So….You Have To Cook ‘Em Alive?

Hello Everybody,

Tuesday night, I met up with two dear friends of mine, Chris and Janet.  They’d gotten married earlier that afternoon at New York’s City Hall.  They’d been together over twenty years, but only until last September did they decide to take the old legal plunge.  You know, I’m thinkin’ they got a real chance at this.  Here’s to hoping it lasts!

Chris and Janet, in front of “the real life” City Hall of New York!

“It was very interesting,” Chris said.  “You go into a big room with a bunch of other couples, then a very big black man stands up front, and with a boisterous voice and big hand motions announces, ‘BY THE POWER INVESTED IN ME BY THE STATE OF NEW YORK I NOW PRONOUNCE…’ It’s pretty amazing.  There were young couples, old couples, gay couples, couples living in shelters carrying all their belongings, and Asian couples with the brides decked out in gold-lame dresses and crazy makeup and hair.  There we all were…getting married at the same time.

On my way home that night, I decided to get out of the subway in Brooklyn and walk the rest of the way.  Moving through the cold night air, I meditated on Chris and Janet and the other newlyweds – the eclectic mix of Americans tying the knot.

Celebrating Dia de Los Muertos in Sunset Park

I meditated on it as I walked through Sunset Park, past its bodegas and restaurants with Spanish marquees in bright primary colors.  On 4th Avenue the Chinese hood spills into the Latino hood.  At a Chinese joint Latinos ordered in Spanish, then the clerk shouted the order in Chinese to sweaty cooks who then commenced to prepare a totally non-Chinese dish.  “FRIED CHICKEN AND FRENCH FRIES WITH HOT SAUCE TO GO” sounds American whether it’s shouted in English, Spanish, Chinese or Jive Talk.  There are quite a few Chinese joints on 4th Ave. in Sunset Park, their marquees also in shining bright primary colors.  Similar.  The Same.

Celebrating the Chinese New Year in Sunset Park

I meditated clear on into Bay Ridge, where I passed my favorite Mexican food joint – operated by a Chinese guy.  Then I walked passed Frank and Eddy’s deli, a great old Italian joint where an Asian dude named Daniel hooks me up.  Next, I walked by the deli where I can get a damn good Philly cheesesteak sandwich prepared by a Yemeni short order cook.  From there, I crossed the street toward the bodega where I get a cup of coffee most mornings, served by Tommy, a Brooklyn bred Irish/Italian fellow.  He’s always on the phone, and after I thank him and he wishes me a good day, he resumes his phone call, speaking fluent Farsi with an old school Brooklyn accent.  Finally, I made it to my apartment, lay my head on the pillow and contemplated the Great Ethnic Stew that is New York City.

Then next morning I got up to meet my friend, Osha.  We were heading out to Give-the-Thanks with Tom, an old friend of hers out on Orient Point, Long Island – way out on the edge of the USofA.  As I walked to my subway stop, I passed by a road crew.  The workers were a bit pissed off, jabbering about how they have to work the day before Thanksgving.  They jabbered away in English – every Irish, Latin and Asian one of them – but they seemed to be alright with their day of toil.

China and Mexico side by side and happy.

“Hey, least it’s mothuhfu$%in’ ovuhtime!”

At the steps descending to the subway, I passed a man pacing in a little semi-circle and speaking on the phone.  He was well into middle age but had the concerned face of a little boy.

“I mean…I’m entitled to it, right?  I been working all these years so I’ve been paying into it, ain’t I.  I mean, that’s how unemployment works, right?”

On Thanksgiving afternoon, Tom drove us out to where the Long Island Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean.  As I walked about the beach I looked out as far as I could see.  3,300 miles of ocean, then Europe.  Nothing in between.  I imagined that if my eyes were stronger, I could see clear to the Old World.  I may have even squinted and tried to see, but alas, my vision isn’t strong enough to see so far.  I can’t see back into Time.

The Atlantic Ocean, with the Old World in the background…way, way in the background.

And seeing that far really would be staring into Time.  Because if I could see Europe from that beach – and the  rest of the world, for that matter (for those who still believe the world is round) – I would see the uncooked ingredients of America.  I would see every single nationality that makes up the USofA, even past the white ingredients of Europe and Britain, to the yellow, red, black ingredients…all the colors that make up America, in their natural habitat.  I would gain, instantly, a perspective that would allow me to gaze upon America with a little more clarity.  I would understand that things have to mix thoroughly before we can take The American Stew off the stove.  I would understand that it’s hot in the pot, and no cooler for anybody else, and I would be a little more understanding, a little more patient, a little gentler with the other ingredients.  But again, I can’t see across an ocean.  I can only see the ingredients up close in the great big melting pot of America. as we bump up against each other on the subway, the street, a stairway or elavator, a line at a meat truck…somewhere.  But we burn like hell together and blend – sometimes violently – together.

It might as well have been like this.

We had turkey, clams and lobsters for thanksgiving dinner.  It was my job to plop the still living lobsters into the boiling pot.  It was a much more difficult task than I thought.  One of the lobsters spread out its claws and tale, bracing itself against the rim of the pot and refusing its fate.  I didn’t know what to do.  I glanced over at Osha and Tom, both shucking clams as if it were second nature.  They said nothing, but gave me a look that said, clearly, “Quit bein’ a sissy and shove ’em in the water.”  So I did and I’m still rather disturbed by it.  But that evening I found solace in the wonderful aroma of so many things cooking in the kitchen.  So many ingredients being chemically broken down by heat, then fusing together to form something fine and tasty.

I inhaled the beautiful aroma, closed my eyes, and on the backs of my eyelids I saw all us Americanos swirling around in the great big pot of boiling water called America.  I saw us breaking down chemically, ceasing to be what we were, and fusing together to become something new and delicious – never before tasted.  And it was ok for us to change into something new…it wasn’t like America was dying.  It was merely change.  America is the pot of boiling water, and will stay America, no matter what ingredients are put into the pot.

Charlie Chaplin starring as the “Little Tramp” in the movie, THE IMMIGRANT.

I kept my eyes closed and witnessed a sudden history of the United States.  Not of wars and God given Imperialist undertakings, but a more accurate history of the States:  The History of the Immigrant.  I saw an immigrant who came over here and worked from sun up to sun down at a very hard job for very little pay so that his or her children would have a better life in America.  The Immigrant somehow found time to fall in love – maybe get married at the city hall – and have first, second, third generations, all the way to you and me.  Others spat on our relative, cursed our relative, and shouted out to our relative that they were stealing their jobs.  Our relative cleaned off the spit and abuse at the end of a very long workday of building a railroad or a brick building, toiling in a sewing shop, cleaning trash of the street, working somebody else’s cattle, farming somebody else’s fields, serving breakfast lunch and dinner all day long to somebody else, or toiled in some other version of hard labor.   Our relavtive lay his or her head on a pillow at night and the next the next thing they knew it was morning.  No dreams – they just got up and lived the same day again.  Dreams were for their children.  The Asian immigrant cooking in the Mexican food joint stands on his feet from sun up to sun down for his children to dream.

Or does he?  Is he doing it for the his children’s future, or simply go through the motions and accepts a life of toil, soaked in grease, as one bill comes in after another, and he skips one payment to make another?  Is he only making payments now, with never any cash left over to put away for a college tuition for his daughter who works the cash register after school?    Does he lay his head on the pillow at night, after a few hours of stupid idiocy on the TV?  Does he toss and turn in bed, unable to understand why he’s so unhappy?  Does he spit back at the assholes who bark their food orders at him – those who also hate their own lives but also can’t quite tell you why?  Does he bark at his daughter every time he sees her?  Does she hate her father, perhaps embarrassed by him, even ashamed of his hideous backwardness?  Is the daughter ashamed to dream?  Can anybody dream anymore?  Will his daughter have to get meningitis, or get hit by a car, for him to remember why he works so hard?  Will the daughter have to drift into a coma just to dream?

I open my eyes and I’m back in the kitchen.  Tom and Osha have shucked the clams and moved on to other things.  The aroma was even richer, palpable in the kitchen’s atmosphere.  I smelled so many things, but I couldn’t smell one single thing.  That excited me, because that meant it was almost time to eat.  My stomach growled as we set the table.

Great recipe, but it has to be cooked at high, high heat.

When all of the ingredients in the Great American Boiling Pot finally dissolve, we will fuse together and will make one fine tasty meal.  It will be so nourishing.  No one will be able to single out one nationality – it will be a new and exciting dish.  The Child called Our Future will sit down at the Great Table, where the American Meal awaits to be devoured.  As The Child sticks the fork in, it will say, “I am thankful for this meal, prepared by those who loved me.  Amen.”

Later that evening, with a full belly, The Child will lay its head on a pillow.  And The Child will dream.

Until then, it’s on us to take the heat together.

Adios, zai jian, bedrood, ciao, so long blood and take it easy, my fellow ingredients…

After the Storm

What we found, after the flood.

Hello Everybody,

Last week I waited for the elevator with a lady who was so mad because the elevator was all the way up ON THE SECOND FLOOR.

“This is ridiculous, I don’t have all day!”  She exclaimed.

I said nothing, but I wanted to punch her repeatedly until she lay bloody on the ground.  I’m not terribly proud of that thought, but I had it, and held if for several days after.  It wore on me over how impatient and, quite frankly, out of touch she and others like her are in this city.  People literally act like children when they don’t get what they want, when they want it, here.  The age of instant access has got us behaving like babies with a urine soaked diaper.  Just take a look at me when I try to send an email via my hand robot (my smart phone) when the wireless drops (yep, count me in as a baby eau du urine).

It would take a damn hurricane to get that impatient lady off my mind.  Well, a hurricane came.  Sandy roared through Metropolis like a banshee with rabies and a bad rash.  Thoughts of punching ladies in elevators, along with all meaningless thought, disappeared, vanished, like so many things did during this terrible storm.  My thoughts, when the wind kicked into high gear around 7pm on Monday were only about flying glass, flying roofs and high ground.  What if the roof goes, what do I do?  Go to the hallway.  What if the hallway goes?  To the stairwell.  What if the…

I weathered the storm at a friend’s loft apartment in Greenpoint, the northernmost neighborhood in Brooklyn.  The wind whipped at the building, shook the walls, and the roof swelled, giving off very unnerving creaks and pops.  Around 8pm, the wind started to come through the brick wall.  I can only describe this as THE F#$%ING WIND CAME THROUGH THE BRICK WALL.  That was when my friend and I decided to camp in the expansive living room, her eyes and mine constantly glancing at the window at the other end of the room.  For about three hours, I wasn’t sure the windows would hold, and several moments during that time I thought the roof would go.  But the windows held and the roof stayed put. At some point we got used to the wind, which was bad, because the wind would die, and you wait, just wait, just wait, then it comes and dig your nails into the couch cionush, or the arm of the friend with which you weathered the hurricane.  But all things pass.  The wind died down, and sleep was rather easy to come by, until the smell of smoke came through the brick wall.  However, I got used to the smoke and managed slumber.  How luck was I, to be sleeping while others were losing there homes in a terrible fire in Breezy Point, Queens.  I woke up after the storm.  The people of Breezy Point never slept, and they’ll probably never get used to smelling smoke.

Dark Empire

The next night the subway was still down so I decided to walk to my neighborhood, Bay Ridge, in south Brooklyn.  It’s a 9 mile jaunt through the heart of Brooklyn that I managed to make 10 miles because my hand held robot ran out of battery power (silly robot).  But I wasn’t mad, didn’t complain.  I was safe.  I’d weathered a storm, and I was somehow restored the patience I had before the robots took over.

I walked down Flatbush avenue, through the Hassidic community.  Old and young men, yarmulkas and long curls of hair from their temples, fluidly moved down the street.  They were all dressed in the traditional garb, black suits, white shirts, some had porkpie hats.  Only rings or a watch, or eyeglasses, gave them their individuality, in regards to their appearance.  But they all had the look of cautious calm as if they were saying, “Yahweh, please don’t give us more than we can handle.”

I turn South onto Vanderbilt, through Clinton Hill and walked among caravans people walking together to their neighborhoods.  All seem to have the same look and vibe, a little laughter, but no one was taking for granted the peace to be felt.  The winds were calm, that was all they needed for a definition to the term “Joy.”

I turned here and there, many trees were down, millions of branches scattered along the way.  Everything glistened with moisture.  Brooklyn smelled like wet leaves and mud.  I turned onto 4th Ave and began my ascent to Bay Ridge.  Members of the Latino community in Sunnyside huddled together on street corners and outside of bodegas.  They all had the same look as if they silently saying, “We are safe now, but, no mas, Dios, por favor?”

Fractal Imagery

I got home.  No flooding.  Still had power.  My feet and my back ached, but I saw Brooklyn in a way I couldn’t have planned.  I was lucky.  On Saturday, I had to go into Manhattan, so I decided to continue the walking.  I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time.  I got lost in the fractal imagery of its cables.  It was so mezmerizing.  The huge granite towers that support the suspension cables were giants wading in a stream.  Each tower has a tiny little American flag atop them, which to me, is what America is all about.  Huge bricks, real things, put there by immigrants (real founding fathers) and the children of immigrants (everybody else, including you and me), with only a little of the Myth of America fluttering above.  Real America is the bricks and cables, it ain’t the songs of our history.

An American Street

But enough of that.  On Sunday, I rode into Staten Island with a friend.  Her brother’s house was gutted by the storm and we helped him scoop his and his wife’s, and their two children’s, belongings – their home – out to the street.  Hundreds of houses were gutted.  The homes, the rubble – once the safest place these people could be, where they could shed worry and fear – was piled high on the street, taller than a person.  Down the street as far as I could see.  Bulldozers came, scooped up those piles, dumped the homes into a truck, then dumped the homes into a huge dump pile by the ocean, to be landfill upon which the homes of others would most certainly be built.

Someone’s Home

Military choppers soared through the beautiful blue sky, constantly.  The National Guard came by asking if we needed anything.  Then, car after car of regular people came by, offering coats, water, warm food.  It was a highly emotional scene, but not hysterical.  Those that lost their homes haven’t begun the real crying, the shock is still high and they are just trying to survive right now.  What was so emotional was feeling and absorbing the generosity of those giving, and the gratitude of those receiving.  It was all so simple, humble and kind, but truly profound.  New Yorkers are beautiful people, hell, people are beautiful people.  My friend’s brother, Seth, stood next to me while we ate free donuts.  He was  weary, wearing the same warmups he had on the last few days, and was holding a coat a good samaritan gave him.  He looked at me, then at the ground which used to be a lawn but the grass was long gone.

“Well, I bet my neighbor won’t mind if my dog pees in his yard now.”

His neighbor probably wouldn’t, because that neighbor happens to be staying with Seth at Seth’s parents.  There’s a lotta good people out on Staten Island.  And as blown wide open as it is out there, it is a prime example of another attribute of that Real America, where people put the make believe life down and take care of their neighbors no matter what.  In Real America, people don’t fight for what’s theirs, they give.

Woody Guthrie, un-blind lover of Real America.

Real America doesn’t fight for freedom, it gives to achieve freedom of the soul.  It’s hard to write a song about that kind of freedom though.  Wait, no its not, Woody Guthrie wrote plenty them.  I guess they’re too hard for a marching band to learn.

But enough about that.  I don’t have any regrets in life.  But if I was to relive the moment with the old lady complaing about the elevator, I wouldn’t fantasize punching her into hamburger meat.  Nope.  Instead, I would put my hand on her shoulder and smile.  Then I would suggest she, in turn, put her hand on a stranger’s shoulder and smile.  It won’t just make her feel better about herself, it will be her salvation. In Real America, we’re not afraid of strangers, we crave to know them.

A safe harbor, for you, for me.

Whatever storm you are weathering, I wish you safe harbor…