Dates and places


There was a terrible smell in parts of Central Park today. It wasn’t a broken sewer line or a chemical-warfare attack. It was the female ginkgo trees, what we refer to as the “stinko ginkgoes.” Older Asian Americans have been gathering the trees’ malodorous “fruit” or seed. I understand it’s considered a treat. Oh, well. De gustibus non disputandum.

Enough trees with leaves still make a ride through the park a delightfully colorful experience. There’s an oak at the top of Museum Hill with leaves as red as a maple’s, even though the other oaks nearby have leaves that are just russet or brown.

Museum Hill is the second steepest in the park. The Great Hill is worse. I barely made it to the top yesterday, so I pumped some more air into my tires today. Would that all of our problems could be so easily solved.

There is nothing approaching the Great Hill in any of the parks in Hoboken, New Jersey, and a circumnavigation of the entire city is a shorter trip than a ride around Central Park. Hoboken is just one square mile.

Like Frank Sinatra, I was born and raised in Hoboken (and I used to hang curtains in his mother’s house). I like to refer to it as the city of which New York is merely a suburb. There’s some justification to my claim.

Hoboken’s older. As best I know, both Native Americans and Europeans spent the night in Hoboken before they did so in New York. Hoboken can claim the first game of baseball and has some claim to the inventions of the zipper and the ice-cream cone. It’s where the railroad was introduced to America, and it’s where the steamboat, the twin-screw propulsion system, and the double-ended ferryboat came from.

It’s where Edgar Allan Poe wrote, Stephen Foster composed, and Alexander Calder went to engineering school (so did a president of Bolivia). The Astors and the Vanderbilts frequented Hoboken’s Elysian Fields; it was also the site of America’s first yacht club. Others who entertained in Hoboken included Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (their duel was just north of the city), Lillian Russell, John L. Sullivan, and Horace Greeley. Bruce Springsteen sang there. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is still being built there.

The International Longshoremen’s Association was started in Hoboken. It’s where Twinkies, Tootsie Rolls, Lipton Tea, and Maxwell House Coffee came from, and it’s where the caffeine removed from Sanka was sent to Coke and Pepsi. “On the Waterfront” was shot in Hoboken; so was “Funny Girl.” There was a more-recent TV series set in Hoboken, but the producers didn’t think Hoboken looked enough like their conception of Hoboken, so they shot it elsewhere.

New York was bailed out of one of its fiscal crises by Hoboken resident Hetty Green, the “Witch of Wall Street.” The Guinness Book of World Records calls her the world’s greatest miser, possibly because she lived in a cold-water flat, sharing her bedroom with her daughter and having her son sleep in the kitchen. She ate oatmeal cooked on a radiator, but she fed her dog steak every day. She left $100 million when she died in 1916.

I lived about six blocks south of Green’s Hoboken apartment. We had hot water, our own rooms, and a stove, but it wasn’t a fancy house. We lived above the dry goods store our parents ran.

Nevertheless, we did some VIP entertaining of our own. When I was growing up, it wasn’t that rare for me to find the mayor of New York, the governor of New Jersey, senators, ambassadors, or the like in our living room. My father was a community leader with a wall of awards to show for his work. Long before that, he was an illegal immigrant who had crossed the border from Canada.

My father fought in World War I. General John Pershing, commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, told his troops, “It’ll be hell, heaven, or Hoboken by Christmas.”

Of course, it wasn’t known as World War I at the time. It was called “The Great War” or “The War to End All Wars.” It wasn’t. President Woodrow Wilson called it the “War to Make the World Safe for Democracy.” It wasn’t that, either.

It’s possible that some of General Pershing’s troops tried to kill my father; maybe he tried to kill them. He fought on the “other” side. It was a part of his life he would never discuss with me.

Tomorrow, November 11, is Veterans’ Day in the U.S. We used to call it Armistice Day before broadening it in 1954 to include veterans of other wars. Other countries call it Remembrance Day.

There’s a village in France that commemorates the moment of the World War I armistice (the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month). Each year the villagers go to a veterans’ cemetery, placing flowers on the graves, and eulogizing the dead. The dead happen to have been German soldiers who were fighting against France. But no one seems to care. It could have been the other way around.

In his speech at the United Nations today, George W. Bush noted the ambiguity. “In this world there are good causes and bad causes,” he said, “and we may disagree on where the line is drawn.”

It’s not clear what good cause World War I was about. There’s general agreement that it started the moment a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Ferdinand. So, without looking it up, do you know which side we were on? Were we with the Archduke or the assassin?

If we’re confused about what we were fighting for in World War I, there seems no such confusion about World War II. It has been called “The Good War,” a battle between the forces of justice and evil. In the words of Mr. Bush today, in World War II, “We affirmed that some crimes are so terrible they offend humanity, itself.”

Some of the last acts of World War II were the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some say that the resulting deaths hastened the end of the war. But Mr. Bush told the United Nations today that “No national aspiration, no remembered wrong can ever justify the deliberate murder of the innocent.” In Hiroshima, 130,000 were killed, injured, or missing; in Nagasaki, it was 75,000.

I wish I could understand all of what Mr. Bush said today. He said, “The Taliban’s days of… dealing in heroin… are drawing to a close.” But the Taliban had banned heroin production before September 11. Our new clients, the Northern Alliance, have been encouraging it.

Mr. Bush said, “The United States will work closely with the United Nations and development banks to reconstruct Afghanistan after hostilities there have ceased and the Taliban are no longer in control.” But we haven’t yet reconstructed a neighborhood in Panama we destroyed in our invasion of that country in 1989.

“Even before this current crisis,” Mr. Bush said, “four million Afghans depended on food from the United States and other nations, and millions of Afghans were refugees from Taliban oppression.” Then he said, “America has air-dropped over 1.3 million packages of rations into Afghanistan.” But each of those packages of rations will feed one person for one day, so we have been dealing with the food needs of about 35,000 people, not four million, and that’s if the packages are getting through. Mr. Bush said, “the Taliban tried to steal the food we send,” but the New York Times ran a photo of Northern Alliance soldiers gathering the air-dropped food packages.

The food packages are labeled primarily in English, with some French and Spanish. They contain things Americans might like, such as peanut butter and crackers, foods alien to an Afghan diet. They are yellow, the same color as the unexploded bomblets from the cluster bombs we have been dropping. If that were not enough reason for Afghans to shy away from our food aid, we have warned them that the Taliban might be poisoning it. Humanitarian agencies have been doing their best to get the word out that the food has NOT been tampered with — that is, such food as has not been destroyed or isolated by our bombing.

The terrorist attacks on the United States occurred on September 11. Much as been made of the fact that the date was 9-11, the U.S. emergency phone number. But September 11 was 9-11 only in the way that we tend to write dates. In much of the rest of the world, 9-11 was yesterday, the ninth of November.

November 9, 1938 is commemorated as Kristallnacht, the night of deadly anti-Jewish riots throughout Germany. They weren’t the first anti-Jewish acts of Hitler’s regime. As early as 1933, Germans were told to boycott Jewish shops. Jewish citizenship was revoked in 1935. Before Kristallnacht, there were already Jewish concentration camps, in part because Poland refused to accept Jewish refugees.

On May 13, 1939, about a thousand Jewish refugees left Germany on the St. Louis, a ship headed for Cuba. Cuba refused to let them in. So did we. So the Jews were brought back to Europe. We didn’t enter World War II until more than two-and-a-half years later, not because of “crimes so terrible they offend humanity itself” but because of an attack on our navy at Pearl Harbor.

This was the lead paragraph in an Associated Press story TODAY: “Prime Minister John Howard and his conservative government won a third term in national elections Saturday, capping a stunning political comeback fueled largely by the Australian leader’s efforts to keep refugees out of the country.”

Howard commented about September 11. “Those terrible deeds were done to us as much as they were done to our American friends,” he said. “We have a duty to respond to them.”

What was his proposed response? I’m not sure, but it includes keeping Afghan refugees out of his country. “These people will never set foot on Australian soil.”

After some 400 of the refugees drowned, 433 were rescued by a Norwegian freighter. Then Australian commandos boarded the freighter to prevent it from reaching their country. Australia did pay the tiny island country of Nauru to accept the Afghans. Some 2,000 refugees seeking asylum in Australia have been sent to Australian-built detention camps in either Papua New Guinea or Nauru.

I don’t mean to single out Australia. During the crisis on the Norwegian freighter, we didn’t offer to accept the Afghan refugees, either.

Mr. Bush ended his United Nations speech today, “let us go forward, confident, determined, and unafraid.” In Afghanistan, we continue to drop bombs.

TTFN, Mark