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Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park in southeastern California consists of nearly 800,000 acres located at the convergence of the Mohave and Colorado deserts. The Joshua tree, for which the park is named, grows only in the higher elevation Mohave desert in the western half of the park. A protected species, most of the world’s Joshua trees are in this park.
I visited Joshua tree in late December a day after a full day of precipitation. In the Colorado desert, the eastern half of the park with elevations below 3,000 feet, that precipitation fell as rainfall. But in the Mohave it was snow. Entering the park from the eastern side I started by walking in the sand through the cactus gardens. But a little ways up the road I was standing in 8 inches of snow amidst a field of Joshua trees.
Cholla Cactus Garden
Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Unlike any of the other best books of the year lists you’re likely to encounter this week, mine has nothing to do with when these books were written or published. They just happen to be books that I read in 2019. I meant to create a list of five but couldn’t leave out any of these. They are presented in order of preference, but I might have changed my mind about that by the time you read this.
1. The Ghosts of Eden Park
A story of three giant personalities who between them pretty well represent 1920’s America. George Remus of Cincinnati was one of the largest and most successful bootleggers during Prohibition. Imogene Remus, his femme fatale wife, is a gold digger, social striver and business partner. And Mabel Willebrandt, assistant attorney general of the United States, is responsible for landing Remus in jail.
As a bootlegger, Remus was more of an entrepreneur and businessman than a gangster. He exploited a loophole in the Volstead Act that allowed liquor to be sold for medicinal purposes. (Sound familiar?) Thus his accumulation of distilleries was accompanied by acquisitions of pharmacies. He would have his own employees hijack his liquor shipments creating the appearance that his legal cargo had been stolen. He also represented the ostentatiousness of new money. At one of the parties he threw in his mansion, he lit guests cigars with $100 bills and his guests found $1,000 bills tucked under their dinner plates.
All of this fit in well with Imogene’s ambitions. That is until George went to jail. She then absconded with most of his wealth and possessions and took up with one of the investigators that Willebrandt had hired to go after him. If that wasn’t enough, she tried to have him deported as a non-citizen, an issue that is not completely clarified in Abbott’s book.
While many readers will find themselves focused on the dramatic story of the Remus’s marriage, a story that ends with murder and a spectacular trial, I was fascinated by Willebrandt. I had known of her as the most dedicated and effective enforcer of Prohibition. As such, and considering that like most folks today I don’t think Prohibition was a very good idea, I pictured a rather uptight, straight-laced, self-righteous woman.
Not so much. Willebrandt was the highest ranking woman in government at a time when women had only just attained the right to vote. She was a feminist who no doubt carried the weight of her entire gender on her shoulders. She was not a supporter of Prohibition before it was enacted and was a social drinker. But put in the position of assistant attorney general and being charged with enforcing Prohibition, she did her job and did it well. This despite being part of the notoriously corrupt Warren Harding administration. In fact, you get the impression she was the only one in the Justice Department who wasn’t on the take.
Abbott’s book humanizes Willebrandt. We learn that after divorcing her husband she goes to an orphanage and adopts a daughter who she raises as a single mother. She resigns in 1929 after Herbert Hoover bypasses her (for a man) for the attorney general position. In later life, as a private attorney who often represented well-known Hollywood stars, she stood up for the victims of McCarthyism.
This if a very fast-paced and well written book. It reads like a novel. So much so that I had to remind myself more than once that it is history.
2. Car Trouble
A story of a family as told in chapters defined by the junkers and low riders that the alcoholic dad brings home from poker games and police auctions. There’s no Lexus. No Prius nor a sensible family SUV. This is about widebodies with tail fins, smoking tailpipes and noisy mufflers. And chrome. Lots of chrome. There’s the Green Hornet, the Black Beauty and the Red Devil.
Rorke’s novel is set in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1960’s. It reminds me of the people Jimmy Breslin would write about. It also reminds me of the working class Italian-American neighborhood where I grew up in northern New Jersey. Until I read this story I’d forgotten about boil-in-the-bag chicken a la king that my mom would serve to me on toast. And I had long since forgotten what a head of hair adorned with Vitalis smelled like.
The similarities go beyond such trivial things. Both Rorke’s fictional family and my real one were representative of the gender roles of the time in neighborhoods like these. The dad in Car Trouble, like so many of my friends’ fathers, was a walking time bomb. You tiptoed around them to avoid the inevitable explosion, an explosion that meant a lot of shouting and at least the threat of physical violence. These were the predecessors of today’s angry white men in MAGA hats. Part of it was the alcohol, of which there was always plenty. But it also had to do with being raised in a culture where you were supposed to be the chief provider and protector, the “king of the castle,’ yet finding yourself tied to a dead-end job or profession where you worked like a dog, didn’t really have enough and had little hope of things getting better.
Yes the women were housewives who cooked, cleaned, looked after the kids and did the laundry. But they had an even more important role. Mom was the voice of reason, the voice of sobriety, the sole source of empathy. Most often it was the mother who was chief financial advisor and banker. My dad was in his sixties when my mom died and one of the first things I had to do was teach him how to use a checkbook.
By the late 60’s things were starting to change but in neighborhoods like this it was driven more by economic need than by enlightenment. In both the Car Trouble family and mine, the mom ended up as the sole breadwinner in the family.
But back to the cars. This was not yet a seat belt era. Most of the 50’s era cruisers that found their way into the hands of Rorke’s fictional family had a bench front seat that fit three across. The middle seat was affectionately known as the “death seat.” But it had its advantages. The deluxe models had a record player stored under the dashboard and the death seat occupant had control over what 45’s to spin. You can’t really ride in widebodies like these without a little Motown in the background.
This is a great novel. You don’t have to have experienced boil-in-the-bag chicken a la king to enjoy it. It’s 400 pages that read like 150. I hated to see it end.
And in the end Nicky, the oldest child and only boy in a family of five children, helps his father drive the Blue Max backwards through the Brooklyn streets. Backwards because that’s all that’s left of the transmission. When they find a sufficiently secluded spot, dad, who the other family members refer to as Himself, takes out the pliers, destroys the plate with the VIN number, removes the license plates and that’s a wrap. (The novel doesn’t really end this way but you don’t want me to spoil it, do you?)
3. The Pianist of Yarmouk
A man rolls his piano out onto the decimated streets of Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus, and despite the bombings, the snipers, the starvation, plays his music. A photo goes viral and the man, Aeham Ahmad, is tracked down by journalists, photographers, filmakers. This book is his story.
Ahmad’s life is one of tragedy layered upon tragedy. His family is Palestinian, forced to leave their homeland and seek refuge in Syria. His father is blind because the medical care needed to deal with his childhood eye disease wasn’t available to Palestinian refugees in Damascus. Then there’s the starvation caused by a siege of the city, the brutality of ISIS’s entry and the harrowing trip to flee his homeland.
But Ahmad carves out a comfortable, if modest, life for himself and his family in both his first and his second adopted home. Before the Syrian civil war virtually destroyed Yarmouk, Ahmad and his father operated a music shop there. Despite his disability his father made himself an expert piano tuner and he made ouds, a popular string instrument in the region. Ahmad gave piano lessons. That all ended with the war. In Germany, Ahmad became a concert pianist and was able to get his family and parents to join him where they live in safety in Weisbaden.
But Ahmad is one of the lucky ones. His almost accidental notoriety and musical skill got him through situations that others likely wouldn’t have. The first half of the book is about his life in Yarmouk before the warring factions took over. It humanizes the tragedy and devastation that has befallen the Syrians. For many of us the Syrian civil war seems to be an endless affair with more factions involved than we can keep up with. But Ahmad has no politics and his words clarify for us the human toll irrespective of who is on whose side.
After what seems a lifetime of trials and tribulations, it is something of a surprise to realize that Ahmad was barely 30 years old when he wrote this book. I can only wish him a peaceful life from here on. This should be required reading for anyone who subscribes to the Trumpian doctrine that Muslims are terrorists and migrants are criminals.
4. The Rent Collector
Sang Ly and Ki Lim live in a dump. Literally. To stay alive one or both puts on their boots and picks through the garbage each day until they find enough salable items to buy something for dinner. They also have a chronically sick child for whom they have no means to get proper care. Their home is of cardboard and canvas and even that they don’t own. It’s rented. Hence there’s a rent collector, a drunken, sour, nasty woman.
Asian folk tales always have a moral that they demonstrate. This one is along the lines of ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover.’ To witness, we learn what the rent collector is all about. A novel about a poor family living amidst a trash heap may sound kind of depressing. This book is anything but. It is about hope and humanity. About education and the power of literacy. It also is about the lingering impact of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
Stung Meanchey, the municipal dump, does in fact exist. And there are folks living there by the names of Sang Ly and Ki Lin. The author discovered them in a documentary made by his son. But this is a work of fiction. Confused? Me too. There are pictures of this couple at the end of the book as well as some others who are part of the story. But the author tells us they are not to be construed as pictures of his characters. Huh? Suffice it to say this is a good story and I enjoyed reading it.
5. Talking to My Daughter: A Brief History of Capitalism
Early in my career as a fledgling journalist I had an editor who would say, if your grandmother wouldn’t understand this story, you need to rewrite it. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that this crusty old editor was insulting the intelligence of grandmothers, this is similar to the approach that Yanis Yaroufakis takes in outlining the history of capitalism. His book is written as he would explain this to his 15-year old daughter.
In doing so he answers questions like why do we have income inequality and why do we have religion. Or, more provocatively, why did the English conquer Australia and push out the Aborigines rather than the other way around?
None of the economics here involve any formulas or algorithms. Instead Yaroufakis makes liberal use of various fables and tales to explain the world economy. The myth of Oedipus is an example of the self-fulfilling prophecy that is in play in producing a recession. And Frankenstein is an example of human technology creating monsters that enslave us.
The book is full of nuggets of wisdom. “The economy is too important to leave to economists.” As for technology, “The robots that have replaced human workers do not spend money on the products that they help produce.” And, as for bankers, they are conjurers of “black magic.”
Yaroufakis frames some of the most critical issues facing us. “We urgently need as a species a way to make full use of our technological potential without periodically destroying the livelihoods of great swathes of humanity and ultimately enslaving ourselves to the few.” And this is one economist acutely aware of climate change observing, “we seem wholly intent on destroying our host environment.”
This is not only readable economics, it is literary and humane.
6. The Last Days of Night
A novel that raises the question of whether Thomas Edison was a greedy, second-class inventor who would go to any lengths to squash the competition. Like much historical fiction, it leaves you scratching your head wondering how much of it is true. The author offers some notes at the end clarifying which of the events in the story were real and which imagined. But those notes offer no clue as to whether Edison was indeed a scoundrel. Living as I do in Edison’s backyard, we don’t think of him that way.
The plot of The Last Days of Night is based on a patent suit. Edison sues George Westinghouse for violating his patent on the light bulb. The cast of characters goes beyond that. Alexander Graham Bell and J.P. Morgan make cameos. Nicola Tesla, who invented alternating current, is portrayed as an awkward, inarticulate, pretty much crazy guy who also happens to be brilliant. And the story is told through the eyes of Westinghouse’s attorney, Paul Cravath, who in real life the author credits with inventing the modern-day law firm.
How much drama can you create around a patent suit? Turns out quite a lot. But there are a lot of other story lines, including the question of alternating vs. direct current, the moral issue of using the newly-invented electric chair and the mystery of who nearly killed Tesla by setting his lab on fire while he was in it. There’s even some romance.
If you like Eric Larson’s books, you’ll like this. It is the same sort of fast-moving, dramatic history. As for the question of Edison: Greedy? Probably. Unscrupulous? Possibly. But also a man who made history and changed our lives. A man of his age. Not just the Wizard of Menlo Park but one of the late 19th century captains of industry, with all the positives and negatives that entails.
Josephine Nivison was a teacher, artist and actress. In 1923, at the age of 41, she married the painter Edward Hopper. He was 42. They lived in a small studio apartment near Washington Square in New York and as they led a somewhat hermetic existence, they were often with each other 24/7. She was the only female model he used, including for the painting above.
But their’s was anything but an idyllic marriage. In her diaries she described scratching him and biting him “to the bone.” He, on the other hand, “cuffed” her, slapped her face and banged her head on the wall. A friend of the couple said that every time he visited them they seemed on the verge of divorce. But they stayed together for 43 years, until his death in 1967.
After his death, she bequeathed all of his remaining work, more than 3,000 pieces, as well as her own, to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Here are a few of Hopper’s works from the Whitney Collection.
A(1). Middlemost Daft. An exhibition of the works of Washington, D.C., artist Tom Greaves at the Black Rock Center for the Arts, Germantown, Md., October 2019.
A(2). Middlemost Daft. Assemblages of collected objects depicting the middle of an unfinished short story.
(Photos by Melissa Klurman)
I still have a hard-wired phone (for reasons I’ll get to later). Don’t bother to call me on it. I likely won’t answer. And if you leave a voicemail, I probably won’t ever hear it.
Here’s what happens when my house phone rings. I don’t respond to the first ring because I am using a software (NoMoRobo) that will answer robocalls and then hang up after one ring. Then, if it rings a second time my phone (Panasonic) announces the caller by reading the caller ID. Unfortunately they use the worst text to voice technology I’ve ever encountered so unless the caller has a name like Bob Mark, it is generally unintelligible. That doesn’t stop me from waiting two or three rings to try to figure it out. At this point I may decide to wander over to the phone, but by the time this happens and I get there, the call has already gone to voicemail. So, having gotten to the phone too late, I may try to check voicemail. But after finding out that there are two dozen voicemail messages, even though I cleaned it out earlier in the week, and that I would have to go through each one to get to the most recent, I don’t bother. The voicemails are all about two seconds long, left by a spammer, and with no message.
So why do I still have a hard-wired phone? Good question. I actually called my provider, Verizon, and asked to disconnect it. But they advised that if I did, my bill would actually go up since I’m getting a promotional rate for a bundled service that includes internet, TV and phone. Thus it turns out that in order to get a marginally reasonable rate on what I really want, which is wifi and a handful of TV stations I might actually watch, I must also get not only several hundred TV stations I will never watch in my lifetime but also a nuisance landline phone service that has been taken over by spammers..
This problem, of course, is not limited to my hard-wired phone, nor to me personally. In November of 2019, 5 billion robocalls were placed. That’s 167 million each day, an average of more than 15 calls per person. (YouMail Robocall Index.) Most of these calls are focused on selling some type of crappy health insurance or a useless warranty. Some are more dangerous: scammers looking to trick you into providing information that will give them access to your money or your identity. It is apparently a very successful business with a high profit margin.
How did this pile of garbage explode into our phones? According to Google Phone App Product Manager Paul Dunlop the enabling technology is VoIP or Voice over Internet Protocol. (Google Expert Explains Why You Get So Many Robocalls.) By using VoIP you can make a phone call over the internet rather than through a wire. By doing so, you don’t have to make the call from a specific phone number and can instead make it appear to be coming from any number you want. Thus we have spoofing. Spammers generally are using computer generated programs to spit out an unlimited number of phone numbers.
These numbers will show up in the caller ID on your phone and will usually be accompanied by the name of a town that the phone number’s exchange is in. That has led to a practice called neighbor spoofing. So I might get calls that identify the location as the town I live in or the town where my son goes to school or works. Thus I answer. They also may have access to other personal data (is that you Zuckerberg?). For example, I have gone to a medical appointment in Hackensack, a town where I know nobody, and the following day got spoofed calls from a Hackensack number. You may also find that it’s your phone number that’s being spoofed and you may get an angry return call.
So where do we look for help with this? First of all it is the carriers who should be doing something to control this. According to TechCrunch, “spoofing happens because the carriers don’t verify that a phone number is real before a call crosses their networks.” (How to Stop Robocalls Spamming Your Phone.) The same story notes that a technology exists to stop it. That technology, called STIR/Shaken “relies on every phone number having a unique digital signature which, when checked against the call networks will prove you are a real caller. The carrier then approves the call and patches it through to the recipient.”
The carriers have been told by the FCC to implement this technology at no charge to the customer. There is also legislation that has passed both houses of Congress requiring that the carriers do this. Have they? Nope. But they have instead charged customers for some half-assed solutions. AT&T will charge you $3.99 a month for “Call Protect Plus”; Sprint charges $2.99 a month just to allow customers to block calls and for $2.99 a month Verizon offers a ”risk meter.” My Verizon phone will occasionally identify a caller as spam, maybe one in ten.
How about the FCC? The FCC chairman Ajit Pai is a former Verizon employee who has in his role largely done the bidding of the major carriers. One of his first moves as FCC chairman was to roll back net neutrality regulations, thus opening up a revenue stream for the major carriers by allowing them to charge large content providers for a faster pathway to their users, thus slowing down everyone else and making us a secondary priority.
Nonetheless Pai insists that stopping phone spam is a top priority. Occasionally somebody gets nabbed. In September of 2018 a sleazeball by the name of Philip Roesel was fined $82 million for illegal caller ID spoofing, including 21 million robocalls to market health insurance. This was under the Truth in Caller ID Act which prohibits falsifying caller ID info to disguise one’s identity. But, according to TechCrunch, the “FCC has fined robocallers more than $200 million in recent years but collected just $6,790 because the agency lacks the authority to enforce the fines.”
So, for the most part, we’re on our own to deal with this. I started by listing my phone number in the federal Do Not Call registry as soon as I became aware of it. I assume that somewhere there is an honest marketer who doesn’t call me because my number is on that list. But for the folks who are behind the 5 billion a month robocalls, they could care less about the Do Not Call Registry.
So then I discovered that if you let the robo-message play to the end you would get the option to click on a number to tell them never to call again. Turns out that is the worst thing your can do. By answering, clicking or otherwise engaging you are confirming for the spammer’s system that you are a live wire and now you’ll get even more calls.
My iPhone gives me the option to block callers and I found the same option in the Verizon app for my hard-wired phone. One observer compared trying to keep up with this to playing Whack-a-Mole. You might be able to stop a few repeat calls but with spoofers generating one number after another it quickly starts to become a waste of time. Unfortunately I also created some ill will by accidentally blocking my mother-in-law.
A further look at the Verizon app uncovered a feature called “block anonymous calls.” With no explanation I assumed this would stop the occasional spam call I get where the caller ID reads “unknown caller.” I enabled that and have found absolutely no evidence it has ever blocked anything.
So then I looked at outside services to try to get a handle on this. As mentioned earlier I use NoMoRobo on my hard-wired phone. I installed it about three years ago and at first it worked pretty well. The software can identify robotic calls. It then ‘answers’ the call and hangs up after one ring. NoMoRobo blocks a call or two to my number just about everyday, but it struggles with spoofers and at this point far more get through than are stopped. The software is free for hard-wired phones for certain carriers. There is a charge to use it on a mobile and it isn’t working well enough for me to pay for it.
On my mobile, I installed Hiya. This is something of a crowd-sourced spam fighter. It depends on its users to report spam, then it blocks the number and identifies it as spam for other users. Much like NoMoRobo, it stops some calls. But it also can’t deal that well with spoofers because they are using legitimate numbers that belong to real people and businesses, just not to them. No matter how many numbers you block and report, the spammers are generating new ones all the time. Hiya is also free.
Most recently I started a one week trial of RoboKiller (not free) on my mobile. So far, so good. Three days and I haven’t gotten a spam call on my mobile. RoboKiller also gives you the option to have their system answer the call and play a pre-recorded message, often humorous (mine is a woman seeking the robocaller’s advice on what to do about her boyfriend’s bad breath). This supposedly ties up at least one line of the spammer’s system. Who knows whether it really impacts them but it does give you the feeling of satisfaction that you are fighting back.
But the larger picture is that either the unwillingness or the incapability of our government agencies and the phone companies to deal with this has nearly destroyed telephone service in the U.S. (Apparently things are much better in Europe where both the government and the carriers have been active in stopping spammers.) I have missed many a call I would have wanted to get because every time my phone rings, I assume it’s garbage. So, as I said in the beginning, if you want to reach me, don’t waste your time calling the phone.
(all images from Unsplash)
Jersey City once had a modest sized minor league baseball stadium on the shores of Newark Bay that lasted for 50 years before being demolished. But Roosevelt Stadium had a much larger role in baseball history than that description would suggest.
It was there in 1946 that Jackie Robinson broke through organized baseball’s color barrier. April 18 was opening day for the Jersey City Giants, AAA affiliate of the New York Giants. And they were hosting the Brooklyn Dodgers AAA team, the Montreal Royals, at Roosevelt Stadium.
Daily News sportswriter Gene Ward was there that day and he described the scene in the next day’s paper:
“Mayor Hague opened Jersey City’s 1946 baseball season with all his typical fol-de-rol and flourish before 25,000 constituents in neat, bunting-draped Roosevelt Stadium yesterday, but a young Negro ball player named Jackie Robinson stole the show! Making modern diamond history with this debut for his race in organized baseball, Robinson performed prodigious feats as he led last year’s flag-winning Dodger farm club from Montreal to a 14-1 triumph. Seldom has a ball player found himself in such a spot, or in such a spotlight, but the cool colored lad who first rose to athletic prominence as football star at USC, was the sensation of the day.”
Specifically Robinson had four hits, including a three-run homer. In addition to his three RBIs, he scored four times and had two stolen bases.
Roosevelt Stadium also plays an oversized part in my own baseball history. In 1956 and 1957, the Brooklyn Dodgers played seven or eight of their home games in Jersey City. The arrangement was part of a ploy by Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley to try to pressure New York City into building a new stadium to replace Ebbets Field, which he thought was too small and had virtually no parking. The implication was that if city officials didn’t come through he could pop across the river to Jersey City. As we know, he instead popped across the country to Los Angeles.
One of those games was against the Cincinnati Redlegs, as they called themselves at the time. My father knew somebody who knew somebody who knew the brother of Redlegs second baseman Johnny Temple. So not only did my six-year-old self get tickets to the game, but I found myself in the visitors clubhouse after the game. Johnny Temple shook my hand and probably ruffled my hair or some such thing. I also remember first baseman George Crowe going out of his way to offer a cheerful greeting.
I have no idea who won that game. And I have long since lost whatever momento they no doubt gave me, likely an autographed ball. But I never forgot shaking hands with a four-time all-star second baseman. It is one of my most vivid baseball memories. It is also an example of a connection with kids that Major League Baseball lost when they decided to start letting games run past midnight, choosing to accommodate the television networks and advertisers rather than its young fans.
In researching this post, I was dismayed to find out that after retirement Temple lost everything in a bad business venture and was later arrested and charged with larceny of farm equipment.
Named after FDR, Roosevelt Stadium was a product of the New Deal. It was built as part of the Works Progress Administration. During its four years of construction between 1934 and 1937 it provided 2,400 badly needed jobs in Depression era America.
Opening day was April 24, 1937: the Jersey City Giants vs. the Rochester Red Wings. Mayor Hague, who controlled Jersey City for some 50 years, was said to have twisted the collective arms of his vast constituency into buying 50,000 tickets. Seating capacity at Roosevelt was 24,500. Here’s how the Paterson Morning Call reported on the stadium opening:
“Rochester Red Wings spoiled what otherwise was a grand and glorious re-entry into the International League by Jersey City at Roosevelt Stadium today when they defeated the Jerseys, 4 to 3, in a 12-inning battle. Jersey City fans packed the immense $1,500,000 ballpark in the rafters and overflowed onto the field back of the center field fence and established a new minor league attendance record with 31,234 paid admissions.”
The Giants were a fixture at Roosevelt Stadium until 1950. A decade later the stadium hosted another International League team after the Cuban Revolution sent the Havana Sugar Kings into refugee status and they landed in Jersey City for a two year stint.
There wasn’t much baseball after that. My personal memories of the stadium included seeing my first international soccer game there. I was a 16-year-old high school soccer player at the time and a volunteer who helped with the team took me there to see Glasgow Celtic. He was of Scottish descent, so he had no interest in whoever it was Celtic were playing and I have no idea who it was. A decade later I was back at Roosevelt Stadium for a Pink Floyd concert.
My last experience with the stadium was during the 1977 baseball season when the Cleveland Indians put a AA Eastern League team there. I went to a few games that summer, but it was a fairly dismal season of baseball. In addition to Cleveland’s minor leaguers, the Jersey City Indians had a few Toronto Blue Jays prospects. Toronto had just entered the American League and didn’t have a fully flushed out farm system yet. At age 40, the stadium was showing its age. And to make things worse, the Indians were a terrible team, finishing dead last with a 40-97 mark. Seems to me that every time I went they got hammered. Yet they managed to draw 60,000 fans that year, which was fourth in an eight-team league. Under the circumstances that seemed to confirm that Jersey City was a pretty good minor league baseball market. Yet after two seasons, the Indians folded shop and that was the end of minor league baseball in Jersey City. And, by 1985 that was the end of Roosevelt Stadium.
I grew up in Northern New Jersey and I currently live within five miles of Thomas Edison’s laboratory, a national historical park in West Orange, N.J. (Oh the Things Thomas Edison Thought Of.) It’s a fascinating place, all full of vials, test tubes and filaments, machines and contraptions, tools of every kind, as well as all of the finished products, ranging from motion picture cameras to a waffle iron.
As school kids, we all went there on field trips. As a sort of historical homeboy, Edison is as revered as any historical figure. So you can imagine my shock when, upon reading Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night, I found Edison portrayed as an outright scoundrel. Intensely jealous, disrespectful of anyone who could be construed as a rival or a critic, unethical and a second-rate inventor at that. Then I saw Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s movie The Current War. Added to the above we now see Edison as a torturer of innocent animals and likely a crappy husband and father.
Keep in mind that both the book and the movie are works of historical fiction. Both are supposed to be based on true events, but Moore isn’t writing history and Gomez-Rejon isn’t filming a documentary. Both have the same themes. There is a lawsuit ongoing between Edison and George Westinghouse in which Edison is suing Westinghouse for violating his patent for the light bulb. The Last Days of Night is narrated by the attorney representing Westinghouse in this legal case. Edison, by the way, didn’t invent the light bulb, but he created and received a patent on a certain type of bulb whose cost and longevity made it viable.
Then there is the current war that gave the movie its name. As Edison and Westinghouse competed for contracts to electrify the country, Edison used direct current. Westinghouse used alternating current which was cheaper and could cover longer distances. Edison sought to portray AC as dangerous. Thus in the movie we see Edison electrocuting a horse to prove his point. And in The Last Days of Night the suggestion is floated that Edison paid someone to set fire to Nicola Tesla’s lab, a fire that almost killed him. Tesla was the founder of alternating current. He was a former Edison employee who later hooked up with Westinghouse.
Moore portrays Tesla as an erratic, nearly incoherent, unstable genius. I suspect the film understates his importance and Nicholas Hoult is unconvincing as a guy who probably truly was a genius. Tesla is the only one of the three who didn’t come away with a pile of money.
The other theme that is central to both of the stories involves capital punishment. New York State is unveiling an electric chair as a more ‘humane’ method of execution. They are using alternating current (with Edison’s encouragement?). Edison is prepared to use this as proof that AC is lethal. Westinghouse sues to prevent it.
Moore’s book is a real page turner. It is very similar in style and tone to Eric Larsen’s popular histories. The movie has been panned by critics and ratings services. It’s not that bad. I viewed it with low expectations but found it surprising interesting.
There are however a few things about the movie that I’m pretty skeptical about. I think its doubtful that Westinghouse was beyond reproach as he is portrayed. And for all the photos I’ve seen of Edison, I just can’t come to grips with him looking like Benedict Cumberbatch. There’s also a courtroom scene which involves the Westinghouse suit to prevent the adoption of the electric chair based on the constitutional prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” For some reason the ax murderer who is set to be the first victim is in the court. After the session is over, the criminal comes out the same door as Edison. When someone asks Edison for his autograph, the ax murderer bends forward and Edison leans on his back to sign. Then they take him away. Please!
It is also contrived and melodramatic to present the flip of the switch on the electric chair and the flip of the switch turning on the lights at the Chicago World’s Fair as if they were happening simultaneously.
I understand that it’s not unusual for men who have made history, who have made major advances that benefited society, to not always be the most pleasant chaps to be around. More often than not they are arrogant and obsessive. And especially at the end of the 19th century, ruthlessness was how you did business. But I would at least like to be left with the thought that Edison was indeed a brilliant inventor and that all of the amazing things you can see in the West Orange lab are a result of that.