2000, 2004, barack, Bush, chief, City, count, editor, F.Kennedy, fiasco, Filippacchi, Florida, frank, George, Hachette, in, Jeb, John, Jr., Karl, kerry, Lalli, lawsuits, loss, magazine, manhattan, new, obama, publisher, Rove, swiftboat, vote, W., york
In Spring of 2000, Hachette-Filippacchi Inc.,hired me and a half-dozen others to work as independently-contracted temporary employees to fact-check and conduct research for George magazine – whose founder and editor-in-chief John F. Kennedy, Jr. had been killed in a light-plane crash amidst fog off the coast of Maine eight months before. They hired us to ensure George remained, in the wake of its founder’s passing, an audible element of the political discourse during the Election of 2000.
As a national magazine which was read by hundreds of thousands of voters in many states, particular focus was paid to the Presidential Election between Vice President Al Gore and George W. Bush, the Governor of Texas.
My fellow employees, under Editor-in-Chief Frank Lalli, were a tight-knit, smart and savvy crew. In fact, on Election Night we were all together at Mr. Lalli’s beautiful upper westside home where he had invited us to watch returns. But Karl Rove’s fat face and a flipped state later, many of us were back in the office. A few of us stayed up most of the night and by 10 a.m. I was not alone in the office when I was posting coverage of Florida on the George website.
Though admittedly not a heavy-hitter politically, George was engaged throughout the Election and maintained an immense audience of voting readers before the magazine was finally brought to an end in 2001.
In 2003 I covered Schwarzenegger’s Election via Recall of Davis for KPFK, 90.7fm Los Angeles.
I also covered The Election of 2004 and the Presidential Race between George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry for KPFK, 90.7fm Los Angeles and in part for Pacifica Radio. Some of that 2004 Election work exists here and online at Pacifica’s Audioport and in the Pacifica Radio Archives, but I have complete digital copies of everything I did for KPFK and Pacifica between 2003 and 2005 backed up on disc in my studio as well.
In 2008, I was no longer working as a journalist, but did cover Obama’s Victory in Iowa for KPFK and produced short Audio-Visual Installments for Freshjive on the Internet. These were amateurish and clunky by design, yet carried considerable data for anyone who had tuned in to the broadcasts I produced for KPFK four years before.
When Obama won in ’08, I was with Lloyd Dangle, who hosted a book signing and Election Night Returns Party at the Riptide in San Francisco. Earlier in the day I had a drink with former SF Mayor Willie Brown at the St. Regis – we discussed Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s plans for appointing a Senator to replace disgraced Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, forced to retire.
This year,I did not work as a journalist, but rather observed as a reader of the news media and a regular Californian voter.
The biggest single predictor of the elections of the 21st century has to be the margin of difference in registrations for the two major parties.
There are many reasons for this: smaller parties are being absorbed and disappearing for lack of membership, corporate interests fund the two major parties only, people threatened by one of the two parties runs to join the other and the demography of the nation is changing.
I have successfully predicted the last two elections as a result of my study of data and my knowledge of voting history. I think I see the electorate again.
Some points on 21st Century US Elections:
It’s impossible to write a blog about all my experiences voting and covering General Elections in the United States in the 21st Century, but suffice it to say there is a distinct difference between these and the Elections of the latter half of the 20th century, in which I also participated.
Much of this is discussed in my talk Political Media, Messages and More.
2003 was the Recall Election and spawned recalls in the 21st Century because of Schwarzenegger’s success.
2008 was the Youtube Election.
2012 was the Twitter Election.
Money and media are the driving forces of what has become a political system mired in divided, brutal contests between two immense parties which are financed primarily by corporations and special interest groups that define their policies.
We are in desperate need of a new Federal Elections Reform Act, as was passed in the early 1970’s.
Our democracy is sick. Hardly half the people with the right to vote even participate.
We need to update, nationalize and standardize voting procedures and make them more secure. We need to increase registration and participation. We need to subsidize the creation and maintenance of additional parties in the face of the massive expenditures made by Republicans and Democrats that have taken elections out of the reach of the common person. We need proportional representation in Congress.
Have been saying all of this for years, and it has only gotten worse. Here’s hoping the young people who are increasing in numbers at the polls pull off what my generation couldn’t.
There were two stories this year that caught my eye for exposing the problems involved in building a collective encyclopedia the way Wikipedia is being built.
Timothy Messer-Kruse discussing the ‘Undue Weight’ of Truth on Wikipedia in The Chronicle of Higher Education
I don’t have analysis right now, but wanted to post this comparison because I think looking at these two stories says something about Wikipedia that isn’t being discussed.
more to come …
1Q84, Asia, books, Borzoi, chip, fiction, first, Gabriel, Haruki, Japan, jay, Karthik, kidd, knopf, literature, m.t., mid-career, mtk, Murakami, new, novel, NYC, person, philip, publishing, review, rubin, tork, usa
In San Francisco, in the Mission District, between 1993 and ’95, I read Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood. He was then only recently translated into English and popular in San Francisco.
Those early novels were unpredictable, well crafted and defied genre. Murakami’s talking cats, imploding houses, slight shifts in perception of reality – and his cool characters’ natural acceptance of deep, scalar trips through levels of that reality – became a genre of their own.
His characters and prose paralleled in literature the malaise, disaffection, vapidity and bored waiting game of the end of the 20th century and then transcended it with fantastic departures from the world. The ride was like manga without the images or a purely textual Miyazaki Hayao animation epic just for single, young adults.
I first read A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami’s third novel, written in 1982, in San Francisco when I was 25. It remains my favorite. I remember feeling incredibly small in the face of the universe as his characters were pushed around.
I have a reverent fascination with Japan and a profound respect for her people. In my lifetime Japan was the most Americanized among all Asian countries, so growing up in the US, I was allowed slightly greater exposure to her writers.
Among Japanese novelists, I’d read Kawabata since I was a teenager, and in university covered Mishima and Akutagawa. I hadn’t yet read the post-war existentialists, when I picked up Murakami. Banana Yamamoto’s Kitchen was the hot new wave hitting California from the land of the rising sun.
Murakami was immediately different: pop synthesis of West and East through a contemporary urban Japanese socio-cultural lens.
Haruki Murakami began writing novels at the age of 29, in 1978, and has told Bomb Magazine, “Before that, I didn’t write anything. I was just one of those ordinary people. I was running a jazz club, and I didn’t create anything at all.”
Wiki states he had a sudden epiphany during a baseball game:
In 1978, Murakami was in Jingu Stadium watching a game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp when Dave Hilton, an American, came to bat.
… in the instant that Hilton hit a double, Murakami suddenly realized that he could write a novel. He went home and began writing that night. Murakami worked on Hear the Wind Sing for several months in very brief stretches after working days at the bar. He completed the novel and sent it to the only literary contest that would accept a work of that length, winning first prize.
Now I’m 45 and Murakami’s 65, so we both remember 1984, the year in which his newest novel, 1Q84, is partially set. We have also both lived through an era that has seen the realization of some of the socio-cultural horrors described in George Orwell’s prophetic novel, 1984, which 1Q84 uses as a sort of launching point.
My loudest use of Orwell’s work was on the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks, in 2002, as a performance element of the art installation US=THEM, in Los Angeles, I read Orwell’s 1984 aloud in its entirety in a book store gallery, beginning at 5:35am (the time the first plane struck WTC2) and ending just as the sun set on the corner of Sunset and Alvarado. I printed slap tags that read 2002=1984 and stuck them everyplace.
I was excited to hear Murakami was using Orwell as a point of reference, and assumed the work would have socio-political overtones. I hoped 1Q84 would be more openly political and less personally intimate than the love stories he’d been writing. I consider Orwell to have been ahead of his time, so I was biased by the title’s obvious reference.
The particularly Asian coolness and practicality of Murakami’s characters in every day life is inspiring. But from the first, I felt his work was limited by the use of first-person narrative, usually with a narrator who seemed very much like himself: a middle-aged Japanese man living in Tokyo and underwhelmed by normal existence.
Murakami’s male narrators, all roughly his age, made the work light-weight. His contemporaries in late-20th century fiction writing in and translated into English: Garcia-Marquez, Eco, Kundera, Bowles, Ondaatje, Atwood, Boyle, Kureishi, DeLillo, Roth, Rushdie, Oates, Bolaño didn’t succumb to this basic approach.
As a writer, I’d come to the conclusion that my fiction suffered from my inability to write effectively in third person. I was biased by instructors and Modernism away from the trend toward first-person narratives written for the Me Generation. Murakami had no such bias, and neither, it turns out, did the publishing industry.
Murakami was young when he began and was thrust into the international limelight very quickly because of the accessibility of his work and his remarkable imagination. He was rewarded for making it easy to read. He was rewarded immense audiences for his references to Western pop, to “classical music” and to the boozy freedom of post-modern urbanity.
Haruki Murakami’s narrators’ exceptional breaks from the normative were what thrilled – these crazy trips into the unreal experienced coolly by his characters.
As a straight, booze-drinking, single, urbanite in my twenties (pre-metrosexuals) Murakami’s meals, drinks and one-night stands were a blast, in some cases a relief from the moralizing of political correctness.
I have sometimes felt targeted by novelists. Some just succeed in getting it. I wouldn’t discover Pepe Carvalho until a decade later, but Spanish readers will appreciate the comparison to Montalban. We used to joke about a drinking game in which you take a drink every time a Murakami character does. It gets harder to finish the book.
I only begrudgingly got into Murakami’s use of Western cultural tropes as described within an East Asian urban society, which Murakami was “first-to” in terms of crossover, and which he uses abundantly like a signature.
As an Indian living in the U.S. and Asia, who studied Ronald Takaki then, this was unappealing, I hated what post-post-modernism was becoming. But by the late ’90’s crosshatching Asia and the West had flooded the field. Murakami and Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino and Miyazaki Hayao made it cool. Sensible. At last, Asians outside London and New York were exhibiting what Hanif Kureishi knew, was called insouciant for writing.
It was inevitable at the dawn of the Internet and the globalizing 21st century. Haruki Murakami, the runner, from the longest US-occupied part of Asia, Japan; the novice writing in Japanese, first-person about being single, urban and sexually liberated was the first high-reaching Asian to just go ahead and run with it. Straight into the 21st Century.
I’m generalizing, but proposing Murakami was the best-seller who embodied the literary trend toward first-person narrative form and made it cool for Asian writing to love the West. Rushdie’s Ground Beneath Her Feet, must’ve been influenced in some small part by what Murakami was carving out.
Initially turned off by the brazen professing involved in it, I began to embrace Murakami’s careful choices of European orchestral music and western movies, TV shows and pop songs appropriated to both metaphorize, translate and drive narrative on multiple tiers. But creatively it always struck me as an easy way to force structure.
I was least impressed by Norwegian Wood. It struck me as a soap opera written for a specific audience of romantics. So after finishing it, I passed on a few of Murakami’s books and embarked on other, pretty heavy, post-war Japanese novels: Dazai Osamu, The Setting Sun and No Longer Human; Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes; and Saiichi Maruya’s contemporary classic, A Mature Woman.
I returned to Murakami in 2005 with the publication of Kafka on the Shore, which was my summer read while living on a Japanese shore, in Kamakura.
Again impressed by the proficiency with language, I liked the poetics and the magical, even spiritual, feel, but I remained disappointed by what struck me as basically a first-person, relationship story. Murakami was still pushing western tropes through to the title page and writing less political, getting more pop.
That’s my experience with Murakami’s work. I am not qualified to review 1Q84 as anything other than a reader of novels for 30 years. I do not pretend to understand him as a man, nor have I read much about him or his method, barring what’s been published in the New Yorker here and there.
In some small part this will also be a discussion of the state of the publishing industry in 2012 which has carefully produced ‘Murakami, the technically proficient, edgy yet non-threatening Asian romantic fantasist’ into an internationally best-selling novelist.
Though I’ve lived in Japan, I cannot read Japanese and so have experienced all the Japanese novelists only in translation to English.
1Q84 – translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel – was published by Knopf as a massive, 944-page, case-bound Borzoi, with a vellum slip cover designed by Chip Kidd that lightly masks close-ups of two Japanese faces, a female on the front and a male on the back, on October 25th of last year (2011) and sold for $30.
I found one in great condition for $18 earlier this summer at one of the used book stores I help stay in existence. I finished it last week.
The paperback and e-versions have been available for some time now and I began to wonder whether this form of publication is ever really being read, cover-to-cover. The thing is a doorstop, a bookcase brace, a coffee table weight, but reading it’s awkward, heavy and very hard to conceal.
Lugging this anvil around the past few weeks, I was stopped and asked about it many times in the street. One guy stopped pedaling his bike, going up a hill to stop me and ask, “Is that the new Murakami?’ Is it good?” Waiters, bartenders and waitresses at all my local coffeeshops, bars and restaurants asked and showed anticipatory excitement about this big, pretty thing.
I was sure the novel was being read … but figured the vast majority of that reading was happening in multiple parts as separate books in paperback, or in a digital format. I’ve never wanted an e-reader more than in these past few weeks lugging around 1Q84, with its slippery vellum cover.
Which brings us to the design by Chip Kidd and to why it was sitting pretty, marked down 30% at the used bookstore within eight months of publication.
On November 11th of last year, two weeks after its publication, Rachel Deahl raved in Publisher’s Weekly Knopf’s High-End Print Package for ‘1Q84’ Pays Off:
“But Knopf, which published the title late last month, has not only turned the book into a bestseller, it’s also managed to reverse another trend: it has made the book more popular in print than in digital.
“According to numbers released by the publisher, the novel, which was at #2 on the Times bestseller list on November 13, has sold 75,000 copies in hardcover, and 25,000 in digital. Those impressive print sales are thanks, in large part, to an extravagant package that Knopf put together that has made the book the kind of object–beautiful and collectible–that readers want. And, more than likely, non-readers also want.”
The design is horrible.
The lettering of the title is put on two lines so that the 1Q is above the 84, rather than written like a year: 1Q84. The result is that everyone who knows nothing about the book thinks its title is I.Q. 84 – which is hilarious and sad.
The vellum cover and the bold, sans-serif font make it worse. It’s so done-already. The design completely fails to help make Murakami’s connection between 1984 and 1Q84. (oddly, so does Murakami within, so perhaps it’s a case of too-good design)
The faces on the cover aren’t the author but face-models, and the vellum Kidd asked for that’s received so much praise, serves to mask their Japanese-ness, while retaining the sexy – fashion! haute couture!
The endsheets and chapter title pages continue the idiocy of separating the numbers of the title out, making it more disassociated than ever from Orwell. These pages are all black and white photographic backdrops of twilight and of the moon, which plays a significant role in the book, but though highly-stylized, they’re cheaply produced and the graphic elements aren’t even like the descriptions by the author within, which are specific about the appearance of the moon. Design sensibility invades literature again.
ugh. It’s whorish and stupid and has received nothing but praise and exaltation for Knopf and Chip Kidd for 8 months.
“the kind of object–beautiful and collectible–that readers want. And, more than likely, non-readers also want.”
In the late-’90’s when I was working as a low-wage proofreader, fact-checker, jacket-designer and researcher in the New York publishing industry while trying to get published myself, at nights and on the weekends I also worked to help found a non-profit artists book organization in Brooklyn.
It was bizarre: by day, I’d be using new digital tools to make mass-produced work flashier, more-designed, more image-oriented, less text-heavy, while at night and on the weekends I helped produce fine art books with traditional materials in limited edition.
The turn of the millennium in New York City brought the consolidation of publishing and birthed the end of the book as we know it. What happened with 1Q84 last year was that it was sold as a sculptural object to great success. They made it into something you could market at Xmas whether anyone read it or not.
But appreciating the work within is made more difficult by the immense distraction of these new marketing methods, which crowd the work with the gushing sycophancy of non-readers buying sculpture.
END PART ONE
PART TWO: 1Q84, Murakami Tries Third Person
1Q84 is Murakami’s first novel in third person. It succeeds in reaching for high ground, but weaknesses are revealed by the more difficult form. Some of these may be solely a result of translation issues, but whatever made it happen, at points it’s unbearable.
1Q84 is overwritten. It could easily be two-thirds the length. There may be perhaps no single person or department to blame for this.
It could be issues of translation. Having two different translators may have contributed to the repetition of ideas as each attempted to infuse their read. Throughout the work slipshod word choices are not just used but repeated awkwardly.
I hated the choice of the word “jacket” rather than “sleeve” for record covers. It isn’t wrong but it just sounds clunky in repetition – and the term is repeated within a paragraph without replacement when “sleeve” or “cover” would work so much better. The translation seemed rushed and simple. I presume this added pages.
It could have been a bad editor at Knopf, unwilling or unable to realize that when you publish three books in the same series from another language into one book sometimes there will be an absurd number of repetitions of basic points because when the work was originally published, these points were repeated to bring in new readers at each stage of publication.
I haven’t read any other reviews of this book, but I gather from the PW clip that this was the NYT’s problem.
It could be the fault of Knopf, itself, which seems to have rushed to shove the book out the door fast for Xmas season of last year, using cheap, flashy design to create a book to be sold as a sculptural object. They didn’t care what was in it as much as what was on it, what it looked and felt like. It could easily have been rushed for sales and cheated of the requisite time and effort required for editing and translation.
These possibilities notwithstanding, the responsibility for quality of the work lies with the author and Murakami’s attempt at third person results in common problems for anyone embarking on the daunting task of writing a proper novel: you must get inside the characters to let them live, but you mustn’t show you are inside the characters for them to live.
One sophomoric method used to achieve this for several decades is italics to represent the thoughts and inner monologues of a character. If it absolutely has to be done, then this is the accepted practice. Oh, I’m getting pedantic! I hope they’ll understand what I mean, that you should be able to write your characters into what you’re trying to convey and not have to rely on italicized font to tell the reader something important, oh, maybe I’m just nitpicking. M.T., you’re such an oppressive rationalist.
But just like the flashback has become nauseatingly common to drive narrative in movies since Pulp Fiction, usage of italicized thoughts has become standard in novels in third-person in this, the era of the first-person narrrative. It’s a failure on the writer’s part, or at least a CYA move. If you have to do it as a writer, you make it count.
Not so in IQ84.
Murakami’s discomfort with form leads to an unending parade of italicized thoughts. No character goes mentally uninvaded. Like the first-person narrative before, Murakami is shaking off rules again in this attempt at third-person narrative. This could be considered bold, I suppose, but not by me.
What was bold was the whole new dimension added when Murakami decided to have these characters thinking in italics about quotes. These sections are actually italicized and bolded. I don’t mean once or twice at climactic moments, but throughout the entire novel; nearly every character.
Murakami has characters read a number of different texts aloud to each other. This is in and of itself bizarre because references to existing texts, like Chekov could have been made “off-the-page” rather than being read aloud between two characters.
The point of using the Chekov could have been made in action, or through literary tactics, leaving the text itself as a support floating in literary space. In some cases these non-fiction texts are literally the full repetition of historical data as bedtime stories, simply so they can be referred to in future chapters – clunky. It’s also demeaning to readers.
In the case of notes read aloud between and within the minds of characters, Murakami doesn’t even let the note exist as the exchange. The note is quoted by a character within his or her own thoughts! Murakami and the translators use bold text within the italicized thoughts to display the character working out the meaning in their own thoughts. It’s either genius beyond me or annoying filler because you can’t convey what you mean.
The repetitions continue, almost as though when ‘occupying’ one character or another, Murakami has forgotten that another character has made a point … and so he repeats that point. At first, I thought this was because the book, like works of Murakami’s in the past, was going to get fantastically multi-layered and these would echo. But that never happens. It’s just repetitive.
1Q84 is also a little predictable, despite it’s imaginative elements. I saw the intersection of the lead characters Tengo and Aomame coming long before it was clear they were intertwined. I wondered if Tengo was authoring Aomame into existence, so I could see clearly through to Murakami himself.
I lay all of this at the feet of the shift to the third-person narrative. It’s hard to do. That is why I think Murakami is at mid-career despite having written so many novels and achieving such success. Murakami strikes me as a hard-working perfectionist who will likely tackle third-person narrative form again rather than shy away from it after a first-rate attempt. I look forward to his progress, and as usual, will be among the millions reading his flights of fancy.
I enjoy Murakami’s precise, technical prose, like describing a meal or a piece of music. I admire what Murakami does well: creating translucent, shimmering waves of realities that both define and filter how his characters perceive of reality.
I enjoy his detailed descriptions of events of the past – like war and post-war conditions, laden with contemporary attitudes about those events. Certain simplicities like descriptions of the natural world, Murakami just nails – his cicadas take me to Japan in summer:
Haruki Murakami continues to display a brilliant imagination and wild ideas. He weaves his plot streams together beautifully. Though some of the unpredictability has gone as a result of our familiarity with his tactics, Murakami has invaded our consciousness with his genre.
Unfortunately 1Q84 as it stands is too long, in parts very repetitious, somewhat clunky, and as a result, boring. I give it a 3 out of 5.
In Conclusion: The NY Publishing Industry’s Horrible Now
As I write these words from my home in California, the Nobel Committee prepares to announce its highly political and socially-influenced choices and the New York publishing industry is preparing to launch any number of new 1Q84s to push forward their bottom lines in this year’s Xmas season – some new sculptural objects whose contents are mostly recycled scraps and cardboard, rather than goose down and gold. Orwellian indeed.
For people living in California and Asia and with concerns about the works from these places, these two events in Scandinavia and on the East Coast of the US have little bearing. They have proven themselves wholly out of touch. While here and in Japan we fight to author a new world.
We must bring ourselves up out of what post-post-modernism and its failed capitalist globalism has wrought.
Read, read, read. Think, think, think. Enough with the gushing sycophancy – the world is headed down a dark road by our ignorance and selfishness.
As readers, we must demand better product; better editors, translators and deciders of what gets put into our hands.
Seek out authors from independent publishers, read blogs, comment.
September 29, 2012, Oakland, California
California secedes from the U.S. and joins forces with Japan to become a non-aligned, pacifist, non-nuclear-powered, green, tech-producing powerhouse in global digital and computer science.
Here’s the flag of the new most prosperous nation on Earth.
I hereby announce my Candidacy for General Secretary of The Republic of Calipan to anybody living in Aztlan or the Land of the Rising Sun who agrees Calipan exists.
2003, 2004, 2005, 90.7fm, alan, angeles, armando, blosdale, Christine, director, Elections, gudino, host, iraq, Karthik, kpfk, L.A., LA, los, los angeles, m.t., minsky, mtk, new, onthemic, pacifica, producer, radio, war
NEWS AND ELECTIONS DIRECTOR, KPFK AND PACIFICA
During the Iraq War and the Election of 2004, I was news director and director of elections coverage for Pacifica Station KPFK, 90.7fm Los Angeles, 98.7fm Santa Barbara, California – the largest independent fm signal in the United States of America.
During the buildup to the war I increased news presence on the schedule by 200%.
For six months after that I increased it 150%.
I broke up Free Speech Radio News into segments and reproduced the evening news with one host rather than two. This allowed us to write more content and update the FSRN content with the latest news [hired PC Burke, managed ML Lopez]
In Los Angeles KPFK had long been a place for actors to volunteer to get air time. I fired the actors who were reading the news and pledged no others would be used – rather I would train a team of multi-disciplinary writers to read.
[I hand-picked JF Rosencrantz, Page Getz, Sister Charlene Mohammed, Aura Bogado, Walt Tanner, and many other voices for the newsroom and trained them to deliver on radio].
I added two reporters [both hires were women] and added music and breaks to make the news more listenable for a younger audience. I produced original art pieces, found-sound and cultural pieces.
I was the first News Director to go to Palestine and Israel via Amman, in late 2003 and to the UN, where I was credentialed for the Security Council during run up to war [early 2003]. I reported daily into the midday and evening news and this work is archived in the Pacifica Radio Archives [MTKintheOPT2003/04].
I was the only reporter at the United Nations Security Council on March 21st, 2003, to ask each Ambassador of the U.N. Security Council whether or not they would condemn the bombing of Baghdad by the United States and U.K. the previous night. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told me and all the press corps beside me in response that Putin spoke for all Russia when he said it “violates the U.N. Charter.”
I was the opening voice on Pacifica’s “Attack on Peace,” a nationwide broadcast to millions of listeners and, with Amy Goodman, co-hosted the first hour of what would be three days of historic nationwide broadcasting about Peace and opposing the War on Iraq as it was taking place.
KPFK and Pacifica gave me a chance to do something epic and we both benefited greatly from it. I stand behind my decision to give my time during the Iraq War and Election 2004 to Pacifica. I am exceptionally proud of the work we did.
A detailed description of our work and how it culminated, follows:
02102003 First Newscast with MTK as News Director
First time we ever cut FSRN into separate news pieces, removed the music and parsed the show across the hour. We only ran FSRN as a complete program three times over the next two years.
0210-02282003 The Immokalee Workers Hunger Strike
03012003 move to a single host for the one-hour KPFK Evening News
First hosted by MTK (02282003) and then briefly by Jennifer Hodges and Trevor David and subsequently Monica Lopez, Patrick C. Burke, Aura Bogado, Saman Assefi, Walt Tanner, Teresa Wierszbianska, Sister Charlene Mohammad and others, the one-host-one-hour newscast using FSRN as spliced features parsed across the hour, radically professionalized KPFK’s Evening News “sound”.
03052003 Student Walk Out
Coverage from high schools and universities throughout signal area.
03102003 The addition of the Morning and Mid-Day Reports
At this point, one month into my tenure I had increased News production by 250%, and was preparing to cover the opening of a U.S. Invasion.
0301-04112003 U.N. Security Council as it deliberated Res. 1441
MTK representing Pacifica and KPFK demanded live from the press pit inside the U.N. Security Council chambers in New York, that each available Secretary of the Security Council respond to the bombing of Baghdad.
0318-03202003 Live coast-to-coast newscast hosted (NY/LA) during opening of US attack on Iraq with live reports from New York, Baghdad, Havana and San Francisco MTK with M. Lopez, T. David, P. Burke, J. Hodges, M. LePique, M. White, N. Thompson, volunteers and the Interns (Clark/Al Sarraf).
04082003 The Guardian of Britain singles out KPFK
“If you live in LA, the Bay Area, New York, Washington or Houston, you can, for respite, tune in to one of the Pacifica network radio stations, which for more than 50 years have been broadcasting news from the left. Their war coverage is entitled “Assault on Peace” rather than “Showdown Iraq” and on an average day on my local station, KPFK, you can hear Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky and members of the anti-war movement with a completely different take on the war and items of news not broadcast anywhere else.”
04102003 Pacifica’s National Dialogue for Peace
MTK opened the first hour of this nationwide radio program, co-hosting with Amy Goodman. “Pacifica’s National Dialogue for Peace,” was a three-hour radio broadcast that allowed calls from unscreened listeners to an electronic-audio panel that included Ohio Democrat and Presidential Candidate Dennis Kucinich live from a payphone at Congress, Global Village Activist Medea Benjamin live from Washington D.C., and Kani Xulan, a displaced Turkish Kurd, live from New York.
04242003 Occidental Petroleum and Airscan Sued by Colombian villager
Original investigative reporting by JFR and MLL and MTK on the lawsuit filed by Alberto Mujica against Occidental Petroleum and Airscan Security for the cluster-bombing of Santo Domingo, Colombia which murdered Mujica’s family and neighbors and destroyed their village on December 13, 1998.
0502003 MTK Hosts One Hour Special News Program Dialogue with Listeners
05052003 Audio Magazine Project element
The sound of birds on Mt. Washington used as an ambient newsbreak
05092003 Argentine Election Coverage with live results
05012003 Bush’s “End of the War/Victory” speech
Margaret Presscod and M.T. Karthik step on GWBush as he speaks from the deck of the U.S.S. Lincoln parked off the coast of San Diego. Analysis included timely news and information about what was happening in Iraq in Falluja in the last weeks of April and clearly points out actual lies by GWB in the speech. Khaled Abou El-Fadl, professor of Law at UCLA weighs in on Bush’s racist and historically regressive language in an incisive and brilliant post-speech analysis.
05152003 Vinnell Corporation
Vinnell – a local firm that built Dodger Stadium – has ties to the Saudi Arabian National Guard and the C.I.A., 19 Immigrants found suffocated to death in the back of a trailer truck in Texas. Both of these stories are important and represent the beginning of a split in the newsroom.
0515-06092003 Three Chechan Female Suicide Bombers in three weeks
Our Chechnya coverage began to get deeper and deeper after this. We worked our way up to the election in October with coverage from at least seven news sources, including sources from the region: Interfax, Pravda, The Moscow Times.
05182003 Argentine Runoff Election that elects Kirchner
05302003 Audio Magazine Project
A bright and exciting newscast with music by Sergio Mielnishenko
06032003 “9/11 Column” launched
Column investigating 9/11 runs every Tuesday for the entire summer ending on 9/11/2003. Interviews with Michel Chossodovsky, Don Paul, Mary Schiavo, Naseem Ahmed, Ralph Schoenman and Tony Taylor on the 9/11 Special.
06162003 Dominique deVillepin and Strawon defining Hamas as terrorist, live coverage of “People Over Politics” Rally Downtown with PCB
This cast is indicative of things we have been doing: in-depth international news with specific cultural and intellectual analysis (MTK) and coverage of local protests and rallies (PCB, MLL, volunteers). We became quite good at this actually with reporters in the field at many key events often phoning in live.
06182003 Iranian exiles self-immolations in Paris and GMO crops in California
Our GMO coverage pre-dated the media burst in summer and our Iranian self-immolation stories were like nothing done anywhere in English. We looked directly at the suicides as a political tool for communication.
06272003 Coverage of Protests against George W. Bush and Parvez Musharraf, military dictator of Pakistan and ally to Bush War.
Not only did we cover the several thousand anti-Bush and few dozen pro-Bush demonstrators on this night, but we had a credentialed reporter at the visit and lecture by Pakistani Coup Leader Parvez Musharraf (PCB).
07042003 Special News Programming on “4th of July” with editorial comment by MTK and “socio-political interstices” produced by AAB
This is was the only time I recorded an editorial for the KPFK Evening News. I had, by this time produced dozens of them and would go on to produce hundreds more. Just once, on the Fourth of July during the War Year, I allowed myself a luxury that is abused by most Pacifica Radio Hosts.
07112003 Live interview with State Assembly Member Judy Chu
Her bill sponsored to support multilingual contract language in California.
(with brief Mandarin Chinese-language exchange with MTK in the outcue)
0715-08152003 Liberian struggle, Iraq worsens
We began covering Subsaharan Africa and Liberia arose like a healthy distraction from the real issues in DRC and Nigeria and Sierra Leone so we began doing that as well. Live coverage from Nigerian elections led to live calls to Uganda as well.
07152003 New News Theme introduced, headline bumpers added
0720-07292003 Donovan Jackson beating verdict
live reports from Inglewood and the courthouse by volunteer Jordan Davis
07212003 Audio Magazine Project element
the sound of the Dodgers organ player and stadium announcer calling the final field and plate appearances of “Ricky Henderson” versus the St. Louis Cardinals over the weekend
07252003 Napalm Use in Iraq
Detailed analysis of the admission by U.S. military of the use of napalm or incendiary bombs that are illegal on Iraqis. Mark 77 versus Napalm incendiaries in detail.
0801-11172003 Russian Federation and “breakaway republics”
We wrote and delivered original work on Chechnya which led to deeper coverage of Azerbaijan, Kzrygystan and Georgia as well as to coverage of The Russian Federation with original interviews of: Matt Bevins, Editor-in-Chief of the Moscow Times for 9 years. (DP), Ian Bremmer Director of the Eurasia Division of the World Policy Institute(DP/MTK), Professor Ronald Suny of the University of Chicago (DP), Giorgy Lomsadze of the Caspian Business Daily live from Tibilisi when as many as 20,000 Georgians descended on the governmental center. (MTK)
08062003 Launch of “Politics or Pedagogy” an education column
John Cromshow’s weekly spin at radio by, for and about kindergarten to high school teachers, students and administration
0806-08102003 Camisea Gas Project, Peru
Amazon Watch and Friends of the Earth take on Ex-Im Bank who want to finance a project that would jeopardize rainforest. We do in-depth interviews on the Paracas National Marine Reserve, home to the endangered Humboldt Penguin. Ex-Im backs off. (MTK)
0809-10072003 The California Recall Election
Complete coverage of all legal angles of lawsuits preceding the Recall and full coverage of three debates and the election, including post-election analysis and commentary and coverage from The Biltmore Hotel, Schwarzenegger’s HQ and Sacramento. Live radio and interviews with Peter Camejo, Terry McAuliffe, and press relations for Davis, Bustamante, Huffington and McClintock.
0808-08112003 Guantanamo Detainees
Focus on the Guantanamo detainees including interviews with attorney’s and family members
0812-09152003 Sherman Austin
Coverage ending with a piece from the field at the courthouse on the day Austin surrendered to authorities Interviews of tearful friends and family of Sherman Austin by Alan Minsky.
08082003 One Hour Special Program on the Recall
Volunteer Jordan Davis joined MTK to discuss the Recall with listeners
09032003 90-minute special program Recall Debate
MTK hosts coverage of debate between five major candidates and listener calls
09052003 Audio Magazine Project
Cast with music by Sergio Mielnishenko, new computers in the newsroom
09112003 M.T. Karthik’s 9/11 Special
a one hour program on covert U.S. Military operations and 9/11’s throughout history, including 9/11/2001.
0912-09162003 Josh Connole Arrest
Live breaking newsradio had KPFK collecting sound from ReGen Co-op as the arrest was occurring.
10012003 Launch of “The Mechanics of Voting” Column
10042003 Dreaming Our Future: If the Truth is Told, Griffith Park, Los Angeles
A Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs-sponsored youth conference organized by Fidel Rodriguez. MTK produced interviews and coverage with volunteer Joseph Lee, 16
1007-10082003 Recall Election coverage
one hour Election Recall Special with TZW
10082003 M on the BBC
MTK on California’s new Governor on morning radio in London
10092003 Use of audio from Radio Intifada
Cross-pollination of programming through shared interview resources
10132003 The Crossing
MLL at the U.S. Mexico Border on vigilantes and border crossings
10152003 Straw Poll of Midday News audience
Result: 96 callers in twenty minutes supported the program by saying they favor the Midday News.
1019-10312003 Fall Fund Drive
News raises $25,000, highest ever for a News Department at KPFK.
10202003 Organic Lounge launched (MLL, RM, LLC)
Food news and politics of organics and genetically-modified foods
10252003 One Hour Special Program Roundtable on Activism hosted by MTK
10302003 Political Prisoners column launched (TC)
Dedicated to political prisoners being held here in the U.S.A.
11132003 Audio Magazine Project element
the sound of thunder in Mt. Washington used as an ambient newsbreak
1212-12312003 Audible Palestine project
and thus ended my first year as News Director of KPFK 90.7fm Los Angeles, for which I was rewarded with doubling listeners and a raise.
2004 News and Election Coverage Executive Producer
I was often accused of editorializing. Having studied journalism for years, I denied it with specific details. I countered that editorializing is rampant on the other side, so lies are being taken for fact. I believe I’ve been vindicated in recent years.
The two-paper town is so rare that journalism and the record no longer exist. Colin Powell could spend an hour and a half at the UN telling the world that Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons of mass destruction, that he is capable of delivering them to people and committing mass atrocity. Powell does this for 96 minutes and every paper presents it as fact.
What you got was a non-competitive view that said, “we think Saddam Hussein is this. We think Saddam Hussein is that.” They didn’t do “We observed Powell pitching such and such about Saddam Hussein.” Now how did we at KPFK? We played not one clip of Powell or Jack Straw – their ideas were already in all the papers. We let people hear other voices that favored and opposed war- the UN ambassadors from Pakistan, the Syrian, the Chilean. Others on the Security Council who you could not hear anywhere else. We provided the competitive journalism that allowed a comparison to what you got in every other paper.
“US American” is an example of something linguistic that I generated with much assistance from Patrick Burke. We’d say “US American” for all references to persons, entities or policies of the USA. The term was meant to replace and correct American. American President Bush, American this, American that. Well, Chile is in America, Canada is in America, Mexico is in America. Listeners got that. It’s an antidote for that broadcast idea of The Global North being the most important. It is also important because it contextualizes the USA, which I believe must be isolated. Only after we had done this on KPFK for two years did the stories ridiculing the beauty pageant entrant who used the term emerge. I defend the young woman here for the first time as possibly the first U.S. American to exist, thus placing me second, Patrick C. Burke, third and anyone else who chooses to identify in line beyond this point. As a journalist, I believe you should be extra-national – you should be outside of the state, like Neruda, like Paz. A journalist should be able to say, “I investigate your decision as a nation,” not reproduce the Pentagon line by printing the fax they just sent as news, which sadly happens now in many newsrooms.
We had perhaps as many as half a million listeners during the Election Cycle. On November 23, 2004, three weeks after Election Day, I sent out an e-mail from my private e-mail account, which in any case I knew meant my termination.
In that e-mail I projected the winner of the 2004 U.S. Presidential race to be Democrat John Kerry by virtue of a true victory of the votes in Ohio and thus an electoral college delegate count of 270 to 267. I believe I would have been the only broadcast journalist in the United States to have made such a projection in the election month of November 2004 or before the Electoral College first met in early December – but I wasn’t able to make it on the air. It was and remains too radical in mainstream media circles to suggest that John Kerry won – not just on-air, but even in an e-mail. I stand by my projection. I believe the Bush campaign rigged the election of 2004 and negotiated a settlement with Kerry/McAuliffe and the DNC. There can be no other explanation for the mathematics or my personal experiences that night.
Nationwide exit polls for the 2004 Elections in the United States were conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International on contract with major national press and TV news services. One of the unique things that KPFK radio did on Election Night that was different from other live broadcasts was to release results as confirmed only as they were broadcast by one particular television outlet that was a part of this contract. We chose to rely on C-SPAN as the lead media outlet for our broadcasts in announcing results.
This decision was made because it had been reported that the non-profit cable network was the only television outlet that had taken the extra precaution to create a special professional relationship with the Associated Press to allow them access to no less than 500 AP reporters around the country to confirm numbers as they came in on election night. This relationship was established as a reform after the television debacle of the 2000 Election in which Florida “flipped” from red to blue in the middle of the night. As members of the National Election Pool contracting Edison/Mitofsky, these AP reporters and C-SPAN, would have access to both exit polls and election results.
During KPFK’s election night broadcast we occasionally checked numbers being reported by the other networks and announced discrepancies to our listeners as a means of covering the media covering the election while covering the election itself. If a network announced a result before any other network or before C-SPAN, we let our listeners know which network (or network anchor) it was, what the result was and whether or not C-SPAN had confirmed it. I believe we were the only radio station in the U.S. to take this near-academic approach to covering the media while covering the election.
By this methodology, and by being in Los Angeles, in the western-most time zone, KPFK radio broadcast final results of exit polls and confirmed results as they were announced from east coast to west – although listeners to KPFK in L.A. sometimes received projections and actual results later than those posted on NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX, the results were hard, linear, continuous and directly linked to exit polling and to confirmed results as they came in. We told our listeners that we considered matters too close to call. We didn’t rush to judgement.
Edison/Mitofsky conducted exit polls in each state and a nationwide exit poll and, on the afternoon of Election Day, disclosed confidential poll data to the general public showing John Kerry ahead of George Bush in several key battleground states. At 8:27pmPST [11:30pmEST], despite widespread reports of voter disenfranchisement and massive problems with the mechanics of voting, it seemed clear in our broadcast booth that Kerry was winning the race for the presidency by a very slim margin of the electoral college delegate count based on exit poll results and confirmed numbers in states that were not too close to call. Florida polls had just closed for Bush. It had been out of our calculation for projecting a Kerry win, which at any rate we did not broadcast at that time.
It was exactly then that the numbers began to change; between the hours of 8:40 and 10:30 on the west coast. We ended our election night coverage at 10:30, with the position of “Too Close to Call,” but witnessed and reported a radical shift in numbers from 8:40 until the end of our broadcast. If, as has been alleged, there was e-vote cheating going on, I believe this is when it happened.
It is important to note that we were using one television source and not shifting our results in instances when a network announced their confirmed result. We stayed with C-SPAN throughout and as a result I am able to state unequivocally and with conviction that there was a radical change in numbers from confirmed sources with access to both exit polls and results in a very short amount of time at a specific hour on Election Night.
Immediately after the close of polls, at 10pm Eastern, Edwin/Mitofsky’s national exit poll showed Kerry had won the popular vote by a margin of 3%. Less than fifteen hours later, on the morning of November 3, the official vote counts showed Bush defeating Kerry by 2.5% in the popular vote.
This discrepancy between exit polls and the official election results – a five and a half point swing, astronomical in historical terms – has never been statistically resolved. Several methods have been used to estimate the probability that the national exit poll results would be as different as they were from the national popular vote by random chance. These estimates range from 1 in 16.5 million to 1 in 1,240. No matter how it is calculated, the discrepancy cannot be attributed to chance.
In the absence of raw data, analyses were accomplished using “screen captures” of data published to the Internet on election night. One such analysis of unadjusted exit poll data, by Dr. Ron Baiman, a professor of statistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that statistically significant discrepancies of exit poll results from reported election outcomes were not randomly distributed but rather concentrated in five states, four of which were battleground states, long known to have been key to victory by electoral college vote.
This geographically biased error in exit polls against actual results seems too politically sensitive to be coincidence and indeed, Baiman concluded that the probability that these discrepancies would simultaneously occur in only the most critical states of Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania (rather than in any other randomly selected group of three states), is less than 1 in 330,000, an analysis that agreed with independent calculation by Dr. Steven Freeman, visiting faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, who calculated that the probability that random chance accounted for simultaneous exit poll discrepancies in the three battleground states was well outside of the realm of statistical plausibility.
On January 19, 2005, Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International released a 77-page report entitled “Evaluation of Edison/Mitofsky Election System 2004,” acknowledging widespread discrepancies between their exit polls and official counts, admitting the differences were far greater than can be explained by sampling error, but asserting the disparity was “most likely due to Kerry voters participating in the exit polls at a higher rate than Bush voters.” The company did not, however, conduct any statistical tests to prove this likelihood of “reluctant Bush voters.” On March 31, a non-profit group called US Count Votes did just that, publishing: An Analysis of the 2004 Presidential Election Exit Poll Discrepancies as a part of its National Election Data Archive Project, in which the group addresses what it identifies as the only three possible explanations for the discrepancies: random sampling error, error in the exit polls, or error in the actual results.
Edwin/Mitofsky itself declared in admitting the immense discrepancies, that they could not be due to chance or random sampling error, with which the authors of the US Count Votes agree. But Edwin/Mitofsky takes the view that their own exit polls were incorrect and the official actual results are correct, while US Count Votes states that the consortium does not come any where near substantiating that position in its report noting that actually “the data that Edison/Mitofsky did offer in their report shows how implausible this theory is.”
The US Count Votes Analysis claims convincingly that Edison/Mitofsky “did not even consider” the hypothesis that the actual results could have been wrong, and “thus made no effort to contradict” this hypothesis, stating further that “some of Edison/Mitofsky’s exit poll data may be construed as affirmative evidence for inaccurate election results,” and concluding, “that the hypothesis that the voters’ intent was not accurately recorded or counted cannot be ruled out and needs further investigation.”
Many statisticians including Baiman and Freeman are signatories to the US Count Votes analysis and a summative report can be downloaded free from:
The report uses the data released by Edwin/Mitofsky to debunk its own “reluctant Bush responders” explanation and the results of the analysis are both very clear and very disturbing. A comparison of votes cast in the Presidential race with votes on the same ballots in other races or for or against various propositions and referenda around the country, reveals even greater unexplainable biases toward Bush in the official vote count as compared to the exit polls.
My experience as a journalist covering Election 2004 led me to these conjectures. My methodology covering the results on-air live from the west coast on election night and in the three weeks that followed confirmed for me a desperate need for someone in media to announce that they did not believe George W. Bush won the Election and, because of the radical transformation of the U.S. American elections process by the landmark Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore (2000), to announce it loudly before the Electoral College met in early December.
Frustrated by what I saw as a second contravention of democracy during a Presidential election, I hoped to induce investigation of the results by honestly reporting what was strongly suggested by conjecture. The media and John Kerry capitulated. We stayed in context.
That’s why I sent an e-mail from my position as Elections Coordinator for Pacifica Radio projecting John Kerry the President of the United States.
Immediately after sending that e-mail for which I was relieved of duty, I sent another e-mail, this time as a concerned voter, to my Senator:
U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer:
Let me begin by saying I voted for you. And that you may now be the only person that we on the progressive left can approach, because you are in many ways a part of power and the ruling class in the United States and you are a well-respected member of one of the major parties.
We beseech you to ignore Republicans, Democrats and so-called Progressives who have conceded this election as accomplished fairly and to independently look into the matter.
Please, Senator Boxer, take up the call for Investigation of the Election of 2004. Do it now; before the Electoral College votes and before the Inauguration of the President.
At this moment – as in 2000 – colleagues of yours in the House are prepared to contest and investigate the election for fraud. One Senator willing to ask is all they need to achieve such a request. Only one single Senator who is politically safe, who has the support of a Progressive community, and who has the courage of conviction to stand up and say simply that:
decisions regarding how we vote and for whom are being made too quickly, and as a result carelessly, and perhaps erroneously; that our democratic processes are being rushed and hurried by the Republicans led by Karl Rove [called the “architect” of the re-election by Bush] and; that democracy in the U.S.A. is suffering terribly, if not critically.
As a woman and a progressive Democrat, you have won re-election easily. People here support you for your ideas and values. You are in a safe state among people who share your beliefs.
After hearing four weeks of testimony from key states [especially Ohio] and after reading horrifying stories from around the country as to what happened on Tuesday, November 2, I and many of your other constituents believe that the results of the 2004 election are significantly riddled with errors, many of which circumstantially point to the STRONG possibility of FRAUD and vote fixing.
Senator Boxer, changing the outcome of the election is NOT our interest in asking this of you. The desperate and fundamental need for a fair elections process and real democracy DEMANDS a slower, more measured, piece-by-piece investigation – conducted by Congress – of the Election of 2004 and in particular of the votes cast via electronic voting machines.
It is now clear that George W. Bush’s falsely named Help America Vote Act written to address the many issues that resulted from the 2000 election, served only to rush US counties and states into purchasing machines that have become black holes for American votes.
California’s Secretary of State Kevin Shelley was admired by people across the State for standing up to the manufacturers who were clearly complicit in rushing these devices past proper standards and though now he is being attacked within the system by the powers that be, it is clear he has TREMENDOUS public respect for his forward-looking actions on e-voting over the past year and a half. By setting an aggressive calendar for hearings and for public and private input, Secretary of State Shelley was able to decertify machines and to put out a detailed list of 23 conditions for the use of other machines to make them safer and more accurate for Californians. He said when doing this that cheating wasn’t going to happen on his watch. He then testified before the Election Assistance Commission and at both the Democratic and Republican Conventions, that other states should earnestly learn from California’s experience and institutionalize protections … but it was too little, too late.
Other states and indeed Bush’s White House and the GOP-controlled Congress, diminished the significance of Secretary of State Shelley’s very hard work. Senator Boxer, you will be greeted by a flood of support from the grassroots level if you take this on. You could revolutionize the argument.
As our Senator won’t you chastise them for what they did to our Secretary of State? Won’t you stop their stampeding toward re-election for long enough to examine the facts and the data? Won’t you please tell the rest of the country that Californians were very relieved to have had a Secretary of State who cared enough to demand protections against problems suffered in other parts of the country?
Please, Senator Boxer, look deep into the future of this country, summon the courage and do what you do so well. Stand with your colleagues in the House who believe a Congressional Investigation into the Election of 2004 is an absolute necessity before the U.S.A. can pass one more law or engage in one more battle. Only one Senator is required … it would make us all proud if you were first.
and to her credit, Senator Boxer made history, contesting the election and voting alone for the Election of 2004 to be investigated for fraud, a point since alleged by Representative Robert F Kennedy, Jr and several other congressional members.
2004, barrier, central, City, Conventiion, Drooker, Eric, great, Karthik, lawn, m.t., manhattan, mtk, mural, National, new, NYC, painting, Palestine, park, Republican, rnc, separation, trip, wall, york
I found this interview I did with Eric Drooker on the Great Lawn in Central Park. Before I post it on the date it took place, I’m putting it here – because I think more people will hear it that way. Hope so.
I’ve added it to the Interviews tab as well.
MTK: I am starting with the Office of Public Advocate itself which I think is a truly unique political position. Why are you interested in the position of public advocate, coming from where you’re coming. Why is it attractive to you?
SCOTT STRINGER: I happen to agree with you. There is no other office that I can see like it in the United States. It’s an innovative position. It’s a creative position. It’s a new position. And in light of the fact that the government of New York is going to go through a wholesale change – a new mayor, a new comptroller, a new public advocate, 37 new city council members, four out of five borough presidents, the whole city government will be brand new. There’s going to be a tremendous generational change, a more diverse city council. I think the public advocate can play a meaningful role in the government of New York. That’s why I decided to run.
MTK: What do you think of the job Mark Green has done – specifically – since he was the first elected public advocate? What kind of public advocate would you be by comparison?
SS: I think Mark’s done a good job. I mean when you’re the first it’s the most difficult position to go in – plus he did not have a cooperative mayor. But he carved out a niche on consumer issues, on police brutality issues. I think he was a good watchdog and I think he molded the office into something very important.
When Rudy Giuliani tried to convene the Charter Revision Commission to do away with the position, the public reacted. In fact, they reacted to the job Mark had done, because the editorials and a lot of folks said, ‘we shouldn’t have a public advocate.’ So I’d give him, you know – I think he’s done a very good job in the position. The question is, though, “Where do you take it?” and that’s the challenge and that’s going to take some work and some creativity. I think a lot of us who are running would say that Mark has done a good job but we want to now elevate it.
I would like to see some of the Charter mandated powers. With those charter mandated powers, I would like to see us work on those issue and use them – I think that the role of Mark’s appointment – the public advocate’s appointment – to the City Planning Commission can be a very exciting one, in terms of being involved in urban planning and land usages and building communities, preserving neighborhoods, protecting our diversity. You can do that, I mean, having an appointment to the City Planning Commission allows you to have a seat at the table on some major development issues – whether it’s rational development or – real planning issues. So I would like to see the public advocate’s office have a land use unit, have a way to deal with those kind of– those communities throughout the city.
You know, you sit on the employee pension system, you decide where investments go and who invests. And that’s powerful. You’re there with the mayor and comptroller and labor unions who have a vote and borough presidents. I mean you can really shape economic policy and that puts you at that table. How are we going to deal with pension investments almost like part of a comptroller’s office to a certain extent.
You are also a legislator in the city council. You vote when there’s ties, but you can debate, you can legislate. You can serve ex-officio. You are to serve ex-officio on city council committees. What better place for a legislator who in 8 years has cast 18, 16,000 votes in Albany to come down in a new council and be able to legislate while you have a vote on the city planning commission, while you sit on the pension fund and while you serve as the chief ombudsperson for the entire city? I mean, the ombudsman’s position has been around for a long time, Paul O’Dwyer advocated it way before Mark Green, part of the city council president’s office.
But what I have tried to do in my office – I do tremendous constituent service – where we’ve been successful is analyzing where those complaints are coming from and then look at it from a larger issue. So when MCI was doing those 10-10 false – you know that faulty advertising with the movie stars telling you that if you call the 10-10 numbers you’re going to save money. We got complaints in our office from our constituents and then we did our own survey and found out that wait a minute, those ads aren’t telling the truth. They’re wrong. MCI got fined a 100,000 dollars, federally, based on our study – when it was on Dateline and that’s energy and excitement because you deal with your constituent unit in the public advocate’s office.
But then if you’re smart you can monitor for major issues. You can monitor city agencies. You can track them through constituent complaints. You can look at studies. I used to chair the task force on people with disabilities in Albany. We got complaints about federal, state, city buildings having barriers to access for our constituents. We did a report on it – found a hundred barriers to access in 14 government buildings. Let’s legislate, let’s call in the mayor to do something about it. That’s what we did as an Assembly member. But as the Ombudsman you can do it with a whole staff, with energetic people who can scour the borough, monitoring things, getting out into the street, and as ombudsman you can be out in the neighborhood.
MTK: I think that’s what separates the people who want to eliminate the position from those who want to keep it – a real ombudsman – Paul O’Dwyer’s vision of the position.
SS: The role of the ombudsman has been sort of evolving. And the way I look at it is you know, you get constituent complaints and you send people out into the streets. We’re going to figure out a way to pay for a Winnebago and we’re going to get people out in the boroughs and around the city, learning about what’s going on and then use our investigative unit, our investigative powers to check things out. I have just used that as a model as a member of the Assembly for many years and I think it works. So I’d like to expand the ombudsman’s office. When you put all that together – all these different roles, it’s a special office. I’m an Assemblyman. I vote on the budget and I legislate and I do my constituent service. That’s what I do. As public advocate, you can do it all. You can do things.
And then you have to use other experiences. You are a city-wide elected official in a diverse city, a changing city. So who you work with and how you build coalitions – I mean in our campaign we are very proud of the fact that we are building a multi-racial, intergenerational campaign. That’s good politics, but then that’s going to be good government. So to try to build a network to rally around issues could be very exciting.
MTK: Many issues that will come under your purvey have demographic or even racial overtones – housing, education, police, welfare issues to some degree. And I think also the new census is going to show a very diverse New York. Now, you’re background strikes me as from this area. Can you tell me about your relationship with the rest of the city?
SS: Well, I didn’t grow up on the Upper West Side, I grew up in Washington Heights. Went to CUNY, went to public schools. Got interested in politics when a relative of mine ran for Congress, Bella Abzug, back in the 70’s, my mother followed as a member of the City Council. So I was one of these kids –
MTK: What relation was Bella Abzug to you?
SS: She was my mother’s cousin. So Bella ran the district, we got involved and learned a lot and so I always had an interest. I moved to the west side and got involved with Congressman Jerry Nadler, worked for him, got elected a District Leader. When he went to Congress, I ran successfully for the Assembly and have been there ever since – 1992. So my relationship with the rest of the city is … not just representing this community but I’ve had life experience where we’ve interacted with different people from all different backgrounds. I’ve tried to work on diversity issues because I have a genuine interest in them all my life – even before I was in the Assembly. I worked to preserve the Mitchell-Loma Housing Program, got involved in a lot of tenant organizing before the Assembly.
MTK: Do you speak any other languages?
SS: No. I can barely speak English (laughs). No, I don’t. But I have worked in communities where different languages are spoken and with people from different backgrounds. And in the Assembly I have worked on issues that impact poor people or communities of color. I was the only Democrat in the Assembly to take the most “no” votes in the Pataki budgets in the mid-90’s. I stood up alone. I stood up alone on the commuter tax – that we shouldn’t eliminate the commuter tax. I was the only Democrat to vote against the rent-regulation compromise – the only Democrat. I am very independent.
MTK: That’s huge.
SS: Yeah. I was the only person to do it. It was very huge in a legislature that’s dominated by the speaker. I have taken him on and the Assembly. I mean, you don’t vote no on compromise budgets. You don’t vote no when everybody else is going along and I have chosen to do that. That was the role.
I was one of the first Jewish, if not the first Jewish legislator, to get arrested at One Police Plaza and went to jail because I thought it was the right thing to do and then people followed. And I have marched and protested and organized because I believe in the diversity of the city, I really do. When the KKK came to New York, it was my office and my office alone that worked with the clergy, religious groups of all different persuasions and we had the biggest peacetime rally at (TK site name and RES: event), I don’t know if you remember it.
MTK: I do.
SS: That was my rally. We did it. And that’s the kind of stuff I want to do as public advocate with a larger staff and a bigger budget. I think those kinds of things will enhance things in the city for people. People loved that debate.
The best thing was The New York Times did a story on the rally – didn’t mention me – but talked about how parents brought their children to see the Klan. To me – you know usually politicians are like, “where do they mention me?” – it’s an article that I’ve wanted to frame because it was such a – the spirit of it, you know – to have parents bring their kids …
So these are some of the issues I’ve worked on. And in Albany I have been effective. I’ve worked on police brutality legislation in Albany with the Black and Puerto Rican caucus. I’ve been effective dealing with the Republicans in the Senate. You know, to be independent, you can be liberal, you can be progressive, but if you’re not effective, you know … then how are you going to deal with a diverse city council? I have passed a lot of laws – seven years to pass the New York stalking law, four years to pass the auto-protection bill that allowed women to get – especially poor women – to get police officers to serve auto-protection on their abusers. That was a bill that got vetoed by Governor Pataki that I got signed into law. (TK – RES: what is this all about?)
MTK: You mentioned the relationship between Mark Green and the Mayor and have said you’d like to evolve the position. Well, evolving the position requires a mayor who is warm to that. Which of the candidates for Mayor do you get along with best and do you think there is a specific problem between the mayor and the public advocate that could be ameliorated some other way, from your experience.
SS: If you’re going to run for public advocate you’re going to have to be prepared to knock heads with the mayor. There’s an inevitable conflict. You monitor their city agencies. You speak out when you think there’s an injustice. You’re going to issue critical reports. You’re going to organize coalitions. You are going to be out in the streets where the mayor is going to be in city hall. Sure, there is going to be a conflict. The creativity of the individual is what’s going to come into play here. Can you maintain your independence? Can you do the coalition building and organizing on issues that sometimes may not be popular? But at the same time both in the city council and in negotiations with the mayor, can you accomplish things? Can you see your ideas and your criticisms come to a point of being successful in the end. That’s what makes this office so interesting. On the one hand, there’s that natural antagonism, on the other hand, you’re a working council member, trying to introduce legislation, you want to get bills passed. You’re the ombudsman. You need cooperation with city agencies. It’s better than not having it. It’s a challenging job to do that.
I think what I bring to the table is that ability. I think I have proven it in Albany in a place where you have live Republicans running around that control things, a Governor in Pataki, and the Senator, Joe Bruno. I’ve been able to do both. I’ve been one of the more independent Assembly members but I’ve been effective. I took committees like the task force for people with disabilities that was just given to me because I didn’t have enough seniority to get a lu-lu, and we made it into something. Started holding hearings, we issued reports and we made the mayor come out and say, “Hey you know …” made his office say, “You know, you’re right.” We’ve protected people with disabilities and we’ve made that task force something. I’m proud of the fact that I was appointed chair of the Oversight, Analysis and Investigation committee of the Assembly, in part because people recognized what …
MTK: and the candidates for mayor?
SS: I like them all. I haven’t taken a position. I want to hear what they have to say.
MTK: You are not an attorney.
MTK: Yet much of the power of the Office of Public Advocate is reliant on legal procedure, subpoenas, lawsuits. You’ve even said it will require creativity. Don’t you think it will require creative legal work to empower the position? And if you are not an attorney, isn’t that a problem?
SS: Part of government is having people of different experiences in government. I think there is certainly a role for attorneys in politics. We certainly have a lot of attorneys. I’ve been an Assembly member for over eight years. I haven’t been an Attorney but I’ve introduced and passed a whole lot of pieces of legislation. I’ve been effective in terms of dealing with the rules of Albany and understanding the legal ramifications of legislation and probably have – certainly the council members who are running for public advocate and I obviously have the most legislative experience. I certainly would match my legislative record with the attorneys. I know where to find a good lawyer if we have to file a lawsuit because that person will be called the Counsel to the Public Advocate. We’ll have a Deputy Public Advocate and when I say we have to bring a lawsuit, we’ll bring a lawsuit. When I say … But I can read my own bills. I can introduce my own legislation. I can write my own legislation. And I’ve been doing it effectively for eight years.
Maybe one of the things we have to encourage is – and I think this is going to play out in the city council – certainly having a legal background is good, but we need teachers, we need union leaders in the council, we need younger people in the council, maybe we need people who work in day care in the council, we need parents in the council, maybe we even need a college student or so to come into this new government. I think it’s not just ethnic diversity, but it’s life experience diversity. I’ll know where to find a good lawyer.
MTK: It’s an interesting point, I mean, a 22 year old kid from the Bronx has just been elected.
SS: OK, yeah, I wouldn’t want to have a bunch of 22 year olds, but you know what? We have to create this balance so that we hear a young person’s agenda in the city. Because after all we do this for younger people. We certainly need to have some experienced people. But I think we have to recognize that the government is going to change. We need to elect a new generation of candidates. I am hoping that will inspire a new generation of ideas. We cannot continue to go the way we go. I think I offer that. We need some energy here. We need some people who do things differently. That’s why I decided to spend a year out of my life doing this thing?
MTK: In reading some background on you, I understand you were involved in saving the New York Historical Society in 1993. Did you meet Betsy Gotbaum then?
SS: Betsy and I are good friends. I played a major role in my first year in Albany in helping to rescue the Historical Society before Betsy was there. I was able to obtain 6 million dollars in State funding to get the Historical Society on its feet and I was very proud of that.
MTK: Is it odd though to be running against her?
SS: I think it’s funny. (laughing) Betsy has done a good job at the Historical Society. But I’m going to ask her though that she’s got to mention my small role in getting the ball rolling but we’re good friends and I like her very much.
MTK: Do you have specific issues in mind for the Office of Public Advocate?
SS: I want to build affordable housing. I wrote a housing plan based on how we built Mitchell-Loma housing after World War II during the 1950’s. We’ve got to build housing for middle income and working poor. I want to concentrate on developing a real plan. Not a Giuliani-600-million-dollar-out-the-door plan, “as I’m leaving we should build affordable housing.” Every mayoral candidate has got to come up with that plan. I think I have done a lot of research on what I think is a direction we should go, from a state point of view. I care very much about this economy and I am fascinated and interested in how we can expand e-commerce and deal with the digital divide and make sure that our kids can be competitive. I don’t think the answer is to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at large corporations, convincing them to stay here, when all they want is affordable housing and a trained workforce. This is no longer when I went to school and we had to compete with the kids in New York City. Now it’s, ‘We’ve got to compete globally.’ We’ve got to recognize that in this town real fast. I want to prod people who do have the power to make those changes. I think we do our kids a disservice. My office has worked on these issues. I serve on the education committee and the higher ed committee. We try to hold them to higher standards then we don’t give them the tools in the classroom to succeed. Over the summer we did a study after getting constituent complaints about the fact that 8th graders would be mandated to take 8th grade exams on how to use a microscope and a weight scale. So we surveyed half the school districts around the city to find out how many microscopes and weight scales were there. Well I don’t have to tell you the end of that story. We setup our kids for failure. So those kids would fail that exam and have to do summer school. This is after the state gave the highest educational dollars into the school system. I want to organize on the city level to deal with the issue of the inequity in school aid for our kids, for our kids in New York City. We just held a meeting, a kickoff meeting on the west side last week. But we gotta tell Pataki and the Republicans and those Democrats who won’t take a stand in upstate and suburban New York – we gotta make them understand that failing to give our kids proper education aid has meant dilapidated school buildings, poor school books, lack of computers. This is the struggle and I’m going to bring my Albany experience to the job of public advocate, because I’m going to know how to organize when these folks, colleagues, from upstate and suburban New York talk about how unreasonable we’re being. It’s not just about adjusting the school aid formula, it’s about doing needs assessment to make sure that the kids in poorer districts get more money and if you want to call it reparations that’s fine with me ‘cause that’s what we’re owed for our kids.
MTK: The CCRB and COPIC are both the responsibilities of the Public Advocate. Have you thought about how you might change either of these responsibilities, technologize them, (laughter) perhaps?
SS: I think that especially from a technological point of view there’s a lot– that the Internet and the entrepreneurial spirit of New York is tied into computerization and new technology that can deliver services. I’ve read some of Mark Green’s work in that area. I would like to expand on it.
We just convened under my sponsorship an Internet roundtable of Internet companies in New York City to try to begin at least from my thinking that kind of thinking. I hope to allow some specific proposals during the campaign.
MTK: How do you think the Office of the Public Advocate can be effective or can intercede into the negotiation space with regard to complaints of police brutality?
SS: I think Mark Green has done a wonderful job of documenting those complaints and suing the mayor and I think that he showed how effective the public advocate can be in relation to the CCRB and police brutality. The role that I think I can play – and I think we have to do this in terms of connecting the police to the community is one to deal with the fact that …. we need real recruitment in the NYPD. Not just Safir saying, “Oh yeah, let’s get the CUNY kids to do it.” We gotta make a case to people – not just to attract teachers, because we’re going to need 54,000 new teachers – but we’ve gotta go to the campuses in a meaningful way in a serious way to convince people who want to work in public service that this police department is worth being involved with. People did it backwards, once the s** hit the fan – please don’t put that in when you do this article –
MTK: Don’t worry.
SS: What we said was, OK go to CUNY and go get minority kids to be the cops, Go .. Go, go. What would you sell to them? What would be the benefit of that? Do they believe that they could have a-
MTK: Worse, the PBA’s running ads of cops shot dead in the streets while only getting paid $30,000 a year.
SS: Right. As if suddenly … African-American, Latino kids … that would appeal to them.
This has to happen internally. There has to be a commitment to open up the process. There has to be a commitment so that people who want to go back to their communities and protect those communities – which is a very worthwhile profession, and I think there’s a lot of interest to do it – that they can have career advancement; that there isn’t this tension with the police department. I’m going to work as public advocate to make sure that we do that kind of recruitment – not just on the campuses but in communities – and force the NYPD and the new mayor to make sure that there are in fact career opportunities and understand that the police is not the enemy of the people. I’m tired of hearing parents say to me, “I don’t worry about the criminal anymore, I worry about the cop.” If we’re going to do improvements, we’ve got to tone that down and that comes from the police department and then the mayor. And I hope to play that role.
MTK: And what about in specific instances of brutality. I think many people feel that the police are protected very much by the mayor. If you look at the instance of the Diallo shooting all four police officers were cleared of wrong-doing, found not-guilty on charges even of reckless endangerment.
SS: I support the following: I support – and a lot of this has to come from Albany but we’ve got to organize for this eventuality – police officers should live in New York, new police officers should definitely live in New York; if you’re going to shoot someone 41 times, you shouldn’t have 48 hours to get your story together – I don’t know of another jurisdiction where – you and I would not be accorded that benefit should that happen. I think when a gun is fired, he should be drug tested, and you should be drug and alcohol tested immediately. It’s like DWI. Cops pull you over, you may not have been drinking, but you should do a check. And I think we have to hold those officers to a higher standard. I also think that part of the failure of that TK, one city hall and the police department driving these kids – these inexperienced police officers – to make the arrest, make the arrest, by any means, shake people down, you know, by any cost. We need to have a supervisory effort here and restructure the department. You cannot sned young people out in plain clothes, give them a mandate that’s impossible to fill, without understanding the ramifications of it. I think New Yorkers understand, what every African-American and Latino parent understands that their children are in danger when they walk the streets in some quarters. Now having said that, we have wonderful police officers and one of the things that struck me during when I was arrested and things like that and talking to other cops: they were horrified by that. A lot of police officers don’t want to work under these conditions and I think those police officers should be elevated and we should search them out … they can be mentors – a lot of good cops, let’s not denigrate a whole department, you know there are bad politicians, there are bad teachers, every one of us – you know, there are bad journalists … believe it or not … no, you know-
MTK: Of that I’m a firm believer, are you kidding me? Look at the year we’re having … look at last year.
SS: So there’s a lot that we can do to work on these issues and I hope to be part of it – I have been part of it, both in Albany and on the streets of New York.
MTK: Do you think there is institutional racism in the police department or any other citywide agency?
SS: I think sure there have been a lot of instances where people’s racism comes out. I wouldn’t say it’s true in all instances. I wouldn’t want to label a whole city like that. I think there’s a lot of good people, too, who believe as I believe that we are a diverse city and that’s what attracts us to stay here and work here. The job of any elected official from the mayor to the public advocate is to look at that from a positive point of view and then root out racism and teach our kids that we do live in a diverse city – there’s a lot of things we should do on these issues. Part of the excitement of my campaign is we’re building a multiracial, intergenerational campaign. We’re young people, old people, african-american, latino, asian-american, gay, straight, and trans-gendered. It’s good politics, but I really believe this: imagine governing having gotten elected that way?
MTK: Especially now.
SS: It’s a great opportunity. And I’ll tell you this I’m learning – I tell you I’ve lived here all my life, grew up in Washington Heights, grew up in a multiracial community. This city is great. You’ve got neighborhoods upon neighborhoods, 5 blocks later you’re in another neighborhood. People live together and that’s the best part of this town. That’s why we live here and not in the suburbs.
MTK: Well … I guess I was thinking how as public advocate, how more aggressive you could be since as you pointed out you have this range of topics now available to you in a rather local context, as opposed to having to deal with other assembly people to make decisions or implement change. You said that you have the idea of evolving the position of Public Advocate. But I think a lot of the 60% or two thirds of the community that will show up in the census as non-white are going to want to know how it’s going to change. I want to know how progressive are you? Would you, for example suggest changes to the Charter with regard to empowering the position of public advocate?
SS: I mean I would argue that to do the job right, to have direct subpeona power – instead of just requesting through the city council for subpoenas – to have your own subpoena power would certainly enhance the office and would do a lot in terms of investigative powers.
MTK: Would you try to institutionalize that?
SS: Well, I mean … is it going to happen? No.
MTK: Well, why not, I mean, TK seats up on the city council maybe everyone’s going to be incredibly radically minded about how they want to change the office.
SS: I don’t think the new mayor’s going to – one of them said it’s not happening to me already. But to start with, I’m convinced that with the powers that exist right now, I can have a profound effect on the debate over the various issues that are going to face New York over the next four years. I would work within what the Charter mandated functions today. Obviously as we build coalitions and we get a sense of what the council’s like, probably, hopefully if people think that– going in if I can create a sense that this office is important, rather than just going in and saying in order to be effective guys I’m need this, this, this and this to happen, especially with a mayor and editorial boards that would argue-
SS: It’s easy to say that you can do these things but one thing I have learned in Albany is that certain change comes slowly and you have to be political in how you get to where you want to be and where you want to end up as part of this negotiation as part of this compromise. As long as you don’t sacrifice your principal belief system. And I do not believe I have done that in my years in Albany. Last year Pataki vetoed a very important bill that would allow early release of women prisoners to work-release programs, not to be freed because we ended parole but we left these hundred women –
MTK: to A.T.I. [alternatives to incarceration]
SS: Right. It was my bill. Very controversial bill. Probably come up in the campaign. And Pataki vetoed it because he wanted the D.A.’s to have input even though the corrections commissioners could call the DA. But it meant that Pataki – even though it passed the democratic assembly and the republican senate. I had the bill. Done. Not bad. Pataki vetoed it and he wanted to amend it and I said, “No, let it go, we’ll do it this year.” Sometimes you’ve just gotta say, “OK, you lose the bill” but sometimes you say, “Ok this is the best I can get.” That’s being a good legislator.
Sometimes you hit the streets, as we did when the Klan came here or when the police brutality issues came up. I recognized that it was important for someone who looked like me to be out there because we had to show that it was not just the minority community that was concerned but we had to show that the white community was concerned and some people had to step out there.
Sometimes you have to do that, but then you’ve also got to go to Albany, and you’ve got to pass the 48 hour rule and you have to keep fighting for the ban bill on residency. This role here is not just being
an advocate out on the streets or doing a Sunday press conference – which I’m good at also – it’s multifaceted.
Then you use the power. You want to talk about how we build communities, especially in minority neighborhoods – city planning commission. What kind of infrastructure planning do we have in the Harlem community when all the development after 96th street, we don’t have enough sewage treatment and toilet hookups and things like that so residents in Harlem will want to develop – who have their own community plans are being told, “but you can’t do it because the treatment facilities can’t handle it.” Or parts of East New York that cry out for economic development attention. And what about subsidies for those communities and community based organizations. That’s the hidden secret of the public advocate’s office to me.
SS: You roll up your sleeves and you get involved in zoning and you become an expert on how things are built in this town and you work with the unions and the construction trades and you talk about how we collectively build affordable housing. Now that in addition to police brutality and other issues will impact the two-thirds, the diverse parts of this city that cries out for some of those services and that piece of the pie. And I think I understand that – and it’s not the issues that are going to get you on New York 1 in the morning …. it’s not the issues that you are going to come saying I want to do a profile on you for … but at the end of four years if that’s what builds up neighborhoods and toned down the violence and toned down the tension. And then we got to deal with other issues, you know it’s not just job creation for communities. It’s not just opening up the store anymore and saying I’m going to give the poor community jobs. It’s also about ownership and how are we going to give people ownership of this town? The best way you do that is by giving ownership of small businesses and what are the programs of this new e-commerce, new technology that allows people of color to have the same advantages as other folks who have been here, you know, people who have had those advantages in other ethnic groups. Let’s do it all.
And that’s the hidden power of the public advocate’s office. How to use those powers for leverage, to leverage that stuff. That’s reasonable. That’s what I’m going to concentrate on. We’re going to have a unit on land use. We’re going to talk about economic development and job use. Some people want to sue a lot. And I’ll have lawyers to sue, but I also want to build real programs that can last way beyond you know my term as public advocate.
MTK: [philosophical question, open ended]
SS: I think this job is exciting, innovative, creative. I’m more motivated about running because of the whole change in city government. I believe that we need a generational change here. Of the good candidates who are running for public advocate – I respect each and every one of them and I think each one will do a good job. I just bring something different for this time right now which is real change and something new. But it’s a stepping stone like anything. I may decide to get reelected. I really want to do this job. But I enjoy what I do now. I like to serve. I think it’s exciting to have a larger constituency, to do more. Not having a speaker. To go into city council even though your presiding with no power. You can look in issues not just micro but macro issues.
Mark handles 30,000 complaints a year … try to do more of that. I want to ask: Why is everyone complaining about HPD? Why are we seeing trends in this agency? Then we’ll go to town. That’s what’s exciting about this job. If you do a good job well, …
MTK: Real change could happen.
[but seven months later, two planes flew into the World Trade Centers, contravening democracy at the most basic level]
An Interview with Norman Siegel, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union Sunday, February 11, 2001. At an “Open House” for an office on 72nd street on the upper west side of Manhattan run by an organization called, Friends of Norman Siegel, where there are documents that read, in part, “Norman Siegel for Public Advocate 2001” and a petition for the same at the door.
NORMAN SIEGEL: … it’s exciting. I’ve never done this before. You read about people running for office. You see films about it … and the balloons, and the people, and here it is. I’m in the middle of it. So often I think, “How did I get here?” But I’m excited.
MTK: But this shouldn’t seem foreign to you insomuch as you deal with politicians all the time.
NS: I deal with politicians all the time but the implication here is now I’m becoming one and that kind of concerns me on one level because I’ve always been critical of politicians myself. The main thing is politicians generally don’t answer questions. They’re disingenuous. They’re delusional at times, and I just have to make sure that I remember who I am; what my roots are, what my principles are, and try to answer the questions even when they are difficult ones. Generally speaking I’ve done that all my life as an advocate and in fact I think I’ve been the private advocate and now I want to be the public advocate.
MTK: But couldn’t you be losing power in a way (given that the position is weak)? If not, do you think of yourself as a progressive candidate, and if so, how do you think you will evolve the office if elected Public Advocate?
NS: Well the first thing .. I don’t think I’m, quote, “losing any power.” I mean, I think that I had these yearnings to take what I did at the Civil Liberties Union in Legal Services for the last 23 years in New York and apply it in a larger setting. Perhaps a less supportive ideological setting and test to see whether or not what I’ve been successful at with the Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services can be applied in a larger setting. What that means is I can now take on issues like education, immigrant rights, health issues, housing issues. The number of issues is going to expand substantially. I mean at the Civil Liberties Union we always had to deal with constitutional rights and, “Is it a test case.” Here, any issue is up for grabs. Which is the transition to the second part. I think Mark [Green, current and first elected public advocate] did a relatively good job. I think I would like to continue what he did but expand it. I’ve never been an “in the box” personality. And I don’t think I’ll be an “in the box” personality here–I’ll stretch it. I’m an activist. I am a progressive. I better be able to continue my activism and my progressive views. I’m assuming that that will happen. If it turns out that that doesn’t happen then I better take stock because that’s part of my assumption. I’m 57 years old now. I’m kind of silently proud of who I am, what I’ve done, the people I’ve represented. I’ve been tested a lot of times, and I’ve generally done OK. And that’s in a private way, when I go home at 11, 12 at night and I gotta look in the mirror, I gotta be OK with me and, generally speaking, I am. So knowing that, I want to enter this other arena which has a lot, a lot, of problems. When I watched what was happening in Florida and the betrayal of democracy in America, watching young people becoming more and more cynical, more and more alienated, it occurred to me that maybe I have to step into this arena and try to inspire and motivate young people. That it’s not all that way. In a lot of speeches I’ve been giving I’ve been telling people, “We need to dare to continue to dream about how it should be rather than how it is.”
MTK: I’m very fearful that this kind of a message is fading in importance. When you are out talking to people do you think there is a renewed feeling for public service there?
NS: Not yet. Not yet. And what I am hoping is that I can succeed in doing it in a nontraditional way–putting together the multiracial coalition of New Yorkers that I’m convinced want to come together across racial lines, but haven’t had the opportunity yet to do that because the failure of leadership to provide the climate, the atmosphere, the opportunity so that people from the black, the brown, the red, the yellow the white community can begin to learn about each other. We all stereotype each other because we don’t know each other. And we continue to do that because no one is prepared to take on this radioactive issue. One of the reasons I run? I want to begin a citywide dialogue on race. I want to begin to talk about it frankly. Racism in New York is not like it was in the deep South when I went there in the sixties. Racism in New York is subtle. It’s sophisticated. But it exists.
MTK: Do you think it’s institutional?
NS: Oh, sure. Oh, yeah. There’s a legacy of racism in many of the…just take the NYPD, who I’ve been battling for years. That’s an institutional problem, it’s not just an individual problem. It’s systemic.
MTK: So don’t you think there’ll be a great deal of resistance to what you’re saying?
NS: Of course, but you see, I think post-Louima, -Diallo, and -Dorismond … and Bush. I’ve been at many, many community meetings … Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx. I think there’s a majority of New Yorkers, across racial and geographical lines, that want to come together on racial lines to develop a common agenda to take on certain issues like at the Police Department, at the Board of Education, Housing … I mean, all of these–Housing, Education, Police–they all have enormous racial overtones. A lot of it stems from stereotyping. So if you begin to talk about it, if you begin to address it and identify people across racial lines who want to talk about it and want to realistically ameliorate it, I think we can do it. We haven’t had our civil rights movement here in New York, we had a southern civil rights movement but we haven’t had one here. So if I become the public advocate, I have an enormous bully pulpit, and as a white guy, I can be talking about race issues. It shouldn’t only be blacks or Latinos talking about race. White folks, it’s our problem too. So I want to use the position as a vehicle, to kind of shake it up. I was kidding when we just cut the ribbon out there that I got the “Shake it Up” party endorsement this afternoon. We want to try to excite young people, yet we also want to reach everybody so that people begin to realize that we don’t have to accept the status quo. Even on the most transient issue, which is race, in my opinion. I think we can make progress. And I think there are so many people in New York who want to come together, but when you’ve got a mayor like Rudy Giuliani, you can’t come together. In fact, he divides people. Here’s a guy who doesn’t even feel comfortable with blacks and Latinos in the room. Well, I’ve had many African-American, Latino, and Asian clients and I have become educated and sensitized for 35 years of being with people of color and white folks. And I like when there’s a mix. If it’s all homogenous, I’m not comfortable. New York is not homogenous. It has diversity and we should build upon that and realize the pluses out of that. Now, is it hard? You bet, it’s hard. It’s hard, first, because people have already given up. But I’m young, I’m energetic. There’s a lot of other people. I’ve got the black and Latino police officers with me. I’ve got the cab drivers who are with me. Those are powerful people.
MTK: I think the census results in April are going to show us remarkable numbers in the electorate.
NS: Sixty percent are people of color, at a minimum, maybe a third. Well, on the police, two thirds of the cops are white. And I’ve got statistics from a couple of years ago: 5.7% of the captains were people of color. And that says it in a nutshell. Three percent of the fire department is African-American. People don’t even know this kind of stuff. It’s gotten to the point in New York where people don’t even know what to do about race. I think the reality is we’re all prejudiced. We have to acknowledge that and then begin to deal with it. What equality is about is that you treat people equally. And we don’t know how to do that in New York. And so I want to try to do that. How are we going to do it? We’re going to try to create independent neighborhood councils where people will come together and they will begin to talk to each other, learn from each other. What their cultures are, what their mores are. We have cab drivers who are Sikhs, and people don’t know why they wear a turban. If you explain to people why they wear a turban, then they will understand what that is. If people understand what people’s customs and religious practices are, they might be more tolerant and respectful of that. But if there’s no one who’s trying to create that dialogue, is it any wonder that we continue to stereotype each other? So one of the most important things I want to do is exactly that. I can’t do that from the ACLU. So I take the risk. I leave something that I love, that I do very well at and take this plunge to kind of see whether or not this can work. What I think–and so far it’s only been five weeks that I’ve been doing this–but people are receptive to it. But I don’t want to be delusional or misleading myself. This is hard. This is a cynical town. This is a tough town. But being the public advocate, in my mind, is being the people’s lawyer. I’ve been doing that all my life. A lot of people—thank God–trust me, and I think if I can take that and parlay it into this new arena, it could be special and it could be exciting and, most important, we might make a difference. If I can do it, then maybe other people will step up to the plate and do it as well. You shouldn’t have to be rich to run for office and you shouldn’t have to know all the people in power to run for office. I’m still the outsider. I’m running against five people, four of whom are kind of insiders. Three who are career politicians. But the Office of Public Advocate, it seems to me, is unique, and it seems to me I’m a perfect fit for it. So I try it, and if we win it’s great. We’re gonna have fun. We’re gonna be witty, we’re gonna be irreverent. We’re gonna be very activist, and if we raise enough money we’ll be able to get our message out and if we get our message out I think we’ll win.
MTK: And what about the mayor’s office? A progressively minded candidate relies on a person being in the mayor’s seat that is at least not opposed to that and, at best, welcomes it. Who among the candidates do you think you’d work well with and, conversely, who would you say might create a problem like the one we’ve had, if we do have a problem between the offices of Mayor and Public Advocate?
NS: Well, it’s a no-brainer: Any one of the four Democrats–Ferrer, Hevesi, Green, and Vallone. No one will be as bad as Giuliani was. So that’s a no-brainer. I think that any one of those four could win and–in an ironic way–I’ve gone after a lot of politicians, been very critical of them, and for whatever reason, all these four, I get along well with. So from my perspective I can work with any one of them. Assuming they want to work with the public advocate. And obviously that would be the ideal situation. But I also think the public advocate should be independent of the mayor. For example, I will not endorse any of them. Because I think the public advocate should be the monitor of the mayor. If you have a cozy relationship, and you endorse one of them to win, I’m not sure you can have that independence. If you know the person and you’re friendly with the person and you work with the person, generally it’s hard to be critical of the person. And I think the public advocate has to have good working relationships but has to be separate and independent. I believe independence is the key issue in this. So I will not endorse any of them. I will be friendly with all of them. I will encourage them to do progressive, inclusionary things, but I won’t endorse any one of them at this point.
MTK: It’s very early.
NS: It’s very early. I haven’t even declared yet.
MTK: When I rang, I was calling to find out if you were going to.
NS: We opened this storefront because we want a visible place. We want it accessible; people have been coming in all week. And then, I have to figure out … I’m on leave from the Civil Liberties Union so between now and March I’ll have to decide whether or not I’m going to resign and then, if I do that, then I’ll declare and then I’ll get out there and start the campaigning and I’m looking forward to the campaigning because it’s basically interacting with people and that could be fun. I’m aware that some people see me as someone who could be different than any other politician. And I like that perception, but being realistic and thoughtful about this, I gotta make sure that I can be different. I don’t know exactly what that means. I’ve been at a few events so far and, for example, a lot of the candidates get up and they talk about, “I did this, I did this. I’m on this committee, I’m on that committee.” I get up and I just talk about the issues, and the message I’ve been mainly telling people is that no one, no one should ever accept anything short of full and complete equality, justice, and freedom. And this is a town that hasn’t done that for a lot of people: racial, gender, sexual-orientation, economics. So I can be a vehicle and a symbol and a catalyst to try to address the inequalities that exist in the city and not just, you know, about a pothole or a streetlight, although that’s important to people, but we’re talking about institutional racism. We’re talking about institutional discrimination based on socioeconomic status. And I want to take that on.
MTK: With term limits there are lots of seats available; something like 46 seats are coming up. Are you encouraging other people who are, as you say, outsiders, to participate?
NS: I am doing that. There’s a guy, Hiram Montserrat, who is the first elected Latino official in Queens. And he got elected as a district leader recently and he is running for city council. I have personally given him a check, and I’ve gone to a couple of events, and I’ve endorsed him. Friday night, Adonis Rodriguez, who is from the Dominican Students Union, whom I represented. He’s decided to run for city council. I went up there, gave him a check, and made a speech for him. There were 300 people Friday night in a church in Washington Heights. I bet you two-thirds of those folks have never participated in electoral politics. And we were talking about a progressive coalition of people who are going to run and are going to try to make history in New York. So that’s starting to happen right now. My criteria is: Are people social justice people? Are they people that I’ve worked with before and can I trust them? And finally, are they the only one in the race that meet those criteria? If there are two people I won’t choose one over the other. But I will try to help and encourage people not only to run but to help some of the people win. And finally, in the Democratic party–there’s no reason why a Democratic party where the registration is like five to one, should ever have someone like a Rudy Giuliani ever get elected in the city of New York again. So what happened to the Democratic party? I would like if it all works with new people, new blood, new vision … rejuvenate the Democratic party. On the other hand, as I say, I have to be respectful of my elders, people who are experienced, to make sure they don’t think I’ve been disrespecting them. Now it seems to me and I’ve said to some of the Democratic leaders, “You should open the doors and welcome us in.” Now if they don’t open the doors and welcome us in, then you have to figure out alternative structures. But I would like to work with people rather than have to create alternative structures, but if you have to create alternative structures in order to deal with social justice issues, as we’ve done before in movements, we’ll do that within electoral politics as well. And the last thing, as I mentioned before, is the young people. We’ve got to make sure that we don’t lose because of cynicism.
With this storefront, on Sundays at 3 o’clock we’re going to have speakers come in. And we’re going to try to attract young people so that they learn about issues–and that they can make a difference. Young people have made a difference historically. We’re going to have a lot of young people–high school students, college students–working with us, and trying to encourage them to be involved, and then maybe there’s a new generation of leaders to come … And–we gotta make sure–black, brown, red, yellow, and white, together. That’s my battle cry. We gotta include everybody. This has to be inclusionary. New York is great, but there are a lot of people who have been left out. And what we have to do, the people of my generation, now, is to make sure that we can assure people that they will be included more and that this city–it’s theirs as well as other people’s city. We don’t want to be excluding anyone, we want to include everybody.
MTK: That’s really exciting to me. That’s really exciting, what you’re saying, but—
NS: Well, we hope we can pull it off!
MTK: –I fear you’re being idealistic, but I think it’s really exciting..
NS: There’s nothing wrong with being idealistic.
MTK: There’s nothing wrong with it, but I think you need to be careful.
NS: This is the people’s arena. What politics is about is interacting with people, all kinds of people. Everyone has a vote. So if you’re a skilled pol, you make sure that in fact you listen to everyone, you touch everybody. That hasn’t happened a lot. Too much of politics today is on the TV ads and there’s no direct contact, there’s no street contact, there’s no grassroots development. We’re gonna do that. We’re gonna do it with passion, we’re gonna do it with excitement, and I think that by the time the primary rolls around on September 11, if we succeed, this could be the start of something very exciting.
MTK: Last question. If you don’t succeed, would you run as an independent?
NS: Oh, I haven’t even thought about that yet. I think that since this is all new to me, I’ll just take one step at a time and see what happens. And obviously the answer will be: Hopefully, I won’t have to get to that hypothetical because we’ll win. This is not quixotic. This is to win.
[in 2001, during the primaries, I began interviewing all the candidates for Public Attorney because it was a historic shift in power for the position, but, exactly seven months after this interview, on September 11th, election day was cancelled because two planes were flown into the two tallest buildings in NYC, contravening democracy at its most basic level.
In the aftermath, Norman Siegel and Scott Stringer was crushed by Betsy Gotbaum for the position of PA and Michael Bloomberg became Mayor, stealing the election from either Fernando Ferrer or Mark Green]
1998, audio, audio magazine, brooklyn, City, crickets, dbk, electronic, ewi, gmb, greenpoint, instrument, kurt, magazine, manhattan, masur, mozart, mtk, new, philharmonic, poetry, queens, requiem, spring, studios, subway, ting!, wind, york
!ting was the name of the first audio magazine I ever conceived of and produced. It was made with Brent Kirkpatrick, Gordon Borsa and several other volunteers – an edition of 5,000 half-hour ( fifteen-minutes a side), cassette tapes to be placed on subways, park benches and buses all over New York that looked like this:
The concept was to collect sounds from the five boroughs in, under and around NYC in Spring of 1998 and eventually in each season to see if there were distinct seasonal changes in the soundscape.
Produced by new friends, meeting in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for the first time, we created a voicemail for people to call and leave feedback which connected to a onebox e-mail account.
Here is a ten-minute excerpt of the audio with text describing and captioning content :
On June 10th of 1998, a warm summer evening in New York City, I conducted the Pulaski Bridge Drop, which was based on a bet or dare.
I told the architect Peter Dorsey and his friends at a dinner in Manhattan in 1998, that I would drop off the Pulaski Bridge – between North Brooklyn and Queens – into the Newtown Creek on the photographer Kenny Trice’s birthday as a performance present, and I did.
This blog entry is a chronological placeholder for videotape footage of the event which needs to be digitized and cut to be posted.
–55 West 13th Street, Manhattan, New York, noon on the third of several grey, cloudy rainy days
Last night I heard the New York Philharmonic perform the St. Matthew Passion, by J. S. Bach, under the direction of Kurt Masur at Avery Fisher Hall (formerly Philharmonic Hall) at Lincoln Center.
The space is considerably less well designed than the Opera Hall in the same Center. I have not yet visited the Alice Tully Hall space which completes the three.
Crossing the plaza and passing the small fountain as you approach the high-ceilinged, great glass front of the Metropolitan Opera House, two very large canvasses painted by Marc Chagall are visible from all directions. They are something like 50 feet high and 30 feet wide. The main stairway of the Opera House passes between the two pieces. The Avery Fisher Hall is the auditorium to the right when facing the Opera House. It is lower and more box-like, though it too has a tall, glass-fronted facade.
The Philharmonic Hall is long and rectangular. The seats are arranged in horizontal rows forming a long rectangle from the stage back to the main doors on the floor of the auditorium. Above these seats there are four tiers of balcony seats. The box seats on the side are smaller and a little cramped. They provide only an angled view of the stage and so one must continually turn one’s head to see the orchestra, the balcony seats in the rear of the auditorium are maybe 100 yards from the stage, but the line of sight is good and straight on from any of the seats in the back of the Hall.
Last night’s performance marked the second time I have heard the St. Matthew Passion by Bach. I checked it out in San Francisco in 1997ce (see previous material). This time, the stage set was completely different and the orchestration was somewhat changed as well.
The choir consisted of Thomanerchor Liepzig (The choir of St. Thomas Church, Leipzig) that Bach himself led, several hundred years ago. They were perhaps 90 strong and provided the choir solo voices for the Apostle Peter and other parts from within their number. They were split and arranged on benches at stage front left and front right, featured prominently. The orchestration consisted of a small chamber group surrounding the conductor and a harmonium. The harmonium was played by the director of the boy’s choir. The chamber group was comprised of a cellist, bassist, first and second violins, and reeds. On a platform behind the group were the six soloists. The secondary strings and flutes and reeds were placed in the rear of the stage behind the soloists and Mr. Masur stood on a raised platform just to the right of the harmonium.
The performance was microphoned and amplified but the volume was far too low to enjoy complex changes in dynamics. The sound in the corner seats in the rear boxes where we were (went with D.) was good but could have been louder and with more dynamic variance. The seats were angled hard and somewhat cramped so we had to turn our heads to face the stage stereophonically.
The New York Times ran a review of the performance from the weekend past on the morning I saw the show (cf.: NYT, FEB 17, The Arts, p.4, aside: Siva Vaidyanthan on the cover for an unrelated story regarding a lost scrap of paper written upon by Mark Twain). The article said the work was among Masur’s first with the Philharmonic and suggested the changes and alterations (i.e. using St. Thomas Church choir from Liepzig) were Masur’s continuing efforts to come to know the music of Bach.
The performance was at a quick tempo, not workman-like, but regular. There were some lovely voices in the context of the piece, including the mezzo-soprano whose work was so beautiful. The tenor who handled the part of the Evangelist may have been a little tired from a weekend’s worth of performance. He was good, though.
The quality of live music performance in New York City is generally extremely high. Everywhere I go I hear bold, confident, passionate performances. The players are eager and well-prepared. In New York, the level of energy and play and quality of sound by any given performer is so much More More More than anywhere else I have been in the US. There is little doubt or wavering. The performers have in the context of their relationship to the venue and the audience, a certain confidence that frees them to try to be their best. Or maybe they are scared witless and just playing their asses off so they can “make it in New York.” But it doesn’t “fee’” like the latter. Rather it is just the general level of play, that the town attracts the nation’s best. That is how it feels to me so far. (so why is the coffee so bad?)
The performance had some interesting moments: the second mezzo-soprano solo in the second part, is predecessed and accompanied by an instrumental sectional. There is a relationship here between the melody here and the melody of one of the six Violin Concerti for Violin and harpsichord. The theme is augmented and then toyed with slightly, but check it out.
The section I awaited, had remembered from the last performance, was the simple harmony (or is it even unison?) calling out of the name of Barrabas. It lacked the impact it had in SF. There, the choir erupted in the name of Barrabas so loudly and strongly, one could hear the maddening crowd calling the name. Here the section passed relatively quickly. The tempo was speeded up and even-handed without such lingering drama. Perhaps that is an aspect of performance here or by Masur.
He was beautiful to watch. Had a relationship with the music as he conducted. His body language, his expressiveness coaxed, pushed and pulled on the sound. It was nice. Masur’s an older man, balding (big centered patch over grey, evenly-cut hair all around), with a big frame. maybe 6’2” or 3” tall.
–55 West 13th Street, Manhattan, New York, noonish on a Friday
Yo, I was set up … by Mingus
and knocked down … by The Mingus Big Band
over gin and tonics at the Fez.
Last night after work I went to a lecture by David Dinkins, former Mayor of New York, sponsored by The New School. It was a part of a series of lectures taking place this semester entitled, “Media and Race Relations.” Dinkins feels like a really positive old guy. Very forthright and direct and even-handed. He read a prepared speech and then fielded questions from the crowd of maybe twenty or thirty people on hand. The speech was rhythmic and well-paced, addressing the topic in general terms and peppered with a couple of extemporary examples.
He did not say anything too unusual, said what the ex-first-Black-Mayor-of-New-York-City-who-was-embattled-throughout-his-administration-and-who-lost-re-election-by-the-same-slim-margin-he-won-by-first-time-round might be expected to say, that, and I’m paraphrasing here, things under the current administration pretty much suck … unless you’re rich. That the crime rate being down is a good thing, but that it was his previous administrations programs that were primarily responsible. That the current Mayor is a bully. He defended himself against the main controversy of his term.
He is a politician after all and was obliged thus to say some things about America and “this great City,” and so on. He spoke eloquently about the disparities of this city, though. Mentioned that the infant mortality rate on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is 5.4 per 1,000 live births and in Fort Green Brooklyn, less than twenty miles away, it is 24 per 1,000 live births. A frightening and sad statistic. He mentioned another statistic that I found staggering: regarding the media and it’s treatment of women and women’s issues.
In a recent media study, he reported, it was found that when a person is referred to in the Main section of the paper, 86% of the time it is a male person, in the business section 85%, and in the Metropolitan sections 76% of the time references are to men. Of the occasions when women are mentioned in the paper, more than 50% of the time it is as a perpetrator of some crime or in some other negative connotation.
These numbers are weird and I can not understand really how they are conceived. I’d like to look into that.
It’s funny how a thought becomes a statistic becomes a fact and a part of social truth. Paz: “the North American … substitutes social truth for real truth which is always disagreeable.” Labyrinth of Solitude, 1950.
The lecture was good. I look forward to the next one in the series by the Reverend Al Sharpton.
(Afterward, I came back here to the office and edited the third draft of “Mahmoud Singh.” It’s a good first story for New York. I feel tired of it now though. It doesn’t breathe enough. Need to make a new one. When? When I get some peace of mind.)
MB made 9:00 reservations for us at the Time cafe and Fez Supper Club.
While I was waiting for him at the school, I was chatting with the security guard and a young woman who was also waiting, to meet someone after class. I said to the guard, “You’ve heard of home-sickness, right? … what do you call it when you have no home and yet you feel a sickness? That is, you have no place to be homesick for but you feel a sickness for a home that exists in your mind?”
The young woman said, “Identity Crisis.”
I waited for MB at my building until ten minutes to 9, then we hopped in a cab to the club at Great Jones and Lafayette streets in the East Village. Arrived right at 9 and went in. “Time” is labyrinthine with an upstairs glass-walled, fishbowl restaurant and then a blue archway leading to an inner red-boothed bar, both filled with the pretty people and then a stairwell down into the sanctum, a blue walled hallway leading to the supper club known as The Fez, where we were met by a beautiful young bronzey Black woman wearing a wireless headset who was responsible for seating us. Girl was fine and had a sweet smile. I said to her, looking as deeply as I could into her eyes in the darkness of the low-ceilinged club, “it must be difficult walking around with disembodied voices in your head.” and I smiled. She looked puzzled at first and then was actually interrupted by the voice in the headset to which she responded first and then smiled that beautiful smile and said to me, “Yeah, it gets a little confusing when it’s busy.” Fine.
We sat and ordered a round of drinks. MB had the usual. I was hungry and ordered some Salmon which was not great. It was boring and tasted like nothing except the sauces and spices which were hardly placed on the plate. Even the supposed blackened salmon with wasabi-vinagrette that sounded so nice was boring food, and too expensive.
The deal on the gig was that the cover was $18 and there was a two-drink minimum, but you could stay for the second set once you were inside. Dinner was not included and we were wearing serious critics ears after dropping so much bread for the much-hyped Mingus Big Band. Much of it was choice of course, because I wanted to estimate the place, quality of the food, seating etc.
I spent three bucks on the coatcheck and 18 to get in and 63 on drinks and dinner. That’s $84 for the two of us with the show included. We were there at 9:00 and the show started at 9:30.
The set up:
The Mingus Big Band is a Workshop group that plays the music of Charles Mingus. They opened the set by telling us they were going to play some music they hadn’t practiced fully, that they hadn’t looked at in a long time. It was odd. The performance started with a chart called, “Slippers,” and they were literally signalling and calling out changes and sections to one another. It felt crowded and unrehearsed. They were working shit out while they played. It gave MB and I pause. We figured we had been taken. $18 and the drinks for this? We are new to New York, him a year and a half and me a few months, we didn’t know any better than to attend the Mingus Big Band, thinking we’d hear some Mingus wicked-like.
They were struggling their way through the shit when I actually wrote on a napkin at one point, “MINGUS DONE 20 YEARS and STILL KICKING ALL Y’ALLS ASSES”
The band also recognized their benefactor, Sue Mingus who was in attendance, a blonde, short-haired (business cut) older white woman with a kindly, smiley way about her. Then they introduced a Mingus contemporary, one Mr. Howard Johnson who played in a Mingus septet at one point and who charted an arrangement of “OP,” a tune originally written for Oscar Pettitford. Mr. Johnson was to direct the band in playing it. He introduced it with some discussion about his relationship with Mingus and then actually took a moment to remind the band of some changes and notations. Again it was odd. Like a practice session.
They flubbed the shit out of it so badly they had to be counted into the “D” section. It was almost comical. But occasionally our thoughts crept to how much we’d paid to see the show.
The set break came and we decided to take a little stroll around the block. We got back to try to find some better seats, since the second set was less crowded. The sweet hostess with the headset made a little small talk with me and smiled that beautiful smile again. She led us to a pair of seats front and center. Many people left, but there were several sticking around for the second half.
The Knock Down
Bam! How can I describe the second set to you without explaining that we were HAD! The dark, low-hanging ceiling of the Fez filled out with the radical sounds of Mingus! It was crazy. It was like a different group came on. They were wild and soloing like crazy and just out of this world. Hollering and yelling and playing tight tight tight Mingus licks like they weren’t even the same band as the first set. It was too much. MB and I kept staring across the table at one another and laughing. They completely turned us around. It ended with a raging take on Better Get Hit in Yo Soul which knocked the doors off the place. It was two different gigs: a rehearsal/workshop and a straight ahead performance! Cool.
An instructor from the New School is the bass player in the band and he had a student come up and jam on harmonica at the gig, too. It was right on to be associated with the cat. Big-ass shoes to fill, and he did so respectfully and with modesty. Even had some skills, too.
The Mingus Big Band plays at the Time Cafe in the Fez Club. $18 for both sets OR with student ID, $10 for the second set only!!! They’re saving the shit, man. Go second half!!! And find yourself the soul of Mingus kicking through a 15-piece, sweet-ass, tight-playing, booty-kicking band. The food’s overpriced unless you get something like hummus or chips, and the two-drink minimum is worth it if you’re coming in that late anyway. Mingus Big Band, a nice time.
So yo, I was set up and knocked down by the Mingus Big Band over gin and tonics at the Fez.
Afterward we walked for a while and ended up at the Coffeeshop on Union Square for a bite to eat, then I cabbed it home. Expensive nights are all too much fun in NYC.
This is the story of people who act with the purpose of the ages though they have no idea what they are doing. It is also a story of change and transition because we are changing, and our minds and souls with us. Soon enough we will all be dead, or American beyond distinction. It takes place in the Garden State in autumn of ‘97, the time of year when the stems of chlorophyll- leaking leaves snap free and send showers of technicolor shard drifting crunchily to the New Jersey earth.
I had found refuge from the coming cold in Morris Plains with an aging couple who were family friends. Among family and friends, we call elders “Uncle” or “Auntie,” whether they’re related or not. This Uncle was a physical chemist at Picatinny Arsenal and Auntie worked in the psychiatric hospital, Greystone. They never had children of their own, but had hosted hundreds of people from India in their home, young and old. They were stewards of a generation of Indian immigrants.
I arrived from Manhattan unaware I was just in time for the last two weeks of Uncle’s life.
There is a story among our thousand-thousand-year old people about the man who comes for a funeral at the house of the deceased and annoys everyone by staying past his welcome for the free food and shelter at the hand of the widow. I had arrived before my hosts death. We haven’t yet developed such a response to the type of visitor I was. Maybe this one will do.
The soon-to-be departed was a 70-year old colleague and friend of my father’s for four decades and in that time my father had sent him a quantity of business from which he had benefited. Through hard work and dedication to the science of his profession he had earned well and had treated himself and his wife to the surroundings in which they had been planted for the last twenty-five years; a beautiful suburban six-bedroom, three-bath home. Childless, their resources went not to progeny, but instead to the building of a community of their people in northern New Jersey.
While I had neither spoken nor written to my father in more than a year (he had taken a deep despise for my general lack of interest in work or study) I wasn’t above taking advantage of his alliances to protect myself from the ravages of nature in the long months of winter.
Upon arrival, I dazzled my hosts with such conversation and jocularity as to earn my invitation to stay – independent of my host’s obligation to my father – for at least a week or two. I was marshalling resources to return to my own war in New York City. I had convinced them I was a writer who kept copious notes of circumstances such as these and that I might one day immortalize their own lives. They believed I was an artist between exhibits seeking inspiration from the autumnal hues.
I knew that despite their immigration to these United States, my hosts had clung tightly to the traditions of South Indian culture, and believed women should keep their own carefully-ordained place in the company of men. So I intended a comfortable time behind heavy doors closed to the bitter cold, my soul warmed by the fireside of my host, sipping his brandy and discussing the bodies politic and geographic as his wife attended our desires for snacks and refreshed drinks from time to time. I thought I’d make myself available occasionally to wash a dish or two in exchange, perhaps a trip to market to lend a hand. This is how our time had begun before my host’s untimely demise.
We are a proud lot of liars and hypocrites whose culture allows for the manipulation of the universe toward our own ends at any cost under the auspice of our belief in dharma. It is our complete acceptance of the universe’s larger workings which allows this state of mind. It shall sort, indeed, has already sorted it out.
This might be a confusing position for the western mind to understand, as many believe in the knowability of answers and of the mind of God in some personage, a God who rewards truth and justice and balances acts pure and impure. But then again, the westerner often takes the so-called “big bang” as a zero-point, supposes it the dawn of time, while we find this to be a very shallow view. We know an infinite number of times, dawning and dusking eternal.
Such matters my host and I had already taken to discussing upon the first day of my arrival when I met the woman around whom this tale is centered. He had just finished saying to me, “The Iliad and the Odyssey taken together are but one-eighth the length of the Mahabarata,” when she walked into the room and delivered a snack tray for our consideration. How she moved.
Her name was Priya and to my eyes never had a more beautiful creature walked this earth. Beauty like only the daughter of Death herself as a vision walked. The only sufficient words are in the vernacular and so from here I continue in such timbre so I may better illustrate the point:
Chocolate. Baby-sweet, dark chocolate skin and ink-black eyes which reflect the soul of anyone who peered within them. Thick, jet-black hair surrounded the gentle curves of her face and fell to her shoulders. Her hips were well-rounded and her breasts were gloriously full. She has that beauty only young Indian women have when they are capable of driving a man to the wild impulse of marriage because they think they can own them thus.
My host’s wife introduced us. She was married to a doctor and the couple were staying in the basement rental apartment which he had installed ten years before when his father had lived here and required a live-in nurse. So they were living in the basement of my host’s house amidst the colorful autumn leaves of New Jersey when I turned up, broke, unemployed and seeking shelter under a harvest moon.
She was the only daughter of a family friend in the area and had been sentenced to her Indian doctor in an arranged marriage in Vijayawada three years before. Her mother had taken the view that a daughter once married no longer belonged in her parent’s home and so had nudged the young couple out a month ago. But the young doctor had yet to receive his American medical residency, was in fact without occupation and so when Priya’s mother pushed them out, the young couple were strapped for money and a place to live. They turned to the woman who had brought Priya to this country – not her own mother but my host’s wife.
This is where our story takes its first ugly turn. Long before her marriage, Priya had been brought to this country by my hosts because her mother had rejected her at birth and left her with a villager’s family in their hometown in India.
It went like this: a mother and father with three children – two boys and a girl – gain an opportunity to emigrate from India to the United States and elect to take only the sons, leaving the daughter behind until she is seven years old. At last she is brought by a woman to whom she is unrelated – a neighbor – to be reunited with her (now) American family who only guardedly welcome her.
Then, after fifteen years and an American upbringing, the family requires she marry an Indian doctor and so she moves back to India to do so, only when she returns to the United States, she is told she cannot live with her new husband in the family home like her brother and his wife and child.
So for the second time in her life they reject her. She sought refuge in the only place she could, in the folds of her neighbor’s wife’s sari, sleeping in the basement of their house – a house which has served as shelter for dozens of other refugees over the years, refugees from nations and loves, hatreds and political legalese; a shelter for me.
I wish I could say Priya’s story was uncommon, but I cannot. India is overpopulated and resources are thin. It has made our people strict, ancient and realistic about the material world. Sensitivity to the struggle of others is often measured against what it will cost or what one can gain. Altruism is in short supply.
I arrived on a Monday afternoon, the 29th of September. The weather was much warmer here than in New York City; blue skies with cottony clouds floating by. When I left the city, it was muggy, cool and humid. It felt so ominous and dirty. By contrast, at night, there were crickets here. It’s a really lovely place.
Dover is something like an hour and twenty minutes from the city. After I’d gotten down from the bus on the streets in downtown, I’d rung Auntie. She came to pick me up in her red Oldsmobile station wagon with wood-paneled sideboards. She, too would be 70, the following month. She was wearing a colorful red and gold sari and looked tiny and sweet behind the steering wheel of her big American wagon when she pulled up to the curb to pick me up.
She brought me a turkey sandwich to eat and took me back to the hospital where she worked – a campus of grassy lawns and trees. This is a nut house. It is also where Auntie works as an administrator and counselor. She had to wrap up a few things and left me to sit eating lunch on a beautiful old wooden swing in the grassy lawn. I sat in the lovely rockaway swing: the type which has two seats facing one another connected to a floor board and hooked on either end to a carriage structure. It’s made of all wood slats so the whole unit swings between the frame. I spent the half hour drawing the swing in detail.
We went to their home in Morris Plains where Uncle was waiting, I presumed aging and infirm after his consecutive heart failures over the years, but I found him alert and eager for my arrival. It was me who was exhausted. Upon arrival I slept for hours and hours and hours at the behest of my hosts.
Arising late the morning after I arrived, I went with Uncle to his office at Picatinny Arsenal – a Vietnam Era military facility which produced and then worked to deactivate mines and other explosive devices for use in South East Asia and elsewhere.
He was seventy years old and drove a silver, late-model Mercedes with ease. Though weakened by his recent illness, he had the energy to go to work at least briefly. Auntie told me he had been going two or three times a week since he got out of the hospital in August.
“You can check your e-mail from my office,” he said. He moved slowly but not ungracefully. It was becoming apparent that he had some weakness to contend with. But Uncle never let on how much and he escorted and drove me to his office and back without me feeling an inkling for his true pain. He was mentally strong and had tremendous character.
In reality he was quite frail and in recuperation from six months of congestive heart failure. A 30-year diabetic, he labored over the care of his body with insulin injections and capsules and pills of all sorts. He complained that a heart failure treatment called Coreg, a tiny pill with a powerful kick, was wiping him out.
The pill is a beta-blocker. The spiking interchange of adrenaline (briefly) and “crashes” from Insulin reactions and hypoglycemia fatigued him completely and the side effects of heart meds made up the end of his life. Though the doctors asked for his activity to be limited, the desire to move, to act, to go to the office, to be productive was stronger. His will to continue his chemistry, his work, moved him.
But that day when Uncle and I went to his lab and office at the Arsenal, I had no real understanding of his condition, self-absorbed as I was, immersed in my thoughts and writings and thoughts about writings. I was worried about my first novel, copies of which I had left in Manhattan with several agents and publishers in the hopes one would read and choose to publish it.
I was worried about my process, my life and my anxieties, and so my writings reflected my selfish need for appeasement in the face of my fears. I didn’t realize the journals I kept then would carry a heavy burden. I talked to myself about a meaningful life because of my fears that I was not living one, even though my hosts were in the middle of a health crisis which loomed far larger than such philosophical ramblings.
9/30/97, The Arsenal
Uncle was a senior research scientist who specialized in physical chemistry dealing in nitromides. For 37 years he had one job, at Picatinny Arsenal. My father was a sulfur chemist and an organic chemistry professor. These two men were the same age and for a very long time focused the powerful capacities of their mental faculties on a variety of projects, often in support of the US Military. It is because of this relationship that they are here at all. It is definitely why they are the owners of houses and cars and luxury items in the U.S. of A.
Picatinny is located on a beautiful, rolling, hilly campus of small roads nestled among lovely groves of trees which also had begun their autumnal parade of color. The arsenal is an explosives and weapons munitions campus and Uncle took me deep into the windowless laboratory buildings where he worked. The walls were made of thick, white cement bricks. The lighting was institutional, tube lights under flat plastic sconces.
Uncle told me the peak of activity here at Picatinny was during the Vietnam War. He was working then on methodologies for disarming mines. There was hardly any activity to be seen when we arrived. Uncle said that in the previous ten years, employment had dropped 300%, downsizing from 6,000 to around 2,000 employees.
We were sitting in the George C. Hale Laboratory. It is a white-cement, very plain building planted like an ugly gray brick in the beauty of these surroundings. Uncle’s office is also windowless. Going to work for forty years he couldn’t even look outside. Old chemists and scientists are a strange and beautiful lot, to me. Old school Indian chemists worked hard, damn near blind to the specifics around them, so absorbed.
We spent a couple of hours at his office and he let me use his internet access to check my e-mail messages. Uncle was, even at this stage of his own problems with life, concerned about my need for e-mail in order to pursue my work. He and Auntie seemed supportive of my efforts to become a writer, though I’m unemployed, broke and unmarried at 30 which is uncommon for an Indian at best and looked upon as pathetic at worst.
For many years I had known Auntie and Uncle were here but I had not been in touch with them. I had grown away from my own family and so I did not retain the contacts which my father and mother kept. I knew they were here but knew nothing really about their lives. I was taken aback by their refreshingly open approach to my process, my lifestyle. I was wary however of the underlying nature of my people which crawls into every interaction. We are deceptive, cautious, manipulative. Were they humoring me only to quietly reorganize my thinking?
The town of Dover was, by its own estimation, 275 years old, announced on a wooden sign when you enter the town square, that read:
1722 Dover 1997
Lots of US flags. Lots of big houses on beautiful occupied territories that keep some native names.
Northern New Jersey was also home to the first and largest immigrant community from India in the United States. I had never grown up around a lot of Indians. There were a few families who trickled in slowly to where I grew up and we knew and supported them of course, but I never had close Indian friends. I was surrounded by white kids and a handful of Latinos, among whom I was the weirdo with the funny name and smelly lunch.
I was fascinated by the Indian community surrounding Auntie and Uncle. Here were Indian kids with Jersey accents who switched back to Indian ones when they were with their parents or other family members, just like I did growing up.
Let me take a moment now to describe who I am: a Brahmin man, born in India and raised in the United States. There are now many like me.
Our parents brought us here because they were seduced by the American century at one time or another and now they expect us to know things about our culture which they take to be natural. When we do not maintain our culture, often they are angered by our inability to feel what they believe are normal ties to family and food.
They told us to assimilate and then left us to be raised by ignorant, bigoted, limited white people who watch too much television. They expected us to be Indian-Americans with an emphasis on the Indian. But we were disenfranchised, disunited and dissed in these states. I am disillusioned.
In our schools we were raised as outsiders and foreigners because no one could pronounce our names, we dressed funny and carried smelly lunches. At home, the relationships we witnessed between husband and wife were in direct contradiction to every major feminist movement spawned by the American century. We were shown the patriarchy at an early age and pitched its opposite by our teachers and friends.
When we failed invariably to live up to the previous generation’s hopes and desires for us, we were chastised privately and lied about publicly to avoid familial embarrassment. I am among the few of us to manage to get this far in expressing ourselves.
Our culture sometimes makes me sick. But as I’ve said, I am not above taking advantage of it in my time of need. My host and I talked about many things and bullshat one another about the importance and validity of our knowledge. It is our way never to point out when someone is clearly lying and so our discussions bounce around the room like rubber checks. We invented the half-nod/half-no head shake for this very purpose. It says neither that you agree or disagree, but allows the conversation to continue.
Thus, completely irresponsible half-truths are spoken aloud and allowed to resonate. Whole worlds of argument are built on the foundation of a faulty logic supported by sycophancy. But we are Brahmin men, and so we do this with impunity in the living room energized by the food and drink brought to us from the kitchen by our women.
Priya was beautiful. Her carriage, despite being weighted with an immeasurable sadness, was graceful and contrite. She was neither prideful nor temperamental. She served her husband and her host family with a quiet orderliness.
When we got back home from the Aresnal, we watched the Mahabharata – a then newly produced operatic version from England being widely praised. We listened to Ravi Shankar records. Uncle was fading.
one week passed like this: I met some of Uncle’s friends and neighbors. I met his nurse.
Uncle had a private nurse named Ruth who came to see him in his home. She was a middle-aged, white woman with nice features, a good smile, and a short brown, businessy hairstyle.
She came every other day or once a week. She sat with Uncle and Auntie for a few minutes, took readings. did a very limited in-home check of diagnostics. She was present for maybe 20 minutes and began by saying, “Rest. Rethink how you work.”
Auntie says, “Until 40 we think about the mind and not the body. But from 40 on we have to forget about the mind and think about the body.”
Ruth, an American, responds loudly in a tone of voice she obviously uses often daily as though Auntie and Uncle are hard of hearing, “Wee-eeeell, we should think about the body all our lives and then when we get to 70 it won’t be like …. Aaaaaaaaaaaaah!” She shakes her wrists and hands.
She continues, “If we think about how we eat, how we exercise, how we live and how we pray,” she says, pausing significantly, “ long before 40. We’ll be a lot better off at 70.”
Her tone of voice is reprimanding as if she knows better than these two 70-year-old scientists, these thousands-year-old Brahmins. I hate this kind of condescension. Then she leaves. For each of these visits no matter how long, 20 minutes or an hour, she receives $175.00. At ten visits a week to clients? Do the math.
Auntie told me Ruth is a member of an ashram in New York City and that she likes coming here to their house because she sees the house as peaceful and spiritual. She invited auntie to go to the ashram in New York with her. She is a westerner who practices yoga, which is becoming more common.
I was 30. Ruth was maybe 40. Auntie and Uncle were 70. What does money and comfort have to do with meaning in life? Death is the meaning of life.
Uncle worked forty-to-sixty-hour work weeks for 35 years for the Army contributing at times over the seasons to the manufacture of explosives designed to kill, maim and destroy people of all ages and at other times to the disarmament of the same toward peace. Ruth may work 20 hours a week telling people what they already know so they might live longer.
I’m penniless. And homeless. I work at the act of living a meaningful, slowly-paced, gentle existence … a full life … unemployed by anyone but myself toward this end.
Ruth will die. I will die. Uncle will die.
It is a beautiful autumn day, a gift for the dying in New Jersey.
I shot an art video with the Doctor.
I had long conversations with Priya. She tells me the doctor is violent with her and calls her a bitch when he has sex with her. TKTKTKTK write about all of the above in detail – it’s a week’s worth of content.]
Her husband is half a man and barely a doctor. The latter rubber-stamped him for her as a husband and the former makes me burn with impassioned righteousness. I am too Americanized. I want to free her. I want to tear her from this patriarchy and take her to the tops of the rooftops of the world. In an instant I imagine us dining at my favorite restaurant in the Mission District, three thousand miles away in the city by the Bay, and driving at night across the bridge to stare back at San Francisco from the Headlands.
But what foolishness is this? It is only the half-cocked romantic thought of a man who has abandoned his own culture for dreams. She wouldn’t enjoy it anyway. She would only look across the table at me with her profoundly sad eyes and sigh as she nudged at her food with her fork. Besides, I don’t have a dime to my name. I’m homeless. Unemployed. Worth less.
***** October 8th, 1997 ***** Uncle enters the hospital.
Some numbers and number-awareness: On the way to the hospital last Wednesday night, Uncle said, “8 pints to the gallon.” And as I sat in the back seat of the Benz at an intersection while Auntie waited for the traffic to pass, wondering why he said it, he continued, “one pound is one pint … so they’ve taken a gallon of liquid from me.”
It was October 8th, 1997: Emergency Nurse’s Day, “commemorating the more than 90,000 emergency nurses throughout the world who blend the art of caring with the science of nursing to countless patients everywhere,” reads the sign in the waiting room. Count one more patient for the four nurses who met us in the emergency room at D. General. We were taking him to the ER to fight the water retention.
They weighed him. I wrote down his result and then weighed myself, my scrap of paper reads: “131.2 Uncle, 187.0 me.” 40 years and 56 pounds separated us upon his death. What will I whither away to?
They kept Uncle in hospital and Auntie and I returned home. Uncle’s condition has not changed. He is “stable,” but unconscious or asleep from the sedatives. I didn’t expect this.
The women started bringing the food on that afternoon. There were a lot of people around now. It was a Sunday and the skies were clear. The sun shone through the leaves. There were leaves all over the lawn. They had all yellowed, rusted and fallen in the two weeks since I came.
In the last conversation I had with uncle he said that the leaves age and change even more beautifully North of here, in New England, but from the window in his study, I cannot imagine how true that could be. His lawn is a blanket of sprinkled light on green and yelloween.
He is dying. We all know it. Each of us deals with it in our own way, though we have a collective sense of support for our spirits.
The next morning started at 6:00 am, Auntie and Uncle’s cousin’s wife were up and in the kitchen before dawn. I heard them talking because I had been sleeping on the sofa since family members began arriving. Auntie was so practical in the face of her husband’s impending death. She talked about planning for all the people who would come to her house, about preparing food and making sleeping arrangements for them. She made calls to cousins and other family members. She was stunningly together and active.
It was becoming more apparent that these were Uncle’s last days. In the morning, when everyone left to visit the hospital, I stayed at the house alone to “man the phones,” and to be responsible for disseminating information about flight times and hospital updates and the comings and goings of others. They would come later in the day by whatever means possible from many different destinations. Uncle’s sister and brother-in-law from Canada would land at Newark International Airport at 2:30, Uncle’s cousin’s son from London by Virgin air at 6:40. Everyone who can come was making arrangements now.
Mornings were thus the antithesis of evening: an empty house with just me, the itinerant visitor, drifting aimlessly through the rooms. Uncle and Auntie’s cousins from New York, a couple and their son whom they were taking to Rutgers came in at around 10:00 in the morning. This auntie had a stern, harsh appearance and was emotional from the get-go. Her name begins with V., her husband’s S, so we called them V-auntie and S-Uncle.
V-auntie was instantly suspect of me. Her fear and worry were exhibited in her face immediately. She had no idea who I was, all alone in her cousin’s house. I sat with them when they arrived and tried to explain what I knew, about uncle’s condition and auntie’s and the hospital and the flight plans. V-Auntie just sat opposite me and stared. Her glare was cold as ice and her face as firm as stone.
We sat silently after my stilted recitations on facts and figures and finally she spoke in a crackling voice, “We were married in this house,” and S-Uncle pointed at the carpet, “Right here.” he added.
V-Auntie continued, “We were the first one’s married in this house. There have been many weddings here since then.” Her voice was trembling. “Fourteenth is our anniversary,” indicating the day after tomorrow. Before I could ask how many years ago she answers my thoughts, “our twenty-fifth.” Her emotions were welling beneath her exterior and I am a stranger to her. I don’t know how to behave except to try to be reassuring and tell her what I can about the situation. It sit with them and the depth of the hurt and sadness is inescapable.
S-Uncle calls and gets directions to the hospital. He and V-Auntie will take their son to the hospital and then S-Uncle will take their son to Rutgers for school. They leave and again I am alone briefly.
I walk through the rooms of the house and reflect on my time with Uncle which has been brief but enjoyable. I feel so many strange emotions. I cannot feel him dying or as dead. It just hasn’t struck me yet. I have only words about the phenomenon and they are empty.
Later in the evening people were leaving who will not stay past the weekend. Uncle was still in the same condition with no change. Auntie had slept maybe four or five hours of the last 60. She had been at the house for maybe three hours a day and the rest of the time stayed at the hospital with her husband.
Everyone wore a brave face and made small talk and even chatted gaily sometimes in the face of events. It was a unifying experience, but also a confusing one as many of us did not know one another, or hadn’t seen one another in years. I was the most an outsider.
The family is from Andhra Pradesh and so they speak in Telegu which I, as a Tamilian, cannot understand. Thus, I was left out of the most intimate 65% of conversation. Everyone made allowance for my status as a speaker of Tamil and so we shared English as a common tongue between us all.
The conversation was about a wide array of things ranging from what everyone does, is doing, to where they have been since seeing one another last. There have been marriages and births. It is that sort of an occasion and I am an unintentionally present guest.
Where to begin in discussing the way in which each of the friends and relatives approached their grief ?
Uncle’s cousin who is also a diabetic and had the most in common with him over the years is pessimistic. He had come too often to this house for this reason. He believed only a miracle would pull his cousin out of trouble at this point.
This cousin of Uncle’s had come to visit the previous week so he was one of the few I had already met. We talked at length about such spiritual topics as our shared beliefs in reincarnation and the advancement of spirituality through the laws of physics, the meta-physical made real in a discussion which included unified wave theories and numerology.
This day he said meaningfully, “Well, you know uncle’s birthday is 22nd.” I do not know how to respond to this information and am briefly shy and almost embarrassed. “And tomorrow is the thirteenth,” he continues, “and three and one is also four.” He completes the syllogism for me, “so if he can make it through tomorrow, he could be all right.”
Every time the phone rang, I’d get a stirring feeling in my gut of wonderment and fear. I supposed that everyone here did, too; wonderment as to who it was and fear an instant later that it was the hospital.
Uncle’s cousin has an uncle of his own who lives in Austin, Texas, and who had dedicated the last dozen years to translating ten volumes of Vedic texts: nine books of the Upanishads and a tenth compilation of ‘highlights,’ from the other nine. The work was deeply spiritual and centered on coming to an understanding of our universe from our cultural perspective which is thousands of years old. The word for grandfather is Thatha and they call him Texas-Thatha.
This Texas-Thatha was also enraged at the Tagore’s poem which became the Indian National Anthem. Tagore named all the northern states in the poem, but encapsulated southern Indian culture into a single line referring to us as Dravidians. Texas-Thatha hated that national anthem of India so much that he rewrote it with different sanskrit lyrics to the tune of “O’ Canada!”
Uncle’s cousin was pessimistic about Uncle’s condition.
At one point there were at least twenty people in the house – lots of aunties and uncles and friends and cousins came. The faint of heart could not see uncle intubated and passive and practically without function. It was intensely depressing to see him without the strength and life he normally carried. Uncle’s younger sister and her husband came from Saskatchewan. They wandered in and out of the kitchen all night worn and tired by the waiting and the helplessness.
A strange aspect of the day was that the power went out three times for no apparent reason and we were all briefly, collectively plunged into darkness in different rooms without windows around the house causing us to wander into the well-lighted spaces and ask one another in various languages and dialects if the power had gone. The computer upon which I made these notes shut down thrice because of it.
Uncle’s dog Randy wandered from person to person stumblingly searching for his master’s face in the sea of legs and bodies which surrounded him. He was confused and lonely and at one point got outside while no one was watching and ended up wandering around in the grass of the neighbor’s lawn across the street.
Priya found him and brought him back in. She was wandering through the house with her husband, too. None of us knew how to behave, There was no order, nor rules for this condition, but the elders demanded an order of some kind. They had been around death and had a ritualized process which they had developed to deal with it. They behaved in an orderly way. The young and the pets are numb and confused.
Earlier, I wrote, “He is dying. We all know it. Each of us deals with it in our own way, though we have a collective sense of support for our spirits.”
I was dealing with it by sitting at Uncle’s brand new PowerPC which we installed and set up together and by typing these words. It was the only meaning I could find in the crazy empty process of dealing with the practical matter of Uncle’s illness.
I had come here homeless and penniless after having slept in Central Park and wandered around New York trying to get my works published. And with neither judgment nor recrimination, Auntie and Uncle took me in like a puppy and provided for me.
As I have said, they were host to two others who, like me, are in a transitionary period in their lives: Dr. Rajah and Priya C., staying in the basement apartment in Auntie and Uncle’s house while they await R.’s results for his applications for medical residency.
It was their story I began to tell before becoming distracted by death. Since the morning of the funeral, Priya had been feeling nauseous. She was pregnant.
Five minutes after 11:00 in the morning on October 13th, Columbus Day, the call came.
At 11:07 Auntie and several others went to the hospital. The caller told auntie, who had been picking up the phone on the first ring since yesterday evening when she came home to sleep, that uncle’s condition was worsening, that his heart had seized again and that he needed to be defibrillated again. They were “doing everything they can.”
That morning and the previous evening, we were all feeling strangely positive. This was the thirteenth and since 4:00, the day before, Uncle had been off sedatives. Despite the sedation’s absence he had remained stable and that morning according to Auntie and others he had even moved his extremities, though he didn’t open his eyes.
There are a disproportionate number of doctors in the house. Indian doctors. So there were many approaches to Uncle’s illness ranging from the matter-of-fact to the wildly emotional. The responses were not divided by any factors related to occupation or gender, though generally the most emotional response came from V- Auntie, and the least from one of the many Indian doctors here.
One of them, Uncle’s nephew who flew in from England, was 30 years old and treated as the “eldest son.” It became his responsibility to describe the condition of Uncle to various people in languages ranging from the technical to the medical to the emotional. When he was not around others try to do the same. But the languages are insufficient.
The eldest son was quite Americanized and doesn’t speak Telegu, the mother tongue of the family. He did not forgive himself for this easily and wore his responsibilities at this time like a badge with which he hoped to return to his own culture from outside. He took great pleasure in his role though he was struck with grief and cried often. He felt the mantles shifting around himself and wanted to perpetuate the traditional roles of his culture as he perceived them, though his perception was ignorant, uninformed, narrow and reduced.
During my last visit to the hospital and my last opportunity to see Uncle, I sat with Indian doctors in the waiting room who spoke matter-of-factly about respirators and ventilation maintenance. They did so in front of that same V-Auntie who sat with me at the house that first day and then sat opposite me in the waiting room.
V-Auntie was also a doctor, a pediatrician. She sat with her eyes closed in the waiting room and suddenly she barked out with a deep inhalation of air and sound. It was as if she had awoken from a terrible nightmare. She looked directly at me. “I have to leave here,” she said, “I’m getting depressed.” Priya and I immediately stood up and offered to drive her back to Auntie and Uncle’s house.
As we were leaving, on the elevator, her state worsened. She said, “I can’t listen to the way the others speak, so mechanically. I can only pray.” Then we walked from the elevator through the lobby and out the front doors and she finally broke down.
I held her as she cried into my chest. She cried for a full two minutes saying, “So many important things happened in their house. So many things with my son happened in their house. I cannot see him like this.”
This woman whom I hadn’t met until that morning was crying on my chest in front of the lobby of Dover General and I didn’t have any words or thoughts to help her.
On the way home she sang bhajans in prayer to God which included the names of Auntie and Uncle. She told us that the one thing she had asked of her swami in whom she believed so deeply was that neither she nor Auntie should have their husbands die first. There was no way to respond to the threat to her faith which existed in the car with us on that day. She went to New York the following day to pick up two other family members from La Guardia.
Unlike many of the others, the widowed-Auntie was strong as an ox through the entire experience. She moved with grace through the house of guests who came to wake her husband. She was amazingly calm and composed. The morning he died, she simply came into the kitchen and said, “his condition is worsening. They are doing everything they can.” Then she left.
Death is the meaning of life. Language is a useless way of dealing with it.
The younger nephews and nieces arrived last. They were all closer to my age and so we had some things in common. I was a curiosity to them, another 30-year-old at their Uncle’s house in these grim hours. But one they had never seen me while growing up.
They were curious. We were all interested in comparing notes. We went out to get cocktails together to break the ice. When we do we look like a club or a gang … a pack of brown Indians in western clothes, relatively hip , hardly conservative and without a trace of an accent – at least no Indian ones, some British, but of course here in the US that’s respected blindly. It was slightly uncomfortable for most of us at first but we were all soon very good at being good at it. We had a good time.
Conversation was centered around the happenings of the week and my appearance here a few weeks ago. We all laughed together about the ridiculous relationships we have with elder Indians and Indian-Americans. We have so many secrets from them. We are nothing like them and yet we feel a responsibility to behave ourselves. Some more than others. Me the least of all. The eldest son, who would be responsible for making funeral arrangements and delivering the eulogy was growing into his skin as a doctor.
The elders doted on him and reveled in his position as a med student in England. They were very proud. Though we are exactly the same age, he is treated differently. His being a doctor makes the part of the difference that my being a stranger doesn’t make, the rest is left to my being unemployed and a writer. Strangers who are doctors (or lawyers or engineers) are at least in the party line.
Late that night, I smoke out the eldest son with the tiniest, last remaining portion of marijuana I have left from my time in the City. We sit up, high, and talk about death and life and whether or not I want to sleep with any of his cousins.
What are lies and what is truth?
In order to do this telling justice, I must use names. However to make it easier, I will use names of my own manufacture. Who would believe that a young man named Andy, a student in his fifth year of medical residency in London, England, returned home because of his uncle’s hospitalization for a fatal condition would be sitting opposite me, a total stranger alongside his cousins with whom he shares a long history of growing up in the house in which I have been staying for just the last few weeks?
Andy was a frat boy. Over in England he missed football and Sportscenter. He wants me to write about his Uncle and his uncle’s house because he sees the story as glorious and heroic. He wants me to do it because he doesn’t believe he can. He sees me as a writer and a creative person. Falsely, he sees me as something other than himself. He feels he has given in and become a doctor because it was expected of him. At one point, he actually tells me he feels he was made to become a doctor. He perceives of me as a risk-taker.
“I mean,” he says, “It’s a pretty amazing story, really.” He says this to me often during the week of his uncle’s passing. He is referring to the story of his uncle and aunt’s immigration to the United States, to their tireless efforts to make their house an institution to support other immigrants from South India and others less fortunate than themselves.
Andy is in the years when it is important for him to believe many things. He needs to find meaning in Hindu rituals which he has never understood. He needs to step into his role as eldest son by pretending to understand some things, asking about some others and accepting vague answers to questions he asks about the arcane meaning of ritualistic behavior so he can believe he knows something about himself and his relationship to his culture. He is like me, or any of us in-between. But now he has more responsibilities. Soon he will have a life in the US as an Indian doctor. There are already so many precedents for such a life. He wants to step into a mold which he perceives as glorious.
There are many things Andy did while he was home for this family emergency. He came to the hospital and talked earnestly and grimly with the doctors. He served as the primary contact for the family to explain the situation at hand though the situation was obvious to even the least educated person. Andy stepped into his role in the patriarchy with aplomb and a desire for flair. He arranged the funeral and cremation services. He wore a jibba for the funeral and had a story to tell about shopping for it. He wrote a stirring eulogy and delivered it through heartfelt tears.
A couple of days after the funeral, he shopped for a BMW, which he has decided will be his car of choice when he becomes a surgeon. He said it “has to be German.” He shopped for a new personal computer. He went around and saw some friends.
Andy used to be married to an American girl. They are now divorced. The descriptions of that experience are riddled with unhappinesses. Andy tells me he felt even on his wedding day that he was watching someone else get married. He didn’t know what he was doing. At one point, an Indian relative of his, the Texas Tha-tha, I believe, had begun a recitation in Sanskrit to bless the wedding. The recitation went on for some time and Andy’s damn-near-bride leaned over and asked him to try to cut the Tha-tha short. Andy tells the story with shame and self-loathing as well as no small amount of distaste for his ex-wife.
They were married for two years.
Then Uncle up and died.
The twelfth day from his death was on a Saturday and it is the convention of our people to observe the death during this period of time out of respect and honor for the deceased. Thus, the house was full of people. Many meals were eaten, tears were shed, and some laughter was heard. The silence and pregnant emptinesses of Uncle’s absence permeated rooms full of people, even children were brought to it.
What were we doing here? Sometimes simply reminiscing about a man who had passed. At other times sharing in the experience of the void his absence brought.
The nephew who presided over many of the events and was responsible for many of the troubling details of the last week wrote a eulogy which he delivered at the funeral proudly and through heartfelt tears. It was matched by the tears of the eighty people in the mausoleum of the Cemetary in Dover, New Jersey where the funeral was held.
It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining through the long, tall windows and the ten-paneled skylight overhead and lit the grey-white triangles on the granite stones of the resting places of the deceased within. The panels of stone were dappled in various patterns across the names etched deeply and evenly in the stones.
It was warm and beautiful the two weeks before we took Uncle into the hospital and for the three days he was in the hospital it was dark, cold, grey and stormy. The first rains of autumn came on Sunday, the day after his first cardiac arrest and coma. The rains and clouds lasted until the evening before the funeral, the fifteenth, which was also the mid-autumn harvest night. The clouds broke to reveal the shining white face of the full, round moon hung brightly in the night sky.
This was the mid-autumn festival moon in China (Zchong Chyo Jie), and across the planet hundreds of millions of family members gathered to eat mooncakes and sit on rooftops and look at the moon and talk in much the same way that this family talks, when it isn’t thinking about the reason we are all here. The “extended family principle” of Asian families is not something to be codified and analyzed. It is innate to us. We cannot turn from it without pain. We meet and share and do our duties without duty. We feel one another.
Mid-autumn among the changing, falling, dying leaves of North Central New Jersey, my host chose to leave this earth.
There was a period of viewing at the funeral home which brought mixed emotions to the family and friends present. It was so disturbing to see his empty corpse in that cold, grey coffin, half-opened to reveal his upper torso. His absence from that chamber was painfully apparent in the immediate. There was nothing left of the soul which had only so recently occupied this cadaver.
We were angry at his departure and stared numbly. Some of us whispered, “I hate this!” and “This is not Hindu tradition!” and “Why are we here?” But we did so mostly because we were angry he was gone and we were hurt and tired and exhausted by our own emotions.
He was dead then and the viewing was meant to confirm it. It was ugly the first day. I couldn’t return for the next. But I heard it was better, with more people in the room and more talk and energy.
The funeral was presided over by a Brahmin, a Hindu priest from the local temple. He came in a white cotton dhoti with a thin bluish-brown borderline. He carried sticks to burn and cloth to lay across the body of the deceased. He burned what is called a homum – a small flame in the mausoleum. He recited slokas and mantras in sanskrit and repeated the many names of God and our many chanted prayers for the dead, dying and living. The ceremony was long.
It began with his nephew’s eulogy:
END OF PART ONE
Peddamma, Atta, Nanagaru, Ummagaru, Mamaya, family and friends today we are celebrating the life of a man who has inspired and enriched each of our lives. It is difficult to capture his essence with a few simple words; however, the simplicity of his approach to life is what captivated our attention.
When I asked my cousin what intrigued her about Peddananagaru, she quickly responded , family. Peddananagaru strove to instill the values of family in all his nieces and nephews. His interest in the extended family was so important to us raised away from the family web that is India. This extended family does not merely constitute our blood relatives, but the entire Indian community. I am proud to address each and every one of you as Uncle, Aunty, and Cousin because of him.
The outpouring of emotions from people in this country and abroad are testament to the goodwill he imparted on others. Peddananagaru’s home has always been a place where anyone was welcome without hesitation. It is where many got their start in this country. It is where you came to get married. It is where you came to seek advice. It is where you came to simply chat.
Peddananagaru tirelessly and passionately pursued excellence in all that he did. Whether this was Chemistry or understanding and treating his medical condition, he pursued all with precision.
Peddananagaru’s love for his wife and family have always been clear for all to see; however, his love for animals and children was something to behold. Kirin, Sasha, Prince, and Randy were not merely pets, but individuals who played an integral part in the chemistry of the Bulusu household.
Peddananagaru’s optimisim and hope for the future was without bounds. Not only did he meticulously map out his own future, but encouraged us all to do so. His hope and zeal for the future kept us all alive.
The ferocity with which he pursued life was always tempered with his peaceful side. I commented this week, that over the past several months Peddananagaru has seemed more philosophical. I believe what I was sensing was his sense of inner peace regarding his achievements, contributions, and role in this life.
This brief narrative cannot do justice to his glorious life. Over this past week several descriptions and titles have come to mind: Ambassador, Diplomat, Pundit, Emminent Research Scientist; but, I believe the title of Peddananagaru , eldest father, suits him best. How else can one describe someone who has been a father to us all? We will miss him, but I’m sure the greatness of his soul will be felt elsewhere.
Go in peace Peddananagaru.”
During the ceremony it was necessary to open the bottom half of the casket and expose Uncle’s legs fully so a homespun cloth could be placed upon him. Just as this was done, a crow flew past the mausoleum and called out in sets of four.
Caw. Caw. Caw. Caw.
Caw. Caw. Caw. Caw.
We manufacture truths from a collection of language we decide to believe as we pass through this earth avoiding righteousness and blind to the basic injustice of it all. I am just as guilty, though I struggle with my experiments with the truth. But the shrieking widow has had her vengeance on my arrogant posture. I arrived with the full intention of taking advantage of her hospitality and I end up picking up after her dead husband.
I am sick of the feeble attempts to describe this life in the face of death. In defense of this position I told to Uncle’s cousin: “I hold what Lao-Tse says to be true, “existence is beyond our capacity to define.” I believe that science is a self-referential language which builds upon its own definition of truths to create an ever-expanding body of thought which is uniformly true to itself by definition. But because it depends upon our ability to perceive of ourselves “outside” of the natural state in which we exist in order to name and subsequently manipulate phenomena, it is and will always be, ultimately, limited by our abilities (or lack of ability) to perceive the whole.”
He told me to read Max Delbruch. Uncle’s cousin remains steadfastly optimistic that we will come to a satisfactory understanding of human consciousness through science. His disagreement with me gives me hope.
Uncle is dead after a long war with his own body. He wrestled with congestive heart failure, with diabetes for 30 years, with edema and pulmonary problems. The war was waged thus as battles in his feet, lungs, liver and heart. The soldier cells marched wearily and incessantly through his veins, fighting attrition.
Uncle’s cousin is also a diabetic. The history of diabetes runs rampant in the family. Even the nephew who spoke so eloquently at the funeral is aware of his propensity at the age of 30.
Uncle’s cousin, for 16 years a diabetic has watched his cousin die and has listened to doctors say repeatedly, “that diabetes really complicates things …” And still he remains optimistic about the chance that we will some day come to a physical understanding of our state of consciousness.
Dare I, at 30, healthy, say otherwise? Dare I suggest that the fear of death inspires desperate rationalization and belief in unnecessary dogma?
I dare not.
But at 30, I embrace the notion of the natural passage from life to death without the need to understand consciousness. I believe perhaps equally as faithfully, though I am not driven to consider it until challenged to do so, that I am a part of a whole which has breathed me alive and into birth and which will exhale me out unto death. That this is how it has always been, I am confident. My faith is what I have to assure me that it is orderly and passes as it should. Will I, too, grow old to fear?
There are donuts here every morning and Uncle’s cousin’s daughter says, “the donuts are cooked in lard,” prompting another cousin to retort, “Oh great, a houseful of vegetarian diabetics waking up to a box of Dunkin Donuts every morning.”
Laughter soothes us. We laugh about many things, but laughter around stories about Uncle soothes us most. There is always a collective moment of silence after such laughter which he owns despite his corporeal absence. We know that silence belongs to him.
His science and numbers also belong. There are many doctors and chemists and physicists among us. We are Indians after all; good at Maths and Science. We invented numbers. Numbers are made important through the generations of like-minded thought. I am among the few disrespectful ones.
We who were gathered now at his home, are mostly educated in science. I was one of the only artist/writers until C. arrived, a design student in a Bachelor’s of Architecture and Design program in Canada. We ache to make. So we stay up until 3 in the morning comparing sketchbooks and bartering metaphors. It is good, healthy art.
I am rejuvenated by a 25-year-old Canadian boy who studies design and art and who breathes life into my science-deadened lungs. I share with him a drawing which I can show to no one else in this house: an image of his dying uncle connected by plastic tubes to a machine which breathes for him and words from his last hours of life. Only an artist can observe coldly thus. We are poisoned with the need for “reality and truths” to be real and true.
Priya is pregnant. Her conception happened in the basement of this house by a man who called her a bitch as he fucked her hard. She will have a baby which will be born to a father and mother who have had an arranged marriage in India and who live in someone else’s home.
“Thank God you’ve arrived,” said the atheist to his brother, “I’ve been surrounded by believers for weeks.” “A dying man is silent and thus have I recorded his final words,” replied the brother.
How can I begin to tell you about the multiplicity of things I have learned about my own culture in the few days I’ve been here? “While the rest of the world was populated by ignorant savages, there were great civilizations in the East.” – Gibbons. Uncle tells me this: “There is more meter in Sanskrit poetry than any in the world. It can’t be beaten.”
What a strange position. I am an Indian-American immigrant with the stories of my culture passed through me as oral history to defend myself to the education and propaganda I am taught by the culture in which I currently live. But my own culture is often unsupportive of my efforts because our own willful desire for self-promotion and our lack of belief in the concrete denies me any access to truths which can be validated universally and we Hindus are so good at having our own stubborn-minded opinions.
I am surrounded by a dominant culture which seeks to reduce the worlds of thought and energy of my culture’s thousands of years of history and philosophy into categorizable ideas. Lump-summing our poets into a small box on a timeline in an encyclopedia made by Time magazine or by Microsoft for inclusion in its next gimme-encyclopedia-software package to be sent with pc components around the world: “Indian philosophers are old and wrote long poems about their many Gods. Next topic. Space. Press “d”, for Dinosaurs.”
We part learn our own culture so we can defend it in layers to one another, preaching to our own choirs and afraid to stand up before the world and defend the greatness of our collective thoughts. We can’t even understand the infinite machinations of our rituals sufficiently to agree about their meaning.
It is the eleventh day and the skies have gone grey and dark. Rain is predicted for tomorrow morning and the house is filling again. I have been receiving e-mails from one of the cousins who has gone back to her own home in Atlanta. They have included numerous poems.
Here is one by Jalaluddin Rumi:
Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.
“Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.
At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,
a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden
within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,
spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it’s not given us
to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty.”
Hear the love-fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment
melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn
and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy
and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender
and a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.
A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect
because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed. The sound it makes
is for everyone. Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying
that they do. Stay where you are
inside sure a pure, hollow note.
Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,
who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!
No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.
But if someone doesn’t want to hear
the song of the reed flute,
it’s best to cut conversation
short, say good-bye, and leave
This poem strikes me in the heart of my displacement. I am hurt by my reduction to observer status as a half-Hindu as a result of our immigration. I have missed out on so many things which separate me. Not even facts but beliefs.
There was a portion of the twelfth day ceremony, for example, which was meant for all male Hindus who have had their upanayanam (a rite of passage for young Brahmin boys). I was upstairs working on this piece when it occurred and no one came to get me. I was told it was because they all assumed I did not have my upanayanam done (because I am so americanized).
When one of the aunties ran into me later and told me this, I informed her that I had had it done and we stood in the silence of our separation. I hate to say what I thought in an instant was, “never mind … just call me when you need the trash taken out,” since I had been responsible for that task all week.
It is said that a truly orthodox Hindu is not even supposed to cross a single body of water from his home. I have crossed the Pacific, the Atlantic and swum in seven seas, in Lakes and Bays and Sounds. Am I even a Hindu anymore?
TK more here.
It is the twelfth day since Uncle’s death and the house is full of people. There are easily a hundred people here in the house and the number is growing as car after car pulls up and parks on the tree-lined streets of the neighborhood where they live. His obituary from the local paper read as follows:
Suryanarayana Bulusu, 70, senior research scientist
MORRIS PLAINS – Suryanarayana Bulusu died yesterday at the Dover campus of Northwest Covenant Medical Center after a short illness. He was 70.
He was born in Elldre, India, and lived in Succasunna before moving to Morris Plains in 1972.
Mr. Bulusu was a senior research scientist with Picatinny Arsenal in Rockaway Township, where he worked for 35 years before retiring May 15.
He was a graduate of the University of Bombay and received his doctorate degree there.
He was a member of the Hindu Temple of Bridgewater and the American Chemical Society.
Survivors include his wife Lakshmi; a sister Venkata Lakshmi Vittala of Yorkton, Saskatchewan, Canada; and several nephews and nieces.
Arrangements are by the Tuttle Funeral Home, 272 Route 10, Randolph.
They misspelled the name of the town of his birth which was “Ellore.”
What measure of a man was he? At his death about 5’ 4” tall and weighing about 131 pounds. At his peak, maybe 5’6” and weighing 175, wealthy by Indian standards and well-to-do by American ones, he laid claim to both countries and traveled the world. Handsome and charming as a youth and centered and driven as an aging man.
He was the lynchpin for immigrants from the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, to the United States, and in particular to New Jersey where now the largest population of Indians living in the US reside.
There are practically no immigrants from Andhra who have not at one time or another been in his home, a place that has been called The Ellis Island of Andhran Immigration.
He would be called a “liberal,” by political denomination in terms of American politics and he supported the American Democratic party and social democracy in and out of the US. He loved India, Andhra and the United States. He was a member of his local temple to which he sent his wife the morning he chose to leave this earth with a heart seizure. He believed in, but rarely spoke of, God.
He owned a Mercedes Benz and a number of high-tech tools, and for everything he owned, he kept meticulous records. He maintained his possessions with a near obsessive care. He kept the original boxes to electronic equipment which was more than thirty years old. His wife still has receipts from their purchase. He was well-versed in a number of areas but specialized in physical chemistry.
Auntie is just freaking because she doesn’t want to stop. at all. ever. I mean she just wants to keep moving and keep everybody else moving and doing things, anything … even ridiculous things. And since I’m the only one she can really ask (our patriarchy allows the uncles such maddening impunity – you should see them. Your mom finally made them get off their asses this a.m. She is so sweetly defending my right to sleep occasionally) Auntie just runs me cause she can
and she can
anyway, we made it
The hindus will at last allow dear old Uncle Surya to depart from this earth. I am sure he has had a great laugh at all of us these last twelve days.
I have a job interview at The New School in Manhattan on Thursday.
the aunties arose at 3:00 a.m. in order to begin the cooking. They have to cut four different kinds of vegetables, make four different kinds of curries. Lakshmi says the logic behind this is that the person who has passed on is joining their father, grandfather and great grandfather and so each must have their favorite tastes accommodated . In recent times this has been reduced to ensuring that four different tastes are represented.
The Brahmin came at 8:00. (He’s the same one from the funeral.) He called yesterday and gave the aunties a menu of items which they have to make for him to eat. “Lucky Brahmin, gets whatever he wants,” said Annapurna-auntie, but then Lallita-auntie replied, “oh, he doesn’t know how, when we have to get up at 3:00 in the morning and cook how our food will be,” and they all broke up laughing. (That was over cards last night).
The Brahmin and Venkanna sit cross-legged in the middle of the garage on that multi-colored carpet from the basement . The garage is totally empty of stuff and has been cleaned out entirely (we did that day before yesterday).
The garage door is open and there is a yellow-and-white striped tent set up outside where the cars are usually parked, to keep out the rain (it’s raining. The skies are grey and wet.) The tent wraps around into a square which runs the distance of what used to be y’alls basketball court. Auntie has hired a propane heater which we set up to keep people warm but it isn’t too effective.
The Brahmin and Venkanna recite a thousand slokas in sanskrit as they proceed through the motions of the event.
There is a small glass container with a black disk for a lid. It is filled with a clear clear liquid which has some small floating residue in it. The lid has a white, rectangular sticky-label in the middle of that black black almost obsidian like colored lid, which reads a single word: Ganga.
The water from the holy river is used in concert with various foodstuffs (rice, spices, some other liquid, milk, etc.) and the composition of the complex ceremony is borne out, the recitation continues.
Most of the aunties including Lakshmi are in the house, usually in the kitchen. The uncles float from being out in the garage and observing, to drifting around the house with their arms behind their backs and there hands clasped together.
The Brahmin asks for various things during the course of the ceremony and so Sarita and others pop in and out (Radha auntie hasn’t been still since I first saw her last night)
Last night the aunties told Padma she didn’t have to come to the ceremony. This is because for those of you who do not yet know … though if you were within a hundred miles of 22 skyview you ought to have heard the shrieking of all the aunties about it for the last week: Padma is pregnant.
But Padma is here and sits for few minutes before leaving for her function for TFAS.
For the homum this morning Raja (“Picatinny Raja,” not “the Raja of Powder Mill Estates” as the aunties have come to call Priya’s Raja these days) and I had to cut a compressed wood log (duraflame-type) into three disks. These will be used for the puja later.
Brash-Ravi came charging in when we were cutting with a curved handsaw, screamed, “What are you doing? There’s a saw right here!” and proceeded to grab the log and fire up the beautiful electric crosscut table saw of Uncle’s and jam the log into it, no eye-protection, no guard, nothing. That saw is meant for wood with grains only and not for compressed particles into duraflame logs … The log caught and seized and the blade coughed and jerked and hacked it’s way through. He left with one of the disks which he did manage to cut off, but when Raja tried it again the blade wouldn’t move.
Good thing Uncle’s dead or I’m sure Ravi would be for treating his gear with such disrespect.
For the last week a lot of cosmetic changes here in the house. Uncle’s office has been part dismantled and all the tables upstairs taken down for the ceremony. Venkanna is sitting one one of them (it’s legs are folded down and so it’s like a flat space on the carpet). We took a bunch of stuff down to the basement.
the weather is cold and grey. The house is quiet now. the ceremony continues.
This morning at about 7:00 the aunties cranked slokas on the stereo upstairs and so the house was filled since dawn with the regular, thuddy rhythm of the low-pitched, monotone, recitation of prayer. It was nice, but so loud we could hear at almost full volume through the floor downstairs. That stopped when the Brahmin arrived.
Raja of Powder Mill Estates has been granted an interview for Residency at a New York (Manhattan) hospital if you can believe it, so there are a lot of prayers being hummed and sung this a.m. He’ll need a gig with Padma jr. (or raja jr.) on the way.
It’s ten-thirty now and the ceremony continues.
The house is relatively silent despite the presence of about twenty-five people. There are 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11 … 12 cars that I can see from Uncle’s window here, parked in front of the house up and down the street.
Here comes Edwin down the driveway, bringing his backpack from their car (a rental this time).
Ammalu-aunty (half of y’all’s mom) is o.k. She didn’t sleep too well last night and has been up and down all week. We have been sitting up and talking at length each and every night so I know she’s been up until at least 1:00 or so and when I see her in the a.m. she doesn’t look like she’s slept much at all.
Lakshmi has been just moving moving moving out of fear. Half of her commands and barked instructions and supervision go for naught or is undone less than half a day later, but she cannot seem to stop. She remains focused on taking the ashes to India and her eyes are damn-near glazed over most of the time.
I haven’t seen her like this in the time I’ve been here.
But with today, a great deal of relief. The tension at last is breaking. We all know that after today’s ceremony, twelfth day will have been observed properly and some closure to the Hindu aspects of this process will have occured. It’s already happening.
There’s coffee, bagels and donuts (for vegetarian diabetics) in the dining room and tea for anyone who wants it (on this lonely pathetic tea tray).
All the chairs from the dining room have been moved either to the edges of that room or to the living room and family room.
More people are beginning to arrive now.
The house is now packed full of people. There are around seventy-five guests so far and they are still arriving. The street is full of cars, uncountable as they stretch beyond sight.
The ceremony continues downstairs as the house fills with well-wishers who drift in and out of the garage.
Anita says hi.
They are setting up tables in the tent now and the food (catered part) will be delivered in the next half hour.
There are kids and people of all ages.
I have a feeling the house is going to reach capacity.
At 1:00, the final aspects of the ceremony will be completed and we will all eat.
Well, things have wound down at last and we have all eaten and drunk, some had lychee ice cream (Uncle’s favorite). We’re tired and the day has come to an end. The house is slowly emptying as people make their way home.
The Brahmin has been sitting on the sofa downstairs reciting slokas and mantras to help uncle on his way to heaven
(this letter is now being composed by Nandini and little Raja, aged 8 and 10 respectively)
we are so sad that he died, but today at last we know he has moved on
Nandini says it lasts one year before he settles down in Heaven and we hope he will be an angel (Nandini wants him to come back and help us as an angel.)
Randy is here with us, too. He can’t deal with all the people downstairs so we are just keeping him here in Uncle’s office and playing with him.
Randy is whining … he says (via little Raja as translator) – “I am very very sad and I don’t know what to do (he ‘s really whining now a lot … it’s weird … it’s like he knows we are writing about Uncle) and in my next life I hope I get a good owner like Uncle.One of the many refugees who sought shelter in this house has known the dearly departed since she was 24 and a new arrival to these shores. It has been 25 years. She is now a respected cardiologist with her own home on a 30-acre ranch in Pennsylvania, and her own husband and children. She wrote the words which follow and read them at the twelfth day ceremony:
A Tribute to Surya
I wanted to say a final good-bye to Surya. I touched him, he felt too cold for a person with a very warm heart. Both my natural parents and Surya and Lakshmi provided me with a supporting canopy of which I most happily embraced. Now, this week, one of my great supports had collapsed. This pillar of support for me and for many of you that are here today is gone, leaving a large feeling of emptiness.
Like his name implies, Surya was able to touch deep into the darkness of which many people faced and make their lives a little brighter and better.
Even when he might have made a remark that touched a wrong chord; deep down, one really knew that he was right all along.
I always admired the intensity with which he set his goals and met them; despite the disabilities of his physical body. He always pushed himself to the limit. If Surya said he would do something, it was done. I guess God felt that Surya now needed a rest from all this. We will miss him in our hearts. But if I know Surya, somewhere, out there in this universe, he will keep plugging away at another good deed. Though he is physically far from us, Surya will stay very close to us in our hearts.
This tribute to Surya is incomplete without simultaneous tribute to Lakshmi. If we understand the energy and brilliance that radiates out of a star, wherever one is on this earth they can still see its brilliance.
A born beautiful person will always remain beautiful. In addition, she has been changed with radiance with her companionship with Surya and I am sure she will continue to radiate and enchant us.
The population of the house has trickled down to a few aunties who sing bhajans and performers who dance and play the piano. There is more joy about the life of the man who has passed on at last. We are tired and we move in gentle easy celebration of his life now.
Some of the children bounce around wildly. They are no longer governed by the solemnity of the day and are free to freak out. Others are completely fagged and passed out on sofas and mother’s shoulders, will have to be carried to cars where they will sleep the unencumbered sleep of youth to the rhythmic sound of the rolling drive-trains of big american cars on the way home.
It is the end of the twelfth day. The end of the twelfth day. The dead are gone and the living tired-out on the end of the very twelfth day.
I have applied for this job in New York City:
OFFICE OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS
The D.B.A. will implement the Raiser’s Edge
Alumni Development System, a networked Oracle SQL
relational database with 75,000 constituents. The
Administrator will provide training and support
to 30 professionals, create SQL reports,
maintain/verify data interfaces to financial
databases; serve as a technical liaison to vendor
and IT staff. Candidates should possess a B.S.
degree in a related field and at least two years
experience in DB administration. Knowledge of
Windows, SQL, Oracle 7.0 or relational DB’s
required. Salary to $50K.
We’re drunk again and soon we’ll fuck. That’s the order of things these days. We meet in the evenings after work, make a dinner of inconsequential size and of indiscernible tastes, then go out for drinks at one of the locals until we’re so lit we can finally be honest with each other. We fight like Burton and Taylor as we crawl home. She shoves me into bed and we fuck until we pass out. It’s an o.k. life but I keep thinking there must be something more.
She wants a baby but I want a dog.
Neither of us reads very much but we watch a lot of TV. She watches crap. Me, I watch nature shows. The kind that show the lives of animals all over the world. And under the sea. The ones on sharks are my favorite.
Everything I ever learned in school turns out to be bullshit. My job is a joke. I spot-test circuits on an electronic motherboard with two cables and a detector. The hardest part is showing up.
I file reports and go to meetings. People talk slowly about insipid things which mean as little as possible to anyone in the room. The more meaningful the conversation becomes the faster it goes until the most important thing, the reason why the meeting was held in the first place, is blurted out and discussed at a barking, rocketous clip so there’s no time to blame anybody for any fuckups and no time for anybody to complain when they’re given an assignment.
My work is not meaningful to me in any way except that I receive a check for exactly $1843 every two weeks. After taxes.
I have health insurance. My girlfriend is covered, too. She makes as much as me at her job and has a full health plan also (mental to dental).
All of our friends are incredibly boring. But they use us and our resources to have a good time. So we all get drunk together and laugh at things which only we can possibly think are funny because the language we speak is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t spent at least a year in our circle of friends. We have developed this language as a method by which we can keep undesirables out. Our friends’ girlfriends and boyfriends who do not check out don’t last long because it is especially hard for people we don’t like to keep up with our language.
We quote obscure lines from movies and television shows as a method of relating. We see mostly mainstream films, not because we like them, but because they are easiest to make fun of. We do not discriminate on the basis of sex, color, creed or race, only on the ability of others to keep up with our language and contribute to it.
We have no culture and no history because we are mostly made up of mutts. Part European, part whatever but none of us has a cultural background of any measurable depth because we are Americans.
I play a lot of computer games because they are easily accessible to me at work. I also use my computer to send e-mail to all my other friends who also have jobs with e-mail. We are never out of touch because most of us have cell-phones and beepers as well. Sometimes we fuck each other. But mostly we get along because it would be boring otherwise.
We own a lot of things. Most of these things are things we have read about in magazines or seen in movies. Rarely do we buy things we have seen on television because the ads on television are stupid and we make fun of them. We buy what we are sold but rarely do we buy what we want.
Sometimes we travel to other places. Usually we only travel for a reason – such as family or friends’ weddings or funerals. However sometimes we travel so we can say we have been places.
We can say we have been many places and our recollection of them is manufactured in such a way that we can relate stories to one another about the places to which we have been. This allows us to all go to the same places at different times and always have the same experience of them.
We rarely leave the continent. But Mexico and Canada accept our money so we go there from time to time to get away from it all. Mexico is barbaric and uncivilized. We avoid its nontourist destinations. We use it to get things we want cheap and to be treated better than we deserve for very little money. This is fun.
Canada is intellectual. We go so we can say we have been there and have conversed with Canadians on a wide variety of topics. We quote Canadian facts and figures about our own country. Then we make fun of Canadian mannerisms, accents and figures of speech.
We’ve each been to Europe once. Mostly after graduation.
We are Americans and as such we vote regularly but rarely in elections; only in surveys and opinion polls. Still we follow the polls and watch CNN and other news programs. We quote soundbites which are filtered to us through the media. There is no time to learn anything about any of it and even if there were we are cynical and know that it is all a crock of shit anyway so we would never bother. We believe that surely people who do bother are already working on it and so we have the information presented to us. Our own lives are not affected adversely by most changes in policy and so we are willing to wait for injustices to be reconciled by the efforts of those they affect.
We trust apathetically that people who are unhappy will eventually be made happy by the system in which we have been raised.
Today, I left work and went to meet a friend at a coffeeshop. He was a friend of a friend, or maybe three friends away, who was supposed to bring me a resume because my friend said he might be a good employee for my company and I knew if I helped this guy out it would score points for me with my friend.
I ordered a coffee and waited for the guy to show up. I was sitting outside and several people came and asked me for money. I gave some money to a few of them because I always feel bad for people in a bad way.
One guy got really aggressive with me because I wouldn’t give him any money. I refused to give him money because he was rude to me. I gave money to someone else nearby and pointedly told the guy to leave me alone. It reminded me of feeding pigeons at the park.
My friend’s friend never came. I had time to kill so I went to a bookstore. They had comic books and I bought one and decided to read it in the park. The comic was an illustrated remake of a short story written in the 1800s by Anton Chekov called “The Bet.”
I read the comic and went home. We ate. Then we went to get drunk. I came home early. Now I am sitting at my computer writing this entry. I will e-mail it to all my friends and leave it saved here on this computer screen just before I pick up the .45 I bought last spring with Ernie and Ellen at the flea market in Marin and scatter my brains across the keyboard, the monitor, my desk, and the window here, which looks out onto our backyard and several rows of calla lilies, California poppies and jasmine.
Tonight the jasmine will bloom and our yard will be graced with a delicious tangy scent. My girlfriend will have to fuck herself.
The idea called India today affects the lives of hundreds of millions of people. This idea is embodied by a geographic area which has ever-changing borders in the minds of those who name(d) it. We who were born on Indian soil know it. Those who were not but who are related to India in some way feel a very powerful relationship between themselves and India.
Those born at this moment, in these hours, weeks and months fall into a different category. They are the contemporaries of nations and countries named.
They will come to call places India, Israel, Ecuador, Panama, America, Europe & etc. There is lessening influence from the time when they were not named as such. As the years pass those who called other names, or fought for other names or fought naming, grow older and eventually die.
When a person who thinks carefully about names has a child, it is a moment of great importance. For many, naming a child is an important act, but for many others naming does not stop there. The act of teaching names to a child is equally important. Because the names one teaches may live for at least another generation through this act.
Early in his essay, “Damme, This is the Oriental Scene for You!” (New Yorker, June 23 & 30, 1997, p.52) Salman Rushdie makes use of a newborn name: Indo-Anglian literature. And in so doing teaches the many children of his revolution a new name. Whether this name lives for another literary generation depends upon its use and its use, as with all language, is a function of its necessity. Indo-Anglian literature is, by the parameters of its creation, a contemporary art. Contemporary arts throughout history are marked with factors that distinguish them from previous movements. Among these factors perhaps the most impressive is risk. In contemporary arts risk may become more valuable than endurance.
History is dying.
The era of the written word as a valuable and trustworthy guide to understanding is yielding itself to other processes by which we come to estimate the world around us. The diversity of the tools and media we have available to estimate and distribute estimations of events and acts around the world are affecting literature in unprecedented ways. The historical word, first spoken, then written and now reduced to an accompaniment to images in both written and oral forms, is dying.
In its place a concert of word and image and sound and space and portrayal and metaphor are being utilized to represent truth. The modern citizen of the physical world must deal with this as the ideological world shrinks to the size of a p-nut in the palm of an Indian boy running the aisle of a plane travelling a tres grande vitesse on 16mm film, 24 frames per second.
The greatest contemporary artists in the written history of the arts have been brave. In the face of change and alteration of beliefs, they have sought methods by which they can represent truths. These artists exist today. They seek trust. They try to represent hope. They are as Gandhiji, conducting “My Experiments with the Truth.” In this way we are living in a very complex time for an artist or writer who wishes to participate at the most important, the most global, the most contemporary level.
Indo-Anglian writing and arts share, with the arts of other ancient cultures (Afro-Anglian? Chino-Anglian? Sino-Anglian?) the new joy of working in the Post-Colonial Era. Indeed, the joy of supporting the end of the colonial era in an effort to support the whole one-ness of the human species. At his wonderfully unifying musical concerts, the great Fela Anikulapo Kuti used to say, “You can say many things with English, but in order to say many other things which are true you must break it, which is why we speak broken English. This next song is in broken English. You must break your English to understand it.”
In this country, we are faced with a unique set of problems as artists and writers trying to represent truth with the tools available to us. We are subject to the philosophies of the dominant culture in the United States of America, which paradoxically represent the Colonial Attitude in a different aspect.
To be an Indo-Anglian writer in the United States is to choose to be a contemporary artist working in a contemporary arena to represent truths which affect millions of people using the tools available in the most powerful country in the world, an awesome task.
The writers who represent post-colonial Indian thought in literature in English are dedicated to many similar topics, but writers who are Indo-Anglian face the same difficulties with naming as anyone who wishes to express: we do not want to be grouped. And yet we are all tied to this land mass which, as an island something like 45 million years ago smashed its way into the continental spread of Asia forcing up the formation of the tallest mountain in the world and the twisted masses of mountainous geography in the North of India. Such a violent, willful act of inclusion seems so contradictory to this desire for independence.
Choosing to be here in the US, I struggle to represent the truths I experience despite this. In the United States the way in which the cultures relate has been poisoned by the specter of racism. The complex way in which racism was born, named and now has insidiously changed itself into a thing which can exist despite the stated collective desires for freedom, peace and equality is a direct function of the way this country has been created. It is something for which everyone who lives here is responsible.
In conclusion, I care about where you are from … but how we behave now that we are all here is what concerns me most.
M.T. Karthik, Harlem, August 10, 1997
[did not appear in the New Yorker magazine]