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Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Hamilton-Dalton Public Library

Mames sat behind a counter that curved like an arthritic snake along one wall of the Hamilton-Dalton Public Library, separating the staff from the patrons. Mames was staff. There were, on this late fall afternoon, no patrons.

Albert called out to her. “Mames. Coffee?” He was in a tiny room hidden behind a shelf of folders which at one time had been vital but were no longer touched. Every few months, Gloria, the head librarian, would tut-tut over the folders, mumble something about storage, and dismiss them as ornamental relics best left alone. Truthfully, over the few decades since their last use, the contents of the folders had become a mystery but not a compelling one; no one knew what was in them any more, and no one was curious enough to pluck any one down from the shelves to see what was in it.

Mames turned her head slightly, rested her chin on her shoulder, considered. “No,” she said after her moment of contemplation. “I think I've had enough.” Mames hadn't touched coffee in three years.

“Suit yourself,” Albert replied. Mames could hear Albert opening cabinets and running water. “It's so slow today. How you stay awake is your business.”

“The game,” Mames called back. “Everyone's at the game.” She opened a stick of gum and began chewing it, the most active she'd been in an hour.

The computer screen next to Mames's hand had drifted off to sleep. Pictures of the library cycled at random intervals, proof that the library was, at other times, of some use. Pictures of people sitting at the computer terminals that were, in reality, lined up on the other side of the serpentine library counter between the young adult and the dvd stacks. Pictures of children gathering around a storyteller—Mr. Haverford, delightful man if a bit too enthusiastic in his weekly performances. Pictures of the library's honest, neat exterior and the singular graceful elm tree shading its door. And pictures of the staff of the Hamilton-Dalton Public Library, staff past and present.

The same slide-show, at various points of progress, ran on all the computer screens staring back at Mames from beyond the counter.

The coffee maker began to brew, sounding like a bullfrog with a sore throat. Albert emerged from the tiny room, slipped around the shelf of relics, and took the seat next to Mames. “We should close on game days,” he said. “The people who don't go to the game take the opportunity to go shopping or something. I used to go to the movies because no one else was there. I could sit anywhere I wanted.”

Mames nodded. “And you could put your feet up and relax.”

“We could watch a movie.”

“Gloria would kill us.”

“Gloria is probably asleep upstairs in historical fiction.” Albert made the joke without realizing his correctness. Gloria was, in fact, taking a nap on the second floor of the library, in the overstuffed cloth chair, a cart of books beside her with her collapsed chin resting on her chest. “We could finish all thirteen hours of I, Claudius and she'd still be asleep.”

“Or we could watch five minutes of it and she'd pop out of a puff of smoke and kill us.” Mames tapped a random key and the computer screen snapped to attention. The last book requested, according to the screen, had been Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. 10:52 AM. Checked out by Robinson, T. Due to be returned November 19th.

Albert read the screen and said, “I sometimes wonder if that book shouldn't be in the how-to section.”

They heard the front door of the library open to their left, and turned as an older gentleman ambled down the short hallway. He was dressed for summer—the day, though closer to winter than summer, was warm. Albert whispered, “Socks and sandals,” and Mames giggled.

The older gentleman nodded as he passed the counter, and took a seat at one of the computers directly in front of Mames and Albert. Sat for a moment without touching anything. Seemed to stare at the slideshow playing out before him. Glanced over his shoulder. “Goddamn Gordon Haverford,” he commanded. Stood.

“You need help?” Albert asked the man's back.

“No,” the man responded as he moved to a computer closer to the dvds. He sat down again, nudged the mouse, and the slideshow melted away. “If I do, I'll ask.”

The strangled croaks of the coffeemaker reached a crescendo, and Albert returned to the tiny room. Mames signed in to her Twitter account to update her status: There are days where I feel like I'm sitting shiva in a cemetery.

Three people liked her status before Albert returned, his mug of coffee steaming and putting out a scent of scorched almonds so faint and so inviting it made Mames inhale more deeply than she intended—she meant to draw in as much of the scent as she could but all that happened was that she swallowed her gum and coughed.

On the second floor, Gloria snorted herself awake. She blinked a few times, taking in her surroundings, the dull colors of spines lined up like soldiers, and thought to herself, We should just close on game days. Then she stood up, pulled the cart close, and pushed it down the aisle. Each book was transferred from the cart to its proper place among the spines.

Gloria stood for a time staring out the second storey window. The Hamilton-Dalton Public Library, at the corner of Elm and Pine Streets, was across the street from the Dalton-Hamilton Public Park, with both the Dalton Center for the Arts and the Hamilton Building at its flanks, and Gloria peered down on the park and felt the Center and the Building at her sides and wondered to herself just who, exactly, the Hamiltons and the Daltons had been, and why they seemed to have fought over naming rights in a town not named for either of them. Hallsville was perhaps the only town in the country without either a Dalton or a Hamilton in its telephone book. Albert, Gloria thought, would probably say Hallsville was the only town in the country that still bothered with a phone book at all.

The park took up an entire block, and was mostly brown now with the season. Paths pushed into the park at all four corners and met a circle around a tiered water fountain spitting a geyser of water into the air. A young woman was sitting beside the fountain, staring at her phone. Beside her was a stroller. To Gloria, the stroller looked like a Conestoga wagon.

She took the elevator down and emerged behind the old gentleman, who was typing at the computer with two aggressive index fingers. Gloria surveyed the ground floor of the library and saw only sunlight spilling in through windows and dust circling the stacks like buzzards. She smelled the coffee, and she heard Albert mumbling to Mames. She squinted a bit, and could see a few words on the computer screen, the fruits of the old gentleman's persistent labor: “stop sign is sorely needed”.

Either a letter to the city council, she thought, or a letter to the editor.

Behind the library counter, Gloria asked Mames to make sure there was paper in the printer. “I think we have a letter-writer,” she said flatly. “The kids were printing out reports all day yesterday, and he looks like he might be producing a thirty-pager. Put in a new ream—the way he's typing he might need a few drafts before he gets it right.”

Mames got up and walked over to the library's only printer, kept behind the desk to assure all who printed paid their due. Albert asked, “Have a nice nap?”

“Yes, Albert.” Gloria smiled. “I had a nice nap and you know you're not to have coffee at the counter.”

“The old man doesn't like Mr. Haverford.” Albert lifted his mug but did not move from his chair. “He's hoping God damns him.”

Gloria placed a finger to her lips. The old man said loudly, “Smites him and then damns him!” and continued pecking at the keys.

“Albert.” Gloria gestured to the tiny room. “Coffee. Go.” She watched as Albert disappeared behind the shelf of relics, then sat down on his vacated chair. Mames ripped into a fresh ream of paper. The printer began to hum before she'd returned to her own chair, and the older gentleman appeared at the counter.

“Should be four pages,” he said.

Mames smiled, returned to the printer, collected his prints, and handed them to him. “Done?” she asked.

“Don't know,” he replied.

When she sat down, Mames noticed Gloria had typed out her own message on the computer screen between them: What the hell does he have against Mr. Haverford?

Mames slid the keyboard to herself and typed Who knows.

And that was how the next hour passed. The older gentleman would type, print, retrieve his papers, return to the computer. Mames and Gloria, joined from time to time by Albert, typed out an elaborate exquisite corpse of a tale about the old man and Mr. Haverford. Occasionally, Albert or Mames would say something out loud meant to conceal their true minds or perhaps to ease their own guilt over the baseless suppositions. Each nonsensical bit of conversation-- “You really think so?” or “The roast cooked too long”--sounded to them like this: “We are bored and we've nothing else to do but make up a reason for this poor old man's hatreds and vendettas.”

The tale on the computer screen behind the library counter spread itself over fifty-three pages. All three had contributed. It was Gloria's idea to add a subplot about the Daltons and the Hamiltons, and Mames's idea to bring in aliens, while Albert stuck to details of weather and clothing. They slid the keyboard between themselves at an increasingly excited pace, chuckling or gasping together, and eventually forgot to say anything else aloud. Their shared biography of the old man, who in their story was named Havisham Bartleby and hailed from a distant planet where the idea of rain was unknown, passed the time better than a nap.

And the older gentleman collected the last draft. He paid for his prints, jogged his thick stack of papers on the counter, and ambled back along the short hallway, out the front door, into the shade of the graceful elm.

Gloria closed the fictitious biography without bothering to save it. The old man's hidden life turned into a warning on the screen: If you close without saving, all changes will be lost. Do you wish to close without saving? Cancel. Save. Close.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

I Sing the Body Politic

There are several quotes about sitting down contradicting other quotes about sitting down. Winston Churchill, for instance, equated sitting with comfort, saying (or perhaps not saying--like all Churchill quotes, it may or may not have actually come from his mouth) "Why stand when one can sit?" Churchill said this (or not) after being asked why he did not stand at toilets when urinating.

Shortly after, the State dinner conversation veered into the boxers/briefs debate but Churchill's position on that is lost to the ages.

Then there's the quote from Inherit the Wind: "It's the loneliest feeling in the world to find yourself standing up when everybody else is sitting down." Which is true enough--it can be quite lonely to stand when everyone else is sitting, but, as Churchill--and any man with a urinating penis--can affirm, sitting down while everyone else is standing is also pretty damn lonely.

(Not to harp on Churchill, but he was known to consume a quart of scotch each day; his lonely need to sit must've been both frequent and persistent.)

Where one sits, or doesn't sit, also matters. Rosa Parks sat in one location while George Wallace stood in another. Texas Representative Wendy Davis stood for eleven hours in the Texas State Senate, and Strom Thurmond did the same thing for over twenty-four hours in the US Senate. US Representatives sat down on the House of Rep's floor in 2016, and women once sat down in the offices of Ladies' Home Journal for the right to journal for themselves.

Personal note: I remained sitting during my senior year of high school whenever the Star Spangled Banner would start its waving o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave. A thousand kids, forced into a gym to boost the egos of our athletes before that week's big game, would stand and slap palms over the approximate locations of hearts, and I'd sit quietly. And each time, one teacher or another would pull me aside after, and warn me to stand next week, and I always thought it odd because only the teachers seemed offended.

Anyway.

The President of the United States--his name is Trump--once said, "Today if you hit too hard—15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! The referee gets on television—his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit!"

It's a tone poem of sorts. Each beat is a beat against the body. 

CTE--chronic traumatic encephalopathy--is what Trump is discussing, and it's a thing done to a body at rest or in motion. It's what happens when a body is slammed into another body. Repeatedly. It's like putting a brain inside a wrecking ball, and demolishing a building, and neither the wrecking ball nor the building get a say in the destruction. "The ball did what it was supposed to do! And the building got to stand for a while! They want to hit each other!"

The President of the United States also said this, about those bodies slamming into one another: "If a player wants the privilege of makings millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect..."


The President of the United States let this stand with an ellipsis,  because his own feeble body could not decide whether to stand or to sit. It took a few minutes to complete the thought: "...our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!"

But of course that's what we all do. We use our bodies to find ways to do something else, and each movement is a political statement. James Byrd--you remember James Byrd, surely--he was a man who was finding something else to do, and then suddenly became a political statement. He was both FIRED and became political in one night. Same with Matthew Shepard. Same with Trayvon Martin. Same with Emmet Till. Same with Terri Schaivo. We don't intend to be political, but our anatomy or our skin betrays us.

It may be the loneliest feeling in the world to stand up when everybody is sitting down, but we do as our conscience tells us, and we find our own comfort in that.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Florence, AL

I've told this story before. It appeared in a book published through NPR and edited by Paul Auster some years ago and probably read only by the contributors, the editor, and a few family members. Community theatre as written anthology.

The story was this: In the early-mid 1980s, in my hometown of Florence, AL, a friend and I were riding our bikes up and down Prospect Street, where we lived. Prospect Street was adjacent to, but not of, the historical district of Florence. It was one street removed from the southern gothic houses with plaques immortalizing obscure local events (one plaque never to be placed: the time elderly Mrs. Hotchkins' gay hairdresser and his partner attended a nice fall dinner at the Hotchkins home and discovered a very dead Mr. Hotchkins in an upstairs guest room; the fact that construction workers were to arrive the next day to build a new cement back porch for the secretly widowed Mrs. Hotchkins raised eyebrows but couldn't raise the dead).

Prospect Street was also a block away from the campus of The University of North Alabama, and so from my yard at any given moment I could hear the roar of Leo, the unfortunate lion kept in a cage next to the university president's home. UNA's mascot was a lion and the natural thing to do, I suppose, was to keep a live lion around to remind faculty and students of this fact. Living in downtown Florence, AL, meant it was perfectly normal to hear the roar of a beast from Africa.

And Prospect Street had the town's only Jewish Temple, which was directly across the street from my house. The first and last fistfight I got into was in the parking lot of the Temple, and I lost. Turned out my stoic form of sarcasm wasn't appreciated by ten year olds with wrecked families and few emotional outlets.

So. The day Donna and I were riding our bikes up and down Prospect was a mid-summer day. I was eight or nine, which meant Donna was about ten or eleven. Perhaps we engaged in conversation or perhaps not--what I recall, personally, about riding bikes was that I loved the silence and the peddling and the wind. A month or so later we'd move away to a new neighborhood where I was the only kid, and I'd ride my bike for hours enjoying the silence. But with Donna maybe I spoke.

Because it was hot, we also rode through the sprinklers her father set out to water his lawn, which was mostly crabgrass and weeds, but still green. Donna's hair dripped, and tiny rainbows were thrown clear when she shook herself dry. Her hair color was dishwater blond, I recall everyone telling me, and I still don't know what that means except that her hair was blond and brown and wavy but not curly like dishwashing liquid that had been agitated but was now relaxing.

Most of the houses on Prospect Street had crabgrass-green lawns, watered or not, and all except one were proper houses. Both Donna and I lived on the same side of the street, and the one house without a proper green, weedy lawn was on the other side. It was a duplex, single-storey house the color of adobe matching the patches of bald clay in the front yard. In one of the two apartments lived an elderly man seldom seen and much mythologized by even the grown-ups of Prospect Street; in the other, on this day, a new family.

Donna and I were a few days away from learning about the fate of poor Mr. Hotchkins and just seconds away from hearing Leo the Lion roar into the universal abyss. Donna had just swept her way through the intermittent bursts of the sprinkler, her bike tires leaving deep gashes in her parents' lawn, and I was preparing to follow. We heard a voice.

"Hey."

Our heads turned to Prospect, where a little girl was standing, a tiny pink bike leaning against her hip. She was brown. She was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. She was perhaps my age, perhaps a bit younger.

Donna was older than I, and we were on her lawn, so I waited for Donna to return the greeting. I looked at Donna, and waited, and enjoyed the silence which probably lasted only a second or two but seemed longer (that's when we heard Leo roaring through the slosh of the sprinkler). "We don't talk to niggers," Donna said. She shook her hair dry, and the rainbows were thrown clear.

The little girl adjusted her hip. Her pink bike heaved a weary sigh against her. "I got a bike."

"Go away," I told her. "We don't talk to niggers."

Donna pushed off and peddled her bike back onto the street, heading away from the adobe home and her own home and the sprinkler and the little girl, and I followed, avoiding the water, turning to the asphalt. We reached the end of Prospect and turned back. The little girl was rolling her bike back to the duplex, and by the time we were where we had been the girl had disappeared inside. As we passed her new home, we saw curtains in the window split open slightly. A hand moved them enough for me to see the little girl's mother peering out at me.

In the Auster-edited version of this story, written fifteen or so years ago, I called the guilt I felt that day a Gordian knot in my stomach. Auster, for reasons of his own, edited 'Gordian' out, making it a simple knot of guilt. Which was a wise edit, of course, as to remove a Gordian knot one simply needs to slice it in half and unravel the frayed ends. If I were a better writer, I would've gone on to say that the frayed ends of the split knot of Gordian guilt made the rope itself useless, and my racism was just that: a rope made useless through ignorance.

In the historical district of Florence, AL, there are many trees. Old trees. As a kid, on my bike, I'd ride along the sidewalk beside the trees and note how some were twisted and craggy, and some were straight and smooth. Some limbs stuck out at right angles and some pushed up away from the ground. I do not know of any lynchings ever done in Florence, AL, but perhaps the trees deserve their own plaques. When I first told this story, I'd just read E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News and that was how I thought of ropes--useful tools; when I saw the reference had been edited away, I realized ropes in the South mean something else entirely.

Ropes are making a come-back, I'm afraid. We're stitching those wounded, frayed ends back together. Prospect Street was--and remains--a block or so away from Pope's Tavern, a local historical landmark "filled with heavy hearts during the Civil War." Not far from the Tavern is W.C. Handy's birthplace. And not far from either of those historic spots is a park with both a statue dedicated to the Confederacy and a statue dedicated to W.C. Handy.

My mom and aunt, by the way, helped in the fundraising for the Handy statue.

Anyway, about the Gordian knot excised from me by Paul Auster's red pen: it remains. I never cut it, as one should do. I've kept it. Calcified and heavy, it remains within me, and the weight reminds me how easy it is to be an asshole.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Loss and Gain

Some years ago, my great-grandmother died. I was standing on the corner of 81st and Central Park West, about to descend into the moving bowels of the city, when my dad called with the news. For whatever reason, I'd decided to take a moment, look around, and was standing like a statue when the call came. If I had not paused, the news would've been delivered via voice mail. Instead, it was delivered directly, as I stared at the edifice of the Natural History Museum and the gaping maw of the C train station.

Death is death. It isn't a profound thing to say death exists, yet here we are. A meditation on mortality. Let us brush off the chestnuts--the dead are remembered, the pain is for the living, the journey begins at the moment the body ends--because all of that feels good, and right, and comforting.

Death is the ultimate cliche. We can live a life of originality and uniqueness, but in the end there is the end, and all of us do it. But then again, one can also say breathing is a cliche. I got nothing profound to say about death or the feeling of loss the living experience. The only way to bring something new to the slab, here, is if I were to die and then write about it.

Which isn't likely. Writing post-mortem thoughts, I mean. I'm very likely to die. Not very likely to comment on it after the fact.

One expects a great-grandmother to die, of course. Born when I was--which is to say, born of a teenage mother--I was lucky enough to have known all my great-grandparents more or less, and their inevitable ends were like stepping-stones in the river of time for me. Some parents buy their children goldfish to explain life's cycle; my parents gave me great-grandparents.

The last one to die was Ruby. She's who Dad called me about as I stood next to the Natural History Museum. And after the call, I'd like to say I decided to visit the museum. I'd like to say I went in, took in the giant whale and the minerals, reflected on the history of Earth and all the things it has offered up to us.

But nah. I closed my flip-phone, and sank down into the Manhattan land, grabbed the C train uptown, and emerged at 103rd Street. Ascended like a newly-minted god, and walked home.

And I say newly-minted god only because I had to walk up some stairs. I in no way wish to imply I became a deity. If I had, though, I'd like to think I would be benevolent, and kind, and understanding.

Loss happens. Even prepared for it, we are unprepared. Again, there is nothing profound to say about death unless you do it and manage to communicate a bon-mot after the fact. But the grief of surviving can be quite profound. Being alive, taking in air and sun and feeling blood coursing through your veins, forming thoughts and having small moments. There is a profundity in life that can't be articulated. Some days, just getting out of bed, cliche as it is, is a profound statement to the Universe.

Reflecting on loss is not something I do well. I--me--hate losing those I've known, and I've lost a lot of knowns to both death and to time. This is also a cliche: I love.

It's simple. I am bad at life, but I love those who are in my life. It is a terrible thing to wish, but an honest thing: When getting a call about a loved one's death, may you all be standing next to the Natural History Museum. It won't give you any insight into death, and it won't give you any comfort. But it will offer you a chance to go inside, and for a moment get that you're a part of a world that is worthy of a museum.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Distant Music

I was listening to the musical adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's 'Ragtime,' a work I admire in all its forms: the novel, the screen adaptation, and obviously the musical. And, while listening to the cast album, all I could think was, 'Where did this America get off to?'

True, it is a difficult America there in New Rochelle at the turn of the last century, as the white middle class sings, "There were no Negroes" and "There were no immigrants," but it was an America working toward something. There was an undercurrent of movement towards equality and mutual understanding, a jagged harmony of tension and commonality.

Since the election, by hook or by crook, of Donald J. Trump, that America is no longer an America recognize. I may as well be listening to Starlight Express--a musical about singing trains.

Once upon a time, in a land under our very feet, there was a great nation standing for freedom. Its people were flawed to be sure. Its history was not pleasant. But it occasionally lurched a bit forward into the idea of itself. The nation perceived itself to be a land of opportunity, of hope, of equality for all even as it fought with itself to resist such things. And in the fighting was the progress.

No more.

No one truly knows why, but one day the fight forward was lost. Certainly many in the nation discussed--and fought--over the reasons why it happened, but one day the lurch forward ceased, and became a stumble back into the unpleasantries of the past. The stumble became a desperate grasping back, then a stampede trampling many of the citizens of the land.

In 'Ragtime,' Henry Ford is more or less celebrated--he's got his own song, he sells a car to a black man named Colehouse, and Colehouse views this car as a symbol of social progress. It doesn't end well for Colehouse, of course, but it ends very well for Ford, who is remembered as an innovator integral to the development of modern America. What's missing from Ford's depiction in 'Ragtime' is that he was an anti-Semitic racist Nazi sympathizer awarded the highest honor a non-German could receive by Adolf Hitler.

I was brought up in post-Watergate America, in the 1970s, and Regan's America in the 1980s. I was brought up in a smallish town in Alabama. My parents were casual racists who experienced desegregation and the Civil Rights movement, and tried to raise me to be more in tune with what they perceived to be the inescapable reality of the New America: they encouraged me to live in the jagged harmony of equality and understanding. When a new black family moved into our neighborhood, Mom and Dad gently nudged me to welcome them, play with the children, become friends with them. Certainly they made racist comments about them (I was told, for instance, that if I picked my nose, my nostrils would stretch out as wide as the black kids' nostrils, a thing I stupidly believed for years), but my parents never told me to stop being friends with anyone who was not my color or religion.

Also, we lived across the street from the only Temple in town. On Saturdays, my father would refuse to mow the lawn out of respect for the process of worship--and we were not all that into worship. I think I went to church maybe five or six times in my youth.

If it had been a Catholic church, or a Baptist church, or a mosque, I'm certain my father would've been just as respectful.

Incidentally, the only time I ever got into a fight was in the parking lot of that temple. It was unrelated to religion. I got my ass kicked for being sarcastic to the neighborhood bully who probably grew up to be a Trump supporter.

Anyway, listening to 'Ragtime,' I realized I grew up in an America that currently does not exist. I grew up with a media straining to resist their centuries-old urge to belittle and demoralize minorities. I grew up with a family trying desperately to accept the idea of inclusion and equality. It was an imperfect way to grow up--in school I had four years of Alabama history and only a semester of world history, and in none of those classes was the Holocaust mentioned--but in all ways it was made clear to me that the way to the future is the way of diversity and inclusion.

Now? Now we have a government attempting to divide and to preserve something that 'once was' that never was. Make America Great Again. Except America was great.

'Ragtime,' you see, is about how America became more alive with its different shades. Certainly there's some whitewashing, but the message is there: as painful as it can sometimes be, we as a nation lurch forward and reach out for something bigger than ourselves, and hope we push our children into that forward momentum rather than drag them back into the stampede rushing backward. There is violence and tragedy in 'Ragtime' (and a very decidedly overlooked Nazi sympathizing god in Henry Ford) but it is tragedy as recognition and warning.

We failed to heed the warning, of course, and now we have people on television bemoaning 'white genocide' and complaining about multiculturalism. Once ridiculed, these people are now elected officials.

And so I don't recognize my country anymore. 'Ragtime' is now science fiction.

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