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 like......you'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.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Waiting in Vain

About five years ago, an old school lefty activist I know, who also happens to be a straight, white male, told me that I was being impatient about gay rights, that change took time, and that I would just have to wait for things such as marriage equality to come to pass in America. I replied that, as a straight, white male he didn't have a hell of a lot of experience having to wait for anything, and that he could shove that bit of 'wisdom' up his ass.


Yesterday's news was and is well worth celebrating, but it is also a bittersweet victory. 

Not being able to marry and live in the USA with the woman who I thought I'd be with for life kept me away from the United States for years. The fact that the committed and exclusive relationship I was in, which had been built on love and trust did not, for all intents and purposes, even exist, as far as the U.S. Federal government was concerned, forced me to choose between the country of my birth, and the woman I loved and with whom I was building a life. A move back to the states would have had to have been a move by myself.  It was not an easy decision, but I chose a future, happiness, love. This choice - one she did not begrudge, because she wanted her child to be happy -  kept me far away from my mother for most of the last really good years of her life. It kept me from doing my fair share to take care of her when she needed it - something I thought of not as a burden, but an honor and a duty. An act of love.  Being forced to choose also meant missing so many important milestones in the lives of my nephews, who I love deeply. 

I'm beyond happy about the SCOTUS decision, and it does my heart good to know that the next generation of American children will not even remember a time when same-sex marriage was not the law of the land. The truth, though, is that the bitter aftertaste left by my choice - by being forced to choose, as I waited for justice - and what that choice and long wait meant, lingers. It breaks my heart a little, even as I celebrate a victory. It's a victory that came too late for me.

The long wait was pointless, and even cruel. Gay people were ready for this years ago, and there was not one good reason to wait. Black people in America have waited MORE than long enough to get some equity. Hispanics have waited long enough. Women have waited long enough. Trans people are done waiting. When someone says that change takes time, and that you "just have to wait," what he's really saying is that HE is not ready to share his big, old piece of the pie. 

My mother would have been happy about the Supreme Court decision. She would have been happy for me. She would have been thrilled to know that one of the justices who did the right thing was a Puerto Rican woman, that another was a woman from Brooklyn. She would probably have been out in the street making noise, banging a pot with a wooden spoon, in celebration. She can't. Justice waited too long. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Those Who Came Before Us



Marsha P. Johnson
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon
Leslie Feinberg
Harvey Milk.....


There are too many to list. Too many of them did not live to see the fruits of their labor.


Let's make this a thing. Tonight at 7pm, Pacific time, stop what you're doing and raise a glass to all those who came before us, and to all the kids, today, who won't ever know a USA where same-sex marriage is not a thing. Even if it's a glass of orange juice. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Fatherhood

For carrying me home after all those long Sunday trips to the Bronx when I was just a tiny thing, when I'd invariably fall asleep on the last leg of the subway ride.

For singing me to sleep when I was little - I still know all those songs.

For buying me my first camera, when I was 6 yrs old, and letting me blow the film on anything I felt like photographing.

For taking me into the darkroom you'd rigged up in the bathroom, and teaching me how film becomes negatives, and how negatives become prints.

For getting me those hiking boots when the world expected me to want Mary-Janes.

For letting me stay up late whenever West Side Story was on tv.

For taking me with you on so many Saturdays, to see the movies Ma and my sisters didn't care about, but we loved. There were so many, but I mostly remember Outland - a version of High Noon in space that we loved so much, we stayed for a second screening.

For not skipping a beat when I had the chance to go to a great school at age 12, even though going meant riding the subway all by myself, all the way to the Upper East Side of Manhattan because, as you told me years later, you knew I could be trusted to take care of myself. 

For never caring that I didn't want to wear a dress or do most of the things that girls are expected to do.

For giving me art and photography books from the time I was big enough to hold books in my hands.

For taking the time during your own profound grief to tell me, on the day she died, just how much my mother loved me. I knew this, but I needed to hear it, and you knew that.

Thanks, Dad.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Red

She answers the door and smiles at me with her eyes.

"What happened?" she asks. Gently. Quietly.

"What do you mean?" I reply, enjoying the rare chance to indulge in her sport of answering a question with another question.

"The wagon," she says,  and her eyes trail down my arm, to my hand, and then down the length of the black, metal handle, to the wagon, itself.

"It was red," she says, closing her eyes and remembering, as if calling up a dream, "Bright red. Shiny, even. The sparkly red of an amusement park ride. The wheels were brand new; thick, black rubber. So new."

I look down at it.

Every one of the four wheels has at least one gouge. Being pulled over rocky roads will do that.
The white walls are more of a murky grey - paled by the sun, covered by a thin, cloudy layer of dirt. Inevitable. I've been kicking up the dust for a while.
The bright red finish has gone matte over time. From sun and wind. And everything.
There are scratches, too, and a few small dents.
This is all to be expected. I've pulled it behind me the entire time. Sometimes full. Sometimes empty. Sometimes so full, it overflows, and I leave a trail of pebbles in my wake.

"I wasn't sure you'd still have it." she says, placing a warm hand on my arm, "I haven't known where to get one."  Something in her voice reminds me of why I'm here. As if I need reminding.

I look down at the wagon. Scratched. Dented. Faded. No rust, though. Wheels gouged, but still in tact, not a one wobbly.

"I still have it," I say to her, "It's still red."


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Little Worlds



When I was four years old, my family took a short holiday to a lodge somewhere up in the Adirondacks. The woods surrounding the lodge were home to these very fuzzy, bright green and yellow caterpillars. It drove my dad a little crazy that, with all there was too do at this idyllic place, the only thing that interested me was collecting caterpillars and watching them go about their lives. I remember having a dozen or so of them in the concave side of a Frisbee, where I also placed a bunch of fresh leaves and grass. My parents thought I was a strange kid, but I was fascinated by this little world I'd created, and how its inhabitants interacted with one another. I was really upset when the long weekend was over and it was time to drive back to the city, and my parents told me I'd have to set my little subjects free. I did not yet know that writing was a thing to be done, and that creating worlds on paper was much more practical and humane than playing God with a bunch of little creatures who just wanted to be left to their own business.


Lately, I feel as if I’m adrift at sea with dry land nowhere in sight. This vast expanse of ocean on which I find myself drifting; it’s crystal clear. So clear that I can peer over the side of my raft and see all the way down to the bottom of the sea, where fish move gracefully in and out of a coral reef. The other side of the water line makes for a nice change of scenery. It takes my mind off the inevitable sunburn that being adrift without shelter results in. Oars or a sail would be good, just about now. I believe hurricane season is on the horizon.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Denial as Privilege

Leaked emails from the world of entertainment have opened up a can of worms that sheds some light on an issue that's a whole lot more important than the movie business. Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few days, you've heard about how actor Ben Affleck participated in a PBS show in which celebrities, with the help of genealogy experts, explore their ancestry and family history.  Evidently, during the course of this exploration, one of the pieces of information which was unearthed was the fact that one of Affleck's ancestors was a wealthy slave owner. It's not exactly shocking for a white man in America to have ancestry that connects, on some level, to the institution of slavery. What's shocking - or at least newsworthy, anyhow - is that Affleck made a concerted effort to have this piece of his family history edited out of the program. Affleck has since admitted that he is embarrassed by this piece of family history, and that he did not want a television program which focused on his family to include it.

Stew on that for a second. He went on a television show (on PBS, no less) to trace his roots and discuss where and who he came from and, once he found out he was descended from a slave owner, asked that such an unsavory piece of of his family history be edited out when the show aired. 

Ben Affleck is a jerk. 

Not because he is a descendant of slave owners - lots of people are. He's a jerk because he, and a lot of other people, fail to see that the very act of editing one's family history in this way is nothing more than an incredible example of white privilege in action.

I've heard defenders of Affleck's actions state that he should not be held accountable for his ancestors' practices, that this could shed a bad light on him and his present-day family, that he has a right to privacy. 

I don't hold anyone alive today accountable for the behavior of their ancestors. I do, however, think the biggest thing keeping racial harmony from being a reality in this country is a failure on the part of white America to own up to the fact that it has benefitted from systemic racism of all kinds. The institution of slavery was almost certainly the biggest piece of the systemic racism pie that this country has known, and the sweetness of that slice of pie still lingers on the tongues of white Americans' today. They need to own up to this, or nothing will ever get better. 

With regards to this bit of news shedding a harsh light on his family, today? I highly doubt this will pose any real problem. Other celebrities have appeared on this very same program, found out about their slave-owning ancestors, and suffered no repercussions. 

As for Affleck's privacy? If he had no desire to delve into difficult and even painful areas in his family's past, perhaps going on a genealogy hunt on national television was not the wisest of choices. 

But, now...about that white privilege thing. Some people might think I'm being a little harsh when I use that term in this context. I'm not. You see, it must be awfully nice to know one can make a few calls, send a few emails, and - BAM - be done with one's family history. And Affleck almost pulled it off. You know who can't pull that off? Who can NEVER pull it off? A black American. 

Descendants of slaves don't have the luxury of being able to erase their family histories. That, Ben Affleck, is one of the many fringe benefits of being white in America. And yes, you came this close to pulling it off. If not for that pesky email leak, you'd be that bright, shiny, superhero-playing, politically-correct actor/director whose family line is filled with industrious hard workers, fun characters, and even civil rights activists, just the way you like it. Instead, I look at you and see White Privilege Ken Doll: Denial Edition. I don't have bad feelings about you because your ancestor owned slaves. I have bad feelings about you because you tried to cover up this truth. You tried to rewrite history. And this particular history isn't just yours: it belongs to the slaves your ancestors owned. 

Here's the thing: Ben Affleck's great great great grandfather owned slaves. My great great great grandfather, Manuel, WAS a slave. If every white person erased what his or her great great great grandfather did, they'd also be erasing what was done to my ancestor. And to every slave in America. And that just won't do. 


If Ben Affleck is worried that finding out their ancestor owned slaves will be upsetting to his children, he might want to consider how upsetting it is for the millions of people in this country who, if they trace their roots back just a few generations, find that their ancestors aren't listed as residents of a house, but as property of a household. And, no, none of this is Ben Affleck's fault but, as a wealthy, white, American man, Affleck has an enormous amount of power. Using this power to cover up a piece of history that is inconvenient for him is inexcusable. 



Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Seam

Once, I sat by the side of the road, and watched a great, big truck deliver the two halves of a house that was being relocated from a different spot. They cut it down the middle and brought it down one half at a time, because the house was so very big. And they lay down the halves so carefully, shifting an inch in this direction, an inch in that...until the halves lined up perfectly. And then they sealed them together so that there was a seam running right down the middle of the floor.

I loved watching them move that house. I never imagined I would live there, myself, some day. But I did.

The hallway had freshly-laid wall-to-wall carpeting. The day I moved in, I took off my shoes and took a talk all the way up the long, long hallway. Barefoot. And, through the thick carpet, I could feel the seam where the two halves of the house were joined. Thick shag couldn't hide that seam from me. It was our secret.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Magic Beans



You ask me for advice on tying up loose ends, and I tell you that I'm not sure I've ever in my whole life tied up a pair of loose ends, that my life is not tidy in that way. It's more like a field, I tell you...like a field where the crop isn't wheat or corn or barley but, sprouting from the ground, connections. To people and places and moments in time. And me? I spend my time wandering that field, noting how different it is from one spot to the next. Here, where there's nothing but shade, are just dried dandelions and dead leaves. Over there, where it rains, but the sun hides behind the clouds now and again, are delicate blades of grass, and bits of moss on wet stones. Way over there, where the sun shines, every single day, and the rain starts falling at dusk...where the worms and the birds and the bees love to gather? Over there are sunflowers with tall, tall stalks, and poppies and, where a stream runs through that area, there's wild, hearty asparagus. That's where the magic beans were dropped, so long ago, and where a beanstalk has pushed its way out of the soil, and now chases the sun, straight into the sky. It is the place where I stop and sit and lean my tired bones when walking around this field gets to be exhausting.

I wouldn't know how to tie up loose ends if I tried.





 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Trickle Down

I saw this at a burger joint, today, and realized I hadn't seen a pay toilet since 1973. The reason I remember it was 1973 is that the whole business of pay toilets was my formal introduction to the idea of feminism as an organized movement that people took part in.

Ma was home with the new baby (who was born in 1973) and my dad was taking me and my older sister to Wurtsboro, NY, where he was to photograph the artwork of an 85 year old woman who chiseled these amazing figurative sculptures out of marble and stone. We didn't own a car, so we were taking the Greyhound Bus upstate, and getting picked up by friends who would drive us the rest of the way. NYC's Port Authority was and still is a miserable place. Toilets on a bus, however, are possibly the MOST miserable places. Dad told me and Lisa to head over to the "girls' bathroom" and try to take care of any business before we boarded the bus.

I was 6, Lisa was 8.



As we headed to the women's bathroom, Dad headed to the men's room. What Lisa and I found was a long queue of women. In those days, many women's toilet stalls were coin-operated. One needed to put a dime in a slot to unlock the stall door. Lisa and I knew this because, whenever Ma encountered a coin-op toilet stall, she would pay the dime and all three of us would share one stall. On this day, at Port Authority, a huge group of women decided to protest the pay toilet system (which ONLY applied to women, with men using free-standing urinals without stalls) by limiting use to one stall. Evidently, the first woman to have used that stall on that morning, held the door open for the next woman when she was done. That second woman did the same, and so on...until every woman who stepped into the bathroom and saw all the empty stalls, with a few women waiting to use the one stall without paying, decided they would do the same. In no time at all, the only stall being used was the one that had been paid for that morning, and held open by woman after woman. Of course, the line became very long.

When Lisa and I got there and saw the long line of women, we didn't know what to do. Dad had given us a dime. One of the women on the line explained to us what was happening, and said she thought we should get in line and do the same, and save our dime. That's what we did. It was, as you can imagine, a long wait. But it was sort of nice, the way a woman would come out of the stall and hold the door open for the next woman. I didn't have the language for it then but, in retrospect, I have to say there was a buzz moving through that queue. Good mojo.

Eventually, it was our turn to go into the stall, which was a good thing, because Lisa and I both needed to pee. We both peed, and then we left, making sure to hold the door open for the next woman.

When we went to find Dad, he looked a little annoyed. He asked what had taken so long, and we explained it to him. He listened, and stopped looking annoyed and said something like, "Oh, yeah...you ran into women's libbers." I'd never heard that term before and asked him what that meant. Dad looked as if the question confused him. He didn't say anything for a few seconds. Then he said, "It means it's not fair that some people have to pay to take a pee, and some people don't."

A short time later, pay toilets were done away with in NYC.