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The Observer Oct. 21

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The Observer was in Memphis recently for the Southern Book Festival. The opening reception was held at a swanky art gallery on South Main Street, where we were enjoying free canapes when we realized the second presidential debate was about to start. We asked a few of our friends if they were interested in catching it. They said yes, but where? The Observer figured they could run down to Ernestine and Hazel’s, the old juke-joint caddy-corner to the Arcade restaurant. During the brisk walk down the street, The Observer wondered what methods of persuasion he would need to convince the bartender to put the debate on the television. No one wants to see that kind of stuff in a bar. What a buzz-kill. It was straight-up 8 p.m. when The Observer and friends entered the smoky darkness of Ernestine and Hazel’s. A few people sat at the bar, and the bartender was standing with his back to the door. His head was craned upward to catch John Kerry’s opening statement on the television above. We took our seats at the bar. The Observer ordered a Bud in a bottle. We had another couple before the debate was over. Not a word was spoken in the place for 90 minutes. All The Observer could think was, Damn, this election is important. From our Observer in Buenos Aires: We watched the second presidential debate on CNN in our hotel room, a Quilmes beer close at hand. The next morning we learned we could have been among kindred spirits as convivial as The Observer was after Kerry completed his hat trick. The English-language Buenos Aires Herald reported that a bipartisan debate watch party had been held at the local branch of Hooters. About 75 people turned out. The newspaper reported that the crowd overwhelmingly favored Kerry. Now you know why the Bush administration has been making it harder for Democrats overseas to vote … save the military, of course. About Buenos Aires: It’s beautiful, fascinating and cheap. A thick slab of strip steak in one of the city’s best parillas costs about $7. Coke from a train station machine costs a quarter. A fine cappucino (Italian is the dominant ancestry of Portenos, as residents of the city are known) costs maybe 35 cents at a standup coffee bar. The national confection, known as an alfajore, costs a dime or so. It is a soft-cookie sandwich — sometimes with a marshmallow filling, more often with dulce de leche — enrobed in chocolate. It is, in other words, a Moon Pie. Craziest bargains of all were the black-and-yellow Renault and Peugeot cabs that swarm like bees 24 hours a day. A ride from The Observer’s hotel to the airport from which domestic flights depart — a ride we judged to be equivalent to the distance between Hillcrest and Little Rock National — cost $3. A 40-minute ride at breakneck speed from our hotel to the international airport cost $11.50. Cab drivers don’t expect tips, either. We got our culture shock when we got home Sunday morning after an overnight flight. There were no cabs outside the Little Rock Airport. We called one. In time, it arrived. The metered tab for a ride home to Hillcrest? $26. Meanwhile, back on the farm, a correspondent reports that a recent night on the town in Little Rock was "brilliant," even "transcendent." What made him so happy? First, a meal of shrimp and shiitake mushrooms in puff pastry. A dry zinfandel. A pork medallion cassoulet. A pinot noir. A Granny Smith torte. A meal he considered remarkable. Then, a performance by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Works by Françaix, Piazolla and Vivaldi. "Let us say," our correspondent writes, "you have been subjected to years of Vivaldi on NPR, a degrading and dehumanizing experience." Then, you find yourself at the Arkansas Arts Center and Vivaldi has come alive, with harpsichord and cello and violin. "Evenings like this are a precious part of life. To enjoy them in Little Rock, where I was born, seems even more precious." Damn, the good life is important. Seen on a Little Rock bumper sticker: "John Kerry: Bringing back complete sentences to the White House."

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