No, He Doesn’t

I forgot to mention yesterday that I went downtown to see a panel discussion on the media, where most of the people (except for one named Dotty) seemed to be named Howard. I got there quite late, having had a miserable time with mass transit — I missed the bus up the street by a few minutes, then walked almost four miles down Route 7 to where they run more often, only to watch a second one pull out when I was still half a block away. Which meant another 45-minute wait by the side of the road.

When I finally got to the Ira Allen Chapel on the UVM campus, I was about 80 minutes late and the panel of Howards (Dean, Fineman, Wolfson) was, to quote Miracle Max from The Princess Bride, “mostly dead.” They did speak well enough, though, in the closing section I heard, saying a lot of patently obvious things that you or I could have come up with. And everyone remained civil, even to the almost-cartoon-like villain (complete with thin little mustache) on the panel, who a) was named Ron, not Howard, and b) bravely came to town even though over the years he’s served as a campaign adviser to George Bush I, and political director of the Republican National Committee under Reagan.

Not quite the same as being a member of, say, the Waffen-SS, but in Vermont, certainly close. The audience did come close to outright prolonged hoots of laughter at one point when — in response to Howard Dean’s assertion that in the long run, George Bush II’s response to Hurricane Katrina would prove more troublesome than his handling of the war in Iraq — Ron said (I’m paraphrasing, since I didn’t take notes) he believed that in the long run, history would show Bush II had done an excellent job both down in Lousiana and in Iraq. Being polite Vermonters, though, they remained (to paraphrase Miracle Max) “mostly silent.”

More amazing to me than seeing real-life Talking Heads was discovering that the moderator, the most voluble of everyone, was none other than Norman J. Ornstein, resident scholar from the American Enterprise Institute for Public Research. I have seen his name referenced for years, but never imagined that he a) really existed and b) still walks the earth.

* * *

Even more astonishing was something I found in UVM’s Bailey/Howe Library down the street from the chapel, to which I repaired after the panel discussion to do some research for an article I’m writing. (Which research, unfortunately, turned out about as well as my mass transit experiences for the day.) Going into a men’s room on the second floor, I was amazed to discover, carved into the stall door in gigantic letters, the words “Bird Lives.”

Which, of course, he doesn’t.

This famous graffiti is a reference to the late alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, who (I tremble to say) I’ve never particularly liked, but who (it’s fair to say) is considered one of the half-dozen true giants of jazz history. He has been idolized by generations of musicians, some of whom went to the point of becoming heroin addicts, to be more like him. Parker at an early age was nicknamed Yardbird for some unknown reason (one explanation: his love of fried chicken), which later was shortened to Bird.

Parker, whose music most considered sublime but whose personal life (it’s also fair to say) was a mess, died 51 years ago from pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, not helped at all by much drug/alcohol abuse. (He was age 34, but so ravaged that the coroner famously estimated his age as between 50 and 60.) Parker was such a legend in his own time that within moments of his death, seemingly, the graffiti Bird Lives was found chalked first in New York City subways, and then all over the place.

[Digression: the graffiti later was found to be the work of a New York poet, jazz trumpeter, and painter named Ted Joans (1928—2003). After his death a few years ago, Joans himself became the subject of a tribute website called Ted Joans Lives!]

This is Burlington, though, far from Birdland, a jam band citadel whose musical legends are groups like Phish (also now dead, come to think of it). I cannot believe that UVM students, who weren’t even born until 30+ years after Bird himself stopped living, are carving 50-year-old graffiti into the bathroom stall doors. Are there still aging beatniks, armed with X-ACTO knives, roaming campus? Or could it be that UVM hasn’t repainted its men’s room stalls since the 1950s?

* * *

p.s. When leaving the chapel, while going to pick up an event program for my files, I came across a discarded piece of the blue paper used by audience members to write questions for the panel. This question, abandoned for some reason, read: “A disproportional number of Zionists are media owners. The media elite are dumbing us down with fake news. How can we overcome these problems?”

What do you think, Howard(s)?

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