That Muddy Waters Green Chevy Van by Austin Long-Scott

[A few weeks ago a friend posted a notice that Gospel record store Reid’s Records in Berkeley was going to close the next weekend.  Poking around the internet, I came up with this article in Berkeleyside.  The dates seemed to be fuzzy, and the notice I got was a week later than one closing date I had seen.  And then, today, in preparing this post, I found on Reid’s FB page that Diara is planning to be open Saturday, November 2.  So you can still check Reid’s out.  But also, when I shared this with friends in Oakland, Austin responded with this gem.  LR] 

That Muddy Waters Green Chevy Van

by Austin Long-Scott

I didn’t know about Reid’s but the article made me nostalgic because It connected me to

bd1668be764430868d508e9b500cfb8aa02f5a82_400x260_crop

I never was a gospel fan, maybe that’s why I ignored Reid’s even though I used to ride my bicycle along Sacramento Street right past their 3101 address.

memories I hadn’t thought about in decades. In my 20s and 30s I hung out in record stores, from small independents like Reid’s and El Cerrito’s Down Home Records to big independents like Berkeley’s Amoeba and chains like the then-new Tower Records. I was a traveling national reporter in the 60s and 70s and I had favorite record stores in half the states. No matter what was going right — or wrong — with an assignment, I always enjoyed a visit to a local record store. And yes, it was partly the joy of reading the album covers. I never was a gospel fan, maybe that’s why I ignored Reid’s even though I used to ride my bicycle along Sacramento Street right past their 3101 address. Blues and jazz and rock were more my taste. So I followed tiny used record stores like Grooveyard as they moved from one storefront to another, because I knew the owner, who was also the only employee, loved Abdullah Ibrahim and I might find a rare album of his in one of Grooveyard’s record bins.

The Reid’s article was framed to bring up how people work hard to build nests and a community based on shared interests grows up around the nests. And then things change and the nests they worked so hard to build slowly become unimportant to the community and then the community disappears. I’ve often remarked on how strange it is

Reids-plaque-1

The Reid’s article was framed to bring up how people work hard to build nests. . .

that human beings seek stability in a world that is ceaselessly changing. Capitalism speeds up change, of course, because change opens new opportunities for exploitation, which is the most cherished American freedom, the freedom to exploit.

And those thoughts took me to neighborhoods and gentrification. Not just the black working class Oakland that is being driven out by the flood of high rise luxury condos going up in the heart of the city, attracting Silicon Valley professionals with money to burn, driving rents sky high and smothering the nests that gave so many people so much pleasure in their heyday. There’s a 5-minute talking blues about Oakland’s after hours, mellow, down home juke joints of the 1980s that would come alive around 2am and go until 5 or 6am. It’s titled “Three Sisters,” by blues guitarist Frank Goldwasser on his “Bluju” album. When I was first getting to know San Francisco I paid attention to the Fillmore where black folks were being pushed out and the blues clubs were closing. I’ve never lived in San Francisco but I’ve studied it and the gentrification of the Fillmore was as real to me then as the gentrification of Oakland is now.

And those memories took me into memories of Chicago, where I was born. I didn’t grow up in Chicago, but back when I was a reporter I used to get to Chicago at least a couple of times a year and I alway took time to take pictures of those South and West side murals painted on crumbling slum building walls. Most of those are gone now. I was still doing that when the Wall of Respect and the Wall of Truth disappeared. And remembering that led me to a happier memory — the time a reporting assignment in Chicago led me to happen by a used car lot with a big sign that read “Drexel Chevrolet.” I suddenly remembered that my late father bought his first Chevy in 1948 from Drexel Chevrolet. So I stopped to take a look. As I stepped onto the lot a salesman left the office and headed in my direction. By the time he reached me I had spotted a 1967 Chevy van among the used

IChevy Van MG_6517

This is the body style of the van in Drexel Chevrolet; and it was the same color green without the white accents.

vehicles for sale. I happened to be in the market for a used van, so when the salesman greeted me I asked about it. He described it as having belonged to Muddy Waters.

Yeah, sure, I thought. I told him I wanted to look around and when he went back to his office I opened the door of the Chevy van. It was filthy inside. The floor was littered with greasy engine parts, cigarette butts, a few reefer remnants and quite a few used rubbers. When I rummaged through the glove box I found the original metal owners’ plate. It said this van had been sold to McKinley Morganfield.

Holy shit!! I thought. I jumped out of the van and headed for the nearest pay phone. I dialed information and asked for the number of McKinley Morganfield. It was listed. I dialed it. A woman answered the phone. I asked to speak to Muddy Waters. “He’s not home right now,” the woman said. “I’m his wife. Can I help you?” By the time we finished talking I had a complete history of how troublesome that van had been and why he traded it in at Drexel Chevrolet for a new station wagon. I used to go see Muddy Waters every time he performed in D.C., so I knew I had to have it. The salesman and I agreed on a price, I put a down payment on it, caught my scheduled flight back to D.C. and arranged another assignment in Chicago so I could drive it back home. I kept that van for 2 years and drove it from D.C. to California and back. Small stuff was always going wrong — door handles, window cranks, instruments, dashboard switches. But the big stuff, engine, driveline, cooling system, electrical wiring, all held together.

muddywaters

Muddy Waters

Collage — by Lew Rosenbaum

Collage

a review essay by Lew Rosenbaum

[American Histories, by John Edgar Wideman, was published in May, 2018.  The paperback9781501178351_p0_v2_s600x595 will be released later this month, March 26, 2019, by Scribner– ISBN 9781501178351, $16.  It should be available at your favorite bookstore]

You can discover the key to American Histories, the profoundly dialectical collection of what purports to be short stories by master craftsman John Wideman, on page 206.  “Well, Basquiat asks, how does the artist resolve this dilemma, Maestro? This perpetual losing battle, this shifting back and forth, this absence, gap, this oblivion between a reality the senses seize and a reality the imagination seizes.”  The Maestro in this story is Romare Bearden, the artist who in his youth lived in the Pittsburgh neighborhood, in which Wideman himself grew up a couple of decades later.  The conversation is imagined, but it could have been real, because Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat lived and worked not far from each other in Harlem, jean-michel-basquiatwhere both of them died in the same year, 1988.  Bearden, who preferred to be considered an artist and was usually called a “collagist,” was born in 1911.  Basquiat, described primarily as a painter, was born in 1960 and died  at 27.  Bearden and Basquiat never met.

Perhaps it’s the parallelism in their work, the fact that they were both giants of the art world in New York at the same time; that they incorporated, in abstract work, elements that clearly responded to the social situation that surrounded them; that jazz influenced their work; that Bearden was of the Black art movement and that Basquiat seemed unaware of it  – perhaps all of that is why Wideman chooses to imagine a conversation between the two of them.  You can be curious about that if you want to.  But it’s what he does with the mystery of the artistic forms that connect them and what separates them, and the Pittsburgh story, that intrigues me.

bearden_140-176dcbfa09f7c9fa2f2db4f91f5fefb0da0ad0f5-s6-c30

Romare Bearden

For instance, a page later he expands on this  “losing battle” in describing the problem of collage:  “He’s (Bearden) unable to explain to Basquiat why removal of objects from an array sometimes makes the array more plentiful, not smaller.  Nor can he explain how a board on which he is arranging things becomes more spacious as he packs it.” Or, Wideman has Bearden say, a few sentences later, “You might say each collage starts with the bare bones of a story.”  He tells a brief story about how he and two other kids beat up a neighbor. When Bearden’s grandmother intervenes, she brings that disabled neighbor boy, Eugene, to live with his family. A story that haunts the artist for 50 years: “A collage I built [Farewell Eugene] is layer upon layer questions about that simple story.” Adding each piece to the collage requires studying that piece, and the whole composition disappears;  “To see it whole again, his eyes must relinquish his grip on the element.”

And so it is with the whole of American Histories. But in this collage, concentrating on this one piece (“Collage”) brings everything else into focus. American Historiesis a collage of imagined American history, in which the imaginative is at least as important as the sensual.  The writer struggles with the gap between what maybe ought to have occurred and what we believe did happen.  John Brown and Frederick Douglass converse in the very first story, the Old Man unable to convince the escaped slave to join him at Harper’s Ferry. It’s not clear what part of “JB and FD” is real, what is imagined, and through it all what part is the writer’s voice. And ends with wondering why the author makes John Brown a Black man.

Wideman plays with the confessions of Nat Turner, imagining what is going through his head as he stands ready for execution. Turner begins to recite his “abc’s” – he is self taught, and instructs us about his own history and plans. As he explains the meanings of letters, he reaches his conclusion skipping to the end of the alphabet. An alphabet foreshortened as much as execution foreshortened his life.

At the very beginning, Wideman’s “prefatory note” is an open letter to the president. It’s likely written, or at least finished, after the 2016 election, and he wonders if the president who receives this note along with his stories will be a woman, perhaps a Black woman. If any president will receive it, he doubts. Wideman doesn’t explain the stories: They speak for themselves. “The note is a plea, Mr. President. Please eradicate slavery.”   And maybe, Wideman declares, terminating slavery may even be “beyond your vast powers.”  The thirteenth amendment did not accomplish the fact, another example of the play between sense and imagination, “But you should understand better than most of us, Mr. President, that history tells as many lies as truths.”

There is of coure the poetry of the language, a defining characteristic of Wideman’s writing. Framing the whole as a collage though, makes me look again and again at an element in “Maps and Ledgers,” a sentence that begins on page 57 and ends on page 59 and has to be written this way. A story as much about language as about a life experience.  Story with sentences, like this one, without verbs and articles. Another gem of a short story in which every paragraph begins with “We go out to dinner and discuss.” The two paragraph story “Bunny and Glide” parodies with the robbers of legendary fame. The long story, in which Wideman’s narrator stands at the edge of the Williamsburg Bridge contemplating suicide.

wideman

John Edgar Wideman

In the Aldous Huxleyesque universe of “Empire,”  Wideman replaces “superfluous distinctions” like race and gender with the “gratefuls” and the “givers.” This, in a way, a reprises the prefatory note’s allusion to the separation of peoples by immutable but superfluous categories and the question, when will it end and under what circumstances? His story “Expectations” ends with “I expect Nat Turner.  I expect he will die again for the sin of color.”  If we get a second coming of Nat Turner, do we also get a second coming of John Brown?  What will the next Harper’s Ferry look like?

From beginning to end, Wideman layers story after story, after a patient lifetime’s practice, as if they are colors, fabrics, doing what Bearden did on a board, having “practice[d] patiently for a lifetime the skills of cutting and pasting, gluing down

Pittsburgh Memories Farewell Eugene

Pittsburgh Memories — Farewell Eugene by Romare Bearden

textures, colors, fabric, layer after layer to picture what the past may have been and how it rises again, solid and present as the bright orange disc of the sun I put at the top right corner of Farewell Eugene.”

Remembrance Of A Hunter Of Stories

Eduardo Galeano died in April 2015.  I think of him often, I was overjoyed to hear that Hunter of Stories would be published posthumously in Nov. 2017. This is excerpted from a post I wrote a year earlier, November 2016, on this blog:

Eduardo Galeano sat at my dining room table in my Chicago apartment on Lill Street one block away from Guild Books, pen poised and a stack of books to be signed at his side. Breakfast consumed, he had reluctantly agreed to sign some books in advance of his appearance at the bookstore later that Saturday, 1988.   He was anxious, it seemed, and we had been warned that his health was mending after some heart issues. We didn’t press him to sign books, but were delighted when he agreed with our suggestion that some folks might just want to purchase a signed copy without talking with him.

I sat mesmerized with the tremendous accomplishment of getting Galeano to Guild; even more amazed by the good fortune of giving up my bedroom to him and my relocating to the living room couch. How did that happen?

Three years earlier, in 1985, I’d been a bookseller at Midnight Special Books in Santa Monica, California. I had done many things at the bookstore, but in 1985 I was mostly the person in charge of ordering books. While the consolidation in book selling and publishing had been well underway, it was still a few years before the tremendous expansion of super stores. It was still important for sales representatives to call on booksellers for book orders.

Doug Hodges, who later became a national sales manager for Random House, s0ld the Random House catalogue to me then. He always came to see me early in the season. He told me I prepared more thoroughly than any of his accounts for our meetings, and, even with the smaller number of imprints under the Random House rubric than I would later have to deal with, meeting with Doug could be an all day event. Start at 9 AM, break at noon for lunch, then come back to wrap up from 1 to 3. All independent bookstores relied heavily on Vintage paperbacks, Pantheon literary and political titles. Less important for us were the books in the venerable Knopf imprint, the Random House titles and Crown and Villard were least important. Nevertheless I always combed through each of those catalogs to find the gems, which was one reason Doug came early to see me. He said he learned a lot about the importance of some of the books that no one else knew about. This day in 1985 was going to be one of those days.

In the Pantheon catalog I found Eduardo Galeano’s Genesis, “the extraordinary first volume of a great and ambitious project” reads the flap of the book jacket. This is probably part of the catalog copy that leaped out at me. And the first thing I said to Doug as we sat down to the Pantheon list was: “We want Galeano in our store when he tours for the book. He has GOT to come here. No place else in Los Angeles area would know what to do to promote this book or who has the connections to get people to hear him.”

Hodges sat dumbfounded. “Who is he?” Doug asked.

I told him about how a generation of Mexican and South American intellectuals had cut

galeano-autograph-1

Galeano signed Genesis at my breakfast table

their critical thinking eye-teeth on Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (two decades later Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would choose to present a copy to recently elected President Barack Obama); how that was the most consistent best selling book on Latin American history in that section of the store; how the most important Latin American studies departments/teachers in the Los Angeles area from UCLA to UC Irvine to Cal State Los Angeles relied on that book, all of whom we knew and to whose students we therefore had a direct line. And when I got through Doug reiterated that was why he came to the Midnight Special first. He had never heard of Galeano, he now had something to tell other booksellers when he showed the catalog.

But Random House was not planning on touring him, it was not in their plans at all, he was too unknown in the US, Random House could not afford to bring him from Uruguay where he lived. Excuse after excuse met my rants and raves and criticism of their short sightedness.

Random House did not bring Galeano to the US in 1985.

The situation repeated itself, complete with rants and raves and refusals from Random House in 1987, when the second volume, Faces and Masks, was published. This time, however, Doug knew who Eduardo Galeano was and thought he would pre-empt my tantrum by telling me in advance that Galeano was not coming to the United States.

At the end of 1987 I packed my Toyota Station Wagon with its rebuilt engine and its 200,000 miles and drove to Chicago to join the Guild Books staff. One of the first sales representatives I met was Random House’s Mary McCarthy. While poring over the Pantheon catalog I saw that Galeano’s third and concluding volume of the Memory of Fire Trilogy, Century of the Wind, would be published that season (1988). I guess the cumulative brow beating Random House reps had gotten from the likes of Richard Bray at Guild and me at Midnight Special must have taken its toll on the Random House touring brass.

This time Galeano would come to the US.  Richard had come to know Eduardo Galeano’s agent in New York, Susan Bergholz, who insisted that Galeano needed peace and quiet while he was here, recuperating from his illness. Some place away from what she anticipated would be a flurry of activists tiring him out and keeping him from getting the rest that he needed on what looked like a very strenuous tour. He hid out in my bedroom.

So there he was, in my dining room, at the table at which he had just finished breakfast, signing books, including all three volumes of the trilogy, Open Veins, Days and Nights of Love and War, and a copy of each signed to me, all signed “gratefully, mil mil abrazos,” and more importantly with the caricature of the pig with the flower in his mouth, a trademark he said he reserved for special autographs.

But, he said, “I will not read.” OK, we thought, we don’t want to press him on this, make him angry or more anxious. Yes bookstore patrons, our bookstore patrons, want the author to give them a taste of what is in the book and talk about it.   But here is a man who is clearly nervous about the upcoming event. So we backed off, and Eduardo went for a walk, returning directly to the bookstore an hour or so before the event was to start, declaring himself willing to sign more books in advance if we wished. And yes, we wished.

As he signed, the people began to arrive for the book signing. He was seated in the back room, but heard the commotion beginning to build, glanced into the store area, and said, “I think I will read. But I left my book with my notations in your apartment.” I ran to the building, ran up to the third floor apartment (yes, we had cleared with his agent that walking up 3 flights would not be too strenuous for Eduardo), found his book and ran back with it in time to start the program.

The crowd hung on his words, as he read in English but also in Spanish, and then answered questions, altogether about an hour and a half, and then began signing books, as the line snaked throughout the store. He talked with each person as much as the person wanted; he took pictures with the customers and their children. I stood at his side doing the task that all booksellers do in this situation: open the books to the pages preferred for the signature. And about 45 minutes into the signing ritual Eduardo turned to me with a broad but incredulous smile: “They like me. They really like me!”

Before he left, Eduardo toured the 3,000 square feet of the book store and spent some time looking at the political and labor posters we had for sale, on display in a rack. He fingered the display, took some notes, and left. The next morning friends of ours recorded an interview with him on video and took him in search of Haymarket Square, a search that proved unsuccessful.

DSCF5075

The Haymarket monument, sculpted by Mary Brogger, located just north of Randolph on DesPlaines, was not in place when Eduardo went in search of Haymarket Square in 1988

Four years would pass before Eduardo would return to Guild. In May, 1992 my divorce from my first wife was finally becoming a reality, my marriage to my second wife a month away, and the book Eduardo would be signing would be The Book of Embraces. The existence of the bookstore itself was tenuous as both a Barnes & Noble and a Borders had opened in the neighborhood and as the neighborhood became less affordable for our regulars. Our core clientele were moving away. We had to close one third of the bookstore and the Guild Complex, the not-for-profit literary organization we had spawned to take up the promotion of literary events, had to move (they occupied a performance space in the South Loop called The Edge of the Lookingglass. This is where Eduardo was going to read.

This time Eduardo stayed in a hotel off Michigan Avenue. We agreed to meet in the lobby of his hotel. There were some items he had to buy while he was on tour, and we could talk while I accompanied him on his rounds. We went to one of the “Magnificent Mile’s” most appealing shopping attractions, the Water Tower Place, where Eduardo wanted to pick up some CDs for his daughter and where I knew there was a small CD store. He picked up a couple of classical CDs and a jazz CD, off the sale rack at the front of the store, but then was stymied in finding the CD his daughter wanted.
Eduardo walked to the checkout counter and asked the sales clerk, in faltering but carefully pronounced words, “Do you have anything by the [clearly and slowly enunciated] Butt Hole Surfers”? A quizzical and sheepish look spread over his face as he said it, almost apologetic. But the clerk was the one who apologized, saying that he wished the store would carry them, but probably the best place to try would be Wax Trax Records (which was right across from the Guild Book Store!).

That evening at the Guild Complex at the Edge of the Lookingglass, Eduardo Galeano read to an even larger crowd than he had the first time in Chicago. And among the things he read was this tribute to Guild Bookstore, the “largest bookstore in Chicago” in this anecdote:

Forgetting
Chicago is full of factories. There are even factories right in the center of the city, around the world’s tallest building. Chicago is full of factories. Chicago is full of workers.

Arriving in the Haymarket district, I ask my friends to show me the place where the workers whom the whole world salutes every May 1st were hanged in 1886.

It must be around here,’ they tell me. But nobody knows where.

No statue has been erected in memory of the martyrs of Chicago in the city of Chicago. Not a statue, not a monolith, not a bronze plaque. Nothing.

May 1st is the only truly universal day of all humanity, the only day when all histories and all geographies, all languages and all religions and cultures of the world coincide. But in the United States, May 1st is a day like any other. On that day, people work normally and no one, or almost no one, remembers that the rights of the working class did not spring whole from the ear of a goat, or from the hand of God or the boss.

After my fruitless exploration of the Haymarket, my friends take me to the largest bookstore in the city. And there, poking around, just by accident, I discover an old poster that seems to be waiting for me, stuck among many movie and rock posters. The poster displays an African proverb: Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.

* * * * * * * * *

We know now where the Haymarket was, where the rally was for which the Haymarket

galeano-we-say-yes-to-diana-and-lew

In his 1992 book of critical essays, We Say No, Eduardo wrote: “We say no to some people. And we say yes to Diana and Lew.

martyrs were arrested and imprisoned and executed. In 2006 Henry Holt published Eduardo’s Voices of Time, continuing the epigrammatic form he has worked with, this time “stories that I lived or heard.”   At the Guild Complex we convinced Susan Bergholz to take Eduardo’s strenuous tour through Chicago once more. He read for us at the Museum of Contemporary Art to a packed audience. For many, this was the culmination of what Guild Books had been about. For us, it was an opportunity of bringing memory, forgetting, and not knowing at all together, these themes that strike at the heart of Galeano’s work and of the revolutionary process.

May Day, 2006, just weeks earlier, I walked among almost a million Chicagoans along a route from Union Park to Randolph into the Loop and Grant Park. The steel, concrete and glass canyons resounded with the chants of marchers, many of them recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” reverberated from the walls of those buildings, the marchers swelling into the streets in a mass farther than anyone could see.

But before coming to the loop, just a few blocks out of Union Park, we came to Randolph and Des Plaines. I stepped to the sidewalk, stood in the shadow of the corner building and looked north as the throng walked by me. The contingent from one union, also looking north, paused briefly and saluted the sculpture across the way – a recreation of the platform from which the speakers addressed their audience that May, 1886. Most marchers seemed unaware of the historic place through which they were walking, although well aware of the historic day on which they were marching.

How could we bring this reality of American consciousness to the reading that Eduardo was going to do? We made sure that some of those union leaders representing the marchers and their consciousness of May Day introduce Eduardo. And so they did, and we had the chance to talk about the sculpture, the march, and that although many marchers did not know where Haymarket square was, the fact that their march reclaimed not only the memory of the martyrs but the reality of the struggle which continues.

********

And that’s how the blog post ends,  with shop floor union leaders who had been in the leadership of forming that march talking with Eduardo about the significance of that march, a way for us to return to the Book of Embraces, in a way to embrace this chronicler of the historic struggles of the international working class.  As I told Eduardo about this march that was more than a march, I explained that I had been to many May Days in my life.  They were travesties of what May Day used to be like.  I recounted to him how my father had walked in May Day marches in New York, as part of the insurance workers union (I didn’t know this then, but one of the largest unions in Chicago in the 1930s was the union of workers who worked for large insurance companies). In a way I felt cheated, because my sister, 14 years older than I, stood on the sidewalk with my mother while the parade went by.  But my May Days were small gatherings of at best 100 people.  And here, in 2006, hundreds of thousands of workers marched in the streets, while the ideologues had their small meetings and groused because “these were immigrants, not really workers”!

The National Museum of Mexican Arts celebrated the publication of Hunter of Stories in December, 2017. Sandra Cisneros, among others, read from the book.  She chose to read this selection:

May Day is the most widely celebrated of all holidays.

The entire world stands still to pay homage to the workers hanged long ago in Chicago for the crime of refusing to work more than eight hours a day.

On my first trip to the United States, I was surprised to learn that May 1st was a day like any other.  Not even the city of Chicago, where the tragedy occurred, seemed to notice. In The Book of Embraces I confessed that such willful forgetting pained me.

Much later I received a letter from Diana Berek and Lew Rosenbaum of Chicago.

They had never celebrated the holiday, but in the year 2006, along with the largest crowd they had ever witnessed, they paid homage to the workers sent to the gallows long ago for their bravery.

In the letter, Diana and Lew told me they finally understood the discomfort I described in the Book of Embraces.

“Chicago embraces you,” the letter said.

Hunter of Stories is a collection of  memories, sometimes gentle, sometimes sharp, alwaysGaleano Hunter of Stories penetrating.  There are, for example, two recollections of his book Open Veins of Latin America. One recounts how his native country, Uruguay, at first did not ban the book thinking that it was a book of anatomy. They discovered their error quickly.  The second, tells of the soccer player who carried the book that found its way across continents, a book pierced by a bullet that entered the back of a guerrilla fighter from El Salvador, killing him, found its way back to the hands of its author.  The book is a kind of a pearl necklace, an embrace of images of a lifetime strung artfully together for reminiscence . . . or for meditation on what is next.

 

In Search of Grown-Up Anger

In Search of Grown-Up Anger by Lew Rosenbaum

I’m forever grateful to Lee Ballinger, for writing his review of Grown-Up Anger in Counterpunch. (Read the review here)  I don’t have to do the work he did to dig into the history of the Upper Peninsula or the Dustbowl. I don’t have to spend the time Grown-Up Angerrecounting the incomparable connections that author Daniel Wolff draws between Dylan and Guthrie (the subtitle of this book is The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913), or to spend time on the music (which I am not skilled enough to do anything more than sketch). Instead I can dwell on the title, Grown-Up Anger, and why that is such an important part of this story.

At 18 years old, I was angry about Yale rejecting me, angry that my father wanted me to go to work rather than go to college, angry that Columbia accepted me without automatically giving me a scholarship, angry as an outcast at school, angry that my mother wanted me to stay close to home. I packed my resentment in my suitcases and fled from New Haven, Connecticut to Los Angeles, California to get far away from everything that made me angry. That’s how I started, and that’s what I brought to the table when I started to read Daniel Wolff’s Grown-Up Anger.

“You could start elsewhere,” Daniel begins his book. Elsewhere meaning other than being 13 and angry. “You could start here,” he writes to end the book, describing the molten lava at the core of the earth, at the core of the story of Calumet, at the core of the story of the music of both Guthrie and Dylan. But Wolff starts not with economics, not with anthropology, not with geology. The author starts with music, with hearing a raw voice coming out of the radio, the first time he heard Bob Dylan, “Like A Rolling Stone” representing what anger is all about at 13, and who isn’t angry at 13? Angry at everything, adults dismissing that anger, and, Wolff says, “I swore I’d never forget that look. Never forget how adults dismiss what kids say . . .”

Stay with me now. This is not “just another book glorifying or justifying teenage angst.” Quotes because I can see readers my age shaking their heads with knowing smiles of actualized wisdom. This is a book about perception and reality. Daniel conjures up the pictures of the angry young Dylan and Guthrie, how they see themselves and the world, how their portraits correspond to reality – or not. And, even more important, how these pictures change with changing circumstances.

So Daniel Wolff was an angry 13 year old when he first heard Bob Dylan (on the radio) singing “Like A Rolling Stone.” The more he heard it, the more everything about the song declared, “Outrage was the only way to respond to the world, the only way to get out from under the crust of lies to something like the truth.” And there you have it in one short sentence. There is a world that is a trickster and a sham. But, there is a truth that lies beneath the lies. We are justified in being angry that the world lies to us. How do we penetrate those lies to uncover liberate the truth?

Wolff discovers “Like A Rolling Stone,” discovers Dylan, goes poking around in record bins to find more, and happens a few years later, when in college, on an album by Woody Guthrie. Listening to Guthrie, Daniel Wolff finds it easy to see what Dylan learned from Guthrie. But in searching for more Guthrie (hard to find) he finds an album recently released by Guthrie’s son Arlo, with a song Woody wrote called “1913 Massacre.” Reaper - blog copyThe tune, he recognizes, was what led him to Woody in the first place, a tune used by Dylan in his first album, an homage called “Talkin’ Woody.” Now this is a story of how everything is connected, not in some imaginary way grafted on to reality to make it seem to fit like a Procrustean Bed. This is pure dialectics. That Guthrie and Dylan are tied together through this “Talkin’ Woody.” But that the tune of “Talkin’ Woody” comes from an actual Woody Guthrie tune, “1913 Massacre,” that is linked to the context in which both songwriters/singers were coming to terms with the reality, the truth of the world around them.

One thing that’s really great about this book is how Daniel Wolff unpacks the context of the thread he is following—by the time the first chapter ends you know that you will find clues in the massacre in 1913, where more than 70 children died for money and greed. Dylan’s anger, from the days of “Like a Rolling Stone,” has transformed into some kind of icon; while Guthrie’s hopeful music of the world yet to come has receded into some kind of history. “Is that what happens to anger? Is there no way for it to grow up.”

Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie both created myths about themselves, and one part of the book delves into what is the truth, what isn’t, and does it really matter? Or put another way, when is the myth truer than truth? And while it may seem that this question is in the realm of biography, which so often is falsified (especially in terms of celebrities), Wolff also takes his lens to the truth and myth of Calumet on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the massacre that happened there in 1913. It does matter if the doors in that building opened in or out. It does matter how the mineowners treated their workers. It does matter how the union responded to the demands of the miners. This book is about perception and reality, about context, and, near the end of the book Wolff returns to pursue the theme of anger growing up. Here’s Woody Guthrie, writing about two kinds of anger:

What is an outlaw? . . . [T]he outlaw is beat. Beat to start with. The whole world is against him. Reason why is because he’s not organized. He’s just by his self. Wants to holler, cuss, fight, work to change the world around a little bit better . . .but he’s by his self. Bound to lose . . . Why do people set down and write great songs and ballads about their outlaws?

Here’s why. An outlaw does it wrong . . . And the Union does it right . . . [But] an outlaw does one big thing. What? It’s easy.

He tries.

Tries his best.

Dies for what he believes in. Goes down shooting.

 

In “East Texas Red,” Guthrie’s song tells the story of a group of hobos who against a railroad brakeman, known to be the meanest man on the line, who has kicked over their dinner, a pot of stew, and sent them packing. They kill the brakeman next time he threatens them, then sit down to eat their stew, “no compromise” says Wolff, “an outlaw likearollingstoneballad about grown-up anger.”

I don’t mean to imply that Grown-Up Anger is prescriptive. The book is a quest for “The history of anger. Hope. The truth.” Quests are journeys, not end points. An extended description of “Like A Rolling Stone” three quarters of the way through evokes the feeling of listening to the song even years after the author first heard it. The music of the book is as much the author’s poetic voice as his fugal musical sensibility. Far from prescriptive, the most satisfying part, in a way, is how the geology, anthropology, economics, and history of Calumet are also metaphor for the music of the book. For what else is the fiery magma contained within an 1800 mile rock shell and a 5 mile crust holding lead, copper and sulfur than some kind of rage waiting to break free? “You could start there.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Things I Know I Love About You

Things I Know I Love About You: A Poem at 75     by Lew Rosenbaum

I don’t know when I first read Nazim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.”  He wrote it a year before he died of a heart attack, but it smacks of the kind of reflection that strikes one who sees the end pending and who savors all the moments remaining.  Or of observing

nazim_hikmet2_s

Nazim Hikmet (1902, Salonica – June 3, 1963, Moscow)

the slow demise of a loved one and sees for perhaps the first time every motion, every sound that makes that person special.  Hikmet was 60 then, the year was 1962.  

Hikmet, generally considered one of the most important 20th century poets, was a Turkish revolutionary.  This is what the poets.org site has to say about him:

Raised in Istanbul, Hikmet left Allied-occupied Turkey after the First World War and ended up in Moscow, where he attended the university and met writers and artists from all over the world. After the Turkish Independence in 1924 he returned to Turkey, but was soon arrested for working on a leftist magazine. He managed to escape to Russia, where he continued to write plays and poems.

In 1928 a general amnesty allowed Hikmet to return to Turkey, and during the next ten years he published nine books of poetry—five collections and four long poems—while working as a proofreader, journalist, scriptwriter, and translator. He left Turkey for the last time in 1951, after serving a lengthy jail sentence for his radical acts, and lived in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, where he continued to work for the ideals of world Communism

He died in Moscow in 1963.  

Of course the poem made me think of what I didn’t realize I loved — especially as I approached surgery last year and wondered how much longer I would be able to appreciate those things.  But even more I began to think of what I knew I loved. And I thought about how to respond to Hikmet’s poem in a way to affirm that love.  This is what came out;  it is my poem for Diana on my 75th birthday.  

 

It’s 2017, November 13

Night has fallen as I drive home

and though I feel like a “tired bird on a smoky wet plain”

I love anticipating

walking in the door

sitting down next to you

and offering you dark chocolate

 

I didn’t know I love the earth

the working of it

until you come in, trowel in hand,

gloves soil-brown, loam aroma in your hair, and then

I know I love how you revere this, our mother

 

I know I’ve loved mountains whose peaks0004926-R1-063-30

pierce the sky, while rivers cascade

down their sides eating canyons into the stone

and the ancient sequoias that people

the slopes and valleys

and while I look up at the mysteries reaching for heaven

I love that you focus on tiny yellow and blue miracle flowers underfoot

 

I knew at once that I love the way you fight

to understand the world around you –

do you remember that salon where we watched a film

Bethlehem Wedding I think it was

and after, you explained the entire history of European feudalism

me with my mouth wide with wonder

 

I didn’t know I loved all trees

the way you showed me to see them as friends

to stand under the arching cottonwoods and

examine their ribbed bark

to hail the procession of springtime flowers

maples, chestnut candles, fragrant basswood, the long beans of the catalpas

all this and more I know I love about you

 

Do you remember the first timePortraits of Diana

you came to my apartment,

remember the blue sweater you wore,

remember how I demanded to take your photograph

I know I loved that intense look in your green eyes –

even though I thought they were blue –

what I love now is your patience,

you gave me a second chance, you must have wondered

why the photos, what’s wrong with himPortraits of Diana 1

I don’t regret them: one thing I love about you

is those portraits, those eyes of crystalline jade

 

And I know I love about you other pictures

the portraits with Greta

that introspective and far away look

I know I love how you seized the snapshot of David at Starved Rock

and transformed it into a meditative painting

of a fourteen year old young man

Portrait of David

Diana’s portrait of David in Nelson Peery’s Future is Up To Us

gazing at sand

spilling through outstretched fingers

contemplating eternity

 

I know I love how you drew resistance

how in one lone image you captured technological innovation

and the promise of a future abundance

a mandala of heads and open mouths

words and notes

hammers, scythes

playing with mother boards and keystrokes

and real-if-not-artificial intelligence

emerging from past class antagonisms

I know I love how you play with dialectics

 

I know I love the red chair in your Oxbow painting

Red Chair

The Red Chair at Oxbow

the sheathe of yellow sun light streaking across the grass,

green with yesterday rains

exuberant in the blustery winds off the Eastern Lake Michigan shore

I know I love the memory of standing in the fading sun

atop corn-rowed-hills at summer’s end

a quilted landscape draped before us

the aroma of hot dry husks flaring our nostrils

all finding their way onto your canvas

 

I know I chuckle every time I pass

the denim constructions stitched to the earth

because I know I love the rents in the fabric

Stitched to the Earth #1: In Joy And Sorrow

Stitched to the Earth #1: In Joy And Sorrow, 2005 (Denim, Conte Crayon)    The history of labor is the collective narrative of many individual joys and many individual sorrows.  These fragments of pant legs show the ear and tear and dust of work.  But in the lifetime of the men and women, there was time to rest, time for families to come together to express their joys and sorrows.

that show the working class pedigree

I laugh at our joke that someone has torn this painting

I know I love the way we laugh together

we have also cried together

 

I know I love that we can hold each other

while our children and all around us whirl toward destruction

and we grasp for the new world in birth

I know I love that you changed my life 25 years ago

And continue every day to change my life

And I love that I didn’t need to reach 75 to know I love all this about you.

 

 

 

 

At The Eleventh Hour: a poem by Lew Rosenbaum

At The Eleventh Hour  by Lew Rosenbaum

 

I don’t know what symbol

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month had.

05_amack_eatingIn 1918 it marked the end of “hostilities.”

Seven months later, a peace treaty was signed.

A year later Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it a holiday

Called Armistice Day, which in 1938

Was formally dedicated to world peace,

Which was quickly exploding

Around the world in the horrors of

Pogroms, concentration camps, massacres and

Genocides.

But at least it was dedicated to world peace.

These days, that day

Honors our veterans of all our wars,

Patriots who have protected our country.

I don’t believe the economic draftees

Of my jingoist nation are protecting it

By guarding the oil dynasties of the

House of Saud.

I think the three billion bux a year

Thrown at Israel’s war machine

Could be better spentminor6

Housing the homeless,

Educating our children,

Solving the environmental crisis.

I think of the unsuspecting foot soldier

Stuck in a Vietnam foxhole

Who discovered,

Listening to Judy Collins singing from “Marat/Sade” about the poor of Paris,

That he was fighting on the wrong side.

And as far as peace goes,

Seems to me we need a peace initiative

In our own cities and towns,

Where violence claims the lives of

Thousands who have been discarded

By political-corporate reprobates of all colors and genders,

The only things those miscreants have in common

Are that they own nearly everything

And that they don’t care about us

Because we, the poor people perpetually unemployed,

No longer sweat profit for their bulging wallets.

We need our own armistice

Not simply to call a halt to the killing of our babies

In the streets

But to end the hostilities, the conditions that lead to that killing,

To end the little murders day by day

That send us into the free fall of despair.

Our armistice will confiscate the property of the land developers,

Take over the banks and end their foreclosures

The eleventh hour tolls now; we need a People’s Armistice Day

To declare the beginning of a government

Of our class, not theirs,

Of, by and for the dispossessed,

With justice and liberty and

Peace.

Mementos 10: Three Authors And What My Comrades Have Taught me

Mementos 10:   Three Authors And What My Comrades Have Taught me 

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery  November 15, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]

Mementos recover our experiences, make them live again, ones we want to remember. So much of my life has been entwined with writers and writing, with revolutionary work, that everything is colored in those hues. I would not do what I have done over the years without the collective discussions with the comrades, who helped me understand what I had lived through and helped me understand what was to be done as different circumstances arose. Disagreement and struggle have all been part of the learning process. I owe everything to them, and to my comrade Diana, on whose companionship, encouragement, constant pushing me forward and provocative ideas I have come to depend as much as I depend on air to breathe. I cannot emphasize this point enough. So this section is about three of the thinkers I’ve met because of the work I have done among writers, because of what my comrades have taught me.

 

* * * * * *

 

My friend Anne and I got to the auditorium early to get a place on the waiting list. More than 1000 people had reserved seats, but we still had hope we’d get in, and our ticket said we were number 12 in line. We got in and quickly found seats in the fourth row, right in the center, and sat down. Audience was buzzing all around us. The speaker would be Jonathan Kozol, I pulled out my copy of his latest book and told Anne, “I’ll never get him to sign this today, Guess I’ll have to give up on that.”

The woman next to Anne leaned over to look at the book, Shame of A Nation. “Is it as good as Savage Inequalities,” she asked? “That book changed my life. My daughter just graduated as an elementary school teacher and I had to give it to her.

autographs-2

Warmest thanks from a grateful friend and admirer — Savage Inequalities

I nodded vigorously, “I think it’s much stronger than Savage Inequalities, but let me tell you about his book that changed my life, Death At An Early Age.”

At that, the woman in front of me turned around and asked, “Is that an older book? It seems to me I read that, maybe about 30 years ago? Yes that was amazing!”

“That was his first book, his book about his own experiences teaching in segregated schools of Boston.”

“That’s what he writes about, education . . .”

“But you know,” I interjected, “between Savage Inequalities and his new book, Kozol wrote two remarkable books, Amazing Grace . . .”

“Is that the one you gave me,” Anne asked me, while the woman sitting next to the woman in front of me exclaimed, “Yes, that’s the one I read!”

“, , ,and Ordinary Resurrections, two books really about the beauty and resilience of young people despite the degradation forced upon them.”

* * * * *

This excited exchange is what books are about. . It took place in the third and fourth rows of the auditorium of the Harold Washington Library, March 16, 2006, as the audience walked in. Much of my life has been among the community of people who write, publish, sell and read books that change the world. I write about how literature participates in social transformation. I’m starting with Jonathan Kozol here, but I could be writing about any of dozens authors whom I’ve been lucky enough to have met.

* * * * *

I “met” Jonathan Kozol in 1970, when I was a social worker working for the County of Los Angeles, assigned to the Pasadena “Adult Aids” office. This was my first permanent employment after I left medical school, after my temporary gigs had evaporated, after the Los Angeles Unified School District told me they did not want me to be a teacher.

Adult Aids shared an office with “Family Aids,” that is, those who provided Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the largest portion of the welfare system. There were two parts of the adult aids section: “Old Age Security,” for those who were ineligible for Social Security, or whose Social Security did not provide for all of their needs. These were the “deserving poor.” The other part of adult aids was called “General Relief” in Los Angeles County – it went by other names elsewhere – but it was aid for the “undeserving poor,” that is, up until the early 1970s primarily single men who could not get a job. In fact, most of the general relief was routed through the welfare office on 4th street on Skid Row, called by the welfare department the “Single Men’s Center.” For years people had been sent to the Fourth Street office to register for welfare, from which they would immediately be placed in a welfare hotel on Skid Row and then dispatched to what was euphemistically called “Work Project.” Gangs of men could be seen around the parks raking leaves or sweeping streets or, when the fall fire season began, on the front lines fighting conflagrations. When farm workers were needed, men would be dispatched to the tomato fields or the grape ranches. The pay was often in vouchers for food and housing; when it was in money, the rate was in the range of $109 per month. (Vouchers for food and rent were in the $15 a week range).

There were maybe a dozen of us in the general relief section, and we quickly got a reputation for being the radicals in the building. In the first place, we were the most completely unionized section of the workforce. Art Grubel, the Pasadena chapter president was a little shocked when, on my first day of work, I sought him out to join; later on Jack and Harry, two union members from the Single Mens’ Center, transferred in; Rita who came from a family aids background also transferred in; and the supervisor, James Elcock, had been promoted from the ranks and was also a union member.   (Pat Kuntz, the other supervisor, was not a union member; Jim Starrs, who supervised some of the OAS workers, was also a union member).

Even more important, we all believed that the welfare regulations were too stringent, and we got to know what the regulations actually were and how that differed from the even more restrictive practical policies. As a result, our office became known as the office that had figured out how to give away the most money per recipient, and the administration clamped down on us little by little.

Conversation with Elcock and Starrs often turned to the political, and ranged far beyond the problems of the welfare offices. My experiences earlier in the (also radical) Student Health Project and then with the Black Panthers and some of the East Los Angeles community organizations, my trip to Cuba, and the fact that the Los Angeles Unified School District rejected by job application because of my long hair and my beard placed me on an interesting playing field in relation to them and to my fellow workers. Mary Alice, for instance, who sat behind me in the office, with her flask of Jack Daniels in her drawer just in case, would torment me about my willingness to give away the County’s money. She traced it to my radical roots. Not the case with most of my fellow workers and with the two supervisors. It was in this environment that I discovered a best selling book of the day: Death At An Early Age. I devoured this book, written by a teacher in Boston, about my own age, could not stop talking about it. To this day, I feel the chills the children in his school felt, that winter day he describes, huddled in the corner of the auditorium assigned to them for their classroom, under a broken window with the wind howling outside. Reading this book introduced me to Jonathan Kozol and helped me understand something more how the social issues I was dealing with daily had a systemic origin. And of course, as a person who had hoped to be a teacher, the frustrations Kozol related, the discrimination against Black students he reported, and the fact that what he described, short of the howling winds and snow, resonated with my own experiences in Watts, California.

Nearly two decades later I’d started working at Guild Books in Chicago. One night, back at home listening to a call-in show on public radio, I heard Otis Thomas, a member of the Chicago-Gary Area Union of the Homeless talking about housing takeovers and wintering in Chicago weather. I called the station, said I had just come from the west coast where the weather is less brutal, but where in Los Angeles they had considered rounding up all the homeless and placing them on a barge in the ocean. Thomas said he’d spent winters in California, where you could still die of hypothermia sleeping outside.

A few months later, I heard that Jonathan Kozol was in Chicago promoting his new book, Rachel and Her Children. This book about homelessness was a departure for Kozol. I was angry that I’d heard about this so late and could not invite him to sign books at Guild. I called the Crown Publishers sales representative to see if there was any way we could get him to drop by the store and meet some activists involved in homelessness. I got a local number for him and persuaded him to stop by. Because Guild was also the center of “Artists Against Homelessness,” organized by artist and staff member Sue Ying Peery, we contacted some of the artists Sue Ying was working with. They came to the store when Kozol was due to arrive. Then I called Otis Thomas and others to ask them to come to meet Kozol. The result was something that could happen only at Guild.

In January, 1988, the New York Times ran a story that featured Otis Thomas. ”Why are people dying on the streets when there are perfectly good apartments available?” . . . ”People say we’re crazy out here on the streets,” said Mr. Thomas. ”Well, what’s crazy is sitting around and not doing anything about it. We’re not going to give up. We’ve had enough.” (Jan. 7, 1988: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/01/07/us/homeless-plight-protested-in-3-cities.html ) Otis had been homeless for about 2 years. He was tall, plain-spoken, gentle and anxious to exchange conversation with Jonathan. On his part, Kozol amazing-grace-coverwas eager to learn about the street-level situation in Chicago and delighted to meet people putting up tent cities, reclaiming abandoned housing, and protesting the thousands of empty public housing units with so many people out on the street. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimated the numbers of homeless in Chicago at about 20,000 that year, and the Chicago Housing authority admitted to a waiting list of 4,000 approved for entry to public housing, with over 3,000 empty units they called uninhabitable.

The morning ended with Jonathan giving me his telephone number in Massachusetts, the number of his assistant, and promising to do a reading for us his next time in Chicago. A year later, Rachel and Her Children came out in paperback. This time we were ready, and arranged for a reading. Of course we were able to bring the homeless activist community together for this event. Jonathan was soft-spoken, but when he started speaking there was a tremor, a fervor in his voice. He spoke about how, as a writer, he always hopes to convince people with his writing; he wants his writing to have an effect, to make a difference. And so it was with Rachel. He thought it would be a part of an effort to end this travesty of homelessness in a country that brags it is the richest in the world. But, he pointed out, a year after Rachel was published, and many lectures and travels since, he had found that the main consequence of the publicity is that a whole industry has arisen around homelessness. “There are even degrees in shelter management given in universities,” he said.

A few years later, June 5, 1995, House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich was scheduled to give a talk to the final lunch meeting at the American Bookseller’s Association annual convention, this time in Chicago. There had been considerable opposition to this among booksellers. Nevertheless, ABA director Bernie Rath defended his decision to invite him. I called John Donahue, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, to tell him about Gingrich’s appearance. Gingrich had issued his infamous “contract on America,” that included Medicare and Medicaid cuts as well as welfare and food stamp cutbacks. John called me back after consulting with his colleagues. Could I buy them tickets to the luncheon? Of course I could, if you can give me the money! Done! And so I purchased 10 tickets at about $30 a pop. Minutes into the luncheon the Coalition members present stood and shouted at Gingrich, stopping the presentations for about 30 minutes. The Chicago Tribune reported that 300 demonstrators marched outside the convention center as well.

Later that afternoon, as things were winding up outside and booksellers were saying their last good-byes to people they saw, Jonathan Kozol came up to check in (our paths had crossed earlier, because he had been at the convention to promote his new book, Amazing Grace, and he’d been on a breakfast panel). His curiosity had been piqued by the demonstration at the luncheon, and so he asked if I knew how the demonstrators had gotten inside. I told him that I had purchased tickets for them. He smiled, said he thought that might have been the case, and congratulated me: “Good work!”

* * * * * *

Jonathan Kozol returned to his main interest, the education of young children, with his next books, Savage Inequalities (1991), Amazing Grace (1995) and Ordinary Resurrections (2000). They each brought him back to Chicago, but only one while Guild Books was still open and could offer a platform for him to read and discuss. We took the opportunity to invite him to Michael Warr’s apartment in Wicker Park to meet with teachers and other community members. On the way to Michael’s apartment we chatted about who would be there and what they might expect; then about the children he had known in the Bronx; also, tenderly, about the health of his dog. But once we got there, in a packed, standing room only living room, Jonathan listened to what people told him about teaching and learning in the segregated Chicago public schools.

He leaned forward, intent, often cradling his chin in one hand, his elbow resting on his knee. His brow furrowed, his head shook in assent or in disappointment as he heard tales from the war zone of public education. Finally he called on a young woman, a student at a magnet school, Whitney Young High School, and his face changed, as it often did when he talked with or about young people, inviting her to give her experience. His voice was tender and welcoming. She spoke with passion, about how her working class parents had started her early with special school programs to take the tests to get into magnet schools from before she was in kindergarten, and because of that she had gotten into Whitney Young, one of the best public schools in the country. She said she was very grateful for her own education. But she was upset about so many of her friends in her neighborhood who did not have access to schools like this; or that the neighborhood schools (like Roberto Clemente, which was in her neighborhood) did not have anywhere near the programs that her school had. It wasn’t fair, she said. There is something wrong with this. Jonathan simply nodded. And the afternoon drew to a close.

Savage Inequalities echoed Kozol’s frustrations after publishing Rachel and Her Children. 25 years after Death at an Early Age was published, segregation by race, inequality by race and class was just as rampant, whole industries and a not-for-profit-industrial complex had grown up to profit on this inequality. When his next two books were published, Jonathan turned to a different face of what he had been exploring. What may be unique about Kozol is that he kept in touch with many of the families we met in his earlier books in the South Bronx. In Amazing Grace and Ordinary Resurrections, we see them later on, we look at their growth and how they have resisted being ground into oblivion. Their resistance, Kozol makes it clear, has nothing to do with any systemic aid that the children have received. Indeed, their survival is often in spite of the efforts to suppress them. In the pages of these books you can actually hear Kozol’s voice, tremulous and soft, just as he talked with and listened to the young woman in that Chicago living room: intent, pained but open and friendly.

A different Jonathan Kozol spoke at North Eastern Illinois University in 2000, after the publication of Ordinary Resurrections. Ringing accusations against a system that failed young people punctuated his presentation, and once again the hope that emerged because in some inexplicable fashion some young people managed to achieve resurrection; the implicit metaphor of children – children — having been crucified was not lost on his audience. Most of his audience of perhaps 500 were teachers or education or sociology students. Afterward, a sociology professor gathered about 20 students around a table in a nearby open area, and a heated conversation took place about the lessons of the presentation. Can the system be reformed? Do we need to start all over again? Who profits from it being the way it is?

Jonathan Kozol expressed frustrations that his work actually hadn’t changed the world, and perhaps this opens a conversation about what changing the world means, beyond reform. And that’s what I try to chip away at in my writing.

* * * * * * *

In the spring of 1989 John Edgar Wideman read from his short story collection, Fever, at Guild Books. He read from the last story, the title story, held me spellbound. He told us that it would be part of a new novel he was writing, and the fever was a famous plague year

autographs-1

May Damballah watch over you and yours — Damballah

in Philadelphia. I have this underlined in my copy of the book: “To explain the fever we need no boatloads of refugees, ragged and wracked with killing fevers, bringing death to our shores. We have bred the affliction within our breasts. . . Fever grows in the secret places of our hearts, planted there when one of us decided to sell one of us to another. The drum must pound ten thousand thousand years to drive that evil away.” It’s an allegorical fever that riddled Philadelphia as the 18th century drew to a close; but one that still stalks our streets.

The audience was small – it was generous of Wideman to write “Thanks for the party” in his autograph. One person listening intently had read Wideman before and came prepared with questions. One in particular was pointed. The listener, an African-American student, asked the author what he thought his responsibility as a Black writer was to the Black community. A few years later, by which time I’d been certified as a Wideman groupie, I was invited to a lecture he gave at Columbia College. The occasion was the publication of Philadelphia Fire, a novel that returned to late 20th century Philadelphia and the tenth anniversary of the day on which the Black mayor of the city of brotherly love bombed a block of row houses one of which was occupied by an activist group called MOVE. The novel is in three parts, each of which has a distinct musical style to the language. The middle section, also, is an autobiographical riff on when the author taught Shakespeare to Black students in the parks in the summer, and the particular play is The Tempest. Who Caliban really is plays an important part of this section and in some way inhabits the rest of the novel.

Afterward, I joined a few Columbia faculty and grad students at dinner with Wideman. One student asked a question about Shakespeare and about Wideman’s use of language, which reminded me of the question asked at Guild. Why Shakespeare in a novel of Black Philadelphia? The answers to both questions broke the boundaries that separates one genre from another and stretched the complaints about cultural appropriation. English, Wideman pointed out, is his language and he has the obligation to make the most of all his heritage, whether it is the language of the streets or the language of the Bard. It’s all his, and his responsibility to stretch that to its limits. I still find Philadelphia Fire the most exciting of John Edgar Wideman’s work because of this use of Shakespeare and because of the rhythmic cadences that mark each section – and because of the way his own biography sneaks into places of the novel, not just the teaching segment, but also basketball and his relationship with some of the political forces in Philadelphia. One of the most artful political novels I’ve read.

I’m not sure when this next conversation took place, it was in a crowded anteroom and again at a reading that Wideman had just done. The poet, Sterling Plumpp was telling me his impression of Wideman. Sterling had been one of the leaders in the committee to defend Dennis Brutus, the South African poet, from being deported to his certain imprisonment under apartheid. He also gave a very fine critique/review of the Arnold Rampersad two volume biography of Langston Hughes, helping us to understand Hughes relation both to the Black Arts movement and to the Black (especially Southern) working class. Stuffed in that lobby, Sterling didn’t need to twist my arm to convince me: John Edgar Wideman is one of the best American writers of our generation. I think I’d known that 10 years earlier when I first read his Sent For You Yesterday, returned over and over to the passage where John French muses over the words of Albert Wilkes, “They’ve got us on a rack.” That has epitomized, in six words, how I have experienced the world, how it seems to me Jonathan Kozol has described the lives of the children he has met.

* * * * *

In 1991 Leslie Marmon Silko published a book she had been working on for 10 years. Compared with the spare work of John Edgar Wideman and with her own Ceremony, a slim volume that had become a staple of school reading lists, Almanac of the Dead is a huge panorama of a novel encompassing more than 750 pages and a hemispheric landscape. autographsDiana and I read the book – we each had our own copy because it was so riveting, and because we had decided early on that it was a book we’d want to lend to others – and the day I finished the book I was on my way to work at Guild. I was so wrapped up in the text that I missed the Fullerton stop on the Purple Line express. By the time I’d realized this, I looked at my watch and noted that I was typically early. I made a split decision and happily rode into the loop and back to the bookstore by which time, 30 minutes later, I had finished the book.

Much of my memory of this novel is of what was happening at the time in the real world. We had a book discussion group at the bookstore and those of us who had read the book would look at each other after hearing the news that day and say, “Almanac of the Dead,” and we’d exchange knowing glances, shake our heads. Zapatistas, the Union of the Homeless, traffic in human organs, all the way to Standing Rock and Blackwell, all of these “appear” in the book. Brecht described art not as a mirror to reflect reality but as a hammer to shape it. And that was how we saw Silko’s book, which reflected reality but gave us a door to imagine what reality might otherwise be like.

In February, 1993 we hadn’t yet made our decision to close Guild. But the handwriting was on the wall. Our last day was at the end of May, but this February 17, Leslie Marmon Silko was in Chicago and sat at Guild’s sales counter to sign books. I can’t remember who was there aside from Diana and I, but when we handed her our books, almost falling apart from rereading, dog-eared and underlined, I remember the glow that spread across her face. She wrote along with the autograph: “When I was writing ALMANAC all those 10 years, I think I relied on energy and enthusiasm of readers like you – somehow the support travelled back through time to help sustain me.”