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.

Children Never Forget Injustice

March 27, 2018

Tags: Gun control, March for Our Lives, Parkland, Columbine

My blog title today is a quote from Virginia Woolf’s first novel, “The Voyage Out.” Had Ms. Woolf lived into the 21st century, she might have been on the stage in Washington D.C. as a spokeswoman for March For Our Lives. She anticipated this moment of struggle and pain, as have so many others. She lost loved ones in war, her psyche was hammered in The Blitz, she insisted on a room of her own to write, she would not be silenced by illness or skeptical readers, or the patriarchy of a conventional, class-ridden society.

Now a tragedy has shaped a new movement with charismatic leaders. What the so-called grown-ups can't do--get out to vote, govern humanely, regulate what harms us--the next generation will. Until the Gay Rights Movement began, nonviolent protest movements were mostly—not entirely, but mostly-- led by brave young men with women on the sidelines as help-mates and companions. Not so today. The gender equality on that stage in DC over the weekend was telling. We are in the midst of profound change, visible in every news cycle.

Enter Stormy Daniels, a registered Republican, last Sunday night. Her story is a culmination of weeks of discourse about sexual harassment in the work place, and though her “relationship,” if we can call it that, with “the President,” if we can call him that, was “consensual,” it became a threat and a travail to Ms. Cliffords’ family. Her decision to speak out is heroic. I am sure she now needs 24-hour protection, as do some of the organizers of March For Our Lives. I know what it means to need such protection. It is terrifying. To say that these young people are courageous is an understatement.

The producers of 60 minutes portrayed Ms. Cliffords with the dignity she deserves. The story was not in her big breasts, or choice of occupation, but in the intimidation, the hush money and the lies, and on the sometimes inadvertent revelations of a so-called president’s character.

The camera mostly focused on Ms. Clifford’s face, on the articulate woman with a story. And the choice of a non-abrasive, respectful interviewer—a gay man—was smart. Anderson Cooper has a quiet, reassuring presence. The pace of the questioning remained relaxed, as if to say: this is what happened, judge for yourself.

Every journalist struggles to find the armature of a story. The pressures of the marketplace often make this difficult—60 minutes has to compete with delayed sports every week—and when they landed Stormy Daniels, the marketing department was undoubtedly pleased. They could have pandered to the salaciousness of the sexual encounter, but they didn’t. Their presentation of a controversial woman remained tasteful. It was the perfect conclusion to an inspiring weekend.

The Lazarus Man

March 20, 2018

Tags: The Bible, compassion, Easter-Passover, politicians

I met the Lazarus Man on the A Train last week. Tall, well-dressed, dark-skinned and handsome with a sonorous voice, he offered me his seat and asked me if I read the Bible.

As literature, I said.

He was wearing a gold ornamental necklace that fell gracefully to his chest, Lazarus and his two dogs. I didn’t know the story.

Jesus restored Lazarus to life, he said. You’ll find the story in the Gospels:

“Here was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores."

Angels descend when we are weary and troubled, he continued. I see both on your face today, neighbor. You will be restored to life.

Is that a prophecy or a promise?

Both, he said.

Then he introduced me to his wife who was sitting to my right.

Fifteen beautiful years, he said.

And does a religious man such as yourself vote? I asked.

Praise God, I do, he said, and laughed.

Because one wonders, or I do—let me just speak for myself—what on earth these cynical and opportunistic politicians of ours are thinking or, more importantly, feeling. We’re real people out here, working hard, raising our families, traveling on the unreliable A Train, going to the shops to buy food, worried about health insurance.

I have no answer other than kindness. It’s in the Bible. Ah, I see we have arrived.

Our conversation had taken place from 59th to 145th Street. How much time had elapsed? Just a few minutes, not even a half-hour.

And now we must leave, he said. It was good to meet you today, neighbor.

Likewise, I said. Thank you for giving me your seat and your blessings.

Chasing the Whale, Part 2

March 12, 2018

Tags: Melville, Moby Dick, Nantucket, hubris, machismo, whaling

--This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.
--To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.
Herman Melville in “Moby Dick”

I have finished “Moby Dick”, but not yet read the biography of Melville by Andrew Delbanco, as I promised myself. I am spent, but also pleased that I finished the book, much of which I enjoyed. The most evocative passages are hyper-real—the ship languishing at sea, sailors swaying on the masts, whales making love. The most endearing characters are from shithole countries—a life at sea has no borders—and Captain Ahab is a self-destructive, compelling, vigilant narcissist who surfaces from his cabin as obsesssion calls. The voyage of the Pequod is a death march from beginning to end.

Dear reader, what possessed this author, under the influence of the elder Nathaniel Hawthorne, to write this epic, encyclopedic tome? And how did he finish it in one year? If I had been a woman editor of this male author’s Great American Novel, I might have suggsted one or two cuts :). Would the Great American Male Author have resisted my suggestions? Or would he have exercised his prerogative? Indeed, I might have told him, the work itself is a Great Leviathan and must be slain in two—leaving the first and last sections slung together—as a novel. This is where the most evocative alliterative prose resides. But, no, it will be a stet, published as written, a draft of a draft of a novel with a “mighty” theme.

Was it Melville’s intention to outdo every English-language novel ever written? To become the Most Famous American Novelist of the 19th century? In an 1868 essay in The Nation, John William DeForest searched for the Great American Novel, thus coining the phrase, and did not mention Melville. Novelists, he suggested, stagger under a heavy load if they attempt greatness.

In the 21st century, we disdain hubris and admire humility among—and within—our writers. Reviewers and Oprah may puff up successful writers and create celebrities of them, but sensible writers know the limits of five minutes of fame as inspiration. They have to get back to work; celebrity addles the mind. No writers I know, even great ones, would ever admit publicly that s/he deserves fame or that their work is a masterpiece. Many even shun readings and interviews.

In his inimical, modest way, 20th century writer, Norman Mailer, asserted that he would write The Great American Novel. Instead, he wrote “The Executioner’s Song,” which is an excellent nonfiction book that reads like a novel.

Writing By Hand

March 6, 2018

Tags: Cursive, italic, handwriting in school, effect of electronics

I wonder if taking a drawing class will improve my handwriting? I’ve just read a bunch of manuscripts for my workshop tomorrow night and I can’t believe the clanky, messy scribbles I’ve made in the margins. They’ve become harder and harder to read, nearly illegible, even to myself at times. My handwriting, dear reader, needs a week of contemplative rest at Kripalu with lots of massage and italicized hikes in the woods. Italicized! Why did that word surface?

I used to love italic calligraphy when I lived in London. All the children and adults I taught there wrote in the most gorgeous, precise italic script. I thought it very clever, as the Brits would say, to teach italic to school children, and nothing else. No print, no transition to cursive. Now that American schools have mostly abandoned instruction in cursive, it makes even more sense. But what are children learning in the US School Districts? Only “print” and typing apparently. I don’t know if this is good, bad, or simply convenient. Why not teach italic? Would that make sense? Probably not. The teachers would have to learn it.

While living abroad, there was so much that was new and interesting to contemplate every day. The Brits do speak English, right? Why, then, couldn’t I understand what they were saying? I wrote in a trance, I wrote constantly, I became a writer, I decided to learn italic script. I collected cartridge pens with different italic nibs—they even make them for left-handers—and enjoyed penning greeting cards with long messages and filling journals, large and small. Traveling by plane and writing postcards was a problem, however, as the cartridges always leaked en route, so I eventually settled on non-leak pens while air-borne, not as much fun. Once landed, I searched out stationary stores to purchase pens for the duration of my stay. Les stylos italiques? I gave them away to the concierge as I paid my bill unless I was returning to London by train and ferry.

I try to persuade my born-to-electronics students that hand-holding a pen is a pleasing sensory experience that amplifies the connection between brain and written word. At the very least, it slows us down in a meditative way, I say. Mostly, they honor my professorial status and give it a try. But the silenced phones surface at regular intervals to read “notes.” Plus ça change. (more…)

When Objects Speak

February 27, 2018

Tags: Japanese American incarceration, WW II, JACL, redress campaign

2018 is the 76th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 which began the post- Pearl Harbor round-up and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese American civilians on the West Coast of America. Property was confiscated, families ordered out of their homes at gunpoint, men, women and children herded and then detained for the duration of the war into ten detention camps surrounded by barbed wire fences, guard towers, searchlights and armed military guards. Conditions were more than difficult, they were horrific. My dear college friends, John Tateishi and Carol Shinoda, never spoke about it. We were all English majors, we discussed Chaucer. John was my husband’s room-mate; both had served in the military, Jim in the US Navy, John in the US Army. The four of us, on separate coasts, married on the same day. Later, John and Carol came to live in London for two years while we were there. A long, abiding, friendship. How strange, then, that in its earliest days, Jim and I never knew about their family’s experience of the camps, that this painful piece of their back story, like my Holocaust story, had been expunged from conversation, or lay buried somewhere in our psyches and collective memories.

And then, one day, many years later, Carol mentioned on the phone—or was it in a letter?—that John was working for the Japanese American Citizens League, that he was in Washington DC as a lobbyist for the “redress campaign,” testifying in front of President Carter’s Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, that, in fact, he was the director of that campaign which, in 1988, culminated in an apology from President Ronald Reagan and a reparation pay-out to all survivors and/or descendants of the mass incarceration. Truth and reconciliation. I often wonder if that model might be used for our African American and Native American descendants and/or, more immediately, for our Dreamers. But that’s a sidebar here, or perhaps a flash forward.

With formal, governmental apology and monetary albeit token reparations, John, Carol and others of their generation had found their voice. John eventually became the Director of the JACL, and Carol became the Director of the Bay Area Writing Project @ UC Berkeley, our alma mater. Both, by now, have written extensively about their histories which are still being excavated and expressed in a myriad of projects. John edited an oral history of the camps called “And Justice for All,” (https://www.amazon.com/Justice-All-Japanese-American-Detention/dp/029597785X) and Carol is now on the editorial staff of “50 Objects.”

https://www.facebook.com/50objectsNikkei/

http://50objects.org

First up in the year-long 50-Objects digital “journey” are paintings by Gene Sogioka, an established Disney cartoonist imprisoned in the Poston detention camp in Arizona. Using watercolors as his medium, he documented intimate, candid scenes of suffering and resilience, which have never been seen before. I thank his daughter, Jean Sogioka La Spina, for allowing me to use the image of a young boy resisting his father’s arrest by the FBI for this post. She has also collected the paintings into a book:

http://www.blurb.com/b/7959845-an-american-family-album

Sadly, they feel both resonant and current.

Just Tell Me When It's Over

February 25, 2018

Photo of the Ashokan Reservoir © copyright by Carol Bergman 2018
This is Moby Dick’s update. He has identified the route of The Pequod and is flailing the fluke on his tail. It’s powerful, interlaced with tendons, his calisthenics supported by the pod, his body politic, and the protocols of the sea. He’s not a fish, please don’t call him a fish, he’s a mammal, protective of his young, his female nurses his young, and sings whale songs in a chorale of whales. Do not hurt Moby Dick’s young else they too will elevate their flukes and smash the boat as soon as they come of age, or even before.

Moby lies in wait. He knows from past experience that the captain—let him not be named precisely—will be found, wrung dry, or pulverized. Once time has unfolded, what remains of him on the gallows of history might surprise us. He will disappear into the firmament as a painful footnote.

Just tell me when it’s over, when the captain is gone, when his second leg has been devoured instantly, and nothing remains of him but shadows at midnight and, in the morning, a clear blue sky.

A Writer's Valentine's Day

February 14, 2018

My lawyer’s office manager just wished me a Happy Valentine’s Day. “If you care about such things,” she said, and giggled.

“Well, it depends. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week,” I said. “Right now I am thinking about my first NYU class tonight, a 331 page manuscript I am evaluating, running my car--no alternate side parking today, it’s also Ash Wednesday—pulling some cash from a local ATM that donates $1.19 to the Actors’ Fund—lots of performers in my hood—and buying some milk. I’ll walk up the stairs at 187th Street, the Mt. Everest of Washington Heights, my exercise for the day.”

“That’s a long answer,” the office manager said.

“I’m a writer. By definition, we’re verbal.”

I think she needed to get off the phone. I hadn’t even asked her my burning question yet: “When will the next invoice be sent out?”

“Next week,” she said.

“Okay, good,” I said, cutting myself short. “Have a terrific rest of the day.”

“Good? You are looking forward to the next invoice?”

“Very much so,” I said.

We both laughed.

My day had started well: contact with a friendly person. Connection. Shared humor. Writing is a solitary occupation and maintaining contact is fuel and solace. One reason, among many, I love to teach. And I just used the word “love.” Happy Valentine’s Day to me and all my students, past, present and future.

Who will be my next-- please listen to my story-- victim? Well, my husband is in his office working. I can hear him on the phone. When I’m not writing or talking on the phone myself, or reading, I start to accumulate stories, questions, ideas, worries that I have to be expressed or I feel as though I’ll burst. Performers, visual artists, writers—we all feel an urgency normal mortals do not share: an impulse to express ourselves publicly, to share our experiences, observations and opinions. We don’t hold much back, we don’t want to hold much back, so we search for the medium—based on our particular talent—that best serves what we want to say. We’re not always successful, but we try.


The Deportation

February 3, 2018

Tags: ICE, illegal entry, crimes against humanity, deportations, detentions


"He made a story for all of them, a story to give them strength."

--Leslie Marmon Silko, “Ceremony”


I made the mistake of watching a CNN feed on my Facebook page early in the morning. A 39-year-old man who had been brought to America when he was ten, no crime or misdemeanor on his record, married to an American citizen with two American-born children, was being deported. I could feel the family’s scream in my teeth.

That day, I had planned to work on the revision of my novel which is set in pre-Revolutionary New York. I had stopped in the year 1741, months after a slave rebellion. A slave in the Franks household, a real family I am amplifying with my imagination, had participated in the rebellion and been captured. He was up for trial in front of Judge James Delancey. The judge had only two choices: execution or deportation to one of the British-held plantations in Jamaica, the most brutal slave plantations in the hemisphere, perhaps in the history of slavery. In other words, this slave was being deported to his death.

The same is true of many illegal immigrants escaping the gangs in Central America: they are being deported to their death.

Where are we now in our evolution as a humane society? How far have we progressed since Hitler marched into Vienna in March of 1938 and began redefining who was German and who was not, selecting and then deporting Jews, homosexuals, and political dissidents to transit camps before being gassed in the death camps? How far have we progressed since the Serbs decided that the Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia were less than human? Since the Hutus slaughtered the Tutsis in Rwanda?

No CNN cameras were rolling when the jackbooted soldiers ordered my grandmother, Nanette, at gunpoint to get down on her hands and knees to scrub cobblestones. She had been on her way home from work at the family-owned retail glove store near St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

Would I be exaggerating if I said that the ICE deportations are an analagous form of ethnic cleansing deserving of prosecution by the International Criminal Court? I do not think so. And just because these deported men and women disappear, never to be seen in America again, does not mean that we haven’t killed them or destroyed their families. And I use the editorial “we” here deliberately.

Bear witness, dear reader. Write your stories. They will give you strength.

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