Tuesday, June 29, 2004

One Nation, Dr. Pepper


Today I heard someone say that there was a special edition Pepsi can which had the Pledge of Allegiance printed on it -- without the words "under God." I was pretty impressed with the thought that a corporate behemoth like Pepsi would be so bold. That's amazing, I said to myself, maybe things really are turning around! Two years ago, you could hardly even point out the drool on Bush's lip, and now, not only does Michael Moore have the number one movie -- but Pepsi has made the grand gesture! The deletion of "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance is something our government doesn't have the strength to carry out -- and now here's Pepsi with the vision?

I did a little reading, and learned that what I'd heard was a little off. At pepsiworld.com, under the heading "FALSE RUMOR ALERT," the public is informed that "Pepsi has not created any packaging containing an edited version of America's Pledge of Allegiance."

What? What is Pepsi talking about? Surely they are aware that the Pledge of Allegiance American schoolchildren recite is an edited version of the Pledge, which did not contain the phrase "under God" until 1954. They were added by Congress, and they certainly did reflect the bigoted, fanatical, fascist qualities of the McCarthy era. Apparently Pepsi doesn't know its history very well.

Their explanation continues: "A patriotic package used in 2001 by Dr. Pepper (which is not a part of PepsiCo) was inappropriately linked to this rumor. Dr. Pepper's position is very clearly articulated at: http://www.dpsu.com/drpepper_can.html."

This was becoming a wild goose chase. Did you know that if you're on Pepsi's website, and you click on an outside link, you're taken to a big red headline that says "STOP! YOU ARE LEAVING PEPSI WORLD!" and a lengthy disclaimer about how PepsiCo is not responsible for any scandalous thing you hear out there, far from the safe borders of Pepsi World? Knowing I was about to encounter non-Pepsi-approved content, I became a little uneasy.

At the Dr. Pepper page, I learned the truth. Apparently, in the aftermath of 9/11, Dr. Pepper did switch to a "patriotic" can, which was discontinued in February of 2002. This star-spangled can featured a picture of the Statue of Liberty -- that beautiful French statue which symbolizes the fact that all people are welcome in this country. Above the statue, it says "ONE NATION...INDIVISIBLE." (See the can here.)

So it wasn't really what I thought it was going to be. Much to their credit, though, the people at Dr. Pepper offer a graceful disclaimer, without any obnoxious groveling about how they didn't mean to offend religious extremists. The fact that the disclaimer, or the rumor I heard, exist today is because some group of people, some medieval zealots among us, must have actually complained that a Dr. Pepper can which said "ONE NATION...INDIVISIBLE" was an assault on their faith.

Can you imagine if those people were given the product they apparently wanted -- a can of Dr. Pepper which says "ONE NATION, UNDER GOD?" Haw haw haw haw haw! Yet the Urban Legends Reference Pages at snopes.com offer this page, where there actually is a letter from an outraged fundamentalist demanding just that.

A can of soda, politically, is just not that important. There's not much they could print on a can of soda that would get me particularly riled up. My feelings had taken this turn when I realized that the Pledge of Allegiance isn't very important, either. When I was in school, I usually refused to say it, because I just didn't like it. Partly it was the "under God" bit, but the very idea of pledging my allegiance to a flag seemed silly. And a room full of kids doing it in unison, with their hands on their hearts, seemed scary. I grew up to be an adult who, shall we say, believes strongly in the separation of church and state. I share John Lennon's hope for a world of peace, "and no religion too." (Consider: A song with that lyric was number one in the U.S.!) But even I have usually found it hard to get too upset about the content of the Pledge of Allegiance, whatever it may be, because it's such a meaningless issue, compared to some of the others.

And yet, I now think, it has symbolic relevance. In a way, the Pledge of Allegiance issue is to the separation of church and state what stem cell research is to abortion rights. There are obvious differences -- stem cell research could save lives, whereas the Pledge of Allegiance could only annoy people. But given the history of the Pledge, and the weight of those two words, and the ongoing attempt by the far right to obliterate the Constitution of this great secular Democracy, it is kind of important.

According to "The Pledge of Allegiance: A Short History," by Dr. John W. Baer, the Pledge was written in 1892 by one Francis Bellamy, who was both a Baptist minister and a Socialist. He wrote the Pledge as a piece to be recited by schoolchildren in a Columbus Day pageant, and it was subsequently published in a magazine. And it went like this: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Dr. Baer asserts that Bellamy objected to the replacement of "my Flag" with "the Flag of the United States of America," when the recitation of the Pledge became an official part of the American public school experience. Of course he did! I like this Bellamy, this Baptist Socialist, and I like his Pledge. I have decided that I am a Francis Bellamy purist, as far as the Pledge of Allegiance is concerned. It is a truly democratic composition, really, because in it the reciter pledges allegiance to "my Flag," his or her flag, whatever flag it might be. I can get into that.

I wouldn't even mind reading it on a soda can.

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Monday, June 28, 2004

At My Own Front Door


The entrance to my building has a door, then the vestibule with the mailboxes, then another door, then the front hallway. Nothing unusual about that. But both doors lock, and the buzzers are in the vestibule, so unless someone has taped the door (prevented it from locking through the cunning use of tape), guests and deliveries are unable to buzz the apartment. For the most part, the first lock was always taped. It made sense. Then the buzzers were accessible from the street, as they should be, and there was still a locked door before you got into the building.

But then, a little over a month ago, the second lock broke. The super put a note on the first door, facing in, which said "DO NOT TAPE THIS DOOR...especially at night," and explained why. That was more than a month ago, and the lock still hasn't been fixed. It's a drag not being able to buzz people in. Ordering food is such a big deal now. Are these the lives we work so hard for? No buzzer? What if you're expecting a package, sometime between noon and four? Do you have to wait downstairs for four hours? It's madness. And if you do tape the door, you have to start thinking about how you've made everyone in the building vulnerable, and the guilt becomes overwhelming, and you wind up just telling people not to come over.

Today, when I left to go do my tour, I saw that a second note, also in the scrawl of the super, had been added. This one was larger, with more emphatic, underlined capitals. The headline said "RAPE OR MURDER WILL BE NEXT." (I swear, this is what it says.) Then, it reiterated the order that the door must not be taped, and then it said that because "ONE OF YOU IDIOTS WHO CAN'T READ" taped the door last night, "SOMEONE GOT INTO THE HALLWAY AND WAS SMOKING DOPE!"

So, as I zigzagged my way through Hell's Kitchen toward the pier, I had a lot to think about. The super has always been very friendly and pleasant, but apparently, when he's really miffed, he likes for all his neighbors to be greeted at their front door in the morning by "RAPE OR MURDER WILL BE NEXT" and "YOU IDIOTS WHO CAN'T READ" -- from a man who in nearly six weeks has not seemed capable of picking up the phone and calling someone to fix the lock! Yes, as I marched off to narrate the daily circle around Manhattan, I was getting good and stirred up and wrathful. I began to mentally compose a new piece, to be added to the front door as soon as possible. I thought it was pretty funny the way the super apparently imagined this escalating series of crimes taking place in the front hallway of the building. Tape the door once, and some guy shows up in the hallway smoking dope! Tape the door twice, maybe bookies show up and start placing illegal bets! Next thing you know, rape or murder! After that, who knows? Osama bin Laden himself could just walk right in.

After the tour, I walked briskly up the West Side Highway, eager to fire the next salvo. When I got home, though, I saw that someone had beaten me to it! Not even placed courteously beside the "RAPE OR MURDER" note, but stuck right on top of it, was a bright yellow Post-It note which said: "So fix the fucking door, idiot!"

Clearly, this could be topped in neither eloquence nor audacity. But as I climbed up the stairs, I found myself returning to the thoughts which had inspired me on the way to work, the real heart of the issue. Community. Decency. Delivery. The beautiful willingness of my neighbors and I to live with the inconvenience all this time, only to be insulted, literally on our own doorstep -- even as the inconvenience lives on. The demand for repair was a sensible trailblazer, but was calling the super an idiot really the best we could do? Perhaps the yellow Post-It, for all its vitriol, was not much better than the "RAPE OR MURDER" note.

Upstairs, tapping away at the computer with tremendous purpose, I composed a firm, yet civil note. A large, underlined headline said "FIX THE LOCK." The note went on to point out that "we are all paying rent, and we are entitled to be able to buzz in guests and deliveries." It went on to say that the tenants of this building have been more than patient, and that certainly none of them want to endanger their neighbors. "The problem is not that someone taped the door," I wrote. "The problem is that the lock has not been fixed. Actually, there is another problem, which is that the tenants of this building have been called idiots in a note on their front door. Fix the lock and we'll let that one go."

With the prowess of a secret agent, I made sure the coast was clear before I taped up my contribution to the front door, which is now quite the gallery of literature. What will happen next is anyone's guess, but as we sail toward an uncertain future, let us await with hope the day when we not only leave little notes on the front door, but actually sign our names.

That's the story. I've been wrapped up in honing the new tour and adding to my mental encyclopedia of New York City arcana, but I'll write more regularly. Things have been fine, summer is starting, and Fahrenheit 9/11 is the number one documentary of all time.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2004

How Wednesday Went

Sometimes the only way to get through the day is to convince yourself that the universe is on the verge of a revolution, wherein everyone who imprisons us will instantly realize how ridiculous they are. Why did I carry on for quite that long about the Statue of Liberty? Surely the fact that she is French was clear long before I finished pointing it out. I leaned on a groundless historical inference -- that Rutherford B. Hayes was the major force behind rejecting the Statue when it was first presented to the States -- just so I could insert an incomprehensible digression about Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidency because of a single electoral vote, etc. You can imagine. And I did it all for the benefit of one obese tourist who was wearing a "Savage Nation" baseball cap.

Well, maybe not entirely. But still. Why does the sight of thirty sunburned, slackjawed faces inspire perversity? Why not just get through it? Considering how well it generally goes, the occasional downer should be gracefully accepted.

Why do I have such a hard time finding the line between momentary outrage and lifelong struggle? I promise, on a peaceful afternoon, I really do see the difference between my high school algebra teacher and Adolph Hitler. But in a storm of vitriol, under a boulder of indignities, attacked by hysterical monsters, well, perhaps you get the point.

So...sometimes the best way of getting through the day is to tune in to a sense of impending revolution. I walked home from 38th Street and the Hudson River, and began to savor premonitions of algebra teachers -- in "Savage Nation" baseball caps -- apologizing to the whole world for eating so many innocent people's souls.

Three down. Two to go.

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Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Reagan's Dead

It Would Be Tasteful to Hold Your
Applause For At Least a Week

In 1991, the brilliant and audacious musical Assassins, by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, opened Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. The New York theatre world quickly fell in love with it. What songwriter but Sondheim would dare to musicalize the motives of presidential assassins? What venue but Playwrights Horizons would nurture such a work in the midst of the Gulf War?

Due to that conflict, the original incarnation of Assassins was not a hit. Despite the lavish praise of the insular community, some critics suggested that it was somehow in poor taste. Andre Bishop, the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, later remembered Bush I coming to New York to give a speech, and seeing the presidential motorcade crawl down 42nd Street, right past the marquee that said "ASSASSINS."

So Assassins closed after its limited run, and was the first major musical by Stephen Sondheim not to go on to Broadway. Partly on the merits of the absolutely perfect Original Cast Recording, the show became a favorite of colleges, and it also received the occasional noteworthy regional production. It played well in London.

In 2001, the Roundabout Theatre Company assembled a formidable company to bring Assassins, at last, to Broadway -- and then, just as the production was poised to open, 9/11 happened, and it was decided that the timing was wrong, yet again.

And that is part of what makes the triumphant new production, on Broadway at Studio 54, so thrilling. Amanda and I caught it in previews a couple of months ago. Besides the general brilliance of the cast, the ingenuity of the production, and the astounding music and lyrics, I was struck by the political implications -- a show dealing with presidential assassination, which failed during the Gulf War, and which was retracted in the aftermath of 9/11, was perfectly acceptable during the reign of Bush II and his Iraq War.

As it turns out, that was just the beginning. Not only can Assassins run on Broadway in 2004 -- it can win the Tony Award for Best revival of a Musical. And not only can it win the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical -- it can do this right after the death of Ronald Reagan.

Beautiful! We'd all just gotten word that Reagan was dead, and all of a sudden, there was a row of assassins on prime time CBS TV (including John Hinkley!) singing Sondheim's haunting call to action.

Maybe there is hope. Maybe art can flourish, even under the fascist regime which is the legacy of Ronald Reagan.

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