Thursday, October 20, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (10/20/05)


Your tax dollars at work. In spite of their experience in last year's very active hurricane season, when Katrina struck in August it came as no surprise to learn that FEMA had no standing contract to supply standard items such as the plastic tarps to cover damaged roofs. And if the failed response by Michael Brown's FEMA didn't cause concern, consider these latest disasters:

To house some of the hundreds of thousands of homeless families displaced by the flood water, FEMA made a $236 million agreement with Carnival Cruise Lines for three ships. Two of them, Sensation and Ecstasy, each capable of holding 2,606 passengers, now lie more than half empty in the Mississippi River. The third, the 1,800-passenger Holiday, is anchored in the harbor of Pascagoula, Mississippi, only one-third occupied.

The ships now house nowhere near the numbers FEMA projected. Evacuees saw the ships not as a haven but as a hindrance to finding new jobs and making a new life. If the ships were at full capacity with 7,112 evacuees for six months, the full term of the contract, the cost per person would be $1,275 a week. With less evacuees, costs are about $2,550 per person per week. If the government had sent evacuees on cruises, it could have reduced the cost to a quarter of the amount it spent for the three immobile ships. A basic seven-day cruise of the western Caribbean out of Galveston costs only $599 a person--and that includes entertainment and the cost of the fuel oil to propel the ships. Yet Carnival insists that it is losing money on the deal.

Carnival Cruise Lines, headquartered in Miami but incorporated in Panama for tax purposes, is extremely profitable. It paid an infinitesimal $1.3 million in income tax last year on pretax income of $1.9 billion, claiming that its operations are not in the U.S. but on the open waters of the high seas. U.S. companies average about 25 percent in taxes, which means that without its tax dodge Carnival would have owed $475 million in taxes.

To further underscore FEMA's ineptitude, relief officials revealed that nearly 600,000 evacuees had been moved from shelters to hotel rooms--192,424 rooms in 9,600 hotels in cities scattered across the United States. The cost to the government for this hotel housing is a whopping $11 million a day.

Nevertheless, last week more than 22,000 people remained in shelters. Critics blasted FEMA's passivity and slowness in finding apartments or setting up temporary trailer parks. Others charged that neither ships nor hotel rooms represented a long-term solution for families attempting to reestablish themselves. One former HUD official now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, said, "This is not incompetence; this is willful." Heaven help the victims of the next big disaster whose fate will be in the hands of such bumblers.

Word laundering. Gunsel, a word commonly heard these days in movies and on TV to describe a gunman, was first used by Dashiell Hammett in The Maltese Falcon. The now-classic novel first appeared in five installments in the pulp magazine Black Mask between September 1929 and January 1930. Later published by Alfred A. Knopf in hardcover in 1930, Hammett's gallery of rogues, thieves and liars remains his masterwork. Members of the Mystery Writers Association voted it "the greatest crime book written by an American."

Private detective Sam Spade uses the word gunsel referring to the boy Wilmer, Kasper Gutman's young companion, telling the fat man in a tense moment, "Keep that gunsel away from me or I'll kill him." It was definitely not a word used in polite society. Readers familiar with the slang of the hobo jungle were surprised to see the word in print. Although Black Mask favored hardboiled detective heroes, legendary editor Joseph T. Shaw allowed no words with sexual overtones in his magazine. This being a family newspaper, I can only describe gunsel as a young boy kept for sexual purposes.

To divert Shaw from cutting a word meant to identify the relationship between Gutman and Wilmer, Hammett had Sam Spade ask Wilmer as they are going to see the fat man, "How long have you been off the gooseberry lay?" Shaw took the bait and blue-penciled the innocuous question. In tramp slang, gooseberry lay merely meant stealing newly washed garments from clothes lines, a favorite hobo method of renewing a wardrobe. Today, the overlooked word gunsel has come to mean gunman, a sense that Joe Shaw probably thought it had when he left it in the manuscript.

Double standard. When asked by reporters about Judge John Roberts' Roman Catholicism, President Bush rejected such inquiries. Yet when questions were raised about his nominee Harriet Miers' qualifications to be a Supreme Court Justice, President Bush cited her membership in a Protestant evangelical church. Apparently, he conveniently forgot that Article 6 of the Constitution says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office."

Pickup lines. In September of 1952, I sailed from New York to Le Havre on the French liner Liberté. I was on my way to Algeria by way of Paris. I had booked first-class passage with its sumptuous cuisine as recompense for an expected long stay in the desert. Before the ship sailed, I noticed flashbulbs going off on the promenade deck, where Hollywood actor-singer Bing Crosby and makeup artist Wally Westmore were being interviewed by reporters. They were on their way to France to make a motion picture titled Little Boy Lost. In this film, made with a mostly French cast, Crosby plays a former war correspondent who had married a French girl, later killed by the Nazis. He returns to France after the war to find his son, believed to be in an orphanage in Paris.

Following dinner the first night out on the Atlantic, I went to the ship's first class library, all dark mahogany and rich brown leather. I had just started to inspect the books, mostly leather-bound French classics when Messrs. Crosby and Westmore strolled in. Immediately recognizable, the balding Crosby was not wearing the hairpiece he always wore in films. They sat in a leather couch and ordered brandy and cigars. Sitting opposite them on a similar leather couch were two attractive young women, their slightly nervous manner hinting that they were not first-class passengers.

Probably because first-class passengers tended to be older, French Line boats were relaxed about passengers, especially female passengers, venturing into first class from other classes. In fact, they almost encouraged it since female presence in the ship's night club made it livelier. British boats, on the other hand, were strict about this, even erecting portable barriers to keep classes from mixing.

The two young women tried to appear nonchalant as they chatted, stealing sidelong glances at Crosby. After a while, Wally Westmore got up and walked over to the women. I eavesdropped, striving to appear attentive to the book I held. Like a fly on the wall, I was getting a unique chance to observe pickup techniques, Hollywood style.

Obviously, old standards--lines like "Haven't we met before?" or "Do you come here often?"--would have been inappropriate. Standing before them, Westmore cleared his throat, smiled and said, "Excuse me, ladies. My friend over there and I are having an argument. I wonder if you would settle it for us. He claims you two girls are sisters; I say you're not. Which one of us is right?"


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