THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER

Looking Back at the Corona Virus Ten Thousand Years from Now

by Kewulay Kamara

Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #17

Kewulay Kamara

Intro

You don’t even know what you know till somebody asks,” my friend Kewulay Kamara told me. Born in the village of Dankawalie in northeast Sierra Leone, Kewulay Kamara is a member of the finah clan who serve as the oral poets and masters of ceremony for their communities. He immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 17 and, as an adult, he carries on the finah tradition as a storyteller and filmmaker with his new tools – the computer and the camera. Kewulay is also part of the futurist movement, working with UNESCO as a consultant and performer for their Taskforce on Foresight and Strategic Planning throughout the world. As a storyteller, Kewulay continually asks me get beyond whatever we’re going through to think about how we want things to be remembered. So who better to ask how this horrific era in our history might be remembered ten thousand years from now?

Steve Zeitlin

 

 

In the spirit of the tradition that says: What is said is done and what is done is said, and of the persuasion that trusts that the infinite universe is created out of utterance, I want to tell the story today of COVID-19  as it will be told ten thousand (or even one million) years from now because, as Einstein foretold, chronological time is a fiction, and because what is said is done. I want to do this in the storytelling modality of the West African practice of libation. Let us stand on this earth 10,000 years from now, and pour a libation to honor the spirit of the ancestors who suffered through this pandemic. Let us begin by recounting events from way in the past and, at the same time, let us stand here today to project a future in the present. I will be there as I am here to witness today.

COVID-19 came at a time when the world had grown closer, when national borders seemed less important, and when the movement of people and things had begun to increase exponentially. The advent of COVID-19 had been predicted years in advance, yet its stealth, swiftness, and ferocity caused frantic course reversals: borders closed, neighbors masked, cities locked down, blocks blockaded, families separated, walls sprouting, and human immigration reversed like rivers flowing upstream. Everyone was advised to speak only with their mouth covered and their hands in their pockets; everyone was afraid even of their own lips.

The sages of the time sought to get a handle on The Mysterious Traveler.  It was not human, it was not a plant, it was not animal, and it was not spirit; it was neither male nor female. No one actually claimed they’d seen it with the naked eye, but they understood that the naked eye does not know its enemy. It was known by its mark.

They saw the mark in one place first, but before the people could come to terms with it, the marks were spreading everywhere. Confusion and panic set in at the very foundations of power. Its path was mysterious—that is why some started calling it the Mysterious Traveler. The MT was like a hurricane that swept through cities and towns with abandon. It did not speak anyone’s language. It did not discriminate. It spared not the high and mighty royals, neither the holy people on the mountain, nor the prostitute in the street, the destitute in the gutter, the feeble in the wind, the humble on the earth, neither the young nor the old. The so-called “good” and the so-called “bad” met the same fate it its path—yet some could get out of its way more easily than others. As always, the working poor, the people of color, and the health care workers who could not get around its deadly approach, and stood firm in the face of it, paid the highest price.

The MT struck with a vengeance, killing over 100,000, including many of those who were brave enough to care for the sick. Many died difficult, ugly deaths, strapped to ventilators, and were so contagious that they died alone, with no one to hear their final gasp.

To some it appeared that the MT had come to turn every human folly and concern upside down. Before MT, humans had been fixated on economic growth, which translated into senseless movements directed by their priest, who uttered daily oracles from the stock markets. Every human value was subsumed under the assumption that what was good for the market was good for all. To service the market, forests were cleared, the wilderness decimated, the rivers dammed, and the oceans reduced to cesspools. It all made sense in their calculus, their primary method of reckoning good and bad.

Kewulay Kamara with the blacksmith’s bellows handed down in his family. Photo by Tom Pich

With the MT came this headline:

Coronavirus: Mexicans demand a crackdown on Americans crossing the border.

It was a time when many predicted that a tide of African immigrants fleeing global warming would traverse deserts and meet a tragic demise baking in the sand under the sun, or that they would cross oceans, braving wild seas in flimsy traffickers’ boats, or face border dogs, armed guards, and razor wire fences on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. The MT saw this reversed. During the reign of the MT came another headline:

African countries close their borders to European travelers, adventurers, a move that should have been considered 400 years before.

For the world of animals and plants, the MT was a superhero: it was the Liberator, the Avenger. Every animal in the bush, fish in the oceans, and tree in the forests was given breathing space as a consequence of the stay-at-home commands. As soon as humans started staying home, turtles reclaimed the beaches. Penguins danced. Fish in the oceans and trees in the forests were all given space to roam and to breathe. And homebound pets celebrated newfound time with their owners.

In Hong Kong a piece of graffiti read something like this:

Let us not go back to normal, because it turns out normal was a huge problem.

Before the Mysterious Traveler, the most rigorous arguments, the most courageous resistance, and the most fervent prayers couldn’t slow the traffic on the roadways, the seaways, or the skyward-belching factories, for the sake of reducing carbon emissions, to save the planet. The sun grew angry and joined forces with the rising oceans. The winds grew furious and spat fire as the earth grumbled. Yet for all their might, tornadoes and hurricanes only caused momentary discomforts. MT kept the cars parked and quickly smog began to clear. Human arrogance suggested that human beings had the power to determine their own destiny, as well as the destiny of the universe. Now it appeared to the wise that, ironically and tragically, in ways perhaps only the Gods can fathom, the survival of the species was aided by the Mysterious Traveler that killed so many. The earth had painfully and frighteningly been compelled to PAUSE!

During the PAUSE, people searched for sanity by at once separating themselves physically and yet reaching out to one another emotionally, calling friends and family, inquiring about their colleagues, and appreciating their personal relationships as the most redeeming element of their existence. Although calamities undoubtedly expose humans’ duplicity, treachery, and cowardice, the MT also revealed their ability to act with nobility.

The global coronavirus pandemic is forcing doctors and nurses to make agonizing decisions of who lives and who dies. It is the toughest and most heartbreaking decision a person could ever have to make. Infected with COVID-19, that is exactly the decision that faced 72-year-old Italian priest Don Giuseppe Berardelli. And in the highest of priestly callings, Berardelli chose to put others’ lives before his own by giving up his ventilator to save the life of a younger person.

Kewulay Kamara

We could imagine him saying, as he lay gasping, “I live!”

Let the story be told that even while spreading death and devastation, the Mysterious Traveler encouraged us to look within. No fear, no shame, no war, no famine, no hurricane, flood, plague, or guilt can change who are. The times, they are uncertain. We embrace the uncertainty because we are certain that tomorrow will come. I live, we live, right here and right now. We are in-the-future beings. Let us beat this pandemic, recognize the preciousness—and fragility—of humanity, prepare our scientists and factories for the next one, pour a libation to the future so that our descendants may pour a libation to the past. We give water because we living beings are made of water. In the spirit of all those ancestors in body and spirits seen and unseen, in town and in the bush, in oceans and the deserts, in the plants and animals who gave us life, we pour a libation to you and to the ancestors as yet unborn.

Everything You Ever Wanted Is Coming True: Chinese New Year’s Greetings

Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #16

by Martha Dahlen

intro by Amy Chin and Steve Zeitlin

As the Year of the Pig cycles into the Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac, the writer Martha Dahlen gives us a primer on the many meanings of auspicious New Year greetings to ensure our City Lore family enjoys a happy, harmonious and prosperous year.

 –Amy Chin, City Lore Board Member

 

New Year’s decorations on East Broadway in Chinatown. Photo by Amanda Dargan.

Walking through the twisty streets of Chinatown a few days before the big New Year celebration to take place January 25th, I was intrigued by the ubiquitous red paper signs and greetings.  My friend, Martha Dahlen, who lived for 20 years in Hong Kong, explained to me that these are decorations, but decorations with significant meanings. They are part and parcel of the poetry of everyday life for many Chinese people, especially Cantonese, in China, Hong Kong, and New York. Here is her take on it.

 

 

 

The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is by far the most significant, most widely celebrated holiday in China.  The belief is strong that how you begin the year will influence your fortune throughout the coming months.  Hence, as New Year’s day approaches, people pay off debts, clean house, buy new clothes, prepare gifts, cook auspicious foods, decorate with blooming flowers and fresh fruit (especially round, golden citrus), and hang red banners proclaiming confidence that the coming months will be prosperous and joyful.  When they meet, people exchange greetings but, in addition to the generic “Happy New Year!”, there are many other, more colorful phrases expressing specific aspirations.  Further, the Chinese believe each New Year has its own dynamic energy–something like a new weather system coming in–as represented by the Animals of the Chinese Zodiac.  Thus, the New Year offers the chance for a fresh start on several levels, and the variety of Chinese New Year phrases captures the range of this opportunity.

Gong Xi Fa Cai “Congratulations! Great prosperity!”

Ru Yi Ji Xiang “Your life is blessed according to your wishes”

The New Year greeting most familiar to non-Chinese people is probably Gung Hei Fat Choy, which is the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters which, in Mandarin, are pronounced as Gong Xi Fa Cai.  Gong Xi (Gung Hei) is a two-word combo that means “Congratulations!” with overtones of respect, sheer happiness, and blessings.  Fa (Fat) means to grow, increase (the same word is used to refer to yeasted bread dough).  Cai (Choy) refers to money or wealth.

For Hong Kong Cantonese, the phrase is an exuberant affirmation that life is good, something like, “Congratulations on winning the lottery!”  For other Chinese, the phrase seems crass, and they prefer expressions, such as  Ji Xiang Ru Yi. Ji Xiang means “auspicious”, while Ru Yi means “as wished” or “comparable to your intentions”.  The whole phrase is loosely equivalent to, “May all your wishes come true.”

 

Bu Bu Gao Bi “Step by step ascend the throne!”

Long Ma Jing Shen “Dragon spirit, horse vitality!”

 

There are age-appropriate phrases.  For example, let us say you meet your young nieces or nephews; you might greet them with, Bu Bu Gao Bi (step-step-ascending-throne”), hoping to inspire them to greater efforts in school.  To the entrepreneur in your family, you might say Wan Shi Sheng Yi (ten thousand-things- victory/success) or Long Ma Jing Shen (dragon-horse -vitality-power).  In the latter phrase, the dragon symbolizes heavenly greatness, while the horse represents earthly power, and the whole can be loosely translated as, “Fly high!  Charge ahead!”

 

 

 

For people experiencing the challenges of aging, you could greet them with a fervent Shen Ti Jian Kang (body-strong and healthy) or the poetic  Shou Ru Song Bai (longevity-like –pine-cypress), as both pine and cypress trees are classic symbols of long life with dignity. (Note: Both these phrases are also appropriate birthday greetings.)

By this time, you may have noticed that all of these phrases are four characters; in fact, they may be a subset of the huge group of Chinese aphorisms known as cheng yu.  These are pithy statements that express, in meaning, Chinese culture, and in form, Chinese language.  For example, each Chinese character, in every dialect, is pronounced as a single syllable.  Thus, four words have a fixed, regular rhythm.  Every dialect (the most common being Mandarin and Cantonese) are tonal, so each character has a certain pitch and phrasing.  In other words, a four-word phrase has both rhythm and melody, making them easy to memorize and recite.  Indeed, some families, gathering at Chinese New Year, will compete among themselves to see who can remember more of these colorful expressions, in a kind of musical poetry contest.

Yi Tuan He Qi “In unity, harmony”

Another aspect of the Chinese language at play here is the fact that the number of characters in the language far outstrips the number of ways monosyllables can be pronounced.  The result is that characters differing radically in meaning may be pronounced similarly or even the same.  Linking two characters–in a sense, creating two-syllable words—is one way to avoid confusion in speaking.  For example, the word, Ji, when spoken could refer to the various characters for good, a thorn bush, or the great ultimate (as in Tai Ji).  Similarly, Xiang could mean auspicious, or details/minutia.   But Ji Xiang, the two together, immediately narrows the field, such that the listener automatically hears the intended meaning (good fortune).

Several such pairs occur in multiple phrases; e.g., fu gui (honorable), da ji (big luck).  Ping An, meaning “peace and safety” is another such unit.  So, for example, putting the phrase Chu Ru Ping An above your door confers peace and safety (ping an) on all who leave (chu) and enter (ru).  There is also Si Ji Ping An, meaning “four (si) seasons (ji), peace and safety”.  And Lao XIao Ping An, meaning “old (lao)-young (xiao)- peace and safety” (Lao Xiao Ping An is also the name of a steamed beancurd and fish dish, suitable for those two groups who might lack teeth).

Another characteristic of these phrases is the lack of grammatical nuances.  No little words tell you how the ideas represented are meant to be linked.  For example, Kai Gung Da Ji is translated, word by word, as “Start-work-big-luck”.  Does that mean IF you start work or WHEN you start work you will be lucky? Does it promise luck (or blessing) AFTER working?   No matter: the listener simply understands that work and good fortune are linked.  Furthermore, with no verb tense, these phrases fall squarely in the category of affirmations: each depicts a condition as though it already exists.

Cong Xin Suo Yu “As your heart desires, may it be so!”

Home and family are important themes in greetings as they are in Chinese culture.  For example, Man Tang Fu Gui (Full – meeting hall –wealth –honorable.)  The second character, ‘tang’, suggests the central courtyard of a Chinese extended family. Thus the phrase seeks to capture the deep glow of contentment, pride and honor one feels when beloved children and grandchildren gather at home with their parents.   Speaking of parents, one phrase that mothers love to use, and newlywed children are loathe to hear, is Jin Yu Man Tang, which literally means gold (jin) and jade (yu) fill the home, and figuratively means “I am looking forward to grandchildren any time now”.  Abundance is a major theme.  So we have Nian Nian You Yu (year-year-have-surplus).  As the word for surplus sounds like the word for fish, a whole fish is traditionally served at every New Year’s eve dinner–and it is important that some fish be left, symbolic of surplus in the coming year.   Reportedly, in earlier times, during lean years, a farmer might serve a wooden fish to ensure that it would be leftover, thereby also ensuring surplus in the coming year.

Many of these greetings are codified in rectangular red banners known as fai chun (Cantonese pronunciation, as they are predominantly a Cantonese tradition).  These can be seen throughout the year in homes, offices, businesses and restaurants, but are especially prevalent during the New Year season.  Most people buy their fai chun, but it is generally agreed that writing them yourself will give them more power.

Fai chun make aspirations public and permanent.  Currently in Hong Kong, people are using this traditional form to express their political, as well as their personal, hopes for the coming year.  However, the former is not without risk.  “Satirical” decorations are banned, and people worry about surveillance.   One clever fai chun is a square writing of a traditional four character phrase zhao cai jin bao (finding-wealth-advancing toward- treasure/gems).  When viewed upside down and twisted just a little (the many parts of a Chinese word make this possible), it becomes  zhui qiu zi you min zhu (stubbornly pursuing-freedom- democracy).   Such writing is even more clever because the words for “upside down” in Chinese (dao li) sound like the words for “already arrived” (dao le).  So posting this one upside down not only makes it look innocuous but also increases its power.

As January 25 approaches, prepare to Ying Chun Jie Fu (Welcome spring [as] luck enters) with the fervent hope for Tin Ha Ping An(heaven-earth, peace and safety).   Say it, believe it, live it.  Fu Lu Shou Quan:  All blessings are yours.

 

Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

Nesting Eggs: Planet/Language/Culture/Community/Family/You

The Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #16

Making the Case for City Lore

The interview was ending. I was anxious to get on with my day. But the interviewer had one last question. It came out of the blue: “So what is your hope for the future?” 

As I pondered the question, it occurred to me that there is something even more precious to me than the goals I work toward as the director of City Lore, New York’s center for urban folk culture. Founded in 1986, City Lore works to preserve places that matter, highlight the work of traditional artists, document stories, bring community-based and folk artists into schools, project poems from our POEMobile, and operate a gallery. Our mission is to foster New York City—and America’s—living cultural heritage. All these are, in themselves, reasons to go online and join City Lore this very moment.

Yet my hope for the future, and the reason City Lore is central to our collective future and worthy of your support, goes beyond this mission. My hope is that each soul whose existence happens to manifest itself on the planet will continue through the generations to bring something new into the world, to retain their individuality, to develop their own sense of humor, and to tell their unique story in a distinctive way. Indeed, I was inspired to become a folklorist because of the expressions and humor I share with my brothers. (We still address one another with “Yo, Sire”; and when someone once asked my brother Murray why, he answered, “Respect.”) These expressions were the “language of us,” as the writer Virginia Randall notes.

Joseph Albert Elie Joubert from Quebec’s Abnaki tribe suggests that “the secrets of our culture lie hidden within our language.” I have come to think of the layers of our existence as the set of nesting (matryoshka) dolls that sit in my tchotchke cabinet at home. I imagine the doll within a doll within a doll, first created in Russia in 1892—or the similar brightly colored eggs—as our fragile blue-and-green planet, nesting diverse languages, nesting diverse cultural groups, nesting communities, nesting families, and, finally, nesting the smallest doll, the distinctive individual. Today we witness a corporate assault on each and all of these meaningful layers of our existences.

 

 

Languages nested in our blue-and-green planet. Half of the world’s languages will disappear in this century. Scholars have shown that the areas of the world where languages are disappearing are often the same once-isolated areas where plant and animal species are disappearing. So there is a simultaneous assault on our planet egg and the languages nested within it, a connection between species diversity and language diversity.

 

 

Cultures nested in language. An ancient but renewed clannishness and demonization of our fellow human beings, fueled by social media, pits Americans against one another. Racism and xenophobia disparage cultural diversity, while anti-immigrant policies seek to strangle multiculturalism and cultural variety – a variety that has thankfully been replenished by successive waves of new immigrants who, since our nation’s founding, have been one of the most important wellsprings of our distinctly American creativity and renewal.

 

 

Communities nested in cultures. Our local  communities are threatened with gentrification that erodes the economic, age, ethnic and cultural diversity of neighborhoods, often tearing apart the fabric of community.

 

Individuals nested in communities. And then there’s you and me, the nested individuals.

 

Today, corporations are continually merging into larger and larger entities and increasingly dominating both the global economy and our individual lives with their relentless adherence to the bottom line. On the global scale, they are willing to sacrifice the planet for profit, but their assault affects us on a subtle, personal level as well. If they can put you and me in boxes, know what we watch on YouTube, try to sell us anything we’ve ever googled, they can customize their marketing such that they can shape our tastes and nudge us into market categories, slowly shaping who we are and how we behave. Capitalism runs on homogenization. 

In this new world era, governments are viewed as corporations (small ones at that), and we the people not as citizens, but as consumers. The nuances of art threaten to become simply “content” produced by “creatives” for large corporate entities. From their perspective, minority languages, climate change, diverse cultures, and individuals with unique tastes and personalities are simply hindrances or distractions brushed aside for short term gain.  

So, as poet Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Our job as individuals is to push back, to fight against an assault on the nested layers of our civilization: for a clean planet that sustains diverse life forms, for diverse languages, for diverse cultures, and for diverse communities and families, while at the same finding meaning in our limited time on earth. On top of everything else, our job must also be to protect, maximize, and treasure our own personhood. In the virtual world, people live on their phones rather than in physical places, and develop relationships online rather than with the their neighbors. In this new world where we are continually bombarded with ever-more-subtle advertising, we are tasked with sustaining our sentience, interiority, and free will. “There will be no one like us when we are gone,” wrote British neurologist, naturalist, and historian of science Oliver Sacks when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, “but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled.”

Steve Zeitlin with his nesting dolls. Photo by Amanda Dargan.

In spite of everything, I still believe that there will always be people in search of authentic experiences, art forms, and traditions, created and shared person to person, expressions of individuality nested within cultures and traditions. People will return to those experiences because that’s where meaning lies. It is there that personal, family, community, cultural, and linguistic diversity is expressed. That’s why City Lore is still here—you can access that distinctiveness and singularity by attending any of our programs.

In addition, the work that we and our colleagues in folklore and related fields do and have done to document and preserve folk and community traditions can serve as touchstones for the creativity of future generations. Today, you can find yourself in the diverse cultures, communities, and languages that we share with you at City Lore. The deeply rooted experiences may give us the tools and reasons to fight back.

My hope for the future is bound up with language and an appreciation of cultural diversity. Is that more important than world peace? Perhaps not. Yet if the planet ever does become a “peaceable kingdom,” here’s hoping it’s not because we have been corporatized into sameness but because we have learned to communicate across differences. 

You can join City Lore – “a practical application of a utopian endeavor” – by Clicking Here for the membership form.  You either send it back to us or click on the donation level that will take you to PayPal.

 

 

Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

Corporate Candy

Ungentrified Sweets in a Gentrified City

The Poetry of Everyday Life, blogpost 13

By Molly Garfinkel and Steve Zeitlin

 

Artwork by Bryn Pennetti

In the 1976 film Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, buys some Chuckles from the concessions stand at the adult cinema. He tells the concessions girl that he prefers Jujubes because they last longer. If he were in a movie theater today, he certainly would not find Jujubes and probably not Chuckles, either. He would be given a choice of mostly Haribo candies and varieties of its juggernaut gummy bears. These are today’s gentrified candies. Although the German gummy bear has been around since 1922, the Haribo company recently swallowed up a slew of other confections manufacturers all over the world, and churns out over a hundred million bears in different varieties every day.

If De Niro were looking for Jujubes now, his best bet would be Economy Candy, at 108 Rivington Street, on the Lower East Side, which opened its doors in 1937, and which thankfully is NOT endangered. Where else can you find not only Jujubes but Dots, licorice pipes, Gobstoppers, Cinnamon Bears, Charleston Chews, a five-pound Hershey bar, or a Betty Boop Pez dispenser? This is a place to go for what we call ungentrified candy. It’s a place that offers a plethora of flavors and shapes that you can’t find anywhere else, at least not all together in one extravagant “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Economy Candy sells the sweets many of us above a certain age delighted in as children. It’s a place that resonates with our memories of taste, a place that can still surprise us. This variety of tastes and experiences, this historic resonance, is what the city should—and sometimes does—offer, but not without our vigilance and advocacy.

Artwork by Bryn Pennetti

Let’s imagine that New York City was made of candy. The city’s glass towers and big-box stores would be the Haribo gummy bears: crystalized corporate candy. Places like Economy Candy, Katz’s Delicatessen, Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery, and the Eldridge Street Synagogue might be the venerable but still extant Jujubes, licorice pipes, Chuckles, and Spearmint Leaves – or the spice drops in your grandmother’s crystal candy jar that like older buildings smack of yesterday.  But many candies are now extinct: Chicklets, black licorice dollars, Mary Janes and now –say it ain’t so! – Necco Wafers. They remind us of the city’s bygone places – Mars Bars (the Lower East Side dive bar not the candy bar), 5 Pointz (the famous Queens mural space), CBGB, the Domino Sugar factory, the Lenox Lounge, the house under the roller coaster in Coney Island, Music Row and now even the Cornelia Street Café.

It’s not that we care so much about candy, but we do care about a diversity of tastes, of experiences in the city. We care about the experiential difference between buying a piece of penny candy from friendly soul at a neighborhood bodega and trying to even find a human being to ask where an item is located in a big-box store.

The iconic Economy Candy is a metaphor for these tastes and experiences. The shop has been in the Lower East Side for over sixty years. Before the Great Depression, the storefront housed a hat and shoe store, with a vendor selling candy from a pushcart outside its doors. During the Depression, the candy started selling better than the shoes and hats. When Morris “Moishe” Cohen and his brother-in-law returned from World War II, they took over the business. Moishe’s son Jerry and Jerry’s wife, Irene, inherited the shop in the 1980s, and, like Moishe, took pride in kibitzing with the customers. Currently, Jerry works part time and their son and his wife run the store.

Today, the Lower East Side emporium, which we were pleased to honor in 2011 with a Place Matters Award, is a thriving pilgrimage site. Neon marshmallow Peeps seem to glow from the counters, hollow chocolate bunnies patiently perch on beds of plastic grass, and bins stacked nearly to the ceiling contain every jellybean flavor on record. In parts of the store, mirrors reflect the merchandise below, so shoppers can feel gleefully surrounded by candy.

Artwork by Bryn Pennetti

At City Lore, we have been inspired by the San Francisco Legacy Business Registry, which, as its website states, “works to save longstanding, community-serving businesses that so often serve as valuable cultural assets,” and which uses a nomination process similar to that used for historic landmarks. We urge New York City to follow suit, but with some key differences.

First, the San Francisco registry, which is itself endangered, relies on the government giving grants to landlords to keep legacy businesses affordable. Grants to landlords? Even the registry has come to realize this is not sustainable. Second, commercial rent control is simply anathema to recent New York City mayors and most city council members. When we brought up cultural landmarking at a city council meeting years ago, we were laughed out of the room for suggesting something so economically infeasible. Thankfully, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which was first introduced in 1986, is currently being reconsidered. We strongly support it.

City Lore’s also proposes a Community Anchors rent-subsidy program for cultural landmarks. Small businesses would be nominated for the program with petitions based on their contributions to neighborhood stability and quality of life. If it’s possible to do this for historic landmarks, as the city already does, we believe it’s possible to do this for cultural landmarks. But the number of Community Anchors would be limited so as not to have a significant effect on the overall city economy: this program would not be commercial rent control to upend the city’s economic viability. We would limit the number of Community Anchors whose rent increases would be limited to perhaps less than 2 percent of any landlord’s properties, with a negligible effect on their profits. City politicians are hesitant to consider or strategize about this, claiming that the state constitution forbids it; yet commercial rent control did exist in the city between 1945 and 1963 under a special law. Yes it will take a bit of creativity on all sides, because last we heard the people make the laws and their purpose is not to serve as a straightjacket for the common sense reforms this rapidly gentrifying city sorely needs.

New York is in a constant state of change. If it weren’t, Economy Candy would still be a shoe and hat shop. Thankfully there are still ungentrified newsstands where you can buy a pack of Chuckles. But let’s find a way to protect Community Anchors. For if we don’t, as the folklorist Alan Lomax once put it, “Soon there where be nowhere to visit and no place to truly call home.” As for the gentrified candies, we’ll just swallow hard.

From a concept book by Bryn Pennetti (https://www.brynpennetti.com/economy-candy-concept-book)

 

Spring Burial

Spring Burial:

The Legend of the Service Tree

 

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #9

 

Serviceberry tree in bloom, courtesy New York Botanical Garden

“We grew up thinking that if there wasn’t pavement under our feet, we were lost,” Marc Kaminsky said facetiously, as he sat with his longtime friend George Getzel, who lay dying in a hospital bed at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, talking about spring. They were two Bronx kids who morphed into two aging, brilliant intellectuals. They knew each other from their time at Hunter College School of Social Work in the ’70s. Struck by George’s tranquility in the face of mortality, Marc asked his friend, filmmaker Menacham Daum to videotape their conversation, and sent a copy to me.

In his better days, George told Marc, he’d loved to visit the New York Botanical Garden in all four seasons. Each time it would be a totally different world—the garden was a symbol of nature and birth and growth and decay.

“You discover this natural world,” Marc remarked. “You take this literal fact and use it as a symbol of immortal life.”

“I was especially close to the service tree,” George continued. “It’s an indigenous tree in northeast America. It’s a tree that’s barely a tree—it might be considered a bush—but it’s a tree. It actually fruits, it has a sweet little fruit that comes out of it when spring warms up, but it’s the first tree that blossoms in the woods. It has soft, large flower petals, light pinkish-white, and if you can reach out and smell it, the tree has the most delicate perfume—really beautiful. It only blooms when the earth around it is unfrozen.

Serviceberry tree blossom, courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden

“Our ancestors—at least the ones in North America—had a real problem when people died during the winter, because they couldn’t bury them; the ground was too hard. So what they did was wait till the service tree bloomed, and then they knew they could bury the dead because the ground was soft enough. Otherwise the bodies would have to be kept in coffins stacked in barns. That touched me deeply.

“So for the last few years, when I could still walk, I’d been trying to hit one of my holy places—the service tree. I would go into the Bronx botanical garden to walk on a trail through fifty acres of virgin forest that had never been cut, and there is the service tree, and I try—it has a life of flowering of, like, three days—so I always try to imagine, ‘Is the ground soft?’ ‘Will I make it?’ And sometimes I make it and sometimes I don’t, and the service tree’s spent flowers are on the ground, but I think that it is emblematic of my notion of immortality in life: a brief time, a beautiful fragrance, and then passing, disintegrating, falling to the ground, and renewal.”

Alone with his mortality in the hospital late one night, George spontaneously texted Marc some of his spiritual musings. Marc later lined the text out as a poem. It ended

Humankind calls out for compassion
For one’s self and then the other
The spent perfume of the petals
Of the service tree
Fall to the forest bottom
When earth loses its chill

“The last four lines” Marc told him, “sound like the poem that Zen priests wrote just before they died.” It was as if George were musing about an eternal spring, with ground soft enough to accept his body, a universe that still had a place for him even after his death.

George Getzel

“So here I am in bed, and I’m fading away, I’m losing weight, there are changes, and people visit me and they say, ‘I really want to go to the botanical gardens with you,’ and then a little sadness comes over me—’cause that’s not possible anymore.”

George was a faculty member at the Hunter College School of Social Work, now the Silberman School of Social Work for more than 30 years. As someone who avoided the limelight, he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to walk in his footsteps. “If anything I do is truly worthwhile in my eyes or in the world’s eyes, I don’t want to be copied,” he said. “I just don’t want it—I’m me, you’re you. But I do want to inspire.”

And so as spring rolls around after a bitter winter, I was inspired to call the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and ask if they knew about the service tree. The Garden arranged for horticulturalist Jessica Schuler, Director of the Thain Family Forest, to meet my wife and me at the reflecting pool the next Saturday. We traveled into the woods she knew so well and we stood in front of the tree George had loved. Though it was the first beautiful day of spring, the service tree had just a tiny splash of pink on the buds. Perhaps the ground wasn’t yet soft enough to bury the dead.

Checking for blossoms on the serviceberry tree, photo by Amanda Dargan

I told Jessica about George, whom I never met, and his metaphorical interpretation of the service tree. Jessica told us the tree’s Latin name was Amelanchier arborea but that it had had a variety of common names and etymologies in early North America. Shadbush because it often grows in riparian forests at the edges of rivers where the shad run. It was also called “Juneberry,” because it often fruited in June. And it was called “serviceberry tree,” because it bloomed when the ground was no longer frozen and it was time to bury the dead and hold a service.

Back in the hospital room, Marc felt that the space around himself and George was getting greater and greater, and that on the other side of that space was death, but that the space of life was also looming larger. George continued to express his deep and thoughtful perspective on life in the face of imminent mortality, making connections between blossoming and withering, growth and decay. “I remember holding my wife’s hand when she was dying,” George told Marc, “and having a great sense of intimacy, the same as when I held my hand over her belly when she was pregnant. There’s this mixture. Even in the face of the grim realities of life that nauseate you and shatter your dreams, I’ve found—with difficulty—deeper meaning.

“We all hold down to something that we would hope would have permanence,” he continued. “Something that would lead us beyond our grave and have something of eternity tied to it. We discover that the idol—be it money, position, your own children, the neighborhood you live in—it’s not forever and it falls apart and isn’t what you thought it was when you were a young man. It becomes moth-eaten and dissipates, and then with that—and here is where I think the faith of an older person, the circumstance of an older person, is useful—it’s followed by new growth, new possibilities.”

George Getzel died on January 7, 2018. The serviceberry tree he loved so well will bloom again this spring.

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

Is Brooklyn J’Ouvert Dead?

Ray Allen, Brooklyn College

Following weeks of debate over new security measures aimed at curbing violence, Brooklyn’s much scrutinized 2017 J’Ouvert celebration thankfully took place without incident. But New Yorkers might have missed this news amidst the plethora of media stories incorrectly attributing criminal activity to the event. “Bullets fly at J’Ouvert: Bloodshed despite changes” barked the September 5 headline of the New York Post. Even the New York Times and the Daily News, publications that tend to be friendlier to Brooklyn’s black Caribbean community, felt obligated to list several shootings that occurred over Labor Day morning and afternoon. It seems that any violent crimes committed during the holiday weekend in central Brooklyn are now routinely linked to J’Ouvert and Carnival.

A close read of the reports, however, reveals that none of those unfortunate episodes were actually associated with J’ouvert—all occurred blocks away, before or after the event. The Post’s recounting of a shooting in Crown Heights took place at 5am, an hour before the J’Ouvert procession began, and more than two miles from the start of the parade route. The real news is that there was no reprise of the deadly shootings that tarnished the event in the previous two years.

Decisions to move the start time up from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m., along with increased police security, metal detector check points, and a no-alcohol policy, came as a result of intense negotiations among the event’s organizers, J’Ouvert City International led by President Yvette Rennie, the NYC Mayor’s Office, and the NYPD. These measures may have been responsible for a more peaceful J’Ouvert, but, as many participants asked, at what cost? The loss of the magical darkness to dawn transition, which could only be experienced with the traditional 4am start, was troubling for some. Odie Franklin, arranger for the Despers USA steelband that chose not to participate in J’ouvert this year, complained that the later time start “dishonored” the tradition of the culture. Michael Manswell of the Pagwah mas band was appalled that costumed members of his group had to be individually wanded and seemingly treated as potential criminals before entering the parade area. Many others felt that the excessive security created a police state atmosphere that stifled the spirit of the celebration. Had this year’s J’Ouvert, as the Times reported, been “sapped of its usual energy”?

Not completely. The crowd might have been slightly smaller than in past years, but there was no shortage of exuberant art and play on the streets. Fourteen masquerade bands, eight steelbands, and six rhythm bands participated in the JCI-organized competitions along the route. And there were hundreds, perhaps a few thousand, of revelers who had donned home-made, raggedy costumes accented with paint and powder. There were sightings of oil-drenched jab jab devils, mysterious midnight robbers, cross-dressing Dame Lorraine figures, and other traditional ole mas characters that have been absent from the Eastern Parkway’s fancy mas for decades. The Oil Downeres band lampooned Trump and his wall with a mas titled “Dey Showing Their True Colors.” Crowds thronged around Radoes, Pan Evolution, and the other steelbands. They wined and sang along in a high-spirited pan-on-the-road performance, another Carnival tradition that has been lost on the Parkway due to competition from deejays and mobile sound trucks. Those who played J’Ouvert mas and jumped up to the steelbands did so with unabashed enthusiasm.

Fortunately, the new security measures did not prevent the crowd from melding in with the musicians and masqueraders on the road. J’Ouvert, more than any other aspect of Carnival, has always been a participatory affair rather than a spectator sport. This in contrast to the big Eastern Parkway parade where metal barricades and police separate onlookers from the fancy mas bands and sound trucks. When what was once a participatory ritual becomes a presentational spectacle, something deep is lost. Brooklyn J’Ouvert, at least for the moment, has managed to maintain that core communal sensibility.

Now that this year’s J’Ouvert has come and gone, members of Brooklyn’s Carnival community must ask themselves some tough questions. Did the sunrise start and heavy police presence constitute a necessary price to pay for a safer J’Ouvert? Or was the original emancipation spirit of the pre-dawn celebration so deeply violated that many will opt out next year? As a non-Caribbean Brooklynite I’m not going to weigh in on that one, but as a folklorist I can offer some historic perspective. Ever since the first Afro-Trinidadians took to the streets of Port of Spain in the 1830s to celebrate their emancipation with dance/drum/masquerade processions known as camboulay (the precursor to J’Ouvert and what would become the opening of the pre-Lent Carnival), government and civil authorities have been trying to shut down, curtail, or control Carnival. In the early 1880s police clashes with bands of stick fighters led to the banning of drumming and stick fighting during Trinidad’s Carnival season. The ex-slaves responded by developing bamboo and metal percussion groups that eventually led to the emergence of the steelbands. Committees were formed to “improve” calypso lyrics in the 1920s by censoring the most lewd and offensive lyrical themes, but calypsonians continued to lampoon their colonial masters and compose ribald songs. British and American authorities cancelled Carnival during the WWII years, only to have it return stronger than ever in 1946 led by the newly constituted steelbands. Following 1962 independence, a national Panorama competition was established in part to move steelbands from the chaos of street Carnival to the more controlled environment of the Savannah stage. But many grassroots steelband men maintained their rebel persona and continued to aggressively dominate the streets during J’Ouvert.

Caribbean migrants established the first street Carnival in Harlem in 1947 only to see the event shut down in 1961 following a so-called “riot” that consisted of a handful of rock and bottle throwing incidents and an unlucky bystander being clubbed over the head with a steel pan. Carnival resurfaced in Brooklyn in the late 1960s, and came close to being shut down in 1991 following the Crown Heights riots. Over the years, the West Indian American Day Carnival Association and J’Ouvert City International have faced a barrage of hostile coverage from the mainstream media that too often characterized their Eastern Parkway Parade and J’Ouvert celebration as violence-ridden, mob scenes that threatened public safety and order—not so dissimilar from the racially and class-tinged charges voiced by nineteenth century Trinidad papers that called for the dissolution of Carnival.

History tells us that J’Ouvert has been under attack since day one. This should come as no surprise, given the ritual’s legacy of celebrating liberation from tyranny, resisting colonial authority, and satirizing the rich and powerful. So, is Brooklyn J’Ouvert dead? I doubt it, especially in these current troubling times when standing up to xenophobia, racism, and class inequity has taken on new levels of immediacy for all American immigrant communities. J’Ouvert, with its spirit of resistance, has survived for over a century and a half, and there is no reason to suspect it won’t continue to do so. Of course, exactly what form it will assume next in Brooklyn remains to be seen. Stay tuned for J’Ouvert 2018.

For additional background see “J’Ouvert! Steel Pan and Ole Mas Traditions in Brooklyn Carnival” by Ray Allen at: http://citylore.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/jouvert.pdf.

 

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