Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The best New Year’s resolution

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Another year passes, but not with great anticipation for improvement as I have mostly hoped for before.
Some years are more hopeful than others, but many are simply an education on the futility of the world, and our inability to learn from our mistakes.
Madness, according to Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
We are a mad race, and one quick to abandon rules we cannot live up to, and so therefore believe should not exist.
I live in a bubble in some ways because our world is marching towards an apocalypse of our own making, and we are too stupid to even see it coming, let alone stop it, or pretend that we do enough – such as becoming paperless in favor of renewable energy, when in truth paper is renewable, and the devices most of us walk around with as if we are the walking dead come from resources in places we need to spill blood to get, and which cannot be regenerated, and behind us, we leave a landscape of electronic ruin so poisonous that our grandchildren will likely be born with three heads.
We have in some ways reverted to the misconceptions of the 1950s in which bigger is better, and I live in a city where I will eventually be driven out by this passion for hugeness I cannot possibly afford or would enjoy, although generations after me will see as normal.
This is the year when anti-racism became fashionable again – after decades of privileged whites hunkered down in suburbia with police to keep their borders safe. The righteous new breed of liberal found nothing wrong with invading a basketball team owners home to undercover his racism – aka any NSA or CIA operation – but then switched sides after cops killed black men in several high profile cases and found the cops under attack. For the generation of kids returning to the city streets bad laws and racist police practices helped make safe, picking a side was difficult.
Of course, that jerk Patrick Lynch screamed bloody murder when a New York City mayor pointed out how unsafe it is for people of color to walk the streets, while Lynch and his ilk protected bad cops who did the killings in the first place.
The so-called feminist movement managed finally to bring down Bill Cosby, adding yet more confusion over the race issue. This feeding frenzy is part of a larger anti-male backlash by largely hypocritical women who played with fire when they were younger in a strange daredevil game, in which they got their cheap thrills by hooking up with bad boys and then came to realize bad boys really are bad boys, and then started hating all men, good or bad. And in the process of liberation, morality and common sense have been abandoned for privilege.
Cosby, whose alleged sins clearly crossed all lines of morality, became a symbol of feminine power to strike back in a war as old as humanity itself and which will never end – partly because modern feminists buy into the media idea of beauty and attraction, and do not understand the basic wisdom that comes with not waving a red flag in front of a raging bull.
This is also the year when gender itself because a muddled mess, and going to a public toilet leads to some very confusing chamber mates. Gay liberation has been trying to mainstream gay life ever since Stonewall, but success is fraught with peril, and what transpires from here on end will be an endless confusion of political correctness, even the most politically correct will find as a minefield.
An old professor once told me that it is unwise to tear down an establishment – no matter how imperfect – before you know what you will replace it with.
We have no idea. We just tear down walls as if they are all like the one that once stood in Berlin – and sooner or later, we’re going to go too far and tear down the wall of a dam and have everything come crashing down on our heads.
New Years each year is always one step closer to that to me and so the best New Year’s resolution for me is to hope that someone somewhere knows what they are doing, when in fact, I know they don’t.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Seashore Christmas

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Our Christmas will be down the shore as we make plans to head there tomorrow.
I guess I’ve ached for this for some time, even though it is not the same shore town that I was used to traveling to each Christmas until my grandmother died, and the world as I knew it changed again.
This is a tough time of year for me, partly because time has stripped away all of the usual traditions I knew, and unlike with the past when such things occurred, no new traditions have replaced them.
When I split from my grandfather’s house in the late 1960s, I was able to find a new family among my friends, establishing a Christmas Eve tradition that filled in the gaps that often occurred with my regular family – especially during the upheaval of family life that took place during the 1970s.
But from about 1977 on, I made a regular trip to Toms River where two of my uncles, an aunt, my grandmother, and mother had settled.
So fixed a routine, I came to associate the beach and ocean with Santa Claus, and often spent Christmas Day strolling the board walk of Seaside, chill or no chill, feeling some empathy for the seagulls and their lonely cries.
Even my best friend wound up down there for the first few years of that routine, so that we not only got together for his birthday on Christmas Eve up north, but often met again on Christmas Day when he went to see his girlfriend in Toms River.
All this ended in 1991 with the death of my grandmother, and my mother’s move north a short time later. I thought perhaps I could revert to the ritual of fiends, who still gathered on Christmas Eve, but this came to an end in 1995 when my best friend died, and the group of friends scattered for the most part, and though we tried to get together again, it just didn’t feel right without him.
I made a few trips to Toms River during the 1990s to see in particular my ailing uncle, and once I even brought my mother south with me so that it almost felt like Christmases of old – it was the last time brother and sister would meet before that uncle died, and within a year, so did my mother.
The oughts as the early 2000s are called were largely devoid of tradition, a wasteland that lacked the spirit I had clung to for so long.

Discovering Asbury Park again, seems to have brought back a sense of this, and with the weather predicted to be bearable, we will go south again, hoping to pick up Santa’s trail, and like three kings far wiser than I’ll ever be, follow some star to some sense of rebirth somewhere we can hear the roar of the sea.

Slipping and sliding

December 18, 1980

Who is left but the color guard when the band ceases playing?
Crowds still clutter the sidewalk, a meandering mass that flows from one glittering holiday display to the next, like moths attracted to flame, seeking last minute shopping deals.
Meanwhile, a single drummer marks time for the last of Passaic’s parade with little left for the participants except to wait for next year’s performance.
Passaic is cold and the only paraders left are the pigeons waddling down the streets pecking at crumbs left by kids and other onlookers, who have moved on to do what is most necessary this last week before Christmas: shopping.
Thick clouds decorate the sky like a cotton roof stuck up there with glue and prayer, destined to fall a bit at a time and cover over streets already laden with ice and chunks of previously fallen snow.
It is still three days until the official start of winter, but the season stomps over this city with heavy boots.
It is my first winter in Passaic without Pauly and Garrick, who have moved on to better digs elsewhere in Jersey.
I feel alone – although their ugly faces keep popping into my head as I expect to see them around each corner, each saying “hello,” or “good bye” or “go to hell.”
I am completely isolated again, a condition I thought I had escaped by leaving the Montclair rooming house, only to discovered that I had packed my loneliness in my bags and brought it with me, only to unpack it now,
I carry it with me even as I stroll these sidewalks and hear the ring of the church bells.
Perhaps they are some sign of hope, something to cling to that will allow me to drag myself out of my current malaise.
Last night my girlfriend came stinking of Christmas cheer, and we cried.
I am so worried about her leaving for Colorado next August that I forget that I still have today.
I also forget how easy it is to lean on her for support and how heavy a burden I must be, knowing in the end I cannot depend upon her or anyone, but have to stand on my own two feet as I have always done – and doing so means being lonely.
It is perpetually winter and the ground always slippery, leaving us to grab hold of something or someone at intervals to keep from falling. But such things are always a temporary relief, something we cannot depend on to last, like an ice covered rail that appears at most need, but soon gives way and leaves us to stumble ahead without support or guidance.
There is the practical stuff such as getting another job now that the Christmas gig at Toys R Us winds down.
But after more than a decade working steady jobs, I understand that labor of any kind is just a trap, something I must do to survive, but should not expect to prosper.
The experiment of college has only incited me to riot, making me ache for things that are only remotely possible, dangling the hope of success when in reality offering only the key to a larger and more elaborate jail cell.
There is hope in it, but not for the mass of people who move through these like cattle to feed the job machine.
And yet, attending school was enough of a distraction for me to keep on. Now with the winter break, I’m lost again. My friends, who had until recently, shared my misery, gone to find new plantations, while I trudge along here in Passaic, slipping and sliding through life’s winters, fearing to tread, and yet equally scared to stay put.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A blue Christmas at Toys R Us

November 29, 1980

“It must be the heat,” one of the customers said as I rang them up and they moved on.
The heat?
My bones ached from the chill even inside the store where I was working for the Christmas rush.
Something had made my pen explode in my uniform shirt pocket, leaving a rink of ink like a bullet hole just over my heart, spreading like a disease to my fingers and then my arm. I even left stains on the cash register keys and left my fingerprints on a number of boxes. I claimed when customers complained that it came off poorly printed labels until some smart assed lady accompanied by a crude dude noticed the stain on my chest and asked if I was bleeding.
“Sure, I’m of royal blood,” I thought, but kept this to myself, bearing the brunt of their abuse with a grin.
I tried hard not to blush, but by then the blue had blotched my skin here and there, and I couldn’t get the manager to give me a break long enough so that I could go to the restroom to wash it off.
He passed my station several times with a strange twinkle in his eyes as if he thought all of this too funny to have it stopped so soon.
This steamed me. And each time I looked back down at myself, I found another patch of blue, and that the circle on my chest left its imprint on my inner arm as if I was Gutenberg and had just invented the printing press, using myself as both press and paper.
I did my best to hide these blue abrasions, bending my wrist in unnatural ways, slumping my shoulders until I looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
A lot of people looked at mere queerly. Most thought my whole act as amazingly funny. Some customers refused to move on immediately and would stand and stare and ask, “How come you have all that blue all over you?”
These were mostly kids so the concept of justifiable homicide would not have held up in a court of law.
Eventually, I gave up and started to boast about the pen that had exploded in my pocket, treating as if I had done it more or less intentionally.
Some of the people then came up with theories as to why it had occurred.
But not everybody was pleased.
One lady complained about the blue marks on the ears of the teddy bear she’d just purchased, and didn’t buy my claim that some of the bears came from the factory that way.
“It’s the humidity,” I said, trying not to look down at the poor stuffed creature and how I had marred it.
She pointed to my breast and its spreading circle and told me I was full of shit.
At that point, I told her I had to go to the men’s room, and flagged down the manager who was suddenly concerned about the hold up in the line, standing behind me to listen to my string of excuses.
Finally, he closed down my register and told me to go wash up.
“It’s the heat,” one of the customers said as I made my way away from my station.
But my ears and face were red with a blush that only made the blue marks look darker.
“Yeah, it’s the heat,” I thought.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

That Christmas in the projects

December 24, 1980

My mother has always loved Christmas.
Even when we were down and out and living in the roughest housing projects in Paterson, she refused to give up on the tradition.
Unemployed after suffering intense eye strain sorting through electronic parts at a parts warehouse in West Paterson, my mother’s money dwindled, and yet, at nine, I still pestered her for presents that I generally got in the more plush times when we still lived in my grandfather’s house in Clifton.
We were dirt poor, and took refuge in the heart of the ghetto where my mother ran often in her effort to escape a family she feared and resented.
I still don’t completely comprehend all the issues, only it evolved out of her mental illness, and has she regressed, we often fled into places like the projects or drug-laden places like Carroll Street in Paterson.
I should have felt guilty wanting so much when we had so little, but I was too young to fully understand the depth of our poverty or the extent of my mother’s madness.
I knew enough to not spend too much time in the apartment with her and the voices she claimed she heard, instead seeking refuge in the ruined neighborhood that surrounded the projects. But I had to come back to the apartment to sleep or to fix up my face after being in some fight or another with neighborhood gangs – not a race thing so much although my white face stood out too much in a neighborhood that was mostly one of color – but a conflict over importance and how little any of us had in that part of time.
We had a tiny Christmas fake tree set up in one corner of a very large and largely barren living room. For the most part, the Christmas tree was the only thing in that room because we lacked money or desire to purchase furniture. We didn’t even have rugs to cover the titled floors and so the reflection of tiny tree’s lights and the over abundance of tinsel glittered on the scuffed tiles creating an amazing, if also disturbing effect whenever I came into that room.
Sometimes, I would stand on our balcony and stare out at the other balconies encircled with blinking, colored Christmas lights, realizing that this was indeed Christmas, and I watched the first snow flakes fall while standing there as well, transforming the world beyond the projects into mounds of what might have otherwise seemed like sand, these, too, taking on aspects of the seasonal lights in the buildings beyond. Even the flash of passing police and fire vehicles seemed festive.
But I felt lonely and isolated a remote being that had no place in my mother’s mad imagination or even the violence of the streets. In those moments, I felt like I was the only person alive in the world, or that had I barely existed.
Sometimes it was difficult for me to tell what was mad, and whether there was more sanity in my mother’s voices than in the screams and gunfire I sometimes heard, or the violence I saw, or the fights I barely survived.
But during that moment when the snow first came, when the scars of the half demolished buildings got smoothed over in shrouds of white, everything seemed perfect, yards filled with this magical stuff that had arrived just ahead of Christmas as if a perfect present for me.
In the morning, of course, all this would change as the white surface became marred with thousands of footprints. But even then, when I made my way down into the muck, and left my own mark, it felt good for the moment. Perhaps I didn’t think much about how soon that mark would fade.
All such markers do over time or lose significance.
I don’t think I actually believed in the existence of Santa Claus at that point, something that had last only for the few precious years when I lived at my grandfather’s house while my mother resided at Graystone.
Even if I had, we had no chimney in the projects for Santa to climb down, and the doors upstairs and downstairs were always locked.
But I do remember my mother calling me back inside that evening, her voice wavering not with madness but with love of me she would never lose.
I would not sleep well over Christmas Eve. I slept fitfully every night while living in that place, but on that night in particular, as if I hoped for some special present that would transform all the strange feelings I felt, all the madness inside me, inside my mother and outside in the world we had to live in.
I remember not turning back inside at first when my mother called, but staying there, shivering in my PJs on our 13th floor balcony and staring out at the other buildings, as snow swept across the face of them, obscuring them like smoke.
Later, one of my uncles would come and tell me that Santa had left presents for me at my grandfather’s house.
I missed the place – even though later I would run away from it often and eventually succeed. But at that moment, when the world expected Santa to arrive at any time, and my mother pleaded for me to get inside and sleep before he came, I wanted only to return to the sober if not quite sane existence of my grandfather’s house, where I had a yard to play in, and had snow ball fights with neighbors not fist fights with street gangs.
Maybe I knew I would eventually have to return there, that my mother’s madness would drive us back. Maybe I just hoped too much for a Santa to come who I already knew did not exist. But when I drifted off the night, I could almost hear the sleigh bells ringing, and perhaps I imagined him landing on our balcony, and so on Christmas morning searched the landing for signs of reindeer prints, finding only my own.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A special moment in a perfectly ordinary day

Nov. 1, 1980

A bright morning brings in November, but not with the chill or threat of frost.
Instead, we get the amber of clinging willow leaves and the brown rustle of leaves fallen from other trees, swept ahead of each footstep with the wind.
This early, the sky is milky and red with clouds streaming across it like unfurled sails bearing us to some future of wealthy and success.
A silver sliver streaks across that sky on a flight path of the airport outside Newark as an old woman with extremely bent back moves along with street with a large, black plastic bag stuffing it full of leaves that litter the walk in front of her house.
There is life in this ritual and the crackle and scent of crushed leaves that boast of the end of fall.
For some reason, these things make me think of the sea as if the leaves were the foam of waves, flowing across the yards and streets, catching on street sign posts and telephone poles where like sand they mount up and remain until the next gust or the gust after that moves them again.
I ache for the un-raked lawns where the piles are deepest, and where I could as a boy bury myself, taking on the scent of earth that seems to have escaped me all these years later living so long in a decaying city.
I bathe now in the slanted sunlight that seeps through the still-lingering leaves and casts a patchwork of shadow and light all around me.
This is Saturday, and the cars move through these streets with an urgency different from the usual morning rush, hectic, but not obsessed, as drivers locked in their metal cages rush to take advantage of their days off that the work week normally denies them. The metallic skins glow for a moment, then dull again, only to glow once more as they move through these alternating pools of shadow and light.
From time to time, a car stops, a door opens, a weary father climbs out to test the chill of the air. Along the sidewalk, a paper boy (in this case a girl) tests her timing with a sideward pitch, mostly hitting the top steps of the few porches that populate this block. The father, satisfied with the mild temperature, whistles and from one house or another, kids pile out the front door and into the still opened door of the car.
The birds alone continued to chirp after the car door slams, their singing filling the air with the sense of change the season brings, and anticipate the fading that bring us to the deep freeze and the frozen river top and the struggle of life above and below that ice.
The highway, only a block or so away, begins to raise its voice, a dull roar that again sounds like the sea, but has more odious connotations, this, too, a little later than the usual time as my clock ticks from seven to eight, and I imagine the bleary faces fresh from last night’s Halloween celebrations. All that remains now are the memories of the costumes and the bags of collected still-un-devoured candy on top of kitchen counters, while the wind blows the wrappings of candy devoured during the night.
The stiff breeze rattles empty booze bottles in the gutter, and has a bite to it that contradicts the warmth of sunlight.
Someone coughs, and a man appears at the front yard of the house next door, a cigarette smoldering between the fingers of one hand, while the fingers of the other clutch a steaming cup of coffee. His face bears shadows of a needed shave. He moves slowly, hacking with each step like a badly tuned car engine, his feet stirring up the leaves that have blown across his driveway, which he turns down, and vanishes, although leaving one more cough behind before the slam of a car door and the whine of its starting engine sound. I wait and watch until the car backs out the drive and onto the street, and then moves off with a huff, leaving behind it an even deeper silence.
With the exception of the moving leaves, the wind has no voice, only its chill kiss on my face, a caress that even the birds feel, and they chirp more as if needing to fill the vacuum the distant highway cannot fill.
A squirrel darts down the trunk of a tree, pauses, looks around, then hits the ground running, seeking supplies long buried for this time of year to bring back to its winter lodgings. Some trash cans are overturned in our car port, hinting of the nocturnal visitations of skunks and raccoons seeking also to supply themselves.
I am caught up in this stillness and how it seems to grow around me, devouring the faces big and small faces this morning brings.
No more doors open. They are muted mouths sealed, wordless to defy this moment, or defile this feeling I get from this special day that is not particularly special in any other way.
A cardinal drops from one bare branch to another, gives its sharp chirp, as stark on the tree limb as the last red leaf of autumn might be, then drops again to the ground to dig in the fallen leaves near the edge of a concrete wall, a bit of royalty in this most ordinary scene, claiming rule over everything it surveys, then lifting off suddenly at the shrill laugh of a child I cannot at first see, a child who pops out from an alleyway across the street.
The moment is gone.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Hands up; don’t shoot

Saturday, December 06, 2014 This is not the way it is supposed to be;
When we elected a black president, we thought the killing would stop, or that black people would have an ally in the government they could call on when things got tough on a local level – the way our flawed memory made it look back in the day when Kennedy was president or LBJ.

It was never as good as we remember it, and just the same as it is now, black president or white, the black man on the street still walks with a target on his back – and behind the gun that shoots him is a whole parade of public officials thick with excuses as to why it happened and how they will do their best to keep it from happening again, embarrassed liberal mayors who promise justice and deliver bullshit, conservative congressman who screech about law and order after they have spent decades degrading the system so that poor people – most of them of color – must feel ashamed to want public assistance, or even get what they deserve from government, because the rich whites do not want to have to share the wealth they have made off the backs of poor, underpaid working class or more nefariously feeding the drug machine they thought would help quell the riots that broke out a generation ago.

We get tea party jerks telling us how much urban schools cost, and how much people in the suburbs have to pay in taxes after white people fled the cities in order not to have to live side by side with people of color, or share the wealth that whites made in the aftermath of a war that was designed to save the world from fascism.
Taxes rose because whites decided to build white-only enclaves elsewhere, building new roads, new schools, and new shopping districts (then called malls) that would keep them from having to improve the places they abandoned.
But they always ached to come back, to retake the cities, and so invented laws that locked black men away at a rate that only the Nazis might envy and we supposedly fought a world war to stop, building prisons so that the streets might be “clean again,” and safe again for whites to feel comfortable in.

The police, of course, were always the barrier between the races, regardless of what color the faces were wearing the uniform, much like the British soldiers that occupied this or that country – they always had house slaves they could trust to betray their own, to help become part of the shock troops that kept the rest of the slaves in line, while white men still served as overseers.
But jails became too expensive, too, and our society to its credit (if you dare call it that) was just not willing to go as far as the Nazis did in creating a final solution. This said, a man in a jail cell could die from AIDS because jail guards would not protect him from being raped, or from a host of other less notorious illnesses because providing healthcare to inmates was not society’s first priority.

But people of color simply didn’t die off fast enough and so we return them to the street, jobless, dreamless, no more ready for the world than when they went in, and often with families starving because whites did no more to make the cities better than when they fled in the first place.
Gentrification has become the new means of social control, constructing living spaces people in these cities can’t afford, narrowing the landscape of the ghettos in much the way Nazis did in the precursor to sending them to the camps, so that like rats people of color had to living in smaller and squalid spaces while watching white prosperous people build new enclaves inside the cities, and day by day watching their own existence deteriorate.
Now, it is not distance that keeps rich from poor, or patrol cars guarded gated communities in other parts of the state, but shock troops of cops prowling the border between neighborhoods, like an occupying army, their duty to serve and protect.

You can’t blame cops. They are the of the stick held by the hand of a system of justice never designed to live up to its name, Justice, but to guard wealth and protect a way of life which does not include people of color.
Of course, we all bought into the fallacy that if we elected black leaders and we got friends in government that somehow those leaders would change the culture and stop inevitable social cleansing this generation’s gentrification actually is.
But the, what we get is a black president arming white police with military weapons, and we know it can’t be for the benefit of those being shot down with the ordinary kind.
We have seen this before. Jewish activists say the pattern is always the same: you strip people of their rights, isolate them, and kill them. Fascism, by whatever means, whether a gas chamber or city zoning, always operates the same way, and always comes to the same conclusion, someone lying dead in the streets.