Tag Archives: Brooklyn

Looking for Avonte

17 Oct

In the course of a week, people started looking.  And they started looking differently.  They looked for Avonte Oquendo, who is mute and can only look back, and we long for him to come back from wherever he is hiding, or lost, or wandering, or — we don’t want to think of the possibilities that are impossible to avoid.

In looking for young Oquendo, the autistic boy who went missing from his school in Long Island City, Queens last week, people started looking places they did not look before: in the eyes of young black boys.  They have begun looking with concern in places they didn’t bother to before.  Maybe it is because of the shame reflected in such eyes that so many people simply avoid their fears.  Avonte looks out from the fliers on subway walls and street light posts and pillars of Chase Metrotech buildings.  My information is cobbled together largely from snippets online that I at first ignored because who knows when someone is missing and when someone just wants you to share a link.  The MTA got on board.  They shut trains down one night to look for him.   After I heard that, I started seeing the fliers.  I had already seen Avonte in the footage of him running from his school.  I wondered why he was running.  I thought he had been teased or bullied.  It was something about the way he ran – and I’m only now learning that he left the school early, and the school – a special needs school – was on lock-down for an hour searching for him before they contacted the parents.  Maybe from my own often unsunny experiences in elementary school and junior high I recognize his body language.  Someone had teased him.  He was running from something.  Why aren’t the kids talking, those who saw him last?

For now, we just look.  There’s a small army of people looking, some actively, volunteering their time and all they have for the search.  Others, like me, looking passively, but looking, and wondering what a 14 year old boy who looks much younger might be?  5’3″ and 120 lbs. means nothing to me.  While I look, the week moves on.  New news unfurls.

In Philadelphia, a photographer posted online photographs whose subjects had catcalled her just moments before the pictures were shot.  The subjects are almost all Black men, looking straight into the camera.  The photos force the viewer to see them, to look them square in the eye.  I see, or imagine, in their faces, variably and in some cases together, bemusement, shame, expectancy, and in some a touch of humor.

There are two sisters in Chicago, heroin addicts in their mid to late twenties, who lost their kids several years ago but are wanting to get them back.  They spoke out this week in the stinging strong language of pictures to warn others against the danger of a drug they used that rots the skin off its users from the inside out, leaving them two years to live, by most accounts.  They provided the proof in pictures that many have been wanting to see, and the rest of us too morbidly fascinated to look away.  There was a death in Oklahoma that may be the first U.S. fatality of the mix from Russia that is a concoction of lighter fluid, paint thinner, matchboxes and crushed codeine.  It’s a cheaper high than heroin.  The online headlines blare this news nearly like they’re giddy.  There is an end-of-the-worldness to the presence of this evil among us.  Like now there may be some predestined manifestation of the cultish predictions that zombies will be the first to ring in the apocalypse.

In San Francisco, a man walked onto a crowded train and waved a gun.  Nobody noticed.  He pointed the gun at a stranger.  Nobody saw.   He picked his target based on who knows what?  A sound?  A tie?  A color?  The man took out his gun and shot a man dead on a crowded train.  The victim was a student from SFSU.  The media said everyone was too absorbed in their phones and electronic gadgets.  The phenomenon was here long before i-phones, and i-pads and blackberries and the whole panoply of gadgetry.   The day after I read the news about the killer on the train in San Francisco, I though I saw more people paying attention on the subway.  Maybe they’d heard about it too.  Maybe they were looking for the eyes of Avonte.

Some nights this week, I’ve walked the street up from the steps off the train to the steps of my home as if in a shell, or wanting one.  My trusty old shell would roll me untouched, all the way to my door.  The door, by the way, has handles that just this week fell off on front and back sides.  My door is now pulled open and closed only by its lock.  It’s like the handles got tired of being here and just had to drop off for awhile.

I, too, have wanted to lock out the world.  But I can’t.  I look.  A friend once told me, years ago, that headphones in public, and on public transportation in particular, was a type of cop-out, disengaging from the world around, ignoring human beings and our present state of being.  I have thought this week about the little boy from my neighborhood who, a couple years ago, was walking home by himself for the first time, a mere matter of blocks, got turned around and asked the worst person for directions.  People looked different after that.

There are some stories that grab us and we don’t know why, or maybe we do.  There are stories, like Avonte’s, that grip me, grab me and induce spontaneous prayer.  They make me beg for my mother to pick up the phone so I can tell her about him because she prays better than I do.  She kisses the feet on the cross, and cries for the pain of others when no one but God is watching or cares.  And she doesn’t write about it after.  I have been compelled to call on angels this week.  I see them walking with Avonte, surrounding and protecting him.

Night before last I walked up to my door after another long day of work. My neighbor and her children were in front of theirs, and I said hello.  The mother told me tomorrow was Eid.  I asked her what you say to celebrate Eid.  She told me and I mumbled it back, quickly forgetting the words but hoping somehow the meaning floated through my bludgeoning it.  The daughter, who helped her mother learn English when the girl was only 8 and they had just moved in, always has had a bluntness about her that is both admirable and annoying.  It comes, I believe, from speaking English in America when your parents don’t.  She looked at me from her newly slender but always beautiful face that only a 15 year old can have, and said, “You look tired.”

Everyone’s looking this week.  Everyone.

After they first shut down the trains to look for Avonte, they began making announcements.  Avonte is missing.  Was last seen wearing a gray striped shirt.  And I wonder, as I have all week, whether the stripes are up and down or a cross.  And suddenly again I’m calling on the angels like I rarely have before, trying to conjure up all the goodness there is in the world, and the little bit of kindness, and pray it is in his path — that this child lost in the world encounter the good, and loving and kind, that wherever he is, he not be afraid and that he have no reason to be, that he merely went in search of his voice, and that his return be a testament to the power of prayer and the collective will called from all that is decent and pure in each of us, that we can help guide this child home, and that together we can save one person, this one beautiful, frail, brilliant, sparkling one.

** I started writing this as I was standing on the platform at the Jay Street/Metrotech station on the F line.  When the train arrived in the station, I saw that it was as usual pretty crowded.  There was one open seat, next to a black man hunched over in his seat, head down, sleeping.  I didn’t sit next to him but I wanted to.  People stood, ignoring the empty seat.  Eventually a youngish white man, looking ever the part of the Greenpoint farmhand, finally sat down beside him.  I found a corner seat that opened up and finished writing.  When I began looking up links for this story, as I was going through it, I found that the parents are instructing the public that Avonte cannot care for himself, and that his clothes will likely be soiled by now, and that he may not even answer to his own name.  His mother has recorded a message being played through speakers on search vehicles.   She tells him to walk toward the lights and not be afraid.  If you see him, the media says to call authorities first (they don’t say 911 but that’s what I’m assuming), since he may run if approached suddenly.  He also may no longer be responding to his name.  See here for more information and to join in the search: https://www.facebook.com/events/438061952969335/?previousaction=join&source=1.

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I Met a Real Jimmy. Her Name Is Plucky Pea.

26 Jun

Only in New York. More specifically, only in Brooklyn. So I went to a semi-business meeting to follow up on an introduction that had been made a few weeks ago at the birthday party of a local entrepreneur, everything Brooklyn artisan ombudsman, founder of By Brooklyn, Gaia DiLoreto. We were basking in the cool glow of ice cream by our food company, Brooklyn Bell, when I was briefly introduced to one of the owners of an upcoming shuffleboard bar to be opening in the increasingly cool area of town known simply as Gowanus. When I floated the idea of an ice cream/shuffleboard marriage by him, I was surprised by his receptivity. That’s all I needed to know to be sure he was my kind of people. So we met last week, and I got a chance to check out the massive space that is slated to be home to the Royal Palms in the nearish future. I had Lil Bit in tow, since I kept her out of daycare to avoid passing her cold along to the other kids. Before we left the house, I let her pick three toys to take with us with the intention she could entertain herself while Jonathan and I talked some super serious shuffleboard/ice cream matters.  She grabbed her long-handled (and loud) castanets, her small, fat red piano with four big plastic keys, something else that was overshadowed by the two other toys. Earlier that morning, I indulged her request and let her watch Nick Jr. beyond the usual one-Dora-a-day.  I found her enraptured with an episode of Bubble Guppies, which we don’t DVR and therefore don’t watch.  But, watching tv aimlessly, you find out there’s more than just the favorite, regularly DVR’d shows (and that’s when life gets complicated).

Back to our visit — when I showed up at the future site of the Royal Palms and Jonathan saw kiddo in the back of the caravan, he told me excitedly that we would be meeting his partner, Ashley, who knew all about kids and music as well.  Ashley rode with us to ta nearby veggie drink place and we learned on the way that she is a/k/a Plucky Pea and head of the celebrated kids’ band The Jimmies.  Not only that, but she stumbled into the gig from her voice-over work for kids’ TV shows, including one that we used to enjoy when we caught it in random, non-DVR’d tv moments – Jack’s Big Music Show.  Among her plethora of other personas?  None other than some of the Bubble Guppies (one episode is enough to catch ya but not enough to catch names).  I still don’t know if Lil Bit understood when I seized the opportunity to explain a career not typically included in the first offered options of “what do you want to be when you grow up.” Didn’t matter so much, though. Our business meeting ended happily in an impromptu dance/jump sesh right there in the juice spot, and although Kiddo was more interested in the store’s swivel seats and leaning over me and under me and on me throughout the meeting than the intended distractions, I still got the chance to meet a jane of all trades (Plucky Pea herself) and learn about the marvelous plans underway for Brooklyn’s first and only shuffleboard parlor. And there will be ice cream!

http://www.gimmejimmies.com/

@pluckypea

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Time Deprived — What We Can Learn from the Gutai

2 Apr

I’m realizing it’s not that I don’t like working. It’s not that I can’t stand corporate culture. It’s not even the many long hours I’ve logged (fortunately not as long, recently, as the hours I put in as a litigation associate in some of the more notoriously hard-driving firms). If there were nothing else to do, all of that would be fine. The problem is that my life seems to somehow have gotten lost in the midst of the ladder climbing, off hours networking, and frequent spells of late nights into early morning hours and sometimes all nighters to crank out a brief or Wells submission. All of that compounded so that something also was lost in the wind-down period after work, when I tried to clear my head of memos that needed editing and witnesses to be prepped. I was fortunate enough to leave Big Law before demanding partners and nervous clients had 24 hour access to young associates via e-mail and iPhones. I did have a Blackberry, and a Blueberry (remember those, anyone?), but the technology was still new, and we were all wet behind the ears with it. Back then, it wasn’t yet a given that checking your email would be the first thing you did when you woke up in the morning and the last thing you did at night (and countless times in between). The practice of unfettered access to me and my mind had not yet become normalized, and as taken for granted as brushing your teeth. It was more like flossing — only practiced religiously by some (roughly 50% of all people).

Today is Day Two of being unemployed. Yesterday, a Monday, my mother was still here from her regular Easter visit. So we took the day and went to the Guggenheim on a whim (or instinct – the Gutai: Splendid Playground exhibit dovetailed perfectly with a book I just finished, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, which I allowed myself time to read only because it was part of a book club I’ve been involved with for years, which is comprised of the mothers of my older daughter’s classmates, and is my sole source of regular socializing).

I knew we would be doing something but I didn’t know what. Mom has come from Wisconsin to visit several times a year since I moved out here 14 years ago. We’ve never had a day when I wasn’t working. I’ve meant to take time off for her visits, but it just never really worked out. We had weekends together, usually with me slipping in some work when she would go to take one of her long walks around my Brooklyn neighborhood, coming back with all the news of my nabe, and telling me about the people she had met — folks I have lived near for more than a dozen years but rarely had time to get to know. So yesterday, I was looking forward to merely doing anything that wasn’t working. We woke up and she suggested the Guggenheim. I was embarrassed that I had never been — you know, typical New Yorker, surrounded by the coolest stuff in the world and unable to take advantage because of putting in the long hours needed to live here. The eternal New Yorker’s dilemma. As I took care of a bit of paperwork before we left the house, she said that we didn’t have to go if it would be difficult to find the Guggenheim, and that she didn’t want us to spend all day looking for it. While my mother is fairly “hip,” occasionally she says something that reminds me she was indeed born 25 years before me. I reassured her all we had to do was look online and get directions. “Oh, okay, well only if it’s not a problem.” “No, Mom,” I said clearly confused by her skepticism — “That’s not a problem at all.”

She’d been to the Guggenheim one time before, an aborted trip 44 years ago. I’d heard this in passing before, but yesterday as we took the F to the 6 then walked up Lexington from 86th to 88th, turned left and continued to 5th Avenue (also known as Museum Mile, I pointed out to her), I collected previously undisclosed details. I guided her confidently on our trip, and she gave color to the trip she and Dad took so many years ago. It turns out they had spent the better part of a day looking for the museum. They got lost in Harlem, somehow ended up in Chinatown and got lost there too, went over the George Washington bridge several times and back (my father added this detail when I talked to him last night, and, typical Dad, pointed out that the toll back then was only $.50, and that now it would have been a very expensive detour). So Mom explained that by the time they got to the Guggenheim, she was suffering from a bad migraine and that by the time she circled around the third level of the museum’s iconic twisting interior, she was throwing up. When my mom throws up, she really throws up. She’s suffered migraines since I was little, so I have been unwilling witness to this more times than I can count. Having now walked the incline of the museum’s levels, I can imagine this particular museum is probably one of the worst places in the world to suffer a vomiting fit. My father is a buttoned-up kind of guy, in his own way. Not one for mess or plans derailed or being lost or inconvenience of any kind, I was thus surprised when Mom told me he offered to carry her in his arms back down the winding walkway. I appreciated hearing this snippet of tenderness between my parents, who have been separated since I was five. She said it with an appreciative kind of tenderness in her voice too. Last night when Dad saw my pictures from the Guggenheim posted online, he called and shared a couple other details of their trip. I told him I was surprised when Mom said they did not necessarily intend to come to New York, that they just decided to “head east,” with no particular destination in mind (again, very atypical of my father). He confirmed this; they left Beloit in their little black 1965 Mustang in September 1968 and ended up in New York. The hotel recommended by Dad’s Air Force buddy, Skipper Smith, who he had been stationed with in Grand Forks (where he met Mom) and later Panama (where they eloped), turned out to be so seedy that my parents slept with their clothes on and over (not under) the blankets. Not surprisingly, their NYC trip spanned no more than a couple days. They left the gritty city and headed for the more hospitable Niagara Falls. Despite their roller coaster trip in a city fully contrary to my Dad’s core conservatism and my mother’s Catholic traditionalism, old video footage of their visit and the stories I’ve heard throughout the years, tells me it was a time they both still cherish. They were free, young, and in love. And I like to think that in some grand scheme of things way, my choosing to make this place home had something to do with their visit. Maybe it was the unlikely sight of my mom and dad, surrounded by Hari Krishnas in Battery Park. If nothing else, I knew the place was interesting.

Yesterday, Mom and I circled all the way to the top of the Guggenheim, and all the way back down. I took a picture of her near the very top of the circle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such lightness in her eyes before. For her, this was a circle completed. For me, it was one just opening up. Viewing the art was like a salve to my computer weary eyes. I thought of my youngest daughter, Z, who has not yet been to a museum. I thought of my older daughter, A, and wished we had been to more. But, most importantly, I was thinking about the moment. It’s hard not to be in the moment when you’re looking at Franz Marc’s “Yellow Cow,” or Kandinsky’s “Small Pleasures,” or reading the Gutai manifesto, where everything is about being concrete and letting matter and material speak for itself, or standing inside a giant cube made of red vinyl (a refabrication of a work originally by Tsuruko Yamazaki) or looking for a marker (they all had disappeared) to draw on the communal stand-alone surface called Please Draw Freely, originally conceived by Jiro Yoshihara for the outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition in 1956, from which many of the pieces currently on exhibit were drawn. I think my favorite piece of the Gutai exhibit was Yoshihara Jiro’s Circle, made, I noticed, in 1971, the year I was born. It is just a white circle on a black square. But to me, it says everything. Everything that cannot be put into words. And thus we have art.

And, yesterday, for the first time in a very long time, I had time to look at art. My mind was not weighed down with to do’s still undone. I was free, young (it’s all relative), and in love with the moment. The toll that over-working takes on individuals (and, by extension, families) is extensive and expensive. We pay other people to teach our kids art, culture, and music because we don’t have the time (or by the time we do have the time, we don’t have the energy) to do it ourselves. The Gutai movement, which was started in Japan by Jiro Yoshihara in 1954 and was active until his death in 1972, was a collective of artists who believed art was key to breaking the chains of totalitarianism. Its audience was often children, since it was (wisely) believed they held the key to building a future of free thinkers. Play was therefore key in their process and approach, and many of the exhibits and installations encourage play. In the few hours a day most families have together anymore, there’s barely time to take care of the essentials like getting mouths fed, dishes washed, clothes cleaned, bodies bathed, homework done, floors vacuumed (and rarely can we tick all those off the list in a given day or week), let alone add time for play. This loss of play is hard on us, our kids, our relationships, our health.

What may be most damaging to the fabric of us, as a people, is that by the time we get to taking care of the essentials, our bodies and minds are drained, with no built-in charger. Like the Gutai manifesto says, “Art is the home of the creative spirit … .” There’s not time for the things that heal us, like writing, drawing, meditation, music, prayer, gathering for the sake of gathering, long dinners, story telling, breaking bread and sharing wine. Other cultures have maintained some of this social nourishment. Why can’t we? There seems to be a recognition that something has broken and needs healing. There are groups like ArtJamz, a public space that encourages creation of art for art’s sake. And organizations like see.me, which is in the vanguard of democratizing art (and once that happens, hopefully more people will be creating art), and there are still the vestiges of a freer time, like the Lower East Side’s A Gathering of the Tribes, a writers’ and artists’ community started by Steve Cannon, now 78 and still running it from his couch, where everyone, even if you’ve never been there before, is a writer or artist and, if being introduced by Steve, is “the best damn [poet/artist/fill in the blank] around.” Although these places exist, it’s still going to take something more to fix the bigger problem. It will take employers to see the whole person and not just a worker. It will take a movement, the kind that unfortunately doesn’t usually ignite until we’ve hit rock bottom (keep in mind the Gutai movement was born in post-war Japan, and first received widespread recognition when it invited Time magazine to cover an exhibit it put on in a bombed out building), and I don’t know that we’re there yet, even for as exhausted as we are now.

If one thing is clear, it’s that it hasn’t always been like this. My mom and dad’s tale of setting out with “no particular place to go” decades ago is all the evidence I need to know that it’s not my imagination that time is not what it used to be. My dad traveled a lot for his job as I was growing up. He was in the first wave of frequent fliers, who collected their miles and had few restrictions on how to use them. By the time I was 15, he had built up so many miles that we were able to take a trip (back when frequent flyer miles were still transferable to other people) to Japan. I was surprised he chose Japan. He’s a meat and potatoes, ultra patriotic (“U-S-A, U-S-A”) American. I still need to go back to try some sushi. We ate at all the McDonald’s and Red Lobsters we could find. I also need to go back — even if it’s in philosophy and not geography — to see if I can’t find the source of play, and some way to create time for it. This may just be one of the hardest jobs I’ve had. I always have been a firm believer that time is an invention. But life isn’t. And even if we can’t re-create time, maybe we can recreate our lives in it.

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