Just add carbon

November 29, 2018 § 11 Comments

Building onto yesterday’s post about bike clothing and how it’s gone mainstream-ish and fashion-ish, I gotta say something about equipment.

Time was, a bike had brakes, cranks, pedals, wheels, derailleurs, shifters, five cogs, handlebars, wheels, tars, chain, and a saddle. Bar tape was crazy thin cellophane-like stuff that provided zero padding. Tars were sew-ups, period, frames were steel and wheels were aluminum. 32 spokes in front, 36 in back.

Two things have changed. One, there is now infinite variety in all those parts. Two, there are a whole bunch of parts that never used to exist, for example, valve extenders. There was no need to extend the valve because all the wheels were the same depth and all the valves the same length.

No aero anything.

No electronic anything.

No carbon anything.

And of course no crazy weight differentials between bikes. You want to save weight? Go with the SLX tubing. On your 23-lb. bike it will shave off a few grams.

Is “more” “better”?

Probably, but only if you know how to manage your acquisitions, and frankly, few cyclists do. Make that “few people.”

In the end, more bike things are only good if they result in more actual cycling. I have friends with road, ‘cross, gravel, TT, and MTB bikes, but it seems like they don’t ride any of them all that much. One friend who, as near as I can tell has only a single beat-up beach cruiser, seems to ride it all the time up and down the bike path in flip-flops and shorts. And of course the guy who has zero bike stuff, Shirtless Keith, rides about 18,000 miles a year.

There’s a moral there somewhere.



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Dress for success!

November 28, 2018 § 20 Comments

There comes a time when you should sit back and take stock of things, ideally before you are so crotchety that the future is the color of death, the present feels miserable, and past shimmers out of reach, perfect in every way.

Over the next two weeks I’m going to be offering up a few reflections. I became a sporty rider in 1982, a SERIOUS RACER in 1984, and a leaky prostate masters #fakeracer in 2007. This past October, or maybe it was this November, marked the 36th anniversary of my first sporty bicycle purchase.

I’ve been sporty ever since, which is hardly the longest pedigree out there, but as I look around there aren’t many who, over four decades, started sporty, stayed sporty, and are still sporty. Now is as good a time as any to reflect.

Bike clothes

Clothes make the man and woman, except when you were a cyclist way back when. Bike clothes in 1982 were made of wool. They stank when you sweated on them but they stayed cool in the heat and warm in the cold. They were generally quite pretty but garish for the times. They weren’t skin tight, just snug.

The jerseys were long in back and front; the rears hung down over your rear. The rear pockets had buttons and the fronts were not full-zip, just two or three inches to let the air flow.

You generally wore all your clothes for a long time because they didn’t really wear out, especially the jerseys. There were a few kinds of shoes, but they all worked the same way: They laced up and they fit on a Campy pedal inside a metal cage.

Socks were white and short, shorts were black and short. Neither had lettering. Gloves were leather on the palm, mesh on the back of your hand. They smelled bad and were always covered with dried snot. When you were riding, the snot was often freshly harvested.

People who couldn’t see wore eyeglasses, the same ones they wore to work or school. No one wore sun glasses, so stuff got in your eyes and it hurt. You teared up a lot on descents and in the wind and as water/mud got sprayed in your face when sitting on a wheel.

No one had very many clothes so you often wore dirty shorts. Sometimes they had skid marks, often they had crusted blood on the chamois. The chamois, by the way, was made of chamois. Bad saddle sores were common, and they often came gift wrapped with an infection if you kept riding in the dirty shorts, which you always did.

When it rained you got wet or you put on a plastic cape which didn’t breathe and got you wet on the inside anyway. When it was cold you wore a heavy wool jacket and big thick gloves and a thick wool cap. No one had shoe covers so your feet froze solid, always. If you had tights (hardly anyone did) you held them up with suspenders. There were no bib shorts.

Most importantly, though, clothes were almost never a statement, except to the extent that they said “I am a weirdo bicyclist.” When people rode together, which they almost always did, it was a motley crew. Even teams had random stuff. The visual effect was mix and match.

How it has changed

Now it is very common for people to coordinate all their clothing items, and to coordinate them with the bicycle isn’t odd at all. In those days it was unthinkable unless you were a pro or an elite amateur team. Ordinary wankers back then looked like it; today ordinary wankers often look like they rolled off the back of the Pro Tour.

Clothing today is better made, certainly with respect to the shorts, but lasts less time because people purchase the latest design and/or it doesn’t match with something or other. The biggest villain is the club, which changes its whole design every year, making your whole closet obsolete.

I don’t know what it’s like in other places, but in L.A. many people will totally judge you based on what you wear and how you wear it. Why is it so important to criticize cyclists for their clothes? I doubt this happens in mountain biking or other disciplines, but maybe it does.

As with many other things, it’s now very easy to “look” experienced even though you aren’t. Used to be, you would gradually acquire a nice bike wardrobe as you progressed. You got better, and you dressed better. But now you can walk into the Concept Store, get the Concept Bike, walk into Rapha, get the Concept Kit, and from Day One look absolutely stunning.

Until, that is, you actually turn the pedals.



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The word’s the thing

November 13, 2018 § 4 Comments

When I was a kid I remember reading about the Holocaust for the first time. I think I was nine or ten. I couldn’t believe it, sitting there in the air-conditioned Bellaire Public Library, gazing in disbelief at the photos and disbelieving it even more as I read, then re-read, then re-read again.

Somewhere along the four-dimensional trip to adulthood I learned about the cities of Peking and Bombay, and I became familiar with them in the news, foreign places on a map with which I was comfortable because I knew their names. Peking? Capital of China! Bombay? Magical city of India!

What’s in a name? Everything about the thing, that’s what! The name casts its spell on the thing and makes it what it is, that is why we give them.

One day I noticed with a nasty shock that Peking had been erased from the map, replaced with a clumsy and unspeakable proper noun, “Beijing.” Theft! Grand larceny! Kidnapping! Fraud! Where the fuck is Beijing and who cares, anyway? I want my Peking back!

It took years to absorb that awful new name, but now it is the correct one, and even writing down “Peking” seems laughable, an effort, a word you should only use as an adjective for “duck.” It took longer to understand why Beijing, and later Mumbai, were such proper, such good, such authentic words. They were so because those words, not Peking and Bombay, were the words that the original givers had given.

It was only through theft and colonization and historical rape that white men with clumsy tongues contorted the gentle, melodious tones of Chinese and Hindi into the butchery of anglicized nomenclature. It was only through time and travel and force-fed humility that I came to recognize the propriety of people owning their own culture, and doing it first and foremost through the power of naming.

Unlike the Holocaust, I don’t remember when I first came across the Holocaust deniers. At first I couldn’t believe it, but then, of course I could. And with them came an even more evil tribe, not simply people of flat-earth intellect who challenged demonstrable facts, but people who didn’t deny the fact and instead appropriated it.

“WE HAD OUR HOLOCAUST, TOO!” was their battle cry, not because they felt pity or shame or horror or revulsion or loss at the destruction of European Jewry, but because they knew that by appropriating the words of one of the chief horrors of humanity they would weaken it, casualize it, deflect it, normalize it.

Because I love words, they seemed somehow more evil than the deniers.

Righteousness where I have come to expect it

Every morning I awake, put the kettle on, and listen first to the RFI Chinese radio broadcast and then to the podcast from Falter Radio. Falter is a liberal, aggressive, fair, investigative, thought-provoking newspaper in Austria. Its podcast is always stimulating, sometimes spellbinding.

As a matter of course it reports on every variety of social ill befalling Austria, with a special place for anti-Semitism. And it was about a year ago that I noticed a new word had cropped up: Shoah. Either I was slow on the uptake (highly likely), and/or the word Holocaust had been excised from the media, much as Peking became Beijing and Bombay became Mumbai.

Then a friend sent me a brilliant recent speech by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, an exhortation to his nation to essentially be good and kind. And when he invoked the past, he did it with the word of the people who named the thing: the Shoah.



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Don’t trust strangers

October 26, 2018 § 12 Comments

I had to ride my bike to school in junior high. We lived two miles from school and there was no way in hell my father was going to drive me even though he worked at home most mornings.

The school bus was out of the question because my brother rode it. “If you ever come to the bus stop with me I’ll beat your face in. And I’ll do it every morning until you quit or don’t have no more teeth left or both.”

My bike was a gray Murray 10-speed and I had a raincoat and a backpack from Wilderness Experience. In those days NO ONE wore a backpack. Guys carried their books under one arm, one hand only. Girls used two hands and held them out in front. Backpacks were for people who enjoyed getting beaten up.

“If you ever flat or your bike breaks, don’t hitch a ride,” my dad said on my first day of school. “Or you’ll wind up murdered.”

The good old days

This was just a couple of years after Elmer Wayne Henley and Dean Corll had gone on their torture-murder rampage in Houston, and I knew all about hitchhiking, handcuffs, torture, and murder. I felt vulnerable enough riding down Renwick with the cars whistling by at 50, and worse when I thought of all the sadistic killers behind the wheel waiting for my bike to break down.

Every morning I checked the weather, which meant  I looked out the window before deciding whether or not to take my rain jacket. We didn’t have a TV and I never read the weather news in the paper. This particular early fall day was overcast. I winged it.

Halfway to school the skies opened up. If you have ever been in a Houston rainstorm you know what I mean. If you haven’t you’ve never seen rain. In seconds I was drenched, and then my rear tire flatted. I pulled over and dragged my bike onto the sidewalk. Now I was worried that the rain would get into my backpack and destroy my books, so I huddled for a minute under the eaves of an apartment building.

An old pickup swung over and put on its flashers. “You okay?” the old man said, and by “old man” I meant “over thirty,” after which age they all looked the same.

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Where’s your school?”

“Jane Long.” I could tell in a blink that he was a mass murderer.

He put on his cowboy hat and got out, tall, kind of stooped, a raggedy face and broken teeth in front. All these decades later I still wonder about how old he really was. His arms were muscled but he was lean as a rail. On his forearm was a tattoo of an anchor. His nails were dirty and ground down by work, not nail clippers. “Gimme your bike,” he said, not asking, and lifted it with one hand put it in the bed. “Get in.” It wasn’t a request.

I felt like he was a snake charmer and I was the snake. I got in. “This is how you become famous,” I said to myself. “By hitching a ride with a mass murderer.”

There was no a.c. in his rusted out Chevy and because it was raining hard the windows were only cracked, which made it steamy and uncomfortable. He had a cigarette going in the ashtray and a half-full spit cup on the dash. “Don’t let that fall on you,” he said. I put it between my legs and looked down at the sloshing mess of Skoal and spit. The cab stank. He stank. The whole situation stank.

Just another statistic

He turned off down a side street. “Jane Long’s that way,” I said. I was now robustly terrified.

“I know.” He made a few more turns and pulled up to a ramshackle house with two broken cars in front and a couch in the front yard, vintage 1970’s Houston. He had a carport and pulled under it, then got out.

“I’m going to be late,” I squeaked.

He didn’t say anything, just grabbed my bike out of the bed and took it into his garage. Ten minutes later he came back out. The rear tire was inflated. “You can get out,” he said. “She’s good to go.”

The rain had stopped as quickly as it had begun. “Thank you,” I said.

“No matter,” he answered. “I was a kid on a bike one time, too.” I looked at his broken orange teeth as the corners of his mouth turned up, and I believed him. The pavement smelled like fresh rain, washed clean.



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Gifts in passing

September 17, 2018 § 4 Comments

I went to the funeral of Iffioka Nsek on Saturday, a guy I’d never met. I know his sons through bike racing, but not well. I met his youngest son at this year’s Belgian Waffle Ride, where Ama finished first overall on the Wafer and obliterated second place by almost six minutes. The elder son, Imeh, is a similar force on the bike and a familiar face at the races.

Our cycling community is relatively small, and Iffioka’s death at age 51 affected me. There is a time to forego your oh-so-important Saturday bicycle ride for things that actually matter. This seemed like one of those times.

We drove up to Walnut and the campus of Mt. San Antonio College. I wondered why the memorial service was being held there instead of a church or funeral home.

The things in front of you that you don’t see

The on-ramp at the 405 and 110 was shut down, which delayed us. Then, the off-ramp from the 91 to the 605 was shut down, so we got delayed again. We were some of the last people to arrive at Mt. SAC, and we ended up in the wrong parking lot. There were only a few cars.

We walked through the campus to the performing arts center. A few other stragglers were signing the guest registry. Then a moment later we entered the auditorium. I blinked. It had a capacity of about 500, and except for a handful of empty seats towards the very front, was standing room only. We hurried down and sat, even as people continued to arrive, cramming the aisles.

I looked for familiar faces, expecting to see an audience filled with bike racers, and there were quite a few, but by far and away they were people from the “other,” non-racing world. It began to dawn on me that Iffioka Nsek, this guy I’d never met, was more than the father of two nonpareil young athletes. How had I never met him?

The mentor

I’ve been to many memorial services but never, ever to one like this. The first handful of speakers on the program spoke with a grief and intensity that had the entire audience in tears. But what was more incredible was the long line of people from the audience, almost two hours’ worth, queued up to share their memories and their gratitude and their grief.

What was incredible was that everyone told the same story. Iffioka had come from Nigeria to California, graduated from high school in Culver City, gone to Mt. SAC on a track scholarship, gotten a job with the college after graduation, and never left. He had built their IT department and computer network, and for twenty-eight years had been an institution within the institution, not just because of his genius, but rather because of his character.

The people who spoke were varied beyond belief. Co-workers, high school teachers, people he’d only met recently and people he’d known as a young boy. What astounded me was the way Iffi had maintained so many relationships over decades, while continually building new ones, each friendship as deep and sincere as the other. He was the guy who would answer the phone in the dead of night, send you a 200-line code solution to your problem in a matter of minutes, and go back soundly to sleep. He was the guy who you’d call asking to buy a bike part from and wind up in a 3-hour conversation about life.

Iffi had answers, and when he didn’t have answers, he had laughter and happiness. He was joyful, overflowing with love, and always so eager to see YOU. One of countless moving stories was about how Iffioka had sold a server to a young man on Craigslist, then worked with him over a period of months to get it set up and running properly, then guided and mentored him into a successful IT career.

Or the story told by his college track coach about how he’d recently gone over to the former coach’s granddaughter’s house, completely set up and installed her home network, and in four hours had formed such a bond that when the girl found out about Iffi’s death she had collapsed in tears.

These and stories like them were the tip of the iceberg. Iffi who had helped a young man start racing. Iffi who had helped an old man start racing. Iffi who knew everyone on the bike trails. Iffi who only had words of encouragement and love for those who tried, and acceptance for those who didn’t. Iffi whose life was passionately devoted to his wife of 28 years. Iffi who doted on and lived for his sons. Iffi who drove the boys to school without fail. Iffi who demanded intellectual rigor and hard work from his sons. Iffi who on the day of their birth recited their lineage to his sons. Iffi who immediately and forever earned the love and devotion of his in-laws. Iffi who laughed at success, who laughed at failure, who met each day with a brightness and brilliance that challenged the sun itself. Iffi, a giant among men, distinguished not by great wealth or worldly success, but distinguished by devotion to family, devotion to work and those around him, devotion to the human race.

I am hardened to death and the words that people conjure up to deal with their loss and grief, but through my tightly shut eyes and achingly bowed head, I wept, thanking this man I never knew, thanking him for his life, thanking him for the gifts he had, in passing, left for us all.



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Pretty lady

July 31, 2018 § 10 Comments

You can admit it. When you travel you are always looking at the bikes. And when you tourist in a country where people are biking all the time, the types of bikes you run across are endless, even though certain bikes seem to predominate in certain places. Ogling is a fact of biker travel life.

In Vienna you see Peugeot, Bianchi, Puch, and MuddyFox everywhere, being ridden, chained to bike racks and fences. When something is especially interesting I’ll stop and check it out.

Last night I was having a miserable non-dining experience at Va Piano, an Italian chain here where the kitchen line is stretched out against a wall. Each cook has a bay and you go to the bay, order your food, watch the chef prepare it, then take it yourself over to the table, hot. It shreds their labor costs because they don’t hire waiters, and it gets the food from the stove to your face more or less instantaneously.

The system had broken down last night, though. There were only two chefs for six pasta bays, and one of them was a trainee. The line was long and grumpy, The pizza bay wasn’t doing any better. After I bailed on the pasta line and migrated over there, I watched the cook pull ten burnt pizzas out of the oven.

“It’s going to be a minute,” he growled.

“No, it isn’t,” I said.

Grocery store food

Across the street was a Spar grocery store, so rather than wait another hour and spend $18 for dinner I figured I would wait zero minutes and spend $4 for a sandwich, bottle of water, and pasta salad.

As I crossed the street I checked the bikes shackled to the rack. And there she was.

An old Italian beauty with chromed fork crowns, dt shifters, and cables sticking out of the hoods. And what the hell was that? Campy NR rear der? Pretty soon I was squatting down, rubbing off the grease as a group of angry old women sat on a bench eyeing me suspiciously.

The brakes, crank, and pedal were various, but along with the vintage Campy parts the owner was even running sew-ups. I snapped a few photos.

“Excuse me?” a voice said.

I looked up and saw a tall hipster with a shoulder bag, tattoos, and forearms like thighs. “Is this yours?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“It’s gorgeous.”

“It is?” He clearly thought I was trying to steal it.

“Hell, yes. Where’d you get it?”

“My uncle gave it to me. It was his old bicycle from a long time ago.”

Funny how when people describe the 70’s as a long time ago you feel ancient. “He gave you something pretty cool.”

The guy’s suspicions hadn’t completely allayed but he’d sized me up and saw I was no bike thief, or at least not a very good one. “Yes, he told me it was a good bike.”

“Campy Nuovo Record rear derailleur, and check out the front derailleur. Totally classic. And the frame, it’s an Italian touring frame. A lot of this is original equipment.”

He raised an eyebrow. “So?”

“So it’s just beautiful, that’s all.”

“It is covered in dirt and grease,” he pointed out.

“That’s because it’s not hanging on a wall in some dude’s collection. You’re riding the shit out of it.”

“Is that bad?” He was now a little concerned.

I stood up and clapped him on the thick shoulder. “Dude,” I said, “that is exactly what this shit was born for.”



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Work history

July 1, 2018 § 6 Comments

You know how you keep a bunch of crap that you don’t need and will never, ever use again?

When we left our rent house on Via Zurita in 2011 in order to super downsize so that we could afford the stupid college tuition that went along with the fancy brand of university that had been so perfectly marketed to us, I took everything that hadn’t been touched in the last six months and tossed it onto a pile in the garage. The heap became Mt. Junk and included everything we owned that met the above criterion, including $15k worth of camera bodies and immaculate Nikon lenses. The 1-800-Got-Junk folks hauled it off in a dump truck and it was the best $150 I’ve ever spent.

I have never missed any of that stuff and it was the first major step I took in my life to become free of possessions. Possessions are weight and you carry them wherever you go. Every time I see someone working in the yard, or rather paying to have someone else work in their yard, and every time I see someone in a ridiculously nice car, wearing ridiculously nice clothes, building a ridiculously nice house, plunging into the throes of a ridiculously expensive vacation, or coming out of TJ Maxx with a cart piled higher and more whomperjawed than the Tower of Pisa, I pity them. Each one of those things mires them in place, mentally and physically, whether they know it or not.

From the date of that first Great Purge, every few months I have made the rounds in my continually smaller and more sparsely appointed apartments, tossing or donating almost everything that fails the six month touch test.

Stuff is poison, and the more of it you have, the more you poison your life. No exceptions, sad to say.

Life scraps

Of course some things survived the Great Wanky Purge of 2011, and one of them was a slim folder that contained vital records. They were the lone exception to the Six Month Rule. Even though you haven’t used your birth certificate or passport in the last six months, you’re gonna for sure need them again.

However, I do regularly perform a search-and-destroy on my one small filing cabinet. It’s amazing how paper, when left alone, will fornicate and give birth to more paperwork inside a filing cabinet. The other day as I was purging old bank records, I came across a brittle yellow half-page of legal paper.

It was a handwritten list of previous employment. At first I didn’t recognize it, rather cryptic thing that it was, and then when I deciphered the scribble, I couldn’t remember why I had kept it or why it had survived so many purges. After a bit of brow furrowing, I recalled why. It was part of my application when I took the professional responsibility test for the Texas Bar Exam in 1992, when I had to submit all employment from the previous ten years.


The code

The first thing I noted as I went over it was how short each of my jobs was, but how keenly I remembered each of them.

Central Delivery Service: This was the hotshot delivery service managed by mom’s husband. The secretary’s name was Alma. I organized files and drove my car over the curb one morning, tearing off the oil pan and creating Lake Oilspill in the parking lot, much to the amusement of everyone except me.

H.E.B. Stores: Grocery sacker my freshman year of college. It was the first job I ever had whose primary purpose was allowing me to save up for a better bicycle. It wasn’t the last.

Capitol Oyster Bar: This was at the corner of 15th and Lavaca, around the corner from the Texas Chili Parlor, and I worked as an oyster shucker. Hired by my bike racing pal Kevin Callaway the Good, it was the first job at which I ever excelled. I could shuck a dozen oysters a minute, which is pretty fucking fast, especially when you have to do it for hours at a time. I worked behind the bar and became friends with Old Joe Ford, the career dishwasher who would empty the bus tubs and drink all the booze that the patrons had left in their glasses. He taught me how to eat ribs. One night we were at the Iron Works and he saw my ribs with a bunch of meat left on them. “Boy,” he said, “your momma never taught you how to eat a rib? Shit.” Then he taught me how. I owe you, Joe.

Texas French Bread: Best job ever. Started at 4:00 AM, over at noon, all you can eat fresh bread, pastries, sandwiches, coffee, and fresh-squeezed juice. Plenty of time after work to train. I met Kim and Martha at TFB. Martha and I drove across the U.S. in my pickup, and when I was laid to rest at Keystone Ski Resort, where I washed dishes at the Brasserie, I hopped on my bike one day and made the 120-mile ride to Aspen (you have to get over Leadville Pass, and then at the end of the ride, up Independence Pass, ouch) where I visited Kim, who was staying there for the summer to play in a symphony.

Keystone Ski Resort: Ate mushrooms.

Utsunomiya American Club: My first job in Japan, where I met my wife on the first day of class as an English teacher. My boss was George Haynes along with a lady, Miss Ishikawa, who everyone called “Chief” because she was very tall and imposing. One day I went for a bike ride and got lost and ran into some personal difficulties, and Miss Ishikawa had to come pick me up. 100 miles away.

Kanda Gaigo Gakuin: After the Great Personal Difficulties and Long Drive Matter, my employment at Utsunomiya American Club ended rather abruptly and I got a job in Tokyo at the prestigious Kanda Gaigo Gakuin. My boss was a dude whose name I don’t recall, a large, jovial fellow who went to the train station one day to buy tickets for a trip to Nara Prefecture. In Japanese, he had learned that if you want to be respectful you add “O” to the noun, but he learned it wrong because you don’t ever do it with place names. So instead of saying “Nara kudasai,” at the counter he said “Onara kudasai,” which means “I’d like a fart, please.”

Chili’s: Back in Austin for law school, my buddy Kevin Callaway the Good hired me as a line cook at Chili’s on the corner of Burnet and Research. I wasn’t a very grill chef, but when one of the cooks, a third-string linebacker for the UT football team, started giving me shit, I remarked that he was an unathletic blob compared to the lowliest bike racer. He actually had a bike that he commuted to school on, and he challenged me to a race. I gladly accepted the challenge. He showed up in sweatpants and a Longhorn t-shirt (tough guys ain’t scared of the cold) and I took him on a 35-mile jaunt on a breezy February day in a light freezing drizzle. He kept asking “When are we gonna race?” until, about an hour in, soaked to the fucking skin, hypothermic, and barely able to sit upright, I told him “Now,” and rode off, leaving him lost and potentially dead. I went to work the next day, and the whole kitchen staff wanted to know how badly Sully had kicked my ass on the bike ride. When Sully showed up he looked a tad on the sickly side and didn’t say anything. When they asked me, I didn’t either. Sully may have been dogmeat on a bike but one of his fists was the size of my head.

Japan SLS: After finishing my stint in Germany I got an internship at the Tokyo branch of a German law firm, Japan SLS. My boss was Reinhard Neumann. The secretary was Miss Sasaki. The dude next door was Wieland Wagner, who ran the Vereinigte Wirtschaftdienst news service.

Texas Civil Rights Project: Back in Austin and law school, I got a part time job with the Texas Civil Rights Project. Jim Harrington had just split off from the ACLU. The offices were in a rundown upstairs space on the corner of Fourth and Congress. “Don’t ever go into law,” Jim once told me. “Be a union organizer.” Of course I rode there. Downhill all the way to work, uphill all the way back home. Which is, come to think of it, the way it’s been ever since.



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