Frontline Reexamines A Death By Fire

Thursday, October 14, 2010
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By Carlo Rotella   |   Friday, August 20, 2010
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It’s your regular barber’s duty, his cultural role, to have pretty much the same conversation with you every time you get a haircut. He streamlines your head inside and out, and sends you back into the world with a renewed sense of continuity, of the throughline that helps define who you are.

My barber and I talk mostly about popular culture of bygone eras—extinct TV shows, forgotten music, and especially newspaper comics. My haircuts aren’t complicated, just the number two clipper and a little clean-up, and they don’t take very long. We can spend the whole time considering the moral greatness of Peanuts, the rigorously sustained unfunniness of The Lockhorns, the genius-level rendering of razor stubble in Tumbleweeds, or the failure of deliberately weird revisionist comics like Zippy the Pinhead to even begin to approach the psychotropic strangeness of square ones like Big George or the blood-freezing Family Circus.

We’re not young, but we’re nowhere near as old as that makes us sound. We’re not crotchety, and we’re not really nostalgic, either. We’ve just tacitly agreed to talk about a past we’re often too young to remember as if it were the present. It’s time travel on a budget.

Barber shops, like boxing gyms and libraries and the corridors of the State House and certain bars, are good places for that kind of time travel. They’re places where the past holds its own against the present and future, places where it can be more desirable, cooler, to be all 1926 than to be all 2013. The past is respected, even glorified, in such places as the source of the meaningful traditions that hold them together.

Of course, my barber and I are making up this past as we go along, piecing it together out of half-remembered fragments. His idea of fidelity to ancient tradition is hauling in a black and white TV to the barbershop so he can show episodes of F Troop on VHS. Mine is turning off my cellphone before I come through his door. At my last haircut we went back way past newspaper comics and ended up discussing the advantages of corresponding with quill and parchment rather than email. We agreed, as if we knew what we talking about, that there was a lot to be said for the times when planning to get together with a friend went something like, “I’ll meet you along the river after the spring thaw.”

Pure fantasy, obviously. But there’s nothing wrong with that; there’s nothing wrong with making it up. It’s probably good for you to invent a bit of high ground, removed from the present, where you can turn your back on the future to take an appreciative look at the past.


By Katherine Perry   |   Thursday, August 19, 2010
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by Katherine Perry, 89.7 WGBH
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
"The restaurant is the great unacknowledged, breeding ground of cultural enmity."

There is nothing like waiting tables to make you believe that the human spirit is, at its core, a mean and sorry bit of matter. And while the quality of humanity's soul is a complicated business, I'm ready to offer a simple balm for the server's chronic despair. A remedy that I am willing to say could go further- could kill at least one source of xenophobia at its root. Overstated as it may sound, mandatory tipping, I believe, is a stepping stone to international harmony.

The restaurant is the great unacknowledged, breeding ground of cultural enmity. And conflicts about tipping are the sparks that fire many of the serving class's geographical grudges. Some international tourists who visit the U.S. aren't accustomed to our tipping customs, though some are. And when a server feels she has been unjustly denied her due enough times, cultural differences fade into the background, while ugly stereotypes begin to form. It's money- the fear of not getting it, and the resentment at being dependent on someone else for it- which is the catalyst that turns a healthy curiosity of the unfamiliar into a deep-rooted disdain of the foreign. And a hostility, however petty, harbored by a population as large as the one that runs the nation's restaurants and bars, is bound to cast its pall on wider opinion.

Harvard Square, where I work, is a whirlwind of international tourists. And when you first begin to wait tables they’re simply people with intriguing dining customs you are eager admire. Water without ice? Beer mixed with sprite? These are remarkable eccentricities, a rich mixture of gastronomy and history! Even strangeness of manners- the paucity of expected American niceties- can be appreciated by a disinterested mind. A lack of please and thank you, the occasional snapping of fingers are easy to digest. But when it comes to dollars and cents- intellectual curiosity recoils and resentment springs up fullblown.

So, I think it's time to take dollars and cents out of the equation. A modest 18 percent added to a diner’s bill, would be more than paid back in international good will. It would give the American serving class the chance to look up and meet their guests with less rapacious, more innocent, eyes. A chance to close our demanding outstretched hands and reopen our minds.

The Dump

By Katherine Perry   |   Thursday, August 19, 2010
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by Katherine Perry, 89.7 WGBH
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"Dumppicking, perhaps once considered a rather undignified way to furnish a home, is now a sport for affluent suburbanites..."

Listen to the commentary
[2 min 16 sec]
I come from a family of “salers.” Yard-salers. You know, thriftstore regulars and flea market connoisseurs. At one time, buying other people's cheap cast-offs felt like a good deal. That time is gone. Now a good deal means getting other people old stuff—for free. My family's one-stop shopping destination is now the town dump.

And they are not alone. Dumppicking, perhaps once considered a rather undignified way to furnish a home, is now a sport for affluent suburbanites- A sign that our culture, which traditionally likes things new and shiny may now see the value of things that come with their own histories. Reusing and recycling has moved beyond soda cans, and hand-me-downs are no longer a stamp of neediness. For those who could afford to always be surrounded by that new whatever smell, old is the new new.

Two notable examples are the Wellesley and Duxbury dumps, or more politely, transfer stations. These towns are known for gated mansions and restrictive zoning, and every weekend thousands of residents come out and competitively scrounge through other people's trash. But we're not talking about a scavenger hunt through banana peels. Wellesley officials refer to visitors as shoppers, a sign in Duxbury announces you are in the "Duxbury Mall." In Wellesley items are organized into departments by volunteers who patrol the area looking to diffuse potentially violent disputes over good finds.

So what is it people are expecting to find in a dump? Well, you can find the things you would expect- old rakes, monopoly sets, a graveyard of vhs tapes. But it's the items that suggest a colorful history, now forsaken, that make the dump a weekend destination: An 84-pound jar of pennies, a box of wedding memorabilia, with the groom figurine's head smashed, and a bong, with accompanying bong fodder. And there are the suburban dump-picking legends- the designer chair, picked and sold for 25 thousand dollars. The faded painting taken to the Antique Roadshow that set thesavvy shopper up for an early retirement.

It's easy to pass this off as greed or secondhand voyeurism—but I think that's ungenerous. Most takers are also givers, contributing their own artifacts for collective reuse. They watch their old treasures start a new life, while they give someone else's a second chance. And for a culture known for it's love of consuming and discarding, a bit of dumppicking is good sign.

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