Monday, December 18, 2017

A Hero of the People

It was surreal to see the complacent and generally sedate and bourgeois yellow brick of 679 Ocean Parkway with the iron gated front on the news last night. This, apparently, according to the news, was where the parents of the Port Authority bomber resided and where I suspected, (long before the news announced it)  since he had gotten on the F train, , the bomb was but together. 679 was the mirror image of 665 and they were joined together like siamese twins by a cantilever section overlooking a comparatively unkempt courtyard where I had my first "show me yours and I'll show you mine" sexual experience when I was eight or nine years old--a sufficient degree of privacy being afforded by the unruly bushes and dead trees. My parents lived in 665 on the sixth floor for forty some-odd years, so, this was what I still call home and (much) later moved into a studio in 679, the adjoining building after I returned from the Merchant Marine. I tool a studio apartment on the second floor, until I got married in 1985. The major difference between the two buildings that I recall, aside from the abundance of personal memory associated with 665, was that 665 always seemed to exude the odor of friend onions and beef coming from somewhere on every floor except the 4th floor for some reason. 679 was far more antiseptic when it came to communal odors and smelled only of the acrid fluid that they used to clean the granite floors. What I most remember most about that latter building was the constant warring between my heavyset blond neighbor Renee and her upstairs neighbor that lasted several years until Renee got Bell's Palsey and then a truce ensued and the banging on the ceiling and pounding on the floor, depending on your perspective, finally ceased.

The windows of my studio overlooked the side of a the red private house on Webster Avenue where Arthur Smith lived. He was something of an oddball and lived with his mother well into his fifties until she died in 1983. I had known Arthur from around the neighborhood growing up but was never really friendly with him. He seemed somehow indefinably aloof probably because he had gone to St. Rose of Lima and I had gone to public school. Not athletic, nor did he ever participate in any of the street games we as kids played growing up. He had no other perceptible interests except model trains. and was not a person anyone seemed to seek out and he seemed to like it that way. He was pale heavyset and had black curly hair as well as perpetually untied shoes and a half tucked shirt which would have driven my father crazy. My father had a thing about half-tucked shirts. In his Yoda-like way he would tell me 'tucked or untucked--there is no half-tucked." Arthur had this way of looking at you sideways with a look of frightened contempt which seemed to imply you might be considering taking a swing at him. This accented all the least attractive elements of his face and implied, 'yeah, well, I may be a freak but I'm still better than you.' I don't know what had happened to his father. He must have died.  To add to his unappealing demeanor he a very high voice and this stutter that completed the portrait of a cornered rat. We knew each other only by sight and neither of us had ever made any effort to engage the other as children.

Decades later, after I got married, my wife and I moved first into a one bedroom apartment on Kings Hiway. It across from the cemetery near Flatbush Avenue and around the corner from an Israeli nightclub. After we had the triplets we moved into the first floor of Arthur's house at 256 Webster which fortuitously, had been for rent at the time. It was far more spacious and I put in an extra bedroom in the basement for Monika and Preston, my wife's children from her first marriage who at the time were five and eight who had been living in Poland with their grandmother in Lodz in Poland. I think I was in shock at the time. In the space of two years I had gone from being a bachelor in a studio to the father of five (but there were other reasons for me to go into a perpetual state of shock which I won't go into). In any case our neighbor at 258 Webster were Sal and Irenne Sal was a short, balding Italian man who kept a fig tree and a grape arbor in his back yard. He was married to the solidly heavyset, red-headed Irish woman named Eileen who like Berumuda shorts and who, like Arthur, had some kind of speech impediment that rendered social interaction difficult but her was much more severe. Eileen who always had her hair pulled back in a bun loved the triplets and she cooed over them constantly. My theory was that the speech impediment was partly a result of her pulling her hair back so severely that it deformed her lip muscles but I could not prove that nor could I ever understand what she was saying to me or to them for that matter but I loved to watch her fuss over them and the fact that it was unintelligible made it more endearing much moreso than people who would intentionally engage in baby talk which always seems to me to be pretentious and a harbinger or worse things to come once actual meaning was introduced into the infant's life.

So, we lived there on Webster until the fall of 1989 until we moved to Monroe in Orange County. By then Arthur had fallen in with a bad crowd and also there were also drug dealers cruising the back alley between 256 and the yellow apartment house on Ocean Parkway. I don't blame Arthur for that particularly but you know as the saying goes--familiarity often breeds contempt and the tide of fear that had seemed to keep these elements at bay seemed to be receding. Since the back stairway to the second floor communicated with Arthur's apartment and the rear door from the kitchen was without the benefit of a lockable door, I didn't feel it was safe there anymore for us so I packed us up, lock stock and crack barrel and moved upstate.

Four or five months after we moved upstate I got a call from the cops saying that they wanted me to come down so they could ask me some questions. Whoever was on the phone asked me if I had lived in 256 Webster and I asked why but he wouldn't tell me--just that I had to come down. Though they hadn't said anything specific, I was sure it was about Arthur.By the time we had left, he had a girlfriend. He was like me by then close to forty and I was sure that this was the first girlfriend he had ever had and I had a bad feeling about it. I drove down to Brooklyn and met the cops who escorted me upstairs. As soon as I opened the front door I knew what had happened. Even from the street the smell had been horrific. When I got to the top of the stair I gagged and almost puked. I saw that what had apparently been Arthur was now a puddle of blackish, greyish, lumpy goop spread over the dining room floor. I had never seen or smelled anything so penetratingly vile in my life and I cannot convey the repulsiveness of that enveloping odor. I don't know why but I didn't puke. Or maybe I did. I don't know. I think someone must have given me a handkerchief doused with Lysol to hold over my face because i distinctly remember the Lysol smell which did nothing to mitigate the underlying odor and so just made things worse. I don't know why the cops brought me up there. I guess just to see my reaction. I had been in Arthur's apartment only once before and it seemed it had been kept exactly in the same condition as when his mother was alive down to the doilies on the dining room table. I had the sense that perhaps she was still seated in a rocking chair near the window--a dessicated corpse a la Hitchcock's psycho. Anyway, when we went back out into the street the detective asked me if I knew anything about what happened and if I knew any of Arthur's associates and I said not really but that I thought he had recently got a girlfriend in the neighborhood and had seen her and a few suspicious characters traipsing up and down the back stair at odd hours before we moved out but that I hadn't been back since. And that was four or five months ago--as I mentioned, I thought Arthur maybe had gotten into drugs and as for the characters traipsing up and down the back stair, I was sure that one of them had killed him and robbed him but I didn't say anything about that to the detective. I figured they could draw their own conclusions and I really didn't have any concrete information other than that Arthur had had a girlfriend and some new friends.

I was so badly shaken by the time I left that I couldn't drive. Also, I couldn't get that odor out of my nose and didn't relish the prospect of a two hour drive with that odor as my constant companion. I went around the corner and took a shower in my parent's house and threw the clothes in the garbage and put on some of my father's old clothes. I didn't need my (now ex) wife to tell me I stunk when I got home to Monroe and I took another shower which had as little effect as the first one. That smell seemed like it was glued on me and it remained there like an unwanted guest for several days or maybe I just imagine this to be the case now but like the Welsh cakes I had once eaten on a trip to England and Wales it seemed impossible to rid of the after effects. A year or so later I went back and saw that the house had been bought by some Hasidim who had made into some kind of school for mentally disabled kids. I just now, before putting all this down, google-earthed it and the house and Tony and Eileen's house are both now a vacant lot. No more fig tree. No more doilies. No more smell and definitely no more Arthur.

Anyway, seeing the reporter standing in front of 679 yesterday on the TV, I guess brought back all this back to mind and there's a lot more I could tell you but I really don't have the heart right now for it. I'm just glad that after the events of yesterday there were no more bodies that would be eventually turning into black goo because of some moron who got it in his head that he was a hero of the people. The only other thing remotely exciting in a related manner that happened in the neighborhood was when the FBI raided a terrorist cell over on Coney Island avenue (in what is now little Pakistan) above the candy store we used to go to. Morty and Eddie's. I think this was in 1995. I remember one of the terrorists jumped out the window which seemed to me particularly funny, like he was the cartoon Wile E Coyote. Anyway, as you can see I don't really know how to end this story except to note that if Renee could have blown up her upstairs neighbor and got away with it I am sure she would have,-- even though she had no desire herself to be a hero of the people. There are several people that fall into that category, me among them, if I am being honest but, as I said,--that's another story.A Hero of the People

It was surreal to see the complacent and generally sedate and bourgeois yellow brick of 679 Ocean Parkway with the iron gated front on the news last night. This apparently, according to the news, was where the parents of the Port Authority bomber lived and where I suspect, since he got on the F train, the bomb was but together. 679 was the mirror image of 665 and they were joined together like siamese twins by a section overlooking a comparatively unkempt courtyard where I had my first unrewarding "show me yours and I'll show you mine": sexual experience when I was eight or nine years old--a degree of privacy being offered there by the unruly bushes and trees (no pun intended). My parents lived in 665 for forty some-odd years, so, safe to say, I grew up there. I (much) later moved into a studio in 679, the adjoining building. This was after I returned from the Merchant Marine in 1980 and I lived there on the second floor until I got married in 1985. The major difference between the two buildings that I recall was that 665 seemed to always have the odor of cooking coming from somewhere on every floor except the 4th floorm whereas 679 was somewhat more antiseptic when it came to communal odors and smelled only of the acrid fluid that they used to clean the granite floors.. What I most remember about that building is the war between my neighbor Renee and her upstairs neighbor that lasted several years until Renee got Bell's Palsey and a truce ensued and the banging on the ceiling and pounding on the floor, depending on your perspective, finally ceased.

My back window of the apartment overlooked a private house on Webster Avenue where Arthur Smith lived with his mother until she died in 1983. I knew Arthur from around the neighborhood growing up but was never really friendly with him. He was something of an oddball and seemed somehow indefinably aloof. Not athletic and never participating in any of the street games we played growing up and with no other perceptible interest except model trains he was not a person anyone seemed to seek out as a playmate. I don't know what had happened to his father He had gone to St. Rose and I had gone to public school. To add to his unappealing demeanor he a very high voice and a stutter. We knew each other by sight and neither of us made any effort to engage the other. He was heavyset with black curly hair and a perpetually half tucked shirt which would have driven my father crazy. My father had a thing about half-tucked shirts. In his Yoda-like way he would tell me 'tucked or untucked--there is no half-tucked."

So anyway, after I got married we moved first into a one bedroom apartment on Kings Hiway across from the cemetery near Flatbush Avenue and then after we had the triplets we moved into the first floor of Arthur's house at 256 Webster which had been for rent at the time. It was far more spacious and I put in an extra bedroom in the basement for Monika and Preston, who at the time were five and eight had been living in Poland with their grandmother in Lodz in Poland. I think I was still in shock at the time. In the space of two years I had gone from being a bachelor in a studio to the father of five (but there were other reasons for me to be in a perpetual state of shock which I won't go into). In any case our neighbor Tony was a short, balding Italian man who had a fig tree and a grape arbor in his back yard. He was married to a heavyset redheaded Irish woman named Eileen who, like Arthur, had some kind of speech impediment but much more severe. Eileen who always had her hair pulled back in a severe bun loved the triplets and cooed over them. I could never understand what she was saying or trying to say but I loved to watch her fuss over them.

So we lived there on Webster until the fall of 1989 when we moved to Monroe in Orange County. By then Arthur had fallen in with a bad crowd and also there were also drug dealers cruising the back alley between 256 and 665 Ocean Parkway. I don't blame Arthur for that but you know as the saying goes--familiarity often breeds contempt. Since the back stairway to the second floor communicated with Arthur's apartment without the benefit of a lockable door, I didn't feel it was safe there anymore. Four or five months after we moved upstate I got a call from the cops saying that they wanted me to come down so they could ask me some questions. Whoever was on the phone asked me if I had lived in 256 Webster and I asked why but he wouldn't tell me--just that I had to come down. Though they hadn't said anything specific, I was sure it was about Arthur.

By the time we had left he had a girlfriend. He was like me by then close to forty and I was sure that this was the first girlfriend he had ever had and I had a bad feeling about it. I drove down to Brooklyn and met the cops who escorted me upstairs. As soon as I opened the front door I knew what had happened. Even from the street the smell had been horrific. When I got to the top of the stair I gagged and almost puked. I saw that what had apparently been Arthur was now a puddle of blackish, greyish goo spread over the dining room floor. I had never seen or smelled anything so penetratingly vile in my life. I don't know why but I didn't puke. Or maybe I did. I think someone must have given me a handkerchief doused with Lysol to hold over my face because i distinctly remember the Lysol smell which did nothing to mitigate the underlying odor and so just made things worse. I don't know why the cops brought me up there. I guess just to see my reaction. I had been in Arthur's apartment only once before and it seemed it had been kept exactly in the same condition as when his mother was alive down to the doilies on the dining room table. Anyway, when we went back out into the street the detective asked me if I knew anything about what happened and if I knew any of Arthur's associates and I said not really but that I thought he had recently got a girlfriend in the neighborhood and had seen her and a few suspicious characters traipsing up and down the back stair at odd hours before we moved out but that I hadn't been back since. And that was four or five months ago--as I mentioned, I thought Arthur maybe had gotten into drugs and as for the characters traipsing up and down the back stair, I was sure that one of them had killed him and robbed him but I didn't say anything about that to the detective. I figured they could draw their own conclusions and I really didn't have any concrete information other than that Arthur had had a girlfriend and some new friends.

I was so badly shaken by the time I left that I couldn't drive. Also, I couldn't get that odor out of my nose and didn't relish the prospect of a two hour drive with that odor as my constant companion. I went around the corner and took a shower in my parent's house and threw the clothes in the garbage and put on some of my father's old clothes. I didn't need my (now ex) wife to tell me I stunk when I got home to Monroe and I took another shower which had as little effect as the first one. That smell seemed like it was glued on me and it remained there like an unwanted guest for several days or maybe I just imagine this to be the case now but like the Welsh cakes I had once eaten on a trip to England and Wales it seemed impossible to rid of the after effects. A year or so later I went back and saw that the house had been bought by some Hasidim who had made into some kind of school for mentally disabled kids. I just now, before putting all this down, google-earthed it and the house and Tony and Eileen's house are both now a vacant lot. No more fig tree. No more doilies. No more smell and definitely no more Arthur.

Anyway, seeing the reporter standing in front of 679 yesterday on the TV, I guess brought back all this back to mind and there's a lot more I could tell you but I really don't have the heart right now for it. I'm just glad that after the events of yesterday there were no more bodies that would be eventually turning into black goo because of some moron who got it in his head that he was a hero of the people. The only other thing remotely exciting in a related manner that happened in the neighborhood was when the FBI raided a terrorist cell over on Coney Island avenue (in what is now little Pakistan) above the candy store we used to go to. Morty and Eddie's. I think this was in 1995. I remember one of the terrorists jumped out the window which seemed to me particularly funny, like he was the cartoon Wile E Coyote. Anyway, as you can see I don't really know how to end this story except to note that if Renee could have blown up her upstairs neighbor and got away with it I am sure she would have,-- even though she had no desire herself to be a hero of the people. There are several people that fall into that category, me among them, if I am being honest but, as I said,--that's another story.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Don't Bother, Their Here


It is difficult not to begin any attempt at rational thought nowadays without the words "that idiot Trump" however, it was a well known facet of growing up in New York City that Donald Trump suffered from an Edifice Complex which the urban dictionary defines as "as serious budget-busting illness that typically manifests itself on modern college and university campuses." While Trump is obviously lacking in any marks of higher education, he did exhibit this same predilection for constructing buildings on a grand scale seemingly solely for the purpose of splashing someone's (in his case, his own), name across them, so it seems that his affinity for commemoration, (and in his case, self commemoration) should have become a focal point early on (or late) in presidency (depending on how you look at it) with regard to the issue of Confederate statues is particularly ironic.
The hauling down of statues has a certain resonance for people of my generation who not only recall the lassooing of Saddam Hussein but the defacement of Buddhist carvings by Islamic extremists as well as the consignment of the stentorian images of Lenin and Marx to Moscow suburban junkyards as well has the obliteration of Chinese imagery (that was not of Chairman Mao) during the cultural revolution of the late sixties and seventies. In a sense the Vietnam memorial, which I found personally very poignantly and unexpectedly moving when I went to see it, was also an expression of this tendency of de-iconfication and healthy disillusionment so in my mind at least there are both positive and negative aspects to it.

While the tendency to purge awkward memories is a strong one in both our public and personal lives, it is worth examining where it is a healthy scourging of outmoded imagery or where the wholesale obliteration of meaning. I think it important, first of all, to distinguish purely political from artistic statements. In my view at least, the wanton destruction of the giant Buddhas of Barniyan by the Taliban was simply an act of vandalism, while the hauling down of Saddam Hussein was basically just an example of good taste. One was art and the other politics.

Honestly, I do not believe that statues of Robert E. Lee belong in the public square. They are symbols of an abhorrent and discredited ideology and a reminder of a dark chapter in the history of the nation. To glorify that seems perverse. On the other hand, the call now to remove Lee and Stonewall Jackson's names from the barracks of West Point seems to me both unnecessary and punitive-- the manifestation of a rabid tendency to obliterate any uncomfortable symbols of past guilt from American discourse. Lee was a graduate of West Point and Superintendent there from 1852 to 1855. He is part of the history of that institution. Not only that, he was undeniably a brilliant tactician and military strategist, two skills which the institution purports to teach and of which we, as a nation, if we are to remain one, are in need. The concept of 'the state' in American has changed over time.To seek to obliterate his name simply because he chose loyalty to his state over that of his country from the institution he served and attended is in my mind more akin to an attempt at collective self absolution than a mark of sensitivity to modern cultural norms or true justice and does nothing for the stature of the nation. While it may be simply making hay in the current political climate, I think the calls to do this are misguided.

And while I may be accused on nit-picking, I do think it is important to maintain the distinction between glorification and commemoration and in this case, of West Point, I believe it is commemoration and thus should be left to stand. And while, racists and haters may also seek to make hay on the other side of the road if the names are left to stand, I believe they will be on much shakier ground in doing so. So, while I find myself in an uncomfortable position in saying so, and I have spent a lot of time talking about commemoration and monuments of which neither subject do I have any great fondness or affinity, and while I do not share Trump's great affection for embodying memory in stone or glass, I do believe that simple eradication without accompanying self reflection of either memory or the places of honor in it. is a destructive process and should be undertaken with great care.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Send in the Clowns

People criticize other people for playing games. Of course when sincerity is required, then playing games is a bad thing and those people can become annoying and tedious because they seem incapable of being serious- they do not know when or how to stop playing and certainly game-playing then can take on a rather malicious and neurotic aspect-- but playing games can also be good fun and provide a needed distraction from pain and suffering so it is not always clear really when game-playing is good or bad. Computers that are programmed to play games can often be good company when you need a distraction from pain even tho they are not human--sometimes better because you know what to expect from them.
Wikipedia defines game theory as "the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers." I was watching a movie about Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies last night and the part about the trial of the Chicago Seven (originally the Chicago Eight until Bobby Seale the Black Panther severed his trial from that of the other defendants). At the time, I remember this rather odd and antic trial and when it dominated the news. In the movie Vincent D'onofrio plays Hoffman and he gives him this pretentious self-involved quality with some fake non-localizable accent that I found annoying but anyway, Hoffman was essentially a hyper-rational game-player--they got that part right. That was also why I didn't take him seriously at the time--he was an antic clown tweaking the nose of the stuffed shirt, irrational establishment. The country was in pain at the time and needed a distraction and he provided it. So, what is the point I am trying to make here? There was this bizarre phenomenon last year when clowns started spontaneously appearing. They were rather strange clowns because it seemed they did not know how to play. They just stood there. They were clowns who forgot how to be clowns. We are a country that has forgotten how to be in pain. The stuffed shirts are still running the country,--maybe we have all forgotten how to play--maybe it is time to send in the clowns. The real ones.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Freedom and Bar-B-Cue

I am reposting this post from March 20 because I think it is important and worth saying. It had to do with a computer contract I was doing in Birmingham Alabama under what were very painful physical circumstances for me at the time. I had a pinched nerve in my neck that lasted for six months (and longer). I was in a lot of pain and could not stand up straight but I went to work every day for those six months. I had a family to support and some things are worth doing, just like some things are worth saying...or resaying.

A few years back I was doing a computer contract for Bell South in Birmingham Alabama. It was in a corporate park. It had snowed, which was unusual for Birmingham, and by 3:00pm nobody was left in the building except me and a couple of supervisors and the security guard. I looked out the window at the parking lot and there were two cars there; mine and the one I assumed belonged to the security guard. I went up to one woman who was still there at her desk and I asked if they were closing the building.
"Why are you still here?" she asked me.
"I'm a contractor. If I'm not here I don't get paid. They own my ass."
This was the mid-nineteen nineties you understand, supposedly the era of the "New South."
Anyway, she looked up at me and with a smile that would have melted butter on a cold day, said,
"It's nice to be owned. Isn't it?"
I knew exactly what she meant, right away.
Now, if ever in my life I wanted to call a woman a "c__t" it was at that moment. Instead, not wanting to get fired, I am ashamed to say, I just gritted my teeth and walked away.

In any case, I have always regretted that I let that racist bitch get the last word. Unfortunately no matter how much of a bitch she was, what she had said about human nature was true. People do most often like to be owned or at least are accepting of it--particularly in the workplace. It relieves them of the burden of thinking-- so long as they follow the rules they know they are OK. In Trumpian America we should be particularly mindful of this attitude as in its worst incarnation, it can become fascism. I am not trying to make a political point, I am just stating something I have observed about human nature.

So, what I learned from all this is that, no matter what my mother told me, sometimes, you can't observe the niceties and the office etiquette. Sometimes you can't just be polite-- you just have to dispense with that when other people think they own you or your reality and then, even if it is snowing in Birmingham Alabama, you just have to call a spade a spade, and a "c__t" a "c__t". So while, I can't say I am proud of everything in my life--I am at least trying to make some amends at this late date.

So that is the end of the previous post and this is what I have to say about it--it is clear why the woman in this story was a piece of shit. What is not as clear is why she was right about people being willing to subjugate themselves and that was really the point of this story--that it is human nature (and a lie that we tell ourselves) that we feel we only have to right to fully define ourselves only after we have been subjugated. In marriage, we willingly mutually subjugate ourselves out of love and hence define the family as what is more important to us than our individuality--what this woman in the story was talking about was NOT a willing subjugation, it was a brutal imposition of the will of one race on another. (And the same holds true for the brutal imposition of one individual's will over an other.) The simple fact of human nature about self definition that the woman got right was that once we are subjugated to something we can begin to define ourselves anew. In the case of what she was talking about it produced the miracle of black culture in this society--in bondage black people were made free to define themselves completely. The key point and the key difference is understanding what is a willing subjugation what is one that is imposed. We all feel the need to have power to define ourselves, but if we are willing or even eager to sacrifice the one thing that his truly important --in the case of this story--freedom--then that self-definition is worthless and we have lost the one thing that is truly important. Obviously this has political implications for our present situation and we should be wary that in submitting to an enslaving ideaology (whether it be of the right or the left) or to a religion, or to a person, we should remember that it is never worth sacrificing your freedom as that is really the only thing worth having and without it--and no matter what they tell you, without it there is no such thing as love.