Friday, March 4, 2016

What’s The Deal With The Sign?

Or how inspiration came to a 64-year-old guy at home on his couch.

There’s a man in a plain London Fog raincoat. The collar’s never up. I see him lighting a cigarette every morning in front of the Dept. of Education Building on Chambers Street where I hold my sign. It’s where he works. It looks like it’s a special cigarette time for him. Like it’s his first of the day. He doesn’t smoke it casually. There’s a delicacy about it. He looks like a quiet doctor. European-born  maybe.  An introvert for sure. He’s a curiosity to me. Who waits to light up until they get right in front of their workplace, just before entering?  You usually smoke on the way to work and then flip the butt out into the street, like you’re heading into an AA meeting.

I noticed him for the first time four and a half years ago. Seeing him again today got me thinking about this sign thing I do.

I’d for years thought about kids and reading. I loved to read when I was young. Mostly sports pages and sports magazines. Whether at the kitchen table under a warm yellow overhead light enhanced by the white light from the window that the table was right up against or in the big chair in my father’s office where he read from when he got home from work until he went to bed or in my bed with the radio playing on the nightstand and the gooseneck lamp lighting up my pages like a big flashlight.

I loved playing sports and was good at them, but when I got to high school, a Jesuit boarding school of all things, I stopped playing them after freshman year. It was during that year that I’d discovered Ray Bradbury. It was a whole new life after that. I couldn’t spend every afternoon in a gym or on a field. I needed time to read and think about things in a new way. The Maharishi says the mind goes to what gives it the most pleasure. Books gave me more pleasure.

When I got to college, I spent more time reading books I was drawn to than going to class and reading the assigned chapters of books that didn’t seem as relevant  to me as titles I’d found on bookstore racks and shelves. It was the late ‘60s. The racks and shelves were filled with exciting books. You could fit a Kurt Vonnegut paperback in the back pocket of your jeans.

Fast forward past a young marriage and three children and an early divorce while teaching school to beat being drafted to go to Vietnam, and then running a bookstore, and then starting a weekly alternative paper.  I eventually, inevitably came to New York 20 years ago with an idea of starting a national book magazine, like a Rolling Stone for books. I couldn’t make it happen. Too much money was needed. And money was a sport I wasn’t good at. I worked on and off for some weekly papers here. Tried again to start that book magazine.  Taught school. Read a lot. Looked for the right thing to do.

Five years ago I started this newsletter.

It’s the greatest thing for me every month to walk around town with a backpack filled with newsletters and drop off copies at some libraries and bookstores and coffee shops. 
The theme of each issue has remained the same: The sinful failure of New York City’s public schools to teach the kids in the poor parts of the city to read.  And it’s not just my take on things. The numbers on tests show it. Year after year.  The numbers are so bad, that the issue seldom gets talked about in the papers. Or on TV or on the public radio shows where they ought to talk about it all the time when they aren’t talking about restaurants. It’s not that schools aren’t talked about. It’s that reading isn’t.  And to me it’s the only thing to talk about when talking about schools. Eva Moskowitz and her charter schools here wouldn’t  exist if the public schools had been teaching kids to read. 

One afternoon six months or so into putting out acityReader, an inspiration, what else to call it I don’t know,  came. I’m sitting on the couch where I’m sitting now and the image of a sign comes into my mind and it says ‘Why Not Teach Every School Kid to Read Well.’ With a period, not a question mark. I said it once to myself. It sounded right. Exactly right. I emailed the woman in Brooklyn who lays out the newsletter every month and asked her to format a sign with that sentence on it. She did, and I took the design up the street to Kinko’s and they showed me how they could make a sign for me.

The next morning I took the #6 train downtown to the end of the line and took the sign out of the big Kinko’s bag and stood in front of the building where the Dept. of Education is housed. This was totally out of character for me. I don’t have a public self. Neither of my hands is a glad hand.  But the sign wanted to be held. I would do it. At 64 years of age, I had a mission. I would go there every day. I would hold the sign for an hour from 8:00 to 9:00.

One of the people I noticed that first day was a guy in a trench coat lighting a cigarette, with a match, not a lighter. He looked like an unlikely smoker. I wondered what I looked like to him.

The way the light hits the cars that go by me as I stand there on the sidewalk keeps me from seeing in the windows.  Some drivers must sense this. They’ll roll their windows down and give me a thumbs-up. Others will sometimes honk their horn a couple times. Mostly the sign is angled so the people walking by me can read it.

When my alarm goes off at 6:14, I get up like a kid, eagerly like it’s Saturday morning. I meditate like the Maharishi‘s followers in Lakewood, Ohio  instructed me 40 years ago. Eat something.  Throw on some clothes that I think make me not look too bookish or at all like a politician, and grab my sign and head out the door, knowing it’s the best thing I’ll do all day. Who knows what will come of it?  I like not knowing.

Recently the guy in the London Fog has been acknowledging me. In his reserved way. Before he heads into the big building.

Only in books do we learn what’s really going on.
 Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without A Country

By Its Cover

The joy of going with your instincts

I’m not a big museum-goer. Twice a year maybe. I seldom go to the galleries in Chelsea. More out of inertia than anything else.  Or maybe I just like to look at art in books more than I like walking around rooms of art.

I like to read about artists. Especially if they live in places like New Mexico, off by themselves.  Agnes Martin fills that bill perfectly.  This book was everything I was looking for, everything the design of its cover implied.  Now I’m looking forward to the big show of her work coming to the Guggenheim in the fall.

Be a Regular

Having a favorite bookstore is a reason to live here.

An advantage of living in a city like this is that you can walk to a bookstore. Some have closed in the last few years. St. Mark’s Bookshop just closed for good.  But you can still get to one on foot.

I’ll sometimes order sneakers online. Or Christmas toys for my five grandchildren.  But books, no. The neighborhood stores are too integral to a community to bypass. If you live in a borough that’s without one,  find one near where you work. It makes for a better life. It’s civilization at its best.

I’m surprised everybody doesn’t get this every week. Not that I never have gripes with it.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Where The Wild Things Are
Reading deals with real-life scary 
things that TV doesn’t.

I don’t watch any TV series except when sometimes I’ll see an old 'Seinfeld.' Frequently I can go all day and night without turning on the television.  This might be why:

I met a friend maybe 12 years ago for a lunch at a place on Third Avenue that had just opened, Blue 9 Burger.  It was supposed to be a big deal, burgers like you get in California. We sat by the window in front. We were going to the movies almost next door within the hour. It was Memorial Day. We talked about the girls going by on the sidewalk, sports, our kids. We were both divorced.  About halfway through our burgers, a young Latino guy came in and walked past our table with a noticeable intensity. You sensed he was honked-off about something.  Enough that I kept looking at him as he headed toward where you ordered your food. He didn’t stop there. He went to the right, into the kitchen, and soon you could hear pots and pans banging off the floor and off the wall. He must have been called in to work on his day off and he was pissed. It made our hearts pound. It was scary. We couldn’t eat. We couldn’t hear what was being said, but you could hear angry intensity in the voices. You can get scared over things like that. Squealing tires can scare you. A guy running through traffic in midday to get away from something can scare you, make your heart go. 

TV doesn’t give you that. Pots and pans banging? Intense voices? Disgruntled employee without a gun? That’s more the stuff of comedy on TV. You need a gun pushed between someone’s eyebrows to scare you on TV, or piano wire around someone’s neck, and even that doesn’t really scare you, not like the noises in the kitchen scared my buddy and me sitting in the window in a new burger place on a sunny day.  So what’s the point of TV, I thought, and its crime shows and its ’gritty’ shows, if it can’t capture real-life fear? It seemed a waste of time. What could you be learning? You need books for that.

What then about kids and adults who can’t read well enough to turn the TV off and read something that’s more real, scary even? Imagine if you were stuck with no alternative to TV. Life would be different if you had no escape from the tube. You’d be restless. You’d eat more junk. TV makes you hungry for junk food. You couldn’t even sit with a game on and look at the newspaper or a magazine. If you couldn’t read well, you wouldn’t buy a paper or get a magazine in the mail. You’d have to just sit there staring at timeouts and commercials, or talk on the phone, or text all night, or play a game on your phone, or listen to tunes. Nothing deeply quiet like reading to go to. Nothing orderly in front of you like comfortably-layered lines of type on a white background.

You couldn’t live that way, without things to read around you.  You’d want more.
Most of the graduates of the city’s schools won’t live with books and magazines and newspapers around them. They don’t read at a high enough level to be able to be to read well enough to read a book. Too many kids here graduate without the ability to read well.  What are they going to do with their lives? Watch TV all the time? Netflix? Play phone games?

I did see a TV program last week.  It was on that channel that shows City Council meetings and the Mayor’s press conferences. The one I saw showed the Mayor at a school in Queens that had higher than normal graduation rates. The Chancellor was there and the school’s principal, and some students and some other adults. The Mayor talked about hopeful changes he’s made to the system.  Reading was mentioned.  But not emphasized above everything else.  It almost never is. The Times doesn’t emphasize reading like you’d think it would when it’s writing about the schools.  The biggest failure of the schools is not teaching every school kid to read well.  How can that not be the topic on the table every day at the Department of Education? TheTimes should have a reading writer. They have food writers galore. They have a ‘Frugal Travel’ writer. Aren’t the kids and their future, which I believe and so do you, will be determined by how well they learn to read, worthy of as much space as one-day’s TV listings a week? The TV listings get a whole page every day.  

What else is there but reading really? I almost don’t remember one thing I learned in school.  Whatever state capitals I remember came from staring at a paper placemat at a Howard Johnson’s. Reading on your own is what brings about learning during the school years. In sports pages and magazines, library books, ‘MAD' magazine, backs of baseball cards, even catalogs.

Here’s a poem by Jane Shore. I’ve liked her work when I’ve come across it over the last 20 years. I just bought three used books o f her poems.

The Sound of Sense

Through the heat register I can hear
my daughter reading in the room below,
eating breakfast in her usual chair
at the kitchen table, two white pages
of her open book throwing the blinding
pan of sunlight back at her downcast face.
I hear her chirping up and down the scale
but I can’t decipher a single word
as Emma learns to read. She’s in first grade
and has to read a new book every day,
a weight she carries between school
and home in her backpack, in a Ziploc
baggie, with her lunch—a nibbled sandwich
squashed into an aluminum foil ball
she’s crumpled hard as a chunk of pyrite.
She unzips the baggie and out falls
“The Farm,” eight pages long, more pamphlet
than book. Not much happens in the plot.
A farm, a barn, a boy, a cow that moos a lot.
The words are hard, but Emma sounds them out
one at a time, the O’s both long and short—
Cheerios bobbing in a lake of milk
in which her spoon trails like a drunken oar.
This morning her father, coaching her,
clears his throat, knocking his cup against what?
--I hear it clatter but can’t make it out.
“Hurry up,” he shouts “or you’ll miss the bus!”
I hear his imperative clearly enough,
but in the raised volume of her reply
the words are lost, garbled, caught in the throat
of the register’s winding ducts and vents.
In an hour or so, when the sunlight moves on,
a film will glaze the soured milk, like frost,
where the sodden O’s float, life preservers.
Now, over muffled clinks of silverware,
clattered plates, running water, morning din,
the sound of sense resumes its little dance.
I hear my daughter turn the title page,
then silence, then a spurt of words, false start,
hesitation, a spondee of some sort,
then an iamb, then an anapest, then
a pause, another iamb—that’s The End.
Then the scrape of wood on tile as Emma
pushes her chair away and clomps upstairs
to change from her pajamas into clothes.

Outside The Box
A more vivid look at the big world than TV gives you.

Anthony Bourdain takes you places. Even if sometimes you aren’t packed  to go. You walk in the room where your TV is and turn on CNN to see some real news on the weekend and there you are in Peru again while Bourdain oohs and aahs over some exotic  local dish at a big table.  It almost works.  (His now-classic book Kitchen Confidential worked very well.)

What really works well if you want to go places is Outside magazine.  I’ve hyped it to you before.  The writing is top-notch. The photography is worth the price of a subscription.  Mountains. Rivers. Lakes that look like they’ve been photo-shopped, they look so other-worldly. Snowboarders, hikers, missionaries. There’s a lot in each issue. Good ads too. Right in your lap. 

TIME and Again
Rediscovering an old standby

 I’ve been getting TIME in the mail every week for a year now.  I impulsively subscribed, not having seen it much since my father read it religiously when I was a kid. It used to be in friends’ houses too. And in the doctor’s office where I’d go regularly to get an allergy shot around fifth grade. I’m enjoying it. Sometimes I slip it in my back pocket and take it with me to the new pizza joint on the corner. There’s good light there. You learn more from it than from TV news.

We think we have to be on top of all the breaking news now.  I suppose that’s natural.  But there’s also a natural  rhythm to, and reason for, a weekly magazine like TIME. I recommend it, still.