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Lockdown

Photo © copyright by Axel Schmidt on October 13, 2019: demonstrators in Bebelplatz Square, Berlin after the synagogue burning in Halle.

I was sitting in the Writing Center at a two-year community college where I had been hired as a professional tutor to help students with their essays and other assignments. The college has a wide catchment area, urban and rural. I am new to the area having just moved from New York City about a year ago, and am still trying to figure out the culture. There is a lot of poverty, a lot of struggle, big houses alongside shacks and trailers, the gentry coming up from the city to buy up cheap property and ride their bikes on weekends on the narrow country roads. In other words, the community, and this particular college, and the writing center within the college, is a microcosm of our divided country with its huge income gap between rich and poor. I've had affluent overseas students, and students whose families have been in the county for generations leading hardscrabble lives. I've had veterans suffering from PTSD and a young mother who is going back to school for the first time since she dropped out of high school. So when a young man walked into the center wearing a fancy head set, which he did not remove, I was hopeful that either I, or one of my colleagues that day, would be able to help. But he was not in the center to get help with an assignment, apparently, though he obviously needed help, of a different kind. His movements were erratic, impulsive; he seemed unstable and troubled. He said hello to my two colleagues and then he swiveled, stopped in front of me, pointed his finger and said, "Jew." Immediately I questioned whether I'd heard him correctly.


"What did you say?" I asked him.


But he didn't answer my question.


How did he know I was a Jew? I look Semitic, but I could be Iranian, I could be a Cree from Saskatchewan, I could be Greek. Where did he pick up his racist ideas? His racist impulse? What radio programs or internet sites had he been ingesting without understanding their meaning and import?


I had just finished reading Eli Saslow's book, "Rising Out of Hatred," about the infiltration of mainstream political culture by the white supremacist movement. But the student who had called me a Jew was African American, so I was puzzled. Had he experienced so much racism and brutality himself that his scrambled mind now turned it on others? Maybe it wasn't music playing on his headset but a racist screed urging him on? Maybe he imagined himself to be white, or didn't know who he was, or where he was. What might he have hidden in his backpack?


The proliferation of weapons, the proliferation of foul ideas, one feeding the other as they take root in a mentally ill man, albeit an African American man. As a part-timer I'd missed the most recent lockdown drill, but had reviewed the various protocols before the term began; there have already been 22 school shootings in the USA in 2019. I am used to tight security at NYU where I have been an adjunct since 1997, and puzzled by the lax security at this public college which has an "open door, open campus" policy. Even members of the community can wander onto the campus, walk their dogs, or use the library. But this utopian ideal can be ruined by one terrible incident. The non-discriminatory policies enshrined in the Americans with Disabilities Act that protects students' rights and applauds access for all, education for all, is non-negotiable, as it should be. But what about the rights of the faculty, the other students, and the ancilliary staff?


My mind flashed to the "safe" closet just steps away, but we were all sitting, and this big, strong young man was standing, blocking the aisle. He rushed away and then turned back. Now he was standing in front of me again, jabbering nonsensically, and staring at me intently. I should have done a lot of things in that moment, but I was paralyzed. I'm a Jew, I thought, how does he know I am a Jew? Has he heard about synagogue shootings this year, seen the images on television? Does it make a difference that I am a secular Jew? That some of my European family are, in fact, Catholic? Is he going to hurt me?


My colleagues were watching, but didn't seem as alarmed as I was. Neither of them is Jewish, so how could they understand the iconic terror that had been unleashed in me? How could they understand that I still feel my parents' and grandparents' terror the day that Hitler marched into Vienna and my grandmother, Nanette, was forced onto her knees to scrub stones? She had been at work that day and was on her way home. How did the German soldiers know she was Jewish? She wasn't religious, did not wear a wig. How did they know?


Finally, the man left and I reported the incident to my supervisor who sent an email I wrote to document the incident to campus security. The Director of Safety and Security Services and the Dean of Students arrived to talk to me immediately and discussed what could be done. They were kind, professional, reassuring. The student has been suspended for now, they said, and there will be a hearing in a few days time. They didn't think he was dangerous, but one never knows. "I've been profiled based on my appearance," I told them. "Something triggered him. I feel shaken."


My father often said that we mustn't bring more Jewish children into the world only to be killed. He argued for assimilation, for secularism in the American diaspora. I was relieved to marry a man from Polish/Russian/Jewish ancestry who does not "look" Jewish, who would not be singled out and could—and this was probably an unconscious thought—protect me. And I was relieved when my daughter did not inherit my Semitic nose and then married a British man, an Anglo Saxon, and changed her name, all of these also unspoken thoughts. In fact, I am the only one in my immediate family to carry Middle-Eastern and/or North African genes on my face. Although I experienced anti-Semitism in England for the first time in my life, I had always felt safe in America, until I wasn't.

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Two More Shootings

Photo © Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, AFP/Getty Images

 

I needed a break from Facebook, or so I thought. I don't have any "friends" on Facebook I'd be ashamed of, or wouldn't want to meet for a coffee. There are one or two people I have not met and my impression of their lives is only what they choose to present—in photos and text—on the social media platform. For all of those I have not met, I hope one day to meet them. This is an open invitation. Still, I felt oddly disgusted the other day—not with political conversation—it wasn't that. All my FB friends are civil, or they would not be my friends. It was something else: the unending coldness of a medium—à la Marshall McLuhan—that fools us into thinking it is "warm," concerned and intimate. Because we enter the portal at a whim, according to our own timetable, we may or may not connect or converse. What we see and read is static, unlike a dynamic real-time conversation. The comments usually are quick, short and shallow. And I am a writer; I like to talk, to spin out ideas. So, from the start of FB, whenever that was, I have written long posts and I also post my blog. There is plenty of space to comment; there are no word restrictions. Indeed, I suggest to my students to take their time, to use Facebook as an opportunity to practice their writing. Readers can click off or scroll away; it's up to them.


So I was off Facebook for a day or so, maybe not even that long—and not entirely—as I kept lurking. A friend in Florida had a terrible car accident and how would I have known about this if I hadn't been checking-in? I wrote to her on Messenger and also sent her an email. She's not someone I've seen a lot over the years, but I care about her, of course I do. Our kids were toddlers in London together. We saw each other again in California years later, our kids grown, and we've kept in touch via FB. Pretty nice, I'd say. I wish we could talk on the phone, see each other, write more long, discursive emails like correspondents of yester-years because I don't want FB to become a substitute for deep, human connection. That is not sustainable for me. A writer, solitary so much of the time, requires more than sound-byte micro-connections. Well, we all do, I suppose. In fact, I am sure of it. More so in these hard times than ever. That's why I decided to go off FB for a while, to think about a rehabilitation of strong, close human connection and the uses and abuses of social media.


Here is my FB post of August 2:


Dear Friends,
I have decided to go off FB for a while. If you would like to have a real time, voice conversation, please call, or come to visit. You know where I am and I know where you are. You will be hearing from me, but not on FB. In other words, let us stay in touch with actual F2F or voice communication. Please text only to arrange or confirm, or if you need to get my attention quickly, but not to converse. Converse, as in conversation.
FB is a deceptively "warm" medium I plan to write about. I think it is because of the photos, but I am going to think more about this. (Back to my grad school subject.) We also know how it's being used politically—positively and negatively—so of great interest.
I will continue to post blog (notes )on my professional page, but I won't share them here.
Have a good rest of the summer— in reality, not virtually. Local friends, let's meet for a coffee—and talk.
All best,
Carol


A few dear friends responded, said they understood, said they'd miss my posts. I didn't thank them on FB, so I thank them now. Thank you.


Best laid plans. I am back. It was because of the shootings on Saturday, August 3rd, one day after I had decided to take a break. I had a terrible night's sleep, as did my husband. First thing in the morning, I read a 2012 Jill Lepore article about guns in America on the New Yorker Today feed, and decided to post it on FB:


https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/04/23/battleground-america?fbclid=IwAR0Zs5L19_2aU9e6EaazB7vXokIFP3P4adzHPiD8sgYgnJyI2RdeQfqhzYM


The commentary from friends started to come in, and it was long, narrative commentary. I was grateful and felt a sense of community, a sense of purpose, even a sense of safety, illusory as that might be. Any one of us can find ourselves in the line of fire. In fact, there was a shooting in the mall in New Paltz a few weeks ago: a son shot his father in front of the diner. No one else was hurt, thank goodness. I arrived a few minutes later during the stop action, everyone frozen in their cars and shoes. I parked far away from the huddle of law enforcement –it's a huge lot—and chatted to my real-time friends in the health store, a human-size store where it is easy to have a conversation. We all hypothesized about what had happened. And it was odd, we all agreed, that life—or shopping—was already back to "normal."


Racists with guns are on the loose in America abetted by racist politicians in Washington. As one of my FB friends said so succinctly this morning: It's a national emergency. Let us shout this loud and clear on every media platform at our disposal: It's a national emergency.



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Over the Mountains and Into the Sea

A Pieta by Maria Izquierdo, a lesser known Mexican painter (1902-1955) but no less powerful than Diego, Tamayo, and Frida.

 

Their clothes were shredded and reeked from natural and chemical odors. They had drifted into an oil spill on a raft of logs. First it was warm, then bitterly cold. They would have preferred a trek across the desert if only for a few minutes. They encountered desperadoes. They made it to a chateau and were permitted to use the telephone. They could hardly speak. Thus has the story come down to us in fragments: their courage, for example.

 

This is not a film script; it is an account of one escape among many escapes. My own paternal grandparents.

 

They chose the wrong escape route. They did not make it.

 

I read the stories about America's atrocities on the southern border, and the ICE raids—they will also round up "collaterals"—and  it is as though the fascist reign of terror crushed by the Allies in WW II has become undead and infected our government, a contagion spreading around the world. Like a germ that has remained dormant for a few decades—supra-nationalism, white supremacy—it  is with us again, persistent and strengthened. I know that this rendering is apocraphyl—there are laws now we did not have before—yet  it feels true to me today as the American government, itself, is lawless, amoral, cruel. Are there enough words to describe what is happening? Can we find the right words to describe what is happening?

 

We are witnessing a reign of terror perpetrated by our government. Somehow, the voting booth does not seem an adequate response.

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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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