Monday, January 11, 2016

A Love Affair With The Lens

Let me preface this by saying I have never been a fan of Bowie's music. Just not my thing. He had a few very radio-friendly songs that I liked but, by and large, I found his music to be grating. And that's not a personal affront to him or to his fans. People like different things, for reasons which cannot be explained in black and white terms. This is why art is art, and not science. That said, the guy was incredibly likable and had great presence. If musical performance Bowie didn't do it for me, I liked nonfiction Bowie: the guy who turned up on talk shows or variety shows and chatted with the host was charming and clever as all get-out. And, during the last half of his life, he could wear the hell out of a good suit.

I'm the daughter of a photographer, though. For me, Bowie will always be that long, lean, immensely photographic figure whose portraits by some of the best in the business often landed in the magazines and journals and annual anthologies my dad would bring home and allow me to scour. The camera loved him. In a lot of ways, I grew up not even knowing he was a rock star, so much as a fashion and photographic icon. Not unlike Grace Jones, in my mind.

He looked like no one else. The camera will never love anyone else as much as it loved him. He seems to have had a life well lived, and provided for his own everlasting peace, in his own, humble way. Most excellent, Mr. Bowie. The camera will miss you.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: The Year in Review

Once again, in no specific order.

Most worth celebrating: Same Sex marriage became the legal throughout the USA. I won't soon forget seeing this on my feed moments before I left for work, or sharing a virtual toast with several dozen friends from around the globe to mark the occasion, or the flood of unexpected emotions this Supreme Court decision caused in me. It still chokes me up a little to think about. Love wins.

Biggest Signs of Life in the World of Publishing: A new novel by Toni Morrison, a new-to-the-world release of an early work by Harper Lee. 

I haven't read Go Set a Watchman, and probably never will, but the stir it's caused does my heart good. It's forced people to discuss not just literature and the nature of intellectual property, but race and the American tradition of white-washing our racial struggles in such a way that Whitey always ends up not just a good guy, but a bona-fide hero. I love Atticus Finch as much as the next guy, but does that even make any sense? 

I have, on the other hand, read God Help The Child. Is it Morrison's greatest work? Not by a long shot. But it's still an excellent read, and we should all be on our knees thanking the forces of nature that this 84 year old genius is still putting pen to paper, and telling stories that no one else can or will tell. She is a treasure. 

Proof of How Doomed We Are as a Society: Idiots continued to fight for no regulations on firearms, even as gun violence became a daily occurrence, and people in law enforcement abused their power to an alarming degree. 

Further Proof We're Doomed: This racist, misogynist, xenophobic idiot became a serious presidential candidate. 

But, You Can't Do That on TV: The Wachowskis and Netflix flipped traditional TV the proverbial bird, and brought us Sense8 which, in turn, broke half a dozen tv taboos during one scene in just the first episode. It also brought us America's first true action hero who is an Asian woman. It's all about Sun. If you're not watching, you're truly missing out.  

The End of An Era: This one really stung. For so many of us who grew up with TOS, Nimoy and Spock WERE Trek. 

Our Short Memories: We, as a people, seemed to forget that we're all refugees, at some point. The human race should be ashamed of itself. 

Hollywood Ain't Dead, Yet: Star Wars was everything and everywhere. The Martian, Mockingjay, and Age of Ultron reminded us what celluloid heroes one could cheer for look like. Mr. Holmes showed us the man behind the hero. For my money, though, 2015 saved the best for last, with Todd Haynes' Carol. Heart-wrenching, beautiful, and true. It is what film-making and story-telling are all about. See it in a theater where, like me, you will find yourself holding your breath, and then find, when you all let out an audible sigh, that everyone else in the room has done the same. That sigh - it's of relief, happiness, sadness, name it. If this movie does not fill you up, check and make sure you still have a pulse. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Picture It: Brooklyn, 1977

My parents both came from Puerto Rico, where the tradition of the paranda was as much a part of Christmas as the department store Santa is on the mainland U.S.

When Puerto Ricans moved from the Island to cities such as New York or Boston, they brought with them holiday traditions from home. While no one ever showed up at our home wearing a pava or playing plena tunes on a cuatro, it was always understood that anyone might drop by on Christmas Eve. Invitations were not necessary, everyone was welcome, and there should and would be food enough to feed the masses. Within our culture, just dropping in on folks on Christmas Eve - which is the REAL day of celebration for Puerto Ricans; the day of big eating and drinking, and staying up late to tell stories and laugh and argue over politics and listen to music - is not seen as rude, but a part of the holiday. If anything, there's a certain pride taken by those whose homes are where the most people land and settle for the long night. If your house is the house people flock to, it means you've done things well. Your pork roast is the most succulent. Your pasteles are moist and generous with the filling.  Your arroz con dulce is sticky and sweet and full of flavor. Your coquito is just right. Your home is comfortable and warm and people want to be there.

For my mother's very large family (she was one of 9 children, I have 16 first cousins) it was our house where people landed. In fact, until I was a grown woman, the idea of spending Christmas Eve anywhere but the house my parents shared ownership of with my maternal grandparents seemed ridiculous. We never went anywhere for the holiday: everyone came to us. My mother was a phenomenal cook, and both of my parents were excellent hosts. There was always a seat at the table for anyone. Everyone's glass was always full. There was no such thing, on December 24th, as someone being unwelcome in our home. This all seemed natural to me. I thought it was how everyone celebrated the holidays. I had no idea how lucky I was, until one Christmas Eve, the events of which have stayed with me, ever since.

It is December 24th, 1977. I am ten years old. My older sister and I know the truth about Santa, but our baby sister, who is only 4, still believes. Never mind - Christmas is no less magical. Our parents, who don't have much money, never seem to let that stop them from splurging on Christmas. The kitchen is teeming with holiday food: shrimp and scallops, a giant pork roast with crispy skin, rice and peas, plantains, root vegetables. Just two days ago, I was allowed, for the first time, to take part in the making of the pasteles - the savory Puerto Rican dumplings that define Christmas for us. Long, hard work it is, making these dumplings. A labor of love that is as much social and familial as it is culinary. I am excited that my mother, grandmother and aunt have let me be part of this special circle, this year. All told, we have made 200 pasteles, each one individually wrapped in cooking parchment. Both freezers in the house are packed tightly with the bundles of two pasteles tied together with white, cotton string. The preparing of these consists of multiple steps, taking many hours and, still, they're not done. After the preparation, they need to be boiled for two hours before they can be eaten. As they boil, they emit the most wonderful aroma. This aroma, I know, will fill our home well into the new year, as we celebrate not just a day, but an entire holiday season. And celebrations, for us, mean good food.

At some point during this day, one of my mother's relatives drops by. She is a young woman, in her mid 20s. I don't want to say much about this relative, except that she is trouble, and that trouble seems to follow her, wherever she goes. It is Christmas Eve, though. There is, of course, a seat at the table for her, and for the people she has with her: another young woman, who we have never met, and the woman's 6 year old daughter, Jessica. Again, my parents come from the land of parandas: even strangers are expected on Christmas Eve. We eat dinner, and laugh and tell stories. My mother puts a Johnny Mathis album on the turntable - everyone's favorite Christmas music, because he's her favorite.

Six year old Jessica is shy. She sits on a pillow on the floor, playing with an empty plastic jar she has brought with her. A curious plaything for a child, but we pay it very little mind. It is 8pm, and my mother's relative stands up from the table and says that she and her friend would like to run outside for a spell, and wonder if my mother would watch Jessica for an hour or so. It's so cold out, after all, and Jessica seems to be having a fine time in our home. My parents agree that, yes, of course Jessica can stay for an hour while her mother goes out. The words are never spoken, but everyone assumes that our young relative and her friend are heading out to a bar. I'm only 10, but even I know this. Jessica's mother gives her a kiss and says, "I'll be back by 9 to pick you up. You be good and do what these nice people tell you to do." Jessica seems unfazed. It's clear that being left with strangers is nothing new to her.

The two young women leave, and we all go about our business.

An hour passes. A second hour passes. Jessica's mother has not returned. My older sister and I are wide awake, as is our baby sister, who is a night owl. Jessica, though, is showing signs of exhaustion. She starts to nod off in the middle of watching Miracle on 34th Street with us. My mother brings her a pillow and blanket, takes off the little girl's shoes, and lets her sleep on the sofa, even though Jessica groggily says she needs to be awake when her mother returns to pick her up. In less than a minute, she is fast a asleep, wrapped in a blanket and hugging tight her empty, plastic jar.

More time passes. We eat a second, late-night dinner - this, too, is very much a part of what we do on Christmas Eve. More relatives come and go, eat and drink, make noise. Jessica sleeps through all of it. My parents lose track of time until the last of our relatives leaves for the night, and my mother notes that it is well past midnight and Jessica's mother has not returned. We are clearing the mess of the day, and getting ready to call it a night. My parents, of course, are actually getting ready to play Santa and pull the gifts out of hiding so that my baby sister will wake up at 6am and be amazed. What, though, shall we do about little Jessica? My dad picks the little girl up in his arms, and carries her to the room that my sisters and I share. "You big girls sleep together," he says, "you have a guest, tonight." My sister and I, who are washing dishes, exchange glances. Dad is angry, it's clear to see, but he isn't angry at us. We know - we have always known - that my mother's relative is trouble. Dad doesn't care for her, but it's Christmas Eve and, of course, she would be welcome at our table. She and her friend who, we have figured out, must also be trouble. And they've left us with a 6 year old girl.

The whole business of a white Christmas is a bit of a fairy tale. At least in NYC. We hardly ever have snow on Christmas. What we have, though, is cold weather. Very cold weather. And ice, which forms when the slushy snow from last week melts just enough and then refreezes. From the kitchen, my sister and I watch my dad as he puts on his coat, hat, and gloves, and says to our mother, "I can't believe even she would pull something like this. She's always been bad news, but I never thought she'd do something as awful as this. It's bad enough she shows you so little respect, even though you're one of the few relatives who even lets her in the front door, but shitting all over a kid on Christmas Eve? Who the hell does that? And what about this kid's mother? I don't care if one of them is your family, both of those women are human garbage." My mother for her part, agrees, and hands him the few dollars she has in her change purse, "This is the last time," she says, "I've given her so many chances, but this is too much." Dad notices us watching from the kitchen, and smiles at us, "Don't stay up to late," he says, "or Santa Claus won't come." He says this with a look of mischief, pronouncing "Santa Claus" the way one does in Spanish.

There is a rush of cold air when Dad opens the big, front door and goes out into the cold, early morning street. "Where's he going?" I ask. "To Neergaard's Pharmacy," Ma answers, putting the last of the dishes away, "Thank God that place is open 24 hours, even on Christmas. I won't have a little girl waking up in our home on Christmas morning without a damned thing for her under the tree. Some people should not have children." Like Dad, Ma is angry about this. Very angry. She smiles at us, though, and tells us to get to bed. "If you want to give me a nice gift," she says, "don't get up too early. You're dad and I are hardly going to get any sleep, as it is."

It's just before 6 when I wake up. I shake my older sister, with whom I'm sharing a bed. It's too early, she informs me. We should wait until 7.  I half-heartedly agree, but our baby sister is awake only a few minutes later, and then all bets are off. She opens her eyes, jumps out of bed to shake us both, and asks us if Santa has been. It's just the excuse I need to get up and see what's under the tree.

The rule in our family is no opening gifts until Ma and Dad are up to supervise. All these years, later, I realize they wanted to be able to see the look of wonder in our eyes, and enjoy the fruits of their labor. In 1977, when I am just 10, I think it's just a silly rule that makes no sense. I've promised to let Ma have a bit of a sleep-in, but my baby sister has made no such promise. I tell her she needs to go "make sure Ma and Dad are awake" - my roundabout way of sending her in to ruin their few, precious hours of rest, and demand that we be allowed to start opening gifts. It works, of course and, in a few minutes, my sisters and I are at the tree, opening gift after gift. So many of them! The ones I remember: a set of thick magic markers in a carrying case, a beautiful, brightly-colored insect preserved in a glass frame (this is from Dad, who always gives me very adult gifts), a brown hat, gloves and scarf which are just like the ones my mother wears (this makes me happy - I want to be like my mother, in all ways), a book called Draw 50 Animals and, best of all, a radio with built-in cassette player and a box of blank TDK cassettes. It's a frenzy of ooohs and ahhhhhs and wrapping paper, as we open gift after gift. We forget all about Jessica, who we've left sleeping in our bedroom, until she appears at the entry to the living room. Her clothing, which she's had on since the day before, is all wrinkled. She looks lost, standing there, holding on to that plastic jar for dear life. My sisters and I stop. Everything stops for a moment, until Dad says, "It's about time you woke up, kiddo. I ran into Santa when he was here, last night, and he said he was going to leave something for you." Ma pulls a package out from under the tree. It's about the size of a shoebox, and wrapped in paper that doesn't match any of the other gifts. "Oh, look," she says, "This has your name on it. Santa knows where to find kids."

We watch as Jessica slowly unwraps the gift and then breaks into a smile when she finds that Santa has left a Barbie doll for her under our tree. Jessica is thrilled with her gift. My older sister and I know that Dad has bought the only thing he could find at a 24 hour drug store at 2am; both of our parents hate Barbie, and are always saying how glad they are that none of us show any interest in such an annoying doll.

When the business of opening gifts is over, we sit down to a breakfast of cafe con leche, farina, bacon and eggs, Italian bread with butter. This is followed by a long morning and early afternoon of trying out my new radio/tape player, drawing with the set of markers, learning to use sister's new typewriter. Jessica never asks about her mother, and none of us say anything about her, either. We eat a lunch of pasteles and leftovers, and I hear my father say quietly, in Spanish, "I don't care if she is your relative. If those two aren't back by 5 to pick this poor kid up, I'm calling the police." My mother answers, "No you won't. Because I will."

At 3:00, when Jessica is on the floor, taking off Barbie's dress, and I am sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for my favorite song to come on the radio, so I can record it, the doorbell rings. Everyone stops what they're doing and looks up. My parents both stand up and Dad says, "You kids stay here." He and Ma go downstairs to answer the door. My older sister and I wait until they are at the bottom of the landing before scurrying to the spot in the hallway from which we know we will be able to hear and see everything, without being noticed. We get there just in time to hear Ma say, "You've got a damned nerve showing up now, after what you've done. What is wrong with you people?" We hear, too, Dad using language we've never heard from him: "How the fuck can you call yourself a mother? What kind of fucking degenerate abandons her kid on Christmas Eve and leaves her with total strangers?" And then there are words from the other side. Jessica's mother saying that no one had better tell her how to raise her baby. Our relative telling some story about trouble on the subway. Even at 10 years old I know it's a preposterous story and a weak lie. Subway breakdowns don't delay people for 18 hours. Even if they did, real parents don't run off on their kids on Christmas Eve. The sound of the voices rises, and I can hear my mother saying to her relative, the one who is always so much trouble, "I know you don't think you're coming here to eat, after pulling this stunt. You must be out of your cotton-pickin' mind. You're not even coming in this house." And then my mother shuts the front door, leaving her relative on our stoop, and allowing in only Jessica's mother, who trails behind my parents as they start climbing the steps. My sister and I rush back to the living room, so as not to be caught eavesdropping.

A moment later, Ma and Dad walk into the room. Jessica sees her mother behind them and jumps up, looking so happy. "Mommy!" she says, holding up the Barbie doll, "Look what Santa brought me! He knew I was here even though nobody told him." Jessica's mother rips the doll from her little girl's hand, throws it on the floor and says, "Leave that piece of shit here. You don't need these people's fucking charity. Get your coat."

Jessica stops smiling. She picks up the plastic jar, which has been on the floor all day, walks out into the hallway to grab her coat off the bannister, and follows her mother down the steps and out the door.

We never see Jessica, again. I have no idea what became of her. I can't imagine what must become of a little girl whose life is that toxic when she's only 6 years old. If she made it to adulthood alive, I can't imagine it is without being tragically broken. I don't even know her last name, but I think about her every Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Dear Girl,
A year ago I lay in this bed; dreading sleep, dreading the business of getting up, dreading the business of  going to the hospital, where a surgeon would cut me open and take out whole pieces of me. I don't think I have felt whole, since.

When my doctor came into my room to see me, hours after the surgery was over, she told me what they'd found. How it was bigger than expected. How she was sure I would feel better, now. How the size of the growth was just further evidence that I'd made the right choice in opting for surgery. I asked her if I could see the growth. She gave me a surprised look, and said she hadn't thought to keep it for me. The growth, along with my uterus and fallopian tubes and cervix, had become medical waste. Packed in plastic bags marked "HAZMAT," no doubt, and disposed in the way such things are. Burned? Dumped at an illegal site? I have no idea. I know this, though: they are lost forever. 

I almost wish they'd saved those pieces in a glass jar for me. Even the growth. If I had such a jar, full of all of my old pieces, I could hold it up to the light, and get a good look at who I was, once upon a time.

As it stands, Dear One, I am like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. No wonder I'm so tired and melancholy. It's all I can do to write you this pitiful letter. 

I would have liked to have seen those have given them a proper farewell. I never imagined I'd miss them. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Put Away Your Violin, White People

8 Reasons Why White People Need To 
Stop Blubbering About Go Set A Watchman

1) Technically, this is not revisionist, because Harper Lee wrote it before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. This means that the Atticus Finch you know and love is the actual revisionist version. And it's a good, good book. I love it. But it doesn't tell the story Lee initially intended to tell, or show the characters in the same light as she initially intended.

2) Even if it were revisionist, it's a work of fiction and Atticus is a fictional character. They're make-believe. Make-believe people can fly, or breathe under water, or do anything that writers decide they can do. That's how fiction works. When a fictional character does not live up to what we expect, it's not the same as being betrayed by a real-life best friend. Because he's not real, and he doesn't live, at all. Close the book and see.

3) Not only is Atticus Finch a fictional character, but Gregory Peck was an actor. For a lot of people, the real love affair with Atticus has more to do with Peck's portrayal of him, than with anything Harper Lee wrote about him. Myself, when I read To Kill a Mockingbird, my hero is Scout. I love Scout. I like Atticus but, in the book, it's all about Scout. When I watch the movie, however, it's all about Gregory Peck. Yeah, you read that correctly. It's all about Peck and how he creates Atticus on screen. Another cool thing about fiction, and one which extends to film? You can read Go Set A Watchman, and have all kinds of feelings about that Atticus, and you can still love Gregory Peck's Atticus. Also? you can still love Gregory Peck. I know my appreciation of him isn't about to wane.

4) No one HAS to read this book. There's no dishonor in loving To Kill a Mockingbird and feeling that that is all you ever need to read by Harper Lee. You will live to tell about it. No one is forcing you to read this "new" book. If you read it, you have only yourself to blame.

5) It's probably high time we let go of the idea that white men are the heroes of every story. Why is the hero of a story about a black man in the south who is tried for a crime he didn't commit and then lynched for it a white guy, anyhow? It seems to me that this type of myth was borne of the fact that everyone wants to look back at their family tree and find they got here by way of Atticus Finch, and not Simon Legree. Well, let me tell you: if America had been populated by as many Atticus Finches as modern-day Americans would have us believe, there never would have been slavery in this country, and there would be no racism, today. Nope. There were a lot more Simon Legrees out there, and some of them are your ancestors. Own that shit. I'm talking to you, Ben Affleck.

6) For too long, white Americans have partaken in passive do-goodery. Guess what? Reading this novel, talking about how much you love it, and naming your kid after its fictional hero does NOT make you a good person. It doesn't mean you don't enjoy white privilege. It doesn't mean anything, except that you like this book.

7) Racism is not an easy topic, and the literature it results in shouldn't be easy, either. Even some abolitionists were racists. Does that sound illogical?  One of the most vocal and active abolitionists, a man who made his home a stop on The Underground Railroad, hosted John Brown, and lost everything due to his insistence on admitting a black child to his school was a racist, who thought people of African decent were inferior. Read up on it.

8) Black men and women, boys and girls, face danger every single day in America. They die in police custody and at the hands of police officers in alarming numbers.  About three times as many black children in America live in poverty as their white counterparts. And you're crying because your favorite fictional character isn't Mister Wonderful. Cry me a fucking river.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Dream Girl

Lulled to sleep by my favorite 70s music, I found myself in Stockholm with a friend. We sat in a sunny room, drinking strong coffee and eating lemon cookies, served by Agnetha. Older. Still beautiful. The winner really does take it all.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Fine Mess

This is a true story. Some names have been changed to protect the guilty.

The sun streaming in through the window wakes me from a deep sleep. I open my eyes. This isn’t my bed. That’s not unusual. It is that special time in life when friends - male and female - just pile together and sleep wherever they happen to be when they fall. College. There is Simon next to me. This isn’t unusual, either. We are best friends, he and I. I live on the first floor, he on the second, and we share everything. A typewriter. Jackets. Socks. Coffee mugs. I draw the line, one day not too far in the future, when he asks if I have any idea where “our” toothbrush is. We often share a bed, though. Having grown up in a house full of other girls, he is like the little brother I’ve always wanted, never mind that he is older than I am, and that we are technically adults when we meet. No, we are children, still: children playing at being grown-ups.

I make a move to get up and feel a stiffness in my bones. My shoulders hurt. One of my hands is sore. I look down at the sore hand and see my that knuckles are red, and a little swollen. My neck, too, feels funny. My head, of course, is pounding. That’s to be expected. We’ve been drinking. We always drink, but last night we drank long and hard. So hard, I realize, that I don’t even remember leaving the bar, let alone getting home and climbing the stairs to fall into bed without bothering to take off my jeans. I must groan from the aches as I swing out of bed, because Simon is suddenly awake, too.

“Jesus,” he says, sitting up and reaching for the pitcher of water on the floor by his side of the bed. He always fills a pitcher of water and puts it by the bed when he’s been drinking. I’m not sure if it’s an endearing trait, or a sign that we both drink way too much - enough that he plans for hangovers. And then he lets out a sharp cry. “Jesus Christ, I think I have a broken rib!”

I am standing, now, and realize that, in addition to the headache, the stiff shoulders, and the sore, swollen knuckles, both of my arms hurt. I pull up one sleeve and find a purple bruise that covers the entire upper part of my arm.

“Wow,” Simon says, “How’d you get that? It’s ugly as shit.”

I look up at him. He is sitting up in bed, now, wearing that grouchy face he wears after a night of drinking. No wonder he thinks he’s got a broken rib. The bruise on his side is even bigger and an even deeper shade of purple than the one on my arm. I point to it. Pointing hurts. Doing anything with either arm hurts, right now.

“Probably the same place you got that,” I say.

His eyes follow my finger and look down.

“Holy shit, what the hell happened to us?”

I try and remember the events of the night before. We were drinking at the redneck bar about half a mile down the road. We’re not rednecks. More like hippies. But the owner likes us. So do the townies. Simon and I can match any one of those hard-drinking Vermonters drink-for-drink. It’s made us some friends among the local rednecks, who are mostly very nice guys. (One day, a year or so after this, I will be taking a walk down the road with a beautiful girl with whom I am smitten, and every few minutes a redneck will stop his pickup truck or Land Cruiser, call out my name, and offer us a ride. I smile and wave and say “no, thanks” to each and every one of them. The beautiful girl will ask me how it is that so many locals know me by name. I will ashamedly tell her it’s probably a sign that I drink too much. I will fall a little bit more in love with her her when she takes my arm and says, “Well, making friends is good.”) Yes, the night before was a night of especially hard drinking. One of us - I forget which - had a lot of money, and we were determined to spend it all. These are the late 80s. Draft beer is only 75 cents and shots of rum (our favorite) are 1.50 each. We drank, and played darts. We listened to ZZ Top and Hank Williams and Elvis on the juke box. And we drank some more. And then everything stops. My memory of the night before, I mean. It stops there.

Simon gets out of bed, holding on to his side and wincing in pain.

“Go change into something less stinky. We have to walk down and get my car.” he says.

“Your car?” I ask, “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you remember? Julia snatched my keys because she was afraid I was going to drive home,” he explains, “My car is still parked behind the bar. I’m not walking there alone, so go get dressed. We need to track Julia down and get my keys.”

“I have to shower, first, though. And take some Tylenol.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

As I’m showering, I find other, smaller bruises. Little red and pale pink bruises on my legs. One on my side. I try to remember the night before in greater detail. It comes back to me: the two of us playing darts and missing the board, entirely, and our friend, Julia, snatching the car keys off the edge of the pool table. “I’m doing you guys a favor,” she says in her raspy voice, “You’re completely shitfaced. Find another ride home.” After that - nothing. Certainly nothing to explain why I’m in so much pain,  let alone why Simon looks as if someone has had a go at him with a baseball bat.

When I’m clean and dressed and have taken something for the pain I meet Simon in the lounge, where there is a cup of hot coffee waiting for me. He is clean and dressed, too, and nursing his own cup of coffee with one hand. With the other, he is holding a bag of frozen french fries against his side. We sit side-by-side on the couch, facing the plate glass window that looks out at ‘the bowl’ - a field that takes a sharp dip, forming a big, deep, earthy bowl.

“If Julia has your keys and you didn’t drive, how did we get home last night?” I ask.

The question has clearly not occurred to him. He puts down his coffee mug.


This is the sound Simon makes when he’s really thinking.

“Mmmmmmm. I...I don’t fucking know. Did we walk home?”

I roll my eyes.

“I hope you’re kidding. Neither one of us was in any shape to walk home. Last I remember, I was barely standing.”

“True,” he says, “Someone must have given us a ride. Who else was there?”

“I dunno. Some other kids. A bunch of townies. Maybe we rode in the back of someone’s pickup and got jostled around.”

Simon laughs, and then winces. Laughing is clearly painful.

“I didn’t get this,” he says, pointing his chin down towards his sore, bruised ribs, “from jostling around in a pickup truck for the few minutes it takes to get to campus. There are bruises on my legs, too. And look at this-”

He puts down his coffee cup, hikes up his left cuff and shows me his calf, which has a clear set of bite marks.

I’m both fascinated and repulsed.

“What the hell? Do you need rabies shots?”

He returns to his cup of coffee, “Nah...whatever it was, it didn’t break skin.”

“A dog,” I say, “It must have been a dog. I mean - anything else would have really hurt us.”

“Yeah, well, I’m hurt badly enough, thank you.”

“You know what I mean. What else is there to run into in Vermont? A moose? We’d be road kill. Even a raccoon would have at least broken skin. We must have gotten into a tussle with some old mutt.”

Simon gets up and goes to the kitchen. He comes back with two glasses of water and hands me one.

“Drink that,” he says, “You’ll thank me later.”

I thank him right now and gulp the water down in one go. Just as I’m putting my glass down and getting back to my coffee, I notice something out of the corner of my eye - something moving down in the bowl. There’s a sound, too. Faint, but getting louder.

Simon stands up and walks right over to the window, to get a better view. He chuckles, and I can hear the pain it causes him. Still, he laughs.

“It’s Bri,” he says, “It’s that lunatic, Brian, trying to drive that stupid van of his up the side of the bowl. That guy is such a complete mess. I love him.”

I join Simon at the window.

“How can you not?” I ask, “He’s a mess, alright. He’s never going to get that van out of the bowl. They’re going to need to tow him.”

Brian is a student, although no one is quite sure what he studies. He’s a wild man. He drinks too much and does crazy things. Even sober, he’s a menace in that van of his. He refers to it as his “rig” and keeps hoping against hope that he will wake up one day, and discover it’s turned into an all-terrain vehicle. Brian is always driving recklessly and too fast, always getting into accidents, hitting a skunk, or getting stuck in the mud. Deciding to drive down into the bowl, and then realizing he can’t drive back up and out of the bowl? Classic Brian. It’s impossible not to love this mess of a guy.

After a few minutes of revving his engine and trying to get his “rig” out, Brian gives up, gets out, and starts leaving the bowl on foot. He immediately spots us watching him from the picture window, waves his arms in the air, and howls like a wolf. Simon and I smile.

“That guy is such a mess,” Simon says again, smiling and waving with the arm that isn’t holding on to the bag of frozen french fries. He opens the door and calls out, “What fresh hell are you up to, this morning, Bri?”

Brian approaches, still waving his arms in the air, still howling. He keeps howling until he is just 10 or 15 feet away from us. When he stops howling, his face breaks into a wide, evil grin.

“Well, well, well,” he says, eyeing the bag of fries, which Simon clutches to his side, “You actually look better than I expected,” and then, nodding to me, “Both of you.”

Simon and I exchange puzzled looks.

“What are you talking about?” I ask.

Brian pulls a loose cigarette out of his pocket, lights it, and takes a drag before answering. When he does get around to answering me, it’s with a question.

“You saying you don’t remember what happened last night?”

“We both had a lot to drink,” Simon answers.

“Oh, I’ll say you had a lot to drink,” Brian replies, giggling, “You really don’t have a clue do you?”

My arms hurt, my head is pounding, and this is getting old.

“Spit it out, Bri,” I say, making sure he can hear just how irritated I am. Brian has always been a little afraid of my temper, “If you know how we got home last night, and what went down, then out with it. If not, then stop with the games. I’m hung over as all hell and not in any mood.”

“Whoa, down, girl” he says, “If I knew were going to be such an ingrate, I never would have given you guys a ride home.”

For a moment, Simon and I say nothing. We just look at each other, and then at Brian, not wanting to believe him. Simon is the first to speak.

“So, you’re saying we got into your van -”

Rig, dude,” Brian corrects him, “Yeah. I’m saying you guys were left high and dry without a ride home, and I brought you here in the rig. And that was some fucked up scene. You two really should seek professional help.” And he giggles, again, like a little girl.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask. Brian is not exactly the person who should be warning anyone else about the dangers of overconsumption of alcohol.

“What I mean,” he says, taking a drag from his cigarette, and placing an emphasis on the “mean,” probably thinking it sounds clever or witty, when it just sounds silly, “is that I was driving along, happy as could be, with the two of you in the back of the rig, when you got into some bullshit argument, and the next thing I knew, it was the Thrilla in Manilla, all over again, baby.”

“Meaning?” Simon asked. He was starting to get as irritated as I was.

“Meaning,” again with the silly inflection, “That you two alcoholics had a knock-down drag-out right there in the back of the rig.”

“Bullshit.” I say.

“Oh, you think I’m lying?” he asks, “I stopped driving and tried to break you up, but you were wailing on each other so bad, I didn’t want any part of it. It was brutal, man.”

“Nah...I don’t believe it,” Simon said, but he didn’t sound very certain of himself, “I’ve never hit a girl in my life.”

Brian threw his cigarette, only halfway smoked, on the ground, and stomped on it with his foot.

“You hit that girl last night,” he said, “And she hit you, too. She bit you, man. I’m telling you, because I saw the whole thing. You’re not hugging that bag of curly fries for nothing, am I right?”

“So,” I ask, beginning to think there might be something to this story, “what were we fighting about?”

“Fucked if I know. One minute you two are just drunk and quiet in the back of the rig, next thing I know, you’re rolling around, wailing on each other. You really mixed it up.”

“And then what?” Simon asks, “Did you break us up?”

“No fucking way. Like I said, I wanted no part of it. I just let you wear yourselves out. And then you were back to your old selves. Best friends and all that shit. You weirdos.”

I feel funny about asking, but I’m from Brooklyn, and there’s honor at stake, so I have to: “Ok, if this thing really happened, who would you say won?”

Simon shoots a look at me, as if to ask, “What the fuck are you even thinking?”

Brian doesn’t miss a beat.

“You did,” he says, “Hands down. I mean, you both looked like shit but, when I dropped you off at the gate, you were walking fine, but this guy was hobbling behind you, whining about his ribs.”

I don’t say anything but, as crazy as it may seem, I’m a little bit proud of myself.

Brian shakes his head and giggles.

“You two have a serious problem, you know. Anyhow, I can’t stay and talk all morning - I have to go find someone to tow me out of the bowl.” As he walks away, he howls, again, and then turns around and says, “There’s a regular AA meeting at the Town Hall, you know.”

Simon and I watch him as he walks away, giggling. When Brian is out of sight, we sit back down on the couch and say nothing for what seems like a long time. After a few minutes, I decide the silence is unbearable.

“Those fries must be thawed by now. You want me to get you some fresh ice? I think there’s a carton of Ben and Jerry’s you can use.”

“Nah, but thanks.”

“No problem,” I say, not knowing what else to say.

“You know, maybe we should take it easy with the drinking. What happened last night...that’s pretty bad, don’t you think?”

I sigh.

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

“The fact that we got into that van and let fucking Brian drive us home,” Simon says, not a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “it’s a worry. We should be more careful.”

“Absolutely,” I say, “That guy is a mess.”

Copyright © 2015 by Lana M. Nieves

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Between Us

Between us and the goose down comforter lies a thin, cotton sheet.
Its thread count negligible.
Brooklyn in July, and we are like sweaty, happy children: too hot to get up, too happy to throw off the covers.
Between us lies nothing.

Parenting As A Civil Right

If you read my blog with any regularity, you know that I hold no one in higher esteem than my mother, who passed away in 2010. She was a really fine woman, and a terrific mother. I cannot imagine a more supportive, loving person to have as a parent. She was not perfect, and she had a temper, but she was never stingy with love and/or praise. Her love for all of us kids was unconditional. Everything about me that is good, today, I can trace back to my mother. She was a phenomenal parent.

My mother was also a person with multiple disabilities. I mention this because there are people who believe that men and women with disabilities cannot be parents. They think that the need of a wheelchair, or a service animal or assistive technology makes a person unfit to parent a child. This sort of thinking is just plain backwards. Parents don't love and support their kids with arms or legs, eyes or ears. A person with a chronic illness or limited mobility can love and nurture a child just as well - or as badly - as anyone else. Parenting is not about how well a person can see or hear or speak, but about how well they can show love, set boundaries, and create a safe environment where children can meet their full potential. My mother's chronic respiratory disease, degenerative bone disease, kidney failure, and blindness prevented her from doing many things in life, but they never prevented her from being a great parent.

To state that a person is unfit to parent because of her disability is no different than saying a gay person is unfit to parent because of her sexuality, or that a black person is unfit to parent because of her ethnicity. It's a bigoted concept, plain and simple, and any move to deprive a good parent of custody of her child based on the fact that she has a disability is a violation not only of her civil rights, but of her fundamental human rights. Unfortunately, this is exactly what a woman named Jessie Lorenz is going through, right now.

Jessie is a nationally recognized disability rights advocate whose expertise regarding accessibility, workplace accommodations for people with disabilities, and the Americans with Disabilities Act has served the City of San Francisco, Google, Schindler Elevators, Yahoo, Facebook, and UPS, to name just a few. Her work in this area has garnered an invitation to the White House, for this year's 25th Anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. She is a Paralympic gold medal winner.  She is one of the most independent, self-sufficient people I know. She is incredibly knowledgeable about cutting-edge technology, which she uses every day when she goes to work as Executive Director of a not-for-profit organization specializing in disability rights advocacy. She is a single mother of a wonderful 4 year old girl who I am happy to have as a little friend.  Jessie is also blind.

Jessie, who has had custody of her little girl since the day she was born, finds herself in a position where, suddenly, her fitness as a parent is being challenged. The only issue at hand? The fact that she has a disability. It seems insane to me that such an allegation - that a person who is blind is unfit to parent - would even be entertained by the justice system. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached a moment in American history where the discriminatory nature of such a charge is universally recognized for what it is:  prejudice and an attempt to deprive a parent who has provided her child with the only stable, supportive home environment she has ever known, of her basic human rights.

If you've read this far, I urge you to read Jessie's own words and, if you can, offer your support. I ask, too, that you share this link with people you know. This sort of discrimination can happen to anyone with a disability. It could have happened to my mother - the thought of which makes me sick. People with disabilities are regularly discriminated against in school, in the workplace, in the housing market, in the business sector and, sadly, in Family Court. This is not someone else's problem - it's OUR problem, as a society, and it's OUR job to fix what's broken so that future generations will not inherit a world where discrimination is the order of the day.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

People in your Neighborhood

New Year's Eve, 1982 or 83, NYC's Upper West Side. That would have made me 15 or 16, but I looked more like 13 or 14.

I promise you this story is true.

My good friend, J, who lives in an upper west side high rise apartment building, is having his annual NYE party. J has the "cool" parents, who let us drink and pretty much do whatever we want, as long as we agree to drink only in their apartment, spend the night there, and not do anything foolish. By 11pm, I am three sheets to the wind. Like...can't-stand-up-for-more-than-a-few-minutes-I-need-some-fresh-air drunk. I leave J's 12th floor apartment, in just jeans and a t-shirt, get into the elevator, and press all of the buttons. Don't ask me why I do this. I'm drunk and 16. It makes sense to me at that moment. Before the elevator even gets to the 11th floor, my legs give out. I slide down and sit on the floor. The elevator gets to 11, and this really gorgeous couple gets in.  Maybe the two most beautiful people I have ever seen in person. He is wearing a tux and tails, spats - the whole nine yards. And she is wearing a fabulous gown and a cloak. Like a princess. Something you'd see in a 1940s movie. I think she is just gorgeous - beautiful, thick, dark hair,  an exquisite face, cafe-con-leche complexion. Just beautiful.

Anyhow, the couple gets in the elevator. The guy doesn't notice me,  sitting all curled up in the corner of the elevator, but the woman does. She's says, "Oh, my God, hon - there's a kid on the floor. Honey (to me) are you ok???" 

"Yeah," I tell her,  "I'm fine...I'm a little drunk and I'm just resting and going out to get some air."

She grins and replies, "Sweetie (To me! That ridiculously pretty, elegant lady called me sweetie!), you don't even have a jacket - it's got to be 20 degrees outside. You can't go outside like that!" 

At this point her date mumbles something about how the elevator is stopping at every floor, and how they're going to be late.  It's close to midnight. No one wants to miss the ball dropping. I confess that I've pressed every button, and the pretty lady assures me it's not a big deal. We (the pretty lady and myself - the guy seems nice enough, but is not at all interested in me) continue talking as the elevator goes down. She asks me how old I am, and if I live in the building. I reply, "No. My friend J lives here. He's having a party. I'm just spending the night." She asks how much I've had to drink, and if I think I'm going to be sick. I assure her I'm fine - drunk, but fine. We chit-chat. She repeats that she doesn't think I should go outside without a coat, as it's winter in NYC...and that she'd feel better if she knew I was just planning to go back to my friend's apartment, drink some water, and get some rest. I try to act cool, and tell her I'm A-ok, even though the truth is that I'm not entirely sure how to get up off the floor.

We finally reach the ground floor, and the beautiful couple are about to step off the elevator. The guy points out towards the street and says, "Look - our ride is waiting." The pretty lady steps off the elevator, turns back to look at me, and gets back in. She tells her date, "Make them wait. I can't just leave this kid in the elevator like this. I'm riding back up with her to make sure she doesn't go out and get pneumonia." Her handsome, well-dressed date sighs in frustration, but he jumps back in the elevator, too. I think to myself, "Wow...these are such nice people. What a nice lady. A nice, pretty lady." I'm just drunk enough that I start saying out loud things that I really only mean to think to myself, and I blurt out, "You're such a nice, pretty lady. You're beautiful. You look're so beautiful, you look like Maria from Sesame Street." She and her date laugh at this, but not in a nasty way...very sweetly, really. When the elevator gets to the 12th floor, I pull myself off the floor and get off. I turn around and tell the woman, again, how pretty she is, and that she looks like Maria on Sesame Street, and I promise this lovely couple that I'll go straight to J's apartment, drink some water, and sleep off my drunkenness. They wish me a happy new year, and the elevator doors close.

The next morning I'm having breakfast with J and his family, and a bunch of other kids who have spent the night. The phone rings and I hear J's mom talking, but I don't really pay attention to what's being said. She returns to the breakfast table and says, "How odd. That was Sonia from downstairs. She called to say she ran into one of the party guests in the elevator last night, and she wanted to make sure she was ok. She said the girl was pretty drunk, and was trying to go outside without even a jacket, and that she (Sonia) just wanted to make sure the girl had come back here and slept it off, without doing anything dangerous."

I suddenly remember the whole thing about the night before, and confess it to the table full of people: "Oh my god. That was me. Your neighbor was so nice to me. She probably got to her party late and missed the ball dropping because she insisted on riding all the way back up with me to make sure I got back ok. And I'm such an idiot. I was so out of it, I kept telling her she was beautiful, and that she looked like Maria from Sesame Street."

J and his parents start laughing, as does everyone else at the table. Even I laugh, because it's all so silly. Then the clincher: J's mom says, "Our downstairs neighbor is Sonia Manzano. She IS Maria on Sesame Street!"

Note: The talented, beautiful Sonia Manzano has announced her plan to retire from Sesame Street, a show she has been on for 44 years. I'm 48, so I don't really remember a time when "Maria" wasn't a character in my life. As a kid who grew up watching Sesame Street, I loved Maria. She was sweet and friendly and kind and, most importantly, she looked and sounded like the best women I knew: Puerto Rican women who lived in NYC. Seeing someone on TV who looked and sounded like that? It went a long way for this Puerto Rican kid growing up in Brooklyn. 

Along with Mister Rogers, Maria was one of the characters on TV who I used to think of as MY friend, MY neighbor.  It's no shock that Ms. Manzano's plan to retire has made a stir: she's played an important role in the lives of so many people of my generation, and of every generation that has come, since. Thanks, Sonia, for all of it....but especially for being so nice to an annoying, drunken teenager who probably made you late for New Year's Eve. You really did look fabulous.