Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Report: "The Day the Cowboys Quit" by Elmer Kelton

It's the rare western book that invites a Marxian analysis, but Elmer Kelton, who died recently, was the rare western writer.

"The Day the Cowboys Quit"takes place at the intersection of rugged American individualism and the collective efforts of the undercapitalized to improve their lot.

The book renders a cowboys' strike - a fascinating concept - that actually happened, on ranches in the Canadian River region of west Texas circa 1883.

By Kelton's lights, the strike occurred in the crucible of corporate encroachment upon the cattle industry that brought an end to the free range. Rationalization and greater efficiency in the beef business left the liberty loving cowboys with a beef of their own and they struck in response to it.

This novel is a beautifully paced, tightly constructed page-turner that manages to treat deeper afflictions in the American condition for those who want to see them, without boring those who just want a good western yarn.

Here's an exchange between the central protagonist, Hugh "Hitch" Hitchcock and the Kansas City corporate rancher Prosper Selkirk, who notes that:

"If I invest my entire fortune in a bad venture and lose it, nobody guarantees to take care of me the rest of my life. When a man gets on one of those bad horses he knows the risks: he implies his willingness to accept that risk when he agrees to the job."

[Hitch] "He accepts the job because he's partial to eatin'.'
"The same reason I take a risk and invest capital."
"There a difference between a man's limbs and his money."

A political writer might take pages to explain this naturally occurring friction so skillfully dispatched in a few terse exchanges by Kelton.

What do the "big ranchers" want? New rules forbidding the use of a company horse for personal affairs or keeping one's own mount without management's consent; the expulsion of "tramps and idlers" from the cowboy camp’s traditional protective care; and the outlawing of a ranch hand’s, "owning cattle in their own brand less than two fences away from the ranch where they worked, which in the Panhandle's open range country effectively canceled out their right to own cattle anywhere."

Each of these, if you're not familiar with late 19th-Century western ranch life (and who is?), comes with a back story Kelton fills in easy as an Arkansas maiden in an Dodge City cathouse.

"The Day the Cowboys Quit," treats the labor action with surprising sensitivity for a manuscript packaged as pulp fiction. Kelton had a deep comprehension of the strike psychology, of the ambiguity that plagues supporters and opponents alike.

He paints those too sure of themselves in a less flattering light than those with doubts. The pioneering, don't tread on me individuals opposing the strike are slaves to the American winner-take-all mentality and obsequious to those with more money simply because they have more money. They lack a dissident and skeptical spirit.

The strikers are scattershot in their efforts; too closely identified, and easily taken advantage of, by the cattle thieves and drifters littering the fast-closing frontier.

The author aptly develops the unspoken reasons behind labor actions that actually prop up the prosaic demands for higher wages and better working conditions.

And speaking of prosaic, Elmer Kelton has a fine ear for plain-spoken dialogue between down home folk while investing his narrator with an-all-too-familiar, but no less colorful klatch of colloquialisms that move his story along like bulls through a brier patch.

“The Day the Cowboys Quit,” alternately delivers on resolutions that leave a reader satisfied, without tying every loose end so that the story finishes in an uneven fashion that comes mighty close to looking like life beyond books.

Cantor's Song

Governing and protesting are markedly different activities.

This from a daily newspaper article dated Sept. 22:

"The same actions to confront the same problems are reaping the same results: voluntary activism, heroic public protest, slogans and posters, militant loyalty and the concentration of hopes in the central figure of a leader who has yet to harness a national crisis into a viable alternative political and social organization through which multiple sectors and interests impacted by poor government can fight for more than sound bites and the next congressional elections."

A summation of the populist uprising fomented by Glenn Beck and FOX News?

No, words from the pen of "La Jornada" columnist, Julio Hernandez Lopez on the state of Mexico 's left-wing opposition.

But it crosses that screwy “virtual” border fence to sum up the Republican status quo pretty easily doesn’t it?

In yesterday's "Washington Post," another columnist, Dana Milbank, wrote a piece that might lead one to believe House Republican Whip Eric Cantor has been delving into some of Lopez's writing.

In "The Health-Care War Gets a Little More Civil," Milbank recounts the staid circumstances of a public meeting convened by Cantor on (what else?) health care.

The meeting was conducted under rather strict rules of conduct, that wouldn't be considered so strict had certain people demonstrated an ability to behave like responsible adults during this summer's nefarious health care town halls.

You can read the piece for yourself, but in summation, Cantor, a snarky, perpetual Young Republican, invited a colleague from the other side of the aisle, and the issue, to join him.

The usual cast of crazies who found the town halls such fertile ground for ranting about the president, the color of his skin and socialistic tendencies, materialized anew.

But Cantor informed them, after some predictable early outbursts, that this was not a town hall, rather a "public square" and that, "We are here today to talk about health care."

That was something of a shocking, if passive, admission that those who disrupted the town halls did everything but talk about health care.

The piece chronicles the disappointment of those who came to rumble over the fact that Cantor was more willing to engage those who came to discuss. They were aghast at the collegial treatment, once a hallmark of The Peoples' House, Cantor afforded his opposite number, Rep. Bobby Scott (D).

"I felt like pulling a Joe Wilson," one defrauded attendee told Milbank.

We know.

You have to wonder what Republican internal polls are telling them about the impact the Tea Party and 9-12 crowd's caterwauling has had on party fortunes.

highwayscribery thought he espied the first shoots of this new Republican tone when Newt Gingrich, the original braying backbencher, decided not to join in bashing the president’s school kids speech.

Let’s revisit the Mexico article and highlight the fragment which reads: "...has yet to harness a national crisis into a viable alternative political and social organization through which multiple sectors and interests impacted by poor government can fight..."

Columnists (and bloggers) can get very wordy, but that swatch of text can be reduced to: “Yelling loud is bringing us no closer to governing.”

And as we said in our opener, whether in Mexico or Richmond, Virginia (Cantor's redoubt), screaming, tearing down, and obstructing is something quite different from governing.

Gingrich, who couldn't match Sara Palin in "exciting the base,” had this epiphany and decided to make a run at being a serious, even-tempered alternative, because people don’t like to see their presidents yelling.

Just ask Howard Dean.

Cantor, as potential national leader, apparently came to the same conclusions Gingrich did. And he might have also noted, with his belated town square on the topic, that for all the media clamor about the August troubles, we're still talking health care.

Worse, for he and his party, it’s going to become a law, with all the ensuing ballyhoo and poll bumps one might expect from that miracle. There is a resolve becoming apparent and it has something to do with the guy in the White House.

The lesson here is this: The party with the votes is the party that makes the laws.

Back when highwayscribery was in the opposition he, and those of his political ilk, made a lot of angry charges about George W. Bush. This left us, or the highway scribe at least, watching the town hall ruckus with a sinking sense of (ir)responsibility.

We still feel, naturally, that our caviling about Bush's questionable legitimacy was er, um, more legitimate, because he filed a lawsuit to stop votes from being counted, which made his claims to victory fairly transparent.

And furthermore, Obama won by a landslide, not by electoral votes delivered in a questionable tally by a state his brother (Jeb Obama) governed.

But we rant when we now recognize the corrosive effects of ranting.

For all our efforts to blow holes in the prior administration’s embarrassing run guiding the ship of state, at the end of the day, the Republicans and Bush always beat us because voters had delivered power unto them.

Yes, journalists fanned rumors of moderate Republicans disagreeing with how the (p)resident and Tom Delay were going about crafting some legislative package or other, but the bottom line is that they eventually got in line and passed the bill.

And so will moderate Democrats, because, once Republicans made clear they wanted health care to be Obama’s Waterloo, there was very little value in striking out independent of the president’s wishes.

And, of course, there are conservatives who play politics because they want to legislate and participate in the majestic process by which our system has unfolded over the past 230-odd years.

They, too, were going to have their say. Not at the top of their lungs, but in the hushed tones of the cloakroom and/or country club.

And like Obama, they wisely waited for the blowhards to run out of gas and the value of their shock tactics to wear thin.

Smart Republicans have faced up to the fact that they lost the election and that cooperating with the other guys is the only path to policy input.

The rants are giving way to something like Cantor’s sweet song.

We congratulate the Republican House Whip and welcome him to the real patriots’ debate.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jim Carroll

Once an artist reaches a certain level of technical competence their focus becomes one of flavor.

Jim Carroll, who died Sept. 13, was the flavor of Manhattan Island at a time when they could not give it away.

Yes, Carroll's apprenticeship unfolded in the halcyon days of Warhol, Edie Sedgewick, The Factory, and Max's Kansas City. But his specific era of sway was the late 1970s and early '80s.

At least that's what he tasted like.

The poet's heyday does not seem so long ago to this scribe, which makes his death at 60 the more striking.

Carroll's work and personality were branded by downtown's ragged districts, and Greenwich Village, when they were a low-rent melange of Italian-Americans, factories, and freaks. He was one of those freaks by choice.

Or at least it would seem. We are not talking facts here. We are talking flavor.

His haunts were the abandoned industrial sites of a machine revolution gone south, or Far East.

Punk, that avenging black army of spoiled children, had taken over the factory warrens and turned them into seedy soundstages and impromptu galleries.

Its music and related events, its spirit, had so shaken the foundations of rock 'n roll's royal houses that the Rolling Stones quit the jet-set, moved into town, and wrote a song that captured the thrilling mess of it all...


With a friend, an Iranian emigre who split Tehran during The Shah's downfall, highwayscribery went to see the crystal ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve 1980.

It was madness, pornography, knife fights, cold beer cans in raw red hands, roving bands of black youths rumbling, the ghost of Herbert Hunke; the anarchy John Lennon so loved and which would kill him 11 months later.

We saw Carroll there. Or we didn't.

The poet's "Basketball Diaries" were hot then. Or maybe not just yet. Again, we are talking flavor, not fact, and these events and sensations are what the name Jim Carroll said at the time.

Stones guitarist Keith Richards took a shine to Carroll's work and the poet read his punky screeds to the accompaniment of the famous rocker's hot licks and to the kind of audiences others of his craft can only dream about.


highwayscribery did not have a book of Carroll's poems nor had he read the famed "Diaries," but he knew of him because, if you were young in the New York metropolitan area of those times, it was understood you damn well should.

With George "Rasta" Powell, the scribe would comb the crowds of Washington Square for kicks before heading down to St. Mark's Place where Richards owned a dive, The St. Mark's Bar and Grill. We never found the Grill, but knew the Bar well enough.

Carroll was there. Or he wasn't, but we could taste him.

Moved by his ever-presence, the highway scribe bought Carroll's album, which was streaked with essences of Lou Reed and the New York Dolls. It was a great thing, this musical spoken word, this idea of the writer-rocker. You could not listen to it 'round-the-clock, but it reeked of invention and daring.

"People Who Died," is the piece that sticks out, endures.

A story about tough kids of Irish or Italian pedigree who ended up bad in the streets of Queens or the Bronx or Brooklyn, it recalls a time when being born white and privilege hardly seemed interchangeable concepts.

"They were all my friends...
And they died!"

This was how highwayscribery, for better or worse, came to poetry.

Not through the big "Dreamsongs" book of John Berryman, or by way of W.H. Auden or Sexton or Merwin or Lowell. It was through the verbal gymnastics of Allen Ginsberg on a Clash album, or the Clash themselves, or Carroll.


Maybe it was not the best path into the worlds of verse and vision, but it was a way.

And next came Rimbaud because there was another band from the same milieu called Television whose leader had the last name Verlaine, just like Jean Arthur's lover, Paul.

There was, in that time, something of an effort to sell Rimbaud as the "first punk" to a new generation living "A Season in Hell" all its own and, in highwayscribery's case, it worked well enough to set the hook.


The New York we write of here is mostly gone, the dark adventure of Times Square replaced by ESPN Zone and a lot of hum-drum security.

With Carroll's death the danger recedes a little further into the past and, 40 years from now, it will be up to his written work to conjure it anew for those unborn.

Dead poets work, too.

Carroll carried the seed of that dangerous Big Apple in his heart, chewed on it, and spit it to the sidewalk where it might be frozen by a ghostwind whipping off The Battery tearing at bones of The Bowery's bums.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Book Report: "I Am a Teamster," by Terry Spencer Hesser

In recognition of Labor Day, highwayscribery presents this review of "I Am a Teamster: A Short, Fiery Story of Regina V. Polk, Her Hats, Her Pets, Sweet Love, and the Modern-Day Labor Movement."

If departed Teamster leader Regina Polk had been a book, a thorough read would have been required before any judgment was rendered.

Terry Spencer Hesser's newly released "I Am a Teamster" details the too-short life of a woman who forged striking personal contradictions into a hybrid hellion of unique force.

The union organizer's story puts the lie to Republican detractors who can't see "real Americans" in the country's progressive ranks.

It is a story with roots in a hardscrabble western existence begun in Prescott, Arizona. Her father was a farmer who roamed from spread to spread in search of that ever-elusive American dream.

The family ultimately settled in the Sierra Nevada town of Paradise, California where the credo was, "Less Government, More Responsibility, and -- with God's help -- a Better World."

But raising a child takes a village and, in the 1960s, the village was undergoing a transformation of the kind that permitted teenaged Regina to access the sexually-charged "Kinsey Report."

At her mother's urging, Polk applied to the rich girls' school of Mills College where she was caught up in the chaos that was nearby, 1960s Berkeley.

She was permanently affected by the crosscurrents of civil rights, feminism and anti-war activism that characterized the time and place.

Freed by cheap gas at the height of automobile era, the searching Polk wound up at University of Chicago where she enrolled in a masters program for labor relations, but it was her real job where she got the true schooling.

To pay bills she found work as a receptionist at the inappropriately named Red Star Inn. Hesser writes that Regina was a "knockout by anybody's standards," and enjoyed the concomitant privileges extended by management.

But the employer's treatment of lesser types -- dishwashers, busboys, waitresses and kitchen help -- stuck in Polk's politicized craw and she contacted Bob Simpson, organizing director of Teamsters Union Local 743.

In the book, Simpson recounts that Polk struck him, "as a hippie. The way she dressed and looked. She was for all kinds of rights. Worker rights. Civil rights. Women's lib."

Simpson, who had little interest in expending precious resources on organizing the Red Star, became one of many who learned that Regina Polk did not take "no" for an answer.

She set out to organize the restaurant's workers and, when management got wind of the effort, was fired. The union filed a grievance, the restaurant paid money to get rid of Polk, and Simpson hired her as a part-time organizer.

The rest, as they say, is herstory.

By 1975, American capital's move out of the manufacturing business was in full swing and the Teamsters' saw their primary source of dues-paying members evaporate. In search of greener pastures, union researchers identified a surging class of white, middle-class, moderately educated workers.

"To organize white-collar women," Hesser writes, "the Teamsters needed a different kind of organizer to lead them out of the mire of scandal and suspicion that surrounded them on a national level."

Enter Regina Polk.

She was a college-educated, floppy-hat-wearing fashion plate with a philosophical crush on Jimmy Hoffa. Polk possessed a cosmopolite's travel lust and a farm girl’s ear for country western. A serial savior of imperiled animals, she carried an ice pick for slashing tires in the old-time Teamster way.

A culinary epicurean, she walked into one of Southside Chicago's roughest neighborhoods so that her maid Johnnie Scott didn't go without a paycheck.

"I lived on Justine on the South Side," Scott remembers in the book. "At the time, it wasn't a suitable neighborhood. It was bad. And I remember lookin' out the window and here comes Regina walking by herself. Bringing me my paycheck. She wasn't afraid of nobody. 'Have a nice vacation,' she told me, 'it's better with pay.' That's the way she phrased it: It's better with pay.'"

The anecdote is indicative of Polk's approach to both organizing and contract enforcement, which focused on individuals. None of whom were too insignificant to benefit from her assistance.

"She defended ferociously her members when managers attempted to abuse them, believing that the union should do more than just guarantee a wage, that it should also see to it that its members were treated respectfully," Gary Mamlin, a University of Chicago shop steward, told the author.

In her under-appreciated "The Other Women's Movement," Dorothy Sue Cobble posited that in between the first wave of suffragette feminists, and the second-wave feminists spawned by the Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan five decades later, thrived a special breed of "labor feminists."

These women took root and cover in their unions during the 1930s when labor syndicates enjoyed a heyday in the United States.

Polk's religious dedication to union values, and fearless confrontations with the old boys in labor and management alike, suggest she was a unique mix of the latter two waves.

As such, she neither demeaned the value of domestic work nor avoided it.

"If she was coming home late or not at all," Scott remembered, "she would cook for Tom [her husband] a beautiful plate of lamb chops and peas and wrap his dishes before she left, leaving me instructions or telling him to eat it cold."

Classified by the famed political scientist C. Wright Mills as "weak insiders," unions typically groan under the weight of servicing the least fortunate with a dearth of resources.

And so, the Teamsters promptly put Polk to work helping organize clerical workers at Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Chicago. She later reported to union bosses on the difficulty of getting "status-conscious" and "image conscious" women to join a "truck drivers union."

Nonetheless the Teamsters prevailed. The extent of Polk's contribution to the victory might be read in the 28-year old’s subsequent assignment to organize workers at the University of Chicago.

Faced with a recalcitrant university president who had successfully dislodged the union at Yale, Polk's campaign was conducted largely "underground" or secretively so as to protect those with the courage or need to join the Teamsters' drive.

The campaign prevailed, too.

"The university was stunned," writes Hesser. "It had failed to realize that over the previous twenty years the people who worked on campus were no longer faculty wives but bread-winners who needed the money. They were mothers, many of them single, whose paltry paychecks started looking worse and worse."

"I Am a Teamster," is no syrupy-sweet story about the virtues of organized labor. Hesser makes it clear that Polk had her detractors within the union.

"I think it was because she was so aggressive," said Simpson, "but I can remember specifically one guy saying to me, 'I didn't like her from fuckin' day one!' And that was exactly his words and this guy was a board member."

Regina also grew disillusioned with the union’s lackluster support of its members.

Nor is “I Am a Teamster,” the tale of perpetual triumph, because Polk's campaigns did not always prevail.

After one defeat, she came across her opposite numbers from a union-busting law firm at a local bar. One of the "bastards with briefcases," as she referred to such consultants, approached to share a conciliatory, post-battle drink. Instead, she took the one she was nursing and threw it in his face.

All of Polk’s fire was extinguished in a plane crash at the age of 32. Some years later, when her wrongful death suit was at trial, one of the jurors recognized Regina as the person who had donated the very clothes she was wearing.

Hesser's slim volume, 147-pages long, renders a large life with efficiency. The author commits the biographer’s forgivable sin of falling in love with her subject. She starts off unevenly, accumulating too many posthumous summations, inappropriate for a chapter on childhood, while applying enthusiastic adjectives to someone whose larger-than-life actions speak for themselves.

But as Polk's career takes form, so does the narrative, which is delivered in a no-frills reportorial form that leans properly on numerous interviews of people who were there at the time.

"I Am a Teamster," celebrates the difference one person, empowered and guided by the simple principal of solidarity, can have upon the lives of others through brute effort, consideration, compassion, and even joy.

One of her Teamster mentors, Ray Hamilton, eulogized Polk by saying, "She lived as she believed and felt that it was more important to actually help one person than to talk about saving the world."

Although she inspired fellow Teamsters, the union was never going to make a template of Polk from which a generation of like labor leaders could be modeled.

She was too unique and too individual. A real American if you will.