In the early evening of May 18, 2000, a small group of University of Central Florida freshmen were hanging out in their apartment in the massive Knight's Crossing complex, enjoying a basketball game over Bud Lites and puffs on a marijuana pipe. Since the four roommates often had friends over, nobody thought much about a knock on the door. When Jason (who asked that his full name not be used) answered the door, he found a nondescript, older man asking for a roommate named Michael (name also withheld on request). When Jason turned around to call for his roommate, the man walked in the door, followed by three other people.
All four of the uninvited guests were members of the Orange County Sheriff's Narcotics Unit. The officers, led by Sgt. George Ellis and Detective Ron Batista, were responding to an anonymous tip. They told the students they had the authority to enter the apartment without a warrant because they smelled pot. Police separated the roommates and told them all the same thing: Nobody would be arrested if all the drugs in the apartment were handed over. Since they'd already smoked most of the pot, the four roommates produced less than 20 grams, equal to the weight of 20 packets of sweetener, and a single tablet of Clonazepam, a generic form of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax.
Police confiscated the drugs and took down everyone's names. Then they asked for the names of the people who sold the roommates the pot. The officers said they'd call back in a week to ask for additional information.
In turn, the roommates wanted something from the cops. They asked police to pose for pictures with the bongs and weed before the paraphernalia was taken away. "We were all intoxicated," says Keith Johnson, a UCF business management student and one of the four roommates. "We were about to lose our toys so we asked to take pictures."
Incredibly, police let them. Johnson fired off pictures of police holding up bongs and laughing with Jason, who draped an arm over an officer's shoulder.
But the pleasantries ended a week later when police called back. They wanted the dealers' names. The roommates refused. Nothing happened for more than a year.
Then on May 1, 2001, police, executing a search warrant, rousted Michael out of bed and took him to the Orange County Correctional Facility for drug possession, based on the May 2000 raid. Johnson turned himself in the next day.
Michael paid an attorney $2,000 to help him plead no contest and get deferred into probation and drug counseling. Johnson, on the other hand, was too broke to hire an attorney. His parents cut him off financially when he told them he'd been busted for drugs. The court assigned a public defender, Max Smith, who decided to challenge what he saw as an armed home invasion by police, two of whom were wearing hoods over their heads. The case against Johnson was dropped when police failed to appear at a hearing to suppress evidence, leading him to believe the entire episode was illegal. "We were pretty intimidated," Johnson says. "We weren't sure what our rights were. They weren't explaining any rights to us. They were trying to coerce us into helping them out."
What happened to the UCF students is an everyday occurrence in Central Florida. The Orange County Sheriff's Office alone performs an estimated 300 such encounters each month on unsuspecting residents. Cops call the technique the "knock-and-talk," or "knock-and-announce." It sounds harmless. Police simply walk up to a residence, knock on the door, and ask to look around. "People will let us come in and search even though they have drugs in the house," says Capt. Bob Gregory of the Orlando Police Department, "which is kind of bizarre if you think about it."
In fact, the knock-and-talk has become so popular in Orange County that the sheriff's office has an entire squad dedicated solely to the practice, a nine-deputy unit known as Squad Five, or the Tip-Sheet Squad, referring to the anonymous tips called to the county crime line.
The knock-and-talk evolved from routine street encounters when police stop and question a suspicious person, and from traffic stops during which police ask to search a car. By the early 1990s, as the war on drugs escalated, police began to receive so many confidential tips that they had to form special undercover squads to deal with them. In 1997, the Orange County Sheriff's Office reorganized its Special Investigations Division to form Squad Five.
The squad gets its information from the crime line, other police departments, organizations such as MADD and informants outside the county. But most of the tips come from the average person in the street -- that is, from your neighbors.
"Most of the time it's just tips that come through the people that live in a neighborhood," says Deputy Kevin Marcum, a 14-year Orange County veteran, testifying during a deposition taken last year. "They see a lot of cars across the street or a lot of cars pulling up for short stays and then leaving. Then they call the sheriff's office."
A crime analyst logs the tip into a computer and classifies it according to priority. Specific knowledge of a crime -- having been inside a house where drug activity occurred, for example -- is a higher priority than a report of suspicious arrivals and departures. If Squad Five is too busy, it will farm the tip to the narcotics unit or another squad. The sheriff's office typically responds to anonymous complaints within two weeks.
Officers often try other investigative techniques before the knock- and-talk. For example, they might do a "trash pull," which means rummaging through your garbage for evidence of drugs or other criminal activity. According to state law, police must have two successful trash pulls before the evidence will be accepted at trial.
The Best Talkers on Earth
Angelo Nieves, the commander of Orange County Sheriff's Squad Five, declined to be interviewed for this story. He also would not allow Orlando Weekly to ride along with his officers. The sheriff's office also refused to turn over the tip sheets on which knock-and-talks are based, erroneously citing an exemption to the state's public-records law involving ongoing police investigations. (The Weekly asked for closed tip-sheet investigations.) Consequently, it is impossible to determine the number of unsuccessful searches conducted by Squad Five.
Why all the secrecy? Because law enforcement is counting on you not to know your rights; especially when they want to enter your home without a warrant. "In a society where everyone knew their rights, this practice would not constitute a big problem," says Jamin Raskin, a constitutional-law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. "But in America today, the public schools don't teach the Constitution or the underlying rights it provides us. The police take advantage of a pervasive constitutional illiteracy, which is a threat to civil liberties."
Although the Orange County Sheriff's Office didn't want to discuss the knock-and-talk, Lt. Victor Uvalle, a veteran undercover Orlando Police Department drug officer, agreed to outline how and when police apply the technique.
Knock-and-talk is often the best investigative method, because it is the most honest, says Uvalle. What could be more straightforward than telling a person he is suspected of a crime? Uvalle also says the knock-and-talk is often initiated for allegations other than drug use. Suspected child abuse is an example. Police must ensure the child is free from bruises and is generally content in his home environment before they can clear a case, so they knock on the door and look at the child and his parents.
Uvalle cited a drug-related instance in which he received a tip that a couple teenage boys were selling pot out of their house. Uvalle drove past the home and sensed that it wasn't a typical drug haven. So he knocked on the front door and spoke to the boys' parents, who allowed Uvalle to search the teenagers' room, where he found several joints.
Of course, Uvalle has also had to resort to the knock-and-talk when there wasn't enough evidence to convince a judge that a warrant was necessary. An anonymous tip by itself, for example, will persuade few magistrates to sign a search warrant. So if surveillance or trash pulls fail to produce evidence, Uvalle heads for the front door. "If you don't have any results from your other policing techniques, you go for broke," he says.
That means sending out three to six plainclothes agents, some of whom may be wearing "hit gear": vests or smocks, masks over their faces, an I.D. badge dangling from their necks and gun belts on their hips. The effect is twofold: Police want you to be intimidated enough to let them in, but they don't want to pose such a threat that suspects clam up.
"The police are very, very low-key," says Neal McShane, a defense attorney who was formerly counsel for the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, a special Orange County anti-crime unit. "They are above-board and professional. They're not obnoxious. There's no patrol cars in the street. They don't come with blue lights flashing. They don't wear a uniform. They come in street clothes. They are the best talkers on the face of the Earth. I've told some of them they should be selling cars."
This is Not America
But the knock-and-talk is more pernicious than it sounds. Consider the fact that most knock-and-talks are the result of anonymous tips to the county's crime line. That means the potential for abuse and revenge is built into the system. "I ask anybody who thinks this is a pleasant experience to give me your address, and I'll make a little phone call," says First Amendment attorney Steve Mason, who is representing an Orlando woman arrested on drug-possession charges resulting from a knock-and-talk. "Give me your name and address, and I'll take it from there. I'll give you a lesson first-hand how lovely this thing is."
Mason's client is Lynn Miller, who was walking out of the front door of her house in the Conway Gardens neighborhood March 14, 2001, when three plainclothes Orange County Sheriff's officers asked to speak with her. As David Alvarado, the lead Orange County agent, explained to Miller, she was suspected of drug activity after the county Narcotics Unit received an anonymous tip. Alvarado -- reportedly an very smooth talker -- told Miller it was better if the two of them spoke inside the house so her neighbors wouldn't see what was going on. Meanwhile, two officers remained outside with Miller's boyfriend.
Once inside, Alvarado, a nine-year sheriff's officer, asked Miller if she had any drugs. "She put her head down and didn't answer me," Alvarado said in a deposition. "I asked again, 'Are there any drugs in your residence. I am here to investigate a complaint.'" Miller finally said yes, went to her room and pulled a cellophane bag containing marijuana from her purse. Alvarado asked if Miller had any other drugs. This time she pulled a crack pipe and a small cocaine rock from a cigarette pack in her purse.
Alvarado jotted down Miller's identification, had her fill out a form saying she'd consented to the search and left without rummaging through her home. Four months later she was arrested, tried and convicted in Orange County Circuit Court. Mason, however, is appealing Miller's case to the Fifth District Court of Appeals. His aim is to indict the entire knock-and-talk procedure by showing that the function of the Tip-Sheet Squad is to circumvent the Fourth Amendment and state laws against illegal search and seizure. His hope is that, by ruling in Miller's favor, the appeals court will send a message to Central Florida police departments that the courts will suppress evidence obtained via the knock-and-talk. "This technique is a devious, institutional design that serves no other purpose than to invade people's homes," Mason says. "One way or another, we want to put a lid on this stuff."
Mason is counting on the appeals court to rule more stringently than it did in a case involving a woman named Kelly Hosey.
In 1993, a Miami police officer spotted Hosey running toward a northbound train in a manner that led him to believe she was a drug courier. Three Volusia County narcotics officers caught up with Hosey on the train in DeLand. They knocked on the door of her compartment at 11 p.m. and asked to search her luggage. She agreed. The cops found more than 200 grams of cocaine stuffed in a pair of socks.
Hosey was convicted of drug trafficking at trial but appealed on grounds her privacy was violated. She lost 2-1.
In his dissenting opinion, Fifth District Court of Appeals Judge Earle W. Peterson, calling Hosey's search "highly intrusive and highly coercive," condemned the practice of the knock-and-talk as anti-democratic, correctly warning that upholding Hosey's conviction could expand the practice from Florida's trains to Florida's homes. "Anywhere, anytime, day or night, without even a reasonable suspicion, the citizens of Florida can be roused by a group of police officers on a fishing expedition for contraband and asking for 'voluntary' consent to a search of the home," Peterson wrote. "By its opinion, the majority places the final nail in the coffin of a citizen's expectation of privacy. In this 'anything goes' war on drugs, random knocks on the doors of our citizens' homes seeking 'consent' to search for drugs cannot be far away. This is not America."
Peterson put the words "voluntary" and "consent" into quotes because he, like many concerned with the erosion of civil liberties, is not convinced the searches are consensual. More often than not, somebody is too afraid to tell police no.
The legal test for consent as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court is whether a "reasonable person" would assume he has the ability to deny a search of his home. But "reasonable person" is obviously a relevant term. A reasonable Supreme Court justice, ruling on the knock-and-talk, is in a much better position to overlook the status of police officers than many of the reasonable blue-collar workers police often encounter. "Justices on the Supreme Court have a very different relationship with law enforcement than the rest of us do," says Deborah Young, a former U.S. assistant attorney based in Washington, D.C. who now teaches law at Samford University in Alabama. "The Supreme Court has its own police department. Justices are used to police serving them and chauffeuring them. It's a very different experience." And, Young adds, Supreme Court justices typically do not have a criminal-law background, so their sympathies have tended toward more state control.
Consequently, the Rehnquist court has instituted dozens of exceptions to the Fourth Amendment, including allowing evidence from defective, misleading search warrants to be admissible in court as long as police have made a "good-faith" effort to provide the facts. "What has happened over the last 20 years or so is that the court has recognized so many exemptions to the warrant requirement that police now feel they can search a home without obtaining one, then hope they are legally justified," says assistant public defender Paul C. Helm, who is based in Bartow.
The court has never required police to give a Miranda-type warning for home searches as they must when making an arrest. That raises the question whether the searches are truly consensual, or whether a homeowner is merely yielding to institutional power.
"Are people really consenting or are they acquiescing to authority," asks Mike Becker, an assistant public defender in Daytona Beach. "That becomes a thin line. If there were six cops with masks and weapons at your door, would a reasonable person believe they could say no to a search, especially if they weren't told they could say no?"
Not only are police not obligated to warn people of their rights, they often stretch the truth to gain access to homes.
As in the case of the UCF students, deputies will say that nobody will be arrested. What they mean is that no one will be charged until the paperwork is filed through the state attorney's office.
Criminal defense attorney Joe Harrington had a client who was arrested for selling prescription pills out of a pizza parlor. The client surrendered the drugs after cops said they wouldn't arrest him. Two months later, the pizza driver was hauled to jail on the drug trafficking charges he admitted to during the knock-and-talk. "The cops play fast and lose with the rules," says Harrington.
For example, when police are told they can't come into a home without a warrant, the cops shift gears and say they're coming in because of a bong in plain view or the smell of pot in the air, both of which are legal reasons to search a home without a warrant. "There are exceptions to the search-warrant requirement like plain view or plain odor or plain smell," Harrington says. "If you tell a cop he can't come in without a warrant, he'll say he smelled pot coming from your house. You see it all the time in police reports: 'A wafting odor nearly knocked me over when they opened the door.' The police know exactly what they are doing."
Just Say No
Cops at the door? The best defense for home dwellers involved in a knock-and-talk is to know the search-and seizure-law. (A home dweller, by the way, includes those renting apartments or hotel rooms, and mobile-home owners.) Simply put, nobody has the right to be on your property unless they have a signed warrant from a judge.
If police come to your house, don't answer the door. Or, if you feel you must address officers, step outside and shut the door behind you. Lock yourself out, if you must. Don't forget police can enter a home if they smell marijuana burning or see paraphernalia in plain view.
These simple tips might give piece of mind. But the price of privacy is constant vigilance. In the land of the free and home of the brave, your liberty is only as secure as the next knock on the door.
Dear Russian Space Agency: Having just read about the vacant tourist seat still up for grabs on the Soyuz capsule destined for the International Space Station, I'm writing to offer all the reasons why I should get to go instead of Lance Bass from 'N Sync or a supermodel, as jokingly requested by Cosmonaut Valery Korzun. I understand that this seat would normally cost millions of dollars, but I have successfully gotten people to give me things for free in the past (mostly advice, like "Who do you think you are?") and see no reason not to at least try.
Perhaps you feel someone with more expertise in rocket science, or even who knows how to drive a stick shift, might be better suited for this adventure. While I have slightly less technical know-how than one of those cats on "World's Funniest Animals" who can turn the TV off, I feel this might be an advantage. My ability to marvel at the skill of the astronauts and to say, "Wow, you must be a genius!" with genuine booster-club spunk will be a much-needed ego stroke to people who will be largely without phone calls, fan mail or even emoticons -- as in ":)" means "smile face" -- for months at a stretch. People in a tight working environment always need someone to feel superior to, a Gilligan, a Ted Baxter, a moron to bond over and to be the butt of water-cooler humor.
Butt is something I feel I can provide in abundance. Speaking of, I don't know whether there have been any studies on sex in anti-gravity conditions, but I could initiate a few, which might make a pleasant sidebar to whatever else this mission is all about. This is particularly true if your space ship is stocked with the ingredients for Lemon Drops (ice-cold vodka, lemons, sugar) and a Spanish radio station. I can't promise this; after all, I don't know what any of your crew looks like. This drawback, if it is one, could be relieved with the provision of Halloween masks that look like any number of Hollywood celebrities, a list of which can be found in my diary. But, actually, a Benicio del Toro wig should about cover it. Just for kicks.
Kicks, I hate to tell you, are something space coverage is sorely lacking. The magnificence of space exploration should be an optimistic wonderland, especially compared to all the depressing and dangerous crap we are having to deal with these days. Yet, I don't believe any live-action space show would draw as big a viewing audience as, say, Anna Kournikova washing her car in a cheerleading outfit. In addition to the concepts detailed above (pending availability of wig), I have a few ideas on how to bring a little more spark into space viewing, which as it is, makes some viewers bang on their TVs, thinking they're broken.
First, change the name of the mission to "Temptation Station" and provide attractive models to lure astronauts away from their duties with rum drinks and hot-tub parties. People would tune in to anti-gravity hot-tub scenes. If you disagree, talk to my friends who can quote from "Blind Date" like they used to be able to from loftier sources, when they were in college and had to.
Also, there is not nearly enough catty dialogue in space, so I suggest taping some segments of the astronauts saying bitchy things about each other that only the on-board microphones and all the people on earth would hear. I have been watching MTV's "The Real World" and practicing: "Valery is, like, such a slut, and I just don't think he realizes how his behavior effects evvvverybody else on this rocket. It's like, ugh."
Finally, what seems to be required here are the talents of a good road tripper, and I am that. In addition to being able to procure (or make up) books such as "Time Out: Saturn, Fodor's Van Allen Belt or Boring Space Ships on $5 a Day," I also have lots of good CDs and travel games. Plus, I would be willing to stage readings from "Ren and Stimpy" or Shakespeare.
I'm also good at asking questions, such as, "If you can expect the unexpected, doesn't the unexpected then become expected? And if so, should you still expect it?" This is something I think about while other people are talking, which also makes me a patient listener. Practical jokes are also a welcome diversion on a road trip, and I'm not above stuffing a dummy of an alien into the fridge dressed in American astronaut Peggy Whiston's underwear.
In conclusion, while I cannot bring things to the table like money, intelligence or boyband notoriety, I feel I can bring some much-needed amusement to the space show and would like to be considered for the journey. Plus, if this cruise happens during a PMS week, you could end up with two or three personalities for the price of one. Riveting television and cost effective.
I love movies and see as many as I can, but there are some I don't mind missing. School movies fall into that last category. I don't miss sitting in a classroom enduring some antique opus that was even more tedious than our usual human presenters.
One school movie I'd be curious to see, though, is one I read about recently in the New York Times. No title to the film was offered, but its dialogue sounded surreal and intriguing. The movie is part of an abstinence program, a trend in public schools to abstain from comprehensively educating kids about sexual safety. Abstinence-only education teaches that abstinence is the only way to prevent STDs or pregnancy and this story said that "by 1999 one third of all public school districts were using abstinence-only curricula."
Interestingly, a report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute says that while abstinence contributed to a quarter of the drop in teen pregnancies recently, improved contraceptive education was responsible for the other three quarters of that decrease.
Failing to give kids enough knowledge of condoms and other protective items is like refusing to teach them to drive even though you know they have enough money for a down payment on a car. I don't know why anyone would want to let their kids dangle out there unsafe and ignorant, but according to Women's Enews, George W. has increased the budget for abstinence-only education by $33 million for 2003.
Anyway, in this school movie, a teen-age boy is said to ask what happens if he wants to have premarital sex and a nurse responds, "Well, I guess you're just going to have to be prepared to die."
I'm a little worried about this boy and would like to address him directly for a moment:
I'm sorry this bitch talked to you that way. First of all, it is not true that people who have sex without being married to each other all die. If they did the earth would look like a supersized Jonestown and would stink like a fish-market dumpster on a summer afternoon. Virgins would have time for nothing except burning the dead who they'd have to tote around everywhere, like "Weekend at Bernies," just to make room to put down their drinks.
Second, you don't really have to be prepared to die; it happens to unsuspecting people all the time. You do have to be prepared to live, though, and to this end you want to protect yourself from the dangers posed by any sex you're going to have, so you can have more and better sex in the future.
And that's something you will want. I have never heard anyone say, "I've had enough sex to last me a lifetime."
It's true that abstinence will protect you 100 percent from pregnancy and STDs, just like never going anywhere will prevent you from getting in a car wreck. God knows there are plenty of adults who aren't getting any -- abstinent by accident. It's not the worst thing that can happen to you.
When you do have sex, though, simply adopt the "You don't know where it's been" rule of using condoms. If you don't know where it's been, keep a barrier between you and it, whatever it is. I know that condoms are a little awkward, but it will be more awkward for if you end up having to ask a doctor to look at your crotch like a jeweler appraising a diamond and have them tell you what strain of cooties you've contracted. Organizations like Planned Parenthood can help you with more detailed information on protection and they will not say things such as "Prepare to die, infidel!" or whatever martial-arts film dialogue that broad in the video offered by way of help.
You may actually not be ready to have sex yet. I know people in their 30s who I don't think are ready. It's something you can't BS yourself about, and, also, it's a thing you can't understand until you've been there, like Europe. Guidebooks are important but nothing can prepare you for the actual trip.
And, like Europe, who you go with makes all the difference in the world. A good guideline that will last anyone through adulthood is a quote from the movie, "Clueless: "You know how picky I am about my shoes and they only go on my feet."
Anyway, I worry about that kid, so it had to be said.
This Times story mentioned another educational approach to teen sexuality, the abstinence-plus approach, "in which teen-agers are discouraged from rushing into sex but also given information about contraception."
That idea seems to have everything: balance, depth and the inference that they are responsible to themselves. It might work one day, when we go back to wanting to give kids a more full education. After all, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but too little knowledge is a helluva lot worse.
I have a friend who has a friend -- and who doesn't? -- who is big into online dating. "You should try it!" said Paige, my first-tier friend, probably because she thought that was what I'd like to hear. To paraphrase Mark Twain, that is what friends do. Anyone will tell you what you don't want to hear.
Paige has been paired for some time, and I tend not to take dating advice from members of a long-time couple. It's like asking a mummy what kind of laptop to buy. They haven't been out there in so long that their ideas, while well-intended, are suspect. So, I was ready to shelve the Internet dating advice until she said, "The first thing you do is write an online profile."
"How long can it be?" I asked and began composing aloud my description of a great date. Thirty minutes later, Paige told me that the profile is supposed to be not much more than a brief paragraph. Then she said, "If I read what you've written, I'd think, ÔWho is this bitch? I must meet her.'"
And so, because I can, what follows is my idea of how I'd seek a date online, which is mainly just another attempt at weeding, only via keyboard. Consider mine to be the Norman Mailer version of a normal profile, inclusive of many specifics I'm sure web daters would like to list, but cannot.
The following is a list of my demands. Because I have been single for awhile, I am used to my demands not being met. But please try to meet some of them, or at least try not to be a homeless guy answering this on your free Hotmail account at the library.
Age. You should have no personal memories of World War II. Conversely, you should be old enough to refer frequently to CDs as "albums."
Personal appearance. You should not be able to stop traffic, either due to your film-star good looks or your resemblance to Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings." You should be bigger than anyone on the U.S. women's figure-skating team but smaller than a vintage VW Beetle.
Home. Nothing should be growing in your bathtub that I can pick up and throw at you. And get rid of that futon. Pets are OK, but none of what my friend Paige calls "drug-dealer pets," i.e. snakes, rodents, tarantulas, anything found in the home of someone you used to buy pot from in college.
Lifestyle. You should have stopped buying illegal drugs in college. Pot should be legal but it's not, and if you get arrested for it, I will not bail you out of jail. I'll call your boss and invite him or her to do it. Drinking, however, is encouraged and probably necessary.
Athletics. If you watch sports, you should participate in one, or at least work out -- or at least get up. Exercise is good for the mind and body. But no health nuts. If you ever try to tell me that a wheat-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, egg-free, fat-free cake is good, or is even food, I swear to God I'll stand on your head.
Travel. You should have a passport and like to travel, but nowhere stupid, like the woods. That said, you should think it's a romantic idea to hit the road in an Airstream and tour America for a year. This vehicle should be an option and not a place you live in now because you're broke and lazy.
Employment. Speaking of lazy, you should have a fucking job. It should pay more than my job but not be as interesting, as that way I get to talk more. Actually, I can talk no matter what, so it should be interesting. Ambition is attractive if it's based on passion and not money. Still, would it kill you to have a little money?
Smarts. You should have an interest in current events and be able to talk a little bit about a lot of things, not talk a lot about one thing, like Klingon battleships, 'Nam, the Lakers, the prime rate, or your theory that aliens are in cahoots with Michael Eisner, the Saudis and the Pope to run the World Bank.
You should never in your life have said any of these things: "Do you want to hear my poem?" "George W. is a brilliant man." "I'd like to dedicate this award to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ." "I got Buffett tickets."
As for me, I have all these qualities. But there is one thing I don't have that you should, and that's a working set of male genitalia. I would be willing to negotiate on many of these points if you own, or aspire to own, a monkey.
This was all exquisite therapy and I encourage other singletons to do it. But reminding myself of my own standards is as far as I'm going with the online dating club.
"Yeah," Paige agreed. "It seems too much like ice fishing. Don't you want to know what you're fishing for?" So maybe the couple did give good advice, after all.
Liz Langley is a columnist for the Orlando Weekly.
I feel sorry for kids today, not in a caring, concerned way, but in a detached, patronizing, figure-of-speech kind of way. Just look at all the cool TV we had when we were kids: "Bewitched," "Gilligan's Island," "The Brady Bunch," none of it high art but all of it endearing enough to be integral to our pop-culture history. But with reality TV, the future of reruns looks pretty dim. Outside of "The Osbournes," what might still be a curiosity in 20 years? "Big Brother?" "American Idol?" Maybe "The Rerun Show?"
Anyway, since current TV is so fabulous I found myself watching a rerun of "Seinfeld," the infamous "The Contest" episode in which the pre-"Friends" friends make a $100 bet to see who can go the longest without masturbating. Only they don't all make a hundred-dollar bet. The guys make the lone girl pony up an extra $50 because girls don't get as horny as guys.
Hopefully there's a bunch of girls who won't finish this story because they just tossed the paper aside after reading that sexist idea. (I love the show but didn't finish watching it.) Women may be more selective; they may not behave like jackasses at strip shows in the numbers that men do or catcall them on the street, but women have extremely healthy, horny, voracious appetites for skin, just as men do.
Up until about 40 years ago women had more social pressure and less access to birth control, so they had to guard their pearly gates pretty defensively -- probably one of many reasons we got the rep of being colder than we really are. I'd have lost that contest in the time it takes to say, "Place your bets," and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only girl with a Good Vibrations catalog who feels that way. We don't show it sometimes because we don't want to invite the attention of every man in the room who might mistake "healthy" for "blind." But horny women, like other juicy things, are a gift of nature.
They traditionally haven't gotten a lot of respect, though. The female version of the playboy, a la Samantha on "Sex and the City," isn't given the same winking "atta girl" reception as her male-counterpart bad boys get. I'm not dumb enough to think this will equalize in our culture anytime soon, but there is some research afoot suggesting that, just as there is believed to be a biological drive for men to spread themselves around, there are good reasons in some cultures for women to try to catch as many of them as they can. Samantha, then, might not be a bad girl, just another product of evolution.
In a fascinating eye-opener of an article, "The Virtues of Promiscuity," Sally Lehrman writes that research in many tribal cultures is revealing that women proudly take multiple lovers, all of whom then have some stake in her offspring, and who will help to take care of those children. The men in these cultures benefit also and not just by getting laid. Theirs are short life spans, and they know that if they die, one of the other fathers on the suspect list will take care of the kids.
Eventually traders came to these tribes and brought goods, "introducing the idea of exclusive ownership." Then, of course, religious types brought in guilt and really pissed on the party. Before this nuisance, it sounds like sex in these tribes was just fun, an accepted recreational activity with lots of participants, and a way to keep the tribe strong and healthy. And not just the boys got to play.
I'm not advocating that girls screw everything in sight, and I'm not much of a Samantha myself -- I'm too tired and it's too scary. But I sure do like the picture of the women in these cultures as creatures of equal sexual stature, in both desire and power, able to be honest about their appetites for both sex and care, even expected to be seeking it out -- all the women, not just the recognized Madonnas of the tribe. Sex as a normal activity, a fact of life at once exquisite and mundane, a source of pride instead of neurosis -- for a primitive idea, it's more advanced than a lot of the stuff we come up with.
That's advice from the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," and good advice it is. When was the last time you panicked and it turned out great? You hear, "I panicked and shot him, but that flash of metal I saw was just an Eskimo Pie." You never hear, "I panicked and earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Now I teach at Wellesley and summer in Nice."
I bring this up because I've read about a panic -- spreading like a cold through a classroom -- among young, professional women over whether they've waited too long to have children. The mommy train is leaving and they're tottering after it, afraid their chance has passed. Evidently the panic stems from Sylvia Ann Hewlett's "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children." In her book, Hewlett asserts that fertility begins declining when we're 28 and keeps decreasing.
None of the women I know thought they'd get more fertile with age, and none are panicking more than usual. Those of us who might want kids are doing what we've always done. The biological clock goes off, and if we're not baby-ready, we hit the snooze alarm. We're ignoring our biological needs, true, but we do that all the time. We diet when we're hungry and lose sleep to get to work. Even if we do take into consideration our biology, we have the sense and compassion to consider the child we might bring into a substandard situation. We should be applauded for this.
Which is why it makes me sad to think of women throwing birth-control pills out of windows like Rip Taylor with a confetti bag. I'm sad that we're blown about by every gust of media-inspired insecurity; this one -- fertility isn't guaranteed -- is common sense masquerading as a big find. If you want kids and can raise them, well, lucky you. Knock yourself out, or up. But is panic a spirit to do it in?
It's easy to want kids. Commercials show adorable, cooing, odorless babies being raised in wacky-but-warm households, but they're trying to sell you a product and, subtly, a lifestyle. What else are they going to show you? Monsters?
Even I get baby hunger, though for years the opposite was true. I grew up in a traditional suburban nuclear family and knew early on that, if this was the American dream, I was ready to wake up. I later opted for the French dream of smoking and feeling superior, as well as the Brazilian dream of having the best costume in the room at least once a year. These ex-patriot dreams serve my character perfectly, but even I am shanghaied by biology sometimes and want a baby of my own. All the birth-control propaganda out there is directed at teenage girls, and since I don't have to worry about pregnancy interfering with cheerleading tryouts, this doesn't help me.
People with kids have overwhelming cultural support for their lifestyle in our family-mad society. You will hear people stupidly tell a childless woman, "You should have kids," but you will never find them asking a mother of three, "Was that last one necessary?" Now, in the face of this supposed new trend, women who wait or opt out of motherhood altogether need all the support they can get. This is the stuff I think about when the biological clock gets louder than Chuck E. Cheese on a Saturday:
Look at all the publicity that the nuclear family gets. Anything that needs so much PR can't be that great. Look at 'N Sync.
Of course TV babies are adorable, but what if you don't get such a pretty one? What if you give birth to Uncle Fester? Or Joey Buttafuco? Look at the adults around you. Do you really want to make another one? People are wildly overrated and already take up too much space, needing deodorant and hair spray that destroy the atmosphere.
Is it really so important your DNA goes into that stewpot? Who are you anyway, that your genes need Xeroxing? They're probably more ordinary than you think. Isn't there an orphan, a pet, or a cause that could benefit from your surplus of love and money more than a whole new person who may be a grievous disappointment?
If I win the lotto, or if Prince Charming (who seems to be on the same travel schedule as Christ) ever shows up, maybe I'll think differently. Until then, I hope other waiting women will take heart rather than give in to panic. Mothers are often cast as unsung heroes, but the women who forego motherhood out of a different sense of duty are unseen and underappreciated. Just because you can't push your contributions in a stroller doesn't mean you aren't making any.
It takes big balls to tell a total stranger they have a small penis.
To look at advice columnist Amy Alkon, at least the picture of her I saw on the Web, she doesn't look like she has large cojones at all. She looks like somebody you might meet at a really good party who would be charming and funny and hurriedly on her way to an even better party that you weren't invited to. And yet, something she did recently to express her disdain for the ravenous American appetite for SUVs took more brass than you'll find in your average high-school marching band's horn section.
What she did was print up little cards that read: "Road-Hogging, Air-Fouling, Gas-Guzzling Vulgarian! Clearly you have an extremely small penis, or you wouldn't drive such a monstrosity. For the adequately endowed, there are hybrids or electrics." The message concluded with a phone number, which led to her answering machine, on which callers received further abuse ... and were invited to leave a message. Then she ran around sticking the cards on the windshield of SUVs. Makes those of us who just roll our eyes at the steely mammoths look like passive-aggressive little wusses.
I see Alkon's point and would even go beyond it to suggest that it's not just SUVs that pose as penis substitutes. Trucks with big, mean dogs in the back; cars with Spinal Tap-level bass speakers; drivers that talk on the phone, tailgate, weave and speed, presumably to get to their enlargement surgery appointment tout suite -- these vehicles and behaviors lead fellow drivers to think uncharitably about their owners. The SUV, however, seems to strike a special note of irritation, not because it denotes jerkiness like these other things do, but because its popularity among normal people is just baffling. Why, at a time of high-priced gas, when our oil dependency keeps us slavishly engaged in the messy Middle East, would Americans hunger for cars that are equivalent to that classically embarrassing vehicle, The Short Bus?
Certainly there are people who need large vehicles for jobs or hobbies that involve hauling around mass quantities of things, whether it's lumber, machinery or children. But it's kind of hard to believe that everybody who owns a gigantic car is a professional mover, weekend outdoorsman or breeds as rapaciously as Baron von Trapp.
Not being an expert on global economics or fuel efficiency, I did some simple online checking into gas-efficient vs. gas-gluttonous vehicles and was stunned by the results. According to a CNN/Money magazine study, the most fuel-efficient car is the Honda Insight, a hybrid electric car. The Insight gets 68 miles per gallon on the highway, 61 in the city. Compare this with the vehicle judged the Worst, the Land Rover Range Rover, at 15 mpg highway/12 city. You could get to Cocoa Beach and back putting only two gallons into the Insight, a cost that would quadruple if you needed something the size of a public bathroom just to haul your beach towels around in.
The disparity is so clear, it makes our sluggishness to embrace alternate fuel technology a very curious thing. My own theory is, first, that the oil industry has squelched any technology that won't keep them on their thrones, having, as they do, the kind of power that all kings have just before Madame deFarge knits them onto her shit list.
The other theory is more subtle: The concept of alternate-fueled vehicles has been, up to now, a little too fringe and hippie-ish for Americans to cozy up to. Like legalized pot, slow food and Ralph Nader, electric cars are something we know are good for us but they are too inconvenient, lefty and radical for us to embrace en masse. Well, the hippie fringe idea is now inarguably the more patriotic one. The less we suck on the oily teats of foreign countries, the more independent we are, and isn't that what all the flag-waving is about?
This idea, coupled with the tax breaks the president is offering for people who buy hybrid cars (see oilman not wanting to be knitted onto the list) might see hybrids phased in and monster trucks phased out within a decade. Finally, it seems, fuel efficiency might acquire that one virtue needed to put it onto the cultural game board: It will be cool.
In the gas crisis of the 1970s the hipper cars were the little ones -- VW Bugs, Hondas and Toyotas barely bigger than a bathtub. Driving one suggested you knew what was going on and had enough class to do something about it personally. There were plenty of eight-mile-a-gallon yachts but only old farts drove them; needing a big chunky car was like needing an adult tricycle. Driving big made you look small.
Still does, apparently.
Liz Langley writes the "Juice" column for the Orlando Weekly, where this article originally appeared.
It began several years ago when two U.S. servicemen were acquitted of failing drug tests. Their defense: They were bodybuilders who had consumed dietary supplements containing hemp-seed oil, which supposedly builds muscle and helps burn calories.
The acquittals led to widespread speculation that the federal government's drug-testing policy could be in jeopardy. Anyone busted for a positive marijuana test might claim that they were ingesting hemp seeds or oil, which contain trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the ingredient in pot that gets you high.
The government was quick to act in a predictably panicky manner. The Air Force banned eating hemp seeds or oil. The Office of Drug Control Policy considered whether to place warning labels on hemp foods.
Last October, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the federal agency at the forefront of the War on Drugs, went a step further. In a "reinterpretation" of an existing policy, the DEA banned the selling of foods containing hemp seed or hemp oil. No hemp cereal, no hemp pretzels, no hemp beer.
The ban was supposed to take effect Feb. 6 but was extended 40 days to accommodate a federal appeal filed by the Hemp Industry Association. On March 7, the United States Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit granted a stay to the Hemp Association until the court hears the appeal April 8.
"The stay means that we are likely to prevail on the merits of the case," says Eric Steenstra, a member of the Hemp Industry Association and president of the grassroots organization Vote Hemp.
Locally, some stores, such as Whole Foods Market, pulled hemp foods from their shelves. Other health-foods stores, such as Chamberlin's Market and Cafe, never pulled the products.
"Business has been affected," says Steenstra, who estimates the American hemp industry as a $150 million business, including hemp clothes and body oils, which were not part of the DEA ban. "Sales have been hurt at a couple of the major chains."
Whatever the outcome of the appeal, the DEA has not done well in the court of public opinion. More than 115,000 people sent the agency messages complaining of the rule interpretation. Mainstream media outlets have ridiculed the change in policy. "Check Aisle 7 for War on Drugs," a Baltimore Sun headline read. "The Drug War Blunders On," blasted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. US News & World Report called it a "Munchies Crackdown."
Twenty-two members of Congress have declared the ban "overly restrictive," and the Department of Justice has told the DEA that the reinterpretation has no legal merit. "Products derived from this portion of the cannabis plant commonly referred to as 'hemp' are explicitly excluded from regulation under the Controlled Substance Act," wrote John Roth, chief of the DOJ's Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section.
Even so, don't look for the DEA to give up easily. The agency continues to link hemp seeds to the movement to legalize marijuana, though DEA administrators don't do the same for poppy seeds, which contain trace amounts of opium.
A pretty young woman with high, teased hair and colorful leotards speaks to me from my TV. In the few seconds my remote pauses on her sunny features and luminescent smile, I hear her intoning America's need to stand together and stay strong in the wake of the previous week's tragic events. "And what better way to stay strong" -- she pauses momentarily -- "than to buy one of our incredible workout machines?"
General Motors doesn't want us to lose our "freedom." Its TV spot offers an endless ribbon of open road -- the horizon, distant and beckoning. It doesn't even show the car. "C'mon, America, buy some wheels and burn some gas," it suggests provocatively. "Forget about free speech and the freedom of religion. The greatest freedom is the freedom to drive ... the freedom to escape ... the freedom to just get up and go." Remember: "What's good for General Motors ..." Well, you know the line.
It has been six weeks since a handful of fanatics flew into the World Trade Center in New York and brought our country to its knees. And the "men in the gray flannel suits" are already beginning to figure out ways to market the tragedy. If patriotism is the way to our pockets -- they'll use it.
Forget all the pain and loss of life. Forget the countless kind and selfless deeds performed without thought of recompense. It's time to get back to "normal." It's time to get back to business. And "the business of America is ..." Yes, you know that line, too.
Politicians are not immune. Facing a huge budget shortfall largely due to a giant rupture of his state's $50 billion-a-year tourism industry, Florida Governor Jeb Bush says it's our patriotic duty to go out to eat and, maybe, take a cruise?!
"C'mon honey, let's pack up the kids and float around the ocean for a few days. I know you get seasick, but we've got a job to do. And don't forget to bring the water wings." After all, what price honor?
This is still America, the voices shout, and we can still buy our way out of anything! Feeling lost and confused? Purchase a new car! Feeling vulnerable? Get a ThighMaster! Is travel down? Bail out the airlines. Are tourists staying away? Ratchet up the advertising. Buy, buy, buy. Spend, spend, spend. It's worked for generations.
Only, I wonder if it will be so easy this time around. If it's just fear of flying, that will probably diminish over time. But if something really has shifted in our national consciousness ... if there really is a change in our long-term mood ... if our heretofore lavish investment in mindless entertainment and rampant consumerism is actually played out ... if our immersion in the trivial has been truly suspended ... then we have a long row to hoe.
A lot of people have suggested the terrorist attacks were America's wake-up call. But what exactly we've woken from -- or woken to -- is a matter of considerable and important debate.
Have we awakened from the notion that we are not alone in this world and that there are a lot of hurt, angry and desperate people out there? Have we awakened from the conceit that we may not be entitled to our profligate ways, consuming 25 percent of the world's resources with only 5 percent of its population?
Have we awakened from the dream that we can do what we want, live how we wish, regardless of cost -- without paying a heavy price? Have we awakened to a world where caring for our neighbors, giving of ourselves, being conscious of our actions, will take precedence over gorging on our pleasures?
Have we awakened to a planet where tribalism in all its forms (we're the good guys, they're the devil) will be seen for what it is -- a way in which fear of the other is transfigured into something noble and good?
Or will the ad men have their way? Will they use their enormous powers of influence and control of the media to lull us back to sleep? Is the business of America really business? Or is it something more?
Maybe this is the time not to spend, not to buy, not to salve the wounds. Maybe this is the time to tell the marketers to back off. We've got some important things to think about. And they have nothing to do with going to the mall or buying this year's model.
Have we woken up? Or have we only turned fitfully in our sleep?