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"Bryant Reading Room Word for Word Reading" June 30, '09 NYC 20 44th Street General Society for Mechanics and Tradesmen's Library

"Bryant Reading Room Word for Word Reading" June 30, '09 NYC 20 44th Street General Society for Mechanics and Tradesmen's Library


“This is the bike lane you fuck!” the bicyclist shouted as he rode past the taxi when I opened the door.

Chinese airport car driver charged us $6 extra to drop Umeko separate at JFK’s Delta terminal. When I gave him $60, he whined, “What about my tip? No tip?”—She’ll have your tip, I assured him.

Umeko said when she stumbled out of the terminus of the number 4 line subway station in Crown Hieghts black kids exclaimed, “Is she lost? What is she doing here?” She asked directions and navigated to the Blk Jks (the Black Jacks) concert which had just started at the Weeksville Heritage Center, where Lisa, Jerome, Dolores, Citlali and I were sitting on the grass. A lot of people were chowing styrofoam containers of organic soul food (“the mac and cheese is flavorful,” Lisa said), and the Blk Jks were blasting, funkified drumming, ska backbeats and rhythm guitar, psychedelic lead solos hoisting rock declamation, they lifted most of the audience to their feet, song after song, by the end—their last stateside gig before heading back to South Africa. Great band, terrific fluent meld of Afro-Caribbean rock, articulated sharp. Behind the stage were several clapboard wood frame houses—what was salvaged by community acitivists in the 1960s from urban renewal (brick blockhouse housing projects standing behind us across Bergen street), as the organization website notes, “In 1838, only eleven years after slavery ended in New York State, free African American James Weeks purchased a modest plot of land from Henry C. Thompson, another free African American. That land in what is now Central Brooklyn became Weeksville, a thriving, self sufficient African American community. Weeksville quickly became a safe haven for southern Blacks fleeing slavery and free northern Blacks fleeing racial hatred and violence, including the deadly Civil War draft riots in lower Manhattan. …Established as a suburban enclave on the outskirts of Brooklyn, by 1850 Weeksville became the second largest known independent African American community in pre-Civil War America.” Weeksville was erased off the map and off the official terrain by the 1960s until new community activists brought it back. “By the 1860s, Weeksville had its own schools, churches, an orphanage, an old age home, a variety of Black-owned businesses and one of the country’s first African American newspapers, Freedman’s Torchlight. Almost 500 families headed by ministers, doctors, teachers, tradesmen and other self-reliant citizens lived in Weeksville by the 1900s. Its citizens included Alfred Cornish, a member of the 54th Regiment whose story was told in the film Glory; Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, the first female African American physician in New York State and the third in the nation, Moses P. Cobb, the first African American policeman in Brooklyn’s Ninth Ward, and Junius C. Morel, a well-known educator, journalist and activist. Weeksville covered seven blocks and was a model of African American entrepreneurial success, political freedom and intellectual creativity. Its residents participated in every major national effort against slavery and for equal rights for free people of color, including the black convention movement, voting rights campaigns, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, resistance to the Draft Riots in New York City, Freedman’s schools and African nationalism. According to one historian, Public School 83 in Weeksville became the first public school in the nation to integrate fully its teaching staff.” They asked for a $5 donation at the gate. The crowd of a hundred or so young people with a scattering of other generations were a purposive mix of whites and blacks, with our grouplet bringing up the mongrel fringe from Los Angeles.


The BLK JKS a day away from South Africa, benefit concert for Weeksville, Crown Heights

Citlali ordered mofongo at El Castillo de Jagua, a Dominican restaurant across the street from Verlaine’s, the bar where Lisa had read with Bino Realuyo in Sara Gambito’s reading series. It was late in the evening, but, being a Dominican restaurant, a uniformed baseball player strode in to sit at the counter. The women discussed looking at his butt in those tight baseball pants. Mofongo is platanos mashed with pork skin in a yellow hash flecked with onions or other bits, accompanied by a red sauce. She couldn’t finish it, and found it weighed heavy in her stomach on the walk through the Lower Eastside later, past Katz’s (founded 1888), Russ & Daughters (famous lox and fish products) along Houston (pronounced How Stun) Street.


Nobody was really into it, but I paid $20 a head to take them to the top of Rockefeller center to the “observation platform” atop one of the buildings owned by the Rockefeller family. Cheaper than a helicopter ride; they got some fun helicopter shots in Ric Burns’ “New York: A Documentary” that I use teaching American lit. On the way to the top the walls of various foyers are covered in murals exalting the Rockefellers. According to those murals John D. Rockefeller was a hero, he looked around at the despair of the Great Depression and said, “Times are so bad that either you throw up your hands and say there’s nothing to I can do or I can go out and get things done on my own, alone.” I mentioned that this guy was partly responsible for the Ludlow Massacre of 20 people, including 11 children, two women (a couple Chicano families) and striking miners by National Guardsmen called in by the owners to repress the strike with violence in 1914. Nearly 200 people were killed in the strike, including strike leaders arrested by guards or police and later found murdered. We’d visited the massacre site in the 1980s and viewed the 1918 memorial obelisk and statue placed by the United Mine Workers of America, which a local farmer said he’d been “taking care of” since it was adjacent to his land. The monument was vadalized in 2003, but restored and designated a National Historic Landmark this year. Like Weeksville, the powers that be nearly erased it from the landscape. As usual, my money goes to people like the fucking Rockefellers, while I took the family up to the top of the building and we walked the edge of the sky and looked out over the Jersey side across the Hudson and up the East River past Devil’s gate and saw jets taking off from La Guardia and pointed out the Statue of Liberty beyond the nearby Empire State Building on a great expanse of sunshiny day. The rivers flowed around Manhattan and it was really breathtakingly beautiful. The top of the building was full of German speaking tourists but nowhere near as noisy and crowded as the Empire State building was in memory. We could see far out over Upper and Lower New York Bays, we could see marshes and greenbelts in New Jersey, we could see flat New York stretching west toward the whole continent. The Rockefellers might own Rockefeller Plaza and financial empires like AT & T larger than many countries, they might own the ranch they made into Teton National Park and big ranches in that area still, but they can’t own everything in the whole country.

Roosevelt island in the East River which had been a debtor’s prison and lunatic asylum had ruins of old buildings on it, supposedly accessible via tramway, but we didn’t have time to get over there.

This land was made for her and her

This land was made for her and her

Greenwich Village is of course now boutiques, art galleries, high end stores. Like 5th Avenue it’s full of tourists and shoppers and tourists shopping. Like wide swaths of Los Angeles, all San Francisco, swaths of Manhattan like Greenwich Village have been gentrified in the Reagonomic 20th century. It seemed representative not merely of 80s and 90s New York City, but all over America—I know California’s like that everywhere. There’s no getting away from it. It reminded me as we walked Bleecker Street or crossed it, when asked about being famous Kerouac said, “It’s like old newspapers blowing down Bleecker Street.” I tried to imagine old newspapers blowing down some bleak wintry Bleecker Street. But it was a brilliant sunny day after a couple days of cloudy muggy summer downpours, nice rains, and in the brilliant sunlight there were no newspapers on Bleecker Street. I didn’t believe there would ever be newspapers blowing down Bleecker Street again—not the newspapers of these days, the Bleecker Street of these days. It’s some kind of new pretty empty pretty days.

But wasn’t it always? Crossing 4th Street or meeting Ume in Washington Square on 4th after we toured NYU with Lali I was humming Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street” in my mind and trying to wonder about what’s positively fourth street now. In spite of the recurrent summer downpours, when the sun broke through clouds because of the humidity people sat around the fountain in the middle of the square, dogs and kids played in the splashing fountain, tourists snapped snapshots around the fountain or under the big arch, and I couldn’t really fix which NYU building I’d stayed in during the 90s that overlooked the square when I was doing a Kaya press reading tour. Actually I was really humming the tune, “4th Time Around,” not “Positively Fourth Street”: “she threw me outside, I stood in the dirt where everyone walked… Her Jamaican rum, and when she did come, I asked her for some. She said, “No dear.” etc… which seemed to me more like it, then and now, perhaps. “I filled up my shoe and brought it to you, you took me in, you loved me then, you never wasted time,” etc. That seemed like just about what people were all still up to, more or less. Maybe, anywhere. Isn’t that kind of daily round empty or full (according to your sights, it’s thinking makes it so) and regular? Whatever the “scene”?

Even if it was pretty impossible to imagine what the 1960s village folk music scene and the street scene was like now, with Latino vendors pushing carts and tourists wandering everywhere with their shopping bags in hand or peering at maps (like me, I had my map in my pocket, I love maps). Golden haired hordes bustling all over Broadway. Turbaned taxi drivers. Mexicans working in all the kitchens all over Manhattan and pushing garment racks in the street. At La Esquina at Kenmare and Broome in Soho, an over-priced but good taqueria where the waittress said, “if you buy your tacos at the counter, you’re not allowed to bring them out to the sidewalk tables” but I needed a clean T-shirt, so bought their “I [lucha libre mask] NY” T-shirt.

Isn’t it all perfectly sunny and humid damp in the summer and wonderful and empty (or not) as you make it? Sorry American politics of gentrification and ruining of everything they can get their hands on—(or not, anyway)—despite that, isn’t it all up to us, every moment, always?


Rainy Bowery Street

Rainy Bowery Street

Citlali was impressed with the art books at St. Mark’s Bookstore. They stocked WORLD BALL NOTEBOOK but not ATOMIK AZTEX. Cooper Union, which Lali was interested in, was closed for the summer, so I asked at the bookstore and the guys at the register directed us to the best cheap falafels ($2.50) I’ve had anywhere, Mamoun’s downstairs on St. Mark’s Place, hot chile sauce and all with two Jamaican guys in leather hats apologizing as they stood over us while we ate (looking for dropped screws) working on a electrical junction box on the wall above.

Lisa Chen devoted much thought and consideration during our visit. She tipped us off, emailed recommendations, gave us connections, provided information, made things happen, steered us clear. She even cooked us breakfast in her new place on Rutgers Street overlooking Seward Park off Chinatown. The sun came out over the East River bridges, some guy jogged circles on his rooftop, workers sat outside on the roof eating their brunch, Lisa’s companero Jay talked to Lali about art schools. We all walked across Manhattan Bridge to a bar where they lined out a game of billiards. I drank iced tea and peeked in a used bookstore nearby, and Jay took us to Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn where he pointed out the second story window he jumped out of twice for fun, the second time putting him in the hospital for eleven days. Unrelated to that, security guards to the entrances to campus refused to let us stroll around, turned us away, so we walked the perimeter while Jay described the school. We bought cherry and coconut Italian ices from a Latina pushing a cart through the leafy green neighborhood with its old houses and even older mansions. Jay was staying with his part-Jamaican family in Brooklyn and working in the arts in NYC; he’d worked for seven years in the superhero comic book industry, and told me, “Graphic novels are the equivalent of the Indie films in Hollywood, a prestige product but a small fraction of the industry as a whole.” Jay was going to take his camera to some gathering of friends from Harlem at the governor’s mansion later and shake hands with the governor. He didn’t know why, he said, but they kept inviting him.

We stood with hundreds of thousands or millions of people in the streets of Chelsea on the west side to watch the 4th of July fireworks blow off over the flourescent lights of a Mobil gas station ($3.09 per gallon regular), over the Hudson river.

A haiku by Matsuo Basho on a banner hanging by the Central Park children’s zoo: “For years and years/ on the monkey’s face/ a monkey’s face.”

David Ashkenazy (drummer) jazz trio played Duke Ellington tunes at an intersection of Central Park trails.

Lying on summer grass of Central Park, taking our time as our afternoon fades.

Small little pug dogs tottering around Manhattan.

Savory fresh chewy nice pumpernickle bagel with Jay and Lisa in Tillie’s coffeeshop, Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The guy behind the counter (remarking on my City Lights T-shirt) told me he’s from Oakland. They told Lisa (before they mentioned it to me), “Sesshu was walking up 5th Avenue and some guy walking by turned around and said, ‘Sesshu?’ like he wasn’t sure if it was Sesshu or not. But Sesshu didn’t hear him and was already up the block. The guy turned and disappeared in the crowd.”

Umeko and I liked the very tall ornate Micronesian or South Pacific totemic carvings in the Oceanic room at the Metropolitan Art Museum, standing over us like the shadows of ancestors. The guards kicked us out of of the Met and several museums because we were always getting up late in the day and arriving at them late.


Hard rain pouring down on Bowery Street as we stood under an awning.

Vijay Seshadri, Adrienne Su and I read poetry at the General Society of Tradesmen and Mechanics’ Library 20 44th Street for maybe 35 people who came through the rain (and a change of venue from the Bryant Park Reading room where the outdoor reading was canceled at the last minute because of rain) organized by Paul Romero of the reading room and Nina Sharma of the Asian American Writers Workshop. Paul said we lost about 2/3 of the audience due to the venue change, anyway, my books sold out, sold by I’m not sure who. Novelist Ed Lin (THIS IS A BUST, 2007, Kaya Press) and his wife Cindy wended their way through rain and venue change to the reading; I found myself congratulating Ed on yet another book—soon to be published, the sequel to THIS IS A BUST. Ed knocks ’em out! It was fun reading under the logo of the arm raising the sledgehammer (against intolerable ignorance and grief and boredom I say). The plaques and banners hanging about the big old library (with its old-time card catalogue!) that said, “The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York was founded in 1785 to provide cultural, educational, and social services to the working classes of New York.” With poetry! Vijay walked afterwards partway with us toward Korean restaurant before taking the Brooklyn subway, and Adrienne (in from Pennsylvania) came to dinner.

A blonde model—“I recognized her from America’s Next Top Model,” Citlali said, approached Citlali eating her salad before the rain in Washington Square and asked Lali where she got her clothes. “What did you say?” we asked. “I told her,” Lali said.


THIS IS A BUST by Ed Lin (Kaya Press, 2007)

THIS IS A BUST by Ed Lin (Kaya Press, 2007)


Taking time out rushing through Manhattan, Dolores sat in the pouring rain under an umbrella outside a coffeeshop (inside was too noisy) on the phone trying to get money to Marina.

I wanted some goat stew and other island foods from the old black woman in her tiny stand on Governor’s Island, but all I got was her iced tea which was too sweet so I threw it away.

When we first arrived on the red-eye to JFK we took a taxi into town at 6 AM, stowed our luggage at the hotel and I rushed them into the subway which ended at World Trade Center site with cranes towering over Trinity Church with its graves and tombstones from the 1700s (“here lies the body of _______ who has gone to a better place above/ where Angels look down with love”) and we jumped onto the Staten Island ferry and went out on the water, past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline looming and bobbing over the water. Tugboats pushed barges through the water. We were excited and all tired out from no sleep all night. I took a picture of Lali and she was too tired to pay attention. We got off the ferry at Staten Island and then ran around and jumped back on the return-trip ferry. We were looking for a place to sit but it was packed with commuters. Then we joined the crowd pushing up the gangway and into the city.


July 2009