Friday, July 24, 2020

Ring, ring goes the bell...

When I was in elementary school they began bussing children in from other  districts to promote integration.  The new kids were black, so we all knew it was a racial not a cultural thing.  They were different-- a little less fearful of teachers; they brought attitude in-- not because it was inherent but maybe magnified because they didn't ask to ride a bus every morning and afternoon.  I loved this one girl in my class- Darcel.  She had cats-eye glasses and a big butt and strutted around like a queen.  She encouraged my bad behavior and classroom antics.  I wanted her approval; I got into trouble in Home Economics and they called in my parents.

By junior high we were pretty much integrated and adjusted.  There was a certain level of tension-- it was the 60's and civil rights issues were at the top of social studies discussions.  Radical intellectuals were questioning policy, human rights and justice.  To corral cafeteria energy, they let us dance; the black kids had a whole style and ruled at this... on the turntable they played 'Shotgun' over and over and kids went wild.  To cool off the energy, they began some program where we'd have to sit in an auditorium and eat lunch while they showed classic films-- things like Kidnapped or The Count of Monte Christo or even black and white films like Arsenic and Old Lace.  Kids threw sandwiches at the screen and the room smelled stale and 'meaty' like burped up salami.  It was not conducive to eating and for some reason the word quarantine yesterday conjured up that memory like food poisoning.

Scenes like this are beginning to blur; some of the sensations are so vivid I know they happened-- at times I can look down and see my plaid wool kilt or my blue corduroy skirt underneath my looseleaf notebook.  We didn't have backpacks; there was a bag with a drawstring for gym clothes but most kids like me piled their books and held them together with a rubber strap.  The black and white films made no sense; they weren't even funny and most of them were shown in 20-minute installments in the course of a week.  They were depressing and irrelevant the way I suppose movies like Butch Cassidy looked to my own son.

At some point I began tutoring kids in a less fortunate district where test levels were way below standard.  I was assigned a tiny girl named Doreen who was repeating First Grade for a third term.  She was so little I theorized her mother had lied about her age just to get the child-care kindergarten provided.  Things were different then; working mothers were often overwhelmed.  Doreen was extremely shy and could not seem to connect with alphabet.  I read stories to her and she was very attentive.  She'd lean up on me the way kids do and put her fingers in her mouth.  I can't read, Miss Amy, she would say matter-of-factly... they forced the kids to address me with a title.

No one had ever read to her.  No books in her house... no stories, no fairy tales... Read to me about Singerella, she'd say.  She loved Cinderella.. over and over.  I made little Cinderella flash cards-- brought in Colorforms.. but she did not connect any letters with characters... with things.  She had a block.  Still, I was determined-- and I looked forward to our sessions-- the sound of her little deep voice was hypnotic and monotonal.  Her little body leaning against me made me feel responsible and mothery.   She was clean in a way-- her hair was neatly separated and done in a multitude of tiny braids with plastic barrettes... in the straight scalp partings her Mom rubbed Vaseline, she told me.  But her scent-- it was as though she lived over a restaurant and the ghost of old food had permanently permeated her clothing and skin.

Every day I held the cards... gave little consonant hints with my mouth.. but she refused to think and just mimicked whatever I did.  Frustrating... not lollipops, nor barrettes, nor books enticed her.
One day I stayed after school for a meeting with all the tutors-- I watched her Mom pick her up and smack her as she put her in the car.  She just sat there in the seat making that face she made, like she was clucking her tongue.  Black lives matter, I thought, in different words... but I was useless for anything except getting her out of her humiliating classroom for an hour every day.  Of course I had no clue her mother had six other kids, a delinquent husband and a limited education herself.

Today on a crosstown bus a whole group of kids was on the way home from some kind of school program; they had uniforms and book bags and all of them had removed their masks and were carrying on in the back so it was hard not to laugh... they were about 10 years old...  where had they been, in this pandemic... summer school?  Was there air conditioning? Were they especially smart, especially slow?  Impossible to tell... but that aura of being released from a confining day was unmistakable.

Classroom learning for me was the model.  It was boring, repetitive, claustrophobic... incestuous and unfair... but that was the deal.  God forbid my parents would have had to home school me-- they had no patience and my Mom wasn't very smart.  Except she read to us-- Alice in Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz... she was a wonderful reader even when I was old enough to correct her pronunciations... I loved the evening chapter-installments.  There were also TV programs-- Mr. Wizard and even primitive interactive things where you'd stick a plastic screen on the set and draw with a crayon... but most learning centered on a class, facing forward, fixed desks in closely-set rows.  Tall in back, small in front.

I think about little Doreen-- she'd be about 57 now.  Jesus.  I'm sure she eventually learned to read; we'd finally mastered the letter 'D'.  In these times, I think Beyonce would play 'Singerella' in her little head... she'd have dreams and maybe even a tablet with youtube and Disney.  I can still remember her little-girl smell and the way she fidgeted on my lap-- couldn't get close enough like a sad dog.  Maybe she remembers me; I wasn't allowed to give her any gifts although I wanted to ... I wanted to take her home and keep her there and have her sit on my lap while my Mom read to us girls.  Then I graduated... met brilliant, strong black women... was taught by some of them... asked them about the Doreens and they shook their head and spoke about racism and cultural inequality.

Up in Harlem kids are bored-- playgrounds are still locked up... they are hanging out in clusters and seem relatively unafraid... but what will become of their classrooms-- the closeness and the physical
experience of people-- of lunchrooms, of sharing and trading and touching-- the covered mouths and masked noses-- singing and dancing and tasting? It's just so harsh.   My Mom used to warn us how cigarettes would stunt our growth... but all bets are off now.  People get used to things; dogs wag their tail when their owners put on a mask-- it means a walk...most seem grateful for phase 3-- it beats phase 1... and even prisoners adjust to lock-up... I guess... but we are all prisoners here... we are looking inward and outward and we are not happy; we are equally deprived and stripped of some freedom-- we are the skeletons in our own closets... facing down some kind of punishment some of us do not deserve-- a sentence without trial.  I'm not suffering; I'm old, I've had my fun, as the song goes... but for those who have not... the children... their lives matter most of all.

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Friday, July 10, 2020

Red, White and Blue

On July 4th I took an uncrowded 4 train to Brooklyn to hang with my son.  Solitude and quarantine have muffled the sounds of freedom ringing; just a few short weeks ago the pre-sunset curfew was downright penetentiarial.  I craved the sight of bridges and water and the Jersey shoreline-- the sense of distance, of space that is not measured out in six-foot lengths.  I thought the trip might help stir up some holiday spirit.

Walking to the subway was like an audio land-mine... firecrackers and street-caps exploding everywhere... Roman candles and sparklers whizzing by, blasts and M-80s and rockets threatening my old damaged ears.  I was jumpy; the station, even with the heat, was like a quiet refuge.  On the train, pretty much everyone wore a mask-- except the guy by the rear door who was smoking a joint and pointed out to me several times that I was the only white person in the car.  Certainly I was the only person without earbuds-- a captive audience to his rants and raps and disgruntlements.  When he pressed me for a response, I confessed I didn't feel very white, thinking about my unbleached laundry still drying off in the permanent humidity of my bathroom.   It seemed to satisfy him-- he offered me a toke and I turned it down, touching the mask.  In the relative calm of train noise, I felt safe.

In Brooklyn my son treated me to tacos on the roof of a cool Mexican place-- seemed appropriately a-patriotic for American Independence Day.  I had my first drink of alcohol since that last horrid glass of red at Parkside -- when Alan I toasted the proverbial end of the world as the downtown music scene hit the fan.  It burned a little-- like I was somehow disloyal for drinking without him.   A few couples socially distanced at tables seemed subdued... as though they were waiting for something; a young family with a cranky toddler reminded me of how exhausting the relentless claustrophobia of family can be-- how my first quarantine was like a numerical sentence-- me, a baby, an absent husband and the thick walls of early winter dusk that closed tightly around a mother who was accustomed to barhopping and rock and roll nights.  Sometimes I tire my son-the-man with memories and reminiscence... mostly I reduce it down to a general apology for my learning-on-the-job parenting style.

I insisted we check out the view from the Brooklyn promenade-- magical on any night, but the 4th held some promise of pyrotechnics and sky-entertainment, although nothing like the dazzling light-show of 2019-- the crowds, the buzz, the noise. The Statue of Liberty seemed to have shrunk... like someone picked her off and replaced her with a facsimile-- Liberty-Barbie with the green robe and the crown... and what reason had she to stand tall anyway... sham that she became in this administration with her baited false message of welcome to immigrants, the racially charged symbol of white freedom-- in a harbor with few boats, in a city where residents must mask their face and fear their neighbors?  She, too, seemed subdued and ironic...

Where is my freedom, I wondered?  Is it here... on a promenade by a river I've known most of my life, looking at an altered landscape across a bridge I used to watch from my childhood pram-- the one that haunted my dreams for years-- even still?  On my birth certificate which identifies me as female and white-- a citizen of New York City where I find myself tethered-- despite my youthful wanderings and yearnings... ?  What has become of my city-- a scene of emotional wreckage and the slow attrition of all that I loved most?

The post-4th evenings are quiet although I read in my audio manual that the city ambient sounds have a significant decibel presence.   My dusk runs are still punctuated by heart-stopping random firework explosions.  I have become more intimate with Central Park than I ever expected...  I recognize the routine joggers and walkers-- the babies growing and the Boxers getting their mojo back... My egret has disappeared; surely she is somewhere in the city.  The ducks and geese seem to have a certain purpose... recently a few of them line up on the tiny rock island in the center of the reservoir; they have an order-- they do not seem to compete.

In the distance of dark there are few sirens now; the traffic is subdued and tame.  There is an occasional quiet roar from a pack of demonstrators but even these have become less frequent.  Fewer airlines pass above... fewer traffic helicopters.  My windows are always open; I live without air conditioning and maybe hallucinate from the heat. When I was small I believed in a country (my country) called Tizovthee-- sweet land of liberty.  I squinted horizon-clouds into purple-hazed mountains and transported myself there, land of the pilgrim's pride.  Of 'Thee' I sang-- its nickname...  halfway between heaven and Oz.   The mountains paint themselves nostalgically into the sky behind the towers of the El Dorado.  They stay with me as I type into the morning hours, as I waste time and dawdle with books and memories, go from guitar to text.

But there is another component of these nights-- it is a sort of cloud that hovers-- blankets and beckons like a scent... a few of my friends have been captivated and succumbed... I read their names
in the obituaries, on Facebook pages and Twitter posts.  It is there as the sun sets in its fiery death throes of pinks and golds, as the morning sky threatens to replace the black with its electric blue magic... deceives, taunts me into a new day-- or to the edge of sleep.  It sings to me--  of the bloodless cool of breathlessness, of the enchanting nightmare of fever, of a slipping away--a letting go-- of the girl who is lost in a lake tonight or adrift in an untraceable boat-- in a plane with a cut engine, a receding surf and a wind.  For some of us there is another kind of freedom that beckons-- that makes us safe, but offers solace when there is none.  I am learning to forgive those who cannot resist... I understand... there are bells... and as I misheard the song when I was young, without lyric sheets, perhaps the sound of freedom laughing.

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