A famous play written by Tennessee Williams, with the action set in New Orleans, in the French Quarter.
It was Marlon Brando’s big break as an actor, when it opened on Broadway in 1947.
In the play he was Stanley Kowalski, a Polish character. One of the critics wrote this about him: "a tiger on the loose, a sexual terrorist … Brando was a brute who bore the truth."
The fascinating female character was Blanche DuBois, a former teacher who fell on hard times. In the end Blanche suffers a mental breakdown and collapses to the floor. When the doctor helps her up she goes willingly with him delivering the famous line: "Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
As for the streetcar, Desire is the name of the street where the route ended; crisscrossing New Orleans it represents Blanche's own vagrancy and her inability to adjust and settle down.
A few years back I had my own Southern experience and it was a memorable one.
I was running a construction project down there, flying into Atlanta and then driving west to Chattanooga across the Smokey Mountains on the East Coast of the US.
The difference between these two states is that Georgia is mostly arid and Tennessee is green, so it’s more than just crossing the mountains, sometimes in heavy rain, it’s a different reality.
Tennessee is South pure, laid back and relaxed. One summer evening I was sitting on a restaurant patio sipping beer and looking at the row of big Harleys parked in front. At one point a shiny big fire truck with a crew passed me just cruising casually down the street, windows down and elbows out.
“Well,” I thought, “shouldn’t these guys be at the station on constant alert?”
It’s different here.
Several bloody battles took place in this area during the Civil War, which was the high conflict point for a split nation, and it took a lot of violence to sort out.
Not the last conflict of course - during 1967 Detroit riots, the US army 82th Airborne Division was called into the city to restore order. Over 40 people died.
So, the split today in American politics is nothing new, just different in intensity.
There is media frenzy now, criticizing president Trump for allowing Turkey to invade the Kurds.
Apparently there is still little understanding of which way the world is moving – as the Americans are reducing their presence in the Middle East, Turkey becomes the dominant power in the region. The Turks were a loyal ally to the USA since 1945; but in the recent years they’re pulling apart and tying their relationship with Russia.
It is crucial for the US to keep the relationship going, and so president Trump looks the other way as the Turkish army crushes the Kurds.
It’s not nice, but it’s geopolitics, and as the president he has to make decisions.
Brutal as it sounds, he is making the right one.
In those Chattanooga years, on the way back to Toronto I would stop in Atlanta in a club called “Cheetah” for a dinner, some drinks and entertainment.
The men’s room attendant was of Jamaican origin, impeccably dressed.
His name was Stanley.
“How do you like it here?” I asked after I put my tip in the jar.
“Let me put it that way,” he said with creole accent – “if I close tomorrow a lot of people would suffer. “
Coming back to the Streetcar Named Desire, it could be that Blanche DuBois’ character was based on Tennessee Williams himself, with his inability to adjust and settle.
He found an audience.
I’ve lived through a few coups. They’re insane and terrifying, like watching sports, except your future depends on the score.
In 1981, when I was a kid in Eastern Europe I woke up on one frigid December Sunday and there was no television, no radio but tanks on the street.
The army took control of the nation and they didn’t let it go ever since.
The military is always the most powerful force in any nation, a good thing to remember – these are the guys with heavy weapons.
Back then schools were closed for weeks and a curfew was imposed. Anyway, I was never a TV fan and we had only two channels at the time, the second one being a bit fuzzy.
These were happening times. Just over the border, in Russia, when the KGB in 1991 tried to reassume control of the crumbling Soviet Union by placing Mikhail Gorbachev under arrest and attempting to seize Moscow, logistics ruled. Boris Yeltsin’s crew drove to the Russian White House in ordinary cars beating KGB coup plotters who were trying to reach the seat of Russian government in armored vehicles. Then Yeltsin realized that he needed a strong man to rule.
His name is Putin and he is in charge ever since, following the greatest rule of them all: if you want to beat a Grand Master at chess never let them make the first move.
Back to current happenings - the problem as I see is that democracy is truly dead, people are no longer willing to accept it.
Recently pro-Brexit British MPs had to be escorted to Parliament by police to protect them from violence.
If you think that our society is progressing – it is reversing. We’re witnessing plain intolerance rising on a massive scale.
The very purpose of civilization is when everyone comes together to produce a society that is greater than the sum of individuals. We have lost that purpose for now.
The Canadians voted in national elections October 21.
The vote breakdown is not encouraging - the Liberals lost every seat they previously held in both Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The Canadian system is splitting along provincial, economic, demographic and ideological lines, and there is no one in the Trump administration who likes Justin Trudeau personally, ideologically or politically.
Alberta has the means and motive to destroy Canada. Washington has the means and motive to destroy Canada. And the likely format of the new Trudeau government is providing the opportunity.
Back home, on a lighter subject, I was driving the BMW the other day and it is insanely fast, a pleasure. I was looking through the back window and thought: “is there a Mercedes G-Class behind me, or am I dragging a garden shed?”
“You’re good”, said my younger son, “its just the square Mercedes”.
“They call it ‘folded paper school of design’ for a reason.”
Then I was staying in Warsaw over a sunny weekend, in a Sofitel hotel just across the big plaza from the imposing presidential palace. The hotel used to be called “Victoria” back in the day, and I still like the old name better. It’s possibly the best place to stay in town, if you want my recommendation.
I walked into the posh reception and the girl behind the counter spoke English with better accent that I can ever do.There was delicate music around and I knew right away what it was: Jealousy Tango with Katica Illenyi playing the violin.
"I love tango," I said to the young woman.
"There are no mistakes in tango," she said. "If you're tangled up, you just tango on."
"This is a great advice, young lady."
A topic that doesn’t get the attention it deserves, is the demographics of nations.
In a "normal" economy there's a set balance of roughly four children to three young adults to two mature adults to one revered elder.
So long as that proportion held the economic system had stable characteristics: young workers spend and borrow, mature workers invest, retirees shift their financial holdings into something less volatile, like government bonds. But it doesn’t look like this anymore – the population is aging in most developed world except the US.
Which is why you can buy a 30-year US treasury bond with a yield of about 2.5%. Try to get that in Japan or Germany.
Moreover, the replacement level is 2.1 children per family. Look for countries that miss the target big time. Russia is one, China another. Their demographics simply collapsed, which means that if they want to realize their ambitions, they need to do it now.
In Europe, the risk is that there is no true rule of law. On the one hand, there is this policy of no bailouts for that would mean money crossing borders north to south. Then there is the rising wave of nationalism and socialism and hatred of the rich. These two possibly feed each other.
One thing is certain – Europe will do whatever it has to do, shy of doing the right thing.
Take Great Britain as an example of dysfunctionality, the country doesn’t really have a constitution, which makes Brexit negotiations such a protracted mess.
Meanwhile, they’re the biggest market for German cars in Europe and should have the upper hand in any negotiations. The Germans are totally dependent on their customers.
Still, the real action of our times is in the Middle East.
From 2003 until 2018 the region’s powers were non-functional: Iraq and Syria had civil wars, while Turkey was gun-shy. The fact that ISIS Caliphate lasted as long as it did was a testament to how abnormal the region had become. Well, Turkey is now invading and it will burn everything to the ground.
President Trump tweeted recently that he is considering putting economic sanctions on Turkey, a NATO member. This piece of news takes some effort to unpack, Turkey and the US have been pulling apart for three decades now. The Turks have interests in the Balkans, Persia, and the Levant that have nothing to do with American interests. Turkey is reasserting itself as a major regional power, and since the American military position in northern Iraq and Syria are largely dependent upon supply routes through Turkey, there is no long-term American strategy without Turkish assistance. That assistance now has been removed, so the Americans have no choice but to leave, upset anyway, hence the tweet.
To be clear - with the exception of the French, no European power has the capacity of independent power projection to the region and the US just doesn’t care what happens there the way it used to.
Closer to home, on a sunny Tuesday morning I went to the garage, took the cover off my big black motorcycle and rolled it down the driveway.
Took the tiger dust off the fuel tank with my right arm.
It started at the first touch of the button with a deep staccato that scared birds off the trees.
The big engine shook when I kicked it down in the first gear, and I said: “we’re going North.”
I need a dose of normal, otherwise all the words are going to bleed from me and I will think no more.
There is a development in the markets that will ultimately impact all of us - the rates charged by commercial banks on items like car loans and credit cards carry a huge spread to the official rates targeted by the central banks (at least times 10, for good borrowers).
Interest rates were always free market, and now the central banks are trapped. About 30% of the bonds issued by governments and companies worldwide are trading at negative yields, which is about $17tn of outstanding debt. This means you loose money if you hold them to maturity.
The scheme works like this: say you hold a $100 bond, maturing in one year with a coupon payment (interest) of 3%. At the end of that year you will be paid $103 by the issuer. But the bond is trading in the market for $110. This means that whoever holds it, needs to get rid of it before it matures, or he will loose money.
Trading these bonds is a game of musical chairs and nobody thinks twice as long as the rates decline. This is possible as central banks buy government debt, if they stop and even slow down, where is the bid going to come from? The rates in the real world show that there is a shortage of liquidity, which makes perfect sense – with low interest rates you need to spend less and save more for retirement.
The European Central Bank is in the 10th year of Quantitative Easing, meaning pumping fresh money into the economies, and they have failed to reach their inflation targets. They are not even close.
One more thought to close the topic – in many countries pension funds must invest into the negative yielding government bonds (the proportions vary). Which means a guaranteed loss – it simply just became another tax.
Now, to the good side of life. I had a nice lunch with a friend of mine, who looks like the actor John Goodman who just skipped a meal.
Rumor has it that he owns the legendary dress Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang that famous “Happy Birthday” to JFK.
Actually I just made it up, but I think it may be true.
He held up his glass of red wine at the end, looking at the great river and said:
“if this is not nice, I don’t know what is.”
In an unrelated thought he said: "I enjoy fake science. If a piece of news starts with the sentence “according to a recent study...” I am listening to the whole nonsense with enthusiasm."
That was after he finished the wine, putting him in philosophical mood.
“Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind – the race is long, and in end it’s only with yourself.”
“What do you think?” he leaned over the table.
“About the nature of this conversation or the nature of you?”
“Take your pick.”
“There is only one rule in this jungle – if the lion is hungry, he eats.
It’s called life.”
“Exactly”, he said, “we’re all in it. Working hard to eat, not to be eaten.”
“Women make it right”, I said.
“Life wouldn’t be bearable without them, hell if I understand how they do it.”
There was a good story about a flight to New York when lighting hit the plane in the air. Bono, the one of U2 fame, got up and walked to Claudia Cardinale, who was sitting not far.
“God just took a picture of you,” he said.
And he was right, because it was so worth it.
CC is a great actress and a beautiful woman; she was in 142 movies so far.
Truly Italian in looks, character and temperament, still sweet after all these years (she started her career in 1958).
I have a weak spot as a man and as an art lover.
Now to the movie from the title of this essay.
“When you hear a strange sound,” Charles Bronson said to her in the scene by the well, “you drop to the ground.”
“Like how,” she asked.
“Like that” he dropped a cup of cold water.
And after the ordeal was over, she realized – “he can not only play the harmonica, he can shoot too.”
And she was the only woman in the movie full of rough men and she made an impression on everyone.
Here is another great line from this movie:
“Your friends have a high mortality rate, Frank.”
He looked and the Harmonica man, finally starting to be afraid.
It took him a while to say it:
“And you’re making the appointments…”
Charles Bronson was a Lithuanian-American actor, born Charles Dennis Buchinsky, and he learned to speak English when he was a teenager; before that, he spoke Lithuanian and Russian, which are close languages, and as a Polish guy I can understand them both pretty well. Small world.
When Bronson was 10 years old, his father died and he went to work in the coal mines.
He said later that his life was tougher than the characters he played.
My move to the wild West happened a long time ago and I consider Toronto home ever since. It’s a great place to be, North America - land of the free. Nothing beats it.
So much different than Europe.
Which is why Sergio Leone went to America to deliver his life performance, as did Roman Polanski with “Chinatown”.
Milos Forman came here too, to make his “Amadeus”.
For a while I was not sure how my European affair is going to play out, but sitting on a fence it’s a dangerous course, you could even catch a bullet from the peace-keeping force (Dire Straits song).
So, I am going to take a 777 across the ocean and ride my big motorcycle there until the snow stops me. I’ll be in the big wide North typing my next essay.
Man’s got to know his limitations, but they appear in the body, not in the mind.
The mind is stronger - I went to hell and back lately, but I am back, so it appears that the devil loves his children. One of them is me.
I may be around for a while longer, writing more essays.
Let’s get back to thinking about women - they make the life worth living.
Screw the recent diversity theme in the press, like, were we all just born yesterday?
Who just woke up?
Don’t teach me what I already know.
Women are sweet, and loving and smart and I don’t need a policy, official Communiqué,
to tell me that.
It’s in my blood, I am not a lonely man.
Claudia C. and Catherine Deneuve are charming women from times gone by.
I may be old fashioned and I enjoy a great old wine too, plus a vintage Ford Mustang, all done up. And I like my music slow and strong.
Take that from an Eastern man.
Tom Kubiak is the author of The Traveler