Monthly Archives: June 2008

Sign, Sign Everywhere a Sign

One side effect of the new public smoking ban will be the proliferation of no smoking signs. State rules require them to be affixed just about everywhere, so everyone knows there where smoking isn’t allowed. We just received a memo that new signs will adorn all doors into the Gazette, even though no one has been allowed to smoke inside the place in 18 years.

I wonder, will casinos be required to put “Smoking Allowed” or “Smoke Up” or “Smoke While You Go Broke” signs on the hazy gaming floor? I need to check on that.

Radio Iowa reported last week that school districts across Iowa will spend thousands of dollars on new smoke-free signage. Fro example, did you know you can’t smoke on a school bus now? A better question might be, when the heck is the last time you could you smoke on a school bus?

My answer would be 1989, or at least that’s the last time I saw someone smoke on a school bus. They were proud members of the Belmond Broncos baseball team, lighting up after a another tough loss. Such secret puffing was made possible by friendly underclassmen who dutifully rolled down all the bus’ windows on command. I won’t name the smokers. They know who they are.

I hope health officials will consider these five other signage suggestions:

1. Hog Confinements. Have you ever been working around a giant pit of manure when, the next thing you know, someone rudely lights up next to you? Talk about ruining your lunch break.

2. Beers. Bar owners should be required to place “no smoking” stickers on every beer or mixed drink they sell. You know how forgetful people get when they drink.

3. TV/Radio. TV stations should be mandated to play a constant “No Smoking” crawl at the bottom of the screen. Radio stations should be required to set off that jarring emergency alert system tone once each hour to remind Iowans of the smoking ban.

4. Wildlife. Hunters tend to smoke in greater numbers than the general population, according to a study I just did in my head of hunters that I know. How ’bout while banding waterfowl for identification, the DNR could also put a small ‘no smoking’ band on a mallard’s other foot? Maybe it could say, “Hunting is Bad for Ducks, but Smoking is Bad for You.” That would be cute, and poignant.

5. Fast Food. It’s hard to think of a more visible venue for conveying critical public health information than the top of a Quarter Pounder box. How about “The National Association of Conglomerated Meatpacking Monopolies ask you to make workplace health and safety your No. 1 priority, just like we do. Don’t smoke. But do keep eating.”



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Friday Fan Mail

Thursday’s column criticizing landlords and property managers who are raising rental rates just as flood-displaced people are looking for housing drew a lot of response. Nobody took the side of greedy landlords.

Bob Elliot of Iowa City summed up the views of many writers:

“It’s pathetic that with all the heart-warming character and just plain humanity displayed bv the thousands of volunteers throughout our communities, there remain a few money-hungry jerks.

“Those jerks see someone else’s misfortunate, and perhaps tragedy, as simply an opportunity to fill their greedy pockets.

“At least you’ve made sure they don’t escape unnoticed.”

Elizabeth Hajek of Mount Vernon thinks Cedar Rapids city leaders should take action:

“After reading your column this morning, I was horrified that such price gauging was going on. I think the City Council should put a temporary moratorium on raising rents for both houses and apartments, so desperately needed by storm victims.”

 Several readers took aim at at Bob Miell, who owns Equity Realtors. The firm has raised rental charges since the flood by 30 percent or more on some units that I used as examples in my column.

“Have you ever looked at the delinquent property tax list? You will see Robert Miell’s name pop up repeatedly. Maybe with his increased rents, he will be able to afford to pay his property taxes on-time, like the rest of us,” Dan LeGrand said in an e-mail.

Michele Moore, an Eastern Iowan who now lives in Des Moines sent this:

“I just received an email from my mom, who, while not flooded, did not work for 4 days because the flood affected her employment. Because of this she is short on her rent due the 1st of July. She called Mr. Miell and he said he will not wait for July 4th to be paid the balance and he will evict anyone that is late. He says he can immediately rent his apartments to displaced people.

“I think it is sad that there are people like Mr. Miell doing what they call business in Cedar Rapids.”

 On a much lighter note, I received my first flood-related joke this week:

“A curious fellow died one day and found himself waiting in the long line of judgment. As he stood there he noticed that some souls were allowed to march right through the pearly gates into Heaven. Others, though, were led over to Satan, who threw them into the burning fire. But every so often, instead of hurling a poor soul into the fire, Satan would toss a soul off to one side into a small pile.

“After watching Satan do this several times, the fellow’s curiosity got the best of him. So he strolled over and asked Satan what he was doing.

‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I’m waiting in line for Judgment, but I couldn’t help wondering. Why are you tossing those people aside instead of flinging them into the Fires of Hell with the others?’

‘Oh,those,’ Satan groaned. ‘They’re all from IOWA. They’re still too wet to burn.’

Keep ’em coming. We could use a laugh.


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Grub — Flying Wienie

The Flying Wienie

Sunday night I was lamenting to some flood-weary co-workers that I probably missed my chance to try the Flying Wienie, the iconic hot dog joint at the intersection of 8th Ave SW and 1st Street SW. You can’t miss it. It has a big, yellow airplane on the roof.

Judging by its address, I figured it was one more flooded business.

So when I heard Wednesday afternoon that, by some topographical miracle, the place was largely spared from flood damage and is open for business, I set out immediately. I didn’t really need to eat a second lunch, but flood miracles have been few and far between lately.

When I got there, I quickly found out that I wasn’t quick enough. Gazette reporter Stephen Schmidt was already inside, interviewing co-owner John Martin. Scooped.

Later, we found out that business editor George C. Ford had beaten both of us to the story. If there were bronze medals in journalism, I’d be wearing one.

Anyway, back to the Flying Wienie. I had an delicious, fully adorned Chicago dog with hot peppers and tomatoes and pickles and neon green relish and mustard etc. It came with the famous hand-cut fries I’d heard people brag about and they lived up to the hype. My second lunch was far better than my first, which was served from a drive-through window at a place that I will not McName.

The Flying Wienie itself is exactly what a hot dog joint should be, comfy. lived-in and, in this case, stuffed with airplane-related paraphernalia.

Although the FW survived to serve another dog, the neighborhood around it and the nearby businesses it depends on for customers were hit hard by the flood. So if we want the joint to keep thriving, we need to give Martin some business. Same goes with all the other local spots that are or will be opening in the coming weeks and months.

Maybe I’ll make the two-lunch day a habit.


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Sleepover with Carlin

Monday morning, when I heard that George Carlin died, the first thing I thought of was a sleepover at a friend’s house back in 1981 or maybe 82.

My friend, who, I know, reads this blog on occasion, was the kid who had the first video game, a Bally system – far ahead of its time, by the way – and sweet cable TV and HBO. (I was a so-called “country kid” whose house was far out of cable’s tantalizing reach.) And it was at his house, during that sleepover, that I first saw a Carlin HBO special. It was just about the funniest thing I’d ever seen.

“His performing voice, even laced with profanity, always sounded as if he were trying to amuse a child. It was like the naughtiest, most fun grown-up you ever met was reading you a bedtime story,” Jerry Seinfeld wrote in the New York Times Tuesday. He nailed it. That’s exactly how it was.

Carlin was just one piece of a comedy awakening my friends and I went through around that time. Richard Pryor was out there, and I can’t count how many times we sat around listening to Eddie Murphy cassettes, or mimicking memorized routines.

But I still remember Carlin first, prowling the stage, telling us all the ways the grown-up world was totally fake and (screwed) up. We probably already knew most of the famous “seven words,” but we were only too glad to learn them all.

Back in March I caught his last HBO gig and I felt the same way, even though I’m firmly entrenched in the (screwed) up world now. I owe something to Carlin for the fact that I manage to laugh more than scream.

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Chrome Horse Rumors

Rumors that I and others have been hearing lately about the watery death of the Chrome Horse Saloon on 3rd Street SE have been greatly exaggerated, manager Mark Dukes declares on his blog:

There are ton of rumors going around about the Chrome Horse, most of them revolving around the fact the building is being bulldozed and we will be no longer in existence. One of the rumors started with an IDIOT on You Tube who took a comment that was made in jest and ran with it for all the world to see.

I know this from the Horse’s mouth (owners) – the Chrome Horse is not going anywhere. We will repair or rebuild, whatever it takes. That is the commitment. Anybody who tells you anything different doesn’t know what he’s talking about!

On Sunday, Dukes had another optimistic update:

We all want to re-open as soon as possible, but we are going to operate on one mantra – the Chrome Horse will be shinier and cleaner than it was ever before. Not until then will we open our doors again.

 Good to hear, and good luck with your comeback.

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Little Bohemia

I’ve had some e-mails lately from folks outside of CR wondering about the fate of Little Bohemia. Here’s a column I wrote on the bar published today:

The very first beer I drank in this town as a newly minted local was poured from a tap at Little Bohemia, the iconic brick tavern at 1317 Third St. SE. It clearly looked like my kind of place.The guy running the tap had just the right bartender’s blend of friendly/surly.

He fit the bar and the bar fit the neighborhood, a no-nonsense part of town where people work hard for a living, or once did, and appreciate a drink at quitting time.

I gulped cold beer and gobbled hot goulash and felt that this could easily become my favorite spot.

Then, 12 days ago, the Cedar River filled the joint with muddy bilge nearly to the ceiling. About all that stayed high and dry were a stuffed pheasant and a mounted trophy fish, ironically enough.

Now I’m not sure if that bartender, manager Jeff Melsha, will ever pull that tap for us again.

So many local places like this that give Cedar Rapids its identity were taken by the flood. And every day we’re smacked by the reality that familiar spots have become disaster areas. It was “Little Bo” for me on Friday.

“Pretty much everything’s gone,” said Melsha, standing in muddy boots in front of Little Bohemia and next to a big, heartbreaking pile of history-turnedto-trash by toxic floodwater.

Melsha says he has no idea yet whether he can reopen the bar, which his family has operated for 26 years. He flew the “open” flag anyway, as a joke.

Like so many people, Melsha tells a didn’t-see-it-coming story.

He figured that a 22- or 24-foot Cedar crest might bring a few feet of water into the bar. They put freezers up on blocks and got stuff off the floor.

On that fateful Wednesday night before the river invaded, Little Bo did what it does best – served drinks, lots of them, to a crowd of regulars and well-wishers.

Melsha decided to stay at the bar, so he bedded down on the pool table.

An employee who lived nearby jarred him from sleep in the wee hours of Thursday morning. The water had arrived, it was going to be higher than they thought and that they had to evacuate, fast.

His focus now is on trying to save many of the waterlogged antiques that gave the place its comfy time-capsule feel. He’s afraid that even if he does rebuild, he’ll be forced to replace the wooden floor, walls and other features that made the place what it was.

“It was like walking into the past before,” Melsha said. “It won’t be the same ever again.” “But hey, I’m not the only one, right?” he adds.

Right. The entire Third Street SE, New Bohemia neighborhood was trashed by the flood. Just a couple of months ago, I wrote about the area’s big potential as an arts and cultural district. Now that’s hard to imagine. But no one’s giving up just yet.

“New Bohemia has seen better days,” said Michael Richards, who has led development efforts in the neighborhood. “But I think there’s still the attitude here to pull back together and rebuild.”

New Bohemia leaders are expected to hold an emergency meeting on the neighborhood’s future this week. In the meantime, here’s to hoping that future includes a cold beer at Little Bohemia.


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What’s Scaring Us?

Everything, according to this AP piece:

Is everything spinning out of control?

Midwestern levees are bursting. Polar bears are adrift. Gas prices are skyrocketing. Home values are abysmal. Air fares, college tuition and health care border on unaffordable. Wars without end rage in Iraq, Afghanistan and against terrorism.

Horatio Alger, twist in your grave.

The can-do, bootstrap approach embedded in the American psyche is under assault. Eroding it is a dour powerlessness that is chipping away at the country’s sturdy conviction that destiny can be commanded with sheer courage and perseverance.

The sense of helplessness is even reflected in this year’s presidential election. Each contender offers a sense of order – and hope. Republican John McCain promises an experienced hand in a frightening time. Democrat Barack Obama promises bright and shiny change, and his large crowds believe his exhortation, “Yes, we can.”

Even so, a battered public seems discouraged by the onslaught of dispiriting things. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll says a barrel-scraping 17 percent of people surveyed believe the country is moving in the right direction. That is the lowest reading since the survey began in 2003.

An ABC News-Washington Post survey put that figure at 14 percent, tying the low in more than three decades of taking soundings on the national mood.

“It is pretty scary,” said Charles Truxal, 64, a retired corporate manager in Rochester, Minn. “People are thinking things are going to get better, and they haven’t been. And then you go hide in your basement because tornadoes are coming through. If you think about things, you have very little power to make it change.”

But there’s hope, I guess…

American University historian Allan J. Lichtman notes that the U.S. has endured comparable periods and worse, including the economic stagflation (stagnant growth combined with inflation) and Iran hostage crisis of 1980; the dawn of the Cold War, the Korean War and the hysterical hunts for domestic Communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s; and the Depression of the 1930s.  

“All those periods were followed by much more optimistic periods in which the American people had their confidence restored,” he said. “Of course, that doesn’t mean it will happen again.”



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