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News briefs 9.4.02 

The R.A.T.S. pack

Are you between the ages of 20 and 29? Are you sick of sitting home, pulling bongloads, and playing Sega until your thumbs bleed? Tired of the bar scene? Wish you could meet and mingle with people your own age without flunkies from the Zone showing up and trying to give you stickers and ski trips?

            Try moving to Guam.

            Or, if you'd rather stay in town, you might consider hanging out with the R.A.T.S. --- the verminous acronym of the Rochester-Area 20-Somethings.

            R.A.T.S. is a social and professional networking organization for people just old enough to remember disco and just young enough to think it's cool. It was formed last June by three Rochester natives and one transplant from St. Louis. The idea is to provide young people with opportunities to hang with their peers and, in the process, advance their careers, make new friends, and maybe even score. If their gatherings get really popular, the organizers hope 20-somethings will stop leaving Rochester like, well, rats abandoning a sinking ship.

            According to R.A.T.S. co-founder Laura Allen, 22, about 260 people have signed on to get info about the nascent group's gatherings via e-mail (see "This is a much bigger response than I ever imagined," she gushes.

            The group has held two picnics, so far --- the next takes place September 7 at Ontario Beach Park. It has also played miniature golf, watched movies at the Highland Bowl, and spent a Saturday pounding nails for Habitat for Humanity. Though R.A.T.S. tries to be an alternative to the bar scene, Allen says the group is "not totally opposed" to infesting a watering hole, and it invades "professional networking" events, like Digital Rochester, at Tonic every month.

            Membership is free, and if you've hit the big 3-0, don't worry: R.A.T.S. doesn't check IDs.

--- Chris Busby

New York rules!

This year's gubernatorial race has spawned a disturbing side contest: the race to appeal to New Yorkers' basest instincts.

The competitors in this match-up are Governor George Pataki and Rochester businessman Tom Golisano, who's challenging Pataki for the Independence and Conservative party lines on November's ballot.

Golisano kicked things off in August with his offer to give the football program at the State University of New York at Buffalo several million dollars, on one condition: The school must change its name to New York State University. "This could be a rallying point for the entire state," he told the Democrat and Chronicle. Just as Tennesseans quit fussin' and fightin' 'mongst themselves, get loaded together, and cheer on their Volunteers, New Yorkers would settle their differences come game day and unite behind the New York Bulls.

Never mind criticisms that big-time college football is a soft-core version of slavery, where poor kids break their bones against each other to satisfy coaches with six-figure salaries; generating millions in merchandise and TV-rights revenue, of which they're prohibited from getting a dime. After all, some get scholarships, and some actually become scholars, albeit 23-year-old bookworms with blown-out knees. And there are those lucky few who get the chance to make millions playing in the NFL --- at least a half-dozen every year out of thousands of others who go on to sell used cars and flood insurance.

(A week earlier, Golisano announced he was interested in buying the Buffalo Sabres. Hockey: The only professional team sport where players routinely stop playing, start punching each other in the face --- as the refs stand aside and children watch, rapt --- and get back in the game, minutes later.)

As though not to lose points with the bloodlust lobby, later in August, Pataki announced he'd convinced the Navy to name the first of a new class of amphibious warships the USS New York. "The USS New York will ensure that all New Yorkers and the world will never forget the evil attacks of September 11, and the courage and compassion New Yorkers showed in response to terror," Pataki said in a press release.

It'll also ensure that young men forced to fight for a dictator, who may be helping people connected with the people who perpetrated the September 11 attacks, will see the words "New York" as our young men kill them in "good" attacks overseas.

Why do we suspect the "compassion of New Yorkers" won't be among their last, terrified thoughts?

William Warfield lives

The death of famed bass-baritone and voice teacher William Warfield, who grew up in Rochester and has surviving family members here, is made less final by his recordings. We went back to one of them --- his singing of "Ol' Man River" from the 1951 MGM film version of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat --- to hear the full, living sound.

Warfield's accomplishment was to turn an almost jaunty, dance-like number into a small drama, beginning contemplatively and ending with dramatic, sustained high notes. The performance capped the development of "Ol' Man River," which went through great changes between the late 1920s and early 1950s, as you can easily hear on a compilation on the excellent Pearl label.

In 1928, for example, African-American singer-actor Jules Bledsoe recorded a stirringly operatic interpretation, one geared for a large hall. The same year, Bing Crosby, as if born to the microphone, gave the song a quick, light treatment. Even Al Jolson made a stab at it --- vocally strong in the middle register, shakier on top, and racist from the first word ("niggers," actually not so much worse than "darkies," the term sometimes chosen). Then there was the great Paul Robeson, one of Warfield's friends and mentors, with his rich, though not so technically polished, natural voice.

By the time Warfield made his decisive appearance in the role, Robeson was sidelined by the McCarthyites for his leftist politics. (As a 1947 recording shows, Robeson revised the "Ol' Man River" text: "I'm tired of living," etc., became "I must keep fighting until I'm dying.") But as you consider Warfield's enduring fame, remember that he wasn't even pictured on the 1951 album cover; only the white lead cast was so honored. But what's past is past. In his hometown and throughout the musical world, Warfield's is the standout performance.

Another of Warfield's great friends, author and oral historian Studs Terkel, spoke the other day about extra-musical things worth remembering. Warfield, Terkel told the Chicago Sun-Times, was "one of the most loving artists of our time... His religion was that of the whole world... He was a great teacher, a delightful conversationalist, and a man who always spoke the truth."

Boaters floaters

Two years ago, the International Joint Commission, a US-Canada body that has oversight of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River systems, empanelled a committee to report on water levels and related issues. Now the committee, with help from a Public Advisory Group of citizens and public officials, has put out its "Year One Report."

We're sure many Rochesterians will zero in on the report's lake-level data. After all, boaters, fishers, and other "users" of Lake Ontario, etc., have immediate worries. Will they be able to dock the cabin cruiser? Will next winter's ice make a pretzel of the dock? Will the wave action undermine the cottage and shorten the back yard? Then there are the commercial interests, of course, who want to know if there's enough water to float their boat. And regulators wonder if levels are low enough to, say, keep some shore areas in southern Québec from flooding. It's a complicated business.

Almost lost in the competition are the lakes, rivers, ponds, and shores themselves, and their ecosystems. We did see this note in the Year One Report, however, about water levels in Lac Saint-François, a shallow, wildlife-rich widening of the St. Lawrence just this side of Montréal: Levels there "are currently maintained within a 30 cm (one foot) variation compared to natural variation of about 1.5 metres (five feet)... Pleasure boaters find this an ideal arrangement, while environmental interests are concerned with the loss of wetland vegetation variety due to more constant levels." In short, it's Ecology 101. Bodies of water need wide fluctuations so some species can take hold during "down times," while others establish themselves during the up's. They used to call it the balance of nature.

But ecology is almost beside the point, to some. Right now, for example, a US Army Corps of Engineers' "Great Lakes Navigation System Review" is being vetted in Washington. The review looks at the necessity and feasibility of "replumbing," or widening and deepening, the connecting channels along the shipping route from Montréal to Duluth, Minnesota. The big factor here is larger ships. A Corps spokesperson tells us a final decision on the plan may be made this fall. But environmentalists are watching. For example, Great Lakes United, a Buffalo-based watchdog group, is urging opposition to any replumbing. The group fears dredging and channelization will disrupt some habitats and help new exotic species invade our waters. (See for more information. The Corps of Engineers Detroit office posts information at

Dog overboard

Biking up North Goodman Street the morning of August 27, a City staffer turned his head to the left and found himself face to face with a bulldog riding shotgun in a passing van. The dog was clearly enjoying the ride, which made it all the more surprising to see him tumble out the window as his driver slowed to take a right on Anderson Avenue.

The pudgy mutt made a less than graceful landing on the asphalt and squirmed to his feet inches from the wheels of the turning van. Our writer experienced several harrowing moments wondering which way the dog would decide to walk as vehicles passed in every direction through the intersection.

Luckily, the pooch regained his cool and sauntered onto the grass to sniff a tree and a fire hydrant nearby. "He just jumped," said the driver to a startled female pedestrian on the scene. His tone suggested he was just as surprised as she was to witness the stunt.

Don't be surprised yourself if you see the same bulldog riding around town, a seatbelt strapped across his canine chest.


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