Monday, October 20, 2014

Teenager In Love

How a high school kid was smitten by a book.

It’s 1963. I’m 16. I’m standing on the bottom step of a wide, curving staircase. I’m a junior at an all-boys Catholic boarding school just outside of Washington, DC. I’m in a wrinkled blue blazer, a button-down blue shirt, and an every-day striped tie. I’m too warm in the blazer in that autumn’s humidity. And I can’t wait to get up to my room to throw the wool coat off onto the bed, and to sit at my desk and have a cigarette and write a letter to my ‘hot’ girlfriend back home and listen to a song or two from a new folk music album that I’d bought the Saturday before. We were allowed to leave the school on Saturdays to take a city bus a half hour or more into DC.

If you were looking down at me from the landing of the staircase, you’d see I was by myself. You’d see I was standing sideways about to go up the stairs to my room on the third floor, looking back at something in the foyer of that main building where the headmaster’s office was and where just at that moment a bell had rung ending 9:30 classes. The door of the classroom closest to the foyer was pushed open to the relief of 20 or so seniors who poured out into the long hallway bumping each other and talking and laughing loudly under the high ceilings of the old building, in their heavy blazers, a few in seersucker or madras sports coats. Some wore desert boots, a couple guys dared saddles shoes or white bucks, many had on weejun loafers whose leather heels you could hear clapping against the hallway’s shiny marble floor.

If you were looking down at me and this crowd of older carefree teenage boys from a landing that allowed you to see down into the future, you’d maybe gasp, knowing that a little more than a month from then our rambunctious lives would go suddenly quiet. The school was just down the road from Bethesda Naval Hospital where the body of President Kennedy was transported from Andrews Air Force Base that dark night in November when no wool would keep us warm. We were stunned kids that night and the few days after, all way too far from home.

On this morning I’m still watching the seniors rumbling out of the room where they’ve just had English class. Most of them are heading my way, about to then turn away from where I’m standing to go out the heavy tall doors to the front of the school to continue their talking and, for those many who smoked then, to have a cigarette. Brotherless, I would often watch the older guys to see how they acted. That’s what has me stopped on the first step this day. They look like college guys to me. Many of them are bigger than I am. Some of their blazers are almost threadbare. A few have masking tape on their old loafers to keep the loose soles from flapping. It’s their last year. They are choosing where they will go the next year. Many will choose schools like Georgetown, or Holy Cross. Some will get into the Ivy League. A few will head out to the midwest to go to Notre Dame.

Beyond watching what they are wearing or how they are laughing, I am for some reason this day, fixed on what the lead guy has in his right hand, the one closest to me. He walks near me, unaware of me, before veering away toward the big doors. He is carrying a notebook and a paperback book. The book is what they must be reading for class and it gets my attention this day. His wrist is covering some of it, but I can read the title. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  I am transfixed by it. I want to be that guy. I want to be reading that book. The way he’s carrying it. The way the book looks. The title. It feels important to me to go where that book might lead me. I watch it go out the door with him. Then I turn and go up the big stairs to my room.

I have always cared about books. I would go into the library in my small town a lot. My friends who I
played sports with and talked about girls with didn’t go. I was drawn to the shelves and titles. I would roam the rooms of the library which was in an old house. The library in the next town over where my girlfriend lived had a bigger library. It too was in an old house. It was on Main Street. We’d sometimes stop in there on our way to the Sugar Bowl where we’d go to have cokes and french fries. They had a good juke box in the Sugar Bowl and I’d play songs by the Crystals and Skeeter Davis.

Where I live now is close to a library. I stop in almost every day. I go to bookstores, too. My favorite is a 20 minute walk away in the West Village. The big Barnes & Noble is less than 10 minutes away and I frequently go in there and roam around. Sometimes I even take photos of books that look good to me. All the places I go have paperback copies of  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If I see a new edition, I buy it. I’ve read it more than a few times. We never did read it in the AP English class in my senior year like I thought we would. The teacher did though read us two stories by a promising new author named John Updike.

In the library and the bookstores I go in now, they have Teen sections. They give a lot of space to teen books. They have displays where new titles are showcased. Some of the books have wonderfully-designed covers. I wonder how many kids are buying them. I wonder how many school kids can read them. The library has a Teen section too with some of the same books. I wonder if the kids in the poor sections of the city can read them. If so many kids in the city can’t read near their grade level, how can they be interested in these teen books, or any books?

This Smarts

Why some countries are besting the U.S. in school

You wondered if you were reading right when you read how Finland’s and other countries’ schools had blown by us in language and math. You maybe came up with your own explanations. Amanda Ripley studied it and now you can read her better informed explanations.

She followed three U.S. kids who went to school in South Korea, Poland, and Finland for a year. What they and she learned is eye-opening. It isn’t money. We spend the most. What don’t we do that they do? Ripley found out.
Out of Africa

The war in Biafra gave birth to Doctors Without Borders

With the Ebola crisis, you read about Doctors Without Borders more now; you see what they do on TV. They seem fearless. They do all they can. They could do more with more help from us. They are mostly privately funded. 80% of their resources come from donations.

I’ve only given them $25. But they send me their magazine. It highlights the problems they’re working on. You’ll be glad you sent them something. So will they and those they help.

Not Portnoy’s complaint; my complaint: How Come Philip Roth again didn’t get the Nobel Prize?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Sign Abides

It’s three years now that I’ve held the sign.
Its message rings as true as ever.

I stand there like a fly fisherman. People swimming by the sign and me in the stream that is the sidewalk in front of the building that houses the Department of Education on Chambers Street.

I’m on my third sign. The corners get bent; the whole sign eventually starts to curl like a playing-card soldier in a vintage Disney cartoon. I’ll need another fresh one soon.

I see familiar faces on the subway with my sign in the morning on my way to Chambers Street. I was born in a rural town of 2000 people in the western part of the state; seeing familiar faces feels natural and right to me.

Some people on the train try to read the sign through the bag it’s in, one of those big translucent bags from Kinko’s.

I still like the way the sign looks. The way the letters are sized. The white space. A period rather than a question mark. A woman who worked at a weekly paper with me designed it.

The book I’m currently reading on the train, when I’m not moving the sign like a gate so people can get by,  is a novel by a young guy named Ben Lerner who lives in Brooklyn. I just finished reading his first novel a week ago. In the new one, there’s this epigraph, just before the story begins:

The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.

To come upon special thoughts like that and words put together like that are why people read. I stand in the stream every day in the hopes that the kids who can’t read well will be taught how, so they can have their own special reading experiences. Everything should be done to see that that happens.

You wonder why, in the 10 years that the kids are required by law to attend school, they don’t learn to read well. You think that maybe the schools don’t have their priorities straight. What could they be doing in 10 years that doesn’t allow for the kids to learn to read well? Well enough so they can read books on the subway. It’s a sin, isn’t, that so many of the city’s school kids can’t really read.

Runners and bicycle riders going by the sign give the most enthusiastic thumbs-up. And some drivers hold up traffic, stopping their cars and rolling down their windows to take a photo of the sign.

In the Catholic all-boys high school I went to, some of us took four years of Latin. There’s a Latin phrase, sine qua non, that means ‘without which nothing’. That’s what the ability to read well is to being a real student in school, and a real member of the culture when the school years are done. It is the indispensable ingredient that is needed to be confidently active in our society. Without it, there’s not much. Almost nothing really. Some people who can’t read well pass my sign and it takes them a long time to read it.

Some people, not just foreigners, who walk by don’t seem to be able to read it at all. I worry that the sign is humiliating them.

Here’s what I think some days when I’m standing there with the sign: The schools know what they’ve been doing hasn’t worked. They know they’ve failed to teach almost 80% of their students to read at their grade level. That’s such a failure that they must recognize that they have to make radical changes to the curriculum. They must know that to do the same thing another year is going to result in the same failure. But no one dares stand up and say that. No one wants to say it because they worry that no one in the city, no parent for sure, wants to hear what no Mets, Jets, Knicks, or Giant, or Yankee fan wants to hear, that this year is going to be a rebuilding year. No one wants to hear that. But that’s what has to be done. New ideas, new blood.
This losing can’t go on. 80% failure?

Some people smile with such fervor at the sign, I’m moved.

I didn’t write the sign’s message. It came to me one afternoon more than three years ago. With the period, not a question mark.

I think the message on the sign could change the world. That’s really all I should say when people stop on Chambers Street and ask me why I stand there every day.
Old and New Again
Fresh editions of classic books are sweet

I have four paperback copies of Ulysses in my apartment, actually maybe five (the place is a little messy), each with a different cover, and a different size slightly. That’s why I have four (or five). I’ve found each new package irresistible.

We all like buying stuff. Books are what I like to browse among and choose among. You may like to do that with wine or regional beers or music or expensive foreign fashion magazines or tennis shoes. Some people can’t resist a flea market.

The newest copy of Ulysses, this one in the picture, is designed by Peter Mendelsund. Google him, and look at his other covers. He’s got a new book out about design. It’s good looking. It’ll be in your bookstore. 
The Summer of 1975
A very memorable purchase

After teaching in Cleveland for six years right out of college, I wanted to try something else. I’d always liked books and there was a classic bookshop there that I was very taken with. You couldn’t not be. The first time I went in there, this Gertrude Stein book is what I bought. I even have a note in the front, by the date, that it was the first book I ever bought there.  I think I sensed that the place was going to be in my life somehow. But I couldn’t have guessed then that I’d eventually be a part owner of the place. I just came across the book—again—a few weeks ago when I was looking through a box for something else. I can remember the day I bought it, where it was on the shelf. I can see my hand on it, knowing that I’d be getting it, knowing that it would be a smart book. 

Postcard from 2001 drawn by Art Spiegelman. If we buy our books in bookstores, we can keep that country alive. That’s the only way.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Reading James Baldwin Again

Sadly, not many of the city’s school kids are, or can.

James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain is my train book now. I read it on the subway from 23rd Street to Chambers Street where I hold my sign, and back again. I keep it in my Patagonia book bag, and only take it out on those morning rides. I get a few pages read a day. 

Besides reminding me what a vividly talented and necessary writer James Baldwin was at such a young age, the book gets me riled up thinking how, if it means something to me, a gray-headed 67-year-old white man sitting there on the train, it would mean a world more to a teenage black kid. I guess I mean by that, boys mostly, but girls too. But boys come to mind because the week before LeBron chose to go back to Cleveland the paper there ran an almost-week-long story about a much-loved white tavern owner close to my age who was killed by five young black men, one who worked for him, at lunch time in his place. Their mug shots show five faces that look like they never read Go Tell It on the Mountain. Worse, they don’t look like they could have read it.

Neither do the young men that I watched on CNN one night last week that are dying, and causing the dying, in Chicago, with frightening frequency. CNN showed similar scenes of such homicidal randomness going on here, too. No books were reported to have been found in the hip pockets of any of the living, or the dead.

There are no bookstores in the neighborhoods those young men come from (or came from, in the case of the dead young victims) in Cleveland or New York or Chicago. Their mean streets are not a classic movie with a cool sound track that they watch, credits too, in NYU T-shirts. You and I don’t know how mean their streets really are, no matter that I’m reading, have read for 50 years, books like Baldwin’s. Besides not having bookstores there, there aren’t enough jobs there, or fathers there whose sports pages at the kitchen table might have triggered in their sons a daily hunger for reading. Not much on those streets would find a way to get a James Baldwin book into their hands.

The only place they might find a book like that would be in their school. That’s likely the only place they might find a person who would press such a book into their hands. The only place with a librarian who would know about what kids their age would be interested in reading, someone who could make suggestions to them about all sorts of books that might speak to them, books that might light a light for them, be a companion to them, be an inspiration.

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.      -James Baldwin

Most of the faces on the young men I’m talking about, the ones with the guns who shoot other men and teenagers, have an empty look; they look like they didn’t go to school for a day, let alone till they were 16, which they had to have done, by law. You’ve seen those faces.

But all of them did go to school. What happened there? Or what didn’t happen there, that left them looking that way?

Cultures require schools. It’s where the books are. No matter the neighborhood. It’s where every kid gets a desk of their own. It’s where there’s a teacher, an adult who can read well, who can show them how to read, and show them all kinds of books and magazines that they might like. It’s a place to come every day where there are bright lights in rooms with big windows. There’s a library in the school too. A school is a perfect place to give order and promise to kids from the neighborhood. And it’s the place where all their friends go.

It continually seems a sin to me that the schools don’t teach every school kid to read well enough to eventually read James Baldwin. In the 10 or 12 years that the kids go to school every day because the law and the culture say they must, they should be helped to read easily. They should be able to read any book in the school’s library by the time they’re ready to graduate. But that doesn’t happen. Not in Cleveland, not in Chicago, not here in New York City.

You have to wonder if reading is the top priority of the city’s schools. You, who are reading this, may not have considered that. You read easily and the people you know do too. But tens of thousands of kids in the city’s schools don’t read well. Kids who’ve been going to school for years. Kids with a home room, and a desk of their own. Kids who see their friends there. Kids who have teachers. Kids who go from September to June. They’ve been going every year since they were six. Most of them don’t read nearly as well as they’re supposed to.

Things can’t keep being done at school like they’re being done now. The kids from the book-less
neighborhoods are being let down by the schools where all the books are. That seems crazy to me. It’s why I hold my sign.

They should try this: They should accept once and for all, that teaching these kids to read is what they’re there for. It’s what the kids need. It’s what the culture needs. I can’t think of one other priority that could rival reading. The schools should make sure that everything that goes on, in the schools that have failed, will be to get each student to be a facile reader. Not an OK reader. A good reader. The kids lives depend on it. A James Baldwin book should be as easy for them to read when they’re 16 as it was for you and me. This is of the gravest importance.

I think, having thought on it for some time, that the lost young men who are staring at us from mug shots, wouldn’t be, if the schools had done their job. The dead would be alive.
A Great Bookstore Makes a Move

St. Mark’s Bookshop picks a new neighborhood

I love it when people don’t give up. Especially when the trends are trending against them.

St. Mark’s Bookshop, the legendary intelligent store, on 9th Street and Third Avenue, for reasons of rent, is
moving further east to 136 East 3rd Street, a few storefronts west of Avenue A. I walked past the space a week ago. There was no sign up yet. The door was open so carpenters could go in and out. It’s a smaller space. But that will make for a good fit in that neighborhood. You probably don’t get down there often. It’s a cool part of town. Some part of you will wish you lived there. Go there to see the store. It’ll open any day, or may have already by the time you read this.

How great for the street, a famous bookstore. My street doesn’t have one.
The Land of No Plugs or Wires

Escaping to a city park

You feel lucky to be there when you’re sitting in a park. Living here, you might miss a back yard or a porch if you grew up with one. But when you’re on a bench in the shade with a book or a magazine or a newspaper and a cup of tea or coffee, you feel like you’re on vacation in a place you wished you lived.

I have four parks within a 15-minute stroll. To grab a book or the mail, and get out of the apartment, it’s a big perk of living here. And the people you see there. TV can’t compete. And there are enough vendors or bodegas or restaurants right across the street; you can stay for hours. Go Forth.

One of the great collections of stories. If you said they were the greatest stories, I couldn’t argue with you. This week I started reading them again. I feel lucky to be.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Day The Music Died

And other things that happened outside of school.

I was the first one who heard that Buddy Holly died. My friends were in school. I had talked my mother into letting me stay home that day. It was winter and I told her I had a sore throat. Some days I just couldn’t go. Even though the Catholic grade school where I was in 6th grade was right across the street. Some days I just wanted to stay home in bed and read the sports page and listen to the radio.

I think my mother understood. She was a little restless herself and knew about boredom. When I stayed home, she’d prop a big pillow-with-arms behind me. For lunch she’d bring me tomato soup with sometimes oyster crackers and a peanut butter sandwich with strawberry or raspberry jam on it.  There would be Canada Dry ginger ale, and always for dessert, lemon sherbet. She put the food on a little tray -table in front of me on top of my blanket.

Later, she’d leave me there and go the few blocks down to the one-block-long Main Street in our little town, and she’d go into Engel’s Cigar Store, where she seldom had reason to go, and buy three or four sports magazines that she hoped she was choosing right, and bring them home to me. She didn’t want me to look bored to her, or to sleep all day, or to just listen to the radio. She wanted me to read the rest of the day. She knew that would be a more stimulating way to spend my time.

While she was on Main Street, the news came over my radio on the nightstand that Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper had been killed in a plane crash in Iowa. It was hard to sit there in bed all alone with this knowledge. I wanted to tell my friends in the school I could see right out my window. I wanted to run over there. We all knew these singers. We all had older brothers and sisters who had their records. I liked Buddy Holly better than I liked Elvis who seemed like sort of a caricature to me, though I didn’t know that word then.

Two weeks ago while I was holding my sign, with its message of WHY NOT TEACH EVERY SCHOOL KID TO READ WELL, on the sidewalk in front of the Dept. of Education, two guys walked toward me.  They both were lean and alert like Bryan Cranston, and one of them said to me, ‘Oh God yes, I totally agree. I’m a teacher’. His partner, a few yards after they’d passed, smugly said, over his shoulder. ‘They’re not interested in learning to read.’ Yikes. That was the most cynical thing anyone’s said to me in the almost three years I’ve been standing there with my sign. I’ve been thinking about it ever since he said it in that tone of voice he used. My mother comes into it, when I think about it.  She knew what I wanted to read. She knew what would get me to be interested in reading. She knew to get me those sports magazines from the cigar store.

My father comes into it, too. He read all evening when he came home from work. He’d make himself a drink first, and then, in his cozy office/den, with a fireplace he’d even sometimes light in summer, he’d start to go through the newspapers and magazines that were in a stack on the ottoman in front of his chair. He read all the time. And he encouraged it in me. He would try to get me to read things in the paper beyond the sports page. He’d point out front page stories and hand me the paper. He’d fold the Wall Street Journal in half, length-wise, and show me the daily long essay that began on page one and tell me how I ought to get in the habit of reading it. I didn’t, of course. But I got his message about how much he cared about newspapers, and reading of any kind. So it surprised me when later in life he told me that he didn’t like to read when he was a kid, and that it had worried his father. So his father went down to maybe the same cigar store my mother went to and bought him some Nick Carter detective stories. I’d never heard of Nick Carter, but I later found out that they were hard-boiled tales for adult men that every other parent would have forbidden their kids to read.  Nick’s stories apparently worked for my father. My grandfather knew what would work.
Like my mother knew.

It got me thinking, and I’m still thinking about it. What If kids could read whatever they wanted? What if they don't want to read The Diary of Anne Frank or Sounder or The Book Thief or Great Expectations or To Kill a Mockingbird?, which they don’t really, at least not in school, not along with everybody else. Who wants to read the same book as everybody else is reading and then compete with everybody to see who can raise their hand and give the teacher the answer she wants to hear? Ugh. Kids want contraband. They don’t want books their teachers think are good. Anymore than they’d want to listen to music their teachers suggested. Think about it. A lot of kids think books and reading are boring. It’s music they go to for emotional information and stimulation. Or movies. What if they had their Nick Carter equivalent in school? Or all the sports magazines they wanted? Or music magazines or fashion magazines? People, US, Fast Company, XXL, Rolling Stone. Vogue, with Rihanna on the cover. Don’t you think they’d like to read those? Rather than leave their books behind in their locker when they were supposed to be taking them home, they’d try to steal these magazines. That’s what you want kids to want to do. You want them to want to steal the book they like it so.

When I moved here 17 years ago, one of the good bookstores I’d go in kept Jack Kerouac books and J.D.
Salinger books and Kurt Vonnegut books, and maybe some others, behind the counter, because kids would steal them from the shelves. That excited me to know that.

I think kids in the city schools should be able to read what they want. I think that would galvanize them to read. They would grow to want more than sports magazines, more than Nick Carter. Many of them would find the books that are important. And they would find out for themselves why they are. They’re going to need teachers who have an instinct for it though, like my mother and my grandfather had it. They’re going to need English majors at the very least to help them, and let them help themselves to reading what their natures are drawn to. English majors would know how that works. That’s the best thing I’ve thought of to answer the guy who bothered me the way he said what he said over his shoulder.

Better Rivers Than Amazon
Local bookstores are the way to go

Of course the parts of the city that have the reading needs that made me make my sign don’t have
neighborhood bookstores. That’s tragic.  Imagine how different part of the block would be if there were a good bookstore with a good window display. There used to be bookstores all over town. Fewer and fewer now. We all know that.

This book has writers from around the country write about their favorite bookstores. Towns or cities you might not think of as bookish, have a good store that means something to the community. We have some good ones still left here. But their rents aren’t getting any cheaper. Forget Amazon, that’s not like going in a real store. It’s just easy. Easy is what got our society in trouble; made us fat, too. Start tomorrow; no more Amazon. Look for a store that seems to fit you, and be a regular. 
Your Library Needs You Right Now
It only takes a minute

Libraries here are busier than ever. I see it at my neighborhood branch, Epiphany. It’s hard to find a seat
some days. The libraries need more money to keep up with the demands. They need more books. They need more computers. I think they need more hours, too. Some days they don’t open till noon. That’s crazy, in the cultural capital of the world.

There are form letters in the entrance to my branch now that they ask you to please sign. They are to convince the Mayor and City Council to increase funding for libraries in the next budget. You can find them at your branch, or you can sign online at It takes a minute at most. Do it now, before you forget.  It’s your town.

Grabbed a Voice the other day. I rarely do anymore. I never see anyone with one. I read through it while I ate at a diner counter. Bigger, better pages than Time Out New York.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Will The City’s Pre-K Be Another Losing Game?

What will they do differently to make it a win for the kids?

They used to think I’d be a sports writer. I still follow a lot of the games. No fantasy
leagues for me. But I keep up. I use sports to explain things sometimes. Here’s what the old Giants coach Bill Parcells said when he was asked if his team wasn’t better than its won-lost record. He said, ‘You are what your record says you are’. I wouldn’t want to live in the same building as Bill Parcells, but I’ll tip my hat to him for that quote.

This city’s public schools have a terrible record when it comes to teaching kids to read. Especially the poor kids. Maybe one out of five of the poor kids can read at their grade level. They don’t improve on their grade-level performance as they go up (are passed-on) in grades. If they stay in school long enough to graduate, and you wonder why they would if they can’t really read, there are still only 20% of them who are capable of reading (maybe) like a senior in high school is supposed to be able to.

Parcells would make the mayors and the chancellors who oversaw these losing seasons, run laps, do push-ups. In front of the kids. He’d tell ‘em, ‘You are what your record says you are’. He’d be mad, like only he could be.

If a team was doing that bad, a 1-4 record, they almost surely wouldn’t be favored in their next game. Well, their next game is the Pre-K Bowl. That’s their big game. That’s the one the coach has pinned up on the bulletin board. What are they going to do different this time? What new wrinkles are they going to add to their game plan? Are they going to scrap what they’ve been doing poorly and try something new? Are they going to have longer practices? Are they going to call old coaching buddies who have winning records in these kinds of games? What are they going to do different? What they do now isn’t working. They’re 1-4. They are what their record says they are.

As a young kid, I’d get up early on school days and pad out to the kitchen in my pajamas where my mother was drinking coffee and doing the crossword puzzle. I gingerly did this. I knew she liked her private time in the early morning stillness, before she had to fix breakfast for her husband and her kids, when it was dark out the shiny window in front of her, the window that reflected her there with the yellow light above her that lit up the fresh paper and her sharp yellow pencil just so. There was no radio on. The dark TV was in another room with its little doors closed. She’d look over at me and smile and feign excitement that I was there. But I knew she wanted to be alone. And I wanted to be alone too. I just wanted to get the sports page that was next to her. I didn’t need her smile. I certainly didn’t need a hug. I didn’t want any questions about breakfast yet. I just wanted my part of the paper. I wanted to read about the Celtics or Willie Mays or Notre Dame.

My mother’s been dead for 40 years. I get to read my morning paper all by myself now, under my own yellow light. She’d be sad that I’m long-divorced, but she’d understand. I could tell she was a loner like me. I knew it early on, when I’d come out to the kitchen and intrude upon her solitude those mornings when I was itching for the sports page and my own privacy.

When I got older and moved away and had kids of my own, I started my own newspaper. It was a free weekly, inspired by The Village Voice. We had sports in it. Of course.

Now I have my cityReader. This issue #48 makes it four years. My mother would like it.

I was just out in Jackson Wyoming, where my youngest daughter lives. She was born the very night we learned my mother had cancer that wasn’t going to be cured. My mother got to hold her just once. The daughter, named after my mother, has three daughters of her own. She reads three books to them every night at bedtime. Without fail. If they’re screwing around too much at dinner, a big threat is that if they don’t stop, they won’t get their books read to them that night. The oldest granddaughter is in first grade at the public school out there and can read now. I try not to make too big a deal of it to her, but it’s a big deal.

My two grandchildren here are in pre-K at a private school. One of those Notting Hill-type places where even a kid with an Irish last name’s first name is Winston. They can’t read yet. They’re twins, boy and girl. They don’t settle down quickly at bedtime in the room they share. But they have all sorts of flashlights and light-up toys that they use to look at books until they fall asleep. Next year they’ll go to the public school near them. It’s supposed to be a good one. J.D. Salinger went there. But it’s a New York City Public School and you keep your fingers crossed. If my daughter could afford it, they’d go to a private school like the one Winston will probably go to.

They’ll learn to read well, no matter the school. But all the kids won’t. That’s why I’ll keep putting out cityReader as long as I can. If I had more money, I’d put one out every week. It means more to me than the sports page now. I want every school kid to read well. It’s the mother of everything.

In the library in Jackson, Wyoming, I picked a thin book from the shelf. It was by Annie Dillard and I’d read it before, owned it at one time. It doesn’t exactly apply to what I’m talking about. But I think it’s important to share with you a few lines from it, one reader to another:

Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. We should amass half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.
Ol’ Satch Is Still Around

His arm is still warm at the library

If you take your kids to the library, and take your coat
off and put your phone away, you’ll find treats. The
kids will look at so many books, you’ll worry that they’re taking too many off the shelf. They’ll squeal in excitement over some and you’ll think you should shush them. But the ceilings are usually high in libraries and their enthusiasm won’t bother a soul.

There are story hours at all the branches. Don’t miss them. Get the kids a library card. Do you have one yourself? 
You and I Didn’t Discover Polar Bears, or ‘Green’

Our parents were way ahead of us

I thought my parents were dull and old, and annoying, 
because of the way they instinctively turned the lights 
out in rooms they weren’t in. They scolded us if we didn’t. And they kept the shades drawn to keep the house cool in summer. And they hardly ever turned the TV on. And they got National Geographic every month. It was always around.

We now think we’re discovering the North and South Poles and polar bears. After decades of thinking Jack Nicholson and Mick Jagger were the coolest guys, we’re suddenly walking around in hiking shoes with dark socks on and being the gentle people.

As long as we’ve become our parents, we ought to read their magazine. 

Don’t miss the documentary,  Finding Vivian Maier. It’s at IFC and Lincoln Plaza.

Monday, March 10, 2014

What Would I Do?

Here’s the answer I gave when a friend asked me last week over

What would you do about it? Someone I hadn’t seen in a few years asked me that the other day. We were having coffee, not far from Times Square.

I never have the same ready answer. Reading Academies was what came out of my mouth this time. I said I’d call all the schools here Reading Academies. People look at me when I say that. He looked at me. I assume they want to know what I mean. It’s such a phony-sounding thing: Reading Academies. I think they’re surprised I’d be for that.

So then I say that the schools should make certain that all the kids they have can read easily. That should be the goal, before anything else. Going to college should not be the goal. Learning to read well should be. College will take care of itself if they can read well. The way it too often is now is that many kids who can’t read well at all are going to college. Of course they aren’t really going to college. They’re taking remedial classes. Three quarters of the New York City public school kids who enter the city college system here, need remedial work. Who’s been letting this go on? Someone (almost everyone apparently) must think it justifies the public school system by having a lot of kids going to college, even if they aren’t prepared, by them, to go to college. Even if they can’t read well enough to read the text books or the literature books.

That’s preposterous, don’t you think? You don’t have to answer. Of course you think it is.

So, I’d stop running the schools the way they’re run now. They haven’t been working for poor kids for a very long time. Way before No Child Left Behind and ‘testing’. Way before charter schools and Common Core. That’s, of course, why those programs sprang up. 75% of the public school kids here aren’t reading well at all when their high school days are completed. And that’s after 10 or 12 years of going to school here in New York City. You wouldn’t think that. You wouldn’t think that here, where Random House is, and Scholastic is, and the New Yorker is, and the Times Book Review is, that such failure at reading would go on; would be allowed to go on.

I believe that if the schools were transformed into Reading Academies, things would be much better. For everyone. Reading Academies would, by their very nature, place reading at the center of their mission, and their curriculum. They would set the standard by which pre-K’s and kindergartens were structured and measured. Everyone would know that beginning with first grade, the school system was going to require reasonable but strict standards in reading for promotion. There would be no exceptions. Parents would have to know this clearly, of course. Eventually everyone would know it, like everyone in Green Bay knows when football season starts. It’d be in the air here. Like it should have always been in New York City. Why isn’t it? Why does New York, the media/cultural/publishing capital of the world, do no better than other big cities at teaching its most-crucially-in-need-of-knowing-how-to-read students how to read?

If all the schools here focused on reading for all 12 years (and not just in schools where poor kids go; all schools), the teaching staff would need to be different. The Reading Academies would need to be staffed with many teachers who were English majors in college. English majors love to read and write. They’re who you’d want in the academies. People who liked to work with books and who like to work with sentences. People who would not accept their students reading poorly and who would read themselves when the kids had quiet time to read.

English majors have a tough time finding jobs that have to do with their love of language. Teaching in New York City would be a dream job for many of them. Especially in these Reading Academies where reading and language would be at the core of the school day.

If these academies, with their staffs of English majors (of course, there’d be science majors and math majors, too; no more education majors though) are going to run efficiently and joyfully (and why shouldn’t they run joyfully?), there would have to be reasonable quiet in the school. You can’t read and write in noise. The principal and his or her staff would have to maintain order. It’s not a job for English majors or science majors or history majors or math majors. The principal would have to see to that. But it would be easier to keep order in a Reading Academy than in an old school. Reading Academies have right in their name what they’re about. And reading requires quiet. Kids in the hall would know why they have to keep it down. Those in charge of keeping order would have a real reason to tell noisemakers to be quiet; not ‘just because I said so’.

On another day, over coffee, maybe something else would have come out of my mouth, when I was asked what I would do.  There are certainly other things to do, but the schools where the kids go every day must be different than they are now, and changing them to Reading Academies would be a way to make them different, and better.

All I really remember of my early years in school, besides my friends up and down the aisles, has to do with books and pages. All the pages had words on them, even the math books. Before school, there was the morning paper’s sports page to read. After school, there was an afternoon paper with scores from the late night games in California. When the mail came there was always a magazine like Life or Look or the Saturday Evening Post or Collier's or Time or National Geographic or Sports Illustrated. My father read four newspapers, before and after running a big company, every day. He could seldom be coaxed to come in the living room and watch TV with us. He had so much interesting stuff to read.

I’ve got interesting stuff to read too. Books and magazines and newspapers. I am reading four books right now. Two novels and two histories. Actually I’ve got five going. I forgot about the book I have in my bag that I’m reading on the subway every weekday on my way to hold my sign. It’s Jane Jacobs’ famous book about cities. The other night I couldn’t sleep. I tried sports talk on the radio to put me back to sleep, but the commercials are so loud at that time of night that I almost screamed back at them. So, I turned the little clock-radio off and I turned the light on and I got up and grabbed a mass market paperback off the shelf, because it jumped out at me as books do when you need them. It was Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. I went right to Zooey, and in the wonderfully funny bathroom exchange between a son and his mother, I got what I needed to get right enough with the world to go back to sleep. Thank God for books.

My father built a new public library in my little hometown before he died. He’d be shocked if he knew how the schools here in the big city he loved to come visit and do business in failed at teaching so many of its school kids to read well. We should all be shocked.

Take Your Kid

Or take the kid in you there

The aisles are nice and wide so you can easily bend down or kneel to see the books on the lower shelves.
There’s room to sit and look at books in the big aisles too. There’s room for strollers.

I don’t go in there enough. When I do, I say I should come once a week. There’s good coffee and sweets and a few sandwiches in a little cafĂ© area. Some arty high schoolers were sitting in there when I was there. That was cool, too. There are books for kids like them in the store.  There are first editions and famous illustrations for sale in back.

It’s Books of Wonder, like the bag says, on 18th Street between 5th and 6th, south side of the street. See you there maybe.
The ‘X’ Factor

If you can’t read well, you can’t read this book

If kids read poorly, they have no chance of understanding books like this. They’re left with the movie, which is never the same. It never is. You want a book like this to be a bible for you, if Malcolm’s your guy. You don’t just want a movie.

A book is the only entertainment that can be just yours. You can find and read a book on your own, at your pace. Everybody’s seeing the same movies, and TV shows. How radical is that?

An irresistible cover. What if every first grader had books like this?
They can have them. They’re at the library.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


That’s where I got to know my first memorable mayor.

‘Beany’ Pealer was the first mayor I noticed. It was in the early 1960s, in my small hometown, in a rural county somewhere southwest of the Finger Lakes. I was a young teenager who liked to hang around our one-block-long Main Street, going in and out of the stores, buying gum or candy, and baseball cards, or something from the little bakery run by a family of bright-orange-haired Fitzpatricks, looking at sports magazines and the paperback book racks, and at all sorts of stuff, giggling with my buddies, sometimes being asked to leave the stores. I wasn’t old enough then to hang in the pool hall, which is what I wanted to do. Of course. That’s where the cool older guys hung out. Smoking. Drinking pop. Playing the juke box. Talking about girls. Swearing in loud inventive ways at each other. ‘Beany’ Pealer ran the pool hall. There was a shoeshine chair in the front of the place by the window. The 60-year-old mayor of the town would shine your shoes for you for a dollar.

Right after college I moved to Cleveland where I’d found a job teaching English and Reading to 6th graders in an ‘inner-city’ school. I was married with a month-old daughter, and I needed a deferment from the draft. Teaching school got you out of going to Vietnam. (One of the kids who used to hang around Main Street with us, didn’t get a deferment, and he was killed in the war. For years, when I‘d go back to the little town, a small military flag memorializing his death in the jungle hung in his family’s front window.)

It was 1969 when I got to Cleveland, and handsome Carl Stokes was the mayor. He was America’s first black mayor of a major city. Teaching in the inner-city, having historic Carl Stokes as the mayor, made Cleveland seem like part of The Movement to me. Some years later Dennis Kucinich became the mayor of Cleveland. He was little, but that was big. Movement-like, again. The whole country watched him take on bullying utilities and bankers. I reconnected with him for a minute in New Hampshire maybe 10 years ago when I happened to be there visiting a favorite cousin from my old hometown during the primary when Dennis was running for president. I saw him in a crowd of TV cameras and lights, his big familiar teeth whiter than they’d been in Cleveland. We hugged hello and chatted for a few minutes, each professing to the other that seeing each other had made our day.

So, I don’t know how much a character this new mayor here is supposed to seem to me. I mean, after ‘Beany’ Pealer and Carl Stokes and little Dennis.

De Blasio’s not a rambling, inventive, radical talker like Norman Mailer was when he ran for mayor, but I suppose after Mike Bloomberg they have to position him as a real progressive, and even as a radical.  He doesn’t look like one. To me, he looks too much like the old basketball coach, Digger Phelps, to be a radical. But we’ll see. I like that he is letting the newsstand guy stay at Astor Place. I like that I heard he wants the cars and trucks and buses to slow down. It’s beyond insane that they barrel through the city streets and through red lights with impunity. It’s a sin that the city lets it go on.

Like it’s a sin that it allows its schools to keep passing on students who can’t read well.

Here’s something I read recently and posted on Facebook:

IN A CNN STORY llast week, Willingham said her research of 183 football or basketball players at the University of North Carolina from 2004 to 2012 found 60 percent reading at fourth-to eighth-grade levels and roughly 10 percent below a third-grade level. She said she worked with one men's basketball player early in her 10-year tenure who couldn't read or write.

The University of North Carolina, in my mind, is one of the good public universities. Like Wisconsin maybe, or the University of Virginia. Or just a cut below. Anyway, you’d think that any student there, jock or not, would read better than that research showed. And I’m not naive. I know a lot of jocks get a break. I know they have tutors and they all study together and they have advisors that know easy courses and easy professors. But how, with only grade school proficiency, can they even read the simplest text books or handouts or short stories in English class? How can they really function as college students?

I’d ask the new mayor if he has any plan to make it so no high school grads from the public schools here read that poorly. He hasn’t made any statement about reading at all. Neither has his new Chancellor. I’ve read about cutting back on testing and I’ve read about limiting some things charter schools do now. I’ve read about taxes to get money for city-wide pre-K. But really nothing about reading. At all.

A few people who walk by my sign have made comments to me that maybe now things will improve. They mean, I assume, that de Blasio will start to implement what my sign suggests; WHY NOT TEACH EVERY SCHOOL KID TO READ WELL. I don’t respond, other than with a little smile and with my eyes raised in a way that says I hope so. I try not to look cynical.

Sometimes I’d go in the pool hall with a buddy of mine who was older. He was Beany’s kid. The guys that hung out in the pool hall were all characters. They were funny. One guy was known as Publius. He called himself that. He must have taken a little Latin in school. Another guy was called, of all things, ‘the mayor’. He was from a tiny little clump of houses outside of town. His parents ran the gas station-with-a-little-store along the highway. I guess that’s why he was called the mayor. He was a very good pool player. I can still see his three fingers rhythmically moving under the front of the cue as he got ready to softly strike his shot.

These guys were not doing much homework or on the debate team or on the yearbook staff at the high school. They were thinking about cars. Or Elvis. Or girls. Or beer. Some had rubbers in their wallets. But they could read. They read car mags and sports magazines and skin magazines. There were music magazines then, with lyrics to the latest tunes. They probably read those. Even though they weren’t going to go on to college, they could read better than those kids who couldn’t read much at all at the University of North Carolina.

New York City is very different from that part of the state. It has things those of us on Main Street couldn’t have even imagined; sophisticated, artful things, and unspeakably impoverished things. It’s a big place to be the mayor of. One thing the new mayor talks about is narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor here. I’ve got a sign with a message that could tell him where to start.
My Book In Hiding
The mammoth novel I swear I’m going to get to

In my top books all-time, I’d put Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard right near the top. Sometimes
I say it’s the best. I’ve only read a couple of his other books. One on Buddhism. One on some fishermen
on Long Island. The big book of his that I know I’ve got to read is Shadow Country, a huge historical novel. I have it at home in a beautiful paperback.
But it intimidates me. 892 pages.

At my branch library, I noticed it wrongly-shelved among the mystery books. I've picked it up and held it. It feels better than my paperback. I think I’ll read it in little portions at the library, carefully putting it back where it doesn't really belong.
For A Shelf-Centered Guy…
It’s unbelievably great to have a library branch just two blocks

You can’t stay in your apartment too long. That’s why there are bars everywhere here. Why sit in your apartment and watch a game when you can walk less than a block and have a beer and bullshit with some guy about the game? That’s a heaven for me.

Another heaven, a daytime heaven, is to pack up my notebooks, and maybe my laptop (I say maybe because part of the fun of escaping the apartment is to get away from the computer), and go to the Epiphany branch of the NYPL on East 23rd Street. Since it recently re-opened after months of structural work, I come six days a week. Lucky me, I say to myself.

Stop at your local branch. Pick up one of these magazines. Start to hang out there.