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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Kayaking The Thimble Islands: The Diamond Necklace of the Connecticut Coast


This week my friend Alan and I kayaked from Island Bay to the Thimble Islands in Stony Creek, Branford, Connecticut.  It was my turn to drive so I loaded my 14-foot Merlin sea kayak onto the roof rack and picked up Alan and his 18-foot sea kayak and headed down Route 17 from Middletown through Durham.  At the Route 77 interchange we turned left for the long drive through rural Durham past rolling meadows and old-time cow farms and newer single-family housing developments which have been displacing the old family farms over the past few generations.  The road took us to North Branford past the long narrow lake on the left and finally to Route 95 South which appears out of nowhere as a hulking concrete behemoth.   A few exits later we left the concrete jungle of the expressway and turned onto the access road to Stony Creek, Leetes Island Road.  We followed the twisting road past 18th century houses and marshlands.  At Shell Beach Road we turned right and reached our put-in at Shell Cove on Island Bay.

The cove is accurately named for all the remains of clam shells which are sprinkled like rock salt on the sandy shore of Long Island Sound.  A sign on a metal post advised clammers that it was safe to dig for clams at that spot on that one day.  Later in the afternoon, at the end of our trip, a man who has clammed in the area for over 30 years explained that the state environmental official who lives on the beach nearby checks the water quality each day.  If the bacterial level is too high he unlocks the lock which holds the "Safe for Clamming" sign in place, flips it over, and alerts the clammers to dig for their hors d'oeuvres at one of the other areas monitored by the state.

The little beach at the cove is covered with a mix of small rocks and clam shells.  They lie on top of and are embedded in the rich dark sandy mud at the water's edge.  We loaded our hatches with our dry bags.  In mine was the car key at the bottom, a bathing suit and towel, and a light paddling top.  I also carried an extra bottle of water in case I ran through what I carried in the water-filled Gatorade bottle which was held in place in the black elastic rope rigging in front me on the deck of the boat.  It was high tide when we pushed off from shore and the light wind was blowing from the southeast.  Since our Thimble Island destination was several miles to the southwest, the wind would be at our backs and I figured I didn't need the paddling top for the trip out to the islands.  A lightweight quick-dry tee shirt, sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen on the exposed skin was all that was needed on this mostly-sunny day.

On the way southwest out of Shell Cove into Island Bay we passed a grandfather and grandson on the west shore operating a small red radio-controlled sailboat.  They waved to us and I waved back to acknowledge them.  We took care to stay out of the way of the little toy sailboat.

Clark Point marks the western end of Island Bay.  As we continued southwest past Clark Point, we passed Harrison Point.  The area between Clark Point and Harrison Point is a lovely little bay inlet called Little Harbor.  Continuing southwest we approached what is called Narrows Island.  Narrows Island is actually a peninsula attached by a small spit of land to the larger Leetes Island.  Like Narrows Island, Leetes Island is really a peninsula, at the southern tip of Hoadley Neck, which is part of the mainland.  Both Leetes and Narrow Islands are populated with large summer homes.

As we continued paddling southwest, the southeast wind was now blowing against the tide, which was beginning to ebb and move the Sound's waters to the east.  As we paddled past shallower waters, the action of the wind against the tidal current created some large standing waves which required us to pay careful attention to our balance to avoid our kayaks tipping over.  Alan and I are seasoned Eskimo rollers, especially in our smaller surf kayaks, but the water was about 64 degrees and we were not particularly interested in getting wet and having our upper bodies chilled by the wind as we continued paddling.  Being early in the season, neither of us has spent time practicing our Eskimo rolls, so we carefully braced our boats with our paddles as we paddled through the shallow, wave-filled areas.

The Thimble Islands are a collection of several hundred islands, large rocks, and sandbars.  The smaller ones are only seen at low tide.  Less than two dozen have houses on them.  The islands are pink granite outcroppings left over from the Ice Age.  The Thimbles look a lot like the pink granite islands off the cost of Maine.  The nice thing for lower New Englanders like us is the close proximity of The Thimbles to anywhere in Connecticut.  It would take hours to reach the coast of Maine, but the Thimbles are just 45 minutes away from Middletown.

As we approached the Thimble chain, we took refuge in the lee of Helen Island, to get some relief from the southeast wind which was gaining velocity as the day progressed.  After a short rest to get a drink of water, we paddled southwest between Money Island and the much smaller East Stopping Bush Island.  Money Island is the most populated of all the Thimbles, with several dozen houses largely concealed among pine trees and oak trees.  We were paddling during the week and it was still early in the season, so most of the homes seemed to be empty of their owners.

Our ultimate goal was the last island in the Thimble chain, Outer Island, about 4 miles from where we started.  On our way to Outer Island, we passed between Horse Island and a tiny island which has a one-room house on stilts on it.  The little island with the stilted house is so low that storm-tossed seas occasionally cover the rocky prominence completely.  Without the stilts, the tiny house would be completely flooded with sea water during those bad weather conditions.  Horse Island is shaped like a horseshoe.  On the south side of the island there is a little cove where I've gone ashore up to the mean high water mark to eat lunch or take a swim.  Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History owns Horse Island and maintains an old victorian home well-hidden by tall trees.  The university uses the island for ecological research.  Alan and I decided to paddle on to Outer Island.

Outer Island and Horse Island are a few hundred feet apart.  In the channel between them, the ebbing tidal current was gaining strength by the time we reached this point.  The wind swell and tidal rip currents were pushing our kayaks towards the northeast so we had to paddle a bit harder to gain entrance into the calm water of the harbor between the rock jetties of Outer Island.  We landed our kayaks, got out, and were greeted by two young women who live as caretakers on the island.  The women offered to give us a tour, which was a kind offer, but Alan and I were quite familiar with the island from prior trips, so we declined.

Outer Island is smaller than its neighbor, Horse Island.  Outer was once owned by Yale Professor Hird and his wife.  They lived in the wood framed house nestled back in the thick grove of trees on the south side of the island.  After the death of her husband, Mrs. Hird gave the island in the 1990's to the National Fish and Wildlife Service for preservation, upkeep, and public access.  Pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Hird, and the story of their ownership of the island are preserved in a permanent color plaque next to the little harbor and sandy beach where we landed.  Alan told me he had been part of the Connyak (Connecticut Sea Kayak Club) group which participated in the ceremony surrounding Mrs. Hird's giving the island to the federal government.  Connyak now helps to maintain the island and one of its members, Bill Anthony, built a wooden outdoor roof structure next to the little barn between the beach and the house.  The handsome addition of the roof structure has a picnic table underneath and is the scene of talks and presentations about the history and ecology of the Thimble Islands and Long Island Sound.

After leaving Outer Island, we paddled around the west side of Outer Island, then between Pot Island and High Island, both of which have houses on them, finally heading to Governors Island.  Governors Island is L-shaped and has many houses, one of which is a large home nestled back in the trees which is owned by the cartoonist Gary Trudeau and the TV journalist Jane Pauley.  We then paddled east past Flying Point, at the south end of Thimble Island Road, which runs through the borough of Stony Creek and contains the mainland which looks out to the southwest over the entire Thimble Island chain.

Before paddling back into Island Bay and our original starting point, we paddled another 2 1/2 miles from Flying Point over to Sachems Head Point in Guilford.  This was good practice for the 2-mile open water crossings I like to do between Nappatree Point, Rhode Island and the east end of Fishers Island, New York.  The southeast wind was picking up and we were now heading directly into the wind, so we stopped at a rock outcropping so Alan could use the "natural facilities" and I could put on a light paddling top to stay warm.  After exploring the western part of Sachem Head Point, its harbor, and yacht club, we paddled another mile-and-a-half back to where we began the day at Shell Cove, passing Joshua Cove, between Island Bay and Sachem Head, along the way.

The Thimble Islands are the diamond necklace of the Connecticut coast.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Sea Kayaking around Great Island at the mouth of the Connecticut River between Old Lyme and Old Saybrook, Connecticut


I went kayaking around Great Island yesterday afternoon in the estuary of the Connecticut River with my outdoor adventure friend, Alan S. We kayak together, mostly surf-kayaking in big water in Rhode Island during hurricane season, cross-country ski as a team, and road bike on occasion.

But yesterday Alan had the day off from his therapy practice and called me on a whim. “Hey Bob, we haven’t sea-kayaked together for a long time. It’s time to get the paddling muscles in shape for hurricane surfing season. Wanna take a paddle around Great Island?” I had planned to meet a friend for coffee but was able to postpone that, so Alan picked me up and we loaded my 14 1/2 –foot Merlin sea kayak onto the roof rack on Alan’s car. In a little over a half-hour we were at the put-in in Old Lyme, just off Route 156.

The weather was sunny with a lot of southerly breeze. We unloaded the boats. We both wore bathing suits and long-sleeved spray tops. We did not need our dry tops, which keep all water off the upper body, because we did not plan to need to roll our boats in such calm water. When Alan and I go surfing in our Riot Boogie surf kayaks, which are only 7 ½ feet long and shaped like short surf boards, we almost always wear dry tops because we always roll while surfing. That’s because when surfing, either on boards or in kayaks, every surfer gets wiped out on more than one wave. If you cannot roll up in a surf kayak, it takes a lot of time, effort, and energy to swim back into shore, empty out the boat, get back in, paddle carefully over the rocks in the shallows to avoid damaging the fins on the bottom of the kayak, and paddle back out to the break. In very large waves, like the 12-footers we surfed during Hurricane Bill a few years ago, not being able to have a “combat” roll could put your life in jeopardy. When you surf waves that big and powerful, you can understand why combat is the adjective which applies to the ability to right your surf kayak after being wiped out by one of those monsters. It’s hard to imagine how exponentially more powerful a 75-foot wave would be to surf. The movie “Riding Giants” shows what that experience is all about.

But yesterday giant waves were only a passing thought. Great Island is a magnificent benign-looking wilderness, just one-half hour south of Middletown.  Benign-looking because so green, so wind-swept by gentle summer breeze, so filled with birds flying overhead and diving for food, so quiet.  But wilderness because covered with thick jungle of tall green reeds and grasses, composed of thick dark brown mud, teeming plants and animals and birds and insects all clawing for food and space and life.

Alan and I got into our boats, covered the open cowlings with our neoprene spary skirts to keep water out of the cockpit, and pushed off to the south towards Long Island Sound.  It was mostly gentle water, with some southerly wind swell in the shoals south of the big island, but lots of fun. The shoals are shallow areas, especially at low tide, which it was when we put in yesterday.  In the shallow water the southerly wind whips up the water into small waves which you're actually able to surf with a long boat like our sea kayaks.  I mentioned to Alan what he apparently did not know, that because there are these shallow waters at the mouth, or estuary of the Connecticut River, which shift in location as the tide and current moves the bottom sands around over time, there is no port there.  The Connecticut is one of the few major rivers without a sea port at its mouth, because of these shoals.  Thank God for this or we'd have cruise ships and naval vessels cluttering up our beautiful river as they do in the port of New London, Connecticut, at the mouth of the Thames River and in Bridgeport at the estuary of the Housatonic River.

As we paddled our way north around the west side of Great Island, our progress was rapid because of the waves we surfed northward and the strong wind at our backs.  As we approached the north end of the island, Alan noticed a flock of very large birds in the trees which live there where the island must have more soil.  He thought they looked like red-tailed hawks.  There were also many osprey flying overhead and diving for fish.  Alan didn't know that Roger Tory Peterson, the great bird artist of the Peterson Bird Guides, once lived in Old Lyme, on the banks of the Connecticut River.  Peterson went on a campaign in the 1960's to get Congress to ban the use of DDT to control mosquitoe populations.  DDT was getting into the water system and osprey ingested it.  The chemical thinned the shells of the osprey eggs.  As a result, the osprey were dying out.  Within a few years of the DDT ban taking effect, the osprey population returned.  Now there are osprey nesting stands all over the coastline along Long Island Sound.  Many of these tall structures with osprey nests atop them can be seen throughout Great Island.

I wished I'd had a camera with me when we saw Momma and Papa geese with their 5 baby goslings on the northwestern corner of the island.  They were all standing right on the shoreline, in a 20-foot section where the reeds were absent.  We did not want to get near enough to them to disturb them.  At this point we wished we'd brought some binoculars to see Mr. and Mrs. Goose and the babies close-up.

The southerly wind made it a much harder paddle on the return trip around the east side of the island. We took a detour into a marsh channel with 10-foot high green reeds with brown lower stalks. On the banks of the labyrinthine channel were thousands of tiny sand crabs which fluttered into their little holes in the mud as they sensed our presence as we paddled by.  The channel snaked through the high reeds and thoughts of Moses in the basket as a baby from the book of Genesis came to mind.  I mentioned this to Alan and he smiled in recognition of the ancient biblical myth.  At one point Alan spotted a small racoon staring at us from inside the thick jungle of reeds.  I was surprised that a racoon would make its home on a watery island but there it was with the distinctive white circles round its eyes.

It was hard to turn the kayaks around when we finally decided it was time to go home because the channel was so narrow at that point.  Once back on the river we continued to make steady progress against the wind and now-incoming tidal current.  Having flexed our paddling muscles for the past two hours we had increased our speed.  As we got closer to the launch there were more and more homes on the banks of the river.  Most of these, with some exceptions, are well-suited to the terrain.  There are fewer McMansions which stick out unpleasantly in this area of the lower Connecticut.  On the west side, up in Essex, there are a few areas of extremely large homes, built within the past 10 or 20 years, which scream out "Nouveau riche."  The Old Lyme river homes are older money, more tastefully designed, for the most part, to fit in to the natural landscape in a more graceful way.

We've now entered hurricane season on the east coast.  While I loved yesterday's paddle on relatively flat and calm water, I am more viscerally drawn to the siren song of big-time surfing in Rhode Island.  But this was an opportunity to get back in a kayak after the long winter paddling hiatus.  More Big Water adventures await the coming months.  I'm psyched.  Time to begin practicing and refining the combat roll for surfing.

Friday, June 1, 2012

More on the White Slave Trader, Captain Stephen Clay, whose Home was Near My Black Baptist Church


A few weeks ago I reported on the white slave trader, Captain Stephen Clay, who had a home in the 18th century in Middletown, Connecticut.  Here's the link to that blog post story:

http://wwwbobs-blog.blogspot.com/2012/04/white-slave-trader-once-lived-and.html

My reporting was based on a conversation I had with a reporter I knew who has been researching the history of slavery in Middletown, Eric Hesselberg.  Eric told me there was a portrait of Captain Clay and a photograph of his house at the local historical society, so I went there to see it two weeks ago.  That visit uncovered new evidence which led to a second trip last week.  Here's what I found.

I photographed the oil painting portrait of Captain Clay.  Debbie Shapiro, the director of the historical society, took me to the second floor and pulled a blanket off the old portrait, which was sitting on the wooden floorboards with a bunch of other paintings.  Here's what Captain Clay looked like, in his full military regalia.  He's an ordinary-looking man, benign enough in appearance, probably like many slaveowners.  One sees no evidence on his face of any internal conflict or angst about owning black human beings as his personal property.  There is a sailing ship in the background which probably reflects his status as a merchant who traded in the West Indies, probably goods and raw materials of various kinds as well as slaves.  (I do know from other research I've done at the Godfrey Geneological Library in Middletown that Captain Clay was a wealthy benefactor and active member of the local Church of the Holy Trinity, an Episcopal church.)  His home was only one block west of the Connecticut River, so it's possible the portrait was painted while Captain Clay was sitting for it in his home very near my present black baptist church.


Debbie Shapiro then showed me an old map of Middletown from 1874.  It was by a surveyor named Mr. Beers.  The volume can be found at Russell Library also, in the Middletown Historical Documents room.  The call number is 912 BEE.  Here is a small section of the map on page 36 in that volume, depicting the section of Middletown east of Main Street, south of Union Street, amd west of Sumner Street where Captain Clay had his home and where my black baptist church is now located.  Sumner Street no longer exists.  It was located about 25 feet east of, and parallel to, the present driveway of the YMCA which enables cars to turn south from Union Street into the parking lot for both the YMCA and Zion First Black Baptist Church.  Here is that section of the 1874 Beers survey map. [Note: To enlarge any of the photographs to see the details more clearly, just click on them.]



Later in the day I went to Russell Library to search the historical documents about Middletown there.  I found two pertinent bird's eye view artists' rendering of Middletown from 1877 and 1915.  The 1877 view is by D.H. Bailey and depicts the same area as the 1874 Beers survey map but with a 3-dimensional rendering of the buildings, including the Captain Clay house.  Here is that section of the 1877 D.H. Bailey aerial view.



None of what I found out to this point was a surprise.  Then I asked Debbie to help me locate the photo of Captain Clay's home.  She knew which box it was in in her archives because Eric Hesselberg had spent several days researching the same history.  Here is the photograph.



This is a standard 18th-Century center-chimney Colonial, of which there are many extant examples in Middletown.  What shocked me was the handwritten description on the back of the photograh.  Here it is.


It says " 'The Stephen Clay House' Southwest corner of Union and Sumner Sts Middletown,  Middlesex Co. Conn."   This was shocking because Eric had told me Captain Clay's home stood on the site of what is now Zion First Black Baptist Church, but the church is several hundred feet to the southwest of where Captain Clay's home once stood.

On my second trip to the historical society, while looking through 10 boxes of old redevelopment house and property appraisals and redevelopment studies, I found an aerial survey photograph from August 15, 1968 which was flown for H. Ballard Co. for a report Ballard did for the city's redevelopment project planning.  The report is entitled "Land Utilization and Marketability Study: Urban Renewal Project #2, Middletown, CT."  Here is a small section of the aerial survey mostly showing the area southwest of the intersection of Union and Sumner Streets.

Note the following items.  The photograph looks approximately north.  The original YMCA building and parking lot is in the upper left corner of the photo, on Union Street, which runs from the top left of the photo at a downward angle towards the upper third of the right side of the photo. Below the YMCA and slightly to the right is Zion First Black Baptist Church (see the cross on the south side of the church building) as it was configured in 1968.  Sumner Street is on the right side of the photograph and runs south from Union Street towards the bottom third of the photograph.  The southwest corner of Union and Sumner Streets has a building on it, the roof line of which is parallel to Union Street.  

From the photograph with the description of the Clay house on the back, the 1874 map, the 1877 aerial drawing, and the 1968 aerial photograph, we know that the Clay house stood several hundred feet northeast of the site of the present Zion First Black Baptist Church.  That was what shocked me.

A few days after making this discovery I ran into Eric Hesselberg again at The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown.  I asked him about the discrepancy.  He said what he meant was that the church is located on land which probably was part of Captain Clay's estate.  The Clay estate, he said, included the house itself and several acres of property to the south and west of his home. He agreed that the house itself was not located precisely in the same spot as where the church eventually was built.

It was also obvious from comparing the photograph of the Clay home, the 1874 survey map, and the 1877 Beers aerial map with the 1968 aerial survey that the shape and configuration of the Clay home had changed significantly between 1877 and 1968.

This change was also reflected in another aerial drawing I found at Russell Library, the 1915 Aero view of Middletown by Hughes & Bailey.  Here's a blown-up excerpt of that drawing showing the area in question.


The original undated photograph of the house, the 1874 map, and the 1877 aerial drawing show the Clay house to be a two-story center-chimney colonial with a third-floor attic, a porch on the Sumner Street side, and a small out-building to the south of the porch.  The later 1915 aerial drawing shows the house with the porch and out-building removed.  That drawing also shows the home to have three floors and a fourth-floor attic.  The 1968 aerial photograph also shows what appears to be a four-story Clay house without the porch or out-building.  The 1915 aerial drawing also shows what appears to be another, smaller house or house-like addition to the south side of the Clay home.  It's hard to tell from the 1968 aerial photograph what, if anything, was on the south side of the Clay house in that year.

I was unable to find any records about the addition of a fourth story to the Clay home at the historical society.  Eric Hesselberg told me his research disclosed that the house at some point was jacked up and an fourth story added to the bottom of the building.  He also said a black social club was run out of the newly-added bottom floor of the home. I have no independent source of information to confirm Eric's claim about this and he has not responded to my email inquiry requesting his source.

I have done additional research at the Godfrey Geneological Library in Middletown about Captain Stephen Clay which I will share in a later blog post.  Captain Clay was very active in the Church of the Holy Trinity and most generous in his financial support of the church.







Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Call me Odysseus." A Landlubber's Dream of Sea Adventure Remains Just That: A Dream


"Call me Odysseus. In my seventh decade I put out to sea in a 38-foot sloop.”  

So began a story which won't happen and won't be written.  Not on sea anyway.  Last Saturday I thought I was putting out to sea but the dream turned to reality within 24 hours.  Here's what happened.

My friend Philip is a sailor.  He knows another sailor by the name of Pat Shannock who upgraded to a 38-foot sail boat from a 25-footer.  Pat wants to sail the inland waterway down to Myrtle Beach for the summer and then head down to the Caribbean.  He says he has a lot of sailing experience.  He's even crewed on Olympic races.  All that may be true but when I met Pat he was a bit thin and scrawny to sit in the Mount Olympus of my imagination.  That didn't matter a whit to me, though, as long as we could get out of town before I had to find a new place to live.  You see I live in the old house, in a sleeping bag, with my son's black cat, Russell, the sweetest cat that ever lived, and a new family will be moving in real soon so Russell and I need a new place to call home.

"Cherie Amour: Newtown, Connecticut" it says on the back of Pat Shannock's boat.  It's in drydock in Portland, Connecticut, but that's a minor detail.  The problem was the major details.  And Pat Shannock turned out to be a bit shaky on the Big Picture.

That first meeting last Saturday morning got my hopes up.   Pat seemed a bit thin and emaciated but he told a good sea story, at least initially.  I noticed when he smiled his teeth had a bit of a yellow cast, as if he didn't brush enough.  His arms were long and lean.  Actually, lean makes them seem more fit than they are.  Lacking in musculature is a more apt description.  I did notice a lot of medicine bottles on the table in the mess.  When I use that term I'm not just identifying the kitchen below deck where we had our discussion that morning.  I'm also describing the look of the place.  I said I'm used to living in clutter, although the truth is that Russell and I keep the old house pretty neat.  We've had to.  It's easier and faster to get ready for showing prospective buyers that way.  Cherie Amour was more cluttered than Russell and I have become used to, but I figured we'd get used to it.  After all, this old boat needed work, and a lot of straightening up, but it sure looked like an exciting way for Russell and me to get out of town soon.  And I needed to escape because I was pissing off a lot of people on Facebook.  Some of them were even threatening to beat me up or kill me even, if I continued going to the kids' dance clubs.  That was another similarity between Odysseus and me.  He was always pissing people off and getting himself chased off the islands he had his adventures on.  In his case it was cretins like one-eyed Cyclops.  In mine, a bunch of age-bigoted, verbal-weakling kids who dislike an old man who dances like an uninhibited maniac in their dance clubs where their main interest is seeming cool and popular and looking good.

I liked what Pat Shannock was telling me.  "I need to get the boat down to Myrtle Beach before hurricane season begins, which is June first."  I knew from my years of riding the big surf at Matunuck and Point Judith that the typhoons twist up the eastern seaboard starting the beginning of June and going through the middle of October.  So when Pat said we'd have to spend a few weeks getting the boat ready, I figured we'd be able to hit the road, the sea, really, well before Russell and I had to vacate the old house.  "But I've got another problem," I said, "my son's cat.  I'll need to find a home for him while I'm at sea."  No problem, Russell can go with us, Pat assured me.  We'd just put his cat pan underneath the table.  I liked Pat's willingness to accomodate my needs but wondered how Russell would deal with being cooped-up on a sailboat when he's used to having free room of a four-bedroom house with a back porch overlooking trees, and lawns, and, most delectably, birds he can stalk by sitting near the windows and making squeaking noises at all the wildlife on the other side of the glass.  I was also concerned that Jamie's cat might fall overboard on Cherie Amour.  I mean Russell's agile but he's used to level floors.  He's never been on the deck of a ship at sea.  All that rising and falling would scare him to death.  And the fiberglass surface of the deck would give his claws no purchase.  Nothing to keep Russell from slipping off, into the sea.  That thought bothered me a lot.

I also liked the money part of this venture.  At first I got the impression this was going to cost me a lot more than living on land in an apartment.  My share would be two to three hundred a week.  That worked out in my mind to eight to twelve hundred a month which was a lot more than I knew I could get a small place to live on land in Middletown.  The problem was this: Pat was just not clear in the way he expressed himself, in a lot of things.  When I told him that was a lot more money than I wanted to spend he said that was only while we were underway.  Once we're in port, living off the boat, it's just the docking fees which would only be a few hundred dollars a month.  While we're sailing on the high seas we have to pay a docking fee each night and that gets expensive.  The alternative is to moor the boat offshore every night and pay nothing.  In that case we'd have to take a tender boat to shore.  From there you either bicycle into town, hitch a ride, or pay for a cab.   Pat said he planned to do a budget so I could see how much it was going to cost me, but my share would be about a third and he'd pay the rest.  Since the trip to Myrtle Beach would take us two to three weeks and then we'd be in port for through hurricane season, that would cost me two-fifty or so to three hundred a week underway but then very little after that.  That all sounded reasonable to me.  Maybe a bit too good to be true.  I'd reserve final judgment until I saw the written budget.  Trust but verify.

We spend the better part of an hour-and-a-half below deck talking, sharing life experiences.  Pat liked the idea I'm older, wiser, more seasoned.  He told me he's 52.  Married once, to a woman eight years older.  Divorced her after nine months.  She turned out to be the bitch from hell.  I've heard that from lots of men but then you meet the woman and of course there's an entirely other story to the marriage.  But maybe Pat was the exception who proved the rule.  I didn't care what the truth was.  He talked a good game.  So did I, of course.  I am a good talker after all.  Anybody knows me knows that's the case.

I told Pat all about myself.  The marriage, The Law, the misadventures and the adventures.  I had no problem living in tight quarters but my wife was concerned I'd get seasick.  Pat said that's not a problem on a sailboat.  You know you'll be in port every evening so you just throw up over the side.  Keep your eyes on the horizon as much as possible.  I never got seasick when I paddled my seakayak all over Long Island Sound and over in Rhode Island on flat water and rough wavy seas.  In my Riot Boogie surf kayak I've surfed 12-12 waves at Matunuck and Point Judith (12-feet-high and 12-second period hurricane swell) and never had a problem.  Of course that was when I could always see the horizon.  I've never spent time below deck in a stormy sea.  But I wasn't scared off by that thought.  I knew I'd adapt to it eventually.

We hit it off so I agreed to come back Sunday afternoon to begin helping him paint the boat and get it ready for our sea voyage adventure.  I did make note of the fact until I came around he was going to have to pay a young man twenty-five an hour to help him paint the boat.  I wondered if I'd be able to get credit for my labor at some lower rate, given my inexperience, since the sweat equity I was going to help Pat accrue would be applied to his boat.  I decided to take that up with him tomorrow, once I saw what it was like to work with him and not just talk.

I left Cherie Amour in a state of high infatuation and excitement.  A sea voyage.  Ocean adventure.  Spending the summer in South Carolina right on the water.  Hanging out at the beach.  Surfing.  Dancing in new dance clubs where people weren't sick of me.  Then sailing to the Carribean for the winter.  Finally, not just filtering my experience of life and my marriage through Homer's "Odyssey" but actually living out the mythology.  I couldn't believe my luck.  But somewhere back in my brain it seemed too good to be true.  I focused the dimly-perceived awareness of looming problems on the issue of Russell.  Would Russell really feel comfortable as a sailor-cat on a sailboat?  I don't remember Odysseus having a cat on board his vessel.  Had his son Telemachus had a cat which followed Odysseus on his adventures in Troy would Odysseus ever have been able to have had all those sea adventures?  On Odysseus's ship were many sailors, a full crew.  Russell hates strangers.  Would Telemachus's cat have liked his father's crew any more than Russell might or might not like Pat Shannock, let alone living on his boat?

Despite my mental reservations, which were outweighed by my enthusiasm, I called Susie, our eldest son, my brother, sister, and brother-in-law, and my friend Brian to tell them of my new plan.  I mentioned it to my minister and his wife the next morning after church.   They were all supportive, although the minister's wife seemed a bit skeptical, and Susie must have shared Sister Stefanie's thought-process because she did have a suggestion.  Susie thought I would be best-off with a permanent place of some kind on land, a home base.  Susie is so practical and, in this case, probably knew better than I did that seasickness or not, enthusiasm or not, this plan was a bit far-fetched.  As she told me the other night, the night before I first laid eyes on the Cherie Amour, when I was feeling a bit vulnerable about the idea of leaving the old house, "Bob, not matter what, I've got your back."  We may not be living together as man and wife but I still consider Susie my best friend and the only person who loves me.  I know I don't show it very well, but I feel the same way about her.  I only want the best for this woman I've been with for the past two-score and four years.  That's a good chunk of our existences in this life.  We've got a lot of history together.

So right after the Mother's Day service at church I went over the bridge again to the marina.  There was Pat finishing sanding off the old paint from Cherie Amour's port side.  It was no longer a good angle to see the old girl.  Pat was complaining to me about the cost of the pain.  "$115 a gallon.  That stuff's not cheap.  And the worst thing is this.  The guy who was going to help me fix the engine says his transmission broke down so he can't get down from Enfield to help me.  And I've also got to repair the entire electrical system."  In broad daylight, Pat looked even more sickly than he had the day before when we sat below deck and took the measure of each other.  Looking at his scrawny arms I wondered how the heck is he going to deal with all the hard physical labor involved in running a sailing vessel in bad weather?  And that was just the beginning of the reality-testing I did that afternoon.

Pat started right out telling me that I had to take the Acetone and wipe off all the blue paint dust residue which remained from him sanding off the paint that morning.  Then I had to put a prime coat on the spots where he'd scraped off the rotting paint so the finished surface, once painted, would be mostly smoothed out.  He seemed tired, as I imagine anybody would be from using an electric sander to take all the paint off the bottom-half of a 38-foot aging sailboat.  How long is it going to take us to paint the boat, I asked.  At least two weeks of solid eight-hour days.  Hmn, I thought, that alone will take us right up to the beginning of hurricane season.  And the engine has to be fixed, the guy who was going to do that can't get himself down from Enfield, and the electrical system is shot.  How are we going to get down to South Carolina by the first or second week of June, I wondered?

And then all the problems poured out of Pat Shannock.  It was as if he was having a major bout of seasickness and all the problems were like the contents of a drunken sailor's stomach in a wobbly sailboat: it all had to be vomited overboard.  I happened to be the ocean water into which all this stomach-stuff needed to be thrown up.   Well, we'll be lucky if we can get underway before late July.  Maybe even next year, he cautioned me.  Look, it's an old boat.  Needs a lot of work.  And it's all pretty expensive.  That's the way it is with sailboats.

I was beginning to loose my enthusiasm about this sailing adventure and, more particularly, the prospect of spending a lot of time with Pat Shannock.  I cross-examined him, gently but directly.  "Yesterday you said you wouldn't want to be caught sailing off the coast of New Jersey in hurricane season.   Now you're saying we may get underway in mid to late July."  Well, he explained, hurricane season doesn't begin until late July, the beginning of August.  "Look, I don't want to be nasty about this but that's not what you said yesterday.  I'm beginning to get the idea this trip may never take place."  His tone of voice and the look on his face were more tired than yesterday, a bit annoyed even.  "Boating is not cheap.  When I moved up from my old 25-foot boat to this 38-footer, I knew there was going to be a lot involved in making it seaworthy."  Why, I wondered, did he not just hang on to the old boat.  "In boating, like life, it's always about Moving Up.  You never move back down."  I told him this did not square at all with my own philosophy of life.  "I'm at a time and place in life where I want to scale back, go minimal, live with less.  Less is actually more, in my experience."  Pat Shannock just looked at me.  He is clearly not a well man.  He'd told me he lives on some small savings plus his disability checks.  That was the first I'd heard explicitly of disability.  "Sorry to be intrusive, but I need to know what you're disabled from if we're going to be on a ship on the high seas together for any extended period of time."  "Well, you saw all the medication down in the cabin."  Yes, I had, but I hadn't taken a look at what was in the plastic orange transparent pill containers, those little cylinders with the white labels you get from CVS or Walgreens.  "It's my heart," he explained.  Oh, boy, I thought to myself, just what Russell and I need, to get on an ocean-going sailboat with a man with a heart problem.  Russell would never approve, I'm afraid, if he could speak English and not just Cat.  I know what a big baby that old tiger really is.  I've lived with Russell for too long to take a chance piloting down the eastern seaboard on a ship with a heart-challenged captain.

Look, I told Pat, my wife and I will be selling our old house very soon.  I need a place for Russell and me to move into.  I have a sneaky suspicion you're just not going to be able to dress up Cherie Amour in time to take her down the coast to Myrtle Beach this season.  Maybe next year.  If you still need a crew and a cat then, let me know, I might be interested.  I didn't want to offend him so I didn't put the emphasis on the might, but with his heart problems, his shallow financial pockets, and his sickly appearance, I'd have to take a long, hard look at the operation before forcing Russell to learn to live on a sailboat.

In the end I thanked Pat for his time, wished him luck, and told him he knew how to reach me if he still needed a crew and a cat when he and Cherie were ready to push off from shore.  I was disappointed with the realization that I'd have to continue my life as a landlubber, experiencing the Odyssey largely in my mind.  James Joyce's "Ulysses" is the story of the Odyssey in one action-packed day in Dublin.  I wonder if Joyce moved his mid-life story from sea back onto land because he too once encountered an Irish sailor just like Pat Shannock?











Wednesday, May 9, 2012

An Amusing Intervention on behalf of an Elderly Man (me!) Sparked by an Anonymous Officious Intermeddler who Fantasizes I Don't Know EXACTLY What I'm Doing and Risking

Yesterday I was visiting my wife at her house when she got a call from Dwight Norwood.  He said he worked for St. Luke's Home Eldercare Services and wondered how I was doing.  Susie handed the phone to me.  I laughed uproariously when he said he'd received an anonymous call from someone concerned about me.  This officious intermeddler felt I was "rubbing enough people the wrong way and I might get hurt by one of them."  Dwight would not identify the caller.

After 10 minutes of discussion, Dwight told me he was surprised I was so articulate.  He fully expected, from the concerned caller, that I would sound old and incoherent.  "You're anything but that.  In fact, you're one of the most articulate people I've ever talked with," he told me.  I said I wanted to meet with him.  Did he have time right now?  "No, but I can see you at my office at 760 Saybrook Road in Middletown at 2 p.m.  Does that work?"  I agreed and hung up.  I told Susie how funny this development was and I knew it would furnish great material for a blog post on my blog.  I LOVE situations like this.

At 2 p.m. I met Dwight.  He's about 5'8" tall, short gray hair, a pink skin color, and appeared to be missing his upper right incisor.  He's 65 years old.  He wears steel gray rectangular-shaped glasses.  He was wearing a pink dress shirt, casual pants, and white sneakers.  I noticed right away that his knuckles are enlarged, as if he cracks them frequently.  I later found out that he became a clinical social worker about 10 years ago because he developed a form of severe arthritis in his fingers which prevented him from continuing his formerly lucrative career as a computer worker who needed to be able to type at his keyboard for 8 hours a day.  Hence the enlarged knuckles I noticed when we shook hands upon my entering his office.

I again asked him who called me and he didn't know.  The caller didn't identify him or herself.  But Dwight again said he was surprise I was as physically-fit and articulate as I am since most of these sorts of calls concern elderly people who are physically frail but don't realize it.

I then spent the next hour telling him about myself.  My legal career.  Family life.  Depression which led me to radically change the entire course of my life.  My psychological history.  My current activities.

Then I invited him to tell me about himself.  He did.  His computer industry career.  Family.  The arthritis of his hands which disabled him from working for two years, at a career in which he made a lot of money, as I did when I was a lawyer, and enabled him to buy a very expensive home for his family, his wife and four children.  His decision to go back to school to become a social worker and therapist.  His involvement with the St. Luke's Home Eldercare Services program, for which he is the executive director.

I showed Dwight the photographs of my dancing in all the dance clubs.  The women and men who pose with me for the photographs which appear mostly on my Facebook page.  Dwight was impressed with my mention of Ludwig Wittengenstein, the philosopher of language, in connection with Dwight's experience of working in therapy with some Spanish-language and culture clients for whom communicating with the dead is a non-psychotic activity.  I told Dwight of reading I'd done in a philosophy journal and a book about the friendship and student-teacher relationship between Wittgenstein and his philosophy student at Cambridge, Alan Drury.  Drury loved philosophy but went on, with Wittgenstein's encouragement and financial support, to become a psychiatrist in England. When Drury was Wittgenstein's student, one of their shared philosophical interests was the philosophical and psychological status of religious language.  They both agreed that if the user of religious language, for example, statements and claims by a speaker that he was able to communicate with the dead, is part of a community of people for whom such talk is meaningful, then the reports of such communications should not be considered psychotic or otherwise abnormal.  This was essentially what Dwight thought about his therapy client who talked about being able to talk to his dead mother.  Dwight told me that he hadn't heard mention of Wittgenstein since his undergraduate days in college.

In the end, Dwight agreed that I was in no way of any need for his or anyone else's help.  I assured him that I am fully aware of the risk I take by performing, speaking, and writing in such a way that some people choose to feel provoked or angry by what I do, say, or write.  "I take full responsibility for my actions.  And if God, the gods, or Mother Nature wants to let some angry person choose to hurt me in some way, I'm a grown man and can accept such a fate without behaving like a crybaby about it.  I'm not hoping someone hurts me but I will accept such a fate if that is my destiny.  As I told Dwight, I've lived 62 years.  I've avoided major problems during that long life-span.  I am old enough to take care of myself and face whatever music is stirred in other people by what I do, say, and write.

I would love it if whoever made this call to Dwight Norwood would contact me so we can talk about his or her motivations.  My cell phone number is 860-759-9860.  Although I get professional courtesy from sharks and pit bulls, I don't bite.

Dwight did tell me that if I learn of any older people who may be in need of supportive services to continue living independently, I should give him a ring.  In case any of you know of such people, Dwight can be reached at his office at 860-347-5661, toll free 855-ASK-GATE.  He said that Connecticut is the first state in the United States to have a program like the one he runs, which covers the entire state.

Monday, May 7, 2012

How I Slept on the Sidewalk near Wall Street and Danced with the Statue of Liberty on May Day in Bryant Park, NYC


Last Tuesday was May Day.  I spent part of the morning dancing with the Statue of Liberty in Bryant Park in New York City.  Let me explain.

The evening before I chauffeured a group of Wesleyan activist undergraduates down to the New Haven train station.  We joined another group of students and rode the rails to Grand Central Station.  There we walked over to Bryant Park and talked with some of the locals about what they thought might happen the next day, May Day, in the park and other places around the city for the May Day Strike activities.  On the way to the park I joshed around with some construction workers, one of whom was a pretty good stand-up comic.  He and his friend gave me a Philly Flyers hat when I told my Michael Vick joke about how Vick had the wrong animals fighting.  If he'd had trial lawyers fighting and biting each other, he'd have gotten an award from the SPCA and not a jail sentence.

We then took a subway downtown.  I'm not sure where we were as I was just going with the flow and not paying attention to our exact location.  Our group was about 15 people and half of us decided we'd like to sleep outside on a sidewalk.  The others walked over to NYU and stayed with friends in the dorms there.

So the rest of us met a guy in a park, maybe it was Zucotti Park where the Occupy Wall Street people had been evicted, who was about 30 or so and said he was a skateboarder.  I also found out he's a surfer.  He had that blonde California surfer-dude's look and relaxed vibe.  He was very helpful in explaining to us that a federal court order a few years ago held that homeless people have a right to sleep on the sidewalks in New York City and he walked us a few blocks away from the park to a place under some scaffolding where we settled in for the night.  It was raining on and off so it was nice to be underneath a kind of roof for the night.  Some in our group, 5 men and 1 woman, found discarded cardboard we put our sleeping bags on.  There were no bathroom facilities so we had to do the best we could and find darkened corners near the old buildings to take a pee.  That's just the way homeless people have to live but we were only playing at being homeless for the night and then we'd go back to being somewhere a lot higher up in the 99% group.

The night was most interesting.  It was fairly well lit in the area under the scaffolding.  There was a couple on one side of us who were in the same sleeping bag.  He looked about 35 and she appeared to be about 19.  They were nuzzling each other and smokig cigarettes and, later, pot. He had a very heavy southern accent, very black hair, an earring in his left ear, and a very bad sunburned face.  I told him he looked a lot like a member of Bono's U-2 singing group.  He liked that comparison, as did the young girl in his sleeping bag.

One of our group was Vic Lancia, a 70-year-old rabid Socialist with a very bald head and bad hearing.  He's a very energetic, enthusiastic man and fun to hang-out with.  The young people love him and are very protective of him.  They wanted to make sure he was okay because he has diabetes and kept saying he wanted a cup of coffee, even though we were supposed to be trying to get some sleep before the morning's May Day Strike activities.  Vic had been very excited before the trip and on the way down to the city about the prospect that demonstrators were planning to shut bridges into the city down the next morning.  Just think, hundreds of human beings, locked arm-in-arm, chanting who knows what political slogans, blocking traffic on the Throgs Neck, George Washington, and Brooklyn Bridges.  Police cracking heads with batons and spraying protesters with pepper spray.  Let the revolution begin!

A gentle hippie with dirty blond hair stopped by, squatted down with us and said he wanted to share some prayers with us.  I wondered if he might be a con-man but actually he was a member of the B'hai faith, peaceful, and genuinely interested in keeping everybody calm and relaxed.

A black woman came along on a bicycle and I talked at length with her.  I didn't know until deep into the conversation that she was a lesbian, or at least she had a girlfriend, or had HAD a girlfriend.  Her girlfriend apparently recently left her for a much older man.  Go figure.  It's the 21st Century.  Get with the times or the revolution will happen without you.  And then what?

Eventually I was able to get an hour or so of interrupted sleep and then it was time to get some breakfast.  Even though we were all there to protest the big bad corporations, thank God the McDonalds Corporation is always at the ready to provide us revolutionaries a hot breakfast and cheap cup of non-fair traded coffee.  Later, at Bryant Park I joked with several strangers I met that we all wanted to shut down McDonalds except for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a late-night ice cream sundae.  Long live the revolution.

After breakfast at McDonalds we joined up with the rest of our group, the Soft Revolutionaries (soft, because they wanted all the comforts of their home dorms for sleeping; the rest of us were the Hard Revolutionaries; hard, because we braved the elements and the Felini-like cast of characters who haunt the streets of the city at night and entertain transiently homeless writers like me) in Bryant Park.

Bryant Park is a fascintating place.  It's behind the New York Public Library.  It's a very large park, four blocks square, with a lovely green lawn in the center which nobody is allowed to trammel with human soles or souls.  There's an outdoor Bryant Park Reading Room where you can browse the day's newspapers and read books on loan for the day.  Another section is chess players, many of them quite serious.  There's the Ping Pong Area, filled with some of New York's finest table tennis smashers and ball-spinners.  I've never seen black and Puerto Rican Americans putting so much English on a ping pong ball.  I was, frankly, dazzled at their ability and agility.

There's an area where circus performers practice juggling and other circus skills.  Another where men play the French game of Boule, ball, in which you throw, underhanded, a metal ball at your opponents' metal balls and try to knock them away from the smaller wooden ball and your own metal balls closer.  Typical male game with that name and all that focus on big balls, metal balls, and the feared tiny little wooden ball.  And there's only one of the small wooden ones to boot.  Horrors!

There are also some very elegant restaurants and outside bars right in back of the library.  On the east side of the park the Revolutionaries gathered in the early morning to meet up with each other, talk, show off their costumes and interesting hair-dos and face paints, and talk very PC thoughts about society, male-female relations, and society.  There were reporters from all the major TV networks, Occupy Wall Street TV reporters, radio reporters, and an actor who interviewed me at length about my life and said he'd like to work up a play about me.  I of course agreed and signed off with the necessary legal releases which he just happened to have with him.

And then something magical and unexpected happened.  Spontaneous bands started coming together and playing loud music.  Many drummers, guitarists, and trumpeters.  This was my siren song and the end of my interest in the Revolution.  I just got in the center of all the bands and..........what else?  I danced-danced-danced.  There were others who joined in with the dancing but none who danced using the Jay-Z move I've expropriated for my own form of comedic dancing which I do in all the dance clubs---the brush it off motion with my hands and fingers, mainly on my shoulders.  Soon there were hundreds of I-phones and digital cameras filming me and the other dancers.  I quickly realized that I'm more uninhibited than most people, not only in Klearly Konventional Konnecticut but also in Klearly Krazy New York City.

After several hours of dancing, my Wesleyan comrades all left Bryant Park for other demonstrations around the city.  We never met up again.  I later texted the leader of their group and told him when I was planning to leave the city, on the 9 p.m. train to New Haven, but none of them seemed concerned about finding rides from New Haven back to Middletown, so I became a free agent.  I spent the rest of the day in Bryant Park.

I did see a group of demonstrators leave the park and march up 41st Street, towards 5th Avenue.  A large group of them were wearing Dodgers baseball uniforms and carrying baseball bats over their shoulders.  I heard on the radio the next day that these are the "Tax Dodgers," who dress like that to protest the low taxes which are paid by so many of the 1%-ers.

Around lunch time, a young dark-haired man with a foreign accent came up to me and we began talking.  He is Dennis Greenberg from Berlin.  Age 20.  He's a photographer and film-maker.  His girlfriend is from Russia and Lituania.  He was carrying a large digital camera, SLR-type, and told me he'd taken some photos of me.  I texted him my contact information.

Yesterday, I took a break from mowing the lawn at the old house where I'm living in Middletown and called a few people on my cell phone.  Nobody was answering so I left a bunch of voicemails.  One happened to be to Dennis Greenberg (his actual German first name is Denik) and he later emailed me some pictures of my dancing in Bryant Park.  I called him back and talked to him for a while.  I plan to go to New York to hang out with Dennis and his girlfriend in some of the dance clubs down in the city to see how my moves are received in the New York clubs.

Here are the three photos Dennis emailed me.  They each show me with the Statue of Liberty puppet which came into one of the drumming and music circles about mid-morning on May Day.  The photos with my white tee-shirt slightly off my shoulder shows what I do when a woman is in the area I'm dancing in and had an off-the-shoulder top.  I pull my shirt slightly off-shoulder and do the brush-it-off movement.  They all seem to love it.  So I do it.  And I did it that day in Bryant Park.

Dennis Greenberg is an excellent photographer, as you can see for yourself in these photographs.  He also is a talented filmmaker.  Here's his website if you want to see and learn more about this up-and-coming bright light in the photography and film world:  http://denikov.tumblr.com/

Here are three of the photos Dennis took:






Long Live the Revolution!  Or not.  Whatever.  Back to ordinary life.  It was fun.  Being a revolutionary for a day, that is.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Video (7:48 mins.) of Bob doing Stand-Up Comedy at The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown, CT on April 23, 2012

I perform what I call free-associational stand-up comedy at The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown, CT, every Monday night.  A friend of mine who also is a comic, Basil Ali, posted a video of my performance on April 23, 2012 on YouTube.  Here's a link to the performance if you want to see what I do in my act.

I always have some general idea of what I'm going to do, but I also use free-association from cues which occur during my performance.  I also invite my audiences to interrupt me anytime, heckle me, try to throw me off-pace, or otherwise participate, and they do.  I wish I could have at least a half-hour or more to do a full performance and really have enough time to get the audience even more involved than they were the night of this video.

Here's the link to the video, which is 7 minutes and 48 seconds long:

http://youtu.be/ahCJaJGGVBo

The reference I make to the weed wacker is based on what happened a few minutes earlier in the evening.  Our hostess and emcee, J Cherry, was limping that night.  She told the audience that that afternoon, she had been working in her garden and hurt her foot pretty badly while she was using a gasoline-powered weed wacker.  As soon as I heard Jennifer mention a weed-wacker, I knew I'd be able to use that reference to comedic effect in my act.  I've been asked to keep my act "clean," so I love it when terms like weed-wacker come up before I go on stage and I'm able to be "clean" but suggestive.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A White Slave Trader Once Lived and Traded Slaves on the Site of my Black Baptist Church: Captain Stephen Clay of Middletown, Connecticut


Three centuries ago, Captain Stephen Clay, a white sea captain and trader in slaves, built his large home on the same piece of ground where my church now stands, Zion First Black Baptist Church of Middletown, Connecticut.  I first learned this a few days ago at Russell Library, where I ran into Eric Hesselberg, a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant.  Both of us attended a talk last week by author Richard DeLuca about his new book, "Post Roads & Iron Horses: Transportation in Connecticut from Colonial Times to the Age of Steam."  I learned about the DeLuca lecture by accident, the day of the talk, when I ran into Eric who was on his way to the annual meeting of the Middletown Historical Society.  I first met Eric a year ago, at the last annual meeting, when he talked about his extensive research into the history of the destruction of lovely old neighborhoods in Middletown during the Redevelopment Era back in the 1960's and 1970's.

At the library a few days ago, I asked Eric if he was doing any new historical research and he said he's been working for the past two years on a book about the slave trade in Middletown.  I told him I'd recently read a chapter from a book, "The Underground Railroad in Connecticut" (Wesleyan University Press, 1962) by a black Middletown resident and graduate of the University of Connecticut, Horatio T. Strother.  The chapter described the history of the underground railroad in Middletown but also recounted some surprising history about racism at my alma mater, Wesleyan University.

According to Strother's book, sea captains brought African slaves from Barbados to Middletown and sold them at auction in 1661.  " The slave trade never became as important here [in Middletown] as it was in New London and Boston, and some other ports, but it is recorded that John Bannister, Newport merchant, was pleased in 1752 to find Middletown purchasers for 'the finest cargo of Negro men, women, and boys ever imported into New England.'  The number of slaves had risen by 1756 from its original handful to 218 in a total population of 5664.  Middletown then ranked third among Connecticut towns in Negro inhabitants, but hardly anyone at that time 'held more than two slaves.' "  Id., Stother, at 150-51.

At one time, the Joint Board of Wesleyan University, my alma mater, had ruled that "none but male white persons shall be admitted as students of this institution."  Id. at 154.  But by 1834, the Joint Board opened the doors of the college to male students without regard to race.  When I started at Wesleyan in 1967, there were still no women in our class.  The first women were allowed to attend classes at Wesleyan in about 1969 as part of an exchange program with the then all-women's college in New London, Connecticut College for Women, which, like Wesleyan, has since gone co-ed.  Women have pointed out to me that it took a lot longer for them to get the right to vote in this country than it took black men.  But that's another subject.

Eric Hessleberg said that he had read some of my blog articles and asked me if I was still going to Zion First Black Baptist Church.  I told him I loved the church and had become a full member on February 5, 2012 when I was baptized there by full immersion baptism in the baptismal pool in the front of the church.  Eric then told me, to my great surprise, that his extensive research at the Middletown Historical Society over the past two years revealed that a white sea captain, Captain Stephen Clay, whose portrait is on the second floor of the Society, was a slave trader in the 1700's.  Captain Clay's home was built on the site of my black baptist church.  I asked him if he was sure of this.  He was.  Eric also told me that the slave quarters at the captain's home were located north of where my church building now stands, in the area where the children's playscape of the YMCA is located.

I was suprised but not shocked about this fact.  I did ask Eric if he was sure about this and he said yes.  It's all in the documents he's been studying at the historical society for the past two years.

I was not shocked because this called to mind the place in Spain I remember visiting where a christian church is built upon the site of a former mosque, which was in turn built upon a former synagogue.  And I believe the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey is also built upon the site of a former eastern orthodox church.

I mentioned what I learned about my baptist church to my minister this morning after the service and he was of course interested to hear this bit of history.  I said I thought it wonderful that we are expiating the ghost of our city's racist past every Sunday when we worship God at Zion, the God who loves all humanity, regardless of the superficial attribute of the color of our skins.





Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Oral Argument at the Connecticut Supreme Court and the Tragic Death of a Young Man which Generated the Legal Appeal before the Court

The argument itself was impressive.  All the justices were deeply engaged in the discussion of the issues.  Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Thomas never asks a question, all seven of our justices asked questions of both lawyers.  And it was clear from their demeanors that they all were taking the case seriously.  After all, the outcome of this case could drastically change the way bars serve alcohol in Connecticut.  If the plaintiff gets the court to do away with the requirement of "visible" intoxication to win a Dram Shop case, then the only way a bar can try to protect itself is by either counting the number of drinks a patron has before cutting the drinker off, or requiring every customer to take a breathalyzer test before getting another drink.  As the defense lawyer, Elycia D. Solimene, pointed out in the post-argument discussion with the audience of law students and some lawyers, like me, who would want to go to a bar if there were that much checking up by the bartenders.  Ron Murphy, the lawyer for the estate of the man who was killed by the drunk driver, claimed that requiring bartenders to count drinks for each customer would not be a big deal.  Obviously, Attorney Murphy has never been in a dance club like the ones I go to three or four nights a week.  It's laughable to imagine the bartenders at Shrine at Foxwoods or even Up or on the Rocks in Hartford or Alchemy in New Haven or Sin City in Waterbury to go around counting drinks of hundreds of people.

The real policy question is this.  How is it possible for people to enjoy the benefits of drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or owning guns or cars for that matter, all legal products, without causing an unacceptable level of carnage to non-drinkers, non-smokers, young black men in hoodies carrying Skittles and Arizona Ice Tea, and non-drinking drivers and passengers?  The question was not phrased in such broad terms yesterday at the oral argument in the tragic case of John A. O'Dell, Administrator vs. Kozee, et al., SC18551, but that IS an important underlying issue in these kinds of cases.

The tragic aspect of the case was embodied in the two middle-aged people sitting in front of me in the front row of the moot courtroom at U.Conn. law school in West Hartford.  They sat directly behind Ron Murhpy, their lawyer.  They are the parents of John O'Dell, the young man killed by the drunk driver.  As Ron explained after the argument, John O'Dell had been drinking with his friend, the drunk driver, at the bar.  They were in the bar from 7 p.m. until midnight.  After leaving the bar, John and his friend got in the friend's car and the friend plowed into the rear of a large truck.  John's body was thrown out of the car and into the oncoming lane.  Another truck ran over John's body.  The defense lawyer said that although she felt the bar had NO responsibility for the death, because there was NO evidence the driver was VISIBLY intoxicated, the autopsy photographs were the worst she'd ever seen.  The parents of the dead young man left the moot courtroom immediately following the argument so they did not have to listen to the frank discussion of the case.

In this kind of a case, most juries have a very hard time holding the bar liable.  This is because most people can't understand in the first place why the BAR can ever be held liable for the acts of the person who voluntarily drinks liquor at a bar.  That is precisely the reason that Connecticut courts decided a long time ago, as a matter of common law, that bars had NO liability for these cases because the LEGAL CAUSE of the tragedy was the drinker's decision to drink, not the bar's decision to sell the alcohol to the drinker.  The Connecticut legislature responded by enacting the Dram Shop Act, a very long time ago, to overcome the causation problem and impose a limited form of liability on bars as a kind of cost of doing business and providing a place for people to drink and get drunk.  Originally, the maximum damages recoverable under the act was $20,000.  That was raised to $250,000 a number of years ago.

In the John A. O'Dell case argued yesterday, Attorney Murphy told us after the argument that the jury awarded the estate $4 million in damages.  Juries are not told that the most an estate can recover is the statutory limit of $250,000 if they also find the bar liable.  The judge then reduces the award to $250,000.  In this case, the trial judge, Lois Tanzer, over the defense counsel's objection, made a pre-trial ruling that the plaintiff did NOT have to prove that the driver was VISIBLY intoxicated to win the case.  It would be enough, the court ruled, if the driver could be shown to have been served a drink by the bar when his blood alcohol level was over the legal limit of .08 for drunk driving under the criminal DUI statute.  On appeal by the bar, the Connecticut Appellate Court reversed the trial judge's ruling and held that visible intoxication must be shown under the statute, it was not shown by the evidence at trial, and therefore the judgment in favor of the plaintiff had to be set aside, reversed.  The Supreme Court then agreed to hear the case since the legal issue is an important matter of public policy.

The Dram Shop death case which was my last trial before I retired was a very hard case to win.  It easily could have gone the other way.  Sitting through the oral argument of the subtleties of the Dram Shop law, and participating in the discussion afterwards, I remembered how hard I had to work, with my team of investigators, law clerks, legal colleagues, and secretaries to win my case for the family of Donna Amarant, especially her husband George who, like me, is a Wesleyan alumnus.  My case was so difficult, so fraught with danger along the way, difficult tactical and strategic decisions, that I framed the Jury Verdict Form in which the jury forewoman confirmed by her signature that the jury had found all the issues in favor of my client, the husband of the dececedent.  I also printed on a piece of paper in the framed verdict form a brief history of the case, recounting that the highest pre-trial settlement offer by the bar's insurance company was a measly $1,500 (that's right, only One Thousand dollars for a lovely, intelligent, woman who got killed by a drunken man whom the defense medical doctor testified probably had drunk the equivalent of a case of beer BEFORE he entered the bar and had a few more drinks before leaving and killing Donna Amarant).

I am fortunate to have been referred this case by John Shaw, who referred all his personal injury clients to me for trial.  My favorite cases were the hard ones, hard fought, with difficult factual and legal issues, and tough, experienced defense lawyers on the other side.  But I'm also delighted that now I can spend my time looking back on those experiences which enabled me to develop the tough emotional skin I now take advantage of to live the kind of life which makes me happy.  And I have a virtually unlimited reservoir of experiences to draw upon in my writing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A CT Supreme Court Oral Argument: How is the Dram Shop Statute to be interpreted? Is it necessary to prove a drunk driver was VISIBLY intoxicated when the bar served him to prevail in a wrongful death claim against the bar?

The last jury trial I had when I was in my old law firm was a Dram Shop case against a bar in Chester, Connecticut.  My client, the late-Donna Amarant, was driving on Route 154 in Haddam when Richard Roy crossed the center line in his pick-up truck and hit Donna's VW Jetta head-on, killing her.  I sued the bar, claiming the bartender sold Mr. Roy another drink, after he was already intoxicated.

The bartender claimed he never noticed any signs of intoxication in Mr. Roy, despite the fact that Roy had sat on a barstool across from the bartender for over 2 hours before getting back in his truck and killing Donna Amarant.  Mr. Roy's blood alcohol level was well-over the legal limit at the time of the collision, based on blood-test results at the hospital on Mr. Roy.  But expert testimony from our toxicologist and the defense emergency room doctor said that an alcoholic may or may not show visible signs of intoxication even at very high blood alcohol levels.

In our case, I called three witnesses before the jury who testified that Mr. Roy was severely and quite visibly intoxicated at the scene of the collision, which was only minutes after he had left the bar and had his last drink.

The defendant bar's insurance company offered us $1,500 (yes, one thousand five hundred dollars) before trial.  We turne it down and the jury found in our favor on all the issues.  The insurance carrier then paid us the maxiumum amount recoverable in these cases, even where a death results, and that is $250,000 (two hundred fifty thousand dollars).

In these cases, it would be much easier to win if all the injured party had to prove was that the defendant was over the legal limit, objectively, at the time he was last served by the bartender.  Proving "visible" intoxication is a much higher burden.  I was able to do so in my wrongful death case, but most of these cases go in favor of the defendant bar.  Few bartenders would ever admit they served a visibly intoxicated patron.  And most potential witnesses, people who hang out in bars, are themselves not in any condition to testify soberly about the defendant's state of sobriety.

The legal issue of what must be proven by the injured party to win a case against a bar is still an open question.  And that brings me to what I have planned for this morning.  I'm going to see how Law is Made in our Supreme Court.  Or how Law is Interpreted.  Depending on how you look at the role of judges in interpreting statutes.

I'm going up to U.Conn. Law School to watch an oral argument in a session of the CT Supreme Court held at the school.  The case is a Dram Shop case involving a bar which was sued for allegedly serving an already-drunk person more alcohol, after which the patron went out and killed somebody in his car.  The issue on appeal is this: Does the injured plaintiff have to prove that the bar patron was VISIBLY intoxicated when he was served at the bar or merely that the bar patron was objectively over the legal limit for drunk driving, regardless of whether the effects of the alcohol were apparent to a reasonably attentive bartender.  The Dram Shop statute itself does not address the point explicitly and only speaks of the duty of bars not to served "intoxicated" persons.  Courts over the years have suggested that VISIBLE intoxication must be proven.  The plaintiff in the case before the Supreme Court this morning is claiming that the statute, which does not include an explicit "visible" intoxication element, does not require an injured person to prove that the bartender could have seen the person was intoxicated before serving him.  That interpretation would, in essence, make the statute what's called a "strict-liability" law.  The other interpretation, defended by the defendant bar, that the statute requires proof of "visible" intoxication, would make the standard of proof more akin to that in an ordinary negligence case.

I know the plaintiff's lawyer, Ron Murphy of New Britain and hope to get a chance to talk with him after the oral argument.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

My Recent Confrontation with a Man named John Uccello of 61 Bretton Road, Middletown, CT who can Dish it out but He Cannot take it, In Connection with the Trayvon Martin murder case

This Facebook post yesterday by my friend Ryan Estevez, following the arrest of George Zimmerman on Second Degree Murder charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin, called to mind the following recent confrontation I had with a man named John who can dish it out but he cannot take it.   The story about the encounter, which involved John calling the Middletown police, follows the Facebook post.






      A man named John Uccello of 61 Bretton Road, Middletown, CT called the Middletown police on me a few weeks ago at Klekolo Coffee shop in Middletown.  He was mouthing off that Trayvon Martin had viciously physically attacked George Zimmerman and broke Zimmerman's nose and bloodied his face.  In response, John was certain, Zimmerman HAD to use his weapon to shoot and kill Trayvon.  I said I very much doubted this was what happened.  I asked John what his source of information was: Fox News, he reported.  I said when I read it in the NYTimes I may decide to give it some credence, although even the Times has gotten things wrong in the past (think WMD in Iraq and Judith Martin's failure to question the Bush administration sufficiently on the point).
       A few days later, when more of the facts about the case had come out in the press, including the police video of Zimmerman walking with no visible evidence of trauma on his face, I again saw this man John at Klekolo.  I asked him if he was now going to retract his slanderous comments about Trayvon.  He told me to "get out of his face."  I asked him why he had been able to dish it out to me in our previous encounter but now he couldn't handle my coming back at him, armed with more realistic reports about the case.
       I then walked away from him and began talking with a woman I knew and her friend at another table.  I heard John calling the police dispatcher and describing my clothing and appearance.  "What a WIMP," I thought, that this grown man needs to call his Mommy the police to fight his mental battle with me!
       The police showed up, I explained what happened, they asked me to leave, and I told them I intended to remain to finish my conversation with the women.  When that was concluded, I left the coffee shop and was talking to some people on the sidewalk outside.  Another young man who apparently frequents the coffee shop told me to leave.  I told him I was standing on a public sidewald and would leave when I decided to leave.  The police were standing around and asked me to leave.  I asked them if they were the mediatators of neighborhood non-violent disagreements and they said they were not.  I told the police I objected to their using their apparent authority, as armed officers of the law, to ask me to leave a public sidewalk when I was not committing any crime or hurting anyone.  They did not know what to say but again reiterated their request I leave, just to "calm the situation down."  I looked the cop in the eye, smiled, and told him that, out of the goodness of my heart, and because I liked the way he had handled the situation inside the coffee shop involving John, in a calm and restrained fashion, I decided I'd leave and go elsewhere in town.  The cop thanked me, I thanked him, and I left.  On the way by the window to the coffee shop, I smiled and waved at John through the window, but he, having no balls and looking like a frustrated and angry little boy, looked away.
        I have ZERO respect for people who can dish it out but can't take it.  ZERO.  Pity, disdain, yes, but NO respect.