Monday, November 8, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #15)

Shattering the peace in Borough Park, circa 1958

XVIII: Dope Time

Dope came to 40th Street in the late-1950s.

I was sitting on my stoop, doing nothing in particular, when I heard a car screech. I turned towards 15th Avenue, and saw a black sedan speeding, swerving from left to right, slamming into one car after another that lined the curbs. But I didn’t jump up or anything. I just sat there and watched, as if the entire scene were happening in a slow motion movie. The car kept swerving—it must have banged into at least eight or nine autos before it smashed so fiercely into one car that it came to a halt.

I remember staring, dumbly. And just as dumbly watching as the driver, an Italian kid I recognized but did not really know--about seventeen or so, a bit older than me--stumbled out of the car and began to run, crazily it seemed, down the street towards 16th Avenue. When he was nearly there, I finally jumped up, but the reason I “awakened” at that point now escapes me. I ran down the stoop stairs, and sped towards him. He had turned the corner. When I got there, I saw him still running, or speed-wobbling, now headed towards 41st Street.

Then, out of nowhere, three young men who were working at a gas station a block or so away, gave chase. They caught him, flung him to the ground, and kept him there. Somebody must have called the police, because cop sirens soon filled the air.

I never found out what happened to him. The only thing that stays with me is the image, several hours later, of his mother, a tiny woman all in black, walking frantically up and down the street, stopping every teenager she could find and pleading with them to “Tell the cops he was wit’ you, in your house. Tell ’em it wasn’t him.” She stared up into their faces, pleading for them to lie. The kids she approached just shook their heads.

I remember actually feeling sorry, almost pained, for her, as she made her desperate way back towards her home on 15th Avenue.

* * *

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Gladwell on the civil rights movement

In an otherwise perceptive recent New Yorker article debunking the notion of a "Twitter revolution" (that social media websites like Twitter and Facebook are the key tools of today's demonstrations and mass uprisings for social causes), Malcolm Gladwell, among our more savvy social critics, reveals a profound ignorance about the civil rights movement in this country.

After noting, for example, that the students involved in the early sit-ins across the South described the movement as a fever, he writes: "But the civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion. . . ."

Military campaign?

It was anything but, at least to my recollection. Indeed, it was the most unmilitary enterprise imaginable--egalitarian, grass roots, overwhelmingly bottom-up not top-down. Tactics and strategy were debated endlessly, rather than, as in the military, ordered and followed. And the movement indeed spread like a fever, a good, healthy, passionate fever, washing like an endless, cleansing wave across campuses and cities, in small towns and large, from the North to the South.

A personal note: Gladwell was born in 1963, when the old decades-long, rather staid, civil rights movement was getting into super-high gear. One year later, at the vibrant age of twenty-two, I became actively involved in that movement (up north). So Gladwell's information comes from archival research. Mine comes from organizing or joining rent actions against slumlords in Harlem, sitting-in at dangerous traffic intersections to demand street lights, picketing local white-owned stores to prevent firings, demonstrating against rampant police brutality. And from organizing, house to house, apartment to apartment, a residents' street group, the West 122nd Street Block Association.

Which meant knocking on doors, entering apartments, sitting around with the tenants, discussing with them, one on one, why it's important to do this and to do that--indeed, learning from them what we may have been doing wrong, and how to make it right--again and again, day after day, month after month. The work was difficult, frustrating and exhausting, but it was also joyous, exhilirating. Above all, contagious.

Now, Gladwell is not one to make a statement and then walk away from it without providing evidence. The problem is that the evidence he cites is inadequate. After stating that the key sources of the movement were the NAACP and black churches, he writes that the NAACP "was a centralized organization, run from New York according to highly formalized operating procedures. At the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the unquestioned authority. At the center of the movement was the black church, which had a carefully demarcated division of labor, with various standing committees and disciplined groups." He then quotes Aldon D. Morris' The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: "Each group was task-oriented and coordinated its activities through authority structures. Individuals were held accountable for their assigned duties, and important conflicts were resolved by the minister, who usually exercised ultimate authority over the congregation."

In short, to Gladwell, a military campaign.

Even if accurate, this history is incomplete. For it leaves out the movement's most important organization. Namely, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (pronounced Snick), which Gladwell never mentions. Although formed as an offshoot of Martin Luther King's organization, SNCC's members--who bore the brunt of white violence against the movement--were more akin to anarchic democracy workers or worker-priests than to organizational functionaries. It was the most grass-roots of the civil rights organizations, in which participants spent almost all their time and energy working one on one with poor black southerners.

As word of SNCC's work and experiences spread, other young people in the movement were influenced not only by their activities but by their methods of operation. For example, although the national office of the Congress on Racial Equality may well have had a top-down structure, the CORE chapters on campuses were far more egalitarian (some might argue unorganized). The CORE chapter at City College of New York, where I was a member, was typical. But so were the chapters at NYU and Columbia. And so were the non-student chapters like East Harlem CORE (known as the River Rats) and others throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. SNCC eventually became the model for the early new left Students for a Democratic Society, especially those involved in community organizing in places like Newark, New Jersey, or Cleveland, Ohio. Lest we forget, to the early SDS, hierarchy was anathema. SNCC and SDS also spawned the women's movement, in which most of the organizations were also non-hierarchical.

So when Gladwell dismisses the view of social media as fomenting mass activism, he may have a point (although the younger members of today's blogosphere appear to be enraged at that view) but for the wrong reason. "Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, from hierarchies." True enough. But hierarchies are not what made or characterized the civil rights movement, or any of the other 1960s-1970s cultural revolutions (women's rights, gay rights, anti-war, disabled rights, etc.) that sprang from it.

Rather, what characterized those movements was egalitarianism, in spirit, in structure, and in action.

*   *   *

Sunday, April 4, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #14)

A Coney Island tale, in the 1950s.

XVII: The warped "S"

I began draping a towel over my shoulders and down my back on the beach around the time I turned thirteen or fourteen. That’s when my scoliosis—a deformity in which the spine curves unnaturally—began to show markedly. Everybody else in the world had a straight back; I was the only one in creation whose back resembled the letter S. A kind of warped S.

Which also lowered my height several inches. And because the teen years are when survival means you have to look tall like everybody else, or at least like every other teenager, walking around with a weird back that made you even shorter than usual was a source of constant humiliation. It wasn’t so bad when I had a shirt on, because it was hidden. But at the beach, of course, wearing only a bathing suit, nothing was hidden.

“Hey, look at Nathan’s back!” Louie called out once, when the towel had slipped, and everybody came running to look. Louie was a tall, skinny guy with severe acne, but he didn’t seem to mind that. Or he didn’t openly mind it. So everybody stared.

After a few seconds, though, they shrugged and walked away. But even though they pretended not to care, and talked and carried on, and pushed and shoved each other, and laughed like crazy about a million other things, I knew that they were all obsessed with my back.

Secretly, maybe, and silently. But still.

I wanted to grab Louie and shake him and scream at everybody to look at his acne hah hah!

One hot summer day we were all at the beach, Bay 8 at Coney Island. By “all,” I mean all the teens on 40th Street and surrounding areas. All the boys and all the girls. I was fifteen. This day was different, because Norma Stein was there. She was a few years younger than me, and I knew she liked me. First crush, probably. I felt she was too young for me—even one year’s difference when you’re a teen is enormous, let alone three—but I was thrilled that she actually liked me, so I’d talk to her when we’d all gather together on summer evenings at someone’s porch. Or just on the sidewalk, with portable radios playing Little Richard and Fats Domino and other rock ’n roll.

Anyway, that day at the beach, with the towel constantly slipping, I felt horrible. Norma would see me with my scoliotic back, and like everybody else in the world would shrink back in disgust. So when she shyly walked up to me—facing my front, not my back—I turned away, mortified, gripping the towel tightly around my shoulders. She said “Hi,” and I think I didn’t even answer her. Instead I walked away.

And later that evening, back on 40th Street, when we all re-gathered to talk about whatever we talked about, and listened to music, I deliberately ignored her. I knew she was wondering what the heck was happening, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t face her. She had seen with her own eyes what a physical freak I was.

From that day on, I don’t think I ever said another word to her. I’d hear through the grapevine that she was very upset, that she didn’t know why I wouldn’t speak to her, that maybe she thought that she had done something bad—this sweet, innocent young girl—but I could never tell anybody. I could never say how horrible I felt.

Not horrible that I was behaving like a selfish, self-centered shit. Horrible because I had let the towel slip earlier that day.

On some level, I think I have been wrapping myself in a towel ever since.

* * *

Saturday, March 13, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #13)

An art lesson at 1546 40th Street, Brooklyn, NY.

XVI: Plugging a leak

Everybody except my father, who had been an artist, told me that the clay horse I made out of plasticine was beautiful. My father didn’t comment on it, but that was okay, because he rarely commented on anything I accomplished. Especially any artwork. Anyway, the horse was about two inches by three inches. My mother, who had also been an artist, showed it to people, aunts and uncles and neighbors on the block. Look at how beautiful it is, she’d say. Even though she may have been exaggerating, I felt very proud. I was about eight years old, I think. I decided that this was proof that I’d grow up to be an artist, just like my parents.

One day soon after, our washing machine sprung a leak. It was a big white machine, on wheels, that you could wash clothes in if you moved it next to the sink, and somehow connected its hose to the sink faucet and got the machine to turn on and start chugging.

Only this time, the fixture that extended from the washing machine sprung a leak. And no matter how tight my mother turned a knob or something, she couldn’t stop the leaking.

Then she had an idea. She saw my clay horse. And she decided that the only way to deal with the water dripping down onto the floor was to stuff the horse into the pipe or spigot or whatever that was leaking. That would stop the leak. At least temporarily, until she got around to calling the landlord, who was a plumber. (She probably didn’t think of putting a pot on the floor under the leak until the plumber came.)

So she took my horse and squished it in her hand and stuffed it into the spigot. It minimized the leaking, but didn’t completely stop it, because I saw some water seeping out around the clay.

I just watched her do it. Then I did what I'd often do when something like that happened: I stared, and kept myself very still, and started to scream inside my head no no no it’s my horse no. . . . Silent screaming, just like that painting by Edvard Munch of the person on the bridge.

Then I walked away.

Later my mother said she was so sorry she had to use my clay horse, but it was the only thing she could do. This is what I remember her saying. “It was so beautiful! I had to destroy it to stop the leaking. I’m so sorry.”

It was so beautiful, I had to destroy it. . . .

So I pretty much stopped playing with clay. But I think I kept silently screaming for a long time.

* * *

Friday, February 26, 2010

40th Street (Cont. # 12)

A medical emergency, and more, in Borough Park, Brooklyn, circa 1949

XV: Skippy

When I awoke late at night screaming in pain, my parents knew to knock on the door of our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Eton, to use their phone to call a taxi. We didn’t have a phone then. It was 1949, and I, at seven years old, had just shown the symptom that our doctor, who had visited our home on 40th Street earlier that day, warned my parents about. In those days, doctors carried a small black bag and made house calls. He had given me medicine for a pain on the right side of my belly that I had been complaining of. Then he told my parents that if I awoke at night, screaming, to send me right away to the hospital. He said that it might be more than a stomach ache.

At first that day, my parents, especially my father, didn’t even want to call the doctor. He was sure that all my complaining was probably about nothing more than an ordinary stomach ache. And that it would go away if we just let it alone. He said it with a tone of annoyance, if not disgust. At my being such a cry baby.

But the pain didn’t go away, and I didn’t stop crying. So eventually they called our doctor. Who said my pain might indicate a ruptured appendix.

On the operating table, the doctors or somebody put a mask on my face and gave me ether. Of course I didn’t know what ether was at the time; I didn’t know anything, except that I was on a table or something and somebody put a mask on my face and I was in the black sky with a million stars and I was falling falling down into nothingness. And in that black nothingness was the horrible smell, which I recall as a combination of menthol and rancid split pea soup. And I was falling downward forever in the sickening blackness.

I guess that was a dream, although it didn’t feel like one. A dream was supposed to be different. Like a dream in which I had a pet dog, which I always wanted but couldn’t have. Because my mother said she hated dogs. She was afraid of them, she said, and dogs ruined furniture, and were dirty. And the last thing she needed was to clean up after it.

Anyway, after the falling-in-the-black-sky dream, I awoke in a strange white bed and had to go to the bathroom. But I didn’t know where I was, until some girl told me I was in the hospital. She was maybe two or so years older than me, or at least she was much taller than me, which I could see even though both of us were lying down. She was in a white bed, just like mine. In an all-white room with white walls. She said I could use the bedpan that was under the bed. Or I could call a nurse who would help me get to a bathroom. I felt I couldn’t wait, so I reached down and then peed in the bedpan. But I was embarrassed, because she saw me peeing. So I closed my eyes and pretended. . . . I don’t remember what I pretended. Maybe that I wasn’t there.

The following day, the girl in the bed next to mine was sitting up and sucking her thumb. She was nine years old, I found out later, two years older than me, and sucking her thumb. That made me very scared, but I can’t say why. Maybe I thought that I would become just like her, a thumb-sucker. But that’s only what I surmise now, thinking back. At the time, I just wanted her to stop sucking her thumb. But she wouldn’t, and I stayed scared.

So when my mother came to visit me later in the day, I cried and cried and pleaded with her to take me home. She said she couldn’t until a few days later. But I kept crying, so to get me to stop, she promised that if I were a good boy, and stopped crying, she would get me a pet dog when I got home.

Certainly, that was a big thing for her.

When I got home, sure enough, there was the dog. I fell in love immediately, and called him Skippy. I didn’t know what “breed” he was; in fact, I didn’t know there were breeds. Let alone what breeds meant. Today when I check page after page of dog pictures on Google, I can never find Skippy. Maybe he was something called an American Staffordshire Terrier. Or a German Pinscher. Or a Jack Russel Terrier. Or a mutt.

Tawny, like a lion. Playful, like a friend. Excited, like a little boy just like me.

All I knew was, Skippy was my dog. I wanted like anything to take him outside for a walk. But I'd have to wait, because I had to stay indoors for two weeks, doctor's orders. Every day, for the next two weeks, all I could think of was taking Skippy for a walk.

Then the big day arrived. I could go outside, because the jagged scar on the right side of my belly, where my ruptured appendix had been, was healing. I couldn’t wait to take my dog for a walk. I was so excited I could hardly think.

That morning, my mother said she had to go to the grocery store, and would take Skippy with her. When she got home, she said, I could take Skippy out myself. About a half hour later, she came back.

Without Skippy.

Where’s Skippy? I asked. She said he was probably stolen. She said she had placed his leash on the doorknob of the grocery store before she went in to buy stuff. When she came out, he was gone. She said she looked up and down the block, calling his name, but she couldn’t find him. She said she saw a truck driving away, and she was convinced that the truck driver had seen what a beautiful dog Skippy was and stole him and drove away. She said she was so sorry. So so sorry.

Children, especially very young children, tend to accept as truth whatever they are told. So for some years afterwards, I used to think that someday I would find that truck driver and kill him and get my dog back. Only sometimes, in the back of my brain, I remembered how much my mother had hated dogs. And that she saw how much I was attached to Skippy.

Which in her mind, I think now—I really think now—she experienced as a detraction from my attachment to her.

Maybe that was it. Or maybe it was the truck driver.

* * *

Monday, February 22, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #11)

A Christmas/Hanukah tale in Borough Park, Brooklyn, circa 1949.

XIV: Two houses

Leonard, a friend in the second grade, asked me where my Christmas tree was. We were in my home on 40th Street, the population of which consisted almost entirely of working class Jews and Italians. I told him we didn’t have a Christmas tree, we had candles.

“So where do you put your presents? Do you just put ’em on the floor?”

Since we didn’t do presents at Hanukah, at least not like Italians like Leonard did at Christmas, I answered that I could beat him at punchball.

Cannot, he said.

Can too, I said.

Cannot! he said. Then he said he didn’t care, he just wanted to know where we put our presents.

“Anyway,” I said, “we have more holidays than you so ha ha you have to go to school more than we do ha ha ha!”

“I’m gonna ask your mother.” He walked into the kitchen, where my mother was making chopped liver sandwiches on white bread.

“Nathan’s mother,” he asked, “where do you put your Christmas presents?”

In Leonard’s house, there was a tree. It had snow on it, and silver, and diamonds and gold and pure jewels and it was even good for when you catch a cold. Leonard told me that if you smell the branches you get rid of your cold.

In my house, when you had a cold you had to smell something disgusting like Vicks vaporub.

In Leonard’s house there were a million presents under the tree.

In my house there was only a menorah with nine candles, one for each day when Jews were fighting bad people and God made a miracle because there was only oil for one day but God made it last for eight days and He made one candle to light all the other candles. And there weren’t a million presents. Maybe, sometimes, one present. That was brought by my aunt Bella from Philadelphia. “Here, put it under the Hanukah bush,” she’d say. But I didn’t know what a Hanukah bush was, and anyway we didn’t have one.

In Leonard’s house there were two Jesus Christs, the baby Jesus Christ and the grownup Jesus Christ, and they were both God.

In my house God was an old man who had a beard and looked like Moses.

Leonard said that if you were very religious you couldn’t say Jesus Christ.

I said that if you were very religious the only thing you couldn't say was God, but you could say Jesus Christ.

In Leonard’s house on Christmas morning everybody would be in pyjamas and open all the presents and the red and green and orange and blue lights that looked like warm stars going on and off and the turkey when it wasn’t even Thanksgiving and the whole room laughing.

In my house we would just hang around like always until evening, when--sometimes--there would be a meal of flank steak, which we calld flanken. And potato pancakes called latkes that my mother made by rubbing potatoes over a piece of jagged metal that had sharp funny-shaped holes in it. She always cut her fingers on the holes. It was just a regular old day in spite of the candles, and Leonard was so lucky that I vowed to never again let him into my house.

Leonard walked into the living room, eating a chopped liver sandwich.

“Wanna play dray-dul?” he asked.

* * *

Saturday, February 13, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #10)

More 1950s Borough Park, Brooklyn stuff.

XIII: Liar

Arnie lied.

He was the best-looking guy on the block. And the best athlete, at least in stickball and punchball and handball. One day in the summer of 1957, he knocked on my door, which was at the end of a long dark hallway, to tell me he was going to Mexico with his parents, and that he would find a beautiful sixteen-year-old señorita--we were all fifteen or sixteen--and would get laid. Since none of us had actually gotten laid yet, and since we all knew that Arnie was the best-looking guy, with his black hair and naturally physically great body, that we all wished we had, and that all the girls like Claire and Rebecca and Dina and all of them were crazy about, and that we all hated, we believed him.

He would be the first of us to get laid.

So he came back, after the vacation with his parents (who had run a hot dog stand in Coney Island and, later, a dry cleaning service on East 2nd Street), and told us he did it. Jealousy, inferiority, hate, admiration--all that crap, that’s what I felt. Probably all the guys on 40th Street felt that.

Until later, maybe a few months later, when Selvin, who was Arnie’s best friend, told us he knew that Arnie lied. He’d never gotten laid. He was lying.

I can’t tell you how good I felt.

So when Arnie later said he was going on a date with Claire, who lived across the street from me and who was small and had dark hair and a beautiful face and who I was silently crazy about, I didn’t believe him. I didn’t actually call him a liar, but I thought it. And laughed and laughed inside.

Soon after, on a Saturday night, at about eleven o’clock, I left my apartment, walked through the hallway, and opened the door to the outside. I looked across the street. My stomach dropped. There was Arnie, talking to Claire. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but I saw them both laughing.

Which meant that this time, he hadn't been lying.

My head felt on fire.

After a few minutes, I saw them reach out their hands to each other. They stayed that way for awhile. Then they parted hands, and Arnie started to leave. After walking a few feet, he turned and waved, and Claire waved back. Both were still smiling. Then Claire went upstairs to her apartment, and Arnie walked down 40th Street and around the corner to his.

And my head stayed on fire. For a very, very long time.

* * *

Friday, February 5, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #9)

Continuing the Borough Park, Brooklyn saga.

XII: Tatoo

The front door to the Chaim Nachman Bialik Folk Shul, the Hebrew school I went to, located in a storefront on 16th Avenue, was locked that Sunday, and no one had the key. So my friend Jay and I, who were twelve years old and studying the old Hebrew or Aramaic Haftorah we had to memorize—the singing as well as the words themselves—to perform at our forthcoming bar mitzvahs, decided that the only thing to do was to go around the block to the back, climb over a fence, walk through an alley, and pry open the back window. Then we could unlock the front door from the inside.

With us was our Sunday teacher, a small, thin retiring man, perhaps in his early forties. He’s the one who taught us the text, all the stuff to say--actually, to sing--at the ceremony where we would be transformed, just like that, from boys to men. He didn't want to wait at the front door; he wanted to come with us.

After scaling the small fence, we had to climb over various obstacles to get to the back window: wooden crates, one or two garbage cans, tossed household goods. Not to mention all the rubbish on the ground. It was easy for me and Jay, but I bet it was not easy for the teacher. Because, after all, he was getting old, in his forties.

I pried open the window, and scrambled inside. Then I looked out the window at him and asked, in a kind of boastful manner, if he had ever been able to climb over stuff like this before. Or if this was the hardest thing he had ever done in his whole life. Which I was sure it was.

He smiled at me, standing there in the refuse-strewn alley. Then he pushed up the sleeve on one of his arms. He showed me a strange tattoo. It wasn’t anything like tattoos are supposed to be, like a heart or a dragon or a girlfriend’s name. It was nothing but numbers. Small blue numbers, all in a row. I just looked at it, wondering at such a weird tattoo. Also, tattoos were supposed to be only for big burly guys, not little guys. So I looked at him, questioning with my eyes.

“I escaped from a Nazi camp,” he said, softly. “This alley isn’t so hard for me.”

Then he climbed through the window, and thanked me and Jay for opening up the shul so we could study Haftorah.

* * *

Monday, January 25, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #8)

More about growing up in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

XI: Pitcher

The counselor told me that that was a good pitch. I had just made a good pitch.

We were playing softball at the Kinderweldt (pronounced kinderveldt) summer camp, in upstate Accord, New York, where I went for a few weeks one summer at the age of eight, or maybe nine, courtesy of charity from the Brooklyn Hebrew school I attended: the Chaim Nachman Bialik Folk Shul, on 47th Street and 16th Avenue.

I loved what the counselor said, because I always felt that I was lousy in every sport—in every thing—I did. It’s not that I was a poor athlete as a result of being overweight, or anything, or slow moving. Or clumsy. Actually, I was small and agile and skinny, maybe too skinny, which is why my mother used to refer to me as “skinny-marink-a-dink-a-dink,” and then laugh (or maybe just grin) because that was so funny. Also, if anything, I was too fast-moving, which is why so many people told me I should learn to calm down and relax and not be so impatient. Just relax, kid, they’d say. I didn’t know what they meant. I still don’t, sort of.

I felt I was lousy in everything because that’s what I was told, or made to believe, pretty much, by my father. Like I’d show him a drawing that I did, when, maybe, he’d be reclining on the couch, reading. His “comment” was a grunt and a wave of his hand, as one waves away a pesky mosquito.

See, once—before he got a job packing crates at the Brooklyn Navy Yard—he had been an artist, having gone to art school, where he met my mother, who had also been an artist. So if he didn’t think my drawing was any good, it wasn’t.

So then I’d show it to my mother, who--especially if she was entering one of her unstable moods--would say it was excellent, unbelievable, great, terrific, so beautiful it should be in a museum. “Oh Harry,” she’d call out from the kitchen to my father, who was lying on the couch in the living room, “look what Nathan did, it’s so beautiful I can’t believe it”. . . .on and on, unreal, increasingly bizarre, her "praise" having less and less to do with what I actually drew, until her response meant nothing. My father dismissed my drawing directly, my mother dismissed it indirectly, by glorifying it, crazily, reflecting yet another sinking step into her impending psychotic break (one of several during those years).

So back to the pitcher stuff. It was at camp, and somehow I was asked to be the pitcher for my team. Maybe somebody--a counselor, a director--said he thought I should try out as a pitcher. So I did, and I became the pitcher.

This is how I pitched. I'd stand at the pitcher's mound, leaning forwards slightly, staring at the batter. Then I'd step forward with my left leg, at the same time whirling my right arm in a kind of double-arc around my head and back down to my side and slightly up again. The ball flew, as if by its own accord, out of my hand. When it neared the batter, he would swing, and miss. Or hit a foul. Or hit a pop fly, which one of my team mates could easily catch.

When I did that a few times, the counselor said to me that that was a good pitch. You're a good pitcher, he said. I felt so swelled up I could burst.

And something even better happened. At the end of camping season, I was given a cloth decal, a round patch that looked like a softball, which said "pitcher" on it, along with the name of the camp. An award. A prize, that everybody in the world could see!

So when the bus from camp got back to Brooklyn, I held the decal tightly and sped up the stairs at 1546 40th Street and ran right into my apartment, where my father was lying on the couch, reading. I showed him the decal. "I won this," I said, breathless. "I was the pitcher."

My father glanced at what I was holding, grunted, and went on reading.

So I stood there a second or two. Or maybe longer. Then I went into the kitchen to show it to my mother and ask her to sew it onto my jacket. She was in a good--that is, sane--mood.

"Harry," she called out, "did you see what Nathan won?"

No comment from the living room.

"Harry?" my mother called again.

After a moment or two my father replied. "I'm sure they give those out to all the kids," he said. Then he went back to reading.

* * *

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Avatar" and its conservative critics

There appears to be no dearth of heated commentary on “Avatar,” James Cameron’s futuristic film that is taking the movie-going public by storm. Herewith my two cents: It is an intensely political film, notwithstanding Cameron’s later downplaying the politics of it. It is anti-imperialist, pro-ecological, and highly critical of capitalism’s world view. All of which is for the best.

To sum the story: a human (read U.S.) military and scientific expedition to Pandora, a mind-bogglingly lush world with beautiful humanoid inhabitants, is undertaken to extract from that world an invaluable mineral, unobtainium, an energy superconductor. To avoid the expense and discomfort of traditional mining, however, the humans would like to blast away vast areas of the planet’s surface to release the mineral.

But the expedition’s leaders do not really want to slaughter the tall, blue-skinned striped humanoids, known as Na’vi, in the process. Not because they care about protecting those people (who are so superior they not only live in balance with plants and animals, but communicate from afar with each other, when in danger, without technology, given the structure of their beings and, indeed, the ecology of their planet). Rather, it’s because genocide tends to foster a negative press, which makes investors unhappy. Of course, there is something investors dislike even more than a bad image—and this is stated explicitly: a financial statement showing a decline in profits or, God forbid, a loss.

So scientists on the mission have developed a system in which some of the marines can become Avatars, that is, duplicates of themselves but in Na’vi form. The aim is to identify with the Na’vi, learn their culture from the inside, win their confidence, and persuade them to leave certain areas of their homeland which, alas, have to be blasted for the profitable mineral. If it doesn’t work, the marines will have no choice but to go in with their super weapons, and shock and awe (yes, that phrase too is used) the natives. Whom they eventually refer to as terrorists.

I won’t go into any more detail about this astounding film. Technically and esthetically, I think it is easily a match for Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter films. Politically, the message is clear as air: As soon as the expedition’s CEO holds up a sample of unobtainium, the image of the U.S. invasion of Iraq comes to mind. (Of course when we invaded, we claimed a defensive reason: weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist; a revenge reason: for 911, in which Sadam Hussein's Iraq played no part; and a quasi-benevolent reason: to bestow the blessings of democracy. Does anyone still hold to that nonsense?) Unobtainium, clearly, is a metaphor for oil, and the Na’vi are the inhabitants of a land in which it is plentiful, as was Iraq.

To be sure, some observers see unobtainium as a metaphor for coal, and Pandora as a version of a once-lush Appalachia. That rings true, but it doesn’t negate the anti-imperialist argument; if Pandora is Appalachia, then its devastation for coal is an example of domestic imperialism. Others see the Na’vi as reflecting the early Native Americans and that, too is no contradiction.

Anyway, the anti-imperialist message is so strong, so powerful—not simplistic--that some leading conservative columnists must have felt it imperative to turn the message upside down, and condemn the movie for, of all things, serving as a racist justification of the imperialist “white man’s burden!” (This is bitter irony: not too long ago, the right was largely defined by its justification of imperialism and white racism.)

See, for example, David Brock’s NY Times column in which he writes “[The film’s message] rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.”

There is so much malarky in this argument it’s hard to know where to begin. First, the film does not portray the natives as only “spiritual and athletic” in contrast to the rational white (human, American) invaders. In addition to their spiritualism, the Na’vi are portrayed as intellectually advanced—so far beyond humans that they can communicate with each other without a separate technology, as shown during the war against the invaders. Further, they are hardly illiterate: they have their own language, and some have learned the invaders' language. Nor are the invaders--you and me--presented as unspiritual: they too believe in their God, even as they sneer at the Na'vi deity.

Second, the invaders themselves are presented as highly “athletic”—fast moving, physically powerful, with the well-sculpted bodies and stamina common to marines.

Third, the Na’vi are not presented as needing any White Messiah to lead their “crusades,” since they have no crusades. What they do have is an invasion by a military superpower, against which their weapons are not much of a match. This is hardly fable; it is history. Think back a few generations to England's invasions of India and North America, or to Spain's invasions of South America, or to France's invasions of Africa and Haiti--all with their superior arms. Indeed, think of any land the Europeans conquered, and of any the US conquered. This is fact, not fantasy.

But "Avatar" is, after all, a fantasy movie. So in it, a human with the skills and knowledge of human weaponry turns against his "race," thereby helping the Na'vi reinforce their native weaponry. Does this reflect a pathetic guilt complex, as conservatives argue? Claptrap. It reflects awareness: Wouldn't it have been nice had any of those Europeans or Americans turned around and actually saw, with horror, what their countrymen were doing? And then used their countrymen's own technology to defeat those invaders? Not guilt, but courage, heroism.

And finally, the Na’vi are not at all depicted as “supporting actors in our journey to [human] self-admiration.” How anybody who actually sees the movie can emerge with a sense of self-admiration is beyond me. At most, at the end of the film, very few humans, a tiny handful, are accepted by the Na’vi as decent. Humans in general are presented as imperial, greedy destroyers, and are eventually sent off back to their home world. This hardly reflects self-admiration, let alone a white "guilt complex;" it reflects a long overdue awareness of our own history.

Hopefully, this film will generate at least some feelings of disgust at what we have been, and what so many of us, or at least our political and economic leaders, are today. And how we might change. But don’t hold your breath.

* * *

Sunday, January 17, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #7)

A recollection of an incident in my Borough Park, Brooklyn, elementary school, which during the 1950s ran through the sixth grade.

X: Miss Levy

From the time I entered first grade, Miss Levy, the assistant principal, was the terror of Public School 164, the standard factory-like school building on 14th Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets. She was about two hundred years old, heavy, plodding, and wore a wig the color of dog poop. She wasn’t only the terror of students; much later, we learned, or heard, that teachers feared her as well.

I don’t know if she ever hit any kids; she might have, since corporal punishment was not off limits in those days. Truth is, she didn’t have to. She could inject fear into you merely by her presence.

But she would rarely announce her presence. Instead, while a class was in progress, she would simply enter the room. No prior notice to the teacher or the students. The teacher would stop, turn to look at her, then nod. Miss Levy would walk to the back of the classroom and stand, staring at the teacher. Who then, being “monitored,” would try to continue teaching as if her classroom were still hers.

I was known to my teachers then as, well, restless. What that meant was that I had a hard time sitting still, silent, with my hands clasped in front of me for too long--more than a few minutes at a time. I’d whisper to classmates. Like to Kenny about how come, if he was Italian, he wasn’t Catholic? (He said he was Protestant.) Or to Harriet, who once said to me she’d show me her thing if I showed her my thing. I said yes, so we did, when the teacher wasn’t looking. Anyway, I talked and talked about lots of things, when I was supposed to behave and be quiet and listen to the teacher. (Today, most likely, I’d be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and pumped up with drugs.)

So one day, in the third grade, when the teacher was facing the board, and Miss Levy was in the back of the classroom, I leaned over to whisper to someone. A sound like nothing I’d ever heard before shot out from the back of the room straight to the back of my head.


I froze.


I turned around, my eyes so wide they threatened to take over the rest of my face.


I stood up, shaking, and walked to the back of the room. Straight to Miss Levy. Who grabbed my right arm and, without saying a word to the teacher whose day she had just disrupted, led me—utterly terrorized—to the door, out into the hallway, and down the stairs to her office.

I don't recall what she said to me. It was probably some lecture about “paying attention.” Or about the difference between being good and being bad. Something like that. Whatever she said, I nodded and nodded. After her admonitions, she had me sit outside her office in the hallway. She stayed inside, and wrote a note to my mother about the importance of teaching me to behave in class.

In the hallway, I was seated on a bench a few yards away from a desk. On it was a typewriter. I had heard about typewriters. You could use them to write things, just like the way writing looked in a book. There was a piece of paper in the typewriter. I stared at it a moment, then made a decision. I slid off the bench, walked over to the desk, and looked at the paper. Nothing was written on it. So then I pressed the following keys: f, u, c, and k.

Then I walked back to the bench and sat down, and waited for Miss Levy. She emerged from her office, handing me a note to my mother in an envelope, and warned me that I had better show it to her, and had better learn to behave. I nodded. Then she let me go back upstairs to my classroom.
* * *

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #6)

Junior high school days in Borough Park, Brooklyn, during the 1950s.

IX. Clinking

At Montauk Junior High School, an imposing red brick building on 16th Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets, you always got a sense about which teachers you could torture, and which you had better not. You got it regardless of the grade you were in: seventh, eighth or ninth. In sheet metal shop—which only boys could take, because girls had to learn “home economics," such as how to buy food and do other things that future mothers have to do—you dared not try to torture the teacher, Mr. Davis. That’s because he let you know from day one who was boss. If a student made a mistake on one of the machines that shaped the huge metal sheets, it was not unheard of for Mr. Davis to take the kid’s books and papers and throw them across the room, where they scattered. Nor was he above grabbing the kid by the shirt and pushing him so hard he fell. When that happened, the rest of us would turn to ice, but we kept on working anyway.

But in Miss Renny’s class, which was English, you could torture her. She was older than most teachers, slight, maybe five feet or so, with gray hair and a skinny body. She was very quiet, even when she spoke. All softness. Her voice was never harsh, and just loud enough for us to hear. All she cared about were things like grammar and books that she made us read.

But something about her let us know we could torture her. I don’t know what it was; just her manner, I guess. An easy target. Anyway, here’s how we did it. After she would greet us, and maybe take attendance, she would turn to face the black board, and start to write something on it. That was our signal. One of us—myself once in a while, usually somebody else—would make a sound like a cow mooing. Miss Denny would whirl around. Everybody sat stone faced. Or pretended to copy what she had written. She’d look at us, her eyes scanning the fixed rows of students, and then, never scolding, turn back to the board.

After the mooing, the next thing was clinking. You would place your hands under your seat, which was connected to a desk, and feel for the metal fittings. At one spot, you could feel metal upon metal, probably a nut affixed to a steel strip or something. Anyway, you took your fingernail and placed it on the nut, then flicked your nail so that it hit the underlying metal strip. That made a clinking sound.

So when Miss Renny turned back to the board, we all (or at least all the boys, or most of them) would do the thing. Clink clink clink. The sound of a million clinks filled the air. So of course Miss Renny would turn around again and stare at us. The clinking stopped. We all sat still, like well-behaved pupils are supposed to. Until she again faced the board, and we started it again. Clink clink clink.

One day, it became so bad that Miss Renny did something she had never done before. She threw down her piece of chalk and walked out of the room, not saying a word. We saw her crying.

From then on that semester, we only had substitute teachers for English. Until one day, when someone new stood at the front of the class and told us she would now be our regular teacher. Something about her—I really don’t know what—let us know she was more like Mr. Davis of sheet metal than Miss Renny of English. Not that she was violent or anything. It's just . . . there was something. Anyway, that was the end of our clinking.

If any of us had felt badly about what we had done to Miss Renny, we never admitted it.

* * *

Thursday, January 7, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #5)

The saga of my youth in Borough Park, Brooklyn, continues. The following has a somewhat lighter touch than earlier posts in this series.

VIII. The Movie

On Saturday afternoons, all the kids would go to the movies. In our section of Borough Park, that meant the Windsor, on 15th Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets, one of many similarly constructed houses in Brooklyn showing two features, an hour of cartoons, Newsreel (a news report on international happenings of the day, often about war), and coming attractions. Free of advertisements, unlike today.

It cost twenty-five cents to enter (about two dollars today). From my parents, I'd get thirty-one cents: a quarter for admission, a nickel for a candy bar, and a penny for a paper cup to fill with tap water.

Inside the Windsor—which we often referred to as The Movie—reality turned to magic. It didn't matter what was playing. The interior became a castle or a palace. The dim lights became candles or torches fixed into stone walls. The rusty fittings on doors were made of pure gold. The carpeting was wine-red and thick, just like in any palace, running up two swirling staircases that opened onto the second floor--where the balcony was--that bore the same carpeting as well as embroidered heavy drapes. Which meant that if you were a pirate or Robin Hood or Rob Roy, you could grab onto a drape and swing down from the balcony through the air with a sword in your hand and beat back all the king’s evil guards.

One Saturday, when I was eleven, I saw Chip, our upstairs neighbors’ younger son, walking towards 15th Avenue. I called out to ask if he knew what was playing at The Movie.

“Baloney on rye,” he said.

He wasn't being a smartass. I knew, and everybody else in our world knew, exactly what he meant. The film was “Salomé,” starring Rita Hayworth and Charles Laughton and Stewart Granger. Here’s how you knew: Salomé sounds like salami; salami is sort of like baloney. And you can get a baloney sandwich on rye bread, if your mother makes it.

“You goin’?”

“Yeah. You?"

“Yeah. You goin’ now?”

“No, later. Now I’m goin’a Soynce Avenue.” Chip had a lisp. He couldn’t say “Thirteenth Avenue," which was the main shopping district in our neighborhood. So he called it Soynce. Again, we all understood what he meant.

Once a year for a few years, movie excitement coursed like a collective shiver throughout 40th Street (and all the surrounding streets). That’s because The Movie would distribute advertisements for a forthcoming show on pieces of colored paper. Red and green and yellow and pink and gray and others. One of those colors—only one—would allow the holder to get in free! You could save a quarter! During the next two or three weeks, therefore, the main activity on the street was a kind of feverish trading with each other: I’ll give you a pink if you give me a blue. No, I need a brown, I need a brown! The goal was to get at least one of every color. We traded and traded, arguing about which color would be the prize. We wouldn't know until the day of the show itself.

That year, the winning color was purple. But The Movie, of course, didn’t print many purple fliers. That would have defeated their purpose: to entice hundreds of kids to the theater by promoting a false hope of getting in free. So they distributed thousands of fliers in all the other colors, yet maybe three or four, if that many, in purple.

I never got the purple flier. Nor did Chip. Nor did anyone else I knew. But inside The Movie, I still became Robin Hood. Or a pirate.

* * *

Monday, January 4, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #4)

The latest in the series of my growing up in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

VII. Screaming

Sometimes, if we didn't want to play punchball, we played stickball. Which was like baseball, except instead of a bat and a real baseball, we used a broomstick or a mop stick and a Spalding pink rubber ball. We played out in the street, because the sidewalks were too narrow, and there were too many people.

So we played in the street, which we called the gutter, where the cars drove from 15th to 16th Avenues. When the cars came, the drivers would see us and slow down, allowing us to get out of the way. But when my mother would stand on the top step of our stoop at 1546 40th Street, in her sloppy housedress and men’s shoes and thin unkempt plastered hair, and would see me in the street, she would shout loud--sometimes scream--at me to get out of the gutter because cars were coming and did I want to get killed?

One day when I was around nine, I was playing stickball in the gutter with some other kids. We were just into the game: the other team was at bat, and my team was in the "field." My mother came out of the hallway and stood on the top step of our stoop. She looked up and down the block until she saw me. She began to scream. “Nathaaan! Get out of the gutter! Do you want to get killed?” which the whole block heard. "Do you want to get killed?" Screaming and screaming, like the rage-aholic she was. All the kids turned to look at me. So I leapt out of the gutter and ran towards my house and up the steps past my mother and into our apartment and into my room and crawled under my bed and stayed there forever.

* * *

Another time my mother screamed and screamed was when little Chip, our upstairs neighbors’ son, told her that a group of boys surrounded me on 15th Avenue near 39th Street. I was maybe 14 or 15, and I think I had had a run-in with one of the boys a day or two before. I’m not sure. I don’t fully remember. But this guy and his friends saw me walking home from the playground on 38th Street, and they cornered me and forced me into a storefront.

The door to the store was closed, so they all crowded around me in the tiny outdoor vestibule and said they were going to beat me up. “Through the miracle of modern chemistry,” the head guy said, laughing (more like sneering)—he was tall and skinny and blond, is all I recall, and he was imitating a stupid television commercial at the time—and then he said something else, menacing, but I don’t remember what it was. I think they warned me to stay away from the kid, and that was that. They didn’t beat me.

They left, and I began to walk home. When I turned the corner onto 40th Street, there was my mother in her housedress and men’s shoes, walking towards me. She was screaming my name, Nathaaan, Nathaaan, holding my baseball bat, her lips blue and her eyes wild. I ran up to her and told her I was alright, they didn’t do anything. She just stared at me. Then we walked home together.