Finding the Story

June 15, 2018

Tags: apple orchards, pesticide contamination, organic orchards, New York State apple orchards, crab apples

Crimson Crisp Certified Organic Apples at Westwind Orchards in Accord, New York
I’ve never worked in a deadline newsroom but I’ve always had feature editors who glaze over during a pitch and insist upon finding the story fast. Where’s the story? they ask skeptically, which is their job. In workshop, I call “finding the story” the armature, which is more than the theme or motif; it’s the infrastructure, the deep meaning of the work. Even a longer narrative has an armature, though there may be more than one. Still, all armatures must be linked if the work is to be viable and coherent.

Not a segue exactly, but I’ve been following the story of apples in New York State, and trying to find the story so that I can write something about them. I love apples, eat at least one a day as my physician mother taught me, and have been known to eat them top to bottom, core included. No more. If the apple is not organic, please note: the core is a receptacle for pesticide.

I thought this was going to be a benign and happy topic for me, a respite from all the terrible news, but it’s not; it’s connected to all the callous disregard we are experiencing right now—for the environment, for world peace, for desperate immigrants and their children spilling over our borders.

Already, I digress from my stated armature. The mind wanders. Let me begin again here:

The euphoria of living opposite an apple orchard in a converted apple cooler has worn off. When we first arrived in late March there was still snow on the ground and a couple of mornings a week I got out my ski poles and walked a road into the orchard, around the orchard, and through the orchard. Because I spotted a house on top of the rise, a house with swings and two cars, I penned a heartfelt letter asking permission to walk into the orchard and left it with the tenants to give to the owner. I never heard back; perhaps they knew my request would be moot once I found the armature of my apple story. (Please see my still innocent blog post of April 23rd.)

I kept walking into the orchard for a while, without permission. I carried a plastic bag and picked up debris. I found a hawk’s feather, said good morning to the ground hogs and crows.(I even love the crows, I have decided.) And then the snow melted and it was spring and no sooner was it spring than I heard a roaring sound and saw a spray truck spitting pesticide or fungicide into the trees. Several evenings a week.

I contacted the farmer:

“What kind of chemicals are you using?” No reply.

I contacted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (Region 3):

“Are farmers allowed to spray conventional pesticide or fungicide in their orchards?”

“Yes. They are controlled. We inspect, but yes.”

I contacted the Ulster County Department of Health:

“Is there any evidence that the pesticides from this apple orchard have leached into the ground water? We have two wells on this property and the apple orchard has been spraying for decades."

“Absolutely not. That well water is clean as a whistle.”

A whistle? Really?

Now here’s the dilemma, one among many: I am both a citizen and a reporter, an observer and a participant. I have to get the facts, digest the facts, and respond to them. And one of the facts is this: the apple business is big business in New York State. The growers may want to “go organic,” but it’s difficult; it takes seven years to be certified once the going organic process starts. What’s more, except for crab apples, other varieties are not indigenous to North America ; they were brought in by immigrants, by settlers. And with their arrival came disease. There are natural defenses against these diseases, but pesticides are more “efficient.” More than likely, the apple you are eating right now is loaded with them. Peel the skin. Don’t eat the core.

Most upsetting is the realization that the degradation of our environment is self-inflicted, that it continues apace, and that our efforts to respond to climate change and the use of harmful chemicals must also continue apace so that all the apples our descendants eat will be as clean as a whistle.

That’s the story.

Sunsets

June 9, 2018

Tags: addiction, recovery, artistic sensibilities, drug & alcohol abuse

Sunset over the Shawangunks © copyright by Carol Bergman 2018
I needed a long, solitary walk to clear thoughts of mental illness and suicide from my writer’s brain. Writers are sponges and the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death, the eulogies, the news loop; I had to turn off the TV. These two high-profile suicides—Spade and Bourdain-- were reminders of the daunting challenge of trying to help those near and dear who are suffering. We all know someone. We may be that someone.

I walked past a horse farm where a stallion and a donkey share a shed. I called to them and they came up to the fence. Though I had no hay to offer, they allowed me to pet them. I immediately felt better.

Years ago, in London, a gifted Israeli playwright we knew, Naftali Yavin, “suffocated” in his sleep at the age of 36. That was the official report. As in the deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Yavin had abused drugs and alcohol. Were they used to medicate his despair, or did they exacerbate his despair, or did they cause his despair? And if he was overcome with melancholy, rage, or existential angst, why wasn’t his art enough to exorcise his demons? Why isn’t art ever enough to heal drug and alcohol induced brain changes? Because it isn’t. That is why addicts use the present tense, or the continuous present tense, when they refer to themselves in twelve-step meetings: I am an alcoholic, or I am a recovering addict. They never say: I’ve recovered.

Where was Bourdain in his recovery? Had he slipped? What will the autopsy reveal? How can we deter young artists—or chefs, who are artists—from using drugs? Is it realistic to hope that this is possible?

The Summertime Novelist

June 1, 2018

Tags: writers's groups, Adichie, mentoring writers, abandoned novels

Photo of the Lower Catskills © copyright by Carol Bergman, 2018
Once upon a time, a writing group friend told me I probably wasn’t a novelist. The qualifier “probably” didn’t help; it felt like a curse, one I was determined to defy, exorcise, or ignore. It was not a nice thing to say to a writer trying something new. It wasn’t a nice thing to say, period.

I have just finished reading a profile of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the current fiction issue of The New Yorker, and I am reminded that my experience was not unique. Adichie does not enjoy hanging out with other writers. And I paraphrase her strong words: the knives eventually come out. I don’t know if this is competitiveness, jealousy, or what it is. It’s certainly not helpful to tear a writer down in this way. Surely there are always passages of interest to discuss, something in the submitted pages that illuminates the writing process and the choices the writer has made to tell the story. The choices may have failed, but we all can learn from those failures and make constructive suggestions for improvements.

Since the curse befell me, I have written two novels—“Say Nothing & “What Returns to Us”, and two books of novellas—“Water Baby” & “Sitting for Klimt”—and though they have not sold in the quadruple digits, they were satisfying to me in the writing, publishing and modest sales. Now I am working on a third novel, one I drafted more than ten years ago and abandoned. Was it because of the curse? I am not sure. I am determined to make it work—by the end of the summer. That’s my goal. And though this may sound somewhat dilettantish—I do not work full time on fiction—I am primarily a nonfiction writer/journalist, it is not. I have been researching and attempting this novel for a very long time.

I don’t know if I’ll succeed and some days are hard, very hard. I don’t know how full-time novelists do it, in fact. Adichie likes to be in the place she is writing about and has homes in Nigeria and America. She’s married and has a new baby and has had to find time to write. I became a more disciplined writer once I had my daughter; necessity is the mother of re-inventing daily routines. Writers who don’t have children but work full-time have a similar challenge: how to carve out space in their lives to write.

Like many writers, Adichie also teaches, not to earn money—Adichie does not need to earn money from teaching—but to mentor. Mentoring is a valuable reminder to the more practiced and published writer that writing is effort and that effort is rewarded.

Wish me luck, dear reader, luck and fortitude, as I return to the pages of my abandoned historical novel set in colonial New York. Now that I have moved out of the city I have a different landscape to inspire me. And there’s the hawk feather I found in the apple orchard soon after I arrived. In days past, it might have been a quill pen. Now it sits in my pen jar as a talisman, silently encouraging me.


Philip Roth & Tom Wolfe, RIP

May 24, 2018

Tags: #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, Claire Bloom, misogyny, Women's Movement, The Great American Novel, Bellow, Updike, Roth, Mailer

"The sheer surprise of the Lindbergh nomination had activated an atavistic sense of being undefended. "

"A childhood milestone, when another’s tears are more unbearable than one’s own."

--Philip Roth, “The Plot Against America: A Novel,” 2004

“In this little room full of people he was suffering the pangs of men whose egos lose their virginity—as happens when they overhear for the first time a beautiful woman’s undiluted, full-strength opinion of their masculine selves.”

--Tom Wolfe, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” 1987

This blog post is dedicated to Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe who died this week, both in their 80’s. They were tireless writers, prescient writers. They wrote fiction and nonfiction, though Wolfe was primarily a journalist who wrote his novel “Bonfire of the Vanities” on a dare. All journalists eventually turn to fiction and harbor the ambition to write The Great American Novel, his friends said to him, sotto voce. Hubris ascendant, Norman Mailer had always said he would write The Great American Novel. Instead, he wrote “The Executioner’s Song,” a nonfiction book that used fictional devices to tell a story. Roth wrote a tongue in cheek, not very successful novel called "The Great American Novel," in 1973. It was about baseball.

Tom Wolfe found it difficult to relinquish interviewing and the scaffold of a real-life story, so he disciplined himself to produce a certain amount of words every week, and made an arrangement with Rolling Stone to serialize the book. That was unusual, strange and nerve-wracking. He vowed never to do it again. Think of Dickens, Trollope and other 19th century novelists writing to deadline, much like journalists, every week, book after book after book.

Roth had always written fiction, fiction that reads like nonfiction, and only occassionally wrote nonfiction. His setting was more often than not Newark, the city of his birth, and he created a persona, Nathan Zuckerman , a writer, to tell his richest stories. Yet, my favorites are non-Zuckerman novels, both masterpieces: “Nemesis” and “The Plot Against America,” which I reread this year. It was the One Book selection in several towns across America and for good reason; it is prescient indeed.

These days women are often offended by the old guard of white-American, sometimes misogynist male writers—Updike, Roth, Bellow, Mailer, etc. – men of the pre-women’s movement generation. And though we may wonder what women writers were doing for them, and with them, as they were getting published and becoming famous, these essential contemporary questions do not diminish the writers’ talent and accomplishments. Still, it's of interest that Roth's ex-wife, actress Claire Bloom, wrote a scathing memoir about her marriage to Roth, "Leaving a Doll's House," that paints the author as a self-centered misogynist. Her book faded into obscurity as his reputation soared. And is it fair and is it right? Fair, perhaps not. Right, absolutely. Books survive on their merit.

So, too, the work of Wharton, Hemingway and many others. Anti-semitism courses through Hemingway and Wharton like a mother lode. When I was young and came upon mindlessly cruel racial slurs, in the voice of the narrator or the character, I shut the book and tossed it aside. I was more than offended, I was terrified. But no longer: the times in which those writers lived were different times. With #Metoo and #BlackLivesMatter, we are now in the midst of another advancement in Civil Rights. Writers will digest these changes and use them in their work. I am certain that Roth and Wolfe, both astute observers of America, would have done the same had they lived another decade.

Buzz Cut

May 16, 2018

Tags: #MeToo, Feminist Fathers, Machismo, Military Men, Fathers & Daughters

My husband, Jim, hadn’t had time to get a haircut before we moved. It was long and looked unkempt, retro-hippie, which was not okay with him, even though we’d moved to a retro- hippieish town. But where to go? There was the barber shop on Main Street ($9 for students), closed Mondays, and a salon in the mall, so that’s where we went.

Jim gets along with just about everyone and toggles easily between high and low culture. His cutter was a guy so he began with guy talk. They called each other “buddy,” which is really retro. I sat and read my highbrow book, “Flowers of the Killer Moon,” by David Grann about the Osage murders on their oil-rich reservation in Oklahoma in the 1920’s. None of it was making me smile.

I looked up as the first skein of locks fell to the floor. The cutter had taken out the lawn mower when Jim said: “Short. I don’t want a haircut for a while.” So involved was he in conversation with the affable cutter that I don’t think he noticed that he was getting a buzz cut. For an instant I rose out of my chair, but it was too late, there was no stopping it. I suppressed a giggle.

The guy talk continued: Motorcycles segued to California, Route 101 and driving 165 miles an hour without a cop in sight. (The cutter boasting, not Jim.) Then I heard the word “daughters.” The cutter has four and they are mostly okay, he said. There is only one he’s wanted to hit over the years, but stopped himself. Now Jim nearly got out of his chair: “Think of what we do to ourselves when we hit our children,” he said, deadpan. I could see the cutter’s face drop: the guy talk was over.

When I first met Jim at UC-Berkeley he was in the Navy Reserve after serving his country for two years on a ship in the Seventh Fleet. Because he was going to Reserve meetings every week on Treasure Island, he had to keep his hair short. He looked spiffy in his Navy Whites and very buzzy, macho cut. What would he think of this one? What did I think? “You look like a cop,” I wanted to say, disapprovingly, but didn’t. I’d let our daughter assess the unplanned change in her dad’s appearance when we arrived at Mother’s Day celebrations on Sunday. I knew she'd be polite, encouraging, and loving to her tender, non-macho, feminist father.

Hugo the Huguenot

May 6, 2018

Tags: Historic Huguenot Street, New Paltz, Esopus Lenape, Doctrine of Discovery, Slavery in Colonial America

Photo courtesy Jennifer DuBois Bruntil
I met Jennifer DuBois Bruntil in the women’s locker room the first week I moved up to New Paltz. We’re both lap swimmers and I’d noticed that she has a smooth competitor’s stroke and mentioned that I ,too, had once been a competitive swimmer. I don’t do flip turns any more, nor do I rotate my head side to side to breathe, though I still love to swim. That was the beginning of our conversation.

Jennifer is a trained teacher who, at the time, was working at Historic Huguenot Street as the School Programming Coordinator. She lives in New Paltz with her family, not in the original farmhouse--they were dairy farmers--but in a house her grandfather built when he retired. However, to say she “lives,” in New Paltz is not accurate; her family has been anchored here for twelve generations. The DuBois name is everywhere in town.

I was intrigued and started to read everything I could about the history of New Paltz from the first Dutch settlements to the present day. Dear Reader, I went to the local library. There I found various books on the shelves, an archivist, a huge collection of memorabilia, and a link to 66 libraries in the Mid-Hudson Valley for loans.

As soon as I began to read, I wanted to know more:

What happened to the Esopus people? They were the First Americans to live here. Unlike the descendants of the Dutch, English and French Huguenot families who still reside in New Paltz, their history is mostly absent from a history of New Paltz photo book for sale at the library. Yet the Algonquin language the tribe (still) speaks is evident everywhere—the Esopus creek, the town of Esopus, Kerhonkson, and so much more.

The tribe was decimated by disease, enslaved by the Dutch “settlers,” pushed west into Wisconsin and Canada by the US government—a trail of tears—and by the time the Huguenots arrived, their numbers had diminished significantly, they were in survival mode and struck financially beneficial deals. By all accounts, they lived mostly peacefully with the Huguenot settlers who themselves had escaped persecution. It’s a complex, fascinating and troubling story that still resonates today.

“The subject of my town’s local history had been on my mind for a few reasons. For one, I am a descendant of the New Paltz Huguenots,” Jennifer DuBois Bruntil explains in an article she wrote for the Poughkeepsie Journal in December, 2016 to publicize her children’s book, “Hugo the Huguenot.”

Although Jennifer had never considered herself an author, the idea for the book began as a poem in her head in the middle of the night. She got up and wrote it all down, consulted friends, found a local illustrator, Matthew Kelly, and started to raise funds through Kickstarter. The book is charming, informative and, for the most part, historically responsible. More than a simple “congratulations on getting published” is due here. To her credit, Jennifer DuBois Bruntil has included four beautifully illustrated pages devoted to the Esopus presence on the land the Huguenots purchased. Missing, however, is any reference--even in the background illustrations-- to the African slaves in New Paltz. Yet, the history of slavery in New Paltz has been carefully documented by historians Eric Roth and Susan Stessin-Cohn in the Huguenot Historic Site's“register” of slaves (1799-1825). They write:

“Often overlooked is the fact that African slaves provided the town of New Paltz with an abundant supply of labor for use in the farms, mills, and homes during the town's first 150 years. The institution of slavery thus provided the Huguenots and their descendants with much of the labor upon which to build their communities, prosperity, and longevity.”

The register is fascinating to read:

https://www.hrvh.org/cdm/ref/collection/hhs/id/718

Few families in Colonial America, including the Jews in New York and our Founding Fathers, remained innocent as the barbarity of the slave trade intensified. Either they owned slaves themselves, were complicit in the “legalization” of the institution, or succumbed to the temptation of free labor.

Jennifer DuBois Bruntil has ended her modest children’s book with the arrival of the Huguenots in America, before they purchased slaves themselves. A sequel would undoubtedly have to include all this subsequent, disturbing history explained simply, but honestly, to young readers. During the educational tours at the Huguenot Historic Site, students are taken to different "stations" where they find out about the Esopus at one station, and family life, including slaves, at another. None of the local history is ignored. And during the summer months, SUNY New Paltz Professor Joseph Diamond supervises students as they dig for artifacts left by the settlers, the Native Americans, and slaves, in front of the DuBois Fort, the Esopus Wigwam, and elsewhere in the carefully preserved, landmarked area. This year he hopes to excavate part of the road. I plan to stop by to observe their progress and will report again in another blog post. Stay tuned.

***

“Hugo the Huguenot” is available online or at the Huguenot Historic Site gift shop in the Fort:

https://historic-huguenot-street-museum-shop.myshopify.com/products/hugo-the-huguenot

















Defying Stereotypes

April 29, 2018

Tags: sterotypes, prejudice, ethno-centrism, world peace, inter-personal conflict, war

The closer we live to the center attached only to what is familiar--family, neighborhood, religion, nation-- the more narrow our lives. The "other" becomes a threat.
"What is familiar tends to become a value."

-- Gordon W. Allport in “The Nature of Prejudice”


Professor Allport’s theory of concentric circles captivated me during my first year of college. It was more than a shallow impression; it became deep and lasting. Puddles rippling outward amplify tolerance. The smaller the circle, the closer to the center we live, the more prejudiced we act and feel.

I have carried Allport’s theory of prejudice with me all my adult life and thought of it often in various circumstances. It is probably one of the reasons I became an ever-curious reporter. I made a decision to broaden my experiences beyond my narrow upbringing, to live abroad, and to remain compassionate and open to everyone’s stories.

Reading Allport’s now-classic study, I was, at first, searching for an understanding of the genocide that killed my family. I never fully turned his theory on myself and my own prejudices and values.

But sometimes I am tested at unexpected moments, which is what happened last week when I went to get a new watch strap for my NYU 20-year watch. I’m living in a university town in upstate NY, a blue “liberal” enclave in the midst of a red county. My circle of reference has shifted; I can no longer assume cosmopolitan ideas, values and politics close to my own. In search of a watch strap, I found the rest of America.

A friendly woman at the family-owned drug store referred me to a jewelry shop down the road. I was greeted by a sweet spaniel puppy and a smooth-skinned man with a limp. We chatted, I said I’d just moved to town, he said he’d recently moved out of town because he didn’t like what was happening here. I didn’t press him further about what exactly was happening because his bitterness was obvious and I am excited about our recent move out of the city.

He didn’t have the strap, it wasn’t in stock, so I placed an order and left.

The return visit took longer, a woman was in front of me, so I had to wait. I began to look around. Rifleman magazines were on the table and there were several newspaper clippings on the wall, some framed under glass, some pinned. Crimes and executions. I remembered that the smooth-skinned man with a limp had moved “deep into the woods,” and my imagination clicked over: he’s militia, or worse. He doesn’t like New York intellectuals or government officials, maybe he doesn’t like Jews, either, certainly he doesn’t like anyone of color, or Native Americans. If he’d lived in the post-Civil War South, he might have been involved in lynchings. I took these truths I had created to be self-evident.

I tried to slow down and figure out what was scaring me apart from the very thought of guns. Surely there was one behind the counter. This was a jewelry shop! But scariest of all was the vision of myself—the liberal, progressive cosmopolitan me dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase—through this man’s eyes. What was he seeing? What were his thoughts? I had to ask.

“Were you in the armed forces?”

“No, sadly. I tried to sign up during Vietnam, went up to Albany with a buddy, but I have high-frequency hearing loss. My buddy got in and came home in a box. I became a cop.”

“That’s a sad story about your friend, but you served in your own way. My husband was in the Seventh Fleet. He didn’t see any action.”

Pause. A smile surfacing, mine and his.

Whereupon we sequed into complaints about the Veteran’s Administration, Agent Orange, injured veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and what we owe the men and women who serve.

Oh frabjous day, we were in complete agreement, we’d found another touching point. Still, I wasn’t satisfied. NRA member, he must be a completely bad man, right? Wrong.

When I got home, I googled my friendly neighborhood jeweler and found out that he’d recently engraved ID bands for local Alzheimer’s patients and been honored by the community for his donation and service.



Good Morning Sparrow

April 23, 2018

Tags: New Paltz, NY, Ulster County apple orchards, Wallkill River, Riverkeeper, Wallkill Alliance


My city Facebook friends are posting photos of spring blossoms in Central Park, Prospect Park and Fort Tryon Park. But it is still in the 30’s in the mornings in the Lower Catskills and spring has not yet fully arrived. On one of our first mornings here, I found a steep road into an apple orchard, and snapped photos of buds, but they have not opened. Red tailed hawks, falcons, and an eagle or two sail on the updrafts searching for prey. The crows and sparrows stay closer to ground level, the groundhogs scamper in and out of their dens. There is abundant visible wildlife whenever I step outside; earth day is every day in this mountainous region. Plastic bags are not permitted in the shops, the local antique barn has a solar roof, the Wallkill Alliance is working with Riverkeeper to clean up the Wallkill River that flows through the town, a reminder of how improvements in the environment—and in the political landscape—can be achieved on the local level. Soon, I will see flaws, I know that, and feel the challenge of small-town living, but for right now I’m living in an idyll or, maybe, I’m just on vacation!

A slower pace, no delays to consider as we board the subway, less socializing in noisy upscale venues. Our forays into the city to work continue, but they are circumscribed and carefully planned. I’ve written two blog posts and completed a short story in the three weeks we have been here. I am reading in a more concentrated way, I am watching the sun set over the mountains, I am sleeping soundly.

As I was walking into the orchard last weekend, I realized that it was a private road and I’d better ask permission. There weren’t any signs and I didn’t want to be surprised by a shotgun or a police car. So I penned a warm note explaining who I was—an urban transplant, a new neighbor in love with the orchard, a writer—and would it be okay if I walked the road? In return for this privilege , I would clean up debris—many plastic containers, beer cans, tires!! I’d already done a lot of this. Had they spotted me and decided to leave me alone? Did they think I was a mad woman?

I walked my well-crafted note to the top of the rise to a house, which I assumed belonged to the owner of the orchard. I went round the back—kids toys, a swing set, dishes in the sink—and rang the bell. It was a tenant, not the owner, and yes, of course, she’d pass my note along. She wasn’t sure if it would be okay, there have been problems in the past. Oh, dear.

As of today, I haven’t heard anything from the owner. But it was so gorgeous this morning that I walked into the orchard anyway.

I See You

April 13, 2018

Tags: Port Authority, urban life, homeless in America

"Verily, I swear, 'tis better to be lowly born, and range with humble livers in content, than to be perk'd up in a glistering grief, and wear a golden sorrow.”

--William Shakespeare, Henry VIII


I hadn’t used the Port Authority Bus Terminal in a long time, hardly ever over the years, in fact. The armpit of New York I called it. I lived in Manhattan, I owned a car. Homeless people, filthy bathrooms, the scum of the city hung out there and the city did nothing, it seemed, to clean it up, clean the people up. Then in December, 2017, a Bengali-born, ISIS-inspired suicide bomber walked through the terminal, more or less set off the explosives on his body, injuring himself and three others. No surprise, I said to myself, that this attack happened at Port Authority. It’s a hub and therefore a target in the Age of Terrorism, but also indefensible space, in multiple meanings of that word. I had learned the concept in graduate school and photographed indefensible spaces all over the city. They were easy to find. On East 87th Street, where I lived at the time, architects had designed an apartment complex with commercial space below-ground level accessed by a ramp on one side and stairs on the other. No fast egress in a hold-up or a fire, everyone in the shops would be trapped.

Life in the city is hallucination and denial much of the time, layers of tar and concrete built on top of earth and stream, layers of stories: slaves and First Americans, settlers, immigrants and refugees. We are moles living behind our computers in darkened rooms, and when we surface, we are blind, we see nothing, we have learned nothing, we have forgotten our history, or never knew it.

Terminals in other cities and other cultures seem brighter, cleaner, airier, considerate of human effort and failings. But this, too, may be delusion, a trick of the traveler’s imagination as she steps uneasily into new landscapes and experiences. I mustn’t assume that Europeans, for example, or Koreans, for another example, maintain an aesthetic standard more developed than Americans. Can we trace our “failing infrastructure” to the banality of New World aesthetics, or lack thereof: pure Americana? How can an enormous mega store filled with junk food loaded with sugar and additives support life? Support the future?

On the day of my first commute back into the city after moving into a mountainous region the bus rammed into the Lincoln Tunnel and hardly moved for an hour. Serves me right for being such a snide snob, I thought to myself, as I realized I’d be debarking in the armpit of New York.

Returning to Port Authority at night, I had to find my gate, avoid the hustlers, and use the restroom. Luckily I found Sarah, from Haiti, hired to direct confused commuters such as myself. “Is there a clean restroom I can use?” I asked her.

“You will be surprised,” she said. “They have all been cleaned. They are beautiful. You will be happy.”

“I will be relieved,” I said.

When I returned from the restroom, we continued our conversation in Franglish—stories about Haiti, Sarah’s family, and her disappointment at the behavior of American police. “Ton ton macoutes,” she said. “Why they kill a boy with a toy gun?” We were joined by an elegant, well-dressed Asian-American woman with a soft smile. Casually, she rested her head on her hands and said she’d left her storage locker in Soho opened, had noticed the lock in her bag, and though she knew she’d miss the 9 o’clock bus, she decided to head back downtown.

“But there is nothing important in the locker. I don’t know why I went all the way back downtown. Now I must take a bus and rest.”

“A bus?”

“Any bus,” she said.

“Do you know, Sarah?” I asked the Asian-American woman. For some reason, I hesitated asking her name though she had slid into the conversation like an old friend.

“We see each other here,” the woman said. Here meaning Gate 32 at the Port Authority Terminal in New York.

Sarah's wig had slipped sideways, her glasses were on the tip of her nose, but she remained kind despite the late hour. Multiple bracelets dangled on both arms. One was inscribed, “Good luck.”

I still hadn’t heard or seen our new conversation companion, not really. She looked and sounded intelligent, educated. I assumed she was a professor at SUNY, headed home after a day in the city, a professor like me waiting for the bus.

“I used to have a beautiful apartment overlooking the Hudson, up near Columbia, she said. “But I lost my job as a graphic designer. Now I work at Trader Joe’s and move around. I have no family.”

“You move around?”

“Yes.”

“You are homeless?”

“I prefer to say houseless,” she said. “I am houseless.”

"La conditione humaine," I said, before boarding the bus back to my new home.


Bugs

April 4, 2018

Tags: Kafka, school drop-outs, higher education, subsidized education, public versus private education, immigrants

The movers were packing up my books. We had been waiting for five hours, they’d been stuck in Brooklyn on another job and then got caught in Good Friday traffic. They were relieved I understood and could wait. There was no choice; we had to be out of the apartment the very next day. So I sent my husband off to play a professional round of Table Tennis and tried to rest, but was too restless.

After culling my books over many weeks, whittling them down to books I needed for research or would read again for pleasure, I still had a lot of books. I had promised myself not to lift a single tome or pack up our kitchen. Kitchens are loaded with breakables, every item has to be wrapped separately. Books are heavy.

The movers were late, the boxes were there waiting, so I was tempted to begin, then stopped this thought. I knew my back wouldn’t survive, which is why we’d hired the movers to pack in the first place. I wouldn’t see a pool again for several days. So I tried to rest, selected Bill Evans on the Pandora app, stretched out on the couch, and started on the current New Yorker. Then I fell asleep. No dreams.

The bell rang at 5 p.m. Two guys, both 30-something, one from Peru, the other from Mexico. They entered the hallway running. I’d contracted for three hours of packing, they’d be done by 8 p.m. Great, I said. I was still so tired I couldn’t think of going anywhere, so I stayed and supervised, so to speak. I didn’t want to slow them down but I was interested. Two young guys, both handsome, both from the other side of our porous border. They must have a story, I said to myself. (This writer cannot resist a story.)

So where are you from? Did you go to college? Do you want to go to college? Okay, college isn’t for everyone. Oh, you are living with your aunt.

Phone ringing.

That’s my mom.

Oh where is she?

In Peru.

Okay great, you’re a good son. Always pick up the phone when your mother calls.

Laughter.

As you are packing my books, do you like to read?

Yes, no, sometimes.

What do you like to read?

I remember in high school, we read Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” I really liked that story.

No kidding, that was the first story I taught my students at Oakland High School.
They loved it. So did I. That bug.

I feel like him some days. I wanted to be an ESL teacher, I had to drop out of school and earn money.

You’d be a great teacher, I said. Think about getting back to school.

This was the guy from Peru talking. The guy from Mexico looked a bit askance, and didn’t know nothing about any bugs.

It’s about being trapped, right? Trapped in a system?

Right, I said.

I thought of all the privileged young men and women I have met whose lives are like parachutes: soft landings, no bugs in sight.

There’s SUNY’s Empire State College, I told my young friend. It’s designed for working men and women. Don’t give up, I’ll write you a recommendation. I’ve got bug clout, I’m a prof at NYU. Anyone who likes Kafka deserves a recommendation.

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