Trayvon Martin Comes to My Back Yard

I am re-publishing this post, as my computer was hacked into on the day this piece was posted, and readers could not access it.

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      When I moved to the community of  Evanston, IL in 1983, many people jokingly referred to it as “the social experiment by the lake.”  The first town directly north of Chicago, Evanston sits along the shores of Lake Michigan, serves as the home of Northwestern University, and prides itself on its “diversity.”  The community has a rich history, a tremendous array of culture, and a committed population.  It remains one of a handful of communities in the United States where the school system comprises a great range of both races/ethnicities and socioeconomic strata.  People move here for this reason, as I did, when I bought this home when pregnant with my first child.  I wanted my children to be in a community– in parks, in schools, in activities –with kids from a mix of backgrounds and experiences.

            I sometimes choose to live in what I refer to as my “Evanston bubble,” meaning that – when it suits me – I surround myself with my like-minded friends and neighbors and can easily imagine (cough*pretend/delude myself*cough) that the whole world is Like! Us!  That raising children who understand – because they have first-hand experience – differences of background, outlook, families, financial means, expectations about how they will be treated in the world – will give them a tremendous leg up as adults living in the wider world.

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            My bubble was burst, no shattered, last week when I attended a community meeting across the street from my home.  Our alderwoman called the meeting in response to a neighborhood request, following two unrelated, very disturbing incidents that occurred within a couple days of one another: a stolen car that was torched at 3 am on my block (complete with an astonishing decibel-level explosion and pyrotechnics), and a long-time neighbor who was beaten quite badly at 7 pm in our local park, in front of his son.  He had attempted to get two young teens who were playing basketball on the sole court to relinquish it, as he and others had been waiting a long time for their turn.  The teens got pissed, made a phone call, and two others arrived on the scene to do the beat-down.

            No excuse for this.  None.  Anyone would agree that this kind of thing requires swift and decisive response.  What we did not agree on, as became abundantly clear at the community meeting, was exactly what that entailed.

            The kids were black.

            My neighbor who was beaten is white.  As was every single person at the well-attended community meeting.  Still, nothing could have prepared me for my neighbors asking, in total seriousness, why we could not just arrest anyone in an Evanston park who did reside in our town.  Why couldn’t we have a cop posted who demanded ID from all park users?  This broadened to the meeting constituency discussing the need to report any suspicious activity to the police at once (I, of course, agree), the first example cited being a neighbor who had observed a person of color driving down the street taking photographs.  (Pause for stunned silence).

            So. Here I am, with Treyvon Martin truly in my back yard.  Here I am, wrestling with the nearly-overwhelming issue of how we go about the process of attempting meaningful, productive dialog about the difference between real danger, where there is genuine threat of serious harm, and perceived danger, where there is only what exists in our minds.

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“Pushing the River” excerpt

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(this is a continuation of the 100-year-old narrator’s introduction)

             The minute the Tumbleweed came through the front door, I knew he was trouble.  He’s Grasshopper from that old TV show “Kung Fu” that the Boy used to watch every day after school.  Just rolls right on through his own life, stopping here and there for a time, making some messes and cleaning up some others, then poof-be-gone he’s back on the road again.

            My lady poked fun of him, and introduced him to everybody as “homeless and unemployed,” which they both thought was darn funny.  Cept it wasn’t funny at all, no sir, cause in no time at all My lady had that look in her eye, and the two of them holed up in the house and wore their dang bathrobes for days at a time, DAYS at a TIME, even after Marie moved into the house, they did this.  Not only that, but Lord howdy, she brought the Tumbleweed down here, yes sir, in the room right next to me, to do that…that act between a husband and a wife, and let me tell you what, in my day, that was done in the privacy of the marital bedroom and the marital bedroom ONLY, and what’s more only at NIGHT, at BEDTIME, in the BED, in the DARK, and as a final word on this whole infernal subject, we did our very dagnabbit best to be quiet about it!

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            But I suppose that’s where our story really begins, the story of what has occurred under this here roof in the past four months, from the 1st day of September when the Tumbleweed came to dinner and never really left, til today, Christmas Day, in the year of our Lord two thousand and thirteen.

            All right then, here we go.

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Exerpt from upcoming novel “Pushing the River”

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The minute she walked into the blue-light-pulsating, music-thumping, eardrum-shattering, sad sad sad “neighborhood bar,” which is what the online City Guide had called it, she knew she had made a hideous mistake.

            “Pick some place where a yuppie or hipster type would never dare set foot,” he had said.  “Some dive.  A real neighborhood place.”

            “Are you kidding?” she had responded.  “We are very groovy up here.  We’re talking brick walls and industrial chic lighting in places where millions of dollars have been sunk to make the joint look like the basement of a factory, where you will be gouged with exorbitant prices for a PBR because it’s all ironic.”

            “Consider it a challenge,” he had said.

            Ah fuck, she thought, a challenge.

            It was certainly not her first foray into the parallel universe of online dating.  Sadly, it was quite far from it.  My lady had been divorced for more than ten years by this time, and had watched a string of relationships move from interest, to the first tingle of excitement, to the exhilaration of genuine possibility, to the frightening, heady, joyful moment when the roller coaster passes the peak of its climb and in that split second, there is no going back: momentum takes over; it is utterly and completely out of anyone’s control, because at this moment, there is love.  There is real love.

            And then there isn’t.

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            After a time, she would be back online, poring over profiles, scrutinizing descriptions, gathering courage.

            There were less than a handful of people in the “neighborhood bar,” each one sitting at a measured distance from the others, making the throbbing lights and disco music seem thoroughly pathetic.  Even the bartender looked as if she would rather be somewhere else.  Anywhere else.

            A first glance around the room didn’t turn up anybody she thought resembled his online picture.  Certainly nobody came close to what her daughter-in-law Marie had called The Underwear Model upon seeing his online photo. “Oh!  My!  God!  He’s an underwear model!”

            “Do you know if there’s anybody here waiting for somebody?  A guy?”  she screamed at the bartender, leaning as far as she possibly could over the bar in order to be heard.

            “Are you kidding?”  The bartender retorted,  “Everybody here is waiting for somebody.”  She gestured with her arm, waving her hand around the room in a need-I-say-more sort of way.

            “I mean, not that I know of.  You’re just gonna have to look.”

            “Yeah.  Thanks.”

            And then she saw him.  QuantamLeap.  Standing in a dark shadow, pressed against the back wall as if pinned there, minutely nodding his head in time to the music in a good-soldier effort to not look as thoroughly uncomfortable as he clearly was.  Off-white, baggy, mid-calf length shorts that could have passed for gangsta, could have passed for j. crew.  Collared shirt.  (“Collared shirt?” she thought. “I did not see that coming.”)  She had pictured: T-shirt.  Definitely.  Very faded.  Possibly with the name of an early punk band, but more likely touting some esoteric, but highly left-leaning thing.  Noam Chomsky, maybe.  But nope, collared shirt it was.  And striped.  (Striped?)

            “Dan?”  she yelled.

            He was tall.  6’3”, maybe even 6’4”, so had to lean way, way over to get his ear in the general vicinity of her mouth.  He nodded, minimally, in time to the music, as if he were not sure he wanted to acknowledge his identity to the person who had chosen this particular bar.

            “Let’s get out of here,” she said.   Knowing full well that he couldn’t hear a word, she made exaggerated pointing gestures toward the door.

            With the last beam of blue light evaporating across his arm, Dan emphatically pushed the bar door closed behind them.  The instant the door was closed, they stood unmoving, still on the stoop, as an exhilaration of relief – to be outside, out of the blue light, out of the inescapable throb of long-forgotten music, out of the scene of utter desolate encroaching loneliness —  washed over them.

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Writing: Lessons Learned?

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I promised myself that if/when I ever wrote another novel after the first two, I would not put one word down until I had a story, a plot let’s say, with a distinct beginning, middle and end that was already known to me.  AND, that I would write the thing in order, starting with the first word of the first chapter and proceeding in an orderly fashion to the end.

            In this way, I thought, I could avoid the pitfalls and stumbling blocks of the past. (I’m not delusional; in no way did I think this meant I could avoid all pitfalls and stumbling blocks – only, if I was extremely lucky, the ones that sucked little bits of my soul as I wrote the first two novels).

            My first novel began as a memoir, for which I was lucky enough to land a wonderful literary agent rather quickly.  She and I worked really hard together; she edited my manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, and I re-re-re-rewrote the book extensively based on her suggestions.  Here is where I summarize several years of events in one sentence by saying, long story short, I ultimately decided to rewrite the entire thing as a novel, based on early feedback from editors at publishing houses. 

            The novel is episodic and, in parts, impressionistic.  It moves around between the past and the present.  What this translated into, at various points, was me having hard copies of all 45 chapters spread out on the tables, floor, window sill and chairs in my dining room, thinking about the exponential alternatives there were for putting the fictionalized chapters in the order that worked best for the book overall.  Sometimes I spent long hours staring at pieces of paper that had chapter names listed – by this time I knew the material so well, I could look at title names and rearrange the whole manuscript in my mind.  Then do it again.  Then…

            This was not fun.

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            When I wrote the 2nd novel, I had the experience that authors dream of – I felt as if I were channeling the main character.  She told her story to me, clearly, in wonderful bursts, and I wrote it down.  Sadly, horrifyingly, she went silent.  For a really, really long time.  She had no idea where to go, and I had no idea how to end her story.  She and I stayed there for a long, long time.

           AND, as her story was told via entries in her journal, 56 entries to be exact, I realized again that the order of events could be, and needed to be, reordered.  Yep. 56 chapters spread across the dining room.

            The 3rd novel has a very definite story to tell.  It has a beginning, middle and end.  I!  know!  how!  it!  ends!!  Its characters are full and fleshed out.  Its narrator has a distinct and clear voice. Sigh.  Perhaps next time I will take the 2nd part of my own advice and write something in order.  Do writers do this?

            I can hear the universe laughing.

*Artwork is two designs that were considered for the cover of my novel “You, in Your Green Shirt”