Saturday, May 30, 2009

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Maya Angelou, American poet, b.1928


When the wheels get stuck I need a robust bout of swift walking until I have pushed the creative gear in forward motion again. When that happens, I head for the reservoir in Central Park. It’s been around for a while. Construction on the reservoir was completed by 1862. Officially named the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in 1994, it is surrounded by a well-tended running path. After a good rainy downpour Conservancy employees are on the track, rolling the excess from the path. I’m lucky enough to live so close to this patch of positive ions that in a few moments I am circling the watery duck haven and jogging the body and the mind.

Inadvertently memory is jogged as well. I am once again a majorette from blue-collar Astoria in a short red skirt, white satin blouse and gold cummerbund, high stepping in white cowboy boots and twirling my baton ahead of my dad’s drum and bugle corps, The Saints, in one of many parades we marched in Manhattan. We majorettes were known as The Angels. I know, I know. Project girls? Not even close. I remember thinking as we marched under the windows of the no doubt affluent and irritated Fifth Avenue residents that someday I would live near this park. And I do.

Earlier in the day I had joined the queue-with-no-end-in-sight at the post office. On my way I passed the Starbucks on Third Avenue, scene of a pipe bomb explosion the night before. Already the shattered storefront windows had been replaced. The FBI was parked outside, presumably on the lookout for political terrorists. Frankly I think blame might just as easily be laid on any one of their over-caffeinated customers. Have you ever tried that stuff? Better to take a caffeine addiction downtown to the Mud Spot—either the charming hippy throwback café on East 9th Street or wherever their bright orange truck is parked. Look for the peace flag on the side of the truck parked at Astor Place and join the like-minded queue. Really. Raise the two-finger salute for peace and drink their coffee.

Prepared for the interminable wait at the post office, I had my head buried in Virginia Woolf’s novel “Night and Day” until a friend in the neighborhood quietly interrupted me. John is a soft-spoken Englishman who follows Zen Buddhism and birds. I have been invited to the Chogye International Zen Center and am always pleasantly surprised to be greeted there by John, transformed from street clothes into the traditional robes of the teacher. He looked rather tired that morning, explained by a dawn bird walk in Central Park. He had also just returned from Michigan on a successful quest to see one of the rarest birds in the world, Kirkland’s Warbler. Usually the winged warblers will be found wintering like some humans in the Bahamas. Then they (the birds not the humans) fly off to Michigan, not for the newest automobile off the assembly lines (for as long as that lasts in the U.S.) but to nest in the young branches of Jack Pines. The return of the tiny bird’s gurgle is celebrated in Roscommon Michigan with its own Warbler Parade!

The reservoir served as one of the Manhattan locations in the 1976 film, “Marathon Man” where a depressing chain link fence bordered the running track since 1926 and towered well above eye-level. Once a birthday present from friends was to lift me fully clear of the fence for an unobstructed view of the Manhattan skyline at night. The famous scene in the film—a sadistic ex-Nazi dentist with a drill—is the kind of torture that is well known to me. I experienced not so long ago a pleasant enough periodentist with a less than deft touch which, sorry to say, not only tortured me but left a perfectly healthy tooth compromised. I strode past the pump house along the south end of the reservoir, not so much the lead in “Marathon Man” and more like one of the vast extras in “Crappy Union Dental Plan Woman.”

The film was made at a time when one could truly ask about a night time walk in the park or run at the reservoir: “Is it safe?” I’m a native New Yorker and by virtue of that appellation was rather fearless…or stupid. Impatient, as always, I often hurtled through the north end of the park from the west side late at night when the crosstown bus was nowhere to be seen. In the summer I ran around the reservoir after nightfall. It was the best time. Quiet in a way that made one think the dense darkness was rife with luminous faeries if the imagination darted past the obvious glow of fireflies. 
Photograph: Ronald Thomas 1989

Fearless but not without some native sense of preservation, I was a painter then and carted my French easel into the park at 2 A.M. with whomever I could persuade to accompany me. My roommate at the time was easily bought off with a promise of a good home cooked meal. Another male friend, a photographer and a Viet Nam vet, came along with his camera on other nightly expeditions. In exchange he got my Italian racing bicycle. I would work at smaller studies until the sun began to rise, later developing the oil sketches in full-blown canvases.

I did this fairly regularly until April of 1989 when a young woman, forever known as The Central Park Jogger, was violently attacked and left for dead. By 1990, five young men were convicted, all of them African American. Phrases like “Wilding” were freely bandied about in the press and the public outrage against these young men—boys really—was explosive. Charges detonated on both sides. There was police coercion to get confessions. A 1965 hit song by the Troggs—Wild Thing—was briefly resurrected. It wasn’t until 2002 that an incarcerated lifer’s confession to the crime, bolstered by DNA evidence, allowed the convictions of the accused to be vacated.

On the running track I scope out the array of ducks, sea gulls, and cormorants sailing blithely under an overcast sky of a late afternoon. It was a good time to be out. Early morning draws the testosterone-driven, gearing up for a workday. Stabby runners are too much to deal with most mornings.

Now there is a cast-iron ornamental fence around the reservoir, closely resembling the original. The upside, of course, is opened up vistas, where once it felt like you were circling a protected Superfund site. The downside—for me—is the swell of tourists, which seems to grow larger every year. There are the unfocused tourists who can’t read universal signs prohibiting bicycles from the track to contend with but a cloudy day usually drives them indoors, leaving a relatively empty running path. For the few tourists around I feel compelled (sometimes) to direct them to the north end of the reservoir for the spectacular perspective on Manhattan’s skyline. French, English, Italian, Asian couples all have the same request, delivered in the same manner: digital camera raised to me as I approach and the moving finger to indicate camera, two people, picture please? “You are a professional, no?” No, I tell them. My camera may look professional but I am not. I prove that by fumbling stupidly with the tiny point-and-shoot handed to me.

Bird watchers can be spotted now and again hunkered on the path, stalking a particular bird. There are nearly 200 species to look out for. The website for the Central Park Conservancy states there are “…five different species of gulls and over 20 species of waterfowl, grebes, cormorants, and loons.” I am presuming they mean birdy loons and not the human kind. There are more than 20 varieties of the human loon.

The aptly named Chris Bird, who is a zoologist at the University of Cambridge and a leading researcher of the Rook has determined that these big black birds that populate the English countryside rival the chimp in intelligence. Among other cerebral feats they can fashion hooks out of wire! Intelligent in a Rook; dangerous left to a New York City pigeon who’d just as soon hot wire a car.

I have my favorites of the birds. The cormorants. When I run with The Mister we always exclaim, “There they are!” Alone and shouting the same thing, I would certainly be thought of as one of those loons. We are always entertained by the group of them on the roof of the pump house at the north end, crowding together like a club of grumpy old men, beaks flapping, making pithy observations on the humans below, I’m sure. There was a swan sighted in early spring and I kept an eye out for it to return with a mate. And it did. But my excitement was short-lived as the couple left again, this time for good. One or the other partner was probably looking for more security, less view. Then once I stood with The Mister at the top of the reservoir and followed a mere speck in the late afternoon sky until it was a red-tailed hawk , coming straight for me, soaring just above my head.

It was a fine thing, being here on the running track, skirting around the duck couple who perambulate daily on the track, oblivious or uncaring about the thunder of runner’s feet flying by them giving the ducks wide berth. I didn’t need to be thinking about the news of the day. Rather than dwelling on Obama’s appointment for Supreme Court Justice and the fact that the Right will do their red-faced and shouty bit and look even stupider and whiter than they already are I can pause momentarily—or for as long as I like—and watch the turtles poke their snouts above the water's surface along the shoreline. I shook the unpleasant news that scientists had created a green-glowing monkey who passed along the gene to its offspring, making it easier to produce animals “…with versions of human disease for medical research.”

On the east side of the reservoir there is a boulder with a bronze plaque that reads: These cherry trees presented to the City of New York in memory of Otto Marx 1870-1963. I can’t find him in Land ’O Google. Maybe he was just a man. A kind man who deserved a grove of cherry trees named in his honor. That would be enough for me.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

“Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.” René Descartes

For Christopher

Return, remake, remember.
Wake yourself from sorrow’s tremblor.
Return the key to your escape.
Step back into love’s embrace.
Remake rooms that make you safe.
Hold your present close and wait,
Byzantium lies near to Brooklyn.
Darbukas beat a nightsong tender,
Pulse and steer your New York gait;
Gives you new and stronger wings.
Return, remake, remember things.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Comrade, I give you my hand, I give you my love more precious than money, I give you myself before preaching or law; Will you give me yourself?”—Walt Whitman, American poet 1819-1892  

Tender Comrade

won’t be needing any battle cry
to call you to my side
i’m armed but I’m not dangerous
never crossed my mind
loving to the power of two
with you, with you
people run away from love
people run away

and even under grey skies
we’ll claim our place in the sun
in the sun
and we’re living the best years
looking for that crooked smile
comes around once in a while

won’t be straying far from kissing you
i’ll catch you as you fly
each step it takes to fall in love
is never out of time
loving to the power of two
with you, with you
someone pays the price for war
someone pays a price

and even under grey skies
we’ll claim our place in the sun
in the sun
and we’re living the best years
looking for that crooked smile
comes around

once in a while you look away
i think I see you crying
once in a while
but that’s okay
and it will come as no surprise

that under grey skies
we’ll claim our place in the sun
in the sun
and we’re living the best years
looking for that crooked smile
comes around once in a while
under grey skies
we’ll claim our place in the sun
in the sun
and we’re living the best years
fortune hides a crooked smile
comes around once in a while

Saturday, May 23, 2009


for Carole

“ALWAYS THE SAME. It’s a wonder she ever agreed to move to a place that had as its Latin motto ‘Semper eadem.’ And it wasn’t just moving, but relocating her life “…across the pond” as he liked to say. It seemed only fair. He had come to America on an adventure, on blind faith. After 20 years of marriage she knew that she too needed an adventure. If risks were to be taken, it had to be sooner rather than later. That was nearly twelve years ago.

Bette met him in Paris less than six months before they married in New York where she lived. Ian was a skinny, green-eyed monster guitar player from London, younger than she by more than a decade with a ferocious fix on writing that next big hit. Leicester was his hometown. It was the midlands of England he told her when she asked, “How do you spell that?”

She was a painter then, divorced, newly 40 and freshly blonde; ready to affirm her commitment to the Muse. Paris was her Rubicon and soon she would take that step into a two-hundred-year-old cottage in the south of France. The woman she was staying with in Paris loved nothing better than to manage her friend’s life, though her own as a writer was left to flounder under the many altruistic projects she allowed to sidetrack her literary ambitions. She had a great heart and infinite generosity. Bette was her project and she could paint in peace, her friend decided, if she lived as caretaker in her cottage. Her friend would manage brief escapes from Paris but would write in another part of the cottage. The light was painter’s light. “Ce sera amusement!”

Bette had only to sublet her apartment in Manhattan. First, she would head south for a dry run; a few weeks on her own to see if life would suit her in a Romanesque village tucked into the verdant bowl beneath huge limestone cliffs the area was noted for and which her ghost-loving friend called primeval. An ancient abbey carved among the clay-shingled cottages in the village. Fresh bread and produce were available daily. Bookshops and cinemas were ten miles away. There was one restaurant in the sole hotel but it had a bar. That would have to do for amusement. There were other artists in the area. Bette’s French was rusty but her friend assured her it would return in a rush as she would have only Madame Lagarrigue to depend on to help her settle in when the robust woman wasn’t shepherding new arrivals to hotel rooms. Madame spoke no English at all.

Inescapable fate tripped her up in a restaurant the night before she left Paris. Other friends had invited her along for a raucous evening of dinner and drinks at a long table in a very tiny dining room where a trip to the outdoor toilet—or hole—meant one had to negotiate the impossibly narrow kitchen and squeeze between the voluminous buttocks of the husband and wife who ran the place as they bent over steaming cast iron pots. Ian had been visiting those friends, on a break from the London-based band, and was invited along.

They made love back in the room at her friend’s apartment in Belleville. Exhausted and hung over they watched from the terrace as grey dawn crept across Paris until it insinuated the inevitable between them. Negotiating early morning truck deliveries, she weaved with him down a steep hill to the Metro. Ian went back to London and the band. A few hours later she left for the south.

The next thing she knew he was on her doorstep in New York and then, the next, next thing she knew they were downtown at City Hall getting married. Paris and the south of France disappeared like the further reaches of the Brooklyn Bridge shrouded under the downpour on their wedding day.

Painting was a struggle after marriage. Marriage was a struggle after marriage. No matter what they say, some thing—or some one—has to give, even between those who love at first sight. Egos need nourishment and not just from impudent love. Bette went back to her old job in publishing, designing book covers for waggish young novelists who all lived in Brooklyn it seemed. In her own time she’d put down the brush and created stories with no real clue as to her future as a writer. Her colleagues read her stories and encouraged her but Bette shied away from their eagerness. Younger than she by many years, she was sure they were humoring her. She wrote a novel. One young editor, a gay man she’d formed an attachment to, was especially ‘psyched’ as he put it. Let me show this around he urged.

Ian took to New York like a plectrum to guitar strings. Here was the metronome he craved; steady chaos. Manhattan was more compact than London and more stimulating than Leicester. The city’s backbeat was familiar and yet still untried. He found his way more easily on the subway than he did on the underground in London. Connections to music did not come as quickly. He posited their upper eastside location was the reason, too far away from the downtown action. After awhile he came to love the proximity to Central Park as much as she did. He formed a band, which drew a local following.

They were meant for each other. She was sure of that. But she knew there would have to be a little bridge connecting them to keep them from getting lost. They started writing songs together. She forgot about the novel until it landed in the right place at the right time, “World’s oldest first time novelist” and all that. Not exactly true but the only way to sell a fully matured plant in a field of younger, more colorful wildflowers.

But she resisted the call of celebrity and though she managed a few book tours when Ian could join her she panicked at the mere suggestion that she appear on women’s talk shows. Everything that came after that novel, every short story, and the second novel weren’t nearly as successful because financial freedom and creative freedom had brokered no acceptable compromise. Sensitively described inner lives drawn in the first book became pretty skins in the rush to follow up that initial success. Her agent panicked and begged her for any old thing. Bette dug out a children’s book she had written and illustrated when she was painting. Surprisingly, it sold and sold well despite Bette’s resistance to reading aloud to jittery children circled around her in dusty libraries. It was the parents who ‘got’ the book anyway.

Sales from her first novel were fine as they were—there had been talk about film rights—and it brought more interest to their songwriting. Her children’s book was extra padding. The income from that book and her first novel—along with a few of their songs, which had made it to movie sound tracks—was more than sufficient. She hated being pestered by anyone, especially by an agent. So, when Ian’s mum died a few years after his father she fostered the idea that they move back to his hometown. It was landlocked and she would miss island living but they were a team. Really. And you went where your team went.

BETTE LIFTED THE PEN from her journal when she heard the ruckus of returning musos. “He’s home, right?” Their cat mewled and looked to her as if for permission before slipping downstairs. The only stipulation to living abroad was that their old cat in Manhattan served out his time there. Cat free but not for long, they arrived in Leicester and as soon as they were installed on Montague Road they were adopted by the grey kitten who’d entered through the cat flap they had inherited in the door to the garden.

The house was smaller than they needed it to be when they bought it. It was on a street lined with terraced Victorians, all nearly identical. The idea of settling into Ian’s family home in a village in Leicestershire after the house was left to him was quickly vetoed by Bette and they sold it. They could have afforded something bigger along Howard Road but they had a fine garden here and Ian was able to secure a vacant plot at the bottom, extending their haven. She gazed through the large window—curtain-free and augmented only with ivy—to the bottom of the garden where they had built a state-of-the-art recording studio. It was meant to be her writing shed but she was happy enough in the room at the top of the stairs, preferred it actually, especially when the band was over. They afforded extensive renovations and she’d had a conservatory added to the kitchen and there was room for friends from abroad only she could never quite take on that ‘abroad’ had been home.’

A clamorous thudding below signaled guitar cases. They were in for a night. Ian and his merry band of reprobates, as they referred to themselves, had been playing at the Saturday afternoon session at The Blessed Burro. Usually she was in attendance—they were her songs, too—catching up with the wives, lovers, and partners of the rest of the band. But lately she’d preferred the bit of gardening that she did on her own to the noise of the pub crowd on a Saturday afternoon unless it was raining. Then she curled up with a book or her journal; couldn’t remember the last time she’d completed a short story though many starts were made. Unable to sleep she watched old American films, especially the ones about New York, like Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Late last night Ian arrived home in the middle of Butterfield 8. “I’d have to call my story Astoria 4,” she joked, referring to her childhood neighborhood in New York. “Do you miss New York?” he asked and then answered for her, “’Course you do.”

Did she miss New York? The DVDs she watched recalled the massive flower beds atop the medians on Park Avenue, how the arrival of spring was marked by thousands of tulips and crisply uniformed doormen in her neighborhood who appeared like blue jays under the building canopies when the weather lightened and greeted passersby with cheerful familiarities. She watched Rent because it was filmed on the lower east side but it was an unsatisfying journey. Films like Desperately Seeking Susan were better but she connected more to Hester Street, though it was way before her time.

Never mind. Ian was happy as a clam. He played more gigs here than he’d ever done in New York with none of the pressure. He was even a bit of a star in his hometown. They liked their married life and what reassurances they had with each other.

They left New York in ’97. Bill Clinton was president. The so-called Oklahoma Bomber, Timothy McVeigh was convicted. Bette remembered feeling unsettled in ‘93 when a truck bomb exploded in the garage of one of the World Trade Center towers. The year they left New York they went with the hundreds of thousands of other ticket holders to see the remake of the movie Titanic and left the country with that same sinking feeling. The other shoe dropped for her as they watched, surrounded by friends in Leicester, the news of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11. She’d endured the vitriol that followed the sudden “We are all New Yorkers” empathy that flooded them until the rest of the world was drowned in Bush’s retaliatory rhetoric, murderously escalated and acted upon. They drove down to London to visit friends and watched America install an African American family in the White House. When they left New York China was exterminating chickens due to an outbreak of a deadly influenza. Today it was Egypt ridding the world of the porcine carriers of swine flu.

“HELLO LOVE.” Ian greeted her as she turned from the stairs into the front room. Bette pursed her mouth to be kissed. What a nice surprise it had been to discover his eyes were not sci-fi green but that they were blue, like hers. Contacts. And once the henna faded his ginger hair seemed finer, less fraught than the strangled dreads some stylist forced on him for the London band’s promo shots.

“Kettle, yeah?” Bette loved this return to an English turn of phrase he embraced so soon after they arrived and never lost again. The mad trips abroad from New York were particularly necessary, in her mind, for that idiomatical top up when his accent developed rounded corners. Stanley, Pete, and Neil stumbled through the door. Simon was already lighting a joint. Amazing, at his age.

“You get the tea,” she said, and then smiling at Stanley asked: “Do I need to get in some more wine?” “No worries, love,” he replied. “Carolyn will be by later with the stuff.” Simon grinned broadly and asked if it was all right for “uncle” to be invited in. “Indulging in a bit of herb now that the missus is away?” Bette quipped. “How is Maggie? I miss her.”

“’Ere, love. Can you get the car? She’s still at The Burro, in the car park.” Ian grinned sheepishly, shaking the car keys at her while the others marched their instruments through to the shed in the back garden. “Had a bit too much,” Ian winced. Bette pulled a face and then rolled her eyes. It was her signal of acquiescence. “Would ya? Could ya? ‘Course I will,” she laughed.

WEATHER WAS PSYCHOTIC in England. Winters had grown bitter, harsher than anyone ever remembered. Summer brought unusually hot days, and people sweltered in the absence of air conditioning. Temperatures on a spring day could run the gamut and clouds were never far from the horizon. That day was predicted to be warm, but Bette slipped into a sweater, flipping the mouse brown braid from her back. Gray hairs appeared still only sporadically. Even after a dozen English years she did not call a sweater a jumper. Some phrases had made their way into her vernacular but she slid more often into an expressive New York familiarity. Never really here nor there, her accent leapt there more often than not. She started in the direction of Queens Road, basking in the late afternoon sunshine that had sharply sent the morning clouds packing. It was still chilly though and she walked briskly.

A walk would clear her muzzy head. For a while now she had been feeling bereft, but of what she had no idea. Bette had not yet told Ian of the panic attacks because she wasn’t sure that’s what they were. Aging had its downside to be sure and what were once delicious terrors for a young woman were now fears that had less time to justify themselves as new adventures. She demurred when the joint was passed around out back in their garden. “My teeth,” she offered and nobody challenged that excuse.

She turned on to Welford Road. Thank the goddesses for the women: Amy, Maggie, Carolyn, and Imogene. All four were younger than she, not by much except for Carolyn. Bette began to sweat, anxious. She shed the sweater and tied it around her waist. She hardly saw Simon’s wife Maggie anymore. Retired, she visited her children and their families who were scattered all over the globe, the furthest being in Japan, leaving Simon to his music and his pot. There were long hikes with Imogene who adored the countryside. Clutching hand drawn maps on scraps of paper she led Bette on quests for sloe berries in late fall and nesting ospreys in spring. Even in her late 60’s Imogene looked the part of the romantic Gothic heroine, having stepped from the pages of a bodice-ripping novel. Cemeteries were just acres of storytelling and her eccentric tales of family history were always entertaining. Imogene lived up the road from them, a comforting rationale for Bette when they bought their house. Amy lived in Brighton now. People went away at Christmas—a holiday Bette never celebrated and felt some guilt over avoiding until Ian’s parents were dead and it was too late for remorse. They inherited Ian’s family’s tree ornaments and then went away to Brighton at the holiday.

Carolyn was her closest friend in Leicester, the youngest of her friends and nearer to Ian’s age. Retirement was looming for Carolyn. She’d risen in the ranks of her profession quite quickly since Bette’s arrival in Leicester. Then Carolyn was something called a Locality General Manager for the NHS. She had a sharp intellect and impressive reserves of energy that sent her off into the community of general practitioners, supporting their presence so that patients could get out from under the collective clinical thumbs of the hospital monopoly that mired them in Beckettian time waiting for appointments. Their daughter—hers and Stanley’s—had long since been on her own living the muso life up in Manchester. Carolyn had traversed a wide enough political minefield to develop a hardened skill and was mulling a run for city council after retirement.

That energy and sharp intellect proved a foil for Bette who was often antagonized into intellectual discourse with her. Or so she felt. After awhile she became impervious to the implications and soon saw it for the honesty it was on Carolyn’s part. It became less the feeling of being kept in line and more the challenge to keep up. She was glad Carolyn would be by later. She might get a chance to tell her friend about the panic attacks, the haze that descended without warning when she’d find herself gazing into the fridge or a cupboard unable to recall what she was looking for.

BETTE STARED from the bottom of Montague Road up at the long row of panels until they became doors but they all looked the same, like a colorful deck of cards lining the road. She’d parked the Volvo but felt like she had forgotten something. Searching her pockets she was reassured by the car keys. She drew her hand across her brow and felt the sheen of perspiration that had bloomed there. Quickly she ran through numbers in her head: phone number, bankcard. Her address, what was her address? She felt the slow release of panic being rung from her heart. This was silly. She was on her street. Imogene lived on the street. But she was away, somewhere in the Orkneys bird watching. Bette remembered that. She had not remembered to take the cell phone, a habit she never cottoned to. One button would have had Ian on the line. But what could she tell him? That she was at the bottom of the road and could not remember which was her house? She could have been asking if they needed anything bringing in—oh, and by the way, what’s our address?

The solution would be to walk, she reckoned. That’s how things got sorted between them. It was a lovely day still, the air bracing under a late afternoon sun. Bette slipped into her sweater, buttoning to the neck. She’d just let her inner tide lap at her consciousness until it tossed up her address. Ian and the guys would be in the shed and by the time he missed her she would have remembered and returned home.

Back on Queens Road she was relieved to see everything in its place. She had not suddenly been transported to a twilight zone. There was the Jones Café. Ugh, and the fast food shop with the lurid yellow and green front that seemed to have followed them from America. Bette headed for Victoria Park, passing the Cuban American bar where she had often joined her friends for a girls’ night out. When she’d first arrived in Leicester to live she was shot down practically before she could even suggest drinks at The Clarendon. That dump? So, she bowed to the majority rule. Ian often kidded her that the reason she settled so quickly on their house had something to do with the close proximity to The Clary, as they called the local pub. A hangover she recalled even twelve years later—that she remembers—put her off mojitos forever and she was content to stick with red wine forever after.

The park was still fairly crowded with weekenders making the most of the break in the weather. If she missed anything about New York it was Central Park. If she missed anything…of course she did. But apart from the obvious like the proximity to Central Park and the short trip to the ocean she wasn’t exactly sure what it was. But it was definitely something. Bette crossed the park heading for New Walk. This was nice, this walking. She didn’t feel lost. Everything was familiar. Traffic-free New Walk was her usual route into the city centre. She’d just keep walking for a bit.

Ahead was the art museum and then it hit her. The painting. She was missing the painting. They had brought some of her old canvases with them but the remainder stayed behind in a storage unit they paid for yearly. That was her decision. Without warning an emotional cap unscrewed releasing vaporous memory. Her eyes brimmed with tears. What had she done? Leaving her city, her home. She swatted weakly at the confusion. What was her address? Now she could not even remember the street…road…street—no, dammit—road! She caught the eye of a young couple. Their look of concern frightened her even more. She pulled the hem of her sweater to her eyes, smiling wanly. “Allergies, eh? What are you gonna do?”

Bette walked quickly. She felt old. For the first time she since she got here she felt old. Oh she had no illusions that she was aging. The people she loved were too. Ian looked more like his father every day. She came to the open plaza at the new theatre, called The Curve. The massive belly of glass—architecturally striking—had been insinuated into lanes more accommodating to smaller Victorian structures. Somehow it worked. Bette looked up at the building. They had been to many fine theatrical productions here. Not so much lately. A city could reinvent itself, sometimes without thinking, and appear more youthful. Humans couldn’t do that short of cosmetic surgery and that never worked.

LONDON ROAD. The music shop was just ahead! She would ask Liam to get her a cab; tell him she misjudged her stamina for such a long walk and now she needed a ride home. Bette brightened. Of course, this was perfect. Liam knew Ian since he was a pup and had been to their house many times. A swift but fleeting return of anxiety: she is afraid that she’ll look too relieved and he’ll know. They will all know. But no, when he called a cab for her he would give the dispatch operator her address. She nearly wept again, this time from relief and stood for a few moments beside a bicycle parked in front of the shop.

Liam had long since retired the running of the business to one of his sons but Bette knew he couldn’t let go entirely and was seen in the shop on most days. The other son, Jess, was slow. He’d been in a motorcycle accident in his youth, and now, a grown man in his forties; he had the emotional and mental capacity of a careful child. Ian had somehow gotten roped into driving Jess to his art classes out by Hallaton and Bette gently reminded him how much Liam had done for Ian and if he was going out that way to pick up Pete every week what was the difference? Jess even came to the house, leaving his bicycle in the passageway. “He doesn’t say anything.” “He’s slower than you,” Bette reminded him. “Be kind.” Ian carped but she knew he would not let Liam down.

At that moment Jess strode from the shop, backpack slung over his broad shoulders. His hands were large and he was careful in the way that made others feel clumsy. He had on a faded brown t-shirt from a well-know music shop on Bleecker Street in Manhattan which his father had brought from a business trip years before. He wore wide-wale corduroy trousers all year, even in the hottest months. Jess delivered quiet, under-the-breath commentary that unnerved some people but it made Bette laugh because it was very sharp observation if you listened closely.

He came closer to her, towering over her. His hair was unkempt but smelled clean. He smelled of turpentine and oil paint. Splotches of color, like tattoos, flowered across his knuckles. Bette smiled at him. “Want a ride?” he said. He pulled the bicycle away from the building. Bette stuttered, “No, I’m just….” Jess straddled the bicycle. “Hop on.” She protested. “At my age, don’t be silly.” He nodded to the bar where she could sit “side-saddle.” “Hop on,” he repeated. “Do you know where I live?” she asked cautiously. He looked at her as if she was daft. “Of course,” he replied and rolled his eyes crazily, as if for effect.

SHE FELT LIKE A GIRL gripping the handlebars between his much larger hands. He revealed that truth was he didn’t much like her husband. Well, he does but he knows he’s an inconvenience for a busy man. Oh, she laughed, he’s not so busy. Musicians are never busy. When they reached Victoria Park Jess asked her why she didn’t paint anymore. How did he know that? That painting—that was her father, right? He loved that painting. Bette, shyly pleased at his praise, promised to show him the other portrait she’d done; the one of Ian’s father. It was hanging in the recording studio.

“We could maybe paint together some time, yeah? In your garden, if it’s all right….” His voice trailed off and they were in front of her house. Her house! Carolyn was standing outside in the dwindling light, her blazing fringe of flame-red hair capping an anxious expression. “Hiya Jess,” she cried before an uncharacteristic peck on Bette’s cheek, squeezing her arm. “Everything all right?”

Ian appeared from behind the partially opened front door and waved to Jess. “Rescued the missus, eh?”

“Yes,” Bette said, sliding from the bicycle. “He rescued me.”

THE ART STUDENT is a short story by Linda Danz.

STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. ©2009

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

“We could live offa the fatta the lan'.” Lennie in Chapter 3 of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men


On Martin Luther King’s birthday yesterday two significant events occurred. There was a rally to demand a new trial for Troy Davis who is on Georgia’s Death Row. And Missouri carried out its first execution in 4 years. Texas was busy executing its 15th prisoner this year.

On Saturday I met up with the book club of
CEDP: The Campaign To End the Death Penalty. Afterwards I stayed to help stuff envelopes with the latest edition of The New Abolitionist for the prison letter-writing group. The book club has just finished reading Christian Parenti’s Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. We’ll be on to the new book by Mumia Abu-Jamal: Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A.

I am a relative newcomer to this group. The other members of the book club are hardcore, extremely devoted people who are working tirelessly to end the death penalty in this country, and not just the heinous executions but also the living hell of life without parole (LWOP).

For my entire adult life I have been against the death penalty. More times than I care to recount I have been stunned, not only at the obvious supporters but even more so when liberal thinking, supposedly left wing friends and acquaintances shocked me with their support of it when the subject has come up. And it always comes down to the ‘If you only had a child’ or ‘If you had ever been raped’ or ‘If a loved one had ever been murdered’ that gives them the so-called right to tell me I am wrong for my beliefs.

What finally directed me to CEDP was the execution of
Stanley “Tookie Williams, a case I had begun to follow when the groundswell of support rose in my consciousness. And in every presidential election I have been bitterly disappointed by candidates whose liberal appeal disguised a pro-death penalty stance. Barack Obama is one of those as is his Vice-President Joe Biden. Hillary Clinton, too. Her husband scooted back to Arkansas in ’92, leaving the campaign trail to execute a brain-damaged young Black man named Ricky Ray Rector, presumably in a hurry to return to less unpleasant pastimes. The list goes on.

One of the few lighted lamps in a shadowed controversy is Dennis Kucinich, a man not given to coddling the American public and instead speaking of his beliefs without compromise. He is on record as being against the death penalty.

Our president seems to have backpedaled on a few issues that got him elected. Exposing and disciplining the torturers doesn’t seem to be worthy of discussion and Mr. Hopey thinks we should all just move on.

So does the folksy American storyteller, Garrison Keillor. I used to listen, almost religiously, t
o Prairie Home Companion in the late 70s and early 80s. Until that storyteller deftly incorporated a chunk of Mark Twain into his narrative and then promptly forgot to credit the author. Years later I peeked in again, nudged by Robert Altman’s last wonderful film about the radio show broadcast from the mythological Lake Wobegone. It was a question of a so-called “Liberal Democrat” keeping a bunch of less liberal listeners in thrall. I could never really tell where Mr. K. was going. His regular column online at Salon was even more confounding. Was it satire? If it was, then why was he making me angry? And why was Mr. Cranky sounding more and more like Mr. Republican?

are these men and women?

So, pretty much disgusted with nearly every politician, the government in general and deeply closeted-to-the-right Democrats, I knew I needed to make an effort; that eye-brow raising and shoutiness when confronted by the self-righteous supporters of the death penalty would no longer suffice.

In Harlem on Saturday, I headed for the
Hue-Man bookstore on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. I passed the statue of Harriet Tubman at the intersection of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, St. Nicholas Avenue and 122nd Street. Tubman was a runaway slave who was a courageous conductor of the Underground Railroad, spiriting slaves through the night to freedom in the North. She also championed the vote for women. The sculpture is a powerful image though why it faces south is a mystery.

Thinking about slavery and its horrible history I wondered about latter day ramifications of the economic collapse in this country. Perhaps too many of us, like Lennie in
Of Mice and Men had proceeded under the very wrong assumption that to “…live offa the fatta the lan'” was the way to happiness, making us slaves to the banks and the real corporate rulers of society.

The book club meeting was a lively interchange of ideas on what Christian Parenti had to say about prisons in the United States. The situation is so bad that it can’t come close to being described as ‘dismal.’ One aspect of the book dealt with the militarization of the prison system. I had recently read a rather disturbing article accompanied by a horrifying photograph of fresh-faced youths with automatic weapons in the New York Times: Scouts were being trained to fight terrorists.
Boys and girls Scouts! Oh, and the headline had in addition "…and more." Red-blooded American boys and girls who rose in the scout ranks to Explorers were being trained in the skills necessary to confront terrorism, illegal immigration and the ruckus at borders created by those huddled masses, wretched refuse and homeless who yearned for freedom. And instead of a lamp, an automatic weapon would be lifted to show the way out.

Now I remember my childhood friend Billy McDaniel. He lived with his family in Hicksville, Long Island where we traipsed out to see him inducted into the highly regarded rank of Explorer Scout. In a solemn ceremony reminiscent of Native American tradition we watched awe-struck as he and the other inductees were carried across a lake on canoes. On shore the ‘leader’ finalized the ceremony with a sharp punch to the chest of each scout. A collective wincing on the part of mothers in attendance was nearly missed under the puffed chests of proud fathers.

But now the Explorer Scout can look into the eyes of an old lady waiting at a busy intersection and judge whether or not the blue-haired, cane-weilding dame is a terrorist or not before scooting her to the other side or shooting her. Tying knots is probably a thing of the past unless it’s to secure a suspect to a water board.

The book club meeting ended and I stayed behind with a few others in the prison letter-writing group. Removing staples, the least fun part of stuffing the
The New Abolitionist into envelopes, is necessary because all metal is prohibited from prisoners’ mail. Letters from those who are incarcerated were passed around to be read. I noticed a reference to mice in one letter and asked the woman to whom it was directed if she had, indeed, solved her mouse problem. Oh, no, she said, it was terrible! She had glue traps plastered like wallpaper to catch the buggers. As The Mister and I—and our big black cat Sidney Vicious—are a non-violent bunch we used the humane traps when visited by the furry creatures and then relocated them to the bucolic setting in Central Park. I offered the suggestion that I had happily discovered that peppermint oil is an excellent deterrent and has seemed to rid us of these uninvited guests. The response from the others was unanimous: best to kill them all.

On the way home I passed The Crenshaw Cristian Center on 96th and Central Park West. A billboard-sized sign declared: “For we walk by faith, not sight,” from II Corinthians 5:7. I guess it’s all about what we choose to see.

Today in the U.K. at the Guardian online:
Rally for Troy Davis
May 19, 2009, Union Square, New York City