Monday, June 29, 2020


I used to love the number 29.  It splices my birthday integers-- a prime number...  indivisible-- a lovely sort of odd symmetry.  I'd been dreading this day, the 3-month anniversary of Alan's death, as though it would establish some boundary-- a negotiable distance.  It would also have been my father's 101st birthday, as though we are still counting, 4 years after his death.

Since the quarantine I've begun this habit of running in the park. I head north to circle the Harlem Meer, follow the Great Hill back down to the reservoir where the El Dorado towers at sunset provide a daily anodyne.  It's become a habit-- not a chore... I miss it when I skip.   I've begun to recognize small natural landmarks-- rocks, graffiti tags on lamposts-- other runners who do not acknowledge me  but seem solemn and immersed in their ritual.  I remind myself-- most of these people have music-- phones, ear-pieces; very few run in silence as I do-- logging sirens, the progress of walking babies, the rising temperatures and lengthening days... Still, even without masks, laughter is rare.  There is solace among the Meer fisherman, the bench-sitters and bicyclists-- but little joy here.

For some odd reason-- maybe my son's obsession with 10,000 daily steps-- I count.  It's become part of the meditation, I suppose-- a distraction-- a kind of poem or verse in my head-- the numbers I can do while thinking of other things-- keeping the log of hundreds with my fingers, starting again at each 1000... Our hands are so perfectly designed to do these things-- an abacus at our fingertips.  Everything makes sense.

Although I vary my route in ways, I generally know precisely where I'l be at 2000 or 3000.   I used to meet my egret at 1000, although she has flown the proverbial coop or changed her schedule.  I miss her.  For a time she discovered a tiny rock island in the reservoir, but she's ghosted me since May.  Her absence reminds me that my world has grown smaller since the pandemic began.  This is a foreshadowing of age; one's global circumference shrinks.  Old poets begin to abandon tormenting passion and desire for ruminations on nature-- things in their garden... insect visitors and leaf-shedding.

When my son was small, we counted.  Waiting for trains, for elevators-- on lines, looking out windows and in the park.  We counted dogs on the sidewalk, our steps, cars, steam shovels... the floors of tall buildings... boats along the East River.  He was so good at counting his nursery school called me in to observe the way he added dominos with skill and speed.  He is still good at numbers-- sports statistics and odds, distance and money.  He has a fit-bit and apps on his phone which do most of the calculating; I'm sure when he runs he listens to Hip-hop music with his bluetooth.  On Father's Day, our special holiday, I visited his new apartment where I found he has no measuring device or even a ruler... I suppose one's laptop has a fixed dimension and he could flip this over... but the difference in our personal cultures seemed poignant.  Me, with the multiple tape measures and cloth ribbons-- yardsticks with long-gone hardware-store logos and school rulers-- steel quilting edges for sewing.

Tonight after my run I walked a bit; I counted homeless men on the sidewalk, glad the rain had stopped and the air had cooled into a reasonable night for sleeping.  There was a man lying on his side reading in the shaft of LED light which bleeds out at the bottom of the new Bank of America building which has replaced God knows how many retail landmarks on the corner of 86th and Lexington.  I did not disturb him to ascertain the book title; if I carried a phone, it would have made a perfect photo of American economic irony-- and perhaps the only example of urban institutional charity available after 9 PM.

I've always preferred odds to evens; it could have something to do with the 'Loves Me, Loves Me Not' sequencing... sometimes I'll stand and wait until the odd comes along, so I can go home with a sense of luck, of hopefulness.  Writing here on my computer, I rarely note that it keeps a running total for me; I generally spill out more than necessary and choose not to look.

There's a man who often rests on the library stoop; occasionally people leave books here, though the building has been shut for months.  There is an installation of three steel chairs bolted into the sidewalk where he also sits; the armrests prevent sleeping or napping (city planners are so cruel).  Anyway, he often leafs through the books... we've talked about this.  He cannot read, he told me.  He never learned.  Last night he seemed absorbed in a page, running his finger along lines.  I looked at him with curiosity.  Oh, Baby, he said-- I can't read but I'm counting the words.  I can count real good, and he grinned with a kind of pride.

One of the homeless people I counted tonight was chanting; it sounded like Nike, Echelon, Grace.  Nike, Echelon, Grace... like a kind of verbal tonic.  Lately when I lie down, missing Alan as I do in early mornings, I say the Lord's Prayer-- I count the parts, the way I count steps when I run-- like a deconstructed poem, it comforts me-- distracts me.

The last homeless man I logged-- the 'odd'--  was asleep on his back,  hands folded neatly, one finger pointing up at the sky.  It was not accusatory-- more like a gesture-- something deliberate-- as though he'd fallen asleep mid-sentence.... Oh, Lord, let me count the ways...   It occurred to me as I reached my door that I can count on one finger the people I can count on; maybe that's what he meant.

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Friday, June 19, 2020

Juneteenth Fireworks

North of here tonight someone is setting off fireworks... from the rock ledge beside the Great Hill in Central Park I could hear the dull sound of small explosions like distant gunshot, with a dampened echo at sunset.  In between was that sax player... so hard to place him geographically-- on a hillside, a rooftop, in a courtyard... I can hear his progress since the beginning of the pandemic.  He is beginning to play.

New York City is becoming accustomed once again to demonstrations-- to noise in general.  The spring was deadly quiet, as though everyone held their breath between sirens.  Now there is anger, and buoyant energy-- the physical passions of the young are manifesting in the activity they repressed so long.  Boxers are working out in the park-- packs of bike and scooter-riders pass like hurricane-winds with enough velocity to blow someone's hat off.

On the streets there is chanting-- pockets of organized marchers in every neighborhood: they walk, they shout-- they sing... they let off energy and coordinate long-brewing discontent in focused choruses.  Something is happening here... the police have taken a step back and decide to pick their battles.  Illegal fireworks, until someone gets burned, is not one of them.  For people like me, with wide open windows and undated imagination, these are the sounds of a quiet war.

I watched the film Selma tonight on television; the scope of my life-- a kind of cyclical deja-vu-- became clear as I watched not the Hollywood version, but the actual vintage footage at the end.  I was young in those days, but old enough to march and protest and learn.  Growing up in New York City, we had plenty of exposure to racial (in)equality and viewed the South as a kind of anachronistic anomaly until our teachers and newsreels made these things clear.  I went to High School with the children of Whitney Young, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee... I served as class Vice President with two black fellow officers and an Asian woman as Treasurer.   I was proud.  This was the 1960's, when segregation and persecution was still the norm in some states.

It occurred to me today that I was racially 'privileged'.  As a teenager I studied Afro-American dance with a man named Rod Rodgers who I now realize treated me with incredible sensitivity and understanding; my choir director was a black man named Norman Brooks who was extraordinarily cultured and knowledgeable, who imparted to me an appreciation and a foundation of music which crossed all boundaries- all ethnicities, all colors and all centuries.  My art teacher Mr. Blackburn showed me how to look at multi-dimensions; this did not come naturally to me.  My mentors in the three passions of my life were not white, and not one of them seemed to resent or punish me for my color.

Today a poet-friend who is a black man from Brooklyn called to make sure I am okay.  He read to me one of his extraordinary poems which could have been preached from a Harlem pulpit.  It resonated; it is easy to make cliches of these things that happen-- the soundbites from the George Floyd murder and all the recent indignities which can become watered down as symbols or catchwords.  But the violence-- the damage-- the terror and the brutality-- these do not abate.

In an election year, we must be careful of the way our politicians 'spin' these things.  Watching Selma I was reminded of the image created by the Presidency at that time-- a southern man with some sophistication and respect, but nowhere near the proper mindset of a perpetrator of true equality.  He cut a deal, as politicians do.  The facts and dates of our history books do not always reflect the truth.  Today we have something of a perfect storm for our leaders-- not for a 'win' or rehashed policy, but an opportunity for progress-- for change, for a step forward.

Coming east along the Pinetum path last night was a group of young black men and women preparing for Juneteenth-- chalking names along the pathways.  Each was responsible for a list of some 40 or 50 names--- there were hundreds-- black men who died in violent crimes, killed unjustly by policemen, prison guards-- those deemed to protect us.  The litany, as I walked and read aloud, was a poem itself-- more killing and penetrating than any of Martin Luther King's memorable speeches from Selma which were long familiar to me.

Across the city in nearly every park and Plaza the asphalt and tile is marked everywhere by colorful messages and memorials and reminders.  Some are well-crafted and masterly; but for the most part, they seem childlike and basic.  Unlike graffiti, they are fragile and will disappear after the first heavy rainfall which will mercifully hold off for another day or two.  On Father's Day, we will remember those who were no longer able to be fathers.

The soft rumble of fireworks continues in these early morning hours-- the temporal 'nest' in which I find myself perched most nights, waiting to hatch-- nurturing old memories, birthing songs and ideas-- and trying to process the devastation of the last few months--- the deaths, the unprecedented paralysis of modern life-- the fear, the lost trust between one another.  Perhaps a kind of war is coming-- an upheaval and a painful sloughing off of all the hatred and misunderstanding.  The masks remind us we cannot tell much from a facade-- they separate us, as they make us look uniformed... We must look deeper; in the end we all bleed, we all march, we have the hidden capacity to heal one another, if only we knew how.

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