Preface to the Introduction: a Bookstore update.

There is a scent of caramel in the air, deliciously entwined with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. My daughter and I are sampling coffee grinds in an effort to winnow down the premier offerings when the stainless steel machine has its inaugural service at the newly reopened location of the bookstore.

Admittedly, I’m not a regular coffee drinker and certainly no aficionado. That’s why I’m depending on the advice of others to help select some delicious blends. I am surprised, though. My recollection of coffee in the morning has no memory of caramel. Maybe if these sorts of coffee grinds had been around when I was younger, I’d be a cup o’Joe guy instead of a Mountain Dew-er.

I actually took a second cup of this Amazonian Caramel. It is that good, straight from the pot.

The electrical outlets are ready to accommodate the coffeemaker in the new bookstore kitchen, receptacles lined along the wall, each glowing in the dark with a tiny green light. Flip on the switch and the brand-new stainless steel sink reflects the bright overhead lighting. Beautiful tile flooring is underfoot. It’s not a big area, but perfectly suited for its intent.

To my eyes, the space is nearing readiness.

There are glowing red exit signs over the doorways, just-installed. The air is dusted with newness and wood stain oils, fresh paint and grout. Bathrooms now feature basin sinks and wall mirrors over the vanities. For those interested, the mop basin is plumbed and ready to handle the janitorial cleanups.

Outside, glass is now thermal pane. The address is clearly marked in the sash over the front door: 122. Overhead, the frame for the canopy awning has been restored and is ready to accept the canvas. The bricks have been painted to match the facades of the adjoining buildings.

Waiting to be installed are just-acquired fixtures from Book Alley in Tulsa, whose owner is moving to Houston. She shut the store for good on Tuesday. Wednesday, shelving was hauled out in preparation for installation in the new McHuston Booksellers location. I’m tickled to be able to preserve a bit of the area’s literary history: six large wooden units once handled the inventory at Novel Idea, one of the last large independent bookstores in Tulsa that featured strictly new books. They faced stiff competition when Barnes and Noble opened just a couple of miles away across from Woodland Hills Mall. Ironically, those shelves will sit next to retired Barnes and Noble shelving also acquired from Book Alley.

There is a lot of work ahead, to get everything in readiness, and we’re all anxious to get started.

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Where went those innocent times?

At some point, youthful pride diminishes, to be taken over by what might pass as elderly scholarship, in allowing us the joy of holding our grandchildren and rocking them from crying to snuffling to deep sleep. I’ve embraced that. That much, I’ve accomplished.

I might have taken the comforting of my own children for granted, so many years ago, but I’m appreciative now of that confidence my daughter shows in entrusting her beautiful daughters to my care.

It was different, back when I was a young parent.

Having moved to Tulsa from a small community, I was compelled to seek out those things that I knew my children would miss out on – simple things, like walking along a creek and spotting small, wild creatures living in the water and along the bank. We tried LaFortune Park as an urban alternative to my rural upbringing.

In later years, I became increasingly concerned about the safety of my children, much to their consternation. Particularly, my daughter, whose requests went beyond wanting to have her ears pierced: she wanted to visit – The Mall. To me, at her age, it seemed to be a stretch of the bounds of parental propriety. We all want our kids to have fun. We just don’t want their very lives to be at risk.

At some point, I realized that living in a city was a completely different environment than growing up in a small community. While as a kid, I roamed the streets, sidewalks, vacant lots, abandoned houses, gas stations, parking lots, swimming pools, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, youth centers, garages, pastures, and surviving wilderness areas, without supervision – my own children were confined to our own cul-de-sac and the back yard. It wasn’t punishment. I sensed that a metropolitan childhood had to be more conservative, from a parent’s point of view.

Even at that, I could never have been prepared for the violence of today’s world.

I have argued in the past that we are exposed to heartaches of our current society through the news media, which has the ability to immediately bring into our living rooms the extreme and abhorrent behavior of our contemporaries. I cannot recall anything by way of comparison as a kid. My own children were in high school at the time of the Columbine school massacre – which is the first random act I can recall.

That isn’t exactly true – there were the killings at Kent State University when I was in high school, but those were a result of student protests and committed by armed guardsmen. There were some other incidents that preceded Columbine, but also pre-dated the widespread media coverage.

I worry for those innocent granddaughters that I rocked back to sleep the other night. Tulsa ranks embarrassingly and shockingly high in the per-capita percentage of shooting deaths. Those are largely confined to specific areas of the metro – and those who would accuse me of profiling violence in our community should review the statistics. It isn’t just my assessment: there is an outcry among those living in that geographic area to end the primarily gang-related shootings.

It was such an innocent time for me, growing up in those small towns of my youth. Without extending judgment, my parents largely gave me free rein to explore. Looking back, that degree of freedom shocks me. It is so hard to remember those simpler, innocent, times. There might have been serial killers and stalkers and rapists and child molesters, thieves and robbers, burglars, and perverts, but if we even gave them a thought, we assumed they were held captive by the boundaries of those huge metropolitan areas. In our little town, we believed we were immune – at least, back then.

We were the last of the innocent Americans, enjoying the company of our neighbors, trusting in their support and good-will, leaving ourselves open to the invasion of privacy and property that almost never occurred. It might have been the last of the good times and we didn’t even know it.

So many times I have repeated the anecdote of the broker who completed the sale of my home and who called me at my work a week or so later.

“Your front door is standing open,” she said, and immediately apologized, as we in small towns are wont to do. “I would have stopped and pulled it closed but I was running late for work. I just worry that a dog or a squirrel might get inside. You might want to run home and close the door,” she said, breathlessly. That was excitement, back then.

No mention of thieves, burglars, or vandals.

Just a worry about squirrels and dogs. I still love that story – probably even more given my many years living in Tulsa.

If only those precious granddaughters of mine could experience that simple and easy growing up in that small town environment – that history that used to be the United States of America.

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How close before the violence worries us?

If you got in your car in Tulsa and drove south for half-a-day, you’d find yourself having left the state of Oklahoma for the Mexican state of Nuevo Leone, where the industrial city of Monterrey is located. It’s where Tecate beer is made, and is home to over four-million.

US geography was so long ago: here’s a reminder. NY = 8.1 million, LA = 3.8 million. By the way, the drive to Los Angeles from Tulsa would take 22 hours, non-stop. It’s 23 hours to New York City. So, in half the time, you could find yourself in that Spanish speaking metropolis where 44 prison inmates were either beaten or knifed to death Sunday in what was first reported as a riot.

What really happened was this: corrupt prison guards allowed members of the Zeta drug cartel to roam the prison systematically wiping out members of the Gulf Cartel, a rival drug gang. After the killings, 30 Zeta gang members somehow broke out of the prison. That a somehow with a wink and a nudge. They were permitted to escape.

Why do you care, you ask?

You don’t, really – if at all. News of the massacre was not important enough to make the front page of the local paper. Why? Maybe it goes back to elementary school geography.

What’s the capital of Florida: Miami or Tampa? (sound-effects buzz….) Trick question, but you probably didn’t remember. If you did, give yourself five bonus points. The capital of the state of Florida is Tallahassee. Here’s one, no tricks. Name the capital of South Carolina. (Answer: Columbia. But you knew that, wink, wink.) Closer to home: what state is east of Missouri? (It’s hard to imagine Chicago as east of Missouri, and technically, I suppose, it isn’t. But Illinois is. Did you get that one?

My point is, we don’t even know where places are in our own country. That’s why reporting drug massacres in a foreign country does not make the US news – even when the killings are closer to home than Tallahassee or Chicago or Columbia.

In Mexico, lives are being led in circumstances reminiscent of gangster-land Chicago, Al Capone, and the G-men that brought them into compliance with the law. The only problem being, the M-men (Mexican G-men, of course) aren’t working out. The Federal forces are supposed to be above the take, an economic transaction tourists have long known existed. Want your luggage? (Quiero su maletes?) Sure, they’re right there. I can get- OUCH! What that he- OUCH! Okay, I’m behind the line. Just hand them to me. The brown one and the black one next to it. How much??? But, they’re only three feet away. You want how much to hand them to me? How much? Don’t you speak English?

OUCH!

Unknown to most Americans, the US Government has just issued a travel warning for anyone intending to visit most of the Mexican states south of the Rio Grande. That’s not what they call the river, there – but that’s another geography lesson altogether.

Why do you care – again, you ask?

Maybe you don’t. Maybe you don’t need to. Maybe the Mexican government will get all those dirty drug traffickers under control. What do we care, anyway?

We might care because more and more Mexican residents are fleeing their country for the US – oh, not those who crossed the desert and eventually the river, for a chance to find a job and earn a check and send most of the money back to their poverty-stricken families. No, the people packing it all in for the US are increasingly those who have money (or family members) to lose to the drug cartels operating along the Border States – those they still refer to as the Frontier. Monterrey – that Mexican city that would rank as second-largest in the US if it was simply six-hours to the North, driving time – is considered a Frontier city. People of Mexican citizenship – unbeknownst to US residents – are not all poor sod-layers and orange pickers.

Surprise! There are affluent doctors, lawyers, engineers, politicians, and businessmen (and women!) in that country immediately to our South. They can afford passports and visas and can cross the border legally – without swimming.

Because they have money, they can buy property in the US, and that is what they are doing in order to avoid losing their heads, or their family members to the increasingly-violent drug cartels.

Here in the US we are years-enough removed from Pretty Boy Floyd, Al Capone and the Dalton Gang to forget what that sort of intimidating violence is represented by the current Mexican cartels. P-B Floyd used to ride on the running board (a little step on the outside of the side of the car) carrying a sub-machine gun. The Dalton Gang used explosives to stop passenger trains. If people died during the commission of their crimes – so what?

The US had its Mafia hits, cement boots, and turf-wars. None of those holds a candle to the current state of affairs in that country just beyond the fence, river, or crossing gate – depending on where you try to make for the other side.

Violence of that extreme degree has already migrated north of the border.

At some point, the US will become concerned. Likely – at that point – it will be too late.

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Whitney Houston: My Frequent AM Companion. FM too.

There’s no question I listened to more Whitney Houston than people the age of my children, who were toddlers at the height of her vocal prowess. I’m guessing I heard more Whitney Houston than most people on Earth, being part of a relatively small clique.

Deejays, who played her music in hourly rotation.

With the number of hit songs she had during that era, it was difficult to keep them separated by much more than half-an-hour, it seemed. The only way for deejays to avoid her music, was to change jobs and take up work at another radio station, one that featured a different format. Maybe Oldies Thrash Urban Country music. It’s doubtful you’d find any Whitney Houston music in that musical genre.

I readily admit enjoying her songs. Some I liked more than others, like most any artist’s offering. No song comes to mind that I simply could not stand, which is saying something. Some of my favorite artists recorded tracks that prompted a quick skip on the player, or station-change on the radio – when I wasn’t behind the mike, that is.

There is not now, nor was there ever, a Whitney Houston recording in my – once ample – music collection. I liked her, but not enough to want to buy. Maybe I just heard it often enough at work.

Those who are inundating the social media sites with testimonials of their love for Whitney Houston certainly have the right to do so, and I’ll second any message that speaks solely to her music. As many times as I’ve heard her belting out “I will always love you” since her death, so often in fact, that I probably don’t ever need to hear it again, I’ll admit she had an exquisite voice in her day.

Truth is, if that song came on in the car, I might not – even still – change the station.

When I changed formats (it wasn’t for Oldies Urban Thrash, but it was Country Music), and later quit the radio business, I pretty much fell out of touch with all things Whitney. Probably, I was aware of her fall from grace, drug-wise. I remembered something about her Bobby Brown days and a rehab stint. That’s where my confusion comes in.

There are those who are identifying with her life-struggles, people who claim to understand battling the demons that are drug and alcohol. I just don’t get that.

Whitney Houston could have walked into any restaurant in America and have walked out without having to settle the tab. What business person would cash her check? Take a picture with her and put it on the wall. If there is an equivalent of US-royalty, she certainly was among the closest to it. Does Queen Elizabeth carry a purse to pay for a pack of smokes at the drug store? No. Queen Whitney could have practiced the Royal Hand Wave and rode an open convertible through the parade of life.

All she had to do was sing.

Life struggles? What struggles? Oh, we all have our little crosses to bear. Some people actually have it tough. Those are the folks who have the right to fall victim, if you ask me. Those others who do it for recreation – I just don’t get it.

There were plenty of morning-drive days that I didn’t want to get up with a bright and shiny voice to coax everyone else out of bed and into their new day. That was my job, though. For whatever reason, I never had a craving for drugs. However difficult they are to avoid growing up in the US, it largely depends on the company you keep and the responses that you give in reply. I’m not saying I never partied, but I managed to hold down my job and live through my bathing routine.

Boredom isn’t something I consider a life-struggle. There are many wealthy artists who occupy themselves post-fame while keeping their sinus passages intact for smelling life’s roses. Some people are stronger than others, to be sure, but the many sober citizens of the country aren’t heroes for staying that way. They are exhibitors of the social norm, at least presented from the affluent side of the economic tracks.

Whitney Houston sang well. She did not live that way.

When Jimmy Hendrix died, our little town’s teen club staged a little memorial get-together to listen to his music and lament his death. Naturally, someone wrote a letter to the editor to complain how we teens were celebrating drug abuse.

Although I am of an age now that I better understand the motivation of that letter-writer, I know that was never the intention of those organizing the evening of music.

I also know that those who are commiserating or identifying with Whitney Houston’s lack of self-discipline are not condoning her drug and alcohol abuse.

Temptation is palpable. For those in positions of little optimism, giving in to it is somewhat understandable. What confuses me is the lack of alternative recreational opportunities for those among us who seem to have it all – beautiful looks, adoring fans, fame, fortune, opportunity, health, and more – and then, eventually fritter it all away for their inability to resist the confronting evils.

RIP Whitney. You’ve finally bested the demons.

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