Bicycle time travel

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Dateline 1889. One thing I adore about this little burg we call Portsmouth is that we love to blur the lines between present and past. And what better way to time travel on a warm November day than perched atop a contraption whose front wheel stands no less than 4 feet tall and whose back wheel is a sporty 17 inches? Oh, did I mention my old-fashioned high-wheeler no brakes? The social cycling event of the season, this was the inaugural Portsmouth Tweed Ride. Hosted by the Swell Society and Old as Adam — the folks who brought you the Gatsby on the Isles gathering this summer — the ride attracted several dozen distinguished gentlemen clad in tweed jackets, caps and knickers and stylish ladies dazzling onlookers in their Gatsby-era garb. The two-state spree started at Papa Wheelies bike shop on Islington Street and featured hospitality stops along the way at White Heron Tea & Coffee and the Book & Bar in Market Square before a scheduled wrap-up at the Press Room, with proceeds benefiting the Portsmouth Historical Society and the John Paul Jones House. We pushed off from Papa Wheelies, stopping traffic with the utmost courtesy and ringing of handlebar bells. Ah, nothing like rolling through time on an old-fashioned high-wheel bike — gasoline-powered horseless carriages whizzing by as we traversed the cracked, gray macadam of Islington Street. Camaraderie was the order of the day, as our procession caused much turning of heads and encouraging exhortations from the periphery. Down to Strawbery Banke and the South End, across the new Memorial Bridge into Kittery, Maine, and back to gather for a team daguerreotype at the North Church. Unfortunately, I had to return to the present...

My favorite spaceman

Long, long ago, in a galaxy that now seems very far away, I got a chance to interview a future astronaut. The year was 1987 — long before my career as an internationally obscure writer had achieved liftoff — and the future spaceman was a fellow York (Maine) High School kid named Chris Cassidy. Now, the chance to interview an astronaut doesn’t come along every day. And looking back, I gotta say, I kinda blew it. Sure, I was only at York High School that day to cover a home football game against whoever (probably Marshwood) and Chris was there in his capacity as the Wildcats’ senior quarterback. So afterward, I approached him for the usual sports-type interview with a couple of softball questions about football. You might say, “Hey, there’s no way I could have known this kid would go on to a decorated military career as a Navy SEAL (heading to Afghanistan two weeks after 9/11, according to his NASA bio) and then literally launch himself into the stratosphere as a genuine astronaut.” But there were tell-tale signs — the ramrod straight posture, the clear-eyed, straight-arrow demeanor, his singular focus on the mission of the team. Plus, he loved wearing a helmet. And the kid sure loved his Tang, couldn’t get enough of it. OK, I’m only kidding about the Tang, but the rest is all true. Also true is that not only has he been living up in the International Space Station since March, he also just helped rescue an Italian colleague when water began leaking into the man’s helmet during a spacewalk. (I hate it when that happens.) Yes, the two were just an hour into a planned six-hour spacewalk to perform what has been...

Pullet surprise scoop on Port City chicken coop...

Are you ready for the city of Portsmouth’s next great controversy? This one promises to be a real barn-burner. It’s not a dispute about the mammoth buildings transforming the face of downtown, or about some windows getting changed without an OK from the window police. And it’s not a fight over unsightly blights on our historic cityscape — such as the toxic heaps of rusty riverfront scrap metal. Perhaps most shocking of all, Portsmouth’s internationally renowned parking shortage has nothing whatsoever to do with this latest hullabaloo. However, the new brouhaha is loosely connected to the recent ruckus over whether erecting an old-timey skating rink at the Strawbery Banke Museum would serve as a magnet for hockey-playing ruffians, whom neighbors feared might drink beer and fill the South End air with bawdy language and f-bombs (“fiddlesticks”). This latest squabble threatens to erupt as soon as Wednesday, when the Board of Adjustment is scheduled to hear a request for a variance that would be needed to erect a historically significant chicken coop on the grounds of Strawbery Banke. Some observers say they haven’t heard a peep of protest. But already there are rumblings about a new civic group being formed (Citizens For a Chicken-less Future, or CFCF). And there is word that advocates of the plan — the coop would replicate one kept near the Abbot Store by the Pecunies family in the 1940s — are already lobbying for future inclusion on the National Register of Historic Henhouses. The biggest potential concerns, according to Planning Director Rick Taintor, are obvious — “noise and smells.” But along with the anticipated squawking about decibel levels and the ghastly specter of fowl fecal matter, the proposal raises a wheelbarrow full of unanswered questions....

Shipyard prison: The Next Brig Thing...

Hey Apple. Hey Google. What would be cooler than locating your new East Coast genius lab in a crazy, century-old prison castle inspired by Alcatraz and featured in an infamous, Oscar-nominated Jack Nicholson flick? Newsflash: The U.S. Navy is once again looking to lease the magnificent island fortress known as the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard prison. The breathtaking oceanfront site is currently ranked by Triple Action News as one of the top 5 top-secret real estate opportunities in the world. Long story short, the Navy is looking for a few good companies — anchor companies — so I wanted to put our prison on your radar screen. In my capacity as self-appointed talent scout slash marketing wizard, please allow me to introduce the first unofficial slogan for this epic economic engine by the ocean. “Shipyard prison redevelopment: The Next Brig Thing” Aye aye, captains of industry. Point your GPSes over to Portsmouth and Kittery. Lock in on Seavey Island, Piscataqua River. Google Earth it. Swoop in over the Atlantic from the East. Imagine a suite of executive offices perched up in those castle turrets. Then send an advance team to c’mon out and kick the towers. Since our cutting-edge, clean-technology anchor tenants, will be creating hundreds (thousands?) of high-paying jobs, we will need to feed the people. My restaurant team is in talks to open in early 2016 a swanky joint called The Mess Hall — serving savory seafaring rations and pouring the region’s finest locally brewed grog. Other eateries might opt for trendy Navy yard names like The Dungeon and Remedial Toxic Waste Site No. 342A. A submarine restaurant is a nautical no-brainer. And Gangplank seems like a logical name for a floating, wooden-hulled watering hole pouring tall PBRs...

Sprucing up Market Sq. for Christmas...

A 40-foot tree sprouted outside my window in downtown Portsmouth this week. Couple million pine needles hitched together by some branches and a trunk — soon it will glow with twinkling white lights, projecting goodwill and warmth onto raw winter nights. Yes, the massive pine is an unmistakable sign that the Christmas and/or holiday season is officially under way. Black Friday is now behind us, along with Small Business Saturday. Ahead: Cyber Monday and several more weeks of Tannenbaum Tuesdays, Wisemen Wednesdays and Myrrh’s Day Thursdays. (Christmas newsflash: If you were thinking about picking up some Christmas myrrh for the infant who has everything, word to the wise — a report in this month’s Bethlehem Journal of Medicine reveals that myrrh may be hazardous to your health.) Confession: Yes, I am old and cynical. And yes, some years I can be kind of a grinch. But I love Christmastime here in Market Square. The downtown illuminated — decked out in red and green. Pine boughs and bells. Brick walkways bustling with bundled shoppers bearing bundles of gifts — puffy clouds of white breath whispering from their lips. Hey, the trolley just rolled through the Square with costumed characters caroling “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” We know the forecast calls for snow (but only the decorative, fluffy kind; not the heavy, nasty stuff that makes cars crash and people throw out their backs). And while it’s true that the commercialization can get a little out of hand, veteran Christmas players know the holiday is plenty big enough to love both bargains and Jesus. Experts say the economic impact of the holiday season — when combined with the estimated spiritual impact — can reach as high as elevendy trillion. (Christmas newsflash:...

Lights, camera, film fest!...

Life, death and everything in between is the theme of the much-anticipated New Hampshire Film Festival this weekend — featuring dozens of entries in genres ranging from cerebral slapstick art house film noir to post-apocalyptic spaghetti western thrillers. And — spoiler alert! — the program looks like it is more about humanity than jamming car chases and explosions all up in your face while you stuff your mug with that $9 triple-jumbo soda and a $12 industrial child-size popcorn. Based on titles alone, I’m stoked to see “Bicycle Hooker,” “Death of a Shadow” and “Patti and Me Minus Patti.” Also: “If We Were Adults,” “Mud Lotus,” “Alive, Feeling Like A Buck Seventy-Five” and many more. Just my luck that this blockbuster cultural event comes the same weekend as my first annual Unreel Film Festival. Mine also features dozens of entries in genres ranging from pre-Cambrian silent movie biopics to minimalist B movie sci-fi slasher “talkies.” And — spoiler alert! — not everyone lives happily ever after. (In fact, wait’ll you see how the protagonist whacks the bad guy in “Revenge of the Vengeance-Seeking Avengers”!) Unlike the N.H. Film Festival with its fancy movie screens and indoor venues, my film fest features raw, stripped-down cinema as it was meant to be enjoyed — on white and off-white sheets draped from walls, trees and poles at top-secret locations near you. Ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime to the macabre and back again, my selections tend to reflect the insanity of life in 21st century America. For example, nowhere else will you see Coco Flambizzington’s X-rated expose of rampant exhibitionism in the fashion industry, “The Devil Wears Nada.” I am also privileged to host the East Coast premiere of a genre-bending...

Port City Mongoplex: A modest proposal...

Here in quaint little Portsmouth (motto: “Tourist Magnet by the Sea”), the pressures of development are causing seismic disruptions in both the city’s visual landscape and the public dialogue. Construction is booming and critics are barking. But, predictably, the debate too often pits the Build, Baby, Builders vs. the Cease and Desisters. Into this volatile mix, I feel obliged to introduce a modest proposal for a historic, futuristic project that everyone can get behind. Heritage, haute cuisine, commerce and the arts would all converge in the ground-breaking, sky-scraping Port City Mongoplex. (For those not familiar with the term “mongoplex,” it is a concept I coined back in 2000 when I proposed that rustic, yet rusty Fenway Park be replaced by a 10-story multipurpose supertower topped by a glistening Neo-Fenway with luxury Green Monster seats offering spectacular views of both the game and the island of Nantucket.) Savvy urban planners understand that the revenue you can suck in with a colossal custom-designed Port City Mongoplex is astronomical. Picture, if you will, a squat, brick version of Boston’s Prudential Tower on steroids — with a vertigo-inducing array of retail, entertainment and investment opportunities. Here’s an example of the offerings on a hypothetical Saturday night in July 2015, if we get this thing on the fast track: First floor: An authentic, old-timey five-and-dime store called, yes, J.J. Newberry’s — complete with a nostalgic (circa 1972) lunch counter serving grilled cheeses for $1.99. Before this one-time Congress Street treasure closed its doors back in the late 20th century, I wrote a eulogy reflecting on those halcyon days of yore when a senior citizen could still purchase a tub of Vicks VapoRub, or a young boy some Sea-Monkeys, for under a dollar. Second floor:...

Ode to Portsmouth: Paradise by the Piscataqua...

PORTSMOUTH — Seriously, Chicago Tribune travel writer Josh Noel? Portsmouth is that perfect? “So ideal that I ache, I envy and I curse my childhood for not including your idyllic splendor?” In case you haven’t heard, “perfect” Portsmouth got a poetic pat on the posterior last week from a Windy City travel columnist who blew in for a quick visit and discovered a charming, brick-lined paradise where the only litter is dollar bills and homeless people dine on free lobster. The breathless opening of his Port City paean — mimicked, then quoted above — has inspired considerable fresh-roasted coffee talk about whether his overly effusive tone and whimsical sentimentality included at least a modicum of gentle mockery. Now, as a longtime resident whose family has operated a downtown business since 1978 — and as a writer who has oft paid homage to Portsmouth’s incomparable charms — I consider myself to be among the most ardent champions of our fair Market Square. But the gentleman from Chicago has raised the bar to Old North Church steeple-like levels. Among my favorite lines: “Oh, Portsmouth, lovely little town of 21,000 with the perfect dab of salty grime behind the ear, mostly from the naval shipyard that calls you home.” Little-known fact: Our intoxicating salt air is a special blend combining industrial sodium chloride, dusky New England road salt and a top-secret seasoning first discovered in the Orient by Portsmouth explorer Macro Polo. Oh, Portsmouth: “Your cozy downtown streets curve just so, with rows of adorable shops bending out of sight with the promise of more adorable shops.” Little-known fact: Local lore has it that our signature 9-degree street curves were designed by Sir John Wentworth based on theories advanced by Leonardo Da...

Bike commute right in my wheelhouse...

Finally rode my bike to work on Thursday — just a man and his trusty iron steed. We’re a couple of old-timers, he and I. Combined age: 84. He’s about 33, so that makes me what, 29ish? And though I am pretty sure we weren’t the oldest man-cycle combo to saddle up for Bike to Work Week, my vintage Peugeot mountain bike could’ve been a contender for creakiest contraption on the mean streets of Portsmouth and Newington that day. At least the creaks, rasps and groans emanating mostly from the crank case drowned out the softer sound of my own knees grinding (though fortunately not yet “bone on bone” as my mom is quick to inquire). Ever since I ditched my Boston commute to join what is pound-for-pound one of the finest media organizations in the entire Fourth Estate, I’ve been periodically flapping my gums about riding my bike to work … one of these days. Experts say cutting the distance one must travel to “bring home the bacon” has a direct therapeutic impact on one’s mental and physical well-being, with additional benefits for the psyche, super ego and soul. The same is true of bicycling. Good for the heart and lungs, digestion, complexion, muscle tone and, of course, the pancreas. And it significantly reduces the risk of a range of maladies including but not limited to rickets, shingles and premature withering. (Sadly, reports of a more robust and satisfying sex life remain unconfirmed.) When I worked in Boston, a bicycle commute just didn’t seem feasible. Sure, I could’ve rolled down I-95 to 128, jumped on I-93 south, zipped across the Zakim Bridge and made it to the newsroom just in time for …; the end of my shift....

Touching down on a familiar runway...

I started writing this column 24 years ago. And today I am feeling thankful that it is not quite finished. It was late 1988 when I first set foot in the Portsmouth Herald newsroom. The Internet did not yet exist. On one of my first assignments I got sent out to Pease, which was then a United States Air Force base. Everyone knew that Pease – a vibrant part of the Seacoast community since the 1950s and a vital cog in the economy – was NOT on the list of bases to be closed. Everyone was wrong. And the news hit like a B-47 bombshell. The Air Force base is long gone. It is still home to the N.H. Air National Guard’s 157th Air Refueling Wing. And after two decades of retooling things it is also the site of a high-tech haven, a community college, an awesome brewery and a large pink building filled with computers and people and printing presses. That’s where we make the Portsmouth Herald now. The story of the Seacoast is reflected in these pages (and now on that Internet thing too), painstakingly published by a too-small staff that works extra, extra hard so you can hold the Herald in your hands. Some days you may love it, hate it, critique it, debate it – but it’ll be there, covering our region in words and pictures, on old-fashioned newsprint, newfangled computers and now even on your phone. And while we are certainly subject to humane error, we bring humanity and passion to the job every day. And then do it all again tomorrow. Nowadays, all this unfolds 24/7 in a wild nonstop media world gone haywire – with the “news cycle” ever revving, like a...