Tuesday, November 28, 2006


“T.F.” was the name he went by.

I remember him from gym class, Freshman year. He was a senior, not actually in my class which was all ninth graders but in the class that met in the same gym at the same time. The image I retain is of him and some friend next to him sitting in the top row of the bleachers, and T.F. grinning away. At me, or at everyone? I took it to be at me. It was a mischievous grin, and I think teasing came with it, the teasing was definitely specific to me, and it was of the affectionate and sexually flirtatious kind, not to be confused with the pernicious, mean-spirited, and/or psychosexual kind.

I know almost nothing about T.F. Bishop or his family. As I lived in a small town, this is significant, yet if I scratch my head, I can learn things by deduction. That I know little about T.F. Bishop means that he didn’t go to my church (Catholic, the only one in town), he didn’t live in my neighborhood (a large subdivision on what was once the outskirts of town), and he didn’t have younger siblings. It means he probably wasn’t in my class--he was either wealthy and possibly lived out in the country in some big old estate, or perhaps he was less well off than my family, and lived out in the country in some big old farmhouse.

That I know little about him likely means that his family was old Virginia or old Loudoun County--because we seemed to know most of the transplants, the newcomers to town. When we moved there in 1978, we moved into the newest neighborhood in town, whose quarter-acre lots and aluminum-siding homes were only a few years into existence, replacing a sprawling old farm. Most of the inhabitants, our neighbors, were just in from Ohio, New Jersey, or New England. Any number of new neighborhoods cropped up in town between our arrival and my entrance into high school, but still it always seemed easier for out of towners to co-mingle.

(Nor is this formula cut and dry. I remember homes before this one, in Oregon and Massachusetts; so, I was an out of towner. My younger brothers don’t remember anything before Virginia; they befriended Virginians; consequently they have a Virginia drawl that I lack. I identified with my parents’ relatives from Massachusetts and New Jersey, and in college was always mistaken for a New Yorker.)

T.F. was a brave one if it’s true he was publicly giving me the eye. In ninth grade, I was not out of the awkward years: I had braces, bones that stuck out everywhere, a nose too big for my face, a height I wasn’t yet proud of, a bad short haircut I didn’t know what to do with. (I had managed to ditch my glasses and was pretending to wear contact lenses but in reality was letting my right eye slide into near-uselessness so that I’m now a bespectacled cyclops.) More to the point, I had a stigma on me, I had the picked-on nerd curse, and in that gym class in particular I was always the last left standing when kids chose teams.

These memories seem to exist in parallel, in fact. Ninth grade was like the waning of my victim-nerd career. Everyone who was going to traumatize me probably already had; now we were just going through the motions, numbly playing our roles. I was there in gym class, in high school, steeling myself to the social environs over which I had no choice, and alternatively hoping for the best.

Meanwhile, T.F. Bishop, smiling sexual approval down on me from his bleacher heights was the first dude in school to do so. And so his smile exists in parallel--it had nothing to do with “me.” There was nothing to do with it. Somehow, I couldn’t take that affection into me and let it touch me--”I” was an Untouchable. I had to store T.F.’s smile somewhere in my brain for understanding later. T.F. was left smiling at the sexual girl I wasn’t yet ready to be, at a face I couldn’t bear to look at (I would brush my teeth in the dark for a few more years), at a person in a body I hadn’t yet begun to inhabit.

T.F., who had never known me before that year, was looking at 14 year old me--while a big chunk of me was stuck in time, busy protecting my 11-12-13 year old selves from my vicious classmates who were also stuck in time. We were all so stuck in time that I never dated anyone who knew me “before”--my boyfriends in high school were the newest of newcomers, who would meet me at 16, 17.

Time is funny. T.F.’s smiling face now gets crosswired in my brain with Thomas’ high school face as I’ve seen it in pictures--the same handsome jaw, the same curious blue eyes, the same high-bridged nose, but especially the same boyish grin. Thomas who I wouldn’t meet for six more years, then a fourteen year gap, then an unforeseen reunion. Thomas who is sitting next to me on the train as I write this, on a together-train trip which I have been dreaming of for sixteen years.

Time is funny. I was driving back home from Beverly’s house, two summers after high school. Beverly lived on North 15 and I lived off South 15, with our town in between us; at night this was an 8-minute drive. But this particular night, a tractor trailer plowed into me, just in front of Safeway, making a wide right turn; and my life flashed before my eyes. “My life flashed before my eyes”--I always thought this was a turn of phrase, but that’s what happened. For a moment, I was still driving my mother’s car forward towards my own death, except that I happened to brake just in time for the truck to crunch my hood and fender and not my door and me behind it; and something in arresting that momentum (in coming that close to the draw of death) made scenes that I knew to be “my life” blur past my mind’s eye. Regret was in there, too, somewhere in that short moment I felt deep regret for the life I hadn’t yet lived, and the greediest part of me screamed out “I WANT TO KEEP GOING!” Was that the very moment that I applied the brakes?

This occurred at midnight, which soon turned into my next thought. I had dutifully limped my car into the Safeway parking lot after the offending tractor trailer, but suddenly remembered I was a young woman alone and didn’t trust this driver a whit. I was scared to leave my car. I probably said a Hail Mary.

Five minutes hadn’t passed when a police car pulled up. The officer got out, walked over to my window, and calmly and professionally explained that someone across the street had phoned in an accident.

The policeman didn’t recognize me, but I was never happier to see him. It was T.F. Bishop.

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Saturday, November 25, 2006


We started out in new Loudoun: Vietnamese dinner in a strip mall next to a Latino Mercado.

But soon we were driving (under a crisp crescent moon) west on Route 7, to the bluegrass jamboree now held on last Fridays in the Round Hill art studios. Based on the famous Friday night jam in Floyd, Virginia, this affair bore a close resemblance to its Blue Ridge Mountain predecessor. The Round Hill studios are housed in a building that is recognizably an old general store: a wide, two-story structure with dark, unpainted wood and a small overhang (but definitely not a porch) above some doubledoors which face the two lane highway. Downstairs there were three jam sessions going, one in the gallery room and two tucked amongst the printing presses in opposite corners of the biggest room; the latter space was also serving cold beer and hot dogs, soda, pulled pork, chili, and baked desserts. Upstairs there was Irish traditional music in the pottery studio, and in the farthest room, we found our favorite group of the evening.

At its largest I counted thirteen musicians, two dancers, and about eleven or so revolving onlookers in this tiny, second-floor painting studio. One older man brought his own portable "chair" (seating was scarce), which consisted of vinyl padding stretched across the mouth of a paint bucket, itself covered with bumper stickers from bluegrass music stores.

Most musicians stuck to their one instrument, but ocassionally there was some switching up or swapping around. The instruments represented: acoustic guitar, dobro, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, stand-up bass, spoons. This room I more strictly considered Old Time Music (closer to Texas swing or hillbilly blues as opposed to simply banjo-based riffs), and the songs were mournful ones of lost love, heartbreak, and displacement; the singer was lamenting being kept apart from his lover or his home state or his mother or all three.

A certain fiddler showed up and pretty much took over the room. He was a good player but dominating, which is against the spirit of the jam and also quite common, as far as I could see. Once he showed up, the singing duo got quiter, and the songs were more instrumental, uptempo, and closer to bluegrass again. This did bring out two impromptu dancers, a fabulous middle-aged woman with bleach blond hair, crocheted purple shawl, swinging cotton purple skirt, and chunk heels (like old Loudoun art hippie meets Spanish gypsy), and a man whose wrinkled face and thinning white hair betrayed his age (70s or 80s), but whose fit, muscular frame packed into Levis and rolled up shirt sleeves still seemed designed to woo the ladies. They made an unexpectedly-sensual pair of partner dancers, but again, I think not so uncommon; as with the music, anyone who knows the moves is invited to the dance.

Back downstairs, a young group had formed in one corner; a number of teenagers who surrounded a young singer on autoharp and a tall fellow whose very first beard was an Abe Lincoln hipster masterpice. Mary, my father's secretary, is a regular at this jam and never misses a one; I asked her, "Who is here? Is this still old Loudoun County?" (I suppose I was incredulous that the self-taught farmers and hippie artisans of my youthful imagination might still exist, in this rapidly developing county whose private toll road has brought it dangerously close to DC.) Mary said it was true, these people were indeed Old Loudoun County, but that the event is getting a reputation; musicians and bluegrass lovers are travelling now from Winchester, Front Royal, rural Maryland, and West Virginia. She pointed out a towering guitar player who was the local Chamber of Commerce President for the last decade; she said that the place is wall-to-wall in the summers; and she told me she follows some of the musicians elsewhere when she can, like the ones who play at the old folks home in Leesburg on Tuesdays.

Eastern Loudoun again: Earlier in the day, we had seen the aging writer, Russell Baker, mowing his backyard; we had walked past the Laurel Brigade Inn, which after 220 years of serving tired travellers has become office space; and we'd run into Mrs. McGorry volunteering at the thrift shop that raises money for a battered women's shelter. She met my beau for the first time and as we were leaving, she whispered directly into my ear, "Don't forget this: Do something for him every single day."

Friday, November 17, 2006

[This is the feeling version]

September 11-14, 2001. Brooklyn. I remember feeling helpless. I remember walking around with Susannah, then Kyp, then Troy, trying to give blood and getting turned away everywhere. I remember feeling exhausted. I remember crashing into sleep after hours spent in front of the neighbors’ TV, speechless; after hours of being at home glued to my radio, my new lifeline. I remember feeling cut off. I remember picturing my friends in Manhattan and wondering how they were and what their days were like. I remember feeling useless. I remember making trips to the 99 cent store to buy socks and gatorade for the emergency workers, then making signs informing others where to drop off supplies for the workers, then yet another trip to the 99 cent store.

I remember thinking of people like Gerry, who’d lived on Cedar Street since before the World Trade Center was built, was his family alright; or Katie, who got me my first paying work in New York, was she still in that office on the 17th floor of the South Tower; or Gary, was he rushing against the tide towards the disaster because his job was to faithfully record. I remember guessing which one of my good friends would have lost someone close, and I remember being sad when my guess was right.

I remember feeling relieved. I remember my heart flying open for humanity especially in my city. I remember the relief of letting go of petty anger towards my awful roommates. I remember the control freak in me losing all steam, I remember the calm of knowing there was nothing I could control.

September 15, 2001. I remember Noel luring me out to Manhattan. I remember us looking on the streets for people to talk to; I remember finding them. I remember everyone’s openness. I remember Noel and I arguing patiently with a small group of people in Tompkins Square Park. I remember my conviction that war was not a sound solution to two buildings’ worth of people disappearing; I remember my lack of anger. I remember the urgent anger of some people we encountered. I remember the willingness to speak of most people we encountered.

I remember tripping over Union Square later that night, with Noel, and finding my body surrounded by others, hundreds of others, who were again willing, open, speaking, listening; who were not interested in rushing towards revenge; who were prepared to articulate why not. I remember their articulation included inhabiting an entire park. I remember Union Square, transformed by the people in it, and I don’t have a memory (from these weeks) of its surrounding corporate box-stores: Toys R Us, Barnes and Noble, Bradlee’s, Nobody Beats the Wiz, Circuit City, Virgin Records, Walgreen’s, and right next to the statue of Gandhi, Staples Office Supply. I remember this night, Gandhi was in his glory.

I remember the great pile of flowers, poems, votive candles, photographs, mementos of those believed dead, all laying at the feet of George Washington on horseback. I remember chalk grafitti, I remember heartbreaking posters in search of family members, I remember heartwarming posters speaking my feelings, I remember incessant drumbeats, I remember softly and loudly sung songs, I remember being surrounded by people whose openness I had never felt in such numbers. I remember wanting to spend part of every day, from now on, in this Union Square.

I remember hope opening in me. I remember feeling safe because there was such engagement in that public place. I remember feeling alive because people looked into each other’s faces. I remember feeling heard because I had listened to sane voices. I remember sleeping soundly that night. I remember being surprised that I hadn’t believed such a coming-together was possible.

I remember my hope being shared by others. I remember that hope growing into an energy, that energy growing into an urgency, that urgency finding a voice, our voices forming a community. I remember that community wanting to speak outside of itself, that energy wanting to reach outward. I remember three solid years of artists speaking out without stopping to catch their breath.

I remember all of this, in my mind, growing out of Union Square after September 11th. I remember Mayor Guiliani shutting this park down, two weeks after it began, and I remember this energy living on in the city anyhow.


Read the previous post, "Union Square of the Mind," here:

Thursday, November 16, 2006

[This is the essay version]

2001: It was September 15 before I came into Manhattan again, after the Towers fell. Noel and I met up that evening and walked around looking to see who was on the streets of downtown, meaning the (mostly East) Village. We talked to folks in Tompkins Square Park and near St. Mark’s Church, but Union Square was the largest gathering; that must have been the night that I realized that Union Square had transformed into a sort of peace park. What may have started as a place to burn candles to the memory of the dead and post signs in search of the missing had either simultaneously or subsequently evolved into a place for New Yorkers to go and be together, be peaceful, be vocal, be outraged, be bewildered, be wounded, be informed.

Union Square right after 9/11 was signs covering every inch of fencing, was signs looking for loved ones, was signs expressing great sadness, was signs pleading against war, was hundreds of people making full use of available public space, was photographs and poems and prayers and flowers and votive candles and melted wax covering the area around the statue on the 14th Street side, was groups singing peace songs peacefully, was people having discussions, was people asking questions, was people hashing things out, was people staying up all night, was people sleeping on the grass so as not to be alone.

In the same way that 9/11 was ambiguous enough not to have earned a more descriptive name, Union Square after 9/11 was a collage-in-progress at a moment when no one was quite sure what had just happened, when the next thing might happen, what our government was going to do or not do about it, and how much more vulnerable any aggressive action might make all of us. It was also a moment when New York had been officially invited into America, in an extreme way. Heartland church-goers were offering us prayers and tears from afar, claiming us as their own; the news kept saying ATTACK ON AMERICA; the hijakers had clearly targeted the U.S.; and the City’s cab drivers and immigrant businesses were suddenly displaying huge American flags. It was an uneasy moment in the City, from several directions, to say the least.

(One particularly memorable sign [which later became the name of a poetry journal] said “USA OUT OF NYC.” Another with a similar sentiment used the metaphor of America as the bullying high school friend who always gets you into trouble you didn’t ask for.)

September 15, 2001: My return to Manhattan, and to my job, began a week in which I saw my customers open up with concern and well-wishing for me and for each other. It was the week I put away a long-standing love-hate relationship with New York City. It was the week I realized that New Yorkers had hearts and knew how to use them; that people had hearts and knew how to use them; that strangers had hearts and knew how to use them. It was the week I decided to stop second guessing the city that had been my home for almost eight years, and get on with the business of living and creating there instead.

It was the week that I began to dissolve several months of artistic stagnation: for the next three years I wrote prolificly, a fact which I attribute in large part to the chance to work with New York Nights and Theaters Against the War (THAW). Each of these entities, like Union Square, was a collage-in-progress, and a forum for creative folks of an anti-war mindset to come together and share and voice ideas. New York Nights is a newspaper of anti-war discussion and poetry that was first published in October 2001, in response to the U.S. decision to bomb Afghanistan. The paper was run monthly for the first few years and is less frequent more recently, now that many more voices have joined the anti-war conversation. In 2002, Theaters Against the War started a monthly variety show called “Freedom Follies” which featured everything from comedy to singer-songwriters to scene readings to performance art to poetry. I had many a cathartic laugh at the Freedom Follies, which were free of charge and often played in buildings that were slated to be soon-demolished.

I wonder why Union Square became THE catch-all place for such a gathering as this? Was it the first place people dared to stop and catch their breath when they were walking north from the World Trade Center? (Was it a place to breathe because it was the first park north of, free of, the acrid smell of barbequed metal that hung over lower Manhattan for months afterwards?) Was it because it was the psychological border point between downtown and no-longer-downtown? Or was this spot inevitable because it was the meeting place of so many train lines? The L, the N/R, the B/D/Q, the 4/5/6, bringing people together from Astoria, the Bronx, Sunset Park, Queens Plaza, Coney Island, Williamsburg, the Upper East Side, Fort Greene.

Mayor Guiliani chose to close down this fertile use of public space, exactly two weeks after September 11th, and in no uncertain terms. First it was finding the candle wax meticulously scraped away each morning by City Parks workers, then it was keeping the people out completely (by police or by heavier fencing, I can’t recall now). And when the Christmas-shopping flea market appeared in Union Square as scheduled in November, it was as if Peace Park had never even happened at all.

But Peace Park did happen. From what I observed in New York, a Union Square of the mind (heart, and vocal cords) was alive and particularly well between September 11, 2001 and November 3, 2004.

New York Nights: http://www.uglyducklingpresse.org/orders_periodicals.html

THAW: http://www.thawaction.org/

Sunday, November 12, 2006


February 15, 2003: By this date I had heard the word Orange Alert one too many times. Fear had crept in where it never had before. I had pictured the possibility of the (huge, upcoming) Anti-War protest--for which New Yorkers were not being granted a marching permit--getting bombed by our government while we gathered conveniently in one mass. I didn’t believe in Homeland Security’s Code Yellow Orange Purple Blue, I was sure they were made up by the government to scare us in the first place. So why not take it one step farther and forewarn us about the fear we should have of the people doing the warning? (Warning: Paranoia is a progressive disease. Further: 1010 WINS news radio is addictive to no good end.)

February 15, 2003: Brooklyn: I am down for the count with the flu. I am scared for my friends who are headed by subway for East Midtown (like I was scared for my mother gardening under heat lightning in the Virginia summers). I am being evicted from my apartment in 16 days but I don’t yet have a new home. I am sick in bed but I don’t have a bed; the boy-cat, who doesn’t like the idea of being evicted, has nervously peed two hand-me-down futons and a box spring. I have dragged them to the curb methodically, dramatically; stubbornly, I have not replaced them. I am laying sick in a “bed” which is a large cardboard box split open and spread across my futon frame. It is surprisingly comfortable yet condusive to abundant self-pity nonetheless.

February 15, 2003: It is sunny and bitterly cold in New York City. I turn on WBAI’s all-day coverage of the protest and I am renewed in my love of my comrades, and in my anger at the blind anger of war. I furiously take notes from the broadcast. Fear dissipates. My enthusiasm returns.

February 15, 2003: (From my notes of the WBAI coverage, much abridged but in chronological order):

“An Afghani woman just testified that the Northern Alliance is scarcely less misogynist or fundamentalist than the Taliban.”

“The September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows visited families that were victims of U.S.bombing violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“Police on horseback trying to disperse the crowd at 2nd Avenue and 53rd Street--the correspondent says that 3rd Avenue is solid with people for 10-13 blocks. The main rally is on 1st Avenue--from 49th Street to at least 58th Street.”

“Israeli officer who refuses--along with 500 others--to serve in the occupied territories.”

“Al Sharpton--'[Bush] is not pursuing SECURITY but a Manifest Destiny that will put the whole world at risk.’ ”

“52nd--to 72nd--1st Avenue is filled for a whole mile!”

“(Richard?) Perez, police brutality activist: ‘When Guiliani took office, the juvenile arrest rate went up by 100,000 a year....In Vietnam they said, ‘We have to destroy a village to save it.’ Now they say, ‘We have to take away your Constitutional rights to make you safe.’...Many of those in Riker’s Island are there because they can’t pay bail--because they’re poor....”

“Ossie Davis, introducing Desmond Tutu: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ "

“Desmond Tutu: ‘You’re all just WONDERFUL, WONDERFUL people!...God is proud of you,God is smiling!...God says, Hey, aren’t they neat!...for coming out when it’s not-so-warm (laughter from the crowd).”

“(Leslie?) (Cagan?), organizer of the event: ‘Shame on the City of New York! Shame on the police department! Shame on the court! The people WILL be heard!’ ”

“Arhundati Roy--’The U.S. government’s war to PROMOTE terrorism has launched two assaults: a military assault on the Middle East, and an assault on the inetlligence of the human race....Let us turn every bomb that has been dropped onto Iraq into an opportunity to expose the criminals behind them because they are baby-killers, water-poisoners.’ ”

“1st Avenue filled to 87th Street! It’s 2:30pm.”

“Comments from the crowd keep reaching us that ‘this feels more like fascism than democracy.’ ”

“2nd Avenue--packed from 49th Street to 69th Street!”

“One woman was pushed by the police until she was pushed to the ground--police driving their horses onto the sidewalk, into the crowd, pushing people up against police vehicles with the horses.”

“Afghani woman--‘If you want to end terrorism, stop all funding to fundamentalists and terrorist groups worldwide.’ ”

“anti-war demonstrations in 600+ cities in 60 countries, every continent but Anarctica.”

“500,000+ people!! 59 blocks of people! Some estimate 700,000-1 million! I feel much better than I did even this morning (very sick yesterday), I have an inkling to go, even for an hour, to witness it, but I still feel quite weak.”

“Angela Davis: ‘New York City’s refusal to grant a march permit is a TRAVESTY to democracy. ... We oppose the Patriot Act and other legislation that targets our immigrants...The Bush administration tries to generate fear and hysteria--Tom Delay tried to start a national march to the hardware store to buy plastic tarp and duct tape...This administration’s discourse is fundamentalist in its impulse and designed to stop critical thinking....Our voices, our hearts DO make a difference...when we UNITE for peace and justice.’ ”

“Danny Glover: ‘[we have] an administration of liars and murderers whose villany and greed is insatiable and who curse us for standing here against their tyranny....Paul Robeson would be proud of us for standing here, and he would tell us that we are climbing Jacob’s Ladder.’ ”

“London had 1 million demonstrators, then 500,000 stayed for a sit-in through the evening.”

“Police keep using the horses to push people when there’s no place to go--people are trying to get to the side streets to prevent being hurt by the horses. ‘Horses for peace! Not for war!’ “

“The police surrounded a youth march from Union Square--they started letting them go 2, 3, 4, 5 at a time--so they get separated from each other.”

“Report from 47th and 7th Ave--people can’t get to 42nd where there’s a bigger rally--police in riot gear.”

“Barbara Stokely (union rep): ‘We have the power to stop this war, to remove that fraudulent President Bush....The transit workers were on the verge of shutting this city down.’ ”

“Vietnam vet (A.C. Byrd? Barrett?)--in interview--‘At least 25% of Vietnam vets are homeless--we don’t even know yet what’s happened to Gulf War vets...Here we prepare to send more of our country’s sons and daughters [to war].’ ”

“4pm--Police using pepper spray, handcuffing people VERY tightly--6 vanloads of people who’ve been arrested--30-40 arrests as she speaks.”

“Same Vietnam vet--’The police exist to protect us, not to defend the status quo.’ “

“cops still rushing people on horses--arrested a photographer who was taking pictures of what the police were doing”

“they’re pushing people against the building--the correspondent is talking to us on her cell phone--a woman was just hit in the mouth and she’s crying--the woman on the phone can’t breathe for a second”

“E & V train not stopping at 53rd and Lex”

“police have a man pinned down on the sidewalk--they’ve punched him--caucasian--being held by 4 officers”

“2000 Israelis and Palestinians marched together in Tel Aviv today!”

“Peace signs carried by New York Jewish contingents, writen in Hebrew, walked next to shawled Arab women”

“under Guiliani--$150-200 million collected from cases of police brutality in his first 5 years--according to the Village Voice”


Thursday, November 09, 2006

On hearing the election results from WDUQ

First it was the background cheering and clapping, and then came the news report, “Last night the Democrats took the House….” Immediately, my heart leapt behind my ribcage, and a sob rose in my throat. Surprised, I started to push it back down, but I remembered I was alone, so I let myself cry. (I hate watching this same impulse in my mother—the way she is ashamed of crying in front of us. But then, we were so mean to her in our teenage years.)

Crying: It wasn’t from sadness, nor simply shock. It was more like a surge of motion inside me after a huge weight had been lifted off my chest. When it left, it reminded me of the moment it had landed, like having a sense memory of how long it had been with me (this weight) as opposed to living with it while forgetting that it was there at all. This weight; a depression of sorts, a sadness without tears, a desolation without words.

(One way I know that the inner fog has lifted is I can hear music again; one day, it’s all drudge and distraction and mucking through, the next day I’m craving music, remembering who my favorite voices are, humming at the bus stop. Another way I know is I start seeing in terms of patterns or colors, like photographs arranging themselves in front of me. Last winter it was coming up from underground, where the subway becomes the elevated, and looking up from my reading to see a dusky blue coloring every building in Queens Plaza the same hue, and being convinced for one moment that we were underwater. Later that night I looked above and the apartment windows on a street were a beautiful pattern jumping to my eye long before I recognized them for what they were.)

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not in love with the modern-day Democratic Party, with its centrism and gladhanding and corporate pandering. But when Americans voted in a bullying regime far to the right of that in 2004, I was crushed. We were crushed. Our spirits were completely crushed. You couldn’t hear an utterance on the New York subways. They were practically empty. They were silent of voices. One image I retain of that Bleak Wednesday is of a lone passenger (as the 6 train pulled into Astor Place in late morning), folded over on herself at the belly.

The night before Election Day, 2004, I was working late at the bookstore on the corner of Third Avenue and Ninth Street. Suddenly, a large black man covered in Kerry stickers opened the door and shouted inside in a booming vibrato, “YOU GOTTA VOTE, PEOPLE! THIS IS IT, NOW!” and then left as quickly as he came.

It was his voice of hope and courage and willingness to work WITH what we had, or even against it, together, that had left me for two years.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

What it's like to vote Democratic in Squirrel Hill

Yesterday, Pittsburgh and I helped vote Rick Santorum out of the U.S. Senate. We also helped reelect Representative Mike Doyle, who was one of the very few Congressmen to vote against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

My polling place was at a Pittsburgh Housing Authority high rise for old folks and the disabled. Voting took place in what I think was the rec room on the third floor. While I was waiting for the elevator, I couldn’t help but notice the evidence of my neighborhood’s heavily Eastern European, especially Russian Jewish, population. Some of the great old-world surnames on the residence roster: Barbalat, Chesakov, Katsman, Kaufman, Klaynberg, Lampkin, Schetyn, Vasserman, Yerosh, Zak.

On the third floor, there was no line to vote, but I waited for my signature to be verified and my passport inspected by three ladies seated at a long table. From a little old man, I got a brief tutorial on the new touch-screen computer voting machines, which were no longer enclosed in a booth but had little blinders next to them, like you place on carriage horses so they don’t scare so easily. Voting was uncomplicated but I scare easily; I walked away very skeptical about the cyber-collection of the ballots. (Last time I voted was in the 2004 Presidential Election, and I was actually shaking while waiting in a long line at the Catholic school in Greenpoint. Some combination of thinking that George Bush might actually win, and that me screwing up the mechanics of my vote might be the deciding factor.)

The residents of the building used the opportunity to have a bake sale in between the elevator and the polling room. “A captive audience!” one resident explained. For fifty cents, you could get a frosted cupcake (chocolate OR vanilla), a piece of rugelach, a cabbage pierogi, or a cup of coffee. For a dollar you could get a kosher meat pastry (“cheicken”) or a ziplock bag with two homemade devil dogs. It seems the idea was that everyone in the building was to contribute: As I boarded the elevator to head back to the ground floor and my bus stop, an old man (moving slowly) handed off a still-hot pan of brownies, complete with pot holders, to one of the ladies who was setting plates out on the oil-cloth table covers.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


I remember KGB Christopher, my flatmate at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, the only one I could stand because he wasn’t trying to make me or not-make me and he wasn’t in his 20s, he was up for intelligent chatter and going out to tea. That was mostly what I wanted out of people in Paris, in between my writing days (hours)-—chatter and going out to tea or sunset walks or sometimes omelettes, though tea alone was sometimes an extravagance.

Living upstairs at Shakespeare and Company there were no writing days for me, because I’m not a cafe writer but a home-in-bed writer, and that was frowned upon, by George who owned the bookstore and by the roaches who shared my bed. In the early days at Shakespeare and Company, I was lonely and wondering which cliff I had just jumped off, the right one or the wrong one, and so there was KGB Christopher (who arrived the day after I did) and tea.

I remember KGB Christopher because he had a specific story that was impossible to believe and yet he stuck to it pretty closely every time I heard him repeat it. Him: In his late 30s/ early 40s, slight British accent maybe even mixed with American, also stuttered and mumbled, and looked down into his tea a lot. He had a shaggy sort of goatee-beard and wire-rimmed spectacles, he dressed in wrinkled brown courduroy blazers. His story: He was married to a woman in Japan where he was an Art History (?) professor; he’d left her and the (two?) children for what ostensible reason I can’t recall; he grew up in London but his father whom he’d never met was American; after Japan he was headed for Copenhagen, where he was going to give a talk on Historiography; he was to stop by Estonia where he was helping design a new high-end cell phone with two prominent Industrial Designers; he needed to sojourn in Moscow where he had an office and co-headed a non-profit institute with a business partner; before Paris he had naturally stayed awhile with his mistress, a Greek stewardess who had a farm with goats in Tuscany; in Paris he was just passing through, looking for a place where he could pause and write his speech (maybe tomorrow); perhaps he was going to see his mother in London or seek his father in Kansas before even thinking about returning to Japan; last I heard he was in Paris for months or years.

I remember the day I decided to leave the flat above Shakespeare and Company, with its student lodgers lining the walls of the second floor library and George in his studio full of blue cheese and first editions and me and Christopher on the fourth floor, Christopher in the bunk bed and me and the cat in the double bed where Henry Miller spent some honeymoon. Only, the gods of Paris or my body had different plans, and the fries from the Greek place on the crowded street of restaurants I called “little New York” gave me a food poisoning that cleaned me out from every angle. I stayed in that flat with Christopher one more day, which now I remember was Valentine’s Day. I remember that in between losing my Greek fries from the upright position and the seated one (thank George for the American toilet installed into that flat, the second floor kids had to use the Turkish one in the hallway), and KGB Christopher making sure to spray everything with Lysol, and KGB Christopher acting even more nervous than usual around the sick girl, and KGB Christopher asking politely would I like anything, and me telling him Yes could he please get me some Orangina and handing him a Franc, and KGB Christopher not getting me anything until after he had come and gone from the building four separate times, and KGB Christopher asking me every time politely would you like anything, and me repeating every time Yes could you get me some Orangina please, and me getting notions that KGB Christopher had perhaps poisoned me, and me taking note of the fact that I was in the farthest room in the bookstore and that no one would pass me by, and me getting paranoid that KGB Christopher was not remotely capable of ‘commnication’ in the sense of the word that mattered in these hours, and me getting quite thoroughly paranoid that KGB Christopher and whether he got me the Orangina or not was the difference between whether I lived or died....in between all of this, I staggered once to the front of the flat and looked out at the Seine, which was crowded with kissing couples, three to every bench.

A few days later the Seine flooded above the level of those benches, and remained so for two months of rain, and it was only as I was leaving the city for the last time that I saw those banks again.

There was the year that Paola had heard of the party at the Clock Tower Gallery on one of those East-West streets in Tribeca. Emily (whose birthday is Oct 31), Drew, Paola, Poppy, and I think Deegan were all dressed for Halloween as the Vibrator Repair Unit, complete with workmen’s twill jackets that said as much, with oval name tags sewn by Paola (who is like a dark Martha Stewart in the realm of felt and fema clay). I was out as Deirdre of the Sorrows, the Irish mythical figure who was fated to marry a certain king and bring murderous death upon his entire family. My costume consisted of two or three layers of floor-length pale-blue nightgowns from the Salvation Army smeared with glitter glue, a black velvet cape that Paola lent then gave me, and blue and silver tears drawn down my cheeks.

After a brief stay at a crowded loft party somewhere in warehouse Brooklyn (maybe 52 Hope Street), we headed off on the J train to downtown. Found ourselves in front of the stately old building, which was perhaps once a sweatshop, or maybe always some kind of office building, maybe even the kind Bartleby would have worked in. This was in 1998, and the streets of Tribeca were utterly deserted. Nor, now, could we find anyone in the building “home” to buzz us in. We imagined the loud party and how they wouldn’t be able to hear the bell by this hour of the night.

Finally, a bored night watchman. Let us in to the building. Naturally, we headed for the clock tower.

Which we reached by elevator and then staircase, then found a space full of rubble and darkness, rats and two by fours, plaster piles and plastic buckets, a loft apartment waiting to happen, a space that had not been used in decades except as utility, as storage. This was the clock tower.

We slipped from there onto the exposed roof, laughed into the New York sky, waved hello to the Twin Towers, hello to the Empire State. Ran back and forth through the starry, chilly night, through the dark void of the clock tower, through the well lit corridor of the building’s inside proper. Someone, I think Emily, squatted and peed the floor in sight of the security camera (she waved to that, too), her body carefully hidden beneath the folds of her long skirt.

We laughed and laughed. Our astonishment made us lighter than we were before, made us leap like lords, skid like vaudeville, giggle like teenagers.

Afterwards we were ravenous. We hiked up to the Cozy Diner on Broadway and I made Emily gasp in horror and delight like I always did when I ordered and devoured what in New York is called a Texas Burger, what most places is called a One-Eye, and in Charlottesville is called a Gusburger--a hamburger with a fried egg on top. I didn’t like it as much as I let on, but I loved making Emily proud of me.

Paola found out days later that the Clock Tower Gallery party was in Brooklyn, not far from where we’d started our evening.


Friday, November 03, 2006


Hugging the window/seat on the 61C, early morning, late for work but earlier than I ever saw life in Brooklyn on anything like a daily basis, even counting the time I was treating myself like an old lady and getting up to go sit on a bench and expose my arms to the earliest possible morning sunlight in McGorlick Park or my fire escape, hoping the indications of poor liver functioning (spots on my hands, spots across my eyesight, mild depression) would disappear.

This morning, peering sleep-eyed out of the window of the 61C bus, lumbering down Forbes Avenue, I woke to a golden sidewalk and a tree who couldn’t wait to get rid of his leaves, with no help from any windstorm. Not like the SIDEWAYS rain on Saturday, I’m on the seventh floor and can vouch, it rained horizontally and then the clouds blew away just as quickly as they came, with the same wind, and what was black and grey and ominous as far as the eye could see was sudden blue and white, puffy white, sunny blue, Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm blue, Jewish jazz hotel in the sky above Murray Avenue blue. The sideways rain on Saturday blew away, Thomas says, SOME of the beauty of Frick Park in the fall, Thomas who walked through that silent sanctuary alone on Saturday morning bearing the weight of a birthday offering for me, and the shop keeper on Braddock Ave wouldn’t believe him that he was walking all the way home with such a weight. Frick Park, gorgeous gorge which still, though, offered us an autumn ceiling of gold leaf with some wet-black branches thrown across the scene like calligraphy strokes, on Sunday Frick Park was still there and even though we weren’t totally alone in my lover’s Saturday sanctuary, the sky was a ceiling for us walking through; the sky was gold.

Tree on Forbes Avenue this morning which wasn’t waiting for the wind, was just saying ENOUGH!, it’s a time to lose parts of me, it’s a time to pour leaves straight down like tears, like dead skin, like hair that looses invisibly as I walk, like visible gravity, raining bright not post-ripe yellow until sidewalk and yard are covered. Not post-ripe yellow nor like Brooklyn trees just crumbling dry brown and falling dead, this tree was saying, I am alive and still it is time to pour leaves like tears, it is time to shed clothing like armour that keeps me from knowing you, it is time to shed yellow like a color I used to horde, it’s time to rain golden five points and carpet your walk past me, beneath me, up to me reaching me.
Author of a new Autumn House poetry book, Lucky Wreck

Thursday, November 2nd: Ada Limón and Ellen McGrath Smith read to a modest-sized but alive and attentive crowd, at lunchtime in University of Pittsburgh’s Book Center. Limón was (is) visiting from Brooklyn and Smith is a local writer; the poets were hosted by the South Side publisher, Autumn House Press.

Each poet had a talent for marrying outer observations with an inner life both lived and image-ined, and translating the resulting fusion into writing that wants to be read and heard. In each writer I enjoyed witnessing a similar struggle-—the struggle to illuminate the (necessarily-dark) inner world, and the struggle to articulate the negotiations of moving through the world in a (dynamic, fragile, female, thinking, feeling) body.

Smith made me laugh out loud when she read a poem about the 1960s, when (she claims) everyone but everyone smoked cigarettes. She gave us a list of smoking types, the usual suspects and the unlikely (like dancers), and read it in a sort of jaded, motherly, what-we-didn’t-know-then way, but after she ended the poem commented, “I still haven’t quit.”

In another set of poems she read (these will be included in an Autumn House anthology on poetry and prayer), “I wrote about [yoga] positions that reminded me of different alcoholic beverages,” she said. She took both of these themes to another place entirely, combining in one work the images of Rolling Rock’s brew-factory in (nearby) Ligonier, drinkers imbibing the green pastures of Western Pennsylvania, and her body’s position releasing her energy like a stampede of wild horses inside her.

Some other lines of Smith’s I particluarly liked: “Crush the weak/ The Hum-Vee’s on the street declare.” Speaking to a stranger (“like Jesus, he didn’t look respectable”) who would help her after her car died (“a white corpse on the side of the road”), she asks, “Can I trust you?” While they drove, “He told me August Wilson’s real name.”

Limón was a warm and generous reader, who started by thanking Smith and expressing her delight in discovering her as a writer, and in being in Pittsburgh for the first time.

Limón’s poems often circled back on themselves with a drunken, dream kind of logic. (Indeed, one set of poems actually was a set of sonnets linked by the first and last lines, a seven sonnet “crown.”)

In one work, she “dreamt the word ‘Philadelphia,’ ” and she wonders aloud what that dream-word could mean. “...you want to cry or pray but because you’re no good at either, you tell everyone to leave you alone...., maybe she could call that feeling, ‘Philadelphia.’ ”

In a poem to her lover: “I want to know some things for certain, and other things for vague.” She tells him that she doesn’t want to know his zip code, his state bird, or anything that could helpher pinpoint his whereabouts, because when she finds him, she knows “for certain” what she’ll want to do with him.

Yet another poem spoke of the pleasures of longing to be somewhere else vs. the luxury of wanting to be where you are, which she did once when swimming in a particular river: “But how do you hold a river in your head/ before it turns straight and black/ like some mean road rolled out before you.”

You should keep your eye out for Ellen McGrath Smith, who’s sure to read in town again, and you should go see Ada Limón, who is “unsure if I am jealous of the web or the fly,” read tonight at Gist Street. And if you go, you should go early. I’ve heard this reading series is getting so popular that they sometimes have to lock the doors a half an hour before start time.

Ada Limón reads with Richard Jackson: 8pm Friday, November 3rd, at the Gist Street Reading Series, 305 Gist Street, Uptown, Pittsburgh, PA

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A short report from George Romero’s Pittsburgh

Which false face did you take off for Halloween this year? Here’re some costumes I saw or heard about:

One of my best friends works as a cook for a runaway shelter in Minneapolis. I asked her what her three year old was dressing up as, and she said, “He wears a moustache to pre-school almost every day. He said he wasn’t interested in doing Halloween.” When pressed further, she said that he wears a drawn-on moustache, usually French, except sometimes he draws on kitten whiskers and a goatee instead. He often wears a polyester leisure suit, presumably in imitation of his father who wears suits. My friend herself dressed up as one of the sisters from the movie “Grey Gardens,” Little Edith Bouvier Beale, and served the kids tuna casserole.

A local friend went as a Magic 8 Ball to a party over the weekend. He’d originally conceived it as a costume for his teenage daughter, who’d rejected it as too square. But he had good luck with it at the party, “people asked me questions all night,” so his son was borrowing the idea (and the costume) by Halloween night.

On the bus from Fifth and Wood Street Saturday night, some students from the Uptown girls’ college filed on: Bumble Bee in an obscenely short mini skirt, Lady Cop in an obscenely short mini skirt, Alice in Wonderland in an obscenely short mini skirt, goth school girl in obscenely short mini skirt. Further up the route, some Carnegie Mellon students as axe-murder victims, complete with art-school blood-carnage on half their faces.

My IT guy’s kids were going as a witch (the boy) and a bride (the girl). He said, “It’s only once a year, we let ‘em do what they want.”

One colleague’s four year old went as a Care Bear. One woman’s three year old was a Ninja Turtle.

An old friend in New York went as a dog.

A new friend in Pittsburgh showed up at a non-Halloween function with battery-operated Devil ears. A number of Women’s Studies’ students came to class wearing cat ears.

A Pittsburgh transplant from the West Coast went as “New Age,” with Birkenstocks, cut-off jeans, and a fanny pack full of Nag Champa incense cones.

One University of Pittsburgh student walked around as Waldo. Another stood in line for bagels as a banana.

When I was very young, farther than my memory goes back, I went around as a witch in a costume my mother sewed me. Later I went as a ballerina for many years, and another time wore my mother’s torn yellow prom dress. I thought of this somewhere in my brain as going out for Halloween as “pretty” because that was different than real life. And I think I probably was pretty, and I felt pretty in those costumes, in the dark of the evening, but afterwards I went back to being “regular,” and despairing about being “ugly.” It seems funny to me now, that I could conjure up feeling good for one night of the year, but assumed that schoolyard taunts must be “true” the rest of the time.