Tuesday, September 19, 2017


How books and reading can save your life. I think they saved mine.

I’ve mentioned this before. In college in the late 1960s there was an upperclassman on campus who stood outside the dining hall with a large bright tin can. He wore, in my pretty-certain memory, a loose white T shirt and light khakis with no crease and sandals. There was a California look about him in his easy clothes which seemed romantic to underclassman-me then who most days wanted to be in California or some place progressive rather than there in South Bend, Indiana. I’d only been to California once, a few years before, the summer Trini Lopez hit it big with ‘If I Had a Hammer’. There was something arresting to me about the way this guy stood with his shiny can and the small sign attached to it that asked for money for the poor people of Bangladesh. He had no guitar or love beads. Just the can. It has stayed with me, that picture of him there. He’s dead now I heard. And I’m 70.

There were TV shows then that we all watched. Movies you had to see. There were record albums that you had to have. We all read newspapers from Chicago to see what the progress of the war was in Vietnam. We couldn’t imagine going to war. We put quarters in the juke box and lit another cigarette. And talked about the war, and the songs, and sports.

We read Kurt Vonnegut. Professors and priests couldn’t keep up with him or Dylan or Herman Hesse or Portnoy. It was tough to go to class for a lot of us. There was more that mattered in the newspapers in the student center. There was more in the little Seeburg juke box menus on the wall in each booth. There was more in the paperback books we carried in our pockets.

It was the books that took me into other worlds, into other ways of seeing things. There were also magazines then that were much more radical than all the periodicals our parents got at home. They were companions to us who didn’t want to fight in a war. Racial issues were also often discussed in bold ways in those books and magazines. Women’s issues too. It was really where a lot of us got our education.

I first met Neal not long after my father died…I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it really had something to do with my father’s death and my awful feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Neal there really began for me that part of my life that you could call my life on the road.

Today of course there aren’t the books or readers like there were then. On the subway, you still see Kerouac books. On another train you might see Soul on Ice. I don’t know what new books are radical like those were. Are music and TV shows and Netflix movies the radical‘s companions now like books and magazines were and record albums were back then? I’m not fighting for the way it was. I just wonder.

I got this nudge from somewhere to make a sign a half a dozen years ago that had this sentence on it: WHY NOT TEACH EVERY SCHOOL KID TO READ WELL. I don’t know where that somewhere was. I had been thinking about city schools and poor kids and the failure of that combination. Especially in reading.  I had put out a few copies of acityReader which talked about my frustration over the year-after-year continuation of the reading gap. So maybe the sign was just the natural next step. It was certainly a natural step for a guy who wanted to be like the guy with the can, to have a passion for something like he did.

The message of the sign has indeed become my passion. Six years is it now that I’ve held it for an
hour every weekday that it isn’t raining or too, too cold in front of Dept of Education building in downtown Manhattan? It could be seven. I wouldn’t change a word on the sign, which is unusual for me. I tinker, I over-think things, I cut my own hair.

If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.
                                      -Herzog by Saul Bellow

You watch the Ken Burns Vietnam episodes on PBS and you remember those times when everything was intense. When you argued with your father over the war. When you rushed to take a couple of basic education courses so you could get a provisional teaching certificate and then get a job to teach in an inner city grade school which would give you a deferment from going in the army which you certainly didn’t want to do then since you had a baby daughter who was born the week before you graduated.

That daughter is 48 now and has kids of her own, and there are two other daughters and three other grandchildren.  And their long-divorced father wanted to text them the other night to tell them to watch the Ken Burns Vietnam series, so that they’d know him and their mother better and maybe excuse him easier. But they have their own shows. Everybody’s got their own shows.

Some mornings when I’m walking with my sign in its big Kinko’s bag from the subway to where I stand with it, I catch myself just ambling along not really thinking about what I’m there for. I run a sequence of images quickly through my mind that seem to focus me. The images are in black and white like an old newsreel. They are pictures I’ve seen of poor neighborhoods were hope doesn’t spring eternal. Places where it seems to me the surest way to give hope is to see to it that everybody in those scenes is taught to read well. That seems like a solution to a lot of things. I’m focused then. And I hold the sign like I believe it. Which I do. I believe it more than anything. I believe that it could change the world.

These are all our children. We will profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.

                                                       -James Baldwin

With Heart in Hand

A young Harvard grad, bred to do well, goes to do good in Arkansas.

This book is so well-written. You’re impressed with Harvard and her Taiwanese background and whatever else went onto making Michelle Kuo write so personally and honestly. She pulls no punches about herself or the hardscrabble environment she finds herself in. She takes things seriously.

She came to Helena, Arkansas in the Teach for America program. There’s no other way Helena and Michelle would have met. There’s no other way Michelle would have met Patrick, the African-American eighth grader whose life the book comes to focus on. It’s a challenge, this relationship. Michelle’s efforts to do right by him move you. You envy her moral compass. And her ability to tell a story. This is quite a book. 

Never on Sunday

Your neighborhood library isn’t open then. Crazy as that seems.

I’m writing this on a Sunday and it crossed my mind as it has many Sundays, maybe I’ll walk around the corner two blocks from here and go to the library, just to go somewhere between—or instead of-- the NFL games.  But alas, the libraries aren’t open here on Sundays. It shocks me every time I realize that. In New York City the libraries aren’t open on Sunday! Let them know you think that’s nuts the next time you go to your neighborhood branch.

Make sure you get a library card for yourself and get one for your kids. They’re good places. Even if they aren’t open as often as they are in almost every other place in the country. That’s weird. Isn’t it.

A Book for Now. Stimulating to read his words, feel his urgency.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017


So how come the neighborhood libraries close so early?

When you’ve let the starkness sink in that only 30%, if that, of the city’s poorest kids, black kids mainly, can read well at all, you notice things that bother you. Like neighborhood library hours. The city’s public libraries are open an embarrassing, meager amount of hours. If you were a kid who wanted to get out of the apartment after dinner and meet your friends to study at the local library like kids in Tarrytown do, or to go by yourself to use the library’s computer, or to go to read the new Vogue, good luck. They’re open till 7:00 only two or three nights a week. 7 o’clock? In the city that never sleeps?                                           

What small hours for the big city that’s the cultural capital of the world, that gets dressed up and goes out to those parties you see in Sunday’s Times. You’d think a town with Random House, the Harlem Renaissance, Scholastic, ‘Hamilton’, the 92nd Street Y, Frederick Douglass Boulevard, the New Yorker, would pride itself on being second to none in its library hours. With the rent we pay, with the taxes we pay, the libraries can’t stay open till 9:00 six nights a week and on Sunday like they do in the suburbs? Some days they don’t even open till noon.

The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly, I was discovering myself.
 Ta Nehisi Coates

I see they’re going to name a library uptown after Harry Belafonte. That’s great, New York. The city’s wonderful at surface things like that. New York’s got buildings and streets named after all sorts of people. Roberto Clemente, Golda Meir, Malcolm X, Helen Hayes. They have parties like you see in Sunday’s Times for the naming ceremonies. They air-kiss at those parties.

You wonder why New York doesn’t roll up its expensive shirt sleeves and get at keeping its neighborhood libraries open all day every day and well into the night. I was just in Jackson, Wyoming where I go four times a year because my youngest daughter and three granddaughters live out there. The Teton County Library there opens at 10:00 six mornings a week and just after lunch on Sunday and is open every night. I was talking to one of the librarians in Jackson and she said they’re considering opening at 9:00 in the morning. And this is in Wyoming where they have a cowboy riding a bucking bronco on their license plates.

It had always been my habit-- privately I felt it to be an ecstasy-- to enter, as into a mysterious vault, any public library. I was drawn to books that had been read before, novels that girls like myself had
cradled and cherished. In my mind-- I suppose in my isolation-- I seized on all those previous readers, and everyone who would read after me, as phantom companions and secret friends. 
― Cynthia Ozick

You wonder why New York City doesn’t have the best library hours of any city. You wonder why it doesn’t have the best reading results in its public schools of all the cities. You’d think the cultural, literate atmosphere of the town would challenge the schools and libraries. You’d think the city’s excellence in publishing and dance and art and theater and architecture and fashion would be reflected in the public schools performance.

You wonder why the paltry hours and the sinful reading levels are not discussed passionately, endlessly in the Times or in the New Yorker. Why was so much space in those publications given to what to do with the books in the basement of the big library on 42nd Street, and hardy any space given to what to do about how few hours the neighborhood libraries are open? Local papers and magazines give more space to restaurant reviews. More space to those party photos.

Libraries raised me.
--Ray Bradbury

They’re about to pick a book the whole city’s going to read. You’ve seen the promo for it: ONE
BOOK, ONE NEW YORK. They may have already chosen the book by the time you read this. Whichever one gets chosen, it will be a sensitive book, for sure, we’ll all be reading. New York will feel good about itself for its choice. But of course we won’t all be reading the book. 70% of the students in the city’s public schools won’t be able to read it like it was written to be read.

The city voted 90% for Hillary. You would extrapolate from that that in such a town the schools would not let poor kids down and the libraries would not close their doors like they do.

I was so inspired by Dr. King that in 1956, with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins - I was only 16 years old - we went down to the public library trying to check out some books, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for colors. It was a public library.
--John Lewis

The paltry library hours here tell you something. The city doesn’t care about some things you’d think it would care strongly about. These are libraries we’re talking about. They even have them in Wyoming. These aren’t skateboard parks that some towns emphasize and some don’t. These are libraries. In the publishing capital of the world. In the city where James Baldwin grew up. Where Walt Whitman lived. Where Bernard Malamud wrote The Assistant. Where I used to see Susan Sontag in bookstores. How can it be that the libraries are open less here than in the old inner-ring Cleveland suburb I moved here from 20 years ago?

The sign I hold every weekday for an hour in front of the building downtown where the Department of Education is housed says: WHY NOT TEACH EVERY SCHOOL KID TO READ WELL. You wouldn’t think in New York they’d need to be told that. But you wouldn’t think in New York the libraries would be dark so often either.

When I got my library card, that’s when my life began.
--Rita Mae Brown

Berkeley Girl in Mississippi

Joan Didion’s month down south

She went down south for a month in 1970. That picture on the back of the book could have been from that time. She had some notion about the Gulf Coast being a forerunner to coastal California. I don’t think she found much support for that theory. But she noticed a lot of things about the South. She felt the humidity every step of the way. Heard the curious way they talked down there. She sought out people’s thoughts on race, of course, like the white owner of a small radio station that played only black music.

She writes about it in her way. She’s very sensitive. One of those skinny girls who always had a sweater in her big purse in case it was too cold for her in the movies. When she sees flat brown Southern rivers she thinks of water moccasins. 

Jane’s Addiction

Jane Jacobs’ brilliant life-long defense of neighborhood life

You’ve heard about her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities for so long you think you’ve read it. The New York Review of Books called it ‘Perhaps the most influential work in the history of town planning…a work of literature.’

Jacobs came from Scranton to New York. She lived in and wrote about Greenwich Village. She thought about what made neighborhoods work and what things killed them. She fought powerful intrusive highway plans. She eventually moved to Toronto so her sons wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam. She wrote more and thought more and was seen as a saint of city life till the end.

         Still there at the cozy Morgan Library Museum through May. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

and other reading pleasures kids need to be able to enjoy.

Why I haven’t written a cityReader in months I’m not sure. Inertia is always a big reason we don’t do things. I could leave it at that, and not say anything about uncertainty over what to write about, or money, or the self-criticism I too often subject myself to for not doing more for the poorest city kids.

I’ve continued to hold the sign that says WHY NOT TEACH EVERY SCHOOL KID TO READ WELL in front of the Department of Education for an hour every day. I don’t think I’ve ever blown that off other than for severe weather reasons, and even on those mornings, I feel guilty for not going. I’ve held the sign for five and a half years. It’s part of my life. I’ll be 70 in June.  I feel lucky that I have something, beyond the personal, I care about so.

I’ve always liked the looks of schools. The Catholic grade school I went to in a town of 2,000 people in the western part of the state was right across the street from my house. I liked the way the windows looked on cold early mornings with warm yellow light filling them.  The school at that hour stood out from the trees and the dark telephone poles and the wooden houses around it. 

We’d go down the hall to the little school library once a week. We were supposed to be quiet as we walked by the other classrooms. If we were quiet, all you’d hear would be the nun’s hard heels hitting the hall’s buffed floor and the rustling of the big black rosary beads that hung from her waist.

You had to get a book.  I don’t remember the early books I picked, but as I got to be 10 years old, I’d take out the same sports book almost every week.  It was a regular-size hardback book like an adult book which made it appealing to me even if the pages weren’t as dense with type as grown-up books were.  I liked that it was well-worn.  To this day I like the looseness of a library book. 

I wrote this as a blog entry last month:

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 where I hold the sign. One mother stopped in front of me one day 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, I hope not 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 should 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.

I couldn’t tell you five important things I learned in grade school. Oh, I could still diagram a sentence the way the nuns showed us on the blackboard. Sometimes when they’d be at the board doing a diagram the chalk would get on the huge black sleeve of their habit. I could still do long division. I can recall a few photos from the social studies book. Not much else. But I could probably still name the athletes in that library book I took out every week.  It was a book called Champions in Sports and Spirit. It had separate chapters about Catholics who had made it big time in sports. That seems so parochial now. But then it was exciting for me to read about Bob Cousy the basketball star and Maurice Richard the great hockey player and the boxer Carmen Basilio and others I could name.  

I looked forward to going to the library. I liked the way the books looked. All the different sizes and colors. Some had good pictures on the dust jackets. Some had no dust jackets. I wonder if all the city kids go every week to their school library. Do they have a favorite book?

Do the teachers have a favorite book?  Is reading books a passion for the teachers?

I’d get English majors to teach here. They like to read. They’d like to deal with kids and books. And reading and writing. They’d like to live in the city. They like art and plays and bookstores and museums and galleries. They’d like Brooklyn. Why not recruit them to teach here? Reading is what you want the kids to learn and like. I got all A’s in school and I can’t remember five things. I remember that book though. Reading is everything.  English majors would know that in their bones. That’s what you want.

For Christmas my middle daughter who lives in Brooklyn got me the Bruce Springsteen autobiography, Born To Run. It’s a big deal. It’s #3 on the Times list of best-selling books.  But I’m not sure I’d have bought it. I have so many books stacked all over the apartment. I have so many books I haven’t read. Bruce I didn’t have to have in the way I had to have other books. But my daughter has good book instincts. I started it almost a week ago. I’m at page 300. As I get older I read slower because I think about things in a more reflective way than I did when I was young and born to run.

Bruce is a reader. He wrote a good book. I’m lucky to be reading it. Schools have to give every kid the chance to feel lucky that way. There’s nothing like it. 

The Close-by Place Where the Books Are

The city’s neighborhood libraries are needed more than they
apparently know

The libraries aren’t open enough here. The old inner-ring Cleveland suburb I lived in for over 25 years keeps these kinds of hours: Monday-Saturday 9:00-9:00, Sunday 1:00-9:00. You do the math. New York’s not even close. You wouldn’t think.

My neighborhood library is a great resource for me. I order books frequently. And it’s two blocks away. I’d love for it to be open at 9:00 every day, and till 9:00 every night, even Sunday night. That would be great. Think how students could use such hours. You’d go, if you knew such hours existed.

I wonder why New York is so puny about library hours. Did you realize it was?

First Grader Down South, 1960

Young Ruby Bridges goes it alone

I gave both sets of grandchildren this book for Christmas. I’d rediscovered the book’s author, Robert Coles, just recently. He’d been a major writer about children and poverty decades ago when we baby boomers were politically active. He was a role model.  I hadn’t known he wrote this children’s book in 1995 about a young girl standing alone before the ugly face of racism. I was curious, so I put in a request for it at the library. Ruby’s story was so moving and so wonderfully illustrated that I ordered a few copies at the bookstore.

On Christmas Day, my 8-year-old grandson with all sorts of electronic presents and new Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving shirts to try on, brought the book over to me and read it silently to himself shoulder to shoulder with me on the couch. He said he’d read it at school. He wanted me to know.

With all the sports online and on ESPN, it’s still a rush when this in the mailbox.  It’s better-looking than the visuals on the screens.  And it’s a getaway from all those lights.