Archive for March, 2008

Free Boston Jury!

March 25th, 2008

The triennial trek was today. The judicial gods no longer favor me by inviting me for my ever-three-year jury service at the West Roxbury Courthouse. That is neither in western Roxbury nor in West Roxbury. However, it is a one-mile walk north of my digs in JP.

Instead, I got to go ahead to Suffolk Superior Court, out the back of Center Plaza where the Boston Computer Society (I was member 274) used to be. The euphemistically and optimistically named Pemberton Square can be nice enough, in a prison exercise yard sort of way, in calm, sunny weather…not today in the wind punished and dank morning.

The door has a small signing saying that jurors are welcome at 7:30 a.m. Our summons read be there at 8. We fools who came before or even shortly after 8 learned why New Englanders like to arrive late.

The joke behind that welcome sign is that while there are three sets of doors and security screening operations, only one is for jurors. It is a single door. Traffic is seriously constipated. A long queue of sincere citizens shivered and teared while the single x-ray machine spit us out about 40 seconds per, while only about 10 of us could get in the door at a time. Hardy har.

juror ticketIt’s been some years since I sat on a jury. I was finally ready for another trial.

The last one was a grim and gritty child abuse mess. The stepfather was all over and in the girl from about 10 years old, while the mother ignored it all. Everyone was sleazy. The defense attorney looked and acted like some barstool jockey from Mean Streets. The assistant DA was just as bad; I couldn’t believe a word from his mouth. He only bothered to present any evidence in one of four counts related to the rapes. The jury ended up torn and acquitting in the others; he certainly failed to meet any burden of proof. The nincompoop was so arrogant he went up to the sidebar after the verdict to decry it to the judge, who rather than scold him, said he agreed that it was obvious the miscreant was guilty. I would just as soon seen them all tossed in jail — defendant, mom, prosecutor, attorney and judge. These were not the pretty, smart folk of TV dramas. Only the defendant was true to type.

I was looking for a touch of what the juror’s handbook holds out. “As a juror, you will have to make difficult judgements involving all of the human passions – love, hate, greed, anger, etc.” Forget the grammar and syntax. That is a better offer than I’ve had this month.

This promise reduced my regret at likely missing the symposium The Culture of Same-Sex Marriage in New England Friday at Roger Williams University. Yes, no, yes, maybe. I wanted both.

Instead, as adults all to often experience, the sizzle quickly smoldered. Five hours of waiting had the same bookend at start and finish. Chief Justice Barbara Rouse on the taped intro said it and security officer whom we saw about hourly said it at the end. Even if we did not get on a jury or even into a courtroom for jury selection, just knowing that there was a room with over 300 bored potential jurors was enough to make many defense attorneys and defendants in both civil and criminal cases settle before trial.

The court officer, a Latino who identified himself as Henry, knows that patter flat. He may even believe it. Regardless, it’s his job to have enough cattle to herd into the chute for each courtroom when a judge calls for a jury pool.

I pretty much knew when I arrived and got my ticket with 320 on it that I was not going to make difficult judgments involving any human passions. Henry noted that there were 17 courtrooms. He started by taking up to 20 folk at a time, but never got above 100. In theory, if all the judges and attorneys were ready, and all were raring for a fight, they might get up to 340.

In reality, at the end of the game, Henry told us that there had been six judges who were ready. Five cases settled or bargained a plea and one was headed to trial.

I got a low number in the first military draft lottery, which meant I should be headed for Vietnam. I got a high one here. They don’t balance or equate. It might have been similar if you had the same option in the Army — one day or one trial (battle?), with an average trial three days start to finish.

In my experience with other trials in Boston, trials can last four or more days, assuming you have several civil servants on the jury. They get paid leave for trials. In addition, for any trial over three days, they get $50 additional from the court. They prefer long trials, while the rest of us chafe.

Another duplication of the tape and Henry was the long lecture about our wonderful one-day/one-trial system. To hear Associate Justice Stephen Neel tell it in his cameo lecture, things used to be very different. He’s pretty believable, with his chemistry professor demeanor and weeping gray mustache. He said that not only did women not have to/get to sit on juries here until 1948, but jury service was a month at a time for as many trials as they could squeeze in. Also in the early days, jurors had to sleep at the courthouse and be ready to make difficult judgments…

The gist is that we’re supposed to be grateful that we are likely to be in and out within three days. We’re also supposed to congratulate ourselves that congregated bodies had that magic effect of cowing attorneys and defendants alike. Our mere presence makes justice possible. Right.

One of my co-members of my church’s religious-education committee is a Superior Court judge. I’ll have to ask her if she buys into this mystical power of juror bodies.

As it was, by 1 p.m. we were headed for various locations to sweep up and nibble on the crumbs of our days. I’m off to Rhode Island for marriage-equality business on Friday. It’s another three years before I am another log on the fire of justice.

If I get summoned to West Roxbury District Court again, I’ll know what to expect. The main judge there churns ’em out. He has a reputation for browbeating the attorneys into settling. He doesn’t have time for dawdling. The three times I was assigned there, I was out in a flash. Plus, on the way home, Dogwood always has something nice on tap.

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Farming the Back 40 (inches)

March 22nd, 2008

Just like it says on the box — Fabriqué des pots avec du papier journal. For my container and backyard gardening, I again am growing from seed, in my handmade seed pots.

Consider two clichés related to shoemakers. One is that their children are unshod. The less well known one is that they epitomize the complete craftsmen. They can complete their work from leather to last to stitching and the details solo. There’s no assembly line or imported components. Unlike virtually anything else we buy, a custom pair of shoes represents pride of craft by a single artisan.

My pathetically pale imitation of that is making my seedling starting pots. I did that this morning, twisting out 106. That will be plenty to start seedlings that will fill all my containers and my backyard herbe plot.

It’s frugal, but that’s not what it’s about. Alternatives are precast peat shells to fill, even solid plugs of compressed potting soil just waiting for a seed and water. Sure those are quite a bit more expensive than rolling your own, but that’s in relative price. It costs me less than a penny to make a pot and fill it with potting soil, but the high end pre-fab like a Jiffy wafer costs about 20¢ each. So that’s 2,000 percent or in my case a premium of $20.14 today. Considering all the other cost of urban gardening, that’s not a deal breaker.

Maybe it’s because I’m an old coot, but for whatever reason, I recommend making your own seedling pots out of newspaper. I use Canadian firm Otto Richter and Sons, Ltd.’s PotMaker™.

It has no electronic content. It is not automated. It makes (lets) you do the work. It is clever and if you follow the few steps, flawless.

Non-gardeners may ask:

  1. Do newspapers have any advantages here other than negligible cost?
  2. Won’t the ink poison my veggies and herbs?

That’s yes to 1 and no to 2.

Les pots du papier journal

You can get a sense of the shoemaker when you do these little things from scratch. I have the benefit of an example of my maternal grandfather who grew organic and started many flowers and herbs from seed. He also hybridized his roses and such, but I don’t even entertain that.

What you want from seed pots includes:

  • Enough, but not too much, soil for root growth, moisture retention, and heat.
  • Walls that dissolve easily and let the roots growth through, certainly after transplanting into soil outside.

Junky, cheap newspaper does it all. It is just sturdy enough to form a wall and keep the potting soil in place. You can make it the right circumference and height to retain heat and water. It’s flimsy enough that a seedling with any vitality at all can poke right through at the proper time.

Poison Paranoia

But, but, but didn’t your teachers and parents tell you not to eat newspaper, that it was toxic? Well, a lot of it used to be. Particularly the ink used to have copper and other nasties.

It no longer does and if you have any qualms at all, just be sure you stick with black ink and avoid color advertising…just in case and so you can tell your mom you’re being safe.

Roll Your Own

parts.jpg The hardwood PotMaker is just two parts — a press that looks like the top of a newel with wine bottle punt in the bottom, and a form that has a groove with an elevated center.
roll.jpg Measure and cut enough newspaper strips for the pots. These are 9 X 25cm (3.5 X 10 inch); actually, I use 12 or 13 inches, the width of my newspapers instead of 10. I recommend ganging and I cut about a dozen strips at a time. Roll each strip around the press, starting at just below the knob. This leaves nearly 4cm (about an inch and one half) at the bottom.
tuck.jpg Fold the loose paper into the center of the press at the bottom. I suggest five tucks for a tight pot bottom. Then turn the press over and place it onto the form.
done.jpg Now play as macho as gardeners do at seed time. Push on the knob and turn it left and right to form the pot. If you’re wimpy and the paper is loose when you lift it off, recrimp and do it again, with feeling. If you goof one up, so what — toss it in your recycling bin.
crimped.jpg The resulting crimp at the bottom of the pot-to-be show appear tight and with an even inversion.
pot.jpg Ease the pot off the press. I put these in groups in a big tray and fill them with potting soil. Then I move them into smaller trays I have adapted from previous, more expensive versions of seed-starting systems. If you don’t have any, you can go to a hardware store and get cheap plastic ones. Next, I assume 100% germination (I fudge by a few extra pots) and press one seed into each pot’s soil. I water them and cover them, either with clear plastic lids from those old system or plastic wrap. This helps keep the heat and moisture in to speed germination.

This is a cheap (in both senses) gardening thrill. You are not only growing from seed, but you’ve made your own damned pots! You’re a green version of a shoemaker.

So you are likely to wonder what such a marvel of life force would cost. It’s the best $10 to $15 investment you can make in seed setting. You’re likely to pay more for seeds in a year and you’d save much more than buying pre-made pots.

I got mine at Jung Seed two years ago for $9.95 when I was ordering seed packets. Unfortunately, it’s not in their catalog this season. Richter sells it for $13 US and $6 shipping, but that shipping is per order, so if you get your seeds from them too, it can be a bargain. Other garden suppliers carry PotMaker, like Lee Valley and Grow Organic, both about $15, plus shipping. A big garden supply store might have one too.

Depending on how New England you are, if you are seriously into cost savings, you can make your own pots without my marvelous hardwood friend. One site that shows on video how to do this with a glass or jar is here. I’d caution 1) be very careful to have a small enough diameter — about 5.5cm/2.2 inches — container, and 2) be aware you’ll have to measure or estimate the loose paper and that your crimping “cup” won’t provide the securing indent that PotMaker does.

Also, PotMaker feels good in the hand and is pretty.

Non-gardeners have hooted at what they say is the trouble of making pots. Of course, many gardeners tend to buy plants instead of starting from seed. No shoemakers they.

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Walking on Shotgun Shells

March 11th, 2008

The 14-year-old came one today with a little smirk, a twitch over the police at Boston Latin Academy. It seems some kid brought in a live shotgun shell and left it in a john.

By cracky, in my day, the punks would pull a fire alarm and we’d head outside and stare at each other for a half hour. Today’s version may involve a phoned in bomb threat, or in this case, a puerile catalytic piece of rubbish.

 April 8, 2008 update:  I’ve been seeing a lot of hits here looking for today’s bomb scare. Links and comments on that are at Universal Hub. The gist is that it was a false alarm from a crank call. The kids cooled outside for 30 minutes while the cops checked the building.

shotgun shellsPoor Headmaster Aaronson was back on the broadcast, with a message called to all homes at 10:31 this morning. Someone had found the shell in a boys room. They called the police. They don’t want to say lock down, so it was safe mode.

(I guess she’s a real city kid. She called it a bullet.)

Her recording said several times that all the children were safe…proper authorities notified…blah blah.

It turns out that safe mode involved a police take over of the school. They bought in gun and ammo sniffing dogs. All the kids took their coats and backpacks into the hall next to their classroom. They stood their ground as the cops and dogs did their do. As this went on, the kids spent about two and one-half hours in the starting classooom.

Certainly it could have been much worse, as in some kid brought in a weapon. Yet, it’s not the call a parent wants to hear. This is after all one of the three exam schools, where the allegedly smart kids go and academics trump typical teen theatrics.

That’s better than Columbine but worse than an MIT hack.

I’m an old guy, so I flash back to fifth grade. I was in a medium-sized city, Danville, Virginia, a couple of miles above the North Carolina border. We had a smattering of country kids who bused into school while nearly all of us walked.

One morning, our teacher, Miss Petit, noticed a bag one of the rural kids had with him. She paid attention because there was a squirrel tail sticking out of it.

He had taken his 22-caliber rifile to the bus stop, killed the squirrel and intended to eat this for dinner. He had ths good sense to stash the 22 near the bus stop. He also was country enough to know that leaving his prize carcass by the road probably would mean that it would be eaten by a smaller predator before he got there in the afternoon.

She took the bag and had the custodian dispose of it. She told him not to repeat this.

Interestingly enough for the BLA connection, the hick was savvy enough to know not to bring a gun or ammo to school.

East Third Street Flash

March 9th, 2008

I took over Paulie Banana’s studio apartment on East Third Street when he went off to Europe. Beyond the reflected glory of being the place of the guy who developed frozen bananas on a stick, it had the distinction of being across from the Hell’s Angels.

The time and locale came to mind a short time ago when I mentioned Vinny to a chum. He was not the head of the New York City Angels, but nobody messed with Vincent Giroalamo. He was the biggest, meanest, hairiest, toughest Angel.

Pic Click Trick: Click on an image for a larger view. (Vinny’s is from an uncredited newspaper scan here and his plaque adapted from elly & ben’s here. )

He’s the one I met first…and survived.

My high-school chum Isabel lived and worked in the the city. She said I could visit from friends’ place in Princeton and stay with her on that block while I went on some job interviews. She said it was the Angels’ block but that they liked her and it shouldn’t be a problem. Perhaps she didn’t consider all the nuances.

I arrived one afternoon, wearing a blazer so I didn’t have to lug it in my small suitcase. I also had a portfolio under one arm with my newspaper clippings. My appearance didn’t precisely accord with the tenor of the neighborhood.

She wasn’t home when I tried her doorbell in the late afternoon, but Vinny was across the street. He approached, much like Godzilla, with stiff, slow, determined steps. God, he was big, and I’m not a small guy.

Vinny also had the distinction of being the gang member who didn’t own any shirts. He was hairy, very hairy. He wore his colors — the Angels’ denim jacket — with no sleeves either. Sizzling heat or bitter sleet was the same to Vinny. No thanks, no shirt.

Big VinnyIt doesn’t take long to cross a Manhattan side street and Vinny was belly to belly with me. As I recall, he said in his brick-shaking bass, “What the fuck you doin’ here!?” I could have panicked, but looked directly at him as I went with the simple truth. I was staying with Isabel while I looked for a job. She and I had gone to high-school together. He thought that over for a few (long to me) seconds. Then without a smile, he said, “Any friend of Izzy’s is okay by us.” He turned and walked back.

That evening, Isabel said I had done the right thing. If I had tried to leave or looked away, he might well have laid me out for trespassing.

A week or so later, I was starting a job, amusingly enough at the dilettantish Museum of Modern Art. I agreed to take over Paulie’s apartment.

I have lots of Angels stories and may put a few down, but short-term I remember Vinny. He and I ended up getting along.

At that time, the drink of the New York Chapter was Yago sangria. Vinny usually had a bottle in hand or nearby. He was a demonstrative fellow and was known not bother with the cap, biting the neck to open the bottle. He did that one time when we were leaning against a car. He took a good chug and passed it to me.

After my turn, I asked him about a story Isabel had told me about some jail time. The way I heard it, the Angels and rival gang the Breed came into a Cleveland motorcycle show from opposite sides of the exhibition space. They got into it immediately and Vinny led the attack with chains, killing a couple of the Breed. After it settled down and the arrests and trials were over, Vinny and a couple of other New York Angels received a few months prison time for the murders. I asked Vinny how that could happen. He got briefly pensive, and then he did smile. “We got good lawyers,” he said.Vinny’s plaque

Another evening, we were chatting and drinking like that. He pulled out a big Baggie filled with a carnival of capsules, caplets and tablets of many colors, mixed uppers and downers. He had huge hands and took out a palmful fromthe bag. He swallowed them, took a deep hit of Yago and suddenly turned serious. “You know, Mike,” he said, “I just can’t seem to get off anymore.”

If I knew what happened to him, I had forgotten, but I clicked around for info on Vinny yesterday. I found that he died in a fight with another gang in California in 1979. There’s a plaque in his honor across from the East Third Street clubhouse.

Another Angel had told me that Vinny was a good Italian boy, one who visited his mother in Brooklyn regularly.

Boston Trash Elite

March 6th, 2008

Hoi polloi, bow before us! We are the big-cart recyclers.Menio and recycle bin

First, let us note that someone in the City of Boston Recycling Program has brass ‘nads and is not afraid of ridiculing his mayorality, The Thomas Menino. Our flyer today has the accompanying image (click for larger, more risible size). If Tony Soprano were advertising his waste-management companies, he might include such a picture with one of his lieutenants. Here Tommy Shoulder Pads makes you an offal you can’t refuse.

The flyer headline is THANK YOU, BIG-CART RECYCLERS. That would be we, in our case the elite Jamaica Plain newspaper sorters, jar rinsers, and cardboard box folders. Stand in awe, you wasteful wastrels.

Our 14-year-old rolls this grumbling omnivore to the curb from the back of the house every Wednesday evening. The big-cart is, well, big, many more cubic feet than he has and two-thirds as tall. You can see how high it is on Da Mare. If he had a bellybutton, it would be that high.

We can plug most non-organic stuff in it. Being UUs in JP, we, of course, have a compost bin in the back to turn plant matter into soil. So there.

We’ve gone from three cans of trash a week to one or fewer. We still have the supermarket packaging, like foam meat packaging that can’t go into the big cart.


That’s good. I’m pretty sure the big cart is not recyclable.

Anyway, they measured mid-May to mid-November —recycling up 52% from 2006 to 2007, and trash for the same period down 20%. Those figures are illogical, but what the heck? More important, of the 2,300 households in the big-cart elite, we recycled more, had less trash, found recycling easier, our streets cleaner and the cart was the right size.

It’s a miracle of modern trash…proven right here in JP. Plus, who’d argue with a tough guy mayor hiding behind his big cart? You’ll recycle and you’ll like it!