Monday, February 25, 2008

Philadelphia City Hall

it was begun in 1871 and took 30 years to finish. when begun it was planned to be the highest building in the world, and at almost 600 feet it is the tallest non-steel reinforced building in the US (i think). it is a striking monument visible from far away, straight down Broad Street. i don't know why i can't get the photos to stand up.

Hasan Basri in Baltimore

The last time we had seen each other was 14 years ago!! And now we have met again. . .amazing. The squirrely student has turned into an intellectual and scholar, and we spent three days talking nonstop about Indonesia (especially changes since I left) and America and their societies. The top photo is him with a cute Mormon baby; the other is him on the USS Constellation, an old fighting ship we toured.

Friday, February 22, 2008

snow, at last

with winter near its end, we finally had a real snow fall, on my last day in connecticut. i am leaving to be with my wife in taiwan, whose visa wait has lengthened to 6 months with no sign of a breakthrough. i even made a snowman.

new york oddities

yes, my day in new york city was full of oddities. the bottom photo was of a work of art at moma. i could not take photos of lucian freud's amazing etchings and paintings of people's faces, unfortunately. he is THE freud's grandson. then there was the story on fox news of Lurch, the patriotic, blood donating dog. i and j, my friend, could not stop laughing. "i am sure the dog is so willing," j said. "one bark if yes, two if no." and then, at the top, two suspicious characters on the subway.

the hungarian

i love the hungarian pastry shop on amsterdam between 110th and 111th. especially its bathroom, where toilet scribes and ranters let their pens run free. click on the pictures to read some of the selections. the hungarian is a crowded, inconvenient, unmodern place where people squish together in uncomfortable chairs, to read in weak light, and share tiny table tops with strangers. but its charm is its vibrant energy, which would not be the same if it were "modernized" and doubled in size. and its pastries are not bad. my palestinian friend g feels at home here, where talking politics does not draw looks.

the post

the nationalistic new york post never fails to entertain in its bombastic, heavy handed way. i laughed at the upper section, showing the clintons decked out as davy crockett and jim bowie defending their electoral alamo. another front page, maybe from the daily news, used a football theme: march 4th down, referring the clinton's final chance on march 4 to even the race with obama.

gentrifying harlem

two different shops on 125th street that show harlem's trajectory: the lower photo shows a shop selling symbols of Black radicalism -- as fashion. harlem is a brand with a radical cachet. the upper photo shows what 125th street once exclusively was: a place for the poor. it is being gutted and cleared out by illegal workers who moved away when they saw my camera.

Monday, February 18, 2008

cine-studio theatre, trinity college

Where we saw "Blade Runner" tonight. Wow. A precious chance to see a gem of film making on the big screen -- and barely two dozen people in the whole place.

new york sunlight (2)

click on the pictures to see the detail. the one below is of the bakery entrance of the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam near Columbia. The one above is of a doorway to a corner deli and grocery store (bodega) on Columbus or Amsterdam and 108th or 109th.

anita's visit

My last day working Anita came back for a visit with her boyfriend, Salvatore, seen standing in the background. I read her the poem I had written for her, and a poet could hardly have imagined such an ecstatic reception. All the little jokes of the kitchen, and of Anita herself, enshrined in words caused rapturous laughter. The poem was a chronicle of sorts, merely stringing together bits of events as a prod to memory.
Anita’s Kitchen

So you actually don’t mind working
for nine an hour in a kitchen, he said.
I said we orbit around Anita.
She lumbers here and there one leg numb, bitching;
she wails to the radio
apple bottom jeans
boots with the fur
the whole club lookin’ at her
she hit the flo’
next thing you know she got low low low low
low low low low:
the kitchen her karaoke
and we her captives, groaning.
She says it’s a sin to throw away
all that food
she says to Elaynah you’re so cute I could bite you.
I wanna be mean she says.
But you’re not I tell her.
Look at Stevo checkin’ out
Veronica’s ass she says
mimicking the polite old man’s sly leer.
You’s better keep outta my way
she says when she’s frazzled.
You’re lyin’ like McLyon she says.
We’re outta cottage cheese? she asks, just
scoop out some o’ mine.
I’m quitting I say;
she laughs, delighted.
But she doesn’t know how to be mean.

Mistreated as a girl, deceived by men,
she somehow harbored
a deeper decency, stored up all
the tenderness of the suffering meek,
and their fears:
Why didn’t he call me for four whole days
she asked us, Why would he lie
about his ex-wife? Should I just heave a brick
through the bastard’s front window? We counseled her
between tuna melts and London broils
until exhausted she sank back slowly
into the arms of ‘her Salvatore.’

Last week she went under
the knife at last, for stenosis.
One bullet, one gun is all I need
she’d say when it hurt.
Her last day she wrote a note on an order slip:
Hey Guys, I love you. Be Good,
Anita. It’s taped to a shelf
over the warming trays.
Exploited, unappreciated,
she needed the kitchen anyhow, needed us,
even needed our shit.
She made the Marchettas mussels and marinara sauce, special;
their happiness, even out of sight in the dining room,
was her happiness. She took pity on the old folk,
exiles from home, alone with money,
memories, moods, mourning.

She showed us crass
cell messages,
a Santa with a blinking red dick,
a fat nude woman titled
“your Thanksgiving turkey,”
but she snapped at anyone who tossed around
the name of the Lord lightly.
Any bitch fuck shit from us
brought a high-pitched ahhh! You’re so sweet to me,
a Your attitude is deplorable.
She got under our skin like a lemon on a cut,
our big-hearted Anita.

Friday, February 15, 2008

place mats

I work in an "assisted living" facility for rich old people. Oddly enough, many of these old people maintain a mindset of their childhoods, a mindset of Yankee frugality and a puritanical discomfort with being served. There are a few who don't mind being served, and who relax and let us servers clear the tables. But most of them act as if they are still the "classless" people of their youths, when the class stratification in small towns was not great. These subtle attitudes I see in how they react when I clear their tables.

They neatly stack plates and put silverware together, even moving it all over to one side. And invariably they fold their paper place mat neatly, several times, until it is a little square. They are uncomfortable being placed in a passive, non-constructive position. These people grew up, like me, feeling that the purpose of life was to work and be "constructive." Even amusements were best if "constructive." These carefully folded place mats are a metaphor in my mind for their discomfort with money and privilege. Their thousands of dollars a month should, theoretically, allow them to lean back and do absolutely nothing. But they cannot give up the symbolic acts of the "useful adult" who pitches in to help out when others work.

One old woman, spending 4 or 5 thousand dollars a month to live there, leans close to me when I ask if she wants dessert. She almost whispers, "Can I have just a little tapioca? Not too much." She timidly plays the supplicant, the thrifty person so afraid of waste or gluttony she always emphasizes her need for small portions -- as if an ounce of uneaten tapioca, worth half a cent, would weigh on her soul. She reverses the position her money puts her in: as a consumer, she controls me. But she acts as if I somehow have authority. I have seen women place uneaten bites of meat in ziploc bags to take to their rooms, to be eaten at the next meal.

I am amazed at the huge amounts of money changing hands compared to the continuing rituals of extreme frugality and self-help. For all that money they could ask for a gallon of tapioca, eat one spoonful, and throw the rest out. But they cannot. In their hearts, they are poor, industrious children living in the 1930s.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

in the preemie ward

There’s a love that dies the very day
its born. It lies fresh
and pink in the incubator,
memories of its future
never-to-bes part of its
perfect beauty. Tiny fingers curl
not round love’s touch,
little lips breathe not
the winding words of love.

And you who bore it,
laden, craving, moody, swaying,
lumbering long months alone,
trace the plastic and glass
shell with fingertips begging
for another glimpse of life,
or even for the awful aching
time before the birth, when
it squirmed and kicked,
and you smiled, forming memories
of a love not yet formed, or known,
but cherished long,
longer than hope.

And you devote yourself to this
dear wee body, dim reminder,
lifting it tenderly from the
incubator and cradling it,
warming its fingers and toes,
lulling yourself in the dull
drowsy hour that it stirs,
dispels your chill, coos, lives,
gives its breezy breath to you
in a room shut – still.

shrines to youth

"believe it or not, i was young too," said the old woman while i set the dining room for dinner. she has alzheimer's disease. and her younger self is seen in the top photograph. these displays of inmates' former selves (yes, inmates: they are locked in) are poignant, particularly this woman's. she embodied such an ideal-typical image of fifties domestic beauty. see too the upraised eyes in the portrait, imitation of hollywood stars. but even such perfectly middle class people descend into ruin, their bodies running on long after their social selves have abandoned them, like empty cars sitting at stop lights. even so, their sons and daughters set up little shrines outside their rooms, just in case there is a flicker of recognition. or maybe to reassure themselves.

little girl with mother

pretty things

seen in a house in Norwich.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Norwich houses

In the afternoon I spent hoofing around one of Norwich's outlying neighborhoods (canvassing for Obama), I became intrigued by the place: by the old houses fronted by open porches piled with junk, which decades ago were the scene of Irish immigrants socializing up and down the streets; by the occasional majestic building, sign of earlier boom times; by the crumbling early industrial revolution factories on the river; by the sight of the giant Mohegan Sun casino looming, Oz-like, above the trees, in the distance (which now serves as the main employer, providing low-wage jobs and lots of renters). I intend to go back with my bike and tool around.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

the blinders of professionalism

Army Colonel Larry James, a Guantanamo staffer, helps reveal the ways that people make themselves complicit with torture and injustice: by pretending one does not know, one does not jeapordize my professional opportunities. Sick sick sick. The article on was about the recent revelation of the existence of a top secret "camp seven" at Guantanamo.

"I learned a long time ago, if I'm going to be successful in the intel community, I'm meticulously -- in a very, very dedicated way -- going to stay in my lane," he said. "So if I don't have a specific need to know about something, I don't want to know it. I don't ask about it."

What a hero. It is such "patriots" who are greasing the national slide downward. A moral exemplar. I hope you have got a nice fat pension package, colonel, for your dedication to professional advancement!

longing to see obama

some of the hundreds shut out from Obama's speech in Hartford. imagine the frustration: first, seeing a single microphone placed behind the barriers, people lingered, thinking he would appear there after his speech. Then, watching the monitor on the wall, seeing Obama speak inside, but unable to hear him, or the excitement inside. We watched a single maintenance man move about haplessly, trying to raise the volume. He got a ladder and climbed up. He found a remote that was useless. Finally a person asked him to place his cell phone next to the microphone. So instead of hearing Obama standing there in person, we heard his garbled voice transmitted from inside the arena.

And worst of all, the nonchalance of the police, who could not have cared less about the desperation and frustration of those shut out. Even as people were leaving early, they would not let us in, despite the fact that those leaving were leaving newly empty seats. Finally some of us swum upstream as people poured out. I saw the mother and child visible in one of the photos moving down to the floor where Obama still worked the crowd. The mother hustled the girl about, trying to get close. "I'm a changed woman!" I heard one woman saying to her friends. "I'm not washing my hand!" said another who had touched his hand.

Unfortunately for Obama, this fervent devotion can come across as off-putting to those not existing within the halo of light of the adored one.

specialized lingo

I heard the word "staledated" to refer to checks that are past 90 days of their issuance. It is a professional word, used among bank personnel. And unlike most professional speech, it manages to be vivid and humorous.

"this one. . ."

Working at the assisted living facility, I have noticed among some of the kitchen workers -- the middle aged ones, I think -- the tendency to refer to people present as "this one." I don't speak this way, and I wonder how they acquired this habit. Is it generational and regional? My parents never said that. Or generational, regional, and class-specific (as in, working class).

Often it is used in situations of mild joking or ribbing, as in, "This one decided not to come into work yesterday."

It reminds me of the Indonesian usage: "yang ini."

Long Island, New Haven

Growing up in Madison, I have noticed a certain tendency to put stress on the "New" in New Haven. I personally say "New Haven," according to the original stress in the word "haven," but lots of people here stress the "new." I considered it a curious quirk of locality here, but the utterance of a person at work last week made me reconsider. She said "Long Island," not "Long Island." I thought, is this then a systematic local way of stressing names on the first syllable, changing their original stress?

Yes, my interests can tend to the microscopic.

value added = knowledge subtracted

these are the new TV dinners. remember how we used to laugh at them? well, they are back, and without the laughable little tin foil trays. their "value added" is that they are already cooked, so the industry profits more than selling mere pieces of raw meat. but as with much "value-added," the addition of "value" to products means the subtraction of knowledge from people.

of course the picture is complex. even as the new tv dinners flourish, another sector of the meat industry is also growing: organic meat.

Friday, February 1, 2008

dictatorship of civility

At least 70 percent of primary election coverage consists of commentary on the level of "civility" of the campaigns. If one candidate makes a mild critique of another, the campaign is getting "dirty" or "rough and tumble." One gets the perception that the public can hardly stand candidates making anything but veiled statements. A candidate who does not preface his or her statements with the stock phrase, "I respect so and so highly but I just want to say that I would do such and such." Without this thick padding, the candidate is liable to be viewed as absolutely barbaric. One cannot risk saying, "So and so takes too much money from industry." Or rather, one can, but one will quickly be eased out of the spotlight. Witness John Edwards' treatment at the hands of media and voters. I think many voters long for clear statements, but not so clear and unequivocal that they ruin the nice haze of fantasy and day-dreaming and hero worship.

I for one am not threatened by direct statements of principle. I am not afraid of a leader who does not constantly assure me he is nicer than a choir boy or as friendly as my waiter. I can handle it. But so many people can't. To such people, the horrors of war unleashed on other people are far preferable, and much more tolerable, than a candidate who displays a hint of anger. God forbid someone express human emotions! Better far to let millions die somewhere else. We like our leaders nicely muzzled, tamed, useless. And then we get mad when they do nothing but lie to us. We don't like the truth. Seduce us, we say to them. Hence the glee in the media about the way Obama and Clinton "practically embraced," "whispering in each others' ears" after their most recent debate in California. Why is this a good thing? Are we electing saints? Or homecoming royalty? Or leaders?

new hampshire windows

new york sunlight