Thursday, November 19, 2020
The rain came hard this morning
Leaving one stream flowing down my window.
It captures me.
This is my river, wide enough for two boats to pass
Deep enough for a ship carrying cargo and music
A quartet from Chicago
Jazz from Basin Street.
At my back, the room has stayed the same for days
For weeks, for quiet months
But my river, with its beginning and end, keeps rolling
And I’ll sit on the boat deck, hearing the music
All the way to New Orleans.
Tuesday, October 13, 2020
Only small chunks of dirty ice were left in the shadiest areas of the Lake Ontario shore in March. At three o'clock in the morning, I walked briskly to the parking lot of the newly erected Culkin Hall of SUNY Oswego, passing the gigantic pine bonsai, forcefully trained through the years to lean southeast by the horizontal, brutal winds from the lake. The cold and the bleakness shook me.
Four fellow students and I slithered onto the wide leather bench seats of the waiting barge of a Cadillac, shiny red and white, with shark fins at the tail. Instead of heading for a two-week spring break beach romp, our destination was Columbia, South Carolina, and the 1968 Voter Registration Drive. I threw my guitar and the Joan Baez song book into the trunk with my duffel bag.
All of us were exhausted from our studies and the Vietnam war protests, but looked forward to another equally trying experience. We had said goodbye to our friend William, who, to his great disappointment, could not participate in the trip south. William preferred his given name, not Bill or Billy, Will or Willie, in order to add a shred of dignity to his persona, having left a part of his brain, his left leg, and a part of the right one in the jungles of Vietnam. He was William from New Hampshire, a sophisticated son of a college professor, forever struggling to keep his pride and his self-awareness upright from the depths of his wheelchair.
With the words of Martin Luther King's 1963 “dream speech” as our inspiration, and yoked to the naïve notion that the world would quickly be a wiser, kinder, and gentler place as a result of our interest and work, we set out toward south on Interstate 81.
As soon as we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and stopped for breakfast, I realized that I had lost my ability to understand English. “Y'all want gray-its?” The waitress was addressing me. I prepared myself for an unrelenting two week-long headache on my temples.
I watched the scenery change from bare trees and familiar vegetation to palms and lush shrubbery of full summer, as we shed our cold season gear and lowered the top of the convertible. I dug out my guitar, and we arrived in Columbia harmonizing to “Blowing in the Wind”.
Columbia and Benedict College welcomed us with sweet tea and dormitory assignments, both equally surprising and perfumed for me. My Shalimar roommate for the days ahead was a friendly black girl from Atlanta, Georgia, whose Southern drawl was like purple taffeta and made the furrows on my forehead even deeper and the headache stronger. Each night, after spreading Johnson & Johnson's pink baby lotion on her knees, she knelt on the floor by her bed, and never forgot to include me in her evening prayers, during which I looked for interesting details in the room on which to direct my own concentrated devotion. I decided on the poster depicting the large crowd at the Washington Mall, where Dr. King was giving his “I have a Dream” speech with an audience of estimated 250,000 people riveted to his words. Attempting to count the thousands of black and white heads of straight pins took my full attention.
The next morning, paired with Walter, a blond Viking from Minnesota, I set out on the task of registering blacks to cast their votes in the elections to come. More than most, as people who had barely seen the sun for months, we stood out in the all black neighborhoods with our ashen white faces. We knocked on doors of various styles and sizes, or on door frames, should the door no longer exist due to rot and neglect. On the steps of large estates, we pressed our finger on fancy modern door bells that played the tune of Big Ben, an incongruous sound in the muggy American South.
The reception of our intent was varied. We spoke with gray, old couples sitting in rocking chairs on front porches. Their movements were slow from servitude, the men wearing hats obviously discarded from more formal use and the women's hair held in place by a scarf tied into an Aunt Jemima knot above the forehead. It quickly became clear that their hesitancy in signing their names on the registration sheet was not fear of the unknown or a question of lack of understanding. It was simply the obvious shame of not knowing how to read and write; an expected, yet shocking phenomenon to us. We assured them that an X was enough, as long as we could enter their names beside their “signature.”
The younger people were less trusting, giving us flat “I gave at the office” type answers, familiar to us from the North. Some slammed the door shut, some questioned us, wanting to see proof of identification, and some, visibly under the influence and unable to stand without holding onto the wall, resorted to extortion in order to part with their signature. For three cigarettes from the Viking's pack, a deal was closed.
Due to missing doors, the inside of some of the houses was visible. On the dirt floor, pounded hard by years of living, the only piece of furniture was a bare mattress showing signs of the various human liquids and substances. From the pane-less window on the back wall of the shack, you could see the white pillared mansion, whose Winchester door chimes had surprised us. The shack and the mansion shared a hedge row in the back separating the properties.
At the end of each night, I called William to keep him as part of the task in spirit. Invariably, he swore at his wheelchair, and I put the blame of his inability to be with us on the dirt streets of the Columbia slums. He gave us advice over the phone: “Don't do stupid!” “Trust, but don't be too trusting”, and, “For God's sake, don't act like you are an innocent!” “Really!” I said and slammed the phone in his ear.
After the fourth day, the Viking and I had a long list of signatures and marks on our sheet. I dragged my tired body to the inside of the Benedict College walls, kicked off my tasseled loafers, and found a quiet spot under an old larch. Some of the tree was dead without needles. Skeleton branches were left with small cones in an organized design. I lay down under the dead branches, and a look up revealed a lacy mantilla, dark brown and delicate, quiet and calming. I fell asleep. When I woke up, I picked up my shoes, and saw that they were full of red sand from the unpaved streets, and worn out to the point where new ones were needed.
After dinner, I ventured outside of the college wall: red brick, 12 feet high, separating the city and its people from the students and the visiting “rebels.” Was this wall there to protect the black students from the outside world or was it built to keep the city folk safe from the black students? I saw three black young men standing by the entrance gate. They had Afros and the necessary plastic picks in their back pockets of their jeans. I inquired as to the nearest shoe store. They informed me that the closest one was downtown, not within a walking distance, but that they would be happy to take me there. One of them ran to get his 1965 Mustang. Once in a shoe store with the owner of the Mustang, I waited to be recognized. To the Mustang owner, it became clear that this was a 'no win'-situation, and he suggested another shoe store. In front of “Jim's Shoes,” he said, “You go in alone, we'll stay here.” I got new loafers with prompt and solicitous service.
That night, I called William to tell him about my adventures of the day. “What??!!,” he said, “you got in a car with three black men! I told you not to be stupid! They probably were townies, not even students. Don't you remember what happened in Mississippi in '64?” I did remember, but felt invincible. “You are not my father or in any way responsible for me, and, furthermore, I am alive, aren't I?” William felt his failure as my guardian angel.
It was Sunday. I had received an invitation to attend a Baptist church service of a Benedict College student's home church. His father was the minister and his mother the choir director. As the only white person in the sanctuary, I managed to stay almost invisible under my borrowed wide-brimmed hat, until I was introduced to the congregation. I listened intently to the sermon and the musical performances. I attempted to participate in the singing of hymns. My simple, clear lined voice was left far behind by the rich, undulating sounds of the church family, every member of which appeared to be a trained singer. I stopped trying, and concentrated on enjoying the smooth, soft, yet powerful profession of their love for God through music. At the coffee hour, I smiled my best Northern smile, not understanding most of what was said to me. The throbbing on my temples intensified.
“You went to church!” William exclaimed that night in disbelief. I told him it probably helped me in controlling myself during our phone calls.
Tuesday, our last day, was hot and humid from early morning on. It was difficult to breathe and the clothes stuck to your wet skin. The Viking and I had a busy and successful morning. Around lunch time, we were standing on a porch of a small, modest house, when a large black car drove slowly down the street passing us. The car, reminiscent of a Mafia vehicle, turned around and stopped a few feet from us. There were four white men in the car, all wearing suits and fedoras. Their spokesman called out to us, asking what we were selling. I let the Viking take the lead, as my legs had started to feel weak and wobbly. Finding out that we were not salesmen per se, the man in black told us: “You get out of here, if you know what's good for you!” I was ready to sprint up the hill, into the Cadillac and head for New York. The Viking grabbed my arm and whispered for me to be cool. After considering the threat, we decided to leave the area, and casually sauntered up the street, holding back a desire to run. My heart was a woodpecker trying desperately to get out of my chest cavity. We walked painfully slowly with pretend ease following a high boxwood hedge row ending abruptly at the edge of the block. When we turned the corner, we saw a policeman standing by his motorcycle, adjusting his helmet. His shiny black boots competed with the black fuel tank for the strongest sparkle. The Viking and I let out a long breath, our shoulders adjusted themselves downward, and we looked at each other with a mutually understood glance of relief. The policeman listened to our story, while chewing gum like Police Chief Gillespie in “In the Heat of the Night,” after which he said, “You heard them. If you know what's good for you.” We understood the big picture.
Wednesday morning, the Cadillac started toward north. Somewhere along the way, I fell asleep. I awoke under a canopy of cherry blossoms, a slightly fragrant sea of pink, seen through rose colored glasses. A surprise-stop for the foreigner to see the nation's capital on the way home. When I lifted my head, I saw the Lincoln Memorial reflected in the lagoon, a post card-view with heavy history. Like some slaves of Lincoln's time, I had escaped from the uncomfortable, the unbelievable, the diseased.
William and I had coffee in the dining hall on Thursday morning. I helped him roll the wheelchair through mud in the areas on campus where construction was going on. In his head, he was designing ways in which he could be part of the next trip south in some fashion. He had plans for adaptive equipment allowing for smooth movement on dirt roads, plans to rent a wheelchair van with hand controls, ways in which to disguise his missing body parts. I remained quiet.
I felt a need to go for a long walk. I walked downtown and back and around the campus, ending at the shore among rocks of various earthy colors. They were smooth and rounded as eggs due to the wear by the sharp waves, movement of one stone against another for centuries. Solid, yet shifting with the strength of the water, never alone, but in a mass like a loyal group of believers for a cause. Sitting motionless made me shiver.
In the evening, after a warm shower and a cup of hot coffee in my hand, I turned on the TV in the lounge of my floor of the dormitory. I was alone, as others were not expected to return until after the weekend. There was commotion. Evidently, there was a news item of importance being covered. A panorama of a motel room balcony swept the screen. I heard “Died at 7:05 pm”. I turned up the volume. Martin Luther King Jr. had been fatally shot in Memphis, Tennessee.
Hopes and dreams shattered. Progress stalled.
I took the guitar out of the case and played it in a robotic fashion. The fingers of my left hand stuck together. Lyrics stuck in my throat.
I moved to the window. I stared at the burning red sunset over Lake Ontario from the tenth floor, over the still bare tree tops. Hopelessness and emptiness shook me. The world was not going to be a better, kinder, gentler place after all. Not yet.
Sunday, October 4, 2020
We have all been there. I was there recently. “Strip down to your skivvies and put this on.” Sound familiar? Of course, we are talking about the hospital gown, a garment that needs some serious updating. Inspired by the toga, it was worn by Etruscans, ancient Romans and occupants of “Animal House.” The “one size fits none” concept provides haberdasheries with the benefit of a limited inventory. The design plateaued circa 1760 AD and has not changed appreciably since, but occupies a persistent niche in the world of high couture in Key West, FL and Provincetown, MA, where it is considered party wear.
In the tiny cubicle with a gurney and a flimsy curtain to protect my privacy, I listened to conversations between fellow victims and hospital staff while I struggled with the daunting task of dressing. Unless you are domestically gifted and regularly don an apron around the house, the garment does not cooperate in a way that renders confidence and reassurance. I am here because I am sick, not to show off my knot-tying-behind-my-back prowess, I thought to myself in frustration. Next, which ones of the strings to engage? The pair south of the neck hairline or the ones down by the meatier parts? Both? Having a nurse help me complete the procedure would mean defeat, so I continued to fumble until I had done what I thought was expected.
What we need is PEP (Patient Empowerment Program) in the Health Care bill. Give us some control. We are in a vulnerable position as it is. Let us start with colors. Replace the drab bleached white with blue for boys, pink for girls, and plaid for golfers. At about $7.50 per gown, it is a no-brainer. Why not include a higher cost option with designer gowns from Gucci and St. Laurent for celebrity patients? Personalized embroidered names could be included for a few dollars with computerized sewing machines. Put a little imagination into the neck styling. Turtleneck or halter top may be too radical, but we would like to choose between V-neck, scoop, or square neck as an alternative to the T-shirt model. And finally, scrap the ties and go Velcro! Even Nike has seen the reasonableness of this.
So, write to your representatives and demand PEP in the Health Care legislation and make us all feel better!