Hurricane(s) Irene

I was in Charleston a few weeks ago at a bar called Bootleggers when the topic of hurricane names came up.  The consensus of the group at hand was that Irene, Ophelia, and Phillipe were the best 2011 names for hurricanes.  Little did we know..

This is not the first Hurricane Irene. There was a Tropical Storm Irene in 1959.  Hurricane Irene in 1971 moved from the Atlantic across Central America and into the Pacific.  It was the first time an Atlantic hurricane was officially tracked crossing into the Pacific. Hurricane Irene 1981 started west from the Cape Verde Islands, but curved way to the east and eventually moved over northern France as an extratropical storm.  In 1999, Hurricane Irene made landfall in Cuba and South Florida before emerging into the Atlantic and shading the East Coast all the way up to Newfoundland.  The 2005 edition of Hurricane Irene didn’t come ashore.  It went up the East Coast west of the Carolinas and east of Bermuda before dissipating over the North Atlantic.

The World Meteorological Organization sets the names, which are now “recycled” every six years unless a storm is so bad the name is retired.  Let’s hope this isn’t the end of the line for Hurricane Irene.

Observations, Photos

The Chitlin’ Circuit

This photo shows remnants of an old black-owned hotel on US 17 near Litchfield Beach, SC.  The story goes that it was built in the late 40s by deccendents of rice plantation slaves who came into possession of the land as compensation from the plantation owners after emancipation. During the 50s, it became a popular overnite stopping point for black bands and entertainers playing the Chitlin’ Circuit — the name given to venues up and down the East Coast and throughout the South where it was safe for black musicians to perform during the era of racial segregation.

US 17 was a principal north-south highway at the time, before the interstates, of course, and there were probably few establishments catering to blacks along the way. Black entertainers would perform there and draw large crowds and included many well known stars of the time such as Count Basie.

The facility also included a restaurant and a boardwalk across the marsh over to the ocean front on South Litchfield Beach. Locals were charged a modest fee to cross the marsh and enjoy the beach, which is undevelopable because of tidal flooding.  The property was  almost completely destroyed  during Hurricane Donna in 1960 and the motel never reopened. The property and remains of parts of the facility lay  dormant for almost 50 years before recent efforts to do something with the site.

The South Litchfield Beach area for many years drew black folk and was called Magnolia Beach. Certainly the motel and causeway to the beach  was the impetus.

I went in search of similar remains over in Oak Orchard, DE, where the Indian River flows into Rehoboth Bay.   I’ve read there used to be a place called the Rosedale Beach Hotel that was a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit too.

In its pre-60s heyday, Rosedale Beach had a little boardwalk, a hotel, and a dance hall where performers like Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown performed. White Sussex Countians often anchored their boats offshore to listen to the music.  Unfortunately, there are no remains of Rosedale, not even a marker.


Keep Calm and Rave On

Gays getting married. Gays having babies. Gays serving openly in the military.  Yes, we’re seeing some amazing things in this new century.  Here’s one I wasn’t prepared for: gays playing beer pong.

You heard me right. The ultimate beer drinking game is no longer the province of straight frat boys and Snooki wanna-bes. Now the gay twenty-something pocket boys – those wispy lads so thin you can slip into your back pocket – are playing pong right here in Rehoboth Beach.

“Pong” is shorthand for a drinking game in which you try and land a ping-pong ball in your opponent’s cups of beer. If you succeed, your opponent must drink the beer.  It sounds easy and in concept it is.  Except that there are numerous variations on the game and every group of players seems to have its own special rules.

The National Beer Pong League — yes, there is such an entity– counts more than sixty recognized variations that can be played without paddles and more than a dozen with paddles. You’ve got Dartmouth pong, Cornell pong, Bounce pong, Long Island style, Philly style, Beirut East Coast style, Auburn rules, Virginia rules, and so the list goes on.

There’s even a set of rules for strip beer pong. And special names for players too. A camel toe, for example, is someone who always shoots before consuming the beer. A Che (Guevara) is someone who refuses to play by the house rules.

Pong tables vary too, though you can basically play the game on any flat tabletop.  The most popular size today is eight feet by two feet, and you can order one online in plastic, wood or aluminum at prices starting as low as $89. Handmade elegant wooden ones are available too and can cost upwards of $700. Picnic tables work well in a pinch.

The game has become so popular that there are leagues all over the country dedicated to pong. There is even a World Series of Beer Pong, held annually at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas where hundreds of players compete for a $50,000 grand prize.

How did this all come about?

Most historians — and I use that term loosely — believe beer pong originated at Dartmouth College in the 1950s and 1960s. Some older alumni think it grew organically from the simple fact of putting cups of beer on the table when playing the game of ping-pong. However it started, by the 1970s, the game of beer pong had developed rules and spread up and down the East Coast through the college and university circuit. At Dartmouth, it became so popular the school sanctioned it as an actual intramural sport for a short period of time.

I played pong for the first time in the fall of 1979 in the basement of a UVA fraternity. It was hot and heady with the scent of college boy sweat, Polo cologne, and marijuana. Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus album was playing on the stereo. Juanita my sweet chiquita, what are you up to?

A paddle was thrust into my hand and I was steered to a ping-pong table set atop a pool table with arranged with plastic cups of beer. A neophyte to beer pong, the brothers no doubt considered me an easy target.  Little did they know I’d been playing ping-pong for many years in my own basement. I had a good lob and I knew how to deliver some wicked topspin.

Yes, back then we played pong on real ping-pong tables and with real paddles. Old school.

Things started to change in the early 1980s when the frat boys at Lehigh and Lafayette chucked the paddles and started chucking the balls by hand. They called their new variation “Beirut” in reference to the Lebanese civil war. The rival schools are located but seventeen miles apart in eastern Pennsylvania, so, naturally, each claimed to have invented the game.  While the origin might be at issue, the raison d’etre wasn’t: to get bombed.

Today you find diehard fans of both the paddle and paddle-less versions. It’s a matter of preference. The pocket boys of Rehoboth toss rather than paddle. And though I’m personally partial to the classic version of pong, I am quite impressed by the boys’ sense of sporting style. They’ve got a specially designed table, balls, and even plastic cups all emblazoned with the slogan “Keep Calm and Rave On.”  I was told it’s a riff off of the British government’s “Keep Calm and Carry On” campaign to buoy public spirit during WWII.  Crowns for queens.  I like that.

Columns, Photos

Queer for Seersucker

So I was at a recent art opening, sipping some cold white wine and talking with a gentleman wearing a pair of slacks festooned with big shrimp when I noticed the strangest sight: A man wearing a starched brown seersucker shirt.

When I asked where he purchased such a shirt, he said he thought Brooks Brothers, but I knew that just couldn’t be. The label, when we looked, said Banana Republic.  This conferred upon it a sort of hipness, I suppose, but I had to wonder that if the point of seersucker is to keep you cool, why wear it in such a dark color?

Seersucker is a thin cotton fabric, commonly striped or checked and usually presented in a light or bright color paired with white. It’s one of summer’s ubiquitous fabrics, along with linen and madras.

Like madras, seersucker originated in India. The unique way it is woven keeps one yarn at a normal tension while the other yarn is held at a slack tension. When filler yarn is added in, it causes the slack yarn to scrunch up, giving the fabric its signature wrinkled texture.  The effect is to hold hot air away from the body, thereby keeping you cool.

If you’re enamored of the word “seersucker” like I am, it might surprise you to learn that it actually comes from the Hindi, Urdu, and Persian words “shiroshakar,” meaning “milk and sugar” and referring to the smoothness of milk and the rougher texture of sugar.

The man most responsible for introducing milk and sugar into American men’s fashion was a New Orleans suit maker named Joseph Haspel. He began creating inexpensive blue and white striped seersucker suits in 1909.  Over time, the suit took on a sense of panache, helped no doubt when Princeton university boys back in the 1920s started wearing them.

A student named Damon Runyon is credited with launching the seersucker craze at Princeton.  Runyon went on to achieve some fame as a writer. Several of his stories were adapted into Broadway plays, including Guys and Dolls.  He was quoted as saying about wearing seersucker that his peers couldn’t tell if he was broke or vogue.

Supposedly, Brooks Brothers began selling a seersucker suit as early as the 1930s.  The fabric began to reach the mass markets when Joseph Haspel started promoting it at textile and clothing conventions in the 1940s.  Though it has had its ups and downs in terms of popularity since the advent of air conditioning, seersucker remains a stylish statement.

A decorator friend whispered to me one evening in the Blue Moon that one of his signature looks was the black and white powder room – white porcelain sink, black toilet, with black and white seersucker padded walls. They love it in Virginia.

A certain Baltimore Avenue merchant told me he has been busy this summer stitching up all sorts of unique seersucker shirts and pants for slim hipped fabby boys.

A gentleman from a fine old Sussex County family confided to me that when he wears seersucker pajamas to bed, it makes him feel “all crazy,” to which I just nodded, unsure I wanted further clarification.

My favorite seersucker story, however, is the one where my some friends were having Friday lunch at Galatoire’s in New Orleans.  The foursome was attired, naturally, in blue and white seersucker suits. Don’t worry.  None of the suits were the same because there is great diversity among blue and white seersucker garments — width of the wale, shade of the blue, cut of the lapel.

It was a typical Friday crowd: ladies in hats, large groups of celebrants, diners roaming from table to table visiting with old friends or trying to make nice to new ones, and everyone sipping Sazeracs. To their immediate left, however, was a table of ladies who were clearly tourists.  They were wearing nothing of interest and, worse, they were eating Chicken Clemenceau with green peas.

As the fellas sipped and gossiped, gossiped and sipped, the chatter got looser and louder.  Finally, one of the ladies to the left felt emboldened and turned to the group sweetly and said, “Excuse me, but we couldn’t help but notice that all of you are wearing seersucker suits.  We were just wondering if you all were in some sort of a club or something?”  One of the gentlemen, who will not be named, simply replied:  “Why, as a matter of fact, ma’am, we are C***suckers in Seersucker.”  “Oh my, I see,” she said and turned back to her chicken and peas.

I’ve never worn a seersucker suit. It would be a tad too comical for someone my size. That said, I do own a half dozen seersucker shirts, a seersucker jacket, a pair of seersucker shorts, one seersucker bowtie, a pair of chartreuse seersucker tennis shoes.  My collection is not limited to clothing.  I’ve got two seersucker bedspreads and a set of seersucker placemats with matching seersucker napkins. I came very close once to purchasing two purple striped seersucker lampshades.  The price, not the color, was just too extreme.

All of this brings me back around to that brown seersucker shirt. Seersucker should be about celebrating the dandy and creating a little ruckus. Lime green? Yes indeed.  Hot pink?  Hell yeah!  Brown seersucker just seems too serious, a little prim even, and most certainly a waste of a good indulgence.

My advice to those who feel compelled to go brown in the summer is very simple. Either do it in linen or go get a tan.  Better yet, order a Manhattan cocktail and get your brown on that way.  Anything, I beg you, but please don’t sully the seersucker.