Holy Henry

Some smart sons of guns there at the Washington Post are republishing old (mostly ’80s) stuff from Henry Allen, thank god.

Here are a few. Beware: Reading them all at once is like looking directly at the Ark of the Covenant.

Bus station: an urban elegy: The Greyhound station at 12th and New York closes today, and downtown Washington loses another monument to the common man.

The last bus scheduled to arrive tonight is the 11:40 from New York; the last to leave is the 11:50 for Atlanta, unless you count the New York bus continuing on to Roanoke at 12:01. Then Greyhound buses will go through the Trailways station that Greyhound bought in the disused nether world behind Union Station.

Closed. It’s hard to imagine: all that timeless monoxide haze of cigarette smoke, diesel exhaust and bad diapers dissipating into the night, the last hustler being rousted from the men’s room. No more Christmas Eve soldiers or worried children sitting next to sleeping mothers, wishing they knew how to operate the vending machines themselves.

Where all the world’s a fair: Supposing The Last Day on Earth to be a festival — and why not? — it could look like the Maryland state fairgrounds in Timonium at the end of a blue and perfect afternoon. There’s a quarter moon over the Ferris wheel. Flags snap above the racetrack. There’s a chill in the air, which makes the smoke from the pit barbecues smell good. There’s a lot of noise — the crowd, the barkers, the industrial clatter of the Tilt-a-Whirl, the sheep bleating like strangled cynics.

My strange Takoma home: WHEN WE MOVED TO TAKOMA PARK IN 1977, IT WAS A SHABBY LITTLE town of asbestos siding and tire swings hanging from big oak trees. People liked it that way. It was a town where you called the druggist “Doc” and the downtown skyline was full of phone wires, like in February or in an old photograph, the kind of photograph that makes you wonder why somebody took it — something about Takoma Park that was faded and raw at the same time.

World War II lingered in illegal apartments with buckled beaverboard walls and crusty stoves. Government workers had lived in them once. Now it was single mothers, failed astrologers, revolutionaries, marijuana dealers and an assortment of would-be has-beens building a new world out of lentils and Indian bedspreads. Rented rooms sheltered alcoholic ex-taxi drivers who had the ghastly mildness of people wanting to be left alone, teetering indefinitely on whatever brink felt most like home.

Reunion of the Enola Gay: You listened for tales of madness, lost souls, cursed lives and nightmares. But it wasn’t like that — either 35 years ago or last Friday. It just wasn’t like that.

Thirty-five years ago and last Friday, both, Jacob Beser climbed aboard the Enola Gay, the B-29 chosen to drop the first atom bomb.

And Surio Shimodoi stood looking at it, a citizen of Hiroshima watching a silvery glint in the light of an August morning.

Then and now.

F.A.O. Sschwarz, D.C.’s newest plaything: For one thing, it’s pronounced Schwarzzz. As in stores.Twenty-five of them, counting the one that opens today on Wisconsin Avenue, yet another spawn of the Great Mother of them all at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street: F.A.O. (as in Frederick August Otto, who founded the business 118 years ago) Schwarz. The toy store. As in: toy toy store.

For another . . . well, you have to understand about F.A.O. Schwarz, what it means, what it stands for. (And so few things stand for anything anymore, do they?)

The diver’s dark, dangerous search: Life ends at the ladder when the brown water full of sullen rainbows from the diesel fuel rises over the rubber boots, the uni-suit, the Navy Mark 12 diving gear, the yellow plastic Kirby Morgan helmet.

Life, right here, is the grumble of the Navy landing craft engines, the pigeons circling under the 14th Street bridge, the empty black body bag waiting above the ladder, the photographers leaning tiny over the railing to watch the helmet sink. The other divers stalk around hefty in their red neoprene leggings. On the riverbank is the hard-scrabble chaos of any disaster area. The disaster here is the crash of Air Florida Flight 90, last Wednesday.

Katherine Anne Porter’s secret: All afternoon, in the slow burn of a February sunset, with the wind slamming against the big plate-glass windows of her apartment in Prince George’s County, Katherine Anne Porter flaunted her own death, flirted with it, name-dropped it, dared it and generally waved it around her like the veils Isadora Duncan danced with.

“Can you keep a secret?” she asked me when I met her that day, six years ago. “Gentlemen’s agreement? You won’t say a word? Well, you can hang your coat in there, then.”

In there, leaning against the coat-closet wall like a bridge table in anyone else’s house, was her coffin. It had long brass hinges, and joints sanded smooth. It was six feet of pine box, ready to be painted up Mexican style, she said.

Paradise Lost

Sorry for so few posts the last few days. Got a lot of good stuff queued. Let’s start with this one, from Wright (and check out the television version on Outside The Lines, Sunday at 9 ET):

HOUMA, La. —

The greatest tarpon fisherman who ever lived sits in a house on the side of a forgotten bayou, stuck in a blue recliner, watching his world die on live television. Oil gushes out of the well, every lost barrel another line in his obituary.

Though he’s only 55, Lance “Coon” Schouest is about to become obsolete. Everything’s being taken from him, in living color with a network logo and theme music. His way of life, his job, the marshes he grew up in and possibly even an entire breed of fish that has survived since dinosaurs walked the earth. The tarpon has taken every disaster man and nature could throw at it.

Until now.

Gitmo Rocks

S.I. Rosenbaum: (June 27) — On a sweltering January afternoon in 2008, Kelly Keagy — aging rock star, drummer for Night Ranger, the guy who belts MOTORINNN’ on that one power anthem from the ’80s — found himself in the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

He and his bandmates walked alongside a chain-link fence topped with rolls of razor wire. On the other side, a group of men in head-wraps and loose-fitting white clothes stood in a small yard paved in gravel. They were prisoners — men designated “unlawful combatants” by the Bush administration and held without charges or trial.

The band’s handlers wanted them to move along. But the rockers stopped to look at the men on the other side of the fence.

The men looked back.

The Story That Toppled A General

Michael Hastings: “How’d I get screwed into going to this dinner?” demands Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It’s a Thursday night in mid-April, and the commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan is sitting in a four-star suite at the Hôtel Westminster in Paris. He’s in France to sell his new war strategy to our NATO allies – to keep up the fiction, in essence, that we actually have allies. Since McChrystal took over a year ago, the Afghan war has become the exclusive property of the United States. Opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany’s president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops. McChrystal is in Paris to keep the French, who have lost more than 40 soldiers in Afghanistan, from going all wobbly on him.

Detailing Death

Robert Kirby (thanks, Matt): Shortly before midnight on Jan. 25, 1996, five men gathered at a table in a darkened room at the Utah State Prison and prepared to kill a sixth.

They watched the clock and waited. In just moments, John Albert Taylor would die for the 1989 murder of Charla Nicole King, an 11-year-old Washington Terrace girl he raped, then strangled with a telephone cord.

Convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to die, Taylor spent a decade on death row before abruptly ending his appeals and requesting the punishment be carried out. At 12:03 a.m., the five-man squad leaned into their rifles and shot him to death.

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Losing Leeville

Dan Zak: LEEVILLE, LA. — Their eyes are bloodshot. Their scraggy skin glows reddish-brown. They clutch cans of beer. On the wooden deck of Griffin’s Marina and Ice, they recoil when approached, like a nest of vipers.

“We used to be fishermen,” one sneers, drunk, seething with wounded pride. “But now we work for BP.”

They won’t say more than that. From their perch, they glare across the silent street at the gorgeous marshland now closed to fishing. At dusk they screech away in pickup trucks, barely pausing at the town’s one blinking traffic light. They surrender Leeville to shadow, to the mosquitoes, to what used to be and now isn’t, to a solemn reality captured in two words that embody the collapse of a way of life.

Ghost town.

Dad’s Gift

Roy Wenzl: KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It was my Uncle Jim who told us my Dad was going to die.

He stopped my brother and me in the hallway as we arrived outside Dad’s hospital room, and led us to a set of worn cushion chairs in the lobby at the University of Kansas Medical Center hospital. Uncle Jim lit a cigarette, which I thought was a bit much, lung cancer being the subject at hand. He sucked in the smoke and told us that all medical efforts were useless.

“He’ll be gone by Christmas.”

Looking For Answers, Finding One

Dan Barry: WASHINGTON — On the 58th day, an outraged nation summoned the man it holds responsible for one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. He walked through the oversize wooden doors, shed the protective cocoon of his dark-suited entourage and took his place at a long table.

Sitting there, alone, with a microphone pointed at his face like a long finger of accusation, the oil titan looked so small — diminished, it seemed, by the immensity of the environmental, economic and social damage done.

“I am deeply sorry,” he said.

“Devastated,” he said.


Henry Allen: We were putting up the tents when Pakistani police pulled up and told us we might get killed if we camped there.

Four guys in a British lump of a car, they’d driven out from Peshawar to warn us. No “fees” or “permits” were demanded, though doubtless they worried about the political implications of a dozen or so British and American corpses showing up between Peshawar and the Khyber Pass, where we were headed in our decrepit little Mercedes bus.

“Very dangerous to camp here,” one said.


Something not covered in this interview is that S is his favorite edition of the encyclopedia, for obvious reasons. Nieman Storyboard with Tom: We spoke by phone this week with Atlanta magazine senior editor Thomas Lake about his story, “The Golden Boy and the Invisible Army,” our latest Notable Narrative. Lake, who also freelances for Sports Illustrated and is a regular commenter over at Gangrey.com, has previously worked at the St. Petersburg Times and The Florida Times-Union. His stories have appeared in Best American Sports Writing and won a first-place award from the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors in 2008. In these excerpts from our talk, he explains how he wrote his latest story, fesses up to which celebrated novels he can’t seem to finish, and addresses the painful process of editing.

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