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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Inner city needs more public washrooms: pastor

Rev. James Holland hopes these signs will draw attention to the problem of public defecation in Edmonton's inner-city area. (Tim Adams/CBC)

Homeless people need a place to use the washroom, the pastor of an inner-city church says, and he is launching a sign campaign to send that message to Edmonton city council.

Rev. James Holland said he often finds human excrement on and around the grounds of his Sacred Heart Church of First Peoples in the McCauley neighborhood.

It's frustrating, but its hard to blame people, he said. The only public washroom in the area isn't open in the winter.

"There is a tremendous need for people to have a place to go to the bathroom," he said.

Holland has cleaned up as much as five piles of human waste in one day, and last summer, he decided he had enough.

He put up large, professionally-made signs that read "No bodily functions", which featured a drawing of a squatting person with an "x" over it.

However, the city's parks department took the signs down, after someone complained about them being offensive.

Holland admits there is a bylaw against putting up signs without permission from the city, but there are also bylaws against public urination and defecation which are not being enforced, he said.

After some wrangling with city hall, Holland put his signs back up again. The city has now agreed to leave them there "until the community decides we don't have a need for them," he said.

Holland is now having signs made for people in the community who want them. He also has support from the McCauley Community League.

Holland said he is motivated by concerns about the health and safety of children who live in the area.

"It's certainly not healthy for our children to have broken glass and human waste laying around in the park," he said.

The city will look at the question of whether Edmonton should build more public washrooms on Tuesday.

A report prepared for council notes there are very few public washrooms in central Edmonton.

Vandalism, dirty washrooms, and the problem of facilities being used for drug use and prostitution have been identified as potential issues that will need to be dealt with.

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Tampa's adults-only businesses hope to cash in on Super Bowl

By Susan Thurston, Times Staff Writer

As the Super Bowl approaches, dancers at clubs such as Deja Vu in Tampa hope to draw big crowds and make big bucks.

TAMPA — Mons Venus strip club dancer Bernie Notte knows the cash a Super Bowl can bring. It flew at her like confetti during Tampa's 2001 game. She earned $6,000 in four days.

She danced so much that her feet bled. Customers didn't flinch at paying $100 for a $25 lap dance.

"It was crazy,'' she said. "Money was everywhere.''

Notte, 43, packed up her stilettos seven months ago to wait tables at the Mons. But the lure of Super Bowl XLIII tickled her toes.

She's headed back to the pole.

The Super Bowl is a command performance for a city defined, in part, by its international reputation for lap dancing. Tampa has 30 licensed adult dance clubs, adult theaters, live model studios and adult bookstores on record at City Hall. That's roughly 1 per 11,300 residents, among the highest rates nationwide.

The infamous adults-only scene gives Tampa part of its luster, some say.

"I don't think it's a stretch to say that the adult entertainment industry helps us get things like the Super Bowl,'' said Paul Allen, publisher of NightMoves magazine, one of the oldest adult club publications in the country.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy scoffed at that.

"That's ridiculous," he said.

But come next week, expect a steady stream of out-of-towners lined up outside a small, shoebox-shaped building on Dale Mabry Highway, in the shadow of Raymond James Stadium.

Each will pay a cover charge of maybe $60, up from the normal $20, though Mons Venus owner Joe Redner says demand will dictate price.

Inside, five or six dancers at a time gyrate around a pole, catching cash as it flies at them. A jukebox blares. Customers sip water, soda or juice — no alcohol at Tampa's all-nude clubs — until a spot opens on padded benches along the club perimeter.

Technically, lap dancing is illegal in Tampa. Technically, nude dancers are supposed to stay 6 feet away from customers.

"People need to be aware of the laws that apply," warns Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

Redner will keep the Mons open around the clock all week, closing it only for housekeeping. (Now and then, someone must polish the pole.)

Longer hours require more dancers. Weeks ago, the Mons started getting calls from out-of-town women wanting work.

"We tell them to come on down, and we'll take a look at them," said Redner, who often drops by the club to say hello, slap a butt or get a hug or two. "If we have extras, we'll send them to other clubs. We take the cream of the crop.''

Dozens will simply appear at the door, ready to go on stage.

Local dancers, told to welcome the carpetbaggers, will do so, hoping Super Bowl brings riches to share.

But the weak economy looms large. Redner said business is half of what it was two years ago. Lorry Kasner, a manager who danced at the Mons during the 2001 Super Bowl, warns that girls may have to work more hours to bring in the same tips.

"I think the money is still going to be there, but it's just not going to be as easy,'' said Kasner, 43.

They'll know better Wednesday, when the first flights of fans arrive. Last time, the surge continued a day after the game, sustained when customers stopped by for parting gazes on the drive to nearby Tampa International Airport.

Nichole Romagna, a.k.a. Nakita Kash, started thinking about the Super Bowl months ago. A pole dancing instructor who appeared on NBC's America's Got Talent, she posted ads on Craigslist seeking strippers to work Super Bowl week.

They had to get to town on their own dime and then try out. She promised to set them up at clubs during game week and find them places to stay.

About two dozen tried out, including one who Romagna said is a student at Dartmouth College. The dancer said she wanted to "get away" and didn't care how much money she made. She brought a suitcase full of makeup, 6-inch heels and high hopes.

In the end, she decided not to come back for game week. But six others start arriving Tuesday.

They will come from as far away as Washington state and California, Romagna said. They'll perform at the Tampa Gold Club and at Mermaids in St. Pete Beach, both of which reduced the dancers' house fee. Clubs typically will charge dancers $100 to $150 just to walk through the door.

Escort services also hope for a profitable week. Scott Outland, a manager for Florida's Hottest Escorts, said he's optimistic.

"I heard that there are unbelievable amounts of money to be made,'' he said. "But I'm holding my breath that it will be that good.''

His service charges $250 an hour but offers a 10 percent discount for Super Bowl clients. An overnight package goes for $1,800.

He said one customer who will arrive Sunday hired an escort for seven days straight at a cost of $24,000. His company's cut: half. The customer hinted that he might take the escort to the game.

Outland insists that his six escorts provide companionship only.

"It's all legitimate,'' Outland said. "All my girls sign a seven-page contract saying they won't do anything illegal."

Tampa police say they'll keep an eye on adult businesses, although keeping the public safe will take priority. This is Tampa's first Super Bowl since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and security will be extra tight.

Two women have already landed in jail on prostitution charges, arrested Jan. 16 near Raymond James Stadium. They told police they were in town for the Super Bowl. One listed her employer as the Moonlite BunnyRanch, a Nevada brothel.

Before Tampa's last big game, the National Football League warned players to avoid adult clubs. The city had been cracking down on lap dancing, most visibly with the arrests of two National Hockey League players.

This year? No memo.

"People figured out that lap dances do not advance the decline of western civilization,'' interprets Luke Lirot, Redner's attorney.

So, the party will go on.

Dancers will put on their Lucite heels, naughty smiles and little else for what may be the most lucrative days of their careers.

Tiffany Schrader will dance as long as her legs allow.

The 26-year-old from Clearwater joined the Mons Venus crew a few months after the last Super Bowl.

She has heard all the stories, and game week can't come fast enough.

"I'm not going home for a few days,'' she said. "I'll stop when it's over.''

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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First the Affair, Then Paternity Test, Then Abortion?

By AMMU KANNAMPILLY

The illegal use of DNA testing to determine the sex of fetuses in the developing world is widely known, but now, concern is growing in the United Kingdom that the availability of prenatal paternity tests is encouraging women to terminate fetuses that are the result of extramarital affairs.

Photo:  First comes the paternity test, then comes abortion?
The illegal use of DNA testing to determine the sex of foetuses in the developing world is widely... Expand
(ABC News Photo Illustration)

According to Dan Leigh, the marketing director with DNA Solutions, a global DNA test firm with offices in 40 countries, the number of women opting for the prenatal paternity test shot up from 20 in 2002 to 500 last year.

"The testing technology has improved vastly," Leigh told ABC News. "It's become much more accessible."

"It's fairly common to see women take this test after their husbands have found out about an affair and want to know if they have fathered the child their wife is carrying," Leigh said.

"But 75 percent of the cases involve women coming in of their own volition; they want to know whose child they are carrying," he said.

As for the concerns over women terminating their pregnancies as a result of the tests, Leigh demurred, saying that "there are no statistics to support that, but it [abortion] happens when the husband turns out not to be the biological father."

"It's a sad situation," he said. "It often ends either in divorce or the husband insists on terminating the pregnancy."

The company encourages women who apply to take the prenatal paternity test to also see a therapist. But, although 90 percent of the company's U.S. customers consult with a therapist, only 20 percent of its U.K. clients do, because "the idea of seeing a counselor is just not popular in this country," Leigh said.

And, despite criticism from anti-abortion rights organizations, Leigh insisted that DNA Solutions does "not encourage abortion or termination of pregnancies."

"We are offering the chance to clarify the truth," he said.

"Frankly," he said, "the risk to a baby from an amniocentesis is a much bigger concern for us, and we are working on being able to conduct the test using a blood sample from the mother's arm instead, find a noninvasive way of doing it."

Anti-abortion rights campaigners like Josephine Quintavalle, director of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, dismiss such concerns, saying that, "unless you are conducting a test to help a baby -- for health reasons, say -- there is no significant reason to carry out any procedure that might hurt a baby."

"I don't think we should condone any form of testing that might lead to either sex selection or termination of the fetus," she said.

But the boom in prenatal paternity testing may be a mirage, according to other DNA testing organizations.

Mark Pursglove, the international operations manager for the U.K.-based International Biosciences, said that his company performed "about one or two tests a month" and that the paternity tests were not necessarily tied to adultery.

"Last year," he said, "two of the cases we dealt with involved rape victims who wanted to find out if they were carrying the rapist's babies."

The supposed popularity of these tests has been overstated, he said.

"The process costs between £800-£900 [$1,133-$1,274]," he said. In contrast, DNA Solutions offers tests beginning at $332.

Pursglove said that "the clinics we use for the test won't take up a case if they believe that a termination might be the result."

Furthermore, all clients must "speak to a gynecologist, an obstetrician or a general practitioner before the test is carried out."

Although the company forbids any "gender inquiries about the fetus," unless the person or couple involved explicitly discusses the possibility of termination, the company goes ahead with the test, Pursglove said.

But the expectation of total honesty from a woman caught in such a sensitive situation may just be too high, according to some.

And many anti-abortion rights campaigners believe the chances are slim that anyone would undergo a risky test costing hundreds of dollars without any intention to terminate the pregnancy in case the test turns up a disturbing result.

As this testing technology becomes more sophisticated and more accessible, however, it's likely that paternity tests will only become more commonplace, even as the battle to hammer out an ethical stance on the matter shows no signs of letting up.

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How to survive Casa Bonita, the world's weirdest Mexican restaurant

Casa_Bonita.jpg
I recently visited Casa Bonita for the first time, and I'm still trying to recover. No, that's not an indigestion joke about the food, sub-par as it may be. Actually, my mind was blown in a good way. As I'd been told, there's no easy way to describe the Lakewood institution, which bills itself as "The World's Most Exciting Restaurant" - a pronouncement that very well might be true. The multi-story, Mexican-themed behemoth includes a 30-foot-tall waterfall, cliff divers, fire jugglers, strolling mariachi bands, a pirate cave, magicians, puppet shows, skee-ball machines... you get the idea. As one of my colleagues put it, it's like Disney had sex with Tijuana and left the goofy-looking bastard to fend for itself in a random strip mall on Colfax.
I loved every insane second of our trip there - except for the fact that I felt like those kids in the movie SpaceCamp who were accidentally launched into space and had no fucking idea what the hell to do. There was just way too much stuff going on at Casa Bonita and no helpful little robot named Jinx (yes, that's a second SpaceCamp reference) to help me figure it all out.

With that in mind, we here at Westword decided, as a community service, to create a Casa Bonita survivor's guide. Follow these rules and you'll have a hell of a time -- who knows, you may even live to eat again.

1) Do your research. There's no way to fully prepare for the sensory-overload experience that is Casa Bonita, but a good first step would be to watch Trey Parker and Matt Stone's South Park documentary about the place. We're using the term "documentary" because while every other South Park episode features bizarre characters and outlandish scenarios, the actual Casa Bonita is so ridiculous they just slapped it into the show looking exactly how it looks in real life. We're also pretty sure children really have been willing to kill others for a chance to go to the restaurant, so Cartman's attempt to kill Butters so he can take his place at a party there is completely factual. And finally, just like Cartman, chances are you will end up running around Casa Bonita like a crack addict, all the while singing the song, "Casa Bonita! Casa Bonita! Food and fun in a festive atmosphere!"

2) Order the taco salad. As everyone knows, you don't go to Casa Bonita for the food -- and that's even if you ignore all those rumors about piles of empty cat food cans in the kitchen. Unfortunately, they make you order a full meal to get in the door, but it's best to just write that off as the admission fee. A good strategy is to not eat any of your $12 meal and make sure you have at least $12 worth of fun while you're there (or make sure you have $8 worth of fun and eat at least $4 worth of sopapillas). Or, if you really need some sustenance, take it from us and order the taco salad. Unlike every other option on the menu, the "mystery meat" with this entree comes on the side, so you can eat your salad without wondering too much about cat food. Sure, it's the worst taco salad you will ever eat, but finding a way to make a taco salad this bad is sort of an achievement in itself, and we're all about giving credit where credit is due.

3) Don't go for the fried ice cream. This is where they get you. Right after you've ordered your taco salad, the server will undoubtedly ask, "Would you like fried ice cream with that?" And that's just not fair. Any time someone asks you to partake in something that involves ice cream and deep-frying, the innate human response is to heartily acquiesce. We can't help it; the response involves the same part of our reptilian brain that takes over whenever we hear the words "open" and "bar" in the same sentence. But fight this urge you must, because already waiting for you at the end of your lousy meal is the dessert to end all desserts - something even better than fried ice cream: Casa Bonita's sopapillas. You have to wonder how these powdery pillows of goodness could come from the same kitchen that manages to screw up cheese quesadillas. And did we mention they're free? In other words, the fried ice cream is for suckers.

4) Demand a table by the waterfall. Casa Bonita employees are like the Navy SEALS of waitstaff. The place is a well-oiled machine, a perfectly calibrated cadre of maître d's, busboys and margarita servers, so it's only natural not to complain when they sit you in the mine shaft or spooky forest or some other forlorn corner far away from all the action; they seem to know best. But stand strong. You came here for the flame-juggling, the cliff-diving, the inappropriate shenanigans involving make-believe natives and a guy in a gorilla suit, damn it, and you're not going to take anything less than a table by the waterfall, where all the good shit goes down. Yes, they'll make you wait a bit for a table to open up, but since you've already been waiting in line for an hour, a few more minutes won't hurt.

5) Order beer by the bucket. Just like how characters in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy need to eat lots of peanuts to make up for the salt and protein they lose from going through matter transference beams, your best chance of making it out of Casa Bonita without losing too much sanity in the process is to drink beer. Lots of it. Unless, of course, you already dropped acid in the parking lot.

6) Don't tip the strolling mariachis. These guys may seem cute in their adorable wide-brimmed hats, but really they're as single-minded and debilitating as suckerfish. Slip 'em a greenback and they'll never leave your side until you're hemorrhaging dollars to their merciless, unending tunes. Then again, maybe it's worth the dough to have your own Mexican theme music wherever you wander, especially if the musicians take requests. It would be pretty sweet to stroll by some hotties as your personal band plays a mariachi version of the theme from Shaft. Better yet, convince them to perform the Benny Hill Show music while you get chased around by the guy in the Chiquita the angry Gorilla suit.

7) Avoid Black Bart's Cave. Of course you want to make the most of your time at Casa Bonita. By all means check out the puppet show, the magician, the arcades and everything else. But whatever you do, avoid Black Bart's Cave. That place is scary - and we're not referring to the stupid cackling, glowing plastic skull on the wall. We're referring to what gets left all over the cave when the ten-year-old who's had one too many tacos loses his shit because of the stupid cackling, glowing plastic skull on the wall. Take it from us: You don't want to go home smelling like the curse of Black Bart.

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The Dish: The Baskin Robbins Chocolate Oreo Milkshake, the "Worst Food" in America

By Ian Froeb

oreo012309.jpg


Men's Health magazine has released its annual "Worst Foods" list. Scoring the top spot as the absolute worst food in the country? A large Chocolate Oreo Shake from Baskin Robbins. This bad boy has 2,600 calories, 135 grams of fat (59 of which are saturated), 263 grams of sugar and 1,700 milligrams of sodium.

And now it sits on my desk, taunting me.

Now, I don't blame Baskin Robbins for selling this. No one's forcing you to buy a Chocolate Oreo Shake in any size, let alone large -- unless you're a food blogger desperate for content on Friday, that is. Frankly, I bet Baskin Robbins will sell more of these now that Men's Health has declared it the country's "worst food" than it ever did before. I mean, I never would have thought to buy one.

It's hard to say just how much ice cream goes into this thing. The man who made mine used four or five GIANT scoops of ice cream. It wasn't mixed using the store's traditional milkshake mixer but rather in a blender, which was placed inside a contraption that looked like a blast shield. I guess that many calories spun at a high rate speed have the potential for an explosion.

Ironically, for all those calories, the Chocolate Oreo Shake's texture is kinda thin. It certainly lacks the lung-draining thickness of a classic soda-fountain shake. And all that crumbled up cookie gives it a grainy feel. A colleague astutely compared it to a protein smoothie loaded with whey powder.

The most unappetizing part -- assuming, for a second, that you somehow didn't know it was a heart attack in a plastic cup -- has to be the color. The same colleague and I just had this exchange:

Colleague: "It looks blueberry-flavored. You expect there to be berries."

Me: "It looks Dockers flavored. It's khaki."

No, I didn't eat the whole thing. In fact, three or four sips were more than enough. Those had to be 200-300 calories by themselves. Too bad we retired Keep It Down.

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John Updike dies

Helen Pidd

John Updike

John Updike. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

John Updike, the great chronicler of sex and divorce among ordinary people in postwar America, died this morning, aged 76.

A prolific novelist, short-story writer, poet and critic, Updike's most famous works include The Witches of Eastwick, and his quartet of novels about the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Two of the Rabbit books won the Pulitzer prize for fiction - first Rabbit is Rich, in 1981, and then Rabbit at Rest, in 1991.

Updike's death was announced by Nicholas Latimer of Alfred A Knopf, his publisher. "It is with great sadness that I report that John Updike died this morning at the age of 76, after a battle with lung cancer. He was one of our greatest writers, and he will be sorely missed," said Latimer in a statement.

A literary writer who frequently appeared on bestseller lists, the tall, hawk-nosed Updike wrote novels, short stories, poems, criticism, the memoir Self-Consciousness and even a famous essay about baseball great Ted Williams. He was prolific, even compulsive, publishing more than 50 books in a career that started in the 1950s. Updike won virtually every literary prize going; only the Nobel eluded him. To compensate, he awarded it to one of his fictional characters, Henry Bech, the womanising, egotistical Jewish novelist who featured in a number of his works.

Updike was famous for his depiction of sex; in November 2008, he won a lifetime achievement award at the Literary Review's annual Bad Sex in Fiction award, which celebrates "crude, tasteless or ridiculous sexual passages in modern literature".

Born in 1932 in Shillington, a small town in Pennsylvania, Updike spoke for millions of Depression-era readers raised by "penny-pinching parents", united by "the patriotic cohesion of world war two" and blessed by a "disproportionate share of the world's resources", and America's postwar, suburban boom of "idealistic careers and early marriages".

He captured, and sometimes embodied, a generation's confusion over the civil rights and women's movements, and opposition to the Vietnam war. Updike was called a misogynist, a racist and an apologist for the establishment. On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing.

More often he was praised for his flowing, poetic writing style. Describing a man's interrupted quest to make love, Updike likened it "to a small angel to which all afternoon tiny lead weights are attached". Nothing was too great or too small for Updike to poeticise. He might rhapsodise over the film projector's "chuckling whir" or look to the stars and observe that "the universe is perfectly transparent: we exist as flaws in ancient glass."

A tall, shy, priggish boy as a teenager, Updike found his greatest pleasure in drawing and writing. He was an accomplished cartoonist and hoped to work as an animator for Walt Disney. He wrote regularly for his high school newspaper, and won a scholarship to read English at Harvard.

He graduated in 1954, and spent a year in Oxford studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of staff at the New Yorker. In 1957, he left New York, with its "cultural hassle" and melting pot of "agents and wisenheimers", and settled with his first wife and four children in Ipswich, Massachusetts, a "rather out-of-the-way town" about 30 miles north of Boston.

"The real America seemed to me 'out there', too heterogeneous and electrified by now to pose much threat of the provinciality that people used to come to New York to escape," Updike later wrote.

"There were also practical attractions: free parking for my car, public education for my children, a beach to tan my skin on, a church to attend without seeming too strange."

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The Hidden State of Culture

See Corrections & Amplifications below

New Jersey is America's secret treasure-house of culture.

If that strikes you as a proposition out of an absurdist play, consider a sampling of the gifted figures who have either come from Jersey or made a home there: Bruce Springsteen (N.J.'s state songbird); Frank Sinatra, Frankie Valli; Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg; the painters George Inness and John Marin; the photographer Alfred Stieglitz; Stephen Crane, Philip Roth, Junot Díaz; and David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos."

California? Too much fantasy, too much hazardous sunlight and too much obsession with software and hard bodies. New York City? Too much reality, too little sunlight and too much obsession, period. Everywhere in between? Riches, to be sure, but no place has New Jersey's tightly packed diversity, its quick changes from urban to country, from mountains to coast, from gritty to gorgeous.

Of course, think "New Jersey" and cultural epicenter doesn't immediately spring to mind. Instead, the name summons up unsparing caricature: grime, gangsters, pollution, ugly highways, Byzantine shopping malls, Saharan parking lots and a level of culture somewhere between troglodyte and troll.

Even the nickname "Garden State" seems to be something like a defensive reaction meant to fend off ridicule. In 1954, when the state legislature passed a bill adding the sobriquet to license plates, garbage disposal had long been a crisis in Jersey. Not only did the tiny state lack sufficient space for discarding its waste, but it had become a dumping-ground for garbage from other states. Gov. Robert Meyner vetoed the bill, writing, "I do not believe that the average citizen of New Jersey regards his state as more peculiarly identifiable with gardening for farming than any of its other industries or occupations." The state legislature promptly overrode his veto, and the rest is license-plate history.

New Jersey's small size has a lot to do with both its much-inflated deficiencies and its virtues. A lot is packed into limited territory. Urban squalor is squeezed up against dairy farms; picturesque villages right out of a New England landscape are a sneeze away from sulfurous factories and malodorous highways. For a lot of people, caricature of the state's deficiencies is an efficient way to reduce its multifaceted nature to a clear meaning.

[representatives of the garden state] Everett Collection (Cruise, Suburbia); Getty Images (15)
[jersey key]

Representatives of the Garden State: 1. James Gandolfini in 'The Sopranos' 2. William Carlos Williams 3. Philip Roth 4. Giovanni Ribisi of the movie 'SubUrbia' 5. Walt Whitman 6. writer Amiri Baraka 7, 8. Steven Van Zandt and Tony Sirico in 'The Sopranos' 9. Bruce Springsteen 10. Jack Nicholson 11. Allen Ginsberg 12, 13. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton 14. Frank Sinatra 15. writer- performer Eric Bogosian, whose 'SubUrbia' is set in New Jersey 16. Tom Cruise 17, 18. Steve Zahn and director Richard Linklater of 'SubUrbia' 19. writer-director Todd Solondz

The jumble of contrasts is, on the contrary, the source of Jersey's remarkable harvest of talent. It drives certain people to either build a unified artistic sensibility out of the divisions around them, or to create art unhindered by a narrow identity.

At the same time, you can refine Jersey's countless dimensions into two polarized elements: industrial and pastoral. The struggle for dominance between them is at the heart of the American drama -- the Civil War, for example, or the urban/agrarian friction that has shaped the schism between liberal and conservative to this day. It could be that Jersey is so representative of America's original strife that dismissing the state as a crude and unlovely place is a good way to sweep certain national anxieties under the rug.

But New Jersey's fractured personality is the very reason for its (hidden) cultural preeminence. After all, no less than one-fifth of this heavily industrialized and densely populated state is taken up by the Pine Barrens, a gigantic primeval forest of pine and oak buried like the unconscious in southern Jersey. Even in Newark's black ghetto, the young writer Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) could imagine that "the invisible mountains of New Jersey linger where I was born." Paul Robeson -- Phi Beta Kappa scholar, athlete, law-school graduate, actor, singer -- might not have thrived in a less faceted place.

Then, too, there is the particular way Jersey is positioned next to New York. Unlike Long Island and Connecticut, from where you have to drive through New York City's boroughs or Westchester to get to Manhattan, you go from Jersey straight into the glittering towers of Gotham, which confront you dramatically no matter what approach you take from the Garden State. For New Jerseyans, Gotham exists as ever-present aspiration, temptation and either haunting or competitive contrast. That could be why you find Queen Latifah's wild, river-spanning energy in Philip Roth's antic intensity and vice versa. And perhaps why Dionne Warwick sings "Promises, Promises" with such robust pathos. "Things that I promised myself fell apart..."

So why all the antipathy toward a place that is also the first colony to ratify the Bill of Rights, that contains numerous beautiful towns and villages, that boasts an ocean, mountains and a vast forest among its natural wonders, and that has more horses per square mile than any other state?

The glee that New Yorkers take in belittling their neighbors to the west is especially energetic. There are two reasons for this. First, people living in New York City are convinced that without New Jersey blocking their view, they would be able to see the rest of the country. Second, New Jerseyan Aaron Burr killed New Yorker Alexander Hamilton in a duel, the tragic consequence of negative remarks that Hamilton made behind Burr's back at a dinner party (probably something like: "Burr, that moron from New Jersey"). That Hamilton was gunned down on a Weehawken, N.J., cliff overlooking Manhattan's spectacular streets -- and not, say, on Fifth Avenue -- only added insult to injury. New Yorkers have a long memory.

But these local grievances do not explain why New Jersey's worth eludes the rest of the country. Angus Kress Gillespie, a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University, accounts for the national scorn in two words: "The Turnpike."

The New Jersey Turnpike, that is, a 148-mile, 4- to 12-lane monstrosity that snakes from the state's southeast corner north to the George Washington Bridge through some of the meanest terrain in the civilized world: macadam deserts; belching smokestacks that make Gary, Ind., look like a Scottish pasture; trucks roaring on every side of you as though you were strapped to the bottom of a Boeing 737 during takeoff; strip malls that go on and on like the laughter of a lunatic.

Because it is the very essence of America's ugly industrialized and commercialized underside, the New Jersey Turnpike has impressed itself on the national imagination more than any other element of the Garden State. Bruce Springsteen's genius has been precisely to take that negative image and infuse it with positive energy.

"Springsteen has made the Turnpike's blighted landscape a source of almost cinematic drama," said Jim Cullen, the author of "Born in the USA: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition." "He transformed it into the vivid setting of riveting journeys that finally matter more than the city glimmering across the Hudson."

Springsteen's isn't the only artistic vision that has drawn a universal meaning out of the Garden State's more sordid particulars. Mr. Chase, the genius behind "The Sopranos," chose Essex County as the setting for his extraordinary tale of lust, greed, vanity and pride among a group of small-time gangsters, thus bestowing on the third state the mythic timelessness that Thomas Hardy once conferred upon the English heath.

Mr. Chase himself was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and grew up in two New Jersey towns including North Caldwell, N.J., the very environs where Tony Soprano and his colleagues live and do business. As a child during the late '40s and early '50s, he made regular car trips with his family to visit his grandmother in Westchester. To his young eyes, New Jersey's half industrial, half naturally wild landscape was "a magical vision of a huge mystery," he said. Gazing out at it, he was "completely transfixed."

The mystery was, specifically, the Meadowlands, a 28-square-mile swath of marshland in northeastern New Jersey, a stone's throw from Manhattan. At the time when Mr. Chase ogled it from the backseat of his family's car, the teeming swamp had not yet become the giant landfill it is today. Industrialized pockets vied for space with rivers, rushes and wildlife. Even as a teenager, taking the bus into the city to film school from his parents' home in North Caldwell, Mr. Chase remembers looking out over the "rivers like glass, the miles after miles of reeds in the water, and the factories" and thinking, "this is America, strong and big. The brute beauty of the factories, the winking airports, made me feel alive."

Call this sense of enchantment an outgrowth of the "Parkway," as opposed to the "Turnpike," dimension of the state.

The Garden State Parkway, that is, a 173-mile meandering highway stretching from the southernmost tip of New Jersey at its coastline to its northern border with New York state -- a winding road with capacious lanes; a broad, verdant, tree-filled island running down (much of) its middle; wooded boundaries; limited entrances to prevent congestion; bans on trucks, billboards and any kind of commerce along its way; gentle curves designed to keep drivers from being lulled to sleep; and -- naturally, in the home state of Sinatra and Springsteen -- "singing shoulders" that make the wheels rumble if a drowsy motorist starts to drift from the road.

The Garden State Parkway is something like the fulfillment of the modern dream of harmony between nature and technology -- where rivers like glass meet winking airports. If the car is one big part of America's soul -- Springsteen: "The girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors/And the boys try to look so hard" -- then the Turnpike and the Parkway reflect two basic aspects of American existence: our unflinching approach to the practical facts of life, and our irrepressible romantic tendency to try to transform them.

In his epic poem, "Paterson," William Carlos Williams spoke for the factual Turnpike when he famously wrote: "No ideas but in things." Williams' fellow Patersonian and disciple, the Parkway mystic Allen Ginsberg, took the side of Parkway romanticism when he referred in his epic poem, "Howl," to "nowhere Zen New Jersey" ("nowhere" being a compliment for Ginsberg). No wonder Philip Roth called his memoir of growing up in Newark "The Facts" -- and then proceeded to undermine them.

Most of the greatest Jersey cultural figures combine Turnpike and Parkway characteristics, as if New Jersey embodied those two aspects of American life long before the construction of its asymmetrical arteries.

George Inness, America's first great landscape painter, made pictures that were both more immediate and real than those of his predecessors, and at the same time more personal and introspective. Alfred Stieglitz, born in Hoboken, pushed realism in photography to new limits, even as he was perfecting a hazy, impressionistic style. In his novel "The Red Badge of Courage," Stephen Crane -- Newark, Port Jervis, Asbury Park -- pulled off the near-impossible feat of using dreamlike language to make war shockingly actual.

When Marlon Brando -- whose breakthrough film, "On the Waterfront," took place in Hoboken -- started to run out of steam in the '60s, Neptune, N.J.-born Jack Nicholson came to the rescue of American film. The young Mr. Nicholson was tenaciously Turnpike in his abrasive explosions, and profoundly Parkway in his dreamy outcastness. From there, realism in American acting had two places to go: Parkway calmness and integrity (Meryl Streep, Bernards High, class of 1967); or Turnpike disorientation and bizarreness (Tom Cruise, Glen Ridge High, class of 1980).

"Integrity," in fact, is a word you hear a lot when people talk about Springsteen's music or Mr. Chase's artistic vision. Maybe it's because New Jersey politics is known to have a certain Turnpike quality that an idealistic, Parkway conception of integrity looms large in New Jersey's collective imagination.

Among other things, integrity in Jersey terms means not judging by appearances. Frankie Valli: "Ahh, ah-ah-ah-ahh (Rag doll, ooh)/I love you just the way you are." Springsteen: "You ain't a beauty, but hey you're alright/Oh and that's alright with me."

No wonder Tony Soprano can't stop thinking that redemption is right around the corner, though his temperament keeps him right where he is, stuck in his own nature.

Seeking something like a unifying vision of New Jersey, I asked Mr. Cullen what he thought Springsteen, the Turnpike alchemist, might ask Tony Soprano, the Turnpike product who is also haunted by ducks, bears and other forms of Parkway nature. "I understand you," Mr. Cullen said, "I sympathize with you, I kinda even like you. But your fatal embrace of your sickness is killing what you love."

And what question does Mr. Chase imagine that his creation -- sprung partly from his boyhood desire to plumb the mystery hidden in the lights and rushes of the Meadowlands -- might pose to the state's epic warbler, if Tony were to meet Bruce in some warp of space and time? "He'd ask him for concert tickets," Mr. Chase said.

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Playboy Shows Signs of Withdrawal


By Belinda Luscombe


Who knew sex was a bad business to be in? That's probably what they're thinking over at Playboy's New York City offices, which are to be closed and its staff either laid off or offered a position at the magazine's headquarters in Chicago.

Feminists and social conservatives might not want to uncork the champagne just yet, however. It turns out this decision is more about real estate than the public appetite for nekkid women. It's much more difficult to find paying occupants for unwanted office space in Chicago than it is in New York City, so the 54-year-old magazine is moving back to its home base. The company opened its New York City offices on Fifth Avenue in the early 1990s and didn't move editorial functions there until 2002. (See pictures of Hugh Hefner.)

The closure is part of a wider restructuring of the magazine, which is to be headed by former Maxim editor Jimmy Jellinek, who was previously in charge of Playboy's website. Playboy.com will be relaunched in February with an emphasis on "sight, sound and motion," including instructional videos, says Jellinek. (Yes, some of the instructional videos will be about sex. No, they will not be explicit.) The editors who remain at the magazine will be expected to devise stories for the website as well.

More worrying for those who still get a thrill out of the bunny ears is that Playboy's Super Bowl party has been canceled. The gala was widely regarded as football's equivalent of the Vanity Fair Oscar party. Last year's bash — for which tickets cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000 — was hosted by Grammy-winning hip-hop artist Common and featured a drop-in by Hugh Marston Hefner himself, along with his three obliging companions from E!'s The Girls Next Door and a herd of other Playmates. For those who preferred women with fewer opinions, there was a life-size Femlin model (note to Hef novitiates: Femlins are a hybrid of females and gremlins) atop a martini glass. There were drinks, celebs, giveaways — all in all, a classic one-two punch of nostalgia and naughtiness. (Read "10 Questions for Hugh Hefner.")

This duality is the strength and weakness of the magazine, which back in the '70s sold up to 7 million copies a month but has been losing money for years. In the third quarter of 2008 alone, the publishing sector of Playboy Enterprises Inc. lost $1.3 million. While Playboy is still the best-selling men's magazine (circ. 2.6 million), its market share has been eaten away by lad mags like FHM and Maxim. The publication is kept alive because apart from its historical importance to the Playboy brand, it is said to be much beloved by Hefner, who is still its editor in chief. But longtime Playboy Enterprises Inc. CEO and even longer time Hef daughter Christie Hefner will step down at the end of January, so change is inevitable. And Playboy Enterprises Inc. stock has been vulgar, dropping 90% in a year. The company has an entertainment arm in Los Angeles and licenses its name and bunny logo to anyone who'll pay, including a wine company in 2008, but is said to make most of its money from its less well-known, more hard-core enterprises such as Spice TV and Clubjenna.com, named for porn star Jenna Jameson. (See the top 10 magazine covers of 2008.)

The soon-to-be-defunct address on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue was perfect for the tone of classy depravity that the magazine tries to project and that made it acceptable to a more sophisticated type of reader who might otherwise be embarrassed to be associated with porn. This is not about the objectification of women, it said, it's about harmless fun. And some good journalism. But with the anonymity and impermanence of the Internet (no more telltale boxes of magazines under the bed), there's less appetite for Playboy's now almost coy-seeming nudity. A girlie magazine located on the strip of real estate once known as Ladies' Mile stopped being funny and became an anachronism that couldn't be sustained.

In one hopeful note, Los Angeles' Playboy Mansion, Shangri-la for so many 22-year-old males, seems safe for now. As one staffer puts it, "I can't imagine a scenario in which the mansion does not survive."

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