Tennis Racket Banjo and Other Unexpected Encounters

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I was living in a space that was approximately 4’ x 10’, with a ceiling of the usual height.  During the daytime, I would put my feet on the floor and gaze out the window.  At night, I put my legs up and my upper body down, rearranging the pillows so there would be one for my head.  I would close my eyes,  facing away from the windows, and sometimes I would sleep.  For the first few nights, I pulled the drapes closed, blocking out the lights from the enormous construction project as well as the blazingly-lit buildings that surrounded my location in all directions.  By the fourth night, I stopped closing the shades, finding the idea of the lights gleaming just behind my head to be strangely comforting, a presence I wanted to maintain.  Even with the sense of being immersed in a constructed reality – my own personal Truman Show – the lights of this Stepford world flickered just as prettily.

In a city known for its unreasonable hills, perennial fog, and enchanting Victorian architecture, my couch home existed in an area that lay completely outside the farthest bounds of expectation.  It was, in other words, completely flat, continually drenched in blinding, bright California sun, and so utterly brand new that the majority of the area was a cacophony of rebar and beams and gridwork.

I knew that I would awaken the following day well before the natural light of morning flooded the room.  Sometime between 5:30 and 6:30 am, a voice would pierce the pre-dawn by saying, simply, “I’m awake.”  This would be followed by complete silence – unusually complete, for the general layout of the area made for an absence of the routine sounds of early morning, such as birds chirping, dogs barking, a stirring of the natural world. Perhaps ten to fifteen minutes later, once again, “I’m awake.”  The tone was neutral, not pressed, or irritated, or perplexed at the lack of response – simply a statement made into the dark void.  Then silence once again.  Ten minutes later, when the voice returned, there was a difference.  Factors had been weighed.  Conclusions had been drawn.

Unable to reconcile the possibility that the voice may have been heard, but not responded to, the conclusion was that the voice must not have been heard in the first place.  Thus, when the voice cried out again, it was outstandingly loud, and crisply clear, and delivered in the slow, exaggerated way that we often speak to people who are hard of hearing, or have a different native language, or whom we are openly dissing by acting like they are total cretins.  “I AM AWAKE.  I AM READY TO GET OUT OF MY BED.”

The brand new fake wood floors muffle every iota of sound.  There are no footsteps, no shuffling scraping warnings.

A moment later, I open my eyes.  A very small person stands two feet from my face.  He holds a spray bottle in his mouth, his lips closed around the nozzle while the bottle hangs down.

“You’re starting with the saxophone today, I see,” I say to him.

“Saxophone first.  Then tennis racket banjo.”

“What song are you playing?”  I ask him.

“Bump.”  He says.  “After that: Chick Habit.”

And with the naming of his two favorite songs from his most favorite band – a Chicago Punk Marching Band – my day with my 2-year-old grandson begins.

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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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