The One Thing On Which We All Agree

There is one place, event, or subject on which Philadelphians of all sorts agree, well, except perhaps art snobs,

and that subject is Rocky.

I go as far as to call them snobs, not because they love art, but because anyone who fails to appreciate this city’s collective love for a fictional character, and especially the reasons why that character is loved, is thinking too highly of themselves and deserves the sort of booing that the city of brotherly love is known for. Lets go get our batteries.

You probably haven’t seen the original movie in years, we watch it every year.

Say what you want about Sly but that scene where Mick comes over to Rocky’s apartment asking to be his manager, you know, the one where Rock brushes mick off and sends him sulking off down the block. The frustrated fighter starts shouting out his frustrations to no one once the old man has left but then goes jogging after him and they patch it up. The two of them are pathetic. It is wonderful.

When Rocky runs up those steps, the ones we are sitting on, everyone cheers. 

We will go watch it again next year, and the year after that.

We will keep going till the kids are old enough to walk themselves back to the car at midnight and old enough to understand why Rocky’s love for Adrian is beautiful.

I am Nick Carraway

I am no Yalie with a home in the posh part of town, luxuriating with with blue bloods, but I am adrift; observing those around me as their lives float past mine. Last night I drifted to Rittenhouse Square

Bryant Park Jr. is equipped today with a large screen and a catwalk. Chairs surround the temporary structure and restaurants surround the park.

Noted Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson listed Rittenhouse Square as being under the Cosmopolitan Canopy, a place where all races and incomes come together. Perhaps today that was true but not in a comfortable way. All the chairs up front were occupied by black people and all the surrounding picnic blankets, including my own, were sat upon by whites.  There were strays here and there and the tension was all in my own head but here we all were.

It was too hot for mate so I brought terere. On my blanket alone I watched as a fashion show was announced. I turned to face the stage but only saw a woman standing, video recorder in hand, directly in front of me. She remained standing and recording up till the last designer. 

There appeared to be no white models in the show, though one was quite ambiguous.  There were lots of giveaways, all given to the people in the  chairs up front. When the catwalk was empty all those in the chairs left. The sun went down and the park full of white people got dark and the movie began.

While before the stage was devoid of whites, both the park and the screen were now devoid of black. No one muttered when Tom Buchanan complained of studies pointing to the fall of white domination, but a loud “boo” arose when Gatsby yelled into a phone that he did not care what Philadelphia wanted.

Nick leaves his summer in East Egg disillusioned and I left the park much the same way. No one to my knowledge was left floating face down in a pool, hit by a car, or even unhappy. Yet I still didn’t like what I saw. Nick and I are not really naive, but are to some extent detached.

It is progress that two groups of people can inhabit the same park at the same time with relative ease. there was a day not too long ago when such a thing was unthinkable. Yet here we were, sharing the very same event, but still we weren’t. On paper there was one program but in reality there was a black fashion show and a white movie. We sat in the presence of each other looking like we were together but we were not together even a little bit.

It is not their fault or our fault. It is just how it is, which is the same thing so many said back in the 50’s. Sure there are reasons why but the one that strikes me as the biggest, is that so few of anyone is doing anything about it. So few care or even notice.

So, just like Nick, I watch, I sip, do nothing, and in the end, I walk away.

Where I Am is Not Where I’m From.

What do you see in your day? Does it matter?

Sometimes you have to look despair in the face to find the beauty. Most of us never do that. Despair’s gaze is incredibly uncomfortable.

If you do look you may find more than you assume. Ugly doesn’t go away, but you find there is more to it.

From decay can grow new life. I see it every day. If I did not look, I would never see it. I see a lot of things.

The dark lump at the bottom of the subway platform was a man. He lay crumpled up, shaking and mumbling. People just walked past and did nothing. I did like all the rest. The next day I walked past the same spot and he was still there. I did the same thing as the day before. It is one of the reasons things don’t change. The lump at the bottom of the stairs doesn’t change and neither do I.

Just around the corner, on the same block, are the kids. I remember the game they are playing, I played it when I was their age. The ball bounces off the wall and you have to catch it within the first bounce. If you don’t, or if you touch the ball without catching it, you have to run and touch the wall before someone else can throw the ball against the wall. If the ball beats you to the wall, strike one. On the third strike you assume the position; both hand on the wall, legs spread, and this time the ball is thrown at you and not the wall. You just have to stay still and take it.

We used to love that game. The kids are laughing and joking with each other. I’m no where near where I grew up but it takes me back. I smile.

What do we see? As I look around I wonder if others see what I do. The deeper I look the more I realize that looking rarely lets you see the whole picture.

The ruined green door does not tell me what it once was or how it came to be that way. I have seen other green doors before but I have no idea if their stories are the same.

What do we see when we look around, if we even choose to look? Normally we see whatever we choose to see, no matter what is really there.

Beauty and despair sometimes share the same space.

As I walk and I look, and sometimes I see, I like to think I am learning. I get caught up in what I learn and what I see when others don’t, till I realize, that like all the rest, I just keep walking.

History Class

I recall conversations in my home state and in my house about whether or not MLK Day should be an official holiday.

There would be argument over whether or not celebrating anything dealing with race made race issues worse (because acknowledging the existence of race is obviously bad), does our economy need another day off, and should we celebrate a philanderer. Discussions would waffle back and forth with no clear winner till someone would bring up communism. At the mention of that C-word a hush would fall. Everyone would stare out to nowhere, not having any available retort. Communism was the civil rights trump card. There was no available defense of being a communist.


In the mind of people engaging in this discussion, communism was real. These were Vietnam or cold war veterans. These were bootstrap capitalist republicans. These were people who fought against the red scare, not for fear of losing some personal economic empire, I never met an industrial titan, but they were people afraid of losing the personal liberty they treasured. These men wore Army green to defend rights of religion, rights of personal property, and the right to be left alone. These were people who remember that fight.

These were not the ones who fought against black people. These were people who watched the civil rights movement on TV. These are the ones who watched the fire hoses, did nothing, but still felt fulfilled by watching the Cosby Show around the same television set. These were of course, most white people.

Not the take a stand George Wallace type of white people, but the “isn’t that crazy stuff happening way over there?” type of white people. In the lives of these white folks, black people were on TV, communists were lurking around every corner. These paranoid white people live in places like: Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas; maybe Vermont and Maine. There are more of them than most people think.

These are people who have maybe met one black person, that one time, and know nothing of black history or culture. In fact they don’t even think those things do or should exist. “We are all Americans,” they say, adding that all this hyphenating business is causing divisions.

You see the funny thing about a hypocrite is that most don’t realize when they are one.

Just last week I sat in a class of graduate students in history at an elite university and listened as the students expressed shock and wonder at how violent Jim Crow life was for black people. These are the people who intend to write history books. These are the educated. These are people who don’t really appreciate how bad it was. These budding historians aren’t the one’s I’m accusing of being hypocritical, but just like the armchair philosophers of my memory, they didn’t, and still don’t really appreciate how bad it was. Many don’t appreciate or even know how bad it still is.

This is where it could make a difference.

If an American of any color can realize how violent and oppressive life was under Jim Crow, they would realize that a black communist wasn’t plotting the destruction of American freedoms, they were struggling to gain freedom of their own, and not some philosophical ideological freedom, but the simple, tangible, day-to-day right to decide one’s own destiny; or at least the right to try.

What those of the fading generation never fully appreciated was the extent to which the freedoms they loved were denied to black Americans. Kelley and McDuffie do a good job in their books laying out the systems of oppression that spurred some black individuals’ embrace of Marxist communism. There were people like Queen Mother Moore who in the communist movement found the educational opportunities America had denied her, Maude White who found philosophical support as well as career fulfillment, and many others from city domestics to field laborers. There were millions of people who for hundreds of years had been systematically and violently denied the rights that men in the previous generation donned a uniform to defend.

But these men rarely saw this. They had selective vision. They often changed the channel.

If these individuals can realize this about themselves,  how much more understanding would they be of people like Maude White, Langston Hughes, or MLK when those people “changed the channel” when it came to Soviet atrocities? How much more understanding would the religiously conservative people of my youth be, of black communism if they knew they held meetings in churches and saw no contradiction in it? Queen Mother Moore was not the same as Mao Tse Tung.

In recent years I have watched protesters gather in American cities to take a stand against the growth of government and it’s potential to trample their liberties. I have heard loud leaders warn of the potential citizen’s disenfranchisement that will follow the cloaked “socialism” of Obama. I have heard this and I have watched people believe it. They seem to miss the irony that they have mobilized over e felt disenfranchisement, while they refuse to appreciate that someone else would have a desire to mobilize over enforced disenfranchisement.

Would some of these modern conservative activists be less fearful of Eric Holder’s youthful flirtation with communism if they knew more about the communist party’s work on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys? Would they be more open to black activists with a socialist past if they appreciated that the communist party had schools for Alabama laborers while the local police burned Black schools down?

There is in the conservative white popular culture, the idea that communism, in either its current form or in American history, takes hold mostly in the mind of spoiled college kids who are immature and have little to no appreciation for the freedoms they enjoy. It is assumed that these anti establishment youth are ignorant of the evil deeds carried out by Pol Pot, and ignorant of the real life suffering thousands of citizens faced under such regimes. It is assumed that these tender footed youth don’t know what it is like to carry a rifle in defense of free speech; which brings me back to hypocrisy.

Perhaps information and perspective have little to no effect on politics. Perhaps empathy and understanding don’t naturally spring from new knowledge. But if those calling others ignorant can realize the history they themselves are ignoring, they will at least have the opportunity to be ignorant intentionally. Maybe some individuals would adjust their views, or change what it is they advocate for, or maybe not. Either way an individual would be exposed for what or who they are. Erik McDuffie explains that the feminist communist leaders in America’s past saw themselves apart from others who fought for civil rights in that the others were treating the symptoms of poverty and racism, while they themselves were combating the cause of those things. That is what educating the people from my MLK Day memory would do; attack the cause not the symptom.

It is more than arguable that a mass understanding of Black communism in American history wouldn’t make a consequential difference in today’s political condition. I argue that if the masses were better informed, in a deep and substantial way, then those who wish to move those masses will be better equipped to do so. At least it would be an informed discussion. The majority of American’s sat on sofas not Greyhounds. It may be argued inaction equals endorsement, but from those sofas they watched Martin Luther King’s plea to judge an individual by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. The people I knew, despite their distance in both geography and ideology, took this to heart. There exist good people who get “it” wrong, because they think communism is a way to judge someone by their character. Civil rights leaders did not choose to be Black, many whites know that they know nothing of what it means to be Black, but they think they know what it means to be a communist.

For them, this makes a difference.

Farewell My Red Friend

For almost two years she went neglected but our parting still hurts. It makes no sense, logic says it was a good decision, yet emotion is rarely bound by reason.

I found her at an outfitter’s rental shop at the Jersey shore. I had been sent there on a sales call as the owner needed some specs on large plastic containers. When I left he had a sample of the container he needed and I managed to fit this little beauty in the back of a minivan. It fit so nicely that it pretty much stayed in the minivan from then on.  I would make sales calls in the mornings then slip off into the surf at Ventnor in the afternoons. It was the first time in my professional life I had ever looked forward to my days. It is probably best I am no longer in that line of work.

It was built for playing in ocean surf but I have never been one to limit anyone or anything to one pigeon hole, so I took it other places as well.Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill river is home to some of the finest rowing teams and the nation’s largest regatta. Occasionally you could find among the collegians and Olympians, a red kayak splashing around happily out of place. I looked into it and it is allowed. How sad that we normally  assume that just because something is rare it is not allowed.

I did the same in the Delaware sharing the waterways with oil tankers, tug boats, and probably some dead bodies. It was a nice way to spend a Saturday morning.

When I ventured off on my East Coast adventure, the kayak came along.I re enacted the invasion of Fort Ticonderoga and entertained the idea of following Ledyard’s route through Connecticut. My defeat on the Hudson ended such fantasy.

We posted it on Craigslist at around 10pm Thursday night. By 9am Friday morning I had received 20 phone calls. She was gone by 4. A long bearded man from the suburbs came in a large black pickup and whisked her away. As she drove down the block fun was sucked out of my soul and sent off into the universe. It was a sacrifice to adulthood. I am closer, much closer, to 40 than I am to 20, and still these sorts of sacrifices are required. Boooo to adulthood.

As I was sulking my brother in law, the salt and pepper haired IBM exec, emailed me pictures of his weekend activity.

I am surrounded by bad influences. I refuse to find better company.

You May Fire When You are Ready, Gridley.

In 1898 the flagship of the United States navy gave that command and the world shifted. When we defeated the British the second time we became a soci0-governmental experiment, not till Spain hit bottom did we become a world power.

Once upon a time the Olympia conquered the world, now it floats at a dock in Philadelphia battling rust. I have dusted off my keyboard in an attempt to do the same.

Walking along the decks of the ship I imagine curled mustaches and orders given by officers raised in Rhode Island who sound strangely English. I have no idea if that is how it really was, but then again, knowing how it really was is never the point of retelling history is it?

The steam engine was all painted and shiny. Is that how it was? painted and shined? Perhaps it was.

If you cannot tell, that black mass at the left of the picture is the butt end of a large cannon protruding through the wall. It is here that the ball was interrupted and the Admiral removed the pipe from his mouth, excused himself from the company of the ladies and said, “oh pardon me but I must resume my bombardment of Manila.”

Here is where a crew of scrambling tattooed men rush about saying things like, “Aye aye Cap’n,” and “Aaaarg.”

Here is where the sailors took mess dancing jigs on the table while one leathery overweight salt sits off to one side telling tall tales as he engraves a whales tooth.

And here is where the young man from Princeton who has somehow found himself a naval officer sits lonely and writes lines like, “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.”

We don’t really care if that is how it was then any more than any of us care about how it really is now. It is an election year and we are all engaged in telling each other what somebody else thinks or intends without really knowing.

And one day we will write it in history books and place our relics in museums where our youth will visit and fool themselves that they have seen how it was back then.

The Rock School

Two years ago we took our oldest daughter to try-outs. We were in a room with eighty or so little girls who had numbers pinned to their t-shirts. They stood or sat in rows while a woman went around and one by one checked the arch of the girl’s feet, the flexibility of their hips, and at no time did they ask the little girls to dance.

There is a documentary in theaters now called First Position where a number of young ballet dancers are followed. Two of the kids in the movie go to the Rock School. So does my daughter.

The school is not for dance class, it is intended to train professional dancers. I have no real intention for my girl to make this a career, nor does she, but she is only eight, neither of us know what she wants. But she likes to dance, she likes it there, and I suppose there are worse ways to spend your days.

I know nothing about ballet. Classes are closed to parents except for twice per term during parent observation week. Lobbying teachers regarding a child’s progress is strictly forbidden. I have yet to inquire if they offer ignorant parent instruction. Perhaps they can teach me to recognize ballet positions and I will teach them how to run the veer.

She loves it and I love that. I sat in the balcony with the other “scholarship” parents, we are easily recognizable.

I in a very real way I had hoped she would play little league football. she is the one who used to come to the gym with me to watch guys spar.  But this is parenting, not coaching. When she finds a door she wants to go through it is my job to make sure it opens.

Again; to the city

“The city” means only one place.

Bolt Bus can get me there for one dollar and two hours. I can afford both of those. I arrived at the Tick-Tock Diner at around eight and went directly underground.I go south to the financial district. The trains are crowded with people who appear to have jobs. It is noisy, loud and no one speaks. In my suit I appear like them, further legitimized by the two canvases under my arm; people in ties don’t carry paintings around at 8 am without being legit. Unless you are me.When I surface I am greeted by the growing Freedom Tower. It looks appropriately aspirational, just like me.  But I check myself knowing it is growing from tragedy while I am simply striving to rise above mediocrity. Mediocrity is its own tragedy.

My official business this morning does not include the paintings I am carrying so I arrive a little early to place them out of the way. Business goes till noon and I am set free. I loiter outside a bit as crowds swarm around. Everyone has somewhere to go, even the tourists. All are rushing about with the real difference being locals look down and visitors look up. the visitors also sport comfortable, normally ugly, shoes. No one looks at each other while I stand in the crowd and look at them all.

I am in the heart of American progress and modernity with free time on my hands so I choose to walk south a little more to the Museum of the American Indian. Feels appropriate.

Here, in New York, tourists from the Dakotas can look at relics from the Sioux and Crow. But before too many jokes are made it must be said, the relics here are from Indians with names some modern Americans may actually know. A shirt taken from the back of Sitting Bull, a tomahawk from Tecumseh, and a pipe from Joseph Brandt. There is a sad pride and irony that these heroes, celebrated for the victories they won in their day, have left relics to later be displayed as testament of their ultimate defeat. The realization of this symbolism frightens me.

Being this deep in thought when your mind is not right, is not good. No place is better to live life on the surface than Soho. so I go.

In Soho you are pretty or over the top. Maybe just on the edge but none of these things are normal. I like it here. In the financial district chins are held high but the shoulders are aggressively forward. Here chins are high but the shoulders sag with arms swinging lazily. It is hard to act cool when you are carrying things, I look utilitarian. I’m fine with that. I am going somewhere up in the East Village.

“I look horrible,” Grahame says. “Grrrr. Do you want to buy a scooter from this aggressive looking man?” he mocks in his English accent. I try to convince him that everyone thinks the painting looks great but he is right. He is a man who perpetually smiles and the painting will always show a scowl. This is what happens when an illustrator depicts people who know what they are doing, while the artist does not.

John shows up and he smiles too. All three of us look at shoes and glasses and the two of them tell stories.

John is always telling stories, it is what he does. Most of the stories are both funny and dark. He tells them with an energy that urges you to listen, even if you don’t really know what he is talking about. I find I don’t need to recognize the names to enjoy the tales. If the name is the point, I ask, and he politely tells me.

My painting of him is not his favorite but he appreciates what I have done. He leaves the painting in the living room, grabs two caffeine free diet Cokes, and we head for the roof.

We look out over the city like it is a movie with perfect weather. We watch the characters as they lounge on a posh roof deck across the street or wave for cabs on the street below. We talk about all sorts of things, trivial or not. He is older than me, but like me, he has unrealized dreams that refuse to die. I like that about him. The two of us are very little alike but this we have in common. We were up there, two adult men up on top of the world, dreaming like twelve year old’s despite all the pragmatism learned from life’s let-downs.

I spent the night in a friend’s apartment while they were away in the Hamptons. It was a well decorated home on the upper east side the size of a janitorial closet. It consists of an eat in kitchen and a bedroom. At 11pm I realize all I have eaten that day is a kabob  at noon and I am both exhausted and starving.  With no bag or paintings to carry I wander off into the night. As I walk past one window I see a group of kids at a table full of empty Heineken bottles and one lady in front of a giant burger while holding a knife and fork at the ready. I go inside, order a bacon avocado  goat cheese burger, eat it alone, then walk back to the closet and sleep.

In New York the city is your living room, the roof deck is your television, and as long as you stay there you can aspire.

In the early morning I catch the bus back home. I have to get back in time to take all the paintings off my wall.