 10 bedrooms, 7 baths, a 4,000 sq ft pool house, and a 5-car carriage house.
Nearby, Gladys Knight lived in a 4 bedroom, 3.5 bath Tudor in Detroit’s Martin Park neighborhood.
Around the corner, lived Temptation’s co-founder and lead singer, Eddie Kendricks in a 4 bedroom, 2 bath 2,300 sq ft house.
And only a couple of miles away in the Bagley neighborhood lived Stevie Wonder in a 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath gabled house.
By now, I was fading from driving through Detroit traffic; and I was losing interest in photographing the rest of the listings. Additionally, I considered that crawling to a stop in front of someone’s house, double-parking, and positioning a camera through the window probably looked suspicious and creepy to any onlookers.
The following afternoon, the day of our departure, a home in Detroit’s Chandler Park section exploded–14 miles east of our recent real estate sweep.
One firefighter was injured in the blast. The Fire Marshall determined that a gas leak was to blame, but arson investigators are on the scene.
“Y’think this was an omen, too?” Leah mused.
“Nah! Just a coincidence!” I answered.
(Or maybe the beginning of another impossibly flaky, half-baked conspiracy theory!)
At first glance, the large number of vacant lots between derelict buildings on Heidelberg Street in Detroit, MI resembles a crooked smile through a handful of broken teeth. The gaps are filled with collections of discarded remnants from everyday life that could easily be mistaken for a flea market on crack. But first impressions are completely unjustified, and there is a purpose to the madness…to be discovered over time.
In 1986, Tyree Guyton returned to his childhood neighborhood in Detroit’s East Side, only to find a ghetto ravaged by drugs and poverty so severe that it touched his soul and roused his spirit. With encouragement from Grandpa Sam Mackey, he vowed to fight back with a paintbrush and a broom, which would eventually carry him on a celebrated journey–fighting his way through local partisan politics to national prominence.
To his credit, Guyton recruited sympathetic volunteers to change the face of their community, and after a massive clean-up, he incorporated the wreckage gathered from vacant lots, converting his neighborhood into an urban sculpture installation that has garnered world-wide attention.
For 30 years, Heidelberg Street has been a grass roots, work-in-progress. The HP (r)evolution continues today through personal donations and strong foundation support–providing funding for transformative paint-overs, and the acquisition of border properties to replace the homes lost to arson.
During my visit, I crossed paths with several photographers who felt as I did–that we had walked into someone’s wild dream, and we were there to interpret his dream through our cameras.
However, should the art critics and cognescenti remain unmoved, or the public dismisses Guyten’s art as junk, there is more to the story at the end of the day. When all the visitors return to their homes, the residents of Heidelberg Street stay behind knowing that their plight has been replaced by pride and opportunity.