Then vs Now...
Fri Mar 3 20:36:47 2023
For most of my life the world was polarized between two ideologies:
communism and capitalism (a.k.a. "democracy"), each one claiming to be the
foundation of an ideal society in which all persons would benefit; the one
planned and managed to achieve a fair and just outcome, the other a chaos
that works all by itself, driven purely by greed. Endless books of
philosophy, economics, sociology, and history were written analyzing these
two world views; they were studied and debated everywhere. Meanwhile the
capitalist bloc did everything conceivable to destroy the communist bloc and
eventually succeeded. Now, instead of two great ideologies (well, one great
ideology and one lie), in the 21st Century we suddenly find ourselves back
in the Middle Ages and world events dominated not by competing philosophies
but by greed, pillage, holy wars, crusades, racism, and blind hatred; even
plagues. This at a time when capitalism has shown its hideous face more
openly than at any time in the last 100+ years, bent quite literally on
destroying the entire planet for the short-term gain of a miniscule elite
who evidently don't even care about their own offspring, unless they have a
secret plan to move to a new planet. 1000 years of progress wiped out in
just a few short years (from the fall of the Soviet Union to the mideast
wars and the subsequent worldwide "War on Terror"). This turn of history
is so bizarre I could never have predicted it. But in retrospect of
course I can explain it perfectly well. (This paragraph written
In June-July 2022 I find myself witnessing the crumbling of the United
States into warring factions just as bitterly divided as the North and South
in 1861. The racism, misogyny, xenophobia, hatred, and violence that had
been lurking under the surface since the 1960s has boiled up and taken over
about half the population and half the states. The federal government is
nonfunctional. The 99% corrupt corporate Democrats can't bring themselves
to do what is necessary to win back their traditional working-class base:
bring back the good jobs, support labor unions, fund public education
adequately, back off from the USA's world domination project, rebuild the
crumbling infrastructure, enact free universal health care, establish a
right to work at a living wage and to decent and truly affordable housing,
tax the rich, let everyone vote, abolish the antidemocratic senate and the
Electoral College, regulate banks and Wall Street and the big corporations
and the Internet, bring back actual journalism (to replace today's shameless
lying and/or "bothsidesism"), guarantee a secure retirement for everybody,
cancel the personhood of corporations, regulate political campaign funding,
regulate lobbying, un-privatize prisons and treat dysfunctional people in
mental facilities instead of imprisoning them, etc etc etc. But instead,
both political parties have let the private sector run wild and people are
sick of it. They vote for Republicans because they are angry and Democrats
have deserted them. The 2022 midterm elections could easily deliver both
the House and Senate to the Republicans in which case the Democrats will be
locked out forever by gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other schemes.
Meanwhile, Trump's Supreme Court is issuing a steady stream of astoundingly
retrograde rulings on abortion, guns, reunion of church and state,
environmental destruction, etc, that are welcomed by half the states, where
the rest are busy enacting laws to negate the rulings. Soon the states
could find themselves with border-crossing controls, e.g. to catch women
trying to obtain abortions, or to block the influx of immigrants (or guns),
and then how long before the pressure builds to break the USA up into USRA
and USBA (Red and Blue)? (Maybe Red should be White) Once again, I
really did not see this coming.
Unlike now, for most of my life most people in the USA had access to good
jobs and pensions and most products were made here by union workers, and
everybody got raises every year. Such institutions as the public schools,
the Post Office, and Social Security were essential parts of American life
that were never questioned, let alone reviled and attacked. (In that sense,
I was born at just the right time… younger people will never have the
pension I have, or the long vacations at work (you remember our 3-4 week
stays at Kinapic) or the health care or tuition exemption, etc; all of that
is gone… except maybe for teachers) (so far...) I was also lucky
that in all the 50 years I worked (with a few exceptions that probably don't
add up to more than year - CIA, Inwood Garage, Mt. Sinai), I never
had to commute… assuming 2 hours a day for commuting, that comes to
24,000 hours I didn't have to waste on buses and trains — three
(Speaking of those 50 years I worked, the whole time I was paying into
Social Security and Medicare, and since at least the 1980s "conservatives"
have been trying to take it away and put us all on "vouchers". Medicare
didn't start until 4 years after I started working.)
In the 1940s and 50s and 60s, everybody was familiar with the armed forces
and most families had somebody in them because of the draft or included WWII
veterans, or they lived on or near a military base, or in communities where
most of the families were military. Since we didn't have constant multiple
wars with people coming home in caskets every day, it was more like just a
job; people in the Army were simply GIs or soldiers or grunts, not
"warriors" or "heroes", and almost all the males I knew in high school wound
up in the Army. Before Vietnam, the USA wasn't flooded by veterans with
PTSD, or chickenhawk politicians beating their breasts about the patriotism
and honor of our gallant troops, while simultaneously cutting funds to
support them (VA, etc). But now, according to an October 2017 Washington
Post article), "it can be difficult for many Americans to encounter military
families. Fewer than 1 percent of the population currently serve in
uniform, and 7 percent are military veterans." (When I went to the Bronx
DMV to renew my license in 2018 and get a Veteran stamp on it, I asked the
lady did she get many veterans, she said I was the first.) Yet all we ever
hear about in mass media is heroism and sacrifice and Gold Star families,
yet when soldiers are killed in some place we never even heard of before,
like Niger, nobody asks "What the heck are they doing in NIGER???" Since
the end of the draft in 1973, the military has has been the employment of
last resort for the poor while affluent families never even think about it.
Two different and totally separate worlds.
Syndromes and allergies
When I was young, people were just people, not walking bundles of syndromes.
There was no Aspergers, no Alzheimer's, no ADD, no ADHD, no OCD, no bipolar,
no autism; there were just quirks that people had, some more than others.
Of course there were labels for people, but just a few basic ones:
colored, white, retarded, senile, etc. I say this because, in retrospect,
there might well have been some syndromes in my family. The foregoing is
not to say that all the new symptoms aren't real; see next paragraph.
Similarly, kids weren't allergic to wheat, eggs, peanuts, and other common
foods; they could eat anything. Also when I was young, I hardly ever saw
young men who were bald; now it seems half of all males are bald by
age 30. Probably it's a result of things that changed after the 1950s or
60s: toxins introduced into foods and the environment to increase corporate
profits and/or the fact that countless electromagnetic waves are passing
through our bodies 2/47… computer screens, WiFi, cell phones, cars
with radar, etc, orders of magnitude more of all these, at more frequencies,
with more power than when there was only radio and broadcast TV. The
chemicals, pesticides, additives, industrial waste, and radiation that are
everywhere can't be good for us. With all the crap we pump into the air,
soil, and water, the world's species are disappearing faster than anybody
can keep track of. Nothing like this has ever happened before in human
And now cell phones are going to have wireless earbuds — "airbuds"
— kicking up the radiation another notch and practically embedding
corporate messaging in your own bodies (nobody has mentioned this yet, but if
a cell phone can transmit to your earbuds, so can anything else: "Buy",
It only occurred to me just now, but I'll bet they start coming out with
"self-charging" cell phones, charged by microwaves broadcast from all the
cell towers, so for the sake of total on-demand connectivity, we'll all
slowly cook to death… And most people won't even mind!
When I was kid...
- Milk came in reusable glass bottles and had a layer of
cream floating on top. Tomatoes and onions that you bought in a store were
good — tomatoes were red, tender, juicy, and delicious; onions didn't
stink when you cooked them. Crops were not genetically engineered. There
was no Roundup (although there was DDT). Meat wasn't full of
antibiotics, arsenic, urine, pus, and ammonia and injected with liquid
fillers to make chicken breasts the size of footballs. Ground beef wasn't
mixed with Pink Slime and sawdust made from wood soaked in formaldehyde.
When you cooked chicken or ground beef, the pan didn't fill up with
foul-smelling liquid and boil the meat rather than sauteeing it. There used
to be delicious cooking smells.
- Coca Cola came in reusable thick glass bottles, and the fun part about that
was that the place of manufacture was indicated on the bottom. Bottles
would be reused 10, 20, even 100 times. Sometimes we'd get an Arabic coke
bottle. Also bottle caps were lined with a disk of cork. Kids would take
out the cork piece and use it to stick the bottle cap to their T-shirt like
a badge (I read that Trujillo used to do this when he was a kid, which is
why people called him Chapitas, but not to his face). The thick bottles
gave rise to the expression "Coke-bottle glasses" for thick eyeglasses.
Later they started to sell sodas in cans, but you needed a can opener and
the cans were made of steel so only very strong people could fold them in
Hats (including baseball hats) used to come in sizes. So did socks!
Air conditioning had been invented but nobody had it, not in their homes, or
in schools, or in stores. At home, we had a big heavy black cast-iron
oscillating fan, and would put ice in a pan in front of it to blow cool air.
Didn't do much good, the temperature often went to 105º in the summer.
Throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, movie theaters were pretty much the only
places with air conditioning.
Speaking of movie theaters, they used to be everywhere. Instead of watching
movies on cell phones, people watched them on a gigantic screen, in
darkness, with no distractions, a shared magical experience. The COVID
pandemic and the Internet killed them off.
Most products were made in the USA and had union labels, and were generally
of good quality, built to last, and didn't stink or spew out toxic fumes.
New shoes smelled good instead of like formaldehyde mixed with diesel fuel.
Ditto for all products made of or containing rubber or glue. In the postwar
years a lot of cheap junk was imported from Japan, but it wasn't toxic like
today's Chinese imports.
On the other hand, toothpaste tubes were made of lead, "glow in the dark"
items like clock and watch dials — not to mention a lot of children's
toys as well as the stick-on stars and planets and comets for their bedroom
ceiling — were made with radium, and every shoe store had an X-ray
machine where you could check the fit when trying on new shoes… they
even had small ones for kids. X-rays were good for you then; my Mom was
X-rayed once a week while she was pregnant with me.
As a child I had mumps, measles, and chicken pox, which were all normal for
children then. You guys had chicken pox too, Mommie took you to chicken-pox
parties where all the kids could be exposed to it, to get it over with all
at once. Nowadays mumps and measles are rare diseases that set off
DEFCON 4 alerts and there are vaccines for them but millions of people
believe the vaccines are an evil plot. The polio vaccine wasn't available
until the mid-to-late 1950s; some of my friends in elementary school before
that got polio.
Telephones had dials and were connected with wires. Airplanes had
propellers. Cars were made of metal and you opened them and started them
with keys, and they had round headlights instead of devil eyes. Every make,
model, and year was unique and easily identifiable. Furniture was made of
natural nontoxic wood. Pennies were made of copper (except in 1943),
nickels were made of nickel, and dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollars
were made of silver (people used half dollar coins all the time until 1964,
then they disappeared from circulation even though they are still being
minted more than 50 years later). The Pledge of Allegiance (which we had to
say in school every morning, along with Lord's Prayer and a Psalm) did not
have "Under God" in it until 1954 (4th grade) and paper money did not say
"In God We Trust" until 1957.
Speaking of Psalms, I also know a lot of hymns and I'm not really sure why.
I think they were sung in school as well as in church. Also, "Negro
spirituals" and other colorful traditional Negro-theme songs such as
"Mammy's Little Baby Loves Shōtnin Bread" and "Old Black Joe"; as
Virginians, these (and of course our state song, "Carry Me Back to Old
Virginny / There's where the cotton and the corn and taters grow / There's
where the Darkies labor so hard for Old Massa / That's where this old
Darkie's heart does long go") were considered an important part of our
heritage, even though we were kept as isolated as possible from Black
Indian-head pennies and buffalo nickels and standing-liberty quarters and
half dollars were still in circulation. (The guy who designed the standing
liberty half-dollar also did the Depression-era sculptures at the Bronx
Speaking of money, everything used to be paid for with cash, at least in
stores (when my Mom and Dad were in the Navy, they were paid in
two-dollar bills! Nobody wanted them so they were unloaded on government
employees). Now, more and more, it's cards and cell phones; yet another way
for Big Brother to know where you are and every single thing you buy. Plus,
once cash is effectively phased out, there will be nothing you can do when
the banks start charging a fee for every transaction. And every time you
use your card or phone, you are at risk of having your info stolen and ALL
your money along with it, something that doesn't happen with cash.
Supposedly the new cards with chips are more secure, but I don't see how;
you still have to enter your PIN. Cell phones are even worse because,
unlike cards, they can be hacked into, giving the hacker (or NSA) access to
your whole life.
Banks used to have long counters with lots of tellers and big lines. If you
needed cash you had to get it from a bank teller. Ditto if you needed to
deposit a check or anything else you do now online, or have done for you
automatically. Tellers did other things too… For example, you could
always trade in your paper money for silver. US paper money wasn't really
money, it was only a certificate that could be redeemed in silver. When
kids deserved a reward for doing something good, their parents would go to
the bank to get them a silver dollar. Nowadays a typical bank might still
have 6 or 8 teller windows, but rarely more than one teller working. In
affluent neighborhoods they're phasing banks out altogether to save labor
costs, i.e. increase profits and shareholder payout.
I remember in the 1970s when the first ATMs appeared. In reality there was
a teller upstairs. You put your deposit or withdrawal slip or whatever into a
cannister and shot it up to the teller through a pneumatic tube, and you
communicated through a little TV, and then got your cash or whatever back in
the canister. This was the first step in getting us used to not having
Similarly supermarkets typically had six or eight checkout counters with
cashiers who rang up each item and bagged your groceries. Customers and
cashiers were always friendly with each other and checkout was a pleasant
experience. Now cashiers are being "cashiered" en masse and replaced by
"self checkouts", for the same reason as bank tellers. When that happened
at my local Foodtown a lady yelled at the manager, "If you want me to ring
up my own groceries and bag them myself, you should pay me!" The other
customers cheered. The elimination of customer-facing employees is only one
of many demoralizing and desocializing features of the 21st Century. So
far I have never used a self-checkout, no matter how long the single cashier
line is, but I'm sure the day will come when I have no choice.
When I was young — and you guys too — if you wanted to buy
something you went to a store. There were stores everywhere, as there have
been for thousands of years, like in Pompeii (which even had something like
40 takeout restaurants). But by the mid 20-teens they are disappearing.
The big chains like Macys and Sears because of online shopping, and the
small ones because of soaring commercial rents. Even Starbuckses are
shutting down because the rent is too high. What will become of all those
commercial spaces? Broadway is increasingly a street of empty storefronts.
When I was a kid, there was also another way to shop: by catalog. The Sears
catalog was the most famous, it was like a telephone book (if you remember
what that is), and you could buy anything in it. We used it when we were in
Germany; I bought my big f-hole guitar that way. My grandmother's house
came from the Sears catalog. Other "everything" catalogs included
Montgomery Ward, Hammacher Schlemmer, Spiegel. Specialty catalogs are still
being mailed out — Lands End, LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, Company Store
— but probably not for long. Then the trees can start to grow back
(ha). Back in the day, the previous years' Sears catalogs were used for
toilet paper in outhouses, not just in the country but in cities too —
in NYC, apartment buildings had outhouses in their backyards until about
In cities, buildings were made of stone or brick, not glass and steel.
Parts of Manhattan are completely unrecognizable now, like around Columbus
Circle, nothing there now but unbelievably tall shiny misshapen towers, new
ones sprouting up about once a week. The Empire State Building used to
dominate the midtown skyline but now there's an ever-growing number of
pencil-thin luxury apartment buildings that tower over it. The Columbia
University neighborhood was an affordable and diverse multiracial
working-class neighborhood and now it's only for hedge fund managers or
their college-age brats; ditto Harlem and (soon) Washington Heights.
Skyscraper luxury condo buildings are going up everywhere, especially on
110th Street. Only recently (long after I moved away from the Columbia
neighborhood) I see a massive luxury condo building – Claremont Hall
— dwarfing Riverside Church, rising from the COURTYARD of Union
Theological Seminary! "...a new landmark that seamlessly connects the
academic and cultural tradition of Manhattan's West Side with enlightened
- Back in the 60s and 70s, there were bodega-like food markets on the 4
corners of 110th and Bway that sold plátano, yuca, huge bags of rice, etc,
because of the Puerto Rican and Dominican population south of 110th and east
of Broadway. There were "Spanish" restaurants and lunch counters on
Broadway like Ideal and La Rosita, and walking down Broadway towards
96th Street you could get café con leche on almost any block. By about 2000
it was impossible to find those any of those things — or those people!
On Broadway at least; some still survived on Amsterdam and Columbus when
I moved away 2012, only because the Frederick Douglass public housing
project is nearby.
Records were 10-inch 78rpm when I was little. A record album was a big fat
book (similar to a photo album) with a bunch of 78s in it, each in its own
stiff brown paper sleeve. For example a Beethoven symphony would come as an
album of maybe six records (I should know, my dad had all of them and played
them incessantly, conducting with his fork and shouting "Tremendous!
Tremendous!"). All my dad's records were 78s. 45s didn't become the norm
for singles until the early 1950s, and LPs weren't common until about 1960
(45rpm records first appeared in 1949; I have one from 1950; 33rpm LPs first
appeared in 1948, but mainly for classical music at first). Also sheet
music was a big deal, every town had a sheet-music store, even drug stores
sold sheet music.
Radios and record players (and TVs too, but we didn't have one until I was
10) were full of vacuum tubes. When a tube went bad there was often no way
to know which one, so you had to pull them all out and take them to a store
that had a tube tester, test each tube until you found the broken one, buy a
replacement, and then plug them all back in. When we moved to Arlington
that was my job since the tube store was just a couple
blocks away. Actually it was the drugstore.
|Drug store soda fountain
In those days drugstores were everywhere; they sold not only drugs and
toilet articles but also magazines, books, and candy, and they had lunch
counters, booths, and soda fountains where you could get ice-cream sodas,
sundaes, banana splits, cherry Cokes, hot dogs, grilled-cheese sandwiches,
etc. They smelled really good inside, like vanilla. This was one of the
main places where teenagers hung out after school. The Peoples Drug Store
chain was ubiquitous in the DC area; it was pretty ornate; the soda fountain
had a black marble countertop and stainless-steel revolving stools with red
leather seats; the walls were dark wood with mirrors. The ceiling had
thousands of "straw darts" hanging from it (drinking-straw covers
converted to sticky missiles with spit and launched by blowing them
from the straw itself). The bottom surfaces of the counter and stools
were thick with gum wads.
The drug stores in Virginia were segregated; the ones in DC weren't. There
were sitins at the one near our house in
Arlington in 1960-61 while I was in Germany... Sit-inners were harrassed
by Nazis with armbands and arrested by police.
As recently as 1966, after the Army, I lived near a Peoples Drug Store in
Washington DC at DuPont circle (21st and P Streets NW) and I was
still taking tubes to the tube-tester. The building is still there but now
it's a CVS. By the way, I once got a $5 ticket for jaywalking at this
|Peoples Drug DuPont Circle
As recently as the 1980s, supermarkets packed your food in brown paper bags
without handles; plastic bags didn't become standard until about 1990 and
already they are choking the whole planet. (I will say, though, that it was
pretty awkward carrying 6 or 8 big brown bags full of groceries home from
Public schools were much better than they are today. Teachers had secure
jobs and pretty much made their own curriculum. They were respected in the
community and school was mainly a pleasant experience for kids as well as
teachers. In junior high school they still taught music and shop classes,
driving and auto mechanics, also Latin (I don't remember if it was required
but I took it in grades 7-10). I had year-long classes in woodworking,
metalworking, plexiglass, and mechanical drawing. In metal shop we did
blacksmith work; heating metal white-hot in a forge, pounding it on an anvil
to make things out of it. There were also typing classes, but I learned
that at home. And driving classes. And "home economics" for girls, but I
knew some guys who signed up for it to meet girls. And Geography was a
How people talked… It was much different then. For one thing,
southerners had southern accents (even I had one that Mommy used to make fun
of), New Yorkers had NYC accents with Brooklyn and Bronx variations, and
also Jewish, Irish, Italian, etc; people in New Orleans had a distinct
accent; people around Chesapeake Bay had Tidewater accents, people in Boston,
etc etc... and now everybody talks the same way. You see people on the
news in Mississipi after some flood or tornado and they have the same
corporate way of talking that you hear on all the commercials. Ditto
everyplace else. Black speech is still pretty distinctive, but a lot of
Black people don't use it any more.
Hitchhiking… Unheard of today but it was the main way I travelled in
the late fifties through the late sixties. In JHS Ludwig and I used to
hitchhike to McLean to buy records. I hitchhiked back and forth between
Charlottesville and Arlington (111 miles) so my Mom could do my laundry (I'm
not proud of it), sometimes I'd be picked up by a pervert and would spend
the ride fending them off, other times by farmers in old beat-up pickup
trucks. I remember one guy who was so damaged from being out in the sun all
his life, his head and neck and ears looked like they'd been roasted, his
ears were just crispy little sharp-edged slivers. I hitchhiked all over
Germany while in the Army before I had a car. Even after the Army I
remember hitchiking, for example Wendy and I hitchhiked to see Jude in
Boston where she was going to summer school.
Have I ever been shot? Once with a BB gun; some big kids were shooting at
me when I was 8 or 9 and a BB lodged in my arm. I dug it out with my pocket
knife. Another time (described in here somewhere else) a shotgun shell that
exploded in a fire hit me in the butt; my grandmother dug out the pellets
(see story). Another time I wasn't
actually shot but almost… In the Army at the Grafenwöhr tank range I
was on garbage duty in a deuce-and-a-half (big Army truck) picking up
garbage and taking it to a huge burn pit. We were backed up to the edge of
the burn pit along with 9 other big trucks, shoveling out the garbage, when
a large amount .50-cal ammunition started going off… belts of M2
machine-gun ammunition, big heavy bullets flying in every direction. All 10
trucks took off like race cars!
How about stabbed? Well, once I stabbed myself… Uncle Pete gave me a
big double-edged dagger from Iraq curved like a scimitar, about 18 inches
long with an obsidian handle and Arabic writing engraved on the blade. He
said it had been a murder weapon. One day when I was about ten I was sitting
on the kitchen counter, throwing it up in the air and trying to catch it and
I missed and it went right into my thigh; you can still see some of the
scar. I played with knives a lot as a kid, throwing them at trees, throwing
them up and catching them by the handle, and whittling. And playing
mumbledypeg with my friends.
Did I ever fly an airplane? Yes! One time Howard Eskin took me up in the
plane he flew (a small single-engine Cessna I think) and turned the controls
over to me and I flew all over upstate NY for about an hour. Another time
Peter and I went up with him and Peter flew the plane.
Most recent update:
3 July 2022