First time to Florida

Lane: They woke to the sun streaming through the bus windows. He glanced out the glass and grinned. She buried her face in his sweatshirt. “Too bright.” He remembers every detail. They were curled together on the front seat of the Greyhound, between his battered duffel bag and her Hannah Montana purse. For three days, they had been traveling south. It had been dark since they left Atlanta. Now, squinting in the blinding dawn, he saw that they were cruising over a long bridge. On both sides, small white waves capped the bluest water he had ever seen. Ahead, there was land — a wide causeway lined with tall palm trees. Palm trees! Just like on Sponge Bob. He draped his arm around his girlfriend’s thin shoulders. He kissed her pale forehead, then both of her eyelids. “Look,” he said softly. “We’re here.” Welcome to Florida.

Torn Asunder

David Von Drehle: Warm air rises. The earth is an elegant machine, and this is one of its simple and tireless engines, recycling the oceans into life-giving rains, wafting rainbow-striped hot-air balloons into clear skies, putting the dance in the flame of a birthday candle. This law must not be thwarted. There is hell to pay.

On Sunday, May 22, sometime after 5 p.m. C.T. in the Midwest, a column of warm air struggled against a ceiling of colder air pouring in from the north. When at last the irresistible engine pushed a hole through the ceiling, the pent-up energy shot upward in a mad rush, whirling and roaring. It could have happened anywhere on the mostly empty prairie. This time it happened as the air mass passed through the south side of Joplin, Mo.

It sucked the roof from St. John’s Regional Medical Center and shattered the windows, sweeping reams of medical records heavenward. It snipped utility lines like thread and pulverized St. Mary’s Church and school yet left the giant cross towering over the rubble, unscathed.

In Joplin, Looking For A Boy

Frankel: JOPLIN, MO. — They had to find Skyular. They wanted the baby boy home.

The 16-month-old disappeared from his mother’s arms and into the massive tornado that two days earlier had destroyed so much of this city. His mother and father had been taken to a hospital, severely injured. Skyular, a small boy with light brown hair and big brown eyes, was gone.

His relatives were going to try to find him.


Toilets, Plumbed

Henry Allen, Washington Post Staff Writer
April 08, 1996

Toilets will never be great art, not even the expensive ones that look like art moderne telephones, or the oddly streamlined ones that look as if someone were about to set a world’s land speed record with them, or the bluff and British “Deluge” made by Doulton a century ago, with a rectitude that reminds one of the Titanic.

Beautiful maybe, sequestered as they are in the pastoral gloom of bathrooms, but not art. They are becoming a motif in the movies — John Travolta’s performance in “Pulp Fiction,” or Patricia Arquette’s bathroom scene in “Flirting With Disaster,” and Elisabeth Shue’s in “Leaving Las Vegas.” But not art. They violate Oscar Wilde’s Law: “All art is quite useless.” Toilets are quite useful. They are also aesthetic pariahs — they are toilets, after all. But they are useful pariahs, in the manner of the untouchables who sweep the streets in India.


Marcel Duchamp once exhibited a urinal as sculpture.

Every male photographer has urinal pictures tucked away — soft-edged shadows, wandering highlights and the pristinity of porcelain with brand names inscribed in a blue ink whose transparency makes it look ancient, like the ballast china brought home from Shanghai in sailing ships. (Strange: Porcelain furnishes the stations at both ends of the alimentary canal — dining and bath.)
Nostalgia, a pseudo art, is served by recollections of the floor-length urinals in restaurants where your father took you to lunch downtown — huge things, with the ice hissing peacefully at the bottom. Was it put there to cool the smell? To provide visual diversion? Sometimes a deodorant puck lifted its heavy antisepsis into the air, a smell like insecticide.

Urinals are an easy pleasure, though, like Vivaldi or e.e. cummings. They lack the jeopardized, ticklish quality prompted by toilets, commodes, water closets (whatever makes you least squeamish), beneath which a chortling whirlpool waits. There’s the vacuum gasp of railroad toilets with their view of somber tracks below, and the brisk and inauthentic rush of evacuation noise in an airplane, as if on completion of some dental procedure. In Takoma Park a number of years ago, a deliveryman pumped gasoline into a sewer instead of a fuel tank. A man in a bathroom downhill lighted a cigarette and got blown into the air. If you are unlucky, you may recall a newspaper story of a rat rising through the plumbing like an atomic submarine erupting from the polar ice cap. Instead, you expect peace, propriety and privacy — a sense of establishment, as if you’d just locked the door behind you and called to order a one-person convention.

These things are hard to talk about. I met a toilet salesman on a plane and asked him how he describes the problem his products solved.

“Going Gallagher,” he said. “I say, ‘As soon as your customer goes Gallagher’ . . . ”

In “Temples of Convenience and Chambers of Delight,” an Englishwoman named Lucinda Lambton (arguably the best byline since the New Yorker gave us Jamaica Kincaid) exhibits a collector’s passion rather than a critic’s for the finer points of a craft she chronicles in words and in dark, saturated, history-heavy color photographs.

Like so many Britishers she has two obsessions: cloacal reality and an indignation at the passage of time.

“In an act of dastardly desecration,” she writes of Harrod’s department store, “the Ladies Retiring Room was destroyed to make room for escalators in 1980.”

Lambton writes of the 20 Twyford “St. Anne’s Marble” stalls that surround the “Hexagonal Urinal Range” on a pier on the island of Bute: “With their sumptuous splendour, the urinals trumpet out all the triumphs of 19th century taste and technology, and they are to be found, glittering away, on an island in Scotland.”

Doulton’s Improved Pedestal Simplicitas model, with ornamental raised decoration, looks as if it’s about to glide out to a garden party and faint.

Or the final moments of an 1882 Dolphin wash-out toilet with polished mahogany seat: “With sensational sadness, it fell apart in December 1994,” Lambton writes.

(Britain is a land of sensational sadness. America is a land of sad sensation.)

Didn’t we all go to school with a guy who wrote a paper on “The Art of the Toilet” for art class? Or “The History of the Toilet” for history class?

Anyway, the irony of his toilet research kept it a small cut above the old cartoons that took a French phrase, like pied-a-terre, and illustrated it with a picture of a furtive partygoer wetting down the flowers on the terrace. This, in turn, was a cut above “Jokes for the John,” which in the 1950s was wit in the way the carport was architecture. Then we’ve had the immortal sculpture called “Goodbye Cruel World,” which depicts a man inside a toilet, pulling the flush lever. During World War II, English chamber pot makers painted Hitler’s face in them — a curious, stale ritual akin to fliers writing their names on bombs.

I had an ex-Marine friend who once watched a prim little man endlessly scrubbing his hands in a restaurant bathroom. He took the opportunity for a bit of guerrilla theater: When the man turned around, my friend unzipped, then watered down his hands and dried them on his clothes. The last I heard, my friend was living under the Atlantic City boardwalk.

In “The Age of Indiscretion,” Clyde Brion Davis recalls Chillicothe, Mo., in the days when you could see the governor “without his silk hat or frock coat and with his fawn-colored vest unbuttoned and the tab of his stiff-bosomed shirt unbuttoned and hanging outside his trousers . . . looking very thoughtful as he sauntered to the privy.”

How democratic. How American. Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, traveled with a chamber pot that was only six inches across. It was Sevres porcelain, green and gold, decorated by Binet, but it’s the diminution that implies grace and self-confidence of the sort Edmund Burke recalled from seeing her in her youth, “decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in — glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendour, and joy.” As far as the tiny Sevres porcelain went, her grace is unknowable because it could exist only in solitude, an aesthetic of the sort the Earl of Rochester meant when he said of something, “How exquisite . . . how Japan.”

The flush toilet is only about a century old. As historian Daniel Boorstin points out, it was adopted more slowly than bathtubs or wash basins because it wasn’t so obviously a labor-saving device — hauling water for an unplumbed bathtub took a lot of labor. He also notes another peculiarity: “In the older world, the public facilities tended to copy the private. Inns were shaped like large private residences.” But in America, “there were still few rich men and, of course, no ancient palaces. Here public buildings and public facilities made their own style, which gradually influenced the way everyone lived.”

As with all progress, something was lost.

Lucinda Lambton presents photographs of facilities from primitive to decadently ornate. She describes rustic wooden two- and three-holers from two places in East Anglia as “curiously alike.” Clearly she has visited very few outhouses, or she would know that they are all curiously alike. Form follows function, and the function is the same all over. The privy, the jakes, the outhouse is a joke now, or a symbol of ancient horror.

But those who have known the comfort of an outhouse in a piney woods on a cool summer morning will put it with the quiet pleasures of life, like waking up out of sight of land on your first day at sea. Those who knew them in Vietnam, however, remember the smell of the barrels in the pits below being set on fire, and the chalky filth of the smoke that didn’t fill the air as much as coat it.

In search of existential authenticity, passionate young people of the 1950s and 1960s headed for Europe. They found a favorable exchange rate and plumbing just bad enough that they felt authentic, even heroic. Authenticity increased as a function of poverty multiplied by how far east you went toward India. Ultimately, in some oasis town in Iran, or a hippie hotel in Nepal, you found yourself looking at a hole in a concrete floor, about eight inches wide. There was usually a faucet nearby. You said to yourself that you had hit bottom.

Maybe so.

I was stranded one morning in a town in northern India. There was an old fort that could be toured in 20 minutes, if you stretched it out. Then I wandered around, looking for sights. I saw a man with a small can of water, walking up a brown, dirt hill. He walked with the proprietary prowl of a man on a battlefield with a metal detector. People strolled along a road. Kids flew kites. About halfway up the hill the man stopped, and with no hole, no Sevres pot, no Doulton imperialism, no Marcel Duchamp aesthetics, and no Patricia Arquette vulgarity, he honored Mr. Gallagher. Then he cleaned up with the can of water. The onlookers weren’t scandalized, and he was not ashamed.

I saw that this performance was pleasure that verged on authenticity, or authenticity that verged on beauty, or beauty that verged on art.

A Gloomy Night Searching For Life

Michael Overall: JOPLIN, Mo. – A front-loader goes down the street first, pushing aside tree trunks and rooftops and overturned cars, clearing a path for the firetruck.

“Over there,” a sheriff’s deputy says as he points a flashlight at a particular pile of debris. “That’s where it is.”

It’s 2 a.m. Monday, nearly nine hours after a massive tornado left a good part of central Joplin looking like Berlin at the end of World War II.

Nothing but rubble stretches for mile after mile, dazed survivors wandering through the wreckage, the night so dark that a downed power line stays invisible until it’s already underfoot.

‘Finally, bretheren, farewell’

Kruse: WESLEY CHAPEL — All around the world, all day on Saturday, people mocked perplexed believers who watched and waited for the end that never came.

There were supposed to be rolling global earthquakes, followed by the Rapture of believers everywhere at 6 in the evening, followed by five months of unimaginable torment for those left behind, followed finally by the total destruction of the planet.

Psychologists worried about how believers would handle their disappointment and shaken emotional states.

Here in central Pasco County off State Road 54 sits a gated neighborhood with carefully cut rectangles of green grass and clean concrete driveways. In that neighborhood on a corner lot sits a big tan house with a beautiful wraparound porch. Inside that house on Saturday were people who believed.

And outside that house, in the late afternoon, as the clock ticked toward 6, four sheriff’s cars pulled up.

Getting Funny


It’s hard to be funny when you look like you’re drowning. Tim Hedley knows this cruel rule of comedy well.

Standing under bright stage lights, Tim grasps note cards he has just pulled from his trusty black Spider-Man folder. He licks his lips. Totters side to side. He leans into the microphone and reads each word slowly, one by one, sans nuance or mirth.

“WHY …

“DID …

It’s November 2010. Tim, 29, is practicing his shtick at the world’s first, and only, comedy workshop for the mentally disabled. He has Down syndrome, and it comes with what experts call a disfluency: Tim’s socially strong, academically weak. He also has a severe stutter and often searches for words as if he’s violently gulping air. Only slowwwing down solves this.

“THE …



“I don’t know, Tim,” says the workshop’s creator, Les McCurdy, sitting just beyond the stage. “Why DID the fish blush?”

Tim gets ready to unload the punch line.

As always, this could go either way.

The Blink Of An Eye

Tony Rehagen: THE GEAR IS GATHERED ON THE LANAI—A HALF-DOZEN 7-foot spinning rods, lined and hooked, along with a pair of dusty tackle boxes stocked with lures and weights. Down at the dock behind the house, a wide-decked, 23-foot Carolina Skiff bobs in the canal; in the kitchen sits a cooler packed with snacks and sandwiches. In the master bedroom, just off the lanai, Matt White watches SportsCenter highlights of last night’s Butler basketball game with one eye on the sky. Yesterday, the weather report said there was a 30 percent chance that a front moving toward Cape Haze from the Gulf of Mexico would produce rain—an event that would end Matt’s day before it begins.

Matt has been fishing the brackish Florida waters south of Sarasota since he was a boy on his family’s yearly vacation. His parents moved here from North Manchester, Indiana, while Matt was at Butler, and in the summers, he would often take his pole and go out alone. When Matt retired to Cape Haze seven years ago, he would fish at least twice a week, landing trophy specimens of just about every species that swims these parts. Shark and tarpon are the only prizes he still dreams about.

But it has been more than a year since Matt, 44, last got out on the water. He can’t just grab his gear and walk down to the dock. For the past decade, much longer than anyone, including himself, thought he could survive, he has lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease—which damages the nerves that control voluntary muscle movement. Today’s excursion has required a week of careful preparation.

Second Chances

Alexandra Zayas, Philip Morgan and Justin George: TAMPA

Walter “J.J.” Revear walked out of the Hillsborough County jail that day into hugs from relatives and questions from reporters.

“Do you know what a break you got? Are you going to stay out of trouble now?”

It was his 13th birthday, Oct. 20, 1995. And he was the chubby-cheeked face of a flawed juvenile justice system at a time judges wrestled over punishments for kids who committed grown-up crimes.

The fifth-grader, who stood at 4-foot-6, had driven the getaway car in an armed robbery. The victim caught a glimpse of him, giggling.

In court, he had to sit tall to see over the jury box. He swam in a button-up dress shirt. Prosecutors wanted him to go to prison, but community activists asked the judge to believe in his future.

He got house arrest — that time. The next time he walked out of jail, no one met him. He lost his baby fat, grew facial hair, began to stick out less among the chained men. News reports logged in arrests with fading interest.

Then, on Wednesday, reporters gathered around a Tampa Police Department spokeswoman to hear about a murder outside a Nebraska Avenue bar. The victim was someone familiar; the news, not unexpected.

It was J.J.

Dead at 28.

Used To Be A Cop

Kruse: SARASOTA — Last spring a respected detective for this city’s police department went to the local courthouse and did something stupid.

At the time, Tom Laughlin, a twice-married 41-year-old father of four, was worried about the unstable economy. He found unsettling politicians’ talk about cutting the pensions of public employees, and he didn’t like President Barack Obama’s health care plan. He had some vague notion of wanting to get back to this country’s “roots.”

Following the advice of his older brother, he filed a set of strange documents, declaring himself “a flesh and blood, living, breathing, biological man,” and an “American National Sovereign.” The documents seemed to say he was no longer a citizen and didn’t have to follow any laws. “I, one Thomas Michael Laughlin Senior, Free man … “