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Flashing Lights

I was driving down  Plattekill Avenue on the north side of the university where cars are parked at an odd angle and the speed limit is 30 mph because students and faculty are always crossing at crosswalks, or in between crosswalks, often on their phones, or chatting to friends. Last summer, two pedestrians were hit and badly injured. New, brighter crosswalks with flashing lights and neon signs have been installed, but not everywhere, and the SUNY New Paltz Campus Police and the New Paltz Police are vigilant.

 

This is my new neighborhood. I'm learning what it means to drive everywhere, to be attentive at all times, to keep to the speed limit, to watch the signs change from 30 to 45 to 55 mph. The periphery of the campus is a speed trap, too, and I warn visitors that the cops hang out, they wait, they give tickets. I did not want this ever to happen to me. It's my neighborhood, I obey the law, I'm learning the rules and culture, I want the students and faculty to feel safe and be safe, I want to feel safe and be safe. I know that, hypothetically, a police force protects as well as enforces. But is this true all of the time? Regardless, I did not want to be stopped by the police in my new neighborhood, ever.

 

I wasn't late, I wasn't in a hurry to my teaching gig at another SUNY campus, about thirty minutes away, but Plattekill Avenue is a shortcut to Route 32 North. I stopped at a crossing for a couple of students, but then inadvertently rolled through the STOP sign a few feet further on.  The sun was out, I was daydreaming, thinking about a book I'm getting back to, about a weekend hike on the River to Ridge Trail now that the weather is warming and all the snow and ice have melted. I was  listening to music, I was in the right side of my brain. The campus police car pulled up behind me, lights flashing.

 

I had just been on the campus a few nights before at a meeting sponsored by the Black Student Union about a police brutality allegation and an upcoming trial—the town in an uproar—and the ACLU lawyer's advice to the students and all present— black and white alike: never resist, do what you are asked.

 

There had been a white supremacist march down Main Street last summer—acrimonious , dangerous—and  then, a few weeks later, a black student had been smashed in the face by a cop and lost all his teeth. A committee had formed of concerned parents, concerned citizens. The police are aware, as the line goes in "Homeland." They are aware, on alert, on tenterhooks. They do not want to be accused, they want to do their jobs. But smashing a black student in the mouth is not doing their jobs. 

 

White haired and olive-white-skinned, I had nothing to worry about, not really, but the fear of those young, earnest, students at the meeting had stayed with me. The African American men are especially vulnerable, the lawyer had said, which is nothing new in our divided, beleaguered nation.  But why should I feel so vulnerable? Because that boy who had been smashed in the face could have been my son, or anyone's son.

 

The cop had been hanging out; it felt like an entrapment, but I had to stay quiet. This wasn't a moment to resist or to complain. Even though I had only gently rolled, and there was nothing around, no other cars in sight, I had broken the law.

 

The young, handsome cop got out of his car and  stood just behind my shoulder and to the left, his hand on his holster. This is what he has been trained to do, I thought. It's not a time for questions. I am not here to interview him about the use of force or gun control, we are not friends.

 

I rolled down my window. I knew better than to reach for the glove compartment without instructions to do so, and I said, "Hello, Officer, did I do something wrong?" Where had I learned to be so obsequious, so respectful? I was thinking of my daughter's African American college boyfriend when I said this and what his father, a court officer, had taught him. He carried a badge in his wallet his father had gotten for him, but even that was not protective and I was scared when my daughter was in the car with him.

 

"You rolled through the stop sign,"  the officer said and smiled.

"Oh dear, that's not good," I said.

 

Then he asked for my papers and I gave him all my papers. He told me to sit tight and he went back to the car and took a few moments to run my license, insurance and registration through the computer. I also heard him recite my license plate into a two-way radio. I was now in the system.

 

I thought about my African American friends, I thought about my daughter's college boyfriend, how these moments of waiting must be the most tense, the most scary. This cop was alone, he was young, he was friendly, but I am white-haired and olive-white-skinned. Neither of us felt threatened so we smiled and spoke quietly and respectfully to one another. He warned me to be careful but didn't give me a ticket. He said, "Thank you, Ma'am." And I thanked him. He turned off his flashing lights and went on his way. And I went on mine, braking fully at every stop sign on the way.

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Memory Box

Photo of Harmer Johnson © copyright by Judith Johnson

A dear friend, Harmer, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and is living, if we can call it that, on a locked floor in a nursing home. Before I moved out of the city and he was moved to the home, I frequently visited him and his wife, my old high school friend, Judy, on Friday nights. We'd have take-out dinner together, chat, and play with their cat. The sorrow of witnessing a steady decline in mental faculties was ever present in our conversation and goodbye hugs. When I left I wondered if Harmer would recognize me the next time I arrived, but this was a small, private concern compared to that of his wife and three children. Our ties have always been close, almost like family. Harmer and Judy's eldest grew up with our daughter. They went to the same nursery school, played together, kept in touch.

 

Harmer is British, originally from Faversham, near Canterbury, and when we lived in London, before our children were born, we saw Harmer and Judy when they stayed with his family, usually in the summer. His parents were warm, lovely people, and we enjoyed every moment of our visits with them.  

 

There is so much to say about this beautiful man; my memory box is overflowing. I don't want to talk about him in the past tense, not yet, though I know that his verbal acuity is fading fast, and that a memory box is, by definition, in the past tense, even when the person is still alive in body, and in spirit, too, because I do believe that even in this fading away an essence of a person survives that we can continue to feel and cherish.

 

Harmer was a writer as well as a well-known, highly regarded auctioneer and art appraiser. What happens to a writer who loses language? I can't think about this question, it is too terrifying. I never knew Harmer "scribbled," as he called it, until I mentioned I was forming a writer's group. He joined for a while and we shared work over lunch from time to time. We talked about our manuscripts, we talked about our children,  we talked about the political landscape, we talked about the environment. Harmer was "environmentally conscious," before anyone else I knew was environmentally conscious. We went on a whale watch together with our kids and I learned, quickly, that the dolphins were endangered by tuna nets and that the oceans were polluted. Harmer was more of a guide and mentor on that voyage than the captain of the ship who spent the hours we were at sea blasting cheerful ephemera into the loudspeaker.

 

Empathetic, cultivated, thoughtful, charming, a gentle man, a gentleman, rarely careless of others that I can ever recall, a tennis player, a collector of Olympic memorabilia, an avid reader, a scribbler, a devoted father and husband and son and brother.

 

I was determined to see him in the nursing home, though I dreaded the concept of a locked floor, however necessary, however protective, as Alzheimer's patients wander. Still, it felt like an incarceration to me. I hoped that Harmer would not know that it was a locked space, that he would already be so far gone that there would be no knowing this, no understanding that he'd be alone in the dark at night far away from his loved ones.

 

 It had been almost a year and Judy warned me that I might not recognize him, that he might not recognize me. We arrived during a chair exercise class, Harmer trying to follow along.  He looked deceptively like the man I remembered, the man in my memory box, but he missed all the beats and raised his left hand instead of his right and his right hand instead of his left. We met him in his room, which Judy had painstakingly straightened and organized as we waited for his arrival from the class. His expression was gleeful as he saw me, or was that my imagination? We hugged. My first words were, "I've missed you, Harmer." And he replied, "I've missed you, too."

 

Later, as Judy spoke to a social worker, I sat next to Harmer, put my arm around his shoulders and said, " How are you feeling?" And he said, "I am feeling sad. I am feeling bored." And then we both began to cry. Over lunch at a local diner he tried to say my name, but had to be reminded. Sentences began and then drifted away; Judy completed them. He ate more than I had ever seen him eat and he told an odd story about staying in control of something that has happened. "Oh, so you can control it," I said. "Yes," he answered. He wasn't distraught, he was satisfied that I had understood.

 

On the way back, walking in the sunshine, enjoying the fresh air, he constantly veered to the right with his walker and we made a joke of it until, finally, he almost drifted into the street, oncoming cars rushing by, and we had to rescue him.

 

Outside the doors of every room, an enfiladed hallway, are small vitrines, family-made memory boxes for every resident of the home, reminders to their loved ones of who they used to be once upon a  time, of what they looked like when young and hopeful. There is no future tense here, no becoming, no aspiration. The enfiladed hallway, the vitrines, are not memory boxes so much as memorials, sentinels on the way to a final resting place. 

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Before Photography

Giovanni Agostino da Lodi (active ca. 1467–ca. 1524), Head of a Bearded Man in Profile to the Right, ca. 1500, red chalk on paper. The Morgan Library & Museum, 1973.35:1, Gift of János Scholz. Photography by Janny Chiu, 2018.
 
 

I went to the Morgan to see an exhibition of  early Italian drawings by Botticelli, Da Vinci, Raphael and others. The Morgan gallery is small, which is one reason I like it. I meander slowly, digesting  the art in small doses. I take notes. I might write down the name of an artist and the title of a work I like, or I might write a sentence that has nothing to do with the work at all. I am not gathering any data, or conducting interviews, or acquiring knowledge in preparation for a test. I am totally free, drifting in and out of the galleries. I prefer to go alone and only rarely make a date with a friend. By the time I leave, I am not only relaxed, I am restored.

 

Before photography. I kept thinking of that as I wandered through the Morgan. These drawings, mostly portraits, were drawn from real life. And the people who sat for the portraits were once alive. I was a bit spooked by that notion, but transported also. The features were vivid, palpable—cheeks and lips and eyes. I began to imagine their lives—how they lived and what they said to their loved ones first thing in the morning. These drawings are not only artistic renderings created for pleasure and decoration, they are a document of past lives. I am curious about those lives, or the life of the artist, or the artist's process, which is so analogous to a writer's process, and often do some reading after an exhibtion to supplement the visit. The experience of the exhibition and the reading may get folded into a piece of writing, or not.

 

Art has always been my second love next to writing. I think the reason is that my father dragged me to art galleries all over New York City from a very young age. We would stand in front of the painting and he would try to describe how it was made—the medium, for example—or how it made him feel. Sometimes he was at a loss for words and would just sigh or stand quietly for a long time. I was never restles; I felt safe, engaged. My father was a surgeon, and like many surgeons, had dexterous hands and drew well himself. Once I found a stash of his sketch books and wanted to keep them. He wouldn't let me, so I put them back on the shelf, reluctantly. He gave me my own sketchbook and I tried to draw  but did not have the gift. I took classes and even applied to Music & Art High School, and failed. I wonder if my father was disappointed. I never had a chance to ask him.  I became a writer instead and try to draw well with words.

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Quiet Resistance

Otto and Elise Hampel were a working class couple living in Berlin during the Nazi reign of terror. He was a factory worker, she was a domestic. They were Nazi sympathizers, or Nazi sympathizers by default, if that is possible. Let's just say that they did not know any better at the time. Sound familiar? After Elise's brother  was killed in action in France in 1940, they woke up. Something was wrong, they decided. But what?

 

Uncultured and semi-literate in a culture that was noted for its literary masterpieces, the Hampels began to scratch their own version of resistance propaganda on more than 200 postcards, which today would read like sophisticated agitprop. The messages were simple, yet forceful, despite many grammatical errors and misspellings. They admonished ordinary citizens to protest the war machine by not serving in the German Army and refusing to donate to Nazi organizations. Though the Gestapo was everywhere, the Hampels scattered the postcards in mailboxes, stairwells and other locations all over Berlin. Resistance had taken hold of the Hampels and they hoped that their non-violent action would inspire others. It did not. Most people who found the postcards handed them to the Gestapo and the Hampel's were eventually caught. In 1943, they were both executed by guillotine. Their story was unknown until Rudolf Ditzen, aka Hans Fallada, was given their Gestapo file by a poet friend working for the Soviets just after the war. Fallada was smitten with the Hampels and wrote a novel about them in just 24 days called, "Every Man Dies Alone." Published in 1947, it became an instant best seller and has now been adapted into a movie, "Alone in Berlin," which I watched the other night on Netflix. Although it takes some liberties with the facts, the basic story is there, the dignity of the couple beautifully portrayed by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson. Some of my favorite young German actors are in it also, most notably Daniel Brühl and Katharina Schüttler.

 

Thinking about the Hampels as exemplars of extraordinary courage, my mind drifted to the silent, complicit majority in the United States Senate. They remain unmoved by the atrocities of the current administration and will be remembered as politicians who have damaged and disgraced our democracy.

 

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