Reminder

essex

There are a few seats left for my upcoming lecture “James Journey” Even for people who’ve heard a version of it before, there will be a few surprises and an update on our progress with the documentary.

When: August 21, 4 p.m.

Where: Essex Meadows, 30 Bokum Road, Essex, Conn.

Reservations are required: Call/email Tara Gibas. 860-662-3410, gibast@essexmeadows.com.

Reading Follow-up

fire

A bunch of stuff kept me from The Fire This Time, but I’m back and loving it. Another observation.

Honoree Fanonne Jeffers has written “ ‘The Dear Pledges of Our Love’: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley’s Husband.” It raises a challenge to the woman who is the source for information that John Peters was a failed businessman who abandoned his wife. Jeffers has also found evidence that Peters ran a successful business, though he did suffer along with the rest of the country after the Revolution. I have two questions about the essay. Jeffers asserts that in the poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Wheatley is crying out in pain to the Christian god. She begins:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,/Taught my benighted soul to understand/That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:/Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Jeffers italicizes “Pagan” and “Saviour.” She’s the poet, not me. And I am not a lit-crit expert, having read the canon. But did it occur to anyone that Wheatley meant to be ironic? The rest of the poem supports this view, especially that “Remember, Christians”:

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,/”Their colour is a diabolic die.”/Remember, Christians, Negro’s, black as Cain,/May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Jeffers also assumes that Peters and Wheatley married for love. In 1774, even rich white people – well, maybe especially rich white people – didn’t do that. Marriage until the middle of the nineteenth century was a business arrangement. Someone should look for evidence that Wheatley married because she respected John Peters and like a great many other women wanted security in a severely patriarchal society.

 

Aftermath

storm

Well, the havoc from the storm of August 11 continues. Besides power outages galore, a water main broke over near Wesleyan. Trees and branches littered the road. Today, my car skidded on a mound of sand that had washed across an intersection. The Connecticut River looked opaque brown, loaded with enough silt to create vegetable gardens for the whole county.

We are fortunate that none of those folks aquaplaning was injured. Favorite adjectives to describe the storm: insane, crazy, scary. I call it epic.

The really loud crack we heard at the library turned out to be lightning hitting the chimney at a local restaurant. It’s down by the river and floods pretty much every spring. No one would have predicted disaster to strike from above.

Our mayor, Dan Drew, deserves statewide — maybe national —  recognition for all the work he did to coordinate the various emergency responders and to keep residents informed about their work – and to warn as more bad weather approached. The man knows how to work Facebook and to provide the best constituent services.

Eversource, are you paying attention? The power company failed, again. My suggestion: Let’s follow Wallingford’s lead and establish a municipal electric company. #ditchEversource

Farm Hill Road Whitecaps

This school is uphill from where I was parked. Hope the cleanup goes well.
This school is uphill from where I parked. Hope the cleanup goes well.

Night of August 11, 2016, written by the light of a nouveau hurricane lamp because the power is out. And again demonstrating the benefits of writing with pen and ink.

Sounds: formerly neighbors’ generators but I’m far enough from the window so I can’t hear them. Now it’s buzz-saw loud peepers, tree frogs, and crickets. Someone said that racket is the last desperation before cold sets in. Tonight feels like the tropics, so I doubt it.

This epic began when I was driving to the veterans’ writing workshop. To be ecologically correct I should walk because it’s less than two miles, but I’m usually lugging stuff and often have to stop at the supermarket afterward. Plus there are places without decent streetlights and others with no sidewalk or shoulder on the road.

An impressive lightning show filled the sky to the north, almost as dramatic as what I saw in the mountains coming home from Ithaca. Umbrella? Check.

Occasional flashes of light and rumbles continued. The visibility dropped so that it was dark well before sunset. The rain pounded and then started blowing sideways.

About twenty minutes into the workshop, there was a flash/boom that filled the room. I jumped and thought about my mother who at the first hint of a T-storm got in bed with the covers over her head. She said her mother used to hide in a closet. Guess I didn’t inherit the worst of astraphobia.

One of the guys in the workshop had a flash flood alert on his phone – no big deal, I thought.

The library closed, but the storm continued. We lingered, first in the lobby, then under the portico outside. I put up my umbrella but the rain snuck in first from the north, then from the south. We could see the lightning moving off to the east, but the storm refused to abate.

A few people tried and failed to leap over the small lake that had formed by the sidewalk as they  jumped into a waiting car.

A fire truck roared up Washington Street, siren blaring. Another followed some time later.

Two of the guys who had been in Vietnam agreed that it was just like a monsoon with thunder and lightning added. I was reminded of the storm Larry and I encountered when we visited Abbeville, Louisiana. This one felt just as bad, and it lasted much longer.

After about twenty minutes, I decided to run for it. The wind made it tough to walk with the umbrella, and by the time I arrived at the car, after about a minute, I was soaked, knees to feet. The pants are still wet this a.m.

On the way, a guy yelled from his car, “Where’s College Street?” I didn’t break stride as I yelled, “One block back.” Did not try to tell him that he couldn’t go west because it’s one way.

I wrestled the umbrella into submission but not before the rest of me got soaked.

The traffic light at a major intersection had failed, but drivers behaved. I turned off the main road and saw cars ahead sending up plumes of water. The sedans weren’t doing well so I turned into the parking lot at the hardware store and called Larry to pick me up in the Jeep. He said the power was out. I had a front row seat to the idiocy of humanity. People insisted on plowing through the water. They sent up gushers. The wake from the tires and undercarriages sloshed into the parking lot.

While it was quiet – no cars, I saw white caps. They rolled across a city street, one after another. That was a first – and I hope a last.

A police officer in a big SUV showed up and blocked the road. Idiocy multiplied as I watched a driver in a little sedan try to pull around the SUV. The cop nosed his vehicle up. The driver stayed put. This went on for probably a minute before the car turned around and drove away.

The storm finally moved off, and I made my way home, forty minutes later. Never has two miles taken so long. I was freezing and even though the house was 81 degrees, it took hours for me to warm up. Then it started raining again.

Larry had called the power company, which said the power would be back on by 10 p.m. I asked, 10 p.m. which day? When I called, they said 10:30. Eversource lied. It was 3 a.m.

Oh, boy! The forecast is for “scattered showers.”

#FirstSevenJobs

James Pharmacy 65 years before I worked there.
James Pharmacy 65 years before I worked there.
  • babysitter (part-time) overlapping with
  • clerk James Pharmacy (summer job)
  • customer service clerk Connecticut Light & Power (summer job)
  • stage manager (summer job)
  • reporter Middletown Press 
  • office manager Connecticut Inland Wetlands Projec
  • law clerk Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas

There have been six more since and counting …

What I’m Watching Now

spotlight

So eons after the rest of the world had moved on, I finally watched Spotlight over the weekend. What a brilliant piece of work! Having served a long sentence in newsrooms large and small, I could relate to all of it except for the dead rodent in the dark and uninviting morgue. What a novel idea — a corpse in the morgue! The reporters’ desks were suitably messy, though the higher-ups mostly lived in an unreal pristine world. People ate whenever they could and consumed whatever was at hand. Oh, so true. I had a news photographer tell me, “Food just doesn’t taste the same if I’m not whipping down the highway at 65-plus mph.” This was in the days before distracted driving laws. One hopes there will be a reporters’ exception for consumption of burgers and coffee.

The performances in Spotlight did not seem to be acting. Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes brought me back to the Record-Journal and the city hall reporter, later a fixture at the state capital. Paul had the tenacity of a pit bull and almost always got results. Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron, the new editor-in-chief, did not seem quite as taciturn as those I have known. Stanley Tucci embodied the manical and driven attorney for the victims, Mitchell Garabedian. If Rezendes was a pit bull, Garabedian was Cerberus, who guarded the entrance to Hell, letting in the dead but preventing anyone from leaving.

As for the story, President Obama observed at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that Spotlight shows what happens when journalists receive support in the form of time and resources. When they do, they can change the world. In this case, it was the world of pedophile priests, starting in Boston and eventually impacting every corner of the globe. The list of countries where cases have been uncovered that runs at the end of the film is chilling.

The Spotlight crew revealed decades of sexual assault on little boys and girls by some ninety priests in Irish Catholic Boston. The church, the police, and the legal community had buried their crimes. These predators were transferred from one parish to another with the complicity of church hierarchy. The trail led back to Cardinal Bernard Law, among others. The movie concludes before his removal from his position in Boston. Though it didn’t satisfy the victims and their families, it was a fitting end in Boston for a man who gave the Jewish Marty Baron a catechism as a welcome gift to the city.

The message could not be clearer: Sometimes it takes an outsider or three to uncover the enormous stories.

What I’m Reading Now

fire

I learned about The Fire This Time from Kiese Laymon. His is a powerful and impassioned voice for the new wave in African American literature. He travels effortlessly from rap and hip-hop to the encompassing love of his family in the South that time tries to forget.

While I was awaiting the arrival of the book, I heard an interview with editor Jesmyn Ward. She explained that the death of Trayvon Martin and the horror that has expanded since drove her to rethink James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in which he wrote: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you ever forget it.” Ward seeks to reconcile and update Baldwin’s passion with what she’s seeing with the treatment Trayvon, and Mike Brown, and all the others who have died at the hands of police and rent-a-cops.

She asked “some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of my generation to puzzle this out.”

Of course I started with Kiese’s essay. “Da Art of Storytellin’ (a Prequel)” landed me on the front porch at dusk with a lesson from Grandmother Catherine and Kiese in linguistic nuance. In this case it’s central Mississippi, but it put me on a bayou rice farm in South Louisiana. Ms. Catherine goes to work pristine even as she spends the next eleven hours yanking the guts out of chickens. And she shows up even more pristine and elegant on Sunday in church. The strains of “Higher Ground” echoed in my head, but I found myself wandering in the fields of OutKast and into the story of how Kiese became a writer.

My veterans’ writing group will be discussing this:

What my English teachers didn’t say was that voices aren’t discovered fully formed, they are built and shaped—and not just by words, punctuation, and sentences, but by the author’s intended audience, by the composition’s form, and by subject.

I doubt anyone in our group has heard of OutKast, but these guys can learn from André 3000 and Big Boi – and most especially from Kiese.

Which leads me to my larger point. Jesmyn Ward wrote this book to explore her feelings about Baldwin’s message to black people. White people need to read This Time and Next Time more than we do. But like much else, I suspect it will remain our eloquent and well-kept secret.

How Far They Have Fallen

cosa

The arrest of John Gotti’s grandson made me think of my father, who could have received a bachelor’s degree in Mob studies. He would have been sorely disappointed that these charges involved drugs. Here’s a repost of something I wrote a few years ago.

My dad was fascinated with Cosa Nostra. He read everything he could find, fiction and non-fiction. When I lived in Philadelphia he pestered me with questions about the activities of the local dons and their henchmen. I kept telling him that I didn’t travel in those circles, and it was dangerous, potentially lethal, to have inside knowledge. I remember once talking to a neighbor who casually mentioned when and where the next hit was going down. I asked, “How do you know?” “Oh,” he replied, “my sister married a mobster.” A great title for a book, I thought. Imagine my surprise the following week when a body showed up in the trunk of a car in the location he mentioned.

My repeated efforts to deny any first-hand knowledge did not deter my father, so I dutifully clipped from the newspaper all information I could find about the hits, the battle with the New York mob for control of Atlantic City, the fight over whether to get into the drug racket. Angelo “the Gentle Don” Bruno enforced a no-drug policy. Loan sharking, prostitution, numbers were all OK but no narcotics. And he enforced his rule. I was working across the street from the church where his funeral was held. We kept taking breaks to play Spot the FBI. We lost count after the first ten.

My favorite incident was an attack in a South Phila. restaurant in which Nick Scarfo Jr. took eight bullets and lived. If I recall, Papa Scarfo was in prison at that point. The shooting happened at Dante and Luigi’s, where I’d eaten dinner a couple of weeks before. The best part? The shooting happened on Halloween, and the gunman wore a Batman mask.

The day after the shooting, the newspapers published a photo of Junior with the bullet holes drawn in. A woman wrote to the paper saying that she had left the page open on the table. When she came back, her five-year-old was wielding a pencil. She asked what he was doing. He replied, “Connecting the dots, of course.” The paper published another picture entitled “Nicky Dot to Dot.” I don’t think anyone was ever charged with the crime, even though the restaurant was full of patrons. The consensus was the hit man had to be a member of a Phila. crime family because the New York mobsters and the FBI had better aim.

Daddy was particularly fascinated by the nicknames. Besides the Gentle Don, Phila. had Philip “Chicken Man” Testa and Steve “Steakie” Vento, which I think trump Vincent “the Chin” Gigante (New York) and Stephen “the Rifleman” Flemmi (Boston). That latter became a star in the gruesome tale of the Winter Hill Gang, featuring “Whitey” Bulger who committed the worst crime of being a rat. Our local Connecticut folks didn’t do too poorly in the name department, either: Anthony “the Genius” Megale (he wasn’t) and William “the Wild Guy” Grasso. Not wild enough to escape a Mafia execution.

The number of monikers that refer to food may or may not be a comment on the nature of the business. These names are brought to you courtesy of One Wal . Artichoke King, Benny Eggs, Big Tuna, Cheesebox, Joe Bananas, Joe the Grocer, Johnny Sausage, Peanuts, Tony Tea Bags, and Yeast Baron.

All of this Mafia naming came up because I read a wonderful story about a man who finished his father’s investigation into a 1975 Providence, R.I., break-in that netted some $30 million. The Pro-Jo story concentrated on the reporter’s dogged pursuit of the truth and the son’s triumphant conclusion. I loved the fact that the son heard the Bonded Vault caper as a bedtime story.

Once again the cast of characters provided me with the most fun, especially Frank “Cadillac” Salemme and a New England favorite, former Providence mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, himself later a convicted felon. My favorite name of that crew was Louis “Baby Shacks” Manocchio, or maybe “Baby Shanks,” the former referring to his way with the ladies, the latter to his way with a knife, but maybe not with a veal shank.

For more fun with this ghoulish topic, I put my dad’s name into the Mob nickname generator. The first time he came back as George “The Jury-Tamperer” Petry. I updated for this post, and this time it was “Egg Man,” the corrupt politician. Great except I didn’t recognize Arnold Rothstein, the guy they named as his hero.

Here’s the low-down:

You know what’s going on in your neighborhood and the Mob knows that you know. To keep you quiet, they slip you a few things every now and then—some cash, a free meal for your family at a fine restaurant, a bottle of your favorite bootlegged whiskey. They’re not up to anything violent, so what’s the big deal?

Love it!

We’re Live!

Family copy

The James Family Letters documentary film project took another step today with the launch of the website. Many, many thanks to Cousin Julian James for making us look fabulous!

Please check in regularly for updates. And please click on “Contact Us” if you have questions.

What a thrill to take another step in this project!

RIP, Matt Ketchum

This is a repost of an entry I wrote on  August 9, 2011. I still miss him.

I have to pay greater tribute to my friend Matt Ketchum, brother to my best friend Marcia, than I did with that brief post on Facebook. The family moved to Old Saybrook when Marcia and I were about twelve years old. She and her brothers provided something I lacked – siblings. Marcia will always be my sister. And Matt was the younger brother who was sometimes in the way but always offered amusement. (He was never quite as pesty as their youngest brother, Mark. But that’s another story for another day.) I loved Matt’s laugh and the fact that he could make his mother absolutely wild by belching “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” especially when he did it at the breakfast table! He would of course follow this antic with a laugh that got better as he grew up.

We all sort of lost track of each other after college, but then reconnected in the last twenty (?!) years. I managed two visits to Marcia in Denver in the early/mid 1990s and enjoyed seeing Matt both times. He also stopped by on a tour of New England when he was considering relocating to the East Coast. I remember that great laugh when he said the woman at the Durham post office was shocked that he was vacationing in that little tiny farm town!

The thing everyone needs to know about Matt is that he was amazingly talented as a woodworker. As someone who has been visually challenged since birth, (lack of depth perception, nearsightedness, keratoconus) Matt impressed me doubly, triply as one of those people who could see the shape inside the wood. He captured it perfectly every time. That sort of visual talent is an utter mystery to me. I can only appreciate folks who have it. That includes Marcia and Mark, too. A definite family trait.

I’m digging around to find Matthew Ketchum pieces that I own, which Marcia gave me as a present many years ago. I wrapped them carefully and put the package away – and of course can’t find it now. When I locate it, I’ll post a photo.

The last time I saw Matt, he was in his immaculate workroom, making wooden bumpers for a billiard table. One of the big moving companies had broken the plastic ones and was paying Matt to replace them with gorgeous (and durable) wood – mahogany if memory serves.

On a larger scale, he created furniture for the board room of a Denver bank. And he followed his passion, which was making reproductions of antiques. I remember he told me he loved “antiquing” new furniture by letting it sit under water off a pier in Long Island Sound to give it that patina of age. Needless to say the pieces he kept for himself made his house look like it should be on the cover of House and Garden.

So sad that such a talent is no longer with us. I’m still coming to terms with the fact of his death. RIP, Matt.