Articles and Essays by Donato (Danny) Pietrodangelo

The Debt We Leave Behind

Tallahassee Democrat – January 6, 2013

BY Donato (Danny) Pietrodangelo

Yes, we are leaving a weighty debt to our children and grandchildren.

But, it has nothing to do with money or the national deficit. Rather, it's a country forgetting the moral imperative of helping, – loving one's place at risk of losing the core principles of social responsibility and economic possibility accepting, instead, business and economic inequity which holds: what's mine is mine and what's yours is, well, as little as possible especially if it threatens what's mine.

It's a country that sees the struggling as takers and scorns public assistance as a handout, a culture which tacitly sanctions corporate greed, reserves healthcare for the well-heeled and accepts underfunded higher education, not as providing centers for the evolution of conscience and knowledge, but rather as fiscal trade schools that lead to high paying jobs.

We're at risk of passing on a Gordon Gekko world that celebrates greed and casts government as the work of the devil. 

It doesn't need to be like that.

That world view or variations on the theme seem to be at the core of Mr. Moore's recent and previous essays in the Democrat (Tallahassee Democrat, December 30. 2012 )    

You talk of unbridled free enterprise, lower taxes and less government as the  magic elixir for economic growth and higher employment. Really? Last year, corporate profits were the highest in history with 500 companies in the US – including Apple, Microsoft Google and Cisco – socking away as much as $5 trillion in surpluses. Let me write that out: $5,000,000,000,000. That's nearly a third of the nationally debt.

Text Box: Greed
Is Good
They did though, spread  some of it around to the CEOs, like JPMorgan Chase's, Jamie Dimon  who, according to Forbes was paid   $42,000,000 last year – an unconscionable $807.692.00 per week, At the same year, the average worker was taking home about $662 a week. Then there's Wal-Mart's Michael Duke whose 2012 salary was $23,100.000. That's $2,230 per hour; the average employee wage at Wal-Mart is $8.84 per hour. That means for every $250 given to the CEO, an employee earns one penny - .01 cents. 

So please, tell me this: instead of squirreling it away, why haven't these corporations taped into their trillion dollar nest egg and put it to work in our country? Why haven't they used it to retool and retrain workers and bring off-shore jobs -- and off-shore bank accounts -- back home? Why hasn't it  been used for higher wages and better health insurance plans?

The short answer would be greed; the earlier mentioned what's mine is mine….

So why should we believe that lower taxes on the wealthy and unbridled corporate profits will have us singing happy days are here again?

As to excessive government regulation, I won't toss around the

common clichés like fresh water and bridges and roads and safe foods and oil spills and Katrina and Sandy. But let's use an example of something simple, some of which are just down the road from here: wetlands. These seas of grass, mangrove and marsh, like the Everglades, are vital to the state's ecosystem and economy, a few examples being water quality, tourism and commercial and recreational fishing.

If not for the foresight of Florida lawmakers in the 1970s and 80s and all those pesky regulations they put in place,

the St. Marks's lighthouse would be surrounded by Taco Bells and timeshares, and the Everglades, by now would be a fully toxic bog of pesticides and insecticides – where there weren't casinos and condos – one that even the pythons wouldn't want. 

And, blaming Presidents Carter and Clinton for the mortgage debacle is way off the rails. As the risk of oversimplification, yes, regulations opened up access to mortgages, but no one made the banks write bad loans -- except their own Gekko-greedy bankers.

It seems Thomas Jefferson was peering into the future when he wrote, “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies….”

Finally, your contention, no your snicking about voter expectations for success given over success earned.  As a struggling small businessman – and voter -- I  find that statement demeaning and offensive.

Please, take a look around you Mr. Moore: Empty storefronts, bare parking lots, and buildings with the lights off and for sale signs out front, foreclosure notices on front doors.

What were these owners and tenants given?

You've had the good fortune and skill to operate successful businesses. Not so for many of the rest of us. Hard work, high skills, great ideas are no longer synonymous with earning success. In this economy the only thing that's been readily given are hard times and more debt.

So let's agree to disagree, you, with your Adam Smith viewpoint, and me holding as true the words of a  wartime president.  

Too much government regulation? Well, as James Madison wrote “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Along the same lines, again with all due respect sir, you seem to whine a lot about the trials and tribulations of development and permitting. But didn't you recently get 175 acres rezoned at I-10 and Mahan to development something called an “outdoor life mall.”

That would suggest the process is not all that onerous. Bemoaning development woes is so yesterday. Really. Look around. Does Tallahassee look development deprived?

And I find all of this, “What would the Founding Fathers think?” tiring. What would our Founding Fathers think if they were told that 200 years later their lofty ideal would be a nation where about 17 million kids go around hungry every day,  where 15 percent of the nation lives below the poverty level, a country that ranks about two in infant mortality among the top 33 industrialized nations in world and 17th in education.

 Indeed, WWOFFT?

Let's keep it real here: The Founding Fathers suspicion of government was warranted. They had lived under the tyranny of a king and the eyes of an occupying army. When it comes to the role of government today, in a democratic, hyper-tech America, comparisons are a bit absurd.

 “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do, at all, or cannot, so well do, for themselves - in their separate, and individual capacities.” Amen, brother Abraham.


Savannah, Cancer and Politics

TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT, Monday, December 5, 2011

By Donato (Danny) Pietrodangelo

In the past several months two extraordinary events took place in my life: My first grand baby arrived, and, I have cancer.   

It’s all been a bittersweet experience of magic and joy, sober but calm acceptance, the affection of family and friends – but, at the same time, the nagging haunt of what-ifs .

Let’s begin with the sweet half of bittersweet.

As parents of grown children, over the years, the awe and angst of a newborn slips into hazy, warm memories. For the most part, the soft focus of time diffuses the little details, the ones we want and long to hold on to -- if only in the mind’s eye.  But it was, after all, a lifetime ago. 

There are some memories, though, that do remain sharply focused, imprinted and a profound part of you.

It was late. I’d been rocking her for a long time – a difficult, restless night – now sleep was finally drifting in.  In the quiet, I remember looking down at this wondrous mystery and suddenly being overwhelmed; terrified might be a better description. At that instant I realized my life had intersected with another life, she was asleep in my arms, I was responsible, incomprehensively in love, and things would never be the same. Later I found out they weren’t. They had become so much better and rewarding with Amy.

More than three -and -half -decades later, my first grandchild, Savannah, just an hour old, is asleep in my arms. I’d returned, in a different way, to that same, life-altering intersection. Age has a way of making things not so scary or overwhelming, but no less awesome.

What an extraordinary piece of work I held. Ethereal, near translucent eyelids with a wisp of eyelashes, ruddy newborn cheeks, miniature fingernails and toenails, and the sensation – resting against my chest -- of a tiny heart, beating as fast as a sparrow's. Two hours earlier, she was aquatic, comfortably floating in her mom's belly. Now she's screaming at the top of those air-breathing lungs. And, to my sheepish relief, her mom reaches out to take her.

Momentarily setting aside the ooh-aah factor , you just have to marvel. Two hours ago she was aquatic, comfortably floating in her mom’s belly. With the swipe of a scalpel she became, terrestrial, air breathing. Wow. Now she’s screaming at the top of those air -breathing lungs. She’s definitely not happy. I look around, a little panicked.  What did I do? But then, to my sheepish relief, her mom, my daughter Amy, reaches out and says, “I’ll take her."

That’s when it hits me: my baby has her own baby. I realize that along with the joy of your first grandbaby, comes a little sadness. It’s real now. Your little girl is all grown up.  Then I smile as I think, that’s okay, its Amy’s turn.

Now, the other event, you might call the bitter side of bittersweet.

A few months ago I was diagnosed with cancer, no actually cancers. The first is “guy cancer.” It’s aggressive and came out of nowhere. If I were a car, people would be awed by my zero - 60 performance.  It was a surprise; a year earlier things were all good. Blood tests, basically normal. A precautionary biopsy came back nada. Twelve months later, follow-up tests revealed advanced prostate cancer. I was lucky. With the benefit of repeated tests, it was caught early, it hadn’t spread, a Transformer-like robot operated and I’m home now with a very sore abdomen.

Coincident and unrelated, the tests showed something else. I call it my “cancer in waiting.” The red and white cell and platelet counts in my blood are dropping. The specialist summed it up simply: “Your blood is pooping out.”  For now, the course is regular testing, wait-and-see.  Though, if it continues to poop-out, it could lead to Leukemia.

All-in-all I’m really lucky, as I mentioned.  But I can’t help but being haunted by the question: What if?

What if I hadn’t had multiple blood tests and biopsies? I’d had no idea that anything was wrong. I have no symptoms of cancer. None. I teach karate twice a week, walk miles taking photographs and work 60 hours a week at a job I love.

Health insurance made multiple tests, retesting and quick treatment possible. But again, I’m lucky. Though self employed, I have an extraordinary – and insured – spouse, Karen. Otherwise, I might be on my way to visit Jim Morrison.

Grandparenthood also brought with it a what if. Savannah was born about three weeks early.  That meant mother and baby needed more intensive -- and more expensive care -- before, during and after.  The final bill will probably be in the mid-five figures. Most of it will be paid by their insurance.

What if?

As uninsured parents, that would have meant struggling with the uncertainty, stress -- and too often, baffling bureaucracy – of a patchwork of services for high risk births – in a state that’s just cut $5.4 million from a vital service, to help in those cases, Healthy Start; one that’s just cut nearly half a billion dollars from Medicaid and plans to put millions more on the chopping block.

The actions and public policy of Florida’s leadership, and too much of the country’s, seems to be saying:  no insurance – good luck with that cancer thing and sorry about the grandbaby.

My two recent experiences make the issue of national healthcare personal. So, personally I have to ask: Congressman Southerland, Governor Scott and Attorney General Bondi  who oppose -- and in General Bondi’s case, is fighting against -- a national healthcare program. What if you had cancer or an at-risk baby and you didn’t have access to your government subsidized health insurance?

How do you look at yourself in the mirror -- with good conscious,-- and not be ashamed of your political posturing which says: “Good health my fellow Floridians, I mean, those of you who can afford it “?

I hope it won’t take an “experience” like mine for you to recognize the shame in your perspective.

Several weeks ago I was asked to babysit Savannah – solo – setting aside the questions.

Again, I found myself rocking a baby to sleep, grateful that my life had intersected with this beautiful creature’s. Through teary eyes I looked down and imagined I saw my grandfather’s sparkling, blue eyes, my mother’s gentle smile, my son’s love of life, my wife’s patient love – and my daughter’s fierce character and fire. I want to believe I saw a little of myself as well.

I want to get to know the goodness of this mysterious angel, along with her cousin who will arrive in January. I want to stick around so they’ll get to know their grandfather -- and hopefully see the good in me. 

No ifs about it. The Lizard King will just have to wait.

Donato (Danny) Pietrodangelo, a longtime Tallahasseean, is a freelance writer, photographer and media producer.

The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Publication Pending)

By Donato (Danny) Pietrodangelo

Picture this: several hundred motor bikes and cycles, interspersed with cars, fork to fender, swarming – full tilt – towards a four point intersection. No stoplight, no yield, no hesitation. Heads down, weaving, dodging and swerving like motorized prize fighters they punch through the center and, without pause, continue down the street to the next intersection for the next round.

Now, picture this: you need to get through this melee to the other side of the street. You’d settle for any one of the four. ­­

Good Morning Vietnam, more specifically Hanoi. Some observations:

On the approach to Vietnam’s capitol, names and places begin appearing on the LCD screen at the front of the cabin: Da Nang. Hue. Hai Phong, Vientiane. Chu Lai, The Central Highlands.

The names are unsettling and ring harsh for anyone who came of age in the 60s and 70s.They were the stuff of banner headlines and grim, black and white nightly, new casts. They came with pictures of wounded GIs, civilians caught in the cross fire, a burned little girl running on the road, flag draped coffins and the haunting moan of taps.

The words open a wound. A divided America. Conscripted warriors, mostly, returning home to an ungrateful nation; civil strife across the country, nearly 60,000 – no more than kids – killed; a million Vietnamese dead.

A generation carries the scars.

This was my first trip to Vietnam. I wasn’t called up during the war, nor did I volunteer. Some impressions on the first visit:

Until recently, war was a way of life for the Vietnamese. For 2,000 years the country was in a near-constant state of siege: multiple Chinese occupations, Mongol invasions, proxy wars underwritten by the Portuguese and Dutch, French colonial rule; and, as Cold War surrogates for the US and Soviet Union.

Today, the clash in Hanoi seems primarily economic, as Vietnam becomes increasingly tethered to the world economy. How does the relic of communism come to terms with the joys of capitalism in a country where 40 percent of the economy is still based on state-owned enterprises?

A walk around Hanoi’s Old Quarter is an exercise in the city’s mixed messages.

A 1,000 year old Buddhist Temple shares the street with 100 year old, multistory shop houses and Art Deco designed apartment buildings. Around the corner from a boutique selling stylish Western clothes, 25 foot bamboo poles – used as scaffolding as far back 400 BC – lean against the back walls of the same building.

Streetside, spiky-haired teenage boys ogle teenage girls in tees and tight jeans. Tweens with Hello Kitty backpacks giggle and gossip. In contrast, not far away, French colonial style government offices are guarded by pistol-carrying, teenage soldiers wearing scowls and shockingly bright green uniforms. One was not hesitant to unsnap the flap of his ancient leather holster when I didn’t stop taking pictures of the building.

Not far away in Ba Dinh Square, sits Ho Chi Minh’s massive, Soviet-style mausoleum. Here, the “Great Uncle” lies in state – except for two months each year when the corpse is sent to Russia for maintenance. 

Trade is the lifeblood of the city’s streets – and it’s not always pleasant. Young entrepreneurs, street hustlers actually, are unrelenting, battering visitors with merciless pitches for everything from bananas to Bic lighters to motorbike tours. In sweet contrast, shy young women sell flowers from colorful bunches stacked in their bicycle’s front basket.

As you wander the city, the people of Hanoi are gracious and welcoming.  The war is ancient history. I’m a tourist, not an American or former enemy.

(When I returned from the country, a Vietnamese expatriate was horrified that I would eat at one of the traditional sidewalk grills. I did – provided I could see the food being prepared – thought I wasn’t always sure which piece of what I was about to eat. For me, it was an important piece of the city. Best of all was the experience of sitting out front sit with the old men drinking Bia Hanoi beer and telling tall tales.

And cost wise, Hanoi is a bargain – everything – food, lodging, transportation.

But, there is the heat. Summer in Hanoi makes August in Tallahassee seem like a spring morning in the Appalachians. Outside, it feels like you’re breathing with a wet wool blanket pulled over your head. Sordid, Soaked and sweating, I was waiting to cross the street, when a beautiful and concerned young Malaysian woman came up and asked “, “Are you okay?” With nonplused macho I wheezed, “Sure I’m fine”. To which she said, “You don’t look too good and that Tiger Beer in your hand isn’t helping.”

She smiled and crossed the street. I smiled and thought: where I single, younger, and hydrated.

By the end of the day, it’s hard not to notice that the city is filthy.  There’s a coat of grime on the road a fire hose couldn’t erase. Fruit peels, food wrappers, cigarette butts and assorted litter clog the walkways and gutters.

But magically, in the morning it’s all gone. If you get up early enough, you’ll see ancient shopkeepers sweeping it all away with string bound brooms, no different than what might have been used centuries ago.

I wanted to visit the Hanoi Museum of War, perhaps to better understand what happened. It turned out to be boring, unsettling and confusing. Among the endless photographs of North Vietnamese officials shaking hands, were displays of old weapons with captions telling visitors about the bravery of a young comrade who killed 10 imperialists with that particular gun. There were photographs of antiwar protests in the US, mostly out of context.

But the real challenge was the courtyard.

In the center, is a 20 foot conical shape – a sculpture of death – pieces of US  aircraft – B-52s, F-4 Phantoms, Skyhawks – shot down over the country. Staring at it was unnerving; taking a picture would have been like photographing the vehicles from a fatal car crash. 

As if in counterpoint, adjacent to the pile are examples of unexploded ordinance – five foot high dumb bombs, cluster bombs with chain link enclosures, incendiaries – some of what might have been dropped by those same planes.

In what was perhaps the most surreal episode of  my trip, I was at the museum’s outdoor snack bar when four guys about my age came out of the museum laughing, a day out with the boys. All were wearing some type of military unit pins on their shirts. They came over and looked genuinely glad to meet me. They asked me in halting English if I’d been to Vietnam before, meaning the war. No. They vigorously shook my hand before walking away. It reminded me of mid-field handshakes after a ballgame.

After lift-off on the way home, I marveled at perfectly round lakes that dotted the countryside outside Hanoi – feeling foolish when I realized they were bomb craters from a now distant war.

I guess you could say the war punctuated the trip’s beginning and end

Did I enjoy the Hanoi experience? Absolutely. Would I back to Vietnam? Yes, but farther north to see country’s ancient ruins and other antiquities.

It would take a lot less baggage.  

Haiti (Revisited)

 Donato "Danny" Pietrodangelo • My View • January 24, 2010  

Haiti is an enigma — at once beautiful and horrid, an island where daily life is a perplexing tangle of struggle, irony and contradictions.

When search-and-rescue ends, the dead are buried and the rubble moved, the real challenge of helping Haiti rebuild itself will begin. Nature's cruel and indiscriminate destruction may have brought with it a pivotal opportunity for the world to help Haiti fix what was wrong well before the disaster: a complete lack of infrastructure.

For generations, and despite billions in international aid, Haitians have struggled to survive an brutal daily existence, exacerbated by impassable roads, washed-out bridges, few hospitals, little clean drinking water and only scattered dependable electricity.

To envision a future for the country, you have to understand the pre-earthquake past.

Haiti is a land so squalid and disease-ridden that the average man barely lives to be 60 and lives on as little as a dollar a day — unless he dies of tuberculosis. Like the most Haitians, he probably doesn't have a job, medicine, running water or electricity and can't read or write.

In one word, Haiti is people — hundreds and hundreds of thousands. An incalculable mass of humanity lives in a Port-au-Prince ghetto, crisscrossed with slime-filled trenches, dirt paths, gagging smells and row upon row of shacks made of tin patches, scrapes of wood and paper. Ironically, it's called Cite Soleil though it's one of the most dangerous ghettos in the world. (Even more bizarre, "Baby Doc" Duvalier had it called Cite Simone, after his wife.)

A world away, but really just a few miles, the upscale suburb of Petionville looks down on the capital. Here businessmen, government officials and diplomats live in $300,000 homes and enjoy fine restaurants, hotels and golf courses. Here a topless French tourist sits by a sparkling swimming pool and later showers in fresh water for lack of which children elsewhere are literally dying.

Not far away, gossiping, laughing young women beat clothes on river rocks, doing laundry as they have for centuries — in a rural stream in one of the country's few patches of forest. (Most of the country is deforested, barren rock, the trees having been cut down to feed cooking fires.)  

Haiti is a land of children — they make up 40 percent of the population. Like anywhere, they giggle and clown, they pester and charm, in the decrepit slums they call home. And they are the lucky ones. In a country where dengue, malaria and diphtheria — diseases mostly unknown in the U.S. — are endemic, about one in 20 Haitian infants die at birth, one in five children is severely malnourished and most have intestinal parasites.

From the beginning, turmoil and bloodshed found a home in Haiti. And it all began when white Europeans claimed an island nobody had lost, populated it with kidnapped black Africans, gave them Christianity, then fought to keep their island and slaves from a changing cast of other white Europeans

The indigenous Taino and Arawak people were eradicated in late 1400s by Europeans diseases and Spanish swords. What followed was a 500-year political legacy of murder, treachery, persecution and terror. In the early 1800s, a slave revolt against French colonialists spawned the Republic of Haiti — the Western Hemisphere's first independent black nation. Unfortunately, over the next two centuries, self-serving politics and wretched social conditions put the island nation on a spiral into hell, as the country was victimized by foreign occupations, brutal father-and-son dictators, military coups, extreme government corruption and growing gang violence.

Now there's the earthquake.

Haiti is at once depressing, enchanting, angering and harmonious. Amid the endless flood of humanity, the depths of poverty and political corruption, the country possesses an inherent beauty. Outside the urban chaos, you'll find a people of dignity, quiet resolve and spirit; a diverse culture of strong beliefs; and a society of vibrant, effusive color. Early 20th century Haitian art, coveted by public and private collectors, is both stunning and distinctive.

 It is a land with a deep and steadfast spirituality built on an intertwining of missionary imports and the vestiges of African heritage. On a crowded hilly road, women in pristine whites and gentle pastels walk in the sweltering heat with men in dark coats and ties, to attend Mass. They're coming from the same hills where, at night, you might hear ceremonial drums in the distance. The people of Haiti are not to be pitied. They are to be wondered.

Since 1990, Haiti has received more than $1.5 billion in aid just from the U.S. and billions more from other public and private sources. Too often aid came — like the still crated X-ray machines in a university hospital — without instructions or instructors. Fostering development carries the risk of fostering dependence. Every year, hundreds of missions bring thousands of foreigners to Haiti to help. Though well-intended and a "feel good" experience for the visitors, too many of the pilgrimages end up giving away fish, when they should have been passing out poles and giving fishing lessons.

Which brings us back to the future.

For decades, Haiti has teetered on the edge of becoming a failed state. Well before the earthquake, abysmal or nonexistent infrastructure, along with an international blind eye to corruption, has allowed aid to be squandered and stolen. That needs to and can change. It's now more imperative — and possible — than ever.

In the aftermath of this horrific catastrophe, concurrent with humanitarian relief efforts, the world's governments, organizations and people have a chance to do it right. We need to provide relief and hope to the people of Haiti, but most of all guidance, tools and training, while fostering the empowerment Haitians need to rebuild their nation.

We Know Nothing About China.

Tallahassee Democrat, May 2009
By Donato (Danny) Pietrodangelo

For those of us raised in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, China had always been, first, a mystical  abstraction: Confucian temples, incense, chanting monks and big-bellied Buddhas.  And, second, a confluence of stereotypes: Charlie Chan, Kung Fu masters, pasty -faced women with big hair and small feet, suicidal infantry in the snows of Korea, Mao and a sea of red book -waving followers bent on nuclear Armageddon, tanks in Tiananmen Square, lead-laden toys and the people who make nearly everything sold at Wal-Mart.

I've been as guilty as anyone.

Which makes you wonder, over the years, have the Chinese seen us as an amalgamation of  Southern Baptist revivals, Jerry Lewis, Ali versus Foreman, Britney, Gettysburg, the Silent Majority, Kent State and the people who will buy just about anything at Wal-Mart?

Will that all change with the Olympics? No doubt, some. But let's keep in mind that, aside from the games, Olympic festivities are an extravagantly staged halftime show; a spectacular break, an entertaining diversion from what went on before the show and what happens after it ends. And, as with any performance, what you see or don't see is up to the sponsors.

Just back from nearly three weeks in rural China, I realize that what we don't know — beyond smogged-in Beijing — about a place several millennia old, home to one out of every five earthlings and the emerging epicenter of the planet's economy, is embarrassing and more than a little dangerous.

We traveled by plane, boat, train, minivan and oxcart through the Southwest provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan, which are predominantly rural, relatively poor and more than 1,200 miles from the Olympic frenzy.

The 13th -century Mongol invasion, Genghis and Kublai Khan, Marco Polo, the silk trade, the horrors at the hands of Mao's Red Guard, the brutality of the Japanese occupation, and the heroics of U.S. pilots of the Flying Tigers squadron are all colorful threads in the tapestry of this region's past.

In these provinces, we were able to experience two very different sides of China: the velocity of tumultuous mega cities such as Kunming (population 7.5 million) and the country’s remote, rural roots -- villages and hamlets, tucked into tropical forested valleys , cloud shrouded mountains or overlooking miles of terraced, rice fields. Frequently, we were the only Westerners in town.

Most importantly, we caught a glimpse into the impending collision of history, culture, class and economics threatening China. Through a small window, we witnessed the odd and ironic convergence of East and West, and the uneasy balance of creeping capitalism under Communist governance.

China has gone from zero to 60 faster than a Lamborghini.

Take development. As you enter even medium -size cities, the view is mind-boggling. Under construction superstructures in clusters of three, four or five piercing the skies. These aren’t affordable housing for farmers turned factory workers. They’re 20- to 30 -story condos, office buildings, five -star hotels and apartments, compliments of foreign investment — $70 billion last year — and ready for the investors and their entourages already arriving. Some of the units are expected to rent for $2,000 per month. That's about six months' take-home pay for a Chinese middle manager, or half the price of a new car. 

But there doesn't appear to be a master plan for this spiraling urban expansion: A 12th -century temple sits in the shadow of a new skyscraper; the view from a luxury hotel's 15th floor is laundry drying on the roof of crumbling, concrete -block apartments.

An interesting and ironic convergence of China’s old and new: scaffolding surrounding the multi-story construction projects is made – not from steel – but from large, lashed bamboo poles.

Newfound prosperity over the past 10 years has spawned a unprecedented middle class. Earning as much as $10,000 per year, as opposed to the average per -capita income of about $2,000 a year, they have disposable income, a healthy habit for consumer goods and an anxious need to keep up with their neighbors.

The result is disorienting — the best and worst of the West in Chinese.

Backpack -carrying teens in acid jeans and T-shirts shop for stylish shoes, fashionable clothes, jewelry and rhinestone -covered cell phones. Girls giggle and gossip over lunch – bowls of noodles -- not burgers, while boys check them out; young moms survey what’s available in kids wear, while young families ponder which model washing machine to buy.

Like Saturday in any mall in America. Between open front stores, there are stalls enjoying brisk business, selling pork shish kabobs, fried chicken feet and baskets of exotic fruits and vegetables. Old, blind women tell fortunes on the sidewalk, while behind them, hungry shoppers can choose from bowls of rice or noodles, small fish-on-a-stick and lots of things I didn’t recognize A few blocks over, an amused and friendly salesman invites us to sample his fare — a table spread with ready-to -eat pig snouts, duck heads, snakes and lizards.

At night, the action continues in garish pall of an endless row of neon signs.

A piece of China few Olympic visitors will see is the rural countryside. While I hate cliches, breathtaking doesn't do it justice.

Take the Li River. It winds through towering, forested, limestone mountains that the Chinese liken to dragon's teeth. Rising from the river's edge — sometimes reaching up through a soft halo of clouds — these towering, cylindrical formations are extraordinary wonders of nature. Stretching far into the horizon, no two peaks are the same.

Farther west, the rural center of Yunnan province is a region frozen in time. In a village called Yuanyang, the women are known for their intricately embroidered, vests, wraps, tunics and hats. The stitch work is intertwined in rainbows of color. These are everyday outfits worn by young girls walking unabashedly with friends dressed T's and jeans. Merchandising has made its inroads here as well. Shops with stylish clothes and sportswear sharing ancient cobblestone roads with butcher stalls and food vendors.

Again, breathtaking is insufficient to describe the rice fields of Yuanyang. Terraces are carved into the slopes of hills, creating cascading rows of brilliant green ribbons. The terraces themselves are subdivided -- with low rock walls and small patches of other crops – which create curved parcels of growing rice, individually laid out to fit the unique shape of a particular terrace. The stepping stone-like ridges, are tended as they have been for centuries – by hand, with cycles and water buffalo drawn plows.

Viewed from above, there's peaceful symmetry to the scene, a design that seems uniquely Chinese, in which farmers shape their crops to the land, rather than the land to their crops.

Sad to say, it's a way of life that's quickly vanishing — and the loss poses multiple problems for the Chinese government.

While Mao envisioned a classless society, capitalism doesn't. Rural regions enjoy very little of China's new prosperity. While urbanites earn an average $2,500 per year, rural residents make less than half that, and six out of 10 make less than $600 per year. These oppressively low wages cover little more than subsistence. For instance, more than nine out of 10 urbanites own both refrigerators and washing machines; in rural areas its three out of 10.

The disparity is causing discontent — sometimes violent — and an exodus from farms to the city with hope for a factory job and dreams of better life.

According to the government, every year, about 12 million farmers or their off-spring move to the city. With 9 million city dwellers currently without jobs, and the unemployment rate at 10 percent and climbing, there are more and more shattered dreams. Another problem for China is that, according to some estimates, dwindling farm life meant rice production was lower in 2005 than it was in the year 2000. Since then, the decrease may have accelerated.


One of the most rewarding aspects of this eye-opening journey was the people of China. Everywhere we went, without exception, people were gracious, friendly, inviting and frequently curious. Kids looked at us in wonder, as if we were extra terrestrials; moms smiled proudly and encouraged us to take pictures of their beautiful babies. We helped college students practice their English on the train, and new friends helped me hail a village taxi — OK, an oxcart — after making me join them in way too many toasts with very potent Chinese rice wine.

As the self -appointed local U.S. Ambassador of goodwill from Tallahassee, how could  I refuse?

Donato – Danny – Pietrodangelo is a photographer, freelance writer and longtime resident of Tallahassee. He made this journey with his good friend Jim Kemp an Asian Studies scholar who speaks fluent Mandarin, Jim’s friend, Larry Crider, and John Kish, his best friend since first grade.


My Friend Bob

(Is Depressed)


Tallahassee Democrat, November 13, 2008

I have a friend - let’s just call him Bob - who’s depressed.

Now, I’m not talking about the I’m so bummed and blue, my dog ran off with my pick-up, my wife and my best friend kind of funk. .

No, Bob’s got the real deal – bipolar disorder they call it, aka manic-depression. So, even if his dog brings back the truck and his wife, and he gets a new best friend, the funk doesn’t magically flee. Bob’s still depressed. Some of the time.  But not always.

And that’s the rub. Because what really drives Bob crazy (well, more than he already is) is how the media makes it all sound so simple.

First, the news media. Every year on national depression day there’s another inspiring celebrity depression confessional. It's a moving article about how a celeb “came down” with depression, but after a courageous battle, as well as perseverance and treatment, gets cured – and a new TV sit-com. It’s a nice story, but hardly the full story: the celeb has a health insurance policy with a two cent deductible and full coverage for a 30 day stay at a “wellness” spa. You too can get better provided your insurance covers mental health services – if you have insurance at all.

Then we have the ads, “Do you wake up in the morning and want to get under the bed instead of out of it? When you look at your apartment’s dirty windows do you think about jumping through one rather than cleaning it, then rule it out since you live on the first floor? You may be depressed.” (Ya think?) “Ask your doctor about Feelgoodaril.” Pretty soon you’ll be dancing in a field of butterflies and singing to the critters like Sleeping Beauty in the forest.

Sounds good to me. While I’m there I’ll ask the doc for some Singular and Cialis too. Then, I’ll be happy, with clear sinuses, and ready to score.

Ahh, were it that simple.

So, depressed Bob asked me to fill in some what’s left out of the celebrity success stories and the advertised pharmaceutical miracles (and, remind you he is neither a physician nor a mental health professional).

First and foremost, you can’t cure depression. You can only treat it -- more specifically, you can treat the symptoms. No one really knows what causes depression, other than speculating  that the chemistry set in your brain has something mixed-up or missing.

Medicine typically works – or not. And no one really knows why. Sometimes, it makes the darkness go away in a couple of weeks.

But if the first drug doesn’t work, you might be prescribed another – and sometimes the second doesn't work. Or the third. Be prepared for some potentially rough times. Trying to find a solution can be frustrating, exasperating and depressing in itself – and can take weeks, even months.

Most importantly, when you start felling better, don’t stop taking your medicine because you feel better. Duh. You think it might be the medicine?

No avoiding this one: the effective drug may have side effects. You might have to choose between the lesser of two evils. Is feeling better (“normal”) worth gaining a little weight? Or, when you’re sitting in your bathtub, watching the sunset, it might not be a matter of the right time. It might be more like when it is the right time will I be up for it?

If you have symptoms of depression, see a specialist. Yes, your family doctor has some training in treating depression, but if you break a bone, you go to an orthopedic surgeon. So if your psyche needs tweaking, see a psychiatrist.

You have to be comfortable and confident with your shrink; if not find another. Just be sure you’re not shopping for easier solutions.

Drugs alone may not work. Bob recommends therapy as well. Counseling can help you work through things getting in the way of treatment – things you’ve done, haven't done, or had done to you.

Exercise is a must. Yes, if you’re depressed, who wants to go to the gym?  Make yourself. You’ll feel better. 

There are other treatments – some seemingly a bit bizarre but promising: massive amounts of fish oil, a supplement called Sam-e, Folic acid, Vitamin B Complex, light therapy and more.

And finally Bob wants to remind you: Hang in there. Don’t give up. No one said finding a treatment that works is easy. Just ask someone with cancer.



Tallahassee Democrat, January 2006

It’s pretty clear they own him – and it stinks like a week old litter box. I’m talking about Democrat feature writer Mark Hinson and the feline lobby. He shamelessly promotes cats in his weekly column, slyly trying to endear us to these creepy creatures. I’m calling you out Mark. What’s the deal? Those lobbyists feeding your catnip problem? Giving you free tickets to the Pussy Cat Dolls concert? We’re onto you, you otherwise talented furball.

Every dog has its day my friend and that day’s today. It’s all about fair play.

You see, dogs know all about play.  Cats? Not likely. Ever hear someone say “I’m going outside to play with the cat?”

Unlike cats, dogs are really versatile: You’ve got your house dogs and your yard dogs; huntin’ dogs and sock-gatherer dogs; Lap dogs and bed-hoggers; little dogs that ride in Paris and Brittany’s purses (probably cats in disguise) and real dogs like the soldier dogs serving in Iraq or K-9 dogs protecting us here at home and the beagles who work in the Miami airport bravely sniffing out contraband fruit and vegetables for our safety.  

For me, dogs are an adult acquired habit; my wife, a former psychiatric nurse, says I suffer from dog deprived childhood syndrome. Like so many other victims, it’s not my fault. You see, as a child  my father was a mailman  – back when they rode those slow, one-gear, one ton bikes. Pure dog bait.  I had to settle for Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin.  For the longest time I thought dogs only came in black and white.

Let’s go back to the matter of play. Now living with three labs, I’ve learned, to a dog, everything’s a toy and, when they’re home alone – its playtime. Imagine the fun of unstuffing the couch; the challenge of gnawing the leg off a dining room or turning that tiny, upturned corner of wall paper in to a naked kitchen wall. Dogs  enjoy equal opportunity fun:  the new Cole-Haans just as engaging as your old Nikes.  And you know she’s been having a heck of a good time when she greets you at the door -  dripping with syrup and covered in flower - after a fun filled afternoon pantry raid. Get that kind of entertainment Felis catus. No way. Dogs really know how to have fun.

Now talk about self assurance. What says social graces be damned more than a creature lying spread eagle on his back, a drooling tongue hanging out of his mouth, paws peddling the air, chasing a cat – or maybe my father -- in doggy dreamland.

You’ve got to admire a dog’s agility and determination. Just the other day I was playing catch with our yellow lab Zoey. Tennis ball in mouth, happily scampering back, she deftly scoops up another ball -- barely breaking her stride - than skids to a dead stop. Intensely, she turns her head from side to side, studing yet a third tennis ball hidden under a bush. Every lab owner (and I use the term “owner “loosely) knows what she’s thinking: “Sure my mouth is bulging with balls. But I can do this. It’s just one more. No big deal. No problem.”    

But not all dogs are destructive – or exceptionally agile. Take Buddy, the dog formerly known as Prince (his name until we liberated him from big dog rescue.) At two, Buddy’s a sweet, loveable 80 lb black lab who’s well, not exactly a candidate for Mensa. He must have missed ball-catching day at lab school, “Buddy, it’s not supposed to bounce off your head. You’re supposed to catch the ball.” But offer him a treat and he’ll recite multiplication tables.   And, puppy that he is, when it thunders, this big palooka slinks up to the top of the bed so he can wrap his lanky body around the safety of your head.

Growing up dogless has its benefits. I was spared the terrible sadness of knowing I’d outlive my friend. Sally, our third lab and the sweetest dog ever born is 14.  She can no longer jump on the bed, which she accepts with dignity – while it tears at my heart.

I absolutely hate the expression “putting a dog down.” You put down a coffee cup or a newspaper, not a friend who’s given so much. “Putting your dog to sleep” might be a naïve expression, but it slightly lessens the awful pain of leaving the vets office, after you stood there, rubbing her head, as I did for our yellow lab Abby, as she sweetly drifted away.  Yes, being there at the end breaks your heart, but at the very least she deserves it and together you find closure, knowing  you’re a better person for having had her in your live.

Besides, all dogs go to heaven and before long, when you’re ready, another little ball of fur will come scampering into your life.

Because as a dog lover knows: there’s nothing softer than a dog’s ear, colder than a canine nose, toaster than a fur bearing foot warmer or wetter than a, “I’m up, you need get up so we can play,” lick . A cat?  I don’t think so.


It’s a land so squalid and disease-ridden that the average Haitian barely lives to be 50. Yet, he conveys a sense of complacent dignity in the garbage-filled Port-au-Prince slum he calls home.

It is a country having little serious crime, but a 500-year history of death, treachery and terror. It is the site of an early 1800s slave revolt that spawned this hemisphere’s  first independent black republic -- later followed by yearly presidential assassinations, foreign occupations, brutal dictators, military coups, foreign interventions, corruption and fixed elections.

It is a topless French tourist in a resort swimming pool – who later showers in water unfit to drink – and laughing young women beating clothes on river rocks, as they do their laundry in a rural stream.

It is people, thousands and thousands of them, living in one square mile of Port-au-Prince, covered with slime filled trenches, dirt paths, gagging smells and row upon row of shacks made of tin patches, scrapes of wood and paper, lined up side-by-side like booths in a decrepit carnival.

It is a land with a deep and steadfast spirituality built on an intertwining of missionary imports and the vestiges of African heritage. The icons of Christianity – a crucifix, a mulatto Jesus – sharing a painting with Damballah, the loa or voodoo spirit of life and wisdom. It is a crowed road with women in pristine whites and gentle pastels, men in coats and ties in the sweltering heat, coming out of the hills to attend mass. Hills where you will hear distant ceremonial drums tonight.

It is a land of children – they giggle and clown, they pester and charm – having beat the odds, since one in six born don’t see their first birthday. And, it is a woman, proudly putting a dirty dress on a child, smoothing it for the photographer, smiling

Haiti is at once depressing, enchanting, angering and harmonious. Because, amid the endless flood of humanity, barren treeless mountains, the pains of underdevelopment and the depths of urban poverty – there is an immense beauty in Haiti.

Looking beyond the squalor, extreme poverty and sensational news stories, you find a land in the shadow of a rich and complex history,  a people of dignity, quiet resolve and spirit; a diverse culture of strong beliefs – and a society of vibrant, effusive color.

In spite of the struggle and want, the people of Haiti are not to be pitied. They are to be wondered.

(NOTE: This was written in 1983, when Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was in power. Having visited in the late 90s, after his exile -- and the US military intervention, nothing had really changed -- except a skyrocketing crime rate.)


  You Can’t Rebuild 58 Years

Tallahassee Democrat

You can’t really grasp the scope of loss until you get up-close and personal. Looking at what was left, I couldn’t help thinking it might have been better if the Colonel came back and his home was simply gone. That it had been washed into the Bayou and then Gulf, leaving nothing but a slab of mud and lost memories. Seeing it in ruins had to be worse.

 “Fifty eight years are gone,” he whispered through teary eyes, shortly after we met. A veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, the 83 year old soldier surrendered to the fact that, “you can’t rebuild 58 years.”  During his 30 years in the Army, he was awarded the Bronze star. The certificate was on the floor wet, in frame with broken glass. The medal, if in the shambles, wasn’t found.

 I can’t fathom what he felt when he first came back to his Gulfport home after the storm.  From the front lawn, the traditional brick house looks untouched. But inside, his whole life was on the floor – broken, swollen and moldy. 

 The images of the storms’ continuing aftermath – the fetid conditions, shattered trusses, neighborhoods turned to swamp and obliterated small towns – can’t possibly convey what it’s like when you walk through the door of just one of these thousands of flooded homes. You’re stunned at destruction, saddened by the immense loses and retching from the putrid stink of spoiled food, rotting carpet and mold covered walls. Nor can the very best news footage bring you the surreal chaos of the destruction caused by nothing more than rushing water – upturned and shattered furniture, swollen doors and drawers, broken glass and family photos, favorite books, and the grandkid’s artwork dissolving into puddles of dank sludge.   

 That’s what he came back to. On TV, survivors proudly talk about how they’ll rebuild. The Colonel and his now ill wife have been married for 58 years and have lived in this house – their first – for 36 of those years.  At 83, rebuilding isn’t likely.

A team of volunteers from Tallahassee’s Trinity United Methodist had come to help. Though not a member of the church I asked to go. We carried out furniture, collected their souvenirs and trinkets, sorted crystal and china, cut out carpet, cracked open the back of a beautiful, ebony cabinet, with doors too swollen to open, salvaged prescriptions from the sewage in the bathroom and gagged when someone moved a refrigerator full of rotting meat and milk.

Heartbreaking for me, a photographer, were the photos. People, places and memories – some going back a hundred years – disappeared into a milky paste as they were separated. Tintype images, created in the 1800s, dissolved into powdery flakes when exposed to light.

But for me, there was a dark side to helping. Sorting through the ruins, I couldn’t help but feel like a scavenger, a character from the movie Road Warrior or maybe a philanthropic looter asked to invade this man’s home and privacy.

 More specifically, it would have been too overwhelming for the Colonel and too overwhelming for his daughter to decide what should be saved or trashed. So we did. So if you pulled wet clothes from a drawer so you could move the dresser. You had to decide. Save or toss? I found a broken leg next to an antique chair. Will someone glue it back on or does the chair go to the growing pile out front? Does he want those lighters from his unit in Korea? Are the wet dresses in a box under the bed important? What about that water-soaked print he got in Thailand or the carving from Japan?

You can’t help but feeling like an officer on the Titanic – you get in the lifeboat but you don’t. Worse yet, you feel like an invasive intruder, a stranger violating the Colonel’s privacy. How should I presume to judge which of his memories are worth keeping?

 The only thing he specifically asked me to save was his daughter’s baby book that had been meticulously kept by his wife. Some of the ink had dissolved into light blue stains, but most of the pages were readable. I smiled as I read about what she liked to eat when she was two and how she played nice with others when four. Later, pretty horrified, I found I was privy to things she didn’t know about herself. She’d never seen the book until that day.

People comfort survivors by saying, “They’re only things. Thank God no one was hurt.” But it’s not that simple. You can scoff at the idea that we’re defined by our things. But in a tragedy like this, you recognize the inverse: things help define who we are, where we’ve been and what we find important. Why did he save that newspaper clipping, that book of matches, or those postcards? Because they are – were – a part of his life, times and experiences. And, while it was sometimes uncomfortable; I’m pleased and honored to have shared them. 


The 60s

Wow, that was really heavy, a real bummer. No, that vernacular of the day is just too peaceful for responding to Herbert London’s venomous assault on the 60s(July 16, The 60s: portrait of a counterfeit era). So, I guess I’d have to go with: the worst form of pseudo socio-analytical drivel I’ve read since the 60s. The frustrated whining of a wannabe, whose Young Republican meetings conflicted with all those weekly love-ins? As if he would have been invited.

First, let me make one thing perfectly clear: having been there, I do not wane nostalgic for the 60s. That was then and this is, well, something else. The 60s were both significant and silly. (Left: Karen and Danny Pietrodangelo back then.)
But to characterize – no vilify – an entire decade as one big, meaningless drug-stupefied orgy is about as moronic as saying the 50s were just about sockhops in Pleasantville and the 70s no more than coke-frenzied disco.
Too frequently
and too easily
those who partook of the 60s and early 70s are homogenized, by those who didn’t, into one big glassy-eyed, bushy-haired, tie-dyed, bell-bottomed, shirtless, debaucherous flower child. Yes, some of those were there. Or, if that character doesn’t raise enough ire, the antiwar building-bombing, red book-waving, Uncle Ho-loving, soldier-spitting, mega horn shouting radical is equally popular. Yes, some of those too. (Rarely, if ever, one and the same person.)
No Professor London, you clearly missed the decade and the point if “All You Need Is Love” is the best you can do for a thematic synopsis of the decade that brought us Martin Luther King and the Kennedys; Birmingham, Watts and Chicago; My Lai and the Hanoi Hilton; Richard Speck and Richard Nixon.  How about “The Whole World Is Watching?”   

 Analysts like London give the decade far too much – and too little – credit. Sex, drugs and rock and roll weren’t invented in the 60s. They were just a response.
Call it a cliché, but mostly for the better, and occasionally for the worse, the decade had far-reaching effects on once-sacred norms. As a result, what were then disquieting ideas and attitudes, furthered and fostered by 60s activism  – on human equality, social responsibility and self-expression – are considered no more than blandly, routine now. 
Women, minorities and the disenfranchised were, and have since been, beneficiaries of the perspectives, policies and social consciousness that evolved in the 60s. I have four sisters, two older, two younger, who grew up on both sides of the decade. The opportunities and attitudes each set of sisters experienced were very, very different. 
And, I never saw nor heard of anyone spitting on a soldier. Rather, the worse I saw was disquieting avoidance between those who served and those, who by chance or chicanery, didn’t. Perhaps antiwar protests did not directly end the war in Southeast Asia. But the echoes of Vietnam have no doubt tempered US military involvement since, in Central America, Bosnia, Somalia, the Caribbean, and most recently in South American.
The student activists, soldiers, hippies, intellectuals, Krishnas and, yes, Young Republicans have moved on – some still true believers – to be middle-aged community activists, environmentalists, corporate raiders, NYU professors and unindicted co-conspirators. Oh, and let’s not forget, president.

Did we change the world? Of course. What generation hasn’t?  

Give shelter, without judgment, no questions asked

 The first time I worked at the Shelter I was uncomfortable, uneasy. I was there to conduct interviews for a documentary, which meant getting up close and personal – not the usual, cursory homeless contact of a dollar through the car window.

 You look out across the dining room, to the people being served dinner, and for the new comer, what started as uncomfortable becomes more and more curious: a street-weary, leathery faced man, sitting next to a clean-cut middle management type; an old boy/young man, with broken front teeth, next to someone’s grandfather; someone frightened, mumbling to the invisible voices, next to a big, stern-faced, muscular black man.

 What’s the story? That’s what I wanted to know professionally, but soon it started to become personal: why are they here – why am I there?

 I asked questions and listened: vets who couldn’t adjust, not always from combat, but from losing the structure of military life. Ex cons, between past and future lock-ups, they said. Downsized professionals with no families to fall back on. Young guys on the road,  finding an easy place to crash. Middle-aged guys with no exceptional stories. A loud, drunk that thought he was hilarious. More than a few barely coherent men, crushed by the weight of depression or trapped in their schizophrenic hallucinations.

 I heard heart-wrenching stories, outright hustles, and desperate hopelessness. A lot, but not all, wanted a permanent home. Some wanted meaningful jobs, others wanted non-specific help, others claimed to be happy as is, and a few just wanted another drink.
But that night, they all got what they needed most: a hot meal and a warm place to stay. No questions asked. Nothing expected in return.

That, they told me was the beauty of the Shelter.

Over the next six months, working on the documentary, I learned a fair amount about homelessness and homeless people. Few have permanent jobs, though a number work day labor. About 30 – 40 percent are veterans. Anywhere between 40 – 70 percent have addictions and/or have active mental illness. Chronic health problems like hypertension, and pulmonary and heart disease are common.

During the filming process, I was struck with something: faced with a tough time – due to money or a troubled mind – most of us have family, friends, a church and others to say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.”  

Not so if you’re homeless. Their isolation is both cause and effect.

During production, I also learned about programs serving the homeless, including the future Comprehensive Human Services Center. Now, I was struck with something else: some people don’t want or aren’t ready to be healed, cured, saved, treated, rescued or redeemed.

Not to be a cynic but, if you build it, they won’t necessarily come, because our best liberal, do-gooder intentions can’t make someone enroll in job training, stop drinking, go to therapy, get off the street, go to work, or take their psychotropic medications. They have to be ready and want to.

Get there lives together? Some do, and some don’t, according to the Shelter’s director. And, he sees that as the beauty of the Shelter.  It provides a safety net for people on the streets, providing them with a Spartan – but safe – haven, getting them off the streets. And, if they want more, referring them to programs offering more help, which in the future will include the Human Services Center. But, if they don’t want to get it together, that’s okay too.

The people I spoke with said, if the Shelter wasn’t there, in town and easy to get to, or if it made demands, they’d go back to the park benches, street corners, doorways and forest encampments – like the one that springs up in the woods behind my house, when the whether gets nice.

When the project finished I moved from observer to participant, from digital filmmaker to volunteer, because I was struck with one final thing: the Shelter needs to stay were it is and keep doing what it does – a job that no one else can, will, nor wants to do: providing shelter, without judgment, no questions asked.

 Danny Pietrodangelo, a 2001 finalist for the Tallahassee Democrat’s Volunteer of the Year award, produced the award winning documentary, Homeless In An All-America City, and recently became a member of the Shelter board of directors.


The Canal

I seem to have the hardest time remembering my childhood. Then it comes back in bittersweet glimpses, small, translucent bits and pieces.

Like Pat Flynn — my friend to this day, though I’ve seen him only once in the last 15 years. He used to live on one of those canals they dug years ago all over South Florida to let Miami rise out of the swamp.

Pat was not only a friend, he was my best friend. Enigmatic, I would describe him now; weird but still cool would have said it then. Straight black hair dipped low across his forehead —looked tough — only to meet whimsical blue eyes with deep sparkles. Wide, salesman smile giving way to some real ly raunchy 12-year-old talk.

He tried to be an altar boy, like me; I tried to smoke Winstons, like him. Neither of us made it.

We were as different from each other as Miami is now from what it was then. He dared, I deliberated. He punched people, I negotiated. He was afraid of ghost stories, I was afraid of his neigh bor, a regular at juvenile hail. But, even though I never understood why he tattooed his initials on his arm with ink and a pin, we were inseparable..

And we had the canal.

It’s good how the feel sifts back:

steamy South Florida days, our shirts off, the trace of a breeze carrying a dank smell off the water’s edge behind Pat’s house. A 13-foot, flat-bottom boat, 18-hp Johnson screaming. Tires thud ding on dark, tar-coated beams of the wooden bridge overhead (surely one of the last of its kind in Miami in the ‘60s), making this a creepy place to swim. I was never crazy about jumping from the bridge’s cross-timbers into shadowy black swirls of the water. Pat loved it, of course.

A day-long round-trip to Hialeah:

Going there was no idle meander. For me, it had a purpose. Pat’s cousin Paula lived in Hialeah, conveniently, if I re member correctly, on the same canal, or just across the street.

Paula had dark hair and deep, dark eyes and that innocent but intentional sullen sensuality of budding beauty. We kissed — several times — teeth pressed hard against lips pressed hard against lips pressed bard against teeth. It was coy practice for Paula, frivolous favors. She was worshiped and she knew it.

I was in 12-year-old love with Paula, no doubt influenced by the song several years before, “Hey, Hey Paula.” And no doubt because she was older, 14 at least.

Paula would spend the night with Pat’s sisters, Theresa and Dee Dee. Barely, I recall a party: dancing —crushing, sweaty, feet-shuffling hugs, actually — to the warble of scratched 45s. When everyone was gone or asleep,

we sat in the driveway with an evening for me. Family everywhere — parents, breeze crackling the palm-frond slivers, sisters, cousins, aunt, uncle. Pat seemed and we talked. It’s a shame, the words perpetually engulfed by family. They arid the wonderings have faded. were good Irish Catholics, the Flynns.

So, Paula lived by the canal. On sum- Pat’s father, Joe, always seemed to look mer days, once in a while, Pat and I me over with this cocked, part sardonic, would cruise over. Actually, getting part affectionate smile that said, “Boy, there was far better than being there, what is going to become of you?” (a fair which was boring for him and awkward question). There was Pat’s mother, who used to make me feel so good by telling me I was her second son. There was, routinely, an invitation to stay over, and there was usually something good to eat, once in a while a reprimand and occasionally a hug, always embarrass ing, always secretly welcome in an un certain 12-year-old heart.

Getting to Paula’s was like being on the Jungle Cruise at Disney World, except you could get really stranded, really out of gas or really eaten by something living at the water’s edge. On the way there were reeds and the eerie-looking, creature-hiding slime along the bank, which periodically gave way to the sea walls of expensive houses.

There were alligators. I saw a couple. Pretty disconcerting; we used to ski in that water. There were sea cows, inter-eating blobs of mammal that we careful ly avoided, not so much for Jimmy Buffet or Save the Manatee; it was the horrid thought of hitting one of those big, gentle oddities and sinking into the slime.

Skiing was the main event on the canal. Having been born in New York City, I didn’t have any really good rea son to know how to water ski. So Pat taught me. The skis were like planks, about a foot wide and six feet long.

The bow shot straight in the air, the Johnson wailed — that distinct and pleasant outboard sound — the air filled with the oddly good smell of blue exhaust smoke and churning water, and then, with a shoulder-wretching snap, I was up, slumping gracelessly, arms pulled from sockets, watching for logs and sea cows and alligators, heading towards the bend — the place where i the canal angled towards Biscayne Bay — Pat yahooing... It was great.

Until I fell. Nothing, nothing was more horrible than waiting in that murky brown water until Pat turned the boat around. (I can’t see my legs!) Well, nothing except for something that had happened several years earlier, also involving Pat, myself and the canal.

I can’t recall the year I almost died in the canal. But the horrifying moment I realized I was drowning breaks though with unnerving detail and clarity.

I was drifting on an inner tube, 20 to 30 yards from Pat’s house. It slipped out and glided gently away. I went after it. Being from New York, I didn’t have any really good reason to know how to swim, either. It was just out of reach. I remember making forward progress for two or three grabs, mostly from imitation, and then starting to go under. Going down, seeing the murky water — though it wasn’t as bad below, being amber and sun-streaked and sparkling — coming up and yelling, going back down. I managed to bob up and down screaming for what seemed like forever, and I remember seeing Mrs. Flynn in the back yard yelling, and I remember thinking I can’t do this anymore, I’m going to drown, because the next time I go under I’m going to breathe water. I can see Pat dive — he could swim like a fish and ski like a champion — and in a flash he was pushing me another tube and pulling me on it and taking me to the shore where his mother, nearly hysterical, said 1 couldn’t go near the canal again until I learned to swim. I did. Pat taught me.

On  impulse not long ago, I pulled off the expressway during a visit to Miami. I was drawn to the canal, but also wary of the changes and fragmented memories that haunt an old neighborhood. A more powerful impulse pulled me into Pat’s parents’ driveway. I thought of Paula.

When no one answered the door, I walked around the back. What was I looking for? I had gone to college, and I don’t think Pat had ever finished high school. He was kind of wild — the tattoo, the Winstons, the slicked-back hair. We had long ago drifted apart.

I rounded the corner, and there was the canal, not nearly as wide as I remembered it. To my right, there was Pat, floating in a wading pool with his two or three kids.

Joe was there with that same skeptical look, Theresa was there with a smile, Mrs. Flynn was there with a hug. Pat looked good — no, great. He was working for Florida Power, like Joe. He looked happy.

He said he’d seen my name in the pa per several times. I told him, meaning it, that his kids were beautiful. Small but sincere talk. He suggested we walk down by the canal. At water’s edge he lit a Winston, offered me one. He was a bit surprised when I took it.

For the next few minutes, best friends shared the breeze, letting translucent memories slip back, mostly in what was unspoken. I never asked what became of Paula. I’m not sure I need to know.


NOTE: This was published in 1984; I received a several line letter from Paula, who had seen this several years after it was published. It was touching and sweet; I didn’t respond (nor did she suggest I do). Perhaps we both knew it was best not to tamper with a memory.

Pat and I didn't stay in touch. Sadly, I learned last year that Pat had died -- from lung cancer.



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