Bad Weather, Bad Neighborhoods and Butoh

Hello Everybody…

Mermaid Avenue in Historic Coney Island

Last Tuesday, I went to Coney Island to help out in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  I’d received an email from a volunteer group to assist in demolition and cleanup up.   But when I got to the rendezvous point on Surf Avenue, I was hijacked by another group that needed volunteers to go door to door, floor to floor, in a housing project to make sure its elderly and disabled tenants had someone to help them get food, medication, etc.  I was whisked into a small car with a lot of people and dropped off at a housing project further down Surf Ave.  This housing project had a real pretty view of the ocean.

The view may not have been on too many people’s mind, however, in the bona fide disaster zone that Coney Island has become.  Power was down in most domestic buildings.  Streetlights were blinking irregularly.  The storm waters deposited tons of sand all over the community.  Bulldozers piled the sand into huge dunes, but sand still scattered about in the wind, burning the eyes.  National Guard trucks sped along the streets, kicking up more sand.  The smell of fuel and natural gas was in the air, watering the eyes.  Trash blue in the wind – collected against fences.   At one point a fire erupted out of a manhole in the middle of the street.  Not until a fire arrived did me and the other volunteers take our eyes off that.  Long lines of Black, Hispanic, Russian and elderly people stood in long lines where the Red Cross or FEMA or churches were handing out clothes and food.  Their eyes were set in a blank stare to that place where only the cold, hungry and tired can see.  Their eyes burned too, I bet.  But I’m sure they were willing to deal with it.

People dealing with it.

The first floor of the housing project was inhabitable due to the flooding, so we only had to tackle the 2nd thru 24th floors.  Lucky us.  Yes, lucky us.  Because all we had to do was go up and down the stairs and knock on doors, unlike the Black, Hispanic, Russian and Elderly folks who lived there.  They had to carry carts of food, water and clothing up the stairs.  Many were out of breath, resting in the stairwell, mustering the strength to climb the other 10 or so floors they had left.  They would laugh and say something like…

“Dear Lord, please get that elevator a workin’!”

Their positive attitudes were inspiring, but they did look at you funny when you told them…

“Have a great day!”

They held that look on you until you were certain you were an idiot.  But they didn’t hold it against you.  Not at all.

They didn’t.  Really.  Because floor after floor, people thanked us so much for simply “caring” enough to check on them.  They thanked us in English, Spanish, and I think the Russians thanked us, too.  When it was all said and done, we only helped a few people, giving them flashlights, phone numbers to field pharmacies and nurses.  But what they needed was heat and we couldn’t give it to them.  They needed water, but if they could walk, we couldn’t get it for them.  They needed power, and we couldn’t give them that, either.  But so many tenants stepped across their doorway and held our hands firmly, and said something like…

“We’s just glad they’s somebody that care ’nuff to come over and check on us…”

That feeling of being an idiot subsided, a little bit.  People freezing in a concrete housing project that looks and feels just a little less like a prison have a way of making you feel at home when they smile and thank you.  And it’s impossible to refrain from feeling truly grateful for what you have.

On my way to my warm home, I caught this conversation between a twenty something couple.  She was a Russian immigrant, he was rough Brooklyn, born and bred.

She:  I’m sick of this America shit.  If I win the lottery, I’d go to South America – maybe back to Russia.  Live in a little house, grow my own vegetables.  My little girls can pick cotton.  You could come with me.

He:  I’m born here.  It’s all I know.  So, that’s what you’d do if you won the lottery?

She:  Yeah.  I’m mean I don’t hate it here…but there’s just SO MUCH…it’s TOO MUCH comin’ at you.  I want something easier.

He:  You know, you can grow vegetables and your girls can pick cotton right now.  That’s what poor people do.  That may be simpler.  But it ain’t easier.  It’s just as hard as it is here.

She:  The lady runnin’ my shelter spies on us.  She snuk up on me when I was going to the the bathroom.  I almost hit her with the roll of toilet paper.

He:  They don’t turn the lights off where I’m at.  It’s just like jail.

Diane Sawyer was not playing a drinking game. She was overworked.

When I got home, Super Tuesday was in full swing, all across cyberspace.  The Conservative news outlets were confident Mitt Romney would win, and the Liberal news outlets were certain President Obama would be re-elected.  The hideous news anchors were explaining what President Obama could do for Americans, what Romney would do for Americans.  It all hinged on which way those silly undecided states – Ohio and Florida – would swing.  Oh, the tension, the excitement.  Facebook posts and tweets on the Twitter were a lightin’ up over the suspense!  People were so funny, so happy, the day was finally here.  But they were so nervous, too.  OMG is their guy gonna win?  Stay tuned, America!  It was the grandest of reality shows, grander than plastic infused mafia wives, trashy Jersy girls, or drunk housewives, drag queens, ‘gator hunters, Klondike miners, hillbilly hoarders, and even Donald Trump, who was jealous and angry.  But he’ll probably cool down, because NBC is still giving him millions of dollars for one hour each week to shit out his false reality.

“Did you hear they used to have elections before electricity?”

I tried to keep up as the networks called states in favor of the President or Romney.  And I tried to be American and approach the election like a football game, like an episode of Dancing with the Stars, or Glee, but I just kept hearing that conversation I heard on the subway…and I kept seeing all the faces of the people out on Coney Island.  They seemed a million miles from the election.  So I powered down and went to bed.

When I awoke, democracy had prevailed.  President Obama would remain our president.  I believe it was a victory for America, not because I think Obama is a savior and will lead us to the promised land, but because he is responsible for the rise in the percentage of voters, over 60% for two elections.  I would love to see how America is represented if we can get to 85%…hell, we the people may actually have representation then, and the efforts for coporate/military totality may finally be conquored.  Obama’s legacy is that he got people to the polls, and that’s enough to go down in history as an American hero, in this Age of Lethargy, anyway.  He’s got the Black, Hispanic and Elderly vote…becuase they feel he is on their side.  And I believe he is.  He even got more of the evangelical right to come out and vote against him.  They gave it the good fight and lost.  But everybody wins when more people vote.


But all the American Woopdie-Do was little help to the Black, Hispanic, Russian and Elderly out at Coney Island on Less Than Super Wednesday, because of a massive snow storm that blew through later that evening.  The biblical snowstorm hindered the relief efforts in response to the biblical hurricane and I’m sure more than a few of the people I met out there were severely disappointed with The Almighty.  And, I’m sure more than a few could give a shit who won the Presidency.  It’s hard to really care about such spectacle when you’re digging through a cardboard box of coats and the only thing you can find to fit has flowers on it, is pink, and you’re a black man who has to wear it to his freezing apartment that is not a home so much as the government’s “project.”

Coney Island is ALIVE.

But hope has been abundant in New York this week.  Inspiration has been abundant.  Democracy has been abundant, too, though I’m not talking about Super Tuesday and all the drinking games it spawned from the policy wonks and quatroano politicos.  The people have been well represented here in the Big Apple because they’ve been representing themselves.  The unfortunate have let groups of goofy white merrymakers into their homes in so called bad neighborhoods to say hello and attempt to offer them relief.  The fortunate have come out in droves to attempt that relief.  They weren’t waiting for a politician to make the country better, THEY were making it better.  Out on the American street, the White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, elderly, disabled and poor, poor, poor have ventured forth from the rubble and looked each other in the eye, and acknowledged themselves as human beings.  If a group of humans can do that, they can easily be Americans together.  A disaster can wipe away all those “things” that that Russian on the subway was talking about.  That Brooklyn boy was right, picking cotton ain’t easy, and nobody’s lives are easy.  But a disaster can lift humanity to such a level higher than individual toil, so high it’s easy to see that we are in this big shebang together, that we are one.

Butoh under the train.

Saturday night, my friend Osha took me to a warehouse space in Long Island City to see some Butoh performers.  The place was located under the elevated train.  As the train roared intermittently, women performed Butoh, a Japenese performance art where the artist moves excruciatingly slowly, yet seamlessly.  Their actions are broad, sometimes absurd. They do not speak, but convey tremendous emotion through the expressions of their faces.  I love Butoh, though sometimes I paw out in the air for a fast forward button.  However, I’m always glad I stuck with it, and followed the emotional arc of the performers.  Good Butoh is like watching a moving painting.  And, you don’t realize it’s changed you until it’s over.  It’s a simple craft, but it ain’t easy.  You – the audience – have to put in the time, and in many ways, the performance is about what’s happening within you.  Some things are worth commitment, even if they are moving at a painfully slow pace.

Be well…

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…