HMM WEEKLY for September 17, 2019

HMM WEEKLY for September 17, 2019

Another Week, Another Hmm Weekly

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A Serial Travelogue, Part Four


OUT ON THE edge of the Arby's parking lot, there was a flash of red, like the red accents of the Arby's decor. One red-winged blackbird was flaring his wing badges at another, whose own wing badges had shrunk down to not much more than the yellow edge, until the second bird flew meekly away.

Those of us with working digestions had eaten Arby's sandwiches and a salad, in the clean and quiet interior, quiet in part because we were at or beyond the plausible late end of lunchtime. There were charging ports built into the table behind ours. I'm not in the habit of looking for an Arby's, but we're usually happy enough to find one on the road; it doesn't feel (or taste) like defeat, the way McDonald's does. The seven-year-old worked on a box of saltines, carefully rationed. We were still not even out of Wisconsin, although Google Maps said we were close.

The Mississippi

AND THEN we were going over the Mississippi River, not the sprawled-out flat expanse of water of my downstream childhood memory, but the lean and active Minnesota Mississippi, cutting its way below high western bluffs, between well-wooded banks and with wooded islands in the middle. We exclaimed as we crossed it, and exclaimed some more as the highway bent north along the bluffs to follow the rivercourse for little while, with summer afternoon light falling on the blue waterway below.

With those woods and those islands, it reminded of the Susquehanna, which formed the county line where I grew up, and so marked the first real landmark when leaving or the last one coming home. Even today, on the train or the interstate, I wait for it and suspend all other thoughts, to take in the full sight of the river with a thrill of satisfaction. It is never less than beautiful to my eye.

Now a fanciful possibility occurred to me: was I responding, back there by the river that meant home to me, to some older sense of home, to the landscape of my mother's parents and grandparents and beyond? Was I somehow recognizing in this Upper Mississippi the headwaters of my maternal line, the scenery that had defined life for generations?

Then the road turned west and the valley disappeared behind us and we were in the actuality of southern Minnesota: dead-level nothingness. Rivers and bluffs were unimaginable; monotonous fields receded in all directions. Here and there were farmhouses, sheltered in little clusters of trees, and as the miles went on my brain began to develop an imaginary counter-vision of the whole dull spectacle, in which the dark green clumps of trees sticking up became new islands, scattered on an open sea.

We had gassed up before leaving Wisconsin and we kept moving. Insects died on the windshield like rain. A clean windshield had been one of the first terrible clues in that big grim newspaper story last year about the insect apocalypse—the uncanny yet almost unnoticeable absence of living things—but here life was spattering itself all over the front of the Kia till I had to use the washing fluid to see out.

As far away as the bugs were near, there were the windmills: one, then several, then uncountable, on this side of the highway or that side or receding in all directions. Sometimes their great blades swung elegantly in synchrony or phase with one another, in a relationship if not in unison, and sometimes they were spinning ungainly unmatched or not moving at all. The size of them made no sense in the landscape; we had just read John Christopher’s Tripods series with the kids, about an Earth enslaved to gigantic all-conquering alien machines, and the comparison was too obvious to deny. Their presence instead signified hope, here, surely, and liberation from our fossil-fuel-choked future of endless heatwaves and extinctions of more than insects, but they stood also as monuments to the enormity of our appetite for power. There were so many of them, here in the middle of nowhere. We needed this, all of this, simply to try to keep up.

All along the way signs were counting down to Albert Lea, from more than a hundred miles off. Albert Lea was one of the places my mother's people were from, I knew, but I didn't know where, even approximately, and we were hours behind. We'd already made one rest stop in Minnesota, and that was enough. The numbers counted down toward zero and we went right past it.

Convention Center

WHEN DID night fall? We were driving west, toward the slowly lowering sun, stretching out the already stretched day. There was, I think, a moment when the clouds seemed to be bringing the day to an early end, but they drew back again. When we finally did make Sioux Falls, though, I was too tired to form a proper memory of whether we'd beaten the dusk in the long race or the dusk had beaten us.  

Sioux Falls never did become distinct. We had picked it for no reason but that it looked about halfway between Madison and Mount Rushmore. I'd asked the Internet to find us a discount on a hotel there, and it had retrieved the Sheraton and Convention Center. The discount, it seemed, was because no one was convening there; the parking lot was empty in the way that made it seem as if we'd taken a wrong turn and showed up where we weren't supposed to.

The Sheraton had a central atrium, ringed by balconies going all the way up. The children were excited, because they remembered that in Henry Reed's Journey, the travelers stop in Denver at the Brown Palace Hotel, which Henry Reed describes thus:

The hotel is about nine stories high, and it has a big hollow well in the center. You step out of your room onto what amounts to a balcony that looks down into this hollow well.

In the story, Henry Reed's parakeet gets loose and flies back and forth and up and down among the balconies. There's also a firecracker detonation in the middle of the atrium. Here was the same basic setup, minus the adventure and the details.

The Brown Palace Hotel is a real place, which opened in 1892 and still exists. Its balconies are elaborately wrought iron and its atrium, in photos, is richly detailed. Its website says the interior goes up eight stories, and the exterior is made of "Colorado red granite and Arizona sandstone." The Sioux Falls Sheraton is made out of standard interchangeable mass-market utility hotel stuff, and it only goes up six stories. Its only touches of flair were glass elevators running up the inside of the atrium and a rustic fake-rock fountain feature at the foot of the elevators, by the lobby bar. On the other hand, whatever Henry Reed's party may have paid, a night at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver costs somewhere in the mid-$200 range, and we'd landed the Sioux Falls Sheraton for $74. Both of them are currently members of the Marriott Bonvoy rewards program.

We were too spent to do anything but sit at a table in the sunken bar area, by the rock fountain, and eat hotel food. The menu was almost as interchangeable as the building, but there was a burger made of bison and a thick chowder made of pheasant. The bison burger tasted like a burger and the pheasant tasted like not much of anything at all.


A visit to Union Station in Washington, DC

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R.I.P Eddie Money and Rick Ocasek

WE LIKE TO think we publish every Tuesday here at Hmm Weekly, so my topic is very Tuesday-appropriate; a Two-Fer Tuesday of Rock Stars Who Have Recently Entered Rock and Roll Heaven: Eddie Money and Rick Ocasek. Classic rockers!

I guess Mr. Ocasek (pronounced oh-CASS-eck, thanks, New York Times) was a more “successful” Rock Star, because he had lots of hits with The Cars, but the Money Man (aka Edward Joseph Mahoney) was better at being a Faded Rock Star. He never stopped being Eddie Money. Also, all he did was take the “a” and the “h” out of his name and he was Money, a total good-time goofball who sang out of the side of a cockeyed grin.

A thing both of them had in common is they weren’t cool. I mean that in a good way, it’s cool to be in a Rock Band, but The Cars didn’t do anything except make records and then play the songs on the records pretty much note-for-note at shows, all they cared about was being in a band and playing, they didn’t care about being cool, they were cold. Here is my fave Cars thing, three chilly songs on side one of Candy O that never sound right unless they are presented in this segue-sequence.

Eddie Money was a hot mess, I can’t think about him and not smile. Nobody for a minute believed he “shot a man at the Mexican border,” but he definitely looked like he needed a drink of cool, cool, water.

Classic-Rockwise, lots of people absolutely hate lots of bands, Eagles, for instance, lots of people hate them, but nobody hated The Cars or Eddie Money. They were both cool because they weren’t.

Another Rock Star who isn’t cool is Peter Frampton. He was a sure-enough Golden God for a few years back in the day, but he got over it, and kept on at being a really good guitar player who had a band.

I saw him during some of his career doldrums in a space at a legendary club in Baltimore called Hammerjacks, which was mostly a bar. Seeing an arena-rock performer up close and personal in a part of the club that might have held 500 people meant I was close enough to Frampton that I could see the goofy face he makes when he plays. He doesn’t care. Frampton loves to play the guitar so much he routinely sticks a tube in his mouth so he can feed the sound of the guitar through it and become a living fleshly effects box! Not cool!

I recently went to his performance at Madison Square Garden, a stop on his farewell tour. He has a neurological disorder, and before he loses the ability to play the guitar as good as he wants, he’s making the rounds one more time.

As far as the show he put on, what a nice guy, and what a perfect sound from his band and especially his guitar work in that big space, wow. I totally got choked up when he talked about Chris Cornell and then played an instrumental of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” It was hard not to catch myself being sad during the evening’s performance but the music would snap me out of it, and I would feel a wave of gratitude for how much I enjoyed the album Frampton Comes Alive when it came alive, and how great a show Mr. Frampton always put on.

At the end of the evening he thanked the audience and asked “can you heal me?” Then as he left, he said he wasn’t going to say goodbye.


Hustlers, directed by Lorene Scafaria

Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu in Hustlers (2019)

HUSTLERS IS A movie based on a true story from the New York Times about a couple of successful strippers whose income dried up after the financial crash of 2008 so they decided to start getting way more aggressive about separating rich Wall Street assholes from their cash.

Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers.

This movie stars Constance Wu from the movie Crazy Rich Asians and the TV series Fresh Off the Boat, as Destiny, a neophyte pole dancer, but Jennifer Lopez bankrolled this thing and it is one hundred percent a J-Lo vehicle.

Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers.

For a movie about strippers, with a lot scenes in strip clubs, there isn’t a realistic amount of nudity in this film, but it’s a defensible and logical choice to keep the focus on human beings and not body parts. Also, J-Lo has a dance scene where she has so little clothing on that she looks more naked than if she was totally nude, does that make sense? Do you like J-Lo? This is her movie all the way, and she should get an Academy Award nomination for this, playing a Gentlemen’s Club veteran who lives high and takes Constance Wu under her chinchilla coat as sort of a mother figure who has strong opinions about the creeps who got away with crashing the stock market.

Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers.

Speaking of which, Frank Whaley plays one of those asshole-jerks and he has officially cemented himself in the slot for the creepy, desiccated, always-gonna-get-work character actor. His appearance in this movie makes you wonder if he needs constant medical attention in real life for being dead-looking while you just kinda hate his guts.

Constance Wu, Frank Whaley, and Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers.

Seriously, though, do you like J-Lo? This is a great role for her, she’s funny and scary and warm and caring and cold-blooded and if you don’t like her she might win you over in this thing, which is a mild sort of R-rated film, it’s almost a soft-R, I’m not saying take the kids, good lord no, but there’s a lack of grit that keeps the story mostly on the light side, somewhere between Goodfellas and a Hallmark Channel movie (I know, that doesn’t help) and there are lots of crazy clothes and shopping and a great cast of supporting players and Cardi B is in it and there isn’t one single solitary man-character in this picture who is worth a shit. It’s a good date movie.

Cardi B and Constance Wu in Hustlers.


The Best Thing We Read™ the Day After We Were Supposed to Have Already Finished This Newsletter

SPEAKING OF STRIPTEASE artistry, the Baltimore Sun's leading obituarist, Fred Rasmussen, published a lengthy and detailed obituary of Ruth E. Tropea, who disrobed on stages from Baltimore to Las Vegas and from Canada to New Orleans, in a career that stretched from the 1940s to the '60s, and who died this month at the age of 100. Baltimore traditionally views the stripping profession with a certain amount of pride, out of regard for the showbiz history of The Block, and Rasmussen's account of Tropea's life is both a tribute to a successful entertainer and a monument to a certain kind of newspapering—the kind that builds, maintains, and uses a comprehensive morgue.


It’s a Party In My Inbox

MANY FINE BRANDS (and my dentist) checked in with me on my special day to be a party animal and book a rental car to drive to the drug store for post dental-work painkillers while I listen to music. If I was a candle I would blow myself out!


WE PRESENT A selection of recipes for antique but entirely reproducible sandwiches, found in The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich, published in 1909 and now in the public domain for all to enjoy.

If you make any of these sandwiches, kindly send a picture to

On thin slices of buttered whole wheat bread, place a lettuce leaf; add thin slices of crisp fried bacon; spread with a little mustard, and put slices together. Garnish with a radish.

Moisten thick round crackers with hot milk; spread with a thick layer of hot mince meat, made rather moist with the addition of a little fruit juice or syrup. Place another cracker on top of that. To be eaten with a fork.

Chop one pound of tender cooked veal fine and add one-fourth cup of fat pork cooked and chopped fine. Season with salt and pepper, a little anchovy essence, and a little mace. Moisten with a little butter and work until smooth. Press the mixture solidly into small can or jar, pour melted butter to the depth of one-half inch over same, and set in a cool place. When ready for use, slice and place between thin slices of white bread. Garnish with a pickle.

HMM WEEKLY IS written by Tom Scocca, editor, and  Joe MacLeod, creative director. If you enjoy Hmm Weekly, let a friend know about it, and if you're reading this because someone forwarded it to you, go ahead and sign up for a copy of your own right now. Thanks for reading.