Monday, December 12, 2016

ON ESPN.COM SUNDAY THERE WAS THE HEADLINE that said, ‘Dak Needs All The Reps He Can Get’. Dak is the rookie quarterback for the Cowboys, Dak Prescott. Randy Moss is the one who said it. He’d know what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

Reps are important for a young quarterback. They’re important for you and me too. From bowling to yoga to learning how to fly fish to doing crossword puzzles.

When people ask me, out on the sidewalk where I hold my sign, what I would do about the failure of the schools to teach every school kid to read well, I often say, They need more reps. The schools have to see to it that the kids, who come from places where they didn’t read much or get read to much, get the chance in school to catch up with the curriculum that’s based on being able to read well. It can’t happen by putting college banners up in the hallways and classrooms of grade schools. It can’t happen by calling third graders scholars. It can only happen with reps. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

THE BURGUNDY POLYESTER PATAGONIA MESSENGER BAG, that I take with me with my sign to have a place to stash the big plastic Kinko’s bag, I hang on a steel pole right by the Department of Education Building where I stand in the mornings with the sign. I line myself up at the same angle to it every day and if I wander up or back a step or two for whatever reason, I get back to my spot as soon as I realize I’ve gone too far afield.  I like seeing my bag there. I like the color. And I like to see the spine of the paperback I’m reading on the train showing from the pouch on the side of the bag I always turn toward me for that reason. I’m reading a green book now. The burgundy and the green looked good this morning against the gray stone of the building. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

FOUR DAYS WITH THE SIGN IN ITS KINKO’S BAG leaning against the wall with nowhere to go. You’re supposed to like days off. I used to love a snow day. Now I find myself missing standing on Chambers Street with the sign. It was good to catch the 6 train downtown this morning. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

IT WAS COLD ON CHAMBERS STREET this morning. The wind was blowing harder downtown than where I live and there were a couple times I had to laugh to myself when the sign almost flew out of my hands while I was adjusting the knit cap I wear on cold mornings. I laughed because I must have looked funny standing there in the wind to the folks crawling by in their warm cars in the morning crush of traffic. 

Some of them beep to let me know they agree with the sign. Some roll down their windows and give me a thumbs-up or quick take a picture of the sign with their phones. Now and then someone will ask out their window what my deal is, but I can’t really make out what they’re saying because they’re doing big construction work on a building across the street and that drowns out the exchange. I grin and nod back at them. 

One guy walking by me today said, because it was so cold and windy, ‘That’s dedication!’ That I could hear. It makes me feel good to hear that. Not because it’s about me, in the normal sense of me. But because it corroborates this rewarding feeling of being useful which I’ve had since the message of the sign came to me.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

ON SUNDAY AT THE AGNES MARTIN EXHIBIT at the Guggenheim my middle daughter had a cynical post-election Hillary pin on and a long face--still. She's that way. A die-hard for Hillary. She wasn't even sure she'd be up for the museum, much as she wanted to see my sister in from out of town. Inside the Guggenheim I noticed her on her own looking closely at the art. She was deep into it, like she can be. I don't know what it said to her, but it certainly spoke to her. I could see that.
Today I met a friend in from Cleveland for breakfast near Lincoln Center. I happened to pass by a Trump building a few blocks from there. It was cordoned off. I always hated the look of his buidlings. I'm not just saying that now. It was good to get to Lincoln Center and all the impressive, artful buildngs there.
Art will save us now, if we let it. But we have to go to it.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

NOT EVERYBODY GETS THE SIGN. Some don’t want to. You can see it on their faces. Who are you to be holding that sign? We don’t need you to tell us. Don’t remind us.

Maurice gets it. Gets it as much anyone maybe. He stopped yesterday. Skinny black guy. Probably not my age. Silk baseball jacket on. Matching baseball cap. Both with the logo of the security company he works for. He was heading to work. He tapped my sign right in the center to let me know that the message was at the core of what’s needed. He said that the young kids do wild things because they’re frustrated. He said frustration is the root of all the problems. He tapped the sign again and said that would keep them from being so frustrated. He re-emphasized that notion, and said the sign was a good thing, keep up the fight. And headed off to work. 

Then he turned and came back and fist bumped me, asked me my name and told me his.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I HAVE AN ALMOST-50-YEAR-OLD LONDON FOG LIGHT-TAN RAINCOAT that my mother sent me money to buy in the campus store in South Bend, Indiana that I wear when it’s just sprinkling and I want to hold my sign to show the people it matters more than enough--as in, I think it could change the world--to get a little wet. Part of my street cred with the sign comes from my consistency. ‘Man, you’re here every day.’

It was raining too hard though today. Not too hard for me. I’ve got that raincoat and a couple different baseball caps I could wear. But the sign could get ruined if it’s sopping rain.

I never want to miss a day, which is a pretty powerful sign of its own. Today especially I wanted to be there, to stand as mindfully as I could for Gwen Ifill.

Monday, November 14, 2016

THIS MORNING THERE WAS A BIG DELIVERY TRUCK parked with one leg up on the sidewalk right by where I stand with my sign. When that happens—and it’s happened more than a few times—I think I’m just adding to the narrowing of the sidewalk space for people heading to work or school. I think about going home. I think about going to the diner for breakfast lately. Since the election, I think about eggs and toast and, hash browns and ketchup a lot. The hash browns mostly. I must crave some comfort from the warmth and texture. After 9/11 I found myself craving Jameson Irish whiskey. I’d go up to a bar near me in the East Village every night that first week and order a shot of Jameson with my first pint, which was not the normal schedule. Sometimes two shots. A couple weeks later I read somewhere that bars noticed how many more shots they poured after 9/11.

I stayed my hour today. The truck was there the whole time. I’m glad I stayed. I sense from the faces, that since Wednesday, the sign is maybe some people’s Jameson, some people’s warm breakfast.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

I WENT TO SLEEP LAST NIGHT with the election outcome in doubt. I knew I had to get up at 6:00 to get ready to go out with my sign. I hoped what would happen was that I’d wake up at like 4:00 in the morning and reach for my phone and find that my team had won on a walk-off home run. That’s happened to me more than a few times. I was counting on it happening this morning. But the phone had a CNN alert on the screen that led with the words Donald Trump. No joy in Mudville.

Downtown where I hold my sign for an hour each morning in front of the Dept. Of Education Building, I knew that some of the people who I see every day would think I’d have some special take on the election results. Some walked by me with exaggerated faces of sadness thinking I’d reflect a similar look back at them. They think I’m Mr. Activist because I’m there with my sign. Some flash me peace signs. Some raise a black power fist, which says to me how few people are activists anymore, that I get mistaken for a radical, which I’m not, at least by my historical definition.

A few people stopped and wanted to talk about last night. If I had been in a bar and I still drank, I’d have talked all day about it. But all I said was, I’m not going to give him my day.

I stood there today especially focused on why I was there and on what my sign said. Sometimes my mind wanders for a minute and I bring it back and set my feet and hold my sign straight. Today because I’d just read J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, I thought about Seymour, and I held it for the Fat Lady.

Monday, November 7, 2016

VOTING DAY TOMORROW. No school here, so no holding the sign. My daughter will take her twins with her to her voting place in her neighborhood tomorrow. Historic day, she thinks. It probably will be. I hope Hillary is good for the school kids who the sign is about. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

DAY TWO AND I’M ALREADY INCLINED TO skip what I said might be an everyday blog routine. I held my sign of course this morning for almost an hour. It was cold for just a crew neck sweater and a knit cap. It’s colder downtown. But I didn’t wear my gloves. I had them in my Patagonia bag that I keep just off the sidewalk, but I like the way the edge of the sign feels on my fingers. I try to hold it mindfully for an hour. Mindfully is a trendy concept now, but it does describe what I try to do with the sign. The sign is everything. I’m just the guy with the easy, small-town demeanor holding it. Three people today asked if they could take pictures of me with the sign. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

SOME YOUNG WOMEN, SOMETIMES YOUNG MEN, pass by the sign and me, with strollers to
take their younger kid or kids along, while they drop off their older child at the pre-school on the block. One tall mother--Indian, I’d say almost certainly--stopped in front of me yesterday and, with a British accent that made me throw my shoulders back, asked about the sign. I told her that the sentence on the sign came to me on my couch one afternoon and I felt it was my duty to pass that message on. She nodded, and immediately mentioned Black city kids. She recognized, she said, after just being in the states for six months, that the ‘achievement gap’ was a pressing issue, and rightly assumed that my sign was mostly aimed at that ever-present disparity.

She said she’d recently seen some short documentary film on TV showing the differences in the facilities between a middle class white school and a poor Black school. It was startling news to her. I said, probably too cynically, that such reports were things we’ve been seeing and reading about for decades here. I told her that’s why I hold the sign, hoping that its message might penetrate the system and make the system put reading at the very center of everything. It would give direction to the whole enterprise. Whatever was needed to make certain that every kid was taught to read well would be implemented. The schools which now seem ‘underclass’ would have to be brought up to high standards to get the job done. The school system could not wait until society’s inequalities were brought into balance to make the transformation to a reading-well-before-all-else curriculum. In fact, I said, equality will not happen until this reading success is achieved. Which is what I believe most of all. Which is why I’m there every day.

She and I will talk more I think. 

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.

Brent Staples praised this book in the Times enough to make me buy it. I just got it. Haven’t read anything but the dust jacket. It’s the story of a black newspaper in Chicago that’s been going since 1905. It’s over 600 pages. Imagine the history.