29 September 2009

San Francisco 1982

I am wandering the blocks around the TransAmerica building, searching for an old hangout, Paoli's. As a young broker trainee in SF in the early 80's, this is where you would find me occasionally. Unwinding with friends. Talking about the market like we were old veterans. Watching the 49ers march through the playoffs on their way to the Superbowl. Missing my wife and new baby girl. Apart from the TA pyramid, nothing looks familiar.

21 September 2009


Atlanta airport, 7pm.... B concourse.
The line for the Delta service desk (a wall of phones) is 129 weary travel zombies long.

20 September 2009

Burning Brisket

Brisket is hard to mess up, but I learned how this weekend.

I had the smoker going for one of the last times this fall, I suppose. A pork roast, ribs, a brisket filled the top rack of my smoker. Apple and cherry wood chunks providing the smoke and Brother Kingsford, the heat. For some reason I didn't want to go through all the trouble of setting up multiple layers, which was my one big mistake.

This meant one cut of meat would be real close to the firebox. A pork roast can handle this but a brisket can't. The picture is me on Saturday morning, in all my barbecueing glory, burning a brisket and not realizing it. When I finally pulled it out, after about ten hours, I found myself scraping the thick black burnt animal flesh off one side, the way Mom used to scrape a piece of burnt toast. It didn't work. Most of it was dry and tough. A few sections were ok and what was salvagable was quickly consumed by oldest daughter and self, with the balance making it's way to her boyfriend's house, last I heard. If a cop stopped her on the way she could have been arrested for transporting a toxic substance without the required permits. I've been smoking for about ten years and this is the first time i've ever messed up a brisket. Didn't know it was possible.

On the up side the ribs were great and the pork roast as well. I guess in a way the brisket gave itself up for the benefit of its brethren in the smoker.

17 September 2009

Philadelphia at the break of fall

This week I spent three days in one of my favorite cities. I had some free time and used it mainly just to be there, in the heart of the city. Took a long run in Fairmount Park along the Schuykill River. Strolled through Reading Station. Watched two groups of protestors, liberals and conservatives, yell at each from opposite side of a street. Wasn't quite sure what the issue was. Cheesesteak sandwich. City Hall lit up at night. A great city on hard times. Pulling through.

13 September 2009

A small thought on the changing value of things

When I was in college I worked one summer at a gas station. The 11pm to 7am shift at Drakes Shell Station in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was a long time ago and in an era when all night gas stations were fairly rare. In the suburbs of St. Pete, near the Snell Isle and Pinellas Park areas, this was the only place to get gas after midnight.

It was quite an adventure, a big part of growing up. From midnight to dawn I was one of the lords of the strip, 4th street. I knew the regular lineup of night people, cops, liquor store owners, motorcycle gang members, dj's, newspaper delivery people. I also served a regular string of folks who found themselves low on gas and low on cash after a late night adventure in Tampa. I handled a lot of requests for small sales of a gallon or two, enough to get them home.
One night a guy pulled up and begged for gas. He was broke. He promised to pay me back if I would just give him a couple of dollars worth. I'd learned the hard way not to do that and told him no. So he opened his trunk, which was full of tools. He offered me any tool in his trunk in exchange for $2 worth of gas. The deal was sealed.
I pointed to the lug wrench you see here. I could tell he was hoping I wouldn't see it, but he reluctantly handed it over. It was worth ten or fifteen dollars at the time, perhaps a little more today.

I realized then, and now, how emotion and circumstances can change our view of the value of things. Put a guy in desperate circumstances and he'll let possessions go for a fraction of their worth. Had he stopped and thought for a few minutes there might have been a better way out of his situation. When I saw the look on his face I knew that I never wanted to be in his situation. Here he was, a grown man face to face with a teenage kid at 3am, humiliated and knowing the kid holds all the cards. Of course I only have my side of the story and in fairness I don't know what difference that gas made in his life. He didn't dicker. He needed it bad. If it kept him from getting fired, or missing some important meeting, maybe he had the better end of the deal.

I have kept the lug wrench and carried it with me from city to city. At least once a month I see it as I piddle around the garage. It reminds me in a little way of the mistakes that come from panic and the opportunities that can come to those on the flip side of the trade. Over the past year during the market meltdown, I thought about this episode often. Particularly as people who bought GE at 30 a couple of years ago dumped it when it fell below 10. Same thing with US Steel, which fell from 190 to 19, and so on with almost every publicly traded US company. Happens all the time, almost every day, to someone, somewhere. Common stocks, homes, a racehorse, a rare coin, a fine tool. One day we are thinking clearly and rationally. The next we are making decisions any normal teenager would know to avoid. I remembered the lug wrench as markets collapsed earlier this year and determined I would again be the kid with 2 bucks, not the man who was scared and desperate for cash.

One of these days I suppose I'll pass the lug wrench on to one of my kids, or grandkids, along with more details on this story. The man who traded for the lugwrench has been on my mind a fair amount over the years. He's in his 70's or 80's now, if still alive. He taught me an important lesson, I hope I taught him one.

08 September 2009

Roan Mountain I

 Every year I travel to Roan Mountain, in present-day Tennessee, in the former State of Franklin.

I have blood here that flows throughout the valleys and hills, around the creeks and hollows. Like the reliable Doe River that gathers hundreds of tiny streams, it emerges in present life from thousands and thousands of days past.

They gather names known and unknown from the cities like Elizabethton, Johnson City and Bristol to the hamlets of Sinking Creek, Stony Creek, Banner Elk, and Hampton to place names like Sycamore Shoals, Powder Branch and Whitehead Hill; they collect the blood and toil of generations. Each year around this time, the land calls our family back.

Here our ancestors first came, for free land and independence. Before there was a Tennessee, we were here. Proud and independent subjects of Kings George II and III.

You will find us buried both in places still marked and in places forgotten. The strongest of us, who made it to age five, had a good shot at living to adulthood. The weak and sickly but a few days. Our mothers often joined the children in the grave as death hovered over childbirth and snatched the weakest whether the one delivered or delivering.

We gather and think about those we recently lost. Grandfathers and great-grandmothers, aunts and uncles, the ones we knew. The ones whose accent and mannerisms and smell we still hold vividly in our memories. But we also think a bit about those we never knew, but whose names still trickle down through time, such as Hans Michael Hyder, the original settler from Germany via Pennsylvania.

Rueben Brooks, the ardent supporter of the Confederacy and slaveowner, whose homestead still stands. Six years after the end of the Civil War, his daughter Margaret married LF Hyder, a former Sergeant, Fourth Regiment, Tennessee Infantry, Union Army. This story was no doubt repeated in countless weddings in the border states of the conflict, eventually bringing a tiny bit of healing to a torn land.

Floyd Blevins, the uncle we miss but never knew, and whose violent death is still a mystery.

We also do the things that bring families together in the best way. We play with the new arrivals, those most recently landed on this earth. There are no infant deaths to mourn, only births to celebrate. We also stare at those who have recently joined us in marriage, or are thinking about it, and judge whether they will make it as one of us.

We eat, too much. Our ancestors could survive for weeks on an array of dishes based on bacon grease, corn meal, buttermilk and beans. If they could sit at our tables they would still recognize the food as theirs. Cornbread, sliced tomatoes, blueberries, gravy, soup beans, grits, baloney, cole slaw, and steak, all adorn our weekend feast.

They climbed the top of mountains and forded streams to get to this place. We repeat these acts because we are drawn to walk where they did. We stand at the High Bald at Carver's Gap and on top of Roan Mountain. We wade the Doe River in the shadow of Elizabethton's Covered Bridge, grateful for every one of them, for what they did, what they dreamed, what they passed on to us.

Passed on are bits and pieces of stories. Tales of success and also of plans that were surrendered to death and hardship. We honor them for both. We have a treasure of stories of cunning and luck and pluck that we pass on and that bring laughter and wonder still. Most of all, we are thankful for the faith in Christ that was handed to us and the "thousand tongues" of our people and our people's people that in this valley have sung "our great Redeemer's praise" for centuries.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, they looked up in a night sky undimmed and dreamed. Those dreams were about us.