ROXBURY

Bill Halas briefly attended Goddard College in the early seventies, a rather progressive college for that time. It was rather small, compared to the University I’d attended, tucked away in the snowy mountains of Vermont. In this, our first journey to the East after we’d both dropped out of our respective colleges, we stopped at Goddard to pick up a few artifacts that remained from his stay, and then we proceeded on to Boston.

There we met with another Goddard alumnus, a friend of Bill’s. We chased him down as he was selling green carnations and flower bouquets on the sidewalks near Harvard Square. With his imposing height, girth, burly beard and wide expressive face, he was a dead ringer for Peter Ustinov. With a performer’s verve he swooped along the sidewalk. Concertina in hand he pranced alongside his basket of flowers. He made barely enough money to eat.

We stayed with him for one night in one of the poorest sections of Roxbury. He’d claimed a small section of the second floor in a ramshackle, unkept three-story wooden house. The house had been abandoned and was now occupied by Bill’s friend and at least two other families. Someone had tapped into the city’s electrical grid by stringing a wire over to the cable on a nearby telephone pole. The place had a sharp stench of backed up toilets. It was one of the coldest nights of a Boston winter and the plumbing had burst. We tried to sleep curled up in our sleeping bags, crammed into a space the size of a closet. The only outside warmth was that of a hot pad used briefly before bedtime for making tea. We stayed up long enough to drink a cheap bottle of wine purchased with the proceeds from carnations, have a short conversation, and try to find a pocket of warmth to sleep in. That night somebody had an argument out front in the middle of the night and someone crashed in a front window while shouting in anger, adding to the cold.

The next day we crawled out to have breakfast somewhere and afterwards we crammed us all into our small compact car. After loading up at the flower store with green carnations we stood with Bill’s friend most of the morning, helping him to sell flowers on the street. We actually raked in a good bit that day. Bill and I collected a small but generous stipend for gas money and then we made our way out of Boston, heading south.

Roxbury is sometimes called, according to Wikipedia, the “heart of Black culture in Boston”. We arrived a decade after the Great Migration, and there were still some remnants of the English, Irish and German immigrants that had populated the neighborhood since the early 20th century when there were opportunities in the local foundries and breweries. Most had fled as blacks moved in and the property was arbitrarily devalued by the city. Eventually the foundries and factories were replaced by warehouses and retail businesses. The aging infrastructure, much of it built in the 19th century, began to seriously deteriorate along with the fading tax base.

Boston was known for its riots, going all the way back to before the Revolutionary War. There were 103 riots between 1700 and 1976. Everyone had their turn. There were riots over food, the British, the Stamp Act, race and slavery, anti-Irish, anti-Union, anti-busing and…you get the picture. When we arrived it was a couple of years after the riots of 1967, and large parts of the Roxbury neighborhood had been devastated, littered with abandoned buildings and homes. The poverty and discontent that had infested communities for centuries had been passed on to the latest group of people that had immigrated into the neighborhood in flight from poverty and brutal oppression where they came from. In this last instance the flight was from this very country and the Jim Crow policies of the South. They were poor, and in this instance most of the rules and regulations were stacked against them by reason of race and thus the opportunities for leaving were very much narrowed.

Before I came to Roxbury I’d skirted the edges of black culture, more or less as an invited guest. My family was poor enough and I was smart enough and ornery enough to be allowed into a government War On Poverty program called Upward Bound, that was part of Lyndon Johnson’s response to the growing unrest and uprising in the black community. I’d previously been considered for a similar privately funded program at Yale, and when I hadn’t made that cut I was offered a similar opportunity much closer to home. The program, which still exists, was for lower income students that had somehow demonstrated great educational potential but, without a major assist, weren’t likely to meet that potential.

Being in Upward Bound meant spending my high school summers attending classes and workshops and hanging out in the dormitories of University that I’d one day attend. Of the 80 or so students in the program at that time, about 65-70% were black. The rest were divided between mostly Puerto Rican and a smattering of white folk like me. Most of the graduate student counseling staff were of a similar mix and the local head of the program, who later took me under a wing, was black.

It was in the years between 1965 and 1968 that I attended the program. While there I was given a crash course in everything I couldn’t learn back where I was from on the West Side of Cleveland, one of the most segregated cities in the north. I soaked up literature, history, art, music and dancing, hair straightening, getting drunk and getting stoned, making movies, talking without being afraid. I was introduced to the sounds and words of Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, Malcolm X and The Temptations. I participated in debates about civil rights strategies and black culture. We were all trying to determine our places in the world. In 1967, I sat with my friends, black and white, and watched from our dormitory windows a horizon filled with flames after the assassination of Martin Luther King. We were silent, filled with a stunned awe at the sheer immensity of the burning. In days after we watched the jeeps and personnel carriers of the National Guard enter and claim the campus, which was surrounded by the ghetto. At night we watched them leave the campus in convoys sent out toward the burning. On our way to classes we passed Guardsmen in the Student Union, some lounging, one playing beautiful Gershwin on the grand piano in the reception hall.

During the school year I’d take all of this back to my almost all-white high school in the western suburbs. Surrounded by fences and barbed wire and rules, I was slotted into a college prep channel and got to hang out with the nerds. I was pretty comfortable with my fellow nerds, but it always felt like I had a secret life and a secret identity born of unique experiences, that I’d never be able to truly convey to anyone.

The next years, those spent in college, were a blur of education and rebellion and drugs as the awareness and protests against the Vietnam War eventually merged with the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Like two rivers meeting, they fed a new level of interchange between races and cultures. The divides between black and white music fell down, fueled by resistance and protest and beautiful passion, accompanied by floods of psychoactive chemicals and a rising ecstasy of imagined futures. During those years my ‘secret’ identity was submerged or merely merged into the template of my upbringing. Although many of my black friends attended the same school, I found myself pulled more and more naturally and irrisistably onto the track of white privilege. There were simply more doors open for me, and I went through without much thought.

My chief nerd friend, Bill Halas and I, after we missed out on being sent to Vietnam via the lottery, decided that what we’d seen of the world rendered it difficult to just ‘follow the program’. We both dropped out of college and decided to take a trip together in his small compact to visit various friends on the East Coast. Thus, on a particularly cold night of the year, we came to Roxbury. Where we stayed was where the fires had burned back in 1967, here, there and everywhere. This was the damage and the aftermath.

At the end of 2019, while black men and women were being publicly executed by police and during the aftermaths of grief, protest and more police violence, an HBO drama vividly opened with a depiction of the Tulsa Massacre of black citizens in Oklahoma in 1921. ‘Watchmen’ traced the lifeline of a survivor of that massacre to a sort of poetic justice, ending where the descendants of the perpetrators of white supremacy and their army of thugs meet their just rewards. Whatever else that drama did, it brought into the conversation one of the biggest racial crimes of the last century. More satisfying and more challenging was another drama on HBO, ‘Lovecraft Country,’ which takes place in the 1950’s and brings the viewer deep into the visceral horror that lurks behind the day to day commonplace of being a black American and a black family in a racist culture. Most recently the August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was produced and displayed by Netflix, offering a raw portrait of the passion, the creativity and the rage that fuels the black experience.

I see all of these productions and so many more as having cracked open the doors of memory so that more of us can face the sins and crimes of our history and begin to make amends. They bracket a particular period that began to incite conversations that can either lead to a national resolution or become the basis for a nation’s further fragmentation.

I’m told that Roxbury’s still the poorest section of Boston and, like in every northern city, the symbol of a segregated culture, but that there are efforts to revitalize the district with access to rail lines and shopping districts and revitalized housing. I hope that’s the case. During this long cold pandemic, however, when I see the statistics on joblessness, homelessness and increasing poverty my memory summons up that cold night in an abandoned house, with a family next door, surviving in almost impossible conditions on the edges of America.

Seventy

This week I approach my seventieth birthday. It’s the same as Thomas Jefferson’s, with whose passions and contradictions I can totally relate, particularly the fact that his vision so far exceeded his grasp. As a privileged and prosperous inheritor of great wealth in an economy based on slavery, as an obssesive tabulator of facts and figures and an elevated member of a race and culture that considered itself inherently superior to all others, Jefferson’s restless mind would not allow him to reside in any fixed station. Instead he imagined an ideal world, nonexistent at the time, where every human being had, by virtue of being, inherent and inalienable rights to pursue satisfaction in whatever way they could. The nation he helped to get off the ground has yet to achieve those ideals, having been saddled, as was Jefferson, with the contradictions between commerce and equality.

Today I took a walk into the center of my city to find a public mailbox and to appreciate the beauty of an early spring day in Santa Fe. The streets were mostly quiet, except for occasional cruisers in huge pickup trucks and a flotilla of motorcycles that wove themselves around the Plaza. A few couples and isolated characters wandered like me past the close galleries and restaurants, museums and churches, appreciating the blossoming trees and the opportunity to pull down our face masks to appreciate their scents in the open air. As I walked I listened to Zen talks given from Mount Tremper in New York via podcasts on my iphone. I contemplated my own conflicts and contradictions and my own position in regards to the present and the future.

In contemplating the inner struggles of the past three years it occurred to me that I could turn things, so to speak, on their head. Instead of seeing only chaos and obstacles culminating in the crashing and devastating halt of the pandemic, I could see all of this as an opportunity. Perhaps, as we each approach a sense of possible and impending mortality, we can sort out the the wheat from the chaff both in our individual natures and in the world at large.

The basic contradiction in American culture, it seems to me, is where the cult of individual freedom clashes with the common welfare, and by extension where the demands of a capitalist system clash with the aspirations of democratic institutions. Perhaps, with the ascendency of the present administration, these contradictions have been put before us in as plain a vision as could be possible. As a nation addicted to celebrity culture and to the pursuit of personal wealth we’ve managed to elevate to the highest level the perfect embodiment of pure ego and self interest, devoid of empathy or of compassion or of any consideration that transcends the possession of pure power and an illusion of control. Some of us have done this out of avarice and some out of fear and pure desperation.

For those of us who have conceived of a different world, governed by the notion that the welfare of one is inseparable from the welfare of the whole, these three years plus have been both a travesty and a challenge. Most importantly, it has daily shown, in our responses and reactions who we really are, at our best and at our worst.

For me, it has fully exposed a current of rage and resentment that I’ve lived with for most of my life, and which I’ve strived to suppress or which has been the engine of my own self judgement. Where does it come from? Perhaps some is inherited through family dynamics or early childhood disappointments and frustrations. Not a little has emerged out of the pure disillusionment of having been raised with the highest ideals only to see them continually subverted within the world I’m forced to navigate. Some of it is a product of an empathic reaction to gross injustice done to others. Whatever it’s origin, this steady undercurrent of rage has in many ways made my life and the experience of those around me more difficult, rather than less.

For this I am deeply aggrieved.

Yet, on the other side of rage is compassion. I’ve long considered his to be my greatest failing. On the one hand, I’ve always experienced an acute sense of empathy with those who suffer in this world. On the other hand I’ve allowed those feelings to feed my sense of outrage against those whom I perceive to be the propagators of that suffering. In my mind and in my emotions I’ve separated those who I perceive as the victims from those I’ve perceived as the victimizers. As our culture has become more and more polarized, between the rich and the poor, the white and the non-white, the powerful and the weak, this has metastasized into what amounts to an internal ‘civil war’ that I find myself fighting on a daily and hourly basis. There are the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys, and my vision doesn’t allow for anything between total victory or total defeat.

What has become increasingly clear to me, in this cultural moment when the rug has been pulled out from under both the perpetrators and their victims, is that we are all relatively helpless in the face of forces that are so much larger than our petty struggles over greed and ego. So, now the question becomes whether I can overcome my feelings of rage and resentment, and join once again the collective experience of the human race in a manner that goes beyond ego and ideology, and is nothing more than a reflection of the forces that I perceive as the enemy.

* * *

In the last couple of months the vicissitudes of age have finally caught up with me. The work I do for a living has taken a deep toll on my body. My shoulders are a tight mess, the tips of my fingers have grown numb with the carpel tunnel effects of the former, yesterday when I took out my bike for the first time since the Fall, I had trouble lifting my leg high enough to mount up. My plans for the future and for retirement are, as a consequence, all in serious question. On top of this is the virus and a question about how my previously strong immune system has stood the vicissitudes of age. In short, the question of mortality stands before me as never before.

The lesson that I believe needs to be learned is that the outcomes are out of my hands, and that my responsibility to myself is to live this life as much as I can in a state of acceptance rather than one of eternal conflict. This is admittedly very difficult for someone who feels both like a warrior and a disillusioned idealist. I will always be a warrior. What I need to let go of is the disillusionment. Then I can begin to address the problems and situations in front of me without having to view them through the destructive discoloring of rage.

Who knows, perhaps the possibility of compassion is not even out of reach. Perhaps even that possibility can extend to an America still caught between dream and reality and having to face its own collective demons.

Sex and Politics: The Resistance

Fox News is, more than anything else media headquarters for patriarchal resistance and institutional racism in America, just as the Republican Party is headquarters for it’s political arm. In the past few months Fox has lost their former ringleader (Roger Ailes), their leading female commentator (Megan Kelly), and now their biggest moneymaker (Bill O’Reilly) due to a pervasive climate of inappropriate sexual behavior and harassment.

Given that the prevailing attitudes at Fox and in the Republican Party are basically throwbacks to an era of ‘Madmen,’ which educated and aware Americans have grown out of, but Fox/Republicans and their constituency have not, this should be no surprise. While commentators like O’Reilly rail at manufactured bugaboos under the banner of attacking ‘political correctness,’ women broadcasters at Fox are evaluated according to their measurements and how closely they match some male’s beauty pageant ideal. Intelligence and competence must be overmatched by ample exposure of ‘legs and cleavage’ and the job description should read: Applicants preferred: blond and buxom (and very white).’

When news becomes a front for sensationalism and entertainment and government becomes nothing more than performance art the abuse of persons follows inevitably out of the abuse of truth. We have gone very far down that road, but the dumping of Bill O’Reilly demonstrates that the popular and political resistance in the Age of Trump is mounting and is indeed effective. While the forces of reaction circle the wagons a wave is growing with every abuse, every revelation of corruption and every broken promise.

New York Times: ‘Bill O’Reilly Is Forced Out’

The Pipeline Is Rape

In his first days Trump has moved to reboot the Dakota Access Pipeline. His first acts in office have made it clear that his prime motivation has nothing to do with serving the people. He serves only his own threatened ego and intends to take revenge against anyone who challenges it’s dominance.

The Pipeline is an act of rape. The attempt to push it through has little to do with necessity or economy. It’s the clearest effort by an administration of white male supremacists to show their dominance over all the earth and all people. 

This confluence of cultural and historical forces give the struggle rare symbolic resonance. It delineates a spiritual crisis as much as a political one.  

Resistance to the Pipeline will define the political will of a generation, as Kent State defined that of another and the Battle of Little Big Horn and it’s aftermath defined yet another. The ultimate outcome will define America’s image to the rest of the world for many years to come. 

My Mother

My Mother

Passed away yesterday.

She raised me
She helped raise my child
I carry a lot of her with me
She believed in me
We drove each other crazy
We loved each other immensely
She tolerated all of my explorations
Liked all of my friends
She loved adventure and a challenge
Read dozens of books at a time
Lived fully into her nineties
Bragged about her health
Made soup for the neighbors
Cared for their children
Was proud of what she’d accomplished
Standing up to those who doubted
Frustrated with limitations
Incessantly talking to herself
Walking everyday
Her sense of humor improved with age

When the world began to close in around her
Her mind struggled to reach out
When it became too difficult
The body in betrayal wanting to turn back to earth
She gradually let go of it
My brothers and sister were present
She held their hands
And slipped away with her breath.