We stopped for gas on Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania and spotted a food truck.
Or rather, we spotted the sign.
I was instantly sorry we had just eaten a great lunch and dessert after I gave a talk for adults and met with students at the bustling journalism center at vibrant Susquehanna University, in the pleasant river town of Selinsgrove, Pa.
After lunch in such good company, no way we could even sample a tamale.
But I pointed at the sign alongside Zapata’s Food Truck at Exit 256 and told the guys outside: "Próxima vez." Next time.
It is Black History Month, which means I always learn something.
This Black History Month has caused me to re-think my position on the first woman, or women, who should be on an American bill. But first:
Three years ago, Terrance McKnight of WQXR-FM did a documentary on a composer I had never heard of, Florence B. Price.
The other night, PBS ran a visual documentary on Price, and by now her music was more familiar to me, ranging from traditional classical to black gospel.
One of the experts (mostly black, via Arkansas Public Television) compared her to one of my favorites, Antonin Dvorak, who used folk music (in the deepest sense of the phrase) of two worlds, Bohemia and America.
Artists generally have it hard, but black artists have it harder. The PBS documentary showed how Price was inspired by classical music but segregation and economics held her back. She always had to be double good. (Sound familiar?)
In one pathetic episode, already accomplished, Price wrote a letter to Serge Koussevitzky, the legendary director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asking to compose for him, and she felt the need to call attention to being “Colored.” He never wrote back.
Yet she had her triumphs. Mainstream conductors and critics and performers took her seriously, notably in her adopted home town of Chicago.
In one of the great moments in American history, Marian Anderson performed at the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939, after Eleanor Roosevelt had forced the issue. Anderson sang a hymn by Florence B. Price, her friend.
In the Arkansas documentary, an elderly black woman recalls, half a century later, being young and seeing a black woman singing to 75,000 people. The old lady daubs her eyes with a handkerchief. I bet you will, too.
How hard it was, how hard it is, to be black in America. Just look at the dignity of people who have been poisoned in Flint, Mich., because of the incompetent and heartless regime of a latter-day plantation massa, Gov. Rick Snyder.
But there are triumphs. Look at the lovely front-page photo of President Obama, speaking at a mosque in Baltimore, calling for a cessation of prejudice, as children smile in awe. We have seen those smiles on black service members when Obama visits the troops and on black citizens when Obama goes out in public. So there is that.
But Black History Month reminds us how hard America has been on any black who aspired. That is why I am wavering in my position that Eleanor Roosevelt should be on a bill. I think she may be the greatest woman yet produced by the U.S.A., but her greatness may have been in her advocacy of the underprivileged, for people of all colors.
Now I think the next bill (lose Andrew Jackson off the 20, not Alexander Hamilton off the 10) should be a tribute to the great women of color in America.
Who? How many? I leave that to historians. But when that glorious bill arrives, somebody should play the classical music of Florence B. Price.
Below: The multitalented Terrance McKnight accompanies Erin Flannery in “To My Little Son,” by Florence B. Price:
We’ve managed to catch some of the wonderful Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts on Public Television – a great vision of America, as vital as today’s front page.
In the parts we’ve seen, I recalled my slight personal connections to Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt.
As a young reporter, I interviewed Theodore Roosevelt’s younger daughter, Ethel Carow Roosevelt Derby, by then in her eighties, in Oyster Bay, Long Island. I almost blew the interview right away by referring to her father as a hunter. He was not a hunter, she snapped; he was a sportsman. (I had seen those heads in the museum.) The documentary refers to him often as a hunter. Mrs. Derby would not be amused.
As a five-year-old, in a household that loved Franklin and Eleanor, I was taken to his campaign through New York on a miserable rainy day, Oct. 21, 1944. I recall being on a hillside, watching the motorcade on Grand Central Parkway. The car was open, and his face was pasty white. The web says he told the crowd in Ebbets Field that he had never been there before, but claimed he had grown up a Brooklyn Dodger fan. He died six months later. That romp through the boroughs did not help.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a staple in the politics and affection of my family. Later we read books about how she pressured her distant husband into absorbing information about the plight of so many Americans.
Two things I have heard about Eleanor Roosevelt lately:
When I was working on the Stan Musial biography, I learned that Musial had joined a tour for John F. Kennedy in 1960, which included Angie Dickinson. The actress became a knowledgeable source about that campaign, telling me how she was addressing a crowd in the New York Coliseum on the Saturday before the election:
“My big claim to fame is that I was making my speech, and I heard a hush and they wheeled in Mrs. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and I got to say, ‘What I have to say isn’t important’– I almost was finished – ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the great Eleanor Roosevelt,’ and I got to introduce her.”
Dickinson’s respect, half a century later, was palpable.
I learned something about Mrs. Roosevelt recently while reading a very nice history book – Indomitable Will: Turning Defeat into Victory from Pearl Harbor to Midway, by Charles Kupfer, an associate professor at Penn State Harrisburg.
In the first shocking hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the President assembled advisors and friends in the White House, including Edward R. Murrow, the CBS broadcaster (this was back when networks maintained serious news organizations.) FDR picked the brains of Murrow, who had access to the back rooms of the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had fought for millions of poor people, who had fought for civil rights and women’s rights, cooked some eggs for Murrow. Kupfer’s book had me, right there, on Page 22.
The Burns documentary had me as soon as I saw the insecure half-smile of young Eleanor Roosevelt, before she discovered the activist within. Her wise eyes take the measure of a country that has failed its people. She spends her own money to build experimental communities in deepest West Virginia. She sets an example.
The camera cannot find too much of her. She reminds us of the men who went to war, the women who went to work, the blacks who wrote letters to the President, asking for help. Her face reflects the country many of us thought we were, or could have become.
As I wrote this, I flashed on something else about the Burns documentary: Elizabeth Warren reminds me of Eleanor Roosevelt.
The pose looked familiar – Americans unloading water from an aircraft carrier to the stricken islands of the Philippines.
It brought me back to the United States of my early childhood, toward the end of World War Two: not so much the fighting, but the recovery. When I was five, this was one face of America – G.I. Joe passing out chewing gum to the children of Normandy. Later we saw photos of Americans liberating concentration camps.
Perhaps it was a simplistic image, maybe even manipulated, but it was what we thought of the country, of ourselves.
The Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, the post-war hopefulness, only reinforced that image. We took care of others; we took care of our own.
The news that the United States was dispatching the carrier George Washington to the east coast of the Philippines struck a familiar chord. Better than chewing gum – tons of water and medical supplies, delivered by helicopter to Leyte and Samar.
It reminded me that when the nihilists struck on 9/11, I got emails from friends in Japan and Mexico and France, asking, “Are you all right?” We were all in it together.
I am reminded of that when I hear an American president remind us what soldiers know. You take care of your own. The current president comes from that American heritage when he talks about the need for a more national health care.
Even with the technical glitches – SNAFU, they called it during the war – the goal is to keep all of us away from the emergency room, to address hunger and illness in the early stages, while there is still time.
The American president reminds me of G.I. Joe.
The people who sabotage him do not.
I have just squandered an hour or two of my life trying to solve the maze of streets named Peachtree in the northern Atlanta suburbs.
At $4 a gallon, this isn't funny.
My two sisters live in the northern burbs – half an hour apart, a long way from Queens. Between them are a staggering number of streets named Peachtree – Peachtree Corners, Peachtree Parkway, Peachtree Industrial Boulevard.
In the dark, on badly-engineered roads with wretched signage, this can be downright frightening.
I have seen estimates that over 70 streets in the Atlanta area have the word Peachtree in them.
This suggests a staggering failure of imagination, if all the planners of the New South cannot do better than slap the name Peachtree on bisecting boulevards.
But I have a proposal. And it involves the great American pastime.
The Atlanta Braves have been in town since 1966, and by now have accumulated enough history to provide heroic names to replace most of those Peachtrees.
What makes it worse is that I just read that the name peachtree just may have stemmed from the type of pine, called a pitch tree, common to the south. How fitting if this regional jumble were based on a mistake.
I learned to like Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics (we lived in the very sweet Inman Park neighborhood near downtown) and later when my son’s family lived in Inman Park and moved out to Roswell. March is a gorgeous time to visit Atlanta. So is October.
This past weekend was a flying visit for a family reunion, but whenever I have time in Atlanta I love to visit friends and old haunts. However, I have a Peachtree rule: If a restaurant or some other business is listed on something called Peachtree, I won’t even try to patronize it. Otherwise, I could be driving up and down the region from Buckhead to Norcross, looking for the right Peachtree.
Here’s my proposal:
Keep one Peachtree St. The main drag on the spine of the hill in downtown Atlanta would seem to be the logical choice.
Then they should name every other Peachtree after a Braves stalwart – and there have been dozens of them.
Henry Aaron? Phil Niekro? Dale Murphy? Greg Maddux? Chipper Jones? Bobby Cox. I could keep going. John Smoltz. Tom Glavine. Rico Carty.
And when they are finished with the stars, I bet there is some humble little Peachtree Circle out in the middle of nowhere, where confused out-of-town drivers sometimes blunder. One modest cul de sac could be named Francisco Cabrera Circle, in honor of the vagabond who delivered the clutch hit that put the Braves into the 1992 World Series.
Who should be in charge of this crucial task to end the anarchy on the Atlanta highways?
This task demands an eminent historian.
I suggest the Georgia favorite who is currently blustering around the country, running for public office.
Pretty soon, Newt Gingrich is going to need a job other than soliciting funds from wealthy sponsors. It’s time to put Newt’s massive intellect to work on something truly challenging -- ending Peachtree anarchy.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.