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.

Full Story– Twenty-Three Million

“Read well, but don’t ever become well-read.”

My dad at this time in his life had skin the color of chicken fat, like they used to keep in pitchers at old Jewish restaurants.  His hand pointed with a limp index finger grown enormously fat, or perhaps that was loose skin making it look so.

He had come to live by the Port Authority.  Or at least that’s where I always saw him.  He probably lived somewhere else and just hung around at the Port Authority during the day; it’s strange that I never knew where he lived, even though we were close.   After him and my mother separated he became hard to find.  We would meet for a bag of potato chips in one of the parks.  Each time I’d offer to pay for something nicer and he refused.

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If the South wasn’t kind of racist, the Voting Rights Act wouldn’t bother them in the first place.

Majority conservatives on the Supreme Court criticized one of the pillars of 1960s civil-rights legislation, suggesting the Voting Rights Act had outlived its relevance and was imposing undue burdens on states whose practices are subject to extra federal supervision.”

Completely ignore all that stuff about voter ID laws that would push emphasis away from the (majority-black) urban areas into the (majority-white) countryside, even though the latter is  more sparsely populated.  But really this doesn’t need any more argument than what I wrote in the title.

Why do you guys care so much if you’re not trying to do some seedy shit?  The best argument against the act– the most negative part of the whole thing– is that it’s “demeaning” to southern states.  So, at worst, the Act is embarrassing, and at best it keeps ya’ll from acting on your instinctively racist haunches.  The South stopped being openly de jure racist in, like, 1980.  I’m sure it’s changing very rapidly.  But, I mean…

Why Toure’s “How America and Hip Hop Failed Each Other” Pisses Me Off Like Nothing Else; or, Why Nobody Cares About the 1980’s.

I forget the reason, but about three months ago I read this article by Toure about rap music, in which he claims that modern rap has gone downhill from its peak in the 1980’s—when MC’s were still politically focused—to the glorification of black repression we see today.  White people currently constitute the majority of rap’s audience.  He sees this as a problem.  I don’t.

“When its audience was black, hip-hop embraced black nationalism, Afrocentrism and social consciousness…. After the audience whitened, many MCs embraced criminality and sold the image of the criminalblackman.”

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Dr. Faustus– Full story

I wrote this something like three months ago, trying to imitate the tone of a David Lynch movie cause that’s what I was into at the time.  It definitely focuses on the prose more than the story, but I feel like in composition– especially the earlier stages– you have to try a couple different styles.  Sometimes it works, sometimes not.  Feed me feedback.

Dr. Faustus

Mommy is alone in the kitchen. Her fingers knead purple ground meat. Streaks of translucent grease cross her face. The vent above the stovetop is on high and squeals a bit, so Mommy presses her thumbs into her ears. She gets blood or something inside her ears. She picks up a knife to cut celery but the grease is all over her hand. The knife slips out of her grip and she cuts her palm. She swears and clenches her wrist. A drop of blood is diluted by the dampness of her hand, and falls onto the cutting board mixed with brownish oil.

Mommy dreamed last night that her baby came in the mail packed in cellophane. When she tore off the tape and used her fingernails to pry the staples, she took out her baby but it had the face of a mouse and no arms and no stomach. Its legs were bent like a frog’s, its head stuck atop elephantine thighs. Her baby hopped around her kitchen; then it died, gasping for air like a fish, its tongue slapping at the green and white tiles, which like everything in Mommy’s house were very clean. Another night Mommy dreamed she saw her baby at a department store, a Walmart or a Target with the fluorescent lights screamingly bright. She found her baby thrown in the section with the porch chairs and the patio umbrellas, when it should have been with the pharmaceuticals. She walked to checkout with the box under her arm and the pale fat girl behind the counter swiped it with a wand and then Mommy swiped her credit card, and then, going to her car, Mommy noticed that the tape on the box had been tampered with and the package was damaged, open in a corner; her baby had been picked apart and eaten with a bag of corn puffs. Little toes rolled here and there on the cardboard, smudged in flavored orange dust.

Mommy and Gary have waited for their baby almost a month now; six months ago Mommy retired from her job; a year before that, Gary’s website blew up. Mommy was barren, so the real Mommy, another Mommy, had been paid a sum of money and was lying on a beach in Maine, cracking lobster shells and dunking violet meat into tiny plastic cups filled with butter. (The surrogate Mommy is the daughter of a lobster fisherman in Maine. Mommy has never seen the other Mommy, and she imagines her this way).

Mommy takes a fistful of ground meat and presses it into a hot pan that looks the same as a cold pan. Steam rises. It smells like bugs.
***

Their land is heavily wooded. A groundskeeper comes once a week. A maid service comes the same day as the groundskeeper.

“What’s the plan for today?” Asks Gary, standing by the kitchen table.

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