Monday, July 8, 2013

Popo throws a curve

When Mexico's Popocatapetl volcano erupted last week, I was taken back 16 years, to the summer of 1997.

Popo, as the Mexicans call it, had been stirring that summer, too, blowing smoke and water into the air, just as my six-week stint of teaching in Loyola's summer program at the Universidad Iberoamericana was ending. I wasn't concerned enough to change my flight plans, though, and early on the morning of my departure, I took a cab to the airport as if everything were normal.

I was standing in line  to check bags and get my seat assignment for the 7:30 flight to Houston when a voice over the loudspeaker reported that flights, which apparently had been grounded, would resume, though they would be delayed because only one of the two runways was in use. 

I puzzled over the report; I hadn't read the morning newspaper yet, and I did not know flights had been grounded. It was only after I had checked in and settled in at the coffee shop that I read that the volcano had erupted the evening before, and the ash had blown north and west and settled onto some sections of the city, the airport included.

Both of the runways had been covered with it and, at that early hour, workers had been able to clear only one.

Nevertheless, we passengers boarded the plane on time, and it appeared that we would depart on time. Then, over the intercom, came the pilot's ominous "Ladies and gentlemen...." Because of the problem we wouldn't be pulling away from the gate for about an hour, he said. That turned out to be a good estimate.

When the plane finally eased out onto the taxiway we could see a thin blanket of white ash, scarred with the wheelprints of aircraft and ground vehicles. 

I wanted to see Popo breathing smoke. The volcano is only about 40 miles to the southeast of Mexico City, and I had seen it often, when it was in repose, on my earlier trips in and out of the city. But the cloud of smog over the valley that morning  hung so far down that I couldn't see the cone, and even when we were in the air it was hidden.

As the plane leveled off, the pilot came back on the intercom to thank us all for our patience in the face of what he called the "the curve ball Mother Nature threw at us this morning."

Some pitcher, that mother.

Monday, March 11, 2013

An Accidental Meeting

I ran into a Loyola student last week.


It was about 11 a.m. on Wednesday. I was making a right turn from one multi-lane avenue into another and the student, in the lane to my left, turned right in a slightly wider arc at about the same time. The left front corner of my car creased the front and rear doors on his passenger side as he sped past me. My bumper and left fender suffered some damage, and both had splotches of paint rubbed from his car.

After we had parked and shaken our heads at the damages, he told me that he had been speeding to get to school.

“Loyola or Tulane,” I asked.


“What’s your major?”

“Music industry studies, but I’m also taking courses in music business.”

“I retired from Loyola a couple of years ago,” I volunteered. “I taught in mass comm.”

I gave him my name.

“Oh, yeah, geez. Now I know you,” he said, “You lectured on public speaking to my business communication class. You were awesome.”

That calmed the storm that had roiled my innards..

And seeing as how we had established our bond, he said, “I’m really sorry.”


I asked his name. “Timothy,” he said. (Why does no one under the age of 30 seem to have a last name?)

Both, we discovered are insured by State Farm. And while he called the company, I dialed 911.

Afterwards we looked at the damages again. “I know a guy who can pop that right out,” he said, looking at the long crease along his doors. Mine would have to go into a shop, certainly, but I didn’t know of a reputable one. And the shop would probably keep the car for a week, probably more. I swore under my breath.

I heard Timothy say, "This is my first accident." I silently swore again. Lucky me.

At least the weather was pleasant, and we took to the curb and made small talk. He told me about his dream to go on to law school and become an entertainment attorney. He also wants to buy a hat when he becomes an attorney and wear it to his office downtown as other attorneys do.

“Hats are coming back, I think,” he said. “I see lots of men wearing them. When did they go out of fashion?”

I said that President Kennedy didn’t like to wear hats, and that set a style for younger men.

“What about that president before him?” he asked. I forget his name.”

“Eisenhower. He wore hats, like most men of his time.”

“A hat will keep me from getting dandruff from the sun beating down on my head, too,” he said, and he bent his head and parted a swatch of thick, black hair. He did not have dandruff.

We talked about all the potholes that pockmark New Orleans’ streets, the broken streetlights, the city’s broken infrastructure generally, its underclass and their housing, the failure of office holders to improve conditions. And so we killed little more than an hour, and during that time no squad cars drove past the intersection in any direction. We remarked on that, too, because the intersection is near a relatively high crime area, and it is rare not to see one.

I did see a small car make the same illegal turn. It had the State Farm logo and an agent's name painted on the door.

 Nearly an hour and a half had gone by when a parade of some five or six squad cars drove past us.

“Must be heading from the donut shop to lunch,” I quipped. Timothy laughed. Another point for him.

All the drivers ignored my waving—all but the last, and I think he must have been the officer who had been sent to the scene after my call.

We gave him our licenses and registration and insurance cards. He handed us forms on which to describe the circumstances. That’s an improvement, I thought. Some years back, when one of my daughters was involved in an accident, the officer listened to the versions she and the other driver gave him and wrote the report. It would have received a D for spelling, grammar and composition from a sixth grade teacher. A generous sixth grade teacher.

Timothy and I gave the officer our completed forms, and he told me they matched in the important particulars. He gave Timothy a ticket for “improper lane usage” and handed back our credentials.

It was close to one o’clock.

Timothy and I shook hands. Neither of us said it had been nice to see the other again. Then he drove off to campus and, I can only suppose, to explain his absence to his professor. I drove home to explain my tardiness to the missus.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Elderly? Not quite.

      elderly Use this word carefully and sparingly.
      It is appropriate in generic phrases that do not
refer to specific individuals:
concern for the elderly, a home for the elderly, etc.
      If the intent is to show that an individual‘s physical or mental capabilities
have deteriorated as a direct result of age, cite a graphic example and give attribution for it
      Apply the same principle to terms such as senior citizens.
                                             --The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual

Most mornings at the breakfast table, the newspaper spread out in front of me, I come on references to someone about my age as “elderly” or even “old.” “Damn kid reporters,” I mutter. “They probably see anyone over 30 as ‘I mean, you know, like, ancient’” And they have not read the “AP Stylebook,” as they should have.

I have no objection to “senior citizen” as long as I’m getting the discount. I do object to “elderly” and “old,” however, and not just on journalistic grounds. It’s personal. (My use of it in the blog's standing matter is just funnin', as we say down South.)

I know I have some gray hair. Well, maybe most of what I have is gray. Regardless, I notice when I comb it that it is thinning (but who wants fat hair, I might wisecrack to my grandsons to watch their eyes roll). And when, with razor in hand, I look in the mirror every morning, I recognize the face right away. It is the same face I’ve been looking at since I began shaving, though it is somewhat wrinkled now and sags a bit in spots.

Otherwise I’m not aware of any major changes. In fact, I weigh the same as I did when I got out of the Army half a century ago, though I’ll concede that the weight is redistributed somewhat and, perhaps, a bit flabby When I change my shirt I notice—well, I’d rather not mention those.

Oh, yeah. One leg has become a touch gimpy. Putting on my shorts and trousers in the mornings has become a balancing act. And I’ve long since stopped practicing my Chevalier “Stairway to Paradise” routine.

I’ve experienced a few other changes, too. Once upon a time I had a doctor. One. Now he’s my “primary care physician,” and in recent years I’ve added enough specialists to seat around a poker table.

The eye doctor, whom I used to visit only when the golden arches logo on McDonald’s billboards got a little blurry, not long ago took away my spectacles—I’d worn glasses since I was eight or nine years old—removed cataract-clouded lenses from both of my eyes, and inserted machine-made lenses in their place. But while I can see him and his “E” clearly now, he still has me in for regular visits. “You aren’t getting any younger, you know,” he reminded me the last time. I still have glasses for close reading—five or six pairs in various places somewhere around the house. Give me a minute and I can find one.

I’ve acquired a cardiologist who is young enough to have two pre-school children. She observed that I have some sort of leakage in my heart. “But don’t worry,” she told me. “A lot of older people have that.” She told me she wanted to make sure that I didn’t have any fluid buildup. She prescribed a pill for me to take every morning that keeps me draining fluid all day, and often. She warned me not to take to the pill before going to bed. It would keep me going to the bathroom all night, she said. As if that would be a change in my routine.

There’s the GI doc, too, though I see him rarely now. When I was a young fellow of 58, he peered down into my esophagus fairly frequently for two or three months to see how a cancer that had developed there was responding to treatments by my chemotherapy and radiation docs. A few years later, he peered up into my colon—finding nothing, I’m happy to say. In my slightly drugged state during that exam, I thought I could hear him humming “I’ve looked at love from both sides now.”

Getting rid of the remains of the cancer, by the way, took a general surgeon and a thoracic surgeon. I didn’t meet the latter until he walked into the prep room to introduce himself just before the operation. Frankly, I was concerned, because he looked to me to be too young to be wearing scrubs. A Boy Scout uniform, yes. But he and the surgeon successfully took me apart, cut out what they were looking for, and put me back together. Is there a merit badge for surgery?

Most recently I acquired an audiologist. For a year or two—maybe more; I forget exactly—I endured the missus yelling “Get a hearing aid!” every time I asked “What?” in response to something she had said. So I finally had my ears tested and, after, bought a pair of hearing aids.

“How much were they?” she asked, when I came home wearing them. I told her--and it was her turn:  “WHAT?” she exclaimed, and I thought, but did not say—being only aging, not crazy—that if she had always spoken to me with that volume, I would not have needed the hearing aids.

Then, one recent evening I walked into the den while the missus was watching a college basketball game. I looked at the screen just as the scene switched from the court to the commentators’ booth. In the center was a much-lined, almost wizened, face I thought I knew. I will concede that I have a problem remembering names occasionally (the only folks I know immediately are the ubiquitous “whatsisname” and “whatsername”) and it took me a minute to slowly run through the alphabet testing names until I got to “N.”

“Knight!” I exclaimed. “Bobby Knight!” Of course. For many years he was the successful and controversial Indiana University basketball coach. Who could forget him?

I moved closer to the tv set and squinted.

“My gawd, he’s gotten old!” I said.

The missus said nothing. I looked at her. She stared at me with an odd and curious cat-that-swallowed-the canary expression on her face that pretty well told me what she thought.

I went up to my workroom and sat at the computer.

“Bobby Knight. He can’t be much older than I am, I thought. “Five or six years? Maybe seven?”

I typed his name into the Google search box on the screen and clicked to a biography.

“Born: October 25, 1940. “

Three and a half years younger than I.  I was astounded.

“My gawd!” I whispered. 

I could see in my mind’s eye that look that the missus had given me.

Since then, I have admitted to myself that I am somewhat worn, no longer quite the same fellow who worked at the peach-fuzz on his face with a Gillette blue blade safety razor.

But elderly? I don’t think so, no matter what those twenty-something reporters say.

Edging up on it, possibly.

But old? Hell, no.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Get It First, But Get It Right

George McGovern's death this week brought to mind an unlikely incident from election night in 1972, one that would tell me that I might be getting through to at least some students. At the same time, it would offer me a teaching opportunity that I missed that night but made good use of in the future.

I was an assistant professor in the Marquette University College of Journalism in those days, and I moonlighted as a reporter and news announcer for WISN. Too junior to teach summer school courses, I had jumped at the chance to be a summer replacement at the station when the news director, Don Froehlich, offered me the opportunity a year or so earlier. That turned into weekend work, as well, and stints covering special events like election nights
On election night in 1972, Don gave me the keys to the news department car and sent me downtown to report on the doings at the election night headquarters of the Democrats and their presidential candidate, George McGovern. McGovern had long trailed in the polls and was given no chance of winning, but how low he had sunk I did not know until then. Headquarters was in the Wisconsin Hotel, on Third Street, just north of Wisconsin Avenue.

Major candidates for statewide office and for the presidency, or their representatives, normally had suites in upscale hotels like the Schroeder Hotel, on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Fifth Street and the elegant old Pfister, on the East Side at Wisconsin and Jefferson Street.  Their supporters ate and drank and danced to live orchestras in the ballrooms. It was my observation (“Lorenz’s Law, I was bold enough to call it) that those candidates destined to win took up election night residence in the Pfister, and that held through the years that I was reporting.

I had never known a candidate’s headquarters to be at the Wisconsin. The hotel seemed to me to be about half a star above those establishments that rented rooms by the hour. Sailors going through boot camp at the Naval Station Great Lakes stayed there when on liberty in Milwaukee. But that’s where the McGovern operatives had settled. 

When I walked in, I spotted a telephone sign over an alcove off the lobby and I went over to it. On a bench seat in the alcove were two of my students, also reporting for radio stations that night. I greeted them and looked over at the pay telephones. Both had “Out of Order” signs on them.

I asked the boys if they knew where another telephone was. 

 “You can use one of these," one said softly. "We put those signs on them to make sure we had a phone when we needed one.”

The two of them had taken my history of journalism course the year before, and they had heard me lecture on the importance that reporters, over the years, had placed on establishing communications.

 I usually told the story of the excellent 19th century reporter Henry Grady, who was in Tallahassee to report on the award of the state’s disputed electoral votes in 1876. Before the decision was released, Grady checked on telegraph service and found that the  lines out of the city had been cut. He hired a buckboard and driver and they drove until he found a telegraph office with communication to the outside world. They returned to Tallahassee. When the decision was handed down—Hayes would get the votes—Grady jumped into the buckboard, and  while the driver lashed his horses to get full speed out of them, Grady sat alongside writing his story. When they reached the telegraph office, his story was not quite ready, so he gave the telegrapher a speller to send, thereby establishing his claim on the line until he finished the story. (There was a side lesson there, of course, on the reporter’s concern that he spell correctly

Later in the course, I told my students stories about Merriman Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning White House correspondent for United Press and its successor, United Press International. In April, 1945, he was at President Franklin Roosevelt’s Little White House at Warm Springs, Ga., when reporters were called to the President’s cabin. Smith spotted a telephone next to a chair when he entered the living room, and sensing something important was up—an end to the war in Europe or, possibly, an announcement about the president’s health—he hid the telephone behind the chair. When the press secretary announced FDR’s death, the other reporters ran out to find telephones. Smith waited until they were gone, retrieved the hidden phone and then called in his bulletin.

I also recounted the story of Smith’s work on the day President Kennedy was assassinated. He was riding the front seat of the wire service car in the presidential motorcade in Dallas and just happened to be talking on the car’s radiotelephone to someone in UPI’s Dallas bureau when he heard shots fired. He dictated the first bulletin, that three shots had been fired at the motorcade, and gave what other details he could as the cars sped to Parkland hospital. Jack Bell, the Associated Press correspondent, was sitting in the back seat, and began to beat on Smith and demand his turn with the phone. He raised welts on Smith's back, but the UPI man would not let go.  When the press car wheeled into the hospital’s emergency room entrance, Smith tossed the phone at Bell, jumped out of the car and sprinted past the president’s limousine. He saw Mrs. Kennedy’s roses lying in the president’s blood in the back seat and asked Secret Service agent Clint Hill, who was standing near the car, the president’s condition. “He’s dead,” Hill said. Smith sprinted into the hospital, found a telephone at a nurse’s station and began dictating those details. Smith scored a clear beat for UPI that day, partly out of luck, I said, but also because he knew that it wasn't enough to get the story, it was crucial to get it out and on the wire.  
The students sitting by those telephones had taken to heart the lesson of those stories, and I was proud of them. Years later, however, I also regularly taught a mass communication ethics course, and I used them as an example of going over the line in controlling communications. Grady using a speller to “own” the telegraph line was one thing;  their putting a bogus “Out of Order" sign on a telephone was another. And my comment to those ethics students was that while I would have given those two fellows an A for mastering the history lesson, had I had them in ethics, I would have had to give them an F. 

Did I use one of those pay phones, you might ask. You bet.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Kansas City Milkman

Marc Murdock, a longtime teacher at Kansas City’s Jesuit high school, Rockhurst, died recently.

I never had Marc Murdock for a class. How I missed chemistry or, especially, algebra with him I do not know. His obit states that he “scared the quadratic equation into hundreds, even thousands, of young men.”  But given my abilities in math, I doubt that even he could have scared the material into me, and my academic life might well have ended in his classroom.

But because I was on the staffs of Rockhurst’s monthly news magazine, Prep News, and the yearbook, The Chancellor, however, I did have frequent association with him. He took most of the photographs for both publications, and he was moderator of the yearbook. He was a very nice fellow, and I liked him and got along well with him.

At least until one morning during Christmas vacation of my senior year. Yearbook staff members were supposed to be at school that day to work on the book. But as dedicated to journalism as I was, I was crazy in love with the enchanting Helen Mary D'Arcy, and vacation time was better spent with her, at her house, my teen-age reasoning went, than with a bunch of other guys in that dank basement room at Rockhurst that was allotted to the yearbook (I still think so).

At some point there was a knock on the back door.


Helen Mary’s mother asked if I would get the door.

When I opened it, I came face to face with the milkman from Country Club Dairy: Marc Murdock.  A 25-year-old high school teacher with a family that would grow to 12 children, he delivered milk during vacation periods, and the families of a good number of his students were on his varied routes. On that day, he was delivering in the Indian Hills area of suburban Johnson County.

Mr. Murdock was not happy to see me, nor I him.

"Aren't you supposed to be at the school?" he asked. I said I was, or maybe I just nodded sheepishly. He handed me the milk and whatever else he was delivering and left.

Mr. Murdock never said word after that about my being A.W.O.L., and I continued to work on the yearbook up to the time we sent it to the printer. My picture appeared in the staff photos in the book.  

At the honors assembly in the spring, however, when staff members were called to the front, one by one, and awarded golden lapel pins for their work, my name was not called.

So while I never had Mr. Murdock as a teacher, he taught me a good lesson—one  that Woody Allen put in  words years later, and one that I passed on to my students occasionally: "Eighty percent of success is showing up."

A footnote. Ten years later, when I was working for United Press International, I picked up a novel about journalists with a foreign bureau of a fictional news agency. It was The Kansas City Milkman, written by a former United Press foreign correspondent. It took its title from an admonition to a rookie correspondent from the fictional bureau chief, though it was supposedly once spoken by a real-life UP editor: "And remember, you are writing so it can be understood by the Kansas City Milkman. If the Kansas City Milkman can't understand it, the dispatch is badly written."  I still have that book, and I've occasionally thought of  my vacation-day encounter with Mr. Murdock, that vacation-time Kansas City milkman, when I have glanced over and seen  it on the shelf.

And a footnote to that. If you have seen the movie Broadcast News, you will remember that there is a flashback in which William Hurt's anchorman character is shown as a boy with his father—a  Kansas City milkman.

R.I.P. Mr. Murdock.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Week Away From Isaac

Here in New Orleans today, things are “literally back to normal,” as the mayor told us citizens at one of his gang bang news conferences the other day.

One week after our battering and soaking by Hurricane Isaac, we had sunshine outside and, inside, electric power. Fewer than 17,000 of Entergy's nearly 200,000 home and business customers were still without power earlier in the day, but we were told that Entergy crews were on the streets and up in their gondolas repairing lines downed by falling trees or tree limbs or simply high winds. The executive suite crew were summoned to appear before the City Council to explain why the repairs have taken so long. 

In our neighborhood, a venerable pecan tree was uprooted by the wind, and much of it toppled into a neighbor’s yard. The ground had been saturated in this summer of heavy rains, and in other areas I passed in my travels after the storm other perfectly healthy trees had been uprooted from the soggy soil by Isaac's Category 1 winds. Around the corner, the upper trunk of an oak tree was diseased in the center (it became obvious), and in the wind, the healthy portion could not hold, broke off and took a power line into the street with it

We lost power at our house at about 10 p.m. last Tuesday; it was restored at about 10 Saturday night. Fortunately, a next-door neighbor with a large generator invited us to plug an extension cord into one of its outlets, and I alternated hooking up our refrigerator and a small freezer we have in the shed in back. That saved most of the food. For light, we had a couple of candles and three small LED flashlights.
The missus bought a battery-powered lantern at Loew’s, but she neglected to buy the eight D batteries that would power it. Surely, she thought, we had D batteries at the house. Yeah, two or three. But they, I found, were two or three more than any store in our area that I visited had in stock. By happy accident, returning home empty –handed after an hour or more of battery hunting, I spotted a hand-lettered sign at an intersection along the streetcar tracks telling me that my favorite small hardware store, just down Oak Street, had D batteries. How was that possible when Radio Shack, Home Depot, Loew’s, Walgreen’s and other big stores had none? I made a hard left across the tracks (the streetcars are safe in the car barn these days) and pulled up in front of the store. I bought an Energizer 8-pack, and took it home,in triumph. If only I had had an ear of the bunny to nail to the wall.

Our cell phones ran low, and I had not thought ahead to getting a battery-operated power source for them. My daughter‘s house in the suburb of Jefferson, about five miles upriver, never lost power , while all around them, other houses were black. To get the phones juiced, I drove there through mostly empty streets , plugged in the phones, had a beer with my son-in-law, talked about the storm with him and watched my grandsons play video games.

With power out, news was hard to come by. We missed two days of the Times-Picayune. On Thursday, a plastic bag thrown on the lawn held the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday editions. The Wednesday edition had been printed in Mobile and was on that narrow, shorter newsprint that a number of papers have gone to, including The World’s Greatest Newspaper. The staff had done a fine job of pulling the story together, and their stories made of interesting reading even two days late. But readers were reminded that we could have read the news online on “I would have liked to,” my unsent diatribe to the new publisher began, "but I had no electricity and my Internet service provider was down.”

The NY Times covered the reporters covering the story:

If great online journalism is done and no one can get online to read it, is it still journalism?

At my house, we turned on a multi-frequency portable radio I bought for some weather emergency years ago. The staccato voice on the weather frequency repeated the latest forecasts and warnings over and over. WWL-AM (the big 870) spilled onto most all the frequencies. Callers mostly complained about the slow response of emergency powerline repair crews. The talk show hosts pontificated, whether informed or not, and called out “next caller.”

The best call of the week, I judged, was from a fellow who said he did not go into Bourbon St. strip joints for the usual reasons—whatever those are; he did not say. But he liked to stop in one fairly often just to relax. And in that one, he said, he saw lots of linemen drinking beer and ogling the dancers.

The talk frequently gave way to the gang bang news conferences the mayor, area parish presidents and the governor like to perform to demonstrate that they are on top of the situation. They faced the cameras surrounded by department heads who stepped to the mike on cue to tell us they had everything under control. Hunker down, they told us, and take comfort in knowing that the National Guard has boots on the ground and Entergy is on the way.

The only tv signal was carried on the fm frequency of the local NPR affiliate. I had no problem listening to stories from reporters and anchors. But making sense of the weather was a chore, specially when I kept hearing that we were not out of the woods yet. Put on a blindfold some evening and try understanding a station’s weathercaster describe what you are not seeing on his map.

My favorite weatherman won’t have much to complain about tonight—only the heat, I suppose.

I certainly can’t complain about our situation. Like almost all others protected by the levee system we suffered only minor damage to the house. But hurricanes always leave behind people who have to rebuild their homes and, many, their lives. We are being shown their plight now in the wake of the storm. Give a thought to them occasionally, and, if you are so inclined, say a prayer for them.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Tale of Two Motorcades

President Obama and I waved to each other on a recent afternoon.

We weren’t exactly on equal terms. He was looking through the tinted protective-glass window of his limousine as it sped by at some 40 to 50 miles an hour along Claiborne Avenue, a main thoroughfare into downtownNew Orleans  that intersects our street, Burdette. I was standing on the curb squinting at the shadow waving at me from behind the window.

I had an inkling he might be on the way when I looked out my front window about 4 o’clock and saw the neighbors in the corner house on their front stoop, other neighbors scattered along the curb and a policeman who had parked his car against a barricade the end of our street. I had put three and one together: the crowd, an Air Force helicopter that had been circling for half an hour or more, and a report earlier that for a day or so police barriers had been stacked up at nearby intersection, plus a story in the morning blat that Obama was to open the annual meeting of the Urban League that evening with a speech, led me to the conclusion that the president could be passing at any moment. I went outside.

A squad of police motorcycles went by. The next door neighbor said an earlier group had sounded like a roll of thunder when it passed. Then came more cycles, some black limos, and then the president’s. I walked to the curb and waved, he waved, and the limo disappeared around the bend to the right, heading just six blocks away, to a home on Audubon Boulevard where some people who would be excluded from his planned tax cut were gathered to hear him ask for for campaign donations (Did he use that age-old plea for Mardi Gras favors, “Throw me somethin’, mister”?).

When the motorcade was going through—and before, I’m sure, none but official cars and motorcycles were allowed on the three lanes of Claiborne going southeast, into downtown. Outward bound traffic in the lanes on the other side of the median, was at a standstill. Within 15 or 20 minutes after the motorcade had passed, the drivers going home were able to pick up speed. But no cars were in the near lanes.

On Burdette, drivers trying to get across the median or turn right were backed up behind the barrier and a few drivers got out only to be told by the policeman that they could not get past. Why the police had not put a barrier at the other end of the street, at Neron Place, I do not know. If they had, drivers would have been able to get to an outlet open to them. But the police and the men who dig up the streets to repair sewer pipes and gas lines never seem to think that far ahead.

A half hour or more after the motorcade had passed, the officer moved the barrier to the median strip and began motioning cars through. It had been almost an hour since I waved Godspeed to the president. Perhaps Mr. Obama would have made his pitch and left for a less exclusive fundraiser at the House of Blues, in the French Quarter.

Almost immediately after the barrier disappeared,, some few drivers made it across Claiborne or turned right. But a flood of cars that must have been dammed somewhere back along Claiborne, perhaps behind Carrollton Avenue, a major street three blocks away, were let loose and soon clogged all three lanes. And in keeping with one of the customs of this city that prides itself on Southern hospitality, when they stopped, they blocked the crossing so that no cars could get out of Burdette.

In hardly any time, traffic was moving normally. Rush hour was over, and only a few cars were speeding in each direction.

The thought occurred that the president, on his return to the airport after his speech to the Urban League, would travel on the Interstate when few cars would be heading west.

Behind him, those Urban League members (who, the next morning’s newspaper reported, received him ecstatically) would have a happy memory to tell and retell for the rest of their days. Some rush hour drivers on Claiborne would have resentments that they might take out at the polls, though Louisiana will go Republican anyway. Others of those drivers would simply forget the inconvenience.

Me? I have his wave captured in my mind’s eye.


An historical footnote:

The episode reminded me of the last time I saw a president in a motorcade.

It was June 23, 1969.

I was in Washington that day. I had served two weeks of Army Reserve duty at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, in early June, and afterwards I spent a week or so in the capital doing research at the Library of Congress.

On the 23rd, Warren Burger was to be sworn in as Chief Justice of the United States, succeeding Earl Warren, The Washington Post had reported that morning, so I walked the few blocks along First Street N.E. from the Library to the Supreme Court to gawk at the invited guests as they arrived. It was a gorgeous June day, warm and sunny.

A number of individuals went up the long flight of marble stairs to the building, but none I recognized. Then a black limousine pulled up, a liveried driver got out and opened the rear door on the passenger’s side, unfurled a large black umbrella and held it over the door as a chunky man exited. It was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The chauffeur held the umbrella over him and the two walked slowly up the steps.

Sometime during my wait, while the ceremony was going on inside, I had heard that President Nixon was there, but that his limo had entered the building’s garage on the Second Street N.E. side. I walked around back and stood on the sidewalk near the garage exit to try to catch a glimpse of him.

I was rewarded by seeing the president’s car come out of the garage and make a right turn in front of me. It moved only slightly while the motorcade came together, so for a few moments I found myself face to face with Richard Nixon. He smiled and held up a hand in a regal gesture.

I looked like the sort of young man the president would like. I was 32, clean-shaven, my military haircut still close-cropped, and I was neatly dressed—I might even have had a jacket and tie on for my work at the Library of Congress. I was not at all like those unwashed, bearded, and long-haired Vietnam-war protestors in filthy clothes that Nixon despised.

He appeared startled, then, when I stared back at him, unsmiling, and held up my hand, forefinger and middle finger in a “V,” and pushed the gesture toward his face. His smile disappeared, but he kept looking at me, as in disbelief, and then the motorcade started and he was gone.

A Secret Service agent had been standing just to my left and, I’m sure, had had his eye on me. When the motorcade started, he did a right face in front of me and stepped hard on my foot.

My left foot.