Washington Park and the Decline of Democracy

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This article originally appeared in Streetvibes, Cincinnati’s street newspaper. I now write regularly for the publication, which is now edited by Justin Jeffre, one of Cincinnati’s most dedicated activists. It’s long, meant to be both a primer on neoliberalism, and what the policies mean for OTR.

The recently renovated Washington Park includes a dog run, green space for concerts and field sports and a playground. But what is missing? At a cursory glance, the deepwater pool, where thousands of children learned to swim for decades, is absent. The basketball hoops are gone as well, but simultaneously most disturbing and least identifiable, is the missing element of democracy. The voices of the citizens of Over-the-Rhine and the surrounding areas have routinely been silenced or ignored. The farcical public forums simply provide cover for 3CDC to move forward with plans for new developments and renovations with the appearance of little prejudice. It doesn’t take too long to realize why, gentrification, a tool for neoliberalism in urban spaces, is at the forefront of the capitalist assault on the city. There is no space for democracy in this process and the various improvements are simply facades for a deeper dynamic. Neoliberal policies first caused the problems of Over-the-Rhine; now the same policies are being called on as a solution. Such contradictions run rampant in the self-defeating logic of redevelopment in the city spearheaded by 3CDC.

To learn about neoliberalism and its problems, we must first look at its predecessor, liberalism (sometimes called classical liberalism). If Neoliberalism is capitalism in the developed form, than liberalism is capitalism in its infancy. South America has historically been the largest testbed for such ideologies. In the 1800’s, as the bourgeois revolutions were happening at home, the colonies became unstable; no longer beholden to a functioning monarchy, old systems of hegemony, or dominance, were revealed to be bankrupt (in more than one way) in the eyes of many settlers and assimilated people. Liberalism was the rallying cry for many at this time: reject the church, reject paternalism and slavery, reject the controlling economic policies of old; open up your minds and open up your markets. In many places this liberating ideology was met with great enthusiasm, but conservatism, the other major ideology, was still a force to be reckoned with and stood as its opposite.

However, the political movements of this era, as in any era, were not just about ideas. As the enlightenment had done in Europe, liberalism exposed the contradictions between the ruling class and the conditions of production in South America. The old ruling elite sat atop thrones built on feudalism and tribute and the kind of stratification necessitated by this relationship was an obstacle to a burgeoning economic paradigm–capitalism. New modes could not be successful in a society still run by the purveyors of the old ideas. Unlike today, the policies of those calling themselves liberal and conservative could be differentiated, each proposing different solutions, enlightened and reactionary, but both represented monolithic structures to be applied from the top onto the existing social orders.

In South America, these social orders were often heavily divided along ethnic lines–creole and native–in a similar way to master and slave. The revolutions, often bloody, that occurred throughout South America in the 19th and early 20th centuries sought to bring an end to these contradictions, but even when liberals made attempts to change the system, they did so using the same top down approach that conservatives worked to protect. Moderate democratic reforms were made and slavery was ended, but these adaptations were not enough to counter the new systems of wages and autocratic rule that sprang up along with the market. And this development was not consistent, while the outdated systems of patronage persisted for generations in areas far away from the cities, in the cities, new unequal economic relationships were being forged. In places like Chile and Bolivia, conservatives sustained the traditions of the hacienda, essentially plantations with a seemingly endless supply of native peasants to exploit, until well into the 20th century. As long as there was a suitable group of workers in the cities and peasants in the countryside, the two competing systems could continue. But as each progressed, the conflicts not only between the systems, but also within them individually, would eventually come to a head.

Through the process of transformation, new agents–industrial workers, miners, railroad workers and even the sizable successor to the feudal peasantry–gained a newfound sense of their place in the economic machinery. They asked questions that challenged capitalist control of the decisions, but in almost every case they were squashed. There are countless examples of this. In the 1950’s, the United Fruit Company called on the government of the United States to intervene when their control of large sections of the Guatemalan economy and civil service was under threat and induced a decades long civil war, using fear and force to pit the citizens against one another. In 1970, Chile elected Salvador Allende, a Socialist, as president. Unfortunately, the pragmatics of his policies in practice and the military and business owners’ (a class which cannot, by definition, exist under socialism) reactionary conspiracies led to a U.S. backed coup in 1973, and the fallout was the dawn of the neoliberal era. The military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet implemented new policies that came out of the Chicago School of economics and was personally overseen by Milton Friedman.

Neither economic nor political democracy existed under Pinochet and the brutality of his policies was the main element keeping him in power. This was a technocracy, a system that openly distrusts the public to choose it own path and calls on the privileged, educated, elite to make all of the important decisions. The army liberated the market from democracy. But this wasn’t a purely liberal event, the neoliberal epoch was the harbinger of a combined conservative and liberal ideology that has come to dominate politics and the economy for nearly 50 years. And it has spread worldwide under the banner of the policies of austerity and petty maxims imploring us to “tighten our belts.” In Chile, capitalism was reintroduced (even though it had never gone away) with the barrel of a gun all while those with their finger on the trigger made claims of progress. This violent, anti-democratic system has, since the beginning, been the hallmark of neoliberalism. On the other hand, cuts to social spending, the foisting up of the free market and the so-called “marketplace of ideas” at the expense of democracy, privatization of major state functions, and the creation of special economic zones and rules are the everyday praxis of neoliberal policy.

Jump to Cincinnati, 3CDC has now had free run of the city core for a decade. They have completely transformed the southern sections of Vine Street. Main Street between Central and Liberty is nearly completely redeveloped as well. The further redevelopment of the Pendleton district and the transformation that will take place around the planned route for the streetcar represent the next frontier in redevelopment. Meanwhile, the shock troops of revitalization are prepping the West End for the inevitable announcement to focus in that area in the next few years.

3CDC was not the first to attempt such a transformation, but the first ten years of this century proved to be some of the most effective in terms of changing the dynamic and demographic of the areas toward the bourgeoisie’s favor. With the closure of the planning department, it is open season for development in the city that invented modern urban planning. This is the era is when neoliberalism claimed Over-the-Rhine for itself. The 2001 uprising, a physical manifestation of the neighborhood calling out for change, was interpreted by the ruling class as pretense for the continued militarization of the area, compounding the issues of existing police policy that seemed to assume all blacks in the area are criminals. Such difficulties existed before the uprising and ultimately led to it. Society’s problematic treatment of black women and men has led to the public’s passive agreement with the necessity of “innovative” ideas and schemes that, if they are not overtly racist, almost always disproportionately negatively affect blacks in OTR and other neighborhoods.

For decades, a forward looking people’s movement has existed in Over-the-Rhine but in only ten years, the reactionary organizations (e.g 3CDC, Downtown Cincinnati Inc., etc) of change have turned their backs on meaningful dialogue, looking back over 100 years to a golden era, forgetting other portions of our history which included racist riots and, if the rumors are true, the origin of the “Jim Crow” character. In policy and rhetoric, 3CDC chooses to look back and does so with blinders, ignoring material conditions in the past and present. They claim the problem is crime and blight while refusing to look toward the root cause of those conditions: built-in inequality in an apparently color-blind, gender-blind and class-blind system.

3CDC cannot succeed within its own framework–the codification of social and economic stratification, or as they like to call it “economic diversity,” only locks in the existing social order. Representatives from 3CDC will spout aphorisms but can’t be expected to deliver on them. In a recent meeting between representatives from the community, the third of four ordered by the court after the Metropole Settlement, Adam Gelter, vice president of development, was quick to agree that affordable housing “is the right thing to do” and said that they wanted to fix the problems of the neighborhood and the organization’s relationship with the poor, but these issues simply can not be rectified within the framework that 3CDC operates in. Solving the problem of poverty doesn’t mean that development should strive to deliver economic diversity and hope for a rising tide, it should mean an end to poverty altogether, first and foremost.

Contrary to the picture that 3CDC likes to paint, the inequality that has existed between the inner-city and the suburbs does not become any more legitimate when sections of the suburban population move back downtown to form an exaggerated juxtaposition. The mere presence of a petit bourgeois influence does not solve the problems of poverty or make it any more normal. This is the precise opposite of a radical understanding of poverty and the role of redevelopment.

Indeed, the gentrification exacerbates the already existing problems produced by poverty and institutional racism. Today, public spaces are created to meet the needs of the new residents and community resources are allocated away from the needs of the existing community. Only the end of the class system can alleviate the disparity. The following is the general understanding of 3CDC and its champions in three parts. 1) That there is no such thing as equitable development; 2) that some, even many, will and must be left in the dust in order for the neighborhood to move forward; and 3) that 3CDC, being the important people they are, have the most well developed and authoritative understanding of the problems of the residents (who are different from them in every way) and the place they live in (which has never been a location of anything but struggle) and thus are in the best position to fix those problems.

Neoliberalism can supply an economy that appears to be functioning, but exploitation still exists, booms and busts still persist and people are given the promise of opportunity while in reality rely more on providence to advance themselves and their families. That a majority of the population still believes in mobility is a tragedy, under neoliberalism, it is a farce. When capitalism enters a time of crisis, it doesn’t typically solve them outright, but rather moves those crises around both geographically and temporally. It does this in a number of ways, whether by offshoring well-paid union jobs or, closer to home, dispersing the groups that are struggling to survive, sometimes across the city, sometimes only a few blocks, and ultimately forcing a section of those groups to turn to what society would deem illegitimate means to live. Who is the legitimate force in this situation? Is it those that, as Chad Munitz once said of residents of a portion of the city, verging on racism, are “very bad people who don’t deserve to live in any neighborhood?” Or is it the neoliberal organizations who resort to exploitation and charity–taking with one hand and giving with the other?

Democracy, giving the oppressed a legitimate voice, is the only tool that can guarantee sustainable development.  Neoliberalism has nothing to offer the aged worker, that is, the majority of the old in poor areas, and it admits this openly. This economic diversity can’t create jobs for all that need them, and not only doesn’t attempt to but requires such disparity. This economic diversity guarantees that, because of the inability for capitalism to achieve full employment, an increasingly large portion of the broader population will be sentenced to a lifetime of precariousness. This economic diversity guarantees that some will struggle throughout not only their productive years, but in the years when they are promised a rest. This economic diversity guarantees the system of “haves and have nots” that those who make it embrace as the most remarkable hallmark of capitalism. Neoliberalism–capitalism–can build a pretty park, but it cannot solve the real problems of Over-the-Rhine.

July 29 2012

First Lady, First Time Traveler

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I recently discovered that Stephen King wrote a book about time travel and the Kennedy assassination. I wrote a short story with a similar plot line months before that book was published. I have no way of proving this, and this has nothing to do with the usual content of the blog, but here is the story. The substance (and quality) is more “Kilgore Trout” than “Kurt Vonnegut.” Also, Dear Stephen King: go to hell.

First Lady, First time Traveler

Jackie Kennedy Onassis Fan Fiction by Ben Stockwell

“Mrs Kennedy, it’s time.”

“Okay, I’m coming. Just one. Last. Adjustment.” She moved the pillbox cap across her head, centering it just so. Always one to look good, especially when she knew there would be cameras.

“We leave in a few minutes, we’re all waiting for you.” That’s the way he always spoke to her. Affirmative, strong. “Any longer and we’ll miss the chance.”

“I said okay,” Jackie shouted back as she walked out of the powder room and past the man. “Where do we go from here?” she asked, still walking, aggressive, and yet unsure of where she where she needed to be. She turned back around, “I guess I’m just a bit-” she paused, the pillbox cap was slipping. Adjusting it, she went on, “unsteady.”

“Right through the door, darling, and down the hall,” John smiled at her, “the hat looks fine, but we’re going to be late.” He grabbed her waist. “We don’t want to have to rush, now do we? The whole world is watching.” He kissed her.

“Dallas at least.”

A third voice called from the other side of the door, “The governor is ready, Mr. President.”

Jackie held onto John’s hand and looked at him smirking as they walked through the door and down the hall. “Almost 3 years as first lady and I still don’t get it, why would the world be interested in a short drive we’re going to be taking down a street in Dallas?” She wasn’t complaining.

————————–

“Mrs. Kennedy, it’s time.”

“Okay, I’m coming. Just one. Last. Adjustment.” She moved the pillbox cap across her head, centering it just so. Always one to look good, even when it wouldn’t matter.

“You leave in a few minutes, people, the world, are waiting for you.” That’s the way he always spoke to her. Affirmative, strong. “Any longer and we’ll miss the chance.”

“I said okay!” Jackie shouted back. She looked at herself in the mirror; her life had come to this. Still hurting from her husbands death, really the deaths of both of her husbands, though nothing hurt as bad as Jack’s. And now with everything that had happened, they expect her to just go along with whatever plan they might have. She paused, collected herself, and walked out of the room and straight past the man she’d only just met. She turned toward him, “I guess I’m just a bit-” she paused, the pillbox cap was slipping. Adjusting it, she went on, “unsteady.”

The man looked at her fondly, this was the woman who had been there the when it happened, right next to him. What she must have seen and heard. He regretted having to put her through this, to have to make her relive the event. As if she hadn’t already had to relive it in her mind a thousand times from the moment it all occurred. She had told them to call her Mrs. Kennedy after the shock of the whole circumstances rolled over her. If she was successful, then there “was never going to be a Mrs. Onassis,” she declared weeks before. “Alright, Mrs. Kennedy, it’s alright. You’ll be done in no time, and you’ll forget this ever–”

“I won’t ever forget that day.” She quipped, her eyes watering half out of the anxiety of the moment, half out of her permanent sadness.

“I understand. I’m sorry.” He moved towards the door and opened it for her. “But you have to understand that you very well may forget it, our scientists believe, as do I, that should you succeed, well, maybe you’ll wake up next to President Kennedy, and everything will be normal to you. We’re not even sure how it all works, since you’re the first one. Hell, if you change things enough, we might not even get around to inventing this.”

They entered a large room white room, 20 or 30 meters across, containing only a matte black tube, just big enough to fit a small woman like Jackie, and a thick cable of wires snaking from the object to a panel on the wall across the room. The tube stood foreboding in the center of the room and seemed to suck in all the light that hit it making appeared bigger than it actually was. Next to the door was a one-way mirror which Jackie assumed contained all sorts of men, probably some Russians, who always wore lab coats and chain-smoked Pall Malls. Jackie peered around and braced herself as a another wave of anxiety washed over her. She’d been in the room before in the weeks she had spent with the man and his “colleagues,” but this was the last she would see of this time. She hadn’t noticed how the linoleum floor creaked and cracked as she walked across it, or how the wire formed a wave, oscillating this way and that. She’d hated the emptiness of the room itself. Why would such an important place have nothing to signify its status? she wondered. She took a few steps and then stopped. “How does that thing work?” she asked for the hundredth time.

“Well,” the man said, reading some notes off of a clipboard, “as I’ve told you before, and you learned in the briefings–the researchers know more than I do. Well let’s just put it this way, it’s my understanding that it ‘shifts’ you.”

“‘Shifts’ me?” Jackie asked. A group of scientists and secret service agents had explained the process to her just a day prior, but she couldn’t grasp the concept.

“Right. Moves you to another universe. Technically, this universe ceases to be, because it’s different, and another one is put in its place, everything besides whatever is in the machine here moves to that one, and to this moment. While the new universe is created, the contents of the machine get dropped off in time and space wherever they need to be.” He looked at her enthusiastically, “You get to experience all of creation and destruction–all of time–in the blink of an eye.”

She had known that she was going to be moving somewhere else, but she didn’t know how, and it wasn’t any clearer now that she’d gotten the wide-eyed, sci-fi explanation. “Well, if the machine is ready to send me, I’m ready to go,” she lied. For the entire time she had been at the facility, Jackie had been dealing with waves of shock at the ] whole situation, in the previous week, her level of anxiety had shot been unlike any she had experienced in her life. First, her husband had been taken from her, now, thirty years later, she was supposed to fix it? They began walking toward the tube again. “I just need to know that everything will be taken care of here.”

“Mrs. Kennedy.” The man paused, knowing what to say but uncertain if he should say it. “You died, they had your funeral on national television. Things have already been taken care of.” He had watched the funeral, the procession and seen the guard lowering of her casket at Arlington National Cemetery just two weeks before. By that time the trip was finalized, and there would be no turning back. He was amazed that they were able to convince an otherwise healthy woman that they knew still had a good twenty years of her life ahead of her, to fake her own death. Of course, after Mr. Onassis died, she just hadn’t been the same in public, and he wondered how her private life had been for the almost twenty years she lived without a husband. Putting the clipboard down on a console next to the machine, he looked at her again, the anxiety and, if he was judging correctly, sorrow, filled her eyes. “But, you have my word, if anything comes up on this end, I’ll take care of it personally.” The man waved toward the one-way mirror and a moment later the door to the tube swing open revealing an even deeper black inside.

There were no controls for Mrs. Kennedy to operate, no switches to flip, there wasn’t even a seat for the trip. The tube fit her dimensions almost perfectly, any bigger, and it would have been a squeeze. Well, I certainly won’t be bringing anybody back with me, she thought. Not that that was an option anyway. She knew all the theories postulated that the machine wouldn’t even come with her; she would probably just be dropped off as it “whizzed toward infinity,” as one particularly eccentric physicist told her.

Jackie stood in front of the opening, she stared in and pure blackness stared back at her. “So, this is it, then.” She shrugged. This is it. Come on, Jackie old girl, your whole life you’ve been wanting to change what happened, and this is your chance. Without giving it another thought, she rushed into the tube, and shouted “Go!”.

The agent entered another set of command into the console and gave a thumbs up toward the one-way mirror. “Okay, Mrs. Kennedy, remember, you have one hour to get set up. You’ll end up just south of Dealey.” He moved away, and just as the door was sealing Jackie inside, he shouted “Good luck!”

She closed her eyes and clutched her purse, uncharacteristically oversized, filled with the extra luggage she would need. Enough cash for her to settle anywhere, just in case things don’t go as planned; keys to several cars that the CIA had determined were in the area for a getaway if needed; and most importantly, the rifle she had been trained to use over the course of the past week. The rifle that had technology that would be decades ahead of anything around in 1963. The rifle that would take out Lee Harvey Oswald, and change history.

She saw a bright flash, then nothing, then daylight.

————————–

Agent Martin watched Jackie exit along with the lead tube that would deposit her in the past. He stood on the spot that the tube had sat in for several years, the last time the section of floor had been exposed was when the pilot program was beginning in the mid-eighties. The development was a slog since they were relying on the nearly incoherent ramblings of an incoherent old woman to put the thing together. Back then, they knew they had a lot of work to do in a short amount of time, but that they could do it. Technically they already had. If he’d had it his way, they would have just arranged to send the tube back in time to themselves, solving their own problem. Almost a decade of work was now complete, and his own future, though guaranteed to be interesting thanks to his experience, was uncertain. Where do you go after time travel?

Good, Martin,” said an older man entering the room. It was Martin’s boss, Rick Murphy, a retired Navy Admiral, the manager of the project and the only person other than Martin to see the program though from beginning to end. “We’re still here, I guess that about does it.”

“Yes, sir, the timeline worked out the way it was supposed to.”

Rick raised his hands in the air, channeling Charlton Heston as Moses, and walked toward Martin and shouting, “The prophecy has been fulfilled!”

“Alright, alright, amen,” Martin muttered, “wanna go for a drink?”

————————–

Jackie emerged from the darkness exactly where she expected, a place she remembered. That afternoon on Dealey Plaza hadn’t faded at all over the years, but had rather been burnt in. The memory was darker and more gruesome with each passing year, she’d only wanted to erase that one thing, the day her life, and her family’s life changed forever.

The day was just like she remembered. The sky was blue and the people had begun to gather along the side of the road. Right about this time, an hour before Jack died, she was with him, speaking together with the Governor and first lady of Texas. She remembered what she was wearing, but so did everybody else because of the playback the famous recording had gotten in the 30 years since the shooting. No, you mustn’t think of that, Jackie. It’s not 30 years later, it’s now, it’s before. You can change it.

She surveyed the plaza for another few minutes, taking time to look for a place to move, but deciding the best place to be to get a clear shot at the depository would be where she was. She knew exactly where Oswald would reveal himself in the window and would only need to let her rifle to lock on. The gun would basically shoot itself and that was good, because she had never gotten used to shooting. Even back when she had training from the secret service, she never really caught on, probably because she never really cared. She stationed herself a few meters beyond a wall that bordered the plaza but was away from the road, deciding nobody would be coming there, especially when they could be right up on the sidewalks below.

She looked at her watch, specifically built to display a countdown until zero hour. There was still 30 minutes until the president and his wife would roll around the bend in their car and she would be able to get a clear shot at her husband’s killer. The crowd was larger than she remembered, certainly the different vantage point gave her a better perception of the entire situation. She hadn’t noticed that large police presence as she was always buffeted by the secret service, nor had she seen, until now, the vast expanse that her husband’s last drive covered. She wondered, in hindsight, why they had taken the trip in the first. She knew it was for publicity, she had practically invented political publicity, but why? It was the same question she has asked herself everyday for 30 years.

The crowds lining the streets were getting restless and her watch showed that there was only a few minutes left. She could see by the rustling that up the road, just north of Dealey, that the crowd had identified the president’s car and it would be within view soon enough. Not long after, Oswald would peek out of the window and take his shots. The motorcade creeped down the hill toward her, and for the first time in 30 years, she saw Jack alive. A rush of emotion filled her like nothing she had ever felt, she had to save him. She had to save her other self, also coming into view, from the pain and torture of burying her husband. From the struggle of explaining death to her young children. She had to save herself from this nightmare she’d been living in. Promises by the agents told her that she would be transferred into almost another dimension where the shooting never happened, but it was up to her to make the history change.

She picked up her rifle and pointed it at the assassin’s window. The gun was already loaded with the futuristic rounds that were still simple enough not to be suspect in the 60’s. She watched as the motorcade moved closer to it’s location of death, almost as if she was watching an opera that had haunted her for years. In exactly 5 seconds, Oswald would begin to make his move, coming close enough to the window to get a clear shot, and also open himself up to Jackie’s targeting. She braced herself for the most important split second of her life.

There he was, Oswald moved into view and raised his gun to shooting position. They both took their final aim. She pulled her trigger before he did. Her first shot rang out and she was thrown back by the recoil. It missed. It missed‽ She braced herself again for her second shot. Running out of time to aim, she just pointed the gun, and pulled the trigger. And that was it. The president was dead, and it was his wife that killed her.

“What have I done,” she screamed. But her screams were lost in the thousands who witnessed the terror on Dealey. At least they would only have to see it once. Both Jackies entered a state of shock at what had just happened.

————————–

“It’s just amazing how well it worked out. I mean, it’s like theater. We found her, we questioned her, and we developed our own scheme,” said Admiral Murphy, whisky in hand.

“It is interesting how much she believed us, being entrenched in lies for years,” replied Martin. “She actually believed that she could change things.” He thought about the crime on Mrs. Kennedy’s intelligence they had perpetrated and years of manipulation of the elder Jackie, the one they had discovered and captured in 1980.  She died, for real, a few years later, and they reconnected with her again in the early 90’s. Though they didn’t know the elder Jackie, she knew them. She recognized their faces and the program and resisted, but after a short time, stockholm syndrome set in, and she willingly gave out all of the details they would need, even hinting how the time machine worked. Captured wasn’t really the right word for what they did to her, you don’t capture octogenarians so much as you coerce them into companionship. By the time she died, the woman had accepted that this was the role she would play in her life. That this is how it had been before, and somehow it was probably how it would be again.  “I’m just amazed that she had never been able to make contact with herself.”

“Well, she tried, but the secret service had always thrown the notes out, deciding they were written by a lunatic.” The Admiral laughed, “It’s actually quite funny. I never told you this, but right after the event, the President got reports of a crazed woman who we can now identify as Mrs. Kennedy. We could have found her out then and there. Then again without the letters, she would have never made herself known to us, and we wouldn’t be here.”

Martin shrugged, “I like to think history has a way of fixing itself. The President would have been killed that day, whether or not we sent Mrs Kennedy back in time, only to find her later.”

Murphy took a drink and thought for a second. “Maybe so, but it’s interesting how the whole drama played itself out in the end. I like to think of us as the playwrights in all of this, crafting a story like nothing ever before it.”

Agent Martin motioned for another round. “It’s just too bad that’s all we get with the time travel, you’d think we could have used that to change something bigger, like World War II.”

“But realize we didn’t change anything, this is where your course correction falls flat. No, our actions were what caused everything to happen, we had to do it. Because of this program, you can say that, yes, the CIA was behind the death of the president–the CIA 30 years later. We sent our trained assassin to the grassy knoll to shoot the man dead. She thought she was saving him, but she put too much trust in technology. This is CIA technology after all. Because of us, things are the way they are supposed to be.”

The bartender filled their glasses, and Murphy drank to “normalcy.”

August 2010