A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Mayor of Telegraph Avenue

(Above: Moe)

Cody's is gone, Black Oak is gone, and so are most of the other bookstores that used to make Berkeley so unique. But Moe's Books, the used bookstore that started it all, is still going strong.
Moe's will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a party on July 11, the date of its founding.
By no coincidence, July 11 also would have been the 78th birthday of the man who founded the store, Moe Moskowitz, who died in 1997, as well as the 43rd birthday of his daughter, Doris, who has been running the place since his death.
Wherever he is, I'll bet Moe is kicking himself for missing the party, which will include cake, balloons and hula dancers with live ukulele accompaniment.
People think of Moe as the embodiment of the '60s, but actually, Moe hated the '60s - at least, its excesses. He looked kindly on anti-war protestors, but he drew the line at some of their over-the-top tactics. And he threw drug dealers out of the store long before it became fashionable.
Not for him the self-indulgent, self-righteous posturing of the Baby Boomers. Moe came from an earlier generation, a generation that prized words and ideas above all. He never could fathom why people wanted to befuddle their minds with drugs when there were so many good books to read, instead.
And if you loved good books, Moe's Books was - and is - the Mother Church. One of the reason other booksellers revered him was that he revolutionized the used book business.
He did it by the simple expedient of paying decent wages to his staff and giving fair prices to his customers for the books they turned in.
"If he ever caught us paying less than the book was worth, he'd hit the ceiling," said Bob Baldock, one of the longtime Moe's staffers who went on to found Black Oak Books. "Actually, it turned out to be smart business practice in the long run, but Moe did it because he thought of the customers as his family."
And they returned the sentiment. One customer recalled the time when she lost her wallet with a $88 Moe's credit slip in it.
"When I told Moe about it, he wrote out another $88 credit slip, just on my word," she said.
Moe was also a soft touch for the down-and-out. "Even when they knew they were scamming him, he'd still give them a handout," said longtime employee Matthew Wong.
He also let anyone off the street use the bathroom, which tended to make it a tad too funky for some people's taste.
One day, a female customer came up to the counter and returned the bathroom key in disgust, saying the toilet was too dirty to use.
Moe was nothing if not earthy, so he started teasing her about being uptight over something as "natural" as human waste.
"Let me ask you a question," the woman said. "Do you have any kids?
"Yes, two," Moe replied.
"Well," she said, "maybe if you had changed a diaper or two when they were babies, you wouldn't think it was so romantic!"
Then she wrote a check for her purchase and left. The signature on the check: "Ursula Le Guin."

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Go Tell The Spartans

(Above: Andy and his buddies on R & R in Naples. Perry is second from the left; Andy is second from the right.)

One of the most historic places in Oakland is the King's X Bar. It was the birthplace of not one but two cultural icons: fantasy football, which started at the King's X in the early 60s, and trivia contests, which started at the King's X in 1970.
That's where I came in. I had graduated from law school and was getting ready to take the Bar exam when I heard that the news director of KCBS was looking for a ringer for the station's trivia team because he was tired of losing to the guys from the King's X every year.
To put me on the team, he had to give me a job. And that was the end of my legal career.
But even more historically significant than the King's X was the man who owned it from 1968 to 1991, Andy Mousalimas.
He made every customer feel welcome. But you had to shout when talking to him because he was hard of hearing.
In 1991 Perry Phillips, the Oakland Tribune's entertainment columnist, died; and I decided to write an obit.
I had heard a rumor that during World War II, Perry belonged to a hush-hush Greek-American commando unit for the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) who parachuted behind enemy lines into occupied Greece to sabotage the Nazis.
So I called the CIA to check it out. And the CIA guy I talked to said, "It's true. But if you want to know more, there's an OSS veteran in your neck of the woods named Andy Mousalimas who can give you all the details. He's a real hero."
I was floored. Andy had never mentioned a thing. But, then again, bragging was never his style.
I started hanging out with Andy and his fellow former commandos, and the stories they told - both of their wartime experiences and of the discrimination they suffered as Greek-Americans before the war - made the hair stand up on the back of my head.
Every one of them had a price on his head. Anyone who turned him in would receive his weight in gold - no small temptation for a population that was systematically being starved by the Germans.
"But not one single person ever turned us in," Andy said proudly. "Never."
His commando unit destroyed bridges, locomotives, trucks, power plants railroad track, pillboxes, armored cars, culverts, boxcars, telegraph poles and mine shafts. They killed thousands of enemy soldiers and pinned down tens of thousands more.
They got under Hitler's skin so much, he issued the infamous Fuhrer Order No. 003830: “From now on, all enemies on so-called commando missions are to be slaughtered to the last man." And many were.
Andy's hearing is almost completely gone now, the result of his eardrums being shattered by German bombs. But he's still going strong at 84.
This spring, the U.S. Army flew him and his wife, Mary, to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where his unit was honored by the Special Forces.
I called him last week and told him I was going to write this column. He said OK, but he had one condition:
"Make sure you don't glamorize it," he said. "There's nothing glamorous about war."
Happy July 4th, Andy. Efharisto. (That's Greek for "Thank you.")