Friday, May 26, 2017

The reason why your NJ Transit train conductor may be a little bit surly

It was his first trip out of New York Penn Station this morning. The first day of the first long weekend of the year. A busy travel day with a lot of people taking the train to Newark Airport for the first time. Many of them confused about how many stops they had to go and how to use the monorail when they got there. So there was a lot of explaining to do on an unusually crowded train. Meaning that he'll have some extra customer service duties all day today. But that's all part of the job and, surely, the conductor came to work this morning prepared for all that.

But then there were those other customers that he probably was prepared for but hoped that there'd not be too many of them. But on this first ride, unfortunately for him, there were a few.

The guy sitting in front of me was clearly the worse of the bunch.

When I say guy, I really mean man. As in an adult human being. I mention this because he handed the conductor a child's fare ticket. Which is half price. So instead of forking over $16 like every other adult riding from New York to Red Bank, he only paid $7.35, which the conductor noted in his conversation with the customer was a "half ticket." The guy took offense to that, asking why he was asking his age because he had no right to ask and should just assume that he'd paid the right amount of money and lectured the conductor that it's not his job to question him.

(I should add that a few minutes earlier on this crowded train the same guy was sprawled across a seat designed for three and got upset when the conductor asked him to make room for other passengers who might otherwise have to stand.)

"Actually when someone presents a reduced fare ticket I'm supposed to ask for ID," the conductor responded.

"Why would you do that? Why would you assume I don't have the right to use this ticket," came the angry response.

"Maybe if you would do your job right and not ask so many questions you would lose some weight. Look at yourself," the customer continued.

"You're talking about two different things," the conductor answered. "One has nothing to do with the other."

As the conductor walked away, probably because he didn't want his blood pressure to rise to a dangerous level, the guy started muttering to himself about the injustice of it all. I can't imagine what was going through the mind of the poor woman who had the misfortune of sitting next to him. But it couldn't have been pleasant thoughts.

And that's why your conductor may be a bit surly today.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

I've been shoved by Coleman Young and punched in the face but I've never been body slammed

Coleman Young

It was Election Day 1980 and Jimmy Carter had just completed his final campaign gaggle with reporters at Detroit Metro Airport, his co-campaign chairman Detroit Mayor Coleman Young by his side.

After wrapping up the availability and hopping back on Air Force One, the traveling press corps trailing behind, Young turned to the local reporters to answer our questions.

I can't recall what mine was but that's not particularly important to know. What is important is that he was furious with me.

"Who are you?" he demanded, as if he didn't know.

"Are you that reporter who provided that Japanese photographer with all those pictures?"

And then he shoved me.

I wasn't hurt. I also wasn't dissuaded from trying to get my answer. I wasn't even angry about the shove.  What I was angry about was that he apparently thought shoving me would stop me from doing my job.

So after stumbling back a couple steps I stepped back up toward him. My microphone extended toward his face. My intent was to ask the question again in the hope that this time he'd answer me.

I never got the chance. His security detail, apparently concerned I would use my microphone as a weapon against the mayor, grabbed me.  And that was that.

As it turns out he had every reason to be upset with me. But he had no right to touch me.

Months before I'd walked into the Public Information office at Detroit Police Headquarters to find a Japanese news photographer there. He was on assignment for Asahi Graphics Magazine. And was doing a feature on the Detroit Police Department.

He wanted to ride along in a police car. The sergeant in charge would have none of that.  But he did have a suggestion.

"Why don't you ask Baumgarten here if you can ride with him?" he suggested. "He usually gets to the scenes before we do anyway."

So as a professional courtesy I let him ride along with me. And as a result he got very graphic photos of scenes he would never get access to had they just honored his request and let him ride along.

We're talking bloodied victims. Lifeless bodies. The kind of images they eat up in news magazines in Japan but that credible news organizations in the United States would never publish.

It didn't exactly help a city and its mayor trying to improve Detroit's image. Crime was a big and continuous story. One radio station famously would for years report homicides by ringing the "Motor City Murder Meter."  So I understand Mayor Young's frustration with the news coverage in general and with me specifically.

The only time I came close to getting seriously injured was when a gang leader who didn't want me interviewing neighbors punched me in the face. This happened after one of his crew shot the head of the neighborhood watch after he asked them to turn down their radio. I went to the hospital for treatment but in retrospect, a fist to the face is far more preferable to the gunshot the community leader got.

But I've never been body slammed by a politician.  

What happened to Guardian newspaper reporter Ben Jacobs at the hands, literally, of Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte is beyond reprehensible.  

There has been a continuous rhetoric against the news media lately. Some of the criticism is probably justified. But the rhetoric implication at political gatherings that violence against journalists is acceptable and the acting out of violence is not acceptable.  

Some people are already attempting to politicize this assault. That's either a mistake or a deliberate partisan attempt to capitalize on Gianforte's behavior.

There are many other less publicized examples of threats and assaults on journalists. And reporters and photographers being detained or even arrested for doing their jobs.

No, this is not Turkey where opposition journalists are charged with terrorism. Or Mexico where journalists reporting on the drug cartels get killed.

But what happened last night in Montana is reflective of a disturbing trend. None of us, no matter our political leanings, should tolerate it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Was I racist because I opposed segregation?

The message from some black student activists across the nation is that those of us who fought for integration may have been the real racists.

Perhaps that's not their intent. But that's the message I'm getting from them.

My memories of segregation go back to when I was a child. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I recall driving down to Florida for two weeks of summer vacation (yes, we would go down to the heat of Florida in the summer) with my parents and stopping at rest areas along the way where there were white and "colored" drinking fountains. And three restrooms. Men. Women. And ''colored." I recall how this assaulted my sensitivities. I even drank once from a "colored" fountain. It was a young action of civil disobedience I suppose.

I also have vivid memories of a trip by Greyhound bus from my hometown of Detroit to a rural community in Mississippi with the neighbor across the street and his daughter. I was invited to join them to visit his brother on the farm.

One day he took me into town for lunch. We walked into the nearly empty luncheonette. There was a reserved sign on every table and in front of every stool.

We sat at the counter, and I remember whispering to him, "I don't think we can sit here, the sign says it's reserved." And his laughter when he responded, "Boy, that sign means it's reserved for us!"

When the town sheriff walked down the sidewalk, I noticed the black folk walking toward him turn around, go back to the corner and cross the street. There was no jaywalking. Not by them, anyway.

When I got older, my previously predominantly white high school, Detroit's Henry Ford, was, like the surrounding neighborhood, becoming integrated. There were tensions. Inside and outside the school. I was chosen to be part of a multi-racial group that trained to facilitate relationships between the black and white students. It was funded by the non-profit New Detroit. 

There was a walkout by black students one day. And panic from some of the neighbors across the street from the school. Cops were called. Guns came out in the hands of neighbors across Evergreen Road. Heads were busted open. 

A few years later, as a brand new reporter, I wrote stories for several newspapers about red lining. The practice of charging black families more, or not even showing them houses in mostly white neighborhoods. I remember a black real estate agent trying to bust my block by telling my scoutmaster, who lived two doors up from me, that the first black family had moved in just a block away. Suggesting he ought to sell now before the property values plummeted as more black people moved in. 

His answer was to go in the house and grab a shotgun and chase the salesman off his property.

I saw images of the vestiges of Jim Crow on television. I remember Alabama Gov. George Wallace, an avowed segregationist, running for president.

All of these things, I thought, were racist. Bad. Not good for race relations. Not good for black people who only wanted an equal opportunity.

Integration, we all believed, would give people a better chance at that opportunity.

But now, I'm being told, I was wrong.

Now I'm reading with greater frequency, about attempts at self-segregation by black students on campuses.

The latest taking place at the University of Chicago. Where a coalition of students is demanding separate housing for black, Latino and Asian students. They also want special studies established for minority students.

They also want to put “limits and/or restriction … on the funding allotted to student organizations that are accused and/or found guilty of discriminatory behavior.” Presumably these restrictions wouldn't apply to them.

If I'm reading this message right, now segregation is a good thing to strive for. Presumably I would be showing racist tendencies if I were to oppose their position. Which would then be a repudiation of my support for integration dating back more than 50 years.

Confusing, isn't it?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Heroin addicts shooting up in centers you pay for. It may actually happen in the United States

It's a problem in many communities across the nation. Heroin addicts. Shooting up in parks and playgrounds. Leaving dirty needles behind. Needles that may be diseased and which present a threat to our children.

San Francisco is considering funding centers where people can shoot up safely. Out of the public view. The needles properly disposed of.

Oh, and there'd also be drug counselors on site. To try to wean them from their habits.

Advocates say it's a humane way of dealing with a horrific public health problem. A problem that doesn't just affect the addicts.

But many law enforcement officials oppose these initiatives. They say setting up the centers would encourage people to illegally use drugs.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Was Lou Reed transphobic?

Fans of the late Lou Reed may find this hard to fathom. But his hit, "Walk on the Wild Side" is stirring up controversy because there are some people who say it offends them.

This all came to the surface at an Ontario university, Where someone played the song. And then apologized after someone complained that the lyrics are insensitive to transgender people.

Here are the lyrics that are causing the controversy.

Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.

Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.

Plucked her eyebrows on the way

Shaved her legs and then he was a she

She says, 'Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side'

He said, 'Hey honey, take a walk on the wild side' 

Now, I've read that the lyrics were about friends of Lou Reed. Some have said they celebrate their choices in life. But today, of course, things are viewed from a different prism, especially on a college campus.

The lyrics to the famous song don't just refer to "Holly." There are also references to, for example, someone engaging in oral sex. And Reed also shouts out to the ''colored girls." "Joe" turning tricks. And "Jackie" speeding away. And not in a car. So, presumably, it's not just transgender people who are being offended here. Potentially anyway.

Are we getting way too sensitive these days? Or were we living in an age of insensitivity in 1972 when "Wild" was recorded?

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Why is news coverage so unfavorable to President Trump?

A new Harvard study suggests that news coverage of President Trump isn't particularly favorable. But what can we conclude from these findings?

The study concludes that only 20 percent of the news coverage of the president is positive. Supporters of the president are saying, that's indicative of a biased news media out to get him.

But some opponents are saying it's reflective of the job he's doing. If 80 percent of the news coverage is negative, they argue, then that's an indication that Trump, in the main, is not doing a very good job.

Presumably both sides can use the same study to bolster their own arguments. Which takes us where?