Friday, June 26, 2015

Didn’t anything else happen at school today then, Karl Ove?’ Dad said.

I nodded and swallowed.

‘We’re going to have a swimming class,’ I said. ‘Six lessons. At another school.’

‘There you go,’ Dad said, running the back of his hand across his mouth, without removing the ribbon of onion from his beard. ‘That’s not a bad idea. You can’t live on an island and not be able to swim.’

In the first cityReader, over four years ago now, I used a swimming metaphor about how you can’t live on an island and not know how to swim, to make the point that you can’t live in our culture and not know how to read. I said there were kids drowning all over the city.

This supper-time exchange takes place in Book 3 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. He is six years old here; he just started first grade. The family lives on a kind of island. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

I break my rule too often. I say I’m not going to get in a hot discussion with people who
stop by my sign to tell me what the cause of the problem is. I tell myself that the sign is the message and the answer; it came to me fully-formed, with a period. I should just stand behind the sign, I tell myself, and let the words of the sign speak.  I love the words of the sign. I like the way they look on the sign. It surprises me that I do still like it so much after four years. I’m usually a tinkerer. I cut my own hair.

I can often tell when they’re yards away that they’re going to land on me. The ones who don’t like the period and want a question mark are easy to spot. They give off an air like Peterman. I just tell them I like the dot. Or I tell them a question mark would change the meaning. They don’t accept that for a second, and strut away. Haughtily. Like Peterman would. Though he’d be cuter doing it than the people I’m talking about.

‘It’s the parents' fault’ is the one I hear the most. As many black people say it as white people; maybe more.

‘It’s all about money’ a lot of people say, some doing the Johnny Football thing.

The ones who get the most worked–up about it when they say it are the ones who say, ‘It’s the teachers union.’ Delivery guys will sometimes holler that from their trucks.

Now and then someone who works for the Dept. of Ed. whose building I’m standing in front of will come up and say they‘ve seen me there every day. Do I think they’re not teaching the kids to read well? That can get me going. I should just hold my sign up in front of my face then. I should just say you should see the smiles I get from poor people, the thumbs up I get from black kids on skateboards in flat-brimmed red Yankee caps, the Amens I get, the cars that honk, the cars that stop and roll down their window to take a picture of the sign. 

This morning though I talked too much. I can tell that I over-reached, still, five hours later.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

I see guys who sleep on plastic and cardboard on my walk along
the East River. You don’t know what to do for them. You know there’s some loose chain of shelters that takes them in at night if they aren’t too out of it to even get into that ‘system’. I spent a year some years ago volunteering to stay in a homeless shelter that was in a Quaker Meeting House. There were cots for them. Sheets and pillows. Towels and soap to wash up with. Food was there for them, some basic breakfast stuff too. It was a clean and orderly place as far as those places go. It had high ceilings, and the Quaker generosity was in the air. But by 8:00 a.m. they were back on the streets.

Guys like that hang out in the branch library I go to. They come in to use the bathroom. They sit on the soft chairs in the reading areas and pretend to read. They fall asleep and the guard shakes them. Better they sleep than talk to their buddies, I think. They’re way too loud sometimes. Now and then I gingerly tell them to please be quiet. No one else dares. Libraries should not be obligated that way, it seems to me. The city should care for them. Churches should leave their doors open. Libraries are important, too important, to reading lives, to be the refuge of people with no place to go who are not there to read. There should be other places for them.

When I think of how there are no good places for these people to go, I think about poor kids who have to learn to read to make it in this world. They do have a place to go. They have the schools. Each kid in the city has a desk in a well-lighted room. They have teachers and a place to eat. They can get breakfast and lunch for free if they don’t have enough money at home. There are books at school. Even if they don’t have any at home, which a lot of them don’t. They can take books home after school.

The infrastructure for learning is in place. There are enough schools and desks and teachers to teach every kid to read well enough to be a part of the culture. That has to happen. Whatever it takes. There’s no option. Other than the ones you read about, or see on TV, or on my walk along the East River.

I’m reading James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. You know it. You surely know the Walker Evans photos of the Alabama sharecroppers that Agee writes about in 1936. I’m reading it, again, as I start to write in this blog every day. I’m hoping for some of Agee’s daring, and immense writing genius, to get in me. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The last test, the one at graduation, is the one that counts.

Another school year ends. And this goes through your mind:

At the graduation gatherings in auditoriums where 18-year-old kids from the city’s public schools are getting diplomas, you wonder, could the principal of any of those schools hand the biography of Michelle Obama randomly to any one of those kids on any of those stages and be confident that they could read it as well as you or I could at 18? They should be able to.

The kids on those stages have been in the city’s schools since they were six.

I went to Harlem one evening two months ago to hear the author of the book sit down for a conversation with the head of the Schomburg Center where you ought to go sometime. They talked on stage in the auditorium and now and then behind them there would be a blown-up photo projected against the wall of Michelle Obama at different times in her life. You smiled at her determined face all along the way from early Chicago to White House DC. Your eyes almost watered over it all, it’s a good story. Older women in the crowd slowly nodded their heads as they looked at younger Michelle.  You thought to yourself as you sat there, with the stage five rows in front of you, about that graduation scenario. And you got mad at all the people, yourself and your culture and your easy background included, who conspired to make it so that not every graduate could read that book well, and so would not, on their own, likely read it at all.

It’s likely not a great biography. No one has said it is. But it’s one of those books that when you’re 18, if you’re drawn to it for whatever reason, can keep a dream going, or get one started. It’s a person to identify with. It’s a way of learning history, too. Most importantly, it’s a book. Your week, your month, your life is better when you’ve got a book going. God damn us all for not allowing that to be the way life will be for all those kids who are graduating this month in New York City.  They’re almost adults, with nothing but TV and music to help them solve things.

On the way up to Harlem that night on the #3 train at rush hour, I was reading one of J.D. Salinger’s famous paperbacks again, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction. A pretentious title to a book, or so it certainly seemed to me that evening, that couldn’t be whiter, to be reading on that train going to the Schomburg. But that’s the book that I had going that week. And the stimulation of it had my mind working in a way that made me make good on the opportunity to go hear two guys talk about the first lady’s book in a different part of town. 

Books, even unlikely ones, stimulate you that way. TV makes you want something to eat.

You’d think New York would do better for its school kids. You’d think the New York Times would beat the issue of city kids and reading almost to death. You’d think The New Yorker would devote a double issue to it at least once a year. Do you even know who the education writers are at either publication? Or the education reporter at NY1? I’ll bet you know who the movie critics are. The restaurant reviewers. In a city that has Random House, and Scholastic Books, Columbia University, Strand Bookstore, lions in front of its big library, WNYC, WNET, the 92nd Street Y where two of my grandchildren take swimming lessons, Conde’ Nast, museums, galleries. Walt Whitman lived here. You’d think the city would be very vigilant over literacy. Is this big cultured city a little too distracted and way too gaga over the High Line, and things like that? Is it so pleased with itself that it doesn’t want to really attend to the messy things? Like its poor kids, for instance.

I hold a sign every day for an hour downtown on Chambers Street in front of the big once-it-was-a-courthouse building where the Department of Education has its offices. I’m not a sign-holder by nature. I’m not a salesman, to a fault. But the words of this sign came to me, like you hear things come to people, one day four years ago (WHY NOT TEACH EVERY SCHOOL KID TO READ WELL.), and like the words came, so did the instinct (command?) to run up the street to Kinko’s that very hour and get a sign made. With a period, not a question mark. The next morning I went down to Chambers Street and held the sign.

A few weeks ago, a cool-looking black guy, maybe 40, was gliding down the sidewalk toward the sign and me on Chambers Street. It wasn’t crowded just then and he angled my way and, just as he was going by, smiled in a knowing way, and said, admiringly of the sign’s message, but cynically, as he looked up at the big Dept. of Ed building, ‘You think they gonna’ do that?’

You’d think people who see me, a 68-year-old guy, every day with the sign would think it’s crazy. But I don’t think they do.

"One night some twenty years ago, during a siege of mumps in our enormous family, my youngest sister, Franny, was moved, crib and all, into the ostensibly germ-free room I shared with my eldest brother, Seymour. I was fifteen, Seymour was seventeen. Along about two in the morning, the new roommate's crying wakened me. I lay in a still, neutral position for a few minutes listening to the racket, till I heard, or felt, Seymour stir in the bed next to mine. In those days, we kept a flashlight on the night table between us, for emergencies that, as far as I remember, never arose. Seymour turned it on and got out of bed. 'The bottle's on the stove, Mother said,' I told him. 'She isn't hungry.' He went over in the dark to the bookcase and beamed the flashlight slowly back and forth along the stacks. I sat up in bed. 'What are you going to do?' I said. 'I thought maybe I'd read something to her,' Seymour said, and took down a book. 'She's ten months old, for God's sake,' I said. 'I know,' Seymour said. 'They have ears. They can hear.'

-from Seymour an Introduction
Short Stories
The city’s libraries aren’t long on hours

I go to my branch almost every day. It’s just two blocks down the street and around the corner. Half the time I take my computer and write by a window that looks out on unvarnished East 23rd Street. I always look over the new books. I enjoy the habit of going there. I often go on Saturdays for an hour or so. I’m grateful to have a close-by library.

The branches here aren’t open 9:00-9:00 or 10:00-10:00 seven days a week like they are in the old suburb of Cleveland where I used to live, or in Wyoming where I go to visit one of my three kids. More like 10:00-6:00 on average and, not on Sunday. That’s pathetic/embarrassing/sinful for a city that thinks itself so literate and progressive. Where do city school kids do homework or write papers or do a project on their own or with their school friends? In crowded apartments, that’s where. Odd isn’t it? In such a sophisticated world city. How can it be so?
The Daily Show
a cityReader is going to go online every day, starting soon

This is the plan anyway. I’m going to write about books and kids and schools and reading every day on my blog. I should have been doing that all along. But I didn’t. I’m ready to now.

I have no idea how it will develop. I like not knowing.

Here’s the address: Or if you lose that, you can just Google ‘a city reader’ and it’ll show up.

Read the 8 ½ hour speech Bernie Sanders gave on the Senate floor in 2010. You, of course, can get it at your bookstore or your local library.