F Train © (A semi-autobiographical memoir) By Michael Hueston

September 30, 2012 Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue, 1 of 3

I take off on the F Train at Carroll Street and write these first words as we emerge from the tunnel onto the elevated tracks.  I look out at Red Hook, Gowanus, Staten Island, New Jersey, the Upper Bay, the continent.  The sun shines.  The BQE creeps.  The Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison, sits in Sunset Park, and I push back thoughts of my clients incarcerated there.

I let time happen.

At Ditmas Avenue a young Jewish man leaves the train and an old Jewish man boards, both dressed in Hasidic black.  At Bay Parkway there are parking lots filled with school buses and a crowded cemetery spanning blocks.  The stops run ubiquitous and empty to me, named Avenues I, N, P.

We brake and glide into Avenue X.

The Wonder Wheel and Cyclone not far off now, and I recall swinging and climbing on the poles and handrails of an F Train years ago with Dean and Cooley headed out to Coney Island.  Doug and Julia were there too.  That summer night we rode the Cyclone three times, raced go-carts, crashed bumper cars.  And when Julia’s tube-top slipped down on the Polar Express Ride, as we spun and twirled to Jamaican Dancehall, she just pulled it up and laughed.

My desire to do something like this was with me back then, but it was vague, hibernating.  And though the pipe that burst at my uncle’s building a few nights ago, dealing with the tenants and soaked floors, has finally set me to this, no single reason explains why I’m here on this train today, writing in this notebook, much less what I hope to accomplish other than the act itself.  In part, it’s the culmination of so many experiences, of stress, of one incident too far, but that’s saying too little, almost trivializing my unease, and is certainly incomplete.  Because it’s also about admitting that I’m in need of something that must be done now, a rebellion of sorts against myself that starts with me setting out to visit every stop on the F, whatever that means.

I bite my lip, as is my habit, to push my pen further, and look back at Manhattan.  It’s barely there in the distance, and I must confess New York City is also driving me.  It’s this swell, even conceit, that’s been with me since I was a teenager, formed during times like those nights with my friends in Sheep’s Meadow when we’d sit and talk in that fishbowl.  I can still recall the coolness of the grass and the depth of the quiet.  In that emptiness the city burned raw power; and my feelings were as palpable.  I even tried to put them into words in high school, when I had one of my comic book super villains proclaim, “The city’s magnitude is the progeny of our ambition and its aggressiveness an extension of our will!”  Those sentiments were hyperbolic and naïve, but have proven strangely durable, encumbering me with this burden I once felt was a blessing.  And though I continue to tell myself, “So what?  There are harder, meaner places, that living here is no feat.”  I can’t shake my disquiet, and the feeling that New York has me for a loss.

1:20 p.m.

The train settles into Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue.  The conductor squawks: “Last stop.”  The doors open.  I step out into the humidity, walk down stairwells and ramps through the nearly deserted station onto the street.  Along the way I pass an Asian family, black MTA workers, a Hispanic man wearing a fedora, a lifeguard chair by a token booth, and stained glass images of old fashion side show attractions, like this mentally disabled man dressed as a jungle monster.

On Stillwell and Surf Avenues, the Welcome To Coney Island sign greats me with its joker grin.  I walk to the familiar, West 12th Street, and recline against a fence across the street from the Sideshow By The Seashore Theatre.  Its marquee advertises: Blockhead, Snakeology, Sword Swallower, Electra, Weird Women, Strange Men, their likenesses painted in tan, red ochre and turquoise.  I’m about to head over to the freak show when an elderly couple turns onto the block.  They walk past me to the boardwalk.  He gripping his cane.  She holding his arm.  Her floral perfume pleasing.

I cross the street.  A young woman sits at the ticket booth.  Her face is suntanned.  She wears black lipstick and indigo eyeliner.  I hand her a twenty and she hands me back my ticket and change with fingers adorned in rings.  She tells me that I’ll have to wait until the next act before going inside.  So I browse the murals and banners in the lobby.  They’re of more performers painted in sand and sea colors. 

I’m admiring a painting of a woman pierced all over her body, imagining what it would be like to be her, and what my act would be, if I was a freak, when I hear clapping. I glance over at the indigo girl. She nods that it’s ok to go inside, and I do.

The theater’s small and dark, nearly full.  A snake charmer is leaving the stage.  The audience is talkative.  I find a place among the bleachers.  The seats alternate yellow and red.  The closest people to me are a father and daughter.  The ringmaster, Donny Vomit, walks into the spotlight, vaudevillian, with his handlebar mustache, bowler, tie and vest.  He introduces Insectavora Angelica who takes the stage holding unlit torches and a single flame.  

We quiet down. 

Angelica’s lean but curvaceous, illustrated in tattoos.  A blackwork maze covers most of her face and runs down her neck to her bosom.  An electric guitar plays minor chords, and a somber voice joins in.  Angelica moves seductively, lighting her fingers on fire, then igniting the torches one by one with her touch, before arching her head back and setting her lips alight.  She stares effortlessly into the flames, and I wonder where she’s from and how she got here, as I’m reminded how for a long while after returning home from law school, I thought most transplants were here to just get off on the anonymity the city provides.  I couldn’t grasp the flip side, couldn’t appreciate how being anonymous could be a way to come to know yourself, unencumbered, able to reset despite the risk and, at times, pretension.

Listen to yourself – look at what’ve wrote.

Who knows if she’s one, and, of course … it doesn’t matter.

Angelica now sinks to her knees before the torches. She swallows gulps of fire, lips smoldering. And the char is taking me back to those first months home after law school, when I used to hike the night, plowing through 30, 40, 50 blocks at a clip, smoking cigarettes, writing in bars, glad to be back in it, back in the shit, wanting to feel, to be, to belong, to be a part of this place, and to create something, something I valued, whatever that was, whatever that could mean.  But I didn’t appreciate it though, didn’t realize how fast my time was running out as I whined about how much New York had changed and how fed up I was with bridge and tunnel people having their white bread lives toasted by it all.  Before I could get over myself and accept the city that existed as opposed to the one I wanted, I was overtaken by my new life as a litigator. And where one night, as I expressed my frustration to my former boss, now mentor and friend, Ed Willard, about the contradictions and politics of the terrorist case we were defending, about how artificial and manipulated it all seemed, he chuckled: “The truth is a malleable concept.”

“The truth is a malleable concept.

Shouldn’t be.

… The music wails and Angelica ends her act spitting bursts of flame.  And as I applaud her I’m still in my past, but now a couple of years on, when I lived for trials, especially summations.  I’d stay up all night repeating and choreographing my closing arguments, smoking ashtrays full, listening to the same song over and over until I was in this break.  The next day I’d go free fall from the podium, steady eyed on the jury, possessed by this clarity, knowing and believing what I had to say, as I tapped what I would, in time, call the Summation Effect.  Being that litigator was so dear to me because it filled me with a wholeness that showed me how empty I was.  I hadn’t expected that, hadn’t known that about myself, not really, since before that time I’d never cared enough to commit myself to anything or anyone.

Donny Vomit’s back on stage setting up his own act, holding a hammer and long nail, but I don’t stay.  I close my notebook, put my pen in my pocket, squeeze past the father and daughter, walk through the lobby, nod to the indigo girl, and I’m outside.

I breathe the salt air.  I listen to the rides and excited cries.  I feel dredged up, hungry and thirsty.  I start towards the Nathan’s on the boardwalk, but notice an older woman working the ticket booth of the Wonder Wheel.  She has on a black t-shirt with the word “Sexy” in sparkling silver letters.  She’s sun burnt and weather worn, but has a hopeful smile, a smile that persists even when ignored.  And I change course and walk to her booth and gaze at the rims, spokes and chairs, spying on her as I work up the nerve to ask her a few questions.  But she speaks before I do, and I take down her words in real time.

“The view’s great up there,” she says.  “You should head up, you’d see more.”  Her voice is a bit hoarse but easygoing.  And I stall, off balanced, conscious of the notebook and pen in my hands, not knowing what to do, because it’s about me doing this thing I’m doing, and I don’t know what’s fair, what the rules are, or my role is.  And note taking affects people; they gauge their responses.  But I don’t want that, not now.  So I close my notebook, knowing that when I recount this encounter it will be more susceptible to my point of view, which is why witness testimony is so often flawed; and I reply, “Thanks, maybe another time.”  And I start to ask, “How long have you-” but the woman gestures at my notebook and asks, “What are you writing about?”

I hadn’t expected that.  How do I describe it?  Do I try?  Do I know?  So I fall back on how I answer judges and instruct clients: Keep it simple, and say, “What I see.  People.  My thoughts.

There’s laughter and voices passing behind me.  The woman looks away and smiles at whoever’s there, and when she looks back, she asks, “Like me?”

My eyes narrow, and I have to stop myself from searching to see if she’s being insincere, since I’m likely to find a false positive given my own skepticism.  “There are no stakes at risk,” I tell myself, “or, at least, none I’m used to. See her without sights, not as a potential adversary.”  And what I think I see is just curiosity, perhaps boredom, a flirtatious chutzpah.  And it’s clear she’s read the answer in my face because she asks, “Can I read it?  Read what you wrote?” 

I feel a jolt, but no hesitation.  I’ve caused this, wanted this opportunity.  Now it’s about faith.  And I hand her my notebook.

The wind picks up and she holds the pages down.  She starts at the top, I think, at the freak show, underlining my writing with her fingers.  When she’s done, she hands me back my notebook and says, “You know your handwriting’s god-awful.”    

That’s a letdown.  But whether she’s gathering her thoughts or avoiding comment, she’s right.  My handwriting is a mess of print, cursive and shorthand.  And I think about how Ms. Margolin, my second grade teacher, tried mightily to set my penmanship straight, gently admonishing me about how my r’s looked like v’s, reminding me to give my p’s and y’s proper tails, and not let my words sink below the lines.  Ms. Margolin was the teacher who first encouraged my interest in art and history.  She was funny, compassionate, knew everything a seven-year-old needed to know, and I adored her.  And I see myself that first day of school, blown away by how beautiful and welcoming she was, captivated by her brown eyes and chestnut hair, and raising my hand and asking her if she was married, because that’s what I wanted to do, marry her.

“Terrorists?” the woman asks, tripping up my reverie.  “You really represent them?”

It’s odd how that word fascinates, sort of like sharks do.  I don’t hedge.  “Yes, I’ve represented people accused of terrorism, still do.”

The woman gives me a once over, perhaps wondering if my Levi’s and Dr. Martens add up.  Finally she asks, “Is it frightening representing them – those types of people?”

My answer comes easy, having said it often enough. “Yes and no,” I explain.  “It’s harder defending someone who’s been played by the government, who’s a patsy.  They’re lumped in with more dangerous actors, and most people don’t understand that.  And it may sound strange but defending true believers isn’t as bad, because they’re stronger.  But mostly all we do is make sure the process works.”  It all sounds pat, balanced, a near nothing.  And I don’t mention how troubled I am over my client Kaleb Mohamed’s case (I’ve changed his name and the facts of his case for this project), or the anger I felt when the assassin drew the REDACTED on my legal pad and promised REDACTED.

The woman seems satisfied, and I’m relieved to see some guys approaching the ticket booth.  I step aside so she can tend to them.  They’re talking about their weekend partying, sounding British, gay and hung over.  And when the Wonder Wheel carries them off, I say to the woman, “I should keep moving.  You have work to do.”

There’s another gust of wind, and we both look at the storm clouds lolling in from the west.  And I say, “Take care,” and start on my way, but she calls after me, “You know you’re wrong.

“About what?” I ask.

“About my smile.”

“Your smile?  You have a nice smile.”

“I know, but people don’t ignore it.  You didn’t.  People just don’t smile back.”  I get it, getting her.  “And you know what else?” she says.  And I wait as she winds up.  “I’ve still got it.” And she cocks her figure, whipping her “Sexy” at me, and I head on and find a bench on the boardwalk, and write down what’s just happened.

2:47 p.m. 

In front of me is a sign that warns: “Beach Closed Danger,” which no one’s paying attention to.  Down the way, a band of well dressed twenty-somethings play Ragtime on a pavilion decorated in balloons.  A squirrel scampers. The Zenobio Ride’s giant steel arms cartwheel couples five and six stories high.  On the beach kids fly kites; my favorite looks like a frog.  Out on the breakwater men fish, and out beyond them tankers and cargo ships sail in silhouette.  When a rush of wind carries the odor of the nearby restrooms, I’m reminded I’m still hungry. 

I walk to Nathan’s, and along the way I feel the rumble of a bike and the clacking of a skateboard, and notice how much Russian I hear. I understand only some: a boy complaining to his mother, teens talking about something to do with school, and a man on his cell phone shouting «Блядь» (blyad) fuck.

On line at Nathan’s, a seagull plops a drop of shit on my shoulder.  The girl behind the register covers her mouth both amused and embarrassed for me.  Other people look, I guess, Germans by their sunglasses.  And I shake my head since this is now the third time I’ve been shit on by a bird.  I ask the girl if she can get me something to wipe it off, and she comes back with a wad of dripping napkins.  I put my notebook and pen on the counter, next to a streak of mustard, squeeze out the excess water, and wipe off the shit.  After the girl takes the napkins from me, she leans in close and says, “You know that’s a good sign, a good omen.” 

I was thinking, “Shit happens,” unstressed, but I see she’s trying to be helpful, giving me a wink and nod with that sunlit chocolate face of hers, and I can’t help but appreciate her words for what they are: a token of meaning to something meaningless, and I reply, “I hope you’re right.”  And we both stand there not knowing what else to say until we default to routine, with me giving her my order and her bringing me a hotdog and beer, before I thank her again, give her tip, and walk out onto the beach.

I’m sitting in this small empty playground just off the boardwalk.  It has incline benches, rails and bars arrayed at odd angles and heights.  There’s no padding, save the sand, refreshingly opposite of today’s overprotective play spaces.  I finish my hotdog and beer, as a couple comes over: a woman in a bikini with sleeked blonde hair and a bald man in Speedos wearing mirrored sunglasses.  I smell their sunscreen.  The woman snaps on spandex shorts and begins to stretch in front of me.  The man grips a bar and starts doing pull-ups.  

I laugh to myself.  “This isn’t a playground.  It’s a workout area.”

Soon a bare-chested middle-aged man, wearing Russian style military fatigues, joins them and starts doing lifts and handstands.  “What’s his story?” I wonder.  And I fill in the blanks, giving him a history, so he becomes ex-Soviet military, Russian mafia.  He’s ripped, and reminds me of my former client, REDACTED, who’s now in Witness Protection, and the way he would clench his fist and punch his hands when he talked about REDACTED, like he was beating the shit out of his own words, and I realize I’m not far from where he and his boss kidnapped the pool shark and ambushed the snitch.

And there it is.  In an instant, I see the pool shark’s immolated body left in a torched car just off the Belt Parkway, and the snitch lying on a sidewalk in Brighton Beach dead from shotgun wounds.

Of course thoughts trigger memory – thought triggers.

I look up from my notebook and something must read in my face because the bald man is staring at me.  He speaks to his girlfriend in Russian, and I understand: «что» (chto) (what), «письмо» (pis’mo) (writing), and «какая разница» (kakaya raznitsa) (who cares).  They notice me listening, perhaps realizing I understand some of what they’ve said.  I almost say, «Здравствуйте» (zdravstvuyte) (hello), but I’m not in the mood to be cute and move on. 

3:26 p.m.

I’ve walked out onto the jetty, passing a Chinese man fishing.  I sit cross-legged with the sky and ocean before me, my pen and notebook in my lap, letting the weight of my melancholy press in on me, not resisting.  

I look out into all that blue, grey and white, and feel the spray in the air, feel my body against the granite.  Part of me wants to disappear, to be obliterated, to fractal.  But this isn’t about some escape or erasure or sit ass meditation.  It’s about walking this walk, and it doesn’t matter if it makes any sense.  It’s only the first day of a long march, and I don’t know what I’ll find.  I just have this feeling, no, this belief, I can be helped by, and among, strangers. 

I stand and face Brooklyn, pushing that drama I like.  More clouds have gathered.  Kites are being whipped.  A woman in a pink swimming cap backstrokes the waves.  A beachcomber meanders, his metal detector pinging him here and there.  On the shore, two ballet dancers are being filmed as they arabesque, pirouette and lift.

How did I miss the dancers on the way out here?

I step off the seawall and notice how packed the sand is.

How did I miss that too?  

I kneel and push my hands against the sand and think of the millions who’ve come here, doing all the things that we do, from the mundane to the profane.  The metaphor is obvious; this isn’t soft vacation sand, inaccessible and bought off.

I look up from my notebook and catch the dancers and the film crew checking me out, and I spot a pattern.  I’m affecting people’s behavior by writing so openly when that’s not necessarily what I want.  But there’s no avoiding it now.  And I watch them watch me until the director claps his hands and shouts, “Again, again, let’s hurry!” and they go back to work as raindrops begin to fall.

I leave the beach and hurry down West 10th Street between The Cyclone and Wild River Ride.  The rain’s really coming down.  There’s a row of parked sedans and limousines with diplomatic plates. Security men in suits and sunglasses are escorting an entourage into the park.  Rides are shutting down.  I duck under a tent by The Night of Horrors, joining a kid in a hoodie sitting on a bike, and a hippy chick standing with a little boy.  A hearse is parked out front in a spreading pool of mud.  Stragglers, from the entourage, dash inside an arcade just across the way, and I give it a minute before following them inside.

I spot the group straight away, a dozen casually chic young adults, chaperoned by a few older folks, maybe Russian; it’s hard to hear over music and gaming sounds.  They’re waiting out the rain and having a good time of it.

I play spy again, walking on the casino carpeting, searching for a spot amongst the colored lights and screens where I can set up without drawing attention.  I come across Galaga, a game I like, place my notebook on the screen, get my pen set, put a dollar in the machine just in case, and try not to be obvious.

The guys are playing shoot ‘em up games, aiming, firing at whatever, tight-lipped, eyes darting in that twitch pattern.  One curses.  One slaps a machine.  Another cheers.  Most laugh.  And I don’t judge.  I’ve been them, felt that brag and virtual accomplishment.

And there’s another trigger. 

And I see and hear the teenager whose father was gunned down in front of him by my client as they walked in Brownsville, Brooklyn.  “I miss my dad,” he said while I stood beside my client at sentencing.  “I don’t know why you killed him.  But he’s gone because of you.”  The young man spoke through tears as his mother held him.  And he wasn’t the only victim to speak.  The paralyzed drug dealer recounted being tied, pistol-whipped, shot and left for dead during the home invasion.  The bank guard talked about the bullets still in him, the surgeries and bankrupting medical bills.  It took on a spoken word quality.  I felt exposed, sorry for their loss, and ultimately ashamed, when, using a trick I’d learned from an old time lawyer, I sampled my empathy for them to make myself tear up, on cue, and convinced the judge not to give my client the life sentence most would say he deserved.

… So that’s my act, my freak show.

But this isn’t some woe is me.  I’m not alone, or even close to the worst off.  Still, as I write these words, I see I’m struggling over whether I’m simply impaired or if I’ve gained some needed insight from all this shit.  Maybe both?  Is there difference?  I just know – no believe – I have to give meaning to these experiences.  If I don’t who will?

Wasn’t that the Nathan’s girl’s point?  

Still, meaning mustn’t be rushed.  I’ve done that before, jumped ahead of myself with no place to land.

I turn from the guys to see what the girls evoke.  Two of them are competing in a dancing game, stepping, sashaying, clapping, pumping, posing, while their friends egg them on. The older folks talk amongst themselves, half paying attention, checking to see if the rain’s stopped.  One girl flops and puts her head in her hands, laughing as the other dances on.  

And there’s a new trigger.  I’ve danced and partied, a lot.

And I think of those three, almost four years, when Dean, Cooley and I had our run.  Whether it was dancing in some dive on Ludlow Street to Cooley’s Hot Box, the first drum and bass band Cooley founded, or those packed hallucinogenic Rubulab parties in Williamsburg, or with the Spanish ladies at Montero Bar & Grill on Atlantic Avenue, the three of us were ready.  I loved the release, the charge, the pump-it-up, as we hijacked nights, shirtless, whisky in hand.

And there were those times at The Continental, during college in Buffalo, like the summer night when the platinum blonde wrote a poem about me as I danced in my black everything and eyeliner.  I found the poem on a napkin, waiting for me, at our party’s table with the blonde playing it coy, but loud, and I sat beside her, copped a drag off her cigarette, and read:

Beginning on this note-
Dancing as you are-
Beyond and outside yourself-
You dance alone.
To begin with the music is for the common…
Energy releases through a moment of observation-
The dancing fills the world with energy-
The balance allows expansion-
Without dance the body collapses, 
Awaiting the presence, uncontrollably within the essence of freedom
To be in a field without colors. 

I kept the poem not just because I like it, but because that’s the moment I aped the idea of writing in real time, in nature, following her example.

4:12 p.m.

I press start on Galaga and spend a few minutes fighting spaceships before heading back to the subway and home.  The rain has passed out over the Atlantic.  I walk by a rundown carousel and some beat cats licking themselves, while in the distance The Sling Shot shoots a couple sky high.  Near me, a boy kicks a beer can into a vacant lot, and I think of the 1960s’ Space Race, as the Mexican Ranchera playing from a Burrito stand somehow ties it all together.

As I walk, I notice just how poor this neighborhood is, at how many homeless people there are.  There’s even more homeless at the station, I guess, in from the rain.  I’m struck by their silence and how they watch us, and I wonder if they may see more than most even if crazed.

I go for a piss before catching the F.

In the men’s room there’s a man shaving his shoulders, chest and arms.  His backpack lies at his feet.  We’re all watching him.  He’s staring in the mirror with watery blue eyes, swiping and rinsing his razor again and again.  He has my undivided attention until I see the pile of shit lying in the urinal, and I step to another urinal and piss.

The man’s still at it when I walk out, and I head to the train platform, unsure what I’m supposed to do, if anything, with the encounter.  My initial thought is: “Anonymity has a red line you shouldn’t cross,” but I stop myself from going too far, from pushing meaning.

The F comes and I try to distract myself from thinking about the shaving man by checking out the kid with a Puerto Rican flag tied around his leg, and the orthodox Jewish girl in a black dress and gray sweater with a suitcase in her lap.  The sunlight saturates their clothes and brings out the colors beneath their skin.  And before we sink into the tunnel, I watch the train’s shadow streak over the rooftops, then admire the World Trade Center, still under construction, but finally standing tall. 

And there’s another trigger.  

I want to give meaning to that time and place, to that neighborhood where I started my career, to where I found friends, enemies and lovers, to what happened that day, and to all the things that have happened since.  It’s like my impulse to give meaning to the shaving man.  I’ve popped the cap off of what’s containing me; and it’s compulsive, this need I feel.

I distill my feeling into two words: meaning machines

I think that’s what we are, or need to be.  But I can’t rush it, can’t force meaning from this … whatever I’m doing.  And I look back at the Puerto Rican boy and Jewish girl, both so different, and yet so alike, in repose, in thought, doing what I’m doing, what we all do; and that’s enough meaning for now.

November 10, 2012 – Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue, 2 of 3

It’s been just over a week since Hurricane Sandy, and I’m not sure if the F is running out to Coney Island, but I don’t see any notices and the token booth agent seems unconcerned talking on his cell phone.

I head downstairs to the platform.  The train storms Carroll. Neon F sign glowing red. Conductor braking.  The doors open and I step inside.  There are few passengers. The closest is a young man wearing a Ranger’s cap, hiking boots, jeans, flak jacket, all in gray.  He’s listening to music, sunglasses on, arms crossed, legs spread apart.  I’ve got in earbuds too as I look out at South Brooklyn overcast, my legs crossed, foot bouncing to The Replacements’ Unsatisfied.

Smith–9th Street, 4th Avenue, 7th Avenue come and go before I write: I’ve been in doubt about returning since the first day’s rush faded.  Still, Marie keeps encouraging me, having recognized my need before I did.  After years of hardly writing anything, except for work, she gave me this notebook, which stayed shelved until I started this…  But I haven’t told her about the blowback that’s got me faltering and questioning the consequence of continuing.  The cop I deposed just before Sandy revealed it.  I interrogated him the way I do with my war mask on, flat, empty – not so different than Kid Gray over there – trying to reflect the cop back on himself.  And the cop was game.  He glared back deep, his contempt plain, which was fine, since it’s easier when someone wants to be my enemy.

“Your client should have dropped to the ground when we came in,” the cop answered as I questioned him at my office.

“But did Mr. Rivera try to hurt you?” I asked.

“He didn’t get a chance.”

“You were there to arrest him for running an unlicensed social club?”


“Not for a violent crime?”


“And how did you arrest him?”

“I took him to the ground.  I tackled him.”

“Did you think you’d injure him?”

“I didn’t care.”

“You broke his jaw and cheek.”

“Yes counselor, I did.”

The cop’s blunt talk helped my client’s case, and before this … project, I would’ve been satisfied with that result, but that afternoon I found myself noticing our similarities: the clenched jaw, the pressed exhales and stilted posture protesting too much control.  Here was a fellow traveler hardened to prevent himself from bursting.  So after writing down: 中 (zhong), the Chinese character for “center,” my shorthand for what I believe is key or important, I added: I get you.  I’ve hurt people too.  I still do.  Maybe even you?

I bite my pen and walk over to the subway doors as we travel along the elevated track to Neptune Avenue.  The angle’s steeper.  I can see more: ruined baseball fields, stagnant canals, deserted subway yards, solitary walkers.  Approaching West 8th Street, the train takes a hard bend, and I cross to the opposite side to see the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel all blacked out and skeletal, and tense at the sight of sand dunes covering Surf Avenue.  Kid Gray’s up too, sunglasses off, looking at something I can’t quite make out.  Glassless, he looks spent, upset, and when we pull into Coney Island, though I know better, I nod to him fronting a solidarity I don’t feel – notebook open, pen in hand – and the kid glances me a: “Fuck off.”

The Welcome To Coney Island sign greets me again but with a flood line staining its teeth.  I resist my impulse to head to the boardwalk, to seek the familiar, and instead travel between Neptune and Mermaid Avenues, stepping around wrecked furniture, hearing the cut and strike of tools, smelling rot and exhaust, rubbernecking at flashing turret lights – a ride of sorts, but a disaster ride.  

I see torn down cables and battered siding, but no fallen trees.  Perhaps because there are so few to begin with, and none that are old, much less grand.  This neighborhood is poor, and, thus, deprived of this basic amenity.  The inundation of salt in the earth will only make matters worse as the few shrubs I see are already dying.

I pass by flood wrecked tenements and row houses.  A few are taped off with hazard signs slapped on them.  On West 27th Street a large group of people is repairing several adjacent homes.  Some carry lumber and dry wall.  Others sort through personal effects.  Most wear filter masks.  Two teenaged girls in rain boots hand out water among them.  A man takes a bottle, rinses his mouth, spits, then steps inside a house carrying a crow bar.  They’re speaking Chinese, which Trevor and Sean would tell me is Mandarin, Cantonese or Fujianese.  They’re obviously immigrants, however, it’s their bearing, more than language, that identifies them.  It suggests they’ve had less and suffered more.

Outside an Episcopal church at the corner of West 25th Street volunteers are handing out food to native New Yorkers.  A young man finishes placing groceries inside an old woman’s shopping cart.  The woman thanks him and pushes on, and I follow her down Mermaid Avenue, trying not to appear like a stalker, slowing my pace to hers, even pretending to tie my boots.  Along the way, her cart rattles so much that I picture a soup can popping out onto the sidewalk, fielding it, and using the opportunity to talk to her about Sandy.  But, of course, that doesn’t happen.  Instead, she trudges on into a dreary courtyard and disappears into a dusty apartment building that’s part of the Carey Gardens Housing Projects – one of those kinderprisons that produce so many of my clients.  And I’m reminded of Jane Jacobs writing about project promenades leading from no place to nowhere, an observation that bothers me, not because I disagree with her, but because the grace of her prose diluted her warning.

If only the solution to help these neighborhoods was as simple as a matter of “diverse uses” and “eyes on the street.”  

It’s harder now.  

The Cyberslums of the Silicon Age are ever present in our overhanging icloud.

Only yesterday I was reviewing data seized by special agents and prosecutors from the phones and social media accounts of two of my clients and their codefendants.  Trey Crips.  Gorilla Stone Bloods.  Folk Nation.  Six-point Stars.  Three Dots.  Dog Paw Marks.  Double Baggin.  Stackin.  Baby’s Mama.  Deuce Deuce.  Hammers.  Hennessy.  Gucci.  Sex in.  Slut Gang.  Youngbrooklyn.  Prettymelo.  GFMSquad.  Sugaranddiamonds.  Skankdollars.  Nobehaver.  Kingpom.  2Fly.  DAMU.  BOS.  TOS.  Harlem love BMB niggaz.  Moola beezly.  Ghetto star u bak in action.  Wats craccin cuz.  I had to bark on some niggas.  Yo blacc ima bring u a molly or epill.  On the blocc smoking a spliff.  Grab the 20 ill give you 10.  I got 40 on dese hoes.  Got you dead ass.  Dis nigga on fb talking bout racks mayb we shudd rob him.  Yo leesh blood.  Shit got me stucc bro.  Nigga fuccn up my money.  Cant let a next nigga get it.  Try to take care of duties move right but its always sum shit got me tight.  Ight.   

It’s coarse, beat, braggadocio, posed and torrented in scene after flat scene.  Hype Nothing.  Futile Style.  Mafia Wanna Be – as if that’s something to be.  Most are proud, but crippled, from having lived among so many broken neighbors and kin – casualties of an ever-targeted people.  I get along with most of them.  Many are bright.  All are wasted potential.  Sometimes they tease me, when I read aloud their transcribed wiretapped calls, during my prison visits, as I play up how corny I am – always nerd first – while intent on deciphering whether their lives amount to a crime, which is far too easy for many, if not most, to conclude.

It’s a culture that’s been coopted, monetized and criminalized.  And I often wonder how did this sag-pant parody overtake Black Pride and our victories against American Apartheid? 

Despite its brilliance, we’ve let Hip Hop metastasize into an ever-constricting urban armor.

Rap music.

Trap music.

A trapped culture. 

I never saw it coming.

Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, my friends and I reveled in Hip Hop’s origins, illuminated by Dondi, Zephyr and everyone going All City.  We threw mean-mugzies and diddy-bopped, copying the homeboys from Uptown and the Bronx – kids who seemed so city certain.  I daydreamed of partying with them and their fly girls at The Roxy and Funhouse, churning in a sea of bodies wet, slick and engorged, or better yet hunched over turntables like Grandmaster Caz or Kool Herc, mixing elemental tracks like: “Planet Rock,” “Al Naafiysh,” “The Message,” “Give it Up Turn It Loose,” “Numbers,” “Confusion,” and “Play At Your Own Risk.” 

It was a “Check it out!” and “Did you hear about that?” time.  

America had headlined New York to “Drop Dead!” and the fair weathered had fled.  

But we didn’t fall.  

We stood tall, spawning super cats from the rubble.  

And it was “the joint” to live in that resurrection; our city recast and respected.

Yet I must’ve been infected by the same allure and perilous pride that’s been breeding the casualties who are now my clients when I wrote this rap at 15:

New York, a death sport
It ain’t no resort
It’s a cop killa
A mace to your face thrilla’ 
It’s an angel dustin’ you
It ain’t no New Zoo Review
It’s a dealer runnin guns
A sista’s dyin sons
It’s the anatomy of terror
A cold cocked beretta. 

“NY do or die!” So we were taught. So we believed.

The stakes.  

The breaks.

… I move on, wandering a few blocks before stopping to look at a day laborer clearing debris from a wrecked condo.  The laborer has no filter mask on and is coughing hard from the dust he’s stirred up.  That’s when I notice it, the dust and grime that the flood has left everywhere, on everything

I drag my fingers over a hydrant then along the base of a streetlamp.  I rub the residue between my fingertips and sniff the decay.  There are scores of derelict cars covered in the same crud with “Geico” and “Allstate” scribbled on them in fluorescent marker.  I think, “Wash Me”, as I feel an urge to play.   I find a minivan, “That’ll do nicely,” quoting Han Solo, and put in my earbuds and press shuffle.  The Ramones shred with Johnny leaning out in front, and I bomb the van in 3D bubble letters with EPIC and KAI – two toy tags I created in junior high – then draw one of my high school comic book characters, Tempest, with his fiery demon hands.  

Finished, I wipe the dirt from my hands, and, noticing my reflection in my piece, relax in a funhouse mirror moment, that is, until I see the day laborer’s image reflected there too, down from the condo, dusting himself off with a rag, eying me and my disaster exhibition.

It’s funny how fast you can feel like a dick.

I cut and run from my me scene, and walk onto one of the dunes that’s swamped the boardwalk.  There’s a row of parking meters buried up to their necks in sand.  I prop my foot on one of them, standing where I shouldn’t be able to.  Down the way, a bulldozer is carrying off dead cars from a parking lot.  

The boardwalk’s not what I expect.  It’s mostly intact. They’re a lot of people.

Sudden laughter.

Two little boys tear past me, wearing crisp new coats, perhaps donated, that billow behind them.  I worry they might hurt themselves on what’s beneath the sand, but they run off, daring and calling out to each other.  Inspired, I try to vault over the railing onto the boardwalk, but my foot catches, notebook drops, and I scramble to pluck the only pen I’ve brought with me from slipping through the boardwalk’s slats.


On the boardwalk, I step on warped wood and over missing planks. Loose nails catch against my soles.  I’m in no hurry and my pace slackens, and I wander, and eventually stall out on the beach, watching the waves.  

I’ve been replaying my display of … indifference at the minivan, trying to see it from the day laborer’s perspective.  Now the thought is dissipating – no – blending with the swelling waves, salt air and gusts; perceptions which are themselves intertwined with my boyhood memories on Fire Island: spraying cans of soda at the arriving ferries, collecting hermit crabs in my wagon with Dave and Rachel, catching the hint of cocoa butter on my babysitter’s skin, and staring at the sun with my eyes shut tight – blood light radiating through – then opening my eyes to find all the colors faded, but shimmering, and somehow quieter, and more connected.

God the water, the sky, all of this is so beautiful.  But there’s always that undercurrent, that indifference….  And it sounds odd, but I feel I’m made of the same indifferent star stuff, and share its same callous potential.  


Back in law school you called me out about that, about my lack of empathy. 

“Mike, do you really believe people move as easily as capital?” You asked me at the Pink Flamingo in Buffalo, during one of our arguments about globalization.  “Factories leave and communities fall apart.  What if it happens to you?  After school and debt, then building a career and family, friendships, a community, someone from on high tells you: It’s over, too bad, now you have to be retrained and relocate?”

I gulped my shot, pushed my quarters into the pool table and felt the balls drop.  “Joe, who’s to say Mexicans don’t deserve new factories and opportunities?  The goal is economic evolution, not stagnation.  We have to kill exceptionalism, kill nativism.  That’s what caused the Great Depression and World Wars.”

“God you’re so full of it.”  You snatched a pool cue off the wall and pushed up your glasses.  “Do you listen to yourself?  Fucking academic new speak.  I’m not saying Mexicans don’t deserve better lives or we’re special or we can’t change.”  You rolled your cue on the table.  It wobbled.  “My point is, that our policies should be fair and not exploit our people.”

“The benefits outweigh the costs, Joe,” I pushed back, “even if our people don’t understand.  It’s about protectionism versus liberalism.  War versus peace.  World uplift.”  I finished racking the balls.  “But hold on, hold on, let me talk.  I’m not saying abandon anyone, but the New Deal’s done.  Unions are obsolete.  Manufacturing is leaving.  We have to change.  It will be hard on some, especially the old and the poor, but the now is: robotization, computerization, and open borders.  So be–”

“– be ready or be fucking buried!  For fuck sake how many times are you going to say that?”  You downed your shot.  “I don’t know why I talk to you sometimes.  Must be because I don’t believe you believe half the shit you say.  Your pal Sean probably fed you that line.”  You smacked your glass down on the table covered with stickers from local bands: Green Jello, Mark Freeland, The Goo Goo Dolls, and The Jack Lords.  “Now, listen to me Mike, really listen.  There’s an emotional and spiritual cost to your now.”  And you picked up the cue and rapped it in your hand.  “Isolation.  Anxiety.  Hopelessness.  Depression.  Rage.  I know you believers in holy fucking economics think you can account for all things that matter, but you’re wrong.”  And you pointed the cue at my chest.  “What’s inside there – even in that deluded heart of yours – can’t be measured, but it can be broken.”  And you caught yourself and lowered the cue and smiled at me imploringly, wistfully, like you did sometimes. “Mike, we need lives worth living.  We need family and friends and places to know and stories to pass on.  You take that away from us and we’re done for.  We’re not fucking soap, Mike.  We’re not.” 

We’re not soap.

We think and feel.  We hurt and don’t always heal.

Joe you’d’ve said: “If the universe wanted indifference, then why us?” 

That argument, like so many others we had, challenged my belief about “self” and “survival” – ideas cultivated from my study of history and war, as well as my daily observations of selfishness, stupidity, cowardice and cruelty. 

Indeed, at Sean’s suggestion the summer before college, I’d read Clausewitz’s treatise, On War, and seized on the axiom: “War is the province of physical exertion and suffering.  In order not to become completely overcome by them, a certain strength of body and soul is required, which, either natural or acquired, produces indifference to them.”

In this flash and surge, I substituted the word “life” for “war”, and felt I’d discovered a truth and believed – no – knew I needed to become indifferent to my own suffering, as well as the suffering of others, to survive and succeed.  It didn’t matter that it meant denial.

Sometimes survival requires denial.

But I should’ve read Clausewitz more closely, understood that he wasn’t offering some panacea from suffering, or some salve to absolve ourselves from consequence.  Indifference merely puts off our day of reckoning, like the climate change I’m certain contributed to this so-called super storm.  Economists call it an “externality” – a side effect of an economic activity that affects other parties, or as Joe would’ve said: “Not giving a shit about what you do if it doesn’t hurt you.”

“Shit, fuck, piss, karate,” I borrow a thought from Dean’s comic book persona Billy Dogma.

Joe you were the first to really get me to question the wall I’d built, breaching it.  And after all these years, you remain that agency demanding that I act on the compassion and empathy you believed inherent in us all.  You were… 

The cop.

I’d started the deposition expecting to reflect the cop back on himself.  But instead I saw myself in him, and I got angry, but not at him, rather with myself.  And this new actor in my head, this … F Train, it, we … I wanted to hold myself accountable.  So I confronted the cop with the questions I felt: I should be asked, and not until this very moment did I realize I was channeling you again, Joe.

“Did you care that you fractured Mr. Rivera’s jaw and cheek?” I asked the cop.

“No,” he answered.

I showed him the photographs of the pooled blood, discarded gauze and medical tape on the checkered linoleum floor.  “How did you feel when you saw Mr. Rivera injured and bleeding?”

The cop left the pictures on the table.  “Nothing counselor, nothing.”

“Did you try to help him?”


“Why not?” I gripped my pen to settle my hand.

“Never occurred to me,” he said.

I would’ve claimed the same.  

I leaned back, clenching the arms of my chair, “Why are you pretending this doesn’t bother you?”

His lawyer stirred, uncertain.

“Why are you pretending?” I asked again.

“What are you doing?” his lawyer questioned.

“Are you afraid to answer?” I baited the cop, wanting, needing my answer.

The cop cut me a thin smile and pushed back, too street to resist once called out.  “You know counselor, it’s really no different than how I coach little league.”

I sat for some long seconds unsure of what to say at that … admission, caught in a blur of my own schoolyard elations and defeats until I seized hold of our similarity and weaponized it.  “I bet you think you’re helping those kids.” I said.  “Toughening them up for what’s ahead.”

“Don’t answer,” his lawyer directed.

“I bet that’s because you’ve been hurt.”


“Because you’ve been weak, been a victim.” 


“Maybe even when you were a kid.”

“This is over!”

I’d delivered my accusations with a vulgar ease, feeling my fervor grow as I wounded him.  Chairs screeched.  Jackets flew.  But I kept on.  “I bet you think because you’ve been hurt you get to dish it out, right, to teach people a lesson.”  And as his lawyer opened the door to leave, I shot at the cop’s back, “You know, you’re teaching those kids to become just like you.”

I almost said us.  

I should’ve said us.

The cop stopped and turned at me.  He would’ve broken my jaw if he could’ve, but he was helpless since we were in my playground, and I smiled at him, unmasking myself for the villain I can be.

… Waves ripple before my boots.  

I crouch, set my notebook and pen down beside me, cup my hands in the break and raise the water, barely feeling its sting as my hands are so numb.  And as the water drains I pray, “For those who are no longer with us,” then walk back to the boardwalk.  




Pushing my drama again.

By the Nathan’s where the seagull shit on me last time, a prayer circle is gathering.  “A good omen,” the sunlit chocolate girl told me that first day here.  A pastor leads the circle.  He’s graying, but sorta hip in his dark sweater, knit hat and jeans.  He’s talking to a woman who’s dressed with a country side appeal, her pale red hair tied back against the wind.

I sound like a fucking catalogue.

I stash my notebook and pen inside my peacoat and walk over to them.  The pastor turns to me as I approach.  “Can I help you?” he asks.

“Hello, I’m Michael,” I reply.  “May I join you folks?”  He considers me without a hint of blind faith.  “I’ve come to help,” I lie.

That draws a handshake.  “Sure, please,” – he makes space for me – “I’m James, this is Belinda.  We’re just about to start.”  

I join hands. I count over forty people, mostly black and white millennial women, and I’m reminded of Obama’s recent victory and wonder about our “Promised Land,” but something’s off.  They’re dressed more for a school trip than volunteer work in their too stylish attire, as if the job’s already done.  Many fidget, gloveless, in the cold, cheeks and noses flush, which makes me self-conscious of my own sniffling.  Some eyes meet mine, but most don’t.  I’m about to ask James who they are, when he starts his sermon, sounding part poet, affected. I follow his and Belinda’s lead though, closing my eyes, listening as he orates about helping our neighbors and having grace in the face of tragedy and faith in God’s mysteries.

All the while I challenge myself to let his words raise my empathy, to feel more than mere sentiment.  But my feelings stay sunk.  And it’s not just because I don’t believe in God, or at least not in a God that saves – since it’s clear we have to save ourselves – but because I haven’t earned it.

I peek to see how the others are faring.

Everyone’s on script, except for this couple tugging gently at each other, trying to make the other break the circle, flirting.  They remind me of the last time I held hands with a stranger, some 25 years ago, at an outdoor concert in Orchard Park, New York, where Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Grateful Dead played.  That day I met a girl who I never really knew, Alyssa.  I can still see her on the right side of me – if that makes sense – her auburn hair braided under the summer sun, skirt flowing, blouse loose, singing along song after song.  Alyssa was exultant, uninhibited and preserving in that womanly way, so open, sharing what was inside of her.  And I gawked at her – my bare chest and face streaked in hippie war paint – high on LSD, hallucinating in her and her voice.  And she looked at me and smiled back as she took my hand in hers.  That warm press.

That summer, I often wrote about Alyssa, fumbling and fighting with words about being her “deadhead boyfriend” and “day lover”, describing how monumental and minuscule I felt in our cliché, tripped out, smelling B.O., pot and patchouli, while wishing I hadn’t needed “the drug crutch” to connect and be with her.  I only realized, many months later, why it had been so hard to describe what I’d felt with her, when I admitted that I was simply unfamiliar with the feeling, which, I finally decided, was joy.

James ends his sermon with: “Let us carry each other’s burdens, and fulfill the law of Christ.”  And the circle utters a collective, “Amen,” while I stay silent, unconvinced.

I need to backtrack.

When I first walked over to the circle, I spotted a homeless man sitting off to the side, his white hair swirling, tangled, in the wind, his thin hands digging against his face, his mouth gaping wide as he silently screams at something only he sees.  I’ve been waiting for someone in the circle to acknowledge him, to walk over and help him, but no one has, and now they’re gathering rakes and trash bags to clean the beach.

“Coming?” James offers me a rake.

“No,” I say judgmentally, “but I’d like to ask you something?”

James takes me in stride, enigmatic, softly righteous back.

“What about him?” I nod at the homeless man and add, “Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather comb the beach than his hair,” knowing as I say it my joke falls flat, exposing me, not James.

James nods at the homeless man, picks up his backpack, and looks back at me.  “Michael, we spoke with him when we got here.  He’s ill, mentally ill, wouldn’t say a word to us.”  James swings his backpack on and adjusts his straps.  “And these young people, they can’t help him, not now, not yet.  For now, it’s enough for them to be here, learning how to help and take these first small steps.”

I want to punch James.

… I head back to the street, passing by ruined ice cream stands and snack bars, water logged rides, men in hazmat suits cleaning mechanical monsters with high pressure hoses outside the arcade where I spied on the diplomatic entourage late time, boarded up sun and fun, disaster survival and dignity, captured all-in-one by a shop keeper on his knees, in the midst of mud and sand, scrubbing the glass doors of his souvenir shop.

A small step.  

Fuck you James.

On West 16th Street near Neptune Avenue, there’s a Hispanic family with rags tied over their faces, dragging contractor bags from of a roped off building.  The father calls out to his son «Ten cuidado» (Be careful) when the boy’s bag begins to tear, then «Espere» (hold on), and beckons me on through.  When I decline and walk onto the street instead, the father offers me a “Gracias,” I don’t deserve.

More steps.  

Another fuck you James.

I thought I’d be on my way home by now.  Instead I’m looking for a new provocation to add to this “found writing,” to recover from my defeat with James.  

At the corner of Neptune and 12th Street, I settle my attention on a crowd that’s gathered, behind a U-Haul truck, wading through tables of donated clothes.  I spy on them from beneath a scaffold.  Some of the people are choosy, but most just get on with it, looking tired and bitter.  I think that bitterness must come from fathoming their helplessness while being unable to change their circumstance.

One mother’s face is especially poignant as she watches her daughter playing hide and seek among the tables – a child too young to comprehend the extent to which she’s already been marginalized.  These people are special in that everyday way – and I stop writing, bite my lip, then underline the words: these people, acknowledging my condescension, as I’m reminded that for me this day has been a matter of choice, with perhaps, my only saving grace being that I started this F Train before Sandy, and I would’ve been here in any event.

At least, that’s what I tell myself.

… I walk up the block from the U-Haul and cross the street to a mini mall, trying to figure out the fastest way to the F, to Marie and the kids, to wine and warmth, failing to anticipate that the man in the chicken suit who’s been handing out fliers in the mall’s parking lot, would shout at me, “You, enjoying yourself?”

I turn at him.

It’s odd. I’ve been writing about masks today. I see that now. And here’s a man wearing a literal mask. And it’s so clear to me just how much a mask can reveal about its wearer, showing the things we’d rather hide, like this man’s shame at being here, working among this ruin, dressed and feeling like a man in a chicken suit doing what he can to keep his business going, to put food on the table, while I, the interloper, chronicle and tour his disaster.  And while I see “me” from his viewpoint, I feel no empathy.  I remain remote, gauging him, more concerned that he’s called me out, my New York pride triggered, street ready, like the cop I deposed, staring at his grimy feathers, measly beak, patched on eyes, my notebook and pen in my left hand, my right hand clenched in a fist, facing him, fine with wherever the Chicken Man wants to take it; but he keeps walking, and I head on. 

Only a block or so later, do I wonder about the face I showed him. 

… I can’t head home yet, not with this new failure on my mind.

Hart Place and West 15th Street.  

This is the bleakest place I’ve been today.  Warehouses.  Lots.  Beat down homes.  Stone walled.  Fenced in.  Dead end.  Abandoned.  Looted.  Empty.  Frightening and forgotten. Perhaps among the hardest hit being adjacent to the canal.  Even if the storm hadn’t come it’d be Third World.  I look through windows of one empty home then the next, at fallen ceilings, collapsed walls, tossed furniture, strewn branches, leaves and trash.  The rot’s pungent.  Mold rampant.  My heart races when I try a door, locked, but the next opens and I steal inside.

The floor creaks, as I try to figure out where the supports are, stepping over a pillow and a ruined TV, imagining the vortex that destroyed this room.  There’s a stairwell leading down stairs. 

“This is stupid.” 

I hold the banister and place my foot down, feeling the staircase sag.  I descend into the cold, dark, rank smell. 

“This is even stupider.” 

I can barely see where I’m going with my phone.  I trip on debris and look up at the torn ceiling.  The flood would’ve engulfed this room.  Anyone trapped here would’ve drowned.


Outside again, an Indian woman in an aqua blue sari eats an apple, while two Indian men struggle carrying a couch out of a building on West 16th Street.  One of the men calls out to me, “Hello sir!  Sir can you help us?”

A few hours ago I was questioning whether this, F Train, was something I should continue, but today as I walked streets at once familiar and unfamiliar, streets worn thin but persevering, it’s clear to me the answer was always yes.  And I get it – get my hope – that through this wandering I’ll come to fill myself with something other than me.  And the method and means I’ve chosen is this orange line on a subway map, this line I live and work on, this path I decided to and to make larger and smaller.  But it’s not some getaway.  I’ve always known that.  I’ll be dealing with myself in this notebook, as I try to push beyond my obsolete me and understand how the trappings I’ve sought, and even won, have trapped me.

The Indian family.

It would be nice to write myself up as a hero transformed, but that would be bullshit.  The truth is: I said, “Sorry, can’t help you,” and kept walking, telling myself I’d already given enough to my clients, to my friends and family.

Ignoring those people was my choice, and it has a consequence.  So now I sit here heading home, reminded that I’m still that man who can turn his back even when so little is asked of me, feeling just how deeply impaired I am, my callous acts lying in a heap, numbing me, shutting me down, not only to strangers but to the people I claim to love, reducing me to an empathy cripple.  

And I’m reminded of the law of conservation of energy, which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another.  I suspect it’s the same with our emotions.  We can pretend otherwise, but I don’t they don’t disappear. Which leads me to this: I think survival requires not just denial, but acceptance – acceptance of those feelings and choices that seek and create connection, that open smile, that giving hand. 

Maybe that’s how we let the bad shit out.

Maybe that’s how we stop the rot from settling in. 

So I guess I’m saying I need to open up, to have faith, and take those first steps.

… Fuck you James.

January 1, 2013 – Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue, 3 of 3

Grinding wheels toss sparks.  

Doors rattle open and shut.

Fs reflect stale light.  

My third attempt at haiku in this project … this F Tain. I’ve been using them to ponder language, and find that beat, so to speak, but today it hasn’t worked.  I can’t get going.  And I can’t even blame it on New Year’s, since Marie and I stayed home, eating and drinking, fooling around after the kids fell asleep, before coasting the New Year’s shows until we dozed off on the couch.  A nice night, especially since most New Year’s fizzle.  We got to catch up, laugh and joke with each other, with Marie showing her usual patience as I jabbered on about the acts we watched: Pitt Bull, Taylor Swift, Kesha, and this cowboy rapper who rhymed “biscuits” with “risk it.”  Nothing we’re into, but I was curious by how electrifying and empty somethings can be, and the performers’ common denominator of me, myself, and I.

Me, myself and I …

Anyway, today I have an agenda, which could be the problem.  It’s New Year’s and I thought I’d swing for the fences.  But I have these other thoughts that want their say in what I’m about to do.  Problem is I don’t see their relevance, or more precisely, how they fit in.  Now after letting two trains come and go, I’ve reached the point where I need to make a decision.  Aptly, Clausewitz provides another axiom:

… it is a sheer impossibility to construct for the art of war a theory which, like a scaffolding, shall ensure to the chief actor an external support on all sides.

Again, the words “life” and “war” are interchangeable.  

So let go of your theory of today, and follow your gut. 

Ok.  My first “intruding” thought is my decision that I want people to read this.  What would be the point otherwise?  Still I’m in doubt whether I have a story worth telling, and I suspect this might just be an act of narcissism.  I see it this way: if memoir is a reflection, this is some mirror. 

… It will comes down to what I do with it – do with this mirror.

I think that’s why I jumped at the chance to do the open mic at Reverend Jen’s Anti-Slam just before Christmas.  Dean had let me know the good reverend was back curating her circus of the lost and found.  I met him and Ros at the Pyramid Club, strap-hanging from my office in Brooklyn to the East Village, with just enough time to put my name in the reverend’s bucket and pull back a shot of whiskey, before she called my name, and I walked onto the stage and read:

Only here at the end do I understand that I’m not “special.” 
It’s a relief to finally see it.
It’s as if a light’s come on in the dark. 
A tired metaphor? 
How about: it’s as if a bell’s rung in my head? 

But now you get it.  I’m not “special.”
I’m a nobody.
But it’s not bad, and it’s certainly nothing new. 
We’re all nobodies.  No bodies.

Or to put it another way,  we’re all some bodies.
But either way, we’re nothing “special.”

But this isn’t a conceit, some false play at modesty,
or a justification for a life without distinction, victory or loss. 
I’ve had my moments: terrorist trials, police brutality verdicts, headlines,
the tv, radio and internet. 
Neighbors telling me: “Hey, I saw you on …”
I’ve earned enemies and friends, been hated and loved.

No, this is about a release from paranoia.
I’m a paranoid.
I’ve been one for years, walking while looking over my shoulder,
believing I have a “special” price to pay, or act to do,
or thought to conceive, when, of course, I don’t.

And even when I’ve done something “special”,
something that required some “special” skill, talent, act or imagining,
it doesn’t change the fact that I’m still just a piece of biological hardware doing its thing.
So there’s nothing intrinsically “special” about me.
And rather “special” is as “special” does.

Why is this important?  

Because believing you’re “special” is the great divider.
Erecting Heaven’s gates. 
Digging Hell’s pits.
Constructing the infrastructure of class, caste and race.

Because believing you’re “special” implies some sort of destiny,
or presumes some delusional superiority, and is simply wrong.  

Because “special” is me – as in being about “me” and certainly not about “you”
– hyper-focused on self, unwilling to acknowledge that we’re just part of something,
but not in ourselves essential.

And there is great irony.
“Specialness” is a self-set up.
Creating isolation and emptiness.
Because if you’re “special” you’re trapped in yourself.

And for those of us who can’t escape that “special” trap,
what else can I say other than: let’s just hope all they do is
pop a pill, or sink a needle in their arm, or cock a barrel against their head.  

Because, all too often, when the “special” are unacknowledged and forgotten, after they’re left with just themselves, they still have to show us just how “special” they are by consuming us as they consumed themselves…

That’s when my time on the mic ended.  

And what stirred me to write these thoughts?  Losing Kaleb Mohammed’s (changed name and case facts) last year, sitting in that empty courtroom and admitting  just how full of myself I’d been. 

Writing those words was my penance.

But they were just a beginning.  I’m seeing that now.

One thought down … sorta.

There’s the draft of another F approaching.

I board, ready to keep going, but I’m struck by the rank odor of a derelict I missed going in, and switch cars at Smith & 9th, only to find that my other thoughts have scattered like roaches.  Punks.  I’ve given them the floor, now they’re choking.  But they’re saying their piece whether or not they want to.  So I go after them Raid in hand and corner one and spray.  It cringes still and I kick it over.  It’s an idea called: The Defense of Cain, a spoken word piece I’d perform as Cain’s attorney where I’d argue his innocence because it was God who set in motion ♬ this thing called life ♬ (I hear the words à la Prince’s Lets Go Crazy), then set brother against brother.

Two down. 

Another roach: Prayer.  

I persist in prayer despite my doubts, but I’ve never prayed to, or believed in, a divine other.  Rather I pray to, or better said, with the imperfect, struggling me, since I believe we’re all the divinity we can know, much less need, and I have no use for supernatural excuses or deliverance.  Nevertheless, I find the act of prayer, itself, sustaining and empowering, especially during what I’ll now call those Clausewitzian Moments when we must simply do ♬ this thing called life ♬.  I’ve accumulated a select arsenal of mantras.  A proven favorite is Batman’s dying thoughts as he defeated Superman in The Dark Knight Returns: “My parents taught me a different lesson … lying on this street … shaking in deep shock … dying for no reason at all.  They showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to.”

… When you force it to.

Which brings me to Levi (name and case specifics changed), the last fucking roach.  Because it was with that particular mantra in mind I seized an opportunity, seized happenstance and gave it effect.  And as the train leaves Avenue X, I see myself in my old office at the Empire State Building (61 stories high) on the eve of Levi’s securities fraud trial, opening the FedEx package the government had sent containing his prison calls, and thinking, “Is this what I’ve been praying for to stop him from blowing trial?”  But my motives weren’t pure.  They rarely are.  I was sick of Levi’s lies and misdirection, sick of his condescension, sick of his arrogance and attempts to blame me as “ineffective counsel” should all go to shit.  Levi embodied the lawyer’s mantra: “Every client is a potential enemy,” and had exhausted me.  And that’s why I played the calls, in hope of an ending.

Now, I see where this is going, see the connection, see the fit in, and that I have to let go, to get to where I need to – which means no hiding what I see in this mirror.  

And I stare into the streaking rooftops and frozen clouds as we travel to Neptune Avenue, before turning back to the memory, where I see myself again, but now as if on a surveillance monitor, fast-forwarding in my old office from Friday afternoon to Saturday morning, reviewing over a hundred recordings between Levi and his family and friends, even a few with me, listening to his haranguing, to his rage, but also to his desperation and quiet everyday, so possessed I was to complete a process that usually takes days, once I’d heard the first conversation where Levi played the race card and talked about falsely accusing me of witness tampering and referred to me as that: “nigger,” “monkey” and “missing link.”

1:08 p.m.

“Coney Island, Stillwell Avenue,” the conductor announces. “Last stop.”

I raise my hands to my face, demarcating the boundaries of my features, then drag them down against my stubble to find them pressed momentarily together in… 

I step onto the platform, button up my pea coat, pull down my trapper’s hat, but leave my writing hand exposed.  I have a fair sense of where I am, and where I’m going: Mermaid to Gargiulo’s Way to Surf Avenue. 

Skinny Puppy’s Film is playing on my iPod.  The track is a cascade of spiraling pulses, the sound of falling from a great height, and I turn slowly within its vortex, writing what I see.  A worker on a ladder repairing a restaurant sign.  A scavenger pushing a shopping cart filled with beat electronics.  An addict leaning against a fence in a stupor.  Disaster relief signs flapping abandoned.  An emergency boiler attached to a sputtering project.  A neighborhood still on life support.  And me, once again, spinning my drama.

I move on; cold icing.

The promenade along MCU Stadium, where the Cyclones play, is deserted; it’s concession stands still under repair. And while there’s no event happening, I hear music over the PA, and pause John Lennon’s Watching the Wheels, and recognize Joan Jett’s cover of the Arrow’s I Love Rock N’ Roll.  

Music blaring to no one.

It reminds me of when I was a member of The Crews playing covers by bands like The Sonics and The Flamin’ Groovies in derelict bars in Williamsburg and The Village, which was fine so long as Steffi was there.  Then I’d just play to her and those smiling blue eyes; to Steffi, as she reclined in and out of shadow, sipping her old fashioned and smoking our Marlboros; to Steffi, my married-girlfriend, who replied to me the night I told her I thought I was in love with her, as we sat besides the World Trade Center’s South Tower: “Mike, if you think you’re in love then you are,” and winked, “and I think I love you too.”

But, as happens sometimes with Lennon’s music, it’s triggered the memory of the largest crowd I’ve ever belonged to.  And I’m in the midst of wading in it when the promenade ends and I come upon the statute of Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese; with Pee Wee’s arm around Jackie’s broad shoulders.

“So this is what I’ve been swinging for,” I tell myself.

And I blow into my cramped hand and pull out from my notebook the transcript page from Kaleb’s trial I’ve been carrying with me: my stalled agenda.

Let’s go!

I placed the page here while drafting the appeal of Kaleb’s conviction and life sentence in the Port Authority Plot, a so-called “preventative prosecution” built on the delusions of Quincy Everett, a madman who dreamt of blowing up Hell’s Kitchen, but who got played by a FBI informant who stroked his ego with “sheik” this and “sheik” while providing him with an apartment, groceries, car rides to do “recon” (but also to the welfare office), and eventually airfare to Guyana where they met and “recruited” Kaleb who did nothing more than “agree” to help them “procure financing”, but then dodged their calls once the two flew back to New York.  

I’d intended to skip the page as I reviewed the record, but this F Train pushed back and retrieved from my arsenal of mantras, the first one I wrote for myself.  A lot led to its writing.  But it’s enough to say, it ended a particularly sorry phase of sulking where I made a show of smoking myself raw and drinking myself numb in bars around Wall Street and the Trade Center.  I have napkins and fliers with scribbles where I whined about my: “labored reflections”, “fading joys”, “dressed up banalities” and “the costumes I substituted for skin”.  Whatever.  But in a moment of what I can only describe as spite – at the prospect of being defeated by the choices I’d made that had led to my failed circumstance – I wrote on the back of a drink special:

I’m caught in the paradox of wanting to be satisfied.  

I don’t know the way out … not really.  I only know that if I continue to live this way my life will never come into focus or gain a sense of purpose beyond the next distraction.  I see it in these empty bottles, in this slow ember burning.

I need courage.

The courage to strive again … to not conquer fear, but to dive into it and be the square ramming itself into the hole….  For fear isn’t something to evade.  It doesn’t justify inaction or avoidance. Rather it sifts apart the meaningful from the mundane. For who has ever truly cared for something or someone and not felt afraid?  It’s so fucking clear.  

  Fear is the barometer for how much we care.

Those last nine words joined my arsenal.

And I was afraid of the page.  So I tore it loose from its binder and stood with it in my office now in Brooklyn (now 33 stories up), looking down at Borough Hall, at the Christmas lights and lonely cars winding their way home, and I confronted the memory contained here, as I spoke the words aloud, in ritual, and relived the moment when I lost what Steffi coined: The Summation Effect, which, I wrongly believed made me “special”:

Summation – Hueston   1523

MR. HUESTON: Now, Mr. Cummings, if you could turn to … the conversation it’s on page 9, where Mr. Everett is talking about a change in direction.  And then he uses language, the Government says my client basically has created.  Here they talk about the chicken farm, if you look on lines 8 through 11.  You have, it says: “Chicken farm because there was some um bad feeds no water there’s a better project to divert it to another area.”  This is language that Mr. Everett is using.

(Pause in the proceedings.)

MR. HUESTON:  And then, Mr. Cummings, if you could turn to — excuse me, folks, it’s a little hot up here.

(Pause in the proceedings.)

Of course, I lost it during the pauses.

During the first pause, my associate, Willow, got up from the defense table, unasked for, and walked over to the podium and handed me a napkin after I started perspiring when the air conditioning in the courtroom was shut off.  And the second pause happened as Willow sat back down.  That’s when I caught sight of Kaleb’s daughter in the audience.  Her face held a kaleidoscope of expressions that coalesced to one of hope that I preserve her father’s dignity, even in the face of certain defeat. And though I wanted to, truly wanted to, when I turned back to the jury I knew that I could not.

No, would not.

Own your choice.  Own why you made it. 

Because that’s why Levi has surfaced today. 

Because he and Kaleb share that connection, that same succumbing to fear and anger and powerlessness, that ability to forsake one’s principal and promises, that American Burnout.  It’s why I never told the jury: “When our government assists the deranged or gullible in ‘preventative prosecutions’ it doesn’t make us safer, because real terrorists don’t need help.  They never have and never will.”  

I’d learned this with Ed and Tony my first year out of law school as part of their team defending Isiah Mahmud (again false name and altered narrative), one of the men who would be convicted in 1995 for “seditious conspiracy to overthrow the United States of America” as well as bombing the World Trade Center in 1993.

That’s when I sat on weekends with Isiah’s cousin, the assassin, at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, drinking coffee as we discussed REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED, with him occasionally touching the scar on his neck from where he’d been shot by his target’s bodyguards.  That’s when I studied the crime scene photos of the massive crater caused by the bomb that was detonated beneath the North Tower, which, but for its misplacement, would’ve toppled the tower onto its twin.  That’s when I catalogued hundreds of hours of hidden camera footage of the defendants mixing barrels of inert compounds (provided in the government’s sting) they intended to use to bomb the United Nations and Holland and Lincoln Tunnels.  That’s when I read the Anarchist Cookbook, passages from the Koran, articles and reports about Wahhabism, the Mujahideen and the Muslim Brotherhood, and began to see the contours of our Forever War.  And that’s when I was evacuated from the federal courthouse in Manhattan after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and believed in the haze of those early reports that Islamic terrorists had done it before having to admit my prejudice when we all learned it was white militants who blew apart those poor souls.  Not that it made a difference to our jury.  Indeed, it sealed our clients’ fates as we all bore witness to that broken little girl, Baylee, being carried in a fireman’s arms.  

Imagined violence actualized.

After Oklahoma our trial dragged on six more months, agitating my disquiet about the profession I’d chosen. 

And I kept wondering if Tony had been right to doubt whether I was tough enough for our work, tough enough to deal with the autopsy reports and photos of the dead, tough enough to engage with murderers and stand in silence before the grieving.  And I found myself suppressing as best I could the tension mounting in me, the tension that’s never left me, and perhaps shouldn’t and can’t, about murder and violence.  And during that trial that started my career, I often recalled the first time I bore witness to murder’s aftermath, when I stood outside the Dakota Building the day after John Lennon was murdered. 

I was just there wading in that memory, which as I said, happens from time to time.

What a strange concert where we, the crowd, were the performance.

All day long, from my middle school on 77th Street, I watched the procession down Columbus Avenue to 72nd, barely able to contain myself, so distracted and overcome I was by the contradiction that a person, artist, father, husband and friend who worked so hard and gave so much, could be gunned down so easily and senselessly.  Everyone was reeling, teachers, staff, and, of course, we students.  And when school finally let out, and I joined the mourners, for a long dark moment I stood bewildered at the ego that had brought us there, at the sickness of me, myself and I, of men like Chapman who believe they’re “special.” 

That was the first time I thought deeply about murder and its causes. 

And in the years since, after defending murders, I’ve come to see the connections between murder and consumption: the self centeredness, the cognitive disfunction, the lack of empathy, the grasp at satisfaction, the self loathing, and I’ve come to wonder whether the co-opting of Jihad (striving with a praiseworthy aim) {جهاد}, like Nazism, Manifest Destiny, China’s Cultural Revolution, and Rwanda’s Final Solution, is just another ad campaign in its pursuit.

Get that …

Cain the first consumer.

And I see myself arguing in Cain’s defense:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, remember it was God! who set brother against brother, by praising Abel’s sacrifice of blood over Cain’s reaping of the harvest.  


And you must ask yourself: Why?

Off track?  Yes and no.

The point is Kaleb’s no terrorist.  He didn’t have the currency to purchase his alleged convictions, since he didn’t want to hurt or kill anyone; he just wanted to escape a bad situation.  Left alone, he would’ve gone on preaching at his village mosque, coaching the local soccer club, running his grocery store and providing a modest, well kept home for his daughters and grandchildren.  And we – our people, our government – wasted headlines and resources on him and his co-defendants (all also old men), cynically cutting careers on their necks, while failing to interdict real actors both native and foreign born.  And while I finally mentioned this distinction in my plea for leniency at Kaleb’s sentencing, in truth my words were merely a palliative to salve my own cowardice.  Because what’s the point in saying something after it matters, or in a way that doesn’t say much at all? 

It’s the proverbial fucking tree.  It makes no sound. 

I should’ve done the right thing, the courageous thing, but I ignored my own mantra, and, in so doing, failed Kaleb and myself.

… I’m not alone.

A young couple’s checking out the bronze figures of Jackie and Pee Wee, reading the inscriptions, taking pictures of themselves then scrolling through them, apparently dissatisfied.  

Arabic?  Stop projecting.  

Dominican?  Probably.  

Interesting, my default to that infrastructure.

I blow into my hand again, about to head on, but instead I take out an earbud, quieting the low tide guitar playing of The Black Angel’s The Sniper, and call out to the couple: “Hey, would you like me to take your picture?”

They scope me out for a beat; it’s the girl who replies, “Sure mister, if it’s not a problem.  That would be great.”  Definitely Dominican.  And she pulls her boyfriend along, a husky kid with a thick beard, and hands me her iPhone, and I tell her that I’ve never used one.

“Really?” she asks, chattering and bouncing in the cold.

“No, never.”  And I pull out my flip-phone and flick a “Beam me up Scotty” which they don’t seem to get, before the girl shows me the what’s what on her phone, advertising its virtues.

“Yo boss, make sure you get us with the whole thing,” the boyfriend calls back to me as they set their first pose.  I follow their lead as they hug in one frame, kiss in another, pose gangsta in the next.  But I also imagine Jackie here with us.  And I see him catching and throwing a ball, swinging hard at bat, and running bases before hostile crowds clinging to the belief they’re “special” while seeing a man actually doing the “special” thing, being a hero in the midst of their hate.

The shoots done.  The couple trots over; the girl rubbing her hands.  I hand back her phone and she scrolls through the pictures, satisfied.  They say thanks, and I almost ask them why they came out here today, but instead I just wish them a Happy New Year and head on.

2:57 p.m.

I’ve walked to the western end of the boardwalk, walked over a mile in this withering, clinging cold, and I’m drunk with it, reduced and wind ripped, and fantasizing about home and Marie’s lips, hips and warmth.  But there’s no leaving yet.  Before me is Sea Gate, a gated community of mostly Russians and Jews, a place of weatherworn McMansions with it’s own private police force enforcing yet another demarcation line. 

Let’s get back to Levi.

Let’s go!

So there I’d been working with my partner on Levi’s case for over a year, supervising our associate, private investigator and forensic accountant.  All white.  There I’d negotiated the best plea Levi’d ever get, had him transferred to a jail that held Jewish services and served kosher meals, hand held his wife through her stages of denial.  And there he was laughing and plotting with his cousin and calling me a “nigger”, and I thought: “Get that, this mother fucker’s in a cage but thinks he’s freer than me.”  

And in that instant, it hit me that maybe he was.

And more poignantly than I’d ever experienced before, I felt the fatigue, I do, when I admit all the energy I’ve wasted quieting my anxiety and attention to “race.”  And to compound matters I was struck by the irony of my found dilemma.  Yes, by seizing the opportunity the calls presented, I would get what I wanted – the end of our relationship – but it would mean passing that racial rubicon.  Not like I had a choice.  Levi would eventually learn I possessed the calls, and I could only imagine the issues he’d raise if I failed to disclose what I knew.  So I went through them all to draft my letter to the court asking to be relieved as his lawyer.

But as the night wore on, my exhaustion and bitterness walked in steeper, meaner strides, and I found myself musing about race more intensely than I’d ever before.  And I recalled my mother’s pained expressions when she spoke with me about our country, coaching me for the inevitable day when I’d take the field.  And I recalled my earliest skirmish, in 5th grade, playing handball with Aaron who taunted me, because he was losing, by singing Color Spade from Hair: ♬ [You’re] a nigger, a black nigger, a jungle bunny, jigaboo coon, pickaninny mau mau, Uncle Tom, Aunt Jemima, Little Black Sambo ♬.  And I recalled the fist fight I had with Matthew during our middle school’s science fair after he kept telling me over and over again that the ancient Egyptians weren’t African and that black people were inferior to whites.  And there was Dean, my best friend and brother by another mother, who somehow managed to get our 8th grade English teacher’s kid to write on the blackboard: “Monkee [sic] Mike” after I dissed his girlfriend.  

But I was no angel, no victim.  I was a demon boy of my era.  My everyday parlance was littered with barbs and vulgarities that would be like shitting and jerking-off at the same time in today’s safe spaces.  Still, I didn’t do race.  But I was in need of a counter measure and defense. So I set my mind to figuring out why these jokes were funny. Because it wasn’t as if they were snapping on me for what I did, said or wore, which would have been fair game.  

No being “black” was the joke – the only joke that mattered.

And as I reconnoitered our no-black-man’s land or white frontier, I took account of the armories of jokes available on all sides.  Then, as now, the numbers weren’t remotely close.  And beyond the sheer numerical superiority the difference in their lethality was plain.  Whereas the white and Jewish kids in my neighborhood had cruise missiles, we had spears, so says the “spear chucker,” because whether these kids knew it or not, their jokes referenced the terrorism committed against other boys and girls, kids like Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson who were killed in a church by a terrorist’s bomb in ♬ Sweet Home Alabama ♬ not 15 years before I and my contemporaries were born.

They referenced the murder of 14 year-old, Emmett Till, in Mississippi for “flirting” with a white woman.  For that act, white terrorists dragged Emmett out of his uncle’s house at gun point at night, beat him with pistols and gouged out one of his eyes, drove him to the Tallahatchie River, where they made him strip, and once naked, they beat him so hard that they crushed one side of his face, then shot him in the head, and rolled his body into the river. 

Now that’s funny shit!

We know about the joke they played on Emmett, because, after his body surfaced, his mother insisted on bringing him back to Chicago and keeping his casket open for three days for the world to see “Southern Hospitality.”  We know because Emmett’s uncle came forward, despite death threats, forcing a trial the district attorney tried to bury, and testified against those terrorists.  And we know, because, after the all white jury took just an hour to acquit those terrorists (who were represented by five pro bono lawyers), the terrorists, themselves, gave an interview for $3,150, admitting: “What else could we do?  He was hopeless.  I never hurt a nigger in my life….  But I just decided it was time a few people got to be put on notice.  As long as I live niggers … are gonna stay in their place.”

It’s hard to find a more succinct statement of terrorist intent.  Just compare the United States Code of Federal Regulations, which defines the act as, “The unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

I ask you to look at the faces of those murdered and mutilated children, look at those lips and noses, think about why those jokes are “funny”, admit what they reinforce and perpetuate, and you’ll understand why I soon concluded: “redneck”, “cracker” and “white boy” didn’t cut much in this war of words.

And as I grew older, I came to see the infrastructure at the heart of American Apartheid, reading laws like South Carolina’s The Negro Act of 1740: 

And whereas cruelty is not only highly unbecoming those who profess themselves Christians, but is odious in the eyes of all men who have any sense of virtue of humanity; therefore, to restrain and prevent barbarity being exercised towards slaves, and in case any person or persons shall willfully cut out the tongue, put out the eye, castrate, or cruelly scald, burn, or deprive any slave of any limb or member, or shall inflict any other cruel punishment, other than by whipping or beating with a horse-whip, cow-skin, switch or small stick, or by putting irons on, or confining or imprisoning such slave, every such person shall, for every such offence, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money.  

Fucking Hilarious!  But, at least, they had to pay for destroying valuable property.  It’s not like niggers grow on trees.

And Supreme Court opinions like the Dred Scott decision, which returned an escaped man to captivity:

[Negros] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.

Side splitting!  And you’re welcome niggers.

And there’s good old Plessy v. Ferguson, cutting it up with “separate but equal”:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority.  If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.   

Uproarious!  These niggers just don’t get the joke: it’s their fault for feeling fucked.

Then there’s the punch lines in the Constitution, itself.  The wise-crack which chained: “those bound to Service”.  The one-liner that traded in: “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing.”  And the zinger that captured any: “Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another.”

That night I thought about how to be Black – capital “B” please – means waging our lives against that infrastructure.  And I replayed some of the multitude of images of stereotypical stares, clutched purses and pockets I’ve suffered, while minding my own business, where I almost replied, “Don’t fucking flatter yourself.”  I thought about the myriad times I’ve been reduced to that “black guy” in someone’s “white is right” narrative.  And those stupid fucking conversations where I’ve been asked if “blacks” should have thicker skins, where I’ve tried to explain the illogic of expecting me to armor myself against something I don’t have a problem with, namely my skin.  And an asinine exchange where I was asked if “blacks” are too thin skinned, to which I replied, “I wish I was so thin skinned you just saw me instead.” 

And I thought about the tactics I’ve developed to fight back, putting my enemies in my kill zone.  And I recalled the distinct pleasure I’ve taken in beating those who played me, the “black guy” rather than me, the human.  Whether in chess, trial or life, I savored the dismay and doubt they suffered in defeat.  Because until I beat them I was just a thing, irrationally feared, but certainly not respected, and, at best, condescended to.  But in the instant of my victories, I became, if not an actual person, at least considered something conscious, perhaps akin to … The Terminator’s “Sky-net”.

A silly way to think about it?  

Perhaps not – especially with our fixation on the promised singularity and the rise of the machines.  Maybe that comes from us, from the false fear of Black people that’s been propagated (as if we – not whites – did all that enslaving, hunting, raping and lynching) because we were the first “machines” to rise.  However, rather than seek white people’s destruction, all we, “machines” really want is a fair say, that elusive promise of liberty, safety from white savagery, manipulation and coercion, and, at long last, a sincere apology.

And I recalled the morning after President Obama was first elected, when the cops fucked with me as I headed into the Carroll Street Station on the way to my office.  Ignoring everyone else, they waved me aside to one of their “check points” to wipe the smile off my face and let me know nothing had changed.  But I wasn’t getting dissed, and I’m not helpless.  So I ♬ pulled a power move on them ♬ as Flava Flav said to Chuck D and showed the sergeant my attorney ID and told him I wanted to know why they’d chosen me; eyes steady, voice offering no compromise as if he was on the stand.  When he didn’t answer fast enough, I said deadpan: “Tell me your protocol sergeant, and give me your badge number.”  He looked at my ID again, feeling himself in my kill zone and replied: “We’re stopping every ten people.”

“Well, I see ‘every ten people’.” And I waited. 

And the cops reluctantly set to it, creating a line of surprised and annoyed white people; one kid even took off instead of having his bagged searched – collateral damage.  Not that I felt sorry them.  I’ve been living with such inconveniences my whole life, and it wasn’t like I didn’t have skin in the game.  In all, I stayed about 10 minutes, taking the occasional note to keep the cops honest.  The encounter also cost me the time reflecting about it, telling Marie and now writing it down here – the typical cost of being Black.  Still, I’d made my point: next time, they’d think twice.  And, as it happened, there was just a few months later; same cops, different station: Jay Street – Metrotech.  The sergeant and I spotted each other right away, but this time we merely nodded “hello”, and I went about my day.

And after I completed my review of Levi’s calls, I stood in the concrete and steel quietness of my office, watching the sun’s waking light wash over Queens and Brooklyn and downtown, coloring our mega city, and I asked myself in the backwash of all that thought, memory and feeling: what would America be without we, African Americans, without the 12% of chocolate that makes up the American mix?

I tried to imagine who our people would be if not for the slaves and their descendants, and the slavers and theirs, without the plantation owners with their concubines and mulatto children explained away as “Indians”; tried to imagine our nation without that great evil and resistance, without that labor and struggle, without languages and religions erased and people being tortured for trying to read their enemy’s tongue in this “new” land.

I tried to imagine us without John Brown’s proclamation: “The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood” and his raid on Harpers Ferry and execution; without Harriet Tubman leading that railroad to freedom and her stirring words: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer”; without Frederick Douglass’ abolitionist speeches and observation: “Power concedes nothing without a demand”; and without Texas’ Declaration of Secession: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their prosperity….” 

I tried to imagine our nation without the Civil War; without the mass of white volunteers in the Union Army, and later the thousands of Irish draftees who are too often unsung, but who died for black freedom, without the black regiments who broke Confederate lines, fighting with fearsome valor; without the brilliant maneuvers of Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia and the grim resolve of Grant to win the first modern war; without the Battles of Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg and Gettysburg with their thousands and thousands of dead and maimed whites killing whites, without Sherman’s March to the Sea and the burning of Georgia, and Bedford Forest’s massacre of surrendering black and white Union soldiers at Fort Pillow – the Bedford Forest who’d become the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

I tried to imagine our country without Lincoln’s words: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” 

I tried to imagine our land without Reconstruction and the Thirteen, Fourteenth and Fifteen Amendments, which consecrated what had once been hollow platitudes about freedom and equality; without the Ku Klux Klan Act, which allowed the government to act against those terrorists; without the reactionary forces against blacks and the imposition of Jim Crow with their colored and whites only signs; tried to imagine our country without Billie Holiday singing Jewish poet and activist, Abel Meeropol’s song about that ♬ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees ♬, those iconic lyrics about the 4,750 lynched men and women of which 75% were black and 25% were whites murdered for helping blacks; and without the “Tulsa massacre” where whites burned down 35 black city blocks and killed 300 black people for being too prosperous and autonomous.

I tried to imagine our population without the sharecroppers and tenant farmers; without Northern de jure segregation and the later redlining and ghettoization of blacks in cities to create the suburbs; without the Buffalo Soldiers, Harlem Hellfighters and Tuskegee Airmen coming from these communities to fight for an America that did not accept them, fighting with faith that their sacrifice would help uplift their people.

I tried to imagine our society without all that soul food: macaroni and cheese, peach cobbler, fried chicken, cornbread, sweet potato pie, black eyed peas, collard greens; without all that Jazz, Soul, Gospel, R&B, Rock & Roll, Disco and Hip Hop; without our Louis Armstrongs, Duke Ellingtons, Ella Fitzgeralds, Chuck Berries, John Coltranes, Miles Davises, Aretha Franklins, Jimmy Hendrixs and Supremes; without Maya Angelou’s words: “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible”, and Toni Morrison’s cry: “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down”; and without all that slang: “cool”, “crib”, “fly, “baller”, “the bomb”, “holla”, “what’s up”, “funky”, “fresh”, “groovy”, “joint”, and “give me some skin.”  

I tried to imagine our folk without “Black is Beautiful”, “By Any Means Necessary,” and “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”; tried to imagine our nation without Justice Thurgood Marshall arguing Brown v. Board of Education, without Martin Luther King, Jr. dying as U2’s Bono sang ♬ in the name of love ♬; without the Freedom Riders and other heroes like James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner who were murdered and buried in an earthen dam by white terrorists, for registering black voters in the South.

And I tried to imagine our United States without President Johnson declaring in the halls of Congress: “We shall overcome!”; without athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlo raising their black gloved fists to the Star Spangle Banner at the 1968 Olympics – whose omitted third stanza celebrates the killing of slaves with: ♬ No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave ♬; without the “War on Crime” and the mass incarceration of Black people; without Rodney King beaten by cops on video who were then acquitted, sparking the Los Angeles Riot, without O.J. Simpson being acquitted in misguided jubilation, without Michael Jackson mutilating himself to become white, and without black on black gun violence and Gangsta Rap and Trap Music breaking our Yin Yang heart.

And I tried to imagine us, our people, without the fantasy and sickness of race, without the consternation and confusion that we’re essentially an African-European culture that’s in hate and love with itself, that can’t accept itself, that can’t honestly look itself in the mirror, but one day must.

And I asked myself: who would we be?

And the only answer I could come up with was: Canada.

And would that be so bad? 

And in that mired tiredness, I wished I’d never known Levi, never heard what he’d said about me, and I felt that our race war would never end.  And caught in the infrastructure of prejudice our society, so abundantly, provides, I struggled against my hate, fought with myself not to hate Levi back as a Jew.  And I was afraid for myself. Because as Steffi had winked: thinking something can make it so.

3:45 p.m.

I’ve walked down Neptune Avenue to the Mark Twain School for the Gifted and Talented, a specialized intermediate school for bused in privileged white and middle class kids.  I know the school because the parents in my predominantly white upper middle class neighborhood talk about it.  And I can’t help but see the incongruity, the unfairness that this well resourced and staffed school isn’t here for this community, the poor community right outside its doors.  

I’m bitter with cold now.  I keep thinking this is a place where we bought dreams too cheaply, a place where we skimmed over our brothers and sisters with thin cement, cement strong enough to trap them, but too weak to shield them, if ever that was its design or purpose. 

I watch a couple carrying groceries.  I see a garden choked with junk and debris, a building with a worn facade of waves and birds that reminds me of the movie Apocalypse Now (or is it The Planet of the Apes?), and a homeless shelter overflowing with brown men.  I feel that we’ve built a playground on the edge of sorrow, hiding the rejected in plain sight.  And I tell myself we’ve abandoned too many people, that there’s no poetry here, which, of course, isn’t true, and besides, who am I to preach.

I see the F Train about 10, 12 blocks away, and I think of home again, but I need to end this with Levi, and explain how Mrs. Rosenfeld saved me.

I met the Rosenfelds when I was seven.  They were an older couple who lived in my father’s building in Jersey.  They didn’t have children, but were always engaging in our elevator encounters, asking me about my comic books or where I’d been on my bike. 

The Rosenfelds had invited us to Seder, since my father and his wife were new neighbors.  I was a little nervous when we rang their doorbell, but once inside the aroma of brisket and potatoes allayed my apprehension.  Besides the Rosenfelds and their friends were really fun, definitely more fun than my father and stepmother.  They were listening to jazz records, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes and serving plenty of treats.  I was enthralled when we sat to eat dinner and prayed.  The solemnity captured me.  I stared at the candles, listening to words I didn’t understand like baruk (blessed) {בָּרוּך} and avdut (slavery) {עַבדוּת}.  Even the plates and tablecloths with their symbols and Hebrew letters brought out my wonder.  

And Mrs. Rosenfeld was enchanting.

She wore a dark emerald green dress that pressed against her still engaging figure, her graying hair draped just so.  She had an effortless, full laugh, and after dinner got me talking about music when I asked to see their piano.  I told Mrs. Rosenfeld that The Beatles were my newest favorite band, and asked if she knew who they were, and had she ever heard of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, my newest favorite song.  And Mrs. Rosenfeld blew my mind when she sat me down beside her at the piano and played A, A/G, F#m7, and F+, and sang, ♬ Picture yourself in a boat on a river… ♬.  And in the midst of that sublime moment I saw the tattoo poke from beneath her sleeve, and I asked her: “Why do you have those numbers on your arm?”

The room quieted like a sponge drawing up water.  My stepmother started up from her chair, but Mrs. Rosenfeld hushed her.  And for some time, Mrs. Rosenfeld just looked at me, but deep, before telling me and my little brother, David, about the Holocaust and how she survived it.  The memory of her struggling to explain the inexplicable has never left me, dropping like a pebble in a still pond, rippling.  And I now see that moment as an intersection of chance where Mrs. Rosenfeld made a choice to do the “special” thing, because she could’ve done nothing.  And holding my hand, she ended with: “Michael, there are people who hate other people because of who and what they are.  Promise me, never hate, never.”  

I promised.  But at the time, I didn’t understand she wasn’t just referring to the targets of hatred, but the haters themselves.  As bigotry is, of course, born of self hatred, and one’s cowardice to admit you’re responsible for your thoughts and deeds, and heart – no one else.

What a summation.  Such grace.  Such drama.  But not pushed, and indeed unwanted.

Mrs. Rosenfeld’s choice was my blessing.  And the mantra she taught me overcame my hatred that early morning.  And I’m grateful to her, as I am to Levi’s brother who made it a point to apologize to me for something he didn’t do; and to my colleagues and friends who are Jewish; and to my mother for not teaching me prejudice; and for this City’s gift of our oneness; and, of course, for Steffi, who I loved and who is Jewish.

But Mrs. Rosenfeld’s was that first clear voice I heard demonstrating that one’s humanity required that she teach a little boy about a history that must never be forgotten.  

It was an act love.

But let me say this.  I wish the thought had never come to my head. And although I can’t undo it, I have chosen to face it.

So that’s what I am seeing pondering in this mirror.

4:12 p.m.  

I’m on the F now.  The warmth is coming back into my hands.  My fingers tingle as I touch the page and pen, and recall the three boys I saw playing on Stillwell Avenue before I entered the station. Their laughter filled the concrete bleakness. 

My Ipod gives me James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, and I’m back for a moment on Fire Island, in the beauty of summertime and summer smells, and I’m reminded of the bakery I passed on Neptune Avenue ten minutes ago.

I’m looking over at the subway map, at the F’s orange path from Brooklyn into Manhattan and Queens, at all the stops, and I wonder where I’m taking myself.  I feel that I’m writing in ruin, in renunciation, in requiem, in resolve, relish and release, and that I have to pay penance, but that this shouldn’t be about suffering, though it may be a collateral effect.

4:45 p.m. 

I want to end with John Lennon.  Because I wrote something earlier that isn’t correct.  Chapman didn’t bring us there.  Our love did.  There we were amassed in our thousands, in mourning, holding hands, hugging, leaning on one another, crying, singing.  Helicopters hovered.  Satellite dishes beamed.  Lennon’s music played.  I’d never looked into so many faces and felt known, and even cherished, while requiting the same consideration and heart.  I’d never been part of a crowd so large, sad and peaceful, so unified and whole.  A crowd not consuming but creating.  A crowd without borders, religion, greed and hunger.  A crowd that dreamer sang of: ♬ with nothing to kill or die for … living life in peace. ♬

What a beautiful mantra.  

It was Lennon’s last concert. 

And it was made by us, and it was … special.

January 12, 2013 – West 8th Street 1 of 3

3:15 p.m.  The latest I’ve set out on this F Train.   It’s crowded, not that I mind.  It’s just different having that press and shared air at the start, different from the other days.

Down the way there are a group of girls, young women really, dressed in tights, down jackets, a slouch beanie here and knitted hat there, all in assorted heels. They’re talking up their upcoming evening, laughing and vamping.  Beside them sits a middle aged couple, Pakistani I think, staring quietly into that middle distant place we all default to; he in a brown tunic and padded winter coat; she in a turquoise sari and parka.  Through the windows I see the sparks of welders working on the elevated tracks.

At Smith-9th Avenue a group of young men board.  They’re dressed in tight pressed jeans, crisp sneakers and more down jackets.  They prop themselves near the young women.  And both groups get right to it, to that flirt, dance and play of looking but not looking at each other, to that posturing that won’t admit interest or concern.  And at 4th Avenue, a frazzled haired woman in a tweed trench coat pushes her way between them, also avoiding everyone’s eyes.  And I think how we, New Yorkers, are expert at checking each other out on the sly, spying at each other from the periphery.  But I wish it weren’t so, or that we didn’t do it so much.  Because, while I get that catching someone’s eye can offer an invitation or confrontation we aren’t necessarily seeking, I think we go too far, acting as if acknowledging someone would rob us of something in this rat race.  

I mean, aren’t we all voyeurs and exhibitionists?

At least a little bit?

At least some time?

… Now that’s unexpected. 

I’m feeling self conscious about who’s looking and not looking at me, a touch of the observation effect in reverse.  And my pen stalls as we enter the subway  tunnel heading to 7th Avenue.  The Melvins aren’t helping.  Their song Lividity is playing on my Ipod.  The track is sparse, not much more than a bass droning in a void.  It’s got me feeling exposed with nowhere to go.  But maybe that’s what I need to finally get to writing about: Faces?

You see I’ve been on this trip about faces, wondering about face time, face feeding, face place, flat image.  And this is where I’m going, or where I’m at: I don’t think we’re supposed to see our faces as much as we do.  It’s not how we evolved or what other animals do.  Turn back the clock five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years, and we’re back in the time before mirrors were everyday.  You don’t even have to go back that far.  Just 190 years ago there were no silvered-glass mirrors, no mirrored mass production.  Same with the copied image.  That luxury didn’t become available to the masses until the invention of photographic film 135 years ago.  Before these technologies, most of us didn’t see ourselves with regularity or resolution, couldn’t replicate or transfer our images in oil paints or otherwise.  No, we were restricted to what we saw of ourselves in nature, and even that was perilous stuff, Narcissus showed. 

But I think we’ve forgotten this, forgotten that we evolved eyes forward, on the look out for danger, food and sex, forgotten that our lives are in front of us, forgotten that, for a long time even after our monkey minds conceived of polishing stones and volcanic glass, what we thought of ourselves were our bodies, maybe a touch of mouth, nose and cheek, but not our faces.  Just check out the cave paintings at Lascaux and Namibia, or that fat bottomed girl, the Venus of Willendorf.

The original image essentially faceless.

And by now it’s an old story.  Our inventions have gotten out of control.  Like salt, sugar and fat we’ve grown sick from feeding on our faces, faces we haven’t yet evolved to digest, still face intolerant.  And here’s the rub and paradox of the face trap, and why I think face time is so perilous, and what I’m so clumsily trying to say: I think that when we look at our own faces, we can’t help but use on ourselves, the same awareness and perception we apply to figure out and communicate with other faces.  However, unlike any other face, we actually know what’s going on inside, at least if we’re being honest – which admittedly is a big if.  So we see how much we front when we’re falling apart, hiding what we believe needs to be hidden, showing what we feel needs to be shown, ever editing, airbrushing and photoshopping ourselves.  And I wonder if this has undermined and accelerated the erosion of trust not only in ourselves – in who we actually are – but in our neighbors, since we figure most everyone’s fronting the same false face.  

Still, we keep returning to our faces, telling ourselves that our next look will be our last, that we’ll finally reach that face place, that relief is just one last look away.  Any recovering addict knows the signs of dependence, knows when they’re in the dragon’s claws: the obsession, the constant preening and posing as we labor and suffer over our reflections, painting our lips, trimming our beards, clothing our skin, ever in search of solace no mirror can provide.  And by now in this journey, it seems that most of us have been consumed by our avatars, altogether dominated by the flat images pretending to be the 3D me, although we know that actions speak louder than looks, or, at least, they should.  

And who doesn’t feel the weight of their face in the torrent of the Information Age?

And I’m not saying that faces aren’t powerful and essential.  Just the opposite.  All five senses reside there as does the mind.  The face is the window to the soul.  A face launched a thousand ships.  Such is face power.  But as Uncle Ben warned Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman: “With power comes responsibility.”

West 8thStreet – The Aquarium.  4:39 p.m.  

The station’s interior is decorated in this tacky aqua blue latticework.  I head over the footbridge to the boardwalk, hopping over a toppled over fence.  Blocks away the Cyclone sits still dark and skeletal.  Around me, there’s stalled reconstruction, sand piles, barbed wire, wet rust, the smell of an electrical fire.  I spot a puddle and bend down and look into it.  I’m there: brown skin and eyes, beard and Yankees hat, but translucent and mixed with fuel oil and mud.

The squawk of seagulls turns my head.

I walk onto the beach.  I see a young woman in jeans and a loose brown sweater running barefoot, again and again, at the seagulls I came to find.  And I think that’s her, that’s who she is.  And I imagine myself as her: eyes watching the birds scatter, heart pounding as her feet grip the wet sand, as her warm breath and raw voice, but not her face.  Of course her girlfriend’s filming it all on her phone, reducing the moment onto a screen and launching it up to take up crowded residence in the Cyber Slum lurking above us.

It makes it less, flattening the moment.

But the lawyer, I am, pushes back, reminding me, myself and I: Who am I to judge?  I don’t know these women or what they’re up to.  Maybe sharing the image will do some good.  It’s what the best artists do.  Like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother: that iconic photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, mother of seven, destitute pea picker, stranded on Highway 101 in 1936, caught in the wrath of the Great Depression.  Ms. Thompson’s face seems to want nothing from the camera, seems not to even see it, but her face nonetheless teaches, teaches us just how far our country will let us fall.  So reflection isn’t inherently bad.  It can be beautiful, be important and edifying.  No, my problem is that our littered and teaming images have become noise and pollution.

I turn away from the women to the surf and let the ocean fill my ears.

4:54 p.m. My phone vibrates, and I flip it open.

“Hello, hello, is this Mr. Hueston?”  A female voice, tired and hurt.

“Yes, this is Mike Hueston.”

“Oh thank god!  I’m so sorry to bother you on a weekend.”  The tired voice catches its breath.  “But my grandson Devonte was arrested today by the police for burglary and my friend, Elaine, gave me your number.  And we’re here, but they won’t let us in to see him.  We don’t know if he’s hurt.  Oh god, there’s an ambulance outside!”  The hurt voice catches its breath again.  “We need a lawyer.  My friend said you could help us.  We’re at the 77th Precinct.  They said Devonte and his friends broke into a house.  They arrested him three times now.  And he’s just 17, but they won’t let us see him.  He’s just a boy.  Don’t we have a right to see him?  And it’s Blockhead.  I know he’s in there.  He keeps harassing Devonte, always stopping him and searching him.  He won’t leave Devonte alone.  Can you help us, Mr. Hueston?”

Now this is odd.  There’s a pentecostal drawn into the sand, and I step into it before telling her I’m not available and refer her to a colleague whose number I provide. 

“How much does he charge?” Anxious voice unnerved.

“You’ll have to work that out with him.”

“Can we pay later?”  Haggard voice losing hope.

“Please talk to him about that.”

“But can they do this?”  Voice failing.  “Just hold him without allowing us to see him?”

“How old is Devante again?”

“17.”  Voice just about giving up.

There’s no easy way to say it.  “I’m sorry mam, but after 16, a child loses that right, and he’ll be treated as an adult.”  My voice is callous to my own ears.  The voice fails over the line until I hear: “Oh God no!  No!  No!”  Then the voice whimpers quiet.

“Mam, please call my colleague.”  

“Ok, thank you, Mr Hueston.”  The voice hangs up.

I put my phone away and look down at the pentecostal. Stepping inside of it was sardonic.  Then again when would I get another chance?  And it seemed appropriate given what I do and how often I meet people in various states of hell.  But it’s not a joke, not at all.  And I conjure the image of Devante: a poor, young black boy I’ve never met; a boy caught stealing what he didn’t have the support, education, and above all hope, to believe he could earn; a boy, like so many of the boys I represent, craving cash to buy into that savior image that can’t save them, but which they still seek, because it’s all they believe they have or possess, an image of themselves aping the celebrities and algorithms of the Silicon Age.

Boys led astray from the real shit they’ve got to face, charmed into putting on black face for others’ profit.

Silicon Slavery.

Silicon Suckers.

And I think of how so many of us have been wounded by image, buying into unsustainable gratification, consumption and excess, buying into flat images no human can actually ever become.  That’s why, despite how much I admire actors, acting seems so perilous to me, so radioactive, a profession where people are rewarded for mimicking feeling, mimicking life.  And I recall that wild girl, LiMei, back at LaGuardia who starred in our high school’s production of Julius Caesar, and the time in homeroom when she took my hand and held it to her breast as she acted out the lines:

Cowards die many times before their deaths; 
The valiant never taste of death but once. 
Off all the wonders that I yet have heard, 
It seems to me most strange that men should fear; 
Seeing that death, a necessary end, 
Will come when it will come.  

It’s funny how the mind works.  I haven’t thought of LiMei in years.  But here I’ve dug her up along with some of Shakespeare’s greatest words about: letting go.  And I hypothesize, pontificate and theorize we weren’t meant to remember all that can be saved and uploaded, that we weren’t meant to have actual recall of our lives, that we were meant to lose portions, misremember segments, distort and build on others, and continually fragment and reuse memory, creating new grooves and vistas, never static in time.

And what LiMei did was a power move.  But that was her thing.  Like the time she fucked me in Sheep’s Meadow, straddling me as our friends played frisbee.  I might as well not have been there as I looked into her emotional mask, into that daredevil grin surrounded by hair so black it shined.  Because it clearly wasn’t about me, just her, and the reaction she could draw from me, or perhaps the role she saw herself starring in.  Whatever.  LiMei was the first person I knew, really knew, who believed she was a celebrity, flattening herself and holding her avatar up to be beheld and consumed.  And I remember feeling something I would later describe as disappointment about this girl, whose talent I admired, but as far as I could fathom, put herself before her art … and ultimately before people.

5:27 p.m.

I’m sitting on a pile of logs, watching an old man feed seagulls that are twisting around him like a living tornado.  And I imagine myself as him, as my hand tossing stale bread, back bending, feet walking, lips smiling; but not the seen smile, but the felt smile.  And it strikes me that I often overlook that we actually feel our smiles, as we do all sensation, and that smiling isn’t an image or a pose, but a way to communicate happiness to ourselves.

It’s getting real dark.  I head back to the boardwalk.  The street lamps are still down from Sandy, which adds to the night.  For a hundred yards or so, it’s just the lights of the Aquarium’s entrance, Brighton’s high rises, and the occasional cigarette embers.  It’s hard to write in such darkness.  And I imagine Ms. Margolin reviewing what I’m scribbling, certain that she’d give me a pass with that smile she loved to share with me.  And I remember her hug and kiss goodbye when she went on leave to have a baby.  What a terrific hug.  The smell of her perfume was like butter and cinnamon, but better.  And to this day, I hope she felt, as I hugged her back, just how much she meant to me, hope she felt my thanks, since it was her compassion and patience and steadiness that got me healing after my parents’ divorce and the brutal assault my mother suffered, unbeknownst to me, at the hands of my father… 

… Father.

That past, present and future is for another day.

Today is about faces.

And I look around to see the people near me.  We’ve turned into silhouettes of ourselves, high def gone low res.  Puddle like. Puddle people.  And it occurs to me that we didn’t evolve with forever light and that darkness may be important because we need to be relieved from the clarity of day, like the erosion of memory.  And at the end of that thought, I’m struck by the quiet around me: just the surf accented and a lone Russian voice.  And I see the image of my Russian professor, Ms. Feodorovna, leaning against the podium in her stockings and heels, half librarian, half spy.  One of the most interesting things she taught us was how the verb “to be” «быть» (byt’) in Russian is barely used in the present tense and how in speech it’s not pronounced at all.  So instead of: “I am walking” a Russian says: «Я – иду» (Ya idu): “I walking.” I noted that Russian got right to the action, to the verb, without the redundancy of the extra self, emphasizing and acknowledging that we are what we do, not what we say we are.

Here I am again at the puddle I gazed into earlier.  But I’m now featureless, one with the puddle.  And I think of The Melvin’s Lividity, and the canvas such emptiness offers us.  No face deluding me, freeing myself to see the actual me.

6:15 p.m. 

I’m struggling to remember a thought I’ve lost when a woman comes aboard at Avenue X carrying her sleeping baby.  The woman’s:stroking-her-baby’s-hair-beautiful. And I think how she’s never seen her face like this.  She can’t and be aware of it.  It would make it something less.  Then I watch a family come aboard at 18th Avenue.  Mom.  Dad. Big and little brother.  And I see their faces as they cannot.  Faces imbued with emotion and thought and memory and observation.  And I call myself out for checking them out on the sly, as I’ve done over and over again today.  So I amend my earlier criticism about how we don’t meet people’s eyes, which I knew was ill formed when I wrote it three hours ago.  For while it’s often true we don’t acknowledge each other because of ego.  It’s also about  face power.  Since to observe someone changes their nature as it does ourselves.  The observation effect at work again.  

So observation is a responsibility.

6:27 p.m.

Stevie Wonder’s Past Time Paradise plays as we approach Carroll Street, and I notice my foot bouncing to its synthesized strings, conga drums, Hare Krishna bells and gospel choir, while Stevie sings:

They’ve been spending most their lives
Living in a pastime paradise
They’ve been wasting most of their time
Glorifying days long gone behind
They’ve been wasting most their days
In remembrance of ignorance oldest praise

                       * * *

Let’s start living our lives
Living for the future paradise
Praise to our lives
Living for the future paradise
Shame to anyones lives
Living in the pastime paradise

And I know I’m reading into this, reaching and pushing to connect one thought to another, but I can’t help but think: Shame on us for holding on to the images of ourselves, as if the best moments, the most critical, aren’t right in front of us.  And I turn face front to my life, my life at this very moment, looking out at the mix of strangers near me: the long haired girls, bald men, hipsters and homeboys, and I’m racing with words and words are racing in me. And I look at my hand holding a pen, writing on a pad.  

So I write, so I am. 

Pushing my drama again.

September 29, 2013, Brooklyn Borough Hall 12:54 pm.

I transfer to the F at Jay Street Metrotech. I see, watch and stare at a morbidly obese woman who can’t fit through the turn-style although she tries and tries, angling herself sideways and to and fro. She’s dressed all pink bubble gum, all white candy. She determined but perplexed, apparently unwilling to accept that she can’t fit through. For a few moments, the station clerk watches, but soon steps from her booth and tells the woman to use the emergency exit, and she does.

After I get on the F, heading to Avenue X, I search my memory for other times I’ve seen a subway emergency exit used in need. Besides images of people with strollers and bikes, and the occasional arrestee, just one impression stands out, that of EMS carrying out an old grey man on a gurney at Park Place Station. Oxygen mask. Chest bare.

I am tapping my pen, listening to the band Crystal Castles over one earbud, when I spot a man sitting on a pillow down at the end of the subway car. A pretty curly haired brunette, wearing a vintage dress, worn combat boots, and a leather jacket, is seated diagonally across from him. She’s reading a book and eating a sandwich, but looks up, walks over and gives him a dollar, then returns to her seat and finishes her lunch.

The man’s got a suitcase with him. His skin is oily. His cheeks are rubbery, round, red. The pillow draws me in. I’ve never seen a person sitting on one while riding the subway. Another man is seated opposite him who has his own pillow tucked besides him. His arms are folded. Eyes closed. He’s got something on his belt that looks like keys but in the sunlight of the Ditmas Avenue platform I see that it’s a bottle opener.

The curly haired brunette leaves at Ditmas, and the man she gave the dollar to starts snapping his fingers at tourists who’ve just boarded. “Thank God I’m not homeless!” he says. His companion keeps eye-closed-quiet. The tourists ignore the man, and when an orthodox Jewish family gets on at 18th Avenue, he shouts: “Rabbi, Rabbi! You have some money for the homeless! Hey Jew, you have some money for me! Thought not! You see!”

“I see,” I tell myself. I see a broken man who feels we owe him more than we’ve already given him in our taxes and tolerance. He bothers me because he’s a nasty fuck in front of their little boy.

Avenue X 1:33 pm.

I get off the train and walk down from the elevated platform to Shell Road. I see a homeless man lying on the ground, and another who’s just finished pissing on a trestle. I cross the street to McDonald Avenue and enter the Psychic Shop as I promised myself I would. Inside is red curtained sunlight. Two men are eating lunch. I tell them I’m here for a reading. They have me wait and step through the curtains, and a woman comes out and greets me, introducing herself as Mama. Her accent’s Roma, Gypsy. She’s about my age, maybe a little older. She has loose dyed blonde hair, crooked teeth and wears a yellow flowered dress comfortably.

Mama has me sit with her at a velvet-clothed table. I pay her $30. She gives me a choice of readings. I chose Tarot Cards. She has me cut the cards three times, then shuffles and begins to lay them out before us: an angel blowing a trumpet, a knight on a horse, a woman cradling a lion’s head. She studies me then draws a card with an image of a burning tower, and others with the words “temperance” and “judgment.”

Mama sets her eyes on mine and says, “You wear a smile, but you’re looking for something, searching for a change.” She folds her arms. “Yes, you wear a smile like a clown, but you’re not happy.” She purses her lips, then asks, “Was there someone in your past whose name starts with A?” and I say, “Arianna.”

So it begins.

“You have regrets over this girl Adrianna,” Mama asks, and I say, “Yes, Arianna,” helping her along. She asks why, and I say, “I should’ve told her.”

Mama considers her words then says, “You know, if you still love her, you won’t be able to move on.”

I say nothing, but tell myself, I have.

Mama draws an ace of cups then a card of a man wearing a cloak, and asks me what I do. I tell her I’m a lawyer, then she asks me if I’m married, and I think she’s not the best observer since I’m wearing my ring.

She touches the cloaked man and asks why I have regrets about Arianna, and I try to explain, “It’s about courage. I’ve had a problem with courage.”

Mama reads me again and asks me to choose a card. I do: a blindfolded woman holding a sword in each hand. She takes it, places it by the cloaked man, and says Arianna still thinks of me, and she may. We’re still friends and colleagues. We even see each from time to time, and after hesitating, I tell Moma about when Arianna was honored for her work in defending the indigent. That night, as she accepted her award, Arianna spoke with her usual humility and humor, uncomfortable with being praised for just doing the best she could, and because she knew she hadn’t done anything alone.

“And afterwards we were going out for cocktails,” I tell Moma, “Arianna was looking for me, but she couldn’t see me in the crowd. And as I got closer to her I was so struck by her expression that I stopped. She was unguarded, expecting, and maybe even a little sad, and I felt I saw in her that same longing I’ve carried in me about her and us.”

I hear my own words, and I’m not surprised when Mama asks me if I’m troubled in my marriage. I tell her no, and try to explain, “I’m truly grateful I’ve had the chance and courage to be with and in love my wife, Marie, but Arianna is, was….”

I stop suddenly conscious at how seriously I’m taking this, talking to this stranger.

Mama folds her arms again. “So you say you’ve moved on. You’re married and have a career, but you’re missing something.”

Aren’t we all? I almost say.

“Denying something.”

Don’t we all?

Mama tells me it’s time for my free question, and I ask without irony, “What will make me happy?”

Mama leans in close and presses her fingers on the blindfolded woman. “Let go of her,” she says. “You both have regrets. If you weren’t married you’d come to each other. But you won’t be happy until you stop regretting your past.”

My reading is over. I gather my Ipod, pen and pad. As I stand to leave, Mama tells me that I have too much responsibility, and though I only came out of curiosity she can help me. I tell Mama she has, thank her and ask if I can give her a tip. She says yes, and I give her extra $10.

On Avenue X, I have a beer and slice at Knapp Pizza II, then continue walking under the blue sky, thinking how psychics can only give us back what we share. And though the encounter has me feeling strangely grateful, I also resent being reminded to handle my past with care.

Suddenly there’s Gravesend Cemetery.

I stop. I feel the cool air hardly move. A Korean mom and son walk by me.

The cemetery is small, surround by a black iron gate. A black garbage bag hangs outside its locked entrance. A pair of black sneakers is tucked near its bars. Just inside there’s a sign dated 1938, stating English Quakers settled Gravesend in 1643. To get a better view, maybe even get inside, I walk up to Van Sicklen, hook a left at the First Korean Church of Brooklyn, and then another left at Village Road. Along the way, I pass two Korean men sitting on the church’s steps, one’s in a suit, the other’s smoking.

On the other side of the cemetery, the gate is also locked, so I look through the bars as best I can. There’s litter and leaves. Most of the headstones are in disrepair, weather worn, illegible, but I’m able to read those of Nellie O. Lewis, Died November 3, 1927, Age 65 years, In Loving Memory, and Albert Cooper, Died December 20, 1898, Gone But Not Forgotten In Remembrance Of His Wife.

I sit on a nearby hydrant and stare out at the graves and grass, and turn my thoughts to regret and Mama’s admonition, questioning if I’ve held onto my memories of Arianna too hard, too long. Be it the memory of the first day of law school when we met and went to lunch; or our study groups in the library and arguments in class; or that spring day in Nashville when we made it to the finals of Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Competition and celebrated that evening at the remake of the Parthenon; or when we traveled across country after the bar exam; or that afternoon a few years later in Manhattan when she watched me give one of my finest summations in a trial against the NYPD and later that evening sitting next to her at a bar when she told me that her boyfriend (now husband) had been jealous when I took her to Mark’s wedding in Niagara Falls. I remember Arianna waiting for me to finally say it, to talk about the elephant that had always been in our room, but before I could muster the courage my trial partner was back, talking about our win, and I let the moment pass.


You’re interested in people, passionate about them, invested and involved with them. You care, care about those who need the most help, walking not talking, always guided by your innate sense of clear-eyed right and wrong.

You’re not perfect. You’re quick to anger, but also to laugh.

You rush to judgment, but with the best intentions.

You’re a leader who always encouraged me to do more, to be better, flirting with me to take on responsibilities I’d just as soon duck, like become VP of our law school’s moot court board. When I asked, “Are you serious?” you promised it would be fine and we’d have fun together, and you were right, and in our time together, I was so struck by your passion, intelligence and decency, I found I wanted be someone you loved.

Problem was that person wasn’t me.

I look over my shoulder at the elevated tracks. The air still barely moves. It’s time to head home, and I walk from Gravesend, my thoughts unresolved about Arianna’s continued presence in my life.

Back on the train at Ditmas Avenue an African American couple gets on, and we all look unable not to stare. The man’s striking, in his 20s, deep blacked skinned and ripped. But what’s “Wow” about him is that he’s dressed entirely in pink: pink shorts, pink t-shirt, pink sneakers with fluffy poodle dolls attached to them, and a pink baseball cap with a decal of Animal from the Muppet Show. He’s outlandish, audacious, and I smile at being reminded that the extraordinary is supposed to be memorable, supposed to last. It is, and it’s that simple.

So “Yes,” Mama, I do cherish my memories of Arianna, and I suffered for it. But my suffering came from looking to those memories with a desire to change that past. I couldn’t change it. But I could change and accept what these memories could do for me, which was show me whom I should love and the imperative of acting on love.

The subway moves jolting my pen.

So for me it’s not a matter of letting go, and it’s clear we don’t let go easily. The graves I saw today are a testament to that. And it doesn’t matter that they were broken, forgotten, left to the care of strangers. We’re finite. We fail. But it’s clear to me now, I’ve kept this regret, because like the words In Loving Memory and Gone But Not Forgotten require I’ve made a promise, or prayer, to hold onto that out of the ordinary girl I fell in love with, and she lives in the Heaven of my memory.