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 after I ad–libbed 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 a connection between murder and consumption, the self centeredness, the grasp at control, the abuse of power and pleasure at another’s expense, 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 on stage, arguing in Cain’s defense:

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


And that’s how He did it, by selling Cain on the idea that consuming his brother would give him solace, satisfying his unease and quelling his pain.  

Don’t you see it?

That’s how God set Cain against Abel.

That’s how God set man against man.

Off track?  In a way, but not.

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 11% 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 Beautifu!l”, “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? 

In that moment of silent tiredness, I wished I’d never known Levi, never heard what he said about me, and I felt that our race war would never end.  So I gave up and chose to reduce Levi to a caricature as he was all too willing to do to me.  And relying on the infrastructure our society provides to hate in all its varieties, and I chose to hate Levi back as a Jew.

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.

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 forever grateful to her, as I am to those colleagues and friends who are Jewish, and, of course, Steffi, who I loved and who is Jewish, and to my mother for never teaching me prejudice, and this City’s gift, not only of mere tolerance, but of our actual oneness.

But Mrs. Rosenfeld was that first teacher, that first active human being I encountered who understood that her faith in humanity required that she teach a little boy a lesson and introduce him to a history that must never be forgotten.

But let me say this.  I wish I hadn’t failed in the first instance.  I wish I’d been strong enough not to succumb to anger and break my promise, even for just a few minutes, because it’s shown me that I can forsake my principals and beliefs.  And now I’m struggling with the consequence of whether there are somethings we must hold onto or we’re simply not ourselves any longer.

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.

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