Beach Reading at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof

My September vacation in Berlin and Amsterdam with my son gave me a chance to do something I rarely enjoy: read novels, in big blocks of time. By leaving the laptop and iPad at home and limiting my smartphone use, I found sweeping vistas of unencumbered, undistracted time, the way other people chill out with their paperbacks on the beach. On planes, on trains, at hostels after a long day of pounding through the Old World’s streets and museums, I could turn to books.

Here are notes on what I call my “beach reading at the Hauptbahnhof,” named after the main train station in Berlin, located a five-minute walk from our hostel.dsc00481-edit

My  selection hewed to genres I like. At home, I sometimes dip into books with limited page-turning potential, like those of late English authors Anita Brookner and Virginia Woolf. This time, however, I skipped intricate, interior-focused, emotionally challenging reads in favor of, in this order:

  • World War Z by Max Robins (borrowed from a Little Free Library box near my home)
  • The Heist by Daniel Silva
  • The Drop by Michael Connelly
  • Lock In by John Scalzi (left at home at the last moment, as I figured three books would keep me entertained for 13 days)

I loaded the list with two-fisted authors and genres that are my equivalent of beloved childhood bedtime stories—dystopian visions, spies and big-city noir police procedurals. I’ve read other works by all the authors except Robins, so I had total confidence in my ability to engage.

World War Z. I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead (TWD) and Fear the Walking Dead, so I immediately grabbed this book when I saw it at the Little Free Library. I had already seen the movie and found the book had a real depth and haunting quality. Following the format of Studs Terkel interviews with participants in momentous events, the book looks at a zombie apocalypse from viewpoints worldwide. It held together well and presented a vision of a situation similar to TWD but with a epic scale—military, political and social, and how a conventional war against the undead doesn’t make any sense. As much as I like TWD, I came to see it as a subset of World War Z, one story arc on a global stage.

The Heist. This book couldn’t have been better timed since part of the plot involved the theft of a Van Gogh painting from Amsterdam. Our itinerary included a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I didn’t notice anything missing. I’ve read one other book in the multi-volume saga of art restorer-master spy Gabriel Allon, and friends are telling me to start at the beginning. All I have to do is figure out where the series begins and I have my beach reading lined up for years to come.

The Drop. I’ve read two of Connelly’s books about LA lawyer Mick Haller: The Lincoln Lawyer and The Reversal. Both took me deep into the criminal justice system and techniques of the cops, the lawyers, the weasels at City Hall, the prosecutors and the perps. Connelly is just so good at capturing the milieu and personalities, with a minimum of bloodshed and a maximum of surprises, locales and strategies. Detective Harry Bosch is Haller’s half-brother and a minor player in The Reversal. He has his own series and I decided to give one a read. This one is about the soon-to-retire Bosch juggling two challenging cases at the same time. One is the murder (or suicide?) of a politician’s son, the other a cold case involving a murder by a sexual predator. More Bosch is on tap.

I made great progress on The Drop on the flight back from Amsterdam to Boston’s Logan Airport. The westward trip, eight hours in the sunshine, gifted plenty of time to race ahead without any sleepiness. By the time I grabbed an Amtrak train at South Station bound for Stamford, Connecticut, I had wrapped up The Drop and was starting to drag. Fortunately, I had picked up a final bit of beach reading at Berlin’s Topographie des Terrors documentation center, with the bilingual title Deutschland 1945 Die Letzten Kriesmonate/Germany 1945 The Last Months of the War. However, my eyes refused to focus, so I simply tried to stay awake as the train flashed through the Connecticut topography-booknight.

The reading splurge was a treat for me. Pre-Internet, I regularly knocked off massive books, like The Gulag Archipelago and the Children of the Arbat trilogy, the thousand-page Russian novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, The Stand by Stephen King, Moby Dick, War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk (the sequel to The Winds of War, which I read in high school). The dizzying array of distractions now gnaws at my time and attention. The main respite comes on Shabbat, Saturday afternoon, when I shut down the desktop and can sit on the couch and read. Checking the Drudge Report can wait.

As a writer, I get better by writing and also by reading. I pick up ideas on styles, research, dialogue and how to craft a story. As much as I enjoy reading, say, instapundit.com, diving into fiction stretches out time and my mind. Books stay with me. Blog posts, however enjoyable, carry less nutrition, even if they do get my synapses firing in socio-political rage at times.

The reading marathon encouraged me to keep up the pace after I returned. I’ll step away from the desktop as much as possible. I’m well into Scalzi’s Lock In. On Saturday I picked up three books from the Katonah Public Library. Given that I spent a week in Germany, the choices show my historical bent:

  • Judestaat by Simone Zelitch, alt-history about the aftermath of the 1948 creation of the sovereign state of Judenstaat in the Saxony region bordering Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
  • A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, Film noir meets the Holocaust in converging stories. I don’t even know how to describe it.
  • If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr. A novel in a series featuring Bernie Gunther, the house detective at Berlin’s Adlon Hotel when the action starts in 1934. Things then jump 20 years to Havana in 1954, where Gunther lives after being booted out of Buenos Aires.

I might race through all of them, or find myself bogged down. None of the books are translations, which means I’m reading straight-up English prose; translations often fail to connect with me, which was the case with the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz. Given enough open vistas of time (time to close down Chrome!) and alertness on my daily train commute, I could get the Germany out of my system and move back to challenging fall reading.

Maybe even Anita Brookner.

1980 and 2016: A Tale of Two Graduates

I’ve never wanted to live vicariously through my son Sam. His mother and I imparted good values to him, and we let him blaze his own path. With a passion for all aspects of video games since he was a tyke in Batman pajamas, Sam did exactly that, majoring in the interactive media and game development (IMGD) program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. From the day we toured WPI and learned about the game program, he knew that was the right direction for him. He applied, he was accepted and now he’s a graduate.

I’m delighted with Sam because he made a huge academic leap from my undergrad years at Princeton University. Bowing to pressure my divorced parents to find a “practical” major that would give me something to write about as an aspiring journalist, I majored in economics rather than English, history or even classics or Slavic studies. Only one economics class grabbed my interest, “Analyses of Capitalism,” with its focus on philosophy rather than equations. My B- grades for my two junior papers and my senior thesis reflect my lack of passion. My enthusiasm for classes on 19th century English literature (Bleak House by Charles Dickens and The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence both electrified me and I still have my heavily annotated version of The Rainbow), the politics of civil liberties (Mapp v. Ohio sticks in my memory), European intellectual history with Carl Schorske and modern Jewish thought with Ellen Umansky all point to roads not traveled.

Indeed, I don’t even have a copy of my thesis, that intellectual capstone on the edifice of your Princeton studies. So deeply did I bury my thesis that I couldn’t even remember the title until I looked it up on the university’s thesis directory. And there it was, “An Analysis of Board-Level Union Representation.” It clocked in at 86 pages, pounded out on an gunmetal grey IBM electric typewriter. At least I turned it in on time, an improvement over my fall junior paper.

While I muffled my passions, Sam celebrated his. His mother and I supported him all the way as Sam turned a passion into informed, logical academic and career choices. Even better, he had a fantastic experience with his senior project, the group equivalent of Princeton’s thesis. He could have played it safe with a project in the U.S., but he rolled the dice on the most challenging, exciting project option. As a result, he joined of a four-person team that spent three months in Japan creating a video game, titled Chinmoku, for learning Japanese. Based at a college near Kyoto, the team pulled together the game and also saw some of the country, taking the bullet train to Tokyo for several days. The final report the team submitted to WPI runs 73 pages and features much cooler illustrations than any of the feeble mathematical equations I scattered around my thesis.

By contrast, my great immersive experience was a bleak bus trip in January 1980 to Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Studies to research the idea of workers’ input into company management.

The contrasts continue. My thesis had no afterlife after I submitted it. Sam’s team, however, kept polishing the Chinmoku game. Not only did the final report earn an B from the professor, it won honorable mention in awards for senior projects in his department. The game also won honors as the top game in the indie college/serious game category of the competition of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDIGI).

I thought about ordering a copy of my thesis. The price is minimal, but I decided to avoid a wrenching trip down memory lane; I just don’t want to see a reminder of those days or hold that cracked capstone of my Princeton academic journey. I’d much rather follow and cheer on the saga of Chinmoku. It might come in handy for those already gearing up for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Sam and I went in directions in another big way post-graduation. I had visions of joining the Foreign Service or Princeton in Asia or just spending time on the road in Europe before I joined the workforce. In 1980, journalism jobs were plentiful and I figured I’d be a cub reporter in Wichita or Baton Rouge or Corpus Christi, putting my hometown and college experience to good use as a feature writer. Instead, to my shock, I talked my way into a reporter-researcher job at Forbes magazine. The magazine wanted me to start quickly, so instead of traveling—or even arguing for a week to go home to Mission, Texas to catch my breath—I scrambled to find a place to live in Brooklyn and began riding the sweltering subway to work less than two weeks after I graduated. To be fair, had I not moved to New York then, I might never have moved there, and my life would have been radically different, probably lived within a 100-mile radius of San Antonio.

Now, Sam, he’s taking the smart approach. He’s got his resume, a website and a Twitter account, all the tools of the aspiring game designer. He knows the market and where his skills fit, and he’s networking and going to events. The right job is out there for him

Better yet, he’s had time after graduation to enjoy life. I tell him he’ll be working for a long, long time, so don’t go crazy in the beginning. And Sam’s also hitting the road for European travel. With the Japan experience from last year, he’s a pro at border crossings. He studied German in high school, so he has tickets for almost two weeks in Germany and then Amsterdam.

Actually, this is a joint project for two graduates, one from 1980 and one from 2016. Sam and I are going together, the new graduate and the one who never took that post-graduation trip.

We leave for Berlin tonight.

You Lose It I Find It

I’m a finder. Staying alert to what’s going on around me means I find moments in time that need a little personal attention. That may include a FedEx deliverer struggling with a load of spilled boxes; a frail woman pushing groceries to her car; a tired mom with an even more tired kid stepping into a crowded subway. I must give off a finder vibe; once in New York an elderly, well-dressed woman on Park Avenue grabbed arm and said, “Help me get across the street.” And I did. If I don’t give the universe a push in the right direction at that moment, who will? I must have picked up that attitude from reading Raymond Chandler’s novels about LA investigator Philip Marlowe, sallying forth to right the wrongs of the world.

The same drive to act goes even more so with lost objects. They’re not so common, but they drop into my field of vision at times. I’ll snatch them up and treat them as a portal into an adventure. After all, a lost object implies a loser of that object, who typically has a very high level of interest in getting that object back. Finding the lost object starts an adventure of discovery, connection and a little mystery about the way the world works.

Not always. Some objects resist return. Nobody cares except me. When living in New York in the 1980s I found a briefcase brimming with test materials from the NYC Board of Education. I couldn’t decipher them but I thought the BOE would be a better judge of that. I made some calls, only to find nobody at the bureaucratic ziggurat on Court Street in Brooklyn particularly wanted this great find. I could have tossed the whole package, but I finally located an official in the sub-sub-sub-basement willing to take it off my hands. Case closed.

Decades later, I found a battered flip phone on Post Road East in Westport, Connecticut. A barely legible email address was taped to the back of the phone, so I fired off some messages to that. Nobody responded. I finally gave up and turned the phone in to an AT&T store to let them figure out if anybody wanted it.

At the other end of the attention spectrum, both wallets and iPhones have fallen under my scanning gaze. These steamer trunks of modern identity are invaluable and yet so easy to misplace. Their absence immediately becomes a crisis of finance, social connection (quick, what’s your best friend’s phone number?) and identity. In these cases, the adventure puts me into Marlowe mode, sallying forth to right the wrongs of misplaced objects. I become the confident private investigator who takes on the case for clients when they are at their most vulnerable and exposed and uncertain. Their identity depends, literally, on the kindness of strangers. My job is to be that stranger and be that kindness. That’s what Philip Marlowe would do.

The most recent cases both involved young people from Latin America forgetting a wallet and a phone, respectively, on the Metro-North Harlem line that I use for commuting.

I spotted the wallet under a train seat around 2 a.m. on January 1 several years ago, groggily returning home after a New Year’s Eve party. I was getting up to exit at my stop when I notice the wallet. Nobody else was around. There it sat. I looked around, nobody claimed it so I scooped it up.

At home, I emptied its contents on a table. U.S. cash, foreign credit cards and ID. Clearly this came from a visitor who let festivity run ahead of caution that cold and raucous night. The problem was, I couldn’t find a way to contact the owner. Everything pointed back to Brazil. I ran through the materials again and finally found a name and phone number. At 3 a.m., I decided I’d wait a while before calling to avoid freaking out the reveler.

I called that morning. The number was for the uncle of the teen who lost the wallet. We arranged to meet that afternoon at the Katonah train station, where the teen and his girlfriend (ahh, was she the 2 a.m. distraction?) gratefully accepted the wallet and gave me a bottle of wine.

More recently, I found an iPhone on the seat of the Harlem Line train, the station before I reached mine. I slipped it into my shirt pocket and minutes later I sat down at the same dining room table where I traditionally spread out materials and start down the trail of contact.

The phone had no security, so all I had to do was swipe and I was in—to everything. This alarmed me and I clicked around only long enough to find the phone owner’s name and his emails. The owner lived in Central America, in a city I had visited, so that gave the case a special twist. How many degrees of separation came between us? He must have been visiting the New York area and dropped the phone, I reasoned. I saw some frequently called numbers but decided to reach out via email, the better to explain myself.

I IM’d the phone’s owner and his wife on Facebook, and wrote to his home and business emails. No replies. I decided to let the case simmer. Then the phone rang that night. The screen showed somebody with the owner’s last name so I hit the talk button.

“Are you calling about the lost phone?” I said. “I’m the guy who found it.”

The caller was the sister-in-law of the phone’s owner. It turns out the owner’s son had been visiting his aunt and uncle near me, and the son was using the father’s phone. The son had left the phone on the train.

“I took a chance on calling and hoping a good Samaritan would answer,” she explained.

We arranged for a hand-off the next afternoon at the Katonah Public Library. At the appointed time the boy emerged from his aunt’s car and he bashfully approached me outside the library. I pretended to bobble the phone, then gave it to him. In return, I got a hefty bag of fragrant Central American coffee beans and a charming handwritten thank-you note. The boy’s aunt and I chatted awhile and then they were on their way.

That night the phone’s owner IM’d me on Facebook and thanked me for my attention to the matter. He had been reluctant to respond to my IM because he feared I might be a scammer. I could see his concern — who wouldn’t be wary of a message from somebody claiming to have a lost object? Ill intent abounds in our times, especially when technology is the connection. Anyway, the phone call and hand-off established that I was on the level.

He said my act actually took on more urgency than I imagined, because his son and the U.S. family were flying down to Central America on Saturday, and MTA lost-and-found probably would not have connected with the family before then.

We played the six degrees of Central American separation game and we did indeed know people in common in the capital, so that gave the connection extra sweetness. I mused about the times I had visited his country.

“I developed a taste for pupusas and Pollo Compero,” I wrote, and that got a laugh, as I flaunted the limits of my familiarity of the regional cuisine. The chat capped the case and that was that.

At this point, you may be thinking, “That’s great, but what about when YOU lose something, Van? You like to say ‘what goes around comes around.’ Does it really go down that way?”

Good question. Answer: Sometimes. I’ve left a gym bag, a sports coat and a shopping bag with my lunch packed in favorite Tupperware containers on the train from the suburbs. Despite logging the loss in the lost and found website, I’ve never got anything back. On the other hand, I forgot a credit card once in a Middle Eastern restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and that I got back.

Just last week, in a drowsy ride home, I didn’t put my wallet away after showing my ticket to the conductor. I left it on my lap. When I stretched and got up at the station before mine (the same station where I found the iPhone), I did my traditional patdown and realized my wallet wasn’t in my pocket. I didn’t find it on the seat, nor under my backpack. I searched under the seat and there it, was on the floor. A close call! I doubt anybody would have seen the wallet as the train sailed north to the end of the line. A car cleaner might have spied it and turned it in. I hope so.

In any case, I lost it AND I found it. Philip Marlowe would approve.

My Life as a Sydney Schanberg Fanboy

The passing on Saturday of Sydney Schanberg, the NY Times reporter and columnist best known for his coverage of Cambodia, stirred me deeply. He had been one of the writers I most avidly followed in the 1980s and into the 1990s.

I can’t remember when I first became aware of him, probably in college in the years after the Khmer Rouge destroyed Cambodia. I’m sure I read Schanberg’s New York Times Magazine story  “The Death and Life of Dith Pran: A Story of Cambodia,” the basis for the movie “The Killing Fields.” I remember my excitement to see the movie version when it appeared in 1984.

I still have some of the “New York” columns that Schanberg wrote for the Times. A sample, from December 4, 1982, is titled “Wall St.’s Turn to Help,” The lead got right to the point of the column:

That the city’s fiscal bind is urgent seems to be seeping in. Once sign of this collective acknowledgement is that Mayor Koch is proposing to revive the recently phased-out stock transfer tax and, more revealing, that this time the financial community is not threatening, in knee-jerk outrage, to move en masse to New Jersey.

(Truth be told, I might have saved that op-ed page because of Russell Baker’s “Observer” column of the same day, on editorial variations of the “man bites” dog story.)

The Times dumped Schanberg as a columnist in 1985 when he criticized the paper’s coverage of the Westway Highway development project; he soon left the Times (slick personnel move there, Sulzberger family!) for New York Newsday, where he was an editor and columnist for a decade. I read him at Newsday,where I had been a summer intern in 1978 and 1979, and retained a great affection for the paper. Schanberg was a terrific addition to a paper that was on the go in those pre-Internet times  Schanberg went on to write the “Press Clips” column for the Village Voice–and he resigned from that position in protest of the policies of the Voice’s new owners. He never let a paycheck stand in the way of his principles. I followed him from place to place, and if there were reporter versions of baseball cards, I would have collected all of his.

These days, I don’t follow any Times columnist with the same enthusiasm. Roger Cohen holds my attention because he’s literate and somewhat unpredictable, and I glance at Ross Douthat,Nick Kristof and Charles Blow. David Brooks? I think of him mostly as a punching bag for more conservative writers. Among the Schanberg generation of reporters, I remain a big fan of 91-year-old Nat Hentoff, who writes fearlessly about civil liberties, the media and his Jewish upbringing in Boston. He had a 50-year run at the Village Voice, then got dumped. But he’s a man with a mission and he’s still out there going wherever his principles lead him..

My editorial tastes shifted to the Internet, and the stable of columnists that most resonates with me now is at PJ Media: Victor Davis Hanson, Richard Fernandez, Roger L. Simon, Ron Radosh, David “Spengler” Goldman. You probably don’t know them; Hanson and Fernandez could add some intellectual heft to the Times op-ed page, but I’m not expecting that to happen since their views would cause a riot among the survivors left (in every sense of “left”) in the Times’ newsroom.

The world moves on, technology guts the old media and something new and shiny and loud replaces it. Schanberg is now gone, but I hope his spirit and tenacity can infuse the tweets and snapchats of the new generation of journalists.