On Black History Month

“They did not take slaves from Africa; they took people from Africa, and made them slaves.”

For years, they brought them out like Christmas decorations, only it was February: Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the ever-ubiquitous Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong.

No one but my father ever spoke of those with more militant stances, more edgy, prickly points of view: Eldridge Cleaver (Iceberg Slim) Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale (founders of the Black Panthers) Malcolm X before his renouncing of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad, and Imiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones).

I did not know of the brilliant, biting edge of James Baldwin, the struggles of Josephine Baker, the strength and vulnerability of the tragic, plaintive-voiced Billie Holiday, the towering courage of Paul Robeson and the fiery Vernon Jordan.

These figures made people ‘afraid’ and ‘uncomfortable.’

We learned that 6 million Jews died and saw films on the horrors of the Holocaust, but as black children we were not taught about the 9 million Africans who died on the journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a sailing lane called the Middle Passage, where slaves still chained together were tossed overboard, either deliberately to lighten cargo, or jumped willingly in order to die free, or just because they didn’t survive, but neither did we learn about Nat Turner (except that he led a rebellion and died, as if that was all there was to know) or the legal victory of the black men of the HMS Amistad.

And over the years, we learned the stories of our annual decorations. We saw films on the Civil Rights movement taking place in the south, having no idea those attitudes existed in the north, and given no awareness through our history textbooks that it was a global truth, if not universal:

Dark skin is evil.

It didn’t matter what form of evil, because all sorts of stories were concocted based generally around these two principals: Black was unclean, White was pure. Black was inferior, White was superior.

Yet, I was taught in science class that in the spectrum, black is the absence of color, and white contained them all. Why were we being persecuted for something we were not?

When I sang, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, until fourth grade I did not know my fathers died differently, I believed that Pilgrims and Indians lived in harmony. When I sang America the Beautiful, I did not know that its Natives had been stripped of their dignity, slaughtered like sheep, ravaged like Sabine virgins, and tossed aside as rubble.

I didn’t even know that as low as they were, they still owned Black men and women.

I was taught that the Quakers helped slaves escape to Canada to freedom. I have learned, only recently, that it was not so. There were slaves in Canada, too, and some who were free, were sold back.

Long buried in the archives of old libraries lay the story of my people, the mixing of my own ancestry, not just here in America, but across the world, doomed to die dusty deaths in the recessed shadows of long abandoned archives, unless one truly took the time to unearth them.

And then the Internet came, and grew, and evolved, and the archives were dredged and lovingly sorted, restored, and made available. And I learned that far more Black people achieved great things in the face of impossible odds and incredible oppression: denied admission, having no transportation, being ripped off, gutting of project financing, threats of death, and they kept going and became pilots and doctors, nurses and teachers, judges and lawmen, cowboys and business owners, so many, many names bubbling out of the soil after so much blood soaked in…

Their vision was clear and focused, their drive to succeed unstoppable, unshakable, and unswerving.

And all, all, having one common thread: ancestors brought here not to live, but to work, as commodities, not people, as beasts, and not men.

And they survived.

And I do indeed live here now, a free man in America, because of their sacrifice and vision, not limited to twenty-eight days in a government building. The storehouse is mine to visit, whenever I choose:

blackpast.org

blackhistorypages

blackhistory.com

These are just a few of the storerooms available online these days, rich with information. If you would gain some perspective, I invite you to celebrate with us, and not just for the month.

There are no ‘colored only’ signs on these doors….

A Fireside Chat with Frederick Douglass

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Fireside Chat.”

A good, hard question for this Daily Post. I thought of several writers who I would love to hear life stories from: Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Kahlil Gibran, Octavia Butler, or from the world of music, Chick Corea, Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald, or from the art world Georgia O’Keefe, (what’s with the flowers, girl?) She did a piece called Music that I saw a reproduction of in a museum gift shop, fell in love with, didn’t buy at the time, and haven’t been able to find since.  But after the impulsiveness of the choices I initially made, I decided to go in a different direction.

I would want to talk to Frederick Douglass, not just read his books. I would like to see the expressions of his face  when he reminisced about being a slave, getting his freedom, and being sold back.

I would want to hear his voice, the strength of it waxing eloquent as he wielded words of desiring freedom like a flaming sword, cutting through the hypocrisy of the crowds he addressed, the nation he lived in, holding up the mirror to a white slave owner, his reflection Douglass’ own face, for them to see the vileness of what they’d done.

In his straightened back would be the defiance of refusing to bend under the whip, to stand firmly on the ground for those who were hung from trees, in his quiet passion the balm that would heal the burning bodies of castrated black men, the violated black women, who dared for a moment to be human again.

I would look on the scars of his beatings, and feel my spine chill with the danger as he took his books to secret places to practice reading by moonlight and lantern under threat of death, but willing to die.

In his eyes would be the sound of the spirituals ringing over the fields, the sound of chains, the sound of violins and dancing, the tears of the pregnant slave women walking at night to drop their half-breed progeny into rivers and off hilltops, or bury them silently in the woods, or suckle them in silent, tearful suffering.

From him, I would feel the will to survive the Middle Passage, the pride of fierce anger, of refusing to let go of the old ways, of holding on to the memories of ancestral tribes and customs and language, slowly eroding like promontory  rocks, or crushed and driven out like crushed and broken shells at high tide.

And as the fire died, and sleep grew heavy on my eyes, and his visage began to fade in the paling light of the rising sun, I would then have a reason, and find the strength, to go on, and on, and on…

Victory Flags

You should know:

Victory Flags are not always grand, unfurling banners embroidered with gold sigils of lions rampant, soaring eagles, flame-spewing dragons, diving falcons, and weapons of war, planted at the heads of armies, looking down into valleys of defeated foes.

Sometimes…

they’re just the right words of comfort in a time of despair,
or dirty, blood-soaked rags stanching bleeding wounds,
or taking a deep, ragged breath before making the next shaky effort…

sometimes it’s looking up the mountain at the descending hordes gathered against you

and getting back up to stand, and exhale a whispered, defiant declaration
into the howling winds and roiling clouds of your most ferocious storm,

“I’m still here.”

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

My Abandoned Blog

“Wait here,” Alfred said. “I have something to do way over there. I’ll be back for you.”

Do you promise?

“Yes, of course. I started out with you, so why would I leave you?”

It happens.

He laughed, took its hand, and kissed it lightly on the tip of its nose.

“Yes, it does, to other blogs. It won’t happen to you.

Very well, Alfred. I’ll wait here for you.

And Alfred left it, looking plaintively but hopefully at him as he turned to wave goodbye; it gave him a brave, if tremulous smile, and waved half-heartedly, wanting to believe…

And way led on to way, as the poem says.

The blog tried on its own to be good, to be relevant, to be vital and important, to be witty and charming, but without a fresh infusion, its health waned, and the visitors who came to see it didn’t stay long, and soon grew infrequent, and one day, stopped altogether.

The blog tried to be brave, but then a cold fog rolled in; still the blog waited, gathering its thin shawl about its shoulders, and folding its arms for warmth. It worked for awhile, but didn’t last.

By  now it was shivering, cold, and hungry for text, but there was no one around.

Alfred was hard at work, loading Christmas packages into trucks, first for fourteen hours, then twelve, and the blog was a vague thought, fast on its way to becoming a distant memory.

Weeks went by, and the blog finally sat down, and began to cry out its heart…

It’s almost Christmas, and he broke his promise. I’m sorry, Alfred, I couldn’t hold them…they left, and now, I’m leaving too…

The blog searched for a way to self-delete, when a voice called from the distance….

And now, before I end it all, the madness comes. I thought I heard his voice.

Again, the voice sounded, echoed, seemed to be closer.

No, thought the blog, no, I dare not hope…

The voice called it by its pet name. “BP!”  (an unfortunate choice, given recent events, but there it was…)

“BP!”

Footsteps, running hard, pit-patted on the road as Alfred came into view, anxiously looked for a sign that his blog was still there.

He didn’t see anything. He ran faster, hoping he was not too late.

The blog, rising on thin, shaky legs, used the last of its strength to stand.

It’s voice, cracked and raspy from disuse, was faint, but not gone. Alfred…

Just as Alfred reached it, it sagged into his arms, and he sat down, and laid it gently on his lap. His tears fell copiously onto the page of his abandoned blog, now dirty, dusty, and bleeding from the harm it was about to cause itself. He’d returned just in time.

“BP…” he sobbed.

And the blog reached up a trembling hand, and touched his bearded cheek.

You came back…

“I told you I would.”

But you forgot about me.

The words hurt, all the more so because they were true…

“I did,” Alfred whispered. Shame and sorrow heated his face. “I’m so sorry, BP. We’ve lost so much time. I don’t know if I can ever make it up to you…”

Time lost is…irretrievable, Alfred, but…we can go on….from here. Can you….?

“Yes, yes of course,” Alfred said.

Hands trembling with emotions, he spread his fingers over the warm, familiar QWERTY keys; the relief of finding his blog alive,  its forgiveness of his negligence, its still-abiding love for him, shamed him, humbled him, and gladdened him all at once.

And as he typed, the blog sighed in relief, and eagerly drank the text it craved; color returned to its cheeks, and its breathing evened. It was going to take more time, but at least now, there was a beginning.

“I’ll never leave you again, BP” Alfred said.

BP gave him a sad, amused smile, and kissed him lightly on the cheek, beard and all.

At least while you’re alive. Never say never, Alfred.

Alfred smiled back.

Beyond Panic was going to be all right.

Underground Encore

Just to provide some background for this story:  I started out as a guitar player at the age of 11. I had a classical acoustic guitar and I was going to be the next Earl Klugh. Between the ages of 14 -17 I sat in with these old jazz heads in Washington Square Park.

I stayed mostly silent but they let me join them on some of the easier stuff, until one day I heard the words from the de facto leader of the group. “You did a nice job on that.” It was, at the time, like a five-star rave review in the New York Times, but way led on to way, and in time, the group thinned out, and eventually they didn’t come back. And after awhile, as I sat in with new players and did new songs, way continued leading on to way, and I stopped going there as well.

I’ve often thought about those men, old men even then, no doubt passed on by now, and I’ve been thankful they were gracious to a young man with a love for the music who didn’t have the equipment or the know-how to play it, but who took what he had, and eventually heard the words, “You did a nice job on that.”

As jazz continues to hold a precarious place on the American music scene, I wanted to write something to show my appreciation not just to those men I sat in with, but to others like them who keep the flame in the hot tunnels, smoky clubs, concert halls, and  libraries and museums around the country and around the world. Now, without further ado….

The sun was sinking into the river against the city skyline. Leon sat in a patch of it as it came through the window, his shirt and tie barred, like Cyrano’s body, with the shadow of crossbeams that separated the window panes.

The doctor came out, and Leon stood up.
The doctor’s face said everything.
“I’m sorry, Leon. The tests are conclusive. I don’t know what to say that would make it easier.”
“Ain’t nothing left to say.”
“Is there anyone you’d like us to contact?”
“Got someone, but I’ll take care of it.”
“All right then. And Leon…” The doctor offered his hand.
Leon took the doctor’s hand in both of his.
“You done what you could, doc. thank you.”

******************
He walked out into the evening, the street alive with people and lights, cars and movement, the last of the sun ray’s deepening the shadows to a dusky blue.
The subway rumbled beneath him, and he headed toward the nearest station, then stopped.
Be underground soon enough. No need to rush.

He chuckled at his own weak joke, and took the long walk home.

*****************
His daughter was all he had left for family, and he wrote her now:

“Everything you need to know is in that old cookie tin you gave me for Christmas all that time ago. Everything’s in there, along with a note for my last wishes. I got some time yet, but I don’t, so you don’t have to come tomorrow, but don’t come too late. I don’t want to go in no potter’s field, though He’ll find me if I do.
“Just try not to let it happen, that’s all.”

*********************
His battered saxophone case was under the rickety bed, with the tarnished, well worn saxophone inside. He pulled it out, and sat on the edge of the bed, and looked at it, going back in his mind to the smoky nights, spent playing til the sun came up, so dapper he glittered in the spotlight, and later the feel of a full, warm woman on his lap, in his arms, in his bed, til time passed and the people moved on, and the clubs closed, and his career stalled, and stopped where it had started, and never moved again.

********************
Bars replaced clubs, drink replaced music, and even the most stubborn woman he’d ever met who tried to stay with him no matter what, threw in the towel before her own youth was wasted with a man who couldn’t move on, whose identity was too closely tied to what he did, and not who he was.

********************
Back into the evening streets, his case bumping along his spindly left leg, his suit fitting badly, but clean, and his face washed, he paid his fare, went down to the subway platform, but he didn’t open his case for change this time.

***********************
In his mind’s eye he saw her, regal in her red dress, her red lips matching, all of her full and shiny in the dim light. Her mahogany eyes gazed into his as she leaned forward to light his cigarette, and as he took her hand in both of his, she leaned forward and whispered in his ear.
“Play me something.”

She was leaving it up to him what to play, and he knew so many songs, but as he looked back into her eyes, and saw her smile at him, the song came like a lightning strike.
He played her something. And something else, and something else, til the band caught the pattern and the gist as they caught them staring, and they smiled and shook their heads, and simply followed.
“Leon at it again,” said the piano man. “On three, fellas…”
Three months later, they all came to the wedding.

*************************
Leon played the set through, but it was melancholy with a twist of bitter, haunting and bluesy and sad, with a splash of hope, and a sprinkle of joy.
A young cop began to walk toward him, but something made him stop, and he paused for a moment to listen, and a crowd began to gather. This was not the average subway joe who practiced for coins. Those who knew music knew this was the real thing, and those who didn’t felt it.

“All the Things You Are” echoed throughout the station and into the tunnels, a plaintive, restive, devotion leaking out with the realization of how utterly unattainable all of her had been, in the end.

*********************

The song ended, and the crowd clapped loudly until the rumbling train drowned it out, and they turned away to get on with their lives.
The cop came up to him.
“I know you. I know that song. My father had one of your records, and he played it all the time.”
“Did he, now?” said Leon, wiping the mouthpiece. He grinned, turned to look at the cop, a twinkle in his eye. “Only one?”
“No sir,” the cop laughed, “he had others, but that’s the one he played the most.”
“Played,” Leon said. “Is your father still alive?”
“No sir, he passed away five years ago.”
Leon straightened, gave the cop full attention.
“I’m sorry, young man.”
The cop said nothing for a moment, then “It was an honor to hear you play live, sir. I only wish my dad would’ve been here.”
“My pleasure,” Leon began to walk away.
And then he turned to the cop, and seemed to think a moment, and walked back, and held out his saxophone case.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m giving this to you.”
“Why? I can’t take it. Don’t you need it?”

Leon sighed. “No, I don’t. See, I’m about to meet your daddy, and we’re gonna be talking jazz for a long, long time.”
It took a moment, and then the cop’s eyes widened.
“Won’t be long now. Left everything else to my daughter, but she ain’t gonna want this old battered up horn. Won’t mean nothing to her except her daddy wasn’t home a lot, and she won’t even think to sell it, and probably just throw it away.”
The cop looked downcast.
“You gonna take this?”
“I can’t, sir.”
Leon leaned in, like he was telling a secret. “Tell you what, turn it in to lost property, then file a claim for it on my daughter’s behalf, and take it later.”
“Mr. Leon, are you sure?” The cop took the case like a sacred offering.
Leon straightened again. “I am. It’s the least I can do for a young man who grew up with my music, and who saw my last concert.”
The cop seemed to flinch.
“I…I’m sorry, sir. I truly am.”
Leon put his hand out, and the cop took it, and Leon put his other hand over it.
“It’s all right, son, you done what you could. Thank you.”

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
May 2, 2014
All rights reserved

Waiting on the World to Change

A few years ago, I heard a song by John Mayer called Waiting on the World to Change, a song about idealistic and virtuous youth waiting for the corrupt and evil aged to die off. The song’s most telling lyric went as follows:

“It’s not that we don’t care, we just know that the fight ain’t fair,

So we keep on waiting for the world to change.”

I thought it rather lightweight  for a protest song. I also thought it was the most naive thing I’d ever heard from a young man who’d traveled the world several times over.

Why would you wait?

Still, it will be interesting to see what unfolds while you do. Here’s why:

The ‘love your brother’ and ‘equality for all’ generation, when they began to experience true competition for resources as a result of their policies to ensure that equality in the 60’s, became the ‘angry white men’ of the 90’s and began working to repeal the very laws they enacted, becoming, in the process, worse sell-outs and hypocrites than they accused their corporate fathers of being in the 50’s.

And the computer, an invention of the Boomer generation which Mr. Mayer is waiting to go the way of the dinosaur, has upped the ante considerably, and taken things globally in an instant.

Today, a segment of the 60’s generation of love, peace, equality and freedom throws rocks at immigrant children, repeals voting laws, advances the aims of the very corporations they once vehemently denounced, and seeks to distance themselves from those who they were once like in the past;  the other segment is permissive and apathetic in their adult responsibilities to the point of letting the country fall into anarchy.

So no, dear young people, you can’t afford to wait on the world to change. You are going to have to wade into the American wasteland, and get blood on your clothes, and get in peoples’ faces, and make unpleasant sacrifices, and make your voices heard. There is seldom a birth of a new thing without some labor pains being involved, and getting stoned like your grandfathers did for most of their first thirty years is not the way to go about it.

I’ve heard the saying: “These kids live in a different world.”

No you don’t; you live in a different time.

Yes, it is a scary, parasitic, greedy, lustful, materialistic, and intimidating time enhanced by constant connections and distractions, and things baying at you for your attention and money, but you are not in a different world; you’re on the same planet, and as far as we know, it’s the only where you can live outside of a clunky spacesuit, and without devices that will keep you from becoming a runaway hot air balloon.

So let me ask you, Mr. Mayer and company:

Can you really afford to spend it waiting?

Will you?

Lisa’s Last Dance

Dedicated to the indomitable spirit in all of us.

wheelchair and ballerina

In the halls of her school, Lisa heard the comments.
“Such a promising career ahead…”
“Never dance again…”
“…a tragedy…” “…a shame…”
“Never walk again …” “…dancing is finished…”

Her face would heat, and she’d roll the chair a little faster, enduring the day, the comments sown like bitter seeds in her heart. Time was against her; her muscles hadn’t failed yet, but they were on the way.

She sighed, but today, she managed not to cry.

***********************
Her father loaded her like a cargo of five gallon drums into the back of the van after school, and took her home.
She did her homework before dinner since there wasn’t much.
Her parents were watching television when she rolled the chair in front of them.
“Lisa? What is it, honey?” her mother said.
“Take me there.”
“Honey, please. We’ve been over this. The doctors…”
“Yes, I know, Dad. The doctors, it’s always the doctors said…”
“Lisa, be realistic!
“No!” She slammed her fists on the arms of her wheelchair, and her parents jumped. She got her breathing under control, kept her eyes averted to blink back the tears that threatened; if she cried now, it would be over.
She looked up at them in after a moment, her eyes clear, her gaze steady.
“No. Take me there.”
Huffing in frustration, but without another word, her father clicked off the tv and loaded her into the van. Her mother rode shotgun, and they rode in silence.

**************
The dance class stopped when Lisa came to the door.
“Lisa?”
“Hello, Mrs. Castro.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to start over.”
“Lisa, honey, I can’t…”
“We told her, Mrs. Castro,” her mother said. “We told her what the doctors said, but she insisted.”
Mrs. Castro sighed. “Let her come to grips with it. It’s the only way they’ll stop sometimes. I’ve seen it before.”

Lisa rolled the chair past Mrs. Castro.
***************************
The other girls watched in stunned silence.
Stopping before the mirror, Lisa took a good long look at herself, taking stock of what she was about to do, and whether or not it was worth it.
And she turned the chair sideways, placed her feet on the floor and placed her hands on the barre, her breathing deep.
The other girls watched at first, as her arms began to shake, her knuckles tighten and slip; she wiped her hands on her useless knees, and got another grip, and pulled again.
And little by bit, Lisa began to pull herself up, trembling, shaking, but slowly rising.
“Lisa, don’t do this,” her mother said, her hands over her chest.
“Lisa, stop!” her father said.

**********************
She bit her lip as the tears stung again, and one escaped, and she rose a little higher.
With her next pull, she gave a small cry of pain, and one of the girls broke from the circle and got behind her, and put her arm around Lisa’s middle, supporting her, her knees and thighs aligned with Lisa’s own, which were almost like a marionette’s, and she pushed the chair a little distance away.Lisa went higher, her breath hissing between her teeth. The girl behind her was straining with the weight, and she didn’t want to fall backward.
Another one joined her, and stooped to put Lisa’s hands on her shoulders as she supported Lisa’s arms.
Lisa went higher, even as the pain ripped through her and she cried out again.
Two more joined and supported the two girls who were holding Lisa.
She went up a little more.
And another came, and another, and then the rest, reforming the semi-circle that had been around Mrs. Castro, and they began to call out.
Do it, Lisa!”
“Come on, girl!”
“Kick, Lisa! Higher!”
“You call that a pirouette?”
“If you can’t hack it, pack it!”
“Get that leg up!”
“Balance, keep your balance!”
“Spin faster, stupid!” They all laughed a little louder at that, and Lisa strained with the effort.
And kept rising.

The girls began to cry through their smiles as Lisa struggled, inch by inch, her own cries lost in their laughter and shouts and cheers of love that sounded like reprimands they’d all heard and said, standing together back then as vulnerable and fearful children, standing together now as vulnerable, fearful young women with confidence and hope.
And today, centered on their broken, fallen angel, they anointed her with all they had, and it filled the studio like morning vespers.
And when Lisa finally stood, leaning on their arms and shoulders, wracking, drenched, and beautifully terrible, still shaking, crying and trembling as they embraced each other in bittersweet victory, it was for different reasons.

© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.2014
All rights reserved

D Generation

pripyat-abandoned-school

The state of education in the US is deplorable.

Now that we’ve stated the obvious, sensei, what’s the solution?

Stop looking for innovative ways to teach students that include the whole child. Teachers must hold parents accountable to see to their own child’s emotional needs, just as parents want to hold teachers accountable for the academics. I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t be involved in their students’ lives at all; by default, they already are, I’m saying there are aspects of the child’s life that are not the teacher’s responsibility, though it seems that increasingly, the circumstances of their students’ lives, regardless of income level, dictate they have to be.

We are now fostering feelings instead of dealing with academics, and consequently the children of today can’t read, write, spell or multiply; America is falling fast on the international front because we no longer treat our children like they have brains capable of being challenged.

Did you ever think you’d see the day America adopts teaching methods from other nations instead of being a leader?

It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. The rich kids are arrogant and selfish, and the poor kids are angry and rebellious, and the teacher has to deal with those two extremes and the spectrum in the middle, teaching to multiple learning types, with special needs kids thrown into the mix.

Administrators must stop being cowed by the fear of potential lawsuits and state, clearly, their policies on bullying, dress codes, class behavior and school citizenship. If it doesn’t come from the TOP DOWN (no pun intended on the dress code), your teachers are adrift with no paddle when trying to enforce these things individually in their classrooms.

“But the culture has changed.” That’s because it was capitulated to and not challenged. I had a student once whose mother was in prison, and had told her daughter: “It’s okay for you to give teachers attitude if they give you attitude.” With her mother’s backing, she proceeded to do the first part, not taking into account the second part, because she had very loose interpretation of teachers “giving her attitude,” which was pretty much “be quiet, sit down, and do your work.” Instead, she was allowed to take class time away from students who were doing exactly that, as well as interrupting lessons with her nonsense.

And when her Mom got out she was all too happy to come in and challenge the school, on more than one occasion, until the district finally had enough and expelled her child, who I guess by now has followed in her mother’s footsteps and is doubtless in jail. I overheard another student tell one, “My dad hates teachers.” Obviously, since she was failing her own classes because of her father’s mindset, they both felt justified when he came in to rant.

Kids I had in sixth grade were getting locked up their first or second year of high school, though I delivered the message over and over again. Another time there was a kid with an alcoholic mom who me and another teacher were finally able to get to who graduated high school early.

And then there was the boy I met in sixth grade who was growing up in a family of nine, determined to be an A student, and well on his way to achieving it.

So what’s my point?

At some point, circumstances cannot be blamed. I wouldn’t say I grew up in poverty, but I didn’t have a lot. What I had was two parents who realized how important exposure to the world beyond the streets of the South Bronx was, and who tolerated no nonsense, even though they weren’t together. I had a mentor who looked out for me, and I had, for the most part, my love of reading to sustain me. At some point, I looked around the decaying neighborhood of my childhood and said, “There is nothing here I want to be a part of,” and so I hit the books.

With my decision came all the accompanying name-calling and bullying, but I was determined and stayed my course. When I left the neighborhood to move to a new one, I never looked back, and I never went back. Recently I pulled it up on Google Earth, and there is less there now than before. The large 5 story pre-war structures are mostly gone, replaced with a one-story project building, and the neighborhood I moved into (another part of the Bronx which was not yet labeled, “South”) which I left after I got married, now has security gates on the building where I lived.

You HAVE to give your children options. Clean your neighborhoods, re-prioritize, organize, meet to advance your child’s education, and not to blame others for dropping what is essentially your responsibility. Yeah, circumstances can be daunting, but they needn’t be overwhelming. You have the power to change things, but if you don’t, who will?

It bothers me that people can’t seem to see the contributions they make to their own imprisonment. My daughter once asked me who would I be if I didn’t have the parents I did. I was honest enough to say that I couldn’t answer that question, because I had those parents, but it didn’t seem like anything complicated they did, or spectacular, or used any kind of pop-culture strategy, they simply did what they were supposed to. I knew my report card was going to be reviewed, and I knew that I couldn’t announce to my family that I was being held back. I knew they would ask me what I had for homework, and I knew that they loved me enough to keep me in line.

As for getting out of the bubble I lived in, the subways and gypsy cabs were available to everyone. I don’t know why more people didn’t take advantage of it, seemingly content to hang out in the neighborhood for the most part. When I got old enough to ride them myself, I did, and went back to revisit those places my parents had taken me, to see them with older eyes and a different view, to walk streets where I was a stranger and sometimes unwelcome, but I needed the reinforcement to stay motivated.

I was fortunate too, that NY was a multicultural mecca, and that Manhattan was the convergence point for all of them. My route usually started at Columbus Circle and went up as far as 125th St to as far down as West 4th St, and sometimes into the South Street Seaport. I met people, and saw things, both good and bad. I observed, and I learned, and I listened.

I was comfortable in Irish bars and Times Square dives that sold cocaine (never got in a bar fight, or robbed, thank God; and no, I didn’t buy any coke. Patrons who did usually wound up with the dealer’s people ‘looking’ for them. Trouble a new father didn’t need, didn’t want, and stayed away from, thank you. In that regard, the South Bronx taught me well all by itself).

As a result, I was comfortable in the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History.

I went to the Apollo and Carnegie Hall and Broadway.

I went to baseball games and ballet performances.

It all shaped who I was, and informed me that there was a better way to live, and a better way to do things. I didn’t achieve a lot of it because I wasted a lot of time spinning my wheels in PA (see previous post),  but the awareness of it kept me in pursuit, and as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”

Today, it all shapes my writing, probably to a larger extent than even I realize, since I’m finally, for the first time, doing it for me, rather than as an assignment, in my 50’s.

So let’s see what happens with this writing thing….

In summary:

Teachers are NOT the enemy.

YOU are the vanguard of your child’s future.

You can hold the teachers accountable if they don’t do their part, but do yours. 

It matters to your child the most when you do.

Writus Interruptus

Since I’ve moved to Jersey, I’ve had trouble finding a quiet place to write. It’s difficult because if you can’t work at home, or just want to be outside in the fresh air, unfortunately, the world is a public place, and most people aren’t considerate of the fact that you need to concentrate in order to keep your train of thought.

These are people such as: smokers ( keep reading: not judging you, just that I’m outside for fresh air; I fully realize the irony of that statement living in NJ, but it’s a relative thing), car radios, chatter, *teenage girls (*see chatter on crack), running children…. you get the point.

There are days you have the ability to zone, and days that you don’t; these days I’m finding it increasingly difficult to zone.

We all know by now, even if we’re remotely serious about it, that writing is in fact a discipline, and as in any discipline, you need to be organized, to concentrate, to focus, to think, and  to adapt, if necessary; that requires, to a large degree, two ingredients: the first is being alone, the second is being quiet.

That’s not comfortable for a lot of people, and I understand. Their car radios are on from the time they get in it to the time they get out, either with music or some other media like books or language learning. They come home and immediately turn on the tv, or come home and jump on all the social media they didn’t get to at work. I’ve never known anyone who said they’ve come home after a hard day and started a book, either reading or writing one (but I know you’re out there).

Then there are the coffee shop writers, whose ranks I’ve joined, and those who think coffee shop writers are showing off. Maybe some are, and maybe the whole movement even started out that way. But here’s the thing: How much you wanna bet that the cafe’ where J. K. Rowling wrote her first Potter novel is cashing in on that reputation?

How many little holes-in-the-wall places in Spain, France, and Italy claimed Hemingway?  You get the point.

I felt self-conscious the first time I set up my laptop in a corner table at my local Borders; it wasn’t crowded, and no one gave me a knowing smirk of derision. Really, no one cared; it’s just that I was aware of the perception. Then some college girls came in and set up shop next to me, and I got distracted, and not much writing got done. If I had been more disciplined, Borders could’ve cashed in on my reputation and saved their business…Isn’t it pretty to think so?

So what’s my point? Finding somewhere quiet to write is essential, but it’s not always possible, so ….

Recognize that discipline doesn’t mean inflexibility; some days, I can work at home, other days, it’s my local coffee shop, and sometimes, it’s the library, and if the weather’s really nice, it’s outside in the park, because it’s the writing that’s the discipline, not the location.

And there are days you’re not going to be able to write X hours a day, even if you told yourself that’s what you would do, because there are days life will crash through the window,  kick down the door, and grab you by the throat, and there are days you just won’t feel like it. Try to push it, and you’re just going to slog needlessly through a lot of mud.

Don’t do that to your writing, and more importantly, to yourself.

It’s okay. It evens out; the desire is there, and one or two off days is not going to quench it. When you get back to it the way it works for you for that day, you’ll be that much more productive. Go with the flow, just don’t float away.

Now go get that second cup of joe, and get back to work.

Making Warr (Excerpt 1)

My name is Warren, an unassuming name, but you’d be wrong to make assumptions: They call me Warr, because it’s all I’m good at making. And I’m really, really good.

1: The room was stifling, rank with the scent of tangy sweat. Flies crawled through my blood, biting, sipping, itching, but I couldn’t scratch with my hands tied behind my back. My lips and nose were swollen from the blows, and it was hard to breathe around the stifling, stinking gag to get air through my mouth.

The goon had his fingernails pressing into a leg wound, and I snarled, muffling through the gag, tensing against the bonds. “Tell us.” The goon pressed harder. I couldn’t help it, and cried out in pain. He let up, and the relative relief was welcome. We all sat breathing for a time. Sweat trickled into the wounds they’d inflicted, burning.

Telling began to seem like a good idea, but if I did, my squad was all dead, and I was hard pressed to believe these guys would really let me go. Goon took the gag off, looked in my eyes, and grabbed me by the neck, not squeezing, just holding it in his meaty, sweaty hand like a set of keys. The thin man sitting in the chair behind him cleaned his glasses on his tie, looking at me.

“I will ask you one more time. Your life is forfeit if you remain silent, and we will find your squad and kill them all the same.” Somehow, I managed to find a bubble of saliva to help me speak.

“Then why do you need me to tell you?” My voice croaked from my dry throat.

“To save us the time of searching, of course.” “Go to hell.” “You first.” The goon looked in my eyes and head butted me. The stars were beautiful, but the room went dark and I saw them fade like a child’s innocence.

2: When I woke up, the goon and the mastermind were on the floor, surrounded by areolas of blood, and in the chair sat the most lethal, beautiful woman I ever met, trimming her nails, expertly, with the point of a really big knife. Lliya, at times my nemesis, at others, my lover, and sometimes both simultaneously. I had no idea which one was going to kill me, and sometimes, I didn’t think I’d care.

The gag was out, but I was still tied up.

“Good morning, handsome.”

“Is it?”

“Interesting. I thought you’d say ‘Thank you, gorgeous.’”

“Really?”

She stood, walked over to me; I actually felt a little sliver of fear. Looking into my eyes, she put her hand with cool fingers and light pressure, capable of anything, on my swollen cheek

“Say it.”

“Thank you, gorgeous.”

She slinked behind me, untied my wrists, knelt, untied my ankles, her mouth close to my crotch, with a small smile on her lips.

“Having fun?”

She smiled up at me, undoing the last of the knots. Her smile dazzled, her eyes sparkled with erotic mischief.

“My dear Warr, you know I only keep you alive so I can kill you myself. But not like this. Not sporting, and all that crap.” “I agree.” She rubbed my wrists, bringing the stinging tingle of circulation back, then I took care of my ankles.

“Get up, darling.”

I did.

She wrinkled her nose. “You stink.”

“Yes, but not at my job.”

She looked back at the dead goon and the mastermind, then back at me, the point of her knife slowly twirling at the corner of her smirking mouth.

“You sure?”

Ouch.

3: It took some time for the swelling to go down. Lliya tried to stay, but that was too volatile a situation. I still remember the kiss she gave me when she left.

Captain Kriley and some of the guys came to see me, debrief me over what the squad accomplished without me, and razzed me hard for getting caught, but praised me for not cracking under the beating I took.

“We’re gonna beat your ass for getting caught, but we’ll wait til you heal.”

“You had to go the bathroom again, didn’t you?”

“Your face still looks like a catcher’s mitt.”

And on it went. I tried not to laugh, because it hurt my ribs, but they had no mercy. Soon, Kriley dismissed them all, sat across from me all serious like.

“Lliya?”

I nodded.

“Yeah.” He sat back, steepled his hands, “I’m beginning to wonder if we should’ve recruited her instead.”

“Me too. She said I stunk at my job.”

“You did get caught.”

“First time, Captain.”

He unsteepled his hands, put them in his lap. “True, but sometimes, once is all you need. There’s guys don’t come back from once. You know that. So what should we do now?”

“Let me go after her.”

“What does she know, you need to go after her?”

“Nothing. I like the curve of her backside.”

“You can go all puppy-dog about it on your time. I’m not asking again.”

“She knows who’s behind the killing.”

“She does?”

“Yes.”

“And you know this how? She told you?”

“She set it up.”

“And you know this how?”

“The little man in the wide tie told me. Somehow, she knew we were here, tipped him. I was blindsided,” I touched the swelling behind my ear, “and they got me. The rest of the squad went on without me.”

“Your feelings hurt?”

“Captain, I’m just running the facts by you.”

“Sorry. No more busting your chops. But those aren’t facts. Yet.”

I nodded. “If she knew we were here, how come she didn’t know where we went? She could’ve followed us herself and taken care of it. We never would’ve saw her, or known she was there.”

“Part of the reason I want to go after her.”

“She’s long gone, and we got better things to do.”

He let that sink in, then got up to leave. “Leave it alone, Warr. She’ll mess you up in the head, if she hasn’t already.”

That ship had sailed a long time ago, but I didn’t bother telling him that.

“Feel better,” he said, and walked out.

Maybe I should start at the beginning.

4: Flash! I remember glass breaking and the sound of copters, keen and fast, flying low over the neighborhood, and the sound of rapid shooting. Flash! My wife ran to the window to see what was happening.

Flash! In an instant she became a pile of molten skin, boiling blood, and bone shards, her head plopping on the bed beside me, looking at me with a question in her bloody, sightless eyes.

Flash! Men in black uniforms and helmets with black visors hitting me with sticks and boots and fists.

Flash!    They carried me out, but as I was losing consciousness, I registered it all. People were screaming and running. The confusion was deliberate, and unnecessary. I would have gone quietly had they knocked. Women and children were lying prone in the streets, bleeding out, their husbands’ bodies vainly over them in a futile gesture of protection, family blood mingling in eternal rivulets of unison.

Flash! Tubes in and out, fluids flowing to and fro, in me, out of me, cycling through again, and men in white robes, outside of the plexiglass tank that contained me, talking in hushed tones about what I was to become. I heard them. Every word, but I never told them.

Flash! Tests, chemicals, more tests, more chemicals, straining against tight bonds, pushing, pushing, until they ripped free, and more men in black with sticks came for me. They say seven of them died before they found the tranquilizer that saw me behind thicker plexiglass. I had no idea where I was, or why. I had no clue why they wanted to turn me into a killing machine, but in the end now, it doesn’t matter. Now, they are the ones I hunt.

5: I’d lived in a quiet neighborhood, with good neighbors (mostly), and a good wife. We had no children, because I was mostly on the move, and never knew if I was coming home. I wouldn’t have liked it if Candace left, but I would have understood. She didn’t, and I loved her all the more for it.

We often went to the countryside on weekends, to a cabin I’d built there for us, our little hideaway, where we let ourselves air out the tensions of the week, and left our inhibitions in the car. I liked the mountains that took the sunset into their valleys, liked the silent, circling hawks, majestic in their flying, lethal in their descent. I liked the way the grass rippled like green water when the wind blew across it. I liked that Candace wanted to share it with me. I liked to think that we were happy, before she died.

And then, I didn’t think anymore, about anything that wasn’t my mission: find the insufferable bastards that blew her head off, or die trying.

*******************

Back on the job, still a little bruised up, but I was gonna hurt someone if I didn’t get out of that hospital bed. It was nothing a ballerina couldn’t endure. I was debriefed: we did not find what we were looking for, so we had to keep looking, except now it would involve traveling, which we all hated, so everyone was gonna have an attitude about finding it.

Kriley suspected that Llya tipped them off, but I knew it wasn’t the kind of thing she’d do, even though she lived to destroy us. Sometimes, even your enemies had codes of honor they wouldn’t break. And that meant that it was somewhere here, on the squad, working close, with access to plans and supplies, maps and computers, spy equipment, and weaponry.

It was shaping up to be a fun time.

I sighed, sipped coffee, looked at the clock, put the double frame pictures of Candice in the top drawer, sipped some more coffee, watched the clock some more, turning it over. Who could it be? Why would they do it? Money? Too simple, but simple may have been enough.

Revenge? Ambition? Jealousy? Too many questions would lead to me getting paranoid and shifty, and if someone else was thinking about this, I might be the one under scrutiny. I breathed deep to slow everything down, and reviewed what I knew of these guys in my head.

Kriley was by the book, and only by the book. His frustration with the job we did was mostly tied to the fact that everyone else, me included, was only loosely affiliated with the book. We cut corners and took shortcuts and risks, even when it came back to bite us. There wasn’t always time for the book, though Captain Kriley always insisted there was.

Colanto was stand-up too, but too eager to get home to his live-in girlfriend. If she was hoping for wife-hood, she’d be waiting forever. He tended to ditch overtime, and wouldn’t volunteer or take on extra if it wasn’t a direct order. He was a great shot though, and you could rely on him to take it when he needed to, and sometimes when he didn’t, just to expedite things. He was the obvious choice, and in this job, you never overlook the obvious, because very often, that’s what they wanted you to overlook.

Arlo was older, more settled, had seen his share of firefights, and knew what it took to survive. He was still rugged and broad, if a little more gray, but that only gave him more of an aura of authority, which he was not shy about wielding. I would be the most disappointed if it was Arlo who leaked.

Duncan, “Dark Horse” we called him, the quiet one, was the least likely. He never said much, didn’t seem to have a blink reflex, and had an unnerving intensity to be absolutely still, settling in like a big cat on the hunt, seemingly lifeless, blending in, until he was ready to strike.

The results were always lethal, and none of it fazed him. If it was him, he’d give me the most trouble, only because he was such an ex factor.

Lastly there was Eberdine, affectionately called Ed, the lone female on the squad.

She had cinnamon skin, sea-green eyes, and a body that promised heaven, and could send you there in a heartbeat with a blow, a blade, or a bullet to the temple.

She was the smallest, and perhaps, skill for skill, the most covert among us, hiding in places you wouldn’t think to look, coming back to you with information you swore was confidential, and knew there were no witnesses. She enjoyed it. “Keeps me sharp,” she always said. If she was the leak,

I was going to have a hard time catching her, and who knew how long that would take.

Tonight, He said, one of you will betray me. I learned that somewhere. It was heavy with foreshadow, simple and fearful, with a heartfelt agony of broken trust behind it, a sense of inevitability, and unmatched bravery in the way the victim stayed the course.  

6:  The conference room was big, manfully appointed, and too cold from the canned air that blew threw the inconspicuous vents overhead. The large monitor in the front of the room held the image of man with his face in deep shadow, track lighting glinting off the silver letters on the marbled black granite wall behind him:

STEELE INDUSTRIES       

“Were we compromised?” Shadow-face asked. “No sir,” Kriley answered. “Commander Warren didn’t break, but we didn’t find what we were looking for.”

He didn’t exactly throw me under the bus, he just kind of tossed me underhand. “Commander Warren. What have you to say for yourself?”

“I’m….sorry?” The squad chuckled, but Shadow-face wasn’t amused.

“Yes,” he said, “you are.”

That brought an even bigger chuckle; first Lliya, now Shadow-face. I had to learn not set myself up.

“The mission, sir?” Kriley said, mercifully switching the conversation back to its original purpose.

Shadow-face sat silently for a moment or two. “You will proceed to Nanjasi, sans Commander Warren.”

“Sir?”

“He is suspended, effective immediately. He compromised the safety of the squad, and has become a liability.”

“But sir,” said Kriley, “he’s one of our best all around tactics operatives; I could really use him in the field. Would you reconsider, sir?”

“I already have,” said Shadow-face. “I was going to fire him, effective immediately. Meeting adjourned, Captain. You and the rest of the squad will leave for Nanjasi first light. Sans Commander Warren. “Am I clear?”

Kriley’s jaw twitched with the unsaid.

“Crystal, sir.”

The monitor winked out. He looked at me. “You’re on vacation. Where will you go?”

“I’ve always wanted to see…Nanjasi.”

“You think this guy was born yesterday? He’s probably already got tails on you.” Kriley was right.

“And no,” he said, “you will not spot them, and no again, you will not shake them.” Right again.

“You done with your vote of confidence?”

“I am.”

I left, but I didn’t go home. Not right away. Not for awhile. I went to find Lliya, but I didn’t go after her. Not directly.

“Ed, where would a woman go if she didn’t want to be found?”

“Well, certainly not the bedroom.”

I flashed a phony smile, nodded. “Good. Now where?”

“Shopping, a chick flick, lesbo book store, feminist AA meeting. Why do you wanna know?”

“I’m looking for a woman.”

Ahem.”

“Not in that way.” “Well, now I’m insulted.”

“Hey, you said not the bedroom…”

She arched a playful eyebrow:  “It’s not the only room…”

“Come on, now.” I pleaded, chuckling.

“Okay, okay,” she was smiling herself. “She doesn’t want to be found?”

I nodded.

“Women don’t disappear not to be found; they wouldn’t go off to a cabin somewhere in East Loserville to get away from the Mister. They go somewhere to think, to calm down, to get past the emotions.”

“Where would that be?”

“A park, a coffee shop, somewhere public where she could be alone among people, because she’s afraid she’ll act out if she’s wrong upstairs. So there’s someone there to call for help.

“With me?”

“Yes. Learning.”

“Indeed,” she said. “Glad to hear it. Know where to start?”

I thought about it.“No.”

“Should I come with? I’ll ditch you when we’ve found her.”

“Sure. Thanks. Why’s your name so damn weird?”

“I changed it to Eberdine. It was actually weirder.”

She laughed at my expression. “Let’s go find your killer girlfriend.”

“Well, when you put it that way…”

We walked, arm in arm, off to start my vacation, looking for a woman that didn’t want to be found.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

March 3rd

2014 All rights reserved

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