Archive for May, 2015

Overdue Books

Although my little Maine hamlet (population 234 on a good day) is too small to support its own library, we do have an arrangement (and are taxed accordingly as part of our property taxes) with the town of Lovell to utilize their libraries.  They have two:  one at the north end, which was formerly a one-room schoolhouse (I wrote about it in my blog post entitled “How Rural is My Maine Town?“), and the other, a renovated beauty that, with its limited selection of inventory, serves as a true community and cultural center with a variety of activities.  There is a book club, kids’ arts and crafts and storytelling, a gardening club, yoga, nature lectures, weekly cribbage games, monthly lectures on organic farming, and occasional lectures by the Maine Humanities Council on everything from history, foreign policy, to current events.  If you want a specific book, chances are you won’t find it on the library’s shelves, but the librarians are happy to order it for you as an inter-library loan from other larger libraries in Maine.

Because the collection is so limited, I make an effort to return books I’ve read within a day or two of finishing them to ensure their active circulation amongst residents desperate for a good read.  Once, I forgot to return a book and received a friendly reminder by email.  When I returned the book, I asked how much I owed in late fines.

“Oh, we don’t charge; we go by the honesty policy,” the librarian told me.  While there were a few books that were forever lost this way, most people were good about returning borrowed books on time, she said.  Wow, I thought, that would never be the case in my home town.

But then I read today’s Conway Daily Sun, a small paper published just over the Maine-New Hampshire border.  It turns out that most towns around here don’t charge library patrons late fees:  instead, they call the police!

In an article reported by Damon Steer, he writes:

Astute readers of the Conway police logs — which are published on Conwaypd.com — may have noticed the May 16 entry saying that officer Richard Gaudreau was investigating overdue library books.

When patrons don’t bring back their books, magazines, CDs and DVDs on time, the library sends them notices, followed by telephone calls.

After that, tardy patrons are referred to the police.

. . . “We investigate them as theft,” said Lt. Chris Mattei,  “. . . It doesn’t usually end up in prosecution. but sometimes it does.”

According to one librarian, police are “very helpful” and tend to get “different results” than the library’s notice.

At one rural New Hampshire library, there is a “Guilt Alleviation Box” near the front desk,”People do occasionally drop donations into it.”  added that getting money that way “has a nicer feel” than assessing a fine.

Imagine having a police record that says “overdue library materials!”  That’s enough to put the fear of G-d into any bookworm.

Click here for the link to the original Conway Daily Sun article.

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Don’t Look a Gift Worm in the Mouth

“Gus” is a typically taciturn Mainuh.  He is in charge of our town’s transfer station, otherwise known as the dump.  He looks quite serious and intimidating when he checks one’s garbage to ensure the recyclables aren’t mixed with regular trash.  He is a man of few words.  Mostly he just scowls.  But three years ago when I decided to take up fishing and had absolutely no idea how to begin, I screwed up my courage to ask him for help.

This was not my first attempt at getting help.  But every other Mainer, when I asked “how can I learn how to fish?” just laughed.  Not because they were mean-spirited; they just couldn’t believe I was serious.  How hard is it to bait a hook and put it in the water?  For rural Mainers, I might as well have asked, “How does one breathe?”

But Gus didn’t laugh.  Once I asked his advice, his entire gruff demeanor changed.  It was as if a dam had opened.  Advice, suggestions, help, and the usual exaggerated fish tales – – Gus could go on for hours.  I had never seen him look so happy or be so talkative.  From then on he treated me like a bestie every time I dumped my trash.

Last year I did something really stupid.  I broke my fishing rod, not once, not twice, but three times.  The first time, I stood the rod upright next to my front door.  Unfortunately, when I opened the door, the rod fell, and the door shut – right on the rod, snapping off the top.  Another time I laid the rod next to the window and forgot about it.  When I closed the window, the top of the rod got wedged in the window and snapped off.  The third time the rod snapped when I slammed the car’s trunk on it and this time it was beyond repair.  Due to my carelessness, this was getting to be an expensive hobby!  When I confessed my klutziness to Gus, he didn’t laugh.  Instead, he told me his own stupid fish story about how he lost his brand new rod and reel  from his boat.  He had been fishing with two poles simultaneously, and while he was using one, he forgot to secure the other and down to the bottom of the lake it went when a fish snagged the baited hook.  “That’s fishing fuh ya,” he said, slowly shaking his head.

I had been carefully monitoring the sales in search of a new rod and a better reel.  Prices start at $15 and can go to several hundreds of dollars.  I am of the school that says “it’s the Indian, not the arrow” so I wasn’t looking for anything fancy.  I had used this principle when I went trap shooting.  Many men had gorgeous double barrel shotguns that cost well over $1000.  I was using an inexpensive pump shotgun that I bought used at a gun show.  And guess what?  My trap shooting score was only a point or two behind theirs, and that was mostly due to my inability to practice regularly.  I’m not bragging here, just making a point.  A better tool can make a difference, but if the person using the took is inept, even the world’s most expensive tool/fishing rod/shotgun is just not going to help.

Gus recommended that I get an Ugly Stik, which is a brand of fishing rod that is practically indestructible, and is covered by warranty if it breaks.  I saw one at half price in my home town at a store that sells overstocks for $20.  Then I went to Cabela’s in Scarborough Maine for a reel, and the sales staff were really helpful in advising me what to buy according to my needs.  The reel I decided on was normally $40 but was on sale for $30.  I was about to purchase it but suddenly I had a notion to look in the “Bargain Cave” section of the store, where clearance items, returned goods, and seconds can be found.  There was the reel I had picked out in the main part of the store, for only $20, and it was brand new!  The sales person said it had been on a defective rod, so he threw away the rod and put the reel in the Bargain Cave.  Not only would I get a nice Shimano reel at an affordable price, they’d even string the line for me for free.  While I managed to do this on my own in the past, threadingg fishing line on a reel is an annoying chore that doesn’t come easy to me, so I was happy that they offered this service.

But the bargains didn’t stop there.  When I went to pay, the clerk asked me if I had a Cabela’s credit card.  I told her no, I had no interest in adding yet another credit card to my collection.  But when she explained that by opening a Cabela’s credit line, I’d get $20 worth of merchandise free, I took the bait, as it were.  Nothing like getting a free reel!

Now I was truly excited.  I bought a Maine fishing license online and printed it out, putting it in a ziplock bag so it would be waterproof.  Fishing 2015, here I come!

With a stretch of amazing weather in the 80s F, and the bugs still not so bad, I bought two packages of live worms in anticipation of a week of great fishing.

Alas.  Every time I tried to cast with my new, improved rod and reel, the line tangled miserably.  I didn’t know if it was the rod, the reel, or the new braided line.  There was only one thing to do:  ask Gus.  So the next time I took my garbage to the dump, I showed him my new rig and asked if he could figure out why I was having trouble.

“Simple,” he said.  “You have too much line on your reel.  Unwind it and cut the excess line so it’s only 3/4 full on the reel, and you’ll be fine.”

Sure enough, many reduced feet of fishing line later, I was casting like the best of them.  And within 20 minutes I had caught two beautiful brook trout.

This past weekend, a female friend “from away” (the terms used by Mainers to describe anyone not from Maine) was looking forward to coming for a visit.  She expressed a desire to go fishing, her very first attempt at doing so.  I felt her chances of catching a fish were pretty good, since I had caught the two trout only 3 days before at Kewaydin Lake (recently stocked by Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife).  I had also seen 21″ bass in the same area of the lake, but at the time they weren’t biting.

(Guests who come for a visit are in for a surprise when they forage in my fridge.  Just when they think they’ve found the package of cream cheese, when they open the similar-looking container they are surprised by a dozen squirming, slimy worms. This has resulted in many hilarious moments.)

Just before my friend and I got to the lake, I realized I had forgotten my two packages of worms!  I didn’t really want to go all the way back home, since we were right near a convenience store that sold a dozen worms for four dollars.  (My city friend noted that the worms were sold in the refrigerated section, sitting right next to the milk.  She chuckled when I could not find anything unusual about this.)

When we got to the lake there were two locals fishing for trout and bass.  They managed to catch a small trout – – too small to keep, and they returned it to the water unharmed.  Watching their adept casting skills was a bit intimidating, but they were more than helpful in answering our questions and suggesting ways we could improve our luck.  Alas, my friend did not experience the thrill of catching her first fish, despite our best efforts.

That’s fishing, of course.  They either bite, or they don’t.  Some days are great, other days not.  It’s something you just can’t control.  But you can’t beat the views or the fresh air.  And while you’re waiting for a bite, you have plenty of time to think about solving the world’s problems – – or not thinking at all and enjoying the quiet and peace of mind, which can be a blessed relief.

The next few days the weather turned much colder, and the winds were howling.  The water was very rough and the current strong.  Kewaydin was churned up enough that I could not see any fish in the usually pristine, clear lake, and despite a few tries it was clear that fishing would be better another time.  Due to the change of weather and high winds, what was supposed to be a week of marathon fishing was instead replaced by chores and errands.

This coming weekend I’m returning to my hometown for an entire month, so dreams of fishing will have to wait until my return to Maine mid-June.  But what to do with those three containers of worms?  The worms’ lifespan is two to three weeks if kept in the refrigerator.

I could have dumped them in my garden, of course.  But the fellow who runs the garbage dump has been my fishing mentor  and I thought he might want the worms.

“Hey, Gus, I have something for you,” I said, handing him the packages of worms when I next visited the dump.  “I’m going to be gone for the next month so I won’t be able to use these.”  His entire face lit up.  “Thanks for the worms!” Gus said with heartfelt enthusiasm.  Clearly I had made his day.

That’s when I thought about how much my life has changed, and what a different person I’ve become.  Nor could I think of a single friend from my home town and previous life that would be happy to receive a gift of three containers of worms.

Riots

It was dinner hour that hot summer evening:  my mother, father and I gathered around the black and white TV – there was no color television back in 1965 – watching the city burn. The Watts Riots lasted 5 days, from which my father would emerge a changed man.

Los Angeles is huge geographically – – and Watts was an hour away by car – – but I, an 8-year-old little girl, was terrified.

“Don’t go!” my mother cried to my father.

My father, a liberal Jew, was an attorney who was heavily involved in civil rights.  Much to my mother’s frustration, he was probably the only attorney with an office in Beverly Hills (later Encino) who couldn’t pay his bills, because so many of his cases were pro bono and in general, Dad was terrible when it came to managing money.  Many times he’d be “paid” with bartering – – I remember getting cases of eggs and cherries; once, we got our living room sofa reupholstered and our house painted.  Many times my father’s clients “helped out” by catering, cooking, or acting as wait staff at my parents’ semi-annual house parties, which were large, lavish affairs (the thing about living in upper middle class L.A. in the 1960s was that even if one didn’t have the bucks, one had to keep up appearances as though one did).  Mostly there was no attempt at payment, even spread out over time.  Many times my father created jobs for his clients for work he didn’t need done, thinking surely that it was a lack of opportunity that kept them mired in poverty and that’s what drove many of them to drink.   And my mother became more and more frustrated and lonely, especially as my father’s work hours became more and more obsessive and he worked all hours of the day and night, six days a week.

Many of his clients and the people he knew from the ghetto — that’s how Watts and South Central LA were referred to in those days — had kids who were being arrested, and he wanted to help bail them out of jail.  He just assumed – – he knew – –  they were innocent.  In those days, Los Angeles had a problem with police brutality.  At the time of the riot, police were not just arresting perpetrators of looting and burning, they were sweeping people off the street wholesale.  In 1965, houses didn’t have air conditioning, and August in L.A. is hot.  So hot, that people would commonly loiter outside their homes on those hot summer nights to escape the sweltering temperatures inside their uninsulated houses and apartments.  Those seeking relief from the heat, standing or sitting outdoors in front of their own homes, were part of those roundups.

Every night, while Watts would burn, my father would get into the thick of it.  Every night, shortly before dawn, he would come home exhausted, smelling of smoke; and my mother and he would have harsh words, loud enough to wake me up.  “What about us?  Don’t you care about your own family?” she would cry.  She was sure he’d get himself killed.  My mother had already been widowed once, to a wealthy man with a pilot’s license and a private plane.  She had begged him not to fly, but he didn’t listen.  Their last words ended in argument, and he took off, straight into a storm.  His stubbornness and poor judgement had resulted in him crashing his own plane, killing him instantly.  My mother was left a widow at age 34 with two children ages 5 and 7.  Her lifelong lingering anger and resentment interfered with her ability to mourn.  And now, with my father, her second husband, it was happening all over again.  She was despondent.

But my father couldn’t let it go. These were good people, he insisted, who were being discriminated against because of the color of their skin.  Not everyone living in Watts was a rabble-rouser.  It was his job, his duty, his calling to protect the innocent.  And so he went.  For five days, every night, into Watts, where just being a white man put him at risk of attack.

Once there, he tried to convince the youth to go into their homes, to be safe.  He felt if he could reason with the rioters, they would listen, and save themselves.  My father was a champion debater from his college days – – and he rarely lost a case in court.  His words were so convincing, that on several occasions, when couples came to him for a divorce, his wise words of counsel brought them back together and he saved many marriages this way.

But his words did not help this time.  He knew how to deal with anger, but not hate.  He could have a discussion, a debate, but not with someone who was only willing to respond with their fists.

He bailed out many innocent young black men that week.  But there were many that were guilty, too.  Boys who had set fires to buildings and looted, carrying away TV sets and clothes and even things that were not useful, just to be looting because it was free and exciting and daring; and this was anarchy and empowering.

Because their parents were poor, tired, good people, my father bailed the hoodlums out, too.  But he was devastated and disillusioned when those boys met him at the exit door of the jail with “F*** you, Honky!” and spat in his face.  Their parents were mortified with embarrassment, but they didn’t speak out.  Perhaps they realized that something had changed, that a new era was beginning, and that as parents they felt powerless.

My father just couldn’t understand it.   He could not fathom why someone would remorselessly choose wrong over right.  He wanted answers to questions for which he couldn’t get answers. Why would people destroy places of possible employment? Why would they steal from the stores where they could shop locally? Why would they destroy pharmacies where they depended on medication for themselves and their loved ones? Why would they burn cars that were the transportation needed to take them to work? Why would they beat up people they didn’t even know, who must now miss work and would be unable to care for their families as they recovered? Why would they want to discourage idealistic business people and immigrants from believing in them and their neighborhoods, who wished to invest in a better, more viable future? Why did they hurt themselves with such malicious and misguided self destruction?  Why did they not realize they were hurting themselves, and unfairly victimizing all the people in their neighborhoods, especially the good people who lived there but did not choose to express their dismay at police abuse with abuse and violence that was no better than that which they rose up against? Did they believe their violent and criminal actions would help them, their children, friends, neighbors, stores, jobs? He didn’t understand why someone would reject a job, even a menial one, in favor of a welfare handout and at the expense of their dignity.

Dad grew up under the yoke of dire poverty in the Midwest  (severe malnutrition was responsible for stunting his height).  He came to the US as a toddler from Russia in 1913 in steerage class with his mother and older siblings (his father preceded them to America and worked for several years to pay for his wife’s and children’s tickets so they could join him) and even as a small child my father worked a zillion menial jobs for pennies and always studied hard, because he knew that with the American dream a better life was attainable no matter what color or religion you were.  Even though Jews and blacks certainly had prejudices held against them more than other groups in the US,  he believed one could rise above it.  During WWII he commanded a fleet of LCI ships, where he was responsible for ferrying Marines and infantry onto beachheads throughout the So. Pacific under fire.  Even then, the ships under his command were known for their good and fair treatment of blacks who were typically relegated to non-combat and menial tasks, and he refused special treatment to officers on his watch when it came at the expense of enlisted men.

After the Watts riots, Dad continued to defend the downtrodden, but usually not with the former passion of pre-riot days.  One time he defended a young Hispanic man who lived in East LA. This young man had been mowing his lawn for his parents, and cops came by and beat the crap out of him and arrested him, because he fit the ethnic type and description of a person who had just robbed someone else.  Unfortunately they got the wrong kid.  They beat this young man on the street, beat him at the police station, and he was really a mess (even bashing his head on the metal file cabinets at the police station; the kid maintaining his innocence just incited the cops further).  He suffered broken bones, a concussion, and needed stitches.  So my father defended him on behalf of his family’s request.  My father won the case, and the officers were fired – this was HUGE in that day because police brutality happened a lot and usually there was no recourse.

Probably the hardest thing for me and my mother during these years was the seeming lack of appreciation.  It was bad enough my father’s clients couldn’t pay, but my father rarely got thanked for his talents in saving men from jail, or for the excruciatingly long hours he put in on their behalf.  This Latino family was different.  They repeatedly expressed their gratitude and remained in contact with my father, proudly inviting him to that boy’s college graduation several years later.

The only time I personally felt appreciation by others for my father’s fights for justice was at his funeral, after he died following a tortuous battle with cancer in 1972, when I was 14.  Several of his clients somehow got word of his death.  In a time when civil rights had won their legal battles yet different races still didn’t mix or socialize, there were about 150 blacks and Hispanics who I’d never seen before (including the entire family of that Mexican boy who my father had saved) who came to the funeral to pay their respects.  The cemetery was over an hour away from East and South Central LA and it wasn’t an easy drive.  They didn’t communicate with me or my mother, but I realized who they were.  As mirrored by my father’s life and death, they quietly came for the service, and just as quietly left.

When Baltimore rioted, and I saw pictures of so many jubilant looters carrying away all kinds of goods from smashed and burning stores, I thought of my dad.  Fifty years later, his questions sadly remain the same.   And just as infuriating, there are still no answers.