Sunday, December 3, 2006
IN THE FALL OF 1986, THE SHINY NEW WASHINGTON POST MAGAZINE LAUNCHED amid a flurry of promotion and great expectations. But one thing happened that -- stunningly, in retrospect -- nobody expected: For three long months, African Americans protested, outraged by that first cover story featuring a rap artist accused of murder and a column arguing that it was reasonable for upscale shopkeepers to be suspicious of young black males. The climax came when protesters dumped thousands of copies of the Magazine on the steps of The Post building as a crowd chanted, "Take it back, take it back."
Boy, did we wish we could have.
That might have been a good time to call a bookie and place a large bet that the magazine would still be around in 2006. Talk about long shots.
But, as we think you'll see in the following pages, the Magazine's 20-year survival wasn't really about luck. It was about great writers who could make the people, trends and institutions of our time come vividly, and in some cases, shockingly, alive. It was Walt Harrington burrowing uncomfortably deep on the subject of class privilege with George Bushes I and II. It was Peter Carlson revealing Arnold Schwarzenegger as the 3-D comic book hero he actually is; Marjorie Williams's prescient sense that the go-go '90s were going to crash; David Finkel's dumbfoundingly intimate look inside a TV-addicted family; Dave Barry's evisceration of Washington's multitudinous hypocrisies; Steve Coll's stunning re-creation of Sierra Leone's butchery; Peter Perl's penetration of Tom DeLay's bizarre estrangement from his family. It was Sally Jenkins on Kwame Brown's crash and burn; Gene Weingarten on the magic and mystery behind the Great Zucchini, among many other articles through more than 1,000 issues.
So today, to celebrate what can only be considered an unlikely anniversary, we've assembled a smattering of highlights from two decades of Sundays, a time capsule, and a reminder of just how long, and short, 20 years really is.
Tom Shroder, editor of the Magazine, will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.9/28/86
. . . or just born on third base?
By Walt Harrington
I WAS INVITED TO WALKER'S POINT, the Bush family compound in Maine, where Bush, his wife and their children and families were vacationing. They worshiped at St. Ann's Episcopal Church, ate hot dogs on the deck at Walker's Point, sang "Happy Birthday" to a Bush grandson. But George Bush and I also sat in the old caretaker's cottage and talked about what I had learned of his life and its two recurring themes -- great ability and great privilege.
Bush is magical -- smart, funny, charming -- and I found myself wanting him to like me. Intimacy is his gift. But let's face it: Bush was handed opportunity after opportunity because of his family's wealth and influence, making him also a child of a lasting American inequality. As a boy, Bush wanted to be president, and his rare mix of ability and privilege has given him a shot.
Let me tell you, the vice president of the United States is very tired of hearing this. When I return to Walker's Point later that day for a fishing trip, Bush's wife, Barbara, pulls me aside. George had come back from the caretaker's cottage and said Barbara shouldn't be surprised if the boat returned one person lighter. I'm sure he was joking. But imagine his distress. One more story calling him just another rich man's kid. This story doesn't say that, but Bush couldn't have known that then. And as Bush, his 40-year-old son, George W., and I bob lazily on the Saco River, the vice president becomes suddenly reflective.
"I think you think 'class' is more important than I do," he says.
I suggest -- I'm smiling when I say this -- that people at the bottom of society often think social class is more important than do people at the top. But Bush will not be deterred. What did I mean when I said he was a product of America's upper class? Bush believes "class" is the snottiness and arrogance found in some rich people, those who think they are "better" than the less well-off. He says he has never felt that way. Exactly what does the word "class" mean to me?
This is an uncomfortable turning of the reportorial tables, and I am less than eloquent. But in fits and starts I say that "social class" is all about family connections and money and expectations and training, and what those can mean. I say the sons of fathers in high-level jobs end up in high-level jobs about half the time, while the sons of manual workers end up in high-level jobs about 20 percent of the time. I say that social class shapes everything from our self-esteem to our child-rearing to our sense of control over our lives. I say that education is the great American leveler -- but that rich kids get more of it. And that families like the Bushes often send their kids to expensive private schools to ensure their leg up.
This sounds, well, un-American to George W., and he rages that it is crap from the '60s. Nobody thinks that way anymore!
Sometimes $15 million isn't enough
By Tony Kornheiser
JEFFREY LEVITT STOLE AND MISAPPROPRIATED a grand total of fourteen million, six hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred forty-seven dollars and fifty-eight cents. He stole all that. It was the largest single white-collar crime in Maryland history, almost bringing down the state's entire savings and loan industry. About 35,000 depositors in Levitt's own Old Court Savings and Loan had their accounts frozen. And the cost to Maryland taxpayers to clean up the mess would run into millions of dollars.
During the period when they were ordered to spend no more than $1,000 per week, Jeffrey and wife Karol continually overspent their limit. Indeed, they casually wrote checks to cover their country club dues, to feed their racehorses, to buy jewelry ($7,857) and bathroom fixtures ($4,781). Once, before the troubles began and after a full dinner, in front of witnesses at the Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore, they each ate six desserts.
The Couple That Ate Baltimore.
The Levitt jokes have been base and cruel but part of the social price for such massive theft and gluttonous indulgence. What do you call their waterbed? Bay of Pigs. How did they get her into her jail cell? Greased the bars and threw in a Twinkie. What do they sing when she walks down the street? There she is, North America.
If ever a couple made themselves into a cartoon, the Levitts did. They were fat cats, symbolically and literally. The richer they got, the fatter they got. At this rate, by Thanksgiving 1995 they'd have been floats in the parade. Perhaps had they been more sympathetic, people might not have fixated on their size. But what is it that defines them if not their size? Their size, their appetite, their apparent insatiable piggishness: 17 cars, not counting the ones they actually drove. The Rolls-Royce golf cart with the TV and the stereo tape deck in the dashboard. From the Lutherville, Md., house alone, the IRS confiscated silverware including 15 sterling creamers and 33 sterling trays. Who did they think would come over for dinner, the Sixth Fleet? Theirs was a nearly incomprehensible gluttony, hyperphagic shoppers poised to devour us all. Isn't that why we hate them so much? Isn't that why we made up those jokes? The thievery was regrettable, but you can shake a high-rise office building and 100 embezzlers will fall out. Wasn't it the Levitts' vulgarity that really got to us?
Subdivision and multiplication
By Steve Coll
WHAT VILLAGE DO YOU BELONG TO?" They ask me again and again in India, over tea and mutton, or meat substances I prefer to think of as mutton.
It's an unsettling question. On the subcontinent, you aren't just "from" somewhere, a word that might suggest having left a place without plans to return; instead, you "belong" to the place of your origins. When an Indian tells another Indian what village he belongs to, he defines himself -- he reveals his caste, wealth, ethnicity, language and probable political leanings. He's exposed.
For months after I arrived last summer to take up the strange business of foreign correspondence, I tried to dodge. "I was raised near Washington, D.C., but I've lived in Los Angeles and New York as well," I said.
But this only provoked glassy, uncomprehending stares, followed by, "What village do you belong to?" In time, I gave in. I tell them now, "I belong to Montgomery Village."
Montgomery County is a terrible place to be from, never mind belonging to it. Although I lived there for 17 years, I have trouble thinking about the place as anything besides lines on a map, an uneven parallelogram affixed to the broken diamond of Washington, D.C. I imagine that for many people the very mention of their old home ground conjures sensual memories -- the smell of smoking sausages, for instance, or the sounds of city or countryside awakening, the angle of summer light through shade trees beside a house, the wet bite of a winter fog. The Montgomery County that I grew up in evokes other recollections. Cement comes to mind. Telephone poles. The smell of tar where they're widening the road again. The angle of light through the steel girder skeleton of that new office building on Rockville Pike.
Memory usually arises from something fixed, something tangible, but Montgomery County is possessed by an ethereal transience. We didn't live in neighborhoods; we lived in developments. Everybody used that word in high school, as in, "I hear there's a kegger Saturday in your development." The word implied a kind of progress -- here was a notable development where before there were only mud and trees -- but also impermanence. In real estate as in life, one development usually led to another, overtaking what came before.
We changed developments on the day I finished fifth grade, moving from Kemp Mill in Silver Spring to Copenhaver in Rockville, one of those Orwellian Kettler Brothers villages where the homeowner bylaws read like an upper-middle-class prescription for the New Order. When we first arrived, the view from our back porch stretched a mile to a wooded horizon, across grassy fields and past a rustic barn. First Kettler Brothers knocked down the barn, according to some 20-year master plan, until the cul-de-sacs and colonials multiplied like mutant Lego blocks and burst through the forest in the distance, connecting streets and sewer pipes and telephone wires to a development on the other side. By the time I entered high school, it was possible to ride a skateboard straight into the classroom two miles away. Even then it was clear that growth came at the expense of a sense of place. We would return from summer camp and have to learn the street map all over again. The scale of industrial accomplishment was dazzling in its way, but it also produced anxiety -- a fear that if you overslept you might wake up at a different address.
The strange saga of Larry King and Sandy Koufax
By David Finkel
THIS IS A TRUE STORY."
Larry King says this in that perfect radio voice of his, deep in pitch, confiding in tone, a voice that fills the room where he has come this evening to give a speech.
He is in a synagogue, looking out at 700 people who have paid $20 and up to see him . . .
He is a good speaker, instantly likable, and when he is done, and the synagogue fills with applause, he decides to tell one story more.
"This," he says, "is known as the Carvel story. I've told it on the air. It's in an earlier book. I haven't told it in a while, but you've been a wonderful audience, very warm and nice, and so I'll tell it."
And with that, out comes the most remarkable story of the evening. It involves the neighborhood in Brooklyn where King grew up, and a snowy night in November 1950, and two of King's boyhood friends. One was Herbie Cohen, who remains one of King's closest friends to this day. The other was "Sandy Koufax, later to become a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher."
"We were having a vicious argument -- about ice cream," King says. "I loved Borden's. Herbie loved Breyers. Sandy loved Carvel . . . Finally, we got to price, and Sandy says he knows a Carvel in New Haven, Connecticut, that serves three scoops for 15 cents. Herbie says: 'That's impossible, Sandy. I'll bet you.' I said: 'That's impossible. They can't serve three scoops for 15 cents.' So there's only one way to prove the bet: Three 17-year-old kids are going to drive to New Haven, Connecticut, on this Monday night to find this Carvel and check it out -- because we bet Sandy."
The story goes on from there. They drive and drive, Larry and Herbie up front, Sandy and another kid named Bernie in the back. They find the Carvel, where the price for three scoops is indeed 15 cents, and then they pile back in the car.
"Sandy knew New Haven pretty good," King goes on. "He says: 'Listen, I'll drive you around. Cut down this street, and we'll be on Broadway, and I'll show you the main drag.'" Somehow, they end up at an election rally. Somehow, Larry and Herbie end up on stage introducing the mayor. "Sandy can't believe it," King says. "He collapses. He's on the floor . . . he couldn't stop laughing."
It takes King more than 10 minutes to tell the entire story, and when he is done the ovation is loud and long.
"Every inch of this story is true," he says. "It seems like it's not, but it's true. I swear to God."
But there's a problem.
"This is Sandy Koufax," the man on the phone says a few days later. "I've never been in New Haven, not to this day."
Furthermore, he says, he and Larry King have never been friends. In fact, he says, even though they grew up in the same neighborhood, he didn't get to know King until long after both had left Brooklyn behind. King was on the radio by the time they met, and the Carvel story had already become a part of his life.
"I asked him about it," Koufax remembers.
"He just laughed."
Arnold Schwarzenegger's recipe for happiness
By Peter Carlson
SO THERE WE WERE, ME AND ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, sitting in the Jacuzzi, talking about movies and the meaning of life.
It had been a long day of frenetic activity. Schwarzenegger -- the chairman, or "Main Man" as he puts it, of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports -- was in the middle of a six-day, 11-state tour to promote the idea that American kids ought to get off their fat butts and exercise. That morning, he'd breakfasted with Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, led exercises at a gym class in a Maryland elementary school, held a news conference, spoken at a "fitness rally" and then flown on his private jet to Maine, where he'd lunched with Gov. John McKernan, led exercises at another elementary school, held another news conference, spoken at another fitness rally, delivered a "distinguished lecture" at the University of Maine, held a "fitness summit" with state leaders and then flown to Albany, N.Y., where he would begin a similar schedule the next morning.
After checking into the Albany Hilton, Schwarzenegger, 43, had headed down to the basement, where he'd spent about half an hour pumping iron on the hotel's exercise machine. Then he'd stripped down to his bathing suit and plopped into the Jacuzzi. So there we were, sitting in the hot, swirling water, while Arnold regaled me with stories about the filming of his latest movie, "Terminator II," which premieres on July 3, and about the filming of some earlier movies, too, such as "Conan the Barbarian," a film in which Arnold, playing the eponymous hero, bit the head off a vulture and chopped the head off James Earl Jones.
His stories were great, and he told them well, particularly the one about the schnapps-drinking contest he had with a reporter during the filming of "Conan" in Spain a decade ago, a contest Arnold lost because he was actually drinking shot after fiery shot of the schnapps, while the sneaky reporter was surreptitiously pouring his shots into a potted plant, a ruse that enabled the puny scribe to walk away unscathed while the great bodybuilder collapsed like a felled oak. Anyway, we were sitting there in the Jacuzzi, with the steam rising and the sweat falling, and I figured it was time to ask Arnold a heavy, profound philosophical question.
"So, Arnold," I said, "what is best in life?"
Chairman Schwarzenegger smiled. "Crush enemies," he said. "See them driven before you. Hear the lamentation of their women."
So what could go wrong with the '90s?
By Marjorie Williams
WE'RE STILL WAITING FOR THE '90S TO START, that good, green, family-centered decade we've heard so much about. No doubt the vaunted post-'80s altruism will be along any day now. But in the meantime, all we have is this strange transitional twilight, this year-by-year struggle to determine our whereabouts, as we bid a divided goodbye to 1991.
Call it the Tale of Two Countries:
One of them was the good old U.S. of A., back in the saddle, bigger and better. It was Bush country, Lee Greenwood country. It was the kind of country that takes names and wins wars, and in 1991 it became the world's only superpower.
The other country was us at home, America, perceptibly limping as we crossed the threshold of the new year. This America was stuck in a different kind of war, the subtle, intractable, constant conflict that is all in the family.
We were like one of those scary teenagers who go forth into the world every day to captain the team and sing in the choir and bring home straight A's, and never let on about the blank confusion inside. Tension City, the president might say, if he were ever to acknowledge the sharp split in America's personality. But Dad was the first to delude himself, bragging to his buddies down at the NATO club about how well we did at our science projects: Johnny's Patriot missile won first prize, and Sally baked brownies for the big homecoming parade. What more did he need to know?
Iraq was not a living room war, in the Vietnam-era phrase; it was a Barcalounger war, taking less time to arc its course than the average network flop. The brief anxiety of it -- gas masks in Tel Aviv and the stomach-hollowing moments of wondering how Israel would retaliate; the imagination's power to summon gruesome combinations of men and machinery and blood and sand -- all this was swept away with astounding efficiency.
We loosed the fateful lightning of our terrible, swift sword (so we felt): The weapons worked; the strategy was smart; we won, and at a blissful remove. It seemed a clean war as wars go. There was evidence to the contrary, of course: the long line of dead cars and dead men that smoldered single file on the road from Kuwait City to Basra; the Kurds driven into exile for the error of believing that we'd meant to force Saddam Hussein from power; the eventual pellets of information that were finally squeezed forth about the Iraqi dead -- the ones who, for example, had been buried alive in their trenches by plows affixed to the tanks of the 1st Infantry.
In the past, Americans have wondered a lot (as teenagers will) about consequences like these. But if we did so this time, it was largely in private, locked in our rooms. Publicly, all was celebration. The war, gloated Time magazine, had finally killed off the ghosts of Vietnam: "Self-doubt, deep divisions, suspicions of national decline -- the very words suddenly seem quaint."
Ten months later, well: The very words . . .
Taking the jam out of traffic
By Tom McNichol
WALT STARLING HAS SOLVED THE RIDDLE that has baffled countless Washingtonians for years: "How do I get out of this (word you never hear in church) traffic jam?" His elegantly simple answer: Just fly over it.
"The great thing about this job is that there's no boss looking over my shoulder," Starling says.
Well, I guess not. Starling's boss would have to be hovering 1,405 feet above the ground to get a good look over his shoulder. We're flying in Starling's brown and white Cessna Skyhawk II prop plane on a hazy afternoon, gently banking over the I-95/495 split north of College Park, the evil majesty of another Beltway traffic snarl unfolding below us. For most rush hours during the past 18 years, Walt Starling has had the best seat in the house to observe the hopeless mess Washington traffic has become, working as an airborne traffic reporter. Down below us are all of the poor souls sitting in the cheap seats, eyes locked on the brake lights in front of them, hands gripping steering wheels in murderous chokeholds. It's not a pretty sight.
Starling feels sorry for the drivers trapped in traffic below him, but it's an aloof sympathy, like the distant pity Americans feel for Russians waiting in long lines to buy meat. Starling, you see, hardly ever gets stuck in traffic jams himself. During the morning and evening rush hour, he's always gliding high above the melee. And when he finally does land, Starling simply walks down the runway of the College Park Airport, past a clump of trees and steps into the back yard of his home. Rush-hour snarl? Not unless there's a bike blocking his path. In this respect, Starling is the quintessential Washington expert: a person whose deep knowledge of a subject remains unsullied by personal experience.
"I took a day off from work last Thursday, and had to drive around the Beltway during rush hour," Starling, 40, a Washington native, tells me. "It was a real eye-opener. I have to say, I didn't care for it much."
We gently bank westward toward Silver Spring, hugging the Beltway. It's only 4 p.m., and already, below us, the mad procession has begun.
"It's really neat to watch a lot of little backups form into one big long backup," Starling says, an observation, I'm guessing, few on the ground are currently making.
And yet, there is something fascinating, even beautiful about a Beltway traffic jam viewed from above. The Beltway snaking like a great, silvery umbilical cord 64 miles around the city. Legions of tiny Matchbox-size cars assembling and reassembling in rhythmic patterns, like colored squares in a Mondrian painting. And the aching beauty of not being part of it.
No doubt about it, Starling's life is truly blessed. But for most of the rest of us on the ground, driving in Washington is life in the slow lane, a horror movie perpetually stuck on half speed. Oh sure, New York and Chicago have many more cars on the road, Atlanta has its famous "Spaghetti Junction" northeast of town, Philadelphia has its murderous Schuylkill Expressway, fondly known around town as the "Sure-Kill Expressway," and Los Angeles has the added thrill of sniper fire. But Washington, it could be argued, is a uniquely rotten place to drive.
Where to start? The failure of L'Enfant to foresee that hundreds of thousands of motorized carriages would one day fill the streets he designed for horses and pedestrians, and that maybe diagonal streets and traffic circles aren't such a good idea? The explosive and largely unplanned expansion of the Washington suburbs into teeming "edge cities" with woefully inadequate road systems? The area's many river crossings, resulting in continually bottlenecked bridges? The more than 50,000 federal employees who receive free or discounted parking at their workplace, removing any incentive they might have for taking public transportation? More traffic-snarling VIP motorcades per capita than any other city on the planet? An unusually high percentage of cabdrivers hailing from countries that don't regard traffic laws with the same reverence as we do here in America? An unusually high percentage of natives who don't regard traffic laws with the same reverence as do Americans "Outside the Beltway"? And what about that Beltway anyway? Is it someone's idea of a bad joke? Could that someone be . . . Satan?
The trouble with being the smart girl
By David Finkel
THE SOUND COMES FROM THE BACK OF THE THROAT, a tiny noise that is doomed to failure even as it begins. "Wait," Elizabeth Mann is trying to say, attempting to slip into a discussion that is swirling around her. It is a loud discussion with overlapping voices, but Elizabeth is a close listener, and she has heard something that needs correcting, or at least elaboration. She also is a patient listener who doesn't blurt out her thoughts, but waits for an opening to fit into. Now, hearing the other voices drop off, sensing her moment, she begins to speak, only to realize immediately that she has miscalculated, that the opening has already closed, that she doesn't stand a chance, that she is on the precipice of another of those moments in which, sooner or later, she will end up awkwardly trailing off into silence without having been heard. And so she does what she often seems to do in these situations: She gives in, chokes off the word, lets it die as a squeak and goes back to listening, patiently listening, waiting for the next opportunity. She doesn't seem bothered, and neither does she seem surprised.
The setting for this is Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. It is third period, quantum physics, the most difficult class in the school's math, science and computer magnet program. The class's mission is nothing less than trying to understand the forces that rule the universe, and to that end, seven of the country's brightest high school seniors sit around a table, working their way through a book on Einstein's general theory of relativity. There is Steve Chien, Blair High's valedictorian. There is Josh Weitz, the salutatorian. There is an intense-looking boy named Sudheer Shukla, and another boy named Danilo Almeida, and another named Jeff Tseng, and another named Jeff Wang, and lastly there is Elizabeth. The girl.
This day's topic: something about the failings of Euclidian geometry and an equation called the generalized Pythagorean theorem for Gaussian coordinates. It all seems indecipherable, but as soon as the bell rings, the discussion is off and running, and very quickly, as is usually the case, it is dominated by Steve, who sits to Elizabeth's right, and Josh, who sits to her left.
Steve talks. Josh interrupts. Steve mumbles. Josh interrupts that. Steve grabs a marker, goes to the board and tries to work something out. Josh goes to the board, too, using one hand to draw and the other to hold a cheese sandwich, which he has been wolfing down.
And through it all, Elizabeth sits, listening.
She tries to say, "Wait," and falls silent.
She tries again. "Soooo," she manages to get out.
She tries a third time, this time snapping her fingers and lightly slapping the table, and finally, after that has failed, she gets up, draws something on the board and explains in her always polite way, a way that often turns a statement into a question, that maybe this is the way to look at what they've been talking about? Then she sits and resumes listening, not to Steve or Josh or any of the other boys, but to the teacher, who is complimenting her for what she has done. "Beautiful," he says. "It really simplifies what we've been talking about. Very nice. Very nice."
The moment, surely, is sweet, but vanishes in an instant. This seems not to surprise Elizabeth either. She is in her second year of this class, of being the girl among the boys, and by now she knows the pattern. The discussion resumes, voices again overlap, and Elizabeth says nothing more, not until long after the bell has rung, when she tries to explain why the class, once her favorite, has lately made her feel uncomfortable. She says, "All last year I loved it, and for most of the beginning of this year I did, and now sometimes I'm just scared." She says, "I feel like 'The Girl' in the class. It's something I'm very conscious of, almost every minute in there." She says, "I have a certain fear that somehow when I'm in that class, I'm this impostor who doesn't really understand."
She does understand, though. She gets nothing but A's in the class, and the teacher, Harvey Alperin, says if she isn't the best student, she is one of the top two. Her discomfort, it turns out, has nothing to do with studying the forces that rule the universe. Those she can figure out. Instead, it comes from forces far more puzzling, the ones that rule the life of a 17-year-old girl who happens to be smart.
Never taunt men with machine guns
By Steve Coll
WAR WAS ON AGAIN IN SRI LANKA, and for reasons no longer retained, it seemed important to record what we had seen in a brief news story. The difficulty was that we were stuck in the jungle, and the light was going. To get back to the land of international telephone lines from the bishop's place, we would have to drive along narrow dirt roads through checkpoints manned by Sri Lanka's ethnic Sinhalese security forces.
Of course, I was not planning to do any actual driving; I would leave that to Ron, the cherubic Sri Lankan madman who had developed a highly lucrative, monopoly-by-default business driving journalists around his island's several wars . . .
For 30 minutes, we raced along abandoned narrow tracks through elephant grass and groves of palm. We had the windows down and the tape deck on at high volume. We passed a couple of checkpoints with ease and thought we were nearing the edge of the fighting zone. Darkness fell quickly, and the passing palms faded to black.
Suddenly Ron slammed on the brakes. He killed the headlights and the tape deck and the motor.
Somebody was shouting at us in Sinhalese from a distance. Ron interpreted under his breath. Put your hands up. Open the car doors slowly. Step with your hands in the air to the front of the car. Get down on your knees. Move forward down the road on your knees with your hands still up.
Flashlights glanced across us as we followed these instructions. Gun bolts clicked. We couldn't see a thing. Ron began a dialogue in Sinhalese with somebody in the shadows. I could not understand a word, but it did not sound as if it was going very well. We moved 20 yards down the road, shuffling humbly in the dirt. Ron, still talking like a Gatling gun, finally rose to his feet and walked forward, telling me under his breath to stay still. I knelt like this, reaching to the sky, physically and emotionally frozen, until I heard Ron begin to chuckle. Then he began to laugh. Now three or four people were laughing.
"It's all right," Ron said. "Come ahead." An army captain in fatigues and a T-shirt stood near a barbed-wire bunker. He had a pistol in his hand. Soldiers with assault rifles and shoulder-fired grenade launchers joined the group. They were chattering in rapid Sinhalese and still laughing. Ron, now in full salesman's mode, had his arm on the captain's shoulder to express collegial intimacy.
"The captain says this is our lucky day" -- really our lucky day, Ron said jovially. "He thought we were the enemy. He was this close"-- Ron squeezed his thumb and forefinger together together -- "to ordering his men to open fire. Then I heard him shouting and stopped the car. They had machine guns and grenades trained on our headlights. He was about to yell 'fire' when we stopped. He says this is really our lucky day."
Ron was gritting his teeth but laughing nonetheless. The captain now felt a need to explain six or seven times what a lucky day this was for us, since he had not killed us. He even digressed into the field of astrology to describe the scale of our good fortune.
By now I was feeling annoyed. I said to Ron, "Tell him that this is certainly our lucky day, but it is also his lucky day, because killing an American reporter, even by innocent mistake, would not be a good thing for a fine officer like himself."
Ron passed this thought along, and the captain seemed puzzled by it. He answered in Sinhalese. "He says," Ron explained, "that this is Sri Lanka. If they had killed us, they would have just burned the bodies. Nobody would have ever known."
Right. I had forgotten about that.
Worshiping the box
By David Finkel
"LET'S SEE," SAYS BONNIE DELMAR, 35, a housewife and former restaurant hostess with a bachelor's degree in elementary education, totaling up how much TV she watches a day. "It just depends on if I'm home or not. Almost always, the TV is on from 4 o'clock to the end of 'David Letterman.' It depends, though. If I'm home, I'm watching. Probably nine hours a day is average. There are some days I might actually watch 16, 17 hours, but there are some days I'm out and about, and I don't get to watch as much."
At the Delmars', there are six TVs, counting the old Sony console that is now in the guest room, and plans are to refinish the basement and add two more. At the Delmars', not only is TV always on, it is virtually a member of the family, part of nearly every significant moment in their lives.
Bonnie remembers her honeymoon. "The cable went out," she says. "It wasn't out for long, six hours maybe, but I was pretty mad."
She remembers Steven's birth. "Steven was born during the halftime of a Redskins game," she says. "It was a Monday night, 'Monday Night Football,' a big game. I was actually pushing, and Steve and the doctor were watching the game right down to the last second."
She remembers Ashley's birth. "I cut out the TV guide the day she was born," she says. "I thought that would be interesting." She gets Ashley's baby book. "Look -- 'Webster' was on, in first run. 'Mr. Belvedere.' 'Diff'rent Strokes.' 'Falcon Crest.' 'Fall Guy.' 'Miami Vice.' 'Dallas.' 'Dynasty.' 'Knight Rider.' God, can you believe it? Wow."
She remembers when Ashley and Steven were conceived. "I don't watch TV during sex, if you want to know," she says, laughing. "I'm capable of turning it off for five minutes."
But not much longer than that. Certainly not for an entire day, Bonnie says. In fact, she says, she can't remember the last time a day passed without her watching something. "It would be very hard for me to make it through a day," she says. "It's almost an automatic reflex at this point."
The same goes for the kids, who, until recently, were allowed to watch as much TV as they wanted. Then came the night when Steve awakened well after midnight -- Bonnie says it was toward 4 a.m. -- and found Ashley sitting up in bed watching the Cartoon Network. Now the rule for the kids is no TV after 11 p.m. on school nights, but other than that, anything goes. "The kids watch everything from 'Barney' to 'Beavis and Butt-head,'" Bonnie says. There is no embarrassment in the way she says this, not even the slightest hint of discomfort. There is nothing other than brightness and happiness, for that is what she feels about TV.
"I love it. I love it. I can't help it. I love it," she says. "Why should I be ashamed of saying that?"
Dee Dee Myers and the media's lust (for numbers)
By Dave Barry
DEE DEE MYERS IS THE WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY, which means her primary responsibility in the briefing is to never reveal anything remotely newsworthy to the press. The press, for its part, is responsible for repeatedly badgering Myers with questions that she has already refused to answer, until the hostility level in the room reaches the point where the smoke detectors go off. It's a ritualistic, decades-old dispute carried on by whoever happens to be the White House press secretary and whoever happens to be in the press corps. It reminds you of an elderly married couple who are still arguing about a remark one of them made at a cocktail party in 1953.
The major topic of discussion at the press briefing was -- brace yourself -- health care. Specifically, the press wanted to know what "universal coverage" means. Myers said it means coverage for every American. This did not satisfy the press, which immediately demanded to know what "every American" means. Clearly this discussion had gone on before, because Myers immediately became a little testy and said, "I am not going to be drawn into a debate about numbers." This was followed by a lengthy effort on the part of the press to draw her into a debate about numbers, involving all kinds of hypothetical questions ("Dee Dee, IF the Congress passes a health care bill covering 96 percent of all Americans, and IF it has a triggering mechanism mandating total coverage by the year 2002 contingent on certain conditions, and IF Train A leaves Cody, Wyoming, traveling east at 47 miles per hour . . .").
But Myers did not budge. I liked her. I sensed that, underneath her tough-gal exterior, she's a fun person, the kind of person you could go to a bar and have a few beers with and maybe, late at night, if you got lucky, draw into a debate about numbers.
In search of the juicy parts at the trial of the century
By Joel Achenbach
WHEN THE PROSECUTION FINISHED ITS OPENING STATEMENT, I felt that it had been so powerful, so overwhelming, so startlingly thorough, that I wouldn't have been surprised if O.J. had suddenly stood up and said, "Would anyone entertain a crime of passion defense?" But then Johnnie Cochran had his turn, and he was dazzling, and the prosecutors were almost literally having heart attacks, and for a few days the zeitgeist of the trial was inverted. Then the prosecution resumed what, to me, looks like a slam-dunk. Of course sometimes slam-dunks clang off the rim and bounce back to the half-court line.
I don't know what surprises are left -- I assume that after I finish writing this and before it actually appears in the Magazine the conventional wisdom will have gone topsy-turvy again, and that something really unbelievable will have happened, like Simpson tunneling out of jail, or Judge Ito posing nude in Cosmo, or Marcia Clark revealing that, in a previous life, she was Joan of Arc. It's that kind of case.
The business of vengeance
By David Finkel
VALERIE IS IN FRONT OF THE HOUSE, gardening. She is trying to get the house in shape to sell, in case it comes to that. She has already replaced the hot water heater, and painted, and now she's trying to grow some flowers around the mailbox.
The days go by.
Lindsey is having a hard time in school.
Laura has begun pulling out her hair.
A letter arrives in the mail.
This one is one page.
"Let me begin by saying once again that I think you've made a very big mistake . . ."
This time, Valerie takes the letter to a store down the street.
"A 'deal' could have been worked out between us without having to give up a portion of our estate to the legal system . . ."
Where she pays to have it faxed to her divorce lawyer.
"Vengeance and spite are my only explanations for your recent choices . . ."
Who reads it.
"Also, for your information, I have separated our automobile insurances . . . You will also soon receive notice that you are being removed from my health insurance . . . I'm sorry that it has come to this, however, I tried to be both fair and civil."
And faxes a response to the lawyer Valerie's husband has retained.
"Once again, [your client] has made unilateral determinations which further cloud any possibility for an amicable resolution of this matter. I anxiously await [his] testimony regarding his decision to terminate the health care coverage of his wife.
"Please ask [him] to terminate his condescending communications to his wife. Furthermore, please accept this letter as our demand that he immediately restore both the automobile and health insurance at once . . ."
It is an easy letter for Mark Barondess to write.
This is what he does. All day long, he's either in court, or in his Mercedes, or in his very nicely appointed office with the photograph of the Doberman, dealing with the messiness that is another marriage's demise. Bitterness. Grief. Despair. Hate. Revenge. These are the emotions of his day. What he gets for dealing with this is $275 an hour, and what his clients get is someone who is sympathy and sarcasm and expensive shirts, who goes into court one afternoon and, in the process of cross-examining a particular client's wife about her expenses, zeroes in on the costs she has listed for chemotherapy. He asks, because he thinks it is in the best interest of his client: Are all the charges essential? He asks:
Is the chemotherapy for preventative purposes? He asks: Is it absolutely necessary? She looks at him. "How can you be so cruel?" she says. "Have you no heart? I'm not trying to fake this." And with that she reaches up and removes her hat and shows him her bald head, and there is nothing for him to do but turn to her lawyer and say, very quietly, "Nice move."
The ABCs of Y2K
By Dave Barry
WE NEED TO IMMEDIATELY STOP WHATEVER WE ARE DOING, especially if it is fun, and start worrying about the Millennium Bug.
Q. What, exactly, is the Millennium Bug?
A. In a nutshell, computers don't know what century it is. For example, they can't tell the difference between 1904 and 2004.
Q. What IS the difference between 1904 and 2004?
A. In 1904, Dick Clark was still exclusively a radio talent.
Q. Wait a minute. You're telling me that these giant powerful computers that control our lives -- the computers that are SO PICKY about the information we give them; the computers that get into a big electronic snit if we get one digit wrong in the 27-digit account numbers they're always assigning us; the computers that refuse to put our telephone calls through if we're the teensiest bit inaccurate when we dial the number; the computers that would never, ever dream of giving us one extra dollar when we make a withdrawal from the automatic teller machine -- you're telling me that these computers don't know what CENTURY it is?
A. These are also the computers that designed the Hubble Space Telescope.
Q. What is the federal government doing about the Millennium Bug?
A. It has formed an Emergency Task Force, headed by Vice President Al Gore, which expects, within two years, to have a preliminary design for a logo.12/13/98
The saga of Handsome and Clutch
By David Finkel
APRIL 5 WAS THE DAY LEWINSKY WAS TOLD TO LEAVE THE WHITE HOUSE.
By then, she had been there for nine months. Her mother was old friends with Walter Kaye; that was the connection that got Monica Lewinsky to the White House in July 1995. By mid-November she had made the jump from intern to paid staffer, and by the end of the year she had flirted with Clinton by showing him a bit of her underwear, and had brought him the infamous pizza, and had begun calling him "Handsome" rather than Mr. President, and had been tagged by co-workers with a couple of nicknames of her own.
One was "Clutch."
"It's a slightly derisive term for somebody who, whenever he or she sees the president -- or any of the principals, let's put it that way, not even the president, any of the principals -- would want to be around, or would hover, or be close," is how Evelyn Lieberman, one of Clinton's deputy chiefs of staff, would explain the term to the grand jury.
"Stalker" was another.
J. Edgar Hoover did it his way
By Jeff Leen
It began with a sound.
ON AUGUST 13, 1943, A LETTER FROM SAN JOSE ARRIVED IN WASHINGTON. The letter writer, whose identity remains a government secret, was worried about a sound that had come over the radio.
"The other day I turned on a Frank Sinatra program and I noted the shrill whistling sound, created supposedly by a bunch of girls cheering. Last night as I heard Lucky Strike produce more of this same hysteria I thought: how easy it would be for certain-minded manufacturers to create another Hitler here in America through the influence of mass-hysteria! I believe that those who are using this shrill whistling sound are aware that it is similar to that which produced Hitler. That they intend to get a Hitler in by first planting in the minds of the people that men like Frank Sinatra are O.K. therefore this future Hitler will be O.K."
On September 2, the letter writer received a reply:
"I have carefully noted the content of your letter and wish to thank you for volunteering your comments and observations in this regard."
It was signed, "Sincerely yours, John Edgar Hoover, Director."
The FBI director's response was not merely a polite bow to wartime hysteria. His bureau used the letter about a bunch of girls cheering to open file #62-83219 "for the purpose of filing miscellaneous information" on a subject the bureau would refer to over the next 40 years as "Francis Albert Sinatra, a k a Frank Sinatra."
What's the reward for standing by your man?
By Liza Mundy
"I'M GOING TO DRIVE. THAT'S UNDERSTOOD," says a dashing Ingrid Bergman in an early scene of Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 spy thriller "Notorious," as she vamps an intelligence agent played by Cary Grant. Fascinated and repulsed by Bergman's sass, Grant gets in the car but then, in a bit of unmistakable symbolism, overpowers her and seizes the wheel. It's the beginning of a long and spirit-crushing journey: By movie's end, having endured emotional neglect at the hands of Grant and poisoning at the hands of the Nazi she was forced to marry, Bergman lies in bed, too weak to walk. Only then does Grant, seeing her helpless and suffering, realize he loves her.
As happy endings go, this one is pretty ambiguous. But hardly more ambiguous than the recent stream of tributes to Hillary Clinton appearing in venues from Vogue to Vanity Fair to Newsweek. Hardly more ambiguous, for that matter, than the nationally televised moment, late in the president's January State of the Union address, when Bill Clinton paused to "honor" the first lady, taking advantage of the resulting applause to mouth the words "I love you." Surely there is something wrong with this picture: Here is Hillary Rodham Clinton, facing the two entities responsible for her greatest public humiliations -- Congress, which rejected her health-care plan, and her husband, who had betrayed their marriage not once but serially -- and here they are, Bill Clinton and Congress, madly clapping.
They aren't the only ones. In the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the first lady's national poll ratings are higher than they've been at any time since the 1993 inauguration. She's now ranked as the woman Americans most admire. Her popularity has, in turn, started a frenzied political conversation in which she's being hyped as the runaway favorite in a New York Senate race, should she decide to run.
What has she done to bring about this national change of heart? Nothing, apparently, except stoically endure.
When the ax comes down
By Steve Coll
ALPHA HEARD BANGING AT THE GATES OF HIS FAMILY'S COMPOUND, then gunshots. He looked out a second-story window and saw the rebels. Some wore the combat camouflage of Sierra Leone's disintegrated army. Some wore black jeans, knit polo shirts, Tupac Shakur T-shirts. A few had wrapped their hair in handkerchiefs patterned with the American flag. All of them wore red bandannas around their foreheads. Adhesive strips patched their faces, as if they had been scratched by angry cats. The strips masked incisions where the rebels had ingested cocaine, amphetamines or other drugs that wired their heads for battle.
In eastern Freetown on Monday morning, January 18, 1999, a war that was at that moment the world's cruelest, as well as its most invisible, entered the parlor of the Jalloh family, where breakfast lay unfinished on a table in the center of the room. It was not easy to say why the rebels entered one house and not another, but a faint air of prosperity hung over this gated compound on Kissy Road.
Dalibeh Jalloh's nine children by two wives included the three sweet-faced sons now standing frightened by the window. The oldest was Alpha, 22, who traded gold-plated watches he bought in Guinea, had a girlfriend, danced in Freetown's nightclubs, and who now listened as the rebels crashed through the last door and climbed the stairs.
They demanded money, and Alpha's father handed over bundles. Gun barrels swung to the three brothers. A rebel commander ordered them outside. Their mother sat in a chair before the unfinished food and wept. Their father begged: "Please don't take them. They are my children. Don't take them."
Outside, the rebels forced them into line. They marched up a red clay road past small shacks and shops toward green, grassy hills.
"We are going back to the bush," a rebel taunted, "but we are leaving something with you."
The brothers began to cry. The line of youths swelled with other abductees as they walked. Some rebels told the boys their hands would be cut off and sent back to the democratically elected president of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, as a symbol of the rebels' power. Others said the boys would be killed. The Jalloh brothers begged to be taken to the rain forest, where they could be indoctrinated as rebels and join the "revolution."
"No, we are sending you to Tejan Kabbah. We are not taking you to the jungle."
Two hundred yards up the slope, they reached a school driveway. Before a metal gate stood a tall, thin rebel wearing black jeans, a black T-shirt and a red bandanna. Drug strips covered his face. The others called him Tommy. He held an ax.
A neighbor the boys knew as Sheikou went first. As rebels trained assault rifles at his head, he stretched on his stomach on broken concrete before the school gate and extended his arm.
Tommy raised the ax high above his head and slammed it down. Once, twice, three times, four times. Sheikou's severed hand seemed to jump away from him.
The line shuffled forward. Alpha, weeping and shaking, watched his younger brother Amadu, 17, stretch out his right arm.
As Tommy raised his ax, Alpha closed his eyes.
Ratcheting up the peer pressure
By Liza Mundy
MORNING BRINGS THE INVITATIONS. The casual ones. So routine are they that she hardly thinks about them, just waves them away like gnats. Today, for example, a boy came up to her in the hall and asked, "When are you going to let me hit that?" "That means, like, intercourse," the girl explains, with a sort of gum-popping matter-of-factness. She is 13.
She is an eighth-grader, fresh-faced, clear-eyed, with light brown hair and fluffy bangs and plucked eyebrows, her voice sweet and straightforward as, one morning in an unused classroom, she sits relating some of the other things guys say to her in the halls of her Montgomery County middle school, nestled in developed farmland in the central part of the county.
"They say, 'What's up with the dome?'" the girl continues, explaining that this is an invitation to perform oral sex, as is the more familiar: "When are you going to give me head?" She tells them never. She laughs. Whatever it takes to put them off. She has not done much more than kiss, though she and her female friends talk about sex a lot, especially oral sex. "They're like, 'It's not that bad once you do it.
But it's scary the first time.' I guess they're nervous that they won't do it right. They said they didn't have any pleasure in it. They did it to make the boys happy, I guess."
She thinks that someday she will do it.
She thinks that it will be gross.
Tom DeLay's family secret
By Peter Perl
WHEN I FIRST ASKED TOM DELAY ABOUT HIS RIFT WITH THE DELAY FAMILY, he simply shook his head and pursed his lips, suggesting no words would be forthcoming. Then, he said: "It's never pleasant. You would like to have a family. But my family is Dani and Christine, and that is enough for me."
. . . After my first visit to Sugar Land, DeLay and his staff knew I'd been unsuccessful in trying to interview his brothers. When I located his sister, Tena DeLay Neislar, a registered nurse in Michigan now married with three children, she had never given an interview about her brother. Now she spoke extensively about her love and sadness for him.
She dates the unraveling of her family to the 1988 death of Charlie DeLay, who was killed when a hillside tram that he designed and built himself at his south Texas ranch lost its brakes and plunged off the track.
After his death, "I expected Tommy to be the backbone of the family, and he wasn't," says Neislar, whose first husband was then dying of cancer.
Neislar says she still does not understand why Tom broke off contact. "I can't touch him. I can't get to him. The family has tried," she says. "It's a shame. We miss him. We miss the family we had before. We try to respect his decision. We don't know what else to do."
A week later, Randy DeLay contacted me, saying he had prayed on the subject and decided he wanted to talk about his brother in the hope it could end the split.
"All of us love Tommy tremendously, and we don't want to create more trouble for him. He has enough," Randy says when we meet in Washington . . . He believes his brother's fiery aggressive side is driven largely by unresolved anger. "Tom's compulsive behavior, it's a way of life," he says . . .
Randy says it's sad that his brother doesn't really know his nieces and nephews, but he is particularly saddened about his mother, who is 77 . . . Randy says his mother describes her shunning from her granddaughter's wedding as "like a dagger in my heart. It was like I never existed."
. . . My last conversation is with Maxine DeLay, Tom's mother. She is home alone and has to stop for a minute to take her lunch off the stove before talking . . .
As for the family's long rift with Tom, she has often shared her pain and regret with her other children. But she always tries hard not to dwell on it. She says she is not entirely cut off from her celebrated son. "I get to see him. I see him on TV, and it helps," she says. "I keep all the tapes."
The Rev breaks bread with the Crew
By Peter Perl
THE CHURCH LADIES COOKED UP A PARTICULARLY FINE SATURDAY SUPPER for the drug dealers. The Rev. Anthony Motley had told them he wanted things fixed up especially nice , so they put out clean white tablecloths, and now the ladies were parading from the kitchen with paper plates piled high with barbecued chicken wings, macaroni and tuna, green beans, salad, sweet iced tea and cakes.
Four young gang members, part of the South Capitol Street Crew, took seats along with five church men at the large rectangular table. They sat silent, expressionless; cornrowed hair, a shaved head, baggy pants, a gold chain here, a gold watch there, black T-shirts with the arms cut off. Terry, Anthony, Terronce and Snoop. Ages 23 to 27. The South Cap Crew looked like many other young men in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Southeast Washington, except they were the ones responsible for much of its persistent traffic in marijuana, PCP, crack cocaine and, occasionally, heroin.
After a prayer, Motley stood and opened his Bible, choosing an obscure Old Testament passage from the Book of Nahum: "Ah, city of bloodshed, all full of lies and booty -- no end to the plunder!" Motley interrupted himself. "When he says 'booty,' he doesn't mean 'booty' like you do," he said, with a mischievous smile, " 'Booty' meant jewels and money back then. Y'all know I had to break that down for you." The crew members snickered.
The Armpit of America
By Gene Weingarten
MY LITTLE PUDDLE JUMPER BEGINS ITS DESCENT INTO ELKO, a charmless city of 20,000 in the northern Nevada desert. Eighteen seats, all filled. This is not because Elko is a hot tourist attraction; it is because almost everyone else onboard belongs to a mariachi band. These guys have identical shiny blue suits and shiny blue shirts and shiny blue ties and shiny blue-black hair, like Rex Morgan in the comics, and they seem embarrassed to have accepted a gig in a place as tacky as Elko.
Compared with my final destination, Elko is Florence during the Italian Renaissance.
When I tell the Elko rental car agent where I am headed, she laughs. Elkonians, who proudly sponsor a yearly civic event called the "Man-Mule Race," consider their neighbor 70 miles west to be an absolute clodhoppy riot.
"Don't sneeze," snorts the rental car woman, "or you'll miss it."
Yeah, I know. I went to Battle Mountain five weeks before, to see if it was dreadful enough to be anointed, officially, "The Armpit of America." I was exorbitantly convinced.
That first visit was in late August. This second one is in early October. In the interim, Everything Changed. With the nation united in mourning and at war, with the Stars and Stripes aflutter in places large and small, slick and hicky, the idea of poking fun at any one part of us became a great deal less funny. The zeitgeist had shifted. Snide was out.
I had to go back, to rethink things.
The road to Battle Mountain is flatter than any cliche -- even pancakes have a certain doughy topology. On this route, there is nothing. No curves. No trees. It is desert, but it is lacking any desert-type beauty. No cacti. No tumble-weeds. None of those spooky cow skulls. The only flora consists of nondescript scrub that resembles acre upon acre of toilet brushes buried to the hilt.
You know you have arrived at Battle Mountain because the town has marked its identity on a nearby hill in enormous letters fashioned from whitewashed rock.
I have returned to this place to find in it not America's armpit, but America's heart. I am here to mine the good in it, to tell the world that Battle Mountain doesn't stink. That is my new challenge.
I hang a right off the highway at the base of the hill, which proudly proclaims, in giant letters:
Man. This is not going to be easy.
Kwame Brown's dilemma
By Sally Jenkins
KWAME BROWN KNOWS MORE THAN HE SHOULD ABOUT SOME THINGS, such as certain aspects of human nature, and less than he should about others, such as nutrition, how to treat a good suit and when to throw the lob pass. What Brown knows and what he doesn't is a consequence of his age, newly 20, and where he's from, the saw grass lowlands of Georgia, where crook-armed silhouettes of shrimp boats move against the horizon and misshapen oaks draped with gothic-gray moss line the melting tar streets, so sticky-hot that the children, Brown until recently one of them, hitch up their pants and hop from patch of grass to patch of grass.
Brown's route to the National Basketball Association has been a similarly awkward hop, from an overcrowded home with a sagging porch in Brunswick, Ga., to the $11.9 million patch of grass offered him by the Washington Wizards last June, when Michael Jordan made him the NBA's No. 1 draft pick and gave him a three-year contract. The presumption behind this investment is that Brown will become another Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett, the next great young thing. The truth is that, in practice, the hop is too big: Turning a teenager from a sleepy shrimp port, not long out of puberty, into a multimillionaire NBA professional is a traumatic process. And not just for Brown, either. For the adults, too.
Brown has been lectured and scolded and instructed, advised. And, perhaps, warped. The voices have overwhelmed him. They run together, all of them telling him what is best for him. "Most people," he says, "are wrong." He is still young enough to have a faintly wounded set to his jaw, and a reflexive honesty as he considers a rookie season that, until the very end, was a public humiliation. "There's a part of me that questions, when your confidence drops like mine did, are you a good ballplayer, and do you deserve to be here, or what?" he says. "You're just scared. Scared to do anything."
Brown is sitting in Clyde's restaurant in Chevy Chase, regarding with suspicion a chicken sandwich, which has been served to him on unfamiliar bread. Among the many revelations of his profoundly dislocating and confusing rookie season with the Wizards are the things that some people will eat.
On a road trip to Boston, the Wizards took him to an elegant French restaurant. Brown was not just shocked, but outraged, to discover that the restaurant did not serve French dressing. "Can you believe that?" he says. "No French dressing. In a French restaurant."
Then there was the matter of the salad itself. "It was tree roots," he says disgustedly. "Leaves. And branches."
For weeks afterward, Brown took a bottle of store-bought French dressing with him whenever he went out to dinner.
Dan Snyder can't stand to lose
By Peter Perl
THE HARD RUBBER BALL SMACKS OFF THE FRONT WALL, and, just as it hits the polished wood floor, Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, is all over it. He smashes it hard and low into the right corner, so I have no chance. Now it's Snyder's serve: He wins the first point, then the second. I haven't played racquetball in years; Snyder plays, quite competitively, at least three times a week. Very quickly, Dan Snyder is getting bored.
"I'll spot you 11 and we play to 15," he says.
"No way," I say.
"I'm spotting you 11. You got 11, I got 2; 11 to 2, and I'll still beat you."
We'd been talking about playing racquetball since I'd first met him six weeks earlier in his office at Redskins Park to propose writing an article about him. He'd had decidedly mixed feelings. "You're gonna trash me. The media always trashes me," he'd said, eyeing me skeptically over the rims of his eyeglasses as he sat, swigging a bottle of water, his shiny black shoes propped on his large, handsome rosewood desk. He seemed convinced this story would be like others that he said have portrayed him as brash, arrogant, aggressive, greedy, meddlesome. I assured him that trashing him was not my intent.
"You smoke cigars?" he said, abruptly veering the conversation.
"Uh, once in a while."
"You drink beer?"
"You play racquetball?"
"No, not really . . ."
"Good, I can beat you," he said, smiling. "We'll play for money."
Let the bodies hit the floor
By Peter Perl
NOTHING HAD BEEN GOING WELL FOR JOSHUA COOKE FOR A LONG TIME. Failure after failure. School. Jobs. Girls. Never been on a date. No close friends. Nothing was right. His mind, he would later say, was a blur. His head was full of thoughts, yet somehow empty. Josh stuffed his portable CD player in his pocket and clamped on the earphones, choosing a song called "Bodies" by a favorite heavy-metal group, Drowning Pool. He cranked up the volume to the max. The sounds pounding in his ears were relentless drumbeats, a blaring bass crescendo and a series of anguished, screamed lyrics:
Let the bodies hit the floor
Let the bodies hit the floor
Let the bodies hit the floor
Josh took the loaded shotgun out of his closet and stuffed extra shells into his pockets. He headed out into the hallway, down the stairs to the family room, holding the
48-inch Remington 870 Express Super Magnum in front of his chest. It all reminded him of "The Matrix."
One -- Something's got to give
Two -- Something's got to give
Three -- Something's got to give
He descended the stairs toward the basement, and his mother stood up and turned toward him. He pointed the seven-pound shotgun at her, squeezed the trigger and blasted her in the chest. She staggered but didn't fall. Josh turned to see his father, who was 6-foot-3 and nearly 250 pounds, dive under his computer table.
Josh walked toward his father's computer table and stuck the gun barrel under it, firing several more blasts. Then he walked back upstairs to reload.
Being the most average you can be
By Michael Leahy
TWENTY-SIX-YEAR-OLD STEPHEN KALDENBACH, whose IQ scores would rate him as mildly mentally retarded, has worked for Lowe's since early November. When he got the job, he celebrated by leaping around in the company parking lot. His tasks at Lowe's are basic. He retrieves shopping carts and helps customers load their vehicles. Depending on the week, Stephen's performance has been judged from satisfactory to very good, earning him a modest raise to $9.32 an hour.
He is ambitious, animated, scattered, emotionally scarred and adventurous. His childhood and early adult years could scarcely have been more tumultuous, leaving him happy that he has been living with roommates in a Melwood residential home these last four years. Domestic turmoil, he indicates, was the constant of that period. His parents split, and he has a sister in jail, he says. "I just want to be here," he says, meaning Melwood, "and getting my chance." The chance, he says, is "to have peace and to have things. I want to be able to do a lot and have a lot, be successful. Yes, I do."
His speech is thick, with a touch of an impediment. It brings emphasis and urgency to almost everything Stephen says. He speaks regularly of his wants, a preamble to his personal declaration of independence. He aspires to be a department manager at Lowe's, directly responsible for helping customers with their needs and making sales. It is an "average dream in this country," says Stephen, who wants to be regarded as an "average good employee" -- "average" being Stephen's summit, the K2 of things.
Why not? "I'm high-functional," he says, a term Stephen has heard around job sites over the years. He likes it, views it as a way of dispelling doubts. "I'm very high-functional. The people in my house are high-functional. So I can do things."
He wants to parlay salary increases and a growing respect into what, he imagines, most high-functional, average people possess: a chance to mingle socially on a regular basis with people his own age, to date, someday marry, own a house and car, have children, take a yearly family vacation, be happy and "feel good about myself and my life because everybody should, right?"
In pursuit of these wants, he sometimes has made mistakes. But by all accounts, his last two years have been free of serious difficulties. "I'm trying to do everything right," he says. "I want to prove myself . . . show I can be a great loader, a great average employee, and then do something really big. Like Delivery. If you're in Delivery, it's $10 an hour, I heard. My paycheck would be fat. But I got to do my job good, I gotta be the best average loader I can be."
The law of the political jungle
By David Von Drehle
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, there was a political party that believed in a strong central government, high taxes and bold public works projects. This party was popular on the college campuses of New England and was the overwhelming choice of African American voters.
It was the Republican Party.
The Republicans got started as a counterweight to the other party: the party of low taxes and limited government, the party suspicious of Eastern elites, the party that thought Washington should butt out of the affairs of private property owners.
The fact that our two parties have swapped platforms, rhetoric and core ideals so completely might be spun, by some people, as a shortcoming. Some people might paint the stark soullessness of our parties -- which appear happy to argue the opposite tomorrow of what they argued yesterday, as somehow a bad thing. After all, party-bashing is a surefire crowd pleaser.
In good times and bad, through crisis and calm, Americans have hated the parties. These days, Americans hate the parties because they are too polarized. We also hate them because they are not polarized enough.
But let's not go overboard. True, our feuding parties may be to blame for the gridlock, ill will, finger-pointing and score-settling that besmirches our current civic life. Also for the failure to project a clear foreign policy, the inability to control spending and the frittering away of precious years as the ticking time bomb of health-care and retirement costs threatens the prosperity of future generations.
Also for the heedless destruction of reputations, the facile reduction of genuine crises to mere debating points, the equally facile inflation of mere debating points into alleged crises and the subversion of national priorities to base factionalism and personal greed.
Who among us is without a flaw or two?
This week, America will watch -- sort of -- as the Democrats gather in Boston to cheer themselves and their presidential candidate. The delegates will approve a platform that no one reads and gab in the aisles as various elected officials give speeches that no one listens to. Later this summer, Republicans will stage a similar event in New York. The vital question, here on the eve of the conventions, is how these parties -- these unprincipled, opportunistic, haphazard and inconsistent contraptions we've lived with so grouchily for so long -- have managed to produce such a surplus of freedom, prosperity and happiness compared with so little (in the grim balance of human depravity) murder, tyranny and corruption. Hard as it is to imagine, they must be doing something right.
Jessica Cutler gets trapped in her own web
By April Witt
THE INSTANT MESSAGE BLINKED ON THE COMPUTER AT JESSICA CUTLER'S DESK in the Russell Senate Office Building. "Oh, my God, you're famous."
Before she could form the thought -- "famous, cool" -- or puzzle how she, a lowly mail clerk, had escaped obscurity, a second instant message popped up on her screen. Startled, Jessica recalls, she began to curse.
"Your blog is on Wonkette," the message said.
Jessica's blog was the online diary she had been posting anonymously to amuse herself and her closest girlfriends. In it, she detailed the peccadilloes of the men she said were her six current sexual partners, including a married Bush administration official who met her in hotel rooms and gave her envelopes of cash; a senator's staff member who helped hire her, then later bedded her; and another man who liked to spank and be spanked.
Too jittery to work, Jessica dumped her stack of unopened mail on the two new interns in her office. She figured they'd still be filled with youthful enthusiasm for serving their government, seeing as how it was only their second day on the job.
Just then, Jessica says, the office door swung open. Framed in the doorway was the man she'd chronicled on the blog as her latest and favorite paramour -- a serious committee staffer more likely to be featured in some wonk newsletter than an online sex diary. He didn't look happy.
He asked her to step into the hallway, Jessica says. He was clutching a printout of her blog. "I have nothing to say to you about this," Jessica recalls him saying before he walked away.
"Okay, bye," Jessica said. She slunk back to her desk thinking, "Boy, am I getting off easy."
A few minutes later, she noticed one of the senator's senior aides standing a few feet away, glaring. This was the woman Jessica says set her up on her first date with the committee staffer. In her blog, Jessica breezily referred to her as a pimp. Now, the senior aide Jessica had called a pimp looked as if she wanted to rip Jessica's head off.
"You are the sorriest excuse for a human being," Jessica remembers the woman shouting. "You are worthless."
Picking up the pieces in Baghdad
By Andrea Bruce Woodall
I CAN'T GET THE BOMBINGS OUT OF MY HEAD. Not just one, but the aftermath of them all. The metallic smell of blood. The stains on the roads. As if each victim was blown up individually, from the inside out, or maybe dropped from the sky. Razor wire collects flesh like torn pieces of clothing . . . I saw one police officer go mad in Baghdad recently, obsessively picking up stray pieces. I thought, maybe for burial -- but it seemed more drastic, more urgent. U.S. Army and other Iraqi police tried to stop him with force. But he yelled back, shrugging their hands off his shoulder, never losing sight of the ground, the razor wire, the pieces, quickly filling his plastic bag -- until the bag was full and he had to pile the pieces into his hands, gloved in plastic, intestines hanging through his fingers.
People always want me to take pictures of every last piece. Like proof. I have to do it -- we won't use the photos -- but it makes them feel better. An eyeball. Teeth. A finger swept into a corner. Piles of bloody shoes. Brains. Other things that I don't recognize but I know by the smell. Pieces stick to the bottom of my shoes.
No one cries at these scenes. We all -- Iraqis, U.S. soldiers, journalists, family members -- walk from the bombing to the hospitals to the morgue. We are all sleepwalking. Numb. A nightmare. It happens almost every day.
A sperm donation pays unexpected dividends
By Michael Leahy
HIS NAME IS MIKE RUBINO, but until recently none of the women who bought his sperm to get pregnant had ever seen him or known him as anything other than Donor 929. Now he is standing inside the Los Angeles International Airport, staring at an arrivals gate, awaiting the appearance of two children he has fathered but never met, along with their single mother, a Massachusetts psychotherapist named Raechel McGhee.
At that moment, 44-year-old McGhee and her children are descending toward him in blackness and rain. "It is kind of unbelievable that this is about to happen, but I'm relaxed," Rubino says, not looking so relaxed, fidgeting with his brown hair, anxiously surveying an airport monitor until he's found a status report on the McGhees' flight. "On approach," he reads, craning his head toward the arrivals door. "I think their mother said she'd have the kids in slickers," he says, "and she said that she would be in a raspberry slicker." He falls silent. "Maybe this is going to take awhile," he says, but then he glimpses a sliver of a raspberry-colored garment moving amid a horde of travelers, spotting a tall woman. He mutters, "There she is -- there they are."
He hurries forward, calling out to the woman, "Hi, hi."
The woman changes direction, veering toward him, smiling. McGhee looks Rubino up and down as he gets close, hugging him casually. She turns to her kids, gesturing at Rubino, and says, "Look who's here."
The children -- a brown-haired boy one month shy of 7 named Aaron, and a 3 1/2 -year-old blond girl named Leah -- stare up at him, mouths agape. Rubino turns to the boy, crouches, and hugs him gently. The boy's arms hang stiffly at his side. He tentatively wraps a thin arm around this man's neck, glancing up at his mother for some sign of approval. But she hasn't noticed his glance, open-mouthed herself, drinking in the 45-year-old Rubino, this slender, fair-skinned artist in jeans and a gray T-shirt.
"What do you say to this guy?" McGhee asks her daughter. "Who is this man?"
A mystery behind the magic
By Gene Weingarten
IT'S NOW JUST AFTER MIDNIGHT. We'd arrived at 7, and Eric shows no sign of tiring. He's lost some money at blackjack but is making it back on a craps table, again. Beside him is a sweet, funny, attractive woman named Mollie, in a low-cut black blouse and white pants with a big belt. Mollie's maybe 30, a businesswoman from Texas. She'd arrived with friends whom she seems to have jettisoned.
Eric is hot.
"You want to see a five?" He teases the table, which has bet heavily on five. "Is five what you want, a five?" He rolls a five. The table erupts in cheers.
"I'm a magician," he says to Mollie. "I don't know if you knew that."
"It's showing," she says. She is leaning against the table, hipshot, dangling a sandal, watching his every move.
By 1:30 a.m., he's up more than $600, and still rolling strong. "I'm going to call it a night," Mollie says. She shakes Eric's hand and leaves for her room, his business card in her pocket. Then she comes back, looks at the table and Eric. She thought she might have forgotten something, but she guessed not. She leaves again, for good.
A few minutes later he finally craps out.
I tell him: "You could have hooked up with Mollie."
"What? No way," he says.
"Eric, at one point there, she was giving you a back rub."
"You had her."
"You think, really?"
He smiles sheepishly, goes back to the table.
I went to bed. I found Eric again at 7 a.m. at another casino. He hadn't slept. He was up $1,100 but wasn't ready to leave.
The next three hours were ugly. The craps tables had cooled off ("The felt was too old, the table was hard"), and he had a couple of bad outings with steely-eyed dealers at the blackjack tables. ("Those women were cruel.") Eric finally quit at 10:30 a.m. His all-nighter had left him with a profit of $200, roughly his fee for 20 minutes of children's party entertainment. He wasn't disappointed. Life is a crapshoot, after all.
On the ride home, there was one image I could not get out of my head.
The Great Zucchini's tattered loose-leaf appointment book is filled with the names and dates of his scheduled parties, months and months into the future. He keeps no backup -- no other notes, nothing on a computer disk, nothing anywhere. If he were to lose that book, he'd have no idea where he was supposed to be, or when. For months of weekends, preschool children would be waiting expectantly in homes across greater Washington, and the Great Zucchini would simply never show.
Eric understands the importance of that book. Without it, the Great Zucchini would cease to exist, and all that would be left would be Eric Knaus. And so he carries it with him everywhere. He won't leave it in a car, in case the car is stolen. When he goes out of his house, if he absolutely must leave the book behind, he hides it in a special place no burglar would think to look.
The sight that I could not get out of my head was the Great Zucchini hunched over the craps table, lost in that flagrant illusion, flinging dice with his right hand, his left hand pressing that book hard to his chest, white knuckled, like a man holding on for dear life.
Can little Andre be saved?
By Wil Haygood
THE MEN IN LITTLE ANDRE'S LIFE:
We call his father big Andre. He's short and compact. Once he hit Fashun, and little Andre, 4 years old at the time, rolled toward him like a bowling ball. A boy will try to save his momma. Big Andre left.
His uncle Juan -- my sister Geraldine's son -- is in and out of jail. Around my friends, especially my white friends, Juan likes to mention having read The Autobiography of Malcolm X -- "while I was away." He makes it sound like he was away on vacation, in Rio; he really means the Orient Correctional Institute, not far from Columbus.
Harry, my brother, is a ne'er-do-well, a one-time resident of Los Angeles's Skid Row, off and on heroin for two decades now. He is mostly estranged from his own children, but he loves little Andre in bunches. Last year he gave Andre a $50 bill. Andre looked at it quizzically, and simply handed the thing to a nearby adult.
Harry is the second of my mother and father's five children. First Diane, then Harry, then Geraldine, then me and Wonda.
In the summer of 2002 Geraldine, 49 years old, died: It was an overdose. They found her body in a drug house.
Two years earlier, I had stopped responding to Harry's pleas for money; he said he needed it to get "straight" before the heroin killed him. I'd send the money, but he never got straight. And then I stopped.
Three siblings. Three alligators.
At Geraldine's funeral, Andre sat on Fashun's lap, staring at his lifeless aunt. He sat so very quietly, the rambunctious little boy refusing to rocket up and out of him. I watched him, and worried.
After the services, family members gathered on my father Jack's porch. I was out of sight, but within earshot, when Sonny, Geraldine's ex-husband, came looking for me.
"Harry, where's Wil?" Sonny asked.
Beer in hand, tan suit falling from his wispy body, Harry took a gulp of beer: "I ain't got no brother," he said.
Andre was nearby. Heads swiveled.
Sometime later, Harry was on the phone from California, regaling me with the story of his having given Andre a $50 bill. "I love that little dude. He cracks me up," Harry said.
Love love love everywhere. So much love it hurts.
Tom Shroder, editor of the Magazine, will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon...