04 December 2009

An email to Obama

I am a Detroit Public School teacher and a DFT member. Thousands of us gave time and money to help you get elected. Since then everything we have seen from your administration and Sec. Duncan have felt like attacks on us. On Sunday we will forced to accept a brutal contract that destroys most of the hard earned rights and protections we have fought over 60 years to achieve. We expected support from you, Sir, not a future of charter schools and Teach for America one-year-and-out wonders. You are losing us, as we have already lost you.

(Length limited by White House website)

12 November 2009

Hogwarts Apres le Deluge: Chapter 1

Reality and Remembrance

Professor Apres le Deluge leaned back in a battered armchair and deliberately lifted his tired legs onto the scratched and gouged surface of his desk. His feet thudded solidly onto the paper strewn surface. He frowned as he considered how many actions that once required only desire now demanded considerable planning and effort. Once his legs would effortlessly rise and glide soundlessly to rest on a tidier and much more presentable desk. Now the silence was broken by short grunts and his legs refused to elevate properly without discrete tugs on his pant legs. So much had changed.

From the hallway behind him, he could hear the bellowing of the students as they more or less went about the business of changing classes. The ten minute revenge dramas, mating rituals, clown acts, random acts of violence, and efforts at invisibility filled the hallway outside his office every hour. “The Running of Hormones” as it was known by the staff of The New Hogwarts. The noise was louder now, Deluge thought, the students less manageable that when he’d started, than before the war. The tone was different as well. He could hear the anger, the rage barely contained, often spilling over into fights, magical, and increasingly physical. His desk once faced the hallway, his office door standing open, but now the door was closed and locked and his desk was turned to face a window. He stayed in his seat when he heard the distinctive rise in volume and the pounding of running feet that signaled yet another fight. Too many teachers he had known had been hurt or worse, disciplined after trying to stop a fight. He’d had enough. Let them fight. It’s not worth the grief from the parents and the Headmistress.

Deluge had arranged his desk so that by pivoting his head slightly his field of vision contained both the window and a large painting of the very view that lay sprawled out beneath him. Deluge often thought that the artist must have stood exactly were he, Deluge, now sat and looked out this window when he painted the landscape. If so, he’d be stunned to see what sixty years had done to the place.

“Sixty years,” Deluge thought. “Sixty years since ‘The Last Good War.’” Hogwarts had sent its best and brightest into battle. The hallways are lined with portraits of those destroyed in the Great Cause. Looking back, he thought that so many were impossibly young, his classmates who, like him, had fought a desperate guerilla war against the Death Eaters’ Fourth Column that had overrun Hogwarts. Once it filled him with rage to find a vandalized portrait or some idiotic student cluelessly sporting a fashionable Death Eaters’ T-shirt or tattoo. But these days he didn’t have the stomach for rage. Or for late-night pizza, for that matter. He’d moved the portraits of his special friends into his chambers and failed everyone who brought the Death Head into his classes. It turned out he didn’t have to work too hard to do so.

Settling back in his chair, Deluge considered that on days like this, when the pointlessness of standing before the students and looking into those angry, scared, and ignorant faces, who seemed impervious to his efforts to teach them the value of Ancient Runes, Deluge was tempted to stay locked in his office and let the chaos sweep by without him. He sighed and thanked the governments dedication to destroying education, because thanks to their “reforms,” or “deforms” as the staff called them, he had been able to purchase his office and the adjoining rooms. The Education MInistry had discarded tenure, but in the “Ownership Society” property rights were sacrosanct.

After ten minutes or so, the roar from the hallways died down. He leaned back in his chair so he would not see the students slipping out the doors and across the grounds. He slowly turned from the painting to the window and back, trying to match landmarks. It was amazingly difficult. “We did win,” he mumbled. “Didn’t we?” The painting showed steep hills dotted with picturesque cottages organically situated in verdant, yes, verdant is only word for that lush green, verdant fields. The cerulean sky holds several fleecy clouds that wouldn’t ever rain. A narrow gauge railway clung precariously to the banks of gently winding river. Outside the window the scene was completely altered. The war had started the process, but Deluge thought that the victors had done the most damage.

Deluge had spent his childhood in one of the quirky cottages, a grant from the local Lord to the young widow. His childhood was all he’d spent as his family scrapped by on beets and cabbage from his mother’s meager garden and the occasional small animal he and his sister could bring down with their rocks and slings. He doubted he saw his mother with more than two dollars at any time.

Deluge had once worked out the location of the old cottage and had marked an “X” on the office window to mark the spot. When he placed his chair on the spot marked on the floor, his eyes would fix on the “X” and he would stare past the mark, far below and up the opposite hillside a ways, to were the cottage once stood. He had protected the cottage during the war. He and his guerilla band had used it as meeting place. But Voldemort was nothing compared to the unstoppable force of urban sprawl, and the cottage and green fields lay crushed under the conquering mass of anonymous suburbs.

The beautiful river in which he had fished and on which he’d rafted and explored was also changed forever. The gentle, winding path it cut through the valley was torn apart and contorted. Once they’d captured Hogwarts, the Death Eaters changed the course of the river, looping it around the school like a garrote, choking off aid and supplies from the rebels' muggle allies. After the war, the victors were so tired and so disgusted by magic that they simply left the river alone. In a decade or so, the river had shaped the valley to its new path and that was that.

The old narrow gauge steam railway was another victim of the war, of victory, of time. The train whistle was the timekeeper of Deluge’s youth, its call reaching him wherever his wanderings took him. The schedule was ingrained in his mind and to this day he cannot hear a train whistle without feeling that is time to head for dinner or to return to school for lights out. But the train is gone, its tracks destroyed in the long battle for Hogwarts. He himself had executed numerous attacks on them. Now an eight-lane Highway, the A 9 1/2, rolls out of the city, through the cancerous suburbs, and past Hogwarts, mile after mile of oil and blood soaked cracked concrete, jammed continuously with traffic spewing noxious fumes that stain the once clear sky and generating a constant din that ceaselessly vibrates the battle-damaged stones of the remaining great towers of Old Hogwarts, loosening them and periodically sending one or more crashing into the river far below. Deluge much preferred the train.

“It’s not just me who’s worn out,” thought Deluge. “Sixty years of war and recovery has been hard on the land, too. And the survivors, the big names, have all died or moved on. Only the small fry have stayed. We've nowhere to go.” And so he sat, easing into immobility, his chair long broken in to fit his long broken body, molding itself effortlessly around him, leaving with a peaceful sense of disconnected weightlessness. Time passed, the light faded, and Deluge was lost in his memories and the deepening shadows of his office.

24 September 2009

Thoughts on Democracy, Detroit, and Mr. Robert Bobb

First, I am a DFT member. Second, I agree that most of what Bobb has done has been good and and needed doing for a long time. Many, most of the financial cleaning up he's done, the DFT has clammered for for years. Lots, there is a serious issue that underlies Bobb's role that needs to discussed.

Bobb's appointment and powers are the result of the collapse of a functional civic society in Detroit. Dave Bing's appeal is that he's a watered down Bobb. When it takes strongman rule to clean things up, democracy and civic responsibility are swept aside. People flop back on their sofas, fat and lazy, applauding the autocrat's broom as it sweeps up the mess the people allowed to overwhelm them. When the autocrat's broom sweeps up some of the people, the others clap and say, "About time."

The problem is that Bobb, as tyrant, gets to decide on his own what needs sweeping up. He decides what replaces the old system. He decides anything and everything. Omniscience is a lot to ask of Bobb - especially when he's busy walking on water.

In a few short months, our heroic Cinncinnatus returns to DC or Oakland. What happens next? Granholm, Duncan, Bing - Democrats all (well, I suspect Bing's a Repub) - have abandoned democracy and want Bobb's sceptre passed to the Mayor. What's missing is any belief that Detroit will ever be a functioning society. They've thrown in the hat. If they're right, then what are we doing here? What's the point? Is laughing at the corpse that amusing a pastime?

Maybe our Democratic leaders are correct and democracy has failed in Detroit. After all, our elections are often the electoral equivalent of jury nullification. Maybe it will take tyrants to make Detroit work. If so, don't complain when the next Kilpatrick treats the city like it's his mother's purse and he's hungry. That's the problem with strongmen, there are always more Kwames that Bobbs.

02 September 2009

Mr. Bobb gives me my job back

Yesterday I was called by the HR people of Detroit Public Schools and informed that I was needed this year after all. They sent me to a school that filled me doubts, but the Principal was looking for a Middle School teacher, so I was sent back to HR. I waited around with 30 or other recalled teachers until another place was found for me. After about an hour, not bad as these things go, I was sent to the extreme Northeast corner of Detroit.

My new school is John Trix Elementary. No, he was not a cereal magnate. He was an industrialist (Brass fittings). No, the teams are not the Trixters (read "Tricksters"). They are the Troubadours. I plan to try to change the name to the Trixters with a coyote, crow, or spider as a mascot.

First impressions of the Principal and staff are good, so maybe this year will be better than last. Come to think of it the only way it could be worse is if an alien burst out of stomach at some particularly inopportune time.

Anyway, thanks to those who expressed their concern. I really didn't expect to be called back, at least not until count day in four weeks, if then. I've never been so relieved to be wrong.

20 August 2009

Mr. Bobb Hammers Detroit Public School Teachers

Bob “the Strong Man” Bobb has lowered the boom on Detroit Public School teachers. Here’s his proposal for the new contract. Oh, since teacher’s can’t strike in Michigan (without each striking teacher risking a $7,500 fine), this is what teachers will be forced to take.

(Disclosure: I am one of the 1,200 or so laid off teachers.)

This information comes from the DFT.

Mr. Bobb wants (and I expect will get):

1) a 5 year contract

2) 10% wage cut

3) 20% employee contribution to health plans (fair enough, but tough when wages are being cut and frozen for 5 years.)

4) 10% employee contribution to dental plans (ditto)

5) elimination of step raises (paving the way for merit pay)

6) elimination of sick bank pay-out upon retirement (expect lots of sick days from those nearing retirement.)

7) elimination of the longevity bonus (A small bonus, I think $250, at the end of the year for teachers with 15 years or more with DPS. - I agree that this stupidity should be done away with.)

8) elimination of oversize class compensation (A small bonus at the end of the year if you are stuck with more students that agreed upon in the contract. - The bonus is a dumb idea and should be tossed. But small class size is crucial for learning, and this move by Bobb, along with the huge numbers of teacher layoffs, makes classrooms bursting at the seams likely.)

9) elimination of lost prep period compensation. (Teachers get paid at their hourly rate at the end of the year for all the preps they lost that were not made up. - Getting paid isn’t the answer, getting the preps is. I went a month and half without a prep period this year. That means you work with 25-35 kids from first bell to the last bell with only a 40 minute lunch break. No bathroom break, no coffee break, no time to call parents, review the day’s progress, evaluate kids, deal with behavior problems, … you get the idea. If the district doesn’t have to pay for the time, expect more missed preps and more stressed teachers.)

10) elimination of maternity leave beyond FMLA coverage ( I’m not up to speed on this topic.)

11) elimination of sick bank to retain gross earnings when out on workman’s comp. (I’m not sure what to say about this either.)

12) No use of sick bank for you own wedding. (OK Bobb, you’re right about this one.)

13) Elementary school teachers lose two prep periods a week. (I am/was an elementary school teacher and I speak for all of us on this, I’m sure. Bobb is so focused on high school, he has made it clear that he thinks we at the elementary level are morons who do little more than babysit.)

14) Limiting job protection to teachers called away to armed service to 1 year. (Reservists called up should have their jobs protected wherever they work.)

15) reduce layoff notice from 60 days to 14 days. (Surprise! In two weeks you’re out of a job!)

16) require principal’s signature during Open Transfer period. (Right now, you have a window of time when you can request a transfer without your principal’s approval. This allows you to escape from the hordes of pathetically incompetent and abusive principals that seem to float to the top in DPS administration. Bobb wants those idiots to have the say over whether or not you can leave the Hellhole they created.)

Well, that’s all folks! And you wondered why the smart kids have not interest in being teachers.

12 August 2009

GM's Volt will get 230 mph in city, GM announces

And they're going to build it right after they complete the Icarus, GM's flying car project.

29 July 2009

The Novel in the Drawer - Chapter 1b

Extended Family

Chapter 1b

[Continued from Chapter 1a below)

Peter’s mother, still half-asleep, hurried up the stairs, tugging at her robe, her slippers slapping on the stairs. Peter followed her into Mrs. McGill’s apartment where his mother turned and put her hands on his shoulders, gently steering him toward the sofa. She ran her fingers through her short, dark, bedraggled hair, then tugged once on the cotton belt that circled her narrow waist. She was a small, slight woman, but wrestling the fifty-pound sacks of flour, five gallon bottles of oil, and large pails of sugar and baking soda at the bakery had toughened her, and made her lean, taut, and strong.

She carefully opened the door to Mrs. McGill's bedroom, and Peter heard her say very quietly, "Agnes? It's me, Mary. I've come to see how you're doing." He heard the door click shut and he sat down to wait. He sat very still on the sofa, his chest tightening and fear welling up from his stomach, acid rising to burn the back of his throat. It felt like last summer, he thought, the horrible summer of 1968 - the arguments between Mary and her mother, her sisters always picking at her, his cousins’ teasing him because he had no father. And then the sudden move to the apartment in Olney. His family’s disintegration getting caught up in the chaos of that horrible year. Bobby Kennedy, Dr. King, riots in the cities, Black Panthers, Weatherman, Rizzo in his tuxedo with a riot club stuck in his cumberbund, nightly casualty reports from Vietnam, some of the numbers included older kids from the neighborhood,gang murders nearly ever day. He heard some people call ‘68, the "Summer of Love.” He had no idea why. He guessed they just weren't paying attention. Sitting alone in the quiet front room, listening intently for any hint of what was happening in the closed bedroom, he felt unmoored, hollowed out, and drifting way.

His mother came out of the bedroom about a half-hour later. She waved for Peter to join her in the kitchen where she flipped through Mrs. McGill's address book which hung from a string attached to her heavy black wall phone. She told him to go downstairs and get her a pair of pants and a shirt that was hanging on the back of her bedroom door. She also needs shoes and socks believe have something to do, to push away the fears and action, Peter ran downstairs and began to gather up his mother's things

When he returned, his mother was talking on the phone to Dr. Sarkis. She asked Peter a few questions about how Mrs. McGill was acting before he came and got her. He answered as best as he could, and she repeated his answers to the doctor. She listened for a while, occasionally making small affirmative noises to indicate that she had understood.

"Germantown Hospital Emergency, right. Yes, I'll take her car. About a half-hour, okay? Thank you, Doctor. Goodbye." She hung up the phone and picked up her clothes that Peter had placed on the kitchen table. "Peter," she said, "I have to take Mrs. McGill to the hospital. She's very sick." She paused. Peter waited. It was clear she had more to say, but was with sorting it out in her head first. "What’s the Harper's number?," she asked. "Who's watching the kids this summer?"

"Mrs. Zink," Peter answered. "She lives a few houses down. She's Joey's grandmother."

"Okay, I'm going to call her and see if you can stay with them while I'm at the hospital. Is that all right with you?"

"Yeah," Peter said. "I'm sure she'll do it."

Peter told her the number. One of the kids answered, and Peter’s mother waited for Mrs. Zink to come to the phone. Mary briefly explained the situation to Mrs. Zink and a look of relief washed over her face as listened to her reply. She said that Peter would be right over, thank Mrs. Zink again, and hung up the phone.

“Peter, everything’s going to be fine. You can stay with the Harper’s until I get back. Go down and get my purse and keys while I change. Be sure to lock the door."

Peter ran back downstairs. He looked around for his mother's purse and found it dropped onto the small barrel chair in the corner of the bedroom. Her keys were on the hook above the kitchen counter. He jammed his pimple ball into his pocket and locked the door before running back upstairs with the purse and keys.

When he reached the top of the stairs, his mother was stepping out of the bedroom dressed and distractedly running a comb through her hair. She went into the bedroom and Peter could hear her softly talking to Mrs. McGill. He could hear low, murmured responses, but he couldn't make out what Mrs. McGill was saying. A few minutes later, his mother was leading Mrs. McGill out of the bedroom, her old woman walking unsteadily and clinging to Mary’s arm. The old woman's eyes were unfocused, and she didn't seem to be aware of Peter.

"Go in my purse and take a few dollars in case you need it. Please don't use it unless you have to, Peter," his mother said. "Mrs. McGill's car keys should be in the kitchen on the key hook. You go ahead of us opening doors and unlocking the car."

Peter nodded, ran into the kitchen, grabbed the keys, and, without breaking stride, wheeled around and ran down the stairs, throwing the doors open as he crashed through them. Mary carefully guided Mrs. McGill down the stairs and over to the car. Peter opened the passenger side door, struggling with the heavy weight of the doors on the two-door Ford Fairlane. He stepped aside as his mother needs the old woman onto the passenger seat.

Shutting the heavy door with a solid thump, Mary turned to Peter. "Be sure to lock Mrs. McGill's door and the outside one. Leave the porch light on. Stay at the Harper’s until you hear from me. I'll call when I know what's going on." She leaned down and kissed his forehead. He wanted to hug her and ask if Mrs. McGill would be all right. He wanted her to tell him not to worry , that things would be okay, but the words wouldn't come. Mary saw her boy frozen in place, not quite as old as he thought he was, and hugged him, whispering in his ear, "Don't worry, Petey. We’ll make it. We always do."

Peter shook himself and looked up at her, a slightly relieved look crossing his face. "I don't have time to drive you, Peter," his mother said as she walked around to the driver's side and slid in behind the wheel. "Will you be alright walking?"

"Sure," he said. "Don't worry, Mom. I'll be okay."
"I'm know you will," she answered. "Remember, I'll be at the Germantown Hospital Emergency Room. I'll call you at the Harper’s soon as I can. Be good, Petey."

"I will. I'll lock up and go straight to Jimmy's."

Mary turned the ignition key, and over the engine’s load rumble she yelled goodbye and waved Peter. She released the passenger brake and pulled away from the curb. Peter watched her as she drove down toward Tabor and then turned right towards 5th Street. He knew she would take 5th St. to the Boulevard and then head down to Germantown. When he could no longer see the dark green, squat form of the Falcon, he walked back up the steps, checked that the porch light was on, locked the doors, and started toward the Harper’s.

Peter marched mechanically in the direction off the Harper's house, his motions controlled directed by ancient remnants of reptilian brain that only needed a goal and then moved ponderously, but steadily, toward the target without interfering with the later, higher brain that overlay the ancient one. Peter's higher brain was lost in reliving and working through the blur of activity he had just passed through. His limbic system was pumping fear, anxiety, and read into every corner of his skinny body, and he struggled to suppress the urge to run. He didn’t want to run because he wasn't ready to reach the Harper's yet. He needed time to think, to calm down, to keep replaying the actions, examining them, turning them over in his mind until the monsters revealed themselves to be innocuous shadows.

Before he was aware of how far he walked, Peter turned the corner of Second and Clarkson. He could see the Harper's front porch halfway up the hill. The kids were on the porch watching for him, and he heard Jeanie yell, "There he is! I won! I won! I saw them first." She was holding on to the iron railing of the porch and bouncing up and down, crying her victory over her older brothers to the entire block.

Jimmy and Doug had been looking up second toward Tabor. They'd expected him to come the longer way because Jimmy Watson had been on the warpath lately and none of the neighborhood kids willingly walked past his house on Clarkson between Third and American, especially not alone. Lost in his thoughts, Peter had strolled right past the Watson’s filthy, decrepit rowhouse, unseen by Jimmy's assorted brothers, sisters, stepbrothers, stepsisters, and miscellaneous rangy and hungry dogs. When Jeanie’s cries had roused him into awareness, Peter was startled at what he just done, the risk he had thoughtlessly taken. He shuddered and remembered how Mrs. McGill would tell him that God looked out for fools and idiots. Maybe she was right.


Mary sat on a hard, steel chair that was once padded, but now had only a torn piece of vinyl over the metal seat. Mrs. McGill was snoring softly on the gurney next to her, an IV in her arm. The past few hours have been a blur of doctors, nurses, questions, and phone calls punctuated by periods of waiting around, and wondering what was happening. As soon as the doctors determined that Mrs. McGill was stable, she was given an injection after which she quickly fell to sleep. Mary took advantage of this opportunity to find a payphone. She called Mrs. McGill's only child, a son who she thought lived in Cherry Hill. He had a good job downtown, and visited his mother about once a month or so, sometimes taking her to his place in Jersey. Mary had been introduced to him and his wife one time, but she didn't know him very well. He agreed to come to the hospital as soon as he could get away from work, but it was a very busy day and t would be some time before he could get away. He asked her if she'd stay with his mother until he get there. Somewhat reluctantly, Mary agreed. She couldn’t just leave Mrs. McGill there alone. Just feeling it would be some time before she'd see him. She was hungry, but didn’t want to buy anything. Money was tight, as always. She hoped that Peter wouldn't have to spend the money she gave him.

Mrs. McGill was out of immediate danger, and Mary's thoughts turned to her side son. She knew we'd be all right at the Harpers, but she didn’t know them that well, and she didn’t like dropping Peter on them like this. She hated looking irresponsible. It was hard enough raising Peter on her own without her neighbors thinking she was irresponsible. She laughed. How many of her neighbors would think a woman who had been knocked up and was raising the kid on her own was responsible no matter what else she did? That boat had sailed 11 years ago.

Mary also worried about herself and Peter which made her feel guilty. The doctors told her that Mrs. McGill had a small stroke, and they were keeping her in the hospital overnight for observation. They were concerned that a larger, more serious attack could occur. Mary had grown very close to Agnes over the past year. Agnes had nearly adopted her and Peter when they moved into the apartment last May. Before long, the doors between the apartment stood open most of the time, and the place became a two-story house, the three of them coming and going as they pleased. Mary joked that her kitchen had never been so clean, as most of the cooking took place upstairs. It was Agnes who had suggested that Peter stay with her while Mary worked the night shift. Before this, Mary had to take Peter to work with her. He slept on a cot set up in the storage room. The boss hadn’t liked it, but he knew Mary was a good baker, and a good employee, so he grudgingly put up with it. Peter never complained, but Mary knew it wasn't good for a child to be awakened early in the morning to ride the bus home, or be awakened throughout the night by the noises of the mixers and the banging of the large oven doors. Mary felt awful worrying about herself when Agnes lay in the hospital bed next to her. But she couldn't help wondering what would happen to her and Peter if something really bad happened Agnes. She'd be alone again, unless she went back to her family for help. No. At least not yet. Something would turn up. She’d figure something out. She looked at her watch and decided it was too early to call the Harpers. She'd wait a while until Jimmy or Peg was home from work.

Then the adrenaline wore off and Mary gave way to exhaustion. She’d only been asleep a few hours when Peter had jolted her awake. Hungry and tired, Mary folded her arms and dropped them onto her lap, entangling her purse in her grip. She leaned her head against the wall, and her body relaxed, her shoulders sagging, as she fell asleep on the unyielding steel chair.

You Can't Go Home Again (without getting really upset)

I stumbled across this video of the house in Olney where I grew up. The place is completely trashed, but I could not stop watching as the camera moved through the rooms I can still see so clearly in my mind after thirty-seven years. What a strangely compelling and horrible experience.

Kidspeak and I drove past the house in the late 90's, about thirteen years ago, and the place looked great, even better than my family left it to be honest. The porch was still enclosed, but the ugly, gray fake brick siding had been removed. An Indian family was living the house and it was immaculate. We only saw the exterior of the house, but I'm certain the interior was well-maintained. I wish I'd taken a picture of it then.

28 July 2009

Pictures of Olney

While writing Extended Families, I took a break and searched the Web for pictures of the old neighborhood in North Philadelphia.

Police investigating a murder at my old playground.

15th and Olney, a bit north of my neighborhood, but not that different looking.

Olney High School (1930). I went to Cental and my sister went to Girls High, but this is the neighborhood school that we would have attended.

Rowhomes @ 6th and Olney.

The Olney train station. My parents commuted to work downtown from here. In the summer, I'd scrape up some coins (return a few bottles, search under the sofa cushions) and go downtown to wander around. Then I'd drop in at my Mom or Dad's office and get train fare home.

5th and Godfrey

5th and Chew

The north side of 5th, a few stores down from the intersection of 5th and Olney. When I was a kid, the store with the imposing facade was a furniture store, but I believe it was built as a theater.

This the shopping district on 5th St.after a wave of Korean immigration in the '80's.

The south side of 5th street across from the old furniture store.

We'd ride trolleys like this one to my paternal Grandparents' house. You could rely on public transportation in the '60's.

Some of the local housing.

Side view of the Fern Rock Theather across the street from Fisher Park.

Olney Presbyterian. My family lived a half-block north of Olney Pres and my Dad was a Deacon.

This is the closest picture I found to the kind of house I grew up in. It's definitely more run down, but it'll do until I ask my Mom to dig out an old picture.

16 July 2009

The Novel in the Drawer (Chapter 1a)

"Everyone I meet has a novel in their drawer, even people without a drawer."
W. Faulkner

Extended Family

Chapter 1

It was raining on the first day of summer vacation. A young boy sat on the steps of a small apartment building and considered his possibilities. He was tossing a pimple ball in the air with one hand and catching in with the other, counting each successful catch. He caught it most of the time, but when he missed, the ball would hit the steps and bounce off in one direction or the other, and the boy would throw himself after the ball, trying to catch it before it hit a parked car or bounced into the street. If it hit a car, he lost five points. If the ball made it to the street, he lost ten. If he caught the ball on three or fewer bounces, he only lost one point. If he caught a bouncing ball on three or fewer bounces with his left hand, he added five points. (He was trying to get better using his left hand.) He’d been playing since 9:30 and his score was one hundred and nineteen. He decided to play until he reached one hundred and fifty.

Usually the boy wouldn’t play ball on the steps in the rain. Sometimes, if the wind blew from the east, rattling against the kitchen windows in the back of the apartment that looked out onto the tiny fenced yard, he would sit on the front steps, under the small aluminum awning that created a narrow, dry space by the front door, and watch the wind that carried the rain toss and shake the sycamore leaves, their silver backs shimmering in the rain.

The rain today was strange, and the boy decided the strangeness must mean something. He had learned the word “omen” from a book of Celtic folktales his third grade teacher had given him on the last day of school. That had been on Friday. He had swooped through the book over the weekend, reading it late into the night, as there was no need to get up early the next morning. Mrs. McGill didn’t mind, as long as he was reading “good books,” which meant he had to wait until she fell asleep before slipping the comic books and Mad magazines from their hiding places deep in his book bag.

The rain, he decided, was a omen that foretold the events of this summer, the summer of 1969. He had never seen rain like this. There was no wind at all, not even a zephyr (another word he had learned recently, this time from a book on Greek mythology he’d found in the library.) The gentle rain fell straight down, like a soggy curtain, off to the west as far as he could see, sliding down the cars in the bank parking lot and soaking the houses on Lawrence Street, then stopping abruptly in the middle of 4th Street. He sat on completely dry steps, the sun warm on his thin, pale white legs which had only been allowed the freedom of shorts that morning watching the rain not twenty feet away.

The boy’d seen sun showers, but this was different. Across the street, it was dark and wet, like you’d expect during a rainstorm. He could see edges of the clouds that ran to the north and south up and down 4th Street. It was as if a magic spell was protecting his side of the block. He shoved the ball in his pocket when he reached one hundred and fifty, and turned his full attention to the rain. He had chosen today, the first day of Summer vacation, as a day to make some decisions, and he was sure the omen of the rain had to mean something. He considered a magical solution to the mystery, but a quick look up and down 4th Street and a consideration of the people that lived in the rowhomes and duxplexes didn’t suggest anyone magical lived nearby. There was the old house around the corner on Third, the one that all the kids knew as “The Witch’s House”, but he knew she wasn’t a witch. She was just Mrs. Umkauf, an old lady who was too old and sick to go out or to keep her small front garden neat and tidy. He knew this because when his Mom had found out that he was shooting dried peas at her windows through straws with some other kids, she had taken him to the house, introduced him to Mrs. Umkauf, and arranged for him to clean up her yard for her and to go back every other week to keep it clean. His mother refused to let Mrs. Umkauf pay him, although she offered a dollar a week. The other kids still thought she was a witch, but it’s hard to convince yourself of that when you sit in her kitchen every other Saturday morning, eat a piece of cake, or two, (she was a wonderful baker), with a cold glass of milk. No, Olney was not a magical place, no matter how hard the boy tried to make it so. But then, what about the weird rain?

The boy finally decided that rain had to stop somewhere. He knew that it could not be raining everywhere at once. You could tell that from the weather maps on the news. He’d been on buses and in cars as they drove in and out of rainstorms. He decided that this time he just happened to be at the right spot to see the edge of the storm. But could that be the omen? This being in the right spot? Maybe, he thought. He didn’t want to give up on the possibility of magic because of the great stories in the Celtic book. He wasn’t ready to give up on the possibility of magic, but he couldn’t just ignore the answers that made sense. It was like when he was trying to sleep in Mrs. McGill’s living room, and he’d lie awake staring at the weird shadows on the walls and ceiling. He’d be frightened, until he could determine what had made the shadow, perhaps the street light shining through the lace curtains, and then the monster would be gone, and he couldn’t see it again no matter how hard he tried. Once he realized the monster was the shadow of a Hummel, he could only see the Hummel’s shadow, never the monster. The loss of the monster, of the magical, left him a little sad. But why had the rain stopped right there, twenty feet in front of his apartment? And on the blessed first day of summer vacation? Why, indeed, if not to presage a special summer.

“There you are.” The hissed whisper penetrated the boy’s reverie and he twisted his neck to follow the voice to the open window of the apartment above his. “Come on up, Peter, I need to see you.”

“OK, Mrs. McGill,” called Peter, his voice matching her whispered tone. Jumping up, he gently opened the aluminum screen door, holding it open to keep it from banging while he opened the heavy front door. He closed them with a learned delicacy at odds with his natural urge to slam doors, to do all things at full speed, heedless of what he doing at the moment, his mind driving his body to speed up, speed up, to get to the next thing.

Peter glanced at the closed door on his left and an image of his sleeping mother flashed across his mind. She’d been asleep for only a few hours. He’d heard her come in at the usual time, a little after six, while he pretended to sleep. He didn’t like her to know that he often woke before dawn and couldn’t get back to sleep until she was home. He’d only recently, after his tenth birthday, been allowed to sleep by himself in their apartment and he didn’t want his Mom to change her mind. He’d listen in the stillness before even the morning birds were stirring for the rumble, grind, and screech of the 26 bus slowing to a stop at the corner, holding his breath, waiting for the hydraulic woosh of the door opening that told him his mother was almost home.

When he was younger, Peter spent the night in Mrs. McGill’s apartment while his mother worked through the night at the bakery. He would often wake in the pre-dawn hours and sit by the second floor window that overlooked the street and peer intently into the glow of the streetlights to catch a glimpse of his mother getting off the bus. Now, believing that turning ten should have freed him from such childish fears, he relied on his well-trained ears to recognize the hiss of the bus doors. He’d silently count out the seventy-five seconds or so before he would hear his mother’s key in the lock of the outside door. Then he’d let out a muffled sigh of relief when he heard her key in the lock of their apartment.

Peter’s mother’s job at the bakery ran from nine to five-thirty. When he asked her why she had to work all night, she told him that jobs were hard to find and she was good at baking. As long as people expected fresh bread and pastries for breakfast, somebody was going to have to work through the night baking it. Besides she was paid extra for working through the night and the extra money helped.

Arriving home a little past six, Peter’s mother stepped quietly across the dark living room to the sofa, the only light provided by the streetlight slicing through the closed Venetian blinds. She fussed a bit with Peter’s blankets, and lightly kissed his forehead. She smiled at him and gently ran her hand across his summer buzz-cut, the thick blond hair standing straight up in quarter-inch spikes.

She went into the kitchen, still moving carefully through the unlit apartment, and set the white cardboard bakery box on the table. From there, she walked back through the central hallway and into the bathroom to clean up and change clothes. Peter lay with his head on the end of the sofa nearest the bathroom wall, and he was usually lulled to sleep by the rhythmic sounds of the water splashing against the tiles and his mother softly singing, but today he was too excited to sleep.

After cleaning up and changing into her nightgown, robe, and slippers, his mother returned to the kitchen to get the bakery box and, after checking on Peter again, she went up to Mrs. McGill’s apartment for coffee and fresh pastry. The older woman had become a kind of aunt to her, not a mother, she had a mother and didn’t think she could survive another, but a helpful, non-judgmental aunt. As she walked up the stairs to Mrs. McGill’s apartment, she thought once again how lucky she’d been to find her, especially at a time when luck and the promise of the future seemed to have deserted her.

Peter heard his mother’s and Mrs. McGill’s light footsteps moving across the floor above his head, heading for the kitchen. He smelled the coffee from upstairs, but the cinnamon, he knew, was from the warm bun in his own kitchen, where his mother had left it for him. He quietly tossed back the blankets and slipped into the kitchen, poured a glass of cold milk, and made short work of the sticky bun, his mother had learned to leave only one bun, before returning to the sofa, and reaching under the sofa for a Mad magazine and his flashlight.

Peter was asleep when his mother returned about an hour later. She checked on him once more and smiled at the magazine lying where he’d dropped it. She gently slid the magazine back under the sofa with the toe of her slippered foot, clicked off his flashlight, and delicately lifted his arm which was dangling off the sofa, folding it across his chest. Kissing his forehead once again, she went to the bedroom to sleep.

Turning from his door, Peter stepped across the small entryway and walked lightly up the stairs to Mrs. McGill’s apartment. He kept to the edge of the worn carpet runner to muffle his steps. The door at the top of the stairs was left open as usual so he and his mother could come and go freely, but as he knocked and entered he was surprised to find the living room empty. He expected to find Mrs. McGill sitting in her favorite chair by the front window that overlooked 4th Street, a mug of coffee on the side table, a newspaper or Readers’ Digest Condensed Book in her hand.

“In here, Peter,” she called from the kitchen. He walked through the central hall into the kitchen and saw her sitting at the table which was still cluttered with the remnants of his mother’s breakfast and the later one that Mrs. McGill had made for him. The percolator and frying pan were still on the stove and a few odds and ends were piled in the sink. Peter had never seen Mr. McGill’s kitchen so disheveled. Her oft repeated instructions to him were “clean up as you go,” a practice that often found him reaching for his glass to get a second helping of orange juice only to find it washed and in the cabinet before he noticed it was gone.

“There you are,” she said, smiling weakly. “Would you mind going to Mr. Fisher’s and picking up my medicine? I know it’s your first day of summer vacation, but I just don’t feel up to walking today.”

“Are you alright?,” Peter asked with real concern. “Do you want me to get my Mom?” Mrs. McGill had seemed fine last night, Peter thought, and he had been so excited about summer starting that he hadn’t noticed anything different at breakfast this morning.

“No, no, let the poor girl sleep. Working all night like that.” She shook her head in disbelief that a young mother should have to work such hours as Peter’s mother. “Don’t bother her. I’m just getting old. I’ll be fine after I’ve rested up a bit.”

Peter looked thoughtfully at her and wondered, not for the first time, how old she was. She certainly looked older than his grandmothers. She looked older than Old Miss Welch at school, the fearsome eighth-grade English teacher who retired in June and was generally considered by the students at Morrison Elementary to have been Methuselah’s teacher.

“The aches and pains are adding up, that’s all,” Mrs. McGill said, seeing the concern on the boy’s face and desiring to reassure him. “I’ll be fine. Dr. Sarkis is coming by this afternoon to check up on me.”

“I’ll go and get the medicine,” said Peter, turning away toward the door and stairs beyond. “I hope you feel better soon.”

“Oh, Peter, I almost forgot. Could you also stop by Al’s on your way back and pick up my groceries?”

“Sure. Do I need my wagon?”

“Oh no, it’s just a few things for dinner tonight. Your mother and I are going to try a new recipe. Besides you’ve shot up so much since Christmas, a big boy like you can easily carry the bag.”

Mrs. McGill reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out a quarter which she pressed into Peter’s palm. “Get yourself a soda at Mr. Fisher’s. By then Al should have the order ready.”

Peter thanked her and headed quietly down the stairs.

Once outside the apartment building, stepping briskly into the summer sunlight that had chased away the strange rain, Peter’s carefully contained energy slipped the leash and he leapt off the top step, hitting the sidewalk running. A burst a speed propelled him down 4th Street and around the corner to the top of the steep hill on Clarkson Street. He threw himself down the hill, giving himself over to gravity, his feet barely managing to keep pace as he recklessly threw his head and chest down the hill and wildly pumped his arms. The air roared past his ears, rippling over the stubble on his close cropped head. He ran full speed past the row of private garages that lined the south side of the block, stumbling across the cracked, oil-stained driveways. He glanced up at the roof, swerving close to the green wooden garage doors so he could not be seen from above in case any of the older kids were lurking up there, drinking beer stolen from their father’s cases and waiting to pelt unsuspecting kids with rocks and dirt bombs.

At the foot of the steep hill, he sped across 3rd Street and turned right past the gray granite Presbyterian Church that ran the length of the block. Leaping up onto the marble steps parallel to the great red doors with their gleaming black strap hinges, he vaulted across the iron handrails and bounced down the farther side. Past the entry, he left the sidewalk and cut a looping path up and down the embankment that ran along the length of the sanctuary. He skidded to a stop just past the church to wait for the light to change and the traffic to clear on Tabor Avenue. His forward motion halted, he bounced on his toes, leaping up and tapping the bus stop sign on the corner. He smiled as he had managed to reach the sign for the first time about a month ago and already it was so much easier.

The light changed, and he crossed Tabor, walking now as he passed Al’s. Maybe he should skip the soda and buy two packs of baseball cards. The new series was out. Still excited about great ’68 World Series last Fall, he wanted to get all the Cardinals and Tigers. After a quick and heated debate, appetite defeated acquisition. He hurried past the metal open doors of Al’s basement beside which a grocery truck was parked, the driver unloading cases and sliding them the along the rails, over the rows of wheels mounted where the rungs would be, down into the basement. Al’s son, Frankie, caught the boxes as the rolled down and stacked them onto shelves. Peter considered leaping over the rails, but a warning looking from the driver chased that thought away. Instead, he ducked under the rails, a case of Bosco rumbling over his head, and cut across 3rd aiming for Mr. Fisher’s front door, picking up speed as the soda fountain exerted its magnetic appeal. Angling across the street, Peter shot past a stand of row homes and slammed into the door, turning the handle only slightly before his shoulder smacked into the middle of the door and threw it inward.

Mrs. Kennedy had seen him coming through the front window and so narrowly avoided the adolescent missle named Peter. She leapt back and protectively clasped her bags to her. “Peter! For God’s sake!,” she snapped. “Watch where you’re going.” She gathered herself and left the pharmacy, muttering to no one in particular, “The boy’s a positive hazard.”

“Sorry, Mrs. Kennedy,” Peter called after her, ducking his head in embarrassment, and walking carefully over to the soda fountain. He climbed onto a stool and began twisting from side to side.

“Peter, Peter, Peter,” said Mr. Fisher, shaking his head as he came out from behind the cash register and walked over to the soda fountain. “You’ve got to get a handle on that energy, my boy. The way you’re going your going to use it all up before high school.”

Peter grinned at him and shrugged. Mr. Fisher walked by Peter and rubbed his hand over the boy’s velvety head. “Summer buzz cut, huh? I imagine you kids are lined up over at Louie’s.”

Peter nodded, “Some kid’s moms do it. Billy Calahan’s dad’s cut his with dog clippers.”

“Yes, well, let’s hope it was early in the day. I wouldn’t trust Sam Calahan with any sharp instruments after two o’clock or so.” A sour look crossed Mr. Fisher’s face. He was a Presbyterian, an elder at Oleny Pres and the Presbyterian’s of Olney did not drink. Olney’s overwhelmingly Catholic majority was German or Irish and untroubled by this theological injunction. Mr. Calahan was foremost in the Papist ranks of advocates of drink.

Stepping behind the soda fountain, Mr. Fisher picked a damp rag and wiped the counter in front of Peter with a flourish. “What’ll it be, stranger?” he asked in B-movie Western accent. “Rotgut? Sasparilla?”

“Cherry coke, please,” said Peter, sliding his quarter across the counter.

“Ah, a paying customer. Well, well,” said Mr. Fisher, as he set about drawing the soda and mixing the syrups. “How about a tiny, little dollop of vanilla in there? A smidgen, perhaps?,” he asked, raising his eyebrows and swirling his index finger in a mixing motion.

“OK,” said Peter, “Thanks.”

“Only the best for my regulars,” answered Mr. Fisher, splashing a small squirt of vanilla in the glass, briskly stirring the concoction with a long, gleaming silver spoon, and sliding the drink across the counter to Peter.

“Anything else, my boy?,” asked Mr. Fisher as Peter happily slurped his soda.

“Oh yeah. I have to get Mrs. McGill’s medicine.”

Mr. Fishers jovial face turned serious. “How is Mrs. McGill doing?,” he asked. “I’m worried about her.”

“Um, OK, I guess. She said she was just a little tired.”

Mr. Fisher straightened up and held a small bag that he had taken from under the counter. He tapped the bag thoughtfully and said somewhat distantly, “Tired, yes, tired.” He shook his head slightly and returned his attention to Peter. “Here you go. Say hello to your mother and give my best wishes to Mrs. McGill.” Peter pushed the empty glass away and hopped off the stool. He thanked Mr. Fisher for the soda, waved goodbye, and headed across the to see if Al had the groceries ready.

The delivery truck was rumbling up 3rd Street, its gears grinding as it climbed the long hill that ran three blocks from Tabor to Chew Street. Frankie was disassembling the slide lowering the sections into the basement. He swore under his breath and banged the equipment sharply with his open hand when the latches jammed. He slid the last piece into the basement and roughly yanked away the iron rods that kept the metal doors from dropping into place. He snapped the rods onto the clips on the underside of the heavy doors and dropped the heavy doors into place. The smashed into place with a resounding clang. A faint “Jesus Christ!,” drifted through the screen door that lead to back room of the store. Frankie smiled darkly and gave the finger carelessly in the direction off the voice as he picked up a heavy padlock and chain.

“Hey, Frankie,” said Peter and he kept moving at a respectful and, he hoped, safe distance from the disgruntled teenager.

Frankie glared menacingly at Peter, abent-mindedly wrapping the chain around his fist. “Punk,” he muttered, and turned away kneeling down to lock the metal door that had slammed into their frame that was recessed into the sidewalk. Peter wasn’t too worried about Frankie, he usually didn’t bother anybody around his Father’s store, but Peter kept moving just in case.

Frankie was a junior at Oleny High. He’d be a senior in the Fall, but in Frankie’s case it was never safe to assume academic advancement. Victor, the second chair barber-slash-bookie at Louie’s had speculated the odds at 3 to 1 that Frankie’d do time before he’d graduate High School. Frankie’d spent three years at Cardinal Dougherty, pulled along in the wake of his classmates after his nine years at Incarnation, the Catholic elementary school across the street from Morrison, Peter’s school. It was generally assumed that the only thing that had kept the nuns from kicking Frankie out and his ending up at Morrison was that Al cut the nuns a deal on groceries. Some folks suspected that the teachers at Morrison slipped Al a monthly donation to defray the cost of his charity.

Frankie was still a sophomore after three years of High School because of his sporadic attendance, his absences sometimes due to his exploration of non-traditional educational opportunities with like-minded apprentice felons (stealing car batteries was very popular at the moment). This absences were augmented by enforced periods of time away from school when the Jesuits caught him engaged in on-the-job training (extortion, mostly) directed toward the student body, or more correctly, students’ bodies. When both the patience of the priests and usual Jesuitical intimation failed, Frankie transferred to Oleny High where he quickly became a fixture at the twice-weekly brawls between the neighborhood Whites and the black kids bused in from West Philly. Al had hoped his son would transfer to Mastbaum, one of the public technical high schools, and learn a trade, but Frankie couldn’t be bothered with the bus ride. Besides, he figured he was set. He planned on selling the store as soon as he got his hands on it.

“Is Mrs. McGill’s order ready?,” Peter asked.

“How the fuck should I know?” growled Frankie, his cigarette dangling loosely from between his lips, bobbing up and down in emphasis. “Been stacking those fucking boxes all goddamn morning. Old bastard works me to death.”

“OK,” said Peter, “ stepping briskly past Frankie in an only slightly modified Great Circle route that took safely to the front door via the gutter. “I’ll check with your Dad.”

“You do that, punk,” said Frankie. He bent down and ran the chain through the hasp.

Peter heard the lock click closed as he entered the store. The screen door slammed shut as he stepped into the cool dusty dimness of Al’s. The buzzer in the back room roused Al and Peter saw him appear at the curtained door behind the meat counter. Since his wife had died, Al had largely abandoned the upstairs apartment they’d lived in for years, where they’d raised Frankie, and spent most of his time in the small back room of the store. Peter had been in there once when he’d helped Al, the man’s arm was in cast at the time, lift a case of beer out of Al’s trunk and carry it to the backroom. There was a two-burner electric cooktop mounted on the far wall by the sink, a shallow sink nearby to it, with a small counter in between. An ancient ice box, it’s huge cooling coil piled on top of it like a bee hive hairdo, squatted in the corner on the other side of the cooktop. A daybed was pushed against the exposed brick of the common wall. A faded and stained armchair held pride of place in the center of the room, a side table with a battered old lamp on it to one side, a dented metal TV tray on the other. A crudely repaired footstool sat in front of the chair. The whole arrangement was directed toward a beat up portable TV, complete with bent hanger aerial, that was pushed into the opposite corner of the small room.

Al walked up narrow aisle the aisle that lead from the back room to the counter, a path chosen so that he see both the front door and the cash register. His grimy apron was loosely tied around his ample belly, and he swept his thick, white hair back from his face as he walked. He walked with a slight limp that he told people was a war wound, but most folks thought it more likely due to an accident aided by alcohol.

Al saw Peter and smiled. He liked Peter and hired him for odd jobs when Frankie would disappear for a time. “Petey! There you are, boy. Come to the back. I’ve got Mrs. McGill’s order ready.” He jerked his head toward the storeroom and lead the way. Peter followed him to the small shelf-lined storage room between the meat counter and back room. Al pointed to a box on a lower shelf. He was jotting down figures in an account book. “Over there, Petey,” he said, aiming his pencil at the shelf, “The Cracker Jacks box.”

Peter nodded and moved toward the small box. He slid off the shelf carefully to test the weight. No problem, he thought, a little heavy, but not too bad. He slipped the white bag into the open box, folded the flaps closed, and picked it up.

“How’s Mrs. McGill doing these days,” asked Al, looking up from his figures.

“OK, I guess’” said Peter. “She says she’s a bit tired.”

“Ah well, it’s hell getting old, Petey. Yes indeed it is,” said Al shaking his head from side to side.

Peter smiled and started for the door.

“Did you see that son of mine out there?,” asked Al.

“Yeah, he was locking up.”

Al nodded, a sour look crossing his face as it habitually did when he thought of his son and heir.

“See you later, Al,” Peter called as he backed through the screen door and started up 3rd Street. He carried the box jammed against his belly, his hands cradling the far corners of the box. The cans and bottles clinked softly in time with his steps. He turned left onto Clarkson and started trudging up the hill. He walked on the north side of the street, opposite the garages. His encounter with Frankie had made him nervous about running into any of Frankie’s friends.

The houses on the north side of the block, built in the 1880’s, where some of the oldest houses in the neighborhood. These gray stone, Victorian houses had wide porches and small front gardens. Grandparents and Great-grandparents, widows and widowers lived there and had since they were newlyweds around the time of the Great War. They were Scots mostly, although one German Catholic family infiltrated the Presbyterians between the wars.

Peter’s part of Olney, what he thought of as Olney, was a patchwork of housing varieties ranging from these large, brooding Victorians to Peter’s squat apartment building around the corner. Row homes, duplexes, and few old farmhouses filled out the neighborhood. There were several small apartment buildings built in the 50’s and every shop had an apartment above it, usually lived in by the owner, but sometimes rented out.

The original residents had been mostly the Scots who’d built Olney Pres. Their children or grandchildren rode the wave of post war prosperity north to the more prosperous neighborhoods of far North Philadelphia or out to the suburbs, Cheltenham mostly. They spent a good deal of their time driving down to visit their parents and trying to pry them from the old neighborhood that was sliding toward collapse.

The young couples that filled up the neighborhood were also moving north, many came up from working class Kensington where their Scottish, Irish, or German immigrant parents or grandparents had settled. It wasn’t unusual for newcomers to meet their neighbors and discover the boy or girl that sat next to them in second grade. There were a few Poles, Ukrainians, and assorted other Eastern Europeans, even a small cluster of Armenians, but the tone of the neighborhood was now set by the large Irish families bursting at the seems with Baby Boomers. Where once Sunday morning found the sidewalks jammed with families walking toward the red doors of Olney Presbyterian, now most people flowed past on their way to the Church of the Incarnation (R. C.), eight blocks south. The old Scots fought upstream, against the flow, with a determination born from countless generations of opposition to the Papacy, England, and countless other troubles their stern Calvinist God threw at them. If you listened closely, the mumbled “Damned Papists” could often be heard followed by a soft, but insistent, “Hush, dear.”

Breathing heavily as he topped the hill, Peter turned onto 4th and set the box down for a minute to catch his breath. The street was quiet. There weren’t many kids on his end of the block. Peter was the only child in the apartments. The kids from up the block must have slept in on this first day summer vacation, although Peter couldn’t imagine how they could sleep on such a day.

He inhaled deeply and picked up the box. The sun had dried the sidewalks across the street, removing all signs of the strange shower. He walked the short way to his door and let himself in, bending at the waist and balancing the box on his thigh as wrestled with the doors. He carried the groceries straight up to Mrs. McGill’s apartment and found her drowsing in the kitchen, her head nodding and swaying a bit, her chin resting on her left palm, her elbow propped on the kitchen table where he had left her.

“Mrs. McGill, Mrs. McGill,” he said softly. “I’m back.”

She slowly opened her eyes and Peter noticed that she very pale.

“I think I’ll go lie down for a bit,” she mumbled indistinctly and Peter had a hard time understanding her. “I’m not feeling quite right.”

“Your medicine,” he said, as he fumbled for the bottle of pills and handed it to her.

“Would you bring a glass of water, dear.”

He went to the sink while she attempted to pry the lid off the brown bottle. He returned with the glass and she handed him the unopened bottle, her arthritic hands shaking slightly.

“Would you mind opening this? My hands don’t seem to be working too well today.”

Peter popped the lid off with his thumb and held the bottle out to her.

“Two, please,” she mumbled.

He handed her two pills and watched her with growing anxiety as the swallowed them and returned the empty glass to him.

“Would you help into the bedroom, please.”

Peter extended his arm to her and she pulled herself up from the table. He lead the way, taking small, slow steps, to the bedroom. She staggered once or twice and clung fiercely to his arm. He guided her to the bed where she laid down on top of the multicolored afghan and closed her eyes. She said something, but so quietly that Peter couldn’t make it out. He was scared and knew that he needed to get his mother right away. He went to the far side of the bed and carefully folded the afghan over her. Then he ran downstairs to get his mother, unconcerned about the din as his feet hammered on the stairs.

15 July 2009

I am indignant.

It seems like this guy, Fred Kaplan, has written a book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed. (You can hear him discuss his book on the Dianne Rehm show. ) Somehow he spent 336 pages talking about 1959 without mentioing that I was born on January 1st of that pivotal year. My birth and everything changes? Causation or correlation? You decide. I'm simply noting a lacuna in his work that is difficult to fathom.

12 April 2009

Fox covers Bo

Word of the Obama's adoption of a Portuguese Water Hound has sent Fox producers scrambling to give the story that well-known Foxian (Foxist?) twist. Next week should see a flood of puppy stories - the little fella romping with the Obama girls, a sodden President walking the dog in a rainstorm. Some of their stories already have been completed and have been leaked.

"Malia Green Card Scam Investigation over Portuguese 'Adoption'"

"Bo to White House: Kennedy Nepotism Strikes Again"

"Bo's Housebreaking Problems (video)"

"First Dog Adoption on Shaky Ground: Bo Owes $13,000 in Back Taxes"

03 February 2009

The Infinite Monkeys Make Me an Offer

I thought I'd seen the last of Eric and infinite band of monkeys. I have to admit that the place was pretty quiet without the gentle clacking of those infinite keyboards drifting downstairs from the back bedroom. The cats definitely missed the band and were sulking under the bed and behind the furniture.

I was flipping through the band's typescript of "Titus Andronicus" and wondering yet again if Shakespeare, once he was elevated to full cosmic bardness, ever tried to track down all the copies and burn them. I was dozing in my chair when a gentle tap at the window drew my attention. Eric was there, knee deep in the snow, his huge smile and sparkling black eyes a welcome sight. Jumping up from my chair, I ran to the door and rushed the cold, wet monkeys into the den.

I bustled about and in a few minutes Eric and the band were comfortably sitting by the fire, warm blankets around their shoulders, and each had a purring cat nestled in their lap.

As usual Eric spoke for the band. He was the only one I ever talked with. I had the impression that they all could talk, but he was the only one who wanted to talk to me. Most of the band treated me as a kindly, but ineffectual, chimp. Eric, late one night, relaxing after we'd had a successful day's work, told me that he liked me because I reminded of his brother. Turns out his brother was considered "a little slow" by the other chimps, but he was friendly and well-liked. All things considered, I was flattered.

After we'd eaten and were working our way through a third bottle of wine (the band isn't choosy, any red is fine with them), Eric got around to why they'd returned. They were just north of Toledo and Frank showed Eric a newspaper he found at the truck stop where they'd stopped for some water and chocolate chip cookies. He pointed to a interview with Sarah Palin. It looked familiar to him, and wanted to know if Eric recognized it. Eric read it and agreed that there was something familiar about it.

He and Frank shared the interview with the tribe. There was a general murmuring laid over the the munching of cookies. Eric shared his plan with the band and, nodding agreement, they left the truck stop and headed back up 75 to Detroit.

Eric asked me if I still had the pages they'd typed in our Infinite Monkey Experiment. Of course I did, I told him. I was still analyzing the data, and then I had to write up the findings. The manuscript was to be published in a Festschrift for Ko-Ko, due out next spring. He & I went up to the library and began flipping through the 2, 389 volumes the band produced.

The material was chronologically listed, which was helpful, as Eric's excellent memory helped narrow our search to volumes 1,568 through 1,903. As we sat side by side at a battered library table I'd rescued from the dumpster at one of the universities I'd worked at, Eric patiently turned the pages at a brisk, steady pace.

He solved one mystery for me right away. Volume 1,573, pages 45-47 consisted of "ZX" repeated over and over. Once I'd worked out the odds of this occurring in a transcript generated by an infinite number of monkeys, I thought I had one hell of statistical puzzle to explain. When he saw the pages, Eric laughed so hard he started coughing and then he doubled over. His long arm reached under the table and scooped something in his large hand and held it for me to see. It was Zena, a long haired, black and white cat, whose small size in no way influences her assumption that the universe is here to do her bidding. Eric scratched her gently under the chin and she glared at him, her ears flattened. Her fierce show was undermined by the loud rumbling of her purring. Eric carefully extended her paw to the key board and it neatly covered the Z and X keys. But why, I asked him, why did you let her stand there for almost three pages? He shrugged and said that she semed to like it and she wasn't hurting anyone.

In volume 1,788, Eric found it. He delicately unfolded the article that Frank had recovered and laid it next to the open volume. There it was, word-for-word, Palin's answers in the interview. Eric tapped the date of the newspaper. The monkey's work was three weeks before the interview.

I was astounded, but then I explained to Eric that these findings supported the Infinite Monkey Theorem. He shook his head and closed my notebook. Slowly he lifted his hand up to my face and rubbed his thumb against the pads of first two fingers. A sly grin crept over his face. I have a plan that will make all of us rich, he told me. Just sit back and listen.

His plan was brilliant. He showed me five instances in one volume alone where the band had randomly typed long passages of speeches, interviews, and op-ed pieces from Jim Bunning, Karl Rove, Jesse Shelby, John Boehner, and Sarah Palin, of course. All were typed by the monkeys before they delivered by the Repubs. Eric's plan was simple - get the boys to work, sort through the mess and cat contributions and pick out the stuff that sounds like an identifiable GOP pol. Then we sell the words to them. You mean, you and boys would become the speechwriters for the Righties?, I asked? And Zena, he added smiling broadly .

I was stunned. I was in this for the science, not the money - although funding was always an issue, and if it worked, I'd be free from grant writing. I asked him for convincing proof.

He looked my in the eye and then reached for volume 2,001. He flipped through the pages, and stopped on page 357. He picked up a pencil and drew a box around the following lines:
The American people are beginning to figure out what this package is that its not a stimulus package its a spending package
He spun my laptop around, quickly ran through several google searches. With a flourish, he double-clicked and then spun lap top around where I could see it. On the screen was a picture of a familiar white-haired man above this quote:
"The American people are beginning to figure out what this package is, that it's not a stimulus package -- it's a spending package," said Sen. John McCain.
OK, I thought, this is getting creepy. I looked at Eric for an explanation. He just shrugged, the way only monkeys and the French can. I shook my head, wondering if it was the wine, or something, anything, but what it appeared to be.

Eric raised his index finger to bring me back to the moment. He reached into the canvas bag he kept slung over his shoulder and pulled out a small rectangle of paper, which he handed to me. It was a check for $2,500 from Senator John McCain to IMH&Z inc.

And that was how Infinite Monkeys, Human, and Zena, inc. became the primary speech writers for the GOP. The infinite monkey's bang away one the key boards, Eric snips out the bits that match various GOP voices, and I add the punctuation. Zena steps on the keyboard when she feels like, adding to the randomness of the typing (as much as adding to randomness is possible.) Eric also handles sales. He has a way with Righties.

After the bruising defeat at the polls in 2008, the Right needed a new voices. Thanks to IMH&Z, they have found them.

02 February 2009

Testing the Infinite Monkey Theorem

Some have claimed that an infinite number of monkeys banging on keyboards for an infinite amount of time would produce all written works including the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I have decided to test this claim.

I cut a deal with a band of chimps from Ontario who where passing through Michigan to look for work in the Sun Belt. That's Eric in front, a great monkey.

They agreed to wait out the winter in my spare room and bang away on keyboards for eight hours a day (with an hour for lunch, and fifteen minute breaks every two hours - so back off PETA) in exchange for room and board. I expected that they'd want bananas, but it turns out that Eric's allergic. So it's melons for him, casabas are his favorite. The others shrug of the stereotype and go for the bananas.


Well, it's been two weeks, and the results are in. I don't have an infinite amount of time and the cats are playing hell with Eric's allergies, so we've ended the experiment. The band has headed southwest, aiming for the Mississippi. I gave them a GPS device I was given this past Christmas, the numbers of some people to look up in St. Louis, and wished them well.

The band worked hard, they put in their time, but no "Complete Works of Shakespeare." I think that if they'd been able to stay a few more weeks, they'd have churned out "Hamlet." The theory remains unproven, but I can report that five monkeys banging on keyboards eight hours a day for three weeks will produce "Titus Andronicus." The monkeys asked me not to report that finding (they had hoped for the Henriad), but facts is facts.

24 January 2009

Review: The Somnambulist, Jonathan Barnes

The internet is flooded with reviews of novels. I have never before felt the inclination to add another, until I read Jonathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist . I purchased it on a whim, knowing nothing about it. I saw it was mystery/thriller set in Victorian London, a promising setting, so I grabbed it.

Let’s quickly dispense with the thumbs-up-thumbs-down, how-many-stars-out-of-five part of the review. If this little review prevents any poor unfortunate from wasting their time on this novel, I will feel I have performed a worthwhile service.

What interests me, and the purpose of this review, is to look at why it fails. The Somnambulist is told exclusively through a narrator who confesses his unreliability right at the first. This is neither new nor fatal, but it must be handled carefully. The author must provide a mechanism to contrast the words of the unreliable narrator with a reliable source. The willing suspension of disbelief relies upon an internal structure that conforms to its own rules and order. The reader must, at least occasionally, be able to determine how far the narrator has deviated from the actual events of the novel. Without this touchstone, the novel loses its ability to tell a compelling story. It becomes the literary equivalent of sitting at a bar listening to a drunk tell one lie after another. Some are amusing, but the evening soon loses its charm.

Barnes’ furthers the problem by making the narrator insane. Three hundred and fifty-three pages of increasingly absurd and incoherent paranoid fantasies is more than anyone should have to experience without being a psychoanalyst. At least he or she would be able to make a few payments on that summer home in the Hamptons, slogging their way through this mess in fifty-five minute chunks. The pointlessness of the experience can be demonstrated by a brief look at the climactic showdown. Nine hundred and ninety-nine self-identified marginal people have emerged from their underground fortress in Victorian London and are slaughtering the money men of the City. They are lead by the insane narrator, who is accompanying the resurrected Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and are intent on killing everyone in London and establishing a Pantisocracy.

The money men are routed, bodies litter the cobblestones, and blood flows in the gutters, but the tide of the battle is turned when two mystical, deranged hired killers and Coleridge turn on the attackers. Coleridge, a bit slow at first, what with having been dead for a good long while and having bits of other dead writers sewn on him to replace those parts that had rotten away, comes to realize that this slaughter is intended to create his dream society. The horrified ex-dead poet unleashes his superhuman power and wades through the crowd cutting them down them like wheat before the scythe. He is hindered somewhat by weak stitches, and the borrowed parts of him begin to fall off in a sort of high-speed leprosy. Eventually he decides to head underground, seeking the peace of the grave.

Mr. Moon, the hero of sorts, is on the scene attempting to save his sister who has become one of the slaughtering army and his assistant and friend, the Somnambulist. A brief digression about the title character is required. He is a wig wearing, completely bald, milk swilling, mute giant who is the main attraction in Edward Moon’s magic show. The act involves Moon piercing the giant through and through with long swords. The giant displays no emotion, nor does he bleed. At the end of the story you still have no idea how he pulls this off.

Back to the climatic battle scene. While the battle rages, the giant is pinned to the floor of the underground fortress transfixed by twenty-four sword blades driven through him and into the floor. He’s part Gulliver and part mounted specimen.

I don’t have the stomach to go on. Let’s just say the hired killers are even harder to make sense of. And I suppose that is the point. None of it makes sense. The cover blurb from the Washing Post review is “Strange, outrageous, and wonderful.” My blurb would read “Imaginative and pointless.”

The problem with this novel is that it has no ties to the possible and is set in a well-known historical place. Because the reader knows that world, assumptions are made about the possibility of events. Historical novels are set in recognizable worlds that operate in recognizable ways. To set a story in a recognizable world and have it be told exclusively by a madman, shatters the operational rules of the historical period, not to mention physical laws. It’s as if Dracula was narrated exclusively by Renfield.

As you can probably tell, the magical realism section of my library is vacant and dusty. I don’t claim to have anything to say about that, as I don’t know anything about it and am happy in my ignorance. Perhaps this novel fits in that category, I couldn’t say. I do know that it fails as a mystery or a thriller (perhaps thriller is the proper category). When a crazy person is telling a story, anything is possible and therefore nothing matters. It is a variation on why Superman needs kryptonite; there’s no conflict when a hero is omnipotent. Barnes locks us inside the madman’s cramped and claustrophobic skull. In the end, I don’t see anything worth my time through those fevered eyes.

09 January 2009

Turning 50

Well, it had to happen, if I just kept living long enough. On January 1st, 2009, while the somberly hungover and the smugly sober made resolutions and wondered were the hell 2008 went, I quietly turned fifty. I spent that gloomy day at my mother-in-laws, hacking, coughing, and experiencing the many and varied bodily entertainments that accompany a pre-Christmas bout of pneumonia that lasted into the new year, extending our stay an extra eight days.

Most birthdays are artificial road marks. Forty-eight was indistinguishable from forty-seven, twenty-five blurred into twenty six. But fifty is different. Fifty is a half-century. Half a hundred. Enough states to make up a huge country. Enough crayons that they need to name one "burnt umber."

I've been fifty for nine days and have no words of wisdom to impart on the subject.(Although it does seem that most people under 50 are full of shit.) Perhaps there isn't any wisdom to be had, but I have noticed something related to turning fifty. People aren't crazy about it, but organizations love it. Fiftieth anniversaries of events, companies, products, etc make the news, or should, if the self-promotion of the companies, products, and organizations is any evidence.

So, to give special purpose to my 50th year on Earth, I've decided to collect 50th anniversary notices - Here's to the class of '59!

(I started to google "50th anniversary," but changed my mind. This is a serendipitous list generated by whatever life throws my way. Feel free to make suggestions.)

Created in 1959

1. Me - What the hell, it's my list.
2. The Cuban Revolution - Castro 1, Batista/JFK 0
3. Motown Records - Hitsville hits the big Five-Oh
4. NASA - A decade to the moon, remember?
5. Things Fall Apart,
Chinua Achebe - They certainly do.
6. Hawaii and Alaska statehood - Obama and Palin are forever linked.
7. The Osmond Family - This is why I stopped googling "50th Anniversary".

That's it for now. Stay tuned for more 50th anniversary updates as I find them.