It is easy to get lost in both Eastern rural and suburban America. Everywhere looks the same. Everything is trees, trees, trees, or possibly track home, track, home, track home. Gps can be helpful here but the fine lady in my Garmin was once absolutely convinced that an Amish farm was really a Walmart.
Cities are distinguishable, the Empire State Building lets you know you are in New York, the tower formerly known as Sears is Chicago, and the Golden Gate Bridge lets you know you are somehow on the West Coast. Suburban architecture is no help at all.
Lets say I’ve been driving through the night in a land with no signs or streetlights. As dawn arrives I find I am at an intersection with a Walmart on one corner, Target on another, Lowe’s to my left, Depot to my right. Where am I? Sandy? White Plains? Ahhh, maybe I’m in Orange Grove! Truth is I could be in any one of them. What to do?
The secret lies within the sterile aisles of Walmart. Do not doubt me, I have tested this out. You see, the marketing minds at Corporate Consumerland have researched where you are and left you clues.
You may not be able to see Pittsburgh from the parking lot, but now you know where you are.
Now granted, you don’t know if you are in Dorchester or Quincy, but lets be honest, all those places only exist because of Beentown. You are close, and that’s close enough.
One can learn a lot by this. Most obvious lesson is that basketball does not exist or has in some way been deemed evil. If you know the map by the NBA, you will be lost.
Of course the professional teams of the heavenly game do not represent all areas, but not to worry; the local institution of higher education is a close second place.
DO not let yourself be lulled into thinking the sports section is just there to help you. It is not. There is an institution called NASCAR and it is everywhere and it is no help at all.
On the other hand, these uniforms can be more helpful than cartographers, elected officials, and newscasters. All the above have been unable to distinguish the dividing line between north and south Jersey. This is important as New Jersey exists entirely as the leftovers of cities along its borders.
Walmart has the answer. The line is Trenton. The above was taken in Trenton. Below was taken just north of Trenton.
Now to my previous point, and in case some in Jersey are offended, may I just point out that of all the teams that play in Jersey, only one bears the state name, and you will not find that jersey in a Walmart.
There are other signs as well. If you would like to know the ethnic makeup of the area, visit the DVD section. In Philly I saw a stack of Cosby Show discs, thought of picking it up, but procrastinated. When I finally decided to pull the trigger, I was out of luck. All they had was Full House.
The Marianna Bracetti Academy football team tasted victory for the first time last Saturday. It was the school’s fourth game ever played, their first this season. There were no cheerleaders, there was no stadium, but people cheered. They cheered like they had just won the Superbowl.
Mariana Bracetti Academy, or MBA, has more kids below the poverty line than any other school in Philadelphia. In a place like Philadelphia that is quite the accomplishment. It is a charter school so it claims no geography of its own. As the name would imply, it caters to children for whom English is their second language, most parents speak Spanish, I speak coach.
I am surprised at how placing a whistle around my neck makes my mouth magically spew nothing but cliché’ and athletic rhetoric. I am even more surprised that the kids listen. They eat that stuff up.
We held our first day of tryouts on the blacktop next to the school. It’s about half the size of a football field, surrounded by barbed wire, and the elevated train (the same one featured in the original Rocky Movie) passes overhead. We had over 100 kids show up. We only had equipment for 30.
MBA has no locker rooms. It has no field. Once we started wearing pads the kids would all ride the train up to an old YMCA field that is half dirt, half rock. That first day I asked how many kids had played football before; they all raised their hands. I asked how many had played wearing a helmet, only four held up their arms. If I would have asked how many of them had more than one tattoo, these sophomores and juniors would have all reached for the sky.
The school focuses on academics and has an online, real time, grade reporting system. This means that the same day a test is given, or the same day a homework assignment is missed, the grade is adjusted. If any player at any time has a D or lower, they cannot practice. If your math class has only given one test and you do not do well on it; you may recover your grade, but you won’t play till that has been accomplished.
You have never seen such a group of guys as this. Loud, flashy, full of bravado with mouths like sailors. Every time I see them they all walk up individually and shake my hand. When I show up at the school doors are opened for me and kids wearing the school tie ask teachers to excuse them so they can again, come shake my hand.
We started that first year with 100 kids. We ended the year with an average practice attendance of seven. Football requires 11 on the field from each team. Our first obstacle was having no facility, the second was grades. Then there was injury, and then there was our first loss. It was only by a point. Next came a public transit strike. More than two thirds of the kids at school take public transit to get there. I was proud of the seven kids that somehow still made it through those two weeks.
One week our Captain just didn’t show. He had been staying at a relative’s home but that relative got evicted. His pads were locked in the former apartment and he was bouncing from couch to couch. I didn’t make him run extra laps when he reappeared. I didn’t ask him how he got his pads back.
Another player, a sophomore with the type of body that gets free college, disappeared as well. No one knew why so I went all Magnum P.I. after practice. When I finally found him, the address the school had on record was wrong, I found him feeding his ten year old brother macaroni & cheese for dinner. I asked him where his mom was and he replied they hadn’t seen her in three days. No one knew where she was and no one acted like this was a new thing. I would have played him when he reappeared but he hadn’t been around enough to learn the plays.
It never stops being funny when one of these kids, who is almost as big as my six year old, tells me he won’t forget me when he goes pro. This is the same kid who asked me why I was wearing Dominican shoes when I showed up to practice in a suit. I have no idea what he meant.
These are good kids in a bad place.
This Saturday they won by two touchdowns and I felt like king of the world.
We beat the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. It was that school’s first ever football game. They only had 12 players at the game.
There is a blog out there in the digital landscape where race is discussed openly. Names are called, fingers are pointed, and oft times naughty words are written. Sounds like my kind of place, except for the naughty words of course.
One should know that this is not the normal race baiting sort of forum. It is not the land of David Duke or even Farrakhan, but a place where things are looked at logically, pragmatically, frankly, and sometimes surprisingly fairly. What sets this place apart is that punches are never pulled, no matter who is getting punched. White, black, cops, lawyers, accused, and acquitted, all may find themselves targeted if the author deems it justified. This brings us to the author.
Any writer who will entertain my inserting Bob Marley quotes where they don’t belong merits my affection and this blogger not only allowed but occasionally encouraged them. Interesting. Through repeated reading I realized this blogger was local to myself, or possibly the other way around, so I decided to pull back the curtain and see who was running the machine.
I embarked on this fact finding venture unsure of what I might find, or rather, how my inquiries would be received. I, a devoutly religious white man raised in the heart of Republicanism, was arranging to sit down with a man who titles his blog in homage to a Malcolm X quote, and regularly rants against religion itself in his writings. This could go very badly… if I were meeting with someone else. I found the “Field Negro” to be decidedly friendly.
We met at Moriarty’s, an Irish Pub downtown, for lunch. He chose the place, possibly as a nod to my pastiness, but more likely due to proximity to his place of employ. You see, Wayne Bennett is not a professional blogger, he is a lawyer. He works for the Family Division of Philadelphia’s First Judicial District, “Support Master” being his official title. To the uninitiated this is pretty much a family court judge. He has the pleasure of listening to cases of child support, custody, and any other sort of domestic disagreement that progresses to litigation. How fun. He explained all this to me while waiting for the waitress to bring him his salad. I had some sort of meat sandwich that was decidedly less healthy. Our meal was not large, nor hard to eat, yet the time it took us to finish lunch was impressive. I would say how long but I would hate to cast doubt on Mr. Bennett’s dedication to the people of Philadelphia.
He, like I, is not a native of this fine city. He was raised in a respected Jamaican family where the likes of Mr. Marley were not simply listened to, but met; hence his allowing my itations to be entertained. He left the island to attend the University of Alabama on a track scholarship. Upon graduation he took a good job in California and began to enjoy life. As can often be the case when one is enjoying themselves, family stepped in to shake things up. Mr. Bennett’s uncle, a barrister, thought his nephew should be more like himself, and told him to attend law school. Which he did, at LSU. (I am thinking of convincing Bennett to attend my alma matter so we can get a national football championship, they seem to follow him.) Graduation, a job fair in Atlanta, and a phone call from a politician, landed Wayne Bennett in Philadelphia. Now we knew each other, our meals had arrived and been half eaten, and then we began to talk.
I was not present at Obama’s beer summit with Professor Gates and Officer Crowley, but I have no doubt it was not as productive as was ours at the pub. The two of us, assumed to be polar opposites, both love this city. He loves that it is close to both NYC and DC, has a small town feel in a big city, and that he can visit a neighborhood and know he will find black people, white people, Italians or Poles.
I like that I can eat somewhere other than Applebee’s.
I tend to talk too much.
When I asked him to tell me the one best reggae song ever, he gave me a list of eight.
His wife does not read his blog; neither does mine.
We were into some ground breaking stuff here. Lunches like ours are not completely unheard of, but lunches with those of our respective demographics do not discuss the topic I brought up next. I asked him why he blogs about race.
“People are dishonest about race. I wanted to have the real conversation,” was his answer. He believes that thanks to the computer, and people’s propensity to hide behind them, individuals finally feel they can speak freely. He has created a forum where they do.
He sees the black community as running in place. “Things are surely not as bad as they were 20 years ago, but we aren’t going anywhere. It’s the same old, same old.” I expressed a more dour view. I asked him why it seemed so many young black men were falling behind in Philadelphia. In his animated way he told me a story along these lines:
“When I first started hearing cases I would get all these divorced families where Mom works some fast food job, dad works construction, and they spend thousands of dollars a month to send their kids to private school (I knew exactly of what he spoke as he described perfectly my whole neighborhood). The Dad would consistently be unable to keep up the child support payments and hence find himself standing before the bench. I used to think all these folks were sending their kids to private catholic schools to keep them away from black people (which knowing these people would not surprise me). But when I started to look more into it I saw how bad the schools were and realized that maybe this wasn’t racism but that these folks simply cared about their child’s education. Racism wasn’t the issue; it was that we need to do something about these schools.”
He contrasted this with how many limos he sees at high school graduations. “Since when was graduating from high school such a big deal? You haven’t done anything yet? Why is the bar so low?”
I asked him if race still matters. He said, “of course, but its class too. Hey, even rich black people hate poor black people.”
We talked well past the check. I was sitting at the table of a black man who blogs about racism as a way to unwind and relax from the work day, (what a way to relax, right?) and he made me feel completely comfortable. He was not angry; not even grumpy. In fact I rather liked the guy and he had the sort of demeanor that whether true or not, would make others think he liked them too.
He insisted on picking up the tab and we wrapped up lunch with the conversation feeling unfinished. Funny that as a reader of his blog, one might think the world of race relations spinning into a black hole, but having lunch with the author was the bright spot of my week.
Your house is on fire. What do you grab before you exit the place?
Whats in that bag you carry around all the time?
Answer to both, my notebook.
Landscapes are admittedly not my favorite, nor my strong suit, but it would seem a loss to be there and not try my hand. I have lugged it to the top of Angel’s Landing in Zions Utah, the Golden Gate Bridge, Times Square, the Louvre, the Bahammas, Hawaii, Kansas City, the top of a fire tower in Idaho, Charleston SC, Niagara Falls, and I will one day lug it to my death bed. Thats why it has its own page on this site.
Always in ink, never more than 30 minutes, and no post photographic touch-ups allowed.
Just off Kamehameha Highway, about a half mile from Haleiwa, is a little dirt road. If you take this dirt road you will find a two story home with more windows than walls. We spent the past eight days renting the bottom floor, picking papaya, passion fruit, and doing our best to husk and open uncooperative coconuts. We nearly burned through a full bag of charcoal and soaked through nearly every one of the 20 or so beach towels they provided. All hail Tripadvisor.com and my wife’s addiction to it.
To know how it was could be explained most simply by the fact that while typing this, I am also browsing for jobs in Hawaii.
Myself and those with me, arrived on the island with a list of the top things we wanted to see and do while there. Mine had written, somewhere just below surfing, a visit to the royal palace.
I had recently read up on the somewhat underhanded way in which paradise became state and wanted to walk in the footsteps of those who played a role. One trip to the beach and I forgot all those plans. Then I remembered them, and chose to go to the beach once again, and again, and again once more.
Haleiwa is above all else, a surf town. When I married, my earthly possessions consisted of; a pickup, a mtn. bike, a snowboard, SCUBA gear, rugby cleats, a backpack and sleeping bag. I would have traded them all for a surfboard. Of course I had never surfed at the time, a hole in my resume that has persisted; till now. Why did I wait so long?
I swallowed my pride, scheduled a lesson, rented the biggest board imaginable, and stood up on a wave. My instructor was twice my age, had skin like leather, and a pair of shoulders like bowling balls. I wanted to be her. I’m now editing my job search to ensure plenty of time-off.
Mine was not the only list. One of the true joys of Hawaii is that there in nothing to do that could be considered miserable. No life sized cartoon characters or spinning tea-cups, no teenagers asking if you purchased a beach tag, and everyone took my money with a smile and “mahalo”. Littlehammas 1.0 rode a horse, Littlehammas 2.0 saw a turtle, and Mrs.hammas snorkled, kayaked, saw a sunset, and went to the locale that is her namesake. We shopped, strolled Waikiki, did the hula, and even went to the Hukilau. We went native and embraced our hauliness… or at least my hauliness?
Mrs.hammas has had many brilliant ideas in her time, like looking for lodging on Craigslist, but her most Nobel worthy idea was inviting the Grandhammases along. Now some may shirk at the idea of in-laws but these ones, freshly returned from 18 months in Samoa, are not the normal grey hairs. Sure they babysat and helped wash dishes like most would, but they also snorkeled with a monk seal, hiked to waterfall, and kayaked. They had been to the islands before but took it easy for our sake; skipping the parasailing and shark diving they did on previous trips.
I have been known to suffer from an incurable wanderlust and inability to be satisfied with just one hobby. Perhaps I have found the cure.