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.