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November 3, 2005

Reframing McKinley


A few years ago I wrote about how the problem of having billions of ants in our house was easily resolved by simply "reframing" them. Instead of seeing them as loathsome vermin immune to every known means of extermination, we began to view them as vast hordes of personal maids, fastidiously cleaning up every speck of Dorito and smidge of marmalade we spilled.

photoillustration of Arcata's McKinley statue holding a frameMiraculously, it worked. Instead of tearing our hair out, we began to smile with benign affection whenever we came upon a writhing mass of our little servants engrossed in their housework. The ants, sensing we were taking advantage of them and resenting that we weren't providing health insurance, soon vacated the premises.

Now I see that once again the statue of William McKinley on the Arcata Plaza is causing some residents to squirm with indignation. They feel he left a legacy of war, oppression and corporate greed, and should be sold, perhaps on eBay, to some other community that appreciates these qualities in a president. The local UPS outlet is in favor of this, because it would cost approximately $2 billion to ship the 26-ton statue, even more if the buyer wants two-day ground service.

I feel this is an unnecessary expense and would like to propose a simple solution. All we have to do is "reframe" McKinley: Pretend it's a statue of someone else, some noble person of impeccable character who just happens to look exactly like McKinley.

It's common knowledge that somewhere on Earth we each have somebody who looks enough like us to be our twin. A lot of people make a healthy living impersonating someone famous, from Albert Einstein to Barney Fife. I myself have a double who happens to live in Humboldt County, although I seriously doubt he's going to make any money off it. My wife saw him hanging around the gazebo in Old Town Eureka a few years ago and, thinking he was me, snuck up behind him and pinched his butt. When she explained her mistake, they both laughed about it until he tried to kiss her, claiming she was a dead ringer for his girlfriend. She didn't buy it.

But I digress. Let us go back 100 years to San Francisco and imagine young Armenian sculptor Haig Patigian as he goes about fulfilling his commission to make a statue of the recently assassinated McKinley. Ideally, Bill would have been available to pose for Patigian, but that's not an option. The second choice would be to work from photographs of McKinley striking that diplomatic pose -- his right hand extended in friendship, his left hand clutching a declaration of war on some easily oppressed country, after which he can dish out immense rebuilding contracts to his fat-cat cohorts. But, sadly, no photos of this particular stance are available.

Patigian is under intense pressure. He knows the great earthquake of 1906 is on its way and he wants to finish the statue so UPS can ship it and he can get the hell out of town. Returning to his studio after a crab sandwich lunch on Fisherman's Wharf, he encounters a street performer whose similarity to McKinley is uncanny. The man's act consists of standing perfectly still until you put a dime in the hat at his feet, whereupon he delivers McKinley's first State of the Union address, in which the former president proposes that his nephew be granted the ambassadorship to Belize. They strike a deal: The man agrees to pose for Patigian in exchange for a year's supply of Ghirardelli chunk-style dark chocolate.

As Patigian sculpts, they chat. The man's name is Alphonzo Bambino. He's a vegan environmentalist advocate of nonviolence who spends his spare time planting apple trees, reading to blind children and organizing fundraisers for victims of Hurricane Katrina. When his modeling job is done, Bambino feels remorseful for negotiating all that chocolate for himself and instead donates it to Habitat for Humanity, keeping only enough to supply treats for the 16 multicultural orphans he has adopted and put through med school.

Later in his life, Bambino founds an international organization called Doctors Without Borders and spends years as a medical missionary in Africa. After that he devotes himself to working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. "Ask not what the world can do for you," he is fond of saying. "Ask what you can do for the world. In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. All we are saying is give peace a chance. I have a dream."

Bambino dies when, after saving the occupants of a retirement home from their burning building, he re-enters the inferno in an attempt to rescue Petey, Ruby Bugbee's parakeet. (Petey is found afterwards safely perched in a tree with his cuttlebone tucked under a wing, saying, "What? What?!")

So. We don't need to get rid of the statue. It's been estimated that to do so would cost $34 million and leave behind an unsightly hole in which a knot of plazoids would undoubtedly set up a percussion section. Instead, let's just change the plaque on the pedestal to read, "ALPHONZO BAMBINO -- BELOVED HUMANITARIAN." It has been calculated that it would cost only $75,000 to $100,000 of city staff time to figure out how to obtain an Environmental Impact Report to allow this, plus an additional $79.95 for the plaque.

It would be well worth it. Because the next time anti-McKinleyites gaze upon that lofty bronze visage, they won't see the 25th president of the United States and feel outraged. They will see Bambino and feel all warm and fuzzy. I know I will.

Rick St. Charles has lived in Arcata and Bayside for 20 years. His most prized possession is a bust of Alphonzo Bambino, which he stumbled upon at a garage sale for 25 cents. He is willing to part with it for $2.5 million.

Read the history of Arcata's McKinley statue, "What's that statue doing there?' by George Ringwald, originally published in the North Coast Journal, September, 1992.


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