Meet Charlie

April 18, 2017

Charlie & his books, between 67'th & 68th on Columbus Ave. Photo by Carol Bergman
I was walking down Columbus Avenue when I saw Charlie’s books neatly piled on a table. Charlie is a fixture in this upper west side Manhattan neighborhood, more so now that the Barnes & Noble a couple of blocks down has become a Century 21. I miss that Barnes & Noble. It was on a clear cut between my debark from the C train to my gym at 63rd.

I had just been in a café reading my students’ interview assignments. I’d sent them out into the city to meet a stranger and get their story. Everyone has a story, see what you can find out, I said. Don’t talk about yourself. This isn’t about you, it’s about someone else.

Any community is a treasure trove of interesting people. Writers don’t have to go far to exercise their curiosity and heightened sensitivities. The other day, getting my car oil changed and inspected at an upstate mechanic near my daughter and son-in-law’s house, I met a fourth-generation farmer who just had his fourth great grand-child. He’d voted for Trump and I wanted to know why. What is it about his life that sent him down that electoral path? His truck was ready before my car, but at least I got some of the story, not enough to write anything just yet, but enough to spur me to find out more. I wrote about the conversation in my journal and mentally filed it away, to be continued.

Now there was Charlie on the street, a man and his books I’d passed a hundred times, maybe more, on my way to the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble, but never stopped. I figured those neatly piled books of his were dirty—god knows where they’d come from, maybe loaded with bed bugs, I thought, and I've had enough of those, thank you. I would have passed by again, but my phone vibrated and I stopped to pick it up right in front Charlie and his books. I clicked off the call and started looking through the books. When there are books in front of me, especially in such close proximity, I look. The first that caught my eye was “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” one of my favorites. I have a hardback copy, too big to carry around, and I’ve been wanting to reread it for a while. And because I can’t seem to read literary fiction on my Kindle anymore, I’ve been buying more paperbacks.

Charlie was right there behind my shoulder. I could smell his cigar and see the smoke. So I asked him to pull out the book. It was pristine. Never cracked.

“How much?”
“Three dollars.”
“Take five,” I said.

Then he stood next to me as I flipped through it again. Lo (or LOL), it wasn’t completely pristine, I’d missed an inscription:

"Dear Yasmina,

May you have many nights of reading yourself to sleep, and may we always share among many other things this love of good books.

With nothing but love,

“Well, I guess that relationship is over,” I said. “How did this book get here? “
“No idea,” Charlie said.
“Yasmina gave away a book with a very intimate inscription. Or maybe she died. Was this an estate sale book?”

My imagination was already clicking over. If Yasmina had died—Yasmina are you out there reading this blog post?—why did her loved ones give away this inscribed book? How callous, I decided.

Charlie took the fifth. No comment. Time for me to ask him a question or two.

“So where do you get your books?”
“All over.”
“And what did you do before you sold books here?”
“I read.”
“And how long have you been selling books here?”
“Twenty years.”
“And are you still reading?”
“Have you got any Graham Greene?”
“Let me have a look.”

As he was searching, it was as though he was stepping into his books, possessing them. He belonged to them, they belonged to him, he belonged to this street, this neighborhood, this city. “No Graham Greene,” he said. Then he offered his hand. “Charlie,” he said. “My name is Charlie.”

"Oslo": Is It a Play?

April 11, 2017

Tags: Lincoln Center Theater, Oslo Accords, Rabin & Arafat

I went to see “Oslo,” by J.T. Rogers when it was still in previews at the Lincoln Center Theater. The advance press was intense. Rave Reviews. I was disappointed—an understatement—perhaps one of the few that evening who was not applauding or sighing with relief at the promise of “hope” in the Middle East. We need more than hope or sentimental plays right now to set the world straight. And so I was doubly surprised when some of my internationally astute Facebook friends praised this play. Perhaps we are all so down-in-the-dumps these days that any glimmer of “hope” is welcome, even in a play that doesn’t work as a play.

Forgive me, dear Reader, but “Oslo” is not a theatrical experience, it is a soapbox experience about back-channel meetings early in 1993 while the First Intifada was still raging. The meetings culminated in a handshake on the White House Lawn between Arafat and Rabin, President Clinton presiding. Rabin was assassinated two years later. Much has been written about all of this, most notably in an article in The New Yorker by Connie Bruck which is informative without distortion or polemics:

The end of the “ handshake,” as the rapprochement came to be known, led eventually to the Second Intifada and to the upsurge of violence and despair today. This is the unexpressed undertow in the play. So why was the audience laughing?

I looked at the stage, I looked around at my fellow theater- goers. The actors were bored with the pedestrian script, I decided, and they were grandstanding to amuse themselves, stay awake, and remember their lines during a very long and wordy play. As for the audience, they seemed relieved to be feeling something.

Though based on historical research, the play is imbalanced. The most important characters were not the Palestinian and Israeli delegates, but the Norwegian couple who persuaded them to attend the talks –Mona Juul, then an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, and her husband, Terje Rod-Larsen, who was director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences. This couple deserve a medal for what they accomplished in Oslo: they kept the talks secret, and defied the expectations of the meddling Americans, among others. But they are oddly absent in the play except as foils.

What if this play had been told from diplomat Mona Juul’s point of view? Or even her husband’s? Or both of them? Now that would have been an interesting play. This one isn’t.

My Mother's Library

April 3, 2017

Tags: Refugees, asylees, the EU

My mother, Gerda, as a young woman in Vienna. She arrived in America as a refugee.
She died at 99 holding a book. Not literally so, but metaphorically speaking, she was a free-thinking person of the book and interested in all books, all people, all of life, everywhere. She was difficult, opinionated, even prejudiced occasionally, but she usually returned to knowledge and tolerance. She was an enlightened, educated, emancipated, complicated woman.

She was fully conscious to the end, thinking about and verbalizing her experience. She lay in her hospice bed, her family around her, observing her own death, talking about it to us and to herself in an inward reflection. “I’m dying,” she said. She instructed the nurses to give her more morphine, or less. We played her music, put buds in her ears, read poetry to her. She wanted to wait for one of her grand-children to arrive from Wyoming, she said, clearly. As a physician, she understood the power and solace of morphine, how it could be used to control one’s last breath, or delay it. She consulted my sister and her husband, also both physicians, but this was pro forma. She didn’t really need them. She knew what she wanted, she was in control, she had come to the end of a long and eventful life, she was regnant upon her hospice bed.

Her father, my Czech grandfather, was a traveling salesman who traveled from Vienna to Yugoslavia to sell high-end leather gloves. My mother adored him—she was an only child—and dreaded his departures. The promise of a gift upon his return soothed her. It was always a leather-bound book, inevitably a classic. By age 10, my mother had her own library and become an avid reader. In America, in my childhood home, there were bookshelves in every room, the library organized by subject and author. My stepfather had his own shelves, his own interests: dictionaries, history, Goethe and Heine in German. My mother never read a word of German once she was on American soil. She spoke English, she spoke French and that was enough once she’d disembarked. It was odd and troubling, at times, how she’d rejected her mother tongue.

Often, I’d want to borrow a book and if I took it off the shelf and held it in my hand, she’d become agitated. Books were her totems. The library held life together, it was a commentary on the past and present, perhaps even the future. If it was disturbed, I thought, this held-together world might collapse as it had in Europe when the war began, and all was left behind, so many loved ones murdered. So I was careful, I always asked, I always returned books to their proper place on the shelf and rarely took one away. Which probably explains why my mother constantly bought me books and insisted that I read them right away so we could have a discussion about them. Many were duplicates of the books on her own shelves, and though this may seem profligate, it was not profligate; it was necessary.

The Power of Education

March 23, 2017

Tags: Simeon's House, Riverside Park Conservancy, New York City Board of Education

I first met Hakim Constantine in Sakura Park near Columbia University in Manhattan. He was a gardener for the Riverside Park Conservancy; I was a volunteer. Once a week, until Hurricane Sandy hit and the cherry trees toppled closing the park for months, we raked and weeded and talked. It was always just the two of us so we talked a lot. Hakim had just lost his grandfather and his college education had been interrupted. I was struggling with some life changes also. Our age difference evaporated with the fresh air and physical work; we mentored and supported each other, sharing family stories, and philosophical musings. I encouraged Hakim to get back to school to finish his degree. His dream was to mentor young people, perhaps become a teacher or a counsellor. Soon after we parted ways, he started Empire State College. He had a lot of credits and I knew it wouldn’t take him long to get his degree. He was already smart, but with each course, each book he read, every paper he wrote, he became smarter and smarter. His mind clicked over so rapidly that before very long, while he was studying and working full time at Prospect Park, he had started Simeon’s House. Still young, he has arrived at his life’s work.

I cannot tell you, dear reader, how proud I am of Hakim. He was profiled in The Amsterdam News this week, my pride amplified. The trajectory of Hakim’s education and achievement is a reminder of what we all are working for: public, fully-funded education for our children, no matter background or economic circumstances, and the end to white flight into private schools, charter schools and elite city schools—Hunter, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science—that, still, after all these years— discriminate against our underprivileged children. The educational system may still be at Ground Zero, utterly misguided in its test-based curriculum, but men and women like Hakim press on despite their challenges and compromised opportunities. That gives me hope.

Bloomsbury in New York

March 16, 2017

This is our origin story: We started Mediacs, our independent publishing company, in the early 90’s. We were journalists, fiction writers, screen writers, editors and artists immersed in our creative work that sometimes sold, but often did not. We had young children and had to make a living. We sat down at our dining room table with a former graffiti artist turned graphic designer, thought up a name for our new full-service publishing company, registered the name and got to work.

At first we wrote, designed, and edited newsletters, brochures and annual reports, print and electronic. But what about books? What about my less commercial books? My favorite fiction form is the novella, a hard sell in the United States. And the time it took for an agent to assess and submit, and a publisher to publish, was becoming longer and longer. Worse, the mega-advances for blockbuster books was changing the industry. Suddenly, most writers, including yours truly, were “B” writers desperate to get their books into print in the margins of an overcrowded highly commercialized marketplace.

I thought of Virginia and Leonard Woolf . They had bought a printing press in 1917 as a diversion for Virginia. She suffered from mental illness and was very anxious as she was writing. But the printing press—which the Woolfs taught themselves how to use—distracted Virginia in a positive way and enabled her to bring her work to concrete fruition. Once the press arrived, she participated in the editing and type-setting of many books by other authors in the Bloomsbury circle—John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, TS Eliot, and EM Forster among them. Between 1917 and 1946 the Hogarth Press published 527 titles.

Be I ever so humble, I am not comparing myself to an author from the Bloomsbury Group, but the genesis of Mediacs is an echo of the the Woolf’s family-run Hogarth Press. Much of their list are now classics and we cannot make such a claim. We publish workaday writers with good stories to tell who are willing to invest in their books. Whether they become classics beyond our lifetime is not for us to predict. But as our list accumulates, we feel pride in our authors—their efforts in making a work, and their trust in us as mentors, editors and publishers.

The Peace Poets

March 7, 2017

Tags: criminal justice reform, beyond the prison paradigm, weather underground

First you hear our lyrics, then your hear our rhymes
No one can take your spirit
No one can take your mind


I see me in you and you in me


Only you can write that song
So write those words down strong

-- Lyrics by The Peace Poets

I was invited to an annual justice conference at Columbia University last Friday: “Beyond the Bars; Transcending the Punishment Paradigm.” I was sitting in the fourth row of a huge auditorium in a VIP seat surrounded by former prisoners, their families and friends, most of them black. I had been escorted to the seat and then helped into the seat with enormous respect, perhaps as an elder, perhaps as a professor, perhaps as a white person, perhaps all three. Not that I should be respected for any of these "identities." Not at all. But there was something about the gentle manners of my escorts that touched me.

I was looking forward to hearing about criminal justice reform; before the election it had been a bi-partisan initiative. Would it continue? These past months the statistic that has stayed with me most is this: There are more African-American men incarcerated in 2017 than there were enslaved in America in 1850.

The crowd were on their feet as soon as The Peace Poets bounced onto the stage. They are five young men from the Bronx, a collective of artists that celebrate and advocate for life and have traveled to more than 40 countries. I knew about their raps but had never seen them perform. The crowd was on their feet.

Then came the panel which included Bernadine Dohrn, formerly of the Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist group . Dohrn renounced violence, came out of hiding, raised a family, practiced and taught law at Northwestern and is now active in many criminal justice reform initiatives. I thought it odd, however, that her bio in the program does not mention her backstory, nor did she refer to it at all when she was asked to introduce herself. The renunciation of violence is important, especially at this volatile time. Yet she remained mute.

The panel discussion droned on, human suffering reduced to polemics and academic grand-standing until a former inmate began to speak and then a daughter whose father is in jail for murdering a family member. I missed The Peace Poets with their high energy, authentic voices, pithy lyrics and poetry of peace.

Crimes Against the American People

March 1, 2017

Tags: Education discrimination, Betsy Devos

From the SUNY Empire State College Website
Conscious that all peoples are united by common bonds, their cultures pieced together in a shared heritage, and concerned that this delicate mosaic may be shattered at any time.

--from the Preamble of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The Court investigates and prosecutes crimes against humanity and genocide.

A polemical post today, dear reader, as I am fired up after the State of the Union and troubled, troubled indeed by what I heard. I could hardly sleep. But I also know that it is the quotidian details of life—not well-crafted spun speeches—that remind us where our responsibility to one another lies. This morning it was in the civility and kindness of a young man who came to replace the battery in my car. When Jose called to say he was just blocks away, I noticed that his voice was calm and his manner respectful, unlike a gruff man or two in other AAA shops in my hood.

I’d been struggling with the battery problem for a week, knowing it was under warranty and I could not get the car upstate to my mechanic unless the battery held a charge. It didn’t; I needed a new one. I had to call AAA out a second time. And though it was raining, I got out of the car to chat to Jose and to watch him work.

He was more than understanding, he was empathetic. When I said that I appreciated his friendliness and patience, he said that having waited for three hours for service, he knew that my morning hadn’t been a good one. He didn’t want to make it worse.

Small and lithe, he was wearing a too-large baseball cap and sweats. His hands were as dexterous as a sculptor’s and he moved with precision, care and deep knowledge of the car’s innards. The ailing battery was soon out and loaded into my trunk. I asked Jose if he liked his job and he said it was okay but that he had wanted to go to college to complete his education. His grades weren’t brilliant and he’d given up. Then, of course, there was the cost.

That was my opening. I told him that I was a college professor and that he should not give up. It’s a crime against the American people, I thought, not to offer universal higher education—for free. Here is a man who wants to learn, who is eager to learn, who is a devoted son and brother, who grew up in my underprivileged hood, just minutes away from the most boasting affluence. It is not fair and it is not just.

I got into the cab of his truck out of the rain to pay my bill and told Jose about Empire State College, part of the State University of New York. Its tag line is: “College Built Around Your Life.” It’s designed for men and women who are already working and have family and other obligations, men and women who grow up in the neighborhoods of my divided city beyond the borders of affluence and privilege. And like other institutions in our now faltering democracy, its funding is constantly under threat.

Who will ensure the education of our future citizens if our public education collapses?

We cannot let this happen. We must not.

My American Passport

February 22, 2017

Tags: The American Constitution, immigration, deportation, citizenship, illegal immigration

Don't interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.

--Abraham Lincoln

I was in the laundromat piling my wet clothes into the dryer when Ricardo began to talk to me. I’ve changed his name to protect his identity because he is an undocumented immigrant who has lived in the United States for more than twenty years, married and raised his children here, and has rarely, if ever, missed a day of work. He deals with the neighborhood’s dirty laundry all day long, washing, drying and folding it neatly into multi-colored bags. His English is rudimentary. He is paid less than minimum wage. He doesn’t complain because he is undocumented. He hadn’t seen his parents in more than ten years when, in desperation, he snuck over the border last summer and spent all of his savings on a coyote to bring him back.

More than one of my neighbors help Ricardo with his English. He has a new workbook; between cycles, he studies. He has always wanted to better himself. He has always worked. His children are “dreamers,” and have all attended college. He calls me “Teacher.” “Teacher,” he began. “Teacher, I am afraid. What will happen with this new president?” I showed him the safety pin on my hat and tried to explain. I said, “This pin means you are safe with me.” I wrote down the words “sanctuary city” in my small pocket notebook, ripped out the page and handed it to him. How would this scrap of paper help? I told him about my refugee parents, but as soon as I began to speak, I knew that it was not an analogous story. Despite the traumas of war and the unconscionable losses of a genocide, my parents were granted immediate legal residency and became naturalized citizens. The disruption in their lives eased and their children were born Americans. To carry an American passport became an emblem of safety and opportunity. I am glad they are not alive to witness President Trump’s draconian, inhumane executive immigration orders .

I have not been everywhere with my American passport, but I have friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues from everywhere. Some have two passports or green cards and lead trans-national lives, yet they, too, now feel endangered. Overseas students at NYU with legal visas have been urged not to leave the country as they may not be granted entry upon return. It is not at all clear if our “dreamer” students will be harassed or their parents deported. Much as we would like to say we are a sanctuary campus, there are no guarantees. A Palestinian-American friend, who has been a citizen for a long time, is having strange dreams: “Carol, I had a dream last night. Hundreds of coyotes were running after Trump attacking him. He was crying furiously and I woke up shaking.” I was pleased he wrote the dream down because it became a story. The beginning of a memoir, perhaps. His family was displaced in 1948 by the formation of the State of Israel and he has a story to tell, a good story, an American-Palestinian story.

There is so much work to do for all of us: daily phone calls, marches, other political actions. But this is all good. We’ve come alive to our responsibilities as citizens and patriots.

My Avatar

February 13, 2017

Now that “The Nomads Trilogy” has launched and that project—so far as I know at this moment—is finished, and my post-election night terrors are more or less under control, I am going to have some fun with my Bitmoji app. I am in love with my avatar, meaning, I suppose, that I am in love with the idealized image of myself I have created—with the help of my artist daughter. We took some time choosing the shape of my face and eyes, the color of my hair and lipstick, and my skin tone. I hope those who know me agree that the likeness is accurate (and not too idealized) and that choosing a spiffy workout outfit was a good choice as there was no bathing suit, cap or goggles in the virtual fashion closet. (My avatar is a lap swimmer, as am I.) The eyeglasses and nose are the right shape, my daughter assures me, and I have to accept her skilled, artistic judgment, though the nose looks a bit off to me. Of course, we never imagine ourselves accurately, do we? And the persona/avatar we project both in real life and in our writing is, in fact, a fiction or, at the very least, a factoid, a word coined by Norman Mailer to describe the narrative choices he made to tell his Pulitzer-prize winning nonfiction novel, “The Executioner’s Song.” Nonfiction novel? How does that compute?

It’s strange, I always tell my students, that when we write fiction, whether in first or third person, we can hide behind a narrative persona (an avatar), but when we write nonfiction, we are the narrator, it is us, and we must be credible. But is the narrator really “us,” or have we invented a nonfiction storyteller’s avatar? And is an avatar the same as a voice? I would suggest that our writing voice is a component of our narrative avatar. My avatar, as seen above, has a bold, mezzo voice. And I am using it here.


February 2, 2017

Tags: Robert Frost, Twitter

Photo by Carol Bergman
As 1775 began, a great many British subjects on both sides of the Atlantic asked themselves, how had it come to this? What had led to such polarization? In truth, the drumbeats of dissension had been increasing in intensity for more than a decade."

--Walter R. Borneman in "American Spring"

I was walking on a country road with my daughter and her two dogs when we passed a stone wall. The first line of Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall," came to me: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." When I got back to the house, I looked it up and wrote out the first six lines into my journal. I've decided to memorize it. It's a long poem so I'll work it slowly, two lines a day. I've also pasted a link on a Facebook status together with a couple of photos: the pellet stove ablaze and light snow falling outside the window at 7 a .m. this morning. In the distance, a flock of turkeys and the black barn cat chasing them is barely visible in the dawning light. This landscape seemed the perfect antidote to the news that a nursing mother had been turned away at the airport and separated from her baby.

I was visiting for three days, not long enough to restore my troubled soul, but welcome nonetheless. My daughter is as immersed as I in the tragedy of the election. We talk and text and email and "like" and "share" our posts on Facebook. The conversation is intense, exhausting and necessary, we both agree.

I've been thinking a lot about the Facebook posts, as well as the emails I have received, since November 8th. Some of these writings are eloquent, even poetic. In our shared cyber-space, many who are not professional writers have become prolix. It's an interesting human phenomena. After all, we are blessed with language, and language we must use to express our deepest fears, concerns, observations and hopes. Rather than repeat ourselves endlessly, we search for new ways to say things. And our use of language elevates as we read more extensively and write more thoughtfully. Even our vocabulary expands. This new preference for narrative descriptive prose represents, I believe, a resistance to a sound-byte culture of rants and lies. It bodes well for our future as a more educated, tolerant nation.