And if it wasn’t Jack Daniels and Parliament Lights it would’ve been murder

Anyone who has anything to do with Rikers Island knows the building I’m in.  It’s three stories tall, as wide as a Walmart, and occupies the former headquarters of the Bulova Watch Company in Jackson Heights, Queens.  As I enter and as I leave this orientation session and fingerprinting, I notice massive plaster recreations: a Nereid from (I read on the label) the Neireid Monument at Xanthos in Lycia, and two caryatids from the Parthenon (these I recognize on my own).  I’m betting it’s the Bulova folks who put these in.

The majority of the seminar unfolds in a neat conference room with blue carpeting and clean, see-through windows looking on a cublicled floor, maybe five hundred feet by a thousand across.

“I always have fun, whether I’m inside or out,” says a man in a tattered letterman jacket, sitting to my right and almost shouting even though the room, occupied by about twenty people, is silent.  “I always try to have fun.  When I’m in prison, I definitely have fun.”

A woman with a drooping disfigured face (the pockmarks are possibly congenital but look like acid burns to me) says without moving her head, “the devil tries to snap you,” as a response.  I have my work notebook out.  My work notebook is the thirty last blank pages in my massive hardcover sugarcane-cardboard notebook from my college senior project on Plutarch of Chaeronea.  I flip through some lines, out of boredom.  My handwriting, perhaps intensified by speed, was millimeter-thin in senior year, entirely written in sharp lines of blue ink:  “ ‘visual shapes emanating from boys’ and women enter the body and produce seed.”

Ms. Sharif, Director of Volunteer Services for the New York City Department of Correction, has scheduled the orientation for Rikers Island volunteers at 9:00 am.  On the day I attend, orientation doesn’t begin until 10.  At noon, I plan to drive straight from New York City to Boulder, Colorado, with four friends who, as I wait in this conference room, wait for me to tell them that I’m out.

Here is an actual quote from the orientation, written on a projector screen and recited verbatim by Ms. Sharif:

“Safety is of the utmost importance, it helps keep the entire facility safe.”



Resurrecting my Blog. Also, Updates.

I’m back on this blog.  Been way too nervous to show any of my writing from the past year.

In June, I returned to my job in New York City, at a non-profit that works with the adolescent inmates on Rikers Island.  The job has little to do with my academic interests, which scares me because my academic interests seemed to encompass my whole life at Bard.  Bard College, for all its intensity and isolation, was sort of like a sanatorium or tuberculosis ward.  It was quiet, detached, and surprisingly old-fashioned, situated on a picturesque hill that had fresh thin breezes that I imagined were maybe salubrious, I don’t know (I’m writing this in the midst of a Henry James kick– but I did like to imagine I was in a tuberculosis ward).  While I was there, working too hard and arguing too excitedly and arrogantly about texts with no modern import, I often felt a bit like someone suffering from a debilitating illness.  All my classes were like that line from Pnin, “a college seminar is twenty blockheads and two cocky neurotics talking over each other.”  I did, and do, fancy that I’m one of those cocky neurotics.

Much of my writing in this blog will have to do with my employer, Friends of Island Academy.  Here is an article by Adam Gopnik for the New Yorker on what the organization looked like in the late 90’s/early aughts, and what we all wish it still looked like now.  Since the year that article was written we lost almost all our funding.  There’s a lot of inefficiency and frustration.  Either way, I try to help wherever I can, and desperately try not to look too much like I’m just working there so that I can write about it later.  I am in fact not there to write about it: my fiction tends to follow my own class or even, I think, the very wealthy (I have been married to Henry James for half a year now, which may explain some of this).

One major reason this job works perfectly for me is that, after college, as someone with lofty and very  silly literary ambitions (I will definitely devote a post or two to the insanity of claiming I want to write fiction, at the age of 22, with no stories anywhere close to ready for submission to any publication), I really just need a place that can occupy some of my time without demanding every single moment.

[Optional paragraph / digression:

My focus in college had been—well, academic, literary, but never specific enough to make the word “focus” really accurate.  I was a Classics major, and wrote a project on Plutarch that failed miserably. Really, though, I never studied with enough specificity to call myself something less vague than a Lit major.  I can’t even say I was an English major.  I scattered my electives around creative writing, art history, medieval ancient and contemporary literature of all languages, and Russian language classes.  I worked hard, but only excelled at writing papers when I had been thinking about something long before reading whatever text we were studying, and could somehow mold and bend that separate idea into a faux- textual interpretation.]

The job at Friends started three years ago, the summer after my sophomore year, when I was mostly occupied with drinking too much and binge-watching sitcoms.  My mom offered me an unpaid internship editing a magazine compiled of court-involved adolescents’ poetry and prose.  (Both my parents were deeply involved in the criminal justice system, but they never spoke about it and I never learned much about what they did till this past year).  I spent two months hovering over Microsoft Publisher at Friends of Island Academy’s old office in midtown, and endlessly re-reading a folder full of tragic and illiterate stories.

One of the essays I read is indelible in my mind: written in blue ink on widely-spaced notepaper, with a thick hand and over-sized letters.  I typed it up and emailed it to myself.  I’ll close out this first blog post with that paragraph.  In the midst of all the books I loved in college, this one piece stands out still.  I know it almost by heart:

My homie frost die coming off the bus from a game with the homies and
everybody want different ways the they shot were fired at him and he
had dead young that was rite hand man’s about anything.  My homie goon
got shot by some bloods on the ave on eglinton I was in Brooklyn when
it had happed, my sons called me and told me that I was crying and I
was like damn when I left the hood when they told me that.  My homie
dips dead in girl that was in Love with him I was there for that.
That had made me think about Life.

I must have read these sentences a hundred times before the end of that summer.  At the end of the internship, we printed the magazine (the above piece was not included), and I left before any of the copies came out.  The only reference I saw to the magazine came two years later in a grant application, which referred to it as “an initiative by a social work intern who saw the penchant among our students for freestyle rap, and channeled their energies toward creative fiction and poetry.”  This entire process was a lesson in my own inadequacy: a whole summer’s unpaid work produced, for the company, the platform for an exaggeration meant to get $20,000 from a foundation.  We missed the deadline for submission.

would you trust me with your kids?

It seems that I may go to New Orleans to work in a children’s art camp over the summer.  I want to teach—but probably high school, and hopefully kids who are old enough to respond to what they learn.  My relationship with early childhood is strange.  I look forward to the challenge, should I be accepted, of further exploring this stage of education.

I remember little of my own childhood.  Some of my memories are not positive.  I remember the powerlessness, the misrepresentation of my actions by adults, the frustration of understanding that, no matter what I say, my intentions will be misunderstood.  Some of that anxiety persists even now.  It is what makes me write.

There is a vast capacity for inarticulate thought in human beings.  I do not mean the subconscious, but literal and conscious discourse that forms wordlessly. To a great extent, my own intellectual awakening took place when I realized that my “feelings” could be voiced.  Those feelings turned out to be logically-formed concepts.  I don’t know how to describe this any better than I have.  They were not exactly emotions, but a collection of images and connotations.  For example, as a child I would never have been able to articulate the thought, “what is the purpose of thought if it doesn’t inform action,” but I remember, in very early childhood, thinking exactly that.  But without words.  This is extremely vague.  My bad.

I think the real change that took place when I learned how to form thoughts into sentences was one of empathy.  Before I could express a thought, I couldn’t interact with many expressions of other people’s thought.  Because my intelligence was working on this inarticulate level that I have been describing so terribly.  It took a lot to learn that the words of others, even if they did not resonate in my subjective world, resonated in someone else’s.  Language catalyzed this change.

I’m off track now.  Being a kid fucking sucks, is my point.


Home for the Holidays Remix: a Radical Revision of what I wrote Two Hours Ago

I’m back home, in this house so thoroughly filled with memories that all I want to do is move and forget everything entirely.  I’m sitting in the basement, next to the stain where a friend puked on New Years Eve, 2007.  I’m next to a couch where I kissed a girl from my church and never talked to her again.  My dad retired last year, and all his stuff from the office is laying around: the computer, the packing peanuts; the old stuffed swordfish his father caught and hung on the wall is no longer with us: we gave it to the laborers who helped in the move.

I remember those laborers.  They drove up in a truck in which someone—some human—had clearly defecated.  They parked on a busy street and you could see people holding their nose or circumnavigating the block because the odor was so offensive.

I’m next to an ironing board that we used while sewing my costume for a fifth grade production of Romeo and Juliet.  I was Tybalt.  I’m next to a stack of VHS cassettes: “Really Wild Animals,” a National Geographic kids program; in eighth grade when I was rehearsing with a band one of my friends suggested we rename ourselves after those tapes.  I’m next to a boiler room I used to be afraid of because a dead cockroach lay, dried up like fat almond, somewhere on the floor.  That cockroach has been here since we moved in, untouched.

I’m under the plaster that I helped smooth.  Under the ceilings, which are supported by pilasters I helped paint.  The cabinets ahead of me are filled with liquor bottles watered down to nothing because I drank almost everything we had in my sophomore year of high school.

God, somebody get me out of here.  Let me move away so I can have enough distance between me and this room to actually miss being here.

Home for the Holidays

I’m back home, in the house I lived in since elementary school.  Everything feels small and a bit dusty—my parents, though clean, are also a bit neurotic and self-sure—which is not a great combination—and there seem to be corners in every room stacked inches tall with dust and pet hair.  My allergies are crazy.  Trying to study, can’t.

I am always shocked by how little I like being home.  I love seeing my friends and I like seeing my family, but there’s something about this place that makes me angsty.  It makes me feel totally reliant on other people, in a way that doesn’t persist in a college dorm.

I think the really strange thing about growing up with very hands-on parents (OK, I’ll say it—Jewish parents) is that you’re constantly in a realm between doing things by yourself and having someone else do them for you.  I have trouble living in that interim, particularly because I am excessively intense, perhaps over-emotional, and my parents are able to comprehend about ten percent of my ambitions at any moment.  So I end up, just by habit and the sort of intrusive presence of my mother, letting someone else do something for me that I really should be doing with no outside influence.  I am bizarre enough a person that I need to learn by my own mistakes.  It is frustrating to feel like I can’t even have my mistakes to myself here.

It doesn’t help that the house is small and old.  Modern suburban houses are built to give each resident privacy: the ranch design, for example, stretches the bedrooms out from the central rooms and from whatever staircases and entrances might intrude along, usually, the central axis.  I live in an old, 1920’s house.  The walls are so thin that you drop a pencil and the basement and hear it two floors up.  All the bedrooms open up on a hallway ten feet long, and the doors don’t completely stretch to the floor.

You couple this with intrusive parents and you have an uncomfortable situation.  I feel like I’m being watched every second here.

And, even worse, I’m probably right.