River of no return

For our latest edition of Armchair Traveler we take a look at one of America’s most scenic, yet threatened, river.

Because rivers run through me.

The gentle Suwannee. The gutted Apalachicola. The algae-breeding St. Johns. The doomed Ocklawaha.

So many great Florida rivers sacrificed on the altar of hyper-growth.

In my nearly half-century journalism career I have been obsessed with our rivers, returning to them again and again. And each time finding them a little dirtier and more stressed.

So naturally, while on vacation in northern Arizona, I wanted to get up close and personal with America’s “hardest working” river, the Colorado.

The liquid artist that carved nature’s ultimate sculpture, the Grand Canyon, out of the living rock.

The 1,450-mile behemoth that funnels life-sustaining water from Rocky Mountain snow fields to 36 million people scattered from Wyoming down into Mexico.

And a downstream rowing trip did not disappoint. Threading our way amid towering red sandstone canyons, from Horseshoe Bend to Lee’s Ferry, we could see large game fish lazing in water nearly as transparent as the Ichetucknee. And almost 25 degrees colder at that.

If Paradise had a river it would be the Colorado.

That is, if the federal Bureau of Reclamation built Paradise.

The word Colorado means red. So named by the Spanish explorers who discovered a much darker, more turbid and warmer river. Indeed, the abrasive power of its silt-laden water helped make the Grand Canyon what it is today.

But improving on nature is an American tradition.

At the Glen Canyon Dam Visitors Center you are informed that the dam was constructed “to benefit ecosystems and communities downstream …” That they made the Colorado run “cold and clear … so all can benefit.”

But other federal employees — rangers at nearby Grand Canyon National Park — complain that since the Colorado turned “cold and clear,” native fish and other species have gone missing and the ecology of the canyon floor has changed dramatically.

A small price to pay for progress, perhaps.

Because Lake Powell is itself a marvel of nature … or rather of artifice.

Flooding 185 miles of canyons has spawned a multibillion-dollar tourism trade. Marinas now host luxury house boats every bit as grand as any yacht tied up in Fort Lauderdale.

And then there’s Page. Built in the 1950s to house dam construction workers, it now sprouts hotels, resorts and luxury villas.

And a manicured emerald green golf course. And lush grass lawns and mediums. All fed by sprinklers that run in the middle of the day.

In the middle of the desert.

Since the turn of the millennium the Southwest has endured a drought of near biblical proportions. America’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Powell to the east of the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead to the west — are less than half full and falling fast.

As famous as the Colorado may be, it’s equally infamous for the stresses placed upon it due to over-allocation, overuse, and more than a century of manipulation,” says American Rivers, the monitoring group that has designated the Colorado America’s most endangered river. “Following decades of wasteful water management policies and practices, demand on the river’s water now exceeds its supply.”

Yes, more water is now taken out of the Colorado than goes in. It is the law of diminishing returns in action.

Four centuries ago, Coronado ventured into the great southwestern desert in search of the legendary Seven Cities of Gold. He came up, well, dry, because cities could not exist in such arid conditions.

Today the Cities of Gold all have names: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and more. All are growing and all fight for more of the Colorado’s diminishing supply.

Throw in competing demands of the region’s multi-billion dollar agriculture and tourism industries, and America’s hardest working river is also its most litigated.

And what will happen when the Colorado is expected to feed, not 36 million people, but 40 million? Fifty million?

John Wesley Powell told us this would happen. In 1869 the great scientist and Colorado River explorer warned: “You are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights because there is not sufficient water to supply the land.”

Powell was booed down. But long after he was safely dead, they did name a reservoir in his honor.

Talk about adding insult to injury. Powell would have been appalled.

Perhaps in the end we are destined to join other civilizations that briefly flourished in this dry, arid and ultimately unsustainable landscape.

And the Colorado will once again run wild and free and untamed.

Just another ride

Things I saw on my ride today from Micco to Sebastian, Fl. Suffice it to say it’s a happening place.

Wanted to make a phone call but she just kept talking and talking

What can I say? He’s hooked.

The route to the brewery and back. If you even want to come back.

Sometimes you go down some strange roads in search of a beer.

Not sure what to make of this. Either someone’s got a really bizarre sense of humor or you can literally get away with murder if you are in the agritourism business in Florida.

There are times when your mouth can really get you into big trouble.

Her name was Rosie. His name was Gus. Gus Gator. They were made for each other.

Signs of the times.

A short walk off a long pier.

Birds of a feather. And Karen.

The regular people play at the Hardback Cafe.

Rumor has it that you can’t eat just one.

Ah Venice redux

Continuing our armchair travels in these home-bound times of coronavirus. Recalling a few days in Venice before things really went to hell.

In the spring of 2014 Jill and I stopped for a few days in Venice on our way home from Croatia. Never did get to climb out of a sewer in St. Marks Square while being chased by religious fanatics and rats, like Indiana. But it was still fun.

We quickly learned that if you want to see anything worthwhile, like the great cathedral at St. Marks, you had to do it early in the morning, before the cruse ships discharged their armies of walking zombies. After that it was all elbows akimbo.

On the other hand, you could jump aboard one of the water taxis and spend the rest of the day exploring the outer islands in the lagoon. Few cruise shippers chose to spend their off day ashore afloat, oddly, so the outer islands were beautiful and uncrowned.

Legend has it that Travis McGee initially wanted to berth in Venice. But they told him the Busted Flush wasn’t up to code.

Oddly, I’ve been to Venice twice. Once as a 19-year old sailor, and once just a few years ago. Still haven’t been on a gondola. It’s rather like paying that guy to pole you across the River Styx.

Murano Island was a riot of color. Colorful buildings competing with colorful boats.

Walking through Venice at night is the most seductive exercise imaginable.

I have to wonder if Venice masks are selling out now that we’re all, you know, wearing masks.

“We’re lost in a masquerade.” Leon Russell.

If Venice were run by a Gainesville council we would all be complaining about the leakage.

What could be better than hanging your socks out on a balcony that’s been around for 200 years?

Lions and babies and nymphs oh my!

What’s the difference between Venice Italy and Venice Florida? You can ride a bicycle in Venice Florida.

This was the Golden Age of Venice, before the floods put everything under water.

“Spill the wine, dig that girl.” Eric Burden.

The opportunity to quietly stroll St. Marks Square in uninterrupted solitude is disturbed only by the cruise ship debarkation schedule.

No to homophobia. No to the mafia. Signs of the times.

“One of the things I like about Venice is that it’s so safe for me to walk.” Julie Christie said in “Don’t look Now” (a slasher flick disguised as an art house film) just before everything went to, um, shreds.

They say that cockroaches will ultimately inherit the world. But I’m not ruling out pigeons.

On the other hand, if Disney had built it there would be moving sidewalks.

On the plus side, they’re not in danger of running out of water any time soon.

Two years of smoke and fire

Burn Down This World

By Tina Egnoski

A book review

Celeste Leahy circa 1972 crashed a Florida Blue Key banquet with Betty Friedan, performed guerrilla theater on University Avenue with the Vietnam Veterans Against The War…and made Molotov cocktails with her friends.

Celeste circa 1998 lives in a house on the St. John’s River with her teenage son, works at dead end jobs…and positions goddess figurines at her window to ward off the wildfires that are sweeping through Florida in that meanest season.

These two iterations of the same woman, separated by 26 years, might never have reconciled one to another had not big brother Reid – nomadic poet and an almost mythical figure in family lore – suddenly reappeared in Celeste’s life to rake up long suppressed regrets and recriminations.

“Burn Down This World,” by Tina Egnoski, is an intimate examination of one woman’s unfulfilled life set against an backdrop of heat, smoke, riots and smoldering resentments.

Some of the heat still radiates from three days of rage at the University of Florida, when Celeste and other anti-war protestors clashed with police and national guardsmen. (“I had a rock in each hand when the first tear gas canister lobbed over our heads…The gas entered my throat and I couldn’t breathe.”)

Author Egnoski was not on campus during the riot years, having attended and graduated UF in the 1980s. Much of the history and background for her novel was accumulated while she worked as a UF librarian.

Longtime residents may appreciate the book for its glimpses of campus and Gainesville life circa 1972, when students combed Micanopy cow pastures for mushrooms and got high at the Halloween ball. This when they weren’t cursing Richard Nixon or occupying then-President Stephen C. O’Connell’s office. (“When O’Connell finally opened his office door, he looked haggard.”)

In her campus days, Celeste recalls “the place to drink was Rathskeller. The beer there was cheap and cold.” Then there was the time “We went to see Mudcrutch” and “instantly developed crushes on Mike Campbell and Tom Petty.”

But “Burn Down This World,” is less an anti-war morality tale than a human-scale drama about how an impetuous act of sibling betrayal derailed a young life seemingly full of possibilities – consigning an adoring younger sister to a pale imitation of the existence she had envisioned for herself.

Instead of leaving UF with a degree and opportunities, Celeste would return home beaten and bruised, having been arrested and expelled. Meanwhile her brother hit to road, eventually to gain celebrity as the “voice of his generation.”

“I didn’t want to know how my mother felt” Celeste muses upon returning in disgrace. “I couldn’t take one teaspoon of her pain onto the gallons of pain I carried.”

When her absent brother finally does reappear, it is during that long hot, terrible summer when conflagrations forced the evacuation of entire counties. Celeste’s mother is in the early stages of dementia, her son is withdrawn and resentful…and suddenly Reid is once again the center of everyone’s universe.

“I said a silent and stupid prayer to the goddesses. Were they powerful enough to bring an end to both the fires and my anger at Reid?”

Egnoski tells this story of campus riots, raging fires and one woman’s inner turmoil in sparse prose and straightforward fashion. It is a quick read and all the more satisfying for it.

(“Burn Down This World” is published by Adelaide Books and sells for $22.30 paperback and $7.99 e-book edition.)

Jane Fonda speaks at the University of Florida, 1971

About the author

In “Burn Down This World” protagonist Celeste arrives at the University of Florida in the fall of 1971, having “missed the candlelight march to President Stephen O’Connell’s house after the Kent State shootings” as well as “Jane Fonda at Graham Pond.”

As it happens, Tina Egnoski, author of “Burn This World Down,” missed all of that as well. She graduated from UF more than a decade later, in 1983. But while working at the UF library, Egnoski came across a photograph of “Hanoi” Jane Fonda holding her anti-war rally at UF. And she began to conceive a story line that would ultimately connect the campus riots of 1972 to the Florida wildfires of 1989.

“I didn’t live here at the time of the fires,” she recalls. “My mother did, and she ended up having to evacuate. I wanted to have these two kind of threatening stories (campus unrest and fires) happening parallel to each other…this sense of danger building.”

Like her troubled protagonist, Egnoski grew up in the Melbourne area. Like Celeste she was also a military brat, the daughter of an Air Force careerist. But there the similarities pretty much end. Egnoski grew up with sisters and had no great sibling rivalry in her life.

“When I was working in the archives I helped history professor Sam Proctor go through a lot of old photos. That was when I was first introduced to the history of the university.

“I was attracted to the ‘70s because that’s when I came of age. And when I saw the picture of Jane Fonda, I thought ‘that’s so cool,’ and the idea (for the book) began to surface in my mind.”

Egnoski lives in Rhode Island, but she briefly returned to Gainesville in 2014 to finish researching her novel. In “Burn This World Down,” she said “I was trying to tell two coming of age stories” a quarter of a century apart.

“At 18 Celeste gets thrown out of UF and sent back into a life she was trying to get away from,” Egnoski said. “She doesn’t really grow emotionally the way she would if she had stayed away. The second coming of age is years later, when she finally has to let go of her past.

“I remembered the Jane Fonda” appearance and the events that followed. “That whole conflict was so rife with history that I wanted to relate it to a personal history. I wanted to have this sibling relationship and I wanted this event that pulled them apart for 25 years.

“It was too good to pass up. Just three days changed everything” in Celeste’s life.

That time in Iceland

Looking back to the time before Covid, it’s amazing to think about how casually we made decisions and plans and then flew off to the far corners of the Earth.

One day in 2013 a few friends were having a few beers at Swamphead Brewery, and somehow the talk turned to places we haven’t been and always wanted to go.

And the next thing you know about a dozen of us were in Iceland for New Year’s Eve.

Quite amazing, really.

They take their snow very seriously in Iceland.

But that’s about the only thing they take seriously.

Oh, they take their statues quite seriously as well.

Grim and foreboding images indeed.

As though possessed by the very soul of unremitting winters in a land where the sun never shines for very long.

Which is not to say that there are not exceptions.

Reykjavik is a lovely provincial seaport.

A quirky mixture of Gothic and frivolity.

With some surprisingly contemporary architecture thrown in.

In Iceland the Blue Lagoon is not a movie about lost teenagers on a tropical island. Rather it is a hedonistic dip in a volcano-heated reservoir where one goes to sip wine and slather mud on one’s face.

Indeed, one can hardly walk around this land of ice and fire without having to sidestep vents of steam escaping from the ground.

Or raging torrents of water.

Or frozen blue glaciers.

It is an unstable land of grinding plates and erupting earth.

And remote, desolate landscapes.

That require monster trucks to get the tourists from here to there and back again.

They will take you to see tiny horses. Who were brought here by the Vikings….after they stole them from the Mongols.

Or tiny fishing villages where they will teach you to repair nets.

They are very proud of their Viking heritage.

They also take their fireworks seriously.

Very seriously indeed.

As seriously as their New Year’s Eve bonfires.

Quite an amazing land in the middle of nowhere North Atlantic Ocean.

This land of hospitality.

This land of ice.

And fire.

Oh the places we’ve been

Now that we’re all more or less armchair travelers it’s fun to reflect upon the places we’ve been before things went to hell. Who knows, maybe we’ll get there again one day.

Oh what a great cycling city. And a surprisingly vital metropolis for a town whose motto is “It’s not cold all the time.”

Speaking of cold. Reykjavik in December is both cold and dark. But it’s an amazingly artsy town to wander around in. ‘Course you’ve got to mind your footing because the sidewalks can be quite slippery.

True story. I once sat across the table from my son in a Castro District restaurant and casually remarked “This is a great city, I believe I could live here.” He went pale. Maybe the first time I ever shocked the kid. He’d come all the way across the country to get away from home.

The Andy Warhol museum, the Steelers and fire hose art that looks like a skyscraper. What’s not to like?

One day a week a stretch of Thames riverfront becomes a massive used book buyers paradise. Plus 007.

It’s not just the giant spider, although that’s pretty cool. A world class arts museum and a canal system that turns into a giant ice skating highway in the winter.

Flights are regularly canceled due to low lying fog. But once you get here and the sun comes out it’s quite lovely. And quirky; hence the drooping light poles.

As Bob Dylan said “I’m going back to New York City I do believe I’ve had enough.” This after being lost in Juarez in the rain and it’s Easter time too.

The Dalmatians are haunting. The architecture ranges from Ancient Greek to Napoleonic French (depending on which empire was occupying which island at the time). And the blue haired lady standing sentry over a medieval village alleyway was just the icing on the cake.

Remembering Florence

When you’ve been spending a lot of time home-bound in these COVID-19 times, you begin to think about the places you’ve been and wondering if you’ll ever go there again. In 2014 my wife and I visited Florence, and I’d hate to think that I’ll never go back. So here are some Firenze impressions for the armchair traveler.

It is popular to admire the Arno. It is a great historical creek with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around. It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it. They all call it a river, and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines. They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it. I do not see why they are too good to wade. Mark Twain

And when I thought of Florence, it was like a miracle city embalmed and like a corolla, because it was called the city of lilies and its cathedral, St. Mary of the Flowers.” – Marcel Proust

Through these old streets I wander dreamily. Around me Florence sweeps her busy tide of life. William Leighton

Everything about Florence seems to be colored with a mild violet, like diluted wine. Henry James

In Paris, you learn wit, in London you learn to crush your social rivals, and in Florence you learn poise. Virgil Thomas

In America, Walt Disney opened an amusement park.
And in Florence, someone was savaging the remnants of a Tuscan nobleman’s family. Chris Bohjalian

Tonight I watched the sun set at Ponte Vecchio. I think its safe to say I have finally found the place that feels right to me. I just can’t believe I had to come halfway across the world to find it. Jenna Evans Welch

Whether it was a street artist showing off his work or an old Italian man playing the accordion, something new caught my eye each day as I explored the city. Emily Kearns

Rejoice, Florence, seeing you are so great that over sea and land you flap your wings, and your name is widely known in Hell! Dante

The stones are infused with history and culture and knowledge: I feel it. I feel the presence of generations, I feel the weight of giants. Emily Kyle

Firenze is magnetic, romantic and busy. Its urban fabric has hardly changed since the Renaissance, its narrow streets evoke a thousand tales, and its food and wine are so wonderful the tag ‘Fiorentina’ has become an international label of quality assurance. Lonely Planet

Sure, Florence is touristy. But where else can you stroll the same pedestrian streets walked by Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Botticelli while savoring the world’s best gelato? Rick Steve

We are fortunate: Florence isn’t just the cradle of art—it is a city that celebrates the art of living well. National Geographic

A poet in Florida

I learned that Shakespeare really lived

so scholars have decided.

Though quite a few have studied me

they’re not as sure that I did.

Peter Meinke

This is a piece I wrote for FORUM, a publication of Florida Humanities. It appears in the summer 2020 issue.

Memo to scholars: Peter Meinke lives, thank you very much. And there is an impressive body of work to back up the essential heartbeat of his literary existence.

Start with 18 volumes of poems and short stories produced over the span of half a century. Throw in frequent submissions published in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Poetry…and not to forget Creative Loafing, the St. Petersburg leisure magazine for which Meinke writes a column about…well, life, the university and pretty much whatever else pops into his head.

All this followed up by then-Gov. Rick Scott appointing Meinke Florida’s Poet Laurette.

For which appointment, Meink has written, he did not receive the traditional “barrel of sherry the way the English poets did.” But it was quite an honor nonetheless.

Oh, and did we mention that, to top it all off, the Florida Council for The Humanities has selected Meinke as the latest recipient of its Lifetime Literary Award For Writing?

“One of my childish first thoughts was, how happy my mother would have been!,” said Meinke about receiving the news. “She was crazily proud of my being a writer.”

Not bad for a late starter who set out early in life to be a poet but would have settled for a career in baseball.

Poetry won out, as it happens, but his was far from an smooth career trajectory.

In 1950, when he graduated from Mountain Lakes High School, in New Jersey, his school yearbook predicted: “Peter Meinke: Wants to be: Writer. Probably Will be: Censored.”

“That sounded good to me,” he recalls.

Still, 15 years and a decade’s accumulation of rejection slips would grind by before a Meinke poem “In Gentler Times,” would garner first prize in the Olivet Sonnet Competition, which happened to be judged by W. D. Snodgrass.

‘This was inspiring for two reasons,” he recalls. “I loved Snodgrass’s book “April Inventory,” and”I remember feeling that however I’d be judged from then on, I was a writer.”

In 1966, Meinke moved to St. Petersburg to start a creative writing program at Florida Presbyterian College, later to rebrand as Eckerd College. He would remain on faculty for 27 years until his retirement.

And now, 70 years beyond high school, the 87-year-old poet reflects, “there’s something so final about receiving the Florida Humanities Lifetime Literary Award for Writing. I don’t exactly feel finished, but more like having completed a marathon. It’s very satisfying.”

Previous honorees have included such Florida literary luminaries as Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, Patrick Smith, Randy White, Mike Gannon, Enid Shomer and Jeff Klinkenberg. “The dignity and reputation of the Council and the quality of the writers chosen over the years, give the award a gravitas that surprised me,” he said.

Steven M. Seibert, executive director of the Humanities Council said that when this year’s selection committee’s discussion “turned to Peter, it grasped how influential his work has been. This influence isn’t just felt on St. Petersburg, where he’s been a longtime resident and an invaluable teacher to innumerable writers, but across and beyond our state.

“Bestowing the Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing is another way to once again remind thousands of Floridians about Peter Meinke’s incredible body of work.”

Meaning (call it M3) is the increasingly invisible

odorless, tasteless element in our universe long ago

slipped by someone’s god into our water…..

Peter Meinke, “M3”

Like most Americans in these perilous times, Meinke greeted the spring by hunkering down in his home, waiting out the coronavirus, with his wife, Jeanne, an artist and frequent collaborator.

“As an older person who happens to be a poet, I am very moved by the number of friends and neighbors who have called to check on how Jeanne and I are doing, asking can they help in any way,” he says. “They think, correctly, that poets and artists aren’t very practical, and haven’t stocked up on anything useful.

Ah, but what a house of refuge his is! Although they have traveled the world, the Meinkes always return to their beloved if aging cottage (“the plumbing system just collapsed”) situated on two-thirds of an acre in the heart of St. Petersburg close to downtown.

“It’s very lush, with five or six live oak trees and a couple of fruit trees, totally shaded,” he said. “We both love this house and the kids (two sons and two daughters, all grown now) would never let us sell it. And we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

The house provides “a sense of place that is very real. It has roots like a good poem.”

Speaking of which, although Meinke writes frequently about faith, politics, everyday life and so on he has refrained so far from writing about the virus that has been sweeping the world.

Rather, he has spent much of his time reading “The Mirror and the Light,” the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. And he highly recommends it: “The trilogy may carry you all the way through this pandemic.”

He also has been reflecting on the lessons from Daniel Defoe’s “Journal Of The Plague Year.”

“There were some similarities,” he said. “It came over to London from Holland as coronavirus came from China. It was played down by authorities as it swept through one neighborhood after another, and its most awful effects hit the poor, as the rich ran to their country houses, taking their doctors with them.

“Those are some thoughts I’m having,” he continues. “I haven’t written anything about coronavirus really. That will come later, if I’m lucky.”

The apple I see and the apple

I think I see and the apple

I say I see

are at least three

different apples…

Meinke “Apples.”

To be sure these are strange times in which to be a poet. In an era when leaders and celebrities communicate to the world in 280-character tweets, is there still a place for the poet, long-form or short-form?

“Some writers think that Americans no longer can read long books,” he muses. “And because of the tweeting there are poets who sometimes think Americans can’t read long poems.

“I do think that one of the problems with poetry is that even though they are shorter than novels you can’t speed read poems. You’ve got to linger over poems, and people aren’t used to doing that. You have to take a poem bit by bit.”

On the other hand “poetry is the kind of reading that, if you like it. you will always read it more than once. You’ll read it over, and then you read something else into it.

“People always say to poets ‘why didn’t you say what you mean?’ Well, you sort of mean a lot of things. I like the idea that poems have more than one level. It makes more interesting when you read it again.”

And that’s certainly true. Consider Meinke’s poem “Elephant Tusks”…“which we grind down into dice and key, earring and toothpick to capture the spirit of the elephant….” At first blush it reads as a condemnation of our crass consumer-obsessed culture. On further consideration one may read in it an almost spiritual reflection on the sheer weight of everyday living: “the huge stomping of elephant shakes the floor until the roof collapses.”

The trick is to live your days

as if each one may be your last…

…but at the same time, plan long range.

Meinke: Advice To My Son

“They know the poem,” says Meinke of his sons. “They’re good kids doing very well, now in their late fifties. One is the CEO of a chemistry conglomerate and the other works for USAID.

That poem, one of his most popular, “was just common sense. I didn’t start out to write any advice. It took me quite a while, with a lot of rewriting. I often let my poems sit for a while and the next week they always change.”

And that’s the thing about being a working poet that readers may not grasp. “If you want to be a poet you have to like rewriting,” he says. “I don’t think ‘this is finished.’ I think I have to work on it again today.

One definition of poetry, he says, is “The best words in the best order.

“And that’s the perfect advice for a writer…the best words in the best order.”

Looking toward his 88th year, Meinke acknowledges that he has “definitely slowed down…I certainly write less.” Still he has been finishing up another yet volume of poems.

“I believe that poets are citizens. They don’t have to write about everyday events, but over the course of life you ought to see what’s going on. You want people to be able to think big thoughts by reading a little poem.”

Because poetry, like life, ought to be constantly evolving and changing and shifting in previously unimaginable ways.

“Every morning I’ll look at the blank page feeling eager and uncertain,” he says. “Maybe I should start with ‘Hi Mom,’ and begin typing.”

Who’s sick of sonnets?  Iamb  Iamb…

Meinke

Discarded monuments

I originally wrote this piece in the summer of 2017, when I was traveling in Russia. It seems a good idea to revisit now that confederate monuments are coming down all across the U.S. Give the Russians credit where credit’s due. RC

Stalin’s got a busted nose.

Shattered in transit, it makes “Old Joe’s” legendary scowl even more pronounced.

His cold granite visage once stood sentinel at the Bolshoi. Now he resides in more humble digs – a leafy park near the banks of the Moscow River.

In truth, Stalin – let’s call him the Soviet Robert E. Lee – has nothing to smile about.

He is surrounded by a phalanx of grotesque figures – some kneeling, some writhing in pain, some with empty eyes and twisted mouths.

Collectively, they resemble nothing so much as demons of the fiery hell Old Joe has surely been consigned to.

And lest anyone forget the “heritage” this man wrought, just over Stalin’s left shoulder is a boxy, cage-like affair containing scores of stone heads – anguish written on each face.

“Victims to the Totalitarian Regime,” we are informed.

Not too far away, Lenin – we’ll call him Russia’s George Washington – enjoys somewhat more generous treatment. Behind him are large aluminum symbols of the USSR – a giant hammer and sickle, a colorful “CCCP.”

But even Lenin doesn’t get off scott-free in Art Muzeon Park – AKA the Park of Fallen Memorials.

Arrayed around him are four gaunt, painfully thin and twisted figures by the sculptor O.N. Garkushenko. One is titled “Descent Into Hell.”

In Muzeon, the gang’s all here. There is a bust of Brezhnev and a marble of Marx. Kosygin looks queasy, Serdlov dispeptic and Dzerzhinsky depressed.

Their proximity leaves little to interpretation – however well intended Lenin’s revolution, Russia’s 70-year experiment in Soviet communism went horribly awry.

Each is accompanied by a disclaimer: “This work is historically and culturally significant, being the memorial construction of the Soviet era, on the themes of politics and ideology.”

The Russians are nothing if not pragmatic.

And in Muzeon they can teach Americans something about how to memorialize people and events that many of us would just as soon forget.

I was visiting Russia when Charlottesville burned with rage, Trump excused the nazis and Gainesville said no to Richard Spencer’s bid for a University of Florida podium. Watching these events from afar, I searched for Russian parallels that might lend context to my own country’s current flirtation with the politics of racism, polarization and discontent.

Not many clues in St. Petersburg. That historic city on the Neve seems these days to be infatuated with all things Tsarist (from Ivan the terrible one to Peter and Catherine the great ones.)

The good and bad of it all being good for tourism, they say.

But Moscow is 400 miles and seemingly two centuries removed from Tsar Peter’s city. If there is anything like a mass infatuation in evidence, it is surely with Putin’s “strong” leadership. His stellar popularity polls must make The Donald green with envy.

Moscow, a bustling city of 12 million, is reinventing itself at warp speed. New money is everywhere – in modern glass skyscrapers, sleek sports cars and luxury condos. Grim, gray Kruschev-era apartments are being renovated to resemble Miami high-rises. Immigrants from breakaway republics flock there in search of jobs. And a baby-boom is afoot – helped along by generous government subsidies to encourage procreation,

After the fall of communism in 1992, Soviet statues and busts were torn down by the hundreds, mostly to be left in crumbling piles. But some have since been “rehabilitated” in Muzeon Park.

Not to be glorified, however.

Nor are they alone. And that is both the genius and the beauty of this park.

Muzeon is a sculpture garden, and Joe and Vladimir and the rest rank as little more than sideshows in the larger context of this magnificent public space.

Not 200 yards from Stalin is a serendipitous tribute to Old Man Mazoy, who, we are told, saved Russia’s rabbits by plucking them out of a flood with his rowboat. Within Lenin’s disapproving line of sight is Shtok’s “The Lying,” a graceful bronze nude shrugging off her nightgown.

Next to the aluminum Soviet symbols are hundreds of small statues in a cluster. Angels and bears and children, oh my. Some are cracked and flawed. Some whimsical. Some sobering.

And then there’s the giant hand.

Maybe it’s just me, but the giant hand seems to be waving a merry bye-bye to Old Joe and his gang of thugs.

Moscow does not believe in tears.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor for The Sun.